|Home -> Other California History Books -> Down the Mother Lode -> Chapter 4|
"Again swings the lash on the high mountain trail,
And the pipe of the packer is scenting the gale;
For the trails are all open, the roads are all free,
And the highwayman's whistle is heard on the lea."
- Bret Harte.
We were riding one day under the Digger pines, down an abandoned old road toward Mountaineer House. As usual, my spirited half-Arab, as white as she was fleet, had put me far in the lead. She loved a race as well as I did, but she ran it to suit herself. If I tried to interpose any theories of my own, she calmly took the bit in her teeth and after that I devoted most of my energies to hanging on!
Mammy Kate, own daughter of Nancy Gooch of Coloma, would scold when I came home with torn skirt and a bump on my forehead: "Now, den, look at dat chile! Been hoss-racin' agin su'ah as Moses was in Egypt! I shall suttenly enjine yo' fathah to done gin' yo' plow-hoss to ride so yo's gwi' git beat wiff yo' racin', and quit. Spects yo' had 'nothah tumble, didn't you'? You' wait till Katie gits de camph-fire an' put on dat haid."
So did Katie's scoldings invariably end in renewed pampering of her "chile," and so did I continue to race every horse in the community and usually to win.
With one small ear laid back to listen for the other horses, little white Flossie flew along the grassy track, darting around the chapparal bushes which had grown up and jumping the fallen tree trunks. Suddenly we came out of the woods and she shied violently at a man who was digging a fence-post hole, directly in the road. I always rode Indian fashion without stirrups of any kind, so of course I was catapulted neatly over her head.
"Hello. Otto," I said, remaining seated in the road and catching at Floss' bridle rein, "what have you found?"
Otto was sifting the loose dirt in the hole through eager fingers.
"Hello! I've found some money here in the ground. I wonder - oh, yes, I've heard my mother tell about it! This was the old pioneer road and it was at this very spot that Rattlesnake Dick and some of his gang held up the Wells-Fargo stage coach and got such a lot of money. They say there's still $40,000 buried on Trinity Mountain, half of what was waiting when Rattlesnake Dick got killed."
Rattlesnake Dick, pirate of the placers, prince of highwaymen! Magical name - irridescent bubble from the pipe of romance. Proud, imperious, bitter Dick! What a splendid old name he had been born to, and what blows Fate had dealt him which led to his tragic end!
The others had come up by this time and we sat in a circle listening again to the story of the bold and brilliant Englishman whom two undeserved jail sentences had turned into such a picturesque dare-devil of a highwayman. However, I disagreed with Otto's version of the robber chief.
"But you have made him out all bad," I told him. "I have heard the story often, and he wasn't all bad by any means."
"He was a wild desperado. Why, even after he was dead and lying on the sidewalk in Auburn, a man came up and kicked his face."
"Yes, and they say that everybody in the county was mad about it, and when the man ran for supervisor more than a year later, no decent person would vote for him and he lost his election." Now, the true story of Rattlesnake Dick is this, and I never tire of hearing it:
"Would you present me to your sister's friend, then, George?"
"I am an Ishmailite! I, the son of an honorable English gentleman, have done a term in prison."
"But these ideas are extreme, Dick. There is no such general opinion of you. Were you not exonerated from having stolen the wretched little Jew's goods? It is all forgotten," and George Taylor paused in his restless pacing, before the long, graceful figure on the bunk against the wall. Dick raised handsome eyes whose flashing light was made of pain.
"George, I wish - how I wish that it were forgotten. But it is not. They whisper it in doorways, and over the card tables and down in the drift tunnels. Wherever I go it follows me like an evil spirit, rearing its unclean head between me and all fair things." His deep voice reflected the hurt in his dark eyes, and his broad shoulders drooped in despondency.
"Dick - Dick, the gay the debonair - this is not like you. Brace up, man, and come with me to this opening of the new opera house, if only to add to my pleasure. All the town will be there to hear the singer who has just landed in San Francisco from Boston."
"She it was who brought you the letter from your sister?"
"Yes, yes. They were school-mates. She is beautiful, and you shall meet her after the concert."
The "Opera House" was crowded, the front rows seating the leading men of the community and their richly clad wives and daughters. In the back rows, seated on benches and around the side walls were, the roughly dressed miners and the usual flotsam of a mining town. The singer was not of the hurdy-gurdy type so common in those days, but a "lady," young, lovely and accomplished. Her ballads were greeted with the greatest enthusiasm, and soon the stage began to be showered with gold. The miners brought her back again and again, calling the names of songs they wished to hear. Hundreds of dollars of gold were tossed up to her, whilst she smilingly complied with all their requests.
