Free Range Lanning/Chapter 21



FIRST of all, naturally, he looked at the door. It was now a bright rectangle filled with moonlight and quite empty. There might, of course, be something or some one just outside the door. It might even be that a wild animal had looked in. But Andrew knew that the mere falling of an eye upon him would not waken him. There must have been a sound, and he glanced over to the trapper for an explanation. But Hank Rainer lay twisted closely in his blankets.

Andrew raised upon one elbow and thought. It troubled him—the insistent feeling of the eyes which had been upon him. They had burned their way into his dreams with a bright insistence. He looked again, and, having formed the habit of photographing things with one glance, he compared what he saw now with what he had last seen when he fell asleep. It tallied in every detail except one. The trousers which had lain on the floor beside Hank's bed were no longer there.

It was a little thing, of course, but Andrew closed his eyes to make sure. Yes, he could even remember the gesture with which the trapper had tossed down the trousers to the floor. Andrew sat up in bed noiselessly. He slipped to the door and flashed one glance up and down. Below him the hillside was bright beneath the moon. The far side of the ravine was doubly black in shadow.

But nothing lived, nothing moved. And then again he felt the eye upon him. He whirled. "Hank!" he called softly. And he saw the slightest start as he spoke. "Hank!" he repeated in the same tone, and the trapper stretched his arms, yawned heavily, and turned. "Well, lad?" he inquired.

But Andrew knew that he had been heard the first time, and he felt that this pretended slow awakening was too elaborate to be true. He went back to his own bed and began to dress rapidly. In a moment he was equipped. In the meantime the trapper was staring stupidly at him and asking what was wrong.

"Something mighty queer," said Andrew. "Must have been a coyote in here that sneaked off with your trousers, unless you have 'em on."

Just a touch of pause, then the other replied through a yawn: "Sure, I got 'em on. Had to get up in the night, and I was too plumb sleepy to take 'em off again when I come back."

"Ah," said Andrew, "I see."

He stepped to the door into the horse shed and paused; there was no sound. He opened the door and stepped in quickly. Both horses were on the ground, asleep, but he took the gelding by the nose, to muffle a grunt as he rose, and brought him to his feet. Then, still softly and swiftly, he lifted the saddle from its peg and put it on its back. One long draw made the cinches taut. He fastened the straps, and then went to the little window behind the horse, through which had come the vague and glimmering light by which he did the saddling. Now he scanned the trees on the edge of the clearing with painful anxiety. Once he thought that he heard a voice, but it was only the moan of one branch against another as the wind bent some tree. He stepped back from the window and rubbed his knuckles across his forehead, obviously puzzled. It might be that, after all, he was wrong. So he turned back once more toward the main room of the cabin to make sure. Instead of opening the door softly, as a suspicious man will, he cast it open with a sudden push of his foot; the hulk of Hank Rainer turned at the opposite door, and the big man staggered as though he had been struck.

It might have been caused by his swift right-about face, throwing him off his balance, but it was more probably the shock that came from facing a revolver in the hand of Andrew. The gun was at his hip. It had come into his hand with a nervous flip of the fingers as rapid as the gesture of the card expert.

"Come back," said Andrew. "Talk soft, step soft. Now, Hank, what made you do it?"

The red hair of the other was burning faintly in the moonlight, and it went out as he stepped from the door into the middle of the room, his finger tips brushing the ceiling above him. And Andrew, peering through that shadow, saw two little, bright eyes, like the eyes of a beast, twinkling out at him from the mass of hair. A twitch of cold went among the muscles of his back as he saw the thing.

"When you went after the shells for me, Hank," he stated, "you gave the word that I was here. Then you told the gent that took the message to spread it around—to get it to Hal Dozier, if possible—to have the men come back here. You'd go out, when I was sound asleep, and tell them when they could rush me. Is that straight?" There was no answer.

"Speak out! I feel like shovin' this gun down your throat, Hank, but I won't if you speak out and tell me the truth."

Whatever other failings might be his, there was no great cowardice in Hank Rainer. His arms remained above his head and his little eyes burned. That was all.

"Well," said Andrew, "I think you've got me, Hank. I suppose I ought to send you to death before me, but, to tell you the straight of it, I'm not going to, because I'm sort of sick. Sick, you understand? Tell me one thing—are the boys here yet? Are they scattered around the edge of the clearing, or are they on the way? Hank, was it worth five thousand to double cross a gent that's your guest—a fellow that's busted bread with you, bunked in the same room with you? And even when they've drilled me clean, and you've got the reward, don't you know that you'll be a skunk among real men from this time on? Did you figure on that when you sold me?"

The hands of Hank Rainer fell suddenly, but no lower than his beard. The fingers thrust at his throat he seemed to be tearing his own flesh.

"Pull the trigger, Andy," he said. "Go on. I ain't fit to live. I don't want to live. But if I had it to do over again!"

"Why did you do it, Hank?"

"I wanted a new set of traps, Andy; that was what I wanted. I'd been figurin' and schemin' all autumn how to get my traps before the winter come on. My own wasn't any good. Then I seen that fur coat of yours. It set me thinking about what I could do if I had some honest-to-goodness traps with springs in 'em that would hold—and—I stood it as long as I could."

While he spoke, Andrew looked past him, through the door. All the world was silver beyond. The snow had been falling, and on the first great peak there was a glint of the white, very pure and chill against the sky. The very air was keen and sweet. Ah, it was a world to live in, and he was not ready to die!

He looked back to Hank Rainer. "Hank, my time was sure to come sooner or later, but I'm not ready to die. I'm—I'm too young, Hank. Well, good-by!"

He found gigantic arms spreading before him.

"Andy," insisted the big man, "it ain't too late for me to double cross 'em. Let me go out first and you come straight behind me. They won't fire; they'll think I've got a new plan for givin' you up. When we get to the circle of 'em, because they're all round the cabin, we'll drive at 'em together. Come on!"

"Wait a minute. Is Hal Dozier out there?"

"Yes. Oh, go on and curse me, Andy. I'm cursin' myself!"

"If he's there it's no use. But there's no use two dyin' when I try to get through. Only one thing, Hank; if you want to keep your self-respect don't take the reward money,"

"I'll see it burn first, and I'm goin' with you, Andy!"

"You stay where you are; this is my party. Before the finish of the dance I'm going to see if some of those sneaks out yonder, lyin' so snug, won't like to step right out and do a caper with me!"

And before the trapper could make a protest he had drawn back into the horse shed.

There he led the chestnut to the door, and, looking through the crack, he scanned the surface of the ground. It was sadly broken and chopped with rocks, but the gelding might make headway fast enough. It was a. short distance to the trees—twenty-five to forty yards, perhaps. And if he burst out of that shed on the back of the horse, spurred to full speed, he might take the watchers, who perhaps expected a signal from the trapper before they acted, quite unawares, and he would be among the sheltering shadows of the forest while the posse was getting up its guns.

There was an equally good chance that he would ride straight into a nest of the waiting men, and, even if he reached the forest, he would be riddled with bullets.

Now, all these thoughts and all this weighing of the chances occupied perhaps half a second, while Andrew stood looking through the crack. Then he swung into the saddle, leaning far over to the side so that he would have clearance under the doorway, kicked open the swinging door, and sent the chestnut leaping into the night.