The Blood-stained Saddle
From: Shoe Bar Stratton
"Hello, kid!" said Stratton quietly. "You awake? What's up, anyhow?"
There was a rustle in the adjoining bunk, the thud of bare feet on the
floor, and Jessup's face loomed, wedge-shaped and oddly white, through the
"They're gone," he repeated, with a curious, nervous hesitancy of manner.
"I know. You said that before. What the devil are they doing out this time
In drawing his weapon to him, Buck's eyes had fallen on his wrist-watch,
the radiolite hands of which indicated twenty minutes after twelve. He
awaited Jessup's reply with interest, and it struck him as unnaturally
long in coming.
"I don't rightly know," the youngster said at length. "I s'pose they must
have gone out after--the rustlers."
Buck straightened abruptly. "What!" he exclaimed. "You mean to say there's
been rustling on the Shoe-Bar?"
Again Jessup hesitated, but more briefly. "I don't know why I shouldn't
tell yuh. Everybody's wise to it, or suspects somethin'. They've got away
with quite a bunch--mostly from the pastures around Las Vegas, over near
the hills. Tex says they're greasers, but I think--" He broke off to add a
moment later in a troubled tone, "I wish to thunder he hadn't gone an'
left Rick out there all alone."
Stratton remembered Las Vegas as the name of a camp down at the
southwesterly extremity of the ranch. It consisted of a one-room adobe
shack, which was occupied at certain seasons of the year by one or two
punchers, who from there could more easily look after the near-by cattle,
or ride fence, than by going back and forth every day from the ranch
"Who's Rick?" he asked briefly.
"Rick Bemis. He--he's one dandy fellow. We've worked together over two
"H'm. How long's this rustling been going on?"
"Three or four months."
"Lost many head, have they?"
"Quite a bunch, I'd say, but I don't know. They never tell me or Rick
Bud's tone was bitter, and Stratton noticed it in spite of his
preoccupation. Rustling! That would account for several of the things that
had puzzled him. Rustling was possible, too, with the border-line
comparatively near, and that stretch of rough, hilly country which touched
the lower extremity of the ranch. But for the stealing to go on for three
or four months, without something drastic being done to stop it, seemed
peculiar, to say the least.
"What's been done about it?" Buck asked briefly.
"Oh, they've gone out at night a few times, but they never caught anybody
that I heard. Seems like the thieves were too slick, or else--"
He paused; Buck regarded him curiously through the faintly luminous
"Well?" he prodded
Bud moved uneasily. "It ain't anythin' special," he returned evasively.
"All this time they never left anybody down to Las Vegas till Rick was
sent day before yesterday. I up an' told Tex straight out there'd oughta
be another fellow with him, but all he done was to bawl me out an' tell me
to mind my own business. It ain't safe, an' now they've gone out--"
Again he broke off, his voice a trifle husky with emotion. He was
evidently growing more and more worked up and alarmed for the safety of
his friend. It was plain, too, that the recent departure of the punchers
for the scene of action, instead of reassuring Bud, had greatly increased
his anxiety. Buck decided that the situation wasn't as simple as it
looked, and promptly determined on a little action.
"Would it ease your mind any if we saddled up an' followed the bunch?" he
Jessup drew a quick breath and half rose from the bunk. "By cripes, yes!"
he exclaimed. "Yuh mean you'd--"
"Sure," said Stratton, reaching for his boots. "Why not? If there's going
to be any excitement I'd like to be on hand. Pile into your clothes, kid,
and let's go."
Jessup began to dress rapidly. "I don't s'pose Tex'll be awful pleased,"
he murmured, dragging on his shirt.
"I don't see he'll have any kick coming," returned Buck easily. "If he's
laying for rustlers, seems like he'd ought to have routed out the two of
us in the beginning to have as big a crowd as possible. You never know
what you're up against with those slippery cusses."
Bud made no further comment, and a few minutes later they left the
bunk-house and went up to the corral. The bright moonlight illumined
everything clearly and made it easy to rope and saddle two of the three
horses remaining in the enclosure. Then, swinging into the saddle, they
rode down the slope, splashed through the creek, and entering the further
pasture by a gate, headed south at a brisk lope.
The land comprising the Shoe-Bar ranch was a roughly rectangular strip,
much longer than it was wide, which skirted the foothills of the Escalante
Mountains. As the crow flies it was roughly seven miles from the
ranch-house to Las Vegas camp, and for the better part of that distance
there was little conversation between the two riders. Buck would have
liked to question his companion about a number of things that puzzled him,
but having sized up Jessup and come to the conclusion that the youngster
was the sort whose confidence must be given uninvited or not at all, he
held his peace. Apparently Bud had not yet made up his mind whether to
class Stratton as an enemy or a friend, and Buck felt he could not do
better than endeavor unobtrusively to impress the latter fact upon him.
