"Drinking?" Gray interrupted, sharply. "Why didn't you tell me? So, you gave him unlimited money, in spite of my warning?"
"He wanted his own bank account; his share of the royalties. Made him feel more like a man, he said. I—I never learned how to say 'no' to him or Allie. Ma an' I allus said 'no' to each other, but it was allus 'yes' to them. We never had much to give 'em, noway."
"Drinking, eh?" Gray was frowning. "The woman part I don't care so much about—he'll probably get over that if it isn't too serious. But whisky! That's different. I'm responsible for that boy; in a manner of speaking, I adopted him because—well, because he flattered me by pretending to admire me. It was a unique experience. I took Buddy for my own. Will you let me handle this matter?" The speaker looked from one parent to the other, and they saw that his face was grimly set. "Give me my way and I'll bring that young rascal to time or—" He shrugged, he smiled faintly. "Give me permission to treat him as if he really were my own, will you?"
"You got my leave," said the father; but Ma Briskow bristled.
"Don't you dast to hurt him," she cried.
Again Gray shrugged, this time with resignation. "As you will. I was wild, myself; I think I know what he needs."
"You can't beat anything into Buddy's head." It was Allie speaking. "After all, he's grown up, and what right has anybody got to interfere with him? S'pose it is a woman? S'pose she is after his money? It's his. Men can get what they want by payin' for it. An hour, a day, a week of happiness! Ain't that worth all Buddy 'll have to pay? I'd pay. I'd go through torture the rest of my life—"
"Allegheny Briskow!" the mother exclaimed.
"Well, I would." The girl's voice broke, a sudden agitation seized her; in passionate defiance she went on: "What's the use of wanting something all your life and never getting it? What's money for if you can't buy the one thing you want worst of all? That's where men have got the best of it; they can buy love. I wish I was a man; I wish I was Buddy! I'd have my day, my week—and as much more as I could pay for. I'd have happiness that long if it broke my heart. But I'm a girl!"
It was with a sudden interest that Gray studied the speaker. Here was a side to the Briskow character that he had not suspected, and it gave him a new light upon Buddy, for brother and sister were much alike; it showed him more clearly the size of the task he had volunteered to undertake. He heard the father speaking, and reluctantly withdrew his eyes from Allie's flaming face.
"He likes you, Mr. Gray, an' mebbe you could keep him from spoilin' his hull life. That's what he's liable to do an'—I'm skeered. He wouldn't listen to me. Boys don't listen to their fathers."
"I'll find him, Gus, and I'll make him listen to me. If it is drink, I'll break him of it. If it is a woman—I'll break him of that, too, for it can't be more than a passing fancy." Noting the tragic concern that wrinkled Ma Briskow's face, he put an arm about her, saying more gently: "Now, now! I won't deny you the luxury of worrying, Ma dear. That is a mother's divine prerogative, but rest assured Buddy sha'n't do himself any great harm. Now then, let's get to a long-distance phone."
It was perhaps two hours before Gray reported to Gus Briskow: "They don't know much more at the school than was written in that letter. He has been going a rather lively pace lately, it seems."
"Did you find out anything about the—the woman?"
"Nothing definite. I have put detectives on the case, and they will report to me at Wichita Falls. As soon as they uncover his trail, I'll go to Buddy at once."
"You goin' to leave us?"
"I must. I've just received a telegram from my—my agent. About the purchase of a well. It is a matter that can't wait."
"I can't thank you for all you done for us. We was in bad shape till you come. Now—"
"Now everything is straight again. That's my job, Gus—to do little odd favors for those I love. You must stay here, for Ma is happy, and this place is making a girl of her. Allie is doing wonders with herself, too. By the way, she needn't be lonely any more; I've talked to some of the guests, and they want to make friends with her. She'll find them nice people, and you must make her meet them halfway. Perhaps she'll become interested in some decent young fellow. I'd like that, wouldn't you?"
The tone of this inquiry caused Gray to glance more keenly at the speaker, but Briskow's bright eyes told him nothing.
"Why, naturally. Allie is becoming more attractive every day, and she is going to make something of herself. She is going to 'do us all proud.'"
As soon as he was alone Gray eagerly reread his telegram from Wichita Falls. It was from Barbara Parker—the first, by the way, that he had ever received—and he smiled at the girl's effort to be thoroughly businesslike, and at the same time to convey the full urgency of her message. Why had she economized on words when every one was precious to him? Buy that well? Of course he would, if she so earnestly desired it. But what was better by far than the prospect of a profitable purchase was the fact of her personal interest in him. When it came to the last line of her message, "Bob" had plunged into a ten-word riot of extravagance.
"The bird is darling. I have named him after you."
Gray wondered if these words really meant what they seemed to imply, or if it was merely her bubbling, enthusiasm that spoke. Well, he would soon find out. Already he had wasted too much time on the Briskows—a man's duty ever lies in the way of his desire—but once he had rounded up Buddy perhaps the family would be able to take care of itself. He hoped so, for it was assuming the character of a liability.
It was late that night. The southbound flyer had gone through. The Briskows were sitting in the pleasant parlor of their handsome suite, but they were like three mourners. Ma and Pa were soberly discussing the news about Buddy, Allegheny was staring in somber meditation at nothing. The girl was bitter, rebellious, for never had she felt so utterly alone as at this moment. To that question which monotonously repeated itself, she could form no answer. Did he care, or was it all pity—just his way?
She heard his name and her own mentioned, and she became attentive. "What's that? He wants me to meet these people halfway?" she inquired. "What for? I don't like 'em."
"He says you'll git to like 'em, an' they'll git to like you. He says you're goin' ahead tremendous, and we'll all be proud of you. Mebbe you'll meet some nice young feller—"
"He said that, did he?" Allie's voice was sharp.
"N-not exactly, but—"
"He asked 'em to be nice to me—he fixed it all up. Is that it? I got lots of money; some man 'll make love to me and I'll—I'll fall in love with him. Is that what he said?"
"He didn't put it that way. What he said was more—"
Allegheny rose with an exclamation of anger. "Well, I won't meet 'em. He'd better mind his own business."
"Why, Allie!" the mother exclaimed, in mild reproach.
"I won't! I hate 'em. I hate everybody. Him, with his high an' fancy ways—" the girl choked. "He looks down on us the same as other folks does, an' I don't blame him. He acts like we was cattle, an' we are." Her own scorn appeared to whip the speaker into a higher frenzy. "Now he's gone off to spoil Buddy's doin's. Buttin' in, that's what it is. If I knew where Buddy is, I'd warn him. I'd tell him to look out. I'd tell him to grab his chance when it comes along, if it takes all the Briskow money, all the Briskow wells. He's lucky, Buddy is. It don't make any difference who he took up with, if he loves her."
Never but once before had the Briskows seen their daughter in a mood like this, and that was on the occasion of their first visit to Dallas. Now they sat numb and speechless as she raved on:
"Playin' with us to amuse himself! It's a game with him. He 'ain't got anything better to do. Why, he even shows us how to dress! 'With a touch,' he says, 'I work miracles. I transfer—transform you from something dark an'—an' common into a thing of passion.' Passion! What the hell does he know about passion? He's a doctor, he is, cuttin' up a live dog to see what ails it. A live dog that's tied down! Cuttin' it up—Oh, my God, I wish I was Buddy!" It was several moments after the door of Allie's room had slammed behind her before Gus Briskow spoke, and then it was with a deep sigh.
"I been afraid of something like this, Ma. I reckon we're goin' to pay dear for our money before we get through."
"An' him with a princess in Wichita Falls!" the mother quavered.
There are many arguments against industry; much is to be said against its wholesale practice. For one thing, habitual diligence, of whatever sort, begets other habits hard to break, habits that persist in plaguing a man during his periods of indolence and perhaps during his whole life. Early rising is one of the most annoying of these habits. While it cannot be said that Tom Parker had ever labored arduously at anything, nevertheless he had followed his calling faithfully, and the peculiar exigencies of that calling had made of him a light and fitful sleeper. He had so often used the earth as a mattress and his saddle as a pillow, that sunup invariably roused him, and as a consequence he liked to tell people that he could do with less sleep than any man in Texas. That was, in fact, one of his pet complaints.
It was true that Old Tom never slept long, but it was also true that he slept oftener than any man in Texas. He was up and dressed by daylight, and until breakfast time he engaged himself in purposeless and noisy pursuits. This futile energy, however, diminished steadily until about nine-thirty, after which his day was punctuated by a series of cat naps, as a broken sentence is punctuated by dots and dashes.
That small room at the rear of his office Barbara had cleared of its dusty accumulations—of its saddles and saddle-bags, its rusty Winchesters, its old newspapers and disorderly files—and had transformed into a retreat for him. She had overcome his inherent prejudice against innovations of any sort by arguing gravely that the head of every firm should, nay must, have a private sanctum.
Tom approved of the change after he became accustomed to it, for he was subjected to fewer irritating distractions there than elsewhere. Before long, in fact, he acquired the ability to doze placidly through almost any sort of business conference in the outer office. It was his practice to sleep from nine-thirty until eleven, when "Bob" fetched him a glass of orange juice with a "spike" in it. This refreshing beverage filled him with new energy to tackle the issues of the day, and thereupon began a routine as fixed as some religious ritual. First, he smacked his lips, then he cleared his throat loudly several times, after which his chair creaked as he massaged his rheumatic leg. Promptly upon the count of twenty he emerged from the inner office, slamming the door energetically behind him.
Whether "Bob" was alone or engaged with clients, Old Tom's air was always the same; it was that of a busy man weighted with grave responsibilities. He frowned; he muttered, hurriedly:
"Got to see a man; back in an hour. Anybody calls, tell 'em to wait."
This took him to the front door, which he also slammed behind him—there being a certain force and determination to the sound of a slamming door. Then he limped down the street to Judge Halloran's office. The judge usually had the checkerboard out and set when Tom arrived.
Afternoons passed in much the same manner, and night found Tom, if not actually exhausted from the unceasing grind, at least pleasurably fatigued thereby and ready for an after-dinner doze. He considered himself seriously overworked.
This morning "Bob" was alone at her desk when he came out, and something about her appearance caused the old warrior to look twice. He was exactly on time, but the judge could wait. He was a cranky old scoundrel anyhow, was Judge Halloran, and it would do him good to cool his heels for a few minutes. Tom paused with his hand upon the door knob.
