The Primeval Instinct





On the other side of the house Buck found the mistress of the ranch and

her two guests standing in a little group beside one of the dusty,

discouraged-looking flower-beds. As he appeared they all glanced toward

him, and a troubled, almost frightened expression flashed across Mary

Thorne's face.



"Could I speak to you a moment, ma'am?" asked Stratton, doffing his

Stetson.



That expression, and her marked hesitation in coming forward, were both

significant, and Buck felt a sudden little stab of anger. Was she afraid

of him? he wondered; and tried to imagine what beastly lies Lynch must

have told her to bring about such an extraordinary state of mind.



But as she moved slowly toward him, the anger ebbed as swiftly as it had

come. She looked so slight and frail and girlish, and he observed that her

lips were pressed almost as tightly together as the fingers of those

small, brown hands hanging straight at her sides. At the edge of the porch

she paused and looked up at him, and though the startled look had gone, he

could see that she was still nervous and apprehensive.



"Should you rather go inside?" she murmured.



Buck flashed a glance at the two Mannings, still within hearing. "If you

don't mind," he answered briefly.



In the living-room she turned and faced him, her back against the table,

on which she rested the tips of her outspread fingers. She was so

evidently nerving herself for an interview she dreaded that Buck almost

regretted having forced it.



"I won't keep you a minute," he began hurriedly. "Tex tells me you have no

more use for me here."



"I'm--sorry," fell almost mechanically from her set lips.



"But he didn't tell me why."



Her eyes, which from the first had scarcely left his face, widened, and a

puzzled look came into them.



"But you must know," she returned a trifle stiffly.



"I'm sorry, but I don't," he assured her.



"Oh--duties!" She spoke with a touch of soft impatience. "It's what you've

done, not what you haven't done that--. But surely this is a waste of

time? It's not particularly--pleasant; and I don't see what will be gained

by going into all the--the details."



Something in her tone stung him. "Still, it doesn't seem quite fair to

condemn even a common cow-puncher unheard," he retorted with a touch of

sarcasm.



She stiffened, and a faint flush crept into her face. Then her chin went

up determinedly.



"You rode to Paloma yesterday morning." It was more of a statement than a

question.



"Yes."



"In the gully this side of the Rocking-R trail you met a Mexican on a

sorrel horse?"



Again Buck acquiesced, but inwardly he wondered. So far as he knew there

had been no witness to that meeting.



"He handed you a letter?"



Buck nodded, a sudden feeling of puzzled wariness surging over him. For an

instant the girl hesitated. Then she went on in a soft rush of

indignation:



"And so last night those Mexican thieves, warned that the middle pasture

would be unguarded, broke in there and carried off nearly two hundred head

of cattle!"



As he caught her meaning, which he did almost instantly, Buck flushed

crimson and his eyes flashed. For a moment or so he was too furious to

speak; and though most of his rage was directed against the man who, with

such brazen effrontery, had sought to shift the blame of his own criminal

plotting, he could not help feeling resentment that the girl should so

readily believe the worst against him. A vehement denial trembled on his

lips, but in time he remembered that he could not utter it without giving

away more than he was willing to at the present moment. With an effort he

got a grip on himself, but though his voice was quiet enough, his eyes

still smoldered and his lips were hard.



"I see," he commented briefly. "You believe it all, of course?"



She had been watching him closely, and now a touch of troubled uncertainty

crept into her face.



"What else can I do?" she countered. "You admit getting the letter from

that Mexican, and I saw Tex take it out of your bag."



This information brought Buck's lips tightly together and he frowned.

"Could I see it--the letter, I mean?" he asked.



She hesitated a moment, and then, reaching across the table, took up the

shabby account-book he had seen before and drew from it a single sheet of

paper. The note was short and written in Spanish. It was headed, "Amigo

Green," and as Buck swiftly translated the few lines in which the writer

gave thanks for information purported to have been given about the middle

pasture and stated that the raid would take place that night according to

arrangement, his lips curled. From his point of view it seemed incredible

that anyone could be deceived by such a clumsy fraud. But he was forced to

admit that up to a few weeks ago the girl had never set eyes on him, and

knew nothing of his antecedents, whereas she trusted Lynch implicitly. So

he refrained from any comment as he handed back the letter.



"You don't--deny it?" asked the girl, an undertone of disappointment in

her voice.



"What's the use?" shrugged Stratton. "You evidently believe Lynch."



She did not answer at once, but stood silent, searching his face with a

troubled, wistful scrutiny.



"I don't know quite what to believe," she told him presently. "You--you

don't seem like a person who would--who would-- And yet some one must have

given information." Her chin suddenly tilted and her lips grew firm. "If

you'll tell me straight out that you're nothing but an ordinary

cow-puncher, that you have no special object in being here on the ranch,

that you're exactly what you seem and nothing more, then I--I'll believe

you."



