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The Rock And The Moonlight








From: The Range Boss

Randerson did not leave the scene of the fight immediately. He stood for
a long time, after buckling on his belt and pistols, looking meditatively
toward the break in the canyon beyond which was Catherson's shack.

"Did the dresses have anything to do with it?" he asked himself, standing
there in the darkness. "New dresses might have--puttin' foolish notions
in her head. But I reckon the man--" He laughed grimly. He had thought it
all over before, back there on the path when he had been talking to
Masten and Hagar. He reflected again on it now. "Lookin' it square in the
face, it's human nature. We'll allow that. We'll say a man has feelin's.
But a man ought to have sense, too--or he ain't a man. If Masten was a
boy, now, not realizin', there'd be excuses. But he's wised up.... If his
intentions had been honorable--but he's engaged to Ruth, an' they
couldn't. I reckon he'll pull his freight now. Catherson would sure muss
him up some."

He mounted his pony and rode toward the Flying W ranchhouse. Halfway
there he passed Masten. The moon had risen; by its light he could see the
Easterner, who had halted his horse and was standing beside it, watching
him. Randerson paid no heed to him.

"Thinkin' it over, I reckon," he decided, as he rode on. Looking back,
when he reached the house, he saw that Masten was still standing beside
his horse.

At the sound of hoof beats, Uncle Jepson came out on the porch and peered
at the rider. Randerson could see Aunt Martha close behind him. Uncle
Jepson was excited. He started off the porch toward Randerson.

"It's Randerson, mother!" he called shrilly back to Aunt Martha, who was
now on the porch.

In a brief time Randerson learned that Ruth had gone riding--alone--about
noon, and had not returned. Randerson also discovered that the girl had
questioned a puncher who had ridden in--asking him about Chavis' shack
and the basin. Randerson's face, red from the blows that had landed on
it, paled quickly.

"I reckon she's takin' her time about comin' in," he said. "Mebbe her
cayuse has broke a leg--or somethin'." He grinned at Uncle Jepson. "I
expect there ain't nothin' to worry about. I'll go look for her."

He climbed slowly into the saddle, and with a wave of the hand to the
elderly couple rode his pony down past the bunkhouse at a pace that was
little faster than a walk. He urged Patches to slightly greater speed as
he skirted the corral fence, but once out on the plains he loosened the
reins, spoke sharply to the pony and began to ride in earnest.

Patches responded nobly to the grim note in his master's voice. With
stretching neck and flying hoofs he swooped with long, smooth undulations
that sent him, looking like a splotched streak, splitting the night. He
ran at his own will, his rider tall and loose in the saddle, speaking no
further word, but thinking thoughts that narrowed his eyes, made them
glint with steely hardness whenever the moonlight struck them, and caused
his lips to part, showing the clenched teeth between them, and shoved his
chin forward with the queer set that marks the fighting man.

For he did not believe that Ruth's pony had broken a leg. She had gone to
see Chavis' shack, and Chavis--

One mile, two, three, four; Patches covered them in a mad riot of
recklessness. Into depressions, over rises, leaping rocks and crashing
through chaparral clumps, scaring rattlers, scorpions, toads, and other
denizens to wild flight, he went, with not a thought for his own or his
rider's safety, knowing from the ring in his master's voice that speed,
and speed alone, was wanted from him.

After a five mile run he was pulled down. He felt the effects of the
effort, but he was well warmed to his work now and he loped, though with
many a snort of impatience and toss of the head, by which he tried to
convey to his master his eagerness to be allowed to have his will.

On the crest of a hill he was drawn to a halt, while Randerson scanned
the country around him. Then, when the word came again to go, he was off
with a rush and a snort of delight, as wildly reckless as he had been
when he had discovered what was expected of him.

They flashed by the ford near the Lazette trail; along a ridge, the crest
of which was hard and barren, making an ideal speedway; they sank into a
depression with sickening suddenness, went out of it with a clatter, and
then went careening over a level until they reached a broken stretch
where speed would mean certain death to both.

Patches was determined to risk it, but suddenly he was pulled in and
forced to face the other way. And what he saw must have made him realize
that his wild race was ended, for he deflated his lungs shrilly, and
relaxed himself for a rest.

Randerson had seen her first. She was sitting on the top of a gigantic
rock not more than fifty feet from him; she was facing him, had evidently
been watching him; and in the clear moonlight he could see that she was
pale and frightened--frightened at him, he knew, fearful that he might
not be a friend.

