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The Target








From: The Range Boss

Earlier in the morning, Ruth had watched Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha
ride away in the buckboard toward Lazette. She had stood on the porch,
following them with her eyes until the buckboard had grown dim in her
vision--a mere speck crawling over a sun-scorched earth, under a clear
white sky in which swam a sun that for days had been blighting growing
things. But on the porch of the ranchhouse it was cool.

Ruth was not cool. When the buckboard had finally vanished into the
distance, with nothing left of it but a thin dust cloud that spread and
disintegrated and at last settled down, Ruth walked to a rocker on the
porch and sank into it, her face flushed, her eyes glowing with eager
expectancy.

A few days before, while rummaging in a wooden box which had been the
property of her uncle, William Harkness, she had come upon another box,
considerably smaller, filled with cartridges. She had examined them
thoughtfully, and at last, with much care and trepidation, had taken one
of them, found Uncle Harkness' big pistol, removed the cylinder and
slipped the cartridge into one of the chambers. It had fitted perfectly.
Thereafter she had yielded to another period of thoughtfulness--longer
this time.

A decision had resulted from those periods, for the day before, when a
puncher had come in from the outfit, on an errand, she had told him to
send Randerson in to the ranchhouse to her, on the following day. And she
was expecting him now.

She had tried to dissuade Uncle Jep and Aunt Martha from making the trip
to Lazette today, but, for reasons which she would not have admitted--and
did not admit, even to herself--she had not argued very strongly. And she
had watched them go with mingled regret and satisfaction; two emotions
that persisted in battling within her until they brought the disquiet
that had flushed her cheeks.

It was an hour before Randerson rode up to the edge of the porch, and
when Patches came to a halt, and her range boss sat loosely in the
saddle, looking down at her, she was composed, even though her cheeks
were still a little red.

"You sent for me, ma'am."

It was the employee speaking to his "boss." He was not using the incident
of a few nights before to establish familiarity between them; his voice
was low, deferential. But Willard Masten's voice had never made her feel
quite as she felt at this moment.

"Yes, I sent for you," she said, smiling calmly--trying to seem the
employer but getting something into her voice which would not properly
belong there under those circumstances. She told herself it was not
pleasure--but she saw his eyes flash. "I have found some cartridges, and
I want you to teach me how to shoot."

He looked at her with eyes that narrowed with amusement, after a quick
glint of surprise.

"I reckon I c'n teach you. Are you figurin' that there's some one in this
country that you don't want here any more?"

"No," she said; "I don't expect to shoot anybody. But I have decided that
as long as I have made up my mind to stay here and run the Flying W, I
may as well learn to be able to protect myself--if occasion arises."

"That's a heap sensible. You c'n never tell when you'll have to do some
shootin' out here. Not at men, especial," he grinned, "but you'll run
across things--a wolf, mebbe, that'll get fresh with you, or a sneakin'
coyote that'll kind of make the hair raise on the back of your neck, not
because you're scared of him, but because you know his mean tricks an'
don't admire them, or a wildcat, or a hydrophobia polecat, ma'am," he
said, with slightly reddening cheeks; "but mostly, ma'am, I reckon you'll
like shootin' at side-winders best. Sometimes they get mighty full of
fight, ma'am--when it's pretty hot."

"How long will it take you to teach me to shoot?" she asked.

"That depends, ma'am. I reckon I could show you how to pull the trigger
in a jiffy. That would be a certain kind of shootin'. But as for showin'
you how to hit somethin' you shoot at, why, that's a little different.
I've knowed men that practiced shootin' for years, ma'am, an' they
couldn't hit a barn if they was inside of it. There's others that can hit
most anything, right handy. They say it's all in the eye an' the nerves,
ma'am--whatever nerves are."

"You haven't any nerves, I suppose, or you wouldn't speak of them that
way."

"If you mean that I go to hollerin' an' jumpin' around when somethin'
happens, why I ain't got any. But I've seen folks with nerves, ma'am."

He was looking directly at her when he spoke, his gaze apparently without
subtlety. But she detected a gleam that seemed far back in his eyes, and
she knew that he referred to her actions of the other night.

She blushed. "I didn't think you would remind me of that," she said.


"Why, I didn't, ma'am. I didn't mention any names. But of course, a
woman's got nerves; they can't help it."

"Of course men are superior," she taunted.

She resisted an inclination to laugh, for she was rather astonished to
discover that man's disposition to boast was present in this son of the
wilderness. Also, she was a little disappointed in him.

But she saw him redden.

"I ain't braggin', ma'am. Take them on an average, an' I reckon woman has
got as much grit as men. But they show it different. They're quicker to
imagine things than men. That makes them see things where there ain't
anything to see. A man's mother is always a woman, ma'am, an' if he's got
any grit in him he owes a lot of it to her. I reckon I owe more to my
mother than to my father."

