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Max Brand


Previous ed. published under title: Free Range



Beside the rear window of the blacksmith shop Jasper Lanning held his
withered arms folded against his chest. With the dispassionate eye and
the aching heart of an artist he said to himself that his life work was
a failure. That life work was the young fellow who swung the sledge at
the forge, and truly it was a strange product for this seventy-year-old
veteran with his slant Oriental eyes and his narrow beard of white.
Andrew Lanning was not even his son, but it came about in this way that
Andrew became the life work of Jasper.

Fifteen years before, the father of Andy died, and Jasper rode out of
the mountain desert like a hawk dropping out of the pale-blue sky. He
buried his brother without a tear, and then sat down and looked at the
slender child who bore his name. Andy was a beautiful boy. He had the
black hair and eyes, the well-made jaw, and the bone of the Lannings,
and if his mouth was rather soft and girlish he laid the failing to the
weakness of childhood. Jasper had no sympathy for tenderness in men. His
own life was as littered with hard deeds as the side of a mountain with
boulders. But the black, bright eyes and the well-made jaw of little
Andy laid hold on him, and he said to himself: "I'm fifty-five. I'm
about through with my saddle days. I'll settle down and turn out one
piece of work that'll last after I'm gone, and last with my signature
on it!"

That was fifteen years ago. And for fifteen years he had labored to make
Andy a man according to a grim pattern which was known in the Lanning
clan, and elsewhere in the mountain desert. His program was as simple as
the curriculum of a Persian youth. On the whole, it was even simpler,
for Jasper concentrated on teaching the boy how to ride and shoot, and
was not at all particular that he should learn to speak the truth. But
on the first two and greatest articles of his creed, how Jasper labored!

For fifteen years he poured his heart without stint into his work! He
taught Andy to know a horse from hock to teeth, and to ride anything
that wore hair. He taught him to know a gun as if it were a sentient
thing. He taught him all the draws of old and new pattern, and labored
to give him both precision and speed. That was the work of fifteen
years, and now at the end of this time the old man knew that his life
work was a failure, for he had made the hand of Andrew Lanning cunning,
had given his muscles strength, but the heart beneath was wrong.

It was hard to see Andy at the first glance. A film of smoke shifted and
eddied through the shop, and Andy, working the bellows, was a black form
against the square of the door, a square filled by the blinding white of
the alkali dust in the road outside and the blinding white of the sun
above. Andy turned from the forge, bearing in his tongs a great bar of
iron black at the ends but white in the middle. The white place was
surrounded by a sparkling radiance. Andy caught up an eight-pound
hammer, and it rose and fell lightly in his hand. The sparks rushed
against the leather apron of the hammer wielder, and as the blows fell
rapid waves of light were thrown against the face of Andrew.

Looking at that face one wondered how the life work of Jasper was such
a failure. For Andy was a handsome fellow with his blue-black hair and
his black, rather slanting eyes, after the Lanning manner. Yet Jasper
saw, and his heart was sick. The face was a little too full; the square
bone of the chin was rounded with flesh; and, above all, the mouth had
never changed. It was the mouth of the child, soft - too womanly soft.
And Jasper blinked.

When he opened his eyes again the white place on the iron had become a
dull red, and the face of the blacksmith was again in shadow. All Jasper
could see was the body of Andy, and that was much better. Red light
glinted on the sinewy arms and the swaying shoulders, and the hammer
swayed and fell tirelessly. For fifteen years Jasper had consoled
himself with the strength of the boy, smooth as silk and as durable; the
light form which would not tire a horse, but swelled above the waist
into those formidable shoulders.

Now the bar was lifted from the anvil and plunged, hissing, into the
bucket beside the forge; above the bucket a cloud of steam rose and
showed clearly against the brilliant square of the door, and the
peculiar scent which came from the iron went sharply to the nostrils of
Jasper. He got up as a horseman entered the shop. He came in a manner
that pleased Jasper. There was a rush of hoofbeats, a form darting
through the door, and in the midst of the shop the rider leaped out of
the saddle and the horse came to a halt with braced legs.

"Hey, you!" called the rider as he tossed the reins over the head of his
horse. "Here's a hoss that needs iron on his feet. Fix him up. And look
here" - he lifted a forefoot and showed the scales on the frog and sole
of the hoof - "last time you shoed this hoss you done a sloppy job, son.
You left all this stuff hangin' on here. I want it trimmed off nice an'
neat. You hear?"

