BILL HOBBS ARRIVES
SANDY MACKINTAVERS had a very definite reason for guiding the Twin-Duplex in the direction of Meteorite, at the end of the railroad spur that runs north from the main line and the highway.
The three partners had decided—or rather, Sandy and Douglas Murray had decided, for the vote of Willyum was always that of Murray—not to go on to California, and not to cross the line into Mexico. It was too hard making a living in California, and it was too hard to keep alive in Mexico. Their decision was to seek a one-horse town at the back door of things, and there to seek a general recuperation of spirit.
In order to do this with the proper degree of unconcern, it was necessary to sell the big car and to buy a flivver that would negotiate anything once. Meteorite was a live town and was the headquarters of a stage line which would undoubtedly use the Twin-Duplex, so Sandy headed north to Meteorite.
Thus did destiny weave her gossamer net.
"This is no place to settle down!" Douglas Murray wrinkled up his thin nostrils at the oil tanks and the dump heap which fringed Meteorite. They were arriving late in the afternoon. "This is an abode of filth—a commercial metropolis!"
"It's a good place to start from, ain't it!" quoth Willyum, gazing afar at the blue peaks rimming the horizon. "Once we could get out in them hills—aw, look at the colors on 'em! Wouldn't it be great to camp out there?"
Sandy smiled grimly at the wistful ignorance of the ex-burglar.
"I've done it in hills like 'em," he said, "lookin' for color of another kind, and I've been glad to drink the water out o' my radiator! Aiblins, now, we'll find what we're looking for, beyond Meteorite. Don't know much about this country."
It was four o'clock when they purred into Meteorite and drew up at the hotel—where was also the stage headquarters. The travelers were hot, dusty, and thirsty. Directly across the street from the hotel, was a flaring soft-drink parlor, its depths cool and inviting.
"Good!" exclaimed Douglas Murray, as he felt the hot sand beneath his feet. "Come on over to the liquid emporium, boys, and I'll set up the drinks!"
"Not me," Sandy grimaced. "That sort o' stuff gets my innards, Murray, Besides, I'd better be seein' about business right now. Aiblins, we might make a deal to-night and be gone to-morrow."
"Suit yourself," Murray shrugged. "How about you, Willyum? Ice cream or business?"
"Me fer the cold stuff," averred Bill Hobbs. "I'm dry."
"Come on, then. You register for us, Sandy? Thanks. We'll be back and join you shortly."
"Need any money?" volunteered Mackintavers.
"Nope. Not yet. We're far from broke, thanks."
Murray and Hobbs walked across the street, stiff-legged with much riding, and entered the alluring portals of the refreshment palace.
A single man leaned over the bar, slowly consuming a bottle of near-beer and talking with the white-aproned proprietor. He was a dusty man, a withered, sun-browned, sand-smitten specimen of desert rat, and was palpably the owner of the two burros tethered outside the entrance.
"Ice cream," ordered Murray, ranging up alongside the prospector. "Have a dish, partner?"
"Thanks," rejoined the other, nodding assent. "Sure. As I was sayin', Bill, it was the gosh-willingest thing I ever struck! Think o 'me purposin' mattermony, right off the bat like that—and a good-lookin' girl, I'm sayin'! And when she was feelin' around for the right words to accept me, prob'ly meanin' to fish around an' make me urge her a mite, I seen her ol' man come walkin' along. In about two shakes I seen he was a chink."
"Yes?" The proprietor tipped Murray a wink, and set forth the ice cream. "What then?"
"I faded right prompt," said the desert rat. "Right prompt! I dunno—it kind o' dazed me fer a spell. When I got into Two Palms next day, I was tellin' Piute Tomklns about it, and he up an' says them two was stayin' at his hotel—the chink and the girl, which same bein' his daughter, he allowed it was all right an' proper. I judge Piute was soakin' them right heavy, else he wouldn't ha' stood for chinks boardin' on him. Piute has his pride——"
"And he got a pocketbook likewise," put in the proprietor. "I know him, I do! Piute would skin his grandmother for a dime. What's the chink doin' over to Two Palms?"
"Damfino," rejoined the desert rat. "Piute don't know, an' if he don't, who does?"
