The Sympathetic Rescuer

: The Range Boss

Halfway down the slope, the rider turned and saw that Willard and the

occupants of the buckboard were watching him. The color in his cheeks

grew deeper and his embarrassment increased, for he noted that the girl

had faced squarely around toward him, had forgotten her precarious

position; her hands were clasped as though she were praying for his

safety. The aunt and uncle, too, were twisted in their seat, leaning

him in rigid attitudes, and Willard, safe on his bank, was

standing with clenched hands.

"Do you reckon we're goin' to break our necks, you piebald outlaw," the

rider said to the pony. "Well," as the animal whinnied gently at the

sound of his voice, "there's some people that do, an' if you've got any

respect for them you'll be mighty careful."

The descent was accomplished in a brief time, and then Patches and his

rider went forward toward the mired buckboard and its occupants, the pony

unconcernedly, its rider, having conquered his embarrassment, serene,

steady of eye, inwardly amused.

When he reached the water's edge he halted Patches. Sitting motionless in

the saddle, he quietly contemplated the occupants of the buckboard. He

had come to help them, but he was not going to proffer his services until

he was sure they would be welcomed. He had heard stories of the

snobbishness and independence of some Easterners.

And so he sat there long, for the occupants of the buckboard, knowing

nothing of his intentions, were in their turn awaiting some word from


No word came. He looked down, interestedly watching Patches drink. Then,

when the pony had finished, he looked up, straight at the girl. She was

sitting very erect--as erect as she could in the circumstances, trying

hard to repress her anger over his inaction. She could see that he was

deliberately delaying. And she met his gaze coldly.

He looked from the girl to Willard. The Easterner was examining a small

pistol that he had drawn from a yellow holster at his waist, so high on

his waist that he had been compelled to bend his elbow in an acute angle

to get it out. His hands were trembling, whether from the wetting he had

received or from doubt as to the rider's intentions, was a question that

the rider did not bother with. He looked again at the girl. Doubt had

come into her eyes; she was looking half fearfully at him, and he saw

that she half suspected him of being a desperado, intent on doing harm.

He grinned, moved to mirth.

She was reassured; that smile had done it. She returned it, a little

ruefully. And she felt that, in view of the circumstances, she might

dispense with formalities and get right down to business. For her seat

was uncomfortable, and Aunt Martha and Uncle Jepson were anxious, to say

nothing of Willard, who had placed his pistol behind him, determined, if

the man turned out to be a highwayman, to defend his party to the last.

But still the rider did not move. There was no hurry; only Willard seemed

to be really suffering, for the winter's chill had not yet gone out of

the air. But then, Willard had earned his ducking.

The girl cleared her throat. "We have had an accident," she informed the

rider, her voice a little husky.

At this word he swept his hat from his head and bowed to her. "Why, I

reckon you have, ma'am," he said. "Didn't you have no driver?"

"Why, yes," returned the girl hesitatingly, for she thought she detected

sarcasm in his voice, and she had to look twice at him to make sure--and

then she couldn't have told. "The gentleman on the bank, there, is our


"The gentleman on the bank, eh?" drawled the rider. And now for the first

time he seemed to become aware of Willard's presence, for he looked

narrowly at him. "Why, he's all wet!" he exclaimed. "I expect he come

pretty near drownin', didn't he, ma'am?" He looked again at the girl,

astonishment in his eyes. "An' so he drove you into that suck-hole, an'

he got throwed out! Wasn't there no one to tell him that Calamity ain't

to be trusted?"

"Mr. Vickers told us to keep to the right after reaching the middle,"

said the girl.

"I distinctly understood him to say the left, Ruth," growled Willard.

The rider watched the girl's face, saw the color come into it, and his

lips twitched with some inward emotion. "I reckon your brother's right,

ma'am. Vickers wanted to drownd you-all."

"Mr. Masten isn't my brother," denied the girl. The color in her face


"Well, now," said the rider. He bent his head and patted the pony's mane

to hide his disappointment. Again, so it seemed to the girl, he was

deliberately delaying, and she bit her lips with vexation.

Willard also seemed to have the same thought, for he shouted angrily:

"While you are talking there, my man, I am freezing. Isn't there some way

for you to get my party and the wagon out of there?"

