What Mary Thorne Found





A few hundred yards away from the fence strung along the western side of

middle pasture, Mary Thorne pulled her horse down to a walk and

straightened her hat mechanically. Her cheeks were flushed becomingly and

her eyes shone, but at the end of that sharp little canter much of the

brightness faded and her face clouded.



For the last week or more it had grown increasingly difficult to keep up a

cheerful front and prevent the doubts and troubles which harassed her from

causing comment. This morning she had reached the limit of suppression.

Stella got on her nerves more than usual; Alf annoyed her with his

superior air and those frequent little intimate mannerisms which, though

unnoticed during all the years of their friendship, had lately grown

curiously irksome to the girl. Even Mrs. Archer's calm placidity weighed

on her spirits, and when that happened Mary knew that it was high time for

her to get away by herself for a few hours and make a vigorous effort to

recover her wonted serenity of mind.



She told herself that she was tired and jaded, and that a solitary ride

would soothe her ragged nerves. And so, at the first opportunity after

breakfast, she slipped quietly away, saddled her favorite horse, Freckles,

and leaving word with Pedro that she would be back by dinner-time,

departed hastily.



It was rather curious behavior in a girl usually so frank and open, and

free from even a suspicion of guile, but she deliberately gave the Mexican

an impression that she was going to join the men down in south pasture,

and as long as she remained within sight of the ranch-house she kept her

horse headed in that direction. Furthermore, before abruptly changing her

course to the northwest, she pulled up and glanced sharply around to make

certain she was not observed.



As a matter of fact one of the things which had lately puzzled and

troubled her was a growing impression of surveillance. Several times she

had surprised Pedro or his wife in attitudes which seemed suspiciously as

if they had been spying. McCabe, too, and some of the other men were

inclined to pop up when she least expected them. Indeed, looking back on

the last two weeks she realized how very little she had been alone except

in the close confines of the ranch-house. If she rode forth to inspect the

work or merely to take a little canter, Tex or one of the punchers was

almost sure to join her. They always had a good excuse, but equally

always they were there; and though Mary Thorne had not the remotest notion

of the meaning of it all, she had grown convinced that there must be some

hidden motive beneath their actions, and the thought troubled her.



Tex Lynch's altered manner gave her even greater cause for anxiety. It

would have been difficult to put into words exactly where the change lay,

but she was sure that there was a difference. Up to a short time ago she

had regarded him impersonally as merely an efficient foreman whom she had

inherited from her father along with the ranch. She did so still, but she

could not remain blind to the fact that the man himself was deliberately

striving to inject a more intimate note into their intercourse. His

methods were subtle enough, but Mary Thorne was far from dull, and the

alteration in his manner made her at once indignant and a little

frightened.



"I suppose it's silly to feel that way, especially with Alf here," she

murmured as she reached the fence and swung herself out of the saddle.

"But I do wish I hadn't taken his word about--Buck Green."



She took a small pair of pliers from her saddle-pocket and deftly

untwisted the strands of wire from one of the posts, while Freckles looked

on with an expression of intelligent interest. When the gap was opened in

the fence, he walked through and waited quietly on the other side until

the wire had been replaced. It was not the first time he had done this

trick, for the trail through the mountains was a favorite retreat of the

girl's. She had discovered it long ago, and returned to it frequently,

through her own private break in the fence, especially on occasions like

this when she wanted to get away from everybody and be quite alone.



Having remounted and headed northward along the edge of the hills, her

thoughts flashed back to the discharged cow-puncher, and her brow

puckered. The whole subject affected her in a curiously complicated

fashion. From the first she had been conscious of having done the young

man an injustice. And yet, as often as she went over their final interview

in her mind--which was not seldom--she did not see how she could have done

otherwise. Her woman's intuition told her over and over again that he

could not possibly be a common thief; but if this was so, why had he

refused her the simple assurance she asked for?



That was the stumbling-block. If he had only been frank and open, she felt

that she would have believed him, even in the face of Lynch's conviction

of his guilt, though she was frank enough to admit that the foreman's

attitude would probably have influenced her much more strongly a week ago

than it did at present. It was this thought which brought her mind around

to another of her worries.



Not only did she intensely dislike Lynch's present manner toward herself,

but there had lately grown up in her mind a vague distrust of the man

generally. She could not put her finger on anything really definite. There

were moments, indeed, when she wondered if she was not a silly little fool

making bogies out of shadows. But the feeling persisted, growing on

unconsidered trifles, that Tex was playing at some subtle, secret game, of

the character of which she had not even the most remote conception.



"But if that's so--if he can't be trusted any longer," she said aloud,

stung by a sudden, sharp realization of the gravity of such a situation,

"what am I to do?"



Of his own accord Freckles had turned aside into the little curved

depression in the cliffs and was plodding slowly up the trail. Staring

blindly at the rough, ragged cliffs and peaks ahead of her, the girl was

suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness. If Lynch failed her,

what could she do? Whom could she turn to for help or even for counsel?

There was Alf Manning, but Alf knew nothing whatever of range conditions,

and besides neither he nor Stella expected to stay on indefinitely. Her

mind ranged swiftly over other more or less remote possibilities, but save

for a few distant cousins with whom they had never been on intimate

terms, she could think of no one. She even considered for a moment Jim

Tenny of the Rocking-R, whom she had met and liked, or Dr. Blanchard, but

a sudden reviving burst of spirit caused her quickly to dismiss the

thought.



