The Sheriff of Siskyou
On the fifteenth of August, 1854, what seemed to be the entire population of Wynyard's Bar was collected upon a little bluff which overlooked the rude wagon road that was the only approach to the settlement. In general appearance the men differed but little from ordinary miners, although the foreign element—shown in certain Spanish peculiarities of dress and color—predominated, and some of the men were further distinguished by the delicacy of education and sedentary pursuits. Yet Wynyard's Bar was a city of refuge, comprised among its inhabitants a number who were "wanted" by the State authorities, and its actual attitude at that moment was one of open rebellion against the legal power, and of particular resistance to the apprehension by warrant of one of its prominent members. This gentleman, Major Overstone, then astride of a gray mustang, and directing the movements of the crowd, had, a few days before, killed the sheriff of Siskyou county, who had attempted to arrest him for the double offense of misappropriating certain corporate funds of the State and the shooting of the editor who had imprudently exposed him. The lesser crime of homicide might have been overlooked by the authorities, but its repetition upon the body of their own over-zealous and misguided official could not pass unchallenged if they expected to arrest Overstone for the more serious offense against property. So it was known that a new sheriff had been appointed and was coming to Wynyard's Bar with an armed posse. But it was also understood that this invasion would be resisted by the Bar to its last man.
All eyes were turned upon a fringe of laurel and butternut that encroached upon the road half a mile away, where it seemed that such of the inhabitants who were missing from the bluff were hidden to give warning or retard the approach of the posse. A gray haze, slowly rising between the fringe and the distant hillside, was recognized as the dust of a cavalcade passing along the invisible highway. In the hush of expectancy that followed, the irregular clatter of hoofs, the sharp crack of a rifle, and a sudden halt were faintly audible. The men, scattered in groups on the bluff, exchanged a smile of grim satisfaction.
Not so their leader! A quick start and an oath attracted attention to him. To their surprise he was looking in another direction, but as they looked, too, they saw and understood the cause. A file of horsemen, hitherto undetected, were slowly passing along the little ridge on their right. Their compact accoutrements and the yellow braid on their blue jackets, distinctly seen at that distance, showed them to be an escort of United States cavalry.
Before the assemblage could realize this new invasion, a nearer clatter of hoofs was heard along the high-road, and one of the ambuscading party dashed up from the fringe of woods below. His face was flushed but triumphant.
"A reg'lar skunk! by the living hokey!" he panted, pointing to the faint haze that was again slowly rising above the invisible road. "They backed down as soon as they saw our hand, and got a hole through their new sheriff's hat. But what are you lookin' at? What's up?"
The leader impatiently pointed with a darkening face to the distant file.
"Reg'lars, by gum!" ejaculated the other. "But Uncle Sam ain't in this game! Wot right have they—"
"Dry up!" said the leader.
The escort was now moving at right angles with the camp, but suddenly halted, almost doubling upon itself in some evident commotion. A dismounted figure was seen momentarily flying down the hillside, dodging from bush to bush until lost in the underbrush. A dozen shots were fired over its head, and then the whole escort wheeled and came clattering down the trail in the direction of the camp. A single riderless horse, evidently that of the fugitive, followed.
"Spread yourselves along the ridge, every man of you, and cover them as they enter the gulch!" shouted the leader. "But not a shot until I give the word. Scatter!"
The assemblage dispersed like a startled village of prairie dogs, squatting behind every available bush and rock along the line of bluff. The leader alone trotted quietly to the head of the gulch.
The nine cavalrymen came smartly up in twos, a young officer leading. The single figure of Major Overstone opposed them with a command to halt. Looking up, the young officer drew rein, said a word to his file leader, and the four files closed in a compact square motionless on the road. The young officer's unsworded hand hung quietly at his thigh; the men's unslung carbines rested easily on their saddles. Yet at that moment every man of them knew that they were covered by a hundred rifles and shot guns leveled from every bush, and that they were caught helplessly in a trap.
"Since when," said Major Overstone with an affectation of tone and manner different from that in which he had addressed his previous companions, "have the Ninth United States Cavalry helped to serve a State court's pettifogging process?"
"We are hunting a deserter—a half-breed agent—who has just escaped us," returned the officer. His voice was boyish—so, too, was his figure in its slim, cadet-like smartness of belted tunic—but very quiet and level, although his face was still flushed with the shock and shame of his surprise.
