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Forty-one Thieves / A Tale of California By Angelo Hall Characters: 10656

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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 Mami

e.

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 Ca?on, 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."

"How's that?"

"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."

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