All about stood the tall peaks, their crests snow-mantled. Over the level lowlands about the lake the silent forests of pine and fir swept away on all sides. The lake, some two miles in length, lay like an opal in the palm of the mountains, flashing fiery colors that it stole from the sunset clouds above it.
The air was chill and quiet. Not a ripple disturbed the surface of the tranquil lake, so cold and remote. Jo buttoned her coat for warmth and trudged on away from the camp, watching flocks of chattering mudhens and mallards that fed on a long spaghettilike growth which grew on the lake bottom and floated to the surface.
She walked for a mile before she turned. She was thinking of the previous night, and of the banker's unexpected proposal of marriage when she had accepted his invitation for supper after the dance. She had known Dalworth only a short time, and his ardent wooing had come as a distinct surprise.
Now she had turned back toward the winking eye of the camp fire, which threw a brilliant dagger of light across the now dark lake. In the stream of fiery color, water fowl bobbed about grotesquely. Close at hand was a grove of pines, a few trees extending down to the shore, though for the most part the land immediately about the lake was an open, grassy meadow. She heard a slight rustling in among the pines as she passed them.
She had not strapped on her cartridge belt and six-shooter when leaving camp. In fact, she seldom carried the weapon, but always kept it hanging close to her hand in the wagon. Now and then she strapped it on when in Ragtown, for of late an element had been sifting in with which she was not familiar. It represented the riffraff from the cities—men who knew nothing of construction camps and were unaware of the fact that she, because of old associations and a thorough understanding of frontier men and frontier life, could enter a dance hall and still be respected and absolutely safe from harm. One of these had put an arm about her one night, and promptly had been rewarded with a blow on the nose; for Jo did not slap when she administered rebuke, but punched expertly and powerfully, as does a man. Next moment the offender had been pitched bodily into the street by as many rough hands as could lay hold of him. Only Jo's intervention had saved the man from being kicked into insensibility.
Once again she heard the rustling, and wished that she had her gun. It was only some animals, she told herself—a coon or a skunk, or perhaps a wild cat or coyote prowling about to spring upon an unsuspecting mudhen that had swam too far inshore. Still, a strange dread seized her, and she quickened her step.
Again she heard the rustle and the sound of a soft footfall. No animal would have produced that single, rather heavy tread. She glanced apprehensively toward the dark trees, and it seemed to her that she saw a black upright bulk move stealthily from one trunk to another.
Then two things happened at once. From the pines stealthily emerged the figure of a man—there was no mistaking it. But in the same instant there came a call from close at hand:
"Jo! Jo! Where are you?"
A feeling of vast relief came over the girl as she recognized the caressing voice of the man from Wild-cat Hill. Instantly the figure on her left faded; the blur of it became one with the shadows of the trees.
"Hiram!" she called gladly. "Here I am! Hurry!"
The sound of running feet answered her, and in a little while the big form of Hiram Hooker reached her side.
Jo was breathing weakly. She could not remember of ever before having been so near a panic or fright. What had caused the unfamiliar feeling now was a mystery to her—unless the suggested menace in the sight of the dark, skulking figure had been augmented by the ghostly quietude of the black forest and the unfriendly solitude of the cold mountain lake.
"Oh, Hiram!" she cried. "I'm so glad you're here! Hiram—I—I believe I'm sc-scared."
How it happened neither of them knew, for all at once his powerful arms were about her, and she had crept into them as less courageous women instinctively seek the protection of the stronger sex. His arms tightened and she pressed closer to him as if she were cold and seeking warmth. Hiram was ablaze with love for her and exultation. He lifted her bodily from the ground, and her lips quivered against his.
"Oh, Hiram! Hiram!" she cried then as if in terror. "What am I doing? What is the matter with me? You kissed me, Hiram, and—and I let you! I must have been terribly frightened. I—I seem to have lost my reason."
"No! No! Don't say that!" begged Hiram huskily. "Jo, I love you! You love me, Jo. Say you love me."
She hid her face against his breast and said nothing, but her shoulders shook.
"Jo, say it!" he pleaded. "Don't torment me! You must love me. You came to my arms when trouble threatened. Tell me that you love me, Jo!"
She only trembled and shivered as if cold.
"Tell me, Jo! Don't torture me. Tell me that you love me!"
There was a stifled sob; then, in muffled tones:
"You big, blind country jake! If you don't know that I'm telling you that with every nerve and fiber of my being, you deserve torture!"
The forest and the lake came together in Hiram's vision, then vanished. There was no lake, no trees, no sentinel peaks about them.
"But, Jo," said Hiram as they walked back slowly toward the camp, his arm about her waist, "I can't marry you. I've got nothing—I'm only your skinner. You—why, your profits every month run up into four figures. Oh, I wish you hadn't a cent! I wish Drummond had beaten us out!"
"What foolish talk!" she said scornfully. "What is money? I care so little for money, Hiram. It was only to try and preserve from total collapse all my hard-working, indomitable, old foster father had built up so patiently that I undertook the freighting job. I've made money—lots of it—and if you think you and the rest of the boys haven't had a big share in my success you're all wrong. We'll keep on skinning them to Ragtown till the steel is laid; then I mean to do something handsome by the men who have been so loyal to me, and sell the outfit. Then"—she sighed—"then something else," she finished.
"But that's neither here nor there," Hiram pointed out. "I'm penniless compared with you. I couldn't marry a girl who had money while I have nothing to offer her. I'm too much of a man for that. Why, everything that I have I owe to you—even the education I am so slowly acquiring."
"Oh, I won't listen to such talk, Hiram! Most of my money is invested in Tweet's project, anyway. We'll let him handle it, and you and I will continue to study and improve ourselves. Then when Tweet begins to pay us dividends we'll travel, and——"
"On your money! Not in a thousand years!"
"You're bull-headed about a trifle, Hiram," she accused.
"Jo," he said after a thoughtful pause, "don't wear that blue silk dress and those diamonds and have your hair fixed that way any more. It—it makes me feel hollowlike."
They had almost forgotten the man in the pines, there was so much else to think about now. Jo was almost ready to confess that she had imagined the entire incident—that she had heard only a prowling animal and had seen the shadow of a shrub. Hiram, on his part, was too triumphant over the thought that he, only a few months from the backwoods of Mendocino County, had captured the heart of this splendid girl, whom men praised and admired and swore by throughout all the desert region.
Still the man was stubborn. In him was a knight-errantry which forbade him to marry a girl and profit by the rewards of her pluck, energy, and business courage. If he could not make money to offer her, he must do something big for her, must win for her some conflict that threatened her fortunes, must make himself worthy of her by some great service.
Hiram still kept his boyish dreams of the adventure girl who had beckoned him from the forests to deeds of emprise. He had found his adventure girl, but he would not consider that he had won her yet. He little knew that night that his opportunity was close at hand, and that the shadow which the coming event had cast before it had lurked there in the lakeside pines.
JO LOSES HER SUPPORT
Eight days later Jerkline Jo leaned on the ledge of the office window in Huber's store at Ragtown and handed him the various papers which accompanied a consignment of freight from Julia.
"There's no hay, Jo," he cried, looking up in perplexity and worriment.
"The Mulligan Supply Company was short of hay when we left," Jo explained. "They hoped to have a trainload in by the time I got back."
"There's the dickens to pay!" he grumbled. "They know I have to have hay right along. I've a standing order for at least half a load of hay every trip. These settlers are buying it fast. I have only ten bales on hand. Next fellow that comes along will probably want all ten of them. A nice mess! What's the matter with those Ikes over there at Julia? Are they asleep?"
"It seems they've had some difficulty in getting alfalfa here lately," the girl explained. "I'm sorry, Mr. Huber. The best I can do for you is to promise to bring every bale I can next trip."
"Rush it," ordered the merchant. "If you can make it, let somebody else's order ride, Jo, and bring me every pound you can."
"I'll see what can be done," was her promise as she left and went to the little cabin that she had had built for her at the edge of town.
Here she cleansed herself of the stains of the trip, and substituted for chaps and flannel shirt a new tailor-made suit which had just come from Los Angeles. As she was about to go out again Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet knocked on her door.
"Jo," he said with his whimsical smile, "I'm showing a couple o' men some property, and thought you might like to take a ride. You've never seen much of the cultivated land, have you—except from a distance? Come 'n' see what chances your money's got in Paloma Rancho, the Homesteader's Promised Land of Milk and Honey. Won't be gone over an hour."
His car was waiting, with his two prospective land purchasers in the tonneau. Jo readily agreed, for she had nothing to occupy her, and Tweet helped her in beside the driver's seat, after introducing the men to her.
Tweet drove slowly and talked a great deal, steering the car with one hand and directing his conversation at all three of his listeners. He dwelt at length to the strangers on Jerkline Jo's great success in her freighting enterprise, not neglecting to mention that she was investing a great portion of her profits in Paloma Rancho. The men were impressed.
