"In the name of all that is wonderful, Hill, what has kept you up till this late haul" was the eager inquiry of Mrs. Maggie Beachy of her husband, when that gentleman entered his house at two o'clock in the morning.
"Well, Maggie," replied her husband, "you remember my dream about Lloyd Magruder?. I fear it has all come true. Indeed, I am perfectly certain poor Lloyd has been murdered."
"Nonsense, Hill," rejoined the wife. "Will you never have done with your unfounded suspicions? You will make yourself the laughing-stock of the whole country, and bring all the roughs in it about your ears, if you don't cease talking about Magruder."
"I can't help it, wife," persisted Beachy. "Those three rascals, Doc. Howard, Chris Lowry, and Jim Romaine, with another hangdog-looking fellow, came into town tonight in disguise, and, under assumed names, took passage in the coach to Walla Walla. They followed Magruder to the Bannack mines, and have doubtless killed him while on his way home. Their cantinas are filled with his gold dust."
"How improbable, Hill," said Mrs. Beachy, smiling. "Why, only yesterday Lloyd's wife received a letter from him, saying that he would not start for twelve days, and that he would have a strong company with him."
"Well, well, Maggie, let's drop the subject. Time will tell whether my suspicions are correct."
Let us inquire into the cause of Hill Beachy's terrible suspicion. Three months before this conversation occurred, Lloyd Magruder, a wealthy merchant of Elk City, loaded a pack train with merchandise, and made the long and dangerous journey of five hundred miles, by an Indian trail over the mountains to the Bannack mines in that part of Idaho afterwards embraced in the boundaries of Montana. The night preceding his departure, Hill Beachy, the landlord of the Luna House in Lewiston, a warm personal friend of Magruder, dreamed that he saw Chris Lowry dash Magruder's brains out with an axe. He related the dream to his wife the next morning, and expressed great fears for the safety of his friend. She was desirous of telling Magruder; but as his investment was large, and he was ready to start upon his journey, Beachy thought it would only introduce a disturbing element into the enterprise, without effecting its abandonment, and expose him to the laughter and sneers of the public. But he did not conceal the anxiety which the dream had occasioned in his own mind, and was greatly relieved when news came, six weeks afterwards, of the safe arrival of Magruder at Bannack.
On the morning of the day after Magruder left Lewiston, Howard, Lowry, and Romaine, in company with Bob Zachary and three other roughs, departed with the avowed intention of going to Oregon. As soon, however, as they had proceeded a sufficient distance in that direction to escape observation, they turned towards Bannack, and after a few days' journey were joined by William Page, an old mountain teamster. The party followed on in the track of Magruder's train, which they overtook when within three days' journey of Bannack, and accompanied it to its place of destination.
Magruder was disappointed, on his arrival at Bannack, to learn that the camp had been deserted by most of the miners, who had gone to the extensive placer mines in Alder Gulch at Virginia City, seventy-five miles distant, where the writer was then residing. Three days afterwards, however, he was well satisfied, on arrival there, to find an active mining camp of six thousand inhabitants, all eager to purchase his wares as rapidly as they could be displayed. Howard, Lowry, Romaine, and Page found comfortable quarters in the building occupied by Magruder, and were provided by him with employment during his six weeks' stay in Virginia City. No one, except himself, knew better than they the amount of his accumulations. His confidence in them was unbounded. On his offer to pay them two hundred dollars each, they had agreed to accompany him as assistants and guards on his return to Lewiston. The negotiations with Magruder for their employment were conducted by Howard, who was a physician of marked ability, and whose pleasing address was well calculated to allay all suspicion concerning their real motives in joining the party. Howard, Lowry, and Romaine, while at Lewiston, were classed among the vilest roughs of the town. The former two were understood to be escaped convicts from the California penitentiary. They had been concerned in numerous robberies, and were suspected of connection with Plummer's infamous gang. Magruder, whose residence was at Elk City, was entirely unacquainted with their history, and, from the simulated fidelity of their conduct while in his employ, had no reason to suspect them of criminal designs. He was very fortunate in the disposition of his merchandise, realizing therefor twenty-four thousand dollars in gold dust, and a drove of seventy fine mules.
A few days before his departure from Virginia City, Charley Allen, a successful miner, and two young men, brothers, by the name of Horace and Robert Chalmers, who had just arrived in the mountains from Boonville, Missouri, and William Phillips, an old pioneer in the country, arranged to unite their trains with his, and all make the trip together as one company. Romaine tried to dissuade Phillips from going with the others, but gave no reason for what seemed to the latter a strange request.
