Free Range Lanning/Chapter 29



EVEN in his own lifetime a man in the mountain desert passes swiftly from the fact of history into the dream of legend. The telephone and the newspaper cannot bring that lonely region into the domain of cold truth. In the time that followed people seized on the story of Andrew Lanning and embroidered it with rare trimmings. It was told over and over again in saloons and around family firesides and at the general-merchandise stores and in the bunk houses of many ranches. Each retelling emphasized something new and added to the vividness of the yarn. They not only squeezed every available drop of interest out of the facts, but they added quite imaginary details. For Andrew had done what many men failed to do in spite of a score of killings—he struck the public fancy. People realized, however vaguely, that here was a unique story of the making of a desperado, and they gathered the story of Andrew Lanning to their hearts.

On the whole, it was not an unkindly interest. In reality the sympathy was with the outlaw. For every one knew that Hal Dozier was on the trail again, and every one felt that in the end he would run down his man, and there was a general hope that the chase might be a long one. For one thing, the end of that chase would have removed one of the few vital current bits of news. Men could no longer open conversations by asking the last tidings of Andrew. Such questions were always a signal for an unlocking of tongues around the circle.

Many untruths were told. For instance, the blowing of the safe in Allertown was falsely attributed to Andrew, while in reality he knew nothing about "soup" and its uses. And the running of the cows off the Circle O Bar range toward the border was another exploit which was wrongly checked to his credit or discredit. Also the brutal butchery in the night at Buffalo Head was sometimes said to be Andrew's work, but in general the men of the mountain desert came to know that the outlaw was not a red-handed murderer, but simply a man who fought for his own life.

The truths in themselves were enough to bear telling and retelling. The tale of how he wrote the message on the bar in Tomo was a dainty bit for spinners of yarns, and the breaking through the circle around Hank Rainer's cabin was another fine section, to say nothing of that historic occasion when he routed the posse and killed Bill Dozier. Yet these things were nothing to what had followed. Andrew's Thanksgiving dinner at William Foster's house, with a revolver on the table and a smile on his lips, was a pleasant tale and a thrilling one as well, for Foster had been able to go to the telephone and warn the nearest officer of the law. There was the incident of the jammed rifle at The Crossing; the tale of how a youngster at Tomo decided that he would rival the career of the great man—how he got a fine bay mare and started a blossoming career of crime by "sticking up" three men on the road and committing several depredations which were all attributed to Andrew, until Andrew himself ran down the foolish fellow, shot the gun out of his hand, gave him a talking that recalled his lost senses, and then turned him gently over to his family. Out of his own pocket he made a contribution so that young Lasker could return to the victims the money he had stolen. The Lasker family had tried to hush up the tale, but it had leaked out and gone the rounds, and it made a famous yarn.

All these and other things would make volumes and volumes if they were narrated in full. Particularly, there was the story of "Sandy" Macintosh. He came from the far south with a repute as a man hunter that chilled the blood even of the lawful. His list of victims was as long as a man's arm, and Sandy determined to finish the job which was apparently too big for even the capable hands and the fast horse of Hal Dozier. Hal took a vacation and left an empty stage for the celebrated Sandy. And Sandy Macintosh established relays of horses and ran the bay mare in a circle, but after thirty-six hours of furious riding the outlaw broke out of the circle and cantered away, and Sandy rode back, leaving three dead horses behind him. Then, frantic with shame, he issued a challenge to Andrew Lanning, and Andrew Lanning came out of the hills and met Sandy and beat him to the draw and shot him twice through the right shoulder. This story of Sandy Macintosh became an epic; men were never tired of retelling it. Go out into the mountain desert to-day, and in any of a hundred villages broach the name of Lanning, and nine chances out of ten some man will say: "I suppose you know how Sandy Macintosh came up to get Andy?" In such a case it is always wise to pretend ignorance and listen, for the tale is sure to be interesting—and new.

But all other details fell into insignificance compared with the general theme, which was the mighty duel between Andrew and Hal Dozier—the unescapable man hunter and the trap-wise outlaw. Hal did not lose any reputation because he failed to take Andrew Lanning at once. The very fact that he was able to keep close enough to make out the trail at all increased his fame. He had been a household word in the mountain desert before; he became a daily topic of conversation now. He did not even lose his high standing because he would not hunt Andrew alone. He always kept a group with him, and people said that he was wise to do it. Not because he was not a match for Andrew Lanning single-handed, but because it was folly to risk life when there were odds which might be used against the desperado. But every one felt that eventually Lanning would draw the deputy marshal away from his posse, and then the outlaw would turn, and there would follow a battle of the giants. The whole mountain desert waited for that time to come and bated its breath in hope and fear of it.

