The Project Gutenberg eBook of Duel in Black

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Title: Duel in Black

Author: John Foster West

Illustrator: Herman B. Vestal

Release date: January 20, 2021 [eBook #64346]

Language: English

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at




In Luna's shroud-like shadows two men lay waiting
for each other's move, even their guns obscured.
But the dancing space moths weren't fooled.

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1947.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Young Ron Crag fused the edge of his claim tag to the metal vein in the quartzite rock with his heat gun, then with heavy-shod fingers he tugged at the small copper disk, but it remained firmly in place.

"That makes you owner according to law, Mr. Crag," he murmured. In the lonely, rugged reaches of Luna's north country a man had to talk to someone. "A real lode looks like. Richest uranium lode I've seen in many a Lunar June. Bring me a nice roll if some of those rotten claim jumpers don't—"

Automatically he grasped the hilt of his gun, loosening it in the holster. He sauntered toward the catatread, parked near the southern rim of the small crater, near the mouth of the gorge.

He could see several purple, nebulous space moths fluttering around the engine of his vehicle. Crag watched them as he approached the machine; they dipped, fluttered and weaved about the catatread, many of them wrapping themselves about the warm metal of the engine and eagerly absorbing any heat present. They reminded Ron Crag more of translucent amoeba wreathing through the nothingness of space than moths, but some ancient had dubbed them moths and moths they had remained.

They ranged in size from the area of a man's hand to about three square feet. He knew two things about them; they could detect the slightest rise in temperature over a distance of fifty yards, and they did not like the intense, constant heat of the two-weeks lunar days. They apparently disappeared into craters and fissures during the hotter part of the day, and came out after the setting of the sun.

"Good thing my suit and thermocubes are completely insulated," he muttered, "or there'd probably be about ten thousand of them wrapped around me, drinking up the heat."

He dropped his hands to the two metal blocks built on to the suit high on each hip. Those two mechanisms were almost as important as his oxygen tank. They generated the heat conducted to the material of the suit and protected him from the 153° C of the lunar nights. Of course, he could last awhile with only one of the units functioning. A man got into the habit of checking them during the long nights; his life depended on them—them and the oxygen tank, and sometimes the gun.

The pale, turquoise disk of Earth rode low in the heavens above the serrated Alps, towering above him, illuminating the rugged fastnesses in a sort of aqua glow. Earth, now at full, lighted Luna many times brighter than a full moon had ever lighted her. But the countless thousands of shadows cast by lava stalagmites, spires, boulders and mountain peaks were pits of nothingness. Crag walked into the Stygian blackness cast by a stalagmite and disappeared as completely as though swallowed up by a dark hole in the moon's surface. He passed on through the shadow and reappeared abruptly on the other side. He himself cast a long, black shadow, more weird because it appeared to be a black pit sliding over the floor of the crater.

Instinctively Ron Crag crouched as the pencil of flame streaked past his head. He could not feel the heat through the insulated suit, but he knew it had missed him by scant inches. He wheeled and darted back into the shadow he had just quitted, his gun leaping into his hand.

He saw a burly form dart into the shadow of a massive boulder across the basin from him. He started to snap a beam at it, but held his fire; the flare would only betray his own position. He could not see the slightest shape, the slightest trace of movement in the inky blackness of the other shadow. There was some compensation in knowing that the ambusher could not see him either. Without air to diffuse the earthlight, the shadows were sharp and distinct as though no light existed in all the universe outside their borders.

He glanced in the direction from which his attacker had come. There in the north edge of the crater, in the mouth of the canyon, another catatread was parked. It was an old model, battered and eroded by time and hard usage. Ron Crag thought he recognized the steed; he had seen it once or twice down south, in the parking area back of the Tycho terradome. Realizing the identity of his assailant a sudden terror paralyzed him for a moment, but then it fled, leaving him trembling and angry.

"Howdy, son," a sarcastic voice drawled into the earphones of his radarphone. "You shouldn't talk to yo'self about your rich lodes, else you should be sure your radarphone is cut off, so's pore luckless critters like me couldn't overhear ye."

Crag bit his lip in anger and shame. The killer had heard his remark, got a directional fix on his position and—

"Joe Braun?" Crag grated into the transmitter in his helmet, forcing the quaver out of his voice. "Biggest, dirtiest claim jumper in all North Luna."

"Nobody ever proved a thing on me," Joe Braun guffawed.

