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       Black Jack, p.31

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 31

  The first thing the people in Pollard's big house knew of the return ofthe two was a voice singing faintly and far off in the stable--they couldhear it because the door to the big living room was opened. And KatePollard, who had been sitting idly at the piano, stood up suddenly andlooked around her. It did not interrupt the crap game of the four at oneside of the room, where they kneeled in a close circle. But it broughtbig Pollard himself to the door in time to meet Denver Pete as the latterhurried in.

  When Denver was excited he talked very nearly as softly as he walked. Andhis voice tonight was like a contented humming.

  "It worked," was all he said aside to Pollard as he came through thedoor. They exchanged silent grips of the hands. Then Kate drew down onthem; as if a mysterious; signal had been passed to them by the subduedentrance of Denver, the four rose at the side of the room.

  It was Pollard who forced him to talk.

  "What happened?"

  "A pretty little party," said Denver. His purring voice was so soft thatto hear him the others instantly drew close. Kate Pollard stood suddenlybefore him.

  "Terry Hollis has done something," she said. "Denver, what has he done?"

  "Him? Nothing much. To put it in his own words, he's just playedscavenger for the town--and he's done it in a way they won't beforgetting for a good long day.

  "Denver!"

  "Well? No need of acting up, Kate."

  "Who was it?"

  "Ever meet young Larrimer?"

  She shuddered. "Yes. A--beast of a man."

  "Sure. Worse'n a beast, maybe. Well, he's carrion now, to use Terry'swords again."

  "Wait a minute," cut in big blond Phil Marvin. Don't spoil the story forTerry. But did he really do for Larrimer? Larrimer was a neat one with agun--no good otherwise."

  "Did he do for Larrimer?" echoed Denver in his purring voice. "Oh, man,man! Did he do for Larrimer? And I ain't spoiling his story. He won'ttalk about it. Wouldn't open his face about it all the way home. A prettyneat play, boys. Larrimer was looking for a rep, and he wanted to make iton Black Jack's son. Came tearing in.

  "At first Terry tried to sidestep him. Made me weak inside for a minutebecause I thought he was going to take water. Then he got riled a bit andthen--whang! It was all over. Not a body shot. No, boys, nothing clumsyand amateurish like that, because a man may live to empty his gun at youafter he's been shot through the body. This young Hollis, pals, just upsand drills Larrimer clean between the eyes. If you'd measured it off witha ruler, you couldn't have hit exact center any better'n he done. Then hewalks up and stirs Larrimer with his toe to make sure he was dead. Coolas hell."

  "You lie!" cried the girl suddenly.

  They whirled at her, and found her standing and flaming at them.

  "You hear me say it, Kate," said Denver, losing a little of his calm.

  "He wasn't as cool as that--after killing a man. He wasn't."

  "All right, honey. Don't you hear him singing out there in the stable?Does that sound as if he was cut up much?"

  "Then you've made him a murderer--you, Denver, and you, Dad. Oh, ifthey's a hell, you're going to travel there for this! Both of you!"

  "As if we had anything to do with it!" exclaimed Denver innocently."Besides, it wasn't murder. It was plain self-defense. Nothing but that.Three witnesses to swear to it. But, my, my--you should hear that townrave. They thought nobody could beat Larrimer."

  The girl slipped back into her chair again and sat with her chin in herhand, brooding. It was all impossible--it could not be. Yet there wasDenver telling his story, and far away the clear baritone of Terry Hollissinging as he cared for El Sangre.

  She waited to make sure, waited to see his face and hear him speak closeat hand. Presently the singing rang out more clearly. He had stepped outof the barn.

  Oh, I am a friar of orders gray,Through hill and valley I take my way.My long bead roll I merrily chant;Wherever I wander no money I want!

  And as the last word rang through the room, Terry Hollis stood in thedoorway, with his saddle and bridle hanging over one strong arm and hisgun and gun belt in the other hand. And his voice came cheerily to themin greeting. It was impossible--more impossible than ever.

  He crossed the room, hung up his saddle, and found her sitting near. Whatshould he say? How would his color change? In what way could he face herwith that stain in his soul?

