Black jack, p.17
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       Black Jack, p.17

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 17

  Down the Bear Creek road Terence Hollis rode as he had never riddenbefore. To be sure, it was not the first time that El Sangre hadstretched to the full his mighty strength, but on those other occasionshe had fought the burst of speed, straining back in groaning stirrupleathers, with his full weight wresting at the bit. Now he let the reinplay to such a point that he was barely keeping the power of the stallionin touch. He lightened his weight as only a fine horseman can do,shifting a few vital inches forward, and with the burden falling moreover his withers, El Sangre fled like a racer down the valley. Not thathe was fully extended. His head was not stretched out as a cow-pony'shead is stretched when he runs; he held it rather high, as though hecarried in his big heart a reserve strength ready to be called on for anyemergency. For all that, it was running such as Terry had never known.

  The wind became a blast, jerking the brim of his sombrero up andwhistling in his hair. He was letting the shame, the grief, the thousandregrets of that parting with Aunt Elizabeth be blown out of his soul. Hismind was a whirl; the thoughts became blurs. As a matter of fact, Terrywas being reborn.

  He had lived a life perfectly sheltered. The care of Elizabeth Cornishhad surrounded him as the Blue Mountains and Sleep Mountain surroundedBear Valley and fenced off the full power of the storm winds. The realityof life had never reached him. Now, all in a day, the burden was placedon his back, and he felt the spur driven home to the quick. No wonderthat he winced, that his heart contracted.

  But now that he was awakening, everything was new. Uncle Vance, whom hehad always secretly despised, now seemed a fine character, gentle,cultured, thoughtful of others. Aunt Elizabeth Cornish he had accepted asa sort of natural fact, as though there were a blood tie between them.Now he was suddenly aware of twenty-four years of patient love. Thesorrow of it, that only the loss of that love should have brought himrealization of it. Vague thoughts and aspirations formed in his mind. Heyearned toward some large and heroic deed which should re-establishhimself in her respect. He wished to find her in need, in great trouble,free her from some crushing burden with one perilous effort, lay hishomage at her feet.

  All of which meant that Terry Hollis was a boy--a bewildered, heart-stricken boy. Not that he would have undone what he had done. It seemedto him inevitable that he should resent the story of the sheriff andshoot him down or be shot down himself. All that he regretted was that hehad remained mute before Aunt Elizabeth, unable to explain to her a thingwhich he felt so keenly. And for the first time he realized the flintybasis of her nature. The same thing that enabled her to give half alifetime to the cherishing of a theory, also enabled her to cast all theresult of that labor out of her life. It stung him again to the quickevery time he thought of it. There was something wrong. He felt that ahundred hands of affection gave him hold on her. And yet all those gripswere brushed away.

  The torment was setting him on fire. And the fire was burning away thesmug complacency which had come to him during his long life in thevalley.

  When El Sangre pulled out of his racing gallop and struck out up a slopeat his natural gait, the ground-devouring pace, Terry Hollis was pantingand twisting in the saddle as though the labor of the gallop had beenhis. They climbed and climbed, and still his mind was involved in a hazeof thought. It cleared when he found that there were no longer highmountains before him. He drew El Sangre to a halt with a word. The greatstallion turned his head as he paused and looked back to his master witha confiding eye as though waiting willingly for directions. And all atonce the heart of Terence went out to the blood-bay as it had never gonebefore to any creature, dumb or human. For El Sangre had known such painas he himself was learning at this moment. El Sangre was giving him truetrust, true love, and asking him for no return.

  The stallion, following his own will, had branched off from the BearCreek trail and climbed through the lower range of the Blue Peaks. Theywere standing now on a mountain-top. The red of the sunset filled thewest and brought the sky close to them with the lower drifts of stainedclouds. Eastward the winding length of Bear Creek was turning pink andpurple. The Cornish ranch had never seemed so beautiful to Terry as itwas at this moment. It was a kingdom, and he was leaving, thedisinherited heir.

  He turned west to the blare of the sunset. Blue Mountains tumbled away inlessening ranges--beyond was Craterville, and he must go there today.That was the world to him just then. And something new passed throughTerry. The world was below him; it lay at his feet with its hopes and itsbattles. And he was strong for the test. He had been living in a dream.Now he would live in fact. And it was glorious to live!

