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An Hour Too Late








From: Shoe Bar Stratton

"I had an idea that's who it was when you described him," said Sheriff
Hardenberg, to whom Stratton returned at once with the news. "There's only
one 'Paul' around here who fits the bill, and he sure does to
perfection."

"Who is he?" asked Buck curiously.

Hardenberg's eyes narrowed. "The slickest piece of goods in the State of
Arizona, I'd say. He's been mixed up in more crooked deals than any man I
ever ran up against; but he's so gol-darn cute nobody's ever been able to
catch him with the goods."

"He sure don't look it," commented Stratton. "With that baby stare of his
and--"

"I know," interrupted the sheriff. "That's part of his stock in trade;
it's pulled many a sucker. He's got a mighty convincing way about him,
believe me! He can tell the damnedest bunch of lies, looking you straight
in the eyes all the time, till you'd swear everything he said was gospel.
But his big specialty is egging somebody else on to do the dirty work, and
when the dangerous part is over, he steps in and hogs most of the
profits. He's organized fake mining companies and stock companies. Last
year he got up a big cattle-raising combine, persuaded three or four men
over in the next county to pool their outfits, and issued stock for about
three times what it was worth. It busted up, of course, but not before
he'd sold a big block to some Eastern suckers and got away with the
proceeds."

"I'd think that would have been enough to land him."

"You would, wouldn't you?" returned Hardenberg with a shrug. "But the
law's a tricky business sometimes, and he managed to shave the line just
close enough to be safe. Well, it looks as if we had a chance of bagging
him at last," he added in a tone of heartfelt satisfaction.

"Going to arrest him before we start for the Shoe-Bar?" asked Buck.

Hardenberg laughed shortly. "Hell, no! You don't know Paul Draper if you
think he could be convicted on your statement, unsupported by witnesses.
Believe me, by this time he's doped out an iron-clad alibi, or something,
and we wouldn't have a chance. But if one of the Shoe-Bar gang should turn
State's evidence, that's another matter."

"Aren't you afraid he may beat it if you let him go that long?"

"I'll see to that. One of my men will start for Amarillo right away and
keep him in sight till we come back. By the way, we've got Jose Maria, and
that guy you fired through the window. Caught the old fox sneaking back of
those shacks along the north road."

"Going to warn Lynch, I reckon," suggested Buck crisply.

"That's what I thought, so I strung some men along at likely points to
pick up any more that may try the same trick. I haven't got anything out
of Jose yet, but a little thumbscrewing may produce results. I'll tell you
about it to-night."

It was late when he finally appeared at the hotel lobby, and he had no
very favorable news to impart. Jose Maria, it appeared, had stuck to the
story of being engaged by an alleged Federal official to apprehend two
outlaws, whose descriptions fitted Buck and his companion perfectly. He
admitted having engaged the other Mexicans to help him, but swore that he
had never intended any harm to the two men. Their instructions were merely
to capture and hold them until the arrival of the supposed official.

"All rot, of course," Hardenberg stated in conclusion. "But it hangs
together a bit too well for any greaser to have thought out by himself. I
reckon that cow-man who got you into the joint was responsible for the
yarn and told Jose to give it out in case things should go wrong. Well, I
won't waste any more time on the bunch. You two be around about seven
to-morrow. I'd like to start sooner, but some of the boys have to come in
from a distance."

Buck and Jessup were there ahead of time, but it was more than an hour
later when the posse left Perilla. There were about twenty men in all, for
Hardenberg planned to send a portion of them across country to guard the
outlet of that secret trail through the mountains of which Buck had told
him. If Lynch and his men had any warning of their coming, or happened to
be out on the range, the chances were all in favor of their making for the
mountains and trying to escape by the cattle rustlers' route.

During the ride the thought of Mary Thorne was often in Buck's mind. He
did not fear for her personal safety. Alf Manning was there, and though
Stratton did not like him he had never doubted the fellow's courage or his
ability to act as a protector to the three women, should the need arise.
But that such a need would arise seemed most unlikely, for Lynch had
nothing to gain by treating the girl save with respect and consideration.
He had no compunction about robbing her, but she could scarcely be
expected to enter further into his schemes and calculations, especially at
a time when his whole mind must be a turmoil of doubt and fear and
uncertainty as to the future.

