Free Range Lanning/Chapter 35



IT was ten days later when the band dropped out of the mountains into the Murchison Pass—a singular place for a train robbery, Andrew could not help thinking. They were at the southwestern end of the pass, where the mountains gave back in a broad gap. Below them, not five miles away, was the city of Gidding Creek; they could see its buildings and parks tumbled over a big area, for there was a full twenty-five thousand of inhabitants in Gidding Creek. Indeed, the whole country was dotted with villages and towns, for it was no longer a cattle region, but a semi farming district cut up into small tracts. One was almost never out of sight of at least one house. It worried Andrew, this closely built country, and he knew that it worried the other men as well; yet there had not been a single murmur from among them as they jogged their horses on behind Allister. Each of them was swathed from head to heels in a vast slicker that spread behind, when the wind caught it, as far as the tail of the horse. And the rubber creaked and rustled softly. Whatever they might have been inclined to think of this daring raid into the heart of a comparatively thickly populated country, they were too accustomed to let the leader do their thinking for them to argue the point with him. And Andrew followed blindly enough. He saw, indeed, one strong point in their favor. The very fact that the train was coming out of the heart of the mountains, through ravines which afforded a thousand places for assault, would make the guards relax their attention as they approached Gidding Creek. And, though there were many people in the region, they were a fat and inactive populace, not comparable with the lean fellows of the north.

There was bitter work behind them. Ten days before they had made a feint to the north of Martindale that was certain to bring out Hal Dozier; then they doubled about and had plodded steadily south, choosing always the most desolate ground for their travel. There had been two changes of horses for the others, but Andrew kept to Sally. To her that journey was play after the labor she had passed through before; the iron dust of danger and labor was in her even as it was in Andrew. Three in all that party were fresh at the end of the long trail. They were Allister, Sally, and Andrew. The others were poisoned with weariness, and their tempers were on edge; they kept an ugly silence, and if one of them happened to jostle the horse of the other, there was a flash of teeth and eyes—a silent warning. The sixth man was Scottie, who had long since been detached from the party. His task was one which, if he failed in it, would make all that long ride go for nothing. He was to take the train far up, ride down as "blind baggage" to the Murchison Pass, and then climb over the tender into the cab, "stick up" the fireman and the engineer, and make them bring the engine to a halt at the mouth of the pass, with Gidding Creek and safety for all that train only five minutes away. There was a touch of the satanic in this that pleased Andrew and made Allister show his teeth in self-appreciation.

So perfectly had their journey been timed that the train was due in a very few minutes. They disposed their horses in the thicket, and then went back to take up their position in the ambush. The plan of work was carefully divided. To Jeff Rankin, that nicely accurate shot and bulldog fighter, fell what seemed to be a full half of the total risk and labor. He was to go to the "blind" side of the job. In other words, he was to guard the opposite side of the train to that on which the main body advanced. It was always possible that when a train was held up the passengers—at least the unarmed portion, and perhaps even some of the armed men—would break away on the least threatened side. Jeff Rankin on that blind side was to turn them back with a hurricane of bullets from his magazine rifle. Firing from ambush and moving from place to place, he would seem more than one man. Probably three or four shots would turn back the mob. In the meantime, having made the engineer and fireman stop the train, Scottie would be making them continue to flood the fire box. This would delay the start of the engine on its way and gain precious moments for the fugitives. Two of the band would be thus employed while Larry la Roche went through the train and "turned out" the passengers. There was no one like Larry for facing a crowd and cowing it. His spectral form, his eyes burning through the holes in his mask, stripped them of any idea of resistance. And to aid him there was always the impression that this one robber was only a prelude to the scores surrounding the train on the outside. Even if he were shot down there would be no hope; it might simply bring on a general massacre.

While the crowd turned out, Andrew, standing opposite the middle of the train, rifle in hand, would line them up, while Allister and Joe Clune attended to overpowering the guards of the safe, and Larry la Roche came out and "went through" the line of passengers for personal valuables, and Clune and Allister fixed the "soup" to blow the safe. Last of all, there was the explosion, the carrying off of the coin in its canvas sacks to the horses. Each man was to turn his horse in a direction carefully specified, and, riding in a roundabout manner, which was also named, he was to keep on until he came, five days later, to a deserted, ruinous shack far up in the mountains on the side of the Twin Eagles peaks.

These were the instructions which Allister went over carefully with each member of his crew before they went to their posts. There had been twenty rehearsals before, and each man was letter perfect. They took their posts, and Allister came to the side of Andrew among the trees.

