A PLEASANT EVENING
Brad Steelman sat hunched before a fire of pinon knots, head drooped low between his high, narrow shoulders. The restless black eyes in the dark hatchet face were sunk deeper now than in the old days. In them was beginning to come the hunted look of the gray wolf he resembled. His nerves were not what they had been, and even in his youth they were not of the best. He had a way of looking back furtively over his shoulder, as though some sinister shadow were creeping toward him out of the darkness.
Three taps on the window brought his head up with a jerk. His lax fingers crept to the butt of a Colt’s revolver. He waited, listening.
The taps were repeated.
Steelman sidled to the door and opened it cautiously. A man pushed in and closed the door. He looked at the sheepman and he laughed shortly in an ugly, jeering way.
The host moistened his lips. “What of, Dug?”
“Don’t ask me,” said the big man scornfully. “You always had about as much sand in yore craw as a rabbit.”
“Did you come here to make trouble, Dug?”
“No, I came to collect a bill.”
“So? Didn’t know I owed you any money right now. How much is it?”
Steelman, as the leader of his gang, was used to levies upon his purse when his followers had gone broke. He judged that he would have to let Doble have about twenty-five dollars now.
“A thousand dollars.”
Brad shot a quick, sidelong look at him. “Wha’s wrong now, Dug?”
The ex-foreman of the D Bar Lazy R took his time to answer. He enjoyed the suspense under which his ally was held. “Why, I reckon nothin’ a-tall. Only that this mo’nin’ I put a match to about a coupla hundred thousand dollars belongin’ to Crawford, Sanders, and Hart.”
Eagerly Steelman clutched his arm. “You did it, then?”
“Didn’t I say I’d do it?” snapped Doble irritably. “D’ya ever know me rue back on a bargain?”
“Wha’s more, you never will. I fired the chaparral above Bear Canon. The wind was right. Inside of twenty-four hours the Jackpot locations will go up in smoke. Derricks, pumps, shacks, an’ oil; the whole caboodle’s doomed sure as I’m a foot high.”
The face of the older man looked more wolfish than ever. He rubbed his hands together, washing one over the other so that each in turn was massaged. “Hell’s bells! I’m sure glad to hear it. Fire got a good start, you say?”
“I tell you the whole country’ll go up like powder.”
If Steelman had not just reached Malapi from a visit to one of his sheep camps he would have known, what everybody else in town knew by this time, that the range for fifty miles was in danger and that hundreds of volunteers were out fighting the menace.