Chapter Two, San Gabriel
January 7th, in the winter of 1871, two months before Sarah lamented in her room, praying to God to end her life, she was to marry a young man from a neighboring farm in the San Gabriel Valley. The Mission San Gabriel Archángel, surrounded by a little town, farm fields, and fruit orchards, rested peacefully in the San Gabriel Valley and about a day’s ride from the city of angels.
The day before Sarah and Henry were to be wed, two of Henry’s friends rode over to his family’s farm just before sunset. Standing by the water pump he watched them approach. They remained on their horses looking down at him with mischievous grins.
“I got to take this water to Ma and tell her I’m going out for a ride,” he said.
One of the two friends, Alfredo, reached into a saddle bag and brought out a dark bottle which he held close to his torso. “Give her my respects, but there’s no need to tell her about this.”
They rode to the top of a nearby hill where atop sandstone boulders they could sit and survey much of the valley they’d always called home. A few ranch and farm houses could be seen as well as the San Gabriel Mission surrounded by a few simple adobes and the new-comers’ wood buildings on the town’s handful of streets.
Dismounted, they sat side by side on a large boulder. Alfredo uncorked the bottle and passed it to Henry, who raised it to his mouth and drank a moderate amount. Reaching across his friend, he passed the bottle to Flaco who sniffed it and then took a cautious sip. He made a face.
“Compadre, what is this stuff? It sure ain’t whiskey.”
“Cabrón,” replied Alfredo, “It’s brandy. It’s aged. It’s from Spain.”
“When did it come here? On the first ship bringing white men?”
Alfredo grabbed the bottle, raised it high, and drank deeply. After a moment, he said, “I don’t know, being aged is supposed to be good for fine brandies and wine. Father drinks it in a small crystal glass. Probably it would taste much better poured into a wine glass.”
Henry reached over and took the bottle from Alfredo’s hands. He drank, again moderately. “It just needs some getting used to, kind of like Frenchie’s whiskey.”
“I ain’t nowhere near use to his whiskey,” said Flaco.
While watching the sun approach the horizon, they passed the bottle and talked about horses and then about what pretty girls in the valley hadn’t been married off.
“Sarah is the prettiest girl in all these parts,” declared Henry.
“She is,” said Alfredo. “I’ll drink to that.”
“To Sarah,” they all said. The coldness of that southern California winter’s late afternoon felt tolerable enough; the brandy helped and at least a hot Santa Ana wind wasn’t blowing. For moments they remained as silent and still as the lizards had been in the midday sun.
Alfredo looked at Flaco and winked. He turned to Henry. “Tomorrow night, you think you know what to do?”
Henry who had been staring at the mission mumbled, “What do you mean?”
“Mierda!” Flaco exclaimed. “He means, doing it to her. Ain’t you been dreaming about it every night?”
Not looking at them but still at the mission church, Henry faintly smiled. “Pa told me about that stuff. He also told me to treat her gently, give her time to get use to the idea.”
“Your father is right,” said Alfredo. “It’s not like she’s one of those Los Angeles sporting women.”
“What do you know about women like that?” asked Flaco but Alfredo just laughed and clapped him on the back. Flaco shook his head, and muttered, “You watch; I’m going to save my pay and then I’m going to ride down to Calle de los Negroes and…”
“Talk to me first,” said Alfredo. “That way you won’t waste your money and get laughed at.”
“Hey! I’ve seen horses and mares doing it. That’s what a man got to do, Henry. Be a stallion.”
But Henry hadn’t taken his eyes off the church, hadn’t paid any attention to what his friends had said. Alfredo looked at him and then asked, “You’re worried about getting married? You shouldn’t be. Sarah is going to make you a fine wife. Soon, you’ll have many niños running around.”
“Nah, I ain’t worried about that. I know she’s fine gal and all, but last night I had this bad dream…”
“Dreaming about doing it to her,” said Flaco. Alfredo gave him a stern look that made Flaco stop grinning.
“No, not about her. It was a nightmare. It was night, and I’d gone out of the house because I knew there was some large beast out in the orchard. I walked down a row of trees and at the end of the row I could see two yellow eyes and they came closer and I couldn’t move. Then I could see the beast, a huge black wolf. He didn’t growl at me or nothing, just stared at me. Then he turned around and for some reason I knew I had to follow him. Other wolves joined us and we ran through the trees and then into a field filled with sheep. The wolves attacked them and ripped them to shreds of just bloody meat. I ate some of it. Then they all turned to face me, so I ran and they followed right behind me. Only, I don’t think they wanted to kill me, just follow me. I felt scared, not of them, of what I felt was about to happen, and I ran to the Mission chapel – it was full of everybody I knew – but the wolves followed me in and I just knew they were going to attack everyone I love including Sarah…”
“Demonios!” said Flaco who then made the sign of the cross. “My people got a magic woman who could tell you what that dream means and how to protect yourself, because you’ve been dreaming some bad stuff.”
“It’s just a nightmare, compadre,” said Alfredo. “Nightmares never mean anything.”
“Compadre, you are wrong,” said Flaco. “The magic woman told us we need to pay attention to our nightmares; we need to pray to the spirits. Maybe even make a sacrifice.”
