Authors: Glen Davies
© Glen Davies, 1992
Glen Davies has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 1992 by Judy Piatkus (Publishers) Ltd.
This edition published in 2016 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
For Owain and Anghard for love and support and cups of tea
and in memory of John
Many thanks to the staff, past and present, of Bourne End Library, the Historical Society of Sacramento, California and my family and friends.
Table of Contents
The normally bustling heart of San Francisco was deserted. On every shop or saloon doorway hung a notice: ‘Gone to see the hanging’.
Down on Sacramento Street the powerful late spring sun burnt away the sea mists round the former Mills and Vantine warehouse, the Vigilantes’ new Fort Gunnybags. There was an air of tense expectation as men, women and children in their thousands jostled for position beyond the eight-foot high protective wall of sandbags. Shopkeepers and tradesmen mingled with bankers, gamblers, miners and saloon girls in the vast swaying and murmuring crowd. They had come to see Cora and Casey hang.
On the roof of the Fort between cannon and field artillery pieces stood the old fire bell which had summoned the Committee of Vigilance of 1856 to bring belated justice to San Francisco; watchful men with rifles at the ready scanned the nearby rooftops and the crowd below, on the alert for a last-minute attempt by Casey’s friends to stop his execution for the murder of James King, the crusading newspaper editor. Three thousand Vigilance troops in the town would ensure that Casey and Cora would not this time escape the hangman’s noose. It was Cora’s acquittal of cold-blooded murder after a mockery of a trial rigged by his brothel-keeper mistress’s money that had led the citizens of San Francisco to take the administration of justice into their own hands and they would not be baulked again.
Boos and catcalls echoed around the broad street as Casey, politician and County Supervisor until King revealed him as a former inmate of Sing-Sing, made his last speech to the crowd.
At last the two men were led out on to hinged platforms built outside the second floor windows. A noose was put around each neck, a white cap slipped over each head.
A Vigilante soldier leaned out of each window, knife in hand, ready to cut the ropes supporting the traps as soon as King’s funeral cortege was sighted. All eyes swivelled to the Union Street junction to await the signal.
A man, hat pulled down over his eyes, collar turned up despite the sweltering heat, slipped around the corner to the rear of the Fort, shielding the small child by his side from the gruesome scene.
Round the back, where the cavalry and artillery horses were stabled, a man clad in the black frockcoat and top hat of the doctor lounged against a hitching rail. At the far end of the yard was a dusty farm cart with an elderly carthorse hitched to it.
‘Here child!’ The doctor held out a red, shiny apple. ‘Go sit under that tree while we talk.’
The child, clutching to her a rag doll, looked briefly up at her companion for confirmation. He forced a smile and nodded. She took the apple and trotted off with her prize.
‘Dead?’ he asked in a fearful whisper.
The doctor mopped his sweating forehead. ‘No, not dead,’ he replied in the clipped tones of the New Englander. ‘Despite that fearful Chinese concoction you tricked the jailers into giving her.’ He caught the look of consternation on the other man’s face. ‘Don’t think I didn’t know what caused the miscarriage,’ he growled in exasperation, running skeletal fingers through prematurely white hair. ‘But there’s a greater danger now. The Vigilantes have taken all the prisoners from the jail; they’re for trial. Those charged with murder First.’
‘And one hanging only whets the appetite for another.’
‘The mood the mob’s in today, they won’t care about justice.’ The doctor shrugged. ‘I’m no judge, but I can’t believe she deserves to hang.’
‘What can I do?’ It was a despairing whisper.
‘Already done it!’ the doctor announced with glee, then had to turn away to stifle a racking cough. ‘They knew she was sick — I told ‘em so. Weren’t too surprised when I told them she’d died. Jailer’s seen the corpse, seen the grave, signed for her.’
‘Don’t worry. I paid him off. He won’t talk. Now you’ve got to get her out of here. Help her forget. I’m sure you got another concoction for that,’ he said with a rueful smile. ‘Get her clear away from San Francisco, up into the hills where the air’s better. Try and get work up on one of the
— they’re always looking for servants and hands.’ He drew out a handful of letters. ‘I already got some from the agencies.’
‘How can we thank you?’
‘Ain’t no need.’ He limped across to the cart and raised the horse blanket a fraction. ‘See, she’s fine for a few hours yet on the laudanum. Take the cart out to Murphy’s on the stage road, and leave it there. Get on the stage and then I don’t want to know where you go from there. Savvy?’
‘Why are you doing this for us?’
The black-clad figure shrugged again. ‘The kid, maybe.’ He looked across gravely to the skinny child, playing in the dust with her rag doll. ‘Or one last good deed before I die.’ He gave an unpleasant laugh, devoid of all humour. ‘Look at me!’ He pointed to his yellow face and bloodshot eyes. ‘My cough, my skin. I’m yellower’n you are! You know as well as I do ‘bout these things. A few months, mebbe even a year — depends whether my liver gives out first or my lungs. And I didn’t get neither from porin’ over my books. Guess I’d like to make up to the Lord for some of the things I’ve done I ain’t too proud of …’
A bell tolled, mournful, solitary. Then all the bells of San Francisco answered.
