Free Range Lanning/Chapter 5

Free Range Lanning
George Owen Baxter
Chapter 5: Fear or Iron Dust



THE yell with which Andrew Lanning had shot out of Martindale, and which only Jasper Lanning had recognized, was no more startling to the men of the village than it was to Andrew himself. Mingled in an ecstasy of emotion, there was fear, hate, anger, grief, and the joy of freedom in that cry; but it froze the marrow of Andy's bones to hear it.

Fear, most of all, was driving him out of the village. Just as he rushed around the bend of the street he looked back to the crowd of men tumbling upon their horses; every hand there would be against him. He knew them. He ran over their names and faces. Thirty seconds before he would rather have walked on the edge of a cliff than rouse the anger of a single one among these men, and now, by one blow, he had started them all after him.

Once, as he topped the rise, the folly of attempting to escape from their long-proved cunning made him draw in on the rein a little; but the horse only snorted and shook his head and burst into a greater effort of speed. After all, the horse was right, Andy decided. For the moment he thought of turning and facing that crowd, but he remembered stories about men who 'had killed the enemy in fair fight, but who had been tried by a mob jury and strung to the nearest tree.

Any sane man might have told Andrew that those days were some distance in the past, but Andy made no distinction between periods. He knew the most exciting events which had happened around Martindale in the past fifty years, and he saw no difference between one generation and the next. In fact, he was not given to sifting evidence. With Uncle Jasper to manage his affairs he had had little to do with men and their ways, and his small contact with people in the blacksmith shop, outside of purely business dealings, had all gone to convince him that men near Martindale were a stark and terrible lot.

Was not Uncle Jasper himself continually dinning into his ears the terrible possibilities of trouble? Was not Uncle Jasper, even in his old age, when no one but a greaser would dream of lifting a hand against him, religiously exacting in his hour or more of gun exercise each day? Did not Uncle Jasper force Andy to go through the same maneuvers for twice as long between sunset and sunrise? And why all these precautions and endless preparations if these men of Martindale were not killers?

It might have occurred to Andy that no one had been killed in recent months, but it did not occur. He was thinking back to the stories of Jasper, when Martindale, through a period of one bloody six months, had averaged over two killings a day. That was in a period when a gold-rush population clogged the streets and bulged the saloons. But still Andy was unable to distinguish between past and present. It might seem strange that he could have lived so long among these people without knowing them better, but Andy had taken from his mother a little strain of shyness. He never opened his mind to other people, and they really never opened themselves to Andy Lanning. The men of Martindale wore guns, and the conclusion had always been apparent to Andy that they wore guns because, in a pinch, they were ready to kill men.

And Andy Lanning, with a sob in his throat and his eyes drawn to glinting points, sent his horse rushing down the valley.

The fear of wild beasts is terrible enough, and there are few horrors as great as the terror which the criminal feels when he hears the bloodhounds crying down his trail; but of all fears there is none like the fear of man for man. Because it is intelligence following intelligence. If the pursued conceives the most adroit plan with his hard-working imagination he can never be sure that one of his enemies may not reach a similar conclusion.

To Andy Lanning, as fear whipped him north out of Martindale, there seemed no pleasure or safety in the world except in the speed of his horse and the whir of the air against his face. When that speed faltered he went to the quirt. He spurred mercilessly. Yet he had ridden his horse out to a stagger before he reached old Sullivan's place. Only when the forefeet of the mustang began to pound did he realize his folly in exhausting his horse when the race was hardly begun. He went into the ranch house to get a new mount.

He had seen old Sullivan many times before, but he had never seen him with such eyes. The pointed face of the old man held a wealth of cunning and knowledge. When he opened the door he stood for a long moment simply looking at Andy and saying nothing, and. for the space of one or two sickening heartbeats it seemed to Andy that the news must have already reached the ranch house. Knowing that this was impossible, he steadied himself with a great effort. It was simply the habitual silence of Sullivan, and not a suspicion. After a moment they were out in the corral looking over the horses with the aid of a lantern.

There was nothing dangerous in that adventure, but when Andy turned his back on the house and started again up the valley his nerves were singing. He rehearsed the cock-and-bull story he had stammered out to Sullivan. What if the shrewd old fellow had read everything between the lines?

The muscles of Andy's back quivered in hysterical expectation of the bullet that might strike among them. And then the kind darkness settled around him.

When he was calmer he would rebuild the scene with Sullivan with more truth. He realized that he had played his part well—astonishingly well. His voice had not quivered. His eye had met that of the old rancher every moment. His hand had been as steady as iron.

Something that Uncle Jasper had said recurred to him, something about iron dust. He felt now that there was indeed a strong, hard metal in him; fear had put it there —or was it fear itself? Was it not fear that had brought the gun into his hand so easily when the crowd rushed him from the door of the saloon? Was it not fear that had made his nerves so rocklike as he faced that crowd and made his get-away?

He was on one side now, and the world was on the other. He turned in the saddle arid probed the thick blackness with his eyes; then he sent the pinto on at an easy, ground-devouring lope. Sometimes, as the ravine narrowed, the close walls made the creaking of the saddle leather loud in his ears, and the puffing of pinto, who hated work; sometimes the hoofs scuffed noisily through gravel; but usually the soft sand muffled the noise of hoofs, and there was a silence as dense as the night around Andy Lanning.

Thinking back, he felt that it was all absurd and dream-like. He had never hurt a man before in his life. Martindale knew it Why could he not go back, face them, give up his gun, wait for the law to speak?

But when he thought of this he thought a moment later of a crowd rushing their horses through the night, leaning over their saddles to break the wind more easily, and all ready to kill on this man trail.

All at once a great hate welled up in him, and he went on with gritting teeth.

It was out of this anger, oddly enough, that the memory of the girl came to him. She was like the falling of this starlight, pure, aloof, and strange and gentle. It seemed to Andrew Lanning that the instant of seeing her outweighed the rest of his life, but he would never see her again. He began to think with the yearning of a boy—foolish thoughts. If he could make a bargain with those who followed him. If he could make them let him have time to see her for a moment he would go on and he would attempt no trick to get away. But how could he see her, even if Bill Dozier and his men allowed it? If he saw her what would he say to her? It would not be necessary to speak. One glance would be enough. He felt that he could carry away a treasure to last a lifetime in another glance.

But, sooner or later, Bill Dozier would reach him. Why not sooner? Why not take the chance, ride to John Merchant's ranch, break a way to the room where the girl slept this night, smash open the door, look at her once, and then fight his way out?

Another time such a thing would make him shudder. But what place has modesty when a man flees for his life?

He swung out of the ravine and headed across the hills. From the crest the valley was broad and dark below him, and on the opposite side the hills were blacker still. He let pinto go down the steep slope at a walk, for there is nothing like a fast pace downhill to tear the heart out of a horse. Besides, it came to him after he started, were not the men of Bill Dozier apt to miss this sudden swinging of the trail?

In the floor of the valley he sent pinto again into the stretching canter, found the road, and went on with a thin cloud of the alkali dust about him until the house rose suddenly out of the ground, a black mass whose gables seemed to look at him like so many heads above the treetops.