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CHAPTER VII

"BETWIXT AND BETWEEN"

EVERY moment was bringing on the dawn more swiftly, and the eyes of Andy were growing more accustomed to the gloom in the house. He found the door of the girl's room at once. When he entered he had only to pause a moment before he had all the details clearly in mind. Other senses than that of sight informed him in her room. There was in the gray gloom a touch of fragrance such as blows out of gardens across a road; yet here the air was perfectly quiet and chill. The dawn advanced. A lesser place of darkness shone in the gloom across the back of a chair. He touched it; something silken and as light as the air. He gathered it into his hand, and it was reduced to a small thing against his palm.

But all that he could make out was a faint touch of color against the pillow—and that would be her hair. Then with astonishing clearness he saw her hand resting against her breast. Andy stood for a moment with his eyes closed, a great tenderness falling around him. The hush kept deepening, and the sense of the girl drew out to him as if a light were brightening about her. It was a holy moment to Andy. There was a feeling that a third presence was hovering about him, seeing and understanding, and that presence was God, he knew.

He stepped back to the table against the wall, took the chimney from the lamp, and flicked a match along his trousers, for in that way a match would make the least noise. Yet to the hair-trigger nerves of Andy the spurt and flare of the match was like the explosion of a gun. He lighted the lamp, turned down the wick, and replaced the chimney. Then he turned as though some one had shouted behind him. He whirled as he had whirled in the hall, crouching, and he found himself looking straight into the eyes of the girl as she sat up in bed.

Truly he did not see her face at first, but only the fear in it, parting her lips and widening her eyes. The glow of the lamp caught on her hair and turned it into a red-gold river of light that splashed on white shoulders, and then disappeared behind her. A moment before the room had been nothing—a part of the grayness of the dawn—but the lighting of the lamp had shut out the rest of the world, and all the mind, all the soul of Andy was cupped and poured against that tide of bronze light and against the face of the girl. She did not speak; her only movement was to drag up the coverlet of the bed and hold it against the base of her throat.

Andy drew off his hat and stood, crushing it against his breast. His hair, wild from the ride, became wilder as a morning wind drove through the window and made the flame jump in the throat of the lamp. Altogether he was a savage figure, and he saw the fear of him go into the face of the girl as plainly as though he stood in front of a mirror. And it hurt Andy like a bullet tearing through him.

He stepped a little closer; she winced against the back of the bed.

Then Andy came stock-still. "Do you know me?" he asked.

He watched her as she strove to speak, but if her lips stirred they made no sound. It tortured him to see her terror, and yet he would not have had her change. This. crystal pallor or a flushed joy—in one of the two she was most beautiful.

"You saw me in Martindale," he continued. "I am the blacksmith. Do you remember?"

She nodded, still watching him with those haunted eyes.

"I saw you for the split part of a second," said Andy, "and you stopped my heart. I've come to see you for two minutes; I swear I mean you no harm. Will you let me have those two minutes for talk?"

Again she nodded. But he could see that the terror was being tempered a little in her face. There was more plain excitement behind her eyes. She was beginning to think, to wonder. It seemed a natural thing for Andy to go forward a pace closer to the bed, but, lest that should alarm her, it seemed also natural for him to drop upon one knee. It brought the muzzle of the revolver jarringly home against the floor.

The girl heard that sound of metal and it shook her; but it requires a very vivid imagination to fear a man upon his knees. And now that he was not so tall she could look directly into his face, and she saw that he was only a boy, not more than two or three years older than herself. For the first time she remembered the sooty figure which had stood in the door of the blacksmith shop. The white face against the tawny smoke of the shop; that had attracted her eyes before. It was the same white face now, but subtly changed. A force exuded from him; indeed, he seemed neither young nor old. Here he was upon his knees. And one wildly romantic thought brushed through her mind, to be instantly dismissed.

She heard him speaking in a voice not louder than a whisper, rapid, distinct; and there was a quality of emotion behind it. She had heard that same quality in the voice of great actors—men who knew how to talk from the heart, or to seem to talk from the heart.

