But in Wichita Falls, where there was shelter overhead and pavements underfoot, the sheep shearing proceeded gayly.
Of the men engaged in this shearing business, none, perhaps, had gathered more wool in the same length of time than the two members of the firm of McWade & Stoner. Mr. Billy McWade, junior partner, was a man of wide experience and some accomplishments, but until his arrival at Wichita Falls he had never made a conspicuous success of any business enterprise. The unforeseen invariably had intervened to prevent a killing. Either a pal had squealed, or the postal authorities had investigated, or a horse had fallen—anyhow, whenever victory had perched upon his banner something always had happened to frighten the bird before its wings were fairly folded.
Mr. McWade had finally determined to wipe off the slate and commence all over. Accordingly, he had selected a new field, and, in order to make it a real standing start, he had likewise chosen a new name. He had arrived at Wichita Falls with one suit of clothes and nothing more, except an assortment of contusions ranging in color from angry red to black-and-blue, these same being the direct result of repeated altercations with roughshod members of a train crew. These collisions McWade had not sought. On the contrary, when, for instance, outside the yards at Fort Worth his unobtrusive presence on the blind baggage had been discovered, he had done his best to avoid trouble. He had explained earnestly that he simply must leave the city by that particular train. The circumstances were such that no other train would do at all, so he declared. When he had been booted off he swung under and rode the trucks to the next stop. There a man with a lantern had searched him out, much as a nigger shines the eyes of a possum, and had dragged him forth. He was dragged forth at the second stop, and again at the third. Finally, the train was halted far out on a lonely prairie and a large brakeman with gold teeth and corns on his palms held a knee upon Mr. McWade's chest until the train started. Ignoring the hoarse warning breathed into his dusty countenance, along with the odor of young onions, the traveler argued volubly, but with no heat, that it was vitally necessary to his affairs that he continue this journey without interruption; then, when the brakeman rose and raced after the departing train, he sprang to his feet and outran him. McWade was lithe and nervous and fleet; he managed to swing under the last Pullman at the same instant his captor reached its rear platform.
It is probable that a blithe determination even such as this would have eventually succumbed to repeated discouragements, but at the next stop, a watering tank, aid came from an unexpected quarter. From the roof of the car another knight of the road signaled, and thither McWade clambered, kicking off the clutching hand of his former enemy.
The second traveler was a robust man, deliberate but sure of movement, and his pockets were filled with nuts and bolts. This ammunition he divided with his companion, and such was their unerring aim that they maintained their sanctuary for the remainder of the journey.
On the way in to Wichita Falls the stranger introduced himself as Brick Stoner. He was a practical oil man, a driller and a sort of promoter, too. It was his last promotion, he confided, that had made it necessary for him to travel in this fashion. He had many practical ideas, had Mr. Stoner, as, for instance, the use to be made of a stick with a crook in it or a lath with a nail in the end. Armed thus, he declared, it was possible for a man on the roof of a sleeping car to pick up a completely new wardrobe in the course of a night's ride, provided the upper berths were occupied and the ventilators were open. Mr. Stoner deeply regretted the lack of such a simple aid, but agreed that it was better to leave well enough alone.
McWade warmed to his traveling companion, and they talked of many things, such as money and finance, sudden riches, and ways and means. This led them back naturally to a discussion of Stoner's latest promotion; he called it the Lost Bull well, and the circumstances connected therewith he related with a subtlety of humor rare in a man of his sorts. The nature of the story appealed keenly to McWade, and it ran like this: Stoner had been working in the Louisiana gas fields near the scene of a railroad accident—three bulls had strayed upon the right of way with results disastrous to a freight train and fatal to themselves. After the wreckage had been cleared away, the claim agent settled with the owner of the bulls and the carcasses were buried in an adjoining field. This had occurred some time prior to Stoner's arrival; in fact, it was only by chance that he heard of it.
One day in passing the spot Stoner noticed a slight depression in the ground, filled with water through which occasional bubbles of gas rose. Being of an inquisitive turn of mind, he had amused himself with some experiments and found that the gas was inflammable. Moreover, it gave off an odor not unlike that of natural gas. It was a phenomenon of decomposition new to the driller, and it gave him a great idea. He went to town and very cautiously told of his discovery—a gas seepage, with traces of oil. His story caused a sensation, and he led several of the wealthiest citizens to the spot, then watched them in all gravity while they ignited the gas, smelled it, tasted the soil. They were convinced. They appointed Stoner their agent to buy the farm, under cover, which he did at a nice profit—to himself. This profit he spent in riotous living while a rig was being moved upon the ground. Not until the derrick was up and the crew, in the presence of the excited stockholders, came to "spud in," was the true source of that gas discovered—then the enterprise assumed such a bad odor that bystanders fled and Mr. Stoner was forced to leave the state without his baggage.
This had been the nature of McWade's and Stoner's meeting; on the roof of that swaying Pullman they laid the corner stone of their partnership.
Arrived at Wichita Falls, Stoner went into the field and McWade obtained employment in a restaurant. It was a position of trust, for upon him developed the entire responsibility of removing the traces of food from the used dishes, and drying them without a too great percentage of breakage. It kept McWade upon his feet, but, anyhow, he could not sit with comfort, and it enabled him, in the course of a week, to purchase a change of linen and to have his suit sponged and pressed. This done, he resigned and went to the leading bank, where he opened an account by depositing a check drawn upon a Chicago institution for fifty thousand dollars. McWade made it a practice always to have a few blank checks on hand. Airily, but in all earnestness, he invited the Texas bank to verify the check at its convenience.
So many were the strangers in Wichita Falls, so great the rush of new customers, that the banks had no means of investigating their accounts except by wiring at their own expense. This was Saturday afternoon, which gave McWade two days of grace, so he pocketed his new pass and check books, then mingled with the crowd at the Westland Hotel. He bought leases and drilling sites, issuing local checks in payment thereof—nobody could question the validity of those checks with the evidence of fifty thousand dollars deposited that very day—and on Sunday he sold them. By the time the Wichita Falls bank opened its doors on Monday morning he had turned his last lease and had made ten thousand dollars.
A few days later he and Stoner incorporated their first company. This was at the height of the town-site boom, and within a few hours McWade had sold the stock. Thereafter prosperity dogged the pair, and before long they had made reputations for themselves as the only sure-fire wildcat promoters in town. McWade possessed the gift of sidewalk oratory; Stoner posed as the practical field man whose word upon prospects was final. He it was who did the investigating, the "experting"; his partner was the bally-hoo.
But competition grew steadily keener, other promoters followed their lead, and it became necessary to introduce new and original methods of gathering an audience. Mere vocal persuasiveness did not serve to arrest the flow of pedestrians, and so McWade's ingenuity was taxed. But he was equal to the task; seldom did he fail of ideas, and, once he had the attention of a crowd, the rest was easy.
One morning he and his partner provided themselves with some dice and several hundred dollars in gold coin. With these they began shooting craps on the sidewalk in front of their office. Now gambling was taboo, hence the spectacle of two expensively dressed, eminently prosperous men squatting upon their heels with a stack of double eagles before them caused a sensation, and people halted to witness their impending arrest. Soon traffic was blocked.
The gamblers remained engrossed in their pastime, as well they could, having thoughtfully arranged the matter with the policeman on duty; gravely they breathed upon the cubes; earnestly they called upon "Little Joe," "Long Liz," "Ada," and the rest; silently they exchanged their stacks of gold pieces as they won or lost.
Calvin Gray, but just arrived from Dallas, looked on at the game with some curiosity, not divining its purpose, until McWade pocketed the dice, then mounted a box at the curb and began, loudly:
"Now, gentlemen, that is one way of making money, but it is a foolish and a hazardous way. There is a much saner, safer method, and I'm going to tell you about it. Don't pass on until you hear me, for I have a most incredible story to relate, and you'll be sorry you missed it."
There was a ripple of appreciative laughter, but the crowd pressed closer as the orator continued:
"You've all heard about these 'doodlebugs' who go around locating oil with a divining rod, haven't you? And you don't believe in them. Of course you don't. Neither do I. I can't put any trust in willow twigs, but—we'll all admit that there are forces of nature that we don't understand. Who can explain the principle of magnetic attraction, for instance? What causes the glowing splendor of the Aurora Borealis? What force holds the compass needle to the north? What makes a carpet tack jump onto a magnet like"—the speaker paused and stared hard at a member of his audience who had passed a humorous remark at his expense—"just like I'll jump you, stranger, if you don't keep your trap closed. I say who can read those secrets, who can harness those forces? The man who can has got the world by the tail and a downhill pull. Now then, for the plot of my story, and it will pay you to do a week of listening in the next five minutes. Awhile ago an eminent scientist, unknown to me or to my partner, Mr. Stoner, came into our office, which is at your backs, one flight up, second door to the right, and showed us an electrical device he has been working on for the last eight years. He claimed he had it perfected and that it would indicate the presence of oil on the same principle that one mineral attracts another. 'Oil is a mineral,' said he, 'and I think I've got its magnetic complement. I believe my invention will work.'
