: Shoe Bar Stratton
The same dawn unrolled before the eyes of a man and a girl, riding
southward along the ragged margin of the T-T ranch. Westward stretched the
wide, rolling range-land, empty at the moment of any signs of life. And
somehow, for the very reason that one expected something living there, it
seemed even more desolate than the rough, broken country bordering the
mountains on the other side.
That, at least, was
ary Thorne's thought. Emerging from the mountain
trail just as dawn broke, her eyes brightened as she took in the flat,
familiar country, even noting a distant line of wire fence, and for the
first time in many hours despair gave place to sudden hope. Where there
was range-land there must be cattle and men to tend them, and her
experience with Western cow-men had not been confined to those of Lynch's
type. Him she knew now, to her regret and sorrow, to be the great
exception. The majority were clean-cut, brave, courteous, slow of speech,
perhaps, but swift in action; simple of mind and heart--the sort of man,
in short, to whom a woman in distress might confidently turn for help.
But presently, as the rising sun, gilding the peaks that towered above
her, emphasized the utter emptiness of those sweeping pastures, the light
died out of her eyes and she remembered with a sinking heart the blackleg
scourge which had so recently afflicted the T-T outfit. There had been
much discussion of it at the Shoe-Bar, and now she recalled vaguely
hearing that it had first broken out in these very pastures. Doubtless, as
a method of prevention, the surviving stock had been moved elsewhere, and
her chances for help would be as likely in the midst of a trackless desert
The reaction made her lips quiver and there swept over her with renewed
force that wave of despair which had been gaining strength all through
those interminable black hours. She had done her best to combat it. Over
and over again she told herself that the situation was far from hopeless.
Something must happen. Some one--mostly she thought of Buck, though she
did not name him even to herself--would come to her aid. It was incredible
that in this day and generation a person could be successfully carried off
even by one as crafty, resourceful, and unscrupulous as Tex Lynch. But in
spite of all her reasoning there remained in the back of Mary's mind a
feeling of cold horror, born of those few sentences she had overheard
while Pedro was saddling the horses. Like a poisonous serpent, it reared
its ugly head persistently, to demolish in an instant her most specious
arguments. The very thought of it now filled her with the same fear and
dread that had overwhelmed her when the incredible words first burned into
her consciousness, and made her glance with a sudden, sharp terror at the
man beside her. She met a stare from his bold, heavy-lidded eyes that sent
the blood flaming into her cheeks.
"Well?" queried Lynch, smiling. "Feelin' better, now it's mornin'?"
The girl made no answer. Hastily averting her eyes, she rode on in
silence, lips pressed together and chin a little tilted.
"Sulking, eh?" drawled Lynch. "What's the good? Yuh can't keep that sort
of thing up forever. After we're--married--"
He paused significantly. The girl's lip quivered but she set her teeth
into it determinedly. Presently, with an effort, she forced herself to
"Aren't you rather wasting time trying to--to frighten me with that sort
of rubbish?" she asked coldly. "In these days marriage isn't something
that can be forced."
The man's laugh was not agreeable. "Oh, is that so?" he inquired. "You're
likely to learn a thing or two before long, I'll say."
His tone was so carelessly confident, so entirely assured, that in an
instant her pitiful little pretense of courage was swept away.
"It isn't so!" she cried, turning on him with wide eyes and quivering
lips. "You couldn't-- There isn't a--real clergyman who'd do--do such a
thing. No one could force me to--to-- Why, I'd rather die than--"
She paused, choking. Lynch shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, no, yuh wouldn't," he drawled. "Dyin' is mighty easy to talk about,
but when yuh get right down to it, I reckon you'd change yore mind. I
don't see why yore so dead set against me," he added. "I ain't so hard to
look at, am I? An' with me as yore husband, things will--will be mighty
different on the ranch. You'll never have to pinch an' worry like yuh do
Tears blinded her, and, turning away quickly, she stared unseeing through
a blurring haze, fighting desperately for at least a semblance of
self-control. He was so confident, so terribly sure of himself! What if he
could do the thing he said? She did not see how such a ghastly horror
could be possible; but then, what did she know of conditions in the place
to which he was taking her?
Suddenly, as she struggled against that overpowering weight of misery and
despair, her thoughts flew longingly to another man, and for an instant
she seemed to look into his eyes--whimsical, a little tender, with a faint
touch of suppressed longing in their clear gray depths.
"Buck! Oh, Buck!" she yearned under her breath.
Then of a sudden she felt a hand on her bridle and became aware that Lynch
"We'll stop here for a bit," he informed her briefly. "You'd better get
down and stretch yoreself."
