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How An Insult Was Avenged








From: The Range Boss

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."

"We've been a-hopin' you'd come," answered Hagar. And with another smile
at Ruth she stepped off the porch and mounted her pony.

Randerson went directly to his room, and Ruth stood for a long time at
the door, watching Hagar as she rode her pony over the plains. There was
a queer sensation of resentment in her breast over this exhibition of
friendship; she had never thought of them knowing each other. She smiled
after a while, however, telling herself that it was nothing to her. But
the next time that she saw Hagar she ascertained her age. It was
seventeen.

The outfit came in the next morning--fourteen punchers, the horse-wrangler
having trouble as usual with the remuda, the cook, Chavis, and Pickett.
They veered the herd toward the river and drove it past the ranchhouse and
into a grass level that stretched for miles. It was near noon when the
chuck wagon came to a halt near the bunkhouse door, and from the porch of
her house Ruth witnessed a scene that she had been anticipating since her
first day in the West--a group of cowboys at play.

Did these men of the plains know that their new boss had been wanting to
see them in their unrestrained moments? They acted like boys--more
mischievous than boys in their most frolicsome moods. Their movements
were grotesque, their gestures extravagant, their talk high-pitched and
flavored with a dialect that Ruth had never heard. They were "showing
off"; the girl knew that. But she also knew that in their actions was
much of earnestness, that an excess of vigor filled them. They were like
their horses which now unleashed in the corral were running, neighing,
kicking up their heels in their momentary delight of freedom.

The girl understood and sympathized with them, but she caught a glimpse
of Chavis and Pickett, sitting close together on a bench at the front of
the messhouse, talking seriously, and a cloud came over her face. These
two men were not light-hearted as the others. What was the reason? When
she went into the house a few minutes later, a premonition of impending
trouble assailed her and would not be dismissed.

She helped Aunt Martha in the kitchen. Uncle Jepson had gone
away--"nosin' around," he had said; Masten had ridden away toward the
river some time before--he had seemed to ride toward the break in the
canyon which led to the Catherson cabin; she did not know where Randerson
had gone--had not seen him for hours.

Hilarious laughter reached her, busy in the kitchen, but it did not
banish the peculiar uneasiness that afflicted her. And some time later,
when the laughter ceased and she went to the window and looked out, the
cowboys had vanished. They had gone in to dinner. But Chavis and Pickett
still sat on their bench, talking. Ruth shivered and turned from the
window.

She was in better spirits shortly after dinner, and went out to the
stable to look at her pony. Because of the coming of the remuda she had
thought it best to take her pony from the corral, for she feared that in
company with the other horses her own animal would return to those
ungentle habits which she disliked.

She fed it from some grain in a bin, carried some water in a pail from
the trough at the windmill, and stood at the pony's head for some time,
watching it. Just as she was about to turn to leave the stable, she felt
the interior darken, and she wheeled quickly to see that the door had
closed, and that Jim Pickett stood before it, grinning at her.

For a moment her knees shook, for she could not fail to interpret the
expression of his face, then she heard a gale of laughter from the
direction of the bunkhouse, and felt reassured. But while she stood, she
heard the sounds of the laughter growing gradually indistinct and
distant, and she gulped hard. For she knew that the cowboys were riding
away--no doubt to join the herd.

She pretended to be interested in the pony, and stroked its mane with a
hand that trembled, delaying to move in the hope that she might be
mistaken in her fears and that Pickett would go away. But Pickett did not
move. Glancing at him furtively, she saw that the grin was still on his
face and that he was watching her narrowly. Then, finding that he seemed
determined to stay, she pretended unconcern and faced him, meeting his
gaze fearlessly.

"Is there something that you wanted to talk to me about, Pickett?" she
questioned.

"Yes, ma'am," he said respectfully, though his voice seemed slightly
hoarse, "I've got a letter here which I want you to read to me--I just
can't sorta make out the writin'."

She almost sighed with relief. Leaving the stall she went to Pickett's
side and took from his hand a paper that he held out to her. And now, in
her relief over her discovery that his intentions were not evil, it
suddenly dawned on her that she had forgotten that the door was closed.

"It is dark here," she said; "open the door, please."

Instead of answering, he seized the hand holding the paper, and with a
swift pull tried to draw her toward him. But her muscles had been tensed
with the second fear that had taken possession of her, and she
resisted--almost broke away from him. His fingers slipped from her wrist,
the nails scratching the flesh deeply, and she sprang toward the door.
But he was upon her instantly, his arms around her, pinning her own to
her sides, and then he squeezed her to him, so tightly that the breath
almost left her body, and kissed her three or four times full on the
lips. Then, still holding her, and looking in her eyes with an expression
that filled her with horror, he said huskily:

"Lord, but you're a hummer!"

Then, as though that were the limit of his intentions, he released her,
laughed mirthlessly and threw the door open.

