The Cross Brand - Max Brand - ebook

The Cross Brand ebook

Max Brand



In "The Cross Brand", Sheriff Harry Ganton and Jack Bristol have been friends since they were young. But when Harry accuses Jack of trying to steal his girl, guns blaze and the sheriff is shot. Jack Bristol stole his horse and rode off, not into the sunset, but into the mountains. The mountain man held him captive for months and then released him. Why? And why did the girl scream with terror when she saw his face? A Western take on the story of Kane and Abel. This is Max Brand at his best. Experience the West as only Max Brand could write it!

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JACK BRISTOL removed his feet from the table-edge and sat up. It was a tribute of attention which any other man in Arizona would have paid, willingly, to Sheriff Harry Ganton; but what filled the eye of Jack Bristol was not the sheriff’s person but the sheriff’s horse.

The sight of the brown mare plucked a string in his heart of hearts and filled him with a melancholy of yearning. Such a horse as that could not be bought or bred. She was one of those rare sports which are produced by chance. A grayhound had more speed; a mountain sheep was more nimble climbing the rocks; but brown Susan could imitate both. She was put together with a mathematical nicety, like Jack Bristol’s gun, of which she often made him think. But above and beyond physical prowess, it was Susan’s personality which delighted Jack. Her starred forehead, her quick-stirring little ears, her great, bright, gentle eyes, and a wise way she had of cocking her head to one side; in short, she fitted nicely into the heart of Jack Bristol and he groaned to think that another man must always ride her.

She came to a stop just in front of the house. The big sheriff dismounted. As he stood beside her, his six feet and odd inches of height, his two hundred pounds of bone and muscle, made her seem hardly more than a pony–in fact she was a scant fifteen three, Jack knew–yet she had carried Ganton prodigious distances between sunrise and dark.

She was the foundation upon which his reputation had been raised. Two years before Susan was a tender three year old and Harry Ganton was a newly elected and youthful sheriff. In the past twenty-four months Susan had demonstrated that robbers who committed crimes in the district which Ganton protected were fools if they depended for safety upon the speed of their horses. Brown Susan ran them down with consummate ease, and once she brought Harry Ganton within range he was a known fighter.

The sheriff stepped out of sight and appeared again at the door of the house; Jack Bristol greeted him with a wave of the hand and went to the window where Susan had come to whinny to him with bright eyes of expectancy. He began to slit apples into narrow sectors. She took them daintily from his fingers. The sheriff, in the meantime, took a chair which he could tilt back against the wall.

‘Too bad you don’t own Sue,’ he said. ‘You and her get on uncommon well, Jack.’

The head of Jack Bristol jerked around.

‘Maybe she’s for sale?’ he asked. But he sighed and shook his head without waiting for the answer.

‘Suppose she were?’ said the sheriff. ‘Would you have the price to spare?’

‘I’d find the price,’ said Jack. He held a glistening bit of apple away, while she reached greedily and vainly for it. ‘I’d find the price.’

‘How?’ insisted Ganton.

Jack Bristol turned to the other with a peculiarly characteristic air of disdain, as though he were one for whom probabilities had no interest. He was a handsome fellow with lean, clear-cut features and a blue eye which was almost black; and he had a bold and confident glance which now dwelt upon the sheriff with unbearable steadiness. He seemed to have many words on the tip of his tongue, but he only said, ‘There are ways!’

At this the sheriff shrugged his shoulders. They were of one age, just at thirty; but Jack Bristol looked five years younger and the sheriff seemed in excess of his real age by the same margin. Burdens honorably assumed and patiently borne, fierce labor, honest methods, had marked him with a gray about the forehead and lined his face to sternness or to weariness. But the skin of Jack Bristol was as smooth as the skin of a child. His eye was as clear. The fingers which poised the fragment of apple above the velvet nose of Susan were as tapered as the fingers of a woman. Labor had never misshaped that hand or calloused it. The sheriff marked these things with a touch of bitterness. They had gone to the same school at the same time. He had fought his way through the studies. Jack Bristol, never opening a book, the hours of his bright leisure never encroached upon, had always led the class. Now, so many years later, it mattered not that Ganton could savagely assure himself of his success and Jack’s failure. The instant he came into the presence of the latter, he felt his crushing inferiority.

‘There are ways, eh?’ echoed Ganton. ‘But how, Jack? The cards?’

This time Jack Bristol turned his back squarely upon the mare, though one hand, behind him, continued to pat her.

‘What the devil do you mean by that?’ he asked.

