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From: Shoe Bar Stratton

Swiftly the echoes of the shots died away, leaving the still serenity of
the night again unruffled. For a moment or two Stratton waited
expectantly; then his shoulders squared decisively.

"I reckon it's up to us to find out what's going on down there," he said,
turning toward his horse.

Jessup nodded curt agreement. "Better take the sorrel along, hadn't we?"
he asked.

"Sure." Buck swung himself lightly into the saddle, shortening the lead
rope and fastening it to the horn. "I was thinking of that."

Five minutes later they pulled up in front of a small adobe shack nestling
against a background of cottonwoods that told of the near presence of the
creek. The door stood open, framing a black rectangle which proclaimed the
emptiness of the hut, and with scarcely a pause the two rode slowly on,
searching the moonlit vistas with keen alertness.

On their right the country had grown noticeably rougher. Here and there
low spurs from the near-by western hills thrust out into the flat prairie,
and deep shadows which marked the opening of draw or gully loomed up
frequently. It was from one of these, about half a mile south of the hut,
that a voice issued suddenly, halting the two riders abruptly by the
curtness of its snarling menace.

"Hands up!"

Buck obeyed promptly, having learned from experience the futility of
trying to draw on a person whose very outlines are invisible. Jessup's
hands went up, too, and then dropped quickly to his sides again.

"Why, it's Slim!" he cried, and spurred swiftly toward the mouth of the
gully. "What the deuce is the matter?" he asked anxiously. "What's
happened to Rick?"

There was a momentary pause, and then McCabe stepped out of the shadows,
six-gun in one hand.

"What the devil are yuh doin' here?" he demanded with a harshness which
struck Buck in curious contrast to his usual air of good humor. "Who's
that with yuh?"

"Only Green. We--we got worried, an' saddled up an'--followed yuh. When we
heard the shots--What did happen to Rick, Slim? We caught his horse out
there, the saddle all--"

"Since yuh gotta know," snapped the puncher, "he got a hole drilled
through one leg. He's right here behind me."

As Bud flung himself out of the saddle and hurried over to the man lying
just inside the gully, McCabe stepped swiftly to the side of Stratton's
horse. There was a mingling of doubt and sharp suspicion in the upturned

"Yuh sure are up an' doin' for a new hand," he commented swiftly. "Was it
yuh put it into his head to come out here?"

"I reckon maybe it was," returned Buck easily. "When we woke up an' found
you all gone, the kid got fretting considerable about his friend here, and
I didn't see why we shouldn't ride out and join you. According to my mind,
when you're out after rustlers, the more the merrier."

"Huh! He told yuh we was after rustlers?"

"Sure. Why not? It ain't any secret, is it? Leastwise, I didn't gather
that from Bud."

McCabe's face relaxed. "Wal, I dunno as 't is," he shrugged. "Tex likes to
run things his own way, though. Still, I dunno as there's any harm done.
Truth is, we didn't get started soon enough. We was half a mile off when
we heard the shot, an' rid up to find Rick drilled through the leg an' the
thieves beatin' it for the mountains. The rest of the bunch lit out after
'em while I stayed with Rick. I dunno as they caught any of 'em, but I
reckon they didn't have time to run off no cattle."

Stratton slid out of the saddle and threw the reins over the roan's head.
He had not failed to notice the slight discrepancy in McCabe's statement
as to the length of time it took the punchers to ride from the bunk-house
to this spot, but he made no comment.

"Bemis hurt bad?" he asked.

"Not serious. It's a clean wound in his thigh. I got it tied up with his

Buck nodded and walked over to where Bud was squatting beside the wounded
cow-puncher. By this time his eyes were accustomed to the half-darkness,
and he could easily distinguish the long length of the fellow, and even
noted that the dark eyes were regarding him questioningly out of a white,
rather strained face.

"Want me to look you over?" he asked, bending down. "I've had considerable
experience with this sort of thing, and maybe I can make you easier."

"Go to it," nodded the young chap briefly. "It ain't bleedin' like it was,
but it could be a whole lot more comfortable."

With the aid of Jessup and McCabe, Bemis was moved out into the moonlight,
where Stratton made a careful examination of his wound. He found that the
bullet had plowed through the fleshy part of the thigh, just missing the
bone, and, barring chances of infection, it was not likely to be
dangerous. He was readjusting Slim's crude bandaging when he heard the
beat of hoofs and out of the corner of one eye saw McCabe walk swiftly out
to meet the returning punchers.

These halted about fifty feet away, and there was a brief exchange of
words of which Buck could distinguish nothing. Presently two of the men
dashed off in the direction of the ranch-house, while Lynch rode slowly
forward and dismounted.

"How yuh feelin'?" he asked Bemis, adding with a touch of sarcasm in his
voice, "I hear yuh got a reg'lar professional sawbones to look after

"He acts like he knew what he was about," returned Bemis briefly. "How yuh
goin' to get me home?"

"I've sent Butch an' Flint after the wagon," explained Lynch. "They'll
hustle all they can."

"Did you catch sight of the rustlers?" asked Stratton suddenly.

The foreman flashed him a sudden not overfriendly glance.

"No," he returned curtly, and turning on his heel led his horse over to
where the others had gathered in the shadow of a rocky butte.

