The Road Agent
The Road Agent
An Episode of the Babes, the Lost Dog, and Pay Dirt
By STEWART EDWARD WHITE
Illustrated by MAYNARD DIXON
THE Sierras Nevada of California are very wide and very high. Kingdoms could be lost among the defiles of their ranges. Kingdoms have been found there. One of them was Bright's Cove.
It happened back in the seventies. Old man Bright was prospecting. He had come up from the foot-hills accompanied by a new but stolid Indian wife. After he had grubbed around a while on old Italian Bar and had succeeded in washing out a little color, she woke up and took a slight interest in the proceedings.
"You like catch dat?" she grunted contemptuously. "Heap much over dere!"
She waved an arm. Old man Bright girded his loins and packed his jackass. After incredible scramblings they succeeded in surmounting the ranges and in dropping sheer to the mile-wide round valley through which flowed the river—the broad, swift, mountain river, with the snow-white rapids, and the swirling translucent green of very thick glass. They were glad to reach the grass at the bottom, but a little doubtful on how to get out. The big mountains took root at the very edge of the tiny round valley: the river flowed out of a gorge at one end and into a gorge at the other.
"Guess the sun don't rise here till next morning," commented old man Bright. The squaw was too busy even to grunt.
In six years old man Bright was worth six million dollars, all taken from the ledges of Bright's Cove. Of this amount he had been forced to let go of a small proportion for mill machinery and labor. He had also invested twenty-five thousand dollars in a road. It was a steep road, and a picturesque. It wound in and out and around, by loops, lacets, and hairpins, dropping down the face of the mountain in unheard-of grades and turns. Nothing was ever hauled up it—save yellow bars of bullion—so that did not matter. Down it, with a shriek of brakes, a cloud of dust, a clank of harness, and a rumble of oaths, came diverse matters, such as machinery, glassware, whisky, mirrors, ammunition, and pianos. From any one of a dozen bold points on this road one could see far down and far up its entire white, thread-like length. The tiny crawling teams, each with its puff of dust crawling with it; the great tumbled peaks of the Sierras; the river so far below as to resemble a little stream; the round cove with its toy houses and its distant, ant-like industry—all these were plainly to be seized by a glance of whatever eye cared to look.
As time went on a great many teams and pack trains and saddle animals climbed up and down that road. Bright's Cove became quite a town. Old man Bright made six millions; other men aggregated nearly four millions more; still others acquired deep holes and a deficit. It might be remarked in passing that the squaw gained experience, a calico dress or so, and a final honorable discharge. Being an Indian, she cursed him fluently—and went back to pounding acorns in a metate.
In the fifth year of prosperity there drifted into camp two men, possessed of innocence, three mules, and a thousand dollars. They retained the mules; and, it is to be presumed, at least a portion of the innocence.
The thousand dollars went to the purchase of the Lost Dog from Barney Fallan. The Lost Dog consisted quite simply of a hole in the ground guarded by an excellent five-stamp-mill. The latter's existence could only be explained by the incurable optimism of Barney Fallan—certainly not by the contents of the hole in the ground. To the older men of the camp it seemed a shame; for the newcomers were nice, fresh-cheeked, clear-eyed lads to whom everything was new and strange and wonderful; their enthusiasm was contagious; and their cheerful command of vernacular exceedingly heart-warming. California John, then a man in his forties, tried to head off the deal.
"Look here, son," said he to Gaynes. "Don't do it. There's nothin' in it. Take my word."
"But Fallan's got a good stamp-mill all ready for business, and the ledge—"
"Son," said California John, "every once in a while the Lord gets to experimentin', makin' brains for a new specie of jackass, and when he runs out of donkeys to put 'em in—"
"Meaning me?" demanded Gaynes, his fair skin turning a deep red.
"Not at all. Meanin' Barney Fallan."
Nevertheless, the Babes, as the Gaynes brothers were speedily nicknamed, paid over their good thousand for Barney's worthless prospect with the imposing but ridiculous stamp-mill. There they set cheerfully to work. After a week's desperate and clanking experiment, they got the machinery under way and began to run rock through the crushers.
"It ain't even ore!" expostulated California John. "Why, son, it's only country rock. Go down on your shaft until you strike a pan test anyway! You're wasting time and fuel and—Oh, hell!" he broke off hopelessly at the sight of the two cherubic faces upturned respectful but unconvinced.
