The Lady From The Past





Stratton's first feeling was that the girl must have made a mistake. In a

dazed fashion he stepped forward and helped her out of the buckboard, but

this was a more or less mechanical action and because she so evidently

expected it. As he took her hand she pressed it warmly and did not at once

relinquish it after she had reached the ground.



"I'm awfully glad to see you again," she said, her color heightened a

little. "But how on earth do you come to be away off here?"



With an effort Buck pulled himself together. He could see that the men

were regarding him curiously, and felt that he must say something.



"That's simple enough," he answered briefly. "I've got a job on this

ranch."



She looked slightly puzzled. "Really? But I thought--I had no idea you

knew--Mary."



"I didn't. I needed a job and drifted in here thinking I'd find a friend

of mine who used to work on the same outfit in Texas. He was gone, but

Miss Thorne took me on."



"You mean you're a regular cow-boy?" the girl asked in surprise. "Why, you

never told me that aboard ship?"



A sudden chill swept over Stratton, and for a moment he was stricken

speechless. Aboard ship! Was it possible that this girl had been part of

that uncanny, vanished year, the very thought of which troubled and

oppressed him. His glance desperately evaded her charming, questioning

eyes and rested suddenly with a curious cool sense of relief on the face

of Mary Thorne, who had come up unperceived from behind.



But as their eyes met Buck was conscious of an odd veiled expression in

their clear depths which vaguely troubled him. It vanished quickly as Miss

Thorne moved quickly forward to embrace her friend.



"Stella!" she cried. "I'm so awfully glad to see you."



There were kisses and renewed embracings; the young man was greeted more

decorously but with almost equal warmth, and then suddenly Miss Thorne

turned to Stratton, who stood back a little, struggling between a longing

to escape and an equally strong desire to find out a little more about

this attractive but startling reminder of his unknown past.



"I had no idea you knew Miss Manning," she said, with the faintest hint of

stiffness in her manner.



Buck swallowed hard but was saved from further embarrassment by the girl.



"Oh, yes!" she said brightly. "We came home on the same ship. Mr. Green

had been wounded, you know, and was under my care. We got to be--great

friends."



Was there a touch of meaning in the last two words? Stratton preferred to

lay it to his imagination, and was glad of the diversion caused by the



introduction of the young man, who proved to be Miss Manning's brother.

Buck was not at all impressed by the fellow's handsome face, athletic

figure, and immaculate clothes. The clothes especially seemed ridiculously

out of place for even a visitor on a ranch, and he had always detested

those dinky half-shaved mustaches.



Meanwhile the trunks had been carried in and the team led away, and Pedro

was peevishly complaining from the kitchen door that dinner was getting

cold. Buck learned that the visitors were from Chicago, where they had

been close friends of the Thorne family for years, and then he managed to

break away and join the fellows in the kitchen.



During the meal there was a lot of more or less quiet joking on the

subject of Stratton's acquaintance with the lady, which he managed to

parry rather cleverly. As a matter of fact the acute horror he felt at the

very thought of the truth about himself getting out, quickened his wits

and kept him constantly on his guard. He kept his temper and his head,

explaining calmly that Miss Manning had been one of the nurses detailed to

look after the batch of wounded men of whom he had been one. Naturally he

had seen considerable of her during the long and tedious voyage, but there

were one or two others he liked equally well.



His careless manner seemed to convince the men that there was no

particular amusement to be extracted from the situation, and to Buck's

relief they passed on to a general discussion of strangers on a ranch, the

bother they were, and the extra amount of work they made.



"Always wantin' to ride around with yuh an' see what's goin' on," declared

Butch Siegrist sourly. "If they're wimmin, yuh can't even give a cuss

without lookin' first to see if they're near enough to hear."



Stratton made a mental resolution that if anything of that sort came up,

he would do his best to duck the job of playing cicerone to Miss Stella

Manning, attractive as she was. So far his bluff seemed to have worked,

but with a mind so entirely blank of the slightest detail of their

acquaintance, he knew that at any moment the most casual remark might

serve to rouse her suspicion.



Fortunately, his desire to remain in the background was abetted by Tex

Lynch. Whether or not the foreman wanted to keep him away from the

ranch-owner's friends as well as from Miss Thorne herself, Buck could not

quite determine. But while the fence-repairing progressed, Stratton was

never by any chance detailed to other duties which might keep him in the

neighborhood of the ranch-house, and on the one occasion when Miss Thorne

and her guests rode out to where the men were working, Lynch saw to it

that there was no opportunity for anything like private conversation

between them and the object of his solicitude.



