Gone





Motionless in his saddle, save for an occasional restless stamp of his

horse, Bud Jessup waited patiently in front of the adobe shack at Las

Vegas camp. His face was serious and thoughtful, and his glance was fixed

on the open door through which came the broken, indistinguishable murmur

of Buck Stratton's voice. Once, thinking he heard an unusual sound, the

youngster turned his head alertly and stared westward through the shadows.

But a moment later his eyes flashed back to that narrow, black oblong, and

he resumed his uneasy pondering as to what Buck might possibly be finding

out.



Suddenly he gave a start as Stratton's voice, harsh, startled, came to him

distinctly.



"Mary! Mary! Why don't you answer? What's happened?"



The words were punctuated by a continuous rattle, and ended abruptly with

the clatter of metal against metal.



"Hell!" rasped Buck, in a hoarse, furious voice with an undercurrent of

keen apprehension that made Bud's nerves tingle. "The wire's been cut!"



An instant later he appeared, running. Snatching the reins, he gained the

saddle in a single bound, jerked his horse around, and was off across the

pasture.



"Come on!" he shouted back over one shoulder. "There's trouble at the

ranch."



Bud dug spurs into his cayuse and followed, but it was some minutes before

he managed to catch up with his friend.



"What is it?" he cried anxiously. "What's wrong? Have the Mannings--"



"They've gone, as I thought," snapped Stratton. "The two women are alone.

But that isn't the worst." A sudden spasm of uncontrolled fury rose in his

throat and choked him momentarily. "There's some one hidden in the loft

over the harness-room," he managed to finish hoarsely.



Bud stared at him in dismay. "Who the devil--"



"I don't know. She just got a glimpse of a--a face in the window while she

was closing up the kitchen."



"Do you suppose it's--Tex?"



"I don't know," retorted Buck through his clenched teeth. "What difference

does it make, anyhow? Some one hid there for a--a purpose. By God! What

fools we were not to make a search!"



"It seemed so darn sure they'd all beat it," faltered Bud. "Besides, I

don't guess any of us would of thought to look in that loft."



"Maybe not. It doesn't matter. We didn't." Stratton's voice was brittle.

"But if anything happens--"



"Have they locked up the whole house?" Jessup asked as Stratton paused.



"Yes, but what good'll that do with two able-bodied men set on getting in?

There isn't a door or shutter that wouldn't--"



"Two!" gasped Bud. "You didn't say--"



"Didn't I? It was just at the end. She was telling me about seeing the

face and locking up the house. Then all at once she broke off." Buck's

tone was calmer now, but it was the hard-won calm of determined will, and

every now and then there quivered through it a faint, momentary note that

told eloquently of the mingled dread and fury that were tearing his nerves

to pieces. "I asked what was the matter and she said to wait a minute. It

seemed like she stopped to listen for something. Then all of a sudden she

cried out that some one was riding up."



"It--it might not have been any of the gang," murmured Bud, voicing a hope

he did not feel.



"Who else would be likely to come at this time of night?" demanded

Stratton. "Lynch is on the outs with everybody around Perilla. They don't

go near the ranch unless they have to. It couldn't have been one of

Hardenberg's men; he's not expecting any one."



"Did--did she say anything else?" asked Jessup, after a brief pause.



Buck hesitated. "Only that she--was afraid, and wanted us to--come

quickly. Then the wire went dead as if it had been cut."



Silence fell, broken only by the thud of hoofs and the heavy breathing of

the two horses. Bud's slim, lithe figure had slumped a little in the

saddle, and his eyes were fixed unseeingly on the wide, flat sweep of

prairie unfolding before them, dim and mysterious under the brilliant

stars.



In his mind anxiety, rage, and apprehension contended with a dull, dead

hopelessness which lay upon his heart like lead. For something in Buck's

tone made him realize in a flash a situation which, strangely, he had

never even suspected. He wondered dully why he hadn't ever thought of it

before; perhaps because Buck was a new-comer who had seemed to see so

little of Mary Thorne. Probably, also, the very friendly manner of Stella

Manning had something to do with Jessup's blindness. But his eyes were

opened now, thoroughly and effectually, and for a space, how long or short

he never knew, he fought out his silent battle.



