Free Range Lanning/Chapter 10



IN her room, Anne Withero was reading. She had always disliked that room, for her tastes were by no means idle standards but tyrants, and the flowered wall paper of that old-fashioned place and the vivid red of the carpet were a torture to her eyes. The room had not changed overnight, yet now she preferred it to any other place in the house. And there was only one possible explanation. Once, twice, and again she got up from her chair to examine the sill of her window. On it there was a dotted scratch in the paint, such a scar as the sharp rowel of a spur might make. And on the slant roof of the veranda below her there was a broken shingle on which she could make out—or perhaps this was imagination—the print of a heel.

At any rate, the window sill fascinated her.

After that forced and early rising the rest of the house had remained awake, but Anne Withero was gifted with an exceptionally strong set of nerves. She had gone back to bed and fallen promptly into a pleasant sleep. And when she wakened all that happened in the night was filmed over and had become dreamlike.

No one disturbed her rest; but when she went down to a late breakfast she found Charles Merchant lingering in the room. He had questioned her closely, and after a moment of thought she told him exactly what had happened, because she was perfectly aware that he would not believe a word of it. And she was right. He had sat opposite her, drumming his fingers without noise on the table, with a smile now and then which might be plain amusement, but which was tinged, she thought, with insolence.

Yet he seemed oddly undisturbed. She had expected some jealous outburst, some keen questioning of the motives which had made her beg them not to pursue this man. But Charles Merchant was only interested in what the fellow had said and done when he talked with her. "He was just like a man out of a book," said the girl in conclusion, "and I'll wager that he's been raised on romances. He had the face for it, you know—and the wild look!"

"A blacksmith—in Martindale—raised on romances?" Charles had said as he fingered his throat, which was patched with black and blue.

"A blacksmith—in Martindale," she had repeated slowly. And it brought a new view of the affair home to her. It had all seemed quite clear before. This romantic fellow caught a glimpse of her, thought he was in love with a face, got into a scrape, and like a wild boy risked his life to see that face again while he was being pursued. Besides, now that they knew from Bill Dozier that the victim in Martindale had been only injured, and not actually killed, the whole matter became rather a farce. It would be an amusing tale. But now, as Charles Merchant repeated the words, "blacksmith"—"Martindale," the new idea shocked her, the new idea of Andrew Lanning, for Charles had told her the name.

The new thought stayed with her when she went back to her room after breakfast, ostensibly to read, but really to think; for Anne Withero was still young enough to love to turn adventures over her tongue like a wine-taster. Remembering Andrew Lanning, she got past the white face and the brilliant black eyes; she felt, looking back, that he had shown a restraint which was something more than boyish. When he took her in his arms just before he fled he had not kissed her, though, for that matter, she had been perfectly ready to let him do it.

That moment kept recurring to her—the beating on the door, the voices in the hall, the shouts, and the arms of Andrew Lanning around her, and his tense, desperate face close to hers. It became less dreamlike that moment. It became a living thing that grew more and more vivid. She began to understand that if she lived to be a hundred, she would never find that memory dimmer. Men had made love to her, had poured out their hearts before her, but only once she had seen the soul of a man. And very naturally she kept thinking: What did he see in return? No, he had not seen the truth, but he had taken away a picture to worship. It was not strange that she did not hold this against young Lanning.

When her eyes were misty with this thought, and a half-sad, half-happy smile was touching the corners of her mouth, Charles Merchant knocked at her door. Truly it was a most inopportune moment, but, since she had promised to become his wife, Charles made a common masculine mistake—he considered that she was already a possession and that even her thoughts belonged to him. She gave herself one moment in which to clear the wistfulness from her face, one moment to banish the queer pain of knowing that she would never see this wild Andrew again, and then she told Charles to come in.

In fact, he was already opening the door, and she resented this fiercely. Besides, there was a ragged crack across the door where they had battered it down early that day. Then Charles stood before her. He was calm of face, but she guessed an excitement beneath the surface.

"I've got something to show you," he said.

A great thought made her sit up in the chair; but she was afraid just then to stand up. "I know. The posse has reached that silly boy and brought him back. But I don't want to see him again. Handcuffed, and all that."

"The posse is here, at least," said Charles noncommittally. She was finding something new in him. The fact that he could think and hide his thoughts from her was indeed very new; for, when she first met him, he had seemed all surface, all clean young manhood without a stain, frank, careless, gay. Also, he danced wonderfully, and could wear his clothes. Everything between them had grown out of that, and an impulse.

"Do you want me to see the six brave men again?" she asked, smiling, but really she was prying at his mind to get a dew of the truth. "Well, I'll come down."

And she went down the stairs with Charles Merchant beside her; he kept looking straight ahead, biting his lips, and this made her wonder. She began to hum a gay little tune, and the first bar made the man start. So she kept on. She was bubbling with apparent good nature when Charles, all gravity, opened the door of the living room.

The shades were drawn. The quiet in that room was a deadly, living thing. And then she saw, on the sofa at one side of the place, a human form under a sheet.

"Charles!" whispered the girl. She put out her hand and touched his shoulder, but she could not take her eyes off that ghastly dead thing. "They—they—he's dead—Andrew Lanning! Why did you bring me here?"

"Take the cloth from his face," commanded Charles Merchant, and there was something so hard in his voice that she obeyed. She did not want to see the horror beneath, but she followed his order in a daze. The sheet came away under her touch, and she was looking into the sallow face of Bill Dozier. She had remembered him because of the sad mustaches, that morning, and his big voice.

"That's what your romantic boy out of a book has done," said Charles Merchant. "Look at his work!"

But she dropped the sheet and whirled on him.

"And they left him——" she said.

"Anne," said he, "are you thinking about the safety of that murderer—now? He's safe, but they'll get him later on; he's as good as dead, if that's what you want to know."

"God help him!" said the girl.

And going back a pace, she stood in the thick shadow, leaning against the wall, with one hand across her lips. It reminded Charles of the picture he had seen when he broke into her room after Andrew Lanning had escaped. And she looked now, as, then, more white, more beautiful, more wholly to be desired than he had ever known her before. Yet he could neither move nor speak. He saw her go out of the room with staring eyes. Then, without stopping to replace the sheet, he followed.

He had hoped to wipe the last thought of that vagabond blacksmith out of her mind with the shock of this horror. Instead, he knew now that he had done quite another thing. And in addition he had probably made her despise him for taking her to confront such a sight.

All in all, Charles Merchant was exceedingly thoughtful as he closed the door and stepped into the hall. He ran up the stairs to her room. The door was closed. There was no answer to his knock, and by trying the knob he found that she had locked herself in. And the next moment he could hear her sobbing. He stood for a moment more, listening, and wishing Andrew Lanning dead with all his heart.

Then he went down to the garage, climbed into his car, and burned up the road between his place and that of Hal Dozier. There was very little similarity between the two brothers. Bill had been tall and lean; Hal was compact and solid, and he had the fighting agility of a starved coyote. He had a smooth-shaven face as well, and a clear gray eye, which was known wherever men gathered in the mountain desert. There was no news to give him. A telephone message had already told him of the death of Bill Dozier.

"But," said Charles Merchant, "there's one thing I can do. I can set you free to run down this Lanning."


"You're needed on your ranch, Hal; but I want you to let me stand the expenses of this trip. Take your time, make sure of him, and run him into the ground."

"My frien'," said Hal Dozier, "you turn a pleasure into a real party."

And Charles Merchant left knowing that he had signed the death warrant of young Lanning. In all the history of the mountain desert there was a tale of only one man who had escaped, once Hal Dozier took his trail, and that man had blown out his own brains.