SUE CLAYTON looked up from where she was puttering among the flower-beds near the ranch-house porch as her husband rode in the gate returning from the shipping-pens at Valentine where a trainload of Box C steers had started on their long ride to Kansas City. Her welcoming smile changed to a look of surprise as she saw that he carried a young boy in his arms.
"Look here, Sue," said Buck Clayton, "I've got a present for you."
"What in the world have you brought home now, Buck?" asked his wife as she looked at the form in her husband's arms.
"Just a maverick I guess," he replied, turning back the hat that shaded a boyish face, the brow of which was damped with sweat, the eyes closed in sleep. "I found this little beggar in a freight car at Valentine. He didn't seem to know where he was going nor why. He looked like he could stand a little pen feeding; so I brought him along. Don't mind do you, Girl?” He won't eat much. He says his name's George and that he's ten years old. Claims he hasn't any folks."
Sue looked at the boyish face resting against her husband's vest then stretched out her arms to take the lad.
"Why the poor little speckled tramp!" she said, "Buck, did you ever see so many freckles on one boy!"
"He did go kinda pinto at that," grinned Buck as he swung down from the saddle and stood beside his wife, "but they may fade a bit as he grows out. Right now I think he needs grub -- unless you think he'll be too much bother."
Sue answered him with a look that caused him to chuckle as she started for the house with the boy. Buck walked off toward the corral, his roan horse following him.
And so Speck Clayton came to the Box C.
A runaway from an orphanage, Speck (the name fitted him better than his own) knew nothing of his parentage. Sue, after the first few days in which she completely won the heart of the lonesome boy and lost her own in turn, suggested to her husband that they keep him.
"Now Sue, I hadn't thought about that, but if you think you want him around --“
"Buck, you're a big soft-hearted liar," interrupted his wife. "You meant to keep him when you brought him home. But anyway if no one else wants him we'll take him here. You see about it right now."
So Buck wrote some letters and got some answers and Speck became part and parcel of the Box C.
Sue became Mom Sue to the lad but Buck was just Buck. To Speck he was a hero and a teacher all in one. He taught Speck to rope, to ride, to shoot and to lash a pack. The Box C hands gave him his post-graduate course. To Speck it was indeed home, for Mom Sue called him Son.
Eight years passed. Speck was as much a part of the Box C as if he had been born there. In fact he was Buck's foreman in everything but name. His schooling, both on the range and in more academic lines had been fulsome enough, and his tall straight form was more often seen in company with his foster father than anywhere else. Then came the war which called so many Texans to the colors. Speck signed up with an artillery unit and soon afterward embarked for France. There Speck found plenty to occupy his time until late in 1919. Summer was well past when Corporal Clayton stepped off the train at Valentine and looked about him at the Texas landscape which he knew so well. A rented car carried him the sixty miles to the Box C where he found a grayer but still loving Mom Sue waiting to greet him. Buck Clayton was not at home.
"Where's Buck, Mom Sue!" he asked as the first rush of her greeting was over and he held his foster mother at arm's length in front of him. "Didn't that old rascal get my wire? What does he mean by running out on me? Heroes are entitled to some respect. Where is Buck, anyway?"
"He's in Mexico, Son. Should have been back two days ago and if it wasn't for the fact that Buck always takes good care of himself I'd be worried. You know things are all stirred up over there right now and Buck is buying some cattle right where they have been having a lot of trouble. I think he's getting a price on this stuff because Gonzales wants to get it out of the country before the trouble starts."
"Well, Mom Sue, don't you worry about Buck. He'll be all right. Now tell me everything --"
With their arms linked the pair walked across the broad veranda into the ranch-house. Speck Clayton was home again.
The following day while Speck was the center of a group of his old friends at the corrals relating some of his experiences in the artillery a rider trotted his horse into the yard of the ranch. He was a Mexican boy from below the border and he bore a note addressed to Mrs. Sue Clayton. It was from Buck -- He was being held for ransom!
The note, written by the cowman himself, made it clear what had happened. The bandit groups, gathering for the pending revolt, needed money. They were not particular how they got it. Buck Clayton had ridden into the Gonzalez ranch without knowing of their presence and had immediately been taken prisoner. He was in no danger he explained in the note if his wife would send $20,000 in gold to a point he described. If that failed -- well the results might be different.
Mom Sue read the note, called Speck and then, her border-trained wits working swiftly, ordered one of the men to hold the messenger.
Speck read the message quickly and turned, his young face grave and hard, to where the Mexican boy stood. In rattling Spanish he questioned him but soon decided that he was only a messenger not even aware of the contents of the note that he had carried. He had received it at the border, been paid to bring it to the Box C and knew nothing more about it.
Riata Rawlings, who had grown gray in the service of Buck Clayton, listened as Speck explained what the note contained. His leathery face showed little emotion as Speck told him where the note said to deliver the money.
"One of Orosco's men, eh? That's where he hangs out, Speck. He's a danged horse-thief but I never figured he would take to stealing men. Well Miss Sue, it looks like Speck and me had better get going. Old Buck will be wanting to get home. Now don't worry; he'll be all right."
Well below the border two horses shuffled along a narrow trail. Speck and Riata, dust covered and worn from the long hard ride, checked landmarks, the older man realizing that they were near the end of their journey. Speck, no longer a boy, stepped into his position as the acknowledged leader of the expedition,
"Riata, you think I'm a fool for not bringing any money but I'm playing a hunch. If it's Orosco's outfit they would want more. That $20,000 would be just a start."
