Black Jack

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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?”

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

“Oh, dead as a doornail, Elizabeth. Very neat shot. Youngster that
dropped him; boy named Joe Minter. Six thousand dollars for Joe. Nice
little 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. The
celebrated Black Jack.”

“But—this is only a boy, Vance. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-

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