SANDY MACKINTAVERS was slowly piloting his big Twin-Duplex along a rough and rugged road. It crested the bleak mesa uplands like a red-bellied snake. A twining, orderly road of brickish red, now and again broken into by flat outcrops of yellow sand or white limestone cut into its tires most pitifully.
One who knew Arizona would have recognized that road, although Sandy himself might have gone unrecognized. He was coated with the dust of several bathless days, and underneath the dust, his heavy features were drawn and knotted. Sandy had a general idea that he was in Arizona, but did not care particularly where he was, so long as the car kept going and he drifted westward, unknown of men.
Six weeks previous to this momentous day, Mackintavers had been a power in the world of mesa, ranch, and mine that centered about Albuquerque and Socorro; the world that he had now left far behind him to the eastward, forever.
His wealth had been large. His unscrupulous fingers had been clutched deep in a score of pies, sometimes leaving very dirty marks about the edge. Mining was his specialty, although he was interested in trading stores and other enterprises on the side. Any bank in the Southwest would have O. K.'d the signature of Alexander Mackintavers for almost any amount.
Yet Sandy had few friends or none. His enemies, mainly those whom he had cheated or bluffed or robbed, feared him deeply. He gave no love to any man or woman. He was said to own the courts of the state and to be above the law; the same has been said of most wealthy men, and with about the same degree of truth.
For, of a sudden, the world of Sandy Mackintavers had cracked and smashed around him. Somewhere a cog slipped; he had been indicted for bribery. That had broken the thick crust of fear which had enveloped him, had released his enemies from the shackles of his strong personality. Overnight, it seemed, a dozen men went into the courts against him, backed by the evidence of those who had taken his money and had done his dirty work.
Sandy Mackintavers, for the first time in his life, had thrown up his hands and quit. His magic had gone; little things done in careless confidence now suddenly loomed up huge and threatening against him. He faced the penitentiary, and knew it; too many of his own hirelings had turned upon him.
Fortunately for himself, he slipped through the bribery charge on a technicality, and devoted himself to buying off his worst enemies. That saved him from the courts and the penitentiary, but it brought down upon him a horde of vultures—both men and women with whom he had in times past dealt with after his own fashion. Now they dealt with him, and in full measure.
Mackintavers was broken in spirit. Before he could rally, before he could get breath to fight, they crushed him with staggering blows on every side. Sins ten years old rose up from the past and smote him. He deserved all he got, of course. The vultures gathered around and stripped him to the bones, as pitilessly as he had stripped them in other days. His ranch, his mines, his trading stores—all of them went, one by one. When Sandy saw the last of his wealth vanishing, with more vultures hovering on the horizon and not a soul sticking by him, he climbed into his big car, the last remnant of prosperous days, and "beat it."
At forty-eight he was beginning life over again, with most of his nerve gone, at least temporarily, and a beggarly five hundred dollars in his sock. He had no idea of what might happen to him next, so he buried his wad in this first national bank and started.
With this brief digression, we find Sandy Mackintavers at the wheel of his big car, aimlessly crawling over the bleak mesa toward no place in particular. In the rear of the car were heaped a camping outfit and Sandy's personal baggage. Mackintavers knew that he was already far away from Albuquerque and his usual haunts, and well on the way to California; but he had no definite city of refuge in mind, unless he were to strike down across the border into Mexico. He had a hazy notion of selling his car somewhere, and then—well, his brain was still too staggered to be of much value to him. He was as a man dazed, awaiting, the next blow and caring not.
When Mackintavers observed two men on the road ahead of him, he slowed down. He had lived thirty years in the Southwest, and he believed in giving men a ride, even if they were tramps, as the blanket-rolls showed.
"Ride, boys?" he sang out, slowing down between the two men, who had separated.
The man to the left, a tall, rangy individual, hopped to the running board and opened the tonneau door behind Sandy. An instant later, Mackintavers felt something cold and round pressed into his neck, and heard the stranger's drawling speech.
"Sit quiet, partner, and leave both hands on the steering wheel—that's right. Now, Willyum, investigate our catch."
Mackintavers glanced at the other man and found him to be a rough-jawed individual, who was nearing him with a grin. Across the haggard, pouched features of Mackintavers flitted an ironic smile.
"What's this—a holdup?" he inquired calmly.
"Exactly," answered the cultivated voice behind his ear. "The owner of so highly pedigreed a car as this one, must perforce need his loose cash far less than Willyum and I. We are, I assure you, rank amateurs at the holdup game; this, in fact, is our initial venture, so be careful not to joggle this revolver. Amateurs, you know, are far more irresponsible with a gun than are professionals."
"You needn't be wastin' time and breath on me," said Mackintavers. "If there was any money to be made in your business, I'd join ye myself. Ye'll find eight dollars and eleven cents in my pockets, no more."
"Hold, Willyum!" ejaculated the bandit in the rear. "Let us engage our victim in pleasing discourse. Is it possible, worthy sir, that you do not own this fine motor car?"
