The Road Agent by Stewart Edward White
The Sierra Nevadas of California are very wide and very high. Kingdoms could be lost among the defiles of their ranges. Kingdoms have been found there. One of them was Bright's Cove.
It happened back in the seventies. Old Man Bright was prospecting. He had come up from the foothills accompanied by a new but stolid Indian wife. After he had grubbed around a while on old Italian bar and had succeeded in washing out a little colour, she woke up and took a slight interest in the proceedings.
"You like catch dat?" she grunted, contemptuously. "Heap much over dere!"
She waved an arm. Old Man Bright girded his loins and packed his jackass. After incredible scramblings the two succeeded in surmounting the ranges and in dropping sheer to the mile-wide round valley through which flowed the river--the broad, swift mountain river, with the snow-white rapids and the swirling translucent green of very thick grass. They were very glad to reach the grass at the bottom, but a little doubtful on how to get out. The big mountains took root at the very edge of the tiny round valley; the river flowed out of a gorge at one end and into a gorge at the other.
"Guess the sun don't rise here 'til next morning," commented Old Man Bright. The squaw was too busy even to grunt.
In six years Old Man Bright was worth six million dollars, all taken from the ledges of Bright's Cove. Of this amount he had been forced to let go of a small proportion for mill machinery and labour. He had also invested twenty-five thousand dollars in a road. It was a steep road, and a picturesque. It wound in and out and around, by loops, lacets, and hairpins, dropping down the face of the mountain in unheard-of grades and turns. Nothing was ever hauled up it, save yellow bars of bullion--so that did not matter. Down it, with a shriek of brakes, a cloud of dust, a clank of harness and a rumble of oaths, came divers matters, such as machinery, glassware, whiskey, mirrors, ammunition, and pianos. From any one of a dozen bold points on this road one could see far down and far up its entire white, thread-like length. The tiny crawling teams each with its puff of dust crawling with it; the great tumbled peaks of the Sierras; the river so far below as to resemble a little stream, the round Cove with its toy houses and its distant ant-like industry--all these were plainly to be seized by a glance of whatever eye cared to look.
As time went on a great many teams and pack trains and saddle animals climbed up and down that road. Bright's Cove became quite a town. Old Man Bright made six millions; other men aggregated nearly four millions more; still others acquired deep holes and a deficit. It might be remarked in passing that the squaw acquired experience, a calico dress or so, and a final honourable discharge. Being an Indian she quite cheerfully went back to pounding acorns in a metate.
In the fifth year of prosperity there drifted into camp two men, possessed of innocence, three mules, and a thousand dollars. They retained the mules; and, it is to be presumed, at least a portion of the innocence.
The thousand dollars went to the purchase of the Lost Dog from Barney Fallan. The Lost Dog consisted quite simply of a hole in the ground guarded by an excellent five stamp-mill. The latter's existence could only be explained by the incurable optimism of Barney Fallan--certainly not by the contents of the hole in the ground. To the older men of the camp it seemed a shame, for the newcomers were nice, fresh-cheeked, clear-eyed lads to whom everything was new and strange and wonderful, their enthusiasm was contagious, and their cheerful command of vernacular exceedingly heart-warming. California John, then a man in his forties, tried to head off the deal.
"Look here, son," said he to Gaynes. "Don't do it. There's nothin' in it. Take my word."
"But Fallan's got a good stamp-mill all ready for business, and the ledge----"
"Son," said California John, "every once in a while the Lord gets to experimentin' makin' brains for a new species of jackass, and when he runs out of donkeys to put 'em in----"
"Meaning me?" demanded Gaynes, his fair skin turning a deep red.
"Not at all. Meanin' Barney Fallan."
Nevertheless the Babes, as the Gaynes brothers were speedily nicknamed, paid over their good thousand for Barney's worthless prospect with the imposing but ridiculous stamp-mill. There they set cheerfully to work. After a week's desperate and clanking experiment they got the machinery under way and began to run rock through the crushers.
