Tex Lynch





Supper, which was served in the ranch-house kitchen by Pedro, the Mexican

cook, was not enlivened by much conversation. The food was plentiful and

of good quality, and the punchers addressed themselves to its consumption

with the single-hearted purpose of hungry men whose appetites have been

sharpened by a long day in the saddle. Now and then someone mumbled a

request to "pass the sugar," or desired more steak or coffee from the

shuffling Pedro; but for the most part the serious business of eating

occupied them exclusively.



There was no sign of Miss Thorne. Buck decided that she took her meals

elsewhere and approved the isolation. It must be pretty hard, he thought,

for a girl like that to be living her young life in this out-of-the-way

corner of the world with no women companions to keep her company. Then he

remembered that for all he knew she might not be the only one of her sex

on the Shoe-Bar, and when the meal was over and the men were straggling

back toward the bunk-house, he put the question to Bud Jessup, who walked

beside him.



"Huh?" grunted the youngster, with a sharp, inquiring glance at his face.

"What d'yuh want to know that for?"



Stratton shrugged his shoulders. "No particular reason," he smiled. "I

only thought she'd find it mighty dull alone on the ranch with a bunch of

punchers."



Bud continued to eye him intently. "Well, she ain't alone," he said

briefly. "Mrs. Archer lives with her; an' uh course there's Pedro's

Maria."



"Who's Mrs. Archer?"



"Her aunt. Kinda nice old lady, but she ain't got much pep. Maria's jest

the other way. When she's got a grouch on she's some cat, believe me!"



For some reason the subject appeared to be distasteful to Jessup, and Buck

asked no more questions. Instead of following the others into the

bunk-house they strolled on along the bank of the creek, which was lined

with fair-sized cottonwoods. The sun had set, but the glow of it still

lingered in the west. Glinting like a flame on the windows of the

ranch-house, it even dappled the placid waters of the little stream with

red-gold splotches, which mingled effectively with the mirrored

reflections of the overhanging trees. From the kitchen chimney a wisp of

smoke rose straight into the still clear air. In a corner of the corral

half a dozen horses were bunched, lazily switching their tails at

intervals. Through one of the pastures across the stream some cattle

drifted, idly feeding their way to water.



It was a peaceful picture, yet Stratton could not rid his mind of the

curious feeling that the peacefulness was all on the surface. He had not

missed that swift exchange of glances that heralded his first appearance

in the bunk-house; and though Slim McCabe particularly had been almost

effusively affable, Buck was none the less convinced that his presence

here was unwelcome. That business of the branding-iron, too, was puzzling.

Was it merely a bit of rough but harmless horse-play or had it a deeper

meaning? Bud did not look like a fellow to lose his nerve easily, and the

iron had certainly been hot enough to brand even the tough hide of a

three-year-old steer.



Buck glanced sidewise at his companion to find the blue eyes studying his

face with a keen, questioning scrutiny. They were hastily withdrawn, and a

faint color crept up, darkening the youngster's tan.



"Trying to size me up," thought Stratton interestedly. "He's got something

on his chest, too."



But he gave no sign of what was in his mind. A moment or two later he

paused and, leaning indolently against a tree, let his gaze sweep idly

over the cattle in the near-by pasture.



"Looks to me like a pretty good bunch of steers," he commented, and then

added carelessly: "What sort of a guy is this Tex Lynch, anyhow?"



Bud hesitated briefly, sending a swift, momentary glance toward the

bunk-house.



"Oh, he's all right, I guess," he answered slowly.



Stratton grinned. "If you don't look out you'll be overpraising him, kid,"

he chuckled.



Jessup shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't say I liked him," he defended.

"He knows his business all right."



"Oh, sure. Otherwise, I s'pose he wouldn't hold down his job. But what I

want to know is the kind of boss he is. Does he treat the fellows white,

or is he a sneak?"



Bud's face darkened. "He treats some of 'em white enough," he snapped.



"That so? Favorites, eh? I've met up with that kind before. Is he hard to

get on the right side of?"



"Dunno," growled the youngster. "I never tried."



Buck chuckled again. "Well, kid, so long as you don't seem to think it's

worth while, I dunno why I should take the trouble. Who else is on the

outs with him?"



Jessup flashed a startled glance at him. "How in blazes do you know--"



"Oh, gosh! That's easy. That open-faced countenance of yours would give

you away even if your tongue didn't. I'd say you weren't a bit in love

with Lynch, or any of the rest of the bunch, either. Likely you got a good

reason, an' of course it ain't any of my business; but if that stunt with

the red-hot branding-iron is a sample of their playfulness, I should think

you'd drift. There must be plenty of peaceful jobs open in the

neighborhood."



"But that's just what they want me to do," snapped Jessup hotly. "They're

doin' their best to drive me----"



His jaws clamped shut and a sudden suspicion flashed into his eyes, which

caused Buck promptly to relinquish all hope of getting any further

information from the boy. Evidently he had said the wrong thing and got

the fellow's back up, though he could not imagine how. And so, when Jessup

curtly proposed that they return to the bunk-house, Stratton readily

acquiesced.



They found the five punchers gathered around the table playing draw-poker

under the light of a flaring oil lamp. McCabe extended a breezy invitation

to Buck to join them, which he accepted promptly, drawing up an empty box

to a space made for him between Slim and Butch Siegrist. With scarcely a

glance at the group, Jessup selected a tattered magazine from a pile in

one corner and sprawled out on his bunk, first lighting a small hand lamp

and placing it on the floor beside him.



