December 1863. Daniel Stark, a lawyer from New York in the gold camps of Alder Gulch, in what will become Montana, joins the Vigilantes to establish the law where ruffians rule and murder is tolerated.
1: Alder Gulch
A breeze from high country snowfields flowed along the edges of winter into the valley of the Stinking Water, swept aside the horses’ tails and ruffled their manes, and carried away the sickening sweet smell of the frozen corpse riding in William Palmer’s wagon bed.
“Those heartless bloody bastards,” Palmer grumbled to the team. Ears flicked back, then forward. “Wouldn’t even help load this poor sod, whoever he is, into the wagon, would they? Didn’t bloody care, did they? ‘Men get killed every day in Virginia City,’ they said, ‘and nobody minds that, so why should we bother about this one?’ Heartless bloody bastards, that’s what they are, this poor bugger lying almost in their back yard for days. Had to manhandle him into the wagon myself, didn’t I? A nice job that was, I don’t think. Poor bastard. I need a drink.”
At Laurin’s, he watered the team, drank a whiskey at the bar, and didn’t blame Laurin none when he recoiled, gagging. “Le pauvre batard,” which Palmer took to mean, the poor bastard.
Seven miles on, where Ramshorn Creek emptied into the Stinking Water, he had another whiskey at Dempsey’s to take the smell of the corpse out of his throat. Bob Dempsey, a decent enough chap for an Irisher, reacted the same as Laurin. “The poor bastard. They left him lay?”
At Pete Daley’s, on Alder Creek, the stage driver was changing horses while the passengers stretched their legs, and lost their appetite for lunch. “Poor bastard. Who would do such a thing? They let him lie there?”
The valley floor roughened, lifted, and the sudden hills pinched together in Alder Gulch, where miners and mining camps crowded the creek side. Everyone wanted to see, some excitement to break up the dull back-killing labor of digging gold. “The poor bastard, who could do a thing like that?” With every stop Palmer grew more discouraged. Nobody knew the poor bloke, though how could anyone tell who he was? His own mother wouldn’t know him. Men bought Palmer drinks to drown his disgust. “Whoever said a frozen corpse didn’t stink was a bloody fool,” he told the horses.
At Nevada City he almost quit. Dance music from his own establishment reminded him that just that morning he’d set out happy because the day promised beautiful, more like October than December, and after delivering the beer he could do some hunting. Compromising with himself, he decided he’d drive on to Virginia City, just a mile and a half over the rise. “That bloody grouse had to bloody land right on this poor bugger’s breast, didn’t it?” The horses nodded their heads and plodded on. “The hand of Providence, it was. Too right. The hand of Providence bloody dropped that prairie chicken on this poor sod.” He’d stop after Virginia. Be buggered if he’d drive all the way up the mountain to Summit, someone should know him in Virginia, and if they didn’t, he’d bring the poor sod back to Nevada and they’d bury him proper.
* * *
Dozens of wagons and mule trains toiled up Wallace Street in Virginia City every day, loaded with the needful – canned milk, hammers, paper, nails, shovels, and silk – because the camp manufactured nothing, produced nothing, had nothing. Except gold. Unloaded, the freighters turned around and drove away empty with new orders, back over pitted roads. Below the confluence of the Stinking Water and the Beaverhead river, they turned toward Salt Lake City, 700 miles south, or toward Fort Benton on the Missouri River 350 miles north across the Continental Divide. Mostly they headed south, because the Missouri was too chancy in its flow.
So why had this wagon caught Martha McDowell’s eye, glimpsed as it was between the rump of one ox and the uplifted bellowing mouth of another, over the darky’s shoulder as he squatted to heft a hundredweight barrel of flour? Why did it seem to her to turn the corner from the road along Alder Creek and labor up Wallace in its own pool of silence like it carried the world, the two horses and the driver looking like they’d had a terrible hard road? The driver swayed, even sitting, like he was sick, or drunk. The reins drooped through his hands, and the horses walked with their heads hanging down like they couldn’t hardly take another step. Except the wagon was empty.
Martha adjusted her grip on the string around her parcel. Her bump of curiosity itched. What was the matter with the driver, the horses? She stuck her head in the door of Ma’s Eatery and called for Miz Hudson to come on out and see this.
“Thee don’t suppose it’s another typhus case?” Miz Hudson wiped her hands on her apron, her other nigger, the woman, behind her. Miz Hudson said they were free, but she’d brought them West, and Martha didn’t see why free darkies would want to stay with a white if they didn’t have to.
Miz Hudson stood a little in front of Martha, not blocking her view, because she was so short, though she weighed considerable more than Martha. If you took a measuring tape to the both of them, Martha thought, you’d get the same total of height and width, only she’d got some height and Miz Hudson got width.
