From: Shoe Bar Stratton
Instantly a sense of elation, tingling as an electric shock, surged over
Stratton, and his grip on the Colt tightened. At last he was face to face
with something definite and concrete, and in a moment all the little
doubts and nagging nervous qualms which had assailed him from time to time
during his long vigil were swept away. Cautiously drawing his gun into
position, he felt for a match with the other hand and prepared to scratch
it against the side of the bunk.
Slowly, stealthily, with many a cautious pause, the crawling body drew
steadily nearer. Though the intense darkness prevented him from seeing
anything, Buck felt at last that he had correctly gaged the position of
the unknown plotter. Trying to continue that easy, steady breathing, which
had been no easy matter, he slightly raised his weapon and then, with a
sudden, lightning movement, he drew the match firmly across the rough
To his anger and chagrin the head broke off. Before he could snatch up
another and strike it viciously, there came from close at hand a sudden
rustle, a creak, the clatter of something on the floor, followed by dead
silence. When the light flared up, illumining dimly almost the whole
length of the room, there was nothing in the least suspicious to be seen.
Nevertheless, with inward cursing, Stratton sprang up and lit the lamp he
had used early in the evening and which he had purposely left within
reach. With this added illumination he made a discovery that brought his
lips together in a grim line.
Someone lay stretched out in the bunk next to his own--Jessup's bunk,
which had been empty when he went to bed.
For a fleeting instant Buck wondered whether Bud could possibly have
returned and crawled in there unheard. Then, as the wick flared up, he not
only realized that this couldn't have happened, but recognized lying on
the youngster's rolled-up blankets the stout figure and round, unshaven
face of--Slim McCabe.
As he stood staring at the fellow, there was a stir from further down the
room and a sleepy voice growled:
"What's the matter? It ain't time to get up yet, is it?"
Buck, who had just caught a glint of steel on the floor at the edge of the
bunk, pulled himself together.
"No; I--I must have had a--nightmare," he returned in a realistically
dazed tone. "I was dreaming about--rustlers, and thought I heard somebody
Still watching McCabe surreptitiously, he saw the fellow's lids lift
"W'a's matter?" murmured Slim, blinking at the lamp.
"Nothing. I was dreaming. What the devil are you doing in that bunk?"
McCabe appeared to rouse himself with an effort and partly sat up, yawning
"It was hot in my own, so I come over here to get the air from the
window," he mumbled. "What's the idea of waking a guy up in the middle of
Buck did not answer for a moment but, stepping back, trod as if by
accident on the end of his trailing blanket. As he intended, the movement
sent his holster and belt tumbling to the floor, and with perfect
naturalness he stooped to pick them up. When he straightened, his face
betrayed nothing of the grim satisfaction he felt at having proved his
point. The bit of steel was a hunting-knife with a seven-inch blade, sharp
as a razor, and with a distinctive stag-horn handle, which Tex Lynch had
used only a few evenings before to remove the skin from a coyote he had
"Sorry, but I was dreaming," drawled Stratton. "No harm done, though, is
there? You ain't likely to stay awake long."
Without further comment he blew out the light and crawled into bed again.
He found no difficulty now in keeping awake for the remainder of the
night; there was too much to think about and decide. Now that he had
measured the lengths to which Lynch seemed willing to go, he realized that
a continuance of present conditions was impossible. An exact repetition of
this particular attempt was unlikely, but there were plenty of variations
against which no single individual could hope to guard. He must bring
things to a head at once, either by quitting the ranch, by playing the
important card of his own identity he had so far held back, or else by
finding some other way of tying Lynch's hands effectually. He was equally
reluctant to take either of the two former steps, and so it pleased him
greatly when at last he began to see his way toward working things out in
"I'm blessed if that won't put a spoke in his wheel," he thought
jubilantly, considering details. "He won't dare to touch me."
When dawn came filtering through the windows, and one thing after another
slowly emerged from the obscurity, Buck's eyes swiftly sought the floor
below Bud's bunk. But though McCabe lay there snoring loudly, the knife
Though outwardly everything seemed normal, Buck noticed a slight
restlessness and laxing tension about the men that morning. There was
delay in getting to work, which might have been accounted for by the
cessation of one job and the starting of another. But knowing what he did,
Stratton felt that the flat failure of their plot had much to do with it.
