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CHAPTER XXXIII

BESS BALDWIN

THERE was, as Andrew had understood for a long time, a sort of underground world of criminals even here on the mountain desert. Otherwise the criminals could not have existed for even a moment in the face of the organized strength of lawful society. Several times in the course of his wanderings Andrew had come in contact with links of the underground chain, and he learned what every fugitive learns—the safe stopping points in the great circuit of his flight.

Three elements went into the making of that hidden society. There was first of all the circulating and active part, and this was composed of men actually known to be under the ban of the law and openly defying it. It was the smallest component part of the whole, and yet it was the part with which law-abiding society occupied itself mostly. Beneath this active group lay a stratum much larger which served as a base for the operating criminals. This stratum was built entirely of men who had at one time been incriminated in shady dealings of one sort and another. It included lawbreakers from every part of the world, men who had fled first of all to the shelter of the mountain desert and who had lived there until their past was even forgotten in the lands from which they came. But they had never lost the inevitable sympathy for their more active fellows, and in this class there was included a meaner element—men who had in the past committed crimes in the mountain desert itself and who, from time to time, when they saw an absolutely safe opportunity, were perfectly ready and willing to sin again.

The third and largest of all the elements in the criminal world of the desert was a shifting and changing class of men who might be called the paid adherents of the active order. The "long riders," acting in groups or singly, fled after the commission of a crime and were forced to find places of rest and concealment along their journey. Under this grave necessity they quickly learned what people on their way could be hired as hosts and whose silence and passive aid could be bought. Such men were secured in the first place by handsome bribes. And very often they joined the ranks unwillingly. But when some peaceful householder was confronted by a desperate man, armed, on a weary horse—perhaps stained from a wound—the householder was by no means ready to challenge the man's right to hospitality. He never knew when the stranger would take by force what was refused to him freely, and, if the lawbreaker took by force, he was apt to cover his trail by a fresh killing.

Of course, such killings took place only when the "long rider" was a desperate brute rather than a man, but enough of them had occurred to call up vivid examples to every householder who was accosted. As a rule he submitted to receive the unwelcome guest. Also, as a rule, he was weak enough to accept a gift when the stranger parted. Once such a gift was taken, he was lost. His name was instantly passed on by the fugitive to his fellows as a "safe" man; other "long riders" were sure to come to his door quietly and ask shelter or' food or some trifle in equipment. They always paid handsomely for what they received, and if they had to take on credit they were certain to pay doubly when they were again in funds. It was a point of honor. And so the innocent householder, drawn into the underground circle by force and retained there by bribes, was kept in the new world. Once fairly in, he could not withdraw. Before long he became, against or with his will, a depository of secrets—banned faces became known to him. And if he suddenly decided to withdraw from that criminal world his case was most precarious.

The "long riders" admitted no neutrals. If a man had once been with them he could only leave them to become an enemy. He became open prey. His name was published abroad. Then his cattle were apt to disappear. His stacks of hay might catch fire unexpectedly at night. His house itself might be plundered, and, in not infrequent cases, the man himself was brutally murdered. It was part of a code no less binding because it was unwritten.

All of this Andrew was more or less aware of, and scores of names had been mentioned to him by chance acquaintances of "the road." Such names he stored away, for he had always felt that time impending of which Henry Allister had warned him, the time when he must openly forget his scruples and take to a career of crime. That time, he now knew, was come upon him.

It would be misrepresenting Andrew to say that he shrank from the future. Rather he accepted it with a fierce joy. It offered him a swift life of action, an all-absorbing career, a chance for forgetfulness of the one thing that had until now, held him back with a meager leash. He accepted everything that lay before him whole-heartedly, and, with the laying aside of his scruples, there was an instant lightening of the heart, a fierce keenness of mind, a contempt for society, a disregard for life beginning with his own. One could have noted it in the recklessness with which he sent Sally up the slope away from the ranch house this night.

He had made up his mind immediately to hunt out a "safe" man, recently mentioned to him by that unconscionable scapegrace Harry Woods, crooked gambler, thief of small and large, and whilom murderer. The man's name was Garry Baldwin, a small rancher, some half day's ride above Sullivan's place in the valley. He was recommended as a man of silence. In that direction Andrew took his way, but, coming in the hills to a dished-out place on a hillside, where there was a natural shelter from both wind and rain, he stopped there for the rest of the night, cooked a meal, rolled himself in his blankets, and slept into the gray of the morning. No sooner was the first light streaking the horizon to the east than Andrew wakened, and wakened in instant possession of all his faculties; he had gained a Napoleonic power to take his sleep whenever and wherever he chose, and wake refreshed and ready for a new start. He could sleep as a camel eats. If opportunity offered he could spend a dozen hours wrapped in oblivion and then go forty-eight hours freshly without a new rest. Of all the rare qualities of hand and eye and mind which equipped Andrew Lanning for his hard life, there was nothing half so valuable as this command over sleep. The heartbreaking ride from Los Toros, which would have reduced another man to a tangle of nerves and weariness, left him as fresh as a bird. One sleep was all he needed to wipe his mind clean as a slate of the past.

