He turned his face back toward the mistress of the ten gigantic whites.
"Who repaired the road back there?" she shouted.
"I don't know," Hiram called back. "I can't remember that we stopped there."
"We didn't. Some one else has done that. Keep your eyes open, Gentle Wild Cat."
Hiram did this, and presently began to see ruts had been filled in repeatedly and the marks left by boulders that had been snaked to the edge of the precipice and allowed to thunder down a canon.
This continued all the way to the summit, where they camped for a late nooning beside the mountain lake.
When they took up the journey again, and had reached a point half a mile beyond the lake, came upon a lone touring car and a little camp. Frequently now Hiram looked back, to see perplexity and worry on the usually placid brow of Jerkline Jo. A half mile beyond the camp they found seven men working with ax and pick and shovel, repairing the road.
Jo set the heavy brake and called to her ten to stop. Hearing her command, Hiram also halted his blacks. The rest of the skinners moved on slowly down the mountain, looking back for Jo's signal for them to stop. She gave none, however, so they continued on.
"Who is repairing this road, please?" Jo called from her wagon to a group of men.
One of them approached her a few steps. "Fella called Drummond," he replied.
"Isn't he the automobile-truck man from San Francisco?"
"Is he here?"
"No, ma'am. He come to Julia and got us to come over here in a machine and go to work, and he went back to Los Angeles, I think. Said he'd be out in a day or two."
"Thank you," said Jo, and threw off her brake.
There was no good opportunity for Hiram to talk over this matter with her until they had left the mountains and were in camp at the desert ranch. "I don't quite like it," Jo said then. "It seems that Mr. Drummond should have come to me in this matter, and if the road needed repairing to the extent that he is doing it we should share the expense between us."
"Drummond?" queried Hiram. "I think I know that man. I've seen him, anyway."
"In San Francisco. It seems that Tweet was in a restaurant there talking to a—a waitress about coming down here. This Drummond he—he knew that waitress, and came in to see her while Tweet was there. They got to talking it over, I guess, and Tweet told him all about the new railroad. The waitress told me——"
"You mean Lucy?"
Hiram's face reddened. "That was her name," he admitted. "I—I suppose Tweet told you about her."
"A little. But I interrupted."
"Well, Lucy said Drummond had been interested in what Tweet had to say, and he said he might look into the freighting possibilities of the new road. He's got a string of trucks, I was told."
"What sort of a man is he, Hiram?"
"Big fellow—always seems to be having fun. He's as big as I am, but not so awkward, I guess. He wears fine clothes. But I don't know anything about him at all. I never spoke to him."
The outfit reached Julia in the course of time, and found that "Blacky" Potts had set up his shop in a large circular tent, and was hammering away briskly on his anvil. Also he had made the camp snug and comfortable under whispering cottonwood, and had fenced off a corral with barbed wire.
Jo at once went to the Mulligan Supply Company to learn that a message had come to her, in their care, from Demarest. It stated that their big construction outfit was then on its way from northern California, and would cross to the new railroad from a point seventy-five miles to the north. In view of the long trip, they wished to travel as light as possible. Consequently there was another big order for Jo to freight in ahead of them at once. What interested Jo more, though, was the fact that Demarest ordered it delivered at the buttes, asking that a watchman be camped there to guard the supplies, provided they arrived ahead of the outfit.
Immediately they went to work at the loading, and in the end six wagons were carrying capacity. The seventh lead wagon was an extra, which Jo had decided to use only in case of a breakdown. With thirty tons of hay, grain, case goods, and barreled provisions they started back early the following morning. Jo's heart was light, for this was exceedingly good business, and it was coming faster than she had dared to hope, with so few camps established. Still, she was puzzled over the repairing of the mountain road.
"Fellow called Drummond has a big order to haul in trucks," the manager of the supply company had told her. "It's for a store that's going to open up at Ragtown, I understand. Guess he'll get it out tomorrow or next day."
All went well with the wagon train during the first lap of the desert trip. Hiram rode with his employer, and their migratory institution of learning was in full swing. Then when they reached the beginning of the mountain pass they found a shock in store for them.
The head skinner, Blink Keddie, had no more than entered the pass with his eight bay mules when a man stepped into the road and held up a hand for him to stop. He was a Western-looking individual, a seamed-faced son of the deserts, and an immense Colt revolver dragged at his hips. He had come from a tiny tent set back from the road a way, half hidden by junipers and close to a trickling spring.
Keddie clamped his brake and stopped his eight, eying the stranger curiously. Keddie, like Heine Schultz and Tom Gulick, had been on the railroad grade with Pickhandle Modock when Jo was a little girl. He was devoted to her and her interests, and anything that threatened her prosperity he was wont to look upon as his personal affair.
"Mornin'," he drawled as the following teams came to a stop, and skinners cupped hands behind their ears to listen.
"Quite a jag you got there," observed the man in the road.
Blink was entirely sober. "Jag" referred to the enormity of the load of freight.
"Little matter o' sixty thousand, altogether. I wasn't aimin' to let 'em blow right here, though, I pardner. Was there any particular reason ye had for stoppin' me?"
"Well, maybe there was, stranger. How many teams ye got pullin'."
Blink counted rapidly. "Four tens and two eights," he made reply.
"Uh-huh—but I mean how many span, pardner?"
Once more Blink struggled with arithmetic. "That'd make twenty-eight pair, wouldn't it?"
"Just about—just about, pardner. And two times twenty-eight is fifty-six, ain't it?"
Blink Keddie promptly agreed.
"Agreed, eh? Then I'll ask ye kindly for fifty-six dollars, stranger."
Keddie thoughtfully began rolling a cigarette. "If I had fifty-six dollars, ol'-timer," he said, "I wouldn't converse with the likes o' you."
The gunman grinned. "Does take some time to save that amount skinnin' jerkline or bein' toll master on a mountain road," he admitted. "Are you the boss?"
"If I was the boss," slowly returned Blink, "I wouldn't live in the same county with you."
By this time Jerkline Jo, who had been hurrying forward along the wagon train to find out what had occurred, arrived on the scene of their airy persiflage.
"What's wrong here, Blink?" she wanted to know.
"This fella has been insultin' me," claimed Blink. "He insinuated I belonged to the idle-rich class. I guess he's institutin' some sort of a drive or other. You talk to 'im, Jo."
"Well?" The girl wheeled and faced the man, hands on hips.
The Westerner swept off his hat. "Ye see, ma'am," he said to her, "this here's a toll road now—from here clean acrost the mountains to the desert on t'other side. I'm toll master. I'm to collect two dollars a loaded team for the trip through the pass. The price includes the return trip, empty."
Jerkline Jo paled. Up behind her crowded Tom Gulick, Hiram Hooker, Heine Schultz, and Jim McAllen, and, if looks could have killed, the man with the gun would have been ripe for the undertaker's care.
"Two dollars! You mean——"
"A dollar a head, then, ma'am. You got fifty-six animals. That 'u'd be fifty-six dollars, wouldn't it?" He smiled persuasively.
Jo gasped, and turned and glanced helplessly over her little army of loyal men.
"By whose authority are you demanding this?" She spun back to the toll master, her dark eyes now aflame.
"Mr. Al Drummond he's the boss, ma'am. He's from Friscotown. He's gotta keep up the road, so o' course he's gonta charge other folks to travel on it. It's jest like as if it was his private prop'ty, as I savvy the deal, ma'am. I got papers to show ye, if ye wanta see 'em. Course I got nothin' to do with it—nothin' atall. Mr. Drummond he jest hired me to collect the fees and keep folks off that refused to pay. I might add, though, ma'am, that I've always been considered a pretty good keeper-off when I'm hired for that purpose. I'm from the Kitchen Rancho, over toward the Tehachapi. They call me Tehachapi Hank. At yer service, ma'am."
Jerkline Jo's red lips were straight. She was indignant. A sense of defeat almost overwhelmed her. Such a situation had not even remotely occurred to her. In a wave of despair the realization swept over her that she had attempted something of which she knew nothing. There had been no one to advise her, and in the unbounded confidence of youth she had not sought counsel. On the railroad grade few men could have put anything over on her. But this was another matter.
Fifty-six dollars for the eighteen-mile trip through the pass! It would be ruinous. She would be obliged to advance her rate to meet this additional expense, and then the truckman holding the franchise would be able to haul freight cheaper than she could.
Back of her the men were muttering useless threats among themselves. Jo found her voice at last. There was no need to ask to see a copy of the franchise, because there was not the slightest doubt in her mind that everything was aboveboard in that respect. She simply had been outgeneraled. There was nothing to do but to pay—for the present, at least—as the freight on her wagons must be delivered at any cost, now that she had contracted to deliver it. What she said was:
"Will you accept my check?"
"Certainly, ma'am—most certain," was the ready reply.
"I'll go back to my wagon and write one for you then," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "Let the wagons go on, please. When mine reaches you I'll hand out the check."
Tehachapi Hank touched his broad-brimmed hat again. "All right and proper, ma'am," he assured her.
He was waiting by the roadside when her stanch whites marched past him, and she reached the check out through the slats of the rack. He touched his hat brim again and smiled then with true Western politeness, pocketed the slip of paper without so much as glancing at it.
Dully she watched the broad straining backs of her beloved animals as they planted their great fetlocked feet and heaved their burden ever upward. Ahead of them she could hear her skinners shouting back and forth from wagon to wagon above the jingling of the bells, their tones high-pitched and angry. Why had she not consulted with Demarest and asked him to lay before her details of every angle that might present itself in such an undertaking as hers?
Demarest knew all the twists and turns of modern business ruthlessness. He might have been able to foresee a situation like this and to put weapons into her hands with which she might have combated it.
She shrugged her sturdy shoulders finally, and as noon was close at hand gave attention to her cooking. For the present she would drive the matter from her thoughts. There was work to be accomplished, which was a part of the present delivery of freight. When this task was completed she would see what could be done.
