Man to man, p.16

Man to Man, page 16


Man to Man

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  Blenham must have ridden late into the night. For at a very early hourthe next morning he was at the Big Bend ranch fifty miles to the northand reporting to his employer. Early as it was, the old man hadbreakfasted, and now the wide black hat far back on his head, the spurson his big boots, bespoke his readiness to be riding.

  At times he stood stock-still, his hands on his hips, staring down atBlenham's lesser stature; at other times and in a deep, thoughtfulsilence he strode back and forth in the great barn-like library, hisspurs jingling.

  "Why, burn it, man," he exploded once during the fore part of theinterview, "the boy is a Packard! I'm proud of him. We're going tomake a real man out of Stephen yet. Haven't I said the words a dozentimes: 'Break a fool an' make a man!' I'm tellin' you, the las'Packard to be spoiled by havin' too much easy money has lived an' died.All we got to do with Stephen is put him on foot; set him down in thegood ol'-fashioned dirt where he's got to work for what he gets, an'he'll come through. Same as I did. Yessir!"

  Blenham waited for his signal to continue his report, and when he gotit, a look and a nod, he resumed, face, voice, and eye alikeexpressionless of any personal interest in the matter.

  "You know them nine big steers as strayed from here some time ago? Itol' you about 'em two or three weeks ago? Well, I found 'em like Isaid I would, all nine of 'em, an' on Ranch Number Ten."

  "It's quite a way for cattle to stray," said the old man sharply.Blenham shrugged carelessly.

  "Oh, I dunno," he returned lightly. "I've knowed 'em to go fu'therthan that. Well, I made a pass to haze 'em on back this way an' youngPackard blocks my play."

  The old man's eye brightened.

  "What did he say?" he asked eagerly.

  "He said," said Blenham, picking at his hat-band, "as how if the stockwas yours which he didn't believe he'd hold 'em until you sent overenough coin to pay for their feed. He said as how, if you couldn't bedecent you better anyhow leave him alone. He said hell with both ofus."

  "He did?" cried old Packard. "He said that, Blenham?"

  "He did," answered Blenham with a quick, curious, sidewise glance.

  Packard's big hand was lifted and came down mightily upon his thigh as,suddenly released, the old man's voice boomed out in a great peal oflaughter.

  "Ho!" he cried, shouting out the words to be heard far out across theopen meadow. "Say to hell with me, does he? Holds my stock forpasture money, does he? Defies me to do my worst, him a young,penniless whippersnapper, me a millionaire an' a man-breaker! Why,curse it, he's a man already, Blenham! He's a Packard to his backbone,I tell you! By the Lord, I've a notion to jump into my car and go getthe boy!"

  A troubled shadow came and went swiftly across Blenham's face, not tobe seen by the old man who was staring out of his window. All of thecraft there was in the ranch foreman rose to the surface.

  "Yes," he agreed quietly, "he's got the makin's in him. He ain'tscared of the devil himself, which is one right good earmark. He'sindependent, which is another good sign. Why, when I runs across himan' that Temple girl out in the woods----"

  "What's that!" snapped the old man, though he had heard well enough."Do you mean to tell me----"

  "They was sittin' on top a big log," said Blenham tonelessly."Confidential lookin', you know. I won't say he was holdin' her hands,an' at the same time I won't say he wasn't. An' I won't say he'd jus'kissed her, two seconds before I rode aroun' a bend in the trail." Oneof his ponderous shrugs and a grimace concluded his meaning. Then helaughed. "Nor I wouldn't say he hadn't. But, like I was tellin'you----"

  "You were tellin' me," growled the old man, "that that scoundrel of aTemple's fool of a girl is tryin' her hand at spellbindin' my gran'sonStephen! The dirty little saphead-- Look here, Blenham; you've gotmore gumption than most: tell me how far things have gone an' whatTemple's game is. Guy Little has been tellin' me the same sort ofthing."

  "There ain't much to tell," answered Blenham. "That is, that a mancouldn't guess without bein' told. He's your gran'son; even with ascrap on between you an' him, still blood is thicker'n water an' someday, maybe, you'll pass on to him all you got. Leastways, there's achance, an' also he oughta fit pretty snug in a girl's eye. Fu'ther toall that, it's jus' the same ol' story. A feller an' a girl, an' thegirl with a fine figger an' a fine pair of eyes which, bein' ashe-girl, she knows how to use. Seein' as you ask the question, Iguess I could answer it by jus' sayin' that the Temples are makin' theone move they'd be sure to make."

  The senior Packard's scowl had known fame as long as fifty years ago;never was it blacker than right now. For a little he stood stillglaring at the floor. Blenham watched him covertly, a look of craft inthe one good eye.

