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Buck Finds Out Something








From: Shoe Bar Stratton

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.





Next: Danger

Previous: Revelations



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