IN LETTERS OF BLACK
There was a general outburst of indignation on the part of Jerkline Jo's devoted retainers when the outfit went into camp at noon, quarterway through the mountain pass.
"We'll fix 'im, Jo!" Heine Schultz exclaimed angrily. "All we gotta do is make out to get ahead o' his old cough wagons and not let 'em pass. We can hold 'im back clear through the pass, if we string out. Le's figger it out fer the rest o' the trip, Jo. There's not over six places where one vehicle can pass another. Now what we gotta do is string out our outfit so's none o' us'll hit one o' those places when the machines are comin'. Say, we can hold 'em up till——"
"Heine," said Jerkline Jo quietly, "is that your idea of business."
"Course it is. Stick it to the Al Drummond, Jo! He's started somethin' that he'll have a hard time finishin', that's all. Say, we can slip it to him till he'll be sick o' that dirty deal he handed you. Leave it to Blink and me. We got it all schemed out."
"Heine," Jo remarked, "we'll travel right along as we have always traveled. If one of Mr. Drummond's trucks comes up behind us and wants to pass we will let it pass when it is convenient to do so."
"Not here, Jo! My team don't put one foot outa the road to let a truck pass."
"No, I don't expect you to do that. But it will depend on conditions. If you are loaded and he is empty, of course he must look out for himself. Again, if you are climbing and he is coming down, he must get out of the difficulty as best he can. But when you, loaded, reach a place where a truck can pass you, and you know one is coming up behind you and wishes to pass, you will stop your team in the road and let it circle around you."
"I won't, Jo! I——"
"Yes, you will. You will do as I say, as you always do." She smiled at him sweetly and patted his shoulder. "Loyal old Heinrich!" she said. "Just the same old-timer, we must observe the courtesy of the road always. Think it over—you'll see I'm right."
"Jo, you can't afford a jolt like that," said Jim McAllen.
"I can't," Jo told him frankly. "Right now I don't know what to do. I must keep on, by some hook or crook, till I can get advice from some one who's onto such tricks—Demarest, perhaps."
"It's a rotten deal!"
"I have an idea it's perfectly legitimate, Jim."
"They ain't gonta do anything to the road to make it worth a tenth o' what they ask to travel on it. You saw the little putterin' jobs they did, Jo."
"I have an idea," replied the girl, "that when winter comes they'll be quite busy. And it also occurs to me that, now that they've agreed to maintain the road if given the franchise, we can make them do it down to the letter, or render their franchise void."
"By golly, I bet you can at that, Jo!" put in Tom Gulick. "I've heard, though, there's a rotten bunch of grafters runnin' this county. They'd probably beat you out some way, so long as Drummond was puttin' up cigar money for them."
Up until now Hiram Hooker had said nothing. Now came his soothing drawl, and the others listened.
"I don't know much about automobiles and what they can do," he said. "But I do know mountains and mountain roads, and somethin' about mountain soil. And I've this to say: If Jo can hang on till winter there'll be no trucks runnin' against her. Then if they still collect for crossin' through the pass, all she's got to do is raise the freight rate to meet the extra expense. There's exactly ten places on the road where we're goin' to hook maybe thirty horses on every wagon to get across next winter. And I'll bet my month's wages against a dollar of Mr. Drummond's money that he'll be begging for teams to haul him out. Then, of course, the price ought to be about fifty-six dollars a haul, regardless of distance, hadn't it?"
"Good boy!" cried Keddie. "Listen to our Gentle Wild Cat pur! He's right, too, I'll say. If we can hang on till winter, Jo can collect back all she's paid out for tolls—and I'll say a little profit on the deal wouldn't make me weep."'
"But winter's a long way off," Jim McAllen gloomily pointed out.
After this there was thoughtful silence.
To add to the misfortunes of the second trip to the camps, Jim McAllen broke a reach when the train neared the foot of the grade. There were spare reaches in the outfit, of course, but they had to unload the wagon to substitute one, and it all took a great deal of time. Then a horse became sick, and Jerkline Jo positively refused to work a sick horse. The animal was taken out of harness and allowed to tag along behind with his mate, who automatically became useless, too. A ton of supplies was taken from the wagon to which the sick horse belonged, and distributed among the other loads. This took more time, and night overtook the outfit with several miles between them and the tank wagon that awaited their coming on the desert.
Hour after hour they plodded along, not daring to camp until they had water. There was no moon, and as the desert road was little more than a trail Heine Schultz let his team tag Keddie's and walked ahead with a lantern to guide the lead skinner. Thirsty and hungry and weary, they reached the tank about nine o'clock. Then came a hearty curse from the man with the lantern, followed by:
"Lord, be merciful unto me, a skinner! The tank's empty, Jo!"
The party descended hurriedly and crowded about him. It was a steel tank, and a careful search failed to show that any of its plates had sprung a leak. Then the light was held under the spigot, and, though the hot desert sun had evaporated every drop of water, there was a hole worn in the sand where it had fallen in a stream. The spigot was open.
"How 'bout it now, Jo?" Heine queried. "Is this what you call legitimate business—huh? I guess now you'll let me hold 'em back when I can."
Without replying Jo stooped and made an examination.
"Some one has turned the water out," she said, rising wearily. "Will we be obliged to hire a watchman to camp by our water tank? This is serious, boys. The unwritten law of the desert would condemn whoever did this to a lariat and a yucca palm. Still, we don't know who did it. It's too dark to find tracks or to learn anything about it. It's seventeen miles to the Washburn-Stokes outfit—the nearest water ahead. Or it's eight miles back to the lake in the mountains. What's best to do?"
They turned the problem over and over, and finally decided unanimously that to send the tank with six horses back to the lake, to be refilled, was the wiser plan. Hiram volunteered for the trip, and Schultz volunteered to go with him. At once the two set off behind six of Hiram's lamenting animals for the long night trip, eating a hasty lunch as they traveled.
Dawn was breaking when they returned with a full tank, and were greeted by the braying of the mules and the expectant nickering of the horses, who smelled the water from afar.
Jo ordered a rest until ten o'clock, to counteract the suffering that the thirsty animals had undergone and to rest Hiram's six after the performance of their double task.
These setbacks made them late in their arrival at the scene of coming toil, but gradually the distant buttes grew plainer as they moved on steadily toward them over the crunching sands, so hot and barren.
Hiram Hooker was riding with Jerkline Jo as they approached the buttes. She was hammering away on her typewriter, while Hiram was deep in a mathematical problem, his tongue out and gripped by his teeth. The clicking of the typewriter ceased suddenly, and Jo asked:
"Isn't that a tent over there near the buttes, Wild Cat?"
Hiram looked up and shielded his eyes, straining his vision over the rolling white backs of Jo's team into the yellow vastness beyond.
"Looks like it," he said.
"We'll not have to arrange for a watchman then. Demarest has sent a man, I guess. Get out my binoculars, please, and see what you can make out."
Hiram took the strong glasses from their case, and, steadying himself against a side of the freight rack, trained them on the distant speck of white that represented a lonely tent.
At once the tent seemed to jump across the desert to a point a short distance ahead of them. Hiram's lips parted and a snort of surprise escaped him.
Before the front of the tent, on a pole planted there, was a big sign composed of black letters against a white background. And this is what Hiram Hooker read:
The Homesteader's Promised Land of Milk and Honey
OFFICE OF THE PALOMA RANCHO INVESTMENT COMPANY
Orr Tweet, President. Walk In
Indeed he was an important-looking individual who greeted the freight outfit of Jerkline Jo when it came to a weary halt at the foot of the desert buttes. He wore a new olive-drab suit, composed of Norfolk jacket and bellows breeches, an imposing Columbia-shape Stetson, and shiny new russet-leather puttees. From one corner of his mouth, aligned with his twisted nose, protruded long, expensive-looking cigar. This was Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet.
Hat removed, bowing like a Japanese, he approached the astonished skinners and offered his hand to Jerkline Jo.
"Madam," he said, "permit me to extend to you Ragtown's most cordial welcome. And you, gentlemen, are included, of course. When you have the time, Miss Modock, I should like the pleasure of your presence in the office of the Paloma Rancho Investment Company. If I may offer a suggestion, too, it might be well to deposit Mr. Demarest's freight close to my office, so that I can look out for it until the arrival of the outfit. Hooker, come with your employer if you can conveniently do so."
So saying, Mr. Tweet recrowned himself with his new Stetson, turned, and strolled impressively toward his tent, disappearing between its lazily flapping portals.
With the exception of Hiram Hooker, Jo's skinners shouted with laughter. Jo and Hiram merely exchanged bewildered looks.
"We'll go over now, Wild Cat," she said. "There's lots of time to unload. We can't make it out of here to-day, anyway."
Side by side they walked toward the lonesome little tent with the big sign on a pole in front of it—a mere atom of white in the vast desert.
Orr Tweet sat at an oaken desk in one corner of the tent. In another corner was his bunk, a new suit case, and a new trunk, both in keeping with Tweet's expensive outdoor clothes. There were several chairs. Tweet arose briskly and held one for the girl with all the ceremony of a head waiter in a restaurant of repute.
"Jo," he began, "I hope you'll pardon the familiarity; there is a matter of sixteen or seventeen dollars due you, I believe, for my transportation from Frisco to Palada. And, Hiram, I believe I owe you somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty dollars—the exact amount escapes me temporarily. Now, both of you, the question is this: Do you prefer cash, or stock in the Paloma Rancho Investment Company, or land? The choice is yours."
"Tweet," ordered Hiram, "get down off your high horse and talk sense. What on earth is all this, anyway?"
Tweet laughed and winked and became himself again.
"Hiram, old boy," he confided, "I'm on the road to fortune. This is gonta be the biggest deal I ever tried to swing. And, by golly! I'm the little boy that c'n swing 'er!"
"Tell us about it," pleaded Jerkline Jo.
"Well, sir, Jo, I owe everything to you, and I'll prove I'm not the man to be slow in showin' my gratitude. I'm a go-getter, and no mistake. I couldn't make you folks believe it, so I had to go to work and show you. But I bear you no ill will. You didn't know anything about me.
