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A Man Is Born Again








From: The Range Boss

The meeting between Catherson and Randerson had taken the edge off
Catherson's frenzy, but it had not shaken his determination. He had been
in the grip of an insane wrath when he had gone to see the Flying W range
boss. His passions had ruled him, momentarily. He had subdued them,
checked them; they were held in the clutch of his will as he rode the
Lazette trail. He did not travel fast, but carefully. There was something
in the pony's gait that suggested the mood of his rider--a certain
doggedness of movement and demeanor which might have meant that the
animal knew his rider's thoughts and was in sympathy with them. They
traveled the trail that Randerson had taken on the night he had found
Ruth on the rock; they negotiated the plain that spread between the
ranchhouse and the ford where Randerson had just missed meeting Ruth that
day; they went steadily over the hilly country and passed through the
section of broken land where Ruth's pony had thrown her. Reaching the
hills and ridges beyond, Catherson halted and scrutinized the country
around him. When he observed that there was no sign of life within range
of his vision, he spoke to the pony and they went forward.

Catherson's lips were set in a heavy, ugly pout. His shaggy brows were
contracted; somber, baleful flashes, that betrayed something of those
passions that he was subduing, showed in his eyes as the pony skirted the
timber where Randerson had tied Ruth's horse. When he reached the
declivity where Ruth had overheard Chavis and Kester, he dismounted and
led his pony down it, using the utmost care. He was conserving the pony's
strength. For he knew nothing of what might be required of the animal,
and this thing which he had determined to do must not be bungled.

He was still in no hurry, but he grew cautious now, and secretive. He
made a wide circuit of the basin, keeping out of sight as much as
possible, behind some nondescript brush, riding in depressions; going a
mile out of his way to follow the sandy bed of a washout. His objective
was Chavis' shack, and he wanted to come upon it unnoticed. Or, if that
failed, he desired to make his visit appear casual.

* * * * *

But in Chavis' shack was a man who of late had formed the habit of
furtive watchfulness. He wore a heavy six-shooter at his waist, but he
knew better than to try to place any dependence upon his ability as a
marksman. A certain meeting with a grim-faced man on the Lazette trail
the night before, a vivid recollection of the grim-faced man's uncanny
cleverness with a weapon, demonstrated upon two occasions, worried him,
as did also some words that kept running through his mind, asleep or
awake, and would not be banished. He could even hear the intonations of
the voice that had uttered them: "This country is too crowded for both of
us."

Masten was beginning to believe that. He had thought that very morning,
of leaving, of escaping, rather. But Chavis had reassured him, had
ridiculed him, in fact.

"Randerson's four-flushin'," Chavis had laughed. "He's took a shine to
Ruth, an' he's aimin' to scare you out. He'd sooner shoot a foot off than
bore you. 'Cause why? 'Cause if he bored you he'd never have no chance to
get next to Ruth. She's some opposed to him killin' folks promiscuous.
You lay low, that's all. An' I'll rustle up a guy one of these days which
will put a crimp in Randerson. If he comes snoopin' around here, why,
there's a rifle handy. Let him have it, sudden--before he can git set!"

Since he had sent Chavis with the note to Hagar, Masten had been uneasy.
He had not stayed inside the shack for more than a minute or two at a
time, standing much in the doorway, scanning the basin and the declivity
carefully and fearfully. And he had seen Catherson lead his pony down. He
went in and took the rifle from its pegs.

He had had a hope, at first, that it might be Kester or Linton. But when
he saw that the rider did not come directly toward the shack a cold sweat
broke out on his forehead and he fingered the rifle nervously. When he
saw the rider disappear in the washout, he got a chair from inside and,
standing on it, concentrated his gaze at the point where the rider must
emerge. And when, a little later, he caught a glimpse of the rider's
head, appearing for just an instant above the crest of a sand ridge,
noting the beard and the shaggy hair, his face turned ashen and the chair
rocked under him. For he knew but one man in this country who looked like
that.

He got down from the chair and glared around, his eyes dilated.
Catherson's actions seemed innocent enough. But what could he be doing in
the basin? And, once here, what could he mean by prowling like that,
instead of coming directly to the cabin? What could he be looking for?
Why did he not show himself?

Masten slipped outside and crept along the wall of the shack to a corner,
from which, screened by some alder, he watched breathlessly, a nameless
disquiet oppressing him. Did Catherson know anything?

That question his conscience dinned in his ears. It was answered many
times, as he stood there--an insistent affirmative, suggested, proven by
Catherson's actions, supported by the fact that he had never seen
Catherson in the basin before.

As he watched, he saw Catherson again. He was closer, riding behind a
thicket of gnarled brush, which was not high enough entirely to conceal
him, and he was bending far over in the saddle as though he did not want
to be seen. But Masten could see him, and this last evidence of the man's
caution convinced Masten. Obeying a sudden impulse, he threw the rifle to
his shoulder. The muzzle wavered, describing wide circles, and before he
could steady it enough to be reasonably certain of hitting the target,
Catherson had vanished behind a low hill.

