Crooked Work





Stratton suddenly turned his back and stared blankly through the open

door. With the same unconscious instinct which had moved him to conceal

his face from the old man, he fumbled in one pocket and drew forth papers

and tobacco sack. It spoke well for his self-control that his fingers were

almost steady as he deliberately fashioned a cigarette and thrust it

between his lips. When he had lighted it and inhaled a puff or two, he

turned slowly to Pop Daggett again.



"You sure know how to shoot a surprise into a fellow, old-timer," he

drawled. "A woman rancher, eh? That's going some around this country, I'll

say. How long has she--er--owned the Shoe-Bar?"



"Only since her pa died about four months back." Pop Daggett assumed an

easier pose; his tone had softened to one of garrulous satisfaction at

having a new listener to a tale he had worn threadbare. "It's consid'able

of a story, but if yuh ain't pressed for time--"



"Go to it," invited Buck, leaning back against the counter. "I've got all

the time there is."



Daggett's small, faded blue eyes regarded him curiously.



"Did yuh ever meet up with this here Stratton?" he asked abruptly.



"I--a--know what he looks like."



"It's more'n I do," grumbled Pop regretfully. "The only two times he was

here I was laid up with a mean attack of rheumatiz, an' never sot eyes on

him. Still an' all, there ain't hardly anybody else around Paloma that

more 'n glimpsed him passin' through. He bought the outfit in a terrible

hurry, an' I thinks to m'self at the time he must be awful trustin', or

else a mighty right smart jedge uh land an' cattle. He couldn't of hardly

rid over it even once real thorough before he plunks down his money, gets

him a proper title, an' hikes off to the war, leavin' Joe Bloss in

charge."



He paused, fished in his pocket, and, producing a plug, carefully bit off

one corner. Stratton watched him impatiently, a faint flush staining his

clear, curiously white skin.



"Well?" he prodded presently. "What happened then? From what I know of

Joe, I'll say he made good all right."



"Sure he did." Pop spoke with emphasis, though somewhat thickly. "There

ain't nobody can tell Joe Bloss much about cattle. He whirled in right

capable and got things runnin' good. For a while he was so danged busy

he'd hardly ever get to town, but come winter the work eased up an' I used

to see him right frequent. He'd set there alongside the stove evenings an'

tell me what he was doin', or how he'd jest had a letter from Stratton,

who was by now in France, an' all the rest of it. Wal, to make a long

story short, a year last month the letters stopped comin'. Joe begun to

get worried, but I told him likely Stratton was too busy fightin' to

write, or he might even of got wounded. Yuh could have knocked me down

with a wisp uh bunch-grass when one uh the boys come in one night with a

Phoenix paper, an' showed me Stratton's name on a list uh killed or

missin'!"



"When was that?" asked Buck briefly, seeing that Daggett evidently

expected some comment. If only the man would get on!



"'Round the middle of September. Joe was jest naturally shot to pieces,

him knowin' young Stratton from a kid an' likin' him fine, besides bein'

consid'able worried about what was goin' to happen to the ranch an' him.

Still an' all, there wasn't nothin' he could do but go on holdin' down his

job, which he done until the big bust along the end of October."



He paused again expectantly. Buck ground the butt of his cigarette under

one heel and reached for the makings. He had an almost irresistible desire

to take the garrulous old man by the shoulders and shake him till his

teeth rattled.



"It was this here Thorne from Chicago," resumed Daggett, a trifle

disappointed. Usually at this point of the story, his listener broke in

with exclamation or interested question. "He showed up one morning with

the sheriff an' claimed the ranch was his. Said Stratton had sold it to

him an' produced the deed, signed, sealed, an' witnessed all right an'

proper."



Match in one hand and cigarette in the other, Buck stared at him, the

picture of arrested motion. For a moment or two his brain whirled. Could

he possibly have done such a thing and not remember? With a ghastly

sinking of his heart he realized that anything might have been possible

during that hateful vanished year. Mechanically he lit his cigarette and

of a sudden he grew calmer. According to the hospital records he had not

left France until well into November of the preceding year. Tossing the

match into the stove, he met Pop Daggett's glance.



