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- OF FROM SAND HILL TO PINE - 3/36 -
scene of obstruction. The great pine-tree which had fallen from the steep bank above and stretched across the road had been partly lopped of its branches, divided in two lengths, which were now rolled to either side of the track, leaving barely space for the coach to pass. The huge vehicle "slowed up" as Yuba Bill skillfully guided his six horses through this narrow alley, whose tassels of pine, glistening with wet, brushed the panels and sides of the coach, and effectually excluded any view from its windows. Seen from the coach top, the horses appeared to be cleaving their way through a dark, shining olive sea, that parted before and closed behind them, as they slowly passed. The leaders were just emerging from it, and Bill was gathering up his slackened reins, when a peremptory voice called, "Halt!" At the same moment the coach lights flashed upon a masked and motionless horseman in the road. Bill made an impulsive reach for his whip, but in the same instant checked himself, reined in his horses with a suppressed oath, and sat perfectly rigid. Not so the expressman, who caught up his rifle, but it was arrested by Bill's arm, and his voice in his ear!
Too late!--we're covered!--don't be a d----d fool!"
The inside passengers, still encompassed by obscurity, knew only that the stage had stopped. The "outsiders" knew, by experience, that they were covered by unseen guns in the wayside branches, and scarcely moved.
"I didn't think it was the square thing to stop you, Bill, till you'd got through your work," said a masterful but not unpleasant voice, "and if you'll just hand down the express box, I'll pass you and the rest of your load through free. But as we're both in a hurry, you'd better look lively about it."
"Hand it down," said Bill gruffly to the expressman.
The expressman turned with a white check but blazing eyes to the compartment below his seat. He lingered, apparently in some difficulty with the lock of the compartment, but finally brought out the box and handed it to another armed and masked figure that appeared mysteriously from the branches beside the wheels.
"Thank you!" said the voice; "you can slide on now."
"And thank you for nothing," said Bill, gathering up his reins. "It's the first time any of your kind had to throw down a tree to hold me up!"
"You're lying, Bill!--though you don't know it," said the voice cheerfully. "Far from throwing down a tree to stop you, it was I sent word along the road to warn you from crashing down upon it, and sending you and your load to h-ll before your time! Drive on!"
The angry Bill waited for no second comment, but laying his whip over the backs of his team, drove furiously forward. So rapidly had the whole scene passed that the inside passengers knew nothing of it, and even those on the top of the coach roused from their stupor and inglorious inaction only to cling desperately to the terribly swaying coach as it thundered down the grade and try to keep their equilibrium. Yet, furious as was their speed, Yuba Bill could not help noticing that the expressman from time to time cast a hurried glance behind him. Bill knew that the young man had shown readiness and nerve in the attack, although both were hopeless; yet he was so much concerned at his set white face and compressed lips that when, at the end of three miles' unabated speed, they galloped up to the first station, he seized the young man by the arm, and, as the clamor of the news they had brought rose around them, dragged him past the wondering crowd, caught a decanter from the bar, and, opening the door of a side room, pushed him into it and closed the door behind them.
"Look yar, Brice! Stop it! Quit it right thar!" he said emphatically, laying his large hand on the young fellow's shoulder. "Be a man! You've shown you are one, green ez you are, for you had the sand in ye--the clear grit to-night, yet you'd have been a dead man now, if I hadn't stopped ye! Man! you had no show from the beginning! You've done your level best to save your treasure, and I'm your witness to the kempany, and proud of it, too! So shet your head and--and," pouring out a glass of whiskey, "swaller that!"
But Brice waved him aside with burning eyes and dry lips.
"You don't know it all, Bill!" he said, with a half choked voice.
"Swear that you'll keep it a secret," he said feverishly, gripping Bill's arm in turn, "and I'll tell you."
"THE COACH WAS ROBBED BEFORE THAT!"
"Wot yer say?" ejaculated Bill.
"The treasure--a packet of greenbacks--had been taken from the box before the gang stopped us!"
"The h-ll, you say!"
