The two young men who rode over the crest of the hill were a study in contrast. One was tall and lean, his black hair curling around his ears, his dark brown eyes bright and naive. The other was an inch or two shorter, with a tight, muscular body, light brown hair clipped short, and pale blue eyes that were wary and cautious.
Ben Gorman, the taller of the two, was Jewish. The other, Thomas Brodie Culhane, was Irish. Gorman, seventeen, was the son of Eli Gorman, the richest man in the San Miguel valley. Culhane, six months younger, was the orphaned son of a deep-sea fisherman and a washerwoman.
The two young men had been playing baseball on the other side of the rise, on a ball diamond laid out on the flat, comparatively dry side of the hill. It had been a ragtag pickup game with nine boys from Milltown, ten miles away. Brodie and Ben and three of the Milltowners made one team. Five against six. But with Ben, the mastermind with the magic arm, who could throw the ball like it was a lightning bolt, and Brodie, the slugger who hit the ball with the same energetic fury with which Gorman pitched, on the same team, it was so one-sided that the losing team quit after five innings and they all headed home.
As usual, water was running down from the hills, splashing in from the ocean, falling from the sky, gravitating to the haphazard collection of buildings that called itself a town. A valley town that lay at the bottom of a high, forested ridge that surrounded a broad bay in the Pacific Ocean and that attracted water the way honey attracts a bear.
The two horses, Ben's a sleek, brown, thoroughbred stallion, Brodie's a purewhite stallion, shied away from the muddy road but even the hillside was soggy and the two boys had to keep them in tight rein so the horses wouldn't slip and fall in the slime. Brodie hated mud. Had hated it for all his seventeen years-at least as far back as his memory went. And now daily spring rainstorms had turned the mud into syrup. Even in the dry season, when the mush turned to dust and stung your eyes and got in your mouth and in the wrinkles of your clothes, it was still mud to Brodie. It conjured memories of his mother struggling over a boiling cauldron of murky water, dropping railroad workers' clothes into it and watching it turn the color of chocolate as she stirred the muddy duds.
It was a tough town they were riding into, a mile down the hill. The main street, deeply rutted and sloppy from the rains, led past a rough-and-tumble collection of bars and eateries; basic essentials like a grocery store, a hardware store, a pharmacy, and a bank; an icehouse that served the town's only industry, a fishery; and several docks to house the fishing boats. Several homes, wooden shacks really, huddled behind the main drag, shelter for the people who worked in the town and the tough rail-layers. And behind them, hidden among the trees, was a long barracks that housed the Chinese workers, who kept to themselves, had their own stores, bars, and, it was rumored, an opium parlor, although nobody knew for sure since only Asians entered its grim confines.
It was one tough town, where table-stakes poker games were played behind storefront plate-glass windows in view of God and all his children; where fancy ladies advertised their cheap allure from windows above the hardware store; where, in the middle of Prohibition, bars advertised bar-brand drinks for twenty cents and imported brands for two bits. It was a town founded by hard-boiled railroad gandy dancers at the end of the track, where the sheriff, who had once ridden with Pat Garrett, kept the peace riding down the middle of the unpaved main street with a .44-caliber Peacemaker on his hip and a strawberry roan under him.
The railroad gandy dancers, who finally had a wide-open town where they could raise hell when the grueling job of laying track was over for the day, had named it Eureka.
Eli Gorman, Ben's father, often warned the two boys to stay out of the town, to ride the ridge of the mountain on their way to and from the ball diamond, but they were thirsty and decided to get a soda pop at the pharmacy, one of the few legitimate businesses in town. To Ben, who lived in the biggest mansion on the Hill, it was an exciting adventure, a quick trip to Sodom. But to Brodie, who had been brought up in a frame house on the edge of the harsh and violent village, it merely bolstered his hatred of the entire environment.
As they approached the main street, the horses became nervous and jumpy.
The moment reminded Brodie of the day he and Ben had first met. It was at this same intersection, four years ago. Brodie was walking back from the baseball field, had his glove tucked in his back pocket. As he crossed Main Street, he saw Ben Gorman riding up the road from the beach.
Two blocks up Main, in a saloon called Cooley's Ale House, two drunks were arguing at the bar. Nobody paid much attention; drunken words and brawls were common among the hard-working railroad men. Then suddenly, one of them pulled a pistol from his back pocket and took a shot at the other. The bullet clipped an ear. The injured man backed through the swinging doors of the saloon, drew his own gun from an inside pocket, and fired a shot at his assailant, who was hit in the side. The man with the bleeding ear backed all the way out the swinging doors, shooting away as the other one charged toward him. Bolting through the door, the one who had started the gunfight was hit again and, as his knees gave out, he emptied his gun at the man with the pierced ear. They were only a few feet apart. The one with the bleeding ear was riddled with bullets. He threw his hands into the air and fell backward off the wooden sidewalk into the muddy street. The other crumpled like a paper sack on the wooden sidewalk. Both men were dead in seconds.
Down the street, Ben's horse bolted and reared up at the flat smack of gunshots. Ben leaned forward in the saddle, hauling in the reins, but the horse was totally spooked. It began to back down the hill. Brodie dashed into the muddy road, grabbed the bit on both sides of the horse's mouth, and held tight.
"Easy, boy, easy," he whispered in the stallion's ear. "It's okay, it's all over." Without taking his eyes off the spooked horse, he asked Ben, "What's his name?"
Jericho started to bolt again, lifting Brodie's feet out of the mud, but he pulled him back, still whispering, staring into the fiery, fear-filled eyes.
"Easy, Jericho, easy. It's all over. Calm down, son. Calm down."
The horse grumbled and started to back away but Brodie had him under control. He gently stroked the horse's nose.
