JUNE 3, 1887
Maybe I'll catch a sturgeon,” Nell Vincent told her father. “Maybe two.”
Nell held up a twist of frayed red yarn.
“Good choice,” said Joe. After five days of rain, the Snake River was running fast and high. The white sturgeon that trolled its depths grew eighteen feet long and could weigh a ton.
Well, nothing beat experience. Nell was small for twelve but hardy, with straight brown braids that fell nearly to her sash and freckles no buttermilk wash could dim.
“Or maybe I'll start with some trout, and work up.”
They smiled at each other. Half-dried mud covered the Vincents' best picnic spot, and over on the Washington shore, piles of brush and fencing clogged sandbar and cove. But Nell loved to fish, and Joe figured his youngest deserved a treat, even a medal. Her older brother Lon had spent the week of rainstorm sleeping, her sister Letty, sulking. Nell wanted to collect salt and turtle eggs and homestead in a cave, like the Swiss Family Robinson; she had it all planned.
Beside a young cottonwood, his daughter spread their smuggled feast: six ham biscuits and a jar of lukewarm lemonade. Joe did his best, then stretched out in the patchy shade to recover. A pity he had not brought along some bismuth powder.
Nell watched her father sleep. He was a neat, durable man with a shock of coarse gray-brown hair and a lined, clean-shaven face. At the moment he was snoring lightly. He would turn fifty-seven this year and needed his rest. Nell saw no reason to wake him and no reason to wait. She scrambled down the bank and threw out the silk line, swinging it toward open water. To the west, morning sun warmed the low dun hills to copper and gold.
Joe lay on the carriage rug, keeping an eye on her out of habit, but Nell was old enough to cast unsupervised. He went back to sleep, for real this time. Tethered beside the buggy, his bay saddle mare, Trim, nosed at a stand of red willow.
Ten minutes later, Nell felt the hook catch and tug. The rod bent low, then lower.
“Pa, bring the net! I got a big one!”
“Take your time,” Joe said, watching a jay stalk the last biscuit. Nell's estimates ran high. Then he heard her agonized whisper.
He sat up and stared at her catch: an arm rising in the water. He floundered into the shallows to seize the small, bloated body at shoulder and thigh. Long black hair, unbound, trailed over his hands like river weed. Poor lady, poor lady. He turned the corpse over, then saw a gunshot wound in the upper chest, the face chopped like cabbage, the genitals hacked away. Nell had thrown in a line and caught a man.
Joe's best fishing rod floated nearby, still hooked to one ear. Upstream he glimpsed another figure lodged in driftwood, pale among pale logs, and ten yards beyond, a third dark head. That victim might never come to shore. Joe saw the north-running current find and take it. Behind him, Nell moaned.
“Get back to the rig, Nellie. Now.”
Two hours later, Lewiston deputies had dragged ashore six flayed and battered corpses, all male, all Chinese. Joe looked away as Marshal Harry Akers bent over, hands braced on thighs, breathing hard. The deputies were country-bred, and Joe a Union veteran, but Akers was a town man.
“Judge, can you take this over? I got a lot to do. A lot.”
Joe nodded. He was police judge now, and the Chinese case would land with him anyway. He left a silent Nell at her grandparents' tall brick house on Main Street, then sent a deputy to find the local doctor who doubled as town coroner. Decades ago Henry Stanton, an ex-Royal Navy surgeon, came inland from Vancouver to practice in Idaho's gold country. His neat full beard was gray now, the genial face grim. Joe held open the leather satchel as his friend laid forceps and tenon saw beside the first victim.
“Throat cut,” said Henry. “Very slowly. It's butchery.”
“Massacre,” said Joe.
Three of the Chinese dead were naked and bound hand and foot, faces ripped by animal bites. Maybe canine, maybe feline; the wilder reaches of the Snake River above Lewiston still harbored puma and wolf. All the men pulled from the Snake were shot, though some backs and skulls also bore deep ax wounds. One victim was beheaded, the ghastly cranium wrapped in a ragged blue coat and tied to the waist. The rest were castrated. Two were gutted like deer. A skillful job, said Henry, when pressed.
“Poor devils, poor sad bastards,” Joe murmured as he walked the line of shrouded bodies. He knew a crew of Chinese gold miners had wintered up the Snake. He'd even talked to a couple, the morning they left. September of '86? October? His town logs would say. Twelve clothbound ledgers still sat on Joe's desk, one for each year spent as Lewiston's marshal. He should have given the whole set to Akers back in November, as a post-election courtesy, but Joe wasn't that sure his successor could read.
My fault, Joe thought. A river full of dead men. My mistake. He pulled the vinegar-soaked bandana back over nose and mouth, then turned a notebook page, slapping away flies. The battlefield stink was getting worse. Beside him the doctor probed and measured, his bare arms dark to the elbow with river mud and human rot.
Once they tried to sit beside the Snake and rest, but moments later Henry was wading out again. The deputies had missed one. Joe gave the doctor a hand back to shore, then hauled the dead man halfway up the slope. Maggots, pale and writhing, webbed the nostrils and open mouth.
“Corneas slit,” said Henry.
“Before death or after?” Joe asked.
“Before, I suspect.”
Together they heaved the sodden weight toward their riverbank morgue.
At sunset Joe crossed Tammany Creek and turned his mare toward the big shingled and turreted house on the hill. He sat on the stable mounting block to pull off his boots, which smelled of corpse. Likely they always would. He glanced up and saw lamplight in Nell's room. His father-in-law, Alonzo Leland, the town newspaper publisher, must have brought her home.
The front door was locked, so Joe went around to the kitchen. The Vincents had lived in this new house only since Christmas. A dozen packing crates still sat in the parlor, leaking straw, and once again the whole downstairs smelled of fresh paint. Lib and the man from Hale & Cooper were deadlocked over the merits of ivory versus cream.
Alonzo waylaid him in the hallway, hungry for a Teller exclusive.
“What's this about dead Chinks in the Snake?” Joe put one hand on the banister. “Can't tell you anything, Lon.”
“I've got a deadline, J. K.,” said Alonzo behind him.
Trousers soaked, back aching, Joe Vincent climbed on.