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       Black Jack, p.2

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 2

  Twenty-four years made the face of Vance Cornish a little better-fed, alittle more blocky of cheek, but he remained astonishingly young. Atforty-nine the lumpish promise of his youth was quite gone. He was in atrim and solid middle age. His hair was thinned above the forehead, butit gave him more dignity. On the whole, he left an impression of a manwho has done things and who will do more before he is through.

  He shifted his feet from the top of the porch railing and shruggedhimself deeper into his chair. It was marvelous how comfortable Vancecould make himself. He had one great power--the ability to sit stillthrough any given interval. Now he let his eye drift quietly over theCornish ranch. It lay entirely within one grasp of the vision, spillingacross the valley from Sleep Mountain, on the lower bosom of which thehouse stood, to Mount Discovery on the north. Not that the glance ofVance Cornish lurched across this bold distance. His gaze wandered asslowly as a free buzzes across a clover field, not knowing on whichblossom to settle.

  Below him, generously looped, Bear Creek tumbled out of the southeast,and roved between noble borders of silver spruce into the shadows of theBlue Mountains of the north, half a dozen miles across and ten long ofgrazing and farm land, rich, loamy bottom land scattered with aspens.

  Beyond, covering the gentle roll of the foothills, was grazing land.Scattering lodgepole pine began in the hills, and thickened into denseyellow-green thickets on the upper mountain slopes. And so north andnorth the eye of Vance Cornish wandered and climbed until it rested onthe bald summit of Mount Discovery. It had its name out of its character,standing boldly to the south out of the jumble of the Blue Mountains.

  It was a solid unit, this Cornish ranch, fenced away with mountains,watered by a river, pleasantly forested, and obviously predestined forthe ownership of one man. Vance Cornish, on the porch of the house, feltlike an enthroned king overlooking his dominions. As a matter of fact,his holdings were hardly more than nominal.

  In the beginning his father had left the ranch equally to Vance andElizabeth, thickly plastered with debts. The son would have sold theplace for what they could clear. He went East to hunt for education andpleasure; his sister remained and fought the great battle by herself. Sheconsecrated herself to the work, which implied that the work was sacred.And to her, indeed, it was.

  She was twenty-two and her brother twelve when their father died. Had shebeen a tithe younger and her brother a mature man, it would have beendifferent. As it was, she felt herself placed in a maternal position withVance. She sent him away to school, rolled up her sleeves and started toorder chaos. In place of husband, children--love and the fruits of love--she accepted the ranch. The dam between the rapids and the waterfall wasthe child of her brain; the plowed fields of the central part of thevalley were her reward.

  In ten years of constant struggle she cleared away the debts. And then,since Vance gave her nothing but bills to pay, she began to buy out hisinterest. He chose to learn his business lessons on Wall Street.Elizabeth paid the bills, but she checked the sums against his interestin the ranch. And so it went on. Vance would come out to the ranch atintervals and show a brief, feverish interest, plan a new set ofirrigation canals, or a sawmill, or a better road out over the BlueMountains. But he dropped such work half-done and went away.

  Elizabeth said nothing. She kept on paying his bills, and she kept oncutting down his interest in the old Cornish ranch, until at the presenttime he had only a finger-tip hold. Root and branch, the valley and allthat was in it belonged to Elizabeth Cornish. She was proud of herpossession, though she seldom talked of her pride. Nevertheless, Vanceknew, and smiled. It was amusing, because, after all, what she had done,and all her work, would revert to him at her death. Until that time, whyshould he care in whose name the ranch remained so long as his bills werepaid? He had not worked, but in recompense he had remained young.Elizabeth had labored all her youth away. At forty-nine he was ready tobegin the most important part of his career. At sixty his sister was awithered old ghost of a woman.

  He fell into a pleasant reverie. When Elizabeth died, he would set insome tennis courts beside the house, buy some blooded horses, cut theroad wide and deep to let the world come up Bear Creek Valley, and retireto the life of a country gentleman.

  His sister's voice cut into his musing. She had two tones. One might becalled her social register. It was smooth, gentle--the low-pitched andcontrolled voice of a gentlewoman. The other voice was hard and sharp. Itcould drive hard and cold across a desk, and bring businessmen to anunderstanding that here was a mind, not a woman.

  At present she used her latter tone. Vance Cornish came into a shiveringconsciousness that she was sitting beside him. He turned his head slowly.It was always a shock to come out of one of his pleasant dreams and seethat worn, hollow-eyed, impatient face.

  "Are you forty-nine, Vance?"

  "I'm not fifty, at least," he countered.

  She remained imperturbable, looking him over. He had come to notice thatin the past half-dozen years his best smiles often failed to mellow herexpression. He felt that something disagreeable was coming.

  "Why did Cornwall run away this morning? I hoped to take him on a trip."

  "He had business to do."

  His diversion had been a distinct failure, and had been turned againsthim. For she went on: "Which leads to what I have to say. You're goingback to New York in a few days, I suppose?"

  "No, my dear. I haven't been across the water for two years."

  "Paris?"

  "Brussels. A little less grace; a little more spirit."

