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   Chapter 20 No.20

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 11765

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The Last Stand

Even the vibrating guitar strings seemed to be stilled suddenly. For VB, an abrupt hush crushed down on the scene. He felt the eyes as, pair after pair, they followed those of the Mexican and gazed at him; even the man slumbering in his chair awoke, raised his head, and stared at him sleepily. He stood in the doorway, leaning lightly against the logs, returning each gaze in turn.

"Hello, VB!" one of the trio before the bar said.

"Hello, Tom!" answered the newcomer-and stepped into the room.

Then what hush had fallen-real or imaginary-lifted and the talk went on, the game progressed.

Perhaps the talk was not fully sincere, possibly the thoughts of the speakers were not always on their words, for every man in the place stole glances at the tall young fellow as he moved slowly about the room.

They had known for months the fight that was going on up there on Jed Avery's ranch. They knew that the man who had mastered the Captain and set his name forever in the green annals of the country had been fighting to command himself against the attacks of the stuff they peddled here in the saloon at Ranger. They knew how he had fought off temptation, avoided contact with whisky-and now, late at night, he had walked slowly into the heart of the magnet that had exerted such an influence on him. So they watched VB as he moved about.

The sharp lights from those black bottles! Like snakes' eyes, they commanded his-and, when this power had been exerted, they seemed to stab the brain that directed sight at them. In the first few steps across the rough floor VB answered their call to look a half dozen times, and after each turning of his gaze jerked his eyes away in pain.

He did not turn toward the bar-rather, kept close to the wall, passing so near the squatting Mexican that the flap of his chaps brushed the other's knees. The Greaser picked at the strings of his instrument aimlessly, striking unrelated chords, tinkling on a single string; then came a few bars from the fandango. His head was tilted to one side and a glittering eye followed the slow-moving figure of Young VB.

By the time the newcomer was halfway toward the poker table the Mexican got to his feet, sliding his back slowly up the wall until he reached a standing position. Then, for the first time taking his eyes from VB, he stepped lightly toward the door. After a final tinkling chord had fallen he disappeared, guitar slung under one arm, walking slowly away from the lighted place. But when he was beyond sight of those within, he ran.

VB went on, past the just-awakened man in his chair, close to the poker table. The players looked up again, first one, with a word of recognition; then two spoke at once, and after he had raked in the pot the fourth nodded with a welcoming grunt.

The young fellow leaned a shoulder against the log wall and watched the game. That is, he looked at it. But continually his fevered memory retained a vision of those glares from the bottles.

His mind again played crazy tricks, as it always did when the thirst clamored loudly. The rattle of the chips sounded like ice in glasses, and he turned his head quickly toward the bar, following the imaginary sound.

The four men there were just drinking. He followed their movements with wild eyes. The bartender lifted his glass to the level of his forehead in salute, then drained its contents slowly, steadily, every movement from the lifting to the setting down of the empty glass smooth, deliberate-even polished-the movements of a professedly artful drinker. The silent man offered no good word-merely lifted the glass and drank, tipping his head but slightly, emptying the glass with an uneven twisting of the wrist, something like an exaggerated tremble. The short man tossed his drink off by elevating the glass quickly to his lips and throwing his head back with a jerk to empty it into his mouth. The tall man, who talked loudly and motioned much, waved his drink through the air to emphasize a declaration, and with an uncertain swoop directed it to his lips. He leaned backward from the hips to drink, and the movement made him reel and grasp the bar for support.

As he had followed the movements of those men, so VB followed the course of the stuff they drank down their throats; in imagination, down his throat, until it hit upon and glossed over that spot which wailed for soothing!

Oh, how he wanted it! Still, all those months of battling had not been without result. The rigid fight he had made carried him on, even in face of his resolve to yield, and he delayed, put it off just a moment-lying to himself!

He turned back to the game.

"Sit in, VB?" one of the players asked.

"Don't mind."

He dragged another chair to the table, unbuttoned and cast off his jumper, gave the hat another low tug, and tossed a yellow-backed twenty to the table. The chips were shoved toward him.

"Jacks or better," the dealer said, and shot the cards about the board.

VB won a pot. He bet eagerly on the next and lost. Then he won again. The game interested him for the moment.

"Oh, just one more li'l' drink!" cried the garrulous cowboy at the bar.

VB had passed the opening, went in later, drew three cards, failed to help his tens, and hiked the bet! Called, he dropped the hand; and the winner, showing aces up, stared at the boy who had bet against openers on lone tens. He noticed that VB's hands trembled, and he wondered. He could not feel VB's throat. Nor could he hear the careless plea of the sotted rider for just one more drink ringing in VB's burning brain.

A big pot was played and the winner, made happy, said:

"Well, I'll buy a drink."

The bartender, hearing, came to the table.

"What'll it be?" he asked.

"Whisky," said the man on VB's right, and the word went around the circle.

