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A Calaveras Hold-Up.


ONE sunny summer noon of the year 1880, a man lay under a clump of chaparral at the base of a scrub-oak, near a roadside in the Calaveras foothills. He lay on his stomach, with his head on his arms; and the flies crawled over the dirt on his clothes and the pistol at his belt, only suffering disturbance because of the industry of the black ant colony which had discovered meat among the bread crumbs that had fallen from his pocket. He looked asleep, but, to one who might have seen, there were slits in the sombrero that covered his head, and the eyes behind them were not closed. Rather, they scarcely winked in the sober scrutiny of their purpose.

The road here near the crest of the hill took a sharp right angle to the north, and picked its way brokenly to the summit over rocks and through stumps and standing trees. To the southwest below, it could be seen for miles on its upward course, appearing and disappearing among the open stretches and the woodland. The scrub-oak would have to lengthen its fat shadow very perceptibly before the man would find it necessary to get on his feet; so he allowed a portion of his attention to revert to the cause of his being here.

Billy Owen was not analytical. He did not go back any farther than his love for a woman as the representative cause of the present effect. The spirit of his ancestors, trained to conquest and struggle, had suffered a taint in the far gone years, and he had become the son of an uncertain race. There were men of them rude in virtue as well as strength, and men of them branded with a shifting eye and hunted step. Billy had always had his pleasure with a gun in his hand until these wondrous twelve months of his knowledge of Rudy. That that slight person had no acquaintance with the manner of his former life was due to the respect in which Billy held her. For himself, he couldn't get rid of a troublesome pride when he called up the men—the brakemen, and engineers, and inflated conductors—who had backed away from the steel-ringed mouth of his Colt, his Betty. And the brakemen, and engineers, and inflated conductors who hadn't backed away, and whom Betty had spat at, gave him almost more pride than the treasures he had borne off from under their bodies. But a man must be capering to more than one tune if he's to dance in the open all of his life, so Billy had been giving his later days to the panning for gold in secluded spots of the California Sierras; and the first Sunday that he had lent to the village and set apart for the play had been taken by Rudy! He remembered it all very clearly. He had been so careful to shave. Men must remember a moustache of straw color that brought out the steel in his small gray eyes. He had not changed his working dress, for a knife slips down a yawning boot-leg, and a flannel shirt yields best to one's muscles in motion. A hat with a brim was given of the gods, and Billy had drunk of the air and the anticipation, and sauntered with carelessness into the street. Painted beer by the geyserful spouted from pictured mugs at his every footfall, but he delayed that detail of his social duty until he should have been invited, and continued his march. It had seemed to him queer that the street was so empty. Only occasional men swung in and out of saloon doors, and the rival hotel chairs rested wholly idle. But it was not long before he found the cause. A little paint-blistered church sat around the corner, and its open doors had swallowed almost the entire populace. It seemed waiting for more while the thin notes of its rejoicing bell chased each other out on the air. Service must have been about to begin, for there was only a girl standing out on the steps, and the horses in ranks along the fences, who slept, or brushed flies, or hated their neighbors, as their natures gave impulse. Billy sent the place over to a hotter climate, and turned on his heel to shake off its dust just as the restless eyes of a high-headed roan brought him to a halt.

It was then that he had heard a voice he felt he would never forget.

"There is room," it called.

Billy Owen had gone on looking over the roan. He was not the man to waste Sunday in church.

"Father's to preach on fighting," he heard it again. "There are fights that he stands by."

It was a voice, Billy thought, the bees would look for. He threw her a glance that shouldn't reveal any weakness for the sort of blood-spilling that the parson approved of, and straightway forgot to look off again. Rudy Field was smiling at him, and Rudy was radiant with the spirit of well-doing. The bell's noisy excitement had given way to the voices of the people in an opening hymn of thanksgiving, and the girl hurried off the steps, passed the horses, and laid her hand on his arm.

"He says men ought to break each other's noses if there's cause; but it's the cause," she added pregnantly, turning her eyes away towards the church.

"If two men want to get up and fight just for the pleasure of fightin'," said Billy, "and are glad to shake hands when one of 'em is hollerin'?"

Rudy's gentle eyes gave out their inspiration.