‘Don’t stand here gossiping!’ urged the doctor. ‘Soon as they cut those ropes, there’ll be all Hell let loose. Get outa here and hightail it to the stage road!’
On Sacramento Street, one of the watchers on the roof spotted King’s funeral cortege leaving the Unitarian Church a block away and gave the signal. Two men reached out and cut the ropes of the traps and a great roar went up from the crowds below.
As the bodies of the hanged men swung in the gentle breeze that came off the ocean, the little cart drew out of the town and headed north.
It was an unusually hot day, a promise of the hot summer still to come. Down in the Sacramento Valley, a distant view through the clumps of ancient oaks, the heat haze already hung over the mighty river and above it the distant jagged peaks of the Sierras reared up, snow-topped, against a shimmering backdrop of dazzling blue sky.
The group of men who stood on the
, the verandah which ran the length of the old Spanish-style building, had the air of men who had fulfilled a distasteful but unavoidable task and were all relieved to be done with it.
Under normal circumstances, the minister would never have considered riding out all this way to perform the last rites for one who, when all was said and done, had been a foul-mouthed scoundrel who had made himself obnoxious to everyone from Sonoma to Sacramento and had, in all likelihood, never set foot inside a house of God in his life, but, as the minister’s sister had wisely pointed out, these were not normal circumstances, nor was California, the newest of the United States of America, in any way a normal place. The Spanish influence still lingered on, even seven years after the Mexicans had ceded the territory, and Protestants were decidedly in the minority.
Besides, he had nothing against the Colonel, apart from the fact that he had left the ranch in such unworthy hands while he wasted his time and money in San Francisco. And it had been the Colonel who had sent for the minister to perform the burial. Some cock and bull story there had been that said the dead man was in some way related to the Colonel, but the minister could not believe that. There was no further resemblance between them than that they were both dark and both spoke English with the same accent. But there it ended: the Colonel was a tall, quiet man of whom he had heard no ill spoken, whereas Jem had been a paltry man, loud-mouthed, immoral and too ready with a gun. In less than a year, he had brought the splendid ranch the Colonel had entrusted to him to a sorry state, despite one of the best years since the state was settled.
What the Colonel thought of his deputy’s achievements it was hard to tell; his face was curiously immobile, apparently unmoved by the loss. Apart from a few curt words to Kerhouan in that peculiarly liquid speech that only they seemed to understand, he had said very little throughout the mercifully brief service or the scratch funeral meal that had followed.
Reverend Cooper sighed in relief as he saw Kerhouan, the Breton foreman, bringing his horses and buggy around the corner from the stables. The ranchhouse was in such a dreadful state that he preferred, despite the heat, to drive back to Sacramento, to eat one of Letitia’s excellent suppers and sleep in his own clean bed.
The young boy Manuel called out something in Spanish and gestured down the dusty track. Toiling up it in the heat of the afternoon came a woman and a tall man with a child on his back. From the thick layer of dust on the woman’s skirts, they had come some distance that day. Against the sun’s rays, they wore the wide, half-domed, plaited straw hats of the Chinese coolie.
‘Mr Cornish?’ The woman approached them hesitantly while the man lowered the child from his tired shoulders and stood aloof.
The rancher nodded. One did not insist on titles out here in the wilds.
‘I am the new housekeeper.’ Her voice was harsh and low, edged with fatigue.
Cornish drew his brows together in a frown. By her voice she was too old for a housekeeper, too old to travel half across the county for work. The wide coolie’s hat shaded her face, making it difficult for him to make out the features, but by her dress and accent she was not Oriental, which the man, despite his height, clearly was.
‘I answered the advertisement.’ She was speaking rapidly now, an edge of anxiety overlaying the exhaustion. ‘We sent references.’
He looked at her with a heavy frown creasing his forehead, but still he did not answer. She began to rummage desperately in the canvas bag that hung from her thin, stooped shoulders. ‘Here!’ She thrust the letter into his unwilling hands.
He opened it with reluctance, for at the sight of the handwriting he realised what he would find there.
In a scrawl barely legible and hardly literate, Jem Cornish of the Tresco Ranch offered the applicant the post of housekeeper on bed and board terms, wages to be discussed later ‘if satesfaktry’. Wordlessly he handed the letter to the Reverend Cooper, who glanced over it and could barely suppress a grim smile. Jem Cornish had been finely misled, he concluded. If he had survived, it would have been just retribution on him to have this gaunt, stooped creature for housekeeper; retribution for the local Indian and Mexican girls he had abused and ill-treated and estranged from their own people. Bed and board indeed!
‘Is something amiss?’ The woman’s voice, raw with fatigue, drew the minister sharply back to the present.
‘Jem Cornish — the man who wrote you this letter — is dead,’ he said gently. ‘And Colonel Cornish —’
‘— has no need of a housekeeper,’ said the rancher harshly.
