"Really! Is it worth anything to you?"
"I'm holdin' it' at eight thousand five hundred. It'll be worth double that in a year or two."
"Eight thousand five hundred!" Hiram stared unbelievingly at Tweet. "Why don't you sell it, then?"
"Didn't I say it would be worth double that amount in a year or two?"
"Yes, but you're broke and——"
"And I'll stay broke on a deal like that." Tweet's indignation caused him to grab his off-center nose and impatiently correct its obstinate trend, but to no avail. "But le's forget it and get back to that bugbear of our young lives. When are we going to southern California?"
Hiram sat framing a reply, which was rather a difficult process.
"Le's wait till to-morrow, anyway," he said at last.
"Had quite a little chat with Lucy to-day, eh?"
"Yes, I did. When you told——" Hiram bit his tongue. "The truth is, she's from Mendocino County, too, and we—we—that is, we found it out."
Not the faintest sign of suspicion or surprise showed in Tweet's face. "Well, suit yourself," he said nonchalantly. "It's a little late, or I'd go this afternoon. But to-morrow I go. My friend'll dig up the price, but I hate to hit him up any more. Think it over a little longer, Hooker—I'm goin' down for a little stroll. But remember—before noon to-morrow I've gotta have a definite answer. I've found that Morgan & Stroud send their bunches out every day at one o'clock."
Tweet folded his precious paper, crammed it his pocket, and left the room.
A few minutes afterward Hiram followed. He ate lunch and dinner in one, then strolled about the city, dreaming of Lucy and fretfully counting the hours till he might expect to feast his material eyes on her again. At nine o'clock he returned to the lodging house, made sure that Tweet was not in the lounging room, and went to bed.
Next morning, close to nine o'clock, he was shifting from one foot to the other before the cashier's counter in the restaurant. From the little window inclosure came the clicking of typewriter keys, a little more spirited than before. Hiram had strategically chosen the slack business hour of the morning. He had eaten breakfast in a cheaper restaurant, two blocks down the street. He had not seen Tweet. He had been walking about the streets since six o'clock.
The keys kept clicking. Hiram cleared his throat several times, and at last, as before, tapped on the show case with a coin. The clicking stopped, a skirt swished, and the gates of heaven opened, it seemed to Hiram.
"Well, look who's here! Good morning."
"Ha-ha-ha! Good morning, ma'am."
"Then let's begin this good morning by dropping the 'ma'am.' They all say it up in Mendocino, I know. It's considered the ne plus ultra of good breeding up there. You see I'm trying to steer you straight, and I've got to be frank. I didn't have anybody kind enough to pick the moss off me."
"I'll stop sayin' it, if you say so."
"Sure, you want to. Now, I've had another visit from Mr. Tweet. He roasted me for not carrying out his orders. He's just the least bit too fresh, and I intimated as much. But he told me just about how much money you had, and I decided you'd better take his advice and go with him."
"But I've decided not to go at all now," said Hiram. "I'm goin' to begin lookin' for a job here in the city to-day."
"Aw, you can't get a job here that'll make you any money. Tweet told me something about where you're going down there in southern California. It's on the desert. A new railroad's building. Things will be lively. A friend of mine was in here at the time. He's got a lot of automobile trucks, and makes piles of money. Maybe you noticed him. Good-looking fellow in a brown suit. Drives a big drab car?"
"Ye-yes, I've seen him," admitted Hiram resentfully.
"Well, he was in here and talked with Tweet, and he said he thought he'd look into the freighting proposition down there. With his trucks, you know. There's a long haul over the desert and the mountains, it seems, and he says it ought to be good. Said maybe he'd take me down some time, if anything turned up."
"You wouldn't go!"
"Wouldn't I? Huh! You bet your life I would! I only hope he'll stick to what he says. Maybe I'd get to see you down there. Tweet said he'd heard that the place they freight to is a live one. Ragtown, he said they called it. That's the kind of a place to make money in. I'd go, if I were you. Go down and make a stake, and then come back to Frisco. Money talks here."
"With you?" Said Hiram, slowly drinking in dread suspicion.
"You betcha my life!" Lucy said lightly.
She broke off suddenly and turned toward the door with a smile of welcome on her lips. In came Hiram Hooker's hated rival, Al Drummond.
"Hello, Lucy!" he called breezily. Then he leaned over the counter, glanced hurriedly about the empty restaurant, and kissed the girl on the lips.
She slapped at him playfully. "You got a nerve, Al!" she exclaimed.
Hiram Hooker heard no more, for blindly he was stumbling out, crushed, heartbroken. Hiram Hooker suddenly had decided to go to southern California with Mr. Orr Tweet, and the sooner they could get away the better he would like it. He realized now that Lucy Dalles was not the adventure girl who had beckoned in his dreams. She was a cheap, scheming adventuress, and he hated the very thought of her now—and was plunged into the depths of despair and humiliation.
In the lounging room he found Tweet.
"Come on," he said huskily, "le's go to the employment office. I'm ready."
Orr Tweet arose, casting a curious look at Hiram's haggard face, but said nothing as he followed him out.
Fifteen minutes later they entered a large employment bureau on Clay Street, where were gathered perhaps a hundred workingmen reading the bulletins or lounging on benches.
Every now and then a brisk, leonine-headed man walked about among them, making announcements as a train caller does in a big union depot.
"Shippin' to Oregon—two o'clock to-morrow afternoon—I want two hundred muckers—forty cents an hour—board one dollar a day. I want twenty skinners, same job, forty a month and found. Sign up, boys! Hit the trail and make yer stake. Two dollars is the bill!
"I want one hundred men to work in onions and potatoes. Three-twenty-five a day and board. Think of it, boys! Three-twenty-five a day and board! Like gettin' money from home! Get your blankets and line up for the chance of a lifetime.
"Then listen, boys! I want six rough carpenters—the rougher the better—mine work. Eight dollars a day, eight hours—dollar an hour! Fee two dollars. Think of that, huskies! Can ye swing a hammer or push a saw? You're on if you can—sign up! Ship ye out this evenin'. A snap! A cinch!
"I want a sub-grade foreman at seven dollars—eight hours!
"I want skinners, muckers, hard-rock men for Washington. I want lumberjacks for Washington—long job—good pay! I want hard-rock men for Alaska—the harder the better. And I want——"
Here Orr Tweet grasped the enthusiast's sleeve. "How about those jerkline skinners for southern California?" he asked. "Saw it in the paper."
"I'll see, old-timer—I'll look that up for you right away. Just step inside, please—you and your pal. Let you know all about it in two minutes. Line up for a good job, boys! Get out and make a stake! Just a minute, boss man. Step right inside."
Inside a railing, where many clerks were at work, the applicants were turned over to a sallow young man, who, being informed of what they wanted, consulted certain memoranda. Then he swiveled toward the two and gave them the particulars.
"Gold Belt Cut-off," he said. "Buildin' across the desert in southern California. Good camps—good pay—good grub—good water——"
"Cut all that," dryly interrupted Orr Tweet.
"All right, sir," replied the clerk cheerfully. "Main contractors, Demarest, Spruce & Tillou. Want fifty muckers and fifty skinners—two jerkline skinners—must be A-1. Fifty-five a month and found. Fee two dollars. Ship you out one o'clock to-morrow. On?"
Tweet nudged Hiram and nodded, and Hiram tendered four silver dollars.
"Just a minute," said the clerk—though accepting the money. "This office can't afford to get in bad with big contractors like Demarest, Spruce & Tillou. They've specified A-1 jerkline skinners, to skin eight, ten, and twelve over the desert and mountains. Are you there?"
"We are there," replied Orr Tweet.
The clerk looked doubtful. "Well, guess we'll have to take your word for it. Chances are you'll break away when you get to where you're makin' it, anyway. This is kind of a special job, though. Demarest himself wrote a personal letter about the two jerkline skinners. They're not for him, it seems—just to be shipped down with the other skinners and muckers and hard-rock men we're sendin' him. The jerkline skinners are for 'Jerkline Jo.' Ever heard that name? If you're jerkline skinners that have followed railroad work you ought to've heard o' Jerkline Jo. Usta be monakered 'Gypo Jo.'"
"We're not railroaders," said Mr. Tweet glibly. "We're from Mendocino County—the big woods you know. But we can skin 'em for Jerkline Jo or any other man."
"I'll take a chance," said the clerk briskly. "If you'd just wanted to get your railroad trip out o' Frisco you'd not thought to pick out the jerkline job, when only two were wanted. Jerkline Jo is a woman, though."
"Yeah?" returned Mr. Tweet, then said to the heartbroken Hiram: "You can't escape 'em, it seems, Hooker—you big mountain of a lady killer! This is gonta be good. Send us to Jerkline Jo, old hoss! She'll bless you with her last breath. Chances are you'll meet a regular woman, now, Hiram—not a doll with three years' wages on her back! A big outdoor picture like you fallin' for a bunch o' female French pastry like that!"
The employment agency clerk shrugged and took their names.
About six months previous to Hiram Hooker's momentous debut into the world outside of the big trees of Mendocino County, a girl stood in her dormitory room at Kendrick Hall and read a telegram with tear-dimmed eyes.
