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The Rustlers

From: The Range Boss

At about the time Randerson was crossing the river near the point where
the path leading to Catherson's shack joined the Lazette trail, Ruth
Harkness was loping her pony rapidly toward him. They passed each other
within a mile, but both were unconscious of this fact, for Randerson was
riding in the section of timber that he had entered immediately after
crossing the river, and Ruth was concealed from his view by a stretch of
intervening brush and trees.

Ruth had been worried more than she would have been willing to admit,
over the presence of Chavis and his two men in the vicinity, and that
morning after she had questioned a puncher about the former Flying W
foreman, she had determined to ride down the river for the purpose of
making a long distance observation of the "shack" the puncher and
Randerson had mentioned as being inhabited by Chavis. That determination
had not been acted upon until after dinner, however, and it was nearly
two o'clock when she reached the ford where she had passed Randerson.

The puncher had told her that Chavis' shack was about fifteen miles
distant from the Flying W ranchhouse, and situated in a little basin near
the river, which could be approached only by riding down a rock-strewn
and dangerous declivity. She had no intention of risking the descent; she
merely wanted to view the place from afar, and she judged that from the
edge of a plateau, which the puncher had described to her, she would be
able to see very well.

When she passed the ford near the Lazette trail, she felt a sudden qualm
of misgiving, for she had never ridden quite that far alone--the ford was
about ten miles from the ranchhouse--but she smiled at the sensation,
conquering it, and continued on her way, absorbed in the panoramic view
of the landscape.

At a distance of perhaps a mile beyond the ford she halted the pony on
the crest of a low hill and looked about her. The country at this point
was broken and rocky; there was much sand; the line of hills, of which
the one on which her pony stood was a part, were barren and uninviting.
There was much cactus. She made a grimace of abhorrence at a clump that
grew near her in an arid stretch, and then looked beyond it at a stretch
of green. Far away on a gentle slope she saw some cattle, and looking
longer, she observed a man on a horse. One of the Flying W men, of
course, she assured herself, and felt more secure.

She rode on again, following a ridge, the pony stepping gingerly. Another
half mile and she urged the pony down into a slight depression where the
footing was better. The animal made good progress here, and after a while
they struck a level, splotched with dry bunch-grass, which rustled
noisily under the tread of the pony's hoofs.

It was exhilarating here, for presently the level became a slope, and the
slope merged into another level which paralleled the buttes along the
river, and she could see for miles on the other side of the stream, a
vista of plain and hills and mountains and forest so alluring in its
virgin wildness; so vast, big, and silent a section that it awed her.

When she saw the sun swimming just above the peaks of some mountains in
the dim distance, she began to have some doubts of the wisdom of making
the trip, but she pressed on, promising herself that she would have a
brief look at the shack and the basin, and then immediately return. She
had expected to make much better time than she had made. Also, she had
not anticipated that a fifteen-mile ride would tire her so. But she
believed that it was not the ride so far, but the prospect of another
fifteen-mile ride to return, that appalled her--for she had ridden much
since her coming to the Flying W, and was rather hardened to it. In one
of his letters to her, her uncle had stated that his men often rode sixty
miles in a day, and that he remembered one ride of ninety miles, which a
cowpuncher had made with the same pony in twenty-two hours of straight
riding. He had told her that the tough little plains pony could go any
distance that its rider was able to "fork" it. She believed that, for the
little animal under her had never looked tired when she had ridden him to
the ranchhouse at the end of a hard day.

But these recollections did not console her, and she urged the pony on,
into a gallop that took her over the ground rapidly.

At last, as she was swept around a bend in the plateau, she saw spreading
beneath her a little valley, green-carpeted, beautiful. A wood rose near
the river, and at its edge she saw what she had come to see--Chavis'

And now she realized that for all the knowledge that a look at Chavis'
shack would give her, she might as well have stayed at the Flying W. She
didn't know just what she had expected to see when she got here, but what
she did see was merely the building, a small affair with a flat roof, the
spreading valley itself, and several steers grazing in it.