"No! Or you'd be at the bottom of some crater," Crag retorted. "This time you've slipped."

"Think so, feller? Think you'll be reportin' this?"

Ron's flesh crept. There were few men on Luna who would match flame with this black-bearded killer. Those luckless ones who had challenged him were now piled at the bottom of various craters.

Crag stared at the black shadow protecting his adversary, gripping his gun. But he knew there would be nothing to shoot at unless Braun shot first, revealing his position. And Joe was no fool even when he faced a greenhorn from Earth. Crag was at bay here in the concealing shadow, helpless, trapped, and calling for help was out of the question. The radarphone would not carry to the nearest terradome.

The catatread! If he could make a dash for the catatread, reach it and throw a light beam into the shadows he could burn the other to a crisp with the large, swivel gun. But then a wave of despondency blacked out his thoughts. It was too far to the vehicle. Even with the lighter gravity of Luna to hold him back, his space suit was heavy and cumbersome, and he could never make it before Joe Braun would throw at least three shots in him. He would be a clay pigeon.

Suddenly he realized the hopelessness of his predicament. He could never match flame with Joe Braun. Ron Crag knew he did not have a chance in an open duel with the ruthless killer.

"What'sa matter, son, afraid?" came the taunt through his headset.

"I guess you know what the penalty is for claim jumping?" Crag snapped. "To say nothing of attempted murder?"

"Shore I do," Joe Braun laughed. "A great big posse'll hunt me down and toss me into a bottomless crater. That's what happens to claim jumpers as gets caught. And you'll get a big, fat reward, huh, sonny?"

Ron bit back his answer.

"But you named one o' the charges wrong, son," chided Joe gently. "You called it attempted murder." He chuckled. "That's one thing ol' Joe Braun ain't ever gonna be guilty of. Whyn't ya come outa that shadder an' get it over with?"

Crag did not answer. He looked toward the catatread. There was not a single rock or spire between it and him to protect him. The cliffs of the Alps rose sheer and precipitous from the level of the crater floor, and for most of the distance to the vehicle the very base of the cliffs was brightly illuminated in the earthlight. But here and there a black shadow did jut out from the base of the precipice, cast by jagged peaks, eight thousand feet above the tiny basin. Those shadows formed an irregular chain of black splotches over the pumice-covered floor between Crag and the catatread.

Crag wasted no time weighing his chances. Blood beat fiercely in his temples as he tensed. He darted out into the earthlight, then retreated back into the same shadow as a livid ribbon of flame streaked by just in front of his visorport. He knew it was excellent shooting for a hand-gun at that range. It would take Joe Braun ten seconds to recharge and readjust the gun, and in that time—

Ron Crag darted out into the earthlight again, and fled for the nearest shadow a hundred feet away. He ducked into the blackness only split seconds ahead of another bolt of flame. If Braun only nicked his suit, his oxygen tank, or his thermocubes it would finish him, and the gunman was getting his range.

Joe Braun was out in the light now, dashing for the shadow of a spire nearer Crag's catatread. Ron Crag raised his gun and pressed the trip; a bolt of flame cleaved space just behind the hurtling shape.

A disappointed oath ricocheted about the close walls of Crag's helmet. He quickly pressed the charge poles of the gun against the battery posts in his accessory belt and recharged the gun. He then turned the range dial to seventy-five yards, leaving the bolt diameter at one inch. He crouched in the shadow, peering across the intervening area between himself and his assailant.

"Missed, son!" Joe Braun guffawed. "Want to make it to your catatread, eh? Well, two can play the same game."

Crag swallowed an angry retort. Despair was again rising in him like a dense fog.

Joe Braun darted for another shadow, drawing ever closer to Crag's vehicle. Crag took careful aim, but his hand wavered ever so slightly. He fired. A streak of flame reached out and nicked—no, it passed just to the rear of the fleeing man, a little above hip level. He could have sworn the bolt grazed the man's accessory belt, but no apparent damage was done. The huge man kept running and ducked into another shadow nearer the catatread. If Joe Braun made it safely to the machine he could turn the young prospector's gun on its owner and burn him down without effort.

The next shadow in the chain was only twenty yards away. Crag covered the distance in three strides. Another bolt blasted space between his head and right shoulder. He snapped a bolt back in retaliation. It cut high and to the left.

