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       Black Jack, p.24

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 24

  The uneasy wait continued for a moment or more. The whisper of JoePollard to his daughter barely reached the ear of Terry.

  "Cut in between 'em, girl. You can handle 'em. I can't!"

  She responded instantly, before Terry recovered from his shock ofsurprise.

  "Slim, keep away from your gun!"

  She spoke as she whirled from her chair to her feet. It was strange tosee her direct all her attention to Slim, when Phil Marvin seemed the oneabout to draw.

  "I ain't even nearin' my gun," asserted Slim truthfully. "It's Philthat's got a strangle hold on his."

  "You're waiting for him to draw," said the girl calmly enough. "I knowyou, Slim. Phil, don't be a fool. Drop your hand away from that gat!"

  He hesitated; she stepped directly between him and his enemy of themoment and jerked the gun from its holster. Then she faced Slim.Obviously Phil was not displeased to have the matter taken out of hishands; obviously Slim was not so pleased. He looked coldly up to thegirl.

  "This is between him and me," he protested. "I don't need none of yourhelp, Kate."

  "Don't you? You're going to get it, though. Gimme that gun, Slim Dugan!"

  "I want a square deal," he complained. "I figure Phil has been crookingthe dice on me."

  "Bah! Besides, I'll give you a square deal."

  She held out her hand for the weapon.

  "Got any doubts about me being square, Slim?"

  "Kate, leave this to me!"

  "Why, Slim, I wouldn't let you run loose now for a million. You got thatugly look in your eyes. I know you, partner!"

  And to the unutterable astonishment of Terry, the man pulled his gun fromits holster and passed it up to her, his eyes fighting hers, his handmoving slowly. She stepped back, weighing the heavy weapons in her hands.Then she faced Phil Marvin with glittering eyes.

  "It ain't the first time you been accused of queer stunts with the dice.What's the straight of it, Phil? Been doing anything to these dice?"

  "Me? Sure I ain't!"

  Her glance lingered on him the least part of a second.

  "H'm!" said the girl. "Maybe not."

  Slim was on his feet, eager. "Take a look at 'em, Kate. Take a look atthem dice!"

  She held them up to the light--then dropped them into a pocket of herskirt. "I'll look at 'em in the morning, Slim."

  "The stuff'll be dry by that time!"

  "Dry or not, that's what I'm going to do. I won't trust lamplight."

  Slim turned on his heel and flung himself sulkily down on the blanket,fighting her with sullen eyes. She turned on Phil.

  "How much d'you win?"

  "Nothin'. Just a couple of hundred."

  "Just a couple of hundred! You call that nothing?"

  Phil grunted. The other men leaned forward in their interest to watch theprogress of the trial, all saving Joe Pollard, who sat with his elbowsbraced in sprawling fashion on the table, at ease, his eyes twinklingcontentedly at the girl. Why she refused to examine the dice at once wasplain to Terry. If they proved to have been gummed, it would mean a gunfight with the men at a battling temperature. In the morning when theyhad cooled down, it might be a different matter. Terry watched her inwonder. His idea of an efficient woman was based on Aunt Elizabeth, coldof eye and brain, practical in methods on the ranch, keen with figures.The efficiency of this slip of a girl was a different matter, a thing ofpassion, of quick insight, of lightning guesses. He could see the play ofeager emotion in her face as she studied Phil Marvin. And how could shedo justice? Terry was baffled.

  "How long you two been playing?" "About twenty minutes."

  "Not more'n five!" cut in Slim hotly.

  "Shut up, Slim!" she commanded. "I'm running this here game; Phil, howmany straight passes did you make?"

  "Me? Oh, I dunno. Maybe--five."

  "Five straight passes!" said the girl. "Five straight passes!"

  "You heard me say it," growled big Phil Marvin.

  All at once she laughed.

  "Phil, give that two hundred back to Slim!"

  It came like a bolt from the blue, this decision. Marvin hesitated, shookhis head.

  "Damned if I do. I don't back down. I won it square!"

  "Listen to me," said the girl. Instead of threatening, as Terry expected,she had suddenly become conciliatory. She stepped close to him anddropped a slim hand on his burly shoulder. "Ain't Slim a pal of yours?You and him, ain't you stuck together through thick and thin? He thinksyou didn't win that coin square. Is Slim's friendship worth two hundredto you, or ain't it? Besides, you ain't lying down to nobody. Why, youbig squarehead, Phil, don't we all know that you'd fight a bull with yourbare hands? Who'd call you yaller? We'd simply say you was square, Phil,and you know it."

  There was a pause. Phil was biting his lip, scowling at Slim. Slim wassneering in return. It seemed that she had failed. Even if she forcedPhil to return the money, he and Slim would hate each other as long asthey lived. And Terry gained a keen impression that if the hatredcontinued, one of them would die very soon indeed. Her solution of theproblem was a strange one. She faced them both.

