Free Range Lanning/Chapter 13



OL' BILL!" grunted red-headed Jeff. "Well, I'll be hung! There's one good deed done. He was overdue, anyways."

Andy, waiting breathlessly, watched lest the eye of the narrator should swing toward him for the least part of a second. But Scottie seemed utterly oblivious of the fact that he sat in the same room with the murderer.

"Well, he got it," said Scottie. "And he didn't get it from behind. Seems there was a young gent in Martindale—all you boys know old Jasper Lanning?" There was an answering chorus. "Well, he's got a nephew, Andrew Lanning. This kid was sort of a bashful kind, they say. But yesterday he up and bashed a fellow in the jaw, and the man went down. Whacked his head on a rock, and young Lanning thought his man was dead. So he holds off the crowd with a gun, hops a horse, and beats it."

"Pretty, pretty!" murmured Larry. "But what's that got to do with that hyena, Bill Dozier?"

"I don't get it all hitched up straight. Most of the news come from Martindale to town by telephone. Seems this young Lanning was follered by Bill Dozier. He was always a hound for a job like that, eh?"

There was a growl of assent.

"He hand-picked five rough ones and went after Lanning. Chased him all night. Landed at John Merchant's place. The kid had dropped in there to call on a girl. Can you beat that for cold nerve, him figuring that he'd killed a man, and Bill Dozier and five more on his trail to bring him back to wait and see whether the buck he dropped lived or died—and then to slide over, and call on a lady? No, you can't raise that!"

But the tidings were gradually breaking in upon the mind of Andrew Lanning. Buck Heath had not been dead; the pursuit was simply to bring him back on some charge of assault; and now—Bill Dozier—— The head of Andrew swam.

"Seems he didn't know her, either. Just paid a call round about dawn and then rode on. Oh, that's the frosty nerve for you! Bill comes along a little later on the trail, gets new horses from Merchant, and runs down Lanning early this morning. Runs him down, and then Lanning turns in the saddle and drills Bill through the head at five hundred yards."

Henry came to life.

"How far?" he said.

"That's what they got over the telephone," said Scottie apologetically.

"Then the news got to Hal Dozier from Merchant's house. Hal hops on the wire and gets in touch with the governor, and in about ten seconds they make this Lanning kid an outlaw and stick a price on his head—five thousand, I think, and they say Merchant is behind it. The telephone was buzzing with it when I left town, and most of the boys were oiling up their gats and getting ready to make a play. Pretty easy money, eh, for putting the rollers under a kid?"

Andrew Lanning muttered aloud: "An outlaw!"

"Not the first time Bill Dozier has done it," said Henry calmly. "That's an old maneuver of his—to hound a man from a little crime to a big one."

The throat of Andrew was dry. "Did you get a description of young Lanning?" he asked.

"Sure," nodded Scottie. "Twenty-three years old, about five feet ten, black hair and black eyes, good looking, big shoulders, quiet spoken."

Andrew made a gesture and looked carelessly out the back window, but, from the corner of his eyes, he was noting the five men. Not a line of their expressions escaped him. He was seeing, literally, with eyes in the back of his head; and if, by the interchange of one knowing glance, or by a significant silence, even, these fellows had indicated that they remotely guessed his identity, he would have been on his feet like a tiger, gun in hand, and backing for the door. Five thousand dollars! What would not one of these men do for that sum? And yet, money seemed plentiful among them. But five thousand dollars! A man could buy twenty fine horses for that price; he could buy a store and set up in business for that price. A struggling family could lift its mortgage and breathe freely for a smaller sum than that. And of his few friends, what one was there who would shelter him or aid him? What human being in the world would prefer him to five thousand dollars?

All this ran through the brain of Andy in the second in which he turned his head toward the window. He had been keyed to the breaking point before; but his alertness was now trebled, and, like a sensitive barometer, he felt the danger of Larry, the brute strength of Jeff, the cunning of Henry, the grave poise of Joe, to say nothing of Scottie—an unknown force.

But Scottie was running on in his talk; he was telling of how he met the storekeeper in town; he was naming everything he saw; these fellows seemed to hunger for the minutest news of men. They poured forth a chorus of questions about a new house that was being built; they broke into admiring laughter when Scottie told of his victorious tilt of jesting with the storekeeper's daughter; even Henry came out of his patient gloom long enough to smile at this, and the rest were like children. Larry was laughing so heartily that his eyes began to twinkle. He even invited Andrew in on the mirth.

At this point Andy stood up and stretched elaborately—but in stretching he put his arms behind him, and stretched them down rather than up, so that his hands were never far from his hips.

"I'll be turning in," said Andy, and stepping back to the door so that his face would be toward them until the last instant of his exit, he waved good night.

