Where The Wheel Tracks Led





Bud Jessup removed a battered stew-pan from the fire and set it aside to

cool a little.



"Well, by this time I reckon friend Tex is all worked up over what's

become of me," he remarked in a tone of satisfaction, deftly shifting the

coffee-pot to a bed of deeper coals. "He's sure tried often enough to get

rid of me, but I don't guess he quite relishes my droppin' out of sight

like this."



Buck Stratton, his back resting comfortably against a rock a little way

from the fire, nodded absently.



"You're sure you didn't leave any trace they could pick up?" he asked with

a touch of anxiety.



"Certain sure," returned Jessup confidently. "When Miss Mary came in

around four, I was in the wagon-shed, the rest of the crowd bein' down in

south pasture. Like I told yuh before, she had a good-sized package all

done up nice in her hand, an' it didn't take her long to tell me what was

up. Then we walks out together an' stops by the kitchen door.



"'Yuh better get yore supper at the hotel,' she says, an' ride back

afterwards. 'I meant to send in right after dinner to mail the package,

but I got held up out on the range.'



"Then she seems to catch sight of the greaser for the first time jest

inside the door, though I noticed him snoopin' there when we first come

up.



"'I hope yuh got somethin' left from dinner, Pedro,' she says, with one of

them careless natural smiles of hers, like as if she hadn't a care on her

mind except food. 'I'm half starved.'"



Bud sighed and finished with a note of admiration. "Some girl, all

right!"



"You've said it," agreed Buck fervently.



His appearance had improved surprisingly in the ten days that had passed

since his accident. The head-bandage was gone, and his swollen ankle,

though still tender at times, had been reduced to almost normal size by

constant applications of cold water. His body was still tightly strapped

up with yards and yards of bandage, which Mary Thorne had thoughtfully

packed, with a number of other first-aid necessities, in the parcel which

was Bud's excuse for making a trip to town.



Stratton was not certain that a rib had been broken after all. When Jessup

came to examine him he found the flesh terribly bruised and refrained from

any unnecessary prodding. It was still somewhat painful to the touch, but

from the ease with which he could get about, Buck had a notion that at

the worst the bone was merely cracked.



"They wouldn't be likely to notice where you left the Paloma trail, would

they?" Buck asked, after a brief retrospective silence.



"Not unless they're a whole lot better trackers than I think for," Jessup

assured him. "I picked a rocky place this side of the gully, an' cut

around the north end of middle pasture, where the land slopes down a bit,

an' yuh can't be seen from the south more 'n a quarter of a mile. I kept

my eyes peeled, believe me! an' didn't glimpse a soul all the way. I

wouldn't fret none about their followin' me here."



"I reckon it is foolish," admitted Stratton. "But lying around not able to

do anything makes a fellow think up all kinds of trouble. Lynch isn't a

fool, and there's no doubt when you didn't come back that night he'd begin

to smell a rat right off."



"Sure. An' next day he likely sent in to town, where he'd find out from

old Pop that I never showed up there at all. After that, accordin' to my

figgerin', he'd be up against it hard. Yuh can bank on Miss Mary playin'

the game, an' registerin' surprise an' worry an' all the rest of it. There

ain't a chance in the world of his thinkin' to look for me here."



"I reckon that's true. Of course we've got to remember that so far as he

knows I'm out of the way for good."



Bud took up coffee-pot and stew-pan and set them down beside Stratton,

where the rest of the meal was spread.



"Sure," he chuckled, dropping down against the ledge. "Officially, you're

a corpse. That's yore strong point, old-timer. By golly!" he added, with a

sudden, fierce revulsion of spirit. "I only hope I'll be on hand when he

gets what's comin' to him, the damn', cowardly skunk!"



"Maybe you will," commented Buck grimly. "Well, let's eat. Seems like I do

nothing but eat and sleep and loaf around. I've a good notion to bust up

the monotony," he added, after a few minutes had passed in the silent

consumption of food, "and take that trip to north pasture to-morrow."



"Don't be loco," Bud told him hastily. "Yuh ain't fit for nothin' like

that yet."



"I did it a few days ago," Stratton reminded him, "and I'm feeling a

hundred per cent. better now."



"Mebbe so; but what's the use in takin' chances? We got plenty of time."



"I'm not so sure of that," Buck said seriously. "You say that Lynch thinks

I'm dead and out of the way. Well, maybe he does; but unless he's a lot

bigger fool than I think for, he's not going to leave a body around in

plain sight for anybody to find. He'll be slipping down into that gulch

one of these days to get rid of it, and when he finds there ain't any

body--then what?"



"He'll begin to see he's got into one hell of a mess, I reckon," commented

Jessup.



"Right. And he'll be willing to do anything on earth to crawl out safe.

Like enough he'll connect your disappearance with the business, and that

would worry him more than ever. He might even get scared enough to throw

up the whole game and beat it; and believe me, that wouldn't suit me at

all."



