The Gunfighter

: The Range Boss

Red Owen, foreman of the Flying W in place of Tom Chavis, resigned, was

stretched out on his blanket, his head propped up with an arm, looking at

the lazy, licking flames of the campfire. He was whispering to Bud

Taylor, named by Randerson to do duty as straw boss in place of the

departed Pickett, and he was referring to a new man of the outfit who had

been hired by Randerson about two weeks before because the work seemed to
br /> require the services of another man, and he had been the only applicant.

The new man was reclining on the other side of the fire, smoking, paying

no attention to any of the others around him. He was listening, though,

to the talk, with a sort of detached interest, a half smile on his face,

as though his interest were that of scornful amusement.

He was of medium height, slender, dark. He was taciturn to the point of

monosyllabic conversation, and the perpetual, smiling sneer on his face

had gotten on Red Owen's nerves.

"Since he's joined the outfit, he's opened his yap about three times a

day--usual at grub time, when if a man loosens up at all, he'll loosen up

then," Red told Taylor, glaring his disapproval. "I've got an idea that

I've seen the cuss somewheres before, but I ain't able to place him."

"His mug looks like he was soured on the world--especial himself. If I

had a twistin' upper lip like that, I'd sure plant some whiskers on it. A

mustache, now, would hide a lot of the hyena in him."

Owen stared meditatively at the new man through the flames. "Yes," he

said expressionlessly, "a mustache would make him look a whole lot

different." He was straining his mental faculties in an effort to

remember a man of his acquaintance who possessed a lower lip like that of

the man opposite him, eyes with the same expression in them, and a nose

that was similar. He did not succeed, for memory was laggard, or his

imagination was playing him a trick. He had worried over the man's face

since the first time he had seen it.

He heaved a deep breath now, and looked perplexedly into the flames.

"It's like a word that gits onto the end of your tongue when your

brain-box ain't got sense enough to shuck it out," he remarked, lowly.

"But I'll git it, some time--if I don't go loco frettin' about it."

"What you figger on gettin'--a new job?" asked Taylor, who had been

sinking into a nap.

"Snakes!" sneered Owen.

"Thank yu', I don't want 'em," grinned Taylor with ineffable gentleness,

as he again closed his eyes.

Owen surveyed him with cold scorn. Owen's temper, because of his

inability to make his memory do his bidding, was sadly out of order. He

had been longing for days to make the new man talk, that he might be

enabled to sharpen his memory on the man's words.

He studied the man again. He had been studying him all day, while he and

some more of the men had worked the cattle out of some timber near the

foothills, to the edge of the basin--where they were now camped. But the

face was still elusive. If he could only get the man to talking, to watch

the working of that lower lip!

His glance roved around the fire. Seven men, besides the cook--asleep

under the wagon--and Randerson, were lying around the fire in positions

similar to his own. Randerson, the one exception, was seated on the edge

of the chuck box, its canvas cover pushed aside, one leg dangling, his

elbow resting on the other.

Randerson had been rather silent for the past few days--since he had

ridden in to the ranchhouse, and he had been silent tonight, gazing

thoughtfully at the fire. Owen's gaze finally centered on the range boss.

It rested there for a time, and then roved to the face of the new

man--Dorgan, he called himself. Owen started, and his chin went forward,

his lips straightening. For he saw Dorgan watching Randerson with a

bitter sneer on his lips, his eyes glittering coldly and balefully!

Evil intent was written largely here--evil intent without apparent reason

for it. For the man was a stranger here; Randerson had done nothing--to

Owen's knowledge--to earn Dorgan's enmity; Randerson did not deliberately

make enemies. Owen wondered if Dorgan were one of those misguided persons

who take offense at a look unknowingly given, or a word, spoken during

momentary abstraction.

Owen had disliked Dorgan before; he hated him now. For Owen had formed a

deep attachment for Randerson. There was a determination in his mind to

acquaint the range boss with his suspicions concerning Dorgan's

expression, and he got up, after a while, and took a turn around the

campfire in the hope of attracting Randerson's attention.

