Drummond had been as decent as millions of other young men who pass for that in good society. A bit wild, but a man who dealt squarely with others sportsmanlike, and perhaps considered perfectly honest by himself and all who knew him.
But all this the frontier town had changed. That little semidormant spark of wickedness and criminality which is perhaps in every mother's son and daughter of us had been fanned to a flame by the lawlessness of Ragtown. The feverish night life, the chink of gold on gambling tables that were seldom unoccupied, the continual drinking of intoxicants, the doping and robbing of stiffs, which was practiced with studied, businesslike regularity, the brawls and shooting scrapes—all these had worked their insidious spell upon mentalities not forfeited by careful early training and bed-rock character.
Drummond and Lucy Dalles were dangerous conspirators now, and took a certain pride in the knowledge of it. They not only schemed for great rewards, but for the love of it. Lust for wealth and for revenge, the thrill of the dangerous and underhanded game they played, contempt for those whose moral fabric was too strongly woven to break under the strain of Ragtown, a certain vague satisfaction in their newly discovered rascality—all these spurred them on to make the most of their opportunities. One step in the direction they had taken leads so easily to another, that now they had reached a point in their moral lapse where they would stop at nothing—not even the taking of life—to win that on which they had set their hearts.
From a night spent at poker, Al Drummond, weary and half dead for sleep, reeled from the Dugout early on the morning when Hiram Hooker set out to find the crazy prospector, Basil Filer. As he slouched along the street in the cold he heard the jingling of bells and the rumbling of heavy wagons; and presently the freight outfit of Jerkline Jo rolled past, the girl and her skinners, bundled to the ears and slapping their hands against their ribs for warmth.
Drummond gave them a contemptuous glance for their honest and difficult endeavor, then took note that his old enemy, the man from Wild-cat Hill, was missing. He wondered about this, but gave it little thought until it dawned upon him that Jo's beautiful black saddle mare, which usually followed behind the wagon train with doglike loyalty, was absent too. He stopped short then and found that he was thinking of the old prospector, whom he had seen for the second time the day before.
He was worried. Could it be possible that Jo and Hiram had got wind of the mystery? For all he knew, they might have met the old man somewhere on the desert and learned his secret. It was such a usual thing to see Hiram behind his ten black freighters on every trip in or out that the conspirator could not down suspicion.
All that day he worried over it, but did not mention it to Lucy. Coming from another night of poker the following morning, having seen nothing of Hiram Hooker in the meantime, he decided to look into the matter as best he could.
He would get his car and drive up the line a way, toward the camp where he had seen Filer two days before. He could readily learn at intervening camps whether or not Hiram had ridden that way on Jo's black mare.
He had no appetite for breakfast, so he got out his touring car and drove away toward the north while Ragtown slept.
Men were at work in the third camp that he reached, and here a little inquiry brought forth the information that Hooker had gone the way Drummond had feared. Now he drove fast along the road that followed the right of way, passing rapidly through camp after camp, until he was far from Ragtown.
It was not yet eight o'clock when, far ahead, he saw a black horse galloping toward him. He had just run the car out upon the smooth, dark surface of one of the desert's famous dry lakes, where almost nothing grew. The ground was level and hard as a dance floor, so he turned from the road and drove at right angles to it across the crusted soil. He drove fast, and by the time the rider reached the point in the road where Drummond first had seen him Drummond was so far away that Hiram could not recognize him or his car.
Drummond circled now and regained the road, continuing on into the north in search of what he dreaded to discover. But not many miles had been covered before he was gritting his teeth and swearing over the knowledge of his scheme's defeat. He saw rolling toward him, swinging their packs from side to side as gently as a mother rocks a cradle, six shaggy, long-eared "desert canaries" with an old desert-colored man behind them who limped along with the aid of a cane.
Drummond drove no farther in that direction. There was no need for it. The sight of the old man drifting toward Ragtown and Hiram galloping on ahead of him showed him plainly that the cat was out of the bag, that the two had held a conference on the desert during the night just past.
Bitter with rage, Drummond turned about and drove fiercely back in Hiram's wake. He slowed down when he began to draw near to the horse and rider, and for an hour kept his distance while he waited for Hiram to reach another dry lake that was nearer to Ragtown than the first.
When the rider ahead had reached it and was galloping across if, Drummond speeded up, reached the lake in turn, and at last was able to make a wide half circle over land where no greasewood grew to impede the course of the car.
The lake was a large one, and by driving at close to sixty miles an hour and skirting its edge, he reached the road again a mile ahead of Hiram, and sped on toward home to break the news of defeat to Lucy Dalles.
At ten o'clock he reached Ragtown, having driven recklessly.
"Somebody's spilled the beans!" was his stormy beginning. "We're gypped. Got any jackass? Gi'me the bottle. I'm a wreck!"
He dropped wearily into a chair and told of what he had discovered.
"How on earth did they get wind of it?" she asked.
Drummond threw out his hands in a gesture proclaiming ignorance and despair.
"There's one thing sure," she said thoughtfully. "He saw the paper only yesterday or last night for the first time. Else why did he ride way up there to see Filer? Jerkline Jo, then, has not yet seen it. They've heard about it, though, and Hooker was sent out to hunt for Filer. So the first thing the big rube will do when he reaches Ragtown will be to travel over toward Julia to overtake Jo and report. He'll get another horse, maybe, or hire a machine. Tweet would be in on it, no doubt, and would take him in his car. So what we've got to do, my dear boy, is to see that Hooker doesn't get to Jo with what he's learned."
"What can we do? He probably made a copy of what's written on Filer's paper, so, even if we were to hold him up and get it away from him, old Filer still would have the dope."
"Of course. That means that we've got to fix that old dub, too."
"What d'ye mean fix him?"
The girl shrugged. "Stop the leak some way," she replied. "If we can destroy Filer's paper and the copy Hooker's got, then we'll be the only ones who know the dope. We'll have the only copy in existence, in other words; and even if we fail to get at Jerkline Jo and learn the rest of it, we can hold her to our terms. She won't be able to do a thing without knowing what her father wrote on the paper that Filer has."
"Lucy, it's a crazy business," said Drummond. "Sometimes I think it's all a pipedream of that nutty old prospector. They're all bughouse—these old desert rats."
"It's not a pipedream," Lucy stoutly maintained. "I tell you I saw the blue tattoo marks on that woman's scalp when I was beautifying her up for the ball that night. I wondered what they were. Of course, with her heavy hair covering them—growing right out of them, in fact—I couldn't make out anything but blue dots."
