"We've been a-hopin' you'd come," answered Hagar. And with another smile at Ruth she stepped off the porch and mounted her pony.
Randerson went directly to his room, and Ruth stood for a long time at the door, watching Hagar as she rode her pony over the plains. There was a queer sensation of resentment in her breast over this exhibition of friendship; she had never thought of them knowing each other. She smiled after a while, however, telling herself that it was nothing to her. But the next time that she saw Hagar she ascertained her age. It was seventeen.
The outfit came in the next morning—fourteen punchers, the horse-wrangler having trouble as usual with the remuda, the cook, Chavis, and Pickett. They veered the herd toward the river and drove it past the ranchhouse and into a grass level that stretched for miles. It was near noon when the chuck wagon came to a halt near the bunkhouse door, and from the porch of her house Ruth witnessed a scene that she had been anticipating since her first day in the West—a group of cowboys at play.
Did these men of the plains know that their new boss had been wanting to see them in their unrestrained moments? They acted like boys—more mischievous than boys in their most frolicsome moods. Their movements were grotesque, their gestures extravagant, their talk high-pitched and flavored with a dialect that Ruth had never heard. They were "showing off"; the girl knew that. But she also knew that in their actions was much of earnestness, that an excess of vigor filled them. They were like their horses which now unleashed in the corral were running, neighing, kicking up their heels in their momentary delight of freedom.
The girl understood and sympathized with them, but she caught a glimpse of Chavis and Pickett, sitting close together on a bench at the front of the messhouse, talking seriously, and a cloud came over her face. These two men were not light-hearted as the others. What was the reason? When she went into the house a few minutes later, a premonition of impending trouble assailed her and would not be dismissed.
She helped Aunt Martha in the kitchen. Uncle Jepson had gone away—"nosin' around," he had said; Masten had ridden away toward the river some time before—he had seemed to ride toward the break in the canyon which led to the Catherson cabin; she did not know where Randerson had gone—had not seen him for hours.
Hilarious laughter reached her, busy in the kitchen, but it did not banish the peculiar uneasiness that afflicted her. And some time later, when the laughter ceased and she went to the window and looked out, the cowboys had vanished. They had gone in to dinner. But Chavis and Pickett still sat on their bench, talking. Ruth shivered and turned from the window.
She was in better spirits shortly after dinner, and went out to the stable to look at her pony. Because of the coming of the remuda she had thought it best to take her pony from the corral, for she feared that in company with the other horses her own animal would return to those ungentle habits which she disliked.
She fed it from some grain in a bin, carried some water in a pail from the trough at the windmill, and stood at the pony's head for some time, watching it. Just as she was about to turn to leave the stable, she felt the interior darken, and she wheeled quickly to see that the door had closed, and that Jim Pickett stood before it, grinning at her.
For a moment her knees shook, for she could not fail to interpret the expression of his face, then she heard a gale of laughter from the direction of the bunkhouse, and felt reassured. But while she stood, she heard the sounds of the laughter growing gradually indistinct and distant, and she gulped hard. For she knew that the cowboys were riding away—no doubt to join the herd.
She pretended to be interested in the pony, and stroked its mane with a hand that trembled, delaying to move in the hope that she might be mistaken in her fears and that Pickett would go away. But Pickett did not move. Glancing at him furtively, she saw that the grin was still on his face and that he was watching her narrowly. Then, finding that he seemed determined to stay, she pretended unconcern and faced him, meeting his gaze fearlessly.
"Is there something that you wanted to talk to me about, Pickett?" she questioned.
"Yes, ma'am," he said respectfully, though his voice seemed slightly hoarse, "I've got a letter here which I want you to read to me—I just can't sorta make out the writin'."
She almost sighed with relief. Leaving the stall she went to Pickett's side and took from his hand a paper that he held out to her. And now, in her relief over her discovery that his intentions were not evil, it suddenly dawned on her that she had forgotten that the door was closed.
"It is dark here," she said; "open the door, please."
Instead of answering, he seized the hand holding the paper, and with a swift pull tried to draw her toward him. But her muscles had been tensed with the second fear that had taken possession of her, and she resisted—almost broke away from him. His fingers slipped from her wrist, the nails scratching the flesh deeply, and she sprang toward the door. But he was upon her instantly, his arms around her, pinning her own to her sides, and then he squeezed her to him, so tightly that the breath almost left her body, and kissed her three or four times full on the lips. Then, still holding her, and looking in her eyes with an expression that filled her with horror, he said huskily:
"Lord, but you're a hummer!"
Then, as though that were the limit of his intentions, he released her, laughed mirthlessly and threw the door open.
She had spoken no word during the attack. She made no sound now, as she went toward the house, her face ashen, her breath coming in great gasps. But a few minutes later she was in her room in the ranchhouse, on her bed, her face in the pillow, sobbing out the story of the attack to Aunt Martha, whose wrinkled face grew gray with emotion as she listened.
Masten came in an hour later. Ruth was in a chair in the sitting-room, looking very white. Aunt Martha was standing beside her.
"Why, what has happened?" Masten took a few steps and stood in front of her, looking down at her.
"Aunty will tell you." Ruth hid her face in her hands and cried softly.
Aunt Martha led the way into the kitchen, Masten following. Before he reached the door he looked back at Ruth, and a slight smile, almost a sneer, crossed his face. But when he turned to Aunt Martha, in the kitchen, his eyes were alight with well simulated curiosity.
"Well?" he said, questioningly.
"It is most outrageous," began Aunt Martha, her voice trembling. "That man, Pickett, came upon Ruth in the stable and abused her shamefully. He actually kissed her—three or four times—and—Why, Mr. Masten, the prints of his fingers are on her wrists!"
Ruth, in the sitting-room, waited, almost in dread, for the explosion that she knew would follow Aunt Martha's words.
None came, and Ruth sank back in her chair, not knowing whether she was relieved or disappointed. There was a long silence, during which Masten cleared his throat three times. And then came Aunt Martha's voice, filled with mingled wonder and impatience:
"Aren't you going to do something Mr. Masten? Such a thing ought not to go unpunished."
"Thunder!" he said fretfully, "what on earth can I do? You don't expect me to go out and fight that man, Pickett. He'd kill me!"
"Mebbe he would," said Aunt Martha in a slightly cold voice, "but he would know that Ruth was engaged to a man!" There was a silence. And again came Aunt Martha's voice:
"There was a time when men thought it an honor to fight for their women. But it seems that times have changed mightily."
"This is an age of reason, and not muscle and murder," replied Masten. "There is no more reason why I should go out there and allow Pickett to kill me than there is a reason why I should go to the first railroad, lay my head on the track and let a train run over me. There is law in this country, aunty, and it can reach Pickett."
"Your self-control does you credit, Mr. Masten." Aunt Martha's voice was low, flavored with sarcasm. Masten turned abruptly from her and went in to Ruth. Her face was still in her hands, but she felt his presence and involuntarily shrank from him.
He turned his head from her and smiled, toward the stable, and then he laid a hand on Ruth's shoulder and spoke comfortingly.
"It's too bad, Ruth. But we shall find a way to deal with Pickett without having murder done. Why not have Randerson discharge him? He is range boss, you know. In the meantime, can't you manage to stay away from places where the men might molest you? They are all unprincipled scoundrels, you must remember!"
He left her, after a perfunctory caress which she suffered in silence. She saw him, later, as he passed her window, talking seriously to Chavis, and she imagined he was telling Chavis about the attack. Of course, she thought, with a wave of bitterness, Chavis would be able to sympathize with him. She went to her room shortly afterward.
The sun was swimming in a sea of saffron above the mountains in the western distance when Ruth again came downstairs. Hearing voices in the kitchen she went to the door and looked. Aunt Martha was standing near the kitchen table. Randerson was standing close to her, facing her, dwarfing her, his face white beneath the deep tan upon it, his lips straight and hard, his eyes narrowed, his teeth clenched; she could see the corded muscles of his lean under-jaw, set and stiff. Aunt Martha's hands were on his sleeves; her eyes were big and bright, and glowing with a strange light.
They did not see Ruth, and something in their attitudes kept her from revealing herself; she stood silent, listening, fascinated.
"So he done that!" It was Randerson's voice, and it made Ruth's heart feel heavy and cold within her, for in it was contempt, intolerance, rage suppressed—she felt that the words had come through clenched teeth. "I reckon I'll be seein' Pickett, aunty."
And then he patted Aunt Martha's shoulders and started for the back door. Ruth heard him open it; he must have been standing on the threshold when he spoke again. And this time he spoke in a drawl—slow, gentle:
"I reckon I'll go wash. It was mighty dusty ridin' today. I passed Calamity, aunty. There ain't no mud there any more; Willard wouldn't get mussed up, now. The suck-hole ain't a foot deep any more."
"You're a scapegrace," said Aunt Martha severely. Ruth felt that she was shaking a deprecatory finger at him. "Your manners have been neglected." But Aunt Martha's voice gave the words an exactly opposite meaning, and Ruth blushed.
There had been a dread fear in Ruth's heart. For she had seen warning of impending tragedy in Randerson's face when she had looked at him. It seemed to have passed. His, "I reckon I'll be seein' Pickett," meant, perhaps, that he would discharge the man. Relieved, she went upstairs again and sat in a chair, looking out of a window.
