Open main menu

CHAPTER IV

BILL TAKES THE TRAIL

ONLY one man in the crowd was old enough to recognize that yell, and the one man was Jasper Lanning. A great, singing happiness filled his heart and his throat. But the shouting of the men as they tumbled into their saddles cleared his brain. He called to Deputy Bill Dozier, who was kneeling beside the prostrate form of Buck Heath: "Call 'em off, Bill. Call 'em off, or, by the Lord, I'll take a hand in this! He done it in self-defense. He didn't even pull a gun on Buck. Bill, call 'em off!"

And Bill did it most effectually. He straightened, and then got up. "Some of you fools get some sense, will you?" he called. "Buck ain't dead; he's just knocked out!"

It brought them back, a shame-faced crew, laughing at each other. "Where's a doctor?" demanded Bill Dozier.

Some one who had an inkling of how wounds should be cared for was instantly at work over Buck. "He's not dead," pronounced this authority, "but he's danged close to it. Fractured skull, that's what he's got. And a fractured jaw, too, looks to me. Yep, you can hear the bone grate!"

Jasper Lanning was in the midst of a joyous monologue. "You seen it, boys? One punch done it. That's what the Lannings are—the one-punch kind. And you seen him get to his gun? Handy! Lord, but it done me good to see him mosey that piece of iron off'n his hip. And you looked sick, Gus, when he had you covered. What was it you said about my boy and nerve to-day? Maybe you've forgot. Well, I'll promise you I won't never tell him. Neat, wasn't it? Clean get-away. See him take that saddle? Where was you with your gat, Joe? Nowhere! Looked to me like——"

The voice of Bill Dozier broke in: "I want a posse. Who'll ride with Bill Dozier to-night?"

It sobered Jasper Lanning. "What d'you mean by that?" he asked. "Didn't the boy fight clean?"

"Maybe," admitted Dozier. "But Buck may kick out. And if he dies they's got to be a judge talk to your boy. Come on. I want volunteers."

"Dozier, what's all this fool talk?"

"Don't bother me, Lanning. I got a duty to perform, ain't I? Think I'm going to let 'em say later on that anybody done this and then got away from Bill Dozier? Not me!"

"Bill," said Jasper, "I read in your mind. You're lookin' for action, and you want to get it out of Andy."

"I want nothin' but to get him back."

"Think he'll let you come close enough to talk? He'll think you want him for murder, that's what. Keep off of this boy, Bill. Let him hear the news; then he'll come back well enough."

"You waste my time," said Bill, "and all the while a man that the law wants is puttin' ground between him and Martindale. Now, boys, you hear me talk. Who's with Bill Dozier to bring back this milk-fed kid?"

It brought a snarl from Jasper Lanning. "Why don't you go after him by yourself, Dozier? I had your job once and I didn't ask no helpers on it."

But Bill Dozier apparently had no liking for a lonely ride. He made his demand once more, and the volunteers came out. There is always a fascination about a pursuit, and it acted now to make every one of the crowd come close about the deputy. He chose from them wisely, for he knew them all. He picked them for the sake of their steady hands, their cool heads, and also for their horses. A good many offered themselves out of mere shame, but Bill Dozier knew them, and not one was included. In five minutes he had selected five sturdy men, and every one of the five was a man whose name was known.

They went down the street of Martindale without shouting and at a steady lope which their horses could keep up indefinitely. Old Jasper followed them to the end of the village and kept on watching through the dusk until the six horsemen loomed on the hill beyond against the sky line. They were still cantering, and they rode close together like a tireless pack of wolves. After this old Jasper went back to his house, and when the door closed behind him a lonely echo went through the place.

"Bah!" said Jasper. "I'm getting soft!"

In the meantime the posse went on, regardless of direction. There were only two possible paths for a horseman out of Martindale; east and west the mountains blocked the way, and young Lanning had started north. Straight ahead of them the mountains shot up on either side of Grant's Pass, and toward this natural landmark Bill Dozier led the way. Not that he expected to have to travel as far as this. He felt fairly certain that the fugitive would ride out his horse at full speed, and then he would camp for the night and make a fire.

