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Black Jack

Max Brand


  Max Brand



  It was characteristic of the two that when the uproar broke out VanceCornish raised his eyes, but went on lighting his pipe. Then his sisterElizabeth ran to the window with a swish of skirts around her long legs.After the first shot there was a lull. The little cattle town was aspeaceful as ever with its storm-shaken houses staggering away down thestreet.

  A boy was stirring up the dust of the street, enjoying its heat with hisbare toes, and the same old man was bunched in his chair in front of thestore. During the two days Elizabeth had been in town on her cattle-buying trip, she had never see him alter his position. But she wasaccustomed to the West, and this advent of sleep in the town did notsatisfy her. A drowsy town, like a drowsy-looking cow-puncher, might becapable of unexpected things.

  "Vance," she said, "there's trouble starting."

  "Somebody shooting at a target," he answered.

  As if to mock him, he had no sooner spoken than a dozen voices yelleddown the street in a wailing chorus cut short by the rapid chattering ofrevolvers. Vance ran to the window. Just below the hotel the street madean elbow-turn for no particular reason except that the original cattle-trail had made exactly the same turn before Garrison City was built.Toward the corner ran the hubbub at the pace of a running horse. Shouts,shrill, trailing curses, and the muffled beat of hoofs in the dust. Arider plunged into view now, his horse leaning far in to take the sharpangle, and the dust skidding out and away from his sliding hoofs. Therider gave easily and gracefully to the wrench of his mount.

  And he seemed to have a perfect trust in his horse, for he rode with thereins hanging over the horns of his saddle. His hands were occupied by apair of revolvers, and he was turned in the saddle.

  The head of the pursuing crowd lurched around the elbow-turn; fire spattwice from the mouth of each gun. Two men dropped, one rolling over andover in the dust, and the other sitting down and clasping his leg in aludicrous fashion. But the crowd was checked and fell back.

  By this time the racing horse of the fugitive had carried him close tothe hotel, and now he faced the front, a handsome fellow with long blackhair blowing about his face. He wore a black silk shirt which accentuatedthe pallor of his face and the flaring crimson of his bandanna. And helaughed joyously, and the watchers from the hotel window heard him call:"Go it, Mary. Feed 'em dust, girl!"

  The pursuers had apparently realized that it was useless to chase.Another gust of revolver shots barked from the turning of the street, andamong them a different and more sinister sound like the striking of twogreat hammers face on face, so that there was a cold ring of metal afterthe explosion--at least one man had brought a rifle to bear. Now, as thewild rider darted past the hotel, his hat was jerked from his head by aninvisible hand. He whirled again in the saddle and his guns raised. As heturned, Elizabeth Cornish saw something glint across the street. It wasthe gleam of light on the barrel of a rifle that was thrust out throughthe window of the store.

  That long line of light wobbled, steadied, and fire jetted from the mouthof the gun. The black-haired rider spilled sidewise out of the saddle;his feet came clear of the stirrups, and his right leg caught on thecantle. He was flung rolling in the dust, his arms flying weirdly. Therifle disappeared from the window and a boy's set face looked out. Butbefore the limp body of the fugitive had stopped rolling, ElizabethCornish dropped into a chair, sick of face. Her brother turned his backon the mob that closed over the dead man and looked at Elizabeth inalarm.

  It was not the first time he had seen the result of a gunplay, and forthat matter it was not the first time for Elizabeth. Her emotion upsethim more than the roar of a hundred guns. He managed to bring her a glassof water, but she brushed it away so that half of the contents spilled onthe red carpet of the room.

  "He isn't dead, Vance. He isn't dead!" she kept saying.

  "Dead before he left the saddle," replied Vance, with his usual calm."And if the bullet hadn't finished him, the fall would have broken hisneck. But--what in the world! Did you know the fellow?"

  He blinked at her, his amazement growing. The capable hands of Elizabethwere pressed to her breast, and out of the thirty-five years ofspinsterhood which had starved her face he became aware of eyes young anddark, and full of spirit; by no means the keen, quiet eyes of ElizabethCornish.

  "Do something," she cried. "Go down, and--if they've murdered him--"

  He literally fled from the room.

  All the time she was seeing nothing, but she would never forget what shehad seen, no matter how long she lived. Subconsciously she was fightingto keep the street voices out of her mind. They were saying things shedid not wish to hear, things she would not hear. Finally, she recoveredenough to stand up and shut the window. That brought her a terribletemptation to look down into the mass of men in the street--and women,too!

