"You made a good job of that dressing," remarked the older man briefly. He was tall with a slight stoop, bearded, a little slovenly in dress, but with clear, level eyes and a capable manner. "Where'd you learn how?"
Stratton smiled. "Overseas. I was in the Transportation, and we had to know a little of everything, including first aid."
"Hum," grunted the doctor. "Well, the kid's doing all right. I won't have to come over again unless fever develops."
As they walked back to the hitching-rack, he gave Buck a few directions about the care of the invalid. There followed a slight pause.
"You're new here," commented the doctor, untying his bridle-reins.
"Just came yesterday," answered Stratton.
"Friend of Lynch?"
Buck's lips twitched. "Not exactly," he shrugged. "Miss Thorne hired me while he was in Paloma. I got a notion he was rather peevish about it. Reckon he prefers to pick his own hands."
As the doctor swung into the saddle, his face momentarily lightened.
"Don't let that worry you," he said, a faint little twinkle in his eyes. "It isn't good for anybody to have their own way all the time. Well, you know what to do about Bemis. If he shows any signs of fever, get hold of me right away."
With a wave of his hand he rode off. Stratton's glance followed him curiously. Had he really been pleased to find that the new hand was not a friend of Tex Lynch, or was the idea merely a product of Buck's imagination?
Still pondering, he turned abruptly to find Pedro regarding him intently from the kitchen door. As their glances met, the Mexican's lids drooped and his face smoothed swiftly into its usual indolent indifference; but he was not quite quick enough to hide entirely that first look of searching speculation mingled with not a little venom.
Stratton's own expression was the perfection of studied self-control. He half smiled, and yawned in a realistically bored manner.
"You sure you don't know where the bunch went?" he asked. "I'm getting dead sick of hanging around doing nothing."
"They don' say," shrugged the Mexican. "I wash dishes an' don' see 'em go. Mebbe back soon."
"Not if they're moving a herd—I don't think!" retorted Buck. "Guess I'll ask Miss Thorne," he added, struck by a sudden inspiration.
Without waiting for a reply, he walked briskly along the front of the house toward the further entrance. As he turned the corner he met the girl, booted, spurred, her face shaded becomingly by a wide-brimmed Stetson.
"I was just going to find you," she said. "Rick wants to see you a minute."
Stratton followed her into the living-room, where she paused and glanced back at him.
"You haven't met my aunt, Mrs. Archer," she said in her low, pleasant voice. "Auntie, this is Buck Green, our new hand."
From a chair beside one of the west windows, there rose a little old lady at the sight of whom Buck's eyes widened in astonishment. Just what he had expected Mrs. Archer to be he hardly knew, but certainly it wasn't this dainty, delicate, Dresden-China person who came forward to greet him. Tiny she was, from her old-fashioned lace cap to the tips of her small, trim shoes. Her gown, of some soft gray stuff, with touches of old lace here and there, was modishly cut yet without any traces of exaggeration. Her abundant white hair was beautifully arranged, and her cheeks, amazingly soft and smooth, with scarcely a line in them, were faintly pink. A more utterly incongruous figure to find on an outlying Arizona ranch would be impossible to imagine, and Buck was hard put to refrain from showing his surprise.
"How do you do, Mr. Green?" she said in a soft agreeable voice, which Stratton recognized at once as the one he had overheard that morning. "My niece has told me how helpful you've been already."
Buck took her outstretched hand gingerly, and looked down into her upturned face. Her eyes were blue, and very bright and eager, with scarcely a hint of age in them. For a brief moment they gazed steadily into his, searching, appraising, an underlying touch of wistful anxiety in their clear depths. Then a twinkle flashed into them and of a sudden Stratton felt that he liked her very much indeed.
"I'm mighty glad to meet you," he said impulsively.
The smile spread from eyes to lips. "Thank you," she replied. "I think I may say the same thing. I hope you'll like it here well enough to stay."
There was a faint accent on the last word. Buck noticed it, and after she had left them, saying she was going to rest a little, he wondered. Did she want him to remain merely because of the short-handed condition of the ranch, or was there a deeper reason? He glanced at Miss Thorne to find her regarding him with something of the same anxious scrutiny he had noticed in her aunt. Her gaze was instantly averted, and a faint flush tinged her cheeks, to be reflected an instant later in Stratton's face.
"By the way," he said hurriedly, annoyed at his embarrassment, "do you happen to know where the men are? I thought I'd hunt them up. There's no sense in my hanging around all afternoon doing nothing."
* * * * *
"They're down at the south pasture," she answered readily. "Tex thinks it will be better to move the cattle to where it won't be so easy for those rustlers to get at them. I'm just going down there and we can ride together, if you like." She turned toward the door. "When you're through with Rick you'll find me out at the corral."
"Don't you want me to saddle up for you?"
"Pedro will do that, thank you. Tell Rick if he wants anything while I'm gone all he has to do is to ring the bell beside his bed and Maria will answer it."
She departed, and Buck walked briskly into the bedroom. Bemis lay in bed propped up with pillows and looking much better physically than he had done that morning. But his face was still strained, with that harassed, worried expression about the eyes which Stratton had noted before.
"Yuh saw Doc Blanchard, didn't yuh?" he asked, as Buck sat down on the side of his bed. "What'd he say?"
"Why, that you were doing fine. Not a chance in a hundred, he said, of your having any trouble with the wound."
"Oh, I know that. But when'd he say I'd be on my feet?"
Buck shrugged his shoulders. "He didn't mention any particular time for that. I should think it would be two or three weeks, at least."
"Hell!" The young fellow's fingers twisted the coverlet nervously. "Don't yuh believe I could—er—ride before that?" he added, almost pleadingly.
Stratton's eyes widened. "Ride!" he repeated. "Where the deuce do you want to ride to?"
Bemis hesitated, a slow flush creeping into his tanned face. The glance he bent on Stratton was somewhat shamefaced.
"Anywhere," he answered curtly, a touch of defiance in his tone. "You'll say I've lost my nerve, an' maybe I have. But after what's happened around this joint lately, and especially last night—"
He paused, glancing nervously toward the door. Buck's expression had grown suddenly keen and eager.
"Well?" he urged. "What did happen, anyhow? I had my suspicions there was something queer about that business, but—You can trust me, old man."
Bemis nodded, his dark eyes searching Stratton's face. "I'll take a chance," he answered. "I got to. There ain't nobody else. They've kept Bud away, and Miss Mary—Well, she's all right, uh course, but Tex has got her buffaloed. She won't believe nothin' ag'in him. I told Bud I'd stay as long as he did, but—A man's got to look after himself some. They ain't likely to miss twice runnin'."
"You mean to say—"
Bemis stopped him with a cautious gesture. "Where's that sneaking greaser?" he asked in a low tone, his eyes shifting nervously to the open door.
"Out saddling her horse."
"Oh! Well, listen." The young puncher's voice sank almost to a whisper. "That sendin' me down to Las Vegas was a plant; I'm shore of it. My orders was to sleep days an' patrol around nights to get a line on who was after the cattle. I wasn't awful keen about it, but still an' all, I didn't think they'd dare do what they tried to."
"You mean there weren't any rustlers at all?" put in Stratton impulsively.
"Shore there was, but they didn't fire that shot that winged me. I'd just got sight of 'em four or five hundred yards away an' was ridin' along in the shadow tryin' to edge close enough to size 'em up an' mebbe pick off a couple. My cayuse was headin' south, with the rustlers pretty near dead ahead, when I come to a patch of moonlight I had to cross. I pulled out considerable to ride around a spur just beyond, so when that shot came I was facin' pretty near due east. The bullet hit me in the left leg, yuh recollect."
Stratton's eyes narrowed. "Then it must have been fired from the north—from the direction of the—"
He broke off abruptly as Rick's fingers gripped his wrist.
"Look!" breathed Bemis, in a voice that was scarcely audible.
He was staring over the low foot-board of the bed straight at the open door, and Buck swiftly followed the direction of his glance. For an instant he saw nothing. The doorway was quite empty, and he could not hear a sound. Then, of a sudden, his gaze swept on across the living-room and he caught his breath.
On the further wall, directly opposite the bedroom door, hung a long mirror in a tarnished gilded frame. It reflected not only the other side of the doorway but a portion of the wall on either side of it—reflected clearly, among other things, the stooping figure of a woman, her limp calico skirts dragged cautiously back in one skinny hand, her sharp, swarthy face bent slightly forward in an unmistakable attitude of listening.
It was the Mexican woman, Maria. As Buck recognized her he rose quietly and moved swiftly toward the door. But if he had hoped to catch her unawares, he was disappointed. He had scarcely taken a step when, through the telltale mirror, he saw her straighten like a flash and move back with catlike swiftness toward the passage leading to the kitchen. When he reached the living-room she stood there calm and casual, with quite the air of one entering for the first time.
"Mees T'orne, she ask me see if Reek, he wan' somet'ing," she explained, with a flash of her white teeth.
"He doesn't," returned Buck shortly, eyeing the woman intently. "If he does, he'll ring the bell."
"Ver' good," she nodded. "I leave the door open to 'ear."
With a nod and another smile she departed, and Buck heard her moving away along the passage. For a moment he was tempted to close and lock the door. Then he realized that even if she dared return to her eavesdropping, he would have ample warning by keeping an eye on the mirror, and so returned to Bemis.
"I hate that woman," said Rick, when informed of her departure. "She's always snoopin' around, an' so is her greaser husband. Down at the bunk-house it's the same way, with Slim, an' Flint Kreeger an' the rest. I tell yuh, I'm dead sick of being spied on, an' plotted against, an' never knowin' when yuh may get a knife in the back, or stop a bullet. I hate to leave Bud, but he's so plumb set on—"
"But what's it all about?" put in Buck impatiently. "Can't you tell a fellow, or don't you know?"
Bemis flushed slightly at his tone. "I can tell yuh this much," he retorted. "Tex don't want them rustlers caught. He throws a clever bluff, an' he's pulled the wool over Miss Mary's eyes, but for all that, he's workin' on their side. What kind of a foreman is it who'll lose over a thousand head without stoppin' the stealin'? It ain't lack of brains, neither; Tex has got them a-plenty."
