Black Jack, p.27Max Brand
It was some time before Terry could sleep, though it was now very late.When he put out the light and slipped into the bed, the darkness broughta bright flood of memories of the day before him. It seemed to him thathalf a lifetime had been crowded into the brief hours since he was firedon the ranch that morning. Behind everything stirred the ugly face ofDenver as a sort of controlling nemesis. It seemed to him that the chunkylittle man had been pulling the wires all the time while he, TerryHollis, danced in response. Not a flattering thought.
Nervously, Terry got out of bed and went to the window. The night wascool, cut crisp rather than chilling. His eye went over the velvetblackness of the mountain slope above him to the ragged line of thecrest--then a dizzy plunge to the brightness of the stars beyond. Thevery sense of distance was soothing; it washed the gloom and the troublesaway from him. He breathed deep of the fragrance of the pines and thenwent back to his bed.
He had hardly taken his place in it when the sleep began to well up overhis brain--waves of shadows running out of corners of his mind. And thensuddenly he was wide awake, alert.
Someone had opened the door. There had been no sound; merely a change inthe air currents of the room, but there was also the sense of anotherpresence so clearly that Terry almost imagined he could hear thebreathing.
He was beginning to shrug the thought away and smile at his ownnervousness, when he heard that unmistakable sound of a foot pressing thefloor. And then he remembered that he had left his gun belt far from thebed. In a burning moment that lesson was printed in his mind, and wouldnever be forgotten. Slowly as possible and without sound, he drew up hisfeet little by little, spread his arms gently on either side of him, andmade himself tense for the effort. Whoever it was that entered, theymight be taken by surprise. He dared not lift his head to look; and hewas on the verge of leaping up and at the approaching noise, when awhisper came to him softly: "Black Jack!"
The soft voice, the name itself, thrilled him. He sat erect in the bedand made out, dimly, the form of Kate Pollard in the blackness. She wouldhave been quite invisible, save that the square of the window was almostexactly behind her. He made out the faint whiteness of the hand whichheld her dressing robe at the breast.
She did not start back, though she showed that she was startled by thesuddenness of his movement by growing the faintest shade taller andlifting her head a little. Terry watched her, bewildered.
"I been waiting to see you," said Kate. "I want to--I mean--to--talk toyou."
He could think of nothing except to blurt with sublime stupidity: "It'sgood of you. Won't you sit down?"
The girl brought him to his senses with a sharp "Easy! Don't talk out. Doyou know what'd happen if Dad found me here?"
"I--" began Terry.
But she helped him smoothly to the logical conclusion. "He'd blow yourhead off, Black Jack; and he'd do it--pronto. If you are going to talk,talk soft--like me."
She sat down on the side of the bed so gently that there was no creaking.They peered at each other through the darkness for a time.
She was not whispering, but her voice was pitched almost as low, and hewondered at the variety of expression she was able to pack in the smallrange of that murmur. "I suppose I'm a fool for coming. But I was born tolove chances. Born for it!" She lifted her head and laughed.
It amazed Terry to hear the shaken flow of her breath and catch theglinting outline of her face. He found himself leaning forward a little;and he began to wish for a light, though perhaps it was an unconsciouswish.
"First," she said, "what d'you know about Dad--and Denver Pete?"
She was silent for a moment, and he saw her hand go up and prop her chinwhile she considered what she could say next.
"They's so much to tell," she confessed, "that I can't put it short. I'lltell you this much, Black Jack--"
"That isn't my name, if you please."
"It'll be your name if you stay around these parts with Dad very long,"she replied, with an odd emphasis. "But where you been raised, Terry? Andwhat you been doing with yourself?"
He felt that this giving of the first name was a tribute, in some subtlemanner. It enabled him, for instance, to call her Kate, and he decidedwith a thrill that he would do so at the first opportunity. He revertedto her question.
"I suppose," he admitted gloomily, "that I've been raised to do prettymuch as I please--and the money I've spent has been given to me."