  "Better go over an' see Temple right away," said Packard presently."He won't be able to pay up his next instalment. Tell him I'm goin' toforeclose an' drive him out. While you're at it you can show him theplum foolishness of sickin' his idiot girl on Stephen. How it won'tbring 'em any good an' will jus' get me out on his trail red-hot.He'll understand." And the stern old mouth set into lines of whichBlenham read the full and emphatic meaning. "Go on: anything else toreport?"

  After his fashion in business matters he had pondered deeply butbriefly upon this interference of Terry, had planned, had instructedhis agent, and now turned to whatever might next demand his attentionin connection with his campaign against and for Steve Packard. AndBlenham, deeming that he had scored a certain point, moved straight onto another.

  "He said--an' she watched an' listened an' giggled--as how he was inright an' you was in wrong; as how the law was on his side an' he'dstick it out; how he could take the whole ruction into court an' beatyou; how----"

  Old Hell-Fire Packard stared at him, mumbling heavily:

  "He said that? Stephen, my gran'son said that?"

  "Yes," lied Blenham glibly. "Them was his words. An', not knowin' awhole lot about law an' such----"

  He ended there, knowing that his words went unheeded. The look uponthe old man's face changed slowly from one of pure amazement to one ofpain, grief, disappointment. Stephen, his gran'son, threatened to goto law! It was unthinkable that any one save a thief and an out-rightscoundrel, such by the way as were all of his business rivals and themen who refused to tote and carry at his bidding, should make a threatlike that; worse than unthinkable, utterly, depravedly disgraceful thatone of the house of Packard should resort to such devious and damnablepractices. For an instant Blenham thought that tears were actuallygathering in the weary old eyes.

  But the emotion which came first was gone in a scurry before a suddenwindy rage. The face which had been graven with humiliation andchagrin went fiery red; the big hands clenched and were uplifted; thegreat booming voice trembled to the shouted words:

  "Let him; burn him, let him! I can break the fool quicker that waythan any other; don't he know it takes money, money without end, forthe perjurin', trickery, slippery law sharks that'll bleed a man, aye,suck out his life-blood an' then spit him out like the pulp of anorange? Infernal young puppy-dawg! See what it's done for himalready, this rich-man's-son business. To think that one of my blood,my own gran'son, should go to law! Why, by high heaven, Blenham, thething's downright disgraceful!"

  Swiftly, deftly, employing a remark like a surgeon's lancet, Blenhamoffered:

  "I have the hunch that Temple girl put it in his head."

  "You're right!" This new suggestion required no weighing and finebalancing. You could attribute no villainy whatever to one of the oldman's enemies that he would not admit the extreme likelihood of yourbeing right. "Stephen ain't that sort; she's got him by the nose, helltake her! She's drivin' him to it, an' it's Temple drivin' her. An'it's up to you an' me to drive him clean out'n this corner of theuniverse. Which we can do without goin' to the law!" he interjectedscornfully. "I reckon you understan', don't you, Blenham?"

  Blenham nodded and put on his hat.
  "I'm to hound him from the start to finish; until we drive him an' herout the country. An' I'm to pound at your gran'son too an' at the sametime until we bust him wide open. That right?"

  "Right an' go to it!" cried Packard.

  Blenham saluted as he might have done were he still a sergeant down onthe border, wheeled and went out. Five minutes later he was ridingagain toward the south. And now the look on his face was one of neartriumph. For at last the time had come when the old man had givenoutright the instructions which could make many things possible.

  That same day, about noon, Terry Temple, flashing across country in hercar, met Blenham on the country road. She was going toward Red Creek,her errand urgent as were always the errands of Terry. Half a mileaway she knew him, first by the white stocking of his favorite mare,second by his big bulk and the way it sat the saddle.

  So, quite like the old Packard whom she so heartily detested, she gavehim the horn and never an inch of the road which was none too wide.Blenham, his mouth working, jerked his horse out of the way, down overthe edge of the slope, and cursed after her as she passed him.

  Terry, in Red Creek, went straight to the store and to a shelf in a farand dusty corner where were all of the purchasable books of thevillage. A thumb in her mouth, a frown in her eyes, she regarded themlong and soberly.

  In the end she severed the Gordian knot by taking an even dozenvolumes. There were a grammar, an ancient history, some compositionbooks, and, most important of all, a treatise upon social usages.

  How to write letters, what R. S. V. P. meant, "Mr. and Mrs. So-and-sorequest and so forth," how a lady should greet a gentleman friend--inshort, an answer to all possible questions of right and wrong ways ofappearing in polite society. With her purchases stowed away in acracker-box Terry turned again toward the ranch.

  In the ordinary course of events Terry should have returned to her homewell ahead of Blenham. But this afternoon she made a wide, circlingdetour to chat briefly with Rod Norton's young wife at the Rancho delas Flores, and so came under the Temple oaks after dusk.