This impression came to him simultaneously with her cry--shrill with
relief and joy: "Oh, it's Patches! It's Randerson!" And then she suddenly
stiffened and stretched out flat on the top of the rock.

He lifted her down and carried her, marveling at her lightness, to a
clump of bunch-grass near by, and worked, trying to revive her, until she
struggled and sat up. She looked once at him, her eyes wide, her gaze
intent, as though she wanted to be sure that it was really he, and then
she drew a long, quavering breath and covered her face with her hands.

"Oh," she said; "it was horrible!" She uncovered her face and looked up
at him. "Why," she added, "I have been here since before dark! And it
must be after midnight, now!"

"It's about nine. Where's your horse?"

"Gone," she said dolorously. "He fell--over there--and threw me. I saw
Chavis--and Kester--over on the mesa. I thought they would come after me,
and I hurried. Then my pony fell. I've hurt my ankle--and I couldn't
catch him--my pony, I mean; he was too obstinate--I could have killed
him! I couldn't walk, you know--my ankle, and the snakes--and the awful
darkness, and--Oh, Randerson," she ended, with a gulp of gratitude, "I
never was so glad to see you--anybody--in my life!"

"I reckon it was kind of lonesome for you out here alone with the
snakes, an' the dark, an' things."

She was over her scare now, he knew--as he was over his fears for her,
and he grinned with a humor brought on by a revulsion of feeling.

"I reckon mebbe the snakes would have bothered you some," he added, "for
they're natural mean. But I reckon the moon made such an awful darkness
on purpose to scare you."

"How can you joke about it?" she demanded resentfully.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," he said with quick contrition. "You see, I was glad
to find you. An' you're all right now, you know."

"Yes, yes," she said, quickly forgiving. "I suppose I am a coward."

"Why, no, ma'am, I reckon you ain't. Anybody sittin' here alone, a woman,
especial, would likely think a lot of curious thoughts. They'd seem real.
I reckon it was your ankle, that kept you from walkin'."

"It hurts terribly," she whispered, and she felt of it, looking at him
plaintively. "It is so swollen I can't get my boot off. And the leather
seems like an iron band around it." She looked pleadingly at him. "Won't
you please take it off?"

His embarrassment was genuine and deep.

"Why, I reckon I can, ma'am," he told her. "But I ain't never had a heap
of experience--" His pause was eloquent, and he finished lamely "with
boots--boots, that is, that was on swelled ankles."

"Is it necessary to have experience?" she returned impatiently.

"Why, I reckon not, ma'am." He knelt beside her and grasped the boot,
giving it a gentle tug. She cried out with pain and he dropped the boot
and made a grimace of sympathy. "I didn't mean to hurt you, ma'am."

"I know you didn't"--peevishly. "Oh," she added as he took the boot in
hand again, this time giving it a slight twist; "men are such awkward
creatures!"

"Why, I reckon they are, ma'am. That is, one, in particular. There's
times when I can't get my own boots on." He grinned, and she looked icily
at him.

"Get hold of it just above the ankle, please," she instructed evenly and
drew the hem of her skirt tightly. "There!" she added as he seized the
limb gingerly, "now pull!"

He did as he had been bidden. She shrieked in agony and jerked the foot
away, and he stood up, his face reflecting some of the pain and misery
that shone in hers.

"It's awful, ma'am," he sympathized. "Over at the Diamond H, one of the
boys got his leg broke, last year, ridin' an outlaw, or tryin' to ride
him, which ain't quite the same thing--an' we had to get his boot off
before we could set the break. Why, ma'am; we had to set on his head to
keep him from scarin' all the cattle off the range, with his screechin'."

She looked at him with eyes that told him plainly that no one was going
to sit on her head--and that she would "screech" if she chose. And then
she spoke to him with bitter sarcasm:

"Perhaps if you tried to do something, instead of standing there,
telling me something that happened ages ago, I wouldn't have to sit
here and endure this awful m-m-misery!"

The break in her voice brought him on his knees at her side. "Why, I
reckon it must hurt like the devil, ma'am." He looked around
helplessly.

"Haven't you got something that you might take it off with?" she demanded
tearfully. "Haven't you got a knife?"

