Rustlers





Swiftly the echoes of the shots died away, leaving the still serenity of

the night again unruffled. For a moment or two Stratton waited

expectantly; then his shoulders squared decisively.



"I reckon it's up to us to find out what's going on down there," he said,

turning toward his horse.



Jessup nodded curt agreement. "Better take the sorrel along, hadn't we?"

he asked.



"Sure." Buck swung himself lightly into the saddle, shortening the lead

rope and fastening it to the horn. "I was thinking of that."



Five minutes later they pulled up in front of a small adobe shack nestling

against a background of cottonwoods that told of the near presence of the

creek. The door stood open, framing a black rectangle which proclaimed the

emptiness of the hut, and with scarcely a pause the two rode slowly on,

searching the moonlit vistas with keen alertness.



On their right the country had grown noticeably rougher. Here and there

low spurs from the near-by western hills thrust out into the flat prairie,

and deep shadows which marked the opening of draw or gully loomed up

frequently. It was from one of these, about half a mile south of the hut,

that a voice issued suddenly, halting the two riders abruptly by the

curtness of its snarling menace.



"Hands up!"



Buck obeyed promptly, having learned from experience the futility of

trying to draw on a person whose very outlines are invisible. Jessup's

hands went up, too, and then dropped quickly to his sides again.



"Why, it's Slim!" he cried, and spurred swiftly toward the mouth of the

gully. "What the deuce is the matter?" he asked anxiously. "What's

happened to Rick?"



There was a momentary pause, and then McCabe stepped out of the shadows,

six-gun in one hand.



"What the devil are yuh doin' here?" he demanded with a harshness which

struck Buck in curious contrast to his usual air of good humor. "Who's

that with yuh?"



"Only Green. We--we got worried, an' saddled up an'--followed yuh. When we

heard the shots--What did happen to Rick, Slim? We caught his horse out

there, the saddle all--"



"Since yuh gotta know," snapped the puncher, "he got a hole drilled

through one leg. He's right here behind me."



As Bud flung himself out of the saddle and hurried over to the man lying

just inside the gully, McCabe stepped swiftly to the side of Stratton's

horse. There was a mingling of doubt and sharp suspicion in the upturned

face.



"Yuh sure are up an' doin' for a new hand," he commented swiftly. "Was it

yuh put it into his head to come out here?"



"I reckon maybe it was," returned Buck easily. "When we woke up an' found

you all gone, the kid got fretting considerable about his friend here, and

I didn't see why we shouldn't ride out and join you. According to my mind,

when you're out after rustlers, the more the merrier."



"Huh! He told yuh we was after rustlers?"



"Sure. Why not? It ain't any secret, is it? Leastwise, I didn't gather

that from Bud."



McCabe's face relaxed. "Wal, I dunno as 't is," he shrugged. "Tex likes to

run things his own way, though. Still, I dunno as there's any harm done.

Truth is, we didn't get started soon enough. We was half a mile off when

we heard the shot, an' rid up to find Rick drilled through the leg an' the

thieves beatin' it for the mountains. The rest of the bunch lit out after

'em while I stayed with Rick. I dunno as they caught any of 'em, but I

reckon they didn't have time to run off no cattle."



Stratton slid out of the saddle and threw the reins over the roan's head.

He had not failed to notice the slight discrepancy in McCabe's statement

as to the length of time it took the punchers to ride from the bunk-house

to this spot, but he made no comment.



"Bemis hurt bad?" he asked.



"Not serious. It's a clean wound in his thigh. I got it tied up with his

neckerchief."



Buck nodded and walked over to where Bud was squatting beside the wounded

cow-puncher. By this time his eyes were accustomed to the half-darkness,

and he could easily distinguish the long length of the fellow, and even

noted that the dark eyes were regarding him questioningly out of a white,

rather strained face.



"Want me to look you over?" he asked, bending down. "I've had considerable

experience with this sort of thing, and maybe I can make you easier."



"Go to it," nodded the young chap briefly. "It ain't bleedin' like it was,

but it could be a whole lot more comfortable."



With the aid of Jessup and McCabe, Bemis was moved out into the moonlight,

where Stratton made a careful examination of his wound. He found that the

bullet had plowed through the fleshy part of the thigh, just missing the

bone, and, barring chances of infection, it was not likely to be

dangerous. He was readjusting Slim's crude bandaging when he heard the

beat of hoofs and out of the corner of one eye saw McCabe walk swiftly out

to meet the returning punchers.



These halted about fifty feet away, and there was a brief exchange of

words of which Buck could distinguish nothing. Presently two of the men

dashed off in the direction of the ranch-house, while Lynch rode slowly

forward and dismounted.



"How yuh feelin'?" he asked Bemis, adding with a touch of sarcasm in his

voice, "I hear yuh got a reg'lar professional sawbones to look after

yuh."



"He acts like he knew what he was about," returned Bemis briefly. "How yuh

goin' to get me home?"



"I've sent Butch an' Flint after the wagon," explained Lynch. "They'll

hustle all they can."



"Did you catch sight of the rustlers?" asked Stratton suddenly.



The foreman flashed him a sudden not overfriendly glance.



"No," he returned curtly, and turning on his heel led his horse over to

where the others had gathered in the shadow of a rocky butte.



