An Hour Too Late





"I had an idea that's who it was when you described him," said Sheriff

Hardenberg, to whom Stratton returned at once with the news. "There's only

one 'Paul' around here who fits the bill, and he sure does to

perfection."



"Who is he?" asked Buck curiously.



Hardenberg's eyes narrowed. "The slickest piece of goods in the State of

Arizona, I'd say. He's been mixed up in more crooked deals than any man I

ever ran up against; but he's so gol-darn cute nobody's ever been able to

catch him with the goods."



"He sure don't look it," commented Stratton. "With that baby stare of his

and--"



"I know," interrupted the sheriff. "That's part of his stock in trade;

it's pulled many a sucker. He's got a mighty convincing way about him,

believe me! He can tell the damnedest bunch of lies, looking you straight

in the eyes all the time, till you'd swear everything he said was gospel.

But his big specialty is egging somebody else on to do the dirty work, and

when the dangerous part is over, he steps in and hogs most of the

profits. He's organized fake mining companies and stock companies. Last

year he got up a big cattle-raising combine, persuaded three or four men

over in the next county to pool their outfits, and issued stock for about

three times what it was worth. It busted up, of course, but not before

he'd sold a big block to some Eastern suckers and got away with the

proceeds."



"I'd think that would have been enough to land him."



"You would, wouldn't you?" returned Hardenberg with a shrug. "But the

law's a tricky business sometimes, and he managed to shave the line just

close enough to be safe. Well, it looks as if we had a chance of bagging

him at last," he added in a tone of heartfelt satisfaction.



"Going to arrest him before we start for the Shoe-Bar?" asked Buck.



Hardenberg laughed shortly. "Hell, no! You don't know Paul Draper if you

think he could be convicted on your statement, unsupported by witnesses.

Believe me, by this time he's doped out an iron-clad alibi, or something,

and we wouldn't have a chance. But if one of the Shoe-Bar gang should turn

State's evidence, that's another matter."



"Aren't you afraid he may beat it if you let him go that long?"



"I'll see to that. One of my men will start for Amarillo right away and

keep him in sight till we come back. By the way, we've got Jose Maria, and

that guy you fired through the window. Caught the old fox sneaking back of

those shacks along the north road."



"Going to warn Lynch, I reckon," suggested Buck crisply.



"That's what I thought, so I strung some men along at likely points to

pick up any more that may try the same trick. I haven't got anything out

of Jose yet, but a little thumbscrewing may produce results. I'll tell you

about it to-night."



It was late when he finally appeared at the hotel lobby, and he had no

very favorable news to impart. Jose Maria, it appeared, had stuck to the

story of being engaged by an alleged Federal official to apprehend two

outlaws, whose descriptions fitted Buck and his companion perfectly. He

admitted having engaged the other Mexicans to help him, but swore that he

had never intended any harm to the two men. Their instructions were merely

to capture and hold them until the arrival of the supposed official.



"All rot, of course," Hardenberg stated in conclusion. "But it hangs

together a bit too well for any greaser to have thought out by himself. I

reckon that cow-man who got you into the joint was responsible for the

yarn and told Jose to give it out in case things should go wrong. Well, I

won't waste any more time on the bunch. You two be around about seven

to-morrow. I'd like to start sooner, but some of the boys have to come in

from a distance."



Buck and Jessup were there ahead of time, but it was more than an hour

later when the posse left Perilla. There were about twenty men in all, for

Hardenberg planned to send a portion of them across country to guard the

outlet of that secret trail through the mountains of which Buck had told

him. If Lynch and his men had any warning of their coming, or happened to

be out on the range, the chances were all in favor of their making for the

mountains and trying to escape by the cattle rustlers' route.



During the ride the thought of Mary Thorne was often in Buck's mind. He

did not fear for her personal safety. Alf Manning was there, and though

Stratton did not like him he had never doubted the fellow's courage or his

ability to act as a protector to the three women, should the need arise.

But that such a need would arise seemed most unlikely, for Lynch had

nothing to gain by treating the girl save with respect and consideration.

