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       Black Jack, p.7

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 7

  There were not many guests. Elizabeth had chosen them carefully fromfamilies which had known her father, Henry Cornish, when, in hisreckless, adventurous way, he had been laying the basis of the Cornishfortune in the Rockies. Indeed, she was a little angry when she heard ofthe indiscriminate way in which Vance had scattered the invitations,particularly in Craterville.

  But, as he said, he had acted so as to show her that he had entered fullyinto the spirit of the thing, and that his heart was in the right placeas far as this birthday party was concerned, and she could not dootherwise than accept his explanation.

  Some of the bidden guests, however, came from a great distance, and as amatter of course a few of them arrived the day before the celebration andfilled the quiet rooms of the old house with noise. Elizabeth acceptedthem with resignation, and even pleasure, because they all had pleasantthings to say about her father and good wishes to express for thedestined heir, Terence Colby. It was carefully explained that thisselection of an heir had been made by both Elizabeth and Vance, whichremoved all cause for remark. Vance himself regarded the guests withdistinct amusement. But Terence was disgusted.

  "What these true Westerners need," he said to Elizabeth later in the day,"is a touch of blood. No feeling of family or the dignity of familyprecedents out here."

  It touched her shrewdly. More than once she had felt that Terry was onthe verge of becoming a complacent prig. So she countered with a sharpthrust.

  "You have to remember that you're a Westerner born and bred, my dear. Avery Westerner yourself!"

  "Birth is an accident--birthplaces, I mean," smiled Terence. "It's theblood that tells."

  "Terry, you're a snob!" exclaimed Aunt Elizabeth.

  "I hope not," he answered. "But look yonder, now!"

  Old George Armstrong's daughter, Nelly, had gone up a tree like asquirrel and was laughing down through the branches at a raw-boned cousinon the ground beneath her.

  "And what of it?" said Elizabeth. "That girl is pretty enough to pleaseany man; and she's the type that makes a wife."

  Terry rubbed his chin with his knuckles thoughtfully. It was the onefamily habit that he had contracted from Vance, much to the irritation ofthe latter.

  "After all," said Terry, with complacency, "what are good looks with badgrammar?"

  Elizabeth snorted literally and most unfemininely.

  "Terence," she said, lessoning him with her bony, long forefinger,"you're just young enough to be wise about women. When you're a littleolder, you'll get sense. If you want white hands and good grammar, how doyou expect to find a wife in the mountains?"

  Terry answered with unshaken, lordly calm. "I haven't thought about thedetails. They don't matter. But a man must have standards of criticism."

  "Standards your foot!" cried Aunt Elizabeth. "You insufferable youngprig. That very girl laughing down through the branches--I'll wager shecould set your head spinning in ten seconds if she thought it worth herwhile to try."

  "Perhaps," smiled Terence. "In the meantime she has freckles and avocabulary without growing pains."

  "All men are fools," declared Aunt Elizabeth; "but boys are idiots, bless'em! Terence, before you grow up you'll have sore toes from stumbling,take my word for it! Do you know what a wise man would do?"

  "Well?"

  "Go out and start a terrific flirtation with Nelly."

  "For the sake of experience?" sighed Terence.

  "Good heavens!" groaned Aunt Elizabeth. "Terry, you're impossible! Whereare you going now?"

  "Out to see El Sangre."

  He went whistling out of the door, and she followed him with confusedfeelings of anger, pride, joy, and fear. She went to a side window andsaw him go fearlessly into the corral where the man-destroying El Sangrewas kept. And the big stallion, red fire in the sunshine, went straightto him and nosed at a hip pocket. They had already struck up a perfectunderstanding. Deeply she wondered at it.

  She had never loved the mountains and their people and their ways. It hadbeen a battle to fight. She had fought the battle, won, and gained ahollow victory. And watching Terry caress the great, beautiful horse, sheknew vaguely that his heart, at least, was in tune with the wilderness.

  "I wish to heaven, Terry," she murmured, "that you could find a master asEl Sangre has done. You need teaching."