The blacksmith shrugged his shoulders.

"Spoils the hoof to put the knife on the sole, Buck," said the smith.
"That peels off natural."

"H'm," said Buck Heath. "How old are you, son?"

"Oh, old enough," answered Andy cheerily. "Old enough to know that this
exfoliation is entirely natural."

The big word stuck in the craw of Buck Heath, who brought his thick
eyebrows together. "I've rid horses off and on come twenty-five years,"
he declared, "and I've rid 'em long enough to know how I want 'em shod.
This is my hoss, son, and you do it my way. That straight?"

The eye of old Jasper in the rear of the shop grew dim with wistfulness
as he heard this talk. He knew Buck Heath; he knew his kind; in his day
he would have eaten a dozen men of such rough words and such mild deeds
as Buck. But searching the face of Andy, he saw no resentment. Merely a
quiet resignation.

"Another thing," said Buck Heath, who seemed determined to press the
thing to a disagreeable point. "I hear you don't fit your shoes on
hot. Well?"

"I never touch a hoof with hot iron," replied Andy. "It's a rotten

"Is it?" said Buck Heath coldly. "Well, son, you fit my hoss with hot
shoes or I'll know the reason why."

"I've got to do the work my own way," protested Andy.

A spark of hope burned in the slant eyes of Jasper.

"Otherwise I can go find another gent to do my shoein'?" inquired Buck.

"It looks that way," replied the blacksmith with a nod.

"Well," said Buck, whose mildness of the last question had been merely
the cover for a bursting wrath that now sent his voice booming, "maybe
you know a whole pile, boy - I hear Jasper has give you consid'able
education - but what you know is plumb wasted on me. Understand? As for
lookin' up another blacksmith, you ought to know they ain't another shop
in ten miles. You'll do this job, and you'll do it my way. Maybe you
got another way of thinkin'?"

There was a little pause.

"It's your horse," repeated Andy. "I suppose I can do him your own way."

Old Jasper closed his eyes in silent agony. Looking again, he saw Buck
Heath grinning with contempt, and for a single moment Jasper touched his
gun. Then he remembered that he was seventy years old. "Well, Buck?" he
said, coming forward. For he felt that if this scene continued he would
go mad with shame.

There was a great change in Buck as he heard this voice, a marked
respect was in his manner as he turned to Jasper. "Hello, Jas," he said.
"I didn't know you was here."

"Come over to the saloon, Buck, and have one on me," said Jasper. "I
guess Andy'll have your hoss ready when we come back."

"Speakin' personal," said Buck Heath with much heartiness, "I don't pass
up no chances with no man, and particular if he's Jasper Lanning." He
hooked his arm through Jasper's elbow. "Besides, that boy of yours has
got me all heated up. Where'd he learn them man-sized words, Jas?"

All of which Andy heard, and he knew that Buck Heath intended him to
hear them. It made Andy frown, and for an instant he thought of calling
Buck back. But he did not call. Instead he imagined what would happen.
Buck would turn on his heel and stand, towering, in the door. He would
ask what Andy wanted. Andy chose the careful insult which he would throw
in Buck's face. He saw the blow given. He felt his own fist tingle as he
returned the effort with interest. He saw Buck tumble back over the
bucket of water.

By this time Andy was smiling gently to himself. His wrath had
dissolved, and he was humming pleasantly to himself as he began to pull
off the worn shoes of Buck's horse.


Young Andrew Lanning lived in the small, hushed world of his own
thoughts. He neither loved nor hated the people around him. He simply
did not see them. His mother - it was from her that he inherited the
softer qualities of his mind and his face - had left him a little stock
of books. And though Andy was by no means a reader, he had at least
picked up that dangerous equipment of fiction which enables a man to
dodge reality and live in his dreams. Those dreams had as little as
possible to do with the daily routine of his life, and certainly the
handling of guns, which his uncle enforced upon him, was never a part of
the future as Andy saw it.

It was now the late afternoon; the alkali dust in the road was still in
a white light, but the temperature in the shop had dropped several
degrees. The horse of Buck Heath was shod, and Andy was laying his tools
away for the day when he heard the noise of an automobile with open
muffler coming down the street. He stepped to the door to watch, and at
that moment a big blue car trundled into view around the bend of the
road. The rear wheels struck a slide of sand and dust, and skidded; a
girl cried out; then the big machine gathered out of the cloud of dust,
and came toward Andy with a crackling like musketry, and it was plain
that it would leap through Martindale and away into the country beyond
at a bound. Andy could see now that it was a roadster, low-hung,
ponderous, to keep the road.

