"She was a—grafter," the brother explained, with a flush of embarrassment. "She'd of probably took my money an' quit me cold."
"Bah!" The girl rose and, with somber defiance in her smoldering eyes, stared out at the desolate day. "You'd have had her for a while, wouldn't you? You'd have lived while it lasted. What's the difference if she was a grafter? D'you think you're going to fall in love and marry a duchess, or something? I wish I'd had your chance, that's all."
"What d'you mean by that?" Buddy queried, sharply.
"I mean this," Allie flamed at him. "We're nobodies and we've got nothing but our money. A counterfeit is as good as ever we'll get—and it's as good as we're entitled to. I'd rather know what it is to live for an hour than to go on forever just pretending to live. If I've got to be unhappy, then give me something to be unhappy over; something to look back on. I'd rather be—But, pshaw! You don't understand. You couldn't."
"I dunno what's got into you lately," Buddy declared, with a frown.
"Nothing's got into me. Only, what's the use of starving when the world's full of good things and you've got the price to buy them? I won't do it. If ever I get my chance, you watch me!"
Gray's trip from the railroad was more like a voyage than a motor journey, for the creek beds, usually dry, were angry torrents, and the 'dobe flats were quagmires through which his vehicle plowed hub deep; nevertheless, he was fresh and alert when he arrived. After a buoyant greeting to Allie, he and Buddy inspected the well, then he issued orders for work to be resumed.
"We're gettin' close to something," young Briskow declared. "She's making gas an' rumblin' like she'd let go any minute. We got reservoys built an' the boiler's moved back, so we can douse the fire when she starts. I figger she'll drownd us out."
"What are the indications at Nelson's well?" Gray turned his eyes in the direction of a derrick on the adjoining property, the top of which showed over the mesquite.
"Nothin' extra. They won't tell us anything, but they're deeper 'n we are."
"How do you know?"
Buddy winked wisely. "We counted the layers of cable on the bull-wheel drum. Checked up their casing, too, an' watched their cuttin's. They got their eye on us, too, an' they'll be over when we blow in."
That was an anxious afternoon, for as the drill bit deeper into the rock it provoked indications of a terrific force imprisoned far below. To the observers it seemed as if that sharp-edged tool was tap-tapping upon the thin shell of some vast reservoir already leaking and charged to the bursting point with a mighty pressure. An odor of gas escaped from the casing mouth, occasionally there came hoarse, throaty gurglings of the thick liquid at the bottom of the well. The bailer was run frequently.
Word had gone forth that there was something doing on thirty-five, and from the chaparral emerged muddy motor cars bringing scouts, neighboring lease owners, and even the members of a near-by casing crew.
Supper was a jumpy meal, and nobody had much to say, Allie Briskow least of all. She was silent, intense; she curtly refused Buddy's offer to send her home, and when the meal was over she followed Gray back to the derrick. He was on edge, of course. It seemed to him that every blow of that bit was struck upon his naked nerves, for he had a deep conviction that this was to prove the night of his life, and the strain of waiting was becoming onerous. This well meant so much. Ten thousand barrels, fifteen, five—even one thousand; it mattered little how heavy the flow, for a good-paying well would see him through his immediate troubles. And this was a well of some sort, or else indications meant nothing and everybody was greatly mistaken. Of course, a big well, something to create a furor—that was what he needed, for that not only would bridge his financial crisis, but also it would mean a frenzy of quick drilling, new wells crowded close together, hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the earth, and the Nelsons couldn't stand that. It would break them—break them, and he would taste the full sweetness of revenge. Oh, he had waited long! Nor was that all. Once he had Henry Nelson down, and his foot on the fellow's throat, he'd have something to say to Barbara Parker. He could say it then and look her in the eyes. He wished she was here to-night while he stood on the top of the world. Ten thousand barrels! Twenty thousand! Twenty-thousand-barrel gushers were not unknown. A well like that would mean a fortune every day. But why didn't it start?
They were bailing again and curiosity drew the owner in upon the derrick floor. This time the flow might begin; at any moment now oil might come with the water. There is some danger in standing close to a well during this bailing process, but Gray was like a bit of iron in the field of a magnet; spellbound, he watched the cable as it ran smoothly off the drum, flowed up over the crown block and down into the casing mouth. That heavy, torpedolike weight on the end of the line was dropping almost half a mile. Up it came swiftly, as if greased; up, up, until it emerged into the glare of the incandescent overhead and hung there dripping. It was swung aside and lowered, and out gushed its muddy contents.
Water! Black and thick as molasses, but water nevertheless.
Buddy Briskow was running the rig, and the dexterity with which he handled brake and control rod gave him pride. He had seated his sister on a bench out of the way, where she was protected from the drizzle, and he felt her eyes upon him. It gave him a sense of importance to have Allie watching him at such a crisis; he wished his parents were with her. If this well blew in big, as it seemed bound to do, it would be a personal triumph, for not many cub drillers could boast of bringing in a gusher the first time. It was, in fact, no mean accomplishment to make any sort of a well; to pierce the earth with an absolutely vertical shaft a half mile deep and line it with tons upon tons of heavy casing joined air-tight and fitted to a hair's breadth was an engineering feat in itself. It was something that only an oil man could appreciate. And he was an oil man; a darn good one, too, so Buddy told himself.
He eased the brake and the massive bailer slid into the casing as a heavy shell slips into the breech of a cannon. As he further released his pressure, the cable began to pour serpentlike from the drum. Buddy turned his wet, grimy face and flashed a grin at Allie. She smiled back at him faintly. Some lightninglike change in her expression, or perhaps some occult sense of the untoward warned him that all was not as it should be, and he jerked his head back to attention.
There are moments of catastrophe when for a brief interval nature slows, time stops, and we are carried in suspense. Such an instant Buddy Briskow experienced now. He knew at first glance what had happened, and a frightened cry burst from his throat, but it was a cry too short, too hoarse, to serve as a warning.
During that moment of inattention the bailer had stuck. Perhaps five hundred feet below, friction had checked its plunge, and meanwhile the velvet-running drum, spinning at its maximum velocity by reason of the whirling bull wheel, was unreeling its cable down upon the derrick platform. Down it poured in giant loops, and within those coils, either unconscious of his danger or paralyzed by its suddenness, stood Calvin Gray.
Men schooled in hazardous enterprises carry subconscious mental photographs of the perils with which their callings are invested and they react involuntarily to them. Buddy had heard of drillers decapitated by flying cables, of human bodies caught within those wire loops and cut in twain as if made of lard, for when a wedged tool resumes its downward plunge it straightens those coils above ground in the twinkling of an eye. Instinct, rather than reason, warned Buddy not to check the blinding revolutions of the bull wheel. Without thought he leaped forward into the midst of those swiftly forming loops, and as he landed upon the slippery floor he clenched his fist and struck with all the power he could put behind his massive arm. Gray's back was to him, the blow was like that of a walking beam, and it sent the elder man flying as a tenpin is hurled ahead of a bowling ball. Buddy fell, too. He went sprawling. As he slid across the muddy floor he felt the steel cable writhing under him like a thing alive, and the touch of it as it streamed into the well burned his flesh. He kicked and fought it as he would have fought the closing folds of a python, for the bailer was falling again and the wire loops were vanishing as the coils in a whiplash vanish during its flight.
Buddy's booted legs were thrown high, he was tossed aside like a thing of paper, but blind, half stunned, he scrambled back to his post. By this time the whole structure of the derrick was rocking to the mad gyrations of the bull wheel; the giant spool was spinning with a speed that threatened to send it flying, like the fragments of a bursting bomb, but the youth understood dimly the danger of stopping it too suddenly—to fetch up that plunging weight at the cable end might snap the line, collapse the derrick, "jim" the well. Buddy weaved dizzily in his tracks; nevertheless, his hand was steady, and he applied a gradually increasing pressure to the brake. Nor did he take his eyes from his task until the drum had ceased revolving and the runaway bailer hung motionless in the well.
When he finally looked about it seemed to him that he had lived a long time and was very old. Gray lay motionless where he had fallen, and his body was twisted into a shockingly unnatural posture. He was bleeding. Allie Briskow was bending over him. Other dim, dreamlike figures were swarming out of the gloom and into the radiance of the derrick lights; there was a far-away clamor of shouting voices. Buddy Briskow felt himself growing deathly sick.
They carried Gray to the bunk house, and his limbs hung loosely, his head lolled in a manner terrifying to Buddy and his sister. As they stumbled along beside the group, the girl cried:
"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" She repeated the cry over and over again in a voice strange to her brother's ears.
"It—it wasn't my fault," he told her, hoarsely. "I aimed to save him."
"You killed him!"
"He ain't—" Buddy choked and clung to her. "He's just stunned like. He ain't—that!" The youth was amazed when Allie turned and cursed him with oaths that he himself seldom ventured to employ.
But Gray was not dead. Buddy's blow had well-nigh broken his neck, and he had suffered a further injury to his head in falling; nevertheless, he responded to such medical aid as they could supply, and in time he opened his eyes. His gaze was dull, however, and for a long while he lay in a sort of coma, quite as alarming as his former condition. They brought him to at last long enough to acquaint him with what had happened, and although it was plain that he understood their words only dimly, he ordered the work resumed.
When for a second time he lapsed into semiconsciousness, it was Allie Briskow who put his orders into execution. "You ain't doing any good standing around staring at him and whispering. Bring in that well, as fast as ever you can, and bring it in big. Now, get out and leave him to me."
Buddy was the last to go. He inquired, miserably: "Honest, he ain't hurt bad, is he? You don't think—"
"He won't—die? Ain't no chance of him doin' that, is there?"
"If he does, I'll—" The speaker's face was ashen, but her eyes blazed. "I'll fix you, Buddy Briskow. I will, so help me God!"
It was late that night when the well came in. It came with a rush and a roar, drenching the derrick with a geyser of muddy water and driving both crew and spectators out into the gloom. Up, up the column rose, spraying itself into mist, and from its iron throat issued a sound unlike that of any other phenomenon. It was a hoarse, rumbling bellow, growing in volume and rising in pitch second by second until it finally attained a shrieking crescendo. Ten thousand safety valves had let go, and they steadily gathered strength and shrillness as they functioned. A shocking sound it became, a sound that carried for miles, rocking the air and stunning the senses. It beat upon the eardrums, pierced them; men shouted at each other, but heard their own voices only faintly.
