Authors: Phillip Margolin
For Doreen, who was with me when I started
Worthy Brown’s Daughter
, and is still in my heart
he river was insane. It boiled and surged between its banks, panicking the horses, terrifying the women and children, and forcing the men to hide their fear, which was considerable. The wagon master had ordered a halt for the night so the wagon beds could be caulked to make them watertight. As soon as the sun rose, several men tied ropes around their waists and swam the river to anchor a cable that would guide the wagons across to the far shore. The wagon master, who had taken many travelers along the Oregon Trail and knew a thing or two about fording rivers, guaranteed everyone in the party that the crossing would be perfectly safe. By the time Matthew Penny was ready, Rachel Penny was not so sure. She’d seen the river hurl huge logs about as if they were matchsticks, and none of the wagons had made it to the other side easily.
“I’m afraid,” Rachel told her husband moments before Matthew drove their wagon into the swirling waters.
“Don’t be. I’ll make it, and I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.”
“It can’t be safe to cross now,” she whispered, not wanting their friends, Paul and Mary McCormick, to know how frightened she was.
Matthew grasped his wife’s hand and held it firmly. “We’re going to be okay. Be strong. Mary needs you.”
Rachel was riding in the back of the McCormick wagon to comfort Mary, who was pregnant and ill. She wiped a tear from her cheek and threw her arms around Matthew’s neck. Over his shoulder she could see dusty plains stretching out forever beneath a slate-gray sky filled with turbulent, merciless clouds. The landscape terrified her. The last thing she said was, “I love you.”
Matthew held his wife a moment more before disengaging and taking his place on their wagon.
“See you on the other side,” he told her with fake cheer. Then he snapped the reins, and the oxen walked reluctantly into the river.
Matthew was across in no time, without adventure, and he breathed a sigh of relief when his feet were planted on solid ground. He waved at Paul McCormick, a large man who was perfectly at home steering a team of oxen across a wide river. Behind Paul, Rachel smiled bravely through a gap in the canvas. Matthew threw her a kiss. The wagon rolled, and she ducked inside.
Emotions as strong as the current washed over Matthew when McCormick drove his team into the water. He loved Rachel and could not bear to be separated from her, especially knowing how terrified she was of making this crossing. But she would make it, and he would be here to comfort her and to chide her about how silly she’d been to worry. Then he changed his mind. He would hug Rachel, but he would not tease her. She’d sacrificed too much for him to be shown anything but love and respect.
Rachel had been perfectly happy in Ohio, where they were surrounded by loving families, but Matthew had contracted the wanderlust. It had come on him like a sickness, making him hot and restless and driving him west when all Rachel wanted was what they had already. Matthew had seduced his wife with promises of a better life in an Eden that would rival the original garden, and Rachel had given up everything to follow him to Oregon.
The McCormick wagon was halfway across when the cable snapped. Matthew saw Paul half standing and the wagon teetering for an eternity in the ferocious current. Then Paul was flung into the river, arms flailing, and the wagon was on its side, headed underwater. The oxen held fast for a moment, but the power of the river and the weight of the wagon dragged them off their feet. They snarled in the reins and fought the yoke, but the river had them. A sorrowful moan rent the air just before their muzzles disappeared beneath the foaming water.
For a split second the canvas flap blew out, and Matthew saw Rachel slam against the inside of the wagon. He screamed her name and was rushing toward the riverbank when two strong men wrestled him to the ground. He was still screaming her name when the wagon disappeared around a bend in the river, and he was screaming it again when the boy Harry Chambers had sent to fetch him shook his shoulder and wrenched him out of his nightmare.
“What!” Matthew exclaimed, bolting upright. The boy jumped back. Matthew stared at him without comprehension, his heart thumping.
“Mr. Chambers needs you at the inn,” the startled boy stuttered. “He said they’re fixing to lynch the salesman, and you got to come.”
“What salesman?” Matthew asked.
“The one that stole the money.”
Matthew had no idea what the boy was talking about, but a lynching was serious.
“Tell Harry I’ll be right over,” he said, and the boy took off.
