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The Hoodoo Outfit

From: Shoe Bar Stratton

Pop Daggett hesitated and glanced uneasily toward the door.

"I warned yuh, didn't I, the Shoe-Bar was a hoodoo outfit?" he evaded.

Stratton shook some tobacco into a cigarette-paper and jerked the
draw-string with his teeth.

"Sure you did, but that's not the question," he persisted. "I asked you if
any other punchers had met up with--accidents out there lately."

The old man continued to cock an eye on the store entrance.

"Since yuh gotta know," he answered in a lowered tone, "there was two.
About three months ago Jed Terry was scoutin' around back in the
mountains, Lord knows what fur, an' fell into a canyon an' broke his skull.
Four or five weeks arter that Sam Bennett was plugged through the chest
down below Las Vegas."

"Did Lynch happen to be with either of them?"

"No, sir-ee," returned Daggett hastily. "An' don't yuh go blattin' around
I told yuh anythin' about it. I ain't one to gossip about my neighbors,
more especially Tex Lynch. Them two deaths-- Say, Tex ain't in town with
yuh, is he?"

"Not that I know of. He certainly didn't come with me."

"Huh! Wal, yuh never c'n tell with him. As I was sayin', Terry's death was
pernounced a accident, an' they allowed Bennett was plugged by one of them
greaser rustlers I hear tell of. I ain't sayin' nothing to the contrary.
All I'm tellin' yuh is the Shoe-Bar ain't a healthy outfit to work for,
an' this business about Rick Bemis proves it. I wouldn't sign on with 'em,
not for a hundred a month."

Buck thrust the cigarette between his lips and felt for a match. "Still
I've got a mind to stick it out a while," he drawled. "Accidents come in
threes, they say, so there won't likely be another right soon. Well, I
reckon I'd better be traveling. How long will it take that doctor man to
get over?"

"Not much longer than 't will yuh, if he was home when yuh telephoned,"
answered Daggett. "The railroad takes a bend, an' Harpswell ain't more
than a mile or two further from the Shoe-Bar than Paloma."

Evidently Dr. Blanchard must have been at home, for Buck had just finished
unsaddling and was coming away from the corral when he rode up. Stratton
took his horse and answered his brief questions as to the accident, and
then walked down to the bunk-house with his blankets, tarp, and other
belongings. The place was empty, for it was after one o'clock and
evidently the men had gone off somewhere directly after dinner. Indeed,
Buck learned as much from Pedro when he went back to forage for something
to eat.

"They go to move herd some place," shrugged the Mexican. "W'ere, I don'

Stratton ate his meal of beef, bread, and warmed-over coffee in silence
and then returned to the bunk-house, vaguely dissatisfied at the idle
afternoon which stretched before him. Of course, Lynch had no way of
knowing when he would get back from town, but it seemed to Buck that an
up-and-doing foreman would have left word for him to join them when he did

"Unless, of course, he don't want me around," murmured Stratton. "Though
for the life of me I can't see what he gains by keeping me idle."

Presently it occurred to him that this might be a good chance of pursuing
some of the investigations he had planned. Since noticing the disreputable
condition of the fence the afternoon of his arrival, he had kept his eyes
open, and a number of other little signs had confirmed his suspicion that
the ranch had very much gone to seed. Of course this might be merely the
result of careless, slovenly methods on the part of the foreman, and
possibly it did not extend to anything really radical. It would need a
much wider, more general inspection to justify a definite conclusion, and
Stratton decided he might as well do some of it this afternoon. On the
plea of seeking Lynch and the other men, he could ride almost anywhere
without exciting suspicion, and he at once left the bunk-house to carry
out his plan. Just outside the door he met Dr. Blanchard.

"You made a good job of that dressing," remarked the older man briefly. He
was tall with a slight stoop, bearded, a little slovenly in dress, but
with clear, level eyes and a capable manner. "Where'd you learn how?"

Stratton smiled. "Overseas. I was in the Transportation, and we had to
know a little of everything, including first aid."

"Hum," grunted the doctor. "Well, the kid's doing all right. I won't have
to come over again unless fever develops."

