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Daring Duval

Max Brand



  Max Brand

  Copyright © 1930 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. © renewed 1958 by Dorothy Faust. © 2017 by Golden West Literary Agency for restored material. © 2017 by Golden West Literary Agency

  E-book published in 2017 by Blackstone Publishing

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  Trade e-book ISBN 978-1-5047-8898-4

  Library e-book ISBN 978-1-5047-8897-7


  CIP data for this book is available from the Library of Congress

  Blackstone Publishing

  31 Mistletoe Rd.

  Ashland, OR 97520

  Chapter One

  In the spring of the year Duval came to Moose Creek. Between the tall, dark pines the under-woods were beginning to bloom with yellow green, as bright, well-nigh, as sunshine, and far away the dim avenues were streaked with color as though the sunlight had fallen through. Wings were beginning to whir from the southward. Every dawn was filled with musical chattering. In the marshes, too, the frogs were singing. On the hills, in the valleys, the cattle sleeked over the harsh winter that had hollowed their sides. Cows bawled down the wind for their calves. The young bulls challenged the old masters with great bellowings. In Moose Creek itself the screen doors were banging all day long as the children ran in and out from play. This was the season when Duval came down from the mountains.

  It was old Simon Wilbur who saw him first.

  Simon had gone hunting and his way had taken him up the weather-dimmed trail past his old place. He sat on the chopping block before the woodshed and took off his hat to the small breeze that managed to find its way through the forest. Deeper in, the wind was always still, but this was close enough to the open to allow even the mildest stir of air to enter, carrying the moist richness of the spring with it. The raw scent of young grass was in it as well as the delicate fragrances of the wild flowers. Simon Wilbur closed his eyes to breathe deep and see the image more clearly, and when he opened them again, he saw Duval come up through the trees from the creek trail.

  He was amazed. No one used that path these days, and had not for years. But presently he forgot the strangeness of the coming because of the way this man filled his eye.

  Later on, others were to feel the same thing, but though they were more talented in speech than Dad Wilbur, as they called him, they had his trouble in putting a finger on salient differences that distinguished Duval from other men. Certainly, from the limp brim of his hat to his spoon-handled spurs, he was dressed like any other cowpuncher of good taste. As for his appearance, he was a sinewy man who had come to the full of his strength — but Simon Wilbur would not have bet on his age within five years. In fact, there was nothing unusual about him, yet as Wilbur afterward expressed it, he felt at once that the stranger had “been around the corner and seen the other side.”

  When he saw Wilbur, Duval halted his horse, a good bay gelding that was perhaps a little too long in the rein to make an ideal cow pony.

  “Hello,” said Duval. “Now, this place I call something like....”

  “Like what?” said Simon Wilbur, who really committed himself in the most casual conversation.

  Duval looked at the stout little cabin, the wood and horse sheds behind it, the two great trees that guarded the path to the water’s edge, and the meadows that descended the hillside, still dotted with a few big stumps. The second-growth saplings were coming up in clusters now, but still the fields were fairly clear.

  “Like home,” said Duval.

  “Home,” said Simon Wilbur, “is what you’re used to. I seen some that needed three stories and an iron deer on the front lawn, and I seen some that only wanted the smell of fryin’ bacon over a campfire.”

  Duval listened to him with a courteous smile of attention, but his head was raised as though he were hearing another voice — that of Moose Creek, perhaps, which was singing treble nearby and deep bass in the distance.

  “That ground would raise crops, I lay my money,” he said.

  “It has,” said Dad Wilbur.

  “What sort of crops?” asked Duval. “Grain?”

  “Rocks mostly,” replied Simon.

  Duval laughed pleasantly, a rich laughter much deeper than his speaking voice.

  “A fellow could work here, and be alone, too,” he said. “How’s the house?”

  “You don’t need a key to get in,” said Wilbur.

  Duval dismounted with a clinking of spurs and, after throwing his reins, went at once through the cabin. He looked out once from the attic window.

  “This would be tolerable warm in winter, partner!” he called.

  “Oh, it’s warm enough,” said Wilbur. “In summer, too.”

  A little later, Duval came out again. This time he walked down to the creek and leaned there for a long moment against one of the great trees. The old path was quite grassed over now, except in the center, where many feet had worn through the surface soil to the gravel. Wilbur regarded the place with a half-happy and half-melancholy interest. It was as though he looked upon a picture of his young manhood out of the shadow of his age.

  Then Duval turned on his heel. “Who owns this outfit?” he asked.

  “Why, stranger?”

  “I’m fixed to buy, if it ain’t the price of a summer resort or a dude ranch. What would Mister Real-Estate Dealer say if I went and whispered in his ear?”

  Simon Wilbur grew cautious. “There’s a house here,” he said.

  “Kind of moldy, though,” suggested Duval.

  “There’s some bang-up sheds, too, that cost a lot of makin’.”

  “They was made crooked, though,” said Duval.

  “And there’s a hundred acres of land down there....”

  “Fit to raise rocks mostly,” suggested the stranger.

