The day following the great stagecoach robbery found the patient proprietor of Collinson's Mill calm and untroubled in his usual seclusion. The news that had thrilled the length and breadth of Galloper's Ridge had not touched the leafy banks of the dried-up river; the hue and cry had followed the stage-road, and no courier had deemed it worth his while to diverge as far as the rocky ridge which formed the only pathway to the mill. That day Collinson's solitude had been unbroken even by the haggard emigrant from the valley, with his old monotonous story of hardship and privation. The birds had flown nearer to the old mill, as if emboldened by the unwonted quiet. That morning there had been the half human imprint of a bear's foot in the ooze beside the mill-wheel; and coming home with his scant stock from the woodland pasture, he had found a golden squirrel--a beautiful, airy embodiment of the brown woods itself--calmly seated on his bar-counter, with a biscuit between its baby hands. He was full of his characteristic reveries and abstractions that afternoon; falling into them even at his wood- pile, leaning on his axe--so still that an emerald-throated lizard, who had slid upon the log, went to sleep under the forgotten stroke.
But at nightfall the wind arose,--at first as a distant murmur along the hillside, that died away before it reached the rocky ledge; then it rocked the tops of the tall redwoods behind the mill, but left the mill and the dried leaves that lay in the river- bed undisturbed. Then the murmur was prolonged, until it became the continuous trouble of some far-off sea, and at last the wind possessed the ledge itself; driving the smoke down the stumpy chimney of the mill, rattling the sun-warped shingles on the roof, stirring the inside rafters with cool breaths, and singing over the rough projections of the outside eaves. At nine o'clock he rolled himself up in his blankets before the fire, as was his wont, and fell asleep.
It was past midnight when he was awakened by the familiar clatter of boulders down the grade, the usual simulation of a wild rush from without that encompassed the whole mill, even to that heavy impact against the door, which he had heard once before. In this he recognized merely the ordinary phenomena of his experience, and only turned over to sleep again. But this time the door rudely fell in upon him, and a figure strode over his prostrate body, with a gun leveled at his head.
He sprang sideways for his own weapon, which stood by the hearth. In another second that action would have been his last, and the solitude of Seth Collinson might have remained henceforward unbroken by any mortal. But the gun of the first figure was knocked sharply upward by a second man, and the one and only shot fired that night sped harmlessly to the roof. With the report he felt his arms gripped tightly behind him; through the smoke he saw dimly that the room was filled with masked and armed men, and in another moment he was pinioned and thrust into his empty armchair. At a signal three of the men left the room, and he could hear them exploring the other rooms and outhouses. Then the two men who had been standing beside him fell back with a certain disciplined precision, as a smooth-chinned man advanced from the open door. Going to the bar, he poured out a glass of whiskey, tossed it off deliberately, and, standing in front of Collinson, with his shoulder against the chimney and his hand resting lightly on his hip, cleared his throat. Had Collinson been an observant man, he would have noticed that the two men dropped their eyes and moved their feet with a half impatient, perfunctory air of waiting. Had he witnessed the stage-robbery, he would have recognized in the smooth-faced man the presence of "the orator." But he only gazed at him with his dull, imperturbable patience.
"We regret exceedingly to have to use force to a gentleman in his own house," began the orator blandly; "but we feel it our duty to prevent a repetition of the unhappy incident which occurred as we entered. We desire that you should answer a few questions, and are deeply grateful that you are still able to do so,--which seemed extremely improbable a moment or two ago." He paused, coughed, and leaned back against the chimney. "How many men have you here besides yourself?"
"Nary one," said Collinson.
The interrogator glanced at the other men, who had reentered. They nodded significantly.
"Good!" he resumed. "You have told the truth--an excellent habit, and one that expedites business. Now, is there a room in this house with a door that locks? Your front door DOESN'T."
"No cellar nor outhouse?"
"We regret that; for it will compel us, much against our wishes, to keep you bound as you are for the present. The matter is simply this: circumstances of a very pressing nature oblige us to occupy this house for a few days,--possibly for an indefinite period. We respect the sacred rites of hospitality too much to turn you out of it; indeed, nothing could be more distasteful to our feelings than to have you, in your own person, spread such a disgraceful report through the chivalrous Sierras. We must therefore keep you a close prisoner,--open, however, to an offer. It is this: we propose to give you five hundred dollars for this property as it stands, provided that you leave it, and accompany a pack-train which will start to-morrow morning for the lower valley as far as Thompson's Pass, binding yourself to quit the State for three months and keep this matter a secret. Three of these gentlemen will go with you. They will point out to you your duty; their shotguns will apprise you of any dereliction from it. What do you say?"