"And you didn't ask her about 'em?"
"Why, of course not, Al! Do you suppose a hair dresser would last very long in the business if she showed curiosity about a thing like that? You don't know much about women. If I'd found a knob on her nut as big as a baseball she'd never have been told that I'd seen it."
"But how in thunder has she reached her present age without knowing it's there?"
"She inadvertantly explained that; and so, when later in the day, old Filer spilled what he knew I was sure Jo had never dreamed of what she is carrying about under her hair.
"You see, she was raised like an Indian. She told me that, even when she was a little kid, she'd always been made to wash her own hair. She naively confided to me that when she came into my place it was her first time in any sort of a beauty parlor. A woman can't very well see the back of her head, can she? And she'd never be able to see the tattoo marks, even with two mirrors, with all that beautiful hair she's got. Do you know what your scalp looks like, at the back of your head, just above your ears? I guess not! You bet it's straight! And here you sit arguing about a trifle, when a rich gold claim is slipping from our fingers. Can't you—put your brain to work?"
"Well, what's to be done?"
"If that big boog starts to overtake Jerkline Jo, he's got to be stopped, and the copy taken away from him. While this is going on, Filer must be held up and the original taken from him and destroyed.
"Then when we get the copy away from Hooker and destroy Filer's original, we can throw our cards on the table and laugh at 'em. Come right out and say, 'Yes, we schemed to beat you, and we've done it. What're you going to do about it? You've got the tattooed part, we've got the only copy of the other part. Make us an offer! Otherwise, throw us in jail, if you think you've got it on us; but before we go the paper will go up in smoke!' That'll hold 'em; and we'll demand that we are not to be prosecuted, and we'll shake down half of the haul.
"But listen, Al—we'll do that only if they beat us out up to a point where negotiations become necessary. If only we can destroy the original and Hooker's copy, we can hold Hooker a prisoner till we get at Jerkline Jo and find out what's on her head. Then we can hog it all and beat it."
"Well—well, how'll we begin? You got me beat, Lucy. You're a better schemer than I am. What's to be done first?"
"Beat it in your car to the mountains and get Tehachapi and the other roughnecks. Send Tehachapi Hank up the line to waylay Filer between camps somewhere, with instructions to get the original from him by hook or crook. Leave it to Hank.
"Meantime, Hooker gets in here and starts after Jerkline Jo. It's doubtful if the thickhead will think to memorize what's on his copy, as I have done. Even if he does think to, he won't have time to do it before you nab him. He's dense—he wouldn't learn it in a week, I'll say!"
"You and Hank's friend will waylay him, then, and get his copy, destroy it, and take Hooker into the mountains as a prisoner, with Hank's friend to guard him. Then it will be up to you and me to get Jerkline Jo as she's coming back through the mountains. Yes, I'll go along! It seems the rest of you can do nothing. Leave that Jane to me! I'll get her by a method unknown to you men!
"We'll dope her, cut off her hair, shave her scalp, and get the part of the directions for finding the gold that we lack. Then, Al, why can't you and I get the stuff, beat it, and give Hank and the other jasper the ha-ha?"
"Lucy, you're getting to be a regular little devil!"
Lucy shrugged and seemed rather pleased than otherwise.
"And your ideas about that gold are of the vaguest," he continued. "You seem to think it's lying about in chunks, begging to be picked up and heaped in bushel baskets! All we can do, perhaps, is make claim filings, and get to Los Angeles and record them. Then, to realize anything, we've got to take mining engineers out there to make tests. Then the companies they represent will make us an offer—and probably skin us alive. In the meantime we'll be having all kinds of trouble with Jerkline Jo and her bunch of roustabouts."
"Well, then, we'll settle all that later," Lucy retorted. "Your first move is to go for Hank and get a toehold, as Tweet says. Don't borrow trouble! It's time to figure out our future steps when we know we hold all the trumps. And the sooner you start the better. Thank Heaven you've not gambled away your last automobile, Al! Their horses beat you before, but your last little old boat will win out now. Get after 'em, boy! It's a great game if you don't weaken!"
Five minutes later Drummond was driving rapidly toward the mouth of the mountain pass. By three o'clock he was back and following the line of camps again, with Tehachapi Hank huddled on the floor of the tonneau and covered with robes. Drummond had the good fortune to pass through Demarest, Spruce & Tillou's Camp Number Two when Hiram had stopped there for a late "hand-out," furnished by the obliging cooks. Drummond saw the black mare standing near the cook tent door, and hurried on through, elated over the knowledge that Hiram had not seen him. He at last dumped his passenger on the desert between camps, having estimated that the slow-moving burro train could not be many miles ahead.
Promising to return for Hank as soon as possible, Drummond raced back toward Ragtown, passed Hiram again—at close quarters this time—and reached the tent village ahead of him early in the evening.
Now he and Lucy settled down to wait for Hiram's coming and to watch his future movements.
Hiram Hooker, knowing well the story of Jerkline Jo's having been found as a baby girl in a deserted camp on the desert, had easily been able to convince old Basil Filer that she was the young woman he had been searching for so long.
They had spent half the night in planning in their desert camp. Hiram's frank, open nature tended to breed confidence in the most pessimistic of men; and when he told Filer of the wonderful character of Jerkline Jo and assured him that, despite his past rascality, he would be handsomely rewarded by her, the helpless old man agreed to all that he proposed.
Knowing that the prospector would not reach Ragtown for a long time with his sauntering burros, Hiram was for making a copy of what the precious paper contained and hurrying on ahead, to overtake Jo as soon as possible, and suggest that she make arrangements for a strip to the lost claims before starting back from Julia. To this the desert rat agreed; but when they were ready for Hiram to make a copy it was discovered that neither man had a scrap of paper, or even a pencil.
There was nothing to be done then, if the original plan was to be carried out, but for Basil Filer to surrender into Hiram's keeping the document. This, with many misgivings, Filer consented to do.
So they broke camp early next morning, and Hiram hurried on ahead with the original in his pocket. The old man was to traipse along after him, and in all probability would reach Ragtown before Hiram had overtaken Jo.
Al Drummond passed Hiram in his car as he was nearing his journey's end late that afternoon; but of course Hiram thought nothing of this, as Drummond and his car made a familiar sight about the country. Hiram had decided to ask Tweet to carry him in his machine until Jerkline Jo had been overtaken, which would probably occur between the foot of the mountains and Artesian Ranch on the other side. Then Tweet would return, and Hiram would ride on with the outfit and reveal to the girl what he had heard of the strange thing she had worn concealed under her lustrous hair since she was two years old.