"But you never can tell where you will find gold," broke in Jimmy eagerly. "That's been proved over and over again. I heard one fellow say once that they thought they'd never find gold in hornblende. But they did."
California John stumped home in indignant disgust.
"Damn little ijits!" be exploded. "Pigheaded! Stubborn as a pair of mules!" The recollection of the scrubbed red cheeks, the clear, puppy-dog frank brown eyes, the close-curling brown hair, forced his lips to a wry grin. "Just like I was at that age," he admitted. He sighed. "Well, they'll drop their little pile, of course. The only ray of hope's the experience that old Bible fellow had with them turkey buzzards—or was it ravens?"
The Babes pecked away for about a month, full of tribulation and questions. They seemed to depend almost equally on optimism and chance, in both of which they had supreme faith. A huge horseshoe was tacked over the door of the stamp-mill. Jimmy Gaynes always spat over his right shoulder before doing a day's work. They never walked under the short ladders leading to the hoppers. Neither would they permit visitors to their shafts. To California John and his friend Tibbetts they interposed scandalized objections.
"It's bad luck to let another man in your shaft!" cried George. "I'm no high-brow on this mining proposition, but I know enough for that."
"Bad as playing opposite a cross-eyed man," said Jimmy.
"Or holding Jacks full on Eights," supplemented George conclusively.
"You're about as wise as a treeful of owls," said California John sarcastically. "But, Lord love you, I ain't cherishin' any very burnin' ambition to crawl down your snake hole."
The Babes used up their provisions; they went about as far as they could on credit; they harrowed the feelings of the community—and then, in a very mild way, they struck it. Together they drifted down the single street of the camp, arm in arm, an elaborate nonchalance steadying their steps. Near the horse-trough they paused.
"Gold," said Jimmy oracularly to George, "is where you find it."
"Likewise horse sense," quoth George.
Whereupon they whooped wildly and descended on the astonished group. To it they exhibited yellow dust to the value of a hundred dollars. "And more where that came from," said they.
"What kind of rock did you find it in?" demanded Tibbetts, after he had recovered his breath from the youngsters enthusiastic man-handling.
"Oh, a kind of red, pasty-looking rock," said they.
"Show us," demanded the miners.
"What?" cried Jimmy, astounded, "and give old man Luck the back-hand slap just when he's decided to buy a corner lot in the Gaynes Addition? Not on your saccharine existence!"
"But we'll show you some more of this to-morrow, q. m.," said George.
They bought drinks all round, and paid their various bills, and departed again feverishly to the Lost Dog, whence rose smoke and clankings. And next day, sure enough, they left their work just long enough to exhibit another respectable little clean-up of fifty dollars or so.
"And we're just getting into it!" said George triumphantly.
California John and all the rest of his good friends rejoiced exceedingly and genuinely. They liked the Babes. The little strike of the Lost Dog quite overshadowed in importance the fact that old man Bright's Clarice had run into a fabulously rich pocket. The end of the month drew near. The Lost Dog had produced nearly eight hundred dollars. The Babes waxed important and talked largely of their moneyed interests.
"I think," said Jiinmy importantly, "that we will decide to keep three hundred dollars to boost the game, and nail down the rest where moths won't corrupt. Where do you fellows salt your surplus, anyway?"
"There's an express goes out pretty soon," some one explained, "with the clean-up of the Clarice. We send our dust out with that; and I reckon you can fix it with Bright."
They saw Bright, but ran up against an unexpected difficulty. Old man Bright received them with considerable surliness. He considered himself as the originator, discoverer, inventor, and almost the proprietor of Bright's Cove and all it contained. Therefore, when he first heard of the new strike, he walked up to the Lost Dog to see what it looked like. The Babes, panic-stricken at the intended affront to "old man Luck," headed him off. Bright had not the least belief in the reason given. He surveyed them with disfavor.
"I can't take your package," he told them. "Send it out yourself."
"And that old skunk has cleaned up a hundred thousand this month!" complained Jimmy pathetically to the group around the horse-trough. "And he won't even take a pore little five hundred package of dust out to some suffering bank! I suppose I'll have to cache it in a tomato can for Johnson's old billy goat to chew up."
"Bring it over and I'll shove it in with mine," suggested California John.
So it was done. The express, carrying nearly four hundred pounds of gold dust, set forth over the steep road. In two hours the driver and messenger sailed in, bung-eyed with excitement. They had been held up by a single road agent.