"'I'll bet a thousand dollars it won't,' I told him. But what do you think that pilgrim did? He took me up. Then he bet Stoner another thousand that I'd made a bad bet." McWade grinned in sympathy with the general amusement. "We arranged a thorough test. We took him, blindfolded, through the field, and, believe me or not, he called the turn on forty-three wells straight and never missed it once. Call it a miracle if you choose, but it cost Brick and me two thousand iron men, and I've got ten thousand more that says he can do the trick for you. I'll let a committee of responsible citizens take a dozen five-gallon cans and fill one with oil and the rest with water and set them in a row behind a brick wall. My ten, or any part of it, says his electric wiggle stick will point to the one with the oil. What do you say to that? Here's a chance for a quick clean-up. Who cares to take me on?"
From the edge of the crowd Gray watched the effect of this offer. Divining rods, he well knew, were as old as the oil industry, but he was surprised to see that fully half of this audience appeared to put faith in the claim, and the other half were not entirely skeptical. A man at his side began reciting an experience of his own.
McWade now introduced the miracle worker himself, and Gray rose on tiptoe to see him. A moment, then he smiled widely, for the eminent scientist was none other than Mr. Mallow—Mallow, a bit pallid and pasty, as if from confinement, and with eyes hidden behind dark goggles. With a show of some embarrassment, the inventor displayed his tester, a sufficiently impressive device with rubber handles and a resistance coil attached to a dry battery, which he carried in his pocket.
Gray looked on as the comedy was played out. It transpired that Professor Mallow had tested, among other properties, the newest McWade-Stoner lease, a company to drill which had just been formed under the title of "The Desert Scorpion," and he really judged from the behavior of his machine that a remarkable pool underlaid the tract. He was willing to risk his reputation upon the guaranty that the first well would produce not less than three thousand barrels a day. He was interested in the out-come only from a scientific standpoint; he owned not one single share of stock. Then McWade resumed his sway over the crowd, and soon shares in "The Desert Scorpion" were selling rapidly.
Shortly after lunch, Mallow and the two partners were seated in the office upstairs, their work done for the day. Another successful promotion had gone to the credit of McWade and Stoner; all three were in a triumphal mood. Mallow was recounting a story that had just come to his ears.
"Remember that old silver tip that took a stand in front of the Owl Drug Store a few days back? He called his company 'The Star of Hope.'"
Stoner nodded. "He had a good piece of ground, right adjoining the Moon Petroleum tract—three wells down to the sand. I wondered how he ever got hold of it."
"He didn't. That's the big laugh. He didn't own that land at all. He just had himself a map drawn, with the numbers changed. His ground was a mile away. He sold his stock in two days, thirty-five thousand shares, then he blew. Some Coal-oil John, who had plunged for about three shares, got to studying his own map, found there was something wrong and let up a squawk. But Silver Tip had faded like the mists of early morn—thirty-five stronger than he was. Snappy work, eh?"
McWade frowned his disapproval. "Something ought to be done to stop those crooks or they'll kill us legitimate promoters. You can't sting a crowd too often in the same spot."
There came a knock at the door, and in answer to an invitation to enter it opened. The next instant both McWade and Stoner sat erect in their chairs, with eyes alert and questioning, for at sight of the stranger Mallow had leaped to his feet with a smothered exclamation, and now stood with his back to the desk and with his head outthrust in a peculiar attitude of strained intensity.
"Well, well, Mallow!" The caller's face broke into an engaging smile as he crossed the threshold. "Still wearing dark glasses, eh? I'm afraid you didn't heed my instructions."
Mallow spoke huskily, "What the hell you doing here?"
"Following the excitement, merely. I shall open an office and spend a good deal of my time in Wichita Falls. I hoped I'd find you here, for this morning I heard you describe your invention and—admiration overcame me. I felt constrained to congratulate you upon your scientific attainments. Marvelous, my dear Doctor! Or is it Professor Mallow?" The speaker laughed heartily. "Won't you introduce me to these—let us say magnetic forces of nature that you have discovered?" He indicated the two partners.
"What do you want?" Mallow barked.
"Momentary agitation has robbed our Professor of his habitual politeness—a not unusual phenomenon of the preoccupied scientific mind." These words were directed at McWade and Stoner. "My name is Gray. Perhaps Doctor Mallow has made mention of me."
"So you're the lad that threw pepper in his eyes?" Brick Stoner stared at the newcomer with undisguised interest. He rose, as did McWade. "I'll say we've heard of you. Your name's getting as common as safety-razor blades. You've been cleaning up, haven't you?"
"Um-m, moderately." Calvin Gray shook hands with the promoters, then to the agitated Mallow, who still peered at him apprehensively, he said: "Come, come! Let down your hammer! Uncoil!"
"Listen, you!" the other burst forth. "I beat that thing out. I'm clean and I don't intend to go back. You're a strong guy and you got a bunch of kale, and you're a getter, but the taller they come the harder they fall. You can be had." The speaker was desperate; his face was flushed with anger, the tone of his voice was defiant and threatening.
Gray helped himself to a chair, crossed his legs, and lit a cigar. McWade and Stoner neither moved nor spoke.
"My dear Mallow, you wrong me." In the newcomer's voice there was no longer any mockery. "I gave you credit for more intelligence. We played our little farce and it is done—the episode is closed, so far as I am concerned. I supposed you understood that much. I helped you and I came here to enlist your help."
"You helped me?" Mallow showed his teeth in a snarl.
"Precisely. Think a moment. Was it not odd that I failed to appear against you? That the case was never pressed, the prosecution dropped?"
"I s'pose you were afraid to go through. Thought I'd get you."
Gray shook his head impatiently. "Afraid? Of you? Oh, Mallow! Had I feared your majestic wrath, do you think I would have arranged for that doctor to see you every day? And paid his bill? Who, pray, sent in those good things for you to eat?"
There was a pause.
Again there was silence.
"For one thing, I was sorry for you. I really was. I had caused you and Tony a great deal of suffering, and I cannot bring myself to inflict actual suffering upon anyone without doing my best to alleviate it. Then again, I had nothing against you personally. We merely clashed in the course of—business." Mallow allowed himself to sink back upon the desk; he turned his dark goggles upon his friends in a blind stare of bewilderment.
"Well, I'll be damned!" he said, finally.
"Mallow thought we had helped to spring him." It was McWade speaking. "That's why he beat it up here and that's how we happened to put him to work."
"I don't get you yet," the man in glasses muttered. "I can't understand why—"
"What's the odds why he done it?" Stoner inquired, sharply. "Any man that can squirt my eyes full of tobasco, and me with a six gun on him, is all right. And him with a bottle of milk duly made and provided!" The field member of the firm slapped his thigh and laughed loudly. "Then to forget the whole fracas and shake hands on it! That's handsome! Mr. Gray, I'm here to say there's a lot of boys going to lay off you like you was a cactus."
The object of this commendation was pleased. "Gratitude is rare," he murmured. "I thank you. Now then, I was thinking of making friend Mallow a business proposition, but—perhaps I can interest you, also, in doing something for me. I'll pay well."
"We're live ones," Stoner asserted.
"It is business of a confidential nature."
"All the talking we do is on the street. We're promoting wildcats, but I guess we know as much about the good wells as the big companies themselves, and when it comes to actual drilling, I've forgotten more than all these boll weevils will ever learn. What can we do for you?"
"For one thing, I wish to hire the brightest oil scout in the district, but I don't want him, nor anyone else, for the time being, to suspect that he's working for me. I will double his salary to watch one operator. Perhaps he could appear to be in your employ? Furthermore, I intend to do considerable secret buying and selling, and I will need several dummies—moral character unimportant. All I insist upon is absolute loyalty and obedience to my orders."
During the silence that followed, Gray felt the three men staring at him curiously.
"You're after big game, I take it?" McWade inquired, mildly.
"The biggest in these woods."
"One man, did you say?"
"A yacht is too expensive for most men, but they don't burn money as fast as a grudge."
"This one will take his last dollar—or mine."
"We're a legitimate firm, you know—"
Gray's eyes twinkled as he exclaimed: "Exactly! If I have caused you to infer that I shall employ anything except legitimate means to effect my purpose, it is my error. At the same time, my proposition is not one that I could well afford to take to the ordinary, conservative type of broker. Now then, how about you, Mallow? Would you care to work for me?"
The latter's pale face broke into a grin. "I am working for you," he declared. "I've been on your pay roll now for five minutes. What's more, if it'll save money to croak this certain party and be done with it, why, maybe that can be arranged, too. My new wiggle stick may not find oil every crack, but I bet I can make it point to half a dozen men who—"
Gray lifted an admonitory hand. "Patience! It may come to something like that, but I intend to break him first. Can I arrive at terms with you gentlemen?"
"Write your own ticket," McWade declared, and Mr. Stoner echoed this statement with enthusiasm.
"Very well! Details later. Now, I shall give myself the pleasure of calling upon my man and telling him exactly what I intend doing." The speaker rose and shook hands with the three precious scoundrels. When the door had closed behind him McWade inquired: "Now what do you make of that? Going to serve notice on his bird!"
