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       Black Jack, p.22

           Max Brand


  "My Name's Pollard," said the older man. "Joe Pollard."

  "Glad to know you, sir. My name--is Terry." The other admitted thisreticence with a faint smile.

  "I got a name around here for keeping my mouth shut and not butting in onanother gent's game. But I always noticed that when a gent is in a losingrun, half the time he don't know it. Maybe that might be the way withyou. I been watching and seen your winnings shrink considerable lately."

  Terry weighed his money. "Yes, it's shrunk a good deal."

  "Stand out of the game till later on. Come over and have a bite to eatwith me."

  He went willingly, suddenly aware of a raging appetite and a dinner longpostponed. The man of the black beard was extremely friendly.

  "One of the prettiest runs I ever see, that one you made," he confidedwhen they were at the table in the hotel. "You got a system, I figure."

  "A new one," said Terry. "I've never played before."

  The other blinked.

  "Beginner's luck, I suppose," said Terry frankly. "I started with fifty,and now I suppose I have about eight hundred."

  "Not bad, not bad," said the other. "Too bad you didn't stop half an hourbefore. Just passing through these parts?"

  "I'm looking for a job," said Terry. "Can you tell me where to starthunting? Cows are my game."

  The other paused a moment and surveyed his companion. There seemed just ashade of doubt in his eyes. They were remarkably large and yellowishgray, those eyes of Joe Pollard, and now and again when he grewthoughtful they became like clouded agate. They had that color now as hegazed at Terry. Eventually his glance cleared.

  "I got a little work of my own," he declared. "My range is all clogged upwith varmints. Any hand with a gun and traps?"

  "Pretty fair hand," said Terry modestly.

  And he was employed on the spot.

  He felt one reassuring thing about his employer--that no echo out of hispast or the past of his father would make the man discharge him. Indeed,taking him all in all, there was under the kindliness of Joe Pollard anindescribable basic firmness. His eyes, for example, in their habit oflooking straight at one, reminded him of the eyes of Denver. His voicewas steady and deep and mellow, and one felt that it might be expanded toan enormous volume. Such a man would not fly off into snap judgments andbecome alarmed because an employee had a past or a strange name.

  They paid a short visit to the gambling hall after dinner, and then gottheir horses. Pollard was struck dumb with admiration at the sight of theblood-bay.

  "Maybe you been up the Bear Creek way?" he asked Terry.

  And when the latter admitted that he knew something of the Blue Mountaincountry, the rancher exclaimed: "By the Lord, partner, I'd say that hossis a ringer for El Sangre."

  "Pretty close to a ringer," said Terry. "This is El Sangre himself."

  They were jogging out of town. The rancher turned in the saddle andcrossed his companion with one of his searching glances, but returned noreply. Presently, however, he sent his own capable Steeldust into a sharpgallop; El Sangre roused to a flowing pace and held the other evenwithout the slightest difficulty. At this Pollard drew rein with anexclamation.

  "El Sangre as sure as I live!" he declared. "Ain't nothing else in theseparts that calls itself a hoss and slides over the ground the way ElSangre does. Partner, what sort of a price would you set on El Sangre,maybe?"

  "His weight in gold," said Terry.

  The rancher cursed softly, without seeming altogether pleased. Andthereafter during the ride his glance continually drifted toward thebrilliant bay--brilliant even in the pallor of the clear mountainstarlight.

  He explained this by saying after a time: "I been my whole life in theseparts without running across a hoss that could pack me the way a manought to be packed on a hoss. I weigh two hundred and thirty, son, and itbusts the back of a horse in the mountains. Now, you ain't a flyweightyourself, and El Sangre takes you along like you was a feather."

  Steeldust was already grunting at every sharp rise, and El Sangre had noteven broken out in perspiration.

  A mile or so out of the town they left the road and struck onto a meresemblance of a trail, broad enough, but practically as rough as naturechose to make it. This wound at sharp and ever-changing angles into thehills, and presently they were pressing through a dense growth oflodgepole pine.

  It seemed strange to Terry that a prosperous rancher with an outfit ofany size should have a road no more beaten than this one leading to hisplace. But he was thinking too busily of other things to pay much heed tosuch surmises and small events. He was brooding over the events of theafternoon. If his exploits in the gaming hall should ever come to the earof Aunt Elizabeth, he was certain enough that he would be finally damnedin her judgment. Too often he had heard her express an opinion of thosewho lived by "chance and their wits," as she phrased it. And the thoughtof it irked him.

  He roused himself out of his musing. They had come out from the trees andwere in sight of a solidly built house on the hill. There was one thingwhich struck his mind at once. No attempt had been made to find level forthe foundation. The log structure had been built apparently at random onthe slope. It conformed, at vast waste of labor, to the angle of the baseand the irregularities of the soil. This, perhaps, made it seem smallerthan it was. They caught the scent of wood smoke, and then saw a paledrift of the smoke itself.

  A flurry of music escaped by the opening of a door and was shut out bythe closing of it. It was a moment before Terry, startled, had analyzedthe sound. Unquestionably it was a piano. But how in the world, and whyin the world, had it been carted to the top of this mountain?

  He glanced at his companion with a new respect and almost with asuspicion.

  "Up to some damn doings again," growled the big man. "Never got no peacenor quiet up my way."

  Another surprise was presently in store for Terry. Behind the house,which grew in proportions as they came closer, they reached a horse shed,and when they dismounted, a servant came out for the horses. Outside ofthe Cornish ranch he did not know of many who afforded such luxuries.

  However, El Sangre could not be handled by another, and Terry put up hishorse and found the rancher waiting for him when he came out. Inside theshed he had found ample bins of barley and oats and good grain hay. Andin the stalls his practiced eye scanned the forms of a round dozen finehorses with points of blood and bone that startled him.

  Coming to the open again, he probed the darkness as well as he could togain some idea of the ranch which furnished and supported all theseevidences of prosperity. But so far as he could make out, there was onlya jumble of ragged hilltops behind the house, and before it the slopefell away steeply to the valley far below. He had not realized beforethat they had climbed so high or so far.

  Joe Pollard was humming. Terry joined him on the way to the house with adeepened sense of awe; he was even beginning to feel that there was atouch or two of mystery in the make-up of the man.

  Proof of the solidity with which the log house was built was furnished atonce. Coming to the house, there was only a murmur of voices and ofmusic. The moment they opened the door, a roar of singing voices and ajangle of piano music rushed into their ears.

  Terry found himself in a very long room with a big table in the centerand a piano at the farther end. The ceiling sloped down from the right tothe left. At the left it descended toward the doors of the kitchen andstorerooms; at the right it rose to the height of two full stories. Oneof these was occupied by a series of heavy posts on which hung saddlesand bridles and riding equipment of all kinds, and the posts supported abalcony onto which opened several doors--of sleeping rooms, no doubt. Asfor the wall behind the posts, it, too, was pierced with severalopenings, but Terry could not guess at the contents of the rooms. But hewas amazed by the size of the structure as it was revealed to him fromwithin. The main room was like some baronial hall of the old days of warand plunder. A role, indeed, into which it was not difficult to fit thebu
rly Pollard and the dignity of his beard.

  Four men were around the piano, and a girl sat at the keys, splashing outsyncopated music while the men roared the chorus of the song. But at thesound of the closing of the door all five turned toward the newcomers,the girl looking over her shoulder and keeping the soft burden of thesong still running.

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