Jo, too, was impressed with Tweet's abilities as a salesman. He emanated confidence, and his enthusiasm seemed well-founded and sincere. In fact, the new alfalfa ranches and the orchards of young pear trees looked promising indeed, and the projects showed evidences of thrift and capability on the part of the ranchers and near-ranchers who had bought land on contract from the discoverer of Paloma Rancho's dormant possibilities.
Tweet told of his idea of eventually tapping the mountain lake near which Jo was wont to camp and bringing the water down to irrigate such portions of desert land as might require it; for there were places where three hundred feet of boring had not developed a drop of the precious fluid. The promoter had an engineer's estimate of the cost of the entire water system, and said that his original figures had been pretty close.
It all seemed feasible, and things looked generally prosperous. Jo enjoyed her ride and the opportunity to see what had been accomplished. Returning, however, the complete enjoyment of the trip was marred by tire trouble, and, with one thing and another, it was nine o'clock at night before the party, reached Ragtown.
They were ravenously hungry, and Tweet invited the three to dinner in the town's closest approach to a satisfactory restaurant. It was after ten o'clock when they left the table. Tweet gallantly asked to accompany Jo to her cabin, and both were laughing at the absurdity of a girl like Jerkline Jo needing an escort, when Hiram Hooker hurried up to them.
"Well, I c'n see who's cut out," said Tweet, assuming a mournful expression. "So, if you don't mind, Jo, I'll get over to the hotel and keep after those two suckers. Take care of her, Wild Cat, and do whatever she tells you to do, or answer to me with your life. There's only one Jerkline Jo, you know, and the world needs her all the time. So long, playmates!"
"Jo," said Hiram when Tweet had bustled away up the dimly lighted street, "there's an awful mess. Heine and Jim and Tom and Blink are all drunk as fiddlers!"
"What!" Jo stopped in her tracks and held him by the arm. "Oh, dear!" she cried. "How could they do such a thing! I've watched them so carefully, and they've been so good. But the moment I'm out of their sight for a few hours—— Oh, dear! I didn't think that they'd treat me that way!"
"I can't get it straight myself, Jo," Hiram told her. "They always hoist a few when we get in, and sometimes I join them. I've never before seen any of them when he wasn't at least able to ramble safely back to camp. But to-night they're all four dead to the world. I can't even shake a word out of them. Heine just sits there in the Dugout, with his head on his breast, and is like a dead man."
"Where were you?"
"In camp—studying. About half past nine I thought I'd stroll into town and get a cigar and see what the boys were doing. I couldn't find them in the Palace, and went from place to place till I stumbled on them in the Dugout, every last one of them down and out. I was looking for Tweet, to have him take the bunch of them to camp in his car, when I saw you folks come out of the restaurant."
"The Dugout," puzzled Jo. "Do they go there often?"
"Hardly ever. It's the worst dump in town, as you know. They're all crooked enough, but I've heard strange whisperings about certain shady happenings in the Dugout."
"Was anybody with them?"
"Not when I found them."
"Hiram," said Jo, "it sounds like dope to me. They're loyal to me, I tell you. No, they're not to blame—they'd never treat me that way. They've been doped."
"But why? And by whom?"
"Those are questions. None of them have any money on them to speak of, I know. I've got the bank pass books of every one of them in my chest. Again, who'd have the nerve to dope and try to roll a skinner of Jerkline Jo's? He'd be playing with fire. These dive keepers know all about me; they know my power. I could mobilize an army of two hundred stiffs in an hour's time, and if I asked it they'd lay every dump in Ragtown flat. You bet these parasites know better than to trifle with Jerkline Jo."
Her dark eyes flashed angrily in the light of a store window.
"Well, let's not stand here bewailing our fate like children lost in the woods. We've simply got to get out to-morrow. Mr. Huber is wild about the shortness of his stock of hay, and I promised to rush him all I could. Get Tweet and dump my boys into his car and take 'em to camp. We'll see what we can do to bring them out of it and make them fit for the trip by morning."
Far into the morning hours, in the outfit's camp on the edge of town, Jo and Hiram strove to revive the stupefied men, but nothing beyond groans could they get from them.
"They're doped, Hiram—pitilessly doped!" Jo cried in despair at last. "Go for Doctor Dennison. Carry him on your shoulders if he won't come."
The medical man came readily at Hiram's request, and after a brief examination of the sluggish men remarked that Jo's surmise had been correct. He then ordered her to go to her cabin and get some badly needed sleep, and at once went to work on the unconscious quartet, with Hiram aiding all he could.
"Whoever did this cursed thing, Wild Cat," said the physician, "was an amateur. He might have killed them. They've taken aboard terrible doses, and I can tell you right now that not one of them will start for Julia to-day. You may as well tell Jo to make other arrangements."
His prophecy proved correct. Heine Schultz had regained consciousness when dawn came, but was unable to tell a coherent story of what had occurred, and was deathly sick. The other three still remained unresponsive to the doctor's treatment.
"Well," said Jo, when she answered Hiram's knock on her cabin door at five-thirty, "what must be must. Huber has to have hay. I promised it, and Jerkline Jo never, never breaks a promise. So hook up the blacks and whites, Hiram, and lead six of Heine's team to be added to yours and six of Jim's for me. Hook on two trailers. You and I will make it to Julia and drive sixteen each back here with Huber's hay. That's the very best we can do, but we'll do that the best we know how. I'll be out by the time you get 'em hooked up. We'll nibble our breakfast as we travel. Shoot the piece, Hiram boy, my knight from Wild-cat Hill!"
That night in a pelting hail storm Jerkline Jo and Hiram went into camp beside the mountain lake, and the stage was set for the second act in the plot cooked up by the two who had lost all principle under Ragtown's subtle influence—Al Drummond and Lucy Dalles.
AT THE HAIRPIN CURVE
The storm in the mountains continued all night, the downpour shifting from hail to sleet and from sleet to a cold, drenching rain. Jo in her remote little tent kept dry and comfortable. Hiram kept the same, rolled in his blankets under a wagon, the ground about it ditched to run the water off. There was shelter for the mules and horses, too, for at the approach of winter Jo had freighted to the mountain camping site sufficient lumber for a roof, which was supported by poles cut from the forest.
It was still dark and raining when the two beleaguered freighters continued their journey next morning. Hiram, with eight of his own black horses hitched to the wagon, and four span of mules and horses leading, went ahead, as usual. They left the level mountain valley that swaddled the lake and started down the steep grades toward the Julia side of the desert.
"We'll have a pull coming back if this keeps up!" Jo shouted through the rain, just as Hiram's teams began negotiating the system of hairpin curves upon which Jo's skinners had rolled the boulder in retaliation for the drained water tank.
Hiram did not hear her, for the wagons were rumbling, thirty-two sets of big hoofs were sloshing in mud, the bells a-jingle, the rain a roar.
Jo wore a yellow oilskin slicker and a sou'wester of the same material, and rubber knee boots. Only her pretty face, smiling from the concealing garments, showed that she was a woman.
The animals that trailed behind Hiram's wagon went out of sight around the first curve. The last of these mules were not a hundred feet ahead of the noses of Jo's white leaders. As her leaders reached the curve Jo called shrilly to her off-pointer to cross the chain and pull the wagon away from the rock wall on the right-hand side. Obediently the mare stepped over the chain, and she and her mate began pulling the pole at an angle of forty-five degrees from the direction in which the leaders and swings were traveling. The wagon and its trailer made the sharp curve, and the mare was stepping back into place at Jo's command, when suddenly the girl's breathing was shut off, and she was whipped from her feet as if a cyclone had struck her.
Several pairs of arms were about her; a heavy cloth was over her mouth and nose and eyes. Fighting frantically against she knew not what, she was borne rapidly toward the tail-end of the wagon. Some one's arms were about her middle; another pair circled her shoulders; still another held her booted legs at the knees.
She tried to scream, but only a vague b-b-r-r sounded through the cloth that covered her face. She kicked and clawed and twisted and jerked and squirmed with surprising suddenness. Nevertheless, a rope was bound about her slicker, round and round from her shoulders to her ankles, swathing her like the bandages of a mummy, until she was almost as stiff as one. She heard the roar of the rain, but no sound of her moving team. She was whipped from the ground as if she weighed no more than ten pounds; and in a horizontal position the three pairs of arms bore her along rapidly in the direction that she had come, much as if she were a roll of canvas bound about with marline hitches.
Presently she felt herself ascending; then wet foliage brushed her face. Not a word had been spoken—almost she had heard not a sound, because of the noise of the rain and the slushy hoofbeats and the bells. Whoever her captors were, they had lain in wait until the elbow of the curve separated Hiram's outfit and hers, and then had climbed in her wagon at the rear and stolen stealthily upon her from behind. Their work had been distressingly thorough.
She was not greatly frightened, merely stunned and bewildered. What on earth could be the meaning of such an act, was the question that kept uppermost in her thoughts as she felt herself borne swiftly along through the dripping forest.
