A Tale of California
Copyright, 1919 THE CORNHILL COMPANY BOSTON
DEDICATED TO J. H. K.
A PARTNER OF WILL CUMMINS AND A NEIGHBOR OF ROBERT PALMER
I. Dead Men Tell No Tales
II. The Graniteville Stage
III. The Girl or the Gold?
IV. A Council of War
V. Old Man Palmer
VI. Two of a Kind
VII. An Old Sweetheart
VIII. "Bed-bug" Brown, Detective
IX. The Home-Coming of a Dead Man
X. The Travels of John Keeler
XI. The Snows of the Sierras
XII. The Golden Summer Comes Again
XIII. The End of the Trail
XIV. Golden Opportunities
XV. Three Graves by the Middle Yuba
XVI. When Thieves Fall Out
XVII. Brought to Justice
XVIII. The End of J. C. P. Collins
XIX. The Home-Coming of Another Dead Man
XX. The Bridal Veil
Dead Men Tell No Tales
In the cemetery on the hill near the quiet village of Reedsville, Pennsylvania, you may find this inscription:
WILLIAM F. CUMMINS son of Col. William & Martha Cummins who was killed by highwaymen near Nevada City, California September 1, 1879 aged 45 yrs. and 8 months
Be ye therefore also ready For the Son of Man cometh At an hour when ye think not.
It is a beautiful spot, on the road to Milroy. In former times a church stood in the middle of the grounds, and the stern old Presbyterian forefathers marched to meeting with muskets on their shoulders, for the country was infested with Indians. The swift stream at the foot of the hill, now supplying power for a grist-mill, was full of salmon that ran up through the Kishacoquillas from the blue Juniata. The savages begrudged the settlers these fish and the game that abounded in the rough mountains; but the settlers had come to cultivate the rich land extending for twelve miles between the mountain walls.
The form of many a Californian now rests in that cemetery on the hill. A few years after the burial of the murdered Cummins, the body of Henry Francis was gathered to his fathers, and, near by, lie the bodies of four of his brothers,—all Californians. The staid Amish farmers and their subdued women, in outlandish, Puritanical garb, pass along the road unstirred by the romance and glamour buried in those graves. Dead men tell no tales! Else there were no need that pen of mine should snatch from oblivion this tale of California.
More than thirty-five years have passed since my father, returning from the scene of Cummins' murder, related the circumstances. With Mat Bailey, the stage-driver, with whom Cummins had traveled that fatal day, he had ridden over the same road, had passed the large stump which had concealed the robbers, and had become almost an eye-witness of the whole affair. My father's rehearsal of it fired my youthful imagination. So it was like a return to the scenes of boyhood when, thirty-six years after the event, I, too, traveled the same road that Cummins had traveled and heard from the lips of Pete Sherwood, stage-driver of a later generation, the same thrilling story. The stump by the roadside had so far decayed as to have fallen over; but it needed little imagination to picture the whole tragedy. In Sacramento I looked up the files of the Daily Record Union, which on Sept. 3, 1879, two days after the event, gave a brief account of it. There was newspaper enterprise for you! An atrocious crime reported in a neighboring city two days afterward! Were such things too common to excite interest? Or was it felt that the recital of them did not tend to boom the great State of California?
The Graniteville Stage
On that fateful first of September, 1879, the stage left Graniteville, as usual, at six o'clock in the morning. Graniteville, in Eureka Township, Nevada County, is the Eureka South of early days. The stage still makes the daily trip over the mountains; but the glamour and romance of the gold fields have long since departed. On the morning mentioned traffic was light, for people did not travel the twenty-eight miles through heat and dust to Nevada City for pleasure. Too often it was a case of running the gauntlet from the gold fields to the railroad terminus and safety.
This very morning, Charley Chu, who had thrown up his job as mender of ditches, was making a dash for San Francisco, with five hundred dollars in dust and a pistol at his belt. The other passengers were Dr. John Mason and Mamie Slocum, teacher. Mamie, rosy-cheeked, dark-eyed, and pretty, was only seventeen, and ought to have been at home with her mother. She was a romantic girl, however, with several beaux in Eureka Township; and now that the summer session of school was over, she was going home to Nevada City, where there were other conquests to be made.
Dr. Mason, a tall, lean Scotchman, lived at North Bloomfield, only nine miles distant, whence he had been summoned to attend a case of delirium tremens. The sparkling water of the Sierras is pure and cold, but the gold of the Sierras buys stronger drink. With a fee of two double eagles in his pocket, the doctor could look with charity upon the foibles of human nature. He thoroughly enjoyed the early morning ride among the giant pines. In the open places manzanita ran riot, its waxy green leaves contrasting with the dust-laden asters and coarse grasses by the roadside. Across the canon of the Middle Yuba the yellow earth of old man Palmer's diggings shone like a trademark in the landscape, proclaiming to the least initiated the leading industry of Sierra and Nevada Counties, and marking for the geologist the height of the ancient river beds, twenty-five hundred feet above the Middle Yuba and nearly at right angles to it. Those ancient river beds were strewn with gold. Looking in the other direction, one caught glimpses here and there of the back-bone of the Sierras, jagged dolomites rising ten thousand feet skyward. The morning air was stimulating, for at night the thermometer drops to the forties even in midsummer. In a ditch by the roadside, and swift as a mill-race, flowed a stream of clear cold water, brought for miles from reservoirs up in the mountains.
Even Charley Chu, now that he was leaving the gold fields forever, regarded the water-ditch with affection. It brought life—sparkling, abundant life—to these arid hill-tops. Years ago, Charley Chu and numerous other Chinamen had dug this very ditch. What would California have been without Chinese labor? Industrious Chinamen built the railroad over the Sierras to the East and civilization. Doctor, girl and Chinaman were too much occupied with their own thoughts to take much notice of the stage-driver, who, though he assumed an air of carelessness, was, in reality, on the watch for spies and robbers. For the bankers at Moore's Flat, a few miles further on, were planning to smuggle several thousand dollars' worth of gold dust to Nevada City that morning. Mat Bailey was a brave fellow, but he preferred the old days of armed guards and hard fighting to these dubious days when stage-drivers went unarmed to avoid the suspicion of carrying treasure. Charley Chu with his pistol had the right idea; and yet that very pistol might queer things to-day.
Over this road for twenty-five years treasure to the amount of many millions of dollars had been carried out of the mountains; and Mat could have told you many thrilling tales of highwaymen. A short distance beyond Moore's Flat was Bloody Run, a rendezvous of Mexican bandits, back in the fifties. Not many years since, in the canon of the South Yuba, Steve Venard, with his repeating rifle, had surprised and killed three men who had robbed the Wells Fargo Express. Some people hinted that when Steve hunted up the thieves and shot them in one, two, three order, he simply betrayed his own confederates. But the express company gave him a handsome rifle and a generous share of the gold recovered; I prefer to believe that Steve was an honest man.
The stage arrived at Moore's Flat, and Mat Bailey hurriedly transferred baggage and passengers to the gaily painted and picturesque stage-coach which, drawn by four strong horses, was to continue the journey. A pair of horses and a mountain wagon had handled the traffic to that point; but at the present time, when Moore's Flat can boast but eleven inhabitants, the transfer to the stage-coach is made at North Bloomfield, several miles further on. But in 1879, Moore's Flat, Eureka Township, was a thriving place, employing hundreds of miners. The great sluices, blasted deep into solid rock, then ran with the wash from high walls of dirt and gravel played upon by streams of water in the process known as hydraulic mining. Jack Vizzard, the watchman, threaded those sluiceways armed with a shot-gun.
At Moore's Flat, six men and two women boarded the stage; and Mat Bailey took in charge a small leather valise, smuggled out of the back door of the bank and handed to him carelessly. Mat received it without the flicker of an eyelash. Nevertheless, he scrutinized the eight new passengers, with apparent indifference but with unerring judgment. All except two, a man and a woman, were personally known to him. And these excited less suspicion than two well-known gamblers, who greeted Mat cordially.
"It hurts business, Mat, to ship so much dust out of the country," said one.
"Damn shame," said the other.
Mat paid no attention to these remarks, pretending to be busy with the baggage. Quite accidentally he lifted an old valise belonging to Will Cummins, who, dressed in a long linen duster, had just boarded the stage. Cummins exchanged glances with the driver, and luckily, as Mat thought, the gamblers seemed to take no notice.
Will Cummins had been in the gold regions twenty-five years. He had already made and lost one small fortune, and now at the age of forty-five, with all his available worldly goods, some seven thousand dollars in bullion, he was homeward bound to Reedsville, Pennsylvania. In the full vigor of manhood, he was a Californian of the highest type. He had always stood for law and order, and was much beloved by decent people. By the other sort it was well understood that Will Cummins was a good shot, and would fight to a finish. He was a man of medium height, possessed of clear gray eyes and an open countenance. The outlines of a six-shooter were clearly discernible under his duster.
