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Lightning of Gold

Max Brand

  Copyright © 2012 by Golden West Literary Agency

  First Skyhorse Publishing edition published 2015 by arrangement with Golden West Literary Agency

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Skyhorse Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

  “Lightning of Gold” first appeared as a six-part serial in Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine (8/22/31–9/26/31). Copyright © 1931 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. Copyright © renewed 1958 by Dorothy Faust. Copyright © 2012 by Golden West Literary Agency for restored material. Acknowledgment is made to Condé Nast Publications, Inc., for their co-operation.

  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.

  Skyhorse Publishing books may be purchased in bulk at special discounts for sales promotion, corporate gifts, fund-raising, or educational purposes. Special editions can also be created to specifications. For details, contact the Special Sales Department, Skyhorse Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018 or [email protected].

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

  Cover design by Brian Peterson

  Print ISBN: 978-1-63450-430-0

  Ebook ISBN: 978-1-5107-0035-2

  Printed in the United States of America

  Chapter One

  Honesty is accepted as the best policy, but it turned out the worst policy for Bill Ranger, who was famous for his integrity and as a dog puncher from Dawson to the Arctic Ocean.

  Lefty Ranger, as he was sometimes called, had had bad luck—the bad luck to arrive in Circle City, on this mail trip, on the very same day that Menneval reached the town. That could not be put down to anything other than an unkind fate, for Menneval flew as the swallow flies, on swift wings, dipping through the white, silent land as the swallow dips through the vast, free bosom of the sky. He paused in Circle City as a swallow pauses on a branch before it swings off again for the horizon, and in that brief pause he met Lefty Ranger and changed the course of his life.

  Lefty had made good time. He started from breakwater with six dogs, and he got to Circle City with five, which was a tribute both to his luck and to his management. The last day, in a sense, was the hardest. There had been little food for men or dogs during the last three days, and on this last day of all there was none at all. So, though the trail went over easy levels, the labor told heavily. Men in Alaska are burned so thin by their labors and their privations that there is little fat for them to burn up when the pinch comes. In time of need, where softer peoples live on the fat that covers their sleek ribs, the north man has to eat and work on surplus nerve energy. If he lacks that, privation kills him like a bullet through the brain.

  Lefty’s last march on this trip was made difficult further by a steady fall of snow. There was not a touch of wind, but the snow fell down in a steady mist out of the shadow of the sky. On the ground it lay not in the broad, soft, spongy flakes that are familiar to dwellers in more southern climates. Rather, it disintegrated into tiny crystals as hard as rock, and the steel-shod runners of the sled, instead of sliding with an easy hiss over the surface, grated and ground as though running through sand. The dogs leaned hard against their harnesses, and the man helped them along. Another forty-eight hours of expectation would almost have killed Lefty, but he knew that Circle City was close at hand.

  At length he entered the town. Through the snow mist he saw lights dimly; the rays shattered as they came through the white fog. They split into reds and blues and yellows, as though cast from a prism of glass. And there was no sound. It was a silent city. It did not seem an empty place; it seemed rather a figment of the imagination, or a city of eternal sleep.

  Lefty Ranger was not dismayed. He had been here before, and he knew how the snow muffles footfalls, muffles voices. Once a great dog came out of the mist and stood there on the edge of Ranger’s vision, bristling its hair, snarling silently. He merely smiled and went on. He was very cold. He was hideously tired—that weariness that goes deeper than the muscles and finds the heart and numbs it.

  At length a brighter light struck at him from the left, and then came an actual murmur of human voices. This was the place. This was Spooner Joe’s saloon, of course.

  He halted the team. The light showed him the frame of a door with the snow softly furring it all over, particularly in the corners. This door he threw open, and thought that he saw heaven. Then he took three paces forward.

  The frightful cold entered with him, dissolving into a mist like the breath of cattle on a frosty morning. In the center of the room there was a big stove, with a fire that roared in it and kept its chimney trembling. He looked at that stove as a miser looks at gold. He had not been warm for six weeks; he had not escaped from a deep-seated chill for a month and a half, and yet the other men in the room were not hugging the stove. They were scattered here and there. They were standing at the long bar where Spooner Joe presided, lofty as a mast and ugly as a death’s-head. They were scattered at the tables, playing poker. They were betting gold dust at the roulette wheel. The night was still young.

  “Hey, you, shut the door!” yelled one or two.

  Lefty Ranger merely stood where he had halted and laughed thunderously through the mist that he had brought in with him. That mist began to dissolve, falling away from his head and shoulders, from his body, as though it were a heavy gas. Then it slid out along the floor. He waved to the crowd, right and left, shouting: “Mail!”

  There were some who knew his face. Others knew his voice. They greeted him with a great roar of welcome. They laughed and sang. They rushed out and tore the heavy mail sacks from the sled. They carried them into the room. They opened them; they spilled the contents along the bar. Names were shouted.

  Some of the men were busy opening their own mail. Others hurried out and roused the town. Circle City began to pour into the saloon of Spooner Joe.

