Free Range Lanning/Chapter 16

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CHAPTER XVI

IN ROOM SEVENTEEN

IT was just after the hot hour of the afternoon. The shadows from the hills to the west were beginning to drop across the village; people who had kept to their houses during the early afternoon now appeared on their porches. Small boys and girls, returning from school, were beginning to play. Their mothers were at the open doors exchanging shouted pieces of news and greetings, and Andrew picked his way with care along the street. It was a town flung down in the throat of a ravine without care or pattern. Houses appeared absurdly on sharp hilltops, and again in gullies, where the winter rains must threaten the foundations, at least, once a year. There was not even one street, but rather a collection of straggling paths which met about a sort of open square, on the sides of which were the stores and the inevitable saloons and hotel.

But the narrow path along which Andrew rode was a gantlet to him. Before he came among the houses he had rolled a cigarette, and now he smoked it with enforced carelessness; and, though his heart was thudding at his ribs painfully, he made the gelding move slowly. He was intent on appearing at all costs the casual traveler. And he could not know how completely he failed in his part. For the shop pallor, which years of work had given Andrew, was not yet gone. His was one of those white skins which never satisfactorily takes on a tan; and, to contrast with that skin, he had intense black eyes which, no matter how casual he attempted to make their glances, burned into the faces of those he passed.

It was impossible for him to pass any man, woman, or child without searching the face. For all he knew, the placards might be already out, one of the least of those he passed might have recognized him. He noticed that one or two women, in their front door, stopped in the midst of a word to watch him curiously. It seemed to Andrew that a buzz of comment and warning preceded him and closed behind him. He felt sure that the children stood and gaped at him from behind, but he dared not turn in his saddle to look back.

At all costs he must get into the heart of this place, hear men talk, learn if those placards were up, and discover if any posses were out to search the road for the wanderer. And he kept on, reining in the gelding, and probing every face with one swift, resistless glance that went to the heart. He had been accustomed, in the old days, to look straight before him, and see no one. He had been apt to pass even old acquaintances without noticing them, but those times were far in the past. Now it was a matter of necessity. He dared not let a single one go by. He found himself literally taking the brains and hearts of men into the palm of his hand and weighing them. Yonder old man, so quiet, with the bony fingers clasped around the bowl of his corncob, sitting with blank eyes under the awning by the watering trough—that would be an ill man to cross in a pinch—that hand would be steady as a rock on the barrel of a gun. But the big, square man with the big, square face who talked so loudly on the porch of yonder store—there was a bag of wind that could be punctured by one threat and turned into a figure of tallow by the sight of a gun. Here was a pair of honest eyes on which the glance of Andrew caught and clung a moment. Ah, those were the eyes which he must fear now! For they belonged to the side of law and order, and the owner of them would stamp him underfoot like a snake in the house. Yonder was a pair of small, bright, shifting eyes that Andrew was glad to see. A whispered word, a coin slipped into the palm of that man, and he might be made useful.

Andrew went on with his lightning summary of the things he passed. Human nature had been a blank to him before. Now he found it a crowded book, written in letters, sometimes so large and bold that the facts stared at him, and sometimes so small, an important thing was scrawled away in corners which he almost overlooked.

But he came to the main square, the heart of the town. It was quite empty. He went across to the hotel, tied the gelding at the rack, and sat down on the veranda. He wanted with all his might to go inside, to get a room, to be alone and away from this battery of searching eyes. But he dared not. He must mingle with these people and learn what they knew.

An old man beside him began talking—rambling on—asking questions. Was he out of the south? Had he come by Bill Jowett's place by any chance? Bill Jowett was an old friend. His wife was "took bad" a few weeks since with some heart trouble. The maundering voice droned on; the little, dull eyes kept wandering about the square, and Andrew came to the verge of a mad explosion. That impulse alarmed him and taught him the guard which he must keep over his tongue. As it was, he turned and, with one angry glance, silenced the old man. Then, alarmed at what he had done, he went in and sought the bar.

