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       Black Jack, p.11

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 11

  Elizabeth left the ordering of the guests at the table to Vance, and sheconsulted him about it as they went into the dining room. It was a long,low-ceilinged room, with more windows than wall space. It opened onto asmall porch, and below the porch was the garden which had been the prideof Henry Cornish. Beside the tall glass doors which led out onto theporch she reviewed the seating plans of Vance. "You at this end and I atthe other," he said. "I've put the sheriff beside you, and right acrossfrom the sheriff is Nelly. She ought to keep him busy. The old idiot hasa weakness for pretty girls, and the younger the better, it seems. Nextto the sheriff is Mr. Gainor. He's a political power, and what time thesheriff doesn't spend on you and on Nelly he certainly will give toGainor. The arrangement of the rest doesn't matter. I simply worked toget the sheriff well-pocketed and keep him under your eye."

  "But why not under yours, Vance? You're a thousand times more diplomaticthan I am."

  "I wouldn't take the responsibility, for, after all, this may turn out tobe a rather solemn occasion, Elizabeth."

  "You don't think so, Vance?"

  "I pray not."

  "And where have you put Terence?"

  "Next to Nelly, at your left."

  "Good heavens, Vance, that's almost directly opposite the sheriff. You'llhave them practically facing each other."

  It was the main thing he was striving to attain. He placated hercarefully.

  "I had to. There's a danger. But the advantage is huge. You'll be therebetween them, you might say. You can keep the table talk in hand at thatend. Flash me a signal if you're in trouble, and I'll fire a questiondown the table at the sheriff or Terry, and get their attention. In themeantime you can draw Terry into talk with you if he begins to ask thesheriff what you consider leading questions. In that way, you'll keep thetalk a thousand leagues away from the death of Black Jack."

  He gained his point without much more trouble. Half an hour later thetable was surrounded by the guests. It was a table of baronialproportions, but twenty couples occupied every inch of the space easily.Vance found himself a greater distance than he could have wished from thescene of danger, and of electrical contact.

  At least four zones of cross-fire talk intervened, and the talk at thefarther end of the table was completely lost to him, except when some newand amazing dish, a triumph of Wu Chi's fabrication, was brought on, andan appreciative wave of silence attended it.

  Or again, the mighty voice of the sheriff was heard to bellow forth inlaughter of heroic proportions.

  Aside from that, there was no information he could gather except by hiseyes. And chiefly, the face of Elizabeth. He knew her like a book inwhich he had often read. Twice he read the danger signals. When the greatroast was being removed, he saw her eyes widen and her lips contract atrifle, and he knew that someone had come very close to the danger lineindeed. Again when dessert was coming in bright shoals on the trays ofthe Chinese servants, the glance of his sister fixed on him down thelength of the table with a grim appeal. He made a gesture ofhelplessness. Between them four distinct groups into which the table talkhad divided were now going at full blast. He could hardly have madehimself heard at the other end of the table without shouting.

  Yet that crisis also passed away. Elizabeth was working hard, but as themeal progressed toward a close, he began to worry. It had seemedimpossible that the sheriff could actually sit this length of time insuch an assemblage without launching into the stories for which he wasfamous. Above all, he would be sure to tell how he had started on hiscareer as a manhunter by relating how he slew Black Jack.

  Once the appalling thought came to Vance that the story must have beentold during one of those moments when his sister had shown alarm. Thecrisis might be over, and Terry had indeed showed a restraint which was acredit to Elizabeth's training. But by the hunted look in her eyes, heknew that the climax had not yet been reached, and that she wascontinually fighting it away.

  He writhed with impatience. If he had not been a fool, he would havetaken that place himself, and then he could have seen to it that thesheriff, with dexterous guiding, should approach the fatal story. As itwas, how could he tell that Elizabeth might not undo all his plans andcleverly keep the sheriff away from his favorite topic for an untoldlength of time? But as he told his sister, he wished to place all theseeming responsibility on her own shoulders. Perhaps he had played toosafe.

  The first ray of hope came to him as coffee was brought in. Theprodigious eating of the cattlemen and miners at the table had broughtthem to a stupor. They no longer talked, but puffed with unfamiliarawkwardness at the fine Havanas which Vance had provided. Even the womentalked less, having worn off the edge of the novelty of actually diningat the table of Elizabeth Cornish. And since the hostess was occupiedsolely with the little group nearest her, and there was no guiding mindto pick up the threads of talk in each group and maintain it, this dutyfell more and more into the hands of Vance. He took up his task withpleasure.

  Farther and farther down the table extended the sphere of his mildinfluence. He asked Mr. Wainwright to tell the story of how he treed thebear so that the tenderfoot author could come and shoot it. Mr.Wainwright responded with gusto. The story was a success. He varied it byrequesting young Dobel to describe the snowslide which had wiped out theVorheimer shack the winter before.

  Young Dobel did well enough to make the men grunt at the end, and hebrought several little squeals of horror from the ladies.

  All of this was for a purpose. Vance was setting the precedent, and theywere becoming used to hearing stories. At the end of each tale thesilence of expectation was longer and wider. Finally, it reached theother end of the table, and suddenly the sheriff discovered that taleswere going the rounds, and that he had not yet been heard. He rolled hiseye with an inward look, and Vance knew that he was searching for somesmooth means of introducing one of his yarns.

