Where The Wheel Tracks Led
From: Shoe Bar Stratton
Bud Jessup removed a battered stew-pan from the fire and set it aside to
cool a little.
"Well, by this time I reckon friend Tex is all worked up over what's
become of me," he remarked in a tone of satisfaction, deftly shifting the
coffee-pot to a bed of deeper coals. "He's sure tried often enough to get
rid of me, but I don't guess he quite relishes my droppin' out of sight
Buck Stratton, his back resting comfortably against a rock a little way
from the fire, nodded absently.
"You're sure you didn't leave any trace they could pick up?" he asked with
a touch of anxiety.
"Certain sure," returned Jessup confidently. "When Miss Mary came in
around four, I was in the wagon-shed, the rest of the crowd bein' down in
south pasture. Like I told yuh before, she had a good-sized package all
done up nice in her hand, an' it didn't take her long to tell me what was
up. Then we walks out together an' stops by the kitchen door.
"'Yuh better get yore supper at the hotel,' she says, an' ride back
afterwards. 'I meant to send in right after dinner to mail the package,
but I got held up out on the range.'
"Then she seems to catch sight of the greaser for the first time jest
inside the door, though I noticed him snoopin' there when we first come
"'I hope yuh got somethin' left from dinner, Pedro,' she says, with one of
them careless natural smiles of hers, like as if she hadn't a care on her
mind except food. 'I'm half starved.'"
Bud sighed and finished with a note of admiration. "Some girl, all
"You've said it," agreed Buck fervently.
His appearance had improved surprisingly in the ten days that had passed
since his accident. The head-bandage was gone, and his swollen ankle,
though still tender at times, had been reduced to almost normal size by
constant applications of cold water. His body was still tightly strapped
up with yards and yards of bandage, which Mary Thorne had thoughtfully
packed, with a number of other first-aid necessities, in the parcel which
was Bud's excuse for making a trip to town.
Stratton was not certain that a rib had been broken after all. When Jessup
came to examine him he found the flesh terribly bruised and refrained from
any unnecessary prodding. It was still somewhat painful to the touch, but
from the ease with which he could get about, Buck had a notion that at
the worst the bone was merely cracked.
"They wouldn't be likely to notice where you left the Paloma trail, would
they?" Buck asked, after a brief retrospective silence.
"Not unless they're a whole lot better trackers than I think for," Jessup
assured him. "I picked a rocky place this side of the gully, an' cut
around the north end of middle pasture, where the land slopes down a bit,
an' yuh can't be seen from the south more 'n a quarter of a mile. I kept
my eyes peeled, believe me! an' didn't glimpse a soul all the way. I
wouldn't fret none about their followin' me here."
"I reckon it is foolish," admitted Stratton. "But lying around not able to
do anything makes a fellow think up all kinds of trouble. Lynch isn't a
fool, and there's no doubt when you didn't come back that night he'd begin
to smell a rat right off."
"Sure. An' next day he likely sent in to town, where he'd find out from
old Pop that I never showed up there at all. After that, accordin' to my
figgerin', he'd be up against it hard. Yuh can bank on Miss Mary playin'
the game, an' registerin' surprise an' worry an' all the rest of it. There
ain't a chance in the world of his thinkin' to look for me here."
"I reckon that's true. Of course we've got to remember that so far as he
knows I'm out of the way for good."
Bud took up coffee-pot and stew-pan and set them down beside Stratton,
where the rest of the meal was spread.
"Sure," he chuckled, dropping down against the ledge. "Officially, you're
a corpse. That's yore strong point, old-timer. By golly!" he added, with a
sudden, fierce revulsion of spirit. "I only hope I'll be on hand when he
gets what's comin' to him, the damn', cowardly skunk!"
"Maybe you will," commented Buck grimly. "Well, let's eat. Seems like I do
nothing but eat and sleep and loaf around. I've a good notion to bust up
the monotony," he added, after a few minutes had passed in the silent
consumption of food, "and take that trip to north pasture to-morrow."
"Don't be loco," Bud told him hastily. "Yuh ain't fit for nothin' like
"I did it a few days ago," Stratton reminded him, "and I'm feeling a
hundred per cent. better now."
"Mebbe so; but what's the use in takin' chances? We got plenty of time."
"I'm not so sure of that," Buck said seriously. "You say that Lynch thinks
I'm dead and out of the way. Well, maybe he does; but unless he's a lot
bigger fool than I think for, he's not going to leave a body around in
plain sight for anybody to find. He'll be slipping down into that gulch
one of these days to get rid of it, and when he finds there ain't any
"He'll begin to see he's got into one hell of a mess, I reckon," commented
"Right. And he'll be willing to do anything on earth to crawl out safe.
Like enough he'll connect your disappearance with the business, and that
would worry him more than ever. He might even get scared enough to throw
up the whole game and beat it; and believe me, that wouldn't suit me at
"Yuh said a mouthful!" snarled Jessup. "If that hellion should get
away--Say, Buck, why couldn't yuh get him for attempted murder?"