Calvin Gray had recovered his senses sufficiently to understand the meaning of that uproar, and he tried to get up, but Allie held him down upon his bed. She was still struggling with him when her brother burst into the house, shouting:
"It's a gasser, Mr. Gray! Biggest I ever seen."
"Gas?" the latter mumbled, indistinctly. "Isn't there any—oil?" His words were almost like a whisper because of the noise.
"Not yet. May be later. Say, she's a heller, ain't she? I'll bet she's makin' twenty million feet—"
"Gasser's no good."
"Can't tell yet. We gotta shut her down easy so she don't blow the casing out—run wild on us, understand?" Buddy was still breathless, but he plunged out the door and back into that sea of sound.
With a tragic intensity akin to wildness, Gray stared up into Allie Briskow's face. "Worthless, eh? And they told me ten thousand barrels." He carried a shaking hand to his bandaged head and tried vainly to collect his wits. "What's matter?" he queried, thickly. "Everything whirling—sick—"
"You had an accident, but it's all right; all right—No, no! Please lie still."
"Running wild, eh? Tha's what hurts my head so. Blown the casing out—Bad, isn't it? Sometimes they run wild for weeks, years—ruin everything." He tried again to rise, then insisted, querulously: "Goto get oil in this well! I've got to! Last chance, Allie. Got to get ten thousand barrels!"
"Please! You mustn't—" Allie had her strong hands upon his shoulders; she was arguing firmly but as gently as possible under the circumstances, when something occurred so extraordinary, so unexpected, as to paralyze her. Of a sudden the interior of the dim-lit, canvas-roofed shack was illuminated as if by a searchlight, and she turned her head to see that the whole out-of-doors was visible and that the night itself had turned into day.
With a cry that died weakly amid the chaos of sound beating over her, the girl ran to the window and looked out. What she beheld was a nightmare scene. The well was afire. It had exploded into flame. Where, a moment before, it had been belching skyward an enormous stream of gaseous vapor, all but invisible except at the casing head, now it was a monstrous blow torch, the flaming crest of which was tossed a hundred feet high. Nothing in the nature of a conflagration could have been more awe-inspiring, more confounding to the faculties than that roaring column of consuming fire. It was a thing incredibly huge, incredibly furious, incredibly wild. Human figures, black against its glare, were flying to safety, near-by silhouettes were flinging their arms aloft and dashing backward and forward; faces upturned to it were white and terrified. The scattered mesquite stood against the night like a wall, spotted with inky shadows, and, above, the heavens resembled a boiling caldron.
It was a hellish picture; it remained indelibly fixed upon Allie Briskow's mind. As she looked on in horrid fascination, she saw the derrick change into a latticelike tower of flame, saw its upper part begin slowly to crumble and disintegrate. The force with which the gas issued blew the blaze high and held it dancing, tumbling in mid-air, a phenomenon indescribably weird and impressive. The men who stood nearest bent their heads and shielded their faces from the heat.
Allie tore her eyes away from the spectacle finally. She turned back to the bed, then she halted, for it was empty. The door, still ajar from Buddy's headlong exit, informed her whence her patient had gone, and she flew after him.
She found him not half a dozen paces away. In fact, she stumbled over his prostrate body. With an amazon's strength, she gathered him into her arms, then staggered with him back to his couch, and as she strained him to herself she loudly called his name. Amid that demoniac din, amid the shrieking of those million devils, freed from the black chasms of the rock, her voice was as feeble as the wail of a sick child.
When she had laid her inert burden upon the bed, Allie knelt and took Gray's head upon her bosom. Then, for the first time, those forces imprisoned deep within her being ran wild, and under the red glare of that flaming geyser she kissed his hair, his eyes, his lips. Over and over again she kissed them with the hungry passion of a woman starved.
A subdued but continuous whispering irritated Calvin Gray. When it persisted, minute after minute, he opened his eyes, asking himself, dully, why it was that people couldn't let a fellow sleep. He lay, for some time, trying to recognize his unfamiliar surroundings; oddly enough, he could not discover the origin of that low-pitched murmur, since there was nobody in his bedroom. Evidently he had slept too hard, for his eyes were heavy, his vision was distorted, and an unaccustomed lassitude bore down his body and stupefied his brain. A thousand indistinct memories were moving about in the penumbral borderland of consciousness, but they refused to take shape. They would emerge into the light presently, of course. Meanwhile, it was restful to remain in this state of semi-stupefaction. He was pretty tired.
That whispering, he realized after a while, was nothing more than the monotonous murmur of rain upon a shingle roof, and the gurgle from dripping eaves. Oh yes! It had been pouring for several days; raining buckets, barrels—Ten thousand barrels a day!
Yonder was something familiar; a patent, spring rocking-chair. Gray knew it well. It creaked miserably when you sat in it, and when you got up to look at diamond rings it snapped its jaws at you like an alligator. Odd that they'd let an alligator into the Ajax Hotel. Nelson's doings, probably. Always up to some deviltry, that Nelson. But, thank God, the fire was out, and that ear-splitting racket that hurt his head had changed into the soothing patter of raindrops. There couldn't be any fire with ten thousand barrels of rain falling.
Gray closed his eyes and dozed briefly. But he had dreams; calamity haunted him; he awoke to the realization of some horror. Slowly his brain began to function, then more swiftly, until, like a flood released, memory returned. He groaned aloud.
Allegheny Briskow appeared out of nowhere and laid a soothing hand upon his brow. When she saw the light of sanity in his eyes, her face brightened and she cried, eagerly:
"You're coming around all right, aren't you?"
"Ten thousand barrels!" he mumbled. "They said it would be a big well and I counted on it."
"Don't try to think—"
"But it came in a gasser. I remember it all now—nearly all. I—I'm about ruined, I guess."
"It caught fire."
"You mustn't talk. Everything is all right—all right, honestly. I'll tell you everything, but just you rest now until Buddy comes." There was magnetism to the girl's touch and comfort in her voice.
It was some time later that Gray opened his eyes and spoke in a more natural voice, saying, "How do I happen to be here in your house, Allie?"
"We brought you over at daylight. Buddy's gone for a doctor, but he'll be back." The girl averted her face quickly and moved toward the window.
"I remember being hurt in some way—derrick fell on me, or something. Then the well caught fire. What time is it?"
"It's afternoon. About four o'clock. Buddy 'll be back—" Allie's voice caught queerly. "He'll get back somehow."
"He ought to be at the well—putting it out. God! What a sight! I see it yet!"
"The well is out!" Allie returned and seated herself beside the bed. "You probably won't understand it or believe it—I can scarcely believe it myself, for it's a miracle. All the same, it is out, shut in, and not much damage done. You're not ruined, either, for Buddy says they're short of fuel here, and a gasser this size is worth a good deal—'most as much as a fair oil well.'"
"How can it be shut in? It was blazing, roaring—a tower of flame. The derrick itself was going—"
"I know, but the strangest thing—" Allie spoke breathlessly. "Let me do the talking, please. You remember the drill stems were standing over in one corner? Well, the fire drove everybody off, of course; there was no facing it, and they thought sure they'd have a job—have to send for boilers and smother it down with steam, maybe, or tunnel under, or something—work for days, maybe weeks, and spend a fortune. Anyhow, they were in a panic, but when the derrick went down what do you think? That stack of drill stems fell in such a way as to close the gate valve at the top of the casing."
Gray frowned, he shook his head. "Impossible. You're trying to ease my mind."
"Of course it's impossible. But it happened, just as I tell you. Buddy had a bar fixed in the valve wheel, like a long handle, so that a half turn, or maybe a quarter, would shut it. Anyhow, those drill stems caught that bar in falling and closed the valve. Somebody said it happened once before, to an oil well over in Louisiana—"
"It—sounds incredible." The speaker made an effort to collect himself, he raised an uncertain hand to his bandaged head. "What ails me? I recall a lot of things, but they're pretty well confused."
Allie made known, the nature of the accident resulting in Gray's injury, and he nodded his understanding. "So Buddy saved my life!" He smiled. "Great boy, Buddy! I'll know better than to mix it with him again—he learns too quickly."
"Oh, it was terrible! I've been so—so frightened!" Allie Briskow suddenly lost control of herself and, bowing her head, she hid her face in the musty patchwork quilt. Her shoulders shook, her whole strong body twitched and trembled. "You've b-been awful sick. I did the best I could, but—"
"There, there!" Gray placed his hand upon the girl's head; he took her palm in his and stroked it. "I'm not worth your tears, child. And, anyhow, I'm all right again; I am, indeed. I'm as well as ever, so far as I can tell. By the way, what set the well afire?"
"Buddy thinks somebody must have dropped a cigarette when the stampede came." The girl raised her face and wiped the tears from it. "It doesn't seem possible anybody would be so careless as to smoke near a well that was coming in, but—Just think, Mr. Gray, those drill stems shut it off! Why, it was the hand of God!"
"It seems so. My luck hasn't run out, that's plain." The speaker pondered briefly, then he said: "Shut in! Safe! Jove, it's wonderful! Buddy can take me to the railroad to-night and—"
"Oh, you can't leave. You're not able."
"I must. This gasser was a great disappointment to me. I allowed myself to count on a big well, and now I have a serious problem to meet. It must be met without delay. Buddy will soon be back, I dare say?" Allie undertook to evade the speaker's eye, but unsuccessfully, and he inquired, sharply: "What's wrong? What's happened to him?"
"Nothing. He's all right, but"—Gray's evident alarm demanded the truth, therefore she explained—"but I don't know when he'll be back. That's why I've been so frightened. It has been raining cats and dogs; the creek has overflowed and everything is under water."
"Under water? Here? Why, that can't be." Gray insisted upon rising, and Allie finally consented to his doing so; then, despite his protest that he was quite able to take care of himself, she helped him to the window. From that position he beheld a surprising scene.
