Chapter LXIX
 

As Morrell had surmised, Keith decided to pass on the news for what it was worth. The committee believed it, and was filled with consternation at the incredible folly of the projected show of armed force.

"This is not peace, but war," said Coleman, "which we are trying to avert!"

The Executive Committee went into immediate session. It was now evident that the disbanding would have to be indefinitely postponed. An extraordinary program to meet the emergency was discussed piecemeal. One of its details had to do with the shipment of arms from Benicia. The committee here fell neatly into the trap prepared for it. In all probability no one clearly realized the legal status of the muskets, but all supposed them already to belong to the State that was threatening to use them. Charles Doane, instructed to take the steps necessary to their capture, called to him the chief of the harbour police.

"Have you a small vessel ready for immediate service?" he asked this man.

"Yes, a sloop, at the foot of this street."

"Be ready to sail in half an hour."

Doane then turned the job over to a trustworthy, quick-witted man named John Durkee. The latter selected twelve to assist him, among whom was Keith, at the latter's especial request. Morrell, loitering near, saw this band depart for the water front, and followed them far enough to watch them embark, to witness the hoisting of the sloop's sails, and to see the craft heel to the evening breeze and slip away around the point. All things were going well. The committee suspected nothing of the plot to fasten the crime of piracy on it; Keith was out of the way. Morrell turned on his heel and walked rapidly to his rendezvous with Sansome.

Durkee and his sloop beat for some hours against wind and tide; but finally, so strong were both, he was forced to anchor in San Pablo Bay until conditions had somewhat modified. Finally, he was able to get under way again, A number of craft were sailing about, and one by one these were overhauled, commanded to lay to, and boarded in true piratical style. It was fun for everybody. The breeze blew in strongly from the Golden Gate, the waves chopped and danced merrily, the little sloop dipped her rail and flew along at a speed that justified her reputation as a racer, gulls followed curiously. But there were no practical results. Every sailing craft they overhauled proved innocent, and either indignant or sarcastic. The sun dipped, and the short twilight of this latitude was almost immediately succeeded by a brilliant night. Slowly the breeze died, until the little sloop could just crawl along. It grew chilly, and there was no food aboard. A less persistent man than John Durkee would have felt justified in giving it up and heading for home; but John had been instructed to cruise until he captured the arms; and he profanely announced his intention of so doing.

In this he was more faithful to his superiors than the notorious Rube Maloney to his employers. It was to the interest of the Law and Order party that Rube and his precious crew should be promptly and easily captured. They had been instructed to carry boldly and flagrantly, in full daylight, down the middle of the bay. But Terry's permission, to lay in "refreshments" at cost of the conspirators had been liberally interpreted. By six o'clock Rube had just sense enough left to drop anchor off Pueblo Point. There the three jolly mariners proceeded to celebrate; and there they would probably have lain undiscovered had less of a bulldog than Durkee been sent after them.

As it was, midnight had passed before Durkee's keen eyes caught the loom of some object in the black mist close under the point. Quietly he eased off the sheet and bore down on it. As soon as he ascertained definitely that the object was indeed a boat, he ran alongside. The twelve men boarded with a rush: they found themselves in possession of an empty deck. From the hatch came the reek of alcohol and the sound of hearty snoring. The capture was made.

In a half hour the transfer of the muskets and the three prisoners was accomplished. The latter offered no resistance, but seemed cross at being awakened. Leaving the vessel anchored off the point, the little sloop stood away again for San Francisco, reaching the California Street wharf shortly after daylight. Here she was moored, and one of the crew was dispatched to the committee for further instructions and grub. He returned after an hour, but was preceded somewhat by the grub.

"They say to deliver the muskets at headquarters," he reported, "but to turn the prisoners loose."

"Turn them loose!" cried Durkee, astonished.

"That's what they said," repeated the messenger. "And here's written orders," and he displayed a paper signed by the well-known "33, Secretary," and bearing the Vigilante seal of the open eye.

"All right," acquiesced Durkee. "Now, you mangy hounds, you've got just about twenty-eight seconds to make yourselves as scarce as your virtues. Scat!"

Rube and his two companions had several of the twenty-eight seconds to spare; but once they had lost sight of their captors, they moderated their pace. They had been much depressed, but now they cheered up and swaggered. A few drinks restored them to normal, and they were able to put a good face on the report they now made to their employers, all of whom, including Terry, had gathered thus early to receive them. After all, things had gone well: they had been actually captured, which was the essential thing, and it did not seem necessary to go into extraneous details.

"Good!" cried Terry, who had come down from Sacramento personally to superintend the working out of this latest ruse.

He was illegally absent from his court, meddling illegally with matters not in his jurisdiction. "Now we must get a warrant for piracy into the hands of the United States Marshal. Send him alone, with no deputies. When he makes his deposition of resistance, then we shall see!"

The marshal found Durkee still at the wharf, seated on an upturned cask.

"I have this warrant for your arrest!" he proclaimed in a voice purposely loud.

"Yes? Let's see it," rejoined Durkee, lazily reaching out his hand.

He read the document through leisurely. His features betrayed no hint of his thoughts, but nevertheless his brain was very active. He read that he was accused of piracy against the might and majesty of the United States Government; and as his eyes slowly followed the involved and redundant legal phraseology, he reviewed the situation. The nature, of the trap became to him, partly evident. There was no doubt that technically he was a pirate, if these arms--as it seemed--belonged to the Government and not to the State. The punishment of piracy was death. Without appreciation of the fact, the committee had made him liable to the death penalty. And he had no doubt that the Federal Courts of California, as then constituted, would visit that penalty on him. He raised his head and looked about him. Within call were lounging a dozen resolute men belonging to the Committee of Vigilance. He had but to raise his voice to bring them to his assistance. Once inside Fort Gunnybags he knew that the committee would stand behind him to the last man.

But John Durkee had imagination as well as bulldog persistency. His mind flashed ahead into the future, envisaging the remoter consequences. He saw the majesty of the law's forces invoked to back this warrant which the tremendous power of the disciplined Vigilantes would repulse; he saw reinforcements, summoned. What reinforcements? A smile flitted across his lips, and he glanced up at the warship John Adams riding at anchor outside, her guns, their tampons in place, staring blackly at the city. He saw the whole plot.

"That's all right," he told the waiting marshal, folding the warrant and returning it to him. "Put your paper in your pocket. I'll go with you."

By this quietly courageous and intelligent deed John Durkee completely frustrated the fourth and most dangerous effort of the Law and Order party. There was no legal excuse for calling on Federal forces to take one man-- who peaceably surrendered!

Undoubtedly, had not matters taken the decided and critical turn soon to be detailed, Durkee would have been immediately brought to trial, and perhaps executed. As it was, even the most rabid of the Law and Order party agreed it was inexpedient to press matters. The case was postponed again and again, and did not come to trial until several months, by which time the Vigilantes had practically finished their work. The law finally saved its face by charging the jury that "if they believed the prisoners took the arms with the intention of appropriating them to their own use and permanently depriving the owner of them, then they were guilty. But if they took them only for the purpose of preventing their being used against themselves and their associates, then they were not guilty." Under which hair-splitting and convenient interpretation the "pirates" went free, and everybody was satisfied!