It was characteristic of the two that when the uproar broke out Vance Cornish raised his eyes, but went on lighting his pipe. Then his sister Elizabeth ran to the window with a swish of skirts around her long legs. After the first shot there was a lull. The little cattle town was as peaceful as ever with its storm-shaken houses staggering away down the street.
A boy was stirring up the dust of the street, enjoying its heat with his bare toes, and the same old man was bunched in his chair in front of the store. During the two days Elizabeth had been in town on her cattle- buying trip, she had never see him alter his position. But she was accustomed to the West, and this advent of sleep in the town did not satisfy her. A drowsy town, like a drowsy-looking cow-puncher, might be capable of unexpected things.
"Vance," she said, "there's trouble starting."
"Somebody shooting at a target," he answered.
As if to mock him, he had no sooner spoken than a dozen voices yelled down the street in a wailing chorus cut short by the rapid chattering of revolvers. Vance ran to the window. Just below the hotel the street made an elbow-turn for no particular reason except that the original cattle- trail had made exactly the same turn before Garrison City was built. Toward the corner ran the hubbub at the pace of a running horse. Shouts, shrill, trailing curses, and the muffled beat of hoofs in the dust. A rider plunged into view now, his horse leaning far in to take the sharp angle, and the dust skidding out and away from his sliding hoofs. The rider gave easily and gracefully to the wrench of his mount.
And he seemed to have a perfect trust in his horse, for he rode with the reins hanging over the horns of his saddle. His hands were occupied by a pair of revolvers, and he was turned in the saddle.
The head of the pursuing crowd lurched around the elbow-turn; fire spat twice from the mouth of each gun. Two men dropped, one rolling over and over in the dust, and the other sitting down and clasping his leg in a ludicrous fashion. But the crowd was checked and fell back.
By this time the racing horse of the fugitive had carried him close to the hotel, and now he faced the front, a handsome fellow with long black hair blowing about his face. He wore a black silk shirt which accentuated the pallor of his face and the flaring crimson of his bandanna. And he laughed joyously, and the watchers from the hotel window heard him call: "Go it, Mary. Feed 'em dust, girl!"
The pursuers had apparently realized that it was useless to chase. Another gust of revolver shots barked from the turning of the street, and among them a different and more sinister sound like the striking of two great hammers face on face, so that there was a cold ring of metal after the explosion—at least one man had brought a rifle to bear. Now, as the wild rider darted past the hotel, his hat was jerked from his head by an invisible hand. He whirled again in the saddle and his guns raised. As he turned, Elizabeth Cornish saw something glint across the street. It was the gleam of light on the barrel of a rifle that was thrust out through the window of the store.
That long line of light wobbled, steadied, and fire jetted from the mouth of the gun. The black-haired rider spilled sidewise out of the saddle; his feet came clear of the stirrups, and his right leg caught on the cantle. He was flung rolling in the dust, his arms flying weirdly. The rifle disappeared from the window and a boy's set face looked out. But before the limp body of the fugitive had stopped rolling, Elizabeth Cornish dropped into a chair, sick of face. Her brother turned his back on the mob that closed over the dead man and looked at Elizabeth in alarm.
It was not the first time he had seen the result of a gunplay, and for that matter it was not the first time for Elizabeth. Her emotion upset him more than the roar of a hundred guns. He managed to bring her a glass of water, but she brushed it away so that half of the contents spilled on the red carpet of the room.
"He isn't dead, Vance. He isn't dead!" she kept saying.
"Dead before he left the saddle," replied Vance, with his usual calm. "And if the bullet hadn't finished him, the fall would have broken his neck. But—what in the world! Did you know the fellow?"
He blinked at her, his amazement growing. The capable hands of Elizabeth were pressed to her breast, and out of the thirty-five years of spinsterhood which had starved her face he became aware of eyes young and dark, and full of spirit; by no means the keen, quiet eyes of Elizabeth Cornish.
"Do something," she cried. "Go down, and—if they've murdered him—"
He literally fled from the room.
All the time she was seeing nothing, but she would never forget what she had seen, no matter how long she lived. Subconsciously she was fighting to keep the street voices out of her mind. They were saying things she did not wish to hear, things she would not hear. Finally, she recovered enough to stand up and shut the window. That brought her a terrible temptation to look down into the mass of men in the street—and women, too!
But she resisted and looked up. The forms of the street remained obscurely in the bottom of her vision, and made her think of something she had seen in the woods—a colony of ants around a dead beetle. Presently the door opened and Vance came back. He still seemed very worried, but she forced herself to smile at him, and at once his concern disappeared; it was plain that he had been troubled about her and not in the slightest by the fate of the strange rider. She kept on smiling, but for the first time in her life she really looked at Vance without sisterly prejudice in his favor. She saw a good-natured face, handsome, with the cheeks growing a bit blocky, though Vance was only twenty-five. He had a glorious forehead and fine eyes, but one would never look twice at Vance in a crowd. She knew suddenly that her brother was simply a well-mannered mediocrity.
"Thank the Lord you're yourself again, Elizabeth," her brother said first of all. "I thought for a moment—I don't know what!"
"Just the shock, Vance," she said. Ordinarily she was well-nigh brutally frank. Now she found it easy to lie and keep on smiling. "It was such a horrible thing to see!"
"I suppose so. Caught you off balance. But I never knew you to lose your grip so easily. Well, do you know what you've seen?"
"He's dead, then?"
He locked sharply at her. It seemed to him that a tremor of unevenness had come into her voice.
"Oh, dead as a doornail, Elizabeth. Very neat shot. Youngster that dropped him; boy named Joe Minter. Six thousand dollars for Joe. Nice little nest egg to build a fortune on, eh?"
"Six thousand dollars! What do you mean, Vance?"
"The price on the head of Jack Hollis. That was Hollis, sis. The celebrated Black Jack."
"But—this is only a boy, Vance. He couldn't have been more than twenty- five years old."
"But I've heard of him for ten years, very nearly. And always as a man- killer. It can't be Black Jack."
"I said the same thing, but it's Black Jack, well enough. He started out when he was sixteen, they say, and he's been raising the devil ever since. You should have seen them pick him up—as if he were asleep, and not dead. What a body! Lithe as a panther. No larger than I am, but they say he was a giant with his hands."
He was lighting his cigarette as he said this, and consequently he did not see her eyes close tightly. A moment later she was able to make her expression as calm as ever.
"Came into town to see his baby," went on Vance through the smoke. "Little year-old beggar!"
"Think of the mother," murmured Elizabeth Cornish. "I want to do something for her."
"You can't," replied her brother, with unnecessary brutality. "Because she's dead. A little after the youngster was born. I believe Black Jack broke her heart, and a very pleasant sort of girl she was, they tell me."
"What will become of the baby?"
"It will live and grow up," he said carelessly. "They always do, somehow. Make another like his father, I suppose. A few years of fame in the mountain saloons, and then a knife in the back."
The meager body of Elizabeth stiffened. She was finding it less easy to maintain her nonchalant smile.
"Why? Blood will out, like murder, sis."
"Nonsense! All a matter of environment."
"Have you ever read the story of the Jukes family?"
"An accident. Take a son out of the best family in the world and raise him like a thief—he'll be a thief. And the thief's son can be raised to an honest manhood. I know it!"
She was seeing Black Jack, as he had raced down the street with the black hair blowing about his face. Of such stuff, she felt, the knights of another age had been made. Vance was raising a forefinger in an authoritative way he had.
"My dear, before that baby is twenty-five—that was his father's age—he'll have shot a man. Bet you on it!"
"I'll take your bet!"
The retort came with such a ring of her voice that he was startled. Before he could recover, she went on: "Go out and get that baby for me, Vance. I want it."
He tossed his cigarette out of the window.
"Don't drop into one of your headstrong moods, sis. This is nonsense."
"That's why I want to do it. I'm tired of playing the man. I've had enough to fill my mind. I want something to fill my arms and my heart."
She drew up her hands with a peculiar gesture toward her shallow, barren bosom, and then her brother found himself silenced. At the same time he was a little irritated, for there was an imputation in her speech that she had been carrying the burden which his own shoulders should have supported. Which was so true that he could not answer, and therefore he cast about for some way of stinging her.
"I thought you were going to escape the sentimental period, Elizabeth. But sooner or later I suppose a woman has to pass through it."
A spot of color came in her sallow cheek.
"That's sufficiently disagreeable, Vance."
A sense of his cowardice made him rise to conceal his confusion.
"I'm going to take you at your word, sis. I'm going out to get that baby. I suppose it can be bought—like a calf!"
He went deliberately to the door and laid his hand on the knob. He had a rather vicious pleasure in calling her bluff, but to his amazement she did not call him back. He opened the door slowly. Still she did not speak. He slammed it behind him and stepped into the hall.