"Where's Two Palms?" inquired Murray, who had been absorbing this information with interest. "Near here?"
"Near and far," said the proprietor.
"Near in mileage, but far in distance, so to speak. "It ain't nothin' but a waterhole at the back door o' creation. Ain't goin' there, I hope?"
"Heading that way," said Murray. "What's there?"
"Well they got a bank, or did have, unless she's broke by now; and a hotel and a few other things. If I was you I'd go somewheres else."
"It don't matter particular—anywheres."
"You seem to have a down on Two Palms, partner. What's the idea?"
"Well, they's a close corporation there, a bunch of oldtimers that's mostly related and don't take much stock in outsiders, if you savvy. Nothin' there but desert. Stage runs up there once a week with the mail, which same if it wasn't contracted for wouldn't go."
"What's this about the chink and the girl?" put in Hobbs. "Sounds queer."
"If you ask me, it is queer!" said the desert rat, with some profanity to boot.
"They come through here, I remember 'em," spoke up the proprietor, leaning on the bar. "Darned pretty girl, too. Mebbe he's mining."
"Piute said not."
"Oh!" exclaimed Hobbs quickly. "Are there mines around Two Palms? Gee! Say, doc, let's get us a mine!"
"Might do anything," said Murray sardonically. "Want to find it or buy it?"
"Buy it!" exclaimed Hobbs with fervent intonation. "Sure, buy it! Let Sandy do it; don't he know all about them things? Let's go on to Two Palms an' do it!"
Murray nodded and turned from the bar. "Well, so long!" he said in farewell, and sauntered out into the street. Hobbs followed him.
The desert rat gazed after them with bulging eyes; then, shoving the remainder of his ice cream into his mouth, he drew the back of his hand across his lips and left the place hurriedly. Disdaining to notice his burros, he shuffled up the street to the post office, entered, and bought a postal. Over the writing desk in the corner he bent awkwardly, and indited a laborious message to one Deadoak Stevens, at Two Palms.
"There!" He gazed upon his handiwork with great satisfaction. "If this yere intimation don't git Deadoak to work, it'll be funny! They got the coin, them three pilgrims has—look at the car they rode up in! I bet I done Deadoak a good turn. If I had a decent hole o' my own, now, I'd unload on them birds!"
Sandy Mackintavers, meantime, had fallen to work with true Scottish thrift; when the others rejoined him in the hotel, he was displaying the Twin-Duplex to the proprietor of the stage line. The latter gentleman exhibited very little interest in the proposed deal, and disclaimed any notion of buying the car; however, he crawled into her, over her, and under her, then summoned one of his drivers from the group of loafers on the hotel veranda and ordered him to drive the car around and bring her back.
In five minutes the driver returned, and violently disparaged the car so far as stage use was concerned.
"Well, I'll tell ye, now," said the owner, "I really ain't got much use for her. But I got a couple o' flivvers over in the garage, last year's model, good shape; if ye'd consider a trade and take 'em both off'n my hands, we might talk turkey. Step in the office, gents."
They stepped in, and presently stepped out again. Sandy had rid himself of the big car, attaining two flivvers and five hundred cash.
That evening he did a thing which would have mightily astonished anyone who had known the old Mackintavers. He called the other two into his room, and laid upon the table all his worldly wealth.
"Now, partners," he stated, "there's all I got. Split it up and start even."
Murray's keen eyes swept his face, and read there a stubborn earnestness. It was not without an effort that Sandy had achieved this moment.
"Aw, hell!" broke out Hobbs. "Wot kind o' guys d'you take us for, Mac?"
"We're partners, aren't we?" affirmed Sandy. "Aiblins, now, one friend ought to help another and——"
"We're more than partners, Mac," said Murray quietly. "We're friends, as you say. Is it your proposition that we throw all we have into a common fund?"
"Just that," said Mackintavers doggedly. "Each one of us helps the other to get on his feet, eh?"
"And use the common funds for that purpose? I get you." Murray puffed a moment. "Well, Willyum, say your mind!"
"I say, Yes!" spoke up Bill Hobbs eagerly. "Mac's playin' on the level with us, ain't he? Well, then, meet him square. If all of us is goin' to be pals we——"
Murray made a gesture of assent, and reached under his armpit.
