Thwarted





Instantly a sense of elation, tingling as an electric shock, surged over

Stratton, and his grip on the Colt tightened. At last he was face to face

with something definite and concrete, and in a moment all the little

doubts and nagging nervous qualms which had assailed him from time to time

during his long vigil were swept away. Cautiously drawing his gun into

position, he felt for a match with the other hand and prepared to scratch

it against the side of the bunk.



Slowly, stealthily, with many a cautious pause, the crawling body drew

steadily nearer. Though the intense darkness prevented him from seeing

anything, Buck felt at last that he had correctly gaged the position of

the unknown plotter. Trying to continue that easy, steady breathing, which

had been no easy matter, he slightly raised his weapon and then, with a

sudden, lightning movement, he drew the match firmly across the rough

board.



To his anger and chagrin the head broke off. Before he could snatch up

another and strike it viciously, there came from close at hand a sudden

rustle, a creak, the clatter of something on the floor, followed by dead

silence. When the light flared up, illumining dimly almost the whole

length of the room, there was nothing in the least suspicious to be seen.



Nevertheless, with inward cursing, Stratton sprang up and lit the lamp he

had used early in the evening and which he had purposely left within

reach. With this added illumination he made a discovery that brought his

lips together in a grim line.



Someone lay stretched out in the bunk next to his own--Jessup's bunk,

which had been empty when he went to bed.



For a fleeting instant Buck wondered whether Bud could possibly have

returned and crawled in there unheard. Then, as the wick flared up, he not

only realized that this couldn't have happened, but recognized lying on

the youngster's rolled-up blankets the stout figure and round, unshaven

face of--Slim McCabe.



As he stood staring at the fellow, there was a stir from further down the

room and a sleepy voice growled:



"What's the matter? It ain't time to get up yet, is it?"



Buck, who had just caught a glint of steel on the floor at the edge of the

bunk, pulled himself together.



"No; I--I must have had a--nightmare," he returned in a realistically

dazed tone. "I was dreaming about--rustlers, and thought I heard somebody

walking around."



Still watching McCabe surreptitiously, he saw the fellow's lids lift

sleepily.



"W'a's matter?" murmured Slim, blinking at the lamp.



"Nothing. I was dreaming. What the devil are you doing in that bunk?"



McCabe appeared to rouse himself with an effort and partly sat up, yawning

prodigiously.



"It was hot in my own, so I come over here to get the air from the

window," he mumbled. "What's the idea of waking a guy up in the middle of

the night?"



Buck did not answer for a moment but, stepping back, trod as if by

accident on the end of his trailing blanket. As he intended, the movement

sent his holster and belt tumbling to the floor, and with perfect

naturalness he stooped to pick them up. When he straightened, his face

betrayed nothing of the grim satisfaction he felt at having proved his

point. The bit of steel was a hunting-knife with a seven-inch blade, sharp

as a razor, and with a distinctive stag-horn handle, which Tex Lynch had

used only a few evenings before to remove the skin from a coyote he had

brought down.



"Sorry, but I was dreaming," drawled Stratton. "No harm done, though, is

there? You ain't likely to stay awake long."



Without further comment he blew out the light and crawled into bed again.

He found no difficulty now in keeping awake for the remainder of the

night; there was too much to think about and decide. Now that he had

measured the lengths to which Lynch seemed willing to go, he realized that

a continuance of present conditions was impossible. An exact repetition of

this particular attempt was unlikely, but there were plenty of variations

against which no single individual could hope to guard. He must bring

things to a head at once, either by quitting the ranch, by playing the

important card of his own identity he had so far held back, or else by

finding some other way of tying Lynch's hands effectually. He was equally

reluctant to take either of the two former steps, and so it pleased him

greatly when at last he began to see his way toward working things out in

another fashion.



"I'm blessed if that won't put a spoke in his wheel," he thought

jubilantly, considering details. "He won't dare to touch me."



When dawn came filtering through the windows, and one thing after another

slowly emerged from the obscurity, Buck's eyes swiftly sought the floor

below Bud's bunk. But though McCabe lay there snoring loudly, the knife

had disappeared.



