--Margaret Coel, author of Blood Memory, Berkley
JOURNEY TO TRACER'S POINT
Tracer’s Point Valley, California, late fall 1848
Lying on his stomach in the chilling mud behind a fallen log, the miner shivered as his breath kissed the cold winter air. Two hours of rain had soaked him to the bone. His innards growled as he waited, waited for the men in the tent to fall asleep. Hands shaking and teeth chattering, all he could think about was the food he saw lying on the small round table through the open tent flaps. A piece of bread or a dry biscuit, it didn’t matter. He hadn’t eaten in four days. Money was scarce and his gold claim had shown no yellow in months. No money, no food, no place to sleep, and the constant cold rain were wearing him down. Miners were dying from dysentery and starvation. He wanted to go back home to Kentucky, but he knew that would never happen. Oh, sweet wife, why did I ever leave you for this pipe dream of gold?
Peeking over the top of the log, he noticed the oil lamp was out. Only a few more minutes, he could wait that long. He needed to be sure the two men were asleep. Finally, he rose onto his stiff knees, a blast of cold wind penetrating his worn, muddy clothes. Trembling, he pulled his shredded shirt around his shoulders. His swollen hands showed signs of chilblains. He looked at them in disgust. Maybe while he was inside, he’d steal a shirt or a jacket. A pair of socks would be nice.
Slowly he got to his feet and staggered toward the tent door. He heard loud snoring inside. Grasping the canvas, he stopped to listen one more time before entering. The short one lay on his side, the skinny one on his back.
One slushy step at a time, he made his way toward the small center table. Half a slice of bread, a few sips of coffee, and scraps of meat lay like diamonds, beckoning him. Reaching out, he grasped the cup. Placing it to his parched lips, he downed the beverage. As it hit rock bottom, he scooped the biscuit into his hands and backed out of the tent.
“You gonna take that food or pay for it,” boomed a voice behind him.
Panicking, he shouldered his way into a bear of a man who blocked his way of escape. The tent occupants, now awake, jumped to their feet.
“Kill the bastard,” yelled the short man.
“What’s he think he’s doing, stealing from us?” shoutedthe skinny fellow.
Big John stood in the doorway, clutching the thief around the chest, squeezing him tight as he picked him up off the ground.
The man wiggled and squirmed, squealing like a pig.
“Put me down. Don’t hurt me. I’m hungry. Oh, God,” he begged,“please, don’t hurt me. I only wanted a little bit to eat.”
The skinny man pulled his knife, while the short man grabbed one of the thief’s hands. The biscuit dropped into the mud. The two men laid the poor devil’s hand across the table while the big man held him in a vise grip.
“A mucker like you doesn’t deserve a full hand of fingers.”
Hysterical, the thief’s eyes widened in horror as he wailed a piercing cry, “No, no!”
Tormented screams echoed through the valley of Tracer’s Point.
John Anderson tugged his collar up to shield his neck from the chilling rain dripping off the brim of his hat. Leaden clouds hovered over the valley. Even though his slicker kept most of the rain off his buckskin, his hands were already numb and he still had two miles to Hangtown.
“Damn this weather. Not fit for man or beast. Late fall here is one nasty soggy mess.”
Approaching a bend in the trail, he heard moaning up ahead. John slipped his rifle from its sheath and made ready in case of an ambush. The trees thickened on one side as the trail began to dip into a ravine. He urged his horse forward, holding his rifle with his right hand, the butt tucked under his arm.
As he rounded a small outcropping, he spied a man nestled in the brush on the side of the trail, curled up, his knees to his chest. His shirt was tattered and splattered with blood. John dismounted and edged closer. He nudged the gaunt miner with the toe of his boot. The man moaned again, one hand bled profusely.
John laid down his rifle, reached into his jacket pocket for a handkerchief, and wrapped the man’s bloody hand. He lifted the injured man, threw him across his shoulder, then made his way back to his horse, where he placed the miner over the saddle. After retrieving his rifle, John headed toward town.
Stopping in front of Sadie’s Hotel and Bath House, he dismounted and entered the large, dimly lit lobby. “Sadie, where in the hell are you?”
She came out of the back room, carrying a stack of towels. “What’s all the yelling about, you big baboon? Can’t you tell this is an upright hotel? Keep your voice down.” She laid the towels on the chair next to the staircase. “Now what’s your problem?”
“Got a man out here bleeding to death. Need your help.”
“Somebody got himself into trouble again?” she sniffed. “Seems to be more of that going on these days since the gold played out. Why don’t ya take him to Doc Henderson?”
“He left town about two weeks ago. He’s not back yet.”
“Well, don’t stand there you long-legged galoot. Bring him in, and don’t drip blood all over my good floors.”
“The floors are only wood, Sadie,” said John, giving her a what-for look.
“Get your butt out the door and quit sassin’ me. We’ll put him in this first room down here. Now hurry before he dies on your horse. Then we’d have to explain it to that stupid sheriff we have here.”
After carefully bandaging the miner’s hand, Sadie covered him with a quilt. She picked up the water pan and all the dirty rags, including his shirt. “That’s the best I can do for him right now until Doc gets back into town. Sure is an ugly thing to do to any man, cuttin’ off three fingers.”
“What do you suppose he did to get himself mutilated like that?”
“Seems this morning, Michaels told me Winger caught a miner stealing food from his tent. Guess this is the feebleminded idiot.”
“Jeez, anyone but Winger. Well, I have to go.” John tossed some coins on the side table. “Maybe that will help him. Feed him and get him a clean shirt. Poor fool.”
John left the hotel, mounted his horse, and headed out of town. He had a plan to spring on his brother back in Virginia. Yes, a mighty good plan, but a bit devious. Whistling a snappy tune, he headed southeast to the trail across the southern part of the mountains.
Copyright 2008 by Gwyn Ramsey
Publisher: Treble Heart Books (TO BE RELEASED SOON)