IT WAS with mixed emotions that the passengers heard that a delay of fifteen minutes to tighten certain screw-bolts had been ordered by the autocratic Bill. Some were anxious to get their breakfast at Sugar Pine, but others were not averse to linger for the daylight that promised greater safety on the road. The Expressman, knowing the real cause of Bill’s delay, was nevertheless at a loss to understand the object of it. The passengers were all well known; any idea of complicity with the road agents was wild and impossible, and, even if there was a confederate of the gang among them, he would have been more likely to precipitate a robbery than to check it. Again, the discovery of such a confederate—to whom they clearly owed their safety—and his arrest would have been quite against the Californian sense of justice, if not actually illegal. It seemed evident that Bill’s quixotic sense of honor was leading him astray.
The station consisted of a stable, a wagon shed, and a building containing three rooms. The first was fitted up with “bunks” or sleeping berths for the employees; the second was the kitchen; and the third and larger apartment was dining-room or sitting-room, and was used as general waiting-room for the passengers. It was not a refreshment station, and there was no “bar.” But a mysterious command from the omnipotent Bill produced a demijohn of whiskey, with which he hospitably treated the company. The seductive influence of the liquor loosened the tongue of the gallant Judge Thompson. He admitted to having struck a match to enable the fair Pike Countian to find her ring, which, however, proved to have fallen in her lap. She was “a fine, healthy young woman—a type of the Far West, sir; in fact, quite a prairie blossom! yet simple and guileless as a child.” She was on her way to Marysville, he believed, “although she expected to meet friends—a friend, in fact—later on.” It was her first visit to a large town—in fact, any civilized centre—since she crossed the plains three years ago. Her girlish curiosity was quite touching, and her innocence irresistible. In fact, in a country whose tendency was to produce “frivolity and forwardness in young girls, he found her a most interesting young person.” She was even then out in the stable-yard watching the horses being harnessed, “preferring to indulge a pardonable healthy young curiosity than to listen to the empty compliments of the younger passengers.”
The figure which Bill saw thus engaged, without being otherwise distinguished, certainly seemed to justify the Judge’s opinion. She appeared to be a well-matured country girl, whose frank gray eyes and large laughing mouth expressed a wholesome and abiding gratification in her life and surroundings. She was watching the replacing of luggage in the boot. A little feminine start, as one of her own parcels was thrown somewhat roughly on the roof, gave Bill his opportunity. “Now there,” he growled to the helper, “ye ain’t carting stone! Look out, will yer! Some of your things, miss?” he added, with gruff courtesy, turning to her. “These yer trunks, for instance?”
She smiled a pleasant assent, and Bill, pushing aside the helper, seized a large square trunk in his arms. But from excess of zeal, or some other mischance, his foot slipped, and he came down heavily, striking the corner of the trunk on the ground and loosening its hinges and fastenings. It was a cheap, common-looking affair, but the accident discovered in its yawning lid a quantity of white, lace-edged feminine apparel of an apparently superior quality. The young lady uttered another cry and came quickly forward, but Bill was profuse in his apologies, himself girded the broken box with a strap, and declared his intention of having the company “make it good” to her with a new one. Then he casually accompanied her to the door of the waiting-room, entered, made a place for her before the fire by simply lifting the nearest and most youthful passenger by the coat collar from the stool that he was occupying, and, having installed the lady in it, displaced another man who was standing before the chimney, and, drawing himself up to his full six feet of height in front of her, glanced down upon his fair passenger as he took his waybill from his pocket.
“Your name is down here as Miss Mullins?” he said.
She looked up, became suddenly aware that she and her questioner were the centre of interest to the whole circle of passengers, and, with a slight rise of color, returned, “Yes.”
“Well, Miss Mullins, I’ve got a question or two to ask ye. I ask it straight out afore this crowd. It’s in my rights to take ye aside and ask it—but that ain’t my style; I’m no detective. I needn’t ask it at all, but act as ef I knowed the answer, or I might leave it to be asked by others. Ye needn’t answer it ef ye don’t like; ye’ve got a friend over ther—Judge Thompson—who is a friend to ye, right or wrong, jest as any other man here is—as though ye’d packed your own jury. Well, the simple question I’ve got to ask ye is this: Did you signal to anybody from the coach when we passed Galloper’s an hour ago?”
