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The Bubble Dreams

From: The Range Boss

Loping his pony through the golden haze of the afternoon, Randerson came
over the plains toward the Flying W ranchhouse, tingling with
anticipation. The still small voice to which he had listened in the days
before Ruth's coming had not lied to him; Fate, or whatever power ruled
the destinies of lovers, had made her for him. Man's interference might
delay the time of possession, his thoughts were of Masten for a brief
instant, and his lips straightened, but in the end there could be no
other outcome.

But though he was as certain of her as he was that the sun would continue
to rule the days, he kept his confidence from betraying his thoughts, and
when at last he rode slowly down along the corral fence, past the
bunkhouse and the other buildings, to the edge of the porch, sitting
quietly in the saddle and looking down at Ruth, who was sitting in a
rocker, sewing, his face was grave and his manner that of unconscious

Ruth had been on the porch for more than an hour. And as on the day when
he had come riding in in obedience to her orders to teach her the
mysteries of the six-shooter, she watched him today--with anticipation,
but with anticipation of a different sort, in which was mingled a little
regret, but burdened largely with an eagerness to show him, unmistakably,
that he was not the sort of man that she could look upon seriously. And
so when she saw him ride up to the porch and bring his pony to a halt,
she laid her sewing in her lap, folded her hands over it, and watched him
with outward calmness, though with a vague sorrow gripping her. For in
spite of what he had done, she still felt the man's strong personality,
his virility--the compelling lure of him. She experienced a quick,
involuntary tightening of the muscles when she heard his voice--for it
intensified the regret in her--low, drawling, gentle:

"I have come in to report to you, ma'am."

"Very well," she said calmly. She leaned back in her chair, looking at
him, feeling a quick pulse of pity for him, for as she sat there and
waited, saying nothing further, she saw a faint red steal into his
cheeks. She knew that he had expected an invitation to join her on the
porch; he was entitled to that courtesy because of her treatment of him
on the occasion of his previous visit; and that when the invitation did
not come he could not but feel deeply the embarrassment of the situation.

The faint glow died out of his face, and the lines of his lips grew a
trifle more firm. This reception was not the one he had anticipated, but
then there were moods into which people fell. She was subject to moods,
too, for he remembered the night she had hurt her ankle--how she had
"roasted" him. And his face grew long with an inward mirth. She would ask
him to get off his horse, presently, and then he was going to tell her of
his feelings on that night.

But she did not invite him to alight. On the contrary, she maintained a
silence that was nearly severe. He divined that this mood was to continue
and instead of getting off his pony he swung crossways in the saddle.

"We've got the cattle all out of the hills an' the timber, an' we're
workin' down the crick toward here," he told her. "There ain't nothin'
unusual happened, except"--and here he paused for a brief instant--"that
I had to shoot a man. It was Watt Kelso, from over Lazette way. I hired
him two weeks before."

"I heard of it," she returned steadily, her voice expressionless.

"I hated like poison to do it. But I had no choice. He brought it on

"Yes, I suppose so," she said flatly. She looked at him now with the
first flash of emotion that she had allowed him to see. "If killing
people is your trade, and you choose to persist in it, I don't see how we
are to stop you."

He looked sharply at her, but his voice was low and even. "I don't shoot
folks for the fun of it, ma'am."

"No?"--with scornful disbelief. "Well, I presume it doesn't make much
difference. Dead people wouldn't appreciate the joke, anyway."

His face was serious now, for he could see that she was deeply disturbed
over the shooting.

"I reckon you wouldn't believe me, no matter how hard I talked," he said.
"You'd have your own opinion. It sure does look bad for me--havin' to
plug two guys in one season. An' I don't blame you for feelin' like you
do about it. But I've got this to say," he went on earnestly. "Kelso come
to the outfit, lookin' for trouble. I'd had a run-in with him a few years
ago. An' I shot him--in the arm. I thought it was all over. But along
comes Kelso, with his mustache shaved off so's I wouldn't know him--which
I did. He asked me for a job, an' I give it to him--hopin'. But hopes--"

"If you knew him, why did you give him a job?" she interrupted. "It might
have saved you shooting him."

