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The Mysterious Motor-car

From: Shoe Bar Stratton

Buck took to Jim Tenny at once. There was something about this long, lean,
brown-faced foreman of the Rocking-R, with his clear gray eyes and that
half-humorous twist to his thin lips, which inspired not only confidence
but liking as well. He listened without comment to Buck's story, which
included practically everything save the revelation of his own identity;
but once or twice, especially at the brief mention of the fight in the
bunk-house, his eyes gleamed with momentary approval. When Buck told about
the blackleg incident his face darkened and he spoke for the first time.

"Seems like yuh had him there," he said briefly. "That job alone ought to
land him in the pen."

Buck nodded. "I know; but I'm afraid he couldn't be convicted on my
evidence alone. Kreeger and Siegrist fixed up a pretty decent alibi, you
see, and it would only be my word against theirs. Even the carcass of the
beast wouldn't help much. They'd say it wandered through the pass by
itself, and I suppose there's one chance in a thousand it could have."

"Damned unlikely, though," shrugged Tenny.

"Sure; but the law's that way. You've got to be dead certain. Besides, if
he was pulled in for that we might never find out just what's at the
bottom of it all. That's the important thing, and if I can only get a line
on what he's up to, we'll land him swift enough, believe me!"

Warned by Bud's unexpected question the evening before that he must have a
more plausible motive for following up the case, Buck had coolly appointed
himself one of Jim Hardenberg's deputies. He hinted that rumors of the
cattle-stealing had reached the sheriff, who, debarred from taking up the
matter openly by the absence of any complaint from the owner of the
Shoe-Bar, had dispatched Stratton on a secret investigation. The process
of that investigation having disclosed evidences of rascality of which the
rustling was but a minor feature, Stratton's desire to probe the mystery
to the bottom seemed perfectly natural, and the need for secrecy was also
accounted for. The only risk Buck ran was of Tenny's mentioning the matter
to Hardenberg himself, and that seemed slight enough. At the worst it
would merely mean anticipating a little; for if he did succeed in solving
the problem of Tex Lynch's motives, the next and final step would
naturally be up to the sheriff.

"I get yuh," said Tenny, nodding. "That's true enough. Well, what do you
want me to do?"

Buck told him briefly, and the foreman's eyes twinkled.

"That's some order," he commented.

"I'd pay you for the stock and grub, of course," Stratton assured him;
"and at least put up a deposit for the cayuses."

"Oh, that part ain't frettin' me none. I reckon I can trust yuh. I was
thinkin' about how I could stall off Lynch in case he comes around askin'
questions. Yuh want he should get the idea I hired yuh?"

"I thought it would ease his mind and give him the notion I was safe for a
while," smiled Stratton. "Of course you could say I tried for a job but
you were full up."

"That would be easier," agreed Tenny. "I could keep my mouth shut, but I
couldn't guarantee about the boys. They wouldn't say nothin' a-purpose,
but like as not if they should meet up with one of that slick crowd at the
Shoe-Bar they'd let somethin' slip without thinkin'. On the other hand, it
sure would make him a mite careless if he thought yuh was tied down here
on a reg'lar job."

He paused reflectively; then suddenly his eyes brightened.

"I got it," he chuckled. "I'll send you down to help Gabby Smith at Red
Butte camp. That's 'way to hell and gone down at the south end of the
outfit, where nobody goes from here more'n about once in six months.
Gabby's one of these here solitary guys that's sorta soured on the world
in gen'al, an' don't hardly open his face except to take in grub, but yuh
can trust him. Jest tell him what yuh want and he'll do it, providin' yuh
don't hang around the camp too long. Gabby does hate company worse'n a
dose of poison."

Tenny lost no time in carrying out his plans. He hunted out a few simple
cooking-utensils and enough canned goods and other stores to last two
weeks, picked a pack-animal and a riding horse, and by dinner-time had
everything ready for Buck to start immediately afterward.

