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The Tom Bell Stronghold


"You smile, O poet, and what do you?
You lean from your window and watch life's column
Trampling and struggling through dust and dew,
Filled with its purposes grave and solemn;
An act, a gesture, a face - who knows?
And you pluck from your bosom the verse that grows,
And down it flies like my red, red rose,
And you sit and dream as away it goes,
And think that your duty is done - now, don't you?"

- Bret Harte.

In the early days it was called the Mountaineer House. Now it is colloquially known as the "stone house," and has for sixty years been the home of the Owen King family. It is surrounded today by one of the most beautiful orchards in the foothills. Wide verandahs of the native gray granite to match the old house itself have been added. It is electrically lighted and furnace heated, modern in every way, yet still the romance of former times seems to cling to its sturdy old walls.

All that remain unchanged are three huge trees flanking the highway in front. What tales they could tell, if they would, of what passed by the junction of two roads beneath them. Of the long and weary caravans from across the plains crawling up from the bridge at Whiskey Bar, below Rattlesnake, glad that their six months' struggle was nearly over: of horsemen on beautiful Spanish horses riding furiously, whither no one knew nor dared ask; of dark deeds in the old stone house below, that was so inscrutably quiet by day and so mysteriously alive by night; of ghastly doings by the Tom Bell gang which ranged all the way from the Oregon border to the southern lakes.

They will never tell all they know - these big old trees - of those who went in by the door and "came out by the cellar" of Tom Bell's stronghold. In the end the place fell, in the war between order and lawlessness and, as the pessimists love to assert, a woman, as usual, was the cause of it. The tale is told:

Rosa Phillips sat in the Mountaineer House strumming a Spanish guitar, and singing,

"There's a turned down page, as some writer says, in every human life,
A hidden story of happier days, of peace amidst the strife.
A folded down leaf which the world knows not. A love dream rudely crushed,
The sight of a face that is not forgot. Although the voice be hushed."

She rose and stood at a window, holding the dusty curtain aside with one white hand and peering cautiously forth into the dusk. A horse was galloping up the Folsom road. The horseman was near - was under the trees in front - was past - and gone down the river road without slackening his animal's rapid gait.

"He does not stop at the Mountaineer House these days," said Tom Bell's sneering voice at her elbow. "There is a new actress at the opera house in Rattlesnake."

The woman's dark eyes flashed, but she answered evenly enough:

"He does not stop, the handsome Dick, so you, senor, have not the cause to be jealous. Is it not so?"

"Cause? Why, you Spanish jade, you've never been the same to me since Rattlesnake Dick came prowling back from Shasta county to his old haunts in Placer." Rosa's thin, red lips curled.

"Senor, I am what it pleases me to be."

"And Jack Phillips permits you to be!"

She shrugged her slender shoulders.

"He wearies me. Life - this place - wearies me."

"Yes, and I weary you, too - now. Plain as day, it is."

The Phillips woman smiled (she seldom laughed) and there was only cruelty in her smile - no kindliness, no womanly softness of any sort.

"My friend, soon there will be no 'you.' The night is coming and there will be no sunrise."

A man dismounted at the gate and led his horse past the window to the stables in the cellar. He walked with a curious, halting pace.

"There's Jim Driscoll back already. Must bring news," said Bell, leaving her hurriedly, and so neglecting to ask the meaning of her cryptic remark.

Rosa slipped in behind the bar, late that evening, beautifully gowned, and with her dark hair dressed high. Her vivid face glowed like a scarlet poppy and was bright with smiles. Three or four men in the crowded bar-room rose to their feet and drank to her bright eyes and strolled across to the bar.

"Soon now' "she whispered, "I shall sweep out the lights. Those two who have just entered - who are they?" She went across the room to the newcomers. "The senors may pay me for the drinks, if they desire," she said to them, meaningly.

"La Rosita shall take what pleases her," one of them laughed. Among the handful of coins and small nuggets he brought from his pocket was a bullet strung on a bit of dirty twine.

"Ah! a love token, senor?"

"Yes, from the throat of Betsy Jane" (a term often used for a rifle).

