Free Range Lanning/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX

THE BIRTH OF A DESPERADO

AT the same time the rifles of the two men of the posse rang, but they must have seen the fall of their leader, for the shots went wild, and Andy Lanning took off his hat and waved to them. But he did not flee again. He sat in his saddle with the long rifle balanced across the pommel while two thoughts went through his mind. One was to stay there and watch. The other was to slip the rifle back into the holster and with drawn revolver charge the five remaining members of the posse. These were now gathering hastily about Bill Dozier. But Andy knew their concern was vain. He knew where that bullet had driven home, and Bill Dozier would never ride again.

One by one he picked up those five figures with his eyes, fighting temptation. He knew that he could not miss if he fired again. In five shots he knew that he could drop as many men, and within him there was a perfect consciousness that they would not hit him when they returned the fire.

He was not filled with exulting courage. He was cold with fear. But it was the sort of fear which makes a man want to fling himself from a great height. But, sitting there calmly in the saddle, he saw a strange thing—the five men raising their dead leader and turning back toward the direction from which they had come. Not once did they look toward the form of Andy Lanning. They knew what he could not know, that the gate of the law had been open to this man as a retreat, but the bullet which struck down Bill Dozier had closed the gate and thrust him out from mercy. He was an outlaw, a leper now. Any one who shared his society from this moment on would fall under the heavy hand of the law.

But as for running him into the ground, they had lost their appetite for such fighting. They had kept up a long running fight and gained nothing; but a single shot from the fugitive had produced this result. They turned now in silence and went back, very much as dogs turn and tuck their tails between their legs when the wolf, which they have chased away from the precincts of the ranch house, feels himself once more safe from the hand of man and whirls with a flash of teeth. The sun gleamed on the barrel of Andy Lanning's rifle, and these men rode back in silence, feeling that they had witnessed one of those prodigies which were becoming fewer and fewer and farther and farther between around Martindale—the birth of a desperado.

Andrew watched them skulking off with the body of Bill Dozier held upright by a man on either side of the horse. He watched them draw off across the hills, still with that nervous, almost irresistible impulse to raise one wild, long cry and spur after them, shooting swift and straight over the head of the pinto. But he did not move, and now they dropped out of sight. And then, looking about him, Andrew Lanning felt how vast were those hills, how wide they stretched, and how small he stood among them. He was alone. He was utterly alone. He almost wished that Bill Dozier were back at the head of the posse hunting for his life. At least, that had been a sort of savage company. But now there was nothing but the hills and a sky growing pale with heat and the patches of olive-gray sagebrush in the distance.

The wind picked up a cloud of dust, molded it into the strangely lifelike figure of a horseman, and rushed that form across the valley at his left; it melted into thin air, as many a man had melted to nothingness in the mountain desert.

A great melancholy dropped upon Andy. He felt a childish weakness; dropping his elbows upon the pommel of the saddle, he buried his face in his hands. In that moment he needed desperately something to which he could appeal for comfort. In that moment a child of ten coming upon him could have "stuck up" Andy with a wooden imitation of a gun and driven him without resistance back to Martindale.

The weakness passed slowly.

He dismounted and looked to the pinto, for the pinto had worked hard, and now he stood with his forelegs somewhat apart and braced, and his head hung low. Every muscle of his body was relaxed, and, like a good cattle pony, not knowing what strange and violent exertion might be demanded of him the next moment he made the most of this instant of rest. And now the cinches were loosened; the sweat was rubbed carefully from him. Since he stood sagging to the right side and pointing the toe of his off hind foot Andy anxiously lifted that hoof to make sure that his horse had not picked up a stone. The pinto rewarded him by coming to life and raising his head just long enough to gauge and deliver a kick at Andy's head. It missed its mark by the proverbial breadth of a hair, and the pinto dropped his head again with a grunt of disappointment.

It made his rider grin with relief, that vicious little demonstration. When the cinches were drawn up again, a moment later, the pinto distended his lungs to make a slack after the girths were fastened, but Andy put his knee into the refractory ribs and crushed them to the breaking point. So the pinto with a sigh expelled his breath and allowed the cinching to be properly finished. The tender care had for a moment given him a thought that this man was no master; but the knee in the ribs removed all doubts. And from that moment the pinto was ready to die for Andy.

