"He is too ready with his pistol."
The girl caught the repugnance in Ruth's voice. "I thought you kind of liked Randerson," she said.
Ruth blushed. "What made you think that?" she demanded.
"I've heard that you've gone ridin' with him a lot. I just reckoned it."
"You are mistaken, Hagar. I do not like Randerson at all. He is my range boss—that is all. A murderer could never be a friend to me."
A shadow came over Hagar's face. "Rex Randerson has got a clean heart," she said slowly. She stood looking at Ruth, disappointment plain in her eyes. The disappointment was quickly succeeded by suspicion; she caught her breath, and the hands that were under her apron gripped each other hard.
"I reckon you'll take up with Masten again," she said, trying to control her voice.
Ruth looked intently at her, but she did not notice the girl's emotion through her interest in her words.
"What do you mean by 'again'?"
"I heard that you'd broke your engagement."
"Who told you that?" Ruth's voice was sharp, for she thought Randerson perhaps had been talking.
Hagar blushed crimson and resorted to a lie. "My dad told me. He said he'd heard it."
"Well, it isn't true," Ruth told her firmly; "I have never broken with Mr. Masten. And we are to be married soon."
She turned, for she was slightly indignant at this evidence that the people in the country near her had been meddling with her affairs, and she did not see the ashen pallor that quickly spread over Hagar's face. Had Ruth been looking she must have suspected the girl's secret. But it took her some time to mount her pony, and then looking back she waved her hand at Hagar, who was smiling, though with pale and drawn face.
Hagar stood rigid on the porch until she could no longer see Ruth. Then she sank to the edge of the porch, gathered the dog Nig into her arms, and buried her face in his unkempt shoulder. Rocking back and forth in a paroxysm of impotent passion, she spoke to the dog:
"I can't kill him now, Nig, he's goin' to marry her! Oh Nig, Nig, what am I goin' to do now?" And then she looked up scornfully, her eyes flashing. "She won't let Rex be a friend of hers, because he's killed two men that God had ought to have killed a long while ago! But she'll marry Masten—who ain't fit to be Rex's dog. She won't, Nig! Why—?"
She got up and started for the door. But nearing it, she sank upon the threshold, crying and moaning, while Nig, perplexed at this conduct on the part of his mistress, stood off a little and barked loudly at her.
Loping his pony through the golden haze of the afternoon, Randerson came over the plains toward the Flying W ranchhouse, tingling with anticipation. The still small voice to which he had listened in the days before Ruth's coming had not lied to him; Fate, or whatever power ruled the destinies of lovers, had made her for him. Man's interference might delay the time of possession, his thoughts were of Masten for a brief instant, and his lips straightened, but in the end there could be no other outcome.
But though he was as certain of her as he was that the sun would continue to rule the days, he kept his confidence from betraying his thoughts, and when at last he rode slowly down along the corral fence, past the bunkhouse and the other buildings, to the edge of the porch, sitting quietly in the saddle and looking down at Ruth, who was sitting in a rocker, sewing, his face was grave and his manner that of unconscious reverence.
Ruth had been on the porch for more than an hour. And as on the day when he had come riding in in obedience to her orders to teach her the mysteries of the six-shooter, she watched him today—with anticipation, but with anticipation of a different sort, in which was mingled a little regret, but burdened largely with an eagerness to show him, unmistakably, that he was not the sort of man that she could look upon seriously. And so when she saw him ride up to the porch and bring his pony to a halt, she laid her sewing in her lap, folded her hands over it, and watched him with outward calmness, though with a vague sorrow gripping her. For in spite of what he had done, she still felt the man's strong personality, his virility—the compelling lure of him. She experienced a quick, involuntary tightening of the muscles when she heard his voice—for it intensified the regret in her—low, drawling, gentle:
"I have come in to report to you, ma'am."
"Very well," she said calmly. She leaned back in her chair, looking at him, feeling a quick pulse of pity for him, for as she sat there and waited, saying nothing further, she saw a faint red steal into his cheeks. She knew that he had expected an invitation to join her on the porch; he was entitled to that courtesy because of her treatment of him on the occasion of his previous visit; and that when the invitation did not come he could not but feel deeply the embarrassment of the situation.
The faint glow died out of his face, and the lines of his lips grew a trifle more firm. This reception was not the one he had anticipated, but then there were moods into which people fell. She was subject to moods, too, for he remembered the night she had hurt her ankle—how she had "roasted" him. And his face grew long with an inward mirth. She would ask him to get off his horse, presently, and then he was going to tell her of his feelings on that night.
But she did not invite him to alight. On the contrary, she maintained a silence that was nearly severe. He divined that this mood was to continue and instead of getting off his pony he swung crossways in the saddle.
"We've got the cattle all out of the hills an' the timber, an' we're workin' down the crick toward here," he told her. "There ain't nothin' unusual happened, except"—and here he paused for a brief instant—"that I had to shoot a man. It was Watt Kelso, from over Lazette way. I hired him two weeks before."
"I heard of it," she returned steadily, her voice expressionless.
"I hated like poison to do it. But I had no choice. He brought it on himself."
"Yes, I suppose so," she said flatly. She looked at him now with the first flash of emotion that she had allowed him to see. "If killing people is your trade, and you choose to persist in it, I don't see how we are to stop you."
He looked sharply at her, but his voice was low and even. "I don't shoot folks for the fun of it, ma'am."
"No?"—with scornful disbelief. "Well, I presume it doesn't make much difference. Dead people wouldn't appreciate the joke, anyway."
His face was serious now, for he could see that she was deeply disturbed over the shooting.
"I reckon you wouldn't believe me, no matter how hard I talked," he said. "You'd have your own opinion. It sure does look bad for me—havin' to plug two guys in one season. An' I don't blame you for feelin' like you do about it. But I've got this to say," he went on earnestly. "Kelso come to the outfit, lookin' for trouble. I'd had a run-in with him a few years ago. An' I shot him—in the arm. I thought it was all over. But along comes Kelso, with his mustache shaved off so's I wouldn't know him—which I did. He asked me for a job, an' I give it to him—hopin'. But hopes—"
"If you knew him, why did you give him a job?" she interrupted. "It might have saved you shooting him."
"If he was wantin' to force trouble he'd have done it sooner or later, ma'am."
"Well?" she said, interested in spite of herself.
"He waited two weeks for a chance. I didn't give him any chance. An' then, one night, after Red Owen had been cuttin' up some monkey shines, he talked fresh an' pulled his gun. He was a regular gunfighter, ma'am; he'd been hired to put me out of business."
There was an appeal in his eyes that did not show in his voice; and it would be all the appeal that he would make. Looking fixedly at him, she became certain of that.
"Do you know who hired him?"
There was that in her tone which told him that he might now make his case strong—might even convince her, and thus be restored to that grace from which he, plainly, had fallen. But he was a claimant for her hand, he had told her that he would not press that claim until she broke her engagement with Masten, and if he now told her that it had been the Easterner who had hired Kelso to kill him, he would have felt that she would think he had taken advantage of the situation, selfishly. And he preferred to take his chance, slender though it seemed to be.
"He didn't tell me."
"Then you only suspected it?"
He was silent for an instant. Then: "A man told me he was hired."
"Who told you?"
"I ain't mentionin', ma'am." He could not tell her that Blair had told him, after he had told Blair not to mention it.
She smiled with cold incredulity, and he knew his chance had gone.
But he was not prepared for her next words. In her horror for his deed, she had ceased to respect him; she had ceased to believe him; his earnest protestations of innocence of wantonness she thought were hypocritical—an impression strengthened by his statement that Kelso had been hired to kill him, and by his inability to show evidence to prove it. A shiver of repulsion, for him and his killings, ran over her.
"I believe you are lying, Randerson," she said, coldly.
He started, stiffened, and then stared, at her, his face slowly whitening. She had said words that, spoken by a man, would have brought about another of those killings that horrified her. She watched him, sensing for the first time something of the terrible emotions that sometimes beset men in tense situations but entirely unconscious of the fact that she had hurt him far more than any bullet could have hurt him.
Yet, aside from the whiteness of his face, he took the fatal thrust without a sign. His dreams, that had seemed to be so real to him while riding over the plains toward the ranchhouse, had been bubbles that she had burst with a breath. He saw the wrecks of them go sailing into the dust at his feet.
He had gazed downward, and he did not look up at once. When he did, his gaze rested, as though by prearrangement, on her. Her eyes were still cold, still disbelieving, and he drew himself slowly erect.
"I reckon you've said enough, ma'am," he told her quietly, though his voice was a trifle hoarse. "A man couldn't help but understand that." He wheeled Patches and took off his hat to her. "I'll send Red Owen to see you, ma'am," he added. "I can recommend Red."
She was on her feet, ready to turn to go into the house, for his manner of receiving her insult had made her feel infinitely small and mean. But at his words she halted and looked at him.
"Why should you send Red Owen to see me? What do you mean?" she demanded.
"Why, you've made it pretty plain, ma'am," he answered with a low laugh, turning his head to look back at her. "I reckon you wouldn't expect me to go on workin' for you, after you've got so you don't trust me any more. Red will make you a good range boss."
He urged Patches on. But she called to him, a strange regret filling her, whitening her cheeks, and Patches came again to a halt.
"I—I don't want Red Owen for a range boss," she declared with a gulp. "If you are determined to quit, I—I suppose I cannot prevent it. But you can stay a week or two, can't you—until I can get somebody I like?"
He smiled gravely. "Why, I reckon I can, ma'am," he answered respectfully. "There won't be no awful hurry about it. I wouldn't want to disconvenience you."
And then he was off into the deepening haze of the coming evening, riding tall and rigid, with never a look behind to show her that he cared.
Standing in the doorway of the house, the girl watched him, both hands at her breast, her eyes wide, her lips parted, her cheeks flushed, until the somber shadows of twilight came down and swallowed him. Then, oppressed with a sudden sense of the emptiness of the world, she went into the house.