We all thought that Bill’s courage and audacity had reached its climax here. To openly and publicly accuse a “lady” before a group of chivalrous Californians, and that lady possessing the further attractions of youth, good looks, and innocence, was little short of desperation. There was an evident movement of adhesion towards the fair stranger, a slight muttering broke out on the right, but the very boldness of the act held them in stupefied surprise. Judge Thompson, with a bland propitiatory smile began: “Really, Bill, I must protest on behalf of this young lady”—when the fair accused, raising her eyes to her accuser, to the consternation of everybody answered with the slight but convincing hesitation of conscientious truthfulness:—
“Ahem!” interposed the Judge hastily, “er—that is—er—you allowed your handkerchief to flutter from the window,—I noticed it myself,—casually—one might say even playfully—but without any particular significance.”
The girl, regarding her apologist with a singular mingling of pride and impatience, returned briefly:—
“Who did you signal to?” asked Bill gravely.
“The young gentleman I’m going to marry.”
A start, followed by a slight titter from the younger passengers, was instantly suppressed by a savage glance from Bill.
“What did you signal to him for?” he continued.
“To tell him I was here, and that it was all right,” returned the young girl, with a steadily rising pride and color.
“Wot was all right?” demanded Bill.
“That I wasn’t followed, and that he could meet me on the road beyond Cass’s Ridge Station.” She hesitated a moment, and then, with a still greater pride, in which a youthful defiance was still mingled, said:
“I’ve run away from home to marry him. And I mean to! No one can stop me. Dad didn’t like him just because he was poor, and dad’s got money. Dad wanted me to marry a man I hate, and got a lot of dresses and things to bribe me.”
“And you’re taking them in your trunk to the other feller?” said Bill grimly.
“Yes, he’s poor,” returned the girl defiantly.
“Then your father’s name is Mullins?” asked Bill.
“It’s not Mullins. I—I—took that name,” she hesitated, with her first exhibition of self-consciousness.
“Wot is his name?”
A smile of relief and significance went round the circle. The fame of Eli or “Skinner” Hemmings, as a notorious miser and usurer, had passed even beyond Galloper’s Ridge.
“The step that you’re taking, Miss Mullins, I need not tell you, is one of great gravity,” said Judge Thompson, with a certain paternal seriousness of manner, in which, however, we were glad to detect a glaring affectation; “and I trust that you and your affianced have fully weighed it. Far be it from me to interfere with or question the natural affections of two young people, but may I ask you what you know of the—er—young gentleman for whom you are sacrificing so much, and, perhaps, imperiling your whole future? For instance, have you known him long?”
The slightly troubled air of trying to understand,—not unlike the vague wonderment of childhood,—with which Miss Mullins had received the beginning of this exordium, changed to a relieved smile of comprehension as she said quickly, “Oh yes, nearly a whole year.”
“And,” said the Judge, smiling, “has he a vocation—is he in business?”
“Oh yes,” she returned; “he’s a collector.”
“Yes; he collects bills, you know,—money,” she went on, with childish eagerness, “not for himself,—he never has any money, poor Charley,—but for his firm. It’s dreadful hard work, too; keeps him out for days and nights, over bad roads and baddest weather. Sometimes, when he’s stole over to the ranch just to see me, he’s been so bad he could scarcely keep his seat in the saddle, much less stand. And he’s got to take mighty big risks, too. Times the folks are cross with him and won’t pay; once they shot him in the arm, and he came to me, and I helped do it up for him. But he don’t mind. He’s real brave,—jest as brave as he’s good.” There was such a wholesome ring of truth in this pretty praise that we were touched in sympathy with the speaker.
“What firm does he collect for?” asked the Judge gently.
“I don’t know exactly—he won’t tell me; but I think it’s a Spanish firm. You see”—she took us all into her confidence with a sweeping smile of innocent yet half-mischievous artfulness— “I only know because I peeped over a letter he once got from his firm, telling him he must hustle up and be ready for the road the next day; but I think the name was Martinez—yes, Ramon Martinez.”