Though outwardly everything seemed normal, Buck noticed a slight

restlessness and laxing tension about the men that morning. There was

delay in getting to work, which might have been accounted for by the

cessation of one job and the starting of another. But knowing what he did,

Stratton felt that the flat failure of their plot had much to do with it.



He himself took advantage of the lull to slip away to the harness-room on

the plea of mending a rip in the stitching of his chaps. Pulling a box

over by the window where he could see anyone approaching, he produced

pencil and paper and proceeded to write out a rather voluminous document,

which he afterward read over and corrected carefully. He sealed it up in

an envelope, wrote a much briefer note, and enclosed both in a second

envelope which he addressed to Sheriff J. Hardenberg. Finally he felt

around in his pocket and pulled forth the scrawl he had composed the night

before.



"They look about the same," he murmured, comparing them. "Nobody will

notice the difference."



Buck was on the point of sealing the envelope containing the scrawl when

it occurred to him to read the contents over and see what he had written.



The letter was headed "Dear Friend," and proved to be a curious

composition. With a mind intent on other things, Stratton had written

almost mechanically, intending merely to give an air of reality to his

occupation. In the beginning the scrawl read very much as if the "friend"

were masculine. Bits of ranch happenings and descriptions were jotted down

as one would in writing to a cow-boy friend located on a distant outfit.

But gradually, imperceptibly almost, the tone shifted. Buck himself had

been totally unaware of any change until he read over the last few pages.

And then, as he took in the subtle undercurrent of meaning which lay

beneath the penciled lines, a slow flush crept up into his face, and he

frowned.



It was all rot, of course! He had merely written for the sake of writing

something--anything. She was a nice little thing, of course, with an

attractive feminine manner and an unexpected lot of nerve. He was sorry

for her, naturally, and would like to help her out of what he felt to be a

most disagreeable, if not hazardous situation. But as for anything

further--



Still frowning, he thrust the sheets back into the envelope and licked the

flap. He was on the point of stubbornly scrawling a man's name on the

outside when he realized how foolish he would be not to carry out his

first and much more sensible intention.



He wanted an excuse for asking permission to ride to town to post a

letter. This, in itself, was an extremely nervy request and under ordinary

conditions almost certain to be profanely refused. But Buck had a shrewd

notion that after the failure of Lynch's plans, the foreman might welcome

the chance of talking things over with his confederates without danger of

being observed or overheard. On the other hand, if there should be the

least suspicion that his letter was not of the most innocent and harmless

sort, he would never in the world be allowed to get away with it.



The result was that when he strolled out of the harness-room a little

later the envelope bearing the name of Sheriff Hardenberg reposed within

his shirt, while the other, addressed now to a mythical "Miss Florence

Denby," at an equally mythical street number in Dallas, Texas, protruded

from a pocket of his chaps.



"I don't s'pose you've got a stamp you'll sell me," he inquired of Lynch,

whom he found in the bunk-house with McCabe. "I'd like to get this letter

off as soon as I can."



Balancing the envelope in his hand, he held it so that the foreman could

easily read the address.



"I might have," returned Lynch briefly. "Looks like that letter was heavy

enough to need two."



Buck allowed him to weigh it in his hand for an instant, and then, in

simulated confusion, he snatched it back.



"Must be writin' to yore girl," grinned McCabe, who had also been

regarding the address curiously.



Stratton retorted in a convincingly embarrassed fashion, received his

stamps and then proffered his request, which was finally granted with an

air of reluctance and much grumbling.



"I wouldn't let yuh go, only I don't know what the devil's keepin' that

fool Bud," growled Lynch. "Yuh tell the son-of-a-gun I ain't expectin' him

to stop in town the rest of his natural life. If them wagon-bolts ain't

come, we'll have to do without 'em. Yuh bring him back with yuh, an' see

yuh both get here by dinner time without fail."



Buck gave the desired promise and, hastily saddling up, departed. About

three miles from the ranch, he rode off to the side of the trail and

dismounted beside a stunted mesquite. Under its twisting branches, he dug

a hole with the toe of his boot and interred therein Miss Florence Denby's

letter, torn into small fragments.



This done he swung himself into the saddle and headed again for Paloma

Springs, and as he rode he began to whistle blithely.





Thunder River To Better Acquaintance facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback