Buck Rides





Presently Mrs. Archer released her spasmodic grip on Stratton's flannel

shirt and fumbled for her handkerchief.



"I'm a fool to--to waste time like this," she faltered, dabbing her eyes

with the crumpled square of cambric.



"I think you're rather wonderful," returned Buck gently. He helped her to

a chair. "Sit down here, and when you're able, tell us just

what--happened."



Her hands dropped suddenly to her lap and she looked up at him with wide,

blazing eyes. Bud had approached and stood on the other side of the chair,

listening intently.



"It was that creature Lynch," she said in a voice that trembled a little

with anger and indignation. "He was the one who rode up on horseback. It

was Pedro who was hidden in the loft. Mary told you about that before the

telephone went dead."



"The wire was cut," muttered Stratton. "That must have been the greaser's

work."



She gave a quick nod. "Very likely. He's equal to anything. They met just

outside the door and talked together. It seemed as if they'd never leave

off whispering. Mary was over by the telephone and I stood here. She had

that revolver, which she'd found in the other room." Her eyes indicated

the weapon on the table, and Buck was conscious of a queer thrill as he

recognized it as his own. "We waited. At last the--the beast pounded at

the door and called to us to open. We didn't stir. Then he threw himself

against the door, which cracked. Mary cried out that if he tried to force

it, she'd shoot. The creature only laughed, and when she did fire, the

bullet went wild."



She paused an instant, her fingers twitching at the handkerchief clasped

in her lap.



"And then he broke in?" questioned Buck, in a hard voice.



She nodded. "Yes. I fired once, but it did no good. Before I could shoot

again, Pedro came up from behind and snatched the revolver away. He must

have forced his way into the kitchen. He threw me into a chair, while

Lynch went after Mary."



Buck's lips were pressed tightly together; his face was hard as stone.

"Didn't she fire again?"



"No, I don't know why. I couldn't see very well. Something may have gone

wrong with the revolver; perhaps she had scruples. I should have had

none." Mrs. Archer's small, delicate face looked almost savage. "I'd have

gloried in shooting the brute. At any rate, she didn't, and he took the

weapon away from her and flung it on the table."



Again she hesitated briefly, overcome by her emotions. Stratton's face was

stony, save for a momentary ripple of the muscles about his mouth.



"And then?" he questioned.



"I--I tried to go to her, but Pedro held me in the chair." Mrs. Archer

drew a long, quivering breath. "Lynch had her by the wrist; I heard him

say something about not hurting her; and then he said, quite plainly, that

since she'd got him in this mess, she'd have to get him out. I couldn't

understand, but all at once I realized that if they did--take her away,

they'd probably tie me up, or something, to prevent my giving the alarm,

and so I pretended to faint."



She lifted her handkerchief to her lips and let it fall again. "It wasn't

easy to lie still in that chair and see the dear child--being dragged

away. But I knew I'd be quite helpless against those two villains.

She--she didn't struggle much; perhaps she hadn't the strength." The old

lady's voice shook, and she began again plucking nervously at her

handkerchief. "The minute they were out of the door, I got up and followed

them. I thought perhaps I might be able to see which way they went. It was

pitch-dark, and I crept along beside the house to the corner. I could just

see their outlines over by the corral. Pedro was saddling two horses.

When he had done, that creature, Lynch, made Mary mount and got on his own

horse, which he had been leading. Then the two men began to talk. I

couldn't hear everything, but it sounded as if they were arranging to meet

somewhere. They gave the name of a place."



Her eyes searched Buck's face with a troubled, anxious scrutiny. "So many

Arizona towns have a foreign sound, but somehow I--I've never even heard

of Santa Clara."



"Santa Clara!" burst out Bud. "Why, that's over in Sonora. If he should

get her across the border--"



Mrs. Archer sprang to her feet and caught Stratton by one arm. "Mexico!"

she cried hysterically. "Oh, Buck! You must save her from that creature!

You mustn't let him--"



"He sha'n't. Don't worry," interrupted Stratton harshly. "Tell me as

quickly as you can what else you heard. Was there anything said about the

way he meant to take?"



Mrs. Archer clenched her small hands and fought bravely for self-control.

"He said he--he might be delayed. He didn't dare take the road through

Perilla, and the trail through the mountains was probably blocked by the

sheriff." Her forehead wrinkled thoughtfully. "He said the only way was

to--to go through the pass and turn south along the edge of the T-T land.

That--that was all."



Buck's face lighted with somber satisfaction. "It's a good bit," he said

briefly. "When they started off did you notice which way they went?"



"Pedro rode past the house toward the lower gate. Lynch went straight down

the slope toward the bunk-house. He was leading Mary's horse. I ran a

little way after them and saw them cross the creek this side of the middle

pasture gate."



Buck shot a glance at Jessup. "The north pasture!" he muttered. "He knows

there'll be no one around there, and it'll be the safest way to reach the

T-T trail. I'll saddle a fresh cayuse and be off." He turned to Mrs.

Archer. "Don't you worry," he said, with a momentary touch on her shoulder

that was at once a caress and an assurance. "I'll bring her back."



"You must!" she cried. "They said something--It isn't possible that he

can--force her to--to marry him?"