There were no other signs of life. She got off the pony and walked to the
edge of the plateau, discovering that the valley was much shallower than
she thought it would be, and that at her side, to the left, was the
declivity that the puncher had told her about. She leaned over the edge
and looked at it.

It was not so steep as she had expected when listening to the puncher's
description of it. But she thought it looked dangerous. At the point from
which she viewed it, it was not more than fifteen or twenty feet below
her. It cut into the plateau, running far back and doubling around toward
her, and the stretch below her, that was within range of her eyes, was
almost level. The wall of the cut on which she stood was ragged and
uneven, with some scraggly brush thrusting out between the crevices of
rocks, and about ten feet down was a flat rock, like a ledge, that
projected several feet out over the level below.

She was about to turn, for she had seen all she cared to see, when an
impulse of curiosity urged her to crane her neck to attempt to peer
around a shoulder of the cut where it doubled back. She started and
turned pale, not so much from fright as with surprise, for she saw a
horse's head projecting around the shoulder of the cut, and the animal
was looking directly at her. As she drew back, her breath coming fast,
the animal whinnied gently.

Almost instantly, she heard a man's voice:

"My cayuse is gettin' tired of loafin', I reckon." Ruth held her breath.
The voice seemed to come from beneath her feet--she judged that it really
had come from beneath the rock that projected from the wall of the cut
below her. And it was Chavis' voice!

Of course, he would not be talking to himself, and therefore there must
be another man with him. At the risk of detection, and filled with an
overwhelming curiosity to hear more she kneeled at the edge of the cut
and listened intently, first making sure that the horse she had seen
could not see her.

"I reckon Linton didn't pull it off--or them Flyin' W guys are stickin'
close to the herd," said another voice. "He ought to have been here an
hour ago."

"Linton ain't no rusher," said Chavis. "We'll wait."

There was a silence. Then Chavis spoke again:

"Flyin' W stock is particular easy to run off. Did I tell you? B---- told
me"--Ruth did not catch the name, she thought it might have been Bennet,
or Ben--"that the girl had give orders that anyone ketched runnin' off
Flyin' W stock wasn't to be hung!" Ruth heard him chuckle. "Easy boss,
eh, Kester?" He sneered. "Ketch that damned Flyin' W outfit hangin'

Kester was one of the men who had quit the day that Ruth had met
Randerson, when the latter had been riding in for the money due them. It
did not surprise Ruth to discover that Kester was with Chavis, for
Randerson had told her what might be expected of him. Linton was the
other man.

Nor did it surprise Ruth to hear Chavis talking of stealing the Flying W
stock. But it angered her to discover that her humane principles were
being ridiculed; she was so incensed at Chavis that she felt she could
remain to hear him no longer, and she got up, her face red, her eyes
flashing, to go to her pony.

But the pony was nowhere in sight. She remembered now, her heart sinking
with a sudden, vague fear, that she had neglected to trail the reins over
the animal's head, as she had been instructed to do by the puncher who
had gentled the pony for her; he had told her that no western horse,
broken by an experienced rider, would stray with a dragging rein.

She gave a quick, frightened glance around. She could see clearly to the
broken section of country through which she had passed some time before,
and her glance went to the open miles of grass land that stretched south
of her. The pony had not gone that way, either. Trembling from a sudden
weakness, but driven by the urge of stern necessity, she advanced
cautiously to the edge of the cut again and looked over.

Her pony was standing on the level below her, almost in front of the rock
under which had been Chavis and Kester! It had evidently just gone down
there, for at the instant she looked over the edge of the cut she saw
Chavis and Kester running toward it, muttering with surprise.

For one wild, awful instant, Ruth felt that she would faint, for the
world reeled around her in dizzying circles. A cold dread that seized her
senses helped her to regain control of herself presently, however, and
scarcely breathing she stole behind some dense weeds at the edge of the
cut, murmuring a prayer of thankfulness for their presence.

