"Is your well producing twelve hundred barrels a day?"
"Huh!" Briskow, junior, grinned at his sister, exposing a mouth full of teeth as white and as sound as railroad crockery, but his next words were directed at Gray: "We got four wells and the p'orest one is makin' twelve hundred bar'l."
The guests' mental calculations as to the Briskow royalties were interrupted by an announcement that dinner was ready, whereupon the father announced:
"Mister, it looks like you'd have to stay overnight with us, 'cause I got important business after dinner an' I wouldn't trust Ma to pick out no jewelry by herself—them prices would skeer her to death. We're ignorant people and we ain't used to spendin' money, so it'll take time for us to make up our minds. Kin you wait?"
"I'll stay as long as you'll keep me," Gray declared, heartily.
A moment later, having learned that a place at the table had been set for his driver as well as himself, Gray stepped out to summon the man and to effect the necessary change in his arrangements. He was not surprised to find the chauffeur with nose flattened against a pane of the front-room window, his hands cupped over his eyes. Ignoring the fellow's confusion at being discovered, Gray told him of his change of plan and instructed him to drive back to Ranger and to return late the following afternoon. Then he led the way toward the kitchen.
That stay at the Briskows' turned out to be less irksome than the visitor had anticipated, for the afternoon was spent with Buddy examining the Briskow wells and others near by. It was an interesting experience, and Gray obtained a deal of first-hand information that he believed would come in handy. Buddy's first mistrust was not long in passing, and, once Gray had penetrated his guard, the boy was won completely, the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme, and erelong suspicion changed to liking, then to approval, and at last to open, extravagant admiration.
And Gray liked the youthful giant, too, once the latter had dropped his hostility and had become his natural self, for Ozark was a lad with temper and with temperament. They got along together swimmingly; in fact, they grew thicker than thieves in the course of time. The elder man soon became conscious of the fact that he was being studied, analyzed, even copied—the sincerest form of flattery—and it pleased his vanity. Buddy's mind was thirsty, his curiosity was boundless, questions popped out of him at every step, and every answer, every bit of information or of philosophy that fell from the visitor's lips he pounced upon, avidly examined, then carefully put away for future use. He was like a magpie filling its nest. Gray's personal habits, mannerisms, tricks—all were grist for Buddy's mill. The stranger's suit, for instance, was a curiosity to the boy, who could not understand wherein it was so different from any other he had ever seen; young Briskow attributed that difference to the fact that it had probably come from a bigger store than any he had known. It amazed him to learn, in answer to a pointed question, that it had been cut and fitted to the wearer by expert workmen. It disappointed him bitterly to be informed that there was not another one exactly like it which he could buy.
And the visitor's silk shirt, with double cuffs and a monogram on the sleeve! Fancy "fixin's" like this, Buddy confessed, he had always associated with womenfolks, but if Gray wore them there could be nothing disgraceful, nothing effeminate about the practice. There was a decided thrill in the prospect of possessing such finery, all initialed with huge, silken O. B's. Life was presenting wholly novel and exciting possibilities to the youth.
When Gray offered him a cigarette, Buddy rudely took the gold case out of his hand and examined it, then he laughed in raucous delight.
"Gosh! I never knew men had purty things. I—I'm goin' to get me one like that."
"Do you like it?"
"Gee! It's swell!"
"Good! I'll make you a present of it."
Buddy stared at the speaker in speechless surprise. "What—what for?" he finally stammered.
"Because you admire it."
"Why—it's solid gold, ain't it?"
"To be sure."
"How much d'it cost?"
"My dear fellow," Gray protested, "you shouldn't ask questions like that. You embarrass me."
Buddy examined the object anew, then he inquired, "Say, why'd you offer to gimme this?"
"I've just told you." Gray was becoming impatient. "It is a custom in some countries to present an object to one who is polite enough to admire it."
"Nobody never give me a present," Buddy said. "Not one that I wanted. I never had nothing that I didn't have to have and couldn't get along without. This cigareet case is worth more 'n all the stuff I ever owned, an' I'm sure obliged to you." He replaced the article in Gray's hand.
"Eh? Won't you accept it? Why not?"
"I—Oh, I dunno."
Gray pondered this refusal for a moment before saying, "Perhaps you think I'm—trying to make a good impression on you, so you'll buy some diamonds?"
"Mebbe." Buddy averted his eyes. He was in real distress.
"Um-m! I ought to punch your head." Gray slipped the case into young Briskow's pocket. "I don't have to bribe people. Some day you'll realize that I like you."
"Cross my heart."
The boy laughed in frank delight, his brown cheeks colored, his eyes sparkled. "Gosh!" said he. "I—like you!" For some time thereafter he remained red and silent, but he kept one big hand in the pocket where lay the gold cigarette case. There was a wordless song in Buddy Briskow's heart, for—he had made a friend. And such a friend!
The Briskow children possessed each other's fullest confidence, hence Ozark took the first occasion to show his gift to Allegheny, and to tell her in breathless excitement all about that wonderful afternoon.
"He said he'd a mind to lick me, an' I bet he could 'a' done it, too," the boy concluded.
"Lick you? Hunh!"
"Oh, he's hard-boiled! That's why I like him. He's been 'round the world and speaks furrin language like a natif. That suit of clo's was made for him, an' he's got thirty others, all better 'n this one. Shoes, too! Made special, in New York. Forty dollars a pair!"
"What's he doin' here if he's so rich?" It was the doubting female of the species speaking. "Drummers is terrible liars."
Buddy flew to the defense of his hero. "He's doin' this to he'p a friend. Told me all about it. I'm goin' to have thirty suits—"
"Shoes don't cost forty dollars. Clo's don't cost that much." Allie regarded her brother keenly, understandingly, then she said, somberly, "It ain't no use, Buddy."
"It ain't no use to wish. Mebbe you can have thirty suits—if the wells hold out, but they won't look like his. And me, too. We're too big, Buddy, an' the more money we got, the more clo's we put on, the more folks is goin' to laugh at us. It shames me to go places with anybody but you."
"He wouldn't laugh. He's been all over the world," the boy asserted. Then, after some deliberation, "I bet he's seen bigger people than us."
As a matter of fact, Allegheny's sensitiveness about her size had been quickly apparent to Gray, and during that day he did his utmost to overcome it, but with what success he could not know. Buddy was his, body and soul, that much was certain; he made the conquest doubly secure by engaging the young Behemoth in a scuffle and playfully putting him on his back. Defeat, at other hands than Gray's, would have enraged Ozark to the point of frenzy, it would have been considered by him an indignity and a disgrace. Now, however, he looked upon it as a natural and wholly satisfactory demonstration of his idol's supreme prowess, and he roared with delight at being bested. Gray promptly taught him the wrestling trick by which he had accomplished the feat, and flattered the boy immensely by refusing to again try his skill. The older man, when he really played, could enter into sport with tremendous zest and he did so now; he taught Buddy trick after trick; they matched each other in feats of strength and agility. They wound up finally on opposite sides of the Briskow kitchen table, elbows planted, fingers interlocked, straining furiously in that muscle-racking, joint-cracking pastime of the lumber camps known as "twisting arms." Here again Gray was victorious, until he showed Buddy how to gain greater leverage by changing the position of his wrist and by slightly altering his grip, whereupon the boy's superior strength told. They were red in the face, out of breath, and soaked with perspiration, when Pa Briskow drove up in his expensive new touring car.
By this time Buddy's admiration had turned to adulation; he had passed under the yoke and he gloried shamelessly in his captive state. At supper time he appeared with his hair wetly combed in imitation of Gray's. He wore a necktie, too, and into it he had fastened a cheap brass stickpin, much as Gray wore his. During the meal he watched how the guest used his knife and fork and made awkward attempts to do likewise, but a table fork was an instrument which, heretofore, Buddy had looked upon as a weapon of pure offense, like a whaler's harpoon, and conveniently designed either for spearing edibles beyond his reach or for retrieving fragments of meat lurking between his back teeth. He even did some hasty manicuring under the edge of the table with his jack-knife.
Pa Briskow was scarcely less observant than his son. He watched Gray's every move; he sounded him out adroitly; he pondered his lightest word. After the supper things had been cleared away and the dishes washed, the entire family adjourned to the front room and again examined the jewelry. It was an absorbing task, they did not hurry it. Not until the following afternoon, in fact, did they finally make their selections, and then they were guided almost wholly by the good taste of their guest. Gray did not exploit them. On the contrary, his effort was to limit their extravagance; but in this he had little success, for Pa Briskow had decided to indulge his generous impulses to the full and insisted upon so doing. The check he finally wrote was one of five figures.
By this time the visitor had become aware of arousing a queer reaction in Allegheny Briskow. He had overcome her diffidence early enough; he had unsealed her lips; he had obtained an insight into her character; but once that was done, the girl retired within herself again and he could get nothing more out of her. He would have believed that she actually disliked him, had it not been for the fact that whatever he said, she took as gospel, that wherever he chanced to be there she was, her ears open, her somber, meditative eyes fixed upon him. Evidently she did not actually dislike him; he decided finally that she was studying him, striving to analyze and to weigh him to her own complete satisfaction before trusting him further than she had.
When it drew near the time for him to leave, and he announced that the driver of his hired car had been instructed to return for him, there was protest, loud and earnest, from the Briskows, father and son. Buddy actually sulked at being denied the pleasure of driving his hero to town in the new car, and told about a smooth place on a certain detour where he could "get her up to sixty mile an hour."
"If it was longer, she'd do a hundred," he declared.
Pa Briskow was worried for the security of the diamonds, and assured Gray that it was unsafe to trust those service-car drivers.
But the latter, seeing a threat to his carefully matured plans, refused to listen. "There's one thing you can do for me," he told them. "You can give me a pint of cream."