It was a bright October morning when the train left Virginia City, and moved slowly down Alder Creek, into the picturesque valley of the Pas sam-a-ri. The sun shone; the mountain atmosphere was crisp and exhilarating. The long plain stretching away to the base of the Ruby Range, reflected upon its mirror-like surface that magnificent group of pine-covered mountains, along whose sides glinted in the sunbeams the bewitching hues that give them their name. Towering on the right, rose the twin pinnacles of Ramshorn and Mill Creek; and, afar in the distance painted upon the horizon, was the superb outline of the main range of the old Rockies, and Table Mountain lifting its glittering plateau of snow far above the surrounding peaks. Filled with the inspiration naturally enkindled by these majestic views, the men, with all the animation and abandon of uncaged schoolboys, shouted and sang as they galloped along and hurried the train across the widespread valley. Into the hills, over the mountains, across the streams, through the canyons they scampered, entering Bannack the third day, just as the sun was setting.
Business detained them at Bannack the three following days. With the design of misleading the villains at Lewiston who might be on the watch for his return, Magruder sent by a company which left the morning after his arrival, a letter to his wife, telling her of his success, and that he would leave for home with a train strongly guarded, in twelve days. While he was thus planning the way for a safe return, Howard was equally busy in maturing a scheme to rob him on the route. This infernal project, the fruit of long contemplation, he now for the first time unfolded to Lowry and Romaine, who gave it their eager compliance. Meeting with Bob Zachary, he confided it to him; but, on learning that it could not be effected without the possible murder of Magruder, and the four persons accompanying him, Zachary, villain as he was, declined all participation in it. It was understood by the three, that on the eighth day of the journey, when the train would make camp in the Bitter Root Mountains, at a distance of one hundred miles or more from any white settlers, they would carry their diabolical design into execution. Howard declared that it could not be done without killing the five owners of the trains. Page was to be kept in ignorance of the plot until the eve of its performance.
Animated with the hope of an early re-union with his family, Magruder, with his companions, left Bannack one bright autumnal morning, and dashed with his train into the manifold intricacies of the mountain labyrinth. The burden of care with which one is oppressed, while travelling through an uninhabited region, exposed continually to the attacks of Indians and robbers, is always relieved by a sort of wild exhilaration inseparable from the shifting of scenery, and the varied occupations and incidents of the journey. And when day after day passes, without any change in the same monotonous round of employment, men sometimes desire the variety of a brush with the Indians, or a deer chase, or an antelope hunt, to ward off their mental depression. But save an occasional foray upon a herd of antelopes, the train moved safely onward, without impediment. The three ruffians were particularly attentive to the duties required of them, winning golden opinions from those they intended to destroy.
On the evening of the sixth day, the train descended into the valley of the Bitter Root. The lofty range of mountains which now forms the boundary between Montana and Idaho stretched along the horizon displaying alternate reaches illumined by the departing rays of the sun, and darkened by the shadows of overhanging clouds.
"In three days more," said Magruder, "we shall descend the range into Idaho, and all danger will be over."
Near the close of the second day thereafter, as the mules were slowly creeping up the trail, when near the summit, Howard rode alongside of Page, and in a tone of fearful earnestness said to him,-
"Page, when we go into camp, to-night, drive the mules half a mile away, and remain with them till supper time. We are going to kill Magruder and his four friends. You can help dispose of the bodies when the work is done, and share in the plunder. As you value your own life, you will not breathe a word of this to any one."
Had a thunderbolt fallen at the feet of Page, he could not have been more terrified. Reckless as his life had been, no stain of blood was on his soul. Gladly would he have warned Magruder, but the fearful threat of Howard was in his way. Besides, as Howard had grown into great favor, he felt that he would not be believed. He decided the conflict with conscience, by resolving to follow the directions of the conspirators.
The spot was not unfamiliar. It had been often occupied for camping purposes, and was specially favored with water and pasturage. It was also sheltered by the impenetrable foliage of a clump of dwarf pines and redwoods. Five minutes' clamber of the vertebrated peak which rose abruptly above the camp-fire, would enable one to survey for many miles the vast volcanic region of mountains, hills, and canyons over which the trail of the traveller, like a dusky thread, stretched towards Lewiston.
The train drew up on the camping ground a little before dark. The sky was overcast with snow clouds, and the wind blew chill and bleak. Every sign indicated the approach of one of those fearful snowstorms common at all seasons in these high latitudes. All the men except Page, who was with the herd, were gathered around the camp-fire, awaiting supper. As Page, staggering under the burden of his guilty secret, came to the camp in answer to a call to supper, Howard met him, and in an ominous whisper, warned him to retire as soon as his meal was finished, and not to be seen about the camp until he was wanted.
Magruder and Lowry were assigned to stand guard and watch the herd until ten o'clock,-the hour agreed upon for the commission of the crime. Page had built a fire for their accommodation. As they rose to leave the camp, Lowry, picking up an axe, remarked,-
"We shall probably need some wood, and I'll take the axe along."