"But Miss Thorne—" protested Stratton, half-incredulously.
"I tell yuh, he's got her buffaloed. She won't believe a word against him. He was here in her dad's time, an' he's played his cards mighty slick since then. She's told yuh he can't get men, mebbe? All rot, of course. He could get plenty of hands, but he don't want 'em. What's more, he's done his best to get rid of me an' Bud, an' would of long ago, only Miss Mary won't let him fire us."
"But what in thunder's his object?"
"So's to have the place to himself, I reckon. He an' those greasers in the kitchen, and the rest of the bunch, are as thick as thieves."
"You mean he'd find it easier to get away with cattle if there wasn't anybody around to keep tabs on him?"
Bemis hesitated. "I—I'm not sure," he replied slowly. "Partly that, mebbe, but there's somethin' else. I've overheard things now an' then I couldn't make head or tail of, but they're up to somethin'—Yuh ain't goin', are yuh?"
Buck had risen. "Got to," he shrugged. "Miss Thorne's waiting for me to go down to the south pasture."
Bemis raised up on his pillows. "Well, listen; keep what I said under yore hat, will yuh?"
"Sure," nodded Stratton reassuringly. "You needn't worry about that. Anything else you want before I go?"
"Yes. Jest reach me my six-gun outer the holster there in the chair. If I'm goin' to be left alone with that greaser, Pedro, I'd feel more comfortable, someway, with that under my pillow."
Buck did as he requested and then departed. Something else! That was the very feeling which had assailed him vaguely at times, that some deviltry which he couldn't understand was going on beneath the surface. As he made for the corral, a sudden possibility flashed into his mind. With her title so precarious, might not Mary Thorne be at the bottom of a systematic attempt to loot the Shoe-Bar of its movable value against the time of discovery? But when he met her face to face the idea vanished and he even felt ashamed of having considered it for a moment. Whatever crookedness was going on, this sweet-faced, clear-eyed girl was much more likely to be a victim than one of the perpetrators. The feeling was vastly strengthened when he had saddled up and they rode off together.
"There's something I've been meaning to—to tell you," the girl said suddenly, breaking a brief silence.
Buck glanced at her to find her eyes fixed on the ears of her horse and a faint flush staining her cheeks.
"That room—" she went on determinedly, but with an evident effort. "A man's room— You must have thought it strange. Indeed, I saw you thought it strange—"
Again she paused, and in his turn Buck felt a sudden rush of embarrassment.
"I didn't mean to—" he began awkwardly. "It just seemed funny to find a regular man's room in a household of women. I suppose it was your—your father's," he added.
"No, it wasn't," she returned briefly. She glanced at him for an instant and then looked away again. "You probably don't know the history of the Shoe-Bar," she went on more firmly. "Two years ago it was bought by a young man named Stratton. I never met him, but he was a business acquaintance of my father's and naturally I heard a good deal of him from time to time. He was a ranchman all his life and very keen about it, and the moment he saw the Shoe-Bar he fell in love with it. But the war came, and he had scarcely taken title to the place before he went off and enlisted. Just before he sailed for France he sold the ranch to my father, with the understanding that if he came back safely, Dad would turn it over to him again. He felt, I suppose, how uncertain it all was and that money in the bank would be easier for his—his heirs, than property."
She paused for an instant, her lips pressed tightly together. "He never came back," she went on in a lower, slightly unsteady voice. "He—gave up his life for those of us who stayed behind. After a little we left Chicago and came here. I loved the place at once, and I've gone on caring for it increasingly ever since. But back of everything there's always been a sense of the tragedy, the injustice of it all. They never even found his body. He was just—missing. And yet, when I came into that room, with his things about just as he had left them when he went away, he seemed so real,—I—I couldn't touch it. Somehow, it was all that was left of him. And even though I'd never seen him, I felt as if I wanted to keep it that way always in memory of a—a brave soldier, and a—man."
Her low voice ceased. With face averted, she stared in silence across the brown, scorched prairie. Stratton, his eyes fixed straight ahead, and his cheeks tinged with unwonted color, found it quite impossible to speak, and for a space the stillness was broken only by the creak of saddle-leather and the dull thud of horses' hoofs.
"It's mighty fine of you to feel like that," he said at length. "I'm sorry if I gave you the idea I—I was—curious."
"But you would be, naturally. You see, the other boys all know." She turned her head and looked at him. "I think we're all curious at times about things which really don't concern us. I've even wondered once or twice about you. You know you don't talk like the regulation cow-puncher—quite."
Stratton laughed. "Oh, but I am," he assured her. "I suppose the war rubbed off some of the accents, and of course I had a pretty good education to start with. But I'm too keen about the country and the life to ever want to do anything else."
Her face glowed. "It is wonderful," she agreed. "When I think of the years I've wasted in cities! I couldn't ever go back. Even with all the worries, this is a thousand times better. Ah! There they are ahead. They're turning the herd into this pasture, you see."
Half a mile or more to the southward a spreading dust-cloud hugged the earth, through which, indistinctly, Stratton could make out the moving figures of men and cattle. The two spurred forward, reaching the wide opening in the fence ahead of the vanguard of steers. Passing through, they circled to the right to avoid turning back any of the cattle, and joined the sweating, hard-worked cow-punchers.
As they rode up together, Buck found Lynch's eyes fixed on him with an expression of angry surprise, which was suppressed with evident difficulty.
"How'd yuh get back so quick?" he inquired curtly.
"Nothing more to keep me," shrugged Stratton. "I waited for the doctor to look Rick over, and then thought I'd come out and see if you needed me."
"Huh! Well, since you're here, yuh might as well whirl in. Get over on the far side of the herd an' help Flint. Don't let any of 'em break away, but don't crowd 'em too much."
As Buck rode off he heard Miss Thorne ask if there wasn't something she could do. Lynch's reply was indistinct, but the tone of his voice, deferential, yet with a faint undercurrent of honey-sweetness, irritated him inexplicably. With a scowl, he spurred forward, exchanged a brief greeting with Bud Jessup as he passed, and finally joined Kreeger, who was having considerable difficulty in keeping the herd together at that point.
During the succeeding two hours or so, Buck forgot his irritation in the interest and excitement of the work. Strenuous as it was, he found a distinct pleasure in the discovery that two years' absence from the range had not lessened his ability to hold his own. His horse was well trained, and he thoroughly enjoyed the frequent sharp dashes after some refractory steer, who stubbornly opposed being driven. Before the last animal had passed through the fence-gap into the further pasture, he was drenched from head to foot with perspiration and his muscles ached from the unaccustomed labor, but all that was discounted by the satisfaction of doing his chosen work again, and doing it well.
Then, in the lull which followed, his thoughts returned to Miss Thorne and he wondered whether there would be any chance for further conversation with her on the way back to the ranch-house? The question was quickly answered in a manner he did not in the least enjoy. After giving instructions about nailing up the fence, Tex Lynch joined the girl, who sat her horse at a little distance, and the two rode off together.
For a moment or two Stratton's frowning glance followed them. Then of a sudden he realized that Slim McCabe's shrewd eyes were fixed curiously on him, and the discovery brought him abruptly to his senses. For a space he had forgotten what his position was at the Shoe-Bar. He must keep a better guard over himself, or he would certainly arouse suspicion. Averting his eyes, but still continuing to frown a little as if lack of tobacco was responsible for his annoyance, he searched through his pockets.
"Got the makin's?" he asked McCabe. "Darned if I haven't left mine in the bunk-house."
Slim readily produced a sack, and when Buck had rolled a cigarette, he returned it with a jesting remark, and swung himself rather stiffly out of his saddle.
"Haven't any hammer, but I can help tighten wires," he commented.
He had intended joining Bud Jessup and trying while helping him to get a chance to discuss some of the things he had learned from Bemis. But somehow he found himself working beside McCabe, and when the fence had been put up again and they started home, it was Slim who rode beside him, chatting volubly and amusingly, but sticking like a leach.
It "gave one to think," Stratton decided grimly, remembering the expressive French phrase he had heard so often overseas. He could not quite make up his mind whether the action was deliberate or the result of accident, but after supper he had no doubt whatever.
During the meal Lynch showed himself in quite a new light. He chatted and joked with a careless good humor which was a revelation to Stratton, whom he treated with special favor. Afterward he asked Buck if he didn't want to look his patient over, and accompanied him into Bemis's room, remaining while the wound was inspected and freshly dressed. Later, in the bunk-house, he announced that they would start a round-up next morning to pick out some three-year-olds for shipment.
"Got a rush order for twelve hundred head," he explained. "We'll all have to get busy early except Bud, who'll stay here to look after things. If any of yuh have saddles or anythin' else to look after, yuh'd better do it to-night, so's we can get goin' by daybreak."
Like a flash Stratton realized the other's game, and his eyes narrowed ever so little. So that was it! By this most simple of expedients, he was to be kept away from the ranch-house and incidentally from any communication with Bemis or Bud, or Mary Thorne, unless accompanied by Lynch or one of his satellites. And the worst of it was he was quite helpless. He was merely a common, ordinary hand, and at the first sign of disobedience, or even evasion of orders, Lynch would have a perfectly good excuse to discharge him—an excuse he was doubtless itching to create.
BUCK FINDS OUT SOMETHING
When the fact is chronicled that no less than three times in the succeeding eight days Buck Stratton was strongly tempted to put an end to the whole puzzling business by the simple expedient of declaring his identity and taking possession of the Shoe-Bar as his own, something may be guessed of the ingenuity of Tex Lynch in making life unpleasant for the new hand.
Buck told himself more than once that if he had really been a new hand and nothing more, he wouldn't have lasted forty-eight hours. Any self-respecting cow-man would have promptly demanded his time and betaken himself to another outfit, and Stratton sometimes wondered whether his mere acceptance of the persecution might not rouse the foreman's suspicion that he had motives for staying which did not appear on the surface.
He had to admit that Lynch's whole course of action was rather cleverly worked out. It consisted mainly in giving Stratton the most difficult and arduous work to do, and keeping him at it longer than anyone else, not only on the round-up, but while driving the herd to Paloma Springs and right up to the point where the steers were loaded on cattle-cars and the job was over.
