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From: Shoe Bar Stratton

Almost at once they struck a fresh trail, made by a number of horsemen
riding in a bunch, which led diagonally across middle pasture. It was easy
to follow, and Hardenberg pushed his men hard to make up for delays which
were likely to come later on. For a time Buck rode beside the sheriff,
discussing their plans and explaining the lay of the land. Then he fell
back a little to chat with Jessup.

"I'm sure glad of one thing," Bud said emphatically, after a few desultory
remarks. "Miss Mary won't be bothered no more now with that son-of-a-gun
hangin' around an' makin' eyes."

Stratton turned on him suddenly. "Who the devil do you mean?" he demanded

"Why, Tex, of course," shrugged Jessup. "He used to put in considerable
time soft-soapin' around her. A hell of a nerve, I'll say, makin' up to
such as her."

Buck scowled. "I never saw anything like that," he said brusquely, "except
maybe once," he added. With a sudden recollection of that afternoon they
moved the herd out of south pasture.

"Likely not," returned Bud. "He wasn't so bad till after yuh went. I got
the notion he took to courtin' her, yuh might say, as a kind of last hope.
If he could figger on gettin' her to marry him, he'd have the ranch an'
everythin' on it without no more trouble at all. You'd think even a
scoundrel like him would see she wouldn't look at him."

"Did he-- Was he--"

"Oh, no! Nothin' raw a-tall," returned Bud, divining the thought in
Stratton's mind. "He just hung around the ranch-house a lot, an' was awful
sweet, an' used them black eyes of his consid'able. Sorta preparing the
way, I reckon. But he didn't get far." He chuckled reminiscently. "I'll
tell the world, she didn't waste no time sendin' him about his business."

For a time Buck rode on in frowning silence. The very thought enraged him
and added deeply to the score that was piling up so rapidly against the

Presently Bud's voice broke in upon his savage reverie.

"Funny we didn't see nothin' of the Mannings back there," he commented.
"The lady couldn't of known yuh was around." He glanced slyly at Buck.
"Besides," he added, seeing that his friend's expression did not lighten,
"with somethin' like this doin', you'd think his lordship would want to
strut around in them baggy pants an' yellow boots, an' air his views on
how to go about to catch the gang."

Stratton turned his head abruptly. "But they must be there!" he said
sharply. "They surely can't have gone away."

"There wasn't no talk of it when I left," shrugged Bud. "Still, an' all,
me an' his nibs wasn't on exactly confidential terms, an' he might have
forgot to tell me about his plans. Yuh got to remember, too, I've been
gone over a week."

A worried wrinkle dodged into Buck's forehead. All along he had taken the
presence of the Mannings so entirely for granted that the possibility of
their having left the ranch never once occurred to him. But now, in a
flash, he realized that by this time, for all he knew, they might be back
in Chicago. As Bud said, it certainly seemed odd that neither of them had
appeared when the posse rode up to the ranch-house. What a fool he had
been not to make sure about it. Why hadn't he asked the question

"But I did mention it while we were talking," he thought, trying to
reconstruct that brief interview with Mary Thorne. "Hang it all! No, I
didn't. I was going to, but she interrupted. But she must have known what
I referred to."

Suddenly there came back the vivid recollection of the girl's face as she
said good-by. Outwardly cheerful and composed, that faint pallor and the
few lines of strain etched about her mouth and chin struck him now with a
tremendous significance. She had known what was in his mind, but purposely
refrained from revealing the truth for fear of becoming a drag and hamper
to him. She was game through and through.

The realization brought a wave of tenderness surging over the man,
followed swiftly by a deepening sense of trouble and uneasiness.

"I don't like it at all, Bud," he burst out abruptly. "I wish to thunder
we'd found out for sure about those Mannings. If they have gone, one of us
at least ought to have stayed."