"He come out right on that point of rocks where you can see the whole valley," said the driver in answer to many questions; "right where the heavy grade is and the thick chapparal. We was busy climbing; and he had us before we could wink. Made us drop off the dust and 'bout face. He was a big. tall feller; and had a sawed-off Winchester. Once when we stopped, he dropped a bullet right behind us. He must have watched us all the way to camp."
The camp turned out. As the men passed the Lost Dog some one yelled to the Babes. George, covered with mud, came to the door of the mill.
"Gee!" said he. "Lucky we saved out that three hundred. I'm powerful sorry for that suffering bank. I'll join you as soon as I can get Jimmy up out of the shaft." Before the party had gone a mile they were joined by the brothers, boyishly eager over this new excitement. The men toiled up the road to where the robbery had taken place. Plainly to be seen were the marks of the man's boots. The tracks of a single horse, walking, followed the man.
"He packed off the dust—and he had an almighty big horse to carry it." pronounced some one.
They followed the trail. It led a quarter mile to a broad sheet of rock. There it disappeared. On one side the bank rose twenty or thirty feet. On the other it fell away nearly a hundred. Across the sheet of rock stretched the dusty road, unbroken by anything more recent than the wheel-tracks of the day before. It was as though man and horse had taken unto themselves wings.
Immediately Bright took active charge of the posse.
"Stand here, on this rock," he commanded. "This road's been tracked up too much already. You, John, and Tibbetts and Simmins, there, come 'long with me to see what you can make out."
The old mountaineers retraced their steps, examining carefully every inch of the ground. They returned vastly puzzled.
"No sabe," California John summed up their investigations. "There's the man's tracks leadin' his hoss. The hoss had on new shoes, and the robber did his own shoeing. So we ain't got any blacksmiths to help us."
"How do you know he shod the horse himself?" asked Jimmy Gaynes.
"Shoes just alike on front and back feet. Shows he must just have tacked on ready-made shoes. A blacksmith shapes 'em different. Those tracks leads right up to this rock: and here they quit. If you can figger how a horse, a man, and nigh four hundredweight of gold dust got off this rock, I'll be obleeged."
The men looked up at the perpendicular cliff to their right; over the sheer precipice at their left; and upon the untracked, deep, white dust ahead.
"Furthermore," California John went on impressively, after a moment, "where did that man and that hoss come from in the beginning? Not from up this way. They's no fresh tracks comin' down the road no more than they's fresh tracks goin' up. Not from camp. They's no tracks whatsomever on the road below, except our'n and the stage outfit's."
"Are you sure of that?" asked Jimmy, his eyes shining with interest.
"Sartin sure," replied California John positively. "We didn't take no chances on that."
"Then he must have come into the road from up the mountain or down the mountain."
"Where?" demanded California John. "A man afoot might scramble down in one or two places; but not a hoss. They ain't no tracks either side of the muss-up where the express was stopped. And at that p'int the mountain is straight up and down, like it is here."
They talked it over, and argued it, and reexamined the evidence, but without avail. The stubborn facts remained. Between the hold-up and the sheet of rock was one set of tracks going one way: elsewhere, nothing.
NEARLY a year passed. If it had not been for the very tangible loss of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, the little community at Bright's Cove might almost have come to doubt the evidence of their senses and the accuracy of their memories, so fantastic on sober reflection did all the circumstances become. Even the indisputable four hundred pounds of gold could not quite avert an unconfessed suspicion of the uncanny. Miners are superstitious folk. Old man Bright remembered the parting and involved curses of his squaw before she went back to her acorns and pine nuts. To Tibbetts alone he imparted a vague hint of the imaginings into which he had fallen. But he brooded much, seeking a plausible theory that would not force him back on the powers of darkness. This he did not find.
Nor did any other man. It remained a mystery, a single bizarre anomaly in the life of the camp. For some time thereafter the express went heavily guarded. The road was patrolled. Jimmy or George Gaynes in person accompanied each shipment of dust. Their pay streak held out, increased steadily in value. They would hire no assistance for the actual mining in the shaft, although they had several hands to work at the mill. One month they cleaned up twelve thousand dollars.
