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Ready Gun And Clean Heart








From: The Range Boss

Uncle Jepson understood the cow-punchers because he understood human
nature, and because he had a strain of the wild in him that had been
retained since his youth. Their simplicity, their directness, had been
his own; their frankness and generosity, their warm, manly impulses--all
reminded him of the days before age, with its accompanying conservatism
of thought and action, had placed a governor upon them. They understood
him, too, recognizing him as their kind. Blair, especially, had taken a
fancy to him, and therefore it was not many days after the shooting of
Kelso that Uncle Jepson got the story, with all its gruesome details,
from his lips.

The tale was related in strictest confidence, and Uncle Jepson did not
repeat it.

But the main fact, that Randerson had killed another man in his outfit,
found its way to Ruth's ears through the medium of a roaming puncher who
had stopped for an hour at the ranchhouse. Ruth had confirmed the news
through questioning several Flying W men, and, because of their
reluctance to answer her inquiries, their expressionless faces, she
gathered that the shooting had not met with their approval. She did not
consider that they had given her no details, that they spoke no word of
blame or praise. She got nothing but the bare fact--that Randerson's gun
had again wrought havoc.

She had not seen Masten. A month had slipped by since the day of his
departure, when she got a note from him, by messenger, from Lazette,
saying that his business was not yet concluded, and that possibly, two
weeks more would elapse before he would be able to visit the Flying W.

Had Randerson, standing near the chuck wagon on the night of the shooting
of Kelso, known what effect the news would have on Ruth? "I reckon she
would have wanted it different," he had reflected, then. And he had been
entirely correct, for the news had destroyed something that had been
growing and flourishing in her heart. It had filled her soul with
disappointment, at least; repugnance and loathing were not very far away.
She had almost been persuaded, that day when he had taught her how to use
the pistol. The killing of Pickett had grown dim and distant in her
mental vision; Randerson had become a compelling figure that dominated
her thoughts. But this second killing! She could no longer interpret the
steady, serene gleam in his eyes as mild confidence and frank directness;
as she saw them now they reflected hypocrisy--the cold, designing cunning
of the habitual taker of human life.

She had been very near to making a mistake; she had almost yielded to the
lure of the romance that had seemed to surround him; the magnetic
personality of him had attracted her. He attracted her no longer--her
heart was shut to him. And, during the days of Masten's continuing
absence--in the times when she reflected on her feelings toward Randerson
on the day he had taught her the use of the pistol, she bitterly
reproached herself for her momentary lack of loyalty to the Easterner.
She had been weak for an instant--as life is measured--and she would make
it up to Masten--by ceasing to be irritated by his moods, through paying
no attention to his faults, which, she now saw, were infinitely less
grave than those of the man who had impressed her for an instant--and by
yielding to his suggestion that she marry him before the fall round-up.

In these days, too, she seriously thought of discharging Randerson, for
he had not ridden in to report the killing and to offer a defense for it,
but she remembered Vickers' words: "Randerson is square," and she
supposed that all cowboys were alike, and would shoot--to kill--if they
considered their provocation to be great enough.

But these thoughts did not occupy all of her time. She found
opportunities to ride and sew and talk--the latter mostly with Aunt
Martha and Uncle Jepson. And she kept making her visits to Hagar
Catherson.

Of late Ruth had noticed a change in the girl's manner. She seemed to
have lost the vivacity that had swept upon her with the coming of her new
clothes; she had grown quiet and thoughtful, and had moods of intense
abstraction. Ruth rode to the cabin one morning, to find her sitting on
the edge of the porch, hugging Nig tightly and whispering to him. Her
eyes were moist when Ruth rode up to the porch and looked down at her,
but they filled with delight when they rested upon her visitor.

She did not get up, though, and still held Nig, despite the dog's
attempts to release himself.

"Have you been crying, Hagar?" Ruth inquired as she dismounted and sat on
the edge of the porch close to the girl.

Hagar smiled wanly and rubbed her eyes vigorously with the back of her
free hand, meanwhile looking sidelong at Ruth.

"Why, I reckon not," she answered hesitatingly, "that is, not cryin'
regular. But I was just tellin' Nig, here, that he's the only sure enough
friend I've got--that can be depended on not to fool anybody."

"Why, Hagar!" Ruth was astonished and perhaps a little hurt by this
pessimistic view. "What an odd idea for you to have! Who has fooled you,
Hagar?"

"Nobody," said the girl almost sullenly. She dug her bare toe into the
deep sand at the edge of the porch and looked down at the miniature hill
she was making, her lips set queerly. Ruth had already noticed that she
was dressed almost as she had been at their first meeting--a slipover
apron that Ruth had given her being the only new garment. It was the
lonesomeness, of course, Ruth reflected, and perhaps a vision of the
dreary future, prospectless, hopeless, to be filled with the monotony of
the past. Her arm stole out and was placed on Hagar's shoulder.

"I haven't fooled you, Hagar," she said; "have I?"

"No, ma'am." Her lips quivered. She glanced furtively at Ruth, and a half
frightened, half dreading look came into her eyes. "Nobody's fooled me,"
she added with a nervous laugh. "I was just feelin' sorta dumpish, I
reckon."

"You mustn't brood, you know," consoled Ruth. "It ruins character."

"What's character?"

"Why--why," hesitated Ruth, "the thing that makes you yourself--apart
from every other person; your reputation; the good that is in you--the
good you feel."

"I ain't got any," said the girl, morosely, grimly.

"Why, Hagar, you have! Everybody has--either good or bad."