Randerson paid no attention to him. But through the corners of his eyes,

as he passed Dorgan, Owen noted that the man flashed a quick, speculative

glance at him. But Owen's determination had not lessened. "If he's

suspicious of me, he's figgerin' on doin' some dog's trick to Wrecks. I'm

puttin' Wrecks wise a few, an' if Dorgan don't like it, he c'n go to


He walked to the rear of the chuck box and stood within half a dozen feet

of Randerson.

"Figger we've got 'em all out of the timber?" he asked.

There was no answer from Randerson. He seemed absorbed in contemplation

of the fire.

"W-r-e-c-k-s!" bawled Owen, in a voice that brought every man of the

circle upright, to look wildly around. Taylor was on his feet, his hair

bristling, the pallor of mingled fear, astonishment, and disgust on his

face. Owen grinned sardonically at him. "Lay down an' turn over, you

wall-eyed gorilla!" admonished Owen. He turned his grin on the others.

"Can't a man gas to the boss without all you yaps buttin' in?" he


"What for are you-all a-yowlin' that-a-way for?" questioned a

gentle-voiced Southerner reproachfully. "I was just a-dreamin' of rakin'

in a big pot in a cyard game. An' now you've done busted it up." He sank

disgustedly to his blanket.

"He thinks he's a damned coyote," said a voice.

"You're thinkin' it's a yowl," said another. "But you've got him wrong.

He's a jackass, come a-courtin'."

"A man can't get no sleep at all, scarcely," grumbled another.

But Owen had accomplished his purpose. For during the exchange of

amenities Randerson had answered him--without turning, though:

"What you wantin', Red?" he said.

"You figger we've got 'em all out of the timber?" repeated Owen.

"Shucks." Randerson's voice was rich with mirth. "Why, I reckon. Unless

you was figgerin' to use a fine-toothed comb. Why, the boys was all

a-nappin', Red," he added gently.

He did not look around, so that Owen might give him the warning wink that

would have put him on his guard. Owen would have tapped him on the

shoulder, but glancing sidelong, he saw Dorgan watching him, and he did

not. A ripple of scornful laughter greeted Randerson's reply, and with a

sneering glance around, Owen again sought his blanket.

The reception that had been accorded his effort had made him appear

ridiculous, he knew. It would be days before the outfit would cease

referring to it.

He stretched himself out on the blanket, but after a few moments of

reflection, he sat up, doggedly. He had been imagining all sorts of dire

things that Dorgan might have in mind. He had a presentiment of impending

trouble, and so deep was it that his forehead was damp with perspiration.

Several of the men, disturbed by Owen, had sat up, and were smoking and

talking, and when he heard one of the men, named Blair, refer to a

gunman, Watt Kelso, who had formerly graced Lazette with his presence, a

light leaped into Owen's eyes, his teeth came together with a snap, his

lips formed into straight lines, and he drew a slow, deep breath. For

that was the word that had eluded him--Kelso! And Kelso--how plain and

simple it seemed to him now--Kelso was Dorgan, sitting opposite him now!

Kelso minus his mustache, looking much different than when he had seen

him last, but Kelso, just the same--undeniably Kelso!

So great was Owen's excitement over this discovery that he was forced to

lie down and turn his back to the fire for fear that Kelso might look at

him and thus discover that he was recognized.

As he lay there, his brain yielded to a riot of speculation. What was

Kelso doing here? Why had he come, minus the mustache, assuming the name,

Dorgan? What meant his glances at Randerson?

He provided an explanation presently. Memory drew a vivid picture for

him. It showed him a saloon in Lazette, some card tables, with men seated

around them. Among the men were Kelso and Randerson. Randerson had been a

mere youth. Kelso and Randerson were seated opposite each other, at the

same table. Kelso had been losing--was in bad temper. He had charged

Randerson with cheating. There had been words, and then Kelso had essayed

to draw his pistol. There was a scuffle, a shot, and Kelso had been led

away with a broken arm, broken by Randerson's bullet--blaspheming, and

shouting threats at Randerson. And now, after years of waiting, Kelso had

come to carry out his threats. It was all plain to Owen, now. And with

the knowledge, Owen's excitement abated and he sat up, coldly observant,

alert, to watch and listen.