The six or seven cow-punchers who responded to the gong presented a marked
and pleasant contrast to the Shoe-Bar outfit. They greeted Stratton with
some brevity, but after the first pangs of hunger had been assuaged and
they learned where he was bound for, they expanded, and Buck was the
object of much joking commiseration on the prospect before him.

"You'll sure have one wild time," grinned a dark-haired, blue-eyed
youngster called Broncho. "Gabby's about as sociable as a rattler. I
wouldn't change places with yuh for no money."

No one seemed to suspect any ulterior motive beneath the plan, and when
Buck rode off about one o'clock, leading his pack-horse, his spirits rose
insensibly at the ease with which things seemed to be working out.

He reached Red Butte camp in a little more than three hours and found the
adobe shack deserted. It was similar in size and construction to Las
Vegas, but there all likeness ceased, for the interior was surprisingly
comfortable and as spick-and-span as the Shoe-Bar line camp was cluttered
and dirty. Everything was so immaculate, in fact, that Buck had a moment
of hesitation about flicking his cigarette ashes on the floor, and
banished his scruples mainly because he had never heard of a cow-man
dropping them anywhere else.

Gabby appeared about an hour later, a tall, stooping man of uncertain
middle age, with a cold eye and a perpetual, sour droop to his lids. At
the sight of Buck the sourness became accentuated and increased still more
when he observed the ashes on the floor. His only reply to Stratton's
introduction of himself was a grunt and Buck lost no time in easing the
fellow's mind of any fear of a prolonged spell of company.

Even then Gabby's gloom scarcely lightened. He listened, however, to
Stratton's brief explanation and in a few gruff words agreed that in the
unlikely event of any inquiry he would say that the new hand was off
riding fence or something of the sort. Then he swept out the offending
ashes and proceeded methodically to get supper, declining any assistance
from his visitor.

His manner was so dispiriting that Buck was thankful when the silent meal
was over, and even more so an hour later to spread his blankets in one of
the spare bunks and turn in. His relief at getting away early the next
morning was almost as great as Gabby's could be to see him go.

It was late in the afternoon, after a careful circuit of the southern end
of the Shoe-Bar, that Buck reached the foothills. Bud had told him of a
spring to the northwest of Las Vegas camp, but the rough traveling decided
him to camp that night on the further side of the creek. In the morning he
went on through a wilderness of arroyos, canyons, and gullies that twisted
endlessly between the barren hills, and made him realize how simple it
would be for any number of men and cattle to evade pursuit in this wild

Fortunately Jessup's directions had been explicit, and toward noon Buck
found the spring at the bottom of a small canyon and proceeded to unpack
and settle down. Bud himself had discovered the place by accident, and as
far as Stratton could judge it was not a likely spot to be visited either
by the Shoe-Bar hands or their Mexican confederates. A wide, overhanging
ledge provided shelter for himself, and there was plenty of forage in
sight for the two horses. Taken all in all, it was as snug a retreat as
any one could wish, and Buck congratulated himself on having such safe and
secluded headquarters from which to carry on his investigations.

These first took him southward, and for five days he rode through the
hills, traversing gullies and canyons, and spying out the whole country
generally, in a systematic effort to find the route taken by the rustlers
in driving off their booty.

Once he found the spot where they had taken to the hills, the rest was
comparatively simple. There were a number of signs to guide him, including
the bodies of two animals bearing the familiar brand, and he succeeded in
tracing the thieves to a point on the edge of a stretch of desert twenty
miles or more below the Shoe-Bar land. About twelve miles beyond lay
another range of hills, which would give them cover until they were within
a short distance of the border.

"A dozen good fellows stationed here," thought Stratton, critically
surveying the gully behind him, "would catch them without any trouble.
There's no other way I've seen of getting out with a bunch of cattle."

Having settled this point to his satisfaction, Buck's mind veered
swiftly--with an odd sense of relief that now at last he could investigate
the matter seriously--to the other problem which had stirred his
curiosity so long.

