Whose Business is to Live by Jack London
Stanton Davies and Jim Wemple ceased from their talk to listen to an
increase of uproar in the street. A volley of stones thrummed and boomed
the wire mosquito nettings that protected the windows. It was a hot
night, and the sweat of the heat stood on their faces as they listened.
Arose the incoherent clamor of the mob, punctuated by individual cries
in Mexican-Spanish. Least terrible among the obscene threats were:
"Death to the Gringos!" "Kill the American pigs!" "Drown the American
dogs in the sea!"
Stanton Davies and Jim Wemple shrugged their shoulders patiently to each
other, and resumed their conversation, talking louder in order to make
themselves heard above the uproar.
"The question is how," Wemple said. "It's forty-seven miles to
Panuco, by river——"
"And the land's impossible, with Zaragoza's and Villa's men on the loot
and maybe fraternizing," Davies agreed.
Wemple nodded and continued: "And she's at the East Coast Magnolia, two
miles beyond, if she isn't back at the hunting camp. We've got to get
"We've played pretty square in this matter, Wemple," Davies said. "And
we might as well speak up and acknowledge what each of us knows the
other knows. You want her. I want her."
Wemple lighted a cigarette and nodded.
"And now's the time when it's up to us to make a show as if we didn't
want her and that all we want is just to save her and get her down
"And a truce until we do save her—I get you," Wempel affirmed.
"A truce until we get her safe and sound back here in Tampico, or aboard
a battleship. After that? ..."
Both men shrugged shoulders and beamed on each other as their hands met
Fresh volleys of stones thrummed against the wire-screened windows; a
boy's voice rose shrilly above the clamor, proclaiming death to the
Gringos; and the house reverberated to the heavy crash of some battering
ram against the street-door downstairs. Both men, snatching up automatic
rifles, ran down to where their fire could command the threatened door.
"If they break in we've got to let them have it," Wemple said.
Davies nodded quiet agreement, then inconsistently burst out with a
lurid string of oaths.
"To think of it!" he explained his wrath. "One out of three of those
curs outside has worked for you or me—lean-bellied, barefooted,
poverty-stricken, glad for ten centavos a day if they could only get
work. And we've given them steady jobs and a hundred and fifty centavos
a a day, and here they are yelling for our blood."
"Only the half breeds," Davies corrected.
"You know what I mean," Wemple replied. "The only peons we've lost are
those that have been run off or shot."
The attack on the door ceasing, they returned upstairs. Half a dozen
scattered shots from farther along the street seemed to draw away the
mob, for the neighborhood became comparatively quiet.
A whistle came to them through the open windows, and a man's voice
"Wemple! Open the door! It's Habert! Want to talk to you!"
Wemple went down, returning in several minutes with a tidily-paunched,
well-built, gray-haired American of fifty. He shook hands with Davies
and flung himself into a chair, breathing heavily. He did not relinquish
his clutch on the Colt's 44 automatic pistol, although he immediately
addressed himself to the task of fishing a filled clip of cartridges
from the pocket of his linen coat. He had arrived hatless and
breathless, and the blood from a stone-cut on the cheek oozed down his
face. He, too, in a fit of anger, springing to his feet when he had
changed clips in his pistol, burst out with mouth-filling profanity.
"They had an American flag in the dirt, stamping and spitting on it. And
they told me to spit on it."
Wemple and Davies regarded him with silent interrogation.
"Oh, I know what you're wondering!" he flared out. "Would I a-spit on it
in the pinch? That's what's eating you. I'll answer. Straight out, brass
tacks, I WOULD. Put that in your pipe and smoke it."
He paused to help himself to a cigar from the box on the table and to
light it with a steady and defiant hand.
"Hell!—I guess this neck of the woods knows Anthony Habert, and you can
bank on it that it's never located his yellow streak. Sure, in the
pinch, I'd spit on Old Glory. What the hell d'ye think I'm going on the
streets for a night like this? Didn't I skin out of the Southern Hotel
half an hour ago, where there are forty buck Americans, not counting
their women, and all armed? That was safety. What d'ye think I came here
for?—to rescue you?"
His indignation lumped his throat into silence, and he seemed shaken as
with an apoplexy.
"Spit it out," Davies commanded dryly.
"I'll tell you," Habert exploded. "It's Billy Boy. Fifty miles up
country and twenty-thousand throat-cutting federals and rebels between
him and me. D'ye know what that boy'd do, if he was here in Tampico and
I was fifty miles up the Panuco? Well, I know. And I'm going to do the
same—go and get him."
"We're figuring on going up," Wemple assured him.
"And that's why I headed here—Miss Drexel, of course?"
Both men acquiesced and smiled. It was a time when men dared speak of
matters which at other times tabooed speech.
"Then the thing's to get started," Habert exclaimed, looking at his
watch. "It's midnight now. We've got to get to the river and get a
But the clamor of the returning mob came through the windows in answer.
