Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/139

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HORSE AND HORSE

105

‘Wal, stranger, what’s the hurry? …Don’t yer calculate to stop at no flag stations?”

Hank Wheelock fell back. “I was all-fired thirsty!” he lied, conscious of two eyes riveted upon a thin trickle of moisture issuing from his canteen.

"Which way yer headed for?”

“Over by Mesquite Ridge.”

“Prospectin’?”

“Yep.”

Hank Wheelock shuffled to the water hole and bent over. “Which way you goin’?”’ he shot out, putting his lips to the moisture in his cupped palm.

The stranger stirred his miniature camp fire.

“I ain’t made up my mind,” he announced, with a cryptic chuckle.

Hank eyed his man grimly, but he had wit enough to lapse almost at once into a show of indifference. He straightened up slowly, casting his glance in the direction of the thing that he had travelled all day in the blistering heat to confirm. If he were mad before, his mind was still touched—the outcropping of borax glistened even in the twilight with emphatic whiteness. The stranger was bending over the fire. A primitive gust swept Hank Wheelock: he grasped his gun securely, but the next instant relaxed his grip, shaken further by the realization that he could turn yellow even for so brief a moment. The man had risen.

“Wal,” he drawled, “I expect it’s about time to chew!”

Hank wiped the sweat from his eyes, accepting the stranger’s implied invitation with equal indirection, as he said:

“I guess I’d better unpack that fool burro if we calc’late to eat without jackass music.”

The stranger’s name was Starbuck—a garrulous, cynical soldier of fortune with the gossip of boom town and mining camp and trail bubbling up unceasingly. He had inside stories of clean-ups and collapses, and racy anecdotes of prominent citizens grown suddenly respectable overnight by the magic of money, or old age, or pure expediency. Listening to the suave ripple of incidents flowing from his lips, Hank Wheelock grew profoundly irritated. Here was a man that one felt knew too much, whose grasp of the inconsequential