"Shut up!" Gray panted. "Have the guts to—keep still. You'll—rouse the—"
He dodged an awkward swinging blow from the giant and sent him reeling. Buddy fetched up against the solid wall with a crash, for Gray had centered every pound of his weight behind his punch, but the countryman rebounded like a thing of rubber and again they clinched.
A room cluttered with heavy furniture is not like a boxing ring. In spite of Gray's skill and an agility uncommon in a man of his size, it was impossible to stop the other's rushes or to avoid them. Straining with each other they ricocheted against tables and chairs, and only the fact that much of the furniture was padded, and the floor thickly carpeted, prevented the sound of their struggle from alarming the occupants of the halls and the lobby. They fought furiously, moving the while like two wrestlers trying for flying holds; time and again they fell with first one on top and then the other; their flesh suffered and they grew bloody. The room soon became a litter, for its fittings were upset, flung about, splintered, as if the room itself had been picked up and shaken like a doll's house.
Gray managed to floor his antagonist whenever he had time and space in which to set himself, but this was not often, for Buddy closed with him at every opportunity. At such times it was the elder man who suffered most.
In a way it was an unequal struggle, for youth, ablaze with a holy fire, was matched against age, stiffened only by stubborn determination. Neither man longer had any compunctions; each fought with a ferocious singleness of purpose.
Buddy's face had been hammered to a pulp, but Gray was groaning; he could breathe only from the top of his lungs, and the bones of his left hand had been telescoped. Agonizing pains ran clear to his shoulder, and the hand itself was well-nigh useless.
It was an extraordinary combat; certainly the walls of this luxurious suite had never looked down upon a scene so strange as this fight between friends. How long it continued, neither man knew—not a great while, surely, measured by the clock; but an interminable time as they gauged it. Nor could Calvin Gray afterward recall just how it came to an end. He vaguely remembered Buddy Briskow weaving loosely, rocking forward upon uncertain legs, blindly groping for him—the memory was like that of a figure seen dimly through a mist of dreams—then he remembered calling up his last reserve of failing vigor. Even as he launched the blow he knew it was a knockout. The colossus fell, lay motionless.
It was a moment or two before Gray could summon strength to lend succor, then he righted an armchair and dragged Buddy into it. He reeled as he made for the bathroom, for he was desperately sick; as he wet a towel, meanwhile clinging dizzily to the faucet, his reflection leered forth from the mirror—a battered, repulsive countenance, shockingly unlike his own.
He was gently mopping young Briskow's face when the latter revived. Buddy's eyes were wild, he did not recognize this unpleasant stranger until a familiar voice issued from the shapeless lips.
"You'll be all right in a few minutes, my lad."
Briskow lifted his head; he tried to rise, but fell back limply, for as yet his body refused to obey his will.
"You—licked me," he declared, faintly. "Licked me good, didn't you?"
"Buddy! Oh, Buddy—" It was a yearning cry; Gray's streaked, swollen features were grotesquely contorted. "You won't be mad with me, will you?"
"Want to fight any more?"
The victor groaned. "My God, no! You nearly killed me."
This time Buddy managed to gain his feet. "Then I reckon I'll—go to bed. I feel purty rotten."
Gray laughed aloud, in his deep relief. "Righto! And after I've phoned for a doctor, if you don't mind, I'll crawl in with you."
On the morning after the fight Mallow knocked at Gray's door, then in answer to an indistinct and irritable command to be gone, he made himself known.
"It's me, Governor. And I've got Exhibit A."
"Really?" came the startled query. There was a stir from within, the lock snapped and the door opened.
"I've got a little friend here that I want you to—" Mallow paused inside the threshold, his mouth fell open, he stared in frank amazement. "Sweet spirits of niter!" he gasped. "What happened to you?"
"I was playing tag in the hall with some other old men, and one of them struck me."
"My God, you're a sight!" Mallow remained petrified. "I never saw a worse mess."
"Come in and close the door. I am vain, therefore I have a certain shyness about exposing my beauty to the curious gaze. Pardon me if I seat myself first; I find it more comfortable to sit than to stand, to recline than to sit." Stiffly the speaker let himself into an upholstered divan and fitted the cushions to his aches and his pains, his bruises and his abrasions. He sighed miserably. His features were discolored, shapeless; his lips were cut; strips of adhesive tape held the edges of a wound together; his left hand was tightly bandaged and the room reeked with the odor of liniment.
"You've been hit with a safe, or something," Mallow declared. "Evidences of some blunt instrument, as the newspapers say; maybe a pair of chain tongs."
"Blunt and heavy, yes. Buddy Briskow and I had an argument—"
"That big bum? Did he lay it on you like that? Say, he's got the makings of a champ!"
"Pride impels me to state that he got the worst of it. He is scarcely presentable, while I—"
"Your side won?"
"It did. Now, where is the boy?"
"He's outside." Without shifting his astonished gaze, Mallow raised his voice and cried, "Hey, Bennie!" The door opened, a trim, diminutive figure entered. "Bennie, mit my friend Colonel Gray."
The youngster, a boy of indeterminate age, advanced and shook hands. There was no mistaking him; he was Margie Fulton's son in size, in coloring, in features. "I told Bennie you could use a bright kid about his age. And he's bright."
It required no clever analysis of the lad to convince Gray that he was indeed bright, as bright—and as hard—as a silver dollar. He had a likable face, or it would have been likable had it been in repose. It was twitching now, and Gray said, with a smile, "Go ahead and laugh, son."
The urchin's lips parted in a wide grin, and he spoke for the first time. "Did the Germans do that?" The effect of his voice was startling, for it was deep and husky; it was the older man's turn to be astonished.
"He could pass for fifteen on the street," Mallow said; "but when he talks I chalk him down for thirty-five. How old are you, Ben?"
"Seventeen. What's the big idea, anyhow?" The question was directed impudently at the occupant of the divan. "Did you send all the way to Hot Springs to get a guy you can lick?"
"Your mother is here in Dallas, my boy."
"Yeah?" There was a pause. "How's it breaking for her?"
"Um-m, very well. I thought she'd like to see you."
Bennie cocked his head, he eyed the speaker curiously, suspiciously. "Come clean," he rumbled. "Mallow said you could use me."
"I can. I will."
The boy shrugged. "All right, Sharkey. I s'pose it'll come out, in time. Only remember, I've got twenty coming, win or lose."
"Of course" Gray waved toward the dresser, upon which was a handful of bills. "Help yourself. Better make it twenty-five. Then wait outside, please. We will join you in a few minutes."
"And don't make it thirty," Bennie's traveling companion sharply cautioned.
When the door had closed, Gray gave his friend certain instructions, after which he limped to the telephone and called Arline Montague. "May I ask you to step down to Buddy's room?" he inquired, after making himself known. "Oh, it will be quite all right—We three must have a little talk—But he couldn't see you last night. He was quite ill, really; I sat up with him most of—" There was a longer hiatus then. "Hadn't we better argue that in Buddy's presence? Thank you. In five minutes, then."
As he and Gray prepared to leave, Mallow said, sourly: "Margie is a good little dame, in her way, and I feel like a—like a damned'stool.'"
"My dear fellow," the other told him, "I understand, and I'd gladly take another beating like this one to escape this wretched denouement."
When Ozark Briskow answered Gray's request for admittance, he was deeply embarrassed to find Miss Montague also waiting; his stammered protest was interrupted by her sharp inquiry:
"What is the meaning of all this mystery? He said you were too sick to see me."
"Permit me to explain," Gray began, as he closed the door behind them. "Buddy and I came to blows over you; you were, in a manner of speaking, an apple of discord between us, and the melancholy results you behold. Jealousy of your charms was not my motive; I merely asked Buddy to defer a contemplated action. He refused; I insisted. Argument failed to budge either of us and—"
The young woman's sympathetic regard of Gray's victim changed to a glare of hostility as she turned upon the speaker, crying: "You brute! You ought to be arrested!"
"He ast me to wait, Arline—"
"To delay asking you a question which I felt should be more seriously considered. In the absence of his family I took it upon myself to—"
"To butt in!" Miss Montague exclaimed, with curling lip.
"Quite so. I merit your disapproval, but not your disdain."
With some heat Buddy declared: "Pa an' Ma know that I got a mind of my own. It won't do 'em any good to come."
"See here," the woman demanded. "What have you been telling Buddy about me? I told him all there was to tell."
"Quite all? I fear you have not been as frank as you would have me believe. That, in fact, explains my connection with the affair. Believe me when I say that I am interested only in seeing justice done to both of you young people, and in making sure that you do not deceive each other. It is an impulse of artless youth to trick itself in glowing colors, but you should know the whole truth about Buddy and he about you. If, after you are thoroughly acquainted with each other, you still maintain a mutual regard I shall have nothing further to say—except to beg that I be allowed to show my true friendship for both of you."
"Well, spring the bad news," said Miss Montague. Briskow now displayed the first open resentment he had shown since his defeat of the day before. "You licked me, Mr. Gray, an' I took my medicine," he growled. "You changed my looks, but you didn't change my mind. I'm waitin' for the folks to come, but I ain't goin' to listen to 'em."
