Buck Parvin and the Movies/Desert Stuff
PETE," said the editor of the Sunday supplement to his staff, "can't you bring your feature story for next week a little nearer home? Russian court scandals are all right in their way and the inside dope on the Hohenzollern family is immense, but our readers don't know these grand dukes and princes personally. See if you can't fix up something with a Southern California flavor to it. Give us a touch of that Southland stuff."
"Everybody likes to read about royalty," said the staff sulkily, who liked to write about it. He was a pale, blond youth, addicted to ready-made cigarettes, alliteration and watery eyes. "And, besides," he complained, "that slush about the Southland makes me sick."
"Sure it does," said the editor soothingly—"you and me both, Pete. It makes all the natives sick, but these Californians from Indiana and Pennsylvania like it. These hardy forty-niners from Cedar Rapids and Emporia eat it alive. We're developing a race of professional Californians, and the Southland is their Dixie. It's a pity they haven't got a song about it so that these adopted Argonauts can stand up in the caféterias and yell when the orchestras play it. But they read our paper and that's the answer."
"I'll see what I can do," said the staff, smiting his corrugated brow.
The mission of the Sunday supplement of a newspaper is not to instruct or to entertain, but to astound those weary souls to whom the Sabbath is a day of rest and mental relaxation. The young men who write the supplement articles are resourceful as well as clever. They have need to be, for they explain the inexplicable, invent the impossible, spin mysteries out of cigarette smoke, outride Rider Haggard and entrap the reader in a mesh of plausible fiction soberly presented as fact.
When invention fails and imagination flags, the Sunday Munchausens have recourse to the stock stories of the trade. These have been written and rewritten until they are as threadbare as a schoolmaster's coat, but like the coat they are always ready for one more public appearance after the high lights and gray shadows have been freshly touched with ink.
In such a predicament the Sunday supplementeer turns to three old friends. He may discover the lost Charlie Ross once more, which is safe enough provided one locates him far beyond the circulation belt of the paper; he may unravel the mysteries surrounding the death of the Mad Prince, or he may summon out of thin air a witness who has seen the wild camels upon the Great American Desert. And since Charlie Boss and the Mad Prince entail a trip through the files, the odds are with the wild camels.
These are without doubt the most reliably unreliable camels of which we have any record. They have driven the sea-serpent of the Atlantic coast into permanent retirement and caused the all-alive mastodon of Alaska to hide his head for shame. No man has ever seen them save with the eye of faith, yet at regular intervals they gallop through the pages of our Sabbath literature, invariably disappearing in a cloud of dust, for these camels are swift as well as wild.
No one knows what fertile brain sired these animals and gave them sanctuary upon the western boundary of Utah; it is enough to say that the wild camels, existing at first in the wilder imagination of some nameless genius of the press and nurtured by scores of imitators, are now very real to those who believe that everything in a newspaper is true.
As a matter of fact, there are no wild camels, never have been wild camels and never will be wild camels at large upon the Great American Desert, but a thousand times we have been told how they came there and why they are wild. In all probability we shall continue to receive reports of them, for they are to the Sunday-supplement author what rags and virtue are to the melodramatist and the slapstick is to vaudeville—a sure-fire hit.
Thus Pete, smiting his corrugated brow, struck forth the spark of a brilliant idea. Something local, eh! Something with a touch of the Southland? Oh, very well. He would import the wild camels, bringing them across Nevada into California. He would locate them in the vast, sandy waste—here Pete reached for the atlas—the vast, sandy waste south of Death Valley. He would multiply their numbers, adding camel colts and a gaunt, white leader with a bell tinkling at his shaggy neck.
"I guess that'll be poor!" said Pete to himself as he tossed a sheet of paper into the maw of his typewriter. He clattered into print as follows:
"Yesterday Thomas Smith, better known as Honest Tom, an aged desert prospector who has spent forty years of his life in search of the Peg-leg Mine, returned from a trip to the Panamint country with a marvelous tale which has caused a flare of excitement in every desert camp between"—here Pete took another look at the map—"between Yermo and Ivanpah. Mr. Smith, when seen at the residence of his sister, on Olive Street——"
And then three thousand words about the wild camels.
James Montague, producing director for the Titan Company and author of many famous scenarios, was not a boastful man, but he often remarked that all he needed was a start.
"Plots come easy to me," he explained. "Give me the germ of an idea and I'll coax it along until I get a picture out of it. Start me to thinking along a certain line and the plot unfolds without any trouble. The tough part of it is to get started on something new."
Since the germ of the idea gave him the most trouble Jimmy sought it everywhere. Frequently the monthly magazines furnished inspiration. Montague was no pirate, and he knew too much about the copyright law to lay his company liable for damages, but he was an artist at borrowing something which the author would never miss and transforming it into something which he would never recognize. The daily newspapers also gave many valuable hints and Jimmy read them religiously.
On a Monday morning Montague arrived at the studio, brimming over with enthusiasm. He patted the office boy on the back, smiled at the telephone girl, and shouted a greeting at Buck Parvin, who was sunning himself in the back yard outside the studio.
"That means trouble," remarked Buck to Ben Leslie, the property man. "Any time Jim comes in so brash on a Monday morning, look out. He's thought of something new and all his new stunts are hard. That feller ain't ever real happy unless he's cranking up trouble for us poor actors."
"Poor is the right word," said Leslie sarcastically, "though I don't know as I'd go so far as to say actor. If they make 'em any poorer than you are, Buck, I never saw any. Too darned bad about you overworked Thespians! You lead a dog's life for a fact; nothing to do but lay around in the sun and get fat. Now if you had my job there might be some excuse for hollering. Jim rang me up at mid-night last night and rousted me out of bed, and what do you think he wanted?"
Buck shook his head.
