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The End Of Iron Skull's Road








From: Still Jim

"The Indians know that the spirit blends with the Greater
Spirit, and I myself have seen every atom that was mortal
lift again and again to new life, out of the desert's atom
drift."

MUSINGS OF THE ELEPHANT.


Jim shrugged his shoulders. Sara's eyes narrowed as he half smiled to
himself.

"For instance," Ames went on, "what are you making the third canal so
big for? We don't need it that size. You're wasting time and our money.
We've got to pay for the project, us farmers. You don't take any
interest in that fact though."

"You don't need a canal that big, but your children will," said Jim.
"I'm building this dam for the future. You farmers never built for
anything but the present. That's why your dams went and the water wars
were on. But you can't teach a farmer anything."

Jim spoke with a cold contempt that startled Penelope. Ames' kindly eyes
were blazing.

"No, but maybe us farmers can teach an engineer something. And I don't
know a better talking point for starting an investigation than the way
you let the flood rip everything to pieces."

"Which portion of your land is for sale, Mr. Ames?" asked Pen. "My
husband has a map of the valley over there."

Jim rose and took up his pony's reins. "I'm sorry anything unpleasant
came up, Pen. But you'll find out I'm a fool and a crook some time, so
it might as well be now. I must get back." He smiled, lifted his hat and
rode off. The four in the tent stared after him.

"He always seems so kind of alone," said Mrs. Ames. "They say his men
will do anything for him and yet he always seems kind of lonely. I don't
seem to hate him the way the rest of the valley does. He's so young, he
don't know how to be patient yet."

"Oh, they don't hate him, do they!" protested Pen.

"You bet!" answered Ames succinctly. Then he added: "You'll have to
excuse me saying that. I forgot you was his friend. But this here valley
is like my child to me. I'm fighting for her."

"We want to know the truth about him," said Sara. "Are you really trying
to get rid of him?"

Ames nodded and picked up the map. "I don't think he's crooked, like
some do. I just think he's too young and pig-headed for the job."

"How do you know he's not crooked?" asked Sara.

Pen drew a startled breath. Ames looked at Sara curiously. "I thought
you was his friend."

"He's my wife's friend," replied Sara. "You know what the Congressional
committee reported about him."

"Sara!" cried Pen. "You know Jim couldn't do a crooked thing to save his
life!"

Sara's black eyes blazed dangerously. Mrs. Ames stirred uncomfortably
and Pen rose. "Let's leave the men to their land sales and go out where
we can get a view of the camp, Mrs. Ames," she said.

The two women walked slowly out to the mountain edge and settled
themselves on a rock.

"I'm sorry anything unpleasant occurred," said Pen.

"Don't you let it worry you," replied Mrs. Ames. "I'm used to it. Ever
since the dam was started, Oscar has been like an old maid with an
adopted baby."

"I'm so sorry Jim has made himself unpopular here," said Pen. "He and I
were brought up by my uncle who married Jim's mother. And Jim is fine.
The Lord made Jim and then broke the mold. There's no one like him; no
one cleaner and truer----"

Mrs. Ames looked at Pen thoughtfully. Then she patted the girl's hand.

"Don't you worry about him. He's got lots to learn but the Lord don't
waste stuff like him. I would be perfectly happy if my boy turned out
like him."

Pen smiled a little uncertainly. "We who know him so well are foolish
about Jim. Tell me about your children."

"I have two left," replied Mrs. Ames. "They're at school in Cabillo. I
was bound they should have their chance. I'd like to ask you something.
Have you got a pattern for the waist you've got on? I'd like to make one
for my Mary. Though I don't know! My hands are so rough I can't handle
embroidery silks very good."

She held up two work distorted hands. "I made this blouse myself," said
Pen. "I'd love to make one for your Mary. Time will hang on my hands
out here, some days."

"That's nice of you," said the little desert woman, taking the gift as
simply as it was offered. "You tell me what materials to get. I guess I
can find some way to pay you up."