In the dead silence that ensued—a silence so profound that we could hear the horses in the distant stable-yard rattling their harness—one of the younger “Excelsior” boys burst into a hysteric laugh, but the fierce eye of Yuba Bill was down upon him, and seemed to instantly stiffen him into a silent, grinning mask. The young girl, however, took no note of it. Following out, with lover-like diffusiveness, the reminiscences thus awakened, she went on:—
“Yes, it’s mighty hard work, but he says it’s all for me, and as soon as we’re married he’ll quit it. He might have quit it before, but he won’t take no money of me, nor what I told him I could get out of dad! That ain’t his style. He’s mighty proud—if he is poor—is Charley. Why thar’s all ma’s money which she left me in the Savin’s Bank that I wanted to draw out—for I had the right—and give it to him, but he wouldn’t hear of it! Why, he wouldn’t take one of the things I’ve got with me, if he knew it. And so he goes on ridin’ and ridin’, here and there and everywhere, and gettin’ more and more played out and sad, and thin and pale as a spirit, and always so uneasy about his business, and startin’ up at times when we’re meetin’ out in the South Woods or in the far clearin’, and sayin’: ‘I must be goin’ now, Polly,’ and yet always tryin’ to be chiffle and chipper afore me. Why he must have rid miles and miles to have watched for me thar in the brush at the foot of Galloper’s to-night, jest to see if all was safe; and Lordy! I’d have given him the signal and showed a light if I’d died for it the next minit. There! That’s what I know of Charley—that’s what I’m running away from home for—that’s what I’m running to him for, and I don’t care who knows it! And I only wish I’d done it afore—and I would—if—if—if—he’d only asked me! There now!” She stopped, panted, and choked. Then one of the sudden transitions of youthful emotion overtook the eager, laughing face; it clouded up with the swift change of childhood, a lightning quiver of expression broke over it, and—then came the rain!
I think this simple act completed our utter demoralization! We smiled feebly at each other with that assumption of masculine superiority which is miserably conscious of its own helplessness at such moments. We looked out of the window, blew our noses, said: “Eh—what?” and “I say,” vaguely to each other, and were greatly relieved, and yet apparently astonished, when Yuba Bill, who had turned his back upon the fair speaker, and was kicking the logs in the fireplace, suddenly swept down upon us and bundled us all into the road, leaving Miss Mullins alone. Then he walked aside with Judge Thompson for a few moments; returned to us, autocratically demanded of the party a complete reticence towards Miss Mullins on the subject-matter under discussion, re-entered the station, reappeared with the young lady, suppressed a faint idiotic cheer which broke from us at the spectacle of her innocent face once more cleared and rosy, climbed the box, and in another moment we were under way.
“Then she don’t know what her lover is yet?” asked the Expressman eagerly.
“Are you certain it’s one of the gang?”
“Can’t say for sure. It mout be a young chap from Yolo who bucked agin the tiger1 at Sacramento, got regularly cleaned out and busted, and joined the gang for a flier. They say thar was a new hand in that job over at Keeley’s,—and a mighty game one, too; and ez there was some buckshot onloaded that trip, he might hev got his share, and that would tally with what the girl said about his arm. See! Ef that’s the man, I’ve heered he was the son of some big preacher in the States, and a college sharp to boot, who ran wild in ’Frisco, and played himself for all he was worth. They’re the wust kind to kick when they once get a foot over the traces. For stiddy, comf’ble kempany,” added Bill reflectively, “give me the son of a man that was hanged!”
“But what are you going to do about this?”
“That depends upon the feller who comes to meet her.”
“But you ain’t going to try to take him? That would be playing it pretty low down on them both.”
“Keep your hair on, Jimmy! The Judge and me are only going to rastle with the sperrit of that gay young galoot, when he drops down for his girl—and exhort him pow’ful! Ef he allows he’s convicted of sin and will find the Lord, we’ll marry him and the gal offhand at the next station, and the Judge will officiate himself for nothin’. We’re goin’ to have this yer elopement done on the square—and our waybill clean—you bet!”
“But you don’t suppose he’ll trust himself in your hands?”
“Polly will signal to him that it’s all square.”
“Ah!” said the Expressman. Nevertheless in those few moments the men seemed to have exchanged dispositions. The Expressman looked doubtfully, critically, and even cynically before him. Bill’s face had relaxed, and something like a bland smile beamed across it, as he drove confidently and unhesitatingly forward.