"Say! He's the hardest guy I ever saw," Stoner declared, admiringly. Mallow spoke last, but he spoke with conviction. "You said it, Brick. I had his number from the start. He's a master crook, and—it'll pay us all to string with him."
Henry Nelson's activities in the oil fields did not leave him much time in which to attend to his duties as vice-president of his father's bank, for what success he and Old Bell Nelson had had since the boom started was the direct result of the younger man's personal attention to their joint operations. That attention was close; their success, already considerable, promised to be enormous.
But of late things had not been going well. The turn had come with the loss of the Evans lease, and that misfortune had been followed by others. Contrary to custom, it was Henry, and not Bell, who had flown into a rage at receipt of Gus Briskow's telegram announcing a slip-up in the deal—a sale to Calvin Gray; that message, in fact, had affected the son in a most peculiar manner. For days thereafter he had been nervous, almost apprehensive, and his nervousness had increased when he secured the back files of the Dallas papers and read those issues which he had missed while out of town. Since that time he had made excuses to avoid trips into the Ranger field and had conducted much of his work over the telephone. Perhaps for that reason it was that trouble with drilling crews had arisen, and that one well had been "jimmed"; perhaps that explained why a deal as good as closed had gotten away, why a certain lease had cost fully double what it should have cost, and why the sale of another tract had not gone through.
Be that as it may, it was this generally unsatisfactory state of affairs that accounted for the junior Nelson's presence in Wichita Falls at this time. He and Bell had spent a stormy forenoon together; he was in an irritable mood when, early in the afternoon, a card was brought into his office.
Nelson could not restrain a start at sight of the name engraved thereon; his impulse was to leap to his feet. But the partition separating him from the bank lobby was of glass, and he knew his every action to be visible. He allowed himself a moment in which to collect his wits, then he opened slightly the desk drawer in which he kept his revolver and gave instructions to admit the caller.
Nelson revolved slowly in his chair; he stared curiously at the newcomer, and his voice was cold, unfriendly, as he said:
"This is quite a surprise, Gray."
"Not wholly unexpected, I hope."
"Entirely! I knew you were in Texas, but I hardly expected you to present yourself here."
Gray seated himself. For a moment the two men eyed each other, the one stony, forbidding, suspicious, the other smiling, suave, apparently frank.
"To what am I indebted for this—honor?" Nelson inquired, with a lift of his lip.
"My dear Colonel, would you expect me to come to Wichita Falls without paying my respects to my ranking officer, my immediate superior?"
"Bosh! All that is over, forgotten."
"Forgotten?" The caller's brows arched incredulously. "You are a busy and a successful man; the late war lives in your mind only as a disagreeable memory to be banished as quickly as possible, but—"
Henry Nelson stirred impatiently. "Come! Come! Don't let's waste time."
"—but I retain distinct recollections of our Great Adventure, and always shall."
"That means, I infer, that you refuse to close the chapter?"
As if he had not heard this last remark, Gray continued easily: "It is a selfish motive that brings me here. I come to crow. It is my peculiar weakness that I demand an audience for what I do; I must share my triumphs with some one, else they taste flat, and since you are perhaps the one man in Texas who knows me best, or has the slightest interest in my doings, it is natural that I come to you."
This guileless confession evoked a positive scowl. "What have you done," the banker sneered, "except get your name in the papers?"
"I have made a large amount of money, for one thing, and I am having a glorious time. Now that Evans lease, for instance—"
"Oh! You've come to crow about that."
"Not loudly, but a little. I turned the greater part of that land for as much as five thousand dollars an acre. Odd that we should have come into competition with each other on my very first undertaking, isn't it? Fascinating business, this oil. All one needs, to succeed, is experience and capital."
"What do you know about the business?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But I am learning. Luck, I find, is a good substitute for experience, and I certainly am lucky. As for capital—of course I was blessed in having unlimited money with which to operate. You inferred as much, I take it. Of course! Yes, Colonel, I have the money touch and everything I have put my hand to has turned out well."
Nelson burst forth in sudden irritation. "What are you getting at? You know I don't care a damn what you're doing, how much money you're making—"
"Strange! Inasmuch as practically every dollar I have made has come out of you, indirectly."
For a moment Nelson said nothing; then, "Just what do you mean by that?"
"Exactly what I said. I've cut under you wherever possible. When you wanted acreage, I bid against you and ran the price up until you paid more than it was worth. That which I secured I managed—"
"You! So—you're the one back of that!" Nelson's amazement destroyed the insecure hold he had thus far maintained upon himself. Furiously he cried: "You're out to get me! That's it, eh?"
"I am, indeed. And half my satisfaction in doing so will be in knowing that you know what I'm up to. One needs steady nerves and a sure touch in any speculative enterprise; he daren't wabble. I'm going to get your nerve, Nelson. I'm going to make you wabble. You're going to think twice and doubt your own hunches, and make mistakes, and I—I shall take advantage of them. Of course I shall do more than merely—"
"Well, by God! I knew you had the gall of the devil, but—See here, Gray, don't you understand what I can do to you? I don't want any trouble with you, but one word from me and—"
"Of course you want no trouble with me; but, alas! my dear Colonel, you are going to have it. Oh, a great deal of trouble. More trouble than you ever had in all your life. Either you are going broke, or I am. You see, I have all the advantage in this little game, for I will pay a dollar for every dollar I can cause you to lose, and that is too high a price for you to meet. If I should go bankrupt, which of course I sha'n't, it would mean nothing to me, while to you—" The speaker shrugged. "You haven't my temperament. No, the advantage is all mine." Gray's tone changed abruptly. "For your own good remove your hand from the neighborhood of that drawer. I am too close to you for a gun-play. Good! Now about that one word from you. You won't speak it, for that would force me to utter nasty truths about you, and you would suffer more than I, this being your home town where you are respected. And the truth is nasty, isn't it?"
Colonel Nelson had grown very white during this long speech. He rose to his feet and laid one shaking hand upon his desk as if to steady himself; his tongue was thick in his mouth as he said, hoarsely:
"I'd like to think you are crazy, but—you're not."
"Almost a compliment, coming from you!"
"You think you can beat me—Want to make it a money fight, do you? Well, I'll give you a bellyful. Every dollar I've got will go to smash you—smash you!"
"Splendid!" Gray was on his feet now and he was smiling icily. "One or the other of us will be ruined, and then perhaps we can resort to those methods which both of us would enjoy using. Of the two, I believe I am the more primitive, for the mere act of killing does not satisfy me. I've come a long way to sink my teeth into you. Now that they're in, they'll stay. So long as you're willing to fight clean, I'll—"
"Are you gentlemen going to talk forever?" The inquiry came in a woman's voice. Both Nelson and Gray turned to behold a smiling, animated face framed in a crack of the door.
"Miss Good!" Calvin Gray strode forward, took the girl's hands in his and drew her over the threshold. "My dear Miss Good, I have rummaged half the state, looking for you."
"I hope I'm not interrupting.—I recognized you and—" The girl turned her eyes to Henry Nelson, but at sight of his face her smile vanished. "Oh, I'm sorry!" she cried. "Let me run out—"
Gray held her hands more firmly. "Never. Do you think I shall risk losing you again? Colonel Nelson and I had finished our chat and were merely exchanging pleasantries."
"Cross your heart?"
"Cross my heart and hope to die." Gray laughed joyously and again shook the girl's hands.
"Yes. Colonel Gray was just leaving," Nelson managed to say.
"Colonel? Are you a colonel, too?" the girl inquired, and Gray bowed.
"And you knew each other abroad?"
"We came to know each other very well. We were, in fact, commissioned at the same time and place, but Colonel Nelson received his a moment earlier than I received mine, therefore he outranked me. Now then, permit me to retire while you and he—"
"Oh, there's nothing confidential about what I have to say. It's good news for my partner, and I'm sure he'd love to share it." To Nelson she announced, "Pete has a showing of oil!"
The vice-president of the bank murmured something which was lost in Gray's quick inquiry: "Partner? Are you a partner of Colonel Nelson's?"
"After a fashion. We own a twenty-acre lease west of 'Burk'—that is, I have a quarter interest and Henry is putting down a well. I drove out there, and his driller told me it is looking good."
Gray turned a keenly inquisitive gaze upon his enemy, and what he saw, or fancied he saw, gave him the thrill of a new discovery. It may have been no more than intuition on his part, but something convinced him that his acquaintance with Miss Good deeply displeased the man. If he knew Henry Nelson as well as he believed he did, it was more than disapproval, more than mere personal dislike, that smoldered in the latter's eyes. This was luck!
In his warmest tone he cried: "Congratulations, my dear Colonel. However badly you have fared in the Ranger district, fortune favors you here. But why only a quarter interest? You put too low a price upon your blessings. I'll better that arrangement. Why, I was ready to offer Miss Good a full half of all I have, when she played a heartless jest upon me. Ran away! Disappeared! I'll admit I was piqued. I was deeply resentful, but—"
Nelson interrupted this flow of extravagance. "'Miss Good'?" he said, curiously. "Why does he call you that, 'Bob'?"