A little later she saw several of the cowboys come in. She saw Pickett standing near a corner of the bunkhouse. She watched him closely, for there was something strange in his actions. He seemed to be waiting for something, or somebody. Occasionally he leaned against the corner of the bunkhouse, but she noted that he kept turning his head, keeping a lookout in all directions. Again a premonition of imminent trouble oppressed her.
And then she saw Randerson going from the ranchhouse toward the men who were congregated in front of the bunkhouse; saw Pickett's right hand fall to his side as though it rested on a holster, and she started out of her chair, for illumination now came to her.
Half way to the bunkhouse, Randerson was met by Uncle Jepson. She saw Randerson stop, observed that Uncle Jepson seemed to say something to him. She could not, of course, hear the words, "Look out, Randerson; Pickett's layin' for you," but she saw Randerson lay a hand on Uncle Jepson's shoulder.
And then he continued on his way.
She saw Randerson go close to Pickett, noted that the other men had all turned and were watching the two. Randerson seemed to be speaking, to Pickett; the latter had faced him. Then, as she breathlessly watched, she saw Pickett reach for his gun. Randerson leaped. Pickett's gun did not come out, Randerson's hand had closed on Pickett's wrist.
There was a brief, fierce struggle, blows were struck, and then the men sprang apart. Ruth saw Randerson's right arm describe a rapid half-circle; she seemed to hear a thud as his fist landed, and Pickett reeled and fell sideways to the ground, close to the wall of the bunkhouse. She heard him curse; saw him reach again for the gun at his hip. The toe of Randerson's right boot struck Pickett's hand, driving it away from the holster; the hand was ground into the dust by Randerson's boot. And then, so quickly that she could not follow the movement, Randerson's gun was out, and Pickett lay still where he had fallen.
Presently Ruth saw Pickett get up, still menaced by Randerson's gun. Cursing, crouching, evidently still awaiting an opportunity to draw his gun, Pickett began to walk toward the ranchhouse, Randerson close behind him. At a safe distance, the other men followed—Ruth saw Masten and Chavis come out of the bunkhouse door and follow also. The thought struck her that they must have witnessed the incident from a window. She saw them all, the cowboys at a respectable distance, Pickett and Randerson in front, with Masten and Chavis far behind, come to a halt. She divined—she believed she had suspected all along—what the march to the ranchhouse meant, but still she did not move, for she feared she could not stand.
Ruth was roused, however, by Randerson's voice. It reached her, sharp, cold, commanding. Evidently he was speaking to Aunt Martha, or to Uncle Jepson, who had gone into the house:
"Tell Miss Ruth to come here!"
Ruth obeyed. A moment later she stood on the front porch, looking at them all. This scene seemed unreal to her—the cowboys at a distance, Masten and Chavis in the rear, looking on, Pickett near the edge of the porch, his face bloated with impotent rage, his eyes glaring; the grim figure that Randerson made as he stood near Pickett, gun in hand, his eyes narrowed, alert. It seemed to her to be a dream from which she would presently awaken, trembling from the horror of it.
And then again she heard Randerson's voice. It was low, but so burdened with passion that it seemed to vibrate in the perfect silence. There was a threat of death in it:
"You can tell Miss Ruth that you're never goin' to play the skunk with a woman ag'in!"
Pickett writhed. But it seemed to Ruth, as her gaze shifted from Randerson to him, that Pickett's manner was not what it should be. He was not embarrassed enough, did not seem to feel his disgrace keenly enough. For though he twisted and squirmed under the threat in Randerson's voice, there was an odd smirk on his face that impressed her as nearly concealing a malignant cunning. And his voice sounded insincere to her—there was even no flavor of shame in them:
"I'm sorry I done what I did, ma'am."
"I reckon that's all, Pickett. You draw your time right now."
Randerson sheathed his pistol and turned slightly sidewise to Pickett, evidently intending to come up on the porch.
Ruth gasped. For she saw Pickett reach for his gun. It was drawn half out of its holster. As though he had divined what was in Pickett's mind, Randerson had turned slightly at Pickett's movement. There was a single rapid movement to his right hip, the twilight was split by a red streak, by another that followed it so closely as to seem to make the two continuous. Pickett's hand dropped oddly from the half-drawn weapon, his knees sagged, he sighed and pitched heavily forward, face down, at Randerson's feet.
Dimly, as through a haze, Ruth saw a number of the cowboys coming toward her, saw them approach and look curiously down at the thing that lay almost at her feet. And then someone took her by the arm—she thought it was Uncle Jepson—and she was led toward the door. At the threshold she paused, for Randerson's voice, cold and filled with deadly definiteness, reached her:
"Do you want to take his end of this?" Ruth turned. Randerson was pointing to Pickett's body, ghastly in its prone slackness. He was looking at Chavis.
Evidently Chavis elected not to avenge his friend at that moment. For there was a dead silence while one might have counted fifty. Then Ruth was drawn into the house.
WHAT UNCLE JEPSON HEARD
Every detail of the killing of Jim Pickett remained vivid in Ruth's recollection. She felt that she would never forget it. But her horror gradually abated, and at the end of a week she was able to look at Randerson without shuddering. During the week she had evaded him. And he, divining the state of her feelings, kept away from the house as much as possible.
Masten's demeanor on hearing of the insult that had been offered her by Pickett had seemed that of a man who was lacking in courage: at the time she had not been able to make it conform to her ideas of a man's duty to the woman he had promised to marry—or to any woman. She had heard him speak of reason in connection with the affair, as though there were no such thing in the world as rage so justifiable as to make a man yearn to inflict punishment upon another man who had attacked his woman. He had looked upon the matter cold-bloodedly, and she had resented that. But now that she had been avenged, she felt that she had been wrong. It had been such a trivial thing, after all; the punishment seemed monstrous in comparison with it. She had seen Pickett's movement when Randerson had momentarily turned his back to him, but she had also seen Randerson's retaliatory movement. She had known then, that Randerson had expected Pickett's action, and that he had been prepared for it, and therefore it seemed to her that in forcing the trouble Randerson had not only foreseen the ending but had even courted it.
Remorse over her momentary doubt of Masten's motive in refusing to call Pickett to account, afflicted her. He had been wiser than she; he had traced the line that divided reason from the primitive passions—man from beast. His only reference to the incident—a wordless one, which she felt was sufficiently eloquent—came when one day, while they were standing beside the corral fence, looking at the horses, they saw Randerson riding in. Masten nodded toward him and shook his head slowly from side to side, compressing his lips as he did so. And then, seeing her looking at him, he smiled compassionately, as though to say that he regretted the killing of Pickett as well as she.
She seized his arm impulsively.
"I was wrong, Willard," she said.
"Wrong, dear?" he said. "It wasn't your fault."
"But I thought—things about you that I shouldn't have thought. I felt that you ought to have punished Pickett. I am glad, now, that you didn't." She shuddered, and looked again at Randerson, just dismounting at the bunkhouse, paying no attention to them.
"Then you wouldn't have me like him?" He indicated Randerson.
"No," she said.
He gave her shoulder a slight pressure, and turning his head, smiled triumphantly.
Later, when they had walked to a far corner of the pasture, talking confidentially and laughing a little, he halted and drew her close to him.
"Ruth," he said, gently, "the world is going very well for you now. You are settled here, you like it, and things are running smoothly. Why not take a ride over to Lazette one of these days. There is a justice of the peace over there. It won't need to be a formal affair, you know. Just on the quiet—a sort of a lark. I have waited a long time," he coaxed.
She smiled at his earnestness. But that spark which he had tried in vain to fan into flame still smoldered. She felt no responsive impulse; a strange reluctance dragged at her.
"Wait, Willard," she said, "until after the fall round-up. There is no hurry. We are sure of each other."
They went on toward the ranchhouse. When they passed the bunkhouse, and through the open door saw Randerson and Uncle Jepson sitting on a bench smoking, Ruth quickened her step, and Masten made a grimace of hatred.
* * * * *
Inside the bunkhouse, Uncle Jepson, who had been speaking, paused long enough to wrinkle his nose at Masten. Randerson's expression did not change; it was one of grave expectancy.
"You was sayin'—" he prompted, looking at Uncle Jepson.
"That the whole darned deal was a frame-up," declared Uncle Jepson. "I was settin' in the messhouse along in the afternoon of the day of the killin'—smokin' an' thinkin', but most of the time just settin', I cal'late, when I heard Chavis an' Pickett talkin' low an' easy outside. They was a crack in the wall, an' I plastered one ear up ag'in it, an' took in all they was sayin'. First, they was talkin' about the bad feelin' between you an' Pickett. Pickett said he wanted to 'git' you, an' that Masten wanted to get you out of the way because of what you'd done to him at Calamity. But I reckon that ain't the real reason; he's got some idea that you an' Ruth—"
"Shucks," said Randerson impatiently.
"Anyway," grinned Uncle Jepson, "for some reason, he don't want you hangin' around. Far as I could gather, Pickett wanted some excuse to have you fire him, so's he could shoot you. He talked some to Masten about it, an' Masten told him to tackle Ruth, but not to get too rough about it, an' not to go too far."
