Danger





As Buck appeared in the doorway, blinking a little at the lamp-light, the

five card-players stared at him in astonishment.



"Where the devil have you been?" inquired Kreeger, surprised out of his

accustomed taciturnity.



"I thought yuh was asleep," added Peters, casting a bewildered glance at

the shadowy bunk.



Buck, who had scarcely hoped his little stratagem would succeed so well,

refrained with difficulty from showing the pleasure he felt.



"So I have," he drawled.



"But I thought yuh was in yore bunk," commented McCabe, his light-blue

eyes narrowing slightly.



"No, I was outside," explained Stratton carelessly. "It was too hot in

here, so I went out and sat down by the creek. I must have dropped off

pretty soon, and when I came to it was dark."



As he spoke he glanced casually at Tex Lynch, and despite himself a little

shiver flickered on his spine. The foreman, who had not spoken, sat

motionless on the further side of the table regarding Stratton steadily.

His lids drooped slightly and his face was almost expressionless. But in

spite of that Buck got a momentary impression of baffled fury and a

deadly, murderous hate, the more startling because of its very repression.

Coupling it with what he knew or suspected of the man, Stratton felt there

was some excuse for that momentary mental shrinking.



"He'd as soon put me out of the way as shoot a coyote," he said to

himself, as he walked over to his bunk. "All he wants is a chance to do it

without getting caught."



But with ordinary care and caution he did not see just how Tex was going

to get the chance. Buck never went anywhere without his gun, and he

flattered himself he was as quick on the draw as the average. Besides, he

knew better now than to trust himself alone with Lynch or any of the

others on some outlying part of the range where a fatal accident could

plausibly be laid to marauding greasers, or to some similar agency.



"I'm not saying any one of 'em couldn't pick me off a dozen times a day

and make an easy get-away across the border," he thought, stretching

himself out on the husk mattress. "But Lynch don't want to have to make a

get-away. There's something right here on the Shoe-Bar that interests him

a whole lot too much."



Presently Bud came in, parried with some success the half-questioning

comments of the men, and went to bed. Buck lay awake a while longer,

trying to patch together into some semblance of pattern the isolated

scraps of information he had gained, but without any measure of success.



There followed four surprising days of calm, during which the Shoe-Bar, to

every outward seeming, might have been the most ordinary and humdrum of

outfits, with not a hint of anything sinister or mysterious beneath the

surface.



Each morning the men sallied forth to work, returned for noon dinner, and

rode off again soon afterward. Lynch was neither grouchy nor over-jovial.

He seemed the typical ranch-boss, whose chief thought is to get the work

done, and his berating was entirely impartial. Bud had spent most of his

time around the ranch, but once or twice he rode out with the others, and

there was no attempt on their part to keep him and Buck from talking

together as privately as they pleased. Only where Miss Thorne was



concerned was Stratton conscious of the old unobtrusive surveillance. He

saw her several times during his brief visits to Bemis, who was improving

daily and fretting to be gone, but always Lynch, McCabe, or some one just

"happened" to be along.



The effect of this unexpected peace and quiet on Stratton, however, was

precisely opposite from the one he presumed was intended. He had a feeling

that it was a calm before the storm, and became more alert than ever. The

unnatural placidity weighed on him, and as day followed day serenely his

nerves grew edgy.



After supper on the fourth day Lynch went up to the ranch-house and was

closeted for more than an hour with Miss Thorne. On his return to the

bunk-house, Stratton, who had now come to speculate on his every move,

studied him covertly but found his manner quite as usual.



In the morning they started off for the middle pasture, where they were

engaged in repairing a fence which had all but fallen flat. Quite by

accident, and without any inkling of what was to come of his carelessness,

Buck left his hammer and pliers beside the corral gate instead of sticking

them into his saddle-pockets. Before they had gone a quarter of a mile he

discovered the omission and pulled up, explaining what had happened.



"It won't take me five minutes to go back for them," he added, gathering

up his reins.



"I'll go with yuh," said McCabe promptly. "With a little hustlin', we can

easy catch up with the gang before they get to the pasture."



"Well, speed up, both of yuh," admonished Lynch. "We want to finish that

job to-day."



Slightly amused and wondering whether they thought for an instant he was

too blind to see through their game, Stratton put spurs to his horse and

the two rode back together, McCabe apparently making a special effort to

be amusing. The tools were found where Buck had left them, and the latter

was on the point of remounting, when Mary Thorne came suddenly around the

corner of the house.



"Good morning," she greeted them both pleasantly, but with a slight

undercurrent of preoccupation in her manner. "I was afraid you'd gone."

