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       Black Jack, p.30

           Max Brand


  A moment later, from the side door which led from the store into the mainbody of the hotel, stepped the chunky form of Denver Pete, quick andlight of foot as ever. He went straight to the counter and asked formatches, and as the storekeeper, still keeping half an eye upon theformidable figure of Larrimer, turned for the matches, Denver spokesoftly from the side of his mouth to Terry--only in the lockstep line ofthe prison do they learn to talk in this manner--gauging the carryingpower of the whisper with nice accuracy.

  "That bird's after you. Crazy with booze in the head, but steady in thehand. One of two things. Clear out right now, or else say the word andI'll stay and help you get rid of him."

  For the first time in his life fear swept over Terry--fear of himselfcompared with which the qualm he had felt after turning from Slim Duganthat morning had been nothing. For the second time in one day he wasbeing tempted, and the certainty came to him that he would kill Larrimer.And what made that certainty more sure was the appearance of his nemesis,Denver Pete, in this crisis. As though, with sure scent for evil, Denverhad come to be present and watch the launching of Terry into a career ofcrime. But it was not the public that Terry feared. It was himself. Hismoral determination was a dam which blocked fierce currents in him thatwere struggling to get free. And a bullet fired at Larrimer would be thething that burst the dam and let the flood waters of self-will free.Thereafter what stood in his path would be crushed and swept aside.

  He said to Denver: "This is my affair, not yours. Stand away, Denver. Andpray for me."

  A strange request. It shattered even the indomitable self-control ofDenver and left him gaping.

  Larrimer, having completed his survey of the dim interior of the store,stalked down upon them. He saw Terry for the first time, paused, and hisbloodshot little eyes ran up and down the body of the stranger. He turnedto the storekeeper, but still half of his attention was fixed upon Terry.

  "Bill," he said, "you seen anything of a spavined, long-horned, no-goodskunk named Hollis around town today?"

  And Terry could see him wait, quivering, half in hopes that the strangerwould show some anger at this denunciation.

  "Ain't seen nobody by that name," said Bill mildly. "Maybe you're chasinga wild goose? Who told you they was a gent named Hollis around?"

  "Black Jack's son," insisted Larrimer. "Wild-goose chase, hell! I wastold he was around by a gent named--"

  "These ain't the kind of matches I want!" cried Denver Pete, with astrangely loud-voiced wrath. "I don't want painted wood. How can a gentwhittle one of these damned matches down to toothpick size? Gimme plainwood, will you?"

  The storekeeper, wondering, made the exchange. Drunken Larrimer had rovedon, forgetful of his unfinished sentence. For the very purpose of keepingthat sentence unfinished, Denver Pete remained on the scene, edgingtoward the outskirts. Now was to come, in a single moment, both thetemptation and the test of Terry Hollis, and well Denver knew that ifLarrimer fell with a bullet in his body there would be an end of TerryHollis in the world and the birth of a new soul--the true son of BlackJack!

  "It's him that plugged Sheriff Minter," went on Larrimer. "I hear tell ashow he got the sheriff from behind and plugged him. This town ain't aplace for a man-killing houn' dog like young Black Jack, and I'm here tolet him know it!"

  The torrent of abuse died out in a crackle of curses. Terry Hollis stoodas one stunned. Yet his hand stayed free of his gun.

  "Suppose we go on to the hotel and eat?" he asked Jack Baldwin softly."No use staying and letting that fellow deafen us with his oaths, isthere?"

  "Better than a circus," declared Baldwin. "Wouldn't miss it. Since oldman Harkness died, I ain't heard cussing to match up with Larrimer's.Didn't know that he had that much brains."

  It seemed that the fates were surely against Terry this day. Yet still hedetermined to dodge the issue. He started toward the door, taking carenot to walk hastily enough to draw suspicion on him because of hiswithdrawal, but to the heated brain of Larrimer all things weresuspicious. His long arm darted out as Terry passed him; he jerked thesmaller man violently back.

  "Wait a minute. I don't know you, kid. Maybe you got the information Iwant?"

  "I'm afraid not."

  Terry blinked. It seemed to him that if he looked again at that vicious,contracted face, his gun would slip into his hand of its own volition.

  "Who are you?"

  "A stranger in these parts," said Terry slowly, and he looked down at thefloor.

  He heard a murmur from the men at the other end of the room. He knew thatsmall, buzzing sound. They were wondering at the calmness with which he"took water."

  "So's Hollis a stranger in these parts," said Larrimer, facing his victimmore fully. "What I want to know is about the gent that owns the red hossin front of the store. Ever hear of him?"

  Terry was silent. By a vast effort he was able to shake his head. It washard, bitterly hard, but every good influence that had ever come into hislife now stood beside him and fought with and for him--Elizabeth Cornish,the long and fictitious line of his Colby ancestors, Kate Pollard withher clear-seeing eyes. He saw her last of all. When the men were scorninghim for the way he had avoided this battle, she, at least, wouldunderstand, and her understanding would be a mercy.

