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Larramee's Ranch

Max Brand

  Table of Contents






































  Copyright © 1924 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc.

  Published by Wildside Press LLC. |



  Tom Holden lay where he had fallen, with his head against the wall and his body sprawled across the floor. A nail had clipped the skin from his forehead, and for the time, with the trickle of crimson, and the deathly pallor which the shock of the blow had given to him, he looked awful enough. So that his mother, though she dared not come to him, cowered and clasped her hands before her face and moaned: “Oh, God, have mercy! Cousin Joe Curtis, you’ve killed him!”

  Cousin Joe took one long stride forward to make sure that the dullness of the open eyes was simply that of a stunned brain and not the vacancy of death. When he was satisfied upon this point he boomed at once:

  “A darned good thing if I had finished him up. But I ain’t had no such luck. I didn’t hit quite hard enough. Get up, you young good for nothin’!” He seized Tom Holden by the nape of the neck and wrenched him to a sitting position. Then he heaved the youth still higher, and dropped him into a chair.

  Tom, having recovered his wits to a certain extent, began to wipe the moisture from his temple and to compose himself. He was about twenty-two years old. At first glance he looked much younger, his skin was so smooth, and there was such a bloom on his cheek; at second glance he looked much older, because there was a long age of wisdom in that eye.

  “Now,” thundered Cousin Joe Curtis, “maybe that’ll help you to open your ears a mite?”

  At this, Tom looked up at the big fellow and surveyed him quietly, thoughtfully. He had taken the glasses from his nose and was polishing them with much care. When he spoke, he was speaking to the woman who still cowered in the corner with a blank, white face.

  “Mother,” said he, “are you badly frightened?”

  “Hush, Tom!” she gasped out. “Your cousin, he’s talkin’ to you, boy!”

  “I’ll wring his impertinent young neck!” thundered Cousin Joe Curtis. And he banged his fist heavily upon the table. There followed upon this a little silence, during which the wind blew down to the shack the foolish sound of sheep bells, far off, and thin. And three or four cows lowed in unison, but so far and small were they that all of those sounds droned through the room no more loudly than the humming of a bee. However, such silences have a weight, and they bore down now upon Cousin Joe Curtis. He sucked in his sandy mustache and he blew it out again.

  “Did you hear me speakin’?” he yelled, a more raving madness coming in his eyes.

  “I hear you speaking,” said Tom.

  “Are you gunna get up and go help your ma wash the dishes? Are you?”

  “I think not,” said Tom.

  Cousin Joe Curtis turned to the mother, who gasped with an agony of apprehension and shrank with both of her hands raised to ward away the blow which was to fall upon the head of her son.

  “What am I gunna do to him!” breathed Cousin Joe Curtis, smiling out of the sheer ecstasy of rage. “Oh, what am I gunna do to this here fool?”

  “If you’re wise,” said Tom, “you’ll finish me now, because if you don’t, I’m rather sure that I’ll come back, some day, and finish you!”

  The blow which had towered above his head did not fall. After all, when Lilliput insults Hercules, Hercules must needs deal gently. Besides, Cousin Joe was too astonished to have governance over his hands. They fell helplessly at his side.

  “These are his books,” said Cousin Joe at last. “This here comes out of the books that he reads. I ask you, Judith, is they any good in books? Is they any good in this here brat that you brung into the world? Just tell me that.”

  “Tommy, Tommy!” stammered his mother. “Come in here with me! Quick! You didn’t mean what you said, sure!”

  And hastening to the door of the kitchen, with her hands clasped at her breast, she turned her frightened eyes upon the boy again. At this, Tom rose to his feet and shrugged back his shoulders so that he could stand the full of his five feet and seven inches. Even so, he had to cock back his head a little to confront the big fellow who towered above him. One could tell, even without seeing the legs of Tom, which the table covered, that he was lame. Something about his posture, and the way he steadied himself by touching the table with his slim hands, and something in the long-endured pain in his eyes told of that crippled body.

  “I’m not going to the kitchen,” he said.

  “Oh,” said Cousin Joe with immense irony. “You ain’t goin’ there?”

  “I’m not.”

  “Maybe you’re too proud? Maybe you’re too good, you and your books, to wash the dishes after me and my boys that does the work of honest men and keeps you and your ma from starvin’? Maybe you’re too good?”

  “I am,” said Tom instantly. “I’m too good, Cousin Joe!”

  It was another staggerer for Cousin Joe. But while he considered it, he wrapped his hand around the top of a heavy chair and raised it till it quivered in his grasp. “If I was to dress you down with this—” he muttered.

  “You won’t,” answered Tom. “Because you know that it would break me in two. And if I were in bed the rest of my life, there would be an added expense to you. Also,” he added slowly, “I think you’d be lynched. Some of the people have their eyes on you. They’re watching you very closely.”

  “Here’s gratitude, I say,” thundered Cousin Joe, tossing up his great hands until they almost swept the ceiling. “This is what I get for keepin’ a useless cripple. Why, I got a mind to grab you by the neck and throw you out!”

