The Unexpected





More than once during the following few days, Stratton was forced to a

grudging admiration, of Tex Lynch's cleverness. Even knowing what he did,

he failed to detect the slightest sign in either the foreman or his men

that they were waiting expectantly for something to happen. The only

significant feature was their marked avoidance of the middle pasture. This

might readily be accounted for by the fact that the work now lay on the

other side of the outfit, but Buck was convinced that their real purpose

was to allow the blackleg scourge to gain as great a hold as possible on

Shoe-Bar cattle before its discovery.



The cold-blooded brutality of that quiescence made Stratton furious, but

it also brought home more effectually than ever the nature of the men he

had to deal with. They were evidently the sort to stop at nothing, and

Buck had moments of wondering whether or not he was proceeding in the

right way to uncover the mystery of their motive.



So far he had really accomplished very little. The unabated watchfulness

of the crowd so hedged in and hampered him that it was quite impossible to

do any extended investigating. He still had the power of ending the whole

affair at any moment and clearing the ranch of the entire gang. But aside

from his unwillingness to humiliate Mary Thorne, he realized that this

would not necessarily accomplish what he wanted.



"It would stop their deviltry all right," he thought "but I might never

find out what they're after. About the only way is to give 'em enough rope

to hang themselves, and I'm blowed if I don't believe I could do that

better by leaving the outfit and doing a little sleuthing on my own."



Yet somehow that did not altogether appeal to him, either. The presence of

handsome Alf Manning may have had something to do with Buck's reluctance

to quit the ranch just now, but he would never have admitted it, even to

himself. He simply made up his mind to wait a while, at least until he

could see what happened when Lynch discovered the failure of his latest

plot, and then be governed by circumstances.



In the meantime the situation, so far as Miss Manning, was concerned, grew

daily more complicated. She showed a decided inclination for Stratton's

society, and when he came to know her better he found her frank, breezy,

and delightfully companionable. He knew perfectly well that unless he

wanted to take a chance of making some tremendous blunder he ought to

avoid any prolonged conversation with the lady. But she was so charming

that every now and then he flung prudence to the winds--and usually

regretted it.



It was not that she said anything definitely disconcerting, but there were

occasional hints and innuendoes, and now and then a question which seemed

innocent enough but which Stratton found difficult to parry. He couldn't

quite make up his mind whether or not she suspected the truth about his

former mental condition, but he had an uncomfortable notion that she

sensed a difference and was trying to find out just where it lay.



Time and again he told himself that at the worst there was nothing

disgraceful in that vanished past. But he had the ordinary healthy man's

horror for the abnormal, and the very fact that it had vanished so utterly

beyond recall made him willing, in order to avoid having it dragged back

into the light and made public property, to do almost anything, even to

being almost rude to a pretty girl.



Thus between escaping Miss Manning and trying to keep an eye on Lynch,

Stratton had his work cut out for him. He knew that sooner or later some

one would be sent out to take a look through the middle pasture, and he

wanted very much to be on hand when the report came back to Lynch that his

plot had miscarried. It was consequently with very bad grace that Buck

received an order to ride in to Paloma one morning for the long-delayed

wagon-bolts and a few necessary supplies from the store.



He felt at once that it was a put-up job to get him out of the way. Only

yesterday Rick Bemis, able at length to ride that distance, had quit the

ranch escorted by Slim McCabe. If anything was really needed the latter

could have brought it back and saved the expense of sending another man

twenty-four hours later.



But there was no reasonable excuse for Buck's protesting, and he held his

tongue. He wished that he had taken Jessup into his confidence about the

blackleg plot, but there was no time for that now. He did manage, on his

way to the corral, to whisper a word or two in passing, urging the

youngster to take particular note of anything that went on during his

absence, but he would have much preferred giving Bud some definite idea of

what to look for, and his humor, as he saddled up and left the ranch, was

far from amiable.



But gradually, as he rode rapidly along the trail, the crisp, clean air

brushing his face and the early morning sun caressing him with a pleasant

warmth, his mood changed. After all, it was really of very little moment

whether or not he was present when Lynch first learned that things had

failed to go his way. At best he might have had a momentary vindictive

thrill at glimpsing the fellow's thwarted rage; perhaps not even that, for

Tex was uncommonly good at hiding his emotions. It was much more important

for him to decide definitely and soon about his own future plans, and this

solitary ride over an easy, familiar trail gave him as good a chance as he

was ever likely to have.



