THE RANGE BOSS
BY CHARLES ALDEN SELTZER
AUTHOR OF THE BOSS OF THE LAZY Y, ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY FRANK E. SCHOONOVER
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1916 ——— Published September, 1916 ——— Copyrighted in Great Britain
CHAPTER PAGE I At Calamity Crossing 1 II The Sympathetic Rescuer 12 III At the Flying W 33 IV A Memory of the Rider 42 V Love vs. Business 56 VI A Man and His Job 65 VII How an Insult Was Avenged 78 VIII What Uncle Jepson Heard 97 IX "Somethin's Gone Out of Them" 104 X The Law of the Primitive 111 XI Hagar's Eyes 130 XII The Rustlers 143 XIII The Fight 160 XIV The Rock and the Moonlight 166 XV The Runaway Comes Home 184 XVI Two Are Taught Lessons 188 XVII The Target 202 XVIII The Gunfighter 217 XIX Ready Gun and Clean Heart 233 XX The Bubble—Dreams 245 XXI One Too Many 254 XXII Into Which a Girl's Trouble Comes 265 XXIII Banishing a Shadow 278 XXIV Realizing a Passion 291 XXV A Man Is Born Again 313 XXVI A Dream Comes True 328
Randerson watches the newcomers Frontispiece
"I am Ruth Harkness, the new owner of the Flying W" 64
The twilight was split by a red streak 96
The grim, relentless figure behind him grew grotesque and gigantic in his thoughts 320
THE RANGE BOSS CHAPTER I
AT CALAMITY CROSSING
Getting up the shoulder of the mesa was no easy job, but judging from the actions and appearance of wiry pony and rider it was a job that would be accomplished. For part of the distance, it is true, the man thought it best to dismount, drive the pony ahead of him, and follow on foot. At length, however, they reached the top of the mesa, and after a breathing spell the man mounted and rode across the table-land.
A short lope brought pony and rider to a point where the mesa sloped down again to meet a plain that stretched for miles, to merge into some foothills. A faint trail came from somewhere through the foothills, wound over the plain, and followed a slope that descended to a river below the rider, crossed the stream, led over a level, up another slope, to another plain, and so away into the distance.
Up and down the river the water ran deeply in a canyon, the painted buttes that flanked it lending an appearance of constriction to its course, but at the crossing it broadened formidably and swirled splashingly around numerous rocks that littered its course.
The man's gaze rested briefly on the river and the crossing.
"She's travelin' some, this mornin'," he said aloud, mentally referring to the water. "I reckon that mud over there must be hub deep on a buckboard," he added, looking at the level on the opposite side of the crossing. "I'd say, if anybody was to ask me, that last night's rain has made Calamity some risky this mornin'—for a buckboard." He drew out a silver timepiece and consulted it with grave deliberation. "It's eleven. They'd be due about now—if the Eight O'clock was on time—which she's never been knowed to be." He returned the timepiece to the pocket and rode along the edge of the mesa away from the river, his gaze concentrated at the point where the trail on the plains below him vanished into the distant foothills. A little later he again halted the pony, swung crossways in the saddle and rolled a cigarette, and while smoking and watching drew out two pistols, took out the cylinders, replaced them, and wiped and polished the metal until the guns glittered brightly in the swimming sunlight. He considered them long before restoring them to their places, doubt in his gaze. "I reckon she's been raised a lot different," was his mental conclusion.
"But anyway, I reckon there ain't nothin' in Poughkeepsie's name to give anyone comin' from there any right to put on airs." He tossed the butt of the cigarette away and frowned, continuing his soliloquy: "The Flyin' W ain't no place for a lady. Jim Pickett an' Tom Chavis ain't fit for no lady to look at—let alone talkin' to them. There's others, too. Now, if she was comin' to the Diamond H—why, shucks! Mebbe she wouldn't think I'm any better than Pickett an' Chavis! If she looks anything like her picture, though, she's got sense. An'—"
He saw the pony flick its ears erect, and he followed its gaze to see on the plain's trail, far over near where it melted into the foothills, a moving speck crawling toward him.
He swung back into the saddle and smilingly patted the pony's neck.
"You was expectin' them too, wasn't you, Patches? I reckon you're a right knowin' horse!"
He wheeled the pony and urged it slowly back over the mesa, riding along near the edge until he reached a point behind a heavy post-oak thicket, where he pulled the pony to a halt. From here he would not be observed from the trail on the plains, and he again twisted in the saddle, sagging against the high pommel and drawing the wide brim of his hat well over his eyes, shading them as he peered intently at the moving speck.
He watched for half an hour, while the speck grew larger in his vision, finally assuming definite shape. He recognized the buckboard and the blacks that were pulling it; they had been inseparable during the past two years—for Bill Harkness, the Flying W owner, would drive no others after his last sickness had seized him, the sickness which had finally finished him some months before. The blacks were coming rapidly, shortening the distance with the tireless lope that the plains' animal uses so effectively, and as they neared the point on the mesa where the rider had stationed himself, the latter parted the branches of the thicket and peered between them, his eyes agleam, the color deepening in his face.
"There's four of them in the buckboard," he said aloud, astonished, as the vehicle came nearer; "an' Wes Vickers ain't with them! Now, what do you think of that! Wes told me there'd be only the girl an' her aunt an' uncle. It's a man, too, an' he's doin' the drivin'! I reckon Wes got drunk an' they left him behind." He reflected a moment, watching with narrowed eyes, his brows in a frown. "That guy doin' the drivin' is a stranger, Patches," he said. "Why, it's mighty plain. Four in the buckboard, with them bags an' trunks an' things, makes a full house, an' there wasn't no room for Wes!" He grinned.
The buckboard swung close to the foot of the slope below him, and he eagerly scrutinized the occupants, his gaze lingering long on the girl on the seat beside the driver. She had looked for one flashing instant toward him, her attention drawn, no doubt, by the fringing green of the mesa, and he had caught a good glimpse of her face. It was just like the picture that Wes Vickers had surreptitiously brought to him one day some weeks before, after Harkness' death, when, in talking with Wes about the niece who was now the sole owner of the Flying W, and who was coming soon to manage her property, he had evinced curiosity. He had kept the picture, in spite of Vickers' remonstrances, and had studied it many times. He studied it now, after the passage of the buckboard, and was supremely pleased, for the likeness did not flatter her.
Displeasure came into his eyes, though, when he thought of the driver. He was strangely disturbed over the thought that the driver had accompanied her from the East. He knew the driver was an Easterner, for no Westerner would ever rig himself out in such an absurd fashion—the cream-colored Stetson with the high pointed crown, extra wide brim with nickel spangles around the band, a white shirt with a broad turndown collar and a flowing colored tie—blue; a cartridge belt that fitted snugly around his waist, yellow with newness, so that the man on the mesa almost imagined he could hear it creak when its owner moved; corduroy riding-breeches, tight at the knees, and glistening boots with stiff tops. And—here the observer's eyes gleamed with derision—as the buckboard passed, he had caught a glimpse of a nickeled spur, with long rowels, on one of the ridiculous boots.
He chuckled, his face wreathing in smiles as he urged the pony along the edge of the mesa, following the buckboard. He drew up presently at a point just above the buckboard, keeping discreetly behind some brush that he might not be seen, and gravely considered the vehicle and its occupants. The buckboard had stopped at the edge of the water, and the blacks were drinking. The girl was talking; the watcher heard her voice distinctly.
"What a rough, grim country!" she said. "It is beautiful, though."
"She's a knowin' girl," mused the rider, strangely pleased that she should like the world he lived in. For it was his world; he had been born here.
"Don't you think so, Willard?" added the girl.
The rider strained his ears for the answer. It came, grumblingly:
"I suppose it's well enough—for the clodhoppers that live here."
The girl laughed tolerantly; the rider on the mesa smiled. "I reckon I ain't goin' to like Willard a heap, Patches," he said to the pony; "he's runnin' down our country." He considered the girl and the driver gravely, and again spoke to the pony. "Do you reckon he's her brother, Patches? I expect it ain't possible—they're so different."
"Do you think it is quite safe?" The girl's voice reached him again; she was looking at the water of the crossing.
"Vickers said it was," the driver replied. "He ought to know." His tone was irritable.
"He's her brother, I reckon," reflected the man on the mesa; "no lover would talk that way to his girl." There was relief in his voice, for he had been hoping that the man was a brother.
"Vickers said to swing sharply to the left after passing the middle," declared the driver sonorously, "but I don't see any wagon tracks—that miserable rain last night must have obliterated them."
"I reckon the rain has obliterated them," grinned the rider, laboring with the word, "if that means wipin' them out. Leastways, they ain't there any more."
"I feel quite sure that Mr. Vickers said to turn to the right after passing the middle, Willard," came the girl's voice.
"I certainly ought to be able to remember that, Ruth!" said the driver, gruffly. "I heard him distinctly!"
"Well," returned the girl with a nervous little laugh, "perhaps I was mistaken, after all." She placed a hand lightly on the driver's arm. And the words she spoke then were not audible to the rider, so softly were they uttered. And the driver laughed with satisfaction. "You've said it!" he declared. "I'm certainly able to pilot this ship to safety!" He pulled on the reins and spoke sharply to the blacks. They responded with a jerk that threw the occupants of the buckboard against the backs of the seats.