Pat Gregg was leaving the saloon; he was on his horse, but he sat the
saddle slanting, and his head was turned to give the farewell word to
several figures who bulged through the door of the saloon. For that
reason, as well as because of the fumes in his brain, he did not hear
the coming of the automobile. His friends from the saloon yelled a
warning, but he evidently thought it some jest, as he waved his hand
with a grin of appreciation. The big car was coming, rocking with its
speed; it was too late now to stop that flying mass of metal.

But the driver made the effort. His brakes shrieked, and still the car
shot on with scarcely abated speed, for the wheels could secure no
purchase in the thin sand of the roadway. Andy's heart stood still in
sympathy as he saw the face of the driver whiten and grow tense. Charles
Merchant, the son of rich John Merchant, was behind the wheel. Drunken
Pat Gregg had taken the warning at last. He turned in the saddle and
drove home his spurs, but even that had been too late had not Charles
Merchant taken the big chance. At the risk of overturning the machine he
veered it sharply to the left. It hung for a moment on two wheels. Andy
could count a dozen heartbeats while the plunging car edged around the
horse and shoved between Pat and the wall of the house - inches on either
side. Yet it must have taken not more than the split part of a second.

There was a shout of applause from the saloon; Pat Gregg sat his horse,
mouth open, his face pale, and then the heavy car rolled past the
blacksmith shop. Andy, breathing freely and cold to his finger tips, saw
young Charlie Merchant relax to a flickering smile as the girl beside
him caught his arm and spoke to him.

And then Andy saw her for the first time.

In the brief instant as the machine moved by, he printed the picture to
be seen again when she was gone. What was the hair? Red bronze, and
fiery where the sun caught at it, and the eyes were gray, or blue, or a
gray-green. But colors did not matter. It was all in her smile and the
turning of her eyes, which were very wide open. She spoke, and it was in
the sound of her voice. "Wait!" shouted Andy Lanning as he made a step
toward them. But the car went on, rocking over the bumps and the exhaust
roaring. Andy became aware that his shout had been only a dry whisper.
Besides, what would he say if they did stop?

And then the girl turned sharply about and looked back, not at the horse
they had so nearly struck, but at Andy standing in the door of his shop.
He felt sure that she would remember his face; her smile had gone out
while she stared, and now she turned her head suddenly to the front.
Once more the sun flashed on her hair; then the machine disappeared. In
a moment even the roar of the engine was lost, but it came back again,
flung in echoes from some hillside.

Not until all was silent, and the boys from the saloon were shaking
hands with Pat and laughing at him, did Andy turn back into the
blacksmith shop. He sat down on the anvil with his heart beating, and
began to recall the picture. Yes, it was all in the smile and the glint
of the eyes. And something else - how should he say it? - of the light
shining through her.

He stood up presently, closed the shop, and went home. Afterward his
uncle came in a fierce humor, slamming the door. He found Andy sitting
in front of the table staring down at his hands.

"Buck Heath has been talkin' about you," said Jasper.

Andy raised his head. "Look at 'em!" he said as he spread out his hands.
"I been scrubbin' 'em with sand soap for half an hour, and the oil and
the iron dust won't come out."

Uncle Jasper, who had a quiet voice and gentle manners, now stood rigid.
"I wisht to God that some iron dust would work its way into your
soul," he said.

"What are you talking about?"

"Nothin' you could understand; you need a mother to explain things to

The other got up, white about the mouth. "I think I do," said Andy.
"I'm sick inside."

"Where's supper?" demanded Jasper.

Andy sat down again, and began to consider his hands once more. "There's
something wrong - something dirty about this life."

"Is there?" Uncle Jasper leaned across the table, and once again the old
ghost of a hope was flickering behind his eyes. "Who's been talkin'
to you?"

He thought of the grinning men of the saloon; the hidden words. Somebody
might have gone out and insulted Andy to his face for the first time.
There had been plenty of insults in the past two years, since Andy could
pretend to manhood, but none that might not be overlooked. "Who's been
talkin' to you?" repeated Uncle Jasper. "Confound that Buck Heath! He's
the cause of all the trouble!"

"Buck Heath! Who's he? Oh, I remember. What's he got to do with the
rotten life we lead here, Uncle Jas?"