Meantime, Hiram Hooker had looked back to watch Jerkline Jo's whites round the curve. There were not many opportunities for looking back at the girl that Hiram did not improve. He loved to watch Jo's expert handling of the team in tight places. It made a picture to delight the heart of any man. He saw the leaders come around, then the swings. Next he saw the off pointer mare recrossing the chain and returning to place. Then came the butt team and—an empty wagon.
For an instant or two Hiram gazed unbelievingly, then turned and set his brake, calling to his team to whoa. Next moment he was running back.
He sprang into Jo's empty wagon, set the brake, and stopped her team. Then he was out by the tail end, running back along the road, calling frantically.
On the left-hand side of the road yawned a chasm, five hundred feet in depth. Had something happened? Had Jo fallen down this precipice?
As he ran he skirted the edge, shouting down. Only the pelting rain and the swish of forest trees made a mocking answer. If for any reason the girl had been obliged to leave the wagon, she would have stopped her team. This was no place to allow a team to travel alone.
He was thunderstruck—scarce able to believe his senses. Back in the road he trotted along, his blue eyes searching expertly in the mud for signs of what had happened. But it seemed that the trampling of the animals that were following Jo's wagon had obliterated every trace, provided the girl had been afoot in the road. And she must have been afoot there, or flown up into the sky!
Ah! He came to an abrupt halt. In the mud at the roadside was a single footprint—the print of a man's shoe. Then on the rock wall on the right-hand side of the road, and close to the footprint, was fresh mud. On hands and knees Hiram climbed up the rocky slope, and at the top found mud again. Buckthorn bushes grew close by. Some one had brushed against them recently, for the raindrops had been shaken from the leaves. In all the big-timber country of Mendocino County there had been no surer trailer than Hiram Hooker. For days he had followed panther and bear, eventually to track them to their lairs. No big animal hunt ever had been considered complete without Hiram Hooker to go along.
He remembered the incident of the man in the pines by the lake shore and groaned: "Fools!" he muttered. "They thought the rain would help cover their trail, where it only makes it plainer. Men can't travel through wet bushes without leaving a trail that looks like it had been made with whitewash and a broom. What has happened? Oh, Jo! Jo!"
He was off at a lope, his eyes darting glances hither and thither, following the trail as accurately as a hound follows a scent. Here leaves glistened with raindrops—there they looked dull. The trail was plain.
What has happened? The footprint of a man, and no sight of tracks made by the girl! Hiram was unarmed. He had left his wagon too surprised to think of grabbing up the Colt that he carried. Should he go back now and get Jo's six-shooter? No, the rain was falling too fast. Soon the bushes that the kidnapers had brushed in their escape would be covered with drops of water again, and the tail would vanish, since the land was rocky and showed no footprints. He must keep as close to the fleeing men as possible. He knew there must be more than one to manhandle Jerkline Jo!
Thus raced his thoughts as he sped on, never for an instant faltering on the trail.
"If it only doesn't rain harder!" came his groan. He prayed with childlike simplicity against this calamity, for more rain would wipe out the trail altogether.
He saw a large pine knot as he ran along, and paused to grasp it up. It was heavy with pitch and shaped like the warclub of an Indian. It was, in fact, too heavy, and few men would have considered it in the light of a weapon. Fifty yards farther Hiram found a mate to it, and picked it up too. Then he sped on and on into the forest of pines and firs, praying that the brush would not give out and make his trailing slower.
If these men ahead of him were trusting to their own legs to get away with Jerkline Jo, their legs would have to be better than any Hiram Hooker ever before had matched his own against. Why, he could keep up this pace for hours and hours! He knew more about surmounting the difficulties of a forest wilderness than any man in the south, he proudly told himself. These woods were as nothing compared with the majestic, seemingly endless sweep of the vast forests which he had roamed since childhood! If they did not take to horses, he'd make them sick of their bargains before they had gone many miles!
UNDER THE DRIPPING TREES
Vaguely Hiram Hooker sensed a diabolical plot as he pounded on through the rain, tireless, determined, remorseless, on the trail of the abductors of Jerkline Jo.
The doping of his four fellow skinners at Ragtown had a part in the plan. It had been done deliberately to force the girl and Hiram into the wilderness alone. Some one had known of Huber's shortage of hay, and had schemed accordingly, aware of Jerkline Jo's eternal willingness to do her best by her patrons, regardless of the strain upon herself. The plotters had not been able to get at Hiram. Perhaps they had not tried. Jerkline Jo would hardly essay a trip to Julia and back alone. Too many difficulties might arise on the road that a lone skinner—even a man skinner—could not cope with. So they perhaps had not molested Hiram, hoping, if he were on his feet, that the girl would attempt the trip with him. They had waited at the first U curve, and the moment he was out of sight had pounced upon her. Suppose he had not chanced to look back? The many curves ahead would have hidden her from him for nearly an hour after that first one had been passed. That would have given them a start, the disadvantage of which he could not have overcome. As it was, though, he knew that he was hot on their trail, and burdened as they were, was gaining on them at every leap. Was Drummond back of this? Hiram could think of no one else who would be even remotely at enmity with the lovable Jerkline Jo.
He brought up suddenly and squatted behind a bush of southern manzanita. Just ahead, in an open portion of the forest, was a group of three men, standing in a circle about a stiff, immovable figure on the ground. Three saddled horses stood close by, their tails turned toward the rain, their heads lowered disconsolately.
The men had just stopped and laid down their burden, which was nothing else than the tightly bound body of Jerkline Jo. All three men wore masks over their faces and new bright-blue overalls to further aid in hiding their identities. Hiram saw the rope about the girl, running in a spiral from her shoulders to her ankles. He saw the cloth over her face, knotted behind her head.
What should he do? There were three men standing about the girl, rubbing their arms, which probably ached from the strain of carrying her. Beyond a doubt they were armed. He tried to think, to plan; but in the midst of it all half-formulated schemes deserted him because of the sudden action of one of them.
He had taken something from his pocket, and now he and another stooped over the prostrate figure of the girl. One man grasped her head in both hands; the next instant Hiram realized with horror that a blade was gleaming dully through the rain in the right hand of the other man. The third stooped and squatted on Jo's ankles.
Hiram Hooker had at least one more accomplishment than has been mentioned. As a boy he had used it to terrify his elders on dark nights in the forest. He could imitate the piercing, blood-chilling scream of the prowling panther until women in lonely forest cabins clutched their breasts in fear, and men's faces blanched. Sprinting from his place of concealment like a football player, crouching low as he ran, he bore down upon the three men, and had almost reached them before he loosed that terrorizing cry. Before it had died out in the lonely, dripping wilderness, he was flailing right and left with a huge pine knot in either hand, amazing and invincible as Sampson with his jawbone of an ass.
With yells of terror, the trio rocked back on their haunches and struggled frantically to gain their feet. There was a sickening crack, and the man who had held Jo's head pitched backward, a victim of one of Hiram's warclubs. Swinging about, he aimed a blow with his left-hand club, but its intended target ducked, and the club descended on the man's shoulder, wringing a cry of pain from lips that whitened suddenly.
The third man was up now, and sprang upon Hiram's back. The other charged him from in front. Hiram hurled his left-hand club straight into this man's face, and with his free hand reached down and grasped the left leg of the man who had climbed him in the rear. Carrying this man, who all the time was raining blows on his head, Hiram ran with all his might for a close-by pine. As he neared it he whirled about and threw himself at it backward with every atom of his force.
There followed a terrible impact, and in his ear exploded the breath of the man on his back, as he came in violent contact with the trunk of the tree. The shock pitched Hiram forward on his face, and the man who had climbed upon him fell limply to the earth, the wind entirely crushed out of him.
Hiram bounded to his feet and confronted the man into whose face he had thrown the pine knot, and who now was rushing him, brandishing a revolver. Hiram's blow had knocked the mask from this man's face, but it was a face that Hiram had never seen before.
A shot barked dully in the heavy atmosphere of the forest, and the smoke hung in a little ball. Hiram felt the impact of the bullet, and was whirled half around with the force of it. He knew he had been hit some place—in the breast or shoulder perhaps—but as yet felt not the slightest pain. Fire flashed in his very face, now, and this time he smelled the acrid powder; but he had been in motion when the trigger was pressed and the bullet whined away fretfully through the trees. On the heels of the second report came that sickening crack once more, and the face of the man that glared through the smoke at Hiram went red with a smear of blood.
He sank to his knees, and Hiram spun about just in time to aim another crashing blow at the skull of the man whom he had catapulted into the tree. His mask still held in place, but his hat was off and Hiram saw that his hair was brown and wavy. There had not been time to aim, and the blow fell on his assailant's neck.
They clinched, went down together, rolling over and over, clawing at each other like fighting lynxes.
"Gi' me the paper! Gi' me the paper!" yelled a voice, as Hiram climbed uppermost on his man and fought to free his entangled arms.
At the same instant other arms were thrown about him from behind. The man he had hit first had reentered the fight, it seemed.
With a herculean heave the man from Wild-cat Hill lurched backward, carrying his lighter assailant with him. Hiram had lost his club. He grasped the man on his back by the under part of his thighs, as he had the other, and lifted his feet from the ground. Then, so quickly that the man was taken off his guard, Hiram leaped into the air and fell backward, falling with all the weight of his huge body on the man who clung to him like an abalone to a rock.
