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A Change Of Base








From: Shoe Bar Stratton

Stratton staggered back against the wall and leaned there, panting. All
his strength had gone out in that last terrific blow, and for a space he
seemed incapable of movement. At length, conscious of a warm, moist
trickle on his chin, he raised one hand mechanically to his face and
brought it away, dabbled with bright crimson. For a moment or two he
regarded the stiff, crooked fingers and bruised knuckles in a dazed,
impersonal fashion as if the hand belonged to some one else. Then he
became aware that Bud was speaking.

"Sure," he mumbled, when the meaning of the reiterated question penetrated
to his consciousness. "I'm--all--right."

Then his head began to clear, and, slowly straightening his sagging
shoulders, he glanced down at the hulking figure sprawling motionless
amidst the debris of the wrecked table.

"Is--he--" he began slowly.

"He's out, that's all," stated Jessup crisply. "Golly, Buck! That was
some punch." He paused, regarding his friend eagerly. "What are yuh goin'
to do now?" he asked.

A tiny trickle of blood from Stratton's cut lip ran down his chin and
splashed on the front of his torn, disordered shirt.

"Wash, I reckon," he answered, with a twisted twitch of his stiff lips
that was meant to be a smile. "I sure need it bad."

"But I mean after that," explained Bud. "Don't yuh want me to saddle up
while you're gettin' ready? There ain't no point in hangin' around till he
comes to."

Buck took a step or two away from the wall and regarded the prostrate
Lynch briefly, his glance also taking in McCabe, who bent over him.

"I reckon not," he agreed briefly. "Likewise, if I don't get astride a
cayuse mighty soon, I won't be able to climb onto him at all. Go ahead and
saddle up, kid, and I'll be with you pronto. You'd better ride to town
with me and bring back the horse."

Bud nodded and, breaking the Colts one after another, pocketed the shells
and dropped the weapons into a near-by bunk.

"Yuh needn't bother to do that," commented McCabe sourly. "Nobody ain't
goin' to drill no holes in yuh; we're only too tickled to see yuh get out.
If you're wise, kid, you'll stay away, likewise. I wouldn't be in yore
shoes for no money when Tex comes around an' remembers what yuh done?"

"I reckon I can take care of m'self," retorted Jessup. "It ain't Tex's
game to be took up for no murder yet awhile."

Without further comment he gathered up most of Stratton's belongings and
departed for the corral. Buck took his hand-bag and, leaving the cabin,
limped slowly down to the creek. He was surprised to note that the
encounter seemed to have attracted no attention up at the ranch-house.
Then he realized that with the door and windows closed, what little noise
there had been might well have passed unnoticed, especially as the men
were at work back in the barns.

At the creek he washed the blood from his face and hands, changed his
shirt, put a strip of plaster on his cut lip, and decided that any further
repairs could wait until he reached Paloma.

When he arrived at the corral Bud had just finished saddling the second
horse, and they lost no time making fast Buck's belongings. The animals
were then led out, and Stratton was on the point of mounting when the
sound of light footsteps made him turn quickly to find Miss Manning almost
at his elbow.

"But you're not leaving now, without waiting to say good-by?" she
expostulated.

Buck's lips straightened grimly, with a grotesque twisted effect caused by
the plaster at the corner.

"After what's happened I hardly supposed anybody'd want any farewell
words," he commented with a touch of sarcasm.

Miss Manning stamped her shapely, well-shod foot petulantly. "Rubbish!"
she exclaimed. "You don't suppose I believe that nonsense, do you?"

"I reckon you're about the only one who doesn't, then."

"I'm not. Mrs. Archer agrees with me. She says you couldn't be a--a thief
if you tried. And down in her heart even Mary-- But whatever has happened
to your face?"

Stratton flushed faintly. "Oh, I just--cut myself against something," he
shrugged. "It's nothing serious."

"I'm glad of that," she commented, dimpling a little. "It certainly
doesn't add to your beauty."

She was bare-headed, and the slanting sunlight, caressing the crisp waves
of hair, revealed an unsuspected reddish glint amongst the dark tresses.
As he looked down into her clear, friendly eyes, Buck realized, and not
the first time, how very attractive she really was. If things had only
been different, if only the barrier of that hateful mental lapse of his
had not existed, he had a feeling that they might have been very good
friends indeed.

His lips had parted for a farewell word or two when suddenly he caught the
flutter of skirts over by the corner of the ranch-house. It was Mary
Thorne, and Buck wondered with an odd, unexpected little thrill, whether
by any chance she too might be coming to say good-by. Whatever may have
been her intention, however, it changed abruptly. Catching sight of the
group beside the corral fence, she stopped short, hesitated an instant,
and then, turning square about, disappeared in the direction she had come.
As he glanced back to Stella Manning, Buck's face was a little clouded.

"We'll have to be getting started, I reckon," he said briefly. "Thank you
very much for--for seeing me off."

"But where are you going?"

"Paloma for to-night; after that I'll be hunting another job."

The girl put out her hand and Stratton took it, hoping that she wouldn't
notice his raw, bruised knuckles. He might have spared himself the
momentary anxiety. She wasn't looking at his fingers.