The tent flap closed, and Matthew forced himself to stand. He was twenty-nine, tall, and well built, with clear blue eyes and dark hair that hung to his shoulders. His appearance would have been considered youthful had it not been for the lines that hardship and sorrow had etched into his face. When freshly bathed and groomed and dressed in a clean, unwrinkled suit, the attorney was quite presentable. Awakened from his deep, troubled sleep after riding for hours in the sweltering heat of summer, Matthew felt awful and looked worse.
In 1860, most of the Oregon counties where court was held had no hotels. Judges, lawyers, and litigants boarded in any quarters that were available, usually a one-room pioneer cabin where they learned quickly how to change clothing in bed to avoid embarrassing their reluctant hosts. The little town of Phoenix was unusual. When rumors spread that a railroad line might pass through it, the speculators had descended, bringing instant prosperity and a need for lodging. At one end of the town’s only street was Harry Chambers’s inn, a two-story clapboard lodging house and drinking saloon. At the other end was a large canvas tent sectioned off into tiny sleeping rooms on which its owner had bestowed the grandiose name the Hotel Parisian.
Matthew Penny was one of a small group of lawyers in Portland with a private practice. There were fortunes to be made in that bustling, waterfront town of roughly three thousand souls, but real estate, shipping, and commerce were strangers to Matthew’s law office. His clients were not the wealthy merchants but small farmers and shopkeepers as likely to pay in produce or trade as in cash. This accounted for Matthew’s sleeping on a dirt floor in a canvas tent.
Matthew’s clothes and face were caked with dust, and his hair was matted across his forehead. He brushed away as much of the evidence of his travels as he was able, ran his fingers through his hair, trying for a semblance of order, and made a sorry attempt at smoothing down his clothes. Then he trudged off to the inn.
AS SOON AS MATTHEW ARRIVED
at the end of Main Street, he heard the angry murmur of the crowd milling around the oak in the field in front of the inn. Matthew hurried over to Harry Chambers, who brought to mind one of the fat geese he plumped up for his guests. His immense belly—hidden behind a stained apron—rolled like the foothills, and rings of fat circled his neck. Chambers’s sandy hair was thinning, and he sampled his wares more frequently than was advisable, so his bulbous nose was veined and red.
“I’ve been riding all day, Harry, and I’m exhausted. Why did you have that boy wake me?”
The innkeeper pointed toward a tall, gangly man who was gagged, trussed up, and held firmly by two angry farmers.
“That’s Clyde Lukens. He stole two hundred dollars from a guest at the inn.”
Chambers nodded toward a tall, rawboned man who held a length of rope, one end of which he’d fashioned into a noose.
“Abner Hardesty’s decided to fix the problem without the inconvenience of a trial, and so far you’re the only lawyer who’s arrived for court.”
, Harry, not a
“Well, someone’s got to do something, and no one would listen to me.”
Matthew sighed. “Has Lukens confessed?”
“No, he’s been screaming he’s innocent since we caught him. That’s why the gag. They couldn’t shut him up any other way.”
Hardesty threw the noose at the oak’s sturdiest branch, and the crowd roared approval. When the prisoner saw the rope drape itself over the tree limb, his eyes grew wide and he began flailing in his captors’ grasp.
The angry crowd frightened Matthew, but court would be held in the morning, and that was the place where civilized societies resolved their disputes. Matthew steeled himself and pushed through to the area shaded by the oak just as a horse was led into position beneath the noose.
“Mr. Hardesty, wait on Justice Tyler to hear these charges,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm and commanding. “The judge will be here soon. If you hang this man without benefit of trial, you’ll be committing murder.”
Hardesty turned on Matthew. “Who the
Matthew’s stomach churned, and he fought to keep from trembling. He wanted to step back. In truth, he wanted to run. But he held his ground.
“I’m Matthew Penny, sir, and I’m an attorney. Oregon has a constitution now. We’re a member of the Union. Our courts are organized, and we have no need of lynch juries.”
Hardesty spit at Matthew’s feet. “That’s what I think of the courts. We don’t need ’em here.”
