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From: Shoe Bar Stratton

As Buck appeared in the doorway, blinking a little at the lamp-light, the
five card-players stared at him in astonishment.

"Where the devil have you been?" inquired Kreeger, surprised out of his
accustomed taciturnity.

"I thought yuh was asleep," added Peters, casting a bewildered glance at
the shadowy bunk.

Buck, who had scarcely hoped his little stratagem would succeed so well,
refrained with difficulty from showing the pleasure he felt.

"So I have," he drawled.

"But I thought yuh was in yore bunk," commented McCabe, his light-blue
eyes narrowing slightly.

"No, I was outside," explained Stratton carelessly. "It was too hot in
here, so I went out and sat down by the creek. I must have dropped off
pretty soon, and when I came to it was dark."

As he spoke he glanced casually at Tex Lynch, and despite himself a little
shiver flickered on his spine. The foreman, who had not spoken, sat
motionless on the further side of the table regarding Stratton steadily.
His lids drooped slightly and his face was almost expressionless. But in
spite of that Buck got a momentary impression of baffled fury and a
deadly, murderous hate, the more startling because of its very repression.
Coupling it with what he knew or suspected of the man, Stratton felt there
was some excuse for that momentary mental shrinking.

"He'd as soon put me out of the way as shoot a coyote," he said to
himself, as he walked over to his bunk. "All he wants is a chance to do it
without getting caught."

But with ordinary care and caution he did not see just how Tex was going
to get the chance. Buck never went anywhere without his gun, and he
flattered himself he was as quick on the draw as the average. Besides, he
knew better now than to trust himself alone with Lynch or any of the
others on some outlying part of the range where a fatal accident could
plausibly be laid to marauding greasers, or to some similar agency.

"I'm not saying any one of 'em couldn't pick me off a dozen times a day
and make an easy get-away across the border," he thought, stretching
himself out on the husk mattress. "But Lynch don't want to have to make a
get-away. There's something right here on the Shoe-Bar that interests him
a whole lot too much."

Presently Bud came in, parried with some success the half-questioning
comments of the men, and went to bed. Buck lay awake a while longer,
trying to patch together into some semblance of pattern the isolated
scraps of information he had gained, but without any measure of success.

There followed four surprising days of calm, during which the Shoe-Bar, to
every outward seeming, might have been the most ordinary and humdrum of
outfits, with not a hint of anything sinister or mysterious beneath the

Each morning the men sallied forth to work, returned for noon dinner, and
rode off again soon afterward. Lynch was neither grouchy nor over-jovial.
He seemed the typical ranch-boss, whose chief thought is to get the work
done, and his berating was entirely impartial. Bud had spent most of his
time around the ranch, but once or twice he rode out with the others, and
there was no attempt on their part to keep him and Buck from talking
together as privately as they pleased. Only where Miss Thorne was

concerned was Stratton conscious of the old unobtrusive surveillance. He
saw her several times during his brief visits to Bemis, who was improving
daily and fretting to be gone, but always Lynch, McCabe, or some one just
"happened" to be along.

The effect of this unexpected peace and quiet on Stratton, however, was
precisely opposite from the one he presumed was intended. He had a feeling
that it was a calm before the storm, and became more alert than ever. The
unnatural placidity weighed on him, and as day followed day serenely his
nerves grew edgy.

After supper on the fourth day Lynch went up to the ranch-house and was
closeted for more than an hour with Miss Thorne. On his return to the
bunk-house, Stratton, who had now come to speculate on his every move,
studied him covertly but found his manner quite as usual.

In the morning they started off for the middle pasture, where they were
engaged in repairing a fence which had all but fallen flat. Quite by
accident, and without any inkling of what was to come of his carelessness,
Buck left his hammer and pliers beside the corral gate instead of sticking
them into his saddle-pockets. Before they had gone a quarter of a mile he
discovered the omission and pulled up, explaining what had happened.

"It won't take me five minutes to go back for them," he added, gathering
up his reins.

"I'll go with yuh," said McCabe promptly. "With a little hustlin', we can
easy catch up with the gang before they get to the pasture."

"Well, speed up, both of yuh," admonished Lynch. "We want to finish that
job to-day."

Slightly amused and wondering whether they thought for an instant he was
too blind to see through their game, Stratton put spurs to his horse and
the two rode back together, McCabe apparently making a special effort to
be amusing. The tools were found where Buck had left them, and the latter
was on the point of remounting, when Mary Thorne came suddenly around the
corner of the house.