It was nearly an hour before the lumbering farm-wagon appeared. During the

interval Buck sat beside the wounded man, smoking and exchanging

occasional brief comments with Bud, who stayed close by. One or two of the

others strolled up to ask about Bemis, but for the most part they remained

in their little group, the intermittent glow of their cigarettes

flickering in the darkness and the constant low murmur of their

conversation wafted indistinguishably across the intervening space.



Their behavior piqued Buck's curiosity tremendously. What were they

talking about so continually? Where had the outlaws gone, and why hadn't

they been pursued further? Had the whole pursuit been merely in the nature

of a bluff? And if so, whom had it been intended to deceive? These and a

score of other questions passed through his mind as he sat there waiting,

but when the dull rumble of the wagon started them all into activity, he

had not succeeded in finding any really plausible answers.



The return trip was necessarily slow, and dawn was just breaking as they

forded the creek and drove up to the bunk-house. They had barely come to a

standstill when, to Buck's surprise, the slim figure of Mary Thorne,

bare-headed and clad in riding-clothes, appeared suddenly around the

corner of the ranch-house and came swiftly toward them.



"Pedro told me," she said briefly, pausing beside the wagon. "How is he?"



"Doin' fine," responded Lynch promptly. "It's a clean wound an' ought to

heal in no time. Our new hand Green tied him up like a regular

professional."



His manner was almost fulsomely pleasant; Miss Thorne's expression of

anxiety relaxed.



"I'm so glad. You'd better bring him right up to the house; he'll be more

comfortable there."



"That ain't hardly necessary," objected Lynch. "He'll do all right here.

We don't want him to be a bother to yuh."



"He won't be," retorted Miss Thorne with unexpected decision. "We've

plenty of room, and Maria has a bed all ready. The bunk-house is no place

for a sick man."



During the brief colloquy Bemis, though perfectly conscious, made no

comment whatever. But Buck, glancing toward him as he lay on the husk

mattress behind the driver, surprised a fleeting but unmistakable

expression of relief in his tanned face.



"He don't want to stay in the bunk-house," thought Stratton. "I don't know

as I blame him, neither. I wonder, though, if it's because he figures on

being more comfortable up there, or--"



The unvoiced question ended with a shrug as Lynch, somewhat curt of

manner, gave the order to move.



"Yuh don't all of yuh have to come, neither," he added quickly. "Butch an'

Slim an' me can carry him in."



Miss Thorne, who had already started toward the house, glanced over one

shoulder. "If Green knows something about first aid, as you say, he'd

better come too, I think."



Buck glanced questioningly at the foreman, received a surly nod and

dismounted, smiling inwardly. It amused him exceedingly to see the

dictatorial Tex forced to take orders from this slip of a girl. Evidently

she was not quite so pathetically helpless as he had supposed the

afternoon before. He began to wonder how she did it, for Lynch struck him

as a far from easy person to manage. He was still turning the question

over in his mind when he received a shock which for the moment banished

every other thought.



The wagon was backed up to the porch, and the four punchers, each taking a

corner of the mattress, lifted Bemis out and carried him across the

living-room and through a door on the further side which Miss Thorne held

open. The room was light and airy, and Buck was conscious of a vague sense

of familiarity, which he set down to his rather brief acquaintance with

the place two years ago. But when Bemis had been undressed and put to bed

and his wound thoroughly cleansed with antiseptic and freshly bandaged,

Stratton, really looking about him for the first time, made an odd

discovery.



It was his own room! He remembered perfectly choosing it and moving in his

belongings the day before he left; and as he stared curiously around he

could not see that a single one of them had been touched. There were his

trunks just as they had come from Texas. His bureau stood between the

windows, and on it lay a pair of brushes and the few odds and ends he had

left there when he enlisted. A pair of chaps and a well-worn Stetson hung

near the door, and he had just stepped over to make sure they were

actually the ones he had left behind when Miss Thorne, who had been

talking in the living-room with Lynch, appeared suddenly on the

threshold.



As their glances met she drew herself up a little, and a curious

expression came into her eyes. Her lips parted impulsively, but when,

after a momentary hesitation, she spoke, Buck had an impression that

something quite different had been on the tip of her tongue an instant

before.



"He'd better have the doctor at once, don't you think?" she said briefly.



Buck nodded. "Yes, ma'am, he ought. I've done the best I could, and the

chances are he'll get along all right; but a regular doctor ought to look

him over as soon as possible."



"I thought so. I've just told Tex to send a man to town at once and wire

Dr. Blanchard, who lives about twelve miles up the line. It'll take him

three or four hours to ride over, but there's no one nearer."



"I wish you'd let me go," said Stratton impulsively. "I've got to return

the horse I borrowed and get blankets and some things I left at the store.

There's really nothing more I can do for Bemis by hanging around."



Her brows crinkled doubtfully. "Well, if you're sure--I suppose there's no

reason why you shouldn't. Tell Tex I said you were to go. He'll give you

the directions. Only you'll have to hurry."



With a murmured word of thanks, Buck snatched up his hat and hastened into

the living-room. As he passed the big table he was aware of a door at the

farther end opening, but he did not turn his head. An instant later, as he

was in the act of springing off the porch, he heard a woman's voice behind

him, soft, low, and a little shaken.



"What is it, Mary? What's happened? You don't mean to tell me that--that

another man's been shot."



Buck's eyes widened, but he did not pause. "That's the aunt, I reckon," he

muttered, as he sped down the slope. His lips straightened. "Another! Holy

cats! What the devil am I up against, anyhow? A murder syndicate?"





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