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CHAPTER XVIII

LIKE A RED FLASH

AS Andrew went down the stairs and through the entrance hall he noticed it was filled with armed men. He saw half a dozen looking over the working parts of their rifles in the corners of the room. At the door he paused for the least fraction of a second, and during that breathing space he had seen every face in the room. Then he walked carelessly across to the desk and asked for his bill.

Some one, as he crossed the room, whirled to follow him with a glance. When Andy paid his bill he heard, for his ears were sharpened, "I thought for a minute——But it does look like him!"

"Aw, Mike, I seen that gent in the barroom the other day. Besides, he's just a kid."

"So's this Lanning. I'm going out to look at the poster again. You hold this gent here."

"All right. I'll talk to him while you're gone. But be quick. I'll be holdin' a laugh for you, Mike."

Andrew paid his bill, but as he reached the door a short man with legs bowed by a life in the saddle waddled out to him and said: "Just a minute, partner. Are you one of us?"

"One of who?" asked Andrew.

"One of the posse Hal is getting together? Well, come to think of it, I guess you're a stranger around here, ain't you?"

"Me?" asked Andrew. "Why, I've just been talking to Hal."

"About young Lanning?"

"Yes."

"By the way, if you're out of Hal's country, maybe you know Lanning, too?"

"Sure. I've stood as close to him as I am to you."

"You don't say so! What sort of a looking fellow is he?"

"Well, I'll tell you," said Andrew, and he smiled in an embarrassed manner. "They say he's a ringer for me. Not much of a compliment, is it?"

The other gasped, and then laughed heartily. "No, it ain't, at that," he replied. "Say, I got a pal that wants to talk to you. Sort of a job on him, at that."

"I'll tell you what," said Andy calmly. "Take him in to the bar, and I'll come in and have a drink with him and you in about two minutes. S'long."

He was gone through the door while the other half reached a hand toward him. But that was all. In the stables he had the saddle on the chestnut in twenty seconds, and brought him to the watering trough before the barroom.

He found his short, bow-legged friend in the barroom in the midst of excited talk with a big, blond man. He looked a German, with his parted beard and his imposing front and he had the stern blue eye of a fighter. "Is this your friend?" asked Andrew, and walked straight up to them. He watched the eyes of the big man expand and then narrow; his hand even fumbled, at his hip, but then he shook his head. He was too bewildered to act.

"I was just telling Mike," said the short man, "that you told me yourself folks think you're a ringer for Lanning. As a matter of fact—get in on this—Mike thought you was Lanning himself." He began to laugh heartily.

"Can't you picture Lanning hangin' around the same hotel where Hal Dozier is?"

"Well, let's drink," smiled Andy. While the others were poising their glasses he took a stub of a pencil out of his vest pocket and scribbled idly on the top of the bar. They drank, and Andy wandered slowly toward the door, waving his hand to the others. But the short man was busy trying to decipher the scribbled writing on the bar.

"It's words, Mike," he informed his companion. "But I can't get the light right for reading it."

At the same time there was a hubbub and an uproar from the upper part of the hotel. A dozen men were shouting from the lobby. And the men in the barroom started crowding toward the door.

"Wait," cried the short man. "Mike, listen to what he wrote: 'Dear Mike, in a pinch always believe what your eyes tell you. Lanning,'

"Mike, it was him!"

But Mike, with a roar, was already rushing for the street. Others were before him; a fighting mass jammed its way into the open, and there, in the middle of the square, sat Hal Dozier on his gray stallion. He was giving orders in a voice that rang above the crowd, and made voices hush in whispers as they heard him. Under his direction the crowd split into groups of four and five and six and rode at full speed in three directions out of the town. In the meantime there were two trusted friends of Hal Dozier busy at telephones in the hotel. They were calling little towns among the mountains. The red alarm was spreading like wildfire, and faster than the fastest horse could gallop.

But Andrew, with the chestnut running like a red flash beneath him, shot down the tangle of paths on the same course as that by which he entered.

He would have been interested had he heard the quiet remark of the very old man with the bony hands, who sat under the awning by the watering trough of the store. "I knew that young gent was coming to town to raise blazes and there he goes with blazes roarin' after him." As the first rush of the pursuers came foaming around the nearest corner, the storekeeper darted out.

