Black jack, p.14
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       Black Jack, p.14

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 14

  The talk was fitful in the living room. Elizabeth Cornish did her best torevive the happiness of her guests, but she herself was a prey to thesame subdued excitement which showed in the faces of the others. Arestraint had been taken away by the disappearance of both the stormcenters of the dinner--the sheriff and Terry. Therefore it was possibleto talk freely. And people talked. But not loudly. They were prone togather in little familiar groups and discuss in a whisper how Terry hadrisen and spoken before them. Now and then someone, for the sake ofpoliteness, strove to open a general theme of conversation, but it diedaway like a ripple on a placid pond.

  "But what I can't understand," said Elizabeth to Vance when she was ableto maneuver him to her side later on, "is why they seem to expectsomething more."

  Vance was very grave and looked tired. The realization that all hiscunning, all his work, had been for nothing, tormented him. He had sethis trap and baited it, and it had worked perfectly--save that the teethof the trap had closed over thin air. At the denouement of the sheriff'sstory there should have been the barking of two guns and a film ofgunpowder smoke should have gone tangling to the ceiling. Instead therehad been the formal little speech from Terry--and then quiet. Yet he hadto mask and control his bitterness; he had to watch his tongue in talkingwith his sister.

  "You see," he said quietly, "they don't understand. They can't see howfine Terry is in having made no attempt to avenge the death of hisfather. I suppose a few of them think he's a coward. I even heard alittle talk to that effect!"

  "Impossible!" cried Elizabeth.

  She had not thought of this phase of the matter. All at once she hatedthe sheriff.

  "It really is possible," said Vance. "You see, it's known that Terrynever fights if he can avoid it. There never has been any real reason forfighting until today. But you know how gossip will put the most unrelatedfacts together, and make a complete story in some way."

  "I wish the sheriff were dead!" moaned Elizabeth. "Oh, Vance, if you onlyhadn't gone near Craterville! If you only hadn't distributed thosewholesale invitations!"

  It was almost too much for Vance--to be reproached after so much of thetriumph was on her side--such a complete victory that she herself wouldnever dream of the peril she and Terry had escaped. But he had to controlhis irritation. In fact, he saw his whole life ahead of him carefullyschooled and controlled. He no longer had anything to sell. Elizabeth hadmade a mock of him and shown him that he was hollow, that he was livingon her charity. He must all the days that she remained alive keepflattering her, trying to find a way to make himself a necessity to her.And after her death there would be a still harder task. Terry, whodisliked him pointedly, would then be the master, and he would face thebitter necessity of cajoling the youngster whom he detested. A fine life,truly! An almost noble anguish of the spirit came upon Vance. He wasurged to the very brink of the determination to thrust out into the worldand make his own living. But he recoiled from that horrible idea in time.

  "Yes," he said, "that was the worst step I ever took. But I was trying tobe wholehearted in the Western way, my dear, and show that I had enteredinto the spirit of things."

  "As a matter of fact," sighed Elizabeth, "you nearly ruined Terry'slife--and mine!"

  "Very near," said the penitent Vance. "But then--you see how well it hasturned out? Terry has taken the acid test, and now you can trust himunder any--"

  The words were literally blown off ragged at his lips. Two revolver shotsexploded at them. No one gun could have fired them. And there was aterrible significance in the angry speed with which one had followed theother, blending, so that the echo from the lofty side of Sleep Mountainwas but a single booming sound. In that clear air it was impossible totell the direction of the noise.

  Everyone in the room seemed to listen stupidly for a repetition of thenoises. But there was no repetition.

  "Vance," whispered Elizabeth in such a tone that the coward dared notlook into her face. "It's happened!"

  "What?" He knew, but he wanted the joy of hearing it from her own lips.

  "It has happened," she whispered in the same ghostly voice. "But whichone?"

  That was it. Who had fallen--Terry, or the sheriff? A long, heavy stepcrossed the little porch. Either man might walk like that.

  The door was flung open. Terence Hollis stood before them.

  "I think that I've killed the sheriff," he said simply. "I'm going up tomy room to put some things together; and I'll go into town with any manwho wishes to arrest me. Decide that between yourselves."

  With that he turned and walked away with a step as deliberately unhurriedas his approach had been. The manner of the boy was more terrible thanthe thing he had done. Twice he had shocked them on the same afternoon.And they were just beginning to realize that the shell of boyhood wasbeing ripped away from Terence Colby. Terry Hollis, son of Black Jack,was being revealed to them.

  The men received the news with utter bewilderment. The sheriff was asformidable in the opinion of the mountains as some Achilles. It wasincredible that he should have fallen. And naturally a stern murmur rose:"Foul play!"

  Since the first vigilante days there has been no sound in all the West sodreaded as that deep-throated murmur of angry, honest men. That murmurfrom half a dozen law-abiding citizens will put the fear of death in thehearts of a hundred outlaws. The rumble grew, spread: "Foul play." Andthey began to look to one another, these men of action.

  Only Elizabeth was silent. She rose to her feet, as tall as her brother,without an emotion on her face. And her brother would never forget her.

  "It seems that you've won, Vance. It seems that blood will out, afterall. The time is not quite up--and you win the bet!"

  Vance shook his head as though in protest and struck his hand across hisface. He dared not let her see the joy that contorted his features.Triumph here on the very verge of defeat! It misted his eyes. Joy gavewings to his thoughts. He was the master of the valley.

  "But--you'll think before you do anything, Elizabeth?"

  "I've done my thinking already--twenty-four years of it. I'm going to dowhat I promised I'd do."

  "And that?"

  "You'll see and hear in time. What's yonder?"

  The men were rising, one after another, and bunching together. BeforeVance could answer, there was a confusion in the hall, running feet hereand there. They heard the hard, shrill voice of Wu Chi chatteringdirections and the guttural murmurs of his fellow servants as theyanswered. Someone ran out into the hall and came back to the huddling,stirring crowd in the living room.

  "He's not dead--but close to it. Maybe die any minute--maybe live throughit!"

  That was the report.

  "We'll get young Hollis and hold him to see how the sheriff comes out."

  "Aye, we'll get him!"

  All at once they boiled into action and the little crowd of men thrustfor the big doors that led into the hall. They cast the doors back andcame directly upon the tall, white-headed figure of Gainor.

 
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