One more back-breaking, mind-dulling day, and Luke Tate was homeward bound. He carved a slice from his last slab of salt pork and dropped it into the hot skillet, turning his head to keep the spatter from his eyes. In a moment he would pull sourdough biscuits from the coals. Opening a pan of biscuits in the dawn chill, filling his lungs with that heavenly aroma, thick enough to cut with a knife, was one of his more pleasurable chores, one he would miss when he got back to the farm. If he still had a farm. Six months without a letter from home.
He was unable to see through the three-deep hindrance of hats, but since alarms were rare, and he had a curious streak a mile wide, he elbowed his way to the front rank. He was not surprised to find Slade and Henry standing at the center of the ring. Calamity circled their heads like a turkey buzzard debating a dead badger. But he was shocked by what he saw at their feet.
A young man, nineteen or twenty, lay sprawled in the dust-choked wagon track, hogtied for slaughter. Dark skin, straight black hair, thin as a fence rail, homespun cotton shirt a mishmash of patches and mends, baggy pants cinched at the waist by a hemp rope, crude bark sandals, the trappings of Mexicans found to the south, around the missions. But no Mexicans worked the digs in this canyon, or for quite a ways in any direction, being not exactly made to feel welcome.
Slade poked the young man with a pointed toe. "Last chance!" he snarled. "¡Por favor, Señor!" the young man pleaded, straining against the rawhide thong binding his wrists and ankles behind his back. "¡Por favor!" Slade kicked him in the ribs. "¡Mamá!" he cried. The gunnysack Henry clutched in his outstretched hand tried to take off in several directions at once.
Stepping between Slade and the young man, Luke planted his square-toed boots and doubled his formidable fists. Slade eased back and hooked his thumbs in his vest pockets. He knew better than to pit cardsharp hands against mitts grown thick from grappling plow straps. "Ain't none o' your business, Luke," he growled, low and slow, like gravel through a sluice.
Luke glanced about the crowd. Eyes flashed like flakes of mica in a pan of black sand. The last thing he needed, one day shy of the only wagon out for a month, was to get in a pissing match with a couple of skunks. But his sense of fair play got the better of him. "You went n' made it my business, Slade. Now you untie--"
"Hold on! Me an' Henry found this Mex bedded down 'longside the creek."
"Caught 'im wif his pants down!" chortled Henry, whose mouth ran as hot as his brain ran cold.
"Doin' what?" Luke demanded.
Slade's eyeballs ricocheted off the cliffs. Henry jammed his fists so deep in his pockets his front suspender buttons popped free.
"Ain't no law 'gainst bein' a Mexican," Luke said, aiming his remark at the mob. "The land's open t' everybody, 'less somebody's got a claim staked." That was the theory, anyway. On both counts.
Slade looked like he'd just sucked a lemon, a vast improvement over his customary sneer. "Thievin', that's what! Ain't that right, Henry!" Some of the men nodded, as if what Slade said made perfect sense.
Being a Missouri farm boy, born and bred, Luke never took anybody's word for anything. "What did he steal?"
Henry dumped the gunnysack at Luke's feet. Out crawled a small, scraggly dog. Half the crowd gasped, the other half moaned. Luke gathered up the dog and cradled it like a rag doll. He boasted some of the traits of certain dogs himself. One was, once he grabbed hold, he never let go. "How do you know he stole the dog?"
Slade's face twisted like a bar towel. Henry twitched like a chicken on a chopping block. The question never would have occurred to either of them in a lifetime of heavy thinking.
"Because!" rumbled a gruff voice.
All eyes turned toward the store, the camp's only wood frame structure, and its barrel-chested proprietor, Judah Roche, the canyon's self-appointed judge. Judah, who used his porch as a platform for settling breaches of the peace, was leaping into this fray with both boots. "That dog is worth its weight in gold. How else did the Greaser come by it?"
The question sparked dry tinder in the minds of the men, who set to jabbering like a band of baboons. Strong words popped like pistol shots from the babble. Luke reckoned the young man was as good as dead, what with Judah throwing his considerable weight to a call for frontier justice. Slade would claim the dog as bounty, and Judah, to keep up appearances, would give it to him, provided a share of the ill-gotten gain found its way into his hip pocket.
Not that the dog was much of a prize, missing half an ear and most of its tail. But a dog was a dog, and a halfway decent dog was about the only guarantee a man had that what belonged to him would stay in his possession. Made for a good night's sleep, too, since native inhabitants were known to poke arrows through tent flaps, or cracks between boards, and let fly. Then there were the rats, which most dogs made sport of. And the unspoken knowledge that in tough times, a man's dog might stand between him and starvation.
As the crowd shuffled, Luke caught glimpses of the young man's face. His fright was something fierce. Not surprising, in light of the grimy, sweaty, bushy-bearded men hovering like hyenas, baring their teeth, shouting blasphemies and obscenities, blood in their eyes.
The bacon was cold, the biscuits soggy, by the time he sat down to breakfast. No matter. His appetite had scattered like a flock of quail. Nothing he could do would move the mob to think straight, even putting his own neck in the noose. Not with Judah holding the rope.
Word of the trial spread like head lice. By noon the next day, hundreds of miners milled about, spitting holes in the dust, scuffing boot heels, discussing what little they knew of the case, which was next to nothing, and placing wagers on the outcome.
