Black jack, p.29
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       Black Jack, p.29

           Max Brand


  There had been a profound reason behind the sudden turning of TerryHollis's horse and his riding down the hill. For as he sat the saddle,quivering, he felt rising in him an all-controlling impulse that was newto him, a fierce and sudden passion.

  It was joyous, free, terrible in its force--that wish to slay. Theemotion had grown, held back by the very force of a mental thread ofreason, until, at the very moment when the thread was about to fray andsnap, and he would be flung into sudden action, the booming voice of JoePollard had cleared his mind as an acid clears a cloudy precipitate. Hesaw himself for the first time in several moments, and what he saw madehim shudder.

  And still in fear of himself he swung El Sangre and put him down theslope recklessly. Never in his life had he ridden as he rode in thosefirst five minutes down the pitch of the hill. He gave El Sangre his headto pick his own way, and he confined his efforts to urging the greatstallion along. The blood-bay went like the wind, passing up-juttingboulders with a swish of gravel knocked from his plunging hoofs againstthe rock.

  Even in Terry's passion of self-dread he dimly appreciated the prowess ofthe horse, and when they shot onto the level going of the valley road, hecalled El Sangre out of the mad gallop and back to the natural pace, agait as swinging and smooth as running water--yet still the road pouredbeneath them at the speed of an ordinary gallop. It was music to TerryHollis, that matchless gait. He leaned and murmured to the pricking earswith that soft, gentle voice which horses love. The glorious head of ElSangre went up a little, his tail flaunted somewhat more proudly; fromthe quiver of his nostrils to the ringing beat of his black hoofs hebespoke his confidence that he bore the king of men on his back.

  And the pride of the great horse brought back some of Terry's own waningself-confidence. His father had been up in him as he faced Slim Dugan, heknew. Once more he had escaped from the commission of a crime. But forhow long would he succeed in dodging that imp of the perverse whichhaunted him?

  It was like the temptation of a drug--to strike just once, and thereafterto be raised above himself, take to himself the power of evil which isgreater than the power of good. The blow he struck at the sheriff hadmerely served to launch him on his way. To strike down was not now whathe wanted, but to kill! To feel that once he had accomplished the destinyof some strong man, to turn a creature of mind and soul, ambition andhope, at a single stroke into so many pounds of flesh, useless, done for.What could be more glorious? What could be more terrible? And the desireto strike, as he had looked into the sneering face of Slim Dugan, hadbeen almost overmastering.

  Sooner or later he would strike that blow. Sooner or later he wouldcommit the great and controlling crime. And the rest of his life would bea continual evasion of the law.

  If they would only take him into their midst, the good and the law-abiding men of the mountains! If they would only accept him by word ordeed and give him a chance to prove that he was honest! Even then thebattle would be hard, against temptation; but they were too smugly surethat his downfall was certain. Twice they had rejected him without cause.How long would it be before they actually raised their hands against him?How long would it be before they violently put him in the class of hisfather?

  Grinding his teeth, he swore that if that time ever came when they tookhis destiny into their own hands, he would make it a day to be marked inred all through the mountains!

  The cool, fresh wind against his face blew the sullen anger away. Andwhen he came close to the town, he was his old self.

  A man on a tall gray, with the legs of speed and plenty of girth at thecinches, where girth means lung power, twisted out of a side trail andswung past El Sangre at a fast gallop. The blood-bay snorted and camehard against the bit in a desire to follow. On the range, when he led hiswild band, no horse had ever passed El Sangre and hardly the voice of themaster could keep him back now. Terry loosed him. He did not break into agallop, but fled down the road like an arrow, and the gray came back tohim slowly and surely until the rider twisted around and swore insurprise.

  He touched his mount with the spurs; there was a fresh start from thegray, a lunge that kicked a little spurt of dust into the nostrils of ElSangre. He snorted it out. Terry released his head completely, and now,as though in scorn refusing to break into his sweeping gallop, El Sangreflung himself ahead to the full of his natural pace.

  And the gray came back steadily. The town was shoving up at them at theend of the road more and more clearly. The rider of the gray began tocurse. He was leaning forward, jockeying his horse, but still El Sangrehurled himself forward powerfully, smoothly. They passed the first shantyon the outskirts of the town with the red head of the stallion at the hipof the other. Before they straightened into the main street, El Sangrehad shoved his nose past the outstretched head of the gray. Then theother rider jerked back on his reins with a resounding oath. Terryimitated; one call to El Sangre brought him back to a gentle amble.

  "Going to sell this damned skate," declared the stranger, a lean-facedman of middle age with big, patient, kindly eyes. "If he can't makeanother hoss break out of a pace, he ain't worth keeping! But I'll tell aman that you got quite a hoss there, partner!"

  "Not bad," admitted Terry modestly. "And the gray has pretty good points,it seems to me."

  They drew the horses back to a walk.

  "Ought to have. Been breeding for him fifteen years--and here I get himbeat by a hoss that don't break out of a pace."