"Let him get this off his chest, Buddy. Go ahead with the scandal, Saint Anthony."
Gray bowed. "Suppose we ignore the early convent training and the Old Kentucky Home and agree that they are pleasant fictions, like the estate which you are in such imminent danger of inheriting. Those, I'm sure you will admit, are entirely imaginary." Buddy Briskow's swollen eyelids opened wider, his tumid lips parted, and an expression of surprise spread over his dropsical countenance.
"Step on it," sneered Miss Montague. "Dish the dirt!"
"Buddy's belief, however, that your stage career was blasted and your young life laid waste by the scion of a rich New York house should, in the interests of truth, be corrected."
"He knows I was married."
"True. But not to Bennie Fulton, the jockey."
"That is a—lie!"
"Nor that the estimable Mr. Fulton, instead of perishing upon the field of glory, dodged the draft and is doing as well as could be expected of a jockey who has been ruled off every track in the country, and is now a common gambler against whom the finger of suspicion is leveled—"
"It's a lie!" the woman stormed. Of Buddy she inquired: "You don't believe that, do you? You don't intend to listen to that sort of stuff?"
The object of this appeal was torn by conflicting emotions. Doubt is a weed that sprouts fastest in dull minds; suspicion is the ready armor of ignorance; to young Briskow came the unwelcome vision of those oil wells. Was Gray telling the truth? Could it be that Arline had made a fool of him? But no, she was smaller, prettier, more adorable than ever, now that she was whipped by this gale of anger, and a girl like that could not be a deceiver. Buddy longed desperately to believe her refutation of the charge. He closed his eyes and made himself believe.
"Even now," Gray was saying, "if you would tell the boy all he ought to know, I would take myself off and have nothing more to say."
"You-you make me sick!" Miss Montague cried, vibrantly. "What right have you to preach? What kind of a man are you? If he believed your lies for a minute I'd never want to see him again. He has been a true friend to me"—her voice quavered, caught in her throat—"the only true friend I ever had. I don't care whether he's rich or poor, but men like you are all alike. What chance has a girl got against you? You want to use his money, so you p-poison his mind—break a woman's heart—just b-because you—hate me." The last words were sobbed forth. Miss Montague broke down.
"Hell!" hoarsely exclaimed young Briskow. "You're makin' her cry!"
Gray sighed; he stepped to the door, opened it and called, "Come in, both of you."
Arline Montague's shoulders ceased to shake, she lifted her blond head alertly. Then she uttered a breathless exclamation.
Buddy, meanwhile, had been staring at the door, and he was surprised when, instead of his family, he saw entering a strange man and a boy small of stature but old of face, a boy insouciant, impudent, swaggering. It was this boy who spoke first.
"Hello, momma!" he cried.
At sound of that voice Buddy recoiled, for it was deeper than his own. His expression of dismay was no doubt ludicrous, at any rate the urchin's lively eyes leaped to his face and remained there, while a grin spread over his features.
"Hully Gee!" rumbled the lad. "Here's another one that ought to be buried!"
"Mrs. Fulton"—it was Gray speaking—"I took the liberty of asking your son—"
Buddy Briskow heard no more, for his ears were roaring. Her son! That voice! Being little more than a boy himself, nothing could have hurt him more cruelly than this; his impulse was to flee the room, for his world had come down in crashing ruin. She had lied! She had made a fool of him. Gray had been right.
The others were still talking when Buddy broke in faintly. His battered visage was white, his lips were colorless. "I reckon this—ends my part of the entertainment," said he. Slowly he seated himself and bowed his head in his hands, for he had become quite ill.
Arline Montague—Margie Fulton—once the blow had fallen, behaved rather well; she took Bennie in her arms and kissed him, then in answer to his quick look of dismay at her agitation, she patted him on the shoulder and said: "It's all right, son. You didn't know."
"Didn't know what?" demanded the lad. "Say—" He stared angrily from one face to another. "Is it a plant?"
"Hush! You wouldn't understand."
Bennie's suspicions now were in full play, and his gaze came to rest upon Calvin Gray; his eyes began to blaze. "You—you big bum!" he cried. "I might have known you were a double-crosser."
"Hush, Bennie, please!"
"I'll get you for this." The midget was quivering with rage. "You'll look worse 'n that, you—you big bum!"
"Take my key. Here!" The mother thrust her room key into the boy's hand. "Run along. I—I'll see you in a few minutes." To Mallow she said: "Take him out, please. You brought him."
Mallow, flushing uncomfortably, took Bennie by the wrist and dragged him to the door.
"Dirty work!" said the woman, when the two had gone. Her eyes were dark with anger as she stared at Gray.
"It must look so to you," he agreed. "Frankly, I didn't enjoy it."
"Bah!" Margie turned to Briskow, but in his attitude, his averted gaze, she read the doom of her hopes. One final chance remained, however, and desperately she snatched at it. "Buddy!" she cried. "Buddy!" Her voice was poignant as she pleaded. "I couldn't tell you the truth. I wanted to—I laid awake nights trying to get the courage, but I was afraid you wouldn't understand. I'd have told you the whole thing, if you'd ever given me the chance. You know I've been married; does it make so much difference that I have a son?" When the object of her appeal only stirred, she went on, reproachfully: "Are you going to allow this—this man to—come between us?"
"I wouldn't believe you now, if—" Buddy choked. "I'm through!"
"You mean that?" The young fellow nodded. "Very well!" Something in the tone of the last words, some accent of desperation, caused Buddy to raise his head. He was in time to see Margie fumble with her purse and extract something therefrom; to Buddy's eyes it resembled a bottle. "There is no use fighting any more. You have ruined my life."
"My God!" young Briskow yelled, in dismay. "Don't do that! Stop her!" He leaped to his feet and lunged for the poison vial which was trembling upon Arline's lips. Gray, too, had been galvanized into action, but of an unexpected nature; he grappled with Buddy and held him. "Look out!" the latter gasped. "She's killin' herself." The Texan was weak with horror; he could only paw impotently at his captor and cry: "Arline! You wouldn't do that? For me? Lemme go. Arline—"
"This is the end," moaned the woman, still holding the bottle to her lips. Her despair was tragic; nevertheless, she did not instantly hurl herself into the hereafter. This hesitation at meeting death was only natural, perhaps, for none but the bravest can leap into the unknown without a moment of farewell.
"Drink hearty!" Gray exclaimed, over his shoulder, meanwhile closing tighter his embrace of the terrified youth.
Buddy's struggles suddenly ceased, for at last the bottle had been drained; the girl was groping blindly toward the nearest chair.
"God'lmighty! You let her do it!" he cried, hoarsely. "You—you murderer! We—we gotta get a doctor, quick."
"Nonsense! Water won't hurt her; and that's all it is. She's known as 'the Suicide Blonde.'"
"Say! You're bursting with information, aren't you?" It was Miss Montague, tottering upon the brink of the grave, who voiced this explosive inquiry. Her drooping shoulders straightened, she raised her head and flung the empty bottle violently from her. Her face was deathly white, to be sure, but not with darting agonies. "You know everything, don't you? You make plain the past, the present, and the future. Well, Madame Thebes, you're under the wire with the horseshoe on your neck." With head erect and with firm tread she moved to the door; she turned there and blazed forth in bitter scorn, her bobbed curls shaking as she spoke: "Take that selling plater back to the car barn, where he belongs. I'm off boobs for life. I knew you had a jinx on me the minute I saw you, for I broke my mirror the day you breezed in. Seven years bad luck? My God, you're all of that and more! Why, you'd bring bad luck to a church! I'll beat it now while you give little Rollo his bottle and rock him to sleep. If he cries, tell me and—and I'll furnish the rock."
The door slammed to behind the diminutive fury, and Gray sank feebly into a chair. He was laughing silently.
"By Jove! She's splendid!" he chuckled. "Buddy, I—I like that woman."
It was midforenoon of the next day. Mrs. Fulton, after a restless night, was packing her trunks; her room was in disarray, what with open suitcases and piles of dresses, lingerie, shoes and the like strewn carelessly about. She had halted her labors for a second time to scan a brief note that had arrived a few moments before and ran as follows:
DEAR MRS. FULTON,—I am not really such a bad sort as you consider me, and I'm genuinely interested in that boy of yours. Let's cry quits and have a serious talk about him and—perhaps other things.
CALVIN GRAY. She was thus engaged when there came a knock, and in answer to her voice the writer entered.
"Thank you for letting me come up," he began. "I'm becoming accustomed to dodging chambermaids and scurrying up back stairs. But I'm looking better, don't you think?"
"There's only one way you'd look better to me," the woman said, unsmilingly, "and that is laid out."
"Please put me at my ease. I am physically sore and mentally distressed."
"You sore, distressed! Humph! I wouldn't have consented to see you except for what Mallow told me. After what he said I'd like to give you a piece of my mind. What right have you doing a thing like this? Do you know what I think of you?"
"I do. Also what Mallow thinks of me, for he told me. You see, he believes firmly that I am a—well, a person of much looser principles than I really am, and my protestations of honesty only excite his veiled derision."