Her eyes met Stratton's. "Could I speak to you a moment?" she asked.



"Certainly, ma'am."



Buck dropped his bridle-reins and moved forward. For an instant McCabe sat

motionless; then he swung himself out of the saddle.



"If it's anythin' I can help about--" he began, awkwardly, yet

ingratiatingly.



"Thank you very much, Slim, but it isn't," the girl answered quietly.



"We ain't got much time," protested McCabe uneasily. "We jest came back to

get them tools Buck forgot. Tex is in a hurry to finish up the job."



"I don't believe five minutes' delay will matter very much," returned Miss

Thorne, with a touch of that unexpected decision Stratton had noticed once

or twice before. "I sha'n't be any longer."



She moved away from the corral and Buck, walking beside her, was

conscious of a curious tension in the air. For a moment he thought McCabe

meant to persist and force his presence on them. But evidently the stocky

cow-puncher found the situation too difficult for him to cope with, for he

remained standing beside his horse, though his glance followed them

intently, and throughout the brief interview his eyes searched their

faces, as if he strove to read from their expression or the movement of

their lips some inkling of what it was all about.



"I won't keep you but a moment," the girl began, her color slightly

heightened. "I only thought that perhaps I might persuade you to--to

change your mind, and--and stay. If the work's too hard, we might be able

to--"



She paused. Buck stared at her in astonishment. "I don't understand," he

said briefly.



Her flush deepened. "I meant about your going. I understood you weren't

satisfied, and wanted to--to leave."



"Who told you that?"



"Why--Tex. Isn't it--"



Buck frowned, and then, conscious of the watching McCabe, his face cleared

and he laughed.



"He must have got me wrong, Miss Ma--er--Thorne," he returned lightly.

"Perhaps he's heard me grumbling a bit; cow-men do that from force of

habit sometimes, you know. But I've nothing to complain of about the

work, and certainly I had no idea of quitting."



Her face cleared amazingly. "I'm so glad," she said in a relieved tone. "I

suppose I seem fussy, but now and then the problem of help gets to be a

regular nightmare. Once or twice lately I've been afraid I was making a

terrible mess of things, and might, after all, have to accept one of the

offers I've had for the ranch. I should hate dreadfully to leave here, but

if I can't make it pay--"



She finished with a shrug. Stratton regarded her thoughtfully. "You've had

several offers?" he asked hesitatingly, wondering whether she would think

the question an impertinence.



Apparently she didn't. "Two; really most awfully good ones. Indeed, Tex

strongly advised me to sell out and buy another outfit if I still wanted

to ranch. But I don't want another one. It's the Shoe-Bar I'm so keen

about because of-- But I really mustn't keep you. Thank you so much for

relieving my mind. When Tex comes in I'll tell him he was mistaken."



Buck hesitated for an instant. "It might be better not to say anything

about it," he suggested. "Some foremen don't like the least bit of

interference, you know. Suppose we just let it go, and if he brings up the

subject to me, I'll tell him he got me wrong."



"Very well. It doesn't make any difference so long as you're staying.

Good-by."



With a little gesture of farewell, she walked away toward the ranch-house,

leaving Stratton to return to where McCabe fidgeted beside the horses.

There was no time for deliberate reasoning or planning. Buck only felt

sure that Lynch was up to something underhand, and when Slim, with almost

too great a casualness, inquired what it was all about, he obeyed a strong

impulse and lied.



"Oh, it's Bemis," he shrugged, as they rode off together. "He's fretting

to get away. Lost his nerve, I reckon, and wants to pull out. She wanted

to know how long I thought it would be before he could back a horse. I

s'pose he might chance it in about a week, but I'm hanged if I can see why



he's in such a rush. He's sure got it soft enough here."



While he talked he was busy rolling a cigarette, but this did not prevent

him from being aware of Slim's intent, sidelong scrutiny. He could not be

quite certain whether or not he succeeded in deceiving the fellow, but

from the character of McCabe's comments, he rather thought he had.

Certainly he hoped so. Slim was sure to tell Lynch about the incident, but

if he himself believed it harmless, the foreman was likely to take the

same point of view, and continue to carry out the scheme he had in mind.

Whatever this was, Stratton, in his present frame of mind, preferred that

it should be brought to a head rather than continue any longer in

suspense.