Davies was about to speak, when the telephone rang, and Wemple sprang to
"It's Carson," he interjected, as he listened. "They haven't cut the
wires across the river yet.—Hello, Carson. Was it a break or a cut? ...
Bully for you.... Yes, move the mules across to the potrero beyond
Tamcochin.... Who's at the water station? ... Can you still 'phone
him? ... Tell him to keep the tanks full, and to shut off the main to
Arico. Also, to hang on till the last minute, and keep a horse saddled
to cut and run for it. Last thing before he runs, he must jerk out the
'phone.... Yes, yes, yes. Sure. No breeds. Leave full-blooded Indians in
charge. Gabriel is a good hombre. Heaven knows, once we're chased
out, when we'll get back.... You can't pinch down Jaramillo under
twenty-five hundred barrels. We've got storage for ten days. Gabriel'll
have to handle it. Keep it moving, if we have to run it into the
"Ask him if he has a launch," Habert broke in.
"He hasn't," was Wemple's answer. "The federals commandeered the last
one at noon."
"Say, Carson, how are you going to make your get-away?" Wemple queried.
The man to whom he talked was across the Panuco, on the south side, at
the tank farm.
"Says there isn't any get-away," Wemple vouchsafed to the other two.
"The federals are all over the shop, and he can't understand why they
haven't raided him hours ago."
"... Who? Campos? That skunk! ... all right.... Don't be worried if you
don't hear from me. I'm going up river with Davies and Habert.... Use
your judgment, and if you get a safe chance at Campos, pot him.... Oh,
a hot time over here. They're battering our doors now. Yes, by all
means ... Good-by, old man."
Wemple lighted a cigarette and wiped his forehead.
"You know Campos, José H. Campos," he
volunteered. "The dirty cur's stuck Carson up
for twenty thousand pesos. We had to pay,
or he'd have compelled half our peons to enlist
or set the wells on fire. And you know,
Davies, what we've done for him in past years.
Gratitude? Simple decency? Great Scott!"
It was the night of April twenty-first. On the morning of the
twenty-first the American marines and bluejackets had landed at Vera
Cruz and seized the custom house and the city. Immediately the news was
telegraphed, the vengeful Mexican mob had taken possession of the
streets of Tampico and expressed its disapproval of the action of the
United States by tearing down American flags and crying death to the
There was nothing save its own spinelessness to deter the mob from
carrying out its threat. Had it battered down the doors of the Southern
Hotel, or of other hotels, or of residences such as Wemple's, a fight
would have started in which the thousands of federal soldiers in Tampico
would have joined their civilian compatriots in the laudable task of
decreasing the Gringo population of that particular portion of Mexico.
There should have been American warships to act as deterrents; but
through some inexplicable excess of delicacy, or strategy, or heaven
knows what, the United States, when it gave its orders to take Vera
Cruz, had very carefully withdrawn its warships from Tampico to the open
Gulf a dozen miles away. This order had come to Admiral Mayo by wireless
from Washington, and thrice he had demanded the order to be repeated,
ere, with tears in his eyes, he had turned his back on his countrymen
and countrywomen and steamed to sea.
"Of all asinine things, to leave us in the lurch this way!" Habert was
denouncing the powers that be of his country. "Mayo'd never have done
it. Mark my words, he had to take program from Washington. And here we
are, and our dear ones scattered for fifty miles back up country....
Say, if I lose Billy Boy I'll never dare go home to face the wife.—Come
on. Let the three of us make a start. We can throw the fear of God into
any gang on the streets."
"Come on over and take a squint," Davies invited from where he stood,
somewhat back from the window, looking down into the street.
It was gorged with rioters, all haranguing, cursing, crying out death,
and urging one another to smash the doors, but each hanging back from
the death he knew waited behind those doors for the first of the rush.
"We can't break through a bunch like that, Habert," was Davies' comment.
"And if we die under their feet we'll be of little use to Billy Boy or
anybody else up the Panuco," Wemple added. "And if——"
A new movement of the mob caused him to break off. It was splitting
before a slow and silent advance of a file of white-clad men.
"Bluejackets—Mayo's come back for us after all," Habert muttered.
"Then we can get a navy launch," Davies said.
The bedlam of the mob died away, and, in silence, the sailors reached
the street door and knocked for admittance. All three went down to open
it, and to discover that the callers were not Americans but two German
lieutenants and half a dozen German marines. At sight of the Americans,
the rage of the mob rose again, and was quelled by the grounding of the
rifle butts of the marines.
"No, thank you," the senior lieutenant, in passable English, declined
the invitation to enter. He unconcernedly kept his cigar alive at such
times that the mob drowned his voice. "We are on the way back to our
ship. Our commander conferred with the English and Dutch commanders; but
they declined to cooperate, so our commander has undertaken the entire
responsibility. We have been the round of the hotels. They are to hold
their own until daybreak, when we'll take them off. We have given them
rockets such as these.—Take them. If your house is entered, hold your
own and send up a rocket from the roof. We can be here in force, in
forty-five minutes. Steam is up in all our launches, launch crews and
marines for shore duty are in the launches, and at the first rocket we
"Since you are going aboard now, we should like to go with you," Davies
said, after having rendered due thanks.