  "Hollis is somewhere around," declared Larrimer, drawing back and bitinghis lip. "I know it, damn well. His hoss is standing out yonder. I knowwhat'll fetch him. I'll shoot that hoss of his, and that'll bring him--ifyoung Black Jack is half the man they say he is! I ain't out to shootcowards--I want men!"

  He strode to the door.

  "Don't do it!" shouted Bill, the storekeeper.

  "Shut up!" snapped Baldwin. "I know something. Shut up!"

  That fierce, low voice reached the ear of Terry, and he understood thatit meant Baldwin had judged him as the whole world judged him. After all,what difference did it make whether he killed or not? He was alreadydamned as a slayer of men by the name of his father before him.

  Larrimer had turned with a roar.

  "What d'you mean by stopping me, Bill? What in hell d'you mean by it?"

  With the brightness of the door behind him, his bearded face was wolfish.

  "Nothing," quavered Bill, this torrent of danger pouring about him."Except--that it ain't very popular around here--shooting hosses,Larrimer."

  "Damn you and your ideas," said Larrimer. "I'm going to go my own way. Iknow what's best."

  He reached the door, his hand went back to the butt of his revolver.

  And then it snapped in Terry, that last restraint which had been at thebreaking-point all this time. He felt a warmth run through him--thewarmth of strength and the cold of a mysterious and evil happiness.

  "Wait, Larrimer!"

  The big man whirled as though he had heard a gun; there was a ring in thevoice of Terry like the ring down the barrel of a shotgun after it hasbeen cocked.

  "You agin?" barked Larrimer.

  "Me again. Larrimer, don't shoot the horse."

  "Why not?"

  "For the sake of your soul, my friend."

  "Boys, ain't this funny? This gent is a sky-pilot, maybe?" He made a longstride back.

  "Stop where you are!" cried Terry.

  He stood like a soldier with his heels together, straight, trembling. AndLarrimer stopped as though a blow had checked him.

  "I may be your sky-pilot, Larrimer. But listen to sense. Do you reallymean you'd shoot that red horse in front of the hotel?"

  "Ain't you heard me say it?"

  "Then the Lord pity you, Larrimer!"

  Ordinarily Larrimer's gun would have been out long before, but the changefrom this man's humility of the moment before, his almost cringingmeekness, to his present defiance was so startling that Larrimer wasmomentarily at sea.

  "Damn my eyes," he remarked furiously, "this is funny, this is. Are youpreaching at me, kid? What d'you mean by that? Eh?"

  "I'll tell you why. Face me squarely, will you? Your head up, and your
hands ready."

  In spite of his rage and wonder, Larrimer instinctively obeyed, for thewords came snapping out like military commands.

  "Now I'll tell you. You manhunting cur, I'm going to send you to hellwith your sins on your head. I'm going to kill you, Larrimer!"

  It was so unexpected, so totally startling, that Larrimer blinked, raisedhis head, and laughed.

  But the son of Black Jack tore away all thought of laughter.

  "Larrimer, I'm Terry Hollis. Get your gun!"

  The wide mouth of Larrimer writhed silently from mirth to astonishment,and then sinister rage. And though he was in the shadow against the door,Terry saw the slow gleam in the face of the tall man--then his handwhipped for the gun. It came cleanly out. There was no flap to hisholster, and the sight had been filed away to give more oiled and perfectfreedom to the draw. Years of patient practice had taught his muscles toreflex in this one motion with a speed that baffled the eye. Fast aslight that draw seemed to those who watched, and the draw of Terry Hollisappeared to hang in midair. His hand wavered, then clutched suddenly, andthey saw a flash of metal, not the actual motion of drawing the gun. Justthat gleam of the barrel at his hip, hardly clear of the holster, andthen in the dimness of the big room a spurt of flame and the boom of thegun.

  There was a clangor of metal at the farthest end of the room. Larrimer'sgun had rattled on the boards, unfired. He tossed up his great gaunt armsas though he were appealing for help, leaped into the air, and fellheavily, with a force that vibrated the floor where Terry stood.

  There was one heartbeat of silence.

  Then Terry shoved the gun slowly back into his holster and walked to thebody of Larrimer.

  To these things Bill, the storekeeper, and Jack Baldwin, the rancher,afterward swore. That young Black Jack leaned a little over the corpseand then straightened and touched the fallen hand with the toe of hisboot. Then he turned upon them a perfectly calm, unemotional look.

  "I seem to have been elected to do the scavenger work in this town," hesaid. "But I'm going to leave it to you gentlemen to take the carrionaway. Shorty, I'm going back to the house. Are you ready to ride thatway?"

  When they went to the body of Larrimer afterward, they found a neat,circular splotch of purple exactly placed between the eyes.

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