"So?" said the old man slowly. "He ain't nothin'?"

"Bah!" remarked Andy. "You want me to go out and fight him? I won't. I
got no love for fighting. Makes me sort of sickish."

"Heaven above!" the older man invoked. "Ain't you got shame? My blood in
you, too!"

"Don't talk like that," said Andy with a certain amount of reserve which
was not natural to him. "You bother me. I want a little silence and a
chance to think things out. There's something wrong in the way I've
been living."

"You're the last to find it out."

"If you keep this up I'm going to take a walk so I can have quiet."

"You'll sit there, son, till I'm through with you. Now, Andrew, these
years I've been savin' up for this moment when I was sure that - "

To his unutterable astonishment Andy rose and stepped between him and
the door. "Uncle Jas," he said, "mostly I got a lot of respect for you
and what you think. Tonight I don't care what you or anybody else has to
say. Just one thing matters. I feel I've been living in the dirt. I'm
going out and see what's wrong. Good night."


Uncle Jas was completely bowled over. Over against the wall as the door
closed he was saying to himself: "What's happened? What's happened?" As
far as he could make out his nephew retained very little fear of the
authority of Jasper Lanning.

One thing became clear to the old man. There had to be a decision
between his nephew and some full-grown man, otherwise Andy was very apt
to grow up into a sneaking coward. And in the matter of a contest Jasper
could not imagine a better trial horse than Buck Heath. For Buck was
known to be violent with his hands, but he was not likely to draw his
gun, and, more than this, he might even be bluffed down without making a
show of a fight. Uncle Jasper left his house supperless, and struck down
the street until he came to the saloon.

He found Buck Heath warming to his work, resting both elbows on the bar.
Bill Dozier was with him, Bill who was the black sheep in the fine old
Dozier family. His brother, Hal Dozier, was by many odds the most
respected and the most feared man in the region, but of all the good
Dozier qualities Bill inherited only their fighting capacity. He fought;
he loved trouble; and for that reason, and not because he needed the
money, he was now acting as a deputy sheriff. He was jesting with Buck
Heath in a rather superior manner, half contemptuous, half amused by
Buck's alcoholic swaggerings. And Buck was just sober enough to
perceive that he was being held lightly. He hated Dozier for that
treatment, but he feared him too much to take open offense. It was at
this opportune moment that old man Lanning, apparently half out of
breath, touched Buck on the elbow.

As Buck turned with a surly "What the darnation?" the other whispered:
"Be on your way, Buck. Get out of town, and get out of trouble. My boy
hears you been talkin' about him, and he allows as how he'll get you.
He's out for you now."

The fumes cleared sufficiently from Buck Heath's mind to allow him to
remember that Jasper Lanning's boy was no other than the milk-blooded
Andy. He told Jasper to lead his boy on. There was a reception committee
waiting for him there in the person of one Buck Heath.

"Don't be a fool, Buck," said Jasper, glancing over his shoulder. "Don't
you know that Andy's a crazy, man-killin' fool when he gets started? And
he's out for blood now. You just slide out of town and come back when
his blood's cooled down."

Buck Heath took another drink from the bottle in his pocket, and then
regarded Jasper moodily. "Partner," he declared gloomily, putting his
hand on the shoulder of Jasper, "maybe Andy's a man-eater, but I'm a
regular Andy-eater, and here's the place where I go and get my feed.
Lemme loose!"

He kicked open the door of the saloon. "Where is he?" demanded the
roaring Andy-eater. Less savagely, he went on: "I'm lookin' for
my meat!"

Jasper Lanning and Bill Dozier exchanged glances of understanding.
"Partly drunk, but mostly yaller," observed Bill Dozier. "Soon as the
air cools him off outside he'll mount his hoss and get on his way. But,
say, is your boy really out for his scalp?" "Looks that way," declared
Jasper with tolerable gravity.

"I didn't know he was that kind," said Bill Dozier. And Jasper flushed,
for the imputation was clear. They went together to the window and
looked out.

It appeared that Bill Dozier was right. After standing in the middle of
the street in the twilight for a moment, Buck Heath turned and went
straight for his horse. A low murmur passed around the saloon, for other
men were at the windows watching. They had heard Buck's talk earlier in
the day, and they growled as they saw him turn tail.