Throughout the day he could get no hint of what was going on. Once the

thought occurred to him that it might be a variation of the trick Lynch

had tried to play on Bud. By preparing Miss Thorne beforehand for the

departure of the new hand, he could discharge Stratton and then represent

to the girl that he had quit of his own accord. But somehow this didn't

altogether fit. It assumed that Buck would take his dismissal quietly

without attempting a personal appeal to the ranch-owner; also it took no

account of Bud Jessup. By this time Tex must realize that there had been

more or less intimate communication between the two, and Bud was not the

sort to stand by quietly and see his friend turned out without stirring

vehemently in his behalf.



Considering all this, Buck could not see that there was much to fear in

Lynch's present manoeuvering; and it was something of a shock to find Bud

absent from the supper-table.



"Gone to Paloma to fetch those wagon-bolts," explained Tex, who had come

in about an hour ahead of the others, in answer to Peters' query. "They'd

ought to of come in by mail yesterday or the day before, an' we need 'em

bad. He'll get supper in town an' be back before dark."



Somewhat thoughtful, Buck accompanied the others to the bunk-house, where

he was cordially invited to join the evening game of draw, but declined on

the plea of having a couple of letters to write. It was a subterfuge, of

course; he had nobody to write to. But in his mind had risen a strong

preference for being in a position where he could overlook the whole

group, rather than be seated in their very midst.



There had come to him a sudden, vivid conviction that he had

underestimated the foreman's resources and his own possible danger. As he

sat there mechanically scribbling random sentences, it was brought home to

him for the first time how unpleasantly alone he was. Save for a helpless

girl and an even more helpless old woman, there wasn't a soul within a

dozen miles on whom he could count for help in an emergency. Of course

when Bud returned--



But Bud didn't return. Nine o'clock brought no sign of him. Another hour

passed and still he failed to show up. It began to look very much as if

the youngster had met with some accident or was being purposely kept out

of the way.



When the men finished their game and began to turn in, Stratton

reluctantly followed their example. As long as there was any light he felt

perfectly able to take care of himself. It was the darkness he

feared--that inky, suffocating darkness which masks everything like a

pall. He dreaded, too, the increased chances bed would bring of yielding

for a single fatal instant to treacherous sleep; but he couldn't well sit

up all night, so he undressed leisurely with the rest and stretched his

long length between the blankets.



When the lamp was out, he cautiously flung aside his coverings, drew

himself into a reclining position, and with gun in one hand and some

matches close beside the other, began his vigil.



For a long time--it must have been an hour at least--there was no need to

fight off sleep. His mind was far too active. But his thoughts were not

altogether cheering, for he began to see clearly how Lynch might hope to

accomplish the impossible.



So far there had been reassurance in the feeling that the foreman would

not dare proceed to open violence because of the almost certain

consequences to himself. Buck realized now that, under the conditions of

the moment, those consequences might become almost negligible. Suppose,

for instance, that by next morning Stratton had disappeared. Lynch and his

confederates would tell a plausible story of his having demanded his time

the night before and ridden off early in the morning. It was a story Tex

had carefully prepared Miss Thorne to hear, and whether or not, after

Buck's talk with her during the morning, she might be suspicious, that

would make no difference in the foreman's actions now. He would see that a

horse was gone, and attend to all the other necessary details. He had the

better part of the night and miles of desert waste in which to dispose of

every trace of Stratton and his belongings. Bud would be suspicious, but

between suspicion and proof there is a great gulf fixed. And though Lynch

might not know it, one of his strongest cards was the fact that if

Stratton should vanish off the earth, there was not a soul who would ever

come around asking awkward questions.



"But I'm not going to be bumped off just now, thank you," Buck said to

himself with a grim straightening of the lips. "They won't dare fire a

gun, and they don't know I'm ready for them and waiting."



Another hour passed, a tortured, harrowing hour in which he fought sleep

desperately with all the limited resources at his command. In spite of his

determination to keep his eyes open at any cost, his lids drooped and

lifted, drooped and lifted, drooped and were dragged open by sheer

will-power. Each time it was more difficult. Just as the water laps

inexorably at length over the face of an exhausted swimmer, so these waves

of sleep, smothering, clutching, dulled his senses and strove to wrap him

in their soft, treacherous embrace.



There came at last a complete wiping out of consciousness, how long or

short he never knew, from which he was jarred into sudden wakefulness by a

sound. He had no idea what it was nor whence it came. He merely found

himself abruptly in full possession of his senses, nerves tingling,

moisture dewing his forehead, his whole being concentrated in the one act

of--listening!



For what seemed an eternity he could hear nothing save the heavy breathing

of sleeping men. Then it came again, a slow, faint, dragging sound that

ceased almost as soon as it began.



Some one was creeping stealthily toward him across the cabin floor!





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