There was a brief shifting of eyes toward him, and a grunt from Jeff; that was all. Then the eye of every one reverted to Scottie. But the latter broke off his narrative.

"Ain't you sleepin' in?" he asked. "We could fix you a bunk upstairs, I guess."

Once more the glance of Andrew flashed from face to face, and yet he did not allow his eyes to actually stir from Scottie. He was waiting for some significant change of expression, but that change did not come. They glanced at him again, but impatiently. And then he saw the first suspicious thing. Scottie was looking straight at Henry, in the corner, as though waiting for a direction, and, from the corner of his eye, Andrew was aware that Henry had nodded ever so slightly.

"Here's something you might be interested to know," said Scottie. "This young Lanning was riding a pinto hoss." He added, while Andrew stood rooted to the spot: "You seemed sort of interested in the description. I allowed maybe you'd try your hand at findin' him."

Andy understood perfectly that he was known, and, with his left hand frozen against the knob of the door, he flattened his shoulders against the wall and stood ready for the draw. In the crisis, at the first hostile move, he decided that he would dive straight for the table, low. It would tumble the room into darkness as the candles fell—a semidarkness, for there would be a sputtering lantern still.

Then he would fight for his life. And looking at the others, he saw that they were changed, indeed. They were all facing him, and their faces were alive with interest; yet they made no hostile move. No doubt they awaited the signal of Henry; there was the greatest danger; and now Henry stood up.

His first word was a throwing down of disguises. "Mr. Lanning," he said, "I think this is a time for introductions."

That cold exultation, that wild impulse to throw himself into the arms of danger, was sweeping over Andrew. Not a nerve in his body quivered, but every one of them seemed to be tightened to the breaking point. He was ready to move like lightning—like intelligent lightning, choosing its targets. He made no gesture toward his gun, though his fingers were curling, but he said: "Friends, I've got you all in my eye. I'm going to open this door and go out. No harm to any of you. But if you try to stop me, it means trouble, a lot of trouble—quick!"

Just a split second of suspense. If a foot stirred, or a hand raised, Andrew's curling hand would jerk up and bring out a revolver, and every man in the room knew it. Then the voice of Henry, "You'd plan on fighting us all?"

"Take my bridle off the wall," said Andrew, looking straight before him at no face, and thereby enabled to see everything, just as a boxer looks in the eye of his opponent and thereby sees every move of his gloves. "Take my bridle off the wall, you, Jeff, and throw it at my feet"

The bridle rattled at his feet.

"This has gone far enough," said Henry. "Lanning, you've got the wrong idea. I'm going ahead with the introductions. The red-headed fellow we call Jeff is better known to the public as Jeff Rankin. Does that mean anything to you?" Jeff Rankin acknowledged the introduction with a broad grin, the corners of his mouth being lost in the heavy fold of his jowls. "I see it doesn't," went on Henry. "Very well. Joe's name is Joe Clune. Yonder sits Scottie Macdougal. There is Larry la Roche. And I am Henry Allister."

The edge of Andrew's alertness was suddenly dulled. The last name swept into his brain a wave of meaning, for of all words on the mountain desert there was none more familiar, more hauntingly well known than Henry Allister. "Scar-faced" Allister, they called him. He had not yet reached middle age, and yet, for nearly twenty years, his had been a name to conjure with, a thing to frighten strong men by the bare mention. Of those deadly men who figured in the tales of Uncle Jasper, Henry Allister was the last and the most grim. A thousand stories clustered about him: of how he killed Watkins; of how Langley, the famous Federal marshal, trailed him for five years and was finally killed in the duel which left Allister with that scar; of how he broke jail at Garrisonville and again at St. Luke City. In the imagination of Andrew he had loomed like a giant, some seven-foot prodigy, whiskered, savage of eye, terrible of voice. And, turning toward him, Andrew saw him in profile with the scar obscured—and his face was of almost feminine refinement.

Five thousand dollars?

A dozen rich men in the mountain desert would each pay more than that for the apprehension of Allister, dead or alive. And bitterly it came over Andrew that this genius of crime, this heartless murderer as story depicted him, was no danger to him but almost a friend. And the other four ruffians of Allister's band were smiling cordially at him, enjoying his astonishment. The day before his hair would have turned white in such a place among such men; to-night they were his friends.

"Gentlemen," said Andrew, "I'm glad to meet you."

A chorus boomed back at him; he made out the different voices; even the savage Larry la Roche was smiling. "Well, kid, this is one on you." "Sit down and tell us about it." "So you bumped off Bill Dozier—the skunk?" "Hang up your hat and make yourself to home." "You can share my bunk."

Tears came to Andrew's eyes, but he winked them away.