That, broadly speaking, was the scheme; but there were delicate touches of refinement and ingenuity in the process which wrung from Stratton, in rare intervals when he was not too furious to judge calmly, a grudging measure of admiration for the wily foreman. Frequently, for instance, Stratton would be assigned to night-herd duty with promise of relief at a certain hour. Almost always that relief failed to materialize, and Buck, unable to leave the herd, reeling with fatigue and cursing impotently, had to keep at it till daybreak. The erring puncher generally had an excellent excuse, which might have passed muster once, but which grew threadbare with repetition.
Then, after an hour or two of sleep, the victim was more likely than not to be dragged out of bed and ordered to take the place of Peters, Kreeger, or one of the others, who had been sent to the ranch or elsewhere on so-called necessary business. More than once the others got started on a meal ahead of him, and what food remained was cold, unappetizing, and scant in quantity. There were other little things Lynch thought of from time to time to make Buck's life miserable, and he quite succeeded, though it must be said that Stratton's hard-won self-control prevented the foreman from enjoying the full measure of his triumph.
What chiefly influenced Buck in holding back his big card and scoring against them all was the feeling that Mary Thorne would be the one to suffer most. He would be putting an abrupt finish to Lynch's game, whatever that was, but his action would also involve the girl in deep and bitter humiliation, if not something worse. Moreover, he was not quite ready to stop Lynch's scheming. He wanted to find out first what it was all about, and he felt he had a better chance of success by continuing to play his present part, hedged in and handicapped though he was, than by coming out suddenly in his own proper person.
So he stuck it out to the end, successfully suppressing all evidence of the smouldering rage that grew steadily within him against the whole crowd. Returning to the ranch for the first time in more than a week, he went to bed directly after supper and slept like a log until breakfast. Rising, refreshed and fit, he decided that the time had come to abandon his former haphazard methods of getting information, and to launch a campaign of active detective work without further delay.
Since the night of Bemis's accident, Buck had scarcely had a word with Bud Jessup, who he felt could give him some information, though he was not counting much on the importance of what the youngster was likely to know. Through the day there was no chance of getting the fellow apart. But Buck kept his eyes and ears open, and at supper-time Bud's casual remark to Lynch that he "s'posed he'd have to fix that busted saddle-girth before he hit the hay" did not escape him.
The meal over, Stratton left the kitchen and headed for the bunk-house with a purposeful air, soon leaving the others well in the rear. Presently one of them snickered.
"Looks like the poor rube's goin' to tear off some more sleep," commented Kreeger in a suppressed tone, evidently not thinking Stratton was near enough to hear.
But Buck's ears were sharp, and his lips twitched in a grim smile as he moved steadily on, shoulders purposely sagging. When he had passed through the doorway his head went up abruptly and his whole manner changed. Darting to his bunk, he snatched the blankets out and unrolled them with a jerk. Scrambling his clothes and other belongings into a rough mound, he swiftly spread the blankets over them, patted down a place or two to increase the likeness to a human body, dropped his hat on the floor beside the bunk, and then made a lightning exit through a window at the rear.
It was all accomplished with such celerity that before the dawdling punchers had entered the bunk-house, Buck was out of sight among the bushes which thickly lined the creek. From here he had no difficulty in making his way unseen around to the back of the barns and other out-buildings, one of which he entered through a rear door. A moment or two later he found Jessup, as he expected, squatting on the floor of the harness-room, busily mending his broken saddle-girth.
"Hello, Bud," he grinned, as the youngster looked up in surprise. "Thought I'd come up and have a chin with you."
"But how the deuce—I thought they—yuh—"
"You thought right," replied Stratton, as Jessup hesitated. "Tex and his friends have been sticking around pretty close for the past week or so, but I gave 'em the slip just now."
Briefly he explained what he had done, and then paused, eying the young fellow speculatively.
"There's something queer going on here, old man," he began presently. "You'll say it's none of my business, maybe, and I reckon it isn't. But unless I've sized 'em up wrong, Lynch and his gang are a bunch of crooks, and I'm not the sort to sit back quietly and leave a lady like Miss Thorne to their mercy."
Jessup's eyes widened. "What do yuh know?" he demanded. "What have yuh found out?"
Buck shrugged his shoulders. "Found out? Why, nothing, really. But I've seen enough to know that bunch is up to some deviltry, and naturally the owner of the outfit is the one who'll suffer, in pocket, if not something worse. It's a dirty deal, taking advantage of a girl's ignorance and inexperience, as that gang sure is doing some way—specially a girl who's as decent and white as she is. I thought maybe you and me might get together and work out something. You don't act like you were for 'em any more than I am."
"I'll tell a man I ain't!" declared Jessup emphatically. "They're a rotten bunch. Yuh can go as far's you like, an' I'll stick with yuh. Have yuh got anything on 'em?"
"Not exactly, but we may have if we put our heads together and talk it over." He glanced questioningly around the dusty room. "They'll likely find out the trick I played on 'em, and come snooping around here before long. Suppose we slip out and go down by the creek where we can talk without being interrupted."
Jessup agreed readily and followed Buck into the barn and out through the back door, where they sought a secluded spot down by the stream, well shielded by bushes.
"You've been here longer than I have and noticed a lot more," Stratton remarked when they were settled. "I wish you'd tell me what you think that bunch is up to. They haven't let me out of their sight for over a week. What's the idea, anyhow?"
"They don't want yuh should find out anythin'," returned Bud promptly.
"That's what I s'posed, but what's there to find out? That's what I can't seem to get at. Bemis says they're in with the rustlers, but even he seems to think there's something else in the wind besides that."
Jessup snorted contemptuously. "Bemis—huh! I'm through with him. He's a quitter. I was in chinnin' with him last night an' he's lost his nerve. Says he's through, an' is goin' to take his time the minute he's fit to back a horse. Still an' all," he added, forehead wrinkling thoughtfully, "he's right in a way. There is somethin' doin' beside rustling, but I'm hanged if I can find out what. The only thing I'm dead sure of is that it's crooked. Look at the way they're tryin' to get rid of us—Rick an' me an' you. Whatever they're up to they want the ranch to themselves before they go any further. Now Rick's out of the way, I s'pose I'll be next. They're tryin' their best to make me quit, but when they find out that won't work, I reckon they'll try somethin'—worse."
"Why don't Lynch just up an' fire you?" Buck asked curiously. "He's foreman."
Bud's young jaw tightened stubbornly. "He can't get nothin' on me," he stated. "It's this way. When help begun to get shy a couple of months ago—that's when he started his business of gittin' rid of the men one way or another—Tex must of hinted around to Miss Mary that I was goin' to quit, for she up an' asked me one day if it was true, an' said she hoped me an' Rick wasn't goin' to leave like the rest of 'em."
He paused, a faint flush darkening his tan. "I dunno as you've noticed it," he went on, plucking a long spear of grass and twisting it between his brown fingers, "but Miss Mary's got a way about her that—that sort of gets a man. She's so awful young, an'—an'—earnest, an' though she don't know one thing hardly about ranchin', she's dead crazy about this place, an' mighty anxious to make it pay. When she asks yuh to do somethin', yuh jest natu'ally feel like yuh wanted to oblige. I felt like that, anyhow, an' I was hot under the collar at Tex for lyin' about me like he must of done. So I tells her straight off I wasn't thinkin' of anythin' of the sort. 'Fu'thermore,' I says, 'I'll stick to the job as long as yuh like if you'll do one thing.' She asks what's that, an' I told her that some folks, namin' no names, was tryin' to make out to her I wasn't doin' my work good, an' doin' their best to get me in bad.
"'Oh, but I think you're mistaken,' she says, catchin' on right away who I meant. 'Tex wouldn't do anythin' like that. He needs help too bad, for one thing.'
"'Well,' I says, 'let it go at that. Only, if yuh hear anythin' against me, I'd like for yuh not to take anybody else's word for it. It's got to be proved I ain't capable, or I've done somethin' I oughta be fired for. An' if things gets so I got to go, I'll come to yuh an' ask for my time myself. Fu'thermore, I'll get Rick to promise the same thing.'
"Well, to make a long story short, she said she'd do it, though I could see she was still thinkin' me mistaken about Tex doin' anythin' out of the way. He's a rotten skunk, but you'd better believe he don't let her see it. He's got her so she believes every darn word he says is gospel."
He finished in an angry key. Stratton's face was thoughtful.
"How long has he been here?" he asked.
"Who? Tex? Oh, long before I come. The old man made him foreman pretty near a year ago in place of Bloss, who run the outfit for Stratton, that fellow who was killed in the war that old Thorne bought the ranch off from."
"What sort of a man was this Thorne?" Buck presently inquired.
"Pretty decent, though kinda stand-offish with us fellows. He was awful thick with Tex, though, an' mebbe that's the reason Miss Mary thinks so much of him. She took his death mighty hard, believe me!"
With a mind groping after hidden clues, Stratton subconsciously disentangled the various "hes" and "hims" of Jessup's slightly involved remark.
"Pop Daggett told me about his being thrown and breaking his neck," he said presently. "You were here then, weren't you? Was there anything queer about it? I mean, like the two punchers who were killed later on?"
Jessup's eyes widened. "Queer?" he repeated. "Why, I—I never thought about it that way. I wasn't around when it happened. Nobody was with him but—but—Tex." He stared at Buck. "Yuh don't mean to say—"
"I don't say anything," returned Stratton, as he paused. "How can I, without knowing the facts? Was the horse a bad one?"
"He was new—jest been put in the remuda. I never saw him rid except by Doc Peters, who's a shark. I did notice, afterward, he was sorta mean, though I've seen worse. We was on the spring round-up, jest startin' to brand over in the middle pasture." Bud spoke slowly with thoughtfully wrinkled brows. "It was right after dinner when the old man rode up on Socks, the horse he gen'ally used. He seemed pretty excited for him. He got hold of Tex right away, an' the two of them went off to one side an' chinned consid'able. Then they changed the saddle onto this here paint horse, Socks bein' sorta tuckered out, an' rode off together. It was near three hours before Tex came gallopin' back alone with word that the old man's horse had stepped in a hole an' throwed him, breakin' his neck."