“Don’t tell him that crazy Indian stuff,” said Alfredo “Henry, it was just a dream.”
“Yep, you’re right as rain. It was just a dream.” Henry stood up. “Hey, we’re about finished with that brandy. How about we ride into town and have a drink at Frenchie’s?”
They rode down from the hilltop and onto the road leading to the one tavern in San Gabriel. Once on the road they kicked their horses into gallops and raced each other into town. Alfredo arrived lengths ahead of his friends. His horse reared up and he whooped a victory cry. After tying up their horses they strode boldly into the tavern and into the previously quiet room. Jean-Paul Marat, the tavern owner of Maison d’Arrêt – commonly called Frenchie’s – and the five men already there, looked at the young men. Alfredo’s father, Don Antonio Corinto, stood at the bar and had been talking to Jean-Paul. Some of the men smiled knowing perfectly well the reason for young Henry’s drunkenness.
“Frenchie, whiskey for all who is present. It’s on me, fellahs,” shouted Henry. “No, wait. Not on me, I’m the bridegroom. You pay, Alfredo.”
Jean-Paul poured a shot for everyone standing at the bar. Only one man didn’t come from his table to get a free drink. He’d looked up at the drunken trio and then went back to reading his book. One of the men looked over to him and asked, “Come on, Deputy Ash. Ain’t you going to drink with us? Young Henry’s getting hitched tomorrow.”
Ash took off his glasses, put a book mark in his red leather-bound book, and then stood up – tall, lean, and as ramrod erect as any man proudly wearing an officer’s uniform. People had heard that he’d been a CSA captain in the war, but they never heard it from his mouth. At the bar he picked up a glass of water and held it up as the others did, ready to toast the bridegroom.
“To Henry,” said Alfredo.
“To Henry,” repeated everyone else.
“Set them up again,” said Flaco, “and we’ll toast the beautiful señorita, Sarah.” Flaco noticed some of the men glaring at him.
“Flaco,” said Don Corinto, “a gentleman never mentions a lady’s name in a bar.”
“Sorry, jefe. I didn’t know.” Flaco didn’t meet his boss’s eyes. He looked around and then noticed Deputy Ash’s stern expression.
Don Corinto nodded his head in a way of forgiving. “Henry, tomorrow is your wedding and marriage is a holy sacrament. I would advise you not to profane it by coming to church in a sickly state. Perhaps you young men should have a beer apiece and then consider returning home.”
“Yes, Don Corinto,” said Henry. “That’s probably some good advice.”
The three young men after receiving their mugs of beer sat at a table near to the one where Deputy Ash had returned to pick up his book and begin reading again. A single candle illuminated the pages of his book and his face. They talked in low voices, as if they didn’t want to disturb Ash at his reading. Don Corinto, at the bar, called out, “Alfredo, join us, please.”
“Mr. Miller would like to hear about our new colt.”
After Alfredo left them, Flaco’s face lit up with a sudden thought. “Hey, I just thought about something about your dream, you know about the wolves following you into the church.”
Though his body and his head remained motionless, Ash’s eyes stopped scanning the text in his book.
“It’s what Don Corinto just said about not showing up at church all green from the night before. The wolves are the brandy and whiskey, you know how that stuff sticks with you the next day. And then you’d be all woozy when you face you know who.”
Henry grinned and asked, “Who’s you know who?”
“You know, Sa… Ah, amigo, you’re trying to make me the cabrón.”
“It almost worked. Yeah, I like what you said about the dream. I’ve never had one like that before. Maybe tonight I’ll have a better dream. Maybe I’ll dream about…”
Flaco waited but then burst out laughing when Henry paused with an open mouth.
“Tell me honest,” said Flaco. “Tell me you’ve been thinking about it, the first night; you know, doing it with her.”
“Yeah, to tell the honest truth, I have. Quite often, in fact.”
Ash closed his book and stood up from table where he habitually sat and read, usually alone and only approached if someone had official business for the deputy. Leaning against the wall was his rifle which he now picked up and held in his free hand, its muzzle pointing down. He came up behind Henry and Flaco and stood in between them. He put his hand on Henry’s shoulder causing him to look up.
“Young Henry, Don Corinto is correct in what he has told you. Tomorrow is a very important day for you. At the altar you will stand before God.”
Henry just nodded.
Flaco pointed to the book in Ash’s hand and asked, “What kind of book is that? It’s got crazy writing on the cover.”
“It’s a Bible. But it’s in the ancient Greek.”
“You know how to talk Greek?” asked Flaco.
Ash smiled and shook his head, “It’s been a long while since I have spoken that tongue; Nowadays I’m like you. I just speak English and Spanish. Vaya con Dios.”
The next day Henry appeared at church in his black suit looking a little nervous but otherwise as healthy as any farm raised eighteen-year-old. He and Sarah stood before Father Leclercq and swore their vows. After receiving the Eucharist and the mass had ended, they climbed into the carriage Don Corinto lent them for the ride to the wedding feast which was to take place at Henry’s father’s farm a few miles from the mission. Alfredo and Flaco mounted their horses intending to escort the newlyweds, or to race each other on the road or through the valley oaks. Everyone else followed in wagons.
