Free Range Lanning/Chapter 2



YOUNG Andrew Lanning lived in the small, hushed world of his own thoughts. Between him and the bitter necessities of a man's world stood the figure of Jasper, and Uncle Jasper's name was one to frighten off trouble from the most troublesome. Half a century ago he had done things which were now legend, and the awe of his past still surrounded him. It was pleasant for Andy to make things with his hands, and therefore the blacksmith shop contented him. As for the hard labor, his muscles made it play, and as to the future, for which every young man lives, the dreams of Andy made up that time to come.

In reality he neither loved nor hated the world and the people around him. He simply did not see them. His mother—it was from her that he inherited the softer qualities of his mind and his face—had lived long enough to temper his vocabulary also; she had even left him a little stock of books. And though Andy was by no means a reader, he had at least picked up that dangerous equipment of fiction which enables a man to dodge reality and live in his dreams. Those dreams had as little as possible to do with the daily routine of his life, and certainly the handling of guns, which his uncle enforced upon him, was never a part of the future as Andy saw it.

It was now the late afternoon; the alkali dust in the road was still in a white light, but the temperature in the shop had dropped several degrees. The horse of Buck Heath was shod, and Andy was laying his tools away for the day when he heard the noise of an automobile with open muffler coming down the street. He stepped to the door to watch, and at that moment a big blue car trundled into view around the bend of the road. The rear wheels struck a slide of sand and dust, and skidded; a girl cried out; then the big machine gathered out of the cloud of dust, and came bowling toward Andy. It came with a crackling like musketry, and it was plain that it would leap through Martindale and away into the country beyond at a bound. Andy could see now that it was a roadster, low-hung, ponderous, to keep the road. The ways through the mountains must be murderous to such a make of car.

Pat Gregg was leaving the saloon; he was on his horse, but he sat the saddle slanting, and his head was turned to give the farewell word to several figures who bulged through the door of the saloon. For that reason, as well as because of the fumes in his brain, he did not hear the coming of the automobile. His friends from the saloon saw, however. They yelled a warning, but he evidently thought it some jest, as he waved his hand with a grin of appreciation. The big car was coming, rocking with its speed; it was too late now to stop that flying mass of metal.

But the driver made the effort. His brakes shrieked, and still the car shot on with scarcely abated speed, for the wheels could secure no purchase in the thin sand of the roadway. Andy's heart stood still in sympathy as he saw the face of the driver whiten and grow tense. Charles Merchant, the son of rich John Merchant, was behind the wheel. Drunken Pat Gregg had taken the warning at last. He turned in the saddle and drove home his spurs, but even that had been too late had not Charles Merchant taken the big chance. At the risk of overturning the machine he veered it sharply to the left. It hung for a moment on two wheels. Andy could count a dozen heartbeats while the plunging car edged around the horse and shoved between Pat and the wall of the house—inches on either side. Yet it must have taken not more than the split part of a second.

There was a shout of applause from the saloon; Pat Gregg sat his horse, mouth open, his face pale, and then the heavy car rolled past the blacksmith shop. Andy, breathing freely and cold to his finger tips, saw young Charlie Merchant relax to a flickering smile as the girl beside him caught his arm and spoke to him.

And then Andy saw her for the first time.

She wore a linen duster and a linen hat. All Andy could see was the white flash of her hand as she gestured, and her face. But that was enough. His eyes had been traveling with lightning speed as the car threatened the horse and Pat. Now, in the brief instant as the machine moved by, he not only saw her clearly, but he printed the picture to be seen again when she was gone. What was the hair? Red bronze, and fiery where the sun caught at it, and the eyes were gray, or blue, or a gray-green. But colors did not matter. It was all in her smile and the turning of her eyes, which were very wide open. She spoke, and it was in the sound of her voice.

"Wait!" shouted Andy Lanning as he made a step toward them. But the car went on, rocking over the bumps and the exhaust roaring. Andy became aware that his shout had been only a dry whisper. Besides, what would he say if they did stop? And then the girl turned sharply about and looked back, not at the horse they had so nearly struck, but at Andy standing in the door of his shop. It seemed to him that that glance entered his eyes and reached his soul; he felt sure that she would remember his face; her smile had gone out while she stared, and now she turned her head suddenly to the front. Once more the sun flashed on her hair; then the machine disappeared. In a moment even the roar of the engine was lost, but it came back again, flung in echoes from some hillside.

