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Creeping Shadows








From: Shoe Bar Stratton

With her back against the veranda pillar, Mary Thorne watched the group of
mounted men canter down the slope, splash across the creek, and file
briskly through the gate leading to middle pasture. Perhaps it would be
more accurate to say that, for the most part, her glance followed one of
them, and when the erect, jaunty, broad-shouldered figure on the big roan
had disappeared, she gave a little sigh.

"He looks better--much better," she murmured.

Her eyes grew dreamy, and in her mind she saw again that little hidden
canyon with its overhanging ledge beneath which the man lay stretched out
on his blankets. Somehow, the anxiety and suspense, the heart-breaking
worry and weariness of that strange experience had faded utterly. There
remained only a very vivid recollection of the touch of her hand against
his damp forehead, the feeling of his crisp, dark hair as she pushed it
gently back, the look of those long, thick lashes lying so still against
his pallid face.

Not seldom she had wished those fleeting moments might have been
prolonged. Once or twice she was even a little jealous of Bud Jessup's
ministrations; just as, thinking of him now, she was jealous of his
constant nearness to Buck and the manner in which he seemed so intently to
share all the other's plans and projects, and even thoughts.

"Well, anyway," she said suddenly aloud, "I'm glad Stella's not here."

Then, realizing that she had spoken aloud, she blushed and looked hastily
around. No one was in sight, but a moment or two later Mrs. Archer
appeared on the veranda.

"I thought I heard voices a little while ago," she said, glancing around.
"Have the men come back?"

Mary turned to meet her. "No, dear. That was the--the sheriff and some of
his men."

"The sheriff!" An expression of anxiety came into Mrs. Archer's pretty,
faded face. "But what has happened? What--?"

"I'm not quite sure; they had no time to explain." The girl put an arm
reassuringly around the older woman's shoulder. "But they're after Tex and
the other hands. They've done something--"

"Ha!" In any other person the sound would have seemed suspiciously like a
crow of undisguised satisfaction. "Well, I'm thankful that at last
somebody's shown some common sense."

"Why, auntie!" Astonished, the girl held her off at arm's length and
stared into her face. "You don't mean to say you've suspected--?"

Mrs. Archer sniffed. "Suspected! Why, for weeks and weeks I've been
perfectly certain the creature was up to no good. You know I never trusted
him."

"Yes; but--"

"The last straw was his bringing that ridiculous charge against Buck
Green," Mrs. Archer interrupted with unexpected spirit. "That stamped him
for what he was; because a nicer, cleaner, better-mannered young man I've
seldom seen. He could no more have stolen cattle than--than I could."

A mental picture of her tiny, delicate, fragile-looking aunt engaged in
that strenuous and illicit operation brought a momentary smile to Mary
Thorne's lips. Then her face grew serious.

"But you know I didn't believe it--really," she protested. "I offered to
keep him on if he'd only assure me he wasn't here for any--any secret
reason. But he wouldn't, and at the time there seemed nothing to do but
let him go."

"I suppose he might have had some other private reason than stealing
cattle," commented Mrs. Archer.

"He had," returned Mary, suppressing a momentary sense of annoyance that
her aunt had shown the greater faith. "As nearly as I can make out, he was
here to shadow Tex. As a matter of fact he really wanted to leave the
ranch and work from a different direction, so it turned out all right in
the end. He thinks it was Tex himself who secretly instigated the
cattle-stealing."

"The villain!" ejaculated Mrs. Archer energetically. "But where
has--er--Buck been all this time? Where is he now?"

The girl smiled faintly. "He was here a little while ago. He and Bud are
both with the sheriff's posse. They believe the men are heading for the
mountains and have gone after them."

Mrs. Archer glanced sharply at her niece, noted a faint flush on the
girl's face, and pursed her lips.

"When are they coming back?" she asked, after a little pause.

Mary shrugged her shoulders. "Not until they catch them, I suppose."

"Which certainly won't be to-night. I'm rather surprised at Buck. It seems
to me that he ought to have stayed here to look after things, instead of
rushing off to chase outlaws."

"It wasn't his fault," defended Mary quickly. "He thought Alf and Stella
were here."

"Alf and Stella! Good gracious, child! How could he, when they left four
days ago?"

"He didn't know that. He took it for granted they were still here, and I
let him think so. They needed him to guide the posse, and I knew if I told
him, he'd insist on staying behind. After all, dear, there's nothing for
us to worry about. It'll be a bit lonesome to-night, but--"

"Worry! I'm not worrying--about myself." Mrs. Archer regarded her niece
with a curiously keen expression that seemed oddly incongruous in that
delicate fragile-looking face. "I'm not blind," she went on quickly. "I've
noticed what's been going on--the wretch! You're afraid of him, too, I can
see, and no wonder. I wish somebody had stayed--Still, we must make the
best of it. What are you going to do about the stock?"

"Feed them," said Mary laconically, quelling a little shiver that went
over her. "Let's go and do it now."

Together they walked around to the corral, where Mary forked down some hay
for the three horses, and filled the sunken water-barrel from the tank.
Already shadows were creeping up from the hollows, and the place seemed
very still and deserted.

In the kitchen the sense of silent emptiness was even greater, accustomed
as they were to the constant presence of Pedro and his wife. The two women
did not linger longer than was necessary to fill a tray with supper, which
they carried into the living-room. Here Mary closed the door, lit two
lamps, and touched a match to the wood piled up in the big fireplace.

"It'll make things more cheerful," she remarked with an attempt at
casualness which was not altogether successful. "I don't see why we
shouldn't heat some water here and make tea," she added with sudden
inspiration.

Mrs. Archer, who liked her cup of tea, made no objections, and Mary sprang
up and went back to the kitchen. Filling a saucepan from the pump, she got
the tea-caddy out of a cupboard, and then paused in the middle of the
room, staring out into the gathering dusk.

Neither doors nor windows in the ranch-house were ever locked, and, save
on really cold nights, they were rarely even closed. But now, of a sudden,
the girl felt she would be much more comfortable if everything were shut
up tight, and setting down the pan and caddy on the table, she went over
to the nearest window.

It looked out on the various barns and sheds clustered at the back of the
ranch-house. The harness-room occupied the ground floor of the nearest
shed, with a low, seldom-entered loft above, containing a single, narrow
window without glass or shutters.

As Mary approached the open kitchen window, herself invisible in the
shadows of the room, a slight sense of movement in that little square
under the eaves of the shed roof drew her glance swiftly upward. To her
horror she caught a momentary glimpse of a face framed in the narrow
opening. It vanished swiftly--far too swiftly to be recognized. But
recognition was not necessary. The mere knowledge that some one was hidden
in the loft--had probably been hidden there all along--turned the girl
cold and instantly awakened her worst fears.





Next: Lynch Scores

Previous: Forebodings



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