"I wouldn't undertake to say what he'd want at any hour of the day or night. Elephants, maybe?"
"Pretty near as bad," said Ben. "He wanted to know if I could get him some more camels."
"More camels!" ejaculated Buck. "Why, the jumping Jee-rusalem! There's a lot of camels over at the animal farm now. Sharkey and Ole Blue——"
"And Betsy and Mame," finished Leslie. "You'd think that would be enough camels for a mess; but no, he wants more. So he drags me out of the hay at midnight to tell me about it. Tom Platt never ought to have had the name of the Easy Boss. Jimmy Montague is it."
"But what does he want with camels?" asked Buck. "The last time I had to do a camel stunt Sharkey stumbled and heaved me forty feet. That old feller can't get out of a walk without stepping on his upper lip. A white man was never intended to ride one of them biscuit-footed outrages, Ben."
"That's me, " said Leslie. "I wouldn't keep a camel in my back yard if I had room for a steamboat. I could arrange to stand it if I never got another pleasant look from one as long as I live. Nix on that ship-of-the-desert stuff for mine."
"I'd ship 'em all to the desert if it was up to me," said Buck. "What kind of a song and dance did you give Jim?"
"What do you think? I'm the property man for this outfit, ain't I? Jim Montague says to me: 'I want this and I want that; go get 'em'—and I do. That's what I'm paid for, and Jim hasn't stumped me yet, though he's had me worried a lot of times. This was easy. 'Oh, you want some more camels?' I says, just like that. 'I can get you camels in all sizes and colors, with one hump or two humps, as preferred. Will you have 'em delivered right away?' That's what I told him."
"Yes, but you can't make good," protested Buck.
"That's where the laugh comes in—I can," said Ben. "Ward Brothers' Circus is wintering at Santa Monica. Billy Ward has got camels to burn, eating their heads off and doing nothing. I can get anything Billy owns, from a hippopotamus to a red bandwagon. Him and me are as close as two fingers on one hand. Oh, I can get the camels, all right. Which kind of a camel would you prefer to ride. Buck, one hump or two?"
"I wouldn't wish to ride none of 'em, " said Buck. "I'd just as soon straddle the walking-beam of a ferryboat—yes, a heap sooner, because you can most generally tell where that's going. I get along with some animals first rate, but I couldn't waste any affection on a camel—not on a bet. That Selim elephant and me hit it off bully; he's almost human. I got a lot of respect for a lion. A lion has got his faults, but he's no hypocrite. He ain't your pal one minute and taking a swipe at you the next. A lion don't like you at no time whatever and you don't expect nothing from him, but a camel now, he's different. A camel has got a bad heart and a breath that would knock you down. I reckon I honeyed round that brute of a Sharkey for pretty near a month, feeding him and rubbing his nose and trying to make myself solid with him. As long as I kept my eye on him he was all right, but the first time I turned my head to spit—whoosh! and here he come. I busted the world's record for the standing jump, and I had to do it or Sharkey would have bit my ear off. Take it from me, Ben, a camel is just as deceitful and lowdown and ornery as he looks—and that's going some."
While this discussion was taking place James Montague, in his private office, was calling the animal farm, the moving-picture menagerie owned by the Titan Company.
"Girlie, get me Tim Kelly at the animal farm," said he.
"Something doing," said the operator behind her hand to the office boy. "Maybe he's thought of a way to use those alligators that Mr. Packard bought. They'd be lovely in a picture, and new stuff too. Hello! Just a minute, Mr. Kelly."
"That you, Tim?" said the director. "This is Jim talking. I tried to get you last night. Come over right away, will you?... Yes, a new animal stunt.... As soon as you can, then."
Ben Leslie was next summoned from the property room.
"How soon can you get those camels?" asked Montague.
"Any time," said Ben. "How many do you want?"
"All I can get."
"Nothing could be clearer than that," said Leslie calmly. "I'll get you camels till you can't rest. What's the stunt?"
"I'm going to make a real desert picture. We've been fooling along, using a dry river-bed and a sandpile for a desert and getting away with it, when we might just as well give 'em the real thing, with the desert itself for a background. I've got a picture in mind that'll have a lot of scenery in it, and when I get through I dare anybody to say that it wasn't made in the Sahara. We can ship a couple of carloads of camels to one of the little desert towns, hop out and make the stuff and be back inside of three days. It won't cost much, but we'll get a desert picture that will have atmosphere and color and—all that stuff. By the way, Ben, where are you going to get those camels? From Ward's circus!"
"Sure thing. Billy Ward has got a whole slew of camels—more camels than anything else. Did you ever see that big white dromedary that leads the bunch in the street parade? That's old Aladdin, and take it from me he's some camel."
"A white camel!" exclaimed Montague. "You don't say so!"
"But I do say so. Maybe they doped him up with peroxide or something, but he's the whitest camel you ever saw."
"That's a queer coincidence," said Montague. "Look at this."
He drew out a copy of the Sunday supplement of a local paper and spread it open upon the desk. The artist, collaborating with Pete, had produced a riot of camels across seven columns, and the flying leader was an immense white brute with a single hump. Above the illustration was a flaring line in large type:
Guided by Ghostly Leader
Wild Camels Invade the Southland
"Holy cat!" ejaculated Leslie. "If that ain't a ringer for old Aladdin I'll eat him!"
"Do you think Billy Ward will let us have him?"
"Of course. He'll come in mighty handy too, because these circus camels have been trained to follow him just like sheep. Wherever Aladdin goes the bunch will go. That'll save you a lot of trouble."
"Lovely!" said Montague. "Think of the effect we can get with a silhouette run, pulled off against the skyline, that old white fellow in front and all the others trailing him! We can use a telescopic lens and catch 'em as far away as a mile. That'll give us a chance to ring in a big stretch of desert for a foreground. Stain the film for a sunset glow and that'll be poor, eh?"