"Well, dear little playmates, here's the dope:
"That night watchman over there at Julia told me who owned all the land about here, and said they were in tight financial circumstances—badly in need o' ready money. They're big land owners—land poor. I drank that all down, and she listened good to me. For the rest, I banked on the accurate judgment of a party known as Jerkline Jo. I says to myself: 'Jo's been on the grade all her life and savvies conditions. If she says Ragtown is goin' to be located at the buttes, that part o' the country's the part to get toehold on. Anyway, Playmate,' I says, 'we'll take a chance on Jerkline Jo.' And that's what me and Playmate did.
"I hunted up the owners o' the land when I gets to Los Angeles, and makes 'em an offer on twelve thousan' acres—comprisin' the entire tract known as Paloma Rancho, an ancient Spanish grant. Good for nothin', I'd been told, but to run cows on in winter, when the filaree and bunch grass are green. Just the same, there are other parts o' this ole desert that are comin' out with a bang here lately. Lookit up in Lucerne Valley and around Victorville! Good pear land, once she's cleared o' the desert growth and a little humus-bearin' fertilizer added to the soil. Produces good alfalfa, too. Anyway, I says I'll take a chance, so I made 'em an offer.
"They pretended like they thought the railroad was gonta do 'em a lot o' good in a few years; that they didn't care whether they disposed o' the property or not. But that bunk's old stuff to me, so I shut 'em up and made 'em talk turkey. I made 'em an offer o' ten dollars an acre for Paloma Rancho, payment to be made in quarterly installments of six thousan' dollars, each, contract to run for five years, with interest at seven per cent on deferred payments—first payment o' six thousan' dollars to be made in advance.
"They refused, and I picked up my hat and started out. They called me back, and for ten minutes we puttered around between ten dollars an acre and fifteen, and at last they fell into my arms. We had the papers drawn up, and I slips 'em a certified check for six thousan' buckerinos."
"You gave them six thousand dollars!" cried Hiram.
"Sure," Tweet replied easily. "I'd already wired to Frisco and disposed o' my ditch-digger holdin's for over eight thousan'; I got over a thousan' left, five hundred paid on an automobile that's now asleep back o' this office, and a toehold on Paloma Rancho, twelve thousan' acres o' perfectly beautiful sand.
"And now that you folks have dumped a cargo o' freight here marked D., S. & T., No. 1, I know we win. We're goin' to make this one o' the liveliest propositions in the West. Ragtown will move down here as soon as the big outfit lands at the buttes. City lots in Ragtown—which later probably will be known as Tweet—will be worth from a hundred dollars to two hundred and fifty, accordin' to location. My engineers will be here soon, and we'll lay off the town site. I've made application for a post office, and by the time the papers come from the department there'll be plenty o' signers here. Concessions will be granted at reasonable figures. Farming lands will be sold at from fifty dollars an acre up to a hundred and fifty, accordin' to location, depth to water, et cetera. This will include stock in the company's water right. Water will be developed up in the mountains, on a site that goes with the ranch, at an approximate expense of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. I am organizing my water company now, and will let all old friends in on the ground floor, of course. Water at Butte Springs, by the way, Ragtown's present supply, will cost twenty-five cents a head for stock, and five cents a drink for human beings who are recognized citizens of Ragtown, the Tweet-to-be. Old friends, however, are hereby extended the privilege of watering free of charge while life shall last.
"So folks, we're off in a bunch. Keep your eye on Ragtown, metropolis of the Homesteader's Promised Land of Milk and Honey."
"But how about your next payment?" asked Jerkline Jo. "If I'm not too impertinent, can you meet it?"
"Right this moment," replied Tweet, "I couldn't even look like I wanted to meet it. But why worry for nearly three months more? Ragtown will pay it for me. I'll meet her when she's due—never fear. I always get out some way. My middle name is Millions. Gogettersburg is my birthplace. You folks and Pete are my first failure in convincin' others of my shrewdness, honesty, and unbounded ability."
For an hour Mr. Tweet told of his glowing plans, but he found it difficult to convince either Jo or Hiram that he had success within his grasp. Not until the conversation worked around to the mountain-road franchise did Jerkline Jo realize that, in befriending Orr Tweet, she had enlisted an ally who would and could help her.
"Why, we've got 'em by the tail, girl!" he cried. "Just keep on payin' what they ask till Ragtown moves down here, which will happen as soon as Demarest gets settled. Then it'll cost this Drummond to travel across Paloma Rancho exactly what it has cost you to come through the pass. And I'll get me a roughneck with a gun, too, and see that he pays. And if he eventually falls down and quits, you make him live up to that franchise and keep that road in perfect repair, or sue him, by golly! Leave it to me, Jo. I'll fix his timepiece. Every spare dollar you get, you slip it to me to help me meet those payments. It'll let you in on the ground floor, by golly! We'll make a million out of it, Jo—you and me and the Gentle Wild Cat. And I'll show 'em how to try and take advantage of a girl like you! Folks, the future looks mighty bright for all of us!"
While they were conversing Blink Keddie's voice Came from outside the tent:
"Jo! The trucks are comin' in."
The three went out and joined the head skinner, who pointed far over the shimmering desert at three dots moving along from the mountains toward the Washburn-Stokes camp.
"Poor fish!" Tweet said disgustedly. "They don't know what's in store for 'em. Next trip they make, probably, Ragtown and the big camp will be on Paloma Rancho, and then they're blocked."
Mr. Tweet ate supper with Jo and her skinners, and afterward the outfit spent a pleasant evening listening to the promoter's rosy plannings. Even the most skeptical among them gradually became convinced that, if he could hold on and meet his payments, he might make a go of it. Early next morning they started back, passed the polite Mr. Tehachapi Hank in the course of time, and arrived in Julia without further mishap.
Now came a period of inactivity. There were orders for goods to be hauled, but a great portion of what was demanded had not yet arrived by train from the coast side of the mountain range.
Such delays were expensive. Jerkline Jo could have made a profit running into four figures every month, allowing for deterioration and a reasonable per cent on the investment represented, could she have kept her teams moving steadily, with the wagons loaded to capacity every trip. As yet, though, with so few camps established, this could not reasonably be hoped for, and she had made due allowance for such setbacks when deciding upon her freight rate. She had charged Demarest, Spruce & Tillou three cents a pound for the last consignment.
The three trucks that they had seen returned. They were of two-ton capacity. More came in from the coast, which carried five tons, and there was a fleet of five-ton trailers. Jo learned that Drummond had made a price of two and three-quarter cents, so she promptly met it and, by wire, notified Demarest to that effect.
She was anxious to see the five-tonners in operation. She believed that machines carrying a large tonnage would meet with serious difficulties in the pass, and also in the desert sand, in places. But they would make the trip so quickly that she began to have grave doubts. They might worm their way out of many difficulties, and still make the camps while her teams were on the first lap of the journey. So far, she had seen nothing of her competitor, Al Drummond.
There reached the Mulligan Supply Company a telegram from Demarest instituting a standing order for baled alfalfa, and instructing that all freight be hauled by Jo so long as she could keep ahead of the congestion and haul as cheaply as others. Promptly, then, Jo loaded to capacity with hay, and they were off again.
Four light trucks had preceded her with case goods, for Ragtown's store, she supposed. But the remainder of the fleet remained idle at Julia, and seemed to have no business. Jo was reasonably sure that, for old friendship's sake, Philip Demarest would see to it that she got all of his hauling, providing she could make deliveries to his satisfaction. She thought that until new camps settled on the grade—camps of bigger contractors who would buy their supplies direct and not depend on Demarest, Spruce & Tillou—Mr. Drummond would have many idle days. Then, of course, he might cut to the bone on the freight rate, and Jo feared that, with the trucks eating nothing while they rested, Drummond might be better able to withstand a rate war.
They were held up by the genial but exacting Tehachapi Hank at the foot of the grade, as on their last trip. Jo paid cash this time, and demanded a receipt, as ordered to do by Tweet.
As the wagon train neared the highest point in the pass she noticed that her whites and Hiram's blacks seemed to be lagging behind. Still, both teams seemed to be moving briskly enough and steadily. But the other teams were far in the lead.
Then Hiram's wagon entered upon a system of hairpin curves, and for nearly fifteen minutes none of her skinners was in sight.
She continued to wonder at the unwonted speed of the skinners ahead of Hiram.
Just as she reached the outmost point of a bow in the second hairpin curve, she heard a dull rumble behind her. Looking back, she saw nothing unusual, for in this place the road wound about U's and S's in the mountainside, and one could not see far along it, either ahead or behind. Deciding that a tree had fallen, she dismissed the matter from her thoughts, and gave her attention to manipulating the jerkline over an exacting piece of road.
She worked out of the curves eventually, to see the other teams moving placidly along ahead of her, but now she and Hiram had caught up again.
She spoke about it when they camped for the midday rest. It was Hiram who made reply.
"I was wondering at their speed, too, Jo," he said. "The rest of 'em were all way ahead of me and out o' sight for twenty minutes, maybe."
There followed a bantering conversation on the relative merits of the various teams, with minute explanation by the foremost skinners as to just why it was impossible for such miserable animals as the whites and the blacks to keep in sight of the rest. And for the time being, this ended the incident.
They left the delicately scented mountain country in due course and took up the long, weary journey over the desert. When they were near enough to the buttes to make out objects at their feet it became plain to all that the big outfit of Demarest, Spruce & Tillou had arrived and pitched its camp.
Shortly after they became aware of this a machine was discovered coming toward them from the distant tents. Then another put in an appearance, following the first. Jo now heard the cough of motors behind her, and, looking back, saw two trucks.
The first machine coming from the camps swung from the road when it neared Blink Keddie and waited, panting, until the outfit had passed it. Only the driver was in it, a man Jerkline Jo had never before seen. He lifted his hat politely as her whites rolled past, and she thanked him for his patience. Then he moved his car into the road and continued on toward the trucks. Looking back, Jo saw that all three stopped when they came together.