"In twenty minutes, my friends, there will be opened a chute into purgatory for all who are in this bar room. Your 'love token' names you Senor Bell's men. Before then you will seek the rear of the room - eh?"

She drifted away from them to pause at a small table where sat a young man alone.

"And you, pretty fellow, you are new in California?"

"Yes, I landed in San Francisco only ten days ago." He was new indeed, or he would have realized the danger of telling his business to the first person who asked.

"You go far, senor?"

"Not now. I have come far, but my journey is near to a very happy ending."


"Yes. I have come to marry Miss Elena Ashley, at Auburn, to whom I have been long betrothed."

She tapped her white teeth with her fan.

"And yet you linger at Mountaineer House?"

"Horses are expensive, and I am not rich. I walked. I was tired. I saw you in your garden, and you are very beautiful."

Rosa's capricious vanity was touched. The whim seized her to save this exuberant young bridegroom from the fate before him.

"Do you see that peddler - old Rosenthal - close to the bar? He brought in a large and rich pack tonight. It lies in the next room. Do you go there at once. I will come soon, and together we will select a gift for your bride. Go quickly!"

She passed again behind the bar. Jack Phillips was at one end, lame Jim Driscoll at the other, Tom Bell in the middle. Rosa paused near a branching candelabra which had once graced the altar of a Spanish church.

"Is Jose below?" whispered Bell. She nodded. "Why did you save that boy, just now? A new lover?" She directed upon him a level glance of hate.

"I do what pleases me, senor." She raised her arm high, beginning the first stamping measure of a Spanish dance. Instantly there was a curious rumbling noise in the stable underneath. Rosa swept over the candelabra. All the lights in the place were struck out. Phillips and Driscoll slipped two great bolts, and the entire bar-room floor swung downward on hinges.

The chute to purgatory was open!

There was bedlam in that dank pass to the region of shades, and no quarter was shown to any man; only cries of "The String! The String!" from members of the gang in order to distinguish the robbers from the robbed, in the darkness. There were curses, the kicking and squealing of horses in their stalls; a verse from the Talmud recited in Yiddish (which suddenly stopped), and above it all the high and hysterical laugh of a woman.

The boy turned from the peddler's pack as Rosa entered the room. "What is that horrible noise?"

"A fight. Come, you had better go." She led him down a dark stair to another section of the cellar. "Jose," she called. An evil looking Mexican pushed open a rough door. "You shall take this man out through the second tunnel."

"Si, senora."

"And, Jose, he shall reach the outer opening alive, and with all his belongings. He has no money. Do you hear?" Jose grunted. "Go, now, under, cover of the noise."

"But the gift for Elena!"

Rosa laughed mockingly. "What a child it is! My gift to Elena tonight, is you - her lover. Ask her to thank me with a prayer from her pure heart for my sins."

Jose led the young man through a long, damp, evil-odored passage underground, and out through a trapdoor at the extreme end of the garden. A shrub grew on top of the door, surrounded by a bed of fragrant wild pansies. Jose kicked the staring youth away from the entrance and vanished into the earth looking, in the lantern-light like a malevolent fiend returning to the realm of everlasting fire.

* * * * *

The balls which were given at the Franklin House on the old Pioneer road were the most pretentious of the year. Feminine loveliness in silks and cameos gathered from every section. General Sutter and his officers sometimes were there, and the Spanish grandees brought to them the lovely, star-eyed beauties of their households.

On this night a brilliant assemblage stood about in the ballroom floor ready for a quadrille. Elena Ashley and her betrothed were near the wide entrance doors.

"There is "Sheriff Paul of Calaveras County," she told him. "He does not dance. I wonder what brings him here?"

The doors opened and Rosa Phillips entered, magnificently jewelled and dressed in a rich silk of pearl grey. Elena stared, clutching at her partner's arm.

"Oh, look!" she shrieked , "she is wearing my wedding dress. My wedding dress which was stitched at the shop of Rosenthal the peddler, in Sacramento, and which he was to bring me two weeks ago. I know it is mine! There is the pearl passe-mentre on it that was my mother's. There is none other like it in California!"

