Free Range Lanning/Chapter 34

CHAPTER XXXIV

THE RULES OF THE GAME

IT was not yet noon when he entered the gulch. The sun, though it was almost directly at the zenith, gave but a mild warmth, and all the ravine was full of that hushing sound which comes after a heavy rain, when the earth is drinking the water out of a myriad little pools. There was no creek bed in the cañon, but an impromptu rivulet was now running down over the gravel, winding foolishly into blind pools and cutting a crazy, ragged path down to the mouth of the gulch. It kept a faint tinkling sound over the murmur of the soaking water—two whispers, one barely louder than the other, and both making Andrew merely feel the weight of the silence.

He was not halfway up the gulch when something moved at the top of the high wall to his right. He guessed at once that it was a lookout signaling the main party of the approach of a stranger, so Andrew stopped Sally with a word and held his hand high above his head, facing the point from which he had seen the movement. There was a considerable pause; then a man showed on the top of the cliff, and Andrew recognized Jeff Rankin by his red hair. Yet they were at too great a distance for conversation, and after waving a greeting, Rankin merely beckoned Andrew on his way up the valley. Around the very next bend of the ravine he found the camp. It was of the most impromptu character, and the warning of Rankin had caused them to break it up precipitately, as Andrew could see by one length of tarpaulin tossed, without folding, over a saddle. Each of the four was ready, beside his horse, for flight or for attack, as their outlook on the cliff should give signal. But at sight of Andrew and the bay mare a murmur, then a growl of interest went among them. Even Larry la Roche grinned a skull-like welcome, and Henry Allister actually ran forward to receive the newcomer. Andrew dropped out of the saddle and shook hands with him.

'I've done as you said I would," said Andrew. "I've run in a circle, Allister, and now I'm back to make one of you, if you still want me,"

Allister, laughing joyously, turned to the other three and repeated the question to them. There was only one voice in answer.

"Want you?" said Allister, and his smile made Andrew almost forget the scar which twisted the otherwise handsome face. "Want you? Why, man, if we've been beyond the law up to this time, we can laugh at the law now. You're worth a host, Lanning. As soon as it's known you're with me, the bumpkins will want a hundred men before they take our trails. Sit down. Hey, Scottie, shake up the fire and put on some coffee, will you? We'll take an hour off."

Larry la Roche was observed to make a dour face.

"Who'll tell me it's lucky," he said, "to have a gent that starts out by makin' us all stop on the trail? Is that a good sign?"

But Scottie, with laughter, hushed him. Yet Larry la Roche remained of all the rest quite silent during the making of the coffee and the drinking of it. The others kept up a running fire of comments and questions, but Larry la Roche, as though he had never forgiven Andrew for their first quarrel, remained with his long, bony chin dropped upon his breast and followed the movements of Andrew Lanning with restless eyes.

The others were glad to see him, as Andrew could tell at a glance, but also they were a bit troubled, and by degrees he made out the reason. Strange as it seemed, they regretted that he had not been able to make his break across the mountains. His presence made them more impregnable than they had ever been under the indomitable Allister, and yet, more than the aid of his righting hand, they would have welcomed the tidings of a man who had broken away from the shadow of the law and "made good." It was the first time that Andrew observed this quality among the outlaws; yet he learned later that even the tramps of the cross-continental road do not welcome recruits to their ranks. Once a man has taken the long step that places him beyond the reach of good society, he is received with open arms, but as long as there is a chance of putting him back on his feet again there are few, indeed, that will not contribute money and cunning to that purpose. There is, of course, a shade of selfishness in it. For each of the fallen wishes to feel that his exile is self-terminable, and the most notorious criminal will thrill to a story of regeneration.

And therefore Andrew, telling his story to them in brief, found that they were not by any means filled with unmixed pleasure. Joe Clune, with his bright brown hair of youth and his lined, haggard face of worn middle age, summed up their sentiments at the end of Andrew's story: "You're what we need with us, Lanning. You and Allister will beat the world, and it means high times for the rest of us, but God pity you—that's all!"