The surprise and distaste on both lieutenants' faces was patent.
"Oh, no," Davies laughed. "We don't want refuge. We have friends fifty
miles up river, and we want to get to the river in order to go up after
The pleasure on the officers' faces was immediate as they looked a
silent conference at each other.
"Since our commander has undertaken grave responsibility on a night like
this, may we do less than take minor responsibility?" queried the elder.
To this the younger heartily agreed. In a trice, upstairs and down
again, equipped with extra ammunition, extra pistols, and a
pocket-bulging supply of cigars, cigarettes and matches, the three
Americans were ready. Wemple called last instructions up the stairway to
imaginary occupants being left behind, ascertained that the spring lock
was on, and slammed the door.
The officers led, followed by the Americans, the rear brought up by the
six marines; and the spitting, howling mob, not daring to cast a stone,
gave way before them.
As they came alongside the gangway of the cruiser, they saw launches and
barges lying in strings to the boat-booms, filled with men, waiting for
the rocket signal from the beleaguered hotels. A gun thundered from
close at hand, up river, followed by the thunder of numerous guns and
the reports of many rifles fired very rapidly.
"Now what's the Topila whanging away at?" Habert complained, then
joined the others in gazing at the picture.
A searchlight, evidently emanating from the Mexican gunboat, was
stabbing the darkness to the middle of the river, where it played upon
the water. And across the water, the center of the moving circle of
light, flashed a long, lean speedboat. A shell burst in the air a
hundred feet astern of it. Somewhere, outside the light, other shells
were bursting in the water; for they saw the boat rocked by the waves
from the explosions. They could guess the whizzing of the rifle bullets.
But for only several minutes the spectacle lasted. Such was the speed of
the boat that it gained shelter behind the German, when the Mexican
gunboat was compelled to cease fire. The speedboat slowed down, turned
in a wide and heeling circle, and ranged up alongside the launch at the
The lights from the gangway showed but one occupant, a tow-headed,
greasy-faced, blond youth of twenty, very lean, very calm, very much
satisfied with himself.
"If it ain't Peter Tonsburg!" Habert ejaculated, reaching out a hand to
shake. "Howdy, Peter, howdy. And where in hell are you hellbent for,
surging by the Topila in such scandalous fashion!"
Peter, a Texas-born Swede of immigrant parents, filled with the old
Texas traditions, greasily shook hands with Wemple and Davies as well,
saying "Howdy," as only the Texan born can say it.
"Me," he answered Habert. "I ain't hellbent nowhere exceptin' to get
away from the shell-fire. She's a caution, that Topila. Huh! but
I limbered 'em up some. I was goin' every inch of twenty-five. They was
like amateurs blazin' away at canvasback."
"Which Chill is it?" Wemple asked.
"Chill II," Peter answered. "It's all that's left. Chill I
a Greaser—you know 'm—Campos—commandeered this noon. I was runnin'
Chill III when they caught me at sundown. Made me come in under
their guns at the East Coast outfit, and fired me out on my neck.
"Now the boss'd gone over in this one to Tampico in the early evening,
and just about ten minutes ago I spots it landin' with a sousy bunch of
Federals at the East Coast, and swipes it back according. Where's the
boss? He ain't hurt, is he? Because I'm going after him."
"No, you're not, Peter," Davies said. "Mr. Frisbie is safe at the
Southern Hotel, all except a five-inch scalp wound from a brick that's
got him down with a splitting headache. He's safe, so you're going with
us, going to take us, I mean, up beyond Panuco town."
"Huh?—I can see myself," Peter retorted, wiping his greasy nose on a
wad of greasy cotton waste. "I got some cold. Besides, this
night-drivin' ain't good for my complexion."
"My boy's up there," Habert said.
"Well, he's bigger'n I am, and I reckon he can take care of himself."
"And there's a woman there—Miss Drexel," Davies said quietly.
"Who? Miss Drexel? Why didn't you say so at first!" Peter demanded
grievedly. He sighed and added, "Well, climb in an' make a start. Better
get your Dutch friends to donate me about twenty gallons of gasoline if
you want to get anywhere."
"Won't do you no good to lay low," Peter Tonsburg remarked, as, at full
speed, headed up river, the Topila's searchlight stabbed them.
"High or low, if one of them shells hits in the vicinity—good
Immediately thereafter the Topila erupted. The roar of the
Chill's exhaust nearly drowned the roar of the guns, but the
fragile hull of the craft was shaken and rocked by the bursting shells.
An occasional bullet thudded into or pinged off the Chill, and,
despite Peter's warning that, high or low, they were bound to get it if
it came to them, every man on board, including Peter, crouched, with
chest contracted by drawn-in shoulders, in an instinctive and purely
unconscious effort to lessen the area of body he presented as a target
or receptacle for flying fragments of steel.