"He says he's sorry. Sorry! After spilling the beans."
"Mrs. Fulton, I have learned that life is a mixed affair, and that most of our actions are the results of conflicting motives. Yes, and that we ourselves are products of conflicting forces, good and evil. Few of us are as good as we would like to have people believe nor as bad as we appear. I wonder if you will believe me when I say that I—like you."
"Nevertheless, I do. For one thing, you are a good fighter and a good loser. I try to be, but I fear I lack your spirit. I would not have hurt you willingly."
The woman tossed her head and turned away; when she spoke, it was wearily: "I might have known I couldn't make the jump. I never did win a big race. A good loser, eh? Well, I've had enough practice at it. How is Buddy? Hurt, I suppose. His young life is blasted; he'll never trust another woman."
"He is standing it pretty well, and is greatly cheered by the fact that he can see out of his left eye practically as well as ever. He is going back to the oil fields and learn the business. I am going to put him to work. What are you going to do with Bennie?"
"Do with him? What can I do with him?"
"He is a bright boy."
"I'm bright, too, but I have all I can do to get by."
"It is a shame to think he will grow up into what his father was."
Margie Fulton wheeled and her blue eyes were dark. "I suppose you think I'm a bad mother. But what do you know about it? How do you know what I've gone through for him; the sacrifices I've made? I've made plenty and they came hard."
"I'd like to help you make a man of him."
"What? You? How?"
"I'd like to put him in business and teach him that there is no profit in short-changing customers; that the real wise guy isn't the fellow who gets the best of every bag of peanuts, but the one who can go back to the same customer and sell him another bag. The abstract principle has been put much more succinctly, but I doubt if it would carry the same weight with him. I'd enjoy giving the boy a hand up, but—he is more than I'd care to tackle alone."
"There's Mallow to help you. He'd be a refining influence." The mother's lip curled.
"How about you?"
"Isn't the—sort of life you are living becoming a bit tiresome? Aren't you about fed up on uncertainties?" The object of these queries drew a deep breath; her eyelids flickered, but she continued to stare at the speaker. "Worry brings deeper wrinkles than old age. Wouldn't you like to tie to something solid and be able to show Bennie that you are, at heart, the sort of woman I consider you? He'll soon be getting old enough to wonder if you are what he thinks you are or if—"
"I suppose you learned this—bayonet practice in the army," Mrs. Fulton said, hoarsely.
"Anybody can make a good living in a country like this if he cares enough to try. I'll back you if you need money."
"And—what's the price?"
"My price? Oh, I'd feel well repaid if some day Bennie acknowledged that I was a 'regular guy,' and if you agreed."
"Is that all?"
"Quite all. Is there something you do—well?"
"I can cook. I'm a good cook. Women like me usually have hobbies they never can follow—and I have two. I can make a fool of a stove, and I—I can design children's clothes, wonderful things, new things—"
"Will you come to Wichita Falls and start a restaurant and make good things to eat, if I supply the money and the customers?"
"Will I?" The speaker's face had flushed, her eyes had begun to sparkle. "Then it's a bargain," Gray declared, gayly. "Why, you'll get rich, for it is the chance of a lifetime. I'll guarantee patronage; I'll drum up trade if I have to turn sandwich man and ring a bell. Leave the details to me."
Margie Fulton sank slowly into the nearest chair, regardless of the fact that it was piled full of lacy, white, expensive things; her voice quavered, broke, as she said: "Gee, Mr. Gray! I figured there must be some decent men in the world, but—I never thought I'd meet one."
In a long, relentless struggle between two men psychology may play a part as important as in a campaign between two opposing armies, or so at least Calvin Gray believed. That, in fact, was one of his pet theories and from the first he had planned to test it. It was characteristic of Henry Nelson, on the other hand, that he put no faith whatever in "imponderables," hence Gray's reference to morale, on that day of their first meeting, had amused him. Morale, indeed! As if a man of his tough fiber could be affected by the mere chanting of a Hymn of Hate! He considered himself the captain of his soul, and the antics of a malicious enemy, the wild waving of false danger signals, instead of distracting a resolute mariner, would merely cause him to steer a truer course.
But Nelson was a brooder. Time came when doubts distressed him, when he began to put faith in "malicious animal magnetism" and, despite his better sense, to wonder if some evil spell really had not been put upon him.
In his arrogance it had seemed at first a simple matter to do away with Gray. That had been mistake number one. The miserable breakdown of that plan, the refusal of his hireling to go forward, and the impossibility of securing a trustworthy substitute convinced him finally that he had erred grievously in his method. Some men are invulnerable to open attack, and Gray, it seemed, had been wet in the waters of the Styx. No, that had been a bad beginning and Nelson regretted it, for he feared it had served as a warning.
So, indeed, it appeared, for not long thereafter he actually felt, or thought he felt, the vengeful claws of his enemy. A new strike in one of the western counties had become public, and a brand-new oil excitement was born overnight. Trains were crowded, roads were jammed with racing automobiles; in the neighborhood of the new well ensued scenes to duplicate those of other pools. For the first week or two there was a frenzy of buying and selling, a speculation in oil acreage and town lots.
The Nelsons, of course, were early on the ground, for in spite of the father's contention that they could ill afford, at the moment, to tie up more money in unproductive properties, the son had argued that they must have "protection," and his arguments had prevailed.
Henry went in person, and he was disagreeably surprised to discover Gray on the ground ahead of him. The latter bore evidences of hard usage in the shape of a black eye and numerous bandages, reputed to be the result of an automobile collision. Henry regretted that his enemy's injuries were so trivial. It was indeed a pity that so few accidents are fatal.
He bought rapidly, right and left, as much to forestall Gray as anything else, and he was back at the bank shortly with a number of leases. Not until some time later did he learn that he had paid a price for them twice as high as that charged for properties closer in.
It was Bell who brought this unwelcome information home to him—brought it home in his characteristic manner.
"What the hell ails you, anyhow?" the father inquired, in apoplectic wrath. "Have you gone clean crazy?"
After some inquiry Henry realized what ailed him and who had caused him to throw away his money, but he did not apprise Bell. More than once they had been parties to "wash sales," and had helped to establish artificial values, but to be victimized in the same manner was like the taste of poison.
Of course, it meant little in the big game. At most, the firm had been "gypped" only a comparatively few thousand dollars, and the loss could probably be recouped by a resale; nevertheless, the incident was significant, and, upon second thought, it appeared to shed light upon certain other expensive transactions in other fields.
Now, oddly enough, this new oil discovery did not develop as had been expected—in fact, the excitement died out quickly—and when Henry Nelson undertook to dispose of his holdings he was faced by a heavy loss, for Gray was offering adjoining acreage at low prices.
Following this unhappy experience, the scandal about the Jackson well became public—the Atlantic Company having at last located the leak in its pipe line—and the whole Red River district enjoyed a great laugh. Henry Nelson did not laugh. He turned green when he realized how close he had come to buying that lease. Of course, here was a swindle that Gray could have had nothing to do with, and yet—Nelson wondered why "Bob" Parker had failed to sell it to him. "Bob" had tied it upon an option, awaiting his return, and he had hurried back on purpose to examine it. Why hadn't he bought it? Henry asked that question of the girl, and, when she told him as much as she knew, he began to believe that the whole thing was, indeed, an incredibly bold attempt to swindle him, and him alone.
Miss Parker, of course, was deeply chagrined at her connection with the fraud; nevertheless, the banker felt his flesh turn cold at the narrowness of his escape. He assured himself, upon calmer thought, that his imagination was running away with him; this was too devilishly ingenious, too crooked! And besides, Gray had promised to fight fair. All the same, the thing had a suspicious odor, and Nelson slept badly for a few nights. He decided to use extra caution thereafter and see that he neither paid more for leases than they were worth nor permitted anybody to "salt" him. Salting, after all, was rare; one read about it in books, but no experienced operator had ever been fooled in that way.
About this time a big gasser blew in north of the Louisiana fields, and wise oil men began to talk about Arkansas and quietly to gather in acreage. Less than a week later one of Nelson's field men brought into the bank a youth who owned some property in the latter state. This yokel was a sick man; he was thin and white; he had a racking cough, and he knew nothing about oil except from hearsay. All he knew was that he would die if he didn't get to a warmer, drier climate; but the story he told caused Henry Nelson to stare queerly at his field man. That very night the latter left town.
On the third night thereafter, in answer to a telegram, Nelson and the Arkansas farmer slipped unobtrusively out of Wichita Falls. It so happened that Brick Stoner, en route to Hot Springs for a little rest, was a passenger on the same train.
Stoner returned in due time, much rested, and he brought with him a large check to the firm's account.
"We timed it to the minute," he told McWade and Mallow. "That gasser couldn't have come in better if we'd ordered it. Nelson's dickering under cover for more acreage near what he's got, but I tipped off who he was."
"He fell easy, eh?"
Stoner grinned. "He was so pleased with himself at swindling an invalid, and so scared somebody would discover those seepages that he couldn't hardly wait to sign up. If it hadn't of been for the general excitement, he might of insisted on time to do some exploring, but he's pulled a rig off another job and he's sending it right up."
