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Free Range Lanning/Chapter 6



THE house would have been more in place on the main street of a town than here in the mountain desert; but when the first John Merchant had made his stake and could build his home as it pleased him to build, his imagination harked back to a mid-Victorian model, built of wood, with high, pointed roofs, many carved balconies and windows, and several towers. These houses habitually seem in need of new paint, and, looking on them, one pities the men and women who have lived and died there. Such was the house which the first John Merchant built, a grotesque castle of wood. And here the second John Merchant lived with his son Charles, whose taste had quite outgrown the house.

But to the uneducated eye of Andrew Lanning it was a great and dignified building, something of which the whole countryside was proud. They would point it out to strangers: "There's the Merchant house. Can you raise that in your home town?"

The way led for a short distance through a grove of trees; then, rounding an elbow turn, revealed the full view of the house. Andrew reined the pinto under the trees to look up at that tall, black mass. It was doubly dark against the sky, for now the first streaks of gray light were pale along the eastern horizon, and the house seemed to tower up into the center of the heavens. Andy sighed at the thought of stealing through the great halls within. Even if he could find an open window, or if the door were unlatched, how could he find the girl? Another thing troubled him. He kept canting his ear with eternal expectation of hearing the chorus of many hoofs swinging toward him out of the darkness. After all, it was not a simple thing to put Bill Dozier off the trail. When a horse neighed in one of the corrals Andy started violently and laid his finger tips on his revolver butt.

That false alarm determined him to make his attempt without further waste of time. He swung from the stirrups and went lightly up the front steps. A board creaked slightly beneath him, and Andy paused with one foot raised. He listened, but there was no stir of alarm in the house. Thereafter his footfall was a feathery thing that carried him like a shadow to the door. It yielded at once under his hand, and, stepping through, he found himself lost in utter blackness.

He closed the door, taking care that the spring did not make the lock click, and then stood perfectly motionless, listening, probing the dark.

After a time the shadows gave way before his eyes, and he could make out that he was in a hall with lofty ceiling. Opposite him there was a faint glimmer; that was a big mirror. Something wound down from above at a little distance, and he made out that this was the stairway. Obviously the bedrooms would be in the second story.

Andy began the ascent.

He had occasion to bless the thick carpet before he was at the head of the stairs; he could have run up if he had wished, and never have made a sound. At the edge of the second hall he paused again. The sense of people surrounded him. That indescribable odor of a house was thick in his nostrils; the scent of cooking, which will not out the taint of tobacco smoke. Then directly behind him a man cleared his throat. As though a great hand had seized his shoulder and wrenched him down, Andy whirled and dropped to his knees, the revolver in his hand pointing uneasily here and there like the head of a snake laboring to find its enemy.

But there was nothing in the hall. The voice became a murmur, and then Andy knew that it had been some man speaking in his sleep.

At least that room was not the room of the girl. Or was she, perhaps, married? Weak and sick, Andy rested his hand against the wall and waited for his brain to clear, "She won't be married," he whispered to himself in the darkness.

But of all those doors up and down the hall, which would be hers? There was no reasoning which could help him in the midst of that puzzle. He walked to what he judged to be the middle of the hall, turned to his right, and opened the first door. A hinge creaked, but it was no louder than the rustle of silk against silk.

There were two windows in that room, and each was gray with the dawn, but in the room itself the blackness was unrelieved. There was the one dim stretch of white, which was the covering of the bed; the furniture, the chairs, and the table were half merged with the shadows around them, and they were as vague as reflections in muddy water. Andy slipped across the floor, evaded a chair by instinct rather than by sight, and leaned over the bed. It was a man, as he could tell by the heavy breathing; yet he leaned closer in a vain effort to make surer by the use of his eyes.

Then something changed in the face of the man in the bed. It was an indescribable change. It was in effect like the change which comes in the face of one we are talking to when we feel the thought in his mind without noting a single change of muscles; but Andrew knew that the man in the bed had opened his eyes. Before he could straighten or stir hands were thrown up. One struck at his face, and the fingers were stiff; one arm was cast over his shoulders, and Andy heard the intake of breath which precedes a shriek. Not a long interval— no more, say, than the space required for the lash of a snapping blacksnake to flick back on itself—but in that interim the hands of Andy were buried in the throat of his victim.

His fingers, accustomed to the sway and quiver of eight-pound hammers and fourteen-pound sledges, sank through the flesh and found the windpipe. And the hands of the other grappled at his wrists, smashed into his face. Andy could have laughed at the effort. He jammed the shin of his right leg just above the knees of the other, and at once the writhing body was quiet. With all of his blood turned to ice, Andy found, what he had discovered when he faced the crowd in Martindale, that his nerves did not jump and that his heart, instead of trembling, merely beat with greater pulses. Fear filled him as wine fills a cup, but it cleared his brain; it sent a tremendous nervous power thrilling in his wrists and elbows. All the while he was watching mercilessly for the cessation of the struggles. And when the wrenching at his forearms ceased he instantly relaxed his grip.

For a time there was a harsh sound filling the room, the rough intake of the man's breath; he was for the time being paralyzed and incapable of any effort except the effort to fill his lungs. By the glint of the metal work about the bits Andy made out two bridles hanging on the wall near the bed. Taking them down, he worked swiftly. As soon as the fellow on the bed would have his breath he would scream. Yet the time sufficed Andy; he had his knife out, flicked the blade open, and cut off the long reins of the bridles. Then he went back to the bed and shoved the cold muzzle of his revolver into the throat of the other.

There was a tremor through the whole body of the man, and Andy knew that at that moment the senses of his victim had cleared.

He leaned close to the ear of the man and whispered: "Don't make no loud talk, partner. Keep cool and steady. I don't aim to hurt you unless you play the fool." Instantly the man answered in a similar whisper, though it was broken with panting: "Get that coat of mine out the closet. There—the door is open. You'll find my wallet in the inside pocket and about all you can want will be in it."

"That's the way," reassured Andy. "Keep your head and use sense. But it isn't the coin I want. You've got a red-headed girl in this house. Where's her room?"

His hand which held the revolver was resting on the breast of the man, and he felt the heart of the other leap. Then there was a current of curses, a swift hissing of invective. And suddenly it came over Andy that since he had killed one man, as he thought, the penalty would be no greater if he killed ten. All at once the life of this prostrate fellow on the bed was nothing to him.

When he cut into that profanity he meant what he said. "Partner, I've got a pull on this trigger. Another ounce will send you right up against eternity. Now cut out that line of chatter and hear me talk. I don't mean the girl any harm, but I've got to see her."

"You—you cur——"

"Easy," said Andy. "That took you a long step on your way. There's a slug in this gun just trembling to get at you. And I tell you honest, friend, I'd as soon drill you as turn around. Now tell me where that girl's room is?"

"Anne Withero?" Only his breathing was heard for a moment. Then: "Two doors down, on this side of the hall. If you lay a hand on her I'll live to——"

"Partner, so help me Heaven, I wouldn't touch a lock of her hair. Now lie easy while I make sure of you."

And he promptly trussed the other in the bridle reins. Out of a pillow case folded hard he made a gag and tied it into the mouth of the man. Then he ran his hands over the straps; they were drawn taut.

"If you make any noise," he warned the other, "I'll come back to find out why. S'long."