The Topila was a federal gunboat. To complicate the affair, the
constitutionalists, gathered on the north shore in the siege of Tampico,
opened up on the speedboat with many rifles and a machine gun.
"Lord, I'm glad they're Mexicans, and not Americans," Habert observed,
after five mad minutes in which no damage had been received. "Mexicans
are born with guns in their hands, and they never learn to use them."
Nor was the Chill or any man aboard damaged when at last she
rounded the bend of river that shielded her from the searchlight.
"I'll have you in Panuco town in less'n three hours, ... if we don't hit
a log," Peter leaned back and shouted in Wemple's ear. "And if we do hit
driftwood, I'll have you in the swim quicker than that."
Chill II tore her way through the darkness, steered by the
tow-headed youth who knew every foot of the river and who guided his
course by the loom of the banks in the dim starlight. A smart breeze,
kicking up spiteful wavelets on the wider reaches, splashed them with
sheeted water as well as fine-flung spray. And, in the face of the
warmth of the tropic night, the wind, added to the speed of the boat,
chilled them through their wet clothes.
"Now I know why she was named the Chill," Habert observed betwixt
But conversation languished during the nearly three hours of drive
through the darkness. Once, by the exhaust, they knew that they passed
an unlighted launch bound down stream. And once, a glare of light, near
the south bank, as they passed through the Toreno field, aroused brief
debate as to whether it was the Toreno wells, or the bungalow on
Merrick's banana plantation that flared so fiercely.
At the end of an hour, Peter slowed down and ran in to the bank.
"I got a cache of gasoline here—ten gallons," he explained, "and it's
just as well to know it's here for the back trip." Without leaving the
boat, fishing arm-deep into the brush, he announced, "All hunky-dory."
He proceeded to oil the engine. "Huh!" he soliloquized for their
benefit. "I was just readin' a magazine yarn last night. 'Whose Business
Is to Die,' was its title. An' all I got to say is, 'The hell it is.' A
man's business is to live. Maybe you thought it was our business to die
when the Topila was pepper-in' us. But you was wrong. We're
alive, ain't we? We beat her to it. That's the game. Nobody's got any
business to die. I ain't never goin' to die, if I've got any say about
He turned over the crank, and the roar and rush of the Chill put
an end to speech.
There was no need for Wemple or Davies to speak further in the affair
closest to their hearts. Their truce to love-making had been made as
binding as it was brief, and each rival honored the other with a firm
belief that he would commit no infraction of the truce. Afterward was
another matter. In the meantime they were one in the effort to get Beth
Drexel back to the safety of riotous Tampico or of a war vessel.
It was four o'clock when they passed by Panuco Town. Shouts and songs
told them that the federal detachment holding the place was celebrating
its indignation at the landing of American bluejackets in Vera Cruz.
Sentinels challenged the Chill from the shore and shot at random
at the noise of her in the darkness.
A mile beyond, where a lighted river steamer with steam up lay at the
north bank, they ran in at the Apshodel wells. The steamer was small,
and the nearly two hundred Americans—men, women, and children—crowded
her capacity. Blasphemous greetings of pure joy and geniality were
exchanged between the men, and Habert learned that the steamboat was
waiting for his Billy Boy, who, astride a horse, was rounding up
isolated drilling gangs who had not yet learned that the United States
had seized Vera Cruz and that all Mexico was boiling.
Habert climbed out to wait and to go down on the steamer, while the
three that remained on the Chill, having learned that Miss Drexel
was not with the refugees, headed for the Dutch Company on the south
shore. This was the big gusher, pinched down from one hundred and
eighty-five thousand daily barrels to the quantity the company
was able to handle. Mexico had no quarrel with Holland, so that the
superintendent, while up, with night guards out to prevent drunken
soldiers from firing his vast lakes of oil, was quite unemotional. Yes,
the last he had heard was that Miss Drexel and her brother were back at
the hunting lodge. No; he had not sent any warnings, and he doubted that
anybody else had. Not till ten o'clock the previous evening had he
learned of the landing at Vera Cruz. The Mexicans had turned nasty as
soon as they heard of it, and they had killed Miles Forman at the Empire
Wells, run off his labor, and looted the camp. Horses? No; he didn't
have horse or mule on the place. The federals had commandeered the last
animal weeks back. It was his belief, however, that there were a couple
of plugs at the lodge, too worthless even for the Mexicans to take.
"It's a hike," Davies said cheerfully.
"Six miles of it," Wemple agreed, equally cheerfully. "Let's beat it."
A shot from the river, where they had left Peter in the boat, started
them on the run for the bank. A scattering of shots, as from two rifles,
followed. And while the Dutch superintendent, in execrable Spanish,
shouted affirmations of Dutch neutrality into the menacing dark, across
the gunwale of Chill II they found the body of the tow-headed
youth whose business it had been not to die.
