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The Unexpected








From: Shoe Bar Stratton

More than once during the following few days, Stratton was forced to a
grudging admiration, of Tex Lynch's cleverness. Even knowing what he did,
he failed to detect the slightest sign in either the foreman or his men
that they were waiting expectantly for something to happen. The only
significant feature was their marked avoidance of the middle pasture. This
might readily be accounted for by the fact that the work now lay on the
other side of the outfit, but Buck was convinced that their real purpose
was to allow the blackleg scourge to gain as great a hold as possible on
Shoe-Bar cattle before its discovery.

The cold-blooded brutality of that quiescence made Stratton furious, but
it also brought home more effectually than ever the nature of the men he
had to deal with. They were evidently the sort to stop at nothing, and
Buck had moments of wondering whether or not he was proceeding in the
right way to uncover the mystery of their motive.

So far he had really accomplished very little. The unabated watchfulness
of the crowd so hedged in and hampered him that it was quite impossible to
do any extended investigating. He still had the power of ending the whole
affair at any moment and clearing the ranch of the entire gang. But aside
from his unwillingness to humiliate Mary Thorne, he realized that this
would not necessarily accomplish what he wanted.

"It would stop their deviltry all right," he thought "but I might never
find out what they're after. About the only way is to give 'em enough rope
to hang themselves, and I'm blowed if I don't believe I could do that
better by leaving the outfit and doing a little sleuthing on my own."

Yet somehow that did not altogether appeal to him, either. The presence of
handsome Alf Manning may have had something to do with Buck's reluctance
to quit the ranch just now, but he would never have admitted it, even to
himself. He simply made up his mind to wait a while, at least until he
could see what happened when Lynch discovered the failure of his latest
plot, and then be governed by circumstances.

In the meantime the situation, so far as Miss Manning, was concerned, grew
daily more complicated. She showed a decided inclination for Stratton's
society, and when he came to know her better he found her frank, breezy,
and delightfully companionable. He knew perfectly well that unless he
wanted to take a chance of making some tremendous blunder he ought to
avoid any prolonged conversation with the lady. But she was so charming
that every now and then he flung prudence to the winds--and usually
regretted it.

It was not that she said anything definitely disconcerting, but there were
occasional hints and innuendoes, and now and then a question which seemed
innocent enough but which Stratton found difficult to parry. He couldn't
quite make up his mind whether or not she suspected the truth about his
former mental condition, but he had an uncomfortable notion that she
sensed a difference and was trying to find out just where it lay.

Time and again he told himself that at the worst there was nothing
disgraceful in that vanished past. But he had the ordinary healthy man's
horror for the abnormal, and the very fact that it had vanished so utterly
beyond recall made him willing, in order to avoid having it dragged back
into the light and made public property, to do almost anything, even to
being almost rude to a pretty girl.

Thus between escaping Miss Manning and trying to keep an eye on Lynch,
Stratton had his work cut out for him. He knew that sooner or later some
one would be sent out to take a look through the middle pasture, and he
wanted very much to be on hand when the report came back to Lynch that his
plot had miscarried. It was consequently with very bad grace that Buck
received an order to ride in to Paloma one morning for the long-delayed
wagon-bolts and a few necessary supplies from the store.

He felt at once that it was a put-up job to get him out of the way. Only
yesterday Rick Bemis, able at length to ride that distance, had quit the
ranch escorted by Slim McCabe. If anything was really needed the latter
could have brought it back and saved the expense of sending another man
twenty-four hours later.

But there was no reasonable excuse for Buck's protesting, and he held his
tongue. He wished that he had taken Jessup into his confidence about the
blackleg plot, but there was no time for that now. He did manage, on his
way to the corral, to whisper a word or two in passing, urging the
youngster to take particular note of anything that went on during his
absence, but he would have much preferred giving Bud some definite idea of
what to look for, and his humor, as he saddled up and left the ranch, was
far from amiable.

But gradually, as he rode rapidly along the trail, the crisp, clean air
brushing his face and the early morning sun caressing him with a pleasant
warmth, his mood changed. After all, it was really of very little moment
whether or not he was present when Lynch first learned that things had
failed to go his way. At best he might have had a momentary vindictive
thrill at glimpsing the fellow's thwarted rage; perhaps not even that, for
Tex was uncommonly good at hiding his emotions. It was much more important
for him to decide definitely and soon about his own future plans, and this
solitary ride over an easy, familiar trail gave him as good a chance as he
was ever likely to have.