Hiram knew about how Drummond and Lucy had stumbled onto the truth, which Jerkline Jo herself had not even dreamed of.
What the old prospector had told him of his "dream" convinced Hiram that Lucy had got wind of the secret and had cleverly posed as the lost child grown up, and had been able to draw Filer's story out of him. He had said that in his dream he had been shown something on the girl's scalp, under her hair, that looked like tattooing. Hiram reasoned that Drummond could have dotted Lucy's scalp with a pen and ink sufficient to convince the old desert rat that she was the girl he was seeking. Then he had told his story, but had been in some way rendered unconscious and disposed of before he could demand the clipping of Lucy's hair and the shaving of her scalp. No doubt, while he was unconscious, Drummond and Lucy had made a copy of what was on the paper.
To Hiram's great disappointment he found on reaching Ragtown late that afternoon that Twitter-or-Tweet had driven to Los Angeles on business. He hunted about for another machine, but there seemed to be none in town that he could hire. There was Drummond's, of course, but to deal with him was out of the question.
"Hello, Hiram boy!" Lucy called sweetly as he walked past the shooting gallery. "You look worried. Whassa malla? Jo fired you?"
"Not yet," said Hiram briefly. "I was looking for a machine so that I could catch up with the outfit, but can't seem to locate one."
"Not many about town this time of year," she commented. "Did you get so cuckooed Jo had to leave you behind to sober up, Wild Cat? And now you've got to chase her, eh? 'Fraid Heine or some of 'em'll get her away from you if you don't stick around—that it?"
To this Hiram smiled with cold politeness, but, made no reply, passing on down the street.
He would be forced to wait until morning. Then, provided Tweet had not returned, he would have to ride Babe over the mountains and reach Jerkline Jo at least before she had started back. After all, there was no great hurry. The gold had lain where it did for countless centuries. It would continue to lie so for a few days more, perhaps.
Tweet did not return that night, and at dawn Hiram was away toward the mountains on the black mare, the precious paper secreted in his shirt. He was ten miles from Ragtown before it occurred to him what a fool he had been in not making a copy of it. Any one of a hundred things might happen to it. Still, the crazy prospector had carried it through all the years and had lost it.
He wondered if it would not be a practical idea to commit it to memory. Why, certainly—that was the thing to do.
He was nearing such foothills as the abrupt mountain range boasted when he decided not only to memorize it, but to make a copy on an envelope which was in his pocket. It had covered a letter from Uncle Sebastian Burris, Hiram's benefactor, up there in Mendocino County. He had found it awaiting him the night before at Ragtown. He and Uncle Sebastian had kept up a correspondence ever since Hiram had come south.
Although he had no pencil, it occurred to him that he could write with the lead bullet of one of his revolver cartridges, which simple feat he had often performed in idle moments in the woods up home.
Dismounting, he lowered the bridle rein over Babe's head, and sat down on the ground. He took out Uncle Sebastian's letter, and with his pocket-knife slit the envelope till it provided him with a square of paper. He laid the worn original—a yellow piece of tough sheepskin paper—on a flat rock beside him. He took a cartridge from his belt and began to copy the reddish writing.
He had just completed the task when there came a sudden terrific roar in his ears, and before he knew what was happening a desert twister had swept down upon him in all its fury.
It passed swiftly, and through half-blinded eyes Hiram saw that the original had been whisked from the rock on which it had lain as if by magic.
Fortunately he had held to his copy instinctively; but he had not compared it with the original. He might have made some small but vital mistake. Away over the desert twisted the miniature cyclone, and he knew that, spinning around with it, was the sheepskin. Rather foolishly in his excitement he grabbed his six-shooter from its holster and slapped it down upon his copy to protect it from another such catastrophe, and, still half-blinded, vaulted to the saddle and set the mare at a dead run in the wake of the whirlwind.
Then it was that Al Drummond, who had been slowly creeping through the greasewood bushes toward Hiram, arose with a yelp of triumph and ran to the weighted-down copy of the precious directions.
Out there in the whirlwind the original was fleeing rapidly away from the frantic rider, with the chances many to one that it would not be recovered. Here in Drummond's hand was the only copy in existence, except the one already in his and Lucy's possession. It was plain that Hiram had not previously made another copy, else why would he have stopped here on the desert to draft this one? Also, by the same token, it was plain that Hiram had not memorized the contents. Basil Filer might have done so, it was true; but, then, Tehachapi Hank would attend to Basil Filer.
Quickly Drummond stooped and touched the blaze of a match to the envelope, and in a few minutes only a crinkled bit of black, charred paper lay on the ground.
"Pete!" he called, and from the greasewood another man arose and hurried toward him.
"Look!" Drummond cried exultantly, pointing to the burned paper. "There's what's left of the copy he was making. And here's his gun—he used it to weigh down the copy when he raced away after the whirlwind. Run for the horses. We'll get after him and get the original away from him, if he gets it. Then, if Hank gets Filer—which he certainly will—we'll have the only copies in existence!"
Pete, the bosom friend of Tehachapi Hank, turned about and ran up toward the fringe of junipers that concealed their horses, brought down the day before from the mountains. Drummond, while he waited, gazed after the strange chase, and noted that the fleet black mare was steadily overtaking the moving funnel of dust which represented the whirlwind.
"By golly, if he can ride into the thing and break it, or keep up with it till it breaks itself, he'll get the sheepskin!" Drummond muttered. "But he won't keep it. He's left his gun. He's our meat now!"
Then Pete rode up rapidly, leading Drummond's mount, and next moment they were on the dead run in pursuit of Hiram.
Time and again, as they drew nearer, they saw Hiram deliberately riding the mare through the whirlwind, trying to break it. The thing seemed a devil, alive and diabolically bent on eluding him. It changed course from right to left, but the cow pony was as quick as it was; and it seemed to the racing spectators that she enjoyed the game. Hiram was so intent on his task, so frequently blinded by the whirlwind, while his ears were filled with its roar, that to ride almost upon him without his knowledge of it was an easy task for Pete and Drummond.
They were very close to him, then, when at last the mare's lunges broke the whirlwind, and a scattered cloud of dust hid horse and rider. Whether or not Hiram had rescued the paper they could not tell, but they spurred their horses on.
The dust settled, and close at hand they saw Hiram, dismounted. At the same instant he seemed to hear the thunder of hoofs, and glanced their way. He took a couple of steps and grasped his mare's bridle, and was standing unconcernedly at her head When they raced up, both training sixshooters on him.