"Was that part of it true?" asked Buck, who had been listening intently.
"About his neck? Sure. They had Doc Blanchard over right away. He'd been throwed, all right, too, from the scratches on his face."
"Where did it happen?"
"Yuh got me. I wasn't one of the bunch that brought him in. I never thought to ask afterwards, neither. It must of been somewhere up to the north end of the ranch, though, if they kep' on goin' the way they started."
For a moment or two Stratton sat silent, staring absently at the sloping bank below him. Was there anything back of the ranch-owner's tragic death save simple accident? The story was plausible enough. Holes were plentiful, and it wouldn't be the first time a horse's stumble had resulted fatally to the rider. On the other hand, it is quite possible, by an abrupt though seemingly accidental thrust or collision, to stir a horse of uncertain temper into sudden, vehement action. At length Buck sighed and abandoned his cogitations as fruitless. Short of a miracle, that phase of the problem was never likely to be answered.
"I wonder what took him off like that?" he pondered aloud. "Have you any notion? Is there anything particular up that way?"
"Why, no. Nobody hardly ever goes there. They call it the north pasture, but it's never used. There's nothin' there but sand an' cactus an' all that; a goat couldn't hardly keep body an' soul together. Except once lookin' for strays that got through the fence, I never set foot in it myself."
Down in the shallow gully where they sat, the shadows were gathering, showing that dusk was rapidly approaching. With a shake of his head and a movement of his wide shoulders, Buck mentally dismissed that subject.
"It's getting dark," he said briskly. "We'll have to hustle, or there'll be a searching party out after us. Have you noticed anything else particularly—about Lynch, I mean, or any of the others?"
"Nothin' I can make sense of," returned Jessup. "Tex has been off the ranch a lot. Two or three times he's stayed away over night. It might of been reg'lar business, I s'pose, but once Bill Harris, over to the Rockin'-R, said he'd seen him in Tucson with some guys in a big automobile. That rustlin', of course, yuh know about. On the evidence, I dunno as yuh could swear he was in it, but it's a sure thing that any foreman worth his salt would of stopped the business before now, or else get the sheriff on the job if he couldn't handle it himself."
"That's one thing I've wondered," commented Buck. "Why doesn't he? What's his excuse for holding off?"
Bud gave a short, brittle laugh. "I'll tell yuh. He says the sheriff's a crook! What do you know about that? I heard him tellin' it to Miss Mary the other day when he come in from Paloma about dinner-time. She was askin' him the same question, an' he up an' tells her it wouldn't be worth while; tells her the man is a half-breed an' always plays in with the greasers, so he wouldn't be no use. I never met up with Jim Hardenberg, but he sure ain't a breed, an' he's got a darn good rep as sheriff." He groaned. "Wimmin sure is queer. Think of anybody believin' that sort of rot."
"Did Lynch know you were listening?"
Jessup reddened a little. "No. They were talkin' in the big room, an' I was standin' to one side of the open window. I don't call it sneakin' to try an' get the drop on a coyote like him."
"I don't either," smiled Stratton, getting on his feet. The swift, southern darkness had fallen so quickly that they could barely see each other's faces. "It's one of their own little tricks, and turn about is fair play. Our job, I reckon, is to keep our eyes open every minute and not let anything slip. We'll find a way to get together again if anything should turn up. I'll be going back."
He turned away and took a few steps along the bank. Then all at once he stopped and walked back.
"Say, Bud, how big is that north pasture place you were telling about?" he asked. "I don't seem to remember going over it when I was—"
He broke off abruptly, and a sudden flush burned into his cheeks at the realization that he had almost betrayed himself. Fortunately Jessup did not seem to notice the slip.
"I don't know exactly," replied the youngster. "About two miles square, maybe. Why?"
"Oh, I just wondered," shrugged Stratton. "Well, so-long."
Again they parted, Bud returning to the harness-room, where he would have to finish his work by lantern-light.
"Gee, but that was close!" murmured Bud, feeling his way through the darkness. "Just about one more word and I'd have given away the show completely."
He paused under a cottonwood as a gleam of light from the open bunk-house door showed through the leaves.
"I wonder?" he mused thoughtfully.
A waste of sand, cactus, and scanty desert growth! In Arizona nothing is more ordinary or commonplace, more utterly lacking in interest and significance. Yet Stratton's mind returned to it persistently as he considered one by one the scanty details of Jessup's brief narrative.
What was there about a spot like that to rouse excitement in the breast of the usually phlegmatic Andrew Thorne? Why had he been in such haste to drag Lynch thither, and what had passed between the two before the older man came to his sudden and tragic end? Was it possible that somewhere within that four square miles of desolate wilderness might lie the key to the puzzling mystery Buck had set himself to solve?
"I wonder?" he murmured again, and leaving the margin of the creek, he moved slowly toward the open bunk-house door.
As Buck appeared in the doorway, blinking a little at the lamp-light, the five card-players stared at him in astonishment.
"Where the devil have you been?" inquired Kreeger, surprised out of his accustomed taciturnity.
"I thought yuh was asleep," added Peters, casting a bewildered glance at the shadowy bunk.
Buck, who had scarcely hoped his little stratagem would succeed so well, refrained with difficulty from showing the pleasure he felt.
"So I have," he drawled.
"But I thought yuh was in yore bunk," commented McCabe, his light-blue eyes narrowing slightly.
"No, I was outside," explained Stratton carelessly. "It was too hot in here, so I went out and sat down by the creek. I must have dropped off pretty soon, and when I came to it was dark."
As he spoke he glanced casually at Tex Lynch, and despite himself a little shiver flickered on his spine. The foreman, who had not spoken, sat motionless on the further side of the table regarding Stratton steadily. His lids drooped slightly and his face was almost expressionless. But in spite of that Buck got a momentary impression of baffled fury and a deadly, murderous hate, the more startling because of its very repression. Coupling it with what he knew or suspected of the man, Stratton felt there was some excuse for that momentary mental shrinking.
"He'd as soon put me out of the way as shoot a coyote," he said to himself, as he walked over to his bunk. "All he wants is a chance to do it without getting caught."
But with ordinary care and caution he did not see just how Tex was going to get the chance. Buck never went anywhere without his gun, and he flattered himself he was as quick on the draw as the average. Besides, he knew better now than to trust himself alone with Lynch or any of the others on some outlying part of the range where a fatal accident could plausibly be laid to marauding greasers, or to some similar agency.
"I'm not saying any one of 'em couldn't pick me off a dozen times a day and make an easy get-away across the border," he thought, stretching himself out on the husk mattress. "But Lynch don't want to have to make a get-away. There's something right here on the Shoe-Bar that interests him a whole lot too much."
Presently Bud came in, parried with some success the half-questioning comments of the men, and went to bed. Buck lay awake a while longer, trying to patch together into some semblance of pattern the isolated scraps of information he had gained, but without any measure of success.
There followed four surprising days of calm, during which the Shoe-Bar, to every outward seeming, might have been the most ordinary and humdrum of outfits, with not a hint of anything sinister or mysterious beneath the surface.
Each morning the men sallied forth to work, returned for noon dinner, and rode off again soon afterward. Lynch was neither grouchy nor over-jovial. He seemed the typical ranch-boss, whose chief thought is to get the work done, and his berating was entirely impartial. Bud had spent most of his time around the ranch, but once or twice he rode out with the others, and there was no attempt on their part to keep him and Buck from talking together as privately as they pleased. Only where Miss Thorne was concerned was Stratton conscious of the old unobtrusive surveillance. He saw her several times during his brief visits to Bemis, who was improving daily and fretting to be gone, but always Lynch, McCabe, or some one just "happened" to be along.
The effect of this unexpected peace and quiet on Stratton, however, was precisely opposite from the one he presumed was intended. He had a feeling that it was a calm before the storm, and became more alert than ever. The unnatural placidity weighed on him, and as day followed day serenely his nerves grew edgy.
After supper on the fourth day Lynch went up to the ranch-house and was closeted for more than an hour with Miss Thorne. On his return to the bunk-house, Stratton, who had now come to speculate on his every move, studied him covertly but found his manner quite as usual.
In the morning they started off for the middle pasture, where they were engaged in repairing a fence which had all but fallen flat. Quite by accident, and without any inkling of what was to come of his carelessness, Buck left his hammer and pliers beside the corral gate instead of sticking them into his saddle-pockets. Before they had gone a quarter of a mile he discovered the omission and pulled up, explaining what had happened.
"It won't take me five minutes to go back for them," he added, gathering up his reins.
"I'll go with yuh," said McCabe promptly. "With a little hustlin', we can easy catch up with the gang before they get to the pasture."
"Well, speed up, both of yuh," admonished Lynch. "We want to finish that job to-day."
Slightly amused and wondering whether they thought for an instant he was too blind to see through their game, Stratton put spurs to his horse and the two rode back together, McCabe apparently making a special effort to be amusing. The tools were found where Buck had left them, and the latter was on the point of remounting, when Mary Thorne came suddenly around the corner of the house.
"Good morning," she greeted them both pleasantly, but with a slight undercurrent of preoccupation in her manner. "I was afraid you'd gone." Her eyes met Stratton's. "Could I speak to you a moment?" she asked.
Buck dropped his bridle-reins and moved forward. For an instant McCabe sat motionless; then he swung himself out of the saddle.
"If it's anythin' I can help about—" he began, awkwardly, yet ingratiatingly.
"Thank you very much, Slim, but it isn't," the girl answered quietly.
"We ain't got much time," protested McCabe uneasily. "We jest came back to get them tools Buck forgot. Tex is in a hurry to finish up the job."
"I don't believe five minutes' delay will matter very much," returned Miss Thorne, with a touch of that unexpected decision Stratton had noticed once or twice before. "I sha'n't be any longer."