"Who yer talking to?" said Collinson in a dull voice.
"You remind us," said the orator suavely, "that we have not yet the pleasure of knowing."
"My name's Seth Collinson."
There was a dead silence in the room, and every eye was fixed upon the two men. The orator's smile slightly stiffened.
"Where from?" he continued blandly.
"A very good place to go back to,--through Thompson's Pass. But you haven't answered our proposal."
"I reckon I don't intend to sell this house, or leave it," said Collinson simply.
"I trust you will not make us regret the fortunate termination of your little accident, Mr. Collinson," said the orator with a singular smile. "May I ask why you object to selling out? Is it the figure?"
"The house isn't mine," said Collinson deliberately. "I built this yer house for my wife wot I left in Mizzouri. It's hers. I kalkilate to keep it, and live in it ontil she comes fur it! And when I tell ye that she is dead, ye kin reckon just what chance ye have of ever gettin' it."
There was an unmistakable start of sensation in the room, followed by a silence so profound that the moaning of the wind on the mountain-side was distinctly heard. A well-built man, with a mask that scarcely concealed his heavy mustachios, who had been standing with his back to the orator in half contemptuous patience, faced around suddenly and made a step forward as if to come between the questioner and questioned. A voice from the corner ejaculated, "By G--d!"
"Silence," said the orator sharply. Then still more harshly he turned to the others "Pick him up, and stand him outside with a guard; and then clear out, all of you!"
The prisoner was lifted up and carried out; the room was instantly cleared; only the orator and the man who had stepped forward remained. Simultaneously they drew the masks from their faces, and stood looking at each other. The orator's face was smooth and corrupt; the full, sensual lips wrinkled at the corners with a sardonic humor; the man who confronted him appeared to be physically and even morally his superior, albeit gloomy and discontented in expression. He cast a rapid glance around the room, to assure himself that they were alone; and then, straightening his eyebrows as he backed against the chimney, said:--
"D--d if I like this, Chivers! It's your affair; but it's mighty low-down work for a man!"
"You might have made it easier if you hadn't knocked up Bryce's gun. That would have settled it, though no one guessed that the cur was her husband," said Chivers hotly.
"If you want it settled THAT WAY, there's still time," returned the other with a slight sneer. "You've only to tell him that you're the man that ran away with his wife, and you'll have it out together, right on the ledge at twelve paces. The boys will see you through. In fact," he added, his sneer deepening, "I rather think it's what they're expecting."
"Thank you, Mr. Jack Riggs," said Chivers sardonically. "I dare say it would be more convenient to some people, just before our booty is divided, if I were drilled through by a blundering shot from that hayseed; or it would seem right to your high-toned chivalry if a dead-shot as I am knocked over a man who may have never fired a revolver before; but I don't exactly see it in that light, either as a man or as your equal partner. I don't think you quite understand me, my dear Jack. If you don't value the only man who is identified in all California as the leader of this gang (the man whose style and address has made it popular--yes, POPULAR, by G--d!--to every man, woman, and child who has heard of him; whose sayings and doings are quoted by the newspapers; whom people run risks to see; who has got the sympathy of the crowd, so that judges hesitate to issue warrants and constables to serve them),--if YOU don't see the use of such a man, I do. Why, there's a column and a half in the 'Sacramento Union' about our last job, calling me the 'Claude Duval' of the Sierras, and speaking of my courtesy to a lady! A LADY!--HIS wife, by G--d! our confederate! My dear Jack, you not only don't know business values, but, 'pon my soul, you don't seem to understand humor! Ha, ha!"
For all his cynical levity, for all his affected exaggeration, there was the ring of an unmistakable and even pitiable vanity in his voice, and a self-consciousness that suffused his broad cheeks and writhed his full mouth, but seemed to deepen the frown on Riggs's face.
"You know the woman hates it, and would bolt if she could,--even from you," said Riggs gloomily. "Think what she might do if she knew her husband were here. I tell you she holds our lives in the hollow of her hand."
