The Dead Heart





Vaguely, as of a sound coming from far distances, the crack of a

revolver-shot penetrated to the girl's numbed brain. It did not surprise

her. Indeed, it roused only a feeling of the mildest curiosity in one

whose nerves had been strained almost to the breaking-point. When Lynch,

with a hoarse cry, toppled back against her, she merely stepped quickly to

one side, and an instant later she was on her knees beside Stratton.



"Buck!" she sobbed. "Oh, Buck!" clutching at him as if from some wild fear

that he would topple into the abyss.



Hands suddenly put her gently to one side, and some one dragged Stratton

from his dangerous position and supported him against an upraised knee. It

was Bud Jessup, and behind him loomed the figures of Sheriff Hardenberg

and several of his men.



Mary's glance noted them briefly, incuriously, returning anxiously to the

man beside her. His eyes were open now, and he was sucking in the air in

deep, panting gulps.



"How yuh feelin'?" asked Bud briefly.



"All right--get my breath," mumbled Buck.



"Yuh hurt any place?" Jessup continued, after a brief pause.



"Not to speak of," returned Stratton in a stronger tone. "When I first

jumped for the cuss, I hit my head the devil of a crack, and--pretty near

went out. But that don't matter--now."



His eyes sought the girl's and dwelt there, longingly, caressingly. There

was tribute in their depths, appreciation, and something stronger, more

abiding which brought a faint flush into her tired face and made her heart

beat faster. Presently, when he staggered to his feet and took a step or

two toward her, she felt no shame in meeting him half way. Quite as

naturally as his arm slipped around her shoulders, her lifted hands rested

against the front of his flannel shirt, torn into ribbons and stained with

grime.



"For a little one," he murmured, looking down into her eyes, "you're some

spunky fighter, believe me!"



She flushed deeper and her lids drooped. Of a sudden Sheriff Hardenberg

spoke up briskly:



"That was a right nice shot, kid. You got him good."



He was standing beside the body sprawling on the ground, and the words had

scarcely left his lips when Lynch's eyes opened slowly.



"Yes--yuh got me," he mumbled.



Slowly his glance swept the circle of faces until it rested finally on the

man and girl standing close together. For a long moment he stared at them

silently, his pale lips twitching. Then all at once a look of cunning

satisfaction swept the baffled fury from his smoldering eyes.



"Yuh got me," he repeated in a stronger voice. "Looks like yuh got her,

too. Maybe yuh think you've gobbled up the ranch, likewise, an'--an'

everything. That's where yuh get stung."



He fell to coughing suddenly, and for a few minutes his great body was

racked with violent paroxysms that brought a bright crimson stain to the

sleeve he flung across his mouth. But all the while his eyes, full of

strange venomous triumph, never once left Stratton's face.



"Yuh see," he choked out finally, "the ranch--ain't--hers."



He paused, speechless; and Mary, looking down on him, felt merely that his

brain was wandering and found room in her heart to be a little sorry.



"Why ain't it hers?" demanded Bud with youthful impetuosity. "Her father

left it to her, an'--"



"It wasn't his to--to leave. He stole it." Lynch's voice was weaker, but

his eyes still glowed with hateful triumph. "He forged the

deed--from--from papers--Stratton left with him--when he went--to war." He

moistened his dry lips with his tongue. "When Stratton was--killed--he

didn't leave--no kin--to make trouble, an' Thorne--took a chance."



His voice faltered, ceased. Mary stared at him dumbly, a slow, oppressive

dread creeping into her heart. Little forgotten things flashed back into

her mind. Her father's financial reverses, his reticence about the

acquisition of the Shoe-Bar, the strange hold Lynch had seemed to have on

him, rose up to torment her. Suddenly she glanced quickly at Buck for

reassurance.



"It isn't so!" she cried. "It can't be. My father--"



Slowly the words died on her lips. There was love, tenderness, pity in the

man's eyes, but no--denial!



"Ain't it, though?" Lynch spoke in a labored whisper; his eyes were

glazing. "Yuh thinks--I'm--loco. I--ain't. It's--gospel truth. Yuh find

Quinlan, the--the witness. No, Quinlan's dead. It's--it's--Kaylor.

Kaylor got--got-- What was I sayin'." He plucked feebly at his

chap-belt. "I know. Kaylor got--a clean thousand for--for swearin'--the

signature--was--Stratton's. Yuh find Kaylor. Hardenberg ... thumbscrew

... the truth...."



The low, uneven whisper merged into a murmur; then silence fell, broken

only by the labored breathing of the dying man. Dazed, bewildered,

conscious of a horrible conviction that he spoke the truth, Mary stood

frozen, struggling against a wave of utter weariness and despair that

surged over her. She felt the arm about her tighten, but for some strange

reason the realization brought her little comfort.



Suddenly Hardenberg broke the silence. He had been watching the girl, and

could no longer bear the misery in her white, strained face.



"You think you've turned a smart trick, don't you?" he snapped with angry

impulsiveness. "As a matter of fact the ranch belongs to him already. The

man you've known as Green is Buck Stratton himself."



Lynch's lids flashed up. "Yuh--lie!" he murmured. "Stratton's--dead!"



"Nothing like it," retorted the sheriff. "The papers got it wrong. He was

only badly wounded. This fellow here is Buck Stratton, and he can prove

it."



A spasm quivered over Lynch's face. He tried to speak, but only a faint

gurgle came from his blood-flecked lips. Too late Hardenberg, catching an

angry glance from Buck, realized and regretted his impulsive indiscretion.

For Mary Thorne, turning slowly like a person in a dream, stared into the

face of the man beside her, lips quivering and eyes full of a great

horror.



"You!" she faltered, in a pitiful, small voice. "You--"



Stratton held her closer, a troubled tenderness sweeping the anger from

his eyes.



"But--but, Mary--" he stammered--"what difference does--"



Suddenly her nerves snapped under the culminating strain of the past few

hours.



"Difference!" she cried hysterically. "Difference!" Her heart lay like a

cold, dead thing within her; she felt utterly miserable and alone.

"You--My father! Oh, God!"



She made a weak effort to escape from his embrace. Then, abruptly, her

slim, girlish figure grew limp, her head fell back against Stratton's

shoulder, her eyes closed.





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