: The Range Boss
Randerson had been in no hurry to make an attempt to catch the rustlers
whose depredations he had reported to Ruth. He had told the men to be
doubly alert to their work, and he had hired two new men--from the
Diamond H--to replace those who had left the Flying W. His surmise that
they wanted to join Chavis had been correct, for the two new men--whom he
had put on special duty and had been given permission to come and go when
they pleased--had reported this fact to him. There was nothing to do,
however, but to wait, in the hope that one day the rustlers would attempt
to run cattle off when one or more of the men happened to be in the
vicinity. And then, if the evidence against the rustlers were convincing
enough, much would depend on the temper of himself and the men as to
whether Ruth's orders that there should be no hanging would be observed.
There would be time enough to decide that question if any rustlers were
He had seen little of the Easterner during the past two or three weeks.
Masten rarely showed himself on the range any more--to Randerson's
queries about him the men replied that they hadn't seen him. But
Randerson was thinking very little about Masten as he rode through the
brilliant sunshine this afternoon. He was going again to Catherson's, to
see Hagar. Recollections of the change that had come over the girl were
disquieting, and he wanted to talk to her again to determine whether she
really had changed, or whether he had merely fancied it.
Far down the river he crossed at a shallow ford, entered a section of
timber, and loped Patches slowly through this. He found a trail that he
had used several times before, when he had been working for the Diamond H
and necessity or whim had sent him this way, and rode it, noting that it
seemed to have been used much, lately.
"I reckon old Abe's poundin' his horses considerable. Why, it's right
plain," he added, after a little reflection, "this here trail runs into
the Lazette trail, down near the ford. An' Abe's wearin' it out, ridin'
to Lazette for red-eye. I reckon if I was Abe, I'd quit while the
quittin's good." He laughed, patting Patches' shoulder. "Shucks, a man
c'n see another man's faults pretty far, but his own is pretty near
invisible. You've rode the Lazette trail a heap, too, Patches," he said,
"when your boss was hittin' red-eye. We ain't growin' no angels' wings,
Patches, which would give us the right to go to criticizin' others."
Presently he began to ride with more caution, for he wanted to surprise
Hagar. A quarter of a mile from the cabin he brought Patches to a halt on
a little knoll and looked about him. He had a good view of the cabin in
the clearing, and he watched it long, for signs of life. He saw no such
"Abe's out putterin' around, an' Hagar's nappin', I reckon--or tryin' on
her new dresses," he added as an after-thought.
He was about to ride on, when a sound reached his ears, and he drew the
reins tight on Patches and sat rigid, alert, listening.
The perfect silence of the timber was unbroken. He had almost decided
that his ears had played him a trick when the sound came again, nearer
than before--the sound of voices. Quickly and accurately he determined
from which direction they came, and he faced that way, watching a narrow
path that led through the timber to a grass plot not over a hundred feet
from him, from which he was screened by some thick-growing brush at his
He grinned, fully expecting to see Abe and Hagar on the path presently.
"Abe's behavin' today," he told himself as he waited. "I'll sure surprise
Suddenly he drew his breath sharply, his teeth came together viciously,
and his brows drew to a frown, his eyes gleaming coldly underneath. For
he saw Willard Masten coming along the path, smiling and talking, and
beside him, his arm around her waist, also smiling, but with her head
bent forward a little, was Hagar Catherson.
The color slowly left Randerson's face as he watched. He had no nice
scruples about eavesdropping at this moment--here was no time for
manners; the cold, contemptuous rage that fought within him was too deep
and gripping to permit of any thought that would not center about the two
figures on the path. He watched them, screened by the brush, with the
deadly concentration of newly aroused murder-lust. Once, as he saw them
halt at the edge of the grass plot, and he observed Masten draw Hagar
close to him and kiss her, his right hand dropped to the butt of his
pistol at his right hip, and he fingered it uncertainly. He drew the hand
away at last, though, with a bitter, twisting smile.