The rider, after this little exhibition of temper, stepped back and looked his horse over more carefully. The pinto had many good points. He had ample girth of chest at the cinches, where lung capacity is best measured. He had rather short forelegs, which promised weight-carrying power and some endurance, and he had a fine pair of sloping shoulders. But his belly was a trifle fine drawn, and, though he might stand a drive of a day or two admirably, it was very doubtful if he could endure a long siege of such life as Andy was apt to live. Also, the croup of the pinto sloped down too much, and he had a short neck. Andy knew perfectly well that no horse with a short neck can run fast for any distance. He had chosen the pinto for endurance, and endurance he undoubtedly had; but there was no question that he must have a horse superior in every respect—a horse capable of running his distance and also able to spurt like a trained racer for short distances. For many a time in his life he would need a horse which could put him out of short-shooting distance, and do it quickly. And many a time he would face a long grind across mountain and desert, and both together.

There were no illusions in the mind of Andrew Lanning about what lay before him. Uncle Jasper had told him too many tales of his own experiences on the trail in enemy country.

"There's three things," the old man had often said, "that a man needs when he's in trouble: a gun that's smooth as silk, a hoss full of running, and a friend."

For the gun Andy had his Colt in the holster, and he knew it like his own mind. There were newer models and trickier weapons, but none which worked so smoothly under the touch of Andy. Thinking of this, he produced it from the holster with a flick of his fingers. The sight had been filed away. When he was a boy in short trousers he had learned from Uncle Jasper the two main articles of a gun fighter's creed—that a revolver must be fired by pointing, not sighting, and that there must be nothing about it liable to hang in the holster to delay the draw. The great idea was to get the gun on your man with lightning speed, and then fire from the hip with merely a sense of direction to guide the bullet. Just as one raises his hand and points the finger. As a rule, one will point with astonishing closeness to the object, but it needs a wrist of iron, and many a long year of practice, to do that accurate pointing when there is a .45 gun in the hand. Uncle Jasper had given him that training, and he blessed the old man for it now.

He had a gun, therefore, and one necessity was his. Sorely he needed a horse of quality as few men needed one. And he needed still more a friend, a haven in time of crisis, an adviser in difficulties. And though Andy knew that it was death to go among men, he knew also that it was death to do without these two things.

He believed that there was one chance left to him, and that was to outdistance the news of the two killings by riding straight north. There he would stop at the first town, in some manner fill his pockets with money, and in some manner find both horse and friend.

Andrew Lanning was both simple and credulous; but it must be remembered that he had led a sheltered life, comparatively speaking; he had been brought up between a blacksmith shop on the one hand and Uncle Jasper on the other, and the gaps in his knowledge of men were many and huge. The prime necessity now was speed to the northward. So Andy flung himself into the saddle and drove his horse to north at the jogging, rocking lope of the cattle pony.

He was in a shallow basin which luckily pointed in the right direction for him. The hills sloped down to it from either side in long fingers, with narrow gullies between, but as Andy passed the first of these pointing fingers a new thought came to him.

It might be—why not?—that the posse had made only a pretense of withdrawing at once with the body of the dead man. No doubt Bill Dozier had taken five hand-picked fellows from the crowd, and it seemed strange, indeed, if they would give up the battle when the odds were still five to one in their favor. Perhaps, then, they had only waited until they were out of sight and had then circled swiftly around, leaving one man with the body. They might be waiting now at the mouth of any of these gullies.

No sooner had the thought come to Andy than he whitened. The pinto had been worked hard that morning and all the night before, but now Andy sent the spurs home without mercy as he shot up the basin at full speed. Each spur of hills pointed at him accusingly. Each shadowy cañon yawned like a door of danger as he passed, and he went with his revolver drawn, ready for a snap shot and a drop behind the far side of his horse.

For half an hour he rode in this fashion with his heart beating at his teeth. And each cañon as he passed was empty, and each had some shrub, like a crouching man, to startle him and upraise the revolver. At length, with the pinto wheezing from this new effort, he drew back to an easier gait. But still he had a companion ceaselessly following like the shadow of the horse he rode. It was fear, and it would never leave him.