"Mine's bad, I reckon--if I've got any." She suddenly buried her face on
Ruth's shoulder and sobbed.

Perplexed, astonished, almost dismayed, Ruth held her off and tried to
look at her face. But the girl only buried it deeper and continued to
cry.

"Why, Hagar; whatever is the matter?"

There was no answer, and after holding her for a time, Ruth succeeded in
getting a look at her face. It was tear-stained, but dogged in
expression, and had Ruth been experienced in reading the human emotions,
she could have seen the guilt in the girl's eyes, lurking far back. She
also might have seen the determination in them--a determination not to
tell her secret. And a sorrow, also, was there--aroused through the
thought that she had deceived Ruth, and could not tell her.

Hagar realized now that she had permitted her emotions to carry her too
far, that she had aroused Ruth's curiosity. Ruth must never know! She
made an effort and sat up, laughing grimly through her tears, shaking her
hair back from her eyes, brushing it away fiercely.

"Dad says there's times when I'm half loco," she said. "I reckon he's
right." She recovered her composure rapidly, and in a few minutes there
were no traces of tears or of mental distress. But Ruth was puzzled, and
after she left the cabin she tried in vain to provide an explanation for
the girl's strange conduct.

On her next visit to the cabin, Ruth was astonished when Hagar asked her
bluntly:

"Ain't there no punishment for men who deceive girls?"

"Very little, Hagar, I fear--unless it is God's punishment."

"Shucks!" The girl's eyes flashed vindictively. "There ought to be. Durn
'em, anyway!"

"Hagar, what has brought such a subject into your mind?" said Ruth
wonderingly.

The girl reddened, but met Ruth's eyes determinedly. "I've got a book in
here, that dad got with some other traps from ol' man Cullen's girls,
back in Red Rock--they thought we was poorly, an' they helped us
that-a-way. It's 'Millie's Lovers,' an' it tells how a man deceived a
girl, an' run away an' left her--the sneakin' coyote!"

"Girls shouldn't read such books, Hagar."

"Yes, they ought to. But it ought to tell in 'em how to get even with the
men who do things like that!" She frowned as she looked at Ruth. "What
would you think of a man that done that in real life?"

"I should think that he wouldn't be much of a man," said Ruth.

As before, Ruth departed from this visit, puzzled and wondering.

On another morning, a few days following Ruth's discovery of the shooting
of Kelso, she found Hagar standing on the porch. The dog had apprised
Hagar of the coming of her visitor. Hagar's first words were:

"Did you hear? Rex Randerson killed Kelso."

"I heard about it some days ago," said Ruth. "It's horrible!"

"What do you reckon is horrible about it?" questioned Hagar, with a queer
look at her friend.

"Why," returned Ruth, surprised; "the deed itself! The very thought of
one human being taking the life of another!"

"There's worse things than killin' a man that's tryin' to make you
shuffle off," declared Hagar evenly. "Rex Randerson wouldn't kill nobody
unless they made him do it. An' accordin' to what dad says, Kelso pulled
first. Rex ain't lettin' nobody perforate him, you bet!"

"He is too ready with his pistol."

The girl caught the repugnance in Ruth's voice. "I thought you kind of
liked Randerson," she said.

Ruth blushed. "What made you think that?" she demanded.

"I've heard that you've gone ridin' with him a lot. I just reckoned it."

"You are mistaken, Hagar. I do not like Randerson at all. He is my range
boss--that is all. A murderer could never be a friend to me."

A shadow came over Hagar's face. "Rex Randerson has got a clean heart,"
she said slowly. She stood looking at Ruth, disappointment plain in her
eyes. The disappointment was quickly succeeded by suspicion; she caught
her breath, and the hands that were under her apron gripped each other
hard.

"I reckon you'll take up with Masten again," she said, trying to control
her voice.

Ruth looked intently at her, but she did not notice the girl's emotion
through her interest in her words.

"What do you mean by 'again'?"

"I heard that you'd broke your engagement."

"Who told you that?" Ruth's voice was sharp, for she thought Randerson
perhaps had been talking.

Hagar blushed crimson and resorted to a lie. "My dad told me. He said
he'd heard it."

"Well, it isn't true," Ruth told her firmly; "I have never broken with
Mr. Masten. And we are to be married soon."

She turned, for she was slightly indignant at this evidence that the
people in the country near her had been meddling with her affairs, and
she did not see the ashen pallor that quickly spread over Hagar's face.
Had Ruth been looking she must have suspected the girl's secret. But it
took her some time to mount her pony, and then looking back she waved her
hand at Hagar, who was smiling, though with pale and drawn face.

Hagar stood rigid on the porch until she could no longer see Ruth. Then
she sank to the edge of the porch, gathered the dog Nig into her arms,
and buried her face in his unkempt shoulder. Rocking back and forth in a
paroxysm of impotent passion, she spoke to the dog:

"I can't kill him now, Nig, he's goin' to marry her! Oh Nig, Nig, what
am I goin' to do now?" And then she looked up scornfully, her eyes
flashing. "She won't let Rex be a friend of hers, because he's killed two
men that God had ought to have killed a long while ago! But she'll marry
Masten--who ain't fit to be Rex's dog. She won't, Nig! Why--?"

She got up and started for the door. But nearing it, she sank upon the
threshold, crying and moaning, while Nig, perplexed at this conduct on
the part of his mistress, stood off a little and barked loudly at her.





Next: The Bubble Dreams

Previous: The Gunfighter



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