Twenty-four years made the face of Vance Cornish a little better-fed, a little more blocky of cheek, but he remained astonishingly young. At forty-nine the lumpish promise of his youth was quite gone. He was in a trim and solid middle age. His hair was thinned above the forehead, but it gave him more dignity. On the whole, he left an impression of a man who has done things and who will do more before he is through.
He shifted his feet from the top of the porch railing and shrugged himself deeper into his chair. It was marvelous how comfortable Vance could make himself. He had one great power—the ability to sit still through any given interval. Now he let his eye drift quietly over the Cornish ranch. It lay entirely within one grasp of the vision, spilling across the valley from Sleep Mountain, on the lower bosom of which the house stood, to Mount Discovery on the north. Not that the glance of Vance Cornish lurched across this bold distance. His gaze wandered as slowly as a free buzzes across a clover field, not knowing on which blossom to settle.
Below him, generously looped, Bear Creek tumbled out of the southeast, and roved between noble borders of silver spruce into the shadows of the Blue Mountains of the north, half a dozen miles across and ten long of grazing and farm land, rich, loamy bottom land scattered with aspens.
Beyond, covering the gentle roll of the foothills, was grazing land. Scattering lodgepole pine began in the hills, and thickened into dense yellow-green thickets on the upper mountain slopes. And so north and north the eye of Vance Cornish wandered and climbed until it rested on the bald summit of Mount Discovery. It had its name out of its character, standing boldly to the south out of the jumble of the Blue Mountains.
It was a solid unit, this Cornish ranch, fenced away with mountains, watered by a river, pleasantly forested, and obviously predestined for the ownership of one man. Vance Cornish, on the porch of the house, felt like an enthroned king overlooking his dominions. As a matter of fact, his holdings were hardly more than nominal.
In the beginning his father had left the ranch equally to Vance and Elizabeth, thickly plastered with debts. The son would have sold the place for what they could clear. He went East to hunt for education and pleasure; his sister remained and fought the great battle by herself. She consecrated herself to the work, which implied that the work was sacred. And to her, indeed, it was.
She was twenty-two and her brother twelve when their father died. Had she been a tithe younger and her brother a mature man, it would have been different. As it was, she felt herself placed in a maternal position with Vance. She sent him away to school, rolled up her sleeves and started to order chaos. In place of husband, children—love and the fruits of love— she accepted the ranch. The dam between the rapids and the waterfall was the child of her brain; the plowed fields of the central part of the valley were her reward.
In ten years of constant struggle she cleared away the debts. And then, since Vance gave her nothing but bills to pay, she began to buy out his interest. He chose to learn his business lessons on Wall Street. Elizabeth paid the bills, but she checked the sums against his interest in the ranch. And so it went on. Vance would come out to the ranch at intervals and show a brief, feverish interest, plan a new set of irrigation canals, or a sawmill, or a better road out over the Blue Mountains. But he dropped such work half-done and went away.
Elizabeth said nothing. She kept on paying his bills, and she kept on cutting down his interest in the old Cornish ranch, until at the present time he had only a finger-tip hold. Root and branch, the valley and all that was in it belonged to Elizabeth Cornish. She was proud of her possession, though she seldom talked of her pride. Nevertheless, Vance knew, and smiled. It was amusing, because, after all, what she had done, and all her work, would revert to him at her death. Until that time, why should he care in whose name the ranch remained so long as his bills were paid? He had not worked, but in recompense he had remained young. Elizabeth had labored all her youth away. At forty-nine he was ready to begin the most important part of his career. At sixty his sister was a withered old ghost of a woman.
He fell into a pleasant reverie. When Elizabeth died, he would set in some tennis courts beside the house, buy some blooded horses, cut the road wide and deep to let the world come up Bear Creek Valley, and retire to the life of a country gentleman.
His sister's voice cut into his musing. She had two tones. One might be called her social register. It was smooth, gentle—the low-pitched and controlled voice of a gentlewoman. The other voice was hard and sharp. It could drive hard and cold across a desk, and bring businessmen to an understanding that here was a mind, not a woman.
At present she used her latter tone. Vance Cornish came into a shivering consciousness that she was sitting beside him. He turned his head slowly. It was always a shock to come out of one of his pleasant dreams and see that worn, hollow-eyed, impatient face.
"Are you forty-nine, Vance?"
"I'm not fifty, at least," he countered.
She remained imperturbable, looking him over. He had come to notice that in the past half-dozen years his best smiles often failed to mellow her expression. He felt that something disagreeable was coming.
"Why did Cornwall run away this morning? I hoped to take him on a trip."
"He had business to do."
His diversion had been a distinct failure, and had been turned against him. For she went on: "Which leads to what I have to say. You're going back to New York in a few days, I suppose?"
"No, my dear. I haven't been across the water for two years."
"Brussels. A little less grace; a little more spirit."
"Which means money."
"A few thousand only. I'll be back by fall."
"Do you know that you'll have to mortgage your future for that money, Vance?"
He blinked at her, but maintained his smile under fire courageously.
"Come, come! Things are booming. You told me yesterday what you'd clean up on the last bunch of Herefords."
When she folded her hands, she was most dangerous, he knew. And now the bony fingers linked and she shrugged the shawl more closely around her shoulders.
"We're partners, aren't we?" smiled Vance.
"Partners, yes. You have one share and I have a thousand. But—you don't want to sell out your final claim, I suppose?"
His smile froze. "Eh?"
"If you want to get those few thousands, Vance, you have nothing to put up for them except your last shreds of property. That's why I say you'll have to mortgage your future for money from now on."
"But—how does it all come about?"
"I've warned you. I've been warning you for twenty-five years, Vance."
Once again he attempted to turn her. He always had the impression that if he became serious, deadly serious for ten consecutive minutes with his sister, he would be ruined. He kept on with his semi-jovial tone.
"There are two arts, Elizabeth. One is making money and the other is spending it. You've mastered one and I've mastered the other. Which balances things, don't you think?"
She did not melt; he waved down to the farm land.
"Watch that wave of wind, Elizabeth."
A gust struck the scattering of aspens, and turned up the silver of the dark green leaves. The breeze rolled across the trees in a long, rippling flash of light. But Elizabeth did not look down. Her glance was fixed on the changeless snow of Mount Discovery's summit.
"As long as you have something to spend, spending is a very important art, Vance. But when the purse is empty, it's a bit useless, it seems to me."
"Well, then, I'll have to mortgage my future. As a matter of fact, I suppose I could borrow what I want on my prospects."
A veritable Indian yell, instantly taken up and prolonged by a chorus of similar shouts, cut off the last of his words. Round the corner of the house shot a blood-bay stallion, red as the red of iron under the blacksmith's hammer, with a long, black tail snapping and flaunting behind him, his ears flattened, his beautiful vicious head outstretched in an effort to tug the reins out of the hands of the rider. Failing in that effort, he leaped into the air like a steeplechaser and pitched down upon stiffened forelegs.
The shock rippled through the body of the rider and came to his head with a snap that jerked his chin down against his breast. The stallion rocked back on his hind legs, whirled, and then flung himself deliberately on his back. A sufficiently cunning maneuver—first stunning the enemy with a blow and then crushing him before his senses returned. But he landed on nothing save hard gravel. The rider had whipped out of the saddle and stood poised, strong as the trunk of a silver spruce.
The fighting horse, a little shaken by the impact of his fall, nevertheless whirled with catlike agility to his feet—a beautiful thing to watch. As he brought his forequarters off the earth, he lunged at the rider with open mouth. A sidestep that would have done credit to a pugilist sent the youngster swerving past that danger. He leaped to the saddle at the same time that the blood-bay came to his four feet.
The chorus in full cry was around the horse, four or five excited cow- punchers waving their sombreros and yelling for horse or rider, according to the gallantry of the fight.
The bay was in the air more than he was on the ground, eleven or twelve hundred pounds of might, writhing, snapping, bolting, halting, sunfishing with devilish cunning, dropping out of the air on one stiff foreleg with an accompanying sway to one side that gave the rider the effect of a cudgel blow at the back of the head and then a whip-snap to part the vertebrae. Whirling on his hind legs, and again flinging himself desperately on the ground, only to fail, come to his feet with the clinging burden once more maddeningly in place, and go again through a maze of fence-rowing and sun-fishing until suddenly he straightened out and bolted down the slope like a runaway locomotive on a downgrade. A terrifying spectacle, but the rider sat erect, with one arm raised high above his head in triumph, and his yell trailing off behind him. From a running gait the stallion fell into a smooth pace—a true wild pacer, his hoofs beating the ground with the force and speed of pistons and hurling himself forward with incredible strides. Horse and rider lurched out of sight among the silver spruce.
"By the Lord, wonderful!" cried Vance Cornish.
He heard a stifled cry beside him, a cry of infinite pain.
"Is—is it over?"