For the first hour, talking little, Davies and Wemple stumbled along the
apology for a road that led through the jungle to the lodge. They did
discuss the glares of several fires to the east along the south bank of
Panuco River, and hoped fervently that they were dwellings and not
"Two billion dollars worth of oil right here in the Ebaño field alone,"
"And a drunken Mexican, whose whole carcass and immortal soul aren't
worth ten pesos including hair, hide, and tallow, can start the bonfire
with a lighted wad of cotton waste," was Wemple's contribution. "And if
ever she starts, she'll gut the field of its last barrel."
Dawn, at five, enabled them to accelerate their pace; and six o'clock
found them routing out the occupants of the lodge.
"Dress for rough travel, and don't stop for any frills," Wemple called
around the corner of Miss Drexel's screened sleeping porch.
"Not a wash, nothing," Davies supplemented grimly, as he shook hands
with Charley Drexel, who yawned and slippered up to them in pajamas.
"Where are those horses, Charley? Still alive?"
Wemple finished giving orders to the sleepy peons to remain and care for
the place, occupying their spare time with hiding the more valuable
things, and was calling around the corner to Miss Drexel the news of the
capture of Vera Cruz, when Davies returned with the information that the
horses consisted of a pair of moth-eaten skates that could be depended
upon to lie down and die in the first half mile.
Beth Drexel emerged, first protesting that under no circumstances would
she be guilty of riding the creatures, and, next, her brunette skin and
dark eyes still flushed warm with sleep, greeting the two rescuers.
"It would be just as well if you washed your face, Stanton," she told
Davies; and, to Wemple: "You're just as bad, Jim. You are a pair of
"And so will you be," Wemple assured her, "before you get back to
Tampico. Are you ready?"
"As soon as Juanita packs my hand bag."
"Heavens, Beth, don't waste time!" exclaimed Wemple. "Jump in and grab
up what you want."
"Make a start—make a start," chanted Davies. "Hustle! Hustle!—Charley,
get the rifle you like best and take it along. Get a couple for us."
"Is it as serious as that?" Miss Drexel queried.
Both men nodded.
"The Mexicans are tearing loose," Davies explained. "How they missed
this place I don't know." A movement in the adjoining room startled him.
"Who's that?" he cried.
"Why, Mrs. Morgan," Miss Drexel answered.
"Good heavens, Wemple, I'd forgotten her," groaned Davies. "How
will we ever get her anywhere?"
"Let Beth walk, and relay the lady on the nags."
"She weighs a hundred and eighty," Miss Drexel laughed. "Oh, hurry,
Martha! We're waiting on you to start!"
Muffled speech came through the partition, and then emerged a very
short, stout, much-flustered woman of middle age.
"I simply can't walk, and you boys needn't demand it of me," was her
plaint. "It's no use. I couldn't walk half a mile to save my life, and
it's six of the worst miles to the river."
They regarded her in despair.
"Then you'll ride," said Davies. "Come on, Charley. We'll get a saddle
on each of the nags."
Along the road through the tropic jungle, Miss Drexel and Juanita,
her Indian maid, led the way. Her brother, carrying the three rifles,
brought up the rear, while in the middle Davies and Wemple struggled
with Mrs. Morgan and the two decrepit steeds. One, a flea-bitten roan,
groaned continually from the moment Mrs. Morgan's burden was put upon
him till she was shifted to the other horse. And this other, a mangy
sorrel, invariably lay down at the end of a quarter of a mile of Mrs.
Miss Drexel laughed and joked and encouraged; and Wemple, in brutal
fashion, compelled Mrs. Morgan to walk every third quarter of a mile.
At the end of an hour the sorrel refused positively to get up, and, so,
was abandoned. Thereafter, Mrs. Morgan rode the roan alternate quarters
of miles, and between times walked—if walk may describe her
stumbling progress on two preposterously tiny feet with a man supporting
her on either side.
A mile from the river, the road became more civilized, running along the
side of a thousand acres of banana plantation.
"Parslow's," young Drexel said. "He'll lose a year's crop now on account
of this mix-up."
"Oh, look what I've found!" Miss Drexel called from the lead.
"First machine that ever tackled this road," was young Drexel's
judgment, as they halted to stare at the tire-tracks.
"But look at the tracks," his sister urged. "The machine must have come
right out of the bananas and climbed the bank."
"Some machine to climb a bank like that," was Davies' comment. "What it
did do was to go down the bank—take a scout after it, Charley, while
Wemple and I get Mrs. Morgan off her fractious mount. No machine ever
built could travel far through those bananas."
The flea-bitten roan, on its four legs upstanding, continued bravely to
stand until the lady was removed, whereupon, with a long sigh, it sank
down on the ground. Mrs. Morgan likewise sighed, sat down, and regarded
her tiny feet mournfully.
"Go on, boys," she said. "Maybe you can find something at the river and
send back for me."
But their indignant rejection of the plan never attained speech, for, at
that instant, from the green sea of banana trees beneath them, came the
sudden purr of an engine. A minute later the splutter of an exhaust told
them the silencer had been taken off. The huge-fronded banana trees were
violently agitated as by the threshing of a hidden Titan. They could
identify the changing of gears and the reversing and going ahead, until,
at the end of five minutes, a long low, black car burst from the wall of
greenery and charged the soft earth bank, but the earth was too soft,
and when, two-thirds of the way up, beaten, Charley Drexel braked the
car to a standstill, the earth crumbled from under the tires, and he ran
it down and back, the way he had come, until half-buried in the bananas.