The rider's eyes gleamed. "Hush!" he said, addressing no one in particular. "Calamity's goin' to claim another victim!" He raised one hand to his lips, making a funnel of it. He was about to shout at the driver, but thought better of the idea and let the hand drop. "Shucks," he said, "I reckon there ain't any real danger. But I expect the boss gasser of the outfit will be gettin' his'n pretty quick now." He leaned forward and watched the buckboard, his lean under jaw thrown forward, a grim smile on his lips. He noted with satisfaction that the elderly couple in the rear seat, and the girl in the front one, were holding on tightly, and that the driver, busy with the reins, was swaying from one side to the other as the wagon bumped over the impeding stones of the river bed.
The blacks reached the middle of the stream safely and were crowding of their own accord to the right, when the driver threw his weight on the left rein and swung them sharply in that direction. For a few feet they traveled evenly enough but when they were still some distance from the bank, the horse on the left sank quickly to his shoulders, lunged, stood on his hind legs and pawed the air impotently, and then settled back, snorting and trembling.
Too late the driver saw his error. As the left horse sank he threw his weight on the right rein as though to remedy the accident. This movement threw him off his balance, and he slipped off the seat, clawing and scrambling; at the instant the front of the buckboard dipped and sank, disappearing with a splash into the muddy water. It had gone down awry, the girl's side high out of the water, the girl herself clinging to the edge of the seat, out of the water's reach, the elderly couple in the rear also safe and dry, but plainly frightened.
The girl did not scream; the rider on the mesa noted this with satisfaction. She was talking, though, to the driver, who at first had disappeared, only to reappear an instant later, blowing and cursing, his head and shoulders out of the water, his ridiculous hat floating serenely down stream, the reins still in his hands.
"I reckon he's discovered that Vickers told him to swing to the right," grinned the rider from his elevation. He watched the driver until he gained the bank and stood there, dripping, gesticulating, impotent rage consuming him. The buckboard could not be moved without endangering the comfort of the remaining occupants, and without assistance they must inevitably stay where they were. And so the rider on the mesa wheeled his pony and sent it toward the edge of the mesa where a gentle slope swept downward to the plains.
"I reckon I've sure got to rescue her," he said, grinning with some embarrassment, "though I'm mighty sorry that Willard had to get his new clothes wet."
He spoke coaxingly to the pony; it stepped gingerly over the edge of the mesa and began the descent, sending stones and sand helter-skelter before it, the rider sitting tall and loose in the saddle, the reins hanging, he trusting entirely to the pony's wisdom.
THE SYMPATHETIC RESCUER
Halfway down the slope, the rider turned and saw that Willard and the occupants of the buckboard were watching him. The color in his cheeks grew deeper and his embarrassment increased, for he noted that the girl had faced squarely around toward him, had forgotten her precarious position; her hands were clasped as though she were praying for his safety. The aunt and uncle, too, were twisted in their seat, leaning toward him in rigid attitudes, and Willard, safe on his bank, was standing with clenched hands.
"Do you reckon we're goin' to break our necks, you piebald outlaw," the rider said to the pony. "Well," as the animal whinnied gently at the sound of his voice, "there's some people that do, an' if you've got any respect for them you'll be mighty careful."
The descent was accomplished in a brief time, and then Patches and his rider went forward toward the mired buckboard and its occupants, the pony unconcernedly, its rider, having conquered his embarrassment, serene, steady of eye, inwardly amused.
When he reached the water's edge he halted Patches. Sitting motionless in the saddle, he quietly contemplated the occupants of the buckboard. He had come to help them, but he was not going to proffer his services until he was sure they would be welcomed. He had heard stories of the snobbishness and independence of some Easterners.
And so he sat there long, for the occupants of the buckboard, knowing nothing of his intentions, were in their turn awaiting some word from him.
No word came. He looked down, interestedly watching Patches drink. Then, when the pony had finished, he looked up, straight at the girl. She was sitting very erect—as erect as she could in the circumstances, trying hard to repress her anger over his inaction. She could see that he was deliberately delaying. And she met his gaze coldly.
He looked from the girl to Willard. The Easterner was examining a small pistol that he had drawn from a yellow holster at his waist, so high on his waist that he had been compelled to bend his elbow in an acute angle to get it out. His hands were trembling, whether from the wetting he had received or from doubt as to the rider's intentions, was a question that the rider did not bother with. He looked again at the girl. Doubt had come into her eyes; she was looking half fearfully at him, and he saw that she half suspected him of being a desperado, intent on doing harm. He grinned, moved to mirth.
She was reassured; that smile had done it. She returned it, a little ruefully. And she felt that, in view of the circumstances, she might dispense with formalities and get right down to business. For her seat was uncomfortable, and Aunt Martha and Uncle Jepson were anxious, to say nothing of Willard, who had placed his pistol behind him, determined, if the man turned out to be a highwayman, to defend his party to the last.
But still the rider did not move. There was no hurry; only Willard seemed to be really suffering, for the winter's chill had not yet gone out of the air. But then, Willard had earned his ducking.
The girl cleared her throat. "We have had an accident," she informed the rider, her voice a little husky.
At this word he swept his hat from his head and bowed to her. "Why, I reckon you have, ma'am," he said. "Didn't you have no driver?"
"Why, yes," returned the girl hesitatingly, for she thought she detected sarcasm in his voice, and she had to look twice at him to make sure—and then she couldn't have told. "The gentleman on the bank, there, is our driver."
"The gentleman on the bank, eh?" drawled the rider. And now for the first time he seemed to become aware of Willard's presence, for he looked narrowly at him. "Why, he's all wet!" he exclaimed. "I expect he come pretty near drownin', didn't he, ma'am?" He looked again at the girl, astonishment in his eyes. "An' so he drove you into that suck-hole, an' he got throwed out! Wasn't there no one to tell him that Calamity ain't to be trusted?"
"Mr. Vickers told us to keep to the right after reaching the middle," said the girl.
"I distinctly understood him to say the left, Ruth," growled Willard.
The rider watched the girl's face, saw the color come into it, and his lips twitched with some inward emotion. "I reckon your brother's right, ma'am. Vickers wanted to drownd you-all."
"Mr. Masten isn't my brother," denied the girl. The color in her face heightened.
"Well, now," said the rider. He bent his head and patted the pony's mane to hide his disappointment. Again, so it seemed to the girl, he was deliberately delaying, and she bit her lips with vexation.
Willard also seemed to have the same thought, for he shouted angrily: "While you are talking there, my man, I am freezing. Isn't there some way for you to get my party and the wagon out of there?"
"Why, I expect there's a way," drawled the rider, fixing Masten with a steady eye; "I've been wonderin' why you didn't mention it before."
"Oh Lord!" said Masten to the girl, his disgust making his voice husky, "can you imagine such stupidity?"
But the girl did not answer; she had seen a glint in the rider's eyes while he had been looking at Masten which had made her draw a deep breath. She had seen guile in his eyes, and subtlety, and much humor. Stupidity! She wondered how Masten could be so dense!
Then she became aware that the rider was splashing toward her, and the next instant she was looking straight at him, with not more than five feet of space between them. His gaze was on her with frank curiosity, his lean, strong face glowing with the bloom of health; his mouth was firm, his eyes serene, virility and confidence in every movement of his body. And then he was speaking to her, his voice low, gentle, respectful, even deferential. He seemed not to have taken offense at Willard, seemed to have forgotten him.
"I reckon you-all will have to ride out of here on my horse, ma'am," he said, "if you reckon you'd care to. Why, yes, I expect that's right; I'd ought to take the old lady an' gentleman first, ma'am," as the girl indicated them.
He backed his pony and smiled at Aunt Martha, who was small, gray, and sweet of face. He grinned at her—the grin of a grown boy at his grandmother.
"I reckon you'll go first, Aunty," he said to her. "I'll have you high an' dry in a jiffy. You couldn't ride there, you know," he added, as Aunt Martha essayed to climb on behind him. "This Patches of mine is considerable cantankerous an' ain't been educated to it. It's likely he'd dump us both, an' then we'd be freezin' too." And he glanced sidelong at Willard.
Aunt Martha was directed to step on the edge of the buckboard. Trembling a little, though smiling, she was lifted bodily and placed sidewise on the saddle in front of him, and in this manner was carried to the bank, far up on the slope out of the deep mud that spread over the level near the water's edge, and set down gently, voicing her thanks.
Then the rescuer returned for Uncle Jepson. On his way to join Aunt Martha, Uncle Jepson, who had watched the rider narrowly during his talk with Willard, found time to whisper:
"I had a mule once that wasn't any stubborner than Willard Masten."
"You don't recollect how you cured him of it?"
"Yes sir, I do. I thumped it out of him!" And Uncle Jepson's eyes glowed vindictively.
"I reckon you've got a heap of man in you, sir," said the rider. He set Uncle Jepson down beside Aunt Martha and turned his pony back toward the river to get his remaining passenger. Masten waved authoritatively to him.
"If it's just the same to you, my man, I'll assist Miss Ruth to land. Just ride over here!"
The rider halted the pony and sat loosely in the saddle, gravely contemplating the driver across the sea of mud that separated them.
"Why, you ain't froze yet, are you!" he said in pretended astonishment. "Your mouth is still able to work considerable smooth! An' so you want to ride my horse!" He sat, regarding the Easterner in deep, feigned amazement. "Why, Willard," he said when it seemed he had quite recovered, "Patches would sure go to sun-fishin' an' dump you off into that little ol' suck-hole ag'in!" He urged the pony on through the water to the buckboard and drew up beside the girl.
Her face was crimson, for she had not failed to hear Masten, and it was plain to the rider that she had divined that jealously had impelled Masten to insist on the change of riders. Feminine perverseness, or something stronger, was in her eyes when the rider caught a glimpse of them as he brought his pony to a halt beside her. He might now have made the mistake of referring to Masten and thus have brought from her a quick refusal to accompany him, for he had made his excuse to Masten and to have permitted her to know the real reason would have been to attack her loyalty. He strongly suspected that she was determined to make Masten suffer for his obstinacy, and he rejoiced in her spirit.
