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Two Are Taught Lessons








From: The Range Boss

There was one other thing that Ruth did not know--the rage that dwelt in
Randerson's heart against Chavis and Kester. He had shown no indication
of it when she had related to him the story of her adventure with the
men, nor did he mention it to any of his associates. There had been a
time in his life when he would have brought the men to a quick and final
accounting, for their offense was one that the laws governing human
conduct in this country would not condone; but he was not the man he had
been before the coming of Ruth; her views on the taking of human life--no
matter what the provocation--were barriers that effectively restrained
his desires.

Yet he could not permit Kester and Chavis to think they could repeat the
offense with impunity. That would be an indication of impotence, of
servile yielding to the feminine edict that had already gone forth, and
behind which Chavis and his men were even now hiding--the decree of the
Flying W owner that there should be no taking of human life. His lips
twisted crookedly as on the morning of the day following his adventure
with Ruth and the recreant pony he mounted his own animal and rode away
from the outfit without telling any of them where he was going. Two or
three hours later, in a little basin near the plateau where Ruth had
overheard the men talking, Chavis and Kester were watching the crooked
smile; their own faces as pale as Randerson's, their breath swelling
their lungs as the threat of impending violence assailed them; their
muscles rippling and cringing in momentary expectation of the rapid
movement they expected--and dreaded; their hearts laboring and pounding.
For they saw in the face of this man who had brought his pony to a halt
within ten feet of them a decision to adhere to the principles that had
governed him all his days, and they knew that a woman's order would not
stay the retributive impulse that was gleaming in his eyes.

"We'll get to an understandin' before we quit here," he said, his cold,
alert eyes roving over them. "You've made one break, an' you're gettin'
out of it because my boss ain't dead stuck on attendin' funerals. I
reckon you know I ain't got no such nice scruples, an' a funeral more or
less won't set so awful heavy on my conscience. There's goin' to be more
mourners requisitioned in this country damned sudden if women ain't goin'
to be allowed range rights. I ain't passin' around no more warnin's, an'
you two is talkin' mighty sudden or the mourners will be yowlin'. What's
the verdict?"

Chavis sighed. "We wasn't meanin' no harm," he apologized, some color
coming into his face again.

"An' you?" Randerson's level look confused Kester.

"I ain't travelin' that trail no more," he promised, his eyes shifting.
He knew as well as Chavis that it was the only way. A word, spoken with a
hint of belligerence, a single hostile movement, would have precipitated
the clash they knew Randerson had come to force--a clash which they knew
would end badly for them. For Randerson had chosen his position when
halting Patches--it was strategic, and they knew his fingers were itching
for the feel of his guns.

They saw the crooked smile fade from his lips; they curved with cold,
amused contempt.

"Not runnin' no risks to speak of, eh?" he drawled. "Well, get goin'!" He
lounged in the saddle, watching them as they rode away, not looking back.
When they reached the far slope of the basin he turned Patches and
sniffed disgustedly. Five minutes later he was at the crest of the back
slope, riding toward the outfit, miles away.

It was an hour later that he observed a moving spot on the sky line. The
distance was great, but something familiar in the lines of the
figure--when he presently got near enough to see that the blot was a pony
and rider--made his blood leap with eager anticipation; and he spoke
sharply to Patches, sending him forward at a brisk lope.

He had seen some cattle near the rider; he had passed them earlier in the
morning--lean, gaunt range steers that would bother a fast pony in a run
if thoroughly aroused.

He saw that the rider had halted very close to one of the steers, and a
look of concern flashed into his eyes.

"She oughtn't to do that!" he muttered. Unconsciously, his spurs touched
Patches' flanks, and the little animal quickened his pace.

Randerson did not remove his gaze from the distant horse and rider. He
rode for a quarter of a mile in silence, his muscles slowly tensing as he
watched.

"What's she doin' now?" he demanded of the engulfing space, as he saw the
rider swing around in the saddle.

"Hell!" he snapped an instant later; "she's gettin' off her horse!" He
raised his voice in a shout, that fell flat and futile on the dead desert
air, and he leaned forward in the saddle and drove the spurs deep as he
saw the range steer nearest the rider raise its head inquiringly and look
toward the rider--for she had dismounted and was walking away from her
horse at an angle that would take her very close to the steer.

Patches was running now, with the cat-like leaps peculiar to him, and his
rider was urging him on with voice and spur and hand, his teeth set, his
eyes burning with anxiety.

But the girl had not seen him. She was still moving away from her horse;
too far away from it to return if the steer decided to charge her, and
Randerson was still fully half a mile distant.

