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"I'll take off my hat to Dave," said Hart warmly. "He's chain lightnin'. I never did see anything like the way he took that street in two jumps. And game? Did you ever hear tell of an unarmed man chargin' a guy with a gun spittin' at him?"
"I always knew he had sand in his craw. What does Doc Green say?" asked Crawford, lighting a corncob pipe.
"Says nothin' to worry about. A flesh wound in the shoulder. Ought to heal up in a few days."
Miss Joyce speaking, with an indignant tremor of the voice: "It was the most cowardly thing I ever saw. He was unarmed, and he hadn't lifted a finger when that ruffian began to shoot. I was sure he would be ... killed."
"He'll take a heap o' killin', that boy," her father reassured. "In a way it's a good thing this happened now. His enemies have showed their hand. They tried to gun him, before witnesses, while he was unarmed. Whatever happens now, Dave's got public sentiment on his side. I'm always glad to have my enemy declare himself. Then I can take measures."
"What measures can Dave take?" asked Joyce.
A faint, grim smile flitted across the old cattleman's face. "Well, one measure he'll take pronto will be a good six-shooter on his hip. One I'll take will be to send Miller back to the pen, where he belongs, soon as I can get court action. He's out on parole, like Dave is. All the State has got to do is to reach out and haul him back again."
"If it can find him," added Bob dryly. "I'll bet it can't. He's headed for the hills or the border right now."
Crawford rose. "Well, I'll run down with you to his room and see the boy, Bob. Wisht he would come up and stay with us. Maybe he will."
To the cattleman Dave made light of his wound. He would be all right in a few days, he said. It was only a scratch.
"Tha's good, son," Crawford answered. "Well, now, what are you aimin' to do? I got a job for you on the ranch if tha's what you want. Or I can use you in the oil business. It's for you to say which."
"Oil," said Dave without a moment of hesitation. "I want to learn that business from the ground up. I've been reading all I could get on the subject."
"Good enough, but don't you go to playin' geology too strong, Dave. Oil is where it's at. The formation don't amount to a damn. You'll find it where you find it."
"Mr. Crawford ain't strong for the scientific sharps since a college professor got him to drill a nice straight hole on Round Top plumb halfway to China," drawled Bob with a grin.
"I suppose it's a gamble," agreed Sanders.
"Worse'n the cattle market, and no livin' man can guess that," said the owner of the D Bar Lazy R dogmatically. "Bob, you better put Dave with the crew of that wildcat you're spuddin' in, don't you reckon?"
"I'll put him on afternoon tower in place of that fellow Scott. I've been intendin' to fire him soon as I could get a good man."
"Much obliged to you both. Hope you've found that good man," said Sanders.
"We have. Ain't either of us worryin' about that." With a quizzical smile Crawford raised a point that was in his mind. "Say, son, you talk a heap more like a book than you used to. You didn't slip one over on us and go to college, did you?"
"I went to school in the penitentiary," Dave said.
He had been immured in a place of furtive, obscene whisperings, but he had found there not only vice. There was the chance of an education. He had accepted it at first because he dared not let himself be idle in his spare time. That way lay degeneration and the loss of his manhood. He had studied under competent instructors English, mathematics, the Spanish grammar, and mechanical drawing, as well as surveying and stationary engineering. He had read some of the world's best literature. He had waded through a good many histories. If his education in books was lopsided, it was in some respects more thorough than that of many a college boy.
Dave did not explain all this. He let his simple statement of fact stand without enlarging on it. His life of late years had tended to make him reticent.
"Heard from Burns yet about that fishin' job on Jackpot Number Three?" Bob asked Crawford.
"Only that he thinks he hooked the tools and lost 'em again. Wisht you'd run out in the mo'nin', son, and see what's doin'. I got to go out to the ranch."
"I'll drive out to-night and take Dave with me if he feels up to it. Then we'll know the foreman keeps humpin'."
"Fine and dandy." The cattleman turned to Sanders. "But I reckon you better stay right here and rest up. Time enough for you to go to work when yore shoulder's all right."
"Won't hurt me a bit to drive out with Bob. This thing's going to keep me awake anyhow. I'd rather be outdoors."
They drove out in the buckboard behind the half-broken colts. The young broncos went out of town to a flying start. They raced across the plain as hard as they could tear, the light rig swaying behind them as the wheels hit the high spots. Not till they had worn out their first wild energy was conversation possible.
Bob told of his change of occupation.
"Started dressin' tools on a wildcat test for Crawford two years ago when he first begun to plunge in oil. Built derricks for a while. Ran a drill. Dug sump holes. Shot a coupla wells. Went in with a fellow on a star rig as pardner. Went busted and took Crawford's offer to be handy man for him. Tha's about all, except that I own stock in two-three dead ones and some that ain't come to life yet."