"It ain't even ore!" expostulated California John. "Why, son, it's only country rock. Go down on your shaft until you strike a pan test, anyway! You're wasting time and fuel and--Oh, hell!" he broke off hopelessly at the sight of the two cherubic faces upturned respectful but unconvinced.
"But you never can tell where you will find gold," broke in Jimmy, eagerly. "That's been proved over and over again. I heard one fellow say once that they thought they'd never find gold in hornblende. But they did."
California John stumped home in indignant disgust.
"Damn little ijits!" he exploded. "Pigheaded! Stubborn as a pair of mules!" The recollection of the scrubbed red cheeks, the clear, puppy-dog, frank brown eyes, the close-curling brown hair, forced his lips to a wry grin. "Just like I was at that age," he admitted. He sighed. "Well, they'll drop their little pile, of course. The only ray of hope's the experience that old Bible fellow had with them turkey buzzards--or was it ravens?"
The Babes pecked away for about a month, full of tribulation and questions. They seemed to depend almost equally on optimism and chance, in both of which they had supreme faith. A huge horseshoe was tacked over the door of the stamp-mill. Jimmy Gaynes always spat over his right shoulder before doing a day's work. They never walked under the short ladders leading to the hoppers. Neither would they permit visitors to their shafts. To California John and his friend Tibbetts they interposed scandalized objections.
"It's bad luck to let another man in your shaft!" cried George. "I'm no high-brow on this mining proposition, but I know enough for that."
"Bad as playing opposite a cross-eyed man," said Jimmy.
"Or holding Jacks full on Eights," supplemented George, conclusively.
"You're about as wise as a treeful of owls," said California John, sarcastically. "But, Lord love you, I ain't cherishin' any very burnin' ambition to crawl down your snake hole."
The Babes used up their provisions; they went about as far as they could on credit; they harrowed the feelings of the community--and then, in a very mild way, they struck it. Together they drifted down the single street of the camp, arm in arm, an elaborate nonchalance steadying their steps. Near the horse trough they paused.
"Gold," said Jimmy, oracularly, to George, "is where you find it."
"Likewise horse sense," quoth George.
Whereupon they whooped wildly and descended on the astonished group. To it they exhibited yellow dust to the value of an hundred dollars. "And more where that came from," said they.
"What kind of rock did you find it in?" demanded Tibbetts, after he had recovered his breath from the youngsters' enthusiastic man-handling.
"Oh, a kind of red, pasty-looking rock," said they.
"Show us," demanded the miners.
"What?" cried Jimmy, astounded, "and give Old Man Luck the backhand slap just when he's decided to buy a corner lot in the Gaynes Addition? Not on your saccharine existence!"
"But we'll show you some more of this to-morrow Q.M.," said George.
They bought drinks all round, and paid their various bills, and departed again feverishly to the Lost Dog whence rose smoke and clankings. And next day, sure enough, they left their work just long enough to exhibit another respectable little clean-up of fifty dollars or so.
"And we're just getting into it!" said George, triumphantly.
California John and all the rest of his good friends rejoiced exceedingly and genuinely. They liked the Babes. The little strike of the Lost Dog quite overshadowed in importance the fact that old man Bright's "Clarice" had run into a fabulously rich pocket.
The end of the month drew near. The Lost Dog had produced nearly eight hundred dollars. The Babes waxed important and talked largely of their moneyed interests.
"I think," said Jimmy, importantly, "that we will decide to keep three hundred dollars to boost the game; and nail down the rest where moths won't corrupt. Where do you fellows salt your surplus, anyway?"
"There's an express goes out pretty soon," someone explained, "with the clean-up of the Clarice. We send our dust out with that; and I reckon you can fix it with Bright."