"You bet I'm going," said Jimmy; "I don't care if it is only a little compared to what Bright and you fellows are sending. It's a heap sight to us, and I'm going to see it safe to the city. No more spooks in mine. I got my fingers crossed. Allah skazallalum! I don't know what a ghost would want with cash assets, but they seemed to use George's and my little old five hundred, all right."
Twelve months went by. Two expresses a month toiled up the road. Nothing happened. Finally Jimmy decided that four good working days a month were too much to pay for apparently useless supervision. Three men comprised the shotgun guard. They with the driver were considered ample.
"You'll have to get on without me," said Jimmy to them in farewell. "Be good boys. We've got the biggest clean up yet aboard you."
They started on the twenty-fifth trip since the hold-up. After a time, far up the mountain was heard a single shot. Inside of two hours the express drew sorrowfully into camp. The driver appeared to be alone. In the bottom of the wagon were the three guards, weak and sick. The gold sacks were very much absent.
"Done it again," said the driver. "Ain't more than got started afore the whole outfit's down with the belly-ache. Too much of that cursed salmon. Told 'em so. I didn't eat none. That road agent hit her lucky this trip sure. He was all organized for business. Never showed himself at all. Just opened fire. Sent a bullet through the top of my hat. He's either a damn good shot or a damn poor one. I hung up both hands and yelled we was down and out. What could I do? This outfit couldn't 'a fit a bumble bee. And I couldn't git away, or git hold of no gun, or see anything to shoot, if I did. He was behind that big rock."
The men nodded. They were many of them hard hit, but they had lived too long in the West not to recognize the justice of the driver's implied contention that he had done his best.
"He told me to throw out them sacks, and to be damn quick about it," went on the driver. "Then I drove home."
"What sort of a lookin' fellow was he?" asked some one. "Same one as last year?"
"I never seen him," said the driver. "He hung behind his rock. He was organized for shoot: and if the messengers hadn't happened to 'a been out of it, I believe be could have killed us all."
"What did his hoss look like?" inquired California John.
"He didn't have no horse," stated the driver. "Leastways, not near him. There was no cover. He might have been around a p'int. And I can sw'ar to this: there weren't no tracks of no kind from there to camp."
They caught up horses and started out. When they came to the Lost Dog, they stopped and looked at each other.
"Poor old Babes!" said Simmins. "Biggest clean-up yet; and first time one of 'em didn't go 'long."
"I'm glad they didn't," said Tibbetts. "That agent would have killed 'em shore!"
They called out the Gaynes brothers and broke the news. For once the jovial youngsters had no joke to make.
"This is getting serious," said Jimmy. "We can't afford to lose that much."
George whistled dolefully, and went into the corral for the mules.
The party toiled up the mountain. Plainly in the dust could be made out the trail of the express ascending and descending. Plain also were the signs where the driver had dumped out the gold bags and turned around. From that point the tracks of a man and a horse led to the sheet of rock. Beyond that, nothing.
The men stared at each other a little frightened. Somebody swore softly.
"Boys," said Bright in a strained voice, "do you know how much was in that express? A half million! There's nary earthly hoss can carry over half a ton! And this one treads as light as a saddler."
They looked at each other blankly. Several even glanced in apprehension at the sky.
In a perfunctory manner, for the sake of doing something, those skilled in trail-reading went back over the ground. Nothing was added to the first experience. At the point of robbery magically had appeared a man and—if the stage driver's solemn assertion that at the time of the hold-up no animal was in sight could be believed—subsequently, when needed, a large horse. Whence had they come? Not along the road in either direction: the unbroken deep dust assured that. Not down the mountain from above, for the cliff rose sheer for at least thrive hundred feet. Jimmy Gaynes, following unconsciously the general train of conjecture, craned his neck over the edge of the road. The broken, jagged rock and talus dropped off a hundred feet to a tangle of manzanita and snowbrush.
California John looked over, too.
"Couldn't even get sheep up that," said he, "let alone a sixteen-hand horse."
Old man Bright was sunk in a superstitious torpor. He had lost hundreds of thousands where he would have hated to spend as many pennies; yet the financial part of the loss hardly touched him. He mumbled fearfully to himself, and took not the slightest interest in the half-hearted attempts to read the mystery. When the others moved, he moved with them, because he was afraid to be left alone.