A little straight thinking made him realize--with a half-guilty feeling of
having deliberately shut his eyes to it before--that he could not hope to
get much further under present conditions. Tied down as he was, a dozen
promising clues might pop up, which he would have no chance whatever of
investigating. Indeed, looking at the situation in this light, he felt a
wonder that Lynch should ever have tried to oust him from the ranch, where
he could be kept under constant observation and followed up in every move.
Working from the outside, with freedom to come and go as he liked, he
could accomplish a vast deal more than in this present hampered fashion.
There still remained traces of his vague, underlying reluctance to leave
the place at this particular time, but Buck crushed it down firmly, even a
little angrily.

"It's up to me to quit," he muttered. "I'd be a blooming jackass to waste
any more time here. I'll have to work it naturally, though, or Lynch will
smell a rat."

At that moment the trail dipped down into a gully--the very one, in fact,
where he had passed Tex that first day he had ridden out to the ranch.
Thinking of the encounter, Buck recalled his own emotions with a curious
feeling of remoteness. The grotesque mental picture he had formed of Mary
Thorne contrasted so amusingly with the reality that he grinned and might
have broken into a laugh had he not caught sight at that moment of a
figure riding toward him from the other end of the gully.

The high-crowned sombrero, abnormally broad of brim, the gaudy
saddle-trappings and touches of bright color about the stranger's
equipment, brought a slight frown to Stratton's face. Apart even from is
recent unpleasant associations with them, he had never had any great
fondness for Mexicans, whom he considered slick and slippery beyond the
average. He watched this one's approach warily, and when the fellow pulled
up with a glistening smile and a polite "Buenas tardes," Stratton
responded with some curtness.

"Fine day, senor," remarked the stranger pleasantly.

"You've said it," returned Buck drily. "We haven't had rain in as much as
three weeks."

"Tha's right," agreed the other. His glance strayed to the brand on Buck's
cayuse, and his swarthy face took on an expression of pleased surprise.
"You come from Shoe-Bar?" he questioned.

"You're some mind-reader," commented Stratton briefly. "What of it?"

"Mebbe yo' do me favor," pursued the Mexican eagerly. "Save me plenty hot
ride." He pulled an envelope from the pocket of his elaborately
silver-conchoed chaps. "Rocking-R boss, he tell me take thees to Mister
Leench at Shoe-Bar. Eef yo' take heem, I am save mooch trouble, eh?"

Buck eyed the extended envelope doubtfully. Then, ashamed of his momentary
hesitation to perform this simple service, he took it and tucked it away
in one pocket.

"All right," he agreed. "I'll take it over for you. I've got to go in to
town first, though."

"No matter," shrugged the Mexican. "There is no hurry."

With reiterated and profuse thanks, he pulled his horse around and rode
back with Stratton as far as the Rocking-R trail, where he turned off.

"He'll find some corner where he can curl up and snooze for the couple of
hours he's saved," thought Buck, watching the departing figure. "Those
fellows, are so dog-gone lazy they'd sit and let grasshoppers, eat holes
in their breeches."

As he rode on he wondered a little what Jim Tenny, the Rocking-R foreman,
could have to do with Lynch, who seemed to be on the outs with everybody,
but Presently he dismissed the subject with a shrug.

"I'll be getting as bad as Pop if I'm not careful" he thought. "Likely
it's some perfectly ordinary range business."

He found Daggett in a garrulous mood but was in no humor to waste time
listening to his flood of talk and questions. The bolts had come at last,
and when he had secured them and the other things from the store, Buck
promptly mounted and set out on his return.

Tex met him just outside the corral and received the letter without
comment, thrusting it into his pocket unread. He seemed much more
interested in the arrival of the bolts, and after dinner set Stratton and
McCabe to work in the wagon-shed replacing the broken ones. It was not
until late in the afternoon that Buck managed a few words in private with
Jessup, and was surprised to learn that the gang had been working all day
to the southeast of the ranch. Tex himself had been absent from the party
for an hour or two in the morning, but when he joined them he came from
the direction of the Paloma trail, and Stratton did not believe he could
have had time thoroughly to inspect the middle pasture and return so soon
by so roundabout a course.

"He'll do it to-morrow, sure," decided Buck. "It isn't human nature to
hold off much longer."

He was right. After breakfast Stratton and McCabe were ordered to resume
work on the wagons, while the others sallied forth with Lynch, ostensibly
to ride fence along the southern side of middle pasture. Buck awaited
their return with interest and curiosity. He thought he might possibly
detect some signs of glumness in the faces of the foreman and his
confederates, but he was quite unprepared for the open anger and
excitement which stamped every face, Bud Jessup's included.