"We're ready for you now, ma'am."
"Are you positively certain that Patches won't go to 'sunfishing' with me?" she demanded, as she poised herself on the edge of the buckboard. He flashed a pleased grin at her, noting with a quickening pulse the deep, rich color in her cheeks, the soft white skin, her dancing eyes—all framed in the hood of the rain cloak she wore.
He reached out his hands to her, clasped her around the waist and swung her to the place on the saddle formerly occupied by Aunt Martha. If he held her to him a little more tightly than he had held Aunt Martha the wind might have been to blame, for it was blowing some stray wisps of her hair into his face and he felt a strange intoxication that he could scarcely control.
And now, when she was safe on his horse and there was no further danger that she would refuse to ride with him, he gave her the answer to her question:
"Patches wouldn't be unpolite to a lady, ma'am," he said quietly, into her hair; "he wouldn't throw you."
He could not see her face—it was too close to him and his chin was higher than the top of her head. But he could not fail to catch the mirth in her voice:
"Then you lied to Willard!"
"Why, yes, ma'am; I reckon I did. You see, I didn't want to let Patches get all muddied up, ridin' over to Willard."
"But you are riding him into the mud now!" she declared in a strangely muffled voice.
"Why, so I am, ma'am," he said gleefully; "I reckon I'm sure a box-head!"
He handed her down a minute later, beside Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha, and he lingered another moment near her, for his proximity to her had set his blood tingling, and there was an unnamable yearning in his breast to be near her. He had passed hours in looking upon her picture, dreaming of this minute, or another like it, and now that his dream had come true he realized that fulfilment was sweeter than anticipation. He was hugely pleased with her.
"She's a lot better lookin' than her picture," he told himself as he watched her. She had her back to him, talking with her relatives, but she did not need to face him to arouse his worship. "Didn't I know she was little," he charged himself, estimating her height, "she won't come anywhere near reachin' my shoulder."
He had not forgotten Masten. And a humorous devil sported in his eye as he wheeled his pony and fixed his gaze on that gentleman.
"Speciments travel around most anywheres," he reflected. "This here's a swell head with a grouch. I reckon he ain't a serious friend of hers, or she wouldn't have stood for me rescuin' her when he offered himself that generous." The recollection convulsed him, and he bowed his head over the pony's neck to hide the laugh. When he looked up, it was to see Masten standing rigid, watching him, wrath on his face.
"I suppose I'm to stand here and freeze while you sit over there and laugh your fool head off!" shouted the Easterner. "I've got some dry clothing in my trunk on the wagon, which I might put on, if I could induce you to hurry a little."
"Why, shucks. I come mighty near forgettin' you, Willard," said the rider. "An' so you've got other clothes! Only they're in your trunk on the buckboard, an' you can't get 'em. An' you're freezin' an' I'm laughin' at you. You've got a heap of trouble, ain't you, Willard. An' all because you was dead set on goin' to the left when you ought to have gone to the right."
"Do hurry! Wont you, please?" said the girl's voice, close to his stirrup.
He looked guiltily at her, for he had been about to say some vitriolic things to Masten, having almost lost patience with him. But at her words his slow good nature returned.
"I'm sure goin' to hurry, ma'am."
He urged the pony into the water again, rode to the buckboard, stepped off, and kneeling in the seat reached into the water and worked with the harness. Then, walking along the wagon tongue, which was slightly out of the water, he again reached into the water and fumbled with the harness. Then he stepped back, slapped the blacks and urged them with his voice, and they floundered out of the water and gained the bank, where they stood shaking the water from their glistening bodies.
He mounted his pony again and rode to the rear of the buckboard. Taking the braided hair rope that hung from the pommel of his saddle he made a hitch around the center of the rear axle. Then he wheeled his pony until it faced away from the buckboard, rode the length of the rope carefully, halted when it was taut, and then slowly, with his end of the rope fastened securely to the saddle horn, pulled the buckboard to a level on the river bottom.
Returning to the rear of the buckboard he unfastened the rope, coiled it, and rode to the bank, catching the blacks and leading them up the slope beyond where the girl, her aunt and uncle stood. He gently asked Uncle Jepson to hold the blacks, for fear they might stray, and then with a smile at the girl and Aunt Martha, he returned to the buckboard. There he uncoiled his rope again and attached one end of it to the tongue of the wagon, again, as before, riding away until the rope grew taut. Then, with a word to the pony, the wagon was drawn through the water to the edge of the sea of mud.
This mud looked treacherous, but it was the only way out; and so, after a pause for rest, he urged the pony on again. The buckboard traveled its length—then lurched into a rut and refused to move another foot, in spite of the straining of the pony and its rider's urgings.
The rider paused, turned in the saddle and scratched his head in perplexity.
"I reckon we've run ag'in a snag, Patches," he said. He scrutinized the slopes. "I expect we'll have to try one of them, after all," he decided.
"You were foolish to try to draw the wagon out with that thing, in the first place," loudly criticized Masten. "If you had hitched the horses to the wagon after you had pulled it out of the hole, why—"
The rider looked at the fault-finder, his eyes narrowed.
"Why, if it ain't Willard!" he said, amazed. "Standin' there, workin' his little old jaw ag'in! An' a-mournin' because I ain't goin' to get my feet wet! Well, shucks. I reckon there ain't nothin' to do now but to get the blacks an' hitch 'em onto the wagon. There's a heap of mud there, of course, but I expect some mud on them right pretty boots of yours wouldn't spoil 'em. I'll lead the blacks over an' you can work your jaw on 'em."
"Thanks," said Masten, sneering, "I've had enough wettings for one day. I have no doubt that you can get the wagon out, by your own crude methods. I shall not interfere, you may be sure."
He stalked away from the water's edge and ascended the slope to a point several feet in advance of the wagon. Standing there, he looked across the mud at the girl and the others, as though disdaining to exchange further words with the rider.
The latter gazed at him, sidelong, with humorous malice in his glance. Then he wheeled his pony, rode back toward the wagon, veered when almost to it and forced the pony to climb the slope, thus getting Masten between the rope and the mud. He pulled the rope taut again, swinging wagon tongue and wheels at a sharp angle toward him, drove the spurs into the flanks of the pony and headed it toward the mud level, swinging so that the rope described a quarter circle. It was a time-honored expedient which, he expected, would produce the jerk releasing the wagon.
If he expected the action would produce other results, the rider gave no indication of it. Only the girl, watching him closely and seeing a hard gleam in his eyes, sensed that he was determined to achieve a double result, and she cried out to Masten. The warning came too late. The taut rope, making its wide swing, struck Masten in the small of the back, lifted him, and bore him resistlessly out into the mud level, where he landed, face down, while the wagon, released, swished past him on its way to freedom.
The rider took the wagon far up the sloping trail before he brought it to a halt. Then, swinging it sideways so that it would not roll back into the mud, he turned and looked back at Masten. The latter had got to his feet, mud-bespattered, furious.
The rider looked from Masten to the girl, his expression one of hypocritical gravity. The girl's face was flushed with indignation over the affront offered her friend. She had punished him for his jealousy, she had taken her part in mildly ridiculing him. But it was plain to the rider when he turned and saw her face, that she resented the indignity she had just witnessed. She was rigid; her hands were clenched, her arms stiff at her sides; her voice was icy, even, though husky with suppressed passion.
"I suppose I must thank you for getting the wagon out," she said. "But that—that despicable trick—" Her self-control deserted her. "I wish I were a man; you would not go unpunished!"
There was contrition in his eyes. For an infinitesimal space he regretted the deed, and his active mind was already framing an excuse. And then out of the tail of his eye he saw Uncle Jepson winking violent applause at him, and a broad grin suffused his face. He made some effort to suppress it, but deepening wrinkles around his eyes contradicted the gravity of his lips.
"Why, I wasn't reckonin' to hurt him, ma'am," he said. "You see, he was right in the way, an' I reckon I was feelin' a bit wild right at that minute, an'—" His gaze went to Masten, who was scraping mud from his garments with a small flat stone. The rider's eyes grew wide; more wrinkles appeared around them.
"Why, I've spoiled his white shirt," he said as though speaking to himself, his voice freighted with awe. And then, as Masten shook a threatening fist at him, he suddenly yielded to the mirth that was consuming him and he bowed his head.
It was Uncle Jepson's warning shout that impelled him to raise his head. He saw Masten coming toward him, clawing at the foolish holster at his waist, his eyes flashing murder, his teeth bared in a snarl.
"You, Patches!" said the rider, his voice coming with a cold, quick snap. And the piebald pony, his muscles and thews alive with energy in an instant, lunged in answer to the quick knee-press, through the mud, straight at Masten.
So it was a grim and formidable figure that Masten looked up at before he could get his weapon out of his holster. The lean face of the rider was close to his own, the rider's eyes were steady, blue, and so cold that they made Masten forget the chill in the air. And one of the heavy pistols that the rider carried was close to Masten's head, its big muzzle gaping forebodingly at him, and the rider's voice, as he leaned from the saddle, came tense and low. The girl could not hear:
"Listen to this gospel, you mud-wallowin' swine," he said. "This is a man's country, an' you play a man's game or you lose out so quick it'll make you dizzy! You been playin' kid all through this deal. You're grumblin' an' whinin' ever since I set eyes on you from the edge of the mesa, there. That little girl thinks you're all wool an' a yard wide. You come across, clean—you hear me! You shape up to man's size or I'll hunt you up an' tear the gizzard out of you! You jam that there cap-shooter back where it belongs or I'll take it away from you an' make you eat it! You hear me!"
