Free Range Lanning/Chapter 19



HE had to be guided by what Uncle Jasper had often described—a mountain whose crest was split like the crown of a hat divided sharply by a knife, and the twin peaks were like the ears of a mule, except that they came together at the base. By the position of those distant summits he knew that he was in the ravine leading to the cabin of Hank Rainer, the trapper.

Presently the sun flashed on a white cliff, a definite landmark by which Uncle Jasper had directed him, so Andrew turned out of his path on the eastern side of the gully and rode across the ravine. The slope was steep on either side, covered with rocks, thick with slides of loose pebbles and sand. Altogether it was by no means favorable territory for an average horse, and, though Andrew felt that the cat-footed bay mare might have kept a fair rate of speed, even through these rocks and bushes, his own horse, accustomed to a more open country, was continually at fault. He did not like his work, and kept tossing his ugly head and champing the bit as they went down to the river bottom.

It was not a real river, but only an angry creek that went fuming and crashing through the cañon with a voice as loud as some great stream. Andrew had to watch with care for a ford, for though the bed was not deep—the water ran like a rifle bullet over smooth places and was torn to a white froth when it struck projecting rocks. He found, at length, a place where it was backed up into a shallow pool, and here he rode across, hardly wetting the belly of the gelding. Then up the far slope he was lost at once in a host of trees. They cut him off from his landmark, the white cliff, but he kept on with a feel for the right direction, until he came to a sudden clearing, and in the clearing was a cabin. It was apparently just a one-room shanty with a shed leaning against it from the rear. No doubt the shed was for the trapper's horse. Also, an ancient buckboard stood with sagging wheels near the cabin, and, if this were indeed the house of Hank Rainer, he used that wagon to carry his pelts to town. But Andrew was amazed at the sight of the buckboard. He did not see how it could be used in the first place, and in the second place he wondered how it was ever drawn to that place through the forest and over the rocks.

He had no time for further thought. In the open door of the cabin appeared a man so huge that he had to bend his head to look out, and Andrew's heart fell. It was not the slender, rawboned youth of whom Uncle Jasper had told him, but a hulking giant. And then he remembered that twenty years had passed since Uncle Jasper rode that way, and in twenty years the gaunt body might have filled out, the shock of bright-red hair of which Jasper spoke might well have been the original of the red flood which now covered the face and throat of the big man. Where his hat covered it from the sun the hair fairly flamed; where the beard and side whiskers had been reached it was a faded bronze. It was a magnificent beard, sweeping across the chest of the man, and Andrew wondered at it.

"Hello!" called the trapper. "Are you one of the boys on the trail? Well, I ain't seen anything. Been about six others here already."

The blood leaped in Andrew, and then ran coldly back to his heart. Could they have outridden the gelding to such an extent as that?

"From Tomo?" he asked.

"Tomo? No. They come down from Gunter City, up yonder, and Twin Falls."

And Andrew understood. Well indeed had Hal Dozier fulfilled his threat of rousing the mountains against this quarry. He glanced westward. It was yet an hour lacking of sundown, but since mid-morning Dozier had been able to send his messages so far and so wide. Andrew set his teeth. What did cunning of head and speed of horse count against the law when the law had electricity for its agent?

"Well," said Andrew, slipping from his saddle, "if he hasn't been by this way I may as well stay over for the night. If they've hunted the woods around here all day, no use in me doing it by night. Can you put me up?"

"Can I put you up? I'll tell a man. Glad to have you, stranger. Gimme your hoss. I'll take care of him. Looks like he was kind of ganted up, don't it? Well, I'll give him a feed of oats that'll thicken his ribs. Barley don't do nothin' but heat up a hoss; oats is the thing."

Still talking, he led the gelding into his shed. Andrew followed, took off the saddle, and, having led the chestnut out and down to the creek for a drink, he returned and tied him to a manger which the trapper had filled with a liberal supply of hay, to say nothing of a feed box stuffed with oats.

A man who was kind to a horse could not be treacherous to a man, Andrew decided.

"You're Hank Rainer, aren't you?" he asked.

"That's me. And you?"

"I'm the unwelcome guest, I'm afraid," said Andrew. "I'm the nephew of Jasper Lanning. I guess you'll be remembering him?"