"That's your fault, Mr. Jack Riggs; you would bring your sister with her infernal convent innocence and simplicity into our hut in the hollow. She was meek enough before that. But this is sheer nonsense. I have no fear of her. The woman don't live who would go back on Godfrey Chivers--for a husband! Besides, she went off to see your sister at the convent at Santa Clara as soon as she passed those bonds off on Charley to get rid of! Think of her traveling with that d--d fool lawyer all the way to Stockton, and his bonds (which we had put back in her bag) alongside of them all the time, and he telling her he was going to stop their payment, and giving her the letter to mail for him!--eh? Well, we'll have time to get rid of her husband before she gets back. If he don't go easy--well"--
"None of that, Chivers, you understand, once for all!" interrupted Riggs peremptorily. "If you cannot see that your making away with that woman's husband would damn that boasted reputation you make so much of and set every man's hand against us, I do, and I won't permit it. It's a rotten business enough,--our coming on him as we have; and if this wasn't the only God-forsaken place where we could divide our stuff without danger and get it away off the highroads, I'd pull up stakes at once."
"Let her stay at the convent, then, and be d--d to her," said Chivers roughly. "She'll be glad enough to be with your sister again; and there's no fear of her being touched there."
"But I want to put an end to that, too," returned Riggs sharply. "I do not choose to have my sister any longer implicated with OUR confederate or YOUR mistress. No more of that--you understand me?"
The two men had been standing side by side, leaning against the chimney. Chivers now faced his companion, his full lips wreathed into an evil smile.
"I think I understand you, Mr. Jack Riggs, or--I beg your pardon-- Rivers, or whatever your real name may be," he began slowly. "Sadie Collinson, the mistress of Judge Godfrey Chivers, formerly of Kentucky, was good enough company for you the day you dropped down upon us in our little house in the hollow of Galloper's Ridge. We were living quite an idyllic, pastoral life there, weren't we?-- she and me; hidden from the censorious eye of society and-- Collinson, obeying only the voice of Nature and the little birds. It was a happy time," he went on with a grimly affected sigh, disregarding his companion's impatient gesture. "You were young then, waging YOUR fight against society, and fresh--uncommonly fresh, I may say--from your first exploit. And a very stupid, clumsy, awkward exploit, too, Mr. Riggs, if you will pardon my freedom. You wanted money, and you had an ugly temper, and you had lost both to a gambler; so you stopped the coach to rob him, and had to kill two men to get back your paltry thousand dollars, after frightening a whole coach-load of passengers, and letting Wells, Fargo, and Co.'s treasure-box with fifty thousand dollars in it slide. It was a stupid, a blundering, a CRUEL act, Mr. Riggs, and I think I told you so at the time. It was a waste of energy and material, and made you, not a hero, but a stupid outcast! I think I proved this to you, and showed you how it might have been done."
"Dry up on that," interrupted Riggs impatiently. "You offered to become my partner, and you did."
"Pardon me. Observe, my impetuous friend, that my contention is that you--YOU--poisoned our blameless Eden in the hollow; that YOU were our serpent, and that this Sadie Collinson, over whom you have become so fastidious, whom you knew as my mistress, was obliged to become our confederate. You did not object to her when we formed our gang, and her house became our hiding-place and refuge. You took advantage of her woman's wit and fine address in disposing of our booty; you availed yourself, with the rest, of the secrets she gathered as MY mistress, just as you were willing to profit by the superior address of her paramour--your humble servant--when your own face was known to the sheriff, and your old methods pronounced brutal and vulgar. Excuse me, but I must insist upon THIS, and that you dropped down upon me and Sadie Collinson exactly as you have dropped down here upon her husband."
"Enough of this!" said Riggs angrily. "I admit the woman is part and parcel of the gang, and gets her share,--or you get it for her," he added sneeringly; "but that doesn't permit her to mix herself with my family affairs."
"Pardon me again," interrupted Chivers softly. "Your memory, my dear Riggs, is absurdly defective. We knew that you had a young sister in the mountains, from whom you discreetly wished to conceal your real position. We respected, and I trust shall always respect, your noble reticence. But do you remember the night you were taking her to school at Santa Clara,--two nights before the fire,--when you were recognized on the road near Skinner's, and had to fly with her for your life, and brought her to us,--your two dear old friends, 'Mr. and Mrs. Barker of Chicago,' who had a pastoral home in the forest? You remember how we took her in,-- yes, doubly took her in,--and kept your secret from her? And do you remember how this woman (this mistress of MINE and OUR confederate), while we were away, saved her from the fire on our only horse, caught the stage-coach, and brought her to the convent?"