She moved away from the corral and Buck, walking beside her, was conscious of a curious tension in the air. For a moment he thought McCabe meant to persist and force his presence on them. But evidently the stocky cow-puncher found the situation too difficult for him to cope with, for he remained standing beside his horse, though his glance followed them intently, and throughout the brief interview his eyes searched their faces, as if he strove to read from their expression or the movement of their lips some inkling of what it was all about.
"I won't keep you but a moment," the girl began, her color slightly heightened. "I only thought that perhaps I might persuade you to—to change your mind, and—and stay. If the work's too hard, we might be able to—"
She paused. Buck stared at her in astonishment. "I don't understand," he said briefly.
Her flush deepened. "I meant about your going. I understood you weren't satisfied, and wanted to—to leave."
"Who told you that?"
"Why—Tex. Isn't it—"
Buck frowned, and then, conscious of the watching McCabe, his face cleared and he laughed.
"He must have got me wrong, Miss Ma—er—Thorne," he returned lightly. "Perhaps he's heard me grumbling a bit; cow-men do that from force of habit sometimes, you know. But I've nothing to complain of about the work, and certainly I had no idea of quitting."
Her face cleared amazingly. "I'm so glad," she said in a relieved tone. "I suppose I seem fussy, but now and then the problem of help gets to be a regular nightmare. Once or twice lately I've been afraid I was making a terrible mess of things, and might, after all, have to accept one of the offers I've had for the ranch. I should hate dreadfully to leave here, but if I can't make it pay—"
She finished with a shrug. Stratton regarded her thoughtfully. "You've had several offers?" he asked hesitatingly, wondering whether she would think the question an impertinence.
Apparently she didn't. "Two; really most awfully good ones. Indeed, Tex strongly advised me to sell out and buy another outfit if I still wanted to ranch. But I don't want another one. It's the Shoe-Bar I'm so keen about because of— But I really mustn't keep you. Thank you so much for relieving my mind. When Tex comes in I'll tell him he was mistaken."
Buck hesitated for an instant. "It might be better not to say anything about it," he suggested. "Some foremen don't like the least bit of interference, you know. Suppose we just let it go, and if he brings up the subject to me, I'll tell him he got me wrong."
"Very well. It doesn't make any difference so long as you're staying. Good-by."
With a little gesture of farewell, she walked away toward the ranch-house, leaving Stratton to return to where McCabe fidgeted beside the horses. There was no time for deliberate reasoning or planning. Buck only felt sure that Lynch was up to something underhand, and when Slim, with almost too great a casualness, inquired what it was all about, he obeyed a strong impulse and lied.
"Oh, it's Bemis," he shrugged, as they rode off together. "He's fretting to get away. Lost his nerve, I reckon, and wants to pull out. She wanted to know how long I thought it would be before he could back a horse. I s'pose he might chance it in about a week, but I'm hanged if I can see why he's in such a rush. He's sure got it soft enough here."
While he talked he was busy rolling a cigarette, but this did not prevent him from being aware of Slim's intent, sidelong scrutiny. He could not be quite certain whether or not he succeeded in deceiving the fellow, but from the character of McCabe's comments, he rather thought he had. Certainly he hoped so. Slim was sure to tell Lynch about the incident, but if he himself believed it harmless, the foreman was likely to take the same point of view, and continue to carry out the scheme he had in mind. Whatever this was, Stratton, in his present frame of mind, preferred that it should be brought to a head rather than continue any longer in suspense.
Throughout the day he could get no hint of what was going on. Once the thought occurred to him that it might be a variation of the trick Lynch had tried to play on Bud. By preparing Miss Thorne beforehand for the departure of the new hand, he could discharge Stratton and then represent to the girl that he had quit of his own accord. But somehow this didn't altogether fit. It assumed that Buck would take his dismissal quietly without attempting a personal appeal to the ranch-owner; also it took no account of Bud Jessup. By this time Tex must realize that there had been more or less intimate communication between the two, and Bud was not the sort to stand by quietly and see his friend turned out without stirring vehemently in his behalf.
Considering all this, Buck could not see that there was much to fear in Lynch's present manoeuvering; and it was something of a shock to find Bud absent from the supper-table.
"Gone to Paloma to fetch those wagon-bolts," explained Tex, who had come in about an hour ahead of the others, in answer to Peters' query. "They'd ought to of come in by mail yesterday or the day before, an' we need 'em bad. He'll get supper in town an' be back before dark."
Somewhat thoughtful, Buck accompanied the others to the bunk-house, where he was cordially invited to join the evening game of draw, but declined on the plea of having a couple of letters to write. It was a subterfuge, of course; he had nobody to write to. But in his mind had risen a strong preference for being in a position where he could overlook the whole group, rather than be seated in their very midst.
There had come to him a sudden, vivid conviction that he had underestimated the foreman's resources and his own possible danger. As he sat there mechanically scribbling random sentences, it was brought home to him for the first time how unpleasantly alone he was. Save for a helpless girl and an even more helpless old woman, there wasn't a soul within a dozen miles on whom he could count for help in an emergency. Of course when Bud returned—
But Bud didn't return. Nine o'clock brought no sign of him. Another hour passed and still he failed to show up. It began to look very much as if the youngster had met with some accident or was being purposely kept out of the way.
When the men finished their game and began to turn in, Stratton reluctantly followed their example. As long as there was any light he felt perfectly able to take care of himself. It was the darkness he feared—that inky, suffocating darkness which masks everything like a pall. He dreaded, too, the increased chances bed would bring of yielding for a single fatal instant to treacherous sleep; but he couldn't well sit up all night, so he undressed leisurely with the rest and stretched his long length between the blankets.
When the lamp was out, he cautiously flung aside his coverings, drew himself into a reclining position, and with gun in one hand and some matches close beside the other, began his vigil.
For a long time—it must have been an hour at least—there was no need to fight off sleep. His mind was far too active. But his thoughts were not altogether cheering, for he began to see clearly how Lynch might hope to accomplish the impossible.
So far there had been reassurance in the feeling that the foreman would not dare proceed to open violence because of the almost certain consequences to himself. Buck realized now that, under the conditions of the moment, those consequences might become almost negligible. Suppose, for instance, that by next morning Stratton had disappeared. Lynch and his confederates would tell a plausible story of his having demanded his time the night before and ridden off early in the morning. It was a story Tex had carefully prepared Miss Thorne to hear, and whether or not, after Buck's talk with her during the morning, she might be suspicious, that would make no difference in the foreman's actions now. He would see that a horse was gone, and attend to all the other necessary details. He had the better part of the night and miles of desert waste in which to dispose of every trace of Stratton and his belongings. Bud would be suspicious, but between suspicion and proof there is a great gulf fixed. And though Lynch might not know it, one of his strongest cards was the fact that if Stratton should vanish off the earth, there was not a soul who would ever come around asking awkward questions.
"But I'm not going to be bumped off just now, thank you," Buck said to himself with a grim straightening of the lips. "They won't dare fire a gun, and they don't know I'm ready for them and waiting."
Another hour passed, a tortured, harrowing hour in which he fought sleep desperately with all the limited resources at his command. In spite of his determination to keep his eyes open at any cost, his lids drooped and lifted, drooped and lifted, drooped and were dragged open by sheer will-power. Each time it was more difficult. Just as the water laps inexorably at length over the face of an exhausted swimmer, so these waves of sleep, smothering, clutching, dulled his senses and strove to wrap him in their soft, treacherous embrace.
There came at last a complete wiping out of consciousness, how long or short he never knew, from which he was jarred into sudden wakefulness by a sound. He had no idea what it was nor whence it came. He merely found himself abruptly in full possession of his senses, nerves tingling, moisture dewing his forehead, his whole being concentrated in the one act of—listening!
For what seemed an eternity he could hear nothing save the heavy breathing of sleeping men. Then it came again, a slow, faint, dragging sound that ceased almost as soon as it began.
Some one was creeping stealthily toward him across the cabin floor!
Instantly a sense of elation, tingling as an electric shock, surged over Stratton, and his grip on the Colt tightened. At last he was face to face with something definite and concrete, and in a moment all the little doubts and nagging nervous qualms which had assailed him from time to time during his long vigil were swept away. Cautiously drawing his gun into position, he felt for a match with the other hand and prepared to scratch it against the side of the bunk.
Slowly, stealthily, with many a cautious pause, the crawling body drew steadily nearer. Though the intense darkness prevented him from seeing anything, Buck felt at last that he had correctly gaged the position of the unknown plotter. Trying to continue that easy, steady breathing, which had been no easy matter, he slightly raised his weapon and then, with a sudden, lightning movement, he drew the match firmly across the rough board.
To his anger and chagrin the head broke off. Before he could snatch up another and strike it viciously, there came from close at hand a sudden rustle, a creak, the clatter of something on the floor, followed by dead silence. When the light flared up, illumining dimly almost the whole length of the room, there was nothing in the least suspicious to be seen.
Nevertheless, with inward cursing, Stratton sprang up and lit the lamp he had used early in the evening and which he had purposely left within reach. With this added illumination he made a discovery that brought his lips together in a grim line.
Someone lay stretched out in the bunk next to his own—Jessup's bunk, which had been empty when he went to bed.
For a fleeting instant Buck wondered whether Bud could possibly have returned and crawled in there unheard. Then, as the wick flared up, he not only realized that this couldn't have happened, but recognized lying on the youngster's rolled-up blankets the stout figure and round, unshaven face of—Slim McCabe.
As he stood staring at the fellow, there was a stir from further down the room and a sleepy voice growled:
"What's the matter? It ain't time to get up yet, is it?"
Buck, who had just caught a glint of steel on the floor at the edge of the bunk, pulled himself together.
"No; I—I must have had a—nightmare," he returned in a realistically dazed tone. "I was dreaming about—rustlers, and thought I heard somebody walking around."
Still watching McCabe surreptitiously, he saw the fellow's lids lift sleepily.
"W'a's matter?" murmured Slim, blinking at the lamp.
"Nothing. I was dreaming. What the devil are you doing in that bunk?"
McCabe appeared to rouse himself with an effort and partly sat up, yawning prodigiously.
"It was hot in my own, so I come over here to get the air from the window," he mumbled. "What's the idea of waking a guy up in the middle of the night?"
