Counterplot





"The low-down, ornery liar!" sputtered Bud Jessup, face flushed and eyes

snapping. "He told me to wait for them bolts if I had to stay here all

day. I thought it was kinda funny he'd let me waste all this time, but I

didn't have no idea at all he'd got me out of the way a-purpose to put

across that dirty deal. Why, the rotten son-of-a--"



"Easy, kid," cautioned Buck, glancing at the open door of the store.

"You'll have Pop comin' out to see what all the excitement's about, and

that isn't our game--yet."



He had found Bud alone on the rickety porch, kicking his heels against the

railing and fretting at his enforced idleness; and having hitched his

horse, he lost no time in giving the youngster a brief account of the

happenings of the night before.



"Not him," shrugged Jessup, though he did lower his voice a trifle. "The

up train's due in less than half an hour, an' Pop's gettin' the mail-bag

ready. That means readin' all the post-cards twice at least, an' makin'

out all he can through the envelopes, if the paper's thin enough. I often

wondered why he didn't go the whole hog an' have a kettle ready to steam

the flaps open, he seems to get so much pleasure out of other people's

business."



Stratton chuckled. This suited him perfectly up to a certain point. He

pulled the letter out of his shirt and was pleased to see that none of the

writing was visible. Then he displayed the face of the envelope to his

companion.



Bud's eyes widened. "Whew!" he whistled. "That sure looks like business.

What's up, Buck? Can't yuh tell a man?"



"I will on the way back; no time just now. Let's go in."



He led the way into the store and walked down to where Daggett was slowly

sorting a small pile of letters and post-cards.



"Hello, Pop!" he greeted. "Looks like I was just in time."



The old man peered over the tops of his spectacles. "Yuh be, if yuh want

to catch the up-mail," he nodded. "Where's it to?"



He took the letter from Stratton's extended hand and studied it with frank

interest.



"Jim Hardenberg!" he commented. "Wal! Wal! Friend of yores, eh?"



"Oh, I don't know as you'd hardly call him that," evaded Stratton.

"Haven't seen him in over two years, I reckon."



Pop waited expectantly, but no further information was forthcoming. He

eyed the letter curiously, manoeuvering as if by accident to hold it up

against the light. He even tried, by obvious methods, to get rid of the

two punchers, but they persisted in hanging around until at length the

near approach of the train-hour forced the old man to drop the letter into

the mail-bag with the others and snap the lock. On the plea of seeing

whether their package had come, both Stratton and Jessup escorted him over

to the station platform and did not quit his side until the train had

departed, carrying the mail-sack with it.



There were a few odds and ends of mail for the Shoe-Bar, but no parcel.

When this became certain, Bud got his horse and the two mounted in front

of the store.



"By gee!" exclaimed Pop suddenly as they were on the point of riding off.

"I clean forgot to tell yuh. They got blackleg over to the T-T's."



Both men turned abruptly in their saddles and stared at him in dismay. To

the bred-in-the-bone rancher the mention of blackleg, that deadly

contagious and most fatal of cattle diseases, is almost as startling as

bubonic plague would be to the average human.



"Hell!" ejaculated Bud forcefully. "Yuh sure about that, Pop?"



"Sartain sure," nodded the old man. "One of their men, Bronc Tippets, was

over here last night an' told me. Said their yearlings is dyin' off like

flies."



"That sure is mighty hard luck," remarked Jessup as they rode out of town.

"I'm glad this outfit ain't any nearer."



"Somewhere off to the west of the Shoe-Bar, isn't it?" asked Stratton.



"Yeah. 'Way the other side of the mountains. There's a short cut through

the hills that comes out around the north end of middle pasture, but there

ain't one steer in a thousand could find his way through. Well, let's hear

what you're up to, old man. I'm plumb interested."



Buck's serious expression relaxed and he promptly launched into a detailed

explanation of his scheme. When he had made everything clear Bud's face

lit up and he regarded his friend admiringly.



"By cripes, Buck!" he exclaimed delightedly. "That sure oughta work. When

are yuh goin' to spring it on 'em?"



"First good chance I get," returned Buck. "The sooner the better, so they

won't have time to try any more dirty work."



The opportunity was not long in coming. They reached the ranch just before

dinner and when the meal was over learned that the afternoon was to be

devoted to repairing the telephone leading from the ranch-house to Las

Vegas camp, which had been out of order for several weeks. As certain

fence wires were utilized for line purposes, this meant considerable work,

if Stratton could judge by the ruinous condition of most of those he had

seen. He wondered not a little at the meaning of the move, but did not

allow his curiosity to interfere with the project he had in mind.



They had left the ranch in a bunch, Kreeger and Siegrist alone remaining

behind for some other purpose. They had not gone more than two miles when

a remark of McCabe's on mining claims gave Buck his cue.



"A fellow who goes into that game with a bunch takes a lot of chances," he

commented. "I knew a chap once who came mighty near being croaked, to say

nothing of losing a valuable claim, by being too confiding with a gang he

thought could be trusted."