The pistol went back; Masten's face was ashen beneath the mud on it.
"Now grin, you sufferin' shorthorn!" came the rider's voice again, low as before. "Grin like you'd just discovered that I'm your rich uncle come from Frisco with a platter full of gold nuggets which I'm set on you spendin' for white shirts. Grin, or I'll salivate you!"
It was a grin that wreathed Masten's lips—a shallow, forced one. But it sufficed for the rider. He sat erect, his six-shooter disappearing magically, and the smile on his face when he looked at the girl, had genuine mirth in it.
"I've apologized to Willard, ma'am," he said. "We ain't goin' to be cross to each other no more. I reckon you c'n forgive me, now, ma'am. I sure didn't think of bein' mean."
The girl looked doubtfully at Masten, but because of the mud on his face could see no expression.
"Well, I'm glad of that," she said, reddening with embarrassment. "I certainly would not like to think that anyone who had been so accommodating as you could be so mean as to deliberately upset anyone in the mud." She looked downward. "I'm sorry I spoke to you as I did," she added.
"Why, I'm sorry too, ma'am," he said gravely. He urged his pony through the mud and brought it to a halt beside her. "If you'd shake hands on that, ma'am, I'd be mighty tickled."
Her hand went out to him. He took it and pressed it warmly, looking at it, marveling at it, for the glove on it could not conceal its shapeliness or its smallness. He dropped it presently, and taking off his hat, bowed to her.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said; "I'll be seein' you ag'in some time. I hope you'll like it here."
"I am sure I shall."
He grinned and turned away. Her voice halted him.
"May I know who has been so kind to us in our trouble?"
He reddened to the roots of his hair, but faced her.
"Why, I reckon you'll know, ma'am. I'm King Randerson, foreman of the Diamond H, up the crick a ways. That is," he added, his blush deepening, "I was christened 'King.' But a while ago a dago professor who stayed overnight at the Diamond H tipped the boys off that 'King' was Rex in Latin lingo. An' so it's been Rex Randerson since then, though mostly they write it 'W-r-e-c-k-s.' There's no accountin' for notions hereabouts, ma'am."
"Well, I should think not!" said the lady, making mental note of the blueness of his eyes. "But I am sure the boys make a mistake in spelling your name. Judging from your recent actions it should be spelled 'R-e-c-k-l-e-s-s.' Anyway, we thank you."
"The same to you, ma'am. So long."
He flashed a smile at Aunt Martha; it broadened as he met Uncle Jepson's eyes; it turned to a grin of derision as he looked at Masten. And then he was splashing his pony across the river.
They watched him as he rode up the slope on the opposite side; they held their breath as pony and rider climbed the steeper slope to the mesa. They saw him halt when he reached the mesa, saw him wave his hat to them. But they did not see him halt the pony after he had ridden a little way, and kiss the palm of the hand that had held hers.
AT THE FLYING W
It fell to Uncle Jepson to hitch the blacks to the buckboard—in a frigid silence Masten had found his trunk, opened it and drawn out some very necessary dry clothing; then marching behind a thick clump of alder, he proceeded to make the change. After this he climbed down to the river and washed the mud from visible portions of his body. Then he returned to the buckboard, to find the others waiting for him. In a strained silence he climbed up to the seat beside Ruth, took up the reins, and sent the blacks forward.
It was ten miles to the Flying W ranchhouse, and during the ride the silence was broken only once. That was when, at about the fifth mile, Ruth placed a hand on Masten's arm and smiled at him.
"I really think Mr. Randerson was sorry that he upset you in the mud, Willard," she said gently. "I don't think he did it to be mean. And it was so manly of him to apologize to you." She laughed, thinking that time had already removed the sting. "And you really did look funny, Willard, with the mud all over you. I—I could have laughed, myself, if I hadn't felt so indignant."
"I'll thank you to not refer to it again, Ruth," he said crossly.
She flushed and looked straight ahead of her at the unfolding vistas that their passage revealed: at the undulating plains, green with bunch-grass that the rain of the night before had washed and reinvigorated; into gullies where weeds grew thick; peering into arroyos—visible memories of washouts and cloudbursts; glimpsing barrancas as they flashed by; wondering at the depth of draws through which the trail led; shivering at the cacti—a brilliant green after the rain—for somehow they seemed to symbolize the spirit of the country—they looked so grim, hardy, and mysterious with their ugly thorns that seemed to threaten and mock. She shrank, too, when the buckboard passed the skeleton of a steer, its bleached bones ghastly in the sunlight, but she smiled when she saw a sea of soap-weed with yellow blossoms already unfolding, and she looked long at a mile-wide section of mesquite, dark and inviting in the distance. She saw a rattler cross the trail in front of the buckboard and draw its loathsome length into a coil at the base of some crabbed yucca, and thereafter she made grimaces at each of the ugly plants they passed. It was new to her, and wonderful. Everything, weird or ugly, possessed a strange fascination for her, and when they lurched over the crest of a hill and she saw, looming somberly in the distance in front of her, a great cottonwood grove, with some mountains behind it, their peaks gleaming in the shimmering sunlight, thrusting above some fleecy white clouds against a background of deep-blue sky, her eyes glistened and she sat very erect, thrilled. It was in such a country that she had longed to live all the days of her life.
Somehow, it gave her a different viewpoint. The man who had accommodated them back at the river seemed to fit very well here. The spirit of the young, unfettered country was in his eyes, in his serene manner; he was as hardy and rugged as this land from which he had sprung.
* * * * *
When the buckboard came to a halt in the Flying W ranchhouse yard, Ruth Harkness' first emotion was one of a great happiness that the Harknesses had always been thrifty and neat, and also that Uncle William had persisted in these habits. She had greatly feared, for during the last day of her ride on the train she had passed many ranchhouses and she had been appalled and depressed by the dilapidated appearance of their exteriors, and by the general atmosphere of disorder and shiftlessness that seemed to surround them. So many of them had reminded her of the dwelling places of careless farmers on her own familiar countryside, and she had assured herself that if the Flying W were anything like those others she would immediately try to find a buyer, much as she wished to stay.
But the first glance at the Flying W convinced her that her fears had been groundless. The ranchhouse was a big two-story structure built of heavy timber, with porches in front and rear, and wide cornices, all painted white and set on a solid foundation of stone. It looked spacious and comfortable. The other buildings—stables, bunkhouse, messhouse, blacksmith shop, and several others—did not discredit the ranchhouse. They all were in good repair. She had already noted that the fences were well kept; she had seen chickens and pigs, flowers and a small garden; and behind the stable, in an enclosure of barbed wire, she had observed some cows—milkers, she was certain.
The ranchhouse was well sheltered by timber. The great cottonwood grove that she had seen from the plains was close to the house on the south; it extended east and west for perhaps half a mile, and a grove of firs rose to the north, back of the pasture fence. The general character of the land surrounding the house was a sort of rolling level. The foothills belonging to the mountains that she had seen while approaching the ranchhouse were behind the cottonwood grove. She had seen, too, that the river they had crossed at the ford which Wes Vickers had called "Calamity" was not more than a mile from the house, and therefore she concluded that it doubled widely. Later, she learned from Vickers that her conclusion was correct, and that the river was called "Rabbit Ear." Why it was called that she was never able to discover.
When the buckboard came to a halt, two men who had been seated in the doorway of one of the buildings—she discovered, later, that it was the bunkhouse—got up, lazily, and approached the buckboard. Ruth felt a pulse of trepidation as they sauntered close to the wagon. Vickers had told her nothing directly concerning the character of the men at the ranch, but during their conversation at Red Rock that morning he had mentioned that the "boys are a good lot, taken together, but they's some that don't measure up." And she wondered whether these two came under that final vague, though significant classification.
Their appearance was against them. The one in advance, a man of medium height, looked positively villainous with his long, drooping black mustache and heavy-thatched eyebrows. He eyed the occupants of the buckboard with an insolent half-smile, which the girl thought he tried—in vain—to make welcoming.
The other was a man of about thirty; tall, slender, lithe, swarthy, with thin, expressive lips that were twisted upward at one corner in an insincere smirk. This taller man came close to the wagon and paused in an attitude of quiet impudence.
"I reckon you're Ruth Harkness—the ol' man's niece?" he said.
"Yes," returned the girl, smiling. Perhaps she had misjudged these men.
"Well," said the man, looking at her with a bold glance that made her pulse skip a beat, "you're a stunner for looks, anyway." He reached out his hand. She took it, feeling that it was the proper thing to do, although with the action she heard a grumble from Masten.
"You're welcome to the Flyin' W," said the man, breaking an awkward silence. "Tom Chavis is special glad to see a pretty woman around these parts."
She felt, in his eyes more than his words, a veiled significance. She reddened a little, but met his gaze fairly, her eyes unwavering.
"Who is Tom Chavis?" she asked.
"I'm reckonin' to be Tom Chavis," he said, studying her. He waved a hand toward the other man, not looking at him. "This is my friend Jim Pickett. We was foreman an' straw boss, respective, under Bill Harkness."
She could not help wishing that her uncle had discharged the two men before his death. She was wondering a little at Masten's silence; it seemed to her that he must see her embarrassment, and that he might relieve her of the burden of this conversation. She looked quickly at him; he appeared to be unconcernedly inspecting the ranchhouse. Perhaps, after all, there was nothing wrong with these men. Certainly, being a man himself, Masten should be able to tell.
And so she felt a little more at ease.