"Why, I expect there's a way," drawled the rider, fixing Masten with a

steady eye; "I've been wonderin' why you didn't mention it before."

"Oh Lord!" said Masten to the girl, his disgust making his voice husky,

"can you imagine such stupidity?"

But the girl did not answer; she had seen a glint in the rider's eyes

while he had been looking at Masten which had made her draw a deep

breath. She had seen guile in his eyes, and subtlety, and much humor.

Stupidity! She wondered how Masten could be so dense!

Then she became aware that the rider was splashing toward her, and the

next instant she was looking straight at him, with not more than five

feet of space between them. His gaze was on her with frank curiosity, his

lean, strong face glowing with the bloom of health; his mouth was firm,

his eyes serene, virility and confidence in every movement of his body.

And then he was speaking to her, his voice low, gentle, respectful, even

deferential. He seemed not to have taken offense at Willard, seemed to

have forgotten him.

"I reckon you-all will have to ride out of here on my horse, ma'am," he

said, "if you reckon you'd care to. Why, yes, I expect that's right; I'd

ought to take the old lady an' gentleman first, ma'am," as the girl

indicated them.

He backed his pony and smiled at Aunt Martha, who was small, gray, and

sweet of face. He grinned at her--the grin of a grown boy at his


"I reckon you'll go first, Aunty," he said to her. "I'll have you high

an' dry in a jiffy. You couldn't ride there, you know," he added, as Aunt

Martha essayed to climb on behind him. "This Patches of mine is

considerable cantankerous an' ain't been educated to it. It's likely he'd

dump us both, an' then we'd be freezin' too." And he glanced sidelong at


Aunt Martha was directed to step on the edge of the buckboard. Trembling

a little, though smiling, she was lifted bodily and placed sidewise on

the saddle in front of him, and in this manner was carried to the bank,

far up on the slope out of the deep mud that spread over the level near

the water's edge, and set down gently, voicing her thanks.

Then the rescuer returned for Uncle Jepson. On his way to join Aunt

Martha, Uncle Jepson, who had watched the rider narrowly during his talk

with Willard, found time to whisper:

"I had a mule once that wasn't any stubborner than Willard Masten."

"You don't recollect how you cured him of it?"

"Yes sir, I do. I thumped it out of him!" And Uncle Jepson's eyes glowed


"I reckon you've got a heap of man in you, sir," said the rider. He set

Uncle Jepson down beside Aunt Martha and turned his pony back toward the

river to get his remaining passenger. Masten waved authoritatively to


"If it's just the same to you, my man, I'll assist Miss Ruth to land.

Just ride over here!"

The rider halted the pony and sat loosely in the saddle, gravely

contemplating the driver across the sea of mud that separated them.

"Why, you ain't froze yet, are you!" he said in pretended astonishment.

"Your mouth is still able to work considerable smooth! An' so you want to

ride my horse!" He sat, regarding the Easterner in deep, feigned

amazement. "Why, Willard," he said when it seemed he had quite recovered,

"Patches would sure go to sun-fishin' an' dump you off into that little

ol' suck-hole ag'in!" He urged the pony on through the water to the

buckboard and drew up beside the girl.

Her face was crimson, for she had not failed to hear Masten, and it was

plain to the rider that she had divined that jealously had impelled

Masten to insist on the change of riders. Feminine perverseness, or

something stronger, was in her eyes when the rider caught a glimpse of

them as he brought his pony to a halt beside her. He might now have made

the mistake of referring to Masten and thus have brought from her a quick

refusal to accompany him, for he had made his excuse to Masten and to

have permitted her to know the real reason would have been to attack her

loyalty. He strongly suspected that she was determined to make Masten

suffer for his obstinacy, and he rejoiced in her spirit.

"We're ready for you now, ma'am."

"Are you positively certain that Patches won't go to 'sunfishing' with

me?" she demanded, as she poised herself on the edge of the buckboard. He

flashed a pleased grin at her, noting with a quickening pulse the deep,

rich color in her cheeks, the soft white skin, her dancing eyes--all

framed in the hood of the rain cloak she wore.

