Back From The Dead

: Shoe Bar Stratton

Westward the little three-car train chugged its way fussily across the

brown prairie toward distant mountains which, in that clear atmosphere,

loomed so deceptively near. Standing motionless beside the weather-beaten

station shed, the solitary passenger watched it absently, brows drawn into

a single dark line above the bridge of his straight nose. Tall, lean, with

legs spread apart a bit and shoulders slightly bent, he made a strik

figure against that background of brilliant sky and drenching, golden

sunlight. For a brief space he did not stir. Then of a sudden, when the

train had dwindled to the size of a child's toy, he turned abruptly and

drew a long, deep breath.

It was a curious transformation. A moment before his face--lined,

brooding, somber, oddly pale for that country of universal tan--looked

almost old. At least one would have felt it the face of a man who had

recently endured a great deal of mental or physical suffering. Now, as he

turned with an unconscious straightening of broad shoulders and a

characteristic uptilt of square, cleft chin, the lines smoothed away

miraculously, a touch of red crept into his lean cheeks, an eager, boyish

gleam of expectation flashed into the clear gray eyes that rested

caressingly on the humdrum, sleepy picture before him.

Humdrum it was, in all conscience. A single street, wide enough, almost,

for a plaza, paralleled the railroad tracks, the buildings, such as they

were, all strung along the further side in an irregular line. One of

these, ramshackle, weather-worn, labeled laconically "The Store," stood

directly opposite the station. The architecture of the "Paloma Springs

Hotel," next door, was very similar. On either side of these two

structures a dozen or more discouraged-looking adobe houses were set down

at uneven intervals. To the eastward the street ended in the corrals and

shipping-pens; in the other direction it merged into a narrow dusty trail

that curved northward from the twin steel rails and quickly lost itself in

the encompassing prairie.

That was all. Paloma Springs in its entirety lay there in full view,

drowsing in the torrid heat of mid-September. Not a human being was in

sight. Only a brindled dog slept in a small patch of shade beside the

store; and fastened to the hotel hitching-rack, two burros, motionless

save for twitching tails and ears, were almost hidden beneath stupendous

loads of firewood.

But to Buck Stratton the charm lay deeper than mere externals. As a matter

of fact he had seen Paloma Springs only twice in his life, and then very

briefly. But it was a typical little cow-town of the Southwest, and to the

homesick cattleman the sight of it was like a refreshing draft of water in

the desert. Pushing back his hat, Stratton drew another full breath, the

beginnings of a smile curving the corners of his mouth.

"It sure is good to get back," he murmured, picking up his bag. "Someway

the very air tastes different. Gosh almighty. It don't seem like two

years, though."

Abruptly the light went out of his eyes and his face clouded. No wonder

the time seemed short when one of those years had vanished from his life

as utterly and completely as if it had never been. Whenever Stratton

thought of it, which was no oftener than he could help, he cringed

mentally. There was something uncanny and even horrible in the realization

that for the better part of a twelve-month he had been eating, sleeping,

walking about, making friends, even, like any normal person, without

retaining a single atom of recollection of the entire period.

Frowning, Buck put up one hand and absently touched a freshly healed scar

half-hidden by his thick hair. Even now there were moments when he felt

the whole thing must be some wild nightmare. Vividly he remembered the

sudden winking out of consciousness in the midst of that panting, uphill

dash through Belleau Wood. He could recall perfectly the most trifling

event leading up to it--the breaking down of his motor-cycle in a strange

sector just before the charge, his sudden determination to take part in it

by hook or crook, even the thrill and tingle of that advance against heavy

machine-gun fire.

The details of his awakening were equally clear. It was like closing his

eyes one minute and opening them the next. He lay on a hospital bed, his

head swathed in bandages. That seemed all right. He had been wounded in

the charge against the Boche, and they had carried him to a

field-hospital. He was darned lucky to have come out of it alive.

But little by little the conviction was forced upon him that it wasn't as

simple as that. At length, when he was well on the way to recovery, he

learned to his horror that the interval of mental blankness, instead of

being a few hours, or at the most a day or two, had lasted for over a


Without fully understanding certain technical portions of the doctor's

explanation, Stratton gathered that the bullet which had laid him low had

produced a bone-pressure on the portion of his brain which was the seat of

memory. The wound healing, he had recovered perfect physical health, but

with a mind blank of anything previous to his awakening in the French

hospital over a year ago. The recent operation, which was pronounced

entirely successful, had been performed to relieve that pressure, and

Stratton was informed that all he needed was a few weeks of convalescence

to make him as good a man as he had ever been.

It took Buck all of that time to adjust himself to the situation. He was

in America instead of France, without the slightest recollection of

getting there. The war was over long ago. A thousand things had happened

of which he had not the remotest knowledge. And because he was a very

normal, ordinary young man with a horror of anything queer and eccentric,

the thought of that mysterious year filled him with dismay and roused in

him a passionate longing to escape at once from everything which would

remind him of his uncanny lapse of memory. If he were only back where he

belonged in the land of wide spaces, of clean, crisp air and blue, blue

sky, he felt he would quickly forget this nightmare which haunted so many

waking moments.

Unfortunately there were complications. To begin with he found himself in

the extraordinary position of a man without identity. The record sent over

from the hospital in France stated that he had been brought in from the

field minus his tag and every other mark of identification. Buck was not

surprised at this, nor at the failure of anyone in the strange sector to

recognize him. Only a few hours before the battle the tape of his

identification-disk had parted and he had thrust the thing carelessly into

his pocket. He had seen too many wounded men brought into field-hospitals

not to realize how easy it is to lose a blouse.