"Willyum was a hobo when we met," he said. "and hobos go heeled, Mac. I didn't leave St. Louis bone dry myself. Here's our contribution. We'll each drive a flivver from here, and if I were you, I'd convert this wad into travelers checks before we leave in the morning. They'll be good anywhere."
He opened a flat purse and drew out a roll of bills. Mackintavers gasped as they fell on the table. His features slowly purpled.
"Good gosh!" he ejaculated. "Why——"
"Nine hundred," said Murray. "Evens up pretty well with your thousand. You keep the bank, Sandy. Say, there's a place north of here called Two Palms, with an interesting yarn attached regarding a chink and a girl; smacks of mystery. Also, it's a mining country and little known. Let's go there to-morrow!"
"All right," said Sandy brokenly. "You—you boys now, how d'ye know I won't beat it with your pile? What right ye got to treat me——"
"We're friends and partners, aren't we?" cut in Hobbs. "Forget it, Sandy—forget it! Us guys is goin' to hang together, that's all. We're usin' your flivver, ain't we? Well, that's all right. If you see a chance to buy a mine, buy it; we'll be partners. If doc sees a chance to cut a guy open an' make some money, we're partners. If I see a chance to—to—to——"
"To crack a safe?" suggested Murray whimsically. Hobbs gave him a glance of earnest reproach.
"Aw! Come off o' that, Doc; well, whatever I see a chance to do, we'll do. Right?"
Mackintavers nodded, and raked the money together.
A fact which the desert rat had foreseen, but which hardly appeared to Murray as any momentous factor in the affairs of destiny, was that on the following morning the stage went to Two Palms with the mail
A few hours after the stage pulled out, the two flivvers were filled with the necessary elements and crated tins of spare gasoline; Sandy Mackintavers piloted one in the lead, and Murray and Bill Hobbs followed in the second.
The road to Two Palms was good, comparatively speaking; that is, it was a road. Before noon, Sandy paused to lower the top of his car. Bodily discomfort meant nothing to him; and he was more used to sun than to wearing a hole through stout imitation-leather with the top of his head, to say nothing of the risk of breaking his neck.
"You bob around like a cork in a washtub, Mac," observed Murray. "When you hit that dry wash a mile back——"
"Don't mention it!" grunted Sandy. "I forgot which way the gas throttle worked—it's different in an automobile. Why didn't we bring some lunch?"
"Too much interested in Meteorite scenery," said Murray. "Willyum! Peter a can of something—if 'peter' is the correct expression——"
"It ain't," retorted Hobbs cheerfully, "but I will."
A frugal luncheon disposed of, they continued the journey northward. That eighteen miles or so to Two Palms, was longer than any fifty they had previously experienced.
Meteorite lay among the hills, and in order to get to the basin which encompassed Two Palms, the road twined endlessly through the sandy washes and graveled valleys of the bleak red hills. They encountered the stage on its return journey, and had to back fifty feet to a turnout, a proceeding which was nerve-racking in the extreme.
But at length the sandy desert basin unfolded before them, and Two Palms in all its glory. It was not unlike a score of other desert towns they had encountered; a string of adobes and unpainted frame structures, crouching chameleon-like upon the sand, with wagon tracks in lieu of roads winding away to north and west. Drawing closer, the pilgrims discerned the details of Main Street, with its hitching posts and straggling fronts; the hotel, notable by reason of its twin palms; the hardware store, the general store and post office, the blacksmith shop at the corner; the long, low chain of roofless adobes where in more prosperous days Mexican workmen had lived; the abandoned newspaper office, the little group of men and women in the shade of the hotel porch, watching the new arrivals. And, hardly to be observed, was the figure of Deadoak Stevens, off to one side, with the fragments of a small-torn postal about his feet and a look of eager secretiveness in his eyes. Deadoak was thankful that he had grabbed that postal before Piute, as post-master, had a chance to read it; having read, he had promptly destroyed the secret, and meant to garner to full harvest of these pilgrims unto himself.
Douglas Murray failed to observe a slight raise in the road which Sandy had negotiated with ease; his thoughts were all upon the hotel and group of live human beings ahead, and the correct manner in which to stop his car. Thus, he killed his engine a hundred feet from the goal.