He reached out his hands to her, clasped her around the waist and swung

her to the place on the saddle formerly occupied by Aunt Martha. If he

held her to him a little more tightly than he had held Aunt Martha the

wind might have been to blame, for it was blowing some stray wisps of her

hair into his face and he felt a strange intoxication that he could

scarcely control.

And now, when she was safe on his horse and there was no further danger

that she would refuse to ride with him, he gave her the answer to her


"Patches wouldn't be unpolite to a lady, ma'am," he said quietly, into

her hair; "he wouldn't throw you."

He could not see her face--it was too close to him and his chin was

higher than the top of her head. But he could not fail to catch the mirth

in her voice:

"Then you lied to Willard!"

"Why, yes, ma'am; I reckon I did. You see, I didn't want to let Patches

get all muddied up, ridin' over to Willard."

"But you are riding him into the mud now!" she declared in a strangely

muffled voice.

"Why, so I am, ma'am," he said gleefully; "I reckon I'm sure a box-head!"

He handed her down a minute later, beside Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha,

and he lingered another moment near her, for his proximity to her had set

his blood tingling, and there was an unnamable yearning in his breast to

be near her. He had passed hours in looking upon her picture, dreaming of

this minute, or another like it, and now that his dream had come true he

realized that fulfilment was sweeter than anticipation. He was hugely

pleased with her.

"She's a lot better lookin' than her picture," he told himself as he

watched her. She had her back to him, talking with her relatives, but she

did not need to face him to arouse his worship. "Didn't I know she was

little," he charged himself, estimating her height, "she won't come

anywhere near reachin' my shoulder."

He had not forgotten Masten. And a humorous devil sported in his eye as

he wheeled his pony and fixed his gaze on that gentleman.

"Speciments travel around most anywheres," he reflected. "This here's a

swell head with a grouch. I reckon he ain't a serious friend of hers, or

she wouldn't have stood for me rescuin' her when he offered himself that

generous." The recollection convulsed him, and he bowed his head over the

pony's neck to hide the laugh. When he looked up, it was to see Masten

standing rigid, watching him, wrath on his face.

"I suppose I'm to stand here and freeze while you sit over there and

laugh your fool head off!" shouted the Easterner. "I've got some dry

clothing in my trunk on the wagon, which I might put on, if I could

induce you to hurry a little."

"Why, shucks. I come mighty near forgettin' you, Willard," said the

rider. "An' so you've got other clothes! Only they're in your trunk on

the buckboard, an' you can't get 'em. An' you're freezin' an' I'm

laughin' at you. You've got a heap of trouble, ain't you, Willard. An'

all because you was dead set on goin' to the left when you ought to have

gone to the right."

"Do hurry! Wont you, please?" said the girl's voice, close to his


He looked guiltily at her, for he had been about to say some vitriolic

things to Masten, having almost lost patience with him. But at her words

his slow good nature returned.

"I'm sure goin' to hurry, ma'am."

He urged the pony into the water again, rode to the buckboard, stepped

off, and kneeling in the seat reached into the water and worked with the

harness. Then, walking along the wagon tongue, which was slightly out of

the water, he again reached into the water and fumbled with the harness.

Then he stepped back, slapped the blacks and urged them with his voice,

and they floundered out of the water and gained the bank, where they

stood shaking the water from their glistening bodies.

He mounted his pony again and rode to the rear of the buckboard. Taking

the braided hair rope that hung from the pommel of his saddle he made a

hitch around the center of the rear axle. Then he wheeled his pony until

it faced away from the buckboard, rode the length of the rope carefully,

halted when it was taut, and then slowly, with his end of the rope

fastened securely to the saddle horn, pulled the buckboard to a level on

the river bottom.

Returning to the rear of the buckboard he unfastened the rope, coiled it,

and rode to the bank, catching the blacks and leading them up the slope

beyond where the girl, her aunt and uncle stood. He gently asked Uncle

Jepson to hold the blacks, for fear they might stray, and then with a

smile at the girl and Aunt Martha, he returned to the buckboard. There he

uncoiled his rope again and attached one end of it to the tongue of the

wagon, again, as before, riding away until the rope grew taut. Then, with

a word to the pony, the wagon was drawn through the water to the edge of

the sea of mud.