"Great guns! The low-down, mean, sneakin'—" said Randerson. His eyes were glowing; his words came with difficulty through his straightened lips.
"Masten wouldn't take it up, he told Pickett," went on Uncle Jepson. "He'd put it up to you. An' when you'd tackle Pickett about it, Pickett would shoot you. If they was any chance for Chavis to help along, he'd do it. But mostly, Pickett was to do the job. I cal'late that's about all—except that I layed for you an' told you to look out."
"You heard this talk after—after Pickett had—"
"Of course," growled Uncle Jepson, a venomous flash in his eyes, slightly reproachful.
"Sure—of course," agreed Randerson. He was grim-eyed; there was cold contempt in the twist of his lips. He sat for a long time, silent, staring out through the door, Uncle Jepson watching him, subdued by the look in his eyes.
When he spoke at last, there was a cold, bitter humor in his voice.
"So that's Willard's measure!" he said. "He grades up like a side-winder slidin' under the sagebrush. There's nothin' clean about him but his clothes. But he's playin' a game—him an' Chavis. An' I'm the guy they're after!" He laughed, and Uncle Jepson shivered. "She's seen one killin', an' I reckon, if she stays here a while longer, she'll see another: Chavis'." He stopped and then went on: "Why, I reckon Chavis dyin' wouldn't make no more impression on her than Pickett dyin'. But I reckon she thinks a heap of Willard, don't she, Uncle Jep?" "If a girl promises—" began Uncle Jepson.
"I reckon—" interrupted Randerson. And then he shut his lips and looked grimly out at the horses in the corral.
"Do you reckon she'd—" Randerson began again, after a short silence. "No," he answered the question himself, "I reckon if you'd tell her she wouldn't believe you. No good woman will believe anything bad about the man she loves—or thinks she loves. But Willard—"
He got up, walked out the door, mounted Patches and rode away. Going to the door, Uncle Jepson watched him until he faded into the shimmering sunshine of the plains.
"I cal'late that Willard—"
But he, too, left his speech unfinished, as though thought had suddenly ceased, or speculation had become futile and ridiculous.
"SOMETHIN'S GONE OUT OF THEM"
As Randerson rode Patches through the break in the canyon wall in the afternoon of a day about a week after his talk with Uncle Jepson in the bunkhouse, he was thinking of the visit he intended to make. He had delayed it long. He had not seen Abe Catherson since taking his new job.
"I reckon he'll think I'm right unneighborly," he said to himself as he rode.
When he reached the nester's cabin, the dog Nig greeted him with vociferous affection, bringing Hagar to the door.
"Oh, it's Rex!" cried the girl delightedly. And then, reproachfully: "Me an' dad allowed you wasn't comin' any more!"
"You an' dad was a heap mistaken, then," he grinned as he dismounted and trailed the reins over the pony's head. "I've had a heap to 'tend to," he added as he stepped on the porch and came to a halt, looking at her. "Why, I reckon the little kid I used to know ain't here any more!" he said, his eyes alight with admiration, as he critically examined her garments from the distance that separated her from him—a neat house dress of striped gingham, high at the throat, the bottom hem reaching below her shoe-tops; a loose-fitting apron over the dress, drawn tightly at the waist, giving her figure graceful curves. He had never thought of Hagar in connection with beauty; he had been sorry for her, pitying her—she had been a child upon whom he had bestowed much of the unselfish devotion of his heart; indeed, there had been times when it had assumed a practical turn, and through various ruses much of his wages had been delicately forced upon the nester. It had not always been wisely expended, for he knew that Catherson drank deeply at times.
Now, however, Randerson realized that the years must inevitably make a change in Hagar. That glimpse he had had of her on the Flying W ranchhouse porch had made him think, but her appearance now caused him to think more deeply. It made constraint come into his manner.
"I reckon your dad ain't anywhere around?" he said.
"Dad's huntin' up some cattle this mornin'," she told him. "Shucks," she added, seeing him hesitate, "ain't you comin' in?"
"Why, I've been wonderin'" and he grinned guiltily "whether it'd be exactly proper. You see, there was a time when I busted right in the house without waitin' for an invitation—tickled to get a chance to dawdle a kid on my knee. But I reckon them dawdle-days is over. I wouldn't think of tryin' to dawdle a woman on my knee. But if you think that you're still Hagar Catherson, an' you won't be dead-set on me dawdlin' you—Why, shucks, I reckon I'm talkin' like a fool!" And his face blushed crimson.
Her face was red too, but she seemed to be less conscious of the change in herself than he, though her eyes drooped when he looked at her.
He followed her inside and formally took a chair, sitting on its edge and turning his hat over and over in his hands, looking much at it, as if it were new and he admired it greatly.
But this constraint between them was not the only thing that was new to him. While she talked, he sat and listened, and stole covert glances at her, and tried to convince himself that it was really Hagar that was sitting there before him.
But before long he grew accustomed to the strangeness of the situation, and constraint dropped from him. "Why, I reckon it's all natural," he confided to her. "Folks grow up, don't they? Take you. Yesterday you was a kid, an' I dawdled you on my knee. Today you're a woman, an' it makes me feel some breathless to look at you. But it's all natural. I'd been seein' you so much that I'd forgot that time was makin' a woman of you."
She blushed, and he marveled over it. "She can't see, herself, how she's changed," he told himself. And while they talked he studied her, noting that her color was higher than he had ever seen it, that the frank expression of her eyes had somehow changed—there was a glow in them, deep, abiding, embarrassed. They drooped from his when he tried to hold her gaze. He had always admired the frank directness of them—that told of unconsciousness of sex, of unquestioning trust. Today, it seemed to him, there was subtle knowledge in them. He was puzzled and disappointed. And when, half an hour later, he took his leave, after telling her that he would come again, to see her "dad," he took her by the shoulders and forced her to look into his eyes. His own searched hers narrowly. It was as in the old days—in his eyes she was still a child.
"I reckon I won't kiss you no more, Hagar," he said. "You ain't a kid no more, an' it wouldn't be square. Seventeen is an awful old age, ain't it?"
And then he mounted and rode down the trail, still puzzled over the lurking, deep glow in her eyes.
"I reckon I ain't no expert on women's eyes," he said as he rode. "But Hagar's—there's somethin' gone out of them."
He could not have reached the break in the canyon leading to the plains above the river, when Willard Masten loped his horse toward the Catherson cabin from an opposite direction.
Hagar was standing on the porch when he came, and her face flooded with color when she saw him. She stood, her eyes drooping with shy embarrassment as Masten dismounted and approached her. And then, as his arm went around her waist, familiarly, he whispered:
"How is my little woman today?"
She straightened and looked up at him, perplexity in her eyes.
"Rex Randerson was just hyeh," she said. "I wanted to tell him about you wantin' me to marry you. But I thought of what you told me, an' I didn't. Do you sure reckon he'd kill you, if he knowed?"
"He certainly would," declared Masten, earnestly. "No one—not even your father—must know that I come here to see you."
"I reckon I won't tell. But Miss Ruth? Are you sure she don't care for you any more?"
"Well," he lied glibly; "she has broken our engagement. But if she knew that I come here to see you she'd be jealous, you know. So it's better not to tell her. If you do tell her, I'll stop coming," he threatened.
"It's hard to keep from tellin' folks how happy I am," she said. "Once, I was afraid Rex Randerson could see it in my eyes—when he took a-hold of my arms hyeh, an' looked at me."
Masten looked jealously at her. "Looked at you, eh?" he said. "Are you sure he didn't try to do anything else—didn't do anything else? Like kissing you, for instance?"
"I'm certain sure," she replied, looking straight at him. "He used to kiss me. But he says I'm a woman, now, an' it wouldn't be square to kiss me any more." Her eyes had drooped from his.
"An' I reckon that's right, too, ain't it?" She looked up again, not receiving an answer. "Why, how red your face is!" she exclaimed. "I ain't said nothin' to hurt you, have I?"
"No," he said. But he held her tightly to him, her head on his shoulder, so that she might not see the guilt in his eyes.
THE LAW OF THE PRIMITIVE
Randerson continued his policy of not forcing himself upon Ruth. He went his way, silent, thoughtful, attending strictly to business. To Ruth, watching him when he least suspected it, it seemed that he had grown more grim and stern-looking since his coming to the Flying W. She saw him, sometimes, laughing quietly with Uncle Jepson; other times she heard him talking gently to Aunt Martha—with an expression that set her to wondering whether he were the same man that she had seen that day with the pistol in hand, shooting the life out of a fellow being. There were times when she wavered in her conviction of his heartlessness.
Since Ruth had announced her decision not to marry Masten until after the fall round-up, she had not seen so much of him. He rode alone, sometimes not even asking her to accompany him. These omissions worked no great hardship on her, for the days had grown hot and the plains dry and dusty, so that there was not so much enjoyment in riding as formerly. Besides, she knew the country rather well now, and had no need to depend upon Masten.
Chavis had severed his connection with the Flying W. He had ridden in to the ranchhouse some weeks ago, found Ruth sitting on the porch, announced that he was "quittin'" and wanted his "time." She did not ask him why he wanted to quit so pleased was she with his decision, but he advanced an explanation while she counted the money due him.