Luke stowed his gear in the supply wagon, and strolled among clusters of wild-eyed men. The ones he knew had seemed decent enough on an ordinary day. Most had left families for the mad rush to California, intending to hightail it home after striking it rich. How would they tell their wives, their children, they watched the taking of an innocent life, and worse, cheered it on?
He stopped. How would he tell his wife and kids he just walked away and let it happen? How would he look himself in the mirror? He ran to the supply wagon and hauled down his gear. The teamster eyed him like he'd sprouted an extra head, then cracked the whip and flipped the reins. He stood slump-shouldered as the wagon lumbered down the track, Sacramento bound.
The odds were sixteen-to-one in favor of hanging by the time Judah raised his double-barreled buffalo gun and unloaded a round of rock salt at the noon sun. The crowd fell silent as a dead body down a deep well.
"Now the way I see it," said Judah, pacing the porch, gun slung over a shoulder, "there's just one question we need t' answer. Do we hang the Greaser, or whip 'im?"
Given a choice, Luke reckoned he would take a stout rope every time. A hundred lashes by Jumbo Belton had the same effect as a hangman's knot, but took a lot longer and caused a great deal more pain.
Jumbo's shiny nob bobbed like a glass fishing float in the ocean of black felt, polecat fur, and tanned deerhide as he worked the necktie party like a politician, pumping hands and whacking backs.
There was, of course, a third option, let the Mexican go, but Luke was not about to toss that hot potato into this pot. Some of the meanest malcontents in the Sierra Nevada had busted their butts to be here, riding mules for hours on end over steep, rocky trails.
Judah squeezed a fat finger to the second trigger. "All those in favor o' hangin', say Aye!" The clamor clapped like rifle fire between the steep canyon walls. "Done!" he thundered, waving his buffalo gun. "Get the rope!"
Shouts and whistles punctured the din. Judah broke open a barrel of beer and slapped a fancier-than-usual price tag on it, as was his custom on special occasions. The hanging rope, having been pressed into peaceful use on a block-and-tackle rig, needed reknotting. Luke reckoned he had ten minutes to work a miracle.
"Slim," he whispered, sidling up to a man who could be trusted to repeat whatever he was told. "Don't breathe a word, but somebody heard Slade an' Henry schemin' t' steal a dog down at Sutter's Mill, pin the deed on some poor dumb soul, then sell the dog t' the highest bidder. Now, is that not the lowest--" Slim was gone before he could finish.
"Preacher," he murmured to a former man of the cloth who still took Sundays off and was known never to cuss. "That young man is a God-fearin' Christian. Are you willin' t' cast the first stone?" The Preacher, who was fast friends with every Bible-packer in the canyon, scurried away before Luke could play his ace in the hole, the Golden Rule.
"Jedediah!" he shouted in the ear of the oldest man in camp, a survivor of several wars, both foreign and domestic. "You were just a pup when you got those rope burns on your neck! We have no more proof on the Mexican than they had on you!" Jedediah hobbled off in search of his fellow graybeards and brother veterans.
The Preacher, back in short order, led a contingent of converts to the foot of the stairs. "Judah," he called over the merry shouts of the beer drinkers, "we've had a change o' heart. Praise the Lord!"
"Amen!" rose a chorus of some forty voices.
Judah squinted from the porch, moving his lips as he counted heads. "Outvoted!"
"Hold on there, sonny!" yelled Jedediah, parting the crowd like a cowcatcher, elbows cocked, hands pointed dead ahead in an attitude of prayer, all the while urging the sixty or so veterans on his heels, peach-faced and wizened, to stay in step.
A down East blacksmith named Ned vaulted to the stairs. "I heard it was Slade who stole the dog!" he bellowed.
"I heard that too!" rang the growing chorus.
"He's tryin' t' pin it on a innocent man!"
"So he kin sell the dadblasted dog!"
Luke reckoned his hot potato had cooled to a tolerable temperature. "Let the Mexican go!" he shouted, crouching out of Judah's line of sight.
"Yeah!" roared the chorus.
Judah knew enough to fold a losing hand. "Untie the Greaser," he grumbled.
Breaking through the mob ahead of Slade and Henry, Luke pulled his Bowie knife and made short work of the thong. "You're free," he said, wishing he knew the words in Spanish. He bulled his way to the stairs, where Judah, cussing a blue streak, shoved the dog at him.
Slade supported the young man while he worked the blood back into his arms and legs. Henry took a few unwelcome swipes at dusting him off. All eyes followed as he trudged down the rutted track. Some thirty yards off, he turned.
Luke forgot he was holding the dog until it squirted from under his arm and ran for all its stubby legs were worth. Flying the last five feet, it took to licking the young man's face.
The mob turned to mush. Luke ran after, smiling until his face ached, talking with his hands until they felt ready to fall off, coaxing the young man back up the track until he stood in the midst of hundreds of dewy-eyed miners.
The Preacher pulled a buckskin pouch from his rucksack and waded into the crowd, putting prior experience to good use. Every man he passed poured a glittery stream of gold dust from his poke. Slade and Henry, with a prod from Jumbo Belton, were especially generous. By the time the pouch reached the hands of the young man, it looked to weigh a good five pounds.
As was his practice in a tight spot, Judah restored himself to his former high standing. "Free beer for all!" he boomed, unloading both barrels.
Luke reckoned the cheer that went up could be heard clear to Angels Camp.
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