The relaxation of relief went through the wrought and waiting camp. The soldiers were not seeking them. Ready as these desperate men had been to do their leader's bidding, they were well aware that a momentary victory over the troopers would not pass unpunished, and meant the ultimate dispersion of the camp; and quiet as these innocent invaders seemed to be, they would no doubt sell their lives dearly. The embattled desperadoes glanced anxiously at their leader; the soldiers, on the contrary, looked straight before them.
"Process or no process," said Major Overstone with a sneer, "you've come to the last place to recover your deserter. We don't give up men in Wynyard's Bar. And they didn't teach you at the Academy, sir, to stop to take prisoners when you were outflanked and outnumbered."
"Bedad! They didn't teach you, Captain Overstone, to engage a battery at Cerro Gordo with a half company, but you did it—more shame to you now, sir, commandin' the thayves and ruffians you do."
"Silence!" said the young officer.
The sleeve of the sergeant who had spoken—with the chevrons of long service upon it—went up to a salute and dropped again over his carbine, as he stared stolidly before him. But his shot had told. A flush of mingled pride and shame passed over Overstone's face.
"Oh! it's you, Murphy!" he said with an affected laugh; "and you haven't improved in discipline with your stripes."
The young officer turned his head slightly.
"One moment more," said Overstone coming forward. "I have told you that we don't give up any man who seeks our protection. But," he added with a half-careless, half-contemptuous wave of his hand and a significant glance at his followers, "we don't prevent you from seeking him. The road is clear; the camp is before you."
The young officer continued without looking at him: "Forward—in two files—open order. Ma-arch!"
The little troop moved forward, passed Major Overstone at the head of the gully, and spread out on the hillside. The assembled camp, still armed, lounging out of ambush here and there, ironically made way for them to pass. A few moments of this farcical quest, and a glance at the impenetrably wooded heights around, apparently satisfied the young officer, and he turned his files again into the gully. Major Overstone was still lingering there.
"I hope you are satisfied," he said grimly. He then paused, and, in a changed and more hesitating voice added: "I am an older soldier than you, sir, but I am always glad to make the acquaintance of West Point." He paused and held out his hand.
West Point, still red and rigid, glanced at him with bright clear eyes under light lashes and the peak of a smartly cocked cap, looked coolly at the proffered hand, raised his own to a stiff salute, said, "Good afternoon, sir," and rode away.
Major Overstone wheeled angrily, but in doing so came sharply upon his coadjutor—the leader of the ambushed party.
"Well, Dawson," he said impatiently. "Who was it?"
"Only one of them d——d half-breed Injin agents. He's just over there in the brush with Simpson, lying low till the soldiers clear out."
"Did you talk to him?"
"Not much!" returned Dawson scornfully. "He ain't my style."
"Fetch him up to my cabin; he may be of some use to us."
Dawson looked skeptical. "I reckon he ain't no more gain here than he was over there," he said, and turned away.
The cabin of Major Overstone differed outwardly but little from those of his companions. It was the usual structure of logs, laid lengthwise, and rudely plastered at each point of contact with adobe, the material from which the chimney, which entirely occupied one gable, was built. It was pierced with two windows and a door, roofed with smaller logs, and thatched with long half cylinders of spruce bark. But the interior gave certain indications of the distinction as well as the peculiar experiences of its occupant. In place of the usual bunk or berth built against the wall stood a small folding camp bedstead, and upon a rude deal table that held a tin wash-basin and pail lay two ivory-handled brushes, combs, and other elegant toilet articles, evidently the contents of the major's dressing-bag. A handsome leather trunk occupied one corner, with a richly caparisoned silver-mounted Mexican saddle, a mahogany case of dueling pistols, a leather hat-box, locked and strapped, and a gorgeous gold and quartz handled ebony "presentation" walking stick. There was a certain dramatic suggestion in this revelation of the sudden and hurried transition from a life of ostentatious luxury to one of hidden toil and privation, and a further significance in the slow and gradual destitution and degradation of these elegant souvenirs. A pair of silver boot-hooks had been used for raking the hearth and lifting the coffee kettle; the ivory of the brushes was stained with coffee; the cut-glass bottles had lost their stoppers, and had been utilized for vinegar and salt; a silver-framed hand mirror hung against the blackened wall. For the major's occupancy was the sequel of a hurried flight from his luxurious hotel at Sacramento—a transfer that he believed was only temporary until the affair blew over and he could return in safety to browbeat his accusers, as was his wont. But this had not been so easy as he had imagined; his prosecutors were bitter, and his enforced seclusion had been prolonged week by week, until the fracas which ended in the shooting of the sheriff had apparently closed the door upon his return to civilization forever. Only here was his life and person secure. For Wynyard's Bar had quickly succumbed to the domination of his reckless courage, and the eminence of his double crime had made him respected among spendthrifts, gamblers, and gentlemen whose performances had never risen above a stage-coach robbery or a single assassination. Even criticism of his faded luxuries had been delicately withheld.
