Free Range Lanning/Chapter 39



HE closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but, though he came to the verge of oblivion, the voices from the other room finally waked him. They had been changing subtly during the past hours and now they rose, and there was a ring to them that troubled Andrew.

He could make out their talk part of the time; and then again they lowered their voices to rumbling growls. At such times he knew that they were speaking of him, and the hum of the undertone was more ominous than open threats. When they talked aloud there was a confused clamor; when they were more hushed there was always the oily murmur of Scottie's voice, taking the lead and directing the current of the talk. More and more he felt that this man would be his stumbling block. One and all they hated the marshal and had no great love for their new leader; but the rest of them were rather dangerous mechanics in the world of crime; Scottie Macdougal was a thinking brain.

The liquor was going the rounds fast, now. Before they left for the Murchison Pass they had laid in a comfortable supply, but apparently Allister had cached a quantity of the stuff at the Twin Eagles shack. Of one thing Andrew was certain, that four such practiced whisky drinkers would never let their party denegerate into a drunken rout; and another thing was even more sure—that Scottie Macdougal would keep his head better than the best of the others. But what the alcohol would do would be to cut the leash of constraint and dig up every strong passion among them. For instance, Jeff Rankin was by far the most equable of the lot, but, given a little whisky, Jeff became a conscienceless devil.

He knew his own weakness, and Andrew, crawling to the door and putting his ear to the crack under it, found that the sounds of the voices became instantly clearer; the others were plying Jeff with the liquor, and Jeff, knowing that he had had enough, was persistently refusing, but with less and less energy.

There must be a very definite reason for this urging of Rankin toward the whisky, and Andrew was not hard pressed to find out that reason. The big, rather good-natured giant was leaning toward the side of the new leader, just as steadily as the others were leaning away from him. Whisky alone would stop his scruples. Larry la Roche, his voice a guarded, hissing whisper, was speaking to Jeff as Andrew began listening from his new position.

"What I ask you," said La Roche, "is this: Have we had any luck since the kid joined us?"

"We've got a pile of the coin," said Jeff obstinately.

"D'you stack a little coin against the loss of Allister?" asked Larry la Roche.

"Easy," cautioned Scottie. "Not so loud, Larry."

"He's asleep," said Larry la Roche. "I heard him lie down after he'd put something agin' the door. No fear of him."

"Don't be so sure. He might make a noise lying down and make not a sound getting up. And, even when he's asleep, he's got one eye open like a wolf."

"Well," repeated Larry insistently, and now his voice was so faint that Andrew had to guess at half the syllables, "answer my question, Jeff: Have we had good luck or bad luck, takin' it all in all, since he joined us?"

"How do I know it's his fault?" asked Jeff. "We all knew it would be a close pinch if Allister ever jumped Hal Dozier. We thought Allister was a little bit faster than Dozier. Everybody else said that Dozier was the best man that ever pulled a gun out of leather. It wasn't luck that beat Allister—it was a better man."

There was a thud as his fist hit the rickety, squeaking table in the center of the room.

"I say, let's play fair and square. How do I know that the kid won't make a good leader?"

Scottie broke in smoothly:

"Makes me grin when you say that, Jeff. Tell you what the trouble is with you, old man: you're too modest. A fellow that's done what you've done, following a kid that ain't twenty-five!"

There was a bearlike grunt from Jeff. He was not altogether displeased by this gracious tribute. But he answered: "You're too slippery with your tongue, Scottie. I never know when you mean what you say!"

It must have been a bitter pill for Scottie to swallow, but he was not particularly formidable with his weapons, compared with straight-eyed Jeff Rankin, and he answered: "Maybe there's some I jolly along a bit, but, when I talk to old Jeff Rankin, I talk straight. Look at me now, Jeff. Do I look as if I was joking with you?"

"I ain't any hand at readin' minds," grumbled Jeff.

He added suddenly: "I say it was the finest thing

I ever see, the way young Lanning stood out there in the valley. Did you watch? Did you see him let Dozier get the jump on his gun? Pretty, pretty, pretty! And then his own gat was out like a flash—one wink, and there was Hal Dozier drilled clean! I tell you, boys, you got this young Lanning wrong. I sort of cotton to the kid. I always did. I liked him the first time I ever laid eyes on him. So did you all, except Larry, yonder. And it was Larry that turned you agin' him after he come and joined us. Who asked him to join us? We did!"

"Who asked him to be captain?" said Scottie.

It seemed to stagger Jeff Rankin.