For, while Owen had been thinking, Blair had continued to talk of Watt

Kelso, of his deeds and his personality. And Owen saw that for the first

time since joining the outfit, Kelso seemed interested in the talk around

him. He was watching Blair with narrowed, glittering eyes, in which Owen

could see suspicion. It was as though he were wondering if Blair knew

that the man of whom he spoke now was at that minute sitting close to

him, listening. But presently, Owen became convinced that Kelso thought

not, for the suspicion in the gunman's eyes changed to cold, secret


"Kelso's pulled his freight from Lazette," declared Blair, during the

course of his talk. "It's likely he'll drift somewhere where he ain't so

well known. It got to be pretty hard pickin' for him around here--folks

fight shy of him. But he was sure a killer!"

Blair paused. "I reckon I might mention a man that he didn't kill," said

a man who lay near Blair. "An' he wanted to, mighty bad."

"We're wantin' to know," returned Blair. "He must have been a high-grade


The man nodded toward Randerson, who apparently was not listening to this

conversation. There was a subdued chuckle from the man, and grunts of

admiration or skepticism from the others. Owen's gaze was fixed on Kelso;

he saw the latter's eyes gleam wickedly. Yes, that was it, Owen saw now;

the recollection of his defeat at Randerson's hands still rankled in the

gunman's mind. Owen saw him glance covertly at Randerson, observed his

lips curl.

One of the other men saw the glance also. Not having the knowledge

possessed by Owen, the man guffawed loudly, indicating the gunman.

"Dorgan ain't swallerin' your yarn about Randerson puttin' a kink in

Kelso," he said to Blair.

Randerson turned, a mild grin on his face. "You fellows quit your

soft-soapin' about that run-in with Kelso," he said. "There ain't any

compliments due me. I was pretty lucky to get out of that scrape with a

whole hide. They told me Kelso's gun got snagged when he was tryin' to

draw it."

So then, Randerson had been listening, despite his apparent

abstraction. And Owen sat rigid when he saw the gunman look coldly at

Randerson and clear his throat.

Plainly, if Kelso had been awaiting an opportunity to take issue with

Randerson, it was now!

"Yes," he said, "you was mighty lucky."

There was a sneer in the words, and malevolence in the twist of his lips

as his voice came through them.

A flat, dead silence followed the speech. Every man held the position in

which he had been when the gunman had spoken; nothing but their eyes

moved, and these were directed from Randerson to the gunman and back

again, questioningly, expectantly. For in the hearts of the men who had

been talking until now there had been no thought of discord; they had

spoken without rancor. But hostility, cold, premeditated, had been in the

new man's speech.

Randerson moved his head slightly, and he was looking straight into

Kelso's eyes. Kelso had moved a little; he was now sitting on his saddle,

having shifted his position when Blair had begun to talk, and the thumb

of his right hand was hooked in his cartridge belt just above the holster

of his pistol.

Randerson's face was expressionless. Only his eyes, squinted a little,

with a queer, hard glint in them, revealed any emotion that might have

affected him over Kelso's words.

"Yes, Dorgan," he said gently, "I was mighty lucky."

Kelso's lips curved into a slow, contemptuous smile.

"I reckon you've always been lucky," he said.


"Meanin' that you've fell into a soft place here, that you ain't fit to


Again a silence fell, dread, premonitory. It was plain to every man of

the outfit, awake and listening, that Dorgan had a grievance--whether

real or imaginary, it made little difference--and that he was determined

to force trouble. Only Owen, apparently, knowing the real state of

affairs, knew that the reference to Randerson's inefficiency was a mere

pretext. But that violence, open, deadly, was imminent, foreshadowed by

Dorgan's word, every man knew, and all sat tense and pale, awaiting

Randerson's reply.