He saddled Sally this morning, and, after a leisurely breakfast, started at a jog trot through the hills, taking the upslope with the utmost care. For nothing so ruins a horse as hard work uphill at the very beginning of the day. He gave Sally her head, and she went along in her own capricious manner, walking at a snail's pace here, trotting there, breaking into a gallop now and again to stretch her muscles, and on the whole behaving like some irresponsible boy turned loose for the first time on the road. But by letting her go as she pleased she topped the divide, breathing as easily as if she had been walking on the flat; she gave one toss of her head as she saw the long, smooth slope ahead of her, breaking into a tumble of rolling ground beyond, and then, without a word from Andrew or a touch of his heels, she gave herself up to the long, rocking canter which she could maintain so tirelessly for hour on hour.

A clear, cold morning came on; the wind, changing from southwest to north, whipped the sky clear in a few moments; a rout of clouds piled away in storage to the south, and the sun came over the tips of the eastern mountains, dazzling bright and without a particle of warmth. Indeed, it was rarely chill for the mountain desert, with a feel of coming snow in the wind. Sally pricked one ear as she looked into the north, and Andrew knew that that was a sign of trouble coming.

He came in the middle of the morning to the house of Garry Baldwin. It was a wretched shack, the roof sagged in the middle, and the building had been held from literally falling apart by bolting an iron rod through the length of it.

A woman who fitted well into such a background kicked open the door and looked up to Andrew with the dishwater still dripping from her red hands. He asked for her husband. He was gone from the house. Where, she did not know. Somewhere yonder, and her gesture included half the width of the horizon to the west. There was his trail, if Andrew wished to follow it. For her part, she was busy and could not spare time to gossip. At that she stepped back and kicked the door shut with a slam that set the whole side of the shack shivering.

At that moment Andrew wondered what he would have done those few months—those few lifetimes—when he lived in Martindale if he had been treated in such a manner. He would have crimsoned to the eyes, no doubt, and fled from the virago. But now he felt neither embarrassment nor fear nor anger. He drew his revolver, and with the heavy butt banged loudly on the door. It left three deep dents in the wood, and the door was kicked open again. But this time he saw only the foot of the woman clad in a man's boot. The door remained open, but the hostess kept out of view.

"You be ridin' on, friend," she called in her harsh voice. "Bud, keep out'n the kitchen. Stranger, you be ridin' on. I don't know you and I don't want to know you. A man that beats on doors with his gun!"

Andrew laughed, and the sound brought her into view, a furious face, but a curious face as well. She carried a long rifle slung easily under her stout arm. There was the strength of a man in her shoulders and the readiness of a man about her hands.

"What d'you want with Garry?" she asked.

And he replied with a voice equally hard: "I want direction for finding 'Scar-faced' Allister."

He watched that shot shake her.

"You do? You got a hell of a nerve askin' around here for Allister! Slope, kid, slope. You're on a cold trail."

"Wait a minute," protested Andrew. "You need another look at me."

"I can see all there is to you the first glance," said the woman calmly. "Why should I look again?"

"To see the reward," said Andrew bitterly. He laughed again. "I'm Andrew Lanning. Ever hear of me?"

It was obvious that she had. She blinked and winced as though the name stunned her. "Lanning!" she said. "Why, you ain't much more'n a kid. Lanning! And you're him?"

All at once she melted.

"Slide off your hoss and come in, Andy," she said. "Dogged if I knew you at all!"

"Thanks. I want to find Allister and I'm in a hurry."

"So you and him are goin' to team it? That'll be high times! Come here, Bud. Look at Andy Lanning. That's him on the horse right before you."

A scared, round face peered out at Andrew from behind his mother. "All right, partner. I'll tell you where to find him pretty close. He'll be up the gulch along about now. You know the old shack up there? You can get to him inside three hours—with that hoss." She stopped and eyed Sally. "Is that the one that run Gray Peter to death? She don't look the part, but them long, low hosses is deceivin'. Can't you stay, Andy? Well, s'long. And give Allister a good word from Bess Baldwin. Luck!"

He waved, and was gone at a brisk gallop.