"Stick 'em up, Hooker!" ordered Drummond. "This means business at last."
Totally unarmed, Hiram grinned and slowly elevated his hands.
Watching him closely, Drummond and Pete dismounted, and, still keeping their sixes trained on Hiram's stomach, approached him.
"Well, Hooker," Drummond said sneeringly, "we meet again, don't we? You see, we've showed our hand at last—and it's a pretty good one, too. You're onto us, anyway, I guess, so from now on we'll fight in the open. Did you get the sheepskin?"
Hiram reverted to his provincial drawl, as was his habit in moments of great stress.
"No, she got plumb away from me," he said. "She got outa the whirlwind back there somewheres, or else she's gone on with what's left o' the twister."
"I was afraid you wasn't going to say that, Hooker," Drummond said. "Well, let me show you something. Do you recognize this gat?"
Hiram looked uneasily at a third big six-shooter, which Drummond had produced as he spoke.
"I reckon she was mine a while back," he said with a gulp.
"Exactly. And what you left it to hold down, Hooker, has gone up in smoke."
"You got—— You burned——"
"Got and burned is right, Hooker. But I don't just like your tone. If you were on the stage, Brother Hiram, I think you'd get the hook. 'Hook Hooker!' the audience might yell. Don't you think I'm funny at times, Gentle Wild Cat? It's just my pleasant little way of informing you that I consider you a poor actor. 'You got—you burned' was pretty fair, Hi-ram, but not quite good enough. So we're going to search you and make sure you didn't get the sheepskin out of the whirlwind."
"I didn't get it," Hiram said sulkily. "She's gone forever."
"She is in any event, Hooker. But we have a copy at Ragtown—don't forget that. Now let go these reins and step over here. And be mighty careful, Hi-ram—mighty careful. My friend here is a nervous man with a six-gun."
Obediently Hiram dropped the mare's reins and stepped away from her head. Drummond laid the two revolvers at some distance away from them on the ground, so that, while he was searching Hiram, the latter would have no opportunity to grab one from him and turn the tables.
"Keep 'em up," he ordered; and, while Pete trained his gun on Hiram, Drummond searched his prisoner from head to foot.
"Guess you told the truth," he said. "Still, a fellow never can tell. You're a pretty foxy guy at times. Strip, Hooker.
"I guess you did tell the truth," Drummond said a few minutes later after a thorough search had been made. "Still I'm not through yet. You saw us coming and had time to hide it, if you found it."
He stepped to the mare and went over her saddle, even turning the cheek straps of the bridle inside out, and pawing through her heavy mane and tail. He looked and felt in her ears. He held her nostrils with his fingers until she jerked up her head and snorted out a blast of held-in air.
"Guess that would have shot out any paper in her nostrils," he remarked.
"They say this Jo's a hoss trainer," suggested Pete. "Maybe the mare's a trick hoss. Look in her mouth Drummond."
Drummond did this, but found it empty. He studied a minute, his eyes closed thoughtfully, then threw off the saddle and examined the sheepskin lining, tapaderos, jockeys, skirts.
Now for fifteen minutes he walked about over the ground. It was hard and firm here—almost as smooth as the surface of a dry lake, with no loose sand in which the paper might be concealed and little desert growth.
Returning he lifted the mare's feet one by one, then faced Hiram again.
"Open your mouth," he commanded; and Hiram obeyed, displaying an empty cavity.
"Well, ole hoss, I guess the game's up for you folks," Drummond said chuckling. "I never thought we'd be lucky enough to get rid of the original. So now we'll leave you to put on your clothes and go your way. You may see Jerkline Jo and tell her your little story; and you two can discuss what's best to do. When you've decided, come to me and we'll dicker with you."
"How 'bout takin' 'im into the mountains?" asked Pete in a low voice.
"No, that won't be necessary now. We need him to put the case before Jerkline Jo. I'm against violence, anyway, in the main. And I'm not a hog, like a certain person I might mention if it weren't for Hooker's overhearing it. We'll let him go, and dicker later. Half suits me."
Drummond climbed into the saddle, and the two wheeled their horses and rode away.
Hiram began to dress.
"Look, Hooker!" called Drummond from a distance. "I'll drop your gun right here."
Hiram nodded and continued putting on his clothes, then resaddled the mare.
Then when the departing riders were mere specks in the distance he stepped to Babe's head, reached his fingers up one of her nostrils, and pulled out the wadded sheepskin document.
"A heap o' fellas call themselves hossmen that don't know about that little pocket in a hoss' nose," came his whimsical Mendocino drawl. "She could snort all day, but the pocket ain't connected with her nostrils." He patted Babe's glossy neck. "Li'l' black mare," he crooned into her furry ear, "le's go find Jo!"
WHILE SPRING APPROACHED
At a late hour in the evening of the day that Hiram Hooker set out to ride with the sheepskin to Jerkline Jo, on her way to Julia, a strange figure presented itself at the door of the lighted commissary tent of Demarest, Spruce & Tillou's Camp Number Two.
"Well, who in thunder are you?" exclaimed the young commissary clerk, as his eyes fell upon a set of shaggy gray brows and a dusty, bewhiskered face.
"I'm Basil Filer—ole Filer," was the croaking reply. "I jest stopped in to see if ye got a' automobile, or a hoss an' buggy, or somethin' here."
"Well, what if we have?"
"Thought maybe ye'd give Tehachapi Hank a ride," came the answer. "He's too heavy for Muta—that's my biggest burro. His feet drags and ketches in the greasewood, and Muta she gets provoked at him. He won't bother you none—Hank won't. He's peaceable. But he oughta be got to a constable or somethin'. You see, Hank he's dead."
This brought the clerk out into the night; and there in the light streaming from the tent door lay the figure of a man crosswise and face down on a burro's back.
"Ye see, I know Hank some time," explained Basil Filer simply. "And jest last night a friend o' mine he camped with me, and said Hank was up to his old devilment ag'in. So I was camped on the desert out there this evenin', and Hank he drifts in. And—well, I'm watchin', you see; and so when Hank he sidles round and I see somethin' heavylike in his hand, why, I ups and goes for my cannon. Then Hank he goes for his, and I have to let him have it from the hip. Got any ca'tridges, pardner? Hank he wasted the last one I had."
"You—you killed this man?" faltered the clerk.