He was leaning over his open trunk—which the camp popularly supposed to contain State bonds and securities of fabulous amount—and had taken some letters from it, when a figure darkened the doorway. He looked up, laying his papers carelessly aside. Within Wynyard's Bar property was sacred.
It was the late fugitive. Although some hours had already elapsed since his arrival in camp, and he had presumably refreshed himself inwardly, his outward appearance was still disheveled and dusty. Brier and milkweed clung to his frayed blouse and trousers. What could be seen of the skin of his face and hands under its stains and begriming was of a dull yellow. His light eyes had all the brightness without the restlessness of the mongrel race. They leisurely took in the whole cabin, the still open trunk before the major, and then rested deliberately on the major himself.
"Well," said Major Overstone abruptly, "what brought you here?"
"Same as brought you, I reckon," responded the man almost as abruptly.
The major knew something of the half-breed temper, and neither the retort nor its tone affected him.
"You didn't come here just because you deserted," said the major coolly. "You've been up to something else."
"I have," said the man with equal coolness.
"I thought so. Now, you understand you can't try anything of that kind here. If you do, up you go on the first tree! That's Rule 1."
"I see; you ain't pertickler about waiting for the sheriff here—you fellers."
The major glanced at him quickly. He seemed to be quite unconscious of any irony in his remark, and continued grimly, "And what's Rule 2?"
"I reckon you needn't trouble yourself beyond No. 1," returned the major with dry significance. Nevertheless, he opened a rude cupboard in the corner and brought out a rich silver-mounted cut-glass drinking-flask, which he handed to the stranger.
"I say," said the half-breed, admiringly. "Yours?"
"Certainly now—but before, eh?"
Rule No. 2 may have indicated that references to the past held no dishonor. The major, although accustomed to these pleasantries, laughed a little harshly.
"Mine always," he said. "But you don't drink?"
The half-breed's face darkened under its grime. "Wot you're givin' us? I've been filled chock up by Simpson over thar. I reckon I know when I've got a load on."
"Were you ever in Sacramento?"
"Did you hear anything about me?"
The half-breed glanced through his tangled hair at the major in some wonder, not only at the question, but at the almost childish eagerness with which it was asked.
"I didn't hear much of anything else," he answered grimly.
"And—what did they say?"
"Said you'd got to be took anyhow! They allowed the new sheriff would do it too."
The major laughed. "Well, you heard how the new sheriff did it—skunked away with his whole posse before one-eighth of my men! You saw how the rest of this camp held up your nine troopers, and that sap-headed cub of a lieutenant, didn't you? You wouldn't have been standing here if you hadn't. No! There isn't the civil process nor the civil power in all California that can take me out of this camp."
But neither his previous curiosity nor present bravado seemed to impress the ragged stranger with much favor. He glanced sulkily around the cabin and began to shuffle towards the door.
"Stop! Where are you going to? Sit down; I want to talk to you."
The fugitive hesitated for a moment, and then dropped ungraciously on the edge of a campstool near the door. The major looked at him.
"I may have to remind you that I run this camp, and the boys hereabouts do pretty much as I say. What's your name?"
"Tom? Well, look here, Tom! D——n it all! Can't you see that when a man is stuck here alone, as I am, he wants to know what's going on outside, and hear a little fresh talk?"
The singular weakness of this blended command and appeal apparently struck the fugitive curiously. He fixed his lowering eyes on the major as if in gloomy doubt if he were really the reckless desperado he had been represented. That this man—twice an assassin and the ruler of outlaws as reckless as himself—should approach him in this half-confidential way evidently puzzled him.
"Wot you wanter know?" he asked gruffly.
"Well—what's my party saying or doing about me?" said the major impatiently. "What's the Express saying about me?"
"I reckon they're throwing off on you all round; they allow you never represented the party—but worked for yourself," said the man shortly.