And there sat Elizabeth the Indomitable with her face buried in her hands like a girl of sixteen!
"Of course it's over," said Vance, wondering profoundly.
She seemed to dread to look up. "And—Terence?"
"He's all right. Ever hear of a horse that could get that young wildcat out of the saddle? He clings as if he had claws. But—where did he get that red devil?"
"Terence ran him down—in the mountains—somewhere," she answered, speaking as one who had only half heard the question. "Two months of constant trailing to do it, I think. But oh, you're right! The horse is a devil! And sometimes I think—"
She stopped, shuddering. Vance had returned to the ranch only the day before after a long absence. More and more, after he had been away, he found it difficult to get in touch with things on the ranch. Once he had been a necessary part of the inner life. Now he was on the outside. Terence and Elizabeth were a perfectly completed circle in themselves.
"If Terry worries you like this," suggested her brother kindly, "why don't you forbid these pranks?"
She looked at him as if in surprise.
"Forbid Terry?" she echoed, and then smiled. Decidedly this was her first tone, a soft tone that came from deep in her throat. Instinctively Vance contrasted it with the way she had spoken to him. But it was always this way when Terry was mentioned. For the first time he saw it clearly. It was amazing how blind he had been. "Forbid Terence? Vance, that devil of a horse is part of his life. He was on a hunting trip when he saw Le Sangre—"
"Good Lord, did they call the horse that?"
"A French-Canadian was the first to discover him, and he gave the name. And he's the color of blood, really. Well, Terence saw Le Sangre on a hilltop against the sky. And he literally went mad. Actually, he struck out on foot with his rifle and lived in the country and never stopped walking until he wore down Le Sangre somehow and brought him back hobbled—just skin and bones, and Terence not much more. Now Le Sangre is himself again, and he and Terence have a fight—like that—every day. I dream about it; the most horrible nightmares!"
"And you don't stop it?"
"My dear Vance, how little you know Terence! You couldn't tear that horse out of his life without breaking his heart. I know!"
"So you suffer, day by day?"
"I've done very little else all my life," said Elizabeth gravely. "And I've learned to bear pain."
He swallowed. Also, he was beginning to grow irritated. He had never before had a talk with Elizabeth that contained so many reefs that threatened shipwreck. He returned to the gist of their conversation rather too bluntly.
"But to continue, Elizabeth, any banker would lend me money on my prospects."
"You mean the property which will come to you when I die?"
He used all his power, but he could not meet her glance. "You know that's a nasty way to put it, Elizabeth."
"Dear Vance," she sighed, "a great many people say that I'm a hard woman. I suppose I am. And I like to look facts squarely in the face. Your prospects begin with my death, of course."
He had no answer, but bit his lip nervously and wished the ordeal would come to an end.
"Vance," she went on, "I'm glad to have this talk with you. It's something you have to know. Of course I'll see that during my life or my death you'll be provided for. But as for your main prospects, do you know where they are?"
She was needlessly brutal about it, but as she had told him, her education had been one of pain.
"Your prospects are down there by the river on the back of Le Sangre."
Vance Cornish gasped.
"I'll show you what I mean, Vance. Come along."
The moment she rose, some of her age fell from her. Her carriage was erect. Her step was still full of spring and decision, as she led the way into the house. It was a big, solid, two-story building which the mightiest wind could not shake. Henry Cornish had merely founded the house, just as he had founded the ranch; the main portion of the work had been done by his daughter. And as they passed through, her stern old eye rested peacefully on the deep, shadowy vistas, and her foot fell with just pride on the splendid rising sweep of the staircase. They passed into the roomy vault of the upper hall and went down to the end. She took out a big key from her pocket and fitted it into the lock; then Vance dropped his hand on her arm. His voice lowered.
"You've made a mistake, Elizabeth. This is Father's room."
Ever since his death it had been kept unchanged, and practically unentered save for an occasional rare day of work to keep it in order. Now she nodded and resolutely turned the key and swung the door open. Vance went in with an exclamation of wonder. It was quite changed from the solemn old room and the brown, varnished woodwork which he remembered. Cream-tinted paint now made the walls cool and fresh. The solemn engravings no longer hung above the bookcases. And the bookcases themselves had been replaced with built-in shelves pleasantly filled with rich bindings, black and red and deep yellow-browns. A tall cabinet stood open at one side filled with rifles and shotguns of every description, and another cabinet was loaded with fishing apparatus. The stiff-backed chairs had given place to comfortable monsters of easy lines. Vance Cornish, as one in a dream, peered here and there.
"God bless us!" he kept repeating. "God bless us! But where's there a trace of Father?"
"I left it out," said Elizabeth huskily, "because this room is meant for—but let's go back. Do you remember that day twenty-four years ago when we took Jack Hollis's baby?"
"When you took it," he corrected. "I disclaim all share in the idea."
"Thank you," she answered proudly. "At any rate, I took the boy and called him Terence Colby."
"Why that name," muttered Vance, "I never could understand."
"Haven't I told you? No, and I hardly know whether to trust even you with the secret, Vance. But you remember we argued about it, and you said that blood would out; that the boy would turn out wrong; that before he was twenty-five he would have shot a man?"
"I believe the talk ran like that."
"Well, Vance, I started out with a theory; but the moment I had that baby in my arms, it became a matter of theory, plus, and chiefly plus. I kept remembering what you had said, and I was afraid. That was why I worked up the Colby idea."
"That's easy to see."
"It wasn't so easy to do. But I heard of the last of an old Virginia family who had died of consumption in Arizona. I traced his family. He was the last of it. Then it was easy to arrange a little story: Terence Colby had married a girl in Arizona, died shortly after; the girl died also, and I took the baby. Nobody can disprove what I say. There's not a living soul who knows that Terence is the son of Jack Hollis—except you and me."
"How about the woman I got the baby from?"
"I bought her silence until fifteen years ago. Then she died, and now Terry is convinced that he is the last representative of the Colby family."
She laughed with excitement and beckoned him out of the room and into another—Terry's room, farther down the hall. She pointed to a large photograph of a solemn-faced man on the wall. "You see that?"
"Who is it?"
"I got it when I took Terry to Virginia last winter—to see the old family estate and go over the ground of the historic Colbys."
She laughed again happily.
"Terry was wild with enthusiasm. He read everything he could lay his hands on about the Colbys. Discovered the year they landed in Virginia; how they fought in the Revolution; how they fought and died in the Civil War. Oh, he knows every landmark in the history of 'his' family. Of course, I encouraged him."
"I know," chuckled Vance. "Whenever he gets in a pinch, I've heard you say: 'Terry, what should a Colby do?'"
"And," cut in Elizabeth, "you must admit that it has worked. There isn't a prouder, gentler, cleaner-minded boy in the world than Terry. Not blood. It's the blood of Jack Hollis. But it's what he thinks himself to be that counts. And now, Vance, admit that your theory is exploded."
He shook his head.
"Terry will do well enough. But wait till the pinch comes. You don't know how he'll turn out when the rub comes. Then blood will tell!"
She shrugged her shoulders angrily.
"You're simply being perverse now, Vance. At any rate, that picture is one of Terry's old 'ancestors,' Colonel Vincent Colby, of prewar days. Terry has discovered family resemblances, of course—same black hair, same black eyes, and a great many other things."
"But suppose he should ever learn the truth?" murmured Vance.
She caught her breath.
"That would be ruinous, of course. But he'll never learn. Only you and I know."
"A very hard blow, eh," said Vance, "if he were robbed of the Colby illusion and had Black Jack put in its place as a cold fact? But of course we'll never tell him."
Her color was never high. Now it became gray. Only her eyes remained burning, vivid, young, blazing out through the mask of age.
"Remember you said his blood would tell before he was twenty-five; that the blood of Black Jack would come to the surface; that he would have shot a man?"
"Still harping on that, Elizabeth? What if he does?"
"I'd disown him, throw him out penniless on the world, never see him again."
"You're a Spartan," said her brother in awe, as he looked on that thin, stern face. "Terry is your theory. If he disappoints you, he'll be simply a theory gone wrong. You'll cut him out of your life as if he were an algebraic equation and never think of him again."
"But he's not going wrong, Vance. Because, in ten days, he'll be twenty- five! And that's what all these changes mean. The moment it grows dark on the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, I'm going to take him into my father's room and turn it over to him."
He had listened to her patiently, a little wearied by her unusual flow of words. Now he came out of his apathy with a jerk. He laid his hand on Elizabeth's shoulder and turned her so that the light shone full in her face. Then he studied her.
"What do you mean by that, Elizabeth?"
"Vance," she said steadily, but with a touch of pity in her voice, "I have waited for a score of years, hoping that you'd settle down and try to do a man's work either here or somewhere else. You haven't done it. Yesterday Mr. Cornwall came here to draw up my will. By that will I leave you an annuity, Vance, that will take care of you in comfort; but I leave everything else to Terry Colby. That's why I've changed the room. The moment it grows dark ten days from today, I'm going to take Terry by the hand and lead him into the room and into the position of my father!"
