Black jack, p.23
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       Black Jack, p.23

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 23

  So turned, Terry could not see her clearly. He caught a glimmer of redbronze hair, dark in shadow and brilliant in high lights, and a sheen ofgreenish eyes. Otherwise, he only noted the casual manner in which sheacknowledged the introduction, unsmiling, indifferent, as Pollard said:"Here's my daughter Kate. This is Terry--a new hand."

  It seemed to Terry that as he said this the rancher made a gesture as ofwarning, though this, no doubt, could be attributed to his wish tosilently explain away the idiosyncrasy of Terry in using his first nameonly. He was presented in turn to the four men, and thought them theoddest collection he had ever laid eyes on.

  Slim Dugan was tall, but not so tall as he looked, owing to his verysmall head and narrow shoulders. His hair was straw color, excessivelysilky, and thin as the hair of a year-old child. There were other pointsof interest in Slim Dugan; his feet, for instance, were small as the feetof a girl, accentuated by the long, narrow riding boots, and his handsseemed to be pulled out to a great and unnecessary length. They made upfor it by their narrowness.

  His exact opposite was Marty Cardiff, chunky, fat, it seemed, until onenoted the roll and bulge of the muscles at the shoulders. His head wassettled into his fat shoulders somewhat in the manner of Denver's, Terrythought.

  Oregon Charlie looked the part of an Indian, with his broad nose and highcheekbones, flat face, slanted dark eyes; but his skin was a dead andpeculiar white. He was a down-headed man, and one could rarely imaginehim opening his lips to speak; he merely grunted as he shook hands withthe stranger.

  To finish the picture, there was a man as huge as Joe Pollard himself,and as powerful, to judge by appearances. His face was burned to a jovialred; his hair was red also, and there was red hair on the backs of hisfreckled hands.

  All these men met Terry with cordial nods, but there was a carelessnessabout their demeanor which seemed strange to Terry. In his experience,the men of the mountains were a timid or a blustering lot beforenewcomers, uneasy, and anxious to establish their place. But these menacted as if meeting unknown men were a part of their common, dailyexperience. They were as much at their ease as social lions.

  Pollard was explaining the presence of Terry.

  "He's come up to clean out the varmints," he said to the others. "Theybeen getting pretty thick on the range, you know."

  "You came in just wrong," complained Kate, while the men turned fourpairs of grave eyes upon Terry and seemed to be judging him. "I gotOregon singing at last, and he was doing fine. Got a real voice, Charliehas. Regular branded baritone, I'll tell a man."

  "Strike up agin for us, Charlie," said Pollard good-naturedly. "You don'tnever make much more noise'n a grizzly."

  But Charlie looked down at his hands and a faint spot of red appeared inhis cheek. Obviously he was much embarrassed. And when he looked up, itwas to fix a glance of cold suspicion upon Terry, as though warning himnot to take this talk of social acquirements as an index to his realcharacter.

  "Get us some coffee, Kate," said Pollard. "Turned off cold coming up thehill."

  She did not rise. She had turned around to her music again, and now sheacknowledged the order by lifting her head and sending a shrill whistlethrough the room. Her father started violently.

  "Damn it, Kate, don't do that!"

  "The only thing that'll bring Johnny on the run," she respondedcarelessly.

  And, indeed, the door on the left of the room flew open a moment later,and a wide-eyed Chinaman appeared with a long pigtail jerking about hishead as he halted and looked about in alarm.

  "Coffee for the boss and the new hand," said Kate, without turning herhead, as soon as she heard the door open. "Pronto, Johnny."

  Johnny snarled an indistinct something and withdrew muttering.

  "You'll have Johnny quitting the job," complained Pollard, frowning. "Youcan't scare the poor devil out of his skin like that every time you wantcoffee. Besides, why didn't you get up and get it for us yourself?"

  Still she did not turn; but, covering a yawn, replied: "Rather sit hereand play."

  Her father swelled a moment in rage, but he subsided again withoutaudible protest. Only he sent a scowl at Terry as though daring him totake notice of this insolence. As for the other men, they had scatteredto various parts of the room and remained there, idly, while the boss andthe new hand drank the scalding coffee of Johnny. All this time Pollardremained deep in thought. His meditations exploded as he banged the emptycup back on the table.

  "Kate, this stuff has got to stop. Understand?"

  The soft jingling of the piano continued without pause.

  "Stop that damned noise!"

  The music paused. Terry felt the long striking muscles leap into hardridges along his arms, but glancing at the other four, he found that theywere taking the violence of Pollard quite as a matter of course. One waswhittling, another rolled a cigarette, and all of them, if they took anyvisible notice of the argument, did so with the calmest of side glances.

  "Turn around!" roared Pollard.

  His daughter turned slowly and faced him. Not white-faced with fear, butto the unutterable astonishment of Terry she was quietly looking herfather up and down. Pollard sprang to his feet and struck the table sothat it quivered through all its massive length.

  "Are you trying to shame me before a stranger?" thundered the big man."Is that the scene?"

  She flicked Terry Hollis with a glance. "I think he'll understand andmake allowances."

  It brought the heavy fist smashing on the table again. And an uglyfeeling rose in Hollis that the big fellow might put hands on hisdaughter.

  "And what d'you mean by that? What in hell d'you mean by that?"

  In place of wincing, she in turn came to her feet gracefully. There hadbeen such an easy dignity about her sitting at the piano that she hadseemed tall to Terry. Now that she stood up, he was surprised to see thatshe was not a shade more than average height, beautifully and stronglymade.

  "You've gone about far enough with your little joke," said the girl, andher voice was low, but with an edge of vibrancy that went through Hollis."And you're going to stop--pronto!"