"We've got some good news, too," McWade asserted. "Avenger Number One is trying hard to come in."
"I tell you Gray's got a rabbit foot. If we continue to trail along with him, I'll be losing you as a partner, Brick."
"Why, I'll be turning honest. It seems to pay."
"Um-m. Probably I'd better keep all this Nelson money and leave you—"
"Oh, not at all," the junior partner said, quickly. "That isn't an oil deal, strictly speaking, for you say there ain't oil enough on the land to grease a jackknife. I look on it as a real-estate speculation."
With a laugh Stoner accepted this explanation, and then announced that he was hungry for his breakfast.
This time Mallow spoke up. "I'm bally-hooing for a new joint; Fulton's Fancy Waffle Foundry. Follow me and I'll try to wedge you in. But you'll have to eat fast and pick your teeth on the sidewalk, for we need the room." In answer to Stoner's stare, the speaker explained his interest in the welfare of Wichita Falls's newest eating place, and en route thereto he told how Margie Fulton came to be running it. "Gray did it. He got the Parker girl to help us, and we had the place all fixed up by the time Margie got here. She's tickled pink, and it'll coin money—if it isn't pinched."
"Sure! Bennie's the cashier, and he palms everything from dimes to dishtowels. Force of habit! Better count your change till I break him of short-changing the customers."
"You—" Stoner stopped in his tracks.
"Oh, I'm giving him lessons in elemental honesty."
"My God! Are you turning honest, too?" the other man exclaimed. "Seems like that's all I hear lately."
It was a blue day for Henry Nelson when Avenger Number One came in, for it made necessary immediate drilling operations on his part. And the worst of it was the well was not big enough to establish a high value for his holdings. It was just enough of a producer to force him to begin three offsets and that, for the moment, was an undertaking decidedly inconvenient.
Bell Nelson was even more dismayed at the prospect than was his son, for upon him fell the necessity of raising the money. "Hell of a note," the old fellow grumbled, "when a wet well puts a crimp in us! A little more good luck like this and we'll go broke."
"We can't afford to let go, or to sub-lease—"
"Of course not, after the stand we've taken. There's talk on the street about the bank, now, and—I'd give a good deal to know where it comes from." The junior Nelson had heard similar echoes, but he held his tongue. "I never did like your way of doing business," the speaker resumed, fretfully. "We've overreached. You wanted it all and—this is the result."
Now Henry Nelson was warranted in resenting this accusation, for it had ever been Bell's way to pursue a grasping policy, therefore he cried, angrily:
"That's right; pass the buck. You know you wouldn't listen to anything else. If we're in deep, you're more to blame than I."
"Nothing of the sort." Old Bell began a profane denial, but the younger man broke in, irritably:
"I've never won an argument with you, so have it your own way. But while you're raising money for the Avenger offsets, you'd better raise plenty, for Gray is going to punch holes down as fast as ever he can."
"Who is this Gray? What's he got against you?"
Henry's eyes shifted. "Has he got anything against me? He bought a good lease and was wise enough to get somebody to make a well for him—"
"Those crooks! Those wildcatters!"
"Now, he proposes to develop his acreage as rapidly as possible. Nothing strange about that, is there?"
"Is he sore at you?"
"We didn't get along very well in France."
"Humph! I suppose that means you fought like hell. And now he's getting even. By the way, where am I going to get this money?"
"That is up to you," said Henry, with a disagreeable grin, whereupon his father stamped into his own office in a fine fury.
Not long after this father and son quarreled again, for of a sudden a perfect avalanche of lawsuits was released, the mysterious origin and purpose of which completely mystified Old Bell. The Nelsons, like everybody else, had unsuccessfully dabbled in oil stocks and drilling companies for some time before the boom started, also during its early stages, and most of those failures had been forgotten. They were painfully brought to mind, however, when Henry was served with a dozen or more citations, and when inquiry elicited the reluctant admission from the bank's attorney that a genuine liability existed—a liability which included the entire debts of those defunct joint-stock associations in which he and his father had invested. This was enough to enrage a saint.
Henry argued that he had invariably signed those articles of association with the words, in parentheses, "No personal liability," and he was genuinely amazed to learn that this precaution had been useless. He protested that scores—nay, hundreds—of other people were in the same fix as he, and that if this outrageous provision of the law were strictly enforced and judgments rendered widespread ruin would result. His lawyer agreed to this in all sympathy, but read aloud the provisions of the statute, and Nelson derived no comfort from the reading. The lawyer was curious to know, by the way, who had taken the trouble to acquire all of these claims—a task of heroic size—but about all the encouragement he could offer was the probability of a long and expensive series of legal battles, the outcome of which was problematical. That meant annoyance, at best, and a possible impairment of credit, and the Nelson credit right now was a precious thing, as Henry well knew. Eloquently he cursed the day he had met Calvin Gray. What next, he wondered.
He discovered what next when the driller he had sent up to Arkansas in charge of his rig one day came into the office in great agitation. The man's story caused his employer's face to whiten.
"Salted! I—don't believe it." Nelson seized his head in his hands. "Oh, my God!" he gasped. Misfortunes were coming with a swiftness incredible. Salted! Victimized, like the greenest tenderfoot! A small fortune sunk while the whole country was still chuckling over the Jackson scandal! This was a nightmare.
Henry was glad that his father was in Tulsa in conference with some other bankers over that Avenger offset money, otherwise there was no telling to what extreme the old man's rage would have carried him at this final calamity. And that whining, coughing crook, that bogus farmer, was in Arizona—or elsewhere—out of reach of the law! The younger Nelson turned desperately sick. If this was not more of Gray's work, it was the direct result of the curse he had called down.
"Does anybody know?" Henry inquired, after he had somewhat recovered his equilibrium.
"Nobody but us fellows."
"You—you mustn't shut down. You've got to keep up the bluff until—until I get time to turn."
"You going to bump off that land to somebody else?"
"What do you think I'm going to do?" Nelson was on his feet now and pacing his office with jerky strides. "Take a loss like that?" He paused and glared at the bearer of bad tidings, then growled: "What are you grinning about? Oh, you needn't say it. You want yours, eh? Is that it?"
"Well—it's worth something to turn a trick like this."
"It's a big deal. It'll take something substantial—something substantial and paid in advance—to make our boys forget all the interesting sights they've seen. But I'd rather leave the amount to you, Henry. You know me; I wouldn't be a party to a crooked deal, not for anything, except to help you out—"
"How much?" the banker repeated, hoarsely.
But the field man merely smiled and shrugged, so, with a grunt of understanding, Henry seated himself and wrote out a check to bearer, the amount of which caused him to grind his teeth.
Now it was impossible to dispose of a large holding like that Arkansas tract at a moment's notice. In order to evade suspicion, it was necessary to go about it slowly, tactfully, hence the financier moved with as much circumspection as possible. His careful plans exploded, however, when he met Calvin Gray a day or so later.
Gray had made it an invariable practice to speak affably to his enemy in passing, mainly because it so angered the latter; this time he insisted upon stopping. He was debonair and smiling, as always, but there was more than a trace of mockery in his tone as he said:
"So your luck has changed, hasn't it? That Avenger well of mine has put a good value on your property. I congratulate you, Colonel."
"Humph! I don't believe in luck," Nelson mumbled. "And the Avenger isn't enough of a well to brag about."
"So? You don't believe in luck? It seems to be our lot invariably to differ, doesn't it? Now, my dear Colonel, I'm not ashamed to confess that I am deeply superstitious, and that I believe implicitly in signs and prodigies. You see, I was born under a happy star; 'at my nativity the front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,' as it were. Comfortable feeling, I assure you. Take that incident at New-town, not long ago; doesn't that prove my contention?"
Gray's brows lifted whimsically. "Of course. How should you know? There was a clumsy attempt to do me bodily harm, to—assassinate me. Funny, isn't it? So ill considered and so impracticable.—But about this Avenger matter, if you find it inconvenient to offset my wells as fast as I put them down, perhaps you'd consider selling—"
"Inconvenient?" Nelson felt the blood rush to his face at this insufferable insult, but he calmed himself with the thought that his opponent was deliberately goading him. After all, it served him right for permitting the fellow to stop him. "Inconvenient! Ha!" He turned away carelessly.
"No offense, my dear Colonel. I thought, after your Arkansas fiasco, you might wish—"
"What Arkansas fiasco?" Nelson wheeled, and in spite of himself his voice cracked.
"Ah! Another secret, eh?" Gray winked elaborately—nothing could have been more deliberately offensive than that counterfeit of a friendly understanding. "Very well, I sha'n't say a word."
"You—" The banker was gasping. "You're doing your damnedest to—to start something, aren't you?"
"Every day. Every hour. Every minute." The speaker bowed. "In defense of my promise to fight fair, let me assure you, however, that I did not start this. As a matter of fact, I knew nothing about it until you had been hooked. Apropos of that quixotic promise, please remember that your own actions have absolved me from it."
The men stared at each other for a moment that seemed interminable. Gray was watchful, expectant; Nelson was plainly shaken by a desire so desperate that resistance left him weak. He was like an animal frozen in the very attitude of springing.