  Wilbur grinned in sympathy. “I own this layout,” he said. “Twenty dollars an acre ain’t too much, and I’d throw in everything else for another thousand, and never bear you no hard feelin’s whatsoever because of your bargain.”

  “That’s three thousand,” observed Duval.

  “You been to a right good school,” said Wilbur.

  “Sure, I been to a good school,” said Duval. “And after addition they taught us subtraction.”

  “What you gonna subtract?”

  “Rocks,” said Duval, “among other things. I’ll pay you fifteen dollars an acre and take the buildings throwed in. That adds up to fifteen hundred. Do you like it?”

  Wilbur raised his hands and his eyes to heaven, and sat as still as a picture.

  “My name’s Duval,” said the other. “Do we shake on it?”

  “Fifteen hundred!” said Wilbur. “Young feller, I like you. I like your cut, and I even like your sassy way, but I’d hate to pay that much for a laugh. If I went home and faced Ma after makin’ a deal like this....”

  “She’d say she never knew you were a great businessman before. Look here. This land ain’t been on the market because you didn’t know there was a market. If I wasn’t a dog-goned good man on a trail, I never would’ve tracked it down and got a chance to offer on it. Fifteen hundred dollars, and I leave it to you to fix the deed and the rest, or whatever you do when you buy land. Here,” he continued, “is the coin in your hand.”

  Duval took out a wallet from which he shuffled a number of notes and displayed them to Wilbur.

  “Two fives
and four of a kind,” said Duval, “is one better than a full house, and would get you shot in parts of the country that I been in. Make your choice, mister. Will you play this hand? There ain’t a second deal.”

  “I’ll play this hand,” said Wilbur, and took the proffered money. He thumbed each note; he tested each slip of paper by making it crumple and snap out under the jerk of his hands.

  “If you live near here and got a buckboard that I could borrow,” said Duval, “I’d like to get down to town and buy some fixin’s to go along with this roost.”

  Wilbur was glad to go. In the first place, he was convinced that the stranger would change his mind before he could get the money safely hidden away. In the second place, he was burning with desire to bring the tidings to his wife. Therefore, he streaked down through the woods as fast as his long, old legs would carry him. Only when he came to his new home did he check his speed a little, and, arriving at the back door, he spent a long time scraping his boots on the iron that was fixed there for that purpose.

  “Is that you, Simon?” called his wife. “If you ain’t brought back some meat fit for lunch, you can get yourself downtown and fetch up some chops.”

  “I ain’t got no meat,” said Wilbur, “but I don’t reckon that I’ll be goin’ downtown.”

  He heard a stifled exclamation. Martha Wilbur rushed from the kitchen and stood at the top of the steps like a hawk about to pounce. She was years younger than her husband, but the washboard and many years of labor had humped her back and set her mouth.

  “You won’t go?” she said, controlling her voice.

  “I reckon I don’t feel like goin’,” said Wilbur.

  “You don’t feel like goin’!” Martha Wilbur said, and tried to catch her breath to express herself in better words.

  “No,” said Simon. “I’m gonna drive the buckboard up to the old place.”

  “Are you gone crazy?” she said.

  “No,” he answered, “I just give the place away, and now I’m gonna loan the young gent the buckboard.”

  The wife came rapidly down the steps and, taking him by the shoulders, looked earnestly into his face.

  “You wo’thless old skinflint!” she exclaimed. “What’ve you been up to?”

  “Givin’ away the old place,” he insisted, “and I got this in exchange for it.” Slowly, one by one, he took the notes from his pocket and spread them before her eyes.

  “Bless my soul,” whispered Martha Wilbur. “Has somethin’ worthwhile growed out of that place? You give him a promise to sell, wrote out, or something?”

  “He didn’t ask for nothin’,” he said. “Maybe....” He waited, evil hope in his face, but unwilling to say the thing that was in his mind.

  However, Martha shook her head with instant decision. “Them that don’t ask for bills of sale are them that don’t need ’em,” she decided. “Him that paid you that money once won’t never pay it twice, Simon. And if you lied to him about the ground, you better be movin’ to a new county over the hills.”

  “I didn’t lie,” said Simon.

  “Simon,” she exclaimed, “I’ve lived with you nigh onto forty years!”

  He seemed to accept the implication of this without resistance, but he added thoughtfully: “I didn’t lie, because I couldn’t. You’ll know what I mean when you see him. Chickens don’t lie to hawks, ma’am. No more could I lie to him.”

  Chapter Two

  Later in that same morning, Duval appeared in the town of Moose Creek itself, driving Wilbur’s roan mare and sorrel gelding hitched to the Wilbur buckboard, through the poplar grove at the head of the village, past the broken-down mill where old Lawrence was murdered for the sake of his pocket knife, past the Gilling blacksmith shop with its brand-new sign, past the Collum house, whose back porch overhung nothingness after the floods of the summer before when the river had torn away its bank. So he came down the single street, winding as Moose Creek wound, until he reached Lane’s grocery store.