Day, meantime, although full blown and radiant on the mountain summits around us, was yet nebulous and uncertain in the valleys into which we were plunging. Lights still glimmered in the cabins and few ranch buildings which began to indicate the thicker settlements. And the shadows were heaviest in a little copse, where a note from Judge Thompson in the coach was handed up to Yuba Bill, who at once slowly began to draw up his horses. The coach stopped finally near the junction of a small crossroad. At the same moment Miss Mullins slipped down from the vehicle, and, with a parting wave of her hand to the Judge, who had assisted her from the steps, tripped down the crossroad, and disappeared in its semi-obscurity. To our surprise the stage waited, Bill holding the reins listlessly in his hands. Five minutes passed—an eternity of expectation, and, as there was that in Yuba Bill’s face which forbade idle questioning, an aching void of silence also! This was at last broken by a strange voice from the road:—
“Go on we’ll follow.”
The coach started forward. Presently we heard the sound of other wheels behind us. We all craned our necks backward to get a view of the unknown, but by the growing light we could only see that we were followed at a distance by a buggy with two figures in it. Evidently Polly Mullins and her lover! We hoped that they would pass us. But the vehicle, although drawn by a fast horse, preserved its distance always, and it was plain that its driver had no desire to satisfy our curiosity. The Expressman had recourse to Bill.
“Is it the man you thought of?” he asked eagerly.
“I reckon,” said Bill briefly.
“But,” continued the Expressman, returning to his former skepticism, “what’s to keep them both from levanting together now?”
Bill jerked his hand towards the boot with a grim smile.
“Oh!” said the Expressman.
“Yes,” continued Bill. “We’ll hang on to that gal’s little frills and fixin’s until this yer job’s settled, and the ceremony’s over, jest as ef we waz her own father. And, what’s more, young man,” he added, suddenly turning to the Expressman, “You’ll express them trunks of hers through to Sacramento with your kempany’s labels, and hand her the receipts and checks for them, so she can get ’em there. That’ll keep him outer temptation and the reach o’ the gang, until they get away among white men and civilization again. When your hoary-headed ole grandfather, or, to speak plainer, that partikler old whiskey-soaker known as Yuba Bill, wot sits on this box,” he continued, with a diabolical wink at the Expressman, “waltzes in to pervide for a young couple jest startin’ in life, thar’s nothin’ mean about his style, you bet. He fills the bill every time! Speshul Providences take a back seat when he’s around.”
When the station hotel and straggling settlement of Sugar Pine, now distinct and clear in the growing light, at last rose within rifleshot on the plateau, the buggy suddenly darted swiftly by us, so swiftly that the faces of the two occupants were barely distinguishable as they passed, and keeping the lead by a dozen lengths, reached the door of the hotel. The young girl and her companion leaped down and vanished within as we drew up. They had evidently determined to elude our curiosity, and were successful.
But the material appetites of the passengers, sharpened by the keen mountain air, were more potent than their curiosity, and, as the breakfast-bell rang out at the moment the stage stopped, a majority of them rushed into the dining-room and scrambled for places without giving much heed to the vanished couple or to the Judge and Yuba Bill, who had disappeared also. The through coach to Marysville and Sacramento was likewise waiting, for Sugar Pine was the limit of Bill’s ministration, and the coach which we had just left went no farther. In the course of twenty minutes, however, there was a slight and somewhat ceremonious bustling in the hall and on the veranda, and Yuba Bill and the Judge reappeared. The latter was leading, with some elaboration of manner and detail, the shapely figure of Miss Mullins, and Yuba Bill was accompanying her companion to the buggy. We all rushed to the windows to get a good view of the mysterious stranger and probable ex-brigand whose life was now linked with our fair fellow-passenger. I am afraid, however, that we all participated in a certain impression of disappointment and doubt. Handsome and even cultivated-looking, he assuredly was—young and vigorous in appearance. But there was a certain half-shamed, half-defiant suggestion in his expression, yet coupled with a watchful lurking uneasiness which was not pleasant and hardly becoming in a bridegroom—and the possessor of such a bride. But the frank, joyous, innocent face of Polly Mullins, resplendent with a simple, happy confidence, melted our hearts again, and condoned the fellow’s shortcomings. We waved our hands; I think we would have given three rousing cheers as they drove away if the omnipotent eye of Yuba Bill had not been upon us. It was well, for the next moment we were summoned to the presence of that soft-hearted autocrat.