"Wuff!" he heard again, as the fellow's breath forsook him in a spasm of pain. He lost his hold on Hiram, and Hiram flopped over.
"Run! Get a horse! Get away with the paper!" this fellow choked; and as Hiram sprang upon him he saw the other rise and totter toward a horse.
Crashing a blow to the face of the man under him, Hiram sprang to his feet and lunged at the one who was fleeing. Whatever "the paper" meant, it was the nucleus of the plot, it appeared, and Hiram purposed to have it.
But, grasping frantically for a stirrup, then sprawling along the neck of the nearest horse, the man yelled to the animal, and it leaped away with him through the trees.
Hiram whirled back, beaten in that direction, and made for the other, who was on his feet and also running toward the two remaining mounts. The third man still lay inert.
Hiram started running for the second escaping man, but suddenly his knees refused to hold his legs to their accustomed task. Blindness was coming upon him, but he continued to grope toward the horses. Then again came the sounds of rapidly thundering hoofs. Hiram Hooker sighed weakly and placed both hands to his breast, which seemed weighted with some heavy object, or bound about tightly with a rope. His hands came away red and wet He wilted in his tracks, sighed again, and seemed to drift placidly into a deep, soothing sleep.
Then a noise partially awoke him. His senses swam, and he thought he heard himself laughing crazily, but could not make sure whether he was laughing or only had imagined it. A man was reeling toward the remaining horse, both hands to his head, and he looked so helpless and befuddled that Hiram laughed again—or thought he did. The man groaned and mumbled, then fell flat on his face, as a baby falls in an unchecked collapse. A little while he lay there, then struggled to his feet again, and tottered toward the horse, who seemed to be neighing shrilly for the mates that had deserted him.
Why, that was what Hiram had heard, he reasoned. He had not been laughing at all. A long space of semiconsciousness. Then came the dull thunder of hoofs once more. Hiram half raised his body on an elbow. There lay Jerkline Jo, stiff and immovable in her yellow oilskins. There was no one else about. Save himself, of course, but he was so sleepy.
He fell back with a crash.
FOUR-UP FOR HELP
Bound and helpless, Jerkline Jo Modock lay on the ground and listened to the sounds of the battle raging around her. She knew that her hero from Wild-cat Hill had come with his terrorizing panther scream, and she heard curses and thudding clubs, then popping revolver shots.
She was struggling desperately to free herself of her bonds, but she only wearied herself and accomplished nothing. With her teeth she chewed at the cloth that covered her face, trying to draw it down below her eyes, so that she could at least see; but her efforts here proved futile, too. Then she began twisting her head from side to side and hunching her shoulders, which she found she could move, in an effort to loosen the knot at the back of her head, or to scrape the cloth away.
This last in time she accomplished, but it was long after all sounds of the conflict had ceased.
As the cloth came loose she moved it along by sticking out her tongue and working it from side to side, at the same time tossing her head about. At last it slipped off, and, by raising her head, she gazed about through the dark, wet trees.
She had heard the thud of horses' hoofs, but now not a horse was to be seen. Fifty feet from her, perhaps, lay the silent form of Hiram Hooker, flat on his back. No other human being save herself and Hiram seemed to be in all that dripping wilderness.
Time and again she called to the man to whom she had given her heart, but Hiram's lips remained motionless. A great fear clutched at her. Hiram was dead.
She fought down her terror, the horror of it all, and sought desperately for a way to release herself. She was bound round and round until she was so stiff that even to roll over and over on the ground was impossible, as she could get no purchase whatever for her strong, tough muscles. She began striving to bend her knees, and in this, as the bonds gradually changed position and gave a little, she was eventually successful. Once she had a start in this tiresome process, she gained more and more, and finally she could move her legs from their straight position.
She rested then, and when she began squirming again found that she was able to flop over on her side.
In this new position she looked about over the ground for something to help her, and close at hand she saw the dull gleam of steel.
As yet she had not the remotest idea of why she had been kidnaped; nor had she seen any of the persons who had perpetrated the act. Not a word had been spoken to her or in her presence before the fight. She had heard the man yelling about "the paper," though, toward the close of the battle, but no other words throughout the entire ordeal.
The blade that showed its dull steel against the soggy brown pine needles lay five feet beyond her reach. But now she could roll to it, and began to do so, flopping along like a fish in the bottom of a boat. She rested when her face was close to it, and began to study how she might make use of it.
She might be able to take it in her teeth, but doubted if she could reach that part of the rope about her shoulders, even then. If it was a dagger, she could not think how she could utilize it, as it probably would have no cutting edge. If it was a pocketknife, it doubtless would be dull, as pocketknives usually are, and therefore useless. With any pressure that she might be able to command, a keen cutting edge would be necessary to free her from the coils of the lariat.
By now she had regained her strength, and once more began wriggling and worming until her eyes were close to the blade, half hidden by pine needles. Then she realized with surprise and a thrill of hope that the object was a razor.
How such a tool came to be dropped by her assailants was more than she could fathom. She did not try. Working her face closer and closer to the razor she took the end of the handle between her teeth, and, twisting her head from side to side, finally managed to close the blade without cutting herself by pressing it against the ground.
Then she rolled so that her face was directly over it, and took both handle and blade in her mouth, by the middle. Her brain had been active through these clumsy maneuvers; she had a plan.
Now for a tree from which suckers were growing close to the ground. The pines were hopeless in this respect, but off a way she saw the naked branches of a black oak, and toward it she rolled, the closed razor in her mouth.
It was a long, tiresome trip, and when she reached the tree there was not a sucker growing from it. She saw another black oak close at hand, and continued her flopping, seallike progress, toward it.
Here, to her unbounded delight, slender suckers grew up from an exposed root. She released the razor and chewed upon one of them until she had browsed it down to a leafless stub four inches high.
Then, working with her teeth and tongue and straining every muscle in her neck, she contrived, at the risk of slashing her face, to insert the stump of the sucker between the two halves of the razor handle.
This pushed up the blade, and it remained in a half-closed position like a threatening guillotine. Knowing now that she would not be cut, she took the end of the handle in her teeth and pulled it down as far as it would go. Still the edge of the blade remained balanced against the top of the sucker. So she rolled about until she found a pine twig, which she took in her mouth, rolling with it back to the razor. With one end of the twig in her mouth, she was able to push the blade open with the other end, and it fell back against the root of the oak, edge uppermost.
She rested again, and then crawled over the root until a coil of the rope that bound her shoulders was pressing against the keen edge of the razor blade. Working her shoulders up and down, she saw the leather strands parting clean, and soon only one strand remained uncut. She rolled from the razor and scraped this last strand against another exposed root of the oak until it parted.
Two minutes more, and she was sitting up, unwinding the rawhide lariat from her legs with hands that were free.
She struggled to her feet, and though she ached in every bone and muscle, ran to Hiram and bent over him with a little cry of anguish on her lips.
His shirt front was stained crimson, and terror seized her. She fought it off and, bending down, listened with an ear to his heart. She breathed a little tremulous prayer of thankfulness as she heard his regular heartbeats, and then tore open his shirt to find that a bullet had entered his breast, high up on the right-hand side.
As best she could she stopped the bleeding and tried to revive Hiram. Into cold rain water, collected in a hollow of the ground, she plunged her handkerchief again and again, bathing the man's temples and chafing his wrists.
At last he opened his eyes, stared oddly at her a little, then, seeming to remember everything, strove to rise.
Probably one woman in all that country could have completed the gigantic task of getting this big, wounded man back to the wagons, but Jerkline Jo was fortunately that woman. With an arm of Hiram about her neck, and her arm about his waist, they staggered away through the rain, Hiram conscious enough to direct the way, for the girl was completely lost. It was early in the morning that their journey had been interrupted so ruthlessly, but it was afternoon before they came again to the road, and Hiram dropped exhausted in Jo's lead wagon.
Here she was able better to attend to his wound, and brandy, which she always carried, revived him greatly.
There was no course open now but to loose all the horses but four, leave three of the wagons where they stood, and drive as fast as she could with the four hitched to the head wagon, to get the wounded man to Artesian Ranch, about eighteen miles distant down on the Julia side of the desert.
Never before or afterward in the lives of the actors in this outland drama were the mountains that divided the desert to know such a drive as that. Jerkline Jo had a set of four-up checks which she carried in case of emergency, and by one o'clock four of her big whites were racing down the perilous grade, with Jo holding the four leather lines and operating the brake repeatedly, urging them to greater efforts continually. The huge wagon careened about hairpin curves, skirted precipices, rumbled from canon to canon, while the girl, always sure of herself, always sure of her horses, guided it skillfully and laughed at catastrophies that yawned at her every foot of the way.