But if the men of the mountain desert considered Hal Dozier the greatest enemy of Andrew, he himself had quite another point of view. It was the loneliness, as Pop had promised him. It was the consuming loneliness that ate into his heart. There were days when he hardly touched food such was his distaste for the ugly messes which he had to cook with his own hands; there were days when he would have risked his life to eat a meal served by the hands of another and cooked by another man. That was the secret of that Thanksgiving dinner at the Foster house, though others put it down to sheer, reckless mischief. And to-day, as he made his fire between two stones—a smoldering, evil-smelling fire of sagebrush—the smoke kept running up his clothes and choking his lungs with its pungency. And the fat bacon which he cut turned his stomach. At last he sat down, forgetting the bacon in the pan, forgetting the long fast and the hard ride which had preceded this meal, and stared at the fire.

Rather, the fire was the thing which he kept chiefly in the center of his vision, but his glances went everywhere, to all sides, up, and down. Hal Dozier had hunted him hotly down the valley of the Little Silver River, but near the village of Los Toros the fagged posse and Hal himself had dropped back and once more given up the chase. No doubt they would rest for a few hours in the town, change horses, and then come after him again.

It was a new Andrew Lanning that sat there by the fire. He had left Martindale a clear-faced boy; the months that followed had changed him to a man; the boyhood had been literally burned out of him. The skin of his face, indeed, refused to tan, but now, instead of a healthy and crisp white it was a colorless sallow. The rounded cheeks were now straight and sank in sharply beneath his cheek bones, with a sharply incised line beside the mouth. And his expression at all times was one of quivering alertness—the mouth a little compressed and straight, the nostrils seeming a trifle distended, and the eyes as restless as the eyes of a hungry wolf. The old blank, dull look was gone from them; the uneasy glitter which had come into them when he fled from Martindale on that age-long day had never died from them since. Sometimes, when his glance steadied on one object, the light became a point, but usually it was a continual shifting. Take a candle and pass it from side to side before the eyes of a man, and the same gleam will come into them which was never out of the eyes of Andrew Lanning. Two things might have been said about that expression of his eyes: that it was the glimmer of danger or the light of fear that turns into danger.

Moreover, all of Andrew's actions had come to bear out this same expression of his face. If he sat down his legs were gathered, and he seemed about to stand up. If he walked he went with a nervous step, rising a little on his toes as though he were about to break into a run or as though he were poising himself to whirl at any alarm. He sat in this manner even now, under that dead gray sky of sheeted clouds, and in the middle of that great rolling plain, lifeless and colorless—lifeless except for the wind that hummed across it, pointed with old. Andrew, looking from the dull glimmer of his fire to that dead waste, sighed. He whistled, and Sally came instantly to the call and dropped her head beside his own. She, at least, had not changed in the long pursuits and the hard life. It had made her gaunt. It had hardened and matured her muscles so that now along her shoulders there were ridges and ripples, iron hard, and her thighs were twining masses of strength; but her head was the same, and her changeable, human eyes, the eyes of a pet, had not altered.

She stood there with her head down, silently; and Andrew, his hands locked around his knees, neither spoke to her nor stirred. But by degrees the pain and the hunger went out of his face, and, as though she knew that she was no longer needed, Sally tipped his sombrero over his eyes with a toss of her head, and, having given this signal of disgust at being called without a purpose, she went back to her work of cropping the gramma grass, which of all grasses a horse loves best. Andrew straightened his hat and cast one glance after her. Words, indeed, were almost unnecessary between them now. By a pressure of his knees he could guide her; by a gesture he could call her.

A shade of thought passed over his face as he looked at her. But this time the posse was probably once more starting on out of Los Toros and taking his trail. It would mean another test; he did not fear for her, but he pitied her for the hard work that was coming, and he looked almost with regret over the long racing lines of her body. And it was then, coming out of the sight of Sally, the thought of the posse, and the disgust for the greasy bacon in the pan, that Andrew received a quite new idea. It was to stop his flight, turn about, and double like a fox straight back toward Los Toros, making a detour to the left. The posse would plunge ahead, and he could cut in toward Los Toros. For he had determined to eat once again, at least, at a table covered with a white cloth, food prepared by the hand of another. Sally was known; he would leave her in the grove beside the Little Silver River. For himself, weeks had passed since any man had seen him, and certainly no one in Los Toros had met him face to face. He would be unknown except for a general description. And to disarm suspicion entirely he would leave his cartridge belt and his revolver with Sally in the woods. For what human being, no matter how imaginative, would possibly dream of Andrew Lanning going unarmed into a town and sitting calmly at a table to order a meal?