"I own it until I meet someone who knows me," said Mackintavers grimly. He had none too great a sense of humor—one contributing cause of his downfall. But he knew that his five hundred was reasonably safe, since the average car driver does not carry money in his sock.
"There's something familiar about the shape of your head," observed the bandit in reflective voice. "I cannot presume to say that we have met socially, however. May I inquire as to your name?"
Mackintavers hesitated. He was warned by a vague sense of familiarity in this man's voice, yet he could not place the man or his companion. However, he felt fairly confident that they were not former victims, and concealment of his identity would in any case be futile.
"My name's Mackintavers. Aiblins, now, ye've heard of me?"
The hand holding the revolver jumped. The bandit slowly withdrew his weapon, and made a gesture which held his companion from entering the car to search the victim.
"Mackintavers!" he repeated. "Why, sir, we have read great things of you in the public prints! I am glad we had your name, for we could not rob you—on two counts. First, there is honor among thieves; second, you are a repentant sinner. We have read in the papers that you have devoted your entire fortune to reimbursing those whom in past years you have dealt with ungenerously. Sir, I congratulate you!"
Mackintavers winced before the slightly sardonic voice. It was true that the newspapers had pilloried him unmercifully; they had joined in the landslide that had swept him away, and their tongues had cut into him deeply.
"Who the devil are you?" he rasped, with something of his old asperity. "You talk like a fool!"
The bandit laughed. "Mr. Mackintavers," he said gaily, "meet Wlllyum Hobbs, formerly known as Bill Hobbs! At one time a famous burglar and safecracker—I believe the technical term is 'peterman'—Willyum was some time ago converted to the paths of rectitude. His present lapse from virtue is due solely to hunger. Willyum, meet Mr. Mackintavers!"
Hobbs grinned cheerfully and stuck forth his hand. He was a solemn man, was Hobbs, a very earnest and unassuming sort. It was rather difficult to believe him a criminal. Also, Bill Hobbs had his own ideas about society, being a well-read man of a sort.
"Glad to meet yuh," exclaimed Hobbs beamingly. "Say, that's on the level, too! I mean, about us bein' empty. I gotta admit it don't look honest to be stickin' yuh up, but gee! We had to do somethin' quick! We been on the square until now, the doc an' me."
Mackintavers turned about, a sudden flash in his cold eyes, to meet the quizzical regard of the man in the tonneau.
For a moment the two gazed silently at each other. The bandit was not an old man, being distinctly young in comparison with either of the other two; yet something had seared across his face an indefinable shadow. It was a rarely fine face, beneath its stubble of reddish beard. It was not the handsome face of a tailor's advertisement—it was the handsome face that is chiseled by character and suffering and achievement.
Despite its harshness, despite the cynical eyes that sneered through their laughter, this red-headed man was a flame of virile strength and surging energy—tensed high, nervous, like steel in temper. The blanket-roll across his shoulders swung like a feather. His hands, as his bronzed face, were lean and energetic, unspeakably strong. It was evident that this man and Willyum had come from the very antipodes of life and environment. An overwhelming surprise lighted the broken face of Mackintavers as he gazed.
"The doc!" he repeated slowly. "Why—why—aiblins, now—man, ye can't be the same!"
"I am, Mackintavers; the same man who removed that broken appendix from your insides two years ago in St. Louis, and a thousand dollars from your pocketbook for the job. Quite a drop for me, eh? Quite a drop for Douglas Murray, to be a bindle stiff, eh?"
Mackintavers stared, as at a ghost.
"I can't believe it!" he said. "Aiblins, now, it's some joke—some damned nonsense! Why, you were one of the finest surgeons in the country, a man at the top, not yet thirty——"
Bitterness seared itself across the face of Murray.
"That's exactly what broke me," he asserted in biting tones.
"But I don't understand!" blurted Mackintavers.
Willyum Hobbs made a gesture, an imploring gesture; across his homely, earnest features flitted a look of appeal, of anxious worry. He glanced at Murray as a dog eyes his troubled master, with love and uneasiness. But Douglas Murray laughed jeeringly, harshly.
"Come, Mackintavers, look alive! It was success that downed me—too much work. I had to keep going twenty hours a day to save human lives during the influenza epidemic. It started me working on dope. I knew better, of course, but thought myself strong.
"The dream book got me at last, like it gets all the fools. One day, in the middle of an operation, I broke down. I had to have a shot quick, and I got it. I had to do it openly, if the man on the table were not to die; so I did it. Inside of a week, the news had spread through the whole city.
"It spread everywhere. I made an effort to fight, of course; did my desperate best to conquer the dream book. In the end, I won the fight, but by that time my nerve was gone. Everyone passing me in the street knew that I was a dope fiend. It was whispered at me socially and financially—from all quarters. At last I woke up to the fact that my money and good repute were gone. I can still practise medicine—if I have the nerve."