"How are you?" he asked.

"Scared to death," said Andrew truthfully. "I'd give a thousand dollars, if I had it, to be free of this job."

Andrew saw that hard glint come in the eyes of the leader.

"You'll do—later," nodded Allister. "But keep back from the crowd. Don't let them see you get nervous when they turn out of the coaches. If you show a sign of wavering they might start something. Of course, if they did, I know that you'd come through in great style in the fight, but the thing to do with a crowd is to keep 'em from ever starting to fight. Once they make a surge, shooting won't stop 'em."

Andrew nodded. There was more practical advice on the heels of this. Then they stood quietly and waited.

For days and days a northeaster had been blowing; it had whipped little drifts of rain and mist that stung the face and sent a chill to the bone, and, though there had been no actual downpour, the cold and the wet had never broken since the journey started. Now the wind came like a wolf down the Murchison Pass, howling and moaning. Andrew, closing his eyes, felt that the whole thing was dreamlike. Presently he would open his eyes and find himself back beside the fire in the house of Uncle Jasper, with the old man prodding his shoulder and telling him that it was bedtime. When he opened his eyes, in fact, they fell upon a solitary pine high up on the opposite slope, above the thicket where Jeff Rankin was hiding. It was a sickly tree, half naked of branches, and it shivered like a wretched animal in the wind. Then a new sound came down the pass, wolflike, indeed; it was repeated more clearly—the whistle of a train.

It was the signal arranged among them for putting on the masks, and Andrew hastily adjusted his.

"Did you hear that?" asked Allister as the train hooted in the distance again.

Andrew turned and started at the ghostly thing which had been the face of the outlaw a moment before; he himself must look like that, he knew.

"What?" he asked.

"That voicelike whistle," said Allister. "There's no luck in this day—for me."

"You've listened to Larry la Roche too much," said Andrew. "He's been growling ever since we started on this trail."

"No, no!" returned Allister. "It's another thing, an older thing than Larry la Roche. My mother——"

He stopped. Whatever it was that he was about to say, Andrew was never to hear it. The train had turned the long bend above, and now the roar of its wheels filled the cañon and covered the sound of the wind.

It looked vast as a mountain as it came, rocking perceptibly on the uneven roadbed. It rounded the curve the tail of the train flicked around, and it shot at full speed straight for the mouth of the pass. How could one man stop it? How could five men attack it after it was stopped? It was like trying to storm a medieval fortress with a popgun.

The great black front of the engine came rocking toward them, gathering impetus on the sharp grade. Had Scottie missed his trick? But when the thunder of the iron on iron was deafening Andrew, and the engine seemed almost upon them, there was a cloud of white vapor that burst out on either side of it and a great whistling and breathing sound, as of an animal giving up life in an agony. The brakes were jumped on; the wheels skidded, screaming on the tracks. The engine lurched past; Andrew caught a glimpse of Scottie, a crouched, masked form in the cab of the engine, with a gun in either hand. For Scottie was one of the few natural two-gun men that Andrew was ever to know. The engineer and the fireman he saw only as two shades before they were whisked out of his view. The train rumbled on; then it went from half speed to a stop with one jerk that brought a cry from the coaches. During the next second there was the successive crashing of couplings as the coaches took up their slack.

Andrew, stepping out with his rifle balanced in his hands, saw Larry la Roche whip into the rear car. Then he himself swept the windows of the train, blurred by the mist, with the muzzle of his gun, keeping the butt close to his shoulder, ready for a swift snapshot in any direction. In fact, his was that very important post, the reserve force, which was to come instantly to the aid of any overpowered section of the active workers. He had rebelled against this minor task, but Allister had assured him that, in former times, it was the place which he took himself to meet crises in the attack.

The leader had gone with Joe Clune straight for the front car. How would they storm it? Two guards, armed to the teeth, would be in it, and the door was closed.

But the guards had no intention to remain like rats in a trap, while the rest of the train was overpowered and they themselves were blasted into small bits with a small charge of "soup." The door jerked open, the barrels of two guns protruded. Andrew, thrilling with horror, recognized one as a sawed-off shotgun. He saw now the meaning of the manner in which Allister and Clune made their attack. For Allister had run slowly straight for the door, while Clune skirted in close to the cars, going more swiftly. As the gun barrels went up Allister plunged headlong to the ground, and the volley of shot missed him cleanly; but Clune the next moment leaped out from the side of the car, and, thereby getting himself to an angle from which he could deliver a cross fire, pumped two bullets through the door. Andrew saw a figure throw up its arms, a shadow form in the interior of the car, and then a man pitched out headlong through the doorway and flopped with horrible limpness on the roadbed. While this went on Allister had snapped a shot, while he still lay prone, and his single bullet brought a scream. The guards were done for.