"Got him?" Brodie asked.
"Yeah, thanks. I don't think he's ever heard a gunshot before."
"Must not spend a lot of time in Eureka."
Ben held his hand out. "M'name's Ben Gorman."
The younger boy shook the hand. "Brodie. Brodie Culhane."
They decided they deserved a soda. Ben rode his horse slowly up the street to the pharmacy while Brodie clomped beside him on the wooden decking that passed for a sidewalk, shaking the mud off his boots.
"Sorry about your shoes," said Ben.
"They was brought up in mud," Brodie answered.
They got to the pharmacy, and Ben jumped off Jericho and tied him to the hitch rail. They both looked up the next block on the other side of the street, where a crowd had gathered around the two bodies.
"I never saw a shooting before," Ben said with awe.
"Happens once or twice a month. Sometimes I pick up a dime for helping Old Stalk stuff them in the box."
"You touch them!" Ben's eyes were as round as silver dollars.
Brodie laughed. "They're dead; they don't bite."
"Two sarsaparilla sodas," Ben said and reaching in his pocket took out a handful of change and smacked four pennies on the small round table as they sat down. "My treat," he said.
As they sat down to drink their sarsaparillas, Brodie's mitt fell from his pocket, and Ben snatched it up, admiring it for a moment before handing it back.
"You a baseballer?"
"I play a coupla times a week."
"They got a diamond down toward Milltown. Kids from the school play sides-up there. One side or the other always picks me. I ain't much at catching but I can knock the ball clean out of the field if I get a bite at it. How about you?"
"No," Ben said, shaking his head and looking down at the floor for a moment. "I'm from up there," he said, jerking his thumb toward the Hill as if embarrassed to admit it. "Aren't enough kids in our little school to get one team together, let alone two. But I practice pitching. I throw at an archery target."
"You any good?"
"I can pitch a curve. I'm not much at batting but I can sure pitch." He paused a minute, and said, "Think they'd let me play?"
"Sure, specially if you can pitch. Pitchers are hard to come by. I usually go on Thursday and Sunday. I get off those days. I gotta work Saturdays."
"How old are you?" Ben asked.
"Fourteen comin' up. How about you?"
"I turned fourteen in September." They sipped their drinks for a minute or so and then Ben asked, "Where do you work?"
"I wrangle horses for the railroad. Up at end-o'-track. Get outta school at one, go to work from two 'til six. But it pays good-twenty-five cents a day."
Ben almost swallowed his straw. His weekly allowance was more than Brodie made working five days a week.
"How do you get to the ball field? Must be three, four miles over there?"
Ben thought for a moment, then said, "Tell you what, I'll meet you up at the ridge road at two on Sunday. I'll bring an extra horse."
Brodie smiled a cautious smile.
"Yer on," he answered.
Almost four years and they had been as close as brothers ever since.
"We're gonna catch it if Mr. Eli finds out we come down here," Brodie said, as the horses slogged through the mud.
"Then we won't tell him," Ben answered with a brazen smile.
"Yer old man knows everything." He paused and rephrased the thought. "Mr. Eli'll know we were in town before we get home. No way we can lie to him, Ben."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Ben reached over and slugged Brodie's arm. "Gotta live dangerously once in a while."
They reached the edge of town.
Eureka was the unfortunate legacy of a robber baron named Jesse Milstrum Crane. In 1875, Crane, a con man and gambler, escaped west to San Francisco with a trunk containing close to a million dollars, leaving in his wake a dozen irate investors in a defunct railroad line pillaged by him, one of many cons that had earned him his fortune. The heavyset, hard-drinking, womanizing swindler saw new opportunities in the wide-open western city. He bought an impressive house on Nob Hill, joined the best club, opened accounts in several of the city's biggest banks, and planned his grandest scheme yet-a railroad down the coast to Los Angeles, which he called the JMC and Pacific Line-and he offered his rich new friends an opportunity to buy into the company. His two biggest investors were Shamus O'Dell and Eli Gorman. As the tracks were laid south down the rugged coast, Crane was busy behind the scenes, scheming to steal every dollar he could from the company.
He might have succeeded, except one night his past caught up with him. As he was walking up the steps of his opulent home, a figure stepped out of the fog, and Crane found himself face-to-face with an eastern businessman he had cleaned out five years earlier.
"You miserable bastard," the man's trembling voice said. "You ruined my life. You stole everything I had . . ."
Crane cut him off by laughing in his face. "You whining little . . ." he started-and never finished the sentence.
The man held his arm at full length a foot from Crane's face and shot him in the forehead. The derringer made a flat sound, like hands clapping together. Crane's head jerked backward. His derby flew off and bounced away in the fog. A dribble of blood ran down his face as he staggered backward against an iron fence and fell to his knees. He looked up at the face in the fog, tried to remember his assailant's name, but there had been so many . . .
The second shot shattered his left eye. Crane's shoulders slumped and he toppled sideways to the sidewalk. He was dead by the time his killer fired a third shot into his own brain.
Accountants quickly discovered Crane's embezzlement, and Gorman and O'Dell took over the company, which included the sprawling San Pietro valley, ten miles west of the track and a hundred miles north of the growing town of Los Angeles. It was their decision to build a spur to the ocean and build estates on the surrounding heights. But the spur also brought with it "end-o'-track" and a raunchy honky-tonk, ten miles west on a Pacific bay, that serviced the roughnecks who did the harsh job of laying track and who settled arguments with fists, guns, or knives.
With them came the gamblers and pimps.
And with the gamblers and pimps came a hard-boiled young gangster who had learned his trade on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. His name was Arnie Riker and he soon ruled the small town with a bunch of young toughs he had brought in from the big city.
Copyright 2002 by William Diehl