The Briskow farm lay in a flat, saucerlike valley, arid and dusty at most seasons of the year, but now a shallow lake, the surface of which was broken by occasional fences, misty clumps of bushes, or the tops of dead weeds. The nearest Briskow derrick was dimly visible, its floor awash, its shape suggestive of the battle mast of a sunken man-of-war.
"It's not more than a foot or two deep on the level," Allie explained, "but that's enough. And it has come up six inches since Buddy left. He'd have been back before this if he could have made it."
"Did you ever see it like this before?"
"Once, when I was a little girl. Some years the creek never has a drop in it."
"Then we're marooned."
"We were cut off for three days that time."
Gray frowned. What next? he asked himself. Here was a calamity that could not be dodged. He shrugged, finally. "No use to fret. No use to crouch beneath a load. I'd give my right arm to be back in Dallas, but—this is our chance to cultivate the Christian virtue of submission. So be it! One must have a heart for every fate, but," he smiled at the girl, "it is hard to be philosophical when you're hungry. And I'm hungry."
"Oh, you are better!"
"I'm well, I tell you, except for the bruises bequeathed me by your brutal brother. Three days—a week, maybe! My God! By the way, is there any food in the house?"
"Then—we've nothing to do except get better acquainted, and that is something I've wanted to do for some time."
Allegheny Briskow sang while she prepared supper, for the reaction from the strain of the last twelve hours was like an intoxication. Mr. Gray was in no further danger; he was well except for a bandaged head and some bruises. And he was here alone with her. They were as completely cut off from the outside world as if shipwrecked on some island, and, for the time being at least, he was hers to look out for, hers to wait upon and to guard. Allie laughed at the drumming of the rain upon the kitchen roof, and she thrilled at memory of some of the things she had done. She could feel again Gray's head upon her bosom, his lips against hers, his body strained to hers. She had listened to his heartbeats; with her own abundant strength she had shielded him, fought for him, drawn him, by very force of her will, back to life; the anguish she had suffered during those long hours became, in retrospect, a poignant pleasure.
She wondered if by any chance he would remember—there had been times when he had seemed to be almost rational. She hoped not. And yet—why not? If he did remember, if indeed he had felt her kisses or heard her pleadings, that memory, even if subconscious, might serve to awaken him. It might evoke some response to the flaming passion that had finally escaped her control. Gray was a strong man; his emotions, once roused, were probably as wild as hers, therefore who could tell what might happen? Irresistible forces, fire and flood, had thrown them together. They were at the mercy of elemental powers, and they were alone with each other—a man and a woman. Allie hoped against hope; she prayed recklessly, defiantly, that her hour had struck.
Gray came into the kitchen after a while to warm himself over the stove. He was still a little bit unsteady on his feet, and his head felt queer; but he assumed a certain gayety and insisted upon bearing an awkward hand with the cooking and the dishes. He had never seen Allie as she was now, nor in a mood to compare with this, and for the first time he realized how fully she had developed. It was not surprising that her metamorphosis had escaped his attention, for he had never taken time to do more than briefly appraise her. With leisure for observation, however, he noted that she had made good her promise of rare physical charm, and that her comeliness had ripened into real beauty—beauty built on an overwhelming scale, to be sure, and hence doubly striking—moreover, he saw that all traces of her stolidity had vanished. She was an intelligent, wide-awake, vibrant person, and at this moment a genial fire, a breathless excitement, was ablaze within her. Gray complimented her frankly, and she was extravagantly pleased.
"Buddy said almost the same thing," she told him. "I don't care whether it's true or not, if you believe it."
"Oh, it's true! I saw great things in you, but—"
"Even when you saw me hoeing in the garden that first day?"
"Even then; but I wasn't prepared for a miracle. You were an enchanted princess, and it required only a magic word to break the spell."
"It is all your doings, Mr. Gray. Whatever I am I owe it all to you. And it's the same with the rest of the family. I—" Allie hesitated, looked up from her work, then shook her head smilingly.
"I feel as if—well, as if you'd made me and I—belonged to you." It was dusk by this time; the girl's face was lit only by the indirect glow from the open door of the stove, therefore Gray could make nothing of her expression.
"How very flattering!" he laughed. "As a real matter of fact, I had almost nothing to do with it."
"All the same that's how I feel—as if I owed you everything and had to give something back. Women are queer, I guess. They love to give. And yet they're selfish—more selfish than men."
"I wouldn't say so."
"You don't know how bad hurt you were, Mr. Gray. I saved your life as much as Buddy did. You'd have died only for—only I wouldn't let you."
"I believe it. So, you see, you have more than evened the score. After all, I merely awakened the Sleeping Beauty, while you—"
"The prince woke her up with a kiss, didn't he?" Allie said, with a smile.
"So the story goes. Fairy stories, by the way, are the only kind one can afford to believe."
"Then I've got—something coming to me, haven't I?"
This time the girl turned her face invitingly to the speaker and waited.
Here was a new Allie Briskow, indeed, and one that amazed, nay, disturbed, Gray. Romance, he told himself. The girl meant nothing by this; nevertheless, her fancy had run far enough. He ignored her invitation, and instead of kissing her he patted her shoulder affectionately, saying:
"You're a dear child, and I can never repay you for mending my poor cracked head."
He turned his back, went to the table and lit the lamp, uncomfortably aware of the fact, meanwhile, that Allie remained motionless where he had left her. He ran on, casually, during the time he adjusted chimney and wick: "I was on the porch just now and found a rabbit crouching there. The poor thing was too wet and frightened to move." Allie did not seem to hear him. "All sorts of things are floating about; dead chickens, rattlesnakes, and—Oh yes, another thing I noticed; there's a good deal of oil on the water! I wonder where it comes from?"
Allie stirred herself; she jerked open the oven door, peered in, then slammed it shut. Her voice was sullen as she said: "They've been expecting a gusher on sixteen. Maybe the reservoirs have overflowed, or a pipe line has broken. Maybe it came in wild, you can't tell. This flood will cost a good many people a lot."
Supper, when the two sat down to it, proved to be a pleasant meal, for the soft glow of the lamp, the warmth from the stove, made of the Briskow kitchen a cozy place, while the drumming of the rain overhead enhanced their feeling of comfort and security. Gray's appetite was not that of a sick man, and Allie, who had regained her agreeable humor by this time, waited upon him with eager face and shining eyes. He paused, finally, to say:
"See here! You're not eating a bite."
"I'm not hungry. I couldn't eat, to-night. Please—I'm perfectly happy. I feel like a slave at the great lord's table; all I care to do is look on." After a moment she continued: "It couldn't have been so bad to be a slave—a girl slave. Somebody owned them, anyhow; they belonged to their masters, body and soul, and that's something. Women are like that. They've got to belong to somebody to be happy."
Gray was a talkative man, therefore he argued this point until he began to suspect that his companion was not heeding his words so much as the sound of his voice. More plainly than before he realized that there was something about Allie to-night utterly strange and quite contrary to his conception of her, but, because he believed her to be unlike other women, he did not try to understand it.
During the night an explosive crash followed by a loud reverberation awoke Calvin Gray and brought him up sitting. His room was lit by white flickers, against which he saw that the rain still sheeted his windows; he fumbled for his watch and found that it was two o'clock. This was a storm, indeed, and he began to fear that this deluge might swell the waters to a danger point; therefore he rose, struck a light, and dressed himself. Sleep was out of the question, anyhow, amid such an uproar. As he stepped out upon the front porch, his attention was instantly drawn to a yellow glow in the west, a distant torch, the flame of which illuminated the angry night. He stared at it for a moment before he realized its meaning. A well was afire! Lightning had wrecked a derrick and ignited the stream of oil. No wonder, he told himself, for this field was dotted with towers well calculated to lead lightning out of the skies, and amid a play of destructive forces such as this nothing less than a miracle could have prevented something of the sort. But it was a pity, for yonder a small-sized fortune was going up in smoke.
By the next flare he saw that the waters had crept higher. They were nearly up to the porch floor now, and, obviously, they were still rising. That rabbit was crouched where he had last seen it, a wet ball of fur with round, black eyes. The heavens echoed almost constantly, now to a thick, distant rumble, again to an appalling din directly overhead; for seconds at a time there was light enough to read by. The house, Gray decided, was in no danger, except from a direct bolt, for the valley was nothing more than a shallow lake; nevertheless—
A blinding, blue-white streak came, and he counted the seconds before the sound reached him. Sound traveled something like a thousand feet a second, he reflected; that bolt must have struck about a mile distant. Nothing alarming about that, surely. A moment, then he blinked and rubbed his eyes, for out of the murk was born another bonfire like that to the westward.
Hearing an exclamation behind him, Gray turned to behold Allie Briskow's dim figure in the door.
"Hello!" he cried, excitedly. "Did you see that? Yonder are two wells afire."
"I know. I haven't closed my eyes. You can see another one from my window." Allia snapped the light from a pocket flash upon Gray, and, noting that he was only partly clad, she urged him to come into the house. When he ignored the request she joined him, and together they stared at the mounting flames.
"Jove! That's terrible!" he muttered.
"Look here." Allie directed the beam of her light down over the edge of the porch, and moved it slowly from side to side. The surface of the water was not only burdened with debris, but also it was thick with oil. "It's just like that on the other side. That gusher on sixteen must be wild."
"Why didn't you call me?" the man inquired, sharply.
"What was the use? There's no chance for us to get out."
"How far is it back to high ground?"
"Quite a ways. Too far to wade. It would be over our heads in places, too. I don't like the look of it, do you? Not with those fires going, and—"
"I dare say it won't get any worse." Gray spoke with a carelessness that he was far from feeling, but his tone did not deceive the girl.
"It doesn't have to get any worse," she declared, im patiently. "There's oil enough here to burn. We're in the middle of a lake of it. What 'll happen if it catches fire?"
"Frankly, I don't know. I've never been marooned in a lake of oil. Probably this rain would quench it-"
"You know better than that!" Allie cried. "Don't act as if I were a kid. We're in a bad fix, with fire on three sides of us."
"At least we'll be as well off inside as out here," Gray declared, and his companion agreed, so together they went into her room, where, side by side, they peered through her window. What Allie had said was true, and the man pinched himself to see if he were dreaming. This conflagration was even closer than the others, and he could not doubt that there was every likelihood of its spreading to the surface of the lake itself. Here was a situation, truly. For the life of him he could think of no way out of it.