"What's up?" he asked.

"Nothin'," said the very old man, "but times is pickin' up. Oh, times is pickin' up amazin'!"

In the meantime the first squadron went down the lanes, five men like five thunderbolts, but they took care not to exceed the speed of the slowest of their comrades, for it was suicide obviously to get into a lonely lead behind a man who could drop his man at five hundred yards from horseback—from running horseback, the story had it.

However, these five were only one unit among many. Two more were pushing up the ravine, making good time into the heart of the mountains; others were angling out to the right and left, always on the lookout, and always warning man, woman, and child to take up the alarm and spread it. And not only were the telephone lines working busily, but that strange and swift messenger, rumor, was instantly at work, buzzing in strange places. It stopped the cow-puncher on the range. It stopped the plowman with his team, and made him think what one slug of lead would mean to his farm; it set the boys in school drawing up schedules of how they would spend five thousand dollars. And not five thousand alone. There was talk that, besides the State, rich John Merchant, in the far south near Martindale, would contribute generously. The cattlemen, the poor fanners of the hills, every man and child in that region of mountains, was ready to look and report, or look and shoot.

But Andrew Lanning, though he guessed at all this and more, kept straight on his course. He did not, indeed, cut straight into the heart of the mountains, for he knew that the districts just above would be thoroughly alarmed. But he had a very good reason for making his strike for liberty in this direction, in spite of the fact that the mountains were lower and easier on either side.

Buried away in the mountains, one stiff day's march, was a trapper whom Uncle Jasper had once befriended. That was many a day long since, but Uncle Jasper had saved the man's life, and he had often told Andrew that, sooner or later, he must come to that trapper's cabin to talk of the old times.

He was bound there now. For, if he could get shelter for three days, the hue and cry would subside. When the mountaineers were certain that he must have gone past them to other places and slipped through their greedy fingers he could ride on in comparative safety. It was an excellent plan. It gave Andrew such a sense of safety, as he trotted the chestnut up a steep grade, that he did not hear another horse, coming in the opposite direction, until the latter was almost upon him. Then, coming about a sharp shoulder of the hill, he almost ran upon a bare-legged boy, who rode without saddle upon the back of a bay mare. The mare leaped catlike to one side, and her little rider clung like a piece of her hide. "You might holler, comin' around a turn," shrilled the boy. And he brought the mare to a halt by jerking the rope around her neck. He had no other means of guiding her, no sign of a bridle.

But Andrew looked with hungry eyes. He 'knew something of horses, and this bay fitted into his dreams of an ideal perfectly. She was beautiful, quite heavily built in the body, with a great spread of breast that surely told of an honest heart beneath a glorious head, legs that fairly shouted to Andrew of good blood, and, above all, she had that indescribable thing which is to a horse what personality is to a man. She did not win admiration, she commanded it. And she stood alert at the side of the road, looking at Andrew like a queen. Horse stealing is the last crime and the cardinal sin in the mountain desert, but Andrew felt the moment he saw her that she must be his. At least he, would first try to buy her honorably.

"Son," he said to the urchin, "how much for that horse?"

"Why," said the boy, "anything you'll give."

"Don't laugh at me," said Andrew sternly. "I like her looks and I'll buy her. I'll trade this chestnut—and he's a fine traveler—with a good price to boot. If your father lives up the road and not down, turn back with me and I'll see if I can't make a trade."

"You don't have to see him," said the boy. "I can tell you that he'll sell her. You throw in the chestnut and you won't have to give any boot." And he grinned.

"But there's the house." He pointed across the ravine at a little green-roofed shack buried in the rocks.

"You can come over if you want to."

"Is there something wrong with her?"

"Nothin' much."

"She looks sound. She stands well."

"Sure!" Pop says she's the best hoss that ever run in these parts. And he knows, I'll tell a man!"

"Son, I've got to have that horse!"

"She's yours."

"How much?"

"Mister," said the boy suddenly, "I know how you feel. Lots feel the same way. You want her bad, but she ain't worth her feed. A skunk put a bur under the saddle when she was bein' broke, and since then anybody can ride her bareback, but nothin' in the mountains can sit a saddle on her."

Andrew cast one more long, sad look at the horse. He had never seen a horse that went so straight to his heart, and then he straightened the chestnut up the road and went ahead.