The pause that followed this solemn speech was to Andrew like an amen. He glanced from face to face, and each stern eye met his in gloomy sympathy.

Then something shot through him which was to his mind what red is to the eye; it was a searing touch of reckless indifference, defiance.

"Forget this prayer-meeting talk," said Andrew. "I came up here for action, not mourning. I want something to do with my hands, not something to think about with my head!"

Something to think about! It was like a terror behind him. If he should have long quiet it would steal on him and look at him over his shoulder like a face. A little of this showed in his face; enough to make the circle flash significant glances at one another.

"You got something behind you, Andy," said Scottie. "Come out with it. It ain't too bad for us to hear."

"There's something behind me," said Andrew. "It's the one really decent part of my life. And I don't want to think about it. Allister, they say you never let the grass grow under you. What's on your hands now?"

"Somebody has been flattering me," said the leader quietly, and all the time he kept studying the face of Andrew. "We have a little game ahead, if you want to come in on it. We're shorthanded, but I'd try it with you. That makes us six all told. Six enough, boys?"

"Count me half of one," said Larry la Roche. "I don't feel lucky about this little party."

"We'll count you two times two," replied the leader calmly, and he began to outline his plans to Andrew.

It developed, before he had been talking for five minutes, that the plans were as extraordinary as the man himself. He treated crime as any progressive business man treats his business. He looked upon himself and his small band as a great capital investment, on which the money they secured was the interest. And accordingly he seldom risked the band in action.

"Tempt Providence once too much and the best-laid plan in the world will break down," he said, "as long as the other side has the same caliber guns we have. Who is the winning gambler? Jeff Rankin, who plunges every time he sees a three of a kind, or Larry there, who plunges once in an evening for everything he has? He makes more in that plunge than Jeff Rankin makes in a month's play. It's the same with this business of mine, Lanning. I show my hand once in every six or eight months, but when I strike I strike hard and I strike for big stakes."

He added: "You boys play a game; I'm going to break in Lanning to our job."

Taking his horse, he and Andrew rode at a walk up the ravine. On the way the leader explained his system briefly and clearly. Told in short, he worked somewhat as follows: Instead of raiding blindly right and left, he only moved when he had planned every inch of ground for the advance and the blow and the retreat. To make sure of success and the size of his stakes he was willing to invest heavily.

"Big business men sink half a year's income in their advertising. I do the same."

It was not public advertising; it was money cunningly expended where it would do most good. Fifty per cent of the money the gang earned was laid away to make future returns surer. In twenty places Allister had his paid men who, working from behind the scenes, gained priceless information and sent word of it to the outlaw. Trusted officials in great companies were in communication with him. When large shipments of gold were to be made, for instance, he was often warned beforehand. Every dollar of the consignment was known to him, the date of its shipment, its route, and the hands to which it was supposed to fall. Or, again, in many a bank and prosperous mercantile firm in the mountain desert he had inserted his paid spies, who let him know when the safe was crammed with cash and when the way would be fairly open and by what means the treasure was guarded.

Not until he had secured such information did the leader move. And he still delayed until every possible point of friction had been noted, every danger considered, and a check appointed for it, every method of advance and retreat gone over.

"A good general," Allister was fond of saying, "plans in two ways: for an absolute victory and for an absolute defeat. The one enables him to squeeze the last ounce of success out of a triumph; the other keeps a failure from turning into a catastrophe."

With everything arranged for the stroke, he usually posted himself with the band as far as possible from the place where the actual work was to be done. Then he made a feint in the opposite direction—he showed himself or a part of his gang recklessly. The moment the alarm was given—even at the risk of having an entire hostile countryside around him—he started a whirlwind course in the opposite direction from which he was generally supposed to be traveling. If possible, at the ranches of adherents, or at out-of-the-way places where confederates could act, he secured fresh horses and dashed on at full speed all the way.

