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From: Shoe Bar Stratton

Motionless in his saddle, save for an occasional restless stamp of his
horse, Bud Jessup waited patiently in front of the adobe shack at Las
Vegas camp. His face was serious and thoughtful, and his glance was fixed
on the open door through which came the broken, indistinguishable murmur
of Buck Stratton's voice. Once, thinking he heard an unusual sound, the
youngster turned his head alertly and stared westward through the shadows.
But a moment later his eyes flashed back to that narrow, black oblong, and
he resumed his uneasy pondering as to what Buck might possibly be finding

Suddenly he gave a start as Stratton's voice, harsh, startled, came to him

"Mary! Mary! Why don't you answer? What's happened?"

The words were punctuated by a continuous rattle, and ended abruptly with
the clatter of metal against metal.

"Hell!" rasped Buck, in a hoarse, furious voice with an undercurrent of
keen apprehension that made Bud's nerves tingle. "The wire's been cut!"

An instant later he appeared, running. Snatching the reins, he gained the
saddle in a single bound, jerked his horse around, and was off across the

"Come on!" he shouted back over one shoulder. "There's trouble at the

Bud dug spurs into his cayuse and followed, but it was some minutes before
he managed to catch up with his friend.

"What is it?" he cried anxiously. "What's wrong? Have the Mannings--"

"They've gone, as I thought," snapped Stratton. "The two women are alone.
But that isn't the worst." A sudden spasm of uncontrolled fury rose in his
throat and choked him momentarily. "There's some one hidden in the loft
over the harness-room," he managed to finish hoarsely.

Bud stared at him in dismay. "Who the devil--"

"I don't know. She just got a glimpse of a--a face in the window while she
was closing up the kitchen."

"Do you suppose it's--Tex?"

"I don't know," retorted Buck through his clenched teeth. "What difference
does it make, anyhow? Some one hid there for a--a purpose. By God! What
fools we were not to make a search!"

"It seemed so darn sure they'd all beat it," faltered Bud. "Besides, I
don't guess any of us would of thought to look in that loft."

"Maybe not. It doesn't matter. We didn't." Stratton's voice was brittle.
"But if anything happens--"

"Have they locked up the whole house?" Jessup asked as Stratton paused.

"Yes, but what good'll that do with two able-bodied men set on getting in?
There isn't a door or shutter that wouldn't--"

"Two!" gasped Bud. "You didn't say--"

"Didn't I? It was just at the end. She was telling me about seeing the
face and locking up the house. Then all at once she broke off." Buck's
tone was calmer now, but it was the hard-won calm of determined will, and
every now and then there quivered through it a faint, momentary note that
told eloquently of the mingled dread and fury that were tearing his nerves
to pieces. "I asked what was the matter and she said to wait a minute. It
seemed like she stopped to listen for something. Then all of a sudden she
cried out that some one was riding up."

"It--it might not have been any of the gang," murmured Bud, voicing a hope
he did not feel.

"Who else would be likely to come at this time of night?" demanded
Stratton. "Lynch is on the outs with everybody around Perilla. They don't
go near the ranch unless they have to. It couldn't have been one of
Hardenberg's men; he's not expecting any one."

"Did--did she say anything else?" asked Jessup, after a brief pause.

Buck hesitated. "Only that she--was afraid, and wanted us to--come
quickly. Then the wire went dead as if it had been cut."

Silence fell, broken only by the thud of hoofs and the heavy breathing of
the two horses. Bud's slim, lithe figure had slumped a little in the
saddle, and his eyes were fixed unseeingly on the wide, flat sweep of
prairie unfolding before them, dim and mysterious under the brilliant

In his mind anxiety, rage, and apprehension contended with a dull, dead
hopelessness which lay upon his heart like lead. For something in Buck's
tone made him realize in a flash a situation which, strangely, he had
never even suspected. He wondered dully why he hadn't ever thought of it
before; perhaps because Buck was a new-comer who had seemed to see so
little of Mary Thorne. Probably, also, the very friendly manner of Stella
Manning had something to do with Jessup's blindness. But his eyes were
opened now, thoroughly and effectually, and for a space, how long or short
he never knew, he fought out his silent battle.