"Well, it's good-by, then," she said, a note of regret underlying the
surface brightness of her tone. "But when you're settled you must send me
a line. We were such good pals aboard ship, and I haven't enough friends
to want to lose even one of them. Send a letter here to the ranch, and if
we're gone, Mary will forward it."

Buck promised, and swung himself stiffly into the saddle. As he and Bud
rode briskly down the slope, he turned and glanced back for an instant.
Miss Manning stood where they had left her, handkerchief fluttering from
her upraised hand, but Stratton scarcely saw her. His gaze swept the front
of the ranch-house, scrutinizing each gaping, empty window and the
deserted porch. Finally, with a faint sigh and a little shrug of his
shoulders, he mentally dismissed the past and fell to considering the
future.

There was a good deal yet to be talked over and decided, and when he had
briefly detailed to Bud the various happenings he was still ignorant of,
Buck went on to outline his plans.

"There are several things I want to look into, and to do it I've got to be
on the loose," he explained. "At the same time I don't want Lynch to get
the idea I'm snooping around. What sort of a fellow is this Tenny, over at
the Rocking-R?"

"He's white," returned Bud promptly. "No squarer ranch-boss around the
country. I'd of gone there instead of the Shoe-Bar, only they was full up.
What was yuh thinkin' of--bracin' him for a job?"

"Not exactly, though I'd like Lynch to think I'd been taken on there. Do
you suppose, if I put Tenny wise to what I was after, that he'd let me
have a cayuse and pack-horse, and stake me to enough grub to keep me a
week or two in the mountains back of the Shoe-Bar?"

"He might, especially when he knows you're buckin' Tex; he never was much
in love with Lynch." Jessup paused, eyeing his companion curiously. "Say,
Buck," he went on quickly, "What makes yuh so keen about this, anyhow? Yuh
ain't no deputy sheriff, or anythin' like that, are yuh?"

For a moment Stratton was taken aback by the unexpectedness of the
question. He had come to regard Jessup and himself so completely at one in
their desire to penetrate the mystery of Lynch's shady doings that it had
never occurred to him that his intense absorption in the situation might
strike Bud as peculiar. It was one thing to behave as Bud was doing,
especially as he frankly had the interest of Mary Thorne at heart, and
quite another to throw up a job and plan to carry on an unproductive
investigation from a theoretical desire to bring to justice a crooked
foreman whom he had never seen until a few weeks ago.

"Why, of course not," parried Buck. "What gave you that notion?"

"I dunno exactly. I s'pose mebbe it's the way you're plannin' to give yore
time to it without pay or nothin'. There won't be a darn cent in it for
yuh, even if yuh do land Tex in the pen."

"I know that," and Buck smiled; "but I'm a stubborn cuss when I get
started on anything. Besides, I love Tex Lynch well enough to want to see
him get every mite that's comin' to him. I've got a little money saved up,
and I'll get more fun spending it this way than any other I can think
of."

"There's somethin' in that," agreed Jessup. "Golly, Buck! I wisht I could
go along with yuh. I never was much on savin', but I could manage a couple
of weeks without a job."

Stratton hesitated. "I'd sure like it, kid," he answered. "It would be a
whole lot pleasanter for me, but I'm wondering if you wouldn't do more
good there on the Shoe-Bar. With nobody at all to cross him, there's no
tellin' what Lynch might try and pull off. Besides, it seems to me
somebody ought to be there to sort of look after Miss--" He broke off,
struck by a sudden possibility. "You don't suppose he'll get really nasty
about what you--"

"Hell!" broke in Bud sharply. "I wasn't thinking about that. He'll be
nasty, of course, but he can't go more than so far. I reckon you're right,
Buck. Miss Mary oughtn't to be left there by herself."

"Of course, there's Manning--"

Bud disposed of the aristocratic Alfred with a forceable epithet which
ought to have made his ears burn. "Besides, that bird ain't goin' to stay
forever, I hope," he added.

This settled, they passed on to other details, and by the time they
reached Paloma, everything had been threshed out and decided, including a
possible means of communication in case of emergency.

Ravenously hungry, they sought the ramshackle hotel at once, and though it
was long after the regular supper hour, they succeeded in getting a fair
meal cooked and served. Concluding that it would be pleasanter all around
to give Lynch as much time as possible to recover from his spleen, Bud
decided to defer his return to the ranch until early morning. So when they
had finished eating, they walked down to the store to arrange for hiring
one of Daggett's horses again. Here they were forced to spend half an hour
listening to old Pop's garrulous comments and the repeated "I told you
so," which greeted the news of Stratton's move before they could tear
themselves away and turn in.

They were up at dawn, ate a hurried breakfast, and then set out along the
trail. Where the Rocking-R track branched off they paused for a few casual
words of farewell, and then each went his way. A few hundred yards beyond,
Buck turned in his saddle just in time to see Jessup, leading Stratton's
old mount, ride briskly into a shallow draw and disappear.

He had a feeling that he was going to miss the youngster, with his
cheerful optimism and dependable ways; but he felt that at the most a few
weeks would see them together again. Fortunately for his peace of mind, he
had not the least suspicion of the circumstances which were to bring about
their next meeting.





Next: The Mysterious Motor-car

Previous: The Primeval Instinct



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