‘I can work well,’ she replied, her voice staccato in her eagerness to convince him. ‘I can cook and mend, keep house, work in the fields.’ Then, as he made no reply, she turned back to the minister. ‘I’m stronger than I look, really I am. I can work in the fields if you need extra hands for the harvest. And Chen Kai is a good worker too. We would well earn our keep.’ She did not mention the child, who sat silently on the lush green grass, blue eyes wide in her grubby face.
Cornish turned to the woman’s companion, standing quietly to one side.
‘And the child — is it yours?’ he demanded, and was rewarded with a scornful look.
‘The child is of your race,’ came the brusque answer.
‘Which company holds your indentures?’
‘No company has claim on me,’ said the man proudly, holding his head high. ‘I am a free man. I go where I please and work for whom I please.’
Cornish raised his eyebrows in surprise. Virtually every Chinese who came over to California was an immigrant indentured to whichever merchant company had paid for his passage.
‘Chen Kai-Tsu is a well-educated man,’ said the woman, anxious to please. ‘He speaks excellent English …’
‘So I hear.’ The rancher folded the letter and handed it back to her. ‘There’s no need here for a housekeeper, but an extra hand’s always useful. He can cook for the men while we get Tresco working again.’
Ever since the first Chinese had come in ‘49, the myth had grown that they were good cooks and launderers. The truth was that, in a land starved of women, the Chinese, ever mindful of their debts to the merchant companies, would turn their hands to whatever work they could get. So they ended up with the jobs that the Spanish-Americans, jealously guarding their pride and masculinity, would not consider even if they were starving.
‘Sir, I assure you, the lady is a far better cook than I,’ he said anxiously.
‘Standard of cooking don’t bother me. I need a man who can turn his hand to anything. No place here for women and children. You take the job, I’ll pay her fare back and something for her trouble.’
‘But, Corr-onel, I promise you, she is strong enough to take on anything when she has had enough to eat. See, we’ve just walked all the way from One Horse Town …’
The rancher shook his head and turned away.
The woman clutched her companion’s hand. ‘Take it, Kai,’ she begged him. ‘Please! Or we’ll all starve. At least this way you’ll have a place.’
‘You must.’ She looked scornfully at the rancher, his back turned as he spoke to the minister. ‘He’ll never take a woman on. But we’re far enough away now to be safe. I’ll find something in Sacramento: it’s booming since they named it the capital. There’ll be shops and stores … I’ll manage. Colonel Cornish?’ She moved away before her companion could argue any further. ‘Thank you, Colonel. Chen Kai will be happy to take the position.’
He raised his eyebrows at her elegant speech. Was she a lady’s maid? he wondered. What was she doing out west with a young child? Of course, there might have been employment for her if Bella had married him instead of … He closed his mind firmly to that train of thought.
‘I’ll pay your fare,’ he offered stiffly. ‘San Francisco is …’
‘No! No, never again!’
Such vehemence. Were they running from the law or the Vigilantes? he wondered. And was it the woman or the man? In this wild and comparatively lawless society the one was as likely as the other; gambling, women and drink always proved a lethal combination.
‘Try Sacramento then,’ suggested Cornish indifferently. ‘Plenty of work there. Or Washington on the other bank. Old James McDowell’s widow runs the place. Plenty of saloons,’ he said casually, ‘so they always need women.’ Even worn-out husks like this one, so great was the shortage.
He glanced across at her as he spoke and was surprised to receive a piercing, almost contemptuous glare from beneath the brim of that battered straw hat.
He turned away, uncomfortable, speaking more brusquely than he had intended. ‘Better make up your mind. Reverend Cooper’ll give you a ride there, but the horses are getting restless in this heat.’
Cornish stood back and watched the Chinaman hand the woman into the gig and swing the child easily on to her lap. He held on to the woman’s thin hand, reinforcing his earlier impression that she was his woman.
Unexpectedly embarrassed by their touching farewell, he turned away sharply. Striding into the ranch house, he swept the last remnants of the funeral meal into a leather satchel that hung behind the door.
The Chinaman was still standing by the gig as he emerged. ‘Send me your location as soon as you can,’ he said in that curiously correct, almost unaccented English he spoke. ‘I will get in to see you as soon as I can. There will be supplies to be fetched from the city, be sure. But if you or the child need me, or if there is any trouble, you send here for me.’ As she hesitated, his voice grew harsh. ‘Swear it,’ he insisted.
‘Oh, Chen Kai! Better for you to forget all about us. I have only ever brought you trouble.’
‘Swear it!’ he commanded sternly.
She muttered something too low for Cornish to make out, but it seemed to satisfy her companion.
He stepped forward to shake the minister’s hand and dropped the leather bag alongside her shabby bundle on the boards of the gig. A flick of the whip and they were off, along the winding, dusty track that led down into the bottom of the valley.
The Chinaman watched until they disappeared from sight through the stand of trees. Then, face expressionless, he turned back and picked up his pack.
‘Kerhouan will show you where you sleep,’ said the rancher. ‘It’ll be a shakedown in the barn at first. Then you can start clearing up in the house. There’s a deal of hard work needed to get this farm back on its feet again. If you’re planning on staying, best show what you’re worth.’