The Secret Of North Pasture





Jessup swallowed hard. "But--but--" he faltered, "there ain't never been

any found around here. The nearest fields are hundreds of miles away,

ain't they?"



Stratton dropped the lump of sand. A number of particles still clung to

his palm, and over the skin there spread an oily, slightly iridescent

film. His manner had suddenly grown composed, though his eyes still shone

with suppressed excitement.



"Just the same, it's--oil!" he returned quietly. "There's no doubt at all

about it. Look at the ground there."



Mechanically Bud's glance shifted to the wide, shallow depression in the

desert. The sand was noticeably darker, and here and there under the sun's

rays, it held that faintly iridescent glint that was unmistakable. At a

distance he would have said there was a spring somewhere beneath the

surface. But no water ever had that look, and now that he was prepared for

it he even noticed a faint, distinctive odor in the air.



"By golly!" he cried excitedly. "You mean to say the whole pasture's full

of it?"



"Not likely, but it looks to me as if there was a-plenty. There were

traces back there where we stopped, and there's no telling how many

more--"



"But I didn't see nothin'," interrupted Bud in surprise.



"You weren't looking for it, that's why," shrugged Stratton. "I was.

Thinking it all over this past week, I got to wondering if oil might not

just possibly be what we ought to look for. I was so doubtful I didn't say

anything about it. Like you said, nobody's ever struck it anywhere around

these parts, but I reckon you never can tell."



"Wough!" Bud suddenly exploded in a tremendous exhalation of breath. "I

can't seem to get it through my nut. Why, it means a fortune for Miss

Mary! No wonder that skunk tried his best to do her out of it."



Buck stared at him oddly. A fortune for Mary Thorne! Somehow, until this

moment he had not realized that this must seem to every one to be the

object of his efforts--to rid Mary Thorne of all her cares and troubles

and bring her measureless prosperity. Ignorant of Stratton's identity and

of all the circumstances of her father's treachery and double-dealing, she

must hold that view herself. The thought disturbed Buck, and he wondered

uncomfortably what her feelings would be when she learned the truth.



"What's the matter?" inquired Bud suddenly. "What yuh scowlin' that way

for?"



"Nothing special," evaded Buck. "I was just thinking." After all, there

was no use crossing bridges until one came to them. "We'd better get

started," he added briskly. "We've found out all we want here, and there's

no sense in taking chances of running up against the gang."



"What's the next move?" asked Bud, when they had mounted and started back

over their trail.



"Look up Hardenberg and put him wise to what we know," answered Stratton

promptly. "We've done about all we can; the rest of it's up to him."



"I reckon so," agreed Jessup. "I never met up with him, but they say he's

a good skate. Perilla's some little jaunt from here, though. Yuh thinkin'

of riding all the way?"



"Why not? It'll be quicker in the end than going to Harpswell and taking

the train. We'll likely need the cayuses, too, when we get there. I've

done forty miles at a stretch plenty of times."



"So've I, but not with a bad ankle and a bunged-up side," returned Bud

dryly. "How yuh feelin'?"



"Fine! I've hardly had a twinge all day. That bandage stuff is great dope

for keeping a fellow strapped up comfortable."



"Well, if you're up to it, I reckon that would be better than the train,"

Bud admitted. "For one thing, if we take the trail around south of the

Rocking-R we ain't likely to meet up with anybody who'll put Lynch wise,

an' I take it that's important."



"I'll say so!" agreed Buck emphatically. "The chances are that even if he

got wind of you and me being together, he'd realize the game was up, and

probably beat it for the border. As long as we can manage to keep out of

the spot-light, he may suspect a lot of things, but considering the size

of the stake, he's likely to take a chance and hang on."



"Let's hope he don't take it into his head to ride up here this morning,"

remarked Jessup, glancing apprehensively across the desert wastes toward

the south. "That would spill the beans for fair."



The very possibility made them urge the horses to an even greater speed,

and neither of them really breathed freely until they had gained the

little sheltered depression in the cliffs, from which the trail led over

the shoulder of the mountain.



"I reckon we're safe enough now," commented Stratton, drawing rein. "I

didn't see a sign of anybody as we came along."



Halting for ten minutes to rest the horses, they started up the trail in

single file, Bud going first. For a greater part of the distance the

rocky spurs shielded them from any save a very limited field of

observation. But at the summit there was an almost level stretch of twenty

feet or more from which an extended view could be had, not only of a wide

sweep of desert country, but of a section of the northern end of middle

pasture as well. Reaching this point, Buck glanced back searchingly. An

instant later he was out of the saddle and crouching against the rocky

wall.