In a cloud of dust, to the clink of horse-shoes, the stage rolled out of Moore's Flat, and was soon in the dark woods of Bloody Run.
"Good morning, Mr. Cummins."
It was the school-teacher who spoke; and Cummins, susceptible to feminine charms, bowed graciously.
"Do you know, Mr. Cummins, it always gives me the shivers to pass through these woods. So many dreadful things have happened here."
"Why, yes," answered Cummins, good-naturedly. "It was along here somewhere, I think, that the darkey, George Washington, was captured."
"Tell me about it," said Mamie.
"Oh, George was violently opposed to Chinese cheap labor; so he made it his business to rob Chinamen. But the Chinamen caught him, tied his hands and feet, slung him on a pole like so much pork and started him for Moore's Flat, taking pains to bump him against every stump and boulder en route."
Charley Chu was grinning in pleasant reverie. Mamie laughed.
"But the funny thing in this little episode," continued Cummins, "was the defense set up by George Washington's lawyer. There was no doubt that George was guilty of highway robbery. He had been caught red-handed, and ten Chinamen were prepared to testify to the fact. But counsel argued that by the laws of the State a white man could not be convicted on the testimony of Chinamen; and that, within the meaning of the statute, in view of recent amendments to the Constitution of the United States, George was a white man. The judge ruled that the point was well taken; and, inasmuch as the prisoner had been thoroughly bumped, he dismissed the case."
The story is well known in Nevada County; but Mamie laughed gleefully, and turned her saucy eyes upon Charley:
"Did you help to bump George Washington?"
The Celestial was an honest man, and shook his head:
"Me only look on. That cullud niggah he lob me."
Will Cummins glanced at the Chinaman's pistol and smiled. By this time the stage had crossed Bloody Run and was ascending the high narrow ridge known as the Back-Bone, beyond which lay the village of North Bloomfield. By the roadside loomed a tall lone rock, placed as if by a perverse Providence especially to shelter highwaymen. For a moment Cummins looked grave, and he reached for his six-shooter. Mat Bailey cracked his whip and dashed by as if under fire.
From the Back-Bone the descent to North Bloomfield was very steep, and was made with grinding of brakes and precipitate speed. Arrived at the post-office, Dr. Mason and the two gamblers left the coach; and a store-keeper and two surveyors employed by the great Malakoff Mining Company took passage to Nevada City. In those halcyon days of hydraulic mining, the Malakoff, employing fifty men, was known to clean up $100,000 in thirty days. It was five hundred feet through dirt and gravel to bed-rock, and a veritable canon had been washed out of the earth.
The next stop was Lake City,—a name illustrative of Californian megalomania; for the lake, long since gone dry, was merely an artificial reservoir to supply a neighboring mine, and the city was a collection of half a dozen buildings including a store and a hotel. Through the open door of the store a huge safe was visible, for here was one of those depositories for gold dust locally known as a bank. As the stage pulled up, the banker and a lady stepped out to greet Will Cummins, who alighted and cordially shook hands. Miss Slocum, apparently, was somewhat piqued because she was not introduced.
"I was hoping you would accompany us to Nevada City," Cummins said, addressing the lady, who regarded him with affection, as Mamie thought.
"You must remember, Will," said the banker, "that Mary hasn't been up to Moore's Flat yet to see her old flames."
"Too late!" said Cummins. "The Keystone Club gave a dinner last night, to wish me a pleasant journey. Eighteen of the twenty-one were present. But by this time they have scattered to the four winds."
"Never fear," cried the lady; "I shall find some of our boys at Moore's Flat. You are the only one travelling in this direction; and the four winds combined could not blow them over the canon of the Middle Yuba."
"I remember you think that canon deep and terrible, Mary," Will replied; "but it is not wide, you know. Remember our walk to Chipp's Flat, the last time you were here? Nothing left there but the old cannon. As the boys say, everything else has been fired."
"All aboard!" shouted Mat, who felt that he was wasting time in Lake City. And so Mary Francis, sister of Henry Francis, bade adieu to Will Cummins, little knowing that they would never meet again, either in California or "back home" in Pennsylvania. The stage rolled on, past a grove of live oaks hung with mistletoe. Cummins had passed this way many times before. He had even gathered mistletoe here to send to friends in the East. But to-day for the first time it made his heart yearn for the love he had missed. Mary Francis was thirty-five now. Twenty-five years ago he was twenty and she was a little bashful girl. Her father's house had been the rendezvous of Californians on their occasional visits in the East. His mind traveled back over old scenes; but soon the canon of the South Yuba burst upon his vision, thrilling him with its grandeur and challenging his fighting instincts. For after winding down three miles to the river, the road climbed three miles up the opposite side—three toiling miles through the ambushes of highwaymen. There was the scene of many a hold-up. And to-day, at his age, he simply must not be robbed. It would break his heart. In sheer desperation he drew his six-shooter, examined it carefully, glanced at his fellow-passengers and sat silent, alert and grim.
Except for the Chinaman, the passengers were feeble folk. At sight of the revolver the men began to fidget; and, except for Mamie Slocum, the romantic, the women turned pale.
Down the coach plunged into the deep canon! Little likelihood of a hold-up when travelling at such a pace. Down, down, safely down to the river, running clear and cold among the rocks. And then the slow ascent. Mat Bailey, perched on his high seat as lordly as Ph[oe]bus Apollo, felt cold shivers run down his spine. From every bush, stump and rock he expected a masked man to step forth. Could he depend upon Cummins and the Chinaman? How slowly the horses labored up that fatal hill, haunted by the ghosts of murdered travelers! Why should he, Mat Bailey, get mixed up in other men's affairs? What was there in it for him? Of course, he would try to play a man's part; but he sincerely wished he were at the top of the hill.
At last they were safely out of the canon, and the horses were allowed to rest a few minutes. Cummins replaced his pistol and buttoned up his duster; and the passengers fell to talking. The store-keeper from North Bloomfield began to tell a humorous story of a lone highwayman who, with a double-barrelled shot gun waylaid the Wells Fargo Express near Downieville. As he waited, with gun pointed down the road, he heard a wagon approach behind him. Coolly facing about, he levelled his gun at the approaching travellers, three workmen, and remarked,
"Gentlemen, you have surprised me. Please deliver your guns, and stand upon that log," indicating a prostrate pine four feet in diameter. Needless to say, the men mounted the log and held up their hands. Then a load of hay approached, and the driver mounted the log with the others. Then came another wagon, with two men and a ten-year old boy, George Williams. The robber ordered these to stand upon the log, whereupon little George, in great trepidation, exclaimed,
"Good Mr. Robber, don't shoot, and I will do anything you tell me!"
About this time one barrel of the robber's gun was accidentally discharged into the log, and he remarked:
"That was damned careless," and immediately reloaded with buckshot.
At length the stage came along; and promptly holding it up, he tossed the driver a sack, directing him to put his gold dust therein. This done, he sent each separate vehicle upon its way as cool as a marshal on dress parade.
With Nevada City only four miles away, the canon of the South Yuba safely passed, and the stage bowling along over an easy road, it seemed a good story.
Two masked men emerged from behind a stump by the roadside, and Charley Chu drew his revolver. The passengers in a panic took it away from him. Mat Bailey pulled up his horses.
While one robber covered Mat, the other covered the passengers, who at his command lined themselves up by the roadside with hands raised. Cummins got out on the side of the stage opposite the robber; and but for the duster, buttoned from chin to ankles, he would have had the dead wood on that robber. It was not to be; and Cummins, hands in air, joined his helpless companions. The robber then proceeded to rifle the baggage. Charley Chu lost his five hundred dollars. Mat Bailey gave up the leather bag from Moore's Flat.
"Whose is this?" demanded the robber, laying his hand on Cummins' old valise. As if hypnotized, Mamie Slocum answered,
"That is Mr. Cummins'."
The robber seized it. Cummins exclaimed: "It is all I have in the world, and I will defend it with my life." With that he seized the robber, overpowered him, and went down with him into the dust. If only there had been one brave man among those cowards!
"Is there no one to help me?" shouted Cummins; but no one stirred.
In the gold regions of California each man is for himself. To prevent trouble his fellow-passengers had disarmed the Chinaman. The other robber, seeing his partner overpowered, passed quickly along in front of the line of passengers, placed his gun at Cummins' head, and fired. The struggle had not lasted fifteen seconds when Will Cummins lay murdered by the roadside.