"They'd think I was a silly, hysterical idiot," she murmured. "Why, I

couldn't even tell them what I was afraid of. I wonder if it can possibly

be just nerves? It doesn't seem as if--"



She broke off abruptly and tightened on her reins. Freckles had carried

her over the summit of the trail and had almost reached the hollow on the

other side, formed by the bottom of a gully that crossed the path. Mary

had once explored it and knew that to the left it deepened into a gloomy

gulch that hugged the cliff for some distance and then curved abruptly to

the south. So far as she knew, it led nowhere, and yet, to her

astonishment, not a hundred feet away a saddled horse, with bridle-reins

trailing, stood cropping the leaves of a stunted mesquite.



"That's funny," she said aloud in a low tone.



As she spoke the horse threw up his head and stared at her, ears pointed

inquiringly. When Freckles nickered, the strange animal gave an answering

whinny, but did not move.



Puzzled and a little nervous, Mary glanced sharply to right and left

amongst the scattered rocks. In her experience a saddled horse meant that

the owner was not far away; but she could see no signs of any one, and at

length, taking courage from the silence, she rode slowly forward.



As she came closer the horse backed away a foot or two and half turned,

exposing a brand on his shoulder. The girl stared at it with a puckered

frown, wondering what on earth any one from the Rocking-R was doing here.

Then her glance strayed to the saddle, flittered indifferently over cantle

and skirts, to pause abruptly, with a sudden keen attention, on the flap

of the right-hand pocket, which bore the initials "R. S." cut with some

skill on the smooth leather.



With eyes widening, the girl bent forward, studying the flap intently. She

was not mistaken; the initials were R. S., and in a flash there came

back to her a memory of that afternoon, which seemed so long ago, when she

and Buck Green rode out together to the south pasture. She had noticed

those initials then on his saddle-pocket, and knowing how unusual it was

for a cow-man to touch his precious saddle with a knife, she made some

casual comment, and learned how it had come into Buck's possession.



What did it mean? What was he doing here on a Rocking-R horse? Above

all, where was he?



Suddenly her heart began to beat unevenly and her frightened eyes stared

down the gulch to where an out-thrust buttress provokingly hid the greater

part of it from view. Her glance shifted again to the horse, who stood

motionless, regarding her with liquid, intelligent eyes, and for the first

time she noticed that the ends of the trailing reins were scratched and

torn and ragged.



How still the place was! She fumbled in her blouse, and drawing forth a

handkerchief, passed it mechanically over her damp forehead. Then abruptly

her slight figure straightened, and tightening the reins she urged

Freckles along the rock-strewn bottom of the gulch.



The distance to the rocky buttress seemed at once interminable and

incredibly short. As she reached it she held her breath and her teeth dug

into her colorless lips. But when another section of the winding gorge lay

before her, silent, empty save for scattered boulders and a few scanty

bits of stunted vegetation, one small, gloved hand fluttered to her

breast, then dropped, clenched, against the saddle-horn.



A rounded mass of rock, fallen in ages past from the cliffs above, blocked

her path, and mechanically the girl reined Freckles around it. An instant

later the horse stopped of his own accord, and the girl found herself

staring down with horror-stricken eyes at the body of a man stretched out

on the further side of the boulders. Motionless he lay there, a long

length of brown chaps and torn, disordered shirt. His face was hidden in

his crooked arms; the tumbled mass of brown hair was matted with ominous

dark clots. But in that single, stricken second Mary Thorne knew whom she

had found.



"Oh!" she choked, fighting desperately against a wave of faintness that

threatened to overwhelm her. "O-h!"



Slowly the man's face lifted, and two bloodshot eyes regarded her dully

through a matted lock of hair that lay stiffly plastered against his

forehead. With a curious, stealthy movement, one hand twisted back to his

side and fumbled there for an instant. Then the man groaned softly.



"I forgot," he mumbled. "It's gone. You--you've got me this time, I

reckon."



Face drained to paper-white and lips quivering, Mary Thorne slid out of

her saddle, steadied herself against the horse for a second, and then

dropped on her knees beside him.



"Buck!" she cried in a shaking voice. "You--you're hurt! What--what is

it?"



A puzzled look came into his face, and as he stared into the wide,

frightened hazel eyes so close to his, recognition slowly dawned.



"You!" he muttered. "What--How--"



She twined her fingers together to stop their trembling. "I was riding

through the pass," she told him briefly. "I saw your horse and I--I

was--afraid--"



A faint gleam came into the bloodshot eyes. "My--my horse? You mean a--a

Rocking-R cayuse?"



"Yes."



He tried to sit up, but the effort turned him so white that the girl cried

out protestingly.



"You mustn't. You're badly hurt. I--I'll ride back for help." She sprang

to her feet. "But first I must get you water."



He stared at her as one regards a desert mirage. "Water!" he repeated

unbelievingly. "You know where--If you could--"



A sudden moisture dimmed her eyes, but she winked it resolutely back.

"There's a little spring the other side of the trail," she explained. "You

lie quietly and I'll be back in just a minute."



Stumbling in her haste, she turned and ran past the buttress and on toward

the trail. Not a hundred feet beyond, a tiny spring bubbled up in the

rocks, and dropping down beside it, the girl jerked the pins from her hat

and let the cool water trickle into the capacious crown of the Stetson. It

seemed to take an eternity to fill, but at length the water ran over the

brim, and carefully guarding her precious burden, she hurried back again.



The man was watching for her--eagerly, longingly, with an underlying touch

of apprehensive doubt, as if he half feared to find her merely one of

those dreamlike phantoms that had haunted him through the long, painful

hours. As the girl sank down beside him, there was a look in his eyes that

sent a strange thrill through her and caused her hands to tremble,

sending a little stream of water trickling over the soggy hat-brim to the

ground.



She steadied herself resolutely and bending forward held the hat against

Buck's lips. As he plunged his face into it and began to suck up the water

in great, famished gulps, the girl's lips quivered, and her eyes, resting

on the matted tangle of dark hair, filled with sudden tears.





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