We found him alone with the Judge in a private sitting-room, standing before a table on which there was a decanter and glasses. As we filed expectantly into the room and the door closed behind us, he cast a glance of hesitating tolerance over the group.
“Gentlemen,” he said slowly, “you was all present at the beginnin’ of a little game this mornin’, and the Judge thar thinks that you oughter be let in at the finish. I don’t see that it’s any of your d——d business—so to speak; but ez the Judge here allows you’re all in the secret, I’ve called you in to take a partin’ drink to the health of Mr. and Mrs. Charley Byng—ez is now comf’ably off on their bridal tower. What you know or what you suspects of the young galoot that’s married the gal ain’t worth shucks to anybody, and I wouldn’t give it to a yaller pup to play with, but the Judge thinks you ought all to promise right here that you’ll keep it dark. That’s his opinion. Ez far as my opinion goes, gen’l’men,” continued Bill, with greater blandness and apparent cordiality, “I wanter simply remark, in a keerless, offhand gin’ral way, that ef I ketch any God-forsaken, lop-eared, chuckle-headed blatherin’ idjet airin’ his opinion—”
“One moment, Bill,” interposed Judge Thompson with a grave smile; “let me explain. You understand, gentlemen,” he said, turning to us, “the singular, and I may say affecting, situation which our good-hearted friend here has done so much to bring to what we hope will be a happy termination. I want to give here, as my professional opinion, that there is nothing in his request which, in your capacity as good citizens and law-abiding men, you may not grant. I want to tell you, also, that you are condoning no offense against the statutes; that there is not a particle of legal evidence before us of the criminal antecedents of Mr. Charles Byng, except that which has been told you by the innocent lips of his betrothed, which the law of the land has now sealed forever in the mouth of his wife, and that our own actual experience of his acts have been in the main exculpatory of any previous irregularity—if not incompatible with it. Briefly, no judge would charge, no jury convict, on such evidence. When I add that the young girl is of legal age, that there is no evidence of any previous undue influence, but rather of the reverse, on the part of the bridegroom, and that I was content, as a magistrate, to perform the ceremony, I think you will be satisfied to give your promise, for the sake of the bride, and drink a happy life to them both.”
I need not say that we did this cheerfully, and even extorted from Bill a grunt of satisfaction. The majority of the company, however, who were going with the through coach to Sacramento, then took their leave, and, as we accompanied them to the veranda, we could see that Miss Polly Mullins’s trunks were already transferred to the other vehicle under the protecting seals and labels of the all-potent Express Company. Then the whip cracked, the coach rolled away, and the last traces of the adventurous young couple disappeared in the hanging red dust of its wheels.
But Yuba Bill’s grim satisfaction at the happy issue of the episode seemed to suffer no abatement. He even exceeded his usual deliberately regulated potations, and, standing comfortably with his back to the centre of the now deserted barroom, was more than usually loquacious with the Expressman. “You see,” he said, in bland reminiscence, “when your old Uncle Bill takes hold of a job like this, he puts it straight through without changin’ hosses. Yet thar was a moment, young feller, when I thought I was stompt! It was when we’d made up our mind to make that chap tell the gal fust all what he was! Ef she’d rared or kicked in the traces, or hung back only ez much ez that, we’d hev given him jest five minits’ law to get up and get and leave her, and we’d hev toted that gal and her fixin’s back to her dad again! But she jest gave a little scream and start, and then went off inter hysterics, right on his buzzum, laughing and cryin’ and sayin’ that nothin’ should part ‘em. Gosh! if I didn’t think HE woz more cut up than she about it; a minit it looked as ef he didn’t allow to marry her arter all, but that passed, and they was married hard and fast—you bet! I reckon he’s had enough of stayin’ out o’ nights to last him, and ef the valley settlements hevn’t got hold of a very shining member, at least the foothills hev got shut of one more of the Ramon Martinez gang.”
