Free Range Lanning/Chapter 1




BESIDE the rear window of the blacksmith shop Jasper Lanning held his withered arms folded against his chest. With the dispassionate eye and the aching heart of an artist he said to himself that his life work was a failure. That life work was the young fellow who swung the sledge at the forge, and truly it was a strange product for this seventy-year-old veteran with his slant Oriental eyes and his narrow beard of white. Andrew Lanning was not even his son, but it came about in this way that Andrew became the life work of Jasper.

Fifteen years before the father of Andy died, and Jasper rode out of the mountain desert like a hawk dropping out of the pale-blue sky; for the clan spirit of the Lannings was as strong as the clan spirit of the Campbells and Stewarts in the old days. Jasper buried his brother without a tear, and then sat down and looked at the slender child who bore his name. Andy was a beautiful boy. He had the black hair and eyes, the well-made jaw, and the bone of the Lannings, and if his mouth was rather soft and girlish he laid the failing to the weakness of childhood. Jasper had no sympathy for tenderness in men. His own life was as littered with hard deeds as the side of a mountain with bowlders. But the black, bright eyes and the well-made jaw of little Andy laid hold on him, and he said to himself: "I'm fifty-five. I'm about through with my saddle days. I'll settle down and turn out one piece of work that'll last after I'm gone, and last with my signature on it!"

That was fifteen years ago. And for fifteen years he had labored to make Andy a man according to a grim pattern which was known in the Lanning clan, and elsewhere in the mountain desert. His program was as simple as the curriculum of a Persian youth. On the whole, it was even simpler, for Jasper concentrated on teaching the boy how to ride and shoot, and was not at all particular that he should learn to speak the truth. But on the first two and greatest articles of his creed, how Jasper labored!

For fifteen years he poured his heart without stint into his work! He taught Andy to know a horse from hock to teeth, and to ride anything that wore hair. He taught him to know a gun as if it were a sentient thing. He taught him all the draws of old and new pattern, and labored to give him both precision and speed. That was the work of fifteen years, and now at the end of this time the old man pressed his bony shoulders against the wall of the blacksmith shop and knew that his work was a failure.

It came coldly and smoothly home to him as truths which we discover for ourselves are apt to do, or as a poniard point comes easily home to the heart. Jasper felt like that; there was death inside him; but he rolled his cigarette in Mexican style, thin and hard, and smoked it with a masklike face. His life work was a failure, for he had made the hand of Andrew Lanning cunning, had given his muscles' strength, but the heart beneath was wrong.

It was hard to see Andy at the first glance. A film of smoke shifted and eddied through the shop, and Andy, working the bellows, was a black form against the square of the door, a square filled by the blinding white of the alkali dust in the road outside and the blinding white of the sun above. Andy turned from the forge, bearing in his tongs a great bar of iron black at the ends but white in the middle. The white place was surrounded by a sparkling radiance. Andy caught up an eight-pound hammer, and it rose and fell lightly in his hand; the blows were a shower; there was strength for you! The sparks were flung to the farthest corners of the shop. On the floor they became little spots of darkening red; they rushed against the leather apron of the hammer wielder, and as the blows fell rapid waves of light were thrown against the face of Andrew.

Looking at that face one wondered how the life work of Jasper was such a failure. For Andy was a handsome fellow with his blue-black hair and his black, rather slanting eyes, after the Lanning manner. Yet Jasper saw, and his heart was sick. The face was a little too full; the square bone of the chin was rounded with flesh; and, above all, the mouth had never changed. It was the mouth of the child, soft—too womanly soft. And Jasper blinked.

When he opened his eyes again the white place on the iron had become a dull red, and the face of the blacksmith was again in shadow. All Jasper could see was the body of Andy, and that was much better. Red light glinted on the sinewy arms and the swaying shoulders, and the hammer swayed and fell tirelessly. For fifteen years Jasper had consoled himself with the strength of the boy, smooth as silk and as durable; the light form which would not tire a horse, but swelled above the waist into those formidable shoulders.

