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The Branding Iron

From: Shoe Bar Stratton

Stratton was never sure just how long he stood staring at her in dumb,
dazed bewilderment. After those mental pictures of the Mary Thorne he had
expected to find, it was small wonder that the sight of this slip of a
black-frocked girl, with her soft voice, her tawny-golden hair and wistful
eyes, should stun him into temporary speechlessness. Even when he finally
pulled himself together to feel a hot flush flaming in his face and find
one gloved hand recklessly crumpling his new Stetson, he could not quite
credit the evidence of his hearing.

"I--I beg pardon," he said stiffly. "But it doesn't seem possible that--"

He hesitated. The girl's smile deepened whimsically.

"I know," she said ruefully. "It never does. Nobody seems to think a girl
can seriously attempt to run a cattle-ranch--even the way I'm trying to
run it, with a capable foreman to look after things. Sometimes I wonder

She paused, her glance falling on the book she held. Stratton saw that it
was a shabby account-book, a stubby pencil thrust between the leaves.

"Yes?" he prompted, scarcely aware what made him ask the question.

She looked up at him, her eyes a little wider than before. They were a
warm hazel, and for an instant in their depths Stratton glimpsed a
troubled expression, so veiled and swiftly passing that a moment later he
could not be sure he had read aright.

"It's nothing," she shrugged. "You probably know what a lot of nagging
little worries a ranchman has, and sometimes it seems to me they all have
to come at once. I suppose even a man gets a bit discouraged, now and

"He sure does," agreed Buck. "What--er--particular sort of worry do you

He asked the question impulsively without realizing how it might sound,
coming from a total stranger. The girl's slim figure stiffened and her
chin went up. Then--perhaps something in his expression told her he had
not meant to be impertinent--her face cleared.

"The principal one is lack of help," she explained readily enough, and yet
Stratton got a curious impression, somehow, that this wasn't really the
worst of her troubles. "We're awfully short-handed." She hesitated an
instant and then went on frankly, "To tell the truth, when you first came
in I was hoping you might be looking for a job."

For an instant Buck had all he could do to conceal his amazement at this
extraordinary turn of events.

"You mean I'd stand a chance of being taken on?" he countered, sparring
for time.

"Of course! That is--You are a cow-puncher, aren't you?"

Stratton's lips twitched slightly.

"I've worked around cattle all my life."

"Then naturally it would be all right. I should be very glad to hire you.
Tex Lynch usually looks after all that, but he's away this afternoon and
there's no reason why I shouldn't--" Her quaint air of dignity was marred
by a sudden, amused twitch of the lips. "I'm really awfully pleased you
did come to me," she smiled. "He's been telling me for over two weeks that
he couldn't hire a man for love or money; it'll be amusing to show him
what I've done, sitting quietly here at home."

"That's all settled, then?" Stratton had been doing some rapid thinking.
"You'd like me to start in right away, I suppose? That'll suit me fine. My
name's Bob Green. If you'll just explain to Lynch that I'm hired, I'll go
down to the bunk-house and he can put me to work when he comes back."

With a slight bow, he was moving away when Miss Thorne stopped him.

"Wait!" she cried. "Why, you haven't said a word about wages."

Buck turned back, biting his lip and inwardly cursing himself for his

"I s'posed it would be the usual forty dollars," he explained.

"We pay that for new hands," the girl informed him in some surprise. She
sat down beside the table and opened her book. "I can put you down for
forty, I suppose, and then Tex will tell me what it ought to be after he's
seen you work. Green, did you say?"

"Robert Green."

"And the address?"

Buck scratched his head.

"I don't guess I've got any," he returned. "I used to punch cows in Texas,
but I've been away two years and a half, and the last outfit I was with
has sold out to farmers."

"Oh!" She looked up swiftly and her gaze leaped unerringly to the scar
which showed below his tumbled hair. "Oh! I see. You--you've been through
the war."

Her voice broke a little, and to Buck's astonishment she turned quite
white as her eyes sought the book again. A sudden fear smote him that she
had guessed his real identity, but he dismissed the notion quickly. Such a
thing was next to impossible when she had never set eyes upon him before

"That's all, I think," she said presently in a low voice. "You'll find
the bunk-house, at the foot of the slope beside the creek. I'll speak to
Tex as soon as he comes back."

Outside the ranch house, Buck paused for a moment or two, ostensibly to
stare admiringly at a carefully tended flower-bed, but in reality to
adjust his mind to the new and extraordinary situation. During the last
two hours he had speculated a good deal on this interview, but not even
his wildest imaginings had pictured the turn it had actually taken.

"Hired as a puncher on my own ranch by the girl whose father stole it from
me!" he murmured under his breath. "It's a scream! Darned if it wouldn't
make a good vaudeville turn."

But as he walked slowly back to where he had left his horse, Stratton's
face grew thoughtful. He was trying to analyze the motives which had
prompted him to accept such a position and found them a trifle mixed.
Undeniably the girl's unexpected personality influenced him considerably.
She did not strike him, even remotely, as the sort who would deliberately
do anything dishonest. And though Buck knew there were women who might be
able to assume that air of almost childlike innocence, he did not believe,
somehow, that in her case it was assumed. At any rate a little delay would
do no harm. By accepting the proffered job he would be able to study the
lady and the situation at his leisure. Also--and this he told himself was
even more important--he would have a chance of quietly investigating
conditions on the ranch. Pop Daggett's vague hints, his own observations,
and the intuition he had that Miss Thorne was worrying about something
much more vital than the mere lack of hands, all combined to make him feel
that things were not going right at the Shoe-Bar. Of course it might be
simply a case of rotten management. But in the back of Buck's mind there
lurked a curious notion that something deeper and more far-reaching was
going on beneath the surface, though of what nature he could not even

Leading the roan into a corral which ranged beyond the kitchen, Stratton
unsaddled him and turned him loose. Having hung the saddle and bridle in
the adjacent shed, he tucked his bundle under one arm and headed for the
bunk-house. He was within a few yards of the entrance to the long, adobe
structure when the door was suddenly flung open and a slim, slight figure,
hatless and stripped to the waist, plunged out, closely pursued by three
other men.