"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Chavis," she said. "Your friend Mr. Pickett too." She indicated Masten with a nod of her head toward him. "This is Mr. Willard Masten, a very dear friend of mine." The color in her face deepened with the words.
Chavis had looked twice at Masten before Ruth spoke. He looked again now, meeting the Easterner's eyes. Chavis had been ready to sneer at Masten because of his garments—they were duplicates of those he had worn before the ducking, and quite as immaculate—but something in the Easterner's eyes kept the sneer back; his own eyes gleamed with a quick, comprehensive fire, and he smiled. In the buckboard, fresh from that civilization which Chavis was ready to scorn, he had recognized a kindred spirit. There was exultation in his voice when he spoke, and he reached over Ruth to grasp Masten's hand.
"An' so this is Willard, a very dear friend of yourn, eh? Well, now, I'm sure glad, an' I reckon him an' me will get on." He urged Pickett forward and introduced him, and Pickett gave Masten one quick, appraising glance. Then he, too, grinned.
Ruth was gratified. These men were rough, but they had been quick to recognize and appreciate Masten's good qualities. They had gone more than half way in welcoming him. Of course, there was Chavis' bold allusion to a "pretty woman," but the very uncouthness of the men must be the explanation for that breach of etiquette. She was much relieved.
Masten was suave and solicitous. He jumped out of the buckboard and helped her down, performing a like service for Aunt Martha. Uncle Jepson got out himself. Then, as Ruth hesitated an instant, Masten bent over her.
"You must be tired, dear. Go in and explore the house. Get some refreshment and take a rest. I'll attend to the baggage and the horses."
He gave her a gentle pressure of the hand, and, followed by Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha, she went indoors.
A MEMORY OF THE RIDER
A quiet satisfaction shone from Ruth's eyes when, accompanied by Aunt Martha and Uncle Jepson, she completed her inspection of the ranchhouse.
"It isn't all that could be desired," she told Aunt Martha, "but it is better than I expected."
"It's comfortable, dearie," mildly smiled Aunt Martha.
"An' big enough for a feller to stretch his legs in," added Uncle Jepson. He was sitting in a big chair at one of the front windows of the sitting-room, having already adjusted himself to his new surroundings, and was smoking a short briar pipe and looking out of the window at the bunkhouse, in front of which stood Pickett, Chavis, and Masten, talking and laughing.
While Ruth and her relatives had been inspecting one of the upstairs rooms, she had heard the men bringing the baggage in, had heard them clumping up the stairs and setting the trunks down. Then they went out, and a little later, peering from one of the windows upstairs, Ruth had seen Masten and the other two walking toward the stable. They were talking pleasantly; their liking for each other seemed to be mutual. Ruth was delighted, but Uncle Jepson had frowned several times when looking at them.
"I cal'late them two critters'll bear a heap of watchin'," he said now. "They don't look honest."
"Jep," said Aunt Martha before Ruth could speak, "you're always criticising folks."
"It's in their faces drat 'em," insisted Uncle Jepson. He turned a vindictive eye on his niece. "If I'd have been fifty year younger I'd have give that Chavis a durn good thrashin' for sayin' what he did to you about pretty gals. Durn his hide, anyhow! That there Wil—"
"I felt that way myself, at first," smiled Ruth. "Afterwards, though, I felt differently. I suppose they were glad to see the new owner. Perhaps they haven't seen a lady in a long time."
"There's ways of showin' gladness," contended Uncle Jepson. "I cal'late if I wanted to compliment a girl, I wouldn't look at her like I wanted to carry her off to the mountains."
"Jep, they're only cowboys—they don't know any different," remonstrated Aunt Martha.
"They don't, eh?" sniffed Uncle Jepson. "I cal'late that feller, Rex Randerson, is some different, ain't he? There's a gentleman, Ruth. You didn't see him makin' no ox-eyes. An' I'll bet you wouldn't ketch him gettin' thick with them two plug-uglies out there!"
Ruth turned away, smiling tolerantly, after having caught a glimpse of Aunt Martha's brows, uplifted in resignation. She was as fully aware of Uncle Jepson's dislike of Willard Masten as she was of Uncle Jepson's testiness and of his habit of speaking his thoughts without reservation.
Also, she had always avoided opposing him. It did not seem to be worth while. He had been left destitute, except for the little farm back near Poughkeepsie which he had sold at her request to accompany her here, and she felt that habits of thought and speech are firmly fixed at sixty-nine, and argument cannot shake them.
That first day at the ranchhouse was the beginning of a new existence for Ruth. Bound for years by the narrow restrictions and conventionality of the Poughkeepsie countryside, she found the spaciousness and newness of this life inviting and satisfying. Here there seemed to be no limit, either to the space or to the flights that one's soul might take, and in the solemn grandeur of the open she felt the omnipotence of God and the spell of nature.
She had plenty of time after the first day to hold communion with the Creator. Masten was rarely near her. His acquaintance with Pickett and Chavis seemed destined to develop into friendship. He rode much with them—"looking over the range," he told her—and only in the evening did he find time to devote to her.
Wes Vickers returned from Red Rock on the morning following Ruth's arrival. Apparently, in spite of Randerson's prediction, Vickers did not get drunk in town. Through him Ruth learned much about the Flying W. He gave her the fruit of his experience, and he had been with the Flying W as range boss for nearly five years.
Vickers was forty. His hair was gray at the temples; he was slightly stoop-shouldered from years in the saddle, and his legs were bowed from the same cause. He was the driving force of the Flying W. Ruth's uncle had written her to that effect the year before during his illness, stating that without Vickers' help he would be compelled to sell the ranch. The truth of this statement dawned upon Ruth very soon after her acquaintance with Vickers. He was argus-eyed, omnipresent. It seemed that he never slept. Mornings when she would arise with the dawn she would find Vickers gone to visit some distant part of the range. She was seldom awake at night when he returned.
He had said little to her regarding the men. "They 'tend to business," was his invariable response when she sought to question him. "It's a pretty wild life," he told her when one day about two weeks after her coming she had pressed him; "an' the boys just can't help kickin' over the traces once in a while."
"Chavis and Pickett good men?" she asked.
"You saw anything to show you they ain't?" he said, with a queer look at her.
"Why, no," she returned. But her cheeks reddened.
He looked at her with a peculiar squint. "Seems like Masten runnin' with them shows that they ain't nothin' wrong with them," he said.
She had no reply to make to this, but she was vaguely disturbed over the expression in Vickers' eyes; that look seemed to indicate that her own first impression of the two men, and Uncle Jepson's later condemnation of them, might be correct. However, they did not bother her, and she felt certain that Masten could care for himself.
With Masten absent with Chavis and Pickett nearly every day, Ruth had much time to herself. The river attracted her, and she rode to it many times, on a slant-eyed pony that Vickers had selected for her, and which had been gentled by a young cowpuncher brought in from an outlying camp solely for that purpose by the range boss. The young puncher had been reluctant to come, and he was equally reluctant to go.
"This here cayuse," he said to Vickers, when the latter instructed him to return to his outfit, saying that Miss Ruth thought she could now ride the pony without trouble, "is got a heap of devilment in him, yet—which ought to come out."
"Miss Ruth's got a fellow," said the range boss, in seeming irrelevance. But the young puncher sneered a malignant denial and rode away to his camp.
There were fourteen other men employed by the Flying W. Ruth met them at various times. Invariably they were looking for strays. They seemed—some of them—content to look at her; others, bolder, manufactured ingenuous pretexts to talk; but—all were gentlemen.
She arose one morning during the third week of her stay at the ranch, to be greeted by one of those perfect days that late spring brings. It had been dry for a week, with a hint of receding chill in the air, and the comfort of a wrap was still felt. But on this morning the sun was showing his power, and a balmy south breeze that entered her window was burdened with the aroma of sage, strong and delicious. She got out of bed and looked out of the window. It was a changed world. Summer had come overnight. No morning in the East had ever made her feel quite like this.
Out on the front porch later in the morning, with Chavis and Pickett standing near, she asked Masten to ride with her.
He seemed annoyed, but spoke persuasively.
"Put it off a day, won't you, Ruth? There's a good girl. I've promised to go to Lazette with the boys this morning, and I don't want to disappoint them." Then, seeing the disappointment in her eyes, he added: "Where did you want to ride?"
"Why," she said, hoping that, after all, he might change his mind, "I'm only going to the box canyon, down the river. There's such a pretty stretch of timber there."
He smiled indulgently. "I'll try to meet you there, this afternoon about three, if I can make it. But don't wait longer." He turned his back to her and presently went away with Chavis and Pickett.
She stood for a little time, watching them as they mounted down near the corral gate and rode away, and then she turned and observed Uncle Jepson standing near a corner of the house, smoking, and watching her. She forced a smile and went into the house.
A little after noon she saddled her pony and rode away toward the river. She had decided that perhaps Masten might keep his appointment in spite of the obvious insincerity that had been expressed on his face during their talk.
It was fully five miles to the grove at the head of the box canyon, and she made a leisurely ride of it, so that it must have been nearly two o'clock when she dismounted and hitched the pony to a tree. Seating herself on a flat rock near the canyon edge, she settled herself to wait.
It seemed a long time. Twice after half-past two she looked at her watch, impatiently. At three she looked again; and, disappointed, she was about to rise to go to her pony, when she heard the rapid drumming of hoofs near her.
With leaping heart and flushed face she turned her back to the direction from which the sounds seemed to come and waited listening, trying to appear unconcerned. She would make him believe she had not heard him. He did care, after all, enough to part with his companions—for her sake. She had misjudged him, and she was sincerely repentant. And when she heard his pony come to a halt near her she had to clench her hands to keep from turning to face him.
