"What do you care, anyway?" asked Reeve-Howard philosophically. "It isn't as if you depended on the work for a living. Why worry over the fact that a mere pastime fails to be financially a success. You don't need to write—"
"Neither do you need to slave over those dry-point things," Thurston retorted, in none the best humor with his comforter "You've an income bigger than mine; yet you toil over Grecian-nosed women with untidy hair as if each one meant a meal and a bed."
"A meal and a bed—that's good; you must think I live like a king."
"And I notice you hate like the mischief to fail, even though."
"Only I never have failed," put in Reeve-Howard, with the amused complacency born of much adulation.
Thurston kicked a foot-rest out of his way. "Well, I have. The fashion now is for swashbuckling tales with a haze of powder smoke rising to high heaven. The public taste runs to gore and more gore, and kidnappings of beautiful maidens-bah!"
"Follow the fashion then—if you must write. Get out of your pink tea and orchid atmosphere, and take your heroines out West—away out, beyond the Mississippi, and let them be kidnapped. Or New Mexico would do."
"New Mexico is also beyond the Mississippi, I believe," Thurston hinted.
"Perhaps it is. What I mean is, write what the public wants, since you don't relish failure. Why don't you do things about the plains? It ought to be easy, and you were born out there somewhere. It should come natural."
"I have," Thurston sighed. "My last rejection states that the local color is weak and unconvincing. Hang the local color!" The foot-rest suffered again.
Reeve-Howard was getting into his topcoat languidly, as he did everything else. "The thing to do, then," he drawled, "is to go out and study up on it. Get in touch with that country, and your local color will convince. Personally though, I like those little society skits you do—"
"Skits!" exploded Thurston. "My last was a four-part serial. I never did a skit in my life."
"Beg pardon-which is more than you did after accusing my studies of having untidy hair. Don't look so glum, Phil. Go out and learn your West; a month or so will put you up to date—and by Jove! I half envy you the trip."
That is what put the idea into Thurston's head; and as Thurston's ideas generally bore fruit of one sort or another, he went out that very day and ordered from his tailor a complete riding outfit, and because he was a good customer the tailor consented to rush the work. It seemed to Thurston, looking over cuts of the very latest styles in riding clothes, that already he was breathing the atmosphere of the plains.
That night he stayed at home and dreamed, of the West. His memory, coupled with what he had heard and idealized by his imagination, conjured dim visions of what he had once known had known and forgotten; of a land here men and conditions harked back to the raw foundations of civilization; where wide plains flecked with sage-brush and ribboned with faint, brown trails, spread away and away to a far sky-line. For Phil Thurston was range-born, if not range-bred, His father had chosen always to live out on the edge of things—out where the trails of men are dim and far apart-and the silent prairie bequeaths a heritage of distance-hunger to her sons.
While he brooded grew a keen longing to see again the little town huddled under the bare, brown hills that shut out the world; to see the gay-blanketed Indians who stole like painted shadows about the place, and the broad river always hurrying away to the sunrise. He had been afraid of the river and of the bare hills and the Indians. He felt that his mother, also, had been afraid. He pictured again—and he picture was blurred and indistinct-the day when strange men had brought his father mysteriously home; men who were silent save for the shuffling of their feet, and who carried their big hats awkwardly in their hands.
There had been a day of hushed voices and much weeping and gloom, and he had been afraid to play. Then they had carried his father as mysteriously away again, and his mother had hugged him close and cried bitterly and long. The rest was blank. When one is only five, the present quickly blurs what is past, and he wondered that, after all these years, he should feel the grip of something very like homesickness—and for something more than half forgotten. But though he did not realize it, in his veins flowed the adventurous blood of his father, and to it the dim trails were calling.
In four days he set his face eagerly toward the dun deserts and the sage-brush gray.
At Chicago a man took the upper berth in Thurston's section, and settled into the seat with a deep sigh—presumably of thankfulness. Thurston, with the quick eye of those who write, observed the whiteness of his ungloved hands, the coppery tan of cheeks and throat, the clear keenness of his eyes, and the four dimples in the crown of his soft, gray hat, and recognized him as a fine specimen of the Western type of farmer, returning home from the stockman's Mecca. After that he went calmly back to his magazine and forgot all about him.