"'A Merry Oldsmobile!'" Miss Drexel quoted from the popular song,
clapping her hands. "Now, Martha, your troubles are over."
"Six-cylinder, and sounds as if it hadn't been out of the shop a week,
or may I never ride in a machine again," Wemple remarked, looking to
Davies for confirmation.
"It's Allison's," he said. "Campos tried to shake him down for a private
loan, and—well, you know Allison. He told Campos to go to. And Campos,
in revenge, commandeered his new car. That was two days ago, before we
lifted a hand at Vera Cruz. Allison told me yesterday the last he'd
heard of the car it was on a steamboat bound up river. And here's where
they ditched it—but let's get a hustle on and get her into the
Three attempts they made, with young Drexel at the wheel; but the soft
earth and the pitch of the grade baffled.
"She's got the power all right," young Drexel protested. "But she can't
bite into that mush."
So far, they had spread on the ground the robes found in the car.
The men now added their coats, and Wemple, for additional traction,
unsaddled the roan, and spread the cinches, stirrup leathers, saddle
blanket, and bridle in the way of the wheels. The car took the
treacherous slope in a rush, with churning wheels biting into the woven
fabrics; and, with no more than a hint of hesitation, it cleared the
crest and swung into the road.
"Isn't she the spunky devil!" Drexel exulted. "Say, she could climb the
side of a house if she could get traction."
"Better put on that silencer again, if you don't want to play tag with
every soldier in the district," Wemple ordered, as they helped Mrs.
The road to the Dutch gusher compelled them to go through the outskirts
of Panuco town. Indian and half breed women gazed stolidly at the
strange vehicle, while the children and barking dogs clamorously
advertised its progress. Once, passing long lines of tethered federal
horses, they were challenged by a sentry; but at Wemple's "Throw on the
juice!" the car took the rutted road at fifty miles an hour. A shot
whistled after them. But it was not the shot that made Mrs. Morgan
scream. The cause was a series of hog-wallows masked with mud, which
nearly tore the steering wheel from Drexel's hands before he could
"Wonder it didn't break an axle," Davies growled. "Go on and take it
easy, Charley. We're past any interference."
They swung into the Dutch camp and into the beginning of their real
troubles. The refugee steamboat had departed down river from the
Asphodel camp; Chill II had disappeared, the superintendent knew
not how, along with the body of Peter Tonsburg; and the superintendent
was dubious of their remaining.
"I've got to consider the owners," he told them. "This is the biggest
well in Mexico, and you know it—a hundred and eighty-five thousand
barrels daily flow. I've no right to risk it. We have no trouble with
the Mexicans. It's you Americans. If you stay here, I'll have to protect
you. And I can't protect you, anyway. We'll all lose our lives and
they'll destroy the well in the bargain. And if they fire it, it means
the entire Ebaño oil field. The strata's too broken. We're flowing
twenty thousand barrels now, and we can't pinch down any further. As it
is, the oil's coming up outside the pipe. And we can't have a fight.
We've got to keep the oil moving."
The men nodded. It was cold-blooded logic; but there was no fault to it.
The harassed expression eased on the superintendent's face, and he
almost beamed on them for agreeing with him.
"You've got a good machine there," he continued. "The ferry's at the
bank at Panuco, and once you're across, the rebels aren't so thick on
the north shore. Why, you can beat the steamboat back to Tampico by
hours. And it hasn't rained for days. The road won't be at all bad."
"Which is all very good," Davies observed to Wemple as they approached
Panuco, "except for the fact that the road on the other side was never
built for automobiles, much less for a long-bodied one like this. I wish
it were the Four instead of the Six."
"And it would bother you with a Four to negotiate that hill at Aliso
where the road switchbacks above the river."
"And we're going to do it with a Six or lose a perfectly good Six in
trying," Beth Drexel laughed to them.
Avoiding the cavalry camp, they entered Panuco with all the speed the
ruts permitted, swinging dizzy corners to the squawking of chickens and
barking of dogs. To gain the ferry, they had to pass down one side of
the great plaza which was the heart of the city. Peon soldiers, drowsing
in the sun or clustering around the cantinas, stared stupidly at
them as they flashed past. Then a drunken major shouted a challenge from
the doorway of a cantina and began vociferating orders, and as
they left the plaza behind they could hear rising the familiar mob-cry
"Kill the Gringoes!"
"If any shooting begins, you women get down in the bottom of the car,"
Davies commanded. "And there's the ferry all right. Be careful,
The machine plunged directly down the bank through a cut so deep that it
was more like a chute, struck the gangplank with a terrific bump, and
seemed fairly to leap on board. The ferry was scarcely longer than the
machine, and Drexel, visibly shaken by the closeness of the shave,
managed to stop only when six inches remained between the front wheels
It was a cable ferry, operated by gasoline, and, while Wemple cast off
the mooring lines, Davies was making swift acquaintance with the engine.