"When you came through the town you waked me up like a whiplash," he was saying. "When you left I kept thinking about you. Then along came a trouble. I killed a man. A posse started after me. It's on my heels. I rode like the wind, for I knew it was life or death if they caught me, but I had to see you again. Do you understand?"

A ghost of color was going up her throat, staining her cheeks.

"I had to see you," repeated. "It's my last chance. To-morrow they may get me. Two hours from now they may have me salted away with lead. But before I kick out I had to have one more look at you. So I swung out of my road and came straight to this house. I came up the stairs. I went into a room down the hall and made a man tell me where to find you."

There was a flash in the eyes of the girl like the wink of sun on a bit of quartz on a far-away hillside, but it cut into the speech of Andrew Lanning. "He told you where to find me?" she asked in a voice no louder than the swift, low voice of Andy. But what a world of meaning! What a rush and outpour of contempt and scorn!

"He had a gun shoved into the hollow of his throat," said Andy. "He had to tell—two doors down the hall——"

"It was Charlie!" said the girl softly. She seemed to forget her fear. Her head raised as she looked at Andy.

It made him flush to see her like that. "I came in here," said Andy. "I lighted the lamp to look at you once. I didn't mean to speak to you. But I had to see you before I go. Do you believe me?"

She brooded on him, excited, fearless now. And she answered: "The other man—the one you—why——"

"The man I killed doesn't matter," said Andy. "Nothing matters except that I've got this minute here with you."

"But where will you go? How will you escape?"

"I'll go to death, I guess," said Andy quietly. "But I'll have a grin for Satan when he lets me in. I've beat 'em, even if they catch me."

"Tell me your name."

"What's my name? Nothing! And don't waste time on things like that."

The coverlet dropped from her breast; her hand was suspended with stiff fingers. There had been a sound as of some one stumbling on the stairway, the unmistakable slip of a heel and the recovery; then no more sound. Andy was on his feet. She saw his face white, and then there was a glitter in his eyes, and she knew that the danger was nothing to him. But Anne Withero whipped out of her bed.

"Did you hear?"

"I tied and gagged him," said Andy, "but he's broken loose, and now he's raising the house on the quiet."

For an instant they stood listening, staring at each other.

"They—they're coming up the hall," whispered the girl. "Listen!"

It was no louder than a whisper from without—the creak of a board. Andrew Lanning slipped to the door and turned the key in the lock. When he rejoined her in the middle of the room he gave her the key.

"Let 'em in if you want to," he said.

But the girl caught his arm, whispering: "Hide there in the closet—among my clothes. Quickly! They—they won't dare come in here!"

"There's men coming who'll dare a lot more than that. But they don't matter. It's as well here as the next place."

"You mean you're not going to try to get away?"

"Maybe that. Don't you see that I'm happy, Anne Withero?"

"You're not afraid?"

"I'm plumb froze with fear, but with happiness, too."

Looking past him, she saw the knob of the door turn slightly, slowly. She caught her breath.

"There's still time. You can get out that window onto the top of the roof below, then a drop to the ground. But hurry before they think to guard that way!"

"Confound them and the ways they guard! One minute more of you and me and God, Anne."

"You're throwing yourself away!"

"Stand there like that. With your head high. You're beautiful, Anne. And this is worth dyin' for!"

His voice shook her. It was as if she were sobbing.

"Then go for my sake," she pleaded.

"I'll go for one thing."

"Name it! Name it!"

She began to wring her hands, and the lamplight caught at her head and she was covered to the waist with the ripples of her red-gold hair. Fear had whitened her lips, but her eyes were glorious.

"When you know they've blown me to the four winds, will you say this thing to yourself: 'He was no good, but he loved me.' Will you say that?"

"I will! I promise you I will!" She was dragging him toward the window.

"Anne!" called a voice suddenly from the hall.

Andy threw up the window, and, turning toward the door, he laughed his defiance and his joy.

"Hurry!" she was demanding. A great blow fell on the door of her room, and at once there was shouting in the hall: "Pete, run outside and watch the window!"

