Free Range Lanning/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII

HEAVEN AND HELL

HE waited an eternity; in actual time it was exactly ten minutes. Then a cavalcade tramped down the hall. He heard their voices, and Hal Dozier was among them. About him flowed a babble of questions as the men struggled for the honor of a word from the great man. Perhaps he was coming to his room to form the posse and issue general instructions for the chase.

The door opened. Dozier entered, jerked his head squarely to one side, and found himself gazing into the muzzle of a revolver. The astonishment and the swift hardening of his face had begun and ended in a fraction of a second.

"It's you, eh?" he said, still holding the door.

"Right," said Andrew. 'Tm here for a little chat about this Lanning you're after."

Hal Dozier paused another heartbreaking second, then he saw that caution was the better way. "I'll have to shut you out for a minute or two, boys. Go down to the bar and have a few on me." He turned, laughing and waving to them, and Andrew's heart went out to such consummate coolness, such remarkable nerve. Then the door closed, and Dozier turned slowly to face his hunted man. Their glances met, held, and probed each other deeply, and each of them recognized the man in the other. Into Andrew's mind came back the words of the great outlaw, Allister: "There's one man I'd think twice about meeting, and that——"

"Sit down," said Andrew. "And you can take off your belt if you want to. Easy! That's it. Thank you."

The belt and the guns were tossed onto the bed, and Hal Dozier sat down. He reminded Andrew of a terrier, not heavy, but all compact nerve and fighting force—one of those rare men who are both solid and wiry.

"I'll not frisk you for another gun," said Andrew.

"Thanks; I have one, but I'll let it lie."

He made a movement. "If you don't mind," said Andrew, "I'd rather that you don't reach into your pockets. Use my tobacco and papers, if you wish." He tossed them onto the table, and Hal Dozier rolled his smoke in silence. Then he tilted back in his chair a little. His hand with the cigarette was as steady as a vise, and Andrew, shrugging forward his own ponderous shoulders, dropped his elbows on his knees and trained the gun full on his companion.

"I've come to make a bargain, Dozier," he said.

The other made no comment, and the two continued that silent struggle of the eyes that was making Andrew's throat dry and his heart leap.

"Here's the bargain: Drop off this trail. Let the law take its own course through other hands, but you give me your word to keep off the trail. If you'll do that I'll leave this country and stay away. Except for one thing, I'll never come back here. You're a proud man; you've never quit a trail yet before the end of it. But this time I only ask you to let it go with running me out of the country."

"What's the one thing for which you'd come back?"

"We're talking in confidence?"

"Certainly, Lanning."

That small thing made a vast deal of difference to Andrew. For ten years he had been "Andy" to this man; now he was "Lanning." For the first time, probably, he felt the meaning of Bill's death to his brother.

"I'll come back—once—because of a girl."

He saw the eyes of Dozier widen and then contract again. "You're not exactly what I expected to find," he said. "But go on. If I don't take the bargain you pull that trigger?"

"Exactly."

"H'm! You may have heard the voices of the men who came up the hall with me?"

"Yes."

"The moment a report of a gun is heard they'll swarm up to this room and get you."

"They made too much noise. Barking dogs don't bite. Besides, the moment I've dropped you I go out that window."

"You'll break a leg with the drop." "Get up and stand at that window and look down. No, keep both your hands at your sides, if you please. That's better."

Hal Dozier went obediently to the window and looked down to the saddled horse beneath. "You'd jump for that saddle and ride like the wind."

"Right again, Dozier."

"Suppose you missed the saddle?"

Andrew smiled, but his smile gradually went out before a gradual wrinkling around the eyes of the other.

"It's a good bluff, Lanning," said the other. "I'll tell you what, if you were what I expected you to be, a hysterical kid, who had a bit of bad luck and good rolled together, I'd take that offer. But you're different—you're a man. All in all, Lanning, I think you're about as much of a man as I've ever crossed before. No, you won't pull that trigger, because there isn't one deliberate murder packed away in your system. It's a good bluff, as I said before, and I admire the way you worked it. But it won't do. I call it. I won't leave your trail, Lanning. Now pull your trigger."

He smiled straight into the eye of the younger man. A flush jumped into the cheeks of Andrew, and, fading, left him by contrast paler than ever. "You were one-quarter of an inch from death, Dozier," he replied, "and I was the same distance from being a yellow cur."

"Lanning, with men like you—and like myself, I hope—there's no question of distance. It's either a miss or a hit. Here's a better proposition: Let me put my belt on again. Then put your own gun back in the holster. We'll turn and face the wall. And when the clock downstairs strikes ten—that'll be within a few minutes—we'll turn and blaze at the first sound."

He watched his companion eagerly, and he saw the face of Andrew work. "I can't do it, Dozier," said Andrew. "I'd like to. But I can't!"

"Why not?" The voice of Hal Dozier was sharp with a new suspicion. "You say that the rest of these fellows are barking dogs, and that you don't fear 'em. Get me out of the way, and you're free to get across the mountains, and, once there, your trail will never be found. I know that; every one knows that. That's why I hit up here after you."

"I'll tell you why," said Andrew slowly. "I've got the blood of one man on my hands already, but, so help me God, I'm not going to have another stain. I had to shoot once, because I was hounded into it. And, if this thing keeps on, I'm going to shoot again and again. But as long as I can I'm fighting to keep clean, you understand?"