He himself took advantage of the lull to slip away to the harness-room on
the plea of mending a rip in the stitching of his chaps. Pulling a box
over by the window where he could see anyone approaching, he produced
pencil and paper and proceeded to write out a rather voluminous document,
which he afterward read over and corrected carefully. He sealed it up in
an envelope, wrote a much briefer note, and enclosed both in a second
envelope which he addressed to Sheriff J. Hardenberg. Finally he felt
around in his pocket and pulled forth the scrawl he had composed the night
"They look about the same," he murmured, comparing them. "Nobody will
notice the difference."
Buck was on the point of sealing the envelope containing the scrawl when
it occurred to him to read the contents over and see what he had written.
The letter was headed "Dear Friend," and proved to be a curious
composition. With a mind intent on other things, Stratton had written
almost mechanically, intending merely to give an air of reality to his
occupation. In the beginning the scrawl read very much as if the "friend"
were masculine. Bits of ranch happenings and descriptions were jotted down
as one would in writing to a cow-boy friend located on a distant outfit.
But gradually, imperceptibly almost, the tone shifted. Buck himself had
been totally unaware of any change until he read over the last few pages.
And then, as he took in the subtle undercurrent of meaning which lay
beneath the penciled lines, a slow flush crept up into his face, and he
It was all rot, of course! He had merely written for the sake of writing
something--anything. She was a nice little thing, of course, with an
attractive feminine manner and an unexpected lot of nerve. He was sorry
for her, naturally, and would like to help her out of what he felt to be a
most disagreeable, if not hazardous situation. But as for anything
Still frowning, he thrust the sheets back into the envelope and licked the
flap. He was on the point of stubbornly scrawling a man's name on the
outside when he realized how foolish he would be not to carry out his
first and much more sensible intention.
He wanted an excuse for asking permission to ride to town to post a
letter. This, in itself, was an extremely nervy request and under ordinary
conditions almost certain to be profanely refused. But Buck had a shrewd
notion that after the failure of Lynch's plans, the foreman might welcome
the chance of talking things over with his confederates without danger of
being observed or overheard. On the other hand, if there should be the
least suspicion that his letter was not of the most innocent and harmless
sort, he would never in the world be allowed to get away with it.
The result was that when he strolled out of the harness-room a little
later the envelope bearing the name of Sheriff Hardenberg reposed within
his shirt, while the other, addressed now to a mythical "Miss Florence
Denby," at an equally mythical street number in Dallas, Texas, protruded
from a pocket of his chaps.
"I don't s'pose you've got a stamp you'll sell me," he inquired of Lynch,
whom he found in the bunk-house with McCabe. "I'd like to get this letter
off as soon as I can."
Balancing the envelope in his hand, he held it so that the foreman could
easily read the address.
"I might have," returned Lynch briefly. "Looks like that letter was heavy
enough to need two."
Buck allowed him to weigh it in his hand for an instant, and then, in
simulated confusion, he snatched it back.
"Must be writin' to yore girl," grinned McCabe, who had also been
regarding the address curiously.
Stratton retorted in a convincingly embarrassed fashion, received his
stamps and then proffered his request, which was finally granted with an
air of reluctance and much grumbling.
"I wouldn't let yuh go, only I don't know what the devil's keepin' that
fool Bud," growled Lynch. "Yuh tell the son-of-a-gun I ain't expectin' him
to stop in town the rest of his natural life. If them wagon-bolts ain't
come, we'll have to do without 'em. Yuh bring him back with yuh, an' see
yuh both get here by dinner time without fail."
Buck gave the desired promise and, hastily saddling up, departed. About
three miles from the ranch, he rode off to the side of the trail and
dismounted beside a stunted mesquite. Under its twisting branches, he dug
a hole with the toe of his boot and interred therein Miss Florence Denby's
letter, torn into small fragments.
This done he swung himself into the saddle and headed again for Paloma
Springs, and as he rode he began to whistle blithely.