"I hadn't only one ca'tridge, pardner," Filer said patiently. "And Hank he's accounted a pretty clever gunman. Well, maybe he was. Ole Filer he shoots ole jack rabbits in the eye at twenty paces with a six, they'll tell ye. Anyway ye can figger that out, here's Hank. And he oughta see a coroner er somethin'. I don't want 'im. Besides, time Muta'd packed him to Ragtown, Hank he'd spoil. Muta she never did like Tehachapi Hank, nohow."
The following day the mortal remains of Tehachapi Hank were brought into Ragtown, together with his self-confessed killer Basil Filer. The constable—for Ragtown had one now—took Filer in charge and hurried him to the county seat in Twitter-or-Tweet's machine. The burros had been loosed to pick their living on the desert.
"So that failed beautifully!" exclaimed Al Drummond to Lucy Dalles. "Who'd have thought that old rabbit would be too quick for Hank! He must have been on his guard."
Lucy shrugged indifferently. "Filer was a master shot," she observed. "Failed beautifully is right, Al—beautifully for us. It couldn't have happened better. Now Brother Hank is out of it. If you can contrive some way to shake Hank's partner, Pete, there'll be no one but you and me to whack up.
"Since Hank is numbered among the late lamented," she continued, "I can forgive you for bungling the Hooker end of your job. With Hank's finger out of the pot, I'm content to split with Jerkline Jo. So, no thanks to you, everything has worked out all right after all. Can't you send Pete out with instructions to bite a rattlesnake, or something like that?"
"You're mighty good-natured to-day, kid," Al said.
"Why shouldn't I be? Since we know the original document and that boob's copy are both destroyed—and that before he had time to commit the directions to memory. We have nothing whatever to do but wait for Jerkline Jo to come to us and ask us what our terms are. Then if you and I aren't foxy enough to squeeze out the amiable Mr. Pete—— Well, leave it to me!"
"But have you thought," Drummond pointed out, "that perhaps Filer has committed the instructions to memory?"
Lucy scoffed at this and dismissed it with: "That old lunatic? Never! He can hardly remember the story, and now and then forgets that he's hunting for Baby Jean and hikes back for the desert. Don't worry about his having committed anything to memory. He has no memory to commit it to!"
At about the time the foregoing dialogue was being spoken in Ragtown, Jerkline Jo, in her tent at Julia, was making strange remarks to Hiram Hooker, to wit, as follows:
"Hi-ram! It ti-i-i-ickles! Sto-op-op! Wait a minute, Hiram!"
"Huh!" snorted the unfeeling man. "Whoever heard of anybody being ticklish on the head!"
"But I am, Hiram! I just know I am! And isn't that razor far too sharp?"
"'There ain't no such thing,'" quoted the man out of the store of his masculine experience. "Now quit wiggling, Jo, or I'm liable to cut you."
"Now go slow, Hiram. And if I say it feels funny, you stop. Now easy at first! Horrors! I wouldn't be a man for anything!"
"Don't blame me," mumbled Hiram. "Now quit wrinkling your scalp, Jo. Fella'd think I was going to cut your head off, the way you dodge and shrink."
They were alone in the tent. Jo was on her knees on the ground, and behind her and over her stood Hiram with an old-fashioned razor in his hand. Beside them on a chair lay a strand of almost black hair three feet in length, which Hiram swore that he would preserve until his dying breath. On the back of Jo's head appeared a round spot, covered with hairs half an inch in length, and these the brutal man was trying to shave off with the razor. Never had barber a more provoking customer.
"Oh, I'll look like a fright, Hiram! I've always been proud of my hair."
"It'll grow out again," he said soothingly. "Besides, what I cut off didn't cover a spot an inch and a half in diameter. With hair like yours, it can't be noticed. If I'd thought it would disfigure your hair, girl, I'd have said, 'Let the old gold go!' What an idea!"
"I positively never heard of such a weird thing. And to think it's on me! And—— Oo-oo-oo-oo! You cut me, Hiram! It's bleeding!"
"No, no, no! Only more lather. Don't wiggle, Jo!"
"There! It's all over," Hiram said after a minute of silence.
Four days later Lucy Dalles and Al Drummond stood behind the counter of the shooting gallery at Ragtown, and with a certain amount of nervous expectancy watched the freight outfit of Jerkline Jo grow larger and larger as it neared the journey's end.
Soon they heard the merry jingling of hundreds of bells, and next the big horses were planting their heavy fetlocked feet in the street, their glossy necks arched proudly as Ragtown turned out to greet them.
Lucy stood on tiptoe and craned her neck along the line of heavily loaded wagons. "Don't see Jo's whites at the tail end," she remarked.
And presently her companion supplemented: "Nor Hooker's blacks. Say, that's funny. There's only four teams, Hooker and the girl didn't come!"
"Oh, dear, dear! What can that mean? Al, Hooker must have memorized the directions! And——"
"Nonsense!" he exclaimed. "If he'd memorized them, why did he sit down on the desert to copy em?"
"Oh, that's right, of course! But I'm worried, Al. Something must be wrong."
Just then two men passed along the street, and a fragment of their conversation floated to the anxious pair: "Says Jo's sick at Julia——-"
"Oh that's it!" Lucy murmured in relief. "And the hick stayed to nurse her. There's not so much freight to be hauled right now. See, Al—Heine and Keddie each are driving sixteen, with trailers. The extra horses are white and black—Jo's and Hiram's. I wonder what's the matter with Jo."
"Huh!" snickered Drummond. "The package we handed her is enough to make anybody sick! But I don't just like the way things look, either. By golly, aren't we to know where we stand until Jo gets well!"
Three of the wagons and trailers groaned on through the town toward Demarest, Spruce & Tillou's Camp Number One, while the fourth—Heine Schultz driving—entered the alley to reach the rear of Huber's store. Twenty minutes later Schultz suddenly presented himself at the shooting gallery.
"Howdy," he greeted Al and Lucy, touching the broad brim of his hat with a forefinger. "Jo's sick. I guess you've heard."
"Yes, so some one said," Lucy smiled amiably at the dusty skinner. "Isn't it too bad! What seems to be wrong, Heine?"
"Bad cold—settled in her lungs," replied Heine briefly. "Er—now—Jo told me to ask you somethin', miss. Either you or Drummond, she said. I don't know what it's about. She just said: 'Go see Drummond or Lucy when you get in and ask them their terms and let me know what they say when you get back to Julia.'"
Drummond darted a quick, triumphant glance at the girl.
"Oh, yes," she said lightly to the skinner, "I know what she refers to. Why, just tell her, 'Half,' Heine. That's all you need to say; she'll understand."
"Gotcha," said Heine, and lounged away, rolling a brown paper cigarette.