"I've read about this sort of thing," Allie was saying. "Tanks bursting and rivers afire. It spreads all over, the fire does, and there's no putting it out."
"One thing sure, this lightning won't last long—"
A blue glare and a ripping explosion gave the lie to Gray's cheering words. Allie Briskow recoiled from the window.
"We'll be burned alive!" she gasped. "Roasted like rats in a trap. I—I'm frightened, Mr. Gray." She drew closer to him.
"No need of that. We'll get out of this scrape somehow—people always do." A flicker lit the room, and he saw that the face upturned to his was wide eyed, strained. That brief glimpse of Allie, like a picture seen through the shutter of a camera, remained long with the man, for her hair was unbound, her lips were parted, and her dark eyes were peculiarly brilliant; through the opening of her lacy negligee her round, white neck and swelling bosom were exposed. It was a head, a bust, to be remembered.
"I—You got to—hold me," she said, huskily, and he felt her body shrink close to his. She clung tightly to him, trembling at first, then shaking in every limb. Fright, it seemed, had suddenly mastered Allie Briskow.
Gray endeavored for a moment to soothe her, then gently to loosen her hold; he spoke to her as he would have spoken to a terrified child, but the wildness of her emotion matched the wildness of the night, and her strength was nearly equal to his. Knowing her as he did, this abysmal terror was inexplicable; such abandon was entirely out of keeping with her. But she had acted queerly ever since—Gray was ashamed of the thought that leaped into his mind; he hated himself for harboring it. He hated himself also for the thrill that coursed through him at contact with this disheveled creature. The touch of her flesh disturbed him unbearably. Roughly he tore her arms from about his neck and put her away from him; by main strength he forced her into a chair, then snatched a covering of some sort from the bed and folded it around her shoulders. His voice was hoarse—to him it sounded almost brutal as he said:
"Get hold of yourself! We're in no great danger, really. Now then, a light will help us both." With clumsy hands he struck a match and lit the lamp. "Light's a great thing—drives away foolishness—nightmares and fancies of all sorts." Without looking at her he seized the electric torch and muttered: "I'll take a look around, just to see that things are snug. Back presently."
Gray despised himself thoroughly when the turmoil within him persisted; when he still felt the unruly urge to return whence he had come. Wild horses! That was how Gus Briskow had described his children. Well, Allie had followed Buddy's example and jumped the fence. Here was something unique in the way of an experience, sure enough; here were forces at play as savage and as destructive as those that lit the heavens. The girl was magnificent, maddening—and he was running away from her! He, a man of the world, as ruthless as most men of his type! It was a phenomenon to awaken sardonic mirth. He wondered what had come over him. He had changed, indeed.
Could it be that he had read a wrong significance into Allie's actions? Thus his mind worked when he grew calmer. He tried to answer in the affirmative, but already he hated himself sufficiently. No, the night had done it. Texas cattle stampede on stormy nights. They run blindly to destruction. The very air was surcharged, electric, and the girl was untamed, only a step removed from the soil. The possibility that she could be seriously interested in him, strangely enough, never presented itself.
Gray laid strong hold of himself, but it is not easy to subdue thought, and he could feel those strong, smooth, velvet arms encircling him. Disorder without and chaos within this house! The heavens rumbled like a mighty drumhead, the lightning made useless the feeble ray in his hand. It was the place, the hour of impulse. Gray swore savagely at himself, then he stumbled into his room and dressed himself more fully.
"Well, there doesn't seem to be much change," he said, cheerfully, as he opened Allie's door awhile later. "The fires don't seem to be spreading." She was sitting where he had left her, she had not moved. "Anything new on this side?"
Allie shrugged; slowly she turned, exposing a face tragic and stony. "I guess you don't think much of me," she said.
"Indeed!" he declared, heartily. "This is enough to frighten anybody. I don't mind saying it has upset me. But the worst is over." He laid a reassuring hand upon her shoulder.
Allie moved her body convulsively. "Lemme be!" she cried, sharply. "I don't mind the lightning. I ain't scared of the fire, either—hell fire or any other kind. I ain't scared of anything, and yet—I'm a dam' coward!"
She rose, gathered her loose robe more closely about her, and made blindly toward the bed. She flung herself upon it and buried her face in the pillows. "Just a—dam' coward!" she repeated, in a muffled wail. "My God, I wish the blaze would come!"
Buddy Briskow had difficulty in getting out of the valley on his way for a doctor, for never had the roads been like this. He drove recklessly; where necessary he disregarded fences and pushed across pastures that were hub deep; he even burst through occasional thickets in defiance of axle and tire. It was a mad journey, like the ride in a death-defying movie serial; only by some miraculous power of cohesion did the machine hold together and thus enable him to keep it under way and bring it out to high ground. Since he had not taken time before leaving to change into dry clothing, he was drenched to the skin; he was, in fact, sheeted with mud like the car itself.
To find a doctor, however, was a problem. Buddy tried first one camp, then another, but without success. Meanwhile, the downpour continued and the creeks rose steadily, obliging him to make numerous detours and to follow the ridge roads wherever possible. He was aching in every bone and muscle from the pounding he had received, his arms were numb, his back was broken. He drowned his motor finally in fording a roily stream and abandoned the car.
He came into Ranger that afternoon on the back of a truck horse that he had borrowed—without the owner's consent. For a time it seemed that if he got a doctor at all he would have to follow a similar procedure, but the Briskow name was powerful, and Buddy talked in big figures, so eventually he set out on the return journey—this time in a springless freight wagon drawn by the stoutest team in town. A medical man was on the seat beside him.
Progress was maddeningly slow, incredibly tedious; creek beds, long dry, had become foaming torrents; in places even the level roads were belly deep and the horses floundered. When one of them fell, it required infinite labor and patience to get it upon its feet again.
It was after midnight when Buddy and his miserable companion gained the comparatively easy going of the last ridge, that flinty range beyond which lay the Briskow farm. Here they drove in the glare of lightning and under a sky that rumbled almost steadily, for a frightful electric storm had broken. Here it was that they saw what havoc was being wrought—they counted several blazing wells ahead of them.
Buddy stopped at a drilling camp where lights showed the occupants to be astir, and there he received confirmation of his fears. The flats beyond were inundated to a depth rendering travel impossible, and although some of the men stationed out there had managed to work their way back, others were, for the time being, hopelessly cut off. What was more alarming by far, in view of these blazing beacons, was the news that a huge gusher on sixteen was wild and pouring its inflammable flood out upon the surface of the water.
Buddy stood in the midst of a spreading puddle from his streaming clothes, and through chattering teeth announced: "My sister and Mr. Gray are out there. I gotta get through!"
"How you going to get through, kid?" one of the drillers inquired. "Our men had to swim in places."
"I guess I can swim, if I try. Feller can do 'most anything if he has to. How about you, Doc?" Buddy turned to his traveling companion.
The latter shook his head positively. "You're crazy, Briskow. We'd probably drown. If we didn't, we'd be burned alive when that loose oil catches fire."
"Looks like it's bound to catch if this lightning keeps up," some one declared. "Listen to that!"
Buddy cursed furiously and lurched toward the door. It took force to restrain him from going.
That was indeed a night of terror in the oil fields, for destruction was wholesale, and to those who were fortunate enough to be in no danger it was scarcely less trying than for the luckless ones out in the flooded area. Buddy Briskow was half demented. At one time it seemed certain that the surface oil was aflame near his father's farm, and the pictures he conjured up were unbearable.
The rain ceased with the passing of the electrical storm, but the late hours of the night were thick and the fires continued to burn. It seemed as if morning would never come. With the first light Buddy mounted one of his horses, and, regardless of admonitions, set out. In miles he had no great distance to go; nevertheless, it was midday before he came in sight of his father's unpainted farmhouse, and when he dismounted at the front porch he fell rather than walked through the door.
He broke down and blubbered weakly when he saw Calvin Gray up and around and apparently well. He collapsed into a chair and huddled there in a wet heap, the while he sobbed and laughed hysterically. He was considerably ashamed of his show of feeling.
Even after he had been helped into the kitchen and his wet clothes had been stripped from him, he could tell little about his trip, but hot food and drink brought him around and then, indeed, his story was one that deeply touched the elder man.
Already the waters had ceased to rise, but Buddy's difficulty in getting through proved the folly of attempting escape for the time being; his horse had been forced to swim with him in more than one place; in others he had waded waist deep, stumbling through thickets, hauling the animal after him by main strength. There was nothing to do, it seemed, but await a subsidence of the flood. Then, too, the boy was half dead for sleep.
Under the circumstances it was not easy for the elder man to face this delay. His affairs were in a precarious condition and more in need of his immediate attention than ever before; to be cut off, therefore, to be lost for several days at this particular time was more than a misfortune—it was a catastrophe. Such vague plans as he had considered he was now forced to abandon. He could see ruin ahead.
One purpose this enforced idleness did serve, however; it enabled him—nay, it forced him—to evolve a new scheme of relief. Some minds become paralyzed in moments of panic, others function with unexpected clearness and ingenuity, and his was such a mind. An idea came to him, finally, which seemed sound, the more he thought about it. Indeed, its possibilities galvanized him, and he wondered why he had been so long in arriving at it. It was spectacular, daring, it might prove to be impossible of accomplishment; nevertheless, it was worth trying, and he could scarcely wait for Buddy Briskow to wake up so that he could put it to him.
Late that evening, after Allie had gone to bed, he had a long talk with his young friend, during which he told him more about his affairs than he had made known even to Roswell, the banker.
Buddy listened with the closest attention. He drew a deep breath at last and said: "I knew you was in deep, but I thought it was just your way. Now I know it was Nelson's crew that fired our gasser. Why, they might have cost us thousands—yes, hundreds of thousands—if it had been the kind of a gusher we figgered on! Say"—the speaker's brows drew together in an angry scowl—"what ails this Nelson, anyhow—tryin' to get you shot, an' firin' your wells, an' everything?"
"He once did me a great injury."