  But she resisted and looked up. The forms of the street remainedobscurely in the bottom of her vision, and made her think of somethingshe had seen in the woods--a colony of ants around a dead beetle.Presently the door opened and Vance came back. He still seemed veryworried, but she forced herself to smile at him, and at once his concerndisappeared; it was plain that he had been troubled about her and not inthe slightest by the fate of the strange rider. She kept on smiling, butfor the first time in her life she really looked at Vance withoutsisterly prejudice in his favor. She saw a good-natured face, handsome,with the cheeks growing a bit blocky, though Vance was only twenty-five.He had a glorious forehead and fine eyes, but one would never look twiceat Vance in a crowd. She knew suddenly that her brother was simply awell-mannered mediocrity.

  "Thank the Lord you're yourself again, Elizabeth," her brother said firstof all. "I thought for a moment--I don't know what!"

  "Just the shock, Vance," she said. Ordinarily she was well-nigh brutallyfrank. Now she found it easy to lie and keep on smiling. "It was such ahorrible thing to see!"

  "I suppose so. Caught you off balance. But I never knew you to lose yourgrip so easily. Well, do you know what you've seen?"

  "He's dead, then?"

  He locked sharply at her. It seemed to him that a tremor of unevennesshad come into her voice.

  "Oh, dead as a doornail, Elizabeth. Very neat shot. Youngster thatdropped him; boy named Joe Minter. Six thousand dollars for Joe. Nicelittle nest egg to build a fortune on, eh?"

  "Six thousand dollars! What do you mean, Vance?"

  "The price on the head of Jack Hollis. That was Hollis, sis. Thecelebrated Black Jack."

  "But--this is only a boy, Vance. He couldn't have been more than twenty-five years old."

  "That's all."

  "But I've heard of him for ten years, very nearly. And always as a man-killer. It can't be Black Jack."

  "I said the same thing, but it's Black Jack, well enough. He started outwhen he was sixteen, they say, and he's been raising the devil eversince. You should have seen them pick him up--as if he were asleep, andnot dead. What a body! Lithe as a panther. No larger than I am, but theysay he was a giant with his hands."

  He was lighting his cigarette as he said this, and consequently he didnot see her eyes close tightly. A moment later she was able to make herexpression as calm as ever.

  "Came into town to see his baby," went on Vance through the smoke."Little year-old beggar!"

  "Think of the mother," murmured Elizabeth Cornish. "I want to dosomething for her."

  "You can't," replied her brother, with unnecessary brutality. "Becauseshe's dead. A little after the youngster was born. I believe Black Jackbroke her heart, and a very pleasant sort of girl she was, they tell me."

  "What will become of the baby?"

  "It will live and grow up," he said carelessly. "They always do, somehow.Make a
nother like his father, I suppose. A few years of fame in themountain saloons, and then a knife in the back."

  The meager body of Elizabeth stiffened. She was finding it less easy tomaintain her nonchalant smile.


  "Why? Blood will out, like murder, sis."

  "Nonsense! All a matter of environment."

  "Have you ever read the story of the Jukes family?"

  "An accident. Take a son out of the best family in the world and raisehim like a thief--he'll be a thief. And the thief's son can be raised toan honest manhood. I know it!"

  She was seeing Black Jack, as he had raced down the street with the blackhair blowing about his face. Of such stuff, she felt, the knights ofanother age had been made. Vance was raising a forefinger in anauthoritative way he had.

  "My dear, before that baby is twenty-five--that was his father'sage--he'll have shot a man. Bet you on it!"

  "I'll take your bet!"

  The retort came with such a ring of her voice that he was startled.Before he could recover, she went on: "Go out and get that baby for me,Vance. I want it."

  He tossed his cigarette out of the window.

  "Don't drop into one of your headstrong moods, sis. This is nonsense."

  "That's why I want to do it. I'm tired of playing the man. I've hadenough to fill my mind. I want something to fill my arms and my heart."

  She drew up her hands with a peculiar gesture toward her shallow, barrenbosom, and then her brother found himself silenced. At the same time hewas a little irritated, for there was an imputation in her speech thatshe had been carrying the burden which his own shoulders should havesupported. Which was so true that he could not answer, and therefore hecast about for some way of stinging her.

  "I thought you were going to escape the sentimental period, Elizabeth.But sooner or later I suppose a woman has to pass through it."

  A spot of color came in her sallow cheek.

  "That's sufficiently disagreeable, Vance."

  A sense of his cowardice made him rise to conceal his confusion.

  "I'm going to take you at your word, sis. I'm going out to get that baby.I suppose it can be bought--like a calf!"

  He went deliberately to the door and laid his hand on the knob. He had arather vicious pleasure in calling her bluff, but to his amazement shedid not call him back. He opened the door slowly. Still she did notspeak. He slammed it behind him and stepped into the hall.