Free Range Lanning/Chapter 36



TO Andrew the last danger of the holdup had been assigned as the rear guard, and he was the last man to pass Allister. The leader had drawn his horse to one side a couple of miles down the valley, and, as each of his band passed him, he raised his hand in silent greeting. It was the last Andrew saw of him, a ghostly figure sitting his horse with his hand above his head. After that his mind was busied by his ride, for, having the finest mount in the crowd, to him had been assigned the longest and the most roundabout route to reach the Twin Eagles.

Yet he covered so much ground with Sally that, instead of needing the full five days to make the rendezvous, he could afford to loaf the last stage of the journey. Even at that, he camped in sight of the cabin on the fourth night, and on the morning of the fifth he was the first man at the shack.

Jeff Rankin came in next. To Jeff, on account of his unwieldy bulk, had been assigned the shortest route; yet even so he dismounted, staggering and limping from his horse, and collapsed on the pile of boughs which Andrew had spent the morning cutting for a bed. As he dropped he tossed his bag of coins to the floor. It fell with a melodious jingling that was immediately drowned by Jeff's groans; the saddle was torture to him, and now he was aching in every joint of his enormous body. "A nice haul—nothin' to kick about," was Jeff's opinion. "But Cæsar's ghost—what a ride! The chief makes this thing too hard on a gent that likes to go easy, Andy."

Andrew said nothing; silence had been his cue ever since he began acting as lieutenant to the chief. It had seemed to baffle the others; it baffled the big man now. Later on Joe Clune and Scottie came in together. That was about noon—they had met each other an hour before. But Allister had not come in, although he was usually the first at a rendezvous. Neither did Larry la Roche come. The day wore on; the silence grew on the group. When Andrew, proportioning the work for supper, sent Joe to get wood, Jeff for water, and began himself to work with Scottie on the cooking, he was met with ugly looks and hesitation before they obeyed. Something, he felt most decidedly, was in the air. And when Joe and Rankin came back slowly, walking side by side and talking in soft voices, his suspicions were given an edge.

They wanted to eat together; but he forced Scottie to take post on the high hill to their right to keep lookout, and for this he received another scowl. Then, when supper was half over, Larry la Roche came in to camp. News came with him, an atmosphere of tidings around his gloomy figure, but he cast himself down by the fire and ate and drank in silence, until his hunger was gone. Then he tossed his tin dishes away and they fell clattering on the rocks.

"Pick 'em up," said Andrew quietly. "We'll have no litter around this camp." Larry la Roche stared at him in hushed malevolence. "Stand up and get 'em," repeated Andrew. As he saw the big hands of Larry twitching he smiled across the fire at the tall, bony figure. "I'll give you two seconds to get 'em," he said.

One deadly second pulsed away, then Larry crumpled. He caught up his tin cup and the plate. "We'll talk later about you," he said ominously.

"We'll talk about something else first," said Andrew. "You've seen Allister?"

At first it seemed that La Roche would not speak; then his wide, thin lips writhed back from his teeth. "Yes."

"Where is he?"

"Gone to the happy hunting grounds."

The silence came and the pulse in it. One by one, by a natural instinct, the men looked about them sharply into the night and made sure of their weapons. It was the only tribute to the memory of Allister from his men, but tears and praise could not have been more eloquent. He had made these men fearless of the whole world. Now were they ready to jump at the passage of a shadow. They looked at each other with strange eyes.

"Who? How many?" asked Jeff Rankin.

"One man done it."

Jeff Rankings mouth had fallen ajar. He brushed his fist across his loosely trembling lips.

"Hal Dozier?" said Andrew.

"Him," said Larry la Roche. He went on, looking gloomily down at the fire. "He got me first. The chief must of seen him get me by surprise, while I was down off my hoss, lying flat and drinking out of a creek!" He closed his great, bony fist in unspeakable agony at the thought. "Dozier come behind and took me. Frisked me. Took my guns, not the coin. We went down through the hills. Then the chief slid out of a shadow and come at us like a tiger. I sloped."

"You left Allister to fight alone?" said Scottie Macdougal quietly, for he had come from his lookout to listen.