In the middle of the afternoon they raced out on the desert and took up the long miles to the ranch. At dark they reached it, the horses badly spent, unaccustomed as they were to moving faster than a walk. There was an automobile at the ranch, and Hiram was hurried on to the doctor at Julia, while Jo worked far into the night rubbing down her trembling whites, crooning to them, and giving them short drinks of water until they were resting their weary bodies in the litter, content and quiet at last.
THE GENTLE WILD CAT RETURNS
Hiram Hooker was very weak when he reached the doctor. The bullet was found and successfully removed, however, and Hiram's great physical perfection did the rest.
He was quickly on the mend, and in a month was able to take his team again.
Meantime Jerkline Jo and her four other skinners had contrived to make their customary trips from Julia to Ragtown, all of them calling to see Hiram, who was being cared for at the doctor's house, the minute they completed their west-bound trip. Jo spent most of her time with him when in Julia, and when he was well enough they talked frequently of the strange occurrence in the mountains. But they did not get down to solid work on the mystery until Hiram was on his first trip to Ragtown after his wound had healed. Then the wagon train came to a stop at the curves, and Jo and all of her skinners walked through the forest to the scene of Hiram's battle.
After a search they found the spot. Jo showed the men the razor, still propped up as she had left it, held up by the sucker of the black oak. She found the remains of the lariat, too. A search failed to reveal anything beyond the razor that had been dropped by the surprised kidnapers.
"Lord, be merciful unto me, a skinner!" exclaimed Heine Schultz, seating himself on a prostrate pine. "Wild Cat, you say one o' these Jaspers was bendin' over Jo with this here razoo?"
"I'm sure it was that that he had in his hand," Hiram replied. "He was the second one that I soaked, and I saw him drop it."
"Boy! Boy! That musta been some fight," observed Jim McAllen. "Think of our ol' Wild Cat puttin' the three of 'em on the run! Man, how comes it I miss all the good things in this life? Jo, was they aimin' to cut your pretty throat?"
Jo shuddered. "Thank Heaven I was blindfolded!" was her grateful thought. "But how ridiculous, boys! A razor! If they'd wanted to kill me, at least one of them had a gat. Ask Hiram."
"Maybe they was just goin' to cut you loose and tell you why they'd swiped you, when the Gentle Wild Cat went wild again," suggested Gulick.
"Cut a perfectly good lariat!" Jo picked it up. "Couldn't they have untied the knots?"
Gulick took the lariat and examined it. "Thirty-five feet," he said. "Rawhide—six-strand plait Been rubbed with cow's liver to soften 'er, too. What else? Whoop! What's this?"
He was studying the honda, also of rawhide, pressed flat when soaked and riveted in shape, a plaited button on the end of the lariat proper to keep it from slipping through the hole.
"Letters cut in this," Gulick announced. "T. H.' Who's that stand for?"
All went silent for a time, thinking; then Hiram Hooker said quietly, as if what he suggested mattered but little:
All talked at once now. Not one was there that was not sure Hiram had hit upon a clew.
"And Tehachapi Hank's a bad man," said Heine. "Admitted it himself. And he's a side-kick of that cholo-faced Drummond!"
Study of the razor, now red with rust, showed the amateur detectives nothing.
"And ye saw only the face of one of 'em, Hiram?" Blink Keddie asked it.
"Only one. The others managed to keep their masks on."
"Tehachapi Hank and Al Drummond them other two was," said McAllen positively. "Too bad it wasn't one o' them you knocked the mask off of, Wild Cat."
"And you never saw this fella that you got a look at?" asked Schultz.
Hiram shook his head. "I didn't even see him well," he added. "Through revolver smoke—and the rain pouring—and next instant his face didn't look like anything much. That was a wicked old pine knot."
"I'll say she was, boy! But about the razor?" Keddie kept on.
Again Hiram could not answer.
"Why, that's easy!" laughed Heine Schultz. "They was gonta give Jo a shave!"
Jo and Hiram walked together behind the rest and talked as the party returned to the wagons. For the first time she told him of what her skinners had had to report when they were over their sickness following the doping at Ragtown. One and all, they said, they had been invited to the little cabin of the girl who ran the shooting gallery for a drink; after having fired several strings of shots and "joshed" with her out in front. From there they had gone to the Palace, and afterward, being dazed and feeling drowsy, had wandered in a group into the Dugout, a place that they seldom frequented, and could remember nothing after that.
"Why—why—do they think Lucy doped them?" cried Hiram.
Jo shrugged. "They can't remember drinking anywhere but with her and in the Palace," she said. "They got it one place or the other, Hiram."
"The Palace, of course, then. Why—Lucy—she——"
"Is a friend of Al Drummond," Jo helped him out, her red lips set.
"Did you find out whether or not Drummond was in Ragtown at the time?"
"I looked into all that I dared, but it was nine days before I got back. Oh, I had an awful time, with nobody to help me but a few green men I'd picked up at Julia—finding the horses and all. But Huber got his hay!" she added proudly. "When I got back to Ragtown, of course nobody remembered whether Drummond had been there that day or not. He goes and comes frequently, you know. And I didn't dare press questions. I told the boys to keep still about it all. I thought that best."
"Was Drummond there on your last trip in?" he asked.
"Beaten up? I'm sure I must have left my mark on all three of them."
"I didn't get to see him, but no one said anything about any injury."
"Much as we dislike him, it's hard to think that Drummond would be concerned in such a plot," Hiram remarked.
"Of course, Jo."
"Against me? What have I done?"
"We're getting nowhere with such speculation, Jo," said Hiram. "We boys will just have to keep our eyes open and see what we can find out. There's more back of it than the idea to tantalize you because you beat Al Drummond in the freighting game. I wish I knew what the razor was for."
"Of course, they weren't going to kill me, Hiram. No need for all that monkeywork, if that had been the case."
"I only saw the man with the razor," Hiram told her, "and got busy. Of course, I didn't even know it was a razor then, but I saw steel. I thought they were going to kill you. Didn't take much time to think, at that."
"You terrible scrapper!" laughed the girl. "Who'd have thought that I'd ever have needed such a man—and got him! Hiram, you've—you've never kissed me since that night."
Hiram's face turned red as fire. "I ain't worthy to kiss ye, Jo," he said, lapsing into his backwoods drawl. "Wait'll I settle this thing that's come up for you. Wait'll I find out about 'the paper.' Then maybe I'll have somethin' to offer you."
In his great embarrassment he pointed to the ground, where were tracks and scratches.
"Ben a bob cat usin' thereabouts," he drawled.
With Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet the month that Hiram had been laid up had developed a new and unforeseen situation. He laid the particulars before Jerkline Jo and Hiram, both investors in his enterprise. The conference took place when Jo's freight outfit jingled into Ragtown two days later.
Tweet invited them to dinner in the Wigwam, a saloon and restaurant and gambling house combined, where the patrons sat on stools before a high counter which was in the nature of a continuation of the bar. The three took seats at the farther end, so that their conversation would be less likely to be overheard.
"Playmates," Tweet began, when their orders were before them, "I didn't think our Uncle Sam would go to work and hand us a package just when we were gettin' us a toehold. But that's just what he's done. I been watchin' for it to develop for some little time. Now the leak has sprung.
"You see, outside o' Paloma Rancho, every other section o' land in here b'longs to the Gold Belt Cut-off, and adjoinin' sections are government land. Maybe you c'n guess what's happened."
"Thrown open," Jerkline Jo said promptly.
"Yep—open to homesteaders. They're flockin' in in automobiles, in perambulators, on motor cycles, burros, horseback, and afoot—in everything but submarines. So far as any one can see, they're gettin' just as good land as Paloma Rancho; and the folks we've sold to are castin' dark looks at one Tweet. As if I was to blame! Two fellas that hadn't paid in much have jumped their contracts with us, and are takin' up claims. If many more pull stuff like that—say, somebody'll be in bad!
"Just the same, though, my engineers tell me there's shallower water here than any place on this ol' desert. Butte Springs proves that, too. And we got the water right on the mountain lake; so they can't get that. Riparian rights—all straight, by golly! No worry there. I don't think settlers'll have any luck striking water without big expense anywhere around us. Just the same, it'll take time to prove that.
"The settler, you savvy, has six months after he files before he's got to get on his land. Even then he ain't required to develop water; and chances are he won't. He'll put in dry crops to cover the improvements demanded by the government, whether they succeed or not—which they won't. But all this time, because nobody'll be makin' a great effort to locate water, folks will be believin' that government land is as good as ours. See the point? Paloma Rancho land will stop sellin' pronto, and our pleasant little dream will turn into a scary nightmare."
"But if the surrounding land is inferior to the rancho," said Jo, "it's only a matter of time until people will find it out. Then you'll regain your old status, won't you?"
"In time. Yeah—that's it. But time's money, little girl; and once every three months I gotta slap down six thousand filthy lucreinos, plus a neat little bunch o' interest, or—bingo! All is lost!
"Folks that peddled me this property are gettin' on their feet again, and their young lives are one long regret over havin' had ta part with Paloma Rancho. 'Salways th' way. One dog leaves a bone, and another dog comes along and goes to work and picks her up. Then the other dog he goes to work and thinks that was a pretty darn good bone after all. Then fur begins to fly, and old ladies yell: 'How cruel! Stop it, you big heartless men!'