Masten wiped the cold moisture from his forehead. For an instant he stood
irresolute, trembling. And then, panic-stricken over a picture that his
imagination drew for him, he dropped the rifle and ran, crouching, to the
corral. With frenzied haste, urged by the horrible conviction that had
seized him, he threw saddle and bridle on his pony, and clambered,
mumbling incoherently, into the saddle. Twice the reins escaped his wild
clutches, but finally he caught them and sat erect looking fearfully for
Catherson.

The nester was not visible to him. Gulping hard, Masten sent the pony
cautiously forward. He skirted the corral fence, keeping the shack
between him and the point at which he divined Catherson was then riding,
and loped the pony into some sparse timber near the river.

His panic had grown. He had yielded to it, and it had mastered him. His
lips were twitching; he cringed and shivered as, getting deeper into the
timber, he drove the spurs into the pony's flanks and raced it away from
the shack.

He rode for perhaps a mile at break-neck speed. And then, unable to fight
off the fascination that gripped him, doubting, almost ridiculing himself
for yielding to the wild impulse to get away from Catherson, for now that
he was away his action seemed senseless, he halted the pony and turned in
the saddle, peering back through the trees. He had followed a narrow
trail, and its arching green stretched behind him, peaceful, inviting,
silent. So calm did it all seem to him now, so distant from that dread
danger he had anticipated, that he smiled and sat debating an impulse to
return and face Catherson. The man's intentions could not be what he had
suspected them to be; clearly, his conscience had played him a trick.

But he did not wheel his pony. For as he sat there in the silence he
heard the rapid drumming of hoofs on the path. Distant they were, but
unmistakable. For a moment Masten listened to them, the cold damp
breaking out on his forehead again. Then he cursed, drove the spurs deep
into the pony and leaning forward, rode frantically away.

Coming out of the timber to a sand plain that stretched in seeming
endlessness toward a horizon that was dimming in the growing twilight,
Masten halted the pony again, but only for an instant. In the next he was
urging it on furiously. For looking back fearfully, he saw Catherson
bestriding his pony, a dread apparition, big, rigid, grim, just breaking
through the timber edge, not more than two or three hundred feet distant.
Masten had hoped he had distanced his pursuer, for he had ridden at least
five miles at a pace that he had never before attempted. There had been
no way for him to judge the pony's speed, of course, but when he had
halted momentarily he had noted that the animal was quivering all over,
that it caught its breath shrilly in the brief interval of rest, and now
as he rode, bending far over its mane, he saw that the billowing foam on
its muzzle was flecked with blood. The animal was not equal to the
demands he had made upon it.

But he forced it on, with spur and voice and hand, muttering, pleading
with it incoherently, his own breath coughing in his throat, the muscles
of his back cringing and rippling in momentary expectation of a flying
missile that would burn and tear its way through them. But no bullet
came. There was no sound behind him except, occasionally, the ring of
hoofs. At other times silence engulfed him. For in the deep sand of the
level the laboring ponies of pursued and pursuer made no noise. Masten
could hear a sodden squish at times, as his own animal whipped its hoofs
out of a miniature sand hill.


grotesque and gigantic in his thoughts]

He did not look around again for a long time. Long ago had he lost all
sense of direction, for twilight had come and gone, and blank darkness,
except for the stars, stretched on all sides. He had never seen this sand
level; he knew it must be far off the Lazette trail. And he knew, too,
before he had ridden far into it, that it was a desert. For as twilight
had come on he had scrutinized it hopefully in search of timber, bushes,
a gorge, a gully--anything that might afford him an opportunity for
concealment, for escape from the big, grim pursuer. He had seen nothing
of that character. Barren, level, vast, this waste of world stretched
before him, with no verdure save the repulsive cactus, the scraggy yucca,
the grease-wood, and occasional splotches of mesquite.

They raced on, the distance between them lessening gradually. Masten
could feel his pony failing. It tried bravely, but the times when it
spurted grew less frequent; it made increasingly harder work of pulling
its hoofs out of the deep sand; it staggered and lurched on the hard
stretches.

Masten looked back frequently now. The grim, relentless figure behind him
grew grotesque and gigantic in his thoughts, and once, when he felt the
pony beneath him go to its knees, he screamed hysterically. But the pony
clambered to its feet again and staggered on, to fall again a minute
later. Catherson's pony, its strength conserved for this ordeal, came on
steadily, its rider carefully avoiding the soft sand, profiting by
Masten's experiences with it. It was not until he saw Catherson within
fifty feet of him that Masten divined that he was not to be shot. For at
that distance he made a fair target, and Catherson made no movement
toward his gun. The nester was still silent; he had spoken no word. He
spoke none now, as he hung relentlessly to his prey, seeming, to Masten's
distorted mind and vision, a hideous, unnatural and ghastly figure of
death.

Catherson had drawn nearer. He was not more than thirty feet away when
Masten's pony went down again. It fell with a looseness and finality that
told Masten of the end. And Masten slipped his feet out of the stirrups,
throwing himself free and alighting on his hands and knees in front of
the exhausted animal. He got up, and started to run, desperately,
sobbing, his lips slavering from terror. But he turned, after running a
few feet, to see Catherson coming after him. The nester was uncoiling a
rope from his saddle horn, and at this sight Masten shrieked and went to
his knees. He heard an answering laugh from Catherson, short, malevolent.
And then the rope swished out, its loop widening and writhing. Masten
shrieked again, and threw up his hands impotently.

* * * * *

Later, Catherson brought his pony to a halt, far from where the rope had
been cast, and looked grimly down at his fellow being, prone and
motionless in the deep sand at his feet.

Unmoved, remorseless, Catherson had cut short the pleadings, the
screaming, the promises. He had not bungled his work, and it had been
done. But as he looked down now, the muscles of his face quivered. And
now he spoke the first word that had passed his lips since he had left
the Flying W ranchhouse:

"I reckon you've got what's been comin' to you!"

He got down, unfastened the rope, deliberately re-coiled it and looped it
around the saddle horn. Then he mounted and rode away. Grim, indistinct,
fading into the blackness of the desert night, he went, half a mile,
perhaps. And then, halting the pony, he turned in the saddle and looked
back, his head bent in a listening attitude. To his ears came the sharp
bark of a coyote, very near. It was answered, faintly, from the vast,
yawning distance, by another. Catherson stiffened, and lines of remorse
came into his face.

"Hell!" he exclaimed gruffly.

He wheeled the pony and sent it scampering back. A little later he was
kneeling at Masten's side, and still later he helped Masten to the saddle
in front of him and set out again into the desert blackness toward the
timber from which they both had burst some time before.

Many hours afterward they came to the river, at the point where the
Lazette trail intersected. There, in the shallow water of the ford,
Masten washed from his body the signs of his experience, Catherson
helping him. Outwardly, when they had finished, there were few marks on
Masten. But inwardly his experience had left an ineffaceable impression.

After washing, he staggered to a rock and sat on it, his head in his
hands, shivers running over him. For a time Catherson paid no attention
to him, busying himself with his pony, jaded from the night's work. But
after half an hour, just as the first faint shafts of dawn began to steal
up over the horizon, Catherson walked close, and stood looking down at
his victim.

"Well," he said, slowly and passionlessly, "I've got you this far. I'm
quittin' you. I reckon I've deviled you enough. I was goin' to kill you.
But killin' you wouldn't have made things right. I expect you've learned
somethin', anyway. You'll know enough to play square, after this. An'
wherever you go--"

Masten looked up at him, his face haggard, his eyes brimming, but
flashing earnestly.

"I'm going back to Hagar," he said. He shivered again. "You're right,
Catherson," he added, his voice quavering; "I learned a lot tonight. I've
learned--" His voice broke, and he sat there grim and white, shuddering
as a child shudders when awakened from a nightmare. He almost collapsed
when Catherson's huge hands fell to his shoulders, but the hands held
him, the fingers gripping deeply into the flesh. There was a leap in
Catherson's voice:

"You're almost a man, after all!" he said.

They got on the pony after a while, riding as before, Masten in front,
Catherson behind him, steadying him. And in this manner they rode on
toward Catherson's shack, miles down the river.

It was late in the morning when they came in sight of the shack, and
seeing them from afar Hagar ran to them. She stopped when she saw Masten,
her eyes wide with wonder and astonishment that changed quickly to joy as
she saw a smile gathering on Catherson's face.

"I've brought you your husband, Hagar," he told her.

Hagar did not move. Her hands were pressing her breast; her eyes were
eloquent with doubt and hope. They sought Masten's, searchingly,
defiantly. And she spoke directly to him, proudly, her head erect:

"If you've come ag'in your will--If dad had to bring you--" She paused,
her lips trembling.

"Shucks," said Catherson gently; "he's come on his own hook, Hagar. Why,
he asked me to bring him--didn't you, Masten?"

And then he dismounted and helped Masten down, leading his pony forward
toward the shack, but turning when he reached the porch, to look back at
Masten and Hagar, standing together in the shade of the trees, the girl's
head resting on the man's shoulder.

Catherson pulled the saddle and bridle from the pony, turned him into the
corral, and then went into the house. A little later he came out again,
smoking a pipe. Masten and Hagar were sitting close together on a fallen
tree near where he had left them. Catherson smiled mildly at them and
peacefully pulled at his pipe.





Next: A Woman On The Trail

Previous: Realizing A Passion



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