Mistress Mary - Quite Contrary





But Stratton's mind was too full of the amazing information he had gleaned

from the old storekeeper to leave much room for minor reflections. He had

been stunned at first--so completely floored that anyone save the

garrulous old man intent on making the most of his shop-worn story could

not have helped seeing that something was seriously wrong. Then anger

came--a hot, raging fury against the authors of this barefaced, impudent

attempt at swindle. From motives of policy he had done his best to conceal

that, too, from Pop Daggett; but now that he was alone it surged up again

within him, dyeing his face a deep crimson and etching hard lines on his

forehead and about his straight-lipped mouth.



"Thought they'd put it over easy," he growled behind set teeth, one

clenched, gloved hand thumping the saddle-horn. "Saw the notice in the

papers, of course, and decided it would be a cinch to rob a dead man.

Well, there's a surprise coming to somebody that'll make mine look like

thirty cents."



His lips relaxed in a grim smile, which presently merged into an

expression of puzzled wonder. Thorne, of all people, to try and put across

a crooked deal like this! Stratton had never known the man really

intimately, but during the several years of their business relationship

the Chicago lawyer struck him as being scrupulously honest and upright.

Indeed, when Buck came to enlist, it seemed a perfectly safe and natural

thing to leave his deeds and other important papers in Andrew Thorne's

keeping.



"Shows how you can be fooled in a man," murmured Stratton, as he followed

the trail down into a shallow draw. "I sure played into his hands nice. He

had the deeds and everything, and it would be simple enough to fake a

transfer when he thought I was dead and knew I hadn't any kin to make

trouble. I wonder what the daughter's like. A holy terror, I'll bet, and

tarred with the same brush. Well, she'll get hers in about two hours'

time, and get it good."



The grim smile flickered again on his lips for a moment, to vanish as he

saw the head and shoulders of a horseman appear over the further edge of

the draw. An instant later the bulk of a big sorrel flashed into view and

thudded toward him.



On the open range men usually stop for a word or two when they meet, but

this one did not. As he approached Stratton at a rapid speed there was a

brief, involuntary movement as if he meant to pull up and then changed his

mind. The next moment he had whirled past with a careless, negligent

gesture of one hand and a keen, penetrating, questioning stare from a pair

of hard black eyes.



Buck glanced over one shoulder at the flying dust-cloud and pursed his

lips.



"Wonder if that's the mysterious Tex?" he pondered, urging his horse

forward. "Black eyes and red cheeks, all right. He's a good looking

scoundrel--too darn good looking for a man. All the same, I can't say it

was a case of love at first sight."



Unconsciously his right hand dropped to the holster at his side, the

fingers caressing for an instant the butt of his Colt. He had set out on

his errand of exposure with an angry impulsiveness which gave no thought

to details or possibilities. But in some subtle fashion that searching

glance from the passing stranger brought him up with a little mental jerk.

For the first time he remembered that he was playing a lone hand, that the

very nature of his business was likely to rouse the most desperate and

unscrupulous opposition. Considering the value of the stake and the

penalties involved, the present occupant of the Shoe-Bar was likely to use

every means in her power to prevent his accusations from becoming public.

If the fellow who had just passed really was Tex Lynch, Buck had a strong

intuition that he was the sort of a man who could be counted on to take a

prominent hand in the game, and also that he wouldn't be any too

particular as to how he played it.



A mile beyond the draw the trail forked, and Stratton took the left-hand

branch. The grazing hereabouts was poor, and at this time of year

particularly the Shoe-Bar cattle were more likely to be confined to the

richer fenced-in pastures belonging to the ranch. The scenery thus

presenting no points of interest, Buck's thoughts turned to the interview

ahead of him. Marshaling his facts, he planned briefly how he would make

use of them, and finally began to draw scrappy mental pen-pictures of the

usurping Mary Thorne.



She would be tall, probably, and raw-boned--that domineering, "bossy" type

he always associated with women who assumed men's jobs--harsh-voiced and

more than a trifle hard. He dwelt particularly on her hardness, for surely

no other sort of woman could possibly have helped to engineer the crooked

deal which Andrew Thorne and his daughter had so successfully put across.

She would be painfully plain, of course, and doubtless also would wear

knickerbockers like a certain woman farmer he had once met in Texas, smoke

cigarettes constantly, and pack a gun. Having endowed the lady with a few

other disagreeable qualities which pleased him mightily, Buck awoke to the

realization that he was approaching the eastern extremity of the Shoe-Bar

ranch. His eyes brightened, and, dismissing all thoughts of Miss Thorne,

he began to cast interested, appraising glances to right and left as he

rode.



There is little that escapes the eye of the professional ranchman,

especially when he has been absent from his property for more than two

years. Buck Stratton observed quite as much as the average man, and it

presently became evident that what he saw did not please him. His keen

eyes sought out sagging fence-wire where staples, drawn or fallen out, had

never been replaced. Here and there a rotting post leaned at a precarious

angle, or gates between pastures needed repairing badly. What cattle were

in sight seemed in good condition but their number was much less than he

expected. Only once did he observe any signs of human activity, and then

the loafing attitude of the two punchers riding leisurely through a field

half a mile away was but too apparent. By the time he came within sight of

the ranch-house, nestling pleasantly in a little grove of cottonwoods

beyond the creek, his face was set in a hard scowl.



"Looks to me like they were letting the whole outfit go to pot," he

muttered angrily. "It sure is time I whirled in and took a hand."



Urging the roan forward, he rode splashing through the shallow stream, up

the gentle slope, and swung out of his saddle close to the kitchen door.

This stood open, and striding up to it Buck met the languid gaze of a

swarthy middle-aged Mexican who lounged just within the portal.



"Miss Thorne around?" he asked curtly.



"Sure," shrugged the Mexican. "I t'ink she in fron' house. Yoh try aroun'

other door, mebbe fin' her."



In the old days the kitchen entrance had been the one most used, but Buck

remembered that there was another at the opposite end of the building

which opened directly into the ranch living-room. He sought it now,

observing with preoccupied surprise that a small covered veranda had been

built out from the house, found it ajar like the other, and knocked.



"Come in," said a voice.



Stratton crossed the threshold, instinctively removing his hat. As he

remembered it, the room, though of good size and comfortable enough, had

been a clutter of purely masculine belongings. He was quite unprepared for

the colorful gleam of Navajo rugs, the curtained windows, the general air

of swept and garnished tidiness which seemed almost luxury. Briefly his

sweeping glance took in a bowl of flowers on the center-table and then

came to rest abruptly on a slight, girlish figure just risen from a chair

beside it.



"I'd like to see Miss Thorne, please," he said, stifling his momentary

surprise.



The girl took a step forward, her slim, tanned, ringless fingers clasped

loosely about a book she held.



"I'm Miss Thorne," she answered in a low, pleasant voice.



Buck gasped and his eyes widened. Then he recovered himself swiftly.



"I mean Miss Mary Thorne," he explained; "the--er--owner of this outfit."



The girl smiled faintly, a touch of veiled wistfulness in her eyes.



"I'm Mary Thorne," she said quietly. "There's only one, you know."





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