Now, from ahead, came the second car, and at the wheel sat Twitter-or-Tweet. He signaled Keddie to stop, and the outfit came to a halt.
"Hello, Jo, and fellas!" cried the beaming Mr. Tweet, descending from his car. "The man who just passed you in the touring car is Mr. Richard Huber, one of our first citizens. He's Ragtown's first merchant. He's gone to direct the trucks to come to Greater Ragtown with their loads. For, folks, Ragtown is moving in a body, with its traps on burros' and men's backs and in wagons and flivvers to the Tweet-to-be. Talked Huber out o' leasing, and sold him fifteen town lots, by golly! Half down, balance in three years—seven and a half per cent interest on deferred payments. Man of discernment. I'll proclaim to the high, green mountains! I'm on my way to collect our fee for allowin' the trucks to cross Paloma Rancho. How much you been held up for, Jo?"
"One hundred and twelve dollars," she told him.
"Just a minute. I'll hand it to you. Move on now, and I'll get back in the road and collect."
WHAT MADE THE WILD CAT
Jerkline Jo's wagon train snailed on over the desert toward the tents of Demarest's big camp. The tires of Mr. Tweet's shiny new car plunked down into the road, and that gentleman continued on toward the trucks and the machine of Ragtown's first merchant, Mr. Huber.
Hiram Hooker was riding with Jerkline Jo, and the two had been deep in their studies when the appearance of the various automobiles had distracted their attention. Hiram now climbed to the top of Jo's immense load of baled alfalfa, and, looking back, made reports to her.
"They're all together now," he said, "and having quite an argument. Tweet's swinging his arms about as if he wanted to fight.
"Now he's getting into his car. He and the storekeeper are turning in ahead of the trucks. Here they all come, Tweet in the lead!"
A little later Tweet shouted to Hiram to stop, and Hiram relayed the command to Jo, who called to her ten whites and brought them to a standstill. A little later five angry men hurried on foot alongside the wagon.
"Here's your hundred and twelve dollars, Jo," Tweet said exultantly, passing the girl a sheaf of bills, "And that settles that. Now, Mr. Drummond, step over here and be introduced to Jerkline Jo Modock and my friend Hiram Hooker, from Wild-cat Hill. We'll see if you folks can't get together and conduct your affairs amicably."
Al Drummond, Hiram Hooker's one-time rival, was indeed there, dressed after the fashion of Mr. Tweet, and looking big and important and business-like. There was a dark scowl on his brow though as he came forward and nodded to Jo, but did not offer his hand.
"Well, I've been held up," he muttered, "and I'm going to see about it, but——"
"See about it all you want to, my friend," put in Tweet smoothly. "I have complete control of this land, and have the sole right to say who shall cross it and who shall not, and under what conditions. The ranch is posted, and everything is in order. This road is a new one, and you can't make the claim that it has been used so long that it must be considered in the nature of a public highway. You've not a leg to stand on; so every time you turn a wheel on this property it's goin' to cost you just what the last trip through the pass cost Jerkline Jo. You started something, my friend, and you can't finish it—that's all. Take your medicine like a sport."
"I'm going to keep up that mountain road, and I'm going to charge to move vehicles and teams over it," replied Drummond angrily. "My operations are legitimate. Yours are a holdup."
"Suit yourself." Tweet shrugged indifferently. "But, as I pointed out, you'll pay back every cent you collect from Jo. And, besides, you'll be out the expenses of your toll master."
"Others besides this lady will be crossing—lots of them later on," said Drummond. "I'm not going to keep that road in condition for the general public free of charge."
"Then the best thing you can do is make a dicker with Jo to share her part of the maintenance expenses, and you two divide the spoils that you collect from others."
"I can't agree to that," Jo put in hastily. "The road will serve very well as it is for our purposes, with a few repairs now and then which my boys can attend to themselves. We don't have to have a road in as good condition as the trucks will demand. We are entirely satisfied as matters stand."
Tweet slapped his thigh. "Spoken like a man!" he cried. "Now it's your move, Mr. Drummond. Fix your road all you want to and gouge travelers for the last cent you can, but this outfit travels through the mountains free, any way you can figure it out. Better write out a permanent permit for Jo, and do away with this collectin' back and forth and only breakin' even."
The truck man was so angry he scarcely could contain himself.
"It's a dirty, rotten deal!" he said between gritted teeth. "And this is only part of it. This bunch of roughnecks rolled a big boulder in the road after they'd passed yesterday, or some time, and it took us three hours to get it out. Had to hook on the trucks, and unload, and cut poles—and I don't know what all we didn't have to do to get the thing out so we could pass it. That's dirty, low-down business, and anybody who would do such a thing is a dirty piker—I don't care if she is a woman! If I've got to come out here and buck a wild woman with no principle I'll——"
Al Drummond paused abruptly. A mountain of bone and muscle had swooped down from the top of the load of baled hay and loomed large before him.
"Mr. Drummond," said a caressing voice with what seemed a totally disinterested drawl, "you're a liar!"
For a few seconds there was not a sound as Hiram Hooker stood before Drummond and eyed him placidly. The truck man's face had gone chalk-white. They were big men, both of them, and for all that Drummond's life had not been a rugged one, he was physically pretty much a man. Jo's skinners had come running back, and, with Tweet and Huber, looked on expectantly, sensing that a crisis between the two big huskies was imminent. Then came the voice of Jerkline Jo.
"Hiram," she said, "don't be hasty." Jerkline Jo had seen many a fight between big men of the outdoor life. It was no new experience, and there was not a quaver in her tones. She had been brought up where men settled matters with fists or guns or pick handles. "Listen, Hiram," she continued, "Mr. Drummond is telling the truth, I think, up to a certain point. When you boys were way ahead of me yesterday I heard a rumble behind me. Evidently a big boulder rolled down in the road after we had passed. Just the same I'll thank you, Hiram, to ask Mr. Drummond to apologize for accusing me of being responsible."
"Yes, ma'am," drawled Hiram, reverting to his old speech of the redwood forests. "Ye heard, Mr. Drummond. We didn't roll down any stone. I'd apologize now if I was you. That's best."
"Listen to the Gentle Wild Cat pur," said Heine Schultz, looking abstractedly up at the clouds.
"Well, you ain't me, you gangling hick!" said Drummond. "I saw footprints up above the rock wall that the stone fell from. It was pushed down. There are six of you. You could roll down a rock that we three couldn't budge. You even could hook on teams and drag it in the road behind you. Then when you came back, if it was still there, you could easily snake it out of your own way with these big horses."
"I reckon you're right," admitted Hiram. "But we didn't do that, so you oughta apologize to Jo." There was a deceptively soothing note in Hiram's tones. He seemed to be patiently pointing out the better course for Mr. Drummond to pursue, with no suggestion of what might be the penalty for guessing wrong.
"Well, I'll not apologize! I'm not a fool! That rock was rolled down. It——"
"You're a liar, Mr. Drummond," repeated Hiram.
Then they came together with a thud of big bodies and a shower of hooflike fists.
"Hi-yi!" yelled Blink Keddie. "What made our Gentle Wild Cat wild? Come on, boys! Back up ol' Wild Cat! Eat 'im, Hi-ram! Eat 'im alive! Le's send this outfit to the cleaners!"
"Blink!" called Jerkline Jo shrilly as the pugnacious skinner charged threateningly at Drummond's truck drivers. He came to a stop. "Don't make it general unless it becomes necessary," Jo added smoothly.
Meantime the two huge belligerents were hammering stunning blows at each other. About them now stood silent men in a circle, with the vast, hot desert stretching away on every side.
It developed shortly that Drummond was an athlete. He was quicker on his feet than Hiram and knew more tricks of offense and defense. Hiram, on the other hand, was a bull for strength and endurance, and in the big-woods country had maintained a reputation as a rough-and-tumble fighter and wrestler, though most of his encounters had been friendly bouts. Furthermore, he was cool as one of his Mendocino trout streams, and he fought in a businesslike way and never allowed himself to lose his temper.
He was therefore the more deadly, for his endurance was unbounded, and the punishment that Drummond was able to inflict seemed to have no effect whatever. And when one of his big fists found its mark a groan went up from Huber and Tweet. But Jerkline Jo and her rough-and-ready skinners, the latter all old fighters of the camps and used to unseemly sights, and the sickening sound of a big fist landing on giving bone, only watched and waited for the result.
In no time at all, it seemed, the face of the truck man was raw, while Hiram's showed only bruises. They clinched repeatedly, and soon it became apparent that Drummond was forcing these clinches.
"You've got 'im goin', Gentle Wild Cat!" yelled Tom Gulick. "Keep after his mush, ol'-timer! Pretty soon he won't be able to see you; then clean house with 'im!"
Drummond played for Hiram's wind now, but there was not an ounce of fat over the stomach that he hammered so repeatedly, and it seemed as if he were battering hard rubber. He was fast losing his own wind, for his life had not been so healthy as had that of the man from the Northern forests. Hiram's punishing fists were finding their target more frequently now, for the truck man's defense was failing him. He was slowing up—breathing hard—gulping.
"Guess it's time to stop it, Gentle Wild Cat," complacently observed Jim McAllen.
Then Hiram finished it. He crowded his big antagonist and beat him to his knees with blows that seemed to be skull crushing. Drummond's nose and mouth were badly damaged. Both eyes were mere slits, blazing between coloring puffs. One crushing, blow straight into his face as he came up defiantly sent him reeling about, head down, groping blindly.
"One more in the same place, Wild Cat!" called Gulick.
But Hiram desisted, though continuing to trail the groping man as he reeled through the sand, stumbling frequently.
"Lock the door, Hiram!" begged Heine Schultz. "It's all over but closin' up."
Hiram shook his head, and then Drummond wilted and sank in the sand.
Water was quickly provided, and the pulse of Jerkline Jo leaped as she saw that Hiram himself was taking the most prominent part in the whipped man's revival. It was fully five minutes before Drummond was conscious again; then Hiram helped to bear him to one of the trucks.
