Buck Finds Out Something





When the fact is chronicled that no less than three times in the

succeeding eight days Buck Stratton was strongly tempted to put an end to

the whole puzzling business by the simple expedient of declaring his

identity and taking possession of the Shoe-Bar as his own, something may

be guessed of the ingenuity of Tex Lynch in making life unpleasant for the

new hand.



Buck told himself more than once that if he had really been a new hand and

nothing more, he wouldn't have lasted forty-eight hours. Any

self-respecting cow-man would have promptly demanded his time and betaken

himself to another outfit, and Stratton sometimes wondered whether his

mere acceptance of the persecution might not rouse the foreman's suspicion

that he had motives for staying which did not appear on the surface.



He had to admit that Lynch's whole course of action was rather cleverly

worked out. It consisted mainly in giving Stratton the most difficult and

arduous work to do, and keeping him at it longer than anyone else, not

only on the round-up, but while driving the herd to Paloma Springs and

right up to the point where the steers were loaded on cattle-cars and the

job was over.



That, broadly speaking, was the scheme; but there were delicate touches of

refinement and ingenuity in the process which wrung from Stratton, in rare

intervals when he was not too furious to judge calmly, a grudging measure

of admiration for the wily foreman. Frequently, for instance, Stratton

would be assigned to night-herd duty with promise of relief at a certain

hour. Almost always that relief failed to materialize, and Buck, unable to

leave the herd, reeling with fatigue and cursing impotently, had to keep

at it till daybreak. The erring puncher generally had an excellent excuse,

which might have passed muster once, but which grew threadbare with

repetition.



Then, after an hour or two of sleep, the victim was more likely than not

to be dragged out of bed and ordered to take the place of Peters, Kreeger,

or one of the others, who had been sent to the ranch or elsewhere on

so-called necessary business. More than once the others got started on a

meal ahead of him, and what food remained was cold, unappetizing, and

scant in quantity. There were other little things Lynch thought of from

time to time to make Buck's life miserable, and he quite succeeded, though

it must be said that Stratton's hard-won self-control prevented the

foreman from enjoying the full measure of his triumph.



What chiefly influenced Buck in holding back his big card and scoring

against them all was the feeling that Mary Thorne would be the one to

suffer most. He would be putting an abrupt finish to Lynch's game,

whatever that was, but his action would also involve the girl in deep and

bitter humiliation, if not something worse. Moreover, he was not quite

ready to stop Lynch's scheming. He wanted to find out first what it was

all about, and he felt he had a better chance of success by continuing to

play his present part, hedged in and handicapped though he was, than by

coming out suddenly in his own proper person.



So he stuck it out to the end, successfully suppressing all evidence of

the smouldering rage that grew steadily within him against the whole

crowd. Returning to the ranch for the first time in more than a week, he

went to bed directly after supper and slept like a log until breakfast.

Rising, refreshed and fit, he decided that the time had come to abandon

his former haphazard methods of getting information, and to launch a

campaign of active detective work without further delay.



Since the night of Bemis's accident, Buck had scarcely had a word with Bud

Jessup, who he felt could give him some information, though he was not

counting much on the importance of what the youngster was likely to know.

Through the day there was no chance of getting the fellow apart. But Buck

kept his eyes and ears open, and at supper-time Bud's casual remark to

Lynch that he "s'posed he'd have to fix that busted saddle-girth before he

hit the hay" did not escape him.



The meal over, Stratton left the kitchen and headed for the bunk-house

with a purposeful air, soon leaving the others well in the rear. Presently

one of them snickered.



"Looks like the poor rube's goin' to tear off some more sleep," commented

Kreeger in a suppressed tone, evidently not thinking Stratton was near

enough to hear.



But Buck's ears were sharp, and his lips twitched in a grim smile as he

moved steadily on, shoulders purposely sagging. When he had passed through

the doorway his head went up abruptly and his whole manner changed.

Darting to his bunk, he snatched the blankets out and unrolled them with a

jerk. Scrambling his clothes and other belongings into a rough mound, he

swiftly spread the blankets over them, patted down a place or two to

increase the likeness to a human body, dropped his hat on the floor beside

the bunk, and then made a lightning exit through a window at the rear.