The outfit started back again early next morning; and eight days later it returned, still minus its two important figures. Again Heine Schultz rested his bony elbows on the carpeted counter of the shooting gallery, and spoke to Lucy, who this time was alone.
"About that business between you folks and Jo," he said, indolently filling a cigarette paper.
"Yes?" eagerly returned Lucy.
"Jo says tell you, 'Half is too much.'"
"Oh! She—she's still ill?"
Heine, shook his head sadly and tapped his chest. "Can't hardly hear her talk," he said. "It's fierce. Wild Cat's scared stiff about it. Well, what'll I tell 'er, Miss Lucy?"
"I'll have to see Al before giving you an answer," she told him. "Can't you drop around after supper, Heine?"
"Sure. I'm on the water wagon, though," he added blandly, with no suggestion of a deep meaning in his tones.
An hour afterward Drummond met Heine on the street and handed him a sealed envelope. "Give that to Jerkline Jo," he commanded shortly.
"Gotcha!" drawled Heine, and slouched on up the street.
"Confound it!" Drummond grumbled to Lucy little later. "Why in thunder doesn't Tweet put a telephone line to civilization? We're wasting time!"
"Couldn't do anything, anyway, till Jo's on her feet again," the girl practically pointed out. "Don't be overimpatient."
Eight days later Heine Schultz faced them again.
"Jo's still too sick to write," he announced. "But she's gettin' better right along. She told me to tell you that what you wrote was fierce, and that you was too greedy. That's only what Jo said. Don't take it out on me. She said she'd be willin' to let you have a fourth, over an' above all expenses."
"Well, she'll do nothing of the sort!" Lucy cut in hotly.
"Come around later, Heine," put in Drummond. "I'll have another note."
"Gotcha!" replied Heine, and picked up a rifle to sight at a target before strolling nonchalantly on.
Two miles out of town next morning Heine took out his pocketknife and slit the envelope covering the note that Drummond had given him to be delivered to Jerkline Jo.
"M'm-m!" he mumbled, reading slowly, a great calloused forefinger following the lines.
You'll come to our terms immediately, or our copy of the instructions goes into the fire. We've reached the end of our rope, and won't monkey any longer. Take your choice, Miss Modock—or Miss Jean Prince—half or nothing. Yes, we're just ornery enough to rob ourselves to spite you.
Heine scratched his head and muttered: "Lord, be merciful unto me, a skinner! Now what'll I say to that? Guess I'll stretch this trip out to twelve days—we c'n have a breakdown or somethin'."
It was indeed twelve days before the outfit was again seen in Ragtown; and then Mr. Schultz had this to say to Drummond and the girl:
"Jo says she'll be about pretty soon now, and she'll come over with us next trip and see you herself. Says for you not to do anything rash, or anything like that. What'll I tell her?"
"Tell her to hurry up!" Drummond said angrily.
"Gotcha!" drawled Heine, and betook himself to camp.
Ten days later Mr. Schultz had this to report:
"Well, sir, Jo she just naturally had a terrible relapse. Doctor's worried blue about 'er. She can't talk, and she can't see to read. She just lays there and gasps somethin' fierce."
"What on earth has she?" cried Lucy.
Heine scratched his head. "The doc said it was a kind o' complication or somethin'. Dip'theria and appendiseetus, I think he said. Yes, sir—that's it. Dip'theria and appendiseetus."
"Ridiculous!" scoffed Lucy. "Did they operate?"
"Operate! I should say they did! They whittled that woman down to such a frazzle and when the doc goes to see her in the mornin' he has to shake the sheets to find her!"
"Heine, I believe you're a humorist," Lucy said doubtfully.
Heine grinned. "She's gettin' better now, though; and the doc says next trip she'll probably be over. Then she c'n 'tend to her business with you herself. I wish she would. I get things all mixed up."
Drummond and Lucy stared at each other when the skinner had left.
"Gypped!" exclaimed Drummond. "There's something phony about this! By George, I'm—I'm scared there's something wrong! Heine's been lying like a sailor. I believe I'll drive over to Julia tomorrow and see what I can find out."
"Sit down, Heine," invited Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet, rising and lowering the window shade in his little pine office as the jerkline skinner entered.
"Well?" queried Tweet, with a look of worriment in his face.
"Ain't heard a word from 'em, Playmate, since they come in and filed, and went back with a minin' engineer," said Heine. "I'm gettin' worried myself. You see, that's a bad country up in there where they've gone. Many a man's gone in there and left his bones for the buzzards to pick."
"But weren't they fixed for an ordeal, Heine?"
"No one ever hit Death Valley better fixed," was the reply. "Jo, she hires two big trucks and takes horses and pack burros and feed and grub and water till you couldn't rest. They aimed to go as far as they could with the trucks, and then make a headquarters there, leave the drivers to look out for the camp, and her and Wild Cat was gonta make it on in with the horses and the canaries. They had a scout that knows that country from the southern end o' the Panamints to Lost Valley. Oh, they went heeled; but it's a big job and takes time. Still, they oughta be showin' up by now."
Orr Tweet heaved a great sigh. "Jo's simply forgotten all about me," he said mournfully. "Heine, I don't mind tellin' you—but if somethin' don't happen pretty soon one Tweet goes up Salt Creek. Here it's only ten days till I gotta plunk down six thousan' iron men, plus a raft o' interest money. And the mortgages o' this blame rancho are watchin' me like buzzards, ready to swoop down the minute I begin to gasp. They got me where the hair's short, Heine. I not only lose the rancho and all, but every cent Jo and me and Hiram's put into her. I ain't sellin' an acre these days. Won't till summer's here, and the blame'-fool homesteaders see that Paloma Rancho's worth ten times what the government land's worth. The work on the grade is nearin' completion, and the steel's creepin' closer every day. Every mornin', when it's still, you c'n hear the whistle o' the track-layin' engine. The camps are finishin' and movin' on, one by one. That takes trade away from Ragtown, and concessionaires are quittin', too. A month from now Ragtown will be only a memory, Heine. Not that, as Tweet, she won't build up later and more substantially, when the steel's laid and trains are runnin'. But to keep a stiff upper lip till then brings gray hairs!"
"Don't you worry," Heine said consolingly. "You just set tight and watch the spring blossoms come. Jerkline Jo never failed man nor horse nor dog in her life, and she ain't forgot you for a second. You bet your last dime on Jerkline Jo, ol'-timer—and Wild Cat, too, s'far's that goes. They'll ramble home in time to save you. I'll bet my bank roll on it!"