ONE TOO MANY
To no man in the outfit did Randerson whisper a word concerning the result of his visit to the ranchhouse—that he would cease to be the Flying W range boss just as soon as Ruth Harkness could find a man to replace him. He went his way, thoughtful, silent, grave, filled with somber thoughts and dark passions that sometimes flashed in his eyes, but taking no man into his confidence. And yet they knew that all was not well with him. For in other days his dry humor, his love of wholesome fun, had shortened many an hour for them, and his serenity, in ordinary difficulties, had become a byword to them. And so they knew that the thing which was troubling him now was not ordinary.
They thought they knew what was troubling him. Kelso had been hired to take his life. Kelso had lost his own in the effort. That might have seemed to end it. But it had become known that Kelso had been a mere tool in the hands of an unscrupulous plotter, and until the plotter had been sent on the way that Kelso had gone there could be no end. Already there were whispers over the country because of Randerson's delay.
Of course, they would wait a reasonable time; they would give him his "chance." But they did not know what was holding him back—that deep in his heart lurked a hope that one day he might still make his dreams come true, and that if he killed Masten, Ruth's abhorrence of him and his deeds, already strong, could never be driven from her. If he lost this hope, Masten was doomed.
And during the second week following his latest talk with Ruth, the girl unconsciously killed it. He met her in the open, miles from the ranchhouse, and he rode toward her, deeply repentant, resolved to brave public scorn by allowing Masten to live.
He smiled gravely at her when he came close—she waiting for him, looking at him, unmoved. For she had determined to show him that she had meant what she had said to him.
"Have you found a new range boss, ma'am?" he said gently. He had hoped that she might answer lightly, and then he would have known that she would forgive him, in time.
But her chin went up and she looked coldly at him. "You will be able to leave the Flying W shortly, Randerson," she said. "I am going to leave such matters for Mr. Masten to look after."
She urged her pony away and left him, staring somberly after her.
Two hours later he was riding down the declivity toward Chavis' shack, in the basin. He had ridden first to the outfit, and had talked with Owen. And his appearance had been such that when he left the foreman the latter sought out Blair.
"If I don't miss my reckonin', Masten's goin' to get his'n today."
Randerson rode, straight as Patches could carry him, to the door of Chavis' shack. No one appeared to greet him, but he had seen horses, saddled, hitched to the corral fence, and he knew that some one was about. Chavis, Kester, and Hilton were inside the shack, and when they heard him ride up, they came to the door, curious. And when they saw him they stiffened and stood rigid, with not a finger moving, for they had seen men, before, meditating violence, and they saw the signs in Randerson's chilled and narrowed eyes, and in the grim set of his lips.
His lips moved; his teeth hardly parted to allow the words to come through them. They writhed through:
Three pairs of lungs sighed audibly in process of deflation.
It was Chavis who answered; the other two looked at him when the question came, silently. Chavis would have lied, but the light in Randerson's eyes warned him not to trifle, and the truth came from his lips:
"Masten's gone to the Flyin' W ranchhouse."
"I reckon that's all," said Randerson shortly. "I'm thankin' you."
He rode away, grinning coldly back at them, still watchful, for he knew Chavis, guiding his pony toward the declivity on the other side of the basin. The three men watched him until the pony had climbed to the mesa. Then Chavis turned to the others.
"I reckon he's goin' to see Masten about that Kelso deal," he said. "Somebody ought to put Masten wise."
Kester grinned. "It's bound to come," he commented. "Let's finish our game; it is your deal."
On the mesa, Randerson urged Patches along the edge, over the trail that Ruth had taken when, months before, she had come upon Chavis and Kester at the declivity.
"Nothin' would have happened, if it hadn't been for Masten," he told himself as he rode away. "Pickett wouldn't have got fresh, an' Kelso would have kept himself mighty shady. We'd have fought it out, square—me an' Masten. I reckon I didn't kill Pickett and Kelso; it was Masten that done it."
He came, after a while, to the rock upon whick he had found Ruth lying on the night of the accident. And he sat and looked long at the grass plot where he had laid her when she had fainted.
"She looked like an angel, layin' there," he reminded himself, his eyes eloquent. "She's too blamed good for that sneakin' dude."
He came upon the ruined boot, and memories grimmed his lips. "It's busted—like my dreams," he said, surveying it, ripped and rotting. "I reckon this is as good a place as any," he added, looking around him.
And he dismounted, led Patches out of sight behind some high bushes that grew far back from the rocks; came back, stretched himself out on the grass plot, pulled his hat over his eyes and yielded to his gloomy thoughts. But after he had lain there a while, he spoke aloud:
"He'll come this way, if he comes at all."
With the memory of Randerson's threat always before him, "if I ever lay eyes on you ag'in, I'll go gunnin' for you," Masten rode slowly and watchfully. For he had felt that the words had not been idle ones, and it had been because of them that he had hired Kelso. And he went toward the ranchhouse warily, much relieved when he passed the bunkhouse, to find that Randerson was apparently absent. He intended to make this one trip, present to Ruth his excuses for staying away, and then go back to Chavis' shack, there to remain out of Randerson's sight, until he could devise another plan that, he hoped, would put an end to the cowpuncher who was forever tormenting him.
His excuses had been accepted by Ruth, for she was in the mood to restore him to that spot in her heart that Randerson had come very near to occupy. She listened to him calmly, and agreed, without conscious emotion, to his proposal that they ride, on the Monday following, to Lazette, to marry. She had reopened the subject a little wearily, for now that Randerson was hopeless she wanted to have the marriage over with as soon as possible. She saw now, that it had been the vision of Randerson, always prominent in her mind, that had caused her to put off the date of her marriage to Masten when he had mentioned it before. That vision had vanished now, and she did not care how soon she became Masten's wife.
On the porch of the ranchhouse they had reached the agreement, and triumphantly Masten rode away into the darkness, foreseeing the defeat of the man whom he had feared as a possible rival, seeing, too—if he could not remove him entirely—his dismissal from the Flying W and his own ascent to power.
"On Monday, then," he said softly to Ruth, as ready to leave, he had looked down at her from his horse. "I shall come early, remember, for I have waited long."
"Yes, Monday," she had answered. And then, dully: "I have waited, too."
Masten was thinking of this exchange of words as he rode past the ford where the Lazette trail crossed into the broken country beyond it. He had not liked the tone of her voice when she had answered him; she had not seemed enthusiastic enough to suit him. But he did not feel very greatly disturbed over her manner, for Monday would end it, and then he would do as he pleased.
He was passing a huge boulder, when from out of the shadow surrounding it a somber figure stepped, the star-shot sky shedding sufficient light for Masten to distinguish its face. He recognized Randerson, and he voluntarily brought his pony to a halt and stiffened in the saddle, fear, cold and paralyzing, gripping him. He did not speak; he made no sound beyond a quick gasp as his surprised lungs sought air, and he was incapable of action.
Randerson, though, did not make a hostile movement and did not present a foreboding figure. His arms were folded over his chest, and if it had not been for Masten's recollection of those grim words, "I'll go gunnin' for you," Masten would have felt reasonably secure. But he remembered the words, and his voice caught in his throat and would not come, when he essayed to bluster and ask Randerson the cause for this strange and dramatic appearance.
But there was no thought of the dramatic in Randerson's mind as he stood there—nothing but cold hatred and determination—nothing except a bitter wish that the man on the pony would reach for his gun and thus make his task easier for him.
The hoped-for movement did not come, and Randerson spoke shortly:
"Get off your cayuse!"
Masten obeyed silently, his knees shaking under him. Was it to be another fist fight? Randerson's voice broke in on this thought:
"I promised to kill you. You're a thing that sneaks around at night on its belly, an' you ought to be killed. But I'm goin' to give you a chance—like you give me when you set Kelso on me. That'll let you die like a man—which you ain't!" He tapped the gun at his right hip. "I'll use this one. We'll stand close—where we are—to make your chance better. When I count three you draw your gun. Show your man now, if there's any in you!"
He dropped his hands from his chest and held the right, the fingers bent like the talons of a bird of prey, about to seize a victim. He waited, his eyes gleaming in the starlight, with cold alertness for Masten's expected move toward his gun. But after a long, breathless silence, during which Masten's knees threatened to give way, he leaned forward.
"Flash it! Quick! Or you go out anyway!"
"I'm unarmed!" Masten's voice would not come before. It burst forth now, hysterically, gaspingly, sounding more like a moan than the cry of a man pleading for his life.
But it stung the stern-faced man before him to action, rapid and tense. He sprang forward with a low, savage exclamation, drawing one of his big weapons and jamming its muzzle deep into Masten's stomach. Then, holding it there, that the Easterner might not trick him, he ran his other hand over the frightened man's clothing, and found no weapon. Then he stepped back with a laugh, low, scornful, and bitter. The discovery that Masten was not armed seemed to drive his cold rage from him, and when he spoke again his voice was steely and contemptuous:
"You can hit the breeze, I reckon—I ain't murderin' anybody. You're safe right now. But I'm tellin' you this: I'm lookin' for you, an' you don't run no blazer in on me no more! After this, you go heeled—or you hit the breeze out of the country. One of us has got to go. This country is too crowded with both of us!"
Masten got on his pony, trembling so that he had trouble in getting his feet into the stirrups. He rode on, hundreds of yards, before he dared to turn, so great was his dread that to do so would be to bring upon him the wrath of the man who had spared him. But finally he looked around. He saw Randerson riding out into the darkness of the vast stretch of grass-land that lay to the south.
INTO WHICH A GIRL'S TROUBLE COMES
Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha had not seen Masten when he had visited Ruth, for they had gone in the buckboard to Red Rock. And Masten had departed when they reached home. Nor did they see Ruth after they arrived, for she had gone to bed. But at the breakfast table Ruth told them of the visit of Masten and of her plan to advance the date of the marriage.
Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha received the news in silence. Aunt Martha did manage to proffer a half-hearted congratulation, but Uncle Jepson wrinkled his nose, as he did always when displeased, and said nothing; and he ate lightly. Ruth did not notice that she had spoiled his appetite, nor did she note with more than casual interest that he left the table long before she or Aunt Martha. She did not see him, standing at the corral fence, scowling, and she could not hear the old-fashioned profanity that gushed from his lips.
"Aren't you glad?" Ruth asked Aunt Martha when they were alone, for she had noted her relative's lack of enthusiasm.
"Why, yes, honey," Aunt Martha smiled at her, though it seemed forced. "Only—" She hesitated eloquently.
"Only what, Aunt Martha?" Ruth's voice was a little sharp, as with all persons who act in opposition to her better judgment and who resent anyone understanding them.
"Only I was hoping it would be Randerson, my dear," said Aunt Martha gently.
"Randerson!" Ruth's voice was scornful. But it sounded insincere to her, and she would trust it no further.
"Honey!" Aunt Martha's arm was around her, and Aunt Martha's sympathetic and knowing eyes were compelling hers; and her voice was ineffably gentle. "Are you sure, honey, that you don't wish it were Randerson? It is a great event in your life, dear, and once it is done, it can't be undone. Don't be hasty."
"It can never be Randerson," Ruth said firmly—not, however, as firmly as she had intended. "Randerson is a murderer—a reckless taker of human life!"
"He had to shoot, they say," defended Aunt Martha. "I don't believe he would harm a living thing except in defense of his own life. Defending themselves is their way out here, girl—they know no other way. And he is a man, dear. I don't know when I have met a man who has impressed me more!"
"Please don't talk about it any more." Ruth's face was pale, her brows contracted, for Aunt Martha's reference to Randerson had brought back haunting sensations that, she thought, she had succeeded in putting out of her life. She was ready to cry, and when she thought of Randerson—how calmly he had accepted his dismissal, with what manliness he had borne her insults, a chill of sympathy ran over her. She believed she would never forget him as he had looked on the night he had ridden away after telling her that he would leave the Flying W—riding into the darkness of the plains, with his hopes blasted, bravely making no complaint.
She got her pony, after a while, and rode far and long, coming in to the ranchhouse about noon. After she had turned the pony into the corral and was coming toward the house, she saw Uncle Jepson sitting on the porch, puffing furiously at his pipe. She spoke to him in greeting, and was about to pass him to go into the house, when he called to her:
"I want to talk to you a minute, Ruth." He spoke rapidly, his voice dry and light, and she could see his facial muscles twitching. Wonderingly, she sank into a chair near him.
"You're sure thinkin' of marryin' Masten, girl?" he said.
"Yes," she declared firmly.
"Well, then I've got to tell you," said Uncle Jepson decisively. "I've been puttin' it off, hopin' that you'd get shet of that imp of Satan, an' I wouldn't have to say anything."
"Uncle Jep!" she protested indignantly.
"That's just what he is, Ruth—a durned imp of the devil. I've knowed it from the first day I saw him. Since he's come out here, he's proved it." He swung his chair around and faced her, and forgetting his pipe in his excitement, he told her the story he had told Randerson: how he had gone into the messhouse on the day of the killing of Pickett, for a rest and a smoke, and how, while in there he had overheard Chavis and Pickett plotting against Randerson, planning Pickett's attack on her, mentioning Masten's connection with the scheme. She did not open her lips until Uncle Jepson had concluded, and then she murmured a low "Oh!" and sat rigid, gripping the arms of her chair.
"An' that ain't all, it ain't half of it!" pursued Uncle Jepson vindictively. "Do you know that Masten set that Watt Kelso, the gunfighter, on Randerson?" He looked at Ruth, saw her start and draw a long breath, and he grinned triumphantly. "Course you don't know; I cal'late Randerson would never make a peep about it. He's all man—that feller. But it's a fact. Blair told me. There'd been bad blood between Randerson an' Kelso, an' Masten took advantage of it. He paid Kelso five hundred dollars in cold cash to kill Randerson!"
"Oh, it can't be!" moaned the girl, covering her face with her hands and shrinking into her chair.
"Shucks!" said Uncle Jepson derisively, but more gently now, for he saw that the girl was badly hurt. "The whole country is talkin' about it, Ruth, an' wonderin' why Randerson don't salivate that durned dude! An' the country expects him to do it, girl! They'll fun him out of here, if he don't! Why, girl," he went on, "you don't know how much of a sneak a man can be when he's got it in him!"
She was shuddering as though he had struck her, and he was on the edge of his chair, looking at her pityingly, when Aunt Martha came to the door and saw them. She was out on the porch instantly, flushing with indignation.
"Jep Coakley, you're up to your tricks again, ain't you? You quit devilin' that girl, now, an' go on about your business!"
"I've got some things to say, an' I cal'late to say them!" declared Uncle Jepson determinedly. "I've kept still about it long enough. I ain't wantin' to hurt her," he added apologetically, as Aunt Martha slipped to her knees beside Ruth and put an arm around her, "but that durned Masten has been doin' some things that she's got to know about, right now. An' then, if she's set on marryin' him, why, I cal'late it's her business. It was Masten who was behind Pickett kissin' her—he tellin' Pickett to do it. An' he hired Kelso to kill Randerson."
"Oh, Ruth!" said Aunt Martha, her voice shaky, as she nestled her head close to the girl's. But her eyes shone with satisfaction.
"There's another thing," went on Uncle Jepson to Ruth. "Did you notice Randerson's face, the night he come to hunt you, when you hurt your ankle? Marked up, kind of, it was, wasn't it? An' do you know what Masten went to Las Vegas for? Business, shucks! He went there to get his face nursed up, Ruth—because Randerson had smashed it for him! They'd had a fight; I saw them, both comin' from the same direction, that night. I reckon Randerson had pretty nigh killed him. What for?" he asked as Ruth turned wide, questioning eyes on him. "Well, I don't rightly know. But I've got suspicions. I've seen Masten goin' day after day through that break in the canyon over there. A hundred times, I cal'late. An' I've seen him here, when you wasn't lookin', kissin' that Catherson girl. I cal'late, if you was to ask her, she'd be able to tell you a heap more about Masten, Ruth."
Ruth got up, pale and terribly calm, disengaging herself from Aunt Martha and standing before Uncle Jepson. He too got to his feet.
Ruth's voice quavered. "You wouldn't, oh, you couldn't lie to me, Uncle, because you like Rex Randerson? Is it true?" She put her hands on his shoulders and shook him, excitedly.
"True? Why, Ruth, girl; it's as true as there's a Supreme Bein' above us. Why——"
But she waited to hear no more, turning from him and putting out her hands to keep Aunt Martha away as she passed her. She went out to the corral, got her pony, saddled it, mounted, and rode over the plains toward the break in the canyon wall. Uncle Jepson had one quick glimpse of her eyes as she turned from him, and he knew there would be no Monday for Willard Masten.
Ruth had no feelings as she rode. The news had stunned her. She had only one thought—to see Hagar Catherson, to confirm or disprove Uncle Jepson's story. She could not have told whether the sun was shining, or whether it was afternoon or morning. But she must see Hagar Catherson at once, no matter what the time or the difficulties. She came to the break in the canyon after an age, and rode through it, down across the bed of the river, over the narrow bridle path that led to the Catherson cabin.
The dog Nig did not greet her this time; he was stretched out on his belly, his hind legs gathered under him, his forelegs stuck out in front, his long muzzle extending along them, while he watched in apparent anxiety the face of his master, Abe Catherson, who was sitting on the edge of the porch, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands, in an attitude of deep dejection. The dog's concern was for Catherson's future actions, for just a few minutes before he had witnessed a scene that had made his hair bristle, had brought ugly growls out of him, had plunged him into such a state of fury that he had, for one wild instant, meditated a leap at his master's throat. He had seen his master leap upon his mistress and raise his hand to strike her. If the blow had been struck—Nig would have leaped, then, no matter what the consequences.
Catherson had not struck. But one great, dominating passion was in his mind at this moment—the yearning to slay! The dog had seen him, twice during the last half hour, draw out his heavy six-shooter and examine it, and each time the dog had growled his disapproval of the action. And on both occasions Catherson had muttered thickly: "I wish I knowed, for sure. A man can't do nothin' if he don't know. But I reckon it was him!"
He looked up to see Ruth coming toward him. The girl had seen him twice—had spoken to him. He was a bearded giant, grizzled, unkempt, with hairy arms, massive and muscled superbly, and great hands, burned brown by the sun, that were just now clenched, forming two big fists. There had been a humorous, tolerant twinkle in his eyes on the other occasions that Ruth had seen him; it was as though he secretly sympathized with her efforts to do something for his girl, though he would not openly approve. But now she saw that his eyes were blazing with an insane frenzy, that his lips were working, and that the muscles of his neck stood out like great cords, strained to the bursting point.
He got up when he saw Ruth, and stood on the sand at the edge of the porch, swaying back and forth, and Ruth's first thought was that he had been drinking. But his first words to her revealed her mistake. It was the light, dry voice of a violent passion that greeted her, a passion that was almost too great for words. He ran to her pony and seized it by the bridle:
"You know, ma'am. Tell me who treated my li'l gal like that?" His great hands writhed in the reins. "I'll twist his buzzard's head off his shoulders."
"What do you mean?" Ruth's own voice startled her, for the spirit of a lie had issued from her mouth; she knew what he meant; she realized that Uncle Jepson had told the truth.
"Don't you know, ma'am?" There was wild derision in his voice, insane mirth. "You've been comin' here; she's been goin' to your place! An' you don't know! You're blinder than me—an' I couldn't see at all!" He went off into a gale of frenzied laughter, at which the dog began to bark. Then Catherson's eyes glared cunningly. "But you've seen who's been comin' here; you know the man's name, ma'am; an' you're goin' to tell me, ain't you? So's I c'n talk to him—eh?"
"I don't know, Mr. Catherson." Ruth got a firm grip on herself before she answered, and it was to save a life that she lied again, for she saw murder in Catherson's eyes. "Where is Hagar?" she asked.