Then a moment's pause

, while the cards fluttered out.

"VB?"

There it was, reaching out for him, holding out its tentacles that ceased to appear as such and became soft, inviting arms. It was that for which he had ridden through the night; it was that against which he had fought month after month until, this night, he realized that a fight was useless; it was the one solace left him, for indirectly it had brought into his life the glorious thing-and wiped it out again. So why hold off? Why refuse?

But those months of fighting! He could not overcome that impetus which his subjective self had received from the struggle. Consciously he wanted the stuff-oh, how he wanted it! But deep in him something-

"Not now-thanks," he managed to mutter, and clasped his cards tightly.

The bartender turned away, rubbing his chin with one finger, as though perplexed. VB dealt, and with lightning agility. He even broke in on the silence of the playing with senseless chatter when the drinks were brought. He held his cards high that he might not see the glasses, and was glad that the men did not drink at once. Nor did they drink for many moments. The opener was raised twice; few cards were drawn. A check passed one man, the next bet, the next raised, and VB, the deal, came in.

The opener raised again and the bartender, seeing, stepped across to watch. The drowsy lounger, sensing the drift of the game, rose to look on.

VB dropped out. He held threes, but felt that they had no place in that game. The betting went on and on, up and up, three men bent on raising, the fourth following, intent on having a look, anyhow. VB threw his cards down and dropped his hands loosely on the table. The back of his right hand touched a cold object. He looked down quickly. It was resting against a whisky glass.

"And ten more," a player said.

"Ten-and another ten." More chips rattled into the pile.

His hand stole back and hot fingers reached out to touch with sensitive tips that cool surface. His nostrils worked to catch the scent of the stuff. His hand was around the glass.

"I'm staying."

"You are-for five more."

VB's fingers tightened about the thing, squeezed it in the palm of his hand. It had felt cool at first; now it was like fire. The muscles of that arm strove to lift it. His inner mind struggled, declared against the intention, weakened, yielded, and-

"Well, I'm through. Fight it out."

The man at VB's right dropped his cards in disgust and with a quick movement reached for his drink.

His nervous, hot hand closed on VB's and their surprised glances met.

"Excuse me," muttered VB.

"Sure!" said the other, surly over his lost stake, and gulped down the whisky.

Two of the players went broke in that pot. The fourth had a scant remnant of his original stack left, and VB was loser. The two who had failed shoved back their hats and yawned, almost simultaneously.

"How about it?" asked the winner, stacking his chips.

"I'm satisfied," said the man at VB's right.

"And VB?"

"Here, too!"

The boy sat back in his chair with a long-drawn breath after shoving his chips across to be cashed. He pushed his hat back for the first time, and a man across the table stared hard as he saw the harried face. The others were busy, cashing in.

"Just get in, VB?" some one asked.

He heard the question through a tumult. His muscles had already contracted in the first movement of rising; his will already directed his feet across the room to the bar to answer the call of those searching bottle eyes. Inwardly he raged at himself for holding off so long, for wasting those months, for letting that other new thing come into his life only to be torn away again; when it all meant mere delay, a drawing out of suffering! Only half consciously he framed the answer:

"Yes, I rode down to-night."

"Goin' on out?"

"What?" he asked, forcing his mind to give heed to the other.

"Goin' on out, or goin' to hang around a while?"

"I don't know." The boy got to his feet, and the reply was given with rare bitterness. "I don't know," he said again, voice mounting. "I may go out-and I may not. I may hang around a while, and it mayn't take long. I'm here to finish something I started a long time ago, something that I've been putting off. I'm going to put a stop to a lying, hypocritical existence. I'm-"

He broke off thickly and moved away from the table.

No imagination created a hush this time. On his words the counting of chips ceased. They looked at him, seeing utter desperation, and not understanding.

A face outside that had been pressed close to a window was lowered, darkness hiding the glitter of green eyes and the leering smile of triumph. A figure slunk along carefully to the corner of the building and joined two others.

It was his chance! Rhues was out to get his man this moonlight night, and there was now no danger. Young VB was no longer afraid to take a drink. He would give up his fight, give up his hard-wrung freedom, and when drunken men go down, shot in a quarrel, there is always cause. He had him now!

VB lurched across the room toward the bar. In mid-floor he paused, turned, and faced those at the poker table.

"Don't mistake me," he said with a grin. "Don't think I'm talking against any man in the country. It's myself, boys-just me. I'm the liar, the hypocrite. I've tried to lie myself into being what I never can be. I've come out here among you to go by the name of the outfit I ride for. You don't know me, don't even know my name, say nothing of my own rotten self. Well, you're going to know me as I am."

He swung around to face the bar. The bartender pulled nervously on his mustache.

"What'll it be, VB?" he asked, surprised knowledge sending the professional question to his lips.

"The first thing you come to," the boy muttered, and grasped the bar for support.

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