This girl was Miss Josepha Modock. She was twenty-two, and Providence had been kind to her—nay, lavish. She was straight and sturdy and strong. Her hair was of a dark chestnut hue, and its beauty and luxuriant growth made it at once the envy and admiration of her fellow students of the Wisconsin boarding school. Her eyes were large and dark and luminous, her nose just far enough short of perfect, her lips full and distracting.
Josepha Modock had been two years at Kendrick Hall. She was older than most of the girls who were her classmates, for the desire and opportunity to acquire an education had come to her at a late day in her teens. She was ambitious, however, and was making fast progress with her college preparatory course. Then came the telegram which she now held, and over which she wept tears of grief.
Her name was not really Josepha Modock. Modock was the name of her foster father, and he and her foster mother, the latter dead now for ten years, had given the girl the name of Josepha, because, when they had found her a mere baby weeping and lost on the great desert of California, they had discovered a "J" embroidered on her underwear.
At that time Peter Modock—"Pickhandle" Modock—had been what is known in railroad-construction circles as a gypo man, or shanty man. A gypo man is an impecunious construction contractor whose light, haphazard outfit of teams and tools makes it necessary for him to subcontract in the lightest dirt work from a slightly better equipped subcontractor, who in turn has taken a subcontract from the main contractors in a big piece of railroad building. In the vernacular of the grade, a gypo man's daughter, if she follows the outfit, is known as a gypo queen.
Josepha Modock, then, had grown up in the camp of Pickhandle Modock, and in time had been known as a gypo queen, or shanty queen, and the prettiest one in the business at that.
It was when the Salt Lake Road was being built across the Mohave Desert that the baby girl had been found. Pickhandle Modock had taken a little piece of work from Grace Brothers, and was on his way across the sandy wastes to pitch camp and begin operations. His outfit was to be one of the first to arrive, and as yet no definite line of travel had been established to the work. A terrific sandstorm came up, and the outfit became lost on the desert, where men and teams wandered about without water for many perilous hours, some time in the midst of which the human atom afterward called Josepha was found.
She had been sole mistress of a tiny camp tucked away in a half-sheltered little arroyo, over which spiked yucca palms stood guard and helped to break the wind and check the drifting sands. There were provisioned pack bags there, and the blowing sand had not entirely covered the small hoof prints of several burros. A corral of corky yucca trunks held the child a prisoner, and more trunks had been laid on the walls to form a roof, which kept off coyotes. In here they found her sobbing, suffering for water, abandoned by her elders, while slowly but surely the sand was sifting in to bury her alive.
All trails leading to or from the spot had been wiped out. The child was cautiously given water and food, and the suffering contractor's party camped there, hoping for the return of the man or men who had left the baby to such dangers in the merciless desert. But no one came to claim her that day nor during the ensuing night; so next morning Pickhandle's outfit set out to search desperately to better their own alarming conditions, and took the child along. Modock left behind a note explaining their action and informing whoever was responsible how he might eventually be connected with, whereupon the child would be returned.
That day the sandstorm subsided, and the outfit stumbled upon the road to their destination. They found water before noon, and camped there to recuperate. Here also, when they took their leave, they left word of their appropriation of the baby girl. Later, when they had reached their camp site and settled down, Modock, having received no communication relative to the child, returned on horseback and sought for the spot where she had been found. At last it was discovered, and it was quite apparent that during the ten days' interval no one had been there. The pack bags with the supplies, and the few miners' tools that lay about, were all but buried in the sands. Modock's note was still there.
Deciding that the baby's guardians or parents had perished in the storm, Pickhandle Modock took the articles for the purpose of identification, if some one ever should claim the child, and returned with them to his camp, greatly to the joy of motherly Anna Modock, his wife. Anna Modock had no children, and now she loved the desert waif as if the child had been her own.
Slowly Pickhandle Modock prospered in the years that followed, for he was a thrifty, hard-working man. The child, whom they had named Josepha, grew to girlhood, and reached young womanhood as a sprite of the camps—a gypo queen. The Modocks were uneducated people, but knew it, and strove to make amends by educating the girl to the best of their ability. When the contractor had prospered to the point where he needed and could afford a bookkeeper, he employed a gray-haired derelict of the grade, half of whose duties were to educate Josepha.
The old man loved the child and did his best by her, guiding her successfully through the elementary branches and succeeding in implanting in her mind what is known as a common-school education. She learned rapidly, but showed no particular interest in her studies. With the work of the grade she was enraptured. At ten she was driving a slip team, loading and dumping without the help of any one. Later she drove wheeler teams, then snap teams, and even the six-horse plow teams. She became a wonderful horsewoman, and, when in the West, entered contests at rodeos in trick riding, riding buckers and so-called outlaws, and won many prizes. Horses and mules loved her. Her voice or her hand spoke to them in a language that they seemed to know. She could break a colt to steady work in half the time required by any man she had ever met. It was said that the only thing a horse or mule would not do for her was to talk, whereupon Josepha trained a colt to "talk," just to prove that her understanding of animals was virtually unlimited.
So Joshepha Modock grew to young womanhood, admired, loved, and spoiled by the thousands of nomad laborers who knew her. At eighteen she could truthfully boast of a hundred proposals of marriage, and some of them had been worth an ambitious girl's consideration. Gypo Jo they called her, and she was known all over the West, where her foster father's operations were confined, and stories of her beauty and horsewomanship had gone East and North and South, for railroad-construction laborers are a nomadic brood and repeat their tales and traditions from coast to coast.
Then Pickhandle Modock, whose wife had died some years before, made the move which finally brought his mounting prospects to the verge of ruin. Just when he was on the point of being recognized as a contractor of consequence, and owned a big, fine outfit of stock and tents and implements, he decided to change his activities to those of a freighter.
Numerous railroad projects were being launched in the West, and most of the lines were bound to extend through countries difficult to access. Contractors preferred to have their freight hauled to them by regular freighters, so that every team of their own could be put on the task of railroad building. Or so Pickhandle Modock reasoned.
Accordingly he sold his construction outfit, and with the proceeds bought heavy freight wagons and heavy young teams, and launched forth in his new career. For a year or more he followed railroad camps with his heavy freight outfit; then he suddenly decided that he was getting too old for camp life and to be eternally moving about. So when a new gold mine was opened up in the mountains that overlook southern California's desert, he moved into the little frontier town of Palada, forty miles from the new mines, and got the freighting contract from this railroad point up into the mountains.
He bought out the town's largest store, and set up a blacksmith and wagoner's shop to keep his great wagons in repair and his hard-working teams shod. Here for a year or more Josepha attended high school during the winter months, and drove eight and ten-horse teams with a jerkline to the mines in summer, and acquired her new title of Jerkline Jo because of her skill in training and handling the big teams. Here, too, she required [Transcriber's note: acquired?] her thirst for an education, and, torn between her new ambition and her love for the big outdoors and her devoted mules and horses, she at last set off for Wisconsin for her preparatory course at Kendrick Hall.
Pickhandle Modock, however, had reckoned without the automobile truck, which now was fast displacing heavy freight teams. While as yet the road into the mountains was not in the best shape for trucks, at least during winter months, still the noisy transporters of freight, of the lower tonnage capacity, were taking a great deal of business from him. Then the road on the other side of the mountains, connecting with the big coast-side cities, was paved; and this ended Pickhandle Modock's career as a jerkline freighter. The town of Palada, too, degenerated from an active little supply point to a stagnating desert village, with no visible means of support, and Pickhandle Modock found himself with a big stock of goods on hand with no one to buy, and with sixty or more heavy freight horses eating their heads off in their corrals.
His circumstances went from bad to worse, but he had carefully kept all this from his adopted daughter, in the preparatory school in the Middle West. Consequently the blithe and lovable Jerkline Jo knew nothing of the state of affairs when the telegram announcing her father's death reached her that fateful morning.
It stunned her at first. She could scarcely believe that lovable, hard-working, grizzled old Pickhandle Modock, the only father she had ever known had gone out of her life forever. The justice of the peace at Palada, who had handled Pickhandle's legal affairs, had sent the telegram, which advised her to return at once, as she was named as the sole heir to her foster father's estate. The telegram—a night letter and a long one—hinted of things of which she had not even dreamed, an prepared her for financial disappointments.
She at once realized that her school days at Kendrick Hall were ended, just when the future looked so bright. She would have entered college next year, and this, too, she must now forego, just when her ambition was at its height.
But she had been through many discouragements as a gypo queen, and she did not flinch. She had known poverty—even actual want—had fought mud and sandstorms and cold and heat and rain that hampered work for weeks and months. In her was the indomitable spirit of the pioneer. She bravely and silently packed her treasured belongings, bade a dry-eyed good-by to her tearful instructors and classmates, and set her face toward the Western desert to learn the worst, and meet it as hard-fighting old Pickhandle Modock would have wished her to meet it—as a girl called Jerkline Jo should meet life's threatening defeats.
THE RETURN OF JERKLINE JO
When the long overland train contemptuously groaned to a reluctant stop in Palada the infrequent occurrence told the town that Jerkline Jo had returned for her foster father's funeral and the readjustment of his badly involved affairs. Old friends, old pals, old lovers crowded about her on the depot platform, wringing her strong hand in sympathy and offering help. The village hack was running no more now, so friends carried her baggage for her to the house on the hill, where lay the body of Pickhandle Modock.
Friends stayed with her that night. The funeral was solemnized next day. In all the world, now, Jerkline Jo had not the semblance of a relative, so far as she knew. She even did not know her name, and of Pickhandle Modock's family she had met not a single soul. But she had youth, courage, and ambition, and she went bravely at the many tasks before her.
