By Helen Hinckley Jones
The Story So Far: Prudy, living in Sacramento with the Freibers, hopes to find her Uncle Angus and persuade him to return with her to Ogden. John is looking for Uncle Angus on the upper Sacramento River. Prudy fears that she is to be sent back to Ogden, but at a land auction picnic she uncovers some crooked dealings and saves Brother Freiber from losing his money. She feels that she may be permitted to remain where she can continue her search.
A fog lay over the river as John walked slowly down to the wharves. His mind was on Prudy, on her willingness to sacrifice her curls in order to go with him, of how much more fun the whole adventure would be with her along. He shrugged his shoulders as if to shake off his reluctance to reach the boat.
But the reluctance left of its own accord when he saw the boat. Reliance was painted on her side and printed on the banner that hung beneath the ship company’s flag. John studied her carefully. She must have been built for better things than trading up the Sacramento River. Perhaps she had carried passengers in those fabulous days when smartly dressed women and their gallant escorts dined and danced and strolled the decks as the boat plied between Sacramento and San Francisco. She was still ship shape, but her white paint was a little grayed and she had an air of being very, very tired.
John took a card from his pocket and compared the name on the boat with the name on the card, then with a sudden thrill of pleasure he hurried along the wharf to the gangplank that led to the deck of the Reliance.
There was already activity on the Reliance The regular crew was at work and smoke was already coming out of her funnels. John looked up at the curl of smoke that barely cleared the boat then spread out flat over the water, caught in the arms of the fog. “Getting up steam,” a man commented. Then peering at John, “What are you doing here, lad?”
John handed over the card he had held tightly between his thumb and finger inside his pocket. The man nodded, then gestured toward the other end of the boat. “Taking care of animals?” he said. “Don’t like that sort of work myself. Got an oversize load of them this time, too.”
John had barely shown his card to the man in charge of the freight when the drovers began to arrive with their cattle. He was too busy helping to drive the reluctant creatures up the gangplank and stow them away in their tight new quarters to even look out, until the whistle had blown and the Reliance was off upstream.
But once the creatures were really installed, John had time to himself. He watched the river, its banks, then ever-changing flat country that stretched out to either side. Watching the land slip slowly by gave John the same peace that he had felt in the old Arizona days. It was hard for him to organize his plans for searching for Uncle Angus. “Now, if Prudy were along –”
He talked to several of the men on the boat and was disappointed to find that most of them were as strange to the Sacramento River as he was – men who had been employed as he had been, to help with the animals, drifters who were at home on the water but who were going up the Sacramento for the first time. There was one man, however, who you could see at a glance belonged on the Reliance and on the River. He looked as old as Sacramento itself. His faded dungarees, his grizzled salt and pepper whiskers, his one wooden leg that stumped along the deck with a rhythm all its own – all of these things showed that he was no drover on a river holiday, no adventurer looking for greener fields.
It was hard for John to start a conversation with Old Jim. He wished again that Prudy was with him. She would have said in her gay way, “Say, Mr. Jim, do you know a man by the name of Angus Wight?” and Old Jim would have smiled and answered her. Several times John had spoken to the old man with the wooden leg, but always the answer had been a cross look or a gruff “Be about your business, lad.”
The second afternoon John came upon the old fellow sitting on the deck, expertly tying knots with two pieces of hemp rope. John sat down beside him. He picked up an end of rope, and watching the gnarled old hands, tried to follow their intricate movements. He didn’t say a word. Finally the old man spoke. “Here, better I show ye, lad.” He took John’s rope.”A land laddie if I ever saw one,” he said to John. Then keenly, “Beint you?”
“Yes,” John admitted. “The only time I was on the sea was when we came over from England.”
“England, eh?” Then more conversationally than John had ever heard him, “I’ve known lots of Englishmen in my day. Them that was good and them that wasn’t so good.”
John’s heart skipped a beat. Here was his chance. He forced himself to say casually, as his hands followed the direction of the old man’s. “I guess you’ve known lots of people along this old river.”
“Been on her since ’53.” The knotted hand drew the rope through a loop and pulled it taut with a jerk. “Known people up and down her for nigh onto forty years.”
“You said you’ve known Englishmen. Did you ever know Angus Wight?”
