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The Law Of The Primitive








From: The Range Boss

Randerson continued his policy of not forcing himself upon Ruth. He went
his way, silent, thoughtful, attending strictly to business. To Ruth,
watching him when he least suspected it, it seemed that he had grown more
grim and stern-looking since his coming to the Flying W. She saw him,
sometimes, laughing quietly with Uncle Jepson; other times she heard him
talking gently to Aunt Martha--with an expression that set her to
wondering whether he were the same man that she had seen that day with
the pistol in hand, shooting the life out of a fellow being. There were
times when she wavered in her conviction of his heartlessness.

Since Ruth had announced her decision not to marry Masten until after the
fall round-up, she had not seen so much of him. He rode alone, sometimes
not even asking her to accompany him. These omissions worked no great
hardship on her, for the days had grown hot and the plains dry and dusty,
so that there was not so much enjoyment in riding as formerly. Besides,
she knew the country rather well now, and had no need to depend upon
Masten.

Chavis had severed his connection with the Flying W. He had ridden in to
the ranchhouse some weeks ago, found Ruth sitting on the porch, announced
that he was "quittin'" and wanted his "time." She did not ask him why he
wanted to quit so pleased was she with his decision, but he advanced an
explanation while she counted the money due him.

"Things don't suit me here," he said venomously. "Randerson is too
fresh." He looked at her impudently. "Besides," he added, "he stands in
too well with the boss."

She flushed with indignation. "You wouldn't dare say that to him!" she
declared.

He reddened darkly. "Meanin' what he done to Pickett, I reckon," he
sneered. "Well, Randerson will be gettin' his'n some day, too!"

Ruth remembered this conversation, and on a day about a month later when
she had gone riding alone, she saw Randerson at a distance and rode
toward him to tell him, for she had meant to, many times.

Evidently Randerson had seen her, too, for he had already altered his
pony's course when she wheeled hers. When their ponies came to a halt
near each other it was Randerson who spoke first. He looked at her
unsmilingly over his pony's head.

"I was ridin' in to the house to see you, ma'am. I thought you ought to
know. This mornin' the boys found two cows with their hoofs burned, an'
their calves run off."

"Their hoofs burned!" she exclaimed. "Why, who would be so inhuman as to
do that? But I suppose there was a fire somewhere, and it happened that
way."

"There was a fire, all right," he said grimly. "Some one built it, on
purpose. It was rustlers, ma'am. They burned the hoofs of the mothers so
the mothers couldn't follow when they drove their calves off--like any
mother would." He eyed her calmly. "I reckon it was Chavis, ma'am. He's
got a shack down the crick a ways. He's been there ever since you paid
him off. An' this mornin' two of the boys told me they wanted their time.
I was goin' in to get it for them. It's likely they're goin' to join
Chavis."

"Well, let them," she said indignantly. "If they are that kind of men, we
don't want them around!"

He smiled now for the first time. "I reckon there ain't no way to stop
them from goin', ma'am. An' we sure don't want them around. But when they
go with Chavis, it's mighty likely that we'll miss more cattle."

She stiffened. "Come with me," she ordered; "they shall have their money
right away."

She urged her pony on, and he fell in beside her, keeping his animal's
muzzle near her stirrup. For he was merely an employee and was filled
with respect for her.

"I suppose I could have Chavis charged with stealing those two calves?"
she asked, as they rode. She looked back over her shoulder at him and
slowed her pony down so that he came alongside.

"Why, yes, ma'am, I reckon you could. You could charge him with stealin'
them. But that wouldn't prove it. We ain't got any evidence, you see. We
found the cows, with the calves gone. We know that Chavis is in the
country, but we didn't see him doin' the stealin'; we only think he done
it."

"If I should complain to the sheriff?"

"You could do that, ma'am. But I reckon it's a waste of time."

"How?"

"Well, you see, ma'am, the sheriff in this county don't amount to a
heap--considered as a sheriff. He mostly draws his salary an' keeps out
of trouble, much as he can. There ain't no court in the county nearer
than Las Vegas, an' that's a hundred an' fifty miles from here. An',
mostly, the court don't want to be bothered with hearin' rustler
cases--there bein' no regular law governin' them, an' conviction bein'
hard to get. So the sheriff don't bother."

"But there must be some way to stop them from stealing!" she said
sharply.

"I reckon there's a way, ma'am." And now she heard him laugh, quietly,
and again she turned and looked at him. His face grew grave again,
instantly. "But I reckon you wouldn't approve of it, ma'am," he added.