The girl shook her head with conviction.
"It ain't possible," she declared.
"No son of Black Jack would live off somebody's charity."
He felt the blood tingle in his cheeks, and a real anger against herrose. Yet he found himself explaining humbly.
"You see, I was taken when I wasn't old enough to decide for myself. Iwas only a baby. And I was raised to depend upon Elizabeth Cornish. I--Ididn't even know the name of my father until a few days ago."
The girl gasped. "You didn't know your father--not your own father?" Shelaughed again scornfully. "Terry, I ain't green enough to believe that!"
He fell into a dignified silence, and presently the girl leaned closer,as though she were peering to make out his face. Indeed, it was nowpossible to dimly make out objects in the room. The window was filledwith an increasing brightness, and presently a shaft of pale light beganto slide across the floor, little by little. The moon had pushed up abovethe crest of the mountain.
"Did that make you mad?" queried the girl. "Why?"
"You seemed to doubt what I said," he remarked stiffly.
"Why not? You ain't under oath, or anything, are you?"
Then she laughed again. "You're a queer one all the way through. ThisElizabeth Cornish--got anything to do with the Cornish ranch?"
"I presume she owns it, very largely."
The girl nodded. "You talk like a book. You must of studied a terriblepile."
"Not so much, really."
"H'm," said the girl, and seemed to reserve judgment.
Then she asked with a return of her former sharpness: "How come yougambled today at Pedro's?"
"I don't know. It seemed the thing to do--to kill time, you know."
"Kill time! At Pedro's? Well--you _are_ green, Terry!"
"I suppose I am, Kate."
He made a little pause before her name, and when he spoke it, in spite ofhimself, his voice changed, became softer. The girl straightenedsomewhat, and the light was now increased to such a point that he couldmake out that she was frowning at him through the dimness.
"First, you been adopted, then you been raised on a great big place witheverything you want, mostly, and now you're out--playing at Pedro's. Howcome, Terry?"
"I was sent away," said Terry faintly, as all the pain of that farewellcame flooding back over him.
"I shot a man."
"Ah!" said Kate. "You shot a man?" It seemed to silence her. "Why,Terry?"
"He had killed my father," he explained, more softly than ever.
"I know. It was Minter. And they turned you out for that?"
There was a trembling intake of her breath. He could catch the sparkle ofher eyes, and knew that she had flown into one of her sudden, fierypassions. And it warmed his heart to hear her.
"I'd like to know what kind of people they are, anyway! I'd like to meetup with that Elizabeth Cornish, the--"
"She's the finest woman that ever breathed," said Terry simply.
"You say that," she pondered slowly, "after she sent you away?"
"She did only what she thought was right. She's a little hard, but veryjust, Kate."
She was shaking her head; the hair had become a dull and wonderful goldin the faint moonshine.
"I dunno what kind of a man you are, Terry. I didn't ever know a mancould stick by--folks--after they'd been hurt by 'em. I couldn't do it. Iain't got much Bible stuff in me, Terry. Why, when somebody does me awrong, I hate 'em--I hate '
There was something so direct about her talk that he could not answer. Itseemed to him that there was in her a cross between a boy and a man--thesimplicity of a child and the straightforward strength of a grown man,and all this tempered and made strangely delightful by her own uniquepersonality.
"But I guessed it the first time I looked at you," she was murmuring. "Iguessed that you was different from the rest."
She had her elbow on her knee now, and, with her chin cupped in thegraceful hand, she leaned toward him and studied him.
"When they're clean-cut on the outside, they're spoiled on the inside.They're crooks, hard ones, out for themselves, never giving a rap aboutthe next gent in line. But mostly they ain't even clean on the outside,and you can see what they are the first time you look at 'em.
"Oh, I've liked some of the boys now and then; but I had to make myselflike 'em. But you're different. I seen that when you started talking. Youdidn't sulk; and you didn't look proud like you wanted to show us whatyou could do; and you didn't boast none. I kept wondering at you while Iwas at the piano. And--you made an awful hit with me, Terry."