Here the major lashed out: A set of traitors and hirelings! He had bought and paid for them all! He had sunk two thousand dollars in the Express and saved the editor from being horsewhipped and jailed for libel! Half the cursed bonds that they were making such a blanked fuss about were handled by these hypocrites, blank them! They were a low-lived crew of thieves and deserters! It is presumed that the major had forgotten himself in this infelicitous selection of epithets—but the stranger's face only relaxed into a grim smile. More than that, the major had apparently forgotten his desire to hear his guest talk, for he himself at once launched into an elaborate exposition of his own affairs and a specious and equally elaborate defense and justification of himself and denunciation of his accusers. For nearly half an hour he reviewed step by step and detail by detail the charges against him, with plausible explanation and sophistical argument—always with a singular prolixity and reiteration that spoke of incessant consciousness and self-abstraction. Of that dashing self-sufficiency which had dazzled his friends and awed his enemies there was no trace! At last, even the set smile of the degraded recipient of these confidences darkened with a dull, bewildered disgust. Then, to his relief, a step was heard without. The major's manner instantly changed.
"Well?" he demanded impatiently, as Dawson entered.
"I came to know what you want done with him," said Dawson, indicating the fugitive with a contemptuous finger.
"Take him to your cabin!"
"My cabin! Him?" ejaculated Dawson, turning sharply on his chief.
The major's light eyes contracted and his thin lips became a straight line. "I don't think you understand me, Dawson, and another time you'd better wait until I've done. I want you to take him to your cabin and then clear out of it yourself. You understand? I want him near me and alone!"
Dawson was not astonished, the next morning to see Major Overstone and the half-breed walking together down the gully road. For he had already come to the conclusion that the major was planning some extraordinary reprisal against the invaders that would insure the perpetual security of the camp. That he should use so insignificant and unimportant a tool now appeared to him to be quite natural, particularly as the service was probably one in which the man would be sacrificed. "The major," he suggested to his companions, "ain't going to risk a white man's skin, when he can get an Injun's hide handy."
The reluctant, hesitating step of the half-breed as they walked along seemed to give some color to this hypothesis. He listened sullenly to the major as he pointed out the strategic position of the Bar. "That wagon road is the only approach to Wynyard's, and a dozen men along the rocks could hold it against a hundred. The trail that you came by, over the ridge, drops straight into this gully, and you saw what that would mean to any blanked fools who might try it. Of course, we could be shelled from that ridge if the sheriff had a howitzer, or the men who knew how to work one; but even then we could occupy the ridge before them." He paused a moment and then added: "I used to be in the army, Tom; I saw service in Mexico before that cub you got away from had his first trousers. I was brought up as a gentleman—blank it all!—and here I am!"
The man slouched on by his side, casting his surly, furtive glances from left to right, as if seeking to escape from these confidences. Nevertheless, the major kept on through the gully, until reaching the wagon road they crossed it, and began to ascend the opposite slope, half hidden by the underbrush and larches. Here the major paused again and faced about. The cabins of the settlement were already behind the bluff; the little stream which indicated the "bar," on which some perfunctory mining was still continued, now and then rang out quite clearly at their feet, although the bar itself had disappeared. The sounds of occupation and labor had at last died out in the distance. They were quite alone. The major sat down on a boulder, and pointed to another. The man, however, remained sullenly standing where he was, as if to accent as strongly as possible the enforced companionship. Either the major was too self-absorbed to notice it, or accepted it as a satisfactory characteristic of the half-breed's race. He continued confidently:
"Now look here, Tom! I want to leave this cursed hole, and get clear out of the State! Anywhere!—over the Oregon line into British Columbia, or to the coast, where I can get a coasting vessel down to Mexico! It will cost money, but I've got it! It will cost a lot of risks, but I'll take them! I want somebody to help me—some one to share risks with me, and some one to share my luck if I succeed. Help to put me on the other side of the border line, by sea or land, and I'll give you a thousand dollars down before we start—and a thousand dollars when I'm safe."
The half-breed had changed his slouching attitude. It seemed more indolent on account of the loosely hanging strap that had once held his haversack, which was still worn in a slovenly fashion over his shoulder, as a kind of lazy sling for his shiftless hand.
"Well, Tom, is it a go? You can trust me, for you'll have the thousand in your pocket before you start. I can trust you, for I'll kill you quicker than lightning if you say a word of this to any one before I go, or play a single trick on me afterward."
Suddenly the two men were rolling over and over in the underbrush. The half-breed had thrown himself upon the major, bearing him down to the ground. The haversack strap for an instant whirled like the loop of a lasso in the air, and descended over the major's shoulders, pinioning his arms to his side. Then the half-breed, tearing open his ragged blouse, stripped off his waist belt, and as dexterously slipped it over the ankles of the struggling man.