"I had no gun," said Larry, without raising his eyes from the fire. "I sloped. I looked back and seen Allister sitting on his hoss, dead still. Hal Dozier was sittin' on his hoss, dead still. Five seconds, maybe. Then they went for their guns together. They was two bangs like one. But Allister slid out of his saddle and Dozier stayed in his. I come on here."

The quiet covered them. Joe Clune, with a shudder and another glance over his shoulder, cast a branch on the fire, and the flames leaped.

"Dozier knows you're with us," added Larry la Roche, and he cast a long glance of hatred at Andrew. "He knows you're with us, and he knows our luck left us when you come."

Andrew looked about the circle; not an eye met his.

The talk of Larry la Roche during the days of the ride was showing its effect now. After all, they were only superstitious children, with the destructive power of giants. But the gage had been thrown down to Andrew, and he dared not pick it up.

"Boys," he said, "I'll say this: Are we going to bust up and each man go his way?"

There was no answer.

"If we do, we can split the profits over again. I'll take no money out of a thing that cost Allister's death. There's my sack on the floor of the shack. Divvy it up among you. You fitted me out when I was broke. That'll pay you back. Do we split up?"

"They's no reason why we should—and be run down like rabbits," said Joe Clune, with another of those terrible glances over his shoulder into the night.

The others assented with so many growls.

"All right," said Andrew, "we stick together. And, if we stick together, I run this camp."

"You?" asked Larry la Roche. "Who picked you? Who 'lected you, son? Why, you unlucky——"

"Ease up," said Andrew softly.

The eyes of La Roche flicked across the circle and picked up the glances of the others, but they were not yet ready to tackle Andrew Lanning. The hand which had been sliding back along the ground ceased its retrograde motion, and he watched Andrew with eyes like a cat.

"The last thing Allister did," said Andrew, "was to make me his lieutenant. It's the last thing he did, and I'm going to push it through. Not because I like the job." He raised his head, but not his voice. "They may run down the rest of you. They won't run down me. They can't. .They've tried, and they can't. And I might be able to keep the rest of you clear. I'm going to try. But I won't follow the lead of any of you. If there'd been one that could keep the rest of you together, d'you think Allister wouldn't have seen it? Don't you think he would of made that one leader? Why, look at you! Jeff, you'd follow Clune. But would Larry or Scottie follow Clune? Look at 'em and see!"

All eyes went to Clune, and then the glances of Scottie and La Roche dropped.

"Nobody here would follow La Roche. He's the best man we've got for some of the hardest work, but you're too flighty with your temper, Larry, and you know it. We respect you just as much, but not to plan things for the rest of us. Is that straight?"

They could not face this direct talk. Each of them was beginning to understand that the "kid" had looked through his eyes and into his heart.

"And you, Scottie," said Andrew, "you're the only one I'd follow. I say that freely. But who else would follow you? You're the best of us all at headwork and planning, but you don't swing your gun as fast, and you don't shoot as straight as Jeff or Larry or Joe. Is that straight?"

"What's leading the gang got to do with righting?" asked Scottie harshly. "And who's got the right to the head of things but me?"

"Ask Allister what fighting had to do with the running of things," said Andrew calmly. The moon was sliding up out of the East; it changed the faces of the men and made them oddly animallike; they stared, fascinated, at Andrew. "There's two reasons why I'm going to run this job, if we stick together. Allister named them once. I can take advice from any one of you; I know what each of you can do; I can plan a job for you; I can lead you clear of the law—and there's not one of you that can bully me or make me give an inch—no, nor all of you together—La Roche! Macdougal! Clune! Rankin!"

It was like a roll call, and at each name a head was jerked up in answer, and two glittering eyes flashed at Andrew—flashed, sparkled, and then became dull. The moonlight had made his pale skin a deadly white, and it was a demoniac face they saw.

The silence was his answer.

"Jeff," he commanded, "take the hill. You'll stand the watch to-night. And look sharp. If Dozier got Allister he's apt to come at us. Step on!"

And Jeff Rankin rose without a word and lumbered to the top of the hill. Larry la Roche suddenly filled his cup with boiling hot coffee, regardless of the heat, regardless of the dirt in the cup. His hand shook when he raised it to his lips.