"It ought to make a swell picture," said Ben, "but there's one thing you mustn't overlook. Somebody has got to ride Aladdin, and you'd better pick the right man for the job. Jack La Rue is all right on a horse, but he's pretty rough with livestock, and a camel won't stand to be yanked round the way Jack yanks a horse. Billy Ward was telling me about Aladdin; he's awful touchy, and they have to handle him just so or he gets peeved and won^t work. Far be it from me to butt in, Jim, but Billy Ward is going to hold me responsible for those camels and particularly Aladdin. Billy thinks more of that old white rascal than anything in the show, and he'd never forgive me if something happened to him. If you let La Rue do the riding he'll get impatient, the way he always does, and boot Aladdin in the slats a few times, and the first thing you know there'll be camels scattered forty ways and it won't be any picnic to round 'em up again. If it was up to me, Jim, I'd put the best rider in the company on Aladdin."
"How about Buck?" asked Montague.
"That's the man I'd pick," said the treacherous Leslie.
"I'll fix it up," said the director, eager to be at work upon the new scenario. "You go and make arrangements with Billy Ward. We'll pay him anything in reason, but we must have that white camel. If he wants to send his own animal man along he can. Better dig up a few camel saddles while you're about it, and if Ward has got any Arab costumes, grab 'em."
"They're as good as grabbed," said Ben. "I'm off."
"What's the dope?" asked Buck, following Leslie into the property room.
"I don't know what the picture is going to be," said Ben, "but if you'll show me your hand I'll tell your fortune."
"Shoot!" grinned Buck, extending his palm.
"Ah! See this line here? That's a journey, Buck. You're going away from here—on a railroad train. Somewhere on the trip you'll meet an animal.... It looks like a camel.... By golly! It is a camel.... A white camel with a black heart and one hump.... I see you riding that camel, Buck.... My, oh, my! Look at all those little crisscross wrinkles! They mean trouble. You won't like that camel and he won't like you. You'll have an accident. You and that white camel are going to get into a jam of some kind——"
"You see these?" demanded Buck, doubling up his fist and patting his knuckles. "See these four little lumps? They mean trouble, too, and you're going to run your eye into 'em if I find out that you've framed this camel thing on me. You big long-legged scarecrow! I reckon you and Jim put your heads together and fixed up a job."
"Nothing like that," said Leslie. "It's fate for you and that white camel to meet. Furthermore, I'll state that I know that camel personally and he's the meanest camel that ever dipped his face into a bale of hay. The man who takes care of him wears shinguards and a baseball mask."
"Is that on the square?" asked Buck anxiously.
"Everything is on the square but the camel, and he never was on the square in his life. You ask any circus man about Aladdin. They all know him. The old sucker has got a reputation for pure cussedness that reaches from one end of the country to the other."
"He's bad, is he?"
"Bad? Why, say, a Bengal tiger is a gentleman and a scholar and a sucking dove beside him! You're always blowing about what a great rough rider you are, and here's where you show me. If you take my tip you'll wear a suit of armor and put shock absorbers in your hip pockets."
"Uh-huh," said Buck slowly. "I get you on the shock absorbers, but why the armor, Ben?"
"Oh, nothing, only this Aladdin bites like a wolf."
There was an ominous silence, during which Buck rolled a cigarette. When he spoke his voice was soft as silk and his manner almost apologetic.
"You been kind enough to tell me what's going to happen to me," said Buck, "so I'll tell you what's going to happen to you. If this camel friend of yours bites me and I find it out you get some shock absorbers fitted to your jawbone because that's where you'll need 'em. As to my riding, I don't know as I blow so terrible much. I claim I can set up in the middle of anything that has to light on the ground once in a while. I'll ride this Aladdin camel, you can bet on that, but if he bites me watch out for yourself. And if you think anything of him at all you better breathe it in his ear that it won't be healthy for him to grab no free lunch off Buck Parvin. As a general thing I aim to be kind to dumb animals, but a feller has got to draw the line somewhere, as Doc Bowen said when he found the skunk in his kitchen. Being camel-bit is the extreme tip of the limit with me, and if your friend Aladdin starts anything coarse I'll whang him over the head with the butt of my gun. Yes, I'll hang a couple on his eyebrow that he won't be able to wipe off in a hurry. And after I've learned him manners I'll run you plumb breathless for wishing him on to me. You sabe that, amigo?"
The Occidental Limited, eastbound from Los Angeles to Chicago, clicked over the rails at an average speed of forty miles an hour, a wheeled palace flying through the heart of the desert. The lone tourist on the observation platform stared at the two shining lines of steel, rippling away toward the horizon straight as the leveled finger of God. On either side of the roadbed there was nothing but sand and sagebrush, sloping gently upward to the distant mountains, grim, saw-toothed ridges of rock, bare and brown and without a sign of verdure.
"What a frightful country!" sighed the tourist.
"Huh!" said the brakeman. "You ought to see her in July."
"I don't believe I'd care to," said the tourist, rising. "Have you read the Sunday paper?"
"Saw it this morning," said the brakeman. The tourist threw his newspaper overboard and went inside to get a cooling drink. We need not follow him, our business being with the newspaper, settling to rest in the sand beside the track.
Three days later a wrinkled little old man passed that way, urging a pair of heavily laden burros before him.
"Well, well!" he cackled, slapping his knees. "Look here, Jimmy, at what we've found! A newspaper as sure as you're born! Ain't been here long or it would have got sunburned. Yes, sir, it's fresh! Somebody must have throwed it off the train. You reckon they knew we'd be along about this time? We'll have to read all about what's going on outside, won't we, Jimmy? Yes, sir, you sure said an armful then; we'll read her from kiver to kiver. Ain't she a whopper though? Colored pictures too. Don't it beat the Dutch how they think up things to fill the newspapers, Jimmy? Don't it though?"