Two deaths, Andrew supposed. But presently a man was sent out of the car at the point of Clune's revolver. He climbed down with difficulty, clutching one hand with the other. He had been shot in the most painful place in the body—the palm of the hand. Allister turned over the other form with a brutal carelessness that sickened Andrew. But the man had been only stunned by a bullet that plowed its way across the top of his skull. He sat up now with a trickle running down his face. A gesture from Andrew's rifle made him and his companion realize that they were covered, and, without attempting any further resistance, they sat side by side on the ground and tended to each other's wounds—a ludicrous group for all their suffering.

In the meantime, Clune and Allister were at work in the car; the water was hissing in the fire box as a vast cloud of steam came rushing out around the engine; the passengers were pouring out of the cars. They acted like a group of actors, carefully rehearsed for the piece. Not once did Andrew have to speak to them, while they ranged in a solid line, shoulder to shoulder, men, women, children. And then Larry la Roche went down the line with a saddlebag and took up the collection.

"Passin' the hat so often has give me a religious touch, ladies and gents," Andrew heard the ruffian say. "Any little contributions I'm sure grateful for, and, if anything's held back, I'm apt to frisk the gent that don't fork over. Hey, you, what's that lump inside your coat? Lady, don't lie. I seen you drop it inside your dress. Why, it's a nice little set o' sparklers. That ain't nothing to be ashamed of. Come on, please; a little more speed. Easy there, partner; don't take both them hands down at once. You can peel the stuff out of your pockets with one hand, I figure. Conductor, just lemme see your wallet. Thanks! Hate to bother you, ma'am, but you sure ain't traveling on this train with only eighty-five cents in your pocketbook. Just lemme have a look at the rest. See if you can't find it in your stocking. No, they ain't anything here to make you blush. You're among friends, lady; a plumb friendly crowd. Your poor old pa give you this to go to school on, did he? Son, you're gettin' a pile more education out of this than you would in college. No, honey, you just keep your locket. It ain't worth five dollars. Did you? That jeweler ought to have my job, 'cause he sure robbed you! You call that watch an heirloom? Heirloom is my middle name, miss. Just get them danglers out'n your ears, lady. Thanks! Don't hurry, mister; you'll bust the chain."

His monologue was endless; he had a comment for every person in the line, and he seemed to have a seventh sense for concealed articles. The saddlebag was bulging before he was through. At the same time Allister and Clune jumped from the car and ran. Larry la Roche gave the warning. Every one crouched or lay down. The "soup" exploded. The top of the car lifted. It made Andrew think, foolishly enough, of some one tipping a hat. It fell slowly, with a crash that was like a faint echo of the explosion. Clune ran back, and they could hear his shrill yell of delight: "It ain't a safe!" he exclaimed. "It's a baby mint!"

And "a baby mint" it was! It was a gold shipment. Gold coin runs about ninety pounds to ten thousand dollars, and there was close to a hundred pounds apiece for each of the bandits. It was the largest haul Allister's gang had ever made. Larry la Roche left the pilfering of the passengers and went to help carry the loot. They brought it out in little, loose canvas bags and went on the run with it to the horses.

Some one was speaking. It was the gray-headed man with the glasses and the kindly look about the eyes.

"Boys, it's the worst little game you've ever worked. I promise you we'll keep on your trail until we've run yon all into the ground. That's really something to remember. I speak for Gregg & Sons."

"Partner," said Scottie Macdougal from the cab, where he still kept the engineer and fireman covered, "a little hunt is like an after-dinner drink to me."

To the utter amazement of Andrew the whole crowd—the crowd which had just been carefully and systematically robbed—burst into laughter. But this was the end. There was Allister's whistle; Jeff Rankin ran around from the other side of the train; the gang faded instantly into the thicket. Andrew, as the rear guard—his most ticklish moment—backed slowly toward the trees. Once there was a waver in the line, such as precedes a rush. He stopped short, and a single twitch of his rifle froze the waverers in their tracks.

Once inside the thicket a yell came from the crowd, but Andrew had whirled and was running at full speed. He could hear the others crashing away. Sally, as he had taught her, broke into a trot as he approached, and the moment he struck the saddle she was in full gallop. Guns were rattling behind him; random shots cut the air sometimes close to him, but not one of the whole crowd dared venture beyond that unknown screen of trees.