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Forty-one Thieves / A Tale of California By Angelo Hall Characters: 8038

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Two of a Kind

The day after the council of war at Moore's Flat, John Keeler crossed the ca?on of the Middle Yuba to talk over the death of his old partner with Robert Palmer. As he clambered up the steep side of Fillmore Hill to the claim he had worked with Cummins fifteen years before, all the poetry and all the sadness of life in California came over him. How vividly he remembered his arrival, at the age of eighteen, in this land of romance and adventure! He had reached Moore's Flat on the Fourth of July, 1860, when bronzed miners were celebrating in reckless fashion. The saloons were crowded, and card games were in progress, with gold coins stacked at the corners of the tables. Out of doors some red-faced fellows were running races in the streets and shouting like wild Indians. Over the door of a restaurant was the sign "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry," and the youth pondered the words of Scripture following these festive words, but not quoted by the enterprising proprietor.

He remembered now, after nineteen years, the strange aspect of nature in this strange land. What great mountains! What deep ca?ons! What huge pines, with cones as large as a rolling-pin! The strange manzanita bushes, the chaparral, the buck-eye with its plumes, the fragrant mountain lily, like an Easter lily, growing wild. It had seemed good to him, a stranger in this strange land, to see old friends in the squirrels that scampered through the woods and crossed his path, to find alders, and blossoming dog-wood, the mountain brake, and his childhood's friend the mullen stalk. Even to this day when he came upon an orchid, or a wild rose, with its small pink petals (smaller in this red sterile soil than in his native country), or when a humming bird in its shining plumage came to sip honey from the flowers, or when in the still woods he heard the liquid notes of a hermit thrush, the romance and the reverence of youth thrilled him.

John Keeler was something of a poet, though the needs of his family at Eureka South kept the bread and butter question in the foreground. He must see "old man Palmer" to talk over the death of Cummins. He was comforted a little when the old man's small black dog, Bruce, came frisking down the trail to meet him; and when Sammy, the cat, tail in air and purring a thousand welcomes, rubbed his sleek fur against the visitor's boots, Keeler fore-tasted sweet solace for sorrow.

"Why, hello, Keeler! Mighty glad to see you!" And then in a changed voice, "You're fagged out. It's an all-fired steep trail. Come in."

"No, thank you," replied Keeler, and he seated himself upon a chair in the door-yard. "It's pleasant out here under the pines. I want to talk."

"I've been expecting you," said Palmer, "ever since the news came about Cummins."

"Well, if it wasn't for my wife and boy, I'd pull up stakes, and get out of California."

"Don't blame you. This thieving and promiscuous killing are enough to discourage anybody. Too bad they can't get the robbers, just this once, and string 'em up."

"I'm a peaceable man, as you know, Mr. Palmer. But I'd be willing to hang those fellows with my own hands. It wouldn't help Will Cummins any, but it would give me solid satisfaction."

"Well, Keeler, I'm glad of one thing, Cummins was a bachelor, like me, and not a married man."

"I've thought about that, but it don't give me any comfort. Will ought to have married years ago. His life might have counted for something then; but now it seems as if it had been wasted."

"Maybe you think my life's been wasted, too?"

"No, Mr. Palmer, you know I could never think that, after your kindness to Will and me."

"Well, Will Cummins was more generous than I ever was," answered Palmer. "Main trouble with Will was his temper, which was no better than mine. Every bad man in these mountains knew that Will Cummins was ready to treat him to his own medicine."

"Yes, I wish he hadn't said so much about defending yourself. I wish he hadn't carried a pistol that day.

He wouldn't have been so ready to fight, perhaps."

"One thing certain," observed Palmer, "if he was going to carry a pistol at all, he ought to have had it handy, not under his duster."

"Well, it was natural to think the danger past when they had got safely away from the South Yuba. The robbers knew their man, and they played a shrewd game."

"It's easy enough to win when you play with loaded dice. I get boiling mad when I think of these low-down, worthless rascals who don't stop at any meanness, ready to commit murder for fifteen cents. They ought to be treated worse than rattlesnakes. But, as you said just now, all this don't help Will Cummins. But Will is all right, John. You know that as well as I do."

"I came up here to hear you say so. I've pretty near lost faith in God and man, I reckon."

"I lost faith in man long ago," answered Palmer, smiling sardonically. "If the fall of Adam and the curse of Cain are fables,-as they are, of course,-they are just as true as ?sop's fables, for all that. They hit off human nature. But man isn't all. I've never belonged to any church, as I've often told you. But the longer I live the more I trust in Providence. Will Cummins was a good man, and he's all right, I tell you."

"I feel that way myself. But I know my feeling in the matter don't alter the facts any. How do you figure it out?"

"Well, my creed's about this: in spite of all the wickedness, this is a beautiful old world. How gloriously the stars shine down every night upon these mountains! Or, take Bruce and Sammy here"-and the old man caressed his pets-"why, they love me to distraction. And I love both the scamps, I certainly do. But what is that to your affection for your partner, John Keeler? It is a good old world, I say. Then the Power that's in it and back of it, 'in whom we live and move and have our being,' is a good Power. Well, then, God is good. And that's all we need to know. If God is good, we can depend upon Him in life and death. We don't know what death means. But it's only a natural thing. It can't matter much. I will know more about it, I guess, when I am dead."

"I don't doubt you're right, Mr. Palmer. Once, back in Maryland, I heard a minister say that grief comes to open our hearts to God. It was at my mother's funeral. I reckon he was right, too. But my heart bleeds for Will Cummins."

Palmer looked at him critically a moment, as if weighing him in the balance. Then, as if completely satisfied with his friend, he spoke:

"John Keeler, I want to talk business. I want you to hunt those rascals down. I'll back you for any amount. I'm past sixty, or I might attend to the business myself. You're still a young man. I'll see that Mrs. Keeler and the boy lack for nothing while you are gone. And I don't expect you to take any risks. I simply want you to get the facts, then turn them over to the authorities. Will you do it?"

Keeler hesitated. "There's very little to go on. The robbers have cleared out, and nobody knows who they were or where they went."

"Don't you believe it," said Palmer. "If decent people don't know, there are the other kind."

"I reckon you and I would be about as helpless as babes with 'the other kind.' We've always despised them and kept away from them."

"But they're human, like the rest of us. You and I understand human nature pretty well. We won't breathe a word to any one. You tell Mrs. Keeler you're attending to important business for me, that I'm grub-staking you, and that there's something in it for you and the family. If the neighbors get wind of it, they'll think, perhaps, you are attending to money matters for me. They seem to be mighty curious about my money."

"Well, I might do it, if I only knew how to go about it."

"Well, Keeler, I think I can give you a start. And while we eat some dinner I'll tell you a story that will surprise you."

These Californians were certainly two of a kind; but then, two of a kind, though both be kings, is not a strong hand.

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