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- FOUND AT BLAZING STAR - 2/8 -
"Turn him over again," said the girl, impatiently, as Cass was about to relinquish his burden. "May be you'll find another wound."
But Cass was dimly remembering certain formalities that in older civilizations attend the discovery of dead bodies, and postponed a present inquest.
"Perhaps you'd better ride on, Miss, afore you get summoned as a witness. I'll give warning at Red Chief's Crossing, and send the coroner down here."
"Let me go with you," she said, earnestly, "it would be such fun. I don't mind being a witness. Or," she added, without heeding Cass's look of astonishment, "I'll wait here till you come back."
"But you see, Miss, it wouldn't seem right--" began Cass.
"But I found him first," interrupted the girl, with a pout.
Staggered by this preemptive right, sacred to all miners, Cass stopped.
"Who is the coroner?" she asked.
"The tall, lame man, who was half eaten by a grizzly?"
"Well, look now! I'll ride on and bring him back in half an hour. There!"
"Oh, don't mind ME. I never saw anything of this kind before, and I want to see it ALL."
"Do you know Hornsby?" asked Cass, unconsciously a trifle irritated.
"No, but I'll bring him." She wheeled her horse into the road.
In the presence of this living energy Cass quite forgot the helpless dead. "Have you been long in these parts, Miss?" he asked.
"About two weeks," she answered, shortly. "Good-by, just now. Look around for the pistol or anything else you can find, although I have been over the whole ground twice already."
A little puff of dust as the horse sprang into the road, a muffled shuffle, struggle, then the regular beat of hoofs, and she was gone.
After five minutes had passed, Cass regretted that he had not accompanied her; waiting in such a spot was an irksome task. Not that there was anything in the scene itself to awaken gloomy imaginings; the bright, truthful Californian sunshine scoffed at any illusion of creeping shadows or waving branches. Once, in the rising wind, the empty hat rolled over--but only in a ludicrous, drunken way. A search for any further sign or token had proved futile, and Cass grew impatient. He began to hate himself for having stayed; he would have fled but for shame. Nor was his good humor restored when at the close of a weary half hour two galloping figures emerged from the dusty horizon--Hornsby and the young girl.
His vague annoyance increased as he fancied that both seemed to ignore him, the coroner barely acknowledging his presence with a nod. Assisted by the young girl, whose energy and enthusiasm evidently delighted him, Hornsby raised the body for a more careful examination. The dead man's pockets were carefully searched. A few coins, a silver pencil, knife, and tobacco-box were all they found. It gave no clew to his identity. Suddenly the young girl, who had, with unabashed curiosity, knelt beside the exploring official hands of the Red Chief, uttered a cry of gratification.
"Here's something! It dropped from the bosom of his shirt on the ground. Look!"
She was holding in the air, between her thumb and forefinger, a folded bit of well-worn newspaper. Her eyes sparkled.
"Shall I open it?" she asked.
"It's a little ring" she said; "looks like an engagement ring. Something is written on it. Look! 'May to Cass.'"
Cass darted forward. "It's mine," he stammered, "mine! I dropped it. It's nothing--nothing," he went on, after a pause, embarrassed and blushing, as the girl and her companion both stared at him--"a mere trifle. I'll take it."
But the coroner opposed his outstretched hand. "Not much," he said, significantly.
"But it's MINE," continued Cass, indignation taking the place of shame at his discovered secret. "I found it six months ago in the road. I--picked it up."
"With your name already written on it! How handy!" said the coroner, grimly.
"It's an old story" said Cass, blushing again under the half- mischievous, half-searching eyes of the girl. "All Blazing Star knows I found it."
"Then ye'll have no difficulty in provin' it," said Hornsby, coolly. "Just now, however, WE'VE found it, and we propose to keep it for the inquest."
Cass shrugged his shoulders. Further altercation would have only heightened his ludicrous situation in the girl's eyes. He turned away, leaving his treasure in the coroner's hands.
The inquest, a day or two later, was prompt and final. No clew to the dead man's identity; no evidence sufficiently strong to prove murder or suicide; no trace of any kind, inculpating any party, known or unknown, were found. But much publicity and interest were given to the proceedings by the presence of the principal witness, a handsome girl. "To the pluck, persistency, and intellect of Miss Porter," said the "Red Chief Recorder," "Tuolumne County owes the recovery of the body."
No one who was present at the inquest failed to be charmed with the appearance and conduct of this beautiful young lady.
"Miss Porter has but lately arrived in this district, in which, it is hoped, she will become an honored resident, and continue to set an example to all lackadaisical and sentimental members of the so- called 'sterner sex.'" After this universally recognized allusion to Cass Beard, the "Recorder" returned to its record: "Some interest was excited by what appeared to be a clew to the mystery in the discovery of a small gold engagement ring on the body. Evidence was afterward offered to show it was the property of a Mr. Cass Beard of Blazing Star, who appeared upon the scene AFTER the discovery of the corpse by Miss Porter. He alleged he had dropped it in lifting the unfortunate remains of the deceased. Much amusement was created in court by the sentimental confusion of the claimant, and a certain partisan spirit shown by his fellow-miners of Blazing Star. It appearing, however, by the admission of this sighing Strephon of the Foot hills, that he had himself FOUND this pledge of affection lying in the highway six months previous, the coroner wisely placed it in the safe-keeping of the county court until the appearance of the rightful owner."
Thus on the 13th of September, 186-, the treasure found at Blazing Star passed out of the hands of its finder.
. . . . . .
Autumn brought an abrupt explanation of the mystery. Kanaka Joe had been arrested for horse stealing, but had with noble candor confessed to the finer offense of manslaughter. That swift and sure justice which overtook the horse stealer in these altitudes was stayed a moment and hesitated, for the victim was clearly the mysterious unknown. Curiosity got the better of an extempore judge and jury.
"It was a fair fight," said the accused, not without some human vanity, feeling that the camp hung upon his words, "and was settled by the man az was peartest and liveliest with his weapon. We had a sort of unpleasantness over at Lagrange the night afore, along of our both hevin' a monotony of four aces. We had a clinch and a stamp around, and when we was separated it was only a question of shootin' on sight. He left Lagrange at sun up the next morning, and I struck across a bit o' buckeye and underbrush and came upon him, accidental like, on the Red Chief Road. I drawed when I sighted him, and called out. He slipped from his mare and covered himself with her flanks, reaching for his holster, but she rared and backed down on him across the road and into the grass, where I got in another shot and fetched him."
"And you stole his mare?" suggested the Judge.
"I got away," said the gambler, simply.
Further questioning only elicited the fact that Joe did not know the name or condition of his victim. He was a stranger in Lagrange.
It was a breezy afternoon, with some turbulency in the camp, and much windy discussion over this unwonted delay of justice. The suggestion that Joe should be first hanged for horse stealing and then tried for murder was angrily discussed, but milder counsels were offered--that the fact of the killing should be admitted only as proof of the theft. A large party from Red Chief had come over to assist in judgment, among them the coroner.
Cass Beard had avoided these proceedings, which only recalled an unpleasant experience, and was wandering with pick, pan, and wallet far from the camp. These accoutrements, as I have before intimated, justified any form of aimless idleness under the equally aimless title of "prospecting." He had at the end of three hours' relaxation reached the highway to Red Chief, half hidden by blinding clouds of dust torn from the crumbling red road at every gust which swept down the mountain side. The spot had a familiar aspect to Cass, although some freshly-dug holes near the wayside, with scattered earth beside them, showed the presence of a recent
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