The string bit into Martha’s right hand so she changed it to the left. It was a good beef roast, and everyone would relish it, Sam McDowell, the young’uns and the boarders. She’d use the rosemary Miz Hudson had given her. McDowell didn’t care about it, but she figured to please Mr. Stark. She wanted to keep his custom. It was good for the young’uns to have a gentleman putting his feet under her table. See how proper folks conducted themselves.
The wagon swung over to stop next door to Ma’s Eatery, in front of Kiskadden’s Stone Block, the biggest building in the Gulch, or that Martha had ever seen for that matter, with three shops on the first floor, a meeting room on its second floor. Its afternoon shadow blanketed the Eatery’s log cabin.
A small crowd of men, always happy for any change in their routine, blocked the women’s view, though Tabby, Miz Hudson’s other darky, being much taller, might be able to see.
“Albert,” Miz Hudson said, “do thee please see about that wagon.”
“Yes’m.” Albert left the barrel to glance into the wagon and twisted away, muttered through his teeth, “You’m don’t want to be seein’ this,” before he bolted into the shadowed alley between the Eatery and Kiskadden’s.
Over the retching sounds, Miz Hudson said, “Takes something mighty dreadful to upset a former slave.”
Tabby, the nigger gal, said, “Albert has a tender heart.”
“Oh, Lord,” said Martha. It was all she could think of, being struck as she was with two new ideas at once, that the wagon had something horrible in it, and a Negro, big and black as Albert, could have a soft heart.
* * *
The card, a queen of hearts, fluttered to a landing face up, in front of Daniel Stark. He left it there, stretched out his legs and pushed his chair back, breathing through his mouth because the man sitting between him and Gallagher wore a buffalo coat that smelled of old rotten meat. He wished the game were over. He should never have agreed to play, but Gallagher would not take no for an answer. Waiting to bet, Dan watched the room in the bar mirror. Behind the thick rope separating the dance floor from the card tables, the hurdy-gurdy dancers polka’d, their skirts flaring like red, yellow, and blue poppies, to a fiddle’s scratching, as out of tune as fingernails on a blackboard. A dancer turned a yelp into a laugh as she pretended to have a rousing good time with a clod who paid a dollar a dance to tromp all over her feet. Dan wondered if she let him do more. Maybe not. The Melodeon Hall was not a bawdy house. Con Orem ran a clean place. Then again, what the women did away from here was their own business.
Maybe . . . No, he wouldn’t have a whore for fear of the pox. Stories from the War told of a dreadful price paid for taking mercury. Until he could go home and marry Harriet Dean, Dan wasn’t likely to come any closer to a naked woman than the two carved bas-reliefs of bare-breasted women, draperies tastefully covering their loins, that flanked the long bar mirror. There Orem kept watch while he poured a fresh drink for a customer. He caught Dan’s eye and nodded in a friendly way. Dan smiled and picked up his cards. Back to business.
The cards had a greasy feel, as if too many men had held them in their hot hands, and they were worth damn-all. Nothing higher than the queen. A player folded, Sam McDowell opened for two dollars, and the next player folded. The buffalo coat stayed in, and Dan opened his mouth to fold again, when Gallagher frowned at him.
“Dammit, Stark, you ever going to bet?”
Better to lose two bucks than cross Gallagher. “Call.” Dan tossed in two white chips. Coward. Knuckle under to Gallagher. He wrestled the thought down: Where would the family be without the gold he would bring them in the spring?
“That’s better, friend.” Gallagher glared at his cards.
Friend? Dan snorted, covered it with a cough. They could have been. He’d liked Jack Gallagher on sight the minute he stepped off the express, and found Virginia City’s Chief Deputy Sheriff waiting for news. Jack was handsome, “noble-looking” as someone put it, with dark hair, a well-shaped head, and blue eyes set wide above a narrow straight nose. Even his enemies, if enemy was not too strong a word for disliking and fearing a man – and Dan didn’t quite count himself among them because his attitude to Gallagher was neither dislike nor fear, but more like caution, a looking askance, as though he hadn’t yet identified the unseen creature moving through tall grass, just that seed heads wavered above a crooked line his path would intersect – Gallagher’s enemies grudgingly allowed he could be the hero of novels, the kind bound in lurid paper covers, typographical mistakes six to the page. But Jack Gallagher had more than looks, he had an air, he attracted people. He charmed them. At first.
As he had charmed the greenhorn Dan Stark when, still shaking from a shotgun’s close-set glare, Dan had found himself at his destination after three thousand hard dry miles. He would have told Jack all about the armed robbery and how he could identify the blanket-covered robbers by their voices and ears, except that the stage driver, stumbling into him, knocked him off balance.
He had been off balance ever since.
Reading the driver’s silent warning, he made two decisions: to keep his head down and stay quiet till he got his bearings. That was one thing. The other, to keep the Spencer rifle with him at all times.
Gallagher said, “Call.” He tossed in two white chips.