"I'll forget my right hand sooner," said the big, red man calmly. But he kept on looking steadily at Andrew.

"Well," said Andrew, encouraged and at the same time repulsed by this calm silence, "my name is one you've heard. I am——"

The other broke in hastily. "You are Jasper Lanning's nephew. That's all I know. What's a name to me? I don't want to know names!"

It puzzled Andrew, but the big man ran on smoothly enough: "Lanning ain't a popular name around here, you see? Suppose somebody was to come around and say, 'Seen Lanning?' What could I say, if you was here? 'I've got a Lanning here. I dunno but he's the one you want.' But suppose I don't know anything except you're Jasper's nephew? Maybe you're related on the mother's side. Eh?" He winked at Andrew. "You come along and don't talk too much about names."

He led the way into the house and picked up one of the posters, which lay on the floor.

"They've sent those through the mountains already?" asked Andrew gloomily.

"Sure! These come down from Twin Falls. Now, a gent with special fine eyes might find that you looked like the gent on this poster. But my eyes are terrible bad mostly. Besides, I need to quicken up that fire."

He crumpled the poster and inserted it beneath the lid of his iron stove. There was a rush and faint roar of the flame up the chimney as the cardboard burned. "And now," said Hank Rainer, turning with a broad smile, "I guess they ain't any reason why I should recognize you. You're just a plain stranger comin' along and you stop over here for the night. That all?"

Andrew had followed this involved reasoning with a rather bewildered mind, but he smiled faintly in return. He was bothered, in a way, by the extreme mental caution of this fellow. It was kindly enough, but it was not altogether honest. It was as if the keen-eyed trapper were more interested in his own foolish little subterfuge than in preserving Andrew.

"Now, tell me, how is Jasper?"

"I've got to tell you one thing first. Dozier has raised the mountains."

"He's done just that."

"And I could never cross 'em now."

"Going to turn back into the plains?"

"No. The ranges are wide enough, but they're a prison just the same. I've got to get out of 'em now or stay a prisoner the rest of my life, only to be trailed down in the end. No, I want to stay right here in your cabin until the men are quieted down again and think I've slipped away from 'em. Then I'll sneak over the summit and get away unnoticed."

"Man, man! Stay here? Why, they'll find you right off. I wonder you got the nerve to sit there now with maybe ten men trailin' you to this cabin. But that's up to you."

There was a certain careless calm about this that shook Andrew to his center again. But he countered: "No, they won't look specially in houses. Because they won't figure that any man would toss up that reward. Five thousand is a pile of money."

"It sure is," agreed the other. He parted his red beard and looked up to the ceiling. "Five thousand is a considerable pile, all in hard cash. But mostly they hunt for this Andrew Lanning a dozen at a time. Well, you divide five thousand by ten, and you've got only five hundred left. That ain't enough to tempt a man to give up Lanning—so bad as all that."

"Ah," smiled Andrew, "but you don't understand what a stake you could make out of me. If you were to give information about me being here, and you brought a posse to get me, you'd come in for at least half of the reward. Besides, the five thousand isn't all. There's at least one rich gent that'll contribute maybe that much more. And you'd get a good half of that. You see, Hal Dozier knows all that, and he knows there's hardly a man in the mountains who would be able to keep away from selling me. So that's why he won't search the houses."

"Not you," corrected the trapper sharply. "Andy Lanning is the man Dozier wants."

"Well, Andrew Lanning, then," smiled the guest. "It was just a slip of the tongue."

"Sometimes slips like that break a man's neck," observed the trapper, and he fell into a gloomy meditation.

And after that they talked of other things, until supper was cooked and eaten and the tin dishes washed and put away. Then they lay in their bunks and watched the last color in the west through the open door.

If a member of a posse had come to the door, the first thing his eyes fell upon would have been Andrew Lanning lying on the floor on one side of the room and the red-bearded man on the other. But, though his host suggested this, Andrew refused to move his blankets. And he was right. The hunters were roving the open, and even Hal Dozier was at fault.

"Because," said Andrew, "he doesn't dream that I could have a friend so far from home. Not five thousand dollars' worth of friend, anyway."

And the trapper grunted heavily.