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DAVE MEETS TWO FRIENDS AND A FOE
In the early morning Dave turned to rest his cramped limbs. He was in a day coach, and his sleep through the night had been broken. The light coming from the window woke him. He looked out on the opalescent dawn of the desert, and his blood quickened at sight of the enchanted mesa. To him came that joyous thrill of one who comes home to his own after years of exile.
Presently he saw the silvery sheen of the mesquite when the sun is streaming westward. Dust eddies whirled across the barranca. The prickly pear and the palo verde flashed past, green splashes against a background of drab. The pudgy creosote, the buffalo grass, the undulation of sand hills were an old story, but to-day his eyes devoured them hungrily. The wonderful effect of space and light, the cloud skeins drawn out as by some invisible hand, the brown ribbon of road that wandered over the hill: they brought to him an emotion poignant and surprising.
The train slid into a narrow valley bounded by hills freakishly eroded to fantastic shapes. Piņon trees fled to the rear. A sheep corral fenced with brush and twisted roots, in which were long, shallow feed troughs and flat-roofed sheds, leaped out of nowhere, was for a few moments, and vanished like a scene in a moving picture. A dim, gray mass of color on a hillside was agitated like a sea wave. It was a flock of sheep moving toward the corral. For an instant Dave caught a glimpse of a dog circling the huddled pack; then dog and sheep were out of sight together.
The pictures stirred memories of the acrid smoke of hill camp-fires, of nights under a tarp with the rain beating down on him, and still others of a road herd bawling for water, of winter camps when the ropes were frozen stiff and the snow slid from trees in small avalanches.
At the junction he took the stage for Malapi. Already he could see that he was going into a new world, one altogether different from that he had last seen here. These men were not cattlemen. They talked the vocabulary of oil. They had the shrewd, keen look of the driller and the wildcatter. They were full of nervous energy that oozed out in constant conversation.
"Jackpot Number Three lost a string o' tools yesterday. While they're fishin', Steelman'll be drillin' hell-a-mile. You got to sit up all night to beat that Coal Oil Johnny," one wrinkled little man said.
A big man in boots laced over corduroy trousers nodded. "He's smooth as a pump plunger, and he sure has luck. He can buy up a dry hole any old time and it'll be a gusher in a week. He'll bust Em Crawford high and dry before he finishes with him. Em had ought to 'a' stuck to cattle. That's one game he knows from hoof to hide."
"Sure. Em's got no business in oil. Say, do you know when they're expectin' Shiloh Number Two in?"
"She's into the sand now, but still dry as a cork leg. That's liable to put a crimp in Em's bank roll, don't you reckon?"
"Yep. Old Man Hard Luck's campin' on his trail sure enough. The banks'll be shakin' their heads at his paper soon."
The stage had stopped to take on a mailsack. Now it started again, and the rest of the talk was lost to Dave. But he had heard enough to guess that the old feud between Crawford and Steelman had taken on a new phase, one in which his friend was likely to get the worst of it.
At Malapi Dave descended from the stage into a town he hardly knew. It had the same wide main street, but the business section extended five blocks instead of one. Everywhere oil dominated the place. Hotels, restaurants, and hardware stores jostled saloons and gambling-houses. Tents had been set up in vacant lots beside frame buildings, and in them stores, rooming-houses, and lunch-counters were doing business. Everybody was in a hurry. The street was filled with men who had to sleep with one eye open lest they miss the news of some new discovery.
The town was having growing-pains. One contractor was putting down sidewalks in the same street where another laid sewer pipe and a third put in telephone poles. A branch line of a trans-continental railroad was moving across the desert to tap the new oil field. Houses rose overnight. Mule teams jingled in and out freighting supplies to Malapi and from there to the fields. On all sides were rustle, energy, and optimism, signs of the new West in the making.
Up the street a team of half-broken broncos came on the gallop, weaving among the traffic with a certainty that showed a skilled pair of hands at the reins. From the buckboard stepped lightly a straight-backed, well-muscled young fellow. He let out a moment later a surprised shout of welcome and fell upon Sanders with two brown fists.
