The Mysterious Motor-car





Buck took to Jim Tenny at once. There was something about this long, lean,

brown-faced foreman of the Rocking-R, with his clear gray eyes and that

half-humorous twist to his thin lips, which inspired not only confidence

but liking as well. He listened without comment to Buck's story, which

included practically everything save the revelation of his own identity;

but once or twice, especially at the brief mention of the fight in the

bunk-house, his eyes gleamed with momentary approval. When Buck told about

the blackleg incident his face darkened and he spoke for the first time.



"Seems like yuh had him there," he said briefly. "That job alone ought to

land him in the pen."



Buck nodded. "I know; but I'm afraid he couldn't be convicted on my

evidence alone. Kreeger and Siegrist fixed up a pretty decent alibi, you

see, and it would only be my word against theirs. Even the carcass of the

beast wouldn't help much. They'd say it wandered through the pass by

itself, and I suppose there's one chance in a thousand it could have."



"Damned unlikely, though," shrugged Tenny.



"Sure; but the law's that way. You've got to be dead certain. Besides, if

he was pulled in for that we might never find out just what's at the

bottom of it all. That's the important thing, and if I can only get a line

on what he's up to, we'll land him swift enough, believe me!"



Warned by Bud's unexpected question the evening before that he must have a

more plausible motive for following up the case, Buck had coolly appointed

himself one of Jim Hardenberg's deputies. He hinted that rumors of the

cattle-stealing had reached the sheriff, who, debarred from taking up the

matter openly by the absence of any complaint from the owner of the

Shoe-Bar, had dispatched Stratton on a secret investigation. The process

of that investigation having disclosed evidences of rascality of which the

rustling was but a minor feature, Stratton's desire to probe the mystery

to the bottom seemed perfectly natural, and the need for secrecy was also

accounted for. The only risk Buck ran was of Tenny's mentioning the matter

to Hardenberg himself, and that seemed slight enough. At the worst it

would merely mean anticipating a little; for if he did succeed in solving

the problem of Tex Lynch's motives, the next and final step would

naturally be up to the sheriff.



"I get yuh," said Tenny, nodding. "That's true enough. Well, what do you

want me to do?"



Buck told him briefly, and the foreman's eyes twinkled.



"That's some order," he commented.



"I'd pay you for the stock and grub, of course," Stratton assured him;

"and at least put up a deposit for the cayuses."



"Oh, that part ain't frettin' me none. I reckon I can trust yuh. I was

thinkin' about how I could stall off Lynch in case he comes around askin'

questions. Yuh want he should get the idea I hired yuh?"



"I thought it would ease his mind and give him the notion I was safe for a

while," smiled Stratton. "Of course you could say I tried for a job but

you were full up."



"That would be easier," agreed Tenny. "I could keep my mouth shut, but I

couldn't guarantee about the boys. They wouldn't say nothin' a-purpose,

but like as not if they should meet up with one of that slick crowd at the

Shoe-Bar they'd let somethin' slip without thinkin'. On the other hand, it

sure would make him a mite careless if he thought yuh was tied down here

on a reg'lar job."



He paused reflectively; then suddenly his eyes brightened.



"I got it," he chuckled. "I'll send you down to help Gabby Smith at Red

Butte camp. That's 'way to hell and gone down at the south end of the

outfit, where nobody goes from here more'n about once in six months.

Gabby's one of these here solitary guys that's sorta soured on the world

in gen'al, an' don't hardly open his face except to take in grub, but yuh

can trust him. Jest tell him what yuh want and he'll do it, providin' yuh

don't hang around the camp too long. Gabby does hate company worse'n a

dose of poison."



Tenny lost no time in carrying out his plans. He hunted out a few simple

cooking-utensils and enough canned goods and other stores to last two

weeks, picked a pack-animal and a riding horse, and by dinner-time had

everything ready for Buck to start immediately afterward.