‘I mean that everybody in town knows how you’ve kept your head up,’ answered the sheriff. ‘We know that you’re a fat one with the cards!’

‘A crooked gambler, eh?’

‘I haven’t said that. I think you’d be honest at it.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Simply because you’re too proud to admit that another man might have better luck than you.’

‘What the devil ails you, Ganton? What do you mean by coming here with this sort of talk? What have I and my ways to do with you? Have you turned sky-pilot, maybe? Going to try for two jobs at once?’

The sheriff flushed.

‘I’ll tell you why I’ve come. I’ve always kept out of your way–’

‘Because you had nothing on me!’

‘Maybe. I say, I’ve never bothered you until you mixed up with my business. Then I had to let you know that I was around.’

‘In your business?’

‘Last week you went to Hemingworth to the dance in the schoolhouse, didn’t you?’

Jack Bristol was again half turned away, paying far more attention to the feeding of the mare than to the words of the sheriff. But Ganton persisted in his questions in spite of this insulting demeanor.

‘I suppose I did,’ nodded Jack. ‘I’ve forgotten.’

‘Forgotten! That’s the place where you met Maude Purcell and danced half the dances with her and made her town talk next day and ever since.’

‘Maude Purcell? I remember that name.’

‘I guess you do!’

‘She’s a girl with pale eyes and freckles across her nose. Kind of cross-eyed, too, isn’t she?’

He spoke carelessly, busy with the feeding of Susan. But from the corner of his eye he saw the sheriff writhe and it gave him a malicious pleasure.

‘I can’t let you talk like that,’ burst out the sheriff. ‘Jack, you didn’t know or else not even you would of dared to talk like this, but me and Maude are engaged to get married!’

‘You are?’ said Jack. First he gave the last of the apple to the mare. Then he took out a handkerchief and began to wipe his fingers. Last of all, he turned to the sheriff. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘in that case I’m mighty sorry, Harry. Wouldn’t have hurt your feelings for the world!’

The sheriff, very red of face, watched him narrowly, and sighed. He had a perfect conviction that Jack Bristol knew all about his relations with pretty Maude Purcell. He was reasonably sure that it was on this very account that Jack had flirted so outrageously with Maude on that evening. But Bristol was no man to force into a corner; it would not do to anger him unless that were a last resource.

‘What I mean,’ said the sheriff, ‘is this: Maude and me were engaged. But–the other day we busted it off!’

Jack started. He flashed at the sheriff a glance of real concern, but the latter was looking down in anguish to the floor and when he raised his head again, Jack had succeeded in smoothing his expression to indifference.

‘She gave me over,’ said the sheriff again. He mopped his forehead. ‘And the reason she done it was because–because of the way you talked to her that night at the dance! That’s why I’ve come here to talk to you, Jack!’

Jack Bristol looked back into his mind in dismay. Maude Purcell, on that night, with her yellow hair and blue dress and gay smile, had been the prettiest girl on the dance floor. Also, she gained piquancy through Jack’s knowledge that she was the bride-to-be of the sheriff. He and Harry Ganton were old enemies. They were the bywords of the town. He was the example of riotous living and idleness held up to the youth of the community. Harry Ganton was the example of what a young man may accomplish by industry and frugal living. It had been a shrewd temptation to win the girl away from thoughts of her lover for a single evening. But to lead to this result certainly had never been in his mind.

‘And the first thing I got to ask,’ said the sheriff, ‘is this: what sort of intentions have you got toward Maude?’

Jack Bristol had been on the verge of stepping across the room, shaking the hand of Harry with an apology for his conduct, and promising his best assistance in smoothing out the tangle. But the stern voice of the sheriff threw him back into another mood at once. He could never be driven with whips where he might be led by the slightest crooking of a finger. In fact, the humor of Jack was generally that of a spoiled boy.

‘Are you her father?’ asked Jack. ‘Where’s your right to ask me what my intentions are?’

‘I got the right of a man whose happiness is tied up in what you may do!’ exclaimed poor Ganton, turning pale with emotion.

‘Well, Harry, I haven’t made up my mind!’

‘Then, gimme a chance to help you make it up!’

‘Go as far as you like.’

‘In the first place, are you the sort that makes a marrying man?’

‘How d’you mean by that?’

‘Ain’t a man, if he’s going to marry, got to be the sort that will provide a home for his wife and enough for her and their kids to live on?’

‘You think I couldn’t do that?’

‘You could do it plumb easy. That ain’t the thing. Would you do it? Wouldn’t you get tired of the house and everything in it? Wouldn’t you want a change? Ain’t that the way you’ve been all the rest of your life?’