He ran blindly with head down, and Buck had just time to drop his bundle
and extend both arms to prevent a collision. An instant later his tense
muscles quivered under the impact of some hundred and thirty pounds of
solid bone and muscle; the runner staggered and flung up his head, a gasp
of terror jolted from his lips.

"Oh!" he said more quietly, his tone an equal blend of astonishment and
relief. "I thought--Don't let 'em--"

He broke off, flushing. He was a pleasant-faced youngster of not more than
eighteen or nineteen, with a tangled mop of blonde hair and blue eyes, the
pupils of which were curiously dilated. Stratton, whose extended arms had
caught the boy just under the armpits, could feel his heart pounding

"What's the matter, kid?" he asked briefly.

"They were going to brand me--on the back," the boy muttered.

Over the fellow's bare, muscular shoulders Buck's glance swept the trio
who had pulled up just outside the bunk-house door. They seemed typical
cow-punchers in dress and manner. Two of them were tall and well set up;
the third was short and stocky and held a branding iron in one hand.
Meeting Stratton's gaze, he laughed loudly.

"By cripes, Bud! Yuh shore are easy. I thought yuh had more guts than to
be scared of an iron that's hardly had the chill took off."

He guffawed again, the other two joining in. A flush crept up into the
boy's face, but his lips were firm now, and as he turned to face the
others his eyes narrowed slightly.

"If it's so cold as that mebbe you'd like me to try it on yuh," he
suggested significantly.

The short man haw-hawed again, but not quite so boisterously. Buck noticed
that he held the branding iron carefully away from his leg.

"I shore wouldn't hollar like you done 'fore I was touched," he retorted.
"Wal, we got his goat good that time, didn't we, Butch? Better come in an'
git yore shirt on 'fore the boss sees yuh half naked."

He turned and disappeared into the bunk-house, followed by the two other
punchers. Buck picked up his bundle and glanced at the boy.

"Seems like you've got a right sociable, amusing bunch around here," he

The youngster's lips parted impulsively, to close as swiftly over his
white teeth.

"Oh, they're a great lot of jokers," he returned non-committally, moving
toward the door. "Coming in?"

The room they entered was long and rather narrow, with built-in bunks
occupying most of the wall space, while the usual assemblage of bridles,
ropes, old hats, and garments, hanging from pegs, crowded the remainder.
Opposite the door stood a rusty, pot-bellied stove which gave forth a heat
that seemed rather superfluous on such a warm evening. The stocky fellow,
having leaned his branding-iron against the adobe chimney, was occupied in
closing the drafts. His two companions, both rolling cigarettes, stood
beside him, while lounging at a rough table to the left of the door sat
two other men, one of them idly shuffling a pack of dirty cards. As he
entered, Stratton was conscious of the intent scrutiny of all five, and an
easy, careless smile curved his lips.

"Reckon this is the bunk-house, all right," he drawled. "The lady told me
it was down this way. My name's Bob Green--Buck for short. I've just been
hired to show you guys how to punch cows proper."

There was a barely perceptible silence, broken by one of the men at the

"Hired?" he repeated curtly. "Why, I thought Tex went to town."

"Tex?" queried Stratton. "Oh, you mean the foreman. The lady did say
something about that when she signed me up. Said she'd tell him about it
when he came back."

He was aware of a swift exchange of glances between several of the men.
The stocky fellow suddenly abandoned his manipulation of the stove-dampers
and came forward.

"Oh, that's it?" he remarked with an amiable grin. "Tex most always does
the hirin', yuh see. Glad to know yuh. My name's McCabe--Slim, they calls
me, 'count uh my sylph-like figger. These here guys is Bill Joyce an' his
side-kick, Butch Siegrist; likewise Flint Kreeger an' Doc Peters over to
the table. Bud Jessup yuh already met."

He chuckled, and Buck glancing toward the corner where the youngster was
tucking in the tails of his flannel shirt, smiled slightly.

"Got acquainted kinda sudden, didn't we?" he grinned. "Glad to meet you
gents. Whereabouts is a bunk I can stake my claim to?"

"This here's vacant," spoke up Bud Jessup quickly, indicating one next to
his own.

Buck stepped over and tossed his bundle into it. As he did so the raucous
clanging of a bell sounded from the direction of the ranch-house,
accompanied by a stentorian shout: "Grub-pile!" which galvanized the
punchers into action.

Stratton and the boy were the last to leave the room, and as he reached
the door Buck noticed a tiny wisp of smoke curling up from the floor to
one side of the stove. Looking closer he saw that it was caused by the
branding-iron, one corner of which rested on the end of a board where the
rough flooring came in contact with the square of hard-packed earth
beneath the stove. Bud Jessup saw it, too, and without comment he stepped
over and moved the iron to a safer position.

Still without words, the two left the bunk-house. But as they headed for
the kitchen Buck's eyes narrowed slightly and he flashed a momentary
glance at his companion which was full of curiosity and thoughtful

Next: Tex Lynch

Previous: Mistress Mary - Quite Contrary

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