The mask of youth which was Vance Cornish crumbled and fell away. A new man looked down at her. The firm flesh of his face became loose. His whole body was flabby. She had the feeling that if she pushed against his chest with the weight of her arm, he would topple to the floor. That weakness gradually passed. A peculiar strength of purpose grew in its place.
"Of course, this is a very shrewd game, Elizabeth. You want to wake me up. You're using the spur to make me work. I don't blame you for using the bluff, even if it's a rather cruel one. But, of course, it's impossible for you to be serious in what you say."
"Why impossible, Vance?"
"Because you know that I'm the last male representative of our family. Because you know my father would turn in his grave if he knew that an interloper, a foundling, the child of a murderer, a vagabond, had been made the heir to his estate. But you aren't serious, Elizabeth; I understand."
He swallowed his pride, for panic grew in him in proportion to the length of time she maintained her silence.
"As a matter of fact, I don't blame you for giving me a scare, my dear sister. I have been a shameless loafer. I'm going to reform and lift the burden of business off your shoulders—let you rest the remainder of your life."
It was the worst thing he could have said. He realized it the moment he had spoken. This forced, cowardly surrender was worse than brazen defiance, and he saw her lip curl. An idler is apt to be like a sullen child, except that in a grown man the child's sulky spite becomes a dark malice, all-embracing. For the very reason that Vance knew he was receiving what he deserved, and that this was the just reward for his thriftless years of idleness, he began to hate Elizabeth with a cold, quiet hatred. There is something stimulating about any great passion. Now Vance felt his nerves soothed and calmed. His self-possession returned with a rush. He was suddenly able to smile into her face.
"After all," he said, "you're absolutely right. I've been a failure, Elizabeth—a rank, disheartening failure. You'd be foolish to trust the result of your life labors in my hands—entirely foolish. I admit that it's a shrewd blow to see the estate go to—Terry."
He found it oddly difficult to name the boy.
"But why not? Why not Terry? He's a clean youngster, and he may turn out very well—in spite of his blood. I hope so. The Lord knows you've given him every chance and the best start in the world. I wish him luck!"
He reached out his hand, and her bloodless fingers closed strongly over it.
"There's the old Vance talking," she said warmly, a mist across her eyes. "I almost thought that part of you had died."
He writhed inwardly. "By Jove, Elizabeth, think of that boy, coming out of nothing, everything poured into his hands—and now within ten days of his goal! Rather exciting, isn't it? Suppose he should stumble at the very threshold of his success? Eh?"
He pressed the point with singular insistence.
"Doesn't it make your heart beat, Elizabeth, when you think that he might fall—that he might do what I prophesied so long ago—shoot a man before he's twenty-five?"
She shrugged the supposition calmly away.
"My faith in him is based as strongly as the rocks, Vance. But if he fell, after the schooling I've given him, I'd throw him out of my life— forever."
He paused a moment, studying her face with a peculiar eagerness. Then he shrugged in turn. "Tush! Of course, that's impossible. Let's go down."
When they reached the front porch, they saw Terence Colby coming up the terrace from the river road on Le Sangre. And a changed horse he was. One ear was forward as if he did not know what lay in store for him, but would try to be on the alert. One ear flagged warily back. He went slowly, lifting his feet with the care of a very weary horse. Yet, when the wind fluttered a gust of whirling leaves beside him, he leaped aside and stood with high head, staring, transformed in the instant into a creature of fire and wire-strung nerves. The rider gave to the side- spring with supple grace and then sent the stallion on up the hill.
Joyous triumph was in the face of Terry. His black hair was blowing about his forehead, for his hat was pushed back after the manner of one who has done a hard day's work and is ready to rest. He came close to the veranda, and Le Sangre lifted his fine head and stared fearlessly, curiously, with a sort of contemptuous pride, at Elizabeth and Vance.
"The killer is no longer a killer," laughed Terry. "Look him over, Uncle Vance. A beauty, eh?"
Elizabeth said nothing at all. But she rocked herself back and forth a trifle in her chair as she nodded. She glanced over the terrace, hoping that others might be there to see the triumph of her boy. Then she looked back at Terence. But Vance was regarding the horse.
"He might have a bit more in the legs, Terry."
"Not much more. A leggy horse can't stand mountain work—or any other work, for that matter, except a ride in the park."
"I suppose you're right. He's a picture horse, Terry. And a devilish eye, but I see that you've beaten him."
"Beaten him?" He shook his head. "We reached a gentleman's agreement. As long as I wear spurs, he'll fight me till he gets his teeth in me or splashes my skull to bits with his heels. Otherwise he'll keep on fighting till he drops. But as soon as I take off the spurs and stop tormenting him, he'll do what I like. No whips or spurs for Le Sangre. Eh, boy?"
He held out the spurs so that the sun flashed on them. The horse stiffened with a shudder, and that forward look of a horse about to bolt came in his eyes.
"No, no!" cried Elizabeth.
But Terry laughed and dropped the spurs back in his pocket.
The stallion moved off, and Terry waved to them. Just as he turned, the mind of Vance Cornish raced back to another picture—a man with long black hair blowing about his face and a gun in either hand, sweeping through a dusty street with shots barking behind him. It came suddenly as a revelation, and left him downheaded with the thought.
"What is it, Vance?" asked his sister, reaching out to touch his arm.
"Nothing." Then he added abruptly: "I'm going for a jaunt for a few days, Elizabeth."
She grew gloomy.
"Are you going to insist on taking it to heart this way?"
"Not at all. I'm going to be back here in ten days and drink Terry's long life and happiness across the birthday dinner table."
He marvelled at the ease with which he could make himself smile in her face.
"You noticed that—his gentleman's agreement with Le Sangre? I've made him detest fighting with the idea that only brute beasts fight—men argue and agree."
"I've noticed that he never has trouble with the cow-punchers."
"They've seen him box," chuckled Elizabeth. "Besides, Terry isn't the sort that troublemakers like to pick on. He has an ugly look when he's angry."
"H'm," murmured Vance. "I've noticed that. But as long as he keeps to his fists, he'll do no harm. But what is the reason for surrounding him with guns, Elizabeth?"
"A very good reason. He loves them, you know. Anything from a shotgun to a derringer is a source of joy to Terence. And not a day goes by that he doesn't handle them."
"Certainly the effect of blood, eh?" suggested Vance.
She glanced sharply at him.
"You're determined to be disagreeable today, Vance. As a matter of fact, I've convinced him that for the very reason he is so accurate with a gun he must never enter a gun fight. The advantage would be too much on his side against any ordinary man. That appeals to Terry's sense of fair play. No, he's absolutely safe, no matter how you look at it."
He looked away from her and over the valley. The day had worn into the late afternoon. Bear Creek ran dull and dark in the shadow, and Mount Discovery was robed in blue to the very edge of its shining crown of snow. In this dimmer, richer light the Cornish ranch had never seemed so desirable to Vance. It was not a ranch; it was a little kingdom. And Vance was the dispossessed heir.
He knew that he was being watched, however, and all that evening he was at his best. At the dinner table he guided the talk so that Terence Colby was the lion of the conversation. Afterward, when he was packing his things in his room for his journey of the next day, he was careful to sing at the top of his voice. He reaped a reward for this cautious acting, for the next morning, when he climbed into the buckboard that was to take him down the Blue Mountain road and over to the railroad, his sister came down the steps and stood beside the wagon.
"You will come back for the birthday party, Vance?" she pleaded.
"You want me to?"
"You were with me when I got Terry. In fact, you got him for me. And I want you to be here when he steps into his own."
In this he found enough to keep him thoughtful all the way to the railroad while the buckskins grunted up the grade and then spun away down the long slope beyond. It was one of those little ironies of fate that he should have picked up the very man who was to disinherit him some twenty- four years later.
He carried no grudge against Elizabeth, but he certainly retained no tenderness. Hereafter he would act his part as well as he could to extract the last possible penny out of her. And in the meantime he must concentrate on tripping up Terence Colby, alias Hollis.
Vance saw nothing particularly vicious in this. He had been idle so long that he rejoiced in a work which was within his mental range. It included scheming, working always behind the scenes, pulling strings to make others jump. And if he could trip Terry and actually make him shoot a man on or before that birthday, he had no doubt that his sister would actually throw the boy out of her house and out of her life. A woman who could give twenty-four years to a theory would be capable of grim things when the theory went wrong.
It was early evening when he climbed off the train at Garrison City. He had not visited the place since that cattle-buying trip of twenty-four years ago that brought the son of Black Jack into the affairs of the Cornish family. Garrison City had become a city. There were two solid blocks of brick buildings next to the station, a network of paved streets, and no less than three hotels. It was so new to the eye and so obviously full of the "booster" spirit that he was appalled at the idea of prying through this modern shell and getting back to the heart and the memory of the old days of the town.