"Come to see me, or let me come to see you," exclaimed Pen. "That will
be pay enough. I have few friends, for my husband doesn't like them. But
I can see that he has taken a liking to you two."

"The minute I saw you, I knew something pleasant had happened to me,"
said Jane Ames. "You don't mind having an old woman for an admirer, do
you?"

Pen's dimples showed. "The more I see of men, Mrs. Ames, the better I
like women."

Jane Ames nodded understandingly. "The women I know all have got it hard
one way or another but I guess desert farming ain't the worst thing that
can happen to a woman. Here comes Oscar. I suppose he's mad because I
ain't down at the buckboard counting the minutes till he gets to me.
Good-by, my dear! I'll see you soon."

Pen did not return to the tent house at once. She saw Iron Skull up on
the mountainside watching a group of Indians break out the first line of
a road and she strolled over to talk to him. Jim's letters home had been
full of Iron Skull and Pen felt as if she knew him well.

"How do, Mrs. Saradokis?" said Williams.

"Are they all Indians?" asked Pen staring round-eyed at the group of
workmen.

Iron Skull nodded. "Jicarilla and Mohave Apaches. I've fought with the
older men. They make good workmen if you understand them. Old
Suma-theek over there is one of my best friends."

There might have been fifty of the Indians, stalwart fellows, using pick
and shovel with a deliberate grace that fascinated Pen. She watched in
silence for a moment, then she said:

"Mr. Williams. I'm worried about Jim. Is it really true that they are
trying to oust him?"

Iron Skull looked at Pen's anxious hazel eyes, then out at the ranges.
Then he scratched his head.

"I'm a little worried myself, Mrs. Saradokis. He's up against a bad
proposition and he just won't admit it. I don't like to nag him. You
see, him and me are just naturally partners though I am old enough to be
his father. And there's some ways a man can't nag another man."

"Do you think I could help him?" asked Pen. "He and I've always been
good friends."

Williams hesitated, then he spoke with a sudden deep earnestness that
surprised Pen: "If you don't help him, things will be bad for Boss
Still. And you're the only person I know of that could influence him."

He paused as he saw Pen flush painfully, then he went on a little
awkwardly: "Maybe you'll understand me better if--if I tell you I was
with Boss Still when a--Mr. Dennis wrote about your marriage. I know
about how he felt and all and I sort of look on your coming at this
particular time as a kind of a godsend.

"Now I'm going to tell you some things confidential and leave it to your
judgment how to act. Boss Still, he sort of worshiped Freet. You know
who he is?"

Pen nodded. Williams went on. "Freet, as I size it up, wanted to break a
smart cub in to be a kind of cat's paw for him in selling water power to
the right folks and running the canals right. It's darn seldom you meet
a good engineer that's money hungry. But Freet is. He's a miser in a
way. But up on the Makon, he found out the Boss is as innocent as a baby
of graft and more'n that he had his head in the clouds so's there was
mighty little hope of his coming down to earth. So Freet got him sent
down here.

"Well, the time's coming down here when there'll be a nice lot of water
power. It belongs to the farmers after they pay for the dam, but the
idea is for the engineer in charge to show 'em where to sell it to best
advantage. If the engineer here ain't the right kind, the Water Power
trust can make him trouble. All sorts of ways, you see. Getting the
farmers sore at him is one. See?"

Pen nodded again, her eyes wide and startled. "Now," said Iron Skull,
"don't be offended, but I'm wondering about your husband. I know Freet
knows him and if it should just happen that your husband had any old
scores to settle with the Boss----"

He paused and Pen exclaimed: "I believe we'd better go right back to New
York, though as far as I know we're out here just for Sara's health and
for him to buy up some land Mr. Freet knew about."

