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What Uncle Jepson Heard








From: The Range Boss

Every detail of the killing of Jim Pickett remained vivid in Ruth's
recollection. She felt that she would never forget it. But her horror
gradually abated, and at the end of a week she was able to look at
Randerson without shuddering. During the week she had evaded him. And he,
divining the state of her feelings, kept away from the house as much as
possible.

Masten's demeanor on hearing of the insult that had been offered her by
Pickett had seemed that of a man who was lacking in courage: at the time
she had not been able to make it conform to her ideas of a man's duty to
the woman he had promised to marry--or to any woman. She had heard him
speak of reason in connection with the affair, as though there were no
such thing in the world as rage so justifiable as to make a man yearn to
inflict punishment upon another man who had attacked his woman. He had
looked upon the matter cold-bloodedly, and she had resented that. But now
that she had been avenged, she felt that she had been wrong. It had been
such a trivial thing, after all; the punishment seemed monstrous in
comparison with it. She had seen Pickett's movement when Randerson had
momentarily turned his back to him, but she had also seen Randerson's
retaliatory movement. She had known then, that Randerson had expected
Pickett's action, and that he had been prepared for it, and therefore it
seemed to her that in forcing the trouble Randerson had not only foreseen
the ending but had even courted it.

Remorse over her momentary doubt of Masten's motive in refusing to call
Pickett to account, afflicted her. He had been wiser than she; he had
traced the line that divided reason from the primitive passions--man from
beast. His only reference to the incident--a wordless one, which she felt
was sufficiently eloquent--came when one day, while they were standing
beside the corral fence, looking at the horses, they saw Randerson riding
in. Masten nodded toward him and shook his head slowly from side to side,
compressing his lips as he did so. And then, seeing her looking at him,
he smiled compassionately, as though to say that he regretted the killing
of Pickett as well as she.

She seized his arm impulsively.

"I was wrong, Willard," she said.

"Wrong, dear?" he said. "It wasn't your fault."

"But I thought--things about you that I shouldn't have thought. I felt
that you ought to have punished Pickett. I am glad, now, that you
didn't." She shuddered, and looked again at Randerson, just dismounting
at the bunkhouse, paying no attention to them.

"Then you wouldn't have me like him?" He indicated Randerson.

"No," she said.

He gave her shoulder a slight pressure, and turning his head, smiled
triumphantly.

Later, when they had walked to a far corner of the pasture, talking
confidentially and laughing a little, he halted and drew her close to
him.

"Ruth," he said, gently, "the world is going very well for you now. You
are settled here, you like it, and things are running smoothly. Why not
take a ride over to Lazette one of these days. There is a justice of the
peace over there. It won't need to be a formal affair, you know. Just on
the quiet--a sort of a lark. I have waited a long time," he coaxed.

She smiled at his earnestness. But that spark which he had tried in vain
to fan into flame still smoldered. She felt no responsive impulse; a
strange reluctance dragged at her.

"Wait, Willard," she said, "until after the fall round-up. There is no
hurry. We are sure of each other."

They went on toward the ranchhouse. When they passed the bunkhouse, and
through the open door saw Randerson and Uncle Jepson sitting on a bench
smoking, Ruth quickened her step, and Masten made a grimace of hatred.

* * * * *

Inside the bunkhouse, Uncle Jepson, who had been speaking, paused long
enough to wrinkle his nose at Masten. Randerson's expression did not
change; it was one of grave expectancy.

"You was sayin'--" he prompted, looking at Uncle Jepson.

"That the whole darned deal was a frame-up," declared Uncle Jepson. "I
was settin' in the messhouse along in the afternoon of the day of the
killin'--smokin' an' thinkin', but most of the time just settin', I
cal'late, when I heard Chavis an' Pickett talkin' low an' easy outside.
They was a crack in the wall, an' I plastered one ear up ag'in it, an'
took in all they was sayin'. First, they was talkin' about the bad
feelin' between you an' Pickett. Pickett said he wanted to 'git' you, an'
that Masten wanted to get you out of the way because of what you'd done
to him at Calamity. But I reckon that ain't the real reason; he's got
some idea that you an' Ruth--"

"Shucks," said Randerson impatiently.

"Anyway," grinned Uncle Jepson, "for some reason, he don't want you
hangin' around. Far as I could gather, Pickett wanted some excuse to have
you fire him, so's he could shoot you. He talked some to Masten about it,
an' Masten told him to tackle Ruth, but not to get too rough about it,
an' not to go too far."

"Great guns! The low-down, mean, sneakin'--" said Randerson. His eyes
were glowing; his words came with difficulty through his straightened
lips.

"Masten wouldn't take it up, he told Pickett," went on Uncle Jepson.
"He'd put it up to you. An' when you'd tackle Pickett about it, Pickett
would shoot you. If they was any chance for Chavis to help along, he'd do
it. But mostly, Pickett was to do the job. I cal'late that's about
all--except that I layed for you an' told you to look out."

"You heard this talk after--after Pickett had--"

"Of course," growled Uncle Jepson, a venomous flash in his eyes, slightly
reproachful.

"Sure--of course," agreed Randerson. He was grim-eyed; there was cold
contempt in the twist of his lips. He sat for a long time, silent,
staring out through the door, Uncle Jepson watching him, subdued by the
look in his eyes.

When he spoke at last, there was a cold, bitter humor in his voice.

"So that's Willard's measure!" he said. "He grades up like a side-winder
slidin' under the sagebrush. There's nothin' clean about him but his
clothes. But he's playin' a game--him an' Chavis. An' I'm the guy they're
after!" He laughed, and Uncle Jepson shivered. "She's seen one killin',
an' I reckon, if she stays here a while longer, she'll see another:
Chavis'." He stopped and then went on: "Why, I reckon Chavis dyin'
wouldn't make no more impression on her than Pickett dyin'. But I reckon
she thinks a heap of Willard, don't she, Uncle Jep?" "If a girl
promises--" began Uncle Jepson.

"I reckon--" interrupted Randerson. And then he shut his lips and looked
grimly out at the horses in the corral.

"Do you reckon she'd--" Randerson began again, after a short silence.
"No," he answered the question himself, "I reckon if you'd tell her she
wouldn't believe you. No good woman will believe anything bad about the
man she loves--or thinks she loves. But Willard--"

He got up, walked out the door, mounted Patches and rode away. Going to
the door, Uncle Jepson watched him until he faded into the shimmering
sunshine of the plains.

"I cal'late that Willard--"

But he, too, left his speech unfinished, as though thought had suddenly
ceased, or speculation had become futile and ridiculous.





Next: Somethin's Gone Out Of Them

Previous: How An Insult Was Avenged



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