The Express Messenger, and Other Tales of the Rail/The Express Messenger
The Express Messenger
THE EXPRESS MESSENGER
THE roar and rumble of distant thunder had been heard in the hills all the morning, and along about noon a big black cloud came creeping up over the crest of the continent and listed a little, when a peak of one of the hills caught the lower corner, ripped it open, and let the water out. It did n't rain; the water simply fell out of the cloud, and went rushing down the side of the mountain as it rushes off the roof of a house in a hard April shower.
The little fissures were filled first, then the gorges, gullies, and rough ravines, and when these emptied into the countless rills that ran away toward the foot of the range, every rill became a rushing river. Leaves and brush and fallen trees were borne away on the breast of the flood, that grew in volume and increased in speed alarmingly. When all this water came rushing down into the main cañon, the song of the stream that rippled there was hushed, the bed of the creek was filled with big boulders that had been rolled down by the flood, and a great river went roaring toward the plain. Up through this narrow, crooked cañon a narrow-gauge railroad ran to Silver Cliff. Silver Cliff at one time had thirty thousand people, then thirty hundred, and now not more than thirty people live there, unless their business compels them to do so. It produced some silver, a sensational murder, one Congressman, and petered out.
When the flood had gone a mile in the main cañon, and picked up eight or ten rail road bridges and all the dead timber in the gulch, it presented a rolling front twenty-five feet high and reached from hill to hill.
Great spruce trees were uprooted, the track, with the cross ties still hanging to the rails, was ripped up, and the rails, bending like wire, wound about the rolling débris and clogged the cañon. Then the welling flood would fill the whole gorge, and roll on with such a mass of bridge timber and fallen trees pushed in front of it, that you could see no sign of water as the flood bore down upon you, but only a tangled mass of rails and ties and twisted trees. A couple of prospectors heard the roar of it, and climbed the cañon wall just in time to save themselves, while the little burros, with their packs on their backs, went down to a watery grave. Next came a long string of freight teams bringing lumber down from a little mountain sawmill. The rattle and noise of the heavy wagons made it impossible for the freighters to hear the roar of the flood, and, as they were coming down the cañon, they had their backs to it, and so were overtaken in a narrow place. Some of the men, leaping from their wagons, scrambled up the steep hill out of the way of the water, while others took to the tall trees, but when the flood came, the stoutest trees in the gulch went down like sunflowers in a cyclone's path, and the luckless freighters mingled with the horses and wagons and were washed away.
Fortunately for us, we were an hour late in leaving the junction that day, and had not yet reached the narrow part of the cañon. The engineer had been watching the black cloud as it came up over the range, and knew we were due to run into a washout at any moment. The very winds that came down the cañon, fresh and cool, seemed to have water in them. The three day coaches were filled with a heterogeneous herd pushing to the Cliff, which, like many other camps, was then posing as "a second Leadville." There were preachers and play-actors, miners and merchants, cowboys and confidence men; and here and there gaunt-faced girls with peachblow complexion and wonderful hair, billed for the variety.
Up near the engine the express messenger sat on a little iron safe. Upon either hip he wore a heavy six-shooter, and across his lap lay a Winchester rifle. He was as nearly contented and happy as men may reasonably hope to be on this earth. The refreshing breeze that came to him was sweet with the scent of summer. The hills were green and his heart was glad. But his heart was not in the hills. That very Sunday morning he had given it into the keeping of the Warden's daughter as they walked without the walls of the gray prison down by the junction. Almost within hearing of the townspeople who passed up and down, to and from the mineral springs that gushed from the rocks at the entrance to the great cañon, he had told her the secret of his heart. The color, coming to her face the while she heard the tale, told him that she was listening. When they had come to the corner of the wall, one step beyond which would bring them into full view of the Warden's residence, he had pressed her for an answer. She could find no voice to answer, but put out her hand as if she would say good-by. He took it, and the touch of it told him all he wished to know. Now he grew so glad, thinking it all over, that he clasped his hands together as a girl would do, and the rifle, slipping from his lap, shot down into the river that ran beside the track. The door at his back, and next the cañon wall, was closed and barred. The opposite door, overlooking the little river, was thrown wide open, and to the messenger sitting there came the splash of water and the smell of pine.