As they walked back to the hitching-rack, he gave Buck a few directions
about the care of the invalid. There followed a slight pause.

"You're new here," commented the doctor, untying his bridle-reins.

"Just came yesterday," answered Stratton.

"Friend of Lynch?"

Buck's lips twitched. "Not exactly," he shrugged. "Miss Thorne hired me
while he was in Paloma. I got a notion he was rather peevish about it.
Reckon he prefers to pick his own hands."

As the doctor swung into the saddle, his face momentarily lightened.

"Don't let that worry you," he said, a faint little twinkle in his eyes.
"It isn't good for anybody to have their own way all the time. Well, you
know what to do about Bemis. If he shows any signs of fever, get hold of
me right away."

With a wave of his hand he rode off. Stratton's glance followed him
curiously. Had he really been pleased to find that the new hand was not a
friend of Tex Lynch, or was the idea merely a product of Buck's

Still pondering, he turned abruptly to find Pedro regarding him intently
from the kitchen door. As their glances met, the Mexican's lids drooped
and his face smoothed swiftly into its usual indolent indifference; but he
was not quite quick enough to hide entirely that first look of searching
speculation mingled with not a little venom.

Stratton's own expression was the perfection of studied self-control. He
half smiled, and yawned in a realistically bored manner.

"You sure you don't know where the bunch went?" he asked. "I'm getting
dead sick of hanging around doing nothing."

"They don' say," shrugged the Mexican. "I wash dishes an' don' see 'em go.
Mebbe back soon."

"Not if they're moving a herd--I don't think!" retorted Buck. "Guess I'll
ask Miss Thorne," he added, struck by a sudden inspiration.

Without waiting for a reply, he walked briskly along the front of the
house toward the further entrance. As he turned the corner he met the
girl, booted, spurred, her face shaded becomingly by a wide-brimmed

"I was just going to find you," she said. "Rick wants to see you a

Stratton followed her into the living-room, where she paused and glanced
back at him.

"You haven't met my aunt, Mrs. Archer," she said in her low, pleasant
voice. "Auntie, this is Buck Green, our new hand."

From a chair beside one of the west windows, there rose a little old lady
at the sight of whom Buck's eyes widened in astonishment. Just what he had
expected Mrs. Archer to be he hardly knew, but certainly it wasn't this
dainty, delicate, Dresden-China person who came forward to greet him. Tiny
she was, from her old-fashioned lace cap to the tips of her small, trim
shoes. Her gown, of some soft gray stuff, with touches of old lace here
and there, was modishly cut yet without any traces of exaggeration. Her
abundant white hair was beautifully arranged, and her cheeks, amazingly
soft and smooth, with scarcely a line in them, were faintly pink. A more
utterly incongruous figure to find on an outlying Arizona ranch would be
impossible to imagine, and Buck was hard put to refrain from showing his

"How do you do, Mr. Green?" she said in a soft agreeable voice, which
Stratton recognized at once as the one he had overheard that morning. "My
niece has told me how helpful you've been already."

Buck took her outstretched hand gingerly, and looked down into her
upturned face. Her eyes were blue, and very bright and eager, with
scarcely a hint of age in them. For a brief moment they gazed steadily
into his, searching, appraising, an underlying touch of wistful anxiety in
their clear depths. Then a twinkle flashed into them and of a sudden
Stratton felt that he liked her very much indeed.

"I'm mighty glad to meet you," he said impulsively.

The smile spread from eyes to lips. "Thank you," she replied. "I think I
may say the same thing. I hope you'll like it here well enough to stay."

There was a faint accent on the last word. Buck noticed it, and after she
had left them, saying she was going to rest a little, he wondered. Did she
want him to remain merely because of the short-handed condition of the
ranch, or was there a deeper reason? He glanced at Miss Thorne to find her
regarding him with something of the same anxious scrutiny he had noticed
in her aunt. Her gaze was instantly averted, and a faint flush tinged her
cheeks, to be reflected an instant later in Stratton's face.

"By the way," he said hurriedly, annoyed at his embarrassment, "do you
happen to know where the men are? I thought I'd hunt them up. There's no
sense in my hanging around all afternoon doing nothing."