Five minutes later, his face still stony and expressionless, he
dismounted lightly and with infinite care and caution led Patches away
from the knoll and far back into the timber. When he was certain there
was no chance of his being seen or heard by Masten and Hagar, he mounted,
urged Patches forward and made a wide detour which brought him at length
to the path which had been followed by Masten and Hagar in reaching the
grass plot. He loped the pony along this path, and presently he came upon
them--Hagar standing directly in the path, watching him, red with
embarrassment which she was trying hard to conceal; Masten standing on
the grass plot near her, staring into the timber opposite; Randerson,
trying to appear unconcerned and making a failure of it.
"It's Rex!" ejaculated the girl. Her hands had been clasped in front of
her; they dropped to her sides when she saw Randerson, and her fingers
began to twist nervously into the edges of her apron. A deep breath,
which was almost a sigh of relief, escaped her. "I thought it was Dad!"
Evidently Masten had likewise expected the horseman to be her father, for
at her exclamation he turned swiftly. His gaze met Randerson's, his
shoulders sagged a little, his eyes wavered and shifted from the steady
ones that watched him.
His composure returned quickly, however, and he smiled blandly, but there
was a trace of derision in his voice:
"You've strayed off your range, haven't you, Randerson?" he said
"Why, I reckon I have." Randerson's voice was low, almost gentle, and he
smiled mildly at Hagar, who blushingly returned it but immediately looked
"I expect dad must be gone somewhere--that you're lookin' for him,"
Randerson said. "I thought mebbe I'd ketch him here."
"He went to Red Rock this mornin'," said the girl. She looked up, and
this time met Randerson's gaze with more confidence, for his pretense of
casualness had set her fears at rest. "Mr. Masten come over to see him,
The lie came hesitatingly through her lips. She looked at Masten as
though for confirmation, and the latter nodded.
"Catherson is hard to catch," he said. "I've been over here a number of
times, trying to see him." His voice was a note too high, and Randerson
wondered whether, without the evidence of his eyes, he would have
suspected Masten. He decided that he would, and his smile was a trifle
"I reckon Catherson is a regular dodger," he returned. "He's always
gallivantin' around the country when somebody wants to see him." He
smiled gently at Hagar, with perhaps just a little pity.
"It's getting along in the afternoon, Hagar," he said. "Dad ought to be
amblin' back here before long." His face grew grave at the frightened
light in her eyes when he continued: "I reckon me an' Masten better wait
for him, so's he won't dodge us any more." He cast a glance around him.
"Where's your cayuse?" he said to Masten.
"I left him down near the ford," returned the other.
"Right on your way back to the Flyin' W," said Randerson, as though the
discovery pleased him. "I'm goin' to the Flyin' W, too, soon as I see
Catherson. I reckon, if you two ain't got no particular yearnin' to go
prowlin' around in the timber any longer, we'll all go back to
Catherson's shack an' wait for him there. Three'll be company, while it'd
be mighty lonesome for one."
Masten cleared his throat and looked intently at Randerson's
imperturbable face. Did he know anything? A vague unrest seized Masten.
Involuntarily he shivered, and his voice was a little hoarse when he
spoke, though he attempted to affect carelessness:
"I don't think I will wait for Catherson," he said, "I can see him
tomorrow, just as well."
"Well, that's too bad," drawled Randerson. "After waitin' this long, too!
But I reckon you're right; it wouldn't be no use waitin'. I'll go too, I
reckon. We'll ride to the Flyin' W together."
"I don't want to force my company on you, Randerson," laughed Masten
nervously. "Besides, I had thought of taking the river trail--back toward
Lazette, you know."
Randerson looked at him with a cold smile. "The Lazette trail suits me
too," he said; "we'll go that way."
Masten looked at him again. The smile on Randerson's face was
inscrutable. And now the pallor left Masten's cheeks and was succeeded by
a color that burned. For he now was convinced and frightened. He heard
Randerson speaking to Hagar, and so gentle was his voice that it startled
him, so great was the contrast between it and the slumbering threat in
his eyes and manner:
"Me an' Masten is goin' to make a short cut over to where his horse is,
Hagar; we've changed our minds about goin' to the shack with you. We've
decided that we're goin' to talk over that business that he come here
about--not botherin' your dad with it." His lips straightened at the
startled, dreading look that sprang into her eyes. "Dad ain't goin' to
know, girl," he assured her gravely. "I'd never tell him. You go back to
the shack an' pitch into your work, sort of forgettin' that you ever saw
Mr. Masten. For he's goin' away tonight, an' he ain't comin' back."
