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Into Which A Girl's Trouble Comes








From: The Range Boss

Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha had not seen Masten when he had visited
Ruth, for they had gone in the buckboard to Red Rock. And Masten had
departed when they reached home. Nor did they see Ruth after they
arrived, for she had gone to bed. But at the breakfast table Ruth told
them of the visit of Masten and of her plan to advance the date of the
marriage.

Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha received the news in silence. Aunt Martha
did manage to proffer a half-hearted congratulation, but Uncle Jepson
wrinkled his nose, as he did always when displeased, and said nothing;
and he ate lightly. Ruth did not notice that she had spoiled his
appetite, nor did she note with more than casual interest that he left
the table long before she or Aunt Martha. She did not see him, standing
at the corral fence, scowling, and she could not hear the old-fashioned
profanity that gushed from his lips.

"Aren't you glad?" Ruth asked Aunt Martha when they were alone, for she
had noted her relative's lack of enthusiasm.

"Why, yes, honey," Aunt Martha smiled at her, though it seemed forced.
"Only--" She hesitated eloquently.

"Only what, Aunt Martha?" Ruth's voice was a little sharp, as with all
persons who act in opposition to her better judgment and who resent
anyone understanding them.

"Only I was hoping it would be Randerson, my dear," said Aunt Martha
gently.

"Randerson!" Ruth's voice was scornful. But it sounded insincere to her,
and she would trust it no further.

"Honey!" Aunt Martha's arm was around her, and Aunt Martha's sympathetic
and knowing eyes were compelling hers; and her voice was ineffably
gentle. "Are you sure, honey, that you don't wish it were Randerson? It
is a great event in your life, dear, and once it is done, it can't be
undone. Don't be hasty."

"It can never be Randerson," Ruth said firmly--not, however, as firmly as
she had intended. "Randerson is a murderer--a reckless taker of human
life!"

"He had to shoot, they say," defended Aunt Martha. "I don't believe he
would harm a living thing except in defense of his own life. Defending
themselves is their way out here, girl--they know no other way. And he is
a man, dear. I don't know when I have met a man who has impressed me
more!"

"Please don't talk about it any more." Ruth's face was pale, her brows
contracted, for Aunt Martha's reference to Randerson had brought back
haunting sensations that, she thought, she had succeeded in putting out
of her life. She was ready to cry, and when she thought of Randerson--how
calmly he had accepted his dismissal, with what manliness he had borne
her insults, a chill of sympathy ran over her. She believed she would
never forget him as he had looked on the night he had ridden away after
telling her that he would leave the Flying W--riding into the darkness of
the plains, with his hopes blasted, bravely making no complaint.

She got her pony, after a while, and rode far and long, coming in to the
ranchhouse about noon. After she had turned the pony into the corral and
was coming toward the house, she saw Uncle Jepson sitting on the porch,
puffing furiously at his pipe. She spoke to him in greeting, and was
about to pass him to go into the house, when he called to her:

"I want to talk to you a minute, Ruth." He spoke rapidly, his voice dry
and light, and she could see his facial muscles twitching. Wonderingly,
she sank into a chair near him.

"You're sure thinkin' of marryin' Masten, girl?" he said.

"Yes," she declared firmly.

"Well, then I've got to tell you," said Uncle Jepson decisively. "I've
been puttin' it off, hopin' that you'd get shet of that imp of Satan, an'
I wouldn't have to say anything."

"Uncle Jep!" she protested indignantly.

"That's just what he is, Ruth--a durned imp of the devil. I've knowed it
from the first day I saw him. Since he's come out here, he's proved it."
He swung his chair around and faced her, and forgetting his pipe in his
excitement, he told her the story he had told Randerson: how he had gone
into the messhouse on the day of the killing of Pickett, for a rest and a
smoke, and how, while in there he had overheard Chavis and Pickett
plotting against Randerson, planning Pickett's attack on her, mentioning
Masten's connection with the scheme. She did not open her lips until
Uncle Jepson had concluded, and then she murmured a low "Oh!" and sat
rigid, gripping the arms of her chair.