It should be there, if anywhere, the poster with the announcement of Andrew Lanning's outlawry and the picture of him. What picture would they take? The old snapshot of the year before, which Jasper had taken? No doubt that would be the one. But much as he yearned to do so, he dared not search the wall. He stood up to the bar and faced the bartender. The latter favored him with one searching glance, and then pushed across the whisky bottle.

How did he know that Andrew wanted whisky? The bartender knew at a glance he was not confronted with a government agent, but a "regular fellow" of the Western country. "Do you know me?" asked Andrew with surprise. And then he could have cursed his careless tongue.

"I know you're safe and need a drink," said the bartender, looking at Andrew again. Suddenly he grinned. "When a man's been dry that long he gets a hungry look around the eyes that I know. Hit her hard, boy."

Andrew brimmed his glass and tossed off the drink. And to his astonishment there was none of the shocking effect of his first drink of whisky. It stung his throat, it burned in his stomach for a moment, but it was like a drop of water tossed on a huge blotter. To his tired nerves the alcohol was a mere nothing. Besides, he dared not let it affect him. He filled a second glass, pushing across the bar one of the gold pieces of Henry Allister. Then, turning casually, he glanced along the wall. There were other notices up—many written ones—but not a single face looked back at him. All at once he grew weak with relief. But in the meantime he must talk to this fellow.

"What's the news?"

"What kind of news?"

"Any kind. I've been talkin' more to coyotes than to men for a long spell."

Should he have said that? Was not that a suspicious speech? Did it not expose him utterly?

"Nothin' to talk about here much more excitin' than a coyote's yap. Not a damn thing. Which way you come from?"

"South. The last I heard of excitin' news was this stuff about Lanning, the outlaw."

It was out, and he was glad of it. He had taken the bull by the horns.

"Lanning? Lanning? Never heard of him. Oh, yes, the gent that bumped off Bill Dozier. Between you and me, they won't be any sobbin' for that. Bill had it comin'. He's been huntin' trouble too long. But they've outlawed Lanning, have they?"

"That's what I hear."

But sweet beyond words had been this speech from the bartender. They had barely heard of Andrew Lanning in this town; they did not even know that he was outlawed. Andrew felt hysterical laughter bubbling in his throat. Now for one long sleep; then he would make the ride across the mountains and into safety. That sleep on a soft bed, he felt, would give him the strength of a Hercules.

He went out of the barroom, put the gelding away in the stables behind the hotel, and got a room. In ten minutes, pausing only to tear the boots from his feet, he was sound asleep under the very gates of freedom. And while he slept the gates were closing and barring the way. If he had wakened even an hour sooner, all would have been well and, though he might have dusted the skirts of danger, they could never have blocked his way. But, with seven days of exhausting travel behind him, he slept like one drugged, the clock around and more. It was morning, mid-morning, when he wakened.

Even then he was too late, but he wasted priceless minutes using the luxury of hot water to shave. He wasted more priceless minutes eating his breakfast, for it was delightful beyond words to have food served to him which he had not cooked with his own hands. And so, sauntering out onto the veranda of the hotel, he saw a compact crowd on the other side of the square and the crowd focused on a man who was tacking up a sign. Andrew, still sauntering, joined the crowd, and looking over their heads, he found his own face staring back at him; and, under the picture of that lean, serious face, in huge black type, five thousand dollars reward for the capture, dead or alive——

The rest of the notice blurred before his eyes.

Some one was speaking. "You made a quick trip, Mr. Dozier, and I expect if you send word up to Hallowell in the mountains they can——"

So Hal Dozier had brought the notices himself.

Andrew, in that moment, became perfectly calm. And he felt that tingling nervousness in his knees, in his elbows, and thrilling into the tips of his fingers.

He went back to the hotel, and, resting one elbow on the desk, he looked calmly into the face of the clerk and the proprietor. Instantly he saw that the men did not suspect—as yet.

"I hear Mr. Dozier's here?" he asked.

"Room seventeen," said the clerk. "Hold on. He's out in the square now."

"'S all right. I'll wait in his room."

He went to room seventeen. The door was unlocked. And drawing a chair into the farthest corner, Andrew sat down, rolled a cigarette, drew his revolver, and waited.