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CHAPTER XLI

BETWEEN A HORSE AND A GIRL

THE first ten days of the following time were the hardest; it was during that period that Scottie and the rest were most apt to return and make a backstroke at Dozier and Andrew. For Andrew knew well enough that this was the argument—the promise of a surprise attack—with which Scottie had lured his men away from the shack.

During that ten days, and later, he adopted a systematic plan of work. During the nights he paid two visits to the sick man. On one occasion he dressed the wound; on the next he did the cooking and put food and water beside the marshal, to last him through the day.

After that he went out and took up his post. As a rule he waited on the top of the hill in the clump of pines. From this position he commanded with his rifle the sweep of hillside all around the cabin. The greatest time of danger for Dozier was when Andrew had to scout through the adjacent hills for food—their supply of meat ran out on the fourth day.

But the ten days passed; and after that, in spite of the poor care he had received—or perhaps aided by the absolute quiet—the marshal's iron constitution asserted itself more and more strongly. He began to mend rapidly. Eventually he could sit up, and, when that time came, the great period of anxiety was over. For Dozier could sit with his rifle across his knees, or, leaning against the chair which Andrew had improvised, command a fairly good outlook.

Only once—it was at the close of the fourth week—did Andrew find suspicious signs in the vicinity of the cabin the telltale trampling on a place where four horses had milled in an impatient circle. But no doubt the gang had thought caution to be the better part of hate. They remembered the rifle of Andrew and had gone on without making a sign. Afterward Andrew learned why they had not returned sooner. Three hours after they left the shack a posse had picked them up in the moonlight, and there had followed a forty-mile chase.

But all through the time until the marshal could actually stand and walk, and finally sit his saddle with little danger of injuring the wound, Andrew, knowing nothing of what took place outside, was ceaselessly on the watch. Literally, during all that period, he never closed his eyes for more than a few minutes of solid sleep. And, before the danger line had been crossed, he was worn to a shadow. When he turned his head the cords leaped out on his neck. His eyes were buried in his head by that long vigil, and his mouth had that look, at once savage and nervous, which goes always with the hunted man.

And it was not until he was himself convinced that Dozier could take care of himself that he wrapped himself in his blankets and fell into a twenty-four-hour sleep. He awoke finally with a start, out of a dream in which he had found himself, in imagination, wakened by Scottie stooping over him. He had reached for his revolver at his side, in the dream, and had found nothing. Now, waking, his hand was working nervously across the floor of the shack. That part of the dream was come true, but, instead of Scottie leaning over him, it was the marshal, who sat in his chair with his rifle across his knees. Andrew sat up. His weapons had been indeed removed, and the marshal was looking at him with beady eyes.

"Have you seen 'em?" asked Andrew. "Have the boys shown themselves?"

He started to get up, but the marshal's crisp voice cut in on him. "Sit down there."

There had been—was it possible to believe it?—a motion of the gun in the hands of the marshal to point this last remark.

"Partner," said Andrew, stunned, "what are you drivin' at?"

"I've been thinking," said Hal Dozier. "You sit tight till I tell you what about."

"It's just driftin' into my head, sort of misty," murmured Andrew, "that you've been thinkin' about double crossin' me."

"Suppose," said the marshal, "I was to ride into Martindale with you in front of me. That'd make a pretty good picture, Andy. Allister dead, and you taken alive. Not to speak of ten thousand dollars as a background. That would sort of round off my work. I could retire and live happy ever after, eh?"

Andrew peered into the grim face of the older man; there was not a flicker of a smile in it.

"Go on," he said, "but think twice, Hal. If I was you, I'd think ten times!"

The marshal met those terrible, blazing eyes without a quiver of his own.

"I began with thinking about that picture," he said. "Later on I had some other thoughts—about you. Andy, d'you see that you don't fit around here? You're neither a man-killer nor a law-abidin' citizen. You wouldn't fit in Martindale any more, and you certainly won't fit with any gang of crooks that ever wore guns. Look at the way you split with Allister's outfit! Same thing would happen again. So, as far as I can see, it doesn't make much difference whether I trot you into town and collect the ten thousand, or whether some of the crooks who hate you run you down—or some posse corners you one of these days and does its job. How do you see it?"

Andrew said nothing, but his face spoke for him.

"How d'you see the future yourself?" said the marshal. His voice changed suddenly: "Talk to me, Andy,"

Andrew looked carefully at him; then he spoke. "I'll tell you short and quick, Hal. I want action. That's all. I want something to keep my mind and my hands busy. Doing nothing is the thing I'm afraid of."

"I gather you're not very happy, Andy?"

Lanning smiled, and it was not a pleasant smile to see.

"I'm empty, Hal," he answered. "Does that answer you? The crooks are against me, the law is against me. Well, they'll work together to keep me busy. I don't want any man's help. I'm a bad man, Hal. I know it. I don't deny it. I don't ask any quarter."

It was rather a desperate speech—rather a boyish one. At any rate the marshal smiled, and a curious flush came in Andrew's face.

"Will you let me tell you a story, Andrew? It's a story about yourself."

He went on: "You were a kid in Martindale. Husky, good-natured, a little sleepy, with touchy nerves, not very confident in yourself. I've known other kids like you, but none just the same type.