Their departure was regarded as a signal for all to retire. Page had spread his blankets and lain down some time before, "not," as he afterwards said, "to sleep, but to await the course of events." Allen crept in by his side. The Chalmers brothers had made their bed twenty yards distant from the camp-fire; and Romaine, armed to perform the part assigned to him, stretched himself beside Phillips, his unsuspecting victim. Howard, the arch and bloody instigator of the brutal tragedy, demon-like, roamed at large, ready for any service, when the hour came, necessary to finish the deed.
The evening wore on. The sleep of toil-worn men comes when it is sought; and soon the only wakeful eyes in the camp were those of the watchers at the herd, Howard, Romaine, and the wretched Page.
The friendly conversation between Magruder and Lowry, as they sat side by side at the fire, was not interrupted, until the former looked at his watch.
"It is nearly ten," said he, filling his meerschaum, while unconsciously announcing the hour of his doom.
"I will put some wood on the fire," said Lowry, picking up the axe, and rising.
Magruder bent forward towards the fire to light his meerschaum, when the axe wielded by Lowry descended with a fearful crash into his brain.
Howard, who had been concealed near, sprung forward, and snatching the axe from Lowry, who seemed for the moment paralyzed at the deed he had committed, struck several additional blows upon the already lifeless body of the unfortunate man. The villains then hurried to the spot where the Chalmers brothers were lying, and while they were despatching them with the axe, Romaine plunged a bowie knife into the abdomen of Phillips, exclaiming at the moment, with an oath,-
"You old fool, I have to kill you. I told you at Virginia City not to come."
Allen, wakened by the death groan of young Chalmers, had risen to a sitting posture, and was rubbing his eyes, when Howard stole behind him, and blew out his brains, by a simultaneous discharge of buck-shot from both barrels of his gun into the back part of his head.
The work of assassination was complete. The murderers, unharmed, were in possession of the gold which had caused the dreadful deed.
Page, who had not left his bed, was now summoned by Howard to assist in the concealment of the bodies. Knowing that his life would pay the forfeit of disobedience, he hurried to the camp-fire, where Lowry greeted him with the soul-sickening words,-
"It's a grand success, Bill. We never made a false stroke."
A heavy snowstorm now set in. The assassins occupied the remainder of the night in destroying and removing the evidences of their guilt. The bodies of their victims were wrapped in blankets, conveyed to the summit of an adjacent ridge, and cast over a precipice into a canyon eight hundred feet deep, where it was supposed they would be speedily devoured by wolves. The camp equipage, saddles, straps, blankets, guns, pistols, everything not retained for immediate convenience, were burned, and all the iron scraps carefully collected, put into a sack, and cast over the precipice. All the while these guilty deeds were in progress, the storm was increasing. When the morning dawned, not a vestige of the ghastly tragedy was visible. The camp was carpeted to the depth of two feet with snow, and the tempest still raged. The murderers congratulated each other upon their success. No remorseful sensations disturbed their relish for a hearty breakfast. No contrite emotions affected the greedy delight with which each miscreant received his share of the blood-bought treasure. No dread lest the eye of the All-seeing, who alone had witnessed their dark and damning atrocity, should betray them, mingled with the promises they made to themselves of pleasures and pursuits that this ill-gotten gain would buy in the world where they were going. One solitary fear haunted them,-that concerning their escape from the country.
When this all-absorbing subject was mentioned, they saw and felt the necessity of avoiding Lewiston; their presence there would excite suspicion. Howard advised that they should go to a ford of the Clearwater, fifty miles above Lewiston, and cross over and make a hurried journey to Puget Sound. There they could take passage on a steamer to San Francisco or to British Columbia, as after events might dictate. This counsel was adopted.
Mounting their horses, they made a last scrutinizing survey of the scene of their hellish tragedy, now covered with snow, and plunged down the western slope of the mountains, amid the rocks and canyons of Northern Idaho. The expression of Howard, as he reined his horse away from the bloody theatre, may be received as an indication of the sentiments by which all were animated.
"No one," said he, "will ever discover from anything here the performance in which we have been engaged. If we are only true to each other, boys, all is safe."
The animals, with the exception of one horse and seven mules, were abandoned, but, accustomed to follow the tinkle of the bell still suspended to the neck of the horse, the herd soon appeared straggling along the trail behind the company. The heartless wretches, thinking to frighten the animals away, at first shot them one by one as they came within rifle distance. Finding that the others continued to follow, they finally drove the entire herd, seventy or more in number, into a canyon near the trail, and mercilessly slaughtered all the animals composing it.