At the restaurant he forced himself upon a grave-looking gentleman across the table. He found that the solemn-faced man was a travelling drummer. The venerable loafer in front of the blacksmith's shop was feeble-minded, and merely gaped at the name of Black Jack. The proprietor of the hotel shook his head with positive antagonism.
"Of course, Garrison City has its past," he admitted, "but we are living it down, and have succeeded pretty well. I think I've heard of a ruffian of the last generation named Jack Hollis; but I don't know anything, and I don't care to know anything, about him. But if you're interested in Garrison City, I'd like to show you a little plot of ground in a place that is going to be the center of the—"
Vance Cornish made his mind a blank, let the smooth current of words slip off his memory as from an oiled surface, and gave up Garrison City as a hopeless job. Nevertheless, it was the hotel proprietor who dropped a valuable hint.
"If you're interested in the early legends, why don't you go to the State Capitol? They have every magazine and every book that so much as mentions any place in the state." So Vance Cornish went to the capitol and entered the library. It was a sweaty task and a most discouraging one. The name "Black Jack" revealed nothing; and the name of Hollis was an equal blank, so far as the indices were concerned. He was preserved in legend only, and Vance Cornish could make no vital use of legend. He wanted something in cold print.
So he began an exhaustive search. He went through volume after volume, but though he came upon mention of Black Jack, he never reached the account of an eyewitness of any of those stirring holdups or train robberies.
And then he began on the old files of magazines. And still nothing. He was about to give up with four days of patient labor wasted when he struck gold in the desert—the very mine of information which he wanted.
"How I Painted Black Jack," by Lawrence Montgomery.
There was the photograph of the painter, to begin with—a man who had discovered the beauty of the deserts of the Southwest. But there was more—much more. It told how, in his wandering across the desert, he had hunted for something more than raw-colored sands and purple mesas blooming in the distance.
He had searched for a human being to fit into the picture and give the softening touch of life. But he never found the face for which he had been looking. And then luck came and tapped him on the shoulder. A lone rider came out of the dusk and the desert and loomed beside his campfire. The moment the firelight flushed on the face of the man, he knew this was the face for which he had been searching. He told how they fried bacon and ate it together; he told of the soft voice and the winning smile of the rider; he told of his eyes, unspeakably soft and unspeakably bold, and the agile, nervous hands, forever shifting and moving in the firelight.
The next morning he had asked his visitor to sit for a picture, and his request had been granted. All day he labored at the canvas, and by night the work was far enough along for him to dismiss his visitor. So the stranger asked for a small brush with black paint on it, and in the corner of the canvas drew in the words "Yours, Black Jack." Then he rode into the night.
Black Jack! Lawrence Montgomery had made up his pack and struck straight back for the nearest town. There he asked for tidings of a certain Black Jack, and there he got what he wanted in heaps. Everyone knew Black Jack—too well! There followed a brief summary of the history of the desperado and his countless crimes, unspeakable tales of cunning and courage and merciless vengeance taken.
Vance Cornish turned the last page of the article, and there was the reproduction of the painting. He held his breath when he saw it. The outlaw sat on his horse with his head raised and turned, and it was the very replica of Terence Colby as the boy had waved to them from the back of Le Sangre. More than a family, sketchy resemblance—far more.
There was the same large, dark eye; the same smile, half proud and half joyous; the same imperious lift of the head; the same bold carving of the features. There were differences, to be sure. The nose of Black Jack had been more cruelly arched, for instance, and his cheekbones were higher and more pronounced. But in spite of the dissimilarities the resemblance was more than striking. It might have stood for an actual portrait of Terence Colby masquerading in long hair.
When the full meaning of this photograph had sunk into his mind, Vance Cornish closed his eyes. "Eureka!" he whispered to himself.
There was something more to be done. But it was very simple. It merely consisted in covertly cutting out the pages of the article in question. Then, carefully, for fear of loss, he jotted down the name and date of the magazine, folded his stolen pages, and fitted them snugly into his breast pocket. That night he ate his first hearty dinner in four days.
Vance's work was not by any means accomplished. Rather, it might be said that he was in the position of a man with a dangerous charge for a gun and no weapon to shoot it. He started out to find the gun.
In fact, he already had it in mind. Twenty-four hours later he was in Craterville. Five days out of the ten before the twenty-fifth birthday of Terence had elapsed, and Vance was still far from his goal, but he felt that the lion's share of the work had been accomplished.
Craterville was a day's ride across the mountains from the Cornish ranch, and it was the county seat. It was one of those towns which spring into existence for no reason that can be discovered, and cling to life generations after they should have died. But Craterville held one thing of which Vance Cornish was in great need, and that was Sheriff Joe Minter, familiarly called Uncle Joe. His reason for wanting the sheriff was perfectly simple. Uncle Joe Minter was the man who killed Black Jack Hollis.
He had been a boy of eighteen then, shooting with a rifle across a window sill. That shot had formed his life. He was now forty-two and he had spent the interval as the professional enemy of criminals in the mountains. For the glory which came from the killing of Black Jack had been sweet to the youthful palate of Minter, and he had cultivated his taste. He became the most dreaded manhunter in those districts where manhunting was most common. He had been sheriff at Craterville for a dozen years now, and still his supremacy was not even questioned.
Vance Cornish was lucky to find the sheriff in town presiding at the head of the long table of the hotel at dinner. He was a man of great dignity. He wore his stiff black hair, still untarnished by gray, very long, brushing it with difficulty to keep it behind his ears. This mass of black hair framed a long, stern face, the angles of which had been made by years. But there was no sign of weakness. He had grown dry, not flabby. His mouth was a thin, straight line, and his fighting chin jutted out in profile.
He rose from his place to greet Vance Cornish. Indeed, the sheriff acted the part of master of ceremonies at the hotel, having a sort of silent understanding with the widow who owned the place. It was said that the sheriff would marry the woman sooner or later, he so loved to talk at her table. His talk doubled her business. Her table afforded him an audience; so they needed one another.
"You don't remember me," said Vance.
"I got a tolerable poor memory for faces," admitted the sheriff.
"I'm Cornish, of the Cornish ranch."
The sheriff was duly impressed. The Cornish ranch was a show place. He arranged a chair for Vance at his right, and presently the talk rose above the murmur to which it had been depressed by the arrival of this important stranger. The increasing noise made a background. It left Vance alone with the sheriff.
"And how do you find your work, sheriff?" asked Vance; for he knew that Uncle Joe Minter's great weakness was his love of talk. Everyone in the mountains knew it, for that matter.
"Dull," complained Minter. "Men ain't what they used to be, or else the law is a heap stronger."
"The men who enforce the law are," said Vance.
The sheriff absorbed this patent compliment with the blank eye of satisfaction and rubbed his chin.
"But they's been some talk of rustling, pretty recent. I'm waiting for it to grow and get ripe. Then I'll bust it."
He made an eloquent gesture which Vance followed. He was distinctly pleased with the sheriff. For Minter was wonderfully preserved. His face seemed five years younger than his age. His body seemed even younger— round, smooth, powerful muscles padding his shoulders and stirring down the length of his big arms. And his hands had that peculiar light restlessness of touch which Vance remembered to have seen—in the hands of Terence Colby, alias Hollis!
"And how's things up your way?" continued the sheriff.
"Booming. By the way, how long is it since you've seen the ranch?"
"Never been there. Bear Creek Valley has always been a quiet place since the Cornishes moved in; and they ain't been any call for a gent in my line of business up that way."
He grinned with satisfaction, and Vance nodded.
"If times are dull, why not drop over? We're having a celebration there in five days. Come and look us over."
"Maybe I might, and maybe I mightn't," said the sheriff. "All depends."
"And bring some friends with you," insisted Vance.
Then he wisely let the subject drop and went on to a detailed description of the game in the hills around the ranch. That, he knew, would bring the sheriff if anything would. But he mentioned the invitation no more. There were particular reasons why he must not press it on the sheriff any more than on others in Craterville.
The next morning, before traintime, Vance went to the post office and left the article on Black Jack addressed to Terence Colby at the Cornish ranch. The addressing was done on a typewriter, which completely removed any means of identifying the sender. Vance played with Providence in only one way. He was so eager to strike his blow at the last possible moment that he asked the postmaster to hold the letter for three days, which would land it at the ranch on the morning of the birthday. Then he went to the train.
His self-respect was increasing by leaps and bounds. The game was still not won, but, starring with absolutely nothing, in six days he had planted a charge which might send Elizabeth's twenty-four years of labor up in smoke.