"Dave! Where in Mexico you been, old alkali? We been lookin' for you everywhere."
"In Denver, Bob."
Sanders spoke quietly. His eyes went straight into those of Bob Hart to see what was written there. He found only a glad and joyous welcome, neither embarrassment nor any sign of shame.
"But why didn't you write and let us know?" Bob grew mildly profane in his warmth. He was as easy as though his friend had come back from a week in the hills on a deer hunt. "We didn't know when the Governor was goin' to act. Or we'd 'a' been right at the gate, me or Em Crawford one. Whyn't you answer our letters, you darned old scalawag? Dawggone, but I'm glad to see you."
Dave's heart warmed to this fine loyalty. He knew that both Hart and Crawford had worked in season and out of season for a parole or a pardon. But it's one thing to appear before a pardon board for a convict in whom you are interested and quite another to welcome him to your heart when he stands before you. Bob would do to tie to, Sanders told himself with a rush of gratitude. None of this feeling showed in his dry voice.
Hart knew already that Dave had come back a changed man. He had gone in a boy, wild, turbulent, untamed. He had come out tempered by the fires of experience and discipline. The steel-gray eyes were no longer frank and gentle. They judged warily and inscrutably. He talked little and mostly in monosyllables. It was a safe guess that he was master of his impulses. In his manner was a cold reticence entirely foreign to the Dave Sanders his friend had known and frolicked with. Bob felt in him a quality of dangerous strength as hard and cold as hammered iron.
"Where's yore trunk? I'll take it right up to my shack," Hart said.
"I've rented a room."
"Well, you can onrent it. You're stayin' with me."
"No, Bob. I reckon I won't do that. I'll live alone awhile."
"No, sir. What do you take me for? We'll load yore things up on the buckboard."
Dave shook his head. "I'm much obliged, but I'd rather not yet. Got to feel out my way while I learn the range here."
To this Bob did not consent without a stiff protest, but Sanders was inflexible.
"All right. Suit yoreself. You always was stubborn as a Missouri mule," Hart said with a grin. "Anyhow, you'll eat supper with me. Le's go to the Delmonico for ol' times' sake. We'll see if Hop Lee knows you. I'll bet he does."
Hart had come in to see a contractor about building a derrick for a well. "I got to see him now, Dave. Go along with me," he urged.
"No, see you later. Want to get my trunk from the depot."
They arranged an hour of meeting at the restaurant.
In front of the post-office Bob met Joyce Crawford. The young woman had fulfilled the promise of her girlhood. As she moved down the street, tall and slender, there was a light, joyous freedom in her step. So Ellen Terry walked in her resilient prime.
"Miss Joyce, he's here," Bob said.
She and her father and Bob had more than once met as a committee of three to discuss the interests of Sanders both before and since his release. The week after he left Caņon City letters of thanks had reached both Hart and Crawford, but these had given no address. Their letters to him had remained unanswered nor had a detective agency been able to find him.
"Yes, ma'am, Dave! He's right here in town. Met him half an hour ago."
"I'm glad. How does he look?"
"He's grown older, a heap older. And he's different. You know what an easy-goin' kid he was, always friendly and happy as a half-grown pup. Well, he ain't thataway now. Looks like he never would laugh again real cheerful. I don't reckon he ever will. He's done got the prison brand on him for good. I couldn't see my old Dave in him a-tall. He's hard as nails--and bitter."
The brown eyes softened. "He would be, of course. How could he help it?"
"And he kinda holds you off. He's been hurt bad and ain't takin' no chances whatever, don't you reckon?"
"Do you mean he's broken?"
"Not a bit. He's strong, and he looks at you straight and hard. But they've crushed all the kid outa him. He was a mighty nice boy, Dave was. I hate to lose him."
"When can I see him?" she asked.
Bob looked at his watch. "I got an appointment to meet him at Delmonico's right now. Maybe I can get him to come up to the house afterward."