There was a pause. "I'd rather not go into that now, Buddy. To repeat what I've been telling you, however, the situation is this: I've gone as far as I can go with the backing I have, and I must make a quick turn—strike one final blow or give up. Nelson and I are like two wrestlers floundering on the mat. We're both tired, groggy, out of breath. Whichever one gets the first hold will win, for the other lacks strength to break it. Do you think your father would trust me? Do you think he'd go it blind on my say-so?"
"If he won't, I will. I got money. So's Allie."
Gray declined this offer with a positive shake of the head. "It must appeal to him on its merits. I wouldn't permit you to go contrary to his judgment."
"Judgment? What's Pa's judgment worth? He knows it's no good, an' so do we. Everybody's tryin' to do him up but you; you're the only one he trusts. An' the same here. There's my bank roll—you can shoot the whole piece. I don't care if it never comes back. Tryin' to get you killed! An' spoilin' a well on me!"
"Thank you, Buddy! You—make me slow to trust my own judgment. I—I seem to be developing a conscience. But I'm sure this is the thing to do, for you and your father as well as for me. People can't stand still; they must go forward. The Briskow fortune must grow or it will crumble."
"I dunno if we've got as much in us as you seem to think," the boy said, doubtfully.
"Look at Allie! And, you, too! You took hold of this field work and ran it like a man. I said you'd make a hand, and you have. The day is coming when people like you, who went from poverty to affluence overnight, will retrace that journey. That's the time when the truly dramatic story of the Texas oil boom will be written. Then will come the real tragedy, and you mustn't be caught in it. Money isn't a servant, Buddy; it is a master, and a mighty stern, relentless master, at that. When your first well blew in, it didn't mean ease and enjoyment, as you thought; it meant hard work for the rest of your life."
"If you'd talked to me like this when I went off to school," the boy said, after a moment of consideration, "mebbe I'd of made myself swallow some more education, even if I had to take it out of a bottle along with the little kids."
Gray smiled. "You have common sense, at least, and that's something you can't get in school. Men wear smooth from contact with one another, and it is time you got in touch with something bigger than mere drilling. If you're willing, I'll take you to Wichita Falls with me."
"Willing?" Buddy's eyes sparkled. Guiltily he confessed: "It's been pretty—lonesome out here with the scorpions. But I wanted to show you I could make good."
"Do you drink any more?"
"Haven't touched a drop. I don't reckon I ever will, either. I don't take to the idea of back-trackin' to this farm an' gettin' old in overalls, like you say. I'm sort of penurious an' I aim to keep what little sense I got. A feller as dull as I am can't afford to drink."
"One thing more." Gray nodded approvingly. "I want you to promise me that you won't fall in love with the first woman you meet. I'd never be able to lick you again."
Buddy showed his strong, white teeth in a broad grin. "I promise! That boy with the bass voice cured me. I'm goin' to be a hermit."
News of the damage wrought by the recent storm was naturally of grave concern to Henry Nelson, but owing to the fact that lines were down, about his only source of information, during the days immediately following it, was the press reports. He was reading the Dallas papers with interest one morning when his attention was arrested by the name of Calvin Gray. Now Gray's name in print affected the banker almost as disagreeably as did a sight of the man himself; therefore it was with intense resentment that he read the article in which it appeared. It was a vividly written account of the former's experience during the flood, and, due no doubt to Gray's personal touch, it read a good deal like fiction. The man had a unique turn for publicity, a knack for self-advertising that infuriated Nelson. To read this anybody would think that he was one of the dominant figures in the oil industry, and that his enterprises were immensely successful. With a sneer Nelson flung the paper aside. So, that was how it had happened. The well had been fired—Henry believed he could account for that—but a miracle had quenched the flame. Falling drill stems! Who ever heard of such a thing? Such luck was uncanny—enough to give one the creeps. If Gray were tied hand and foot and thrown into a river, somebody would drag him out—with his pockets full of fish! And to be marooned for days in the midst of a blazing lake—Damnation! Well, luck like that was bound to change. It had changed. The note of assurance in this self-edited story was patently counterfeit, or so Henry told himself, for surely the fellow must know by this time that his race was run. Probably this was a desperate effort to secure further backing. If so, it would fail.
Henry believed that he had weakened his enemy's support so completely that he would fall of his own weight; he considered it, in fact, about the cleverest move he had ever made to dispose of a block of bank stock in such a way as not only to tide him over his own difficulties, but also to make allies of Gray's associates—the very men who had been fighting him. Those men were through with the scoundrel now, and who else could he appeal to, once they abandoned him? Nobody. No, the ice had been thin, at times—Henry had felt it bending under him—but he was safe at last. The crossing had been made.
So much accomplished; now that the fellow was down and could no longer fight back, it was time to see that Barbara Parker learned the truth about her gallant suitor. The next time Tom Parker came into the bank Henry called him into his private office and had a talk with him.
Old Tom listened silently; nevertheless, it was plain that he was deeply shocked.
"I s'pose you ain't lyin'," he said, coldly, when the banker had finished.
"It's a matter of record, Tom. He can't deny it."
"Why did you—hold off so long?"
"We're not exactly friends. He foolishly believes that I had something to do with his disgrace, and he has done his best to injure me. Under the circumstances, I couldn't very well say anything. I wouldn't speak now, except for the fact that 'Bob' is interested in him and—well, I'm interested in 'Bob.'"
"She's been interested in him from the first. I don't see that the circumstances are much different than they have been," Tom said, sourly.
"Put it down to jealousy, if you wish." Henry was impatient.
"And I don't know as 'Bob' ever encouraged you to think—"
"Perhaps not. But she is the only woman I ever saw that I'd make Mrs. Nelson."
"What was it he did?"
"'Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman' is the way the record stands. That covers a lot."
"Did he welch—quit under fire?"
"There was—a woman concerned. Pretty nasty mess, Tom. He's the sort of man to intrigue any foolish woman. Women can't see far."
"I s'pose so." Mr. Parker rose stiffly. "But we don't have to worry about 'Bob.' She ain't foolish and her eyesight is good. She's got more sense than all three of us men." With this noncommittal remark the father limped out.
But Tom was more deeply troubled than he had shown. Nothing to be said against a man could have weighed more heavily with him than this particular charge. To a man of his type dereliction of duty was a crime; dishonorable discharge from the army of his country was an appalling indictment implying utter moral turpitude. Tom had known more than one fellow who was guilty of conduct unbecoming a gentleman—as a matter of fact, he had reason to respect certain of them for some of their ungentlemanly conduct—but conduct unbecoming an officer was something altogether different. He had never met but one such, and he had shot that fellow just above the bridge of the nose. A traitor to his oath of office, a man who could dishonor his state, his country, was worse than a renegade; his name was a hissing upon the lips of decent people. Scalawags like that were not to be tolerated. It seemed incredible that Gray could be one.
Yes, and "Bob" liked the fellow—but so did he, for that matter. In great perturbation of spirit Tom consulted Judge Halloran.
The judge listened to him in astonishment; angrily he cried: "The idea of his paying court to 'Bob'! The insufferable insolence of it! Why, I consider it a personal affront."
"Where do you come in to get all het up?" Tom growled.
"What?" Halloran's irascible face reddened. '"Where do I—'? My God! Haven't I—? Don't I stand in loco parentis to the girl?"
"You ain't as loco parentis to her as I am. She's my son. Trouble is, I like Mr. Gray. You don't think Henry could be lying?"
"He wouldn't dare. It is too serious. No, Tom, there's just one thing to do; you and I will go directly to the scoundrel, tell him we are aware of his infamy, and order him out of town. Ha! That's the way to go about it; cut deep and quickly. Tar and feathers are too good for—"
"Trouble is," Tom repeated, with a reluctant sigh, "I like him and I ain't sure—"
"The trouble is you're a weakling!" Halloran snapped. "You are a—sentimentalist. You lack my stern, uncompromising moral fiber. Like him? Pah! What has that to do with it? I have no weakness, no bowels of compassion. I am a Spartan. I am—"
"You're a damned old fool—if you think you can run him. He's liable to run you."
Judge Halloran was furious at this; he was hurt, too. He sputtered for a moment before managing to say: "Have it your own way. You are trying to be unpleasant—not that it requires conscious effort—but I won't argue with you."
"Don't! I hate arguments. That's why I don't like to talk this over with Mr. Gray. When I'm mad enough to argue I'm mad enough to fight, and I fight better than I argue."
If, indeed, Calvin Gray's affairs were in a condition as precarious as Nelson believed, he showed no signs of it when he returned to Wichita Falls. On the contrary, he was in an exultant mood, and even on the train young Briskow, who accompanied him, was amazed at the change that had come over his friend. With every mile they traveled Gray's buoyancy increased and upon his arrival he trod the street to his office like a conqueror. McWade and Stoner, who came in for a conference with minds preoccupied and faces grave, left with a smile and a jest.
When they had gone, Gray rose with relief and surprised Buddy by saying: "That's enough for now, thank goodness! Business is only one side of life, my boy. You are going to make this city your home, so you must begin by meeting the right people, the influential people. Nicest people in the world right here, Buddy; nicest place in the world, too!"
Now to a youth who, for months, had been immured in the oil fields, Wichita Falls did indeed resemble a city of marvelous portent. Pavements, large buildings, bright lights, theaters—Buddy was thrilled. He prepared himself for introduction to oil operators, to men of finance sitting in marble and mahogany offices; he made ready to step forth into the big world.
Great was his astonishment, therefore, when after a swift walk Gray turned into a tiny frame insurance office on a side street. Funny place to look for people of influence, Buddy cogitated.
A girl was seated at a desk; she rose at sight of Gray, and her face broke into a smile. Her greeting was warm; her hand lingered in his; for the moment neither of them seemed to remember Buddy's presence. When she did hear his name, however, her face lightened and she gave her hand to him as to an old friend. When she smiled at him, as she had smiled at his companion, Buddy dropped his hat. He had never seen anyone in the least like this creature and—she knew Allie! She knew his mother! That was astonishing. He wondered why they had never said anything about it. Before she had finished telling him about that meeting in the store at Dallas, Buddy realized that here indeed was an influential person, a citizen of supreme importance. He had missed her name, but probably she owned that Dallas department store, or was the Mayor of Wichita Falls. He had never before been so embarrassed.