"Things don't suit me here," he said venomously. "Randerson is too fresh." He looked at her impudently. "Besides," he added, "he stands in too well with the boss."
She flushed with indignation. "You wouldn't dare say that to him!" she declared.
He reddened darkly. "Meanin' what he done to Pickett, I reckon," he sneered. "Well, Randerson will be gettin' his'n some day, too!"
Ruth remembered this conversation, and on a day about a month later when she had gone riding alone, she saw Randerson at a distance and rode toward him to tell him, for she had meant to, many times.
Evidently Randerson had seen her, too, for he had already altered his pony's course when she wheeled hers. When their ponies came to a halt near each other it was Randerson who spoke first. He looked at her unsmilingly over his pony's head.
"I was ridin' in to the house to see you, ma'am. I thought you ought to know. This mornin' the boys found two cows with their hoofs burned, an' their calves run off."
"Their hoofs burned!" she exclaimed. "Why, who would be so inhuman as to do that? But I suppose there was a fire somewhere, and it happened that way."
"There was a fire, all right," he said grimly. "Some one built it, on purpose. It was rustlers, ma'am. They burned the hoofs of the mothers so the mothers couldn't follow when they drove their calves off—like any mother would." He eyed her calmly. "I reckon it was Chavis, ma'am. He's got a shack down the crick a ways. He's been there ever since you paid him off. An' this mornin' two of the boys told me they wanted their time. I was goin' in to get it for them. It's likely they're goin' to join Chavis."
"Well, let them," she said indignantly. "If they are that kind of men, we don't want them around!"
He smiled now for the first time. "I reckon there ain't no way to stop them from goin', ma'am. An' we sure don't want them around. But when they go with Chavis, it's mighty likely that we'll miss more cattle."
She stiffened. "Come with me," she ordered; "they shall have their money right away."
She urged her pony on, and he fell in beside her, keeping his animal's muzzle near her stirrup. For he was merely an employee and was filled with respect for her.
"I suppose I could have Chavis charged with stealing those two calves?" she asked, as they rode. She looked back over her shoulder at him and slowed her pony down so that he came alongside.
"Why, yes, ma'am, I reckon you could. You could charge him with stealin' them. But that wouldn't prove it. We ain't got any evidence, you see. We found the cows, with the calves gone. We know that Chavis is in the country, but we didn't see him doin' the stealin'; we only think he done it."
"If I should complain to the sheriff?"
"You could do that, ma'am. But I reckon it's a waste of time."
"Well, you see, ma'am, the sheriff in this county don't amount to a heap—considered as a sheriff. He mostly draws his salary an' keeps out of trouble, much as he can. There ain't no court in the county nearer than Las Vegas, an' that's a hundred an' fifty miles from here. An', mostly, the court don't want to be bothered with hearin' rustler cases—there bein' no regular law governin' them, an' conviction bein' hard to get. So the sheriff don't bother."
"But there must be some way to stop them from stealing!" she said sharply.
"I reckon there's a way, ma'am." And now she heard him laugh, quietly, and again she turned and looked at him. His face grew grave again, instantly. "But I reckon you wouldn't approve of it, ma'am," he added.
"I would approve of most any method of stopping them—within reason!" she declared vindictively, nettled by his tone.
"We mostly hang them, ma'am," he said. "That's a sure way of stoppin' them."
She shuddered. "Do you mean that you hang them without a court verdict—on your own responsibility?"
"That's the way, ma'am."
"But doesn't the sheriff punish men who hang others in that manner?" she went on in tones of horror.
His voice was quietly humorous. "Them sort of hangin's ain't advertised a heap. It's hard to find anybody that will admit he had a hand in it. Nobody knows anything about it. But it's done, an' can't be undone. An' the rustlin' stops mighty sudden."
"Oh," she exclaimed, "what a barbarous custom!"
"I reckon it ain't exactly barbarous, ma'am," he contended mildly. "Would you have the rustlers go on stealin' forever, an' not try to stop them?"
"There are the courts," she insisted.
"Turnin' rustlers off scot-free, ma'am. They can't hold them. An' if a rustler is hung, he don't get any more than is comin' to him. Do you reckon there's a lot of difference between a half dozen men hangin' a man for a crime he's done, than for one man, a judge for instance, orderin' him to be hung? If, we'll say, a hundred men elect a judge to do certain things, is it any more wrong for the hundred men to do them things than for the man they've elected to do them? I reckon not, ma'am. Of course, if the hundred men did somethin' that the judge hadn't been elected to do, why then, it might make some difference."
"But you say there is no law that provides hanging for rustling." She thought she had him.
"The men that elected the judge made the laws," he said. "They have a right to make others, whenever they're needed."
"That's mob law," she said with a shiver. "What would become of the world if that custom were followed everywhere?"
"I wouldn't say that it would be a good thing everywhere. Where there's courts that can be got at easy, there'd be no sense to it. But out here there's no other way for a man to protect his property. He's got to take the law into his own hands."
"It is a crude and cold-blooded way."
She heard him laugh, and turned to see him looking at her in amusement.
"There ain't no refinement in punishment, ma'am. Either it's got to shock some one or not get done at all. I reckon that back East you don't get to see anyone punished, or hung. You hear about it, or you read about it, an' it don't seem so near you, an' that kind of takes the edge off it. Out here it comes closer, an' it seems a lot cruel. But whether a man's punished by the law or by the men who make the law wouldn't make a lot of difference to the man—he'd be punished anyway."
"We won't talk about it any further," she said. "But understand, if there are any cattle thieves caught on the Flying W they must not be hanged. You must capture them, if possible, and take them to the proper officials, that they may have a fair trial. And we shall abide by the court's decision. I don't care to have any more murders committed here."
His face paled. "Referrin' to Pickett, I reckon, ma'am?" he said.
"Yes." She flung the monosyllable back at him resentfully.
She felt him ride close to her, and she looked at him and saw that his face was grimly serious.
"I ain't been thinkin' of the killin' of Pickett as murder, ma'am. Pickett had it comin' to him. You was standin' on the porch, an' I reckon you used your eyes. If you did, you saw Pickett try to pull his gun on me when my back was turned. It was either him or me, ma'am."
"You anticipated that he would try to shoot you," she charged. "Your actions showed that."
"Why, I reckon I did. You see, I've knowed Pickett for a long time."
"I was watching you from an upstairs window," she went on. "I saw you when you struck Pickett with your fist. You drew your pistol while he was on the ground. You had the advantage—you might have taken his pistol away from him, and prevented any further trouble. Instead, you allowed him to keep it. You expected he would try to shoot you, and you deliberately gave him an opportunity, relying upon your quickness in getting your own pistol out."
"I give him his chance, ma'am."
"His chance." There was derision in her voice. "I have talked to some of the men about you. They say you are the cleverest of any man in this vicinity with a weapon. You deliberately planned to kill him!"
He rode on, silently, a glint of cold humor in his eyes. He might now have confounded her with the story of Masten's connection with the affair, but he had no intention of telling her. Masten had struck the blow at him—Masten it must be, who would be struck back.
However, he was disturbed over her attitude. He did not want her to think that he had killed Pickett in pure wantonness, for he had not thought of shooting the man until Uncle Jepson had warned him.
"I've got to tell you this, ma'am," he said, riding close to her. "One man's life is as good as another's in this country. But it ain't any better. The law's too far away to monkey with—law like you're used to. The gun a man carries is the only law anyone here pays any attention to. Every man knows it. Nobody makes any mistakes about it, unless it's when they don't get their gun out quick enough. An' that's the man's fault that pulls the gun. There ain't no officials to do any guardin' out here; you've got to do it yourself or it don't get done. A man can't take too many chances—an' live to tell about it. When you know a man's lookin' for you, yearnin' to perforate you, it's just a question of who can shoot the quickest an' the straightest. In the case of Pickett, I happened to be the one. It might have been Pickett. If he wasn't as fast as me in slingin' his gun, why, he oughtn't to have taken no chance. He'd have been plumb safe if he'd have forgot all about his gun. I don't reckon that I'd have pined away with sorrow if I hadn't shot him."
She was much impressed with his earnestness, and she looked quickly at him, nearly convinced. But again the memory of the tragic moment became vivid in her thoughts, and she shuddered.
"It's too horrible to think of!" she declared.
"I reckon it's no picnic," he admitted. "I ain't never been stuck on shootin' men. I reckon I didn't sleep a heap for three nights after I shot Pickett. I kept seein' him, an' pityin' him. But I kept tellin' myself that it had to be either him or me, an' I kind of got over it. Pickett would have it, ma'am. When I turned my back to him I was hopin' that he wouldn't try to play dirt on me. Do you reckon he oughtn't to have been made to tell you that he had been wrong in tacklin' you? Why, ma'am, I kind of liked Pickett. He wasn't all bad. He was one of them kind that's easy led, an' he wasn't a heap responsible; he fell in with the wrong kind of men—men like Chavis. I've took a lot from Pickett."
"You might have shown him in some other way that you liked him," she said with unsmiling sarcasm. "It seems to me that men who go about thinking of shooting each other must have a great deal of the brute in them."