"My goodness! son, you're all dressed up!" he said, as he noted "Bob's" crisp white dress, the rose upon her bosom, the floppy hat that framed her face. "Church sociable som'er's?"
"What's going on?"
"Nothing in particular."
"You certainly are sweet." Tom's bleak, gray face softened, then some vague regret peered forth from his eyes. "Certainly are sweet, but—"
"But what?" The girl smiled up at him.
"Oh, I don't know—seems like you ain't quite the same boy you was. You're changing lately, somehow. Getting more like your mother every week. I like that, of course," he said, quickly, "but—I'd like awful well to see you in your ranch clothes again. I bet you've clean forgot how to ride and rope and—"
"You know very well I haven't. I'm a little bit rusty, perhaps, but remember I'm a pretty busy girl these days."
"I know." Tom sighed. "I'm wore out, too. What d'you say we close up the ol' factory and take a rest? Let's get us a couple of broncs and go up to the Territory for a spell. Used to be a lot of wild turkeys in a place I know. It'd do us a lot of good."
"Why, dad, we can't do that! And, besides, those turkeys were killed out years ago."
"Um-m! I s'pose so. Ain't much left to shoot at but tin cans, come to think of it." There was a pause. "I don't reckon you could han'le a six gun like you used to, 'Bob.'"
"You think not? Try me sometime and see," said the girl. Apparently Tom believed there was no time like the present, for he slid his right hand under the left lapel of his coat, and when he brought it away there was a large single-action Colt's revolver in it—a massive weapon upon the mother-of-pearl handle plates of which were carved two steers' heads. Those steers' heads Tom had removed from a gun belonging to a famous bad man, suddenly deceased, and there was a story that went with them.
"Now see here," "Bob" protested, "one of these new policemen will pick you up some day."
"Pshaw! Nobody wouldn't pick me up, just for totin' a gun," the old man declared. With practiced fingers he extracted the shells, one by one. "I feel right naked without a six-shooter. I feel like I'd cast a shoe, or something."
"I wish you'd give up carrying it."
"Lessee you do a few tricks,'Bob'. Do the roll. Remember she don't stand cocked."
Miss Parker rose to her feet and took the weapon. She balanced it in her hand, then she spun it, rolled it, fanned it, went through a routine of lightninglike sleight-of-hand that Tom had taught her long before.
"Lessee you do a few shots," her father urged, when she handed it back to him.
"Sure! It's our shanty. Drive a few nails or—I'll tell you; kill that bear and save that tenderfoot's life." Tom pointed to a Winchester calendar on the rear wall, which bore the lithographic likeness of an enraged grizzly upon the point of helping himself to a hunter.
"Why, we'd have the whole town running in."
"Go on, son. Make it speak. Bears is easy killed."
Reluctantly Tom reloaded his weapon and thrust it back into its shoulder holster; regretfully he murmured: "Doggone! We never have any more fun." He turned toward the door.
"Where are you going, dad?"
"I got to see a man; back in an hour. Anybody calls—"
"You know you won't be back in an hour. Where are you going?"
"I got to see—What is it?"
"Bob" hesitated. "I wish you'd stay here. I think Mr. Gray arrived this morning, and I expect him in."
Tom decided that he had made Judge Halloran wait long enough. He should have been in the old rascal's king row by this time. So he said, briskly, "Wish I could, son, but I got to see a man."
"Mr. Gray was here several times before he went away, but you were always out." When her father showed no inclination to tarry, Barbara spoke with more impatience than she had ever used toward him. "I want him to meet you, dad, for he has come back on purpose to take up that Jackson well. If I devote all my time to business, it seems to me you could afford to sacrifice an hour to it, just this once. That checker game can wait."
Tom Parker stiffened. Sacrifice an hour to business, just once! That was a blow. As if his nose was not at the grindstone day in and day out! As if he were not practically chained to this office! As if unremitting application to business had not wrecked him—worn him to the bone—made an insomniac of him! That was the worst about children, boys especially; they twitted their elders; they thought they were the whole works; they assumed undue importance. Tom was offended, and, being a stubborn man, he bowed his back.
"Tell him to wait," he said, curtly. "I'll get around to it soon as I can."
"Why, dad! He isn't a man who can wait. This deal won't wait, either."
"I been talking over that Jackson well with—with a man, and I got him—"
"I asked you not to mention it—not to a soul. It is a very important matter and—"
Now Tom had not discussed the Jackson well, except casually with Judge Halloran, but every word that "Bob" spoke rankled, so he interrupted with a resentful query:
"Ain't I equal to han'le an important deal?"
"Bob" acknowledged quickly that he was. She had not meant to criticize his ability to conduct negotiations of the very highest importance, but she was surprised, in view of her earnest request, that he had even mentioned this particular matter to anybody. She reminded him that insurance was his forte, and that their understanding had been that she was to take exclusive charge of their oil business. While she was talking, Tom realized with a disagreeable shock that of late there had been no insurance written, none whatever. He had given the matter no thought, but such was undoubtedly the case, and in his daughter's words he felt a rebuke. Now he could not abide rebukes; he had never permitted anybody to criticize him. For once that unconscious irritation that had been slowly accumulating within him flamed up. It was an irritation too vague, too formless to put into words, especially inasmuch as words did not come easily to Tom Parker when he was mad.
Without further comment the old man pulled his gray wide-awake lower over his eyes and limped out of the room. But he did not go to Judge Halloran's office; he was too sore to risk further offense at the hands of one who took malicious delight in antagonizing him, so he walked the streets. The more he pondered "Bob's" accusation—and accusation it surely was—the angrier he became; not at her, of course, for she was blood of his blood, his other and better self; but angry at himself for allowing the reins to slip out of his fingers. He was the head of the firm. It was due to his ripe judgment and keen common sense that the business ran on; his name and standing it was that gave it stability. Perhaps he had permitted the girl to do more than her share of the work, and hence her inclination to take all the credit for their joint success was only natural, but it was time to change all that; time to turn a big deal without her assistance. That was the thing to do, handle the Jackson lease in his own way and turn it over for a price far in excess of seventy-five thousand dollars. Anybody could sell things for less than they were worth, but it took real ability to realize their full value. Here was a snap, a chance to clean up big money—"Bob" said so—why not, then, take over the lease for himself and her, pay something down, hold it for a few weeks, and then resell it at a staggering profit? Such things were being done—Tom did not know just how, but he could easily find out—and there were several thousand dollars in the bank to the firm's account. If that was not enough to meet the first payment he could probably get Bell Nelson to give him another mortgage on something. Or was it he that would have to give the mortgage to Bell? It didn't matter. The thing to do was to jump out to the Extension, buy the well, and show "Bob" that he was as good a business man as she—better, in fact.
A bus was about to leave, so Tom clambered in.
Barbara Parker had to acknowledge that she was more than a little bit thrilled at the prospect of seeing Calvin Gray again. She had assured her father glibly enough that there was nothing "going on" that day, but—there was. It was something to realize that a mere telegram from her had brought a man of Mr. Gray's importance clear across the country, and that he was coming straight to her. What mysterious magic lay in the telegraph!
Ever since their first meeting he had awakened in her a sort of breathless excitement, the precise significance of which she could not fathom, and that excitement now was growing hourly. It could not mean love—"Bob" flushed at the thought, for she had no intention of falling in love with anybody. She was too young; the world was too new and too exciting for that, and, besides, her life was too full, her obligations were too many to permit of distractions, agreeable or disagreeable. Nor, for that matter, was Gray the sort of man to become seriously interested in a simple person like her; he was complex, many-sided, cosmopolitan. His extravagant attentions were meaningless—And yet, one could never tell; men were queer creatures; perhaps—
Little prickles ran over "Bob"; she felt her whole body galvanize when she saw Gray coming.
He entered, as she knew he would enter, with the suggestion of having been blown thither upon the breast of a gale. He was electric; he throbbed with energy; he was bursting with enthusiasm, and his delight at seeing her was boyish.
"Bob" colored rosily at his instant and extravagant appreciation of her effort to look more pleasing than usual, but embarrassment followed her first thrill. She could not believe his compliments were entirely genuine, therefore she took refuge behind her coolest, her most businesslike demeanor. For a while they talked about nothing, although to each the other was eloquent, then "Bob" came as quickly as might be to the matter she had wired him about.
He listened with smiling lips and shining eyes, but he heard only the bare essentials of her story, for his thoughts were galloping, his mind was busy with new impressions of her, other voices than hers were in his ears. That was his rose at her breast. She had been pleased at his coming, otherwise she would not have paid him the girlish compliment of wearing her best. Evidently she cared for him—or was she merely impressed, flattered? Women had called him romantic, whereas he knew himself to be theatric; he wondered if she—
"I told Jackson you'd be out to look at the well and the books to-day," "Bob" was saying. "He won't wait an hour longer."
"Splendid! I came the instant you telegraphed—dropped everything, in fact. Some of my men are waiting to see me, but I haven't even notified them of my arrival. Important business, too; nevertheless, I hurried right here. They can wait." Gray laughed gladly. "Jove! How becoming that hat is. I hired the best-looking car I could find, and it will be here in a minute. I told myself I had earned a day with you, and I wouldn't spoil it by permitting you to drive. I've so much to talk to you about—business of all sorts—that I scarcely know where to begin."
Now "Bob" had expected to drive to the Northwest Extension with Gray; nothing else had been in her mind; her field clothing was even laid out ready for a quick change, but a sudden contrariness took hold of her; she experienced a shy perversity that she could not explain.
"Oh, I'm sorry! I—can't go. I simply can't," she declared.
He was so obviously disappointed that her determination gained strength; she was surprised at her own mendacity when she explained the utter impossibility of leaving the office, and told a circumstantial fib about a title that had to be closed with people from out of town. The more she talked the more panicky she became at thought of being for hours alone with this forceful, this magnetic, this overwhelming person. Strange, in view of the fact that she had been looking forward to it for days!
In order finally to get him away before she could change her mind, she promised to hurry through her affairs and then drive out and bring him home. There was no time to lose; Jackson was growing impatient; it was a wonderful deal; there were other days coming—
When Gray had gone and "Bob" was alone, she drew a deep breath. Her pulse was rapid, she was tingling as if from some stimulating current. What a man! What an effect he had upon people! What a fool she had been not to go!
