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Forty-one Thieves / A Tale of California By Angelo Hall Characters: 16678

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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 ca?on 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 ca?on 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 p

risoner 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 ca?on 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 ca?on of the Middle Yuba."

"I remember you think that ca?on 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 ca?on 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 ca?on! 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 ca?on, 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 ca?on of the South Yuba safely passed, and the stage bowling along over an easy road, it seemed a good story.

"Halt!"

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.

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