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Nothing is so unreasoning as a crowd under excitement. The miners were inflamed with fierce anger against men of whom they knew nothing, except that they were accused of theft by two other men, of whom also they knew nothing. Whether the charge was true or false they did not stop to inquire. Apparently, they did not care. They only wanted revenge, and that stern and immediate.
The moderate speaker, already referred to, tried to turn the tide by an appeal for delay. "Wait till morning," he said. "This charge may not be true. Let us not commit an injustice."
But his appeal was drowned in the cries of the excited crowd, "Hang the horse-thieves! string 'em up."
Each of the four victims was dragged by a force which he couldn't resist to the place of execution.
Richard Dewey was pale, but his expression was stern and contemptuous, as if he regarded the party of miners as fools or lunatics.
"Was this to be the end?" he asked himself. "Just as the prospect of happiness was opening before him, just as he was to be reunited to the object of his affection, was he to fall a victim to the fury of a mob?"
Jake Bradley perhaps took the matter more philosophically than either of the other three. He had less to live for, and his attachment to life was not therefore so strong. Still, to be hanged as a thief was not a pleasant way to leave life, and that was what he thought of most. Again, his sympathy was excited in behalf of the boy Ben, whom he had come to love as if he were his own son. He could not bear to think of the boy's young life being extinguished in so shocking a manner.
"This is rough, Ben," he managed to say as the two, side by side, were hurried along by the vindictive crowd.
Ben's face was pale and his heart was full of sorrow and awe with the prospect of a shameful death rising before him. Life was sweet to him, and it seemed hard to lose it.
"Yes it is," answered Ben, faltering. "Can't something be done?"
Jake Bradley shook his head mournfully. "I am afraid not," he said. "I'd like to shoot one of those lyin' scoundrels" (referring to Bill Mosely and his companion) "before I am swung off. To think their word should cost us our lives! It's a burnin' shame!"
Ki Sing looked the image of terror as he too was forced forward by a couple of strong miners. His feet refused to do their office, and he was literally dragged forward, his feet trailing along the ground. He was indeed a ludicrous figure, if anything connected with such a tragedy can be considered ludicrous. Probably it was not so much death that Ki Sing feared, for with his race life is held cheap, but Chinamen shrink from violence, particularly that of a brutal character. They are ready with their knives, but other violence is not common among them.
Bill Mosely and Tom Hadley followed in the rear of the crowd. They would have liked to improve the time by stealing away with the mustangs which they coveted, but even in this hour of public excitement they knew it would not be safe, and the act might arouse suspicion.
While Mosely felt gratified that the men he hated were likely to be put out of the way, there was in his heart a sensation of fear, and he involuntarily shuddered when he reflected that if justice were done he would he in the place of these men who were about to suffer a shameful death. Moreover, he knew that some day it were far from improbable that he himself would be figuring in a similar scene as a chief actor, or rather chief victim. So, though he exulted, he also trembled.
Meanwhile the place of execution had been reached. Then it was discovered that one important accessory to the contemplated tragedy was lacking--a rope. So one of the party was sent to the hotel for a rope, being instructed by Jim Brown where to find it.
It seemed the last chance for an appeal, and, hopeless as it seemed, Richard Dewey resolved to improve it. "Gentlemen," he said in a solemn tone, "I call God to witness that you are about to put to death four innocent men."
"Enough of that!" said Jim Brown, roughly, "We don't want to hear any more of your talk."
But Dewey did not stop. "You have condemned us," he proceeded, "on the testimony of two as arrant scoundrels as can be found in California;" and he pointed scornfully at Bill Mosely and his partner.
"Are you goin' to let him insult us?" asked Mosely in the tone of a wronged man.
"That don't go down, stranger," said Jim Brown. "We know you're guilty, and that's enough."
"You know it? How do you know it?" retorted Dewey. "What proof is there except the word of two thieves and liars who deserve the fate which you are preparing for us?"
"Hang 'em up!" shouted somebody; and the cry was taken up by the rest.
"If you won't believe me," continued Dewey, "I want to make one appeal--to ask one last favor. Spare the life of that innocent boy, who certainly has done no evil. If there are any fathers present I ask, Have you the heart to take away the life of a child just entering upon life and its enjoyments?"
He had touched the chord in the hearts of more than one.
"That's so!" cried the speaker who had tried to stem the popular excitement. "It would be a crime and a disgrace, and I'll shoot the man that puts the rope 'round the boy's neck."
"You're right," cried three others, who themselves had left children in their distant homes. "The boy's life must be saved."
The two men who held Ben in their grasp released him, and our young hero found himself free. There was a great rush of joy to his heart as he saw the shadow of death lifted from him, but he was not satisfied that his life alone should be spared. He resolved to make an appeal in turn. "Gentlemen," he said, "I am only a boy, but I want to speak a few words, and those words shall be true."
Ben had been a good speaker at school, and he had unconsciously assumed the attitude with which he commenced declaiming upon the school-rostrum.
"Hear the boy!" shouted several; and there was a general silence. It was a new thing to be addressed by a boy, and there was a feeling of curiosity as to what he would say.
"I want to say this," continued Ben--"that what Mr. Dewey has said is strictly true. Not one of us is guilty of the crime that has been charged upon us. The men who have testified against us are thieves, and robbed us of these very horses, which we finally recovered from them. May I tell you how it all happened?"
Partly from curiosity, the permission was given, and Ben, in plain, simple language, told the story of how they had received Mosely and Hadley hospitably, and awoke in the morning to find that they had stolen their horses. He also described the manner in which later they tried to rob Dewey when confined to his bed by sickness. His words were frank and sincere, and bore the impress of truth. Evidently a sentiment was being created favorable to the prisoners, and Bill Mosely saw it and trembled.
"Let us go," he whispered to Hadley.
"If you wish to know whether I speak the truth," Ben concluded, "look in the faces of those two men who have accused us."
The terror in the face of Bill Mosely was plainly to be seen. Suddenly the minds of the fickle multitude veered round to the two accusers, and shouts arose: "The boy's right! Hang the thieves!"
Then Bill Mosely did perhaps the most unwise thing possible. His courage fairly broke down, and he started to run. Immediately a dozen men were on his track. He was brought back, moaning and begging for mercy, but the crowd was in no merciful mood. Victims they demanded, and when the rope was brought the two wretched men were summarily suspended to the branches of two neighboring trees.
They had fallen into the pit which they had prepared for others.
As for Ben, he became the hero of the hour. The miners raised him on their shoulders and bore him aloft in triumph to the hotel from which he had so recently been dragged to execution.
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