What Chavis and Kester had said upon seeing the pony, she had not heard.
But now she saw crafty smiles on their faces; Chavis' was transfigured by
an expression that almost drew a cry of horror from her. Through the
weeds she could see their forms, and even hear the subdued exclamation
from Chavis:

"It's the girl's cayuse, sure. I'd know it if I saw it in the Cannibal
islands. I reckon she's been snoopin' around here somewheres, an' it's
sloped! Why, Kester!" he cried, standing erect and drawing great, long
breaths, his eyes blazing with passion as for an instant she saw them as
they swept along the edge of the cut, "I'd swing for a kiss from them
lips of hers!"

"You're a fool!" declared Kester. "Let the women alone! I never knowed a
man to monkey with one yet, that he didn't get the worst of it."

Chavis paid no attention to this remonstrance. He seized Ruth's pony by
the bridle and began to lead it up the slope toward the plateau. Kester
laid a restraining hand on his arm. He spoke rapidly; he seemed to have
become, in a measure, imbued with the same passion that had taken
possession of Chavis.

"Leave the cayuse here; she'll be huntin' for it, directly; she'll come
right down here. Give her time."

Chavis, however, while he obeyed the suggestion about leaving the pony
where it was, did not follow Kester's suggestion about waiting, but began
to run up the slope toward the plateau, scrambling and muttering. And
Kester, after a short instant of silent contemplation, followed him.

Ruth no longer trembled. She knew that if she was to escape from the two
men she would have to depend entirely upon her own wit and courage, and
in this crisis she was cool and self-possessed. She waited until she saw
the two men vanish behind the shoulder of the cut where she had seen the
horse's head, and then she clambered over the edge of the wall, grasping
some gnarled branches, and letting herself slide quickly down. In an
instant she felt her feet come in contact with the flat rock under which
the men had been when she had first heard them talking. It seemed a great
distance to the ground from the rock, but she took the jump bravely, not
even shutting her eyes. She landed on all fours and pitched headlong,
face down, in the dust, but was up instantly and running toward her pony.

Seizing the bridle, she looped it through her arm, and then, pulling at
the animal, she ran to where the horses of the two men stood, watching
her, and snorting with astonishment and fright. With hands that trembled
more than a little, she threw the reins over their heads, so that they
might not drag, and then, using the quirt, dangling from her wrist by a
rawhide thong, she turned their heads toward the declivity and lashed
them furiously. She watched them as they went helter-skelter, down into
the valley, and then with a smile that might have been grim if it had not
been so quavering, she mounted her own animal and rode it cautiously up
the slope toward the plateau.

As she reached the plateau, her head rising above its edge, she saw that
Chavis and Kester were a good quarter of a mile from her and running
toward some timber a few hundred yards beyond them.

With a laugh that was almost derisive, Ruth whipped her pony and sent it
flying over the plateau at an angle that took her almost directly away
from the running men. She had been riding only a minute or two, however,
when she heard a shout, and saw that the men had stopped and were facing
in her direction, waving their hands at her. They looked grotesque--like
jumping jacks--in the sudden twilight that had fallen, and she could not
withhold a smile of triumph. It did not last long, for she saw the men
begin to run again, this time toward the cut, and she urged her pony to
additional effort, fearful that the men might gain their ponies and
overtake her.

And now that the men were behind her, she squared her pony toward the
trail over which she had ridden to come here, determined to follow it,
for she felt that she knew it better than any other.

The pony ran well, covering the ground with long, agile jumps. For about
two miles she held it to its rapid pace, and then, looking backward for
the first time she saw the plateau, vast, dark and vacant, behind her,
and she drew the pony down, for she had come to the stretch of broken
country and realized that she must be careful.

She shuddered as she looked at the darkening world in front of her. Never
had it seemed so dismal, so empty, and at the same time so full of
lurking danger. The time which precedes the onrush of darkness is always
a solemn one; it was doubly solemn to Ruth, alone, miles from home, with
a known danger behind her and unknown dangers awaiting her.