The Girl or the Gold
Cummins was killed about one o'clock. Two hours later two prospectors, in conventional blue shirts and trousers, each with a pack over his back, were seen in the neighborhood of Scott's Flat. They excited no suspicion, as no one at Scott's Flat had heard anything about the hold-up; and even if news had come, there was nothing suspicious in the appearance of these men. They had looked out for that. As a matter of precaution they had provided themselves a change of clothing and their prospectors' outfit. By common consent they had very little to say to each other; for they knew that a careless word might betray them. They were in a desperate hurry to reach Gold Run or Dutch Flat to catch the evening train East; but from their motions you would not have suspected this. They followed the trails across country at the usual swinging gait of honest men, and they knew they had six hours to make fifteen miles over the hills. They passed near Quaker Hill, Red Dog, and You Bet, keeping away from people as much as they dared to, but not obviously avoiding anyone.
At You Bet, Gold Run and Dutch Flat they had taken the precaution to show themselves for several days past; so that no one should notice their reappearance. They were not unknown in this region, and there were men at You Bet who could have identified them as Nevada City jail-birds. There was O'Leary, for example, who had been in jail with them. But in a country filled with gamblers and sporting men, where the chief end of man is to get gold and to enjoy it forever, it is not deemed polite to enquire too closely into people's antecedents. These men, evidently native-born Americans, bore the good Anglo-Saxon names of Collins and Darcy. What more could you ask? They perspired freely, and their packs were evidently heavy; but men who collect specimens of quartz are likely to carry heavy packs, and the day was hot.
At You Bet the men separated, Darcy striking out for Gold Run with all the gold, and Collins making for Dutch Flat, which is farther up the railroad. This was to throw the railroad men off the scent, for news of the murder had probably been telegraphed to all railroad stations in the vicinity.
Incidentally, and unknown to his partner, this arrangement necessitated a momentous decision in the mind of Collins. As he formulated the question, it was, "The girl or the gold?" Like many young criminals, Collins was very much of a ladies' man. He associated with girls of the dance-hall class, but he aspired to shine in the eyes of those foolish women who admire a gay, bad man. He would have preferred to have his share of the plunder then and there in order to stay in California to win the hand of Mamie Slocum. But Darcy was determined to get out of the country as quickly as possible, and when they separated insisted upon taking all the gold. It would not do to quarrel with him, for both would be lost if either was suspected. To share in the plunder he would have to go East with Darcy, who was to board the same train at Gold Run that Collins would take at Dutch Flat.
The girl or the gold? Because of his infatuation for the girl he had become a highwayman. He had not expected her to come down from Graniteville that day. He had not counted on being nearly killed by Cummins, for it was he whom Cummins had overpowered. He had not supposed that anyone would be killed. Things had turned out in a strange and terrible way. To gain a few thousand dollars by highway robbery was no worse than to win it by a dozen other methods counted respectable. Among the youth of Nevada City with whom he had associated, it was commonly believed that every successful man in town had done something crooked at some time in his career—that life was nothing but a gamble anyhow, and that a little cheating might sometimes help a fellow.
When he had learned, some months before, how greatly Mamie admired Will Cummins, he had thought it good policy to pretend a like admiration. While the girl was in Graniteville, away from her parents, he had seen her as often as he could, and had, he was sure, acted the part of a chivalrous gentleman. He had referred to his jail record in such a magnanimous way as to win her admiration and sympathy. And he had been magnanimous toward Cummins. He had stoutly maintained that even gentlemen of the road are men of honor, incapable of petty meanness, merely taking by force from some money-shark what was rightfully theirs by virtue of their being gentlemen. Therefore, he argued, no self-respecting highwayman would rob a man like Will Cummins—the merest hint that property belonged to him would be sufficient to protect it. He had waxed eloquent over the matter.
He was now appalled to think how his argument, though insincere, had been refuted. That Mamie had spoken those fatal words was not a ruse of his but an inexplicable accident. How could he ever see the girl again? And yet, in this one respect he was innocent, and he wished she might know it. Besides, he was man enough to sympathize with her in her awful predicament. With what horror she must be thinking of her part in the tragedy! There was considerable generosity in his nature, and he actually debated, criminal though he was, whether he might not better let Darcy keep the loot and stand by Mamie.
The girl or the gold? Is it surprising that the decision of J. C. P. Collins was similar to that of other Californians? Similar to Cummins', for example? He decided to make sure of the gold first and to think about the girl later. With six or eight thousand dollars in the bank he would be a more valuable friend than a poor man could be. After this affair had blown over, and he recalled the fact that Doc Mason had performed eleven autopsies on murdered men in the last ten years, and not one murderer had been hanged so far,—he would rescue Mamie from the demoralization of the gold fields and take her to live in St. Louis or New Orleans. And now he saw with some satisfaction that her apparent complicity in the crime would make life hard for her in Nevada City and impel her to accept such a proposal.
It might have been just as well if the rattlesnake coiled in his path at that moment had ended his existence, but the snake was indeed an honorable highwayman, and sounded a gentlemanly warning in the nick of time. Collins would have killed it for its pains, but killing had upset his nerves that day. So he left the reptile to try its fangs on a better man. Besides, he reflected that he could not consistently advocate capital punishment, and he sincerely hoped that his humane sentiments would spread in California. He recalled the fact that there was a strong party among the good people of the State, represented by several ladies who had brought him bouquets and jellies when he was in jail, who were trying to abolish capital punishment. Judging from Doc Mason's experience in murder cases, the efforts of these good people were not called for. And yet the law as it stood had unpleasant possibilities for Collins.
He was really sorry about Cummins. Of course, Cummins was a fool. A man of such character would not miss a few thousand dollars in the long run. What a fool he had been to risk his life! Of course, he, Collins, had risked his life, too. But how different were the two cases! Cummins had rich friends who would help him; Collins had no friends, barring a few silly women. His long suit was women. He really regretted Cummins' death more on Mamie's account than for any other reason.
Poor Mamie! But it must be the gold and not the girl this trip. When he had invested his capital and made his pile, he would play the prince to his Cinderella. They would both be glad to flee this country. Bah! the very soil was red! Golden blossoms sprung from it, but the roots were fed with blood. Collins was a young fellow, by no means a hardened criminal, and the excitement of the day stimulated intellect and emotion like the drug of a Chinaman.
He reached Dutch Flat in due season, and found several old cronies at the railroad station, where people were discussing the death of Cummins. He succeeded in showing the due amount of interest and no more, and was diplomatic enough not to suggest that the murderers were now on their way to San Francisco. He took the train going East according to schedule, and found Darcy playing poker in the smoking car. Collins betook himself to his pipe at the other end of the car, glad that night had come, and that he would soon bid farewell to the Sierras. He felt the train swing round the horse-shoe curve through Blue Canon, and shortly afterward he noticed that they had entered the snow sheds, which for forty-five miles tunnel the snow drifts of winter, and which in summer lie like a huge serpent across the summit of the mountains. Once out of the sheds they would speed down the valley from Truckee into Nevada.
The fugitives were well over the line before they took any notice of each other. Except for themselves the smoker was now empty, and they had prepared to spend the night there like honest miners who were down on their luck.
Collins remarked in an undertone:
"Darcy, we have given them the royal sneak."
"Know what I've been thinking?" replied Darcy. "I've been thinking of that wise remark of Ben Franklin's when he signed the Declaration of Independence."
"What was that?"
"We've got to hang together or we'll hang separately."
"That's no joke."
"You bet your soul it's no joke. And you'd better shut up and go to sleep."
Silence for ten minutes. Then Collins said,
"You're a tough nut to talk about sleep when you've killed the best man in Nevada County."
"Where would you be, J. C. P. Collins, if I hadn't killed him? You'd be in hell this minute."
"Thanks, awfully. But I wish the man wasn't dead."
"What did the fool put up a fight for? He could see we had him."
"That's what I say. He was a fool to risk his life. He could see there was no help coming from those sports."
"Well, Collins, there was one of them that made me feel nervous—that Chinaman. But the rest of them had him corralled. Mat Bailey couldn't do nothing up there in the air. Cummins was a fool, that's all."
"Must have wanted his gold pretty bad. And I wish to God he had it right now."
"Here, take a nip of brandy. Your health's getting delicate."
"Well, partner, no harm meant. But I must say I sympathize with Cummins. He and I have made the same choice to-day."
"The girl or the gold—and we both chose the gold. And I'll be hanged if I don't think we were both right."