With the old justice of the peace she took up her father's affairs, and it soon became evident that to attempt to continue the store under existing conditions would be the part of folly. The business was deeply in debt to jobbers in the cities on the coast side of the mountains, and such stock as they would accept must go back to them to cancel their claims. The store building was mortgaged; the residence property was mortgaged. The teams and wagons and the blacksmith shop seemed to be all that she could save from the wreckage, and these appeared to be more of an encumbrance than otherwise.
Still, she decided, against the advice of all well-meaning friends, to try to hold on to them and to be able to own them, clear of any claims against them. She knew the freighting business and construction teaming, and virtually nothing else; so with the idea that all of Pickhandle Modock's proud building must not have been for naught, she fought for final control of the freight outfit, and would not listen to those who claimed that the days of freighting with teams were over forever.
In a month everything was settled—all creditors satisfied. She had arranged to pay the store's debts with the acceptable stock on hand, having made great concessions. She had promised the store building and the residence property to the mortgagees, effective after the will had been probated. To her delight, she found that the teams, blacksmith's and wagoner's equipment, and the wagons would be hers intact. True, the teams were a great expense, and there was almost nothing left with which to buy hay and grain for them. But she was making inquiry here and there in an effort to put them to work again. Eventually she was successful in getting them on mountain pasture at a dollar and a half a head per month. There were sixty-one animals in all, and the pasturage fees amounted to quite a monthly sum, but it was far inferior to the monthly feed bills she had been paying.
For several months she hung on desperately, hoping against hope, with everything going out and nothing coming in, then one bright and long-to-be-remembered day came news of the new railroad which was to cross the desert a hundred miles from Palada.
Jerkline Jo made inquiry and found out the work was to begin at once, and that the project was a large one, involving difficult construction feats. By train she rode to the nearest railroad point, met the engineers of the preliminary survey, found an old friend in the party, and with him rode horseback on an old mining road over the range that stood between the railroad and that part of the desert which the new route would cross.
Close study of the engineers' maps and her general knowledge of construction conditions told her much. She decided on the logical place where the inevitable "rag town" would spring up. This, she reasoned, would be as close as possible to the biggest camp of the main contractors, Demarest, Spruce & Tillou.
There was water to be had at several widely separated places along the new right of way, but she knew that the water supply closest to the big camp would draw the tent city about it.
She knew, too, where the big camp would be, for the simple reason that the heaviest piece of work is eventually left to the main contractors; so she was able to figure to a dot just where Demarest, Spruce & Tillou's Camp Number One would locate. She had not the remotest idea, then, however, how this knowledge was to benefit her later.
To the tent town and to the camps of the many subcontractors who would come, thousands of tons of freight must be hauled. The railroad point nearest to the spot where the main contractor would camp was the town of Julia, from which the two had ridden horseback, and the mountain range lay between Julia and the right of way of the proposed, route. A forty-five mile trip through heavy desert sands, over the steep grades of an abandoned mountain road, and through heavy sands again would inevitable, and until the new steel rails had crept to a point opposite Julia, teams or automobile truck must supply the laborers and teams with the necessities of life.
Jo knew little about automobile trucks, but she did not fear them. They would give her keen competition, no doubt, at least during summer months but a study of the mountain soil convinced her that in winter there would be another story to tell. Anyway, she and her beautiful freight animals must take their chance against these modern machines. It would be a race between the tortoise and the hare; and every one knows that the hare has gained no little reputation from the outcome of that legendary contest.
From Julia, Jerkline Jo hurried by train to San Francisco, to the Western office of the big contracting firm of Demarest, Spruce & Tillou, whose headquarters were in Minneapolis. She knew Mr. Demarest personally, and was fortunate in finding him in San Francisco upon her arrival there.
"Well, well, well!" the big man cried jovially, as the girl was ushered into his private office. "Gypo Jo! Heavens to Betsy! Girl, I haven't seen you in five years. Put 'er there for old times' sake!"
"It's Jerkline Jo nowadays, Mr. Demarest," and she laughed.
Philip Demarest was a large, portly man, with a ruddy, red face, blue-veined and kindly. He had come up from the grade, and was eminently proud of his successful climb.
For thirty minutes he refused positively to talk business. He preferred to sit and dwell on bygone days with the one-time queen of Pickhandle Modock's gypo camp, to listen to the account of her father's rise and fall and his subsequent untimely death, and of the girl's ambitions and life in the Middle Western school. They told many a story, these old-timers of the nomadic camps, and had many a laugh over quaint remembrances. Then they got down to business.
Demarest listened carefully to Jo's ideas, and as she concluded he drummed thoughtfully on his desk.
"I think myself, Jo," he said presently, "that in winter you can grab off the money from any old automobile concern. But through the summer months they're gonta give you a nice little run for your money. And if they get freight there with less delay than you fail to avoid, and can do it for the same figure, they're gonta rampse you—that's all.
"Certain parties are lookin' into the matter already," he went on. "There's one fella here in Frisco that's got a fleet o' trucks—fella named Albert Drummond. Shrewd customer, too. He was tryin' to make a dicker with us. But we'll make no deals. We're not goin' to freight any ourselves if we can get out of it. But we'll sign no contracts in such a matter. Lowest bidder gets our business so long as he don't fail to keep us supplied with all we need. If you can underbid these truck men, you'll get the business; and from what I know about you, I have no doubt but that you'll deliver the goods."
"Gasoline is terribly high right now," Jo pointed out.
"So's hay, for that matter," said Demarest bluntly.
"I've heard, too, of a possible scarcity of gas," Jo told him.
"Yes, but the scarcity of hay is almost as threatenin', my girl; and those big horses certainly can eat the stuff. But tell me—what do you figure you can lay freight down for at the spot where you say we're bound to locate our biggest camp?"
"Two and a half cents a pound," was her prompt reply.
"It's an awful price, when you think it over," he said reflectively. "Just imagine, Jo; two and a half cents a pound bein' added onto the price of a sack o' flour—with flour at the unheard-of price it's already reached. And hay and grain! Jo, it's simply staggering."
"I admit that," she said. "But I suppose you took all that into account when you made your bid on the job."
"You bet your sweet life we did, girl! And I'll tell you what—we figured freight at three and a half cents a pound."
"You're fortunate. I'll get that, too, if I beat the trucks."
"Figurin' on gougin' us out of our profits already, eh?"
"Not at all, Mr. Demarest. Two and a half cents is my minimum. I'll freight for that only if forced to by the trucks. I doubt if I can make money at that figure. Only a trial over an extended period of time will tell. It all depends on the nature of the soil—on the condition that the roads develop after a period of heavy traffic over them, and the devastation of the winter rains. There'll be snow in those mountains, too. It's a gamble—a big gamble—but all that I can see against me is the fact that trucks don't eat hay when they're not at work."
"And how d'ye know where our Camp One is going to be located, girl?" he asked kindly. "I don't know myself yet."
"Of course you don't know positively," she replied. "But I'll bet you ten to one that you'll never sublet that piece of heavy-rock work through the buttes. I don't know a subcontractor—and I've not been out of touch with the grade so very long—who could tackle that stupendous task. So, if you can't sublet it—and I'm betting you can't—it will be up to you folks to do it yourselves. So that tells me where your largest camp will be, and at the nearest water to your largest camp the rag town will spring up. Isn't that all logical?"
"Sound as a dollar," he told her. "You weren't raised by Pickhandle Modock for nothing, were you?"
She rose from her chair. "Tell your subs to send me a wire at Julia when they're ready for any freight, at two and a half cents for a starter," she said. "I'll get it to 'em. But if no one meets my price, look for a raise to three cents for the second trip. Of course, if I don't hear from them, I'll know some one has beaten me out. Then I'll see what can be done. Your camp, of course, won't be in till last, I suppose. I'll go back to Palada now, take the stock off pasture, and begin hardening them up. Then I'll start for Julia, and will be there before your outfit moves in."
SKINNERS FROM FRISCO
Back at Palada, Jerkline Jo began hunting up the expert skinners who had pulled the long sash-cord lines for her foster father, and who had drifted to parts unknown since the completion of the paved road that had virtually put Pickhandle Modock out of the running. The world has not an oversupply of expert jerkline skinners, and the plucky girl's chances for success depended in great part on obtaining good men to handle her teams. She was able to trace some of the men, and her offer to pay their expenses to Palada brought replies favorable to the project in each case. For jerkline jobs are scarce these days, and a jerkline skinner would rather follow his calling than do any other sort of work.
The blacksmith, horseshoer, and wagoner, Carter Potts, was still in Palada, and wished for nothing better than to serve the girl. They had decided to reopen the shop at Julia, and for his devotion Jo promised him a generous per cent of any profits which might accrue from work aside from the care of the immense wagons and shoeing the teams. This in addition to his monthly salary of a hundred dollars and board.
From Oregon now came "Blink" Keddie, who had driven teams for Pickhandle Modock since long before the old railroader had settled at Palada. Tom Gulick came from Utah, where he had been working on a cattle ranch. Heine Schultz and Jim McAllen came from remote regions in the northern lumber woods. But of Ed Hopkins, the prince of mule skinners, and Harry Powell the girl could get no trace.