Still mumbling and talking to himself, the old man thrust the paper in among his cooking utensils and prodded his shaggy little beasts into motion. His course was not a direct one, for he picked up bits of rock here and there and made wide detours to examine every new gully-worn by the winter rains, for Uncle Jimmy Belcher was a prospector.
The desert, they say, claims one man out of every three who visit it. There is an indefinable charm in its far horizons and crystal-clear atmosphere, a mysterious lure in its wonderful starlit nights. Little by little the desert absorbs the chosen one and, when it has put its seal upon him, forgets him, for he is safe. He will never be content anywhere else and if he "goes inside" he will be forced to return. He is a desert rat for life.
Uncle Jimmy Belcher was seventy years old, but he looked younger in spite of his wrinkles and sun-dried appearance. His limbs were still spry and every tooth in his head was sound.
"How come I ain't lost no teeth," said Uncle Jimmy once when questioned upon the subject. "Because I scour 'em with gunpowder twice a week reg'lar as clockwork. That's a trick I learned from the Sioux Injuns when I was soldierin' on the plains with old Crook. You never see an Injun with the toothache, did ye? No, and you won't either. And then I use a plenty of eating tobacker and that preserves the gums."
Uncle Jimmy made an early camp. He unpacked his burros, built a fire of sagebrush and set about preparing his evening meal. As he was squatting over the frying-pan, watching the bacon, the faint yelp of a coyote floated down from the hills, each quavering note as distinct as the trill of a meadow-lark. Uncle Jimmy shook his fist at the gathering darkness.
"Oh, I knowed you was out there somewhere!" he said with the air of one resuming an ancient controversy. "I was expecting you to tune up about now. You ain't fooled me none. You and your grandfathers before you have been a-setting round watching me nights and singing to me, but you ain't got me yet and you never will. I'm going to fool you. I ain't going to die on the desert; I'm going to die in a bed, I am, and be planted six feet deep in a sure-enough graveyard. Then what'll you do, hey? Sing, you son-of-a-gun! I hear ye!"
After supper Uncle Jimmy piled fresh fuel on the fire, spread his blankets and settled himself to read the newspaper. The colored cover of the Sunday supplement attracted his attention and he turned the pages to look at the pictures.
"Hello!" he said. "Jimmy, them are camels, ain't they? "Why, sure they're camels! Is it a circus maybe! We'll have to look into this!"
He began to read, spelling out the long words, and a puzzled frown nested between his bushy eyebrows.
"This is coming pretty close home, Jimmy," he muttered. "Yes, sir, pretty close home. 'Thomas Smith, better known as Honest Tom, an aged desert prospector.' Honest Tom—we don't know no such feller as that, do we? There's Shorty Smith and Baldy Smith—— Hold on! Baldy's dead. And ole Zack Smith; we know all them, Jimmy, but Honest Tom No, he 's surely a new one on us! And it says he's been here forty years! Well, ain't that sing'lar! If we hadn't seen it in the paper we never would have believed it, would we, Jimmy? No, I reckon not. We thought we knew all the old-timers too. Just goes to show what a mighty big place this desert is. Room enough for all. Oh, well, maybe he hung out up round Moharvey."
A few moments later Uncle Jimmy grunted aloud and moved closer to the fire. This is what he read:
How long Mr. Smith slept he does not know. He found himself sitting bolt upright beside the ashes of his camp fire, his revolver in his hand. The sky was filled with drifting clouds. The moon had risen and the faraway mountain peaks were flooded with silver. The desert itself was bathed in a soft mellow light, so strong that a moving object was plainly visible at a distance of one hundred yards——
"Hah!" said Uncle Jimmy. "Been on the desert forty years and can't see no further than that—by moonlight? We could see a horny toad turn over as far off as that the darkest night that ever shone, couldn't we, Jimmy?"' He returned to his reading:
Sitting thus, with every nerve strained and every faculty alert, Smith became aware of a faint tinkling sound as of a bell at a great distance. Turning his head to the east he made out a white object which seemed to be moving in his direction. The white object came nearer and Smith was able to distinguish several dark ones behind it. There was no sound save the faint tinkling of the bell. The prospector's first thought was of strayed cattle, but he soon dismissed that explanation as improbable.
Swinging steadily forward at an even gait, the ghostly leader bore down upon Smith's camp. Towering gaunt and spectral in the half-light, it might have been a creature from another world. There was menace in its silent advance, a threat in the shadowy shapes which trooped behind it.
The moon passed behind a cloud, and when it shone out again in all its brilliancy a gigantic white camel loomed above the ashes of the fire. Smith declares that the brute was so close that he saw the whites of its eyes and the tiny silver bell around its neck.
Another stride and the prospector would have been crushed, but the instinct of self-preservation intervened. Leaping to his feet. Smith emptied his revolver in the air. With a snort and a bellow the white camel veered to the south, disappearing at incredible speed. The other camels followed their leader and Smith narrowly escaped death under the flying hoofs of the frantic creatures. Long after the desert had swallowed them up he heard the tinkling of the bell.... Smith says that he did not count the camels, but, judging by the tracks in the sand, he is convinced that there were no less than thirty full-grown animals in the herd.
Uncle Jimmy dropped the paper and drew a long breath.