The third turn-over started it, and he threw it into gear with the
windlass that began winding up the cable from the river's bottom.
By the time they were in midstream a score of horsemen rode out on the
bank they had just left and opened a scattering fire. The party crowded
in the shelter of the car and listened to the occasional richochet of a
bullet. Once, only, the car was struck.
"Here!—what are you up to!" Wemple demanded suddenly of Drexel, who had
exposed himself to fish a rifle out of the car.
"Going to show the skunks what shooting is," was his answer.
"No, you don't," Wemple said. "We're not here to fight, but to get
this party to Tampico." He remembered Peter Tonsburg's remark. "Whose
business is to live, Charley—that's our business. Anybody can get
killed. It's too easy these days."
Still under fire, they moored at the north shore, and when Davies had
tossed overboard the igniter from the ferry engine and commandeered ten
gallons of its surplus gasoline, they took the steep, soft road up the
bank in a rush.
"Look at her climb," Drexel uttered gleefully. "That Aliso hill won't
bother us at all. She'll put a crimp in it, that's what she'll do."
"It isn't the hill, it's the sharp turn of the zig-zag that's liable to
put a crimp in her," Davies answered. "That road was never laid out for
autos, and no auto has ever been over it. They steamboated this one up."
But trouble came before Aliso was reached. Where the road dipped
abruptly into a small jag of hollow that was almost V-shaped, it arose
out and became a hundred yards of deep sand. In order to have speed left
for the sand after he cleared the stiff up-grade of the V, Drexel was
compelled to hit the trough of the V with speed. Wemple clutched Miss
Drexel as she was on the verge of being bounced out. Mrs. Morgan, too
solid for such airiness, screamed from the pain of the bump; and even
the imperturbable Juanita fell to crossing herself and uttering prayers
with exceeding rapidity.
The car cleared the crest and encountered the sand, going slower from
moment to moment, slewing and writhing and squirming from side to side.
The men leaped out and began shoving. Miss Drexel urged Juanita out and
followed. But the car came to a standstill, and Drexel, looking back and
pointing, showed the first sign of being beaten. Two things he pointed
to: a constitutional soldier on horseback a quarter of a mile in the
rear; and a portion of the narrow road that had fallen out bodily on the
far slope of the V.
"Can't get at this sand unless we go back and try over, and we ditch the
car if we try to back up that."
The ditch was a huge natural sump-hole, the stagnant surface of which
was a-crawl with slime twenty feet beneath.
Davies and Wemple sprang to take the boy's place.
"You can't do it," he urged. "You can get the back wheels past, but
right there you hit that little curve, and if you make it your front
wheel will be off the bank. If you don't make it, your back wheel'll be
Both men studied it carefully, then looked at each other.
"We've got to," said Davies.
"And we're going to," Wemple said, shoving his rival aside in comradely
fashion and taking the post of danger at the wheel. "You're just as good
as I at the wheel, Davies," he explained. "But you're a better shot.
Your job's cut out to go back and hold off any Greasers that show up."
Davies took a rifle and strolled back with so ominous an air that the
lone cavalryman put spurs to his horse and fled. Mrs. Morgan was helped
out and sent plodding and tottering unaided on her way to the end of the
sand stretch. Miss Drexel and Juanita joined Charley in spreading the
coats and robes on the sand and in gathering and spreading small
branches, brush, and armfuls of a dry, brittle shrub. But all three
ceased from their exertions to watch Wemple as he shot the car backward
down the V and up. The car seemed first to stand on one end, then on the
other, and to reel drunkenly and to threaten to turn over into the
sump-hole when its right front wheel fell into the air where the road
had ceased to be. But the hind wheels bit and climbed the grade and out.
Without pause, gathering speed down the perilous slope, Wemple came
ahead and up, gaining fifty feet of sand over the previous failure. More
of the alluvial soil of the road had dropped out at the bad place; but
he took the V in reverse, overhung the front wheel as before, and from
the top came ahead again. Four times he did this, gaining each time, but
each time knocking a bigger hole where the road fell out, until Miss
Drexel begged him not to try again.
He pointed to a squad of horsemen coming at a gallop along the road a
mile in the rear, and took the V once again in reverse.
"If only we had more stuff," Drexel groaned to his sister, as he threw
down a meager, hard-gathered armful of the dry and brittle shrub, and as
Wemple once more, with rush and roar, shot down the V.
For an instant it seemed that the great car would turn over into the
sump, but the next instant it was past. It struck the bottom of the
hollow a mighty wallop, and bounced and upended to the steep pitch of
the climb. Miss Drexel, seized by inspiration or desperation, with a
quick movement stripped off her short, corduroy tramping-skirt, and,
looking very lithe and boyish in slender-cut pongee bloomers, ran along
the sand and dropped the skirt for a foothold for the slowly revolving
wheels. Almost, but not quite, did the car stop, then, gathering way,
with the others running alongside and shoving, it emerged on the hard
While they tossed the robes and coats and Miss Drexel's skirt into the
bottom of the car and got Mrs. Morgan on board, Davies overtook them.
