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       Black Jack, p.18

           Max Brand


  When the door closed on her, Terry remained standing in the middle of theroom watching the flame in the oil lamp she had lighted flare and rise atthe corner, and then steady down to an even line of yellow; but he wasnot seeing it; he was listening to that peculiar silence in the house. Itseemed to have spread over the entire village, and he heard no more ofthose casual noises which he had noticed on his coming.

  He went to the window and raised it to let whatever wind was abroad enterthe musty warmth of the room. He raised the sash with stealthy caution,wondering at his own stealthiness. And he was oddly glad when the windowrose without a squeak. He leaned out and looked up and down the street.It was unchanged. Across the way a door flung open, a child darted outwith shrill laughter and dodged about the corner of the house, escapingafter some mischief.

  After that the silence again, except that before long a murmur began onthe veranda beneath him where the half-dozen obscure figures had beensitting when he entered. Why should they be mumbling to themselves? Hethought he could distinguish the voice of the widow Rickson among therest, but he shrugged that idle thought away and turned back into hisroom. He sat down on the side of the bed and pulled off his boots, butthe minute they were off he was ill at ease. There was somethingoppressive about the atmosphere of this rickety old hotel. What sort of aworld was this he had entered, with its whispers, its cold glances?

  He cast himself back on his bed, determined to be at ease. Nevertheless,his heart kept bumping absurdly. Now, Terry began to grow angry. With thefeeling that there was danger in the air of Craterville--for him--therecame a nervous setting of the muscles, a desire to close on someone andthrottle the secret of this hostility. At this point he heard a lighttapping at the door. Terry sat bolt upright on the bed.

  There are all kinds of taps. There are bold, heavy blows on the door thatmean danger without; there are careless, conversational rappings; butthis was a furtive tap, repeated after a pause as though it contained acode message.

  First there was a leap of fear--then cold quiet of the nerves. He wassurprised at himself. He found himself stepping into whatever adventurelay toward him with the lifting of the spirits. It was a stimulus.

  He called cheerfully: "Come in!"

  And the moment he had spoken he was off the bed, noiselessly, and halfthe width of the room away. It had come to him as he spoke that it mightbe well to shift from the point from which his voice had been heard.

  The door opened swiftly--so swiftly was it opened and closed that it madea faint whisper in the air, oddly like a sigh. And there was no click ofthe lock either in the opening or the closing. Which meant anincalculably swift and dexterous manipulation with the fingers. Terryfound himself facing a short-throated man with heavy shoulders; he wore ashapeless black hat bunched on his head as though the whole hand hadgrasped the crown and shoved the hat into place. It sat awkwardly to oneside. And the hat typified the whole man. There was a sort of shiftyreadiness about him. His eyes flashed in the lamplight as they glanced atthe bed, and then flicked back toward Terry. And a smile began somewherein his face and instantly went out. It was plain that he had understoodthe maneuver.

  He continued to survey Terry insolently for a moment without announcinghimself. Then he stated: "You're him, all right!"

  "Am I?" said Terry, regarding this unusual visitor with increasingsuspicion. "But I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage."

  The big-shouldered man raised a stubby hand. He had an air of one whodeprecates, and at the same time lets another into a secret. He movedacross the room with short steps that made no sound, and gave him apeculiar appearance of drifting rather than walking. He picked up a chairand placed it down on the rug beside the bed and seated himself in it.

  Aside from the words he had spoken, since he entered the room he had madeno more noise than a phantom.

  "You're him, all right," he repeated, balancing back in the chair. But hegathered his toes under him, so that he remained continually poised inspite of the seeming awkwardness of his position.

  "Who am I?" asked Terry.

  "Why, Black Jack's kid. It's printed in big type all over you."

  His keen eyes continued to bore at Terry as though he were striving toread features beneath a mask. Terry could see his visitor's face moreclearly now. It was square, with a powerfully muscled jaw and featuresthat had a battered look. Suddenly he teetered forward in his chair anddropped his elbows aggressively on his knees.

  "D'you know what they're talking about downstairs?"

  "Haven't the slightest idea."

  "You ain't! The old lady is trying to fix up a bad time for you."

  "She's raising a crowd?"

  "Doing her best. I dunno what it'll come to. The boys are stirring alittle. But I think it'll be all words and no action. Four-flushers, mostof 'em. Besides, they say you bumped old Minter for a goal; and theydon't like the idea of messing up with you. They'll just talk. If theytry anything besides their talk--well, you and me can fix 'em!"

  Terry slipped into the only other chair which the room provided, but heslid far down in it, so that his holster was free and the gun buttconveniently under his hand.