The road to Burkburnett is well surfaced for some distance outside of Wichita Falls, therefore Gray leaned back with eyes closed as the car sped over it, picturing again his meeting with Barbara, recalling her words of greeting, puzzling over the subtle change in her demeanor at the last. Perhaps he had frightened her. He was given to overenthusiasm; this would be a lesson.
Queer how women interfere with business. Here he was going at things backward, whirling out to the oil fields when he should be with McWade and Stoner. They would probably be distracted at his nonarrival, but—this was business, too. And she would drive out to get him. There would be the long ride back. Far away across the undulating prairie fields the horizon was broken by a low, dark barricade, the massed derricks of the town-site pool. So thickly were they grouped that they resembled a dense forest of high, black pines, and not until Gray drew closer could he note that this strange forest was leafless.
By now the roads were quagmires, and the unceasing current of traffic had thickened and slowed down until Gray's car rocked and plunged through a hub-deep channel of slime. There was but one route to the Extension, and it led through the very heart of Burkburnett; there were no detours around the town, no way of beating the traffic, therefore vehicles, no matter how urgent their business, were forced to fall in line and allow themselves to be carried along like chips in a stream of tar.
"Burk" was a one-story town, or at least most of its buildings projected only one story above the mud, and that mud was mixed with oil. Leakage from wells, pipe lines, storagetanks, had made the mass underfoot doubly foul and sticky, and where it was liquid it shone with iridescent colors. Mud was everywhere; on the sidewalks, inside the stores, on walls and signboards, on the skins and clothing of the people.
Through the main street the procession of cars plowed, then out across the railroad tracks and toward the open country beyond. When it came to a halt, as it frequently did, above the hum of idle motors could be heard the clank of pumps, the fitful coughing of gasengines, the hiss of steam. This, of course, was soon drowned in a terrific din of impatient horns, a blaring, brazen snarl at the delay. The whole line roared metallic curses at the cause of its stoppage.
Even the railroad right of way had been drilled. Switch engines shunted rows of flats almost between the straddling derrick legs.
Gray's driver had been dumb thus far, now he broke out abruptly: "Speaking about mud; I was crossing this street on a plank the other day when I saw a bran'-new derby lying in the mud and picked it up. Underneath it was a guy's head.
"'Hullo!' I said. 'You're in pretty deep, ain't you?'
"The feller looked up at me and said: 'This ain't bad. You'd ought to see my brother. I'm standing on his shoulders!'"
The chauffeur laughed loudly at his own humor. "Some country, I call it! But the sun's out, so it will be blowing sand to-morrow."
When Burkburnett had been left behind, another and a vaster island of derricks came into view. It marked the Burk-Waggoner pool, part of the Northwest Extension, so called.
The car was waiting its turn to cross a tiny toll bridge spanning a sluggish creek, the bed of which ran seepage oil from the wells beyond, when the driver grumbled aloud:
"Four bits to cross a forty-foot bridge. There's a graft for you! One old nester above here tore a hole in his fence opposite a wet place in the road and charged us half a dollar to drive through his pasture. But it was cheaper than getting stuck. He had to carry his coin home in an oat sack. After a few weeks somebody got to wondering why that spot never dried out, and, come to investigate, wha' d'you think?"
"I seldom think when I am being entertained," his passenger declared.
"Well, that poor stupid had dammed the creek, and every night he shut the gate and flooded his road."
If the clustered derricks of the town-site pool were impressive, there was something positively dramatic about the Extension. Burkburnett had been laid out in lots and blocks, and the drilling had followed some sort of orderly system; but here were no streets, no visible plan. This had been a wheat field, and as well after well had come in, derricks, drilling rigs, buildings, tanks, piles of timber, and casing had been laid down with complete disregard of all save the owner's convenience. Overnight new pipe lines were being laid, for hours counted here and the crude had to find outlet—fuel had to be brought in. These pipe lines were never buried, and in consequence the ceaseless flow of traffic was forever forced to seek new channels. The place became a bewildering maze through which teams floundered and motor vehicles plunged at random.
Towns had sprung up, for this army of workers was isolated in a sea of mud, but whereas "Burk" was more or less permanent, Newtown, Bradley's Corners, Bridgetown, were cities of canvas, boards, and corrugated iron. By day they were mean, filthy, grotesque; by night they became incandescent, for every derrick was strung with lights, and the surplus supply of gas was burned in torches to prevent it from accumulating in ravines or hollows in explosive quantities. They were Mardi Gras cities.
Day by day this field spread onward toward the Red River; the whole region smelled of oil.
Fire, of course, was an ever-present menace. Newtown, for instance, had been wiped out several times, for it lay on a slope down which a broken pipe line could belch a resistless wave of flame, and even yet the place was a litter of charred timber, twisted pipe, and crumpled sheets of galvanized iron. Owing to this menace the residents had taken the only possible precaution. They had dug in. Behind each place of business was a cyclone cellar—a bomb-proof shelter—into which human bodies and stocks of merchandise could be crowded.
Gray drove directly to the lease he had come to examine, and was disappointed to learn that the owner had just left. This was annoying; "Bob" had assured him that he was expected. Inquiry elicited from the surly individual in charge no more than the reluctant admission that Jackson had been called to the nearest telephone, but would be back sometime.
There was nothing to do but wait. Gray let his car go, then made a cursory examination of the property. He could see little and learn less. The caretaker agreed that the well was pumping one hundred and fifty barrels a day.
Some evasiveness in this fellow's demeanor awoke Gray's suspicion. A sudden telephone call. The owner's absence when he expected a purchaser. Probably somebody else was after the property. It was decidedly worth while to wait.
Gray was unaccustomed to inattention, incivility, and had anybody except "Bob" Parker put him in this position he would have resented it. Under the circumstances, however, he could do nothing except cool his heels. As time passed he began to feel foolish; by late lunch time he was irritable; and as the afternoon wore on he grew angry. Why didn't "Bob" come, as she had promised? He had lost a day, and days were precious.
Evening found him wandering about aimlessly, in a villainous mood, but stubbornly determined to see this thing through at whatever cost. He had no wish to spend a night amid these surroundings, for respectable people shunned these oil-field camps after dark, and he knew himself to be conspicuous. It would add a ridiculous climax to a trying day to be "high-jacked"—to be frisked of his jewelry.
During the early dusk he returned to the lease, only to find even the greasy caretaker gone. By this time Gray was decidedly uncomfortable, and, to add to his discomfort, he conceived the notion that he was being followed. On second thought he dismissed this idea, nevertheless he took a roundabout course back toward the main street.
It seemed odd to be floundering through inky shadows, feeling a way through this miry chaos, when aloft, as far as the eye could see, the sky was lit. This phantom city of twinkling beacons gave one a sense of acute unreality, for it was an empty city, a city the work of which went on almost without the aid of human hands. The very soul of it was mechanical. Only here and there, where a drill crew was at work, did an occasional human figure move back and forth in the glare of low-hung incandescents, nevertheless the whole place breathed and throbbed; it was instinct with a tremendous vigor. From all sides came the ceaseless rhythmic clank of pumps, the hiss of gas and steam, the gurgling flow of liquid—they were the pulse beats, the respirations, the blood flow of this live thing. And its body odor stung the nostrils. All night long it panted with its heavy labors—as if the jinns that lifted those giant pump beams were vying with one another in a desperate endeavor. They were, for a fact. Haste, avarice, an arduous diligence, was in the very air.
Gray stared and marveled, for imagination was not lacking in him. Those derricks with their fires were high altars upon which were heaped ten thousand hopes and prayers. Altars of Avarice! Towers of Greed! That is what they were.
He marvelled, too, at the extremes these last few days had brought him; at the long cry from the luxurious Burlington Notch to this primitive land of fire worshipers. Here, only a few hours by motor from paved streets and comfortable homes, was a section of the real frontier, as crude and as lawless as any he had ever seen. Yonder, for instance, was the Red Lion, a regular Klondike dance hall.
He looked in for a moment, but the sight of hard-faced houris revolving cheek to cheek with men in overalls and boots was nothing new. It did remind him of the march of progress, however, to notice that the bartenders served coca-cola instead of "hootch." Hygienic, but vain, he reflected. Not at all like the brave old days.
Farther up the street was a flaming theater decorated with gaudy lithographs of women in tights. That awoke a familiar echo. The grimy figures headed thither might well be miners just in from Eldorado or Anvil Creek.
Gambling was practically wide open, too, and before long Gray found himself in a superheated, overcrowded back room with a stack of silver dollars which he scattered carelessly upon the numbers of a roulette table. Roulette was much like the oil game. This was a good way in which to kill an hour.
Absorbed in his own thoughts, Gray paid little heed to those about him, until a large hand picked up one of his bets. Then he raised his eyes. The hand was attached to a muscular arm, which in turn was attached to a burly stranger of unpleasant mien. Gray voiced a good-natured protest, but the fellow scowled and refused to acknowledge his mistake. Noting that the man was flushed, Gray shrugged and allowed the incident to pass. This bootleg whisky from across Red River was of a quality to scatter a person's eyesight.
For some time the game continued before Gray won again, and the dealer deposited thirty-five silver dollars beside his bet. Again that sun-browned hand reached forth, but this time Gray seized it by the wrist. He and the stranger eyed each other for a silent moment, during which the other players looked on.
Gray was the first to speak. "If you're not as drunk as you seem," he said, easily, "you'll excuse yourself. If you are, you need sobering."
With a wrench the man undertook to free his hand; he uttered a threatening oath. The next instant he was treated to a surprise, for Gray jerked him forward and simultaneously his empty palm struck the fellow a blinding, a resounding smack. Twice he smote that reddened cheek with the sound of an explosion, then, as the victim flung his body backward, Gray kicked his feet from under him. Again he cuffed the fellow's face, this time from the other side. When he finally desisted the stranger rocked in his tracks; he shook his head; he blinked and he cursed; it was a moment before he could focus his whirling sight upon his assailant. When he succeeded it was to behold the latter staring at him with a mocking, threatening smile.
The drunken man hesitated, he cast a slow glance around the room, then muttering, hoarsely, he turned and made for the door. He was followed by a burst of derisive laughter that grew louder as he went.
Gray was in a better mood now than for several hours; he had vented his irritation; the air had cleared. After a while he discovered that he was hungry; no longer was he too resentful to heed the healthy warning of his stomach, so he left the place.