His gaze was momentarily somber, and she felt a quick, new interest in
him. Or had she felt this interest all along--a desire to learn something
more of him than he had expressed?

"You might get off your horse and sit in the shade for a minute. It is
hot, you've had a long ride, and I am not quite ready to begin shooting,"
she invited.

He got off Patches, led him to the shade of the house, hitched him, and
then returned to the porch, taking a chair near her.

"Aunt Martha says you were born here," Ruth said. "Have you always been a
cowboy?"

A flash that came into his eyes was concealed by a turn of the head. So
she had asked Aunt Martha about him.

"I don't remember ever bein' anything else. As far back as I c'n
recollect, there's been cows hangin' around."

"Have you traveled any?"

"To Denver, Frisco, Kansas City. I was in Utah, once, lookin' over the
Mormons. They're a curious lot, ma'am. I never could see what on earth a
man wanted half a dozen wives for. One can manage a man right clever. But
half a dozen! Why, they'd be pullin' one another's hair out, fightin'
over him! One would be wantin' him to do one thing, an' another would be
wantin' him to do another. An' between them, the man would be goin' off
to drown himself."

"But a woman doesn't always manage her husband," she defended.

"Don't she, ma'am?" he said gently, no guile in his eyes. "Why, all the
husbands I've seen seemed to be pretty well managed. You can see samples
of it every day, ma'am, if you look around. Young fellows that have acted
pretty wild when they was single, always sort of steady down when they're
hooked into double harness. They go to actin' quiet an' subdued-like--like
they'd lost all interest in life. I reckon it must be their wives managin'
them, ma'am."

"It's a pity, isn't it?" she said, her chin lifting.

"The men seem to like it, ma'am. Every day there's new ones makin'
contracts for managers."

"I suppose you will never sacrifice yourself?" she asked challengingly.

"It ain't time, yet, ma'am," he returned, looking straight at her, his
eyes narrowed, with little wrinkles in the corners. "I'm waitin' for you
to tell Masten that you don't want to manage him."

"We won't talk about that, please," she said coldly.

"Then we won't, ma'am."

She sat looking at him, trying to be coldly critical, but not succeeding
very well. She was trying to show him that there was small hope of him
ever realizing his desire to have her "manage" him, but she felt that she
did not succeed in that very well either. Perplexity came into her eyes
as she watched him.

"Why is it that you don't like Willard Masten?" she asked at length. "Why
is it that he doesn't like you?"

His face sobered. "I don't recollect to have said anything about Masten,
ma'am," he said.

"But you don't like him, do you?"

A direct answer was required. "No," he said simply.

"Why?" she persisted.

"I reckon mebbe you'd better ask Masten," he returned, his voice
expressionless. Then he looked at her with an amused grin. "If it's goin'
to take you any time to learn to shoot, I reckon we'd better begin."

She got up, went into the house for the pistol and cartridges, and came
out again, the weapon dangling from her hand.

"Shucks!" he said, when he saw the pistol, comparing its huge bulk to the
size of the hand holding it, "you'll never be able to hold it, when it
goes off. You ought to have a smaller one."

"Uncle Jep says this ought to stop anything it hits," she declared. "That
is just what I want it to do. If I shoot anything once, I don't want to
have to shoot again."

"I reckon you're right bloodthirsty, ma'am. But I expect it's so big for
you that you won't be able to hit anything."

"I'll show you," she said, confidently. "Where shall we go to shoot? We
shall have to have a target, I suppose?"

"Not a movin' one," he said gleefully. "An' I ain't aimin' to hold it for
you!"

"Wait until you are asked," she retorted, defiantly. "Perhaps I may be a
better shot than you think!"

"I hope so, ma'am."

She looked resentfully at him, but followed him as he went out near the
pasture fence, taking with him a soap box that he found near a shed, and
standing it up behind a post, first making sure there were no cattle
within range in the direction that the bullets would take. Then he
stepped off twenty paces, and when she joined him he took the pistol from
her hands and loaded it from the box. He watched her narrowly as she took
it, and she saw the concern in his eyes.

"Oh, I have used a revolver before," she told him, "not so large a one as
this, of course. But I know better than to point it at myself."

"I see you do, ma'am." His hand went out quickly and closed over hers,
for she had been directing the muzzle of the weapon fairly at his chest.
"You ought never point it at anybody that you don't want to shoot," he
remonstrated gently.

He showed her how to hold the weapon, told her to stand sideways to the
target, with her right arm extended and rigid, level with the shoulder.

He took some time at this; three times after she extended her arm he
seemed to find it necessary to take hold of the arm to rearrange its
position, lingering long at this work, and squeezing the pistol hand a
little too tightly, she thought.

"Don't go to pullin' the trigger too fast or too hard," he warned; "a
little time for the first shot will save you shootin' again, mebbe--until
you get used to it. She'll kick some, but you'll get onto that pretty
quick."