It was nearly an hour before the lumbering farm-wagon appeared. During the
interval Buck sat beside the wounded man, smoking and exchanging
occasional brief comments with Bud, who stayed close by. One or two of the
others strolled up to ask about Bemis, but for the most part they remained
in their little group, the intermittent glow of their cigarettes
flickering in the darkness and the constant low murmur of their
conversation wafted indistinguishably across the intervening space.

Their behavior piqued Buck's curiosity tremendously. What were they
talking about so continually? Where had the outlaws gone, and why hadn't
they been pursued further? Had the whole pursuit been merely in the nature
of a bluff? And if so, whom had it been intended to deceive? These and a
score of other questions passed through his mind as he sat there waiting,
but when the dull rumble of the wagon started them all into activity, he
had not succeeded in finding any really plausible answers.

The return trip was necessarily slow, and dawn was just breaking as they
forded the creek and drove up to the bunk-house. They had barely come to a
standstill when, to Buck's surprise, the slim figure of Mary Thorne,
bare-headed and clad in riding-clothes, appeared suddenly around the
corner of the ranch-house and came swiftly toward them.

"Pedro told me," she said briefly, pausing beside the wagon. "How is he?"

"Doin' fine," responded Lynch promptly. "It's a clean wound an' ought to
heal in no time. Our new hand Green tied him up like a regular

His manner was almost fulsomely pleasant; Miss Thorne's expression of
anxiety relaxed.

"I'm so glad. You'd better bring him right up to the house; he'll be more
comfortable there."

"That ain't hardly necessary," objected Lynch. "He'll do all right here.
We don't want him to be a bother to yuh."

"He won't be," retorted Miss Thorne with unexpected decision. "We've
plenty of room, and Maria has a bed all ready. The bunk-house is no place
for a sick man."

During the brief colloquy Bemis, though perfectly conscious, made no
comment whatever. But Buck, glancing toward him as he lay on the husk
mattress behind the driver, surprised a fleeting but unmistakable
expression of relief in his tanned face.

"He don't want to stay in the bunk-house," thought Stratton. "I don't know
as I blame him, neither. I wonder, though, if it's because he figures on
being more comfortable up there, or--"

The unvoiced question ended with a shrug as Lynch, somewhat curt of
manner, gave the order to move.

"Yuh don't all of yuh have to come, neither," he added quickly. "Butch an'
Slim an' me can carry him in."

Miss Thorne, who had already started toward the house, glanced over one
shoulder. "If Green knows something about first aid, as you say, he'd
better come too, I think."

Buck glanced questioningly at the foreman, received a surly nod and
dismounted, smiling inwardly. It amused him exceedingly to see the
dictatorial Tex forced to take orders from this slip of a girl. Evidently
she was not quite so pathetically helpless as he had supposed the
afternoon before. He began to wonder how she did it, for Lynch struck him
as a far from easy person to manage. He was still turning the question
over in his mind when he received a shock which for the moment banished
every other thought.

The wagon was backed up to the porch, and the four punchers, each taking a
corner of the mattress, lifted Bemis out and carried him across the
living-room and through a door on the further side which Miss Thorne held
open. The room was light and airy, and Buck was conscious of a vague sense
of familiarity, which he set down to his rather brief acquaintance with
the place two years ago. But when Bemis had been undressed and put to bed
and his wound thoroughly cleansed with antiseptic and freshly bandaged,
Stratton, really looking about him for the first time, made an odd

It was his own room! He remembered perfectly choosing it and moving in his
belongings the day before he left; and as he stared curiously around he
could not see that a single one of them had been touched. There were his
trunks just as they had come from Texas. His bureau stood between the
windows, and on it lay a pair of brushes and the few odds and ends he had
left there when he enlisted. A pair of chaps and a well-worn Stetson hung
near the door, and he had just stepped over to make sure they were
actually the ones he had left behind when Miss Thorne, who had been
talking in the living-room with Lynch, appeared suddenly on the

As their glances met she drew herself up a little, and a curious
expression came into her eyes. Her lips parted impulsively, but when,
after a momentary hesitation, she spoke, Buck had an impression that
something quite different had been on the tip of her tongue an instant

"He'd better have the doctor at once, don't you think?" she said briefly.

Buck nodded. "Yes, ma'am, he ought. I've done the best I could, and the
chances are he'll get along all right; but a regular doctor ought to look
him over as soon as possible."

"I thought so. I've just told Tex to send a man to town at once and wire
Dr. Blanchard, who lives about twelve miles up the line. It'll take him
three or four hours to ride over, but there's no one nearer."

"I wish you'd let me go," said Stratton impulsively. "I've got to return
the horse I borrowed and get blankets and some things I left at the store.
There's really nothing more I can do for Bemis by hanging around."

Her brows crinkled doubtfully. "Well, if you're sure--I suppose there's no
reason why you shouldn't. Tell Tex I said you were to go. He'll give you
the directions. Only you'll have to hurry."

With a murmured word of thanks, Buck snatched up his hat and hastened into
the living-room. As he passed the big table he was aware of a door at the
farther end opening, but he did not turn his head. An instant later, as he
was in the act of springing off the porch, he heard a woman's voice behind
him, soft, low, and a little shaken.

"What is it, Mary? What's happened? You don't mean to tell me that--that
another man's been shot."

Buck's eyes widened, but he did not pause. "That's the aunt, I reckon," he
muttered, as he sped down the slope. His lips straightened. "Another! Holy
cats! What the devil am I up against, anyhow? A murder syndicate?"

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Previous: The Blood-stained Saddle

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