"Now don't get excited," said Williams. "Remember this here is all
speculation on my part. You stay right here. If it wasn't your husband,
it would be someone else and I'd rather it would be someone that has you
to watch 'em! And that ain't the most important part of your job,
either. Mrs. Saradokis, somehow the Boss ain't getting the grip on
things he'd ought to. I don't mean in engineering. He just can't be beat
at that. I don't know just what it is, but he's a big enough man to have
this valley in the hollow of his hand. And he ain't. I want you to help
me find out why and then make him get away with it. This little old
United States needs men of his blood and kind of mind. I've fell down on
my job. Don't you let him fall down on his. It's the one way you can pay
up for--for the other thing you took out of his life."

Pen stood with tear-blinded eyes and trembling lips. Iron Skull cleared
his throat: "I hope you don't mind my butting in this-a-way!"

Pen shook her head. "I'll do my best," she said. "Only I'm pretty small
for the job."

"Here he comes now," said Williams.

Jim rode up and dismounted. "Hello, Pen! What do you think of my roads?
I'm crowding as many men onto the roads as I can until the water goes
down. Idleness is bad for them. You see, in spite of electric lights and
a water system we're a long way from civilization and it gets on the
men's nerves unless we keep 'em busy. I'm going to start a moving
picture show in the lower camp. The official photographer will run it
for us. Just the usual five-cent movies, you know. Anything above
running expenses will go toward the farmers' debt."

Iron Skull moved away to speak to Suma-theek. Jim went on slowly: "You
can see what I'm up against in Ames. Any day I may get a recall. Every
farmer on the project hates me for some reason or other. I tell you,
Pen, if they don't let me finish my dam and the roads to and from it, it
will ruin my life."

Pen's tender eyes studied Jim's face. Long and thin, with its dreamer's
forehead and its steel jaw, it was the same dear face that Penelope had
carried in her heart since that spring day long ago when a long-legged
freshman had said to her, "I'm glad you came. I'm going to think a lot
of you. I can see that."

"You know, Jim," she said, "that your mother and Uncle Denny always
shared your letters with me?"

Jim nodded. "I wrote them for that."

"And so I really know a good deal about your work. Uncle Denny and I
studied the maps and the government reports and then he actually saw the
dams, you know, and would tell me all the details. Honestly, we'd
qualify as experts in any court! And if you'll just let me share your
worries while I'm out here, I shall be prouder even than Uncle Denny
after you've asked his advice. And won't I crow over him after I get
back to New York!"

A glow came to Jim's eyes that had not been there for years. "Gee, Pen!
You tempt me! But I'm not going to load you up with my troubles. You
have enough with Sara. Perhaps Sara will shoot Ames for me! Sara looks
like a sure-enough gunman, now. How he has changed, Pen!"

"If only you could have forgiven him enough to have written him once in
a while, Jim. After all he's been more than punished, even for the
Marathon matter or for that crazy romance about the ducal inheritance. I
realized, Jim, after I had married him, that Sara was quite capable of
the Marathon incident. Yet I wish you had forgiven him!"

"The Marathon, Pen!" cried Jim. "For heaven's sake, don't suppose that
was why I didn't write to Sara! It's the dirty trick he did in marrying
you that I'll never get over!"

"Oh, but that's not fair!" returned Pen. "He--well, anyway, he's a
cripple now and needs your help."

"I--help Sara!" exclaimed Jim. "Why I simply don't know he's living!
It's my turn now. Sara has had his innings. Desert methods are perfectly
simple and direct and I'm a desert man. You are here with me, Penelope,
and you are going to stay with me."

Iron Skull was coming back. Pen laughed. "You and Sara ought to write
movie dramas, Jim." Then she sobered. "Don't misunderstand my coming to
the dam, Jimmy. I've learned a good many things since you left me in New
York. One thing is that we can't cut our lives loose from other lives
and be a law to ourselves. Another is that any responsibility we take up
voluntarily ought to be carried to the end."

