BLACK JACK

Max Brand

1922

CHAPTER 1

It was characteristic of the two that when the uproar broke out Vance Cornish raised his eyes, but went on lighting his pipe. Then his sister Elizabeth 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 as peaceful as ever with its storm-shaken houses staggering away down the street.

A boy was stirring up the dust of the street, enjoying its heat with his bare toes, and the same old man was bunched in his chair in front of the store. During the two days Elizabeth had been in town on her cattle- buying trip, she had never see him alter his position. But she was accustomed to the West, and this advent of sleep in the town did not satisfy her. A drowsy town, like a drowsy-looking cow-puncher, might be capable 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 yelled down the street in a wailing chorus cut short by the rapid chattering of revolvers. Vance ran to the window. Just below the hotel the street made an 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. A rider plunged into view now, his horse leaning far in to take the sharp angle, and the dust skidding out and away from his sliding hoofs. The rider 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 the reins hanging over the horns of his saddle. His hands were occupied by a pair of revolvers, and he was turned in the saddle.

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

By this time the racing horse of the fugitive had carried him close to the hotel, and now he faced the front, a handsome fellow with long black hair blowing about his face. He wore a black silk shirt which accentuated the pallor of his face and the flaring crimson of his bandanna. And he laughed 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, and among them a different and more sinister sound like the striking of two great hammers face on face, so that there was a cold ring of metal after the explosion—at least one man had brought a rifle to bear. Now, as the wild rider darted past the hotel, his hat was jerked from his head by an invisible hand. He whirled again in the saddle and his guns raised. As he turned, Elizabeth Cornish saw something glint across the street. It was the gleam of light on the barrel of a rifle that was thrust out through the window of the store.

That long line of light wobbled, steadied, and fire jetted from the mouth of 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 the cantle. He was flung rolling in the dust, his arms flying weirdly. The rifle disappeared from the window and a boy's set face looked out. But before the limp body of the fugitive had stopped rolling, Elizabeth Cornish dropped into a chair, sick of face. Her brother turned his back on the mob that closed over the dead man and looked at Elizabeth in alarm.

It was not the first time he had seen the result of a gunplay, and for that matter it was not the first time for Elizabeth. Her emotion upset him more than the roar of a hundred guns. He managed to bring her a glass of water, but she brushed it away so that half of the contents spilled on the 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 his neck. But—what in the world! Did you know the fellow?”

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

“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 she had seen, no matter how long she lived. Subconsciously she was fighting to keep the street voices out of her mind. They were saying things she did not wish to hear, things she would not hear. Finally, she recovered enough to stand up and shut the window. That brought her a terrible temptation 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 remained obscurely in the bottom of her vision, and made her think of something she had seen in the woods—a colony of ants around a dead beetle. Presently the door opened and Vance came back. He still seemed very worried, but she forced herself to smile at him, and at once his concern disappeared; it was plain that he had been troubled about her and not in the slightest by the fate of the strange rider. She kept on smiling, but for the first time in her life she really looked at Vance without sisterly 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 twice at Vance in a crowd. She knew suddenly that her brother was simply a well-mannered mediocrity.

“Thank the Lord you're yourself again, Elizabeth,” her brother said first of all. “I thought for a moment—I don't know what!”

“Just the shock, Vance,” she said. Ordinarily she was well-nigh brutally frank. Now she found it easy to lie and keep on smiling. “It was such a horrible thing to see!”

“I suppose so. Caught you off balance. But I never knew you to lose your grip so easily. Well, do you know what you've seen?”

“He's dead, then?”

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