  As she turned in at the gate she saw Blenham's horse standing tied downby the stable. Terry's eyes opened wonderingly and a little flush cameinto her cheeks. Plainly Blenham was closeted with her father. Terrybit her lip, gathered her books in her arms, and hastened toward thehouse.

  The bawling of a mother cow and a baby calf, separated by a corralfence, had quite drowned out the purr of her motor; her step as usualwas light upon the porch. The first that Temple and Blenham knew ofher coming was her form in the doorway, her face turned curiously uponthem.

  And in that instant, while all three stood motionless, Terry saw andwondered at a look of understanding which had flashed between her ownfather and the despised representative of a hated race. Further shenoted how the glass in Temple's hand was still lifted, as was the glassin Blenham's, the whiskey still undrunk, winking at her in the palelamplight.

  "Isn't your eternal drinking bad enough without your asking such asthat to drink with you?" she asked quietly. Very, very quietly forMiss Terry Temple.

  Her father shifted a trifle uneasily. Blenham watched her intently,admiringly after a gross fashion and yet a bit contemptuously. Blenhamcould put a look like that into his eye; to him a girl was a thing thatmight be both sneered at and coveted.

  "My dear," said Temple, striving for clear enunciation and in the endachieving it heavily, "I am glad you came. I want you to listen. Wemust act wisely. We must not misjudge Mr. Blenham."

  While Terry remained silent, looking from one to the other of the twomen. Temple drank his whiskey hastily, furtively, snatching the secondwhen her gaze had gone to Blenham.

  "What's the game?" asked Terry in a moment.

  She set her books down upon the table at her side, put out her hand tothe back of a chair, and like the men remained standing.

  Temple looked to Blenham, who merely shrugged his thick shoulders andsipped at his whiskey, as though it had been a light wine and very softto an appreciative palate. In some vague way the act was vastlyinsolent. Temple appeared uncertain, no uncommon thing with him; then,going to set his emptied glass down he put an elbow on the mantel,dropped his head, and spoke in a low, mumbling voice:

  "The game? It's what it always was, Terry girl; what it always willbe. The game of the ear of corn and the millstones; the game of theunfortunate under the iron heel."

  "Unfortunate!" cried Terry in disgust. "Pooh!"

  "Listen to me," commanded her father. "You ask: What's the game? andI'm telling you." His head was up now; Terry noted a new look in hiseyes, as he hurried on. "It's just the game of life, after all. Thewar of those who have everything against those who have nothing; of menlike Old Hell-Fire Packard against men like me. A game to be won moreoften than not through the sheer force of massed money that squeezesthe life out of the under dog--but to be lost when the moneyed fool,curse him, runs up against a team like Blenham and me!"

  "Blenham and you?" she repeated. "You and Blenham? You mean to tellme that you are chipping in with him?"

  Blenham turned his whiskey-glass slowly in his great thick fingers.His eye shone with its crafty light; his lips were parted a little asthough they held themselves in readiness for a swift interruption ifTemple said the wrong thing or went too far.

  "You are prejudiced," said Temple. "You always have been. Justbecause Blenham here has represented Packard, and Packard----"

  "Is an old thief!" she cried passionately. "And worse! As Packard's_Man Friday_ Blenham doesn't exactly make a hit with me!"

  "Come, come," exclaimed Temple. "Curb your tongue, Teresa, my dear.If you will only listen----"

  "Shoot then and get it over."

  Terry sank into her chair, clasped her gauntleted hands about a pair ofplump knees which drew Blenham's gaze approvingly, and set her whiteteeth to nibbling impatiently at her under lip as though setting acommand upon it for silence.

  "Let's have it, Dad."

  "That's sensible," mumbled Temple. "You always were a smart girl,Teresa, when you cared to be. Let's see; where had I got? Oh, yes;speaking of Blenham chipping in with us, as you put it."

  "With _you_!" corrected Terry briefly.

  "We're mortgaged to old man Packard," continued Temple, somewhat hastyabout it now that he had fairly plunged into the current of what he hadto say, as though the water were cold and he was anxious to clamber outupon the far side. "Not much in a way; a good deal when you figure onhow tight money is and how little we've seen of it these last fewyears. Now, Packard sends Blenham across with a message; he's going toforeclose; he is going to drive us out; to ruin us. That is Packard'sword."

  Terry stiffened in her chair; her chin rose a little in the air; hereyes brightened; the color in her cheeks deepened. That was her onlyanswer to Packard's ultimatum as quoted to her father by Blenham and byTemple to her. Knowing that there was still more to come, she satstill, her clasped hands tightening about her knees. Blenham, as stillas she, was sipping at his whiskey.

  "But Blenham is a white man."