Buck did not answer for a moment but, stepping back, trod as if by accident on the end of his trailing blanket. As he intended, the movement sent his holster and belt tumbling to the floor, and with perfect naturalness he stooped to pick them up. When he straightened, his face betrayed nothing of the grim satisfaction he felt at having proved his point. The bit of steel was a hunting-knife with a seven-inch blade, sharp as a razor, and with a distinctive stag-horn handle, which Tex Lynch had used only a few evenings before to remove the skin from a coyote he had brought down.
"Sorry, but I was dreaming," drawled Stratton. "No harm done, though, is there? You ain't likely to stay awake long."
Without further comment he blew out the light and crawled into bed again. He found no difficulty now in keeping awake for the remainder of the night; there was too much to think about and decide. Now that he had measured the lengths to which Lynch seemed willing to go, he realized that a continuance of present conditions was impossible. An exact repetition of this particular attempt was unlikely, but there were plenty of variations against which no single individual could hope to guard. He must bring things to a head at once, either by quitting the ranch, by playing the important card of his own identity he had so far held back, or else by finding some other way of tying Lynch's hands effectually. He was equally reluctant to take either of the two former steps, and so it pleased him greatly when at last he began to see his way toward working things out in another fashion.
"I'm blessed if that won't put a spoke in his wheel," he thought jubilantly, considering details. "He won't dare to touch me."
When dawn came filtering through the windows, and one thing after another slowly emerged from the obscurity, Buck's eyes swiftly sought the floor below Bud's bunk. But though McCabe lay there snoring loudly, the knife had disappeared.
Though outwardly everything seemed normal, Buck noticed a slight restlessness and laxing tension about the men that morning. There was delay in getting to work, which might have been accounted for by the cessation of one job and the starting of another. But knowing what he did, Stratton felt that the flat failure of their plot had much to do with it.
He himself took advantage of the lull to slip away to the harness-room on the plea of mending a rip in the stitching of his chaps. Pulling a box over by the window where he could see anyone approaching, he produced pencil and paper and proceeded to write out a rather voluminous document, which he afterward read over and corrected carefully. He sealed it up in an envelope, wrote a much briefer note, and enclosed both in a second envelope which he addressed to Sheriff J. Hardenberg. Finally he felt around in his pocket and pulled forth the scrawl he had composed the night before.
"They look about the same," he murmured, comparing them. "Nobody will notice the difference."
Buck was on the point of sealing the envelope containing the scrawl when it occurred to him to read the contents over and see what he had written.
The letter was headed "Dear Friend," and proved to be a curious composition. With a mind intent on other things, Stratton had written almost mechanically, intending merely to give an air of reality to his occupation. In the beginning the scrawl read very much as if the "friend" were masculine. Bits of ranch happenings and descriptions were jotted down as one would in writing to a cow-boy friend located on a distant outfit. But gradually, imperceptibly almost, the tone shifted. Buck himself had been totally unaware of any change until he read over the last few pages. And then, as he took in the subtle undercurrent of meaning which lay beneath the penciled lines, a slow flush crept up into his face, and he frowned.
It was all rot, of course! He had merely written for the sake of writing something—anything. She was a nice little thing, of course, with an attractive feminine manner and an unexpected lot of nerve. He was sorry for her, naturally, and would like to help her out of what he felt to be a most disagreeable, if not hazardous situation. But as for anything further—
Still frowning, he thrust the sheets back into the envelope and licked the flap. He was on the point of stubbornly scrawling a man's name on the outside when he realized how foolish he would be not to carry out his first and much more sensible intention.
He wanted an excuse for asking permission to ride to town to post a letter. This, in itself, was an extremely nervy request and under ordinary conditions almost certain to be profanely refused. But Buck had a shrewd notion that after the failure of Lynch's plans, the foreman might welcome the chance of talking things over with his confederates without danger of being observed or overheard. On the other hand, if there should be the least suspicion that his letter was not of the most innocent and harmless sort, he would never in the world be allowed to get away with it.
The result was that when he strolled out of the harness-room a little later the envelope bearing the name of Sheriff Hardenberg reposed within his shirt, while the other, addressed now to a mythical "Miss Florence Denby," at an equally mythical street number in Dallas, Texas, protruded from a pocket of his chaps.
"I don't s'pose you've got a stamp you'll sell me," he inquired of Lynch, whom he found in the bunk-house with McCabe. "I'd like to get this letter off as soon as I can."
Balancing the envelope in his hand, he held it so that the foreman could easily read the address.
"I might have," returned Lynch briefly. "Looks like that letter was heavy enough to need two."
Buck allowed him to weigh it in his hand for an instant, and then, in simulated confusion, he snatched it back.
"Must be writin' to yore girl," grinned McCabe, who had also been regarding the address curiously.
Stratton retorted in a convincingly embarrassed fashion, received his stamps and then proffered his request, which was finally granted with an air of reluctance and much grumbling.
"I wouldn't let yuh go, only I don't know what the devil's keepin' that fool Bud," growled Lynch. "Yuh tell the son-of-a-gun I ain't expectin' him to stop in town the rest of his natural life. If them wagon-bolts ain't come, we'll have to do without 'em. Yuh bring him back with yuh, an' see yuh both get here by dinner time without fail."
Buck gave the desired promise and, hastily saddling up, departed. About three miles from the ranch, he rode off to the side of the trail and dismounted beside a stunted mesquite. Under its twisting branches, he dug a hole with the toe of his boot and interred therein Miss Florence Denby's letter, torn into small fragments.
This done he swung himself into the saddle and headed again for Paloma Springs, and as he rode he began to whistle blithely.
"The low-down, ornery liar!" sputtered Bud Jessup, face flushed and eyes snapping. "He told me to wait for them bolts if I had to stay here all day. I thought it was kinda funny he'd let me waste all this time, but I didn't have no idea at all he'd got me out of the way a-purpose to put across that dirty deal. Why, the rotten son-of-a—"
"Easy, kid," cautioned Buck, glancing at the open door of the store. "You'll have Pop comin' out to see what all the excitement's about, and that isn't our game—yet."
He had found Bud alone on the rickety porch, kicking his heels against the railing and fretting at his enforced idleness; and having hitched his horse, he lost no time in giving the youngster a brief account of the happenings of the night before.
"Not him," shrugged Jessup, though he did lower his voice a trifle. "The up train's due in less than half an hour, an' Pop's gettin' the mail-bag ready. That means readin' all the post-cards twice at least, an' makin' out all he can through the envelopes, if the paper's thin enough. I often wondered why he didn't go the whole hog an' have a kettle ready to steam the flaps open, he seems to get so much pleasure out of other people's business."
Stratton chuckled. This suited him perfectly up to a certain point. He pulled the letter out of his shirt and was pleased to see that none of the writing was visible. Then he displayed the face of the envelope to his companion.
Bud's eyes widened. "Whew!" he whistled. "That sure looks like business. What's up, Buck? Can't yuh tell a man?"
"I will on the way back; no time just now. Let's go in."
He led the way into the store and walked down to where Daggett was slowly sorting a small pile of letters and post-cards.
"Hello, Pop!" he greeted. "Looks like I was just in time."
The old man peered over the tops of his spectacles. "Yuh be, if yuh want to catch the up-mail," he nodded. "Where's it to?"
He took the letter from Stratton's extended hand and studied it with frank interest.
"Jim Hardenberg!" he commented. "Wal! Wal! Friend of yores, eh?"
"Oh, I don't know as you'd hardly call him that," evaded Stratton. "Haven't seen him in over two years, I reckon."
Pop waited expectantly, but no further information was forthcoming. He eyed the letter curiously, manoeuvering as if by accident to hold it up against the light. He even tried, by obvious methods, to get rid of the two punchers, but they persisted in hanging around until at length the near approach of the train-hour forced the old man to drop the letter into the mail-bag with the others and snap the lock. On the plea of seeing whether their package had come, both Stratton and Jessup escorted him over to the station platform and did not quit his side until the train had departed, carrying the mail-sack with it.
There were a few odds and ends of mail for the Shoe-Bar, but no parcel. When this became certain, Bud got his horse and the two mounted in front of the store.
"By gee!" exclaimed Pop suddenly as they were on the point of riding off. "I clean forgot to tell yuh. They got blackleg over to the T-T's."
Both men turned abruptly in their saddles and stared at him in dismay. To the bred-in-the-bone rancher the mention of blackleg, that deadly contagious and most fatal of cattle diseases, is almost as startling as bubonic plague would be to the average human.
"Hell!" ejaculated Bud forcefully. "Yuh sure about that, Pop?"
"Sartain sure," nodded the old man. "One of their men, Bronc Tippets, was over here last night an' told me. Said their yearlings is dyin' off like flies."
"That sure is mighty hard luck," remarked Jessup as they rode out of town. "I'm glad this outfit ain't any nearer."
"Somewhere off to the west of the Shoe-Bar, isn't it?" asked Stratton.
"Yeah. 'Way the other side of the mountains. There's a short cut through the hills that comes out around the north end of middle pasture, but there ain't one steer in a thousand could find his way through. Well, let's hear what you're up to, old man. I'm plumb interested."
Buck's serious expression relaxed and he promptly launched into a detailed explanation of his scheme. When he had made everything clear Bud's face lit up and he regarded his friend admiringly.
"By cripes, Buck!" he exclaimed delightedly. "That sure oughta work. When are yuh goin' to spring it on 'em?"
"First good chance I get," returned Buck. "The sooner the better, so they won't have time to try any more dirty work."
The opportunity was not long in coming. They reached the ranch just before dinner and when the meal was over learned that the afternoon was to be devoted to repairing the telephone leading from the ranch-house to Las Vegas camp, which had been out of order for several weeks. As certain fence wires were utilized for line purposes, this meant considerable work, if Stratton could judge by the ruinous condition of most of those he had seen. He wondered not a little at the meaning of the move, but did not allow his curiosity to interfere with the project he had in mind.
They had left the ranch in a bunch, Kreeger and Siegrist alone remaining behind for some other purpose. They had not gone more than two miles when a remark of McCabe's on mining claims gave Buck his cue.