"How was that?" inquired Slim amiably, as Stratton paused.



"They wanted the whole hog instead of being contented with their share,



and tried two or three times to get this fellow--er--Brown. When Brown

wised up to what was going on he thought at first he'd have to pull out to

save his hide. But just in time he doped out a scheme to stop their dirty

work, and it sure was a slick one, all right."



Buck chuckled retrospectively. Though the pause was unbroken by any

questions, he saw that he had the complete and undivided attention of his

audience.



"What he did," resumed Stratton, "was to write out a detailed account of

all the things they'd tried to put across, one of which was an attempt

to--a--shoot him in his bunk while he was asleep. He sealed that up in an

envelope and sent it to the sheriff with a note asking him to keep it

safe, but not to open it unless the writer, Brown, got bumped off in some

violent way or disappeared, in which case the sheriff was to act on the

information in it and nab the crooks. After he'd got word of its receipt,

he up and told the others what he'd done. Pretty cute, wasn't it?"



The brief pause that followed was tense and fraught with suppressed

emotion.



"Did it work?" McCabe at length inquired, with elaborate casualness.



"Sure. The gang didn't dare raise a finger to him. They might have put a

bullet through him any time, or a knife, and made a safe get-away, but

then they'd have had to desert the claims, which wasn't their game at all.

Darn good stunt to remember, ain't it, if a person ever got up against

that sort of thing?"



There was no direct reply to the half-question, and Buck shot a glance at

his companions. Lynch rode slightly behind him and was out of the line of

vision. McCabe, with face averted, bent over fussing with his

saddle-strings. The sight of Doc Peters's face, however, pale, strained,

with wide, frightened eyes and sagging jaw, told Stratton that his thrust

had penetrated as deeply as he could have hoped.



"We'll start here."



It was Lynch's voice, curt and harsh, that broke the odd silence as he

jerked his horse up and dismounted. "Get yore tools out an' don't waste

any time."



There was no mistaking his mood, and in the hours that followed he was a

far from agreeable taskmaster. He snapped and growled and swore at them

impartially, acting generally like a bear with a sore ear whom nothing can

please. If he could be said to be less disagreeable to anyone, it was,

curiously enough, Bud Jessup, whom he kept down at one end of the line

most of the afternoon. Later Stratton discovered the reason.



"It worked fine," Bud whispered to him jubilantly, when they were alone

together for a few minutes after supper. "Did yuh see him hangin' around

me this afternoon? He was grouchin' around and pretendin' to be mad

because he'd let yuh go to town this mornin' just to mail a letter to some

fool girl."



"Of course I pulled the baby stare an' told him I didn't see no letter to

no girl. Yuh sure didn't mail one while I was with yuh, I says.



"'Didn't mail no letter at all?' he wants to know, scowlin'."



"'Sure,' I says. 'Only it went to Jim Hardenberg over to Perilla. I seen

him hand it to old Pop Daggett, who was peevish as a wet hen 'cause he

couldn't find out nothin' about what was in it, 'count of Buck hangin'

around till it got on the train. That's the only letter I seen.'



"He didn't have no more to say, but walked off, scowlin' fierce. I'll bet

yuh my new Stetson to a two-bit piece, Buck, he rides in to town mighty

quick to find out what Pop knows about it."



Stratton did not take him up, for it had already occurred to him that such

a move on Lynch's part was almost certain. As a matter of fact the foreman

did leave the ranch early the next morning, driving a pair of blacks

harnessed to the buckboard. Buck and Jessup were both surprised at this

unwonted method of locomotion, which usually indicated a passenger to be

brought back, or, more rarely, a piece of freight or express, too large or

heavy to be carried on horseback, yet not bulky enough for the lumbering

freight-wagon.



"An' if it was freight, he'd have sent one of us," commented Bud, as they

saddled up preparatory to resuming operations on the fences. "Still an'

all, I reckon he wants to see Pop himself and get a line on what that old

he-gossip knows. He'll have his ear full, all right," he finished in a

tone of vindictive satisfaction.



To make up for the day before, the whole gang took life very easily, and

knocked off work rather earlier than usual. They had loafed ten or fifteen

minutes in the bunk-house and were straggling up the slope in answer to

Pedro's summons to dinner when, with a clatter of hoofs, the blacks

whirled through the further gate and galloped toward the house.



Buck, among the others, glanced curiously in that direction and observed

with much interest that a woman occupied the front seat of the buckboard

with Tex, while a young man and two small trunks more than filled the

rear.



"Some dame!" he heard Bud mutter under his breath.



A moment later Lynch pulled up the snorting team and called Jessup to hold

them. Buck was just turning away from a lightning appraisal of the

new-comers, when, to his amazement, the young woman smiled at him from her

seat.



"Why, Mr. Green!" she called out in surprise. "To think of finding you

here!"



Buck stared at her, wide-eyed and bewildered. With her crisp, dark hair,

fresh color, and regular features, she was very good to look at. But he

had never consciously set eyes on her before in all his life!





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