"Good morning," she greeted them both pleasantly, but with a slight
undercurrent of preoccupation in her manner. "I was afraid you'd gone."
Her eyes met Stratton's. "Could I speak to you a moment?" she asked.

"Certainly, ma'am."

Buck dropped his bridle-reins and moved forward. For an instant McCabe sat
motionless; then he swung himself out of the saddle.

"If it's anythin' I can help about--" he began, awkwardly, yet

"Thank you very much, Slim, but it isn't," the girl answered quietly.

"We ain't got much time," protested McCabe uneasily. "We jest came back to
get them tools Buck forgot. Tex is in a hurry to finish up the job."

"I don't believe five minutes' delay will matter very much," returned Miss
Thorne, with a touch of that unexpected decision Stratton had noticed once
or twice before. "I sha'n't be any longer."

She moved away from the corral and Buck, walking beside her, was
conscious of a curious tension in the air. For a moment he thought McCabe
meant to persist and force his presence on them. But evidently the stocky
cow-puncher found the situation too difficult for him to cope with, for he
remained standing beside his horse, though his glance followed them
intently, and throughout the brief interview his eyes searched their
faces, as if he strove to read from their expression or the movement of
their lips some inkling of what it was all about.

"I won't keep you but a moment," the girl began, her color slightly
heightened. "I only thought that perhaps I might persuade you to--to
change your mind, and--and stay. If the work's too hard, we might be able

She paused. Buck stared at her in astonishment. "I don't understand," he
said briefly.

Her flush deepened. "I meant about your going. I understood you weren't
satisfied, and wanted to--to leave."

"Who told you that?"

"Why--Tex. Isn't it--"

Buck frowned, and then, conscious of the watching McCabe, his face cleared
and he laughed.

"He must have got me wrong, Miss Ma--er--Thorne," he returned lightly.
"Perhaps he's heard me grumbling a bit; cow-men do that from force of
habit sometimes, you know. But I've nothing to complain of about the
work, and certainly I had no idea of quitting."

Her face cleared amazingly. "I'm so glad," she said in a relieved tone. "I
suppose I seem fussy, but now and then the problem of help gets to be a
regular nightmare. Once or twice lately I've been afraid I was making a
terrible mess of things, and might, after all, have to accept one of the
offers I've had for the ranch. I should hate dreadfully to leave here, but
if I can't make it pay--"

She finished with a shrug. Stratton regarded her thoughtfully. "You've had
several offers?" he asked hesitatingly, wondering whether she would think
the question an impertinence.

Apparently she didn't. "Two; really most awfully good ones. Indeed, Tex
strongly advised me to sell out and buy another outfit if I still wanted
to ranch. But I don't want another one. It's the Shoe-Bar I'm so keen
about because of-- But I really mustn't keep you. Thank you so much for
relieving my mind. When Tex comes in I'll tell him he was mistaken."

Buck hesitated for an instant. "It might be better not to say anything
about it," he suggested. "Some foremen don't like the least bit of
interference, you know. Suppose we just let it go, and if he brings up the
subject to me, I'll tell him he got me wrong."

"Very well. It doesn't make any difference so long as you're staying.

With a little gesture of farewell, she walked away toward the ranch-house,
leaving Stratton to return to where McCabe fidgeted beside the horses.
There was no time for deliberate reasoning or planning. Buck only felt
sure that Lynch was up to something underhand, and when Slim, with almost
too great a casualness, inquired what it was all about, he obeyed a strong
impulse and lied.

"Oh, it's Bemis," he shrugged, as they rode off together. "He's fretting
to get away. Lost his nerve, I reckon, and wants to pull out. She wanted
to know how long I thought it would be before he could back a horse. I
s'pose he might chance it in about a week, but I'm hanged if I can see why

he's in such a rush. He's sure got it soft enough here."

While he talked he was busy rolling a cigarette, but this did not prevent
him from being aware of Slim's intent, sidelong scrutiny. He could not be
quite certain whether or not he succeeded in deceiving the fellow, but
from the character of McCabe's comments, he rather thought he had.
Certainly he hoped so. Slim was sure to tell Lynch about the incident, but
if he himself believed it harmless, the foreman was likely to take the
same point of view, and continue to carry out the scheme he had in mind.
Whatever this was, Stratton, in his present frame of mind, preferred that
it should be brought to a head rather than continue any longer in

Throughout the day he could get no hint of what was going on. Once the
thought occurred to him that it might be a variation of the trick Lynch
had tried to play on Bud. By preparing Miss Thorne beforehand for the
departure of the new hand, he could discharge Stratton and then represent
to the girl that he had quit of his own accord. But somehow this didn't
altogether fit. It assumed that Buck would take his dismissal quietly
without attempting a personal appeal to the ranch-owner; also it took no
account of Bud Jessup. By this time Tex must realize that there had been
more or less intimate communication between the two, and Bud was not the
sort to stand by quietly and see his friend turned out without stirring
vehemently in his behalf.