"One more," they shouted, "only one more, and her slippers shall be filled with gold dust." She slipped out of her little sandals and stood, blushing modestly, hiding her silken feet under her long, wide skirts.
"You are very kind to a lonely stranger," she called, to an instantly silenced audience, "and I will sing for you a song which has but lately come from London. 'Tis from a new opera called the Bohemian Girl, composed by Master Balfe," and folding her little hands before her, she sang sweetly, "Then You'll Remember Me."
"When other lips and other hearts their tales of love shall tell Of days that have as happy been, and you'll remember - you'll remember me."
"Dick, why do you cover your eyes? You are surely not asleep?"
"By all the Gods, man, the accusation is an insult," with a haughty flash of his great eyes.
"You are to be presented; have you forgotten?"
"Forgotten! While life lasts, I shall remember this night."
"Hush, this is the last. She is singing, "Home, Sweet Home'."
"Yes, 'Home,' for these wanderers from all over the earth. See how silently they file out."
"There is many a tear among them. They will lie, tonight on memory's couch of sad dreams."
"You are wrong, my friend," said Dick bitterly; "they are more like to hasten down to the gambling hells to kill the visions memory would recall."
* * * * *
"Sweet Bird, you cannot believe this thing of me!" The Singer-Lady raised her bright head from Dick's shoulder, and met, steadfastly, his passionately adoring eyes.
"Richard, how can you for one moment doubt me? I know you to be good and true. Were you not exonerated from the last accusation of which you informed me before you asked for my hand in marriage. And do we not know that this man is actuated by the motive of jealousy ?"
"The Mormon beast! He knows well that I did not steal his mule."
"No' naughty boy," tapping him playfully with her fan, "'Twas something else you stole from Master Crow the woman he wanted. Often have I noticed on the streets how all women, every one, turn to look after you."
"I cared not for her." He shook his tall and beautiful head, impatient of the silky black lock which fell across his forehead.
"Perhaps then 'tis your magnificent carriage they would admire," laughed the girl, teasingly.
Dick swept her close to his heart. "My golden-throated dove, I cannot join in your sweet laughter, for I have a boding heart, this day. I have enemies. They will use my past record. The courts are new, and judgments swift and cold. If they should send me again to the penitentiary I - "
"Dearest I should know you to be innocent, and I should wait for you."
He kissed her tenderly on cheeks, and eyes, and mouth. He took her hands from his shoulders, slipping off the little silken mitts and putting them in an inner pocket, and kissed the soft, pink palms.
"Ah, Lady-Bird, if I should not return you'll remember me?"
"My own pure love! No breath of shame shall ever sully your fair name through me."
"Right well I know that, Richard. God bless you. I will pray for you every hour."
At evening George Taylor brought her a note from Dick.
"Oh, George," she wailed, "they have sentenced him?"
"Two years in prison."
"But he was innocent!"
"Yes, and some day it will be proven." He looked at her strangely, "I must tell you - Dick has broken jail and fled north to Shasta county, where he will begin life anew. Then, if you still wish it, he will come to you."
* * * * *
After four years the Singer-Lady returned for a concert at the little Opera House in Rattlesnake. She went to her old quarters at the Widow Miller's, on the edge of town.
"Eh, Dearie," cried the good woman, "what have they been doing to ye, so to dim your bright youth, and to bring the sad lines to your mouth?"
"Mrs. Miller, where is he?"
"Ah - so that's the answer." The girl's eyes filled with tears.
"Four years - and for the last two, no word. I must find George Taylor. Perhaps he - "
"Dearie, George Taylor is with Dick, and the Skinners and Cherokee Bob and Lame Jim Driscoll. They say, too, that at times Dick rides with Tom Bell's gang."
"Ah, he tried with all a strong man's power to win a new name for himself - and for you - but Fate was too strong. His false record followed him up and down the state from every idle throat, casting a blight over all he sought to, do. Every sheriff hounded him on. Each unproven crime was laid at his door."
"But why did he not come to me? Oh, he had my whole heart, and he knew it."
"He did come to you two years ago, to ask if you would return to Canada with him, hoping that it was too far for tales from California to travel. As soon as he reached San Francisco he was recognized by one of the authorities and 'shown up' by the Vigilante Committee in the Plaza, as they put up all dangerous characters for the police and the people to see.
"And whilst he was there you passed, walking with another man, and looked him in the eyes and knew him not. 'Twas that which broke his heart and made him the reckless and brilliant devil that he is today."
