The Road Agent by Stewart Edward White
Nearly a year passed. If it had not been for the very tangible loss of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, the little community at Bright's Cove might almost have come to doubt the evidence of their senses and the accuracy of their memories, so fantastic on sober reflection did all the circumstances become. Even the indisputable four hundred pounds of gold could not quite avert an unconfessed suspicion of the uncanny. Miners are superstitious folk. Old Man Bright remembered the parting and involved curses of his squaw before she went back to her acorns and pine nuts. To Tibbetts alone he imparted a vague hint of the imaginings into which he had fallen. But he brooded much, seeking a plausible theory that would not force him back on the powers of darkness. This he did not find.
Nor did any other man. It remained a mystery, a single bizarre anomaly in the life of the camp. For some time thereafter the express went heavily guarded. The road was patrolled. Jimmy or George Gaynes in person accompanied each shipment of dust. Their pay streak held out, increased steadily in value. They would hire no assistance for the actual mining in the shaft, although they had several hands to work at the mill. One month they cleaned up twelve thousand dollars.
"You bet I'm going," said Jimmy, "I don't care if it is only a little compared to what Bright and you fellows are sending. It's a heap sight to us, and I'm going to see it safe to the city. No more spooks in mine. I got my fingers crossed. Allah skazallalum! I don't know what a ghost would want with cash assets, but they seemed to use George's and my little old five hundred, all right."
Twelve months went by. Two expresses a month toiled up the road. Nothing happened. Finally Jimmy decided that four good working days a month were a good deal to pay for apparently useless supervision. Three men comprised the shot-gun guard. They, with the driver, were considered ample.
"You'll have to get on without me," said Jimmy to them in farewell. "Be good boys. We've got the biggest clean-up yet aboard you."
They started on the twenty-fifth trip since the hold-up. After a time, far up the mountain was heard a single shot. Inside of two hours the express drew sorrowfully into camp. The driver appeared to be alone. In the bottom of the wagon were the three guards weak and sick. The gold sacks were very much absent.
"Done it again," said the driver. "Ain't more than got started afore the whole outfit's down with the belly-ache. Too much of that cursed salmon. Told 'em so. I didn't eat none. That road agent hit her lucky this trip sure. He was all organized for business. Never showed himself at all. Just opened fire. Sent a bullet through the top of my hat. He's either a damn good shot or a damn poor one. I hung up both hands and yelled we was down and out. What could I do? This outfit couldn't a fit a bumble bee. And I couldn't git away, or git hold of no gun, or see anything to shoot, if I did. He was behind that big rock."
The men nodded. They were many of them hard hit, but they had lived too long in the West not to recognize the justice of the driver's implied contention that he had done his best.
"He told me to throw out them sacks, and to be damn quick about it," went on the driver. "Then I drove home."
"What sort of a lookin' fellow was he?" asked someone. "Same one as last year?"
"I never seen him," said the driver. "He hung behind his rock. He was organized for shoot, and if the messengers hadn't happened to' a' been out of it, I believe he could have killed us all."
"What did his hoss look like?" inquired California John.
"He didn't have no horse," stated the driver. "Leastways, not near him. There was no cover. He might have been around a p'int. And I can sw'ar to this: there weren't no tracks of no kind from there to camp."
They caught up horses and started out. When they came to the Lost Dog, they stopped and looked at each other.
"Poor old Babes," said Simmins. "Biggest clean-up yet; and first time one of 'em didn't go 'long."
"I'm glad they didn't," said Tibbetts. "That agent would have killed 'em shore!"
They called out the Gaynes brothers and broke the news. For once the jovial youngsters had no joke to make.
"This is getting serious," said Jimmy, seriously. "We can't afford to lose that much."
George whistled dolefully, and went into the corral for the mules.
The party toiled up the mountain. Plainly in the dust could be made out the trail of the express ascending and descending. Plain also were the signs where the driver had dumped out the gold bags and turned around. From that point the tracks of a man and a horse led to the sheet of rock. Beyond that, nothing.
The men stared at each other a little frightened. Somebody swore softly.
"Boys," said Bright in a strained voice, "do you know how much was in that express? A half million! There's nary earthly hoss can carry over half a ton! And this one treads as light as a saddler."
They looked at each other blankly. Several even glanced in apprehension at the sky.
In a perfunctory manner, for the sake of doing something, those skilled in trail-reading went back over the ground. Nothing was added to the first experience. At the point of robbery magically had appeared a man and--if the stage driver's solemn assertion that at the time of the hold-up no animal was in sight could be believed--subsequently, when needed, a large horse. Whence had they come? Not along the road in either direction: the unbroken, deep dust assured that. Not down the mountain from above, for the cliff rose sheer for at least three hundred feet. Jimmy Gaynes, following unconsciously the general train of conjecture, craned his neck over the edge of the road. The broken jagged rock and shale dropped off an hundred feet to a tangle of manzanita and snowbrush.