The six or seven cow-punchers who responded to the gong presented a marked

and pleasant contrast to the Shoe-Bar outfit. They greeted Stratton with

some brevity, but after the first pangs of hunger had been assuaged and

they learned where he was bound for, they expanded, and Buck was the

object of much joking commiseration on the prospect before him.



"You'll sure have one wild time," grinned a dark-haired, blue-eyed

youngster called Broncho. "Gabby's about as sociable as a rattler. I

wouldn't change places with yuh for no money."



No one seemed to suspect any ulterior motive beneath the plan, and when

Buck rode off about one o'clock, leading his pack-horse, his spirits rose

insensibly at the ease with which things seemed to be working out.



He reached Red Butte camp in a little more than three hours and found the

adobe shack deserted. It was similar in size and construction to Las

Vegas, but there all likeness ceased, for the interior was surprisingly

comfortable and as spick-and-span as the Shoe-Bar line camp was cluttered

and dirty. Everything was so immaculate, in fact, that Buck had a moment

of hesitation about flicking his cigarette ashes on the floor, and

banished his scruples mainly because he had never heard of a cow-man

dropping them anywhere else.



Gabby appeared about an hour later, a tall, stooping man of uncertain

middle age, with a cold eye and a perpetual, sour droop to his lids. At

the sight of Buck the sourness became accentuated and increased still more

when he observed the ashes on the floor. His only reply to Stratton's

introduction of himself was a grunt and Buck lost no time in easing the

fellow's mind of any fear of a prolonged spell of company.



Even then Gabby's gloom scarcely lightened. He listened, however, to

Stratton's brief explanation and in a few gruff words agreed that in the

unlikely event of any inquiry he would say that the new hand was off

riding fence or something of the sort. Then he swept out the offending

ashes and proceeded methodically to get supper, declining any assistance

from his visitor.



His manner was so dispiriting that Buck was thankful when the silent meal

was over, and even more so an hour later to spread his blankets in one of

the spare bunks and turn in. His relief at getting away early the next

morning was almost as great as Gabby's could be to see him go.



It was late in the afternoon, after a careful circuit of the southern end

of the Shoe-Bar, that Buck reached the foothills. Bud had told him of a

spring to the northwest of Las Vegas camp, but the rough traveling decided

him to camp that night on the further side of the creek. In the morning he

went on through a wilderness of arroyos, canyons, and gullies that twisted

endlessly between the barren hills, and made him realize how simple it

would be for any number of men and cattle to evade pursuit in this wild

country.



Fortunately Jessup's directions had been explicit, and toward noon Buck

found the spring at the bottom of a small canyon and proceeded to unpack

and settle down. Bud himself had discovered the place by accident, and as

far as Stratton could judge it was not a likely spot to be visited either

by the Shoe-Bar hands or their Mexican confederates. A wide, overhanging

ledge provided shelter for himself, and there was plenty of forage in

sight for the two horses. Taken all in all, it was as snug a retreat as

any one could wish, and Buck congratulated himself on having such safe and

secluded headquarters from which to carry on his investigations.



These first took him southward, and for five days he rode through the

hills, traversing gullies and canyons, and spying out the whole country

generally, in a systematic effort to find the route taken by the rustlers

in driving off their booty.



Once he found the spot where they had taken to the hills, the rest was

comparatively simple. There were a number of signs to guide him, including

the bodies of two animals bearing the familiar brand, and he succeeded in

tracing the thieves to a point on the edge of a stretch of desert twenty

miles or more below the Shoe-Bar land. About twelve miles beyond lay

another range of hills, which would give them cover until they were within

a short distance of the border.



"A dozen good fellows stationed here," thought Stratton, critically

surveying the gully behind him, "would catch them without any trouble.

There's no other way I've seen of getting out with a bunch of cattle."



Having settled this point to his satisfaction, Buck's mind veered

swiftly--with an odd sense of relief that now at last he could investigate

the matter seriously--to the other problem which had stirred his

curiosity so long.