She had spoken no word during the attack. She made no sound now, as she
went toward the house, her face ashen, her breath coming in great gasps.
But a few minutes later she was in her room in the ranchhouse, on her
bed, her face in the pillow, sobbing out the story of the attack to Aunt
Martha, whose wrinkled face grew gray with emotion as she listened.

Masten came in an hour later. Ruth was in a chair in the sitting-room,
looking very white. Aunt Martha was standing beside her.

"Why, what has happened?" Masten took a few steps and stood in front of
her, looking down at her.

"Aunty will tell you." Ruth hid her face in her hands and cried softly.

Aunt Martha led the way into the kitchen, Masten following. Before he
reached the door he looked back at Ruth, and a slight smile, almost a
sneer, crossed his face. But when he turned to Aunt Martha, in the
kitchen, his eyes were alight with well simulated curiosity.

"Well?" he said, questioningly.

"It is most outrageous," began Aunt Martha, her voice trembling. "That
man, Pickett, came upon Ruth in the stable and abused her shamefully. He
actually kissed her--three or four times--and--Why, Mr. Masten, the
prints of his fingers are on her wrists!"

Ruth, in the sitting-room, waited, almost in dread, for the explosion
that she knew would follow Aunt Martha's words.

None came, and Ruth sank back in her chair, not knowing whether she was
relieved or disappointed. There was a long silence, during which Masten
cleared his throat three times. And then came Aunt Martha's voice, filled
with mingled wonder and impatience:

"Aren't you going to do something Mr. Masten? Such a thing ought not to
go unpunished."

"Thunder!" he said fretfully, "what on earth can I do? You don't expect
me to go out and fight that man, Pickett. He'd kill me!"

"Mebbe he would," said Aunt Martha in a slightly cold voice, "but he
would know that Ruth was engaged to a man!" There was a silence. And
again came Aunt Martha's voice:

"There was a time when men thought it an honor to fight for their women.
But it seems that times have changed mightily."

"This is an age of reason, and not muscle and murder," replied Masten.
"There is no more reason why I should go out there and allow Pickett to
kill me than there is a reason why I should go to the first railroad, lay
my head on the track and let a train run over me. There is law in this
country, aunty, and it can reach Pickett."

"Your self-control does you credit, Mr. Masten." Aunt Martha's voice was
low, flavored with sarcasm. Masten turned abruptly from her and went in
to Ruth. Her face was still in her hands, but she felt his presence and
involuntarily shrank from him.

He turned his head from her and smiled, toward the stable, and then he
laid a hand on Ruth's shoulder and spoke comfortingly.

"It's too bad, Ruth. But we shall find a way to deal with Pickett without
having murder done. Why not have Randerson discharge him? He is range
boss, you know. In the meantime, can't you manage to stay away from
places where the men might molest you? They are all unprincipled
scoundrels, you must remember!"

He left her, after a perfunctory caress which she suffered in silence.
She saw him, later, as he passed her window, talking seriously to Chavis,
and she imagined he was telling Chavis about the attack. Of course, she
thought, with a wave of bitterness, Chavis would be able to sympathize
with him. She went to her room shortly afterward.

The sun was swimming in a sea of saffron above the mountains in the
western distance when Ruth again came downstairs. Hearing voices in the
kitchen she went to the door and looked. Aunt Martha was standing near
the kitchen table. Randerson was standing close to her, facing her,
dwarfing her, his face white beneath the deep tan upon it, his lips
straight and hard, his eyes narrowed, his teeth clenched; she could see
the corded muscles of his lean under-jaw, set and stiff. Aunt Martha's
hands were on his sleeves; her eyes were big and bright, and glowing with
a strange light.

They did not see Ruth, and something in their attitudes kept her from
revealing herself; she stood silent, listening, fascinated.

"So he done that!" It was Randerson's voice, and it made Ruth's heart
feel heavy and cold within her, for in it was contempt, intolerance, rage
suppressed--she felt that the words had come through clenched teeth. "I
reckon I'll be seein' Pickett, aunty."

And then he patted Aunt Martha's shoulders and started for the back door.
Ruth heard him open it; he must have been standing on the threshold when
he spoke again. And this time he spoke in a drawl--slow, gentle:

"I reckon I'll go wash. It was mighty dusty ridin' today. I passed
Calamity, aunty. There ain't no mud there any more; Willard wouldn't get
mussed up, now. The suck-hole ain't a foot deep any more."

"You're a scapegrace," said Aunt Martha severely. Ruth felt that she was
shaking a deprecatory finger at him. "Your manners have been neglected."
But Aunt Martha's voice gave the words an exactly opposite meaning, and
Ruth blushed.

There had been a dread fear in Ruth's heart. For she had seen warning of
impending tragedy in Randerson's face when she had looked at him. It
seemed to have passed. His, "I reckon I'll be seein' Pickett," meant,
perhaps, that he would discharge the man. Relieved, she went upstairs
again and sat in a chair, looking out of a window.