Joyce was a young woman who made swift decisions. "I'll go with you now," she said.
Sanders was standing in front of the restaurant, but he was faced in the other direction. His flat, muscular back was rigid. In his attitude was a certain tenseness, as though his body was a bundle of steel springs ready to be released.
Bob's eye traveled swiftly past him to a fat man rolling up the street on the opposite sidewalk. "It's Ad Miller, back from the pen. I heard he got out this week," he told the girl in a low voice.
Joyce Crawford felt the blood ebb from her face. It was as though her heart had been drenched with ice water. What was going to take place between these men? Were they armed? Would the gambler recognize his old enemy?
She knew that each was responsible for the other's prison sentence. Sanders had followed the thieves to Denver and found them with his horse. The fat crook had lied Dave into the penitentiary by swearing that the boy had fired the first shots. Now they were meeting for the first time since.
Miller had been drinking. The stiff precision of his gait showed that. For a moment it seemed that he would pass without noticing the man across the road. Then, by some twist of chance, he decided to take the sidewalk on the other side. The sign of the Delmonico had caught his eye and he remembered that he was hungry.
He took one step--and stopped. He had recognized Sanders. His eyes narrowed. The head on his short, red neck was thrust forward.
"Goddlemighty!" he screamed, and next moment was plucking a revolver from under his left armpit.
Bob caught Joyce and swept her behind him, covering her with his body as best he could. At the same time Sanders plunged forward, arrow-straight and swift. The revolver cracked. It spat fire a second time, a third. The tiger-man, head low, his whole splendid body vibrant with energy, hurled himself across the road as though he had been flung from a catapult. A streak of fire ripped through his shoulder. Another shot boomed almost simultaneously. He thudded hard into the fat paunch of the gunman. They went down together.
The fingers of Dave's left hand closed on the fat wrist of the gambler. His other hand tore the revolver away from the slack grasp. The gun rose and fell. Miller went into unconsciousness without even a groan. The corrugated butt of the gun had crashed down on his forehead.
Dizzily Sanders rose. He leaned against a telephone pole for support. The haze cleared to show him the white, anxious face of a young woman.
"Are you hurt?" she asked.
Dave looked at Joyce, wondering at her presence here. "He's the one that's hurt," he answered quietly.
"I thought--I was afraid--" Her voice died away. She felt her knees grow weak. To her this man had appeared to be plunging straight to death.
No excitement in him reached the surface. His remarkably steady eyes still held their grim, hard tenseness, but otherwise his self-control was perfect. He was absolutely imperturbable.
"He was shootin' wild. Sorry you were here, Miss Crawford." His eyes swept the gathering crowd. "You'd better go, don't you reckon?"
"Yes.... You come too, please." The girl's voice broke.
"Don't worry. It's all over." He turned to the crowd. "He began shootin 'at me. I was unarmed. He shot four times before I got to him."
"Tha's right. I saw it from up street," a stranger volunteered. "Where do you take out yore insurance, friend? I'd like to get some of the same."
"I'll be in town here if I'm wanted," Dave announced before he came back to where Bob and Joyce were standing. "Now we'll move, Miss Crawford."
At the second street corner he stopped, evidently intending to go no farther. "I'll say good-bye, for this time. I'll want to see Mr. Crawford right soon. How is little Keith comin' on?"
She had mentioned that the boy frequently spoke of him.
"Can you come up to see Father to-night? Or he'll go to your room if you'd rather."
"He'll be anxious to see you. I want you and Bob to come to dinner Sunday."
"Don't hardly think I'll be here Sunday. My plans aren't settled. Thank you just the same, Miss Crawford."
She took his words as a direct rebuff. There was a little lump in her throat that she had to get rid of before she spoke again.
"Sorry. Perhaps some other time." Joyce gave him her hand. "I'm mighty glad to have seen you again, Mr. Sanders."
He bowed. "Thank you."
After she had gone, Dave turned swiftly to his friend. "Where's the nearest doctor's office? Miller got me in the shoulder."
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