It was all accomplished with such celerity that before the dawdling

punchers had entered the bunk-house, Buck was out of sight among the

bushes which thickly lined the creek. From here he had no difficulty in

making his way unseen around to the back of the barns and other

out-buildings, one of which he entered through a rear door. A moment or

two later he found Jessup, as he expected, squatting on the floor of the

harness-room, busily mending his broken saddle-girth.



"Hello, Bud," he grinned, as the youngster looked up in surprise. "Thought

I'd come up and have a chin with you."



"But how the deuce--I thought they--yuh--"



"You thought right," replied Stratton, as Jessup hesitated. "Tex and his

friends have been sticking around pretty close for the past week or so,

but I gave 'em the slip just now."





Briefly he explained what he had done, and then paused, eying the young

fellow speculatively.



"There's something queer going on here, old man," he began presently.

"You'll say it's none of my business, maybe, and I reckon it isn't. But

unless I've sized 'em up wrong, Lynch and his gang are a bunch of crooks,

and I'm not the sort to sit back quietly and leave a lady like Miss Thorne

to their mercy."



Jessup's eyes widened. "What do yuh know?" he demanded. "What have yuh

found out?"



Buck shrugged his shoulders. "Found out? Why, nothing, really. But I've

seen enough to know that bunch is up to some deviltry, and naturally the

owner of the outfit is the one who'll suffer, in pocket, if not something

worse. It's a dirty deal, taking advantage of a girl's ignorance and

inexperience, as that gang sure is doing some way--specially a girl who's

as decent and white as she is. I thought maybe you and me might get

together and work out something. You don't act like you were for 'em any

more than I am."



"I'll tell a man I ain't!" declared Jessup emphatically. "They're a rotten

bunch. Yuh can go as far's you like, an' I'll stick with yuh. Have yuh got

anything on 'em?"



"Not exactly, but we may have if we put our heads together and talk it

over." He glanced questioningly around the dusty room. "They'll likely

find out the trick I played on 'em, and come snooping around here before

long. Suppose we slip out and go down by the creek where we can talk

without being interrupted."



Jessup agreed readily and followed Buck into the barn and out through the

back door, where they sought a secluded spot down by the stream, well

shielded by bushes.



"You've been here longer than I have and noticed a lot more," Stratton

remarked when they were settled. "I wish you'd tell me what you think that

bunch is up to. They haven't let me out of their sight for over a week.

What's the idea, anyhow?"



"They don't want yuh should find out anythin'," returned Bud promptly.



"That's what I s'posed, but what's there to find out? That's what I can't

seem to get at. Bemis says they're in with the rustlers, but even he seems

to think there's something else in the wind besides that."



Jessup snorted contemptuously. "Bemis--huh! I'm through with him. He's a

quitter. I was in chinnin' with him last night an' he's lost his nerve.

Says he's through, an' is goin' to take his time the minute he's fit to

back a horse. Still an' all," he added, forehead wrinkling thoughtfully,

"he's right in a way. There is somethin' doin' beside rustling, but I'm

hanged if I can find out what. The only thing I'm dead sure of is that

it's crooked. Look at the way they're tryin' to get rid of us--Rick an' me

an' you. Whatever they're up to they want the ranch to themselves before

they go any further. Now Rick's out of the way, I s'pose I'll be next.

They're tryin' their best to make me quit, but when they find out that

won't work, I reckon they'll try somethin'--worse."



"Why don't Lynch just up an' fire you?" Buck asked curiously. "He's

foreman."



Bud's young jaw tightened stubbornly. "He can't get nothin' on me," he

stated. "It's this way. When help begun to get shy a couple of months

ago--that's when he started his business of gittin' rid of the men one way

or another--Tex must of hinted around to Miss Mary that I was goin' to

quit, for she up an' asked me one day if it was true, an' said she hoped

me an' Rick wasn't goin' to leave like the rest of 'em."