She looked at him, a little puzzled. "I'm quite comfortable as I am," she
"I expect yuh are," he said meaningly. "But I ain't takin' any chances."
With a wave of his hand he indicated a steepish knoll that rose up on
their left. "I'm goin' up there to look around an' see what the country
looks like ahead," he explained. "I'll take both cayuses along, jest in
case yuh should take the notion to go for a little canter. Sabe?"
Without a word she slipped out of the saddle and, moving to one side,
listlessly watched him gather up the reins of her horse and ride toward
the foot of the hill. Its lower levels sloped easily, and in spite of the
handicap of the led horse, who pulled back and seemed reluctant to follow,
Lynch took it with scarcely a pause.
There came a point, however, about half way to the summit, from which he
would have to proceed on foot. Lynch dismounted briskly enough and tied
both horses to a low bush. Then, instead of starting directly on the
brief upward climb, he turned and glanced back to where Mary stood.
That glance, indicating doubt and suspicion, set the girl suddenly to
wondering. Ever so little her slim figure straightened, losing its
discouraged droop. Was it possible? He seemed to think so, or why had he
looked back so searchingly? Guardedly her glance swept to right and left.
A hundred feet or so to the south a spur of the little hill thrust out,
hiding what lay beyond. If she could reach it, might there not possibly be
some spot in all that jumble of rocks and gullies where she at least might
Filled with a new wild hope; realizing that nothing she might do could
make her situation worse, Mary's eyes returned to the climbing man, and
she watched him narrowly. Little by little, when his back was toward her,
she edged toward the spur. She told herself that when he reached the top
she would make a dash, but in the end her tense, raw nerves played her
false. Quivering with eagerness, she held herself together until he was
within twenty feet or more of the summit, and then her self-control
She had covered scarcely a dozen yards over the rough ground when a hoarse
shout of surprise came from Lynch, followed by the clatter of rolling
stones as he plunged back down the hill. But she did not turn her head;
there was no time or need. Running as she had never run before, she
rounded the spur and with a gasp of dismay saw that the cliffs curved back
abruptly, forming an intervening open space that seemed to extend for
miles, but which, in reality, was only a few hundred yards across.
Still she did not halt, but sped on gamely, heading for the mouth of the
nearest gully. Presently the thud of hoofs terrified her, but stung her to
even greater effort. Nearer the hoofs-beats came, and nearer still.
Breathless, panting, she knew now she could never reach the gully. The
realization sent her heart sinking like a lead plummet, but fear drove her
blindly on. Suddenly the bulk of a horse loomed beside her and a man's
easy, sneering laugh bit into her soul like vitriol. An instant later
Lynch leaped from his saddle and caught her around the waist.
"Yuh would, would yuh?" he cried, gazing down into her flushed, frightened
face. "Tried to shake me, eh?"
For a moment he held her thus, devouring her with his eyes, holding the
bridles of both horses in his free hand. Then all at once he laughed
again, hatefully, and crushing her to him, he kissed her, roughly,
savagely--kissed her repeatedly on the lips and cheeks and throat.
Mary cried out once and tried to struggle. Then of a sudden her muscles
relaxed and she lay limply in his arms, eyes closed, wishing that she
might die, or, better yet, that some supreme force would suddenly strike
the creature dead.
How long she lay there shuddering with disgust and loathing, she did not
know. It seemed an eternity before she realized that his lips no longer
touched her, and opening her eyes she was startled at the sight of his
It was partly turned away from her as he stared southward across the
flats. His eyes were wide, incredulous, and filled with a mingling of
anger and dismay. In another moment he jerked her roughly to her feet,
dragged her around to the side of her horse, and fairly flung her into the
saddle. Vaulting into his own, he spurred the beast savagely and rode back
toward the out-thrust spur at a gallop, dragging the unwilling Freckles
Gripping the saddle-horn to keep her precarious seat, Mary yet found time
for a hurried backward glance before she was whisked out of sight of that
wide stretch of open country to the south. But that glance was enough to
make her heart leap. Dots--moving dots which she had no difficulty in
recognizing as horsemen--were sweeping northward along the edge of the
breaks. Who they were she neither knew nor cared. It was enough that they
were men. Her eyes sparkled, and a wild new hope flamed up within her,
even though she was being carried swiftly away from them.
Once in the shelter of the spur, Lynch did not halt but rode on at full
speed, heading northward. For half a mile or so the thudding hoof-beats of
the two horses alone broke the silence. Then, as their advance opened up a
fresh sweep of country, Lynch jerked his mount to a standstill with a
suddenness that raised a cloud of dust about them.
"Hell!" he rasped, staring from under narrowing lids.