"Curses on the beast!" he ejaculated, and crawled out. Bill Hobbs was ensconced in the tonneau.
Murray cranked—and then something happened. He remembered afterward that he had forgotten to brake the car in neutral. He remembered it after the radiator hit him over the ear and one of the fenders gently pushed him twenty feet distant.
Bill Hobbs sat on top of the load, paralyzed with terror, as the car leaped away. From the watchers on the hotel porch burst yells of grateful delight over this break in the monotony of existence. The flivver plunged at the nearest hitching post, blithely carried it away, and decided to investigate the abandoned print-shop.
When Murray sat up and wiped the sand from his eyes, he ruffled up his red hair and stared amazedly. The flivver was there, to be sure; one wheel had burst in the door of the printing office, the other was wedged about the steps, and the machine was lifeless. But Bill Hobbs had vanished. Unforeseeing the sudden halt of his equipage, he had shot headfirst from his perch, and neatly catapulted into the open doorway.
Murray was the first to reach the spot, while from the hotel porch streamed the others.
"Comin' right up," answered the voice of Bill Hobbs, and the latter showed himself in the doorway, grinning. "I've busted up somebody's place and——"
"Don't worry about that, stranger," said Deadoak Stevens, at Murray's elbow. "It ain't been occupied since Jack Haskins cashed in. He left a sister back east, but she ain't seen fit to remove the remains yet. Glad to meet ye, gents! James Cadwallader Stevens is me, but Deadoak Stevens by preference an' example."
"Meet Bill Hobbs, Deadoak." Murray waved his hand toward the rumpled figure in the doorway, and turned as Sandy and the others joined him. "And this gentleman is Sandy Mackintavers, mining expert of parts East, who expects to settle here as Bill Hobbs has settled. I am Douglas Murray, doctor of medicine and surgeon extraordinary——"
Piute Tomkins hastened to rescue matters from the unseemly grasp of Deadoak, and performed the introductions with gusto.
"As mayor of this here municeepality, gents," he concluded, "I welcome you to our midst. Two Palms is on the crescent curve to prosperity an' wealth. The population is increasin' daily——"
"Say!" broke in Bill Hobbs, wrinkling up his face earnestly. "What's that you guys say about this here printin' office? There's machines and stuff in here—don't nobody want it?"
Piute waved his hand.
"There is no printer in our midst, pilgrim. All this flourishin' place needs is a real newspaper, but so far fate——"
"I'm it!" exclaimed Bill Hobbs gleefully. "I believe in signs, Doc—us guys was sure guided here! I'm goin' to take over this joint where I landed!"
Murray looked up at the ex-burglar. "You! Why, Willyum, I didn't know you were a printer or——"
"I ain't," said Willyum earnestly, "but I will be. Is it agreeable to you guys?"
Piute Tomkins bowed his lank figure. "Stranger, set right in the game! Them chips are yourn." He turned to Murray, caressing his mustache mournfully. "But, Doc, I'm right glad to welcome you to our midst, only we don't need no internal investigator in these parts, seein' that nobody ever dies here except by sudden accident——"
He paused, stared over Murray's shoulder, and his grizzled jaw gaped.
Down the street came a flivver, swaying and roaring—a dusty flivver containing no one except the girl at the wheel. She halted the car with a grind of brakes, and, seeming quite oblivious of the strangeness of the scene before her, leaned out.
"Mr. Tomkins!" she cried, an anxious excitement in her face. "Does anybody here know anything about medicine? My—my father has been hurt and——"
"Praise be to providence orated Piute quickly. "Miss Lee, meet Doc Murray—Doc, meet Miss Lee! I'm sure glad the good name o' Two Palms has been saved this-away—you'll make a livin' here yet, Doc——"
"Get in, please!" exclaimed the girl, with a swift gesture to Murray. "You'll have to come with me at once——"
"With pleasure, madam." Murray bowed, recovered his battered hat, and climbed into the flivver. The engine roared; the car crawled off, got its second wind, and vanished around the corner of the blacksmith shop on two wheels, Sandy and Bill Hobbs staring blankly after it.