Free Range Lanning/Chapter 25

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CHAPTER XXV

A MAN OF DOUBTS

IN Hal Dozier there was a belief that the end justified the means. When Hank Rainer sent word to Tomo that the outlaw was in his cabin, and, if the posse would gather, he, Hank, would come out of his cabin that night and let the posse rush the sleeping man who remained, Hal Dozier was willing and eager to take advantage of the opportunity. A man of action by nature and inclination, Dozier had built a great repute as a hunter of criminals, and he had been known to take single-handed chances against the most desperate; but when it was possible Hal Dozier played a safe game.

He understood the Napoleonic maxim that the side which puts the greatest number of units at the point of contact will be practically sure to win, and, when he could use two men to do the work of one man, Hal did it. And if he could get twenty, so much the better. In a crisis he was willing and able to do his work alone, but, by the time he had accumulated half a dozen scars representing half a dozen battles in his early life, he reached the conclusion that sooner or later one of his enemies was bound to kill him. The law of chance of itself condemned him. And though the people of the mountain desert considered him invincible, because he had run down some dozen notorious fighters, Hal himself felt that this simply increased the chances that the thirteenth man, by luck or by cunning, would strike him down.

Therefore he played safe always. On this occasion he made surety doubly sure. He could have taken two or three known men, and they would have been ample to do the work. Instead, he picked out half a dozen. For just as Henry Allister had recognized that indescribable element of danger in the new outlaw, so the man hunter himself had felt it. On the one hand, he knew the fighting qualities of the Lanning blood. On the other hand, he had seen Andrew Lanning face to face and had watched both his eye and his hand. During that interview in the room of Hal Dozier, if there had been one instant during which both eye and hand had wavered, Andrew would have been a dead man; but, though the eye might change, the hand was never relaxed. Thinking of these things, Hal Dozier determined that he would not tempt Providence. He had his commission as a deputy marshal, and as such he swore in his men and started for the cabin of Hank Rainer.

When the news had spread, others came to join him, and he could not refuse. Before the cavalcade entered the mouth of the cañon he had some thirty men about him. They were all good men, but in a fight, particularly a fight at night, Hal Dozier knew that numbers to excess are apt to simply clog the working parts of the machine. All that he feared came to pass. There was one breathless moment of joy when the horse of Andrew was shot down and the fugitive himself staggered under the fire of the posse. At that moment Hal had poised his rifle for a shot that would end this long trail, but at that moment a yelling member of his own group had come between him and his target, and the chance was gone. When he leaped to one side to make the shot, Andrew was already among the trees.

Afterward he had sent his men in a circle to close in on the spot from which the outlaw made his stand, but they had closed on empty shadows—the fugitive had escaped, leaving a trail of blood. However, it was hardly safe to take that trail in the night, and practically impossible until the sunlight came to follow the sign. So Hal Dozier had the three wounded men taken back to the cabin of Hank Rainer.

The stove was piled with wood until the top was white hot, and then the posse sat about on the floor, crowding the room and waiting for the dawn. The three wounded men were made as comfortable as possible. One had been shot through the hip, a terrible wound that would probably stiffen his leg for life; another had gone down with a wound along the shin bone which kept him in a constant torture. The third man was hit cleanly through the thigh, and, though he had bled profusely for some time, he was now only weak, and in a few weeks he would be perfectly sound again. The hard breathing of the three was the only sound in that dim room during the rest of the night. The story of Hank Rainer had been told in half a dozen words. Lanning had suspected him, stuck him up at the point of a gun, and then—refused to kill him, in spite of the fact that he knew he was betrayed. After his explanation Hank withdrew to the darkest corner of the room and was silent. From time to time looks went toward that corner, and one thought was in every mind. This fellow, who had offered to take money for a guest, was damned for life and branded. Thereafter no one would trust him, no one would change words with him; he was an outcast, a social leper. And Hank Rainer knew it as well as any man.

A cloud of tobacco smoke became dense in the room, and a halo surrounded the lantern on the wall. Then one by one men got up and muttered something about being done with the party, or having to be at work in the morning, and stamped out of the room and went down the ravine to the place where the horses had been tethered. The first thrill of excitement was gone. Moreover, it was no particular pleasure to close in on a wounded man who lay somewhere among the rocks, without a horse to carry him far, and too badly wounded to shift his position. Yet he could lie in his shelter, whatever clump of bowlders he chose, and would make it hot for the men who tried to rout him out. The heavy breathing of the three wounded men gave point to these thoughts, and the men of family and the men of little heart got up and left the posse.