"Yuh said a mouthful!" snarled Jessup. "If that hellion should get

away--Say, Buck, why couldn't yuh get him for attempted murder?"



"I might, but the witnesses are all on his side, and there'd be a good

chance of his slipping out. Besides, I'm set on finding out first what his

game is. I'm dead certain now it's connected somehow with the north

pasture, and I've an idea it's something big. That car I told you about,

and everything--Well, there's no sense guessing any longer when we can

make a stab at finding out. We'll start the first thing to-morrow."



Bud made no further protest, and at dawn next morning they left camp and

set out northward through the hills. It was a slow journey, and toward the

end of it Buck felt rather seedy. But this was only natural, he told

himself, after lying around and doing nothing; and he even wished he had

made the move sooner.



Both he and Jessup were conscious of a growing excitement as they neared

the goal from which circumstances had held them back so long. Were they

going to find out something definite at last? Or would fate thrust another

unexpected obstacle in their way? Above all, if fortune proved kind, what

would be the character of their discovery?



Immensely intrigued and curious, Bud chattered constantly throughout the

ride, suggesting all sorts of solutions of the problem, some of which were

rather far-fetched. Gold was his favorite--as it has been the favorite

lure for adventurers all down the ages--and he drew an entrancing picture

of desert sands sprinkled with the yellow dust. He thought of other

precious metals, too, and even gave a passing consideration to a deposit

of diamonds or some other precious or semi-precious stones. Once he

switched off oddly on the subject of prehistoric remains, and Stratton's

surprised inquiry revealed the fact that three years ago he had worked for

a party of scientific excavators in Montana.



"Them bones and skeletons as big as houses bring a pile of money, believe

me!" he assured his companion. "The country up there ain't a mite

different from this, neither."



Buck himself was unusually silent and abstracted. During the last ten days

of enforced idleness he had considered the subject for hours at a time and

from every conceivable angle, with the result that a certain possibility

occurred to him and persisted in lingering in his mind, in spite of its

seeming improbability. It was so vague and unlikely that he said nothing

about it to Bud; but now, mounting the steep trail, the thought of it came

back with gathering strength, and he wondered whether it could possibly be

true.



Advancing with every possible precaution, they gained the summit and

passed on down the other side. Before them lay the desert, glittering and

glowing in the morning sun, without a sign of alien presence. Keeping a

sharp lookout, they reached the little, half-circular recess in the cliffs

that formed the end of the trail, and paused.



No rain had fallen in the last ten days and the print of motor-tires was

almost as clear and unmistakable as the day it had been made. They could

make out easily where the car had been driven in, the footprints about it,

and the marks left by its turning; and with equal lack of difficulty they

picked out the track made as it departed.



The latter headed north, but Stratton was not interested in it. Without

hesitation he selected the incoming trail, and the two followed it out

into the desert. For a few hundred yards they rode almost due east. Then

the wheel-marks turned abruptly to the south, and a little further on Buck

noted the prints of a galloping horse beside them.



"Lynch, I reckon," he commented, pointing them out to his companion. "When

he saw me up on the cliffs down yonder, he must have hustled to catch up

with the car."



Neither of them spoke again until they reached the spot where Buck had

seen the car stop and the men get out and walk about. Here they dismounted

and followed the footprints with careful scrutiny. Bud saw nothing

significant, and when they had covered the ground thoroughly, he expressed

his disappointment freely. Stratton merely shrugged his shoulders.



"We'll follow the back track and see where else they stopped," he said

curtly.



His voice was a little hoarse, and there was an odd gleam in his eyes.

When they were in the saddle again, he urged his horse forward at a speed

which presently brought a protest from Jessup.



"Yuh better take it easy, old man," he cautioned. "If that cayuse steps in

a hole, you're apt to get a jolt that'll put you out of business."



"I don't guess it'll hurt me," returned Stratton with preoccupied

brevity.



Bud gave a resigned shrug, and for ten minutes the silence remained

unbroken. Then all at once Buck gave a muttered exclamation and pulled

his horse up with a jerk.



They were on the rim of a wide, shallow depression in the sand. There was

nothing remarkable about it at first sight, save, perhaps, the total

absence of desert vegetation for some distance all around. But Stratton

slid hastily out of his saddle, flung the reins over Pete's head, and

walked swiftly forward. Thrilled with a sudden excitement and suspense,

Bud followed.



"What is it?" he questioned eagerly, as Buck bent down to scoop up a

handful of the trampled sand. "What have yuh--"



He broke off abruptly as Stratton turned suddenly on him, eyes dilated and

a spot of vivid color glowing on each cheek-bone.



"Don't you see?" he demanded, thrusting his hand toward the boy. "Don't

you understand?"



Staring at the open palm, Jessup's eyes widened and his jaw dropped.



"Good Lord!" he gasped. "You don't mean that it--it's--"



He paused incredulously, and Buck nodded.



"I'm sure of it," he stated crisply.





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