California John looked over, too.
"Couldn't even get sheep up that," said he, "let alone a sixteen-hand horse."
Old Man Bright was sunk in a superstitious torpor. He had lost hundreds of thousands where he would have hated to spend pennies; yet the financial part of the loss hardly touched him. He mumbled fearfully to himself, and took not the slightest interest in the half-hearted attempts to read the mystery. When the others moved, he moved with them, because he was afraid to be left alone.
After the men had assured themselves again and again that the horse and the man had apparently materialized from thin air exactly at the point of robbery, they again followed the tracks to the broad sheet of rock. Whither had the robber gone? Back into the thin air whence he had come. There was no other solution. No tracks ahead; an absolute and physical impossibility of anything without wings getting up or down the flanking precipices--these were the incontestable facts.
After this second robbery a gloom descended on Bright's Cove which lasted through many months. Old Man Bright hunted out the squaw with whom he had first discovered the diggings, and set her up in an establishment with gay curtains, glass danglers and red doileys. Each month he paid for her provisions and sent to her a sum of money. In this manner, at least, the phantom road agent had furthered the ends of justice. The sop to the powers of darkness appeared to be effective in this respect: no more hold-ups occurred; no more mysterious tracks appeared in the dust; gradually men's minds swung back to the balanced and normal, and the life of the camp went forward on its appointed way.
Nevertheless, certain effects remained. Each express went out heavily guarded, and preceded and followed by men on horseback. Strangely enough the gamblers left camp. In a little more than a year Old Man Bright fell into a settled melancholia from which his millions never helped him to the very day of his death a little more than a year later.
In the meantime, however varied the fortunes of the other mines and prospects, the Lost Dog continued to work toward a steadily increasing paying basis. It never reached the proportions of the Clarice, but turned out an increasing value of dust at each clean-up. The Gaynes boys two years before had been in debt for their groceries. Now they were said to have shipped out something like three or four hundred thousand dollars' worth of gold. Their friends used to wander down for the regular clean-up, just to rejoice over the youngsters' deserved good luck. The little five stamp-mill crunched away steadily; the water flowed; and in the riffles the heavy gold dust accumulated.
"Why don't you-all put up a big mill, throw in a crew of men, and get busy?" they were asked.
"I'll tell you," replied George, "it's because we know a heap sight more about mining than we did when we came here. We have just one claim, and from all indications it's only a pocket. The Clarice is on a genuine lode; but we're likely to run into a 'horse' or pinch out most any minute. When we do, it's all over but a few faint cries of fraud. And we can empty that pocket just as well with a little jerkwater outfit like this as we could with a big crew and a real mill. It'll take a little longer; but we're pulling it and quick enough."
"Those Babes have more sense than we gave 'em credit for," commented California John. "Their heads are level. They're dead right about it's bein' a pocket. The stuff they run through there is the darndest mixture I ever see gold in."
Two months after this conversation the Babes drifted into camp to announce that the expected pinch had come.
"We're going," said Jimmy. "We have a heap plenty dust salted away; and there's not a colour left in the Lost Dog. The mill machinery is for sale cheap. Any one can have the Lost Dog who wants it. We're going out to see what makes the wheels go 'round. You boys have a first claim on us wherever you find us. You've sure been good to us. If you catch that spook, send us one of his tail feathers. It would be worth just twelve thousand five hundred to us."
They sold the stamp-mill for almost nothing; packed eight animals with heavy things they had accumulated; and departed up the steep white road, over the rim to the outer world whence came no word of them more. The camp went on prospering. Old Man Bright died. The heavily guarded express continued to drag out yellow gold by the hundredweight.
About six weeks after the departure of the Babes, California John saddled up his best horse, put on his best overalls, strapped about him his shiny worn Colt's .45 and departed for his semi-annual visit to the valleys and the towns. A week later he returned. It was about dusk. At the water trough he dismounted.
"Boys," said he, quietly, "I've been held up." He eyed them quizzically. "Up by the slide rock," he continued, "and by the spook."
"Who was he?" "What was it?" they cried, starting to their feet.
"It was Jimmy Gaynes," replied California John.
"The Babe?" someone broke the stunned silence at last.
"Well, I'll be damned!" cried Tibbetts.
"Did he get much off you?" asked a miner after another pause.
"He never took a thing."
And on that, being much besieged, California John sat him down and told of his experience.