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       Black Jack, p.25

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 25

  Looking back, he could understand everything easily. The horse was themain objective of Pollard. He had won the money so as to tempt Terry togamble with the value of the blood-bay. But by fair means or foul heintended to have El Sangre. And now, the moment his men were in place, achange came over Pollard. He straightened in the chair. A slightoutthrust of his lower jaw made his face strangely brutal,conscienceless. And his cloudy agate eyes were unreadable.

  "Look here, Terry," he argued calmly, but Terry could see that the voicewas raised so that it would undubitably reach the ears of the farthest ofthe four men. "I don't mind letting a gambling debt ride when a gentain't got anything more to put up for covering his money. But when a genthas got more, I figure he'd ought to cover with it."

  Unreasoning anger swelled in the throat of Terry Hollis; the same blindpassion which had surged in him before he started up at the Cornish tableand revealed himself to the sheriff. And the similarity was what soberedhim. It was the hunger to battle, to kill. And it seemed to him thatBlack Jack had stepped out of the old picture and now stood behind him,tempting him to strike.

  Another covert signal from Pollard. Every one of the four turned towardhim. The chances of Terry were diminished, nine out of ten, for each ofthose four, he shrewdly guessed, was a practiced gunman. Cold reason cameto Terry's assistance.

  "I told you when I was broke," he said gently. "I told you that I wasthrough. You told me to go on."

  "I figured you was kidding me," said Pollard harshly. "I knew you stillhad El Sangre back. Son, I'm a kind sort of a man, I am. I got a name forit."

  In spite of himself a faint and cruel smile flickered at the corners ofhis mouth as he spoke. He became grave again.

  "But they's some things I can't stand. They's some things that I hateworse'n I hate poison. I won't say what one of 'em is. I leave it to you.And I ask you to keep in the game. A thousand bucks ag'in' a boss. Ain'tthat more'n fair?"

  He no longer took pains to disguise his voice. It was hard and heavy andrang into the ear of Terry. And the latter, feeling that his hour hadcome, looked deliberately around the room and took note of every guardedexit, the four men now openly on watch for any action on his part.Pollard himself sat erect, on the edge of his chair, and his right handhad disappeared beneath the table.

  "Suppose I throw the coin this time?" he suggested.

  "By God!" thundered Pollard, springing to his feet and throwing off themask completely. "You damned skunk, are you accusin' me of crooking thethrow of the coin?"

  Terry waited for the least moment--waited in a dull wonder to findhimself unafraid. But there was no fear in him. There was only a cold,methodical calculation of chances. He told himself, deliberately, that nomatter how fast Pollard might be, he would prove the faster. He wouldkill Pollard. And he would undoubtedly kill one of the others. And they,beyond a shadow of a doubt, would kill him. He saw all this as in apicture.

  "Pollard," he said, more gently than before, "you'll have to eat thattalk!"

  A flash of bewilderment crossed the face of Pollard--then rage--then thatslight contraction of the features which in some men precedes a violenteffort.

  But the effort did not come. While Terry literally wavered on tiptoe, hisnerves straining for the pull of his gun and the leap to one side as hesent his bullet home, a deep, unmusical voice cut in on them:

  "Just hold yourself up a minute, will you, Joe?"

  Terry looked up. On the balcony in front of the sleeping rooms of thesecond story, his legs spread apart, his hands shoved deep into histrouser pockets, his shapeless black hat crushed on the back of his head,and a broad smile on his ugly face, stood his nemesis--Denver the yegg!

  Pollard sprang back from the table and spoke with his face still turnedto Terry.

  "Pete!" he called. "Come in!"

  But Denver, alias Shorty, alias Pete, merely laughed.

  "Come in nothing, you fool! Joe, you're about half a second from hell,and so's a couple more of you. D'you know who the kid is? Eh? I'll tellyou, boys. It's the kid that dropped old Minter. It's the kid that beatfoxy Joe Minter to the draw. It's young Hollis. Why, you damned blindmen, look at his face! It's the son of Black Jack. It's Black Jackhimself come back to us!"

