The Blood-stained Saddle





"Hello, kid!" said Stratton quietly. "You awake? What's up, anyhow?"



There was a rustle in the adjoining bunk, the thud of bare feet on the

floor, and Jessup's face loomed, wedge-shaped and oddly white, through the

shadows.



"They're gone," he repeated, with a curious, nervous hesitancy of manner.



"I know. You said that before. What the devil are they doing out this time

of night?"



In drawing his weapon to him, Buck's eyes had fallen on his wrist-watch,

the radiolite hands of which indicated twenty minutes after twelve. He

awaited Jessup's reply with interest, and it struck him as unnaturally

long in coming.



"I don't rightly know," the youngster said at length. "I s'pose they must

have gone out after--the rustlers."



Buck straightened abruptly. "What!" he exclaimed. "You mean to say there's

been rustling on the Shoe-Bar?"



Again Jessup hesitated, but more briefly. "I don't know why I shouldn't

tell yuh. Everybody's wise to it, or suspects somethin'. They've got away

with quite a bunch--mostly from the pastures around Las Vegas, over near

the hills. Tex says they're greasers, but I think--" He broke off to add a

moment later in a troubled tone, "I wish to thunder he hadn't gone an'

left Rick out there all alone."



Stratton remembered Las Vegas as the name of a camp down at the

southwesterly extremity of the ranch. It consisted of a one-room adobe

shack, which was occupied at certain seasons of the year by one or two

punchers, who from there could more easily look after the near-by cattle,

or ride fence, than by going back and forth every day from the ranch

headquarters.



"Who's Rick?" he asked briefly.



"Rick Bemis. He--he's one dandy fellow. We've worked together over two

years."



"H'm. How long's this rustling been going on?"



"Three or four months."



"Lost many head, have they?"



"Quite a bunch, I'd say, but I don't know. They never tell me or Rick

anythin'."



Bud's tone was bitter, and Stratton noticed it in spite of his

preoccupation. Rustling! That would account for several of the things that

had puzzled him. Rustling was possible, too, with the border-line

comparatively near, and that stretch of rough, hilly country which touched

the lower extremity of the ranch. But for the stealing to go on for three

or four months, without something drastic being done to stop it, seemed

peculiar, to say the least.



"What's been done about it?" Buck asked briefly.



"Oh, they've gone out at night a few times, but they never caught anybody

that I heard. Seems like the thieves were too slick, or else--"



He paused; Buck regarded him curiously through the faintly luminous

shadows.



"Well?" he prodded



Bud moved uneasily. "It ain't anythin' special," he returned evasively.

"All this time they never left anybody down to Las Vegas till Rick was

sent day before yesterday. I up an' told Tex straight out there'd oughta

be another fellow with him, but all he done was to bawl me out an' tell me

to mind my own business. It ain't safe, an' now they've gone out--"



Again he broke off, his voice a trifle husky with emotion. He was

evidently growing more and more worked up and alarmed for the safety of

his friend. It was plain, too, that the recent departure of the punchers

for the scene of action, instead of reassuring Bud, had greatly increased

his anxiety. Buck decided that the situation wasn't as simple as it

looked, and promptly determined on a little action.



"Would it ease your mind any if we saddled up an' followed the bunch?" he

asked.



Jessup drew a quick breath and half rose from the bunk. "By cripes, yes!"

he exclaimed. "Yuh mean you'd--"



"Sure," said Stratton, reaching for his boots. "Why not? If there's going

to be any excitement I'd like to be on hand. Pile into your clothes, kid,

and let's go."



Jessup began to dress rapidly. "I don't s'pose Tex'll be awful pleased,"

he murmured, dragging on his shirt.



"I don't see he'll have any kick coming," returned Buck easily. "If he's

laying for rustlers, seems like he'd ought to have routed out the two of

us in the beginning to have as big a crowd as possible. You never know

what you're up against with those slippery cusses."



Bud made no further comment, and a few minutes later they left the

bunk-house and went up to the corral. The bright moonlight illumined

everything clearly and made it easy to rope and saddle two of the three

horses remaining in the enclosure. Then, swinging into the saddle, they

rode down the slope, splashed through the creek, and entering the further

pasture by a gate, headed south at a brisk lope.



The land comprising the Shoe-Bar ranch was a roughly rectangular strip,

much longer than it was wide, which skirted the foothills of the Escalante

Mountains. As the crow flies it was roughly seven miles from the

ranch-house to Las Vegas camp, and for the better part of that distance

there was little conversation between the two riders. Buck would have

liked to question his companion about a number of things that puzzled him,

but having sized up Jessup and come to the conclusion that the youngster

was the sort whose confidence must be given uninvited or not at all, he

held his peace. Apparently Bud had not yet made up his mind whether to

class Stratton as an enemy or a friend, and Buck felt he could not do

better than endeavor unobtrusively to impress the latter fact upon him.

