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       Black Jack, p.21

           Max Brand


  Terry left the hotel more gloomy than he had been even when he departedfrom the ranch that morning. The certainty of Denver that he would findit impossible to stay by his program of honest work had made a strongimpression upon his imaginative mind, as though the little safecrackerreally had the power to look into the future and into the minds of men.Where he should look for work next, he had no idea. And he balancedbetween a desire to stay near the town and work out his destiny there, orelse drift far away. Distance, however, seemed to have no barrier againstrumor. After two days of hard riding, he had placed a broad gap betweenhimself and the Cornish ranch, yet in a short time rumor had overtakenhim, casually, inevitably, and the force of his name was strong enough totake away his job.

  Standing in the middle of the street he looked darkly over the squatroofs of the town to the ragged mountains that marched away against thehorizon--a bleak outlook. Which way should he ride?

  A loud outburst of curses roared behind him, a whip snapped above him, hestepped aside and barely from under the feet of the leaders as a longteam wound by with the freight wagon creaking and swaying and rumblingbehind it. The driver leaned from his seat in passing and volleyed a fewcrackling remarks in the very ear of Terry. It was strange that he didnot resent it. Ordinarily he would have wanted to, climb onto that seatand roll the driver down in the dust, but today he lacked ambition. Painnumbed him, a peculiar mental pain. And, with the world free before himto roam in, he felt imprisoned.

  He turned. Someone was laughing at him from the veranda of the hotel andpointing him out to another, who laughed raucously in turn. Terry knewwhat was in their minds. A man who allowed himself to be cursed by apassing teamster was not worthy of the gun strapped at his thigh. Hewatched their faces as through a cloud, turned again, saw the door of thegambling hall open to allow someone to come out, and was invited by thecool, dim interior. He crossed the street and passed through the door.

  He was glad, instantly. Inside there was a blanket of silence; beyond thewindow the sun was a white rain of heat, blinding and appalling. Butinside his shoes took hold on a floor moist from a recent scrubbing andsoft with the wear of rough boots; and all was dim, quiet, hushed.

  There was not a great deal of business in the place, naturally, at thishour of the day. And the room seemed so large, the tables were sonumerous, that Terry wondered how so small a town could support it. Thenhe remembered the mine and everything was explained. People who dug goldlike dirt spent it in the same spirit. Half a dozen men were here andthere, playing in what seemed a listless manner, save when you lookedclose.

  Terry slumped into a big chair in the darkest corner and relaxed untilthe coolness had worked through his skin and into his blood. Presently helooked about him to find something to do, and his eye dropped naturallyon the first thing that made a noise--roulette. For a moment he watchedthe spinning disk. The man behind the table on his high stool waswhirling the thing for his own amusement, it seemed. Terry walked overand looked on.

  He hardly knew the game. But he was fascinated by the motions of theball; one was never able to tell where it would stop, on one of thethirty-six numbers, on the red or on the black, on the odd or the even.He visualized a frantic, silent crowd around the wheel listening to theclick of the ball.

  And now he noted that the wheel had stopped the last four times on theodd. He jerked a five-dollar gold piece out of his pocket and placed iton the even. The wheel spun, clicked to a stop, and the rake of thecroupier slicked his five dollars away across the smooth-worn top of thetable.

  How very simple! But certainly the wheel must stop on the even this time,having struck the odd five times in a row. He placed ten dollars on theeven.

  He did not feel that it was gambling. He had never gambled in his life,for Elizabeth Cornish had raised him to look on gambling not as a sin,but as a crowning folly. However, this was surely not gambling. There wasno temptation. Not a word had been spoken to him since he entered theplace. There was no excitement, no music, none of the drink and song ofwhich he had heard so much in robbing men of their cooler senses. It wasonly his little system that tempted him on.

  He did not know that all gambling really begins with the creation of asystem that will beat the game. And when a man follows a system, he isstarted on the most cold-blooded gambling in the world.

  Again the disk stopped, and the ball clicked softly and the ten dollarsslid away behind the rake of the man on the stool. This would never do!Fifteen dollars gone out of a total capital of fifty! He doubled withsome trepidation again. Thirty dollars wagered. The wheel spun--the moneydisappeared under the rake.

  Terry felt like setting his teeth. Instead, he smiled. He drew out hislast five dollars and wagered it with a coldness that seemed to make sureof loss, on a single number. The wheel spun, clicked; he did not evenwatch, and was turning away when a sound of a little musical shower ofgold attracted him. Gold was being piled before him. Five times thirty-six made one hundred and eighty dollars he had won! He came back to thetable, scooped up his winnings carelessly and bent a kinder eye upon thewheel. He felt that there was a sort of friendly entente between them.

