He brushed the cracker crumbs from his bristly gray beard and pulled his watch from his vest pocket. With the moon on the rise in the twilight of Nov. 20, 1880, he could see it was just past seven.

He brushed the cracker crumbs from his bristly gray beard and pulled his watch from his vest pocket. With the moon on the rise in the twilight of Nov. 20, 1880, he could see it was just past seven.

The coach lanterns had crested the hill and he waited as they bounced down the road toward him. He could always see the glow of the lamps long before he ever heard the horses.

He buttoned the long white duster down to his boots, then pulled the flour sack over his head, adjusted the eye holes and topped it with his derby hat.

When the coach was just a few hundred feet away he stepped out of the brush and stood in the middle of the road. The barrel of his 12-gauge shotgun winked in the dim light and caught driver Joe Mason's attention.

Mason pulled hard on the reins, pushed his foot to the brake and the coach stuttered to a stop in a swirl of dust, the harness jangling and the apprehensive horses snorting.

"If you'd be so kind," said the masked man in a deep, almost echoing voice, "please throw down the box."

Mason tried to make light of his predicament.

"Nothing worth anything here," he said. "You want the stage coming down from Jacksonville, not this one."

"I don't agree," said the robber, tilting his shotgun up toward Mason's chest. "The box and the mailbag — now!"

Mason handed down the mail, but told the robber he couldn't pull the express box out from under the seat unless he was on the ground.

"You'll have to pull it out, yourself," said Mason.

The masked highwayman stepped on a spoke of the wheel and reached under the seat, grabbing for the express-box handle, when something caught his eye.

He looked up to see Mason swinging a hatchet at his head.

In the nick of time, he jumped to the ground and ran into the bushes, the shuffling sound of his boots disappearing in the dark.

Mason was barely a half-mile from Cole's Station, and nearly on the California-Oregon border. Here, stagecoach passengers either took a break or spent the night, while the coach was prepared for the steep climb up the Siskiyous into Oregon.

The next day the mailbag was found cut open, but nothing of value seemed to be missing.

It wasn't until three years later, when the "gentleman bandit and poet," Black Bart, was arrested and sent to San Quentin, that Mason discovered who had tried unsuccessfully to rob him.

Black Bart had been more successful in Oregon two months earlier, robbing a coach on two successive evenings near the Siskiyou Summit. Although Wells Fargo wouldn't confirm it, the Jacksonville newspaper said about $1,000 in gold dust vanished in each of those holdups.

Charles Boles, aka Charles Bolton, but best known as Black Bart, was sentenced to six years in the penitentiary, but with "good behavior" he served only four. Then, like a thief in the night, he quietly disappeared into legend.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.