  Victory!

  But here Elizabeth cut trenchantly into the heart of the conversation.She had seen and understood. She shot home half a dozen questions withthe accuracy of a marksman, and beat up a drumfire of responses from theladies which, for a time, rattled up and down the length of the table.The sheriff was biting his mustache thoughtfully.

  It was only a momentary check, however. Just at the point where Vancebegan to despair of ever effecting his goal, the silence began again aslady after lady ran out of material for the nonce. And as the silencespread, the sheriff was visibly gathering steam.

  Again Elizabeth cut in. But this time there was only a sporadicchattering in response. Coffee was steaming before them, Wu Chi'spowerful, thick, aromatic coffee, which only he knew how to make. Theywere in a mood, now, to hear stories, that tableful of people. Anexpected ally came to the aid of Vance. It was Terence, who had beeneating his heart out during the silly table talk of the past few minutes.Now he seized upon the first clear opening.

  "Sheriff Minter, I've heard a lot about the time you ran down JohnnyGarden. But I've never had the straight of it. Won't you tell us how ithappened?"

  "Oh," protested the sheriff, "it don't amount to much."

  Elizabeth cast one frantic glance at her brother, and strove to edge intothe interval of silence with a question directed at Mr. Gainor. But heshelved that question; the whole table was obviously waiting for thegreat man to speak. A dozen appeals for the yarn poured in.

  "Well," said the sheriff, "if you folks are plumb set on it, I'll tellyou just how it come about."

  There followed a long story of how Johnny Garden had announced that hewould ride down and shoot up the sheriff's own town, and then get away onthe sheriff's own horse--and how he did it. And how the sheriff waslaughed at heartily by the townsfolk, and how the whole mountain districtjoined in the laughter. And how he started out single-handed in themiddle of winter to run down Johnny Garden, and struck through themountains, was caught above the timberline in a terrific blizzard, kepton in peril of his life until he barely managed to reach the timber againon the other side of
the ridge. How he descended upon the hiding-place ofJohnny Garden, found Johnny gone, but his companions there, and made abargain with them to let them go if they would consent to stand by andoffer no resistance when he fought with Johnny on the latter's return.How they were as good as their word and how, when Johnny returned, theystood aside and let Johnny and the sheriff fight it out. How the sheriffbeat Johnny to the draw, but was wounded in the left arm while Johnnyfired a second shot as he lay dying on the floor of the lean-to. How thesheriff's wound was dressed by the companions of the dead Johnny, and howhe was safely dismissed with honor, as between brave men, and howafterwards he hunted those same men down one by one.

  It was quite a long story, but the audience followed it with a breathlessinterest.

  "Yes, sir," concluded the sheriff, as the applause of murmurs fell off."And from yarns like that one you wouldn't never figure it that I was theson of a minister brung up plumb peaceful. Now, would you?"

  And again, to the intense joy of Vance, it was Terry who brought thesubject back, and this time the subject of all subjects which Elizabethdreaded, and which Vance longed for.

  "Tell us how you came to branch out, Sheriff Minter?"

  "It was this way," began the sheriff, while Elizabeth cast at Vance aglance of frantic and weary appeal, to which he responded with a gesturewhich indicated that the cause was lost.

  "I was brung up mighty proper. I had a most amazing lot of prayers at thetip of my tongue when I wasn't no more'n knee-high to a grasshopper. Butwhen a man has got a fire in him, they ain't no use trying to smother it.You either got to put water on it or else let it burn itself out.

  "My old man didn't see it that way. When I got to cutting up he'd try tosmother it, and stop me by saying: 'Don't!' Which don't accomplishnothing with young gents that got any spirit. Not a damn thing--askingyour pardon, ladies! Well, sirs, he kept me in harness, you might say,and pulling dead straight down the road and working hard and faithful.But all the time I'd been saving up steam, and swelling and swelling andgetting pretty near ready to bust.

  "Well, sirs, pretty soon--we was living in Garrison City them days, whenGarrison wasn't near the town that it is now--along comes word that JackHollis is around. A lot of you younger folks ain't never heard nothingabout him. But in his day Jack Hollis was as bad as they was made. Theywas nothing that Jack wouldn't turn to real handy, from shootin' up atown to sticking up a train or a stage. And he done it all just about aswell. He was one of them universal experts. He could blow a safe as neatas you'd ask. And if it come to a gun fight, he was greased lightningwith a flying start. That was Jack Hollis."

  The sheriff paused to draw breath.

  "Perhaps," said Elizabeth Cornish, white about the lips, "we had bettergo into the living room to hear the rest of the sheriff's story?"

  It was not a very skillful diversion, but Elizabeth had reached the pointof utter desperation. And on the way into the living room unquestionablyshe would be able to divert Terry to something else. Vance held hisbreath.

  And it was Terry who signed his own doom.

  "We're very comfortable here, Aunt Elizabeth. Let's not go in till thesheriff has finished his story."

  The sheriff rewarded him with a flash of gratitude, and Vance settledback in his chair. The end could not, now, be far away.

 
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