“With Hangtown Creek, John Putnam produces elements of the classic Western reminiscent of tales such as Lonesome Dove. Instead of an epic cattle drive, Putnam uses his detailed knowledge of the California Gold Rush to weave a story of intrigue and adventure.” Rome Collier
The earth, rutted deep from hundreds of wheels, churned raw by thousands of hooves, bore witness to the recent passing of a large immigrant party—all save one battered wagon that sat alone and untended, a loose pot clanking in the cold north wind. Here the trail followed the Truckee River, strangled by a long, dry summer into a trickle of shallow pools, and looking as pitiable as the forlorn wagon.
But on the horizon ahead the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada beckoned bright in the chill blue September sky. There, below the granite spires, a high mountain pass waited, the last great obstacle on the long journey to California. A traveler who failed to cross that pass before the winter snows snapped it shut would be in a hopeless situation, and those snows would come at any time. The rest of the party had hurried on. Stragglers would be left behind, and this wagon was a straggler.
For days he had dogged the caravan’s track, watching, waiting. With shirt and pants of buckskin and a coat of sheepskin, he was dressed more as an Indian than a white man. But his hat, flat-topped and wide-brimmed, was like those worn by the whites west of the mountains though the eagle feather in the beaded band was a personal touch. Burned dark by the sun, he was neither white man nor red, but a singular mixture of both.
His horse was shod and bore a sturdy Mexican saddle. Cradled in his arm he carried a powerful Hawken rifle. The bone handle of a large knife stuck out from his boot, a brace of single-shot pistols from his waistband. Completely at home in this wild, remote land he was truly a mountain man.
He called out a hello as he dropped from his horse. There was no reply, save a weary snort from the poor mare tied to the tailgate. The animal was skittish and shied from his advance. “Easy girl. Easy, now.” He talked softly to calm her. Slowly he put his hand on her tether and pulled. “Settle down now.” He leaned the rifle against the wagon and let the mare smell his free hand. When she calmed he stroked her nose until she gentled. “That’s a good girl.” He led her to the stream and let her drink her fill.
Back at the wagon, he peered over the tailgate. A powerful stench filled his nose. Cholera! A man and boy lay dead on a cot near the back. Ignoring them, he climbed up and rummaged through the family’s belongings. He took tools, knives, and cooking gear and wrapped them in a blanket. What money he found went into a leather pouch slung across his shoulder.
At the front of the wagon he saw a woman stretched across the driver’s seat. Clearly the cholera had her too, but she had clear eyes and a strong heart. He pulled her from the seat, ripped her dress away, stripped her soiled undergarments, and carried her to the river to wash away the effects of the sickness. He worked fast, for this was the wasting disease, often taking people within hours.
If she survived the cold stream she might live, and he wanted her to live. Never had he seen such a woman. Her fire-red hair and eyes as green as a blade of new spring grass were unknown on either side of the great mountains. She would be worth much to the man who had her. He rolled her in a blanket and left her in the sun to warm while he freed the oxen from their yoke. The gaunt animals lumbered towards the water they had needed for too long.
From saplings by the river he made a travois and lashed it to the mare. On it he put the woman and the loot. Then he returned to the wagon and spread the oil from several lamps and lit it. The wagon burst into a raging inferno, devouring everything the young family had struggled to ferry across this vast continent, as well as the bodies of the husband and son who had struggled in vain.
From his pouch he pulled a small talisman and tossed it on the ground near the flames. The local Piutes would soon see the smoke and come. They would take the cattle to help through the long winter, and the talisman would tell from whom this gift of meat had come. To live in this rugged land good relations with one’s neighbors were a must, and he was welcome on both sides of the mountains. With the mighty peaks of the Sierra Nevada ahead, he mounted his horse and, leading the mare, hurried west along the rutted trail beside the Truckee River.