His voice became thin and rose as he spoke; his breath was a series of gasps, and Hal Dozier changed color.

"I think," said Andrew, regaining his self-control, "that I'd kill you. I think I'm just a split second surer and faster than you are with a gun. But don't you see, Dozier?"

He cast out his left hand, but his right hand held the revolver like a rock.

"Don't you see? I've got the taint in me. I've killed my man. If I kill another I'll go bad. I know it. Life will mean nothing to me. I can feel it in me."

His voice fell and became deeper.

"Dozier, give me my chance. It's up to you. Stand aside now, and I'll get across those mountains and become a decent man. Keep me here, and I'll be a killer. I know it; you know it. Dozier, you can make me or break me. You can make me a good citizen, or you can turn me into something that people will remember around here for a long time. Why are you after me? Because your brother was killed by me. Dozier, think of your brother and then look at me. Was his life worth my life? He was your brother, and that's the reason I say it. You're a cool-headed man. You knew him, and you knew what he was worth. A fighter, he loved fighting, and he picked his chances for it. His killings were as long as the worst bad man that ever stepped, except that he had the law behind him. When he got on my trail he knew that I was just a scared kid who thought he'd killed a man. But he ran me down with his gang. Why didn't he give me a chance? Why didn't he let me run until I found out that I hadn't killed Buck Heath? Then he knew, and you know, that I'd have come back. But he wouldn't give me the chance. He ran me into the ground, and I shot him down. And that minute he turned me from a scared kid into an outlaw—a killer. Tell me, man to man, Dozier, if Bill hasn't already done me more wrong than I've done him!"

As he finished that strange appeal he noted that the famous fighter was white about the mouth and shaken. He added with a burst of appeal: "Dozier, if it's pride that holds you back, look at me! I'm not proud. I'll get down there on my knees. I'll beg you to let me go and give me a chance. You can open the door and let the others look in at me while I'm beggin'. That's how little pride I have. Do you think I'd let shame keep me out of heaven?"

For heaven was the girl, and Dozier, looking into that white face and those brilliant black eyes, knew it. If he had been shaken before, he was sunk in gloom now. And then there was a last appeal, a last agony of appeal from Andrew: "Hal, you know I'm straight. You know I'm worth a chance."

The older man lifted his head at last.

"Pride won't keep you out of heaven, Andy, but pride will keep me out. And pride will send me to perdition. Andy, I can't leave the trail."

At that sentence every muscle of Andrew's body relaxed, and he sat like one in a state of collapse, except that the right hand and the gun in it were steady as rocks.

"Here's something between you and me that I'd swear I never said if I was called in a court," went on Hal Dozier in a solemn murmur. "I'll tell you that I know Bill was no good. I've known it for years, and I've told him so. It's Bill that bled me, and bled me until I've had to soak a mortgage on the ranch. It's Bill that's spent the money on his cussed booze and gambling. Until now there's a man that can squeeze and ruin me any day, and that's Merchant. He sent me hot along this trail. He sent me, but my pride sent me also. No, son, I wasn't bought altogether. And if I'd known as much about you then as I know now, I'd never have started to hound you. But now I've started. Everybody in the mountains, every puncher on the range knows that Hal Dozier has started on a new trail, and every man of them knows that I've never failed before. Andy, I can't give it up. You see, I've got no shame before you. I tell you the straight of it. I tell you that I'm a bought man. But I can't leave this trail to go back and face the boys. If one of them was to shake his head and say on the side that I'm no longer the man I used to be, I'd shoot him dead as sure as there's a reckoning that I'm bound for. It isn't you, Andy; it's my reputation that makes me go on."

He stopped, and the two men looked sadly at each other.

"Andy, boy," said Hal Dozier, "I've no more bad feeling toward you than if you was my own boy." Then he added with a little ring to his voice: "But I'm going to stay on your trail till I kill you. You write that down in red."

And the outlaw dropped his gun suddenly into the holster.

"That ends it, then," he said slowly. "I don't feel the way you do, Hal. I'm beginning to hate you, because you stand between me and the girl. I'm as frank as you are, you see. And the next time we meet we won't sit down and chin friendly like. We'll let our guns do our talking for us. And, first of all, I'm going to get across these mountains, Hal, in spite of you and your friends."

"You can't do it, Andy. Try it. I've sent the word up. The whole mountains will be alive watchin' for you. Every trail will be alive with guns,"

But Andrew stood up, and, using always his left hand while the right arm hung with apparent carelessness at his side, he arranged his hat so that it came forward at a jaunty angle, and then hitched his belt around so that the holster hung a little more to the rear. The position for a gun when one is sitting is quite different from the proper position when one is standing. All these things Uncle Jasper had taught Andrew long and long before. He was remembering them in chunks.

"Give me three minutes to get my saddle on my horse and out of town," said Andrew. "Is that fair?"

"Considering that you could have filled me full of lead here," said Hal Dozier, with a wry smile, "I think that's fair enough,"

"Are you riding Gray Peter?" asked Andrew from the door, to which he backed with instinctive caution.

"Of course,"

"He'll be safe, Hal. No matter how you press me, I'll never take a bead on that horse. Why, God bless him, I've ridden him myself!"

"You didn't have to tell me that," said Hal. "Skunks that shoot hosses don't look down their rifles with your kind of eyes, Andy."

There was a moisture in the eyes of Hal Dozier as the door closed, and Andrew's quick, light step went down the hall.