"Rustlers were out again last night," Bud explained, the moment he had a
chance.

Buck stared at him in amazement, the totally unexpected nature of the
thing taking him completely by surprise.

"Why I thought--"

"So did I," interrupted Bud curtly. "I didn't believe they'd dare break
into middle pasture, but they have. There's a gap a hundred yards wide in
the fence, and they've got away with a couple of hundred head at least."

"You're sure it happened last night?"

"Dead certain. The tracks are too fresh. Buck, if Tex Lynch don't get
Hardenberg on the job now, we'll know he's crooked."

"We'd pretty near decided that anyhow, hadn't we?" returned Stratton
absently.

He was wondering how this new move had been managed and what it meant. If
it had been merely part of a scheme to loot the Shoe-Bar for his own
benefit, Tex would never have allowed his rustler accomplices to touch a
steer from that middle pasture herd, which he must feel by this time to be
thoroughly and completely infected. Even if he had managed during his
brief absence yesterday to make a hurried inspection, and suspected that
the blackleg' plot had failed, he couldn't be certain enough to take a
chance like this.

The foreman's manner gave Buck no clue. At dinner he was unusually silent
and morose, taking no part in the discussion of this latest outrage, which
the others kept up with such a convincing semblance of indignation. To
Stratton he acted like a man who has come to some new and not altogether
agreeable decision, which in any other person would probably mean that he
had at last made up his mind to call in the sheriff. But Buck was
convinced that this was the last thing Lynch intended to do, and gradually
there grew up in his mind, fostered by one or two trifling particulars in
Tex's manner toward himself, a curious, instinctive feeling of premonitory
caution.

This increased during the afternoon, when the men were sent out to repair
the broken fence, while Lynch remained behind. It fed on little details,
such as a chance side glance from one of the men, or the sight of two of
them in low-voiced conversation when he was not supposed to be
looking--details he would scarcely have noticed ordinarily. Toward the end
of the day Buck had grown almost certain that some fresh move was being
directed against himself, and when the blow fell only its nature came as a
surprise.

The foreman was standing near the corral when they returned, and as soon
as Stratton had unsaddled and turned his horse loose, Lynch drew him to
one side.

"Here's your time up to to-night," he said curtly, holding out a handful
of crumpled bills and silver. "Miss Thorne's decided she don't want yuh on
the outfit any longer."

For a moment Stratton regarded the foreman in silence, observing the glint
of veiled triumph in his eyes and the malicious curve of the full red
lips. The thought flashed through his mind that Lynch would hardly be
quite so pleased if he knew how much time Buck himself had given lately to
thinking up some scheme of plausibly bringing about this very situation.

"Is that so?" he drawled presently. "How did you work it?" he added, in
the casual tone of one seeking to gratify a trifling curiosity.

Lynch scowled. "Work it?" he snapped. "I didn't have to work it. Yuh know
damn well why you're sacked. Why should I waste time tellin' yuh?"

Stratton smiled blandly. "In that case I reckon I'll have to ask Miss
Thorne," he remarked, standing with legs slightly apart and thumbs hooked
loosely in his chap-belt. "I'm rather curious, you know."

"Like hell yuh will!" rasped Lynch, as Buck took a step or two toward the
house.

Impulsively Lynch's right hand dropped to his gun but as his fingers
touched the stock he found himself staring at the uptilted end of
Stratton's holster frayed a little at the end so that the glint of a blued
steel barrel showed through the leather.

"Just move your hand a mite," Buck suggested in a quiet, level tone, which
was nevertheless obeyed promptly. "Now, listen here. I want you to get
this. I ain't longing to stick around any outfit when the boss don't want
me. If the lady says I'm to go, I'll get out pronto; but I don't trust
you, and she's got to tell me that face to face before I move a step.
Sabe?"

His eyes narrowed slightly, and Lynch, crumpling the unheeded money in his
hand, stepped aside with an expression of baffled fury and watched him
stride along the side of the house and disappear around the corner.

He was far from lacking nerve, but he had suddenly remembered that letter
to Sheriff Hardenberg, regarding which he had long ago obtained
confirmation from Pop Daggett. If he could rely on the meaning of
Stratton's little anecdote--and he had an uncomfortable conviction that he
could--the letter would be opened in case Buck met his death by violence.
And once it was opened by the sheriff, only Tex Lynch how very much the
fat would be in the fire.

So, though his fingers twitched, he held his hand, and presently, hearing
voices in the living-room, he crept over to an open window and, standing
close to one side of it, bent his head to listen.





Next: The Primeval Instinct

Previous: Blackleg



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