"Meanin' that they ain't civilized, I reckon?"
"Yes. Mr. Masten had the right view. He refused to resort to the methods you used in bringing Pickett to account. He is too much a gentleman to act the savage."
For an instant Randerson's eyes lighted with a deep fire. And then he smiled mirthlessly.
"I reckon Mr. Masten ain't never had anybody stir him up right proper," he said mildly. "It takes different things to get a man riled so's he'll fight—or a woman, either. Either of 'em will fight when the right thing gets them roused. I expect that deep down in everybody is a little of that brute that you're talkin' about. I reckon you'd fight like a tiger, ma'am, if the time ever come when you had to."
"I never expect to kill anybody," she declared, coldly.
"You don't know what you'll do when the time comes, ma'am. You've been livin' in a part of the country where things are done accordin' to hard an' fast rules. Out here things run loose, an' if you stay here long enough some day you'll meet them an' recognize them for your own—an' you'll wonder how you ever got along without them." He looked at her now with a subtle grin. But his words were direct enough, and his voice rang earnestly as he went on: "Why, I reckon you've never been tuned up to nature, ma'am. Have you ever hated anybody real venomous?"
"I have been taught differently," she shot back at him. "I have never hated anybody."
"Then you ain't never loved anybody, ma'am. You'd be jealous of the one you loved, an' you'd hate anybody you saw makin' eyes at them."
"Well, of all the odd ideas!" she said. She was so astonished at the turn his talk had taken that she halted her pony and faced him, her cheeks coloring.
"I don't reckon it's any odd idea, ma'am. Unless human nature is an odd idea, an' I reckon it's about the oldest thing in the world, next to love an' hate." He grinned at her unblushingly, and leaned against the saddle horn.
"I reckon you ain't been a heap observin', ma'am," he said frankly, but very respectfully. "You'd have seen that odd idea worked out many times, if you was. With animals an' men it's the same. A kid—which you won't claim don't love its mother—is jealous of a brother or a sister which it thinks is bein' favored more than him, an' if the mother don't show that she's pretty square in dealin' with the two, there's bound to be hate born right there. What do you reckon made Cain kill his brother, Abel?
"Take a woman—a wife. Some box-heads, when their wife falls in love with another man, give her up like they was takin' off an old shoe, sayin' they love her so much that they want to see her happy—which she can't be, she says, unless she gets the other man. But don't you go to believin' that kind of fairy romance, ma'am. When a man is so willin' to give up his wife to another man he's sure got a heap tired of her an' don't want her any more. He's got his eye peeled for Number Two, an' he's thankin' his wife's lover for makin' the trail clear for the matrimonial wagon. But givin' up Number One to the other man gives him a chance to pose a lot, an' mebbe it's got a heap of effect on Number Two, who sort of thinks that if she gets tied up to such a sucker she'll be able to wrap him around her finger. But if he loves Number Two, he'll be mighty grumpy to the next fellow that goes to makin' sheeps eyes at her."
"That is a highly original view," she said, laughing, feeling that she ought to be offended, but disarmed by his ingenuousness. "And so you think that love and hate are inseparable passions."
"I reckon you can't know what real love is unless you have hated, ma'am. Some folks say they get through life without hatin' anybody, but if you'll look around an' watch them, you'll find they're mostly an unfeelin' kind. You ain't one of them kind, ma'am. I've watched you, an' I've seen that you've got a heap of spirit. Some of these days you're goin' to wake up. An' when you do, you'll find out what love is."
"Don't you think I love Mr. Masten?" she said, looking at him unwaveringly.
He looked as fairly back at her. "I don't reckon you do, ma'am. Mebbe you think so, but you don't."
"What makes you think so?" she demanded, defiantly.
"Why, the way you look at him, ma'am. If I was engaged to a girl an' she looked at me as critical as you look at him, sometimes, I'd sure feel certain that I'd drawed the wrong card."
Still her eyes did not waver. She began to sense his object in introducing this subject, and she was determined to make him feel that his conclusions were incorrect—as she knew they were.
"That is an example of your wonderful power of observation," she said, "the kind you were telling me about, which makes you able to make such remarkable deductions. But if you are no more correct in the others than you are in trying to determine the state of my feelings toward Mr. Masten, you are entirely wrong. I do love Mr. Masten!"
She spoke vehemently, for she thought herself very much in earnest.
But he grinned. "You're true blue," he said, "an' you've got the grit to tell where you stand. But you're mistaken. You couldn't love Masten."
"Why?" she said, so intensely curious that she entirely forgot to think of his impertinence in talking thus to her. "Why can't I love Mr. Masten?"
He laughed, and reddened. "Because you're goin' to love me, ma'am," he said, gently.
She would have laughed if she had not felt so indignant. She would have struck him as she had struck Chavis had she not been positive that behind his words was the utmost respect—that he did not intend to be impertinent—that he seemed as natural as he had been all along. She would have exhibited scorn if she could have summoned it. She did nothing but stare at him in genuine amazement. She was going to be severe with him, but the mild humor of his smile brought confusion upon her.
"You don't lack conceit, whatever your other shortcomings," she managed, her face rosy.
"Well now, I'm thankin' you, ma'am, for lettin' me off so easy," he said. "I was expectin' you'd be pretty hard on me for talkin' that way. I've been wonderin' what made me say it. I expect it's because I've been thinkin' it so strong. Anyway, it's said, an' I can't take it back. I wouldn't want to, for I was bound to tell you some time, anyway. I reckon it ain't conceit that made me say it. I've liked you a heap ever since I got hold of your picture."
"So that is where the picture went!" she said. "I have been hunting high and low for it. Who gave it to you?"
"Wes Vickers, ma'am." There was disgust in his eyes. "I never meant to mention it, ma'am; that was a slip of the tongue. But when I saw the picture, I knowed I was goin' to love you. There ain't nothin' happened yet to show that you won't think a lot of me, some day."
"You frighten me," she mocked.
"I reckon you ain't none frightened," he laughed. "But I expect you're some disturbed—me sayin' what I've said while you're engaged to Masten. I'm apologizing ma'am. You be loyal to Masten—as I know you'd be, anyway. An' some day, when you've broke off with him, I'll come a-courtin'."
"So you're sure that I'm going to break my engagement with Masten, are you?" she queried, trying her best to be scornful, but not succeeding very well. "How do you know that?"
"There's somethin' that you don't see that's been tellin' me, ma'am. Mebbe some day that thing will be tellin' you the same stuff, an' then you'll understand," he said enigmatically.
"Well," she said, pressing her lips together as though this were to be her last word on the subject; "I have heard that the wilderness sometimes makes people dream strange dreams, and I suppose yours is one of them." She wheeled her pony and sent it scampering onward toward the ranchhouse.
He followed, light of heart, for while she had taunted him, she had also listened to him, and he felt that progress had been made.
Randerson had been in no hurry to make an attempt to catch the rustlers whose depredations he had reported to Ruth. He had told the men to be doubly alert to their work, and he had hired two new men—from the Diamond H—to replace those who had left the Flying W. His surmise that they wanted to join Chavis had been correct, for the two new men—whom he had put on special duty and had been given permission to come and go when they pleased—had reported this fact to him. There was nothing to do, however, but to wait, in the hope that one day the rustlers would attempt to run cattle off when one or more of the men happened to be in the vicinity. And then, if the evidence against the rustlers were convincing enough, much would depend on the temper of himself and the men as to whether Ruth's orders that there should be no hanging would be observed. There would be time enough to decide that question if any rustlers were caught.
He had seen little of the Easterner during the past two or three weeks. Masten rarely showed himself on the range any more—to Randerson's queries about him the men replied that they hadn't seen him. But Randerson was thinking very little about Masten as he rode through the brilliant sunshine this afternoon. He was going again to Catherson's, to see Hagar. Recollections of the change that had come over the girl were disquieting, and he wanted to talk to her again to determine whether she really had changed, or whether he had merely fancied it.
Far down the river he crossed at a shallow ford, entered a section of timber, and loped Patches slowly through this. He found a trail that he had used several times before, when he had been working for the Diamond H and necessity or whim had sent him this way, and rode it, noting that it seemed to have been used much, lately.
"I reckon old Abe's poundin' his horses considerable. Why, it's right plain," he added, after a little reflection, "this here trail runs into the Lazette trail, down near the ford. An' Abe's wearin' it out, ridin' to Lazette for red-eye. I reckon if I was Abe, I'd quit while the quittin's good." He laughed, patting Patches' shoulder. "Shucks, a man c'n see another man's faults pretty far, but his own is pretty near invisible. You've rode the Lazette trail a heap, too, Patches," he said, "when your boss was hittin' red-eye. We ain't growin' no angels' wings, Patches, which would give us the right to go to criticizin' others."
Presently he began to ride with more caution, for he wanted to surprise Hagar. A quarter of a mile from the cabin he brought Patches to a halt on a little knoll and looked about him. He had a good view of the cabin in the clearing, and he watched it long, for signs of life. He saw no such signs.
"Abe's out putterin' around, an' Hagar's nappin', I reckon—or tryin' on her new dresses," he added as an after-thought.
