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Forty-one Thieves / A Tale of California By Angelo Hall Characters: 11865

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

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. Th

at 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 ca?on," 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 ca?on 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.

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