"How could that be?" he asked briefly. "Didn't you say this Stratton was

in France for months before he was killed?"



Pop nodded hearty agreement. "That's jest what I said, an' so did Bloss.

But according to Thorne this here transfer was made a couple uh weeks

before Stratton went over to France."



"But that's impossible!" exclaimed Buck hotly. "How could he have----"



He ceased abruptly and bit his lip. Daggett chuckled.



"Gettin' kinda interested, ain't yuh?" he remarked in a satisfied tone. "I

thought you would 'fore I was done. I don't say as it's impossible, but it

shore looked queer to me. As Joe says, why would he go an' sell the outfit

jest after buyin' it without a word to him. Not only that but he kept on

writin' about how Joe was to do this an' that an' the other thing like he

was mighty interested in havin' it run good. Joe, he even got suspicions

uh somethin' crooked an' hired a lawyer to look into it, Stratton not

havin' any folks. But that's all the good it done him. He couldn't pick no

flaw in it at all. Seems Stratton was in Chicago on one of these here

furloughs jest before he took ship. One uh the witnesses had gone to war,

but they hunted out the other one an' he swore he'd seen the deed

signed."



"Did this Thorne-- What did you say his name was?"



"I don't recolleck sayin', but it was Andrew J."



Buck's lids narrowed; a curious gleam flashed for an instant in his gray

eyes and was gone.



"Well, did Thorne explain why he let it go so long before making his

claim?"



"Oh, shore! He was right there when it come to explainin'. Seems he had

some important war business on his hands an' wanted to get shed uh that

before he took up ranchin'. Knowed it was in good hands, 'count uh Bloss

bein' on the job, an' Stratton havin' promised to write frequent an' keep

Joe toein' the mark. Stratton, it seems, had sold out because he didn't

know what might happen to him across the water. Oh, Andrew J. was a right

smooth talker, believe me, but still an' all he didn't make no great hit

with folks around the country even after he settled down on the Shoe-Bar

and brung his daughter there to live. There weren't no tears shed,

neither, when an ornery paint horse throwed him last May an' broke his

neck."



"What about Bloss?" Stratton asked briefly.



"Oh, he got his time along with all the other cow-men. There shore was a

clean sweep when Thorne whirled in an' took hold. Joe hung around here a

week or two an' then drifted down to Phoenix. Last I heard he was goin' to

try the Flyin'-V's, but that was six months or more ago."



Buck's shoulders straightened and his chin went up with a sudden touch of

swift decision.



"Got a horse I can hire?" he asked abruptly.



Pop hesitated, his shrewd gaze traveling swiftly over Stratton's straight,

tall figure to rest reflectively on the lean, square-jawed, level-eyed

young face.



"I dunno but I have," he answered slowly. "Uh course I don't know yore

name even, an' a man's got to be careful how he--"



"Oh, that'll be all right," interrupted Stratton, his white teeth showing

briefly in a smile. "I'll leave you a deposit. My name's Bob Green, though

folks mostly call me Buck. I've got a notion to ride over to the Shoe-Bar

and see if they know anything about--Joe."



"'T ain't likely they will," shrugged Daggett. "Still, it won't do no harm

to try. Yuh can't ride in them things, though," he added, surveying

Stratton's well-cut suit of gray.



"I don't specially want to, but they're all I've got," smiled Buck. "When

I quit ranching to show 'em how to run the war, I left my outfit behind,

and I haven't been back yet to get it."



"Cow-man eh?" Pop nodded approvingly. "I thought so; yuh got the look,

someway. Wal, yore welcome to some duds I bought off 'n Dick Sanders about

a month ago. He quit the Rockin'-R to go railroadin' or somethin', an'

sold his outfit, saddle an' all. I reckon they'll suit."



Stepping behind the counter, he poked around amongst a mass of

miscellaneous merchandise and finally drew forth a pair of much-worn

leather chaps, high-heeled boots almost new, and a cartridge-belt from

which dangled an empty holster.



"There yuh are," he said triumphantly, spreading them out on the counter.

"Gun's the only thing missin'. He kep' that, but likely yuh got one of

yore own. Saddle's hangin' out in the stable."