"Thank you, Hiram," Jo said softly as he returned.
He looked up into her eyes, which were moist round the rims. He had fought and won for his girl of romance, and he knew now that it had been she who through all the years had been beckoning him to come.
With a damp cloth she tenderly touched his bruised face here and there as the wagon train moved on again.
"Don't think any the worse of me, Hiram," she pleaded. "Perhaps I'm a roughneck, after all, as Drummond intimated. But I can't faint and carry on at the sight of blood and the sound of battering fists as most women do. I like a fight—a fair fight—a good fight—a manly fight. Life for me has been always a fight. I've learned not to shrink. Am I brutal—for a woman?"
"No," said Hiram. "I think I want you that way. Nobody could look into your eyes, Jo, and think you weren't tender and compassionate. I'd want my woman to be a fighter, I guess, when it was the time and place to fight."
Jerkline Jo's face was radiant with color, but she said softly:
"And I want my man to be a fighter. It's in my blood, it seems."
They said nothing more about it then, but each knew that love had spoken, and the unfriendly desert seemed a delectable land.
In camp that night Blink Keddie made a confession.
"Jo," he said, twisting and squirming, "me and Heine and Jim and Tom did ease that boulder into the road. We done it to get even for the empty water tank."
"Why, Blink!" Jo cried, aghast.
"We made it up to do it, and not even let Wild Cat in on the deal, 'cause he seemed to think like you did. So we rampsed our teams and got way ahead o' you folks, then stopped 'em when they was outa you folks' sight around the curves, and ran back through the trees with bars. We had our rock all picked out, and it didn't take the four o' us no time to ease her to the edge and let 'er plunk down in the road behind you. Then we run ahead through the woods and got on our wagons before you caught up. Now you know—what're you goin' to do about it?"
"Shall I have Wild Cat take you out, one at a time," Jo asked mischievously, after a thoughtful pause.
Keddie shrugged. "I ain't achin' for my portion o' that," he confessed, "but ol' Timberline will know he's been in a fight."
"It was despicable of you boys," Jo said sternly. "We'll not fight that way."
"But the empty water tank, Jo!" cried Heine. "My goat ain't through gettin' got about that deal yet. You gotta fight the devil with fire, as they say."
"I'm terribly sorry," Jo continued, her brow clouding. "That act is responsible for to-day's trouble, and we haven't yet heard the last of that, I'm afraid. And now I'll have to apologize to Mr. Drummond and explain."
"No, no, Jo! Let Hi-ram do it. He knows how to apologize. Think o' the water tank, Jo!"
"We have no proof that Drummond or his men were responsible for the empty tank, boys. I'm terribly sorry. I must think over what's best to be done now. We mustn't stoop to such methods. Even though we are subjected to underhand competition, we ourselves must fight fair and not descend to our enemy's level."
"You're aimin' to go to heaven, Jo," Gulick accused. "Drummond started the dirty work. We can show him a dozen tricks to offset emptyin' our tank. Better tell him not to do anythin' more. We'll stop his clock if he does."
"You'll do it fairly, then, or you'll not drive teams for me," Jo emphatically told them.
Their silence disturbed her. They knew that she could not do without them. Even as matters stood, she could have used one more jerkline skinner could she have found one good enough to handle her much-loved animals. They were loyal to her, a stanch little army, hard to defeat if their crude but forceful methods of fighting could be brought into play. All of them looked upon the girl as their especial charge in life, and whenever they fought for her they would, with only her well-being in mind, fight as they saw fit. Still, she could control them if forewarned of their plans. She always had controlled them—not by condemning and issuing orders and threatening, but by the exercise of her sweet womanly personality; for there was not a man of them but loved her and fairly worshiped at her shrine.
The summer progressed, and great changes were wrought on the desert. To the last soul Ragtown moved from its first location into the hospitable arms of Mr. Tweet—but Tweet's hospitality demanded its price. Outfit after outfit came crawling across the desert to pitch camp somewhere along the line and begin its portion of the big work in band. There was a post office at Ragtown, twenty or more saloons, dance halls and gambling dens combined, restaurants, tent hotels, stores, and even a bank and a motion-picture show. Thousands of rough, hard-drinking, hard-fighting men thronged the mushroom town, and it resembled a mining town of California's early days. Miners and cattlemen, too, made the town headquarters, and there were frequent fights and an occasional shooting scrape. The cost of everything was high. Money flowed freely, as did bootleg jackass brandy. It seemed that the prohibition enforcement officers had been unable to locate the infant town. The rough, unrestrained life of the frontier was rife at Ragtown, and Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet gleaned shekels right and left.
Jerkline Jo had not seen Al Drummond to speak with him after the fight. He had been laid up for a week from the terrible battering that Hiram had given him, and when he was about again he left the country in his touring car.
His drivers continued to transport freight to the new Ragtown and to certain independent contractors who had reached the work. In truth, it developed that there was plenty of hauling to keep both outfits busy, and Jerkline Jo was making money hand over fist, as was every one who had services to offer or something to sell.
Tehachapi Hank no longer stood like an ogre guarding the portals to the mountain pass. Drummond had been beaten on that deal, and the gunman's removal was an admission of defeat. Consequently, Tweet exacted no charge for the trucks to cross his ranch. Things were running smoothly between the two freighting enterprises, and Jerkline Jo hoped against hope that there would be no more trouble. But she had not liked the baleful look in Drummond's eye when she caught it on the street in Ragtown one evening. It was plain that he considered great humiliation had been heaped upon him, and that he was waiting and watching for an opportunity for revenge.
Then one day she met him face to face in Julia, and stepped to him to tell him about the boulder in the road. His glance was like a knife thrust as he turned on his heel and stalked away before she could speak. After that, of course, she made no further effort to enlighten him.
As the weeks passed it developed that Orr Tweet was not the slowest salesman in California, where salesmen—especially land salesmen—achieve their greatest triumphs. Not only did he sell lots and building sites in Ragtown, but he disposed of the surrounding acreage to would-be ranchers and speculators, and had been able with ease, he informed his old friends, to meet his second payment on the ranch. He urged Jo to invest her earnings in the company, and after consideration she resolved to take a chance with him; for here and there, where wells had been sunk and pumping apparatus installed, the once barren land was turning green and showing evidences of rich and productive soil.
So things stood, or refused to stand, in Ragtown and the vicinity when Drummond drove in one day with no less a passenger than a pretty girl, all pink and white, named Lucy Dalles. Hiram Hooker came face to face with her in Ragtown's boisterous business street an hour after her arrival, for Jo's freight outfit was at rest there for the night.
Lucy was as pretty in her petite, doll-like way as when she had so fascinated him in the city, but now he could not help comparing her hothouse beauty with the brown-skinned, outdoor desirability of Jerkline Jo. Jo could have picked up this frail, silk-garbed creature and thrown her overhead; yet in pure womanliness and tenderness Lucy was not her equal. Jerkline Jo was a queen—a ruler—a fearless woman with a purpose in life, big of body and soul and brain. Lucy Dalles was merely a pretty girl, with an ambition for money and life's frivolous pleasures. Hiram understood this now.
She greeted him glowingly, and called him by his first name.
"I told you I was coming," she cried, giggling. "And isn't this rich? If only I were writing scenarios now!"
"Aren't you?" asked Hiram.
"No, I gave it up. They got too exacting for me, and began buying the picture rights of books and magazine stories by established authors in preference to original scripts for the screen. I was a piker, anyway—nothing in me, I guess. So I threw up the sponge."
"You're still a waitress, then?"
She looked at him archly. "Not on your sweet young life!" and she laughed. "I didn't throw ambition overboard when I quit writing scenarios. Writing in any form is usually a slow road to success, I've learned. I never wanted to be a writer just for the sake o' the work. I want jack, and lots of it, and what it'll buy."
Hiram felt a sudden disgust for her and her sordid aims in life. But to appear polite he asked:
"What are you doing, then?"
"Everybody I can," she retorted. "I worked in a beauty parlor for a little as a hairdresser and manicure. I'm out for the money, Hiram. I'm not a pickpocket yet, but that's because I don't know how to be one. But if you've got any loose change in your pockets watch out. I'm out for the coin. But here comes Al. He brought me down. He's going to set me up in business."
"Drummond?" he asked. "He and I don't speak. We had a little trouble."
Again she arched her penciled brows. "He didn't tell me," she said. "He'll be sore at me talkin' to you then. See him over there by that saloon? He's stopped and is scowling at us. Well, I'll just stick with you to show him his place. Take me somewhere, Hiram; I want to see the life."
Hiram did not know what to say. He would have preferred to terminate the conversation. Lucy Dalles held no fascination for him now. Hiram had met and loved a woman without parallel in his brief experience of life. But he could not be impolite, so he sauntered down the street with the girl, trying to make conversation and hoping that Drummond would not be offended all over again.
In all the resorts men and women were crowding before the bar, gambling with abandon or dancing.
"Buy me a drink, Hiram," Lucy pleaded. "I just want to go into one of these places. Women do it here, I understand."
Hiram shrugged and led her into the Palace Dance Hall, conducted by a notorious character, who followed big construction camps, called "Ghost" Falcott because of his chalk-white skin.
It was pay day at Demarest, Spruce & Tillou's, and the Palace was crowded. They found a place at the bar, however, and the girl stood looking over the half-drunken throng with eager eyes, now and then casting a glance through the door to see if Drummond was following her.
Their drinks had just been served when into the dive, with a grinning construction stiff on each arm, marched Jerkline Jo, laughing gayly.
This was no new sight. Frequently Hiram had seen his adventure girl in such places, laughing and chatting with old friends of the grade. Always, it seemed, they respected her and took her actions for granted.
"Hello, Gentle Wild Cat!" Jo called, catching sight of him. Then she noticed that he was with the girl, and a quick look of puzzlement came in her dark eyes.
Hiram made haste to call her.
"I want to introduce you," he said quickly.