"Foxy, aren't you?" he managed to say, at last. "Tempting me to—make the first move." With a mighty effort of will he forced his tense body to relax. "The act of a bully! Bah! Wouldn't I be a fool—"
"A bully is usually a coward," Gray said, slowly. "Neither of us is a coward. I'm not ready to—join the issue that way, especially in a place like this. The game is too exciting to—"
"You'll get all the excitement you're looking for," Nelson cried, wrathfully. "You've cost me a lot of money, but you could have cost me a lot more if you hadn't been fool enough to brag about it and give me warning. Now—I'll send you out of Texas afoot."
"On my back, perhaps, but never on my feet."
Without another word the banker passed on, but he went blindly, for his mind was in black chaos. No chance now for secrecy; he was in for a bit of hell. He managed to kill the story in the local papers, but it appeared in the Dallas journals, which was even worse, and for the first time in his life he found himself an object of ridicule. The Arkansas transaction was made to appear the most outrageous swindle of recent oil history, and, coming so quickly after the Jackson exposure, it excited double interest and amusement.
In truth, the facts about the salting of that Arkansas tract did make a story, for the methods employed had been both new and ingenious. Nelson had been fooled by a showing of oil in an ordinary farm well, and by a generous seepage into a running stream some distance away. Not until a considerable sum had been spent in actual drilling operations, however, did those seepages diminish sufficiently to excite suspicion sufficiently, in fact, to induce the crew to pump the water well dry. This done, an amazing fraud had been discovered. It had been found that the vendor of the land had removed the rock curbing and behind it had packed a liberal quantity of petroleum-soaked cotton waste. Naturally, when the well had been walled up again and permitted to resume its natural level, the result was all that the unscrupulous owner could have expected.
The creek seepage had turned out to be equally counterfeit, but even more ingeniously contrived. It had manifested itself where a stratum of clean white sand, underlaid with clay, outcropped at the foot of a high bank. In the undergrowth, quite a way back from the stream, tardy investigation disclosed that a hole had been dug down to that layer of sand and into the hole had been poured several barrels of "crude." The earth from the digging had been removed and the hole had been cunningly covered up. Naturally, the oil from this reservoir had followed the sand stratum and—the resultant phenomenon at the water's edge had been well calculated to excite even the coldest-blooded observer. It had excited Henry Nelson to such an extent that he had bought not only this farm, but a lot of other farms. And Nelson was shrewd. Oh, it was a great joke! The whole mid-continent field rocked with laughter at it.
Nelson, senior, returned from Tulsa bull-mad, and he came without the money he had expected to get. What went on in his office that morning after he sent for his son none of the bank's employees ever knew, but they could guess, for the rumblings of the old man's rage penetrated even the mahogany-paneled walls.
Gray had once told Barbara Parker that there was no one quite like him—a remark more egotistical in the sound than in the meaning. Unusual in many ways he probably was, but, like most men, the discovery that his proudest virtues were linked with vices of which he was ashamed struck him as extraordinary. As if nature were not forever aiming at a balance.
In spite of the fact that he was impulsive, headstrong, swift in most things, this girl possessed the unique faculty of rendering him acutely self-conscious, and it annoyed him the more, therefore, to find how timorous he could be in putting her feelings to the test. That was the one thing he could never quite summon courage to do. She was so young, so cool, so disconcertingly straightforward that, in contrast, his own age appeared the greater, and his many counterfeit qualities were thrown into uglier relief.
Then, too, her answer meant so much that fear of refusal became an actual torture, and the mere thought of it left his arrogant spirit strangely humble. To a man in his vengeful mood, to a man whipped by one savage purpose, love had come as a blessed relief; and, in consequence, anger at his indecision was the greater. Sometimes he told himself that he deserved to lose her.
One such occasion was after he had taken her out to the Avenger lease.
There was more than one well by this time; Avenger Number Two and Three and Four were going down, and offsetting the first Avenger were three of Nelson's rigs. "Bob" studied the situation briefly, then, with a dubious shake of her head, she announced: "You are taking a big risk, Mr. Gray."
"You mean these new holes may come dry? Of course, but I believe in crowding my luck. I don't know any other way to work."
"You have been lucky, haven't you?" She stared at him with a detached, impersonal interest. "Everything is coming your way, even down in the Ranger district."
"Oh, I have my share of troubles. I lost a crooked hole, recently—had to skid the derrick and start over. Then a pair of chaintongs was dropped into another hole—"
"That makes an expensive fishing job."
"The worst ever."
"Somebody must have it in for you." When Gray nodded, "Bob's" face lit up with surprise. "Really. Do you suspect someone in particular?"
"How interesting." After a moment had passed and he had explained no further, the girl went on: "Everybody is talking about you and your success. They say you have the golden touch."
"That is a good reputation to enjoy; but this country is full of fellows who came here knowing as little about oil as I knew and who have accomplished more sensational results. I've come up like a rocket, to be sure; it remains to be seen whether I shall fall like a stick."
"You won't fall."
"Do you really believe that?" The inquiry was eagerly put. "I'd trust your intuition, Miss—"Bob." Sometimes I have moments of uneasiness, for, you see, I'm drilling more wells than I should. It is double or quits, you understand? If my luck breaks, so do I."
"You have always impressed me as a—a man of destiny. I think fate has selected you as an instrument with which to do big things. That's why I'm always a bit overawed by you."
"Overawed?" Gray laughed. "Why, I feel the same with you. If you knew how little I am, how little it all signifies, except as a means to an end. If you only knew what it is that I want so much more than oil, or money, or—"
"I thought you were like all the others here—absorbed only in the game."
"I was, at first. I had reason to be; a very great reason, I assure you. Then I saw something far more desirable than fortune, far more absorbing than—than the motive that brought me here. Some days, like today, I think I'm going to win it, then again I grow faint-hearted."
"Faint-hearted? You?" There was an elaborate skepticism in "Bob's" tone, but as the meaning of Gray's ardent gaze struck home to her, she turned her head with a lightly affected laugh. She was coloring, but she knew that her companion's agitation was so much greater than hers that he did not notice it.
"Fair lady," he said, a bit uncertainly, "you multiply my courage tenfold, and I shall retain the guerdon of your faith. But we swashbuckling fellows are proud; we must come as victors or not at all, and I am anything but victorious, yet. I've had many a fall, and my armor is dented in a dozen places. I have a record of failures that only a lasting success can wipe out. When, if ever, that record is wiped out, why—my tongue shall be my heart's ambassador." This was the boldest speech that Gray had ever permitted himself.
Never had he felt "Bob" to be so close to him as on this day, and in consequence he made of it a festival. He played the lover with a respectful ardor, doubly thrilling by reason of its restraint, and that night it was not Henry Nelson's face that lingered last in his memory. He wondered, before he fell asleep, if he had acted wisely in letting slip his hour. Opportunity has a fickle way of jilting those who ignore her, and yet—how could he speak with honor to himself?
It must not be inferred that Henry Nelson endured with patience the blows that were rained upon him. On the contrary, he fought back with every weapon he could lay hands upon, and there were many. In this he was aided by Old Bell, for father and son were much alike and their friction had been only such as results from the rubbing of two hard bodies of identical composition; now that they were put under heavy pressure, they adhered and functioned without heat.
They were handicapped, however, in that they had the bank to think about, and, in times of frenzied finance such as this, a banking business is more of a liability than an asset. Under normal conditions no single individual of Gray's limited resources could have caused them more than temporary annoyance; but in the midst of a speculative frenzy, in a time of vast "paper profits" and overnight losses, at an hour when they themselves were overextended and the financial fabric of the whole oil industry was stretched to a point of inflation where a pin prick was apt to cause complete collapse, the feat of warding off a lance in the hands of a destructive enemy was one that kept them in a constant state of nervous panic.
To make matters worse, the crest of the wave had passed, the boom was nearly over, and money was no longer easy. Outside investors were cooling; mysterious and powerful influences were at work, and there were rumors of a break in the price of crude. Meanwhile, so far as the Nelsons were concerned, it was necessary to pour a steady stream of dollars into the earth in order to save that which had been accomplished at immense cost, and such oil as their producing wells gave forth was swallowed up in other holes. It became, with them, a problem of how to hold on, how to finance from day to day until production returns overtook exploitation expense—a problem that put gray hairs in their heads and lines about their eyes. They were forced to many expedients.
How they managed it at all baffled Gray, and worried him, too, for he knew that if ever they turned the corner they would be safe from him, and his vengeance would fall to the ground. One big well would set them up, and there was always that danger, for scarcely a week went by without news of some gigantic gusher. Knowing all there was to know about their field activities, he set himself to the task of learning more about the bank itself and about their method of operating it. This was a task, indeed, and he spent much time at it—time he could ill afford, by the way, for he, too, had about exhausted his last resource.
He was surprised one day to receive from Roswell, the banker who had first backed him, an almost peremptory summons to Dallas. Gray had made much money for Roswell and his crowd; they were still heavily interested with him, and he was counting upon their further support. The tone of this letter, therefore, gave him a disagreeable shock. On the whole, however, he was glad of an excuse to go, for the Briskows had returned and had bought a home in Dallas, and he was eager for a sight of them.