Mr. Gray certainly was a wonderful man. His poise, his air of respectful but easy familiarity with this—this angel raised him immensely in Buddy's esteem. Think of joking, chatting, making pretty speeches to an—an angel! That was going some. The gall of it!
They were talking about that big gasser of Gray's; the fire; the overflow; and the melodramatic occurrences of the past fortnight. Gray was telling her how Buddy had saved his life at the well, how he had risked his own, later, in braving the flood, and she was listening with eager smiles and nods and exclamations. When she turned admiring, grateful eyes upon the hero of Gray's story—and the story had been told in a manner to make Buddy no less—that youth felt himself suffocating, burning up. Mr. Gray sure knew how to talk; he could sling language. And lie—! Gosh, how beautifully he could lie! It was splendid of him to exaggerate like this, so as to set him in solid with the most important person in town. That was noble! People were awful nice. And this certainly was a grand city. Buddy knew he was going to get along fine; and he'd never forget Mr. Gray for this.
After a while, when the two men were on the street again, Buddy inquired: "Who is that young lady? I mean—her name?"
Gray told him, then with a friendly twinkle: "Well, speak out! What do you think of her?"
"Oh—Gee!" Buddy cried, breathlessly, whereupon his companion laughed in perfect satisfaction.
Gray returned to his desk that morning after his call on "Bob" Parker determined to tackle energetically the numerous business details needing his attention, but he found that he could not do so. As usual, his brief sight of the girl, instead of satisfying him, had merely increased his hunger; made him the more restless, the more eager to see her again—alone. He gave up fighting his desires, presently, and invented the necessity of a hurried trip to the Avenger lease.
Her ready acceptance of the invitation he construed to indicate an eagerness akin to his own, and during the several hours they were together he had hard work to keep from breaking his resolve and telling her all she had come to mean to him.
"Bob" seemed to expect something of the sort, as a matter of fact. Her shyness, her fluttering agitation when his voice unconsciously became tender—and he realized that, in spite of himself, the tone of his voice conveyed a message quite at variance with his words—taxed his self-control to the utmost. Well, it wouldn't be long now—another two weeks perhaps! But two weeks is an eternity when hearts are pounding, when ears are strained and lips are waiting.
Two callers were awaiting Gray when, late that afternoon, he mounted the stairs to his office—Tom Parker and Judge Halloran—and something in their formal, awkward greeting sent a quick chill of alarm through him. Mechanically he ushered them into his private room and offered them chairs. He heard himself chatting casually enough, but neither his own words nor theirs conveyed much meaning to him. Nelson, it seemed, scorned no advantage, however dishonorable. Gray's hatred of the man attained deeper, blacker depths than ever. To-day of all days! What a reckoning was due!
The two old men were talking, one lamely supplementing the other's efforts to lead up to the object of their visit. Gray turned a set face to Tom Parker finally, and interrupted by saying:
"Permit me to ease your embarrassment, sir. You object to my attentions to your daughter. Is that it?" Tom dropped his eyes and mumbled an uncomfortable affirmative. "Not, I hope, because you question the nature of my intentions?"
"I'd say yes and no to that," Halloran declared, argu-mentatively. "Tom and I are gentlemen of the old school; we live by the code and 'Bob' is our joint property, in a way. Any man who aspires to the honor of—well, of even paying attentions to that girl must stand the acid test. There must be no blot upon his 'scutcheon."
"You imply, then, that there is a blot upon mine?"
"That is what prompts our visit, sir. Can you assure us that there is none?"
After a moment of hesitation Gray inquired, curiously: "Judge, do you believe that a man can live down disgrace?"
"Disgrace, yes. Dishonor, never! A man's honor is so sensitive that to stain it is to wound it. Like the human eye it cannot suffer the slightest injury without serious damage."
The younger man ignored the pompous tone of this speech; he nodded. "I see. Someone said also that it is like an island, rugged and without landing place; and once outside of it we can never re-enter. That is your idea, I dare say."
Tom Parker stirred; irritably he broke out, "I'm damned if I think you did it!"
Tom remained silent, but when his companion drew a deep, preparatory breath, Gray lifted a hand. He rose nervously and in a changed tone continued:
"Again let me speak for you and shorten our mutual distress. First, however, I must make my own position plain. I—love your daughter, Mr. Parker." The declaration came at great cost, the speaker turned away to hide his emotion. "I think—I hope she is not indifferent to me. I would give my life to marry her and, God willing, I shall. So much for that." He swung himself about and met the eyes of first one old man, then the other. Harshly, defiantly, he added: "Understand me, nothing you can do, nothing on earth—nothing in Heaven or in hell, for that matter—will stop me from telling her about my love, when the time comes. Now then, Henry Nelson has told you that I was—that I was sent back from overseas in disgrace. You want to know if he spoke the truth. He did!"
After a moment of silence Judge Halloran said, with stiff finality: "Under the circumstances there is nothing more to talk about. You amaze me when you say—"
"I want to know more than if he was just telling the truth," Tom interrupted, grimly. "I want to know if you were guilty."
"That was the verdict of the court martial."
"To hell with that! Innocent men have been hung."
A faint smile softened Gray's face. "And guilty men have gone to the gallows protesting their innocence. Which are you to believe? I made the best defense possible, but it was insufficient. I have no new evidence. I would rather endure the stigma of guilt than have you consider me a liar, and, of course, that is what you would think if I denied it."
Halloran was on his feet now, and evidently anxious to terminate the interview. "There are two sides to every case, of course, and justice is not always done. However, that really makes no difference in this instance. The findings of a military tribunal are as conclusive as those of any court of law, and it is not for us to question them. To repeat what I started to say just now, I fail to understand how you can expect us to tolerate your further attentions to Miss Barbara or how you can persist in your insane determination to ask her hand in marriage."
"Perhaps you'll understand when I say that I propose to clear myself."
"Soon, I hope."
"And in the meantime?"
Gray considered this question briefly. "In the meantime—if you will agree to say nothing to 'Bob,' I will promise not to declare my feelings, not to see her alone."
"That's a go," said the father.
"Mind you, I may fail to right myself. In that event I shall feel at liberty to tell her the facts and ask her to believe in me against the world. I trust she will do so. If she loves me as I love her, she will marry me even though she knows I am a liar and a blackguard."
"Never!" Halloran exploded. "'Bob' isn't that sort of a girl."
"I hope it never comes to the test."
"I hope so, too," the father declared, earnestly. "I'm—right fond of 'Bob,' and I wouldn't like to see her team up with a man she couldn't be proud of. I wouldn't take it easy." Mild as were these words, coming from Tom Parker they had the ominous effect of a threat.
Without further ado the two old men left.
There was little sleep that night for Calvin Gray, and the days that followed were a torture. It was a torment to avoid "Bob," for self-denial only whetted his appetite to see her, and those cunning plans he had laid at the time of their last meeting—plans devised solely to bring them together—he had to alter upon one excuse or another; he even forced Buddy Briskow to substitute for him. Fortunately, there were certain negotiations requiring his presence in Dallas, in Tulsa, and elsewhere, and it some what relieved his irritation to put miles between him and the city he had come to regard as his home.
The Nelsons' bank was known as the Security National, and it represented the life work of two generations of the family. Bell's father had founded it, in the early cattle days, but to the genius and industry of Bell himself had been due its growth into one of the influential institutions of the state. Other banks had finer quarters, but none in this part of the country had a more solid standing nor more powerful names upon its directorate. Bennett Swope, for instance, was the richest of the big cattle barons; Martin Murphy was known as the Arkansas hardwood king, and Herman Gage owned and operated a chain of department stores. The other two—there were but seven, including Bell and his son—were Northern capitalists who took no very active interest in the bank and almost never attended its meetings. For that matter, the three local men above named concerned themselves little with the actual running of the institution, for the Nelsons, who owned nine-tenths of the stock, were supreme in that sphere. It was only at the annual meetings when directors were re-elected—and invariably they succeeded themselves—that they forgathered to conduct the dull routine business which is a part of all annual meetings. After they had adjourned as stockholders they reconvened as directors, and again mumbled hurried and perfunctory ayes to the motions put before them, so that Bell could the more quickly get out his bottle of fine old Bourbon, the one really ceremonious procedure of the day. The Security National was as conservative, as rock ribbed, as respectable, and as uninteresting as any bank could well be, and its directors were always bored when election time came around.
In spite of the fact that the program this year was as thoroughly cut and dried as usual, the day of the meeting found both father and son decidedly nervous, for there were certain questions of management and of policy which they did not wish to touch upon, and their nervousness manifested itself in an assumption of friendliness and good fellowship quite unusual.
Senator Lowe, the bank's attorney and secretary, was arranging his minute books, his reports, and his miscellaneous papers, Martin Murphy was telling his latest story, when a knock came at the door to the directors' room. Bell himself answered it, but his protest at the interruption died upon his lips when he beheld Calvin Gray, Gus Briskow, and the latter's son, Ozark, facing him.
Gray spoke sharply, and his words fell with the effect of a bomb, at least upon Bell and Henry, for what he said was: "We are attending this meeting as stockholders, and we came early to enable the secretary to record the necessary transfer of our shares."
Disregarding the president's gasp of astonishment, the speaker pushed past him and entered, then introduced himself and his companions to the other men present.
Henry Nelson experienced a sick moment of dizziness; the room grew black before his eyes. It was Bell who broke out, harshly:
"Stockholders? Where did you get any stock in this bank, I'd like to know?"
"We bought it. Picked it up here and there—"
"I don't believe it!" Bell glared at the speaker, then he turned his eyes upon Swope, upon Murphy, upon Gage. "Did any of you sell out?"
"We don't own enough to make it worth while," Swope said, dryly. Murphy and Gage agreed. Bell's peculiar display of emotion surprised them; they exchanged glances. "I thought there wasn't any stock outside of what's owned by our group. What's the idea?"
Gray answered, easily. "There is now a considerable amount outside of that. A very considerable amount."
Henry Nelson made himself audible for the first time, and sneered angrily. "Quite theatric, Gray, this eleventh-hour move. How much have you got? What's your—your object?" In spite of himself his voice shook.