Riggs walked towards the window, turned, and coming back, held out his hand. "Yes, she did it; and I thanked her, as I thank you." He stopped and hesitated, as the other took his hand. "But, blank it all, Chivers, don't you see that Alice is a young girl, and this woman is--you know what I mean. Somebody might recognize HER, and that would be worse for Alice than even if it were known what Alice's BROTHER was. G--d! if these two things were put together, the girl would be ruined forever."
"Jack," said Chivers suddenly, "you want this woman out of the way. Well--dash it all!--she nearly separated us, and I'll be frank with you as between man and man. I'll give her up! There are women enough in the world, and hang it, we're partners, after all!"
"Then you abandon her?" said Riggs slowly, his eyes fixed on his companion.
"Yes. She's getting a little too maundering lately. It will be a ticklish job to manage, for she knows too much; but it will be done. There's my hand on it."
Riggs not only took no notice of the proffered hand, but his former look of discontent came back with an ill-concealed addition of loathing and contempt.
"We'll drop that now," he said shortly; "we've talked here alone long enough already. The men are waiting for us." He turned on his heel into the inner room. Chivers remained standing by the chimney until his stiffened smile gave way under the working of his writhing lips; then he turned to the bar, poured out and swallowed another glass of whiskey at a single gulp, and followed his partner with half-closed lids that scarcely veiled his ominous eyes.
The men, with the exception of the sentinels stationed on the rocky ledge and the one who was guarding the unfortunate Collinson, were drinking and gambling away their perspective gains around a small pile of portmanteaus and saddle-bags, heaped in the centre of the room. They contained the results of their last successes, but one pair of saddle-bags bore the mildewed appearance of having been cached, or buried, some time before. Most of their treasure was in packages of gold dust; and from the conversation that ensued, it appeared that, owing to the difficulties of disposing of it in the mountain towns, the plan was to convey it by ordinary pack mule to the unfrequented valley, and thence by an emigrant wagon, on the old emigrant trail, to the southern counties, where it could be no longer traced. Since the recent robberies, the local express companies and bankers had refused to receive it, except the owners were known and identified. There had been but one box of coin, which had already been speedily divided up among the band. Drafts, bills, bonds, and valuable papers had been usually intrusted to one "Charley," who acted as a flying messenger to a corrupt broker in Sacramento, who played the role of the band's "fence." It had been the duty of Chivers to control this delicate business, even as it had been his peculiar function to open all the letters and documents. This he had always lightened by characteristic levity and sarcastic comments on the private revelations of the contents. The rough, ill-spelt letter of the miner to his wife, inclosing a draft, or the more sentimental effusion of an emigrant swain to his sweetheart, with the gift of a "specimen," had always received due attention at the hands of this elegant humorist. But the operation was conducted to-night with business severity and silence. The two leaders sat opposite to each other, in what might have appeared to the rest of the band a scarcely veiled surveillance of each other's actions. When the examination was concluded, and, the more valuable inclosures put aside, the despoiled letters were carried to the fire and heaped upon the coals. Presently the chimney added its roar to the moaning of the distant hillside, a few sparks leaped up and died out in the midnight air, as if the pathos and sentiment of the unconscious correspondents had exhaled with them.
"That's a d--d foolish thing to do," growled French Pete over his cards.
"Why?" demanded Chivers sharply.
"Why?--why, it makes a flare in the sky that any scout can see, and a scent for him to follow."
"We're four miles from any traveled road," returned Chivers contemptuously, "and the man who could see that glare and smell that smoke would be on his way here already."
"That reminds me that that chap you've tied up--that Collinson-- allows he wants to see you," continued French Pete.
"To see ME!" repeated Chivers. "You mean the Captain?"
"I reckon he means YOU," returned French Pete; "he said the man who talked so purty."
The men looked at each other with a smile of anticipation, and put down their cards. Chivers walked towards the door; one or two rose to their feet as if to follow, but Riggs stopped them peremptorily. "Sit down," he said roughly; then, as Chivers passed him, he added to him in a lower tone, "Remember."
Slightly squaring his shoulders and opening his coat, to permit a rhetorical freedom, which did not, however, prevent him from keeping touch with the butt of his revolver, Chivers stepped into the open air. Collinson had been moved to the shelter of an overhang of the roof, probably more for the comfort of the guard, who sat cross-legged on the ground near him, than for his own. Dismissing the man with a gesture, Chivers straightened himself before his captive.
"We deeply regret that your unfortunate determination, my dear sir, has been the means of depriving US of the pleasure of your company, and YOU of your absolute freedom; but may we cherish the hope that your desire to see me may indicate some change in your opinion?"
