Free Range Lanning/Chapter 37



THERE was no further attempt at challenging his authority. When he ordered Clune and La Roche to bring in boughs for bedding—since they were to stop in the shack overnight—they went silently. But it was such a silence as comes when the wind falls at the end of a day and in a silent sky the clouds pile heavily, high and higher. Andrew took the opportunity to speak to Scottie Macdougal. He told Scottie simply that he needed him, and with him at his back he could handle the others, and more, too. He was surprised to see a twinkle in the eye of the Scotchman.

"Why, Andy," said the canny fellow, "didn't you see me pass you the wink? I was with you all the time!"

Andrew thanked him and went into the cabin to arrange for lights. He had no intention of shirking a share in the actual work of the camp; even though Allister had set that example for his following. He took some lengths of pitchy pine sticks and arranged them for torches. One of them alone would send a flare of yellow light through the cabin; two made a comfortable illumination. But he worked cheerlessly. The excitement of the robbery and the chase was over, and then the conflict with the men was passing. He began to see things truly by the drab light of retrospection. The bullets of Allister and Clune might have gone home—they were intended to kill, not to wound. And if there had been two deaths he, Andrew Lanning, would have been equally guilty with the men who handled the guns, for he had been one of the forces which made that shooting possible.

It was an ugly way to look at it—very ugly. It kept a frown on Andrew's face, while he arranged the torches in the main room of the shack and then put one for future reference in the little shed which leaned against the rear of the main structure. He had piled the boughs for four bunks in the first room; he arranged his own bed in this second room, where the saddles and other accouterments were piled. It was easily explained, since there was hardly room for five men in the first room. But he had another purpose. He wanted to separate himself from the others, just as Allister always did. Even in a crowded room Allister would seem aloof, and Andrew determined to make the famous leader his guide.

Above all he was troubled by what Scottie had said. He would have felt easy at heart if the Scotchman had met him with an argument or with a frown or honest opposition or with a hearty handshake, to say that all was well between them. But this cunning lie—this cunning protestation that he had been with the new leader from the first, put Andrew on his guard. For he knew perfectly well that Scottie had not been on his side during the crisis with La Roche. Macdougal sat before the door, his metal flask of whisky beside him. It was a fault of Allister, this permitting of whisky at all times and in all places, after a job was finished. And while it made the other men savage beasts, it turned Scottie Macdougal into a wily, smiling snake. He had bit the heel of more than one man in his drinking bouts.

Presently La Roche and Clune came in. They had been talking together again. Andrew could tell by the manner in which they separated, as soon as they entered the room, and by their voices, which they made loud and cheerful; and, also, by the fact that they avoided looking at each other. They were striving patently to prove that there was nothing between them; and if Andrew had been on guard, now he became tinglingly so.

They arranged their bunks; Larry la Roche pulled off his boots and put on great, flapping slippers, which he always included in his pack. He took from his vest a pipe with a small bowl and a long stem and sat down cross-legged to smoke. Andrew suggested that Larry produce the contents of his saddlebag and share the spoils of war.

He brought it out willingly enough and spilled it out on the improvised table, a glittering mass of gold trinkets, watches, jewels. He picked out of the mass a chain of diamonds and spread it out on his snaky fingers so that the light could play on it. Andrew knew nothing about gems, but he knew that the chain must be worth a great deal of money.

"This," said Larry, "is my share. You gents can have the rest and split it up."

"A nice set of sparklers," nodded Clune, "but there's plenty left to satisfy me."

"What you think," declared Scottie, "ain't of any importance, Joe. It's what the chief thinks that counts. Is it square, Lanning?"

Andrew flushed at the appeal and the ugly looks which La Roche and Clune cast toward him. He could have stifled Scottie for that appeal, and yet Scottie was smiling in the greatest apparent good nature and belief in their leader. His face was flushed, but his lips were bloodless. Alcohol always affected him in that manner.

"I don't know the value of the stones," said Andrew.

"Don't you?" murmured Scottie. "I forgot. Thought maybe you would. That was something that Allister did know."

The new leader saw a flash of glances toward Scottie, but the latter continued to eye the captain with a steady and innocent look.

"Scottie," decided Andrew instantly, "is my chief enemy,"

If he could detach one man to his side all would be well. Two against three would be a simple thing, as long as he was one of the two. But four against one—and such a four as these—was hopeless odds. There seemed little chance of getting Joe Clune. There remained only Jeff Rankin as his possibly ally, and already he had stepped on Jeff's toes sorely, by making the tired giant stand guard. He thought of all these things, of course, in a flash. And then in answer to his thoughts Jeff Rankin appeared. His heavy footfall crashed inside the door. He stopped, panting, and, in spite of his news, paused to blink at the flash of jewels.

"It's comin'," said Jeff. "Larry, hop into your shoes. No, don't stop for that. Boys, get your guns and scatter out of the cabin. Duck that light! Hal Dozier is comin' up the valley."

There was not a single exclamation, but the lights went out as if by magic; there were a couple of light, hissing sounds, such as iron makes when it is whipped swiftly across leather.

"How'd you know him by this light?" asked Larry la Roche, as they went out of the door. Outside they found everything brilliant with the white moonshine of the mountains.

"Nobody but Hal Dozier rides twistin' that way in the saddle. I'd tell him in a thousand. It's old wounds that makes him ride like that. We got ten minutes. He's takin' the long way up the cañon. And they ain't anybody with him,"

"If he's come alone," said Andrew, "he's come for me and not for the rest of you."

No one spoke. Then Larry la Roche: "He wants to make it man to man. That's clear. That's why he pulled up his hoss and waited for Allister to make the first move for his gun. It's a clean challenge to some one of us."