They saw Bright, but ran up against an unexpected difficulty. Old Man Bright received them with considerable surliness. He considered himself as the originator, discoverer, inventor, and almost the proprietor of Bright's Cove and all it contained. Therefore, when he first heard of the new strike, he walked up to the Lost Dog to see what it looked like. The Babes, panic stricken at the intended affront to "Old Man Luck," headed him off. Bright had not the least belief in the reason given. He surveyed them with disfavour.
"I can't take your package," he told them. "Send it out yourself."
"And that old skunk has cleaned up a hundred thousand this month!" complained Jimmy, pathetically, to the group around the horse trough. "And he won't even take a pore little five hundred package of dust out to some suffering bank! I suppose I'll have to cache it in a tomato can for Johnson's old billy goat to chew up."
"Bring it over and I'll shove it in with mine," suggested California John.
So it was done. The express, carrying nearly four hundred pounds of gold dust, set forth over the steep road. In two hours the driver and messenger sailed in, bung-eyed with excitement. They had been held up by a single road agent.
"He come out right on that point of rocks where you can see the whole valley," said the driver in answer to many questions, "right where the heavy grade is and the thick chaparral. We was busy climbing; and he had us before we could wink. Made us drop off the dust and 'bout face. He was a big, tall feller; and had a sawed-off Winchester. Once, when we stopped, he dropped a bullet right behind us. He must have watched us all the way to camp."
The camp turned out. As the men passed the Lost Dog someone yelled to the Babes. George, covered with mud, came to the door of the mill.
"Gee!" said he. "Lucky we saved out that three hundred. I'm powerful sorry for that suffering bank. I'll join you as soon as I can get Jimmy up out of the shaft." Before the party had gone a mile they were joined by the brothers boyishly eager over this new excitement.
The men toiled up the road to where the robbery had taken place. Plainly to be seen were the marks of the man's boots. The tracks of a single horse, walking, followed the man.
"He packed off the dust, and he had an almighty big horse to carry it," pronounced someone.
They followed the trail. It led a half mile to a broad sheet of rock. There it disappeared. On one side the bank rose twenty or thirty feet. On the other it fell away nearly a hundred. On the other side of the sheet of rock stretched the dusty road unbroken by anything more recent than the wheel-tracks of the day before. It was as though man and horse had taken unto themselves wings.
Immediately Bright took active charge of the posse.
"Stand here, on this rock," he commanded. "This road's been tracked up too much already. You, John, and Tibbetts and Simmins, there, come 'long with me to see what you can make out."
The old mountaineers retraced their steps, examining carefully every inch of the ground. They returned vastly puzzled.
"No sabe," California John summed up their investigations. "There's the man's track leadin' his hoss. The hoss had on new shoes, and the robber did his own shoeing. So we ain't got any blacksmiths to help us."
"How do you know he shod the horse himself?" asked Jimmy Gaynes.
"Shoes just alike on front and back feet. Shows he must just have tacked on ready-made shoes. A blacksmith shapes 'em different. Those tracks leads right up to this rock: and here they quit. If you can figger how a horse, a man, and nigh four hundredweight of gold dust got off this rock, I'll be obleeged."
The men looked up at the perpendicular cliff to their right; over the sheer precipice at their left; and upon the untracked deep, white dust ahead.
"Furthermore," California John went on, impressively, after a moment, "where did that man and that hoss come from in the beginning? Not from up this way. They's no fresh tracks comin' down the road no more than they's fresh tracks goin' up. Not from camp. They's no tracks whatsomever on the road below, except our'n and the stage outfit's."
"Are you sure of that?" asked Jimmy, his eyes shining with interest.
"Sartin sure," replied California John, positively. "We didn't take no chances on that."
"Then he must have come into the road from up the mountain or down the mountain."
"Where?" demanded California John. "A man afoot might scramble down in one or two places; but not a hoss. They ain't no tracks either side the muss-up where the express was stopped. And at that p'int the mountain is straight up and down, like it is here."
They talked it over, and argued it, and reexamined the evidence, but without avail. The stubborn facts remained: Between the hold-up and the sheet of rock was one set of tracks going one way; elsewhere, nothing.