Her words banished the last part of resentment lingering in Stratton's

mind. She was a good sort, after all. He found himself of a sudden

regarding her with a feeling that was almost tenderness, and wishing very

much that he might tell her everything. But that, of course, was

impossible.



"I can't quite do that," he answered slowly.



The hopeful gleam died out of her eyes, and she made an eloquent,

discouraged gesture with both hands.



"You see? What else can I do but let you go? Unless I take every possible

precaution I'll be ruined by these dreadful thieves."



Buck moved his shoulders slightly. "I understand. I'm not kicking. Well, I

won't keep you any longer. Thank you very much for telling me what you

have."



Abruptly he turned away and in the doorway came face to face with Alfred



Manning, who seemed to expect the cow-puncher to step obsequiously aside

and let him pass. But Buck was in no humor to step aside for any one, and

for a silent instant their glances clashed. In the end it was Manning,

flushed and looking daggers, who gave way, and as Stratton passed the open

window a moment later he heard the other's voice raised in an angry

pitch.



"Perfectly intolerable! I tell you, Mary, you ought to have that fellow

arrested."



"I don't mean to do anything of the sort," retorted Miss Thorne.



"But it's your duty. He'll get clean away, and go right on stealing--"



"Please, Alf!" There was a tired break in the girl's voice. "I don't want

to talk any more about it. I've had enough--"



Stratton's lips tightened and he passed on out of hearing. The encounter

with Manning had irritated him, and a glimpse of Lynch he caught through

the kitchen door fanned into a fresh glow his smoldering anger against

the foreman. It was not that he minded in the least the result of the

fellow's plotting. But the method of it, the effrontery of that cowardly,

insolent attempt to blacken and besmirch him with Mary Thorne, made him

more furious each time he thought of it. When he reached the bunk-house

his rage was white hot.



He found Jessup the sole occupant. It was still rather early for quitting,

and Tex must have set the other men to doing odd jobs around the barns and

near-by places.



"What's happened?" demanded Bud, as Buck appeared. "Tex put me to work

oiling harness, but I sneaked off as soon as he was out of sight. I heard

Slim say yuh were fired."



Flinging his belongings together as he talked, Stratton briefly retailed

the essentials of the situation.



"I'm going to saddle up and start for town right away," he concluded. "If

I hang around here much longer I don't know as I can keep my hands off

that double-faced crook."



He added some more man-sized adjectives, to which Bud listened with

complete approval.



"Yuh ain't said half enough," he growled, from where he stood to the left

of the closed door. "I wish yuh would stay an' give him one almighty good

beating up. He thinks there ain't a man on the range can stand up against

him."



Buck's eyes narrowed. "I'd sure like to try," he said regretfully. "I

don't say I could knock him out, but I'd guarantee to give him something

to think about. Trouble is, there's nothing gained by starting a mess like

that except letting off steam, and there might be a whole lot--"



He broke off abruptly as the door swung open to admit Lynch and McCabe.

The foreman, pausing just inside the room, eyed Stratton's preparations

for departure with curling lips. As a matter of fact, what he had

overheard of the interview between Buck and Mary Thorne had given him the

impression that Stratton was an easy mark, whose courage and ability had

been greatly overestimated. A more sagacious person would have been

content to let well enough alone. But Tex had a disposition which impelled

him to rub things in.



"There's yore dough," he said sneeringly, flinging the little handful of

money on the table with such force that several coins fell to the floor

and rolled into remote corners. "Yuh better put it away safe, 'cause after

this there ain't nobody around these parts'll hire yuh, I'll tell a man!"



His tone was indescribably taunting, and of a sudden Buck saw red.

Dominated by the single-minded impulse of primeval man to use the weapons

nature gave him, he forgot momentarily that he carried a gun. When the two

men entered, he had been bending over, rolling his blankets. Since then,

save to raise his head, he had scarcely altered his position, and yet, as

he poised there motionless, fists clenched, muscles tense, eyes narrowed

to mere slits, Lynch suddenly realized that he had blundered, and reached

swiftly for his Colt.



But another hand was ahead of his. Standing just behind him, Bud Jessup

had sized up the situation a fraction of a second before Tex, and like a

flash he bent forward and snatched the foreman's weapon from its holster.



"Cut that out, Slim!" he shrilled, forestalling a sudden downward jerk of

McCabe's right hand. "No horning in, now. Give it here."



An instant later he had slammed the door and shot the bolt, and stood with

back against it, a Colt in each hand. His freckled face was flushed and

his eyes gleamed with excitement.



"Go to it, Buck!" he yelled jubilantly. "My money's up on yuh, old man.

Give him hell!"



Lynch darted out into the middle of the room, thrusting aside the table

with a single powerful sweep of one arm. There was no hint of reluctance

in his manner, nor lack of efficiency in the lowering droop of his big

shoulders or the way his fists fell automatically into position. His face

had hardened into a fierce mask, out of which savage eyes blazed

fearlessly.



An instant later, like the spring of a panther, Stratton's lean, lithe

body launched forward.





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