The Rustlers

: 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
br /> 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.