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At The Flying W








From: The Range Boss

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.





Next: A Memory Of The Rider

Previous: The Sympathetic Rescuer



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