A Council of War
Six days had elapsed. It was evening, and in the large room over Haggerty's store at Moore's Flat the lamps had been lighted. Here ten members of the Keystone Club had gathered to see if something might not be done to avenge the death of Cummins. Henry Francis presided; but the meeting was informal. These men had not met to pass resolutions, but to decide upon some line of action. So far not a trace of the murderers had been found, except for their discarded clothing. Sheriff Carter's blood-hounds had followed a hot scent to Deer Creek, several miles above Nevada City, and the posse who followed the dogs were led to a pool, in the bottom of which, weighted with stones, was the clothing. Further than this the dogs could not go. They were soon sneezing as the result of inhaling red pepper, scattered on the rocks. And the robbers had probably waded up or down stream to insure complete safety.
Several suspicious characters had passed over the railroad to Sacramento and San Francisco; but this was an every-day occurrence, and the police had learned the futility of arresting men who were probably innocent miners pursuing the gay life.
Nothing thus far had been accomplished. Hence the meeting over Haggerty's store. Dr. Mason and Mat Bailey were present. The doctor came because of a sense of civic duty. His British sense of justice had been outraged beyond endurance.
"You know, Mr. Francis," he said, "I have performed autopsies upon eleven murdered men within the last ten years; and in no case has one of the murderers been brought to justice. It is outrageous, scandalous. Decent men cannot afford to live in a community where people are more interested in making money than in enforcing the law. Decent men become marked men—marked for slaughter as Cummins was. We must do something, if only to protect ourselves."
"You are quite right, Doctor," replied Francis, "and we propose to investigate for ourselves. Did you notice any suspicious circumstance when you rode down from Eureka South the other day?"
The doctor could not think of anything important unless it was the remarks of the gamblers at Moore's Flat about shipping gold dust out of the country. But if they were accomplices they would hardly have spoken so carelessly. And why did they leave the stage at North Bloomfield? They were still there; but no one had observed anything remarkable in their behavior.
That Cummins was leaving California, probably with gold, was a well-known fact. That he would go armed, considering the character of the man, was almost certain. And this was a good reason why bankers at Moore's Flat or Lake City might ship bullion that fatal day. Mat Bailey nodded solemn assent, for he knew that this was sound logic.
It was now his turn to offer suggestions. A stage-driver is always a person of importance, especially in California. For the past six days Mat had found his public importance rather embarrassing. Every trip past the robbers' hiding-place had brought an avalanche of questions from curious passengers. Probably Mat Bailey had been forced to think of the tragedy more constantly than had any other person. His opinion ought to be valuable.
He hesitated, and seemed loath to speak his mind.
"Out with it, Mat," said Francis. "This hearing is among friends, not official. Tell us just what you think."
"Well," replied Mat, "there is one circumstance you gentlemen ought to know. Up to this time nobody has mentioned it; and I hate to be the first to speak of it."
Everybody's interest was aroused. After a pause Mat continued:
"When the robber was going over the baggage he came to Mr. Cummins' valise, and asked, 'Whose is this?' One of the passengers spoke up and said, 'That belongs to Mr. Cummins.' Then the row began."
"Who is the guilty man?" cried Francis.
Mat looked embarrassed: "It wasn't a man. It was Miss Slocum."
There was a moment of silence. Everybody was shocked, and trying to work out in his own mind some logical connection between the school-teacher and the crime.
"That's where you've got us guessing, Mat," said one. "What can a crowd of bachelors do if you drag a woman into the case?"
"And yet," said another, "what else ought we to expect? A woman's at the bottom of everything, you know."
"Yes, we would none of us be here in this wicked world except for our mothers," remarked the doctor sarcastically. "How has Miss Slocum been acting since the tragedy, Mat? I must confess I can't think ill of that girl."
"Well, Doctor," replied Mat, "she has acted just as you would expect an innocent girl to act. She's been all broken up—down sick a good part of the time. And I don't believe there's a man, woman, or child in Nevada City who mourns Will Cummins more than she does. That's why I hate to mention her name. And that's why I haven't said anything up to this time. But some of those cowards who looked on while Cummins was murdered have begun to talk; so you would have heard the story sooner or later anyhow. Still, I hate to mention the girl's name."
"You have done right," said Francis. "The girl might have helped the robbers without intending to. Frightened out of her wits, perhaps. Somebody might question her kindly, and see what's back of this. And, gentlemen, as Bailey spends a good deal of his time at Nevada City, it seems to me he is the man to follow up this clue. Call on the girl, Mat, and see what you can find out."
So out of a sordid tragedy there was spun a thread of romance. The school-teacher and the stage-driver are about the only characters who do not require the "gold cure." Mat had ridden over the mountains at all seasons until he loved them. His chief delights were the companionship of his stout horses and his even more intimate companionship with nature. To scare up a partridge, to scent the pines, to listen to the hermit thrush were meat and drink to him. That there was gold in these noble mountains moved him very little, though this fact provided him with a livelihood for which he was duly grateful. The school-teacher was fortunate to be brought up with a sharp turn so early in life, and to find so true a friend as Mat Bailey.
But this was only the beginning of the council at Moore's Flat. It was suggested that John Keeler, Cummins' old partner, be employed to scour the country in search of the assassins. There was no more trustworthy man in Eureka Township than Keeler. His affection for Cummins was well known. But his peculiarities might unfit him for the proposed mission. His Southern sense of chivalry unfitted him for detective work that might involve deceit and downright lying. He cared more for his honor than he did for money, and had been known to refuse very tempting offers. Finally, he was opposed to violence. He had refused to act as a watchman for a ditch company on the ground that he might be expected to shoot some one. It was a question whether Keeler could be induced to bring a man to the gallows.
Presently, Dr. Mason spoke up:
"You couldn't employ a better man than Keeler. He is the soul of honor, as you all admit. For several years he was Cummins' partner. As sheriff of Nevada County he would free it of thugs and murderers as he frees every claim that he works of rattlesnakes. He is death on rattlers. Killed more than a hundred of them last summer. But the lawless element of this county take mighty good care that Keeler is not elected sheriff. So much the better for us, for he is free to manage this business."
The doctor's speech made an impression. But these Californians had not yet learned the value of honor. They seemed to think that they could catch the murderers if they put up enough money. They themselves were too busy making money to hunt down the outlaws; but they assumed that money would do it; and they were willing to put up thousands of dollars. But numerous rewards for the apprehension of desperadoes were outstanding at that very hour; and the desperadoes were still at large. As a money-making proposition, mining with all its uncertainties was more attractive than professional detective work. Then again, these Californians could not trust a man actuated by motives higher than their own. Indeed, their chairman, Henry Francis himself, for some subtle reason which it would have been well for him to analyze, was opposed to employing honest John Keeler. It would have been well for Francis, before it was too late, to realize to what an extent money standards were replacing honor in his own life. It takes determination, loyalty, devotion, to accomplish a difficult task; and such qualities cannot be bought.
When Captain Jack and his Modocks held a council of war in their lava beds, they accomplished things which it was beyond the power of these fortune-hunters to accomplish. Captain Jack had no gold, but the skill, loyalty, and devotion of every Indian of his band were at his command. And yet Francis would have imagined himself the superior of Captain Jack.
As time was passing, with little accomplished, Francis suggested that they might first decide upon the amount to be offered as a reward for the apprehension of the murderers. It was voted to offer a reward of $10,000, or $5,000 for either of the two men.
"Now, gentlemen," said Francis, "I shall have to go over to Fillmore Hill to-morrow to see Mr. Palmer, who holds a note against Will Cummins. You know I am settling the estate. Keeler will be over there, they say, and I will talk with him. But on the way over, I shall look up a man worth two of John Keeler in a business like this."
"Who is that?" asked the doctor.
"Mr. William Brown."
No one seemed to know William Brown.
"He lives a mile up the canon," continued Francis.
"Oh, you mean Bed-bug Brown," said Mat Bailey.
"Yes," replied Francis, "that's the name he commonly goes by."
"I know the man," said the doctor. "Says he came here in '54 and that he has had a picnic ever since. Though he couldn't have had much of a picnic that first winter, when he camped out by the big log; and only a few winters ago Palmer had to send him a quarter of beef."
"Well, Brown is a born detective," said Francis. "He worked up the Caffey case like a professional."
Ben Caffey's brother had been hanged in Wisconsin, in the region of the lead mines, ten years before. He was innocent of the crime charged, and Ben had vowed vengeance on the jury. All twelve of the jurors, though scattered over the country from New Orleans to the canon of the Middle Yuba, had met violent deaths. The last man had been a neighbor of Brown's. Just before his death a stranger with a limp left arm had appeared at Moore's Flat; and Brown had proved to his own satisfaction that the same man with a limp arm had appeared at New Orleans just before the death of the eleventh juror in that city. The man with the limp arm was Ben Caffey. Such was Brown's story. People had not paid much attention to it, nor to the murdered man's lonely grave by the river. Henry Francis, evidently, gave Brown full credence, but others present regarded "Bed-bug Brown" as a joke. True, he was an intelligent little man. He had taught school at Graniteville several winters, and had succeeded better at this business than at placer mining on the bars of the Middle Yuba. But "Bed-bug Brown," perennial picnicker, was not a scientific sleuth.