A little straight thinking made him realize--with a half-guilty feeling of

having deliberately shut his eyes to it before--that he could not hope to

get much further under present conditions. Tied down as he was, a dozen

promising clues might pop up, which he would have no chance whatever of

investigating. Indeed, looking at the situation in this light, he felt a

wonder that Lynch should ever have tried to oust him from the ranch, where

he could be kept under constant observation and followed up in every move.

Working from the outside, with freedom to come and go as he liked, he

could accomplish a vast deal more than in this present hampered fashion.

There still remained traces of his vague, underlying reluctance to leave

the place at this particular time, but Buck crushed it down firmly, even a

little angrily.



"It's up to me to quit," he muttered. "I'd be a blooming jackass to waste

any more time here. I'll have to work it naturally, though, or Lynch will

smell a rat."



At that moment the trail dipped down into a gully--the very one, in fact,

where he had passed Tex that first day he had ridden out to the ranch.

Thinking of the encounter, Buck recalled his own emotions with a curious

feeling of remoteness. The grotesque mental picture he had formed of Mary

Thorne contrasted so amusingly with the reality that he grinned and might

have broken into a laugh had he not caught sight at that moment of a

figure riding toward him from the other end of the gully.



The high-crowned sombrero, abnormally broad of brim, the gaudy

saddle-trappings and touches of bright color about the stranger's

equipment, brought a slight frown to Stratton's face. Apart even from is

recent unpleasant associations with them, he had never had any great

fondness for Mexicans, whom he considered slick and slippery beyond the

average. He watched this one's approach warily, and when the fellow pulled

up with a glistening smile and a polite "Buenas tardes," Stratton

responded with some curtness.



"Fine day, senor," remarked the stranger pleasantly.



"You've said it," returned Buck drily. "We haven't had rain in as much as

three weeks."



"Tha's right," agreed the other. His glance strayed to the brand on Buck's

cayuse, and his swarthy face took on an expression of pleased surprise.

"You come from Shoe-Bar?" he questioned.



"You're some mind-reader," commented Stratton briefly. "What of it?"



"Mebbe yo' do me favor," pursued the Mexican eagerly. "Save me plenty hot

ride." He pulled an envelope from the pocket of his elaborately

silver-conchoed chaps. "Rocking-R boss, he tell me take thees to Mister

Leench at Shoe-Bar. Eef yo' take heem, I am save mooch trouble, eh?"



Buck eyed the extended envelope doubtfully. Then, ashamed of his momentary

hesitation to perform this simple service, he took it and tucked it away

in one pocket.



"All right," he agreed. "I'll take it over for you. I've got to go in to

town first, though."



"No matter," shrugged the Mexican. "There is no hurry."



With reiterated and profuse thanks, he pulled his horse around and rode

back with Stratton as far as the Rocking-R trail, where he turned off.



"He'll find some corner where he can curl up and snooze for the couple of

hours he's saved," thought Buck, watching the departing figure. "Those

fellows, are so dog-gone lazy they'd sit and let grasshoppers, eat holes

in their breeches."



As he rode on he wondered a little what Jim Tenny, the Rocking-R foreman,

could have to do with Lynch, who seemed to be on the outs with everybody,

but Presently he dismissed the subject with a shrug.



"I'll be getting as bad as Pop if I'm not careful" he thought. "Likely

it's some perfectly ordinary range business."



He found Daggett in a garrulous mood but was in no humor to waste time

listening to his flood of talk and questions. The bolts had come at last,

and when he had secured them and the other things from the store, Buck

promptly mounted and set out on his return.



Tex met him just outside the corral and received the letter without

comment, thrusting it into his pocket unread. He seemed much more

interested in the arrival of the bolts, and after dinner set Stratton and

McCabe to work in the wagon-shed replacing the broken ones. It was not

until late in the afternoon that Buck managed a few words in private with

Jessup, and was surprised to learn that the gang had been working all day

to the southeast of the ranch. Tex himself had been absent from the party

for an hour or two in the morning, but when he joined them he came from

the direction of the Paloma trail, and Stratton did not believe he could

have had time thoroughly to inspect the middle pasture and return so soon

by so roundabout a course.



"He'll do it to-morrow, sure," decided Buck. "It isn't human nature to

hold off much longer."



He was right. After breakfast Stratton and McCabe were ordered to resume

work on the wagons, while the others sallied forth with Lynch, ostensibly

to ride fence along the southern side of middle pasture. Buck awaited

their return with interest and curiosity. He thought he might possibly

detect some signs of glumness in the faces of the foreman and his

confederates, but he was quite unprepared for the open anger and

excitement which stamped every face, Bud Jessup's included.