It was all over in a moment. Neither had spoken a word. Only their rapid panting broke the profound silence. Each probably knew that no outcry would be overheard.
For the first time the half-breed sat down. But there was no trace of triumph or satisfaction in his face, which wore the same lowering look of disgust, as he gazed upon the prostrate man.
"I want to tell you first," he said, slowly wiping his face, "that I didn't kalkilate upon doin' this in this yer kind o' way. I expected more of a stan' up fight from you—more risk in gettin' you out o' that hole—and a different kind of a man to tackle. I never expected you to play into my hand like this, and it goes against me to hev to take advantage of it."
"Who are you?" said the major, pantingly.
"I'm the new sheriff of Siskyou!" He drew from beneath his begrimed shirt a paper wrapping, from which he gingerly extracted with the ends of his dirty fingers a clean, legal-looking folded paper. "That's my warrant! I've kept it fresh for you. I reckon you don't care to read it—you've seen it afore. It's just the same as t'other sheriff had—what you shot."
"Then this was a plan of yours, and that whelp's escort?" said the major.
"Neither him nor the escort knows any more about it than you," returned the sheriff slowly. "I enlisted as Injin guide or scout ten days ago. I deserted just as reg'lar and nat'ral like when we passed that ridge yesterday. I could be took to-morrow by the sojers if they caught sight o' me and court-martialed—it's as reg'lar as that! But I timed to have my posse, under a deputy, draw you off by an attack, just as the escort reached the ridge. And here I am."
"And you're no half-breed?"
"There's nothin' Injin about me that water won't wash off. I kalkilated you wouldn't suspect anything so insignificant as an Injin when I fixed myself up. You saw Dawson didn't hanker after me much. But I didn't reckon on your tumbling to me so quick. That's what gets me! You must hev been pretty low down for kempany when you took a man like me inter your confidence. I don't see it yet."
He looked inquiringly at his captive, with the same wondering surliness. Nor could he understand another thing which was evident. After the first shock of resistance the major had exhibited none of the indignation of a betrayed man, but actually seemed to accept the situation with a calmness that his captor lacked. His voice was quite unemotional as he said:
"And how are you going to get me away from here?"
"That's my look-out, and needn't trouble you, Major; but, seeing as how confidential you've been to me, I don't mind tellin' you. Last night that posse of mine that you 'skunked,' you know, halted at the cross-roads till them sojers went by. They has only to see them to know that I had got away. They'll hang round the cross-roads till they see my signal on top of the ridge, and then they'll make another show agen that pass. Your men will have their hands full, I reckon, without huntin' for you, or noticin' the three men o' mine that will come along this ridge where the sojers come yesterday—to help me get you down in the same way. You see, Major, your little trap in that gully ain't in this fight; we're on the other side of it. I ain't much of a soldier, but I reckon I've got you there; and it's all owing to you. I ain't," he added gloomily, "takin' much pride in it myself."
"I shouldn't think you would," said the major, "and look here! I'll double that offer I made you just now. Set me down just as I am on the deck of some coasting vessel, and I'll pay you four thousand dollars. You may have all the glory of having captured me here, and of making your word good before your posse. But you can arrange afterward on the way to let me give you the slip somewhere near Sacramento."
The sheriff's face actually brightened. "Thanks for that, Major. I was gettin' a little sick of my share in this job, but, by God, you've put some sand in me. Well, then, there ain't gold enough in all Californy to make me let you go! You hear me? So drop that. I've took you, and took ye'll remain until I land you in Sacramento jail. I don't want to kill you, though your life's forfeit a dozen times over, and I reckon you don't care for it either way, but if you try any tricks on me I may have to maim ye to make you come along comf'able and easy. I ain't hankerin' arter that either, but come you shall."
"Give your signal and have an end of this," said the major curtly.
The sheriff looked at him again curiously. "I never had my hands in another man's pockets before, Major, but I reckon I'll have to take your derringers from yours." He slipped his hand into the major's waistcoat and secured the weapons. "I'll have to trouble you for your sash, too," he said, unwinding the knitted silken girdle from the captive's waist. "You won't want it, for you ain't walking, and it'll come in handy to me just now."
He bent over, and, passing it across the major's breast with more gentleness and solicitude than he had yet shown, secured him in an easy sitting posture against the tree. Then, after carefully trying the knots and straps that held his prisoner, he turned and lightly bounded up the hill.
