From: Shoe Bar Stratton
Supper, which was served in the ranch-house kitchen by Pedro, the Mexican
cook, was not enlivened by much conversation. The food was plentiful and
of good quality, and the punchers addressed themselves to its consumption
with the single-hearted purpose of hungry men whose appetites have been
sharpened by a long day in the saddle. Now and then someone mumbled a
request to "pass the sugar," or desired more steak or coffee from the
shuffling Pedro; but for the most part the serious business of eating
occupied them exclusively.
There was no sign of Miss Thorne. Buck decided that she took her meals
elsewhere and approved the isolation. It must be pretty hard, he thought,
for a girl like that to be living her young life in this out-of-the-way
corner of the world with no women companions to keep her company. Then he
remembered that for all he knew she might not be the only one of her sex
on the Shoe-Bar, and when the meal was over and the men were straggling
back toward the bunk-house, he put the question to Bud Jessup, who walked
"Huh?" grunted the youngster, with a sharp, inquiring glance at his face.
"What d'yuh want to know that for?"
Stratton shrugged his shoulders. "No particular reason," he smiled. "I
only thought she'd find it mighty dull alone on the ranch with a bunch of
Bud continued to eye him intently. "Well, she ain't alone," he said
briefly. "Mrs. Archer lives with her; an' uh course there's Pedro's
"Who's Mrs. Archer?"
"Her aunt. Kinda nice old lady, but she ain't got much pep. Maria's jest
the other way. When she's got a grouch on she's some cat, believe me!"
For some reason the subject appeared to be distasteful to Jessup, and Buck
asked no more questions. Instead of following the others into the
bunk-house they strolled on along the bank of the creek, which was lined
with fair-sized cottonwoods. The sun had set, but the glow of it still
lingered in the west. Glinting like a flame on the windows of the
ranch-house, it even dappled the placid waters of the little stream with
red-gold splotches, which mingled effectively with the mirrored
reflections of the overhanging trees. From the kitchen chimney a wisp of
smoke rose straight into the still clear air. In a corner of the corral
half a dozen horses were bunched, lazily switching their tails at
intervals. Through one of the pastures across the stream some cattle
drifted, idly feeding their way to water.
It was a peaceful picture, yet Stratton could not rid his mind of the
curious feeling that the peacefulness was all on the surface. He had not
missed that swift exchange of glances that heralded his first appearance
in the bunk-house; and though Slim McCabe particularly had been almost
effusively affable, Buck was none the less convinced that his presence
here was unwelcome. That business of the branding-iron, too, was puzzling.
Was it merely a bit of rough but harmless horse-play or had it a deeper
meaning? Bud did not look like a fellow to lose his nerve easily, and the
iron had certainly been hot enough to brand even the tough hide of a
Buck glanced sidewise at his companion to find the blue eyes studying his
face with a keen, questioning scrutiny. They were hastily withdrawn, and a
faint color crept up, darkening the youngster's tan.
"Trying to size me up," thought Stratton interestedly. "He's got something
on his chest, too."
But he gave no sign of what was in his mind. A moment or two later he
paused and, leaning indolently against a tree, let his gaze sweep idly
over the cattle in the near-by pasture.
"Looks to me like a pretty good bunch of steers," he commented, and then
added carelessly: "What sort of a guy is this Tex Lynch, anyhow?"
Bud hesitated briefly, sending a swift, momentary glance toward the
"Oh, he's all right, I guess," he answered slowly.
Stratton grinned. "If you don't look out you'll be overpraising him, kid,"
Jessup shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't say I liked him," he defended.
"He knows his business all right."
"Oh, sure. Otherwise, I s'pose he wouldn't hold down his job. But what I
want to know is the kind of boss he is. Does he treat the fellows white,
or is he a sneak?"
Bud's face darkened. "He treats some of 'em white enough," he snapped.
"That so? Favorites, eh? I've met up with that kind before. Is he hard to
get on the right side of?"
"Dunno," growled the youngster. "I never tried."
Buck chuckled again. "Well, kid, so long as you don't seem to think it's
worth while, I dunno why I should take the trouble. Who else is on the
outs with him?"
Jessup flashed a startled glance at him. "How in blazes do you know--"
"Oh, gosh! That's easy. That open-faced countenance of yours would give
you away even if your tongue didn't. I'd say you weren't a bit in love
with Lynch, or any of the rest of the bunch, either. Likely you got a good
reason, an' of course it ain't any of my business; but if that stunt with
the red-hot branding-iron is a sample of their playfulness, I should think
you'd drift. There must be plenty of peaceful jobs open in the
"But that's just what they want me to do," snapped Jessup hotly. "They're
doin' their best to drive me----"
His jaws clamped shut and a sudden suspicion flashed into his eyes, which
caused Buck promptly to relinquish all hope of getting any further
information from the boy. Evidently he had said the wrong thing and got
the fellow's back up, though he could not imagine how. And so, when Jessup
curtly proposed that they return to the bunk-house, Stratton readily
They found the five punchers gathered around the table playing draw-poker
under the light of a flaring oil lamp. McCabe extended a breezy invitation
to Buck to join them, which he accepted promptly, drawing up an empty box
to a space made for him between Slim and Butch Siegrist. With scarcely a
glance at the group, Jessup selected a tattered magazine from a pile in
one corner and sprawled out on his bunk, first lighting a small hand lamp
and placing it on the floor beside him.