At his jerk of the head toward the cabin door Ruth got down from her pony. She was trembling all over, but at Catherson's words all thought of self had been banished. The effect of Masten's deed on her own life, his duplicity, his crimes—all were forgotten. Here was her friend who had been sinned against, needing the comfort of her presence. And in an instant she was inside the cabin, leaning over the little figure that was curled up in a bunk in a corner, speaking low words of cheer and forgiveness.
Outside, Catherson paced back and forth, his lips forming soundless words, his big hands working as though the fingers were at the throat of the thief that had stolen into his home. His mind was going over certain words that Hagar had answered to his questions, just before Ruth's coming. He dwelt upon every slight circumstance that had occurred during the past few months. There were the tracks of horse's hoofs about the cabin, in the paths and trails leading to it. Hagar had refused to tell him. But he figured it all out for himself, as he walked. When had this thing started? At about the time that Randerson had taken Vickers' place at the Flying W! Why had not there been trouble between him and the Flying W, as under previous range bosses? What had Randerson given him money for, many times? Ah, he knew now!
"The black-hearted hound!" he gritted.
He reeled, and held to a corner of the cabin to steady himself, for this last access of rage came near to paralyzing him. When he recovered he drew back out of sight, and leaning against the wall of the cabin, with a pencil and a small piece of paper taken from a note book in a pocket, he wrote. He laid the piece of paper on the edge of the porch, ran to the corral and caught his pony, mounted, and rode drunkenly down the narrow path toward the break in the canyon.
BANISHING A SHADOW
Randerson could not adjust his principles to his purpose to do Masten to death while working for Ruth, and so, in the morning following his meeting with the Easterner on the trail leading to Chavis' shack, he announced to the men of the outfit that he was going to quit. He told Red Owen to take charge until Ruth could see him.
Glum looks followed his announcement. They tried to dissuade him, for they did not know his thoughts, and perhaps would not have given him credit for them if they had.
"Don't the outfit suit you?" asked one gently. "If it don't, we'll try to do better!"
"Your conduct has been amazin' good—considerin'," grinned Randerson, light-hearted for the time; for this mark of affection was not lost upon him.
"If there's anybody in the outfit that's disagreeable to you, why, say the word an' we'll make him look mighty scarce!" declared another, glancing belligerently around him.
"Shucks, this outfit'll be a blamed funeral!" said Blair. "We'll be gettin' to think that we don't grade up, nohow. First Vickers packs his little war-bag an' goes hittin' the breeze out; an' now you've got some fool notion that you ought to pull your freight. If it's anything botherin' you, why, open your yap, an' we'll sure salivate that thing!"
"I ain't mentionin'," said Randerson. "But it ain't you boys. You've suited me mighty well. I'm sure disturbed in my mind over leavin' you."
"Then why leave at all?" said Owen, his face long.
But Randerson evaded this direct question. "An' you standin' in line for my job?" he said in pretended astonishment. "Why, I reckon you ought to be the most tickled because I'm goin'!"
"Well, if it's a go, I reckon we'll have to stand for it," said Blair a little later, as Randerson mounted his pony. Their parting words were short, but eloquent in the sentiment left unsaid.
"So long," Randerson told them as he rode away. And "so long" came the chorus behind him, not a man omitting the courtesy.
They stood in a group, watching him as he faded into the distance toward the ranchhouse.
"Somethin' is botherin' him mighty bad," said Owen, frowning.
"He's made the outfit feel like a lost doggie," grumbled Blair. "The blamed cuss is grievin' over somethin'." And they went disconsolately to their work.
Randerson rode on his way. He felt a little relieved. No longer was he bound by his job; he was now a free agent and could do as he pleased. And it would please him to settle his differences with Masten. He would "go gunnin' for him" with a vengeance.
It was about noon when he rode in to the ranchhouse. He did not turn his pony into the corral, but hitched it to one of the columns of the porch, for he intended to go on to the Diamond H as soon as he could get his belongings packed. If his old job was still open (he had heard that it was) he would take it, or another in case the old one had been filled. In any event, he would leave the Flying W.
Dejection was heavy in his heart when he crossed the porch to go to his room, for he had liked it here; it had been more like the home of his ideals than any he had yet seen. For his imagination and affection had been at work, and in Aunt Martha he had seen a mother—such a mother as he could have wished his own to be, had she lived. And Uncle Jepson! The direct-talking old gentleman had captivated him; between them was respect, understanding, and admiration that could hardly have been deeper between father and son.
But he felt reluctant to tell them of his decision to go, he wanted to delay it—if possible, he did not want to let them know at all, for he could come here, sometimes, to see them, when Ruth had gone. And so he was much pleased when, entering the house, he did not see them. But he looked for them, to be certain, going into all the rooms. And finally from a kitchen window he saw them out in the cottonwood back of the house, walking arm in arm, away, deeper into the wood. He turned with a gentle smile, and went upstairs to his room.
* * * * *
Shortly after Abe Catherson's departure from the cabin, Ruth came to the door and looked out. Her face was whiter than it had been when she had reached the cabin, she was more composed, and her eyes were alight with mingled resignation and thankfulness. For Hagar had yielded her secret, and Ruth had realized how near she had come to linking her life with that of the despicable creature who had preyed on her friend. The son of this great waste of world loomed big in her thoughts as she stood in the doorway; she saw now that those outward graces which had charmed her, in Masten, had been made to seem mockeries in contrast to the inward cleanness and manliness of the man that she had condemned for merely defending himself when attacked.
She went back into the cabin and sat beside Hagar, a queer sensation of joy possessing her, despite her pity for Hagar and her disgust for Masten, for she knew in this instant that she would never allow Randerson to quit the Flying W. Her joy was infectious; it brought a fugitive smile to the face of the nester's daughter, and as Ruth led her out upon the porch, her arms around her, Hagar looked at her worshipfully.
Out at the edge of the porch, Hagar shot a dreading glance around. She started, and her eyes filled with anxiety as her gaze rested on the corral. She seized Ruth's arm tightly.
"Dad's gone!" she said gulpingly.
"Well, perhaps it is all for the best, Hagar," consoled Ruth. "He will ride for a while, and he will come back to forgive you."
But the girl's eyes grew wide with fear. "Oh, I'm afraid he'll do somethin' terrible!" she faltered. "Before you came, he asked me if—if it had been Randerson. I told him no, but he didn't seem satisfied, an' when I wouldn't tell him who it was, he went out, cursin' Rex. I'm afraid, Ruth—I'm afraid!" She glanced wildly around, and her gaze rested on the piece of paper that Catherson had left on the edge of the porch. In an instant she had pounced upon it.
"He's gone to kill Randerson!" she screamed shrilly. She did not seem to see Ruth; the madness of hysterical fear was upon her; her eyes were brilliant, wide and glaring. She was in her bare feet, but she darted past Ruth, disregarding the rocks and miscellaneous litter that stretched before her, reached Ruth's pony and flung herself into the saddle, her lips moving soundlessly as she set the animal's head toward the path.
"You stay here!" she shouted to Ruth as the Flying W girl, stunned to inaction by the other's manner, watched her. "I'm goin' to ketch dad. Oh, durn him, the mis'able hot head!"
She hit the pony a vicious slap with a bare hand. It lunged, as the reins loosened, reaching its best speed within a hundred yards, but urged to increasing effort by voice and hand and heel, the girl leaning far over its mane, riding as she had never ridden before. But up at the Flying W ranchhouse, a tall, grim, bearded giant of a horseman was just dismounting, his pony trembling because of heart-breaking effort.
* * * * *
Randerson had not seen Ruth, of course. But he had wondered much over her whereabouts when he had been looking through the house for Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha. And when he had seen them out in the cottonwoods, back of the house, he had supposed her to be with them. He was glad she was not here, to make these last moments embarrassing. He would not disturb her.
He found pencil and paper and wrote his resignation, sitting long over it, but making it brief. It read:
"I'm going, ma'am. I've left Red Owen in charge. I'm wishing you luck."
"There, that's settled," he said, rising. "But I was hopin' it would be different. Dreams are silly things—when they don't come true. I'll be soured on girls, hereafter," he told himself, morosely.
He packed his war-bag. While engaged in this work he heard the sound of hoofbeats, but he paid no attention, though he colored uncomfortably, for he thought he had been wrong in thinking that Ruth had been in the cottonwood grove, and that she had been away and was just returning. And when he heard a soft tread downstairs he was certain that it was she, and he reddened again. He stopped his work and sat silent, then he caught the sound of footsteps on the stairs, for now he would have to face her. When he saw the door of his room begin to swing slowly back, he got up, his face grave, ready to deliver his resignation in person. And when the door swung almost open, and he saw Abe Catherson standing in the opening, his heavy pistol in hand, cocked, a finger on the trigger, he stiffened, standing silent, looking at the intruder.
Abe's eyes still wore the frenzy that had been in them when he had been speaking with Ruth. If anything, the frenzy was intensified. His legs were trembling, the big finger on the trigger of his weapon was twitching; his lips, almost hidden by the beard, were writhing. He was like a man who had been seized by some terrible illness fighting it, resolved to conquer it through sheer effort. His voice stuck in his throat, issuing spasmodically:
"I've got you, Randerson," he said, "where—I want you! I'm goin' to kill you, empty my gun in you! You mis'able whelp!" He took two steps into the room and then halted, tearing at the collar of his shirt with his free hand, as though to aid his laboring lungs to get the air they demanded.
Randerson's face was white and set, now. He was facing death at the hands of a man whom he had befriended many times. He did not know Catherson's motive in coming here, but he knew that the slightest insincere word; a tone too light or too gruff, the most insignificant hostile movement, would bring about a quick pressure of the trigger of Catherson's pistol. Diplomacy would not answer; it must be a battle of the spirit; naked courage alone could save him, could keep that big finger on the trigger from movement until he could discover Catherson's motive in coming to kill him.