That done, he was sure the boy would open up freely.



The wisdom of this policy became evident sooner than he expected. From

time to time as they rode, Stratton commented casually, as a new hand

would be likely to do, on some feature or other connected with the ranch

or their fellow-punchers. To these remarks Jessup replied readily enough,

but in a preoccupied manner, until all at once, moved either by something

Buck had said, or possibly by a mind burdened to the point where

self-restraint was no longer possible, he burst into sudden surprising

speech.



"That wasn't no foolin' with that iron this afternoon. If yuh hadn't come

along jest then they'd of branded me on the back."



Astonished, Buck glanced at him sharply. They had traveled more than

two-thirds of the distance to Las Vegas camp, and he had quite given up

hope of Jessup's opening up during the ride.



"Oh, say!" he protested. "Are you trying to throw a load into me? Why

would they want to do that?"



Jessup gave a short brittle laugh.



"They want me to quit," he retorted curtly.



"Quit?" repeated Stratton, his eyes widening. "But--"



"Tex don't want me here," broke in the youngster. "For the last three

months he's tried all kinds of ways to make me an' Rick take our time; but

it won't work." His lips pressed together firmly. "I promised Miss--"



His words clipped off abruptly, as a single shot, sharp and distinct,

shattered the still serenity of the night. It came from the south, from

the direction of Las Vegas. Buck flung up his head and pulled

instinctively on the reins. Jessup caught his breath with an odd,

whistling intake.



"There!" he gasped unevenly.



For a moment or two they sat motionless, listening intently, Buck's face a

curious mixture of alertness and surprise. Up to this moment he had taken

the whole business rather casually, with small expectation that anything

would come of it, but the sound of that shot changed everything. Something

was happening, then, after all--something sinister, perhaps, and certainly

not far away. His eyes narrowed, and when no other sound followed that

single report, he loosed his reins and urged the roan to a gallop.



For perhaps half a mile the two plunged forward amidst a silence that was

broken only by the dull thudding of their horses' hoofs and their own

rapid breathing. Then all at once Buck jerked his roan to a standstill.



"Some one's coming," he warned briefly.



Straight ahead of them the moonlight lay across the flat, rolling prairie

almost like a pathway of molten silver. On either side of the brilliant

stretch the light merged gradually and imperceptibly into shadows--shadows

which yet held a curious, half-luminous quality, giving a sense of

shifting horizons and lending a touch of mystery to the vague distances

which seemed to be revealed.



From somewhere in that illusive shadow land came the faint beat of a

horse's hoofs, growing steadily louder. Eyes narrowed to mere slits,

Stratton stared ahead intently until of a sudden his gaze focused on a

faintly visible moving shape.



He straightened, his right hand falling to the butt of his Colt. But

presently his grip relaxed and he reached out slowly for his rope.



"There's no one on him," he murmured in surprise.



Without turning his head, Jessup made an odd, throaty sound of

acquiescence.



"He's saddled, though," he muttered a moment later, and also began taking

down his rope.



Straight toward them along that moonlit pathway came the flying horse,

head down, stirrups of the empty saddle flapping. Buck held his rope

ready, and when the animal was about a hundred feet away he spurred

suddenly to the right, whirling the widening loop above his head. As it

fell accurately about the horse's neck the animal stopped short with the

mechanical abruptness of the well-trained range mount and stood still,

panting.



Slipping to the ground, Bud ran toward him, with Stratton close behind.

The strange cayuse, a sorrel of medium size, was covered with foam and

lather, and as Jessup came close to him he rolled his eyes in a frightened

manner.



"It's Rick's saddle," said Bud in an agitated tone, after he had made a

hasty examination. "I'd know it anywhere from--that--cut--in--"



His voice trailed off into silence and he gazed with wide-eyed, growing

horror at the hand that had rested on the saddle-skirt. It was stained

bright crimson, and Buck, staring over his shoulder, noticed that the

leather surface glistened darkly ominous in the bright moonlight.



Slowly the boy turned his head and looked at Stratton. His face was

lint-white, and the pupils of his eyes were curiously dilated.



"It's Rick's saddle," he repeated dully, and shuddered as he stared again

at his blood-stained hand.



Buck's own fingers caught the youngster's shoulder in a reassuring grip,

and his lips parted. But before he had time to speak a sudden volley of

shots rang out ahead of them, so crisp and distinct and clear that

instinctively he stiffened, his ears attuned for the familiar, vibrant hum

of flying bullets.





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