"I might, but the witnesses are all on his side, and there'd be a good
chance of his slipping out. Besides, I'm set on finding out first what his
game is. I'm dead certain now it's connected somehow with the north
pasture, and I've an idea it's something big. That car I told you about,
and everything--Well, there's no sense guessing any longer when we can
make a stab at finding out. We'll start the first thing to-morrow."
Bud made no further protest, and at dawn next morning they left camp and
set out northward through the hills. It was a slow journey, and toward the
end of it Buck felt rather seedy. But this was only natural, he told
himself, after lying around and doing nothing; and he even wished he had
made the move sooner.
Both he and Jessup were conscious of a growing excitement as they neared
the goal from which circumstances had held them back so long. Were they
going to find out something definite at last? Or would fate thrust another
unexpected obstacle in their way? Above all, if fortune proved kind, what
would be the character of their discovery?
Immensely intrigued and curious, Bud chattered constantly throughout the
ride, suggesting all sorts of solutions of the problem, some of which were
rather far-fetched. Gold was his favorite--as it has been the favorite
lure for adventurers all down the ages--and he drew an entrancing picture
of desert sands sprinkled with the yellow dust. He thought of other
precious metals, too, and even gave a passing consideration to a deposit
of diamonds or some other precious or semi-precious stones. Once he
switched off oddly on the subject of prehistoric remains, and Stratton's
surprised inquiry revealed the fact that three years ago he had worked for
a party of scientific excavators in Montana.
"Them bones and skeletons as big as houses bring a pile of money, believe
me!" he assured his companion. "The country up there ain't a mite
different from this, neither."
Buck himself was unusually silent and abstracted. During the last ten days
of enforced idleness he had considered the subject for hours at a time and
from every conceivable angle, with the result that a certain possibility
occurred to him and persisted in lingering in his mind, in spite of its
seeming improbability. It was so vague and unlikely that he said nothing
about it to Bud; but now, mounting the steep trail, the thought of it came
back with gathering strength, and he wondered whether it could possibly be
Advancing with every possible precaution, they gained the summit and
passed on down the other side. Before them lay the desert, glittering and
glowing in the morning sun, without a sign of alien presence. Keeping a
sharp lookout, they reached the little, half-circular recess in the cliffs
that formed the end of the trail, and paused.
No rain had fallen in the last ten days and the print of motor-tires was
almost as clear and unmistakable as the day it had been made. They could
make out easily where the car had been driven in, the footprints about it,
and the marks left by its turning; and with equal lack of difficulty they
picked out the track made as it departed.
The latter headed north, but Stratton was not interested in it. Without
hesitation he selected the incoming trail, and the two followed it out
into the desert. For a few hundred yards they rode almost due east. Then
the wheel-marks turned abruptly to the south, and a little further on Buck
noted the prints of a galloping horse beside them.
"Lynch, I reckon," he commented, pointing them out to his companion. "When
he saw me up on the cliffs down yonder, he must have hustled to catch up
with the car."
Neither of them spoke again until they reached the spot where Buck had
seen the car stop and the men get out and walk about. Here they dismounted
and followed the footprints with careful scrutiny. Bud saw nothing
significant, and when they had covered the ground thoroughly, he expressed
his disappointment freely. Stratton merely shrugged his shoulders.
"We'll follow the back track and see where else they stopped," he said
His voice was a little hoarse, and there was an odd gleam in his eyes.
When they were in the saddle again, he urged his horse forward at a speed
which presently brought a protest from Jessup.
"Yuh better take it easy, old man," he cautioned. "If that cayuse steps in
a hole, you're apt to get a jolt that'll put you out of business."
"I don't guess it'll hurt me," returned Stratton with preoccupied
Bud gave a resigned shrug, and for ten minutes the silence remained
unbroken. Then all at once Buck gave a muttered exclamation and pulled
his horse up with a jerk.
They were on the rim of a wide, shallow depression in the sand. There was
nothing remarkable about it at first sight, save, perhaps, the total
absence of desert vegetation for some distance all around. But Stratton
slid hastily out of his saddle, flung the reins over Pete's head, and
walked swiftly forward. Thrilled with a sudden excitement and suspense,
"What is it?" he questioned eagerly, as Buck bent down to scoop up a
handful of the trampled sand. "What have yuh--"
He broke off abruptly as Stratton turned suddenly on him, eyes dilated and
a spot of vivid color glowing on each cheek-bone.
"Don't you see?" he demanded, thrusting his hand toward the boy. "Don't
Staring at the open palm, Jessup's eyes widened and his jaw dropped.
"Good Lord!" he gasped. "You don't mean that it--it's--"
He paused incredulously, and Buck nodded.
"I'm sure of it," he stated crisply.
Next: The Secret Of North Pasture