He groaned audibly as he saw the steer take a few tentative steps toward
her, his head raised, tail erect, his long horns glinting in the white
sunlight. Randerson knew the signs.

"Good God!" he whispered; "can't she see what that steer is up to?"

It seemed she did, for she had halted and was facing the animal. For an
instant there was no movement in the vast realm of space except the
terrific thunder of Patches' hoofs as they spurned the hard alkali level
over which he was running; the squeaking protests of the saddle leather,
and Randerson's low voice as he coaxed the pony to greater speed. But
Patches had reached the limit of effort, was giving his rider his last
ounce of strength, and he closed the gap between himself and the girl
with whirlwind rapidity.

But it seemed he would be too late. The girl had sensed her danger. She
had caught the stealthy movement of the steer; she had glimpsed the
unmistakable malignance of his blood-shot eyes, and had stood for an
instant in the grip of a dumb, paralyzing terror. She had dismounted to
gather some yellow blossoms of soap-weed that had looked particularly
inviting from the saddle, and too late she had become aware of the
belligerent actions of the steer.

She realized now that she was too far from her pony to reach it in case
the steer attacked her, but in the hope of gaining a few steps before the
charge came she backed slowly, edging sidelong toward the pony.

She gained a considerable distance in this manner, for during the first
few seconds of the movement the steer seemed uncertain and stood,
swinging its head from side to side, pawing the sand vigorously.

The girl was thankful for the short respite, and she made the most of it.
She had retreated perhaps twenty-five or thirty feet when the steer
charged, bolting toward her with lowered head.

She had gone perhaps thirty or forty feet when Patches reached the scene.
The girl saw the blur he made as he flashed past her--he had cut between
her and the steer--so close to her that the thunder of his hoofs roared
deafening in her ears, and the wind from his passing almost drew her off
her balance as amazed, stunned, nerveless, she halted. She caught a
glimpse of Randerson's profile as he swept into a circle and threw his
rope. There must be no missing--there was none. The sinuous loop went
out, fell over the steer's head. Thereafter there was a smother of dust
in which the girl could see some wildly waving limbs. Outside of the
smother she saw the pony swing off for a short distance and stiffen its
legs. The rope attached to the pommel of the saddle grew taut as a bow
string; there was an instant of strained suspense during which the pony's
back arched until the girl thought it must surely break. It was over in
an instant, though every detail was vividly impressed upon the girl's
mind. For the cold terror that had seized her had fled with the
appearance of Patches--she knew there could be no danger to her after
that.

She watched the steer fall. He went down heavily, the impetus of his
charge proving his undoing; he struck heavily on head and shoulder,
grunting dismally, his hind quarters rising in the air, balancing there
for an infinitesimal space and then following his head.

The rope stretched tighter; the girl saw Patches putting a steady pull on
it. The loop had fallen around the steer's neck; she heard the animal
cough for breath once, then its breath was cut off.

In this minute the girl's chief emotion was one of admiration for the
pony. How accurate its movements in this crisis! How unerring its
judgment! For though no word had been spoken--at least the girl heard
none--the pony kept the rope taut, bracing against its burden as
Randerson slid out of the saddle.

The girl's interest left the pony and centered on its rider. Randerson
was running toward the fallen steer, and though Ruth had witnessed this
operation a number of times since her coming to the Flying W, she had
never watched it with quite the interest with which she watched it now.
It was all intensely personal.

Randerson had drawn a short piece of rope from a loop on the saddle when
he had dismounted. It dangled from his hand as he ran toward the steer.
In an instant he was bending over the beast, working at its hoofs,
drawing the forehoofs and one hind hoof together, lashing them fast,
twining the rope in a curious knot that, the girl knew from experience,
would hold indefinitely.

Randerson straightened when his work was finished, and looked at Ruth.
The girl saw that his face was chalk white. But his voice was sharp, and
it rang like the beat of a hammer upon metal:

"Get on your horse!"

There was no refusing that voice, and Ruth turned and ran toward her
pony, with something of the confusion and guilt that overtakes a recreant
child scolded by its parent. She was scarcely in the saddle when she
turned to watch Randerson.

He was pulling the loop from the steer's head. He coiled it, with much
deliberation, returned to Patches and hung the rope from its hook. Then
he walked slowly back to the steer.

The latter had been choked to unconsciousness, but was now reviving. With
a quick jerk Randerson removed the rope from its hoofs, retreating to
Patches and swinging into the saddle, watching the movements of the
steer.

The steer had got to its feet and stood with legs braced in sharp outward
angles, trembling, its great head rolling from side to side, lowered
almost to the dust, snorting breath into its lungs.

The girl was fascinated, but she heard Randerson's voice again, flung at
her this time:

"Get away from here--quick!"