  There was a flash of teeth as she spoke, and a quiver through her body.Terry had never seen such passion, such unreasoning, wild passion, asthat which had leaped on the girl. Though her face was not contorted,danger spoke from every line of it. He made himself tense, prepared for asimilar outbreak from the father, but the latter relaxed as suddenly ashis daughter had become furious.

  "There you go," he complained, with a sort of heavy whine. "Always flyingoff the handle. Always turning into a wildcat when I try to reason withyou!"

  "Reason!" cried the girl. "Reason!"

  Joe Pollard grew downcast under her scorn. And Terry, sensing that thecrisis of the argument had passed, watched the other four men in theroom. They had not paid the slightest attention to the debate during itslater phases. And two of them--Slim and huge Phil Marvin--had begun toroll dice on a folded blanket, the little ivories winking in the lightrapidly until they came to a rest at the farther end of the cloth.Possibly this family strife was a common thing in the Pollard household.At any rate, the father now passed off from accusation to abrupt apology."You always get me riled at the end of the day, Kate. Damn it! Can't younever bear with a gent?"

  The tigerish alertness passed from Kate Pollard. She was filled all atonce with a winning gentleness and, crossing to her father, took hisheavy hands in hers.

  "I reckon I'm a bad one," she accused herself. "I try to get overtantrums--but--I can't help it! Something--just sort of grabs me by thethroat when I get mad. I--I see red."

  "Hush up, honey," said the big man tenderly, and he ran his thick fingersover her hair. "You ain't so bad. And all that's bad in you comes out ofme. You forget and I'll forget."

  He waved across the table.

  "Terry'll be thinking we're a bunch of wild Indians the way we beenactin'."

  "Oh!"

  Plainly she was recalled to the presence of
the stranger for the firsttime in many minutes and, dropping her chin in her hand, she studied thenew arrival.

  He found it difficult to meet her glance. The Lord had endowed TerryHollis with a remarkable share of good looks, and it was not the firsttime that he had been investigated by the eyes of a woman. But in all hislife he had never been subjected to an examination as minute, asinsolently frank as this one. He felt himself taken part and parcel,examined in detail as to forehead, chin, and eyes and heft of shoulders,and then weighed altogether. In self-defense he looked boldly back ather, making himself examine her in equal detail. Seeing her so close, hewas aware of a marvellously delicate olive-tanned skin with delightfultints of rose just beneath the surface. He found himself saying inwardly:"It's easy to look at her. It's very easy. By the Lord, she's beautiful!"

  As for the girl, it seemed that she was not quite sure in her judgment.For now she turned to her father with a faint frown of wonder. And againit seemed to Terry that Joe Pollard made an imperceptible sign, such ashe had made to the four men when he introduced Terry.

  But now he broke into breezy talk.

  "Met Terry down in Pedro's--"

  The girl seemed to have dismissed Terry from her mind already, for shebroke in: "Crooked game he's running, isn't it?"

  "I thought so till today. Then I seen Terry, here, trim Pedro for a flattwenty thousand!"

  "Oh," nodded the girl. Again her gaze reverted leisurely to the strangerand with a not unflattering interest.

  "And then I seen him lose most of it back again. Roulette."

  She nodded, keeping her eyes on Terry, and the boy found himself desiringmightily to discover just what was going on behind the changing green ofher eyes. He was shocked when he discovered. It came like the break ofhigh dawn in the mountains of the Big Bend. Suddenly she had smiledopenly, frankly. "Hard luck, partner!"

  A little shivering sense of pleasure ran through him. He knew that he hadbeen admitted by her--accepted.

  Her father had thrown up his head.

  "Someone come in the back way. Oregon, go find out!"

  Dark-eyed Oregon Charlie slipped up and through the door. Everyone in theroom waited, a little tense, with lifted heads. Slim was studying thelast throw that Phil Marvin had made. Terry could not but wonder whatsignificance that "back way" had. Presently Oregon reappeared.

  "Pete's come."

  "The hell!"

  "Went upstairs."

  "Wants to be alone," interrupted the girl. "He'll come down and talk whenhe feels like it. That's Pete's way."

  "Watching us, maybe," growled Joe Pollard, with a shade of uneasinessstill. "Damned funny gent, Pete is. Watches a man like a cat; watches agopher hole all day, maybe. And maybe the gent he watches is a friendhe's known for ten years. Well--let Pete go. They ain't no explaininghim."

  Through the last part of his talk, and through the heaviness of hisvoice, cut another tone, lighter, sharper, venomous: "Phil, you gummedthem dice that last time!"

  Joe Pollard froze in place; the eyes of the girl widened. Terry, lookingacross the room, saw Phil Marvin scoop up the dice and start to his feet.

  "You lie, Slim!"

  Instinctively Terry slipped his hand onto his gun. It was what PhilMarvin had done, as a matter of fact. He stood swelling and glowering,staring down at Slim Dugan. Slim had not risen. His thin, lithe body wascoiled, and he reminded Terry in ugly fashion of a snake ready to strike.His hand was not near his gun. It was the calm courage and self-confidence of a man who is sure of himself and of his enemy. Terry hadheard of it before, but never seen it. As for Phil, it was plain that hewas ill at ease in spite of his bulk and the advantage of his position.He was ready to fight. But he was not at all pleased with the prospect.

  Terry again glanced at the witnesses. Every one of them was alert, butthere was none of that fear which comes in the faces of ordinary men whenstrife between men is at hand. And suddenly Terry knew that every one ofthe five men in the room was an old familiar of danger, every one of thema past master of gun fighting!

 
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