The hands left the rope and scratched thoughtfully at the man’s uneven thatch of gray hair. “Don’t know as I have. He a river man?”
“No,” John replied slowly. “Not exactly. Iron, I think.”
“Don’t say iron to me,” the old man blustered. “Railroadin’ through these parts is what’s stole from the river. People git in such a dag-goned hurry nowadays.”
John put in quickly, “Oh, he isn’t with the railroad. Maybe he’s building bridges. Maybe something else.” He pulled at his ear thoughtfully. “I did hope you’d know him.”
“Englishman –” Old Jim repeated. “Iron.” His faded blue eyes brightened. “Now I come to think of it, there was such, at the iron works up in Redding – clear top of the river, Redding. Took an anchor there to be fixed once. Yes, now I come to think of it, there was an Englishman there. Fine, upstandin’ fellow with an arm like–” The old man flexed his muscle and felt it with exploring fingers then signed. He finished, “Not little like most Englishmen you meet up with.”
“That might be Uncle Angus,” John declared. “I’ll go up to Redding and –”
“Not so fast,” Old Jim advised. “Boat don’t go to Redding. Red Bluff if there’s water enough; generally Squaw’s Landing.”
“Squaw’s Landing?” John repeated. “Where’s that?”
“Place named Corning. Can most always draw water there.”
And it was at Squaw’s Landing that the boat stopped. It was lucky for John that part of the cattle on the boat were consigned to a buyer fifteen miles north of Red Bluff. It was comparatively easy to get a job helping to drive them to their destination.
The miles from Corning to Anderson, the ranch north of Red Bluff where the cattle were to be delivered, seemed very long, even to John who had grown accustomed to Arizona distances. The winter rains had started and the sun came out only a few minutes in a day. When the sun did shine the fast greening fields stretched out like an emerald carpet, and John felt his heart unaccountably light in spite of his damp clothing and his constantly wet feet.
At Anderson the cattle were turned over to their owner and, freed from the necessity of staying with the herd, John felt that it was only a hop, skip, and jump into Redding where more than likely he would find Uncle Angus still repairing anchors and other things at the Redding Iron Works.
He was trudging along the road about ten in the morning when a carriage drew up beside him and the driver offered him a ride into town. He accepted and as he rode along he felt more and more sure that his adventure was going to be successful. To the left of him the great volcanic cone of Mount Lassen reached as close to the skies as the mountains in Ogden; ahead of him the tip of Mount Shasta, already covered with snow, seemed almost a part of the pink and white cloud bank.
But in Redding his heart fell again. The proprietor of the iron works remembered Angus Wight. Yes, he had worked there for a while, but he hadn’t been satisfied. He had had an “unaccountable interest in guns,” the man said, and couldn’t be happy where there wasn’t a great deal of gun work to do. John turned away unhappily but the man called after him. “Might try Shasta. Could be that Wight is working over there. Or again you might try Round Mountain.”
That afternoon John was again on the road, but this time no friendly carriage drove up beside him. Carriages passed, but no one seemed to want to stop on the hazardous, winding way. The flat Sacramento Valley had ended suddenly with Redding. On each side of the town, except to the south, the mountains rose suddenly. Shasta, to the northwest, was reached by a mountain road curving and looping above a deep narrow valley. In places it seemed to be cut right out of the side of a mountain and the drop off on the other side seemed to be bottomless. The mountains were covered with a strange bush – manzanita – whose gnarled, mahogany red trunk and limbs made it look as if it belonged to a land of dwarfs and elves. Looking across the valley, the mountains rose on the other side blue and purple and gray.
John whistled as he walked along, feeling lonely and discouraged. He was as sure that he wouldn’t find Uncle Angus in Shasta as he had been certain of finding him in Redding. He jingled the coins in his pocket. If there was a stage running he’d ride back to Redding from Shasta; he didn’t want to repeat this lonely walk.
Then suddenly he was in the town. For a distance of perhaps two blocks red brick buildings fronted the street and the mountain rose steeply behind them. He had heard in Redding that back in ’51 Shasta had been the third largest city in California. Now it was nothing but a sleepy town, most of its business having been taken by Redding because the railroad had not climbed the mountains to Shasta.