"I would approve of most any method of stopping them--within reason!" she
declared vindictively, nettled by his tone.

"We mostly hang them, ma'am," he said. "That's a sure way of stoppin'
them."

She shuddered. "Do you mean that you hang them without a court
verdict--on your own responsibility?"

"That's the way, ma'am."

"But doesn't the sheriff punish men who hang others in that manner?" she
went on in tones of horror.

His voice was quietly humorous. "Them sort of hangin's ain't advertised a
heap. It's hard to find anybody that will admit he had a hand in it.
Nobody knows anything about it. But it's done, an' can't be undone. An'
the rustlin' stops mighty sudden."

"Oh," she exclaimed, "what a barbarous custom!"

"I reckon it ain't exactly barbarous, ma'am," he contended mildly. "Would
you have the rustlers go on stealin' forever, an' not try to stop them?"

"There are the courts," she insisted.

"Turnin' rustlers off scot-free, ma'am. They can't hold them. An' if a
rustler is hung, he don't get any more than is comin' to him. Do you
reckon there's a lot of difference between a half dozen men hangin' a man
for a crime he's done, than for one man, a judge for instance, orderin'
him to be hung? If, we'll say, a hundred men elect a judge to do certain
things, is it any more wrong for the hundred men to do them things than
for the man they've elected to do them? I reckon not, ma'am. Of course,
if the hundred men did somethin' that the judge hadn't been elected to
do, why then, it might make some difference."

"But you say there is no law that provides hanging for rustling." She
thought she had him.

"The men that elected the judge made the laws," he said. "They have a
right to make others, whenever they're needed."

"That's mob law," she said with a shiver. "What would become of the world
if that custom were followed everywhere?"

"I wouldn't say that it would be a good thing everywhere. Where there's
courts that can be got at easy, there'd be no sense to it. But out here
there's no other way for a man to protect his property. He's got to take
the law into his own hands."

"It is a crude and cold-blooded way."

She heard him laugh, and turned to see him looking at her in amusement.

"There ain't no refinement in punishment, ma'am. Either it's got to shock
some one or not get done at all. I reckon that back East you don't get to
see anyone punished, or hung. You hear about it, or you read about it,
an' it don't seem so near you, an' that kind of takes the edge off it.
Out here it comes closer, an' it seems a lot cruel. But whether a man's
punished by the law or by the men who make the law wouldn't make a lot of
difference to the man--he'd be punished anyway."

"We won't talk about it any further," she said. "But understand, if there
are any cattle thieves caught on the Flying W they must not be hanged.
You must capture them, if possible, and take them to the proper
officials, that they may have a fair trial. And we shall abide by the
court's decision. I don't care to have any more murders committed here."

His face paled. "Referrin' to Pickett, I reckon, ma'am?" he said.

"Yes." She flung the monosyllable back at him resentfully.

She felt him ride close to her, and she looked at him and saw that his
face was grimly serious.

"I ain't been thinkin' of the killin' of Pickett as murder, ma'am.
Pickett had it comin' to him. You was standin' on the porch, an' I reckon
you used your eyes. If you did, you saw Pickett try to pull his gun on me
when my back was turned. It was either him or me, ma'am."

"You anticipated that he would try to shoot you," she charged. "Your
actions showed that."

"Why, I reckon I did. You see, I've knowed Pickett for a long time."

"I was watching you from an upstairs window," she went on. "I saw you
when you struck Pickett with your fist. You drew your pistol while he was
on the ground. You had the advantage--you might have taken his pistol
away from him, and prevented any further trouble. Instead, you allowed
him to keep it. You expected he would try to shoot you, and you
deliberately gave him an opportunity, relying upon your quickness in
getting your own pistol out."

"I give him his chance, ma'am."

"His chance." There was derision in her voice. "I have talked to some of
the men about you. They say you are the cleverest of any man in this
vicinity with a weapon. You deliberately planned to kill him!"

He rode on, silently, a glint of cold humor in his eyes. He might now
have confounded her with the story of Masten's connection with the
affair, but he had no intention of telling her. Masten had struck the
blow at him--Masten it must be, who would be struck back.

However, he was disturbed over her attitude. He did not want her to think
that he had killed Pickett in pure wantonness, for he had not thought of
shooting the man until Uncle Jepson had warned him.

