Free Range Lanning/Chapter 12



HE had never studied any men as he had watched these men at cards. Andrew Lanning had spent most of his life quite indifferent to the people around him, but now it was necessary to make quick judgments and sure. He had to read unreadable faces. He had to guess motives. He had to sense the coming of danger before it showed its face. And, watching them with close intentness, he understood that at least three of them were cheating at every opportunity. Henry, alone, was playing a square game; as for the heavy winner, Larry, Andrew had reason to believe that he was adroitly palming an ace now and again luck ran too consistently his way. For his own part, he was no card expert, and he smiled as Henry made his offer.

"I've got eleven dollars and fifty cents in my pocket," he said frankly. "I won't sit in at that game."

"Then the game is three-handed," said Henry as he got up from his chair. "I've fed you boys enough," he continued in his soft voice. "I know a three-handed game is no good, but I'm through. Unless you'll try a round or two with 'em, stranger? They've made enough money. Maybe they'll play for silver for the fun of it, eh, boys?"

There was no enthusiastic assent. The three looked gravely at a victim with eleven dollars and fifty cents, the chair of big Jeff creaking noisily as he turned. "Sit in," said Jeff. He made a brief gesture, like one wiping an obstacle out of the way.

"All right," nodded Andy, for the thing began to excite him. He turned to Henry. "Suppose you deal for us?"

The scar on Henry's face changed color, and his habitual smile broadened. "Well!" exclaimed Larry. "Maybe the gent don't like the way we been runnin' this game in other ways. Maybe he's got a few more suggestions to make, sittin' in? I like to be obligin'."

He grinned, and the effect was ghastly.

"Thanks," said Andy. "That lets me out as far as suggestions go." He paused with his hand on the back of the chair, and something told him that Larry would as soon run a knife into him as take a drink of water. The eyes burned up at him out of the shadow of the brows, but Andy, though his heart leaped, made himself meet the stare. Suddenly it wavered, and only then would Andy sit down. Henry had drawn up another chair.

"That idea looks good to me," he said. "I think I shall deal." And forthwith, as one who may not be resisted, he swept up the cards and began to shuffle. The others at once lost interest. Each of them nonchalantly produced silver, and they began to play negligently, careless of their stakes.

But to Andy, who had only played for money half a dozen times before, this was desperately earnest. He kept to a conservative game, and slowly but surely he saw his silver being converted into gold. Only Larry noticed his gains—the others were indifferent to it, but the skull-faced man tightened his lips as he saw. Suddenly he began betting in gold, ten dollars for each card he drew. The others were out of that hand. Andy, breathless, for he had an ace down, saw a three and a two fall—took the long chance, and, with the luck behind him, watched a five-spot flutter down to join his draw. Yet Larry, taking the same draw, was not busted. He had a pair of deuces and a four. There he stuck, and it stood to reason that he could not win. Yet he bet recklessly, raising Andy twice, until the latter had no more money on the table to call a higher bet. The showdown revealed an ace under cover for Larry also. Now he leaned across the table, smiling at Andrew.

"I like the hand you show," said Larry, "but I don't like your face behind it, my friend,"

His smile went out; his hand jerked back; and then the lean, small hand of Henry shot out and fastened on the tall man's wrist. "You skunk!" said Henry. "D'you want to get the kid for that beggarly mess? Bah!"

Andy, colorless, his blood cold, brushed aside the arm of the intercessor.

"Partner," he said, leaning a little forward in turn, and thereby making his holster swing clear of the seat of his chair, "partner, I don't mind your words, but I don't like the way you say 'em."

When he began to speak his voice was shaken; before he had finished, his tones rang, and he felt once more that overwhelming desire which was like the impulse to fling himself from a height. He had felt it before, when he watched the posse retreat with the body of Bill Dozier. He felt it now, a vast hunger, an almost blinding eagerness to see Larry make an incriminating move with his bony, hovering right hand. The bright eyes burned at him for a moment longer out of the shadow. Then, again, they wavered, and turned away.

Andy knew that the fellow had no more stomach for a fight. Shame might have made him go through with the thing he started, however, had not Henry cut in again and given Larry a chance to withdraw gracefully.

"The kid's called your bluff, Larry," he said. "And the rest of us don't need to see you pull any target practice. Shake hands with the kid, will you, and tell him you were joking!"

Larry settled back in his chair with a grunt, and Henry, without a word, tipped back in his chair and kicked the table. Andy, beside him, saw the move start, and he had just time to scoop his own winnings, including that last rich bet, off the table top and into his pocket. As for the rest of the coin, it slid with a noisy jangle to the floor, and it turned the other three men into scrambling madmen. They scratched and clawed at the money, cursing volubly, and Andy, stepping back out of the fracas, saw the scar-faced man watching with a smile of contempt. There was a snarl; Jeff had Joe by the throat, and Joe was reaching for his gun. Henry moved forward to interfere once more, but this time he was not needed. A clear whistling sounded outside the house, and a moment later the door was kicked open. A man came in with his saddle on his hip.

His appearance converted the threatening fight into a scene of jovial good nature. The money was swept up at random, as though none of them had the slightest care what became of it. Coin appeared to be made cheap by the appearance of this fifth man.

"Havin' one of your little parties, eh?" said the stranger. "What started it?"

"He did, Scottie," answered Larry, and, stretching out an arm of enormous length, he pointed at Andrew.

Again it required the intervention of Henry to explain matters, and Scottie, with his hands on his hips, turned and surveyed Andrew with considering eyes. He was much different from the rest. Whereas, they had one and all a peculiarly unhealthy effect upon Andy, this newcomer was a cheery fellow, with an eye as clear as crystal, and color in his tanned cheeks. He had one of those long faces which invariably imply shrewdness, and he canted his head to one side while he watched Andy. "You're him that put the pinto in the corral, I guess?" he said.

Andy nodded.

There was no further mention of the troubles of that card game. Jeff and Joe and Larry were instantly busied about the kitchen and in arranging the table, while Scottie, after the manner of a guest, bustled about and accomplished little.

But the eye of Andrew, then and thereafter, whenever he was near the five, kept steadily upon the scar-faced man. Henry had tilted his chair back against the wall. The night had come on chill, with a rising wind that hummed through the cracks of the ill-built wall and tossed the flame in the throat of the chimney; Henry draped a coat like a cloak around his shoulders and buried his chin in his hands, separated from the others by a vast gulf. Presently Scottie was sitting at the table. The others were gathered around him in expectant attitudes. One or two unavoidable side glances flashed across at Andy, and he knew that he was not wanted, but he was too much fascinated by this strange society to leave.

Red-headed Jeff, his burly face twisting with anxiety, asked: "And did you see her, man?"

"Sure did I," nodded Scottie. "She's doin'. fine. Nothin' to be asked better. She had some messages to send you, lad." He smiled at Jeff, who sighed.

Then he turned to Larry. "I sent the money," he said, and the skull-faced man nodded.

To Joe: "The kid weighs eighty-seven pounds. Looks more a ringer for you every day."

To each of them one important message, except for Henry. "What else is new?" they exclaimed in one voice.

"Oh, about a million things. Let me get some of this ham into my face, and then I'll talk. I've got a batch of newspapers yonder. There's a gold rush on up to Tolliver's Creek."

Andy blinked, for that news was at least four weeks old. But now came a tide of other news, and almost all of it was stale stuff to him. But the men drank it in—all except Henry, silent in his corner. He was relaxed, as if he slept. "But the most news is about the killing of Bill Dozier."