"Lead Pete around the corner," he urged Jessup sharply. "Get out of sight

as quick as you can."



Bud obeyed without question, and Stratton hastily took out his

field-glasses and focused them on the three figures he had glimpsed riding

along the northern extremity of the Shoe-Bar pasture. He recognized them

instantly, pausing only long enough to make out that they did not seem to

be in haste, and that so far as he could tell they were not looking in the

direction of the trail. Then he thrust the glasses back into the case, and

slipping around the buttress rejoined his companion.



"Lynch, with McCabe and Kreeger," he explained curtly, gathering up the

reins and swinging himself into the saddle.



"Did they see yuh?"



"I don't think so. They seemed to be taking things easy, and weren't

looking this way at all. I wonder what they're up to?"



"Couldn't we stick around here for a while and watch them?" Bud asked

eagerly.



Buck hesitated an instant. "I guess we'd better not take a chance," he

replied at length. "Such a whale of a lot depends on his not knowing that

I'm alive and kicking; I'd hate like the devil to spoil everything now by

his getting a glimpse of me. Besides, for all we know they may be coming

through here to meet somebody--the rest of the gang, perhaps, or--"



"That's right," interrupted Bud hastily. "Let's go. Sooner we're off this

here trail the better."



Without further delay they rode on down the slope, paused for a moment or

two at the spring in the hollow to water the horses, and then pushed on

again. Passing the entrance to the gulch, Jessup glanced that way

curiously.



"Mebbe they're on their way to dispose of yore corpse, Buck," he

chuckled.



Stratton grinned. "I thought of that, and I rather hope it's so. They'd be

puzzled and suspicious, maybe, but they couldn't be really sure of

anything. It would be a whole lot better than to have them run across our

tracks in the sand back there. That would give away the show completely."



Twenty minutes or so later they reached the gully through which they had

come out on the trail. Though there had been no further signs of the

Shoe-Bar men, their vigilance did not relax. Pushing on with all possible

speed, they covered the distance to the little camp in very much less time

than it had taken in the morning.



Here the horses had a brief rest while the two men collected their few

belongings and loaded them on the pack-horse, for they had decided to go

on at once. Both felt that no time should be lost in finding the sheriff

and setting the machinery of the law in motion. Moreover, they were down

to the last scrap of food and unless they stirred themselves they were

likely to go hungry that night.



An hour later found them riding southward, following the route through the

mountains used by the cattle-rustlers. Making the same cautious circuit

Buck had taken around the southern end of the Shoe-Bar, they reached

Rocking-R land without adventure and pulled up before the door of Red

Butte camp about six o'clock.



Gabby Smith was cooking supper and greeted them with his customary lack of

enthusiasm. Bud, who had never seen him before, was much diverted by his

manner, and during the meal kept up a constant chatter of comment and

question for the purpose, as he afterward confessed, of making the

taciturn puncher go the limit in the matter of loquacity. His effort,

though it could scarcely be termed successful, evidently got on Gabby's

nerves, for afterward he turned both men out of the cabin while he

cleared up, a process lasting until nearly bedtime.



It was not until then that Stratton, by a chance remark, learned that

three or four days after his departure from the camp two weeks earlier, a

stranger had been there making inquiries about him. Gabby's stenographic

brevity made it difficult to extract details, but apparently the fellow

had passed himself off as an old friend of Buck's from Texas, desirous of

looking him up. He was a stranger to Gabby, slight, dark, with eyes set

rather closely together, and he rode a Shoe-Bar horse. Apparently he had

hung around camp until nearly dusk, and then departed only when Gabby got

rid of him by suggesting that his man had probably ridden in to spend the

night at the Rocking-R ranch-house.



Stratton and Jessup discussed the incident while making brief preparation

for bed. So far as Bud knew there had been no stranger on the Shoe-Bar at

that time; but it seemed certain that the fellow must have been sent by

Lynch to spy around and find out where Buck was.



"I s'pose he went to the ranch-house first and Tenny sent him down here,

knowing he wouldn't get much out of Gabby," remarked Stratton. "Well, as

far as I can see he had his trouble for his pains. Unless he hung around

for two or three days he couldn't very well be certain I wasn't somewhere

on the ranch."



Save as a matter of curiosity, however, the whole affair lay too far in

the past to be of the least importance now, and it was soon dismissed.

Having removed boots and outer clothing, and spread their blankets in one

of the pair of double-decked bunks, the two men lost no time crawling

between them, and fell almost instantly asleep.





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