  And when his arms fell, his right hand lodged instinctively on the buttof his revolver. It was a prophetic gesture, but there, again, wassomething that Terry Hollis did not understand.

  He called to El Sangre softly. The stallion responded with the faintestof whinnies to the vibrant power in the voice of the master; and at thatsmooth, effortless pace, he glided down the hillside, weaving dexterouslyamong the jagged outcroppings of rock. A period had been placed afterTerry's old life. And this was how he rode into the new.

  The long and ever-changing mountain twilight began as he wound throughthe lower ranges. And when the full dark came, he broke from the lastsweep of foothills and El Sangre roused to a gallop over the level towardCraterville.

  He had been in the town before, of course. But he felt this evening thathe had really never seen it before. On other days what existed outside ofBear Valley did not very much matter. That was the hub around which therest of the world revolved, so far as Terry was concerned. It was verydifferent now. Craterville, in fact, was a huddle of broken-down housesamong a great scattering of boulders with the big mountains plunging upon every side to the dull blue of the night sky.

  But Craterville was also something more. It was a place where severalhundred human beings lived, any one of whom might be the decisiveinfluence in the life of Terry. Young men and old men were in that town,cunning and strength; old crones and lovely girls were there. Whom wouldhe meet? What should he see? A sudden kindness toward others pouredthrough Terry Hollis. After all, every man might be a treasure to him. Aqueer choking came in his throat when he thought of all that he hadmissed by his contemptuous aloofness.

  One thing gave him check. This was primarily the sheriff's town, and bythis time they knew all about the shooting. But what of that? He hadfought fairly, almost too fairly.

  He passed the first shapeless shack. The hoofs of El Sangre bit into thedust, choking and red in daylight, and acrid of scent by the night. Allwas very quiet except for a stir of voices in the distance here andthere, always kept hushed as though the speaker felt and acknowledged theinfluence of the profound night in the mountains. Someone came down thestreet carrying a lantern. It turned his steps into vast spokes ofshadows that rushed back and forth across the houses with the swing ofthe light. The lantern light gleamed on the stained flank of El Sangre.

  "Halloo, Jake, that you?"

  The man with the lantern raised it, but its light merely served to blindhim. Terry passed on without a word and heard the other mutter behindhim: "Some damn stranger!"

  Perhaps strangers were not welcome in Craterville. At least, it seemed sowhen he reached the hotel after putting up his horse in the shed behindthe old building. Half a dozen dark forms sat on the veranda talking inthe subdued voices which he had noted before. Terry stepped through thelighted doorway. There was no one inside.

  "Want something?" called a voice from the porch. The widow Rickson camein to him.

  "A room, please," said Terry.

  But she was gaping at him. "You! Terence--Hollis!"

  A thousand things seemed to be in that last word, which she brought outwith a shrill ring of her voice. Terry noted that the talking on theporch was cut off as though a hand had been clapped over the mouth ofevery man.

  He recalled that the widow had been long a friend of the sheriff and hewas suddenly embarrassed.

  "If you have a spare r
oom, Mrs. Rickson. Otherwise, I'll find--"

  Her manner had changed. It became as strangely ingratiating as it hadbeen horrified, suspicious, before.

  "Sure I got a room. Best in the house, if you want it. And--you'll behungry, Mr.--Hollis?"

  He wondered why she insisted so savagely on that newfound name? Headmitted that he was very hungry from his ride, and she led him back tothe kitchen and gave him cold ham and coffee and vast slices of bread andbutter.

  She did not talk much while he ate, and he noted that she asked noquestions. Afterwards she led him through the silence of the place up tothe second story and gave him a room at the corner of the building. Hethanked her. She paused at the door with her hand on the knob, and hereyes fixed him through and through with a glittering, hostile stare. Awisp of gray hair had fallen across her cheek, and there it was plasteredto the skin with sweat, for the evening was, warm.

  "No trouble," she muttered at length. "None at all. Make yourself tohome, Mr.--Hollis!"

 
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