So when the council of war broke up, a feeling of skepticism prevailed. Mat Bailey saw more possibilities in his own suggestion than in the $10,000 reward. Dr. Mason saw more possibilities, however slight, in the reward than in the proposed detective. And Henry Francis, though he had known Cummins from boyhood, and was even now settling up his estate, pretended to see more possibilities in a stranger than in honest John Keeler—or himself.
Old Man Palmer
Robert Palmer, tall, thin, bent with toil, had lived in California thirty years. In May, 1849, when the snow drifts were still deep in the canons of the Sierras, he had crossed the mountains, past Donner Lake and the graves of the Donner party, through Emigrant's Gap, to the valley of the Sacramento. He was thirty-two years old at that time,—no mere youth, seeking treasure at the end of a rainbow. He was already a man of experience and settled habits, inured to hardship and adverse fortune. As a youth he had left his native hills of Connecticut, to sell clocks, first in the South and then in the lumber camps of Michigan. There, the business of Yankee pedlar having failed, he found himself stranded. His father was a prosperous farmer; but a stepmother ruled the household. So young Palmer hired out to a Michigan farmer, for he was one of those hardy New Englanders who ask no favors of fortune. Imagining a pretty frontier girl to be a sylvan goddess, with a Puritan's devotion he made love to her, only to be scorned for his modesty. But failure and disappointment served but to strengthen him, and he struck out for California.
He nearly perished on the way there, while crossing the deserts of Nevada. In Wyoming he had fallen into the hands of that brave true man, John Enos, then in his prime, who had guided Bonneville, Fremont and the Mormon pilgrims, and who,—living to the age of a hundred and four years,—saw the wilderness he had loved and explored for eighty years transformed to a proud empire. Enos had guided Fremont through Wyoming. It is rather too bad that Palmer could not have accompanied Fremont and Kit Carson when, in February, 1844, they crossed the snowy summit of the Sierras and descended through the deep drifts to Sutter's Fort and safety. That was four years before the discovery of gold in El Dorado County.
Palmer was not crazy for gold. Arrived in the Sacramento Valley, he spent three or four years at farming. Perhaps his Yankee shrewdness saw larger profits in hay and cattle than in washing gravel. But certainly his New England integrity and soberness of character were more in keeping with the spirit of the pioneer than with the spirit of the adventurer.
While reckless young men were swarming up the valleys of South, Middle and North Yuba, finding fabulous quantities of gold and squandering the same upon the Chinese harlots of Downieville, Robert Palmer was making hay while the sun shone, which was every day in the Sacramento Valley. But land titles were so uncertain that in 1853 he turned to mining,—at Jefferson, on the South Yuba. He prospered to such an extent that by 1859 he had sent $8,000 back to Connecticut to pay his debts; and he had laid by as much more. Frozen out of his claim by a water company—for without water a miner can do nothing—he sold out to the company in 1860, and went over to the Middle Yuba, where he bought a claim on Fillmore Hill, with a water ditch of its own.
Here Palmer lived and toiled for twenty years, washing the dirt and gravel of an ancient river-bed high up on the hill-top between Wolf Creek and the Middle Yuba. He rented water from his ditch, sometimes at the rate of two hundred and fifty dollars a month, to other miners. From the grass roots on the hillside some lucky fellows cleaned up $10,000 in a few days. For several years John Keeler and Will Cummins rented water from Palmer and helped the "old man" keep his ditch in repair.
The old man lived alone, industrious, and so economical as to excite the mirth or the pity of his rough neighbors. Some who heard that he had loaned $60,000 to a water company at 12 per cent. interest, regarded him contemptuously as a miser. How else explain his shabby clothes, his old rubber boots, that were out at the toes, his life of toil and self-denial? Palmer never gambled, nor caroused, nor spent money on women. He attended strictly to business, bringing to the bank at Moore's Flat from time to time gold dust of high grade, worth from $19 to $20 an ounce. And those who bought his gold marked how rough and torn were the old man's fingers, the nails broken and blackened and forced away from the flesh.
But Keeler and Cummins had seen through the rough exterior. They knew something of his charities. They had tasted his good cheer; for he kept a well-stocked larder. They had seen with amusement his family of pet cats seated at table with him, and each receiving its rations in due order, like so many children. Keeler told with glee about the old man's horse and mule, idly eating their heads off on the hillside. They had come to Palmer in payment of a debt, and although he had had a fair offer for the mule he had refused to sell, on the ground that without the mule the horse would be lonesome.
Robert Palmer knew what it was to be lonesome. True, he employed a hired man or two occasionally, and when he cleaned up his sluices he employed several—and, let it be said, he paid good wages. There were neighbors, but with most of them he had little in common. The Woolsey boys, at the ranch in the bottom of the canon, whose widowed mother had come from St. Louis to marry old Sherwood, had grown up under his kindly eye. In early boyhood their active limbs had scaled the forbidding ledges of Fillmore Hill, and Robert Palmer had granted them permission to hunt on his claim.
One night in his cabin on the mountain top, when the gold dust from the last clean-up had not yet been disposed of, he was startled by a noise outside. He blew out the light and hid his little bag of treasure in the ashes of his forge. None too soon, for there was a summons at the door, and when he opened it he was confronted by three masked men. With drawn pistols they demanded his money. He said he had none. It was useless to resist, so he let them bind him hand and foot. Again they demanded his money. Again he said he had none. They knew better, and they threatened to burn him alive in his cabin. But Palmer was firm. Then they burnt his legs with a hot poker, and threatened to shoot him, as they might have done with impunity in that lonesome place. Still he was firm, so they set him on the hot stove and tortured him in that way. One of the party, more humane than the rest, protested against more extreme measures; so that, after searching the cabin, they gave up their enterprise, baffled by that indomitable man. Before leaving him one of the men asked:
"Mr. Palmer, do you know us?"
Realizing that such knowledge meant death, he replied:
"No, I don't know any of you."
And so they left him. The lone miner no doubt had suspicions concerning several of his worthless neighbors; but to the day of his death he kept such suspicions to himself.
Is it any wonder, living in that lawless country, that Robert Palmer became almost a recluse? But why should he work so? He was working unselfishly for others, as you will see when you read his will, for his twenty-nine nephews and nieces. As if a heap of double eagles would be of any particular use to relatives who had well-nigh forgotten him! No, they had not forgotten. For one nephew borrowed money, which was, however, repaid, and one niece secured five hundred dollars by sharp practice worse than robbery. Robert Palmer made the mistake that many an unselfish man has made, the mistake that insurance companies insist is wisdom: he labored to provide others with gold, as though gold were a substitute for thrift, prudence, and self-reliance. Never mind, the old fellow did nephews and nieces no harm, though he disappointed several who had depended upon him to lift them from poverty; for in the end his hard-earned money was lost. His only legacy was his example of thrift, unselfishness, and integrity. When men go about gathering riches for others, let them gather things of the spirit. The answer to this, perhaps, is that even such riches cannot be transmitted, that every soul must enrich itself. That is true; but a noble character is at least inspiring, and leaves the whole world richer.
In the case of one nephew, Robert Palmer found a man who loved him but needed none of his gold. This man was an astronomer, who, returning from a scientific expedition to Behring Strait in 1869, paid his uncle a visit. At that time this meant a trip of forty miles into the mountains by stage and on horseback from the line of the newly constructed railroad; for the narrow gauge from Colfax to Nevada City was not built until 1876. It was a happy day for Robert Palmer when his sister's son,—covered with dust,—scaled Fillmore Hill. Here was a meeting of two strong men, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxons, large of frame, spare, rugged, their fair skin tanned by the blazing sun of California.
What a glorious visit they had! And how they revelled in a thousand recollections of their New England home! For nine days the astronomer shared his uncle's cabin, a new one, built of sawn timbers and boards, and quite comfortable. Several days they worked together in the mine; and when at last the hour of parting came, Robert Palmer sent by his nephew a present to his grandnephews in Washington, the astronomer's three small sons. It was the gold mined in those nine days, some one hundred and thirty dollars in value. Thereafter the boys played miners and stage-robbers and wild West generally, with sheet gold in the guise of yellow envelopes hidden away between the leaves of books to represent gold mines.
