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One Too Many








From: The Range Boss

To no man in the outfit did Randerson whisper a word concerning the
result of his visit to the ranchhouse--that he would cease to be the
Flying W range boss just as soon as Ruth Harkness could find a man to
replace him. He went his way, thoughtful, silent, grave, filled with
somber thoughts and dark passions that sometimes flashed in his eyes, but
taking no man into his confidence. And yet they knew that all was not
well with him. For in other days his dry humor, his love of wholesome
fun, had shortened many an hour for them, and his serenity, in ordinary
difficulties, had become a byword to them. And so they knew that the
thing which was troubling him now was not ordinary.

They thought they knew what was troubling him. Kelso had been hired to
take his life. Kelso had lost his own in the effort. That might have
seemed to end it. But it had become known that Kelso had been a mere tool
in the hands of an unscrupulous plotter, and until the plotter had been
sent on the way that Kelso had gone there could be no end. Already there
were whispers over the country because of Randerson's delay.

Of course, they would wait a reasonable time; they would give him his
"chance." But they did not know what was holding him back--that deep in
his heart lurked a hope that one day he might still make his dreams come
true, and that if he killed Masten, Ruth's abhorrence of him and his
deeds, already strong, could never be driven from her. If he lost this
hope, Masten was doomed.

And during the second week following his latest talk with Ruth, the girl
unconsciously killed it. He met her in the open, miles from the
ranchhouse, and he rode toward her, deeply repentant, resolved to brave
public scorn by allowing Masten to live.

He smiled gravely at her when he came close--she waiting for him, looking
at him, unmoved. For she had determined to show him that she had meant
what she had said to him.

"Have you found a new range boss, ma'am?" he said gently. He had hoped
that she might answer lightly, and then he would have known that she
would forgive him, in time.

But her chin went up and she looked coldly at him. "You will be able to
leave the Flying W shortly, Randerson," she said. "I am going to leave
such matters for Mr. Masten to look after."

She urged her pony away and left him, staring somberly after her.

Two hours later he was riding down the declivity toward Chavis' shack, in
the basin. He had ridden first to the outfit, and had talked with Owen.
And his appearance had been such that when he left the foreman the latter
sought out Blair.

"If I don't miss my reckonin', Masten's goin' to get his'n today."

Randerson rode, straight as Patches could carry him, to the door of
Chavis' shack. No one appeared to greet him, but he had seen horses,
saddled, hitched to the corral fence, and he knew that some one was
about. Chavis, Kester, and Hilton were inside the shack, and when they
heard him ride up, they came to the door, curious. And when they saw him
they stiffened and stood rigid, with not a finger moving, for they had
seen men, before, meditating violence, and they saw the signs in
Randerson's chilled and narrowed eyes, and in the grim set of his lips.

His lips moved; his teeth hardly parted to allow the words to come
through them. They writhed through:

"Where's Masten?"

Three pairs of lungs sighed audibly in process of deflation.

It was Chavis who answered; the other two looked at him when the question
came, silently. Chavis would have lied, but the light in Randerson's eyes
warned him not to trifle, and the truth came from his lips:

"Masten's gone to the Flyin' W ranchhouse."

"I reckon that's all," said Randerson shortly. "I'm thankin' you."

He rode away, grinning coldly back at them, still watchful, for he knew
Chavis, guiding his pony toward the declivity on the other side of the
basin. The three men watched him until the pony had climbed to the mesa.
Then Chavis turned to the others.

"I reckon he's goin' to see Masten about that Kelso deal," he said.
"Somebody ought to put Masten wise."

Kester grinned. "It's bound to come," he commented. "Let's finish our
game; it is your deal."

On the mesa, Randerson urged Patches along the edge, over the trail that
Ruth had taken when, months before, she had come upon Chavis and Kester
at the declivity.

"Nothin' would have happened, if it hadn't been for Masten," he told
himself as he rode away. "Pickett wouldn't have got fresh, an' Kelso
would have kept himself mighty shady. We'd have fought it out, square--me
an' Masten. I reckon I didn't kill Pickett and Kelso; it was Masten that
done it."

He came, after a while, to the rock upon whick he had found Ruth lying on
the night of the accident. And he sat and looked long at the grass plot
where he had laid her when she had fainted.

"She looked like an angel, layin' there," he reminded himself, his eyes
eloquent. "She's too blamed good for that sneakin' dude."

He came upon the ruined boot, and memories grimmed his lips. "It's
busted--like my dreams," he said, surveying it, ripped and rotting. "I
reckon this is as good a place as any," he added, looking around him.

And he dismounted, led Patches out of sight behind some high bushes that
grew far back from the rocks; came back, stretched himself out on the
grass plot, pulled his hat over his eyes and yielded to his gloomy
thoughts. But after he had lain there a while, he spoke aloud:

"He'll come this way, if he comes at all."

