Blackleg





More than once during the next ten minutes Buck cursed himself inwardly

for not having brought along the small but powerful pair of field-glasses

that were tucked away in his bag. He had picked them up at the Divisional

Headquarters only a week or two before the Belleau Woods business, and how

they had stuck to him until his arrival in America remained one of the

minor mysteries of that vanished year. He would have given anything for

them now, for though he could make out fairly well the movements of the

two men, he was too far away to distinguish their faces.



Watching closely, he saw that the first fellow was taking down a short

section of the fence, either by cutting or by pulling out the staples.

When this lay flat he remounted and, joining his companion, the two

proceeded to drive through the gap nothing more significant than a

solitary steer.



It was a yearling, Buck could easily see even at that distance, and he

almost laughed aloud at the sudden let-down of suspense. By this time a

little individual trick of carriage made him suspect that the foremost

puncher was Butch Siegrist, and when the men came into clearer view, he

recognized scarcely without question the big sorrel with white trimmings

on which Kreeger had ridden off that morning. The two men had found a

Shoe-Bar stray; that was all. And yet, on second thought, how did they

come to be here when they were supposed to be working at the very opposite

extremity of the ranch?



It was this query which made Stratton refrain from showing himself. With

considerable annoyance, for time was passing, he waited where he was until

the two men had gone back through the gap in the fence and restored the

wires. He watched them turn northward and ride rapidly across the sandy

waste until at length their diminishing figures disappeared into the

distance. Even then it was ten or fifteen minutes before he emerged from

his seclusion, and when he finally did he headed straight for the young

steer, who had been the cause of so much exertion on the part of the two

men who ordinarily shirked work whenever they could.



Under the lash of a rope, the animal had lumbered across the pasture for

several hundred yards, where he paused languidly to crunch some

bunch-grass. There was an air of lassitude and weakness about the creature

which made Buck, as he approached, eye it with anxious intentness. A dozen

feet or so away he jerked his horse to a standstill and caught his breath

with an odd whistling sound.



"Great Godfrey!" he breathed.



Bending slightly forward in the saddle, he stared at the creature's

badly-swollen off hind leg, but there was no need whatever for a prolonged

inspection. Having been through one blackleg epidemic back in Texas, he

knew the signs only too well.



"That's it, sure enough," he muttered, straightening up.



His gaze swept across the prairie to where, half a mile away, a bunch of

Shoe-Bar cattle grazed peacefully. If this sick beast should get amongst

them, the yearlings at least, to whom the disease is fatal, would be dying

like flies in twenty-four hours. Buck glanced back at the steer again, and

as he noted the T-T brand, his face hardened and he began taking down his

rope.



"The hellions!" he grated, an angry flush darkening his tan. "They ought

to be strung up."



The animal started to move away, and Buck lost no time in roping him. Then

he turned his horse and urged him toward the fence, dragging the reluctant

brute behind. Fortunately he had his pliers in the saddle-pocket, and,

taking down the wires, he forced the creature through and headed for a

deep gully the mouth of which lay a few hundred yards to the left.

Penetrating into this as far as he was able, he took out his Colt and

deliberately shot the steer through the head. And if Kreeger or Siegrist

had been present at that moment, he was furious enough to treat either of

them in the same way without a particle of compunction.



"Hanging would be too good for them, the dirty beasts!" he grated.



The thing had been so fiendishly cold-blooded and calculating that it made

his blood boil, for it was perfectly evident now to Buck that he had

thwarted a deliberate plot to introduce the blackleg scourge among the

Shoe-Bar cattle. Instead of riding fence, the two punchers must have made

their roundabout way immediately to the stricken T-T ranch, secured in

some manner an infected yearling and brought it back through the twisting

mountain trail Bud had spoken of a few days before.



Lynch's was the directing spirit, of course; for none of the others would

dare act save under his orders. But what was his object? What could he

possibly hope to gain by such a thing? Buck could understand a man

allowing rustlers to loot a ranch, if the same individual were in with

them secretly and shared the plunder. But there was no profit in this for

anyone--only an infinite amount of trouble and worry and extra work for

them all, to say nothing of great financial loss to--Mary Thorne.