He reddened guiltily. "I clean forgot it ma'am." He laughed with
embarrassment. "I expect I'd never do for a doctor, ma'am; I'm so excited
an' forgetful. An' I recollect, now that you mention it, that we had to
cut Hiller's boot off. That was the man I was tellin' you about. He--"

"Oh, dear," she said with heavy resignation, "I suppose you simply must
talk! Do you like to see me suffer?"

"Why, shucks, I feel awful sorry for you, ma'am. I'll sure hurry."

While he had been speaking he had drawn out his knife, and with as much
delicacy as the circumstances would permit, he accomplished the
destruction of the boot. Then, after many admonitions for him to be
careful, and numerous sharp intakings of her breath, the boot was
withdrawn, showing her stockinged foot, puffed to abnormal proportions.
She looked at it askance.

"Do you think it is b-broken?" she asked him, dreading.

He grasped it tenderly, discovered that the ankle moved freely, and after
pressing it in several places, looked up at her.

"I don't think it's broke, ma'am. It's a bad sprain though, I reckon. I
reckon it ought to be rubbed--so's to bring back the blood that couldn't
get in while the boot was on."

The foot was rubbed, he having drawn off the stocking with as much
delicacy as he had exhibited in taking off the boot. And then while
Randerson considerately withdrew under pretense of looking at Patches,
the stocking was put on again. When he came back it was to be met with a
request:

"Won't you please find my pony and bring him back?"

"Why, sure, ma'am." He started again for Patches, but halted and looked
back at her. "You won't be scared again?"

"No," she said. And then: "But you'll hurry, won't you?"

"I reckon." He was in the saddle quickly, loping Patches to the crest of
a hill near by in hopes of getting a view of the recreant pony. He got a
glimpse of it, far back on the plains near some timber, and he was about
to shout the news to Ruth, who was watching him intently, when he thought
better of the notion and shut his lips.

Urging Patches forward, he rode toward Ruth's pony at a moderate pace.
Three times during the ride he looked back. Twice he was able to see
Ruth, but the third time he had swerved so that some bushes concealed him
from her. He was forced to swerve still further to come up with the pony,
and he noted that Ruth would never have been able to see her pony from
her position.

It was more than a mile to where the animal stood, and curiously, as
though to make amends for his previous bad behavior to Ruth, he came
trotting forward to Randerson, whinnying gently.

Randerson seized the bridle, and grinned at the animal.

"I reckon I ought to lam you a-plenty, you miserable deserter," he said
severely, "runnin' away from your mistress that-a-way. Is that the way
for a respectable horse to do? You've got her all nervous an' upset--an'
she sure roasted me. Do you reckon there's any punishment that'd fit what
you done? Well, I reckon! You come along with me!"

Leading the animal, he rode Patches to the edge of the timber. There,
unbuckling one end of the reins from the bit ring, he doubled them,
passed them through a gnarled root, made a firm knot and left the pony
tied securely. Then he rode off and looked back, grinning.

"You're lost, you sufferin' runaway. Only you don't know it."

He loped Patches away and made a wide detour of the mesa, making sure
that he appeared often on the sky line, so that he would be seen by Ruth.
At the end of half an hour he rode back to where the girl was standing,
watching him. He dismounted and approached her, standing before her, his
expression one of grave worry.

"That outlaw of yours ain't anywhere in sight, ma'am," he said. "I reckon
he's stampeded back to the ranchhouse. You sure you ain't seen him go
past here?"

"No," she said, "unless he went way around, just after it got dark."

"I reckon that's what he must have done. Some horses is plumb mean. But
you can't walk, you know," he added after a silence; "I reckon you'll
have to ride Patches."

"You would have to walk, then," she objected. "And that wouldn't be
fair!"

"Walkin' wouldn't bother me, ma'am." He got Patches and led him closer.
She looked at the animal, speculatively.

"Don't you think he could carry both of us?" she asked.

He scrutinized Patches judicially. A light, which she did not see, leaped
into his eyes.

"Why, I didn't think of that. I reckon he could, ma'am. Anyway, we can
try it, if you want to."

He led Patches still closer. Then, with much care, he lifted Ruth and
placed her in the saddle, mounting behind her. Patches moved off.

After a silence which might have lasted while they rode a mile, Ruth
spoke.

"My ankle feels very much easier."

"I'm glad of that, ma'am."