This mud looked treacherous, but it was the only way out; and so, after a

pause for rest, he urged the pony on again. The buckboard traveled its

length--then lurched into a rut and refused to move another foot, in

spite of the straining of the pony and its rider's urgings.

The rider paused, turned in the saddle and scratched his head in


"I reckon we've run ag'in a snag, Patches," he said. He scrutinized the

slopes. "I expect we'll have to try one of them, after all," he decided.

"You were foolish to try to draw the wagon out with that thing, in the

first place," loudly criticized Masten. "If you had hitched the horses to

the wagon after you had pulled it out of the hole, why--"

The rider looked at the fault-finder, his eyes narrowed.

"Why, if it ain't Willard!" he said, amazed. "Standin' there, workin' his

little old jaw ag'in! An' a-mournin' because I ain't goin' to get my feet

wet! Well, shucks. I reckon there ain't nothin' to do now but to get the

blacks an' hitch 'em onto the wagon. There's a heap of mud there, of

course, but I expect some mud on them right pretty boots of yours

wouldn't spoil 'em. I'll lead the blacks over an' you can work your jaw

on 'em."

"Thanks," said Masten, sneering, "I've had enough wettings for one day. I

have no doubt that you can get the wagon out, by your own crude methods.

I shall not interfere, you may be sure."

He stalked away from the water's edge and ascended the slope to a point

several feet in advance of the wagon. Standing there, he looked across

the mud at the girl and the others, as though disdaining to exchange

further words with the rider.

The latter gazed at him, sidelong, with humorous malice in his glance.

Then he wheeled his pony, rode back toward the wagon, veered when almost

to it and forced the pony to climb the slope, thus getting Masten between

the rope and the mud. He pulled the rope taut again, swinging wagon

tongue and wheels at a sharp angle toward him, drove the spurs into the

flanks of the pony and headed it toward the mud level, swinging so that

the rope described a quarter circle. It was a time-honored expedient

which, he expected, would produce the jerk releasing the wagon.

If he expected the action would produce other results, the rider gave no

indication of it. Only the girl, watching him closely and seeing a hard

gleam in his eyes, sensed that he was determined to achieve a double

result, and she cried out to Masten. The warning came too late. The taut

rope, making its wide swing, struck Masten in the small of the back,

lifted him, and bore him resistlessly out into the mud level, where he

landed, face down, while the wagon, released, swished past him on its way

to freedom.

The rider took the wagon far up the sloping trail before he brought it to

a halt. Then, swinging it sideways so that it would not roll back into

the mud, he turned and looked back at Masten. The latter had got to his

feet, mud-bespattered, furious.

The rider looked from Masten to the girl, his expression one of

hypocritical gravity. The girl's face was flushed with indignation over

the affront offered her friend. She had punished him for his jealousy,

she had taken her part in mildly ridiculing him. But it was plain to the

rider when he turned and saw her face, that she resented the indignity

she had just witnessed. She was rigid; her hands were clenched, her arms

stiff at her sides; her voice was icy, even, though husky with suppressed


"I suppose I must thank you for getting the wagon out," she said. "But

that--that despicable trick--" Her self-control deserted her. "I wish I

were a man; you would not go unpunished!"

There was contrition in his eyes. For an infinitesimal space he regretted

the deed, and his active mind was already framing an excuse. And then out

of the tail of his eye he saw Uncle Jepson winking violent applause at

him, and a broad grin suffused his face. He made some effort to suppress

it, but deepening wrinkles around his eyes contradicted the gravity of

his lips.

"Why, I wasn't reckonin' to hurt him, ma'am," he said. "You see, he was

right in the way, an' I reckon I was feelin' a bit wild right at that

minute, an'--" His gaze went to Masten, who was scraping mud from his

garments with a small flat stone. The rider's eyes grew wide; more

wrinkles appeared around them.

"Why, I've spoiled his white shirt," he said as though speaking to

himself, his voice freighted with awe. And then, as Masten shook a

threatening fist at him, he suddenly yielded to the mirth that was

consuming him and he bowed his head.

It was Uncle Jepson's warning shout that impelled him to raise his head.