With the memory of Randerson's threat always before him, "if I ever lay
eyes on you ag'in, I'll go gunnin' for you," Masten rode slowly and
watchfully. For he had felt that the words had not been idle ones, and it
had been because of them that he had hired Kelso. And he went toward the
ranchhouse warily, much relieved when he passed the bunkhouse, to find
that Randerson was apparently absent. He intended to make this one trip,
present to Ruth his excuses for staying away, and then go back to Chavis'
shack, there to remain out of Randerson's sight, until he could devise
another plan that, he hoped, would put an end to the cowpuncher who was
forever tormenting him.

His excuses had been accepted by Ruth, for she was in the mood to restore
him to that spot in her heart that Randerson had come very near to
occupy. She listened to him calmly, and agreed, without conscious
emotion, to his proposal that they ride, on the Monday following, to
Lazette, to marry. She had reopened the subject a little wearily, for now
that Randerson was hopeless she wanted to have the marriage over with as
soon as possible. She saw now, that it had been the vision of Randerson,
always prominent in her mind, that had caused her to put off the date of
her marriage to Masten when he had mentioned it before. That vision had
vanished now, and she did not care how soon she became Masten's wife.

On the porch of the ranchhouse they had reached the agreement, and
triumphantly Masten rode away into the darkness, foreseeing the defeat of
the man whom he had feared as a possible rival, seeing, too--if he could
not remove him entirely--his dismissal from the Flying W and his own
ascent to power.

"On Monday, then," he said softly to Ruth, as ready to leave, he had
looked down at her from his horse. "I shall come early, remember, for I
have waited long."

"Yes, Monday," she had answered. And then, dully: "I have waited, too."

Masten was thinking of this exchange of words as he rode past the ford
where the Lazette trail crossed into the broken country beyond it. He had
not liked the tone of her voice when she had answered him; she had not
seemed enthusiastic enough to suit him. But he did not feel very greatly
disturbed over her manner, for Monday would end it, and then he would do
as he pleased.

He was passing a huge boulder, when from out of the shadow surrounding it
a somber figure stepped, the star-shot sky shedding sufficient light for
Masten to distinguish its face. He recognized Randerson, and he
voluntarily brought his pony to a halt and stiffened in the saddle, fear,
cold and paralyzing, gripping him. He did not speak; he made no sound
beyond a quick gasp as his surprised lungs sought air, and he was
incapable of action.

Randerson, though, did not make a hostile movement and did not present a
foreboding figure. His arms were folded over his chest, and if it had not
been for Masten's recollection of those grim words, "I'll go gunnin' for
you," Masten would have felt reasonably secure. But he remembered the
words, and his voice caught in his throat and would not come, when he
essayed to bluster and ask Randerson the cause for this strange and
dramatic appearance.

But there was no thought of the dramatic in Randerson's mind as he stood
there--nothing but cold hatred and determination--nothing except a bitter
wish that the man on the pony would reach for his gun and thus make his
task easier for him.

The hoped-for movement did not come, and Randerson spoke shortly:

"Get off your cayuse!"

Masten obeyed silently, his knees shaking under him. Was it to be another
fist fight? Randerson's voice broke in on this thought:

"I promised to kill you. You're a thing that sneaks around at night on
its belly, an' you ought to be killed. But I'm goin' to give you a
chance--like you give me when you set Kelso on me. That'll let you die
like a man--which you ain't!" He tapped the gun at his right hip. "I'll
use this one. We'll stand close--where we are--to make your chance
better. When I count three you draw your gun. Show your man now, if
there's any in you!"

He dropped his hands from his chest and held the right, the fingers bent
like the talons of a bird of prey, about to seize a victim. He waited,
his eyes gleaming in the starlight, with cold alertness for Masten's
expected move toward his gun. But after a long, breathless silence,
during which Masten's knees threatened to give way, he leaned forward.

"Flash it! Quick! Or you go out anyway!"

"I'm unarmed!" Masten's voice would not come before. It burst forth now,
hysterically, gaspingly, sounding more like a moan than the cry of a man
pleading for his life.

But it stung the stern-faced man before him to action, rapid and tense.
He sprang forward with a low, savage exclamation, drawing one of his big
weapons and jamming its muzzle deep into Masten's stomach. Then, holding
it there, that the Easterner might not trick him, he ran his other hand
over the frightened man's clothing, and found no weapon. Then he stepped
back with a laugh, low, scornful, and bitter. The discovery that Masten
was not armed seemed to drive his cold rage from him, and when he spoke
again his voice was steely and contemptuous:

"You can hit the breeze, I reckon--I ain't murderin' anybody. You're safe
right now. But I'm tellin' you this: I'm lookin' for you, an' you don't
run no blazer in on me no more! After this, you go heeled--or you hit the
breeze out of the country. One of us has got to go. This country is too
crowded with both of us!"

Masten got on his pony, trembling so that he had trouble in getting his
feet into the stirrups. He rode on, hundreds of yards, before he dared to
turn, so great was his dread that to do so would be to bring upon him the
wrath of the man who had spared him. But finally he looked around. He saw
Randerson riding out into the darkness of the vast stretch of grass-land
that lay to the south.





Next: Into Which A Girl's Trouble Comes

Previous: The Bubble Dreams



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