She heard him dismount, heard the rustle and crackling of twigs under his feet as he approached, and then, feeling that it would be futile to dissemble further, she turned, a smile on her lips.
Standing within five feet of her, grinning with amusement, was Tom Chavis. Curiously enough, despite her former fear of the man she did not fear him now, and after the first shock of surprise she looked at him composedly, for she half suspected that Masten had sent him, fearing that she would wait in spite of his admonition not to do so. She got up and faced Chavis.
"Mr. Masten couldn't come, I suppose?" she said.
"That's right," he said, looking at her oddly; "he couldn't come. You see, he's sort of taken a shine to a biscuit shooter in Crogan's, over in Lazette, an' he couldn't very well break away."
"A biscuit shooter!" she said, uncomprehendingly.
"Sure. I reckon that back East you'd call her a waitress, or somethin'. I ain't admirin' his taste none. She ain't nowheres near as good-lookin' as you."
Her first emotion was one of sickening, maddening jealousy. It made her physically weak, and she trembled as she fought it down. But the sensation passed and, though she felt that her face was hot and flushed, the cold calm of righteous resentment was slowly seizing her.
"Did Mr. Masten send you here to tell me this?" she asked icily.
"Why, no. I did it on my own hook. I knowed you'd be waitin'—I heard you makin' the date with Willard, this mornin'. An' I figgered that what was fair for one was fair for another. So I sneaked away from Willard an' come here. I've taken quite a shine to you, ma'am; you've sure got me some flustered. An' I reckon—" here he took a step toward her and grinned significantly "that I'll make a rattlin' good substitute for Willard."
She struck at him, blindly, savagely. She felt her open hand strike his cheek, heard him curse, and then, in a daze she was running toward her pony. She did not turn, but furiously raced the animal across the plains toward the ranchhouse.
She was calmer when she reached the house, but went directly to her room, where she changed her clothes and sat for a long time at one of the windows, looking toward the river—and toward Lazette.
Downstairs, Uncle Jepson, who from a window of the bunkhouse had seen her come in, had followed her into the house, to remark grumblingly to Aunt Martha:
"Willard didn't meet her, drat him!"
Ruth passed a miserable night, thinking over Chavis' words. The man might have been lying. Obviously, common fairness demanded that she tell Masten of the circumstance. On one thing she was determined: that Chavis should leave the ranch, whether he had lied to her or not. She would have instructed Vickers to attend to that, but Vickers had gone again to Red Rock on business, and would not return for two or three days. She would wait until Vickers returned to discharge Chavis, but she must tell Masten of the insult, for she yearned to see Chavis punished.
She waited until after breakfast the following morning, and then she induced Masten to walk with her, under pretext of examining the flower beds. Reaching them, she faced him fairly.
"Willard," she said, her lips white and stiff, "there must be no double-dealing between you and me. Tom Chavis told me yesterday that you are interested in a waitress in Lazette. Is that true?"
He started, flushed darkly, and then smiled blandly.
"Tom Chavis is romancing, my dear. If there is a waitress in Lazette I have not seen her." He seized her by the shoulders and spoke earnestly. "I am interested in Ruth Harkness, my dear. You surely don't believe such a story, do you, Ruth?"
He looked at her so frankly that her jealousy took wings, and she blushed and lowered her eyes. She raised them again, almost instantly, however; they were glowing vindictively.
"Tom Chavis came to the box canyon at three yesterday afternoon," she said firmly. "He insulted me. I want you to discharge him; Vickers is not here to do it. And I do not want to see him again."
He pressed his lips together and avoided her gaze, and a slow red stole into his face. Then he laughed mirthlessly.
"Tom Chavis is a valuable man here, Ruth," he said. "If the insult was one that can be overlooked, you would do well to let the matter rest. But be assured that I shall have a talk with Chavis, and you may believe that he will not repeat the offense." He patted her shoulder. "In the meantime," he said, with a hurt expression in his eyes, "do have some faith in me."
Reassured, convinced that she had done him an injustice in believing Chavis, she passed the remainder of the day in comparative light-heartedness. But when the awesome darkness of the West settled over the country, and deep, stirring thoughts came to her on her pillow, she found herself thinking of the rider of the river. He grew very vivid in her thoughts, and she found herself wondering,—remembering the stern manliness of his face,—whether he, listening to the story of Chavis' insult from her lips, would have sought to find excuses for her insulter.
LOVE VS. BUSINESS
On Sunday afternoon Ruth, Masten, Aunt Martha, and Uncle Jepson were sitting on the front porch of the Flying W ranchhouse. Ruth was reading and thinking—thinking most of the time, the book lying open in her lap. Masten was smoking a cigar—one of the many that he had brought with him—and which he selfishly kept exclusively for his own use. Masten seemed to be doing a great deal of thinking, too, for he was silent during long periods, reclining easily in a big rocker, well-groomed and immaculate as usual, looking decidedly out of place in this country, where extravagant personal adornment was considered an indication of effeminacy.
Yet it was this immaculateness that had attracted Ruth to Masten in the first place when a year and a half before she had met him at a party in Poughkeepsie. Fresh from a big city near by, he had outshone the country gallants at the party as he had outshone the cowboys that Ruth had seen since coming to the Flying W. His courtship had been gallant, too; he had quite captivated her, and after their engagement—which had been a rather matter-of-fact affair—she had not found it possible to refuse him permission to accompany her to the West.
"Have you visited your neighbor yet, Ruth?" Masten inquired at last.
"Neighbor!" Ruth showed astonishment by letting her book close and losing her place. "Why, I didn't know we had a neighbor nearer than the Diamond H!"
Masten's lips curled. Her reference to the Diamond H recalled unpleasant memories.
"A nester," he said, and then added after a pause—"and his daughter. Only two miles from here, across the river. There's a trail, through a break in the canyon, leading to their ranch on the other side of the river. The man's name is Catherson—Abe Catherson. Chavis tells me he was something of a bother to your uncle, because of his propensity to steal Flying W cattle. He's an old savage."
"And the daughter?" inquired Ruth, her eyes alight with interest.
"Half wild, bare-footed, ragged. She's pretty, though."
"How old is she, Willard?"
"A mere child. Fifteen, I should judge."
"I shall visit them tomorrow," declared Ruth.
"Sakes alive! Half wild? I should think she would be—living in that wilderness!" said Aunt Martha, looking up from her knitting, over the tops of her glasses.
"Everything is wild in this country," said Masten, a slight sneer in his voice. "The people are repulsive, in dress, manner, and speech." He delicately flecked some cigar ash from a coat sleeve.
Uncle Jepson wrinkled his nose belligerently. He sniffed in eloquent preparation for speech, but Aunt Martha averted the imminent clash by saying sharply:
"Jep, you hop in there and get that ball of yarn off the dining-room table!"
So potent is habit that Uncle Jepson started to obey automatically, Ruth interjected a word, speaking to Masten, and Uncle Jepson's opportunity was lost.
Silence reigned again until Ruth, who was facing the Calamity Trail, suddenly exclaimed:
"Some one is coming!"
During the silence she had again been thinking of Rex Randerson, and seeing the figure on the trail she had leaped to the conclusion that it was he. Her face had flushed. Masten noticed it, for he looked narrowly at her and, though he said nothing, there was that in his eyes which told he had divined what was in her mind.
It was not Randerson, however, but Vickers, who was coming. They all recognized him when he came closer, and they watched him with that peculiar concertedness which seizes upon an expectant company, until he dismounted at the corral gates and came toward them.
Plainly there was something on Vickers' mind, for he smiled mechanically as he stepped upon the porch and looked at them.
"Well, I'm back," he said. He looked at Ruth. "There's somethin' I'd like to say to you. It's business. If you'd rather hear it private—"
"I think there is nothing—" she began.
"Well," he said, "I've got to leave here."
Ruth's face grew long. Uncle Jepson gagged on a mouthful of smoke. Aunt Martha ceased knitting. Masten alone seemed unmoved, but an elated gleam was in his eyes.
"Isn't that a rather sudden decision, Mr. Vickers?" questioned Ruth after a silence.
"Well, mebbe it is, to you," said Vickers, with some embarrassment. "But the fact is, I've been thinkin' of goin' for a long time—about a year to be exact. I was goin' before your uncle died, but I kept holdin' on because he wanted me to. You see, ma'am, I've got a mother back East. She's been poorly for quite a while now, an' has been wantin' me to come. I've been puttin' it off, but it's got to the point where it can't be put off any longer. I got a letter from her doctor the other day, an' he says that she can't last a heap longer. So—I'm goin'."
"That's too bad," sympathized Ruth. "You ought to go, and go quickly."
"I'm aimin' to, ma'am. But I've got to tell you somethin' before I go. Me an' your uncle was pretty thick; he trusted me a heap."
"Yes," said Ruth; "he told me that he liked and trusted you."
"Well, you'll understand then. A couple of months before he cashed in, we was talkin' of him goin'. He knowed it, ma'am. We was talkin' about the ranch. He knowed I wanted to leave. 'What'll I do for a range boss when you're gone?' he asked me. 'I won't go till you ain't here any more,' I tells him. An' he grinned. 'I'm goin' to leave the Flyin' W to my niece, Ruth Harkness of Poughkeepsie,' he says. 'I'd like her to stay an' run it—if she likes it here. You'll be gone then, an' who in Sam Hill will be range boss then?' I told him I didn't have no thoughts on the subject, an' he continues: 'Rex Randerson, Vickers—he'll be range boss. Do you understand? If you was to pull your freight right now, Rex Randerson would be range boss as soon as I could get word over to him. An' if you've got any say-so after I'm gone, an' Ruth wants to keep the ranch, you tell her that—that Bill Harkness wants Rex Randerson to be range boss after Wes Vickers don't want it any more.' That's what he said, ma'am; them's his very words."