Twenty miles out, the stranger leaned forward and tapped him lightly on the knee. "Say, I hate to interrupt yuh," he began in a whimsical drawl, evidently characteristic of the man, "but I'd like to know where it is I've seen yuh before."
Thurston glanced up impersonally, hesitated between annoyance and a natural desire to, be courteous, and replied that he had no memory of any previous meeting.
"Mebby not," admitted the other, and searched the face of Thurston with his keen eyes. It came to Phil that they were also a bit wistful, but he went unsympathetically back to his reading.
Five miles more and be touched Thurston again, apologetically yet insistently. "Say," he drawled, "ain't your name Thurston? I'll bet a carload uh steers it is—Bud Thurston. And your home range is Fort Benton."
Phil stared and confessed to all but the "Bud."
"That's what me and your dad always called yuh," the man asserted. "Well, I'll be hanged! But I knew it. I knew I'd run acrost yuh somewheres. You're the dead image uh your dad, Bill Thurston. And me and Bill freighted together from Whoop-up to Benton along in the seventies. Before yuh was born we was chums. I don't reckon you'd remember me? Hank Graves, that used to pack yuh around on his back, and fill yuh up on dried prunes—when dried prunes was worth money? Yuh used to call 'em 'frumes,' and—Why, it was me with your dad when the Indians pot-shot him at Chimney Rock; and it was me helped your mother straighten things up so she could pull out, back where she come from. She never took to the West much. How is she? Dead? Too bad; she was a mighty fine woman, your mother was.
"Well, I'll-be-hanged! Bud Thurston little, tow-headed Bud that used to holler for 'frumes' if he seen me coming a mile off. Doggone your measly hide, where's all them pink apurns yuh used to wear?" He leaned back and laughed—a silent, inner convulsion of pure gladness.
Philip Thurston was, generally speaking, a conservative young man and one slow to make friends; slower still to discard them. He was astonished to feel a choky sensation in his throat and a stinging of eyelids, and a leap in his blood. To be thus taken possession of by a blunt-speaking stranger not at all in his class; to be addressed as "Bud," and informed that he once devoured dried prunes; to be told "Doggone your measly hide" should have affronted him much. Instead, he seemed to be swept mysteriously back into the primitive past, and to feel akin to this stranger with the drawl and the keen eyes. It was the blood of his father coming to its own.
From that hour the two were friends. Hank Graves, in his whimsical drawl, told Phil things about his father that made his blood tingle with pride; his father, whom he had almost forgotten, yet who had lived bravely his life, daring where other men quailed, going steadfastly upon his way when other men hesitated.
So, borne swiftly into the West they talked, and the time seemed short. The train had long since been racing noisily over the silent prairies spread invitingly with tender green—great, lonely, inscrutable, luring men with a spell as sure and as strong as is the spell of the sea.
The train reeled across a trestle that spanned a deep, dry gash in the earth. In the green bottom huddled a cluster of pygmy cattle and mounted men; farther down were two white flakes of tents, like huge snowflakes left unmelted in the green canyon.
"That's the Lazy Eight—my outfit," Graves informed Thurston with the unconscious pride of possession, pointing a forefinger as they whirled on. "I've got to get off, next station. Yuh want to remember, Bud, the Lazy Eight's your home from now on. We'll make a cow-puncher of yuh in no time; you've got it in yuh, or yuh wouldn't look so much like your dad. And you can write stories about us all yuh want—we won't kick. The way I've got the summer planned out, you'll waller chin-deep in material; all yuh got to do is foller the Lazy Eight through till shipping time."
Thurston had not intended learning to be a cow-puncher, or following the Lazy Eight or any other hieroglyphic through 'till shipping time—whenever that was.
But facing Hank Graves, he had not the heart to tell him so, or that he had planned to spend only a month—or six weeks at most—in the West, gathering local color and perhaps a plot or two? and a few types. Thurston was great on types.
The train slowed at a little station with a dismal red section house in the immediate background and a red-fronted saloon close beside. "Here we are," cried Graves, "and I ain't sorry; only I wisht you was going to stop right now. But I'll look for yuh in three or four days at the outside. So-long, Bud. Remember, the Lazy Eight's your hang-out."