Forebodings





Almost at once they struck a fresh trail, made by a number of horsemen

riding in a bunch, which led diagonally across middle pasture. It was easy

to follow, and Hardenberg pushed his men hard to make up for delays which

were likely to come later on. For a time Buck rode beside the sheriff,

discussing their plans and explaining the lay of the land. Then he fell

back a little to chat with Jessup.



"I'm sure glad of one thing," Bud said emphatically, after a few desultory

remarks. "Miss Mary won't be bothered no more now with that son-of-a-gun

hangin' around an' makin' eyes."



Stratton turned on him suddenly. "Who the devil do you mean?" he demanded

sharply.



"Why, Tex, of course," shrugged Jessup. "He used to put in considerable

time soft-soapin' around her. A hell of a nerve, I'll say, makin' up to

such as her."



Buck scowled. "I never saw anything like that," he said brusquely, "except

maybe once," he added. With a sudden recollection of that afternoon they

moved the herd out of south pasture.



"Likely not," returned Bud. "He wasn't so bad till after yuh went. I got

the notion he took to courtin' her, yuh might say, as a kind of last hope.

If he could figger on gettin' her to marry him, he'd have the ranch an'

everythin' on it without no more trouble at all. You'd think even a

scoundrel like him would see she wouldn't look at him."



"Did he-- Was he--"



"Oh, no! Nothin' raw a-tall," returned Bud, divining the thought in

Stratton's mind. "He just hung around the ranch-house a lot, an' was awful

sweet, an' used them black eyes of his consid'able. Sorta preparing the

way, I reckon. But he didn't get far." He chuckled reminiscently. "I'll

tell the world, she didn't waste no time sendin' him about his business."



For a time Buck rode on in frowning silence. The very thought enraged him

and added deeply to the score that was piling up so rapidly against the

scoundrel.



Presently Bud's voice broke in upon his savage reverie.



"Funny we didn't see nothin' of the Mannings back there," he commented.

"The lady couldn't of known yuh was around." He glanced slyly at Buck.

"Besides," he added, seeing that his friend's expression did not lighten,

"with somethin' like this doin', you'd think his lordship would want to

strut around in them baggy pants an' yellow boots, an' air his views on

how to go about to catch the gang."



Stratton turned his head abruptly. "But they must be there!" he said

sharply. "They surely can't have gone away."



"There wasn't no talk of it when I left," shrugged Bud. "Still, an' all,

me an' his nibs wasn't on exactly confidential terms, an' he might have

forgot to tell me about his plans. Yuh got to remember, too, I've been

gone over a week."



A worried wrinkle dodged into Buck's forehead. All along he had taken the

presence of the Mannings so entirely for granted that the possibility of

their having left the ranch never once occurred to him. But now, in a

flash, he realized that by this time, for all he knew, they might be back

in Chicago. As Bud said, it certainly seemed odd that neither of them had

appeared when the posse rode up to the ranch-house. What a fool he had

been not to make sure about it. Why hadn't he asked the question

outright?



"But I did mention it while we were talking," he thought, trying to

reconstruct that brief interview with Mary Thorne. "Hang it all! No, I

didn't. I was going to, but she interrupted. But she must have known what

I referred to."



Suddenly there came back the vivid recollection of the girl's face as she

said good-by. Outwardly cheerful and composed, that faint pallor and the

few lines of strain etched about her mouth and chin struck him now with a

tremendous significance. She had known what was in his mind, but purposely

refrained from revealing the truth for fear of becoming a drag and hamper

to him. She was game through and through.



The realization brought a wave of tenderness surging over the man,

followed swiftly by a deepening sense of trouble and uneasiness.



"I don't like it at all, Bud," he burst out abruptly. "I wish to thunder

we'd found out for sure about those Mannings. If they have gone, one of us

at least ought to have stayed."



