From: Shoe Bar Stratton
It was the Mexican woman, Maria. As Buck recognized her he rose quietly
and moved swiftly toward the door. But if he had hoped to catch her
unawares, he was disappointed. He had scarcely taken a step when, through
the telltale mirror, he saw her straighten like a flash and move back with
catlike swiftness toward the passage leading to the kitchen. When he
reached the living-room she stood there calm and casual, with quite the
air of one entering for the first time.
"Mees T'orne, she ask me see if Reek, he wan' somet'ing," she explained,
with a flash of her white teeth.
"He doesn't," returned Buck shortly, eyeing the woman intently. "If he
does, he'll ring the bell."
"Ver' good," she nodded. "I leave the door open to 'ear."
With a nod and another smile she departed, and Buck heard her moving away
along the passage. For a moment he was tempted to close and lock the door.
Then he realized that even if she dared return to her eavesdropping, he
would have ample warning by keeping an eye on the mirror, and so returned
"I hate that woman," said Rick, when informed of her departure. "She's
always snoopin' around, an' so is her greaser husband. Down at the
bunk-house it's the same way, with Slim, an' Flint Kreeger an' the rest. I
tell yuh, I'm dead sick of being spied on, an' plotted against, an' never
knowin' when yuh may get a knife in the back, or stop a bullet. I hate to
leave Bud, but he's so plumb set on--"
"But what's it all about?" put in Buck impatiently. "Can't you tell a
fellow, or don't you know?"
Bemis flushed slightly at his tone. "I can tell yuh this much," he
retorted. "Tex don't want them rustlers caught. He throws a clever bluff,
an' he's pulled the wool over Miss Mary's eyes, but for all that, he's
workin' on their side. What kind of a foreman is it who'll lose over a
thousand head without stoppin' the stealin'? It ain't lack of brains,
neither; Tex has got them a-plenty."
"But Miss Thorne--" protested Stratton, half-incredulously.
"I tell yuh, he's got her buffaloed. She won't believe a word against him.
He was here in her dad's time, an' he's played his cards mighty slick
since then. She's told yuh he can't get men, mebbe? All rot, of course. He
could get plenty of hands, but he don't want 'em. What's more, he's done
his best to get rid of me an' Bud, an' would of long ago, only Miss Mary
won't let him fire us."
"But what in thunder's his object?"
"So's to have the place to himself, I reckon. He an' those greasers in the
kitchen, and the rest of the bunch, are as thick as thieves."
"You mean he'd find it easier to get away with cattle if there wasn't
anybody around to keep tabs on him?"
Bemis hesitated. "I--I'm not sure," he replied slowly. "Partly that,
mebbe, but there's somethin' else. I've overheard things now an' then I
couldn't make head or tail of, but they're up to somethin'--Yuh ain't
goin', are yuh?"
Buck had risen. "Got to," he shrugged. "Miss Thorne's waiting for me to go
down to the south pasture."
Bemis raised up on his pillows. "Well, listen; keep what I said under yore
hat, will yuh?"
"Sure," nodded Stratton reassuringly. "You needn't worry about that.
Anything else you want before I go?"
"Yes. Jest reach me my six-gun outer the holster there in the chair. If
I'm goin' to be left alone with that greaser, Pedro, I'd feel more
comfortable, someway, with that under my pillow."
Buck did as he requested and then departed. Something else! That was the
very feeling which had assailed him vaguely at times, that some deviltry
which he couldn't understand was going on beneath the surface. As he made
for the corral, a sudden possibility flashed into his mind. With her title
so precarious, might not Mary Thorne be at the bottom of a systematic
attempt to loot the Shoe-Bar of its movable value against the time of
discovery? But when he met her face to face the idea vanished and he even
felt ashamed of having considered it for a moment. Whatever crookedness
was going on, this sweet-faced, clear-eyed girl was much more likely to be
a victim than one of the perpetrators. The feeling was vastly strengthened
when he had saddled up and they rode off together.
"There's something I've been meaning to--to tell you," the girl said
suddenly, breaking a brief silence.
Buck glanced at her to find her eyes fixed on the ears of her horse and a
faint flush staining her cheeks.
"That room--" she went on determinedly, but with an evident effort. "A
man's room-- You must have thought it strange. Indeed, I saw you thought
Again she paused, and in his turn Buck felt a sudden rush of
"I didn't mean to--" he began awkwardly. "It just seemed funny to find a
regular man's room in a household of women. I suppose it was your--your
father's," he added.
"No, it wasn't," she returned briefly. She glanced at him for an instant
and then looked away again. "You probably don't know the history of the
Shoe-Bar," she went on more firmly. "Two years ago it was bought by a
young man named Stratton. I never met him, but he was a business
acquaintance of my father's and naturally I heard a good deal of him from
time to time. He was a ranchman all his life and very keen about it, and
the moment he saw the Shoe-Bar he fell in love with it. But the war came,
and he had scarcely taken title to the place before he went off and
enlisted. Just before he sailed for France he sold the ranch to my father,
with the understanding that if he came back safely, Dad would turn it over
to him again. He felt, I suppose, how uncertain it all was and that money
in the bank would be easier for his--his heirs, than property."
She paused for an instant, her lips pressed tightly together. "He never
came back," she went on in a lower, slightly unsteady voice. "He--gave up
his life for those of us who stayed behind. After a little we left Chicago
and came here. I loved the place at once, and I've gone on caring for it
increasingly ever since. But back of everything there's always been a
sense of the tragedy, the injustice of it all. They never even found his
body. He was just--missing. And yet, when I came into that room, with his
things about just as he had left them when he went away, he seemed so
real,--I--I couldn't touch it. Somehow, it was all that was left of him.