"Goshamighty!" he said. "Thirty full-growed camels all in a bunch! Running loose and rampaging round nights too! Why, Jimmy, it's getting so that it's dangerous to be safe, ain't it? Don't you reckon we better go hobble them jacks so they won't get stampeded! Yes, sir, let's go do that very thing! Camels on the desert! Seems to me the Gover'ment had some of 'em down in Arizony once. Maybe it's the same bunch, but how in thunder did they get across the Colorado River! Hey? S'pose they do come hiking along, are we a-going to lay still like a hoptoad and let a white camel tromp the eternal gizzard out of us? Not if we see him first, we ain't. That would be a fine finish, wouldn't it? The coyotes would get us for sure, then, wouldn't they, Jimmy? Yes, they would for a fact. Are we going to be run over by a whole damn circus parade and not have nothing to say about it? We're just full of them tricks, ain't we, Jimmy? We'd begin shooting before that, wouldn't we? Why, to be sure! And we didn't shoot none in the air when we was with old man Crook, did we?"
Three hours later the old man was still mumbling by the fire, but he was not reading the paper. He was polishing an ancient service revolver, which he patted lovingly and addressed as "Sitting Bull."
"Now, then, let 'em bring on their white camels!" said he as he slipped the heavy weapon back in its holster. "Let 'em come any hour of the day or night and we're hooked for 'em. Are we going to be run out of this country by a stray menagerie? No, sir; we was here first, wasn't we, Jimmy? We ain't a-going to be stampeded by nothing, not while old Sitting Bull can spit a mouthful of lead!"
He stretched himself upon his blankets and closed his eyes. Once more the unseen coyote lifted his querulous plaint.
"Yes, I s'pose you're in with 'em," murmured Uncle Jimmy sleepily, "but it won't get ye nothing. The camel that tries to ketch us asleep better not wear no bell. You wait round a while and you'll find out how camel meat tastes!"
A special train of three cars twisted its way up the Cajon Pass, the big ten-wheeler coughing over the steep grade. One of the cars was a Pullman sleeper; the others bore the red and gilt of Ward Brothers' Circus.
In the Pullman the members of the Titan Company amused themselves in various ways. Myrtle Manners, the leading woman, read a novel and munched chocolates. Jack La Rue, the leading man, scowled out of the window at the scenery and said unflattering things about realism when carried to extremes. Charlie Dupree, the camera man, pretended to listen to him, but was really much more interested in a take-up box that needed repairing. In the drawing room, with the door locked against intruders, Jimmy Montague, author, director and sometimes actor, wrestled with his desert scenario, a delicate little figment of the imagination introducing love, jealousy, treachery, hate, and a few other human emotions besides battle, murder, sudden death and camels, but particularly camels. At the other end of the car a lively poker game was in session. Buck Parvin, shin in his hands and an unlighted cigarette depending from his lower lip, watched the shifting chips apathetically.
"Why don't you set in and do yourself some good?" asked Ben Leslie.
"I couldn't pay the first installment on a postage stamp."
"Broke! What did you do with that fifty-dollar bonus?"
Buck yawned and stretched.
"Easy come, easy go, as the soldier boy said when he blowed his month's pay in one night—the whole thirteen bucks."
"Did you see that white camel?" inquired Ben.
"Uh-huh. I give him the once-over when they loaded him into the car. You've been slandering that ole boy. He went aboard like a lamb."
"He always does," said Ben, "but that ain't saying he'll unload like one. Has Jim told you anything about the stunt yet?"
Buck nodded and lighted his cigarette.
"I'm the fair-haired boy in this picture," said he. "I got the part of the villain. So far as I can make out from what Jim tells me, I'm jealous of La Rue. That's why I steal the camels and leave Jack and Myrtle afoot in the desert and forty miles from water. Jim has got a fool notion about using a telescope lens and getting a picture of me beating it, with the entire bunch strung out behind single file. It can't be done. How am I going to herd them camels in a straight line, I ask you?"
"That'll be easy," said Leslie. "Just ride Aladdin and the others will follow."
"Well, I'll ride him all right," said Buck boastfully. "He don't look like no Bengal tiger to me."
"Wait," said Ben quietly. "He hasn't started yet."
"He better not start with me," remarked Buck. "I got my ole smoke-pole along and the first time Mr. Aladdin gets fresh—whang! right on the crust. I'll tame him or cave in his roof!"
Daggett is a sleepy little town on the edge of the desert, where sensations are few and far between. The arrival of the Titan special was a great event to the elderly gentlemen sun-drying themselves in front of the general store, and several of them mustered up sufficient ambition to walk across to the sidetrack where the camels were being prodded down a cattle chute into a corral.
"Is this a circus, mister?" asked one of them.
"Not yet," said Ben Leslie, his eye upon Aladdin, who was being coaxed down the chute by Tim Kelly and three men from the animal farm. "Not yet, but stick around, old timer. The show is liable to start at any time."
A weatherbeaten native stood beside the corral, leaning his elbows upon the top rail. He was industriously chewing tobacco and the movements of his jaw were communicated to his patriarchal white beard, which hung down inside the fence, waving gently like a flag of truce.
Aladdin, his feet on solid ground once more, blew a long whistling breath through his nostrils and sidled along the barrier, soft-footed as a cat, the very picture of innocence. As he came abreast of the tobacco chewer his white neck darted out with the speed of a striking snake, there was a flash of yellow teeth, a savage click and the native leaped backward with a scream in which acute pain, astonishment and rage were mingled. Aladdin continued on his way, his eyes half closed as if in meditation. Several wisps of white hair hung from the corner of his mouth.
"Where's the town marshal!" howled the outraged citizen. "That there white cam-u-el bit the whiskers right off my face! I'll sue your show for damages!"
"Ye'll sue nothing," said the alert Tim Kelly. "Kape yer whishkers on the right side of the fence. Ye had no business tor-r-mentin' the poor dumb baste wid the sight of so much alfalfa!"
The laugh which this sally raised was short lived. A terrific hubbub arose in one corner of the corral. Aladdin had discovered Sharkey and was resenting the latter's presence with every means at his command. The animal farm attendants leaped into the squealing, bubbling melee and at last succeeded in forcing Aladdin into a neutral corner, where he remained quivering with rage. Buck Parvin was a pop-eyed spectator.
