When I came to, I found myself still falling through the night.
Yes! I was still falling.
But I did not splat.
This confused me.
Then I had a notion of what was happening.
I was suspended between Glory and the Fiery Place!
I had tried to be a Good Methodist but now all my sins came rushing back into my memory, viz: I had killed a man & told lies & played poker & tried whiskey once & a Pousse Lamour cocktail another time & ignored every single one of my foster ma’s dying wishes. Also I had pranked the people of Virginia City for over nine months, making them believe I was a boy not a gal.
That might have been the worst sin of all, for they were my friends.
I reckon I was in a place called Limbo.
Methodists do not believe in that place, but Mr. Hazard O’Toole at the Shamrock Saloon across from my office is Catholic. He told me all about it.
He told me that Limbo is where you go to wait while the angels plead your case and the imps of the Fiery Place accuse you.
Gradually, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I perceived that I was not in Limbo. I was still in the high Sierras, surrounded by the looming black shapes of whispering pines. Why had I not splatted onto the ground?
Was I dreaming?
My arms were hanging limp. I moved my right hand over to pinch my left.
I pinched hard.
That meant I was not dreaming.
Then I realized that I was kind of tipped forward. I could feel something tugging my underarms & the seams of my coat sleeves straining tight. Someone was holding me up.
Someone… or something!
I knew there were bears in these mountains. Was it a man-eating grizzly bear holding me aloft?
If a prey animal is in trouble, he does one of three things.
No. 1 – He fights
No. 2 – He runs away
No. 3 – He freezes, so that he will not be seen or so that his enemy will think he is dead.
I could not fight. And I could not run away. So decided to use method No. 3 and ‘play possum’. Maybe the grizzly bear holding me up thought I was dead. Maybe he was not hungry enough to devour me in my velvet sacque & yellow-straw lighthouse bonnet with its silk flowers & ribbon & ruffles.
I must have been dazed with terror to imagine such a foolish thing. By and by I realized it could not be a grizzly bear holding me so still. Or even a person.
It was one of them whispering pines.
Yes, I was caught by tree.
My velvet and fur-trimmed sacque must have puffed out as I fell through the air and got caught on a branch.
There was no sound except the wind in the pines and further off the jingling and snorting of horses.
The horses! Had they survived? What about Ray, who had been up on the driver’s box with me?
If only I could see!
I reached my arms up over my head and after some groping I clasped on to the branch holding me. I could feel it through the satin-lined velvet fabric of the sacque which was straining under my weight.
It felt brittle and prickly, like an old branch. A dead branch.
That was the sound I heard as I found myself tipped forward a little more. My efforts to free myself had caused the branch that was holding me to bounce up and down a little. It was going to break and send me hurtling to the rocky gorge three thousand feet below!
I considered yelling for help but then I reasoned that the only other people for miles around were two Road Agents and one Pinkerton detective, viz: Mr. Ray G. Tempest. The road agents might be nearby. And the Pinkerton detective was probably dead.
So instead of yelling, I sent up an arrow prayer to the Lord.
‘Dear Lord,’ I prayed, ‘please forgive me for pranking my friends and help me to be a good girly-girl, if that is your desire. Only save me in my moment of need! Amen.’
As if in answer to my prayer, some pearly white rays poked up through the inky black branches of a pine tree below me. Those rays were like the halo of a saint, all fanned out. A moment later a light shone in my face. It was the moon, rising in the east and shining up through the gulch.
That blessed moonlight showed me that it was indeed the branch of a fir tree holding me.
I looked down.
Hallelujah! I was only about six feet off the ground.
(But I still might have broke my neck if that branch had not caught me.)
The next question was: how to get down?
I could use the weakness of the branch.
I flapped my arms to make the branch bob up and down.
My plan worked. I fell the six feet but landed awkwardly on account of I was wearing those button-up boots and not my usual moccasins. The ground was padded with pine needles, which cushioned my fall, but it also sloped gently down so I rolled a few times. The prickly savior branch dug into my back but thankfully it did not pierce the daffodil-yellow frock nor break my skin.
I got up on my hands & knees and straightened my wig & bonnet & pulled the branch out from under my sacque.
Hallelujah! My little 4-shot Muff Deringer was still firmly in the hidden pocket. I took it out & cocked it & crept down towards the sound I had heard earlier, viz: the sound of horses snorting & voices in the pines.
I am used to sneaking in the dark & when I put my mind to it I can go over crispy leaves & crunchy pine needles without making a sound. I crept forward, as silent as a cat on a velvet cushion.
Presently I came to where I could see the flickering yellow light of a fire.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
Here is the picture the golden firelight & the silvery moonlight showed me:
One papier maché torso wearing a pink shawl & a flower-bedecked sunhat on her watermelon head & balanced on the ground as if sitting before the fire with her back to me.
Two Reb Road Agents sitting at the fire facing the dummy & also me & reading letters.
Three wheels scattered in various places around them.
Some pieces of a busted up old Concord Stage & a tangle of reins & a whippletree & some other tackle lying between me and the Reb Road Agents.
Seven letter-sacks sitting near them.
Eight horses standing whole and unharmed, loosely tethered a pine.
Seventy-eight gleaming bricks of silver piled up beside the fire.
This is what that picture told me:
The stagecoach had crashed but the whippletree had broke loose from the singletree & all the horses had survived. I could see the drop was not as steep as I had feared, though it was still enough to cause the coach to roll over a couple of times and break up, probably on account of the heavy silver bars inside. The Reb Road Agents had obviously come upon the site of the wreck as they pursued us. They had seized all the silver bars and were now relaxing.
I could see no sign of Ray.
I reckoned he was dead.
The decoy stage full of guards and also my pa riding behind were probably ten miles further along the road. Maybe more.
I was on my own.
I focused all my attention on the Reb Road Agents. The one with the slouch hat was older. He was smoking a pipe & reading a letter. The one with the kepi was younger. He was swigging from a bottle of champagne & reading a letter. I noticed they had an open letter-sack beside them.
I wormed forward to the trunk of the tree closest to their fire.
I was close enough to hear them talking.
‘Hey, darlin,’ said Kepi to the dressmaker’s dummy. ‘Listen to this: Dear Ma, It is Bonanza here on the Comstock. They struck it rich in the front ledge in Gold Hill the other day. Tell little Pete and Edward they must come and join me. I have got a job working for the Yellow Jacket mine. It is hot and tiring but I get four dollars a day and I have feet. Give Betty my love and tell her she will not have to wait much longer.’ He took a swig of champagne & then he tossed the letter into the flames.
‘Hey!’ I got a good one, said Slouch. ‘It is a love letter from a gal to her betrothed: Oh Roderick I count the hours until I see you again.’ He was making his voice all high like a lady’s. ‘I have not heard from you in three weeks and I fear you have stopped caring for your sweet Elspeth. Are the girls prettier in Frisco? Please write to me, dear one!’
He also tossed his letter in the fire.
I was outraged. They were burning letters from sons to their mothers & lonely gals to their sweethearts!
Silver could be replaced, but not letters.
I had to stop them!