Jo turned, still holding to the arms of the stiffs, and Hiram made the introduction. Jo responded pleasantly, and the look that came in her eyes told Hiram that she remembered the name and knew who Lucy was.
"Sorry I can't join you, Hiram," said Jo. "These plugs have got me dead to rights, and I've promised to set 'em up to the house."
She released the arms of the stiffs, and, cupping her hands about her mouth, shouted above the general din:
"Drinks for the house on Jerkline Jo! Le's go!"
Some one nudged Hiram on the other side, and he turned to find Orr Tweet.
"Did you ever see the likes o' that Jerkline Jo?" he said admiringly. "What a woman, Hiram! She can get away with anything, and there ain't a stiff on the grade that would think any the worse of her for it. She's pure-hearted and clean-minded, and everybody knows it and treats her like the lady she is. But say—— For Heaven's sake! Look who's here!"
His steel-blue eyes had taken in Lucy, who stood studying Jerkline Jo, the center of a crowd of rough, appreciative men who wrung her hands right and left.
Lucy turned and flashed Tweet a bright smile. "I remember you, o' course," she said, shaking hands. "They tell me you hit the ball an awful bang down here in Ragtown. I always knew you were there when you talked to me up in Frisco."
For several minutes, while bartenders worked frantically to supply Jo's big order, Tweet and Lucy talked, and Hiram watched Jo. Then Tweet excused himself and hurried away after some man—a prospective citizen of Ragtown, no doubt—and Lucy turned to Hiram.
"So that's Jerkline Jo, is it?" she said half scornfully. "What is she, Hiram?"
"A lady," said Hiram with a dangerous note of warning in his tones.
Lucy sensed it and shrugged. "Maybe she is," she said lightly. "I don't know anything about her beyond what I've heard, of course—except that she's a heart-breaker—a man-killer. But what's she doing here?" she could not help tacking on.
"I might come back and ask you what you're doing here," Hiram retorted coldly.
Lucy shrugged. "Oh, I don't make any pretenses of piety—now," she said significantly. Then, casting a defiant glance at him, she produced a silver cigarette case, took a cigarette from it, and begged for the end of his cigar at which to light it. "They say Jerkline Jo is grabbing off big jack. How 'bout it?" She puffed indolently, greatly to her companion's disgust.
"She works hard and earns money," Jo's supporter defended. "She raised the wages of all of us, too, as soon as business began to look up. We skinners get ninety dollars a month and board now."
"Ninety dollars a month!" Lucy said jeeringly. "D'ye call that money! I didn't think you'd continue to be such a fish as long as this, Hiram."
"Well, I'm investin' it," said Hiram. "It may be more some day."
Luck looked suddenly into Hiram's eyes, then let her lashes cover her own.
"I guess this pious Jerkline Jo has got you goin'," she observed.
"I work for her," said Hiram awkwardly.
"Any man would, I guess. Men are all suckers."
Hiram said nothing to this, and presently, stating that he would be obliged to return to camp, asked Lucy if she was ready to go.
Rather petulantly she gave in, and just outside the door they encountered the glowering Al Drummond.
"Lucy," he said sharply, "come here!"
"I'll have to go," Lucy said to Hiram. "See you later, honey boy from the woods. Good night!"
Hiram saw Drummond take a step and roughly grab Lucy's arm as she tripped up to him. They walked away, plainly indulging in a heated argument.
"'Honey boy,' huh!" and Hiram snorted. "Men are suckers—till they meet a regular woman!"
He hurried back to camp and rolled himself in his blankets without further thought of the girl who had caused him to make such a fool of himself in San Francisco. Had he but known it the advent of Lucy Dalles in Ragtown was to have a great deal to do with the future fortunes of both Jerkline Jo and himself.
LUCY SEES A PROSPECT
There was so much freighting that summer that the combined outfits of Jerkline Jo Modock and Al Drummond were taxed to capacity. The new settlers made constant demands upon them, and, though their wants were puny in comparison with those of the camps, Jo accommodated them whenever she could. Water had been struck at the surprisingly shallow depth of forty-five feet in some places, and many pumping plants were transported over the mountains. Things looked as if Twitter-or-Tweet was about due to make his fortune, and Jo kept investing more and more of her surplus earnings, and he was meeting his payments promptly. There was talk of Ragtown eventually being made a division point. If this transpired, the railroad shops would be erected there, and the permanent success of the town would be assured. Already a few venturesome souls were building permanent structures whenever they were fortunate enough to get building materials hauled in.
Drummond's five-ton trucks seemed to be meeting all requirements, and he had added to his fleet. Jo, however, remained conservative. She had seen rag towns spring up on railroad grades before—many of them—only to disappear forever with the laying of the steel. Still, she had confidence in the farming possibilities of Paloma Rancho—but she bought no more equipment, principally, perhaps, because she could not get desirable jerkline skinners, and because extra equipment would mean more work for her, more time taken from her studies. She was content with a good thing so far as financial success was concerned—her great ambition was for an education.
Drummond, of course, was also making money; but he fell a prey to the lure of the free-and-easy life of the frontier town, and gambled and drank perpetually. There were stories of big losses at faro, under which Drummond did not always bear up as a good sport should.
As for Lucy Dalles, that ambitious young woman entered with gusto into the feverish life of Ragtown. Drummond had leased a shooting-gallery concession from the accommodating Tweet, and had ensconced the girl behind the rifles—or in front of them—to run the gallery.
So she confided to Hiram Hooker, when he passed along Ragtown's main thoroughfare one night, and for the first time saw her on exhibition in the gallery. She had partitioned off one corner of the gallery and set up a manicure and hairdressing parlor. Of mornings, when business in the gallery was dull, she made many an extra dollar by beautifying the women of Ragtown.
"Yes, there's money in it," she said. "Al had the gallery stunt in mind when he brought me down, so I quit the beauty parlor where I was working in Frisco and got a job in a shooting gallery and learned how to run one and to keep my noodle from getting in front of a gun. My face is my fortune, after all, Hiram boy. One look at my smile, and the hicks come right in and pick up a rifle. I'm coinin' money, and I'm having the time of my young life. Last night a miner bet me five dollars against a kiss he could knock over ten ducks in ten shots. He did it, and I paid up like a sport. It got the gang started at the game, and in the end I grabbed off thirty bucks, and only kissed twice. Pretty soft—what? I guess you're horrified, Hiram?" She glanced at him with coquettish defiance.
"Disgusted," Hiram could truthfully have said, but he only grinned and thanked his stars for his escape.
Lucy's dark eyes flashed daggers at the broad back of Hiram Hooker as he left her and swung along indifferently up the street. With a woman's intuition she had known in San Francisco that the big, handsome countryman with the soft, drawling voice had fallen a victim to her charms. Now, because of Jerkline Jo, he was utterly indifferent to her. Lucy was piqued, angry at him, angrier at Jerkline Jo. She did not love Hiram, but she wanted him to love her, and though she did not want him she wanted no other woman to own him.
"I'll fix you one o' these days, you big hick!" she threatened between clenched teeth.
Summer passed all too quickly for those who labored incessantly, and the winter rains set in. They at once grew harder and more frequent, and then it poured as it does only in the West. Snow fell in the mountains. Then the activities of Al Drummond ceased abruptly.
No wonder, for often as high as twenty teams were hooked on to the enormous wagons of Jerkline Jo, and every animal was obliged to pull to the limit of his strength to move the terrific weight, hub-deep in the clinging mud. This did not tend to improve the road, of course, and all of Drummond's efforts to corduroy it and otherwise preserve a firm path for his machines were unavailing. The tortoise had won the race!
Drummond had gambled away his profits, and now it was whispered about that he still owed money on his trucks. Before the last of November he gave up in despair, allowed his trucks to be taken by the mortgagees, and settled down to a life of gambling on the proceeds of his shooting-gallery concession.
One day there trudged into Ragtown a strange figure, marked by the desert, bent and old, in the wake of six lamenting burros laden with mining supplies and tools. He gave the name of Basil Filer, and said that he was seeking gold. Ragtown promptly wrote him down as a crazy prospector. His eye caught the eye of Lucy Dalles, leaning over her carpeted counter between her rifles, and when he had made camp he limped along and accosted her.
"Come in and try a string, Uncle," she begged with the little pout she had found so effective in coercing male humanity into her lair. "An old desert rat like you oughta hit the bull's-eye every shot."
Filer grinned and stepped up to the counter, eying the girl from under heavy, fierce eyebrows that looked as if the dust of a thousand trails had settled in them. Lucy lowered her dark lashes and looked demure.
"B'long on the desert, girlie?" rumbled the deep voice of the old prospector.
"Uh-huh. And how old might ye be, now?"
"Uh-huh—pretty near twenty-two. That's nice. Where's yer paw and maw?"
"They're both dead," Lucy told him, trying to appear innocent and unsophisticated as she lifted her glance to his face.
"Maybe now yer paw was a desert prospector," he suggested.
"Uh-huh." Lucy nodded her fluffy head vigorously up and down. This was another childlike action which she had found pleasing to men—especially the older men. Of course she was lying like a little sailor; but "Uncle" seemed interested in her, and business was dull just then. She would pretend to be all that he seemed to wish her to be as long as she could successfully follow his conversational leads.
"What do they call you, girlie?" he asked next.
"Lucy, eh? Lucy what, now?"
"Dalles, huh? Dalles!" His weird old eyes, peculiarly tinted from years of looking into the mirage-draped distances of the desert, were strangely reminiscent.
"Maybe that ain't your right name, though," he kept on feelingly.
"Maybe not," replied Lucy quite truthfully. After all, she had only her father's and her mother's word for it. For all she knew she might be the reincarnation of the Queen of Sheba. "Let's try a shot, Uncle," she added, sensing deep water ahead.
Indolently he picked up a .22 rifle, and rang the bell of her most difficult bull's-eye target eight shots out of ten. He paid her and seemed in nowise elated over her fulsome praise, designed to keep him shooting.