  "Which means money."

  "A few thousand only. I'll be back by fall."

  "Do you know that you'll have to mortgage your future for that money,Vance?"

  He blinked at her, but maintained his smile under fire courageously.

  "Come, come! Things are booming. You told me yesterday what you'd cleanup on the last bunch of Herefords."

  When she folded her hands, she was most dangerous, he knew. And now thebony fingers linked and she shrugged the shawl more closely around hershoulders.

  "We're partners, aren't we?" smiled Vance.

  "Partners, yes. You have one share and I have a thousand. But--you don'twant to sell out your final claim, I suppose?"

  His smile froze. "Eh?"

  "If you want to get those few thousands, Vance, you have nothing to putup for them except your last shreds of property. That's why I say you'llhave to mortgage your future for money from now on."

  "But--how does it all come about?"

  "I've warned you. I've been warning you for twenty-five years, Vance."

  Once again he attempted to turn her. He always had the impression that ifhe became serious, deadly serious for ten consecutive minutes with hissister, he would be ruined. He kept on with his semi-jovial tone.

  "There are two arts, Elizabeth. One is making money and the other isspending it. You've mastered one and I've mastered the other. Whichbalances things, don't you think?"

  She did not melt; he waved down to the farm land.

  "Watch that wave of wind, Elizabeth."

  A gust struck the scattering of aspens, and turned up the silver of thedark green leaves. The breeze rolled across the trees in a long, ripplingflash of light. But Elizabeth did not look down. Her glance was fixed onthe changeless snow of Mount Discovery's summit.

  "As long as you have something to spend, spending is a very importantart, Vance. But when the purse is empty, it's a bit useless, it seems tome."

  "Well, then, I'll have to mortgage my future. As a matter of fact, Isuppose I could borrow what I want on my prospects."

  A veritable Indian yell, instantly taken up and prolonged by a chorus ofsimilar shouts, cut off the last of his words. Round the corner of thehouse shot a blood-bay stallion, red as the red of iron under theblacksmith's hammer, with a long, black tail snapping and flauntingbehind him, his ears flattened, his beautiful vicious head outstretchedin an effort to tug the reins out of the hands of the ri
der. Failing inthat effort, he leaped into the air like a steeplechaser and pitched downupon stiffened forelegs.

  The shock rippled through the body of the rider and came to his head witha snap that jerked his chin down against his breast. The stallion rockedback on his hind legs, whirled, and then flung himself deliberately onhis back. A sufficiently cunning maneuver--first stunning the enemy witha blow and then crushing him before his senses returned. But he landed onnothing save hard gravel. The rider had whipped out of the saddle andstood poised, strong as the trunk of a silver spruce.

  The fighting horse, a little shaken by the impact of his fall,nevertheless whirled with catlike agility to his feet--a beautiful thingto watch. As he brought his forequarters off the earth, he lunged at therider with open mouth. A sidestep that would have done credit to apugilist sent the youngster swerving past that danger. He leaped to thesaddle at the same time that the blood-bay came to his four feet.

  The chorus in full cry was around the horse, four or five excited cow-punchers waving their sombreros and yelling for horse or rider, accordingto the gallantry of the fight.

  The bay was in the air more than he was on the ground, eleven or twelvehundred pounds of might, writhing, snapping, bolting, halting, sunfishingwith devilish cunning, dropping out of the air on one stiff foreleg withan accompanying sway to one side that gave the rider the effect of acudgel blow at the back of the head and then a whip-snap to part thevertebrae. Whirling on his hind legs, and again flinging himselfdesperately on the ground, only to fail, come to his feet with theclinging burden once more maddeningly in place, and go again through amaze of fence-rowing and sun-fishing until suddenly he straightened outand bolted down the slope like a runaway locomotive on a downgrade. Aterrifying spectacle, but the rider sat erect, with one arm raised highabove his head in triumph, and his yell trailing off behind him. From arunning gait the stallion fell into a smooth pace--a true wild pacer, hishoofs beating the ground with the force and speed of pistons and hurlinghimself forward with incredible strides. Horse and rider lurched out ofsight among the silver spruce.

  "By the Lord, wonderful!" cried Vance Cornish.

  He heard a stifled cry beside him, a cry of infinite pain.

  "Is--is it over?"

  And there sat Elizabeth the Indomitable with her face buried in her handslike a girl of sixteen!

  "Of course it's over," said Vance, wondering profoundly.

  She seemed to dread to look up. "And--Terence?"

  "He's all right. Ever hear of a horse that could get that young wildcatout of the saddle? He clings as if he had claws. But--where did he getthat red devil?"

  "Terence ran him down--in the mountains--somewhere," she answered,speaking as one who had only half heard the question. "Two months ofconstant trailing to do it, I think. But oh, you're right! The horse is adevil! And sometimes I think--"

  She stopped, shuddering. Vance had returned to the ranch only the daybefore after a long absence. More and more, after he had been away, hefound it difficult to get in touch with things on the ranch. Once he hadbeen a necessary part of the inner life. Now he was on the outside.Terence and Elizabeth were a perfectly completed circle in themselves.

 
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