With the dependable force that she had mustered, however, she took the stock from pasture, broke even on a job to a desert town to the west in order to put the teams in shape, and then made ready for the hundred-and-fifty-mile trip to Julia. She had written Mr. Demarest and asked him to advertise for two good jerkline skinners to be shipped with the first draft of laborers he would get from San Francisco. She had small hopes of obtaining good skinners by this method, but no other course presented itself.
Two days before the start for Julia came a wire from the San Francisco office of Demarest, Spruce & Tillou. It read:
Employment office notifies two jerkline skinners applied re advertisement in paper and have been forwarded Palada. Arrive day after to-morrow.
Jo showed the telegram to Heine Schultz when she went to the corrals this morning.
"I'll bet you get a couple o' peaches, Jo," he laughed. "Why, any tramp's likely to go to an employment office and say he's anything they want him to be, just to get on the job. And maybe, even, he'll ditch the train before he reaches the job. Just wanted the trip, you know."
Jo's broad, smooth brow puckered. "I do hope that will not prove the case," she said. "Jerkline skinners are so hard to get, particularly in this country. Every man who has ever driven a horse or mule seems to imagine he can drive jerkline, but you know and I know that it takes knack and years of practice. But I'm hoping that because these two applied for this particular job they're all right. If they merely wished to get free transportation out of San Francisco, it was not necessary for them to apply as jerkies. They could as easily have arranged to be shipped as plain skinners, or rock men, or muckers."
"I'll bet you draw a prize, all right," Heine chuckled disconcertingly.
Jerkline Jo postponed the start a day, and awaited the coming of the applicants.
As the local passenger train from Los Angeles whistled for Palada, Mr. Orr Tweet roused himself from his seat in the smoker and slapped the muscle-corded thigh of the disconsolate Hiram Hooker.
"She blows, Hiram, old boy!" cried Mr. Tweet. "Fame and fortune await us just ahead. She slows! She creeps! Palada opens her arms to us! Perk up, Hiram! The girl wasn't your kind, my boy. You'd have stepped all over her little feet, and she'd got a divorce and alimony on the grounds o' cruelty."
Hiram Hooker sighed and stretched his columnar arms. For a moment or two the new prospects that loomed kept his mind busy, then his thoughts reverted to Lucy Dalles, and gloom claimed him once more.
"Don't talk like that, Playmate," he said. "You don't understand. I loved the girl."
"Prune juice! She'd 'a' made a regular sucker outa you. Good thing I got you away. A big mountain o' blood and bone like you fallin' for a dash o' cake frosting like that little hasher. Hiram, you've got a man's body and a man's brains, and I like you better the more I see of you. If you're goin' to weep over a woman, weep over a regular woman, boy—a man's woman. There! Look out the window. See that straight, strong, black-headed desert girl in chaps and a Stetson? Look at the brown of her! Look at her stride! Queen o' the earth, hey? That's the kind of a woman for a man with the body of an elephant and the imagination of a poet, like you've got. There's a girl worth sighin' for, only she wears leather chaps! Well, out we go. Palada for a toehold on the ladder o' fame and fortune!"
The train had squeaked to a stop, and the effervescent Mr. Tweet and his huge companion descended the steps to the sunny platform. The businesslike Mr. Tweet buttonholed the first villager he met, and informed him:
"We're lookin' for a party called Jerkline Jo—a lady with a far-flung reputation. Can you steer us to her rendezvous, my friend?"
The man stared at him a moment, then jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
"There's Jo over there," he said. "She's lookin' for ye, I reckon. That pretty girl in the chaps."
"Her!" gasped Mr. Tweet. "Lordy! And I was just eulogizin' her through the window o' the coach. I saw her first—Hiram—I saw her first!"
Next second Mr. Tweet was before Jerkline Jo, lifting his hat and bowing politely. Behind him, Hiram Hooker stood awkwardly looking at the girl he had traveled six hundred miles to work for.
"Madam," said his companion, "if you are Jerkline Jo, permit me to introduce myself and my friend. I am Mr. Tweet—Playmate Tweet—Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet. My friend and companion in arms is Hiram Hooker, from the virgin forests of Wild-cat Hill. I hope we find you well, and a look into your face tells me that I never hoped for a surer thing in my life. Madam, when you know me better, you will learn that I am not fresh, merely bubbling over with the joy of existence."
For a little Jerkline Jo gazed at him, then burst into ringing laughter. "Well, if you can drive jerkline," she said, "there's no doubt but that you will be a pleasant addition to our little family. I'm happy to meet you, Mr.——"
"Playmate Tweet—Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet."
"Orr Tweet—Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet," patiently repeated Mr. Tweet.
"Are you trying to be funny?" The dark eyes narrowed dangerously.
"I am funny," corrected Mr. Tweet. "I can't help it. Allow me to explain: My last name, unfortunately, is Tweet. Tweet is the well-known conversational effort of a bird, and also 'Twitter,' if we are to believe the bird lovers. Therefore, I am ruthlessly called Twitter at times by my friends, and more often Twitter-or-Tweet. Orr is my first name. Orr Tweet. Suppose, for instance, my name happened to be Jim Brown, and I had been given the nickname of Blister. Then I would be called Blister Jim Brown, or Blister Brown. But my name is Orr Tweet, and my nickname is Twitter-or-Tweet. Therefore, I am Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet, or Twitter-or-Tweet Tweet. You've heard the story of the lady who asked the ticket agent for 'Two to Duluth,' haven't you? He thought she was flirting with him, and came back with 'Tweedle-de-dee;' whereupon she slapped him. So far I have escaped such consequences when telling people my name. But if, when asked, I reply 'Orr Tweet,' they say 'What or Tweet?' Then if I reply 'Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet,' they look at me as if they thought I was trying to kid 'em. So I begin my explanation by giving them my nickname, or monaker, 'Playmate,' and follow it with my second monaker, 'Twitter-or-Tweet,' as I am frequently called, or Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet, or Twitter-or-Tweet Tweet. It's very simple."
Jerkline Jo laughed again at the end of this seemingly nonsensical harangue, and fixed her dark eyes on Hiram Hooker. The giant stood staring at her, and not a thought of Lucy Dalles was in his mind now. His blue eyes caught her dark ones, and his glance was lowered in confusion. Womanlike, Jerkline Jo took him in at a glance, and something within her responded to the appeal that his handsome manhood made to femininity.
"What a godlike physique!" she thought.
Then impulsively she stepped forward and extended her hand.
"I'm glad you've come, Mr. Hooker," she said. "And I do hope you are really a jerkline skinner."
"And how 'bout me?" complained Mr. Tweet.
"I beg your pardon," said the girl, biting her lip. "What a stupid thing for me to say! But really—well, Mr. Hooker does look more like an outdoors man than you do, Mr. Tweet. I didn't mean to discriminate between you in my offer of welcome, though. Mr. Hooker, are you a jerkline skinner?"
For the first time Hiram's soft voice began to drawl. "Yes, ma'am," he told her earnestly. "I've driven jerkline since I was knee-high to a duck—eight and ten and twelve, and even sixteen, ma'am. I reckon I can make 'em pull, no matter how far out you hook 'em on."
"Where have you worked?"
"At home, ma'am—in the big timber o' Mendocino County—haulin' tanbark and ties and shakes and posts over the mountains to the lumber steamers on the coast."
"Do you love horses and mules?" she queried eagerly.
"I love everything that breathes, I reckon, ma'am," he told her softly. "I kill nothin' that lives, except rattlesnakes, unless I need the meat. Then sometimes I don't kill."
Jerkline Jo's dark eyes glowed. She turned to Mr. Tweet.
"And you?" she asked.
"Madam," he replied, "I came down here under false pretenses, but now I'll make a clean breast o' my treachery. I was broke; I had to get out o' Frisco and get a toehold somewhere. But after seein' you, I can't try to put one over on you. Couldn't if I wanted to try, I guess. I am not a jerkline skinner, but I love animals. I am one of those confident persons who will try anything once—even twice. The things I have done, and was told I could not do, are legion. If you will give me a trial for my inseparable friend's sake, I have no doubt at all but that in the course of a short time your mules will refuse to lift a foot unless I am behind 'em with my persuasive voice. In other words, Miss Jo, I am yours to command."
She smiled, a finger to her lips. "Well, come over to the corrals, both of you," she said, "and we'll see what we can do. I simply must have Mr. Hooker. So if you two are inseparable, why——" She paused.
"I understand," Tweet put in. "All women are that way, once they're subjected to Hooker's spell. I simply can't get it myself, but it's a fact."
Jerkline Jo blushed furiously. She who had withstood the ordeal of a hundred proposals, she who had been raised where men were continually twitting her about some man who was yearning to bestow his affections upon her, was blushing at Tweet's harmless suggestions.
THE START FOR JULIA
Jerkline Jo walked ahead of Hiram Hooker and Tweet to the stables and corrals, where her three-score horses and mules and her big wagons were awaiting the start.
"We're all ready to go," she told the pair. "I was only waiting for you. We'll start at once, whether you are jerkline skinners or not, of course; but if you're not, I'm afraid we'll go without you."
Mr. Tweet glanced at Hiram and whispered: "I'm 'fraid this is where we separate, Hooker. Still, I don't know. Maybe I'm a jerkline skinner, after all. I'll never know till I try."
In front of the stable Tweet came to an abrupt halt and studiously regarded one of the huge freight wagons.
