Free Range Lanning/Chapter 27



THE bullets of the posse had neither torn a tendon nor broken a bone. Striking at close range and driven by high-power rifles, the slugs had whipped cleanly through the flesh of Andrew Lanning, and the flesh closed again, almost as swiftly as ice freezes firm behind the wire that cuts it. In a very few days he could sit up, and finally came down the ladder with a rather tottering step, Pop beneath him and Jud steadying his shoulders from above. That was a gala day in the house. Indeed, they had lived well ever since the coming of Andrew, for he had insisted that he bear the household expense while he remained there, since they would not allow him to depart.

"And I'll let you pay for things, Andrew," Pop had said, "if you won't say nothing about it, ever, to Jud. He's a proud kid, is Jud, and he'd bust his heart if he thought I was lettin' you spend a cent here."

But this day they had a fine steak, brought out from Tomo by Pop the evening before, and they had French-fried potatoes and store candy and beans with plenty of pork and molasses in them, cream biscuits, which Pop could make delicious beyond belief, to say nothing of canned tomatoes with bits of dried bread in them, and coffee as black as night. Such was the celebration when Andrew came down to join his hosts, and so high did all spirits rise that even Jud, the resolute and the alert, forgot his watch. Every day from dawn to dark he was up to the door or to the rear window, keeping the landscape under a sweeping observance every few moments, lest some chance traveler—all search for Andrew Lanning had, of course, ceased with the moment of his disappearance—should happen by and see the stranger in the household of Pop. But during these festivities all else was forgotten, and in the midst of things a decided, rapid knock was heard at the door.

Speech was cut off at the root by that sound. For whoever the stranger might be, he must certainly have heard three voices raised in that room. It was Andrew who spoke. And he spoke in only a whisper. "Whoever it may be, let him in," said Andrew, "and, if there's any danger about him, he won't leave till I'm able to leave. Open the door, Jud."

And Jud, with a stricken look, crossed the floor with trailing feet. The knock was repeated; it had a metallic clang, as though the man outside were rapping with the butt of a gun in his impatience, and Andrew, setting his teeth, laid his hand on the handle of his revolver. Here Jud cast open the door, and, standing close to it with her forefeet on the top step, was the bay mare. She instantly thrust in her head and snorted in the direction of the stranger.

"Thank Heaven!" said Andrew. "I thought it was the guns again!" And Jud, shouting with delight and relief, threw his arms around the neck of the horse. "It's Sally!" he said. "Sally, you rascal!"

"That good-for-nothing hoss Sally," complained the old man. "Shooter away, Jud."

But Andrew protested at that, and Jud cast him a glance of gratitude. Andrew himself got up from the table and went across the room with feeble steps, half of an apple in his hand. He sliced it into bits, and she took them daintily from between his fingers. And when Jud reluctantly ordered her away she did not blunder down the steps, but threw her weight back on her haunches and swerved lightly away. It fascinated Andrew; he had never seen so much of feline control in the muscles of a horse. He felt that the animal, if she chose, could walk across gravel without making any more sound that a mountain lion. When he turned back to the table he announced: "Pop, I've got to ride that horse. I've got to have her. How does she sell?"

"She ain't mine," said Pop. "You better ask Jud." Jud was at once white and red. In the long hours during which he had sat beside the bunk of Andrew in the room above, the outlaw had come to fill his mind as a perfect specimen of what a man should be. He looked at his hero, and then he looked into his mind and saw the picture of Sally. A way out occurred to him. "You can have her when you can ride her," he said. "She ain't much use except to look at. But if you can saddle her and ride her before you leave—well, you can leave on her, Andy."

It was the beginning of busy days for Andrew. The cold weather was coming on rapidly. Now and then they had a flurry of snow, and, though it melted as soon as it reached the ground, the higher mountains above them were swiftly whitening, while the line of the snow was creeping nearer and nearer. The sight of it alarmed Andrew, and, with the thought of being snowbound in these hills, his blood turned cold. What he yearned for were the open spaces of the mountain desert, where he could see the enemy approach. But every day in the cabin the terror grew that some one would pass, some one, unnoticed, would observe the stranger. The whisper would reach Tomo—the posse would come again, and the second time the trap was sure to work. He must get away, but no ordinary horse would do for him. If he had had a fine animal under him Bill Dozier would never have run him down, and he would still be within the border of the law. A fine horse—such a horse as Sally, say!

Once he had connected her with his hope of freedom, he felt a tremendous urge to back her, and, besides, she had fitted into his mind the first moment he saw her, as a girl's face fits into the mind of an impressionable boy—there was Andrew's idea of a horse. No matter what experts may say, men are born with prejudices in horseflesh.