"A fellow who goes into that game with a bunch takes a lot of chances," he commented. "I knew a chap once who came mighty near being croaked, to say nothing of losing a valuable claim, by being too confiding with a gang he thought could be trusted."
"How was that?" inquired Slim amiably, as Stratton paused.
"They wanted the whole hog instead of being contented with their share, and tried two or three times to get this fellow—er—Brown. When Brown wised up to what was going on he thought at first he'd have to pull out to save his hide. But just in time he doped out a scheme to stop their dirty work, and it sure was a slick one, all right."
Buck chuckled retrospectively. Though the pause was unbroken by any questions, he saw that he had the complete and undivided attention of his audience.
"What he did," resumed Stratton, "was to write out a detailed account of all the things they'd tried to put across, one of which was an attempt to—a—shoot him in his bunk while he was asleep. He sealed that up in an envelope and sent it to the sheriff with a note asking him to keep it safe, but not to open it unless the writer, Brown, got bumped off in some violent way or disappeared, in which case the sheriff was to act on the information in it and nab the crooks. After he'd got word of its receipt, he up and told the others what he'd done. Pretty cute, wasn't it?"
The brief pause that followed was tense and fraught with suppressed emotion.
"Did it work?" McCabe at length inquired, with elaborate casualness.
"Sure. The gang didn't dare raise a finger to him. They might have put a bullet through him any time, or a knife, and made a safe get-away, but then they'd have had to desert the claims, which wasn't their game at all. Darn good stunt to remember, ain't it, if a person ever got up against that sort of thing?"
There was no direct reply to the half-question, and Buck shot a glance at his companions. Lynch rode slightly behind him and was out of the line of vision. McCabe, with face averted, bent over fussing with his saddle-strings. The sight of Doc Peters's face, however, pale, strained, with wide, frightened eyes and sagging jaw, told Stratton that his thrust had penetrated as deeply as he could have hoped.
"We'll start here."
It was Lynch's voice, curt and harsh, that broke the odd silence as he jerked his horse up and dismounted. "Get yore tools out an' don't waste any time."
There was no mistaking his mood, and in the hours that followed he was a far from agreeable taskmaster. He snapped and growled and swore at them impartially, acting generally like a bear with a sore ear whom nothing can please. If he could be said to be less disagreeable to anyone, it was, curiously enough, Bud Jessup, whom he kept down at one end of the line most of the afternoon. Later Stratton discovered the reason.
"It worked fine," Bud whispered to him jubilantly, when they were alone together for a few minutes after supper. "Did yuh see him hangin' around me this afternoon? He was grouchin' around and pretendin' to be mad because he'd let yuh go to town this mornin' just to mail a letter to some fool girl."
"Of course I pulled the baby stare an' told him I didn't see no letter to no girl. Yuh sure didn't mail one while I was with yuh, I says.
"'Didn't mail no letter at all?' he wants to know, scowlin'."
"'Sure,' I says. 'Only it went to Jim Hardenberg over to Perilla. I seen him hand it to old Pop Daggett, who was peevish as a wet hen 'cause he couldn't find out nothin' about what was in it, 'count of Buck hangin' around till it got on the train. That's the only letter I seen.'
"He didn't have no more to say, but walked off, scowlin' fierce. I'll bet yuh my new Stetson to a two-bit piece, Buck, he rides in to town mighty quick to find out what Pop knows about it."
Stratton did not take him up, for it had already occurred to him that such a move on Lynch's part was almost certain. As a matter of fact the foreman did leave the ranch early the next morning, driving a pair of blacks harnessed to the buckboard. Buck and Jessup were both surprised at this unwonted method of locomotion, which usually indicated a passenger to be brought back, or, more rarely, a piece of freight or express, too large or heavy to be carried on horseback, yet not bulky enough for the lumbering freight-wagon.
"An' if it was freight, he'd have sent one of us," commented Bud, as they saddled up preparatory to resuming operations on the fences. "Still an' all, I reckon he wants to see Pop himself and get a line on what that old he-gossip knows. He'll have his ear full, all right," he finished in a tone of vindictive satisfaction.
To make up for the day before, the whole gang took life very easily, and knocked off work rather earlier than usual. They had loafed ten or fifteen minutes in the bunk-house and were straggling up the slope in answer to Pedro's summons to dinner when, with a clatter of hoofs, the blacks whirled through the further gate and galloped toward the house.
Buck, among the others, glanced curiously in that direction and observed with much interest that a woman occupied the front seat of the buckboard with Tex, while a young man and two small trunks more than filled the rear.
"Some dame!" he heard Bud mutter under his breath.
A moment later Lynch pulled up the snorting team and called Jessup to hold them. Buck was just turning away from a lightning appraisal of the new-comers, when, to his amazement, the young woman smiled at him from her seat.
"Why, Mr. Green!" she called out in surprise. "To think of finding you here!"
Buck stared at her, wide-eyed and bewildered. With her crisp, dark hair, fresh color, and regular features, she was very good to look at. But he had never consciously set eyes on her before in all his life!
THE LADY FROM THE PAST
Stratton's first feeling was that the girl must have made a mistake. In a dazed fashion he stepped forward and helped her out of the buckboard, but this was a more or less mechanical action and because she so evidently expected it. As he took her hand she pressed it warmly and did not at once relinquish it after she had reached the ground.
"I'm awfully glad to see you again," she said, her color heightened a little. "But how on earth do you come to be away off here?"
With an effort Buck pulled himself together. He could see that the men were regarding him curiously, and felt that he must say something.
"That's simple enough," he answered briefly. "I've got a job on this ranch."
She looked slightly puzzled. "Really? But I thought—I had no idea you knew—Mary."
"I didn't. I needed a job and drifted in here thinking I'd find a friend of mine who used to work on the same outfit in Texas. He was gone, but Miss Thorne took me on."
"You mean you're a regular cow-boy?" the girl asked in surprise. "Why, you never told me that aboard ship?"
A sudden chill swept over Stratton, and for a moment he was stricken speechless. Aboard ship! Was it possible that this girl had been part of that uncanny, vanished year, the very thought of which troubled and oppressed him. His glance desperately evaded her charming, questioning eyes and rested suddenly with a curious cool sense of relief on the face of Mary Thorne, who had come up unperceived from behind.
But as their eyes met Buck was conscious of an odd veiled expression in their clear depths which vaguely troubled him. It vanished quickly as Miss Thorne moved quickly forward to embrace her friend.
"Stella!" she cried. "I'm so awfully glad to see you."
There were kisses and renewed embracings; the young man was greeted more decorously but with almost equal warmth, and then suddenly Miss Thorne turned to Stratton, who stood back a little, struggling between a longing to escape and an equally strong desire to find out a little more about this attractive but startling reminder of his unknown past.
"I had no idea you knew Miss Manning," she said, with the faintest hint of stiffness in her manner.
Buck swallowed hard but was saved from further embarrassment by the girl.
"Oh, yes!" she said brightly. "We came home on the same ship. Mr. Green had been wounded, you know, and was under my care. We got to be—great friends."
Was there a touch of meaning in the last two words? Stratton preferred to lay it to his imagination, and was glad of the diversion caused by the introduction of the young man, who proved to be Miss Manning's brother. Buck was not at all impressed by the fellow's handsome face, athletic figure, and immaculate clothes. The clothes especially seemed ridiculously out of place for even a visitor on a ranch, and he had always detested those dinky half-shaved mustaches.
Meanwhile the trunks had been carried in and the team led away, and Pedro was peevishly complaining from the kitchen door that dinner was getting cold. Buck learned that the visitors were from Chicago, where they had been close friends of the Thorne family for years, and then he managed to break away and join the fellows in the kitchen.
During the meal there was a lot of more or less quiet joking on the subject of Stratton's acquaintance with the lady, which he managed to parry rather cleverly. As a matter of fact the acute horror he felt at the very thought of the truth about himself getting out, quickened his wits and kept him constantly on his guard. He kept his temper and his head, explaining calmly that Miss Manning had been one of the nurses detailed to look after the batch of wounded men of whom he had been one. Naturally he had seen considerable of her during the long and tedious voyage, but there were one or two others he liked equally well.
His careless manner seemed to convince the men that there was no particular amusement to be extracted from the situation, and to Buck's relief they passed on to a general discussion of strangers on a ranch, the bother they were, and the extra amount of work they made.
"Always wantin' to ride around with yuh an' see what's goin' on," declared Butch Siegrist sourly. "If they're wimmin, yuh can't even give a cuss without lookin' first to see if they're near enough to hear."
Stratton made a mental resolution that if anything of that sort came up, he would do his best to duck the job of playing cicerone to Miss Stella Manning, attractive as she was. So far his bluff seemed to have worked, but with a mind so entirely blank of the slightest detail of their acquaintance, he knew that at any moment the most casual remark might serve to rouse her suspicion.
Fortunately, his desire to remain in the background was abetted by Tex Lynch. Whether or not the foreman wanted to keep him away from the ranch-owner's friends as well as from Miss Thorne herself, Buck could not quite determine. But while the fence-repairing progressed, Stratton was never by any chance detailed to other duties which might keep him in the neighborhood of the ranch-house, and on the one occasion when Miss Thorne and her guests rode out to where the men were working, Lynch saw to it that there was no opportunity for anything like private conversation between them and the object of his solicitude.
Buck watched his manoeuvering with secret amusement.
"Wouldn't he be wild if he knew he was playing right into my hands?" he thought.
His face darkened as he glanced thoughtfully at the departing figure of Miss Manning. She had greeted him warmly and betrayed a very evident inclination to linger in his vicinity. There had been a slight touch of pique in her treatment of Lynch, who hung around so persistently.
"I wish to thunder I had an idea of how much she knows," he muttered. "Did I act like a brainless idiot when I was—was that way, or not?"
He had asked the same question of the hospital surgeon and got an unsatisfactory answer. It all depended, the doctor told him non-committally. He might easily have shown evidences of lost memory; on the other hand, it was quite possible, especially with chance acquaintances, that his manner had been entirely normal.