"If he was wantin' to force trouble he'd have done it sooner or later,

"Well?" she said, interested in spite of herself.

"He waited two weeks for a chance. I didn't give him any chance. An'
then, one night, after Red Owen had been cuttin' up some monkey shines,
he talked fresh an' pulled his gun. He was a regular gunfighter, ma'am;
he'd been hired to put me out of business."

There was an appeal in his eyes that did not show in his voice; and it
would be all the appeal that he would make. Looking fixedly at him, she
became certain of that.

"Do you know who hired him?"

There was that in her tone which told him that he might now make his case
strong--might even convince her, and thus be restored to that grace from
which he, plainly, had fallen. But he was a claimant for her hand, he had
told her that he would not press that claim until she broke her
engagement with Masten, and if he now told her that it had been the
Easterner who had hired Kelso to kill him, he would have felt that she
would think he had taken advantage of the situation, selfishly. And he
preferred to take his chance, slender though it seemed to be.

"He didn't tell me."

"Then you only suspected it?"

He was silent for an instant. Then: "A man told me he was hired."

"Who told you?"

"I ain't mentionin', ma'am." He could not tell her that Blair had told
him, after he had told Blair not to mention it.

She smiled with cold incredulity, and he knew his chance had gone.

But he was not prepared for her next words. In her horror for his deed,
she had ceased to respect him; she had ceased to believe him; his earnest
protestations of innocence of wantonness she thought were hypocritical--an
impression strengthened by his statement that Kelso had been hired to kill
him, and by his inability to show evidence to prove it. A shiver of
repulsion, for him and his killings, ran over her.

"I believe you are lying, Randerson," she said, coldly.

He started, stiffened, and then stared, at her, his face slowly
whitening. She had said words that, spoken by a man, would have brought
about another of those killings that horrified her. She watched him,
sensing for the first time something of the terrible emotions that
sometimes beset men in tense situations but entirely unconscious of the
fact that she had hurt him far more than any bullet could have hurt him.

Yet, aside from the whiteness of his face, he took the fatal thrust
without a sign. His dreams, that had seemed to be so real to him while
riding over the plains toward the ranchhouse, had been bubbles that she
had burst with a breath. He saw the wrecks of them go sailing into the
dust at his feet.

He had gazed downward, and he did not look up at once. When he did, his
gaze rested, as though by prearrangement, on her. Her eyes were still
cold, still disbelieving, and he drew himself slowly erect.

"I reckon you've said enough, ma'am," he told her quietly, though his
voice was a trifle hoarse. "A man couldn't help but understand that." He
wheeled Patches and took off his hat to her. "I'll send Red Owen to see
you, ma'am," he added. "I can recommend Red."

She was on her feet, ready to turn to go into the house, for his manner
of receiving her insult had made her feel infinitely small and mean. But
at his words she halted and looked at him.

"Why should you send Red Owen to see me? What do you mean?" she demanded.

"Why, you've made it pretty plain, ma'am," he answered with a low laugh,
turning his head to look back at her. "I reckon you wouldn't expect me to
go on workin' for you, after you've got so you don't trust me any more.
Red will make you a good range boss."

He urged Patches on. But she called to him, a strange regret filling her,
whitening her cheeks, and Patches came again to a halt.

"I--I don't want Red Owen for a range boss," she declared with a gulp.
"If you are determined to quit, I--I suppose I cannot prevent it. But you
can stay a week or two, can't you--until I can get somebody I like?"

He smiled gravely. "Why, I reckon I can, ma'am," he answered
respectfully. "There won't be no awful hurry about it. I wouldn't want to
disconvenience you."

And then he was off into the deepening haze of the coming evening, riding
tall and rigid, with never a look behind to show her that he cared.

Standing in the doorway of the house, the girl watched him, both hands at
her breast, her eyes wide, her lips parted, her cheeks flushed, until the
somber shadows of twilight came down and swallowed him. Then, oppressed
with a sudden sense of the emptiness of the world, she went into the

Next: One Too Many

Previous: Ready Gun And Clean Heart

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