  “You don’t need to. I’m going.”

  “Where?” sneeringly asked the other. “Where will you go, maybe? How’ll you keep yourself?”

  “Somewhere where brains count. Which isn’t in this house.”

  “Tom!” cried the mother in new terror.

  “Let him talk,” snarled out Cousin Joe. “I’m learnin’ things about him—and about us. What’ll be your line of work, young feller?”

  “I have my ideas,” answered Tom. “But I’m afraid that you wouldn’t understand them.” He turned his back on Cousin Joe and went to the woman at the kitchen door. And when he walked, his left leg trailed weakly behind him. He adjusted his glasses. Then he took her face between his pale hands and kissed her.

  “I’ll be coming back for you, dear,” said he, “as soon as I have a place. I’ll be coming back for you. Will you try to bear this house until I come back? You don’t need to fear that they’ll throw you out. They’d have to hire a cook, if they did. And they hate to spend money for that. They’ll keep you as a slave. They’ll even treat you better after I’m gone. And if they do

  He turned back to Cousin Joe, who made a rush at him with a roar, and then paused, because seeing the size of his own hand and the fragility of that body, it occurred to him that the blow might be the last that meager frame would endure. And after all, murder is murder, even in the cattle country. And after all, lynching is lynching in any land!

  “And if they don’t,” said Tom slowly, “they’ll regret it with all their heart when I come back for you.”

  He went to the door, took down his cap which hung on a peg beside it, and stepped out into the sunshine. Beside the door leaned a long, slender staff. This he took up, and with it steadied his weak leg as he walked. When he reached the road he whistled, and at once a brindled pup rushed out and began to leap joyously about him. He pointed down the road with his staff, and the dog plunged away into the distance. Tom hobbled after him.

  “Oh,” moaned Mrs. Holden, “he’s gunna leave us—forever, Cousin Joe!”

  She ran to the door and cried out. At this, Tom turned, resting on the staff and on his one strong leg. He waved his cap to her and blew her a kiss. Then he went on.

  “Call him—oh, let me go bring him back!” sobbed she.

  She would have started out through the doorway, but the large hand of Cousin Joe caught her and held her back.

  “Stay where you be,” he cautioned her. “Because he ain’t gunna go far. By the time he’s missed a couple of meals, he’ll come back. This is from his readin’ of the books. But he’ll find that days out in the world ain’t turned like the pages of a book. Not by a darned sight.”

  He began to laugh, until his glance caught on the hobbling form far down the road. Already the boy was at the little bridge which crossed the creek, and now he was beside the copse of scrub cedars.

  “It’s a fool thing for a lame boy to do,” muttered the big man. “I—I dunno that I should ha’ hit him like that. I didn’t mean to hit that hard. But my foot slipped just as my hand was in the air. You know that, Judith. You don’t think the kid is gunna go makin’ complaints about me to the neighbors? You don’t think that, Judith?” His voice dropped until it was almost lost in the deep hollow of his throat.

  “He’ll never whine,” said the mother sadly. “That ain’t his way. He’ll never whine. He’ll be—”

  “He’ll be a hero, maybe?” said Cousin Joe sneeringly, looking down at her.

  She did not answer, but folded her work-reddened hands in her apron. Tom was already by the scrub cedar thicket, and now he was half lost beyond it, and now he was gone indeed.

  “He’s just gone down to the village,” said the rancher.

  But the mother knew much better.


  But when Holden came to the village, he turned and skirted around it through the fields, for he had a deep dislike of the questions which would be showered upon him. Besides, some of the children were sure to be playing about the streets at this time of day, and he was game for the children. They could play a thousand tricks upon him, and dodge away from the reach of that long staff. So he cut through the fields. He did not know just where he was going. And as the wrath deep in his heart settled, it became a chill of despair. The dark of the coming evening made him think of one thing only—that he was walking out to his death!

  He put this thought behind him with an effort. And just then his mind was taken by something else. Doc sighted a rabbit and made for it. The brindle was not much use on the trail of a wolf or even a coyote, but he was a terror to cats and to rabbits. Now he scared up a rabbit and went after it. Away he scurried after the dodging flight of the jack. Off and away they went and vanished in the gloom. But Holden, guessing that they might come back again, sat down to wait. Presently through the dusk came the yipping of the dog again. To the very feet of Holden he chased the rabbit, and the poor little beast leaped in between the legs of the man and crouched there, never guessing that this was the archenemy of all. Holden scooped the rabbit from the very jaws of death, and caught it up under his arm. It lay very still, its ears flattened, its eyes dull with exhaustion and the last paroxysm of terror, and all the while its heart pattered like a rolling drum against the arm of Holden. He felt stronger and bigger, and had become, in an instant, the dispenser of fate to at least one creature in the world. This thought he smiled at, but presently he began to stroke the sleek head of the little wild thing.