Two of a Kind
The day after the council of war at Moore's Flat, John Keeler crossed the canon of the Middle Yuba to talk over the death of his old partner with Robert Palmer. As he clambered up the steep side of Fillmore Hill to the claim he had worked with Cummins fifteen years before, all the poetry and all the sadness of life in California came over him. How vividly he remembered his arrival, at the age of eighteen, in this land of romance and adventure! He had reached Moore's Flat on the Fourth of July, 1860, when bronzed miners were celebrating in reckless fashion. The saloons were crowded, and card games were in progress, with gold coins stacked at the corners of the tables. Out of doors some red-faced fellows were running races in the streets and shouting like wild Indians. Over the door of a restaurant was the sign "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry," and the youth pondered the words of Scripture following these festive words, but not quoted by the enterprising proprietor.
He remembered now, after nineteen years, the strange aspect of nature in this strange land. What great mountains! What deep canons! What huge pines, with cones as large as a rolling-pin! The strange manzanita bushes, the chaparral, the buck-eye with its plumes, the fragrant mountain lily, like an Easter lily, growing wild. It had seemed good to him, a stranger in this strange land, to see old friends in the squirrels that scampered through the woods and crossed his path, to find alders, and blossoming dog-wood, the mountain brake, and his childhood's friend the mullen stalk. Even to this day when he came upon an orchid, or a wild rose, with its small pink petals (smaller in this red sterile soil than in his native country), or when a humming bird in its shining plumage came to sip honey from the flowers, or when in the still woods he heard the liquid notes of a hermit thrush, the romance and the reverence of youth thrilled him.
John Keeler was something of a poet, though the needs of his family at Eureka South kept the bread and butter question in the foreground. He must see "old man Palmer" to talk over the death of Cummins. He was comforted a little when the old man's small black dog, Bruce, came frisking down the trail to meet him; and when Sammy, the cat, tail in air and purring a thousand welcomes, rubbed his sleek fur against the visitor's boots, Keeler fore-tasted sweet solace for sorrow.
"Why, hello, Keeler! Mighty glad to see you!" And then in a changed voice, "You're fagged out. It's an all-fired steep trail. Come in."
"No, thank you," replied Keeler, and he seated himself upon a chair in the door-yard. "It's pleasant out here under the pines. I want to talk."
"I've been expecting you," said Palmer, "ever since the news came about Cummins."
"Well, if it wasn't for my wife and boy, I'd pull up stakes, and get out of California."
"Don't blame you. This thieving and promiscuous killing are enough to discourage anybody. Too bad they can't get the robbers, just this once, and string 'em up."
"I'm a peaceable man, as you know, Mr. Palmer. But I'd be willing to hang those fellows with my own hands. It wouldn't help Will Cummins any, but it would give me solid satisfaction."
"Well, Keeler, I'm glad of one thing, Cummins was a bachelor, like me, and not a married man."
"I've thought about that, but it don't give me any comfort. Will ought to have married years ago. His life might have counted for something then; but now it seems as if it had been wasted."
"Maybe you think my life's been wasted, too?"
"No, Mr. Palmer, you know I could never think that, after your kindness to Will and me."
"Well, Will Cummins was more generous than I ever was," answered Palmer. "Main trouble with Will was his temper, which was no better than mine. Every bad man in these mountains knew that Will Cummins was ready to treat him to his own medicine."
"Yes, I wish he hadn't said so much about defending yourself. I wish he hadn't carried a pistol that day. He wouldn't have been so ready to fight, perhaps."
"One thing certain," observed Palmer, "if he was going to carry a pistol at all, he ought to have had it handy, not under his duster."
"Well, it was natural to think the danger past when they had got safely away from the South Yuba. The robbers knew their man, and they played a shrewd game."
"It's easy enough to win when you play with loaded dice. I get boiling mad when I think of these low-down, worthless rascals who don't stop at any meanness, ready to commit murder for fifteen cents. They ought to be treated worse than rattlesnakes. But, as you said just now, all this don't help Will Cummins. But Will is all right, John. You know that as well as I do."
"I came up here to hear you say so. I've pretty near lost faith in God and man, I reckon."
"I lost faith in man long ago," answered Palmer, smiling sardonically. "If the fall of Adam and the curse of Cain are fables,—as they are, of course,—they are just as true as AEsop's fables, for all that. They hit off human nature. But man isn't all. I've never belonged to any church, as I've often told you. But the longer I live the more I trust in Providence. Will Cummins was a good man, and he's all right, I tell you."
"I feel that way myself. But I know my feeling in the matter don't alter the facts any. How do you figure it out?"
"Well, my creed's about this: in spite of all the wickedness, this is a beautiful old world. How gloriously the stars shine down every night upon these mountains! Or, take Bruce and Sammy here"—and the old man caressed his pets—"why, they love me to distraction. And I love both the scamps, I certainly do. But what is that to your affection for your partner, John Keeler? It is a good old world, I say. Then the Power that's in it and back of it, 'in whom we live and move and have our being,' is a good Power. Well, then, God is good. And that's all we need to know. If God is good, we can depend upon Him in life and death. We don't know what death means. But it's only a natural thing. It can't matter much. I will know more about it, I guess, when I am dead."
"I don't doubt you're right, Mr. Palmer. Once, back in Maryland, I heard a minister say that grief comes to open our hearts to God. It was at my mother's funeral. I reckon he was right, too. But my heart bleeds for Will Cummins."
Palmer looked at him critically a moment, as if weighing him in the balance. Then, as if completely satisfied with his friend, he spoke:
"John Keeler, I want to talk business. I want you to hunt those rascals down. I'll back you for any amount. I'm past sixty, or I might attend to the business myself. You're still a young man. I'll see that Mrs. Keeler and the boy lack for nothing while you are gone. And I don't expect you to take any risks. I simply want you to get the facts, then turn them over to the authorities. Will you do it?"
Keeler hesitated. "There's very little to go on. The robbers have cleared out, and nobody knows who they were or where they went."
"Don't you believe it," said Palmer. "If decent people don't know, there are the other kind."
"I reckon you and I would be about as helpless as babes with 'the other kind.' We've always despised them and kept away from them."
"But they're human, like the rest of us. You and I understand human nature pretty well. We won't breathe a word to any one. You tell Mrs. Keeler you're attending to important business for me, that I'm grub-staking you, and that there's something in it for you and the family. If the neighbors get wind of it, they'll think, perhaps, you are attending to money matters for me. They seem to be mighty curious about my money."
"Well, I might do it, if I only knew how to go about it."
"Well, Keeler, I think I can give you a start. And while we eat some dinner I'll tell you a story that will surprise you."
These Californians were certainly two of a kind; but then, two of a kind, though both be kings, is not a strong hand.
An Old Sweetheart
When his guest had been abundantly supplied with the best the larder afforded, not forgetting condensed milk for the coffee, Palmer began his story.
"Since you were here last, Keeler," he began, "I've been to San Francisco. Nothing remarkable about that, of course. Any man might have business at the Hibernia Bank. Then again, it's worth the trip from Moore's Flat just to stand on the seashore an hour."
"Yes," said Keeler with enthusiasm, "there's a noble sight."
"But," continued Palmer, "I'm too old a man for pleasure trips. And for that matter, I'm about through with business, too. I went to San Francisco for a special reason."
Keeler looked up from his coffee inquiringly.
"I went to see an old sweetheart."
Here Keeler smiled. It seemed odd to think of old man Palmer going upon such a mission.
"I suppose I ought to say that the woman snubbed me when I was young, and later cared more for my money than she did for me. But I loved that woman thirty years ago, and was fool enough to think I might win her if I could strike it rich here in California. I'm older now, and wiser, I hope. If a woman won't marry a man 'for richer or poorer'—especially poorer—she oughtn't to marry him at all. There's my nephew who was out here ten years ago. Married without a dollar and got the best wife in the world. No, Keeler; I may be a fool; but I'm not the kind of fool to marry an old woman because she hankers after my money.
"I went to San Francisco because I pity the woman, and because I thought I might help her to become more decent and self-respecting."
Here the old man paused. Keeler noticed that he was much embarrassed.
"I would have kept this affair to myself, Keeler; but we must get the rascals who shot Cummins, so you ought to know the whole story.
"Harriet Chesney was a pretty girl thirty years ago. Rather too proud of her good looks, and a selfish minx. But a young man who has had a good mother thinks all women are good, I guess. I was terribly cut up when she refused me; but I hate to think now what might have happened if she had accepted me!"
"Why, here ten years back, a brother of mine in Michigan wrote to warn me that Harriet Chesney was coming to California to murder me. He said she had burned two houses for the insurance; had got mixed up with several men and had robbed them."
"A regular she-devil," remarked Keeler.
"Well, sure enough, she turned up here in California, nearly ten years ago. And very likely she would have killed me if she could have got hold of my property. And if all the gold I ever mined could have saved her from the sin and misery of these past ten years, she would have been welcome to it. But I couldn't buy her a clear conscience, could I?