He got off the train at Preston, the station nearest the ranch, and took a hired team up the road along Bear Creek Gorge. They debouched out of the Blue Mountains into the valley of the ranch in the early evening, and Vance found himself looking with new eyes on the little kingdom. He felt the happiness, indeed, of one who has lost a great prize and then put himself in a fair way of winning it back.
They dipped into the valley road. Over the tops of the big silver spruces he traced the outline of Sleep Mountain against the southern sky. Who but Vance, or the dwellers in the valley, would be able to duly appreciate such beauty? If there were any wrong in what he had done, this thought consoled him: the ends justified the means.
Now, as they drew closer, through the branches he made out glimpses of the dim, white front of the big house on the hill. That big, cool house with the kingdom spilled out at its feet, the farming lands, the pastures of the hills, and the rich forest of the upper mountains. Certainty came to Vance Cornish. He wanted the ranch so profoundly that the thought of losing it became impossible.
But while he had been working at a distance, things had been going on apace at the ranch, a progress which had now gathered such impetus that he found himself incapable of checking it. The blow fell immediately after dinner that same evening. Terence excused himself early to retire to the mysteries of a new pump-gun. Elizabeth and Vance took their coffee into the library.
The night had turned cool, with a sharp wind driving the chill through every crack; so a few sticks were sending their flames crumbling against the big back log. The lamp glowing in the corner was the only other light, and when they drew their chairs close to the hearth, great tongues of shadows leaped and fell on the wall behind them. Vance looked at his sister with concern. There was a certain complacency about her this evening that told him in advance that she had formed a new plan with which she was well pleased. And he had come to dread her plans.
She always filled him with awe—and never more so than tonight, with her thin, homely face illuminated irregularly and by flashes. He kept watching her from the side, with glances.
"I think I know why you've gone away for these few days," she said.
"To get used to the new idea," he admitted with such frankness that she turned to him with unusual sympathy. "It was rather a shock at first."
"I know it was. And I wasn't diplomatic. There's too much man in me, Vance. Altogether too much, while you—"
She closed her lips suddenly. But he knew perfectly the unspoken words. She was about to suggest that there was too little man in him. He dropped his chin in his hand, partly for comfort and partly to veil the sneer. If she could have followed what he had done in the past six days!
"And you are used to the new idea?"
"You see that I'm back before the time was up and ahead of my promise," he said.
She nodded. "Which paves the way for another new idea of mine."
He felt that a blow was coming and nerved himself against the shock of it. But the preparation was merely like tensing one's muscles against a fall. When the shock came, it stunned him.
"Vance, I've decided to adopt Terence!"
His fingertips sank into his cheek, bruising the flesh. What would become of his six days of work? What would become of his cunning and his forethought? All destroyed at a blow. For if she adopted the boy, the very law would keep her from denying him afterward. For a moment it seemed to him that some devil must have forewarned her of his plans.
"You don't approve?" she said at last, anxiously.
He threw himself back in the chair and laughed. All his despair went into that hollow, ringing sound.
"Approve? It's a queer question to ask me. But let it go. I know I couldn't change you."
"I know that you have a right to advise," she said gently. "You are my father's son and you have a right to advise on the placing of his name."
He had to keep fighting against surging desires to throw his rage in her face. But he mastered himself, except for a tremor of his voice.
"When are you going to do it?"
"Elizabeth, why not wait until after the birthday ceremony?"
"Because I've been haunted by peculiar fears, since our last talk, that something might happen before that time. I've actually lain awake at night and thought about it! And I want to forestall all chances. I want to rivet him to me!"
He could see by her eagerness that her mind had been irrevocably made up, and that nothing could change her. She wanted agreement, not advice. And with consummate bitterness of soul he submitted to his fate.
"I suppose you're right. Call him down now and I'll be present when you ask him to join the circle—the family circle of the Cornishes, you know."
He could not school all the bitterness out of his voice, but she seemed too glad of his bare acquiescence to object to such trifles. She sent Wu Chi to call Terence down to them. He had apparently been in his shirt sleeves working at the gun. He came with his hands still faintly glistening from their hasty washing, and with the coat which he had just bundled into still rather bunched around his big shoulders. He came and stood against the massive, rough-finished stones of the fireplace looking down at Elizabeth. There had always been a sort of silent understanding between him and Vance. They never exchanged more words and looks than were absolutely necessary. Vance realized it more than ever as he looked up to the tall athletic figure. And he realized also that since he had last looked closely at Terence the latter had slipped out of boyhood and into manhood. There was that indescribable something about the set of the chin and the straight-looking eyes that spelled the difference.
"Terence," she said, "for twenty-four years you have been my boy."
"Yes, Aunt Elizabeth."
He acknowledged the gravity of this opening statement by straightening a little, his hand falling away from the stone against which he had been leaning. But Vance looked more closely at his sister. He could see the gleam of worship in her eyes.
"And now I want you to be something more. I want you to be my boy in the eyes of the law, so that when anything happens to me, your place won't be threatened."
He was straighter than ever.
"I want to adopt you, Terence!"
Somehow, in those few moments they had been gradually building to a climax. It was prodigiously heightened now by the silence of the boy. The throat of Vance tightened with excitement.
"I will be your mother, in the eyes of the law," she was explaining gently, as though it were a mystery which Terry could not understand. "And Vance, here, will be your uncle. You understand, my dear?"
What a world of brooding tenderness went into her voice! Vance wondered at it. But he wondered more at the stiff-standing form of Terence, and his silence; until he saw the tender smile vanish from the face of Elizabeth and alarm come into it. All at once Terence had dropped to one knee before her and taken her hands. And now it was he who was talking slowly, gently.
"All my life you've given me things, Aunt Elizabeth. You've given me everything. Home, happiness, love—everything that could be given. So much that you could never be repaid, and all I can do is to love you, you see, and honor you as if you were my mother, in fact. But there's just one thing that can't be given. And that's a name!"
He paused. Elizabeth was listening with a stricken face, and the heart of Vance thundered with his excitement. Vaguely he felt that there was something fine and clean and honorable in the heart of this youth which was being laid bare; but about that he cared very little. He was getting at facts and emotions which were valuable to him in the terms of dollars and cents.
"It makes me choke up," said Terence, "to have you offer me this great thing. It's a fine name, Cornish. But you know that I can't do it. It would be cowardly—a sort of rotten treason for me to change. It would be wrong. I know it would be wrong. I'm a Colby, Aunt Elizabeth. Every time that name is spoken, I feel it tingling down to my fingertips. I want to stand straighter, live cleaner. When I looked at the old Colby place in Virginia last year, it brought the tears to my eyes. I felt as if I were a product of that soil. Every fine thing that has ever been done by a Colby is a strength to me. I've studied them. And every now and then when I come to some brave thing they've done, I wonder if I could do it. And then I say to myself that I must be able to do just such things or else be a shame to my blood.
"Change my name? Why, I've gone all my life thanking God that I come of a race of gentlemen, clean-handed, and praying God to make me worthy of it. That name is like a whip over me. It drives me on and makes me want to do some fine big thing one of these days. Think of it! I'm the last of a race. I'm the end of it. The last of the Colbys! Why, when you think of it, you see how I can't possibly change, don't you? If I lost that, I'd lose the best half of myself and my self-respect! You understand, don't you? Not that I slight the name of Cornish for an instant. But even if names can be changed, blood can't be changed!"
She turned her head. She met the gleaming eyes of Vance, and then let her glance probe the fire and shadow of the hearth.
"It's all right, my dear," she said faintly. "Stand up."
"I've hurt you," he said contritely, leaning over her. "I feel—like a dog. Have I hurt you?"
"Not the least in the world. I only offered it for your happiness, Terry. And if you don't need it, there's no more to be said!"
He bent and kissed her forehead.
The moment he had disappeared through the tall doorway, Vance, past control, exploded.
"Of all the damnable exhibitions of pride in a young upstart, this—"
"Hush, hush!" said Elizabeth faintly. "It's the finest thing I've ever heard Terry say. But it frightens me, Vance. It frightens me to know that I've formed the character and the pride and the self-respect of that boy on—a lie! Pray God that he never learns the truth!"
There were not many guests. Elizabeth had chosen them carefully from families which had known her father, Henry Cornish, when, in his reckless, adventurous way, he had been laying the basis of the Cornish fortune in the Rockies. Indeed, she was a little angry when she heard of the 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 fully into the spirit of the thing, and that his heart was in the right place as far as this birthday party was concerned, and she could not do otherwise than accept his explanation.
Some of the bidden guests, however, came from a great distance, and as a matter of course a few of them arrived the day before the celebration and filled the quiet rooms of the old house with noise. Elizabeth accepted them with resignation, and even pleasure, because they all had pleasant things to say about her father and good wishes to express for the destined heir, Terence Colby. It was carefully explained that this selection of an heir had been made by both Elizabeth and Vance, which removed all cause for remark. Vance himself regarded the guests with distinct 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 family precedents out here."