"Thunder and guns!" he murmured. "He pulled enough whiskers out of that old guy's face to stuff a sofa pillow!"
"Yes, and he came within an ace of getting his nose," said Ben Leslie pleasantly. "Did you bring that suit of armor?"
"No," said Buck, "I didn't, but I've got something just as good." He patted a suspicious bulge over his right hip. "If you think I'm going to let that white hyena bite me and get away without a receipt for it you're crazy. Acting is one thing, but being cannibalized by a camel is another. I declare myself right now, and it goes too. If that brute bites me I'll get him!"
"You better not hurt that camel," warned Leslie.
"Huh!" grunted Buck. "Put it the other way round. That camel better not hurt me."
An hour later a strange procession passed down the single street and out into the desert, headed by James Montague and Jack La Rue, the former in his shirtsleeves and the latter in a flowing white burnoose and sandals. Most of the actors appeared in costume, but Buck Parvin carried his burnoose over his arm and his sandals in his pocket.
Behind the members of the company came the camels, escorted by Tim Kelly and his assistants from the animal farm, also in burnooses. Aladdin stalked in front, a competent hand upon his bridle, and a rickety express wagon brought up the rear, loaded with "props." Ben Leslie was on the seat with the driver. Behind the wagon trooped the entire population of Daggett, silent and curious.
"Look here, Jim, do I work with that white camel?" demanded La Rue.
"You don't have to ride him, if that's what you mean; but he's in some scenes with you."
"Those scenes will have to be cut out," said La Rue with firmness.
"What's the matter now, Jack? More artistic temperament?"
"No, common sense. That white camel is vicious, Jim. You saw what he did to that old man. You haven't any right to ask an actor to take a chance with a savage brute like that. Suppose he disfigures some one for life?"
"But he won't bite you," soothed Montague.
"That camel will bite anybody!" snapped the leading man. "I'll quit the company before I'll work in a scene with him. I don't want to get my chin bit off, Jim."
"But, confound it, we've got to use him!" stormed Montague. "He's the bull-cow of the herd. They'll all follow him!"
"They will, eh?" La Rue stopped and tossed the hood of his burnoose back over his shoulders. "Wait a second, I've got an idea."
"It'll die of lonesomeness," was the sarcastic rejoinder.
"See how this strikes you," urged La Rue. "The way the picture is doped out now. Buck is one of our own people and he gets up in the night and steals the camels out of jealousy. That's always good stuff for a heavy, but it doesn't make enough use of the white camel. Why not have Buck a sort of a desert thief? He owns this white camel, see? The brute has a peculiar influence over other camels—they follow him the same as if they're hypnotized. Buck knows about this white camel's power, and——"
"I've got it!" cried Montague, suddenly inspired. "You've struck a great idea there and you don't know what to do with it. It'll change the whole picture, but it's worth it. I'll play the heavy—Buck can't do it. He can double me in the riding scenes. I'm a Bedouin chief, sort of an outlaw. Poor as Job's turkey, but I've got this white camel. You're a rich trader and we're both in love with Myrtle. I steal the camels from your caravan because I want to get you out of the way—want you to die on the desert. I come riding by at night on my white camel and your camels get up and follow him. Great moonlight effect there—film stained blue—camels kneeling in the foreground—tents behind them—lovely! In the morning you start out with your party to walk to the nearest water—we'll have to dope out some excuse for your not having any. Oh, yes, I can empty the barrels before I steal the camels. We'll make a lot of scenes of you and Myrtle on the desert, after the others have all died one by one. You get weaker and weaker and finally give up in despair. Then we cut to the tents again. I come back on foot to see how much merchandise has been left behind. On the ground I find a shawl—the same one that I give Myrtle in an earlier scene. See the punch developing, Jack? I didn't know that Myrtle was with you and all at once I realize that in trying to put you out of the way I've condemned her to death as well. A great chance for some real acting there, what! I go crazy with grief and the old R. E. Morse thing and rush out on foot to find her."
"Why all this 'on-foot' stuff? asked La Rue suspiciously.
"For the sake of the finish! I find you in the nick of time; I see that you're the one she loves. Big renunciation scene. I give you my water bottle and her my farewell blessing and die of thirst while you make a getaway with the girl. How's that?"
"Fine—for you!" growled La Rue. "That ain't a heavy; that's a lead. I give you the idea and you hog the picture!"
Montague did not hear him. He was already dismantling his scenario and rebuilding it along other lines.
"The first thing we'll make is the silhouette run," said Montague to Tim Kelly. "I want to test the camels on this following stunt. That ridge over there is the very place to pull it."
"Good enough," said the chief animal man, "but I misdoubt whether our camels will follow this white man-eater."
"We'll have enough without our four," said Montague.
The saddling of Aladdin was not accomplished without bloodshed. One of the attendants relaxed his vigilance for an instant and suffered a painful nip on the shoulder.
"Aisy!" said Tim Kelly. "I've been told that Billy Ward starves his livestock and I belave it."
"Now, Buck," said Montague, "I want you to ride over about half a mile and then turn and go straight along that ridge against the skyline. The other camels will follow, so you won't have to worry about them. I'll keep these people back out of the way so there won't be anybody within half a mile of you to make Aladdin nervous. Take your time about it and finish with a run."
"I'll do my best, Jim," said Buck, whose eyes were fixed upon the attendant's shoulder; "but I warn you, if this camel bites me his name is mud. I'll get him sure!"
"Rats! You talk like a child! Keep your legs back out of the way and he can't hurt you."
"The deuce he can't!" sneered Buck. "He's got a neck made out of rubber!"
"All set!" said Tim Kelly. "The noble ship o' the desert is ready to sail."
Three men held Aladdin's head while Buck swung himself between the high horns of the camel saddle and thrust his sandals into the stirrups.