He had no compunction about robbing her, but she could scarcely be

expected to enter further into his schemes and calculations, especially at

a time when his whole mind must be a turmoil of doubt and fear and

uncertainty as to the future.



Nevertheless, Buck wished more than once that he had been able to get in

touch with her since that memorable afternoon when he had watched her

ride out of sight down the little canyon, if only to prepare her for what

was going on. It must have been very hard for her to go about day after

day, knowing nothing, suspecting a thousand things, fretting, worrying,

with not a soul to confide in, yet forced continually to present an

untroubled countenance to those about her.



"Thank the Lord it'll soon be over and she'll be relieved," he thought,

when they finally came in sight of the ranch-house.



As the posse swept through the lower gate and up the slope, Buck's eyes

searched the building keenly. Not a soul was in sight, either there or

about the corrals. He had seen it thus apparently deserted more than once

before, and told himself now that his uneasiness was absurd. But when the

girl suddenly appeared on the veranda and stood staring at the approaching

horsemen, Buck's heart leaped with a sudden spasm of intense relief, and

unconsciously he spurred his horse ahead of the others.



As he swung himself out of the saddle, she came swiftly forward, her face

glowing with surprise and pleasure.



"Oh, I'm so glad you've come," she said in a low, quick voice, clasping

his outstretched hand. "We've been worrying--You--you're quite all right

now?"



"Fine and dandy," Buck assured her. "Thanks to you, and Bud, I'm perfectly

whole again."



She greeted Jessup, who came up smiling, and then Sheriff Hardenberg was

presented.



"Very glad to meet you, Miss Thorne," he said. There was a faint twinkle

in his eyes as he glanced toward Stratton for an instant, his belief

confirmed as to the principal reason for Buck's desire to keep the secret

of the Shoe-Bar ownership. Then he became businesslike.



"Where's Lynch and the rest of 'em?" he asked briskly.



The girl's face grew suddenly serious. "I don't know," she answered

quickly. "They were all working about the barns until a strange cow-boy

rode in about two hours ago. I saw him pass the window but didn't think

much about it. About half an hour or so later I went out to give some

orders to Pedro; he's the cook, you know. But he wasn't there and neither

was Maria, and when I went out to the barns the men were gone. Of course

something urgent might easily have taken them out on the range, but

neither Maria nor Pedro has been off the place for weeks. Besides, when I

peeped into the bunk-house everything was tossed about in confusion, as

if--Well, I was afraid something--had happened."



"Something has," stated the sheriff grimly. "The truth is, that scoundrel

Lynch has got to the end of his rope, and we're after him."



The girl's face paled, then flushed deeply. "What--what is it?" she asked

in a low, troubled voice. "What has he--"



"It's rather a long story, and I'm afraid there isn't time to stop and

tell you now," explained the sheriff as she paused. "We've got to make

every minute count. You have no idea which way they went?"



"It must have been west or south," the girl answered promptly. "If they'd

gone any other way I should have seen them."



"Fine," said Hardenberg, wheeling his horse. "Don't you worry about

anything," he added over one shoulder. "We'll be back in a jiffy."



As he and his men spurred down the slope toward the entrance to middle

pasture, the girl's eyes sought Stratton's.



"You--"



"I must." He quickly answered her unspoken question. "They'll need us to

show them the way. We'll be back, though, as soon as we possibly can.

You're not nervous, are you? You're perfectly safe, of course, with--"



"Of course," she assured him promptly. "Lynch has gone. There'll be

nothing for us to worry about here. Good-by, then, for a while. And do be

careful--both of you."



Her face was a trifle pale, and about her mouth and chin were traced a few

faint lines which hinted vaguely of forced composure. As Buck hastened to

overtake the posse, he recalled her expression, and wondered with a

troubled qualm whether she wasn't really more nervous than she let herself

appear. Perhaps she might have been more comfortable if he or Bud had

remained at the ranch-house.



"Probably it's all my imagination," he decided at length. "With Manning

there, she's perfectly safe, especially as we've got the whole gang on the

run. The ranch-house would be the very last place they'd head for."





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