Again he was too staggered to reply. And before he could gather his wits,the girl went on:
"Now, is they any real reason why you shouldn't get out of here tomorrowmorning?"
It was a blow of quite another sort.
"But why should I go?"
She grew very solemn, with a trace of sadness in her voice.
"I'll tell you why, Terry. Because if you stay around here too long,they'll make you what you don't want to be--another Black Jack. Don't yousee that that's why they like you? Because you're his son, and becausethey want you to be another like him. Not that I have anything againsthim. I guess he was a fine fellow in his way." She paused and stareddirectly at him in a way he found hard to bear. "He must of been! Butthat isn't the sort of a man you want to make out of yourself. I know.You're trying to go straight. Well, Terry, nobody that ever stepped couldstay straight long when they had around 'em Denver Pete and--my father."She said the last with a sob of grief. He tried to protest, but she wavedhim away.
"I know. And it's true. He'd do anything for me, except change himself.Believe me, Terry, you got to get out of here--pronto. Is they anythingto hold you here?"
"A great deal. Three hundred dollars I owe your father."
She considered him again with that mute shake of the head. Then: "Do youmean it? I see you do. I don't suppose it does any good for me to tellyou that he cheated you out of that money?"
"If I was fool enough to lose it that way, I won't take it back."
"I knew that, too--I guessed it. Oh, Terry, I know a pile more about theinside of your head than you'd ever guess! Well, I knew that--and I comewith the money so's you can pay back Dad in the morning. Here it is--andthey's just a mite more to help you on your way."
She laid the little handful of gold on the table beside the bed and rose.
"Don't go," said Terry, when he could speak. "Don't go, Kate! I'm notthat low. I can't take your money!"
She stood by the bed and stamped lightly. "Are you going to be a foolabout this, too?"
"Your father offered to give me back all the money I'd won. I can't doit, Kate."
He could see her grow angry, beautifully angry.
"Is they no difference between Kate Pollard and Joe Pollard?"
Something leaped into his throat. He wanted to tell her in a thousandways just how vast that difference was.
"Man, you'd make a saint swear, and I ain't a saint by some miles. Youtake that money and pay Dad, and get on your way. This ain't no place foryou, Terry Hollis."
"I--" he began.
She broke in: "Don't say it. You'll have me mad in a minute. Don't sayit."
"I have to. I can't take money from you."
"Then take a loan."
He shook his head.
"Ain't I good enough to even loan you money?" she cried fiercely.
The shaft of moonlight had poured past her feet; she stood in a pool ofit.
"Good enough?" said Terry. "Good enough?" Something that had beenaccumulating in him now swelled to bursting, flooded from his heart tohis throat. He hardly knew his own voice, it was so transformed withsudden emotion.
"There's more good in you than in any man or woman I've ever known."
"Terry, are you trying to make me feel foolish?"
"I mean it--and it's true. You're kinder, more gentle--"
"Gentle? Me? Oh, Terry!"
But she sat down on the bed, and she listened to him with her faceraised, as though music were falling on her, a thing barely heard at aperilous distance.
"They've told you other things, but they don't know. I know, Kate. Themoment I saw you I knew, and it stopped my heart for a beat--the knowingof it. That you're beautiful--and true as steel; that you're worthy ofhonor--and that I honor you with all my heart. That I love your kindness,your frankness, your beautiful willingness to help people, Kate. I'velived with a woman who taught me what was true. You've taught me what'sglorious and worth living for. Do you understand, Kate?"
And no answer; but a change in her face that stopped him.
"I shouldn't of come," she whispered at length, "and I--I shouldn't havelet you--talk the way you've done. But, oh, Terry--when you come toforget what you've said--don't forget it all the way--keep some of thethings--tucked away in you--somewhere--"
She rose from the bed and slipped across the white brilliance of theshaft of moonlight. It made a red-gold fire of her hair. Then sheflickered into the shadow. Then she was swallowed by the darkness.
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