"Just a moment," he began quaintly. "Was that wagon built to go, or is it just an advertisement to show what the wagonmaker could do?"
Jo's wagons weighed nearly six thousand pounds. Each separate wheel had cost her foster father seventy-five dollars, prewar price. The investment that a single complete wagon represented was in the neighborhood of six hundred dollars; and as there were seven of them, besides the lighter trailers, the total outlay was no mean sum. The spokes of the great wheels were as large as Mr. Tweet's thighs; the hubs were larger than his waist; the tires were ten inches in width; the entire running-gear looked as if a small forest of sturdy hardwood had been felled for its construction.
"It is built to go," the girl assured him.
"Stutterin' Demosthenes! I didn't think there were enough horses in the world to move the thing! Madam, I have swiftly reached the conclusion that I am not a jerkline skinner. Are you, Hooker?"
Hiram smiled and spoke to Jerkline Jo.
"That's a fine wagon, ma'am," he said. "I never saw any as good as that."
"We've six more just like it," she told him, "and some lighter trailers. The man who made them is dead. I doubt if the world will ever again see such wagons when these are gone. Now, I want you to hook up, Mr. Hooker, and show me what you can do."
"Hook up, Hooker!" laughed Tweet, always ready to embrace the slightest opportunity for a joke.
The girl led the way into the stable, and Heine Schultz, temporary wrangler, showed Hiram ten immense black horses, not one of them under sixteen hundred pounds.
"Get 'em out," ordered Jo.
Hiram went to work immediately, with a briskness that caused Heine to wink at Jo, he threw on the heavy harness and led forth the big-footed teams. He did not ask which were the leaders or the wheelers, for this was indicated by the nature of their respective harness and bridles. Heine noted this and winked again. Hiram was told, when he asked, the names of the ten, and pointers and swing teams were indicated. In a period of time utterly bewildering to Mr. Tweet the man from Wild-cat Hill had his ten black beauties strung out in twos before one of the wagons, and was speaking to Jerkline Jo.
"I see you ride in the wagons," he observed. "I always rode the nigh wheeler hoss, ma'am."
"You may do so if you choose. We've saddles."
"Your way suits me," Hiram returned. "It's easier work, I reckon."
The girl climbed into the wagon with Hiram. Heine Schultz did likewise. Mr. Tweet, being a gregarious person, did not like to be left alone, so followed the others' example.
"Which way, ma'am?" asked the new skinner.
Jo pointed. "Up that street, and turn the corner to your left," she directed.
The wagon was about half loaded with the blacksmith's outfit. To add to this the horse wrangler set the heavy brakes.
Hiram grasped the jerkline, but allowed it to hang slack in his hands. Now came his soft, caressing drawl, low and musical:
"Pete! Abe! Feel of it! Molly! Steve! Ben! Prince! Up ahead, there—Jane! Buck!"
As a team the great animals started the heavy wagon, and moved off with a jingle of chains and bells and the creak of harness.
Heine released the brake and looked at Jo, and this time he merely nodded.
A block up the street Hiram gave a single pull on his jerkline, and called: "Haw, Jane!" An instant later—"Gee, Steve! Gee, Molly! Gee, Molly! Steady! Good enough!"
With the leaders and the swings pulling to the left and turning into the cross street, and the pointers heaving slightly to the right, the long string made the turn, and the wagon rolled around the corner in the middle of the street.
This street that they had entered was one of the oldest in Palada—built by Mexicans in the old Spanish style. There were no sidewalks—there was not room for them.
"Turn to your right at the next corner," commanded Jerkline Jo.
Hiram Hooker nodded.
As the leaders neared the corner Hiram cried: "Haw, Jane! Haw, Buck!" and tugged once on his jerkline. Obeying the command, the leaders, followed by the eight, brought the wagon close to the left-hand side of the street. Two quick jerks on the line, and the sharp cries, "Gee, Buck! Gee, Jane!" turned the well-trained leaders to the right and headed them toward the entrance to the cross street. "Haw, Steve! Haw, Molly! Over the chain, Molly! Haw, boys, haw!"
At Hiram's command, the off pointer, Molly, had stepped daintily over the heavy chain that ran between her and her mate, and now both of them were pulling the heavy tongue at right angles to the left, the wheelers helping. As neatly as most men might have made the corner with a single buggy, the string of ten and the heavy wagon swung into the intersecting street, as narrow as the other, and not a hub touched.
Jerkline Jo's dark eyes were sparkling. "You've got a job, Hiram," she said. "A jerkline driver who can make that corner without scraping a hub is a real jerkline driver."
"Thank you," replied Hiram, with a merry grin, thrilling at her use of his given name. "And I'll say that the man that trained this team was a jerkline driver, too."
"A man didn't train them," Jerkline Jo informed him proudly. "I trained them."
"Just the same," returned Hiram, "I stick by what I said."
"Now you take the line, Mr. Tweet," instructed Jerkline Jo.
"I don't care for it," said Tweet. "I'm a promoter and capitalist. I'll go to work and get a job here in this burg, Miss Jo, and pay you for my transportation down when I've earned the price. But I have a sneaking feeling that Molly wouldn't care for the cadence of my voice; and Pete he eyed me kinda suspiciously when Hiram led 'im out. No—there's a limit. I've reached it."
"Drive back to the stable, Hiram," Jo ordered. "We'll start for Julia at once."
She turned to Tweet. "I'm sorry," she said. "Why did you ship down here as a jerkline skinner, Mr. Tweet? You came over a rival railroad, of course, and your transportation will cost me full fare."
"Madam," he replied guiltily, "I was broke, and just had to get outa Frisco. And I couldn't leave Hiram. Why, that boy would 'a' been a suicide, if it hadn't been for me. He was in love, and wouldn't work, and in another day he'd been broke—a hick from Wild-cat Hill alone and friendless and in love in big, cruel San Francisco. If it wasn't for me, you'd never got 'im."
"That's right," spoke up Hiram. "He made me come."
"Madam," added Tweet, "I hope you'll forgive me. I'll pay you all I owe you with interest. I'm the original go-getter from Gogettersburg, on the Grabemoff River. I'm down and out right now, but any day I'm liable to turn into a skyrocket. Madam, you trust me. I've promised Hooker to lead him to fame and fortune, and to do that I gotta stick with 'im, ain't I? Well, then, can't you find somethin' for me to do for you, so's I c'n ride with you to this new railroad? That country sounds good to me. I'll maybe go to work and get a toehold over there. You'll never regret befriendin' me, Miss Jo."
The girl stood, thoughtful, her feet planted against the jolting of the wagon.
"Could you help about the cooking?" she asked.
"Madam, I could—and would."
"I like to be accommodating," she told him. "I know how it is. I was raised in the camps, and know all about being broke and knocking about the country. I'll take you along, and I'll take a chance on your paying me for the transportation."
"You'll never regret it, Miss Jo. Pile whatever you want done on me. I'm a good roustabout, willin' and cheerful, and always a kind, happy little playmate. Thank you."
An hour later ten heavy wagons, some of them trailing because of the lack of skinners, rumbled through Palada, with an eight or ten-horse team pulling, the remainder of the horses and mules and Jerkline Jo's black saddle mare following like devoted dogs. Palada was out in a body to wave good-by and good luck to Jerkline Jo. She drove the last team, ten magnificent whites, spotless as circus horses, with thirty tiny bells jingling over their proud necks. Ahead of her in the train Hiram Hooker drove his blacks. As long as she could see anybody at Palada, Jerkline Jo stood in the front of her wagon, facing rearward, and waved her hat. There were tears in her dark eyes as she turned to her team at last, and the desert opened its arms to their coming.
Slowly the teams forged ahead into the infinite sandy waste, where whispering yuccas and thorny cactus grew, and jack rabbits went looping away among bronze greasewood bushes. A cloud of dust hung over the wagon trail. Ahead stretched seeming nothingness for mile after weary mile.
Jerkline Jo hoped to make twenty miles a day, loaded as the wagons were with only the blacksmith outfit. She might have made perhaps twenty-four miles under such conditions, had it not been for the counteracting softness of the teams. Loaded, they would make from ten to twelve miles daily, which seems intolerably slow in these days of speed and nerve-wracking restlessness. But with six of the teams working steadily the outfit would transport upward of thirty tons twelve miles a day, which represents an enormous amount of provisions for man and beast.
Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet rode with Hiram. The train had been traveling perhaps two hours, and it was after eleven o'clock, when there came a "Who-hoo!" from Jerkline Jo. Hiram and Tweet looked back.
She beckoned with her hand. Both Hiram and Tweet placed fingers on their breasts inquisitively; then she cupped her hands about her mouth and called:
"'Hi-ram,' huh?" grunted Tweet. "For one hungering second I thought maybe she wanted me." He grasped his twisted nose and straightened it. "'Twon't stay," he observed gloomily. "Go on and ride with her, you big soft-voiced lady killer! I'll stick with Pete, and maybe he'll learn to love me. What'll I do if they begin to get rambunctious, Hiram?"
"Don't worry," Hiram returned. "They won't do anything they're not doing right now. Just let 'em drift right along."
He swung himself to the ground and waited until the girl's wagon came abreast, then climbed up over a brake-shoe and squeezed himself between the slats of the tall freight rack with which her wagon was equipped.
