Nerve





With a deep sigh, Buck lifted his face from the water and regarded her

gratefully.



"That just about saved my life," he murmured.



Mary Thorne carefully set down the improvised water-bucket, its contents

much depleted, and taking out her handkerchief, soaked it thoroughly.



"I'm awfully stupid about first aid," she said. "But your head must be

badly cut, and--"



"Don't," he protested, as the moist bit of cambric touched his hair.

"You'll spoil it."



"As if that mattered!" she retorted. "Just rest your head on your arms;

it'll be easier."



With deft, gentle touches, she cleaned away the blood and grime, parting

his thick hair now and then with delicate care. Her hands were steady now,

and having steeled herself for anything, the sight of a jagged,

ugly-looking cut on his scalp did not make her flinch. She even bent

forward a little to examine it more closely, and saw that a ridge of

clotted blood had temporarily stopped its oozing.



"I think I'd better let it alone," she said aloud. "I might start it

bleeding again. How--how did it happen?"



Buck raised his head and regarded her with a slow, thoughtful stare.



"I fell off the cliff back there," he replied at length.



Her eyes widened. "You--fell off the cliff!" she gasped. "It's a wonder--

But is this the only place you're hurt?"



His lips twisted in a grim smile. "Oh, no! I've got a sprained ankle and

what feels like a broken rib, though it may be only bruises. But as you're

thinking, I'm darned lucky to get off alive. I must have struck a ledge or

something part way down, but how I managed from there I haven't the least

idea."



Hands clenched together in her lap, she stared at him in dismay.



"I thought perhaps you might be strong enough in a little while to ride

back with me to the ranch. I--I could help you mount, and we could go very

slowly. But of course that's impossible. I'd better start at once and

bring back some of the men."



She made a move to rise, but he stopped her with a quick, imperative

gesture. "No, you mustn't," he said firmly. "That won't do at all. I can't

go to the ranch." He paused, his forehead wrinkled thoughtfully. "You may

not have guessed it, but Lynch and I don't pull together at all," he

finished, with a whimsical intonation.



"But surely that wouldn't make any difference--now!" she protested.



"Only the difference that he'd have me just where he wanted me," he

retorted. He was regarding her with a steady, questioning stare, and

presently he gave a little sigh. "I'll have to tell you something I didn't

mean to," he said. "In my opinion Tex Lynch is pretty much of a scoundrel.

He knows I know it, and there isn't anything he wouldn't do to shut my

mouth--for good."



To his amazement, instead of showing the indignation he expected, the girl

merely stared at him in surprise.



"What!" she cried. "You believe that, too?"



"I'm sure of it. But I thought you trusted--"



"I don't any longer." She was surprised at the immensity of the relief

that surged over her at this chance to unburden her soul of the load of

perplexity and trouble which harassed her. "For a long time I

haven't--There've been a number of things. I still haven't an idea of what

it's all about, but--"



"I'm mighty glad you feel that way," Buck said, as she paused. "I'm not

quite sure myself just what he's up to, but I believe I'm on the right

trail." Very briefly he told her of the steps he had taken since leaving

the Shoe-Bar. "You see how impossible it would be to trust myself in his

power again," he concluded.



For a moment or two Mary Thorne sat silent, regarding him with a curious

expression.



"So that was the reason," she murmured at length.



His eyes questioned her mutely, and a slow flush crept into her face.



"The reason you--you couldn't say you had no--special object in being on

the Shoe-Bar," she explained haltingly. "I'm--sorry I didn't understand."



"I couldn't very well tell you without running the risk of Lynch's finding

out. As it happened, I was trying my best to think up a reasonable excuse

for leaving the outfit to do some investigating from this end, so you

really did me a good turn."



"Investigating what? Haven't you any idea what he's up to?"



Buck hesitated. "A very little, but it's too indefinite to put into words

just yet. I've a feeling I'll get at the bottom of it soon, though, and

then I'll tell you. In the meantime, when you go back, don't breathe a

word of having seen me, and on no account let any one persuade you

to--sell the outfit."



She stared at him with crinkled brows. "But what are you going to do now?"

she asked suddenly, her mind flashing back to the present difficulty.



He dragged himself into a sitting posture. He was evidently feeling

stronger and looked much more like himself.



"Try and get back to that camp of mine I told you of," he explained. "I

reckon I'll have to lay up there a while, but there's food a-plenty, and a

good spring, so--"



"But I don't believe you can even stand," she protested. "And if your ribs

are broken--"



"Likely it's only one and I can strap that good and tight with a piece of

my shirt or something. Then if you could catch Pete and bring him over

here, I'll manage to climb into the saddle some way. It's only three or

four miles, and the going's not so very bad."



She made no further protest, but her lips straightened firmly and there

was a look of decision in her girlish face as she set about helping him

with his preparations.



It was she who tore a broad band from his flannel shirt, roughly fringed

the ends with Buck's knife and tied it so tightly about his body that he

had hard work to keep from wincing. She insisted on bandaging his head,

and while he rested in the shade went back into the gulch to look for his

hat and the Colt that had fallen from his holster.



She finally found them both under a narrow ledge that thrust out a dozen

feet below the edge of the trail. A stunted bush, rooted deep in some

hidden crevice, grew up before it, and, staring upward at it, the girl

guessed that to this little bush alone Buck owed his life. He had been

able to give her no further details of his descent, but she saw that it

would be possible for a man to crawl along the narrow ledge to where

another crossed it at a descending angle, and thence gain the bottom of

the gulch.