“What’s that about the Ramon Martinez gang?” said a quiet potential voice.
Bill turned quickly. It was the voice of the Divisional Superintendent of the Express Company,—a man of eccentric determination of character, and one of the few whom the autocratic Bill recognized as an equal,—who had just entered the barroom. His dusty pongee cloak and soft hat indicated that he had that morning arrived on a round of inspection.
“Don’t care if I do, Bill,” he continued, in response to Bill’s invitatory gesture, walking to the bar. “It’s a little raw out on the road. Well, what were you saying about Ramon Martinez gang? You haven’t come across one of ’em, have you?”
“No,” said Bill, with a slight blinking of his eye, as he ostentatiously lifted his glass to the light.
“And you won’t,” added the Superintendent, leisurely sipping his liquor. “For the fact is, the gang is about played out. Not from want of a job now and then, but from the difficulty of disposing of the results of their work. Since the new instructions to the agents to identify and trace all dust and bullion offered to them went into force, you see, they can’t get rid of their swag. All the gang are spotted at the offices, and it costs too much for them to pay a fence or a middleman of any standing. Why, all that flaky river gold they took from the Excelsior Company can be identified as easy as if it was stamped with the company’s mark. They can’t melt it down themselves; they can’t get others to do it for them; they can’t ship it to the Mint or Assay Offices in Marysville and ’Frisco, for they won’t take it without our certificate and seals; and we don’t take any undeclared freight within the lines that we’ve drawn around their beat, except from people and agents known. Why, you know that well enough, Jim,” he said, suddenly appealing to the Expressman, “don’t you?”
Possibly the suddenness of the appeal caused the Expressman to swallow his liquor the wrong way, for he was overtaken with a fit of coughing, and stammered hastily as he laid down his glass, “Yes—of course—certainly.”
“No, sir,” resumed the Superintendent cheerfully, “they’re pretty well played out. And the best proof of it is that they’ve lately been robbing ordinary passengers’ trunks. There was a freight wagon ‘held up’ near Dow’s Flat the other day, and a lot of baggage gone through. I had to go down there to look into it. Darned if they hadn’t lifted a lot o’ woman’s wedding things from that rich couple who got married the other day out at Marysville. Looks as if they were playing it rather low down, don’t it? Coming down to hardpan and the bed rock—eh?”
The Expressman’s face was turned anxiously towards Bill, who, after a hurried gulp of his remaining liquor, still stood staring at the window. Then he slowly drew on one of his large gloves. “Ye didn’t,” he said, with a slow, drawling, but perfectly distinct, articulation, “happen to know old ‘Skinner’ Hemmings when you were over there?”
“And his daughter?”
“He hasn’t got any.”
“A sort o’ mild, innocent, guileless child of nature?” persisted Bill, with a yellow face, a deadly calm and Satanic deliberation.
“No. I tell you he hasn’t any daughter. Old man Hemmings is a confirmed old bachelor. He’s too mean to support more than one.”
“And you didn’t happen to know any o’ that gang, did ye?” continued Bill, with infinite protraction.
“Yes. Knew ’em all. There was French Pete, Cherokee Bob, Kanaka Joe, One-eyed Stillson, Softy Brown, Spanish Jack, and two or three Greasers.”
“And ye didn’t know a man by the name of Charley Byng?”
“No,” returned the Superintendent, with a slight suggestion of weariness and a distraught glance towards the door.
“A dark, stylish chap, with shifty black eyes and a curled-up merstache?” continued Bill, with dry, colorless persistence.
“No. Look here, Bill, I’m in a little bit of a hurry—but I suppose you must have your little joke before we part. Now, what is your little game?”
“Wot you mean?” demanded Bill, with sudden brusqueness.
“Mean? Well, old man, you know as well as I do. You’re giving me the very description of Ramon Martinez himself, ha! ha! No—Bill! you didn’t play me this time. You’re mighty spry and clever, but you didn’t catch on just then.”
He nodded and moved away with a light laugh. Bill turned a stony face to the Expressman. Suddenly a gleam of mirth came into his gloomy eyes. He bent over the young man, and said in a hoarse, chuckling whisper:—
“But I got even after all!”
“He’s tied up to that lying little she-devil, hard and fast!”