"My object is purely selfish." Gray's tone was equally unpleasant. He had expected to create a sensation, and he was not disappointed. "Mr. Briskow and his son are looking for a secure investment, and I have convinced them of the soundness of your institution. My operations make it necessary for me to establish a close banking affiliation—one where I can ask for and receive consideration"—his mockery was now unmistakable—"so where should I turn, except to my friends? I assume you make no objection to the stock transfer? Very well." He drew from his pocket a bundle of shares and tossed them across the table to Senator Lowe.
Henry made his way to his father's side; they withdrew to a corner and bent their heads together, murmuring inaudibly. Gray watched them with unblinking intensity; he nodded to Buddy Briskow, and the latter, as if heeding some prearranged signal, removed his hands from his pockets and stepped farther into the room. He, too, watched the agitated pair.
"Why—look here!" the secretary gasped, after a moment or two. "This—this gives you control!"
Bell Nelson raised a stricken face. "Control?" he repeated, faintly. "Control?" He strode to the end of the table, and with shaking hands he ran through the sheaf of neatly folded certificates. "Sold out, by God!" He fell to cursing certain men, the names of whom caused Swope and Murphy and Gage to prick up their ears.
Gray was still staring at the junior Nelson; it was to him more than to the father that he spoke: "Sold out is right! It came high, but I think it was worth the price. We intend to vote our stock."
"By that I infer that you're going to take the bank over—take its management away from Bell and Henry?" Bennett Swope ventured.
The elder Nelson voiced an unintelligible exclamation.
"That's a pretty rough deal. Bell has put his life into it. It is an—an institution, a credit to the community. It would be a misfortune if it fell into the hands of—into the control of somebody who—" The ranchman hesitated, then blurted forth, angrily: "Well, I don't like the look of this thing. I want to know what it means."
"I'll tell you," Henry cried, unevenly. "I'll tell you what it means. Persecution! Revenge! Hatred! I quarreled with this man, in France. He's vindictive; he followed me here—tried every way to ruin me—cost me thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Father and I were—we were pinched. We had to realize some quick money to protect our oil holdings—offsets and the like—and we sold a lot of our stock with the understanding that we could—that we would buy it back at a higher figure. We only borrowed on it, you might say—hypothecated it. We thought we were dealing with friends, but—Friends! My God!" The speaker seized his head.
"The stock was not hypothecated. You sold it," Gray said, quietly, "and we bought it in."
"It is all a personal matter, a grudge."
"Is that true, Mr. Gray?" Swope inquired.
"Substantially. But I'm waiting for Colonel Nelson to tell you more; to tell you the whole story of our antagonism."
Martin Murphy, who had been a silent onlooker up to this point, made himself heard. "Mr. Gray, I don't like the look of this any better than Swope does. Your quarrel with Henry is wholly your and his affair, but the welfare of the Security National is partly ours. Banks are not toys, to be juggled and played with in mischief or in spite. You say you paid high for your stock; do you intend to wreck the institution, lose a fortune—?"
"By no means."
"That's precisely what you will succeed in doing."
"I had ventured to hope that you three gentlemen would remain on the board."
"Am I dreaming?" Bell Nelson's collar appeared to be choking him, and with clumsy fingers he tugged at it. "Going to kick Henry and me off the board, eh? Rob us? Well, I'm damned if you do! You'll not kick us off—"
"He doesn't want the bank," the son exclaimed, hoarsely. "That's all a bluff. He wants blackmail. That's the kind of man he is. He wants his price. I know him. How much, Gray? What'll it cost us?"
"I'll tell you what it will cost—"
"Ha! Didn't I say so?"
"Oh, there is a price for everything! Mine will surprise you, however, it is so low. Can't you guess what it is?" The speaker's intent gaze had never left Henry Nelson's face; it was fixed there now, as cold, as relentless as the stare of a python.
Bell Nelson leaned forward, his lips parted, a new eagerness came into his purple countenance. "Well, well! What is it?" he demanded, querulously.
There was a moment of silence. "What is he talking about, Henry?" Bell's eyes were strained toward his son.
"I don't know," the latter said, in a thin voice. "He's crazy—always was."
"I'm giving you a chance, Colonel. You'd better take it. Think carefully." When there came no response to this warning, Gray shrugged. "Very well! There is nothing further, except to complete the transfer and proceed with the business of the meeting. Mr. Briskow will be the next president, and I shall occupy the position of vice-president and treasurer now held by you—"
The effect of this declaration was electric. With a cry the younger Nelson lunged forward. Confusion followed. It was of short duration, however, for Henry found himself locked in the arms of the Briskow giant. Others lent Buddy their assistance, and, in spite of his struggles, the vice-president was flung backward upon a deep leather divan. He rose unsteadily, but, meeting Buddy's threatening gaze and realizing the impossibility of getting past him, he cried: "Let me out of here! Let me out, damn you! I—I'll get you for this, Gray. Let me out, I tell you!"
"Buddy!" Gray jerked his head in the direction of the door to one of the adjoining offices. "He keeps a gun in his desk—top drawer. Get it before me makes a fool of himself." Young Briskow stepped out of the room. Gray continued, speaking to the others, "I have something to say to you gentlemen before we go on with the meeting, and I wish to say it in the presence of Colonel Nelson and his—"
"You'll not keep me here. I refuse to stay," Henry shouted, and he pushed past Swope toward the door.
"Wait!" It was the elder Nelson speaking, and in his voice was a new note—a note of triumph. "Stock can't be transferred at an annual meeting. It has to be done in advance—ten days, I think it is. Am I right, Senator?"
"That is the usual procedure," Senator Lowe agreed.
"Better look it up and make sure," Gray directed.
There followed a few moments of uncomfortable silence while the bank's attorney ran through the by-laws. It seemed to those waiting that it was a long time before he frowned and shook his head.
"I—ah—I can find nothing against it. It seems I have nothing to do except transfer the shares."
"Then there won't be any meeting!" Bell loudly declared.
The three directors greeted this remark with exclamations of genuine relief. "Sure! Let's adjourn—put it over until—" one of them began, but the bank's president was bellowing in rising fury at the interlopers:
"Get out! Get out of my office, d'you hear? Get out—"
"Looks to me like it's my office," Gus Briskow said, quietly, "or it will be, directly. You, Bell, put on the muffler! I came a long ways to attend this meetin'. It's the first one I ever been to, an' it's goin' to happen. Shut up your fuss! I want you to hear what Mr. Gray's got to say."
"To hell with him, and you, too!" stormed the financier. "Hold the meeting, eh? Hold it if you dare! I defy you. Steal my bank, double-cross me—We'll see about that. Come along, Henry."
"You're in," Gray said, menacingly; "you'd better stay and vote your stock or you may never get back again." But neither father nor son heeded him. When they had gone he frowned. "I'm sorry. Really I am. I hoped I could force—"
"I think we'd better go, too," some one said. "This is too extraordinary—We're in no frame of mind to go ahead—"
"I must insist that you remain long enough to hear me out. You have no right to refuse. There is something you must be told."
"I'll admit I'm curious to know what the devil it all means," Murphy, the lumberman, confessed; "but I don't know that I should accept an explanation from you. Not after Henry's accusations. I've known him and Bell for years—"
"I respect your friendship for them, and I sha'n't expect you to put trust in my words. It seems to me, however, that you owe it to that friendship to hear me. This incident has taken a turn wholly unexpected, and, I must confess, disappointing. I looked for a different outcome—hoped I'd be able to force an explanation—" The speaker shook his head and frowned again, perplexedly. When, after a moment of indecisive murmuring, the three directors seated themselves, Gray thanked them with a bow. "I'll be as brief as possible, and if you don't mind I'll stand as I talk. I'm in no mood to sit. I'll have to go back a bit—" It was several seconds before he resumed.
"When it became evident that the United States was going to war, I managed to get in at Plattsburg and took the officers' training course. It was easy for me to complete that course, because I had served in the Spanish War and had kept up my interest in military affairs. Something convinced those who ought to know that I possessed qualifications of unusual value to the country—a wide business experience at home and abroad, a knowledge of languages perhaps—anyhow, I was called to Washington. There I met Henry Nelson—a valuable man, too, in his way. We were commissioned at the same time and sent overseas on the same ship to engage in the same work—military intelligence. I didn't like the job, but it was considered important, and naturally I couldn't pick and choose. Of course it was secret, confidential work. No need of going into that here.
"Nelson's and my duties were identical, our authority was equal; we were ordered to work hand in hand, and although we were commissioned together, technically, he outranked me owing to the fact that he was given his commission a moment before I got mine.
"That's where the trouble started. We clashed, even on shipboard. He proved himself to be authoritative, overbearing; he immediately assumed the position of my superior officer. I'm not a mild-tempered man, but I put up with it, figuring that our paths would soon separate. But they didn't. When we arrived in France I tackled my job with all the energy in me; I tried for results. Nelson, I discovered in time, was concerned only in taking entire credit for all that he and I and the whole organization under us accomplished and in advancing himself. I worked; he played politics.
"You are not military men, so I sha'n't bore you with army terms or technical details, but—by one means or another he managed to intrench himself in a position of actual authority over me not at all in accord with our purpose or our instructions. I swallowed my resentment, for it seemed rather petty, rather selfish, in a time like that, to divert my attention from the important work in hand to quarrel with him. You understand? Then, too, he was not making good and I was, and I thought time would surely cure the trouble. He must have appreciated my feelings—nevertheless, he persisted in abusing his powers; he began finally to really interfere with me, to call me off of important tasks and humiliate me with futile assignments, and I realized that I was threatened with failure through his meddling. This may sound trivial to you"—the speaker raised his eyes to his audience—"but, take my word for it, there were many instances of the kind over there. Jealousy, intrigue, malevolence, petty spite, drove more than one earnest, patriotic officer to rebellion and—ruined many a career.
"I rebelled. I had to, or be made ridiculous. I warned him, privately, as man to man. He ignored the warning. Then I prepared a complete report showing by the copies of his orders, by the records of our respective accomplishments, by our correspondence, how he had systematically and maliciously endeavored to nullify my work and—and the like. It was not a pretty report to read. I turned it in to him for submission higher up.
