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Nerve








From: Shoe Bar Stratton

With a deep sigh, Buck lifted his face from the water and regarded her
gratefully.

"That just about saved my life," he murmured.

Mary Thorne carefully set down the improvised water-bucket, its contents
much depleted, and taking out her handkerchief, soaked it thoroughly.

"I'm awfully stupid about first aid," she said. "But your head must be
badly cut, and--"

"Don't," he protested, as the moist bit of cambric touched his hair.
"You'll spoil it."

"As if that mattered!" she retorted. "Just rest your head on your arms;
it'll be easier."

With deft, gentle touches, she cleaned away the blood and grime, parting
his thick hair now and then with delicate care. Her hands were steady now,
and having steeled herself for anything, the sight of a jagged,
ugly-looking cut on his scalp did not make her flinch. She even bent
forward a little to examine it more closely, and saw that a ridge of
clotted blood had temporarily stopped its oozing.

"I think I'd better let it alone," she said aloud. "I might start it
bleeding again. How--how did it happen?"

Buck raised his head and regarded her with a slow, thoughtful stare.

"I fell off the cliff back there," he replied at length.

Her eyes widened. "You--fell off the cliff!" she gasped. "It's a wonder--
But is this the only place you're hurt?"

His lips twisted in a grim smile. "Oh, no! I've got a sprained ankle and
what feels like a broken rib, though it may be only bruises. But as you're
thinking, I'm darned lucky to get off alive. I must have struck a ledge or
something part way down, but how I managed from there I haven't the least
idea."

Hands clenched together in her lap, she stared at him in dismay.

"I thought perhaps you might be strong enough in a little while to ride
back with me to the ranch. I--I could help you mount, and we could go very
slowly. But of course that's impossible. I'd better start at once and
bring back some of the men."

She made a move to rise, but he stopped her with a quick, imperative
gesture. "No, you mustn't," he said firmly. "That won't do at all. I can't
go to the ranch." He paused, his forehead wrinkled thoughtfully. "You may
not have guessed it, but Lynch and I don't pull together at all," he
finished, with a whimsical intonation.

"But surely that wouldn't make any difference--now!" she protested.

"Only the difference that he'd have me just where he wanted me," he
retorted. He was regarding her with a steady, questioning stare, and
presently he gave a little sigh. "I'll have to tell you something I didn't
mean to," he said. "In my opinion Tex Lynch is pretty much of a scoundrel.
He knows I know it, and there isn't anything he wouldn't do to shut my
mouth--for good."

To his amazement, instead of showing the indignation he expected, the girl
merely stared at him in surprise.

"What!" she cried. "You believe that, too?"

"I'm sure of it. But I thought you trusted--"

"I don't any longer." She was surprised at the immensity of the relief
that surged over her at this chance to unburden her soul of the load of
perplexity and trouble which harassed her. "For a long time I
haven't--There've been a number of things. I still haven't an idea of what
it's all about, but--"

"I'm mighty glad you feel that way," Buck said, as she paused. "I'm not
quite sure myself just what he's up to, but I believe I'm on the right
trail." Very briefly he told her of the steps he had taken since leaving
the Shoe-Bar. "You see how impossible it would be to trust myself in his
power again," he concluded.

For a moment or two Mary Thorne sat silent, regarding him with a curious
expression.

"So that was the reason," she murmured at length.

His eyes questioned her mutely, and a slow flush crept into her face.

"The reason you--you couldn't say you had no--special object in being on
the Shoe-Bar," she explained haltingly. "I'm--sorry I didn't understand."

"I couldn't very well tell you without running the risk of Lynch's finding
out. As it happened, I was trying my best to think up a reasonable excuse
for leaving the outfit to do some investigating from this end, so you
really did me a good turn."

"Investigating what? Haven't you any idea what he's up to?"

Buck hesitated. "A very little, but it's too indefinite to put into words
just yet. I've a feeling I'll get at the bottom of it soon, though, and
then I'll tell you. In the meantime, when you go back, don't breathe a
word of having seen me, and on no account let any one persuade you
to--sell the outfit."

She stared at him with crinkled brows. "But what are you going to do now?"
she asked suddenly, her mind flashing back to the present difficulty.

He dragged himself into a sitting posture. He was evidently feeling
stronger and looked much more like himself.

"Try and get back to that camp of mine I told you of," he explained. "I
reckon I'll have to lay up there a while, but there's food a-plenty, and a
good spring, so--"

"But I don't believe you can even stand," she protested. "And if your ribs
are broken--"

"Likely it's only one and I can strap that good and tight with a piece of
my shirt or something. Then if you could catch Pete and bring him over
here, I'll manage to climb into the saddle some way. It's only three or
four miles, and the going's not so very bad."

She made no further protest, but her lips straightened firmly and there
was a look of decision in her girlish face as she set about helping him
with his preparations.

It was she who tore a broad band from his flannel shirt, roughly fringed
the ends with Buck's knife and tied it so tightly about his body that he
had hard work to keep from wincing. She insisted on bandaging his head,
and while he rested in the shade went back into the gulch to look for his
hat and the Colt that had fallen from his holster.

She finally found them both under a narrow ledge that thrust out a dozen
feet below the edge of the trail. A stunted bush, rooted deep in some
hidden crevice, grew up before it, and, staring upward at it, the girl
guessed that to this little bush alone Buck owed his life. He had been
able to give her no further details of his descent, but she saw that it
would be possible for a man to crawl along the narrow ledge to where
another crossed it at a descending angle, and thence gain the bottom of
the gulch.

"I wonder how he ever came to fall," she murmured, remembering how wide
the trail was at the summit.