Stratton liked poker and played a good game, but he soon discovered that

he was up against a pretty stiff proposition. The limit was the sky, and

Kreeger and McCabe especially seemed to have a run of phenomenal luck.

Buck didn't believe there was anything crooked about their playing; at

least he could detect no sign of it, though he kept a sharp lookout as he

always did when sitting in with strangers. But he was rather uncomfortably

in a hole and was just beginning to realize rather whimsically that for a

while at least he had only a cow-man's pay to depend on for

spending-money, when the door was suddenly jerked open and a tall,

broad-shouldered figure loomed in the opening.



"Well, it's all right, fellows," said the new-comer, blinking a little at

the light. "I saw--"



He caught himself up abruptly and glowered at Stratton.



"Who the devil are yuh?" he inquired harshly, stepping into the room.



Buck met his hard glance with smiling amiability.



"Name of Buck Green," he drawled. "Passed you on the trail this afternoon,

didn't I? You must be Tex Lynch."



With a scarcely perceptible movement he shifted his cards to his left

hand. His right, the palm half open, rested on the edge of the table just

above his thigh. He didn't really believe the foreman would start

anything, but one never knew, especially with a man of such evidently

uncertain temper.



"Huh!" grunted Lynch. "Why didn't yuh stop me then? Yuh might have saved

yourself a ride." He continued to stare at Stratton, a veiled speculation

in his smoldering eyes. "Well?" he went on impatiently. "What can I do for

yuh now I'm here?"



Buck raised his eyebrows. "Do for me? Why, I don't know as there's

anything right this minute. I s'pose you'll be wanting to put me to work

in the morning."



"You've sure got nerve a-plenty," rasped the foreman. "I ain't hirin'

anybody that comes along just because he wears chaps."



"That so?" drawled Buck. "Funny the lady didn't mention that when she

signed me up this afternoon."



Lynch's face darkened. "Yuh mean to say--"



He paused abruptly, his angry eyes sweeping past Stratton, to rest for an

instant on Flint Kreeger, who sat just beyond McCabe. What he saw there

Buck did not know, but it must have been something of warning or

information. When his eyes returned to Stratton their expression was

veiled under drooping lids; his lithe figure relaxed into an easier

position against the door-casing, both hands resting lightly on slim

hips.



"Miss Thorne hired yuh, then?" he remarked in a non-committal voice which

yet held no touch of friendliness. "Well, that's different. Where've yuh

worked?"



"The last outfit was the Three-Circles in Texas." Buck named at random an

outfit in the southern part of the state with which he was slightly

acquainted. "Been in the army over two years, and just got my discharge."



"Texas?" repeated Lynch curtly. "How the devil do yuh happen to be lookin'

for work here?"



"I'd heard Joe Bloss was foreman," explained Buck calmly. "We used to work

together on the Three-Circles, and I knew he'd give me a job. When I found

out in Paloma he'd gone, I took a chance an' rode out anyhow."



He bore the foreman's searching scrutiny very well, without a change of

color or the quiver of an eyelash. Nevertheless he was not a little

relieved when Lynch, with a brief comment about trying him out in the

morning, moved around the table and sat down on a bunk to pull off his

chaps. That sudden and complete bottling up of emotion had shown Buck how

much more dangerous the man was than he had supposed, and he was pleased

enough to come out of their first encounter so well.



With a barely perceptible sense of relaxing tension, the poker game was

resumed, for which Buck was devoutly thankful. Throughout the interruption

he had not forgotten his hand, which was by far the best he had held that

evening. He played it and the succeeding ones so well that when the game

ended he had managed to break even.



Ten minutes later the lights were out, and the silence of the bunk-house

was broken only by the regular breathing of eight men, or the occasional

creak of some one shifting his position in the narrow bunk. Having no

blankets--a deficiency he meant to remedy if he could get off long enough

to-morrow to ride to Paloma Springs--Buck removed merely chaps and boots

and stretched his long form on the corn-husk tick with a little sigh of

weariness. Until this moment he had not realized how tired he was. But he

had slept poorly on the train, and this, coupled with the heady air and

the somewhat stirring events of the last few hours, dragged his eyelids

shut almost as soon as his head struck the improvised pillow.



It seemed as if scarcely a moment had passed before he opened them again.

But he knew that it must be several hours later, for it had been

pitch-dark when he went to sleep, and now a square of moonlight lay across

the floor under the southern window, bringing into faint relief the

outlines of the long room.



Just what had roused him he did not know; some noise, no doubt, either

inside the bunk-house or without. Nerves attuned to battle-front

conditions are likely to become sharp as razor-edges, and Buck, starting

from deep slumber to complete wakefulness, was almost instantly aware of

a sense of strangeness in his surroundings.



In a moment he knew what it was. Even though they may not snore, the

breathing of seven sleeping men is unmistakable. Buck did not have to

strain his ears to realize that not a sound came from any of the other

bunks, and swiftly the utter, unnatural stillness became oppressive.



Quietly he swung his stockinged feet to the floor and was reaching for the

holster and cartridge-belt he had laid beside him, when, from the

adjoining bunk, Bud Jessup's voice came in a cautious whisper.



"They're gone. The whole bunch of 'em just rode off."





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