"Randerson," she said, after they had gone on a little ways further; "I
beg your pardon for speaking to you the way I did, back there. But my
foot did hurt terribly."

"Why, sure. I expect I deserved to get roasted."

Again there was a silence. Ruth seemed to be thinking deeply. At a
distance that he tried to keep respectful, Randerson watched her, with
worshipful admiration, noting the graceful disorder of her hair, the
wisps at the nape of her neck. The delicate charm of her made him thrill
with the instinct of protection. So strong was this feeling that when he
thought of her pony, back at the timber, guilt ceased to bother him.

Ruth related to him the conversation she had overheard between Chavis and
Kester, and he smiled understandingly at her.

"Do you reckon you feel as tender toward them now as you did before you
found that out?"

"I don't know," she replied. "It made me angry to hear them talk like
that. But as for hanging them--" She shivered. "There were times,
tonight, though, when I thought hanging would be too good for them," she
confessed.

"You'll shape up real western--give you time," he assured. "You'll be
ready to take your own part, without dependin' on laws to do it for
you--laws that don't reach far enough."

"I don't think I shall ever get your viewpoint," she declared.

"Well," he said, "Pickett was bound to try to get me. Do you think that
if I'd gone to the sheriff at Las Vegas, an' told him about Pickett, he'd
have done anything but poke fun at me? An' that word would have gone all
over the country--that I was scared of Pickett--an' I'd have had to pull
my freight. I had to stand my ground, ma'am. Mebbe I'd have been a hero
if I'd have let him shoot me, but I wouldn't have been here any more to
know about it. An' I'm plumb satisfied to be here, ma'am."

"How did you come to hear about me not getting home?" she asked.

"I'd rode in to see Catherson. I couldn't see him--because he wasn't
there. Then I come on over to the ranchhouse, an' Uncle Jepson told me
about you not comin' in."

"Was Mr. Masten at the ranchhouse?"

He hesitated. Then he spoke slowly. "I didn't see him there, ma'am."

She evidently wondered why it had not been Masten that had come for her.

They were near the house when she spoke again:

"Did you have an accident today, Randerson?"

"Why, ma'am?" he asked to gain time, for he knew that the moonlight had
been strong enough, and that he had been close enough to her, to permit
her to see.

"Your face has big, ugly, red marks on it, and the skin on your knuckles
is all torn," she said.

"Patches throwed me twice, comin' after you, ma'am," he lied. "I plowed
up the ground considerable. I've never knowed Patches to be so
unreliable."

She turned in the saddle and looked full at him. "That is strange," she
said, looking ahead again. "The men have told me that you are a wonderful
horseman."

"The men was stretchin' the truth, I reckon," he said lightly.

"Anyway," she returned earnestly; "I thank you very much for coming for
me."

She said nothing more to him until he helped her down at the edge of the
porch at the ranchhouse. And then, while Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha
were talking and laughing with pleasure at her return, she found time to
say, softly to him:

"I really don't blame you so much--about Pickett. I suppose it was
necessary."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said gratefully.

He helped her inside, where the glare of the kerosene lamps fell upon
him. He saw Uncle Jepson looking at him searchingly; and he caught Ruth's
quick, low question to Aunt Martha, as he was letting her gently down in
a chair:

"Where is Willard?"

"He came in shortly after dark," Aunt Martha told her. "Jep was talking
to him, outside. He left a note for you. He told Jep that he was going
over to Lazette for a couple of weeks, my dear."

Randerson saw Ruth's frown. He also saw Aunt Martha looking intently
through her glasses at the bruises on his face.

"Why, boy," she exclaimed, "what has happened to you?"

Randerson reddened. It was going to be harder for him to lie to Aunt
Martha than to Ruth. But Ruth saved him the trouble.

"Randerson was thrown twice, riding out to get me," she explained.

"Throwed twice, eh?" said Uncle Jepson to Randerson, when a few minutes
later he followed the range boss out on the porch. He grinned at
Randerson suspiciously. "Throwed twice, eh?" he repeated. "Masten's face
looks like some one had danced a jig on it. Huh! I cal'late that if you
was throwed twice, Masten's horse must have drug him!"

"You ain't tellin' her!" suggested Randerson.

"You tell her anything you want to tell her, my boy," whispered Uncle
Jepson. "An' if I don't miss my reckonin', she'll listen to you, some
day."





Next: The Runaway Comes Home

Previous: The Fight



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