  He swore again, but less violently and with less disappointment. He wasbeginning to run his eyes appreciatively over the superb lines of ElSangre. There were horses and horses, and he began to see that this wasone in a thousand--or more.

  "What's the strain in that stallion?" he asked.

  "Mustang," answered Terry.

  "Mustang? Man, man, he's close to sixteen hands!"

  "Nearer fifteen three. Yes, he stands pretty high. Might call him a freakmustang, I guess. He reverts to the old source stock."

  "I've heard something about that," nodded the other. "Once in ageneration they say a mustang turns up somewhere on the range that breedsback to the old Arab. And that red hoss is sure one of 'em."

  They dismounted at the hotel, the common hitching rack for the town, andthe elder man held out his hand.

  "I'm Jack Baldwin."

  "Terry'll do for me, Mr. Baldwin. Glad to know you."

  Baldwin considered his companion with a slight narrowing of the eyes.Distinctly this "Terry" was not the type to be wandering about thecountry known by his first name alone. There were reasons and reasons whymen chose to conceal their family names in the mountains, however, andnot all of them were bad. He decided to reserve judgment. Particularlysince he noted a touch of similarity between the high head and theglorious lines of El Sangre and the young pride and strength of Terryhimself. There was something reassuringly clean and frank about bothhorse and rider, and it pleased Baldwin.

  They made their purchases together in the store.

  "Where might you be working?" asked Baldwin.

  "For Joe Pollard."

  "Him?" There was a lifting of the eyebrows of Jack Baldwin. "What line?"

  "Cutting wood, just now."

  Baldwin shook his head.

  "How Pollard uses so much help is more'n I can see. He's got a range backof the hills, I know, and some cattle on it; but he's sure a waster ofgood labor. Take me, now. I need a hand right bad to help me with thecows."

  "I'm more or less under contract with Pollard," said Terry. He added:"You talk as if Pollard might be a queer sort."

  Baldwin seemed to be disarmed by this frankness.

  "Ain't you noticed anything queer up there? No? Well, maybe Pollard isall right. He's sort of a newcomer around here. That big house of hisain't more'n four or five years old. But most usually a man buys land andcattle around here before he builds him a big house. Well--Pollard is anopen-handed cuss, I'll say that for him, and maybe they ain't anything inthe talk that goes around."

hat that talk was Terry attempted to discover, but he could not. JackBaldwin was a cautious gossip.

  Since they had finished buying, the storekeeper perched on the edge ofhis selling counter and began to pass the time of the day. It began withthe usual preliminaries, invariable in the mountains.

  "What's the news out your way?"

  "Nothing much to talk about. How's things with you and your family?"

  "Fair to middlin' and better. Patty had the croup and we sat up twonights firing up the croup kettle. Now he's better, but he still coughsterrible bad."

  And so on until all family affairs had been exhausted. This is aformality. One must not rush to the heart of his news or he will mortallyoffend the sensitive Westerner.

  This is the approved method. The storekeeper exemplified it, and havingtalked about nothing for ten minutes, quietly remarked that youngLarrimer was out hunting a scalp, had been drinking most of the morning,and was now about the town boasting of what he intended to do.

  "And what's more, he's apt to do it."

  "Larrimer is a no-good young skunk," said Baldwin, with deliberate heat."It's sure a crime when a boy that ain't got enough brains to fill apeanut shell can run over men just because he's spent his life learninghow to handle firearms. He'll meet up with his finish one of these days."

  "Maybe he will, maybe he won't," said the storekeeper, and spat withprecision and remarkable power through the window beside him. "That'swhat they been saying for the last two years. Dawson come right down hereto get him; but it was Dawson that was got. And Kennedy was called a goodman with a gun--but Larrimer beat him to the draw and filled him plumbfull of lead."

  "I know," growled Baldwin. "Kept on shooting after Kennedy was down andhad the gun shot out of his hand and was helpless. And yet they call thatself-defense."

  "We can't afford to be too particular about shootings," said thestorekeeper. "Speaking personal, I figure that a shooting now and thenlets the blood of the youngsters and gives 'em a new start. Kind of liketo see it."

  "But who's Larrimer after now?"

  "A wild-goose chase, most likely. He says he's heard that the son of oldBlack Jack is around these parts, and that he's going to bury theoutlaw's son after he's salted him away with lead."

  "Black Jack's son! Is he around town?"

  The tone sent a chill through Terry; it contained a breathless horrorfrom which there was no appeal. In the eye of Jack Baldwin, fair-mindedman though he was, Black Jack's son was judged and condemned as worthlessbefore his case had been heard.

  "I dunno," said the storekeeper; "but if Larrimer put one of Black Jack'sbreed under the ground, I'd call him some use to the town."

  Jack Baldwin was agreeing fervently when the storekeeper made a violentsignal.

  "There's Larrimer now, and he looks all fired up."

  Terry turned and saw a tall fellow standing in the doorway. He had beenprepared for a youth; he saw before him a hardened man of thirty andmore, gaunt-faced, bristling with the rough beard of some five or sixdays' growth, a thin, cruel, hawklike face.

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