She jerked on the reins, and the pony, wise with the wisdom of
experience, knowing the danger that portended, bolted quickly, carrying
her some distance before she succeeded in halting him.

When she turned to look back, there was a dust cloud near the spot where
the steer had lain. In the cloud she saw the steer, Patches, and
Randerson. Patches and the steer were running--Patches slightly in
advance. The pony was racing, dodging to the right and left, pursuing a
zig-zag course that kept the steer bothered.

As the girl watched she found a vicious rage stealing over her, directed
against the steer. Why didn't Randerson kill the beast, instead of
running from it in that fashion? Somehow, she did not like to see
Randerson in that role; it was far from heroic--it flavored of panic; it
made her think of the panic that had gripped her a few minutes before,
when she had retreated from the steer.

She watched the queer race go on for a few minutes, and then she saw an
exhibition of roping that made her gasp. From a point fifteen or twenty
feet in advance of the steer, Randerson threw his rope. He had twisted in
the saddle, and he gave the lariat a quick flirt, the loop running out
perpendicularly, like a rolling hoop, and not more than a foot from the
ground, writhing, undulating, the circle constricting quickly, sinuously.
The girl saw the loop topple as it neared the steer--it was much like the
motion of a hoop falling. It met one of the steer's hoofs as it was flung
outward; it grew taut; the rope straightened and Patches swung off to the
right at an acute angle. He did not brace his legs, this time. This was a
different game. He merely halted, turning his head and watching, with a
well-I've-done-it-now expression of the eyes that would have brought a
smile to the girl's face at any other time.

Again it was over in an instant; for the second time the steer turned a
somersault. Again there followed a space during which there was no
movement.

Then Randerson slacked the rope. It seemed to Ruth that Patches did this
of his own accord. The steer scrambled to its feet, hesitated an instant,
and then lunged furiously toward the tormenting horse and rider.

Patches snorted; Ruth was certain it was with disgust. He leaped--again
the girl thought Randerson had no hand in the movement--directly toward
the enraged steer, veering sharply as he neared it, and passing to its
rear. For the third time the rope grew taut, and this time the pony
braced itself and the steer went down with a thud that carried clearly
and distinctly to the girl.

She thought the beast must be fatally injured, and felt that it richly
deserved its fate. But after a period, during which Patches wheeled to
face the beast, Randerson grinning coldly at it, the steer again
scrambled to its feet.

This time it stood motionless, merely trembling a little. The fear of the
rope had seized it; this man-made instrument was a thing that could not
be successfully fought. That, it seemed to the girl, was the lesson the
steer had been taught from its experience. That it was the lesson
Randerson had set out to teach the animal, the girl was certain. It
explained Randerson's seeming panic; it made the girl accuse herself
sharply for doubting him.

She watched the scene to its conclusion. The steer started off, shaking
its head from side to side. Plainly, it wanted no more of this sort of
work; the fight had all been taken out of it. Again the pony stiffened,
and again the steer went down with a thud. This time, while it struggled
on the ground, Randerson gave the rope a quick flirt, making undulation
that ran from his hand to the loop around the steer's leg, loosening it.
And when the beast again scrambled to its feet it trotted off, free, head
and tail in the air, grunting with relief.

A few minutes later Randerson loped Patches toward her, coiling his rope,
a grin on his face. He stopped before her, and his grin broadened.

"Range steers are sort of peculiar, ma'am," he said gently. "They're
raised like that. They don't ever see no man around them unless he's
forkin' his pony. No cowpuncher with any sense goes to hoofin' it around
a range steer--it ain't accordin' to the rules. Your range steer ain't
used to seein' a man walkin'. On his pony he's safe--nine times out of
ten. The other time a range steer will tackle a rider that goes to
monkeyin' around him promiscuous. But they have to be taught manners,
ma'am--the same as human bein's. That scalawag will recognize the rope
now, ma'am, the same as a human outlaw will recognize the rope--or the
law. Of course both will be outlaws when there's no rope or no law
around, but--Why, ma'am," he laughed--"I'm gettin' right clever at
workin' my jaw, ain't I? Are you headin' back to the Flyin' W? Because if
you are, I'd be sort of glad to go along with you--if you'll promise you
won't go to galivantin' around the country on foot no more. Not that
that steer will tackle you again, ma'am--he's been taught his lesson.
But there's others."

She laughed and thanked him. As they rode she considered his subtle
reference to the law and the rope, and wondered if it carried any
personal significance to anyone. Twice she looked at him for evidence of
that, but could gain nothing from his face--suffused with quiet
satisfaction.





Next: The Target

Previous: The Runaway Comes Home



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