He saw Masten coming toward him, clawing at the foolish holster at his

waist, his eyes flashing murder, his teeth bared in a snarl.

"You, Patches!" said the rider, his voice coming with a cold, quick snap.

And the piebald pony, his muscles and thews alive with energy in an

instant, lunged in answer to the quick knee-press, through the mud,

straight at Masten.

So it was a grim and formidable figure that Masten looked up at before he

could get his weapon out of his holster. The lean face of the rider was

close to his own, the rider's eyes were steady, blue, and so cold that

they made Masten forget the chill in the air. And one of the heavy

pistols that the rider carried was close to Masten's head, its big muzzle

gaping forebodingly at him, and the rider's voice, as he leaned from the

saddle, came tense and low. The girl could not hear:

"Listen to this gospel, you mud-wallowin' swine," he said. "This is a

man's country, an' you play a man's game or you lose out so quick it'll

make you dizzy! You been playin' kid all through this deal. You're

grumblin' an' whinin' ever since I set eyes on you from the edge of the

mesa, there. That little girl thinks you're all wool an' a yard wide. You

come across, clean--you hear me! You shape up to man's size or I'll hunt

you up an' tear the gizzard out of you! You jam that there cap-shooter

back where it belongs or I'll take it away from you an' make you eat it!

You hear me!"

The pistol went back; Masten's face was ashen beneath the mud on it.

"Now grin, you sufferin' shorthorn!" came the rider's voice again, low as

before. "Grin like you'd just discovered that I'm your rich uncle come

from Frisco with a platter full of gold nuggets which I'm set on you

spendin' for white shirts. Grin, or I'll salivate you!"

It was a grin that wreathed Masten's lips--a shallow, forced one. But it

sufficed for the rider. He sat erect, his six-shooter disappearing

magically, and the smile on his face when he looked at the girl, had

genuine mirth in it.

"I've apologized to Willard, ma'am," he said. "We ain't goin' to be cross

to each other no more. I reckon you c'n forgive me, now, ma'am. I sure

didn't think of bein' mean."

The girl looked doubtfully at Masten, but because of the mud on his face

could see no expression.

"Well, I'm glad of that," she said, reddening with embarrassment. "I

certainly would not like to think that anyone who had been so

accommodating as you could be so mean as to deliberately upset anyone in

the mud." She looked downward. "I'm sorry I spoke to you as I did," she


"Why, I'm sorry too, ma'am," he said gravely. He urged his pony through

the mud and brought it to a halt beside her. "If you'd shake hands on

that, ma'am, I'd be mighty tickled."

Her hand went out to him. He took it and pressed it warmly, looking at

it, marveling at it, for the glove on it could not conceal its

shapeliness or its smallness. He dropped it presently, and taking off his

hat, bowed to her.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said; "I'll be seein' you ag'in some time. I hope

you'll like it here."

"I am sure I shall."

He grinned and turned away. Her voice halted him.

"May I know who has been so kind to us in our trouble?"

He reddened to the roots of his hair, but faced her.

"Why, I reckon you'll know, ma'am. I'm King Randerson, foreman of the

Diamond H, up the crick a ways. That is," he added, his blush deepening,

"I was christened 'King.' But a while ago a dago professor who stayed

overnight at the Diamond H tipped the boys off that 'King' was Rex in

Latin lingo. An' so it's been Rex Randerson since then, though mostly

they write it 'W-r-e-c-k-s.' There's no accountin' for notions

hereabouts, ma'am."

"Well, I should think not!" said the lady, making mental note of the

blueness of his eyes. "But I am sure the boys make a mistake in spelling

your name. Judging from your recent actions it should be spelled

'R-e-c-k-l-e-s-s.' Anyway, we thank you."

"The same to you, ma'am. So long."

He flashed a smile at Aunt Martha; it broadened as he met Uncle Jepson's

eyes; it turned to a grin of derision as he looked at Masten. And then he

was splashing his pony across the river.

They watched him as he rode up the slope on the opposite side; they held

their breath as pony and rider climbed the steeper slope to the mesa.

They saw him halt when he reached the mesa, saw him wave his hat to them.

But they did not see him halt the pony after he had ridden a little way,

and kiss the palm of the hand that had held hers.