Without delay Stratton took off his coat and vest and sat down on an empty

box to try the boots, which proved a trifle large but still wearable. He

already had on a dark flannel shirt and a new Stetson, which he had bought

in New York; and when he pulled on the chaps and buckled the

cartridge-belt around his slim waist Pop Daggett surveyed him with

distinct approval.



"All yuh need is a good coat uh tan to look like the genuine article," he

remarked. "How come yuh to be so white?"



"Haven't been out of the hospital long enough to get browned up." Buck

opened his bag and, fumbling for a moment, produced a forty-five army

automatic. "This don't go very well with the outfit," he shrugged. "Happen

to have a regular six-gun around the place you'll sell me?"



Pop had, this being part of his stock in trade. Buck looked the lot over

carefully, finally picking out a thirty-eight Colt with a good heft. When

he had paid for this and a supply of ammunition, Pop led the way out to a

shed back of the store and pointed out a Fraser saddle, worn but in

excellent condition, hanging from a hook.



"It's a wonder to me any cow-man is ever fool enough to sell his saddle,"

commented Stratton as he took it down. "They never get much for 'em, and

new ones are so darn ornery to break in."



"Yuh said it," agreed Daggett. "I'd ruther buy one second-hand than new

any day. There's the bridle. Yuh take that roan in the near stall. He

ain't much to look at, but he'll travel all day."



Fifteen minutes later the roan, saddled and bridled, pawed the dust beside

the hitching rack in front of the store, while Buck Stratton made a small

bundle of his coat, vest, and a few necessaries from his bag and fastened

it behind the saddle. The remainder of his belongings had been left with

Pop Daggett, who lounged in the doorway fingering a roll of bills in his

trousers pocket and watching his new acquaintance with smiling

amiability.



"Well, I'll be going," said Stratton, tying the last knot securely. "I'll

bring your cayuse back to-morrow or the day after at the latest."



Pop looked surprised. "The day after?" he repeated. "What's goin' to keep

yuh that long?"



"Will you be needing the horse sooner?"



"No, I dunno's I will. But seems like yuh ought to be back by noon

to-morrow. It ain't more 'n eighteen miles." He straightened abruptly and

his blue eyes widened. "Say, young feller! Yuh ain't thinkin' of gettin a

job out there, are yuh?"



Stratton hesitated for an instant. "Well, I don't know," he shrugged

presently. "I've got to get to work right soon at something."



Daggett took a swift step or two across the sagging porch, his face grown

oddly serious. "Wal, I wouldn't try the Shoe-Bar, nohow. There's the

Rockin'-R. They're short a man or two. Yuh go see Jim Tenny an' tell

him--"



"What's the matter with the Shoe-Bar?" persisted Buck.



Pop's glance avoided Stratton's. "Yuh--wouldn't like it," he mumbled,

glancing down the trail. "It--it ain't like it was in Joe's time. That

there Tex Lynch--he--he don't get on with the boys."



"Who's he? The foreman?"



"Yeah. Beauty Lynch, some calls him 'count uh his looks. I ain't denyin'

he's han'some, with them black eyes an' red cheeks uh his, but somethin'

queer--Like I said, there ain't nobody stays long at the Shoe-Bar. Yuh

take my advice, Buck, an' try the Rockin'-R. They's a nice bunch there."



Buck swung himself easily into the saddle; "I'll think about it," he

smiled, gathering up the reins. "Well, so-long; see you in a day or so,

anyway. Thanks for helping me out, old-timer."



He loosened the reins, and the roan took the trail at a canter. Well

beyond the last adobe house, Stratton glanced back to see old Pop Daggett

still standing on the store porch and staring after him. Buck flung up

one arm in a careless gesture of farewell; then a gentle downward slope in

the prairie carried him out of sight of the little settlement.



"Acts to me like he was holding back something," he thought as he rode

briskly on through the wide, rolling solitudes. "Now, I wonder what sort

of a guy is this Tex Lynch, and what's going on at the Shoe-Bar that an

old he-gossip like Pop Daggett is afraid to talk about?"





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