Returning, however, she asked no questions. In the face of what lay before
her, the matter seemed trivial and unimportant. She caught the Rocking-R
horse without much trouble and led him back to a broad, flat boulder on
which Buck had managed to crawl. Obliged to hold the animal, whose
slightest movement might prove disastrous, she could give no further aid,
but was forced to stand helpless, watching with troubled, sympathetic eyes
the man's painful struggles to gain the saddle. When at last he succeeded
and slumped there, mouth twisted and face bathed in perspiration, her
knees were shaking and she felt limp and nerveless.

"We'll stop at the spring first for more water," she said, pulling herself
together with an effort.

Too exhausted for speech, Buck merely nodded, and the girl, gathering up
Freckles's bridle in her other hand, led the two horses slowly toward the
trail. At the spring Buck drank deeply of the water she handed him, and
seemed much refreshed.

"That's good," he murmured, with an effort to straighten his bent body.
"Well, I reckon I'd better be starting. I--I can't thank you enough for
all you've done, Miss--Thorne. It was mighty plucky--"

"You mustn't waste your strength talking," she interrupted quietly. "Just
tell me which way to go, and we'll start."

"We?" he repeated sharply. "But you're not going."

"Of course I am. Did you think for a moment I'd let you take that ride
alone?" She smiled faintly with a brave attempt at lightness. "You'd be
falling off and breaking another rib. Please don't make difficulties. I'm
going with you, and that's an end of it."

Perhaps the firmness of her manner made Buck realize the futility of
further protest, or possibly he was in no condition to argue. At all
events he gave in, and when the girl swung herself into the saddle, the
slow journey began.

To Mary Thorne the memory of it remained ever afterward in her mind a
chaotic medley of strange emotions and impressions, vague yet vivid. At
first, where the width of the trail permitted it, she rode beside him,
making an effort to talk casually and lightly, yet not too constantly, but
continually keeping a watchful eye on the drooping figure at her right,
whose hands presently sought and gripped the saddle-horn.

When they left the trail for rougher ground, she dismounted in spite of
Buck's protest, and walked beside him, and it was well she did. Once when
the horse slipped or stumbled on a loose stone and the man's body swayed
perilously in the saddle, she put up both hands swiftly and held him
there.

Before they had gone a mile her boots began to hurt her, but the pain was
so trifling in comparison with what Buck must be suffering that she
scarcely noticed it. He was putting up a brave front, but there were signs
that were difficult to conceal, and toward the end of that toilsome
journey it was evident that he could not possibly have kept his seat much
longer. Indeed, when they had ridden the short length of the little canyon
and stopped before the overhanging shelf of rocks, he toppled suddenly
sidewise, and only the girl's frail body prevented him from crashing
roughly to the ground.

She brought him water from the spring, and searching through his
belongings found a flask of brandy and forced some between his teeth. When
he had recovered from his momentary faintness, she managed somehow to get
him over to the blankets spread beneath the ledge. Then she built a fire
and set some coffee on it to boil, unsaddled Pete, fed and watered the
three horses, finally returning with a cup of steaming liquid to where
Buck lay exhausted with closed eyes.

His face was drawn and haggard, and his lashes, long and soft and thick,
lay against a skin drained of every particle of color. A sudden choking
sob rose to the girl's lips, but she managed to force it back, and when
the man's lids slowly lifted, she smiled tremulously.

"Here's some coffee," she said, kneeling down and holding the rim of the
cup to his lips.

Buck drank obediently in slow gulps.

"You're all nerve," he murmured when the cup was empty. He lay silent for
a few moments. "Don't you think you'd better be starting back?" he asked
at length.

"How can I go and leave you like this?" she protested. "You're so weak.
You might get fever. Anything might happen."

"But you certainly can't stay," he retorted with unexpected decision. "Let
alone a whole lot of other reasons," he went on, watching her mutinous
face, "if you did, Tex would have a posse out hunting for you in no time.
Sooner or later they'd find this place, and you know what that would mean.
I'm feeling better every minute--honest. By to-morrow I'll be able to
hobble around and look after myself fine."

His logic was irresistible, and for a time she sat silent, torn by a
conflict of emotions. Then all at once her face brightened.

"I've got it!" she cried. "Why can't I send Bud out? He's to be trusted
surely?"

Buck's eyes lit up in a way that brought to the girl a curious, jealous
pang.

"Bud? Sure, he's all right. That's one fine idea. You'll have to be
careful Lynch doesn't know where he's going, though."

"I'll manage that all right."

Reluctant to go, yet feeling that she ought to make haste, the girl got
out some crackers and placed them, with a pail of water, within his reach.
Then she listened while Stratton told her of a short cut out to the middle
pasture.

"I understand," she nodded. "You'll promise to be careful, won't you? Bud
ought to be here in a couple of hours, though he may be delayed a little
longer. You'd better not try and move until he comes."

"I won't," Buck answered. "I'm too darn comfortable."

"Well, good-by, then," she said briefly, moving over to her horse.

"Good-by; and--thank you a thousand times!"

She made no answer, but a faint, enigmatic smile quivered for an instant
on her lips as she turned the stirrup and swung herself into the saddle.
When Freckles had reached a little distance, she glanced back and waved
her hand. From where he lay Stratton could see almost the whole length of
the little canyon, and as long as the slight figure on the big gray horse
remained in sight, his eyes followed her intently, a sort of wistful
hunger in their depths. But when she disappeared, the man's head fell back
limply on the blankets and his eyes closed.





Next: Where The Wheel Tracks Led

Previous: What Mary Thorne Found



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