"Down on the bottom!—all of you!" he shouted, as he gained the running
board and the machine sprang away. A scattering of shots came from the
"Whose business is to live!—hunch down!" Davies yelled in Wemple's ear,
accompanying the instruction with an open-handed blow on the shoulder.
"Live yourself," Wemple grumbled as he obediently hunched. "Get your
head down. You're exposing yourself."
The pursuit lasted but a little while, and died away in an occasional
"They've quit," Davies announced. "It never entered their stupid heads
that they could have caught us on Aliso Hill."
"It can't be done," was Charley Drexel's quick judgment of youth, as the
machine stopped and they surveyed the acute-angled turn on the stiff
up-grade of Aliso. Beneath was the swift-running river.
"Get out everybody!" Wemple commanded. "Up-side, all of you, if you
don't want the car to turn over on you. Spread traction wherever she
"Shoot her ahead, or back—she can't stop," Davies said quietly, from
the outer edge of the road, where he had taken position. "The earth's
crumbling away from under the tires every second she stands still."
"Get out from under, or she'll be on top of you," Wemple ordered, as he
went ahead several yards.
But again, after the car rested a minute, the light, dry earth began to
crack and crumble away from under the tires, rolling in a miniature
avalanche down the steep declivity into the water. And not until Wemple
had backed fifty yards down the narrow road did he find solid resting
for the car. He came ahead on foot and examined the acute angle formed
by the two zig-zags. Together with Davies he planned what was to be
"When you come you've got to come a-humping," Davies advised. "If you
stop anywhere for more than seconds, it's good night, and the walking
won't be fine."
"She's full of fight, and she can do it. See that hard formation right
there on the inside wall. It couldn't have come at a better spot. If I
don't make her hind wheels climb half way up it, we'll start walking
about a second thereafter."
"She's a two-fisted piece of machinery," Davies encouraged. "I know her
kind. If she can't do it, no machine can that was ever made. Am I right,
"She's a regular, spunky she-devil," Miss Drexel laughed agreement. "And
so are the pair of you—er—of the male persuasion, I mean."
Miss Drexel had never seemed so fascinating to either of them as she was
then, in the excitement quite unconscious of her abbreviated costume,
her brown hair flying, her eyes sparkling, her lips smiling. Each man
caught the other in that moment's pause to look, and each man sighed to
the other and looked frankly into each other's eyes ere he turned to the
work at hand.
Wemple came up with his usual rush, but it was a gauged rush; and Davies
took the post of danger, the outside running board, where his weight
would help the broad tires to bite a little deeper into the treacherous
surface. If the road-edge crumbled away it was inevitable that he would
be caught under the car as it rolled over and down to the river.
It was ahead and reverse, ahead and reverse, with only the briefest of
pauses in which to shift the gears. Wemple backed up the hard formation
on the inside bank till the car seemed standing on end, rushed ahead
till the earth of the outer edge broke under the front tires and
splashed in the water. Davies, now off, and again on the running board
when needed, accompanied the car in its jerky and erratic progress,
tossing robes and coats under the tires, calling instructions to Drexel
similarly occupied on the other side, and warning Miss Drexel out of the
"Oh, you Merry Olds, you Merry Olds, you Merry Olds," Wemple muttered
aloud, as if in prayer, as he wrestled the car about the narrow area,
gaining sometimes inches in pivoting it, sometimes fetching back up the
inner wall precisely at the spot previously attained, and, once, having
the car, with the surface of the roadbed under it, slide bodily and
sidewise, two feet down the road.
The clapping of Miss Drexel's hands was the first warning Davies
received that the feat was accomplished, and, swinging on to the running
board, he found the car backing in the straight-away up the next zig-zag
and Wemple still chanting ecstatically, "Oh, you Merry Olds, you Merry
There were no more grades nor zigzags between them and Tampico, but, so
narrow was the primitive road, two miles farther were backed before
space was found in which to turn around. One thing of importance
did lie between them and Tampico—namely the investing lines of the
constitutionalists. But here, at noon, fortune favored in the form of
three American soldiers of fortune, operators of machine guns, who had
fought the entire campaign with Villa from the beginning of the advance
from the Texan border. Under a white flag, Wemple drove the car across
the zone of debate into the federal lines, where good fortune, in the
guise of an ubiquitous German naval officer, again received them.
"I think you are nearly the only Americans left in Tampico," he told
them. "About all the rest are lying out in the Gulf on the different
warships. But at the Southern Hotel there are several, and the situation
As they got out at the Southern, Davies laid his hand on the car and
murmured, "Good old girl!" Wemple followed suit. And Miss Drexel,
engaging both men's eyes and about to say something, was guilty of a
sudden moisture in her own eyes that made her turn to the car with a
caressing hand and repeat, "Good old girl!"