"I've got to tell you this, ma'am," he said, riding close to her. "One
man's life is as good as another's in this country. But it ain't any
better. The law's too far away to monkey with--law like you're used to.
The gun a man carries is the only law anyone here pays any attention to.
Every man knows it. Nobody makes any mistakes about it, unless it's when
they don't get their gun out quick enough. An' that's the man's fault
that pulls the gun. There ain't no officials to do any guardin' out here;
you've got to do it yourself or it don't get done. A man can't take too
many chances--an' live to tell about it. When you know a man's lookin'
for you, yearnin' to perforate you, it's just a question of who can shoot
the quickest an' the straightest. In the case of Pickett, I happened to
be the one. It might have been Pickett. If he wasn't as fast as me in
slingin' his gun, why, he oughtn't to have taken no chance. He'd have
been plumb safe if he'd have forgot all about his gun. I don't reckon
that I'd have pined away with sorrow if I hadn't shot him."

She was much impressed with his earnestness, and she looked quickly at
him, nearly convinced. But again the memory of the tragic moment became
vivid in her thoughts, and she shuddered.

"It's too horrible to think of!" she declared.

"I reckon it's no picnic," he admitted. "I ain't never been stuck on
shootin' men. I reckon I didn't sleep a heap for three nights after I
shot Pickett. I kept seein' him, an' pityin' him. But I kept tellin'
myself that it had to be either him or me, an' I kind of got over it.
Pickett would have it, ma'am. When I turned my back to him I was hopin'
that he wouldn't try to play dirt on me. Do you reckon he oughtn't to
have been made to tell you that he had been wrong in tacklin' you? Why,
ma'am, I kind of liked Pickett. He wasn't all bad. He was one of them
kind that's easy led, an' he wasn't a heap responsible; he fell in with
the wrong kind of men--men like Chavis. I've took a lot from Pickett."

"You might have shown him in some other way that you liked him," she said
with unsmiling sarcasm. "It seems to me that men who go about thinking of
shooting each other must have a great deal of the brute in them."

"Meanin' that they ain't civilized, I reckon?"

"Yes. Mr. Masten had the right view. He refused to resort to the methods
you used in bringing Pickett to account. He is too much a gentleman to
act the savage."

For an instant Randerson's eyes lighted with a deep fire. And then he
smiled mirthlessly.

"I reckon Mr. Masten ain't never had anybody stir him up right proper,"
he said mildly. "It takes different things to get a man riled so's he'll
fight--or a woman, either. Either of 'em will fight when the right thing
gets them roused. I expect that deep down in everybody is a little of
that brute that you're talkin' about. I reckon you'd fight like a tiger,
ma'am, if the time ever come when you had to."

"I never expect to kill anybody," she declared, coldly.

"You don't know what you'll do when the time comes, ma'am. You've been
livin' in a part of the country where things are done accordin' to hard
an' fast rules. Out here things run loose, an' if you stay here long
enough some day you'll meet them an' recognize them for your own--an'
you'll wonder how you ever got along without them." He looked at her now
with a subtle grin. But his words were direct enough, and his voice rang
earnestly as he went on: "Why, I reckon you've never been tuned up to
nature, ma'am. Have you ever hated anybody real venomous?"

"I have been taught differently," she shot back at him. "I have never
hated anybody."

"Then you ain't never loved anybody, ma'am. You'd be jealous of the one
you loved, an' you'd hate anybody you saw makin' eyes at them."

"Well, of all the odd ideas!" she said. She was so astonished at the turn
his talk had taken that she halted her pony and faced him, her cheeks
coloring.

"I don't reckon it's any odd idea, ma'am. Unless human nature is an odd
idea, an' I reckon it's about the oldest thing in the world, next to love
an' hate." He grinned at her unblushingly, and leaned against the saddle
horn.

"I reckon you ain't been a heap observin', ma'am," he said frankly, but
very respectfully. "You'd have seen that odd idea worked out many times,
if you was. With animals an' men it's the same. A kid--which you won't
claim don't love its mother--is jealous of a brother or a sister which it
thinks is bein' favored more than him, an' if the mother don't show that
she's pretty square in dealin' with the two, there's bound to be hate
born right there. What do you reckon made Cain kill his brother, Abel?

"Take a woman--a wife. Some box-heads, when their wife falls in love with
another man, give her up like they was takin' off an old shoe, sayin'
they love her so much that they want to see her happy--which she can't
be, she says, unless she gets the other man. But don't you go to
believin' that kind of fairy romance, ma'am. When a man is so willin' to
give up his wife to another man he's sure got a heap tired of her an'
don't want her any more. He's got his eye peeled for Number Two, an' he's
thankin' his wife's lover for makin' the trail clear for the matrimonial
wagon. But givin' up Number One to the other man gives him a chance to
pose a lot, an' mebbe it's got a heap of effect on Number Two, who sort
of thinks that if she gets tied up to such a sucker she'll be able to
wrap him around her finger. But if he loves Number Two, he'll be mighty
grumpy to the next fellow that goes to makin' sheeps eyes at her."