"Yeh, probably would," answered Riata, "but you go ahead Speck; I'll back your play. It's worth trying anyway. See that ridge off to the right? That's where we're heading for. So we better rest these ponies a while. We may need them with a little life in them after a bit."
Speck nodded and the two rode into an arroyo, dismounted, loosened cinches and squatted in the shade. Reared in the desert country, neither one was impatient. Two hours passed in desultory talk and many cigarettes before once more they made ready for the trail.
As they pulled up the slackened látigos Riata looked across his horse's back at the tall, slender rider he had helped to rear.
"Say, Speck, this artillery business hasn't ruined you with a short gun I hope. This may be a right busy afternoon for me if it has."
"I'm not so sure, Riata," grinned Speck as he slipped his toe in the stirrup. "I'll try and hold 'em down. Let's get going."
On their approach to the bandit-camp Speck put his army training to use. From his saddle-pocket he hauled a pair of good field-glasses and from a point on the ridge surveyed the valley below. He estimated that nearly twenty men were encamped there. Their horses were grouped under a little cluster of trees.
To one side Buck Clayton sat, unbound but guarded, idly tossing bits of stick into the creek. Speck checked every detail then passed the glasses to Riata. The old-timer looked over the layout then grunted his contempt for the lack of guards or precautions of any kind. They must think no one else knew this country.
"Who's ramrodding that outfit?" asked Speck.
"Not so sure," said Riata, "but from the looks of things I'd say Emilio Sanchez. I've seen him with several of those pelados and they all took his orders. That leggy sorrel with the white blaze is his horse."
"How tough is Sanchez!" asked Speck.
"Plenty-when he's got the cards," was the reply.
"But how does he set in a fight!" the younger man wanted to know.
"Well, he don't fight no lost causes, if that's what you mean," growled Riata.
"Fine," said Speck, "'cause here's where he loses one. We'll ride in and go direct to Sanchez. Come on."
Riata looked at Speck, started to speak, then changed his mind and slipped his old single action Colt from its holster for a last-minute check-up instead. If Speck was going right into that camp it looked to Riata as if he might be needing that gun right soon.
Buck Clayton watched the two men ride toward him in the bandit-camp.
He started in surprise as he recognized the younger but aside from a quick smile gave no sign. Speck cast a sidewise glance at his foster father and grinned then turned his attention to the hard-looking group toward which he rode. The next few minutes would decide a number of things and Speck knew it. He rode directly to the short stocky figure of Sanchez, whom Riata had pointed out. At his heels rode Riata.
Sanchez, his broad Indian features devoid of expression, watched them closely. In response to Speck’s question, "Are you the jefe here?" he nodded his head.
"Send them away then; I will talk to you alone," said Speck, with a wave of his hand toward the other bandits. "And before we speak of money you must send Buck Clayton here with his horse and his equipment."
Sanchez smiled grimly. It amused him to hear this Gringo youth dictate terms when all the odds were against him. But why not humor him? It would be fun perhaps. He spoke to a Mexican rider and soon Buck Clayton's horse stood saddled and ready for the trail. Another order and Clayton was brought forward. Silently he checked his cinches, and swung into the saddle.
In a flash Speck acted. He slipped from his horse, stepped quickly to Sanchez and before that worthy could move had whirled him around so that he faced his own men. At the same time he jammed a pistol muzzle into the bandit leader's back and said:
"One shot Sanchez and you die pronto -- tell them that!"
His face pallid as he felt the thrust of the gun, Sanchez waved back his excited men. Buck Clayton swung into his saddle, leaned forward and snatched Sanchez's pistol from its holster. Riata rode beside him, his cocked Colt in his hand. The moment before Sanchez's order took effect was tense and close to tragedy but surprise won and the bandit group looked to their leader for orders.
"Do not shoot, do not shoot -- he'll kill me," cried Sanchez. "Back, back, all of you!"
"That is well, Sanchez. You are a careful man," said Speck. "Now you walk with me. Take my horse Riata. This work's better on the ground."
The strange procession started. It was slow because Speck was walking backwards holding Sanchez in front of him. Sanchez, his voice husky with fear, waved his followers away as he backed off step by step with his captor. Buck Clayton and Riata, the latter now armed with a rifle, guarded the flanks. Speck did not turn toward his horse until they were on the top of the ridge. Then as Riata watched the cowed Sanchez he mauled Buck Clayton and cursed him lovingly. Tears streaked Buck's face.
But Sanchez was not yet through as a hostage. With a lariat looped around his neck Speck made him trot ahead of them as they moved off toward the border. For several weary dusty miles the bandit leader staggered and stumbled along. Then trembling with fear he fell, unable to take another step. Speck flipped off the hide rope and said to Buck, "Let him lay; we don't need him any longer. Let's go home."
Once more Mom Sue turned toward the gate of the Box C as hoof beats told her of approaching riders.
She recognized them as they rode into the ranch yard and ran toward them. As she neared the horsemen Speck, who had heard the story of that other arrival from her lips many a time, called out:
"Look here, Mom Sue, I've got a present for you. Seems like he got lost back here aways. Maybe you better pen feed him a bit."