For full half a minute he sat motionless, his face distorted with baffled
fury and swiftly growing fear. Then his eyes flashed toward the hills on
the right and swept them searchingly. A second later he had turned his
cayuse and was speeding towards a narrow break between two spurs, keeping
a tight hold on the girl's bridle.
"You try any monkey tricks," he flung back over one shoulder, "and
Mary made no answer, but the savage ferocity of his tone made her shiver,
and she instantly abandoned the plan she had formed of trying, by little
touches of hand and heel, to make Freckles still further hamper Lynch's
actions. Through the settling dust-haze she had seen the cause of his
perturbation--a single horseman less than a mile away galloping straight
toward them--and felt that her enemy was cornered. But the very strength
of her exultation gave her a passionate longing for life and happiness,
and she realized vividly the truth of Lynch's callous, sneering words,
that when one actually got down to it, it was not an easy thing to die.
She must take no chances. Surely it could be only a question of a little
time now before she would be free.
But presently her high confidence began to fade. With the manner of one on
perfectly familiar ground, Lynch rode straight into the break between the
rocks, which proved to be the entrance to a gully that widened and then
turned sharply to the right. Here he stopped and ordered Mary to ride in
front of him.
"You go ahead," he growled, flinging her the reins. "Don't lose any time,
Without question she obeyed, choosing the way from his occasional, tersely
flung directions. This led them upward, slowly, steadily with many a twist
and turn, until at length, passing through a narrow opening in the rocks,
Mary came out suddenly on a ledge scarcely a dozen feet in width. On one
side the cliffs rose in irregular, cluttered masses, too steep to climb.
On the other was a precipitous drop into a canyon of unknown depth.
"Get down," ordered Lynch, swinging out of his saddle.
As she slid to the ground he handed her his bridle-reins.
"Take the horses a ways back an' hold 'em," he told her curtly. "An'
remember this: Not a peep out of yuh, or it'll be yore last. Nobody yet's
double-crossed me an' got away with it, an' nobody ain't goin' to--not
even a woman. That canyon's pretty deep, an' there's sharp stones a-plenty
at the bottom."
White-faced and tight-lipped, she turned away from him without a word and
led the two horses back to the point he indicated. The ledge, which sloped
sharply upward, was cluttered with loose stones, and she moved slowly,
avoiding these with instinctive caution and trying not to glance toward
the precipice. A dozen feet away she paused, holding the horses tightly by
their bridles and pressing herself against the lathered neck of Freckles,
who she knew was steady. Then she glanced back and caught her breath with
a swift, sudden intake.
Kneeling close to the opening, but a little to one side, Lynch was
whirling the cylinder of his Colt. Watching him with fascinated horror,
Mary saw him break the weapon, closely inspect the shells, close it again,
and test the trigger. Then, revolver gripped in right hand, he settled
himself into a slightly easier position, eyes fixed on the opening and
head thrust a little forward in an attitude of listening.
Only too well she guessed his purpose. He was waiting in ambush to "get"
that solitary horseman they had seen riding from the north. Whether or not
he had come here for the sole purpose of luring the other to his death,
Mary had no notion. But she could see clearly that once this stranger was
out of the way, Lynch would at least have a chance to penetrate into the
mountains before the others from the south arrived to halt him.
Slowly, interminably the minutes ticked away as the girl stood motionless,
striving desperately to think of something she might do to prevent the
catastrophe. If only she had some way of knowing when the stranger was
near she might cry out a warning, even at the risk of Lynch's violence.
But thrust here in the background as she was, the unknown was likely to
come within range of Lynch's gun before she even knew of his approach.
Suddenly, out of the dead silence, the clatter of a pebble struck on the
girl's raw nerves and made her wince. She saw the muscles of Lynch's back
stiffen and the barrel of his Colt flash up to cover the narrow entrance
to the ledge. For an instant she hesitated, choked by the beating of her
heart. Should she cry out? Was it the man really coming? Her dry lips
parted, and then all at once a curious, slowly moving object barely
visible above the rocky shoulder that sheltered Lynch, startled her and
kept her silent.
In that first flash she had no idea what it was. Then abruptly the truth
came to her. It was the top of a man's Stetson. The ledge sloped upward,
and where she stood it was a good two feet higher than at the entrance. A
man was riding up the outer slope and, remembering the steepness of it,
Mary knew that, in a moment, more of him would come into view before he
became visible to Lynch.
White-faced, dry-lipped, she waited breathlessly. Now she could see the
entire hat. A second later she glimpsed the top of an ear, a bit of
forehead, a sweeping look of dark-brown hair--and her heart died suddenly
The man was Buck Green!