Free Range Lanning/Chapter 20



IT was a truth long after wondered at, when the story of Andrew Lanning was told and retold, that he had lain in perfect security within a six-hour ride from Tomo, while Hal Dozier himself combed the mountains and hundreds more were out hunting fame and fortune. To be sure, when a stranger approached, Andrew always withdrew into the horse shed; but, beyond keeping up a steady watch during the day, he had little to do and little to fear.

Indeed, at night he made no pretense toward concealment, but slept quite openly on the floor on the bed of hay and blankets, just as Hank Rainer slept on the farther side of the room. And the great size of the reward was the very thing that kept him safe. For when men passed the cabin, as they often did, they were riding hard to get away from Tomo and into the higher mountains, where the outlaw might be, or else they were coming back to rest up, and their destination in such a case was always Tomo. The cabin of the trapper was just near enough to the town to escape being used as a shelter for the night by stray travelers. If they got that close, they went on to the luxurious beds of the hotel.

But often they paused long enough to pass a word with Hank, and Andrew, from his place behind the door of the horse shed, could hear it all. He could even look through a crack and see the faces of the strangers. They told how Tomo was wrought to a pitch of frenzied interest by this man hunt. For the story of how Andrew Lanning had written the message on the bar and drunk with the man who suspected him had gone the rounds. It had received an embroidery of delightful conversation, over which Andrew chuckled many a time behind the door. Besides, a dozen well-to-do citizens of Tomo, feeling that the outlaw had insulted the town by so boldly venturing into it, had raised a considerable contribution toward the reward. Other prominent miners and cattlemen of the district had come forward with similar offers. It was determined to crush this career of crime before it was well started, and every day the price on the head of Andrew mounted to a higher and more tempting figure.

It was a careless time for Andrew. After that escape from Tomo he was not apt to be perturbed by his present situation, but the suspense seemed to weigh more and more heavily upon the trapper. Hank Rainer was so troubled, indeed, that Andrew sometimes surprised a half-guilty, half-sly expression in the eyes of his host. He decided that Hank was anxious for the day to come when Andrew would ride off and take his perilous company elsewhere. He even broached the subject to Hank, but the mountaineer flushed and discarded the suggestion with a wave of his hand.

"But if a gang of 'em should ever hunt me down, even in your cabin, Hank," said Andrew one day—it was the third day of his stay—"I'll never forget what you've done for me, and one of these days I'll see that Uncle Jasper finds out about it."

The little, pale-blue eyes of the trapper went swiftly to and fro, as if he sought escape from this embarrassing gratitude.

"Well," said he, "I've been thinkin' that the man that gets you, Andy, won't be so sure with his money, after all. He'll have your Uncle Jasper on his trail pronto, and Jasper used to be a killer with a gun in the old days."

"No more," smiled Andrew. "He's still steady as a rock, but he hasn't the speed any more. He's over seventy, you see. And his muscles are shriveling up, and his joints sort of creak when he tries to move with a snap."

"Ah," muttered the trapper, and again, as he started through the open door, "Ah!"

Then he added: "Well, son, you don't need Jasper. If half what they say is true, you're a handy lad with the guns. I suppose Jasper showed you his tricks?"

"Yes, and we worked out some new ones together."

"Now you're in a pinch, ain't it a shame that you ain't got a chance to keep in practice?"

"To tell the truth—don't think I'm bragging—I don't need much practice. Uncle Jasper raised me with a gun in my hand, you might say, and I don't think I'll ever lose the feel of a gun. You know what I mean?"

"H'm!" said Hank Rainer.

When they were sitting at the door in the semidusk, he reverted to the idea. "You been seein' that squirrel that's been runnin' across the clearin'?"


"I'd like to see you work your gun, Andy. It was a sight to talk about to watch Jasper, and I'm thinkin' you could go him one better. S'pose you stand up there in the door with your back to the clearin'. The next time that squirrel comes scootin' across I'll say, 'Now!' and you try to turn and get your gun on him before he's out of sight. Will you try that?"

"Suppose some one hears it?"

"Oh, they're used to me pluggin' away for fun over here. Besides, they ain't anybody lives in hearin'."

And Andrew, falling into the spirit of the contest, stood up in the door, and the old tingle of nerves, which never failed to come over him in the crisis, was thrilling through his body again. Then Hank barked the word, "Now!" and Andrew whirled on his heel. The word had served to alarm the squirrel as well. As he heard it, he twisted about like the snapping lash of a whip and darted back for cover, three yards away. He covered that distance like a little gray streak in the shadow, but before he reached it the gun spoke, and the forty-five-caliber slug struck him in the middle and tore him in two. Andrew, hearing a sharp crackling, looked down at his host and observed that the trapper had bitten clean through the stem of his corncob.

"That," said the red man huskily, "is some shootin'."

But he did not look up, and he did not smile. And it troubled Andrew to hear this rather grudging praise. That moment he wanted very much to have a fair look into the eyes of his host. Afterward he remembered this.

In the meantime, three days had put the gelding in very fair condition. He was enough mustang to recuperate swiftly, and that morning he had tried with hungry eagerness to kick the head from Andrew's shoulders. This had decided the outlaw. Besides, in the last day there had been fewer and fewer riders up and down the ravine, and apparently the hunt for Andrew Lanning had journeyed to another part of the mountains. It seemed an excellent time to begin his journey again, and he told the trapper his decision to start on at dusk the next day.

The announcement brought with it a long and thoughtful pause.

"I wisht I could send you on your way with somethin' worth while," said Hank Rainer at length. "But I ain't rich. I've lived plain and worked hard, but I ain't rich. I've lived and worked hard, but I've got not so much as a wife nor a child. So what I can give you, Andy, won't be much."

Andrew protested that the hospitality had been more than a generous gift, but Hank Rainer, looking straight out the door, continued: "Well, I'm goin' down the road to get you my little gift, Andy. Be back in an hour maybe."

"I'd rather have you here to keep me from being lonely," said Andrew. "I've money enough to buy what I want, but money will never buy me the talk of an honest man, Hank."

The other started. "Honest enough, maybe," he said bitterly. "But honesty don't get you bread or bacon, not in this world!"

And presently he stamped into the shed, saddled his pony, and after a moment was scattering the pebbles on the way down the ravine. The dark and silence gathered over Andrew Lanning. He had little warmth of feeling for Hank Rainer, to be sure, but in the hush of the cabin he looked forward to many a long evening and many a long day in a silence like this, with no man near him. For the man who rides outside the law rides alone, and the thought of that loneliness made the heart of Andrew ache.

He could have embraced the big man, therefore, when Hank finally came back, and Andrew could hear the pony panting in the shed, a sure sign that it had been ridden hard.

"It ain't much," said Hank, "but it's yours, and I hope you get a chance to use it in a pinch." And he dumped down a case of .45 cartridges.

After all, there could have been no gift more to the point, but it gave Andrew a little chill of distaste, this reminder of the life that lay ahead of him. And in spite of himself he could not break the silence that began to settle over the cabin again. Finally Hank announced that it was bedtime for him, and, preparing himself by the simple expedient of kicking off his boots and then drawing off his trousers, he slipped into his blankets, twisted them tightly around his broad shoulders with a single turn of his body, and was instantly snoring. Andrew followed that example more slowly.

Not since he left Martindale, however, had he slept soundly. Take a tame dog into the wilderness and he learns to sleep like a wolf quickly enough; and Andrew, with mind and nerve constantly set for action like a cocked revolver, had learned to sleep like a wild thing in turn. And accordingly, when he wakened in the middle of the night, he was alert on the instant. He had a singular feeling that some one had been looking at him while he slept.