  When she turned from the window, she found Vance watching her. He had ahabit of obscurely melting into a background and looking out at herunexpectedly. All at once she knew that he had been there listeningduring all of her talk with Terence. Not that the talk had been of apeculiarly private nature, but it angered her. There was just a semblanceof eavesdropping about the presence of Vance. For she knew that Terenceunbosomed himself to her as he would do in the hearing of no other humanbeing. However, she mastered her anger and smiled at her brother. He hadtaken all these recent changes which were so much to his disadvantagewith a good spirit that astonished and touched her.

  "Do you know what I'm going to give Terry for his birthday?" he said,sauntering toward her.

  "Well?" A mention of Terence and his welfare always disarmed hercompletely. She opened her eyes and her heart and smiled at her brother.

  "There's no set of Scott in the house. I'm going to give Terry one."

  "Do you think he'll ever read the novels? I never could. That antiquatedstyle, Vance, keeps me at arm's length."

  "A stiff style because he wrote so rapidly. But there's the greatest bodyand bone of character. Except for his heroes. Terry reminds me of them,in a way. No thought, not very much feeling, but a great capacity forphysical action."

  "I think you'd like to be Terry's adviser," she said.

  "I wouldn't aspire to the job," yawned Vance, "unless I could ride welland shoot well. If a man can't do that, he ceases to be a man in Terry'seyes. And if a woman can't talk pure English, she isn't a woman."

  "That's because he's young," said Elizabeth.

  "It's because he's a prig," sneered Vance. He had been drawn farther intothe conversation than he planned; now he retreated carefully. "Butanother year or so may help him."

  He retreated before she could answer, but he left her thoughtful, as hehoped to do. He had a standing theory that the only way to make a womanmeditate is to keep her from talking. And he wanted very much to makeElizabeth meditate the evil in the son of Black Jack. Otherwise all hisplans might be useless and his seeds of destruction fall on barren soil.He was intensely afraid of that, anyway. His hope was to draw the boy andthe sheriff together on the birthday and guide the two explosives untilthey met on the subject of the death of Black Jack. Either Terry wouldkill the sheriff, or the sheriff would kill Terry. Vance hoped for thelatter, but rather expected the former to be the outcome, and if it were,he was inclined to think that Elizabeth would sooner or later makeexcuses for Terry and take him back into the fold of her affections.Accordingly, his work was, in the few days that intervened, to plant allthe seeds of suspicion that he could. Then, when the denouement came,those seeds might blossom overnight into poison flowers.

  In the late afternoon he took up his position in an easy chair on the bigveranda. The mail was delivered, as a rule, just before dusk, one of thecow-punchers riding down for it. Grave fears about the loss of that all-important missive to Terry haunted him, for the postmaster was adoddering old fellow who was quite apt to forget his head. Consequentlyhe was vastly relieved when the mail arrived and Elizabeth brought thefamiliar big envelope out to him, with its typewritten address.

  "Looks like a business letter, doesn't it?" she asked Vance.

  "More or less," said Vance, covering a yawn of excitement.

  "But how on earth could any business--it's postmarked from Craterville."

  "Somebody may have heard about his prospects; they're starting early toseparate him from his money."

  "Vance, how much talking did you do in Craterville?"

  It was hard to meet her keen old eyes.

  "Too much, I'm afraid," he said frankly. "You
see, I've felt rathertouchy about the thing. I want people to know that you and I have agreedon making Terry the heir to the ranch. I don't want anyone to suspectthat we differed. I suppose I talked too much about the birthday plans."

  She sighed with vexation and weighed the letter in her hand.

  "I've half a mind to open it."

  His heartbeat fluttered and paused.

  "Go ahead," he urged, with well-assured carelessness.

  She shook down the contents of the envelope preparatory to opening it.

  "It's nothing but printed stuff, Vance. I can see that, through theenvelope."

  "But wait a minute, Elizabeth. It might anger Terry to have even hisbusiness mail opened. He's touchy, you know."

  She hesitated, then shrugged her shoulders.

  "I suppose you're right. Let it go." She laughed at her own concern overthe matter. "Do you know, Vance, that sometimes I feel as if the wholeworld were conspiring to get a hand on Terry?"

 
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