‘Maybe it is.’

‘It’s a sure enough fact. Look around here at this house. Why, I can remember on the day your father died, this was the best house in Red Bend. We all used to look up to it. It was the sort of a house that we all wanted to build and live in some day if we ever got to be that rich. And look at the house now! Look where the rain has leaked in through the roof that you ain’t ever repaired; see where it’s streaked and stained the walls! Look where the wallpaper is beginning to peel off and where it’s faded. The flooring is all in waves in your big dining-room. You’ve sold all the good furniture. You’ve got only a bunch of junk left. The roof of your big barn is busted and sagging in. Your cows have been sold down to just a few dozen. You only got a couple of hosses. You’ve loaded your ranch up to the ears with mortgages. And now I ask you, Jack, to stand back and look at things fair and square, including yourself. After you’ve had a good look, tell me if you’re the kind that makes a family happy. Are you?’

Against his will, Jack Bristol had been forced to follow the eager words of the sheriff. The unhappy picture was painted in vivid strokes, and out of his memory was drawn the coloring for it. All the prosperity of his youth floated past him like a tantalizing vision. Behind it was the face of his father, that too-indulgent man.

It is when we feel our guilt too keenly that we are most apt to anger. Also, no doubt the sheriff had paid more attention to truth than to tact.

‘Ganton,’ said Jack. ‘I’m glad to know what you think of me. But it don’t follow that that’s what I think of myself. As for the girl, if she got tired of you I’m sorry for you, but maybe she figures it shows she has sense. We all have a right to our opinions, eh?’

The sheriff changed color again. But he kept himself strongly under control.

‘You’re hot-headed now, Jack. But I know that you ain’t as hard as all that. You ain’t going to keep up your game with Maude just for the sake of putting me in the fire, eh?’

‘What game?’ said Jack. ‘Suppose that Maude and I should decide to step off together? What then? Why shouldn’t we marry?’

‘Why?’ echoed the sheriff, looking wildly about him. ‘Jack, you don’t mean it!’

‘Is there any law on your side to stop us?’ asked the other cruelly.

‘There is,’ said the sheriff, and he rose from his chair.

‘Name it, partner!’

‘It’s this.’

The sheriff tapped the gun hanging at his side.

‘I’ll put an end to you first, Bristol. I’ve seen you spoil everything you’ve touched. I ain’t going to see you spoil her face–not while I’m wearing a gun!’

Jack Bristol gasped, as one immensely surprised. Anger followed more slowly. ‘You damned blockhead!’ he fumbled for words. ‘Stop me with a gun–me?’

His right hand trembled down to his own weapon and came away again. He whipped out Bull Durham and brown papers and rolled himself a smoke which he lighted and walked hurriedly up and down the room, a wisp of smoke following him and banking up into a little cloud when he turned.

‘Get out, Harry!’ he implored the sheriff. ‘Get out before something happens. I know you’re a good fighter. Everybody around these parts thinks that you can’t be beat. But you know and I know that I’m faster and straighter with a gun. I dunno what’s got into your crazy head. Are you hunting for a way to die?’

‘It don’t make no difference,’ said the sheriff. ‘I’ve come here to make you promise that you’d give up Maude. If I couldn’t persuade you to do it, I was going to make you. And that goes! I’d rather see you dead and me hanging for the murder than to have Maude’s life ruined. What are both of our lives compared with hers?’

‘Harry, go home and think it over,’ said Jack Bristol. ‘You ain’t talking sense. You know you can’t budge me. You ain’t man enough. You never were!’

‘Answer me one way or the other, Jack. Will you give her up? You know that even if you had her you couldn’t be true to her. You ain’t made that way. All your life the girls have talked soft to you. You’ve had your way paved with smiles. They don’t mean nothing to you. Maude would be getting the first wrinkles before long. And then you’d be through with her. I know how it’d be. You’d leave her. You’ve never stuck to the same girl for a whole summer. Ain’t that a fact? So I ask you–will you give her up?’

‘I’ll see you damned first!’

‘Then God help one of us!’

He pitched himself to one side while a swift flexion of hand and wrist brought out the Colt. It began spitting fire and ploughing the floor with lead. The first bullet split a board at the feet of Jack Bristol. The second, as the gun was raised, was sure to drive into the body of Jack himself. But before that second shot a forty-five calibre slug struck the sheriff in the breast and knocked him against the wall.

He recoiled, gasping, fired from a wobbling hand a bullet that tore upward through the roof, and then dropped upon his face.

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