"So?" answered Rosa cooly, glancing down at the voluminous silken folds of her robe. Then she stood waving her big fan, her large, dark eyes roving across the throng.

"Mine Host" came quickly forward. "It is not permitted, senora, that you - "

Rosa smiled cynically. "I, the silken hawk, came not to flutter your nest of doves, senor. I came but for a little hour to meet a man who - Ah, he is coming now. Sheriff Paul, I have that to tell you which - "

The sheriff offered his arm ceremoniously and they passed out of the ballroom. Tender hearted Elena was conscience stricken. She dropped her lover's arm and darted after them through the big doors.

"Oh, I am sorry, I did not mean - please, Sheriff Paul, she may have the dress, poor thing! But for her, I should have had no man to marry on my wedding day next week."

Sheriff Paul turned quickly. Elena, frightened, clapped two little hands over her mouth. Rosa shrugged indifferently, and tipping back her small, black head, listened to the music in the ballroom.

"Madam," to Rosa, "you sent for me, making strange promises which, for the safety of this community, I hope that you are now pleased to keep."

Without lowering her chin she looked at him through sinister, narrowed eyelids, and a smile of triumphant malice touched her face.

"Senor, I make no promises which I fail to keep," she answered, "and there is also a promise which I made Senor Tom Bell - "

* * * * *

"There is some one knocking at the cellar door," said Tom Bell to Phillips. "See who is there, and be careful that you let no one in without the bullet and the password."

"Tom, I'm afraid," whined Driscoll "that Spanish devil's promised to get you hung more than once lately, and last night I know she sent that Mexican Jose of hers out somewhere with a string and bullet. I saw them - "

"What! Why didn't you tell me before? Listen! Phillips is in trouble! Go help him! Call the boys! Hurry!" As Jim Driscoll, with a halt in his walk, left him, Tom Bell stole quietly to one of the tunnels and ran to the trap-door which opened into an outhouse.

He found the corral full of saddle-horses and the Mountaineer House completely surrounded by Sheriff Paul's, posse.

"Come on, boys," said a voice.

"Did he get in?"

"Ye-ah - put his hand in with the bullet on a string, got his foot in the door, gave the password and heaved the door wide open. Come on, now, and there's orders not to take the woman, remember."

Bell stole a rawboned roan from the corral and was far from the frightful battle at Mountaineer House before he dared burst forth into the vituperation which he heaped upon the name of Rosa Phillips.

* * * * *

Rosa sat strumming her guitar idly, and musing upon the events of the past few months. Jack Phillips was serving a term in prison. Driscoll had also been sent to the penitentiary. One day a rumor reached her that he was threatening to turn state's evidence, and to divulge the truth in regard to Rosenthal.

Three days later an iron bar was accidentally(?) dropped on his head; through some mysterious agent he was given poison, and died. At the memory of it Rosa smiled her enigmatic and implacable smile. Tom Bell was at large somewhere far to the north and she - she was rich now and she would go back to Monterey, perhaps. She drew her guitar closer and sang:

"The far distant sound of a harp's soft strings - an echo on the air, The hidden page may be full of sweet things, of things that once were fair. There's a turned down page in each life, and mine - a story might unfold, But the end was sad of the dream divine. It better rests untold."

It was time for Harlan to arrive. Charlie Harlan, the man whom she hoped to cajole into buying Mountaineer House. She strolled out into the garden as Harlan rode up and tied his horse under one of the trees.

A happy pair passed. A delicate girl mounted upon a little mule and a sturdy youth walking in the dust, his hand upon the beast's shoulder. With their serene and joy-illumined faces they somehow suggested the holy family, symbolical of all that was divine in a sordid world.

The girl smiled and waved to Rosa, but the young man doffed his hat coldly and hastened by.

"The sweet little Elena," said Rosa to herself, "and her lover-husband. I wear the silken wedding gown which no lover sees, but she travels the way in calico with the man she loves. May the Blessed Virgin grant that she shall have no turned down pages in her life," and forcing her proud and bitter mouth into a provocative smile, she went forward to welcome Harlan.

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