"She got as far as Moore's Flat. Hung around there several days till she saw me at Haggerty's store. My old clothes must have disappointed her. It would certainly humiliate any woman, good or bad, to associate with such a scarecrow. So she cleared out, and went to San Francisco. I guess she found out she was only a novice compared with the women down there. And I guess in a year or two she was like all the rest. I tell you, it was an awful thing to think of. It's bad enough to see a man go wrong—but a woman!—and a woman you once loved—and still love, as God still loves her!"
The old man had to pause here; and he arose abruptly, as if to put aside his dishes; and Keeler, respecting his emotion, looked out of the window.
"Well, last March, Harriet wrote me a letter. Gave me her address. Said she was dying, and would like to see me. It was a week or more before the letter reached me, for the trails were badly drifted and I had been shut up here some time. John Woolsey brought the letter, and stayed until I read it, to see if anything was wanted. Said he would look out for Bruce and Sammy, so I got on my snow-shoes and started.
"I reached San Francisco next day. I almost wished the woman was dead, as she had a right to be by that time. If she was dead, I wouldn't have to say anything to hurt her. Well, I called at the address she gave, which was in the edge of Chinatown. I tell you it was disgusting to run the gauntlet there, among those creatures.—I found the woman had been taken to the city hospital several days before and whether she was dead or alive the head she-devil of the place didn't seem to know or care.
"I found her at the hospital, sure enough. The doctor said she was getting better, and would probably live. I didn't know whether to be glad or sorry; and I was tempted to go home and write her a letter. She might not care to see me now, anyway.
"But I stayed and had a talk with her; and I am glad I did, though I couldn't help remembering the old rhyme,
"When the Devil was sick, the Devil a saint would be: When the Devil got well, the devil a saint was he."
"Harriet Chesney needed a friend, and she was glad to see me. She was more than glad to know that I had come as soon as I could. Said she had told herself I would not fail her—that it was the snow and the canon and not some other reason that kept me away. Said she thought she was going to die; and that she wanted me to know she was sorry she had done wrong. The doctor had told her she would get well, so she was going to be an honest woman if I would help her. And what do you suppose she wanted me to do?"
"Lend her some money, most likely," said Keeler.
"No, sir. She didn't want any money. Said she wanted to write to me every Sunday, and to see me whenever I came to San Francisco. Of course, I agreed, though I told her I don't go down to the city once a year, as a usual thing. I told her if she thought she needed me to write and I would try to get down. That seemed to satisfy her.
"Well, she has written to me every week since then. By the first of June she was able to work. And since then she has earned an honest living, scrubbing floors. Here is her last letter."
Keeler took the proffered sheet and read:
"San Francisco, Sept. 5, 1879. Mr. Robert Palmer.
I have just read about the murder of Mr. Cummins. The papers say he lived at Moore's Flat, and worked a claim once on Fillmore Hill. So he must have been a friend of yours. It is too bad. I might help you find the murderers, as all the bad men of Nevada County are known down here. If you will come down here or send somebody, I will help you all I can.
I am getting along all right.
Very respectfully, Harriet Somers."
"I thought you said her name was Chesney," remarked Keeler, as he returned the letter.
"Oh well, she claims to have been married to two or three different men. Calling herself Mrs. Somers seems to help her keep her self-respect. She says Somers is dead. For my part, I never enquired whether there ever was a sure-enough Mr. Somers or not. But I am sure she can help us in this business. I wish you would have a talk with the woman."
"There is no harm in that. I'll do it. And if I can find anything to go on, I'll undertake to follow up those fellows. Perhaps I can find out something at Nevada City. I reckon I'll have to let you look out for Mrs. Keeler and the boy, as you say."
"I'm mighty glad to hear you say that. And I'll make out a check right now. Smith, the livery man at Eureka South, will cash it; and you can take the stage out to-morrow morning."
"All right. I reckon we'd better not lose any time."
Palmer had already got out pen and ink. It was something of a "chore" for the old man to draw a check. Miners' paralysis was creeping on, and two years later the best he could do was to make his mark. But to-day he prolonged his labors, making out a second check, to be cashed when Keeler reached San Francisco.
The business was hardly transacted when Henry Francis walked in.
"Glad to see you, Francis!" exclaimed the old man. "What news from Moore's Flat?" He exchanged glances with Keeler which seemed to mean that their business should be regarded as strictly private, although Henry Francis was the friend of both, and had won the confidence and affection of old man Palmer. Francis and Palmer held the same political faith. The former came of a distinguished Democratic family, so that the old man's protection and loyalty had been bestowed upon him upon his arrival in the gold fields twenty years before. Furthermore, the old man had proved the unfailing honesty of the younger man. Jew bankers, in blowing dirt and impurities from gold dust offered for sale, were not over-careful about blowing away gold dust, too, which would be caught on buckskin placed out of sight behind the counter. Palmer's dust was very fine, and more than once he had suffered through such sharp practice, only to vow he never would suffer so again. In Francis he had found a strictly honest banker, whose virtue he was inclined to attribute to correct political principles, overlooking the moral delinquencies of other Democratic neighbors. But the old man, through long years of experience with human nature in California, had grown extremely cautious and secretive. Probably no one would ever have been the wiser in regard to his old sweetheart and her sad history except for the escape of Cummins' murderers. And now it was not necessary that any man other than Keeler should know.
"Glad to see you, Francis. What news from Moore's Flat?"
Francis looked grave. "I suppose Keeler has told you all I know. Seven days gone and nothing heard of the robbers. I shall expect a telegram to-morrow or next day, telling of Will Cummins' burial in the village cemetery at home. And his old father and mother are going to be denied the small comfort of knowing that the murderers have been caught.
"Keeler, you were Cummins' partner once. Do you have any idea who the robbers were?"
"I am sorry to say, I don't. This country is full of bad men. I have thought of the blacklegs along Kanaka Creek. A robbery in Jackass Ravine was traced to that gang. But the rascals stand together, and are ready to defend a partner with alibis or pistols."
If Keeler felt constrained to withhold information about his intended visit to San Francisco in the capacity of detective, Francis on his part saw no reason to state that he had just employed Bed-bug Brown in a similar capacity. For in descending the canon of the Middle Yuba, he had gone a mile out of his way up the river to the cabin of this worthy gentleman, and finding him at home had promptly engaged his services. Brown, like Keeler, was to take the stage to Nevada City on the morrow, provided with a fee for current expenses.
"Well," said Palmer, "I am glad for my part that the California gold craze is coming to an end. When the farmers down in the Sacramento Valley get the upper hand, they will stop hydraulic mining, for it keeps covering their good soil with sand and clay. The Government authorities say we are filling up San Francisco Bay, too; so Uncle Sam is going to step in and do something. Then those rowdies along Kanaka Creek and all the other bad men in this country will have to move on."
"And so will the rest of us," smiled Francis. "A man who has made his pile can afford to retire. But what about Keeler here, and me?"
"Well," persisted Palmer, "I think Will Cummins was right in wanting to leave the gold fields. Gold makes people crazy. Half our gamblers and thieves would be decent men in a decent community."
"Mr. Palmer means," said Keeler, "that Pat Flynn, who is a good Democrat, but who doesn't pay back the fifty dollars he borrowed from Mr. Palmer last winter, would be a better Democrat back in Connecticut, making wooden hams and nutmegs." With this he shook hands with his friends and departed, for it was evident Francis had some private business with the old man.
When they were alone, Francis said:
"You know, Mr. Palmer, that we Pennsylvanians stand together. I have undertaken to settle up Cummins' affairs. I find you hold his note for a thousand dollars."
"I do. Lent him the money when he made a fresh start a few years back. But I supposed I stood to lose it when the robbers took Cummins' gold the other day. I certainly could afford to lose it."
"Well, you don't have to lose it, Mr. Palmer. Cummins left mining stock at the bank in my care that will more than cover the debt. The fact is, I borrowed the value of the stock from him. Strictly speaking, I got him to put a couple of thousand into a paying proposition; and he left everything in my hands. So I am going to get you to cancel Cummins' note and to take mine instead."
"Francis, you are an honest man. The money is no great object with me. But because I have found out that honesty is a thing that ought to be encouraged, especially among friends, I will take your note and cancel the other."
So this business was settled. Robert Palmer, governed by kindly feeling rather than hard sense, overlooked his friend's weakness for speculation, rather counting it as honesty.
"Bed-Bug Brown," Detective
When Mat Bailey drove the stage out of Graniteville the next morning, John Keeler and "Bed-bug Brown" were the only passengers. Brown had spent the previous evening learning all that he could about Mamie Slocum and her young admirers. He had actually learned that a young man from Nevada City who signed himself J. C. P. Collins had paid her attentions. He had also discovered that the young school-teacher had more than once expressed much admiration for Mat Bailey. In view of what Henry Francis had told him of Mat's reflections on the school-teacher, Brown resolved, quietly and of his own accord, to keep an eye upon Mat as well as upon Mamie.