He paused, a faint flush darkening his tan. "I dunno as you've noticed

it," he went on, plucking a long spear of grass and twisting it between

his brown fingers, "but Miss Mary's got a way about her that--that sort of

gets a man. She's so awful young, an'--an'--earnest, an' though she don't

know one thing hardly about ranchin', she's dead crazy about this place,

an' mighty anxious to make it pay. When she asks yuh to do somethin', yuh

jest natu'ally feel like yuh wanted to oblige. I felt like that, anyhow,

an' I was hot under the collar at Tex for lyin' about me like he must of

done. So I tells her straight off I wasn't thinkin' of anythin' of the

sort. 'Fu'thermore,' I says, 'I'll stick to the job as long as yuh like if

you'll do one thing.' She asks what's that, an' I told her that some

folks, namin' no names, was tryin' to make out to her I wasn't doin' my

work good, an' doin' their best to get me in bad.



"'Oh, but I think you're mistaken,' she says, catchin' on right away who I

meant. 'Tex wouldn't do anythin' like that. He needs help too bad, for

one thing.'



"'Well,' I says, 'let it go at that. Only, if yuh hear anythin' against

me, I'd like for yuh not to take anybody else's word for it. It's got to

be proved I ain't capable, or I've done somethin' I oughta be fired for.

An' if things gets so I got to go, I'll come to yuh an' ask for my time

myself. Fu'thermore, I'll get Rick to promise the same thing.'



"Well, to make a long story short, she said she'd do it, though I could

see she was still thinkin' me mistaken about Tex doin' anythin' out of the

way. He's a rotten skunk, but you'd better believe he don't let her see

it. He's got her so she believes every darn word he says is gospel."



He finished in an angry key. Stratton's face was thoughtful.



"How long has he been here?" he asked.



"Who? Tex? Oh, long before I come. The old man made him foreman pretty

near a year ago in place of Bloss, who run the outfit for Stratton, that

fellow who was killed in the war that old Thorne bought the ranch off

from."



"What sort of a man was this Thorne?" Buck presently inquired.



"Pretty decent, though kinda stand-offish with us fellows. He was awful

thick with Tex, though, an' mebbe that's the reason Miss Mary thinks so

much of him. She took his death mighty hard, believe me!"



With a mind groping after hidden clues, Stratton subconsciously

disentangled the various "hes" and "hims" of Jessup's slightly involved

remark.



"Pop Daggett told me about his being thrown and breaking his neck," he

said presently. "You were here then, weren't you? Was there anything queer

about it? I mean, like the two punchers who were killed later on?"



Jessup's eyes widened. "Queer?" he repeated. "Why, I--I never thought

about it that way. I wasn't around when it happened. Nobody was with him

but--but--Tex." He stared at Buck. "Yuh don't mean to say--"



"I don't say anything," returned Stratton, as he paused. "How can I,

without knowing the facts? Was the horse a bad one?"



"He was new--jest been put in the remuda. I never saw him rid except by

Doc Peters, who's a shark. I did notice, afterward, he was sorta mean,

though I've seen worse. We was on the spring round-up, jest startin' to

brand over in the middle pasture." Bud spoke slowly with thoughtfully

wrinkled brows. "It was right after dinner when the old man rode up on

Socks, the horse he gen'ally used. He seemed pretty excited for him. He

got hold of Tex right away, an' the two of them went off to one side an'

chinned consid'able. Then they changed the saddle onto this here paint

horse, Socks bein' sorta tuckered out, an' rode off together. It was near

three hours before Tex came gallopin' back alone with word that the old

man's horse had stepped in a hole an' throwed him, breakin' his neck."



"Was that part of it true?" asked Buck, who had been listening intently.



"About his neck? Sure. They had Doc Blanchard over right away. He'd been

throwed, all right, too, from the scratches on his face."



"Where did it happen?"



"Yuh got me. I wasn't one of the bunch that brought him in. I never

thought to ask afterwards, neither. It must of been somewhere up to the

north end of the ranch, though, if they kep' on goin' the way they

started."



For a moment or two Stratton sat silent, staring absently at the sloping

bank below him. Was there anything back of the ranch-owner's tragic death

save simple accident? The story was plausible enough. Holes were

plentiful, and it wouldn't be the first time a horse's stumble had

resulted fatally to the rider. On the other hand, it is quite possible, by

an abrupt though seemingly accidental thrust or collision, to stir a horse

of uncertain temper into sudden, vehement action. At length Buck sighed

and abandoned his cogitations as fruitless. Short of a miracle, that phase

of the problem was never likely to be answered.



