Free Range Lanning/Chapter 15



THE excitement kept Andrew awake for a little time, but then the hum of the wind, the roll of voices below him, and the weariness of the long ride rushed on him like a wave and washed him out into an ebb of sleep.

When he wakened the aches were gone from his limbs, and his mind was a happy blank. Only when he started up from his blankets and rapped his head against the slanting rafters just above him, he was brought to a painful realization of where he was. He turned, scowling, and the first thing he saw was a piece of brown wrapping paper held down by a shoe and covered with a clumsy scrawl.

These blankets are yours and the slicker along with them and heres wishin you luck while youre beatin it back to civlizashun. your friend Jeff Rankin.

Andy glanced swiftly about the room and saw that the other bunks had been removed. He swept up the blankets and went down the stairs to the first floor. It was gutted of everything except the crazy-legged chairs and the boxes which had served as tables. The house reeked of emptiness; broken bottles, a twisted tin plate in which some one had set his heel, were the last signs of the outlaws of Henry Allister's gang. A bundle stood on the table with another piece of the wrapping paper near it. The name of Andrew Lanning was on the outside. He unfolded the sheet and read in a precise, rather feminine writing:

Dear Lanning: We are, in a manner, sneaking off. I've already said good-by, and I don't want to tempt you again. Now you're by yourself and you've got your own way to fight. The boys agree with me. We all want to see you make good. We'll all be sorry if you come back to us. But once you're here, once you've found out that it's no go trying to beat back to good society, we'll be mighty happy to have you with us. In the meantime, we want to do our bit to help Andrew Lanning make up for his bad luck.

For my part, I've put a chamois sack on top of the leather coat with the fur lining. You'll find a little money in that purse. While you slept I took occasion to run through your pockets, and I see that you aren't very well supplied with cash. Don't be foolish. Take the money I leave you, and, when you're back on your feet, I know that you'll repay it at your own leisure.

And here's best luck to you and the girl. Henry Allister.

Andrew lifted the chamois sack carelessly, and out of its mouth tumbled a stream of gold. One by one he picked up the pieces and replaced them; he hesitated, and then put the sack in his pocket. How could he refuse a gift so delicately made?

A broken kitchen knife had been thrust through a bit of the paper on the box. He read this next:

Your hoss is known. So Im leavin you one in place of the pinto. He goes good and he dont need no spurrin but when you come behind him keep watchin your step, your pal, Larry Lax Roche.

Blankets and slicker, money, horse. A flask of whisky stood on another slip of the paper. And the writing on this was much more legible.

Here's a friend in need. When you come to a pinch, use it. And when you come to a bigger pinch send word to your friend, Scottie Macdougal.

Andrew picked it up, set it down again, and smiled. On the fur coat there was a fifth tag. Not one of the five, then, had forgotten him.

Its comin on cold, partner. Take this coat and welcome. When the snows get on the mountains if you aint out of the desert put on this coat and think of your partner, Joe Clune.

P. S.—I seen you first, and I have first call on you over the rest of these gents and you can figure that you have first call on me. J. C.

When he had read all these little letters, when he had gathered his loot before him, Andrew lifted his head and could have burst into song. A tenderness for all men was surging up in him. This much thieves and murderers had done for him; what would the good men of the world do? How would they meet him halfway?

He went into the kitchen. They had forgotten nothing. There was a quantity of "chuck," flour, bacon, salt, coffee, a frying pan, a cup, a canteen. And this inscription was on it: "To Andy, from the boys."

It brought the tears into his eyes and a lump in his throat. He cast open the back door, and, standing in the little pasture, he saw only one horse remaining. It was a fine, young chestnut gelding with a Roman nose and long, mulish ears. His head was not beautiful to see from any angle, but Andrew saw only the long, powerful, sloping shoulders, the long neck, burdened by no spare flesh, the legs fine-drawn as hammered bronze, and appearing fully as strong. Every detail of the body spelled speed, and speed meant safety. From the famous gray stallion of Hal Dozier this gelding could never escape, Andrew knew, but the chestnut could undoubtedly distance any posse which had no greater speed than the pace of its slowest horse. And he saw with pleasure, too, the deep chest and the belly not too finely drawn. That chest meant staying powers, and that stomach meant a horse which would not be "ganted" in a few days of hard work.

What wonder, then, that Andrew began to see the world through a bright mist? What wonder that when he had finished his breakfast he sang while he roped the chestnut, built the pack behind the saddle, and filled the saddlebags. When he was in the saddle, the gelding took at once the cattle path with a long and easy canter that did the heart of the young rider good. He gave the chestnut a mile of that pace. Then he shook him out into a small gallop; then he sent him into a headlong racing pace for a quarter of a mile. That done, he reined in the horse to a lope again and, leaning far over, he listened. The breath of the gelding came in deep puffs, but it whistled down as cleanly as if he had just had a canter across the pasture. Andrew nodded in satisfaction.

With his head cleared by sleep, his muscles and nerves relaxed, his heart made strong by the gifts of the outlaws, Andrew began to plan his escape with more calm deliberation than before.

If what Scottie had heard was true, and he had been proclaimed an outlaw, it would still be some time before the State could rush the posters from the printing press and distribute them through the countryside—the printed posters announcing the size of the reward and containing a minute description of Andrew Lanning, height, weight, color of eyes and hair. And in the interval before those posters came out, Andy must break out of the mountain desert and lose himself among the towns beyond the hills. There he could start to work, not as a blacksmith, but as a carpenter, and drift steadily east with his new profession of a builder until he was lost in the multitude of some great city. And after that it would be a long road indeed—but after that there was the back trail to Anne Withero. And no matter how long, she had promised that she would never forget.

The first goal, then, was the big blue cloud on the northern horizon—a good week's journey ahead of him—the Little Canover Mountains. Among the foothills lay the cordon of small towns which it would be his chief difficulty to pass. For, if the printed notices describing him were circulated among them, the countryside would be up in arms, prepared to intercept his flight. Otherwise, there would be nothing but telephoned and telegraphed descriptions of him, which, at best, could only come to the ears of a few, and these few would be necessarily put out by the slightest difference between him and the description. Such a vital difference, for instance, as the fact that he now rode a chestnut, while the instructions called for a man on a pinto.

Moreover, it was by no means certain that Hal Dozier, great trailer though he was, would know that the fugitive was making for the northern mountains. With all these things in mind, in spite of the pessimism of Henry Allister, Andrew felt that he had far more than a fighting chance to break out of the mountain desert and into the comparative safety of the crowded country beyond.

He made one mistake in the beginning. He pushed the chestnut too hard the first and second days, because the blue cloud of the Little Canovers did not grow clearer, and, when the atmosphere thickened toward the evening, they entirely disappeared; so that on the third day he was forced to give the gelding his head and go at a jarring trot most of the day. On the fourth and fifth days, however, he had the reward for his caution. The chestnut's ribs were beginning to show painfully, but he kept doggedly at his work with no sign of faltering. The sixth day brought Andrew Lanning in close view of the lower hills. And on the seventh day he put his fortune boldly to the touch and jogged into the first little town before him.