A little later she saw several of the cowboys come in. She saw Pickett
standing near a corner of the bunkhouse. She watched him closely, for
there was something strange in his actions. He seemed to be waiting for
something, or somebody. Occasionally he leaned against the corner of the
bunkhouse, but she noted that he kept turning his head, keeping a lookout
in all directions. Again a premonition of imminent trouble oppressed her.

And then she saw Randerson going from the ranchhouse toward the men who
were congregated in front of the bunkhouse; saw Pickett's right hand fall
to his side as though it rested on a holster, and she started out of her
chair, for illumination now came to her.

Half way to the bunkhouse, Randerson was met by Uncle Jepson. She saw
Randerson stop, observed that Uncle Jepson seemed to say something to
him. She could not, of course, hear the words, "Look out, Randerson;
Pickett's layin' for you," but she saw Randerson lay a hand on Uncle
Jepson's shoulder.

And then he continued on his way.

She saw Randerson go close to Pickett, noted that the other men had all
turned and were watching the two. Randerson seemed to be speaking, to
Pickett; the latter had faced him. Then, as she breathlessly watched, she
saw Pickett reach for his gun. Randerson leaped. Pickett's gun did not
come out, Randerson's hand had closed on Pickett's wrist.

There was a brief, fierce struggle, blows were struck, and then the men
sprang apart. Ruth saw Randerson's right arm describe a rapid
half-circle; she seemed to hear a thud as his fist landed, and Pickett
reeled and fell sideways to the ground, close to the wall of the
bunkhouse. She heard him curse; saw him reach again for the gun at his
hip. The toe of Randerson's right boot struck Pickett's hand, driving it
away from the holster; the hand was ground into the dust by Randerson's
boot. And then, so quickly that she could not follow the movement,
Randerson's gun was out, and Pickett lay still where he had fallen.

Presently Ruth saw Pickett get up, still menaced by Randerson's gun.
Cursing, crouching, evidently still awaiting an opportunity to draw his
gun, Pickett began to walk toward the ranchhouse, Randerson close behind
him. At a safe distance, the other men followed--Ruth saw Masten and
Chavis come out of the bunkhouse door and follow also. The thought struck
her that they must have witnessed the incident from a window. She saw
them all, the cowboys at a respectable distance, Pickett and Randerson in
front, with Masten and Chavis far behind, come to a halt. She
divined--she believed she had suspected all along--what the march to the
ranchhouse meant, but still she did not move, for she feared she could
not stand.

Ruth was roused, however, by Randerson's voice. It reached her, sharp,
cold, commanding. Evidently he was speaking to Aunt Martha, or to Uncle
Jepson, who had gone into the house:

"Tell Miss Ruth to come here!"

Ruth obeyed. A moment later she stood on the front porch, looking at them
all. This scene seemed unreal to her--the cowboys at a distance, Masten
and Chavis in the rear, looking on, Pickett near the edge of the porch,
his face bloated with impotent rage, his eyes glaring; the grim figure
that Randerson made as he stood near Pickett, gun in hand, his eyes
narrowed, alert. It seemed to her to be a dream from which she would
presently awaken, trembling from the horror of it.

And then again she heard Randerson's voice. It was low, but so burdened
with passion that it seemed to vibrate in the perfect silence. There was
a threat of death in it:

"You can tell Miss Ruth that you're never goin' to play the skunk with a
woman ag'in!"

Pickett writhed. But it seemed to Ruth, as her gaze shifted from
Randerson to him, that Pickett's manner was not what it should be. He was
not embarrassed enough, did not seem to feel his disgrace keenly enough.
For though he twisted and squirmed under the threat in Randerson's voice,
there was an odd smirk on his face that impressed her as nearly
concealing a malignant cunning. And his voice sounded insincere to
her--there was even no flavor of shame in them:

"I'm sorry I done what I did, ma'am."

"I reckon that's all, Pickett. You draw your time right now."

Randerson sheathed his pistol and turned slightly sidewise to Pickett,
evidently intending to come up on the porch.

Ruth gasped. For she saw Pickett reach for his gun. It was drawn half out
of its holster. As though he had divined what was in Pickett's mind,
Randerson had turned slightly at Pickett's movement. There was a single
rapid movement to his right hip, the twilight was split by a red streak,
by another that followed it so closely as to seem to make the two
continuous. Pickett's hand dropped oddly from the half-drawn weapon, his
knees sagged, he sighed and pitched heavily forward, face down, at
Randerson's feet.

Dimly, as through a haze, Ruth saw a number of the cowboys coming toward
her, saw them approach and look curiously down at the thing that lay
almost at her feet. And then someone took her by the arm--she thought it
was Uncle Jepson--and she was led toward the door. At the threshold she
paused, for Randerson's voice, cold and filled with deadly definiteness,
reached her:

"Do you want to take his end of this?" Ruth turned. Randerson was
pointing to Pickett's body, ghastly in its prone slackness. He was
looking at Chavis.

Evidently Chavis elected not to avenge his friend at that moment. For
there was a dead silence while one might have counted fifty. Then Ruth
was drawn into the house.





Next: What Uncle Jepson Heard

Previous: A Man And His Job



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