"Cream? What for?" The family regarded him with amazement.
"I'm fond of it. If you have no cream, milk will do."
"Pshaw! I'll put up a hull basket of lunch for you," Mrs. Briskow declared. "Buddy, go kill a rooster, an' you, Allie, get them eggs out of the nest in the garden, an' a jar of them peach preserves, while I make up a pan of biscuits."
Protest was unavailing.
When the others had hurried away, Pa Briskow said: "I been studyin' you, Mister Gray, and I got you down as a first-class man. When Ma and Allie come over to Dallas to get rigged out, I'd like you to help 'em. They 'ain't never been fu'ther from home than Cisco—that's thirty mile. I'll pay you for your time."
Gray's hearty acceptance of the first and his prompt refusal of the second proposal pleased the speaker.
"Bein' rich is mighty fine, but—" Gus Briskow shook his head doubtfully. "It takes a lot of thinkin', and I ain't used to thinkin'. Some day, mebbe, I'll get you to give me a hand in figgerin' out some worries."
"No. I got enough of them, an' more comin', but it ain't that. We're goin' to have a heap of money, and"—he looked up with straightforward eyes—"we ain't goin' to lose it, if I have my way. We've rubbed along, half starved, all our lives, an' done without things till we're—Well, look at us! I reckon we've made you laugh. Oh, I bet we have! Ma an' me can stand it, but, mister, I don't want folks to laugh at my children, and there's other things I don't want to happen to 'em. Buddy's a wild hoss and he's got a streak of the Old Nick in him. And Allie ain't broke no better 'n him. I got a feelin' there may be trouble ahead, an'—sometimes I 'most wish we'd never had no oil in Texas."
"Well, did you land them hicks?" It was Gray's driver speaking. Through the gloom of early evening he was guiding his car back toward Ranger. The road was the same they had come, but darkness had invested it with unfamiliar perils, or so it seemed, for the headlights threw every rock and ridge into bold relief and left the holes filled with mysterious shadows; the vehicle strained, its motor raced, its gears clashed noisily as it rocked along like a dory in a boisterous tide rip. Only now and then did a few rods of smooth going permit the chauffeur to take his attention from the streak of illumination ahead long enough to light another cigarette, a swift maneuver, the dexterity of which bespoke long practice.
"Yes. And I made a good sale," the passenger declared. With pride he announced the size of the Briskow check.
"J'ever see a dame the size of that gal?" A short laugh issued from the driver. "She'd clean up in vaudeville, wouldn't she? Why, she could lift a ton, in harness. And hoein' the garden, with their coin! It's like a woman I heard of: they got a big well on their farm and she came to town to do some shoppin'; somebody told her she'd ought to buy a present for her old man, so she got him a new handle for the ax. Gawd!"
A few miles farther on the fellow confessed: "I wasn't crazy about comin' for you to-night. Not after I got a flash at what's in that valise."
"You're takin' a chance, stranger."
"Nothing new about that." Gray remained unperturbed. His left arm was behind the driver; with it he clung rigidly to the back of the seat as the car plunged and rolled. "Frequently we are in danger when we least suspect it. Now you, for instance."
"Me?" The man at the wheel shot a quick glance at his fare.
"You probably take more chances than you dream of."
"Um-m! These roads are a menace to life and limb; the country is infested with robbers—"
"Oh, sure! That's what I had in mind. Joy-ridin' at night with a hatful of diamonds is my idea of a sucker's amusement. Of course, we won't 'get it'—"
"Of course! One never does."
"Sure! But if we should, there's just one thing to do."
"Indeed?" Gray was pleasantly inquisitive, but it was plain that he suffered no apprehensions. "And that is—?"
"Sit tight and take your medicine."
"I never take medicine."
The chauffeur shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I do, when it's put down my throat. I been stuck up."
"Twice. Tame as a house cat, me—both times. I s'pose I'll get nicked again sometime."
"And you won't offer any resistance?"
"Not a one, cull."
"I'm relieved to be assured of that."
For a second time the driver flashed a glance at his companion. It was a peculiar remark and voiced in a queer tone. "Yes? Why?"
"Because—" Gray slightly shifted his position, there was a movement of his right hand—the one farthest away from the man at the wheel—and simultaneously his left arm slipped from the back of the seat and tightly encircled the latter's waist. He finished in a wholly unfamiliar voice, "Because, my good man, you are now held up for the third time, and it would distress me to have to kill you."
The driver uttered a loud grunt, for something sharp and hard had been thrust deeply into that soft, sensitive region overlying his liver, and now it was held there. It was unnecessary for Gray to order the car stopped; its brakes squealed, it ceased its progress as abruptly as if its front wheels had fetched up against a stone wall.
"Hey! What the—?"
"Don't try to 'heel' me with your elbow," Gray warned, sharply. "Now, up with 'em—you know. That's nice."
The faces of the men were close together. Gray's was blazing, the driver's was stiff with amazement and stamped with an incredulous grimace. Paralyzed for the moment with astonishment, he made no resistance, not even when he felt that long muscular left arm relax and the hand at the end of it go searching over his pockets.
Gray was grim, mocking; some vibrant, evil quality to his voice suggested extreme malignity at full cock, like that unseen weapon the muzzle of which was buried beneath the driver's short ribs. "Ah! You go armed, I see. A shoulder holster, as I suspected. I knew you had nothing on this side." Seizing his victim's upstretched right hand with his own left, he gave it a sudden fierce wrench that all but snapped the wrist, and at the same instant he reached across and snatched the concealed weapon from its resting place. He flung the chauffeur's body away from him; there was a sharp click as he swiftly jammed the barrel of the automatic back and let it fly into place.
The entire maneuver had been deftly executed, even yet the object of the assault was speechless.
"Now then"—the passenger faced about in his seat and showed his teeth in a smile—"it is customary to permit the condemned to enjoy the last word. What have you to say for yourself?"
"I—got this to say. It's a hell of a joke—" the man exploded.
"Do I act as if I were joking?"
"If you think it's funny to jab a gun in a man's belly when he ain't lookin'—"
"A gun? My simple friend, you have—or had—the only gun in this party, and you may thank whatever gods you worship that you didn't try to use it, for—I would have been rough with you. Oh, very rough! I might even have made you eat it. Now, inasmuch as you may be tempted to embellish this story with some highly imaginary details, I prefer that you know the truth. This is the 'gun' I used to stick you up." With a rigidly outthrust thumb Gray prodded the driver in the side. "Simple, isn't it? And no chance for accidents." The speaker's shoulders were shaking.
"Well, I'll be damned!"
"Not a doubt of it!" chuckled the other. "Especially if you follow in the course you have chosen. And a similar fate will overtake your pal, Mallow. By the way, is that his right name?... Never mind, I know him as Mallow. A shallow, trusting man, and, I hope, a better judge of diamonds than of character. As for me, I look deeper than the surface and am seldom deceived in people—witness your case, for example. I knew you at once for a crook. It might save you several miles of bad walking to tell me where Mallow is waiting to high-jack me.... No?"
"I dunno what you're ravin' about," growled the unhappy owner of the automobile. "But, believe me, I'll have you pinched for this."
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth is ingratitude! And what bad taste to prattle of prosecution. I sha'n't steal your car, it needs too much overhauling. And I abominate cheap machines. It is true that I'm one pistol to the good, but in view of the law against carrying lethal weapons, surely you won't prefer charges against me for removing it from your person. Oh, not that! It seems to me that I'm treating you handsomely, for I shall even pay you the agreed price for this trip, provided only you tell me where you expect to meet Mr. Mallow."
"Go to hell!"
"Very well. Oblige me now by getting out.... And make it snappy!"
The driver did as directed. Gray pocketed the automatic, slipped in behind the steering wheel, and drove away into the night, followed by loud and earnest objurgations.
He was still smiling cheerfully when, a mile farther on, he brought the car to a stop and clambered out. Passing forward into the illumination of the headlights, he busied himself there for several moments before resuming his journey.
For the first time in a long while Calvin Gray was thoroughly enjoying himself. Here was an enterprise with all the possibilities of a first-class adventure, and of the sort, moreover, that he was peculiarly qualified to cope with. It possessed enough hazard to lend it the requisite zest, it was sufficiently unusual to awaken his keenest interest; he experienced an agreeable exaltation of spirit, but no misgivings whatever as to the outcome, for he held the commanding cards. Little remained, it seemed to him, except to play them carefully and to take the tricks as they fell. He had not the slightest notion of permitting Mallow to lay hands upon that case of jewels.
There was no mistaking the road, but Gray did not bother to stick to the main-traveled course when detours or short cuts promised better going, for he knew full well that Mallow would be waiting, if at all, in some place he was bound to pass. It was an ideal country for a holdup; lonely and lawless. Derrick lights twinkled over the mesquite tops, and occasionally the flaming red mouth of some boiler gaped at him, or the foliage was illuminated by the glare of gas flambeaux—vertical iron pipes at the ends of which the surplus from neighboring wells was consumed in what seemed a reckless wastage. Occasionally, too, a belated truck thundered past, but the traffic was pretty thin.
At last, however, he beheld some distance ahead the white glare of two stationary lights. The road was narrow and sandy here, and shut in by banks of underbrush; as he drew nearer a figure stepped out and stood in silhouette until his own lights picked it up. The figure waved its arms, and called attention to the car behind—evidently broken down. Here, then, the drama was to be played.
Gray brought his machine on at such a pace and so close to the man in the road that the latter was forced to step aside, then he swung it far to the right, brought it back with a quick twist of the steering wheel, and killed his motor. He was now in the ditch and outside the blinding glare of the opposing headlights; the stalled machine was in the full illumination of his own lamps.