"Only ten days more," Tweet sighed heavily. "Oh, papa, what pretty fireworks you made! Heine, are you still keepin' Drummond in hot water?"
"Oh, yes," Heine assured him. "They're doin' very well. Guess Drummond'll be drivin' to see how Jo's gettin' along pretty soon. I guess I queered things to-day. Tried to get funny, and pretty near spilled the beans. I'll say he'd better take along about five huskies to move boulders outa the road, if he tries to make it through the pass. Them big boys just naturally roll down behind us the minute we've passed. And comin' back, we hook on and snake 'em outa the way. And then, by golly, they spring right back again! Funny rocks in this country, Tweet."
THE WAY OF LIFE
Sand, sand, sand—far as the eye can reach, a sea of sand, with here and there a half-buried and bleached horned skull, and vultures circling high above in the heavens.
Away in the blinding distance five specks appear, and finally are seen to be slowly on the move. Hours after this discovery, if an observer were to remain stationary, the specks take on the shapes of animal life—two men, a woman, and two burros bearing packs. Onward they move slowly, and once more become mere specks, scarce discernible against the weird hue of the sky, then vanish altogether. Once more in all this vast, dread waste moves nothing save the vultures indolently circling in the hot dome above.
Days later a dust-covered automobile worms its way through the traffic in Los Angeles and comes to rest before a tall office building. Two as dusty as the car descend from the tonneau, and one leaves the seat beside the driver. Pedestrians stare curiously at the trio as, talking and laughing in high spirits, they cross the pavement to the building's entrance.
"Desert rats—mining folks," observes a wiseacre to his friend. "Look at the girl and the chaps! Peach, eh? That's the life! Ho-hum! Gotta get back to the old office, Bill. See you to-night at lodge, I s'pose. S'long!"
In a lavishly furnished anteroom of a suite of offices on the top floor of the building, Jerkline Jo and Hiram Hooker sank into overstuffed chairs and relaxed, while the other man, in khaki and scarred puttees, excused himself and entered the rooms beyond, carrying a suit case that tugged at his arm until his shoulder sagged. He was absent from the intercom a half hour.
"Well, boy," said Jerkline Jo, "it's all over, I guess. What an experience! I thought I knew the desert and the rough life before, but I wasn't out of my A B C's."
"It was glorious, though," said Hiram. "I wouldn't have missed it, dear, for worlds."
"Nor I, either. But I don't wish ever to return. Once is enough."
After this they were silent. Both sat with eyes closed, dreaming of the past and the beckoning future. Their dreams were finally interrupted by the reappearance of Mr. John Downer, the mining engineer for the Gold Hills Mining Co., in whose offices they now sat.
"Well," he began, smiling, "if you'll come in now, Mr. Floresta would like to have a talk with you. Getting a bit rested, Miss Modock?"
Mr. Floresta, president of the Gold Hills Mining Co., was a pudgy, pink man, carefully groomed and manicured and barbered, who radiated businesslike good nature. On his rich mahogany desk lay a row of gold specimens that glittered in the sunlight streaming in through a window. He shook hands warmly with Jo and Hiram; and when all were seated they talked of the trip for a time, and then the president plunged to the heart of the business that had brought them together.
"Knowing that you were in a hurry, Miss Modock," he said, "I called a meeting of the stockholders, and we reached the conclusion that, if Mr. Downer's report was entirely satisfactory, there would be no use in quibbling over the price you and Mr. Hooker have asked. The sum that you ask for the group of claims that you filed upon is, as you are aware, an enormous one for unproved mining properties. Still, we wish to be fair; and on Mr. Downer's glowing report we are going to take a chance. Therefore, please state your pleasure in the matter of payments, and arrangements will be made at once."
A great sigh escaped Jo, and tears welled to her dark eyes.
"Thank you, Mr. Floresta," she said. "If you can let us have two hundred thousand at once, I'm sure payment of the remainder of the million can be easily arranged to suit both sides."
Mr. Floresta bowed and pushed a buzzer button. A moment or so later a messenger was on the way to a bank with a check. When he returned he handed Floresta another check—one certified by the cashier of the company's banking house.
"Now for yours and Mr. Hooker's signatures, please," said Floresta. "I have indicated in the transfer papers that the remainder of the million dollars is to be paid in four semi-annual installments, of two hundred thousand each, with interest at six per cent on deferred payments. Is that entirely satisfactory?"
"Entirely," Jo told him, and went to his desk and took up the pen he handed her.
Five minutes later Hiram and the girl were alone in the anteroom once more. Hiram took the hands of Jerkline Jo and bent over her.
"Ma'am," he drawled whimsically, "if you'll let me, I'll kiss you now!"
Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet paced back and forth in his little pine office, his hands behind his back, his brows furrowed. Every little while he grabbed his nose and straightened it savagely, but each time it reverted to its list to port again, and Tweet marched on disconsolately. It was the evening of the next to last day of his three days of grace. To-morrow Paloma Rancho, Ragtown, and all that they represented would slip automatically from his control, and he could not raise a finger to stop it.
Suddenly the door burst open with a bang, and Heine Schultz filled the little office with the roar of a behemoth:
"Oh, boy! Have you seen it? Just come in with the mail! Los Angeles papers! Here, read, man! And then get drunk! I'll help you!"
Tweet snatched the paper from him, and his steel-blue eyes bugged at the glaring headlines:
Gold! Gold! Gold! Death Valley Gives Up Another Secret. Rich Find in Little-Known Corner of Treacherous Waste. Dead Father of Picturesque Girl Called Jerkline Jo the Finder. Weird Tale of Struggles and Death and Baby Lost on Desert. Gold Hills Mining Co. Takes Over the Claims at $1,000,000. President Says Richest Discovery Since Days of '49.
"Great stutterin' Demosthenes!" exclaimed Tweet, and fell limply into a chair.
Then again the door was opened, and a boy from the post office handed Tweet a special-delivery letter. Tremblingly he tore the envelope and removed a yellow telegram. Tears sprang to his eyes as he read aloud:
"Have to-day deposited to credit of your checking account in Bluemount National Bank, Los Angeles, one hundred thousand dollars. Check against it at pleasure. Hiram and I on our way to Mendocino County for a little rest and to see old friend of his. Reach Ragtown in about two weeks if all goes well.
"JEAN PRINCE HOOKER, JERKLINE JO."
Tweet sprang from his chair, cramming on his hat.
"Lock the door and take the key, Heine!" he cried. "I'm going to Los Angeles at fifty miles an hour!"