  "You two big sulky babies!" she exclaimed. "Slim, what did Phil do foryou down in Tecomo? Phil, did Slim stand by you last April--you know thetime? Why, boys, you're just being plain foolish. Get up, both of you,and take a walk outside where you'll get cooled down."

  Slim rose. He and Phil walked slowly toward the door, at a littledistance from each other, one eyeing the other shrewdly. At the door theyhesitated. Finally, Phil lurched forward and went out first. Slim glidedafter.

  "By heaven!" groaned Pollard as the door closed. "There goes two goodmen! Kate, what put this last fool idea into your head?"

  She did not answer for a moment, but dropped into a chair as thoughsuddenly exhausted.

  "It'll work out," she said at length. "You wait for it!"

  "Well," grumbled her father, "the mischief is working. Run along to bed,will you?"

  She rose, wearily, and started across the room. But she turned before shepassed out of their sight and leaned against one of the pillars.

  "Dad, why you so anxious to get me out of the way?"

  "What d'you mean by that? I got no reason. Run along and don't botherme!"

  He turned his shoulder on her. As for the girl, she remained a moment,looking thoughtfully at the broad back of Pollard. Then her glanceshifted and dwelt a moment on Terry--with pity, he wondered?

  "Good night, boys!"

  When the door closed on her, Joe Pollard turned his attention more fullyon his new employee, and when Terry suggested that it was time for him toturn in, his suggestion was hospitably put to one side. Pollard begantalking genially of the mountains, of the "varmints" he expected Terry toclean out, and while he talked, he took out a broad silver dollar andbegan flicking it in the air and catching it in the calloused palm of hishand.

  "Call it," he interrupted himself to say to Terry.

  "Heads," said Terry carelessly.

  The coin spun up, flickered at the height of its rise, and rang loudly onthe table.

  "You win," said Pollard. "Well, you're a lucky gent, Terry, but I'll goyou ten you can't call it again."

  But again Terry called heads, and again the coin chimed, steadied, andshowed the Grecian goddess. The rancher doubled his bet. He lost,doubled, lost again, doubled again, lost. A pile of money had appeared bymagic before Terry.

  "I came to work for money," laughed Terry, "not _take_ it away."

  "I always lose at this game," sighed Joe Pollard.

  The door opened, and Phil Marvin and Slim Dugan came back, talking andlaughing together.

  "What d'you know about that?" Pollard exclaimed softly. "She guessedright. She always does! Oughta be a man, with a brain like she's got.Here we are again!"

  He spun the coin; it winked, fell, a streak of light, and again Terry hadwon. He began to grow excited. On the next throw he lost. A moment laterhis little pile of winnings had disappeared. And now he
had forgotten theface of Joe Pollard, forgotten the room, forgotten everything except thethick thumb that snapped the coin into the air. The cold, quiet passionof the gambler grew in him. He was losing steadily. Out of his walletcame in a steady stream the last of his winnings at Pedro's. And still heplayed. Suddenly the wallet squeezed flat between his fingers.

  "Pollard," he said regretfully, "I'm broke."

  The other waved away the idea.

  "Break up a fine game like this because you're broke?" The cloudy agateeyes dwelt kindly on the face of Terry, and mysteriously as well. "Thatain't nothing. Nothing between friends. You don't know the style of a manI am, Terry. Your word is as good as your money with me!"

  "I've no security--"

  "Don't talk security. Think I'm a moneylender? This is a game. Come on!"

  Five minutes later Terry was three hundred behind. A mysteriousprovidence seemed to send all the luck the way of the heavy, tanned thumbof Pollard.

  "That's my limit," he announced abruptly, rising.

  "No, no!" Pollard spread out his big hand on the table. "You got the redhoss, son. You can bet to a thousand. He's worth that--to me!"

  "I won't bet a cent on him," said Terry firmly.

  "Every damn cent I've won from you ag'in' the hoss, son. That's a lot ofcash if you win. If you lose, you're just out that much hossflesh, andI'll give you a good enough cayuse to take El Sangre's place."

  "A dozen wouldn't take his place," insisted Terry.

  "That so?"

  Pollard leaned back in his chair and put a hand behind his neck tosupport his head. It seemed to Terry that the big man made some oddmotion with his hidden fingers. At any rate, the four men who lounged onthe farther side of the room now rose and slowly drifted in differentdirections. Oregon Charlie wandered toward the door. Slim sauntered tothe window behind the piano and stood idly looking out into the night.Phil Marvin began to examine a saddle hanging from a peg on one of theposts, and finally, chunky Marty Cardiff strolled to the kitchen door andappeared to study the hinges.

  All these things were done casually, but Terry, his attention finally offthe game, caught a meaning in them. Every exit was blocked for him. Hewas trapped at the will of Joe Pollard!

 
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