Chapter III

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 to once by someone 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 histed 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 Jimmy 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 canon, and I just walked up the canon 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!" someone 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, holding aloft his light. 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 marvelled.

"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.