"A secret! A little game of pretense," Gray declared, nastily. "For the sake of our friendship, Colonel, don't tell me her real name and rob me of the pleasure of hearing it from her own lips. Come, Miss Good! Enough of money making and oil wells and stupid business affairs. I am going to bear you away upon my arm, even at the risk of displeasing my superior officer. Ha! Lucky the war is over. Now then, your promise."
Gray's impetuosity, his buoyancy, robbed his speech of boldness, nevertheless Barbara Parker flushed faintly. She was ill at ease; she felt sure she had erred in interrupting these two men; she was glad of an excuse to leave.
Gray lingered a moment, long enougn for his eyes to meet those of the banker. In his there was a light of triumph, of mockery, as he said:
"A pleasant interview, wasn't it, Colonel? And now we understand each other perfectly. A fair fight and no quarter asked."
Henry Nelson stood motionless as he watched his two callers leave the bank together, then slowly he clenched his muscular hands, and from his lips there issued an oath better left unwritten.
It was several moments after they had left the bank before "Bob" Parker could manage to slip a word in edgewise, so rapid, so eager was Gray's flow of conversation, so genuine was his pleasure at again seeing her. Finally, however, she inquired, curiously:
"What was it you said to Henry Nelson as I came out? 'No quarter asked'?"
Her escort stared down at her, his brows lifted, his tone betrayed blank astonishment. "'No quarter asked'? Bless me! What are you talking about?" Then his face cleared. "Now I remember—I said I had found quarters at last. The town is so crowded, you know; I didn't want him to feel bound to put me up. I abhor visiting. Don't you?"
"Are you really good friends? I felt very queer, the instant after I had walked in. But—I was bursting with good news and I couldn't see Henry's face until too late. Then, it seemed to me—"
"Nelson and I are scarcely 'good' friends—we never were chummy—but we were thrown together in France and saw a lot of each other. At first, my respect for him was not great, for he is a—difficult person to understand; but as my understanding grew, so did my respect. He is a remarkably capable man and a determined fighter. Admirable qualities in a soldier. My call to-day was in the nature of a ceremonial."
"Um-m! There's a ceremony before every duel—the salute. I thought I could hear the ring of steel."
Gray laughed off the suggestion. "Merely the jingle of officers' spurs, I assure you. We amateurs cling to the Regular Army pomp and practice. Frankly, I love it; I admire the military method—a rule for every occasion, a rigid adherence to form, no price too high for a necessary objective. And the army code! Ironclad and exacting! Honors difficult and disgrace easy. One learns to set great store by both. You've no idea, Miss Good, how precious is the one and how-hideous is the other."
"You mustn't call me Miss Good any longer," the girl told him. "My name is Barbara Parker."
"Oh, I like that!"
"I'm more generally known as 'Bob.'"
"Even better! It sounds tomboyish."
"It's not. It is Tom Parkerish. Father insisted on calling me that and—it stuck. He's a man's man and my being a girl was a total surprise to him. It completely upset his plans. So I did my best to remedy the mistake and learn to do and to take an interest in the things he was interested in."
Miss Parker looked up from beneath her trim velvet hat and her blue eyes were defiant. "All that people like you disapprove of; all that you probably consider undignified and unladylike, such as riding, roping, shooting—"
"Riding—unladylike? It's very smart. And why do you say people 'like me'? There are no people like me."
"You know what I mean. You're not a Westerner. You are what a cowpuncher would call a swell Easterner." Ignoring Gray's grimace of dislike she went on, deliberately exaggerating her musical Texas drawl. "You are a person of education and culture; you speak languages; you have the broad 'a,' and if you had to go unshaven it would be a living death. You are rich, too, and probably play the piano. People like that don't admire cow-girls."
The man laughed heartily. "In spite of my broad 'a' and my safety razor, I'm as much of a man's man as your father. Frankly, I don't admire cowgirls, but I do admire you and everything you say about yourself adds to that admiration. If your father is Tom Parker—well. I congratulate you upon an admirable taste in the selection of parents."
"Do you know him?" Barbara eagerly inquired.
"No. But I know of him and I know what he stands for. I think we have many things in common, and I venture to say that he is going to like me."
Barbara smiled. This vibrant stranger had an air about him and an irresistible magnetism. It was flattering to receive marked attentions from a person of his age and consequence—the girl felt an access of importance—and the tone of his voice, his every look, assured her that she had indeed challenged his deepest interest. She colored faintly as he ran on:
"So you're a partner of Henry Nelson's! He doesn't deserve it and—our friendship ceases. I shall now hate him. Yes, henceforth he and I shall be enemies."
"I love to be flattered, but please don't become Henry's enemy. The most dreadful things happen to them."
"He pretends to be a friend, but in reality he is a suitor—a detestable suitor—and the ties of business bind you closer! I see it all. I—I consider it abominable." Gray's tone was as gay as his demeanor had been thus far, nevertheless he was probing deliberately, and the result appeared to verify his earlier suspicions. Calm as he had appeared to be during that interview in the bank, in reality he had been, and still was, in a state of intense nervous excitement; his mind was galloping; the effect of that clash had been to rouse in him a keen exaltation and a sense of resistless power. If Henry Nelson was seriously interested in this girl, he reasoned, here then was another weapon ready shaped—a rapier aimed at his enemy's breast—and all he had to do was grasp it. That promised to be a pleasant undertaking. Nor had he any doubt of success, for Barbara Parker had aroused his liking so promptly that reason—and experience—told him they must be in close sentimental accord. Even had she proven less responsive, he would still have been confident of himself, for few women remained long indifferent to his zeal, once he deliberately set about winning them. To build upon that subtle, involuntary attraction, therefore, and to profit by it, appeared advisable, nay, necessary, for henceforth all must be grist that came to his mill. In view of his declaration of war, he could afford to scorn no advantage, however direct or indirect its bearing.
"Tell me about the Briskows," Barbara demanded.
"Of course! I'm dying to do so, but"—Gray looked at his watch—"even the good must lunch. No doubt you abhor the public eating places, but, alas—"
"I do. So does everybody who tries them. But our cook has been speculating in shares, and yesterday she stalked majestically from the kitchen. She was a wretched cook, anyhow; but we couldn't afford a better one. We're very poor, dad and I."
"Were poor. Not poor any longer, I hope."
"Oh, that well! It is exciting, isn't it? Dad has gone out there to see it, so—Yes, I'll lunch with you and be duly grateful."
"Where shall we go?"
Barbara's brows drew together in a frown of consideration, and Gray told himself that she was even more charming when serious than when smiling. "Wherever we go, we'll be sorry we didn't go somewhere else. We might try the Professor's place. He's a Greek scholar—left his university to get rich quick in the oil fields, but failed. He started a sandwich and pie counter—a good one—and it pays better than a pumper. But we'd have to sit on high stools and be scowled at if we didn't gobble our food and make room for others. Then there is Ptomaine Tommy's. Cafes are good and bad by comparison. After you've been here a few days you'll enjoy Tommy's."
"Then I vote for his poison palace. The very name has a thrill to it."
On their way to the restaurant, Gray said: "Pa and Ma and Allie Briskow and the tutoress have gone to the mountains—Ma's beloved mountains—and they appear to be living up to her expectations. The mountains, I mean. The old dear writes me every week, and her letters are wonderful, even outside of the spelling. She hasn't lost a single illusion. She has a soul for adventure, has Ma; she's hunting for caves now—keeps her ears open to hear if the ground sounds hollow; wants to find a mysterious cavern and explore it, with her heart in her mouth. She revels in the clean, green foliage and the spring brooks. She says the trees are awful crowded in places and there's no dust on them."
"And Allie has a tutor!"
"The best money could secure. And, by the way, you wouldn't have known the girl after you got through with her that day. That was only the beginning, too. She fills the eye now, and she's growing."
Gray chuckled. "Not physically, but mentally, psychologically, intellectually."
"I said she had possibilities."
"Yes. More than I gave her credit for, but what they are, where they will lead her, I don't know. I'm a foolish person, Miss Parker, for I take an intense interest in the affairs of other people, especially my friends. My favorite dissipation is to share the troubles of those whom I like, and right now I'm quite as worried over Allie as her father is. You see, she has outdistanced her parents already; the dream part is wearing off and her new life is a reality. She is confronted with the grim and appalling necessity of adapting herself to a completely new and bewildering set of conditions. I'm not sure that she will be equal to it."
"I presume you mean that she is sensitive."
"Supersensitive! And ambitious! That's the trouble. If she were dull and conceited she could be both happy and contented. But she's bright, and she lacks egotism, so she'll never be either. Adversity would temper a girl like her; prosperity may—spoil her."
"There is a boy, too, isn't there?"
"Oh, Buddy! He's away at school. He'll make a hand, or—well, if he doesn't, I'll beat the foolishness out of him. I've assumed complete responsibility for Buddy, and he'll be a credit to me."
There was a tone in Gray's voice when he spoke of the Briskows that gave Barbara Parker a wholly new insight into his character; it was with a feeling that she knew him and liked him better that she said:
"You think a lot of those nesters, don't you?"