  Joe Pollard had let his hand fall away from his gun. He gaped at Terry asthough he were seeing a ghost. He came a long pace nearer and let hisarms fall on the table, where they supported his weight.

  "Black Jack," he kept whispering. "Black Jack! God above, are you BlackJack's son?"

  And the bewildered Terry answered:

  "I'm his son. Whatever you think, and be damned to you all! I'm his sonand I'm proud of it. Now get your gun!"

  But Joe Pollard became a great catapult that shot across the table andlanded beside Terry. Two vast hands swallowed the hands of the youngerman and crushed them to numbness.

  "Proud of it? God a'mighty, boy, why wouldn't you be? Black Jack's son!Pete, thank God you come in time!"

  "In time to save your head for you, Joe."

  "I believe it," said the big man humbly. "I b'lieve he would of cleanedup on me. Maybe on all of us. Black Jack would of come close to doing it.But you come in time, Pete. And I'll never forget it."

  While he spoke, he was still wringing the hands of Terry. Now he draggedthe stunned Terry around the table and forced him down in his own huge,padded armchair, his sign of power. But it was only to drag him up fromthe chair again.

  "Lemme look at you! Black Jack's boy! As like Black Jack as ever I seen,too. But a shade taller. Eh, Pete? A shade taller. And a shade heavier inthe shoulders. But you got the look. I might of knowed you by the look inyour eyes. Hey, Slim, damn your good-for-nothing hide, drag Johnny herepronto by the back of the neck!"

  Johnny, the Chinaman, appeared, blinking at the lights. Joe Pollardclapped him on the shoulder with staggering force.

  "Johnny, you see!" a broad gesture to Terry. "Old friend. Just find out.Velly old friend. Like pretty much a whole damned lot. Get down in thecellar, you yaller old sinner, and get out the oldest bourbon I gotthere. You savvy? Pretty damned pronto--hurry up--quick--old keg. Gitout!"

  Johnny was literally hurled out of the room toward the kitchen, trailinga crackle of strange-sounding but unmistakable profanity behind him. AndJoe Pollard, perching his bulk on the edge of the table, introduced Terryto the boys again, for Oregon had come back with word that Kate would beout soon.

  "Here's Denver Pete. You know him already, and he's worth his weight inany man's company. Here's Slim Dugan, that could scent a big coinshipment a thousand miles away. Phil Marvin ain't any slouch at stallinga gent with a fat wallet and leading him up to be plucked. Marty Cardiffain't half so tame as he looks, and he's the best trailer that eversquinted at a buzzard in the sky; he knows this whole country like abook. And Oregon Charlie is the best all-around man you ever seen, fromrailroads to stages. And me--I'm sort of a handyman. Well, Black Jack,your old man himself never got a finer crew together than this, eh?"

  Denver Pete had waited until his big friend finished. Then he remarkedquietly: "All very pretty, partner, but Terry figures he walks thestraight and narrow path. Savvy?"

  "Just a kid's fool hunch!" snorted Joe Pollard. "Didn't your dad show methe ropes? Wasn't it him that taught me all I ever knew? Sure it was, andI'm going to do the same for you, Terry. Damn my eyes if I ain't! Andhere I been sitting, trimming you! Son, take back the coin. I was sureplaying a cheap game--and I apologize, man to man."

  But Terry shook his head.

  "You won it," he said quietly. "And you'll keep it."

  "Won nothing. I can call every coin I throw. I was stealing, notgambling. I was gold-digging! Take back the stuff!"

  "If I was fool enough to lose it that way, it'll stay lost," answeredTerry.

  "But I won't keep it, son."

  "Then give it away. But not to me."

  "Black Jack--" began Pollard.

  But he received a signal from Denver Pete and abruptly changed thesub
ject.

  "Let it go, then. They's plenty of loose coin rolling about this day. Ifyou got a thin purse today, I'll make it fat for you in a week. But thinkof me stumbling on to you!"

  It was the first time that Terry had a fair opportunity to speak, and hemade the best of it.