He remembered that the agent, running side of his car as he was leaving the junction, had pointed to the iron safe and said: "Keep your eye on the gun." The little safe held $40,000 in paper, and over in one corner of the car, in an old clay-stained ore sack, were $10,000 in gold.
We were cutting across a little piece of high ground in the bend of the river, when the awful flood burst forth from the narrow cañon just in front of us. The engineer's first thought was to back down and run away from the flood, but the recollection that a double-headed freight train was following us caused him to change his mind. The trainmen hurried the passengers all out, the messenger carried the mail and express matter to a safe place, and every one gazed in wonderment while the roaring flood went by. The main force of it, following the bed of the creek, hugged the opposite hill, but none of our party was jealous. Broad as the valley was here, it was soon filled, and the water rose high enough to float the rear coach, but the engine, being on higher ground, acted as an anchor and held the train. In less than five minutes the water had swept around and carried away the bridge which we had just crossed, and there we were, on about three hundred yards of track, and nothing before nor behind us.
The freight train, having a clear track, backed away to the junction, told the story of our distress, and at midnight the company agent came to the top of the cañon with a white light, and in a little while we were all taken out, and, after tramping over a mountain trail for a half hour, loaded into wagons and hauled back to the junction.
"Let's have a drink afore we go."
"Nary drink," said the dark man at the head of the table, and one could see at a glance that wherever he sat would be the head of the table. "You promised me up in the gulch that day that you'd never get drunk again, an I promise you right now, Skinny, that if you do you'll never get sober, for I intend to have you shot while yer happy."
Nobody replied to this. The man addressed only glanced across the table, and then, dropping his eyes, brushed the ashes from his cigar with the tip of his little finger. The man at the speaker's right smiled quietly over at his vis-a-vis, and then there was a silence for a moment.
The freighter and the prospector, leaning on the bar, paid no attention to the four men who sat and smoked by the little pine table in a dark corner of the log saloon. The "Lone Spruce," as the place was called, had done a rushing business in the boom days, but Ruby Camp was dying, even as Silver Cliff, Gunnison, and dozens of other camps have died since—as Creede is dying to-day—and business was slow. A drunken Ute reeled in and wanted to play poker, shake dice, or shoot with any dog of a white man in the place. When all the rest had put him aside coldly he came over to the corner, and the dark man, being deep in thought and not wishing to be disturbed, arose, and, picking his way between the two guns which dangled from the hips of the noble red man, kicked him along down the room and out into the night.
Having done his duty in removing the red nuisance—for he hated a drunkard—the dark man bade the barkeeper good-night and passed out by the back door. The three men at the pine table followed him.
All this occurred in the last half of the closing hour of the week. Thirty minutes later, when the four mountaineers rode away from the Black Bear Correl, it was Sunday, but the people of Ruby Camp took no note of time. When the sun came up on that beautiful Sunday morning, it found the dark man and his companions at the top of the range overlooking Wet Mountain Valley. Before they had reached the foothills, the sun caught the two threads of steel that stretched away across the park and disappeared at the entrance of the canon at the foot of the vale. All night they had ridden single file, but now, as they entered the broad valley, they bunched their horses and conversed as they went along.
The dark man kept his eyes upon a barren peak that stood at the foot of the valley, where the railroad track, gliding smoothly over the mesa, seemed to tumble into the cañon as swift Niagara tumbles over the falls. At that point the little party expected to dismount and take the train for the Cliff. The leader, who was able to read both print and writing, had noticed a paragraph in the Denver "Tribune" to the effect that the new Custer County Bank would open for business at Silver Cliff on July 10. He had been assured by his own banker at Gunnison that the new institution would be perfectly reliable, backed, as it was, by the First National of Denver. Being a man of good judgment, he reasoned that the necessary funds for the new bank would in all probability leave Denver Saturday night, and go up from the junction by the one daily train on Sunday. That was why he wished to take the train.
When they had crossed the valley and entered the wilderness of pine and cedar, they began to search for a side cañon which would lead them down to the main gulch. Having found a proper ravine, they watered and grassed their horses and had breakfast.