"Better say good-by to us, folks," he called. "One of us might not come back. Leggo of his head. Hup, you!"
Aladdin heaved himself to his feet with a racking series of convulsions, whistled through his nostrils, shook his head from side to side, made a futile though earnest attempt to reach one of Buck's knees and then lumbered forward, the circus camels following in his wake.
"Fine!" said the director. "Charlie, be ready to catch 'em as soon as they straighten out along the ridge. Get as much of the foreground as you can and mighty little sky."
"Even so," said the camera man.
"Buck doesn't seem to be having any trouble, " remarked Montague. "It's the first time I ever knew him to kick about a riding stunt. Said he'd kill the camel if he got bit."
"Oh, well," said Leslie reassuringly, "you know how Buck is. He wouldn't hurt a fly, but he likes to talk."
The string of camels grew small in the distance, turned at a right angle and swung up the ridge, the white leader plodding along at a sedate pace.
"That's the stuff!" said Montague. "They ought to be moving a little faster than that though. Why doesn't he hurry 'em up a little?"
Evidently the same idea occurred to Buck, for he was seen to flap his elbows and kick Aladdin violently in the ribs. The white neck curved backward in protest and at the same instant the camel made a mighty leap, lurched in his stride and fell headlong. Before his knees crumpled under him the other camels were in full flight, and the wind bore the short, crashing report of a heavy revolver.
"He shot him! Buck shot him!" yelled Ben Leslie, starting to run.
The population of Daggett surged forward like a wave.
"Out of the picture! Keep out of the picture!" bellowed Montague.
"Too late," said the imperturbable Dupree. "Ben spilled the beans. He cut across in front just as the camels started to scatter."
All things considered, it was a very complete case of circumstantial evidence.
Ben Leslie and Jimmy Montague, distancing the field and finishing a stride apart, found Aladdin dead upon the ground with a ragged hole in the side of his head. Buck Parvin, a trifle white about the lips, was sitting beside the body of the camel, examining an ugly wound below his right knee.
"You fool! What did you shoot him for?" panted Leslie.
"Me?" said Buck blankly. "I never did no such thing! I was booting him to make him run and he reached round and took a chunk out of my leg. Just as he got me—Pow! and down he goes like a landslide! I lit on my head and was sort of knocked silly for a minute, and when I came to I looked all round, but I couldn't see a thing. That's straight goods."
Montague shook his head.
"It sounds fishy to me. You said you'd do it if he bit you. Let me see that gun!"
Buck handed over his weapon with a sickly grin.
"Jim," said he, "I was only bluffing about that; honest, I was. I'm telling you right; I didn't shoot him and I don't know who did."
By this time the audience was arriving. The citizens of Daggett surrounded the dead camel and filled the air with ejaculations and profane comment.
"He said one of 'em mightn't come back!"
"Don't look like he'd bite anybody else in a hurry."
"Deader'n a nit!"
"Camels is expensive critters, ain't they?"
"Been me, I'd just banged him on the head with the butt. No need to kill him. Shame, I say!"
"Loaded with cartridges," said Montague, "and one empty."
"Well, I can explain that," said Buck, looking about him at a circle of accusing faces. "I loaded her because I thought I might get a shot at a coyote or something. When she's loaded I always carry her with the trigger on an empty. She's safest that way. Jim, on the level, you don't think I shot that poor ole camel, do you? Ben, you know I wouldn't do a trick like that, no matter how bad he bit me. I was just talking, that's all; I——"
"There's no need for you to talk any more, Parvin," said the director. "You've killed an animal that was worth a lot of money and you've ruined a fine picture. You're through, so far as working with this company is concerned."
"Canned, am I?" Buck rose and stripped off the burnoose, which he threw on the ground at Montague's feet. "Seems to me, Jim, we've worked together long enough for you to give me the benefit of the doubt. No!"
He laughed recklessly.
"Oh, well, it's all in a lifetime, I reckon. The truth ain't good enough for some people. You might do me one favor though: Keep that gun till you get cooled out and sensible, and then let any of these old-timers tell you whether she's been fired lately."
Montague turned on his heel without a word or a look.
Buck was left alone with Aladdin. He looked down at the sprawling legs and the grotesquely twisted neck and shook his head.
"You poor ole son-of-a-gun!" said Buck. "I didn't like a bone in your head and I talked rough to you, but I wouldn't have bushwhacked you like this!"
The desert moon shone down on two men sitting upon a baggage truck in front of the depot.
"It's too good an idea to waste," said Montague. "Of course it won't be quite as effective without the white camel, but the picture can be worked out some other way. It's up to us to make as much as we can out of the trip. What do you think Ward will soak us for Aladdin?"
"Enough," said Ben Leslie, "and he'll probably want to kill me. Billy thought a lot of that white camel."
"Have you seen Buck?"
"Yes. He's down at the saloon, telling his troubles and waiting for the midnight train. I lent him ten dollars and then he offered to kick me."
"Still denying it, is he?"
"Absolutely! That was why he wanted to fight. You know, Jim, it ain't like Buck to lie, and he sticks to it that somebody else fired the shot."
"No chance!" said Montague. "Didn't he say he'd kill the camel if he bit him? Didn't he have an empty shell in his gun? If anybody else was round there, why didn't we see him?"
"Good evening, gentlemen!" piped a thin voice. A small figure approached, coming from the direction of the corrals. "Here's Uncle Jimmy back again! The coyotes ain't got him yet and they never will—— Oh, excuse me! I didn't notice you was strangers!"
"That's all right," said Leslie carelessly. "How're you making it?"
"Fair," said Uncle Jimmy. "Fair to middlin'. Can't complain. I still got my jacks and my outfit, and that'll be enough to bury me when the time comes. Just got back from a trip. I see they captured them wild camels; got a whole corral full of 'em over yonder."