By the light of the sentry's lantern left upon the ground, Chivers could see that Collinson's face wore a slightly troubled and even apologetic expression.
"I've bin thinkin'," said Collinson, raising his eyes to his captor with a singularly new and shy admiration in them, "mebbee not so much of WOT you said, ez HOW you said it, and it's kinder bothered me, sittin' here, that I ain't bin actin' to you boys quite on the square. I've said to myself, 'Collinson, thar ain't another house betwixt Bald Top and Skinner's whar them fellows kin get a bite or a drink to help themselves, and you ain't offered 'em neither. It ain't no matter who they are or how they came: whether they came crawling along the road from the valley, or dropped down upon you like them rocks from the grade; yere they are, and it's your duty, ez long ez you keep this yer house for your wife in trust, so to speak, for wanderers.' And I ain't forgettin' yer ginerel soft style and easy gait with me when you kem here. It ain't every man as could walk into another man's house arter the owner of it had grabbed a gun, ez soft-speakin', ez overlookin', and ez perlite ez you. I've acted mighty rough and low-down, and I know it. And I sent for you to say that you and your folks kin use this house and all that's in it ez long ez you're in trouble. I've told you why I couldn't sell the house to ye, and why I couldn't leave it. But ye kin use it, and while ye're here, and when you go, Collinson don't tell nobody. I don't know what ye mean by 'binding myself' to keep your secret; when Collinson says a thing he sticks to it, and when he passes his word with a man, or a man passes his word with him, it don't need no bit of paper."
There was no doubt of its truth. In the grave, upraised eyes of his prisoner, Chivers saw the certainty that he could trust him, even far more than he could trust any one within the house he had just quitted. But this very certainty, for all its assurance of safety to himself, filled him, not with remorse, which might have been an evanescent emotion, but with a sudden alarming and terrible consciousness of being in the presence of a hitherto unknown and immeasurable power! He had no pity for man who trusted him; he had no sense of shame in taking advantage of it; he even felt an intellectual superiority in this want of sagacity in his dupe; but he still felt in some way defeated, insulted, shocked, and frightened. At first, like all scoundrels, he had measured the man by himself; was suspicious and prepared for rivalry; but the grave truthfulness of Collinson's eyes left him helpless. He was terrified by this unknown factor. The right that contends and fights often stimulates its adversary; the right that yields leaves the victor vanquished. Chivers could even have killed Collinson in his vague discomfiture, but he had a terrible consciousness that there was something behind him that he could not make way with. That was why this accomplished rascal felt his flaccid cheeks grow purple and his glib tongue trip before his captive.
But Collinson, more occupied with his own shortcomings, took no note of this, and Chivers quickly recovered his wits, if not his former artificiality. "All right," he said quickly, with a hurried glance at the door behind him. "Now that you think better of it, I'll be frank with you, and tell you I'm your friend. You understand,--your friend. Don't talk much to those men--don't give yourself away to them;" he laughed this time in absolute natural embarrassment. "Don't talk about your wife, and this house, but just say you've made the thing up with me,--with ME, you know, and I'll see you through." An idea, as yet vague, that he could turn Collinson's unexpected docility to his own purposes, possessed him even in his embarrassment, and he was still more strangely conscious of his inordinate vanity gathering a fearful joy from Collinson's evident admiration. It was heightened by his captive's next words.
"Ef I wasn't tied I'd shake hands with ye on that. You're the kind o' man, Mr. Chivers, that I cottoned to from the first. Ef this house wasn't HERS, I'd a' bin tempted to cotton to yer offer, too, and mebbee made yer one myself, for it seems to me your style and mine would sorter jibe together. But I see you sabe what's in my mind, and make allowance. WE don't want no bit o' paper to shake hands on that. Your secret and your folk's secret is mine, and I don't blab that any more than I'd blab to them wot you've just told me."
Under a sudden impulse, Chivers leaned forward, and, albeit with somewhat unsteady hands and an embarrassed will, untied the cords that held Collinson in his chair. As the freed man stretched himself to his full height, he looked gravely down into the bleared eyes of his captor, and held out his strong right hand. Chivers took it. Whether there was some occult power in Collinson's honest grasp, I know not; but there sprang up in Chivers's agile mind the idea that a good way to get rid of Mrs. Collinson was to put her in the way of her husband's finding her, and for an instant, in the contemplation of that idea, this supreme rascal absolutely felt an embarrassing glow of virtue.