  At the hitching rack, he tethered his team and went into the neatest mercantile interior that had ever graced Moose Creek. Linoleum was under his feet, its flowered pattern somewhat faded from vigorous scrubbing; all newly white-enameled, the walls, the ceiling, and the shelves were shining. Every jar of preserves stood in a strictly drilled line upon snowy oilcloth. The bins behind the counter for sugar, rice, beans, and flour carried not only their appropriate labels, but, like the walls, were freshly coated with the same glistening paint. All was white as snow, in fact, and, against that background, the labels of the canned fruits and vegetables and the translucent glasses of jellies made a little paradise of color.

  A tall cowpuncher leaned at a counter toward the rear of the store, but he was the only human being Duval saw at first. For the girl who stood opposite was in white, also, and lost against her background. She was stiffly done up in a long apron tied about her waist with a gigantic bow. She had great white cuffs and a broad collar of starched linen. In short, she was so extremely speckless and stood so stiff that Duval could have been excused for thinking her no more than a model and imitation of a pretty girl, such as might be displayed with a face of pink and white in the window of a shop in a small town — Fashions for the kitchen!

  Now, however, she raised her eyes to the tall cowboy. Duval, even from the distance, could note two things — that she was saying “no” and that her eyes were blue. No washed-out color, sometimes gray or green, depending how the light struck them, but blue of the sea, or of lapis lazuli, blue that could lighten or darken but never could change.

  Those eyes had opened so wide that she seemed to be listening, rather than speaking. The man who heard her voice snapped his fingers impatiently. The sombrero he was wearing he pushed far back on his head, which was covered with closely curling black hair.

  “I’ve run uphill for six months, Marian, and I ain’t gonna run no more,” he said. “There’s some that like hunting for the sake of the walk and the fresh air, but I like the game that I kill. If you say no now, it’s final and for good. You understand that? Wait a minute, I....”

  “Charlie, there’s another customer...,” she began.

  “Dang the other customer,” said Charlie.

  She stood looking down, enduring, while Charlie leaned closer across the counter, making man’s age-old mistake of logical argument where logic and argument never are wanted.

  “Wait a minute and think. I’ve worked like fury for six months. I’ve piled up a roll. The old man’ll back me. I’ve got a place laid out....”

  His excited voice sank out of hearing, not from caution or embarrassment, but with a profound emotion.

  He ended, and Duval, watching, waited to see compassion, pity, gentleness in the face of the girl, but he waited in vain. For again she looked up with the unmoved face of a doll, the big blue eyes opened. “No,” she said. And something else that Duval could not translate from the movement of her lips — perhaps some trite expression of regret, an avowal of friendship, but no more.

  The youngster who leaned on the counter did not wait for the end, neither did he say good bye. Yanking his hat deep over his eyes, he turned on his heel and strode rapidly down the aisle toward Duval and the door. His black eyes glittered as they came, shining at Duval with a promise of trouble if there appeared in the stranger the slightest glimmer of a smile, or even the faintest suggestion of interest, of curiosity, of scorn.

  But Duval already was reading the labels on the shelf.

  He did not look down from his occupation until he heard her voice before him, asking what he would have. It was a small voice, high and sweet, like the voice of a child. When he looked at her, he saw that her hands were like the hands of a child also — softly dimpled across the knuckles. Yet when he glanced at her again, he would have been surprised by so much as a smile, so doll-like was she. In this fashion, exactly, would a child of five have conceived the ide
al woman.

  Duval sat down on the high chair in front of the counter, and took out a list.

  “Here you are,” he said. “I’m opening up the old Wilbur place, and it’s a bare cupboard up yonder. I want it lined, and if I’ve forgotten anything, you fill it in, will you?”

  She considered this appeal and the list at the same time, tapping the eraser end of a pencil against her chin. It was a very complete list, she thought. She hoped that he would like the sort of bacons and hams that she carried. Did he care to see a sample of the flour? He did not.

  “But you’ll have to make a selection of jellies and preserves,” she said. “Missus Morris makes this apple and see how clear it is, like amber, almost. But some people prefer Miss Lydia Stanley’s apple jelly. Then there is....”

  “Listen,” said Duval. “I like jelly a little or a lot, according to the number of notches that my belt is out or in. You select me a couple of dozen, and throw in some be the judge. A man has to eat....”

  From the corner of his eye he looked through the broad, front window of the store and saw young Charlie knock open the swinging door of Pete’s Place, the saloon across the street. Like one sternly bent on an important march went Charlie, reaching for his wallet as he moved. And Duval, looking back at the girl, caught the movement of her eyes by which he knew that she also had seen. But not a shadow appeared in her face, not a tone of her voice altered. He determined to force the point.

  “Listen,” he said. “It looks to me like your partner, Charlie, is gonna collect some trouble, the way he sashayed through that door across the street. I hope he’s insured against broken glass, ma’am.”

  She looked at him without the slightest emotion.

  “A Nash is hard to break,” she commented. “Charlie is a Nash. I’ll pick out the jellies and preserves, then. One glass of each kind until you’ve approved of them. Is there anything else? Or shall I start to fill the list?”