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       Black Jack, p.5

           Max Brand


  Vance's work was not by any means accomplished. Rather, it might be saidthat he was in the position of a man with a dangerous charge for a gunand no weapon to shoot it. He started out to find the gun.

  In fact, he already had it in mind. Twenty-four hours later he was inCraterville. Five days out of the ten before the twenty-fifth birthday ofTerence had elapsed, and Vance was still far from his goal, but he feltthat the lion's share of the work had been accomplished.

  Craterville was a day's ride across the mountains from the Cornish ranch,and it was the county seat. It was one of those towns which spring intoexistence for no reason that can be discovered, and cling to lifegenerations after they should have died. But Craterville held one thingof which Vance Cornish was in great need, and that was Sheriff JoeMinter, familiarly called Uncle Joe. His reason for wanting the sheriffwas perfectly simple. Uncle Joe Minter was the man who killed Black JackHollis.

  He had been a boy of eighteen then, shooting with a rifle across a windowsill. That shot had formed his life. He was now forty-two and he hadspent the interval as the professional enemy of criminals in themountains. For the glory which came from the killing of Black Jack hadbeen sweet to the youthful palate of Minter, and he had cultivated histaste. He became the most dreaded manhunter in those districts wheremanhunting was most common. He had been sheriff at Craterville for adozen years now, and still his supremacy was not even questioned.

  Vance Cornish was lucky to find the sheriff in town presiding at the headof the long table of the hotel at dinner. He was a man of great dignity.He wore his stiff black hair, still untarnished by gray, very long,brushing it with difficulty to keep it behind his ears. This mass ofblack hair framed a long, stern face, the angles of which had been madeby years. But there was no sign of weakness. He had grown dry, notflabby. His mouth was a thin, straight line, and his fighting chin juttedout in profile.

  He rose from his place to greet Vance Cornish. Indeed, the sheriff actedthe part of master of ceremonies at the hotel, having a sort of silentunderstanding with the widow who owned the place. It was said that thesheriff would marry the woman sooner or later, he so loved to talk at hertable. His talk doubled her business. Her table afforded him an audience;so they needed one another.

  "You don't remember me," said Vance.

  "I got a tolerable poor memory for faces," admitted the sheriff.

  "I'm Cornish, of the Cornish ranch."

  The sheriff was duly impressed. The Cornish ranch was a show place. Hearranged a chair for Vance at his right, and presently the talk roseabove the murmur to which it had been depressed by the arrival of thisimportant stranger. The increasing noise made a background. It left Vancealone with the sheriff.

  "And how do you find your work, sheriff?" asked Vance; for he knew thatUncle Joe Minter's great weakness was his love of talk. Everyone in themountains knew it, for that matter.

  "Dull," complained Minter. "Men ain't what they used to be, or else thelaw is a heap stronger."

  "The men who enforce the law are," said Vance.

  The sheriff absorbed this patent compliment with the blank eye ofsatisfaction and rubbed his chin.

  "But they's been some talk of rustling, pretty recent. I'm waiting for itto grow and get ripe. Then I'll bust it."

  He made an eloquent gesture which Vance followed. He was distinctlypleased with the sheriff. For Minter was wonderfully preserved. His faceseemed five years younger than his age. His body seemed even younger--round, smooth, powerful muscles padding his shoulders and stirring downthe length of his big arms. And his hands had that peculiar lightrestlessness of touch which Vance remembered to have seen--in the handsof Terence Colby, alias Hollis!

  "And how's things up your way?" continued the sheriff.

  "Booming. By the way, how long is it since you've seen the ranch?"

  "Never been there. Bear Creek Valley has always been a quiet place sincethe Cornishes moved in; and they ain't been any call for a gent in myline of business up that way."

  He grinned with satisfaction, and Vance nodded.

  "If times are dull, why not drop over? We're having a celebration therein five days. Come and look us over."

  "Maybe I might, and maybe I mightn't," said the sheriff. "All depends."

  "And bring some friends with you," insisted Vance.

  Then he wisely let the subject drop and went on to a detailed descriptionof the game in the hills around the ranch. That, he knew, would bring thesheriff if anything would. But he mentioned the invitation no more. Therewere particular reasons why he must not press it on the sheriff any morethan on others in Craterville.

  The next morning, before traintime, Vance went to the post office andleft the article on Black Jack addressed to Terence Colby at the Cornishranch. The addressing was done on a typewriter, which completely removedany means of identifying the sender. Vance played with Providence in onlyone way. He was so eager to strike his blow at the last possible momentthat he asked the postmaster to hold the letter for three days, whichwould land it at the ranch on the morning of the birthday. Then he wentto the train.

  His self-respect was increasing by leaps and bounds. The game was stillnot won, but, starring with absolutely nothing, in six days he hadplanted a charge which might send Elizabeth's twenty-four years of laborup in smoke.

  He got off the train at Preston, the station nearest the ranch, and tooka hired team up the road along Bear Creek Gorge. They debouched out ofthe Blue Mountains into the valley of the ranch in the early evening, andVance found himself looking with new eyes on the little kingdom. He feltthe happiness, indeed, of one who has lost a great prize and then puthimself in a fair way of winning it back.

  They dipped into the valley road. Over the tops of the big silver spruceshe traced the outline of Sleep Mountain against the southern sky. Who butVance, or the dwellers in the valley, would be able to duly appreciatesuch beauty? If there were any wrong in what he had done, this thoughtconsoled him: the ends justified the means.

  Now, as they drew closer, through the branches he made out glimpses ofthe dim, white front of the big house on the hill. That big, cool housewith the kingdom spilled out at its feet, the farming lands, the pasturesof the hills, and the rich forest of the upper mountains. Certainty cameto Vance Cornish. He wanted the ranch so profoundly that the thought oflosing it became impossible.

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