Avoiding Elk City by a circuitous route, the party, after several days' travel, arrived at the ford of the Clearwater. Two broad channels of the river at this crossing encircled a large island. A mountain torrent at its best, the river was swollen by recent rains, and its current running with frightful velocity. Page, who was perfectly familiar with the ford, dashed in, and was followed by Lowry. They were obliged to swim their mules before reaching the island, and still had a deeper channel to cross beyond. Romaine and Howard, who had witnessed the passage from the bank, were afraid to risk it. A long parley ensued, which finally terminated in the return of Page and Lowry, and an abandonment of the ford. A single day's rations was all the food the company now possessed. None could be obtained for several days, except at Lewiston, the mention whereof brought their crime before the ruffians with terrible distinctness. But there was no alternative. Risk of detection, while a chance presented for escape, was preferable to physical suffering, from which there was none. They encountered the risk. Near Lewiston they fell in with a rancheman, to whom they committed their animals, with instructions to keep them until their return, and, concealing their faces with mufflers, entered the town at a late hour of the evening.
With the design of stealing a boat, and making a night trip down Snake River, to some point accessible to the Portland steamboats, they proceeded at once to the river bank fronting the town. Piling their baggage into the first boat they came to, they pushed out into the stream. The wind was blowing fearfully, and the maddened river rolled a miniature sea. They had proceeded but a few rods when a sudden lurch of the boat satisfied them that the voyage was impracticable, and they returned to shore.
Their only alternative now was to secure a passage that night in the coach for Walla Walla, or remain in Lewiston at the risk of being recognized the next day. It was a dark, blustering night. Hill Beachy, whose invariable custom it was to retire from the office at nine o'clock, from some inexplicable cause became oblivious of the hour, and was seated by the stove, glancing over the columns of a much-worn paper. His clerk stood at the desk, preparing a way-bill for the coach, which left an hour later for Walla Walla. The street door was locked. Suddenly the silence without was broken by the heavy tramp of approaching footsteps. A muffled face peered through the window. Beachy's attention was arrested by a hesitating triple knock upon the door, which seemed to him at the time ominous of wrong. Catching a lamp, he hurried to the door, on opening which a tall, well-proportioned man, in closely buttoned overcoat, with only his eyes and the upper portion of his nose visible, entered, and with a nervous, agitated step, by a strangely indirect, circular movement, advanced to the desk where the clerk was standing.
Addressing the clerk in a subdued tone, he said, "I want four tickets to Walla Walla."
"We issue no tickets," replied the clerk, "but will enter your names on the way-bill. What names?" he inquired.
For a moment, the stranger was nonplussed. Recovering himself instantly, with seeming nonchalance, he gave the names of John Smith and his brother Joseph, Thomas Jones and his brother Jim; and, throwing three double eagles upon the desk, he hastily departed.
As he closed the door, Beachy said to the clerk, "I'm afraid there will be a stage robbery to-night. Go to the express office and tell the agent not to send the treasure chest by this coach. Don't wake the passenger in the next room. I will see the citizens who have secured passage, and request them to wait until tomorrow."
Still reflecting upon the suspicious conduct of the visitor, Beachy determined to get a sight of his companions. "There are too many Smiths and Joneses to be all right," he said to himself, as he slipped the hood over his dark lantern and took his way to the hotel where they lodged. Ascertain ing that their apartment fronted the street, he stole quietly up to the window, which was protected by shutters with adjustable lattice. This, by a cautious process, he opened, and, peering through, beheld the four inmates, three of whom he recognized as the ruffians who had left Lewiston and gone to Bannack three months before.
More deeply confirmed than at first in the belief that a robbery was intended, he awaited the approach of the coach, designing to make a careful survey of the group after they were seated preparatory to departure. Fifteen or twenty persons, who had heard of Beachy's suspicions, several of whom were old associates of Howard and his companions, followed the coach from the barn to the hotel.
Enveloped in overcoats and blankets, their faces concealed by mufflers, and their hats drawn down to hide their eyes, the four men clambered into the coach. Just as the driver gathered up his lines Beachy opened his lantern, and before the men could wrap their blankets around them, his quick eye detected that two of the number had each a pair of well-filled cantinas on his lap. After the coach had driven off, he turned to Judge Berry, who was standing near, and. in a low but meaning tone, said,-
"Lloyd Magruder has been murdered."
"What makes you think so?" inquired the judge. "Do you recognize these fellows?"
"Yes, three of them: Howard, Lowry, and Romaine. Their cantinas are filled with Magruder's money. I'll furnish horses and pay all expenses if you and the sheriff will join me, and we'll arrest them to-night."
"Arrest them for what?." asked the judge.
"On suspicion of having murdered Magruder."
"Why, Hill, the whole town would laugh at us. We certainly could not detain them without evidence. Besides, your suspicions are groundless.
Mrs. Magruder told me last evening that she did not expect her husband for ten or twelve days. Let matters rest for the present."
"I know that Magruder is dead, and that these villains killed him, as well as if I had seen it done," rejoined Beachy. "From this time forth, I am on their track."
Bidding the judge good-night, he wended his way home, and, on entering his house, held the conversation with his wife with which this chapter opens.