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Chapter 8: brigands.

IX California, as in Greece and Italy, brigands are the privateers of public wrongs, or what the peasants call their public wrongs. A brigand is a malcontent, who waits his chance to rise in a more threatening shape.

Los Angeles and San Jose, the Free Towns peopled by disbanded soldiers, squaws, and camp followers, are two great nests of rogues and thieves, gamblers and cut-throats. From these Free Towns, a line of brigand chiefs have drawn their scouts and helps. A mixed blood hates the agents of all rule and order. Years ago his teeth were clenched against the Spanish friars; at present his knife is whetted against the American police. Much of his passion is political, and the conflict in the jungle and on the mountain side is one of race with race.

High reputations have been made by these [68] Californian brigands. What hybrid peasant has not envied Capitan Soto, and his bold companion, Capitan Procopio? What lonely ranch and noisy drinking ken has not heard of Capitan Senati's deeds, and Capitan Moreno's treachery? What selorita has not sighed over the romantic love and tragic fate of Capitan Vasquez, the Mexican hero? Each of these brigands has excited and disturbed the country, roaming through the valleys, plundering the lonely farms, stopping the public mails, and carrying girls into the woods; each hero, as the hybrids think, combining the best qualities of Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, and Claude du Val.

Soto was the captain of a band of horse-stealers. Driving horses from the herd is ranked by Mexicans as the most lucrative and gallant branch of a brigand's trade. To steal horses, a man must be brave, cool, and hardy; he must know the country like a guide-each hidden jungle, nameless cave, and rocky pass-and he must sit his saddle as he sits a chair. All Mexicans ride well, but even for a Mexican ranger, Capitan Soto was a dasher; going like a gale of wind; yet able, in his rapid flight, to twist himself round his horse's belly, and to [69] cling unseen about his horse's neck. The charms of an adventurous life drew many riders, not less daring than himself, to Soto's camp. One day they were rioting with senforitas at Los Angeles; another, they were flying for their necks before such hunters as Sheriff Rowland and Sheriff Morse. Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego are the favourite scenes of brigand warfare, as the frontier offers them a ready market and a safe retreat. From Soto to Vasquez, every brigand in California has found his base of operations in Mexico.

Los Angeles county is a mountain region, with a dozen trackless canons, opening into fertile plains. The soil was owned by half-breeds, children of the disbanded soldiers and their stolen squaws; but from the moment when the first British settlers fastened on the land, a fight for the estate began. The first Britons who came to Los Angeles were the AMormon soldiers serving under Colonel Cooko. These troops remained at Los Angeles a year, and were disbanded in the town. Some of these Mormons settled in the place; others rode up into the hills; and many more squatted on the plains. A reign of order and prosperity set in. The Red [70] skins liked these Mormons, regarding them as honest men, who wanted squaws and paid for them in skins and cows. A lovely climate, a prolific soil, drew other settlers from the North.

If California is the garden of America, Los Angeles county is the paradise of California. Woods and pastures have been sold by the unthrifty natives; woods uncut, pastures ungrazed; and the purchase money of these woods and pastures has been spent on cards and drink. The district is becoming white. Banks, stores, hotels are being opened in the town, while round the suburbs, in and out of glen and water-way, white farms and villas are beginning to dot the country side. All sorts of wealth abounds, so that the robber's greed is tempted by variety of spoil. All hands are ready to help him in carrying on his trade. A brigand is always welcome to the people in an old Free Town.

Capitan Soto led a rattling life. One day he fled to Mexico, where the customers for his stolen horses lived; another day he smoked his cigarette in San Quentin, the Newgate of California. Once he broke that prison; a daring and successful feat, one of the many legends of that place of demons. But [71] the White man's justice followed him to his lair. Morse rode him down and shot him in the road.

After killing the chief brigand, Sheriff Morse made tracks for San Francisco, where he hoped to seize the minor criminal, Capitan Procopio. When Soto's band was scattered by the rangers, Procopio, with a younger member of the company, named Vasquez, sought an asylum in Mexico, but after staying in that republic some days the two brigands ventured to take ship for San Francisco, where they meant to hide in the Mexican quarter. Morse got news of them, and made his dash. Young Vasquez slipped the lasso, but Procopio was taken in a den and sentenced to imprisonment for life.

Capitan Senati was the leader of a company carrying on the trade of robbing shanties and stealing girls. \loreno was his first lieutenant; Los Angeles the scene of his exploits.