It ended in a victory. Down in his heart he knew that he had never really

had any hope of winning Mary Thorne himself. He had cherished

aspirations, of course, and dreamed wonderful dreams; but when it came

down to hard actualities, romance did not blind him to the fact that she

looked on him merely as a friend and nothing more. Indeed, though they

were virtually of the same age, he had been aware at times of an oddly

maternal note in her attitude toward him which was discouraging. Still, it

was not easy definitely to relinquish all hope and bring himself to write

"finis" to the end of the chapter. Indeed, he did not reach that state of

mind until, glancing sidewise at his friend, there came to him a sudden,

faintly bitter realization of the wide contrast between them, and of how

much more Buck had to offer than himself.



Stratton's erect, broad shoulders, the lean length of him, the way he held

his head, gave Jessup a curious, unexpected impression of strength and

ability and power. Buck's eyes were set straight ahead and his clean-cut

profile, clearly visible in the luminous starlight, had a look of

sensitiveness and refinement, despite the strength of his jaw and chin and

the somberness of his eyes. Bud turned away with a little sigh.



"I never had no chance at all," he thought. "Someway he don't look like a

cow-puncher, nor talk quite like one. I wonder why?"



Half a mile further on Buck suddenly broke the prolonged silence.



"I've been thinking it over," he said briefly. "The man on the horse was

probably Lynch. He could easily have started off with the rest and then

made a circuit around below the ranch-house. If he picked his ground, we'd

never notice where he left the others, especially as we weren't looking

for anything of the sort."



"Who do you s'pose hid over the harness-room?"



"It might have been Slim, or Kreeger, or even Pedro. The whole thing was

certainly a put-up job--damn them!" His voice shook with sudden passion.

"Well, we'll soon know," he finished, and his mouth clamped shut.



Already the row of cottonwoods that lined the creek was faintly visible

ahead, a low, vague mass, darker a little than the background of

blue-black sky. Both spurred their jaded horses and a moment or two later

pulled up with a jerk at the gate. Before his mount had come to a

standstill, Bud was out of his saddle fumbling with the catch. When he

swung it open, Stratton dashed through, swiftly crossed the shallow creek,

and galloped up the long, easy slope beyond.



A chill struck him as the ranch-house loomed up, ominously black and

desolate as any long-deserted dwelling. He had forgotten for an instant

the heavy, wooden shutters, and when, with teeth clenched and heart

thudding in his throat, he reached the veranda corner, the sight of that

yellow glow streaming from the open door gave him a momentary shock of

supreme relief.



An instant later he saw the shattered door, and the color left his face.

In two strides he crossed the porch and, with fingers tightening about the

butt of his Colt, he stared searchingly around the big, brightly-lighted,

strangely empty-looking room.



It held but a single occupant. Huddled in a chair on the further side of

the long table was Mrs. Archer. Both hands rested on the polished oak, and

clutched in her small, wrinkled hands was a heavy, cumbrous revolver,

pointed directly at the door. Her white, strained face, stamped with an

expression of hopeless tragedy, looked ten years older than when Buck had

last seen it. As she recognized him she dropped the gun and tottered to

her feet.



"Oh!" she cried, in a sharp, wailing voice. "You! You!"



In a moment Buck had her in his arms, holding her tight as one holds a

hurt or frightened child. Mechanically he soothed her as she clung to him,

that amazing self-control, which had upheld her for so long, snapping like

a taut rope when the strain becomes too great. But all the while his

eyes--wide, smoldering eyes, filled with a mingling of pity, of dread

questioning and furious passion--swept the room searchingly.



Over the little lady's bowed gray head his glance took in swiftly a score

of details--the dead fire, the dangling receiver of the useless

telephone, a little pearl-handled revolver lying in a far corner as if it

had been flung there, an upset chair. Suddenly his gaze halted at the edge

of the shattered door and a faint tremor shook his big body. A comb lay on

the floor there--a single comb of tortoise-shell made for a woman's hair.

But it was a comb he knew well. And as his eyes met Bud's, staring from

the doorway at the strange scene, they were the eyes of a man tortured.





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