He was absent scarcely ten minutes, yet when he returned the major's eyes were half closed. But not his lips. "If you expect to hold me until your posse comes, you had better take me to some less exposed position," he said dryly. "There's a man just crossed the gully, coming into the brush below in the wood."
"None of your tricks, Major!"
"Look for yourself!"
The sheriff glanced quickly below him. A man with an axe on his shoulder could be seen plainly making his way through the underbrush not a hundred yards away. The sheriff instantly clapped his hand upon his captive's mouth, but at a look from his eyes took it away again.
"I see," he said grimly, "you don't want to lure that man within reach of my revolver by calling to him."
"I could have called him while you were away," returned the major quietly.
The sheriff with a darkened face loosened the sash that bound his prisoner to the tree, and then, lifting him in his arms, began to ascend the hill cautiously, dipping into the heavier shadows. But the ascent was difficult, the load a heavy one, and the sheriff was agile rather than muscular. After a few minutes' climbing he was forced to pause and rest his burden at the foot of a tree. But the valley and the man in the underbrush were no longer in view.
"Come," said the major quietly, "unstrap my ankles and I'll walk up. We'll never get there at this rate."
The sheriff paused, wiped his grimy face with his grimier blouse, and stood looking at his prisoner. Then he said slowly:
"Look yer! Wot's your little game? Blessed if I kin follow suit."
For the first time the major burst into a rage. "Blast it all! Don't you see that if I'm discovered here—in this way—there's not a man on the Bar who would believe that I walked into your trap—not a man, by God! who wouldn't think it was a trick of yours and mine together."
"Or," interrupted the sheriff, slowly fixing his eyes on his prisoner, "not a man who would ever trust Major Overstone for a leader again."
"Perhaps," said the major, unmovedly again, "I don't think either of us would ever get a chance of being trusted again by any one."
The sheriff still kept his eyes fixed on his prisoner, his gloomy face growing darker under its grime. "That ain't the reason, Major. Life and death mean much more to you than they do to me in this yer game. I know that you'd kill me quicker nor lightning if you got the chance; you know that I'm takin' you to the gallows."
"The reason is that I want to leave Wynyard's Bar," said the major coolly. "And even this way out of it will suit me."
The sheriff took his revolver from his pocket and deliberately cocked it. Then leaning down, he unbuckled the strap from the major's ankles. A wild hope that his incomprehensible captive might seize that moment to develop his real intent; that he might fly, fight, or in some way act up to his reckless reputation, sustained him for a moment, but in the next proved futile. The major only said: "Thank you, Tom," and stretched his cramped legs.
"Get up and go on," said the sheriff roughly.
The major began to slowly ascend the hill, the sheriff close on his heels, alert, tingling, and watchful of every movement. For a few moments this strain upon his faculties seemed to invigorate him, and his gloom relaxed; but presently it became too evident that the prisoner's pinioned arms made it impossible for him to balance or help himself on that steep trail, and once or twice he stumbled and reeled dangerously to one side. With an oath the sheriff caught him, and tore from his arms the only remaining bonds that fettered him. "There!" he said savagely; "go on—we're equal."
Without replying, the major continued his ascent; it became steeper as they neared the crest, and at last they were both obliged to drag themselves up by clutching the vines and underbrush. Suddenly the major stopped with a listening gesture. A strange roaring—as of wind or water—was distinctly audible.
"How did you signal?" asked the major abruptly.
"Made a smoke," said the sheriff as abruptly.
"I thought so. Well, you've set the woods on fire."
They both plunged upwards again, now quite abreast, vying with each other to reach the summit as if with the one thought only. Already the sting and smart of acrid fumes were in their eyes and nostrils. When they at last stood on level ground again it was hidden by a thin film of grayish-blue haze that seemed to be creeping along it. But above was the clear sky, seen through the interlacing boughs, and to their surprise, they who had just come from the breathless, stagnant hillside, a fierce wind was blowing! But the roaring was louder than before.
"Unless your three men are already here, your game is up," said the major calmly. "The wind blows dead along the ridge where they should come, and they can't get through the smoke and fire."