"Well, of course I'm only guessin'. Quite likely they're there yet, only
it just seemed funny not to see them. But even if she is left alone with
only Mrs. Archer, yuh ain't worryin' about anythin' really happenin' to
her, are yuh? It'll be darn lonesome, an' all that, but Lynch an' the
whole gang has beat it--"

"How do we know where they have gone?" cut in Stratton curtly. "They had a
good hour's start, and more. It'll be getting dusk pretty quick. What's to
prevent one or more of 'em circling back by the southeast? Lynch is
capable of anything, and after what you've just told me--"

Bud's eyes widened. "But what would he have to gain--"

"Gain?" repeated Buck irritably. "How the devil do I know what's in that
polecat's mind? He's quite capable of hiding behind a woman's skirts. He's
even capable of carrying her off and trying to force her to marry him, or
something like that. I've half a mind to--"

He broke off, frowning. Bud, now thoroughly alarmed, stared at him
uneasily. "You'd better let me go back," he said quickly. "They'll need
yuh more."

"I don't give a damn whether they need me or not," retorted Buck swiftly.
"I've got a better idea, though. We'll hit Las Vegas inside of ten
minutes. The 'phone's still working, isn't it?"

"It was the last I knew."

"I'll take a chance. There's been nothing to put it out of business. By
calling up we'll know how things stand a whole lot quicker. If she and
Mrs. Archer are alone, I'll chase back at once and you can show Hardenberg
the way into the mountains."

Though Bud's face showed no particular pleasure in the plan, he made no
comment, and they rode on in silence. Presently the sheriff turned and
called to Stratton. The trail was spreading out, he said, and growing more
and more difficult to follow in the waning light.

"I don't understand why they rode so far apart," he said, "unless it was
to make it hard for any one to track them. Looks to me, though, as if they
were heading straight for that cut into the mountains you told me about.
Is it much further off?"

"About a quarter of a mile below the little 'dobe shack we're coming to,"
Stratton answered. "The creek takes a sharp turn to the southeast, and
right at the bend you cross and ride straight west into a narrow draw that
doesn't look like it went anywhere. Further on it twists around and leads
into a short canyon that brings you through to a sort of valley lying
between the hills. After that everything's plain sailing. It's almost as
plain as a regular trail."

"Good," nodded Hardenberg. "Anything to mark the draw?"

Buck thought a minute. "As I remember, there's a low ridge on the north
side, and a big clump of mesquite on the right just before you leave the

"Well, you'll be with us to act as guide. I wish we'd had an hour's
earlier start, though. It won't be any cinch traveling through these
mountains in the dark. Still, at the worst, we can count on Dick Jordan's
bunch to nab them as they come out."

Buck nodded. "I'm not sure I can stick along with you much longer," he
added briefly. "But Jessup can show you the way quite as well. There seems
to be some doubt now about those people I spoke of being still at the

"Humph! That would mean that Miss Thorne would be there alone?"

"Yes, except for her aunt. I may be worrying unnecessarily, but with a
scoundrel like Lynch--"

"You never can tell," finished the sheriff as he hesitated. "That's true
enough. We mustn't take any chances. But how--"

"Telephone. There's a line from the ranch-house to Las Vegas camp just
ahead." Buck pointed where, through the gathering dusk, the outlines of
the adobe shack showed dimly. "If I find there's no one with her, I'll
ride back."

"Go to it," nodded the sheriff. "If you don't show up I'll understand. At
a pinch I reckon we could find the trail ourselves from your directions."

As Stratton pulled off to the right, he waved his hand and swept onward
with the posse. Buck reached the door and swung out of the saddle,
flinging the reins over Pete's head. Then he found that Bud had followed

"I'm goin' to wait an' hear what yuh find out," the youngster stated
resolutely. "I can catch up with 'em easy enough."

"All right."

Buck hastily entered the shack, which was almost pitch-dark. A faint
glint of metal came from the telephone, hanging beside one window; and as
he swiftly crossed the room and fumbled for the bell, there stirred within
him a sudden sense of apprehension that was almost dread.

Next: Creeping Shadows

Previous: An Hour Too Late

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