Sheriff Hardenberg Intervenes





During that brief lull Buck found time to wonder why no one had sense

enough to use a gun to bring them down. But almost as swiftly the answer

came to him; they dared not risk the sound of a shot bringing interference

from without. He flashed a glance at Bud, who sagged panting against the

table, the fragments of a chair in his hands and a trickle of blood

running down his face. Somehow the sight of that blood turned Buck into a

raging savage.



"Come on, you damned coyotes!" he snarled. "Come and get yours."



For a brief space it looked as if no one had nerve enough to accept his

challenge, and Buck shot a sudden appraising glance toward the outer door,

between which and them their assailants crowded thickest. But before he

could plan a way to rush the throng, that same sharp voice sounded from

the rear which before had stirred the greasers into action, and six or

seven of them began to creep warily forward. Their movements were plainly

reluctant, however, and of a sudden Stratton gave a spring which carried

him within reaching distance of the two foremost. Gripping each by a

collar, he cracked their heads together thrice in swift succession, hurled

their limp bodies from him, grabbed another chair from the floor, and was

back beside Jessup before any of their startled companions had time to

stir.



"Now's the time to rush 'em, kid," he panted in Jessup's ear. "When I give

the word--"



He broke off abruptly as the front door was flung suddenly open and a

sharp, incisive, dominant voice rang through the room.



"What in hell 's doing here?"



For a fraction of a second the silence was intense. Then like a flash a

man leaped up and flung himself through the window, while three others

plunged out of the rear door and disappeared. Others were crowding after

them when there came a sudden spurt of flame, the sharp sound of a

pistol-shot, and a bullet buried itself in the casing of the rear door.



"Stand still, every damn' one of you," ordered the new-comer.



He strode down the room through the light powder-haze and paused before

Stratton, tall, wide-shouldered, and lean of flank, with a thin, hawklike

face and penetrating gray eyes.



"Well?" he questioned curtly. "What's it all about? That scoundrel been

selling licker again?"



"Not to us," snapped Buck. "Are you Hardenberg?" he added, with sudden

inspiration.



"I am."



"Well, you're the cause of our being in here."



The gray eyes studied him narrowly. "How come?"



"I came to town to see you specially and was told by a man outside that

you were making a raid on this joint. We hadn't been inside three minutes

before we found it was a plant to get us here and knife us."



"I don't get you," remarked the sheriff in a slightly puzzled tone.



By this time Buck's momentary irritation at the hint that it was all

merely a drunken quarrel was dying away.



"I don't wonder," he returned in a more amiable tone. "It's a long

story--too long to tell just now. I can only say that we were attacked

without cause by the whole gang here, and if you hadn't shown up just now,

it's a question whether we'd have gotten away alive."



The sheriff's glance swept over the disordered room, taking in the

shattered window, the bodies on the floor, the Mexican who crouched

moaning in a corner, and returned to Stratton's face.



"I'm not so sure about that last," he commented, with a momentary grim

smile. "What's your name?"



"Buck Green."



"Oh! You wrote me a letter--"



"Sure. I'll explain about that later. Meanwhile--"



He broke off and, bending swiftly, pulled his Colt from under the table.

Breaking the weapon, he ejected a little shower of empty brass shells, at

the sight of which his lips tightened. Still without comment, he rapidly

filled it from his belt, Hardenberg watching him intently the while.



"Meanwhile, you'd like a little action, eh?" drawled the sheriff. "You're

right. Either of you hurt?"



He glanced inquiringly at Jessup, who was just wiping the blood from his

cut face.



"Not me," snapped Bud. "This don't amount to nothin'. Say, was there a guy

hangin' around outside when yuh came in--short, with black hair an' eyes

set close together?"



Buck gave a slight start; the sheriff shook his head.



"I might have known he'd beat it," snorted Bud. "But I'll get the lyin'

son-of-a-gun yet; it was him told us yuh were in here."



Hardenberg's gray eyes narrowed slightly. "That'll come later. We'll round

up this bunch first. If you two will ride around to Main Street and get

hold of half a dozen of my deputies, I'll stay here and hold this bunch."