Andrew Lanning was town bred and soft of skin from the work at the forge. When the biting night air got through his clothes he would need warmth from a fire.

Bill Dozier led on his men for three hours at a steady pace until they came to Sullivan's ranch house in the valley. The place was dark, but the deputy threw a loose circle of his men around the house, and then knocked at the front door. Old man Sullivan answered in his bare feet. Did he know of the passing of young Lanning? Not only that, but he had sold Andrew a horse. It seemed that Andrew was making a hurried trip; that Buck Heath had loaned him his horse for the first leg of it, and that Buck would call later for the animal. It had sounded strange, but Sullivan was not there to ask questions. He had led Andrew to the corral and told him to make his choice.

"There was an old pinto in there," said Sullivan, "all leather in that hoss. You know him, Joe. Well, the boy runs his eye over the bunch, and then picks pinto right off. I said he wasn't for sale, but he wouldn't take anything else. I figured a stiff price, and then added a hundred to it. Lanning didn't wink. He took the horse, but he didn't pay cash. Told me I'd have to trust him." Bill Dozier bade Sullivan farewell, gathered his five before the house, and made them a speech. Bill had a long, lean face, a misty eye, and a pair of drooping, sad mustaches. As Jasper Lanning once said: "Bill Dozier always looked like he was just away from a funeral or just goin' to one." This night the dull eye of Bill was alight.

"Gents," he said, "maybe you-all is disappointed. I heard some talk comin' up here that maybe the boy had laid over for the night in Sullivan's house. Which he may be a fool, but he sure ain't a plumb fool. But, speakin' personal, this trail looks more and more interestin' to me. Here he's left Buck's hoss, so he ain't exactly a hoss thief—yet. And he's promised to pay for pinto, so that don't make him a crook. But when pinto gives out Andy'll be in country where he mostly ain't known. He can't take things on trust, and he'll mostly take 'em, anyway. Boys, looks to me like we was after the real article. Anybody weakenin'?"

It was suggested that the boy would be overtaken before pinto gave out; it was even suggested that this waiting for Andrew Lanning to commit a crime was perilously like forcing him to become a criminal. To all of this the deputy listened sadly, combing his mustaches. The hunger for the man hunt is like the hunger for food, and Bill Dozier had been starved for many a day. When he stood before the saloon, with his arms held above his head like the rest of the crowd, he had sensed many possibilities in young Lanning, and he was more and more determined as the trail wore on to develop the chances to the uttermost.

"Partner," said Bill to the last speaker, "ain't we makin' all the speed we can? Ain't it what I want to come up to the fool kid and grab him before he makes a hoss thief or somethin' out of himself? You gents feed your bosses the spur and leave the thinkin' to me. I got a pile of hunches."

There was no questioning of such a known man as Bill Dozier. The six went rattling up the valley at a smart pace. Yet Andy's change of horses at Sullivan's place changed the entire problem. He had ridden his first mount to a stagger at full speed, and it was to be expected that, having built up a comfortable lead, he would settle his second horse to a steady pace and maintain it.

All night the six went on, with Bill Dozier's longstriding chestnut setting the pace. He made no effort toward a spurt now. Andrew Lanning led them by a full hour's riding on a comparatively fresh horse, and, unless he were foolish enough to indulge in another wild spurt, they could not wear him down in this first stage of the journey. There was only the chance that he would build a fire recklessly near to the trail, but still they came to no sign of light, and then the dawn broke and Bill Dozier found unmistakable signs of a trotting horse which went straight up the valley. There were no other fresh tracks pointing in the same direction, and this must be Andy's horse. And the fact that he was trotting told many things. He was certainly saving his mount for a long grind. Bill Dozier looked about at his men in the gray morning. They were a hard-faced lot; he had not picked them for tenderness. They were weary now, but the fugitive must be still wearier, for he had fear to keep him company and burden his shoulders.

And now they came to a surprising break in the trail. It twisted from the floor of the valley up a steep slope, crossed the low crest of the hills, dipped into a ravine and out again, and finally came out above a broad and open valley.

"What does he mean," said Bill Dozier aloud, "by breakin' for Jack Merchant's house?"