John looked at the two hotels on Shasta’s main street. He had never stayed in a hotel in his life. He turned his back upon the town and walked south down a side street that paralleled the road that he had come in on. When he knocked on the door of a clean blue frame house surrounded by a neat garden and asked if he could be a paying guest for the night, the housewife, who said her name was Mrs. Lewis, took him in, fed him and promised him a bed with her own boys. But neither she nor her husband nor her husband’s young brother who lived with them, had ever heard of Angus Wight.
“If anybody knows him it’ll be Buck Montgomery,” Mrs. Lewis said. “Don’t you think so, Pa?”
“Buck’s the messenger for Wells Fargo Express Company,” Mrs. Lewis explained; then she laughed at John’s puzzled look. “You’re a stranger in these parts, now aren’t you?” she asked. “I imagine not knowing about Wells Fargo.”
“I don’t, ma’am,” John admitted, tugging at his ear.
Mr. Lewis explained.”This town looks like it’s going to sleep, but it isn’t. In these hills there’s still plenty of gold. Nuggets, bullion, valuable ore – all of these things are coming into Shasta every day. Wells Fargo picks them up here and takes them to its office in Redding and from there the stuff travels by train.”
John asked shyly, “What’s a – a messenger?”
“The armed guard,” Mr. Lewis explained. “It hasn’t been so many years since there were highwaymen aplenty in this party of the country. The stage would be rolling along, out would step a masked man armed to the teeth and command, ‘Throw down the box!’ and the driver’d have to throw down the box that carried the valuables or get a chest full of lead.”
John thought of the lonely mountain road to Shasta and shivered. “But there aren’t any bandits now, are there?” he questioned.
Mrs. Lewis laughed but Mr. Lewis and his brother Ben still looked serious. Ben said, “Wells Fargo doesn’t take chances. There haven’t been any bandits for ten years or so – that is, none to speak of – but there’s no use of taking chances.”
“So Buck Montgomery rides the stage fully armed and when he shoots he hits what he shoots at,” Mr. Lewis added.
“After supper I’ll take you to town and introduce you to Buck if you want to ask him about your uncle,” Ben offered.
So after supper Ben and John went into Shasta. Ben found Mr. Montgomery at the hotel and introduced John. “This is John Hatfield, Buck. He’s looking for an uncle of his, Angus Wight.”
“Angus Wight? I know him,” Buck Montgomery said, his white teeth flashing in a friendly smile. “One of the best men with a gun I’ve ever seen.” He saw John’s eyes on the gun he wore at his belt. “He worked on all my guns while he was up this way. Wish he hadn’t dropped off the face of the earth.”
“Off the face of the earth?” John questioned.
Ben said in a superior way, “That’s American for having disappeared.”
“I did hope you’d be able to tell me where my uncle could be found,” John said, unable to hide his disappointment.
“I wish I could, too,” Mr. Montgomery answered. “I have some work I’ve been keeping for him to do. Nobody less than Angus Wight is going to work on my guns. You see, my life depends on how quick and accurate they are.” His face, which had been serious, grew cheerful again. “No, I can’t tell you where he is. He’s apt to pop up at any turn in the road, though. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take you back to Redding tomorrow. Of course you’ll have to ride inside the coach because only the driver, John Bryce, and I are allowed on the box, but it’ll be something to tell your friends about– that you took a ride with Wells Fargo and a box full of gold nuggets.”
“Thank you. Thank you, sir.” John and Ben turned away and Ben said enviously, “Aren’t you the lucky fellow!”
The next afternoon John met Buck Montgomery in the hotel as they had arranged the evening before. The coach was already loaded and Mr. Bryce was on the box, the lines in his hands. The horses, pawing at the cobbled street, were eager to be off. “I am a lucky fellow,” John thought as he climbed into the coach and sat down upon the padded seat cushion. It would be more exciting to ride on the box, of course. Buck Montgomery could tell him more about Uncle Angus, more about the days when highwaymen were a real danger on the mountain roads. There was another passenger in the coach, but John hadn’t the courage to begin a conversation and the man was engrossed in looking out of the window.
John looked out of the window, too. He was sorry that it was almost dusk, because it had been the same time in the evening that he had come into Shasta the night before. From the coach window the manzanita bushes didn’t look as spooky as they had the night before. He didn’t feel any of the half frightening eeriness that he had felt as he had climbed the winding road to Shasta.