It touched her shrewdly. More than once she had felt that Terry was on the verge of becoming a complacent prig. So she countered with a sharp thrust.
"You have to remember that you're a Westerner born and bred, my dear. A very Westerner yourself!"
"Birth is an accident—birthplaces, I mean," smiled Terence. "It's the blood 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 a squirrel and was laughing down through the branches at a raw-boned cousin on the ground beneath her.
"And what of it?" said Elizabeth. "That girl is pretty enough to please any man; and she's the type that makes a wife."
Terry rubbed his chin with his knuckles thoughtfully. It was the one family habit that he had contracted from Vance, much to the irritation of the latter.
"After all," said Terry, with complacency, "what are good looks with bad grammar?"
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 little older, you'll get sense. If you want white hands and good grammar, how do you expect to find a wife in the mountains?"
Terry answered with unshaken, lordly calm. "I haven't thought about the details. They don't matter. But a man must have standards of criticism."
"Standards your foot!" cried Aunt Elizabeth. "You insufferable young prig. That very girl laughing down through the branches—I'll wager she could set your head spinning in ten seconds if she thought it worth her while to try."
"Perhaps," smiled Terence. "In the meantime she has freckles and a vocabulary 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?"
"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! Where are you going now?"
"Out to see El Sangre."
He went whistling out of the door, and she followed him with confused feelings of anger, pride, joy, and fear. She went to a side window and saw him go fearlessly into the corral where the man-destroying El Sangre was kept. And the big stallion, red fire in the sunshine, went straight to him and nosed at a hip pocket. They had already struck up a perfect understanding. Deeply she wondered at it.
She had never loved the mountains and their people and their ways. It had been a battle to fight. She had fought the battle, won, and gained a hollow victory. And watching Terry caress the great, beautiful horse, she knew 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 as El Sangre has done. You need teaching."
When she turned from the window, she found Vance watching her. He had a habit of obscurely melting into a background and looking out at her unexpectedly. All at once she knew that he had been there listening during all of her talk with Terence. Not that the talk had been of a peculiarly private nature, but it angered her. There was just a semblance of eavesdropping about the presence of Vance. For she knew that Terence unbosomed himself to her as he would do in the hearing of no other human being. However, she mastered her anger and smiled at her brother. He had taken all these recent changes which were so much to his disadvantage with 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 her completely. 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 antiquated style, Vance, keeps me at arm's length."
"A stiff style because he wrote so rapidly. But there's the greatest body and 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 for physical 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 well and shoot well. If a man can't do that, he ceases to be a man in Terry's eyes. 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 into the conversation than he planned; now he retreated carefully. "But another year or so may help him."
He retreated before she could answer, but he left her thoughtful, as he hoped to do. He had a standing theory that the only way to make a woman meditate is to keep her from talking. And he wanted very much to make Elizabeth meditate the evil in the son of Black Jack. Otherwise all his plans 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 and the sheriff together on the birthday and guide the two explosives until they met on the subject of the death of Black Jack. Either Terry would kill the sheriff, or the sheriff would kill Terry. Vance hoped for the latter, but rather expected the former to be the outcome, and if it were, he was inclined to think that Elizabeth would sooner or later make excuses for Terry and take him back into the fold of her affections. Accordingly, his work was, in the few days that intervened, to plant all the 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 big veranda. The mail was delivered, as a rule, just before dusk, one of the cow-punchers riding down for it. Grave fears about the loss of that all- important missive to Terry haunted him, for the postmaster was a doddering old fellow who was quite apt to forget his head. Consequently he was vastly relieved when the mail arrived and Elizabeth brought the familiar 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 to separate 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 rather touchy about the thing. I want people to know that you and I have agreed on making Terry the heir to the ranch. I don't want anyone to suspect that 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 the envelope."
"But wait a minute, Elizabeth. It might anger Terry to have even his business 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 over the matter. "Do you know, Vance, that sometimes I feel as if the whole world were conspiring to get a hand on Terry?"
Terry did not come down for dinner. It was more or less of a calamity, for the board was quite full of early guests for the next day's festivities. Aunt Elizabeth shifted the burden of the entertainment onto the capable shoulders of Vance, who could please these Westerners when he chose. Tonight he decidedly chose. Elizabeth had never see him in such high spirits. He could flirt good-humoredly and openly across the table at Nelly, or else turn and draw an anecdote from Nelly's father. He kept the reins in his hands and drove the talk along so smoothly that Elizabeth could sit in gloomy silence, unnoticed, at the farther end of the table. Her mind was up yonder in the room of Terry.
Something had happened, and it had come through that long business envelope with the typewritten address that seemed so harmless. One reading of the contents had brought Terry out of his chair with an exclamation. Then, without explanation of any sort, he had gone to his room and stayed there. She would have followed to find out what was the matter, but the requirements of dinner and her guests kept her downstairs.
Immediately after dinner Vance, at a signal from her, dexterously herded everyone into the living room and distributed them in comfort around the big fireplace; Elizabeth Cornish bolted straight for the room of Terence. She knocked and tried the door. To her astonishment, the knob turned, but the door did not open. She heard the click and felt the jar of the bolt. Terry had locked his door!
A little thing to make her heart fall, one would say, but little things about Terry were great things to Elizabeth. In twenty-four years he had never locked his door. What could it mean?
It was a moment before she could call, and she waited breathlessly. She was reassured by a quiet voice that answered her: "Just a moment. I'll open."
The tone was so matter-of-fact that her heart, with one leap, came back to normal and tears of relief misted her eyes for an instant. Perhaps he was up here working out a surprise for the next day—he was full of tricks and surprises. That was unquestionably it. And he took so long in coming to the door because he was hiding the thing he had been working on. As for food, Wu Chi was his slave and would have smuggled a tray up to him. Presently the lock turned and the door opened.
She could not see his face distinctly at first, the light was so strong behind him. Besides, she was more occupied in looking for the tray of food which would assure her that Terry was not suffering from some mental crisis that had made him forget even dinner. She found the tray, sure enough, but the food had not been touched.
She turned on him with a new rush of alarm. And all her fears were realized. Terry had been fighting a hard battle and he was still fighting. About his eyes there was the look, half-dull and half-hard, that comes in the eyes of young people unused to pain. A worried, tense, hungry face. He took her arm and led her to the table. On it lay an article clipped out of a magazine. She looked down at it with unseeing eyes. The sheets were already much crumbled. Terry turned them to a full- page picture, and Elizabeth found herself looking down into the face of Black Jack, proud, handsome, defiant.
Had Vance been there, he might have recognized her actions. As she had done one day twenty-four years ago, now she turned and dropped heavily into a chair, her bony hands pressed to her shallow bosom. A moment later she was on her feet again, ready to fight, ready to tell a thousand lies. But it was too late. The revelation had been complete and she could tell by his face that Terence knew everything.
"Terry," she said faintly, "what on earth have you to do with that—"
"Listen, Aunt Elizabeth," he said, "you aren't going to fib about it, are you?"
"What in the world are you talking about?"
"Why were you so shocked?"
She knew it was a futile battle. He was prying at her inner mind with short questions and a hard, dry voice.
"It was the face of that terrible man. I saw him once before, you know. On the day—"
"On the day he was murdered!"
That word told her everything. "Murdered!" It lighted all the mental processes through which he had been going. Who in all the reaches of the mountain desert had ever before dreamed of terming the killing of the notorious Black Jack a "murder"?
"What are you saying, Terence? That fellow—"
"Hush! Look at us!"
He picked up the photograph and stood back so that the light fell sharply on his face and on the photograph which he held beside his head. He caught up a sombrero and jammed it jauntily on his head. He tilted his face high, with resolute chin. And all at once there were two Black Jacks, not one. He evidently saw all the admission that he cared for in her face. He took off the hat with a dragging motion and replaced the photograph on the table.
"I tried it in the mirror," he said quietly. "I wasn't quite sure until I tried it in the mirror. Then I knew, of course."
She felt him slipping out of her life.
"What shall I say to you, Terence?"
"Is that my real name?"
She winced. "Yes. Your real name."
"Good. Do you remember our talk of today?"
He drew his breath with something of a groan.
"I said that what these people lacked was the influence of family—of old blood!"
He made himself smile at her, and Elizabeth trembled. "If I could explain—" she began.
"Ah, what is there to explain, Aunt Elizabeth? Except that you have been a thousand times kinder to me than I dreamed before. Why, I—I actually thought that you were rather honored by having a Colby under your roof. I really felt that I was bestowing something of a favor on you!"
"Terry, sit down!"
He sank into a chair slowly. And she sat on the arm of it with her mournful eyes on his face.
"Whatever your name may be, that doesn't change the man who wears the name."