Contrary to Gray's expectations, the car in the road was empty and the man who had hailed him was a stranger. As the latter approached, he inquired:
"Out of gas, I guess. Anyhow—I—" The speaker noted that there was but one new arrival, where he had expected two, and the discovery appeared to nonplus him momentarily. He stammered, involuntarily he turned his head.
Gray looked in the same direction, but without changing his position, and out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed a new figure emerging from the shadows behind him. Very clever! But, at least, his unexpected maneuver with his own car had made it necessary for both men to approach him from the same side.
While the first stranger continued to mumble, Gray sat motionless, keenly conscious, meanwhile, of that other presence closing in upon him from the rear. He simulated a violent start when a second voice cried:
"Don't move. I've got you covered."
"My God!" Gray twisted about in his seat and exposed a startled countenance. A masked man was standing close to the left running board, and he held a revolver near Gray's head; the apparition appeared to paralyze the unhappy traveler, for he still tightly clutched the steering wheel with both hands.
"Just sit still." The cloth of the mask blew outward as the words issued; through the slits two malevolent eyes gleamed. "Act pretty, and you won't get hurt."
"Why! It's—it's Mr. Mallow!" Gray hitched himself farther around in his seat and leaned forward in justifiable amazement. "As I live it's you, Mallow!" Both highwaymen were in front of him, now, and shoulder to shoulder; he made sure there were no others behind them.
"Shut up!" Mallow snapped. "Frisk him, Tony, and—"
The command was cut short by a startled, throaty cry—a hoarse sound of astonishment and rage—and simultaneously a strange, a phenomenal thing occurred. An unseen hand appeared to strike down both Mallow and his accomplice where they stood, and it smote them, moreover, with appalling force and terrifying effect. One moment they were in complete mastery of the situation, the next they were groveling in the road, coughing, sneezing, barking, retching, blaspheming poisonously. Baffled fury followed their first surprise. Mallow tore the mask from his face and groped blindly for the weapon he had dropped, but before he could recover it, pain mastered him and he fell back, clawing at himself, rubbing at his eyes that had been stricken sightless. He yelled. Tony yelled. Then upon the startled night there burst a duet of squeals and curses, a hideous medley of mingled pain and fright, at once terrifying and unnatural. Both bandits appeared to be in paroxysms of agony; from Tony issued sounds that might have issued from the throat of a woman in deadly fear and excruciating torment; Mallow's face had been partially protected, hence he was the lesser sufferer; nevertheless, his eyes were boiling in their sockets, his lungs were ablaze, ungovernable convulsions ran over him.
The men understood vaguely what had afflicted them, for they had seen Gray lift one hand from the wheel, and out of that hand they had seen a stream of liquid, or a jet of aqueous vapor, leap. It was too close to dodge. It had sprung directly into their faces, vaporizing as it came, and at its touch, at the first scent of its fumes, their legs had collapsed, their eyes had tightly closed, and every cell in their outraged bodies had rebelled. It was as if acid had been dashed upon them, destroying in one blinding instant all power for evil. With every breath, now, a new misery smote them. But worse than this torture was the monstrous nature of their afflictions. It was mysterious, horrible; they believed themselves to be dying and screamed in abysmal terror of the unknown.
Gray squeezed again the rubber bulb that he had carried in his hand these last several miles, ejecting from it the last few drops of its contents, then he opened the car door, stepped out of it and stood over his strangling victims. He kicked Mallow's revolver off the road, and, holding his breath, relieved the other high-jacker of his weapon. This he flung after the first, then he withdrew himself a few paces and lighted a cigarette, for a raw, pungent odor offended his nostrils. Both of the bawling bandits reeked of it, but their plight left him indifferent. They reminded him of a pair of horses he had seen disemboweled by a bursting shell, but he felt much less pity for them.
His lack of concern made itself felt finally. Mallow, who was the first to show signs of recovery, struggled to his feet and clawed blindly toward the automobile. He clung to it, sick and shaking; profanely he appealed for aid.
"So! It is Mr. Mallow," Gray said. "Fancy meeting you here!"
A stream of incoherencies issued from the wretched object of this mockery. Tony, the other man, stifled his groans, rose to his knees, and, with his hands clasped over his eyes, shuffled slowly away, as if to escape the sound of Gray's voice.
"Better quiet down and let me do something at once, if you wish to save your sight," the latter suggested. "Otherwise I won't answer for the result. And you needn't tell me how it hurts. I know." This proffer of aid appeared to throw the sufferers into new depths of dismay. They called to him in the name of God. They were harmless, now, and anyhow they had intended to do him no bodily harm. They implored him to lend succor or to put them out of their distress.
Gray fell to work promptly. The bottle of cream he had begged from Ma Briskow he now put to use. With this soothing liquid he first washed out their eyes, the membranes of which were raw and spongy, and excruciatingly sensitive to light, then he bandaged them as best he could with compresses, wet in it.
"You'll breathe easier as time goes on," he announced. "You'll cough a good deal for a few days, but where you are going that won't disturb anybody. Your eyes will get well, too, if you take care of them as I direct. But, meanwhile, let me warn you against lifting those bandages. Advise me as they dry out and I'll wet them again."
A blessed relief stole over the unfortunate pair; they were still sick and weak, but in a short time the acuteness of their suffering had diminished sufficiently for Gray to help them into the back seat of his car and resume his journey.
Sarcastically he referred to the sample case on the tonneau floor. "If those diamonds are in your way, I'll take them in front with me. If not, I'll ask you to keep an eye on them—or, let us say, keep a foot on them. If you should be foolish enough to heave them overboard or try to renew your assault upon me, I would be tempted to break this milk bottle. In that event, my dear Mallow, you'd go through life with a tin cup in your hand and a dog on a string."
Tony groaned in abject misery of body and soul. Mallow cursed feebly.
"What—is that devilish stuff?" the latter queried. It was plain from his voice that he meditated no treachery. "Oh! I was going to tell you. It is a product of German ingenuity, designed, I believe, for the purpose of quelling riotous and insurrectionary prisoners. It was efficacious, also, in taking pill boxes and clearing out dug-outs and the like. With some care one is safe in using it in an ordinary ammonia gun—the sort policemen use on mad dogs. Forgive me, if I say that you have demonstrated its utility in peace as well as in war. If there were more high-jackers in the world the device might be commercialized at some profit; but, alas, my good Mallow, your profession is not a common one."
"Cut out the kidding," Mallow growled, then he fell into a new convulsion of coughing. The car proceeded for some time to the tune of smothered complaints from the miserable figures bouncing upon the rear seat before Gray said: "I fear you are a selfish pair of rascals. Have you no concern regarding the fate of the third member of your treasure-hunting trio?" Evidently they had none. "Too bad! It's a good story."
Whatever their indifference to the welfare of the chauffeur, they still had some curiosity as to their own, for Mallow asked:
"What are you going to do with us?"
"What would you do, if you were in my place?"
"I'd—listen to reason."
"Hell! You know what he means," Tony cried, feebly.
"So! You do me the honor to offer a bribe." Gray laughed. "Pardon my amusement. It sounds callous, I know, but, frankly, your unhappy condition fails to distress me. Well, how much do you offer?"
"All we got. A coupla thousand."
"A temptation, truly."
Mallow addressed his companion irritably. "Have a little sense. He don't need money."
Calvin Gray had never been more pleased with himself than now, for matters had worked out almost exactly according to plan, a compliment indeed to his foresight and to his executive ability. He loved excitement, he lived upon it, and much of his life had been devoted to the stage-management of sensational exploits like this one. As a boy plays with a toy, so did Gray amuse himself with adventure, and now he was determined to exact from this one the last particle of enjoyment and whatever profit it afforded.
Within a few minutes of his arrival at Ranger, the town was noisy with the story, for he drove down the brightly lighted main street and stopped in front of the most populous cafe. There he called loudly for a policeman, and when the latter elbowed his way through the crowd, Gray told him, in plain hearing of all, enough of his experience to electrify everybody. He told the story well; he even made known the value of his diamond stock; mercilessly he pilloried the two blindfolded bandits. When he drove to the jail the running boards of his car were jammed with inquisitive citizens, and those who could not find footing thereon followed at a run, laughing, shouting, acclaiming him and jeering at his prisoners.
Having surrendered custody of the latter, he dressed their eyes once more and explained the sort of care they required, then he made an appeal from the front steps of the jail, adjuring the mob to disperse quietly and permit the law to take its course.
Nothing like this had occurred during the brief, busy life of the town. It was a dramatic incident, but the manner in which this capable stranger had handled it and the discomfiture he had brought upon his assailants appealed more to the risibilities than to the anger of Ranger. Admiration for him displaced indignation at the high-jackers; cries for vengeance upon them were drowned in noisy appreciation of their captor. Gray became a popular character; men clamored to shake his hand, and complimented him upon his nerve. The editor of the local newspaper dragged him, protesting, to the office and there interviewed him. Gray was covered with confusion. Reluctantly he made known his identity, and retold the whole story of his trip, this time beginning at his meeting with Coverly in Dallas. He displayed the bewildering contents of his sample case, now guarded by a uniformed arm of the law, and explained how he had volunteered his services out of pure love of adventure, then how he had played into Mallow's hands while aware of his malign purpose at all times.
This was more than a local story; it was big enough for the wire. Gray sat at the editor's elbow while that enthusiastic gentleman called Dallas and gave it to the papers there.
He was escorted to the railroad station by an admiring crowd; he was cheered as he passed, smiling, into his Pullman car.
Coverly was at the station when Gray's train arrived at Dallas the next morning. He was suffering intense excitement, and he deluged his friend with a flood of questions, meanwhile flourishing the morning papers, all of which appeared to have devoted much space to the Ranger episode. He hugged Gray, and he pumped his hand; he laughed and he chattered; he insisted upon hearing the whole story without delay. On their way uptown, the returning hero gave it to him, together with Gus Briskow's check.