"An' that ain't all, it ain't half of it!" pursued Uncle Jepson
vindictively. "Do you know that Masten set that Watt Kelso, the
gunfighter, on Randerson?" He looked at Ruth, saw her start and draw a
long breath, and he grinned triumphantly. "Course you don't know; I
cal'late Randerson would never make a peep about it. He's all man--that
feller. But it's a fact. Blair told me. There'd been bad blood between
Randerson an' Kelso, an' Masten took advantage of it. He paid Kelso five
hundred dollars in cold cash to kill Randerson!"

"Oh, it can't be!" moaned the girl, covering her face with her hands and
shrinking into her chair.

"Shucks!" said Uncle Jepson derisively, but more gently now, for he saw
that the girl was badly hurt. "The whole country is talkin' about it,
Ruth, an' wonderin' why Randerson don't salivate that durned dude! An'
the country expects him to do it, girl! They'll fun him out of here, if
he don't! Why, girl," he went on, "you don't know how much of a sneak a
man can be when he's got it in him!"

She was shuddering as though he had struck her, and he was on the edge of
his chair, looking at her pityingly, when Aunt Martha came to the door
and saw them. She was out on the porch instantly, flushing with
indignation.

"Jep Coakley, you're up to your tricks again, ain't you? You quit
devilin' that girl, now, an' go on about your business!"

"I've got some things to say, an' I cal'late to say them!" declared Uncle
Jepson determinedly. "I've kept still about it long enough. I ain't
wantin' to hurt her," he added apologetically, as Aunt Martha slipped to
her knees beside Ruth and put an arm around her, "but that durned Masten
has been doin' some things that she's got to know about, right now. An'
then, if she's set on marryin' him, why, I cal'late it's her business. It
was Masten who was behind Pickett kissin' her--he tellin' Pickett to do
it. An' he hired Kelso to kill Randerson."

"Oh, Ruth!" said Aunt Martha, her voice shaky, as she nestled her head
close to the girl's. But her eyes shone with satisfaction.

"There's another thing," went on Uncle Jepson to Ruth. "Did you notice
Randerson's face, the night he come to hunt you, when you hurt your
ankle? Marked up, kind of, it was, wasn't it? An' do you know what Masten
went to Las Vegas for? Business, shucks! He went there to get his face
nursed up, Ruth--because Randerson had smashed it for him! They'd had a
fight; I saw them, both comin' from the same direction, that night. I
reckon Randerson had pretty nigh killed him. What for?" he asked as Ruth
turned wide, questioning eyes on him. "Well, I don't rightly know. But
I've got suspicions. I've seen Masten goin' day after day through that
break in the canyon over there. A hundred times, I cal'late. An' I've
seen him here, when you wasn't lookin', kissin' that Catherson girl. I
cal'late, if you was to ask her, she'd be able to tell you a heap more
about Masten, Ruth."

Ruth got up, pale and terribly calm, disengaging herself from Aunt Martha
and standing before Uncle Jepson. He too got to his feet.

Ruth's voice quavered. "You wouldn't, oh, you couldn't lie to me, Uncle,
because you like Rex Randerson? Is it true?" She put her hands on his
shoulders and shook him, excitedly.

"True? Why, Ruth, girl; it's as true as there's a Supreme Bein' above us.
Why----"

But she waited to hear no more, turning from him and putting out her
hands to keep Aunt Martha away as she passed her. She went out to the
corral, got her pony, saddled it, mounted, and rode over the plains
toward the break in the canyon wall. Uncle Jepson had one quick glimpse
of her eyes as she turned from him, and he knew there would be no Monday
for Willard Masten.

Ruth had no feelings as she rode. The news had stunned her. She had only
one thought--to see Hagar Catherson, to confirm or disprove Uncle
Jepson's story. She could not have told whether the sun was shining, or
whether it was afternoon or morning. But she must see Hagar Catherson at
once, no matter what the time or the difficulties. She came to the break
in the canyon after an age, and rode through it, down across the bed of
the river, over the narrow bridle path that led to the Catherson cabin.