  It was time to go now, however. He sauntered to the door with a guiltychill in the small of his back, half expecting reproaches to be shoutedafter him for leaving the game when he was so far ahead of it. Butapparently the machine which won without remorse lost without complaint.

  At the door he made half a pace into the white heat of the sunlight. Thenhe paused, a cool edging of shadow falling across one shoulder while theheat burned through the shirt of the other. Why go on?

  Across the street the man on the veranda of the hotel began laughingagain and pointing him out. Terry himself looked the fellow over in anodd fashion, not with anger or with irritation, but with a sort of coldcalculation. The fellow was trim enough in the legs. But his shoulderswere fat from lack of work, and the bulge of flesh around the armpitswould probably make him slow in drawing a gun.

  He shrugged his own lithe shoulders in contempt and turned. The man onthe stool behind the roulette wheel was yawning until his jaw musclesstood out in hard, pointed ridges, and his cheeks fell in ridiculously.Terry went back. He was not eager to win; but the gleam of colors on thewheel fascinated him. He placed five dollars, saw the wheel win, took inhis winnings without emotion.

  While he scooped the two coins up, he did not see the croupier turn hishead and shoot a single glance to a fat, squat man in the corner of theroom, a glance to which the fat man responded with the slightest of nodsand smiles. He was the owner. And he was not particularly happy at thethought of some hundred and fifty dollars being taken out of his treasuryby some chance stranger.

  Terry did not see the glance, and before long he was incapable of seeinganything saving the flash of the disk, the blur of the alternate colorsas they spun together. He paid no heed to the path of the sunlight as itstretched along the floor under the window and told of a westering sun.The first Terry knew of it he was standing in a warm pool of gold, but hegave the sun at his feet no more than a casual glance. It was metallicgold that he was fascinated by and the whims and fancies of that singularwheel. Twice that afternoon his fortune had mounted above three thousanddollars--once it mounted to an even six thousand. He had stopped to counthis winnings at this point, and on the verge of leaving decided to makeit an even ten thousand before he went away. And five minutes later hewas gambling with five hundred in his wallet.

  When the sunlight grew yellow, other men began to enter the room. Terrywas still at his post. He did not see them. There was no human face inthe world for him except the colorless face of the croupier, and thelong, pale eyelashes that lifted now and then over greenish-orange eyes.And Terry did not heed when he was shouldered by the growing crowd aroundthe wheel.

  He only knew that other bets were being placed and that it was anuisance, for the croupier took much longer in paying debts andcollecting winnings, so that the wheel spun less often.

  Meantime h
e was by no means unnoticed. A little whisper had gone therounds that a real plunger was in town. And when men came into the hall,their attention was directed automatically by the turn of other eyestoward six feet of muscular manhood, heavy-shouldered and erect, with aflare of a red silk bandanna around his throat and a heavy sombrero worntilted a little to one side and back on his head.

  "He's playing a system," said someone. "Been standing there all afternoonand making poor Pedro--the thief!--sweat and shake in his boots."

  In fact, the owner of the place had lost his complacence and his smiletogether. He approached near to the wheel and watched its spin with aface turned sallow and flat of cheek from anxiety. For with the settingof the sun it seemed that luck flooded upon Terry Hollis. He began to betin chunks of five hundred, alternating between the red and the odd, andwinning with startling regularity. His winnings were now shoved into anawkward canvas bag. Twenty thousand dollars! That had grown from thefifty.

  No wonder the crowd had two looks for Terry. His face had lost its colorand grown marvellously expressionless.

  "The real gambler's look," they said.

  His mouth was pinched at the corners, and otherwise his expression nevervaried.

  Once he turned. A broad-faced man, laughing and obviously too self-contented to see what he was doing, trod heavily on the toes of Terry,stepping past the latter to get his winnings. He was caught by theshoulder and whirled around. The crowd saw the tall man draw his rightfoot back, balance, lift a trifle on his toes, and then a balled fistshot up, caught the broad-faced man under the chin and dumped him in acrumpled heap half a dozen feet away. They picked him up and took himaway, a stunned wreck. Terry had turned back to his game, and in tenseconds had forgotten what he had done.

  But the crowd remembered, and particularly he who had twice laughed atTerry from the veranda of the hotel.

  The heap in the canvas sack diminished, shrank--he dumped the remainderof the contents into his pocket. He had been betting in solid lumps of athousand for the past twenty minutes, and the crowd watched in amazement.This was drunken gambling, but the fellow was obviously sober. Then ahand touched the shoulder of Terry.

  "Just a minute, partner."

  He looked into the face of a big man, as tall as he and far heavier ofbuild: a magnificent big head, heavily marked features, a short-croppedblack beard that gave him dignity. A middle-aged man, about forty-five,and still in the prime of life.

  "Lemme pass a few words with you."

  Terry drew back to the side.

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