Now the bar was lifted from the anvil and plunged, hissing, into the bucket beside the forge; above the bucket a cloud of steam rose and showed clearly against the brilliant square of the door, and the peculiar scent which came from the iron went sharply to the nostrils of Jasper. He got up and straightened his long, age-withered limbs as a horseman entered the shop. He came in a manner that pleased Jasper. There was a rush of hoofbeats, a form darting through the door, and in the midst of the shop the rider leaped out of the saddle and the horse came to a halt with braced legs. It knocked up a cloud of dust that blew slowly over to Jasper in the rear of the shop.

"Hey, you!" called the rider as he tossed the reins over the head of his horse. "Here's a hoss that needs iron on his feet. Fix him up. And look here"—he lifted a forefoot and showed the scales on the frog and sole of the hoof—"last time you shoed this hoss you done a sloppy job, son. You left all this stuff hangin' on here. I want it trimmed off nice an' neat. You hear?"

The blacksmith shrugged his shoulders. "Spoils the hoof to put the knife on the sole, Buck," said the smith. "That peels off natural." "H'm," said "Buck" Heath. "How old are you, son?" "Oh, old enough," answered Andy cheerily. "Old enough to know that this exfoliation is entirely natural." The big word stuck in the craw of Buck Heath, who brought his thick eyebrows together. "I've rid horses off and on come twenty-five years," he declared, "and I've rid 'em long enough to know how I want 'em shod. This is my hoss, son, and you do it my way. That straight?"

The eye of old Jasper in the rear of the shop grew dim with wistfulness as he heard this talk. He knew Buck Heath; he knew his kind; in his day he would have eaten a dozen men of such rough words and such mild deeds as Buck. But searching the face of Andy, he saw no resentment. Merely a quiet resignation.

"Another thing," said Buck Heath, who seemed determined to press the thing to a disagreeable point. "I hear you don't fit your shoes on hot. Well?"

"I never touch a hoof with hot iron," replied Andy. "It's a rotten practice."

"Is it?" said Buck Heath coldly. "Well, son, you fit my hoss with hot shoes or I'll know the reason why."

"I've got to do the work my own way," protested Andy.

A spark of hope burned in the slant eyes of Jasper. "Otherwise I can go find another gent to do my shoein'?" inquired Buck.

"It looks that way," replied the blacksmith with a nod.

"Well," said Buck, whose mildness of the last question had been merely the cover for a bursting wrath that now sent his voice booming, "maybe you know a whole pile, boy—I hear Jasper has give you consid'able education—but what you know is plumb wasted on me. Understand? As for lookin' up another blacksmith, you ought to know they ain't another shop in ten miles. You'll do this job, and you'll do it my way. Maybe you got another way of thinkin'?"

There was a little pause.

"It's your horse," repeated Andy. "I suppose I can do him your own way."

Old Jasper closed his eyes and grinned in a silent agony. Looking again, he saw Buck Heath grinning with contempt, and for a single moment Jasper touched his gun. Then he remembered that he was seventy years old. He stood up. "Well, Buck?" he said, coming forward. For he felt that if this scene continued he would go mad with shame.

There was a great change in Buck as he heard this voice, a marked respect was in his manner as he turned to Jasper. "Hello, Jas," he said. "I didn't know you was here."

"Come over to the saloon, Buck, and have one on me," said Jasper. "I guess Andy'll have your hoss ready when we come back."

"Speakin' personal," said Buck Heath with much heartiness, "I don't pass up no chances with no man, and particular if he's Jasper Lanning." He hooked his arm through Jasper's elbow. "Besides, I'm all lined with alkali, Jas."

Then he added: "And that boy of yours has got me all heated up. Where'd he learn them man-sized words, Jas?"

All of which Andy heard, and he knew that Buck Heath intended him to hear them. It made Andy frown, and for an instant he thought of calling Buck back. But he did not call. Instead he imagined what would happen. Buck would turn on his heel and stand, towering, in the door. He would ask what Andy wanted. Andy chose the careful insult which he would throw in Buck's face. He saw the blow given. He felt his own fist tingle as he returned the effort with interest. He saw Buck tumble back over the bucket of water.

His thoughts roved on. He saw Buck drag himself up and away with a lump on his jaw. He saw the faces of other men as he passed them on the single street of the town. He felt their eyes on him the man who beat up big Buck Heath.

By this time Andy was smiling gently to himself. His wrath had dissolved in that thinking, and he was humming pleasantly to himself as he began to pull off the worn shoes of Buck's horse.