It was indeed true! In the scarce twenty minutes that had elapsed since the sheriff's return the dry and brittle underbrush for half a mile on either side had been converted into a sheet of flame, which at times rose to a furnace blast through the tall chimney-like conductors of tree shafts, from whose shrivelled sides bark was crackling, and lighted dead limbs falling in all directions. The whole valley, the gully, the Bar, the very hillside they had just left, were blotted out by a creeping, stifling smoke-fog that scarcely rose breast high, but was beaten down or cut off cleanly by the violent wind that swept the higher level of the forest. At times this gale became a sirocco in temperature, concentrating its heat in withering blasts which they could not face, or focusing its intensity upon some mass of foliage that seemed to shrink at its touch and open a scathed and quivering aisle to its approach. The enormous skeleton of a dead and rotten redwood, not a hundred yards to their right, broke suddenly like a gigantic firework into sparks and flame.
The sheriff had grasped the full meaning of their situation. In spite of his first error—the very carelessness of familiarity—his knowledge of woodcraft was greater than his companion's, and he saw their danger.
"Come," he said quickly, "we must make for an opening or we shall be caught."
The major smiled in misapprehension.
"Who could catch us here?"
The sheriff pointed to the blazing tree. "That," he said. "In five minutes it will have a posse that will wipe us both out."
He caught the major by the arm and rushed him into the smoke, and apparently in the direction of the greatest mass of flame. The heat was suffocating, but it struck the major that the more they approached the actual scene of conflagration the heat and smoke became less, until he saw that the fire was retreating before them and the following wind. In a few moments their haven of safety—the expanse already burned over—came in sight. Here and there, seen dimly through the drifting smoke, the scattered embers that still strewed the forest floor glowed in weird nebulous spots like will-o'-the-wisps. For an instant the major hesitated; the sheriff cast a significant glance behind them.
"Go on; it's our only chance," he said imperatively.
They darted on, skimming the blackened or smouldering surface, which at times struck out spark and flame from their heavier footprints as they passed. Their boots crackled and scorched beneath them; their shreds of clothing were on fire; their breathing became more difficult, until, providentially, they fell upon an abrupt, fissure-like depression of the soil, which the fire had leaped, and into which they blindly plunged and rolled together. A moment of relief and coolness followed, as they crept along the fissure, filled with damp and rotting leaves.
"Why not stay here?" said the exhausted prisoner.
"And be roasted like sweet potatoes when these trees catch?" returned the sheriff grimly. "No." Even as he spoke, a dropping rain of fire spattered through the leaves from a splintered redwood, before overlooked, that was now blazing fiercely in the upper wind. A vague and indefinable terror was in the air. The conflagration no longer seemed to obey any rule of direction. They scrambled out of the hollow, and again dashed desperately forward.
Beaten, bruised, blackened, and smoke-grimed, looking less human than the animals who had long since deserted the crest, they at last limped into a "wind opening" in the woods that the fire had skirted. The major sank exhaustedly to the ground; the sheriff threw himself beside him. Their strange relations to each other seemed to have been forgotten; they looked and acted as if they no longer thought of anything beyond the present. And when the sheriff finally arose, and, disappearing for several minutes, brought his hat full of water for his prisoner from a distant spring that they had passed in their flight, he found him where he had left him, unchanged and unmoved.
He took the water gratefully, and after a pause fixed his eyes earnestly upon his captor. "I want you to do a favor to me," he said slowly. "I'm not going to offer you a bribe to do it, either, nor ask you anything that isn't in a line with your duty. I think I understand you now, if I didn't before. Do you know Briggs's restaurant in Sacramento?"
The sheriff nodded.
"Well, over the restaurant are my private rooms—the finest in Sacramento. Nobody knows it but Briggs, and he has never told. They've been locked ever since I left; I've got the key still in my pocket. Now, when we get to Sacramento, instead of taking me straight to jail, I want you to hold me there as your prisoner for a day and a night. I don't want to get away; you can take what precautions you like—surround the house with policemen, and sleep yourself in the anteroom. I don't want to destroy any papers or evidence; you can go through the rooms and examine everything before and after. I only want to stay there a day and a night; I want to be in my old rooms, have my meals from the restaurant as I used to, and sleep in my own bed once more. I want to live for one day like a gentleman, as I used to live before I came here. That's all. It isn't much, Tom; you can do it and say you require to do it to get evidence against me, or that you want to search the rooms."
The expression of wonder which had come into the sheriff's face at the beginning of this speech deepened into his old look of surly dissatisfaction. "And that's all ye want?" he said gloomily. "Ye don't want no friends—no lawyer? For I tell you, straight out, Major, there ain't no hope for ye when the law once gets hold of ye in Sacramento."
"That's all. Will you do it?"