Two moments more and Buck would have been on his horse, but in those two
moments luck took a hand. Around the corner came Andrew Lanning with his
head bowed in thought. At once a roar went up from every throat in the
saloon: "There's your man. Go to him!"

Buck Heath turned from his horse; Andrew lifted his head. They were face
to face, and it was hard to tell to which one of them the other was the
least welcome. But Andrew spoke first. A thick silence had fallen in the
saloon. Most of the onlookers wore careless smiles, for the caliber of
these two was known, and no one expected violence; but Jasper Lanning,
at the door, stood with a sick face. He was praying in the silence.

Every one could hear Andrew say: "I hear you've been making a talk about
me, Buck?"

It was a fair enough opening. The blood ran more freely in the veins of
Jasper. Perhaps the quiet of his boy had not been altogether the quiet
of cowardice.

"Aw," answered Buck Heath, "don't you be takin' everything you hear for
gospel. What kind of talk do you mean?"

"He's layin' down," said Bill Dozier, and his voice was soft but audible
in the saloon. "The skunk!"

"I was about to say," said Andrew, "that I think you had no cause for
talk. I've done you no harm, Buck."

The hush in the saloon became thicker; eyes of pity turned on that
proved man, Jasper Lanning. He had bowed his head. And the words of the
younger man had an instant effect on Buck Heath. They seemed to
infuriate him.

"You've done me no harm?" he echoed. He let his voice out; he even
glanced back and took pleasurable note of the crowded faces behind the
dim windows of the saloon. Just then Geary, the saloon keeper, lighted
one of the big lamps, and at once all the faces at the windows became
black silhouettes. "You done me no harm?" repeated Buck Heath. "Ain't
you been goin' about makin' a talk that you was after me? Well, son,
here I am. Now let's see you eat!"

"I've said nothing about you," declared Andy. There was a groan from the
saloon. Once more all eyes flashed across to Jasper Lanning.

"Bah!" snorted Buck Heath, and raised his hand. To crown the horror, the
other stepped back. A little puff of alkali dust attested the movement.

"I'll tell you," roared Buck, "you ain't fittin' for a man's hand to
touch, you ain't. A hosswhip is more your style."

From the pommel of his saddle he snatched his quirt. It whirled, hummed
in the air, and then cracked on the shoulders of Andrew. In the dimness
of the saloon door a gun flashed in the hand of Jasper Lanning. It was a
swift draw, but he was not in time to shoot, for Andy, with a cry,
ducked in under the whip as it raised for the second blow and grappled
with Buck Heath. They swayed, then separated as though they had been
torn apart. But the instant of contact had told Andy a hundred things.
He was much smaller than the other, but he knew that he was far and away
stronger after that grapple. It cleared his brain, and his nerves
ceased jumping.

"Keep off," he said. "I've no wish to harm you."

"You houn' dog!" yelled Buck, and leaped in with a driving fist.

It bounced off the shoulder of Andrew. At the same time he saw those
banked heads at the windows of the saloon, and knew it was a trap for
him. All the scorn and the grief which had been piling up in him, all
the cold hurt went into the effort as he stepped in and snapped his fist
into the face of Buck Heath. He rose with the blow; all his energy, from
wrist to instep, was in that lifting drive. Then there was a jarring
impact that made his arm numb to the shoulder. Buck Heath looked blankly
at him, wavered, and pitched loosely forward on his face. And his head
bounced back as it struck the ground. It was a horrible thing to see,
but it brought one wild yell of joy from the saloon - the voice of
Jasper Lanning.

Andrew had dropped to his knees and turned the body upon its back. The
stone had been half buried in the dust, but it had cut a deep, ragged
gash on the forehead of Buck. His eyes were open, glazed; his mouth
sagged; and as the first panic seized Andy he fumbled at the heart of
the senseless man and felt no beat.

"Dead!" exclaimed Andy, starting to his feet. Men were running toward
him from the saloon, and their eagerness made him see a picture he had
once seen before. A man standing in the middle of a courtroom; the place
crowded; the judge speaking from behind the desk: " - to be hanged by the
neck until - "

A revolver came into the hand of Andrew. And when he found his voice,
there was a snapping tension in it.

"Stop!" he called. The scattering line stopped like horses thrown back
on their haunches by jerked bridle reins. "And don't make no move,"
continued Andy, gathering the reins of Buck's horse behind him. A
blanket of silence had dropped on the street.

"The first gent that shows metal," said Andy, "I'll drill him. Keep

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