It was not yet noon, and the train, the dark man made out from the time card which he carried, would not leave the junction until 2 p. m. It would probably be 3 or 3–15 when it passed the mouth of the little rill upon which they were encamped.
Having breakfasted and smoked, the men stretched themselves upon the ground, all save the dark man, and slept like tired children.
The leader, leaning against a moss-covered spruce tree, watched a black storm that was brewing in the hills to the north. Presently he heard a sharp clap of thunder. In a few minutes there came the roaring sound of a waterfall, and the dark man knew that a cloud had given way; but, as the main gulch was between him and the storm, he gave the matter no serious thought.
At last the hour arrived. The four men, leaving their horses, descended to the main gulch, only to find that there was no railroad there. Skinny, still smarting from the effect of the rather severe temperance lectures he had received the evening before, looked at the leader and started to laugh, but the dark man scowled and crushed him. He knew the country and knew that the road had been there, but was now washed away. A little way up the cañon they came to the torn end of the track, and knew for a surety that no train would come up the gulch that day.
The silent leader made no show of disappointment, but quietly dismissed his men and watched them ride away toward the sunset, with their broad hats tipped sidewise, and their ever ready rifles resting across their saddles. For himself he would have no rifle. "Only a coward or bungler," he used to say, "will carry a cannon to do the work of a forty-five."
When the others had passed out of sight, the dark man reined his own horse down the canon, intending, since he was so near, to visit his wife at the junction. The recent washout had left the bed of the gulch almost impassable, and it was not until after midnight that the lone traveller came to the abandoned train, lying like a living thing that had fallen asleep on its own trail. Finding the express car locked, he opened one of the doors with a coal pick which he found on the engine. The little iron safe was securely locked. Having removed all the explosives from the car, this experienced mountaineer quietly blew up the safe with a few sticks of dynamite, but there was no money in it. By the light of the engineer's torch he managed to read a letter that had been left there by the messenger, and which was addressed to the express agent. As the explorer finished reading it he gave a low, soft whistle of surprise, not much above a whisper, for he was an undemonstrative man.
From the car he returned to the engine, and with the clinker hook fished an old clay-stained ore sack out of the tank. When he had cached the sack in the bed of the river, he hurried away in the direction of the junction, urging his horse over the rough ground as though he were bent upon a new and important mission.
There was great excitement when we arrived at the junction without the express messenger, who acted as postal clerk as well.
When the local express agent learned that the messenger was not with the rescued party, that the conductor had been unable to find him, and that no one could remember having seen him since we stopped, and he was seen heading for the high land with his register pouch and some packages of express matter bearing red seals, he began to wire in all directions. In a little while mounted men were dashing out toward the hills, so as to be ready to take the trail at dawn.
It was plain enough, the agent argued, that the messenger had taken advantage of the circumstances, and cleared out with the wealth in his possession. A thousand dollars reward was offered for the capture of the messenger.
A deputy Sheriff made up a posse of four, including himself, and put out for the scene of the robbery. They were among the first to leave town, and as they all knew the country, were soon upon the ground where the open and empty safe left little to be explained. The safe, they argued, had been blown up by the messenger for a blind, but they would not be fooled.
The messenger, it would seem, had remained in the vicinity of the washout until the train was abandoned, and then set out upon a long tramp through the trackless hills. He knew the packages that were most valuable, and with these he filled his pockets. The gold he must leave, for the journey would be a tiresome one. The country, which was new to him, was extremely rough.
At times he found himself at the bottom of a deep gorge, and again at the top of a steep bluff, and saw before him a black and apparently bottomless abyss. There was no moon, but the friendly stars would guide him. Pike's Peak, standing high against the sky, showed him where the east was, while the Greenhorn range rose rough and abrupt to the west. But when he had been upon his journey less than an hour, a gray cloud hung like a heavy fog on the hills and shut out all the light from the heavens and obscured the earth. Instead of waiting for the mists to clear away, he kept on going and was soon hopelessly lost, so far as any knowledge of the points of the compass was concerned. He might, for what he knew, be headed for the hills, or he might be walking in the direction of the junction and the State's prison.
