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       Black Jack, p.10

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 10

  The sleep of the night seemed to blot out the excitement of the precedingevening. A bright sun, a cool stir of air, brought in the next morning,and certainly calamity had never seemed farther from the Cornish ranchthan it did on this day. All through the morning people kept arriving inones and twos. Every buckboard on the place was commissioned to haul theguests around the smooth roads and show them the estate; and those whopreferred were furnished with saddle horses from the stable to keep theirown mounts fresh for their return trip. Vance took charge of the wagonparties; Terence himself guided the horsemen, and he rode El Sangre, aflashing streak of blood red.

  The exercise brought the color to his face; the wind raised his spirits;and when the gathering at the house to wait for the big dinner began, hewas as gay as any.

  "That's the way with young people," Elizabeth confided to her brother."Trouble slips off their minds."

  And then the second blow fell, the blow on which Vance had counted forhis great results. No less a person than Sheriff Joe Minter galloped upand threw his reins before the veranda. He approached Elizabeth with ahigh flourish of his hat and a profound bow, for Uncle Joe Minteraffected the mannered courtesy of the "Southern" school. Vance had themin profile from the side, and his nervous glance flickered from one tothe other. The sheriff was plainly pleased with what he had seen on hisway up Bear Creek. He was also happy to be present at so large agathering. But to Elizabeth his coming was like a death. Her brothercould tell the difference between her forced cordiality and the realthing. She had his horse put up; presented him to the few people whom hehad not met, and then left him posing for the crowd of admirers. Life tothe sheriff was truly a stage. Then Elizabeth went to Vance.

  "You saw?" she gasped.

  "Sheriff Minter? What of it? Rather nervy of the old ass to come up herefor the party; he hardly knows us."

  "No, no! Not that! But don't you remember? Don't you remember what JoeMinter did?"

  "Good Lord!" gasped Vance, apparently just recalling. "He killed BlackJack! And what will Terry do when he finds out?"

  She grew still whiter, hearing him name her own fear.

  "They mustn't meet," she said desperately. "Vance, if you're half a manyou'll find some way of getting that pompous, windy idiot off the place."

  "My dear! Do you want me to invite him to leave?"

  "Something--I don't care what!"

  "Neither do I. But I can't insult the fool. That type resents an insultwith gunplay. We must simply keep them apart. Keep the sheriff fromtalking."

  "Keep rain from falling!" groaned Elizabeth. "Vance, if you won't doanything, I'll go and tell the sheriff that he must leave!"

  "You don't mean it!"

  "Do you think that I'm going to risk a murder?"

  "I suppose you're right," nodded Vance, changing his tactics withMachiavellian smoothness. "If Terry saw the man who killed his father,all his twenty-four years of training would go up in smoke and the bloodof his father would talk in him. There'd be a shooting!"

  She caught a hand to her throat. "I'm not so sure of that, Vance. I thinkhe would come through this acid test. But I don't want to take chances."

  "I don't blame you, Elizabeth," said her brother heartily. "Neither wouldI. But if the sheriff stays here, I feel that I'm going to win the betthat I made twenty-four years ago. You remember? That Terry would shoot aman before he was twenty-five?"

  "Have I ever forgotten?" she said huskily. "Have I ever let it go out ofmy mind? But it isn't the danger of Terry shooting. It's the danger ofTerry being shot. If he should reach for a gun against the sheriff--thatprofessional mankiller--Vance, something has to be done!"

  "Right," he nodded. "I wouldn't trust Terry in the face of such atemptation to violence. Not for a moment!"

  The natural stubbornness on which he had counted hardened in her face.

  "I don't know."

  "It would be an acid test, Elizabeth. But perhaps now is the time. You'vespent twenty-four years training him. If he isn't what he ought to benow, he never will be, no doubt."

  "It may be that you're right," she said gloomily. "Twenty-four years!Yes, and I've filled about half of my time with Terry and his training.Vance, you are right. If he has the elements of a mankiller in him afterwhat I've done for him, then he's a hopeless case. The sheriff shallstay! The sheriff shall stay!"

  She kept repeating it, as though the repetition of the phrase might bringher courage. And then she went back among her guests.

  As for Vance, he remained skillfully in the background that day. It waspeculiarly vital, this day of all days, that he should not be much inevidence. No one must see in him a controlling influence.