"So the other dogs won't miss a chance to shoot the prongs into me the moment I fail on a single payment and the interest due. They don't have to; I signed to forfeit everything any interest day that I failed to pungle up. Three days o' grace—then—boom! 'Wasn't it pretty, papa! Shoot off another one just like it!'"
Jerkline Jo sipped her near-coffee thoughtfully, and gazed unseeingly at the menu card, a marvel of weird orthography, punctuated with fly specks and splatters of egg yolk. Jo had over ten thousand dollars invested in Paloma Rancho.
"We're not doing the freighting business that we did," she confessed, aware that Playmate Tweet was studying her face expectantly and patiently straightening a nose whose tip always left true center the moment he released it. "Lots of the smaller contractors have finished here, and are moving on to new jobs up the line, out of our reach. Ragtown, too, seems to be slowing up, don't you think?"
Tweet pursed his lips. "I hate to admit it," he said, "but I guess you're right. Still, we can expect things to be slower in winter. Then these settlers oughta help Ragtown some when spring comes along. Chances are, though, most of 'em are broke. 'Salways like that. I've been homesteadin' communities before now. No good, as a rule.
"But I ain't worryin' about Ragtown. She'll perk up. We're gonta get the yards and the roundhouse—that's a cinch. I know it now. Demarest slipped it to me. I've spread the glad tidin's, o' course, but it didn't seem to help. Folks have believed it all along, and have gone ahead on that belief—so the rush because of that feature was over before I sprung it. But Ragtown'll pick up in time. The floaters will go, and substantial citizens will take their places. It's the land contracts that we need in order to meet our payments and have a future to bank on, and they're what'll slow up and hurt us till folks get sane and see we got the only dope."
"You'll have to meet the next payment—when?" Hiram put in here.
"April first—two months off. Six thousan' dollars and interest on deferred payments."
"Can you meet it?"
"I couldn't if it was due now," was Tweet's reply.
"Well, I'll see that you meet that payment," Jo said. "That will give you three months more leeway—five months, counting from now—and by that time things should begin to look up once more."
Tweet heaved a great sigh of relief. "That's a big load off my chest," he claimed, as they left the stools.
Two hours later Hiram Hooker, apparently wandering aimlessly about the dimly lighted street, saw Al Drummond lift a hinged portion of the shooting-gallery counter and pass within. A man was in charge, and there was nobody shooting. Drummond nodded briefly to him, traversed the length of the target range, and disappeared through a door in the rear.
Three minutes after this Hiram slunk stealthily along the alley and up to Lucy's little cabin. Softly his fingers plucked at a knot in a knothole, which he had loosened that evening while Lucy was on watch in the gallery. Holding the circular bit of wood in his hand, he placed an ear to the knothole, which was hidden from those inside by a huge piece of furniture.
HIRAM TAKES THE TRAIL
Hiram Hooker stood motionless in the alley back of Lucy Dalles' cabin and listened intently through the knothole.
"Well," he heard Al Drummond saying to Lucy, "I see they got in again this evening."
Hiram supposed "they" referred to the freighting outfit of Jerkline Jo.
"Yes," replied Lucy, "and here it is late January, Al, and we've accomplished nothing."
"No, nothing," Drummond admitted gloomily. "And our chances look mighty slim to get at her. Every trip she's got those five husky skinners with her, and I guess every one of them is fool enough to put up a scrap for her if he knew he'd get croaked in the deal."
"We must think up another plan to separate her from them," the girl suggested.
"Confound it!" muttered Drummond. "Everything was moving along smoothly, and the next minute we'd have had the razor working; then here comes that big boob and takes us by surprise. Lord, how he swung those clubs!"
"You're afraid of him, since he beat you up on the desert," Lucy said tauntingly.
"Huh! I'll get him yet! I'm willing to admit he's too many for me in a stand-up and knock-down fight. He's a whirlwind—I never saw his like. Why, up there in the mountains he seemed to have a dozen arms, all working at once. Wild Cat is right! But I haven't been raised on salt pork and corn bread. I've lived. Just the same, when I get good and ready I'll fix his engine for him."
"I imagine he'll be around to oversee the work," remarked Lucy in a tone that probably made Drummond long to choke her.
"Well, that's not the point," she went on after a little. "What are we going to do to get at that creature known as Jerkline Jo, the four-flusher? She's crooked as a dog's hind leg, and goes around pulling the pious stuff on the roughnecks."
"You think because you're crooked every other woman is, eh? I'll say this for Jo—she's straight and a dead-game sport. She's not a four-flusher. Of course I'd do anything to get even for the way she handed it to me in the freighting game. But there's no sense in you and me running her down to each other when we don't believe ourselves."
"So you've fallen for her, too, have you?" Lucy asked sarcastically.
"Don't be a fool, Lucy! A man can't help admiring a girl like Jo."
"Thanks for your assurances, Al," Lucy said cuttingly.
"Well, well, well! Scrap all night about nothing! Forget it! Shut up! Guess who I saw to-day as I was driving over the desert."
"Your dear old uncle."
"Sure—that's what you called him. Basil Filer, the crazy prospector."
"Sure enough, Al?" Lucy's tones were brighter.
"Pretty much so. Didn't seem to recognize me at all. I was at Comstock's camp, and he rambled in with his burros. Stood within five feet of me and looked right at me. Never saw me before!" and Drummond chuckled.
"Al, where on earth do you suppose he's been since you took him out on the desert and dumped him?"
"Heaven knows! Wandering about looking for a prospect, I suppose. I'd have given fifty dollars to be hidden close by when he came out of it next morning."
"Poor old duffer! But suppose Hooker and Jo or some of that bunch should stumble onto him, Al! Was he making this way?"
"Yes; but he was fifty miles up the lines. There were two or three women about Comstock's commissary tent—two of Comstock's daughters and the wife of his walking-boss. The old bird kept looking at them and shaking his head, just like he did with you. He's still hunting for his pardner's daughter. He's a crazy nut, and I guess wherever he goes he's trying to get on her trail."
"Don't you suppose he remembers me, Al? We sure had him going that night. I was Jean Prince to him, all right. And when you inked me up, and he got a look—say, he couldn't tell his story fast enough, could he?"
Drummond chuckled reminiscently. "Yes, next minute he'd have had you scalped, kid, if I hadn't slipped him another powder. Well, if he does drift back here you've simply got to lie low and keep out of his sight. I'll tell the boys to keep their eyes open and slip me the dope if they see him rambling into Ragtown. Then you fade away till he beats it out again."
"Won't he ask about me? And try to find out where I've gone?"
"I doubt it. He's still got his precious paper. If, we'd stolen that, instead of copying it, there might be the very devil to pay. But as long as he's still got it he's too nutty to suspect. Of course, though, nobody can tell what's going on in the other fellow's noodle. I'd say, though, that if you aren't here he'll think the whole business was a pipe dream."
"I hope so. We don't want any further complications. Now when are you and Hank and that friend of his going to make another attempt to get Jerkline Jo? And how are you going about it?"
"Hank's still camping up in the mountains and spying on the outfit when it travels through the pass," Al informed her. "He's watching their habits, and taking note of just how they travel along, trying to dope out something new. He'll get a scheme before spring, I'm thinking. There's a bad hombre, kid. It would give me the creeps to know he was trailing me through those lonesome woods. Man! I wouldn't turn my back to that plug with fifteen cents in my jeans!"
"Can't we get some more of Hank's pals and simply ambush Jo's whole outfit? Collar all of them, and then get after Jo. Surely a bunch of men could take them all by surprise and put the fixin's to 'em."
Drummond snorted. "We've got to split the haul four ways as it is," he pointed out. "And that bo that helped us get Filer away—Stool—he smells a rat and is keeping an eye single to horning in on the clean-up. Lucy, I wouldn't attack Jo's bunch of roughnecks with less than a dozen men; and you can bet your young life our gang is too big as it is. Keep the home fires burning, I'll say!"
"Well, for Heaven's sake, try and get busy soon!" Lucy cried petulantly. "Goodness knows I did my part—all that any woman could be expected to do. So far I'm the only one that's accomplished anything. Why in thunder didn't Hank's friend, Pete, 'tend to the business up there in the mountains, after you and Hank had beat it? Hooker was out, this fellow said, and the girl still tied. And then he comes out of his dope and gets on a horse, and beats it like you other two quitters!"
"He didn't have the paper," explained Al. "Besides, Pete thought he was going to croak. He was laid up longer than Hooker, even, and Hooker had got a bullet. Pete's skull was cracked, and for a time it was a toss-up whether he'd pull through or not. He went nutty up there, I guess. He was lying sidewise across the saddle, unconscious but holding on for dear life, when the horse caught up with us. And Hank and I ducked out because—well, it's hard to explain. Both of us were pretty badly beaten up, you know, and there wasn't much fight left in us. Hooker had surprised us, and we were rattled. I don't know—a fellow can't explain just why he does the wrong thing in a situation like that. But knock the fight out of a man and make him groggy, and he'll bungle every time."