At the size of the latter Coverly gasped. "Didn't I say you were a good salesman? And Mallow! You got him, didn't you? I told you he was a crook. Just the same, old man, you ran a terrible risk and I feel mighty guilty. Why, those fellows would have killed you."
"Why didn't you take along a policeman or somebody?"
"And miss all the fun? Miss my pay for the trip? I agreed to take my commission in thrills."
The jeweler was frankly curious. "Weren't you frightened?"
"Frightened? No." Gray shook his head. "I've never been really afraid of anything or anybody, so far as I recall. I've never been able to understand the necessity of being frightened. I dare say the capacity for enjoying that particular emotion was omitted from my make-up—the result of some peculiar prenatal influence, probably. I'm sorry, too, for fear must have a fascination and I like unusual sensations."
"Speaking of your commissions, how am I going to pay you—not for the sale you made, although I wouldn't have done as well, but for the loss you saved the firm and for the risk you ran?"
Gray felt a momentary desire to have done with pretense, to confess his true condition and to beg not only a suitable reward for his services, but also as large a loan as Coverly could spare. It is hard to maintain an attitude of opulence on less than nothing; it would be so much easier to have done with this counterfeit gesture and trust to a straightforward appeal. But he dared not yield to the impulse.
"You may give me anything you see fit," he declared, "and I sha'n't embarrass you by refusing. On the contrary, go as strongly as you possibly can."
Coverly actually appeared to be relieved at this statement, but he inquired, curiously: "What have you got up your sleeve? You don't need money."
"Obviously not. But I know a needy object of charity; a worthy case, I assure you. I can scarcely call him a friend, but I used to admire him greatly, and he is still an agreeable companion—a man at once capable, extravagant, entertaining, dissipated. He is in a bad way, temporarily, and can scarcely afford even the bare necessities of life. It is only with my help, in fact, that he maintains its luxuries. Your money shall go to him, and with every dollar of it that he squanders, there shall arise an earnest orison to you."
The jeweler was delighted. "Good!" he cried. "I detest the deserving poor as heartily as you do. And now I'd like to open a bottle of champagne with our breakfast."
On the very day that the new sign, "Tom and Bob Parker," went up over the door of the insurance office at Wichita Falls, the junior partner announced:
"Well, dad, the firm gets busy at once. I'm off for Dallas to-night."
"What for?" Tom was dismayed by such a prompt manifestation of energy. "I'll have to tell you—" Barbara perched herself upon her father's desk and began speaking with a note of excitement in her voice. "I heard Henry Nelson was in town, so I went to the bank this morning to see him. He's such a big man in the oil business I thought he might help me. He was there, but in conference with his father and another man. There were several people waiting, so I sat down. When the man they were talking to came out, it was Pete, that driller who put down the first well for us. He was glad to see me, and we had quite a talk, but I noticed he was fidgety. He said he was running a rig over near 'Burk,' and had a fishing job on his hands. With all the excitement and everybody running double 'towers' and trying to beat the other fellow down to the sand, it struck me as queer that a contract driller like Pete would be here in Wichita in conference with Bell and Henry Nelson, when he ought to be out on the lease fishing for a lost bit. It didn't sound right. The more I got out of him, the queerer it sounded, for he had all the fishing tools he needed, so I accused him of being a fraud. I told him I'd bet he had a showing of oil and was trying to borrow money to buy the offset or to get the Nelsons to buy it and carry him for an interest."
"Where'd you pick up this lingo?" Tom inquired. "You talk like them wild men at the Westland Hotel."
Barbara laughed delightedly. "Didn't I put down all our shallow wells? If I didn't, I thought I did. Anyhow, I spent most of my time around the rigs and Pete used to call me his boss. Well, that wretched man turned all colors when I accused him, and tried to 'shush' me. He said I mustn't talk about things I knew nothing about—somebody might overhear me. He declared the outfit he was working for were no good and wouldn't pay a driller a bonus if he made a well for them. He was sick of making other people rich and getting nothing for himself.... It was time the drilling crews shared in the profits.... He'd see that nobody froze him out again if he had to spoil the hole. He wound up by denying everything, and I pretended to swallow it, but when he had gone I went over my maps and located the lease where he's drilling. Three of the adjoining tracts are owned by the big companies, so that eliminated them, but the twenty to the west belongs to Knute Hoaglund. Henry was glad to see me when my turn came to go in, and—"
"I bet he was glad," Tom declared.
Barbara's smooth cheeks flushed faintly. "He is too busy and too rich to—think about girls."
"He wasn't too busy and too rich to inquire about you 'most every day since he got back from the war."
"I didn't forget to call him 'Colonel,' and that pleased both him and Bell. Then I told them that I proposed to become a rich and successful oil operator and wanted their advice how to begin. Old Bell was amused, but Henry—I beg pardon, Colonel—Nelson was shocked. He couldn't bear to think of women, and of me especially, in business. He might have become disagreeably personal if his father hadn't been there."
"Dunno's I care much for Henry," Tom said, mildly.
"Oh, he's all right, but—I hate Bell! It makes anybody mad to be laughed at. Henry was more diplomatic. He tried to convince me that the oil game is altogether a man's business and that no woman could succeed at it. 'It is a contest of wits,' he explained. 'You've got to outguess the other fellow. You've got to know everything he's doing and keep him from knowing anything you're doing. The minute he knows as much as you do, he's got it on you.' That seemed to prove to Henry that no woman could win at it, for men are such superior creatures. They know so much more than a woman can possibly learn; their wits are so much keener!
"I was duly impressed. I asked him to call this evening, for I did so wish to have him teach me what little I was capable of learning. But he couldn't come, because he had been called to Dallas, unexpectedly. That was my cue. In my most sweetly girlish manner I said: 'Oh, indeed! Do you expect to see Knute Hoaglund while you're there?'"
Two hectic spots had come into "Bob's" cheeks during this recital; she was teetering upon the desk now like a nodding Japanese doll, and her blue eyes were dancing.
"I heard Old Bell's chair creak and I saw him shoot a quick glance at Henry. Henry admitted, casually, that he might drop in on Knute. Why?"
"'You'll be wasting time,' I told him, even more sweetly, 'for dad and I have that twenty west of Burkburnett.'
"Well! You'd have thought I had stuck a hatpin into Bell. And Henry's mouth actually dropped open. Think of it: Colonel Henry Nelson, the hero of Whatever-it-is, with his imperial mouth open and nothing coming out of it—not even the imperial breath!"
"Bob" rocked backward and kicked up her neatly shod feet; she hugged herself and snickered with a malicious enjoyment not wholly Christian-like.
"But—we 'ain't even got an option! It takes money to lease close-in stuff." Tom was bewildered.
"Of course. And they realized that, or Bell did, as soon as he'd had time to collect himself. But it was too late then; he had betrayed himself and he knew it. Oh, he was sore! He'd have flung me out if I'd been a man. I got mad, too, and I told him it made no real difference whether I was bluffing or not; the jig was up, so far as he was concerned. I reminded him of what Henry had just said—that the oil business is a game of wits, and that when you know what the other fellow is doing you have him licked. I admitted that he could probably keep me from getting the lease, but I could also keep him from getting it. Bell nearly had a stroke at that threat. Henry behaved very decently throughout. I think it must have pleased him to find that somebody in Wichita, besides him, had the courage to defy his father; anyhow, he said, '"Bob" has beaten us at our own game. She knows enough now to place that lease in half an hour, and I think we'd better take her in. Otherwise she'll wire Knute, and he'll probably protect her for an interest.'
"That made me feel awfully fraudulent, but his smarty remarks about women in the oil business still rankled, so I just sat pretty and blinked like a little owl. Bell swore. In his best and most horrible manner, he swore, but—he gave in." "Bob" laughed again, a bit hysterically. "That's about all, dad. They agreed to put up the money and carry me—us, I mean—for a quarter interest if I can get the lease from Knute Hoaglund. So, I'm leaving on the night train."
"Son! I—I'm darned if I don't believe we'll make a go of this business," Tom Parker declared.
With a little cry Barbara flung herself into his arms.
* * * * *
The publicity Calvin Gray received from his exploit at Ranger could be nothing except agreeable to one of his temperament. Gratefully he basked in his notoriety, meanwhile continuing assiduously to cultivate the moneyed men of Dallas. His sudden leap into prominence aroused curiosity among the wives and families of the latter, and he became the recipient of some social attentions. He accepted every invitation, and so well did he carry himself in company, so ornamental and engaging was he as a dinner guest, that he was soon in great demand. He possessed accomplishments, too, that increased the respect of his masculine acquaintances. For instance, he displayed a proficiency at golf quite unusual in men of athletic training, and they argued that any man who could do par whenever he felt like it must be either a professional or a person of limitless leisure. And limitless leisure means limitless funds.
Gray studiously maintained his air of financial mystery; he was in and out of offices, always purposeful, always in a hurry, but always with sufficient time to observe the strictest niceties of polite behavior. It was a part of his plan to create an atmosphere of his own, to emphasize his knack for quick, decisive, well-calculated action. The money he received from Coverly enabled him to maintain the posture he had assumed; he spent it with his usual prodigality, receiving little direct benefit, but making each dollar look like four. Extravagance with him was an art, money ran out of his pockets like water, but although he was already in a position to borrow, he did not do so. He merely marked time, deriving a grim amusement at the way his popularity grew as his currency dwindled. It was a game, enjoyable so long as it lasted. Egotistical he knew himself to be, but it was a conscious fault; to tickle his own vanity filled him with the same satisfaction a cat feels at having its back rubbed, and he excused himself by reasoning that his deceit harmed nobody. Meanwhile, with feline alertness he waited for a mouse to appear.