  In the meantime he watched his sister with a growing admiration and witha growing concern. Instantly she had a problem on her hands. For themoment Terence heard that the great sheriff himself had joined the party,he was filled with happiness. Vance watched them meet with a heartswelling with happiness and surety of success. Straight through a groupcame Terry, weaving his way eagerly, and went up to the sheriff. Vancesaw Elizabeth attempt to detain him, attempt to send him on an errand.But he waved her suggestion away for a moment and made for the sheriff.Elizabeth, seeing that the meeting could not be avoided, at leastdetermined to be present at it. She came up with Terence and presentedhim.

  "Sheriff Minter, this is Terence Colby."

  "I've heard of you, Colby," said the sheriff kindly. And he waited for aresponse with the gleaming eye of a vain man. There was not long to wait.

  "You've really heard of me?" said Terry, immensely pleased. "By the Lord,I've heard of you, sheriff! But, of course, everybody has."

  "I dunno, son," said the sheriff benevolently. "But I been driftingaround a tolerable long time, I guess."

  "Why," said Terry, with a sort of outburst, "I've simply eaten upeverything I could gather. I've even read about you in magazines!"

  "Well, now you don't say," protested the sheriff. "In magazines?"

  And his eye quested through the group, hoping for other listeners whomight learn how broadly the fame of their sheriff was spread.

  "That Canning fellow who travelled out West and ran into you and wasalong while you were hunting down the Garrison boys. I read his article."

  The sheriff scratched his chin. "I disremember him. Canning? Canning?Come to think of it, I do remember him. Kind of a small man with washed-out eyes. Always with a notebook on his knee. I got sick of answering allthat gent's questions, I recollect. Yep, he was along when I took theGarrison boys, but that little party didn't amount to much."

  "He thought it did," said Terry fervently. "Said it was the bravest,coolest-headed, cunningest piece of work he'd ever seen done. Perhapsyou'll tell me some of the other things--the things you count big?"

  "Oh, I ain't done nothing much, come to think of it. All pretty simple,they looked to me, when I was doing them. Besides, I ain't much of a handat talk!"

  "Ah," said Terry, "you'd talk well enough to suit me, sheriff!"

  The sheriff had found a listener after his own heart.

  "They ain't nothing but a campfire that gives a good light to see a storyby--the kind of stories I got to tell," he declared. "Some of these daysI'll take you along with me on a trail, son, if you'd like--and most likeI'll talk your arm off at night beside the fire. Like to come?"

  "Like to?" cried Terry. "I'd be the happiest man in the mountains!"

  "Would you, now? Well, Colby, you and me might hit it off pretty well.I've heard tell you ain't half bad with a rifle and pretty slick with arevolver, too."

  "I practice hard," said Terry frankly. "I love guns."

  "Good things to love, and good things to hate, too," philosophized thesheriff. "But all right in their own place, which ain't none too big,these days. The old times is gone when a man went out into the world witha hoss under him, and a pair of Colts strapped to his waist, and made hisown way. Them days is gone, and our younger boys is going to pot!"

  "I suppose so," a
dmitted Terry.

  "But you got a spark in you, son. Well, one of these days we'll gettogether. And I hear tell you got El Sangre?"

  "I was lucky," said Terry.

  "That's a sizable piece of work, Colby. I've seen twenty that run ElSangre, and never even got close enough to eat his dust. Nacheral pacer,right enough. I've seen him kite across country like a train! And hismane and tail blowing like smoke!"

  "I got him with patience. That was all."

  "S'pose we take a look at him?"

  "By all means. Just come along with me."

  Elizabeth struck in.

  "Just a moment, Terence. There's Mr. Gainor, and he's been asking to seeyou. You can take the sheriff out to see El Sangre later. Besides, half adozen people want to talk to the sheriff, and you mustn't monopolize him.Miss Wickson begged me to get her a chance to talk to you--the realSheriff Minter. Do you mind?"

  "Pshaw," said the sheriff. "I ain't no kind of a hand at talking to thewomenfolk. Where is she?"

  "Down yonder, sheriff. Shall we go?"

  "The old lady with the cane?"

  "No, the girl with the bright hair."

  "Doggone me," muttered the sheriff. "Well, let's saunter down that way."

  He waved to Terence, who, casting a black glance in the direction of Mr.Gainor, went off to execute Elizabeth's errand. Plainly Elizabeth had wonthe first engagement, but Vance was still confident. The dinner tablewould tell the tale.

 
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