"More than they believe, and more than I would have thought possible," he readily declared. "I'm a lonesome institution. There's nobody dependent upon me; I owe no bills, no gratitude, and I've canceled the obligations that others owe me. You've no idea how unnecessary I am. It gives me a pleasing sense of importance, therefore, to feel that I fill a place in somebody's affairs."
Wichita Falls's facilities for public entertainment reflected perhaps as correctly as anything else the general chaos consequent upon its swift expansion into a city. Such hotels as had been capable of caring for the transient trade of pre-petroleum days were full and carried waiting lists like exclusive clubs; rooming houses and private dwellings were crowded. A new and modern fireproof hotel was stretching skeleton fingers of steel skyward, but meanwhile the task of sheltering, and especially of feeding three times a day, the hungry hordes that bulged the sides of the little city was a difficult one. To wrest possession of a cafe table for two at the rush hour was an undertaking almost as hazardous as jumping a mining claim, but Calvin Gray succeeded and eventually he and "Bob" found themselves facing each other over a discolored tablecloth, reading a soiled menu card to a perspiring waiter. It was in some ways an ideal retreat for a tete-a-tete, for the bellowed orders, the rattle of crockery, the voice of the hungry food battlers, and the clash of their steel made intimate conversation easy. Gray noted with approval the ease with which his dainty companion adapted herself to the surroundings and remarked upon it.
"After four years in the East it took me a little while to get used to it," she confessed. "The Wichita I left was a quiet town; the one I came home to was a madhouse. At first the excitement frightened me, for I felt as if I were being run over, tossed aside. But now that I've fallen in with the chase, why—I think it is splendid."
"Just what are you doing and how do you do it?" Gray wanted to know.
Barbara was glad to tell him about her brief but eventful experience since that morning at the Nelson bank when she had executed her coup, and she recited the story with enthusiasm.
"Having no capital to go on," she explained, "I've merely bought and sold on commission so far, but I'm not always going to be a broker. I'm making good, and some day dad and I will be big operators. I've been able to buy a car, and most of my time I'm out in the field. They tell me I'm as good an oil scout as some of the' men working for the big companies; but, of course, I'm not. I merely have an advantage; drillers tell me more than they'd tell a man."
"Of course, with your father along you're safe in going anywhere, but to go through the fields alone—"
"Oh, dad doesn't go!"
"What?" Gray looked up incredulously, but "Bob" nodded her head vigorously.
"Dad hates automobiles; they frighten him. So I go out alone while he runs the office."
"Extraordinary! But, my dear girl, it's dangerous."
"Naturally, I avoid 'Burk' and the Northwest Extension after dark—even the scouts do that. But it wouldn't pay anybody to high-jack me. No. I go right in on the derrick floors and hobnob with the drillers, talk about their wives and their families, discuss croup and fishing jobs; sometimes they let me taste the sand and even show me the logs of their wells. It amused them at first to think of a girl playing the game single-handed—most men, however rough, have a sense of chivalry, you know, and are better sports than they realize. Now—well, they're beginning to respect my business ability. They have learned that I keep my mouth closed and that I'll treat them squarely. Some of them would fight for me. I tell you it is the greatest experience, the most thrilling adventure, a girl ever had."
"You are a brave child, and I admire your courage," Gray declared.
"But I'm not. I'm afraid of everything that other girls are afraid of." Leaning forward confidentially, the girl continued: "I'm a hollow sham, Mr. Gray, but dad doesn't know it. After I learned how badly he wanted me to be a boy, and how he had set his heart on teaching me the things he thought a son of his should know, I had a secret meeting with myself and I voted unanimously to fill the specifications if it killed me. So I began a fraudulent life. I'm in earnest. For instance, I abhor guns, but I learned to shoot with either hand until—well, I'm pretty expert. And roping! I can build a loop, jump through it, do straight and fancy catches like a cowboy. I worked at it for months, years it seemed to me. I knew very well it was a ridiculous waste of time, but I'll never forget how proud dad was when I learned the 'butterfly.' That was my reward. Horses used to frighten me blue, but I learned to ride well enough. In fact, it has been a keen disappointment to him that I won't enter the Frontier Day contests. He'd like nothing better than to see me win the bucking-horse match. Think of it! And I'm so timid I can't look an oat in the face!" Barbara attempted a shy laugh, but there was a quaver to her voice, and when Gray continued to stare at her gravely, sympathetically, her face quickly sobered. "Now you understand why my father doesn't think it necessary to go along on my trips through the oil fields. It has never occurred to him that I'm anything but 'Bob' Parker, his boy. Mind you, he is lost in admiration of me and I rule him like a slave. I think he is great, too, and he is. He is the dearest, gentlest, sweetest father in the world, and I wouldn't have him learn the hideous truth about me for anything."
For a moment Barbara's listener studied her thoughtfully, then he said: "I'm immensely flattered that you like me well enough to make me your confessor. Now I'm going to confess to you that I also am an arrant coward."
"Please don't joke. You have become quite a famous character, and if the stories I hear are true—"
"The stories one hears are never true. I have my share of physical courage, perhaps; that's a common, elementary virtue, like generosity, gratitude, sympathy. The most mediocre people are blessed that way."
"Oh! Generosity and gratitude are divine qualities!"
Gray shook his head positively. "Impulses! Heart impulses, not brain impulses. They have nothing to do with character. Now I'm deathly afraid of one thing."
"Ridicule! You see, I'm egotistical and ostentatious. Oh, very! Disgustingly vain, in fact. If I were unconscious of it, I'd be unbearable, but—it amuses me as much as it amuses others, and that takes the curse off of it. I am delighted at some of my own antics. I love to swagger and I adore an audience, but to be laughed at by others would kill me. Ridicule! Scorn! I'm insensible to anything except those."
"You're a queer man."
Gray's gaze became fixed; there was a peculiar light—almost a glitter—in his eyes; he talked on as if voicing some engrossing thought. "Of course, I'm vindictive—that's a part of the swashbuckling character; it goes with the ruffles, the jack boots, and the swagger. It is a luxury of which I am extremely jealous." Bringing his attention back to the girl, he smiled and his manner changed abruptly. "There! I've proved it all by talking about myself when I'm interested only in you. However, it is sometimes easier to sell a thing by frankly decrying it than by covering up its bad points, and I'm trying desperately to make a good impression upon you. Now then, I'm tremendously interested in what you have told me about yourself, and I'm sure you are a better oil man—oil girl—than you have led me to suppose. But these are no times for social pleasantries. We are living in bedlam. There is nothing in the air but business—oil—profits. You are a business woman, and if we are to become as well acquainted as I hope we will, it must be the result of a common business interest. So, then, for a bargain. I am going to enter this field in a large way; if you will take me for a client, I will buy and sell through you whenever possible. Perhaps we can even speculate together now and then. I'll guarantee you against loss. What do you say?"
"Why—it's a splendid opportunity for me. And I know of some good things; I'm overflowing with information, in fact. For instance—" Barbara hurriedly produced her oil map and, shoving aside the dishes in front of her, she spread it upon the table. "There is a wildcat going down out here that looks awfully good." As she indicated a tiny circle marked into the corner of one square, Gray noted that there was a dimple at the base of her finger. "The scouts don't think much of it, but I happen to know it is on a structure and has a good showing of oil. The driller is a friend of mine, and he has told me that his casing is set. He'll tip me off when he intends to drill through, and if you like we'll go out there and see what happens. If it comes in, it will mean a big play on surrounding property; prices will double, treble. My theory is this—"
Gray's head was close to the speaker's, but, although he pretended to listen to her words and to follow the tracings of her finger with studious consideration, in reality his attention was fixed upon the tantalizing curve of her smooth cheek and throat. In some perplexity of spirit he asked himself why it was that mere proximity to this wholly sensible and matter-of-fact young creature filled him with such a vague yet pleasurable excitement. He realized that he was not easily thrilled; feminine beauty, feminine charm were nothing new, nevertheless at this moment he experienced an intense elation, an eagerness of spirit, such as he had not felt since he was in the first resistless vigor of youth, and his voice, when he spoke, carried an unconscious quality strange to his ears.
It was the more bewildering because nothing had happened to awaken such feelings. He had met this unworldly, inexperienced prairie girl but twice, and on her part she had betrayed no particular attraction for him. As a matter of fact, she probably considered him an old man—young girls were like that. Of course, that was absurd. He was right in his prime, youth sang through his veins at this moment, and yet—she must like him, he must have somehow impressed her. That was fortunate, in view of her relations with Henry Nelson; luck was coming his way, and she would undoubtedly prove useful. The last thing Calvin Gray contemplated was a sentimental woman complication, but on account of this girl's peculiar knowledge it seemed to him the part of wisdom to cultivate her—to see as much of her as possible.
"If you will come over to the office, I'll show you how I think that pool lies," Barbara was saying, and Gray came to with a start.