He was relieved one day to receive a telegram from Gus Briskow asking him to meet Ma and Allie at the evening train and "get them a hotel." He managed to secure a good suite at the Ajax, and it was with genuinely pleasurable anticipation that he drove to the station.
Dismay smote him, however, at first sight of the new arrivals. Ma Briskow resembled nothing so much as one of those hideous "crayon enlargements" he had seen in farmhouses—atrocities of an art long dead—for she was clad in an old-fashioned basque and skirt of some stiff, near-silk material, and her waist, which buttoned far down the front and terminated in deep points, served merely to roof over but not to conceal a peculiarity of figure which her farm dress had mercifully hidden. Gray discovered that Ma's body, alas! bore a quaint resemblance in outline to a gourd. A tiny black bonnet, with a wide surcingle of ribbon tied under her chin, was ornamented with a sort of centerpiece built of rigid artificial fruit and flowers. Her hair, in brave defiance of current styles, was rolled into a high pompadour. Beneath that pompadour, however, her face was aglow with interest and her eyes gleamed almost as brightly as did the brand-new lavalliere and the bar pin with its huge six-carat center diamond.
If the mother's appearance was unusual, the daughter's was startling, what with her size and the barbaric latitude of color she had indulged herself in. Allegheny's get-up screamed. In the general store at Cisco, whence it had originated, it had doubtless been considered a sport costume, for there was a skirt of huge blue and white checks, a crepe waist of burnt orange, and over that a vegetable-silk sweater, with the broadest, greenest stripes Gray had ever seen. A violent, offensive green, it was; and the sweater was too tight. Her hat was large and floppy and adorned with preposterous purple blooms; one of her hands was gloved, but upon the other she wore her splendid solitaire. She "shone" it, as a watchman shines his flashlight.
They were enough to daunt a stronger man than Calvin Gray, these two. He could well imagine the sensation he and they would create in the lobby of the modish Ajax. But his first surprise was succeeded by a gentle pity, for Ma Briskow greeted him rapturously, and in Allegheny's somber eyes he detected a look of mingled suffering and defiance. She knew, somehow or other, that she was conspicuous, grotesque, and her soul was in agony at the knowledge. Before he had spoken a half dozen words to her, Gray realized that this girl was in torture, and that it had required a magnificent courage on her part to meet him as bravely as she did. He was ashamed of himself; amusement at their expense did him no credit, and he determined to relieve her pain and to help her attain the likeness of other women if it was in his power to do so. It was a tribute to his inherent chivalry that he rose to the occasion and welcomed the women with a cordiality that warmed their hearts. Enthusiastically he took charge of Ma's lunch basket; against Allie's muttered protest he despoiled her of her bilious, near-leather suitcase; he complimented them upon their appearance and showed such pleasure at seeing them again that they surrendered gratefully to him. By the time he had them in a taxicab they were as talkative as a pair of magpies.
Of course, they had to know all about the holdup, and his manner of telling the story made them feel that they had played an important part in it. Arrived at the hotel, he swept them along with him so swiftly that they had no time in which to become dismayed or self-conscious, and finally he deposited them in their rooms quite out of breath and quite delighted. He left them palpitating with excitement at the wonders he proposed unfolding for them on the morrow.
Allie answered his phone call about eight o'clock the next morning.
"Ready for breakfast?" he inquired.
"Why, we et at daylight," she told him, in some astonishment. "I been ridin' since then."
"Indeed! Putting roses in your cheeks, eh? With whom did you go?"
"Oh, one of the elevator men."
"B—but—" Gray sputtered, deeply shocked. "Why, Miss Briskow, they're negroes! Riding with a nigger! My heavens! Where did you go?"
"Nowhere. Just up and down."
It was a moment before the man could speak, then he said, in a queerly repressed voice: "That—is quite different. I'll run down and get a bite and join you in no time."
"Seems awful funny not to have any housework to do in the morning," Ma Briskow confessed, as they left the Ajax. "A hotel would spoil me in no time."
"I couldn't keep her from makin' up the beds," Allie announced.
Gray took the elder woman's hand in his and scolded her gently. Smilingly, he lectured her on the art of doing nothing, and voiced some elemental truths about living.
"Mr. Briskow has but one idea, and that is to surround you two, and Buddy, with the advantages and luxuries you have been denied," he reminded her. "You owe it to him to get the most out of your money, and you mustn't begin by making hotel beds and robbing some poor woman of her livelihood. Not one person in ten really knows how to live, for it isn't an easy task, and the saddest thing about the newly rich is that they won't learn. They refuse to enjoy their wealth. I propose to help you good people get started, if you'll permit me. It is not with contrition, but with pride, that I recommend myself to you as one of the greatest living authorities upon extravagance, idleness, and the minor vices of the prosperous."
The mother nodded, a bit vaguely. "That's kind of like Pa talks. He sent you this, and says to tell you it's our first spendin' spree and act accordin'." From her pocket she drew a folded check, made out in blank to Calvin Gray and signed by Gus Briskow.
"So! I assume that I'm to pay the bills. Very well. The sky is the limit, eh?"
"That's it. Of course, I don't need anything for myself—this dress and bunnit are good enough—but Allie's got to have new fixin's, from the inside out. I s'pose her things'll eat up the best part of a hundred dollars, won't they?" The speaker's look of worried inquiry bespoke a lifetime of habitual economy.
"We're not going to buy what you need, but what you want. You're going to have just as many pretty things as Allie."
Ma was panic-stricken at this suggestion. When Gray insisted she demurred; when he told her that one nice dress would cost at least a hundred dollars, she confessed:
"Why, I don't s'pose all the clo's I've had since I was married cost much more 'n that."
"I'll spend at least a thousand on you before noon," he laughed.
Mrs. Briskow gasped, she rolled her eyes and fanned herself; she appealed to Allegheny, but it was evident that the latter had kept her eyes open and had done some thinking, for she broke out, passionately: "You make me sick, Ma! It'll take all Pa can afford, and then some, to make us look like other people. I never knew how plumb ridic'lous we are till—"
"Not that," Gray protested.
"You know we're ridic'lous," she cried, fiercely. "We're a couple of sow's ears and all Pa's royalties can't make us into silk purses. But—mebbe we can manage to look like silk, if we spend enough."
Gray determined that the girl should not be disappointed if he could help it, so he went directly to the head saleswoman of the first store, and asked her to assume the role of counselor where circumstance compelled him to relinquish it, explaining that in addition to hats, gowns, shoes, and the like, both Ma and Allie needed a variety of confidential apparel with which he had only the vaguest acquaintance. Although the woman agreed to his request, he found before long that his trust in her had been misplaced. Not only did she threaten to take advantage of her customers' ignorance, but also, to Gray's anger, she displayed a poorly veiled contempt for and amusement at his charges.
Allegheny was not long in feeling this. She had entered the establishment aquiver with hope and anticipation. This was her great adventure. She was like a timid child, enraptured at sight of its first tinseled Christmas tree; to have that ecstacy spoiled, to see the girl's tenderest sensibilities wounded by a haughty clerk, enraged the man who played Santa Claus. Abruptly he resumed charge of the Briskow purchases, and it gave him a pang to note how Allegheny ran to him with her hurt, as it were.
But matters did not progress as well as he had expected. Allie's disappointment at the death of her dream she hid under an assumption of indifference; she merely pawed over the pretty things shown her and pretended to ignore the ridicule she and her mother excited. But her face was stony, her eyes were hopeless, miserable.
For once in his life Calvin Gray was at a loss, and knowledge of that fact caused him to chew savagely at his cigar. To his bewildered companions he remained enthusiastic, effervescent, but behind their backs he glowered at the well-groomed customers and cursed the snickering models who paraded their wares. Engaged thus, he became aware of a stranger who looked on at the pitiful little comedy without amusement. She was a pretty thing. Gray stared at her openly and his scowl vanished. When she moved away, he made a sudden decision, excused himself, and followed her.
He was gratified at the manner in which she accepted his breathless apology for speaking to her, at the poise with which she listened while he made himself and his companions known to her and explained the plight in which he found himself.
"You can save the reason of a distracted man and add to the happiness of two poor, bewildered women, if you will," he concluded, earnestly. "It isn't a funny situation; it's tragic."
"What do you wish me to do?" the girl inquired.
"It's a lot to ask, I know, but won't you help them buy the things they need and save them from further humiliation at the hands of these highbrow clerks and lowbrow customers? I—I want to punch somebody in the nose."
"I was sure you did. That is what attracted my attention."
"You are a person of taste, if you will pardon a perfectly obvious compliment from a total stranger, and they need such a woman's guidance. But they need, even more, a little bit of feminine tact and sympathy. Look!" He showed Gus Briskow's blank check. "The whole store is theirs, if they wish it. Think what that ought to mean to two poor starved creatures who have never owned enough clothing to wad a shotgun."
"The girl is stunning. All she needs is the right sort of things—"
Impulsively Gray seized the speaker's hand. "I knew it!" he cried. "I can choose gowns for her, but how can I tell her the sort of—well, corsets she ought to wear? How can I select for her things a bachelor is presumed to know nothing about? Haven't you an hour or two in which to play Fairy Godmother?"
"I have all day," the young woman confessed. "I merely came in to yearn over the pretty things."
"O messenger from Heaven!" he cried, more hopefully. "Would it appear presumptuous if I asked you, in return for this favor, to select the very prettiest gown in this shop for your very own?"
The offer was refused pleasantly, but firmly. "I'd be paid ten times over by the fun of spending oodles of money even if it were not my own. But would they consent to have a stranger—?"
"If you will permit a tiny deceit, I'm sure they will. I shall burden my conscience with a white lie and pretend that you are a friend to whose judgment I have appealed. My poor conscience is scandalously overburdened, but—that girl is suffering!"
"I thought they must have struck oil. I've seen others like them."