It ended in a victory. Down in his heart he knew that he had never really
had any hope of winning Mary Thorne himself. He had cherished
aspirations, of course, and dreamed wonderful dreams; but when it came
down to hard actualities, romance did not blind him to the fact that she
looked on him merely as a friend and nothing more. Indeed, though they
were virtually of the same age, he had been aware at times of an oddly
maternal note in her attitude toward him which was discouraging. Still, it
was not easy definitely to relinquish all hope and bring himself to write
"finis" to the end of the chapter. Indeed, he did not reach that state of
mind until, glancing sidewise at his friend, there came to him a sudden,
faintly bitter realization of the wide contrast between them, and of how
much more Buck had to offer than himself.

Stratton's erect, broad shoulders, the lean length of him, the way he held
his head, gave Jessup a curious, unexpected impression of strength and
ability and power. Buck's eyes were set straight ahead and his clean-cut
profile, clearly visible in the luminous starlight, had a look of
sensitiveness and refinement, despite the strength of his jaw and chin and
the somberness of his eyes. Bud turned away with a little sigh.

"I never had no chance at all," he thought. "Someway he don't look like a
cow-puncher, nor talk quite like one. I wonder why?"

Half a mile further on Buck suddenly broke the prolonged silence.

"I've been thinking it over," he said briefly. "The man on the horse was
probably Lynch. He could easily have started off with the rest and then
made a circuit around below the ranch-house. If he picked his ground, we'd
never notice where he left the others, especially as we weren't looking
for anything of the sort."

"Who do you s'pose hid over the harness-room?"

"It might have been Slim, or Kreeger, or even Pedro. The whole thing was
certainly a put-up job--damn them!" His voice shook with sudden passion.
"Well, we'll soon know," he finished, and his mouth clamped shut.

Already the row of cottonwoods that lined the creek was faintly visible
ahead, a low, vague mass, darker a little than the background of
blue-black sky. Both spurred their jaded horses and a moment or two later
pulled up with a jerk at the gate. Before his mount had come to a
standstill, Bud was out of his saddle fumbling with the catch. When he
swung it open, Stratton dashed through, swiftly crossed the shallow creek,
and galloped up the long, easy slope beyond.

A chill struck him as the ranch-house loomed up, ominously black and
desolate as any long-deserted dwelling. He had forgotten for an instant
the heavy, wooden shutters, and when, with teeth clenched and heart
thudding in his throat, he reached the veranda corner, the sight of that
yellow glow streaming from the open door gave him a momentary shock of
supreme relief.

An instant later he saw the shattered door, and the color left his face.
In two strides he crossed the porch and, with fingers tightening about the
butt of his Colt, he stared searchingly around the big, brightly-lighted,
strangely empty-looking room.

It held but a single occupant. Huddled in a chair on the further side of
the long table was Mrs. Archer. Both hands rested on the polished oak, and
clutched in her small, wrinkled hands was a heavy, cumbrous revolver,
pointed directly at the door. Her white, strained face, stamped with an
expression of hopeless tragedy, looked ten years older than when Buck had
last seen it. As she recognized him she dropped the gun and tottered to
her feet.

"Oh!" she cried, in a sharp, wailing voice. "You! You!"

In a moment Buck had her in his arms, holding her tight as one holds a
hurt or frightened child. Mechanically he soothed her as she clung to him,
that amazing self-control, which had upheld her for so long, snapping like
a taut rope when the strain becomes too great. But all the while his
eyes--wide, smoldering eyes, filled with a mingling of pity, of dread
questioning and furious passion--swept the room searchingly.

Over the little lady's bowed gray head his glance took in swiftly a score
of details--the dead fire, the dangling receiver of the useless
telephone, a little pearl-handled revolver lying in a far corner as if it
had been flung there, an upset chair. Suddenly his gaze halted at the edge
of the shattered door and a faint tremor shook his big body. A comb lay on
the floor there--a single comb of tortoise-shell made for a woman's hair.
But it was a comb he knew well. And as his eyes met Bud's, staring from
the doorway at the strange scene, they were the eyes of a man tortured.

Next: Buck Rides

Previous: Lynch Scores

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