At last, having reached what appeared to be the summit of a little hill, he sat down upon a huge rock to rest. As he sat there, he thought he heard a sound like that produced by horses stepping about on a stone floor. Presently the cloud rolled away, and although the valley below was still obscured, the stars were bright above and the crags of the main range, stood out clean cut against the western sky. Before him he saw Pike's Peak and knew that a little way below him, hid in the mist, lay the junction.
The Sheriff and his posse, lost in the fog, had halted in a small basin and were waiting for the clouds to clear away. The Sheriff insisted that he had heard a man cough, and now the little party were sitting their horses in silence, which was broken only by the nervous tramping of a broncho. "What's that?" asked the Sheriff, pointing to the rock above them. "I should say it was a bear sitting on his haunches," said one of the men. "I'll just tap it with a cartridge," continued the last speaker, but at that moment one of the horses gave a snort, and instantly the figure of the big messenger rose from the rock and stood out against the dark blue sky. Until now he had been sitting bare headed, and that gave him the bunchy look of a bear, but when he stood up and clapped his bell-topped cap upon his head, the Sheriff recognized him in an instant.
"Let's drop him," said one of the men; "there's a thousand in it, and if he ever leaves that rock he's gone."
"Hold," said the Sheriff; "we must give him a show to surrender."
When the four men had swung their guns into position, the Sheriff commanded the messenger to throw up his hands. Instead of obeying, the man turned as if he intended to bolt, and with the first move of his body, the four rifles cracked almost as one gun and the messenger went down.
Throwing the bridle reins over the necks of the horses, the Sheriffs posse dismounted and hurried up the little hill, but when they reached the spot where the messenger had stood, there was no messenger nor sign of messenger. Anticipating the rain of lead he had dropped behind the rocks, while the bullets passed over his head, and by the time the posse had reached the crest of the hill and recovered from their surprise, the messenger was far up the mountain hiding among the crags.
"What d you say now, Cap?" asked the man who had been anxious to earn the reward. "Do we git 'im nex' time er do we let 'im go?"
"Git 'im," said the Sheriff, and the posse returned to their horses.
The white cloud rolled down the mountain as the fleece rolls from a sheep that is shorn, and lay in a tumbled heap at the foot of the range. The gray dawn came out of the east and revealed the peaks that were hiding high up in heaven's blue. Upon either hand, before and behind him, the messenger, crouching in the crags, heard the clatter of steel-shod feet and knew that he was being surrounded. Delay was dangerous. The coming of dawn meant death. The whispering winds, hurrying away up the hill, reminded him of the approach of day.
His only hope was in reaching a point beyond which the horsemen might not ride, and he hurried on up to the narrow gulch. At the exit his trail was blocked by one of the deputies, and immediately both men opened fire. Now for the first time, since it shot muzzle first into the river, the messenger thought of his rifle. He was by no means an expert with a six-shooter, but managed to hit the officer's horse with his first bullet, and at the same instant a slug of lead from a Winchester crashed through his left shoulder, leaving it shattered and useless. The deputy's horse, having received his death wound, plunged wildly and made it impossible for its rider to take accurate aim. Dropping his rifle, the officer began to use his revolver, but a chance shot from the messenger's forty-five pierced his heart. Another plunge of the horse hurled him to the ground, his foot caught in the stirrup, and the messenger was horrified to see the crazed broncho bounding away, dragging his rider, head down, over the jagged rocks. The maddened animal appeared to be blind with rage. He crashed through a low, broad cedar, and a moment later leaped over a precipice and went rolling down the splintered side of a deep gorge; and when the Sheriff and his companions came up the gulch they found where the horse and rider had fallen one mangled mass of torn and tattered flesh.
Made desperate by this appalling sight, the three officers were soon hot upon the trail of the fugitive. Finding it impossible to run away from his pursuers, the messenger cached his treasure, took refuge among some sharp rocks, and awaited the coming of the enemy. To his surprise only two men came out of the gulch; the other, having taken another route in order to head the fugitive off, was now far out of range.
