WE all held our breath as the coach rushed through the semi-darkness of Galloper’s Ridge. The vehicle itself was only a huge lumbering shadow; its side-lights were carefully extinguished, and Yuba Bill had just politely removed from the lips of an outside passenger even the cigar with which he had been ostentatiously exhibiting his coolness. For it had been rumored that the Ramon Martinez gang of “road agents” were “laying” for us on the second grade, and would time the passage of our lights across Galloper’s in order to intercept us in the “brush” beyond. If we could cross the ridge without being seen, and so get through the brush before they reached it, we were safe. If they followed, it would only be a stern chase with the odds in our favor.
The huge vehicle swayed from side to side, rolled, dipped, and plunged, but Bill kept the track, as if, in the whispered words of the Expressman, he could “feel and smell” the road he could no longer see. We knew that at times we hung perilously over the edge of slopes that eventually dropped a thousand feet sheer to the tops of the sugar-pines below, but we knew that Bill knew it also. The half visible heads of the horses, drawn wedge-wise together by the tightened reins, appeared to cleave the darkness like a ploughshare, held between his rigid hands. Even the hoof-beats of the six horses had fallen into a vague, monotonous, distant roll. Then the ridge was crossed, and we plunged into the still blacker obscurity of the brush. Rather we no longer seemed to move—it was only the phantom night that rushed by us. The horses might have been submerged in some swift Lethean stream; nothing but the top of the coach and the rigid bulk of Yuba Bill arose above them. Yet even in that awful moment our speed was unslackened; it was as if Bill cared no longer to guide but only to drive, or as if the direction of his huge machine was determined by other hands than his. An incautious whisperer hazarded the paralyzing suggestion of our “meeting another team.” To our great astonishment Bill overheard it; to our greater astonishment he replied. “It ‘ud be only a neck and neck race which would get to h-ll first,” he said quietly. But we were relieved—for he had spoken! Almost simultaneously the wider turnpike began to glimmer faintly as a visible track before us; the wayside trees fell out of line, opened up, and dropped off one after another; we were on the broader table-land, out of danger, and apparently unperceived and unpursued.
Nevertheless in the conversation that broke out again with the relighting of the lamps, and the comments, congratulations, and reminiscences that were freely exchanged, Yuba Bill preserved a dissatisfied and even resentful silence. The most generous praise of his skill and courage awoke no response. “I reckon the old man waz just spilin’ for a fight, and is feelin’ disappointed,” said a passenger. But those who knew that Bill had the true fighter’s scorn for any purely purposeless conflict were more or less concerned and watchful of him. He would drive steadily for four or five minutes with thoughtfully knitted brows, but eyes still keenly observant under his slouched hat, and then, relaxing his strained attitude, would give way to a movement of impatience. “You ain’t uneasy about anything, Bill, are you?” asked the Expressman confidentially. Bill lifted his eyes with a slightly contemptuous surprise. “Not about anything ter come. It’s what hez happened that I don’t exackly sabe. I don’t see no signs of Ramon’s gang ever havin’ been out at all, and ef they were out I don’t see why they didn’t go for us.”
“The simple fact is that our ruse was successful,” said an outside passenger. “They waited to see our lights on the ridge, and, not seeing them, missed us until we had passed. That’s my opinion.”
“You ain’t puttin’ any price on that opinion, air ye?” inquired Bill politely.
“’Cos thar’s a comic paper in ’Frisco pays for them things, and I’ve seen worse things in it.”
“Come off, Bill,” retorted the passenger, slightly nettled by the tittering of his companions. “Then what did you put out the lights for?”
“Well,” returned Bill grimly, “it mout have been because I didn’t keer to hev you chaps blazin’ away at the first bush you thought you saw move in your skeer, and bringin’ down their fire on us.”
The explanation, though unsatisfactory, was by no means an improbable one, and we thought it better to accept it with a laugh. Bill, however, resumed his abstracted manner.
“Who got in at the Summit?” he at last asked abruptly of the Expressman.
“Derrick and Simpson of Cold Spring, and one of the ‘Excelsior’ boys,” responded the Expressman.
“And that Pike County girl from Dow’s Flat, with her bundles. Don’t forget her,” added the outside passenger ironically.
“Does anybody here know her?” continued Bill, ignoring the irony.
“You’d better ask Judge Thompson; he was mighty attentive to her; gettin’ her a seat by the off window, and lookin’ after her bundles and things.”
“Gettin’ her a seat by the window?” repeated Bill.
“Yes, she wanted to see everything, and wasn’t afraid of the shooting.”
“Yes,” broke in a third passenger, “and he was so d——d civil that when she dropped her ring in the straw, he struck a match agin all your rules, you know, and held it for her to find it. And it was just as we were crossin’ through the brush, too. I saw the hull thing through the window, for I was hanging over the wheels with my gun ready for action. And it wasn’t no fault of Judge Thompson’s if his d——d foolishness hadn’t shown us up, and got us a shot from the gang.”
Bill gave a short grunt, but drove steadily on without further comment or even turning his eyes to the speaker.
We were now not more than a mile from the station at the crossroads where we were to change horses. The lights already glimmered in the distance, and there was a faint suggestion of the coming dawn on the summits of the ridge to the west. We had plunged into a belt of timber, when suddenly a horseman emerged at a sharp canter from a trail that seemed to be parallel with our own. We were all slightly startled; Yuba Bill alone preserving his moody calm.
“Hullo!” he said.
The stranger wheeled to our side as Bill slackened his speed. He seemed to be a “packer” or freight muleteer.
“Ye didn’t get ‘held up’ on the Divide?” continued Bill cheerfully.
“No,” returned the packer, with a laugh; “I don’t carry treasure. But I see you’re all right, too. I saw you crossin’ over Galloper’s.”
“Saw us?” said Bill sharply. “We had our lights out.”
“Yes, but there was suthin’ white—a handkerchief or woman’s veil, I reckon—hangin’ from the window. It was only a movin’ spot agin the hillside, but ez I was lookin’ out for ye I knew it was you by that. Good-night!”
He cantered away. We tried to look at each other’s faces, and at Bill’s expression in the darkness, but he neither spoke nor stirred until he threw down the reins when we stopped before the station. The passengers quickly descended from the roof; the Expressman was about to follow, but Bill plucked his sleeve.
“I’m goin’ to take a look over this yer stage and these yer passengers with ye, afore we start.”
“Why, what’s up?”
“Well,” said Bill, slowly disengaging himself from one of his enormous gloves, “when we waltzed down into the brush up there I saw a man, ez plain ez I see you, rise up from it. I thought our time had come and the band was goin’ to play, when he sorter drew back, made a sign, and we just scooted past him.”
“Well,” said Bill, “it means that this yer coach was passed through free to-night.”
“You don’t object to that—surely? I think we were deucedly lucky.”
Bill slowly drew off his other glove. “I’ve been riskin’ my everlastin’ life on this d——d line three times a week,” he said with mock humility, “and I’m allus thankful for small mercies. But,” he added grimly, “when it comes down to being passed free by some pal of a hoss thief, and thet called a speshal Providence, I ain’t in it! No, sir, I ain’t in it!”