  "You seem a charitable sort," he said. "Why do you throw in with me?"

  "And you don't know who I am?" said the other.

  He chuckled noiselessly, his mouth stretching to remarkable proportions.

  "I'm sorry," said Terry.

  "Why, kid, I'm Denver. I'm your old man's pal, Denver! I'm him that donethe Silver Junction job with old Black Jack, and a lot more jobs, whenyou come to that!"

  He laughed again. "They were getting sort of warm for me out in the bignoise. So I grabbed me a side-door Pullman and took a trip out to the oldbeat. And think of bumping into Black Jack's boy right off the bat!"

  He became more sober. "Say, kid, ain't you got a glad hand for me? Ain'tyou ever heard Black Jack talk?"

  "He died," said Terry soberly, "before I was a year old."

  "The hell!" murmured the other. "The hell! Poor kid. That was a rottenlay, all right. If I'd known about that, I'd of--but I didn't. Well, letit go. Here we are together. And you're the sort of a sidekick I need.Black Jack, we're going to trim this town to a fare-thee-well!"

  "My name is Hollis," said Terry. "Terence Hollis."

  "Terence hell," snorted the other. "You're Black Jack's kid, ain't you?And ain't his moniker good enough for you to work under? Why, kid, that'sa trademark most of us would give ten thousand cash for!"

  He broke off and regarded Terry with a growing satisfaction.

  "You're his kid, all right. This is just the way Black Jack would ofsat--cool as ice--with a gang under him talking about stretching hisneck. And now, bo, hark to me sing! I got the job fixed and--But wait aminute. What you been doing all these years? Black Jack was known when hewas your age!"

  With a peculiar thrill of awe and of aversion Terry watched the face ofthe man who had known his father so well. He tried to make himselfbelieve that twenty-four years ago Denver might have been quite anothertype of man. But it was impossible to re-create that face other than as abulldog in the human flesh. The craft and the courage of a fighter werewritten large in those features.

  "I've been leading--a quiet life," he said gently.

  The other grinned. "Sure--quiet," he chuckled. "And then you wake up andbust Minter for your first crack. You began late, son, but you may gofar. Pretty tricky with the gat, eh?"

  He nodded in anticipatory admiration.

  "Old Minter had a name. Ain't I had my run-in with him? He was smoothwith a cannon. And fast as a snake's tongue. But they say you beat himfair and square. Well, well, I call that a snappy start in the world!"

  Terry was silent, but his companion refused to be chilled.

  "That's Black Jack over again," he said. "No wind about what he'd done.No jabber about what he was going to do. But when you wanted somethingdone, go to Black Jack. Bam! There it was done clean for you and no talkafterward. Oh, he was a bird,
was your old man. And you take after him,right enough!"

  A voice rose in Terry. He wanted to argue. He wanted to explain. It wasnot that he felt any consuming shame because he was the son of Black JackHollis. But there was a sort of foster parenthood to which he owed aclean-minded allegiance--the fiction of the Colby blood. He hadworshipped that thought for twenty years. He could not discard it in aninstant.

  Denver was breezing on in his quick, husky voice, so carefully toned thatit barely served to reach Terry.

  "I been waiting for a pal like you, kid. And here's where we hit it off.You don't know much about the game, I guess? Neither did Black Jack. As apeterman he was a loud ha-ha; as a damper-getter he was just an amateur;as a heel or a houseman, well, them things were just outside him. When itcome to the gorilla stuff, he was there a million, though. And when therewas a call for fast, quick, soft work, Black Jack was the man. Kid, I cansee that you're cut right on his pattern. And here's where you come inwith me. Right off the bat there's going to be velvet. Later on I'lleducate you. In three months you'll be worth your salt. Are you on?"

  He hardly waited for Terry to reply. He rambled on.

  "I got a plant that can't fail to blossom into the long green, kid. Thestore safe. You know what's in it? I'll tell you. Ten thousand cold. Tenthousand bucks, boy. Well, well, and how did it get there? Because a lotof the boobs around here have put their spare cash in the safe forsafekeeping!"

  He tilted his chin and indulged in another of his yawning, silent burstsof laughter.

  "And you never seen a peter like it. Tin, kid, tin. I could turn itinside out with a can opener. But I ain't long on a kit just now. I'm onthe hog for fair, as a matter of fact. Well, I don't need a kit. I gotsome sawdust and I can make the soup as pretty as you ever seen. We'llblow the safe, kid, and then we'll float. Are you on?"