"Rustlers were out again last night," Bud explained, the moment he had a

chance.



Buck stared at him in amazement, the totally unexpected nature of the

thing taking him completely by surprise.



"Why I thought--"



"So did I," interrupted Bud curtly. "I didn't believe they'd dare break

into middle pasture, but they have. There's a gap a hundred yards wide in

the fence, and they've got away with a couple of hundred head at least."



"You're sure it happened last night?"



"Dead certain. The tracks are too fresh. Buck, if Tex Lynch don't get

Hardenberg on the job now, we'll know he's crooked."



"We'd pretty near decided that anyhow, hadn't we?" returned Stratton

absently.



He was wondering how this new move had been managed and what it meant. If

it had been merely part of a scheme to loot the Shoe-Bar for his own

benefit, Tex would never have allowed his rustler accomplices to touch a

steer from that middle pasture herd, which he must feel by this time to be

thoroughly and completely infected. Even if he had managed during his

brief absence yesterday to make a hurried inspection, and suspected that

the blackleg' plot had failed, he couldn't be certain enough to take a

chance like this.



The foreman's manner gave Buck no clue. At dinner he was unusually silent

and morose, taking no part in the discussion of this latest outrage, which

the others kept up with such a convincing semblance of indignation. To

Stratton he acted like a man who has come to some new and not altogether

agreeable decision, which in any other person would probably mean that he

had at last made up his mind to call in the sheriff. But Buck was

convinced that this was the last thing Lynch intended to do, and gradually

there grew up in his mind, fostered by one or two trifling particulars in

Tex's manner toward himself, a curious, instinctive feeling of premonitory

caution.



This increased during the afternoon, when the men were sent out to repair

the broken fence, while Lynch remained behind. It fed on little details,

such as a chance side glance from one of the men, or the sight of two of

them in low-voiced conversation when he was not supposed to be

looking--details he would scarcely have noticed ordinarily. Toward the end

of the day Buck had grown almost certain that some fresh move was being

directed against himself, and when the blow fell only its nature came as a

surprise.



The foreman was standing near the corral when they returned, and as soon

as Stratton had unsaddled and turned his horse loose, Lynch drew him to

one side.



"Here's your time up to to-night," he said curtly, holding out a handful

of crumpled bills and silver. "Miss Thorne's decided she don't want yuh on

the outfit any longer."



For a moment Stratton regarded the foreman in silence, observing the glint

of veiled triumph in his eyes and the malicious curve of the full red

lips. The thought flashed through his mind that Lynch would hardly be

quite so pleased if he knew how much time Buck himself had given lately to

thinking up some scheme of plausibly bringing about this very situation.



"Is that so?" he drawled presently. "How did you work it?" he added, in

the casual tone of one seeking to gratify a trifling curiosity.



Lynch scowled. "Work it?" he snapped. "I didn't have to work it. Yuh know

damn well why you're sacked. Why should I waste time tellin' yuh?"



Stratton smiled blandly. "In that case I reckon I'll have to ask Miss

Thorne," he remarked, standing with legs slightly apart and thumbs hooked

loosely in his chap-belt. "I'm rather curious, you know."



"Like hell yuh will!" rasped Lynch, as Buck took a step or two toward the

house.



Impulsively Lynch's right hand dropped to his gun but as his fingers

touched the stock he found himself staring at the uptilted end of

Stratton's holster frayed a little at the end so that the glint of a blued

steel barrel showed through the leather.



"Just move your hand a mite," Buck suggested in a quiet, level tone, which

was nevertheless obeyed promptly. "Now, listen here. I want you to get

this. I ain't longing to stick around any outfit when the boss don't want

me. If the lady says I'm to go, I'll get out pronto; but I don't trust

you, and she's got to tell me that face to face before I move a step.

Sabe?"



His eyes narrowed slightly, and Lynch, crumpling the unheeded money in his

hand, stepped aside with an expression of baffled fury and watched him

stride along the side of the house and disappear around the corner.



He was far from lacking nerve, but he had suddenly remembered that letter

to Sheriff Hardenberg, regarding which he had long ago obtained

confirmation from Pop Daggett. If he could rely on the meaning of

Stratton's little anecdote--and he had an uncomfortable conviction that he

could--the letter would be opened in case Buck met his death by violence.

And once it was opened by the sheriff, only Tex Lynch how very much the

fat would be in the fire.



So, though his fingers twitched, he held his hand, and presently, hearing

voices in the living-room, he crept over to an open window and, standing

close to one side of it, bent his head to listen.





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