Buck watched his manoeuvering with secret amusement.



"Wouldn't he be wild if he knew he was playing right into my hands?" he

thought.



His face darkened as he glanced thoughtfully at the departing figure of

Miss Manning. She had greeted him warmly and betrayed a very evident

inclination to linger in his vicinity. There had been a slight touch of

pique in her treatment of Lynch, who hung around so persistently.



"I wish to thunder I had an idea of how much she knows," he muttered. "Did

I act like a brainless idiot when I was--was that way, or not?"



He had asked the same question of the hospital surgeon and got an

unsatisfactory answer. It all depended, the doctor told him

non-committally. He might easily have shown evidences of lost memory; on

the other hand, it was quite possible, especially with chance

acquaintances, that his manner had been entirely normal.



There was nothing to be gained, however, by racking his brain for

something that wasn't there, and Buck soon gave up the attempt. He could

only trust to luck and his own inventiveness, and hope that Lynch's

delightfully unconscious easing of the situation would continue.



The work was finished toward noon on the third day after the arrival of

the Mannings, and all the connections hooked up. There remained nothing to

do but test the line, and Tex, after making sure everything was in order,

glanced over his men, who lounged in front of the Las Vegas shack.



"Yuh may as well stay down at this end," he remarked, looking at Buck,

"while the rest of us go back. Stick around where yuh can hear the bell,

an' if it don't ring in, say, an hour, try to get the house yourself. If

that don't work, come along in an' report. I reckon everything's all

right, though."



Stratton was conscious of a sudden sense of alertness. He had grown so

used to suspecting and analyzing everything the foreman said or did that

for a moment he forgot the precautions he had taken and wondered whether

Lynch was up to some new crooked work. Then he remembered and relaxed

mentally. Considering the consequences, Tex would hardly dare try any

fresh violence against him, especially quite so soon. Besides, in broad

daylight and in this open country, Buck couldn't imagine any form of

danger he wouldn't be able to meet successfully alone.



So he acquiesced indifferently, and from the open doorway of the hut

watched the others mount and ride away. There were only four of them, for

Kreeger and Butch Siegrist had been dispatched early that morning to ride

fence on the other side of the ranch-house. When they were well on their

way, Buck untied his lunch from the saddle and went into the shack to eat

it.



In spite of the feeling that he had nothing to fear, he took a position

which gave him a good outlook from both door and window, and saw that his

gun was loose in the holster. After he had eaten, he went down and got a

drink from the creek. He had not been back in the shack a great while

before the telephone bell jangled, and taking down the receiver he heard

Lynch's voice at the other end.



Owing to the rather crude nature of the contrivance there was a good deal

of buzzing on the line. But this was to be expected, and when Tex had

talked a few minutes and decided that the system was working as well as

could be hoped, he told Stratton to come in to the ranch, and hung up.



Buck had not ridden more than a quarter of a mile across the prairie, when

all at once he pulled his horse to a standstill. The thought had suddenly

come to him that this was the chance he had wanted so long to take a look

at that mysterious stretch of desert known as the north pasture. He would

be delayed, of course, but explanations were easy and that did not disturb

him. It was too good an opportunity to miss, and without delay he turned

his horse and spurred forward.



An instinct of caution made him keep as close as possible to the rough,

broken country that edged the western extremity of the ranch, where he

would run less chance of being seen than on the flat, open plain. He

pushed his horse as much as was wise, and presently observed with

satisfaction--though it was still a good way off--the line of fence that

marked the northern boundary of middle pasture.



A few hundred yards ahead lay a shallow draw, and beyond it a weather-worn

ridge thrust its blunt nose out into the plain considerably further than

any Buck had yet passed. He turned the horse out, intending to ride around

it, but a couple of minutes later jerked him to a standstill and sat

motionless in the saddle, eyes narrowing with a sudden, keen surprise.



He had reached a point where, for the first time, he could make out, over

the obstruction ahead, the extreme northwest corner of the pasture. Almost

at the spot where the two lines of fence made a right angle were two

horsemen in the typical cow-man attire. At first they stood close

together, but as Stratton stared intently, rising a little in his stirrups

to get a clearer view through the scanty fringe of vegetation that topped

the ridge, one of them rode forward and, dismounting, began to manipulate

the fence wires with quick, jerky movements of his hands.





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