Crag glanced frantically at the catatread. It was still too far away to reach in one dash. He knew he could never make it unless he hugged the shadows as he had been doing. Several space moths still clung hungrily to the cooling engine of the machine, but many of them were flopping and writhing frantically in space above the machine. They had detected the violent heat from the flame guns in the instant before their heat was dissipated into space, but that split second was not long enough for the creatures to locate the origin of the heat. They seemed frustrated, flopping desperately about in confused circles. Some of them fluttered into the shadows of the rocks and spires in their search, and their vaguely radiant network of veins squirmed like purple wraiths in the Stygian blackness.

Crag's attention was suddenly yanked back to his predicament, when Joe Braun darted for another shadow. Crag snapped another bolt and missed again. Either the bandit had plenty of guts or he knew Ron Crag was really a poor shot. He did not hesitate in his advance from shadow to shadow toward the catatread. It was a duel to the death, here in the shadows.

Ron Crag dashed to the next shadow without drawing flame. Apparently Joe deliberately held his fire, for the lighted area between this one and the next shadow was much further than Crag could sprint even in ten seconds. And beyond the next one lay the catatread. He crouched against the rock cliffs, glancing first toward the vehicle, then back at the black blot that he knew concealed the killer.

There were only three more spires between Joe Braun and the catatread, three more shadows, three more short sprints. Once the claim jumper made the machine Ron Crag knew the duel was over anyway. Maybe his best chance was to wait here, aim carefully and take a chance on a lucky hit. But if he missed Braun in the first sprint the man could make it all the way to the spire nearest the machine before Crag could recharge. And if he reached that last spire....

Perhaps he'd better run for it, after all, Crag thought desperately. But he knew with a cold certainty the sure aim of the gunman could not miss him in the long sprint. Perhaps if he shot in Joe's direction just after he broke into the earthlight it might divert the killer's aim enough for a miss. He decided abruptly that it was his only chance.

With trembling fingers he checked the range dials on the gun. His tongue clung to the roof of a dry mouth. Crag crouched, darted forward—then halted so abruptly on the very rim of the shadow that he fell backwards and landed gently on both elbows.

Slowly he got to his feet, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Several space moths were weaving through space toward the shadow of the pinnacle concealing the bandit. Crag stared, breathing more evenly now. More and more of the nebulous creatures were rising above the catatread and moving straight as a plumb line in the wake of the leading moths.

He stared at the inky shadows where he knew the killer lurked. The first two or three moths had already reached their destination. He could see their pulsating, irradiant veins curled around some object that had attracted them. More and more of the creatures floated into the shadow, disappeared for a moment, and then reappeared for a moment, and then reappeared as a vague glow, fluttering toward the mass their companions had already formed.

Ron Crag watched. The killer was apparently oblivious to their presence. Ron wet dry lips with his tongue, while his fingers slowly reset the dials on the gun. Range: sixty yards! Diameter of beam: four inches! Slowly he raised the gun and took careful aim, eight inches to the right, eighteen inches above the radiant cluster of space moths. If he was wrong, if he.... It was a gamble and if he was shooting at the wrong space Joe Braun would get him with the flare of Ron's gun. Even if he only wounded him, the other would get him.

"Worried, feller—" the harsh voice began.

A coruscating tube of flame leaped at the shadow across the canyon; for a moment it illuminated the area around the bandit in a brilliant glare. His taunting voice broke off with an agonized gasp. In the brief flash Ron Crag saw the man twist erect, his empty hands grasping heavenward. He took three halting steps and tumbled into full view in the earthlight. A great, charred hole was burned completely through his chest, and already the space moths were shifting to the wound, eagerly absorbing the escaping heat from the suit, and from Joe Braun's body.

In the brief flash Ron Crag saw the man twist erect.

Ron Crag slowly approached the crumpled form, gun ready. One glance at the sightless eyes, the bearded face and open mouth behind the visorport was all he needed to confirm what he already knew. Joe Braun had jumped his last uranium claim; Joe Braun had pulled his last gun.

He leaned over the body, examining it closely. His gamble had panned out. One corner of the thermocube on Braun's right hip was fused and a pinpoint hole was evident. The heat bolt Crag thought struck the killer's accessory belt had not missed after all.

"I'll be a fork-tailed comet!" Ron Crag breathed. He glanced affectionately at the squirming, purple creatures. "Thanks, friends," he murmured.

Then he set out on shaking legs for the catatread.