Nevertheless, Buck wished more than once that he had been able to get in
touch with her since that memorable afternoon when he had watched her
ride out of sight down the little canyon, if only to prepare her for what
was going on. It must have been very hard for her to go about day after
day, knowing nothing, suspecting a thousand things, fretting, worrying,
with not a soul to confide in, yet forced continually to present an
untroubled countenance to those about her.

"Thank the Lord it'll soon be over and she'll be relieved," he thought,
when they finally came in sight of the ranch-house.

As the posse swept through the lower gate and up the slope, Buck's eyes
searched the building keenly. Not a soul was in sight, either there or
about the corrals. He had seen it thus apparently deserted more than once
before, and told himself now that his uneasiness was absurd. But when the
girl suddenly appeared on the veranda and stood staring at the approaching
horsemen, Buck's heart leaped with a sudden spasm of intense relief, and
unconsciously he spurred his horse ahead of the others.

As he swung himself out of the saddle, she came swiftly forward, her face
glowing with surprise and pleasure.

"Oh, I'm so glad you've come," she said in a low, quick voice, clasping
his outstretched hand. "We've been worrying--You--you're quite all right
now?"

"Fine and dandy," Buck assured her. "Thanks to you, and Bud, I'm perfectly
whole again."

She greeted Jessup, who came up smiling, and then Sheriff Hardenberg was
presented.

"Very glad to meet you, Miss Thorne," he said. There was a faint twinkle
in his eyes as he glanced toward Stratton for an instant, his belief
confirmed as to the principal reason for Buck's desire to keep the secret
of the Shoe-Bar ownership. Then he became businesslike.

"Where's Lynch and the rest of 'em?" he asked briskly.

The girl's face grew suddenly serious. "I don't know," she answered
quickly. "They were all working about the barns until a strange cow-boy
rode in about two hours ago. I saw him pass the window but didn't think
much about it. About half an hour or so later I went out to give some
orders to Pedro; he's the cook, you know. But he wasn't there and neither
was Maria, and when I went out to the barns the men were gone. Of course
something urgent might easily have taken them out on the range, but
neither Maria nor Pedro has been off the place for weeks. Besides, when I
peeped into the bunk-house everything was tossed about in confusion, as
if--Well, I was afraid something--had happened."

"Something has," stated the sheriff grimly. "The truth is, that scoundrel
Lynch has got to the end of his rope, and we're after him."

The girl's face paled, then flushed deeply. "What--what is it?" she asked
in a low, troubled voice. "What has he--"

"It's rather a long story, and I'm afraid there isn't time to stop and
tell you now," explained the sheriff as she paused. "We've got to make
every minute count. You have no idea which way they went?"

"It must have been west or south," the girl answered promptly. "If they'd
gone any other way I should have seen them."

"Fine," said Hardenberg, wheeling his horse. "Don't you worry about
anything," he added over one shoulder. "We'll be back in a jiffy."

As he and his men spurred down the slope toward the entrance to middle
pasture, the girl's eyes sought Stratton's.

"You--"

"I must." He quickly answered her unspoken question. "They'll need us to
show them the way. We'll be back, though, as soon as we possibly can.
You're not nervous, are you? You're perfectly safe, of course, with--"

"Of course," she assured him promptly. "Lynch has gone. There'll be
nothing for us to worry about here. Good-by, then, for a while. And do be
careful--both of you."

Her face was a trifle pale, and about her mouth and chin were traced a few
faint lines which hinted vaguely of forced composure. As Buck hastened to
overtake the posse, he recalled her expression, and wondered with a
troubled qualm whether she wasn't really more nervous than she let herself
appear. Perhaps she might have been more comfortable if he or Bud had
remained at the ranch-house.

"Probably it's all my imagination," he decided at length. "With Manning
there, she's perfectly safe, especially as we've got the whole gang on the
run. The ranch-house would be the very last place they'd head for."





Next: Forebodings

Previous: Sheriff Hardenberg Intervenes



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