Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/133

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

HORSE AND HORSE

99

for loafing, a spot to rob you of everything but content, a sure despoiler of ambition. . . . Jim had gone there fishing, that was it. And one day he’d blow back into camp with a mess of trout and an air of carrying the plunder of an empire in his straw-packed fishing basket. . . . Hank Wheelock knew! . . . A mess of fish—nothing more or less.

He, Hank Wheelock, would be bringing back a fortune and his partner, Jim Bledsoe, would throw down a dozen trout as his contribution to the jackpot. . . . Not this time! It didn’t take Hank Wheelock one half of his allotted twelve hours to settle that question. The moon had scarcely risen to its full height when he had come to a final and irrevocable decision.

For the rest of the journey he was content with a thousand opulent anticipations, not the least of which was the ever-recurring picture of himself in the rôle of patron to old Jim Bledsoe. This speculation had a pungent sting to it, like a dash of spice in a draught of mulled wine. He didn’t think of it as insolence because, one thing, he didn’t know that insolence was at the back of every condescension, but chiefly because his sense of introspection had been seasoned beneath the sky-blue of heaven. He saw only the large masses-on a canvas in which generosity loomed big. He ignored its shadow. Suddenly he had made the first step toward despotism—he was willing to grant a million privileges but not a single right. And in his new-found arrogance he felt that if he but reached upward he could have touched the stars!

Toward daybreak he saw afar the curling gray of a camp fire, and he knew that Jim Bledsoe was already back. This fact disturbed him: he hadn’t reckoned on facing so swiftly the issue uppermost in his mind. But his first irritation was succeeded by a sense of poignant anticipation. It would be good to have the coffeepot already steaming over the brush fire and smell the bacon drippings in the frying pan. It would be pleasant, too, to stretch out in the gray-green coolness of the willow trees and ruminate over a pipe with the genial putterings of old Jim Bledsoe within sight and earshot. Some folks would have scorned the meagre delights of this particular camp site, but Hank Wheelock always had argued that it served admirably. Where else for upward of a hundred miles could one have found a railroad water tank