"Will you go?" cried the girl desperately.

He turned toward the window. He turned back like a flash and swept her close to him.

"Do you fear me?" he whispered.

"No," said the girl.

"Will you remember me?"

"Forever!"

"God bless you," said Andy as he leaped through the window. She saw him take the slope of the roof with one stride; she heard the thud of his feet on the ground below. Then a yell from without, shrill and high and sharp.

When the door fell with a crash, and three men were flung into the room, Charles Merchant saw her standing in her nightgown by the open window. Her head was flung back against the wall, her eyes closed, and one hand was pressed across her lips.

"He's out the window. Down around the other way. Curse him!" cried Charles Merchant.

The stampede swept out of the room. Charles was beside her.

She knew that vaguely, and that he was speaking, but not until he touched her bare shoulder did she hear the words: "Anne, are you unhurt—has—for Heaven's sake speak, Anne. What's happened?"

She reached up and put his hand away.

"Charles," she said, "call them back. Don't let them follow him!"

"Are you mad, dear?" he asked. "That murdering——"

He found a tigress in front of him.

"If they hurt a hair of his head, Charlie, I'm through with you. I'll swear that!"

It stunned Charles Merchant. And then he went stumbling from the room.

His cow-punchers were out from the bunk house already; the guests and his father were saddling or in the saddle.

"Come back!" shouted Charles Merchant. "Don't follow him. Come back! No guns. He's done no harm."

Two men came around the corner of the house, dragging a limp figure between them.

"Is this no harm?" they asked. "Look at Pete, and then talk."

They lowered the tall, limp figure of the man in pajamas to the ground; his face was a crimson smear.

"Is he dead?" asked Charles Merchant.

"No move out of him," they answered.

Other people, most of them on horseback, were pouring back to learn the meaning of the strange call from Charles Merchant.

"I can't tell you what I mean," he was saying in explanation. "But you, dad, I'll be able to tell you. All I can say is that he mustn't be followed—unless Pete here——"

The eyes of Pete opportunely opened. He looked hazily about him.

"Is he gone?" asked Pete.

"Yes."

"Thank the Lord!"

"Did you see him? What's he like?"

"About seven feet tall. I saw him jump off the roof of the house. I was right under him. Tried to get my gun on him while he was sprawling after his jump, but he came up like a wild cat and went straight at me. Had his fist in my face before I could get my finger on the trigger. And then the earth came up and slapped me in the face."

"There he goes!" cried some one.

The sky was now of a brightness not far from day, and, turning east, in the direction pointed out, Charles Merchant saw a horseman ride over a hilltop, a black form against the coloring horizon. He was moving leisurely, keeping his horse at the cattle pony's lope. Presently he dipped away out of sight.

John Merchant dropped his hand on the shoulder of his son. He was a stern man, was John Merchant, and his face was not pleasant as Charles turned and looked up at it; but if John Merchant was stern, the face of his son was the face of a lost soul in torment.

"What is it?" asked the father.

"Heaven knows! Not I!"

"Here are more people! What's this? A night of surprise parties?"

Six riders came through the trees, rushing their horses, and John Merchant saw Bill Dozier's well-known, lanky form in the lead. He brought his horse from a dead run to a halt in the space of a single jump and a slide. The next moment he was demanding fresh mounts.

"Can you give 'em to me, Merchant? But what's all this?"

"You make your little talk," said Merchant, "and then I'll make mine."

"I'm after Andy Lanning. He's left a gent more dead than alive back in Martindale, and I want him. Can you give me fresh horses for me and my boys, Merchant?"

"But the man wasn't dead? He wasn't dead?" cried the voice of a girl. The group opened; Bill Dozier found himself facing a bright-haired girl wrapped to the throat in a long coat, with slippers on her feet.

"Not dead and not alive," he answered. "Just betwixt and between."

"Thank God!" whispered the girl. "Thank God!"

There was only one man in the group who should not have heard that whispered phrase, and that man was Charles Merchant. He was standing at her side.