Creeping Shadows





With her back against the veranda pillar, Mary Thorne watched the group of

mounted men canter down the slope, splash across the creek, and file

briskly through the gate leading to middle pasture. Perhaps it would be

more accurate to say that, for the most part, her glance followed one of

them, and when the erect, jaunty, broad-shouldered figure on the big roan

had disappeared, she gave a little sigh.



"He looks better--much better," she murmured.



Her eyes grew dreamy, and in her mind she saw again that little hidden

canyon with its overhanging ledge beneath which the man lay stretched out

on his blankets. Somehow, the anxiety and suspense, the heart-breaking

worry and weariness of that strange experience had faded utterly. There

remained only a very vivid recollection of the touch of her hand against

his damp forehead, the feeling of his crisp, dark hair as she pushed it

gently back, the look of those long, thick lashes lying so still against

his pallid face.



Not seldom she had wished those fleeting moments might have been

prolonged. Once or twice she was even a little jealous of Bud Jessup's

ministrations; just as, thinking of him now, she was jealous of his

constant nearness to Buck and the manner in which he seemed so intently to

share all the other's plans and projects, and even thoughts.



"Well, anyway," she said suddenly aloud, "I'm glad Stella's not here."



Then, realizing that she had spoken aloud, she blushed and looked hastily

around. No one was in sight, but a moment or two later Mrs. Archer

appeared on the veranda.



"I thought I heard voices a little while ago," she said, glancing around.

"Have the men come back?"



Mary turned to meet her. "No, dear. That was the--the sheriff and some of

his men."



"The sheriff!" An expression of anxiety came into Mrs. Archer's pretty,

faded face. "But what has happened? What--?"



"I'm not quite sure; they had no time to explain." The girl put an arm

reassuringly around the older woman's shoulder. "But they're after Tex and

the other hands. They've done something--"



"Ha!" In any other person the sound would have seemed suspiciously like a

crow of undisguised satisfaction. "Well, I'm thankful that at last

somebody's shown some common sense."



"Why, auntie!" Astonished, the girl held her off at arm's length and

stared into her face. "You don't mean to say you've suspected--?"



Mrs. Archer sniffed. "Suspected! Why, for weeks and weeks I've been

perfectly certain the creature was up to no good. You know I never trusted

him."



"Yes; but--"



"The last straw was his bringing that ridiculous charge against Buck

Green," Mrs. Archer interrupted with unexpected spirit. "That stamped him

for what he was; because a nicer, cleaner, better-mannered young man I've

seldom seen. He could no more have stolen cattle than--than I could."



A mental picture of her tiny, delicate, fragile-looking aunt engaged in

that strenuous and illicit operation brought a momentary smile to Mary

Thorne's lips. Then her face grew serious.



"But you know I didn't believe it--really," she protested. "I offered to

keep him on if he'd only assure me he wasn't here for any--any secret

reason. But he wouldn't, and at the time there seemed nothing to do but

let him go."



"I suppose he might have had some other private reason than stealing

cattle," commented Mrs. Archer.



"He had," returned Mary, suppressing a momentary sense of annoyance that

her aunt had shown the greater faith. "As nearly as I can make out, he was

here to shadow Tex. As a matter of fact he really wanted to leave the

ranch and work from a different direction, so it turned out all right in

the end. He thinks it was Tex himself who secretly instigated the

cattle-stealing."



"The villain!" ejaculated Mrs. Archer energetically. "But where

has--er--Buck been all this time? Where is he now?"



The girl smiled faintly. "He was here a little while ago. He and Bud are

both with the sheriff's posse. They believe the men are heading for the

mountains and have gone after them."



Mrs. Archer glanced sharply at her niece, noted a faint flush on the

girl's face, and pursed her lips.



"When are they coming back?" she asked, after a little pause.



Mary shrugged her shoulders. "Not until they catch them, I suppose."



"Which certainly won't be to-night. I'm rather surprised at Buck. It seems

to me that he ought to have stayed here to look after things, instead of

rushing off to chase outlaws."



"It wasn't his fault," defended Mary quickly. "He thought Alf and Stella

were here."



"Alf and Stella! Good gracious, child! How could he, when they left four

days ago?"



"He didn't know that. He took it for granted they were still here, and I

let him think so. They needed him to guide the posse, and I knew if I told

him, he'd insist on staying behind. After all, dear, there's nothing for

us to worry about. It'll be a bit lonesome to-night, but--"



"Worry! I'm not worrying--about myself." Mrs. Archer regarded her niece

with a curiously keen expression that seemed oddly incongruous in that

delicate fragile-looking face. "I'm not blind," she went on quickly. "I've

noticed what's been going on--the wretch! You're afraid of him, too, I can

see, and no wonder. I wish somebody had stayed--Still, we must make the

best of it. What are you going to do about the stock?"



"Feed them," said Mary laconically, quelling a little shiver that went

over her. "Let's go and do it now."



Together they walked around to the corral, where Mary forked down some hay

for the three horses, and filled the sunken water-barrel from the tank.

Already shadows were creeping up from the hollows, and the place seemed

very still and deserted.



In the kitchen the sense of silent emptiness was even greater, accustomed

as they were to the constant presence of Pedro and his wife. The two women

did not linger longer than was necessary to fill a tray with supper, which

they carried into the living-room. Here Mary closed the door, lit two

lamps, and touched a match to the wood piled up in the big fireplace.



"It'll make things more cheerful," she remarked with an attempt at

casualness which was not altogether successful. "I don't see why we

shouldn't heat some water here and make tea," she added with sudden

inspiration.



Mrs. Archer, who liked her cup of tea, made no objections, and Mary sprang

up and went back to the kitchen. Filling a saucepan from the pump, she got

the tea-caddy out of a cupboard, and then paused in the middle of the

room, staring out into the gathering dusk.



Neither doors nor windows in the ranch-house were ever locked, and, save

on really cold nights, they were rarely even closed. But now, of a sudden,

the girl felt she would be much more comfortable if everything were shut

up tight, and setting down the pan and caddy on the table, she went over

to the nearest window.



It looked out on the various barns and sheds clustered at the back of the

ranch-house. The harness-room occupied the ground floor of the nearest

shed, with a low, seldom-entered loft above, containing a single, narrow

window without glass or shutters.



As Mary approached the open kitchen window, herself invisible in the

shadows of the room, a slight sense of movement in that little square

under the eaves of the shed roof drew her glance swiftly upward. To her

horror she caught a momentary glimpse of a face framed in the narrow

opening. It vanished swiftly--far too swiftly to be recognized. But

recognition was not necessary. The mere knowledge that some one was hidden

in the loft--had probably been hidden there all along--turned the girl

cold and instantly awakened her worst fears.





Crawford's Basin Crooked Work facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback