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Black Thunder

Max Brand






  First Skyhorse Publishing edition published 2013 by arrangement with Golden West Literary Agency

  Copyright © 2009, 2013 by Golden West Literary Agency

  “Lawman’s Heart” by Max Brand first appeared in Star Western (5/34). Copyright © 1934 by Popular Publications, Inc. Copyright © renewed 1962 by Jane Faust Easton, John Faust, and Judith Faust. Copyright © 2009 by Golden West Literary Agency for restored material.

  “White-Water Sam” by George Henry Morland first appeared in Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine (1/30/32). Copyright © 1932 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. Copyright © renewed 1959 by Dorothy Faust. Copyright © 2009 by Golden West Literary Agency for restored material. Acknowledgment is made to Condé Nast Publications, Inc., for their co-operation.

  “Black Thunder” by Max Brand first appeared in Dime Western (7/33). Copyright © 1933 by Popular Publications, Inc. Copyright © renewed 1961 by Jane Faust Easton, John Faust, and Judith Faust. Copyright © 2009 by Golden West Literary Agency for restored material.

  The name Max Brand® is a registered trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and cannot be used for any purpose without express written permission.

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  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

  ISBN: 978-1-62087-822-4

  Printed in the United States of America


  Lawman’s Heart

  White-Water Sam

  Black Thunder

  Lawman’s Heart

  Frederick Faust published twelve serials and twenty-five short fictional works in 1934, in a variety of publications, including Harper’s Magazine, Argosy, Collier’s, and Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine, this last his primary and almost sole market from 1922 until 1932. “Lawman’s Heart” was one of the seven short novels that appeared in Star Western in 1934. It was published under the Max Brand byline in the May issue.


  The place looked safe and it felt safe. The stagecoach had come in sight of its destination at Little Snake. The passengers could wipe the dust from their faces and see the wriggle and flash of the river that crossed the flat and split the town in two. Heat waves dimmed the mountains, and danced over the strata of varicolored rocks across the flat range. The whole scene was one of peace and somnolence.

  Young Larry Traynor, in the driver’s seat, knotted his brows a little as he prepared to sweep the stage down the cataracting slopes that led into the flat below. Certainly there was no thought of danger in his mind. He had a good set of brakes and he had a pair of excellent leaders. He hardly needed the long reins to drive them. His voice was enough, and they pulled wide or close according to the curves they encountered.

  Besides, when Larry Traynor came in view of Little Snake, something moved like music in his blood, a happy sadness, as he thought of Rose Laymon. Once she had been close to him, but time and another man had put a distance between them, and now there was only the melancholy beauty of his memories.

  The stage was rolling over the last of the upgrade and lurched onto the level. Traces and chains loosened. Traynor was about to call to the leaders when a voice barked from a clump of brush inside the curve of the road. The sound of that voice, shrill and piercing, scattered the sleepy unreality of the moment. A long rifle barrel gleamed through the brush; a masked head rose into view, sleek black cloth with white showing through the eye slits.

  Sam Whitney, the veteran guard who shared the driver’s seat with Traynor, muttered—“The damn’ rat. . .”—and jerked up the double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun that was always under his hand.

  He got halfway up from his seat before the rifle spoke. There was no flame, no smoke—just the shiver of the barrel and the clanging noise. Sam Whitney kept on leaning forward. He threw the rifle before him. He fell from the seat as the stage lurched to a stop under the brakes that Traynor had thrown on.

  Traynor saw the body of his old friend hit the rump of the off-wheeler. He saw a spray of blood fly. Then Whitney, turning in the air, landed with a solid impact in the road. Sam Whitney lay flat on his back in the dust of the road, and stared up at the glare of the afternoon sky.

  Traynor could only see that picture. He hardly heard the shrill voice that commanded the passengers out of the coach. It was a strange voice, too high and sharp to be real. Only something in the subconscious mind of Traynor kept his hands stretched high above his head. Vaguely he was aware that the passengers had their arms high over their heads, also, and that one man was obeying the commands of the robber to throw things out of the boot. There was money back there—more than $20,000.

  The robber held his rifle under the hollow of his arm while he accepted the canvas sack in his other hand. The passengers faced him in a line. If they tried to follow him, they would catch hell, the masked man told them. The sun glinted for the last time on the rifle as he backed into the brush. The green leaves swayed together. The fellow was gone.

  And still Traynor sat for a rigid moment with the arms stuck up high above his head. His heart had leaped up into his throat and trembled there, beating too fast for a count. For the last three months, whenever a moment of excitement came, his heart acted like that, paralyzing his body.

  Nerves, he told himself. The old woman in him was coming out. Suddenly he could move; he could think. He sprang down into the road and knelt in the dust.

  “Sam! Hey, Sam!” he called.

  Out of the babel of voices of men congratulating one another that the robber had not stripped them of watches and wallets, Traynor heard one fellow saying: “He killed the guard, all right.”

  “Almighty God,” said Traynor.