  It was a great night for Spooner. Those who had letters bought drinks to celebrate the great occasion. Those who had good news set ’em up for the entire house. Those who had no mail and no message drank to forget their disappointment.

  As for Bill Ranger, he went to the sled team, carrying out a quantity of dried fish. They should eat before he did, and eat they did, while he stood grinning at their joy and their appetite, throwing the fish to them, one by one, and watching those experts snatch their meals out of the air. Their hunger was a bright light that showed them what was coming. He fed them well, almost dangerously well.

  Still he had something to do before he ate. He could not subdue his appetite until that other thing was accomplished. So now he strode into the saloon, again bearing with him a small but ponderous canvas sack that he put down upon the bar with a thump.

  For a time he looked around him at the faces of those who were opening mail and celebrating along the bar. The room was filled with the blue-brown shadows of tobacco smoke. Through that mist it was difficult to make out features. His own face, as he pushed back the hood, was masked with a grizzled covering of uncropped beard and whiskers. His smile, beneath that growth of hair, was a distorted grin, strange to see. There was starvation in his eyes, but there was a smile in them, also.

  At last, tired of searching with his eyes, he called
in a loud voice: “Doc Harness! Doc Harness! Where are you?”

  At this, one of the men standing close to him looked hastily, critically up toward the mail carrier. With equal haste he turned his attention down again to his drink. Half a dozen glasses of the same concoction were standing before Bill Ranger, untasted by him. He had this other errand to perform before he could drink, eat, or enjoy himself in any way. Only the starved dogs had taken preference over it.

  Trouble and impatience combined in the eyes of Ranger as there was no answer to his call.

  “Doc Harness!” he shouted more loudly. “Where’s Doc Harness? Why don’t some of you fellows go and give him a rouse? Tell him that I’m here and that I got news for him that’ll make him stand three inches taller. I got news for him that’ll take the kink out of his shoulders for good and all, and . . .”

  No one answered. Each man appeared to be busy with his letter or with his drink, and yet, in fact, no one tasted a drop and no one read a word after that cry from Bill Ranger.

  Then Joe Spooner, looking more like a death’s-head than ever, came down the bar and paused opposite the mail carrier.

  “Partner,” he said gently, “the kink is already taken out of old Doc’s shoulders. You don’t need to go on worrying about him any more.”

  “Just what d’you mean?” asked Ranger, peering at the saloon man as if the face were barely visible at a great distance.

  “Bill,” said Spooner, “the fact is that Doc Harness up and left us all. We’re sorry to have to tell you. Doc has left us, and he ain’t never coming back.”

  Ranger passed a hand over his face. “He’s gone and left us, eh?” he said.

  “Yes, he’s gone and left us. Steady, old-timer.”

  “I wouldn’t’ve expected it,” muttered Ranger. “Not just when his ship came in like that. I wouldn’t’ve thought . . .” He caught firm hold on the edge of the bar, and then drooped in a half faint.

  “Grab him, a coupla you,” said Spooner, watching the mail carrier closely. “He was old Doc’s partner, you know.”

  Strong hands reached for Bill Ranger. His head had sunk far forward; he seemed to be studying his feet. His knees, also, gave and trembled.

  But he shrugged the hands from his shoulders, and gradually, by a great effort of the mind and of the body, he straightened again and stood erect.

  “I wouldn’t’ve thought it,” he said. “I got onto a hundred pounds of dust in that sack for Doc Harness. That’s what I’ve got for him. I got onto a hundred pounds. Doc, he could’ve laid back and taken it easy the rest of his days.”

  “Doc Harness is takin’ it easy,” said another. “Don’t you take it too hard, old son. Doc is takin’ it easy, all right. You remember, Lefty, that Doc was always a great hand for sleep. He’s havin’ the long sleep now. Take a drink, old man. It’ll do you good.”

  Instantly came a deep-throated, murmuring chorus from many voices.

  “Take a drink, Lefty. It’ll do you a lot of good.”

  He took a drink. He closed his eyes while he felt the burn of it sweltering down into his stomach. “Just how did it happen?” he asked.

  “Why, he just got tired. Got a little sick, but nothing much. He just got tired and give up.”

  “He never had no luck,” said Lefty. “There was no luck laid out for old Doc Harness so far as I could see. But he was never one to give up, not breaking trail, or with a pick, or no way. He never was in the way of giving up a fight.”

  “Well, Bill, a man only has to give up once in this neck of the woods.”

  “Aye, and that’s true,” said the mail carrier. He drank again. His beard bristled fiercely, so that it was plain that he had set his jaw like a rock.

  “Well,” said Spooner, “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. Old Doc has got no children and no relatives. He always used to say that all by himself he was father and son, cousin, aunt, and uncle. You’re the nearest to him, old son. You get that sack of dust for yourself.”

  “Me?” said Lefty Ranger. He lifted his grizzly head and stared. “I’d never touch an ounce of it,” he said.

  Chapter Two

  This announcement caused the others to stare. But they were not greatly astonished. For when one has lived long enough in the great white North, the peculiarities of men are not underlined. They are accepted rather as a matter of course. One takes the exception as the rule, and the perfectly normal man in all his reactions begins to seem the freak.