"Wild camels?" said Montague, suddenly interested.
"Why, yes, wasn't you readin' about them wild camels in the newspapers!" The little old man cackled and slapped his knees. "By jocks, they never would have got 'em if it hadn't been for me! Yes, sir, they got Uncle Jimmy to thank for that job!"
Ben Leslie nudged Montague.
"What job was that?"
"Why, rounding up them camels," said Uncle Jimmy, sitting down upon the baggage truck. "You see, I was warned about 'em. Out here about a week ago I picked up a newspaper and there was a whole page in it about them camels. It seems they had a leader, a big white feller, and he used to roam round nights trying to find somebody to tromp on. Come awful clost to getting a feller named Tom Smith. I knowed there was only one thing to do and that was to keep my eye peeled for that white camel, him being the leader and havin' it in for prospectors, as you might say. I was afraid he'd come loping along some night, flatten me out like a flapjack and leave me for the coyotes. I got so I'd set up waiting for him, but nothing come of it.
"When I got pretty clost to town I figgered that I was safe and sort of forgot about them wild camels. This afternoon I was out here a ways, the other side of a little rise of ground, following up some float. My jacks was over about a mile away in a draw. All of a sudden I heard a noise and I looked up—I was on my hands and knees, gentlemen—and there was that white camel right on top of me! Yes, sir, and what's more there was a ghost ridin' him—I seen him as plain as I see you."
"And so you're the——" Montague stopped, for Leslie nudged him again.
"Don't you see he's crazy?" whispered Ben. "Let him talk! Go on, old-timer. You saw the camel and the ghost riding him. What did you do then?"
"Why, gentlemen," said Uncle Jimmy, "I grabbed for ole Sitting Bull—that's the gun I had when I was fightin' Injuns with Crook—and I cut her loose and down he came like a thousand of brick. I don't rightly know what happened after that because it just rained camels all round me. There must have been a million of 'em and they come from everywhere! I knowed they was after me for shooting that white leader, and I bet no jackrabbit could have out-run me gettin' away from there. Yes, sir, I certainly sifted some sand——"
Ben Leslie chuckled and leaped from the truck, disappearing in the direction of the saloon. Uncle Jimmy paused, startled.
"I might have knowed nobody would believe me," said he. "But I didn't dream it, else how come they to have a whole corral full of camels over yonder? And the thing that gets me is where did all them people come from so quick! I looked back once and——"
Sounds of argument came out of the darkness.
"You leggo my arm, Ben Leshlie!" said a thick voice. "You ain't no frien' of mine! You said I shot poor ol' 'Laddin—you said it and Montague said it. I never hurt dumb alimal my whole life! Leggo my arm!"
"It's all right, Buck!" Ben's voice rang out cheerfully. "You didn't shoot him; it was an old nut of a prospector. We've got him over here at the depot."
"Wha—wha's that?" roared Buck, immediately militant. "You got him—fell'r shot 'Laddin? Killed that ol' white camel? Where is he? Show'm to me, Ben! We'll fix him!"
Uncle Jimmy Belcher slid off the baggage truck with surprising agility for one of his ripe years and backed swiftly away into the shade of the depot building, fumbling at his hip. Buck, coming up at a run and being in no condition to distinguish friend from foe, hurled himself upon Montague with a triumphant whoop.
"Here he is! Fetch a rope, Ben! Doggone you—you won't—murder no more—movin' pitcher— amelsh!" And at every other word he banged Montague's head upon the baggage truck.
Uncle Jimmy Belcher, pausing at the far end of the freight shed, heard the request for a rope and the uproar which followed it. He did not linger, but slipped inconspicuously round the corner and faded away in the direction of the corrals, Sitting Bull unlimbered for immediate action.
"Too darn much going on round here to suit us, Jimmy!" he wheezed. "What say we git our jacks and leave this fool town flat on its back? Yes, sir, let's do that! Too many camels and eediots in Daggett this evening! You reckon we better hurry some? Why, yes, Jimmy, you surely ain't forgot how to run, have you?"
"Well, o' course, Jim," said Buck, rocking unsteadily upon his high heels, but slightly sobered by violent exercise, "you've 'pologized to me and I've 'pologized to you and they ain't no more to be said. You fired me this afternoon for killin' a white camel and I bumped your head just now, and it turns out that we was both after another fell'r and he got away. You got a sore head and I got a sore leg. That makes us even. No hard feelings? Shake!"
"No hard feelings," said Montague, touching a lump back of his ear. "I'm sorry I accused you of shooting the camel, Buck, but the evidence——"
"She did look bad, for a fact!" said Buck magnanimously.
"You'd better go to bed now,'* advised Montague. "You've got a hard day's work ahead of you."
"I still got my li'l ol' job?" asked Buck.
"Yes, and to-morrow we'll pick out a camel that won't bite."
"Nothin' could be fairer than that—abs'looly!" said Buck, making a dignified exit upon the arm of Ben Leslie.
Jimmy Montague remained seated on the baggage truck, wrapped in thought. He was patching together the old, old hodge-podge of cause and effect.
"By golly!" said he at last, "I'd like to get my hands on the fellow who wrote that article about the wild camels! He's responsible for everything!"
Three shadowy figures slipped into the desert and headed toward the east. The faint night breeze carried a yelping, snarling chorus. Uncle Jimmy Belcher smiled as he whacked his burros with a barrel stave.
"Got a reg'lar camp meeting to-night, ain't you!" he cackled. "Well, you can thank me for it. Camel meat's pretty good, hey? Jimmy, what say we sleep out here somewhere? Why, seein' that they've got the rest of them wild camels hived up in a corral I reckon it would be safe enough. Yes, sir, this is the place for us—right out in the sand. We never did care much for city life nohow."