"That is a highly original view," she said, laughing, feeling that she
ought to be offended, but disarmed by his ingenuousness. "And so you
think that love and hate are inseparable passions."

"I reckon you can't know what real love is unless you have hated, ma'am.
Some folks say they get through life without hatin' anybody, but if
you'll look around an' watch them, you'll find they're mostly an
unfeelin' kind. You ain't one of them kind, ma'am. I've watched you, an'
I've seen that you've got a heap of spirit. Some of these days you're
goin' to wake up. An' when you do, you'll find out what love is."

"Don't you think I love Mr. Masten?" she said, looking at him
unwaveringly.

He looked as fairly back at her. "I don't reckon you do, ma'am. Mebbe you
think so, but you don't."

"What makes you think so?" she demanded, defiantly.

"Why, the way you look at him, ma'am. If I was engaged to a girl an' she
looked at me as critical as you look at him, sometimes, I'd sure feel
certain that I'd drawed the wrong card."

Still her eyes did not waver. She began to sense his object in
introducing this subject, and she was determined to make him feel that
his conclusions were incorrect--as she knew they were.

"That is an example of your wonderful power of observation," she said,
"the kind you were telling me about, which makes you able to make such
remarkable deductions. But if you are no more correct in the others than
you are in trying to determine the state of my feelings toward Mr.
Masten, you are entirely wrong. I do love Mr. Masten!"

She spoke vehemently, for she thought herself very much in earnest.

But he grinned. "You're true blue," he said, "an' you've got the grit to
tell where you stand. But you're mistaken. You couldn't love Masten."

"Why?" she said, so intensely curious that she entirely forgot to think
of his impertinence in talking thus to her. "Why can't I love Mr.
Masten?"

He laughed, and reddened. "Because you're goin' to love me, ma'am," he
said, gently.

She would have laughed if she had not felt so indignant. She would have
struck him as she had struck Chavis had she not been positive that behind
his words was the utmost respect--that he did not intend to be
impertinent--that he seemed as natural as he had been all along. She
would have exhibited scorn if she could have summoned it. She did nothing
but stare at him in genuine amazement. She was going to be severe with
him, but the mild humor of his smile brought confusion upon her.

"You don't lack conceit, whatever your other shortcomings," she managed,
her face rosy.

"Well now, I'm thankin' you, ma'am, for lettin' me off so easy," he said.
"I was expectin' you'd be pretty hard on me for talkin' that way. I've
been wonderin' what made me say it. I expect it's because I've been
thinkin' it so strong. Anyway, it's said, an' I can't take it back. I
wouldn't want to, for I was bound to tell you some time, anyway. I reckon
it ain't conceit that made me say it. I've liked you a heap ever since I
got hold of your picture."

"So that is where the picture went!" she said. "I have been hunting high
and low for it. Who gave it to you?"

"Wes Vickers, ma'am." There was disgust in his eyes. "I never meant to
mention it, ma'am; that was a slip of the tongue. But when I saw the
picture, I knowed I was goin' to love you. There ain't nothin' happened
yet to show that you won't think a lot of me, some day."

"You frighten me," she mocked.

"I reckon you ain't none frightened," he laughed. "But I expect you're
some disturbed--me sayin' what I've said while you're engaged to Masten.
I'm apologizing ma'am. You be loyal to Masten--as I know you'd be,
anyway. An' some day, when you've broke off with him, I'll come
a-courtin'."

"So you're sure that I'm going to break my engagement with Masten, are
you?" she queried, trying her best to be scornful, but not succeeding
very well. "How do you know that?"

"There's somethin' that you don't see that's been tellin' me, ma'am.
Mebbe some day that thing will be tellin' you the same stuff, an' then
you'll understand," he said enigmatically.

"Well," she said, pressing her lips together as though this were to be
her last word on the subject; "I have heard that the wilderness sometimes
makes people dream strange dreams, and I suppose yours is one of them."
She wheeled her pony and sent it scampering onward toward the ranchhouse.

He followed, light of heart, for while she had taunted him, she had also
listened to him, and he felt that progress had been made.





Next: Hagar's Eyes

Previous: Somethin's Gone Out Of Them



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