Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/138

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had swept him as he bent over that patch of umexpected whiteness the right one? He had fancied then that the heat had touched him. Suddenly the canvas of his memory became crowded with brief hallucinations that had been the portion of desert rovers. The visions they had testified to!—incredible, alluring, ridiculous visions! He remembered them all, every one, with diabolical clearness.

His first plan had been to achieve Mesquite Ridge by a direct route that would have struck a little north of his discovery of yesterday, missing it by a half day’s journey. There hadn’t seemed any necessity for going out of his way merely to view a spot that he had quitted not twenty-four hours since. It would still be there, no matter what happened, and time was precious. But now, shaken by cold gusts of incredulity, he decided to take the longer route. He wanted to rest a moment in the shelter of that little mound of rock, and test once again with his fingers the reality of that sun-bleached pool that had so captured his fancy.

He broke camp without waiting for the sun to rise. Everything he possessed was loaded upon the protesting burro. His return was problematical. If he found that he had been snared by a vision, why—

But he refused to consider seriously such a contingency. Yet as he swung his footsteps eastward he had a sense of sickening dread that he could not define.

Toward evening the jutting ledge of rock which marked Hank Wheelock’s spot of promise swam in the haze of a slanting sun. Fora moment he leaned upon his rifle, motionless. The pack animal halted, too, making an inanimate outline against the sky. A thin curl of smoke drew upward in a straight line and mysteriously lost itself. . . His first thought marked it as the camp fire of Indians. He felt annoyed. He had counted on solitude, and a brood of Indians. was not to his liking. The alternative was even more distasteful: a white man would insist on chattering. . . . A white man! Had somebody already jumped his claim?

He felt wrath pounding at his temples, and, suddenly, instinctively, he began to run forward, his gun glistening with hashing menace. A figure scrambled from the sands to meet him.