When his attention was first attracted to the north pasture by Bud's
account of Andrew Thorne's tragic death, its connection with the mystery
of the ranch seemed trivial. But for some reason the thing stuck in his
mind, returning again and again with a teasing persistence and gaining
each time in significance. From much thinking about it, Buck could almost
reconstruct the scene, with its familiar, humdrum background of bawling
calves, lowing mothers, dust, hot irons, swearing, sweating men, and all
the other accompaniments of the spring branding. That was the picture into
which Thorne had suddenly ridden, his face stamped with an excitement in
marked contrast to his usual phlegmatic calm. In his mind's eye Stratton
could see him clutch Tex Lynch and draw him hastily to one side, could
imagine vividly the low-voiced conversation that followed, the hurried
saddling of a fresh horse, and the swift departure of the two
northward--to what?

Buck had asked himself that question a hundred times. Three hours had
passed before the return of Lynch alone, with the shocking news--time
enough to ride twice the distance to north pasture and back again. Where
had the interval been passed, and how?

Stratton realized that they might easily have changed their direction,
once they were out of sight of the men. They might have gone eastward
toward the ranch-house--which they had not--or westward into the
mountains. Once or twice Buck considered the possibility of the old man's
having stumbled on a rich lode of precious metal. But as far as he knew no
trace of gold had ever been found in these mountains. Moreover, though
Lynch was perfectly capable of murdering his employer for that knowledge,
his next logical move would have been an immediate taking up of the
claims, instead of which he remained quietly on the ranch to carry on his
slow and secret plotting.

Stratton long ago dismissed that possibility. There remained only the
north pasture, and the longer he considered it the more he became
convinced that Thorne had met his death there, and that the chances were
strong that somewhere in those wastes of worthless desert land lay the key
to the whole enthralling mystery.

Buck was so eager to start his investigations that it irked him to have to
spend the few remaining hours of the afternoon in idleness. But as he knew
that the undertaking would take a full day or even longer, he possessed
his soul with patience and made arrangements for an early start next

The dawn was just breaking when he left camp mounted on Pete, the
Rocking-R horse that he had found so reliable in the rough country. The
simplest and most direct way would have been to descend to level ground
and ride along the edge of the Shoe-Bar land. But he dared not take any
chances of being observed by Lynch or his gang, and was forced to make a
long detour through the hills.

The way was difficult and roundabout. Frequently he was turned back by
blind canyons or gullies which had no outlet, and there were few places
where the horse could go faster than a walk. To Buck's impatient spirit it
was all tiresome and exasperating, and he had moments of wondering whether
he was ever going to get anywhere.

Finally, about the middle of the afternoon, he was cheered for the first
time by an unexpected glimpse of his goal. For several miles he had been
following a rough trail which wound around the side of a steep, irregular
hill. Coming out abruptly on a little plateau, with the tumbled rocks
rising at his back, there spread out suddenly before him to the east a
wide, extended sweep of level country.

At first he could scarcely believe that the sandy stretch below him was
the north pasture he was seeking. But swiftly he realized that the
threadlike line a little to the south must be the fence dividing the
desert from the fertile portions of the Shoe-Bar, and he even thought he
recognized the corner where the infected steer had been driven through.
With an exclamation of satisfaction he was reaching for his field-glasses
when of a sudden a strange, slowly-moving shape out in the desert caught
his attention and riveted it instantly.

For a few seconds Buck thought his eyes were playing tricks. Amazed,
incredulous, forgetting for an instant the field-glasses in his hand, he
stared blankly from under squinting lids at the incredible object that
crawled lurchingly through the shimmering, glittering desert atmosphere.

"I'm dotty!" he muttered at length. "It can't be!"

Then, remembering the glasses, he raised them hastily to his eyes and
focused them with a twist or two of practised fingers.

He was neither crazy nor mistaken. Drawn suddenly out of its blurred
obscurity by the powerful lenses, there sprang up before Buck's eyes,
sharp and clear in every detail, a big gray motor-car that moved slowly
but steadily, with many a bump and sidewise lurch, diagonally across the
cactus-sprinkled desert below him.

Next: Catastrophe

Previous: A Change Of Base

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