Jim looked at Pen curiously and his jaw set. She was several years
younger than Jim, yet something had come to her in the years just past
that made him in some ways feel immature. But Jim had not hungered and
thirsted for eight years in starry solitudes with one memory and one
dream to keep his heart alive, to relinquish the dream without a fight.

"Penelope," he said, "you don't know me."

Pen smiled. "I know you to the last hair in that brown thatch of yours,
Still Jim." Then she turned to Iron Skull, who was eager to have her
talk to old Suma-theek.

For some days Jim had no opportunity to continue Pen's education with
himself as textbook. He was engrossed in watching and tending the flood.
Old Jezebel enjoyed herself thoroughly for a week. She fought and
scratched at the mountainsides, but save the chafing of purple lava dust
from their sides she made no impression on their imperturbability. She
ripped down the last pouring, contemptuously leaving tons of rock and
concrete at the foot of the concrete section. She roared and howled and
shook the good earth with the noise of a railway train tearing through a
tunnel. And Jim laughed.

"If it wasn't for you, old girl," he told her one afternoon, "I'd go
crazy with the flea bitings of the Enemy. But you, bless your wicked
soul, are an honest part of the game. I was bred from the beginning to
fight floods. You attack in the open, like an honest vixen. Wait till I
get my clutches on you again."

As Jim finished this soliloquy with considerable satisfaction to
himself, Iron Skull came up and laid a newspaper on his saddle horn.

"The newspapers are roasting you, Boss Still."

"What do they say this time, Iron Skull?" Jim did not offer to lift the
paper.

"You are inefficient. A friend of Freet's. They don't say you caused
high water but they insinuate you suggested it to the weather man. You'd
ought to tell the Secretary of the Interior the whole truth about the
Makon, Boss Still."

"I can't do that, Iron Skull. I'm no squealer."

"I know. And I've always advised you to keep your mouth shut. But write
to the editor of this paper, Boss."

Jim did not reply at once. The two were on the mountainside, not a great
distance from Pen's house past which the new road was to run. The
Indians were making ready for the sunset blasts. Above the distant roar
of old Jezebel, old Suma-theek's foreman's whistle sounded clear and
sweet as he signaled his men.

This was Geronimo's country, the land of the greatest of the Apache
fighters. All about were the trails he and his people had made. Yonder
to the north, across a harsh peak, was Geronimo's own pass. And now the
last of Geronimo's race was building new trails for a new people.

The naked beauty of the brown and lavender ranges, the wholesome tang of
the thin air, the far sweep of the afternoon sky, seemed suddenly remote
to Jim.

"It's bigger than any editor," he said. "I don't know what is the
matter. My only hope is that I can finish my dam before they get me."

"You've got to fight back, now," persisted Iron Skull.

"It's not my business to fight for permission to build this project!"
cried Jim. "I was hired to build it! I was hired to fight old Jezebel
and not the farmers!"

The little superintendent laid a knotted hand on Jim's knee. "You must
take my advice in this, partner. I'm an old man and I'm likely to go any
time. I'd like to feel that I'd helped you into a big success. It's the
only record I'll leave behind me except a few dead Injuns. We both come
of good old New England stock and we've got to show the old fighting
blood ain't dead yet. I want to tell you--Hi! Suma-theek! Jump! Jump!"

Suma-theek was standing close to the mountain side out of which a blast
had cut a great slice of rock. Up above his head some loosened stone was
slipping down the mountain. As he called and before either Jim or the
Indian saw the impending danger, Iron Skull dashed across the road and
shoved Suma-theek out of the danger line. But he miscalculated his own
agility. The rapidly-sliding rock caught him on the head and he who had
shed Indian bullets like raindrops went down like a pinon, smitten by
lightning.

For one breath there was an appalling silence on the mountainside. The
Apaches stood like a group of bronzes. The eagle who lived on the
Elephant's side hung motionless high above the road. A cotton-tail sat
with quivering nose and inquiring ears above the rift of the slide.