"Allister used him for a sort of second man; seemed like he meant him to lead us in case anything happened to him."

"While Allister was living," said Scottie, "you know I would of followed him anywhere. Wasn't I his advance agent? Didn't I do his planning with him? But now Allister's dead—worse luck—but dead he is."

He paused here cunningly, and, no doubt, during that pause each of the outlaws conjured up a picture of the scar-faced man with the bright, steady eyes, who had led them so long and quelled them so often and held them together through thick and thin.

"Allister's dead," repeated Scottie, "and what he did while he was alive don't hold us now. We chose him for captain out of our own free will. Now that he's dead we have the right to elect another captain. What's Lanning done that he has a right to fill Allister's place with us? What job did he have at the holdup? When we stuck up the train didn't he have the easiest job? Did he give one good piece of advice while we were plannin' the job? Did he show any ability to lead us, then?"

The answer came unhesitatingly from Rankin: "It wasn't his place to lead while Allister was with us. And I'll tell you what he done after Allister died. When I seen Dozier comin', who was it that stepped out to meet him? Was it you, Scottie? No, it wasn't. It wasn't you, La Roche, neither, nor you, Clune, and it wasn't me. Made me sick inside, the thought of facin' Dozier. Why? Because I knew he'd never been beat. Because I knew he was a better man than Allister, and that Allister had been a better man than me. And it ain't no braggin' to say I'm a handier gent with my guns than any of you. Well, I was sick, and you all were sick. I seen your faces. But who steps out and takes the lead? It was the kid you grin at, Scottie; it was Andy Lanning, and I say it was a fine thing to do!"

It was undoubtedly a facer; but Scottie came back in his usual calm manner.

"I know it was Lanning, and it was a fine thing. I don't deny, either, that he's a fine gent in lots of ways—and in his place—but is his place at the head of the gang? Are we going to be bullied into having him there?"

'Then let him follow, and somebody else lead."

"You make me laugh, Jeff. He's not the sort that will follow anybody."

Plainly Scottie was working on Jeff from a distance. He would bring him slowly around to the place where he would agree to the attack on Andrew for the sake of getting at the wounded marshal. And the big man did not have the mental endurance to hold out long against his more agile-minded comrade.

"Have another drink, Jeff, and then let's get back to the main point, and that has nothin' to do with Andy. It is: Is Hal Dozier going to live or die?"

The time had come, Andrew saw, to make his final play. A little more of this talk and the big, good-hearted, strong-handed Rankin would be completely on the side of the others. And that meant the impossible odds of four to one. Andrew knew it. He would attack any two of them without fear. But three became a desperate, a grim battle; and four to one made the thing suicide.

He slipped silently to his feet from beside the door and picked up the canvas bag which represented his share of the robbery. Then he knocked at the door.

"Boys," he called, "there's been some hard thoughts between the lot of you and me. It looks like we're on opposite sides of a fence. I want to come in and talk to you."

Instantly Scottie answered: "Why, come on in, captain; not such hard words as you think—not on my side, anyways!"

It was a cunning enough lure, no doubt, and Andrew had his hand on the latch of the door before a second thought reached him. If he exposed himself, would not the three of them pull their guns? They would be able to account for it to Jeff Rankin later on.

"I'll come in," said Andrew, "when I hear you give me surety that I'll be safe. I don't trust you, Scottie."

"Thanks for that. What surety do you want?"

"I want the word of Jeff Rankin that he'll see me through till I've made my talk to you and my proposition."

It was an excellent counterthrust, but Larry la Roche saw through the attempt to win Jeff immediately.

"You skunk!" he said. "If you don't trust us we don't trust you. Stay where you be. We don't want to hear your talk!"

"Jeff, what do you say?" continued Andrew calmly.

There was a clamor of three voices and then the louder voice of Jeff, like a lion shaking itself clear of wolves: "Andy, come in, and I'll see you get a square deal—if you'll trust me!"

Instantly Andrew threw open the door and stepped in, his revolver in one hand, the heavy sack over his other arm, a dragging weight and also a protection.

"I'll trust you, Jeff," he said. "Trust you? Why, man, with you at my back I'd laugh at twenty fellows like these. They simply don't count."

It was another well-placed shot, and he saw Rankin flush heavily with pleasure. Scottie tilted his box back against the wall and delivered his counterstroke: "He said the same thing to me earlier on in the evening," he remarked casually. "But I told him where to go. I told him that I was with the bunch first and last and all the time. That's why he hates me!"