"I wonder how he ever came to fall," she murmured, remembering how wide

the trail was at the summit.



Returning, however, she asked no questions. In the face of what lay before

her, the matter seemed trivial and unimportant. She caught the Rocking-R

horse without much trouble and led him back to a broad, flat boulder on

which Buck had managed to crawl. Obliged to hold the animal, whose

slightest movement might prove disastrous, she could give no further aid,

but was forced to stand helpless, watching with troubled, sympathetic eyes

the man's painful struggles to gain the saddle. When at last he succeeded

and slumped there, mouth twisted and face bathed in perspiration, her

knees were shaking and she felt limp and nerveless.



"We'll stop at the spring first for more water," she said, pulling herself

together with an effort.



Too exhausted for speech, Buck merely nodded, and the girl, gathering up

Freckles's bridle in her other hand, led the two horses slowly toward the

trail. At the spring Buck drank deeply of the water she handed him, and

seemed much refreshed.



"That's good," he murmured, with an effort to straighten his bent body.

"Well, I reckon I'd better be starting. I--I can't thank you enough for

all you've done, Miss--Thorne. It was mighty plucky--"



"You mustn't waste your strength talking," she interrupted quietly. "Just

tell me which way to go, and we'll start."



"We?" he repeated sharply. "But you're not going."



"Of course I am. Did you think for a moment I'd let you take that ride

alone?" She smiled faintly with a brave attempt at lightness. "You'd be

falling off and breaking another rib. Please don't make difficulties. I'm

going with you, and that's an end of it."



Perhaps the firmness of her manner made Buck realize the futility of

further protest, or possibly he was in no condition to argue. At all

events he gave in, and when the girl swung herself into the saddle, the

slow journey began.



To Mary Thorne the memory of it remained ever afterward in her mind a

chaotic medley of strange emotions and impressions, vague yet vivid. At

first, where the width of the trail permitted it, she rode beside him,

making an effort to talk casually and lightly, yet not too constantly, but

continually keeping a watchful eye on the drooping figure at her right,

whose hands presently sought and gripped the saddle-horn.



When they left the trail for rougher ground, she dismounted in spite of

Buck's protest, and walked beside him, and it was well she did. Once when

the horse slipped or stumbled on a loose stone and the man's body swayed

perilously in the saddle, she put up both hands swiftly and held him

there.



Before they had gone a mile her boots began to hurt her, but the pain was

so trifling in comparison with what Buck must be suffering that she

scarcely noticed it. He was putting up a brave front, but there were signs

that were difficult to conceal, and toward the end of that toilsome

journey it was evident that he could not possibly have kept his seat much

longer. Indeed, when they had ridden the short length of the little canyon

and stopped before the overhanging shelf of rocks, he toppled suddenly

sidewise, and only the girl's frail body prevented him from crashing

roughly to the ground.



She brought him water from the spring, and searching through his

belongings found a flask of brandy and forced some between his teeth. When

he had recovered from his momentary faintness, she managed somehow to get

him over to the blankets spread beneath the ledge. Then she built a fire

and set some coffee on it to boil, unsaddled Pete, fed and watered the

three horses, finally returning with a cup of steaming liquid to where

Buck lay exhausted with closed eyes.



His face was drawn and haggard, and his lashes, long and soft and thick,

lay against a skin drained of every particle of color. A sudden choking

sob rose to the girl's lips, but she managed to force it back, and when

the man's lids slowly lifted, she smiled tremulously.



"Here's some coffee," she said, kneeling down and holding the rim of the

cup to his lips.



Buck drank obediently in slow gulps.



"You're all nerve," he murmured when the cup was empty. He lay silent for

a few moments. "Don't you think you'd better be starting back?" he asked

at length.



"How can I go and leave you like this?" she protested. "You're so weak.

You might get fever. Anything might happen."



"But you certainly can't stay," he retorted with unexpected decision. "Let

alone a whole lot of other reasons," he went on, watching her mutinous

face, "if you did, Tex would have a posse out hunting for you in no time.

Sooner or later they'd find this place, and you know what that would mean.

I'm feeling better every minute--honest. By to-morrow I'll be able to

hobble around and look after myself fine."



His logic was irresistible, and for a time she sat silent, torn by a

conflict of emotions. Then all at once her face brightened.



"I've got it!" she cried. "Why can't I send Bud out? He's to be trusted

surely?"



Buck's eyes lit up in a way that brought to the girl a curious, jealous

pang.



"Bud? Sure, he's all right. That's one fine idea. You'll have to be

careful Lynch doesn't know where he's going, though."



"I'll manage that all right."



Reluctant to go, yet feeling that she ought to make haste, the girl got

out some crackers and placed them, with a pail of water, within his reach.

Then she listened while Stratton told her of a short cut out to the middle

pasture.



"I understand," she nodded. "You'll promise to be careful, won't you? Bud

ought to be here in a couple of hours, though he may be delayed a little

longer. You'd better not try and move until he comes."



"I won't," Buck answered. "I'm too darn comfortable."



"Well, good-by, then," she said briefly, moving over to her horse.



"Good-by; and--thank you a thousand times!"



She made no answer, but a faint, enigmatic smile quivered for an instant

on her lips as she turned the stirrup and swung herself into the saddle.

When Freckles had reached a little distance, she glanced back and waved

her hand. From where he lay Stratton could see almost the whole length of

the little canyon, and as long as the slight figure on the big gray horse

remained in sight, his eyes followed her intently, a sort of wistful

hunger in their depths. But when she disappeared, the man's head fell back

limply on the blankets and his eyes closed.





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