Newton's eating places were not appetizing at best, but a meal could be endured with less discomfort by night than by day, for at such times most of the flies were on the ceilings. The restaurant Gray entered was about what he had expected; along one side ran a quick-order counter at which were seated several customers; across from it was an oilcloth-covered table, perfectly bare except for a revolving centerpiece—one of those silver-plated whirligigs fitted with a glass salt-and-pepper shaker, a toothpick holder, an unpleasant oil bottle, and a cruet intended for vinegar, but now filled with some mysterious embalming fluid acting as a preservative of numerous lifelike insect remains. Here, facing an elderly man in a wide gray-felt hat, Gray seated himself.
Gray's neighbor was in no pleasant mood, for he whacked impatiently at such buzzing pests as were still on the wing, and when a perspiring Greek set a plate of soup before him he took umbrage at the presence of the fellow's thumb in the liquid. The argument that followed angered the old man still further, for it arrived nowhere except to prove that the offending thumb was the property of the proprietor of the restaurant, and by inference, therefore, a privileged digit.
When a departing customer left the door open, the elderly diner grumbled bitterly at the draught and draped his overcoat over his bent shoulders.
"Dam' Eskimos!" he muttered. "——raised in a chicken coop—Windy as a derrick!"
Gray liked old people, and he was tolerant of their crotchets. Irascibility indicates force of character, at least so he believed, and old folks are apt to accept too meekly the approach of decay. Here was a spirit that time had not dulled—it was like wine soured in an old cask. At any rate, wine it had been, not water, and that was something.
Most of the counter customers had drifted out when, without warning, the screen door banged loudly open and Gray looked up from his plate to see his recent acquaintance of the gambling table approaching. This time purpose was stamped upon the man's face, but whether it was deliberate or merely the result of more drinking there was no telling. He lurched directly up to the table and stared across at Gray.
"Slapped my face, didn't you?" he cried, after a menacing moment.
"I did, indeed," the speaker nodded, pleasantly.
"You ain't going to slap it again. You ain't going to slap anybody's—"
"What makes you think I won't?" Gray became aware as he spoke that his elderly neighbor had raised to the intruder a countenance stamped with a peculiar expression of incredulity, almost of anger, at the interruption, and that the two remaining counter customers had turned startled faces over their shoulders, while the proprietor, his arms full of dishes, had paused beside the swinging door to the kitchen.
That which occurred next came unexpectedly. The stranger whipped out from under his coat a revolver, at the same time voicing a profane answer to the challenge. The proprietor uttered a bleat of terror; he dropped his dishes and dived out of the room; the men on the stools scrambled down and plunged after him.
As Calvin Gray rose to his feet it was with a flash of mingled anger and impatience. This quarrel was so utterly senseless, it served so little purpose.
"My friend," he cried, sharply, "if you don't put up that gun, one of us will go to a hospital."
In spite of the intruder's haste in drawing his weapon, he appeared now to lack the will promptly to use it—his laggard spirit required a further scourge, so it seemed; something more to goad it into final fury. It was a phenomenon by no means uncommon, for it is not easy to shoot down an unarmed victim.
By way of rousing his savagery, the fellow uttered a bellow, then, like a warrior smiting his shield with his spear before the charge, he swung his heavy weapon, smashing at one blow that silver-plated merry-go-round with its cluster of bottles.
A shower of toothpicks, fragments of glass, a spatter of oil and vinegar covered the old man in the end chair, and he rose with a cry that drew a swift glance from the desperado.
Gray was upon the point of launching himself over the table when he witnessed a peculiar transformation in his assailant. The man's expression altered with almost comic suddenness, he lowered his weapon and took a backward step. Gray, too, had cause for astonishment, for the elderly man was moving slowly toward the disturber, his overcoat, meanwhile, hanging loosely from his left shoulder, like a mantle. His gray face had grown white, malignant, threatening; he advanced with a queer, sidling gait, edging forward behind the shelter of his garment as if behind a barricade. But what challenged Gray's instant attention was the certainty of purpose, the cold, confident menace behind the old fellow's demeanor. There was something appalling about him; he had suddenly become huge and dominant.
That he had been recognized was plain, for the armed man cried, agitatedly: "Look out, Tom! I don't want any truck with you."
The deliberate advance continued; in a harsh voice Tom answered: "I don't allow anybody to interfere with me when I'm eating!" For every step he shuffled forward the man before him fell back a corresponding distance.
Again the newcomer rasped out his warning, and Gray, too, added his voice, saying: "Leave him to me, old man. This is my quarrel." As he spoke he moved around the end of the table, but the mantled figure halted him with an imperious jerk of the head. Without in the slightest diverting his steady gaze, Tom snapped:
"Hands off, stranger! I won't have you buttin' in, either. I don't allow anybody to interfere with me when I'm eating."
Gray was checked less by the exasperation, by the authority in the speaker's tone, than by the fact that the entire complexion of the affair had changed. The ruffian, who had entered so confidently, was no longer the aggressor; a mere look, a word, a gesture from this aged, unknown person had put him upon the defensive. More extraordinary still was the fact that his power of initiative was for the moment completely paralyzed, and that he was tortured by a deplorable indecision. He was furious, that was plain, nevertheless his anger had been halted in mid-flight, as it were; desperation battled with an inexplicable dread. He raised his hands now, but more in a gesture of surrender than of threat.
"Don't come any closer," he cried, hoarsely. "Don't do it, I tell you! Don't—do it!'" There was no longer any thickness to his tongue; he spoke as one quite sober.
When for the third time that malevolent voice repeated, "I don't allow anybody to interfere with me when I'm eating," the solitary onlooker felt an absurd desire to laugh. During intensely dramatic moments nervous laughter is near the surface, and there was something rigidly dramatic about the methodical, sidling advance of that man half crouched behind his overcoat. Tom, as he had been called, gave Gray the impression of Death itself marching slowly forward to drape that black shroud upon his cowering victim.
Brief as had been the whole episode, already passers-by had halted, staring faces were glued to the front windows of the cafe. Well they might stare at those two tense figures, one advancing, the other retreating, as if to the measures of some slow dance.
But the tempo changed abruptly. The desperado's back brought up against the swinging kitchen door; it gave to his weight and decision was born of that instant. With a cry he flung himself backward, the spring door snapped to and swallowed him up with the speed of a camera shutter; then followed the sound of his heavy rushing footsteps.
"Hell!" exclaimed the old man. "I had his buttons counted!" With the words he let fall his overcoat, and there, beneath it, Gray beheld what he had more than half suspected, what indeed was ample cause for the quarrelsome stranger's apprehension. Held close to the owner's body was what in the inelegant jargon of the West is known as a "dog leg." The weapon, a frontier Colt's of heavy caliber, was full cocked under the old man's thumb; the hand holding it was as steady as the blazing eyes above.
With a smile Gray said, "Allow me to congratulate you, sir, upon a most impressive demonstration of the power of mind over matter."
"A little killin' helps those scoun'rels," breathed the white-haired warrior. "Surgin' around, wreakin' vengeance on vinegar bottles! And me with a bad indigestion!"
"I don't often permit others to do my fighting. But you wouldn't let—"
"I don't allow anybody—" doggedly began the former speaker, but the street door burst open, a noisy crowd poured into the room, a volley of excited questions was raised. Amid the confusion Gray heard his own name shouted, and found himself set upon by two agitated friends, Mallow and Stoner. They had been combing Newtown for him, so they declared, and were near by when attracted by the excitement on the sidewalk. What was the trouble? Was Gray hurt?
He assured them that he was not, and explained in a few words the origin of the encounter. But other concerns, it seemed, occupied the minds of the pair, and before he had finished Mallow was dragging him towards the door, crying, breathlessly: "Gee, Governor! You gave us a run. We've been coming since noon."
"It was only by the grace of God," Stoner declared, "that we heard you were out here and why you'd come. We managed to get a phone call through to Jackson, but it was—"
"Jackson? I've been looking for him all the afternoon."
"Sure! Mallow swore he was all right, but Mac and I don't know him, and we figured he might turn a trick. Anyhow, Mallow and I jumped the Lizzie and looped it. Boy! I tramped on her some, until we hit bottom the other side of Burk. Mallow went clean through the top. I guess I smashed the whole rear end, but we couldn't wait to see. They'll have her stripped naked, tires, cushions, and all, before we get back. Motor, too, probably. We've been hitting it afoot, on wagons and pipe trucks—managed to get a service car finally, but it fell open like a book. Just one of those dam' unlucky trips."
"Jackson didn't get to you, did he?" Mallow inquired, anxiously.
"Get to me? No. Nor I to him." Gray spoke impatiently. "What is this all about?"
"Simply this, Governor: Jackson's well is a 'set-up'! For Nelson! We nearly dropped dead when we found out that Parker kid had laid you against it. Why didn't you tell us—?"
"What are you saying? I don't—"
"The well's phony. Dry as a pretzel."
"In what way? I saw the oil—"
"Never mind. Lay off!"
"I think I'm entitled to an explanation."
"Well, then, it's salted!"
"Impossible! I saw it pumping."
"I'll say you did." Mallow chuckled. "Live oil, too; right out of old Mamma Earth. Cheap lease at seventy-five thousand, eh? It's like this: the pipe line of the Atlantic runs across Jackson's lease, and one dark and stormy night he tapped it. It wasn't a hard thing to do; just took a little care and some digging. Now he runs the oil in, pumps it out and sells it back to them. He's a regular subsidiary of the great and only Atlantic Petroleum Company. It can't last long, of course, but—oh, what a well to hand Nelson! What a laugh it would have been!"
"Outrageous!" Gray exclaimed. "I can't believe you are in earnest."
"It is shocking, isn't it? Such dishonesty is incredible. And what an unhappy surprise for the company when they finally locate the leak!"
Gray clamped a heavy hand upon the speaker's shoulder; harshly he inquired, "Do you mean to say that Miss Parker deliberately—"
"She don't know anything about it."
"You said she 'laid me' against it."
"No, no! I merely tipped her to it because she's one of Nelson's brokers."
"She's his sweetie," Stoner added. "He's going to marry her, so Mallow thought he'd surely fall for it, coming from her."
"You—you're not fit to mention that girl's name, either of you." Gray's tone was one of quivering anger. "If you involve her in your crooked dealings, even indirectly, I'll—God! What a dirty trick." He flung Mallow aside in disgust. "You ought to be shot."