He was about to ride on, when a sound reached his ears, and he drew the reins tight on Patches and sat rigid, alert, listening.
The perfect silence of the timber was unbroken. He had almost decided that his ears had played him a trick when the sound came again, nearer than before—the sound of voices. Quickly and accurately he determined from which direction they came, and he faced that way, watching a narrow path that led through the timber to a grass plot not over a hundred feet from him, from which he was screened by some thick-growing brush at his side.
He grinned, fully expecting to see Abe and Hagar on the path presently. "Abe's behavin' today," he told himself as he waited. "I'll sure surprise them, if—"
Suddenly he drew his breath sharply, his teeth came together viciously, and his brows drew to a frown, his eyes gleaming coldly underneath. For he saw Willard Masten coming along the path, smiling and talking, and beside him, his arm around her waist, also smiling, but with her head bent forward a little, was Hagar Catherson.
The color slowly left Randerson's face as he watched. He had no nice scruples about eavesdropping at this moment—here was no time for manners; the cold, contemptuous rage that fought within him was too deep and gripping to permit of any thought that would not center about the two figures on the path. He watched them, screened by the brush, with the deadly concentration of newly aroused murder-lust. Once, as he saw them halt at the edge of the grass plot, and he observed Masten draw Hagar close to him and kiss her, his right hand dropped to the butt of his pistol at his right hip, and he fingered it uncertainly. He drew the hand away at last, though, with a bitter, twisting smile.
Five minutes later, his face still stony and expressionless, he dismounted lightly and with infinite care and caution led Patches away from the knoll and far back into the timber. When he was certain there was no chance of his being seen or heard by Masten and Hagar, he mounted, urged Patches forward and made a wide detour which brought him at length to the path which had been followed by Masten and Hagar in reaching the grass plot. He loped the pony along this path, and presently he came upon them—Hagar standing directly in the path, watching him, red with embarrassment which she was trying hard to conceal; Masten standing on the grass plot near her, staring into the timber opposite; Randerson, trying to appear unconcerned and making a failure of it.
"It's Rex!" ejaculated the girl. Her hands had been clasped in front of her; they dropped to her sides when she saw Randerson, and her fingers began to twist nervously into the edges of her apron. A deep breath, which was almost a sigh of relief, escaped her. "I thought it was Dad!" she said.
Evidently Masten had likewise expected the horseman to be her father, for at her exclamation he turned swiftly. His gaze met Randerson's, his shoulders sagged a little, his eyes wavered and shifted from the steady ones that watched him.
His composure returned quickly, however, and he smiled blandly, but there was a trace of derision in his voice:
"You've strayed off your range, haven't you, Randerson?" he said smoothly.
"Why, I reckon I have." Randerson's voice was low, almost gentle, and he smiled mildly at Hagar, who blushingly returned it but immediately looked downward.
"I expect dad must be gone somewhere—that you're lookin' for him," Randerson said. "I thought mebbe I'd ketch him here."
"He went to Red Rock this mornin'," said the girl. She looked up, and this time met Randerson's gaze with more confidence, for his pretense of casualness had set her fears at rest. "Mr. Masten come over to see him, too."
The lie came hesitatingly through her lips. She looked at Masten as though for confirmation, and the latter nodded.
"Catherson is hard to catch," he said. "I've been over here a number of times, trying to see him." His voice was a note too high, and Randerson wondered whether, without the evidence of his eyes, he would have suspected Masten. He decided that he would, and his smile was a trifle grim.
"I reckon Catherson is a regular dodger," he returned. "He's always gallivantin' around the country when somebody wants to see him." He smiled gently at Hagar, with perhaps just a little pity.
"It's getting along in the afternoon, Hagar," he said. "Dad ought to be amblin' back here before long." His face grew grave at the frightened light in her eyes when he continued: "I reckon me an' Masten better wait for him, so's he won't dodge us any more." He cast a glance around him. "Where's your cayuse?" he said to Masten.
"I left him down near the ford," returned the other.
"Right on your way back to the Flyin' W," said Randerson, as though the discovery pleased him. "I'm goin' to the Flyin' W, too, soon as I see Catherson. I reckon, if you two ain't got no particular yearnin' to go prowlin' around in the timber any longer, we'll all go back to Catherson's shack an' wait for him there. Three'll be company, while it'd be mighty lonesome for one."
Masten cleared his throat and looked intently at Randerson's imperturbable face. Did he know anything? A vague unrest seized Masten. Involuntarily he shivered, and his voice was a little hoarse when he spoke, though he attempted to affect carelessness:
"I don't think I will wait for Catherson," he said, "I can see him tomorrow, just as well."
"Well, that's too bad," drawled Randerson. "After waitin' this long, too! But I reckon you're right; it wouldn't be no use waitin'. I'll go too, I reckon. We'll ride to the Flyin' W together."
"I don't want to force my company on you, Randerson," laughed Masten nervously. "Besides, I had thought of taking the river trail—back toward Lazette, you know."
Randerson looked at him with a cold smile. "The Lazette trail suits me too," he said; "we'll go that way."
Masten looked at him again. The smile on Randerson's face was inscrutable. And now the pallor left Masten's cheeks and was succeeded by a color that burned. For he now was convinced and frightened. He heard Randerson speaking to Hagar, and so gentle was his voice that it startled him, so great was the contrast between it and the slumbering threat in his eyes and manner:
"Me an' Masten is goin' to make a short cut over to where his horse is, Hagar; we've changed our minds about goin' to the shack with you. We've decided that we're goin' to talk over that business that he come here about—not botherin' your dad with it." His lips straightened at the startled, dreading look that sprang into her eyes. "Dad ain't goin' to know, girl," he assured her gravely. "I'd never tell him. You go back to the shack an' pitch into your work, sort of forgettin' that you ever saw Mr. Masten. For he's goin' away tonight, an' he ain't comin' back."
Hagar covered her face with her hands and sank into the grass beside the path, crying.
"By God, Randerson!" blustered Masten, "what do you mean? This is going too—"
A look silenced him—choked the words in his throat, and he turned without protest, at Randerson's jerk of the head toward the ford, and walked without looking back, Randerson following on Patches.
When they reached the narrow path that led to the crossing, just before entering the brush Randerson looked back. Hagar was still lying in the grass near the path. A patch of sunlight shone on her, and so clear was the light that Randerson could plainly see the spasmodic movement of her shoulders. His teeth clenched tightly, and the muscles of his face corded as they had done in the Flying W ranchhouse the day that Aunt Martha had told him of Pickett's attack on Ruth.
He watched silently while Masten got on his horse, and then, still silent, he followed as Masten rode down the path, across the river, through the break in the canyon wall and up the slope that led to the plains above. When they reached a level space in some timber that fringed the river, Masten attempted to urge his horse through it, but was brought to a halt by Randerson's voice:
"We'll get off here, Masten."
Masten turned, his face red with wrath.
"Look here, Randerson," he bellowed; "this ridiculous nonsense has gone far enough. I know, now, that you were spying on us. I don't know why, unless you'd selected the girl yourself—"
"That's ag'in you too," interrupted Randerson coldly. "You're goin' to pay."
"You're making a lot of fuss about the girl," sneered Masten. "A man—"
"You're a heap careless with words that you don't know the meanin' of," said Randerson. "We don't raise men out here that do things like you do. An' I expect you're one in a million. They all can't be like you, back East; if they was, the East would go to hell plenty rapid. Get off your horse!"
Masten demurred, and Randerson's big pistol leaped into his hand. His voice came at the same instant, intense and vibrant:
"It don't make no difference to me how you get off!"
He watched Masten get down, and then he slid to the ground himself, the pistol still in hand, and faced Masten, with only three or four feet of space separating them.
Masten had been watching him with wide, fearing eyes, and at the menace of his face when he dismounted Masten shrank back a step.
"Good Heavens, man, do you mean to shoot me?" he said, the words faltering and scarcely audible.
"I reckon shootin' would be too good for you." Again Randerson's face had taken on that peculiar stony expression. Inexorable purpose was written on it; what he was to do he was in no hurry to be about, but it would be done in good time.
"I ain't never claimed to be no angel," he said. "I reckon I'm about the average, an' I've fell before temptation same as other men. But I've drawed the line where you've busted over it. Mebbe if it was some other girl, I wouldn't feel it like I do about Hagar. But when I tell you that I've knowed that girl for about five years, an' that there wasn't a mean thought in her head until you brought your dirty carcass to her father's shack, an' that to me she's a kid in spite of her long dresses and her newfangled furbelows, you'll understand a heap about how I feel right now. Get your paws up, for I'm goin' to thrash you so bad that your own mother won't know you—if she's so misfortunate as to be alive to look at you! After that, you're goin' to hit the breeze out of this country, an' if I ever lay eyes on you ag'in I'll go gunnin' for you!"
While he had been speaking he had holstered the pistol, unstrapped his cartridge belt and let guns and belt fall to the ground. Then without warning he drove a fist at Masten's face.