"Well, do something now," ordered Lucy frigidly; and Hiram heard Drummond scrape back his chair in rising.
"All right—we'll see. I'll beat it now. Up late last night playing poker. Rotten luck, too!"
"Al," said Lucy's voice, "when we get that jack, are you going to give me a fair share of it?"
"Sure—sure! Why do you keep harping on that, Lucy? Haven't I promised you I would? Good night. I'm dead tired!"
Half an hour before dawn next morning Hiram Hooker crawled from his blankets in camp and fed hay and grain to Babe, Jerkline Jo's black saddle mare. Then, leaving his companions placidly snoring, he walked briskly along the trail to Ragtown. Ten minutes after his start he was knocking on the door of Jo's tiny pine cabin.
"What is it?" finally came the girl's sleepy tones. "Who is there?"
"It's I, Jo. Hiram. Will you come to the door a second? I want to talk with you."
"You big whale! What do you mean, waking me up in the middle of the night? Anything wrong?"
"No, Jo. And it's almost time to get up. The boys will be out by the time I get back. Hurry and get dressed, won't you?"
There was a rustling and quick moving about inside, and presently the door was unlocked and Jerkline Jo poked her head out inquiringly.
"I came to ask you for a few days off," he explained.
"Yes, just one trip, Jo. There isn't any more freight than the rest of you can handle just now. Won't be till spring, I'm thinking."
"Oh, I could spare you now better than later on. But—but what, Hiram?"
"And I'd like to borrow Babe and your saddle and bridle, too."
"Take them," she said confidently. "Whatever your mysterious disappearance means, I know I can trust you."
Half an hour afterward Hiram swung himself into Jo's big California saddle, and then leaned over and spoke to Blink Keddie and Heine Schultz, busy at harnessing the teams.
"I don't know when I'll be back, boys," he said. "But remember what I told you: Don't let Jo out of your sight in the pass—nor anywhere else, for that matter—and keep your guns handy all the time."
"Don't worry, Gentle Wild Cat!" Schultz assured him.
"So long, then," said Hiram, and swung Babe into the road that connected Ragtown with the line of camps which dotted the desert from end to end.
A TALE OF THE DESERT'S DEAD
No land seems so delectable as the desert early on a crisp morning. The rare air causes the blood to pound through one's veins, and an unexplainable rapture seizes man's spirits.
Jo's black mare, Babe, had not been ridden for weeks, and every greasewood bush that she saw became in the weird light of sunrise a grotesque goblin ready to spring at her and devour her whole. At least, so she pretended, and as her natural weapon of defense lay in flight, she kept Hiram Hooker busy holding her down to a fast gallop.
The low-hanging tapaderos flapped loosely. Hiram's borrowed silver-mounted spurs—a reminder of Tom Gulick's cow-punching days in Utah—jingled merrily. The heavy six-gun at his hip flopped against the silver-rimmed cantle of Jo's fifty-pound saddle. The smells of the morning were sweet. Away over the vast expanse of bronze greasewood, far-flung buttes caught the early rays of the sun and took on something of the likeness of a solar spectrum, purple at their bases, the colors ranging upward through blues and greens and yellows to a spun-gold glitter at their summits. Jack rabbits loped away through the brush. Now and then a coyote, ears pricked up, trotted along, his tail dragging. Tecolote, the little desert owl, came from his hole and sat on the pile of dirt beside it, while his wife peeked out with her round head just above the ground and gave silent approval to her lord and master's querulous criticism of the rider.
Life was good—life was glorious. Life was love! The poetic heart of the man from Wild-cat Hill sang ceaselessly. He was away on his romantic quest to serve the most splendid girl a man had ever loved!
As the morning progressed and the sun climbed higher and higher, Babe bore him through many camps, both large and small. At each he drew rein and made inquiry after an old prospector called Basil Filer, who drove six burros. No one had seen such a man, however, and Hiram continued on toward the north until noon. Then he stopped for dinner and to feed and rest the mare at Demarest, Spruce & Tillou's Camp Number Two. They had come twenty-one miles that morning, he learned at dinner in the huge dining tent; and when he started out again he held Babe in, because she was soft for want of exercise.
On and on they traveled, nevertheless, Hiram making inquiry at every camp. At last, thirty miles from Ragtown, he got word of the prospector. A camp freighter who traveled to the north for supplies from Demarest, Spruce & Tillou's Camp Number Three had seen such a man trudging along with his long staff, eyes bent on the ground, behind his six burros. He had been seen about ten miles farther north, traveling south, the day before.
Hiram loped on, and now reached a strip of the right-of-way where camps were few and far between. The desert was dryer here than in the vicinity of Ragtown, and greasewood and whispering yuccas gave place to low sage and the shimmering dry lakes, which lure thirsting men on to their doom with their mocking resemblance to the life-saving water the wanderer craves.
Always, it seemed, there was somewhere within the range of Hiram's vision one of those weird whirlwinds sweeping along. Often they were so far away they seemed motionless, and looked like brown funnel-shaped pillars, wrong end up, supporting the turquoise sky. Again, they were close—sometimes six or seven in sight at once—as they spun like huge tops, sucking up everything loose in their path, and whirling it round and round with stupefying rapidity.
At last one of them overtook the horse and rider, and the mare stopped short, thrusting her head between her front legs and tucking in her flowing tail. Hiram had time only to grab his hat and throw himself forward along the mare's neck; the next instant it seemed as if a million tugging hands had hold of him and were trying to whirl him into the heavens and carry him, like a garment whipped from a clothesline, into mysterious distances.
When it had passed he sat erect once more and dug the dirt from his ears and eyes, trying to follow the twister's progress as it sped drunkenly on to find other victims.
Then it was that Hiram saw the pack train, not far distant over the desert, making ready to receive the coming whirlwind. The burros, wise little animals that they are, had huddled together, tails outward, heads down; and in the center of them Hiram saw a man just stooping for the protection of their bodies. Next instant the group vanished—was swallowed up by the wind demon.
When the old man looked up after the onslaught, Hiram was riding upon him. The prospector stood trying to stare at him from the center of his pack train, wiping his watering eyes and sand-stained mouth.
"Hello, there!" called Hiram. "It spoke to us in passing, too. How do you like 'em?"
"I got to like 'em," returned the old man. "I eat 'em—breakfast, dinner, and supper. Grub don't taste good any more 'less a twister's passed over it and seasoned it up. Who are you?"
Hiram swung his great frame from the creaking saddle.
"I'm Hiram Hooker," he announced, lowering the mare's reins and advancing until a mouse-colored burro aimed a kick at him to show him that he was a rank outsider whose company was not desired.
"Why, Muta, that ain't no way to act!" mildly expostulated the burro's master. "She's just a mite playful," he explained apologetically to Hiram. "Muta, she thinks a heap o' the ole man, ye see, an' she's always lookin' out that strangers don't mean 'im any harm."
He placed both arms about the shaggy burro's neck. "You must be more polite, Muta," he said chidingly, while the little animal trust out her upper lip and nibbled at the large horn buttons on his dusty canvas coat.
"Which way are you bound?" asked Hiram.
"South now. Just travelin'. Maybe I'll make it over to Rattlesnake Buttes"—he raised an arm toward the northeast—"and maybe down Caldron Canon way." He pointed southeast toward the mountains. "I dunno—just driftin' along, me an' the little fellas. Sometimes we drift here, and sometimes we drift there. Don't matter much, s'long's there's grub an' a little rolled barley in the pack-bags. What's the dif'rence anyway?" His red-lidded eyes looked up weirdly at Hiram.
Bent and pathetic he was, this old man of the hills and deserts—this old lizard of the unfriendly sands. In his eyes all time seemed to have written its history. His brows were shaggy and desert-colored, like the brows of the Ancient Mariner whose scrawny, clutching fingers robbed the Wedding Guest of his night of pleasure. His hands shook, and he carried a long cane; but for him the merciless desert seemed to hold no lasting terror, for he spent his life on its desert searching for the treasure that is hidden there.
"Me and the little fellas just drift along. We get work at the camps when our grubstake's gone; and then we ramble on and on—just driftin', kinda. I got a ole jack rabbit for supper, pardner. He was sleepin' under a sagebrush, and I puts out his eye with my six and twenty paces. Can you do that? But you're young—young and got a clever eye. Anyway, I got a ole jack for supper. Now, if you had a bottle on you couldn't we have a time!"
"I've no bottle," Hiram said. "I'm sorry. But, if you'll invite me, I'll help you with the jack."
"Got blankets behind yer saddle, I see. All right, my friend. Ole Filer's always ready to share his grub with a passer-by on the desert. There's water in my little tank. Burros don't drink much, you know. A taste's enough till we get to a camp to-morrow. Handy, those camps, for prospectors needin' a grubstake. Let's camp over there by that lonesome yucca palm. He looks as if he wanted company. Maybe he'll whisper where they's gold to-night—if we keep on ear awake. He-he! Oh, they whisper lots—lots—lots! But they always lie like sin!"
