Free Range Lanning/Chapter 11



FAR away in the western sky Andy Lanning saw a black dot that moved in wide circles and came up across the heavens slowly, and he knew it was a buzzard that scented carrion and was coming up the wind toward that scent. He had seen them many a time before on their gruesome trails, and the picture which he carried was not a pleasant one.

But now the picture that drifted through his mind was still more horrible. It was a human body lying face downward in the sand with the wind ruffling in the hair and the hat rolled a few paces off and the gun close to the outstretched hand. That was the way they would leave him when they found him. And he knew from Uncle Jasper that no matter how far the trail led, or how many years it was ridden, the end of the outlaw was always the same—death and the body left to the buzzards. Or else, in some barroom, a footfall from behind and a bullet through the back.

The flesh of Andy crawled.

Hunger was a sharp pain in his vitals. He smoked a cigarette and forgot it. His eyes dimmed from long wakefulness and from squinting across the sand, but one rub of his hand restored the freshness of his sight. It was not possible for him to relax in vigilance for a moment, lest danger come upon him when he least expected ft. Perhaps, in some open space like this. He could feel the muscles of his face drawing with the test, but he went on until the sun was low in the west and all the sky was rimmed with color.

The mountain desert changed now. The hills were hung with blue on the eastern sides. The coolness seemed to come out of the ground, and the wind changed its direction. But for Andy these were not pleasant things. Night had become an enemy. And the first moments of his long torment were beginning—men, who made up his danger, were also a necessity, and he felt that any danger were better than this solitude and the dark.

The sun was down, and the dusk had come over the hills in a rush, when he saw a house half lost in the shadows. It was a narrow-fronted, two-storied, unpainted, lonely place, without sign of a porch. It was obviously not made to be lived in and enjoyed. It was only a shelter into which people crept for the night, or where they ate their meals. And here certainly, where there was no vestige of a town near, and where there was no telephone, the news of the deaths of Bill Dozier and Buck Heath could not have come. Andy accepted the house as a blessing and went straight toward it.

But the days of carelessness were over for Andy, and he would never again approach a house without searching it like a human face. He studied this shack as he came closer. It was an evil-appearing building, with no sign of smoke from the stovepipe until he was almost on the house, and then he saw a meager wisp of vapor, showing that the fire had almost burned down. And if there were people in the building they did not choose to show a light. The windows were black inside, and on the outside they glimmered with the light reflected from the sky.

Andy went around to the rear of the house, where there was a low shed beside the corral, half tumbled down because the owner had fed from it carelessly; but in the corral were five or six fine horses—wild fellows with bright eyes and long forelocks. They had the long necks of speed, and lithe, strong bodies. Andy looked upon them wistfully. Not one of them but was worth the price of three of the pinto; but as for money there was not five dollars in the pocket of Andy.

Stripping the saddle from the pinto, he put it under the shed and left the mustang to feed and find water in the small pasture. Then he went with the bridle, that immemorial sign of one who seeks hospitality in the West, toward the house. He was met halfway by a tall, strong man of middle age or more. There was no hat on his head, which was covered with a shock of brown hair much younger than the face beneath it. He beheld Andy without enthusiasm.

"You figure on layin' over here for the night, stranger?" he asked.

"That's it," said Andy.

"I'll tell you how it is," said the big man in the tone of one who is willing to argue a point. "We ain't got a very big house—you see it—and it's pretty well filled right now. If you was to slope over the hills there you'd find Gainorville inside of ten miles."

Andy explained that he was at the end of a hard ride. He pointed to the pinto, which, in spite of a roll in the pasture, still bore the distinct outlines of the saddle, black with sweat, and all the rest of him dusted with salt, where the perspiration had come out and repeatedly dried in layers. "Ten more miles would kill the pinto," he said simply. "But if you don't mind, I'll have a bit of chow and then turn in out there in the shed. That won't crowd you in your sleeping quarters, and it'll be fine for me."

The big man opened his mouth to say something more. Andy, watching him with active eyes, saw three distinct shades of expression cross the face of the other; then his host turned on his heel.

"I guess we can fix you up," he said. "Come on along."

At another time Andy would have lost a hand rather than accept such churlish hospitality, but he was in no position to choose. The pain of hunger was like a voice speaking in him.

It was a four-room house; the rooms on the ground floor were the kitchen, where Andy cooked his own supper of bacon and coffee and flapjacks, and the combination living room, dining room, and, from the bunk covered with blankets on one side, the bedroom. Upstairs there must have been two more rooms of the same size.

Seated about a little kitchen table in the front room, Andy found three men playing an interrupted game of blackjack, which was resumed when the big fellow took his place before his hand. The three gave Andy a look and a grunt, but otherwise they paid no attention to him. And if they had consulted him he could have asked for no greater favor. Yet he had an odd hunger about seeing them. They were the last men in many a month, perhaps, whom he could look at or whom he could permit to see him without a fear. He brought his supper into the living room and put his cup of coffee on the floor beside him. While he ate he watched them together and in detail.

They were, all in all, the least prepossessing group he had ever seen. The man who had brought him in was far from well favored, but he was handsome compared with the others. Opposite him sat a tall fellow very erect and stiff in his chair. A candle had recently been lighted, and it stood on the table near this man. It showed a wan face of excessive leanness, and lank hair that seemed damp straggling across his forehead. His eyes were deep under bony brows, and they alone of the features showed any expression as the game progressed, turning now and again to the other faces with glances that burned; he was winning steadily. A red-headed man was on his left, with his back to Andy; but now and again he turned, and Andy saw a heavy jowl and a skin blotched with great, rusty freckles. His shoulders overflowed the back of his chair, which creaked whenever he moved, and Andy knew the man was a veritable Hercules; when he dropped his arm the tips of his fingers brushed close to the floor.

The man who faced the redhead was as light as his companion was ponderous. He had frail hands and wrists, almost girlish; he was dressed also in a sort of feminine neatness and display; his voice was gentle, his eyes large and soft, and his profile was exceedingly handsome. But in the full view Andy saw nothing except a grisly, purple scar that twisted down beneath the right eye of the man. It drew down the lower lid of that eye, and it pulled the mouth of the man a bit awry, so that he seemed to be smiling in a smug, half-apologetic manner. In spite of his youth and his gentle manner he was unquestionably the dominant spirit here. Once or twice the others lifted their voices in argument, and a single word from him cut them short. And when he raised his head, now and again, to look at Andy, it gave the latter a feeling that his secret was read and all his past known.

These strange fellows had not asked his name, and neither had they introduced themselves, but from their table talk he gathered that the redhead was named Jeff, the funereal man with the bony face was Larry, the brown-haired one was Joe. and he of the scar and the smile was Henry. It occurred to Andy as odd that such rough boon companions had not shortened that name for convenience.

They played with the most intense concentration. As the night deepened and the windows became black slabs Joe brought another candle and reenforced this light by hanging a lantern from a nail on the wall. This illuminated the entire room, but in a partial and dismal manner. The game went on. They were playing for high stakes; Andrew Lanning had never seen so much cash assembled at one time. They had stacks of unmistakable yellow gold before them—actually stacks. He counted fifty ten-dollar gold pieces before Jeff; Henry lost steadily, but replaced his losses from an apparently inexhaustible purse; Joe had about the same amount as Jeff, but the winner was Larry. That skull-faced gentleman was fairly barricaded behind heaps of money. Andy estimated swiftly that there must be well over two thousand dollars in those stacks.

He finished his supper, and, having taken the tin cup and plate out into the next room and cleaned them, he had no sooner come back to the door, on the verge of bidding them good night, than Henry invited him to sit down and take a hand.