After the men had assured themselves again and again that the horse and the man had apparently materialized from thin air exactly at the point of robbery, they again followed the tracks to the broad sheet of rock. Whither had the robber gone? Back into the thin air whence he had come. There was no other solution. No tracks ahead; an absolute and physical impossibility of anything without wings getting up or down the flanking precipices—these were the incontestable facts.
After this second robbery a gloom descended on Bright's Cove which lasted through many months. Old man Bright hunted out the squaw with whom he had first discovered the diggings, and set her up in an establishment with gay curtains, glass danglers, and red doilies. Each month he paid for her provisions and sent to her a sum of money. In this manner, at least, the phantom road agent had furthered the ends of justice. The sop to the powers of darkness appeared to be effective in this respect: no more hold-ups occurred; no more mysterious tracks appeared in the dust; gradually men's minds swung back to the balanced and normal, and the life of the camp went forward on its appointed way.
Nevertheless, certain effects remained. Each express went out heavily guarded, and preceded and followed by men on horseback. Strangely enough, the gamblers left camp. In a little over a year old man Bright fell into a settled melancholia from which his millions never helped him to the very day of his death, a little over a year later.
In the mean time, however varied the fortunes of the other mines and prospects, the Lost Dog continued to work toward a steadily increasing paying basis. It never reached the proportions of the Clarice, but turned out an increasing value of dust at each clean-up. The Gaynes boys, two years before, had been in debt for their groceries. Now they were said to have shipped out something like three or four hundred thousand dollars' worth of gold. Their friends used to wander down for the regular clean-up, just to rejoice over the youngsters' deserved good luck. The little five-stamp-mill crunched away steadily; the water flowed; and in the riffles the heavy gold dust accumulated.
"Why don't you-all put up a big mill, throw in a crew of men, and get busy?" they were asked.
"I'll tell you," replied George; "it's because we know a heap sight more about mining than we did when we came here. We have just one claim, and from all indications it's only a pocket. The Clarice is on a genuine lode; but we're likely to run into a 'horse' or pinch out most any minute. When we do, it's all over but a few faint cries of fraud. And we can empty that pocket just as well with a little jerkwater outfit like this as we could with a big crew and a real mill. It'll take a little longer: but we"re pulling it, and quick enough."
"Those Babes have more sense than we gave 'em credit for," commented California John. "Their heads are level. They're dead right about it's bein' a pocket. The stuff they run through there is the darndest mixture I ever see gold in."
Two months after this conventionalist, the Babes drifted into camp to announce that the expected pinch had come. "We're going," said Jimmy. "We have a heap plenty dust salted away; and there's not a color left in the Lost Dog. The mill machinery is for sale cheap. Any one can have the Lost Dog who wants it. We're going out to see what makes the wheels go 'round. You boys have a first claim on us wherever you find us. You've sure been good to us. If you catch that spook, send us one of his tail feathers. It would be worth just twelve thousand five hundred to us."
They sold the stamp-mill for almost nothing, packed their animals with heavy things they had accumulated, and departed up the steep white road, over the rim to the outer world, whence came no word of them more. The camp went on prospering. Old man Bright died. The heavily guarded express continued to drag out yellow gold by the hundredweight.
About six weeks after the departure of the Babes. California John saddled up his best horse, put on his best overalls, strapped about him his shiny, worn Colt's .45, and departed for his semi-annual visit to the valleys and the towns. A week later he returned. It was about dusk. At the water trough he dismounted.
"Boys," said he quietly, "I've been held up." He eyed them quizzically. "Up by the slide rock," he continued, "and by the spook."
"Who was he?" "What was it?" they cried, starting to their feet.
"It was Jimmy Gaynes," replied California John.
"The Babe?" some one broke the stunned silence at last.
"Well, I'll be damned!" cried Tibbetts.
"Did he get much off you?" asked a miner after another pause.
"He never took a thing."
And on that, being much besieged, California John sat him down and told of his experience.
CALIFORNIA JOHN was discursive and interested and disinclined to be hurried. He crossed one leg over the other and lit his pipe.
"I was driftin' down the road busy with my own idees—which ain't many," he began, "when I was woke up all at once by some one givin' me advice. I took the advice. Wasn't nothin' else to do. All I could see was a rock and a gun barrel. That was enough. So I h'isted my hands as per commands and waited for the next move." He chuckled. "I wasn't worryin'. Had to squeeze my dust bag to pay my hotel bill when I left the city.
" 'Drop yore gun in the road,' says the agent.
"I done so.
" 'Now dismount.'
"I climbed down. And then Jinnny Gaynes rose up from behind that rock and laughed at me.
" 'The joke's on me!' said I, and reached down for my gun.
" 'Better leave that!' said Jimmy, pretty sharp. I know that tone of voice, so I straightened up again.
" 'Well, Jimmy,' said I, 'she lays if you say so. But where'd you come from, and what for do you turn road agent and hold up your old friends?'
" 'I'm holdin' you up,' Jimmy answered, 'because I want to talk to you for ten minutes. As for where I come from, that's neither here nor there.'
" 'Of course,' said I, 'I'm one of these exclusive guys that needs a gun throwed on him before he'll talk with the plain people like you.'
" 'Now don't get mad,' says Jimmy, 'but light yore pipe, and set down on that rock, and you'll see in a minute why I preferred to corner the gatling market.'
"Well I set down and lit up, and Jimmy done likewise, about ten feet away.
" 'I've come back a long ways to talk to one of you boys, and I've shore hung around this road some few hours, waitin' for some of you terrapins to come along. Ever found out who done those two hold-ups?'
" 'Nope,' said I, 'and don't expect to.'
" 'Well, I done it,' says he.
"I looked him in the eye mighty severe.
" 'You're one of the funniest little jokers ever hit this trail,' I told him. 'If that's your general line of talkee-talkee, I don't wonder you don't want me to have no gun.'
" 'Nevertheless,' he insists, 'I done it. And I'll tell you just how it was done. Here's yore old express crawlin' up the road. Here I am behind this little old rock. You know what happened next, I reckon—from experience.'
" 'I reckon I know that,' says I; 'but how did you get behind that rock without leavin' no tracks?'
"'I climbed up the cliff out of the cañon, and I just walked up the cañon from the Lost Dog through the brush.'
" 'Yes.' says I, 'that might be: a man could make out to shinny up. But how—'
" 'One thing to a time. Then I ordered them dust sacks throwed out, and the driver to 'bout-face and retreat.'
" 'Sure,' says I, 'simple as a wart on a kid's nose. There was you with a half ton of gold to fly off with! Come again.'
" 'I then dropped them sacks off the edge of the cliff where they rolled into the brush. After a while I climbed down after them, and was on hand when your posse started out. Then I carried them home at leisure.'
" 'What did you do with your hoss?' I asked him, mighty sarcastic. 'Seems to me you overlook a few bets.'
" 'I didn't have no hoss,' says he.
" 'But the real hold-up—'
" 'You mean them tracks. Well, just to amuse you fellows I walked in the dust up to that flat rock. Then I clamped a big pair of horseshoes on hind-side before and walked back again.' "
California John's audience had been listening intently. Now it could no longer contain itself, but broke forth into exclamations indicative of various emotions.
"That's why them front and back tracks was the same size!" some one cried.
"Gee, you're bright!" said California John. "That's what I told him. I also told him he was a wonder, but how did he manage to slip out near a ton of dust up that road without our knowing it?
" 'You did know it,' says he. 'Did you fellows really think there was any gold-bearing ore in the Lost Dog? We just run that dust through the mill along with a lot of worthless rock, and shipped it out open and above-board as our own mill run. There never was an ounce of dust come out of the Lost Dog, and there never will.'
Then he give me back my gun—emptied—we shook hands: and here I be."
After the next burst of astonishment had ebbed, and had been succeeded by a rather general feeling of admiration, somebody asked California John if Jimmy had come back solely for the purpose of clearing up the mystery. California John had evidently been waiting for this question. He arose and knocked the ashes from his pipe.
"Bring a candle," he requested the storekeeper, and led the way to the abandoned Lost Dog. Into the tunnel he led them, to the very end. There he paused, and knocked away some cunningly concealed rocks. At his feet was a canvas, which, being removed, was found to cover neatly a number of heavy sacks.
"Here's our dust," said California John, "every ounce of it, he said. He kept about six hundred thousand or so that belonged to Bright; but he didn't take none of ours. He come back to tell me so."
The men crowded around for closer inspection.
"I wonder why he done that?" Tibbetts marveled.
"I asked him that," replied California John grimly. "He said his conscience never would rest easy if he robbed us babes."
Tibbetts broke the ensuing silence.
"Was 'babes' the word he used?" he asked softly.
" 'Babes' was the word," said California John.