  "It's very pleasant to meet you--on this basis," he said. "But as fortaking up--er--road life--"

  The lifted hand of Joe Pollard made it impossible for him to complete hissentence.

  "I know. You got scruples, son. Sure you got 'em. I used to have 'em,too, till your old man got 'em out of my head."

  Terry winced. But Joe Pollard rambled on, ignorant that he had struck ablow in the dark: "When I met up with the original Black Jack, I wasslavin' my life away with a pick trying to turn ordinary quartz into paydirt. Making a fool of myself, that's what I was doing. Along comes BlackJack. He needed a man. He picks me up and takes me along with him. Itried to talk Bible talk. He showed me where I was a fool.

  "'All you got to do,' he says to me, 'is to make sure that you ain'tstealing from an honest man. And they's about one gent in three withmoney that's come by it honest, in this part of the world. The rest isjust plain thieves, but they been clever enough to cover it up. Pick onthat crew, Pollard, and squeeze 'em till they run money into your hand.I'll show you how to do it!'

  "Well, it come pretty hard to me at first. I didn't see how it was done.But he showed me. He'd send a scout around to a mining camp. If they wasa crooked wheel in the gambling house that was making a lot of coin,Black Jack would slide in some night, stick up the works, and clean outwith the loot. If they was some dirty dog that had jumped a claim and wasmaking a pile of coin out of it, Black Jack would drop out of the skyonto him and take the gold."

  Terry listened, fascinated. He was having the workings of his father'smind re-created for him and spread plainly before his eyes. And there wasa certain terror and also a certain attractiveness about what hediscovered.

  "It sounds, maybe, like an easy thing to do, to just stick on the trailof them that you know are worse crooks than you. But it ain't. I've triedit. I've seen Black Jack pass up ten thousand like it was nothing,because the gent that had it come by it honest. But I can't do it,speaking in general. But I'll tell you more about the old man."

  "Thank you," said Terry, "but--"

  "And when you're with us--"

  "You see," said Terry firmly, "I plan to do the work you asked me to do--kill what you wanted killed on the range. And when I've worked off themoney I owe you--"

  Before he could complete his sentence, a door opened on the far side ofthe room, and Kate Pollard entered again. She had risen from her bed insome haste to answer the summons of her father. Her bright hair pouredacross her shoulders, a heavy, greenish-blue dressing gown was drawnabout her and held close with one hand at her breast. She came slowlytoward them. And she seemed to Terry to have changed. There was less ofthe masculine about her than there had been earlier in the evening. Herwalk was slow, her eyes were wide as though she had no idea what mightawait her, and the light glinted white on the untanned portion of herthroat, and on her arm where the loose sleeve of the dressing gown fellback from it.

  "Kate," said her father, "I had to get you up to tell you the big news--biggest news you ever heard of! Girl, who've I always told you was thegreatest gent that ever come into my life?"

  "Jack Hollis--Black Jack," she said, without hesitation. "According to_your_ way of thinking, Dad!"

  Plainly her own conclusions might be very different.

  "According to anybody's way of thinking, as long as they was thinkingright. And d'you know who we've got here with us now? Could you guess itin a thousand years? Why, the kid that come tonight. Black Jack as sureas if he was a picture out of a book, and me a blind fool that didn'tknow him. Kate, here's the second Black Jack. Terry Hollis. Give him yourhand agin and say you're glad to have him for his dad's sake and for hisown! Kate, he's done a man's job already. It's him that dropped old foxyMinter!"

  The last of these words faded out of the hearing of Terry. He felt thelowered eyes of the girl rise and fall gravely on his face, and herglance rested there a long moment with a new and solemn questioning. Thenher hand went slowly out to him, a cold hand that barely touched his withits fingertips and then dropped away.

  But what Terry felt was that it was the same glance she had turned to himwhen she stood leaning against the post earlier that evening. There was apity in it, and a sort of despair which he could not understand.

  And without saying a word she turned her back on them and went out of theroom as slowly as she had come into it.

 
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