Without further ado, Gray hurried his new acquaintance back to the dress department, then, in his easiest manner, introduced her to the Briskows. She flashed him a look of amusement as he glibly made her known as "Miss Good." He had invited Miss Good to join their picnic immediately upon hearing that Ma and Allie were coming to Dallas, and she had been overjoyed. Miss Good, as they could see, possessed unerring good taste, but what was more, she had a real genius for finding bargains. As a bargain hunter Miss Good was positively unique.
Ma Briskow pricked up her ears at this, soon she and the newcomer had their heads together, and within a few minutes Gray realized that his experiment was a success. The stranger possessed enthusiasm, but it was coupled with common sense, and before her sunshiny smile even Allegheny's sullen distrust slowly began to thaw. She drew Gray aside finally, and said: "It's all right. They're perfect dears, and, now, the best thing you can do is to take yourself off."
He agreed promptly, but cautioned her against economy. "That bargain-hunting remark was only a bait. Remember, Gus Briskow wants them to have everything, and be everything they should be, regardless of expense. Why, both he and I would like nothing better than to have Allegheny look like you, if that were possible."
Miss Good eyed the speaker curiously. "Who are you?" she inquired. "What are these nesters to you?"
"I am nobody. They were kind to me and I'm interested in their future."
"Are you a fortune hunter, Mr. Gray?"
"I am." Gray's face instantly lighted. "I am the most conscienceless fortune hunter you ever met, but—I am hunting my own fortune, not Allie Briskow's."
"You needn't laugh. She's very—unusual and—But I dare say you wouldn't tell me, anyhow."
"If I have excited your curiosity, I am delighted," Gray declared. "Please let me return at lunch time and gratify it. I promise to talk upon that subject which every man can discuss to best advantage—himself—and I pledge myself not to ask one single question about you, Miss Good. Not one—" He bowed ceremoniously over her hand. "Although, as you can imagine, I'm dying to ask a thousand."
The luncheon hour was long in arriving, and when it did come around Calvin Gray regretted that he had elected to play a game of make-believe with "Miss Good," for she rigidly held him to his promise, and however adroitly he undertook to ascertain who or what she was, she foiled him. It gave her a mischievous pleasure to evade his carefully laid conversational traps, and what little he learned came from Ma Briskow. Briefly, it amounted to this: Miss Good was what the elder woman called "home folks," but she had been schooled in the East. Moreover, she was in the oil business. This last bit of intelligence naturally intrigued the man, and he undertook to gain further illumination, but only to have the girl pretend that he knew all about it. He accepted this checkmate with the best possible grace, but revenged himself by assuming the airs and privileges of a friend more intimate even than Miss Good had implied, a pretense that confused and even annoyed her. For some reason this counterfeit pleased him; it was extremely agreeable even to pretend a close acquaintance with this girl.
The luncheon went off gaily enough, then Gray was again banished with instructions to return at closing time.
"You took a mean, a malicious advantage of an offer intended only to spare your feelings. And you haven't any," he told Miss Good when they had a chance for a word alone.
"I have no feelings?"
"None. Or you'd see that I'm perishing of curiosity."
She shook her head, and her blue eyes laughed at him provokingly. "Curiosity is fatal only to cats. It is good for people."
"I shall find out all about you."
"By cross-examining the Briskows, perhaps."
"But they're waiting to have you tell them what you know. I've seen to that."
"If they ask any questions, I'll invent a story. I'll act confused, self-conscious. I'll make them think you are a much dearer friend than I have pretended, so far; dearer, even, than I can hope you ever will be."
"That wouldn't be fair."
"There are occasions when everything is fair. Perhaps these store people know something—"
"Then, for Heaven's sake, release me from my pledge!" Gray spoke desperately. "When I return, permit me to ask those thousand questions, and what others occur to me. Won't you?"
The girl pondered this request briefly, then smiled. "Very well. If you are still curious, when you see me, I'll tell you who I am."
"A bargain! I'll be back early." More seriously, Gray declared: "I must tell you right now how perfectly splendid I think you are. You have completely renewed my belief in human kindness, and I'm sure your name must be Miss Good."
But a disappointment awaited Calvin Gray when, late that afternoon, he returned to the store. Miss Good had gone. At first he refused to believe Ma Briskow's statement, but it was true: she had disappeared as quietly and as unobtrusively as she had appeared, and, what was more annoying, she had left no word whatever for him. This was practical joking, for a certainty, and Gray told himself that he abhorred practical jokes. It was a jolt to his pride to have his attentions thus ignored, but what irked him most was the fact that he was stopped, by reason of his deceit, from making any direct inquiries that might lead to a further acquaintance with the girl.
Mrs. Briskow, however, was in no condition either to note his dismay or to volunteer information upon any except one subject; to wit, corns. Human hearts were of less concern to her, for the time being, than human feet, and hers were killing her. She began a recital of her sufferings, as intimate, as agonizing, and as confidential as if Gray were a practicing chiropodist. What she had to say about tight shoes was bitter in the extreme; she voiced a gloomy conviction that the alarming increase in suicides was due to bunions. The good woman confessed that she dearly loved finery and had bought right and left with reckless extravagance, but all the merchandise in this department store was not worth the anguish she had endured this day. With her stiff little bonnet tilted carelessly over her wrinkled forehead, she declared emphatically that she would gladly swap all her purchases at this moment for a tub of hot water.
"Where is Allie?" Gray inquired.
"Lord knows! She's som'eres around bein' worked over by a couple of women. Gettin' her hair washed an' her finger nails cured an' I dunno what not. Mercy me! The things Miss Good had 'em do to her! An' the money we've spent! Allie's gone hog wild." The complaint ended in a stifled moan induced perhaps by some darting pain, then without further ado Ma Briskow unbuttoned one shoe and removed it. "Whew!" She leaned back in her chair, wiggled her stockinged toes, and feebly fanned herself. "But wait till you see her. I can't scarcely reco'nize my own flesh an' blood. I never seen such a change in a human person."
Gray pretended to listen as the good woman babbled on, but he was thinking about the girl who had disappeared. He was surprised at the keenness of his chagrin. He had seen Miss Good but a short time, and she had made no effort whatever to excite his interest; nevertheless, she remained a tantalizingly vivid picture in his mind. It was extraordinary.
So engrossed was he in his thoughts that he did not notice Allegheny Briskow until she stood close beside him. Then, indeed, he experienced a shock, for it was difficult to recognize in this handsome, modish young woman the awkward, ill-dressed country girl he had seen at noon. Allie was positively stunning. She was completely transformed from the soles of her well-shod feet to the tip of her French coiffure, and what was more astonishing, she had lost much of her self-consciousness and carried herself with a native grace that became her well.
"Why, Allie!" Gray exclaimed. "You're wonderful! Let me see you." He stood off and gazed at her while she revolved before him.
"Sakes alive! Who'd ever s'pose you'd look like that!" the mother exclaimed.
"Miss Good told me I'd look nice, but I didn't believe her. Do I?"
"You're wonderful, Allie." Gray said it with conviction.
"Honest? You ain't laughin' at me?" The amazon's voice quavered.
"Can't you see? Look at yourself. I'm proud of you."
"I—She said—" Allegheny twisted her hands, she cast an appealing glance at her mother, but the latter was staring at her in open amazement, slowly nodding her head and clucking.
"Tse! Tse! Tse!" It was an approving cluck, and it had a peculiar effect upon the girl. Allegheny's tears started, she turned suddenly and hid her face in her hands.
Gray crossed quickly to her side, saying: "There! We've overdone it the first day, and you're tired."
"I ain't tired." His sympathy brought audible sobs; the girl's shoulders began to heave.
"Well, I am," the mother complained. "I'm wore to the bone. Allie! You dry up an' stop that snivelin' so we kin go home and I kin let my feet swell, an' scream."
"You're not too tired, I hope, to have dinner with Allie and me in the big dining room at the Ajax?" Gray said, gayly. "You'll be all right after an hour's rest, and—'I want to show her off, if her nose isn't too red."
"I 'ain't seen that girl cry in ten years," Ma declared, in mingled wonderment and irritation. "Why, she didn't cry when Number One blowed in."
Allie spoke between her sobs. "There wasn't nothin' to cry for, then. But—Miss Good said I—I'd look jest as purty as other folks when I got fixed up. An' he says—I do."
Gray decided that all women are vain. Nevertheless, it surprised him to discover the trait so early in Allegheny Briskow.
It was on the second day thereafter that Gus Briskow appeared at the hotel. He came unexpectedly, and he still wore his rough ranch clothes. After an hour or more spent with his wife and daughter, he went down to Gray's room and thanked him for the assistance he had rendered the two women.
Followed a few moments of desultory conversation, then he put an abrupt question: "Mr. Gray, you're a rich man, ain't you?"
"I—am so considered."
"Um-m! Dunno's I'm glad or sorry."
"Indeed! What difference can it make to you?"
"A lot. It's like this: my boy Buddy has took a turrible shine to you, an' he can't talk about nothin' else. I was sort of hopin'—"
"Buddy's ignerunt. He can read an' write an' figger some, but he's got about the same company manners as a steer, an' he's skeered of crowds. When he sees strangers he's liable to charge 'em or else throw up his head an' his tail an' run plumb over a cliff. He'd ought to go to school, but he says he's too big, an' he'd have to set with a lot of little children. Him an' Allie's alike, that way—it r'ars 'em up on their hind feet to be laughed at."
"Get a tutor for them."
"A what?" When Gray had explained the meaning of the word, Mr. Briskow's face cleared. "That's what I figgered on, but I didn't know what you called 'em. That's why I'm sorry you're so well off. Y' see I'd of paid you anything—I'd of doubled whatever you're gettin'—" The speaker raised a hopeful gaze; he paused as if to make sure that his hearer was beyond temptation. "I thought mebbe him and you'd like to travel some—go to furrin places—see the hull world. I kin afford it."