The officers had the advantage of being armed with rifles, and to hold this advantage fought at long range. The besieged, being sheltered by the rocks, was able to stand them off until both of his guns were empty, but the moment he ceased firing, the Sheriff and his deputy began to advance. The messenger, weak from his wound, worked nervously with his one useful hand, and had barely succeeded in refilling one of his pistols when he was surprised by the sound of a gun almost directly behind him, and not ten feet away. He turned his revolver upon the newcomer, only to find that the man was aiming at the deputies. Without a word he turned again to the work in hand, and at the next crack of the stranger's pistol saw the left arm of the Sheriff fall limp at his side, while the Winchester it was levelling fell to the ground. "Now, damn you, fight fair," shouted the stranger advancing. Following the fearless example of this man who had so unexpectedly reinforced him, the messenger came from shelter and began to advance upon his assailants. One of the horses was hit by a bullet and became almost unmanageable, so that the Sheriff, finding the brunt of the fight upon himself, and seeing that the messenger had a confederate, was about to retire, when a badly aimed shot from his companion shattered the ankle of the messenger, causing him to fall. In an instant he rose to his knees and began again to use his gun. The Sheriff, glancing at his companion, saw that he had been hit in the head, for blood was streaming down his face. The battle had gone against them, and now the wounded Sheriff and his bleeding companion turned their horses and galloped away.
The messenger sank to a sitting posture, laid his empty, smoking revolver upon the ground, and gazed at his new found friend.
"Are you hit?" asked the latter, coming toward the young man, and the messenger made no reply until he had given his hand to the stranger; then he answered "Yes."
The dark man opened the messenger's shirt (and he did it as deliberately as he had kicked the Ute from the Lone Spruce saloon), examined the shattered shoulder and then the broken ankle, and asked, "Is that all?"
"Yes," said the wounded man; "is n't that enough?"
"Not if they meant to kill you, for they have n't found your vitals. What a lot of farmers to go shootin' a man in the foot—guess they wanted you to dance. That top scratch was n't bad. Reckon you must have got that in the previous engagement, eh? The blood's begun to thicken up. I see that fellow's hoss go over the cliff; gee, he must have fell a mile."
The dark man had risen after examining the messenger's wounds, and when the latter looked up his friend had his own shirt open and was squeezing at a little pink spot just under his right breast.
"My God," said the messenger, "are you shot there?"
"Yes—that was n't a bad shot, only on the wrong side."
"But why don't it bleed?"
"It's bleedin on the wrong side," was the answer, and then the stranger closed his shirt, looked steadily at his companion and asked: "Where's your dough?"
"Behind those two rocks that are partly hidden by the boughs of yon cedar. Can you bring it to me? There are five pieces."
"Forty thousand, eh?" said the dark man as he dumped the five envelopes beside the messenger, "and it ain't worth the excitement you've gone through. But I like you; there's good stuff in you, boy."
"Half of it ought to be yours, for you saved me and the money, too. But who are you, and how did you happen to be here?" asked the messenger eagerly.
"I got your note—the one you left in the safe—"
"But that was for the agent."
"Yes, I know—I opened it by mistake."
"My, but those fellows did fight wicked," the messenger remarked as he picked up his empty gun and began to kick the shell out. "Hope that was old Huerfano himself that went over the bluff."
"The devil you do."
"Say! are you bleeding inside?" asked the messenger, as his companion sank to the ground with the air of a tired man.
"I reckon so. Can you set a hoss?"
"No," said the messenger; "but if you've got a horse, for heaven's sake take this money and go, for those wolves will return, and I'd rather they'd get me without the money than the money without me, or what is more likely now, both of us, and the money, too."
The dark man put two fingers to his lips, gave a shrill, wild whistle, and a beautiful horse—black as night—came leaping up from the gulch behind him.
"My! but you're a verdant youth," said the dark man as the messenger offered him the money, and there was a shade of a smile about his black moustache. "Come, let me help you into the saddle while I've got strength—be quick," and he reached to help the messenger to rise.
"I shall never leave you here alone—"
"I'll be dead in twenty minutes—thirty at the outside. Now don't be a fool," and he stooped to lift the big messenger by his wounded leg. But the effort caused him to cough, blood spurted from his mouth, and both men, weak from their wounds, fell down in a heap, and then, leaning on their elbows, they looked at each other, the dark man with a cynical, the messenger with a sort of hysterical smile. The black horse sniffed at his master and snorted at the smell of blood.