The dog Nig did not greet her this time; he was stretched out on his
belly, his hind legs gathered under him, his forelegs stuck out in front,
his long muzzle extending along them, while he watched in apparent
anxiety the face of his master, Abe Catherson, who was sitting on the
edge of the porch, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands, in an
attitude of deep dejection. The dog's concern was for Catherson's future
actions, for just a few minutes before he had witnessed a scene that had
made his hair bristle, had brought ugly growls out of him, had plunged
him into such a state of fury that he had, for one wild instant,
meditated a leap at his master's throat. He had seen his master leap upon
his mistress and raise his hand to strike her. If the blow had been
struck--Nig would have leaped, then, no matter what the consequences.

Catherson had not struck. But one great, dominating passion was in his
mind at this moment--the yearning to slay! The dog had seen him, twice
during the last half hour, draw out his heavy six-shooter and examine it,
and each time the dog had growled his disapproval of the action. And on
both occasions Catherson had muttered thickly: "I wish I knowed, for
sure. A man can't do nothin' if he don't know. But I reckon it was him!"

He looked up to see Ruth coming toward him. The girl had seen him
twice--had spoken to him. He was a bearded giant, grizzled, unkempt, with
hairy arms, massive and muscled superbly, and great hands, burned brown
by the sun, that were just now clenched, forming two big fists. There had
been a humorous, tolerant twinkle in his eyes on the other occasions that
Ruth had seen him; it was as though he secretly sympathized with her
efforts to do something for his girl, though he would not openly approve.
But now she saw that his eyes were blazing with an insane frenzy, that
his lips were working, and that the muscles of his neck stood out like
great cords, strained to the bursting point.

He got up when he saw Ruth, and stood on the sand at the edge of the
porch, swaying back and forth, and Ruth's first thought was that he had
been drinking. But his first words to her revealed her mistake. It was
the light, dry voice of a violent passion that greeted her, a passion
that was almost too great for words. He ran to her pony and seized it by
the bridle:

"You know, ma'am. Tell me who treated my li'l gal like that?" His great
hands writhed in the reins. "I'll twist his buzzard's head off his
shoulders."

"What do you mean?" Ruth's own voice startled her, for the spirit of a
lie had issued from her mouth; she knew what he meant; she realized that
Uncle Jepson had told the truth.

"Don't you know, ma'am?" There was wild derision in his voice, insane
mirth. "You've been comin' here; she's been goin' to your place! An' you
don't know! You're blinder than me--an' I couldn't see at all!" He went
off into a gale of frenzied laughter, at which the dog began to bark.
Then Catherson's eyes glared cunningly. "But you've seen who's been
comin' here; you know the man's name, ma'am; an' you're goin' to tell me,
ain't you? So's I c'n talk to him--eh?"

"I don't know, Mr. Catherson." Ruth got a firm grip on herself before she
answered, and it was to save a life that she lied again, for she saw
murder in Catherson's eyes. "Where is Hagar?" she asked.

At his jerk of the head toward the cabin door Ruth got down from her
pony. She was trembling all over, but at Catherson's words all thought of
self had been banished. The effect of Masten's deed on her own life, his
duplicity, his crimes--all were forgotten. Here was her friend who had
been sinned against, needing the comfort of her presence. And in an
instant she was inside the cabin, leaning over the little figure that was
curled up in a bunk in a corner, speaking low words of cheer and
forgiveness.

Outside, Catherson paced back and forth, his lips forming soundless
words, his big hands working as though the fingers were at the throat of
the thief that had stolen into his home. His mind was going over certain
words that Hagar had answered to his questions, just before Ruth's
coming. He dwelt upon every slight circumstance that had occurred during
the past few months. There were the tracks of horse's hoofs about the
cabin, in the paths and trails leading to it. Hagar had refused to tell
him. But he figured it all out for himself, as he walked. When had this
thing started? At about the time that Randerson had taken Vickers' place
at the Flying W! Why had not there been trouble between him and the
Flying W, as under previous range bosses? What had Randerson given him
money for, many times? Ah, he knew now!

"The black-hearted hound!" he gritted.

He reeled, and held to a corner of the cabin to steady himself, for this
last access of rage came near to paralyzing him. When he recovered he
drew back out of sight, and leaning against the wall of the cabin, with a
pencil and a small piece of paper taken from a note book in a pocket, he
wrote. He laid the piece of paper on the edge of the porch, ran to the
corral and caught his pony, mounted, and rode drunkenly down the narrow
path toward the break in the canyon.





Next: Banishing A Shadow

Previous: One Too Many



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