  So they stared at Lefty Ranger, and not a word was said. Merely they watched him critically, nodding a little, as people do when they expect something interesting to follow.

  There was only one person who stirred. This was a man of middle height, rather slenderly made, if one could judge his bulk under the heavy coat that he was wearing, the collar turned up so that the lower part of his face was shielded. This man rose from a chair where he had been sitting in a far corner of the room. He laid aside the newspaper of ancient date that he had been reading, and, crossing to the end of the bar, he leaned there, so that he could stare up the long, varnished pavement of the bar and look straight into the face of the mail carrier. He seemed fascinated. But the shadows that crossed his face were so deep that one could not accurately read his eyes.

  “If you wouldn’t touch it,” said Spooner to Lefty Ranger, “tell us what’s the matter with it? Is it blood money, old son?”

  Lefty Ranger looked fixedly at the saloonkeeper. “Doc’s blood is on it,” he said solemnly. “It’s soaking in Doc’s blood.”

  “So you won’t have it?”


  “Then what’ll come of it? Give it to the government?”

  “A curse on the government!” hissed one. “What does the government do for us up here? What did the government ever do for old Doc Harness?”

  Ranger turned his head a little and looked at the man. “I guess the government has done plenty for us all,” he said. “The government is like trees. You can’t see ’em grow from day to day, but they’re working while you sleep. But this here stuff?” He gave a tap with a forefinger to the canvas sack. The dust was packed so tightly in it that the weight of the stroke made not a dimple in the surface of the canvas.

  “Well, you figger on giving it to the government?” said Spooner.

  “I’m trying to figure what Doc Harness would want me to do with it.” He canted his head. He was like one trying to hear a far-off voice.

  “Doc was a good old sport,” said one meditatively.

  “There was only one of him,” said another. “How many down-and-outers has he staked?”

  “That’s just it!” exclaimed Lefty Ranger. “How many down-and-outers has he staked? A thousand, just about. That’s where his pile always went. Roulette didn’t get much out of him. Faro didn’t . . . nor the booze. He never wanted much. Two or three times he had enough stake for him to want to pull out of the country and go south to the cattle ranges. He wanted to buy a place and get to work on it. That was always his idea.”

  “He’ll never see the cattle that sack buys, nor the range that they run on,” said Spooner.

  “He never will,” agreed Ranger. “Twice before he had nigh onto this much. Though when he gave that claim to Dummy Miller for half the dust that come out of it the first year, I never thought that Dummy would play so straight. But straight he was. He turned this over to me to bring on to Doc. And now Doc is gone when he sure had his chance to start south instead of west.

  “Well, God knows the meaning of these things, if meaning they have. But Doc always gave his chances away. He couldn’t say no, no matter what a loafer the gent was that asked him for a lift. I reckon that’s the way this pile oughta go, too. I dunno any more likely way that Doc would’ve spent it.”

  “Maybe you’re right,” said one of the men.

  “Well, I’ve made up my mind,” said Ranger. “I’m gonna leave this sack in Circle City. It’s to be sieved out to those that need it the most.”

you trust that to?” asked one.

  “I dunno. Spooner is always around here, and Spooner can tell a straight man from a thug, I reckon.”

  There was a sudden, hungry flash in the eye of Spooner. “I dunno about that,” he said. “I reckon I could tell a straight man from a thug, all right. I’d take charge of that for you, son.”

  Lefty Ranger looked wistfully at him. Then he drank again. “Spooner,” he said at last, “you’re about as hard as they make ’em. There ain’t a man under the sky that you’re afraid of. Not even a ghost. How’d I trust this to you if you had a need of dipping your hands into the bag?”

  The insult made the saloonkeeper neither flush nor pale. He merely smiled. “I’m afraid of Menneval,” he said.

  “What . . . him?” exclaimed Ranger. “Yeah. I reckon you’re afraid of Menneval. I reckon that everybody else is. But is Menneval gonna come here to Circle City and check up what you do with that money?”

  “Menneval will never be seen in Circle City again,” said one.

  “Not while we got any guns with us,” declared another.

  “How can he live out there by himself?”

  “He ain’t by himself. He’s got his dogs.”

  “And they’s a pet demon in each dog.”

  “I’m like to turn over this here money to you,” said Ranger. “You could do a lot of good with it, giving the boys a drink when they’re feeling down and low, and passing out chow to them that are hungry, whether they’re honest or not. But I’d like to have somebody put a guarantee on it and a check on you. I don’t mean you no slander and no insult, Spooner. Your drinks is honest enough, anyway.”

  Spooner Joe seemed totally unaffected by these remarks. In fact, his record was so notoriously black, and had covered so many crimes—from petty larceny to murder and bank robbery—that the words of the mail carrier had a little less sting than might have been supposed. Besides, how could he vent any spite on the person of Lefty Ranger, who was middle-aged or more, one of the best-liked men in the North, and, above all, one who notoriously went unarmed all his days and all his ways.