Stratton liked poker and played a good game, but he soon discovered that
he was up against a pretty stiff proposition. The limit was the sky, and
Kreeger and McCabe especially seemed to have a run of phenomenal luck.
Buck didn't believe there was anything crooked about their playing; at
least he could detect no sign of it, though he kept a sharp lookout as he
always did when sitting in with strangers. But he was rather uncomfortably
in a hole and was just beginning to realize rather whimsically that for a
while at least he had only a cow-man's pay to depend on for
spending-money, when the door was suddenly jerked open and a tall,
broad-shouldered figure loomed in the opening.
"Well, it's all right, fellows," said the new-comer, blinking a little at
the light. "I saw--"
He caught himself up abruptly and glowered at Stratton.
"Who the devil are yuh?" he inquired harshly, stepping into the room.
Buck met his hard glance with smiling amiability.
"Name of Buck Green," he drawled. "Passed you on the trail this afternoon,
didn't I? You must be Tex Lynch."
With a scarcely perceptible movement he shifted his cards to his left
hand. His right, the palm half open, rested on the edge of the table just
above his thigh. He didn't really believe the foreman would start
anything, but one never knew, especially with a man of such evidently
"Huh!" grunted Lynch. "Why didn't yuh stop me then? Yuh might have saved
yourself a ride." He continued to stare at Stratton, a veiled speculation
in his smoldering eyes. "Well?" he went on impatiently. "What can I do for
yuh now I'm here?"
Buck raised his eyebrows. "Do for me? Why, I don't know as there's
anything right this minute. I s'pose you'll be wanting to put me to work
in the morning."
"You've sure got nerve a-plenty," rasped the foreman. "I ain't hirin'
anybody that comes along just because he wears chaps."
"That so?" drawled Buck. "Funny the lady didn't mention that when she
signed me up this afternoon."
Lynch's face darkened. "Yuh mean to say--"
He paused abruptly, his angry eyes sweeping past Stratton, to rest for an
instant on Flint Kreeger, who sat just beyond McCabe. What he saw there
Buck did not know, but it must have been something of warning or
information. When his eyes returned to Stratton their expression was
veiled under drooping lids; his lithe figure relaxed into an easier
position against the door-casing, both hands resting lightly on slim
"Miss Thorne hired yuh, then?" he remarked in a non-committal voice which
yet held no touch of friendliness. "Well, that's different. Where've yuh
"The last outfit was the Three-Circles in Texas." Buck named at random an
outfit in the southern part of the state with which he was slightly
acquainted. "Been in the army over two years, and just got my discharge."
"Texas?" repeated Lynch curtly. "How the devil do yuh happen to be lookin'
for work here?"
"I'd heard Joe Bloss was foreman," explained Buck calmly. "We used to work
together on the Three-Circles, and I knew he'd give me a job. When I found
out in Paloma he'd gone, I took a chance an' rode out anyhow."
He bore the foreman's searching scrutiny very well, without a change of
color or the quiver of an eyelash. Nevertheless he was not a little
relieved when Lynch, with a brief comment about trying him out in the
morning, moved around the table and sat down on a bunk to pull off his
chaps. That sudden and complete bottling up of emotion had shown Buck how
much more dangerous the man was than he had supposed, and he was pleased
enough to come out of their first encounter so well.
With a barely perceptible sense of relaxing tension, the poker game was
resumed, for which Buck was devoutly thankful. Throughout the interruption
he had not forgotten his hand, which was by far the best he had held that
evening. He played it and the succeeding ones so well that when the game
ended he had managed to break even.
Ten minutes later the lights were out, and the silence of the bunk-house
was broken only by the regular breathing of eight men, or the occasional
creak of some one shifting his position in the narrow bunk. Having no
blankets--a deficiency he meant to remedy if he could get off long enough
to-morrow to ride to Paloma Springs--Buck removed merely chaps and boots
and stretched his long form on the corn-husk tick with a little sigh of
weariness. Until this moment he had not realized how tired he was. But he
had slept poorly on the train, and this, coupled with the heady air and
the somewhat stirring events of the last few hours, dragged his eyelids
shut almost as soon as his head struck the improvised pillow.
It seemed as if scarcely a moment had passed before he opened them again.
But he knew that it must be several hours later, for it had been
pitch-dark when he went to sleep, and now a square of moonlight lay across
the floor under the southern window, bringing into faint relief the
outlines of the long room.
Just what had roused him he did not know; some noise, no doubt, either
inside the bunk-house or without. Nerves attuned to battle-front
conditions are likely to become sharp as razor-edges, and Buck, starting
from deep slumber to complete wakefulness, was almost instantly aware of
a sense of strangeness in his surroundings.
In a moment he knew what it was. Even though they may not snore, the
breathing of seven sleeping men is unmistakable. Buck did not have to
strain his ears to realize that not a sound came from any of the other
bunks, and swiftly the utter, unnatural stillness became oppressive.
Quietly he swung his stockinged feet to the floor and was reaching for the
holster and cartridge-belt he had laid beside him, when, from the
adjoining bunk, Bud Jessup's voice came in a cautious whisper.
"They're gone. The whole bunch of 'em just rode off."
Next: The Blood-stained Saddle
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