December 1863. In the gold camps of Alder Gulch, where ruffians rule and murder is tolerated, can desperate methods establish the law? Attorney Daniel Stark joins a Vigilance Committee and bets his life that they will.
The Swan Range
In the gold fields of Alder Gulch, during the winter of 1863-1864, ruffians rule and murder is tolerated. Daniel Stark, New York lawyer and radical abolitionist, sees only one solution that will let him survive to take his gold home and redeem his family from the disgrace of his father’s embezzlement and suicide. When a friend is murdered, Dan prosecutes the suspected killer, whose five lawyers are Confederates. The trial reveals a widespread criminal conspiracy, and Dan joins a Vigilance Committee that unites Union and Confederate sympathizers in the cause of law and order. As Vigilante prosecutor, Dan faces the horrible prospect of hanging both a friend and the husband of a woman he has come to love.
Dan stepped over the threshold of Williams’s livery barn into sun-streaked darkness. Pausing to let his eyes adjust, he inhaled the good smells of hay and horse manure. Horses in their stalls pricked their ears at him, and satisfied, went back to munching their hay. One nickered softly.
“Mr. Stark? Is that you?”
Dust floated in streaks of sunlight between the vertical wall boards. Back lighted, she was a shadow among shadows in a vacant stall. “Yes, it is I. Dan Stark.” He disgusted himself, how stilted he sounded, but he could find no middle ground between seizing her in his arms and treating her with freezing formality. He stepped forward, mindful of where he put his feet. Because she stood against the sunlight, he could not see her face, but he could not mistake the shape of her, or her voice. Seeing her in this barn felt like an assignation, but it could not be. She was not so brazen. A respectable woman, no hussy. Mrs. McDowell. Martha. If he could just once call her by her name.
“This stall’s empty,” she said, “in case someone comes in.”
Her voice was soft, uncertain. He towered over her, leaned toward her, and the rifle slid around so that it hung between them. In his own ears, his laugh sounded like a horse’s whinny. He took the weapon off his shoulder, leaned it against the stall partition. She came close, to whisper to him. He hoped she would not think he was – what he was, because he wanted her, oh God, so much.
“How’s your hand today?”
She had not come all the way over from Virginia to ask about his hand. “I think it’s some better, thank you.” He felt his body yearning toward her. “Is there something I can do for you?” Name it, he wanted to say, just name it. Anything. My life.
“You know that murder on the main road a couple of weeks ago?”
Bending a degree or two more, as if to hear her better, he smelled mint on her breath. Never perfume so fine. “Yes. Long John testified a while ago that Ives did it.”
Her posture changed, shoulders rounded, and her chin dipped to her breastbone, as if she had braced herself for a difficult task, and found it all for nothing. He wanted to put his finger under her chin and kiss away her disappointment, sought something to say, and found himself explaining hearsay to her when that was furthest from his wish.
She stood straight, tipped her face up to look him in the eye. “I don’t know as how this’ll help, but there’s a woman, Tabby and me, we took care of her boy today, what has the typhus. She, uh, works at Fancy Annie’s, name of Isabelle Stevens. She said that George Ives was bragging there that he done that killing. Said he called himself the ‘Bamboo Chief.’”
“Good God. He bragged about it? To her?” Dan’s mind raced along twisting trails of thought. This corroborated Long John’s testimony, but it was hearsay, too. And the trail branched off into another idea: Ives had bragged about that killing. He had bragged about killing Nick. Did he want fame as a corsair of the road? Like a cheap novel? If so, the trial was making him famous. He was getting what he wanted.
“Not to her. She don’t think he knows she heard him. She said he bragged to a, a – ”
She stammered, as if she were embarrassed, thinking how to describe the situation. “A companion?” Dan suggested, to help her. The blood throbbed in his temples, and he hardly dared breathe. If he was right, this was corroboration and it was not hearsay. He pictured how it might have been, one couple on each side of a flimsy partition on the saloon’s second floor, but the Stevens woman had a crib and didn’t have to use one of the rooms upstairs. Or perhaps she and the man had wanted to be quick, so they used one while Ives and his whore had the other.
“Yes, thank you, he bragged to her that he was the ‘Bamboo Chief’ what done it. The Stevens woman won’t speak up. She daren’t.”
“Of course not.” Good God!
Corroboration, indeed! That’s what this was, but not admissible in court unless they found the other man, the man who had been making use of Isabelle Stevens. It didn’t matter that the Stevens woman was too frightened to testify. They had banned women from the jury because women, with their infernal sensibility, had wept and cried over hanging Stinson and the others for Dillingham’s murder, and that gave Smith his chance to manipulate the crowd and free them.
“I guess I didn’t need to come, then,” she said.
“No, why do you say that?”
“Because even knowing about this, there’s nothing you can do with it.”
“No, that’s not true. Do you know the name of the man the Stevens woman was consorting with?”
“I think his name was something like Marvin or Martin. Like that.”
“Maybe we can find him and persuade him to testify about it.”
“I best be getting back. I’m sorry I troubled you with something so useless.”
“No, it’s good you came. It corroborates Long John’s testimony. We’ll look for this man.” And then, somehow, persuade him to testify.
“Won’t it be hearsay?”
His face relaxed into a smile. Uneducated though she was, she understood the concept immediately. “No. His testimony would not be hearsay, because he overheard Ives. Ives did not tell him. It will be admissible. The judge will accept it without question.”
“All right. Then I guess it’s all right I come – came today.”
He allowed himself to touch her upper arm. “Thank you. You have helped a great deal.”
“I have? I thought you’d – ” She broke off. “Morton. Pete Morton. That’s the man.”
“Thank you!” He could have hugged her, but did not dare because he would not be able to stop himself, the hug, the kiss, the – “I think you are a very courageous woman, and I’m honored to have your acquaintance.” The formal sentence bumped off his tongue, a pale shadow of what he wanted to tell her, as his brief touch had been a mild and unsatisfactory hint of his wishes.
“I should go out first.” As she passed by him, she reached for his arm, as if to steady herself, and her fingers trailed down his sleeve, set fire to his arm. She touched the bandage. “You take care of that, now.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He waited a time, enough for them to be gone, before he left the barn through the small front door where Jacob waited. His thoughts spun, as if some centrifugal force would throw them from his brain. The flame at her fingertips, why Ives was at Long John’s place, corroboration for Long John’s statement, her small strong arm in his hand, why the trial did not frighten Ives. Because of Thurmond’s error, they could bring in Ives’s previous crimes, and now they had the name of a witness to find. Pete Morton.
Thanks to Martha McDowell.