They knew, these men, that it was not Randerson's way to force

trouble--that he would avoid it if he could do so without dishonor. But

could he avoid it now? The eyes that watched him saw that he meant to

try, for a slow, tolerant smile appeared on his lips.

"I reckon you're plumb excited--Owen wakin' you up out of your sleep like

he did," said Randerson. "But," he added, the smile chilling a little, "I

ain't askin' no man to work for me, if he ain't satisfied. You can draw

your time tomorrow, if it don't suit you here."

"I'm drawin' it now!" sneered the gunman. "I ain't workin' for no

pussy-kitten specimen which spends his time gallivantin' around the

country with a girl, makin' believe he's bossin', when--" Here he added

something that made the outfit gasp and stiffen.

As he neared the conclusion of the speech, his right hand fell to his

gun-holster. Owen had been watching him, and at the beginning of the

movement he shouted a warning:

"Look out, Wrecks!"

He had been afraid to tell Randerson that it was Kelso who was facing

him, for fear that the information, bursting upon Randerson quickly,

would disconcert him.

But Randerson had been watching, understanding the drift of the gunman's

words. And when he saw the shoulder of his gun-arm move, his own right

hand dropped, surely, swiftly. Kelso's gun had snagged in its holster

years before. It came freely enough now. But its glitter at his side was

met by the roar and flame spurt of Randerson's heavy six, the thumb snap

on the hammer telling of the lack of a trigger spring, the position of

the weapon indicating that it had not been drawn from its holster.

Apparently not a man in the outfit had noticed this odd performance,

though they had been held with dumb astonishment over the rapidity with

which it had been executed. But they saw the red, venomous streak split

the night; they heard the gunman's gurgling gasp of amazement, and they

watched, with ashen faces, while he dropped his weapon, sagged oddly

forward and tumbled headlong into the sand near the fire. Then several of

them sprang forward to drag him back.

It had seemed that none of the men had noticed that Randerson had seemed

to shoot his pistol while it was still in the holster. One, however, had

noticed. It was Red Owen. And while the other men were pulling the gunman

back from the fire, Owen stepped close to Randerson, lifted the holster,

and examined it quickly. He dropped it, with a low exclamation of


"I was wonderin'--Holy smoke! It's a phony holster, fixed on the gun to

look like the real thing! An' swung from the belt by the trigger guard!

Lord, man! Did you know?"

"That Dorgan was Kelso?" said Randerson, with a cold smile. "I reckon. I

knowed him the day he asked for a job. An' I knowed what he come

for--figurin' on settlin' that grudge."

Randerson and Owen started toward the gunman, to determine how badly he

had been hit; they were met by Blair. There was amazement and incredulity

in the man's eyes.

"He's goin' to cash in--quick," he said. "You got him, pretty nearly

proper--just over the heart. But, but, he says he's Watt Kelso! An' that

that eastern dude, Masten, sent him over here--payin' him five hundred

cold, to perforate you!"

Randerson ran to where Kelso lay, gasping and panting for breath. He

knelt beside him.

"You talkin' straight, Kelso?" he asked. "Did Masten hire you to put me

out of business?"

"Sure," whispered Kelso.

"Where's Masten stayin'?"

"With Chavis--in the shack. He's been there right along, except," he

finished, with a grim attempt at humor, "when he's been rushin' that

biscuit-shooter in Lazette."

Five minutes later, standing near one of the wheels of the chuck-wagon,

gazing somberly at the men, who were carrying Kelso away, Randerson spoke

grimly to Owen, who was standing beside him.

"Pickett an' then Kelso! Both of them was sure bad enough. But I reckon

Masten's got them both roped an' hog-tied for natural meanness." He

turned to Owen. "I reckon I had to do it, old man," he said, a quaver in

his voice.

"Buck up, Wrecks!" Owen slapped him on the shoulder, and turned toward

the men.

Randerson watched him, but his thoughts were elsewhere. "I reckon she'd

have wanted it different," he said to himself.