"Listen! When you told me to hand down the box, I had an idea--a d----d fool one, perhaps--of taking that package out and jumping from the coach with it. I knew they would fire at me only; I might get away, but if they killed me, I'd have done only my duty, and nobody else would have got hurt. But when I got to the box I found that the lock had been forced and the money was gone. I managed to snap the lock again before I handed it down. I thought they might discover it at once and chase us, but they didn't."
"And then thar war no greenbacks in the box that they took?" gasped Bill, with staring eyes.
Bill raised his hand in the air as if in solemn adjuration, and then brought it down on his knee, doubling up in a fit of uncontrollable but perfectly noiseless laughter. "Oh, Lord!" he gasped, "hol' me afore I bust right open! Hush," he went on, with a jerk of his fingers towards the next room, "not a word o' this to any one! It's too much to keep, I know; it's nearly killing me! but we must swaller it ourselves! Oh, Jerusalem the Golden! Oh, Brice! Think o' that face o' Snapshot Harry's ez he opened that treasure box afore his gang in the brush! And he allers so keen and so easy and so cock sure! Created snakes! I'd go through this every trip for one sight of him as he just riz up from that box and cussed!" He again shook with inward convulsions till his face grew purple, and even the red came back to the younger man's cheek.
"But this don't bring the money back, Bill," said Brice gloomily.
Yuba Bill swallowed the glass of whiskey at a gulp, wiped his mouth and eyes, smothered a second explosion, and then gravely confronted Brice.
"When do you think it was taken, and how?"
"It must have been taken when I left the coach on the road and went over to that settler's cabin," said Brice bitterly. "Yet I believed everything was safe, and I left two men--both passengers-- one inside and one on the box, that man who sat the other side of you."
"Jee whillikins!" ejaculated Bill, with his hand to his forehead, "the men I clean forgot to pick up in the road, and now I reckon they never intended to be picked up, either."
"No doubt a part of the gang," said Brice, with increased bitterness; "I see it all now."
"No!" said Bill decisively, "that ain't Snapshot Harry's style; he's a clean fighter, with no underhand tricks. And I don't believe he threw down that tree, either. Look yer, sonny!" he added, suddenly laying his hand on Brice's shoulder, "a hundred to one that that was the work of a couple o' d----d sneaks or traitors in that gang who kem along as passengers. I never took any stock in that coyote who paid extra for his box-seat."
Brice knew that Bill never looked kindly on any passenger who, by bribing the ticket agent, secured this favorite seat, which Bill felt was due to his personal friends and was in his own selection. He only returned gloomily:--
"I don't see what difference it makes to us which robber got the money.
"Ye don't," said Bill, raising his head, with a sudden twinkle in his eyes. "Then ye don't know Snapshot Harry. Do ye suppose he's goin' to sit down and twiddle his thumbs with that skin game played on him? No, sir," he continued, with a thoughtful deliberation, drawing his fingers slowly through his long beard, "he spotted it-- and smelt out the whole trick ez soon ez he opened that box, and that's why he didn't foller us! He'll hunt those sneak thieves into h-ll but what he'll get 'em, and," he went on still more slowly, "by the livin' hokey! I reckon, sonny, that's jest how ye'll get your chance to chip in!"
"I don't understand," said Brice impatiently.
"Well," said Bill, with more provoking slowness, as if he were communing with himself rather than Brice, "Harry's mighty proud and high toned, and to be given away like this has cut down into his heart, you bet. It ain't the money he's thinkin' of; it's this split in the gang--the loss of his power ez boss, ye see--and ef he could get hold o' them chaps he'd let the money slide ez long ez they didn't get it. So you've got a detective on your side that's worth the whole police force of Californy! Ye never heard anything about Snapshot Harry, did ye?" asked Bill carelessly, raising his eyes to Brice's eager face.
The young man flushed slightly. "Very little," he said. At the same time a vision of the pretty girl in the settler's cabin flashed upon him with a new significance.
"He's more than half white, in some ways," said Bill thoughtfully, "and they say he lives somewhere about here in a cabin in the bush, with a crippled sister and her darter, who both swear by him. It mightn't be hard to find him--ef a man was dead set on it."
Brice faced about with determined eyes. "I'LL DO IT," he said quietly.
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