There was nothing to be gained, however, by racking his brain for something that wasn't there, and Buck soon gave up the attempt. He could only trust to luck and his own inventiveness, and hope that Lynch's delightfully unconscious easing of the situation would continue.
The work was finished toward noon on the third day after the arrival of the Mannings, and all the connections hooked up. There remained nothing to do but test the line, and Tex, after making sure everything was in order, glanced over his men, who lounged in front of the Las Vegas shack.
"Yuh may as well stay down at this end," he remarked, looking at Buck, "while the rest of us go back. Stick around where yuh can hear the bell, an' if it don't ring in, say, an hour, try to get the house yourself. If that don't work, come along in an' report. I reckon everything's all right, though."
Stratton was conscious of a sudden sense of alertness. He had grown so used to suspecting and analyzing everything the foreman said or did that for a moment he forgot the precautions he had taken and wondered whether Lynch was up to some new crooked work. Then he remembered and relaxed mentally. Considering the consequences, Tex would hardly dare try any fresh violence against him, especially quite so soon. Besides, in broad daylight and in this open country, Buck couldn't imagine any form of danger he wouldn't be able to meet successfully alone.
So he acquiesced indifferently, and from the open doorway of the hut watched the others mount and ride away. There were only four of them, for Kreeger and Butch Siegrist had been dispatched early that morning to ride fence on the other side of the ranch-house. When they were well on their way, Buck untied his lunch from the saddle and went into the shack to eat it.
In spite of the feeling that he had nothing to fear, he took a position which gave him a good outlook from both door and window, and saw that his gun was loose in the holster. After he had eaten, he went down and got a drink from the creek. He had not been back in the shack a great while before the telephone bell jangled, and taking down the receiver he heard Lynch's voice at the other end.
Owing to the rather crude nature of the contrivance there was a good deal of buzzing on the line. But this was to be expected, and when Tex had talked a few minutes and decided that the system was working as well as could be hoped, he told Stratton to come in to the ranch, and hung up.
Buck had not ridden more than a quarter of a mile across the prairie, when all at once he pulled his horse to a standstill. The thought had suddenly come to him that this was the chance he had wanted so long to take a look at that mysterious stretch of desert known as the north pasture. He would be delayed, of course, but explanations were easy and that did not disturb him. It was too good an opportunity to miss, and without delay he turned his horse and spurred forward.
An instinct of caution made him keep as close as possible to the rough, broken country that edged the western extremity of the ranch, where he would run less chance of being seen than on the flat, open plain. He pushed his horse as much as was wise, and presently observed with satisfaction—though it was still a good way off—the line of fence that marked the northern boundary of middle pasture.
A few hundred yards ahead lay a shallow draw, and beyond it a weather-worn ridge thrust its blunt nose out into the plain considerably further than any Buck had yet passed. He turned the horse out, intending to ride around it, but a couple of minutes later jerked him to a standstill and sat motionless in the saddle, eyes narrowing with a sudden, keen surprise.
He had reached a point where, for the first time, he could make out, over the obstruction ahead, the extreme northwest corner of the pasture. Almost at the spot where the two lines of fence made a right angle were two horsemen in the typical cow-man attire. At first they stood close together, but as Stratton stared intently, rising a little in his stirrups to get a clearer view through the scanty fringe of vegetation that topped the ridge, one of them rode forward and, dismounting, began to manipulate the fence wires with quick, jerky movements of his hands.
More than once during the next ten minutes Buck cursed himself inwardly for not having brought along the small but powerful pair of field-glasses that were tucked away in his bag. He had picked them up at the Divisional Headquarters only a week or two before the Belleau Woods business, and how they had stuck to him until his arrival in America remained one of the minor mysteries of that vanished year. He would have given anything for them now, for though he could make out fairly well the movements of the two men, he was too far away to distinguish their faces.
Watching closely, he saw that the first fellow was taking down a short section of the fence, either by cutting or by pulling out the staples. When this lay flat he remounted and, joining his companion, the two proceeded to drive through the gap nothing more significant than a solitary steer.
It was a yearling, Buck could easily see even at that distance, and he almost laughed aloud at the sudden let-down of suspense. By this time a little individual trick of carriage made him suspect that the foremost puncher was Butch Siegrist, and when the men came into clearer view, he recognized scarcely without question the big sorrel with white trimmings on which Kreeger had ridden off that morning. The two men had found a Shoe-Bar stray; that was all. And yet, on second thought, how did they come to be here when they were supposed to be working at the very opposite extremity of the ranch?
It was this query which made Stratton refrain from showing himself. With considerable annoyance, for time was passing, he waited where he was until the two men had gone back through the gap in the fence and restored the wires. He watched them turn northward and ride rapidly across the sandy waste until at length their diminishing figures disappeared into the distance. Even then it was ten or fifteen minutes before he emerged from his seclusion, and when he finally did he headed straight for the young steer, who had been the cause of so much exertion on the part of the two men who ordinarily shirked work whenever they could.
Under the lash of a rope, the animal had lumbered across the pasture for several hundred yards, where he paused languidly to crunch some bunch-grass. There was an air of lassitude and weakness about the creature which made Buck, as he approached, eye it with anxious intentness. A dozen feet or so away he jerked his horse to a standstill and caught his breath with an odd whistling sound.
"Great Godfrey!" he breathed.
Bending slightly forward in the saddle, he stared at the creature's badly-swollen off hind leg, but there was no need whatever for a prolonged inspection. Having been through one blackleg epidemic back in Texas, he knew the signs only too well.
"That's it, sure enough," he muttered, straightening up.
His gaze swept across the prairie to where, half a mile away, a bunch of Shoe-Bar cattle grazed peacefully. If this sick beast should get amongst them, the yearlings at least, to whom the disease is fatal, would be dying like flies in twenty-four hours. Buck glanced back at the steer again, and as he noted the T-T brand, his face hardened and he began taking down his rope.
"The hellions!" he grated, an angry flush darkening his tan. "They ought to be strung up."
The animal started to move away, and Buck lost no time in roping him. Then he turned his horse and urged him toward the fence, dragging the reluctant brute behind. Fortunately he had his pliers in the saddle-pocket, and, taking down the wires, he forced the creature through and headed for a deep gully the mouth of which lay a few hundred yards to the left. Penetrating into this as far as he was able, he took out his Colt and deliberately shot the steer through the head. And if Kreeger or Siegrist had been present at that moment, he was furious enough to treat either of them in the same way without a particle of compunction.
"Hanging would be too good for them, the dirty beasts!" he grated.
The thing had been so fiendishly cold-blooded and calculating that it made his blood boil, for it was perfectly evident now to Buck that he had thwarted a deliberate plot to introduce the blackleg scourge among the Shoe-Bar cattle. Instead of riding fence, the two punchers must have made their roundabout way immediately to the stricken T-T ranch, secured in some manner an infected yearling and brought it back through the twisting mountain trail Bud had spoken of a few days before.
Lynch's was the directing spirit, of course; for none of the others would dare act save under his orders. But what was his object? What could he possibly hope to gain by such a thing? Buck could understand a man allowing rustlers to loot a ranch, if the same individual were in with them secretly and shared the plunder. But there was no profit in this for anyone—only an infinite amount of trouble and worry and extra work for them all, to say nothing of great financial loss to—Mary Thorne.
When Stratton had secured his rope and rode back to the Shoe-Bar pasture, his face was thoughtful. He was thinking of those excellent offers for the outfit Miss Thorne had lately spoken of, which Lynch was so anxious for her to accept. Could the foreman's plotting be for the purpose of forcing her to sell? From something she had let fall, Buck guessed that she was more or less dependent on the income from the ranch, and if this failed she might no longer be able to hold the property.
But even supposing this was true, it all still failed to make sense. The land itself was good enough, as Stratton knew from his former careful inspections, but it would be of little use for any purpose save ranching; and since the value of a cattle-ranch consists largely in the cattle themselves, it followed logically that by reducing the number, by theft, by disease, or any other means, the value would be very much less to a prospective purchaser.
Unable to make head or tail of the problem, Buck finally gave it up for the time being. He put back the fence with care and then headed straight for the ranch. There was no time left for the desired inspection of the north pasture. To undertake it now would mean a much longer delay than he could plausibly explain, and he was particularly anxious to avoid the need of any explanation which might arouse suspicion that the criminal action of the two men had been overseen.
"If they guessed, they'd be likely to try it again," he thought, "and another time they might succeed."
Stratton managed his route so that for the last two miles it took exactly the course he would have followed in returning directly from Las Vegas camp. His plan was further favored by the discovery that none of the men save Bud were anywhere about the ranch-house.
"Gone off to ride fence along with Flint an' Butch," Jessup informed him, when Buck located him in the wagon-shed. "Wonder why he's so awful interested in fences all of a sudden," he went on thoughtfully. "They've been let go all over the ranch till they're plumb fallin' to pieces."
"You've got me," shrugged Stratton. He had been cogitating whether or not to confide in Bud, and finally decided in the negative. It would do no particular good, and the youngster might impulsively let out something to the others. "Why didn't they take you along, too?"
"I sure wish they had," Bud answered shortly. "Then I wouldn't of had to be lookin' at that all afternoon."
He straightened from the wagon-body he was tinkering and waved a wrench toward the window behind Stratton. Turning quickly, the latter saw that it looked out on the rear of the ranch-house, where there were a few stunted trees and a not altogether successful attempt at a small flower-garden. On a rough, rustic bench under one of the trees sat young Manning and Mary Thorne, in earnest conversation.
"Sickening, ain't it?" commented Bud, taking encouragement from Stratton's involuntary frown. "I been expectin' 'em to hold hands any minute."
Buck laughed, mainly because he was annoyed with himself for feeling any emotion whatever. "You don't seem to like Mr. Alfred Manning," he remarked.
"Who would?" snorted Jessup. "He sure gets my goat, with them dude clothes, an' that misplaced piece of eyebrow on his lip, an' his superior airs. I wouldn't of thought Miss Mary was the kind to—"
"Where's—er—Miss Manning?" broke in Buck, reluctant to continue the discussion.
"Gone in with Mrs. Archer," Bud explained, "They was both out there a while ago, but I reckon they got tired hangin' around."