The little man was unusually quiet, revolving various theories in his head, and contemplating the magnificence of the ten thousand dollar reward. But the presence of John Keeler, Cummins' old partner, suggested the wisdom of gleaning information from this source. So, in order to impress Keeler with his seniority and larger experience, he began:
"You don't remember, I suppose, Mr. Keeler, when camels were introduced here in the gold fields?"
"No, that was before my time."
"It was back in fifty-six, before the water-ditch companies had fairly got started. It was as dry as Sahara on these mountains then, and it is no wonder somebody thought of camels."
"Well, when you think of our ostrich farms, camels don't seem out of place in California. Did you ever think, Mr. Brown, what extremes of climate we have right here in Nevada County? Along about the tenth of December they are cutting ice up in the Sierras while they are picking oranges in the western end of the county."
"That is pretty good for the banner gold county of the State. Most of us forget everything but the gold," replied Brown, smiling inwardly, to think how easily this remark would lead up to the desired topic.
"I'm getting sick of the gold," replied honest John Keeler. "All that was handy to get at has been carried away. No chance left for a poor man. It takes a big company with capital to run the business of hydraulic mining as they do at Moore's Flat and North Bloomfield. Quartz mining is still worse. By the time you've sunk a shaft and put up a stamping-mill, you've mortgaged your quartz for more than it is worth, perhaps. It takes capital to run a quartz mine."
"Yes," assented Brown, "this country has seen its best days."
"That's what old man Palmer says," remarked Keeler, looking across the canon at Palmer's Diggings.
"You and Cummins did pretty well over there fifteen years ago," and the little detective's eyes twinkled at his own cleverness.
"We made a living; that's about all."
"But Cummins was a wealthy man some years back."
"Well, his partner never was," laughed Keeler. "If I could scrape together the dust, I'd leave these mountains as he tried to."
"Who do you suppose the robbers were?"
"If I could make a good guess, I'd go after that ten thousand dollar reward," replied Keeler.
"There's an awful tough gang over in Jim Crow Canon," said Brown, throwing out another feeler.
"Can you tell me of a place in these gold fields where you won't find a tough gang? I was in Forest City the other day. I took the trail over the mountains through Alleghany. Both of those places are live towns with cemeteries,—well settled places, you know. But a tougher lot of citizens you never saw. Gambling, drinking, and fighting, and Sunday the worst day of the seven."
"What impresses me most about Alleghany," said Brown, "is the vast number of tin cans on the city dump. It makes a man hungry for the grub his mother used to cook."
"You're right there," said Keeler, and lapsed into silence.
They were at Moore's Flat presently, where they changed to the four-horse stage-coach; and the little detective's attention was absorbed by the actions of Mat Bailey, who seemed strangely quiet. A guilty conscience, perhaps?
Several people were going down to Nevada City. So Keeler and Brown did not resume their conversation, but journeyed on, each absorbed in his own thoughts. To Keeler the trip was a sad one. In the dark woods along Bloody Run, and as they passed the tall rock by the roadside beyond, he thought of robbers and his murdered partner. At the store in North Bloomfield he could hardly resist the impulse to insult the cowardly store-keeper who had stood by and allowed Cummins to be shot. As they dove down into the canon of the South Yuba, he groaned to think of the murders for gold committed therein. Could not a protecting Providence have saved his friend? Was it the decree of fate that one who had manfully defended the right for twenty-five years in that lawless country should be cut off just when he was quitting it forever? Perhaps, he thought, this very hour his partner was being laid at rest in his "ain countree."—And his soul? Well, he believed as Palmer did, that all is well with the soul of a brave man. Was he, Keeler, on a fool's errand to San Francisco? Well, he had determined on his own account to do a little investigating in Nevada City that very day. So had Mat Bailey. Hence his unusual taciturnity. So had "Bed-bug Brown," and he kept the secret to himself.
Arrived at Nevada City, with its steep streets, compactly built up at the centre of the town, church and county court-house on the hillside, the traveler finds himself fairly out of the mountains, the luring fatal mountains, whose very soil has now the color of gold and now the color of blood. Mat Bailey's first concern was the care of his horses. Keeler went to look up his friend Sheriff Carter. And "Bed-bug Brown" partook of a frugal dinner at the moderate cost of two bits. He sat where he could observe the movements of Mat, and lingered in the neighborhood until the stage-driver had disposed of his own dinner and set out to call upon Mamie Slocum.
This young lady now spent most of her time at home. She had hardly recovered from the shock of the tragedy; and her imagination had conjured up a visit from the sheriff for her part therein. Instead it was only that splendid Mat Bailey, flicking the dust from his boots with his handkerchief, and mustering up courage to knock at the door! How glad she was to see him! And Mat thought that she looked very sad and pretty! She conducted him to the parlor, and proffered the seat of honor, a hair-cloth rocking-chair.
"Let me call Mother. She will be so glad to hear about her friends in Graniteville."
"I'd rather see you alone, if you don't mind." And Mat blushed through his tan, but assured himself that duty prompted, if pleasure did consent. It was the best arrangement all round, as "Bed-bug Brown" himself thought,—for this worthy gentleman was eaves-dropping in the cellar, with only a floor of thin boards between himself and these interesting young people.
Under other circumstances Miss Slocum would have been fascinated at the idea of a tete-a-tete with this interesting, stalwart man of the mountains. But something in his manner, and her own overwrought nerves, told her there was trouble ahead. Should she run away, should she use a woman's wiles in self-defense, or should she confide in this handsome man? Distracted by these conflicting thoughts, she presented a charming picture of alarmed innocence, as Bailey thought; and his heart yearned to offer protection.
"Miss Slocum, I don't know how to put it, and I don't know what mean things you are going to think of me"—
And now Mamie began to sympathize with the big stage-driver, who seemed as much embarrassed as she.
"The fact is, Mr. Francis asked me to see you."
"Mr. Francis is a good friend of mine. He secured the school at Graniteville for me."
Bailey, grateful for this help, continued:
"He thought I might inquire about a matter"—
"Heavens!" thought Mamie, "does Mr. Francis know about my trouble? Mat Bailey must have told him!" If her intuition guided her truly in this matter, it no less truly recognized a friend in Mat.
"The fact is"—he began, and then he hesitated. "Damn it!" he thought, "how could he say things that would hurt this lovely creature?"
"Mr. Bailey, I think I know what you mean. You want to know why I told that robber about Mr. Cummins's valise. It has nearly worried me to death; and I don't wonder you all demand an explanation."
"Don't put it that way, I beg of you, Miss Slocum!" exclaimed Mat, greatly relieved that she had come to his rescue, but no less greatly concerned that he should appear in the hateful character of accuser and informer. "We don't demand anything. We know you didn't have anything to do with those robbers. Mr. Cummins was a friend of yours; and you wouldn't do nothing to injure an enemy!"
Mat could use negatives properly when not excited.
The conversation was becoming less and less interesting to the little man in the cellar. But it was not easy to beat a retreat.
Mamie began to weep softly, but more from joy than otherwise. After the strain of the past week these honest words of Mat were balm to her.
"I—I will tell you everything, Mr. Bailey. Oh, how I have wanted to talk to some friend about it! But it was so dreadful! I couldn't breathe a word of it even to Mother."
Mat was all tenderness now; and the man under the floor began to prick up his ears.
"I was talking with a young man only a week before that dreadful day, and he said highwaymen are too generous to steal money from people like Mr. Cummins. And that the best thing anyone could do when a stage is robbed would be to tell the robbers about the property of passengers like him. I didn't believe it at first, and now I know how frightfully foolish I was. But the young man, who had been in jail once himself, was so positive, that I really believed a criminal has a sense of honor. And when the robber asked whose valise that was, I was so frightened the words came right out before I realized what I had done."
"Every word you say is God's truth, Miss Slocum, and I hope you will forgive me for bothering you this way." It did occur to Mat that he might inquire who that young jail-bird might be. And "Bed-bug Brown" was hoping that his name would be mentioned. But Mat reflected that this was none of his business; and that it did not matter anyhow. If Miss Slocum did not care to mention the man's name he would not ask for it. She had behaved nobly, and he admired her from the bottom of his heart.
"Really, Mr. Bailey, I am glad you gave me this chance to explain. You don't know what I have suffered. And then to think that I deserved to suffer it, and more, too, for causing the death of my own friend!" And here the tears came again, honest tears, as Mat knew full well. He rather envied Cummins that so beautiful a creature should grieve for him.