The girl stood in the front end of the rack, and such material as the wagon carried was piled behind her, leaving a little compartment free of encumbrance in which she might move about. There was no driver's seat, and therefore quite a little room was hers.
Hiram gazed in utter bewilderment at what he saw. A coal-oil stove was burning, and on it pots were steaming. There was a tiny oilcloth-covered table, and on it and under it were pots and pans and other utensils of the kitchen.
What surprised him more, though, was another lower table before which stood a collapsible stool. On it were books and papers and a portable typewriter, with a half-typed sheet on the platen. There were ink and pens and other articles necessary to an officer or a study. Against the front end of the wagon rack stood a chest, with its lid closed, and more cooking utensils were on top of it.
Jerkline Jo smiled at his bewilderment.
"I'm cooking our dinner, you see," she explained. "To keep good men, I figure that they must be well cared for. When my father ran this freight outfit our skinners cooked for themselves, and often were obliged to eat cold lunches. When they did cook, there was no time for anything better than fried steak, or fried ham, or fried bacon and eggs. One grows terribly tired of fried things, and, besides, they're not good for the digestion.
"I've resolved that on this job we're going to live like people who are permanently situated. That chest there is a fireless cooker. My own scheme. In it now vegetables and a beef roast are cooking, and they'll be ready by noon. I mean to make biscuits and bread and cakes and pies in my oil-stove oven, which is a dandy. I can arrange to do all that on the smoothest portions of the road. I'll roll my biscuit dough soon now, and when we camp there'll be fresh, hot biscuits, roast beef with brown gravy, and steamed vegetables all ready for us. What do you think of my scheme, Hiram?"
Hiram knew nothing of the advantages of a fireless cooker, but he did know that food such as she had spoken of was unheard of on a freighting trip, and told her so.
"Besides," she added, "I have bought some large thermos bottles, and no matter how hot the desert is we'll always have cold water to drink. Every night it will get almost ice cold in this country, you know; and if we bottle it early in the morning it will remain cold all day."
Hiram was looking at the typewriter. "This is my office and study," said the girl. "My foster father's recent death called me from a preparatory school back in the Middle West, just when I was getting along so well toward gaining an education. I decided not to give up. I am taking two correspondence courses, and mean to continue my studies here in my wagon. Also I am learning stenography and touch-typewriting.
"At first I thought I'd open an office at Julia or the rag town that will spring up soon, and not drive a team myself. Then it occurred to me that I could save money by driving a team, and could continue my studies and attend to my business affairs while on the road. With well-trained teams, like we have, a freight skinner has hours and hours on the road when he has nothing to do but loll on his seat and smoke. As I don't smoke, I mean to improve the time with study. Don't you think I'm a wonderful schemer, Hiram?"
Hiram nodded, and thoughts of pink-and-white little Lucy Dalles and her ambitions were far in the background of his mind. Jerkline Jo was a beautiful girl—as different in her beauty from Lucy Dalles as is day from night. Her hair was dark and heavy, and crowned a low, broad brow. Her skin was now tanned a rich mahogany, but was clear and flawless, and her bare arms were round and brown. Her confident poise, her sturdy shoulders, showed character and strength far above the ordinary. She was a man's woman, was Jerkline Jo Modock, and only a man among men might hope to become her mate. She wore a broad-brimmed Stetson with a horsehair band, a blue-flannel man's shirt, worn leather chaps for comfort, and riding boots. A holstered six-shooter hung close at hand, the ivory-handled butt of the big weapon ready to her grasp. Here was a wonderful woman, and Hiram Hooker knew it, and knew, too, that here at last was the adventure girl who, in his dreams up there on Wild-cat Hill in the big woods of the North had been beckoning him to come and work for her, to fight for her—to die for her if fate should so decree.
A WIRE TO JULIA
"I wanted you to tell me something about yourself, Hiram," said Jerkline Jo. "That's why I called you. What a giant of a man you are! Tell me about Wild-cat Hill and the big woods of Mendocino. I've never been so far north in California."
She seated herself on the stool, and Hiram sat cross-legged on the floor of the freight rack. Ahead the many silvery bells, hung on steel bows over the hames of each of Jo's white beauties, jingled merrily as the wagon rolled on into the illimitable desert.
Hiram began to talk, and gradually he grew eloquent, for at soul he was a poet. He told of the grandeur of the big, solemn redwoods, of the ice-cold creeks that plunged riotously through the mysterious fastnesses of great forests. He told of his dead father and mother, asleep forever between the big bull pines on Wild-cat Hill. He told of his cramped, starved life, of his hopes and vague ambitions and his dreams.
She listened silently, deeply interested, her dark eyes glowing upon him, her chin cupped by a strong brown hand. His simplicity was new and refreshing. Soon she realized that no ordinary mind lay dormant back of the well-formed forehead of this tender-hearted backwoodsman. His talk showed that he had read a great deal and had somehow grasped the significance of it all. Several times her eyes filled with tears as she listened; often she smiled understandingly at his quaint confessions. Presently she asked:
"Hiram, have you any ambition for an education?"
"Yes," he told her. "I've always wanted that, I guess. That's why I read so much, I s'pose. But there wasn't much chance up there. I learned all they could teach me at school—learned it easy. But there wasn't any chance to go farther."
"You've that chance now," she told him softly.
"Do you mean——" He stopped, his lips parted as he gazed into her eyes.
"Just that," she said. "I'll help you. We'll study together. Right here in my wagon. Your blacks will jog along without you over many stretches in the road from Julia to the camps. Through the mountains, of course, we shall have to be at the jerklines constantly. We'll be four days traveling between Julia and the camps, loaded, and between two and three days returning empty. Only one day of the trip going will be over a mountain road. The rest of the time you may ride with me and fight for your education. I'll help you."
"Miss Jo——" There was a lump in Hiram's throat.
"Just Jo, please. No one ever troubles to call me miss, and I don't want them to."
"I'll do it, then, Jo," said Hiram huskily. "I never dreamed I'd ever have such a chance. And I'll work, too—I'll study night and day. But why—why are you doin' this for me?"
Slowly the rich color mounted to the cheeks Jerkline Jo. "I—I know how it is," she said. "I was raised in a gypo camp, and had no chance until late in my teens. Knew nothing but mules and horses until I was eighteen or over—cared for nothing else. And I love them still; but I've grown ambitious to get all that I can from life. I like you, Hiram Hooker. You're a big, clean-minded, simple-souled man. I'll help you all I can."
Hiram's experience with Lucy Dalles, and now with this splendid girl called Jerkline Jo, might have turned the head of a more sophisticated male. But the big woods of the North teach a man his insignificance in the scheme of life, teach him honesty and simplicity of heart and sincerity. So now Hiram Hooker's ego was not inflamed. He had no idea of his appeal to the other sex. Few women could help admiring such a handsome young giant as was Hiram, strong as a bull, symmetrical as some sturdy plant; and his drawling, soft voice was a caress that bespoke the kindly heart of a child and the tenderness of a woman. Withal he had a poet's soul, and all women love poetry in a man.
"Tell me about Twitter-or-Tweet, and so forth," she begged finally. "I can't understand that man. Is he a pure fake?"
"I don't know," Hiram replied. "He was mighty good to me in a way. He's been about a heap."
"Hiram, if you'll pardon me, we'll begin your lesson right now. I wouldn't say a 'heap.' You must try to overcome such colloquialisms."
"I'll try never to say it again," Hiram promised unblushingly.
"But listen," she added. "Don't take me to task if you hear me saying things in the vernacular of the railroad grade. I have to. As Gypo Jo, I know thousands of the old-timers, and they expect certain things of me for old times' sake. As Jerkline Jo, the situation will be much the same. I am obliged to be a mixer. Men whose friendship I could not afford to dispense with even if I wished to—which, I assure you, I do not—won't stand for a high-and-mighty attitude in me. I am of the railroad grade, and proud of it, and I must continue to be a part of the rough-and-ready frontier life. Hiram, I suppose your ideas of womanhood are very hallowed. Will you be greatly shocked when you see me go into a tent saloon and drink a glass of beer with the rabble of the big camps?"
"Do you do that?"
"I simply have to, Hiram. Ever since I was knee-high to you, until a very few years ago, I lived with one or more tent saloons within a stone's throw of our camp. Morals are, after all, a local conception, Hiram. What is thought to be wrong in one country will be the accepted practice just over the border line. It's all in the viewpoint. I not only go into saloons with men friends of mine, but sometimes I play poker or roulette or faro just to please them. And listen: Never in all my rough-and-ready life in railroad camps have I been insulted by regular stiffs, as the laborers are called. Certain outsiders have misunderstood my freedom from conventionality on several occasions, but always to their sorrow. Understand, I don't care the snap of my finger for beer, or to gamble; but these things will be expected of me now as in the old days when I knew no better, and I dare not assume a superior attitude toward people who have known me since I was found, a mere baby, half buried by the desert sands."
She told Hiram about her childhood then, and that she knew nothing of her parents, not even her own true name. Hiram gave ear eagerly to her story, and thought he understood her situation.
"I couldn't think anything wrong of you, ma'am,' he told her gently as she finished.
"And don't call me 'ma'am,' please," she corrected with a friendly smile. "And that reminds me that I made us wander from the subject of Twitter-or-Tweet. You were telling me about him when I interrupted. What is he? He's not a common tramp—a stiff."
