It tried bravely, but the times when it spurted grew less frequent; it made increasingly harder work of pulling its hoofs out of the deep sand; it staggered and lurched on the hard stretches. Masten looked back frequently now. The grim, relentless figure behind him grew grotesque and gigantic in his thoughts, and once, when he felt the pony beneath him go to its knees, he screamed hysterically.
But he landed more often than Randerson; he blocked and covered cleverly; he ducked blows that would have ended the fight had they struck him with their full force. Masten had been full of confidence when the fight started. Some of that confidence had gone now.
She stopped when she saw Masten, her eyes wide with wonder and astonishment that changed quickly to joy as she saw a smile gathering on Catherson's face. "I've brought you your husband, Hagar," he told her. Hagar did not move. Her hands were pressing her breast; her eyes were eloquent with doubt and hope. They sought Masten's, searchingly, defiantly.
He was passing a huge boulder, when from out of the shadow surrounding it a somber figure stepped, the star-shot sky shedding sufficient light for Masten to distinguish its face. He recognized Randerson, and he voluntarily brought his pony to a halt and stiffened in the saddle, fear, cold and paralyzing, gripping him.
Since he had sent Chavis with the note to Hagar, Masten had been uneasy. He had not stayed inside the shack for more than a minute or two at a time, standing much in the doorway, scanning the basin and the declivity carefully and fearfully. And he had seen Catherson lead his pony down. He went in and took the rifle from its pegs. He had had a hope, at first, that it might be Kester or Linton.
"I've got some things to say, an' I cal'late to say them!" declared Uncle Jepson determinedly. "I've kept still about it long enough. I ain't wantin' to hurt her," he added apologetically, as Aunt Martha slipped to her knees beside Ruth and put an arm around her, "but that durned Masten has been doin' some things that she's got to know about, right now.
But he was a claimant for her hand, he had told her that he would not press that claim until she broke her engagement with Masten, and if he now told her that it had been the Easterner who had hired Kelso to kill him, he would have felt that she would think he had taken advantage of the situation, selfishly. And he preferred to take his chance, slender though it seemed to be. "He didn't tell me."
But at the breakfast table Ruth told them of the visit of Masten and of her plan to advance the date of the marriage. Uncle Jepson and Aunt Martha received the news in silence. Aunt Martha did manage to proffer a half-hearted congratulation, but Uncle Jepson wrinkled his nose, as he did always when displeased, and said nothing; and he ate lightly.
Has ol' Catherson tumbled to Masten bein' thick with Hagar?" "I don't know," she said, flushing. "It is no affair of mine!" "It ain't eh?" he said with a laugh, low and derisive. "You don't care what Masten does-eh? An' you're goin' to marry him, Monday. Masten's lucky," he went on, giving her a look that made her shudder; "he's got two girls.
So he trusted to his agility, which, though waning, answered well until he recovered from the effects of the blow. And then, with the realization that he was weakening, that the last blow had hurt him badly, came to Masten the sickening knowledge that Randerson was fighting harder than ever.