And even though I'd never seen him, I felt as if I wanted to keep it that
way always in memory of a--a brave soldier, and a--man."
Her low voice ceased. With face averted, she stared in silence across the
brown, scorched prairie. Stratton, his eyes fixed straight ahead, and his
cheeks tinged with unwonted color, found it quite impossible to speak, and
for a space the stillness was broken only by the creak of saddle-leather
and the dull thud of horses' hoofs.
"It's mighty fine of you to feel like that," he said at length. "I'm sorry
if I gave you the idea I--I was--curious."
"But you would be, naturally. You see, the other boys all know." She
turned her head and looked at him. "I think we're all curious at times
about things which really don't concern us. I've even wondered once or
twice about you. You know you don't talk like the regulation
Stratton laughed. "Oh, but I am," he assured her. "I suppose the war
rubbed off some of the accents, and of course I had a pretty good
education to start with. But I'm too keen about the country and the life
to ever want to do anything else."
Her face glowed. "It is wonderful," she agreed. "When I think of the years
I've wasted in cities! I couldn't ever go back. Even with all the
worries, this is a thousand times better. Ah! There they are ahead.
They're turning the herd into this pasture, you see."
Half a mile or more to the southward a spreading dust-cloud hugged the
earth, through which, indistinctly, Stratton could make out the moving
figures of men and cattle. The two spurred forward, reaching the wide
opening in the fence ahead of the vanguard of steers. Passing through,
they circled to the right to avoid turning back any of the cattle, and
joined the sweating, hard-worked cow-punchers.
As they rode up together, Buck found Lynch's eyes fixed on him with an
expression of angry surprise, which was suppressed with evident
"How'd yuh get back so quick?" he inquired curtly.
"Nothing more to keep me," shrugged Stratton. "I waited for the doctor to
look Rick over, and then thought I'd come out and see if you needed me."
"Huh! Well, since you're here, yuh might as well whirl in. Get over on the
far side of the herd an' help Flint. Don't let any of 'em break away, but
don't crowd 'em too much."
As Buck rode off he heard Miss Thorne ask if there wasn't something she
could do. Lynch's reply was indistinct, but the tone of his voice,
deferential, yet with a faint undercurrent of honey-sweetness, irritated
him inexplicably. With a scowl, he spurred forward, exchanged a brief
greeting with Bud Jessup as he passed, and finally joined Kreeger, who was
having considerable difficulty in keeping the herd together at that
During the succeeding two hours or so, Buck forgot his irritation in the
interest and excitement of the work. Strenuous as it was, he found a
distinct pleasure in the discovery that two years' absence from the range
had not lessened his ability to hold his own. His horse was well trained,
and he thoroughly enjoyed the frequent sharp dashes after some refractory
steer, who stubbornly opposed being driven. Before the last animal had
passed through the fence-gap into the further pasture, he was drenched
from head to foot with perspiration and his muscles ached from the
unaccustomed labor, but all that was discounted by the satisfaction of
doing his chosen work again, and doing it well.
Then, in the lull which followed, his thoughts returned to Miss Thorne and
he wondered whether there would be any chance for further conversation
with her on the way back to the ranch-house? The question was quickly
answered in a manner he did not in the least enjoy. After giving
instructions about nailing up the fence, Tex Lynch joined the girl, who
sat her horse at a little distance, and the two rode off together.
For a moment or two Stratton's frowning glance followed them. Then of a
sudden he realized that Slim McCabe's shrewd eyes were fixed curiously on
him, and the discovery brought him abruptly to his senses. For a space he
had forgotten what his position was at the Shoe-Bar. He must keep a better
guard over himself, or he would certainly arouse suspicion. Averting his
eyes, but still continuing to frown a little as if lack of tobacco was
responsible for his annoyance, he searched through his pockets.
"Got the makin's?" he asked McCabe. "Darned if I haven't left mine in the
Slim readily produced a sack, and when Buck had rolled a cigarette, he
returned it with a jesting remark, and swung himself rather stiffly out of
"Haven't any hammer, but I can help tighten wires," he commented.
He had intended joining Bud Jessup and trying while helping him to get a
chance to discuss some of the things he had learned from Bemis. But
somehow he found himself working beside McCabe, and when the fence had
been put up again and they started home, it was Slim who rode beside him,
chatting volubly and amusingly, but sticking like a leach.
It "gave one to think," Stratton decided grimly, remembering the
expressive French phrase he had heard so often overseas. He could not
quite make up his mind whether the action was deliberate or the result of
accident, but after supper he had no doubt whatever.
During the meal Lynch showed himself in quite a new light. He chatted and
joked with a careless good humor which was a revelation to Stratton, whom
he treated with special favor. Afterward he asked Buck if he didn't want
to look his patient over, and accompanied him into Bemis's room, remaining
while the wound was inspected and freshly dressed. Later, in the
bunk-house, he announced that they would start a round-up next morning to
pick out some three-year-olds for shipment.
"Got a rush order for twelve hundred head," he explained. "We'll all have
to get busy early except Bud, who'll stay here to look after things. If
any of yuh have saddles or anythin' else to look after, yuh'd better do it
to-night, so's we can get goin' by daybreak."
Like a flash Stratton realized the other's game, and his eyes narrowed
ever so little. So that was it! By this most simple of expedients, he was
to be kept away from the ranch-house and incidentally from any
communication with Bemis or Bud, or Mary Thorne, unless accompanied by
Lynch or one of his satellites. And the worst of it was he was quite
helpless. He was merely a common, ordinary hand, and at the first sign of
disobedience, or even evasion of orders, Lynch would have a perfectly good
excuse to discharge him--an excuse he was doubtless itching to create.
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