Mr. Roswell's greeting was quite as cool as his letter; but he betrayed a keen interest in the progress of their joint affairs and asked a good many searching questions. Gray answered frankly.
"You surprise me," the banker announced, finally, "for you confirm something I did not wish to believe. I have just learned that you are using us to further a private grudge and to ruin a reputable man. I couldn't credit such a statement without—"
"It is quite true, except that I haven't 'used' you. Not, at least, in the sense you imply."
"You have used our money. It is the same thing."
"Oh, not at all I have handled a number of speculations—investments is a better word—for you and your group and I've made a lot of money for you. That's the most you expected; that's all I promised. So long as I continue to do that, my motives, my personal likes and dislikes, concern you in no wise. Neither are you concerned in the use I make of my winnings."
"Legitimate competition is one thing; malice, double-dealing, dishonesty is—"
"Dishonesty?" Gray interrupted, sharply. "I am a quick-tempered man, Mr. Roswell. I'll ask you to choose your words more carefully."
"Don't you call salting a well dishonest?"
"I do. I didn't salt that Arkansas property—and I assume you refer to that. In fact, I knew nothing about it, and I so informed Nelson. Evidently he didn't believe me, and I don't expect you to do so. Nevertheless, it is true. I have never lied to you, and I never shall. Now, malice—Yes, I bear malice toward Henry Nelson and I shall continue to bear him malice long after I have put him in his grave." Roswell's startled eyes leaped to the speaker's face. "Exactly! I propose to put him in his grave, and he knows it."
"Nonsense! That's wild talk and you'll regret it. What has he done to you?"
The object of this inquiry shrugged. "A private matter, purely. As to double-dealing—is it double-dealing to go to an enemy and tell him frankly that you intend to down him and how you propose to do it?"
"Did you do that?"
"I did. What is more, I offered to fight fair and he agreed. But, of course, he broke that, as he feels free to break any agreement when it becomes onerous or unprofitable. He began by trying to assassinate me."
"What are you saying?" Roswell cried. "This is incredible."
Gray's cigar had gone out; he lighted it with steady and deliberate fingers before he said: "I am giving you facts. The fighting has not been all on my side. For instance, I haven't hired men to drop tools in his wells or run crooked holes, and that sort of thing, as he has. Not that I wouldn't follow his lead if he forced me to, but I haven't had to resort to petty annoyances. I haven't had to make any 'small change,' for I have originality, imagination—even a small amount of daring, while he—Well, he is obvious. He has nothing except physical courage. Thank God, he's not a coward! He'll die hard."
"Amazing!" The banker was at a loss for words. After a moment, he inquired: "What about Bell Nelson?"
"A harsh, headstrong, ruthless old man whose history will not bear careful reading. His sins shall be visited upon him through his offspring. He will have to go, too."
Roswell stirred as if to shake off the effect of some oppressive, mesmeric influence; reluctantly he admitted, "All I can say is you have a colossal nerve—"
"Precisely. And that is all I had when I came to Texas."
"I was coming to that. You deceived me, Gray. You said you represented big capital; had friends and connections—"
"A pardonable deceit, under the circumstances, was it not? As a matter of fact, I said nothing of the sort; I merely allowed you to infer—"
"You're splitting hairs." The banker was impatient. "The fact remains that you led me to make a fool of myself. Why, man alive, I have your whole history here, and it's a record of one sensational failure after another. You had no backing whatever, no—"
"Is that the result of your own investigation?"
"For the rest, you took Nelson's word, eh? Very well, I've beaten him out from cover sooner than I expected. Now as to my failures. Failure proves only this: that one's determination to succeed is not strong enough. Who fail, except those who try? You have not always succeeded; neither have I invariably failed. Your report is a bit unfair."
"You will fail now. And you deserve to fail."
"Because you're doing an outrageous thing; because—See here, Gray, I know why you hate Nelson." There ensued a moment of silence.
"He told you that?" The younger man's face had slowly whitened; he spoke with difficulty.
"He told me everything. He told me that you were dishonorably discharged from the army—cashiered, we used to call it—and that you blame him. I don't mind saying it was a shock—worst I've had in years. In time of war, too! The army doesn't do that unless—without ample—Well, Gray, it's damned nasty!"
"Quite the nastiest thing that can happen to a man," the other agreed in a thin, flat voice.
"I couldn't, wouldn't believe it."
"Why not? You believed everything else he told you."
"I wouldn't accept his word on a thing like that without asking you." Another pause followed. "There's probably some explanation. I told him so—" Mr. Roswell showed his genuine distress by the frown upon his brow and by his averted eyes. He stirred uncomfortably, then he broke out, irritably: "Well, well? Why in hell don't you say something?"
"There is nothing to say."
"What? My God, man! You don't mean—See here, you're not a coward, or a thief, or an incompetent. What's your side of the story? What's the explanation?"
"Explanations are hateful. The man who makes them deceives either himself or the other fellow—usually both. It is easy to be plausible. Would a mere statement from me, unsupported by proof, convince you where it failed to convince a court martial? Of course not. Then why make you uncomfortable by doubting my word?" Gray's smile was like the mirthless grin of a mummy. "I was found guilty, all in due military order, and—disgraced, branded! My uniform was taken from me, and I can't wear it again. I can never again serve my country. It was handled quietly, with admirable discretion, for those things are bad for the morale, you understand? Very few know about it. I'm a proud man, a vain man; I assure you the death penalty would have been much easier to bear."
"What did Henry Nelson have to do with it?"
"He alone can answer that."
"An extraordinary situation! This is your revenge, eh?"
"As a man of spirit, I had a choice of but two things, revenge or—suicide."
"Hm-m! It is an embarrassing situation for me."
"Nelson has sold a large block of his bank stock to one of our directors."
"Tell him to get out from under, quick," Gray said, sharply, "for I'll break Henry Nelson or—I'll kill him!"
"Tut, tut! You're excited. You mustn't talk like that. I give you credit for an honest hatred, but—I can't sympathize with it. Neither can I believe so ill of Henry Nelson. Remember, I've known him and Bell for years." With a complete finality the banker concluded, "You'll have to give it up, Gray."
"I beg pardon?"
"I say we sha'n't permit you to go on with this murderous feud. We can't be parties to it. What you've told me warrants us in withdrawing our support instantly, but I—I—Damn it all, I can't help liking you and believing in you! Frankly, there's something sublime about a grudge like yours. However, we can't go on like this. We can't put up more money now that we know what you have in mind. Call this thing off and perhaps I can induce our crowd to leave their money in until it can be worked out. That's the most I can undertake."
"I need your money and your support now more than ever," the other man gravely confessed. "I need it at once; to-day. Nevertheless, I sha'n't quit."
"You must!" Roswell cried, impatiently. "You can't defy us."
"The devil I can't!" It was Gray's turn to blaze. "That's exactly what I'm doing. I defy you to get your money out. I defy you to interfere with me in the slightest or to wring a particle of mercy out of me. I knew this would come, sooner or later, and I planned accordingly. What d'you think I am, eh? I tell you I've got him! Otherwise he'd never squeal about this—army matter. Now then, tell your crowd to try and pull out! That's not a threat, sir, for they have played fair with me, and I sha'n't sacrifice a penny of their money—unless they force me to do so. But—I'm in control. I'm sitting pretty. They can't unseat me, and I warn them not to try."
"You are making a great mistake. We will find a way to—to pull you off."
"Ever try to pull a bulldog out of a fight when he had the other dog down and his teeth in its throat? I have. There's something rather horrible about it—rather beastly and shocking. And there's always the danger of losing a hand." The speaker rose. He hesitated, before leaving, to say: "Your son served with honor, Mr. Roswell. I know how you must feel about this—other matter, therefore I shall spare you the embarrassment of declining my hand."
The financier's face reddened; rather stiffly he said, "You know whether you have a right to offer it."
Instantly the departing visitor extended his palm, and Roswell realized that he had seldom seen a man more deeply moved. "Thanks! I—It is a blow to lose your support, but—nothing can swerve me. Meanwhile, I'm glad that we do not part as enemies."
When he had gone, when he had passed out with head up and shoulders square, the banker shivered slightly. Audibly he murmured: "God, what a man! What a hatred!"
The Briskows had just moved into their new home, and the place was still in some confusion when Gray mounted the steps. Pa answered the bell in his shirt sleeves and with a claw hammer in his hand, for he had been hanging pictures. He favored his visitor with a wide smile of welcome and a hearty greeting-quite a feat, inasmuch as his mouth was full of nails—then, having rid it of its contents, he explained:
"We got a slave that tends the door, but I 'ain't got gentled up to bells an' things yet. Allie's away an' Ma's layin' down, so—"
"Ma isn't ill, I hope?"
"N—no. Just ailin'. I thought mebbe one of the neighbors had run in to see her, but—I guess they're busy. We got lots of neighbors here, rich ones, an' we made up our minds to like 'em, if they'll give us a chance."
"You were in luck to find a house in such a smart neighborhood, Gus. Now show me around, quickly, for I'm dying to see it."