The sheriff's face grew still darker. After a pause he said: "I don't say 'no,' and I don't say 'yes.' But," he added grimly, "it strikes me we'd better wait till we get clear o' these woods before you think o' your Sacramento lodgings."
The major did not reply. The day had worn on, but the fire, now completely encircling them, opposed any passage in or out of that fateful barrier. The smoke of the burning underbrush hung low around them in a bank equally impenetrable to vision. They were as alone as shipwrecked sailors on an island, girded by a horizon of clouds.
"I'm going to try to sleep," said the major; "if your men come you can waken me."
"And if your men come?" said the sheriff dryly.
He lay down, closed his eyes, and to the sheriff's astonishment presently fell asleep. The sheriff, with his chin in his grimy hands, sat and watched him as the day slowly darkened around them and the distant fires came out in more lurid intensity. The face of the captive and outlawed murderer was singularly peaceful; that of the captor and man of duty was haggard, wild, and perplexed.
But even this changed soon. The sleeping man stirred restlessly and uneasily, his face began to work, his lips to move. "Tom!" he gasped suddenly, "Tom!"
The sheriff bent over him eagerly. The sleeping man's eyes were still closed; beads of sweat stood upon his forehead. He was dreaming.
"Tom," he whispered, "take me out of this place—take me out from these dogs and pimps and beggars! Listen, Tom—they're Sydney Ducks, ticket-of-leave men, short card sharps, and sneak thieves! There isn't a gentleman among 'em. There isn't one I don't loathe and hate—and would grind under my heel elsewhere. I'm a gentleman, Tom—yes, by God—an officer and a gentleman! I've served my country in the Ninth Cavalry. That cub of West Point knows it and despises me, seeing me here in such company. That sergeant knows it—I recommended him for his first stripes—for all he taunts me, d——n him!"
"Come! Wake up!" said the sheriff harshly.
The prisoner did not heed him; the sheriff shook him roughly, so roughly that the major's waistcoat and shirt dragged open, disclosing his fine silk undershirt, delicately worked and embroidered with golden thread. At the sight of this abased and faded magnificence the sheriff's hand was stayed; his eye wandered over the sleeping form before him. Yes, the hair was dyed too; near the roots it was quite white and grizzled; the pomatum was coming off the pointed mustache and imperial; the face in the light was very haggard; the lines from the angles of the nostril and mouth were like deep, half-healed gashes. The major was, without doubt, prematurely worn and played out.
The sheriff's persistent eyes, however, seemed to effect what his ruder hand could not. The sleeping man stirred, awoke to full consciousness, and sat up.
"Are they here? I'm ready," he said calmly.
"No," said the sheriff deliberately. "I only woke ye to say that I've been thinkin' over what ye asked of me, and if we get to Sacramento all right, why I'll do it and give ye that day and night at your old lodgings."
The major reached out his hand; the sheriff hesitated, and then extended his own. The hands of the two men clasped for the first, and, it would seem, the last time.
For the "cub of West Point" was, like most cubs, irritable when thwarted. And having been balked of his prey, the deserter, and possibly chaffed by his comrades for his profitless invasion of Wynyard's Bar, he had persuaded his commanding officer to give him permission to effect a recapture. Thus it came about that at dawn, filing along the ridge, on the outskirts of the fire, his heart was gladdened by the sight of the half-breed, with his hanging hammock belt and tattered army tunic, evidently still a fugitive, not a hundred yards away on the other side of the belt of fire, running down the hill with another ragged figure at his side. The command to "halt" was enforced by a single rifle shot over the fugitives' heads—but they still kept on their flight. Then the boy officer snatched a carbine from one of his men, a volley rang out from the little troop—the shots of the privates mercifully high, those of the officer and sergeant levelled with wounded pride and full of deliberate purpose. The half-breed fell, so did his companion, and, rolling over together, both lay still.
But between the hunters and their fallen quarry reared a cheval-de-frise of flame and fallen timber impossible to cross. The young officer hesitated, shrugged his shoulders, wheeled his men, and left the fire to correct any irregularity in his action.
It did not, however, change contemporaneous history. For, a week later, when Wynyard's Bar discovered Major Overstone lying beside the man now recognized by them as the disguised sheriff of Siskyou, they rejoiced at this unfailing evidence of their lost leader's unequalled prowess. That he had again killed a sheriff and fought a whole posse, yielding only with his life, was never once doubted, and kept his memory green in Sierran chronicles long after Wynyard's Bar had itself become a memory.