She pulled the trigger, and the muzzle of the pistol flew upward.

"I reckon that target feels pretty safe, ma'am," he said dryly. "But that
buzzard up there will be pullin' his freight--if he's got any sense."

She fired again, her lips compressed determinedly. At the report a
splinter of wood flew from the top of the post. She looked at him with an
exultant smile.

"That's better," he told her, grinning; "you'll be hittin' the soap box,
next."

She did hit it at the fourth attempt, and her joy was great.

For an hour she practiced, using many cartridges, reveling in this new
pastime. She hit the target often, and toward the end she gained such
confidence and proficiency that her eyes glowed proudly. Then, growing
tired, she invited him to the porch again, and until near noon they
talked of guns and shooting.

Her interest in him had grown. His interest in her had always been deep,
and the constraint that had been between them no longer existed.

At noon she went into the house and prepared luncheon, leaving him
sitting on the porch alone. When she called Randerson in, and he took a
chair across from her, she felt a distinct embarrassment. It was not
because she was there alone with him, for he had a right to be there; he
was her range boss and his quarters were in the house; he was an
employee, and no conventions were being violated. But the embarrassment
was there.

Did Randerson suspect her interest in him? That question assailed her.
She studied him, and was uncertain. For his manner had not changed. He
was still quiet, thoughtful, polite, still deferential and natural, with
a quaintness of speech and a simplicity that had gripped her, that held
her captive.

But her embarrassment fled as the meal progressed. She forgot it in her
interest for him. She questioned him again; he answered frankly. And
through her questions she learned much of his past life, of his hopes and
ambitions. They were as simple and natural as himself.

"I've been savin' my money, ma'am," he told her. "I'm goin' to own a
ranch of my own, some day. There's fellows that blow in all their wages
in town, not thinkin' of tomorrow. But I quit that, quite a while ago.
I'm lookin' out for tomorrow. It's curious, ma'am. Fellows will try to
get you to squander your money, along with their own, an' if you don't,
they'll poke fun at you. But they'll respect you for not squanderin' it,
like they do. I reckon they know there ain't any sense to it." Thus she
discovered that there was little frivolity in his make-up, and pleasure
stirred her. And then he showed her another side of his character--his
respect for public opinion.

"But I ain't stingy, ma'am. I reckon I've proved it. There's a difference
between bein' careful an' stingy."

"How did you prove it?"

He grinned at her. "Why, I ain't mentionin'," he said gently.

But she had heard of his generosity--from several of the men, and from
Hagar Catherson. She mentally applauded his reticence.

She learned that he had read--more than she would have thought, from his
speech--and that he had profited thereby.

"Books give the writer's opinion of things," he said. "If you read a
thoughtful book, you either agree with the writer, or you don't,
accordin' to your nature an' understandin'. None of them get things
exactly right, I reckon, for no man can know everything. He's got to fall
down, somewhere. An' so, when you read a book, you've got to do a heap of
thinkin' on your own hook, or else you'll get mistaken ideas an' go to
gettin' things mixed up. I like to do my own thinkin'."

"Are you always right?"

"Bless you, ma'am, no. I'm scarcely ever right. I'll get to believin' a
thing, an' then along will come somethin' else, an' I'll have to start
all over again. Or, I'll talk to somebody, an' find that they've got a
better way of lookin' at a thing. I reckon that's natural."

They did not go out to shoot again. Instead, they went out on the porch,
and there, sitting in the shade, they talked until the sun began to swim
low in the sky.

At last he got up, grinning.

"I've done a heap of loafin' today, ma'am. But I've certainly enjoyed
myself, talkin' to you. But if you ain't goin' to try to hit the target
any more, I reckon I'll be ridin' back to the outfit."

She got up, too, and held out her hand to him. "Thank you," she said.
"You have made the day very short for me. It would have been lonesome
here, without aunt and uncle."

"I saw them goin'," he informed her.

"And," she continued, smiling, "I am going to ask you to come again, very
soon, to teach me more about shooting."

"Any time, ma'am." He still held her hand. And now he looked at it with a
blush, and dropped it gently. Her face reddened a little too, for now she
realized that he had held her hand for quite a while, and she had made no
motion to withdraw it. Their eyes met eloquently. The gaze held for an
instant, and then both laughed, as though each had seen something in the
eyes of the other that had been concealed until this moment. Then Ruth's
drooped. Randerson smiled and stepped off the porch to get his pony.

A little later, after waving his hand to Ruth from a distance, he rode
away, his mind active, joy in his heart.

"You're a knowin' horse, Patches," he said confidentially to the pony.
"If you are, what do you reckon made her ask so many questions?" He
gulped over a thought that came to him.

"She was shootin' at the target, Patches," he mused. "But do you reckon
she was aimin' at me?"





Next: The Gunfighter

Previous: Two Are Taught Lessons



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