He had faced death many times, but never had he faced it at the hands of a friend, with the strong drag of regard to keep his fingers from his own weapons. Had Catherson been an enemy, he would have watched him with different feelings; he would have taken a desperate chance of getting one of his own pistols to work. But he could not kill Catherson, knowing there was no reason for it.
He had no difficulty in getting genuine curiosity into his voice, and he kept it to just the pitch necessary to show his surprise over Catherson's threat and manner:
"What you reckonin' to kill me for, Abe?"
"For what you done to my Hagar!" The convulsive play of Catherson's features betrayed his nearness to action. His gun arm stiffened. He spoke in great gasps, like a man in delirium. "I want you to know—what for. You come—sneakin'—around—givin' me—money—"
"Steady, there, Abe!"
Randerson's sharp, cold voice acted with the effect of a dash of water in Catherson's face. He started, his big hand trembling, for though he had come to kill, he unknowingly wanted to hear some word from Randerson's lips in proof of his innocence. Had Randerson flinched, he would have taken that as a sign of guilt, as he now took the man's sternness as an indication of his innocence. He stepped forward until he was no more than a foot from Randerson, and searched his face with wild intentness. And then, suddenly, the weapon in his hand sank down, his legs wavered, he leaned against the wall while his chin dropped to his chest.
"You didn't do it, Rex, you couldn't do it!" he muttered hoarsely. "No man who'd done a thing like that could look back at me like you looked. But I'm goin' to git—" He stopped, for there was a rapid patter of feet on the stairs, and a breathless voice, crying wildly:
"Dad! Dad! Dad!"
And while both men stood, their muscles tensed to leap into action in response to the voice, Hagar burst into the room, looked at them both; saw Catherson's drawn pistol, and then threw herself upon her father, hid her face on his breast and sobbed: "It wasn't Rex, dad; it was Masten!"
Catherson's excitement was over. The first terrible rage had expended itself on Randerson, and after a violent start at Hagar's words he grew cold and deliberate. Also, the confession seemed to make his resentment against his child less poignant, for he rested his hand on her head and spoke gently to her:
"It's all right, Hagar—it's all right. Your old dad ain't goin' to hold it ag'in you too hard. We all make mistakes. Why, I was just goin' to make a mighty whopper myself, by killing Rex, here. You leave this to me." He pushed her toward Randerson. "You take her back to the shack, Rex. I reckon it won't take me long to do what I'm goin' to do. I'll be back afore dark, mebbe."
The girl clung to him for an instant. "Dad," she said. "What are you goin' to do?"
"If you was a good guesser—" said Catherson coldly. And then he grinned felinely at Randerson and went out. They could hear him going down the stairs. They followed presently, Hagar shrinking and shuddering under Randerson's arm on her shoulders, and from the porch they saw Catherson, on his pony, riding the trail that Ruth had taken on the day she had gone to see Chavis' shack.
Randerson got Hagar into the saddle, recognizing the pony and speaking about it. When she told him that Ruth was at her cabin, his face lighted. He thought about the written resignation lying in his room, and he smiled.
"I come mighty near not havin' to use it," he said to himself.
REALIZING A PASSION
Ruth stood for a long time on the porch after Hagar's departure, gripped by emotions, that had had no duplicates in all her days. Never before had she thought herself capable of experiencing such emotions. For the man she loved was in danger. She knew at this minute that she loved him, that she had loved him all along. And she was not able to go to him; she could not even learn, until Hagar returned, whether the girl had been in time, or whether he had succumbed to the blind frenzy of the avenger. The impotence of her position did much to aggravate her emotions, and they surged through her, sapping her strength. It was hideous—the dread, the uncertainty, the terrible suspense, the dragging minutes. She walked back and forth on the porch, her hands clenched, her face drawn and white, praying mutely, fervently, passionately, that Hagar might be in time.
Thinking to divert her mind, she at last went into the cabin and began to walk about, looking at various objects, trying to force herself to take an interest in them.
She saw, back of a curtain, a number of the dresses and other garments she had given Hagar, and she could not disperse the thought that perhaps if she had not given the clothing to Hagar, Masten might not have been attracted to her. She drew the curtain over them with something near a shudder, considering herself not entirely blameless.
She endeavored to interest herself in Catherson's pipe and tobacco, on a shelf near the stove; wondering over the many hours that he had smoked in this lonesome place, driving away the monotony of the hours. What a blow this must be to him! She began to understand something of the terrible emotions that must have seized him with the revelation. And she had brought Masten here, too! Innocent, she was to blame there! And she unconsciously did something, as she walked about, that she had never before attempted to do—to put herself into other persons' positions, to try to understand their emotions—the motives that moved them to do things which she had considered vicious and inhuman. She had forced her imagination to work, and she succeeded in getting partial glimpses of the viewpoints of others, in experiencing flashes of the passions that moved them. She wondered what she would do were Hagar her daughter, and for an instant she was drunken with the intensity of the passion that gripped her.
Before her trip around the interior of the cabin was completed, she came upon a six-shooter—heavy, cumbersome, like the weapon she had used the day Randerson had taught her to shoot. It reposed on a shelf near the door that led to the porch, and was almost concealed behind a box in which were a number of miscellaneous articles, broken pipes, pieces of hardware, buckles, a file, a wrench. She examined the weapon. It was loaded, in excellent condition. She supposed it was left there for Hagar's protection. She restored it to its place and continued her inspection.
She had grown more composed now, for she had had time to reflect. Catherson had not had much of a start; he would not ride so fast as Hagar; he did not know where, on the range, he might find Randerson. Hagar was sure to catch him; she would catch him, because of her deep affection for Randerson. And so, after all, there was nothing to worry about.
She was surprised to discover that she could think of Masten without the slightest regret; to find that her contempt for him did not cause her the slightest wonder. Had she always known, subconsciously, that he was a scoundrel? Had that knowledge exerted its influence in making her reluctant to marry him?
Standing at a rear window she looked out at the corral, and beyond it at a dense wood. She had been there for about five minutes, her thoughts placid, considering the excitement of the day, when at a stroke a change came over her. At first a vague disquiet, which rapidly grew into a dread fear, a conviction, that some danger lurked behind her.
She was afraid to turn. She did not turn, at once, listening instead for any sound that might confirm her premonition. No sound came. The silence that reigned in the cabin was every bit as intense as that which surrounded it. But the dread grew upon her; a cold chill raced up her spine, spreading to her arms and to her hands, making them cold and clammy; to her head, whitening her face, making her temples throb. And then, when it seemed that she must shriek in terror, she turned. In the doorway, leaning against one of the jambs, regarding her with narrowed, gleaming eyes, a pleased, appraising smile on his face, was Tom Chavis.
Her first sensation was one of relief. She did not know what she had expected to see when she turned; certainly something more dire and terrible than Tom Chavis. But when she thought of his past actions, of his cynical, skeptical, and significant looks at her; of his manner at this minute; and reflected upon the fact that she was alone, she realized that chance could have sent nothing more terrible to her.
He noted her excitement, and his smile broadened. "Scared?" he said. "Oh, don't be." His attitude toward her became one of easy assurance. He stepped inside and walked to the rough table that stood near the center of the room, placing his hands on it and looking at her craftily.
"Nobody here," he said, "but you—eh? Where's Catherson? Where's Hagar?"
"They've gone to the Flying W," she answered, trying to make her voice even, but not succeeding. There was a quaver in it. "You must have seen them," she added, with a hope that some one at the ranchhouse might have seen him. She would have felt more secure if she had known that someone had seen him.
"Nothin' doin'," he said, a queer leap in his voice. "I come straight from the shack, by the Lazette trail. How does it come that you're here, alone? What did Catherson an' Hagar go to the Flyin' W for? How long will they be gone?"
"They will be back right away," she told him, with a devout hope that they would.
"You're lyin', Ruth," he said familiarly. "You don't know when they'll be back." He grinned, maliciously. "I reckon I c'n tell you why you're here alone, too. Hagar's took your cayuse. Hagar's is in the corral. You see," he added triumphantly as he saw the start that she could not repress. "I've been nosin' around a little before I come in. I wasn't figgerin' on runnin' into Abe Catherson." He laughed thickly, as though some sort of passion surged over him. "So you're all alone here—eh?"
She grew weak at the significance of his words, and leaned against the window-sill for support. And then with the realization that she must not seem to quail before him, she stood erect again and forced her voice to steadiness.
"Yes," she said, "I am alone. Is there any need to repeat that? And being alone, I am in charge, here, and I don't want you here for company."
He laughed, making no move to withdraw.
"I'm here on business."
"You can't have any business with me. Come when the Cathersons are here."
"The waitin's good," he grinned. He walked around to the side of the table, and with one hand resting on its top, looked closely at her, suspicion in his eyes. "Say," he said in a confidential whisper, "it looks peculiar to me. Catherson an' Hagar both gone. Hagar's got your cayuse, leavin' you here alone. Has ol' Catherson tumbled to Masten bein' thick with Hagar?"
"I don't know," she said, flushing. "It is no affair of mine!"
"It ain't—eh?" he said with a laugh, low and derisive. "You don't care what Masten does-eh? An' you're goin' to marry him, Monday. Masten's lucky," he went on, giving her a look that made her shudder; "he's got two girls. An' one of them don't care how much he loves the other." He laughed as though the matter were one of high comedy.
His manner, the half-veiled, vulgar significance of his words and voice, roused her to a cold fury. She took a step toward him and stood rigid, her eyes flashing.
"You get out of this cabin, Tom Chavis!" she commanded. "Get out—instantly!" No longer was she afraid of him; she was resolute, unflinching.
But Chavis merely smiled—seemingly in huge enjoyment. And then, while he looked at her, his expression changed to wonder. "Holy smoke!" he said. "Where's Masten's eyes? He said you didn't have any spirit, Ruth, that you was too cold an' distant. I reckon Masten don't know how to size up a girl—a girl, that is, which is thoroughbred. Seems as though his kind is more like Hagar!" He grinned cunningly and reached into a pocket, drawing out a paper. He chuckled over it, reading it. Then, as though she were certain to appreciate the joke, he held it out to her. "Read it, Ruth," he invited, "it's from Masten, askin' Hagar to meet him, tomorrow, down the crick a ways. He's dead scared to come here any more, since Randerson's aimin' to perforate him!"