  He paused, grinning with expectation, his face gradually becoming blankas he saw no response in Terry.

  "As nearly as I can make out--because most of the slang is new to me,"said Terry, "you want to dynamite the store safe and--"

  "Who said sawdust? Soup, kid, soup! I want to blow the door off thepeter, not the roof off the house. Say, who d'you think I am, a boob?"

  "I understand, then. Nitroglycerin? Denver, I'm not with you. It's mightygood of you to ask me to join in--but that isn't my line of work."

  The yegg raised an expostulatory hand, but Terry went on: "I'm going tokeep straight, Denver."

  It seemed as though this simple tiding took the breath from Denver.

  "Ah!" he nodded at length. "You playing up a new line. No strong-armstuff except when you got to use it. Going to try scratching, kid? Isthat it, or some other kind of slick stuff?"

  "I mean what I say, Denver. I'm going straight."

  The yegg shook his head, bewildered. "Say," he burst out suddenly, "ain'tyou Black Jack's kid?"

  "I'm his son," said Terry.

  "All right. You'll come to it. It's in the blood, Black Jack. You can'tget away from it."

  Terry tugged his shirt open at the throat; he was stifling. "Perhaps," hesaid.

  "It's the easy way," went on Denver. "Well, maybe you ain't ripe yet, butwhen you are, tip me off. Gimme a ring and I'll be with you."

  "One more thing. You're broke, Denver. And I suppose you need what's inthat safe. But if you take it, the widow will be ruined. She runs thehotel and the store, too, you know."

  "Why, you poor boob," groaned Denver, "don't you know she's the old damethat's trying to get you mobbed?"

  "I suppose so. But she was pretty fond of the sheriff, you know. I don'tblame her for carrying a grudge. Now, about the money, Denver; I happento have a little with me. Take what you want."

  Denver took the proffered money without a word, counted it with a deftlystabbing forefinger, and shoved the wad into his hip pocket.

  "All right," he said, "this'll sort of sweeten the pot. You don't needit?"

  "I'll get along without it. And you won't break the safe?"

  "Hell!" grunted Denver. "Does it hang on that?"

  Terry leaned forward in his chair.

  "Denver, don't break that safe!"

  "You kind of say that as if you was boss, maybe," sneered Denver.

  "I am," said Terry, "as far as this goes."

  "How'll you stop me, kid? Sit up all night and nurse the safe?"

  "No. But I'll follow you, Denver. And I'll get you. You understand? I'llstay on your trail till I have you."

  Again there was a long moment of silence, then, "Black Jack!" mutteredDenver. "You're like his ghost! I think you'd get me, right enough! Well,I'll call it off. This fifty will help me along a ways."

  At the door he whirled sharply on Terence Hollis. "How much have you gotleft?" he asked.

  "Enough," said Terry.

  "Then lemme have another fifty, will you?"

  "I'm sorry. I can't quite manage it."

  "Make it twenty-five, then."

  "Can't do that either, Denver. I'm very sorry."

  "Hell, man! Are you a short sport? I got a long jump before me. Ain't yougot any credit around this town?"

  "I--not very much, I'm afraid."

  "You're kidding me," scowled Denver. "That wasn't Black Jack's way. Fromhis shoes to his skin everything he had belonged to his partners. Hisghost'll haunt you if you're turning me down, kid. Why, ain't you theheir of a rich rancher over the hills? Ain't that what I been told?"

  "I was," said Terry, "until today."

  "Ah! You got turned out for beaning Minter?"

  Terry remained silent.

  "Without a cent?"

  Suddenly the pudgy arm of Denver shot out and his finger pointed intoTerry's face.

  "You damn fool! This fifty is the last cent you got in the world!"

  "Not at all," said Terry calmly.

  "You lie!" Denver struck his knuckles across his forehead. "And I wasgoing to trim you. Black Jack, I didn't know you was as white as this.Fifty? Pal, take it back!"

  He forced the money into Terry's pocket.

  "And take some more. Here; lemme stake you. I been pulling a sob story,but I'm in the clover, Black Jack. Gimme your last cent, will you? Kid,here's a hundred, two hundred--say what you want."

  "Not a cent--nothing," said Terry, but he was deeply moved.

  Denver thoughtfully restored the money to his wallet.

  "You're white," he said gently. "And you're straight as they come. Keepit up if you can. I know damned well that you can't. I've seen 'em trybefore. But they always slip. Keep it up, Black Jack, but if you everchange your mind, lemme know. I'll be handy. Here's luck!"

  And he was gone as he had entered, with a whish of the swiftly moved doorin the air, and no click of the lock.

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