The Wild West was never wilder than it would be in the towns and gold-mines of California! Sixteen-year-old Fredi Steinmetz longed for adventure and riches. What better way to find both than to follow the Gold Rush from Texas to California? Fredi didn’t reckon on bandits and robbers, partnership with a slippery Fenian piano player, gold in the riverbanks, murder in the streets of San Francisco and the saloons of Mokelumne Hill, a rich cache under a dead pine tree on the North Fork of the Yuba River, Mormons and gold-miners, and Lotta Crabtree, the Faery Star dancing under a glittering golden rain thrown on stage! He didn’t know that hiring on as a drover, bringing a cattle herd from Texas to California over the Southern Trail was merely the start of his adventures, on the road west and in the diggings … and that over the next two years he would encounter the famous and infamous — everyone from Jack Slade, to Roy Bean, Sally Skull, Juaquin Murrieta, and Ulysses S. Grant … all along the Golden Road!
Chapter 10 – O’Malley’s Grand Party
They had gotten to a point halfway between San Bernardino and Los Angeles when disaster struck. It was a particularly deserted stretch of road, not a lonely house or a tiny settlement in sight. The sun, sliding down the western sky was still gilding the hilltops, and tinting the snow on the distant mountaintops in hues of rose and gold, but the valley bottoms were already abandoned to shadow.
Fredi had already suggested that they make a wilderness camp of it for the night, picket the mules to graze, and sleep under the wagon, but O’Malley hankered to spend the night under a roof, and held out for traveling another mile or so, in hopes of encountering a dwelling-place, a town … anything. Shadows filled the valley, deep and darkening, even as O’Malley looked wistfully ahead for a lantern-lit window. Just as Fredi was about to say that there was no such thing in sight, and they should make camp while they still had light enough to unharness the mules and ensure that they were not bedding down on top of an ant-hill or a nest of rattlesnakes, a male voice called to them in Spanish, from the deeper shadow beside a tall thicket of chamisa.
“Hola, my friends … it’s late to be on the road – may I ask where you are going?”
“To Los Angeles,” Fredi answered, having no suspicion in the least until the metallic click of a pistol cocking alerted him – too late. Even as O’Malley made as if to send the mules hurtling forward, another man-shaped shadow emerged, deftly catching the lead mule’s headstall. Fredi leaned down, reaching for the shotgun which O’Malley kept within reach, under the wagon-seat. The man with the pistol stepped out of the shadows, the last of the twilight etching a pale line down the barrel. That pistol pointed straight at Fredi’s stomach, from hardly an arm-length away, and there was another pistol aimed at O’Malley; at least three men that Fredi could see, and at least two more that he could not, but sensed their presence anyway.
“Not tonight, I think,” said the first man, suave and confident. Now Fredi could see that he had a dark kerchief over his face, and his heart sank. This did not look good. There had been many a tale of Murietta and his bandit gang told in the Headquarters Saloon. Not everyone in San Bernardino was wholly convinced that Murietta and his chief henchman, Three-Finger Jack Garcia, had been killed by Captain Love’s Ranger company a year or two before, although many claimed to have recognized the bandits’ pickled head when it was shown around the gold camps afterwards. “Alas, we are poor men and you are rich – and is it not said that those who have must share with the poor and hungry?”
“And we are very hungry,” commented the man holding the mule’s headstall. The wagon rocked slightly on its springs, as if someone were climbing over the tailgate. Nipper growled from his nest at their feet in O’Malley’s folded overcoat. O’Malley twisted around to look back into the wagon-bed, bidding Nipper to be still. Fredi could hear O’Malley whispering to himself, very low in English which sounded like prayers.
“We’re being held up by road-agents,” Fredi said, keeping his voice level with an effort. Everything they owned between them was in the wagon; the cargo it carried, the mules which pulled it, and most especially their stake in coins and notes, secreted in the cornmeal. “We are not rich,” he protested. “But honest and hard-working men! We are heading for the gold mines, not away from them. Why should you steal what we have from us?”
“You have more than we,” the bandit leader replied, in an irritatingly reasonable manner. “And we have nothing, so you are rich indeed, by comparison. Come down from the wagon, my friends – slowly and keep your hands clear where we may see them.”
“He’s telling us to get down,” Fredi translated for O’Malley. “And to be slow and careful – there are at least three guns trained on us.”
“I’ll not die like a dog in the road,” O’Malley said through his teeth. “Give them what they ask for, boyo. Do just as they say. Nip – to me. Tell them I’m wrapping Nipper in my coat. He’s just a poor little doggie, but he is loyal above all.”
“Your valuables, my friends,” ordered the bandit leader, once they had obeyed. “Go on. Keep nothing back, not a single centavo, for Jesu Cristo rewards in heaven those who are generous to the poor.”
Fredi and O’Malley stood with their backs to the wagon-wheel, Fredi with his hands raised and O’Malley holding Nipper, tightly wrapped in his overcoat under his arm. Inside the wagon they could hear one of the bandits ransacking what it held, while Nipper whined in distress. O’Malley held the dog fast, swathed in the overcoat’s folds. With one hand the bandit leader held out a coarse sack which might once have held sugar or salt – brandishing in the other an old-fashioned dragoon pistol. It only held a single shot, but at that range, a man couldn’t miss. Close as they were, Fredi could see the hilts of three or four more, tucked into the leader’s belt and the front of his short Mexican jacket. Another bandit, similarly masked and armed, stood by and holding a small pierced-tin lantern aloft, so that there was light enough to see by it, as darkness closed down over the valley like a pot-lid. Who knew how many other guns were trained on them, held steadily by how many bandits? He thought that he could hear horses close by, whickering to each other, their bridle-bits jingling. There was no advantage to himself and O’Malley in this, Fredi acknowledged bleakly. Not even Carl Becker could have overcome this many … and in any case, his wood-wise brother-in-law likely would not have fallen into an ambush like this in the first place.