Then, at the very verge of the place for attack, he gathered his men, rehearsed in detail what each man was to do, delivered the blow, secured the spoils, and each man of the party split away from the others and fled in scattering directions, to assemble again at a distant point on a comparatively distant date. There they sat down around a council table, and there they divided the spoils. No matter how many were employed, no matter how vast a proportion of the danger and scheming had been borne by the leader, he took no more than two shares. Then fifty per cent of the prize was set aside. The rest was divided with an exact care among the remaining members of the gang. The people who had supplied the requisite information for the coup were always given their share. If anything happened to them, if their deceit was discovered, their heirs received every scruple of the money. More than that, excellent sources of information were kept "fattened" with bribes even when they were turning in no useful news. One man had only sent in two short bits of advice in three years, but each of those notes had meant many thousands of dollars.

From this general talk Allister descended to particulars. He talked of the gang itself. They were quite a fixed quantity. In the last half dozen years there had not been three casualties. For one thing, he chose his men with infinite care; in the second place, he saw to it that they remained in harmony, and to that end he was careful never to be tempted into forming an unwieldy crew, no matter how large the prize. Of the present organization each was an expert. Larry la Roche had been a counterfeiter and was a consummate penman. His forgeries were works of art. "Have you noticed his hands?"

"Scottie" Macdougal was an eminent advance agent, whose smooth tongue was the thing for the very dangerous and extremely important work of trying out new sources of information, noting the dependability of those sources, and understanding just how far and in what line the tools could be used. Joe Clune was a past expert in the blowing of safes; not only did he know everything that was to be known about means of guarding money and how to circumvent them, but he was an artist with the "soup," as Allister called nitroglycerin.

Jeff Rankin, without a mental equipment to compare with his companions, was often invaluable on account of his prodigious strength. Under the strain of his muscles iron bars bent like hot wax. In addition he had more than his share of an ability which all the members of the gang possessed—an infinite cunning in the use of weapons and a star-storming courage and self-confidence.

"And where," said Andrew at the end of this long recital, "do I fit in?"

"You begin," said Allister, "as the least valuable of my men; before six months you will be worth the whole set of 'em. You'll start as my lieutenant, Lanning. The boys expect it. You've built up a reputation that counts. They admit your superiority without question. Larry la Roche squirms under the weight of it, but he admits it like the rest of 'em. In a pinch they would obey you nearly as well as they obey me. It means that, having you to take charge, I can do what I've always wanted to do—I can give the main body the slip and go off for advance-guard and rear-guard duty. I don't dare to do it now.

"Do you know why? Those fellows yonder, who seem so chummy, would be at each other's throats in ten seconds if I weren't around to keep them in order. I know why you're here, Lanning. It isn't the money. It's the cursed fear of loneliness and the fear of having time to think. You want action, action to fill your mind and blind you. That's what I offer you. You're the keeper of the four wild cats you see over there. You start in with their respect. Let them lose their fear of you for a moment and they'll go for you. Treat them like men; think of them as wild beasts. That's what they are. The minute they know you're without your whip they go for you like tigers at a wounded trainer. One taste of meat is all they need to madden them. It's different with me. I'm wild, too."

His eyes gleamed at Andrew.

"And, if they raise you, I think they'll find you've more iron hidden away in you than I have. But the way they'll find it out will be in an explosion that will wipe them out. You've got to handle them without that explosion, Lanning. Can you do it?"

The younger man moistened his lips. "I think this job is going to prove worth while," he returned.

"Very well, then. But there are penalties in your new position. In a pinch you've got to do what I do—see that they have food enough go without sleep—if one of them needs your blankets—if any of 'em gets in trouble, even into a jail, you've got to get him out."

"Better still," smiled Andrew.

"And now," said the leader, "I'll tell you about our next job as we go back to the boys."