At the same time in the shooting gallery Al Drummond and Lucy Dalles stared over the top of a newspaper at each other, their eyes tragic.
"Gyped!" exclaimed Drummond at last.
"Gyped!" Lucy echoed faintly.
Then for a time there was silence, broken at last by Drummond's weary voice.
"Guess I'll drift up to the Dugout," he said. "See you later."
Lucy made no reply, but stood staring out across the spring-scented desert, her thoughts on the tinkling streams of Mendocino and the big, kind, sheltering trees. The rhododendrons were beginning to blossom there now. Soon the redwood lilies would be scenting the air with their delicate fragrance. Gray squirrels would be scolding in lofty trees, and trout would be leaping in still, dark pools.
Lucy sat down very suddenly, and then her head fell forward on her arms. There on the carpeted counter, between the rifles, she sobbed heartbrokenly. She knew by intuition that in her quest for wealth she would not have Al Drummond to help her in the future.
Ragtown's biggest day was when old Basil Filer, having been acquitted of the charge of murder on the evidence furnished by Jerkline Jo and Hiram Hooker, returned to hunt for his burros. This was Ragtown's greatest day because Hiram Hooker and his bride came, too.
They had spent a pleasant time with Uncle Sebastian Burris in Mendocino County, most glorious of countries in spring. Hiram had expressed the wish to see Uncle Sebastian again and to tell him all that had befallen him in driving jerkline to Ragtown. Hiram had learned a great lesson, he felt. He had left the north woods to do something less prosaic than driving jerkline, and a series of peculiar incidents had forced him back into the same old groove again. Yet the once scorned, neglected task had brought him adventures and a fortune and a splendid girl. Over all this he wished to marvel with his old benefactor and friend, and Jo had readily consented to the trip. They had returned for Basil Filer's trial as the main witnesses for the defense.
The stage brought all three into the town, and for the first time they saw the new steel and the track-laying engine beyond. Carpenters were building the roundhouse, and new buildings were going up all over the village.
Ragtown turned out in a body to meet them. The wagons and teams of Jerkline Jo's freight outfit were covered with flags, and Jo's proud skinners paraded the streets, the wagons loaded with cheering townspeople. Carried on the shoulders of men, the bride and groom were escorted to the Palace Dance Hall, where a banquet had been prepared, over which presided Twitter-or-Tweet Orr Tweet.
Far into the night they celebrated, and in all of Ragtown there was only one who did not attend. This was poor little Lucy Dalles, sobbing her heart out in her little cabin, her dream of wealth and marriage with Al Drummond gone.
It was nearly midnight when there came a gentle tapping on her door. Dashing the tears from her eyes, Lucy walked unsteadily across her expensive rug and opened the door to a crack. Next moment she found herself in a pair of strong arms, and her head lay on the breast of Jerkline Jo.
"There, there, dear! There, there! Don't cry! It's all right—all right! I know—I understand."
With her arms about the sobbing girl, big-hearted Jerkline Jo, the desert's grandest product, led the way to one of the big leather chairs and sat down. Only Lucy's sobs broke the silence, while Jo sat and smoothed back her pretty hair.
Presently the sobbing ceased, and then Jo rose and, taking her in her arms again, kissed her and smiled into her eyes.
"You must bathe your eyes now, dear," said Jo, "for Mr. Tweet is coming to see you pretty soon. He told me so. Now look your best for Tweet has something serious to say to you."
She left her then, and an hour later Tweet interrupted Jo and Hiram in Jo's little cabin on the edge of town. He came in and sat down.
"Well, Jo," he said, "it's a go. We'll go to work and get married to-morrow mornin', if the old bus will take us to a preacher. I guess I've loved her some time," Tweet added bashfully. "Lucy and me'll make nice little playmates."
Hiram rose and gripped his old friend's hand. "I'm mighty glad, Tweet," he told him. "Just too much Ragtown—that's all that was the matter with Lucy. She was kind to me up there in Frisco when I'd just come out of the woods. Her heart's warm, and that's what counts."
Tweet's steel-blue eyes twinkled. "Course nobody could blame her for makin' you spend four dollars an hour for an automobile," he said. "It was a crime not to roll you for your jack in those days, Hooker. I forgave her for that a long time ago."
Next morning Basil Filer drifted into town, driving his recaptured burros ahead of him. Silently he worked at packing the bags and throwing diamond hitches.
Jerkline Jo and Hiram stood laughing at the gurgling imps of the desert, and Jo went up to Filer.
"What does this mean?" she asked. "You're all packed up for a trip."
The weird old eyes looked up at her queerly. "We're goin'—out there," croaked Filer, a trembling finger pointing toward the fragrant desert. "It's spring, Baby Jean—and now's the time to hunt for gold, when there's lots o' feed for the little fellas."
"Gold!" cried Jo. "Why, man, you've so much money coming to you that you can't spend it in the rest of your natural life."
"Money?" he said absently. "Yes—you've done me han'some, Baby Jean. But I ain't got much use for money. Money's only a grubstake, so's you c'n buy things and go out and hunt for gold. Good-by, folks! Next fall you'll see me and the little fellas ag'in. Hi, Muta! Lead out!"
And, gripping his staff, he limped off in the wake of his long-eared companions, swinging their packs from side to side as a mother rocks the cradle.
"They're all like that," said a man. "It's the hunt for it that keeps 'em goin'. They don't know what to do with it when they get it."
The dark eyes of Jerkline Jo were full of dreams.
"Yes, we're all like that, I imagine," she said.
"And how bout you, Jo?" some one asked. "Now that you're rich and married and all?"
Jo looked down the street at the nearly completed roundhouse and the track-laying engine working on below the town.
"I?" she said dreamily. "Why—why—I don't just know. The steel has come, and now freight will reach here by train. We're going to New York—Hiram and I—and maybe across the Atlantic. But we'll come back soon, and—and—— Oh, there'll be a new road building somewhere—another Ragtown. We couldn't quit, I guess. What's city life and all that money will buy compared with the thrill of driving a ten-horse jerkline team over the desert and the mountains? I guess, after we've looked about the Gentle Wild Cat and I will just keep on driving jerkline to Ragtown—somewhere."
She pointed over the desert to where a bent old man and six drifting burros were blending gradually into the landscape.
"He's not crazy," she said softly. "He has just voiced a great fundamental truth for all humanity. Money is only a grubstake. The world needs gold and—and freight. Jerkline to Ragtown—that's life! Some Ragtown will need freight—some Ragtown—somewhere."