"Why, Governor! We wouldn't hurt that kid. She's aces."
"I told you my fight with Nelson was to be fair and square."
There followed a moment of silence. Mallow and Stoner exchanged glances. "What percentage of that goes?" the former finally inquired.
"So? Then it's lucky Nelson didn't fall. But there's no harm done—nobody's hurt."
"It is lucky, indeed-for me. I'd have felt bound to make good his loss, if you had hooked him. I presume I ought to expose this swindle."
"Expose Jackson?" Stoner inquired, quickly. When Gray nodded, there was another brief silence before the speaker ventured to say: "I know this bird Nelson, and, take it from me, you're giving him the best of it. If I hadn't known him as well as I do, I wouldn't of put in with you to break him. It's all right to trim a sucker once; it's like letting the blood of a sick man—he's better for it. But to ride a square guy to death, to keep his veins open—well, I ain't in that kind of business. Now about this Jackson; you can land him, I s'pose, if you try, but it would be lower than a frog's foot, after him playing square with you."
"What do you mean by that?"
"He could have stung you, easy, couldn't he? You surged out here on purpose to buy the lease, but he hid out all afternoon to avoid you."
"He is a thief. He is stealing hundreds of dollars a day."
"Sure! From the Atlantic, that has stolen hundreds of thousands from the likes of him—yes, millions. It was the Atlantic that broke the market to sixty-five cents, filled their storage tanks and contracted a million barrels more than they had tankage for, then gypped the price to three dollars. I can't shed any tears over that outfit."
"Let's not argue the ethics of big business. The law of supply and demand—"
"Supply and demand, eh? Ever strike you as queer that crude never breaks as long as the big companies have got their tanks full? The price always toboggans when they're empty, and comes back when they're filled up. That's supply and demand with the reverse English, ain't it? Say, the Atlantic and those others play with us outsiders like we was mice. When their bellies get empty they eat as many of us as they want, then they let the rest of us scurry around and hunt up new fields. We run all the risks; we spend our coin, and when we strike a new pool they burgle us over again." Stoner was speaking with a good deal of heat. "Big business, eh? Well, here's some little business—dam' little. The Atlantic leased a lot of scattered acreage I know about and drilled it. Pulled off their crews at the top of the sand and drilled in with men they could trust. It turned out good, but they capped their wells, wrecked their rigs, and, of course, that condemned the whole territory. Then they set about buying it all in, cheap—through dummies. Double-crossed the farmers, see? Friend of mine took a chance; put down a well on his own. The usual thing happened; they broke him. It took a lot of doing, but they broke him. One little trick they did was to cock a bit and drop it in the hole. That prank cost him sixteen thousand dollars before he could 'side track' the tool. He quit, finally, less 'n a hundred feet from big pay. Then, having bought up solid for near nothing they came back and started business, laughing merrily. That's the Atlantic."
"A splendid lecture on commercial honesty. I am inspired by it, and I reverence your scruples, but—I grope for the moral of the story."
"The moral is, mind your own business and—and give a guy a chance."
"Um-m! Suppose we leave it at that for the present."
Mallow, who had remained silent during his friend's argument, greeted this suggestion with relief. He was glad to change the subject. "Good!" he cried, heartily. "I'd about as soon face Old Tom Parker, like that fellow in the restaurant did, as to face Jackson. He'd sink a stillson in my head, sure, if—"
"Parker? Was that old man Miss Parker's father?"
"Certainly! What d'you think ailed that gunman? D'you think he got the flu or something, all of a sudden? There ain't anybody left tough enough to hanker for Tom's scalp. He's pinned a rose on all of those old-timers, and he's deadly poison to the new crop."
For the first time Calvin Gray understood clearly the reason for the unexpected outcome of that encounter in the cafe. No wonder the stranger's trigger finger had been paralyzed. Barbara's father, indeed! How stupid of him not to guess. On the heels of his first surprise came another thought; suppose that old Paladin should consider that he, Gray, had shown weakness in allowing another to assume the burden of his quarrel? And suppose he should tell his daughter about it! That would be a situation, indeed.
"I must find him, quickly," Gray declared. "Perhaps he'll ride back to town with us."
It was not a difficult task to locate the veteran officer, and Tom was delighted at the chance to ride home with his new acquaintance.
That journey back to civilization was doubly pleasant, for Mr. Parker cherished no such feelings as Gray had feared, and, moreover, he responded quickly to the younger man's efforts to engage his liking. They got along famously from the start, and Tom positively blossomed under the attentions he received. It had been a trying day for him, but his ill humor quickly disappeared in the warmth of a new-found friendship, and he talked more than was his custom. He was even led to speak of old days, old combats, of which the bloodless encounter that evening was but a tame reminder. The pictures he conjured up were colorful.
A unique and an engaging person he proved to be; an odd compound of gentleness and acerbity, of kindliness and rancor; a quiet, guileless, stubborn, violent old man-at-arms, who would not be interrupted while he was eating. He was both scornful and contemptuous of evildoers. All needed killing.
"Hard luck, I call it, for a budding desperado to wreck a career of promise the way that wretched fellow did," Gray told him with a laugh. "Out of all the men in Texas, to pick you—"
"Oh, he ain't a bud! He's quite a killer."
"He kills Mexicans and niggers and folks without guns, mostly. Low-down stuff! He's got three or four, I believe. I never could see why the Nelsons kep' him."
There was a brief silence. "I beg pardon?" said Gray.
"He's been on the Nelson pay roll for years—doing odd jobs that wasn't fit to be done. But I guess they got tired of him, anyhow he's been hanging around Wichita for the last two or three weeks. He's been in an out of our office quite a bit."
"Your office? What for?"
"I dunno, unless he took a shine to 'Bob.'"
Mr. Parker uttered an unpleasant sound. "She never said anything about it, but I suspicioned she had to order him out, finally. I'd of split his third shirt button if he'd stood his ground. He knew I had something on him, but he couldn't figure just what it was." Old Tom's teeth shone through the gloom. "A man will 'most always act like that when he don't know just where he's at. I knew where I was at, all the time, only I wanted to see that button plain. I allus know where I'm at."
Later, when the journey was over and Tom Parker had been dropped at his gate, Gray spoke to his two companions.
"Did you hear what he said?"
"Do you believe I was framed?"
Both Mallow and Stoner nodded. "Don't you?" the former inquired. When no answer was forthcoming, he said: "Better give us the flag, Governor. We're rar'ing to go."
"You know what I mean. Nelson's so crooked his bedclothes fall off. We pulled a boner this time, but Brick has got another window dressed for him."
"I'll think it over," said Gray.
Ozark Briskow, like his sister Allegheny, was studying hard and learning rapidly, but he had adopted an educational plan, a curriculum, so to speak, far different from hers. Whereas she lived between book covers and the thousand and one details of her daily existence were governed by a bewildering army of "don'ts," Buddy had devised his own peculiar system of acquiring wisdom, and from it the word "don't" had been deliberately dropped. His excursion into the halls of learning, brief as it had been, had convinced him that books could teach him only words, whereas he craved experiences, ideas, adventures. Adventure comes at night; pleasure walks by gaslight. Young Briskow told himself that he had missed a lot of late hours and would have to work diligently to catch up, but he undertook the effort with commendable courage.
It is said that all wish to possess knowledge, but few are willing to pay the price. Buddy was one of the minority. Early he adopted the motto, "Money no object," and it provoked him not at all to learn that there is a scale of night prices considerably higher than the scale of day prices; to find, for instance, that a nocturnal highball costs twice as much as one purchased during daylight hours. That phenomenon, by the way, had nothing to do with the provisions of the Eighteenth Amendment, it merely explained why farmers went to bed early—they couldn't afford to sit up, so Buddy decided.
He had learned a lot since leaving school, not only about prohibition, but also about speed laws, men's fashions, facial massage, the fox trot and the shimmy, caviar, silk pajamas, bromo-seltzer, the language of flowers, and many of the pleasures and displeasures of the higher intellectual life, such as love and insomnia.
His education was progressing apace, for love is the greatest of educators, and Buddy was in love—madly, extravagantly in love. Love it was that accounted for his presence in Dallas, and his occupancy of the Governor's suite at the Ajax. A fellow in love with the most wonderful woman in the world couldn't afford to look cheap in his home town, could he?
Of course Dallas was not Buddy's home town, but it had been his point of departure into the world, and it was the home of his bank account, hence some pride of proprietorship was pardonable. It gave him such a pleasing sense of importance to adopt the city as his own that he adopted everything and everybody in it.
In spite of the fact that the train from Wichita Falls was behind time, one morning shortly after Buddy's arrival, he was still abed when Calvin Gray arrived at the hotel. Instead of disturbing the slumbers of youth, Gray went directly to the detective who had telegraphed him, and for half an hour or more the two talked.
Later, during the course of a leisurely bath and shave, the new arrival pondered the information he had received. Here was a problem. Having dressed himself, he strolled around to Coverly's place of business and interviewed the jeweler.
"Sure! He has bought quite a bit of stuff in the last few days," Coverly told him. "He was in only yesterday and ordered a fine piece made up. He wanted a ruby heart pierced with a diamond arrow, but I got him off that and onto a blue Brazilian solitaire. We're mounting it in a platinum lady's ring."
"What is the price?"
"Forty-five hundred, and the value is there."
"Have you seen the woman?"
Coverly nodded. "The boy is a good picker. I don't blame her much, either, for I've seen a lot of worse-looking fellows than Buddy."
"Hold the ring. He may change his mind."
"I say!" Coverly was in dismay. "Are you going to spoil the best sale I've made in two weeks?"
"Oh, I'll take it off your hands if he doesn't. Make some excuse not to deliver it until I say the word. You don't know the woman, eh?"
"Never saw her before."
Gray knocked several times at the Governor's suite before a sleepy response, a succession of yawns and mutterings, told him that he had been heard. The door opened finally and the pride of the Briskow family, his eyes all but swelled shut, his muscular figure splendidly arrayed in futuristic silken pajamas, mumbled:
"What's eatin' you, any—?" The eyes opened wider, Buddy's face broke into a slow smile. "Why, Mr. Gray!" He extended a palm, a bit dry and feverish, and drew his caller inside. "Dawg-gone! I'm glad to see you."