Not until all was silent, and the boys from the saloon were shaking hands with Pat and laughing at him, did Andy turn back into the blacksmith shop. It confronted him like a piece of black night with shadows in it. Perhaps that was the effect of the sudden turning from bright daylight.

He sat down on the anvil with his heart beating, and began to recall the picture. Yes, it was all in the smile and the glint of the eyes. And something else—how should he say it?—of the light shining through her.

Once, in the mountains, looking suddenly up, it had seemed to Andy that all the stars were looking at him; that he could hear the silence of the wilderness. And his heart had beat as it was beating now. He had never had that sensation again, but he knew the sky would always be there, waiting And so with this girl. In the dusty street, in the sharp, hot sunshine, in the roar of the motor and the crackling of voices, she had fallen on the mind of Andy like a holy quiet. But having seen her once he would never see her again.

He could have borne that loss; he could have retained the picture as something beautiful and beautifully impersonal if he had not heard her voice. As a touch of velvet will thrill all the nerves from the finger tips so the sound of her voice had gone softly through him. And when her face was forgotten the memory of that voice would keep tugging at his heartstrings.

Suppose one wakens from a dream of music. The music is gone; only the happiness remains, together with the bitter sense of loss. Andy sat on the anvil with closed eyes and put his hand over his heart, where the pain was.

He stood up presently, closed the shop, and went home. Afterward his uncle came in a fierce humor, slamming the door. He found Andy sitting in front of the table staring down at his hands.

"Buck Heath has been talkin' about you," said Jasper.

Andy raised his head. "Look at 'em!" he said as he spread out his hands.

"Buck Heath has been sayin' things that would of got him shot when I was your age," said Jasper more pointedly than he had ever spoken before. And he sickened when he saw that Andy refused to hear.

"Look at 'em," repeated Andy. "I been scrubbin' 'em with sand soap for half an hour, and the oil and the iron dust won't come out."

Uncle Jasper, who had a quiet voice and gentle manners, now stood rigid. "I wisht to God that some iron dust would work its way into your soul," he said. He let his voice go big. "Oh, Lord, how I wisht you had some iron dust in your heart!"

"What are you talking about?"

"Nothin' you could understand; you need a mother to explain things to you."

The other got up, white about the mouth. "I think I do," said Andy. "I'm sick inside."

"Where's supper?" demanded Jasper.

Andy sat down again, and began to consider his hands once more. "There's something wrong—something dirty about this life."

"Is there?" Uncle Jasper leaned across the table, and once again the old ghost of a hope was flickering behind his eyes. "Wash off the dirt with soap, then."

"Soap won't touch some kinds of dirt. Uncle Jas, I'm sick inside."

A picture often recurred to Jasper Lanning of the little boy he had first seen, straight, handsome—too handsome. It came home to him now, and he winked his eyes hard.

"Who's been talkin' to you?"

He thought of the grinning men of the saloon; the hidden words. Somebody might have gone out and insulted Andy to his face for the first time. There had been plenty of insults in the past two years, since Andy could pretend to manhood, but none that might not be overlooked. "Who's been talkin' to you?" repeated Uncle Jasper. "Confound that Buck Heath! He's the cause of all the trouble!"

"Buck Heath! Who's he? Oh, I remember. What's he got to do with the rotten life we lead here, Uncle Jas?"

"So?" said the old man slowly. "He ain't nothin'?"

"Bah!" remarked Andy. "You want me to go out and fight him? I won't. I got no love for fighting. It doesn't buy me anything. I don't like to talk to people when they're mad. Makes me sort of sickish."

"Heaven above!" the older man invoked. "Ain't you got shame? My blood in you, too!"

"Don't talk like that," said Andy with a certain amount of reserve which was not natural to him. "You bother me. I want a little silence and a chance to think things out. There's something wrong in the way I've been living."

"You're the last to find it out."

"If you keep this up I'm going to take a walk so I can have quiet."

"You'll sit there, son, till I'm through with you. Now, Andrew, these years I've been savin' up for this moment when I was sure that——"

To his unutterable astonishment Andy rose and stepped between him and the door. "Uncle Jas," he said, "mostly I got a lot of respect for you and what you think. Tonight I don't care what you or anybody else has to say. Just one thing matters. I feel I've been living in the dirt. I'm going out and see what's wrong. Good night."