The Warden's dark-eyed daughter was taking her regular morning ride in the foothills. There were no daily papers to spread the news of the place, and she had heard nothing of the washout of the previous day and of the flight of the messenger. Yesterday he had made her to feel herself the happiest woman in the world. She had gone to her bed happy, but had awakened in a dreadful dream, and had been unable to sleep from that hour until morning. Her heart was heavy within her breast. She felt half inclined to be angry with her spirited horse, who was now cantering away with her toward the fresh green hills. At the edge of the valley she met three horsemen riding hard toward the town. Two of the men were wounded—one was bleeding—and she asked what was the matter. The men appeared not to want to stop, but when she had heard, in a confused way, something about the express messenger, she turned and rode by the side of the Sheriff until he had told her hurriedly all that had occurred. He made her understand that they had left the fugitive and his confederate at the top of the gulch from which they had just emerged, and that the "thief" was severely wounded.
"He is no thief," she retorted; "there is some mistake."
"Yes," said the Sheriff, "we made a mistake in not shooting him down like a dog at first sight, but he'll never leave those hills alive. In an hour the whole town will be after him."
With that the Sheriff drove the spurs into his horse and galloped away after his companions.
The dark-eyed woman reined her horse to a stop and stood looking after the deputies. It was some moments before she could realize the awfulness of what she had heard. "In an hour the whole town will be after him,"— she repeated what the Sheriff had said. The guards at the prison, those who could be spared—even her own father—would be upon his trail to kill him. It must not be. With a prayer upon her lips the bewildered woman turned her horse and dashed toward the hills.
From the valley the gulch showed plainly, but when she found herself among the rocks she became confused. The heavy growth of pinon and cedar obscured her view, and for nearly an hour she galloped up and down along the foot hills, unable to find the correct pass. Her horse was white with foam. Her veil had been torn away, and her face was bleeding from many wounds inflicted by the stiff branches of the spreading cedars. At times she actually cried out to God to guide her to her lover, whom she believed to be innocent. At last she found the trail made by the Sheriff's posse as they came down the gulch, but a moment later her heart sank as she heard the rattle of horsemen behind her. Presently she came to the dead deputy and his horse, but the sight did not appall her. Nothing could stop her now. Even in the presence of these silent witnesses—the horse and rider slain by the messenger—she was able still to believe in his innocence. Such is the capacity of a woman's love. Now a new trouble confronted her. Her horse refused to pass the dead. In vain she urged, coaxed, and whipped him; he would only snort and turn away. Nearer and nearer came the crowd of man hunters behind her. At last, having given up all hope of getting her horse beyond the ghastly dead, she leaped to the ground and continued on foot. The horse, having been trained to follow her as a faithful dog follows his master, leaped the corpse of his brother and galloped to his mistress. It required but a moment for her to remount, and when she reached the top of the narrow cañon she turned to look behind her. The little gulch was filled with a stream of horsemen, and at the head of the column rode her father, followed by the mounted guard from the penitentiary. From the mouth of the gulch a straggling and broken line of horsemen reached down to the stage road, and the stage road was lined with wagons and boys on burros, while out of the town and over the valley men and women swarmed like ants.
"It's awful for you to have to die for me," said the messenger, as the two men leaned upon their elbows and looked at each other. His shirt was pasted to his shoulder. His shoe being filled up, the blood was now oozing out between the lacings.
"It is not awful," said the dark man, rubbing the ends of his fingers over the wound in his breast. "It's a useful ending of a wasted life. I never dreamed that I should die so nearly satisfied. And such sport! Why, that fight between you and the—and Huerfano Bill, as you call him, was the best thing I ever saw, and the last wild plunge of the maddened horse! What a climax! I wonder where the soul plunges to at that last leap. Stuff! there is no soul and no place to plunge to—I've always said so. And yet," he went on, looking steadily at his companion, "when I was near fainting a moment ago I thought the end had come, and instead of darkness there was dawn—an awful dawn—the dawn of a new life, and the glare and uncertainty of it frightened me. I can't remember ever having been frightened before. Did you ever see the sky so blue?" he asked, as he leaned against a rock and turned his face toward the heavens. "And the hills so green, and the air so fresh and cool and sweet?" And again there was silence, and the wounded man appeared to be trying to listen to the life blood that was trickling into his lung, and wondering how long it would take it to filter away. The messenger dozed. The black horse bit off a mouthful of bunch grass, and, holding it still, raised his head and listened. The men sat up and reached for their arms. The sound of the approaching army came from the cañon.