Gray entered with a buoyant laugh and a hearty greeting; he clapped the young giant heavily upon the back. At the blow Buddy voiced a sharp cry and seized his head.
"Easy over the bumps! I'm carryin' a cargo of nitroglycerine, and I'll let go if you jar me," he explained.
"Sorry! I know how it feels. But, man alive, it's afternoon! I began to think you were dead."
Buddy led the way into his bedroom, piled his pillows together and gingerly lowered himself upon them. He showed his strong white teeth in a wide grin and winked meaningly. "I'll be all right directly. It's this here sim—sympathetic booze they talk about. Have a drink, Mr. Gray? There's a coupla bottles of real liquor in the closet—not this tiger's milk you get—"
The caller declined the invitation. "Where the devil have you been, Buddy? We were getting worried."
"Who, me? Oh, I been—lookin' around."
"Your mother is nearly frantic."
Buddy stirred uneasily. "Pshaw! I'm fine. I can take keer of myself. Nobody don't need to worry about me."
"Good! Now then, you young scoundrel, I'm going to order you the sort of breakfast that goes with what ails you, and while it is coming up, you are going to jump under the shower."
"Where d'you get that 'jump' stuff?" the youth inquired, faintly. "Besides, I'm clean."
But Gray had seized the phone, and as soon as he had given his order he strode into the bathroom and turned on the water. He was out again in a moment, then laughingly he dragged the aching Texan from his couch. "Under you go," he insisted, "or I'll wet down your whole Japanese flower garden."
"Some pajamas, ain't they? I got a dozen pairs," Buddy said, proudly.
"Quick! If you think I'll consent to hang around a lonesome hotel while you sleep, you're mistaken. I can't tell you how glad I am to run into you, Buddy. I'm dying to have a riotous time."
"Eh?" Briskow turned an inquiring face to the speaker.
"I've been hibernating in the wilderness, sucking my paw and living off my fat, like a bear. I want you to shown me this town."
A bath, a brisk rubdown, and breakfast put Buddy in fairly good fettle once more; so marked was his improvement, in fact, that Gray envied him his glorious gift of youth.
"Flying pretty high, aren't you?" the elder man inquired, with a wave of the hand that took in the expensive suite.
"Well, I ain't exactly broke."
"True. But I know what these rooms cost. That's going strong for a lad like you."
"You took 'em, didn't you, when you had less 'n I got?"
"Ahem! It is embarrassing to be held up as an example. I've done a good many things, Buddy, that I wouldn't like to see you do."
"If they wouldn't hurt me any more 'n they've hurt you I'd like to try'em."
"Another proof that you are still in short pants. I'm a bad person to copy. By the way, why did you quit school?"
Buddy considered his reply, then: "I reckon it was because of them short pants you speak about. I can't stand bein' laughed at, Mr. Gray. It comes hard to stand up in a class along with a bunch of children and make mistakes and have a little boy in a lace collar and spring heels snap his fingers and sing out in a sweet soprano, 'Oh, tee-cher!' Then have him show you up. They put me in with a lot of nursin' babes. What the hell? I weigh a hundred and ninety and I got a beard!"
"Didn't you learn anything?"
Buddy closed a meaning eye, and his pleasant features wrinkled into that infectious smile. "I'll tell the world I did! After the whistlin' squabs was asleep in their nests I went out among the whippoorwills an' the bats. Ain't it funny how quick folks can learn to put up with bad grammar when you got a jingle in your jeans? I guess I've got enough education to do me; anyhow, I can write Ozark Briskow in the lower right-hand corner and that seems to get me by."
"You wouldn't consent to go back or—have a tutor, like Allie?"
"Who, me?" Briskow laughed scornfully.
"Um-m! Merely a suggestion. You are the architect of your own career."
"I'm fed up on that kind of schoolin', Mr. Gray. I—" Buddy's face reddened, he dropped his eyes. "I don't mind tellin' you—I—It's like this—I kinda got a girl!"
"No!" The speaker was surprised, incredulous.
"Sure have. She's—wonderful. She's right here in this hotel!"
"Buddy, you're developing!" Gray exclaimed, with apparent admiration.
"I been showin' her the sights—that's what ails me this morning. She lets me take her around to places—trusts me, you understand? She thinks I'm aces."
"Splendid! I wish you'd ask her to dig up a friend."
"How d'you mean?"
"Why, ask her to find another good-looking girl for me—I assume she is good looking—then we can make it a foursome. I'm a great entertainer, and, while I don't drink, I haven't the slightest objection to ladies who do. Dallas, I believe, is a pretty lively—"
"She's a stranger here," Buddy broke in, stiffly. His enthusiasm had cooled; he regarded Gray with veiled displeasure. "An' besides, she ain't that kind of a girl."
"Oh! Sorry! I thought from what you said—that headache—bottles in your closet, too! My mistake, Buddy."
"She'll take a drink, with me," the youth confessed. "Anyhow, she's gettin' so she will. I don't see anything wrong in a woman takin' a drink now an' then with a man she—with a man that's honorable." The last words were voiced defiantly.
Hastily Buddy's caller averred: "Nor do I. We sha'n't come to blows over an abstract moral issue like that. This is an age of tolerance, an age of equality. I flatter myself that I'm quite as lawless and broad minded as the average bachelor of our very smartest set."
"I'm—" the speaker gulped. "I'm goin' to marry her."
"Oh, fine!" Gray's enthusiasm was positively electric. He seized Buddy's hand and crushed it. "Education, indeed! No use for that now, is there?"
"I mean I'm goin' to, if I can; if she'll let me."
"Let you? With your money? Why, she'll jump at the chance. No doubt you have already asked her—or she suspects—"
The lad shook his head. "She don't have to marry nobody. She's got money—an es-tate. You think it's all right for me to do it?"
"Simpler men than you have asked that question, and wiser men than I have refused to answer. As for me, I've never had the courage to take the plunge. However, the worst you can get is a heartbreak and a lifetime of regrets. But, of course, the woman takes some chances, too. Tell me about her."
"Well—" Buddy beamed fatuously. "I dunno hardly where to begin." Into his voice, as he spoke, there crept a breathless excitement, into his eyes a dumb adoration. "She's—wonderful! She's too good for me."
"Once and a while they are."
"She's educated, too—more in your class, Mr. Gray. I dunno how she stands for me. She's the smartest, purtiest girl—"
"She's young, eh?"
"She's—older 'n I am. I reckon she's mebbe twenty-five. I never ast her."
"Naturally. How did you meet her? When? Where? I'm a terribly romantic old fool." Gray hitched his chair closer and leaned forward, his face keen with interest.
"Well, sir, it's a regular story, like in a book. I was in a restaurant with a coupla fellers an' a feller she was with struck her—"
"Yep. He was her brother, so she told me. Anyhow, I bounced him. I sure spoiled him up a lot. She was cryin' an' she ast me to take her home. That's how I got to know her. I s'pose she cottoned to me for takin' her part that-a-way. She didn't know the sort of place it was her brother had took her. Pore kid! She's had a hard time, an' every man she ever knew, but me, done her dirt. Even her husband." Buddy scowled.
After a moment Gray said, quietly, "So, she's married?"
"She was. He's dead, or something. I was bashful about callin' around to see her, not havin' anything to talk about but school an' oil wells, but she took an interest right away, 'specially in the wells. You'd ought to hear the story of her life, Mr. Gray. It's as sad as any novel. You see, her folks had lots of money, but her ma died an' her pa was too busy to be bothered, so he sent her off to a convent. Them nuns at the convent was so cruel to her that she run away—"
"And went on the stage."
"How'd you know?"
"I didn't. But—the stage is the usual refuge for convent-bred girls who are abused. I've met several. Did she—Was the old home in Virginia?"
"Sure! Mebbe you know her!" Buddy cried.
"Perhaps. I seem to remember the story. What is her name?"
The elder man shook his head. "You said something about a marriage. I dare say she married some rich John whose family disapproved of the match—so many show girls have been deceived like that. You can't imagine the prejudice of those Fifth Avenue parents—"
"That's what she done. An' he went off an' joined the French Legion of Honor an' was killed."
"Foreign Legion, no doubt."
"Anyhow, he never made no pervision for her. But she wouldn't of touched a penny of his money if he'd left it to her, she's that honorable." Now that the lover had fairly launched himself upon the engrossing life story of his sweetheart he was in deep earnest, and his listener's quick understanding, his sympathy, his grasp of the situation, was a spur to further confidences. It was a blessing to have a friend so old, so wise, and so worldly.
"What is the estate you mentioned?"
"Oh, that's her own! It's all she had to fall back on. It's bein' settled up now an' she'll have her money before long."
"The old Virginia homestead and the slaves—?"
"Good thing she met me when she did, for them lawyers had it all tied up in court and wouldn't let go till she paid their fees."
"A providential meeting, truly. You fixed that up, of course, and got rid of the wretched bloodsuckers. I've done much the same thing, more than once. Now, one other question—how does she happen to be in Dallas? I infer from your account that she is a model of virtue, and that she accepted your aid only upon the condition that your attentions to her should be characterized by the deepest respect. So? Well then, 'how come'?"
"That was just a lucky chance. She's got some interests here; stocks an' things, belongin' to the es-tate. She dunno, herself, how valuable they are, but me comin' right from Texas an' bein' in oil an' all, she ast me to he'p her out. So I got her to come. All that had kep' her back was the expense. Mind you"—Buddy's tone became one of deeper admiration—"she ain't blue, or anything. No sir-ee! Her life's been sad, but you'd never know it. She's full of pep; allus out for fun, an'—that's what I like about her. Gee! You gotta meet her, Mr. Gray."
"Well, rather! But meanwhile, we must telegraph your parents not only that you have been found, but also the further good news."
"I—We better not say anything about my gettin' married."
"Why not? They'd like to know."
"I'd oughta wired 'em long ago, but—you understand! Miss Montague ain't exactly Ma an' Allie's kind."
"You're not ashamed of her?"
"Hunh!" The tone of this exclamation was an eloquent denial.
"Then let's have them come on and get acquainted. They'll probably take right to her." But when this suggestion met with disapproval, Gray inquired: "Is it because you are ashamed of them—of your mother and sister?"
Buddy stirred uneasily. "Pshaw, no!" A sudden thought came to him. "Why, it's this way: I haven't ast her yet. Mebbe she won't have me. If she says yes—I'll let 'em know."