  He could not believe it. Dead men should stare at the world with dead eyes. But there was still the old twinkle of humor in the look of Sam Whitney, just as when he stood at a bar, resting one foot on the rail, hurrying through an anecdote before he swallowed his drink. Now Sam’s expression looked as if he were just going to make some humorous retort to the last speaker.

  “‘Possums taught me how to play dead,” he’d say.

  But he said nothing. His eyes would not move from the distance into which they peered. And there was a great red blotch across his breast.

  Traynor ran for the buckskin leaders. He had a revolver with him. Fool that he was, he could remember now that he was armed.

  He cut the near leader out of its harness, leaped on the bare back, and raced the horse into the brush, up the slope. His passengers howled after him. Their voices were no more to Traynor than sounds of the journeying wind.

  Sam Whitney was dead! And there never would be peace in Traynor’s soul until the murderer went down. Old Sam Whitney had taught him how to throw a rope. Old Sam Whitney—why, he had always been old, even when Traynor was onl
y a child. He had taught Traynor how to strum a guitar. And how to shoot. And how to stick to the back of a pitching bronco.

  “If you’re feeling sick, maybe that damned mustang will be feeling a lot sicker,” Sam Whitney used to say. He had taught Traynor how to fight. “The other fellow looks good when he’s hitting . . . he looks damn’ bad when he’s being hit. Bulldog, bulldog is the trick.”

  Sam Whitney was dead, but part of his soul would live on in the minds of his friends, and in the mind of Larry Traynor above all. Bulldog—that was the thing.

  The buckskin, running like a racer, blackened with sweat already, streaked across the round forehead of the mountain, through trees, into the clear. And yonder galloped a big man on a swift little horse, a quick-footed little sorrel. A mountain man on a mountain horse, no doubt.

  The robber turned, the black mask of his face with the white showing through the eye holes. He snatched up his rifle. And Traynor, as the buckskin ran in, fired twice.

  The first bullet hit empty air, and he knew it. The second shot skidded the sombrero off the head of the robber. Then the rifle spoke and the buckskin fell on its nose.

  Traynor turned a somersault, got staggeringly to his feet, and fired once more at a dim vision that was disappearing through the thick of the brush. The only answer that came back to him was the clattering of hoofs that disappeared into the distance.

  He turned to the buckskin. The bullet had clipped it right between the eyes. Beautiful shooting! shooting almost too beautiful, because there were not half a dozen men in the mountains who were able to make a snap shot as effective as this. Such accuracy narrowed the field in which he would have to search.

  He stripped the bridle and harness from the limp, dead buckskin. Then Traynor went over to the spot where the sombrero had fallen. It was a common enough hat—a Stetson—and he looked at the sweat band, where initials of owners are often punctured through the leather, but there was no sign. The hat was new, which made it all the worse as an identifying mark. He tried it on his head. It was a perfect fit, and that made him sigh with a greater despair.

  However, he had something to go on. A mountain man riding a sorrel mountain horse, an active little beauty—a fellow who was a dead shot. Or had that bullet been intended for the breast of Traynor when the tossing head of the mustang intercepted its course? As well be hunted for two murders as for one.

  Thoughtfully Traynor walked over the round of the slope and back into the road. The passengers started chattering at him. At least they had had the decency to put the dead body of Sam Whitney back into the coach. Someone had closed his eyes.

  “No luck,” said Traynor gloomily. “This hat, and that’s all.” He put the other buckskin leader behind the stage and drove down the sloping road with only four horses, the pointers acting bewildered when they found themselves at the head of the team.


  They entered Little Snake. A crowd, half mounted and half running on foot, was already tailing about the stage, shouting questions when the fattest and oldest man among the passengers called: “There’s Bill Clancy’s clothing store! Stop over there and see if he might have sold this hat.”

  Traynor stopped the coach. The crowd fell on the passengers. Half a dozen attached themselves to each man, babbling questions, getting terse, important answers. When they got into Clancy’s store, they first stood at the counter with proprietarial airs, waiting for Clancy to finish examining the hat.

  He was a sour-faced little man, this Clancy, and now he took the Stetson on the tip of his finger and caused it to rotate slowly under his eyes. His hands were pale, clean, delicately shaped. He had the air of the artist examining a mystery, and a beautiful mystery, at that. He turned the hat over, regarded the sweat band, which was only slightly darkened toward the front.

  “The gentleman who wore this hat,” pronounced Mr. Clancy, “did not sweat a whole lot around the forehead.” He turned down the leather sweat band and looked inside it.

  “Gentlemen,” he said, “I sold this hat.” There was a little grunting sound from the whole crowd, as if they had all been in a conveyance and had gone over a jolting bump. Traynor began to feel cold about the lips.

  “I sold this hat,” said Clancy, “and the name of the gentleman to whom I sold it was. . .” He paused, studying something that caught his attention. “I always write in the initials of the purchaser,” murmured Clancy, in the midst of his thought. “These initials are rubbed a little dim, but . . . yes . . . this is the hat that I sold to Doctor Parker Channing three weeks ago on Tuesday.”