The road was full of chuck holes and very dusty, both faults due to the heavy travel that went over it day and night. They were in the oil field now and gaunt derricks tapered to the sky to right and left of them. Occasionally Dave could hear the kick of an engine or could see a big beam pumping.
"I suppose most of the D Bar Lazy R boys have got into oil some," suggested Sanders.
"Every man, woman, and kid around is in oil neck deep," Bob answered. "Malapi's gone oil crazy. Folks are tradin' and speculatin' in stock and royalty rights that never could amount to a hill o' beans. Slick promoters are gettin' rich. I've known photographers to fake gushers in their dark-rooms. The country's full of abandoned wells of busted companies. Oil is a big man's game. It takes capital to operate. I'll bet it ain't onct in a dozen times an investor gets a square run for his white alley, at that."
"There are crooks in every game."
"Sure, but oil's so darned temptin' to a crook. All the suckers are shovin' money at a promoter. They don't ask his capitalization or investigate his field. Lots o' promoters would hate like Sam Hill to strike oil. If they did they'd have to take care of it. That's a lot of trouble. They can make more organizin' a new company and rakin' in money from new investors."
Bob swung the team from the main road and put it at a long rise.
"There ain't nothin' easier than to drop money into a hole in the ground and call it an oil well," he went on. "Even if the proposition is absolutely on the level, the chances are all against the investor. It's a fifty-to-one shot. Tools are lost, the casin' collapses, the cable breaks, money gives out, shootin' is badly done, water filters in, or oil ain't there in payin' quantities. In a coupla years you can buy a deskful of no-good stock for a dollar Mex."
"Then why is everybody in it?"
"We've all been bit by this get-rich-quick bug. If you hit it right in oil you can wear all the diamonds you've a mind to. That's part of it, but it ain't all. The West always did like to take a chance, I reckon. Well, this is gamblin' on a big scale and it gets into a fellow's blood. We're all crazy, but we'd hate to be cured."
The driver stopped at the location of Jackpot Number Three and invited his friend to get out.
"Make yoreself to home, Dave. I reckon you ain't sorry that fool team has quit joltin' yore shoulder."
Sanders was not, but he did not say so. He could stand the pain of his wound easily enough, but there was enough of it to remind him pretty constantly that he had been in a fight.
The fishing for the string of lost tools was going on by lamplight. With a good deal of interest Dave examined the big hooks that had been sent down in an unsuccessful attempt to draw out the drill. It was a slow business and a not very interesting one. The tools seemed as hard to hook as a wily old trout. Presently Sanders wandered to the bunkhouse and sat down on the front step. He thought perhaps he had not been wise to come out with Hart. His shoulder throbbed a good deal.
After a time Bob joined him. Faintly there came to them the sound of an engine thumping.
"Steelman's outfit," said Hart gloomily. "His li'l' old engine goes right on kickin' all the darned time. If he gets to oil first we lose. Man who makes first discovery on a claim wins out in this country."
"How's that? Didn't you locate properly?"
"Had no time to do the assessment work after we located. Dug a sump hole, maybe. Brad jumps in when the field here began to look up. Company that shows oil first will sure win out."
"How deep has he drilled?"
"We're a li'l' deeper--not much. Both must be close to the sands. We were showin' driller's smut when we lost our string." Bob reached into his hip pocket and drew out "the makings." He rolled his cigarette and lit it. "I reckon Steelman's a millionaire now--on paper, anyhow. He was about busted when he got busy in oil. He was lucky right off, and he's crooked as a dawg's hind laig--don't care how he gets his, so he gets it. He sure trimmed the suckers a-plenty."
"He and Crawford are still unfriendly," Dave suggested, the inflection of his voice making the statement a question.
"Onfriendly!" drawled Bob, leaning back against the step and letting a smoke ring curl up. "Well, tha's a good, nice parlor word. Yes, I reckon you could call them onfriendly." Presently he went on, in explanation: "Brad's goin' to put Crawford down and out if it can be done by hook or crook. He's a big man in the country now. We haven't been lucky, like he has. Besides, the ol' man's company's on the square. This business ain't like cows. It takes big money to swing. You make or break mighty sudden."
"And Steelman won't stick at a thing. Wouldn't trust him or any one of his crowd any further than I could sling a bull by the tail. He'd blow Crawford and me sky high if he thought he could get away with it."
Sanders nodded agreement. He hadn't a doubt of it.
With a thumb jerk toward the beating engine, Bob took up again his story. "Got a bunch of thugs over there right now ready for business if necessary. Imported plug-uglies and genuwine blown-in-the-bottle home talent. Shorty's still one of the gang, and our old friend Dug Doble is boss of the rodeo. I'm lookin' for trouble if we win out and get to oil first."
"You think they'll attack."
A gay light of cool recklessness danced in the eyes of the young oilman. "I've a kinda notion they'll drap over and pay us a visit one o' these nights, say in the dark of the moon. If they do--well, we certainly aim to welcome them proper."
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