When his attention was first attracted to the north pasture by Bud's

account of Andrew Thorne's tragic death, its connection with the mystery

of the ranch seemed trivial. But for some reason the thing stuck in his

mind, returning again and again with a teasing persistence and gaining

each time in significance. From much thinking about it, Buck could almost

reconstruct the scene, with its familiar, humdrum background of bawling

calves, lowing mothers, dust, hot irons, swearing, sweating men, and all

the other accompaniments of the spring branding. That was the picture into

which Thorne had suddenly ridden, his face stamped with an excitement in

marked contrast to his usual phlegmatic calm. In his mind's eye Stratton

could see him clutch Tex Lynch and draw him hastily to one side, could

imagine vividly the low-voiced conversation that followed, the hurried

saddling of a fresh horse, and the swift departure of the two

northward--to what?



Buck had asked himself that question a hundred times. Three hours had

passed before the return of Lynch alone, with the shocking news--time

enough to ride twice the distance to north pasture and back again. Where

had the interval been passed, and how?



Stratton realized that they might easily have changed their direction,

once they were out of sight of the men. They might have gone eastward

toward the ranch-house--which they had not--or westward into the

mountains. Once or twice Buck considered the possibility of the old man's

having stumbled on a rich lode of precious metal. But as far as he knew no

trace of gold had ever been found in these mountains. Moreover, though

Lynch was perfectly capable of murdering his employer for that knowledge,

his next logical move would have been an immediate taking up of the

claims, instead of which he remained quietly on the ranch to carry on his

slow and secret plotting.



Stratton long ago dismissed that possibility. There remained only the

north pasture, and the longer he considered it the more he became

convinced that Thorne had met his death there, and that the chances were

strong that somewhere in those wastes of worthless desert land lay the key

to the whole enthralling mystery.



Buck was so eager to start his investigations that it irked him to have to

spend the few remaining hours of the afternoon in idleness. But as he knew

that the undertaking would take a full day or even longer, he possessed

his soul with patience and made arrangements for an early start next

morning.



The dawn was just breaking when he left camp mounted on Pete, the

Rocking-R horse that he had found so reliable in the rough country. The

simplest and most direct way would have been to descend to level ground

and ride along the edge of the Shoe-Bar land. But he dared not take any

chances of being observed by Lynch or his gang, and was forced to make a

long detour through the hills.



The way was difficult and roundabout. Frequently he was turned back by

blind canyons or gullies which had no outlet, and there were few places

where the horse could go faster than a walk. To Buck's impatient spirit it

was all tiresome and exasperating, and he had moments of wondering whether

he was ever going to get anywhere.



Finally, about the middle of the afternoon, he was cheered for the first

time by an unexpected glimpse of his goal. For several miles he had been

following a rough trail which wound around the side of a steep, irregular

hill. Coming out abruptly on a little plateau, with the tumbled rocks

rising at his back, there spread out suddenly before him to the east a

wide, extended sweep of level country.



At first he could scarcely believe that the sandy stretch below him was

the north pasture he was seeking. But swiftly he realized that the

threadlike line a little to the south must be the fence dividing the

desert from the fertile portions of the Shoe-Bar, and he even thought he

recognized the corner where the infected steer had been driven through.

With an exclamation of satisfaction he was reaching for his field-glasses

when of a sudden a strange, slowly-moving shape out in the desert caught

his attention and riveted it instantly.



For a few seconds Buck thought his eyes were playing tricks. Amazed,

incredulous, forgetting for an instant the field-glasses in his hand, he

stared blankly from under squinting lids at the incredible object that

crawled lurchingly through the shimmering, glittering desert atmosphere.



"I'm dotty!" he muttered at length. "It can't be!"



Then, remembering the glasses, he raised them hastily to his eyes and

focused them with a twist or two of practised fingers.



He was neither crazy nor mistaken. Drawn suddenly out of its blurred

obscurity by the powerful lenses, there sprang up before Buck's eyes,

sharp and clear in every detail, a big gray motor-car that moved slowly

but steadily, with many a bump and sidewise lurch, diagonally across the

cactus-sprinkled desert below him.





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