With an insouciance remarkable to Fredi, O’Malley surrendered his pocket-watch; a cheap and battered thing of tin, and twisted off the tiny jet signet ring from his finger. With a sigh, he added his purse, containing his small share of their stake, which he carried for such small expenses as they had, in order that the avaricious might not observe the larger store of money. Fredi, the bag and the dragoon pistol put before him, added his own small share, and the patent Colt revolver which he had bought from Gil Fabreaux’s brother, all these months ago. The two bandits regarded them in reproach in the speckled lantern-light, obviously disappointed over the meager takings.
Stung, Fredi protested, “I told you that we were plain working men! Who other than such would be on the road at this time and season?”
At his side, O’Malley groaned faintly. “Boyo, have a care. We give them what they want, that we may go in peace…” he crossed himself in the way of Catholics in the old church with his free hand, murmuring, “…pray for us now and in the hour of our death…”
Seeing an advantage or sorts – did this bandit understand English after all? – Fredi said, “He is one of your old church, as devout as a man can be said to be in this wilderness. We have given to you what we can.”
“Not all!” the bandit leader sounded as if he leered triumphantly under the kerchief over his face, as one of his gang came over the wagon-seat, with a dusty sack in his hand. Fredi’s heart sank, all the way into his boots. Their stake! All the money they had in the world, their wages from six hard months on the cattle trail, and what they had earned since! The sale of Paint lay in that bag, that and the price of his and O’Malley’s long hours of work, pounding piano keys and laboring over the wash-pan in Colonel Bean’s saloon.
The man with the cornmeal dusty bag emptied it into the larger one, the coins and notes jingling and rustling as they fell. Fredi and O’Malley watched, helpless and impotent. To add insult to injury on top of robbery, the bandit chief looked at them both in reproach.
“My friends, you are certainly very poor rich men, if this is all you have! Little notes, small coins of less value…”
“We were cheated of our wages,” Fredi replied, indignant, as that particular injustice still stung. “We worked for Colonel Bean, at the saloon in San Bernardino; all these weeks and his brother did not pay us, saying there was nothing from the profits!”
“Los Frijoles?” the other bandit murmured; not sympathetic, but appearing to flirt with the notion. O’Malley’s gaze went back and forth between Fredi and the two outlaws, but the Irishman sensibly appeared to think better of speaking. Fredi wondered briefly again, if the bandit understood English. Bundled in the overcoat, Nipper whined again, still distressed, but not as much as he hand been when the bandit first began searching the wagon.
“Yes – the Beans. We worked without pause or rest for … many weeks. And at the end of it, Señor Leroy refused us our wages.”
“And what did you do … for los Frijoles?” the bandit leader asked again, seeming interested.
“I washed in the kitchen,” Fredi answered. “And we hauled a piano from Los Angeles. Señor O’Malley played upon it nightly for many hours, which brought many customers into los Frijoles’ establishment and enriched them mightily. We were promised a generous wage of five dollars for each night that he played but that bastard Señor Leroy cheated us in the end. So we left.”
“Aye-yi-yi,” the bandit leader whistled in sympathy, as an interested murmur of Spanish rippled among the others of his gang. “You were cheated … such is not an unknown occurrence, but usually not inflicted upon those of their own kind. But I am a gentleman and a merciful one – unlike those gringos …” He reached into the large bag which held everything that his men had looted from O’Malley and Fredi, and scattered a random handful of coins at their feet. “Thus, I return to you a portion. Alas, we are poor men ourselves, and cheated of our rights on every hand, or else I would return even more. We will leave you with your wagon and the mules. Count yourself fortunate, my friends, that we have no use for them. But we do languish for music and amusement …”
“Oh?” Fredi regarded the bandit chief with wary courtesy. “We don’t have a piano – or anything but a penny-whistle. What would you have us do?”
“If your Señor O’Malley would come with us, for a few hours,” the bandit leader replied. “There is a rancho … some little distance from here, where there is a piano, but no one there alive to play it.”
“They want you to come with them, to play the piano,” Fredi relayed to O’Malley, who nodded briskly, and seemed to fear no peril. Fredi wondered exactly how often O’Malley had been in tight, dangerous situations; he certainly seemed cool enough.
He handed the bundled overcoat with Nipper in it over to Fredi, saying, “Keep the little doggie safe with you, for he may try to run after me and become lost.”
He looked as if he were about to say more, but thought better of it.
“Fetch him a mule,” the bandit leader jerked a thumb at the nearest of his men. In a few moments they had unharnessed the four mules, scattering three of them into the darkness with shouts. O’Malley mounted the fourth, while Nipper whined in Fredi’s grip.
“Mind the wagon,” O’Malley said only. “The mules won’t go far – but take care of Nipper,” he added over his shoulder, as the bandits let him away.
Gone out of sight in an instant, out of hearing in another, muffled hoof-beats falling soft on the dust of the road and Fredi was alone, save for Nipper.