Fifteen miles! She drew a long breath as the pony scampered along;
anxiously she scanned the plains to the south and in front of her for
signs of Flying W cattle or men. The cattle and horseman that she had
previously seen, far over on the slope, had vanished, and it looked so
dismal and empty over there that she turned her head and shivered.

There seemed to be nothing in front of her but space and darkness. She
wondered, gulping, whether Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha were worried
about her. They would be, of course, for she had never stayed like this
before. But, she thought, with a pulse of joy, they would be lighting the
lamps presently, and when she got to the big level beyond the ford, she
would be able to see the lights, and the sight of them would make her
feel better. She had never realized before how companionable a horse
felt, and as her pony ran on, she began to give some attention to his
work, noting how his muscles rippled and contracted, how his sides
heaved, with what regularity his legs moved. Involuntarily, she felt of
his shoulder--it was moist, and the muscles under the smooth hair writhed
like living things. She laughed, almost hysterically, for the touch made
her feel that she was not alone--she was with the most faithful of man's
friends, and she knew that the little animal under her would do his best
for her--would run himself to death in her service, if she insisted.

She had a glorious start over her pursuers. They would never catch her.
Twice, after she entered the broken stretch she looked back, but could
see no sign of them. She did not know that at that moment Chavis and
Kester, enraged and disgusted over the trick she had played on them, were
riding slowly through the valley toward their shack.

She was almost through the broken stretch when the pony stumbled. She
pulled quickly on the reins, and the pony straightened. But instantly she
felt its forelegs stiffen, felt it slide; the thought came to her that it
must have slid on a flat rock or a treacherous stretch of lava. It
struggled like a cat, to recover its balance, grunting and heaving with
the effort, but went down, finally, sideways, throwing her out of the

She had anticipated the fall and had got her feet out of the stirrups,
and she alighted standing, braced for the shock. Her left foot struck the
top of a jagged rock, slipped, doubled under her, and she felt a sharp,
agonizing pain in the ankle. For a moment she paid no attention to it,
however, being more concerned for the pony, but when she noted that the
animal had got up, seemingly none the worse for the fall, she suddenly
realized that the ankle pained her terribly, and she hopped over to a
flat rock and sat on it, to examine the injury. She worked the ankle
rapidly back and forth, each movement bringing tears to her eyes. She had
almost forgotten about her pursuers, and when she thought of them she got
up and limped toward the pony, which had wandered a little away from
where it had fallen.

And now the pony, which had performed so nobly for her during the miles
she had ridden to reach this spot, suddenly seemed determined to undo all
his service by yielding to a whim to avoid capture.

She tried threats, flattery, cajolery. Twice more she hobbled painfully
near him, and each time he unconcernedly walked away. The third time, he
allowed her to come very close, and just when she felt that success was
very near, he snorted with pretended fright, wheeled, and slashed out
with both hoofs at her and galloped off a full quarter of a mile. She
could see him standing and looking at her, his ears erect, before the
darkness blotted him from view altogether.

She tried again, groping her way painfully over rocks, slipping,
stumbling, holding her breath from fear of snakes--but she could not find
the pony. And then, white, shaking, clammy from her dread of the
darkness, the awesome silence, and the possibility of Chavis and Kester
finding her here, she groped blindly until she found a big rock rising
high above its fellows, and after a struggle during which she tore the
skin from her hands and knees, she climbed to its top and crouched on it,
shuddering and crying. And she thought of Randerson; of his seriousness
and his earnestness when he had said:

"I reckon you don't know hate or fear or desperation.... 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."

Well, she hated now; she hated everything--the country included--with a
bitterness that, she felt, would never die. And she had felt fear, too,
and desperation. She felt them now, and more, she felt a deep humility,
and she felt a genuine respect for Randerson--a respect which more than
counterbalanced her former repugnance toward him for the killing of
Pickett. For she knew that a while ago, if she had had a pistol with her,
she would have killed Chavis and Kester without hesitation.

Next: The Fight

Previous: Hagar's Eyes

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