When the "ole jack" had paid the final price of his lack of watchfulness, Hiram Hooker and the crazy prospector leaned back and looked up at the cold stars that smiled cruelly down on the arid waste. The wind whispered mysteriously through the bayonets of the yucca palm above them. Not long would one be obliged to live and move and have his being alone on this desert before strange messages would begin to formulate in the wind's eerie whispering in the yuccas.
The burros ranged about, browsing off the desert growth. There had been barley for Babe, and Hiram had watered her at the last camp. A rinse-out of her mouth and she would do very well till morning.
And there under the scornful stars Hiram and the old man lounged on packbags and talked, with their tiny camp fire of greasewood roots between them. And gradually as Hiram told what he knew and convinced the gray old rat of his honesty, an uncanny tale of the barren lands began unfolding, a tale revolving about a little girl baby left by prospectors in a yucca-trunk corral—the tale of Jean Prince, daughter of Leonard Prince, whose bones had been gnawed by coyotes and covered by the shifting sands for over twenty years. And the baby girl, Jean Prince, was none other than the magnetic, dark-haired woman who now drove jerkline to Ragtown and numbered her admirers by the thousand—Jerkline Jo, Queen of the Outland Camps.
"They was three of us at first," narrated Filer in a shaky voice. "Three of us and Baby Jean. Baby Jean and me and Len Prince and 'The Chink.' And that makes four. But Baby Jean was only two years old.
"Hong Duo was the chink—a grinnin' yenshee hound from up beyond the Tehachapi—way up—up toward the Sierra Nevadas, in the placer country. White prospectors ner white miners don't often work with chinks. Chinks is only good for workin' tailin's when it comes to mines. But Len he'd saved Hong Duo's life in trouble in a dump in Placerville—ol' Hangtown—and the chink had clung to um like a burro to somethin' he's swiped from Camp.
"Agin' that, too, the chink had money—an' Len and me was broke. Fer a year he grubstaked us, and followed us around pocketin' up that a way, cookin' and such, and livin' for Len and Baby Jean.
"Baby Jean's maw she died when the kid was borned; and everywhere Len went after she was a year or more he took her. We drifted south—me and Len and the chink and Baby Jean.
"Up Death Valley way we got wind o' somethin' good. Days and days we makes it into the land that God forgot, and here and there we pecked out a little color. Then Len and me we gets a lead, and we leaves the chink and Baby Jean and drifts on into a country that makes me shiver yet ta think of.
"We got some gold—quite some. And me"—his voice grew low—"I was younger then, and mean as dirt. I was high-gradin' on my pardner right and left. I guess I was always mean; but I've paid the price.
"Then Len he gets onto me, but he holds his tongue. And we make it on and on into Little Hall, till the sandstorm come.
"Fer nigh onto fifty-nine years I've roamed the desert, pardner, but I've never seen another storm like that. Days and days she blowed, and sometimes you couldn't see yer hand before yer face for the flyin' sand. Someway we gets out of it, the Almighty knows how! But from that day to this I've never been able to find that place ag'in.
"There was gold there—piles and piles o' gold—and Len he'd found it. Found it out alone one day before the storm set in. And knowin' I'd been high-gradin' on him, he kep' this find to 'imself. Then come the storm, and we fought out just ahead o' death.
"Then Len he keeps tryin' to go back—wants to work long for a big grubstake, and is quiet and dreams a lot, with Baby Jean in his arms, and the chink settin' cross-legged lookin' at 'em with his glitterin' little eyes—half full o' hop, I guess. And I gets onto why Len wants to drift back there to that land o' dead men's bones, and I watch 'im, and freeze to 'im continual.
"Len he makes a bluff at this an' that an' the other—him and me and the chink driftin' from here to there over this part o' the desert, or hereabouts, scratchin' a little now and ag'in. But Len his heart ain't in it, I see; and all the time he's tryin' to shake me off, I get it. But I won't shake.
"Well, Len he ain't no more good after the awful time we went through up there in that terrible land. He never was a man ag'in after that; and he gets scared, I guess, and thinks he's gonna cash his chips. They's a queer look in his eyes, and in camp he just sets and sets with Baby Jean in his arms, and the hophead lookin' at 'em from across the fire with his glitterin' little eyes. And sometimes Len he just sets and sets and watches Baby Jean asleep, and his eyes are worried like a horse's eyes when he knows he's starvin'; and the yenshee hound he just sets and looks at Len, and Heaven only knows what he's thinkin'!
"Then we make it up along in where the Salt Lake road was buildin' then—up Barstow way—all wild them days. And one day Len and me and the chink goes out into the buttes, and leaves Baby Jean in a yucca-stump corral so's the c'yotes can't get at her, like we did sometimes. She wasn't never a yellin' kid. Give her a bottle o' canned cow, and she'd suck herself to sleep with varmints prowlin' about and sandstorms blowin'. Sometimes she'd sob if things was goin' wrong in her little world—low and heartbroken, like a woman cries. But yell—never!
"So we leaves her suckin' at her bottle, for Len he'd never broke her of it, and out we goes to scratch around some more up in Turkey Buttes.
"It was lookin' to storm and we hadn't oughta gone maybe; but we didn't aim to make it far, and could come back any time. But when she broke she broke sudden; and only once before had I seen such a blow as that. We got plumb lost five miles from camp; and all that day and all that night and all next day we wandered about in the whirlin' sand, outa water, and goin' crazier every minute. The chink he gives up, and so does Len; and I'm too crazy to make 'em keep on fightin'. I dragged out two days later, way north o' the buttes—plumb bughouse, my tongue all black and stiff as rubber. I've never been the same man since, I guess. I dream about them days and nights.
"The folks that found me they go huntin' for Len and the chink and Baby Jean t'other side o' the buttes. They find Len and the chink, both dead, their faces and tongues—— But I don't like to remember that! Sometimes the yuccas they whisper about it; but I always plug my ears and begin to sing, or talk to the asses about the fun we'll have when we find Jean Prince and get the gold Len knew about up there Death Valley way.
"They turned Len's things over to me. The baby they couldn't find; but after weeks they stumbled onto the camp where we'd left her and found everything almost buried in sand. The kid was gone, and the c'yotes hadn't got her. They was a piece o' paper in the camp; but it had rained and rained since it was stuck up there, and all the writin' was gone. In Len's things I finds the paper that I'm carryin', and I kep' it to myself. I've got it now—right here"—he thumped his breast—"and for twenty years I've hunted for Baby Jean and never found her.
"They's gold up there—up where Len Prince found it. The paper tells only half o' how to relocate Len's claims. At the beginnin' it says the paper's for Baby Jean, and no one else is to have it. Len knew he was soon goin' to croak—and he fixed it for Baby Jean when he was gone. He done his best. Any one who's got the paper knows only half. Whoever's got the paper can't do nothin' without Baby Jean.
"The chink he done it. It was crazy—loco, you'll say. But what c'n you expect from a man who's suffered as he did? Lissen, pardner—the chink he done it. The paper tells about it. The chink he doped the kid—with opium, some way, I guess—so's it wouldn't hurt her, and then he tattooed the rest o' the directions for findin' the gold on the head o' Baby Jean. Cut off some hair in back, and shaved a spot on her little head, and tattooed it there. The chink he did. And then the hair grew out ag'in, and nobody ever knew!
"Even Baby Jean don't know—a woman grown up now. And years and years I've hunted for her, but couldn't find her. Cause I couldn't stick, I guess. Somethin' always kep' callin' me back into the hills, and I'd forgot. Just me and the little fellas, we understand. And we're driftin' about ag'in huntin' for Baby Jean.
"I had a funny dream. I dreamed I'd found her—a young woman grown. And in that dream she told me she was Baby Jean, and I told her all about the paper and the tattoo marks. And then it looked like I drifted into deeper sleep and I woke up in camp way out in nowhere. I'd forgot again, you see, and drifted for the hills just when I'd found Baby Jean. Or so I dreamed. But sometimes I think I wasn't dreamin', pardner. It wasn't just like other dreams I've had. I got it that I was in a place called Ragtown, and I know they's such a place, cause everybody tells me so. And I was sick after the dream. Funny! I'm drifting that a way now. I want to see that Ragtown. Was it a dream? Or was the yuccas laughin' at ole Filer ag'in? I dunno. But how come it I dreamed about a place called Ragtown, a place that really is but that I never seen?"
LUCY PLANS A COUNTER-ATTACK
One who has never lived in a frontier camp such as Ragtown may find it difficult to analyze the characters of Lucy Dalles and Albert Drummond.
Less than a year before Ragtown had sprung up overnight, both had been ordinarily respectable American citizens. Lucy's crowning fault had been the lust for wealth. Added to this now was the fierce determination to realize her ambition, coupled with the complete breakdown of the moral fabric of her soul. She had been flirtatious and pleasure-loving in San Francisco, but perhaps not really bad at heart.