"A lot of things are possible, but he won't have the chance," replied

Stratton grimly. "Bud, you stay here with Mrs. Archer, and I'll--"



"Oh, no!" protested the old lady. "You must both go. I don't need any one.

I'm not afraid of being here alone. No one will come--now."



"Why couldn't I go after Hardenberg and get him to take a bunch around the

south end of the hills," suggested Jessup quickly. "They might be able to

head him off."



"All right," nodded Stratton curtly. "Go to it."



Inaction had suddenly grown intolerable. He would have agreed to anything

save the suggestion that he delay his start even for another sixty

seconds. With a hurried good-by to Mrs. Archer, he hastened from the room,

swung into his saddle, and rode swiftly around to the corral. A brief

search through the darkness showed him that only a single horse remained

there. He lost not a moment in roping the animal, and was transferring his

saddle from Pete, when Bud appeared.



"You'll have to catch a horse from the remuda," he said briefly. "I've

taken the last one. Turn Pete into the corral, will you, and give him a

little feed." Straightening up, he turned the stirrup, mounted swiftly,

and spurred his horse forward. "So-long," he called back over one

shoulder.



The thud of hoofs drowned Bud's reply, and as the night closed about him,

Buck gave a faint sigh of relief. There was a brief delay at the gate, and

then, heading northwest, he urged the horse to a canter.



He was taking a chance in following this short cut through the middle

pasture, but he felt he had no choice. To attempt to trail Lynch would be

futile, and if he waited until dawn, the scoundrel would be hopelessly in

the lead. He knew of only one pass through the mountains to T-T ground,

and for this he headed, convinced that it was also Lynch's goal, and

praying fervently that the scoundrel might not change his mind.



He was under no delusions as to the task which lay before him. Lynch would

be somewhat handicapped by the presence of the girl, especially if he

continued to lead her horse. But he had a good hour's start, and once in

the mountains the handicap would vanish. The chase was likely to be

prolonged, particularly as Lynch knew every foot of the mountain trail and

the country beyond, which Stratton had never seen.



But the presence of difficulties only strengthened Buck's resolution and

confidence. As he sped on through the luminous darkness, the cool night

wind brushing his face, a seething rage against Tex Lynch dominated him.

Now and then the thought of Mary Thorne came to torture him. Vividly he

pictured the scene at the ranch-house which Mrs. Archer had described,

imagining the girl's fear and horror and despair, then and afterward, with

a realism which made him wince. But always his mind flashed back to the

man who was to blame for it all, and with savage curses he pledged himself

to a reckoning.



And so, with mind divided between alternating spasms of tenderness and

fury, he came at last to the further side of middle pasture and dismounted

to let down the fence. It was characteristic of the born and bred ranchman

that instead of riding swiftly on and letting the cut wires dangle, he

automatically obeyed one of the hard and fast rules of the range and

fastened them behind him. He did not pause again until he reached the

little sheltered nook in the face of the high cliffs, out of which led the

trail.



Had those two passed yet, or were they still out there somewhere in the

sandy wastes of north pasture? He wondered as he reined in his horse. He

scarcely dared hope that already he could have forestalled the crafty

Lynch, but it was important to make sure. And so, slipping out of the

saddle, he flung the reins over the roan's head and, walking forward a few

steps, lit a match and searched the ground carefully for any signs.



Three matches had been consumed before he found what he was looking

for--the fresh prints of two horses leading toward the trail. Hastily

returning to his cayuse, he swung into the saddle and headed the roan

toward the grade. They were ahead of him, then; but how far?



It was impossible to make any speed along the rough uncertainties of this

rocky trail, but Buck wasted no time. Down in the further hollow he turned

aside to the spring, not knowing when he would again find water for his

horse. He did not dismount, and as the roan plunged velvet nozzle into the

spring, a picture rose in Buck's mind of that other day--how long ago it

seemed!--when he himself, sagging painfully in the saddle, had sucked the

water with as great an eagerness out of a woman's soggy Stetson, and then,

over the limp brim, gazed gratefully into a pair of tender hazel eyes

which tried in vain to mask anxiety beneath a surface of lightness.



He bit his lips and struck the saddle-horn fiercely with one clenched

fist. When the horse had finished drinking, he turned him swiftly and,

regaining the trail, pushed on feverishly at reckless speed.



About an hour later the first pale signs of dawn began to lighten the

darkness. Slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, a cold gray crept into

the sky, blotting out the stars. Little by little the light strengthened,

searching out shadowy nooks and corners, revealing this peak or that,

widening the horizon, until at length the whole, wide, tumbled mass of

peak and precipice, of canyon, valley, and tortuous, twisted mountain trail

lay revealed in all its grim, lifeless, forbidding desolation.



From his point of vantage at the summit of a steep grade, Buck halted and

stared ahead with a restless, keen eagerness. He could see the trail

curving over the next rise, and farther still he glimpsed a tiny patch of

it rounding the shoulder of a hill. But it was empty, lifeless; and as he

loosed the reins and touched the roan lightly with a spur, Stratton's face

grew blank and hard again.



From somewhere amongst the rocks the long-drawn, quavering howl of a

coyote sounded mournfully.





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