  No one spoke. There were good reasons for the silence. Sleek and handsome young Parker Channing had come to Little Snake three months ago on his way to the mountains for a shooting trip. But he found a dozen cases suddenly ready for him and not another physician within fifty miles to rival him.

  He lingered on to do his professional duty, then he settled down for an indefinite stay. His reputation was carried on the wings of the wind. When he operated on the skull of Tim Wallace and saved Tim’s life or reason, or both, by removing a segment of the bone, his skill as a surgeon was established. And when he saved the wife of Big Joe Mellick from death by typhoid, it was apparent that he was an exceptional medical man, also. If his prices were high, his services were worth it.

  He became at one stride the leading professional man of the town. He was an honor to it. He could stick to the back of a bucking mustang as well as the next fellow. He could shoot circles around nearly every man in the district when it came to a hunting party. He was the best of company, had a tight head to hold whiskey, and was such an all-around prize that it was little wonder that he took the eye of the prettiest girl in town. He walked her away from Larry Traynor the very first time he met her.

  And that was why most heads in the Clancy store now turned suddenly toward Traynor—not because it was his dear friend who had been murdered, but because it seemed apparent that Dr. Channing was the murderer.

  Clancy could not fail to rise to a situation of this magnitude. He leaned across the counter and offered the Stetson to Traynor. “I guess you’ll be wanting to give this hat back to the gent that owns it, Larry.”

  Give it back to the handsome doctor? Perhaps receive some lead out of the doctor’s gun in exchange? Traynor accepted the dangerous mission with his eyes on the floor. His heart was up there in his throat again. He could not move; he could not speak. A strange, dizzy sense of faintness was sickening him. Then he thought of the dead man and lifted his head suddenly. “I’ll look up Doctor Channing,” he said.


  The stagecoach had to be taken to the station. The passengers left Clancy’s store with Traynor, and he drove at a dog-trot back to headquarters.

  Abe Terry, the general manager of the line, sat on the bench before the station stable whittling a stick and spitting tobacco juice into the deep dust of the street. He did not move to avoid the cloud of white dust that blew over him. He merely lifted his head a little to watch the men who took off their hats before they carried the dead man into the building. He was whittling again and working at his quid when Traynor came up to him.

  “Yeah, I’ve heard,” said Abe Terry. “Gonna have a chat with the doctor?”

  “I’m going to have a chat with him,” agreed Traynor.

  “He’ll shoot hell right out of you,” said Abe thoughtfully.

  “Yeah, and maybe he won’t.”

  “It’s your party,” said Abe, “but why not wait till the sheriff gets in? He’s due sometime this afternoon.”

  “If I can find the doctor, I’m going to have it out with him,” said Traynor.

  “Well, more power to you. Watch both his hands. The sucker is as good with his left as with his right, they tell me. He’s over at the Laymon house on the front porch, chewin’ the fat with Rose.”

  Traynor nodded. “Supposing that anything happens,” he said, “put this ten bucks on old Sam, will you?”

  Abe Terry took the greenback and fingered it
. “What the hell good will ten bucks do Sam now?” he asked.

  “Flowers, or something,” said Traynor.

  “Yeah. Flowers or . . . what the hell?”

  “Turn it into coffee and limburger, or whiskey for the drunks that are broke,” said Traynor. “It comes from Sam. That’s all.”

  “Owe him this?” asked Abe.

  “More than that. I owe Sam millions.”

  “Oh, that’s the way, is it?” said Terry. And he spat into the dust again. “Fond of the old goat, were you? Look here, Larry. Why be a damn’ fool? Why not wait till the sheriff gets home?”

  “If I were the fellow that lay cold,” said Traynor, “Sam wouldn’t wait for any sheriff.”

  “Well, go on and play your hand,” said Abe Terry. “I’m wishing you luck. Remember, if you start shooting from the hip, you’re likely to pull to the right. I always noticed that. I pulled a gun on a Canuck down in Flaherty’s saloon, once, and I shot a bottle off the bar right beside his left arm. Then he put a dose of lead inside my hip and turned me into a lame duck for the rest of my life.” He waved his hand. “So long, Larry.”

  “So long, Abe.”

  The Stetson was still in the hand of Traynor. As though it were a flag, it called people toward it. There were a half a hundred men and boys walking around the block after him toward the Laymon house.

  The men sauntered at ease, each fellow pretending that his way simply happened to coincide with that of Traynor. But they kept advising the boys to get back out of the way of possible trouble. It came over Traynor that he would certainly be left alone to start the trouble with the doctor. The crowd would hold back.

  Not that the men were cowards. There in Little Snake lived as many brave fellows as one could wish to see, but Traynor had a special purpose in enforcing this arrest and the crowd would hold back and let him make his try. If he failed—well, even then nothing might be done. The law ought to take care of its own troubles, and the sheriff was the law in Little Snake.