  Doc, in the meantime, having barked and leaped savagely, was soundly cuffed with the staff and ran to a distance. From that vantage point he waited sadly and challengingly. And when Holden called him, Doc tucked his tail between his legs and ran away. After all, this was a turn against nature—for man or any other creature to take into protection that staff of life, the rabbit!

  Holden watched the brindle depart with another sigh. For, after all, Doc was something like company, even though very poor company at that. And in the next hollow, he turned the rabbit loose. It cowered for an instant—then leaped up and rushed away, bounding high into the air every seventh or eighth jump to make sure that he was not following at its heels, and finally scurrying off into darkness, which was growing fast. Then Holden went on.

  It was practically night, now. His way grew more difficult. He thought of the house he had left, of the worn, sad, kind face of his mother, of the familiar kitchen and its familiar smells, of the face of even Cousin Joe Curtis, with a sort of regret. For they were all he had. And something is better than nothing, even if that something be painful. Now he was stumbling over unknown ways. Twice he caught the toe of his trailing left foot on the rough ground and fell heavily forward. When he had circled back on the farther side of town, the parallel tracks of the railroad, passing off into a shining distance, fascinated him. When a train passed, if he chose, here would be a painless and perfect death for him.

  He sat down to take this idea into his heart, but at once he remembered his mother. He had made her a promise. He had made a promise to Cousin Joe Curtis, too, and after all he might be given power to execute both. One never could tell in this wonderful world, so full of miracles of one sort and another—at least so the books said!

  He stood up and walked slowly down the tracks until he came to the railroad bridge across the gully, and in the heart of the gully, through the trees, he saw the glimmering of a fire. It was like a beckoning hand to Holden. So he clambered down the steep side of the gully with infinite difficulty, his weak leg continually doing the wrong thing, so that once he almost pitched forward into the empty air, with a full fifty feet to fall to the bottom of the ravine. A lucky clutch at a shrub saved him. He clung there for a moment, shuddering; then he went on and came to the edge of the clearing in the center of which the fire burned.

  And near the fire simmered the ragged lower half of an old washtub, giving forth a steam filled with the inestimable fragrance of a rich stew. No one was near, so far as the dull eyes of Holden could make out, so he stepped from the shadow of the trees and made toward the fire—and the prize!

  Just what he intended to do was not clear in his own mind. Certainly if he stole some of the contents of that tub he stood in the veriest danger of reprisal on the part of the owner of the food. But he had taken only a step or two when an instinct keener than any physical sense told him that he was in danger. He paused and scanned the little dark arena of the clearing more acutely, and as he did so, as though stimulated by his fear, the fire leaped and gave him a glimpse of two things which were enough to have startled him.

  For on either side of the clearing, but backed up against the tree, stood a man with a naked revolver in his hand. It seemed to Holden, at first, that they were both facing him, their guns ready, the food in the tin the bait which was to draw in men for murder. But after this gruesome idea had touched his mind, he was aware that they were not looking at him at all, that they seemed even unaware of his coming, for they were facing each other steadily, and now one of them spoke.

  “You first, Blinky, you little rat.”

  “Me first? I’ll se
e you in purgatory before I make the first move. I don’t take no charity from a overgrown sap, a big beef, a sow-sided porker like you, Chris Venner!”

  There was a growl from Chris Venner. “I’ll tear you to bits for this, Blinky!”

  “You’ll never get them hands near me again, you cheap bum. I’m gunna let a couple of slugs of daylight through where your brain ought to be, and ain’t. In your belly—that’s where your brain is. That’s where you do your thinkin’—with your guts, you hog!”

  “Are you ready?” snarled out Venner savagely.

  “Ready, damn you!”

  The air grew charged with that deadly tenseness of expectation which precedes a violent action. Then the crisp, cool voice of Holden broke in. It was a very pleasant voice. He had a trick of making it carry without raising it, like the ringing tones of a bell which melt through the thickest walls and into the farthest corner of a house.

  “This is very good,” said he. “I will have two shares of stew to myself. And for nothing!”

  His voice came in on them so suddenly, so unexpectedly, so blind had they been to his coming in the depth of their mutual passion, that they grunted, each like a horse under the spur before it leaps.

  “Who in the devil is this?” inquired the bull tones of Chris Venner.

  “I’ll tend to him when I finish you,” said Blinky Wickson. “Keep back from that fire, stranger, or by—”

  But Holden advanced to the verge of the fire and remained there, with the light bright upon him. Then he leaned and tested the fragrance of the stew at shorter range.

  “Tomatoes,” he said judicially, aloud. “And beans—canned beans with pork—and chicken—yes, by heaven, there’s a good bit of chicken here. I hope you boys both shoot straight!”

  The passion to kill is a very violent passion, no doubt; but it is hard for it to hold up its head in the face of certain other things, and one of them is indifference.

  “Chris,” said Blinky, “gimme a minute’s fair play, and lemme take care of this here young rat. Then I’ll come back and tend to you.”