The Easterner dodged the blow, evaded him, and danced off, his face alight with a venomous joy. For the dreaded guns were out of Randerson's reach, he was a fair match for Randerson in weight, though Randerson towered inches above him; he had had considerable experience in boxing at his club in the East, and he had longed for an opportunity to avenge himself for the indignity that had been offered him at Calamity. Besides, he had a suspicion that Ruth's refusal to marry before the fall round-up had been largely due to a lately discovered liking for the man who was facing him.
"I fancy you'll have your work cut out for you, you damned meddler!" he sneered as he went in swiftly, with a right and left, aimed at Randerson's face.
The blows landed, but seemingly had no effect, for Randerson merely gritted his teeth and pressed forward. In his mind was a picture of a girl whom he had "dawdled" on his knee—a "kid" that he had played with, as a brother might have played with a younger sister.
At about the time Randerson was crossing the river near the point where the path leading to Catherson's shack joined the Lazette trail, Ruth Harkness was loping her pony rapidly toward him. They passed each other within a mile, but both were unconscious of this fact, for Randerson was riding in the section of timber that he had entered immediately after crossing the river, and Ruth was concealed from his view by a stretch of intervening brush and trees.
Ruth had been worried more than she would have been willing to admit, over the presence of Chavis and his two men in the vicinity, and that morning after she had questioned a puncher about the former Flying W foreman, she had determined to ride down the river for the purpose of making a long distance observation of the "shack" the puncher and Randerson had mentioned as being inhabited by Chavis. That determination had not been acted upon until after dinner, however, and it was nearly two o'clock when she reached the ford where she had passed Randerson.
The puncher had told her that Chavis' shack was about fifteen miles distant from the Flying W ranchhouse, and situated in a little basin near the river, which could be approached only by riding down a rock-strewn and dangerous declivity. She had no intention of risking the descent; she merely wanted to view the place from afar, and she judged that from the edge of a plateau, which the puncher had described to her, she would be able to see very well.
When she passed the ford near the Lazette trail, she felt a sudden qualm of misgiving, for she had never ridden quite that far alone—the ford was about ten miles from the ranchhouse—but she smiled at the sensation, conquering it, and continued on her way, absorbed in the panoramic view of the landscape.
At a distance of perhaps a mile beyond the ford she halted the pony on the crest of a low hill and looked about her. The country at this point was broken and rocky; there was much sand; the line of hills, of which the one on which her pony stood was a part, were barren and uninviting. There was much cactus. She made a grimace of abhorrence at a clump that grew near her in an arid stretch, and then looked beyond it at a stretch of green. Far away on a gentle slope she saw some cattle, and looking longer, she observed a man on a horse. One of the Flying W men, of course, she assured herself, and felt more secure.
She rode on again, following a ridge, the pony stepping gingerly. Another half mile and she urged the pony down into a slight depression where the footing was better. The animal made good progress here, and after a while they struck a level, splotched with dry bunch-grass, which rustled noisily under the tread of the pony's hoofs.
It was exhilarating here, for presently the level became a slope, and the slope merged into another level which paralleled the buttes along the river, and she could see for miles on the other side of the stream, a vista of plain and hills and mountains and forest so alluring in its virgin wildness; so vast, big, and silent a section that it awed her.
When she saw the sun swimming just above the peaks of some mountains in the dim distance, she began to have some doubts of the wisdom of making the trip, but she pressed on, promising herself that she would have a brief look at the shack and the basin, and then immediately return. She had expected to make much better time than she had made. Also, she had not anticipated that a fifteen-mile ride would tire her so. But she believed that it was not the ride so far, but the prospect of another fifteen-mile ride to return, that appalled her—for she had ridden much since her coming to the Flying W, and was rather hardened to it. In one of his letters to her, her uncle had stated that his men often rode sixty miles in a day, and that he remembered one ride of ninety miles, which a cowpuncher had made with the same pony in twenty-two hours of straight riding. He had told her that the tough little plains pony could go any distance that its rider was able to "fork" it. She believed that, for the little animal under her had never looked tired when she had ridden him to the ranchhouse at the end of a hard day.
But these recollections did not console her, and she urged the pony on, into a gallop that took her over the ground rapidly.
At last, as she was swept around a bend in the plateau, she saw spreading beneath her a little valley, green-carpeted, beautiful. A wood rose near the river, and at its edge she saw what she had come to see—Chavis' shack.
And now she realized that for all the knowledge that a look at Chavis' shack would give her, she might as well have stayed at the Flying W. She didn't know just what she had expected to see when she got here, but what she did see was merely the building, a small affair with a flat roof, the spreading valley itself, and several steers grazing in it.
There were no other signs of life. She got off the pony and walked to the edge of the plateau, discovering that the valley was much shallower than she thought it would be, and that at her side, to the left, was the declivity that the puncher had told her about. She leaned over the edge and looked at it.
It was not so steep as she had expected when listening to the puncher's description of it. But she thought it looked dangerous. At the point from which she viewed it, it was not more than fifteen or twenty feet below her. It cut into the plateau, running far back and doubling around toward her, and the stretch below her, that was within range of her eyes, was almost level. The wall of the cut on which she stood was ragged and uneven, with some scraggly brush thrusting out between the crevices of rocks, and about ten feet down was a flat rock, like a ledge, that projected several feet out over the level below.
She was about to turn, for she had seen all she cared to see, when an impulse of curiosity urged her to crane her neck to attempt to peer around a shoulder of the cut where it doubled back. She started and turned pale, not so much from fright as with surprise, for she saw a horse's head projecting around the shoulder of the cut, and the animal was looking directly at her. As she drew back, her breath coming fast, the animal whinnied gently.
Almost instantly, she heard a man's voice:
"My cayuse is gettin' tired of loafin', I reckon." Ruth held her breath. The voice seemed to come from beneath her feet—she judged that it really had come from beneath the rock that projected from the wall of the cut below her. And it was Chavis' voice!
Of course, he would not be talking to himself, and therefore there must be another man with him. At the risk of detection, and filled with an overwhelming curiosity to hear more she kneeled at the edge of the cut and listened intently, first making sure that the horse she had seen could not see her.
"I reckon Linton didn't pull it off—or them Flyin' W guys are stickin' close to the herd," said another voice. "He ought to have been here an hour ago."
"Linton ain't no rusher," said Chavis. "We'll wait."
There was a silence. Then Chavis spoke again:
"Flyin' W stock is particular easy to run off. Did I tell you? B—— told me"—Ruth did not catch the name, she thought it might have been Bennet, or Ben—"that the girl had give orders that anyone ketched runnin' off Flyin' W stock wasn't to be hung!" Ruth heard him chuckle. "Easy boss, eh, Kester?" He sneered. "Ketch that damned Flyin' W outfit hangin' anybody!"
Kester was one of the men who had quit the day that Ruth had met Randerson, when the latter had been riding in for the money due them. It did not surprise Ruth to discover that Kester was with Chavis, for Randerson had told her what might be expected of him. Linton was the other man.
Nor did it surprise Ruth to hear Chavis talking of stealing the Flying W stock. But it angered her to discover that her humane principles were being ridiculed; she was so incensed at Chavis that she felt she could remain to hear him no longer, and she got up, her face red, her eyes flashing, to go to her pony.
But the pony was nowhere in sight. She remembered now, her heart sinking with a sudden, vague fear, that she had neglected to trail the reins over the animal's head, as she had been instructed to do by the puncher who had gentled the pony for her; he had told her that no western horse, broken by an experienced rider, would stray with a dragging rein.
She gave a quick, frightened glance around. She could see clearly to the broken section of country through which she had passed some time before, and her glance went to the open miles of grass land that stretched south of her. The pony had not gone that way, either. Trembling from a sudden weakness, but driven by the urge of stern necessity, she advanced cautiously to the edge of the cut again and looked over.
Her pony was standing on the level below her, almost in front of the rock under which had been Chavis and Kester! It had evidently just gone down there, for at the instant she looked over the edge of the cut she saw Chavis and Kester running toward it, muttering with surprise.
For one wild, awful instant, Ruth felt that she would faint, for the world reeled around her in dizzying circles. A cold dread that seized her senses helped her to regain control of herself presently, however, and scarcely breathing she stole behind some dense weeds at the edge of the cut, murmuring a prayer of thankfulness for their presence.
What Chavis and Kester had said upon seeing the pony, she had not heard. But now she saw crafty smiles on their faces; Chavis' was transfigured by an expression that almost drew a cry of horror from her. Through the weeds she could see their forms, and even hear the subdued exclamation from Chavis:
"It's the girl's cayuse, sure. I'd know it if I saw it in the Cannibal islands. I reckon she's been snoopin' around here somewheres, an' it's sloped! Why, Kester!" he cried, standing erect and drawing great, long breaths, his eyes blazing with passion as for an instant she saw them as they swept along the edge of the cut, "I'd swing for a kiss from them lips of hers!"
"You're a fool!" declared Kester. "Let the women alone! I never knowed a man to monkey with one yet, that he didn't get the worst of it."
Chavis paid no attention to this remonstrance. He seized Ruth's pony by the bridle and began to lead it up the slope toward the plateau. Kester laid a restraining hand on his arm. He spoke rapidly; he seemed to have become, in a measure, imbued with the same passion that had taken possession of Chavis.
"Leave the cayuse here; she'll be huntin' for it, directly; she'll come right down here. Give her time."