Ruth looked at Masten. He was staring stonily out into the plains. Ruth's cheeks reddened, for she felt that she knew his thoughts. But still, Randerson hadn't really used him ill at the river, and besides, he had apologized, and it seemed to her that that should end the incident. Also, she still felt rather resentful toward Masten for his attitude toward Tom Chavis after she had complained. And also, lurking deep in her unsophisticated mind was a most feminine impulse to sting Masten to jealousy. She looked up to meet Vickers' gaze, fixed curiously upon her.
"Could you recommend this man—Randerson?" she asked.
"Why, ma'am, he's got the best reputation of any man in these parts!"
"But is he efficient?"
"Meanin' does he know his business? Well, I reckon. He's got the best head for range work of any man in the country! He's square, ma'am. An' there ain't no man monkeyin' with him. I've knowed him for five years, an' I ain't ever knowed him to do a crooked trick, exceptin'"—and here he scratched his head and grinned reminiscently—"when he gets the devil in him which he does occasionally, ma'am—an' goes to jokin', ma'am. But they're mostly harmless jokes, ma'am; he's never hurt nobody, bad. But he got a level head—a heap leveler than a lot of folks that—"
"I think Tom Chavis would make a good range boss, Ruth," said Masten. He did not look at her, and his words were expressionless.
"Mister man," said Vickers evenly, "what do you know about Tom Chavis?"
Masten looked quickly at Vickers, and as quickly looked away, his face slowly reddening.
"He's foreman now, isn't he?" he said. "It seems that Harkness trusted him that much."
"There's a first time for every man to go wrong, Mister," said Vickers.
Masten's voice was almost a sneer.
"Why don't you tell Chavis that?"
"I've told him, Mister—to his face." Vickers' own face was growing dark with wrath.
"You were range boss after Harkness' death," persisted Masten. "Why didn't you discharge Chavis?"
"I'm askin' the new boss for permission to do it now," declared Vickers. "It'll be a good wind-up for my stay here."
"We shall keep Chavis for the present," said Ruth. "However," she added firmly, "he shall not be range boss. I do not like him."
Vickers grinned silent applause. And again Uncle Jepson had trouble with his pipe. Aunt Martha worked her knitting needles a little faster. Masten's face paled, and the hand that held the cigar quickly clenched, so that smoking embers fell to the porch floor. Whatever his feelings, however, he retained his self-control.
"Of course, it is your affair, Ruth," he said. "I beg your pardon for offering the suggestion."
But he left them shortly afterward, lighting a fresh cigar and walking toward the bunkhouse, which was deserted, for Chavis and Pickett had gone to a distant part of the range.
Thus Masten did not see Vickers, when a little later he came out on the porch with his war-bag. He said good-bye to Aunt Martha and Uncle Jepson, and then he took Ruth's hand and held it long.
"You'll never go a heap wrong when you use your own judgment, girl," he said. "I'm ridin' over to the Diamond H to tell Randerson about his new job. Don't make no mistake, girl. Rex Randerson is square. An' if any trouble comes sneakin' around you, take it to Rex; he'll stick on the right side till hell freezes over."
A MAN AND HIS JOB
Just what Ruth's sensations were the next morning she could not have told. She could correctly analyze one emotion: it was eager anticipation. Also, she could account for it—she wanted to see Randerson. But her reason for wanting to see him was a mystery that she could not fathom, though between the time of arising and the moment when she got downstairs she devoted much thought to it. She knew she did not like Randerson well enough to wish to see him merely on that account—that was ridiculous, in spite of the vivid recollection of him that still lingered with her, for she had met him only once, and she assured herself that she was too practical-minded to fall in love with anyone at first sight. Yet by afternoon Ruth had tired of waiting; she had no special reason for certainty that Randerson would arrive that day, and so she went riding. She went alone, for Masten seemed to have hidden himself—at least, she could not find him. She rode to the break in the wall of the canyon that he had told her about, found it, sent her pony through it and over a shallow crossing, emerging at length in a tangle of undergrowth in a wood through which wound a narrow bridle path. She followed this for some distance, and after a while came to a clearing. A little adobe house stood near the center of the clearing. Ruth halted her pony, and was debating whether to call out or to ride boldly up, when a dog came out of the door of the cabin, growling, its hair bristling belligerently. The dog was big, black, and undoubtedly savage, for the pony instantly wheeled, and when the dog came closer, lashed out with both hind hoofs at it.
"Nig, you ol' duffer, git in hyeh where you b'long! Can't you see that that there's a lady!" came a voice, unmistakably feminine. And the dog, still growling, but submissive, drew off.
Ruth urged the pony on and rode the remaining distance to the door. A girl, attired in a ragged underskirt and equally ragged waist of some checkered material, and a faded house-apron that was many sizes too small for her, stood in the open doorway, watching. She was bare-footed, her hair was in tumbling disorder, though Ruth could tell that it had been combed recently. But the legs, bare almost to the knees, were clean, though brown from tan, and her face and arms glowed pink and spotless, in spite of the rags. In her eyes, as she watched Ruth, was a strange mixture of admiration and defiance.
"Dad ain't hyeh this mornin'," she volunteered as Ruth climbed off her pony.
"I came to see you," said Ruth, smiling. She threw the reins over the pony's head and advanced, holding out a hand. "I am Ruth Harkness," she added, "the new owner of the Flying W. I have been here almost a month, and I just heard that I had a neighbor. Wont you shake hands with me?"
"I reckon," said the girl. Reluctantly, it seemed, she allowed Ruth to take her hand. But she drew it away immediately. "I've heard of you," she said; "you're a niece of that ol' devil, Bill Harkness." She frowned. "He was always sayin' dad was hookin' his doggoned cattle. Dad didn't steal 'em—ol' Bill Harkness was a liar!" Her eyes glowed fiercely. "I reckon you'll be sayin' the same thing about dad."
"No indeed!" declared Ruth. "Your dad and I are going to be friends. I want to be friends with you, too. I am not going to charge your dad with stealing my cattle. We are going to be neighbors, and visit each other. I want to know your dad, and I want you to come over to the Flying W and get acquainted with my aunt and uncle. Aren't you going to invite me inside? I would if you came to visit me, you know." She smiled winningly.
The girl flushed, and cast a glance at the interior of the cabin, which, Ruth had already noted through the open door, was scantily furnished but clean. Then the girl led the way in, motioned Ruth to a chair near a rough-topped table, and stood over beside a cast-iron stove, her hands hanging at her sides, the fingers crumpling the cloth of the ragged apron. Her belligerence had departed; she seemed now to be beginning to realize that this visit was really meant to honor her, and she grew conscious of her rags, of the visible signs of poverty, of the visitor's raiment, gorgeous in comparison with her own—though Ruth's was merely a simple riding habit of brown corduroy.
Ruth had set out for this visit with a definite intention: she wanted to discover just how the girl and her father lived, and if conditions were as she suspected she was determined to help them. Conditions were worse than she had expected, but her face gave no indication. Perhaps Ruth's wisdom was not remarkable where men were concerned, but she had a wealth of delicacy, understanding and sympathy where her own sex was in question. She stayed at the cabin for more than an hour and at the end of that time she emerged, smiling happily, her arm around the girl, with the girl's pledge to visit her soon and an earnest invitation to come again. Best of all, she had cleverly played upon the feminine instinct for fine raiment, slyly mentioned a trunk that she had brought with her from the East, packed to the top with substantial finery which was not in the least needed by her—an incumbrance, rather—and which, she hinted, might become the property of another, if suitable in size.
The girl followed her to the edge of the clearing, walking beside the pony. There they took leave of each other, a glow in the eyes of both that gave promise of future sincere friendship.
"Good-bye, Hagar," said the Flying W girl.
"Good-bye, lady," said the girl. "Ruth," she changed, as the Flying W girl held up an admonishing finger. And then, with a last smile, Ruth rode down the bridle path homeward, pleasure and pity mingling in her eyes.
Randerson reached the Flying W ranchhouse late in the afternoon. He rode first to the bunkhouse, and seeing nobody there he made a round of the buildings. Still seeing no one, he urged Patches toward the house, halted him at the edge of the front porch and sat in the saddle, looking at the front door. He was about to call, when the door opened and Uncle Jepson came out. There was a broad grin on Uncle Jepson's face.
"I cal'late you've got here," he said.
"Looks mighty like it," returned the horseman. "You reckon my new boss is anywheres around?"
"She's gone off ridin'," Uncle Jepson told him. "It's likely she'll be back shortly."
"I reckon I'd better wait," said Randerson. He wheeled Patches.
"There's plenty of sittin' room on the porch here," invited Uncle Jepson, indicating the chairs.
"Thank you—reckon the bunkhouse will be my quarters."
He spoke to the pony. Uncle Jepson spoke at the same instant, and Patches halted:
"I cal'late you'd better wait here."
"If you insist," said Randerson. He swung off and walked to the edge of the porch, grinning mildly at Uncle Jepson. The handclasp between them was warm, for Uncle Jepson had been strongly attracted to this son of the plains; and the twinkle in Randerson's eyes as his met Uncle Jepson's was not to be mistaken.
"So Vickers has gone," said Randerson as he dropped into a chair. "He's a mighty fine man."
"Willard wanted Chavis to have his job," whispered Uncle Jepson.