"He says he's a promoter and capitalist," Hiram repeated.
"Of course he's talking nonsense."
Hiram then told of Mr. Tweet's card, which promulgated his operations as a salesman of banana lands, and of the stock he claimed to own in the new ditch digger.
"I thought perhaps he was some sort of a book agent," said the girl, laughing.
"I don't know much about people," Hiram confessed with naive simplicity. "I can't judge folks very well—some folks, anyway."
"I'm afraid he's a wind bag," decided Jo. "Well, we'll befriend him to the grade, anyway, and I guess that then he'll be obliged to shift for himself. If freight were moving freely, and every day, I might manage to use him—but that won't be the case at first. So we'll have to bid him good-by at the camps. I have an idea he can take care of himself."
Jerkline Jo glanced at her leather-protected wrist watch.
"It's eight minutes of twelve, Hiram," she announced. "I'll roll out my biscuit dough. Can you yell? If so, shout ahead to Blink Keddie and call a halt for noon."
Hiram rose to his six feet one and cupped his great hands about his mouth. The mellow call that he sent out had rung through miles of Mendocino forest, and now caused every skinner in the line to turn and look back. A wave of Jo's hand and they understood the noon had come.
When they were in camp, and the teams had been fed and watered from the great tank wagon, and Jerkline Jo, with the able help of Twitter-or-Tweet, had made ready the steaming meal, there arose loud praise of the girl's idea concerning the fireless cooker.
"By golly, Jo, this here's grub!" applauded Jim McAllen. "Some scheme, ol'-timer!"
"I thought it was a kind of a nutty idea when you sprung it, Jo," confessed Tom Gulick, "but I'm strong for the cooker now. Long may she wave! Pass the gravy, Blink."
Jerkline Jo glowed with pleasure over her success.
Mr. Tweet made himself very useful by acting as waiter, and hopped about with pots and pans, leading the steaming food on the skinners' plates. Jo watched him with interest, but still was unable to consider him anything but an imaginative failure—a man who perhaps had seen better days.
When they had finished eating, he collected the dishes, and, as water was heating on the oil stove, had everything washed up and in its place before the resumption of their travel.
"He's clean and neat and thoughtful," Jerkline Jo reflected. "Perhaps I'll be able to use him after all. We could use an extra man as roustabout, if business gets good. I'll see. He seems so fond of Hiram, and, really, if it weren't for him, I'd never heard of Hiram."
She grew thoughtful then, and a trace of red showed under her brown skin. Why had she become so interested in this big countryman from the very start, she wondered.
It was a long, tiresome trip, and days before they reached their temporary destination Hiram Hooker was riding in Jo's wagon, deep in history and algebra and grammar, for Jo had with her all of her schoolbooks.
The days seemed short to both of them. As the magnificent whites plodded steadily on, there was added to the music of the nickeled bells the rapid clicking of Jo at the portable typewriter, or the slower, hesitating peck of Hiram Hooker. They were a silent pair, for they were deep in their studies.
Strange indeed was the picture they presented as they were moved slowly along under the hot desert sky. But for Hiram, at least, this was the beginning of everything. Some magic touch had set him on the road that for years he had longed to travel—the road to knowledge and a better life. Beside him rode the adventure girl who had been beckoning him out of the woods of doubt and ignorance, the girl who had colored his dreams up on lonely Wild-cat Hill.
Hiram quickly became a favorite with Jo's skinners, too; for anybody or anything that the girl approved of was sure to make an appeal to the loyal little crew who swore by Jerkline Jo. Besides, Hiram was irresistible in his quaint geniality and his musical drawl. They called him "Wild Cat" at first, but when they considered his hugeness and uniform good nature the name seemed a misnomer; so they amended it and called him "The Gentle Wild Cat." This moniker clung to Hiram Hooker through all of his subsequent life in the desert.
The seventh day after their start, at evening, they rolled into Julia and set the populace agog with speculation.
As the whites passed the depot the station master came out.
"Does a fella named Jerkline Jo belong to this outfit?" he asked, walking along beside Jo's wagon.
"I'm Jerkline Jo," she told him.
"You! Huh! Well, there's a wire for you. I'll run and get it."
Jo called to her ten whites to halt, and the wagon came to a rest. A minute later the yellow paper was in her hands. She read:
Twenty tons awaiting you at Mulligan Supply Company, Julia. Get it over the mountains at once to Breece Brothers, Hunter & Stevenson, and Washburn-Stokes. Drummond's trucks are coming. You are in for a stiff fight. Good luck. DEMAREST.
MR. TWEET NEGOTIATES A LOAN
Oblivious to the staring eyes of the little desert town of Julia, Jerkline Jo, after pitching camp near water on the edge of the village, began hurrying about on her business.
She was directed to the man who owned the land on which the teams and men were now resting, and found that she could make a deal to lease the property at a reasonable figure. She made a freckle-faced boy happy with a bright new dime, and sent him back to her men with instructions for them to pitch the tents permanently and proceed to make the spot the Julia headquarters of the outfit.
She wired her thanks to Demarest and assured him that the order would go forward next day, if the dealers had it ready. Next she hunted up the Mulligan Supply Company and found that it was a new concern in Julia, having just moved in with a large stock of goods from Los Angeles. It was a branch of a big Los Angeles jobbing firm, and the new railroad across the mountains had brought it here.
The manager greeted her warmly, and told her that he had heard of her through Mr. Demarest. The entire order was ready for immediate shipment, he said, so Jo hurried back to camp and had her men hook two horses on each of six wagons, now empty, and drive to the store, where they were backed in to the loading platform.
They ate their supper then, and afterward worked far into the night loading case goods, baled hay, grain, new tools, and innumerable like commodities. When the wagons were loaded and the great tarpaulins hauled down over everything but the hay and grain, it was necessary for Jo to appoint a watchman for the night. She had no more than broached the subject when Playmate Tweet, who had helped manfully with the loading, offered his services.
"I been just ridin' all day," he said, "and tryin' to convince Pete that I'm a reg'lar fella. I'll squat on the goods till mornin', come what may."
In truth Jo did not just like to trust him. The goods, amounting in value far up into the thousands, were now under her complete control, and she was accountable for every penny to the purchasers of them. But she had not the heart to refuse Tweet's offer, and she wanted her skinners to rest for the remainder of the night, in view of the hard work that lay before them. So she accepted, and Mr. Tweet took his post.
He was there like the boy on the burning deck when they came with the teams early next morning, walking about briskly to keep warm through the cold desert dawn, whistling merrily. Jo had brought his breakfast on a plate, and hot coffee in a bottle.
Carter Potts, the blacksmith, was left behind to set up his shop and care for the extra mules and horses.
Quickly the teams were hooked on, and with complaining groans and heavy wagons, each now weighing with its load upward of six and a third tons, moved through the sleepy town toward the distant mountains.
"Hooker," said Tweet, as he sat beside his friend behind the laboring blacks, "this is a man's life. This is doin' somethin'! This is gettin' somewhere! This is livin'! I envy you, Hiram. I envy you that big body of yours and the way you can handle ten big horses as if you were drivin' a trick donkey hitched to a clown's cart. Wild Cat, you're a lucky man. And what a glorious woman, Hooker, to throw the magic over it all! You're the man for her, my boy—the only man I ever met that oughta have the nerve to try to win her. And she fell for you, you big buffalo with the voice of a turtle-dove! Play her carefully, boy, and you can win. Don't go at it like you did with Cream Puffs, up there in Frisco. But you'll win her, Hiram—it's in you to do it. Now, Hooker, can you slip me a five-spot when we get to the camps?"
"I haven't much more than that, Playmate," Hiram averred.
"Well, you got a job, ain't you? I haven't. Money didn't seem to worry you much when you were puttin' on your Follies o' Nineteen-twenty with Lucy, up there where the white lights gleam."
"What are you going to do with it?" asked Hiram.
"This is your foolish day, ain't it? I'll tell you what I'm not goin' to do with it. I'm not goin' to hire an automobile at four dollars an hour and take a lassie out for a ride over the desert."
"I'll try and let you have it."
"Just how much jack you got on you yet, Hooker, old friend from Wild Cat?"
"That's a mint, man! Say, try to slip me all of it, will you, Hiram? I got a scheme. You won't need it—you got a job. And remember who was the means o' gettin' it, Hiram. Why, it's worth seven bucks for the privilege of just lookin' once into those eyes o' Jerkline Jo."
"Can't you go to work over at the camps and earn some money?" Hiram wanted to know.
"I could—yes. But I don't earn my jack that way, Hiram. I'm a promoter."
"Jo told me she thought she might be able to give you something to do, after all."
"Don't want it. Tender her my heartfelt thanks just the same, Hiram. All I wanted in the first place was to get down here and look things over, then go to work and get a toehold and start the fireworks. If things are like I think—say, I'll be givin' you people jobs in a week or so. B'lieve it, Hiram?"
"No," replied Hiram bluntly. "Buck, step up a little! Molly! Pete!"
Playmate Tweet sighed heavily. "Hardest folks to convince I ever struck," he complained. "Listen, Hooker: last night while I was guardin' the loads the night watchman at Julia strolled around, and we had a little talk. He's an old-timer in this country, and he told me all about it from there to Ellangone. I got some dope from him about this country we're makin' for; and puttin' what I heard from him with what Jerkline Jo has told me, I gets a grand scheme. It'll put me in on the ground floor, if things break right and then——' Oh, boy! Richard will be himself again!"