Andrew saw his chance and used it mercilessly. "Which one of you is willing to take the challenge?" he asked. "Which one of you is willing to ride down the cañon and meet him alone? La Roche, I've heard you curse Dozier."

But Larry la Roche answered: "What's this fool talk about takin' a challenge? I say, string out behind the hills and pot him with rifles,"

"One man, and we're five," said Jeff Rankin. "It ain't sportin', Larry. I hate to hear you say that. We'd be despised all over the mountains if we done it. He's makin' his play with a lone hand, and we've got to meet him the same way. Eh, chief?"

It was sweet to Andrew to hear that appeal. And he saw them turn one by one toward him in the moonlight and wait. It was his first great tribute. He looked over those four wolfish figures and felt his heart swelling.

"Wish me luck, boys," he said, and without another word he turned and went down the hillside.

The others watched him with amazement. He felt it rather than saw it, and it kept a tingle in his blood. He felt, also, that they were spreading out to either side to get a clear view of the fight that was to follow, and it occurred to him that, even if Hal Dozier killed him, there would not be one chance in a thousand of Hal's getting away. Four deadly rifles would be covering him. It must be that a sort of madness had come on Dozier, advancing in this manner, unsupported by a posse. Or, perhaps, he had no idea that the outlaws could be so close. He expected a daylight encounter high up the mountains.

But Andrew went swiftly down the ravine.

Broken cliffs, granite bowlders jumped up on either side of him, and the rocks were pale and glimmering under the moon. This one valley seemed to receive the light; the loftier mountains rolling away on each side were black as jet, with sharp, ragged outlines against the sky. It was a cold light, and the chill of it went through Andrew. He was afraid, afraid as he had been when Buck Heath faced him in Martindale, or when Bill Dozier ran him down, or when the famous Sandy cornered him. His fingers felt brittle, and his breath came and went in short gasps, drawn into the upper part of his lungs only.

Behind him, like an electric force pushing him on, the outlaws watched his steps. They, also, were shuddering with fear, and he knew it. But stronger than the force behind was the desperate thrill, the old urge to cast himself away like a man on the cliff. A sort of terrible happiness was in Andrew, but a weakness in his legs made him walk slowly and more slowly. His knees were numb. A puma was crying among the mountains. He really did not hear the sound or recognize it; he only knew that something came on his ear like the moonlight on his eye, something that thrust a chill home to his heart.

Dozier was coming, fresh from another kill.

"Only one man I'd think twice about meeting," Allister had said in the old days, and he had been right. Yet there were thousands who had sworn that Allister was invincible—that he would never fall before a single man.

He thought, too, of the lean face and the peculiar, set eye of Dozier. The man had no fear, he had no nerves; he was a machine, and death was his business.

And was he, Andrew Lanning, unknown until the past few months, now going down to face destruction, as full of fear as a girl trembling at the dark? What was it that drew them together, so unfairly matched? A ghostly thought came to him that all this had been planned and arranged by some unearthly power, and now, against his will, he was dragged into the path of the destroyer.

He could still see only the white haze of the moonshine before him, but now there was the clicking of hoofs on the rock. Dozier was coming. Andrew walked squarely out into the middle of the ravine and waited. He had set his teeth. The nerves on the bottom of his feet were twitching. Something freezing cold was beginning at the tips of his fingers. And, unless he fought those beginnings down, a great trembling would sweep over him in a moment, and he would be helpless. How long would it take Dozier to come?

An interminable time. The hoofbeats actually seemed to fade out and draw away at one time. Then they began again very near him, and now they stopped. Had Dozier seen him around the elbow curve? That heartbreaking instant passed, and the clicking began again. Then the rider came slowly in view. First there was the nodding head of the cow pony, then the foot in the stirrup, then Hal Dozier riding a little twisted in the saddle—a famous characteristic of his.

He came on closer and closer. He began to seem huge on the horse. Was he blind not to see the figure that waited for him? A voice that was not his, that he did not recognize, leaped out from between his teeth and tore his throat: "Dozier!"

The cow pony halted with a start; the rider jerked straight in his saddle; the echo of the call barked back from some angling cliff face down the ravine. All that before Dozier made his move. He had dropped the reins, and Andrew, with a mad intention of proving that he himself did not make the first move toward his weapon, had folded his arms.

He did not move through the freezing instant that followed. Not until there was a convulsive jerk of Dozier's elbow did he stir his folded arms. Then his right arm loosened, and the hand flashed down to his holster.

Was Dozier moving with clogged slowness, or was it that he had ceased to be a body, that he was all brain and hair-trigger nerves making every thousandth part of a second seem a unit of time? It seemed to Andrew that the marshal's hand dragged through its work; to those who watched from the sides of the ravine, there was a flash of fire from his gun before they saw even the flash of the steel out of the holster. The gun spat in the hand of Dozier, and something jerked at the shirt of Andrew beside his neck. He himself had fired only once, and he knew that the shot had been too high and to the right of his central target; yet he did not fire again. Something strange was happening to Hal Dozier. His head had nodded forward as though in mockery of the bullet; his extended right hand fell slowly, slowly; his whole body began to sway and lean toward the right. Not until that moment did Andrew know that he had shot the marshal through the body.

He raced to the side of the cattle pony, and, as the horse veered away, Hal Dozier dropped limply into his arms. He lay with his limbs sprawling at odd angles beside him. His muscles seemed paralyzed, but his eyes were bright and wide, and his face perfectly composed.

"There's luck for you," said Hal Dozier calmly. "I pulled it two inches to the right, or I would have broken your neck with the slug—anyway, I spoiled your shirt."

The cold was gone from Andrew, and he felt his heart thundering and shaking his body. He was repeating like a frightened child, "For God's sake, Hal, don't die—don't die."

The paralyzed body did not move, but the calm voice answered him: "You fool! Finish me before your gang comes and does it for you!"