"I wonder what took him off like that?" he pondered aloud. "Have you any

notion? Is there anything particular up that way?"



"Why, no. Nobody hardly ever goes there. They call it the north pasture,

but it's never used. There's nothin' there but sand an' cactus an' all

that; a goat couldn't hardly keep body an' soul together. Except once

lookin' for strays that got through the fence, I never set foot in it

myself."



Down in the shallow gully where they sat, the shadows were gathering,

showing that dusk was rapidly approaching. With a shake of his head and a

movement of his wide shoulders, Buck mentally dismissed that subject.



"It's getting dark," he said briskly. "We'll have to hustle, or there'll

be a searching party out after us. Have you noticed anything else

particularly--about Lynch, I mean, or any of the others?"



"Nothin' I can make sense of," returned Jessup. "Tex has been off the

ranch a lot. Two or three times he's stayed away over night. It might of

been reg'lar business, I s'pose, but once Bill Harris, over to the

Rockin'-R, said he'd seen him in Tucson with some guys in a big

automobile. That rustlin', of course, yuh know about. On the evidence, I

dunno as yuh could swear he was in it, but it's a sure thing that any

foreman worth his salt would of stopped the business before now, or else

get the sheriff on the job if he couldn't handle it himself."



"That's one thing I've wondered," commented Buck. "Why doesn't he? What's

his excuse for holding off?"



Bud gave a short, brittle laugh. "I'll tell yuh. He says the sheriff's a

crook! What do you know about that? I heard him tellin' it to Miss Mary

the other day when he come in from Paloma about dinner-time. She was

askin' him the same question, an' he up an' tells her it wouldn't be worth

while; tells her the man is a half-breed an' always plays in with the

greasers, so he wouldn't be no use. I never met up with Jim Hardenberg,

but he sure ain't a breed, an' he's got a darn good rep as sheriff." He

groaned. "Wimmin sure is queer. Think of anybody believin' that sort of

rot."



"Did Lynch know you were listening?"



Jessup reddened a little. "No. They were talkin' in the big room, an' I

was standin' to one side of the open window. I don't call it sneakin' to

try an' get the drop on a coyote like him."



"I don't either," smiled Stratton, getting on his feet. The swift,

southern darkness had fallen so quickly that they could barely see each

other's faces. "It's one of their own little tricks, and turn about is

fair play. Our job, I reckon, is to keep our eyes open every minute and

not let anything slip. We'll find a way to get together again if anything

should turn up. I'll be going back."



He turned away and took a few steps along the bank. Then all at once he

stopped and walked back.



"Say, Bud, how big is that north pasture place you were telling about?" he

asked. "I don't seem to remember going over it when I was--"



He broke off abruptly, and a sudden flush burned into his cheeks at the

realization that he had almost betrayed himself. Fortunately Jessup did

not seem to notice the slip.



"I don't know exactly," replied the youngster. "About two miles square,

maybe. Why?"



"Oh, I just wondered," shrugged Stratton. "Well, so-long."



Again they parted, Bud returning to the harness-room, where he would have

to finish his work by lantern-light.



"Gee, but that was close!" murmured Bud, feeling his way through the

darkness. "Just about one more word and I'd have given away the show

completely."



He paused under a cottonwood as a gleam of light from the open bunk-house

door showed through the leaves.



"I wonder?" he mused thoughtfully.



A waste of sand, cactus, and scanty desert growth! In Arizona nothing is

more ordinary or commonplace, more utterly lacking in interest and

significance. Yet Stratton's mind returned to it persistently as he

considered one by one the scanty details of Jessup's brief narrative.



What was there about a spot like that to rouse excitement in the breast of

the usually phlegmatic Andrew Thorne? Why had he been in such haste to

drag Lynch thither, and what had passed between the two before the older

man came to his sudden and tragic end? Was it possible that somewhere

within that four square miles of desolate wilderness might lie the key to

the puzzling mystery Buck had set himself to solve?



"I wonder?" he murmured again, and leaving the margin of the creek, he

moved slowly toward the open bunk-house door.





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