He took up his long cane again. "I'll drift up the drag a ways," he said, "and see what's goin' on. Nothin' but desert owls lived here when I traveled through last—two years ago. I'll be back. Maybe I'll want to ast ye a few p'inted questions. Will ye answer, eh?"
"Sure," she told him lightly, whacking her gum for emphasis. "Come and pour your heart out to me, Uncle—I'll listen."
Lucy had taken more of the well-filled buckskin poke that the old man had pulled from the neck of his greasy shirt to pay her for the pastime.
She leaned out and craned her neck to watch him moving up the street, glancing through doors and openly investigating on every side.
Her intuition told her that the gray old rat had something on his mind. Lonely old soul that he was, she reasoned, he was bashful and at a loss how to conduct himself in the unfamiliar presence of a woman. "When he's all gowed up he'll talk my head off," she decided. "He's going to fortify himself now. Guess I'll have to look into this."
When the bent, plodding figure had disappeared through the entrance to Ghost Falcott's Palace Dance Hall, Lucy called across the street to a boy sitting on the edge of the new board sidewalk. The boy crossed to her and she handed him a dime.
"Find Al Drummond and tell him I want to see him at once," she directed.
A little later Al Drummond presented himself. His face showed the effects of a sleepless night, but he was already refortified with jackass brandy for the ordeals of the day, and was in nowise stupid.
They leaned on the carpeted counter, heads close together, and talked in lowered voices.
"What this old bird has got on his chest I can't tell," Lucy explained. "But I played up to him, and if he gets all gowed up he'll spill it. He's crazy as they make 'em, Al. It may not amount to anything at all, but I'm for always lookin' into such little things. You never can tell, Al. Maybe this'll be good. Anyway, he's got a leather bag that's heavy with jack, and he won't need that when he hits the trail again. Warm up to him and get 'im started, then steer him to me."
"Wise little kid," Al Drummond commented. "Leave it to me."
The male plotter experienced no difficulty in finding the grizzled desert rat. He was evidently a self-starter, having brought his own, and, all alone at Ghost Falcott's bar, he was pouring raw jackass brandy down a throat that seemed urgently in need of it. Seeing that he was satisfactorily working out his own destruction, Drummond shot craps to divert himself until the prospector should become mellowed to a point where it was safe to approach him.
It seemed though that the old man had an enormous capacity. An hour passed, and, though he drank repeatedly on his high-lonesome, he seemed little the worse for it. Drummond patiently watched and waited. He knew that with some newly distilled brandy does not take immediate effect, but that drunkenness comes on suddenly when the victim least expects it.
JERKLINE JO'S SURPRISE
Meantime events were happening out in the street which were to have a distinct bearing on Lucy and Al's plot to separate Basil Filer from the contents of his buckskin poke.
These events, however, were quite commonplace on the face of them. The first was the arrival of Jerkline Jo's wagon train, loaded to the gunwales with case goods, general merchandise, and food for stock.
The arrival of Jerkline Jo and her proud huskies always was an event of importance at Ragtown. They made a picture as the heavy eight and ten-horse teams with the hundreds of bells a-jingle rolled the immense wagons down the street, while Jo's skinners, quite aware of the furor they were creating, called "Gee" and "Haw" and manipulated their jerklines unnecessarily, for the sole purpose of awing the spectators. One wagon was stopped at Huber's store; the rest continued on through to Demarest, Spruce & Tillou's Camp Number One, a half mile beyond the town.
It was Jo's whites that had been brought to a halt before Huber's. The proprietor came out and asked that the load be discharged in the rear, as he had just completed a new freight platform at the back entrance.
"Right!" called Jo. Then, "Annie! Ned! Feel of it, white folks! Bert! Snip! All together. Let's go!"
Like a well-trained company of infantry, the ten whites leaned to the collars, and the eight tons behind them moved off as easily as a baby buggy. The hub of all eyes, the attractive girl with cries of "Gee" and "Haw" and picturesque manipulation of the jerkline, swung her team around the corner and into the alley. Men with whom she had a standing agreement to unload freight for her when their services were needed already had come through the store, and were waiting for her on the new platform. Dexterously she guided the team with the jerkline and by word of mouth, so that the load crept along not two inches from the edge of the platform and came to a stop.
She left her team standing, for Hiram Hooker was to ride back on her black saddle pony for them as soon as the remainder of the outfit had reached the camp. Whistling, with her leather chaps swishing, she walked through the store, smiling right and left at the clerks.
"Well, Jo, how was the trip?" asked Huber as she leaned on the edge of the window to the proprietor's office and handed him her bills of lading.
"Oh, much the same as usual," she replied. "The whirlwinds gave us some trouble. They're prevalent this time of year on the desert, and are sometimes fearfully annoying—especially so if it's been dry for a few days and the top of the sand isn't moist."
"What do they do to you, Jo?" asked Huber interestedly.
"Drive you crazy sometimes," she laughed. "They're just like little cyclones, you know. You'll be moving along serenely, when one of them will steal up behind you, and before you know it you're the center of a maelstrom of sand and dust, unable to see, your hat gone, your mouth and nose filled with—well, about everything that the desert boasts of. I was feeding hay to a pair of my horses this noon, when a whirlwind slipped up on me. I threw myself flat on the ground, as one must do or be swept off his feet, and when it had passed there was not one scrap of that dry alfalfa hay where I'd thrown it. I found my hat a mile distant. My nostrils and ears and eyes and mouth were literally loaded with dirt and fine hay chaff. And my hair! Heavens!" She put her hands to it. "I usually wear it in braids, you know, but to-day I thought I'd be smart and perk up a bit. Now I'll have to 'go to the cleaners,' as Heine says."
Huber laughed. "Say, Jo," he said, "that reminds me. There's a girl here that'll give you a shampoo. She runs a shooting gallery, and has a little beauty parlor on the side. Oh, we're getting quite urban at Ragtown. We'll have Turkish baths next. Go to see her—she'll fix you up."
"I'll just do that," said Jo, and went out on the street.
Then for the first time she became aware that Lucy Dalles was the proprietress of Ragtown's beauty parlor, and even then she did not find it out until she was inside the parlor and Lucy entered by a side door that connected with the gallery. It was too late to back out gracefully, even had Jo been inclined to do so.
"Why, hello!" she said. "I didn't know you ran this place. Miss Dalles, isn't it? We met in the Palace Dance Hall one night, didn't we?"
Lucy smiled professionally. She did not like this strong, rugged, beautiful girl who strode along the street with such a firm, conquering tread and left men gaping after her. Still, she could not afford to show her dislike.
"Oh, yes—I remember you perfectly well," she said. "Who wouldn't remember the famous Jerkline Jo! Is there something I can do for you?"
"Mercy, yes!" laughed Jo. "One look at me ought to show you that." She told about the whirlwind, and Lucy smiled thinly, and indicated the chair.
Jo climbed into it, and was bundled with clean, perfumed towels that caused her to grow reminiscent of school days and dainty dresses and all the things that as Jerkline Jo she had been obliged to put aside.
"Do you know," she said as Lucy began her delicate ministrations, "I've never before in my life been in a beauty parlor."
"You are one of the few women who do not need one," said Lucy, forced to a sincere compliment by the undeniable, fresh beauty of her patron.
"Oh, thank you!" said Jo with a laugh. "It's not just that, though. I expect, if the truth were told, I've needed the services of a beauty artist for years. But I was raised in a construction camp, you know, until I was pretty much of a young lady, and such things were entirely out of my ken. Then at Palada, where my foster father eventually settled and went into the freighting business and running a store, we were not so progressive as Ragtown even. So when I went to boarding school in the Middle West I was virtually immune from many of the new fads. You, then, are the first person that ever washed my hair—except myself, of course. I remember even that my dear old foster mother always made me wash it when I was a kid—once a year perhaps," she ended with a laugh. "Poor ma! She had little enough time to fuss with a child's hair, cooking for big, hungry men all the time as she was, and driving a slip team while she was resting."
Jo was merely trying to make conversation, for she could think of little to say that she thought might touch a responsive cord in the fluffy girl from the city. Jerkline Jo was a man's woman. She could talk about almost anything that other women could not bring into their conversation.
"You've had an interesting life, haven't you?" observed Lucy, manipulating Jo's scalp till the skin tingled pleasantly. "I wish I could have met you when I was writing moving-picture scenarios. What a character you would have made for the heroine of a Western thriller!"
"Oh, you've written scenarios! How interesting! And—and—if this isn't trespassing on delicate ground—sold them?"
Lucy tittered. "Yes, I sold some of them," she replied.
This gave them a basis for conversation, and they progressed famously until the grinning face of a railroad-construction stiff appeared suddenly at the door.
"Hey!" he called to other stiffs behind him. "Look wot's goin' on!"
"Hello, there, 'Squinty' Malley!" and Jo laughed. "Get your face out of that door. This is sacred ground, you roughneck!"
"Look at Jo!" derided Squinty, an old friend of the girl's in many a half-remembered camp. "Hey, youse plugs, gadder 'round here and lamp Jerkline Jo dollin' up! Good night!"
"Beat it now!" Jo reiterated.
"Say, dis here's good!" retorted Squinty. "I to't youse was a reg'lar woman, Jo! Youse know more 'bout cuffin' ole Jack an' Ned dan youse do 'bout fixin' yer hair. Say, lady," he addressed Lucy, "fix 'er up—hey? Doll 'er up proper, an' le's see wot de ol'-timer looks like."
"You'll oblige me by getting out of the door," said Lucy indignantly.
"Oh, don't scold the poor eel!" pleaded Jerkline Jo. "He doesn't know any better. So you want to see me dolled up, do you, Squint? By George, you're on, old-timer! I've got some glad rags here in this burg. Go on now! I'll be the queen of the ball to-night!"
"Lucy," Jo laughed familiarly when the tramps had vanished, "fix up my hair the best you possibly can. Give me the latest, will you? I'm going to have some fun to-night."
An hour later, when darkness had settled over Ragtown and the night's revel was on, there entered the Palace Dance Hall a figure that brought gamblers from their absorbing games, stopped the dizzying whirl of the dancers, and caused glasses that were halfway to eager lips to pause in mid-air.