"But - but," cried the Singer-Lady, recovering from the daze these words had placed upon her, "I did not pass. Oh, I should have fallen at his feet - lost to all maidenly reserve - there before the people. It must have been my sister, who had but lately come from Boston and so would not know him," and she broke into uncontrollable weeping.
"There, child, dry your tears. Try to be brave. You care for him still?"
"Always. I have never ceased to pray for him. If I cannot become his, I shall go lonely to my grave. Tell me everything, kind Mrs. Miller."
"He robs the stages of the Wells-Fargo box, but lets the passengers go free, and he has never been known to take anything from a woman. He says that since all the world is against him, his hand is against the world.
"His den is now at Folsom, they say, but he ranges far afield. He robs the sluices, and the bullion trains, but he does not take horses or mules except to get away with his booty. No cell can hold him. He has escaped from every jail in the northern mines. He has been known to say, 'I shall never rot in a prison as long as a revolver can keep me out."'
"Oh, would he - "
"He would, indeed, Dearie, for the sake of his family name and the love he bears you. His last big raid was upon George Barstow's Wells-Fargo train from Yreka. They held them up on Trinity Mountain. Eighty thousand dollars in bullion, they got, even with twenty men guarding it."
Mrs. Miller tiptoed to the window and looked out. Coming back to the girl she whispered, "The guards are tied to trees, and the gang is waiting for Dick and Cy Skinner to get back with new mules, as the Wells-Fargo mules all are branded and would give them away, but if he finds out that you are here he may - "
The Singer-Lady sprang to her feet! From the trees behind the house floated a snatch of song in a clear baritone.
"When coldness or deceit shall slight the beauty now they prize; When hollow hearts shall wear a mask, 'twill break your own to see. At such a moment I but ask that you'll remember me, you'll - "
By this time the girl was sobbing in Dick's arms, and the misunderstandings of four years were soon explained.
The Singer-Lady lifted her head at last to the sound of galloping horses. Dick was looking calmly in their direction. Terror seized her.
"What is that?"
"You must return to the house. They must not see you here."
She clung to him with the wail of a breaking heart.
"It is the sheriff and his deputies. This morning George and I were on the Folsom stage. We were stopped by a deputy sheriff and sternly requested to alight. We entered into conversation with the gentleman of the law - whom I had met several times before" (with a grim smile), "and finally George, with due deference to authority, demanded to be shown the warrant for our arrest.
"Whilst the simple creature was fumbling for it, we opened fire and, springing from the top of the stage, escaped across Harmon Hill. The vain fellow carried only a derringer, and how was one little bullet to stop our race for liberty."
"Yet you returned here! That was madness."
"I heard of you and the longing to see you once more overcame every other feeling."
"Do not fear, I knew that they would come. What was that to pay for the chance of seeing you again. They can but put me in Auburn jail, and no locks can hold me except the shining ones on this dear head. No prison can keep me till I am laid in that last one beneath the grass, and there I will wait for you dear love. I shall not hear the celestian singing till your sweet voice has joined the angel choir, and your two hands - see, I still carry the little mitts - shall open the door for me to Paradise, as they have held all of heaven for me on earth.
"It may be in that last court, the Great judge of all will look into my heart which strove to be honorable and will dismiss the accusations of mere, mortal man."
* * * * *
As usual, Dick escaped the jail and with George Taylor attempted to get away, but Fate had dealt him her last blow and on the scroll of his precarious and bitter life had written finis. A mile above Auburn they were overtaken by Assessor George W. Martin and Deputy Sheriffs Crutcher and Johnston. In the terrible encounter which ensued Martin was instantly killed and Dick mortally wounded.
They rode more than a mile at a furious pace, from the scene of his last fight, before Dick lay down to die. George put him on his great riding cloak and spread a saddle blanket over him. Then when he read a fresh command in the highwayman's dark eyes he faltered.
"Dick, old friend - I cannot."
"I am shot through the breast, and again through the side. You promised that when I came to this pass, you would grant the liberation I seek in death."
"I cannot. From any hand but mine may you find release."
"Very well" answered Dick, resolutely, "my own hand shall be given the power to save my immortal soul." He wrote laboriously on a bit of paper, "Rattlesnake Dick dies but never surrenders, as all true Britons do."
"Go, George," he said gently, "but first give me my pistol. I have in my pocket here a letter from the sweetest of women. It says, 'I have grieved but never despaired, for I have prayed to the Father that he would restore you to the paths of rectitude, and I say faithfully, He will save you. He sees in your heart a secret wish to be a better man. 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all things shall be added thereunto.' He will raise your head and make of you a new man'! I go to Him, my brother." And, raising his gun, with a good woman's adored name on his lips, he released his sorely tried heart from bondage into the unknown.