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The Dead Heart

From: Shoe Bar Stratton

Vaguely, as of a sound coming from far distances, the crack of a
revolver-shot penetrated to the girl's numbed brain. It did not surprise
her. Indeed, it roused only a feeling of the mildest curiosity in one
whose nerves had been strained almost to the breaking-point. When Lynch,
with a hoarse cry, toppled back against her, she merely stepped quickly to
one side, and an instant later she was on her knees beside Stratton.

"Buck!" she sobbed. "Oh, Buck!" clutching at him as if from some wild fear
that he would topple into the abyss.

Hands suddenly put her gently to one side, and some one dragged Stratton
from his dangerous position and supported him against an upraised knee. It
was Bud Jessup, and behind him loomed the figures of Sheriff Hardenberg
and several of his men.

Mary's glance noted them briefly, incuriously, returning anxiously to the
man beside her. His eyes were open now, and he was sucking in the air in
deep, panting gulps.

"How yuh feelin'?" asked Bud briefly.

"All right--get my breath," mumbled Buck.

"Yuh hurt any place?" Jessup continued, after a brief pause.

"Not to speak of," returned Stratton in a stronger tone. "When I first
jumped for the cuss, I hit my head the devil of a crack, and--pretty near
went out. But that don't matter--now."

His eyes sought the girl's and dwelt there, longingly, caressingly. There
was tribute in their depths, appreciation, and something stronger, more
abiding which brought a faint flush into her tired face and made her heart
beat faster. Presently, when he staggered to his feet and took a step or
two toward her, she felt no shame in meeting him half way. Quite as
naturally as his arm slipped around her shoulders, her lifted hands rested
against the front of his flannel shirt, torn into ribbons and stained with

"For a little one," he murmured, looking down into her eyes, "you're some
spunky fighter, believe me!"

She flushed deeper and her lids drooped. Of a sudden Sheriff Hardenberg
spoke up briskly:

"That was a right nice shot, kid. You got him good."

He was standing beside the body sprawling on the ground, and the words had
scarcely left his lips when Lynch's eyes opened slowly.

"Yes--yuh got me," he mumbled.

Slowly his glance swept the circle of faces until it rested finally on the
man and girl standing close together. For a long moment he stared at them
silently, his pale lips twitching. Then all at once a look of cunning
satisfaction swept the baffled fury from his smoldering eyes.

"Yuh got me," he repeated in a stronger voice. "Looks like yuh got her,
too. Maybe yuh think you've gobbled up the ranch, likewise, an'--an'
everything. That's where yuh get stung."

He fell to coughing suddenly, and for a few minutes his great body was
racked with violent paroxysms that brought a bright crimson stain to the
sleeve he flung across his mouth. But all the while his eyes, full of
strange venomous triumph, never once left Stratton's face.

"Yuh see," he choked out finally, "the ranch--ain't--hers."

He paused, speechless; and Mary, looking down on him, felt merely that his
brain was wandering and found room in her heart to be a little sorry.

"Why ain't it hers?" demanded Bud with youthful impetuosity. "Her father
left it to her, an'--"

"It wasn't his to--to leave. He stole it." Lynch's voice was weaker, but
his eyes still glowed with hateful triumph. "He forged the
deed--from--from papers--Stratton left with him--when he went--to war." He
moistened his dry lips with his tongue. "When Stratton was--killed--he
didn't leave--no kin--to make trouble, an' Thorne--took a chance."

His voice faltered, ceased. Mary stared at him dumbly, a slow, oppressive
dread creeping into her heart. Little forgotten things flashed back into
her mind. Her father's financial reverses, his reticence about the
acquisition of the Shoe-Bar, the strange hold Lynch had seemed to have on
him, rose up to torment her. Suddenly she glanced quickly at Buck for

"It isn't so!" she cried. "It can't be. My father--"

Slowly the words died on her lips. There was love, tenderness, pity in the
man's eyes, but no--denial!

"Ain't it, though?" Lynch spoke in a labored whisper; his eyes were
glazing. "Yuh thinks--I'm--loco. I--ain't. It's--gospel truth. Yuh find
Quinlan, the--the witness. No, Quinlan's dead. It's--it's--Kaylor.
Kaylor got--got-- What was I sayin'." He plucked feebly at his
chap-belt. "I know. Kaylor got--a clean thousand for--for swearin'--the
signature--was--Stratton's. Yuh find Kaylor. Hardenberg ... thumbscrew
... the truth...."

The low, uneven whisper merged into a murmur; then silence fell, broken
only by the labored breathing of the dying man. Dazed, bewildered,
conscious of a horrible conviction that he spoke the truth, Mary stood
frozen, struggling against a wave of utter weariness and despair that
surged over her. She felt the arm about her tighten, but for some strange
reason the realization brought her little comfort.

Suddenly Hardenberg broke the silence. He had been watching the girl, and
could no longer bear the misery in her white, strained face.

"You think you've turned a smart trick, don't you?" he snapped with angry
impulsiveness. "As a matter of fact the ranch belongs to him already. The
man you've known as Green is Buck Stratton himself."

Lynch's lids flashed up. "Yuh--lie!" he murmured. "Stratton's--dead!"

"Nothing like it," retorted the sheriff. "The papers got it wrong. He was
only badly wounded. This fellow here is Buck Stratton, and he can prove

A spasm quivered over Lynch's face. He tried to speak, but only a faint
gurgle came from his blood-flecked lips. Too late Hardenberg, catching an
angry glance from Buck, realized and regretted his impulsive indiscretion.
For Mary Thorne, turning slowly like a person in a dream, stared into the
face of the man beside her, lips quivering and eyes full of a great

"You!" she faltered, in a pitiful, small voice. "You--"

Stratton held her closer, a troubled tenderness sweeping the anger from
his eyes.

"But--but, Mary--" he stammered--"what difference does--"

Suddenly her nerves snapped under the culminating strain of the past few

"Difference!" she cried hysterically. "Difference!" Her heart lay like a
cold, dead thing within her; she felt utterly miserable and alone.
"You--My father! Oh, God!"

She made a weak effort to escape from his embrace. Then, abruptly, her
slim, girlish figure grew limp, her head fell back against Stratton's
shoulder, her eyes closed.

Next: Two Trails Converge

Previous: The Fight On The Ledge

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