Chavis, however, while he obeyed the suggestion about leaving the pony where it was, did not follow Kester's suggestion about waiting, but began to run up the slope toward the plateau, scrambling and muttering. And Kester, after a short instant of silent contemplation, followed him.
Ruth no longer trembled. She knew that if she was to escape from the two men she would have to depend entirely upon her own wit and courage, and in this crisis she was cool and self-possessed. She waited until she saw the two men vanish behind the shoulder of the cut where she had seen the horse's head, and then she clambered over the edge of the wall, grasping some gnarled branches, and letting herself slide quickly down. In an instant she felt her feet come in contact with the flat rock under which the men had been when she had first heard them talking. It seemed a great distance to the ground from the rock, but she took the jump bravely, not even shutting her eyes. She landed on all fours and pitched headlong, face down, in the dust, but was up instantly and running toward her pony.
Seizing the bridle, she looped it through her arm, and then, pulling at the animal, she ran to where the horses of the two men stood, watching her, and snorting with astonishment and fright. With hands that trembled more than a little, she threw the reins over their heads, so that they might not drag, and then, using the quirt, dangling from her wrist by a rawhide thong, she turned their heads toward the declivity and lashed them furiously. She watched them as they went helter-skelter, down into the valley, and then with a smile that might have been grim if it had not been so quavering, she mounted her own animal and rode it cautiously up the slope toward the plateau.
As she reached the plateau, her head rising above its edge, she saw that Chavis and Kester were a good quarter of a mile from her and running toward some timber a few hundred yards beyond them.
With a laugh that was almost derisive, Ruth whipped her pony and sent it flying over the plateau at an angle that took her almost directly away from the running men. She had been riding only a minute or two, however, when she heard a shout, and saw that the men had stopped and were facing in her direction, waving their hands at her. They looked grotesque—like jumping jacks—in the sudden twilight that had fallen, and she could not withhold a smile of triumph. It did not last long, for she saw the men begin to run again, this time toward the cut, and she urged her pony to additional effort, fearful that the men might gain their ponies and overtake her.
And now that the men were behind her, she squared her pony toward the trail over which she had ridden to come here, determined to follow it, for she felt that she knew it better than any other.
The pony ran well, covering the ground with long, agile jumps. For about two miles she held it to its rapid pace, and then, looking backward for the first time she saw the plateau, vast, dark and vacant, behind her, and she drew the pony down, for she had come to the stretch of broken country and realized that she must be careful.
She shuddered as she looked at the darkening world in front of her. Never had it seemed so dismal, so empty, and at the same time so full of lurking danger. The time which precedes the onrush of darkness is always a solemn one; it was doubly solemn to Ruth, alone, miles from home, with a known danger behind her and unknown dangers awaiting her.
Fifteen miles! She drew a long breath as the pony scampered along; anxiously she scanned the plains to the south and in front of her for signs of Flying W cattle or men. The cattle and horseman that she had previously seen, far over on the slope, had vanished, and it looked so dismal and empty over there that she turned her head and shivered.
There seemed to be nothing in front of her but space and darkness. She wondered, gulping, whether Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha were worried about her. They would be, of course, for she had never stayed like this before. But, she thought, with a pulse of joy, they would be lighting the lamps presently, and when she got to the big level beyond the ford, she would be able to see the lights, and the sight of them would make her feel better. She had never realized before how companionable a horse felt, and as her pony ran on, she began to give some attention to his work, noting how his muscles rippled and contracted, how his sides heaved, with what regularity his legs moved. Involuntarily, she felt of his shoulder—it was moist, and the muscles under the smooth hair writhed like living things. She laughed, almost hysterically, for the touch made her feel that she was not alone—she was with the most faithful of man's friends, and she knew that the little animal under her would do his best for her—would run himself to death in her service, if she insisted.
She had a glorious start over her pursuers. They would never catch her. Twice, after she entered the broken stretch she looked back, but could see no sign of them. She did not know that at that moment Chavis and Kester, enraged and disgusted over the trick she had played on them, were riding slowly through the valley toward their shack.
She was almost through the broken stretch when the pony stumbled. She pulled quickly on the reins, and the pony straightened. But instantly she felt its forelegs stiffen, felt it slide; the thought came to her that it must have slid on a flat rock or a treacherous stretch of lava. It struggled like a cat, to recover its balance, grunting and heaving with the effort, but went down, finally, sideways, throwing her out of the saddle.
She had anticipated the fall and had got her feet out of the stirrups, and she alighted standing, braced for the shock. Her left foot struck the top of a jagged rock, slipped, doubled under her, and she felt a sharp, agonizing pain in the ankle. For a moment she paid no attention to it, however, being more concerned for the pony, but when she noted that the animal had got up, seemingly none the worse for the fall, she suddenly realized that the ankle pained her terribly, and she hopped over to a flat rock and sat on it, to examine the injury. She worked the ankle rapidly back and forth, each movement bringing tears to her eyes. She had almost forgotten about her pursuers, and when she thought of them she got up and limped toward the pony, which had wandered a little away from where it had fallen.
And now the pony, which had performed so nobly for her during the miles she had ridden to reach this spot, suddenly seemed determined to undo all his service by yielding to a whim to avoid capture.
She tried threats, flattery, cajolery. Twice more she hobbled painfully near him, and each time he unconcernedly walked away. The third time, he allowed her to come very close, and just when she felt that success was very near, he snorted with pretended fright, wheeled, and slashed out with both hoofs at her and galloped off a full quarter of a mile. She could see him standing and looking at her, his ears erect, before the darkness blotted him from view altogether.
She tried again, groping her way painfully over rocks, slipping, stumbling, holding her breath from fear of snakes—but she could not find the pony. And then, white, shaking, clammy from her dread of the darkness, the awesome silence, and the possibility of Chavis and Kester finding her here, she groped blindly until she found a big rock rising high above its fellows, and after a struggle during which she tore the skin from her hands and knees, she climbed to its top and crouched on it, shuddering and crying. And she thought of Randerson; of his seriousness and his earnestness when he had said:
"I reckon you don't know hate or fear or desperation.... Out here things run loose, an' if you stay here long enough, some day you'll meet them an' recognize them for your own—an' you'll wonder how you ever got along without them."
Well, she hated now; she hated everything—the country included—with a bitterness that, she felt, would never die. And she had felt fear, too, and desperation. She felt them now, and more, she felt a deep humility, and she felt a genuine respect for Randerson—a respect which more than counterbalanced her former repugnance toward him for the killing of Pickett. For she knew that a while ago, if she had had a pistol with her, she would have killed Chavis and Kester without hesitation.
At about the time that Chavis and Kester had discovered Ruth's pony and had clambered up the slope in search of the girl, the two figures on the timber-fringed level near the break in the canyon wall were making grotesque shadows as they danced about in the dying sunlight.
Masten's science had served him well. He had been able, so far, to evade many of Randerson's heavy blows, but some of them had landed. They had hurt, too, and had taken some of the vigor out of their target, though Masten was still elusive as he circled, with feet that dragged a little, feinting and probing for openings through which he might drive his fists.
A great many of his blows had reached their mark also. Randerson's face was covered with livid lumps and welts. But he seemed not to mind them, to be unconscious of them, for on his lips was still the dogged smile that had reached them soon after the fight had started, and in his eyes was the same look of cold deliberation and unrelenting purpose.
He had spoken no word since the fight began; he had taken Masten's heaviest punches without sign or sound to indicate that they had landed, always crowding forward, carrying the battle to his adversary, refusing to yield a step when to yield meant to evade punishment. Passion, deep and gripping, had made him for the moment an insensate automaton; he was devoid of any feeling except a consuming desire to punish the despoiler of his "kid."
But he was holding this passion in check; he was its master—it had not mastered him; he had made it a vassal to his deliberation. To have unleashed it all at once would have made him too eager, would have weakened him. He had chosen this punishment for Masten, and he would see that it was sufficient.
But, as Randerson had well known, Masten was no mean opponent. He stepped in and out rapidly, his blows lacking something in force through his inability to set himself. But he landed more often than Randerson; he blocked and covered cleverly; he ducked blows that would have ended the fight had they struck him with their full force.
Masten had been full of confidence when the fight started. Some of that confidence had gone now. He was beginning to realize that he could not beat Randerson with jabs and stinging counters that hurt without deadening the flesh where they struck; nor could he hope to wear the Westerner down and finally finish him. And with this realization came a pulse of fear. He began to take more risks, to set himself more firmly on his feet in order to give his blows greater force when they landed. For he felt his own strength waning, and he knew what the end would be, should he no longer be able to hold Randerson off.
He went in now with a left jab, and instead of dancing back to avoid Randerson's counter, he covered with the left, swiftly drawn back from the jab, and hooked his right to Randerson's face. The blow landed heavily on Randerson's jaw, shaking him from head to foot. But he shook his head as though to dissipate the effect of it, and came after Masten grimly. Again Masten tried the maneuver, and the jab went home accurately, with force. But when he essayed to drive in the right, it was blocked, and Randerson's right, crooked, rigid, sent with the force of a battering ram, landed fairly on Masten's mouth, with deadening, crushing effect.