Only one conscious emotion afflicted her at this minute: rage over Chavis' inability to understand that she was not of the type of woman who could discuss such matters with a man. Evidently, in his eyes, all women were alike. She knew that such was his opinion when, refusing to take the paper, she stepped back, coldly, and he looked at her in surprise, a sneer following instantly.
"Don't want to read it—eh? Not interested? Jealous, mebbe—eh?" He grinned. "Sure—that's it, you're jealous." He laughed gleefully. "You women are sure jokes. Masten can't wake you up—eh? Well, mebbe Masten—" He paused and licked his lips. "I reckon I don't blame you, Ruth. Masten ain't the sort of man. He's too cold-blooded, hisself to make a woman sort of fan up to him. But there's other guys in this country, Ruth, an'—"
She had seized the first thing that came to her hands, a glass jar that had set on the window sill behind her, and she hurled it furiously and accurately. It struck him fairly on the forehead and broke into many pieces, which clattered and rang on the bare board floor. The sound they made, the smashing, dull impact as the jar had struck Chavis, caused her heart to leap in wild applause—twanging a cord of latent savagery in her that set her nerves singing to its music. It was the first belligerent act of her life. It awakened in her the knowledge that she could defend herself, that the courage for which she had prayed that night when on the rock where Randerson had found her, was lurking deep, ready to answer her summons. She laughed at Chavis, and when she saw him wipe the blood from his face and look at her in bewilderment, she challenged him peremptorily:
"Go—now, you beast!"
His answer was a leering grin that made his face hideous. He looked like a wounded animal, with nothing but concentrated passion in his eyes. Her act had maddened him.
"I'll fix you, you hussy!" he sneered cursing.
She saw now that he was aroused past all restraint, and when he came toward her, crouching, she knew that other missiles would not suffice, that to be absolutely safe she must get possession of the big pistol that reposed on the shelf near the door. So when he came toward her she slipped behind the table. He grasped it by its edge and tried to swing it out of the way, and when she held it he suddenly swooped down, seizing it by the legs and overturning it. As it fell he made a lunge at her, but she eluded him and bounded to the door. The box holding the miscellaneous articles she knocked out of its place, so that it fell with a tinkling crash, throwing its contents in all directions. Her fingers closed on the stock of the pistol, and she faced Chavis, who was a few feet away, leveling the big weapon at him. Her voice came firmly; she was surprised at her own calmness:
"Don't move, Chavis, don't dare to take a step, or I'll kill you!"
Chavis halted, his face a dirty, chalkish white. Twice his lips opened, in astonishment or fear, she could not tell which, but no sound came from them. He stood silent, watching her, furtive-eyed, crouching.
In this interval her thoughts rioted in chaos, like dust before a hurricane. But a question dominated all: could she carry out her threat to kill Chavis, if he took the step?
She knew she would. For in this crisis she had discovered one of nature's first laws. She had never understood, before, but in the last few minutes knowledge had come to her like a burst of light in the darkness. And a voice came to her also—Randerson's; she mentally repeated the words he had spoken on the day he had told her about the rustlers: "I reckon you'd fight like a tiger, ma'am, if the time ever come when you had to."
Yes, she would fight. Not as a tiger would fight, but as Randerson himself had fought—not with a lust to do murder, but in self-protection. And in this instant the spirit of Randerson seemed to stand beside her, applauding her, seeming to whisper words of encouragement to her. And she caught something of his manner when danger threatened; his cold deliberation, his steadiness of hand and eye, his grim alertness. For she had unconsciously studied him in the few minutes preceding the death of Pickett, and she was as unconsciously imitating him now.
Her thoughts ceased, however, when she saw Chavis grin at her, mockingly.
"It's a bluff!" he said. "You couldn't hit the ground, if you had a-hold of the gun with both hands!" He moved slightly, measuring the distance between them.
Plainly, she saw from his actions, from his tensed muscles, her threat would not stop him. She was very pale, and her breast heaved as though from a hard run; Chavis could hear the sound of her breathing as he set himself for a leap; but her lips were pressed tightly together, her eyes glowed and widened as she followed the man's movements. She was going to kill; she had steeled her mind to that. And when she saw the man's muscles contract for the rush that he hoped would disconcert her, she fired, coolly and deliberately.
With the deafening roar of the weapon in her ears, a revulsion, swift, sickening, overcame her. The report reverberated hideously; she seemed to hear a thousand of them. And the smoke billowed around her, strong, pungent. Through it she saw Chavis stagger, clap one hand to his chest and tumble headlong, face down, at her feet. The interior of the cabin whirled in mad circles; the floor seemed to be rising to meet her, and she sank to it, the six-shooter striking the bare boards with a thud that sounded to her like a peal of thunder. And then oblivion, deep and welcome, descended.
Coming down through the break in the canyon, riding slightly in advance of Hagar, Randerson heard the report of a pistol, distant and muffled. He turned in the saddle and looked at Hagar questioningly.
"That come from your shack!" he said shortly; "Ruth there alone?"
He caught the girl's quick affirmative, and Patches leaped high in the air from pain and astonishment as the spurs pressed his flanks. When he came down it was to plunge forward with furious bounds that sent him through the water of the river, driving the spume high over his head. He scrambled up the sloping further bank like a cat, gained the level and straightened to his work. Twice that day had riders clattered the narrow trail with remarkable speed, but Patches would have led them.
He was going his best when within fifty feet of the shack he heard Randerson's voice and slowed down. Even then, so great was his impetus, he slid a dozen feet when he felt the reins, rose to keep from turning a somersault, and came down with a grunt.
In an instant Randerson was inside the cabin. Ruth lay prone, where she had fallen. Randerson, pale, grim-lipped, leaned over her.
"Fainted!" he decided. He stepped to the man and turned him over roughly.
"Chavis," he ejaculated, his lips hardening. "Bored a-plenty!" he added, with vindictive satisfaction. He saw Ruth's weapon, noted the gash in Chavis' forehead, and smiled. "I reckon she fit like a tiger, all right!" he commented admiringly. And now he stood erect and looked down at Ruth compassionately. "She's killed him, but she'll die a-mournin' over it!" Swift resolution made his eyes flash. He looked again at Ruth, saw that she was still in a state of deep unconsciousness. Running out of the cabin, he drew one of his six-shooters. When he had gone about twenty-five feet from the edge of the porch, he wheeled, threw the gun to a quick level, and aimed at the interior of the cabin. At the report he ran toward the cabin again, to meet Hagar, just riding up, wide-eyed and wondering.
"What is goin' on?" she demanded. "What you doin'?"
"Killin' a man," he told her grimly. He seized her by the shoulders. "Understand," he said sternly; "I killed him, no matter what happens. I'd just got here."
With Hagar at his heels he entered the cabin again. While the girl worked with Ruth, he went to the rear wall of the cabin and examined it. When shooting from the outside he had aimed at the wall near a small mirror that was affixed there, and his eyes gleamed with satisfaction when, embedded in one of the logs that formed the wall, he found the bullet.
Five minutes later he and Hagar led Ruth out on the porch. The girl was shaking and cringing, but trying hard to bear up under the recollection of her terrible experience. She had looked, once, at Chavis, on the floor of the cabin, when she had recovered, and her knees had sagged. But Randerson had gone to her assistance. She had looked at him, too, in mute agony of spirit, filled with a dull wonder over his presence, but gaining nothing from his face, sternly sympathetic. Outside, in the brilliant sunshine, a sense of time, place, and events came back to her, and for the first time since her recovery she thought of Abe Catherson's note, which Hagar had read.
"Oh," she said, looking at Randerson with luminous eyes, joy flashing in them, "he didn't shoot you!"
"I reckon not, ma'am," he grinned. "I'm still able to keep on range bossin' for the Flyin' W."
"Yes, yes!" she affirmed with a gulp of delight. And she leaned her head a little toward him, so that it almost touched his arm. And he noted, with a pulse of pleasure, that the grip of her hand on the arm tightened.
But her joy was brief; she had only put the tragedy out of her mind for an instant. It returned, and her lips quavered.
"I killed Chavis, Randerson," she said, looking up at him with a pitiful smile. "I have learned what it means to—to take—human life. I killed him, Rex! I shot him down just as he was about to spring upon me! But I had to do it—didn't I?" she pleaded. "I—I couldn't help it. I kept him off as long as I could—and nobody came—and he looked so terrible—"
"I reckon you've got things mixed, ma'am." Randerson met her puzzled look at him with a grave smile. "It was me, ma'am, killed him."
She drew a sharp breath, her cheeks suddenly flooded with color; she shook Hagar's arm from around her waist, seized Randerson's shoulders, gripping the sleeves of his shirt hard and staring at him, searching his eyes with eager, anxious intensity.
"Don't lie to me, Randerson," she pleaded. "Oh," she went on, reddening as she thought of another occasion when she had accused him, "I know you wouldn't—I know you never did! But I killed him; I know I did! For I shot him, Randerson, just as he started to leap at me. And I shall never forget the look of awful surprise and horror in his eyes! I shall never get over it—I will never forgive myself!"
"Shucks, ma'am, you're plumb excited. An' I reckon you was more excited then, or you'd know better than to say you did it. Me an' Hagar was just gettin' off our horses here at the door—after comin' from the Flyin' W. An' I saw Tom Chavis in the cabin. He was facin' the door, ma'am," he said at a venture, and his eyes gleamed when he saw her start, "an' I saw what he was up to. An' I perforated him, ma'am. From outside, here. Your gun went off at the same time. But you ain't learned to shoot extra good yet, an' your bullet didn't hit him. I'll show you where it's stuck, in the wall."