  And this was what Terry said to her: "I'm going to teach El Sangre to letyou ride him, Kate. By the Lord, I wish you'd been with us going down thehill this morning!"

  No shame, no downward head, no remorse. And he was subtly and strangelychanged. She could not put the difference into words. But his eye seemedlarger and brighter--it was no longer possible for her to look deeplyinto it, as she had done so easily the night before. And there were otherdifferences.

  He held his head in a more lordly fashion. About every movement there wasa singular ease and precision. He walked with a lighter step and with acatlike softness almost as odd as that of Denver. His step had been lightbefore, but it was not like this. But through him and about him there wasan air of uneasy, alert happiness--as of one who steals a few perfectmoments, knowing that they will not be many. A great pity welled in her,and a great anger. It was the anger which showed.

  "Terry Hollis, what have you done? You're lookin' me in the eye, but youought to be hangin' your head. You've done murder! Murder! Murder!"

  She let the three words ring through the room like three blows, cuttingthe talk to silence. And all save Terry seemed moved.

  He was laughing down at her--actually laughing, and there was no doubt asto the sincerity of that mirth. His presence drew her and repelled her;she became afraid for the first time in her life.

  "A little formality with a gun," he said calmly. "A dog got in my way,Kate--a mad dog. I shot the beast to keep it from doing harm."

  "Ah, Terry, I know everything. I've heard Denver tell it. I know it was aman, Terry."

  He insisted carelessly. "By the Lord, Kate, only a dog--and a mad dog atthat. Perhaps there was the body of a man, but there was the soul of adog inside the skin. Tut! it isn't worth talking about."

  She drew away from him. "Terry, God pity you. I pity you," she went onhurriedly and faintly. "But you ain't the same any more, Terry. I--I'malmost afraid of you!"

  He tried laughingly to stop her, and in a sudden burst of hystericalterror she fled from him. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him comeafter her, light as a shadow. And the shadow leaped between her and thedoor; the force of her rush drove her into his arms.

  In the distance she could hear the others laughing--they understood sucha game as this, and enjoyed it with all their hearts. Ah, the fools!

  He held her lightly, his fingertips under her elbows. For all thedelicacy of that touch, she knew that if she attempted to flee, the gripwould be iron. He would hold her where she was until he was throughtalking to her.

  "Don't you see what I've done?" he was saying rapidly. "You wanted todrive me out last night. You said I didn't fit--that I didn't belong uphere. Well, Kate, I started out today to make myself fit to belong tothis company of fine fellows."

  He laughed a little; if it were not real mirth, at least there was afierce quality of joy in his voice.

  "You see, I decided that if I went away I'd be lonely. Particularly, I'dbe lonely as the devil, Kate, for you!"

  "You've murdered to make yourself one--of us?"

  "Tush, Kate. You exaggerate entirely. Do you know what I've really done?Why, I've wakened; I've come to my senses. After all, there was no otherplace for me to go. I tried the world of good, ordinary working people. Iasked them to let me come in and prove my right to be one of them. Theydischarged me when I worked honestly on the range. They sent theirprofessional gunmen and bullies after me. And then--I reached the limitof my endurance, Kate, and I struck back. And the mockery of it all isthis--that though they have struck me repeatedly and I have endured it,I--having struck back a single time--am
barred from among them forever.Let it be so!"

  "Hush, Terry. I--I'm going to think of ways!"

  "You couldn't. Last night--yes. Today I'm a man--and I'm free. Andfreedom is the sweetest thing in the world. There's no place else for meto go. This is my world. You're my queen. I've won my spurs; I'll usethem in your service, Kate."

  "Stop, Terry!"

  "By the Lord, I will, though! I'm happy--don't you see? And I'm going tobe happier. I'm going to work my way along until I can tell you--that Ilove you, Kate--that you're the daintiest body of fire and beauty andtemper and gentleness and wisdom and fun that was ever crowned with thename of a woman. And--"

  But under the rapid fire of his words there was a touch of hardness--mockery, perhaps. She drew back, and he stepped instantly aside. She wentby him through the door with bowed head. And Terry, closing it after her,heard the first sob.

 
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