"They've been reinforced," said the dark man. "But you're all right—I can square you in two minutes—and, as I've got to cash in anyway, it makes no difference. Look out—there's a woman," he said excitedly, as the Warden's daughter emerged from the canon and galloped toward them.
"Hello, gal!" said the dark man.
"Where is he?" she called.
"Here! here!" cried the messenger from behind the rocks, and a moment later she was bending over him. For a brief moment she suffered him to hold her to his breast, and then, pushing him away, she looked him full in the face, and asked in a tone that almost froze his blood, "Are you guilty or innocent? Tell me quickly." But the messenger appeared to be utterly unable to answer or even to comprehend her meaning.
She stood up and glanced toward the cañon.
"He's all right, gal—you've made no mistake," said the stranger.
"He saved my life," said the messenger, pointing to his companion. "Why don't you thank him?"
"How can I?" she asked, turning to the stranger and offering her gloved hand.
"Take this package to Mrs. Monaro in the white cottage on the river, down by the smelter—she's my wife; you'll find her; and if you'll take the trouble to be kind to her I shall die in your debt and remain so, so long as I'm dead. Now take this gun and protect that boy. They won't fire on you, and I don't care to kill anybody else, now that I am already overdue in another world."
She took the gun mechanically, and turned to face the posse that was at that moment be ginning to swarm from the cañon.
"Are you mad?" shouted the Warden.
"Drop that gun," cried a Sheriff, with his left arm in a sling.
The messenger, utterly unable to understand what the row was all about, attempted to rise, and in his excitement stood on his broken ankle, and the quick pain caused him to fall in a faint.
"Look after the boy," said the dark man, and the Warden's daughter dropped the ugly weapon and lifted her lover's head from the ground.
"Drop that gun," repeated the Sheriff. A cowboy shied a rope at the dark man, but he dodged it.
"One minute," said he, opening his shirt and showing his death wound, "you 'll have no trouble arresting me."
"Where's the murderer?" shouted an excited citizen.
"There's the chief," said the dark man, pointing to the wounded Sheriff. The Sheriff scowled.
"Is the express agent here?" asked the principal speaker, and a fat man with a red face came forward.
"This messenger is innocent. I mean to kill the first man who offers to lay a hand on him; after that you must protect him. This letter, which I have taken the liberty to open, explains it all. The sack of gold he left in the tank, you 'll find where I cached it in the river opposite the engine. The paper, I suppose, is all there by his side. He was afraid of being robbed, and was trying to reach the junction when he was assaulted by these idiots whom he mistook for robbers, and how well he fought, his own wounds and the dead man down in the gulch will show you."
The messenger, having regained consciousness, sat up and looked wildly about. The agent, realizing at a glance what an awful mistake had been made, fell upon the bewildered messenger and wept like a woman. Every passing second added to the general confusion and excitement. Cries of "Hang them, hang them," came frequent and fast from the rapidly increas ing crowd.
The Warden, who also understood, lifted his daughter, held her in his arms, and kissed away the tears that were filtering through her smiles.
"I don't believe it," said the Sheriff to his companion.
"Because you're a chump," said the dark man.
"What's it all about?" asked the messenger of the agent.
"Where is the murderer?" cried a new-comer, a brother of the dead deputy, and then, catching sight of the messenger, he ran straight toward him, holding out a cocked revolver as though it had been a sword with which he intended to run him through. When he was within four or five feet of the wounded man, the dark man struck him a fearful blow with a forty-five. The man went down, the dark man coughed, and a great flood of blood gushed from his mouth; he clutched at his throat and fell forward upon his face.
When they turned him over he was dead.
"My poor dead friend," the messenger almost moaned, dragging himself toward the prostrate form, "and I don't even know his name."
"I do," said Sheriff Shone, who had just arrived upon the scene and pushed through the crowd. "It's Huerfano Bill, the bandit."