That done, he was sure the boy would open up freely.
The wisdom of this policy became evident sooner than he expected. From
time to time as they rode, Stratton commented casually, as a new hand
would be likely to do, on some feature or other connected with the ranch
or their fellow-punchers. To these remarks Jessup replied readily enough,
but in a preoccupied manner, until all at once, moved either by something
Buck had said, or possibly by a mind burdened to the point where
self-restraint was no longer possible, he burst into sudden surprising
"That wasn't no foolin' with that iron this afternoon. If yuh hadn't come
along jest then they'd of branded me on the back."
Astonished, Buck glanced at him sharply. They had traveled more than
two-thirds of the distance to Las Vegas camp, and he had quite given up
hope of Jessup's opening up during the ride.
"Oh, say!" he protested. "Are you trying to throw a load into me? Why
would they want to do that?"
Jessup gave a short brittle laugh.
"They want me to quit," he retorted curtly.
"Quit?" repeated Stratton, his eyes widening. "But--"
"Tex don't want me here," broke in the youngster. "For the last three
months he's tried all kinds of ways to make me an' Rick take our time; but
it won't work." His lips pressed together firmly. "I promised Miss--"
His words clipped off abruptly, as a single shot, sharp and distinct,
shattered the still serenity of the night. It came from the south, from
the direction of Las Vegas. Buck flung up his head and pulled
instinctively on the reins. Jessup caught his breath with an odd,
"There!" he gasped unevenly.
For a moment or two they sat motionless, listening intently, Buck's face a
curious mixture of alertness and surprise. Up to this moment he had taken
the whole business rather casually, with small expectation that anything
would come of it, but the sound of that shot changed everything. Something
was happening, then, after all--something sinister, perhaps, and certainly
not far away. His eyes narrowed, and when no other sound followed that
single report, he loosed his reins and urged the roan to a gallop.
For perhaps half a mile the two plunged forward amidst a silence that was
broken only by the dull thudding of their horses' hoofs and their own
rapid breathing. Then all at once Buck jerked his roan to a standstill.
"Some one's coming," he warned briefly.
Straight ahead of them the moonlight lay across the flat, rolling prairie
almost like a pathway of molten silver. On either side of the brilliant
stretch the light merged gradually and imperceptibly into shadows--shadows
which yet held a curious, half-luminous quality, giving a sense of
shifting horizons and lending a touch of mystery to the vague distances
which seemed to be revealed.
From somewhere in that illusive shadow land came the faint beat of a
horse's hoofs, growing steadily louder. Eyes narrowed to mere slits,
Stratton stared ahead intently until of a sudden his gaze focused on a
faintly visible moving shape.
He straightened, his right hand falling to the butt of his Colt. But
presently his grip relaxed and he reached out slowly for his rope.
"There's no one on him," he murmured in surprise.
Without turning his head, Jessup made an odd, throaty sound of
"He's saddled, though," he muttered a moment later, and also began taking
down his rope.
Straight toward them along that moonlit pathway came the flying horse,
head down, stirrups of the empty saddle flapping. Buck held his rope
ready, and when the animal was about a hundred feet away he spurred
suddenly to the right, whirling the widening loop above his head. As it
fell accurately about the horse's neck the animal stopped short with the
mechanical abruptness of the well-trained range mount and stood still,
Slipping to the ground, Bud ran toward him, with Stratton close behind.
The strange cayuse, a sorrel of medium size, was covered with foam and
lather, and as Jessup came close to him he rolled his eyes in a frightened
"It's Rick's saddle," said Bud in an agitated tone, after he had made a
hasty examination. "I'd know it anywhere from--that--cut--in--"
His voice trailed off into silence and he gazed with wide-eyed, growing
horror at the hand that had rested on the saddle-skirt. It was stained
bright crimson, and Buck, staring over his shoulder, noticed that the
leather surface glistened darkly ominous in the bright moonlight.
Slowly the boy turned his head and looked at Stratton. His face was
lint-white, and the pupils of his eyes were curiously dilated.
"It's Rick's saddle," he repeated dully, and shuddered as he stared again
at his blood-stained hand.
Buck's own fingers caught the youngster's shoulder in a reassuring grip,
and his lips parted. But before he had time to speak a sudden volley of
shots rang out ahead of them, so crisp and distinct and clear that
instinctively he stiffened, his ears attuned for the familiar, vibrant hum
of flying bullets.
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