He led her inside and showed her the bullet. And for a short space she leaned her head against the wall and cried softly. And then, her eyes filled with dread and doubt, she looked up at him.
"Are you sure that is my bullet?" she asked, slowly. She held her breath while awaiting his answer.
It was accompanied by a short laugh, rich in grave humor:
"I reckon you wouldn't compare your shootin' with mine, ma'am. Me havin' so much experience, an' you not bein' able to hit a soap-box proper?"
She bowed her head and murmured a fervent:
Randerson caught Hagar's gaze and looked significantly from Ruth to the door. The girl accepted the hint, and coaxed Ruth to accompany her to the door and thence across the porch to the clearing. Randerson watched them until, still walking, they vanished among the trees. Then he took Chavis' body out. Later, when Ruth and Hagar returned, he was sitting on the edge of the porch, smoking a cigarette.
To Ruth's insistence that Hagar come with her to the house, the girl shook her head firmly.
"Dad will be back, most any time. He'll feel a heap bad, I reckon. An' I've got to be here."
A little later, riding back toward the Flying W—when they had reached the timber-fringed level where, on another day, Masten had received his thrashing, Ruth halted her pony and faced her escort.
"Randerson," she said, "today Uncle Jepson told me some things that I never knew—about Masten's plots against you. I don't blame you for killing those men. And I am sorry that I—I spoke to you as I did—that day." She held out a hand to him.
He took it, smiling gravely. "Why, I reckoned you never meant it," he said.
"And," she added, blushing deeply; "you are not going to make it necessary for me to find another range boss, are you?"
"I'd feel mighty bad if you was to ask me to quit now," he grinned. And now he looked at her fairly, holding her gaze, his eyes glowing. "But as for bein' range boss—" He paused, and a subtle gleam joined the glow in his eyes. "There's a better job—that I'm goin' to ask you for—some day. Don't you think that I ought to be promoted, ma'am?"
She wheeled her pony, blushing, and began to ride toward the ranchhouse. But he urged Patches beside her, and, reaching out, he captured the hand nearest him. And in this manner they rode on—he holding the hand, a thrilling exultation in his heart, she with averted head and downcast eyes, filled with a deep wonder over the new sensation that had come to her.
Uncle Jepson, in the doorway of the house, eagerly watching for the girl's return, saw them coming. Stealthily he closed the door and slipped out into the kitchen, where Aunt Martha was at work.
"Women is mighty uncertain critters, ain't they, Ma?" he said, shaking his head as though puzzled over a feminine trait that had, heretofore, escaped his notice. "I cal'late they never know what they're goin' to do next."
Aunt Martha looked at him over the rims of her spectacles, wonderment in her gaze—perhaps a little belligerence.
"Jep Coakley," she said severely, "you're always runnin' down the women! What on earth do you live with one for? What are the women doin' now, that you are botherin' so much about?"
He gravely took her by the arm and pointed out of a window, from which Ruth and Randerson could be seen.
Aunt Martha looked, long and intently. And when she finally turned to Uncle Jepson, her face was radiant, and she opened her arms to him.
"Oh, Jep!" she exclaimed lowly, "ain't that wonderful!"
"I cal'late I've been expectin' it," he observed.
A MAN IS BORN AGAIN
The meeting between Catherson and Randerson had taken the edge off Catherson's frenzy, but it had not shaken his determination. He had been in the grip of an insane wrath when he had gone to see the Flying W range boss. His passions had ruled him, momentarily. He had subdued them, checked them; they were held in the clutch of his will as he rode the Lazette trail. He did not travel fast, but carefully. There was something in the pony's gait that suggested the mood of his rider—a certain doggedness of movement and demeanor which might have meant that the animal knew his rider's thoughts and was in sympathy with them. They traveled the trail that Randerson had taken on the night he had found Ruth on the rock; they negotiated the plain that spread between the ranchhouse and the ford where Randerson had just missed meeting Ruth that day; they went steadily over the hilly country and passed through the section of broken land where Ruth's pony had thrown her. Reaching the hills and ridges beyond, Catherson halted and scrutinized the country around him. When he observed that there was no sign of life within range of his vision, he spoke to the pony and they went forward.
Catherson's lips were set in a heavy, ugly pout. His shaggy brows were contracted; somber, baleful flashes, that betrayed something of those passions that he was subduing, showed in his eyes as the pony skirted the timber where Randerson had tied Ruth's horse. When he reached the declivity where Ruth had overheard Chavis and Kester, he dismounted and led his pony down it, using the utmost care. He was conserving the pony's strength. For he knew nothing of what might be required of the animal, and this thing which he had determined to do must not be bungled.
He was still in no hurry, but he grew cautious now, and secretive. He made a wide circuit of the basin, keeping out of sight as much as possible, behind some nondescript brush, riding in depressions; going a mile out of his way to follow the sandy bed of a washout. His objective was Chavis' shack, and he wanted to come upon it unnoticed. Or, if that failed, he desired to make his visit appear casual.
* * * * *
But in Chavis' shack was a man who of late had formed the habit of furtive watchfulness. He wore a heavy six-shooter at his waist, but he knew better than to try to place any dependence upon his ability as a marksman. A certain meeting with a grim-faced man on the Lazette trail the night before, a vivid recollection of the grim-faced man's uncanny cleverness with a weapon, demonstrated upon two occasions, worried him, as did also some words that kept running through his mind, asleep or awake, and would not be banished. He could even hear the intonations of the voice that had uttered them: "This country is too crowded for both of us."
Masten was beginning to believe that. He had thought that very morning, of leaving, of escaping, rather. But Chavis had reassured him, had ridiculed him, in fact.
"Randerson's four-flushin'," Chavis had laughed. "He's took a shine to Ruth, an' he's aimin' to scare you out. He'd sooner shoot a foot off than bore you. 'Cause why? 'Cause if he bored you he'd never have no chance to get next to Ruth. She's some opposed to him killin' folks promiscuous. You lay low, that's all. An' I'll rustle up a guy one of these days which will put a crimp in Randerson. If he comes snoopin' around here, why, there's a rifle handy. Let him have it, sudden—before he can git set!"
Since he had sent Chavis with the note to Hagar, Masten had been uneasy. He had not stayed inside the shack for more than a minute or two at a time, standing much in the doorway, scanning the basin and the declivity carefully and fearfully. And he had seen Catherson lead his pony down. He went in and took the rifle from its pegs.
He had had a hope, at first, that it might be Kester or Linton. But when he saw that the rider did not come directly toward the shack a cold sweat broke out on his forehead and he fingered the rifle nervously. When he saw the rider disappear in the washout, he got a chair from inside and, standing on it, concentrated his gaze at the point where the rider must emerge. And when, a little later, he caught a glimpse of the rider's head, appearing for just an instant above the crest of a sand ridge, noting the beard and the shaggy hair, his face turned ashen and the chair rocked under him. For he knew but one man in this country who looked like that.
He got down from the chair and glared around, his eyes dilated. Catherson's actions seemed innocent enough. But what could he be doing in the basin? And, once here, what could he mean by prowling like that, instead of coming directly to the cabin? What could he be looking for? Why did he not show himself?
Masten slipped outside and crept along the wall of the shack to a corner, from which, screened by some alder, he watched breathlessly, a nameless disquiet oppressing him. Did Catherson know anything?
That question his conscience dinned in his ears. It was answered many times, as he stood there—an insistent affirmative, suggested, proven by Catherson's actions, supported by the fact that he had never seen Catherson in the basin before.
As he watched, he saw Catherson again. He was closer, riding behind a thicket of gnarled brush, which was not high enough entirely to conceal him, and he was bending far over in the saddle as though he did not want to be seen. But Masten could see him, and this last evidence of the man's caution convinced Masten. Obeying a sudden impulse, he threw the rifle to his shoulder. The muzzle wavered, describing wide circles, and before he could steady it enough to be reasonably certain of hitting the target, Catherson had vanished behind a low hill.
Masten wiped the cold moisture from his forehead. For an instant he stood irresolute, trembling. And then, panic-stricken over a picture that his imagination drew for him, he dropped the rifle and ran, crouching, to the corral. With frenzied haste, urged by the horrible conviction that had seized him, he threw saddle and bridle on his pony, and clambered, mumbling incoherently, into the saddle. Twice the reins escaped his wild clutches, but finally he caught them and sat erect looking fearfully for Catherson.
The nester was not visible to him. Gulping hard, Masten sent the pony cautiously forward. He skirted the corral fence, keeping the shack between him and the point at which he divined Catherson was then riding, and loped the pony into some sparse timber near the river.
His panic had grown. He had yielded to it, and it had mastered him. His lips were twitching; he cringed and shivered as, getting deeper into the timber, he drove the spurs into the pony's flanks and raced it away from the shack.
He rode for perhaps a mile at break-neck speed. And then, unable to fight off the fascination that gripped him, doubting, almost ridiculing himself for yielding to the wild impulse to get away from Catherson, for now that he was away his action seemed senseless, he halted the pony and turned in the saddle, peering back through the trees. He had followed a narrow trail, and its arching green stretched behind him, peaceful, inviting, silent. So calm did it all seem to him now, so distant from that dread danger he had anticipated, that he smiled and sat debating an impulse to return and face Catherson. The man's intentions could not be what he had suspected them to be; clearly, his conscience had played him a trick.
But he did not wheel his pony. For as he sat there in the silence he heard the rapid drumming of hoofs on the path. Distant they were, but unmistakable. For a moment Masten listened to them, the cold damp breaking out on his forehead again. Then he cursed, drove the spurs deep into the pony and leaning forward, rode frantically away.
Coming out of the timber to a sand plain that stretched in seeming endlessness toward a horizon that was dimming in the growing twilight, Masten halted the pony again, but only for an instant. In the next he was urging it on furiously. For looking back fearfully, he saw Catherson bestriding his pony, a dread apparition, big, rigid, grim, just breaking through the timber edge, not more than two or three hundred feet distant. Masten had hoped he had distanced his pursuer, for he had ridden at least five miles at a pace that he had never before attempted. There had been no way for him to judge the pony's speed, of course, but when he had halted momentarily he had noted that the animal was quivering all over, that it caught its breath shrilly in the brief interval of rest, and now as he rode, bending far over its mane, he saw that the billowing foam on its muzzle was flecked with blood. The animal was not equal to the demands he had made upon it.