"Come and see if he'll say," she said. And Billy went to his undoing. It was never clear to him what the parson's fighting views really were. There must have gone through them fiber of good sort, because he remembered the noisy approval of his fellowmen. As for himself, a straight little form and a thin little face, with a voice singing up to the angels, left no consciousness of a judicial sort. After the last rousing hymn and the dignity of the benediction, he had sat so still that the church was emptying and the parson was up to him. If Billy had wanted to, there would have been no escaping the zealous warmth of purpose which drew him into the family life and the church life of this country minister. The man had only Rudy and a rough little house, but the restlessness of his energy used them both for his ends.

And the days had taken wings. Billy found through the hours of his lonely working that there was something in his mind supplanting Betty and the bodies which were testimony of his prowess and his power,—a something which could not have borne the revelation of Betty and the corpses. But the very instinct that had brought pride and lust of them to Billy was not alive to a shame that threw them over altogether. In the subtleness of conquest they were not the useful weapons.

Rudy's father had been Rudy's life, and she lay awake in the night now, because a man strong in his youth and the power of his love was coming between them. The atmosphere of her training had left her without the protection of suspicion, and Rudy had only the education that her frailness, their poverty, and shifting life could yield. Her femininity showed her Billy Owen's masterful physique, his superior strength, and tonic vitality. She had begun to have insight into Billy's will power. But, of all men, he gave to her deference, and gentleness, and the alertness of his interests.

And what she was conscious must come, came.

Two miners were hurt in an accident by fire, and the minister was called for in the absence of the doctor. He had arranged to hold services in a village three miles north, and Rudy was left to carry to it the news of the church's closing. She put on a sunbonnet and went out to the barn. The old mare stepped listlessly into the shafts, when a shadow fell over the floor, and Billy filled up the doorway.

"Your father said I was to look out that you got there." He laughed, uncertain still of his welcome.

Rudy had dreaded the lonely twilight drive, and her face must have spoken for her tongue had not; but Billy took up the harnessing with a light on his own face that sent Rudy into the depths of her bonnet. She kept on her side of the fat mare, and buckled and strapped in a tangle of leather, with an indiscretion that sent her hands to the check at Jane's head just at the moment when Billy's must meet them.

And Billy held them close, while Jane dropped her nose and sniffed at some barley grains, indifferent to the fact that her toilet was forgotten.

"Your father'd give me the word to fight the man that could take ye from me now," Billy said.

And Rudy was whiter than the hair on Jane where it happened to be clean.

"It's my father I shall never leave," she answered him.

"It's the father, His book tells ye, shall be left for the husband."

Billy dropped her hands to come around and take her in his arms.

"Say no more, girl, but the word you love me."

And Rudy had said it. And Rudy had sobbed over it, and laughed over it, and sung over it before the message was delivered and Jane in her stall again.

This was a perplexity Rudy's father laid in heaven's care.

"There must be something to live on," he had used as a protest. And what had always made Billy's living but his revolver,—his Betty? The mining was snail's pace at best, and with Rudy on his heart there was mad need of haste. With everything at his hand and his Colt ready, there were only the plans, which he straightway laid. Money for the northern mines passed under his nose once every month. Mounted messengers were the things he and Betty were used to, and the advantage of his isolated claim gave him the chance for the doing in the hours of an unoccupied afternoon.

The flies lifted off on lazy wings as the figure under the chaparral at the base of the scrub-oak heaved onto an elbow and measured the shadow. With the sharp focus of quick sight, he turned to the road again. Down in the far distance a cloud of dust hung in the air. The man went onto his stomach again. The flies settled, the ants took up their burden, and the Summer sun burned over all.

On came the rolling dust, the four horses, the driver, the messenger, and the passengers. They must have passed by Rudy's little house; perhaps Rudy had been looking out at them. Well, the fools need not be hurt—it is only to march to the music. The man bent one leg and rested upon his knee to readjust the hot, black mask that covered his face. He peered down the road again. The stage must be half up the last slope. It was out of sight, but the snap of the whip came to his ears as a signal.

"Betty," he whispered close to the barrel, and got on his feet. Against the trunk of the dusty oak a man crouched, with his finger on the trigger of a gun. A stage rocked into view with two betting men, a pale little woman, and a Wells Fargo messenger, who sat on the box.


The horses came back on their haunches, the leaders in air. Betty's steel-rimmed mouth had covered the crowd.

"Throw out your express box and unload your passengers."