When Stratton had secured his rope and rode back to the Shoe-Bar pasture,

his face was thoughtful. He was thinking of those excellent offers for the

outfit Miss Thorne had lately spoken of, which Lynch was so anxious for

her to accept. Could the foreman's plotting be for the purpose of forcing

her to sell? From something she had let fall, Buck guessed that she was

more or less dependent on the income from the ranch, and if this failed

she might no longer be able to hold the property.



But even supposing this was true, it all still failed to make sense. The

land itself was good enough, as Stratton knew from his former careful

inspections, but it would be of little use for any purpose save ranching;

and since the value of a cattle-ranch consists largely in the cattle

themselves, it followed logically that by reducing the number, by theft,

by disease, or any other means, the value would be very much less to a

prospective purchaser.



Unable to make head or tail of the problem, Buck finally gave it up for

the time being. He put back the fence with care and then headed straight

for the ranch. There was no time left for the desired inspection of the

north pasture. To undertake it now would mean a much longer delay than he

could plausibly explain, and he was particularly anxious to avoid the need

of any explanation which might arouse suspicion that the criminal action

of the two men had been overseen.



"If they guessed, they'd be likely to try it again," he thought, "and

another time they might succeed."



Stratton managed his route so that for the last two miles it took exactly

the course he would have followed in returning directly from Las Vegas

camp. His plan was further favored by the discovery that none of the men

save Bud were anywhere about the ranch-house.



"Gone off to ride fence along with Flint an' Butch," Jessup informed him,

when Buck located him in the wagon-shed. "Wonder why he's so awful

interested in fences all of a sudden," he went on thoughtfully. "They've

been let go all over the ranch till they're plumb fallin' to pieces."



"You've got me," shrugged Stratton. He had been cogitating whether or not

to confide in Bud, and finally decided in the negative. It would do no

particular good, and the youngster might impulsively let out something to

the others. "Why didn't they take you along, too?"



"I sure wish they had," Bud answered shortly. "Then I wouldn't of had to

be lookin' at that all afternoon."



He straightened from the wagon-body he was tinkering and waved a wrench

toward the window behind Stratton. Turning quickly, the latter saw that it

looked out on the rear of the ranch-house, where there were a few stunted

trees and a not altogether successful attempt at a small flower-garden.

On a rough, rustic bench under one of the trees sat young Manning and Mary

Thorne, in earnest conversation.



"Sickening, ain't it?" commented Bud, taking encouragement from Stratton's

involuntary frown. "I been expectin' 'em to hold hands any minute."



Buck laughed, mainly because he was annoyed with himself for feeling any

emotion whatever. "You don't seem to like Mr. Alfred Manning," he

remarked.



"Who would?" snorted Jessup. "He sure gets my goat, with them dude

clothes, an' that misplaced piece of eyebrow on his lip, an' his superior

airs. I wouldn't of thought Miss Mary was the kind to--"



"Where's--er--Miss Manning?" broke in Buck, reluctant to continue the

discussion.



"Gone in with Mrs. Archer," Bud explained, "They was both out there a

while ago, but I reckon they got tired hangin' around."



Stratton turned his back on the dingy window and fell to work on the wagon

with Bud.



"Seen Bemis lately?" he asked presently, realizing of a sudden that he had

not visited the invalid for several days.



Bud sniffed. "Sure. I was in there this mornin'. He's outa bed now

moochin' around the room an' countin' the hours till he can back a

horse."



"Still got that notion the outfit isn't safe?"



"I'll tell the world! He says life's too short to take any more chances

of bein' bumped off. Tried to make me believe my turn'll come next."



Stratton shrugged his shoulders. "I reckon there isn't much chance of

that. They're not keen to get the sheriff down on their trail. Well, if he

feels like that he wouldn't be much use here even if we could persuade him

to stick."



About half-past five they decided to call it a day and went down to the

bunk-house, through the open door of which Buck presently observed the

arrival of the remainder of the outfit. They came from the east, and

Kreeger and Siegrist were with them. As Buck expected, the former rode the

sorrel with distinctive white markings, while the latter bestrode a

nondescript bay. The second of the two riders he had watched that

afternoon had been mounted on just such a bay, and if there had been a

lingering touch of doubt in Stratton's mind as to the identity of the two

criminals, it remained no longer.





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