It was midafternoon when he left the Parker office—at least he thought it must be midafternoon until he consulted his watch and discovered that, to all intents and purposes, he had completely lost two hours. An amazing loss, truly. There was no lack of youthful vigor in Calvin Gray's movements at any time, but now there was an unusual lightness to his tread and his lips puckered into a joyous whistle. It had been a great day, a day of the widest extremes, a day of adventure and romance. And that is what every day should be.
If Gray cherished any lingering doubts as to the loyalty of Mallow, erstwhile victim of his ruthlessness, or of McWade and Stoner, the wildcat promoters, those doubts vanished during the next day or two. As a matter of fact, the readiness, nay, the enthusiasm with which they fell in with his schemes convinced him that he had acted wisely in yielding to an impulse to trust them. At first, when he divulged his enemy's identity, they were thunderstruck; mere mention of Henry Nelson's name rendered them speechless and caused them to regard their employer as a harmless madman, but as he unfolded his plans in greater detail they listened with growing respect. The idea seized them finally. In the first place, it was sufficiently fantastic to appeal to their imaginations, for they saw in Gray a lone wolf with the courage and the ferocity to single out and pull down the leader of the herd, and, what was more, they scented profit to themselves in trailing with him. Then, too, the enterprise promised to afford free scope for their ingenuity, their cunning, their devious business methods, and that could be nothing less than pleasing to men of their type.
But early enough he made it plain that he intended and would tolerate no actual dishonesty; crooked methods were both dangerous and unsatisfactory, he told them, hence the fight must be fair even though merciless. To annoy, to harass, to injure, and if possible actually to ruin the banker, that was his intention; to accomplish those ends he was willing to employ any legitimate device, however shrewd, however smart. His entire fortune—and his associates, of course, greatly exaggerated its size—would be available for the purpose, and when he sketched out the measures he had in mind the trio of rogues realized that here indeed was a field wide enough for the exercise of their peculiar gifts. They acknowledged, too, a certain pleasure in the comfortable assurance that they would involve themselves in no illegal consequences.
At their first council of war Gray gave each of them a number of definite things to do or to have done, the while he sought certain facts; when they assembled for a second time, it was to compare, to tabulate, and to consider an amount of information concerning the activities of Henry Nelson that would have greatly surprised that gentleman had he been present to hear it.
For one thing, there had been prepared a comprehensive list of the Nelson holdings, together with maps showing their acreage and production, the location of drilling wells, the ownership of adjoining properties, and the like. There was also a considerable amount of data concerning the terms of the Nelson leases, renewal dates, and such matters. Gray was forced reluctantly to admit that his enemy was more strongly intrenched than he had supposed; careful study of the data showed that the Nelson acreage had been well selected and that it was scientifically "checkerboarded" throughout the various fields. What was more significant was the amount of proven or semiproven stuff.
"It took work and money to get together that group of leases," Brick Stoner declared, after he had checked them off. "That's one of the best layouts in Texas, and they're shaped up to put over a big deal if they want to."
"They lack production," said Gray.
"Sure! But they'll have it before long. Lookit the wells they're putting down and that's going down around 'em."
The former speaker chewed his cigar thoughtfully for a while, then: "I don't believe they contemplate a big deal. They're not that sort. Henry Nelson is selfish and suspicious, and I'm told that Bell wouldn't trust anybody. I'm informed also that every dollar they have made has gone back into new leases and wells and that they intend to hold everything for themselves. It is rumored, quietly, that they are overextended."
"I wouldn't care how thin I was stretched if I had their gamble," McWade asserted. "All they have to do is to sit tight. The law of average will pull them out. What do you intend to do?"
"To begin with, I intend to stretch them even thinner—so thin they'll break, if that is possible."
"You can't load them up with more property."
"Certainly not, but I can make them drill more wells."
"Offsets, eh?" Stoner studied the map a bit doubtfully. "You can't make 'em offset dry holes, and if they strike oil in their wells the other fellers will have to do the offsetting."
"True. I can, of course, prevent them from extending their renewals. I can cost them a pretty penny just by forcing them to a rigid adherence to the terms of their leases and agreements and—"
"What do you mean, 'offsets'?" Mallow inquired. "How you going to break a man by bringing in wells alongside of his property? That'll make him rich."
"Can you beat that?" Stoner inquired. "Mallow's been selling oil stock and experting wells for us with the Marvelous Magnetic Finder and he don't know an offset from a headache post."
"Certainly, I know—"
"Why, Professor! Is it possible we have been deceived in you? An offset is the thing that sets off to one side of the crown block and it's a light blue, the same as a formation. It's the shape of a syncline, only bigger."
"Don't get funny. You drill an offset well to keep a man from sucking all the oil out from under your land."
"Right!" said Gray. "Wells, as you know, are drilled as close to the side lines as the law allows. When oil is found, the adjoining landowner can compel his lessee to put down a well to offset every one that threatens to draw oil from beneath his property." "That's what I've just been telling you."
"Many an operator has gone broke offsetting wells in order to protect his leases, especially if he has a number of neighbors who all start drilling promptly. That is one of the many production troubles—and there's a saying that trouble begins when the oil starts."
"You said it. But to offset the Nelsons so's to cripple 'em—" Brick Stoner shook his head. "It ain't hard to borrow money for good offsets. 'Most any bank will lend."
"It is hard for anybody who is overextended to borrow. Possibly my plan won't work, but to annoy, to harass, to embarrass, to stretch them thin—it's all a part of the game. People are never as well off as we think they are. The Nelsons are close to the sand in a number of places. I want to procure the adjoining acreage. For every well they make, I'll force them to drill six more. The day they strike oil I'll have a string of derricks every two hundred feet along their side lines."
It was Mallow who spoke next. "That will cost you dollar for dollar, boss. Have you got chips enough to match their stack?"
"I don't have to invest dollar for dollar. My money will go for leases, and I'll let drilling contracts, fifty-fifty, sixty-forty, seventy-thirty—anything to get quick action. Other people's money will do the work for me. Remember, I'm not after oil, I'm after a man."
"I'll say you are!" Stoner looked up from a frowning contemplation of the maps. "And if you'll take a chance I'll show you how you can drill one well and cost them three—that is, provided you hit." As the others leaned over his shoulder he explained: "Here's a square block of four twenties—separate leases, all of 'em—and the Nelsons own three. You can cop the fourth twenty, drill right at the inside corner, where all the lines cross. If you pull a duster, you'll be out and injured, maybe twenty-five thousand, but if it comes wet they'll have to protect those three leases with three offsets. It ain't a bad-looking piece of ground; you'll have about a one-to-three chance of making a well."
"How many companies have you gentlemen promoted?" Gray inquired.
"Twenty-two. And from a shoestring. Every well went down, or is going down, and every dollar we got right here on the street."
"And all of them are dry, are they not?"
McWade spoke up, defensively: "Sure. They were all wildcats of the wildest kind. But we don't deal in oil, we sell stock. Every issue we've put out has gone above par at some time or other, and that's playing the game square with our customers, ain't it? We see that they have a chance to get out with a profit; if they hang on it's their own fault. That's how we've built up a clienteel."
"It wouldn't hurt your reputation to bring in a wet well for a change, would it?" Both partners agreed that it would not. "I'll buy this twenty-acre lease, and you can promote a company to drill ten of it, Stoner says it's a one-to-three shot."
McWade blazed with enthusiasm at the suggestion. "Take a piece of the stock yourself, Mr. Gray, and we'll put it over in a day. With your name at the top of the list it will bally-hoo itself."
"Not a share. Your amiable proposition brings me directly to another point which has a bearing upon our main campaign. Law is a dry subject, but I must bore you with a brief dissertation upon a provision of one statute which has doubtless escaped your notice. It has escaped the notice of most people, even of Henry Nelson, I believe. You realize that all but a few Texas oil companies are not organized as corporations, but as joint stock associations—in effect declarations of trust."
"We oughta know it," Stoner said. "It saves paying a big corporation tax and lets you sell all the full-paid, nonassessable stock you want to issue, regardless of what the property is worth. Oh, we got wise to that, muy pronto! Why, these here Texas laws are the bunk! Them fellows at Austin, if they had their way, would make it impossible to promote a legitimate enterprise—on a paying basis. They'd make you turn in cash or property the equivocal thereto every time you organized. Wouldn't that be sweet? This joint-stock arrangement is the only way to beat the game. It's a shrewd device, and my hat's off to the guy that invented it."
"Very true. Very well expressed. But in the statute governing the procedure there is wrapped up a bundle of bad news, for it is provided that any officer or stockholder may become personally liable for the entire debt of the association. There is going to be a lot of sleep lost over that fact when the truth becomes known."
"You mean if I got stock in a company that's blowed up, and I'm living in Oshkosh, all pretty, that I can be hooked for the debts some crook runs up here in Texas?"
This intelligence brought no consternation to the partners; on the contrary, McWade, the optimist, grinned widely. "Goes to show you we have been playing the game along safe and legitimate lines," said he. "We don't own a share in any of our own enterprises, and if we have to pick up a few now and then to boost the market, we drop them again as if they were hot. It's a pretty thought, though. Why, I can see years of activity ahead of Brick and me, buying up the debts of defunct oil companies and collecting in full from prosperous strangers hither and yon. For Heaven's sake, don't let it get out!"