"Hm!" grunted Sandy. "Why didn't you stick it out? Aiblins, now, a man like you!"
"Why didn't you stick it out yourself?" Murray's laugh bit like acid. "Do you know why I stood in the top rank of surgeons? Because a great surgeon must be like a sword; he must decide instantly, quick and true and sharp—and he must be right. The hemming and hawing kind never reach the top, Mackintavers. And I—well, my nerve was gone after the publicity, and all. I was a branded man! Like yourself."
Mackintavers shivered slightly. "You haven't lost your nerve," he retorted, "or you would not admit it so readily."
"Rats! I've been on the road for six months, trying to recuperate under the open air and get away from everything. Now, Willyum! Roll a cigarette and don't shake your head at me. You'll like Willyum, friend Mackintavers. He has a proprietary interest in me. He believes that I restored some of his vitality——"
"Aw! you knows it damn well!" broke out Hobbs affectionately, and turned to Sandy. "He found me layin' in a ditch, and he cut me open an' took care o' me——"
"Oh, hush your babbling!" snapped Douglas Murray. "Let's discuss more pleasant matters. Where are you going from here, Mackintavers? You offered us a ride, you know——"
Sandy made a vague gesture. He could not have been recognized as the Mackintavers of a month ago; he was pitifully broken and indecisive.
"Anywhere," he said weakly. "Into Mexico—anywhere. You'd better hop in. We'll go on to California, huh?"
There was silence to his invitation. Hobbs was rolling a cigarette, Murray produced a briar pipe and raked up some loose tobacco from his coat pocket. He was sitting on the equipage in the tonneau of the car. The broiling sun of Arizona drifted down upon them, insufferable and suffocating.
"We're not broke," said Hobbs suddenly. "We're not broke, but we gotta get to grub quick. That's why we stopped you. This desert——"
Mackintavers waved his hand. "I have some grub back there. And a little money hidden. Let's go together, eh?"
Murray lighted his pipe and glanced at Hobbs, inquiringly, his eyebrows uplifted in a satirical questioning. Hobbs frowned in his earnest fashion.
"Why, Mackintavers, you and us has met up kinda queer; we're all in the same boat, sort of. But I dunno about goin' on together. I'm tellin' you straight, we gotta eat, but we aim to do it on the level—far's we can."
"You—what?" blurted Sandy. "You hold me up, and then you——"
Douglas Murray intervened.
"What Willyum is attempting to express," he said blithely, "is a simple, but profound thought. He has been a burglar; he is now reformed, and I trust is ambitious of leading an honest life. As for me, I have no particular ambition, unless it is to win a fairly honest place somewhere at the back of the world, and a chance to explore the anatomy of unfortunate humans. The idea, as you will gather, is that while we are shipwrecked men like yourself, we are essentially honest in our endeavors. We, at least, have no illusions. If we rob, it is from the necessity of remaining honest men at heart. You relish the paradox, I hope! It is really excellent.
"But how about yourself? I would not insinuate that we are better men than you, heaven knows I However, if you are about to enter upon a career of rapine and plunder, my dear Sandy, our ways had best separate here——"
Sandy Mackintavers, his head sunk upon his breast, made a gesture as if demanding peace. He stared out at the desert road, his fingers tapping the steering-wheel.
"You're a queer pair!" he reflected aloud. "Aye, a queer pair. To tell ye the truth, now, d'ye know what's broke me? It's because I've not a friend to my name. And why not?"
Murray spoke, with the cold, clear analysis of a vivisector.
"Because there's been no honesty in you. Sincerity is what makes friends."
"Aiblins, yes. They've taken my money—they've been afraid of me; when the pinch came, they turned on me and sank their fangs. And I've come to know what I've missed. D'ye mind, now, I'd like fine to have a friend or two!"
In the voice of Mackintavers, in his sunken face, there was the tragic wistfulness of a lost child seeking the way home.
"I would that," he pursued slowly. "Now, I could start clear again—if a man can ever start clear of his past. Can he? I dunno. I've always admired ye, Murray, and the way ye handled me that time in St. Louis; I've never forgotten it. To think that here ye are, to-day! 'Tis a queer world. Shipwrecked men, like ye say, and we're driftin' wild. Well, I've tried the other way, I've fought wi' the wrong weapons. If ye say the word, Murray, I—I'll start clear again!"
Murray knocked out his pipe and motioned to Willyum Hobbs.
"Hop in here, Willyum; I believe the grub is underneath me. Drive on, comrade!"
"Where to?" demanded Sandy, wonder in his eyes.
"Follow the road! Follow the path of ambition, to California. Let us find a town at the back of the world, and carve out our destiny from the desert sands!"
The starting gears whirred. The big car gathered momentum and drew onward along the blazing road that wound snakily across the scorched mesa land. The shipwrecked men were on their way to nowhere.
And Bill Hobbs burgled a can of tomatoes with gusto.