"Then it was that he outgeneraled me. He was furious, of course, but he apologized—abjectly. He admitted that he had been wrong; that he had imposed upon me. He promised to play fair if I'd permit him to withhold the report, and—I was deceived. No man likes to be thought a cry-baby. Those were eventful times; personal complaints were not welcomed in any quarter—not with the world rocking on its foundations. I was glad to accept his promises.
"For a while we worked in harmony. I became engaged in an intricate case, having to do with a leak concerning transport sailings and routes—a matter involving the lives of thousands of our boys, millions of dollars in supplies, and I went to Brest, under cover. It had to be handled with extreme care—some danger about it, too. A very interesting case, I assure you. I lived in a house with some of the people under surveillance. One of them was a woman, extremely attractive—thoroughly unscrupulous. My avenue of approach was through her. Nelson, of course, knew what I was doing; he was about the only one who did.
"I worked a long while and I was upon the verge of success—it would have been a real accomplishment, too—when, without apparent cause, the gang took warning, scattered, the whole thing blew up. Months of work for nothing! I had made worse than a failure this time."
"You mean to accuse Henry of—of treachery of that sort?" Swope inquired.
"I do. And that's not all. Out of a clear sky charges were preferred against me. Outrageous charges in which that woman figured." Up to this point Gray had spoken smoothly, rapidly, but now his tone changed, his words became hesitant, jerky. "I was amazed! Joke, I called it at first. Sort of a blanket indictment, it was, charging me with inefficiency, negligence, exceeding my authority, dishonesty—and things even worse. Those were some of the least serious, the least—nasty. It was all too absurd! Being peculiarly vain and sensitive, my impulse was to shoot Henry Nelson. But I couldn't believe the charges would be taken seriously.
"Well, there was an investigation. I was court-martialed. I disproved a good deal; I think I'd have exonerated myself on every count only for the woman—that one I spoke about. She turned the trick. I was found guilty, disgraced, sent back. Even though you are not military men, you can appreciate the extent of my dishonor.
"There, gentlemen, you have in a few words an unconvincing summary of a long and complicated story—one that I detest telling. However, I could not permit you to sit with me at the directors' table of this bank without knowing who I am, what I am, and why I have run that rat into his hole. Colonel Nelson spoke the truth when he said this was purely a personal matter between us. It is so purely personal that I was willing to spare humiliation to his father—leave Old Bell in control of his bank and end our fight—if he'd right that old wrong. But you heard him refuse. So they must both fall. He said I've been persecuting him—" Gray smiled grimly. "Let me tell you how. That disgrace cost me my friends, and what money I had, for I tried long and earnestly to get back, to get a rehearing, to enter the navy—anything to re-establish myself. Failing that, I came to Texas. I came without a dollar, without an acquaintance, and—began my 'persecution' of Henry Nelson. I began it by coming here to the bank and telling him what I was up to. I put him on guard, and we engaged each other, as the French would say, 'to the death.' I—won. That's all there is to the story."
"Well, I'll be damned!" Martin Murphy exclaimed.
"At least Henry played fair in this; he didn't betray your secret," Gage said, coldly.
"Oh, I meant to tell you that he didn't dare betray me, for he, too, came back in disgrace. The pot couldn't very well talk about the kettle."
"I mean exactly what I say. No man of his type could have lasted over there. Then, too, the story of our quarrel leaked out, that old report of mine turned up—Yes, he got the same medicine he gave me. But he had influence in Washington, and he managed to delay final action almost up to the day of the armistice. Even then he succeeded in pretty well covering up the reason for his dismissal."
"Why, even Bell doesn't know that!"
"Henry's been a terrible hero, hereabouts," said Gus Briskow. After a moment he addressed the other men. "Mr. Gray told me this, an' I wanted him to tell it to you. I dunno what you-all think of his story, but I know him an' I believe every word of it. What's more, I believe this bank is goin' to be run as well as ever it was even if I am president. A man can be president an' stay at home, if he's got folks under him that know more than he does. What d'you say if we start that meetin' we been talkin' about? I'm willing to see Mr. Gray settin' in yonder at Henry's desk if you are."
"I don't see that it makes much difference whether we're willing or not," Swope confessed. "You have the votes, between you, to do about as you choose."
"Of course we have, but, with Bell an' Henry gone, it seems like some of their neighbors ought to stay an' look out for what potaters they've left in the ground. What d'you say?"
Swope eyed his companions briefly, then he nodded. "We'll stay."
"Then, Mr. Secretary, let her go!"
One morning, several days after the annual meeting, Gus Briskow opened the door between his and Gray's office and inquired, "Busy?"
The new vice-president of the Security National raised a preoccupied face to the new president and said: "I'm never too busy to talk to you. What is it?"
"Nothing! I'm just kinda lonesome; kinda tired of lookin' bright about things I don't savvy." Gus seated himself and crossed his thin legs. "Folks give an owl credit for bein' wise just because he keeps his mouth shut. Prob'ly he's got nothing of interest to say."
"Perhaps. But you can say 'no,' Gus, and that's about all the average banker is called upon to say."
"Um-m!" The elder man nodded reflectively. "I heard about a captain of industry that allus smelled a pink when he did his heavy thinkin'. Now me, I'm goin' in for bananas. I keep a bag of 'em in my desk. I 'most killed myself on bananas when our first well came in—never thought I'd be able to afford all I wanted. How's the bank?"
"Why, it's still here, as you see."
"I know. That's the remarkable part. I keep thinkin' it's goin' to bust—I mean blow up an' disappear. I wake up nights dreamin' it's gone. It's all right, is it?"
"Positively! I put an accountant at work on the books and he should be ready to report any time now."
"No chance of Bell Nelson throwin' us out, is there? He's in Dallas tryin' to stir up money—"
"Not a chance, unless you want him to do so; unless you're afraid we'll make a failure of the business."
"We?" Gus smiled quizzically. "You won't fail. Folks around town are talkin' about how quick you're takin' hold, an' they're beginning to think you'll make a better banker than the Nelsons. Funny, ain't it, how easy reconciled folks is to losin' a coupla prominent citizens like that? Looks like Bell an' Henry are about the only ones that take it hard."
"The funny thing is"—Gray frowned, perplexedly—"they don't take it hard. At least, Henry doesn't appear to do so. That's what puzzles me. No move of any sort—That's not like him."
Gus agreed to this. "I been expectin' him to cut some capers. That's why I been hangin' around so steady."
"Every time I peel a banana I peel an eye for Henry. I worry whenever you go out alone."
The younger man rose and nervously paced the floor. "I'm completely mystified," he admitted. "The whole affair has been a great disappointment to me. I thought I'd sprung a coup, but—I'm at a standstill. I'm stumped—checkmated."
"About that trouble between you an' him, eh? Why, we took your word for that."
"Unfortunately, that didn't help me very greatly. Other people aren't so easily convinced as you and Swope and Gage and Murphy. Damnation! I thought my troubles were over."
"Well, your money troubles is over—"
"They're the smallest part. I'd go back and start all over again if I could clean up that—that army record. It's a pretty flat triumph."
"Humph! Most triumphs is. A feller has a dream—a longin', an' he bows his back an' works his life away tryin' to realize it. If he does, the chances is he's disappointed. He finds he's kep' his back bent so long he can't straighten it. Look at me—pore as dirt an' scarcely enough to eat! I used to pray for a miracle; pray for money enough to do something for Ma an' the children—for a thousan' dollars. Here I am, president of a whole bank, but Ma's sick, Allie's miserable, an' I can't sleep nights for fear I'll lose what I got!"
"Poverty wouldn't have helped Ma's health—"
"Oh, I ain't sayin' I'd trade!" Gus wagged his sandy head. "I get my shoes shined every two hours because that bootblackin' stand is a nice place to look at the bank from. I set there an' tell myself I'm president of it! But that's the biggest dividend I've got, so far—five shines a day an' all the bananas I can eat. 'Flat' is the word."
Gray smiled affectionately at the speaker. "At least Buddy is happy. He's reaping his dividends, if I'm any judge."
"I figger he's in love again."
"Good heavens!" Gray paused in his restless pacing and turned an expression of almost comic dread upon the father. "With that woman, eh? Well, I refuse to interfere again. I haven't fully recovered from his first infatuation for her."
"I can tell the boy's symptoms. I felt the same way when I was courtin' Ma. I acted just like him."
"He has been trying to tell me something for a week, but I've been too busy and too worried to listen."
Briskow's kindly face had settled into graver lines when next he spoke. "You prob'ly wonder why I take it so easy. Well, I remember what you told me once about judgin' people I don't know. Mebbe Allie was right, too, when she said a little genuine happiness is worth all it costs. Anyhow, if Buddy wants that woman, I won't say a word. She's turned out pretty good, an' people speak well of her. Buddy's a man, an' some men just have to get married—the sooner it's over, the better for 'em. He's like that. But what's more 'n all that, love between two young people is a pretty sacred thing, an' when old folks keep interferin' it seems to me they're settin' themselves up to be wiser than God. Ma's folks didn't care much for me."
"I feel a rebuke in your words," Gray said; "and no doubt I've earned it, for it has always been my weakness to rearrange the lives of those I love. But—who am I, after all? If I were so divinely wise, why is my own life what it is? When I marry, perhaps I shall have to ask B—ask the girl to ignore in me things as—as disagreeable to think about as those which Buddy will have to ignore in Margie's past. That boy, in fact all you Briskows, have put me so deeply in your debt that I'm afraid I shall have to conquer my meddlesome instincts." The speaker looked up suddenly. "You'll never know, by the way, how deep is my debt of gratitude. When a vainglorious, supersensitive man finds himself under a cloud, it is pretty nice to know that there is somebody whose faith is unshakable; somebody who needs no legal proof that he's—Proof! Here I am, back again right where I was when you came in; back to my own selfish concerns. I can't get away from them. What to do next? The Nelsons are on their last legs. The loss of this bank will certainly destroy what credit remained, and even a good well now would scarcely tide them over. But—damn it, Gus, I can't kick a man if he refuses to stand up! I can't beat a corpse!"
There came a rap at the door, and the accountant whom Gray had put to work upon the bank's books entered. "I'd like to talk to you about this report," the man began.