Free Range Lanning/Chapter 3



UNCLE JAS was completely bowled over. Over against the wall as the door closed he was saying to himself: "What's happened? What's happened?" As far as he could make out his nephew retained very little fear of the authority of Jasper Lanning.

One thing became clear to the old man. There had to be a decision between his nephew and some full-grown man, otherwise Andy was very apt to grow up into a sneaking coward. And in the matter of a contest Jasper could not imagine a better trial horse than Buck Heath. For Buck was known to be violent with his hands, but he was not likely to draw his gun, and, more than this, he might even be bluffed down without making a show of a fight. Uncle Jasper left his house supperless, and struck down the street until he came to the saloon.

He found Buck Heath warming to his work, resting both elbows on the bar. Bill Dozier was with him, Bill who was the black sheep in the fine old Dozier family. His brother, Hal Dozier, was by many odds the most respected and the most feared man in the region, but of all the good Dozier qualities Bill inherited only their fighting capacity. He fought; he loved trouble; and for that reason, and not because he needed the money, he was now acting as a deputy sheriff. He was jesting with Buck Heath in a rather superior manner, half contemptuous, half amused by Buck's alcoholic swaggerings. And Buck was just sober enough to perceive that he was being held lightly. He hated Dozier for that treatment, but he feared him too much to take open offense. It was at this opportune moment that old man Lanning, apparently half out of breath, touched Buck on the elbow.

As Buck turned with a surly "What the darnation?" the other whispered: "Be on your way, Buck. Get out of town, and get out of trouble. My boy hears you been talkin' about him, and he allows as how he'll get you. He's out for you now."

The fumes cleared sufficiently from Buck Heath's mind to allow him to remember that Jasper Lanning's boy was no other than the milk-blooded Andy. He told Jasper to lead his boy on. There was a reception committee waiting for him there in the person of one Buck Heath.

"Don't be a fool, Buck," said Jasper, glancing over his shoulder. "Don't you know that Andy's a crazy, man-killin' fool when he gets started? And he's out for blood now. You just slide out of town and come back when his blood's cooled down."

Buck Heath took another drink from the bottle in his pocket, and then regarded Jasper moodily. "Partner," he declared gloomily, putting his hand on the shoulder of Jasper, "maybe Andy's a man-eater, but I'm a regular Andy-eater, and here's the place where I go and get my feed. Lemme loose!"

He kicked open the door of the saloon. "Where is he?" demanded the roaring Andy-eater. Less savagely, he went on: "I'm lookin' for my meat!"

Jasper Lanning and Bill Dozier exchanged glances of understanding. "Partly drunk, but mostly yaller," observed Bill Dozier. "Soon as the air cools him off outside he'll mount his hoss and get on his way. But, say, is your boy really out for his scalp?"

"Looks that way," declared Jasper with tolerable gravity.

"I didn't know he was that kind," said Bill Dozier. And Jasper flushed, for the imputation was clear. They went together to the window and looked out.

It appeared that Bill Dozier was right. After standing in the middle of the street in the twilight for a moment, Buck Heath turned and went straight for his horse. A low murmur passed around the saloon, for other men were at the windows watching. They had heard Buck's talk earlier in the day, and they growled as they saw him turn tail. He would have no pleasant reception when he next returned to Martindale.

Two moments more and Buck would have been on his horse, but in those two moments luck took a hand. Around the corner came Andrew Lanning with his head bowed in thought. At once a roar went up from every throat in the saloon: "There's your man. Go to him!" Buck Heath turned from his horse; Andrew lifted his head. They were face to face, and it was hard to tell to which one of them the other was the least welcome. But Andrew spoke first. A thick silence had fallen in the saloon. Most of the onlookers wore careless smiles, for the caliber of these two was known, and no one expected violence; but Jasper Lanning, at the door, stood with a sick face. He was praying in the silence.

Every one could hear Andrew say: "I hear you've been making a talk about me, Buck?"

It was a fair enough opening. The blood ran more freely in the veins of Jasper. Perhaps the quiet of his boy had not been altogether the quiet of cowardice.

"Aw," answered Buck Heath, "don't you be takin' everything you hear for gospel. What kind of talk do you mean?"

"He's layin' down," said Bill Dozier, and his voice was soft but audible in the saloon. 'The skunk!"

"I was about to say," said Andrew, "that I think you had no cause for talk. I've done you no harm, Buck."

The hush in the saloon became thicker; eyes of pity turned on that proved man, Jasper Lanning. He had bowed his head. And the words of the younger man had an instant effect on Buck Heath. They seemed to infuriate him.

"You've done me no harm?" he echoed. He let his voice out; he even glanced back and took pleasurable note of the crowded faces behind the dim windows of the saloon. Just then Geary, the saloon keeper, lighted one of the big lamps, and at once all the faces at the windows became black silhouettes. "You done me no harm?" repeated Buck Heath. "Ain't you been goin' about makin' a talk that you was after me? Well, son, here I am. Now let's see you eat!"

"I've said nothing about you," declared Andy. There was a groan from the saloon. Once more all eyes flashed across to Jasper Lanning.

"Bah!" snorted Buck Heath, and raised his hand. To crown the horror, the other stepped back. A little puff of alkali dust attested the movement.

"I'll tell you," roared Buck, "you ain't fittin' for a man's hand to touch, you ain't. A hosswhip is more your style."

From the pommel of his saddle he snatched his quirt. It whirled, hummed in the air, and then cracked on the shoulders of Andrew. In the dimness of the saloon door a gun flashed in the hand of Jasper Lanning. It was a swift draw, but he was not in time to shoot, for Andy, with a cry, ducked in under the whip as it raised for the second blow and grappled with Buck Heath. They swayed, then separated as though they had been torn apart. But the instant of contact had told Andy a hundred things. He was much smaller than the other, but he knew that he was far and away stronger after that grapple. It cleared his brain, and his nerves ceased jumping.

"Keep off," he said. "I've no wish to harm you."

"You houn' dog!" yelled Buck, and leaped in with a driving fist.

It bounced off the shoulder of Andrew. At the same time he saw those banked heads at the windows of the saloon, and knew it was a trap for him. All the scorn and the grief which had been piling up in him, all the cold hurt went into the effort as he stepped in and snapped his fist into the face of Buck Heath. He rose with the blow; all his energy, from wrist to instep, was in that lifting drive. Then there was a jarring impact that made his arm numb to the shoulder. Buck Heath looked blankly at him, wavered, and pitched loosely forward on his face. And his head bounced back as it struck the ground. It was a horrible thing to see, but it brought one wild yell of joy from the saloon—the voice of Jasper Lanning.

Andrew had dropped to his knees and turned the body upon its back. The stone had been half buried in the dust, but it had cut a deep, ragged gash on the forehead of Buck. His eyes were open, glazed; his mouth sagged; and as the first panic seized Andy he fumbled at the heart of the senseless man and felt no beat.

"Dead!" exclaimed Andy, starting to his feet. Men were running toward him from the saloon, and their eagerness made him see a picture he had once seen before. A man standing in the middle of a courtroom; the place crowded; the judge speaking from behind the desk: "——to be hanged by the neck until——"

A revolver came into the hand of Andrew. And when he found his voice it was as thin and high as the voice of a girl, for there was a snapping tension in it.

"Stop!" he called. The scattering line stopped like horses thrown back on their haunches by jerked bridle reins. "And don't make no move," continued Andy, gathering the reins of Buck's horse behind him. A blanket of silence had dropped on the street.

"The first gent that shows metal," said Andy, "I'll drill him. Keep steady!"

He turned and flashed into the saddle. Once more his gun covered them. He found his mind working swiftly, calmly. His knees pressed the long holster of an old-fashioned rifle. He knew that make of gun from toe to foresight; he could assemble it in the dark.

"You, Perkins! Get your hands away from your hip. Higher, blast you!"

He was obeyed. His voice was still thin, but it kept that line of hands high above their heads. When he moved his gun the whole line winced; it was as if his will were communicated to them on electric currents. He sent his horse into a walk; into a trot; then dropped along the saddle, and was plunging at full speed down the street, leaving a trail of sharp alkali dust behind him and a long, tingling yell.