But he forced it on, with spur and voice and hand, muttering, pleading with it incoherently, his own breath coughing in his throat, the muscles of his back cringing and rippling in momentary expectation of a flying missile that would burn and tear its way through them. But no bullet came. There was no sound behind him except, occasionally, the ring of hoofs. At other times silence engulfed him. For in the deep sand of the level the laboring ponies of pursued and pursuer made no noise. Masten could hear a sodden squish at times, as his own animal whipped its hoofs out of a miniature sand hill.
He did not look around again for a long time. Long ago had he lost all sense of direction, for twilight had come and gone, and blank darkness, except for the stars, stretched on all sides. He had never seen this sand level; he knew it must be far off the Lazette trail. And he knew, too, before he had ridden far into it, that it was a desert. For as twilight had come on he had scrutinized it hopefully in search of timber, bushes, a gorge, a gully—anything that might afford him an opportunity for concealment, for escape from the big, grim pursuer. He had seen nothing of that character. Barren, level, vast, this waste of world stretched before him, with no verdure save the repulsive cactus, the scraggy yucca, the grease-wood, and occasional splotches of mesquite.
They raced on, the distance between them lessening gradually. Masten could feel his pony failing. It tried bravely, but the times when it spurted grew less frequent; it made increasingly harder work of pulling its hoofs out of the deep sand; it staggered and lurched on the hard stretches.
Masten looked back frequently now. The grim, relentless figure behind him grew grotesque and gigantic in his thoughts, and once, when he felt the pony beneath him go to its knees, he screamed hysterically. But the pony clambered to its feet again and staggered on, to fall again a minute later. Catherson's pony, its strength conserved for this ordeal, came on steadily, its rider carefully avoiding the soft sand, profiting by Masten's experiences with it. It was not until he saw Catherson within fifty feet of him that Masten divined that he was not to be shot. For at that distance he made a fair target, and Catherson made no movement toward his gun. The nester was still silent; he had spoken no word. He spoke none now, as he hung relentlessly to his prey, seeming, to Masten's distorted mind and vision, a hideous, unnatural and ghastly figure of death.
Catherson had drawn nearer. He was not more than thirty feet away when Masten's pony went down again. It fell with a looseness and finality that told Masten of the end. And Masten slipped his feet out of the stirrups, throwing himself free and alighting on his hands and knees in front of the exhausted animal. He got up, and started to run, desperately, sobbing, his lips slavering from terror. But he turned, after running a few feet, to see Catherson coming after him. The nester was uncoiling a rope from his saddle horn, and at this sight Masten shrieked and went to his knees. He heard an answering laugh from Catherson, short, malevolent. And then the rope swished out, its loop widening and writhing. Masten shrieked again, and threw up his hands impotently.
* * * * *
Later, Catherson brought his pony to a halt, far from where the rope had been cast, and looked grimly down at his fellow being, prone and motionless in the deep sand at his feet.
Unmoved, remorseless, Catherson had cut short the pleadings, the screaming, the promises. He had not bungled his work, and it had been done. But as he looked down now, the muscles of his face quivered. And now he spoke the first word that had passed his lips since he had left the Flying W ranchhouse:
"I reckon you've got what's been comin' to you!"
He got down, unfastened the rope, deliberately re-coiled it and looped it around the saddle horn. Then he mounted and rode away. Grim, indistinct, fading into the blackness of the desert night, he went, half a mile, perhaps. And then, halting the pony, he turned in the saddle and looked back, his head bent in a listening attitude. To his ears came the sharp bark of a coyote, very near. It was answered, faintly, from the vast, yawning distance, by another. Catherson stiffened, and lines of remorse came into his face.
"Hell!" he exclaimed gruffly.
He wheeled the pony and sent it scampering back. A little later he was kneeling at Masten's side, and still later he helped Masten to the saddle in front of him and set out again into the desert blackness toward the timber from which they both had burst some time before.
Many hours afterward they came to the river, at the point where the Lazette trail intersected. There, in the shallow water of the ford, Masten washed from his body the signs of his experience, Catherson helping him. Outwardly, when they had finished, there were few marks on Masten. But inwardly his experience had left an ineffaceable impression.
After washing, he staggered to a rock and sat on it, his head in his hands, shivers running over him. For a time Catherson paid no attention to him, busying himself with his pony, jaded from the night's work. But after half an hour, just as the first faint shafts of dawn began to steal up over the horizon, Catherson walked close, and stood looking down at his victim.
"Well," he said, slowly and passionlessly, "I've got you this far. I'm quittin' you. I reckon I've deviled you enough. I was goin' to kill you. But killin' you wouldn't have made things right. I expect you've learned somethin', anyway. You'll know enough to play square, after this. An' wherever you go—"
Masten looked up at him, his face haggard, his eyes brimming, but flashing earnestly.
"I'm going back to Hagar," he said. He shivered again. "You're right, Catherson," he added, his voice quavering; "I learned a lot tonight. I've learned—" His voice broke, and he sat there grim and white, shuddering as a child shudders when awakened from a nightmare. He almost collapsed when Catherson's huge hands fell to his shoulders, but the hands held him, the fingers gripping deeply into the flesh. There was a leap in Catherson's voice:
"You're almost a man, after all!" he said.
They got on the pony after a while, riding as before, Masten in front, Catherson behind him, steadying him. And in this manner they rode on toward Catherson's shack, miles down the river.
It was late in the morning when they came in sight of the shack, and seeing them from afar Hagar ran to them. She stopped when she saw Masten, her eyes wide with wonder and astonishment that changed quickly to joy as she saw a smile gathering on Catherson's face.
"I've brought you your husband, Hagar," he told her.
Hagar did not move. Her hands were pressing her breast; her eyes were eloquent with doubt and hope. They sought Masten's, searchingly, defiantly. And she spoke directly to him, proudly, her head erect:
"If you've come ag'in your will—If dad had to bring you—" She paused, her lips trembling.
"Shucks," said Catherson gently; "he's come on his own hook, Hagar. Why, he asked me to bring him—didn't you, Masten?"
And then he dismounted and helped Masten down, leading his pony forward toward the shack, but turning when he reached the porch, to look back at Masten and Hagar, standing together in the shade of the trees, the girl's head resting on the man's shoulder.
Catherson pulled the saddle and bridle from the pony, turned him into the corral, and then went into the house. A little later he came out again, smoking a pipe. Masten and Hagar were sitting close together on a fallen tree near where he had left them. Catherson smiled mildly at them and peacefully pulled at his pipe.
A DREAM COMES TRUE
On the edge of the mesa, from which, on the day of her adventure with the injured ankle, Ruth had viewed the beautiful virgin wilderness that stretched far on the opposite side of the river, she was riding, the afternoon of a day a week later, with Randerson. She had expressed a wish to come here, and Randerson had agreed joyfully.
Seated on a rock in the shade of some trees that formed the edge of that timber grove in which he had tied Ruth's pony on a night that held many memories for both, they had watched, for a long time, in silence, the vast country before them. Something of the solemn calmness of the scene was reflected in Ruth's eyes. But there was a different expression in Randerson's eyes. It was as though he possessed a secret which, he felt, she ought to know, but was deliberately delaying the telling of it. But at last he decided, though he began obliquely:
"I reckon there's a set plan for the way things turn out—for folks," he said, gravely. "Things turn out to show it. Everything is fixed." He smiled as she looked at him. "Take me," he went on. "I saw your picture. If I'd only seen it once, mebbe I wouldn't have fell in love with it. But—"
"Why, Rex!" she reproved with an injured air, "how can you say that? Why, I believe I loved you from the minute I saw you!"
"You didn't have anything on me there!" he told her. "For I was a gone coon the first time I set eyes on you! But is it the same with pictures? A picture, now, has to be studied; it ain't like the real article," he apologized. "Anyway, if I hadn't kept lookin' at your picture, mebbe things would have been different. But I got it, an' I looked at it a lot. That shows that it was all fixed for you an' me."
She looked mirthfully at him. "Was it all fixed for you to take the picture from Vickers, by force—as you told me you did?" she demanded.
He grinned brazenly. "I reckon that was part of the plan," he contended. "Anyway, I got it. Vickers wouldn't speak to me for a month, but I reckon I didn't lose any sleep over that. What sleep I lost was lost lookin' at the picture." The confession did not embarrass him, for he continued quietly:
"An' there's Masten." He watched the smile go out of her face with regret in his eyes. But he went on. "I intended to kill him, one night. But he had no gun, an' I couldn't. That would have spoiled the plan that's fixed for all of us. I let him live, an' the plan works out." He took hold of the hand nearest him and pressed it tightly.
"Have you seen Hagar since?" he asked.
"No," she told him, looking quickly at him, for she caught an odd note in his voice. "I just couldn't bear to think of going back there."
"Well," he said, "Hagar's happy. I was over there this mornin'. Masten's there." He felt her hand grip his suddenly, and he smiled. He had talked with Catherson; the nester had told him the story, but it had been agreed between them the real story was not to be told. "They're married—Hagar an' Masten. Masten come to Catherson's shack the day after I—after I brought you home from there. An' they rode over to Lazette an' got hooked up. An' Catherson had been lookin' for Masten, figurin' to kill him. I reckon it was planned for Masten to have a change of heart. Or mebbe it was gettin' married changed him. For he's a lot different, since. He's quiet, an' a heap considerate of other folks' feelin's. He's got some money, an' he's goin' to help Abe to fix up his place. He asked my pardon, for settin' Pickett an' Kelso on me. I shook his hand, Ruth, an' wished him luck an' happiness. Don't you wish him the same, Ruth—both of them?"