Recovering from the bullet-wound and unable to tell anything about

himself, he had apparently passed under the name of Robert Green. Stratton

wondered with a touch of grim amusement whether this christening was not

the result of doughboy humor. He must have been green enough, in all


He was not even grimly amused by the ultimate discovery that the name of

Roth Stratton had appeared months and months ago on one of the official

lists of "killed or missing." It increased his discomfort over the whole

hateful business and made him thankful for the first time that he was

alone in the world. At least no mother or sister had been tortured by this

strange prank of fate.

But at last the miles of red tape had been untied or cut, and the moment

his discharge came Stratton took the first possible train out of New York.

He did not even wire Bloss, his ranch-foreman, that he was coming. As a

matter of fact he felt that doing so would only further complicate an

already sufficiently difficult situation.

The Shoe-Bar outfit, in western Arizona, had been his property barely a

week before he left it for the recruiting-office. Born and bred in the

Texas Panhandle, he inherited his father's ranch when barely twenty-one.

Even then many of the big outfits were being cut up into farms, public

range-land had virtually ceased to exist, and one by one the cattlemen

were driven westward before the slowly encroaching wave of civilization.

Two years later Stratton decided to give up the fight and follow them.

During the winter before the war he sold out for a handsome figure, spent

several months looking over new ground, and finally located and bought the

Shoe-Bar outfit.

The deal was hurried through because of his determination to enlist.

Indeed, he would probably not have purchased at all had not the new

outfit, even to his hasty inspection, seemed to be so unusual a bargain

and so exactly what he wanted. But buy he did, placed Joe Bloss, a

reliable and experienced cattleman who had been with him for years, in

charge, and departed.

From that moment he had never once set eyes on the Shoe-Bar. Bloss wrote

frequent and painstaking reports which seemed to indicate that everything

was going well. But all through the long and tedious journey ending at the

little Arizona way-station, Stratton fumed and fretted and wondered. Even

if Joe had failed to see his name amongst the missing, what must he have

thought of his interminable silence? All through Buck's brief training and

the longer interval overseas, the foreman's letters had come with fair

regularity and been answered promptly and in detail. What had Bloss done

when the break came? What had he been doing ever since?

A fresh wave of troubled curiosity sent Stratton swinging briskly across

the street. Keeping inside the long hitching-rack, he crossed the sagging

porch and stepped through the open door into the store. For a moment he

thought it empty. Then a chair scraped, and over in one corner a short,

stout, grizzled man dropped his feet from the window-sill and shuffled

forward, yawning.

"Wal! Wal!" he mumbled, his faded, sleep-dazed eyes taking in Buck's bag.

"Train come in? Reckon I must of been dozin' a mite."

"Looks to me like the whole place was taking an afternoon nap," smiled

Stratton. "Not much doing this time of day, I expect."

"You said it," yawned the stout man, supporting himself against the rough

pine counter. "Things is liable to brisk up in a hour or two, though, when

the boys begin to drift in. Stranger around these parts, ain't yuh?" he

added curiously.

For a tiny space Buck hesitated. Then, moved by an involuntary impulse he

did not even pause to analyze, he shrugged his shoulders slightly.

"I was out at the Shoe-Bar a couple of times about two years ago," he

answered. "Haven't been around here since."

"The Shoe-Bar? Huh?" Pop Daggett looked interested. "You don't say so!

Funny I don't recollect yore face."

"Not so very. I only passed through here to take the train."

"That was it, eh? Two years ago must of been about the time the outfit was

bought by that Stratton feller from Texas. Yuh know him well?"

"Joe Bloss, the foreman, was a friend of mine," evaded Stratton. "He's the

one I stopped off now to see."

Pop Daggett's jaw sagged, betraying a cavernous expanse of

sparsely-toothed gums. "Joe Bloss!" he ejaculated. "My land! I hope you

ain't traveled far fur that. If so, yuh sure got yore trouble for yore

pains. Why, man alive! Joe Bloss ain't been nigh the Shoe-Bar for close on

to a year."

Stratton's eyes narrowed. "A year?" he repeated curtly. "Where's he


"You got me. I did hear he'd signed up with the Flying-V's over to New

Mexico, but that might have been jest talk." He sniffed disapprovingly.

"There ain't no doubt about it; the old Shoe-Bar's changed powerful these

two years. I dunno what we're comin' to with wimmin buttin' into the

cattle business."

Buck stared at him in frank amazement. "Women?" he repeated. "What the

dickens are you talking about, anyway?"

"I sh'd think I was plain enough," retorted Pop Daggett with some

asperity. "Mebbe female ranchers ain't no novelty to yuh, but this is the

first time I ever run up ag'in one m'self, an' I ain't much in love with

the idear."

Stratton's teeth dug into his under lip, and one hand gripped the edge of

the counter with a force that brought out a row of white dots across the


"You mean to tell me there's a--a--woman at the Shoe-Bar?" he asked


"At it?" snorted the old man. "Why, by cripes, she owns it! Not only

that, but folks say she's goin' to run the outfit herself like as if she

was a man." He paused to spit accurately and with volume into the empty

stove. "Her name's Thorne," he added curtly. "Mary Thorne."