  Temple attempted to say it with the force of conviction, but Terrymerely sniffed, and Temple himself failed somewhat to put his heartinto his words. He hurried on, repeating:

  "Yes, a white man. And he's got a little money of his own that he'sbeen tucking away all these years of working for Packard. He comesover this evening, Teresa, my dear, and makes us a--curse it, agenerous offer. You see, as things are, we are bound to lose the wholeplace, lock, stock, and barrel, to Packard; you don't want to do that,do you?"

  "Go on," said Terry. Her face was suddenly as white as the hands fromwhich she was swiftly, nervously stripping her gauntlets. "Just whatis Blenham's generous offer, Dad?"

  "It's one of two things."

  He hesitated and licked his lips. Terry's heart sank lower yet; ittook him so long to set the thing into words! "You see, as Old ManPackard's foreman and agent he comes to tell us that he is ordered toforec
lose; to break us utterly. As a friend to us he says----"

  "For God's sake!" cried Terry sharply. "What does he say?"

  "He will pay us a thousand dollars to let him take over everything! Hewill assume the mortgage; he will scrap it out with old Packard; hewill clear the title; and, if we get where we want the ranch back sometime, he will let us buy him out for just what he has put in it."

  Terry looked at him gravely.

  "In words of one syllable," she said quietly, "Blenham plans to giveyou one thousand dollars; then to pay to old Packard the seven thousandyou owe him; and for this amount of eight thousand to grab an outfitthat is worth twenty thousand if it's worth a nickel! That's hisgenerous offer, is it?"

  "My dear----"

  "Don't my dear me!" she snapped impatiently. "Just go on and get thewhole idiotic thing out of your system. What else?"

  "That's all. As I have said already, as things are we are bound tolose everything to Packard. Blenham steps up and offers us athousand----"

  "I should think he would step up! Lively! Well, I can't stop you, canI? You don't have to have my consent to make a laughing-stock out ofyourself? Have you signed up with Blenham already?"

  Temple sought to assume an air of dignity which went poorly with hisragged slippers and bleary eye.

  "Blenham has his money in a safe in Red Creek. There will be papers tobe signed. We are going there now. I--I am sorry you take it thisway, Teresa."

  Then she sprang to her feet, her two hands clenched, her eyes blazing.

  "And I," she cried hotly, "am sorry. Oh, I am ashamed! that one of thename of Temple should sink so low as to hobnob with a cur and ascoundrel, a cheat, a liar, and all that Blenham is, and that you and Iand the whole country know he is! I'd rather see Old Hell-Fire Packardbreak you and grind you under foot than see you stand there and drinkwith that thing!"

  And that there should be no mistake her finger shot out, pointing atBlenham.

  "Terry!" commanded her father, "be silent. You don't know what you aresaying!"

  "Don't I, though! I--I----"

  Blenham laughed as she broke off, laughed again as he stood watchinghow she was breathing rapidly.

  "Pretty puss," he said impudently, "you need them pink-an'-white nailsof your'n trimmed."

  "Don't you dare say a word to me," she flung at him. "Not a word."

  "Not a single little word, eh?" He tossed off his whiskey, dropped theempty glass to the floor behind him, and came a quick stride towardher, an ugly leer twisting at the corner of his mouth, his one eyeburning. "I've got your ol' man where I want him; he knows it an' Ian' you know it. An' when I like I can have you where I want you, too.Understan'?"

  He had taken another step toward her. The sudden thought leaped up inher mind that he and her father had had many drinks together before herarrival. She drew back slowly. Temple, seeing that for the moment allattention had been drawn from him, reached out for a bottle on the farend of the mantel.

  Then suddenly and without another word being spoken Terry wasgalvanized into action. Blenham was coming on toward her and she sawthe look in his eye. She whipped back; her breath caught in herthroat; the color ran out of her cheeks. She glanced wildly toward herfather; his fingers were closing about the neck of a bottle when theyshould have been at the neck of a man.

  Terry whipped up a book from the table--it was a volume answering manya question about how to act in society but without any mention of sucha situation as now had arisen--and flung it straight into Blenham'shectic face. Then she slipped through the door behind her, slammed it,and ran out, down the porch and into the night. Behind her she heardBlenham's heavy, spurred boots and Blenham's curse.

  "If he comes on I will kill him!"

  She was at her car; her revolver was in her hand. She saw Blenham comeoutside. A moment he seemed to hesitate, his big bulk outlined againstthe door's rectangle of light. Then she heard him laugh and saw himreturn to the room. She came back slowly, tiptoe, to stand under thewindow.

  "You can drive the girl's car, can't you?" Blenham was asking. Andwhen Temple admitted that he could: "Let's pile in an' be on our way.Like I said, you close with me tonight or I won't touch the thing."

  Then again Terry ran back to her car. She sprang in, started herengine, opened the throttle as she let in the clutch, and making a widecircle shot up the road, out the gate, and away into the darkness.

  "I'll take this pot yet, Mr. Cutthroat Blenham!" she was crying withinherself.

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