A pistol shot brought everyone around, and Matthew found himself facing the Honorable Jedidiah Tyler.
From a distance, it would not have been unreasonable to mistake Justice Tyler for a fierce black bear. He was short and stocky, with massive shoulders. His large head was covered by dark, slicked-back hair and supported by a thick neck. Bushy eyebrows and a woolly beard covered most of his broad, flat face; and sharp, glinting eyes and a vicious hairline scar cemented an impression of animal ferocity that made his visage as terrifying as his courtroom demeanor. Tyler was a hard man with a wicked temper. More than one litigant had threatened his life, and he never held court without a pistol close at hand.
As soon as he had the crowd’s attention, Tyler planted himself so that he looked as immovably rooted to the ground as the tree before which he stood.
“I’m Jed Tyler, a justice of your supreme court,” he bellowed. Then he turned and faced Hardesty, who was five inches taller than the judge and lean and dangerous looking.
“What is your name, sir?” Tyler demanded.
“Abner Hardesty,” snapped the leader of the lynch mob.
“Well, Mr. Hardesty, this is my judicial district, and there will be no lynching in it. This man will receive a fair trial.
he is convicted,
will decide his punishment.”
district, mister. It’s
town, and this son of a bitch is gonna hang.”
The moment Hardesty tacked the period onto his belligerent pronouncement Tyler hammered the butt of his pistol against the hangman’s skull. Hardesty’s eyes bulged, and he sank to his knees before toppling over, unconscious. Tyler leveled his pistol at the crowd.
“Harry,” the judge ordered calmly, “escort the prisoner to the inn and lock him in the storeroom.”
“Stand back,” Chambers hollered as he rushed to Tyler’s side. “Let’s do this legal, like the judge says. If this fella is guilty, he’ll get what’s coming to him in Jed Tyler’s court.”
Tyler’s thunderous blow and loaded pistol had tipped the scales in favor of a fair trial, and the men holding Clyde Lukens made no move to challenge the judge’s authority. When Chambers told them to bring the prisoner to the inn, they followed the innkeeper across the field with the salesman in tow.
Matthew felt weak-kneed as the adrenaline that had kept him upright dissipated. He said a silent prayer of thanks for the judge’s intercession and started back to his place of lodging. Before he had taken two steps, Tyler stopped him.
“This man will need counsel, Mr. Penny, and you will serve in that capacity.”
Matthew wanted to protest. He already had a client, and he needed time to prepare his case. But Tyler had a long memory, and Matthew would have to be crazy to defy the judge if he wanted to practice law in Oregon.
“Very well,” Matthew said, but Tyler was no longer listening. Matthew followed the judge’s gaze and saw that he was looking at a full-figured woman whose oval face was framed by ebony ringlets that were in sharp contrast with her milk-white complexion. The woman’s lips were pursed in disapproval, and there was no doubt in Matthew’s mind that her piercing green eyes were studying the judge. Then the frown turned into a smile of respect, and she nodded at Tyler before walking away.
DURING THE EVENING, THE NOISY
bar/dining room that took up most of the ground floor of Harry Chambers’s establishment was poorly lit by lanterns that cast shadows everywhere. Farmers, townspeople, litigants in Phoenix for a trial, and traveling salesmen packed the oak tables and bellied up to the long bar. Beer and hard liquor slopped onto the sawdust that covered the wood-plank flooring. The din made conversation almost impossible.
Chambers knew that this atmosphere was not fit for the better class of clientele to whom he occasionally catered, so there was a small room at the rear of the inn where his more refined guests could dine. A master carpenter had crafted the chairs and tables, a Persian rug that Harry had won in a poker game covered the floor, and a genuine crystal chandelier from Paris, France, hung from the ceiling. The chandelier was the pride of Phoenix and as out of place in the clapboard inn as a pig on silk sheets. More than one tough-as-nails mountain man had sneaked down the corridor from the bar to peek at it. The town’s great mystery was how Harry had obtained it. Many had asked him, and his versions of the acquisition were varied, fanciful, and usually unbelievable.