The player sitting between Gallagher and Sam McDowell folded.
Gallagher gathered the cards for the last deal. Not a moment too soon. Dan sat up. He could fold and go outside. Fresh horse manure would smell better than the buffalo coat. Then Gallagher flicked a two of spades to him. A memory flashed through his mind and was gone: (Blood pooled across a polished mahogany desktop, coated the leather chair and spattered the fat law books, gray brain matter invisible on their bindings.) He’d show Father’s ghost that it was possible to play poker sensibly. Unless one of the new face up cards doubled someone’s hole card, as the two doubled his, he held the winning hand. Someone might have an ace in the hole, but he’d still win, because a lowly pair of two’s beat a lordly ace. Unless someone held a higher pair. The blood surged in his veins; a certainty told him to bet, not to fold, this was his chance, he would win.
The bets went around the table, the pot grew larger, and the players called and raised until other men stood around watching, and then a man folded, and another and another and only Dan, Gallagher, and McDowell stayed. Gallagher raised. McDowell said nothing. “Any time,” Gallagher said.
McDowell pulled a piece of paper from an inner pocket and laid it on the pile of chips.
In his hazel eyes Dan read a challenge. “What’s that?” Dan knew the answer. McDowell was plunging, like Father used to do, so sure something wonderful would turn on the next card, horse, roll of the dice, on a hunch until – (blood spreading across the desk from the ruin of Father’s gray head).
“A claim. It’s OK, except Fitch owns half, on account of he grubstaked me.” He fiddled with a button on his gray Secesh coat.
Dan could not believe it. “You’re gambling it away? It could be worth something someday. Your family –”
“They shoulda stayed to home. Hell, maybe I’ll win. Twenty dollars against this paper.” As Dan hesitated, the button came off, and McDowell threw it over his shoulder without looking. “You got the balls to make a real bet?”
Five months of keeping his head down, five months of refusing to be goaded, while their contempt grew to this: you got any balls, you yellow or something? Yeah, I’m a coward, I’m not going to fight you, you’ve got me by three inches and thirty pounds, you’re too ready with a pistol. Because where would the family be without the gold Dan would bring them in the spring? Who else would release them from poverty and disgrace? (He ran and ran, the gunshot echoing, toward the closed door at the end of the hallway receding as he ran.) Dan pitched a yellow chip onto the pile. It bounced. “Call.” He tossed in another. “And raise.” Stupid, he knew, but he couldn’t resist, he was looking at McDowell through a kind of haze. The bastard.
Gallagher tossed in two yellow chips. “Call.”
McDowell called, Dan and Gallagher both checked, and McDowell checked, and the betting was done. McDowell turned over his hole card, an ace of spades. “Beats anything you got, Stark.” Smiling wide enough to show a broken front tooth, he stretched out both hands to scoop in the pot.
Showdown. The haze evaporated, and Dan saw everything as if etched in glass: McDowell’s stained beard, a man squinting through tobacco smoke, Gallagher’s Union blue coat trimmed with deer hide, a louse crawling among the buffalo coat’s hair. “You think so?” He turned over his hole card. A bystander whooped.
“I don’t believe it.” A vein across McDowell’s forehead swelled. “A fucking pair of two’s.”
Gallagher laughed. Heads turned, and the fiddle screeched, and the dancers stopped. For a minute the only sound was his laughing, that trailed out to a high-pitched giggle, as he wiped his eyes on his shirt sleeve. “I should have known, dammit. I should have known. Stark, you son of a bitch, you can be a sly bastard at times.”
Dan smiled. “Thanks. Coming from you, Jack, that’s high praise.” Hating himself for flattering Gallagher, he stood up to retrieve the chips, the paper. Keep the objective in mind: Get the gold, survive, take it home. Even if he had to be a sycophant to Gallagher.
The fiddle launched the dancers. Talk hummed. A man at a nearby table lit a cigar.
McDowell said, “You cheated. Goddammit, you cheated.”
The fiddle player and the dancers leaped to one side of the room, out of a possible line of fire. Men near the door opened it and were gone.
Gallagher said, “No, he didn’t, Sam. Face it. You and me, we was outplayed.”
McDowell looked around at the other players.
The man with the buffalo coat said, “Gallagher’s right. He didn’t cheat.” He turned over his own hole card, an ace of diamonds. “I figured he had a pair. Nobody stays with as weak a hand as showed unless he doubles one of the cards.”
“Yeah,” Gallagher said. “I thought it might be interesting to see what he had.” The smile vanished, his eyes narrowed, and Dan thought of blue shadows on snow. “Let him go, Sam.” He used his official voice, his Chief Deputy voice, that made people call him sir.
McDowell slumped. Dan pressed his heel on the floor to keep it from drumming while he gathered in the chips. Gallagher had changed in a blink from genial to menacing, and Dan recognized the creature sliding through the grass, heard a faint dry rattling.