"I won't, at least until after I have accumulated a number of potential judgments against Henry Nelson. He has had his share of cats and dogs, of course, and some day I hope to lead them back to his doorstep. If they return at the right moment, they may prove an embarrassment. Who knows?"
"Got anything else up your sleeve?" Behind Mallow's dark glasses his eyes could be dimly seen, and they were active with curiosity.
"Plenty. But we have enough here to start on. First, I want these various leases, then I want a company promoted and a well started on that twenty we talked about."
For some time longer the conspirators busied themselves over the details of their plans, and Gray was beginning to feel some satisfaction at his rate of progress when an interruption occurred that threatened to delay action and even to rob him of the services of the two partners. That interruption took the form of a call from a group of highly excited and indignant purchasers of stock in the Desert Scorpion Company, that promotion in which Professor Mallow had assisted on the morning of Gray's arrival. These stockholders swarmed into the office, bringing with them an air of angry menace; they were noisy; they all talked at once.
From out of the confusion it soon became apparent that they had a real grievance, and one which called for immediate satisfaction; moreover, it was made plain that the callers cared little what form that satisfaction took, whether tar and feathers or a rope and a lamp-post. They had been sold, victimized, flimflammed, skinned; the scorpion had stung them and the poison was boiling in their veins. Briefly, the swindle was this: investigation had shown that the land owned by the Desert Scorpion was not where it had been represented to be, but more than a mile distant therefrom. Chance alone had brought forth the truth; the hour of vengeance had struck.
Calvin Gray withdrew quietly from the hubbub and asked Mallow, "Can that be true?"
The eminent scientist shrugged; out of the corner of his mouth he murmured: "Why not? It all looks alike."
McWade and Stoner were not in the least dismayed by this amazing intelligence; as a matter of fact, the former assumed an air of even greater geniality than usual and nodded a careless agreement to every accusation hurled against him. "Right you are, men! Absolutely right. We were victimized, but we're tickled to death to rectify the error. Mighty fortunate mistake, as a matter of fact. Brick, out with the old check book and give these birds back their money." With alacrity Mr. Stoner cleared off his desk and seated himself, pen in hand. "Step up and get a dollar a share—just what you paid. Fair enough, I calls it. The banks are open and the checks are good."
Immediately the repurchase of stock began, but anger and suspicion still smoldered; there were dissatisfied mutterings. One investor, a field man in greasy overalls, spoke out:
"We'll get ours, all right. Don't worry. But how about the other suckers? There's fifty thousand shares out. What you going to do about that?"
"Buy it back. Know where you can get any more?"
"We'll pay a dollar and a half a share for all you can get, to-morrow."
"You heard me. Breast up, boys, and get your money back. Our offer stands—a dollar a share to-day, a dollar and a half to-morrow."
There was a stir among the indignant speculators; the man for whom Stoner was writing a check inquired: "What's the idea? Why not a dollar and a half now?"
Stoner and McWade exchanged a meaning glance—it was not lost upon their attentive audience—but the latter shrugged and smiled provocatively. "That's our business," he declared, lightly. "You ghost dancers want your money back and we're giving it to you. You're letting up a holler that you were robbed, so come and get it. The faster you come the better it'll suit us. Scorpion stock will close at a dollar and a half or better to-morrow night."
"Bluff!" somebody growled.
Stoner finished his signature with a nourish, blotted it, then he hesitated. He flung down his pen and turned defiantly upon his partner, crying:
"This ain't fair to these men, Mac. They're customers of ours and we owe 'em the chance to make a killing. It's up to us to tell 'em the truth."
McWade was angry. His indignation flamed. Vigorously he denied the charge of unfairness. A spirited argument ensued, with Stoner asserting that the firm was morally obligated to protect its clients to a greater extent than merely by returning their money, and with McWade as stoutly maintaining that all obligations, moral and legal, were canceled with the repurchase of the stock.
Meanwhile it became evident that the alarming rumor about Desert Scorpion was rapidly spreading, for other investors were climbing the stairs now, and the office was becoming crowded. The later arrivals were in time to witness McWade finally defer to his partner and to hear him announce that a rare stroke of fortune had favored purchasers of this particular issue of stock, for the land which really belonged to the company had turned out to be much better than that which it owned. Certain information from the field had arrived that very day which was bound to send the stock to two dollars. If anybody wanted to sell, the promoters would be glad to buy, and they would advance their price on the morrow, as McWade had promised, so here was a chance for those present to turn a pretty penny by getting busy at once. Frankly, however, he advised his hearers to hang on and make a real clean-up. The information, which was not yet public, had nothing to do with the fact that Doctor Mallow had experted both properties with his scientific device and pronounced the new acreage much richer than the old—this latter was merely corroborative evidence, and in view of the fact that some people put no credence in so-called "doodle bugs," he merely offered the record of the tester for what it was worth. His original bet of ten to one still held, by the way, and once again he repeated that those who wished to sell out would be accommodated with the greatest alacrity. Only they mustn't return later and squawk.
McWade confessed that he was neither angry nor offended at the recent attitude of suspicion—he was merely amused. It made him laugh. The idea of his firm turning a crooked trick, when it was an established institution as strong as Gibraltar and as conservative as a national bank, was ridiculous. He and Stoner could point with pride to an unbroken record of successes and to a list of satisfied investors as long as a Santa Fe time-table. Desert Scorpion stock would go to two dollars, and five would get you ten if you didn't think so. Now then, step lively!
The refunding of money halted; there was a deal of noisy argument. Some of the disgruntled investors still insisted upon selling out; others decided to hold on; even a few asked to repurchase the stock they had turned in, and this they were reluctantly permitted to do at an advance of fifty per cent.
When the last caller had disappeared, Gray inquired, curiously: "How are you going to make good on your assertion that the stock will rise?"
"Easy!" said Stoner. "I'll change into my old clothes, put four mud chains on my car, and drive up, to the exchange in a hurry, then give some gabby guy a tip to grab Desert Scorpion for me at a dollar and a half—all he can get. After that I'll shoot out of town on high, with the cut-out open. There will be a string of cars after me inside of half an hour, and the stock will be up before I can get back."
"We'll make good, all right," McWade asserted. "Those customers are in luck dealing with a house like us. All they expect is a chance to get out with a profit and sting the next fellow. They don't want oil; they want a run for their money and a quick turn. We give it to them."
"And do they always buy your issues?"
"I ain't saying they do. Sometimes they're cold until you put on the Indian sign. But all you have to do when stock don't sell is to raise the price. Oh, if you know how, it ain't hard to make an honest dollar in the oil business!" Mr. McWade smiled with conscious satisfaction.
"I'm sure of it," Gray said, heartily. "There is so little competition."
Ma Briskow always had been known as a woman without guile, but of late she had developed rare powers of dissimulation. She was, in fact, leading a double life, and neither her husband nor her daughter suspected the extent of her deception. To the patrons of the Burlington Notch Hotel she was merely a drab, indistinct, washed-out old woman, unmarked except by a choice of clashing colors in dress; to her family she remained what she always had been; nobody dreamed that she was in reality a bandit queen, the leader of a wild, unfettered band of mountaineers. But that is what she was. And worse at times.
Yes, Ma had slipped the leash. She was a robber baroness; she dwelt in a rocky "fastness"—whatever that was—surrounded by a crew of outlaws as desperate as any that ever drew cutlass and dagger, and she ruled them not only by native strength of character, but also by the aid of other forces, for she was on friendly terms with the more prominent wood sprites, fairies, and the like, and they brought her wisdom. Moreover, she had learned the language of dumb animals and could talk to squirrels, beetles, porcupines, frogs.
All this, as may be surmised, had come about as the result of Ma's early reading: a haphazard choice of story books, in which were tales of treasure trove, of pirates, of wronged maidens and gallant squires—romantic stories peculiarly designed to stir a cramped imagination like hers. It was from them that she had gained her ideas of the world, her notions of manners, even her love of the mountains, and that unquenchable desire to see them that she had confided to Calvin Gray.
He it was, by the way, who had selected the Notch for these Texas nesters. It had proved a happy choice, for the hotel sat upon the top of the world, and beneath it lay outspread the whole green and purple vastness of the earth. The Briskows were entranced, of course, and, once they had established themselves here, they never thought of moving, nor did it occur to them that there might—be other mountains than these, other hotels as good as this. To them Burlington Notch became merely a colloquial name for Paradise, and life in the great hotel itself a beautiful dream.
The place was famous the country over as a health resort, and, indeed, it must have possessed miraculous curative properties, otherwise Gus Briskow, strong and vigorous as he was, could never have survived the shock of receiving his first week's bill. It was with conflicting emotions that he had divided the sum at the foot of the statement into seven parts and realized the daily ransom in which he and his family were held; it had given him a feeling of tremendous importance and extreme insignificance. He spoke feelingly that night about the high cost of loafing, but Ma showed such dismay at the mere suggestion of leaving that he had resigned himself, and thereafter the sight of his weekly bill evoked nothing more than a shudder and a prayer—a prayer that none of his wells would go dry overnight.