"You don't say!" Randerson's eyes gleamed. "An' Miss Ruth didn't want him, I reckon." He caught Uncle Jepson's nod. "She's allowin' that she's goin' to be boss. But of course she would," he added. He stood up, for Aunt Martha had opened the door and was standing in it, looking at him. He removed his hat and bowed to her, his eyes gleaming with something near affection, for Aunt Martha had found a place in his heart. He stepped forward, took her hand, and escorted her to the largest and most comfortable of the rockers on the porch, and when she sat down she looked up at him and smiled.
"I reckon you like it here?" he said gently to Aunt Martha.
"I like it very much. But there are differences—after Poughkeepsie. One doesn't notice them so much at first."
"I expect you find it sort of rough here," he said, looking at her. "They tell me that in the East folks live pretty close together—that there's conveniences. There ain't a heap of conveniences here." He pronounced the word slowly and laboriously. It was plain that he was trying to put on his best manners.
"No—no conveniences," said Aunt Martha. "But it's a wonderful country, my boy—wonderful!"
A pulse of something shot through him at the word, "boy."
"I'm glad you like it," he said gravely.
Aunt Martha folded her hands in her lap and looked long at him over the rims of her glasses. There was interest in her eyes, and kindliness. For she saw something in this figure of a new type that sat before her—something that the two big guns, at his hips did not hint at—nor his leather chaps, the cartridge belt, the broad hat, the spurs, the high-heeled boots, the colored scarf at his throat. These things were the badges of his calling, and were, of course, indispensable, but she saw them not. But the virile manhood of him; the indomitability; the quiet fearlessness, indicated by his steady, serene eyes; the rugged, sterling honesty that radiated from him, she saw—and admired. But above all she saw the boy in him—the generous impulses that lay behind his mask of grimness, the love of fun that she had seen him exhibit at Calamity.
"You were born here?" she asked.
"In Colfax, ma'am."
"Is that a city?"
"Bless yu', ma'am, no. It's a county."
"And you were born on a ranch, then."
She was asking questions that a man would not have dared to ask him, and he was answering them as a boy might have answered. It did not seem an impertinence to him or to her, so great was her interest in him, so deep was his admiration of her.
"And your parents?"
"Both dead, ma'am." A shadow crossed his face, a look of wistfulness, and she abruptly ceased questioning. And when, a little later, they saw Ruth coming across the plains toward them, Aunt Martha got up. He held the screen door open for her, and she paused on the threshold and patted his bare head.
"If I had had a son, I could have wished he would be like you," she said.
He blushed crimson. "Why, ma'am—" he began. But Aunt Martha had gone in, and he turned to face Ruth, who was dismounting at the edge of the porch.
"Oh!" she said, as though his appearance had surprised her, though she had seen him from afar, "you are here already!"
"I expect it's me, ma'am," he said gravely. "You see, Wes Vickers stopped at the Diamond H last evenin', an' I come right over."
It was quite evident that he would not attempt to be familiar. No longer was he the free lance rider of the plains who had been at liberty to exchange words with her as suited his whim; here was the man who had been given a job, and there stood his employer; he would not be likely to step over that line, and his manner showed it.
"Well," she said, "I am glad you decided to come right away; we miss Vickers already, and I have no doubt, according to his recommendation, that you will be able to fill his place acceptably."
"Thank you, ma'am. I reckon I'm to take up my quarters in the bunkhouse?" He paused. "Or mebbe the foreman's shanty?"
"Why," she said, looking at him and noting his grave earnestness, so strikingly in contrast to his wild frolicksomeness at Calamity that day. "Why, I don't know about that. Vickers stayed at the ranchhouse, and I suppose you will stay here too."
"All right, ma'am; I'll be takin' my war-bag in." He was evidently feeling a slight embarrassment, and would have been glad to retreat. He got his war-bag from its place behind the saddle, on Patches, shouldered it, and crossed the porch. He was opening the door when Ruth's voice stopped him.
"Oh," she said, "your room. I forgot to tell you; it is the one in the northwest corner."
"Thank you, ma'am." He went in.
"Come down when you have straightened around," she called to him, "I want to talk with you about some things."
"I'll have to put Patches away, ma'am," he said, "I'd sure have to come down, anyway."
That talk was held with Uncle Jepson looking on and listening and smoking his pipe. And when it was over, Randerson took the saddle and bridle off Patches, turned him loose in the corral and returned to the porch to talk and smoke with Uncle Jepson.
While they sat the darkness came on, the kerosene lamp inside was lighted, delicious odors floated out to them through the screen door. Presently a horseman rode to the corral fence and dismounted.
"One of the boys, I reckon," said Randerson.
Uncle Jepson chuckled. "It's Willard," he said. He peered into Randerson's face for some signs of emotion. There were none.
"I'd clean forgot him," said Randerson.
Masten came in a few minutes later. He spoke a few words to Uncle Jepson, but ignored Randerson.
Supper was announced soon after Masten's entrance, and Uncle Jepson led Randerson around to the rear porch, where he introduced him to a tin washbasin and a roller towel. Uncle Jepson also partook of this luxury, and then led the new range boss inside.
If Ruth had any secret dread over the inevitable meeting between Masten and the new range boss, it must have been dispelled by Randerson's manner, for he was perfectly polite to Masten, and by no word or sign did he indicate that he remembered the incident of Calamity.
Ruth watched him covertly during the meal, and was delighted to find his conduct faultless. He had not Masten's polish, of course, that was not to be expected. But she noticed this—it was quickly impressed upon her—he was not self-conscious, but entirely natural, possessing the easy grace of movement that comes of perfect muscular and mental control. He seemed to relegate self to the background; he was considerate, quiet, serene. And last—the knowledge pleased her more than anything else—he continued to keep between himself and the others the bars of deference; he made them see plainly that there would be no overstepping his position. It was his job to be here, and he had no illusions.
HOW AN INSULT WAS AVENGED
As the days passed, it became plain to Ruth, as it did to everyone else on the ranch—Chavis, Pickett, and Masten included—that Vickers had not talked extravagantly in recommending Randerson. Uncle Jepson declared that "he took right a-hold," and Aunt Martha beamed proudly upon him whenever he came within range of her vision.
There was no hitch; he did his work smoothly. The spring round-up was carried to a swift conclusion, the calves were branded and turned loose again to roam the range during the summer; the corral fences were repaired, new irrigation ditches were laid, others extended—the numerous details received the attention they merited, and when summer came in earnest, the Flying W was spick and span and prospering.
Chavis and Pickett still retained their old positions, but Ruth noticed that they did not spend so much of their time around the bunkhouse as formerly, they seemed to have work enough to keep their time fully employed. Nor did Masten accompany them very often. He seemed to take a new interest in Ruth; he found various pretexts to be near her, and Ruth secretly congratulated herself on her wisdom in securing her new range boss. She had scarcely expected such amazing results.
She was conscious of a vague disappointment, though. For she would have liked to see more of her range boss. Twice, under pretense of wanting to look over the property, she had accompanied him to outlying cow camps, and she had noted that the men seemed to like him—they called him "Rex," and in other ways exhibited their satisfaction over his coming. Several times she had observed meetings between him and Chavis and Pickett; invariably Chavis was sullen and disagreeable in his presence, and a number of times she had seen Pickett sneer when Randerson's back was turned. No one had told her of the open enmity that existed between Pickett and Randerson; the latter had not hinted of it.
And Randerson was at the ranchhouse even less frequently than his predecessor; he spent much of his time with the outfit. But he came in one afternoon, after Ruth's friendship with Hagar Catherson had progressed far, and met the nester's daughter on the porch as he was about to enter the house.
By ingenious artifice and persuasion Ruth had induced the girl to accept for her own many of the various garments in the alluring trunk, and Ruth herself had been surprised at the wonderful transformation in her appearance when arrayed in them. Hagar was attired this afternoon in a dark-blue riding habit, with short skirt—shortened by Aunt Martha—riding boots, a waist with a low collar and a flowing tie, and a soft hat that Ruth had re-made for her. She had received lessons in hair-dressing, and her brown, wavy tresses were just obstinate enough, through long neglect, to refuse to yield fully to the influence of comb and brush; they bulged under the brim of the soft hat, and some stray wisps persisted in blowing over her face.
She had just taken leave of Ruth who, at the instant Randerson stepped on the porch, was standing inside the doorway, watching her. She had given the girl a trinket that had long been coveted by her, and Hagar's eyes were bright with delight as she took leave of her friend. They grew even brighter when she saw Randerson on the porch, and a swift color suffused her face.
The girl stood still, looking at the range boss. A sudden whim to discover if he recognized her, took possession of her—for she had known him long and he had been a friend to her father when friends were few; she stood looking straight at him.
He gave her one quick, penetrating glance, and then stepped back, astonishment and recognition in his eyes. Then he took a quick step forward and seized her hands, holding her at arm's length, his eyes leaping in admiration.
"Why, if it ain't Hagar Catherson!" he said, wonder in his voice. "Have you just got out of a fairy book?"
Old friendship was speaking here; Ruth could not fail to understand that.
But he had not yet finished. "Why, I reckon—" he began. And then he saw Ruth, and his lips wreathed in a delighted grin. "You're the fairy, ma'am." And then he sobered. "Shucks. I'm talkin' nonsense, ma'am. I've come to tell you that the grass ain't what it ought to be where we've been, an' tomorrow we're drivin' past here to go down the river." He was still holding Hagar's hands, and now he seemed to realize that perhaps he had been too effusive, and he flushed and dropped them. "You was just goin', I reckon," he said to the girl. And at her nod, and a quick, pleased glance from her eyes, he added: "Tell your dad that I'm comin' over to see him, pretty soon. I'd have been over before, but I've been sort of busy."