Then, with a shout, Jim flung himself from his horse and thrust the
reins into an Indian's hands.

"Ride for the doctor!" and the Indian was off like a racing shadow.

At Jim's call, old Suma-theek gave a great groan and ran to lift Iron
Skull's head. The Indians gathered about in wonder as Jim knelt beside
his friend. For Iron Skull was dead.

Penelope ran out of the tent house at Jim's shout and made her way among
the Indians to Jim's side.

"O Jim!" she cried. "O Jim! O Jim!" Then she dropped down and lifted the
quiet face into her lap and wiped the blood from it and fell to sobbing
over it. "Oh, what a useless death!" she sobbed. "What a useless death!"

Jim held his dead friend's hand close in his own. Through his
tear-blinded eyes he saw a golden August field and felt other fingers
clinging to his own.

The doctor, driving the mule ambulance, dashed up the half-made road. He
looked Iron Skull over, and shook his head. "Get the stretcher out," he
said to Jim.

Four Indians lifted the stretcher with Iron Skull on it, but when they
would have put it in the ambulance, old Suma-theek stepped forward. He
was taller even than Jim. His face was lean and wrinkled. His eyes were
deep-set and tragic. He wore a twist of red cloth filet-wise around his
head.

"He die for Injun. Let Injun carry 'em home," said the old Apache. "He
heap good fighter. He speak truth. He keep word. He a big chief. He die
for Apache. Let Apache carry 'em home."

The doctor looked inquiringly at Jim who nodded.

"I'll go on down to his house and get things ready for him," said the
doctor and he drove off.

Jim and Penelope stood back. The four Indians bearing the stretcher
followed after Suma-theek and in a long single line the remaining
Apaches followed, joining Suma-theek in the death chant which is the
very soul cry of the desolate:

"Ai! Ai! Ai! Beloved!
"Ai! Ai! Ai! Beloved!"

Down the winding road in a world all liquid gold from the setting sun,
past the great shadow of the brooding elephant, past the cable towers
and the engine house where the workmen stared, motionless and aghast,
into the twilight of the valley where the electric lights flared, the
chanting Indians carried the old shedder of bullets and laid him on his
bed.

The camp was very silent that night. The Mexicans had feared and
respected the little Superintendent. They had shared with the Indians
the belief that the Little Boss could not be killed. The remains of the
old Makon Pack were openly grief-stricken and told half-whispered
stories of Iron Skull's prowess in the old days of tunnel building. The
camp was smitten with awe at this sudden withdrawal. Sudden death was
the rule on the Projects, yet it always left the camp breathless with
surprise. The little community of twelve hundred souls, so isolated, so
close to the primeval despite its electric lights, suddenly felt utterly
alone and helpless.

Close after eight o'clock Jim dashed out of his house as if a voice had
called him. He dropped down the steep trail to the canyon, crossed the
canyon and took the steep trail up the Elephant's side. It was a sharp
lift but Jim's long legs took it easily. When he reached the Elephant's
top he crossed the broad back to a heap of bowlders and threw himself
down in their shelter.

It was a moonlit night. Silver lay the desert with the black scratch of
old Jezebel across it and the ragged purple shadows of the ranges to the
east. Jim sat, chin in palm, elbow on knee, eyes wide on the soft wonder
of the night. It always seemed to him that the desert night freed him of
time and space and set him close to the Master Dream. He had learned to
take his grief and his despairs to the desert mountain tops.

He had sat for an hour going over his life and his friendship with Iron
Skull when a quick step sounded on the Elephant's back and Penelope
swung past him out to the edge of the crater that formed the Elephant's
east side. She stood there, her gray suit fluttering in the night wind,
looking far and wide as if the view were new to her. Then she sat down
on the ground, clasped her arms across her knees and bowed her head upon
them. There was so much despair in the gesture that Jim could not bear
the sight of it.





Next: The Elephant's Back

Previous: The Tent House



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