Considering all this, Buck could not see that there was much to fear in
Lynch's present manoeuvering; and it was something of a shock to find Bud
absent from the supper-table.

"Gone to Paloma to fetch those wagon-bolts," explained Tex, who had come
in about an hour ahead of the others, in answer to Peters' query. "They'd
ought to of come in by mail yesterday or the day before, an' we need 'em
bad. He'll get supper in town an' be back before dark."

Somewhat thoughtful, Buck accompanied the others to the bunk-house, where
he was cordially invited to join the evening game of draw, but declined on
the plea of having a couple of letters to write. It was a subterfuge, of
course; he had nobody to write to. But in his mind had risen a strong
preference for being in a position where he could overlook the whole
group, rather than be seated in their very midst.

There had come to him a sudden, vivid conviction that he had
underestimated the foreman's resources and his own possible danger. As he
sat there mechanically scribbling random sentences, it was brought home to
him for the first time how unpleasantly alone he was. Save for a helpless
girl and an even more helpless old woman, there wasn't a soul within a
dozen miles on whom he could count for help in an emergency. Of course
when Bud returned--

But Bud didn't return. Nine o'clock brought no sign of him. Another hour
passed and still he failed to show up. It began to look very much as if
the youngster had met with some accident or was being purposely kept out
of the way.

When the men finished their game and began to turn in, Stratton
reluctantly followed their example. As long as there was any light he felt
perfectly able to take care of himself. It was the darkness he
feared--that inky, suffocating darkness which masks everything like a
pall. He dreaded, too, the increased chances bed would bring of yielding
for a single fatal instant to treacherous sleep; but he couldn't well sit
up all night, so he undressed leisurely with the rest and stretched his
long length between the blankets.

When the lamp was out, he cautiously flung aside his coverings, drew
himself into a reclining position, and with gun in one hand and some
matches close beside the other, began his vigil.

For a long time--it must have been an hour at least--there was no need to
fight off sleep. His mind was far too active. But his thoughts were not
altogether cheering, for he began to see clearly how Lynch might hope to
accomplish the impossible.

So far there had been reassurance in the feeling that the foreman would
not dare proceed to open violence because of the almost certain
consequences to himself. Buck realized now that, under the conditions of
the moment, those consequences might become almost negligible. Suppose,
for instance, that by next morning Stratton had disappeared. Lynch and his
confederates would tell a plausible story of his having demanded his time
the night before and ridden off early in the morning. It was a story Tex
had carefully prepared Miss Thorne to hear, and whether or not, after
Buck's talk with her during the morning, she might be suspicious, that
would make no difference in the foreman's actions now. He would see that a
horse was gone, and attend to all the other necessary details. He had the
better part of the night and miles of desert waste in which to dispose of
every trace of Stratton and his belongings. Bud would be suspicious, but
between suspicion and proof there is a great gulf fixed. And though Lynch
might not know it, one of his strongest cards was the fact that if
Stratton should vanish off the earth, there was not a soul who would ever
come around asking awkward questions.

"But I'm not going to be bumped off just now, thank you," Buck said to
himself with a grim straightening of the lips. "They won't dare fire a
gun, and they don't know I'm ready for them and waiting."

Another hour passed, a tortured, harrowing hour in which he fought sleep
desperately with all the limited resources at his command. In spite of his
determination to keep his eyes open at any cost, his lids drooped and
lifted, drooped and lifted, drooped and were dragged open by sheer
will-power. Each time it was more difficult. Just as the water laps
inexorably at length over the face of an exhausted swimmer, so these waves
of sleep, smothering, clutching, dulled his senses and strove to wrap him
in their soft, treacherous embrace.

There came at last a complete wiping out of consciousness, how long or
short he never knew, from which he was jarred into sudden wakefulness by a
sound. He had no idea what it was nor whence it came. He merely found
himself abruptly in full possession of his senses, nerves tingling,
moisture dewing his forehead, his whole being concentrated in the one act

For what seemed an eternity he could hear nothing save the heavy breathing
of sleeping men. Then it came again, a slow, faint, dragging sound that
ceased almost as soon as it began.

Some one was creeping stealthily toward him across the cabin floor!

Next: Thwarted

Previous: Buck Finds Out Something

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