But lifelong habits of prudence are not easily broken. The Notch Hotel was altogether too rich for Gus Briskow's blood, so he sought a more congenial environment. He found it in the village, in a livery stable; there, amid familiar odors and surroundings both agreeable and economical, he spent most of his time, leaving Ma to amuse herself and Allie to pursue the routine of studies laid down by her tutoress.
Now Ma had not gone wild all at once; her atavism had been gradual—the result of her persistent explorations. She had never seen a real waterfall, for instance, and the first one proved so amazing that she was impelled to seek more, after which she became interested in caves, and before long her ramblings had taken her up every watercourse and into every ravine in the neighborhood. This sense of treading untrodden ground roused in Ma a venturesome spirit of independence, an unsuspected capacity for adventure, and when the wealth of her discoveries failed to awaken interest in her family she ceased reporting them and became more solitary than ever in her habits. Every morning she slipped out of the hotel, meandered through the grounds apparently without purpose, but in reality pursuing a circuitous route and taking sudden twistings and turnings to throw pursuers off the scent. Ever deeper into the wilderness she penetrated, but with the sly caution of an old fox returning to its lair, for she was always being followed by wicked people, such, for instance, as minions of the law, members of the Black Hand, foreign spies, gen-darmys, and detectifs. Having baffled them all, she laughed scornfully, flung deceit to the winds, then hurried straight to the "fastness," and there uttered the tribal call. At the sound her gypsy band came bounding forth to meet her, and she gave them her royal hand to kiss, raising them graciously when they knelt, giving a kind word here or a sharp reprimand there.
They were the fiercest gypsies in the world, and quarrelsome, too. They were forever fighting among themselves and crying: "Curse you, Jack Dalton! Take that!" and plunging swords into one another, but they had good hearts and they loved Ma and were devoted to her lost cause. She could handle them where others would have failed.
Having accepted their homage and heard the details of their latest raids against her enemy, the false Duke of Dallas—he whose treachery had made her what she was—she assumed her throne and held formal court.
The throne was a low, flat rock beside a stream, and usually Ma removed her shoes and stockings and paddled her feet in the water while she gave audience to visiting potentates. Those enlarged joints never seemed to accommodate themselves wholly to the sort of shoes Allie made her wear. Court "let out" when Ma's feet had become rested, after which there were less formal affairs of state to settle. These out of the way, it was time for the queen's recreations, which took the form of singing, dancing, conversations with animals, visits with the invisible fairy folk who lived in flowers and gave them their pretty smells.
Ma never had any trouble putting in the whole day in some such manner as this; evening came all too soon, as a matter of fact. Then it was that she bade good-by to her faithful subjects and prepared once more to fare forth and mingle, in the cunning guise of an old woman, with the followers of the false and lying Duke of Dallas. But courage! Patience! The day of reckoning was at hand when she would come into her own and the world would recognize her as the wronged but rightful Princess Pensacola.
Thus would Ma Briskow spend one morning. Another perhaps she would be an altogether different character, but always she was young and beautiful and full of grace, and only when it came time to go did she assume the disguise of an aged, wrinkled, bent old woman. Sometimes she ran miles and miles at a stretch, darting, springing like a fawn, rushing through the soft, green leaves, leaping rock and rill, her laughter echoing, her bare limbs flashing, her gold hair streaming, her scanty silken draperies whipped to shreds behind her by the very swiftness of her going. Oh, the ecstasy of that! The excitement!
Of course Ma did not actually run. Neither did her bare limbs flash—being incased in flannels. And her hair was not gold. It was gray, what little there was of it. No, she ambled a bit, perhaps, where the grass was short and the ground smooth, then she stood still, closed her eyes, and ran and leaped and swayed and darted—with her arms. Anybody can do it.
At other times she defied gravitation, a secret accomplishment all her own, which she manifested in this wise. She would begin to jump, higher and higher, and the higher she jumped the lighter she became, until finally she weighed no more than a thistledown, and the effort of leaping became a pure joy and an exhilaration. Having attained this perfect state of buoyancy, she would set out upon wonderful journeys, springing lightly as far as it pleased her to spring, soaring gracefully over obstacles, and deriving a delirious pleasure from the sensation. One cannot appreciate the enjoyment to be had from this method of locomotion without trying it.
And always when Ma came back to earth and opened her eyes there were the great smiling mountains, the clear, clean waters foaming over the rocks, and underfoot was the cool, green grass, not that hot, hard 'dobe clay she had always known. Trees, too! Beautiful whispering trees, with smooth leaves instead of burrs and spines and stickers. Nor was there the faintest choking smell of dust; no sand blowing up her nose and smarting her eyes.
Ma Briskow had never dreamed that the world was so clean. She blessed God for making oil to lie in the rocks of the earth, and she prayed that none of "them hotel people" would discover her retreat.
But, of course, somebody did discover it. Mr. Delamater, the dancing instructor, for one, stumbled upon it while Ma Briskow was in the midst of one of her imaginary games, and he reported his discovery to the day clerk.
"What ails that old dame, anyhow?" he inquired, after recounting Ma's peculiar behavior.
"Not a thing in the world except money," the clerk declared.
Doubtfully Mr. Delamater shook his handsome auburn head. "People with good sense don't act like that. She was doing an Isadora Duncan when I saw her. Dancing—if you care to call it that! Anyhow, her hair was hanging, she was flapping her arms and jiggling up and down." Delamater laughed at the memory. "There's a big, awkward bird—sort of a crane or buzzard of some kind—that dances. I never saw one, but she reminded me of it. And she sang! Gee! it was fierce!"
"Did she see you?"
"Scarcely. I don't mind being alone with Allie"—Delamater's teeth shone in a smile, then, seeing his reflection in a convenient mirror, he studied it with complacent favor. He tried the smile again, and, getting it to his better satisfaction, concluded—"don't mind it a bit, but a bosky dell with a mad woman is my idea of no place to be."
"Allie?" The clerk lifted his brows. "So—'Allie'! Has it gone as far as that, Del?"
"Oh, you know how it is! A lesson every day, soft music, arm around the waist, a kind word. The girl is human. I'm probably different to anything that ever came into her young life. Look at my wardrobe! She's not so bad to take, either, and yet—" The immaculate speaker frowned. "Father smells like a horse, and mother's a nut! Gee! It would take some coin to square that."
"That's one thing they've got," asserted the clerk. "Nothing but!"
Mr. Delamater debated further. "Think of marrying The Powerful Katrinka! I'll admit it has its points. If anything went wrong with the bank roll Allie could make a good living for both of us. Suppose, for instance, the old Statue of Liberty slipped and fell. Allie could jump over to Bedloe's Island and take a turn at holding the torch. Ifi they've got the coin you say they have, I think I'll have to see more of her."
"You won't see any more than you do. She's hitting on all four."
"What is she up to all day?"
"I don't know. Working, studying, exercising. Rehearsing for the movies, I guess. She has worn that companion of hers down to a frazzle. She has her own masseuse in the bath department, she rides a horse three days a week, and every morning she takes a long walk—"
"I've got it!" Mr. Delamater slapped his thigh. "Road work! She's getting ready to take on Dempsey." He laughed musically. "If she marries me her days of labor will be over; it will mean for her the dawn of a new life—provided, of course, those oil wells are what you say they are. Kidding aside, though, I don't dislike the girl and—I've a notion to give her a chance."
What the clerk said was true. Allie Briskow was indeed in training, both physical and mental, and the application, the energy she displayed had surprised not only her parents, who could but dimly understand the necessity of self-culture, but also Mrs. Ring, the instructress. Mrs. Ring, a handsome, middle-aged woman whose specialty was the finishing of wealthy young "ladies," had been induced to accept this position partly by reason of the attractive salary mentioned in Calvin Gray's telegram, and partly by reason of the fact that she needed a rest. She had met the Briskows in Dallas only a short time before their departure for the north, and although that first interview had been a good deal of a shock to her—almost as much of a shock as if she had been asked to tutor the offspring of a pair of chimpanzees—nevertheless she had nerved herself to the necessary sacrifice of dignity. After all, Allegheny was only an overgrown child in need of advanced kindergarten training, and in the meantime there was the prospect of a season at Burlington Notch. The latter was, in itself, a prospect alluring to one suffering from the wear and tear of a trying profession. After some hesitation, Mrs. Ring had accepted the position, feeling sure that it would rest her nerves.
But never had the good woman suffered such a disillusionment. Allie, she soon discovered, was anything but a child, or rather she was an amazing and contradictory combination of child and adult. What Mrs. Ring had taken to be mental apathy, inherent dullness, was in reality caution, diffidence, the shyness of some wild animal.
Nor was that the most bewildering of the teacher's surprises; Allie possessed character and will power. For some time she had accepted Mrs. Ring's tutorship without comment or question—Calvin Gray had recommended it, therefore she obeyed blindly—but one day, after they had become settled in the mountains, she came out with a forceful declaration.
She knew full well her own shortcomings, so she declared, and she was not content to learn a few things day by day. She demanded intensified training; education under forced draught.