"Good! We'll make it, for the time being, a mere message of reassurance. To-night you and Miss Montague shall dine with me and we'll go to a theater." This arrangement met with young Briskow's enthusiastic approval, and so it was left.
It was with something more than mere impatience that Calvin Gray awaited the dinner hour; he was angry, restless; his mind was back in Wichita Falls, whence the message from his detective had abruptly summoned him. Matters of moment were at issue there, and with a love affair of his own upon his mind he could think of no undertaking less to his taste than this: of saving a young fool from his folly. He could expect no thanks, if he succeeded, and if he failed he would in all probability incur Buddy's enmity, if not that of the whole Briskow family. Families are like that. It would all take time, and meanwhile his business was bound to suffer. However, he was not one to turn back, and he remembered with a pang the last look he had seen in Ma Briskow's eyes.
Gray was prepared to find his young friend's light o' love superficially attractive, and she was all of that. He was not prepared, however, to find her quite as good an actress as she appeared to be. In spite of the fact that she probably took less pleasure in the meeting than did he, she admirably covered her feelings. She was delighted, flattered—Buddy had so often spoken of him that she almost felt acquainted—She was quite excited at knowing the famous Colonel Gray—She would have recognized him anywhere from Buddy's glowing description.
Gray's heart sank as he studied Miss Montague. She was blond—to his suspicious eye a trifle too blond—and she wore her hair bobbed. She was petite and, both in appearance and in mannerism, she was girlish; nevertheless, she was self-reliant, and there was a certain maturity to her well-rounded figure, a suggestion of weariness about her eyes, that told a story.
Following his first critical appraisal, Gray was vaguely conscious of something familiar about her; somewhere within him the chords of remembrance were lightly brushed; but try as he would he could not make himself believe that he had ever seen her. Probably it was the type that was familiar. He undertook to make sure by talking "show business" at the first opportunity; she responded with enough spontaneity to give an impression of candor, but her theatrical experience was limited and that line of exploration led nowhere.
Whatever the pose she had adopted for Buddy's benefit, it was evident now that she credited his friend with intelligence equal to her own, and recognized the futility of deceit, therefore she made no attempt to pass as anything except an experienced young woman of the world, and Gray admired her for it. She smoked a good many cigarettes; her taste in amusements was broad; she had sparkle and enthusiasm. She was, in fact, a vibrant young person, and referred gayly to a road house whither Buddy had taken her on the night before and where they had danced until all hours. She loved to dance.
The elder man played host in his best and easiest style, both at dinner and at the theater; then he passed the burden of entertainment over to Buddy, first cheerfully declaring that he would not be sidetracked and that he intended to impose his company upon the young couple whether they wanted him or not. This was precisely to young Briskow's liking, and soon they were speeding out to that road house mentioned earlier in the evening.
Buddy drove, with Miss Montague by his side, the while Gray sat alone in the back seat of the car quietly objurgating the follies of youth and mournfully estimating his chances of surviving the night. Frankly, those chances appeared pretty slim, for Buddy drove with a death-defying carelessness. By the time they had arrived at their destination, Gray's respect for the girl had increased; she had nerves of steel.
The resort was run on rather liberal principles; a number of flushed and noisy couples were dancing to the music of a colored orchestra. It was a "hip-pocket" crowd, and while there was no public drinking, the high-pitched volubility of the merrymakers was plainly of alcoholic origin. Gray realized that he was in for an ordeal, for he had become too well known to escape notice. Consternation filled him, therefore, at thought of the effect his presence here might have. But the music went straight to Buddy's feet; syncopation intoxicated him much as the throbbing of midnight drums and the pounding of tom-toms mesmerizes a voodoo worshiper, and he whirled Miss Montague away in his arms without so much as an apology to his other guest.
There was nothing conservative about Buddy's dancing. He embellished his steps with capricious figures, and when he led his partner back to the table where he had left Gray, like a sailor marooned upon a thirsty atoll, he was red faced and perspiring; his enthusiasm was boiling over. "Dawg-gone!" he cried. "Now, if we had something wet, eh? These pants is cut purpose for a brace of form-fittin' flasks, but I left 'em in the room on account of you not drinkin', Mr. Gray."
"Miss Montague," the elder man exclaimed, "I am not a kill-joy and I hastily resent Buddy's accusation. I have pursued folly as far as any man of my years."
"I bet him that you were a good fellow," the girl said, with a smile.
"Exactly! Abstinence comes as much from old age as from principle, and I am in my very prime. With all vigor I defend myself against the odious charge of virtuousness. Dyspepsia alone accounts for it."
"You don't object to drinking?"
"A wiser man than I has said, 'There are many things which we can afford to forget which it is yet well to learn.' I have had my day. May I claim the next dance?"
In spite of the fact that Ozark Briskow was compelled to sit out every alternate dance in a distressing condition of sobriety, he enjoyed himself, for he was playing host to the one woman and the one man for whom he cared most. He had dreaded meeting Gray, fearing the effect of an open confession, expecting opposition, but Gray was broad minded, he was a regular guy. In the relief of this hour, Buddy could have worshiped him except for the fact that he was too darned nice to Arline—nobody had the right to show her attentions as marked as his own—Gray was a man no woman could help loving—
Before long Buddy experienced a new sensation—jealousy. It was mild, to be sure, but it hurt a little.
Once Miss Montague's suspicions had been allayed, she, too, devoted herself to having a good time. She rather enjoyed Gray and her sense of victory over him. She retired to the ladies' room, finally, to powder her nose, and when she reappeared it was with added animation and with a new sparkle to her eyes. When next it came the elder man's turn to dance with her, he caught upon her breath a faint familiar odor, only half disguised by the peppermint lozenge that was dissolving upon her tongue, and he smiled. Evidently this charmer maintained herself in a state of constant preparedness, and her vanity bag hid secrets even from Buddy.
Where had he seen her? For the hundredth time he asked himself that question, for amid these hectic surroundings that first haunting suggestion of familiarity had become more pronounced. But patient delving into the dark corners of his memory was unavailing, and her conversation afforded him no clue.
As time passed the young woman made other trips to the dressing room, returning always with an access of brightness and a stronger breath; she assumed with Gray a coquetry which Buddy did not like. Buddy, indeed, strongly disapproved of it, but that only drove her to more daring lengths. She ventured, at last, to discuss the young millionaire with his friend.
"He's a dear boy, isn't he? And so innocent."
"I'll say he is. He has learned a lot from me."
"'Delightful task, to rear the tender thought.' But aren't you afraid he'll learn, for instance, why you are eating peppermints?"
"Oho!" Gray's petite partner lifted her head and eyed him curiously. "Do you know why?"
"I have a suspicion," he said, with a smile, "that when a girl deliberately perfumes her breath it is in preparation for the struggle in the cab."
Miss Montague laughed unaffectedly. "Say! I could like you, Mr. Wisenblum, in spite of the fact that I ought to hate you."
"Hate me? But why?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Because—I'm rather nice; I dance well."
"You are, and you do. You'd be a perfect dear if you'd only mind your own business. Buddy is of age, and you and I will get along like ham and eggs if you'll remember that."
"Why the SOS?" Mallow voiced this question as he entered Gray's hotel room early the following evening.
"I'm in a predicament and I hope you can help me," the latter explained. "I'm trying to remember something and I can't. I have a cold spot in my head."
Mallow deposited his bag with a sigh of relief. "Glad it's no worse. Anybody can cure a cold in the head."
"Sit down and light up while I tell you about it." In a few sentences Gray made known the story of Ozark Briskow's infatuation, and the reason for his own interest therein. "The woman is of the common 'get-rich-quick' variety," he concluded, "and she won't do."
"She didn't pull the family estate and her father's slaves and the orange grove on you, did she?"
"Oh no. She used that on Buddy and he believes it implicitly—so implicitly that she warned me to keep off the track. She showed her teeth, in a nice way. I've seen her somewhere; in some place where I should not have been. But where? It must have been in this country, too—not abroad—or I'd remember her."
"Maybe I haven't been as wild as you, Governor. This is a big country and I've missed a lot of disreputable joints."
The former speaker smiled. "You have trained yourself to remember faces, Mallow. Your researches—scientific researches, my dear Professor—have led you into quarters which I have never explored. I must identify this venturesome little gold digger without delay, for Buddy yearns to make her all his; matrimony is becoming the one object of his life."
"Why not let the poor carp have her? It's tough enough for a dame to get by since prohibition. I don't see how they make it, with everybody sober. Chances are she'd get the worst of the swap, at that."
"Not unlikely, but that is neither here nor there. Understand me, I'm no seraph; I pose as no model of rectitude, and, unfortunately for my peace of mind, Miss Montague is a really likable young person. But Buddy has a mother and a sister, and they hold me responsible for him. We three are dining downstairs in an hour; perhaps you could look in on us?"
"Sure. I'll give her the once over," Mallow agreed. "If she's anybody in our set, I'll know her."
The dinner had scarcely started when Gray heard his name paged and left the table. In the lobby Mallow was waiting with a grin upon his face.
"Is that her?" he inquired.
"That is the girl."
"Girl? 'Arline Montague,' eh? Her name is Margie Fulton and she had her hair up when they built the Union Pacific."
"Nonsense! You're mistaken. She can't be more than twenty-five—thirty at most."
"A woman can be as young as she wants to be if she'll pay the price. Margie had her face tucked up two years ago. Cost her five thousand bucks."
"I—can't believe it."
"You see it every day. Look at the accordion-pleated beauts in the movies. Why, some of those dolls nursed in the Civil War! Those face surgeons have ironed the wrinkles out of many a withered peach, and you're dining with Margie Fulton, the Suicide Blonde. I know her kid."
"Her what?" Mallow's hearer gasped.
"Sure. She was married to Bennie Fulton, the jockey, and they had a boy. Bennie was ruled off in New Orleans and started a gambling house."
"New Orleans! Wait—I'm beginning to remember."
Into Gray's mind came an indistinct memory; the blurred picture of a race track with its shouting thousands, a crowded betting ring; then, more clearly, a garish, over-furnished room in a Southern mansion; clouds of tobacco smoke rising in the cones of bright light above roulette and poker tables; negro servants in white, with trays; mint juleps in tall, frosted glasses; a pretty girl with straw-colored hair—"You're right!" he agreed, finally. "She was a 'come-on.'"