* * * * *

"They're down at the south pasture," she answered readily. "Tex thinks it
will be better to move the cattle to where it won't be so easy for those
rustlers to get at them. I'm just going down there and we can ride
together, if you like." She turned toward the door. "When you're through
with Rick you'll find me out at the corral."

"Don't you want me to saddle up for you?"

"Pedro will do that, thank you. Tell Rick if he wants anything while I'm
gone all he has to do is to ring the bell beside his bed and Maria will
answer it."

She departed, and Buck walked briskly into the bedroom. Bemis lay in bed
propped up with pillows and looking much better physically than he had
done that morning. But his face was still strained, with that harassed,
worried expression about the eyes which Stratton had noted before.

"Yuh saw Doc Blanchard, didn't yuh?" he asked, as Buck sat down on the
side of his bed. "What'd he say?"

"Why, that you were doing fine. Not a chance in a hundred, he said, of
your having any trouble with the wound."

"Oh, I know that. But when'd he say I'd be on my feet?"

Buck shrugged his shoulders. "He didn't mention any particular time for
that. I should think it would be two or three weeks, at least."

"Hell!" The young fellow's fingers twisted the coverlet nervously. "Don't
yuh believe I could--er--ride before that?" he added, almost pleadingly.

Stratton's eyes widened. "Ride!" he repeated. "Where the deuce do you want
to ride to?"

Bemis hesitated, a slow flush creeping into his tanned face. The glance he
bent on Stratton was somewhat shamefaced.

"Anywhere," he answered curtly, a touch of defiance in his tone. "You'll
say I've lost my nerve, an' maybe I have. But after what's happened around
this joint lately, and especially last night--"

He paused, glancing nervously toward the door. Buck's expression had grown
suddenly keen and eager.

"Well?" he urged. "What did happen, anyhow? I had my suspicions there was
something queer about that business, but--You can trust me, old man."

Bemis nodded, his dark eyes searching Stratton's face. "I'll take a
chance," he answered. "I got to. There ain't nobody else. They've kept Bud
away, and Miss Mary--Well, she's all right, uh course, but Tex has got
her buffaloed. She won't believe nothin' ag'in him. I told Bud I'd stay as
long as he did, but--A man's got to look after himself some. They ain't
likely to miss twice runnin'."

"You mean to say--"

Bemis stopped him with a cautious gesture. "Where's that sneaking
greaser?" he asked in a low tone, his eyes shifting nervously to the open

"Out saddling her horse."

"Oh! Well, listen." The young puncher's voice sank almost to a whisper.
"That sendin' me down to Las Vegas was a plant; I'm shore of it. My orders
was to sleep days an' patrol around nights to get a line on who was after
the cattle. I wasn't awful keen about it, but still an' all, I didn't
think they'd dare do what they tried to."

"You mean there weren't any rustlers at all?" put in Stratton

"Shore there was, but they didn't fire that shot that winged me. I'd just
got sight of 'em four or five hundred yards away an' was ridin' along in
the shadow tryin' to edge close enough to size 'em up an' mebbe pick off a
couple. My cayuse was headin' south, with the rustlers pretty near dead
ahead, when I come to a patch of moonlight I had to cross. I pulled out
considerable to ride around a spur just beyond, so when that shot came I
was facin' pretty near due east. The bullet hit me in the left leg, yuh

Stratton's eyes narrowed. "Then it must have been fired from the
north--from the direction of the--"

He broke off abruptly as Rick's fingers gripped his wrist.

"Look!" breathed Bemis, in a voice that was scarcely audible.

He was staring over the low foot-board of the bed straight at the open
door, and Buck swiftly followed the direction of his glance. For an
instant he saw nothing. The doorway was quite empty, and he could not hear
a sound. Then, of a sudden, his gaze swept on across the living-room and
he caught his breath.

On the further wall, directly opposite the bedroom door, hung a long
mirror in a tarnished gilded frame. It reflected not only the other side
of the doorway but a portion of the wall on either side of it--reflected
clearly, among other things, the stooping figure of a woman, her limp
calico skirts dragged cautiously back in one skinny hand, her sharp,
swarthy face bent slightly forward in an unmistakable attitude of

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