Jerkline Jo's almost black hair was piled on top of her head in bewildering fashion, and set off with flashing rhinestone ornaments, furnished by Lucy Dalles. Jo wore a semievening dress of pale-blue silk, and Lucy had powdered her face and neck until little contrast could be noted between skin that had braved the desert winds and that which had been protected. Jo wore fashionable slippers with great shell buckles and high French heels. She cast a dazzling smile over the silent assemblage, then threw back her glorious head and let her laughter ring.
That laugh revealed her identity.
"Jerkline Jo!" came a chorus of yells, and men stared at her, while women drew together in groups, their comments expressed in lowered voices.
As they crowded around her Lucy Dalles peered in at the door, a contemptuous sneer on her lips.
"Have a good time, old girl!" she muttered, grinding her little white teeth. "But I learned something to-day that'll set you back a step or two. Get me to doll you up, will you, you impossible roughneck? You'll pay for that!"
DRUMMOND WEAVES A DREAM
Shortly after Jerkline Jo left the beauty parlor of Lucy Dalles, mischievously bent on giving Ragtown a harmless little shock, Al Drummond sidled up to the old prospector at the bar in the Palace Dance Hall.
"Hello, old-timer," he said with a cheerful smile. "How's prospecting these days?"
The old desert rat fixed a filmy eye on him. "Have a shot," he invited with the suggestion of a thickening tongue.
"Thanks, old hoss. Don't care if I do. That is, if you'll have one with me."
They drank, and Drummond promptly ordered another. A lowering of his left eyelid gave the bartender his instructions, and a sprinkling of powder found its way into the glass that was thumped before Basil Filer.
Not long after this he became agreeable to anything that Al Drummond might suggest. Al took him from place to place, always standing his share of the exorbitant prices demanded in Ragtown, and finally suggested that they try their marksmanship as a diversion.
"Good!" agreed Filer gutturally. "Little girl, eh? Pretty!" He winked knowingly at Drummond. "I wanta have talk with her. I know who she is. B'en trailin' her fer years. Le's go, pardner. You're goo' scout. So'm I—hey?"
"You bet your sweet life you're a good scout! Come on—we'll have a time to-night."
Drummond had previously sent a boy to Lucy with a note informing her that the come-on was about ripe for plucking, and telling her to put some one else in charge of the gallery and be in readiness. Lucy had sent out and found the man who at times relieved her, and when Drummond and the old gold-seeker lurched up she was free to act as the circumstances might demand.
The two men fired at the targets for a little, Filer failing to display the same wonderful marksmanship which he had done earlier in the evening. Eventually Lucy invited the two to go back into the little cabin in the rear of the gallery where she carried on her trifling domestic activities. Filer readily agreed to this, and presently the three were seated around a table in Lucy's cabin, with a coal-oil lamp on it, a deck of cards suggestively in evidence, and a bottle of precious brandy and glasses. Lucy had brought from San Francisco her leopard-skin rug, the overstuffed chairs, and her other extravagances in house furnishings. Their contrast with the new pine walls of the cabin produced an effect quite startling and bizarre. Basil Filer saw none of it, however. He became very drowsy when he was seated. Al Drummond winked at Lucy.
The girl shook her head, and presently, seeing that the prospector was almost asleep, leaned toward her fellow conspirator and whispered:
"Don't hurry about getting his roll. Try to liven him up and get him to talking. I'm curious. He's got something on his mind that may make that buckskin bag look like thirty cents."
"Get the jack," ordered Al. "To-morrow he won't even remember he ever saw us. You're letting your story-telling instinct warp your judgment, Lucy. You're looking for mysteries. I'll get that roll right now."
"No, leave it, Al, please! You can get it later, if I'm wrong. But I just feel that this old fella's got something locked up in his breast. Rouse him and leave him to me. I'll make him talk. I'm sorry you doped him. You may have spoiled everything."
At this instant she looked up to see the bleary old eyes fixed on her intently.
"Feeling better, Uncle?" she asked lightly. "I've got some bromo-seltzer. I'll give you a shot; it will liven you up. Don't want to go down and out so early in the evening, old sport!"
"Desert girl, huh?" thickly muttered Basil Filer. "Huh—I know somethin' 'bout you. You was found on the desert, wasn't ye—when you's li'l' girl—baby girl? I know. Can't fool o' Filer. B'en huntin' you f'r years." He closed his eyes again, and his head sank forward on his breast.
Lucy shook him awake and prepared a dose of bromo-seltzer, which he readily drank at her command.
"How did you know about me, Uncle?" she asked. "What you said is the truth. I was found on the desert here when I was a baby girl. But how did you know? Tell me all about it. Do you know my father's name?"
"Sure! Sure! Name was Len-Len-Len-Leonard Prince. You're Jean Prince. Len Prince was m' ol' pardner. I'm lookin'—lookin' for the claim Len Prince and me and The Chink found—and lost ag'in. Rich! Yellow with gol'. You're Jean Prince—I know. I c'n prove it by your head. Tha's what I wanta see—yer head—down under the hair. That'll tell me you're Baby Jean Prince. Then I c'n find the gold."
Lucy clutched Al Drummond's arm. "Listen to him! Listen to him!" she breathed.
Hiram Hooker stood aghast in the entrance of the Palace Dance Hall. All eyes within were focused on a couple waltzing in the center of the floor to low music. The man was a Mr. Dalworth, Ragtown's new banker, in charge of the branch of a Los Angeles banking institution that had been opened in the frontier camp. The girl, smiling and radiant and glistening with pale-blue silk and gems, was his adventure girl, Jerkline Jo.
Never had Hiram seen Jo in anything but a flannel shirt, Stetson hat, and chaps or divided riding skirt. Despite the fact that she was making money fast and that he was working for her at ninety dollars a month, Hiram had not before looked upon her as entirely out of his reach. He was learning fast, and had lost much of his backwoods uncouthness. He loved Jerkline Jo as only a big-hearted, simple-souled man can love a woman. Some day, he had told himself, he would do something to make himself worthy of her, for he never would ask her to marry him while he was in her employ. He was too proud to ask an independent girl to marry him when he had nothing to offer.
That rare feminine creature gliding so gracefully over the floor with the dapper, well-dressed banker, however, plunged Hiram into the depths of despair. Financially, mentally, and now socially, he felt her altogether out of his world. He had forgotten until now her days at school and in polite society.
It did not make him think the worse of her to see her dancing in a saloon, with rough men from the cities standing about and looking on admirably. Ragtown was Ragtown, and people did things here which would have ostracized them from decent society elsewhere. It was not this that hurt; he knew that the girl was pure-minded and that her morals were flawless, despite what prudish persons—of which there were none in Ragtown—might have thought of her choice of the place which she chose to satisfy her whim of the evening. Jo was one of those rare souls who can pass among evil men and women and not only not be contaminated, but preserve an unsullied reputation, too. It was the dress and the glittering tones and the wonderful coiffure, and her gentlemanly, well-groomed partner of the dance, that caused him to turn away, bitter and broken in spirit.
"Well, how do you like her to-night?" came a taunting voice.
Lucy Dalles had stepped beside him and peering in at the revel.
"Some class, eh? Some lady, I'll say! Oh, sure!"
Hiram could have choked her, but without a remark he sped away from her into the night.
It was then that Lucy Dallas clenched her teeth and hurled invective at the radiant girl within.
She left the scene and hurried back to her little cabin, where the crazy prospector, Basil Filer, lay in a heap on the floor, snoring loudly.
A moment after her entry Al Drummond came in again with another man following him.
"How much jack did you leave him?" he whispered to the girl.
"I left it all. It's safest. What I copied from the paper will be worth a thousand times what's in that money bag."
"Just the same, I want money now—to-night," Drummond said, and, stooping, pulled the poke from the shirt front of the unconscious miner.
"Take only half of it, then," Lucy pleaded. "Then he'll think he spent that much. Don't be a piker, Al. You've got something big to work for, and you try to spoil it by rolling a stiff for a few dollars."
Drummond grunted, slipped a wad of bills into his trousers pocket, and replaced the poke in the desert rat's shirt.
"All right, Stool," he said to the other man. "You take his head; I'll take his feet."
A little later a train of pack burros moved away from Ragtown into the desert night.
A mile from town the man Stool halted them and waited, and presently heard the chug of a motor. Soon Al Drummond drove up in the last of his five-ton trucks, in the bottom of which, tossed about, lay the still unconscious form of the old prospector.
The two men worked swiftly, and slanted two twelve-inch planks two inches thick from the rear end of the truck to the ground. With ropes about the necks of the desert rat's six burros, they hauled and hammered and coaxed them one by one aboard the truck. Then on into the night they drove, over the vast, black desert.
Seventy-five miles from Ragtown they stopped the car, and unloaded the burros and their snoring master. They rolled the man in his blankets, then set the burros' packs about in orderly array and loosed the little animals to crop the bunch grass that was green and succulent in winter. From one pack bag they took cooking utensils and other articles, and ranged them about on the ground as the old man himself might have done upon making camp.
"He'll wake up to-morrow and think he dreamed about Ragtown," chuckled Drummond.
"He sure will know he's nutty then," said Stool.
They climbed once more into the truck, and before dawn were back in the city of tents and new pine shacks.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE LAKE
Shortly before dusk on the night following Jerkline Jo's revel in Ragtown, the empty wagons of her train rumbled to the highest point in the mountain pass and were drawn up side by side, like an artillery organization in "battery-front" formation, on the shores of the mountain lake.
Jo's fireless cooker had been working for her throughout the trip, and while her bantering skinners cared for the teams and greased the great axles in preparation for the morrow's journey, the girl made ready the evening meal.
At last supper was over, and, as was their custom, the men helped her wash the dishes. Thus the task became a short one. The men settled down to their smoking about the crackling camp fire, and as light still remained at this high altitude, Jo decided on a stroll along the lake shore.