Rapidly he mentioned the names of the men he wanted and where they could

be found, and Stratton and Jessup hastily departed. Outside they found

three horses, their own, tied to the hitching-rack as they had left them,

and a big, powerful black, who stood squarely facing the door, reins

merely trailing and ears pricked forward. The two that had been there when

they first rode up were gone.



"Just like I thought," said Jessup, as they mounted and swung around the

corner. "That guy was planted there a-purpose to get us into the

eatin'-house. What's more, I'll bet my saddle he was the same one who came

snoopin' around Red Butte camp two weeks ago. Recollect, Gabby said he was

small, with black hair an' eyes close together?"



Buck nodded. "It's a mighty sure thing he was there again last night and

pulled our loads," he added in a tone of chagrin. "We're a pretty dumb

pair, kid. Next time we'll believe Gabby when he says his door was opened

in the night."



"I'll say so. But I thought the old bird was just fussing. Never even

looked at my gun. But why the devil should we have suspected anythin'?

Why, Lynch don't even know yore alive!"



"He must have found out someway," shrugged Stratton, "though I can't

imagine how. No use shedding tears over it, though. What we've got to do

is get Hardenberg moving double-quick. Here's George Harley; I'll take

him, and you go on to the next one."



Rapidly the deputies were gathered together and hurried back to the

eating-house to find Hardenberg holding the Mexicans without difficulty.

Half an hour later these were safely lodged in the jail, and the sheriff

began a rigorous examination, which lasted until late in the afternoon.



The boldness of the affair angered him and made him determined to get at

the bottom of it; but this proved no easy matter. To begin with, Jose

Maria, the proprietor of the restaurant, was missing. Either he had merely

rented his place to the instigator of the plot, and was prudently

absenting himself for a while, or else he was one of those who had escaped

through the rear door. Most of the Mexicans were natives of Perilla, and

one and all swore that they were as innocent of evil intent as unborn

children. They had merely happened to be there getting a meal when the

fracas started. The miscreants who had drawn knives on the two whites were

quite unknown to them, and must be the ones who had escaped.



Hardenberg knew perfectly well that they were lying, but for the moment he

let it pass. He had an idea that Stratton could throw some light on the

situation, and leaving the prisoners to digest a few pithy truths, he took

the cow-puncher into his private room to hear his story.



Though Buck tried to make this as brief as possible, it took some time,

especially as the sheriff showed an absorbing interest from the start and

persisted in asking frequent questions and requesting fuller details.

When he had finally heard everything, he leaned back in his chair,

regarding Stratton thoughtfully.



"Mighty interesting dope," he remarked, lighting a cigarette. "I've had my

eyes on Tex Lynch for some time, but I had no idea he was up to anything

like this. You're dead sure about that oil?"



Buck nodded. "Of course, you can't ever be certain about the quantity

until you bore, but I went over some of the Oklahoma fields a few years

ago, and this sure looks like something big."



"Pretty soft for the lady," commented Hardenberg. He paused, regarding

Stratton curiously. "Just whereabouts do you come off?" he asked frankly.

"I've been wondering about that all along, and you can see I've got to be

dead sure of my facts before I get busy on this seriously."



Though Buck had been expecting the question, he hesitated for an instant

before replying.



"I'll tell you," he replied slowly at length, "but for the present I'd

like to have you keep it under your hat. My name isn't Green at all,

but--Stratton."



"Stratton?" repeated the sheriff in a puzzled tone. "Stratton?" A sudden

look of incredulity flashed into his eyes. "You're not trying to make out

that you're the Buck Stratton who owned the Shoe-Bar?"



Buck flushed a little. "I was afraid you'd find it hard to swallow, but

it's true," he said quietly. "You see, the papers got it wrong. I wasn't

killed at all, but only wounded in the head. For--for over a year I hadn't

any memory."



Briefly he narrated the circumstances of the unusual case, and Hardenberg

listened with absorbed attention, watching him closely, weighing every

word, and noting critically the most trifling gesture or change of

expression. For a while his natural skepticism struggled with a growing

conviction that the man before him was telling the truth. It was an

extraordinary experience, to be sure, but he quickly realized that

Stratton had nothing to gain by a deliberate imposture.



"You can prove all that, of course?" he asked when Buck had finished.



"Of course. I haven't any close relatives, but there are plenty of men

who'll swear to my identity."



The sheriff sat silent for a moment. "Some experience," he mused

presently. "Rotten hard luck, too, I'll say. Of course you never had a

suspicion of oil when you sold the outfit to old man Thorne."



Again Buck hesitated. Somehow he found this part of the affair

extraordinarily hard to put into words. But he knew that it must be done.



"I didn't sell it," he said curtly at length. "That transfer of Thorne's

was a forgery. He was a man I'd had a number of business dealings with,

and when I went to France I left all my papers in his charge. I suppose

when he saw my name on the list of missing, he thought he could take a

chance. But his daughter knew nothing whatever about it. She's white all

through and thinks the ranch is honestly hers. That's the reason why I

want you to keep quiet about this for a while. You can see how she'd feel

if this came out."



A faint, fleeting smile curved the corners of Jim Hardenberg's straight

mouth. Accustomed by his profession to think the worst of people, and to

probe deeply and callously for hidden evil motives, it amused and rather

pleased him to meet a man whose extraordinary story roused not the

faintest doubt in his critical mind.



"Some dirty business," he commented at length. "Still, it's come out all

right, and at that you're ahead of the game. That oil might have laid

there for years without your getting wise to it. Well, let's get down to

cases. It's going to take some planning to get that scoundrel Lynch, to

say nothing of the men higher up. Tell me about those fellows in the car

again."



Buck readily went over that part of his story, describing the fat man and

his driver as accurately as he was able. The sheriff's eyes narrowed

thoughtfully as he listened.



"Think you know him?" Buck asked curiously.



"I'm not sure. Description sounds a bit familiar, but descriptions are

apt to fool you. I wish you'd managed to get the number of the car."



"That would likely be a fake one," Stratton reminded him.



"Maybe. Well, I'll make a few inquiries." He stood up stretching. "I'd

like mighty well to start for the Shoe-Bar to-night, but I'm afraid I

can't get a posse together soon enough. We'll need some bunch to round up

that gang. You'll be at the United States Hotel, I suppose? Well, I'll get

busy now, and after supper I'll drop around to let you know how things are

going. With what you've told me I'll see if I can't squeeze some

information out of those greasers. It may help."



They left the room together, the sheriff pausing outside to give some

instructions to his assistant. Buck gathered in Jessup, who had been

waiting, and the two left the building and walked toward the hotel, where

they had left their horses.



Perilla was a town of some size, and at this hour the main street was

fairly well crowded with a picturesque throng of cowboys, Mexicans, and

Indians from the near-by reservation, with the usual mingling of more

prosaic-looking business men. Not a few motor-cars mingled with horsemen

and wagons of various sorts in the roadway, but as Buck's glance fell on a

big, shiny, black touring-car standing at the curb, he was struck by a

sudden feeling of familiarity.



Mechanically he noted the license-number. Then his eyes narrowed as he saw

the pudgy, heavily-built figure in the tan dust-coat on the point of

descending from the tonneau.



An instant later they were face to face. For a second the fat man glanced

at him indifferently with that same pouting droop to the small lips which

Stratton knew he never could forget. Then, like a flash, the round eyes

widened and filled with horror, the jaw dropped, the fat face turned to a

pale, sickly green. A choking gurgle burst from the man's lips, and he

seemed on the point of collapse when a hand reached out and dragged him

back into the car, which, at a hasty word from the occupant of the back

seat, shot from the curb and hummed rapidly away.



Thinking to stop them by shooting up the tires. Buck's hand dropped

instinctively to his gun. But he realized in time that such drastic

methods were neither expedient nor necessary. Instead, he turned and

halted a man of about forty who was passing.



"Any idea who that fellow is?" he asked, motioning toward the car, just

whirling around the next corner. "He's short and fat, in a big black

Hammond car."



"Short and fat in a Hammond car?" repeated the man, staring down the

street. "Hum! Must be Paul Draper from Amarillo. He's the only one I know

around these parts who owns a Hammond. Come to think, though, his car is

gray."



"He's probably had it painted lately," suggested Stratton quietly. "Much

obliged. I thought I'd seen him before some place."





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