If he had been strong he would have attempted to break her at once, but he was not strong. He could barely support his own weight during the first couple of days after he left the bunk, and he had to use his mind. He began, then, at the point where Jud had left off.

Jud could ride Sally with a scrap of cloth beneath him; Andrew started to increase the size of that cloth. He did it very gradually. But he was with Sally every waking moment. He barely snatched time for his meals. Pop encouraged him, not with any hope that he would ever be able to ride an unridable horse, but because the chilly air of the outdoors rapidly began to whip the color back into Andrew's face and brighten his eye.

Half a dozen times a day Andrew changed the pad on Sally's back. To keep it in place he made a long strip of sacking to serve as a cinch, and before the first day was gone she was thoroughly used to it. With this great step accomplished, Andrew increased the burden each time he changed the pad. He got a big tarpaulin and folded it many times; the third day she was accepting it calmly and had ceased to turn her head and nose it. Then he carried up a small sack of flour and put that in place upon the tarpaulin. She winced under the dead-weight burden; there followed a full half hour of frantic bucking which would have pitched the best rider in the world out of a saddle, but the sack of flour was tied on, and Sally could not dislodge it. When she was tired of bucking she stood still, and then discovered that the sack of flour was not only harmless but that it was good to eat. Andrew was barely in time to save the contents of the sack from her teeth.

It was another long step forward in the education of Sally. Next he fashioned clumsy imitations of stirrups, and there was a long fight between Sally and stirrups, but the stirrups, being inanimate, won, and Sally submitted to the bouncing wooden things at her sides. And still, day after day, Andrew built his imitation saddle closer and closer to the real thing, until he had taken a real pair of cinches off one of Pop's saddles and had taught her to stand the pressure without flinching.

There was another great return from Andrew's long and steady intimacy with the mare. She came to accept him absolutely. She knew his voice; she would come to his whistle; and finally, when every vestige of unsoundness had left his wounds, he climbed into that improvised saddle and put his feet in the stirrups. Sally winced down in her catlike way and shuddered, but she straightened again, and by the quiver of her muscles the rider knew that she was hesitating between bolting and standing still. He began to talk to her, and the familiar voice decided Sally. She merely turned her head and rubbed his knee with her nose. The battle was over and won. Ten minutes later Andrew had cinched a real saddle in place, and she bore the weight of the leather without a stir. The memory of that first saddle and the biting of the bur beneath it had been gradually wiped from her mind, and the new saddle was connected indissolubly with the voice and the hand of the man. At the end of that day's work Andrew carried the saddle back into the house with a happy heart.

And the next day he took his first real ride on the back of the mare.

Only a lover of horseflesh can dream what the gait of a new mount may mean, the length of stride, the suppleness which comes of flexible fetlock joints and hind legs, angling well out; and there is the swing of the gallop, during which one must watch the shoulders and forelegs, and be watchful of the least sign of pounding with the front hoofs, since that tells soonest that a horse cannot stand a long ride, and, above all, there is the run, with the long drives coming from the hind quarters, a succession of smooth, swift impulses. A man who rides for pleasure will note such things as these, but to Andrew his horse meant life and death as well as companionship. And he leaned to hear her breathing after he had run her; he noted how easily she answered the play of his wrist, how little her head moved in and out, so that he seldom had to sift the reins through his fingers to keep in touch with the bit. It was a plain bar bit, but she came about on it as though it had been armed with a murderous Spanish curb. He could start her from a stand into a full gallop with a touch of his knees, and he could bring her to a sliding halt with the least pressure on the reins. He could tell, indeed, that she was one of those rare possessions, a horse with a wise mouth.

And yet he had small occasion to keep up on the bit as he rode her. She was no colt which hardly knew its own paces. She was a stanch five-year-old, and she had roamed the mountains about Pop's place at will. She went like a wild thing over the broken going. The loose stones and the gravel, which had turned the chestnut gelding into a clumsy blunderer, were nothing to her. She seemed to have a separate brain in each foot, telling her how to handle her ground. And always there was that catlike agility with which she wound among the rocks, hardly impairing her speed as she swerved. Andrew found her a book whose pages he could turn forever and always find something new.

He forgot where he was going. He only knew that the wind was clipping his face and that Sally was eating up the ground, and he came to himself with a start, after a moment, realizing that his dream had carried him perilously out of the mouth of the ravine. He had even allowed the mare to reach a bit of winding road, rough indeed, but cut by many wheels and making a white streak across the country. Andrew drew in his breath anxiously and turned her back for the cañon.