"Well, of course I'm only guessin'. Quite likely they're there yet, only

it just seemed funny not to see them. But even if she is left alone with

only Mrs. Archer, yuh ain't worryin' about anythin' really happenin' to

her, are yuh? It'll be darn lonesome, an' all that, but Lynch an' the

whole gang has beat it--"



"How do we know where they have gone?" cut in Stratton curtly. "They had a

good hour's start, and more. It'll be getting dusk pretty quick. What's to

prevent one or more of 'em circling back by the southeast? Lynch is

capable of anything, and after what you've just told me--"



Bud's eyes widened. "But what would he have to gain--"



"Gain?" repeated Buck irritably. "How the devil do I know what's in that

polecat's mind? He's quite capable of hiding behind a woman's skirts. He's

even capable of carrying her off and trying to force her to marry him, or

something like that. I've half a mind to--"



He broke off, frowning. Bud, now thoroughly alarmed, stared at him

uneasily. "You'd better let me go back," he said quickly. "They'll need

yuh more."



"I don't give a damn whether they need me or not," retorted Buck swiftly.

"I've got a better idea, though. We'll hit Las Vegas inside of ten

minutes. The 'phone's still working, isn't it?"



"It was the last I knew."



"I'll take a chance. There's been nothing to put it out of business. By

calling up we'll know how things stand a whole lot quicker. If she and

Mrs. Archer are alone, I'll chase back at once and you can show Hardenberg

the way into the mountains."



Though Bud's face showed no particular pleasure in the plan, he made no

comment, and they rode on in silence. Presently the sheriff turned and

called to Stratton. The trail was spreading out, he said, and growing more

and more difficult to follow in the waning light.



"I don't understand why they rode so far apart," he said, "unless it was

to make it hard for any one to track them. Looks to me, though, as if they

were heading straight for that cut into the mountains you told me about.

Is it much further off?"



"About a quarter of a mile below the little 'dobe shack we're coming to,"

Stratton answered. "The creek takes a sharp turn to the southeast, and

right at the bend you cross and ride straight west into a narrow draw that

doesn't look like it went anywhere. Further on it twists around and leads

into a short canyon that brings you through to a sort of valley lying

between the hills. After that everything's plain sailing. It's almost as

plain as a regular trail."



"Good," nodded Hardenberg. "Anything to mark the draw?"



Buck thought a minute. "As I remember, there's a low ridge on the north

side, and a big clump of mesquite on the right just before you leave the

flats."



"Well, you'll be with us to act as guide. I wish we'd had an hour's

earlier start, though. It won't be any cinch traveling through these

mountains in the dark. Still, at the worst, we can count on Dick Jordan's

bunch to nab them as they come out."



Buck nodded. "I'm not sure I can stick along with you much longer," he

added briefly. "But Jessup can show you the way quite as well. There seems

to be some doubt now about those people I spoke of being still at the

ranch."



"Humph! That would mean that Miss Thorne would be there alone?"



"Yes, except for her aunt. I may be worrying unnecessarily, but with a

scoundrel like Lynch--"



"You never can tell," finished the sheriff as he hesitated. "That's true

enough. We mustn't take any chances. But how--"



"Telephone. There's a line from the ranch-house to Las Vegas camp just

ahead." Buck pointed where, through the gathering dusk, the outlines of

the adobe shack showed dimly. "If I find there's no one with her, I'll

ride back."



"Go to it," nodded the sheriff. "If you don't show up I'll understand. At

a pinch I reckon we could find the trail ourselves from your directions."



As Stratton pulled off to the right, he waved his hand and swept onward

with the posse. Buck reached the door and swung out of the saddle,

flinging the reins over Pete's head. Then he found that Bud had followed

him.



"I'm goin' to wait an' hear what yuh find out," the youngster stated

resolutely. "I can catch up with 'em easy enough."



"All right."



Buck hastily entered the shack, which was almost pitch-dark. A faint

glint of metal came from the telephone, hanging beside one window; and as

he swiftly crossed the room and fumbled for the bell, there stirred within

him a sudden sense of apprehension that was almost dread.





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