The coach rounded a sharp turn and John was almost thrown from his seat as the horses stopped suddenly. Before the horses in the road was a masked man and his voice rang sharp and clear, “Throw down the box!” For a moment John thought that he was dreaming and that this was part of one of the stories he had heard at the Lewis’s. For a second as the horses reared and danced, both John Bryce and Buck Montgomery were motionless, then as the box hit the road with a heavy thud, a volley of fire left Buck Montgomery’s gun. Forgetful of danger John craned his neck to see the bandit. Above the bandana mask he saw a pair of black-lashed gray eyes, and as the band it fell forward he swept back a shock of hair from his forehead with the back of his left hand. Into John’s mind flashed Mother’s words, “Eyes like Prudy’s, with John’s habit of sweeping his shock of hair back from his forehead with the back of his hand.” Then came another flash: Buck Montgomery’s words, “One of the best men with a gun I’ve ever seen” and “dropped off the face of the earth.”
Could this bandana-masked band it be Uncle Angus? John tried to put the thought out of his head. There was too much happening for anyone to think. As the bandit fell forward a volley of shots was fired from the bushes into the coach. Frightened by the shots, the horses suddenly began to run. By their crazy pace John knew that no one was holding to the lines. Johnny Bryce had fallen in the volley of shots and perhaps Buck Montgomery was wounded too, or he would have taken the lines.
Down the road the horses raced, the coach clattering at their heels. The body of the coach swayed dizzily and John tried to hold to his seat, falling first this way and then that, sick with fear as he remembered those dizzy depths at the side of the mountain road. Suddenly the coach jolted to a halt.
His knees too weak to hold him, John climbed from the coach and held to the side to steady himself. A man held the lead horse’s head. His wife, white as a clean sheet, was standing beside a carriage. The man spoke. “I’m Doctor Stevenson, on my way to Shasta from Redding.” He looked at John sharply. “Here, hold the horses a minute, will you?”
John held the horses while Dr. Stevenson bent over the floor of the box in front. The doctor called to his wife, “They are both badly injured. I’ll stay here and do what I can. Drive as fast as you dare into Redding and send help back. Let the sheriff know, too. A posse’ll be on the trail before an hour has passed.”
Under Dr. Stevenson’s direction John led the horses to a live oak tree and fastened them securely, then he climbed into the carriage with Mrs. Stevenson. He still couldn’t feel his legs they were so numb from fright, and his heart hesitated then raced, then hesitated again. The older man, who had been a passenger in the coach, too, seemed even more shocked. He didn’t have a word to say, just hung on to his walking stick with both hands as if feeling it made him safer.
Nervousness loosened Mrs. Stevenson’s tongue. “That was a great runaway,” she said to John. “If my husband hadn’t had the presence of mind to jump from our carriage when he saw the coach lurching toward us and grab at the lead horse’s head when it came up even, I don’t know what would have happened to you.”
“I don’t either, Ma’am,” John answered. And then, because he couldn’t get out of his mind the black-lashed gray eyes and the lock of hair that the band it had swept from his eyes with the back of his hand, John said, “Do you know Angus Wight, Ma’am?”
Mrs. Stevenson looked away from the road for a second. “What a strange question to ask – right now,” she said. “Yes, I know him. When he was here in Redding Dr. Stevenson and I knew him well. Why do you ask?”
“Do you know where he is now?”
“Yes. He’s in Sacramento. Dr. Stevenson heard from him just the other day.”
“Then he isn’t hereabouts,” John said, and he sighed with such relief that Mrs. Stevenson smiled in spite of herself. John saw the smile and searched for words to explain his sigh.
“Then he isn’t the bandit, Ma’am?”
“Oh, my, no,” Mrs. Stevenson laughed. “A finer Christian gentleman you’d never meet.”
It wasn’t until the next day that John heard that the wounded bandit had been found and that he was Charles Ruggles of Fresno County. He heard then, too, that both the handsome, smiling Buck Montgomery and the driver had died from the volley of fire that had swept the coach.
Going back to Squaw’s Landing to meet the “Reliance” on its next trip up, John thought, “I’ll never tell Prudy how glad I was to not find Uncle Angus. I’ll never tell anyone that I even thought that –” He would not let himself finish the sentence. Anyway, Prudy would be happy to know that Uncle Angus was in Sacramento.