"Tell me about it!"
"Too deep for you, my son. You'd never savvy the ins and outs. Besides, when Twitter-or-Tweet Tweet gets his nose to a trail, he's one old hound that don't bark his head off—see? There'll be other bright young promoters lookin' for the secret, and I've learned to keep my mouth shut.
"Now," he went on, "when I get over there and have a little look-see, I may decide to beat it out pronto and start the clockworks. If I do, I'll need your seven dollars to get me back into the land o' the livin', where I can start the performance. If I give you the word, Hooker, slip me that jack. If I don't tell you to, I'll go to work at some o' the camps and make a stake and beat it for more promisin' pastures. You'll never regret it, Hooker. It'll be bread cast on the waters, and she'll come back chocolate cake."
"I'll think about it," Hiram promised.
"Do that! And in the event that I say things look extra good, you'd better slip Jerkline Jo a little sob story, and get her to let you drag down what you got comin' on your wages—and slip that to me, too. By golly, Hooker, once I get a toehold, Millions is my middle name."
Hiram smiled wryly.
On through the day the teams plodded toward the mountain pass. Hiram rode with Jerkline Jo in their movable schoolroom, and left Tweet to his own thoughts behind the blacks. They camped on the desert that night, at a ranch conveniently situated between Julia and the mountains, where was an abundance of artesian water. Next day at one o'clock they left the flat, hot sweeps and ascended steadily into firs and pines on the old mines road.
They were obliged to stop frequently and make repairs in the road and to clear away brush that for years had been overgrowing the course of their steep climb.
Often as they ascended laboriously they followed shelves hacked in mountainsides, with the desert they had left thousands of feet below them. There were places where a solid wall of rock upreared itself on one side of the narrow road, while on the other side a precipice dropped straight down, and tall pines at its base looked like toothpicks. There were hair-pin curves which taxed the skinners' ingenuity, where the one or the other of their pointers would cross the chain to pull the wagons away from the banks, and often both pointers were obliged to leave the road entirely and pull along the sides of precipices.
However, they topped the highest point in the pass before darkness had overtaken them completely. They camped for the night beside a picturesque and cold mountain lake, at an altitude of six thousand five hundred feet.
Morning showed them the desert, sweeping away again on the other side of the range. There still remained twenty-five miles to be traveled, eight of them comprising the descent through the pass.
Once down on the level again, Hiram turned his team over to the care of Tweet, and boarded Jo's wagon for the continuation of his education.
So they crawled on persistently, and eventually, ahead of them over the desert, white tents glowed pink in the sunlight like toadstools in a great timberless pasture, and their first trip was nearing its end.
When they reached the first cluster of tents Jerkline Jo discovered that they represented the largest of the subcontractors to whom her freight had been consigned. The next one was situated five miles farther up the line, and the third six miles beyond that. None of them had been there when she made her horseback trip. Close to the first camp that they reached, that of the Washburn-Stokes Construction Company's, the inevitable rag town had sprung up.
Already there were a dozen or more tents, most of them housing saloons, dance halls, and gamblers' layouts, and here and there a board or corrugated iron structure was under process of building. Only the three construction camps, as yet, had arrived on this portion of the work; the next camp beyond this group was fifty miles to the north.
Jerkline Jo knew, however, that before many days had passed camps large and small would be dotted along the right of way, and that all must be supplied by some one.
She stood talking to Mr. Washburn, the head of the firm, while his freight was being stacked before the huge commissary tent, when Mr. Tweet approached her.
"I'd like a word with you, Miss Modock, when you're at liberty," he said politely.
"Why, I'm just loafing with Mr. Washburn now," she said lightly, and turned away with him.
"Will you please tell me again what you did a few days back about the camp at Demarest, Spruce & Tillou?" he asked. "Explain it all, please—just why you think the tent town will eventually be located in a different place than it is now."
"Why, it's simple," she told him. "It's this way: Demarest, Spruce & Tillou have the main contract here—a hundred miles, I've heard. When a big company like that contracts to build a hundred miles of grade, they at once begin to sublet portions to smaller contractors. Some take a mile; some two miles, some five—according to the nature of the work and the respective capacities of their outfits. Understand?"
"Yes—I got that."
"Well, it's natural, then, that the most difficult pieces—the biggest work—will be the most difficult to sublet. Consequently when the main contractors can sublet no more, they move in and get at the difficult pieces that remain on their hands.
"Now, I've seen a good bit of this line, and I've talked with the engineers. Also I know the names of most of the subcontractors who have figured on the job. I know that none of them have adequate equipment to tackle the big rock cut that will be necessary through that chain of buttes, twelve miles to the south of here."
She pointed to the buttes, blue and hazy in the evening light of the desert.
"So, my friend, it follows as the night the day that Demarest, Spruce & Tillou will eventually move in with their heaviest-hitting outfit to run that cut, which certainly will be left on their hands. It follows as the night the day, again, that the leeches who always drift in to get the stiff's pay day away from them will settle near the biggest camp, if there's sufficient water.
"Down near those buttes, where the big camp is bound to be, there's plenty of water, and before many days have passed Ragtown in all its glory will be erected right there.
"These supplies that we're hauling now are charged to the account of Demarest, Spruce & Tillou," she further explained. "You see, they furnish their subs with everything they need. Now when Demarest, Spruce & Tillou move in there will be little or no freighting for us to any camp but theirs. All goods will be concentrated in their commissary then, and the subs will buy direct from them and do their own hauling to the various camps. Of course, Ragtown will have to be supplied—but Ragtown and Demarest, Spruce & Tillou's Camp Number One will be virtually the same as regards our freight terminus."
"And how long before the main contractors will get here?" he asked, working his twisted nose from side to side as if in the hope of eventually persuading it to point dead ahead.
"That all depends on whether they have given up trying to sublet any more work or not. If they think they won't be able to load any one else up with a job, they'll be in directly—almost any day. But if they still think there's a chance to get rid of the hard pieces, they'll hold off until the matter is settled, of course."
"Thank you," said Mr. Tweet abruptly, and was turning briskly away when she remarked:
"I've decided that perhaps I can use you after all, if——"
"Sorry," he interrupted, "but I can't accept your offer, even though I appreciate it and thank you from the bottom of my heart. Truth is, I gotta get busy. I've heard there's a stage goin' out to the north to-night, and I gotta make it. By the way, did Hiram speak to you about advancin' him what pay was comin' to him?"
Jo's eyes narrowed. "No," she said coldly, "he didn't mention such a matter."
Twitter-or-Tweet came back to her. "Listen," he said, "you owe him about twenty bucks. I want it. I'll need it. You slip it to Hiram, and I'll borrow it off o' him. You see——"
"Why, I'll do nothing of the sort!" she cried vehemently. "Do I look like a sucker to you, Mr. Tweet?"
"Oh, dear, dear, dear!" he cried. "You don't understand. I'm gonta swing somethin' big. I need that and what Hiram's already got to float me along till I can hit the ball. For Heaven's sake, put a little confidence in me, ma'am, can't you? I'm gonta send the Gentle Wild Cat to you. He'll tell you. He trusts me."
"He trusts everybody," she remarked evenly. "Besides," she added, "you seem to forget, too, that you owe me for your railroad fare down here."
"Oh, that! Why, I'll pay you that in no time now. But wait—I'll unload freight in Hiram's place, and send him to you."
Sure enough, Hiram came presently and asked her, as a special favor to him, to let him have what money was owing to him.
"Hiram," she said, "you're going to lend it to Tweet, and he's going out in the auto stage to-night."
"I know it," said Hiram. "I got to help him. He's been a pretty good friend to me, Jo, and—and—I just like him. Why, if it hadn't been for him I'd never met you."
Jo colored and looked away. "You big, simple-hearted boy!" she cried. "Do you know what he is going to do?"
"No—he won't talk."
She was thoughtful a little, then took out a purse and handed him a twenty-dollar bill.
"Kiss it good-by," she said; "but I suppose the experience will be worth something to you."
"Thank you," said Hiram, very red of face. "I'm sorry for what I said about you meetin' me through Tweet, Jo. I meant to say, o' course, that if it hadn't been for Tweet I'd never got the job."
"Oh," said Jo, straight-lipped, "I understand."
Tweet was not with the outfit when it pitched camp close by for the night. He sat in the automobile stage instead, and waved a friendly good-by to them. "Bread on the water, Hiram, comes back chocolate cake!" he cried. "That is, Tweet bread does. Ha-ha, Hiram! You been mighty good to me, folks. So long for a time!"
Toward the middle of the following afternoon Jerkline Jo's freight outfit, minus the diverting Mr. Tweet of the twisted nose, was wending its way empty back toward the distant mountains, hauling the necessary water in the tank wagon.
They were still ten miles from the mouth of the mountain pass when they went into camp on the desert for the night. When they started next morning the tank wagon was taken on a way and left, for, with the lake at the highest point of the pass, and the artesian water at the desert ranch on the other side, they would be well supplied for the remainder of the trip.
Before noon they were entering the pass and moving up the steep ascent into cooler atmosphere, and light, invigorating air, scented with the breath of pines and junipers.
Hiram Hooker was lazing on his high seat, dreaming and watching his leaders, when from behind came the familiar call: