Free Range Lanning/Chapter 30



PEOPLE in telling that story long afterward, and it became one of the favorite tales connected with Andrew Lanning, attributed the whole maneuver to an outbreak of madness. Just as madness appeared the campaign of Napoleon when he dropped over the Alps into Italy, and, while Melas was taking Genoa from heroic Masséna, appeared quietly on that unfortunate general's communications and then blotted him out at Marengo. And that campaign would have been judged madness instead of genius if it had not worked.

Retrospection made Andrew Lanning's coming to Los Toros a mad freak, whereas it was in reality a very clever stroke. Hal Dozier would have been on the road five hours before if he had not been held up in the matter of horses, but this is to tell the story out of turn.

Andrew saddled the mare and sent her back swiftly out of the plain, over the hills, and then dropped her down into the valley of the Little Silver River until he reached the grove of trees just outside Los Toros—some four hundred yards, say, from the little group of houses. He then took off his belt, hung it over the pommel, fastened the reins to the belt, and turned away. Sally would stay where he left her—unless some one else tried to get to her head, and then she would fight like a wild cat. He knew that, and he therefore started for Los Toros with his line of communications sufficiently guarded.

He instinctively thought first of drawing his hat low over his eyes and walking swiftly; a moment of calm figuring told him that the better way was to push the hat to the back of his head, put his hands in his pockets, and go whistling through the streets of the town. And this was actually the manner in which he made his entry to Los Toros. It was not much of a place—say five hundred people but its single street looked as large and as long as a great avenue to Andrew as he sauntered carelessly toward the restaurant. It was the middle of the gray afternoon; there were few people about, and the two or three whom Andrew passed nodded a greeting. Each time they raised their hands the fingers of Andrew twitched, but he made himself smile back at them and waved in return.

He went on until he came to the restaurant. It was a long, narrow room with a row of tables down each side, and a little counter and cash register beside the door, some gaudy posters on the wall, a screen at the rear to hide the entrance to the kitchen, faded green sackcloth tacked on the ceiling to cover the bare boards, and a ragged strip of linoleum on the narrow passage between the tables.

These things Andrew saw with the first flick of his eyes as he came through the door; as for people, there was a fat old man sitting behind the cash register in a dirty white apron and two men in greasy overalls and black shirts, perhaps from the railroad. There was one other thing which immediately blotted out all the rest; it was a big poster, about halfway down the wall, on which appeared in staring letters: "Ten thousand dollars reward for the apprehension, dead or alive, of Andrew Lanning." Above this caption was a picture of him, and below the big print appeared the body of smaller type which named his particular features. Straight to this sign Andrew walked and sat down at the table beneath it.

It was no hypnotic attraction that took him there. He knew perfectly well that if a man noticed that sign he would never dream of connecting the man for whom, dead or alive, ten thousand dollars was to be paid, with the man who sat underneath the picture calmly eating his lunch in the middle of a town. And a town from which a posse pursuing the man had just ridden, as Andrew was sure they had gone. Even if some supercurious person should make a comparison, he would not proceed far with it, Andrew was sure, for the picture represented the round, young face of a person who hardly existed now; the hardened features of Andrew were now only a skinny caricature of what they had been.

At any rate, Andrew sat down beneath the picture, and, instead of resting one elbow on the table and partially veiling his face with his hand, as he might most naturally have done, he tilted back easily in his chair and looked up at the poster. The fat man from behind the register had come to take his order. He noted the direction of Andrew's eyes while he jotted down the items.

"You ain't the first," he said, "that's looked at that. Think of the gent that'll get ten thousand dollars out of a single slug?"

"I can name the man who'll get it," said Andrew, "and his name is Hal Dozier."

"I guess you ain't far wrong," replied the other. "For that matter, the folks around here would mostly make the same guess. But maybe Hal's luck will take a turn."

"Well," said Andrew, "if he gets the money I'll say that he's earned it. And rush in some bread first, captain. I'm two-thirds starved."

It was a historic meal in more than one way. The size of it was one notable feature, and even Andrew had to loosen his belt when he came to attack the main feature, which was a vast steak with fried eggs scattered over the top of it. The proprietor, admiring such gastronomic prowess, hung about Andrew and made suggestions of side dishes, corn, tomatoes, and canned fish. The suggestions were added; the table groaned; for a diet of beans and bacon leaves vast holes which take much filling.

The steak had been reduced to a meager rim before Andrew had any attention to pay to the paper which had been placed on his table. It was an eight-page sheet entitled The Granville Bugle, and a subhead announced that it was "the greatest paper on the ranges and the cattleman's guide." It was devoted strictly to news of the mountain desert. Andrew found a picture on the first page, a picture of Hal Dozier, and over the picture the following caption: "Watch this column for news of the Andrew Lanning hunt."

The article in this week's issue contained few facts. It announced a number of generalities: "Marshal Hal Dozier, when interviewed, said——" and a great many innocuous things which he was sure that grim hunter could not have spoken. He passed over the rest of the column in careless contempt. On the second page, in a muddle of short notices, one headline caught his eye and held it: "Charles Merchant to Wed Society Belle." The editor had spread his talents for the public eye in doing justice to it:

On the fifteenth of the month will be consummated a romance which began last year, when Charles Merchant, son of the well-known cattle king, John Merchant, went East and met Miss Anne Withero. It is Miss Withero's second visit in the West, and it is now announced that the marriage——

Andrew crumpled the paper and let it fall. He glanced at a calender on the wall opposite him. There remained six days before the wedding.

And he was still so stunned by that announcement that, raising his head slowly, his thoughts spinning, he looked up and encountered the eyes of Hal Dozier as the latter sank into a chair.

He did not complete the act, but was arrested in midair, one hand grasping the back of the chair, the other hand at his hip. Andrew, in the space of an instant, thought of three things to kick the table from him and try to get to the side door of the place, to catch up the heavy sugar bowl and attempt to bowl over his man with a well-directed blow, or to simply sit and look Hal Dozier in the eye.

He had thought of the three things in the space that it would take a dog to snap at a fly and look away. He dismissed the first alternatives as absurd, and, picking up his cup of coffee, he raised his eyes slowly toward the ceiling, after the time-honored fashion of a man draining a glass, let his glance move gradually up and catch on the face of Dozier, and then, without haste, lowered the cup again to its saucer.

The flush of his own heavy meal kept his pallor from showing. As for Dozier, there was a succession of changes in his features, and then he concluded by lowering himself heavily the rest of the way into his chair. He gave his order to the proprietor in a dazed fashion, looking straight at Andrew, and the latter knew perfectly that the deputy marshal felt that he was in a dream. He was seeing what was not possible to see; his eyes were telling his brain in definite terms: "There sits Andrew Lanning and ten thousand dollars," But the reason of Dozier was speaking no less decidedly: "There sits a man without a weapon at his hip and actually beneath the poster which offers a reward for the capture of the person he resembles. Also, he is in a restaurant in the middle of a town. I have only to raise my voice in order to surround him."

And reason gained the upper hand, though Dozier continued to look at Andrew in a fascinated manner. Suddenly the outlaw knew that it would not do to disregard that glance so long continued. To disregard it would be to start the suspicions of Dozier as soon as his brain cleared, and the least spark would at once send the man hunter into a flame of conviction.

"Hello, stranger," said Andrew, and he merely made his voice a trifle husky and deep. "D'you know me?" The eyes of Dozier widened, there was a convulsive motion of his arm, and then his glance wandered slowly away.

"Excuse me," he said. "I thought I remembered your face."

Should he let it rest at that? No, better risk a finishing touch. "No harm done," he said in the same loud voice. "Hey, captain, another cup of coffee, will you? And a cigar,"

He tilted back in his chair. He was about to begin whistling, but feeling that this would be a trifle too brazen, he merely folded his hands behind his head and began to hum. And all the time his nerves were jumping, and that old frenzy was taking him by the throat, that bulldog eagerness for the fight. But fight empty-handed—and against Hal Dozier?

The restaurant owner brought Dozier's order, and then the coffee and the cigar to Andrew, and while the deputy continued to look with dumb fascination at Andrew with swift side glances, Andrew finished his second cup. He bit off the end of his cigar, asked for his check, and paid it, and then felt his nerves crumble and go to pieces.

It was not Hal Dozier who sat there, but death itself that looked him in the face. One false move, one wrong gesture, would betray him. How could he tell? That very moment his expression might have altered into something which the marshal could not fail to recognize, and the moment that final touch came there would be a gun play swifter than the eye could follow—simply a flash of steel and a simultaneous explosion.

Even now, with the cigar between his teeth, he knew that if he lighted a match the match would tremble between his fingers, and that trembling would betray him to Dozier. Was he wrong? Was there not even now a tightening of the jaw muscles of the marshal, a clearing and narrowing of his eyes, such as preceded action?

Yet he must not sit there, either, with the cigar between his teeth, unlighted. It was a little thing, but the weight of a feather would turn the balance and loose on him the thunderbolt of Hal Dozier in action.

But what could he do?

He found a thing in the very deeps of his despair. He got up from his chair, pushed his hat calmly upon his head—though that surely must complete Dozier's picture—and walked straight to the deputy. He dropped both hands upon the edge of Hal's table and leaned across it.

"Got a light, partner?" he asked.

And standing there over the table, he knew that Dozier had at length finally and definitely recognized him; but that the numbed brain of the marshal refused to permit him to act. He believed and yet he dared not believe his belief. Andrew saw the glance of Dozier go to his hip—his hip which the holster had rubbed until it gleamed. But no matter—the gun was not there—and stunned again by that impossible fact Dozier reached back and brought up his hand bearing a match box. He took out a match. He lighted it, his brows drawing together and slackening all the time, and then he looked up, his eyes rising with the lighted match, and stared full into the eyes of Andrew.

It was discovery undoubtedly—and how long would that mental paralysis last?

Andrew looked straight back into those eyes. His cigar took the fire and sucked in the flame. A cloud of smoke puffed out and rolled toward Hal Dozier, and Andrew turned leisurely and walked toward the door.

He was a yard from it.

"Lanning!" came a voice behind him, terrible, like a scream of pain.

As he leaped forward a gun spoke heavily in the room. He heard the bullet crunch into the frame of the door; the door itself was split by the second shot as Andrew slammed it shut. Then he raced around the corner of the restaurant and made for the grove.

There was not a sound behind him for a moment. Then a roar rose from the village and rushed after him. It gave him wings. And, looking back, he saw that Hal Dozier was not among the pursuers. No, half a dozen men were running, and firing as they ran, but there was not a rifle in the lot, and it takes a good man to land a bullet on the run where he is firing at a dodging target. The pursuers lost ground; they stopped and yelled for horses.

But that was what Hal Dozier was doing now. He was jerking a saddle on the back of Gray Peter, and in sixty seconds he would be tearing out of Los Toros. In the same space Andrew was in his own saddle with a flying leap and spurring out of the trees.