Three men and a woman lined along the roadside with their hands to the sky, and a green, brass-handled box lay in the dust.

"Out with your horses, my hearty, and line up."

The nerve of one man can undo the natural and customary methods of four of his fellows. The driver took his team to the rear of his passengers, and Billy stepped to the front with Betty as steady as became a woman-of-war.

He ran his eye over the men. It would be time to release the woman when danger was past.

"Fall to on that box," Billy directed. He signaled a man of generous mold and ample manner, and the gentleman stood in his tracks.

"Two," said Billy. "One—"

But the man was in the middle of the road, willing and toolless. An axe was dragged from the stage, and he sent the hot fury of his anger into the strokes of the steel.

"Cut the mail pouches," came the next order, and the messenger writhed under cover as he ripped with his knife.

At that moment fell the certain distant sound of approaching horses. Heaven knows there was need of haste, and Billy stood over with curses to emphasize the vigor of his threats.

Sweat fell from the men as he turned to the woman.

"Into the———" Billy began,—and Rudy was looking up at him! Rudy with face like chalk, and the soul of her broken and bleeding.

God! but there is one thing no man can face—the faith of a woman struck back into her heart!

Billy and the revolver wavered in one blindness, and the messenger sprang to his feet.

"Get him," he cried, and his bullet went wide of the mark. Confusion came with the moment. Men leaped to their pockets for weapons and signaled the team coming up.

Billy wasted nothing of the aid Betty held for him. He plunged into the brush at the east with his brain and his heart in the thrall of his shock. About him spit, and crashed, and split a rain of bullets, and he knew there were men of them ready to follow him on the spot.

He swore himself into energy, and beat on through the thick, thorny underbrush with the hope of their disorder sustaining him. There wits a small stone corral some one had told him of—Rudy had told him of! It was hemmed in with rocks, and buckeye, and chaparral. For a theater of war it was safest for a man inside it, and there was only one approach! Rudy had once found herb roots there.

He turned sharp to the south and trailed back again, conscious that his scent was strong and his arm was true,—and to the devil with men who had lived peaceful lives in the fields of their country!

Wet drops of something warm trickled down his back. There must be a wound there. Billy forced his way along, cutting through tangles, leaping the rocks, and scaling the boulders, only halting for seconds to separate insect noises from that of the hunt of men. If he might reach his corral there would be at least breathing space for further campaigning. They were after him, hot on his trail, he knew, but the resources of his race-people gave snap to his blood.

The long, slim shadows of the late afternoon had been swallowed in the monotone of twilight when Billy Owen sat on his heels behind the walls of a stone corral on the sheer slope of a Sierra hill. The fever from his wound was racking his head, but the keenest pain that he suffered was not from that. And there could be no moment of time given over to the undisturbed thought of it. It was only the ever present consciousness through the intensity of attention he imposed on himself. His senses were preternaturally alert; they made record of the night-millers' winging and the life of the lizards in the wall at his face. The red leaves of a poison-oak vine served as his shelter, and above this, and about it, and beyond it the chaparral, and the pines, and the buckeyes watched. From behind the mass of summer foliage the eyes of a man and the mouth of a gun were at aim and waiting.

But it was Rudy's face that was searing with fire the brain of the man,—Rudy's face, which had known only love for him, and trust in him, and pride of him. It went over him cold that her scorn of him might set them on his track. She might guess what he would make for. They had laughed at it as a robber resort. But the thought could not live. Rudy's womanliness—

Hark! there could be no mistake—a step. He had been waiting hours for it. It could come. He needed no change of movement to send it into silence. There would be more of them behind. There must be no delay in wiping them out.

There it comes again, on and up. The fool! Does he think his life is worth juggling for? An unlodged stone trips jerkily down the hillside, and some bats blacken the air over his head. Betty is so safe, and so sure, and so ready that he will let the idiot come into her face.

A hand shows through the bushes at the gate of the corral. Billy is forced to turn; it is some one who knows the run of the land. A black figure thrusts through the branches and Betty throws out her ball of death.

"Billy," he heard in its last terrible note of misunderstanding. He sits in the open and holds her in his arms. Her black hair hangs over her face, and he thrusts it back to clasp her against his breast, against his lips.

At midnight they find Billy Owen, the bandit. There is a woman in his arms, and their lives have gone out on a common search.