One day, hearing that a ball was to be given in Los Angeles by some ladies from San Francisco, Capitan Senati's company swooped into the streets, surrounded the house, and pillaged every one in the dancing rooms. After eating the supper, and drinking the wine, each brigand took a partner by [72] the waist, and whirled her round and round till he was tired. Then, at a signal from their chief, they filed out of the saloon, pointing their poignards at the men, and kissing their fingers to the women, as they bowed adieu.

Later in the night they broke into a ranch outside the town, where Capitan Senati outraged a female, and his lieutenant, Moreno, stole a gentleman's watch. A cry was raised in the streets, some rangers of the city mounted their horses, and a city marshal, riding in front of these rangers, followed the retreating brigands to their haunts. Senati shot the marshal dead; and as a challenge to the town, rode back with his company into Los Angeles, where he plundered several houses, and carried off a bevy of Mexican girls.

Fifteen hundred dollars were offered for the person of Capitan Senati, to be paid by the jailer of Los Angeles for his body, whether alive or dead. This money tempted Moreno, a man who had been in trade, and learnt to set more store on gold than others of his gang. With fifteen hundred dollars he might buy the finest horse and give the biggest dance in Los Angeles. That money should be his! [73] The camp was fixed near Greek George's ranch, ten miles only from the city; and one night, when the scouts were at their posts, and no one but Senati and himself were in the tent, Moreno crept behind his chief and shot him through the head. But they were not so far from listeners as he thought. Before the snap of his pistol died out, he heard a footstep near the tent, on which he hid his weapon and threw a blanket over Senati's face.

“Who fired that shot?” asked Bulvia, one of the brigands, striding in.

“ Senati's pistol; gone off by accident,” grumbled Moreno. His companion showed distrust.

“ Where is Senati?”

The enquiry could not be evaded, nor the deed concealed. It was a fight for life, and one of them must fall. Moreno was prepared for blood.

“ Asleep-there, in the corner!”

Bulvia stooped to lift the rug, and as he bent forward, Moreno plunged a knife into his heart.

Lifting the two bodies into a cart, Moreno drove into Los Angeles, and going straight to the jail, woke up the warder, told his story, showed the two dead bodies, and claimed his price. How had he [74] captured them? It was a short and brilliant tale he had to tell. Taken by Senati's band, he had been kept a prisoner in their camp, but he had waited for his chance, and last night when all the gang were out, except the Capitan and one of his fellows, he had fought and killed the thieves. No doubt arose; a hundred persons in the city knew Senati's face. For several days Moreno was a hero, living on the spoil of war; till he was fool enough to walk into a shop, and offer the stolen watch for sale.

The jeweller, who knew that watch, sent secretly for the rangers, a dozen of whom were quickly on the spot. Moreno had no chance of an escape. On being convicted of the burglary, he told the truth about his murder of the two brigands near Greek George's ranch. He got fourteen years in San Quentin for stealing the watch, but no notice has yet been taken of his more atrocious crimes.

Yet none of these brigands have acquired the fame of Capitan Vasquez, the young companion of Procopio in his flight to Mexico.

Vasquez is a greater idol in his country than Vallejo. Poets write sonnets to Vasquez, women [75] swear by Vasquez, lads aspire to rival Vasquez. Every hybrid in California would be Vasquez if he had the talent and the mettle. Lives of Vasquez, Adventures of Vasquez, Captures of Vasquez, are written for the lowest grade of Mexican and Californian readers. Vallejo is but half a hero in the eyes of his countrymen. No one is sure of Vallejo; every one is sure of Vasquez. The general may live to make more treaties, and acquire fresh honours from the stranger; but the brigand's work on earth is done, and he is lying at San Jose in a patriot's cell, waiting for the sentence that will lay him in a patriot's grave.

In Mexican eyes, a brigand is a finer figure than a soldier. Vasquez, moreover, is no common bandit. He began his acts of violence in the name of an invaded country, and committed theft and murder in the cause of an outraged race. He robbed White men, and stripped the government mails. Some people think his schemes as vast in scope as they were bold in plan. By daring much, he sought to win the confidence of all the half-breed drovers, miners, and stockmen. It is said, his bands were companies which might have swollen to regiments. [76] Some persons think he might have raised an army, and become the Alvaredo of his epoch, had he not been ruined, like so many heroes, by the beauty of a woman and the jealousy of a friend.

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