"You weren't waked up. You see? The pinch was bound to come in a town where every man wore his gun. You were bound to face a show-down. There were equal chances. Either you'd back down and take water from somebody, or else you'd give the man a beating. If the first thing happened, you'd have been a coward the rest of your life. But the other thing was what happened, and it gave you a touch of the iron that a man needs in his blood. Iron dust, Andy, iron dust!

"You had bad luck, you think. I tell you that you were bound to fall out with the law, because you were too strong, too touchy—and too quick with a gun. You had too much of the stuff that explodes. Also, you had a lot of imagination. You thought you'd killed a man; it made you think you were a born murderer. You began to look back to the old stories about the Lannings—a wild crew of men. You thought that blood was what was a-showing in you.

"Partly you were right, partly you were wrong. There was a new strength in you. You thought it was the strength of a desperado. Do you know what the change was? It was the change from boyhood to manhood. That was all—a sort of chemical change, Andy.

"See what happened: You had your first fight and you saw your first girl, all about the same time. But here's what puzzles me: according to the way I figure it, you must have seen the girl first. But it seems that you didn't. Will you tell me?"

"We won't talk about the girl," said Andrew in a heavy voice.

"Tut, tut! Won't we? Boy, we're going to do more talking about her than about anything else. Well, anyway, you saw the girl, fell in love with her, went away. Met up with a posse which my brother happened to lead. Killed your man. Went on. Rode like the wind. Went through about a hundred adventures in as many days. And little by little you were fixing in your ways. You were changing from boyhood into manhood, and you were changing without any authority over you. Most youngsters have their fathers over them when that change comes. All of 'em have the law. But you didn't have either. And the result was that you changed from a boy into a man, and a free man. You hear me? You found that you could do what you wanted to do; nothing could hold you back except one thing—the girl!"

Andrew caught his breath, but the marshal would not let him speak.

"I've seen other free men—most people called them desperadoes. What's a desperado in the real sense? A man who won't submit to the law. That's all he is. But, because he won't submit, he usually runs foul of other men. He kills one. Then he kills another. Finally he gets the blood lust. Well, Andy, that's what you never got. You killed one man—he brought it on himself. But look back over the rest of your career. Most people think you've killed twenty. That's because they've heard a pack of lies. You're a desperado—a free man—but you're not a man-killer. And there's the whole point.

"And this was what turned you loose as a criminal—you thought the girl had cut loose from you. Otherwise to this day you'd have been trying to get away across the mountains and be a good, quiet member of society. But you thought the girl had cut loose from you, and it hurt you. Man-killer? Bah! You're simply lovesick, my boy!"

"Talk slow," whispered Andrew. "My—my head's whirling."

"It'll whirl more, pretty soon. Andy, do you know that the girl never married Charles Merchant?"

There was a wild yell; Andrew was stopped in midair by a rifle thrust into his stomach.

"She broke off her engagement. She came to me because she knew I was running the man hunt. She begged me to let you have a chance. She tried to buy me. She told me everything that had gone between you. Andy, she put her head on my desk and cried while she was begging for you!"

"Stop!" whispered Andrew.

"But I wouldn't lay off your trail, Andy. Why? Because I'm as proud as a devil. I'd started to get you and I'd lost Gray Peter trying. And even after you saved me from Allister's men I was still figuring how I could get you. And then, little by little, I saw that the girl had seen the truth. You weren't really a crook. You weren't really a man-killer. You were simply a kid that turned into a man in a day—and turned into a free man! You were too strong for the law.

"Now, Andrew, here's my point: As long as you stay here in the mountain desert you've no chance. You'll be among men who know you. Even if the governor pardons you—as he might do if a certain deputy marshal were to start pulling strings—you'd run some day into a man who had an old grudge against you, and there'd be another explosion. Because there's nitroglycerin inside you, son!

"Well, the thing for you to do is to get where men don't wear guns. The thing for you to do is to find a girl you love a lot more than you do your freedom, even. If that's possible——"

"Where is she?" broke in 'Andy. "Hal, for pity's sake, tell me where she is!"

"I've got her address all written out. She forgot nothing. She left it with me, she said, so she could keep in touch with me."

"It's no good," said Andy suddenly. "I could never get through the mountains. People know me too well. They know Sally too well."

"Of course they do. So you're not going to go with Sally. You're not going to ride a horse. You're going in another way. Everybody's seen your picture. But who'd recognize the dashing young man-killer, the original wild Andrew Lanning, in the shape of a greasy, dirty tramp, with a ten-days-old beard on his face, with a dirty felt hat pulled over one eye, and riding the brake beams on the way East? And before you got off the beams, Andrew, the governor of this State will have signed a pardon for you. Well, lad, what do you say?"

But Andrew, walking like one dazed, had crossed the room slowly. The marshal saw him go across to the place where Sally stood; she met him halfway, and, in her impudent way, tipped his hat half off his head with a toss of her nose. He put his arm around her neck and they walked slowly off together.

"Well," said Hal Dozier faintly, "what can you do with a man who don't know how to choose between a horse and a girl?"

THE END