"Thank you for the compliment, but—"
"I got some big deals on, an' Buddy's got to learn enough so's to hang onto what's comin' to him an' Allie. He needs a man like you to learn him, an' be an example. It would be a payin' job, Mister Gray."
It was in a voice graver than usual that the younger man spoke: "Briskow, you're sensible enough to understand plain talk. I'm not a fit man to teach Buddy what he ought to know. In fact, I'm about the worst person you could select."
"Because I'm a good deal of a—rotter. I couldn't permit Buddy to make a mess of his life, such as I've made of mine."
The father sighed. "I s'pose you know, but—Well, I'm disapp'inted. But it wasn't hully on that account I come to Dallas. Ma told me over the telephone how nice you been an' what you done for her 'n' Allie, so I says to myself I'll square things by givin' him a chance to make some money."
Gray stirred slightly in his chair and regarded the speaker more keenly.
"When oil come in at Ranger, nobody thought it would get out our way, but Ma had a dream—a lot of dreams—about oil on our farm, so I got an outfit to come there an' drill. Folks thought we was crazy, and we didn't expect they'd find much, ourselves—a few bar'l a day would of looked big—but I allus had ambitions to be good an' rich, so I got options on quite a bit of acreage. It didn't take no money at the time, 'cause land was what people had most of. Along with the rest, there's a hundred an' sixty right next to ours—hill stuff that wouldn't feed a goat. It's wuth a lot of money now, but the option's 'most run out."
"When does it expire?"
Gus Briskow nodded. "It's cheap at a thousand dollars an acre, an' it costs two hundred."
"Of course you'll take it."
"Per one thing, I got a lot of other land just as good an' mebbe better, an' I been takin' it up out of the royalties that come in. We got enough sure money in sight to do us, but I promised Ma to play safe, an'—we can't take everything. You kin have that option, Mister Gray, for nothin'. You kin sell the lease inside of a week an' make fifty thousand dollars, or you kin hold it an' make mebbe a million. All it'll cost you is thirty-two thousand dollars. I don't make a cent out of it."
"Thirty-two thousand dollars! Not much, is it?"
"It ain't nothin' to a man like you."
Gray nodded and smiled queerly as he thanked the nester, then from his pockets he removed several crumpled wads of currency and a handful of silver. These he counted before saying: "What capital I have is entirely liquid—it's all in cash. There is eighty-seven dollars and forty-three cents. It is every dollar in the world that I possess."
"Huh?" Gus Briskow's bright eyes searched the smiling countenance before him. "You're—jokin'. I thought you said you was rich."
"I am rich. I don't owe a nickel, and won't, until my hotel bill is due, day after to-morrow. I'm in full possession of all my faculties. I'm perfectly healthy and cheerful. I know men who would pay a million dollars for my health alone, and another million to enjoy my frame of mind. That's two million—"
"Well—doggone me!" There was a pause, then the speaker brightened. "Mebbe you'll take Buddy, after all? You kin set your own wages."
Gray shook his head. "There are two good reasons why I couldn't accept, even if I wished. I've told you one; I'm too fond of you Briskows to risk ruining Buddy."
"What's the other one?"
"A purely personal reason. I have a definite something to do here in Texas. Before I can accomplish it, I shall have to make a lot of money, but that I shall do easily. I make money rapidly when I start."
"You gotta git goin' afore long." Briskow allowed his eyes to rove about the spacious Governor's suite. "'Specially with only eighty-seven forty—"
"That is nearly eighty-seven dollars more than I had when I arrived. Three weeks ago I was an utter stranger here; to-day I know everybody worth knowing in a business way, and some of them are my friends."
"If you could learn Buddy to make friends like that—"
But Gray raised his hand. "I derive a certain amusement from my own peculiar characteristics and capabilities, but I should detest them in another."
"Well, you sure need money, and—I kin he'p you out."
"Thank you, but I sha'n't borrow. If the time were not so short, I could probably turn this lease you so kindly offered me. But something else will happen along."
Briskow sighed. "I could of sold it myself—thought I had it sold to a bunch from Wichita, but they tricked me. I offered it the day you was at our house for eighty thousand and Nelson more 'n half agreed to—"
Briskow looked up at the tone of this inquiry. "One of the fellers from Wichita Falls. I s'pose he knowed the option was about run out; anyhow, he's been holdin' me off from day to day till it's too late now fer me to—"
"What is his name?" Gray broke in, sharply. "Name's Nelson. Bell Nelson's son. Bell's hard-boiled, but—"
Gray rose from his chair and strode swiftly to the window. He stood there staring down into the street for a moment before saying, curtly, "Go on!"
"You know them Nelsons?"
"He's hard-boilder 'n his old man. They got a lot o' money behind 'em—too much money to act like he done with me. I sure hate to see him git that Evans lease for next to nothin', after the way he done. I'd call it cheat-in', but—well, I can't han'le it."
The man at the window wheeled suddenly and his face was white, his brows were drawn down. "By God!" he cried, tensely. "He won't get it. Where's that option?"
"I got it right here." Briskow handed over a paper. "An' I got the hull title abstrack, too. Had it all ready for Nelson."
When he had swiftly scanned the document, Gray said: "This deal means little to you, Briskow, but it means much to me, and I'll make it worth something to both of us. At first I thought the time was too short, but—I work best when I work fast. You've had your chance and failed. Now then, step aside and let a man run who knows how."
Mr. Roswell, president of the bank where Gray had first made himself known, was a shrewd, forceful man who had attained a position in business and arrived at a time of life when he could well afford to indulge his likes and his dislikes. Those likes and dislikes were strong, for his was a positive character. As is the case with most successful men who pride themselves upon their cold caution and business acumen—and Mr. Roswell did so pride himself—he really was a person of impulse, and intuition played a much larger part in his conduct of affairs than he would have acknowledged. Such people make mistakes, but they also make friends; occasionally they read character wrong, but they inspire loyalty, and big institutions are founded upon friendship and loyalty as well as upon stability and fair dealing.
Roswell had liked Gray upon their first meeting, and that liking had deepened. Owing to that fact, he had neglected to secure a report upon him, assuring himself that there was always time for such formalities. He was cordial to-day when Gray strode into his office bringing Gus Briskow with him.
The banker listened with interest to what he was told, then he studied the map that Briskow spread upon his desk showing the location of his own and other near-by wells.
"That looks like a sure thing," Roswell said, finally. "As sure as anything in oil can be. What is on your mind?"
"I'd like to get the opinion of the bank's oil expert," Gray told him.
This was a matter easily disposed of; the expert was summoned and he rendered a prompt opinion. He knew the property; he considered it a cheap lease at a thousand dollars an acre. It was proven stuff and within thirty days it would probably treble in value. When he had gone, the banker smiled.
"Well, Gray," said he, "I knew you'd land something good. You're a hustler. You'll make a fortune out of that land."
Gray handed him Gus Briskow's option, and the assignment thereof, the ink upon which was scarcely dry. "There's the joker. It expires to-morrow night and—it will go to the Nelsons. They've double-crossed Mr. Briskow."
"Then don't let them get away with it. Take it yourself."
"It is now three o'clock and this is the golfing season in New York," Gray told him. "I couldn't reach my—associates and get any action before Monday."
"No funds of your own available?"
"Not enough, at such short notice."
"That lease is worth one hundred and sixty thousand dollars, isn't it?" The banker nodded. "I'm going to sell it before six o'clock for—eighty thousand. I know people here who will take it, but I've come first to you. Get together a little syndicate right here in the bank, and buy it. I'll agree to take it off your hands within thirty days at one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. In other words, it is worth to me eighty thousand dollars to have you carry it for a month."
"Is your guaranty any good?"
"That is for you to determine. Assume that it is not, and I'll better my first offer. I'll undertake to sell off the land in twenties right here in Dallas, double your money, and divide the profits thereafter with you. It is a safe speculation and a quick one. You know I can put it through."
Mr. Roswell considered briefly before replying. "There's no use denying that we've made money on deals like this—everybody has. So it's nothing new. There's a big play on Ranger stuff and we couldn't lose. But I know nothing about you except the little you've told me. When I go into a deal I put my trust more in the man than the proposition."
"And I trust my own judgment of human character more than that of strangers," Gray said, quickly. "So do you. Thirty days is a long time with me, and the oil business is just my speed. Permit me to remind you that time is flying and that I have given myself only three hours in which to turn this property. I intend to beat Nelson, and apply that beating on account of an old score. This is more than a mere business deal."
"I like your energy," the banker confessed, "and I'm inclined to bet some of my own money on you. Now"—he pushed a button on his desk—"let's see if there are any others here who feel as I do." It was early evening when Gus Briskow returned to his wife's and his daughter's rooms at the Ajax. He slipped in quietly and sank into a chair.
"Mercy me! I thought you was run over," Ma Briskow exclaimed.
"I feel like I was," the nester declared, with a grin. "Say! Mister Gray sold the Evans lease an'—we got more money than ever."
"Then mebbe you can afford a new suit," Allie told him. "You look like sin."
Her father nodded, but his mind was full of the incidents of that afternoon and he began at once to recount them. He told the story badly, but in a language that the women understood. He had not gone far, however, when the girl interrupted him to exclaim:
"Wait! Why, Pa! You mean to say Mister Gray 'ain't got no money?"
"He had less 'n a hundred dollars. An' him livin' here like a king with everybody bowin' an' scrapin'!"
Ignoring the effect upon Allie of this intelligence, he continued his recital. "All I done was set around while him an' them bank people talked it over," he said, finally. "Then they got their lawyer in an' he examined the title papers. Seemed like he'd never git through, but he did, an' they signed some things an' we come out, an' Mister Gray told me I'd made forty-eight thousand dollars."
