Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/142

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wide awake, but he did not stir; he did not even call out a farewell: he had had enough of Bud Starbuck. It was not so much that this man had robbed him of an illusion as that he had convicted him of idiocy. Fancy a seasoned prospector letting himself be snared by anything so obviously fictitious as this outcropping of borax! What could he have been thinking of! After all, he hadn’t made a fool of himself to Jim Bledsoe—his humiliation, bitter as it was, would at least always be self-contained. . . . Unless Bud Starbuck suspected! . . . And there were moments when Hank Wheelock fancied that he did.

He had told his story with suspicious gusto, as if he were inwardly smiling, and at the end his “‘I’d like ter clap my eyes on the greenhorn that reared up them there stone monuments” had been significant with contempt. The very memory of it still made Hank Wheelock wince.

It was a well-told tale and the element of extravagance was in it despite its underlying triteness. Bud Starbuck had the gift of vitalizing his narrative, and Hank Wheelock had been captured at once by the picture of the narrator setting out with his mule team on a wind-swept morning twenty years before to haul borax from Paiute Valley to the railroad siding. A fool thing to do in such a sandstorm, according to Starbuck’s own statement! But bravado lay back of it, an answer to a carelessly flung challenge, with a wager to add zest to the performance—some fifty dollars for the delivery within a given time of the load at its destination. A hard-fought battle through blinding wind and sand, with a snapped axle almost within sight of victory. Then the load dumped in a little saucer-like depression near the water hole, the maimed wagon trailing to shelter behind staggering mules like some wounded animal dragged unwittingly to slaughter. Next day rehabilitation and the mules trotting back with their rattling “empty” and Bud Starbuck intent on plans for salvaging the abandoned load.

And the finish—to quote Bud Starbuck himself:

‘Covered up jest as clean as if some fool grave-digger had been at work. . . . I’d ‘lowed that there ledge of rock would shunt off the whirling sand. But no siree, it jest jumped that—as pretty. . . . Yes, stranger, the sand’s the only thing changes in this dern country, and then it just