Hagar covered her face with her hands and sank into the grass beside the
"By God, Randerson!" blustered Masten, "what do you mean? This is going
A look silenced him--choked the words in his throat, and he turned
without protest, at Randerson's jerk of the head toward the ford, and
walked without looking back, Randerson following on Patches.
When they reached the narrow path that led to the crossing, just before
entering the brush Randerson looked back. Hagar was still lying in the
grass near the path. A patch of sunlight shone on her, and so clear was
the light that Randerson could plainly see the spasmodic movement of her
shoulders. His teeth clenched tightly, and the muscles of his face corded
as they had done in the Flying W ranchhouse the day that Aunt Martha had
told him of Pickett's attack on Ruth.
He watched silently while Masten got on his horse, and then, still
silent, he followed as Masten rode down the path, across the river,
through the break in the canyon wall and up the slope that led to the
plains above. When they reached a level space in some timber that fringed
the river, Masten attempted to urge his horse through it, but was brought
to a halt by Randerson's voice:
"We'll get off here, Masten."
Masten turned, his face red with wrath.
"Look here, Randerson," he bellowed; "this ridiculous nonsense has gone
far enough. I know, now, that you were spying on us. I don't know why,
unless you'd selected the girl yourself--"
"That's ag'in you too," interrupted Randerson coldly. "You're goin' to
"You're making a lot of fuss about the girl," sneered Masten. "A man--"
"You're a heap careless with words that you don't know the meanin' of,"
said Randerson. "We don't raise men out here that do things like you do.
An' I expect you're one in a million. They all can't be like you, back
East; if they was, the East would go to hell plenty rapid. Get off your
Masten demurred, and Randerson's big pistol leaped into his hand. His
voice came at the same instant, intense and vibrant:
"It don't make no difference to me how you get off!"
He watched Masten get down, and then he slid to the ground himself, the
pistol still in hand, and faced Masten, with only three or four feet of
space separating them.
Masten had been watching him with wide, fearing eyes, and at the menace
of his face when he dismounted Masten shrank back a step.
"Good Heavens, man, do you mean to shoot me?" he said, the words
faltering and scarcely audible.
"I reckon shootin' would be too good for you." Again Randerson's face had
taken on that peculiar stony expression. Inexorable purpose was written
on it; what he was to do he was in no hurry to be about, but it would be
done in good time.
"I ain't never claimed to be no angel," he said. "I reckon I'm about the
average, an' I've fell before temptation same as other men. But I've
drawed the line where you've busted over it. Mebbe if it was some other
girl, I wouldn't feel it like I do about Hagar. But when I tell you that
I've knowed that girl for about five years, an' that there wasn't a mean
thought in her head until you brought your dirty carcass to her father's
shack, an' that to me she's a kid in spite of her long dresses and her
newfangled furbelows, you'll understand a heap about how I feel right
now. Get your paws up, for I'm goin' to thrash you so bad that your own
mother won't know you--if she's so misfortunate as to be alive to look at
you! After that, you're goin' to hit the breeze out of this country, an'
if I ever lay eyes on you ag'in I'll go gunnin' for you!"
While he had been speaking he had holstered the pistol, unstrapped his
cartridge belt and let guns and belt fall to the ground. Then without
warning he drove a fist at Masten's face.
The Easterner dodged the blow, evaded him, and danced off, his face
alight with a venomous joy. For the dreaded guns were out of Randerson's
reach, he was a fair match for Randerson in weight, though Randerson
towered inches above him; he had had considerable experience in boxing at
his club in the East, and he had longed for an opportunity to avenge
himself for the indignity that had been offered him at Calamity. Besides,
he had a suspicion that Ruth's refusal to marry before the fall round-up
had been largely due to a lately discovered liking for the man who was
"I fancy you'll have your work cut out for you, you damned meddler!" he
sneered as he went in swiftly, with a right and left, aimed at
The blows landed, but seemingly had no effect, for Randerson merely
gritted his teeth and pressed forward. In his mind was a picture of a
girl whom he had "dawdled" on his knee--a "kid" that he had played with,
as a brother might have played with a younger sister.