"Goodness me!" Ma Briskow's eyes widened. "Why, that Evans place ain't wuth the taxes."
"It's more 'n likely wuth a million. But think! Him tellin' me I'd made forty-eight thousand dollars! It give me a jolt, an' I says I didn't make it. I told him I'd fell down an' turned the hull thing over to him. 'It's you that's made forty-eight thousand,' I says."
"What?" Allie inquired, sharply. Then when her father had repeated himself, she asked with even greater intensity: "Wha'd he say to that? He didn't take it, did he?"
"He laughed kinda queer an' says all I got to do to give him a good night's rest is to wire Henry Nelson the deal's closed. An' him with less 'n a hundred dollars!"
Allie spoke again in great relief. "Lord! You give me a turn." Her expression altered, her lips parted in a slow smile. "So! He's pore, eh? Pore as we was. Well, I declare!" She rose and turned her back upon her father.
"No, he ain't pore," Briskow said, irritably. "Not now he ain't. I says it's his deal an' his money, an' we got plenty. An' I stuck to it."
Allie wheeled suddenly at this announcement. She uttered a cry of protest; then, "What are you talkin' about?" she roughly demanded.
"We had some argyment an' I got kinda r'iled. Finally he says if I feel that way we'll go pardners. He wouldn't listen to nothin' else, an'—that's how it stands. He made twenty-four thousand an' I—"
Gus Briskow looked up with a start to find his daughter standing over him, her face ablaze, her deep bosom heaving. He stared at her in frank amazement, doubting his senses. Never had Allegheny used toward him a word, a tone like this, never had he seen her look as she did at this moment. He could not believe his eyes, for the girl had become a scowling fury, and she seemed upon the verge of destroying him with her strong hands, a task she was amply able to accomplish.
"Allie-Allie!" the mother gasped. She, too, was aghast. "You—you're talkin' to your pa!"
"You give him twenty-four thousan' dollars? Give it to him? Wha'd you do it for? Wha'd you—?" Allie's voice failed her completely, she groped at her throat, uttering unintelligible, animal-like sounds.
"Why, Allie, you're mad! And after all he done for me an' you," Mrs. Briskow cried, accusingly. "You oughter be ashamed."
"Sure! Didn't he make us twenty-four thousan' dollars, where we wouldn't of got nothin'? An' us rich as we are, an' him broke? I'm supprised at you." A harsh exclamation burst from the girl—to the astonished parents it sounded like an oath, but it could not have been—then she swung herself heavily about and rushed blindly into the next room, slamming the stout metal door behind her with a crash that threatened to unhinge it.
"Well, I be—darned!" Gus Briskow turned a slack, empty face upon the partner of his joys. "I—I never s'posed that girl would turn out—greedy."
The mother's countenance slowly wrinkled into lines of grief and worry, she wrung her hands and rocked from side to side. "I dunno what's come over the child," she moaned, tearfully. "She behaves so queer over them silk stockin's an' corsets an' lingeries an' things that she skeers me. Sometimes I'm afeerd she's goin' crazy—or something."
No industry can boast a history more dramatic, more exciting, than that of oil. From the discovery of petroleum, on through the development of its usefulness and the vast expansion of its production, the story is one of intense human interest, and not even the story of mining has chapters more stirring or more spectacular.
The average man has never stopped to consider how close he is to the oil business or how dependent he is upon it; from babyhood, when his nose is greased with vaseline, to the occasion when a motor hearse carries him on his last journey, there is not often a day when he fails to make use of mineral oil or some of its by-products. Ocean liners and farmers' plows are driven by it; it takes the rich man to his office and it cleans the shopgirl's gloves; it gives us dominion over the air and beneath the waters of the sea. We live in a mechanical age, and without oil our bearings would run hot and civilization, as we know it, would stop. It is the very blood of the earth.
Oil production is a highly specialized industry, and it has developed a type of man with a type of mind quite as characteristic as the type of machinery employed in the drilling of wells. The latter, for instance, appears at first glance to be crude and awkward, but as a matter of fact it is amazingly ingenious and extremely efficient, and your oil-field operator is pretty much the same. Nor is there any business in which practical experience is more valuable. As a result, most of the big oil men, especially those engaged in production, are graduates of the school of hard knocks; they are big-fisted, harsh-handed fellows who are as thoroughly at home on the "thribble board" of a derrick as at a desk or a directors' table, and they are quite as colorful as the oil fields themselves. Their lives are full and vigorous.
Of all the oil excitements, that which occurred in North Texas was perhaps the most remarkable; at any rate, the world has never witnessed such scenes as were enacted there. The California gold rush, the great Alaskan stampede, the diamond frenzies of South Africa and of Australia, all were epic in their way, but none bred a wilder insanity than did the discovery of oil in the Red River district.
For one thing, the time was ripe and conditions were propitious for the staging of an unprecedented drama. The enormous wastage of a world's war, resulting in a cry for more production, a new level of high prices for crude, rumors of an alarming shortage of supply, the success of independent producers, large and small—all these, and other reasons, too, caused many people hitherto uninterested to turn their serious attention to petroleum. The country was prosperous, banks were bulging with money, pockets were stuffed with profits; poor men had the means with which to gamble and rich men were looking for quicker gains. Inasmuch as the world had lived for four years upon a steady diet of excitement, it was indeed the psychological moment for a spectacular boom.
The strike at Ranger lit the fuse, the explosion came with the first gush of inflammable liquid from the Fowler farm at Burkburnett. Then, indeed, a conflagration occurred, the comprehensive story of which can never be written, owing to the fact that no human mind could follow the swift events of the next few tumultuous months, no brain could record it. Chaos came. Life in the oil fields became a phantasmagoria of ceaseless action and excitement—a fantastic stereopticon that changed hourly.
"Burk" was a sleepy little town, dozing amid parched wheat fields. The paint was off it; nothing much more exciting than a crop failure ever happened there. The main topic of conversation was the weather and, as Mark Twain said, everybody talked about it, but nothing was done. Within sixty days this soporific village became a roaring bedlam; every town lot was leased, derricks rose out of chicken runs, boilers panted in front yards, mobs of strangers surged through the streets and the air grew shrill with their bickerings. From a distance, the sky line of the town looked like a thick nest of lattice battle masts, and at night it blazed like Coney Island.
The black-lime territory farther south had proven too expensive for individual operators and small companies to handle, but here the oil was closer to the surface and the ground was easily drilled, hence it quickly became known as a poor man's pool. Then, too, experienced oil men and the large companies who had seen town-site booms in other states, kept away, surrendering the place to tenderfeet and to promoters. Of these, thousands came, and never was there a harvest so ripe for their gleaning.
Naturally a little country town like this could not hold the newcomers, therefore Wichita Falls became their headquarters. Here there were at least a few hotels and some sort of office quarters—sheds beneath which the shearing could take place—and there the herd assembled.
Of course, the cougars followed, and, oh, the easy pickings for them! A fresh kill daily. Warm meat with every meal. Such hunting they had never known, hence they gorged themselves openly, seldom quarreling among themselves nor even bothering to conceal the carcasses of their prey. It was easier to pull down a new victim than to return to the one of the day before.
Rooming houses slept their guests in relays, canvas dormitories sprang up on vacant lots, the lobbies of the hotels were packed with shouldering maniacs until they resembled wheat pits, the streets were clogged with motor cars, and the sidewalks were jammed like subway platforms. Store fronts were knocked out and the floor space was railed off into rows of tiny bull-pen brokers' offices, and in these companies by the hundred were promoted. Stock in them was sold on the sidewalks by bally-hoo men with megaphone voices. It seldom required more than a few hours to dispose of an entire issue, for this was a credulous and an elated mob, and its daily fare was exaggeration. Stock exchanges were opened up where, amid frenzied shoutings, went on a feverish commerce in wildcat securities; shopgirls, matrons, housemaids gambled in shares quite as wildly as did the unkempt disreputables from the oil fields or the newcomers spilled out of every train. People trafficked not in oil, but in stocks and in leases, the values of which were entirely chimerical.
But this speculative frenzy was by no means local. Burkburnett became a name to conjure with and there was no lack of conjurers. These latter spread to the four points of the compass, and the printing presses ran hot to meet their demands. A flood of money flowed into their pockets. While this boom was at its height a new pool, vaster and richer, was penetrated and the world heard of the Northwest Extension of the Burkburnett field, a veritable lake—an ocean—of oil. Then a wilder madness reigned. Daily came reports of new wells in the Extension with a flush production running up into the thousands of barrels. There appeared to be no limit to the size of this deposit, and now the old-line operators who had shunned the town-site boom bid feverishly against the promoters and the tenderfeet for acreage. Farms and ranches previously all but worthless were cut up into small tracts and drilling sites, and these were sold for unheard-of prices. Up leaped another forest of skeleton towers some ten miles long and half as wide.
But this was the open range with nothing except the sky for shelter, so towns were knocked together—queer, greasy, ramshackle settlements of flimsy shacks—and so quickly were they built that they outran the law, which is ever deliberate. The camps of the black-lime district, which had been considered hell holes, were in reality models of order compared with these mushroom cities of raw boards, tar paper, and tin. Gambling joints, dance halls, and dens more vicious flourished openly, and around them gathered the scum and the flotsam that crests a rising tide.
Winter brought the rains, and existence in the new fields became an ugly and a troublesome thing. Roads there were none, and supplies became difficult to secure. The surface of the land melted and spinning wheels churned it; traffic halted, vehicles sank, horses drowned. Between rains the sun dried the mud, the wind whirled it into suffocating clouds. Sandstorms swept over the miserable inhabitants; tornadoes, thick with a burden of cutting particles, harried them until they cursed the fate that had brought them thither.