Free Range Lanning/Chapter 23



IT was a very old man who held, or tried to hold, Andrew from falling to the floor. He was, in fact, the same man who had sat under the awning smoking the corncob pipe, some three days before. Now his old shoulders shook under the burden of the outlaw, and the burden, indeed, would have slumped brutally to the floor, had not the small ten-year-old boy, whom Andrew had seen on the bay mare, come running in under the arms of the old man. With his meager strength he assisted, and the two managed to lower the body gently. Andrew was struggling to the last, and there was a horror in his wide, blank eyes.

"Hold me," he kept saying. "Don't let me slip, or I'm done for. Hold me, and the girl will come and save me. Anne!"

The boy was frightened. He was white at the sight of the wounds, and the freckles stood out in copper patches from his pallor. Now he clung to the old man.

"What does he mean, granddad?" he whispered. "What girl is comin' to save him?"

"When you get a pile older, Jud," said granddad, "you'll know what he means. You might even know the girl, or a dead ringer for her. I knew her kind once."

"Who was she?"

"Your grandma, you little fool. Now don't ask questions."

"Granddad, it's the gent that tried to buy Mary!"

The old man had produced a murderous jackknife with a blade that had been ground away to the disappearing point by years of steady grinding.

"Get some wood in the stove," he commanded. "Fire her up, quick. Put on some water. Easy, lad!"

The room became a place of turmoil with the clatter of the stove lids being raised, the clangor of the kettle being filled and put in place. By the time the fire was roaring and the boy had turned, he found the bandages had been taken from the body of the stranger and his grandfather was studying the smeared naked torso with a sort of detached, philosophic interest. With the thumb and forefinger of his left hand he was pressing deeply into the left shoulder of Andrew.

"Now, there's an arm for you, Jud," said the old man. "See them long, stringy muscles in the forearm? If you grow up and have muscles like them, you can call yourself a man. And you see the way his stomach caves in? Aye, that's a sign! And the way his ribs sticks out—and just feel them muscles on the point of his shoulder—— Oh, Jud, he would of made a prime wrestler, this fine bird of ours!"

"It's like touchin' somethin' dead, granddad," said the boy. "I don't dast to do it!"

"Jud, they's some times when I just about want to give you up! Dead? He ain't nowheres near dead. Jest bled a bit, that's all. Two as pretty little wounds as was ever drilled clean by a powerful rifle at short range. Dead? Why, inside two weeks he'll be fit as a fiddle, and inside a month he'll be his own self! Dead! Jud, you make me tired! Gimme that water."

He went to work busily. Out of a sort of first-aid chest he took homemade bandages and, after cleansing the wounds, he began to dress them carefully.

He talked with every movement.

"So this here is the lion, is it?" nodded granddad. "This here is the ravenin', tearin', screechin' man-eater? Why, he looks mostly plain kid to me."

"He—he's been shot, ain't he, granddad?" asked the child in a whisper.

"Well, boy, I'd say that the lion had been chawed up considerable—by dogs."

He pointed. "See them holes? The big one in front? That means they sneaked up behind him and shot him while his back was turned."

He sighed.

"I've heard fine things and brave things about Hal Dozier, but mostly I begin to misdoubt 'em all! These ain't the days for a man-sized man to go cavortin' around. When he goes out to take a little exercise, they get a hundred of 'em together and put him in a cage and say he's broke the law. Oh, Jud, these ain't no days for a man to be livin' in."

"He's wakin' up, granddad," said Jud, more frightened than before.

The eyes of Andrew were indeed opening.

He smiled up at them. "Uncle Jas," he said, "I don't like to fight. It makes me sick inside, to fight." He closed his eyes again.

"Now, now, now!" murmured Pop. "This boy has a way with him. And he killed Bill Dozier, did he? Son, gimme the whisky."

He poured a little down the throat of the wounded man, and Andrew frowned and opened his eyes again. He was conscious at last.

"I think I've seen you before," he said calmly. "Are you one of the posse?"

The old man stiffened a little. A spot of red glowed on his withered cheek and went out like a snuffed light.

"Young feller," said the old man, "when I go huntin' I go alone. You write that down in red, and don't forget it. I ain't ever been a member of no posse. Look around and see yourself to home."

Andrew raised his head a little and made out the neat room. It showed, as even his fading senses had perceived when he saw the house first, a touch of almost feminine care. The floor was scrubbed to whiteness, the pans hanging on the wall flashed under the lamplight, the very stove was burnished.

"I remember," said Andrew faintly.

"You did see me before," said the other, "when you rode into Tomo. I seen you and you seen me. We changed looks, so to speak. And now you've dropped in to call on me. I'm goin' to put you up in the attic. Gimme a hand to straighten him up, Jud."

With Jud's help and the last remnant of Andrew's strength they managed to get him to his feet, and then he partly climbed, partly was pushed by Jud, and partly was dragged by the old man up a ladder to the loft. It was quite cool there, very dark, and the air came in through two windows.

"Ain't very sociable to put a guest in the attic," said Pop, between his panting breaths. "But I'll be the doctor, and I order quiet and rest. Ain't apt to have much rest downstairs, 'cause a public character like you, Lanning, will have a consid'able pile of callers askin' after you. Terrible jarrin' to the nerves when folks come in and call on a sick man. You lie here and rest easy."

He went down the ladder and came back dragging a mattress. There, by the light of a lantern, he and Jud made Andrew as comfortable as possible.

"You mean to keep me here?" asked the outlaw.

"Long as you feel like restin'," answered the old man.

"You can make about——"

"Stop that fool talk about what I can make out of you. How come it you stayed so close to Tomo? Where was you lyin' low? In the hills?"

"Not far away,"

"And they smelled you out?"

"A man I thought was my friend——" Andrew clicked his teeth shut.

"You was sold, eh?"

"I made a mistake."

"H'm," was the other's comment. "Well, you forget about that and go to sleep. I got a few little attentions to pay to that posse. It'll be here r'arin' before to-mor-rer. Sleep tight, partner,"

He climbed down the ladder and looked around the room. Jud, his freckles still looking like spots of mud or rust, his eyes popping, stood silent.

"I'm glad of that," said the old man, with a sigh.

"What, granddad?"

"You're like a girl, Jud. Takes a sight to make you reasonable quiet. But look yonder. Them spots look tolerable like red paint, don't they? Well, we got to get 'em off."

"I'll heat some more water," suggested Jud.

"You do nothing of the kind. You get them two butcher knives out of the table drawer and we'll scrape off the wood, because you can't wash that stain out'n a floor." He looked suddenly at Jud with a glint in his eyes. "I know, because I've tried it."

For several minutes they scraped hard at the floor until the last vestige of the fresh stains was gone. Then the old man went outside and, coming back with a handful of sand, rubbed it in carefully over the scraped places. When this was swept away the floor presented no suspicious traces.

"But," he exclaimed suddenly, "I forgot. I plumb forgot. He's been leakin' all the way here, and when the sun comes up they'll foller him that easy by the sign. Jud, we're beat!"

They dropped, as at a signal, into two opposite chairs, and sat staring gloomily at each other. The old man looked simply sad and weary, but the color came and went in the face of Jud. And then, like a light, an idea dawned in the face of the child. He got up from his chair, lighted a lantern, and went outside. His grandfather observed this without comment or suggestion, but, when Jud was gone, he observed to himself: "Jud takes after me. He's got thoughts. And them was things his ma and pa was never bothered with."