"Lord, I'm dyin' to show it to somebody! You're the first one that's dropped in an' we been here 'most two weeks. Say, you'll stay an' eat supper, won't you?"
"Of course I will, and breakfast, too, if you can take care of me."
"Pshaw! Didn't we take keer of you when you come to the ranch? We got three niggers now, just doin' the housework." As if in justification of this riotous mode of life, the oil man explained: "Ma wanted to do it herself, but she's porely, an' Allie vetoed it complete. She says we'll be stylish an' enjoy life if it kills all three of us. I'd of bought a bigger house if they'd of let me, but—"
"It is large enough. Anything more would merely add to your cares."
"Her and Ma picked out the furniture. Swell, ain't it?"
"Beautiful!" Gray exclaimed. Inwardly he groaned, for, although the contents of the home appeared to be expensive, almost ostentatious, they nevertheless betrayed a conspicuous lack of taste both in character and in arrangement. Here and there were color combinations so atrocious that they positively hurt the caller. On the whole, however, the place looked better than he had expected, and such indications of harmony and restraint as he detected he attributed to Allie. It was a nice enough home, and with a little change, a little rearrangement, it could be made attractive even to one of elegant tastes. Those changes, of course, Gray determined to make.
Gus, plainly, was not yet accustomed to the sense of ownership, and he hung with eagerness upon his guest's expressions of approval. After a tour of inspection the men wound up in the library—an absurd misnomer under the circumstances, inasmuch as the shelves were entirely bare except for Allie's dog-eared school books—and there, before a blazing gas log, they discussed the miracle.
"Allie's gone out to the old farm to get some stuff for Ma," the father explained in due time. "Some pitchers of her an' Buddy when they was little, an' a rockin'-chair, an' Ma's favorite bedspread, an' some other things she likes."
Gray remembered the portraits, executed by a St. Louis "enlargement" concern. They had wide gilt frames, and were protected from ravaging flies by mosquito netting. He hoped that Ma would not hang them in the hall or the living-room. And that rocker, for which she yearned, was probably the one with the creaking coiled springs—the one that had leaped after him and clashed its jaws like an alligator.
"By the way, how does Buddy like the new home?" the latter inquired.
"He 'ain't seen it yet. Says he's too busy to leave the job. What you done to that boy, anyhow?"
"I'm making a real man out of him—and an oil man, too. He knew how to dress tools when I got him, but he's a pretty good driller now. Before long he'll be able to take charge of your property and run it on practical lines. I told you he had it in him, and that he'd make a 'hand.'"
"You never wrote us nothin' about his—his trouble."
"I left the explaining for him."
Gus smiled meditatively. "First we knew that you an' him had been fightin' was when he wrote us a letter sayin' he was doin' great an' could see out of one eye." Then, more gravely: "It was worryin' over Buddy's affair that got Ma to ailin'. She 'ain't been right well since. Say, wha'd you do with that—woman?" Briskow pronounced the last word with an accent of scorn and hatred.
"I gave her a chance to make an honest, decent living. I set her up in business."
"And she is making good." When the elder man shook his head impatiently Gray went on, "I'm pretty worldly and calloused, but if one virtue has been spared me, it is charity."
For a moment the father studied his caller. "Tell me," he began, "was it altogether on Buddy's account that you an' him tied into one another?"
Gray threw back his head and laughed frankly. "Altogether, I assure you. That's why I found it so hard."
"He oughta been licked! Takin' up with a—a thing like her." Gus was groping for words more eloquent of his displeasure at his son and his hatred for the object of Buddy's misplaced affections, when Gray forestalled him.
"Just a minute. You are a rich man and you are growing richer. Careful, frugal, prosperous people like you are apt to become unduly hard and oversuspicious; but you mustn't permit it. Think, for instance, what environment did to your children, then remember that under slightly different circumstances it might have made evildoers even of them. Most people would like to run straight, and would do so if they had a chance. Anyhow, it is an interesting experiment to put the chance in their way. Tell me, Gus, how much money have you got?"
"I dunno. Figgers over a thousand dollars don't mean much to me."
Gray searched the speaker's face with a speculative gaze. "It's mostly liquid, I presume." There was a pause. "I mean it's in cash or the equivalent?"
"Oh, sure! These bonds an' stocks an' things—" Briskow shook his head disapprovingly. "Land ain't any too safe, either. It's rainin' now, an' it 'll keep on rainin' till the farmers is all drowned out. Next year it'll be droughty an' fry 'em to a crisp. No, I'm skeered of land. I'm skeered of everything!" This last was said plaintively. "Why, lookit these Liberty bonds! Goin' down steady. I wouldn't put no money into the gov'ment unless I had something to say about runnin' it. An' s'pose I did? I wouldn't know how it oughta be run."
"How about oil properties? Wouldn't you like to invest in a good, safe proposition, with the prospect of big—"
"Gosh, no! I'm skeerder of oil than anything, 'cause I know somethin' about it. Feller been tryin' to sell me life insurance, lately, but you gotta die to get your money back. No; there's a catch in all them propositions. Sometimes I wake up nights dreamin' we're all back at the old place an' pore again. That ends my sleepin'. You see, Allie's a lady now, an' she's used to silk stockin's, an' Buddy's been out in the world spendin' money on women, an' Ma's gettin' old. I could go back to corn bread, but it would kill them. Worst of it is, the black lime ain't holdin' up, an' our wells will give out some day." Briskow sighed heavily and his brows drew together in an anxious pucker.
"You'll have enough money in bank to do you."
"Banks bust. I tell you the hull world's full of skullduggery. Suspicious? I should say I was! I use' to think if we had money our troubles would be over, but—Lord, that's when they begin! You see, if I was bright an' knew what slick people is up to, I'd be all right; but—Why, I'm like a settin' hen. I can feel the eggs under me, but how am I goin' to keep the skunks away when they smell the nest? I'm 'most tempted to turn everything I got over to some honest man an' let him han'le it. Some feller that had the savvy."
"Unfortunately, such people are rare."
"I don't know but one."
"Indeed? Who is he?"
"I reckon you know," said Briskow.
The listener looked up with quickened interest; there was a sharp ring to his voice when he said: "Let me get this right."
"You're the only man I ever knowed that I'd bank my life on. An' you're smart. You wouldn't take Buddy, but mebbe you'd kinda—take me; take all of us. I tell you I'm skeered!"
"Just how much confidence do I inspire in you?" Gray's expression was peculiar, for amazement, doubt, eagerness were equally blended.
"This much: I'd turn the hull works over to you, if you'd look out for us."
"You—scarcely know me."
"Oh, I know you well enough!" Briskow smiled his slow, shrewd smile. "So does Ma. So does Allie an' Bud."
For quite a while the caller sat with head bowed, with his gaze fixed upon the flames; when he looked up his face was red, his eyes were brighter than usual.
"To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved. Yes, and it's hell to be born with a conscience." He fell silent again, for this was a moment to be treasured and he could not let it pass too quickly. "You say you want nothing to do with oil?"
"Anything but that. I know it so well, an'—Ma's gettin' feeble." Again silence. "Of course, if you'd do it, I wouldn't ask no questions. I'd rather shut my eyes an' trust you than keep 'em open an'—"
"You don't know how much I'd like to say yes, but I fought Buddy to prevent him from making a mistake, and I sha'n't allow you to make this one."
"Hm-m! Will you keep me from makin' other mistakes?"
"I will, if I can."
"Mebbe that's enough. Anyhow, I'll sleep better to-night for seein' you."
"I think I hear Ma stirring," said Gray, as he rose. "I brought her a few little presents, and I'd like to take them up to her." As he left the room there was the same queer light in his eyes; nevertheless, he moved slowly, like a man tired.
Gray was shocked at the change in Ma Briskow. She had failed surprisingly. Pleasure lit her face, and she fell into a brief flutter of delight at seeing him; but as soon as their first greeting was over he led her to her lounge and insisted upon making her comfortable. He had tricks with cushions and pillows, so he declared; they became his obedient servants, and there was a knack in arranging them—the same knack that a robin uses in building its nest. This he demonstrated quite conclusively.
It was nice to have a great, masterful man like this take charge of one, and Ma sighed gratefully as she lay back. "It does kinda feel like a bird's nest," she declared. "And you kinda look like a robin, too; you're allus dressed so neat."
"Exactly," he chuckled. "Robins are the very neatest dressers of all the birds. But look! Like a real robin, I've brought spring with me." He opened a huge box of long-stemmed roses and held their cool, dewy buds against Ma Briskow's withered face, then, laughing and chatting, he arranged them in vases where she could see them. Next, he drew down the shades, shutting out the dreary afternoon, after which he lit the gas log, and soon the room, whether by reason of his glowing personality or his deft rearrangement of its contents, or both, became a warm and cheerful place.
He had brought other gifts than flowers, too; thoughtful, expensive things that fairly took Ma's breath. No one had ever given her presents; to be remembered, therefore, with useless, delightful little luxuries filled her gentle soul with a guilty rapture.