He laughed softly. "And you've been teaching me steadily for twenty-four years that blood will tell? You can't change like this. Oh, I understand it perfectly. You determined to make me over. You determined to destroy my heritage and put the name of the fine old Colbys in its place. It was a brave thing to try, and all these years how you must have waited, and waited to see how I would turn out, dreading every day some outbreak of the bad blood! Ah, you have a nerve of steel, Aunt Elizabeth! How have you endured the suspense?"
She felt that he was mocking her subtly under this flow of compliment. But it was the bitterness of pain, not of reproach, she knew.
She said: "Why didn't you let me come up with you? Why didn't you send for me?"
"I've been busy doing a thing that no one could help me with. I've been burning my dreams." He pointed to a smoldering heap of ashes on the hearth.
"Yes, all the Colby pictures that I've been collecting for the past fifteen years. I burned 'em. They don't mean anything to anyone else, and certainly they have ceased to mean anything to me. But when I came to Anthony Colby—the eighteen-twelve man, you know, the one who has always been my hero—it went pretty hard. I felt as if—I were burning my own personality. As a matter of fact, in the last couple of hours I've been born over again."
Terry paused. "And births are painful, Aunt Elizabeth!"
At that she cried out and caught his hand. "Terry dear! Terry dear! You break my heart!"
"I don't mean to. You mustn't think that I'm pitying myself. But I want to know the real name of my father. He must have had some name other than Black Jack. What was it?"
"Are you going to gather his memory to your heart, Terry?"
"I am going to find something about him that I can be proud of. Blood will tell. I know that I'm not all bad, and there must have been good in Black Jack. I want to know all about him. I want to know about—his crimes."
He labored through a fierce moment of silent struggle while her heart went helplessly out to him.
"Because—I had a hand in every one of those crimes! Everything that he did is something that I might have done under the same temptation."
"But you're not all your father's son. You had a mother. A dear, sweet- faced girl—"
"Don't!" whispered Terry. "I suppose he broke—her heart?"
"She was a very delicate girl," she said after a moment.
"And now my father's name, please?"
"Not that just now. Give me until tomorrow night, Terry. Will you do that? Will you wait till tomorrow night, Terry? I'm going to have a long talk with you then, about many things. And I want you to keep this in mind always. No matter how long you live, the influence of the Colbys will never go out of your life. And neither will my influence, I hope. If there is anything good in me, it has gone into you. I have seen to that. Terry, you are not your father's son alone. All these other things have entered into your make-up. They're just as much a part of you as his blood."
"Ah, yes," said Terry. "But blood will tell!"
It was a mournful echo of a thing she had told him a thousand times.
She went straight down to the big living room and drew Vance away, mindless of her guests. He came humming until he was past the door and in the shadowy hall. Then he touched her arm, suddenly grown serious.
"What's wrong, Elizabeth?"
Her voice was low, vibrating with fierceness. And Vance blessed the dimness of the hall, for he could feel the blood recede from his face and the sweat stand on his forehead.
"Vance, if you've done what I think you've done, you're lower than a snake, and more poisonous and more treacherous. And I'll cut you out of my heart and my life. You know what I mean?"
It was really the first important crisis that he had ever faced. And now his heart grew small, cold. He knew, miserably, his own cowardice. And like all cowards, he fell back on bold lying to carry him through. It was a triumph that he could make his voice steady—more than steady. He could even throw the right shade of disgust into it.
"Is this another one of your tantrums, Elizabeth? By heavens, I'm growing tired of 'em. You continually throw in my face that you hold the strings of the purse. Well, tie them up as far as I'm concerned. I won't whine. I'd rather have that happen than be tyrannized over any longer."
She was much shaken. And there was a sting in this reproach that carried home to her; there was just a sufficient edge of truth to wound her. Had there been much light, she could have read his face; the dimness of the hall was saving Vance, and he knew it.
"God knows I'd like to believe that you haven't had anything to do with it. But you and I are the only two people in the world who know the secret of it—"
He pretended to guess. "It's something about Terence? Something about his father?"
Again she was disarmed. If he were guilty, it was strange that he should approach the subject so openly. And she began to doubt.
"Vance, he knows everything! Everything except the real name of Black Jack!"
She strained her eyes through the shadows to make out his real expression; but there seemed to be a real horror in his restrained whisper.
"It isn't possible, Elizabeth!"
"It came in that letter. That letter I wanted to open, and which you persuaded me not to!" She mustered all her damning facts one after another. "And it was postmarked from Craterville. Vance, you have been in Craterville lately!"
He seemed to consider.
"Could I have told anyone? Could I, possibly? No, Elizabeth, I'll give you my word of honor that I've never spoken a syllable about that subject to anyone!"
"Ah, but what have you written?"
"I've never put pen to paper. But—how did it happen?"
He had control of himself now. His voice was steadier. He could feel her recede from her aggressiveness.
"It was dated after you left Craterville, of course. And—I can't stand imagining that you could be so low. Only, who else would have a motive?"
"But how was it done?"
"They sent him an article about his father and a picture of Black Jack that happens to look as much like Terry as two peas."
"Then I have it! If the picture looks like Terry, someone took it for granted that he'd be interested in the similarity. That's why it was sent. Unless they told him that he was really Black Jack's son. Did the person who sent the letter do that?"
"There was no letter. Only a magazine clipping and the photograph of the painting."
They were both silent. Plainly she had dismissed all idea of her brother's guilt.
"But what are we going to do, Elizabeth? And how has he taken it?"
"Like poison, Vance. He—he burned all the Colby pictures. Oh, Vance, twenty-four years of work are thrown away!"
"Nonsense! This will all straighten out. I'm glad he's found out. Sooner or later he was pretty sure to. Such things will come to light."
"Vance, you'll help me? You'll forgive me for accusing you, and you'll help me to keep Terry in hand for the next few days? You see, he declared that he will not be ashamed of his father."
"You can't blame him for that."
"God knows I blame no one but myself."
"I'll help you with every ounce of strength in my mind and body, my dear."
She pressed his hand in silence.
"I'm going up to talk with him now," he said. "I'm going to do what I can with him. You go in and talk. And don't let them see that anything is wrong."
The door had not been locked again. He entered at the call of Terry and found him leaning over the hearth stirring up the pile of charred paper to make it burn more freely. A shadow crossed the face of Terry as he saw his visitor, but he banished it at once and rose to greet him. In his heart Vance was a little moved. He went straight to the younger man and took his hand.
"Elizabeth has told me," he said gently, and he looked with a moist eye into the face of the man who, if his plans worked out, would be either murderer or murdered before the close of the next day. "I am very sorry, Terence."
"I thought you came to congratulate me," said Terry, withdrawing his hand.
"Congratulate you?" echoed Vance, with unaffected astonishment.
"For having learned the truth," said Terry. "Also, for having a father who was a strong man."
Vance could not resist the opening.
"In a way, I suppose he was," he said dryly. "And if you look at it in that way, I do congratulate you, Terence!"
"You've always hated me, Uncle Vance," Terry declared. "I've known it all these years. And I'll do without your congratulations."
"You're wrong, Terry," said Vance. He kept his voice mild. "You're very wrong. But I'm old enough not to take offense at what a young spitfire says."
"I suppose you are," retorted Terry, in a tone which implied that he himself would never reach that age.
"And when a few years run by," went on Vance, "you'll change your viewpoint. In the meantime, my boy, let me give you this warning. No matter what you think about me, it is Elizabeth who counts."
"Thanks. You need have no fear about my attitude to Aunt Elizabeth. You ought to know that I love her, and respect her."
"Exactly. But you're headstrong, Terry. Very headstrong. And so is Elizabeth. Take your own case. She took you into the family for the sake of a theory. Did you know that?"
The boy stiffened. "A theory?"
"Quite so. She wished to prove that blood, after all, was more talk than a vital influence. So she took you in and gave you an imaginary line of ancestors with which you were entirely contented. But, after all, it has been twenty-four years of theory rather than twenty-four years of Terry. You understand?"
"It's a rather nasty thing to hear," said Terence huskily. "Perhaps you're right. I don't know. Perhaps you're right."
"And if her theory is proved wrong—look out, Terry! She'll throw you out of her life without a second thought."
"Is that a threat?"
"My dear boy, not by any means. You think I have hated you? Not at all. I have simply been indifferent. Now that you are in more or less trouble, you see that I come to you. And hereafter if there should be a crisis, you will see who is your true friend. Now, good night!"
He had saved his most gracious speech until the very end, and after it he retired at once to leave Terence with the pleasant memory in his mind. For he had in his mind the idea of a perfect crime for which he would not be punished. He would turn Terry into a corpse or a killer, and in either case the youngster would never dream who had dealt the blow.
No wonder, then, as he went downstairs, that he stepped onto the veranda for a few moments. The moon was just up beyond Mount Discovery; the valley unfolded like a dream. Never had the estate seemed so charming to Vance Cornish, for he felt that his hand was closing slowly around his inheritance.