The sheriff made no attempt to keep them. He retained his first hand-picked group. In the gray of the morning he rallied these men again. They went first to the dead, stiff body of the chestnut gelding and stripped it of the saddle and the pack of Lanning. This, by silent consent, was to be the reward of the trapper. This was his in lieu of the money which he would have earned if they had killed Lanning on the spot. Hal Dozier stiffly invited Hank to join them in the man hunt; he was met by a solemn silence, and the request was not repeated. Dozier had done a disagreeable duty, and the whole posse was glad to be free of the traitor. In the meantime the morning was brightening rapidly, and Dozier led out his men.

They went to their horses, and, coming back to the place where Andrew had made his halt and fired his three shots, they took up the trail.

It was as easy to read as a book. The sign was never wanting for more than three steps at a time, and Hal Dozier, reading skillfully, watched the decreasing distance between heel indentations, a sure sign that the fugitive was growing weak from the loss of the blood that spotted the trail. Straight on to the doorstep of Pop's cabin went the trail. Dozier rapped at the door, and the old man himself appeared. The bony fingers of one hand were wrapped around the corncob, which was his inseparable companion, and in the other he held the cloth with which he had been drying dishes. Jud, standing on a box to bring him above the level of the sink, turned from his pan of dishwater to cast a frightened glance over his shoulder. Pop did not wait for explanations.

"Come in, Dozier," he invited. "Come in, boys. Glad to see you. I know what you're after, and it's pretty good to see you here. Ain't particular comfortable for an oldster like me when they's a full-grown, man-eatin' outlaw lyin' about the grounds. This Lanning come to my door last night. Me and Jud was sittin' by the stove. He wanted to get us to bandage him up, but I yanked my gun off'n the wall and ordered him away."

"You got your gun on Lanning—off the wall—before he had you covered?" asked Hal Dozier with a singular smile.

"Oh, I ain't so slow with my hands," declared Pop. "I ain't half so old as I look, son! Besides, he was bleedin' to death and crazy in the head. I don't figure he even thought about his gun just then."

"Why didn't you shoot him down, Pop? Or take him? There's money in him."

"Don't I know it? Ain't I seen the posters? But I wasn't for pressin' things too hard. Not me at my age, with Jud along. I ordered him away and let him go. He went down yonder. Oh, you won't have far to go. He was about all in when he left. But I ain't been out lookin' around yet this morning. I know the feel of a forty-five slug in your inwards."

He placed a hand upon his stomach, and a growl of amusement went through the posse. After all, Pop was a known man. In the meantime some one had picked up the trail to the cliff, and Dozier followed it. They went along the heel marks to a place where blood had spurted liberally over the ground. "Must have had a hemorrhage here," said Dozier. "No, we won't have far to go. Poor devil!"

And then they came to the edge of the cliff, where the heel marks ended. "He walked straight over," said one of the men. "Think o' that!"

"No," exclaimed Dozier, who was on his knees examining the marks, "he stood here a minute or so. First he shifted to one foot, and then he shifted his weight to the other. And his boots were turning in. Queer. I suppose his knees were buckling. He saw he was due to bleed to death and he took a shorter way! Plain suicide. Look down, boys! See anything?"

There was a jumble of sharp rocks at the base of the cliff, and the water of the stream very close. Nothing showed on the rocks, nothing showed on the face of the cliff. They found a place a short distance to the right and lowered a man down with the aid of a rope. He looked about among the rocks. Then he ran down the stream for some distance. He came back with a glum face.

There was no sign of the body of Andrew Lanning among the rocks. Looking up to the top of the cliff, from the place where he stood, he figured that a man could have jumped clear of the rocks by a powerful leap and might have struck in the swift current of the stream. There was no trace of the body in the waters, no drop of blood on the rocks. But then the water ran here at a terrific rate; the scout had watched a heavy bowlder moved while he stood there. He went down the bank and came at once to a deep pool, over which the water was swirling. He sounded that pool with a long branch and found no bottom.

"And that makes it clear," he said, "that the body went down the water, came to that pool, was sucked down, and got lodged in the rocks. Anybody differ? No, gents, Andrew Lanning is food for the trout. And I say it's the best way out of the job for all of us."

But Hal Dozier was a man full of doubts. "There's only one other thing possible," he said. "He might have turned aside at the house of Pop. He may be there now,"

"But don't the trail come here? And is there any back trail to the house?" one of the men protested.

"It doesn't look possible," nodded Hal Dozier, "but queer things are apt to happen. Let's go back and have a look,"