"That's her. She worked the betting ring daytimes and boosted in Bennie's place at night. Whenever she was caught she suicided. That's how she got her name."
"Just what do you mean by that?"
"Why, the usual stuff. A bottle of water with a poison label. If a mullet threatened to call the police, she'd cry, 'You have ruined my life!' Then with shaking hand she'd pull the old skull bottle and drink herself to death. Of course, the poor leaping tuna usually got the acid out of her hand in time to save her. She saw to that."
Gray was laughing silently. "My dear Professor," he confessed, "wisdom, of a sort, is mine; sometimes I grow weary with the weight of my experiences and wonder why the world so seldom shows me something new. But beside you I am as a babe. Tell me, what has become of the ex-jockey husband?"
"She divorced him. Mind you, Margie was square, like most of those 'come-ons.' She'd 'how dare' a guy that so much as looked at her. You know the kind I mean."
"And the child? Where do you suppose she keeps it?"
Mallow reflected. "The last time I saw the little cherub he was singing bass in a bellboys' quartette at Hot Springs. He hops bells at the Arlington summers and butchers peanuts at the track during the season—you know, hollers 'Here they come!' before they start, then when the women jump up he pinches the betting tickets out of their laps and cashes them with the bookies."
"Could you get hold of this—this boy basso and bring him here without letting him or his mother know?"
"I can if he's still at Hot Springs, and I saw him there the last time I was up. The little darling got me into a crap game and ran in some shaped dice. Of course, it would cost something to get him."
Mallow "shot" his cuff and upon it gravely figured up the probable expense. "Well, there would be the fares and the eats and his bit—he wouldn't come for nothing. He'd gyp me for ten dollars, but he'd probably come for five. I'd offer him three—"
"There is a thousand dollars in it if you can produce him within the next forty-eight hours. I doubt my ability to sit on the safety valve much longer than that, for Buddy Briskow is rapidly breaking out with matrimonial measles. If I throw cold water on him it will only aggravate the disease."
"A thousand dollars!" Mallow cried. "Why, for a thousand berries I'll bring you his head on a platter. I'll car the little devil down and lock him in a suitcase." The speaker hesitated a moment before concluding. "It's a dirty trick on Margie, though."
"I know. But I'm thinking of Buddy. Now, in Heaven's name, hurry! My constitution may survive a few more road houses, but my reputation will not."
That night was a repetition of the one before, but with variations and with trimmings, for Buddy wore his "two-pint trousers" again, and this time they were loaded, hence Gray had a chance to observe him at his best—or worst. A little liquor went a long way with the boy; he derived much effect, many by-products, so to speak, from even a few drinks, and the elder man was forcibly reminded of Gus Briskow's statement that his son had a streak of the Old Nick in him. It was true; Buddy was indeed like a wild horse. Artificially stimulated, he became a creature of pure impulse, and those impulses ran the entire gamut of hilarity: he played the drum; he wrestled with a burly doorman; he yelled, whenever he found what he called a good "yelling place"; he demonstrated his ability to sing "Silver Threads Among the Gold" to the accompaniment of a four-piece orchestra energetically engaged in playing something quite modern and altogether different. These, and many other accomplishments equally unsuspected, he displayed. On the way from one lively resort to a livelier he conceived the unique idea that he could "swap ends" with his touring car in much the same manner that he could turn a nimble cow pony, and he tried it. Happily, the asphalt was wet, and in consequence the maneuver was not a total failure, although it did result in a crumpled mud guard and a runaway. Milk-wagon horses in Dallas, it appeared, were not schooled to the sight of spinning motor cars, and the phenomenon filled at least one with abysmal horror.
Gray felt sure that he had visibly aged as a result of that ride, and he began to understand why a new crop of wrinkles was appearing about the corners of Margie Fulton's eyes. No wonder she was beginning to look a trifle weary.
Fearing that Buddy was likely to turn sentimental without warning, the elder man monopolized as much of "Miss Montague's" time and attention as possible; he danced with her frequently, and he assiduously devoted himself to winning her favor. The result was a tribute to his acting and to his magnetism. In a moment of abandon she confided to him that she wished he had Buddy's money or—that he was a marrying man. Both of Buddy's flasks had been emptied by this time, however, so Gray was not unduly beguiled by this flattery.
On the whole, it was a horrible night.
As Gray languidly crept into bed about daylight he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had at least excited his young friend's open jealousy. That might act as a stay. On the other hand, of course, it might have directly the opposite effect—one could never tell—and it might be the part of wisdom, therefore, to gain possession of that diamond ring.
Buddy sought him out in the lobby, early the next afternoon, and after a colorless greeting, said, queerly, "Would you mind comin' up to my room for a minute?"
"Certainly not. I'd have looked in on you before this if I'd thought you were up." As the two mounted the wide marble stairs Gray went on, cheerfully: "Not looking your best this morn—afternoon, my lad. As for me, I am, in a manner of speaking, reborn. I have taken a new start. Careful reflection upon the providential outcome of that amazing skid has convinced me that whatever joys or sorrows assail me hereafter, however much or little of life is spared me, it will be all 'velvet.' A touch of mascaro about my temples and I shall look as young as I did yesterday. What are we going to do to-night?"
Once inside his spacious suite, Buddy flung himself into a chair and with trembling fingers lit a cigarette. It was evident that he had something to say, but either dreaded saying it or knew not where to begin. His companion, meanwhile, pretended to look out upon the street below. In reality, he was observing the young giant. Poor Buddy! He was suffering.
The latter cleared his throat several times before he managed to say, "You don't want me to marry Arline, do you, Mr. Gray?"
"Frankly, my boy, I do not."
"There are many reasons."
"I don't think you love her."
Briskow stirred. "Is that why you—went an' got that di'mon' ring I had made?" When this query met with a nod the young Texan's face flamed and his eyes glowed. "What in hell—" He swallowed his anger, rose to his feet and made a nervous circuit of the room before coming to a pause at Gray's side. His lips were working; there was a tragic, a piteous appeal in his eyes; his voice shook as he stammered: "I didn't mean to break out at you, Mr. Gray. I like you. Gee! I—You're kinda like God to me. I'd ruther be like you than—well, there ain't nobody I like like I like you—You could get her away from me if you wanted to, but—you wouldn't do a trick like that, would you? I was mighty happy till you came—You—got that ring with you?"
"I have it in my pocket."
"I want it." Buddy extended a quivering hand.
"I'm goin' to ask her to marry me, to-day. If she won't I'm goin' to—"
Buddy gasped. "You sure?"
"I'm quite sure she would if you asked her. But I don't want you to ask her." When an expression of pained reproach leaped into the lad's face, the speaker explained, quickly: "Don't think for a moment that I care for her, nor that she has the slightest interest in me. It is you that I care for. What you just said pleased me, touched me. I wish you could understand how much I really do care for you, Buddy. Won't you wait—a few days, before you—"
"I can't wait."
The men eyed each other steadily for a moment, then Buddy demanded, querulously, "What have you got against her, anyhow?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"She told me everything there is to tell an' I told you. I don't care what she's done—if she ever done anything. She's had a hard time."
"Will you wait forty-eight hours?"
"Gimme that ring!" When Gray made no move the speaker ran on, excitedly: "I'm a man. I'm of age. It's none of your business what I do—nor Pa's or Ma's, either. It won't do no good for them to come."
Gray went to the door, locked it and pocketed the key. "Buddy"—his voice was firm, his face was set—"you are a man, yes, although you were only a boy a few weeks ago. You are going to act like a man, now."
"You goin' to try an' hold me here?" The inquiry was one of mingled astonishment and anger, for young Briskow could scarcely believe his eyes. "Don't do that, Mr. Gray. I—Nobody can't make me do anything. Please don't! That's plumb foolish."
"What if I told you that Miss Montague is—"
Buddy interrupted with a harsh cry. "Damn it! I said I wouldn't listen to anything against her. I'm tellin' you, again, keep your mouth shut about her." The youth's face was purple; he was trembling; his fists were clenched, and with difficulty he restrained even a wilder outburst. "You can have the ring, but—you lemme out of here, quick." When this command went unheeded he strode toward the bedroom, intending to use the other exit, but his caller intercepted him. "Lemme out!" the young man shouted.
"One of us is going to remain in this room, and I think it will be you." As Gray spoke he jerked off his coat and flung it aside. "Better strip, Buddy, if you mean to try it."
Buddy recoiled a step. Incredulously he exclaimed: "You—you wouldn't try that! This is my room. You must be crazy."
"I think I am, indeed, to endure what I have endured these last two days; to make myself ridiculous; to be humiliated; to risk my business ruin just to save a young fool from his folly." Impatience, resentment, anger were in the speaker's tone.
"I never ast you. You butted in—tried to cut me out. That's dirty. You was lyin' when you said—"
"Have it that way. I've run out of patience."
Ozark Briskow, too, had reached the limit of his endurance; he exploded. Momentarily he lost his head and cursed Gray vilely. For answer the latter moved close and slapped him across the mouth, saying: "Fight, you idiot!"
Buddy's low, gasping cry had the effect of a roar; it left the room echoing, then savagely he lunged at his assailant. He was blind, in him was a sudden maniacal impulse to destroy; he had no thought of consequences. Gray knocked him down.
It was a blow that would have felled an ox. As the youth lay half dazed, he heard the other taunting him, mocking him. "Get up, you lummox, and defend yourself. You'll be a man when I get through with you."
Codes of combat are peculiar to localities. In the north woods, for instance, lumberjacks fight with fist and heel; in the Southwest, when a man is mad enough to fight at all, he is usually mad enough to kill. As Buddy Briskow rose to his knees he groped for the nearest weapon, the nearest missile, something—anything with which to slay. His hand fell upon a heavy metal vase, and with this he struck wickedly as Gray closed with him. This time they went down together and rolled across the floor. The legs of a desk crashed and a litter of writing materials was spilled over them.
Gray was the first to regain his feet, but his shirt had been torn half off and he tasted blood upon his lips. He had met strong men in his time, but never had he felt such a rocklike mass of bone and muscle as now. Buddy was like a kicking horse; his fists were as hard as hoofs, and that which they smote they crushed or bruised or lacerated. He possessed now the supreme strength of a madman, and he was quite insensible to pain. He was uttering strange animal sounds.