But these were not gifts in the ordinary sense; they were offerings from the Duke of Dallas, and his manner of presenting them invested every article with ducal dignity. The Princess Pensacola had not played for a long time, and so to recline languidly in a beautiful Japanese kimono, with her feet in a pair of wonderful soft boudoir slippers spun by the duke's private silkworms and knit by his own oriental knitting slaves, while he paid court to her, was doubly thrilling.
The duke certainly was a reckless spender, but thank goodness he hadn't bought things for the house—things just to look at and to share with other people! He knew enough to buy intimate things, things a woman could wear and feel rich in. Ma hugged herself and tried to look beautiful.
Gray was seated on the side of her couch with her cold hand between his warm palms, and he was telling her about the princess of Wichita Falls when the summons to dinner interrupted them.
Ma was not hungry, and she had expected to have a bite in her own room; but her caller was so vigorous in his objections to this plan that she finally agreed to come downstairs.
The Briskow household was poorly organized as yet, and it was only natural that it should function imperfectly; nevertheless, Gray was annoyed at the clumsy manner in which the dinner was served. Being a meticulous man and accustomed to comfort, incompetent servants distressed him beyond measure, and he soon discovered that the Briskow help was as completely incompetent as any he had ever seen. The butler, for instance, a pleasant-faced colored man, had evidently come straight from the docks, for he passed the food much as a stoker passes coal to a boiler, while the sound of a crashing platter in the butler's pantry gave evidence that the second girl was a house wrecker.
"See here, Ma!" Gray threw down his napkin. "You have a beautiful home, and you want it to be perfect, don't you?"
"Why, of Course. We bought everything we' could buy—"
"Everything except skillful servants, and they are hard to find. You are capable of training your cook and teaching your upstairs girl to sweep and make beds; but the test of a well-run house is a well-served meal. Dish-breaking ought to be a felony, and when I become President I propose to make the spoiling of food a capital offense. Now then, you're not eating a bite, anyhow, and Gus won't mind waiting awhile for his dinner. With your permission, I'd like to take things in hand and add a hundred per cent to your future comfort?"
In some bewilderment Ma agreed that she would do anything her guest suggested, whereupon he rose energetically and called the three domestics into the dining room.
"We are going to start this dinner all over again," he announced, "and we are going to begin by swapping places. I am going to serve it as a dinner should be served, and you are going to eat it as—Well, I dare say nature will have to take its course. I shall explain, as I go along, and I want you to remember every word I say, every move I make. Mr. and Mrs. Briskow are going to look on. After we have finished you are going to serve us exactly as I served you."
Naturally, this proposition amazed the "help"; in fact, its absurdity convulsed them. The man laughed loudly; the cook buried her ebony face in her apron; the second girl bent double with mirth. Here was a quaint gentleman, indeed, and a great joker. But the gentleman was not joking. On the contrary, he brought this levity to an abrupt end, then, gravely, ceremoniously, he seated the trio. They sobered quickly enough at this; they became, in fact, as funereal as three crows; but their astonishment at what followed was no greater than that of the Briskows.
Gray played butler with a correctness and a poise deeply impressive to his round-eyed audience, and as he served the courses he delivered a lecture upon the etiquette of domestic service, the art of cooking, and the various niceties of a servant's calling. Nothing could have been more impressive than being waited upon by a person of his magnificence, and his lecture, moreover, was delivered in a way that drove understanding into their thick heads.
It was an uncomfortable experience for all except Gray himself—he actually enjoyed it—and when the last dish had been removed, and he had given instructions to serve the meal over again exactly as he had served it, the three negroes were glad to obey. Of course they made mistakes, but these Gray instantly corrected, and the results of his dress rehearsal were, on the whole, surprising.
"There!" he said, when the ordeal had finally come to an end. "A little patience, a little practice, and you'll be proud of them. Incidentally, I have saved you a fortune in dishes."
"I wish Allie'd been here. She'd remember everything you said," Ma declared.
"Lord! Think of Mr. Gray waitin' on them niggers!" Gus was still deeply shocked.
"You see what a meddlesome busybody I am," the guest laughed. "I don't know how to mind my own business, and the one luxury I enjoy most of all is regulating other people's affairs." He was still talking, still lecturing his hearers upon the obligations prosperity had put upon them, when he was summoned to the telephone by a long-distance call. He returned in some agitation to announce: "Well, at last I have business of my own to attend."
"Was that Buddy talkin'?"
"It was, and he gave me some good news. He says that well on thirty-five is liable to come in at any minute, and it looks like a big one." The speaker's eyes were glowing, and he ran on, breathlessly, "He says they're betting it will do better than ten thousand barrels!"
"Ten thousand bar'ls!" Briskow echoed.
"That's what he said. Of course, they can't tell a thing about it. Buddy's only guessing, but—I haven't had a big well yet." Gray took a nervous turn about the room.
"Ten thousand barrels! Lord! That would help. That would do the trick. And to think that it should come now, this very day—" He laughed triumphantly and ran on as if talking to himself: "'The wicked are fatted for destruction. Their happiness shall pass away like a torrent.' Pull out and leave me, eh?" A second time he laughed, more loudly. "Luck? It isn't luck, it's Destiny. The mills of the Gods are grinding. Ma Briskow, the fairy ladies danced upon the hearth when I was born. Do you know what that means?"
"Ten thousand bar'ls a day, an' you buttlin' for three niggers!" gasped the head of the house.
"I'm going out on to-night's train and see it come in—if it does come in. I told Buddy to stop work; not to drop another tool until I arrived. 'Fatted for destruction.' I like the sound of that. Ten thousand barrels! Ho! I'll write this day in brass. Why, that lease will sell for a million. It—it may mean the end."
Gray brought himself to with an effort, hastily he kissed Ma Briskow's faded cheek and wrung her husband's hand. A moment later he was gone.
"Thirty-five," where Buddy was working, was only a few miles from the Briskow ranch, therefore the boy was able to meet his sister at Ranger and drive her directly to the old home. The place was much the same as when they had left it, thanks to the watchful attention of the men in charge of the Briskow wells, and there they spent the night. Buddy and his sister had always been close confidants, and their long separation, their varied experiences, left many things to be discussed.
The ranch house seemed very mean, very insignificant to Allie, but she slipped into one of her old dresses and prepared the supper while Buddy straddled a kitchen chair and chattered upon ten thousand topics of mutual interest.
"Doggone!" he exclaimed, finally. "I hardly knew you when you stepped off that train, but it seems like old times now, with you hustlin' around in that gingham."
"I wish it was."
"I wish, sometimes, that we'd never struck oil."
"Good Lord! Why?"
"Oh"—Allie turned her back and bent over the stove—"for lots of reasons! Ma never had a sick day till lately. Now she's failin' fast." Buddy frowned at this intelligence. "And Pa's as restless as a squirrel. All the time scared of losing his money."
"Well, you got no kick coming, sis. You've sure made good."
"I dunno—You've got rich ways. An' rich looks, too!"
Allie lifted an interested face, and her brother undertook, somewhat awkwardly, to tell her wherein she had improved. She listened with greedy delight, but when he had finished she shook her head skeptically and declared: "It sounds nice, and God knows I've tried hard enough, but-there's a difference, Bud. We're 'trash' and always will be."
Of course young Briskow's mind was full of business, and he could not long stay off that absorbing topic. When, during their supper, he announced the fact that the well on thirty-five showed signs of coming in shortly, and that he intended to send for Calvin Gray, Allie changed her mind about returning home and decided to wait over until the latter arrived.
She and Buddy talked until a late hour that night, but although she was dying to have him tell her about his romance, his dream of love, he never so much as referred to it, and she could not bring herself to disregard his reticence. Nor could she bear to discuss with him the problem that lay nearest her own heart. She had brooded long over that problem, and her soul was hungry to share its bitter secret; nevertheless, she could not do so, for it is often easier to bare our wounds to strangers than to those we love. If her breedings, her bitterness of spirit manifested themselves, it was in a fixed undertone of pessimism and in an occasional outburst of recklessness that bewildered her brother.
On the morning of Gray's coming she rode with Buddy over to thirty-five. It was a wretched, rainy day, and nothing is more bleak than a rainy day in a drilling camp. Work had been halted and the men were loafing in their bunk house. Brother and sister spent the impatient hours in the mess tent. As usual, they talked a good deal about Calvin Gray.
"Funny, him comin' here a stranger, an' gettin' to run our whole family, ain't it?" Buddy said.
Allie nodded. "Funnier thing than that is your working for him." Buddy was surprised, so she asked him: "Aren't you sore at him for—what he did? For breaking up that affair?" It was a question that had been upon her lips more than once; she could not credit her brother with entire sincerity when he answered, frankly enough:
"Sore? Not the least bit."
"Didn't you—care for her?"
"Why, sure. I was all tore up, at first. But he did me the biggest kind of a favor."
Allie shook her head uncomprehendingly. "Men are queer things. You must have loved her, for a while."
"I reckon I did, if you're a mind to call it that. But he says that sort of thing ain't real love."
"'He says'!" the girl cried, scornfully. "My God, Buddy! Would you let him tell you—? Is he pickin' out women for you like he picks out a dress for me and a hotel for Ma? How does he know what's the real thing?"