A strong and hot breeze from the northeast deserts, an unusually late Santa Ana wind, kicked up swirling clouds of dust on the road. The oak leaves noisily shook. Henry had brought along a duster which he now wrapped around Sarah. She sat close to him, holding onto his right arm. She never heard the rifle shot. Maybe she’d thought it was just the crack of a tree branch snapped by the wind. She felt Henry’s body jerk backward. About to ask him what was wrong, she saw the hole in his white shirt, the dark red stain. After pulling on the reins to stop the horses, she looked into his lifeless eyes and pulled his slumped body to her. Alfredo and Flaco came riding up to see her hugging Henry.
“Hey! Why are you stopping here?” shouted Alfredo.
Sarah separated from Henry’s body – they could see the blood on Henry’s shirt and the blood on Sarah’s white wedding dress. She simply said, “He’s been shot and killed.”
The young men looked at each other. Alfredo shouted to Flaco, “You go search the north side of the road. I’ll search the south. Don’t shoot anyone; it probably was just a hunter and just an unlucky shot.”
The rest of the wedding party came up the road, each of them witnessing the horror of the scene and Sarah’s tearful sorrow. Those on horses joined the two young men in the search for the shooter. Many of the searchers felt sure it had been an accidental shooting because who in the world would want to assassinate young Henry on his wedding day.
Sarah insisted on driving the carriage the rest of the way to the farm, his body leaning against her. The others followed her through the clouds of tan dust. Only after reaching the farm did someone think of riding back to town to find the deputy. Normally, he could be found at the Maison d’Arrêt, not drinking though, he just used the place as the deputy marshal’s headquarters. Jean-Paul hadn’t seen him in a while and suggested trying his adobe, about a mile out of town.
Ash opened the door of his small adobe house after hearing the messenger’s insistent knocking. In silence he listened to the man’s recounting of Henry’s death. He nodded his head, turned away, and returned with his rifle, a Whitworth single shot. Alone he rode out to the farm, mostly to express his sorrow and condolences, not expecting to find the killer. Mindful of Sarah’s bereavement, he didn’t question her, but she, no longer crying, approached him and described in a few and plain words Henry’s sudden transition from joyful life to death. Again, to everyone listening, the horror of the event was transcended by the mystifying lack of motive; and if it were just a providentially permitted accident, why? The next day Deputy Ash wrote a brief report for the marshal in Los Angeles.
Sarah wore black until her mother gently expressed her opinion that one month were long enough and that she needed to go out to church socials and fandangos. For the most part she obeyed her mother. On her arm she wore a black band and she didn’t enjoy the outings which her friends and the local young men could plainly see.
Flaco, two weeks after the death of Henry, asked Don Corinto for a day off so he could ride down to Los Angeles. One night prior to his departure, at Maison d’Arret, Flaco had drunkenly boasted to Alfredo that he was going to a Chinese bawdy house and have two or three women in one night. After two days of wondering why Flaco hadn’t returned, Don Corinto and his son rode to Los Angeles and to the saloons on the Calle de los Negroes and to the Chinese houses of prostitution. The bartenders and the brothel owners informed them a young man of that description had not been recently seen. The father and son went to the sheriff’s office who could tell them nothing but that he’d keep an eye out, and hopefully this wouldn’t be the second mysterious killing of a San Gabriel young fellow.
His body was found a week later. He’d been killed by a single shot to his heart. Wolves or other wild beasts had dragged the body from the road into a strand of tules. After a buckboard carried the canvas draped corpse back to town, Alfredo identified his friend even though his face had been partially eaten away and the remainder infested with maggots.
In early February, a young man was discovered dead – also a single shot to the heart – on the road to Los Angeles. The young man had come up from Los Angeles to buy a horse. He’d been last seen in the tavern and had caused hard feelings by drunkenly and loudly declaring San Gabriel raised no horses worth buying and no gals worth marrying – except for a pretty girl wearing a black arm band he’d seen at the dry goods store. He’d have her in a flash. Ash knew this because he’d been there and had to prevent Alfredo from attacking the uncouth boor. On his report he wrote, “It is most probable that the young man was murdered by an opportunistic itinerant or a piker. Some in the community have suggested it was highway men such as Tiburcio Vasquez and his gang. However, I have no knowledge from credible sources of his current or past presence in San Gabriel Valley. Nevertheless, I shall remain vigilant and open to new sources of information regarding the murder.”
Days after the third mysterious murder, on the same road to Los Angeles, two riders came upon a dead teamster. The horses were still harnessed to the wagon and nothing had been taken from the wagon. In town Alfredo had seen the man ogling Sarah and had been about to say something to the lout, but Ash had put himself in front of his hateful glare to ask about Don Corinto.
These four unsolved murders fueled the gossip in the small community. By the time of the fourth known murder, just about everybody in San Gabriel Valley assumed the four mysterious killings were perpetrated by the same demented killer, and who knew how many other victims hadn’t yet been discovered. After all, nobody could or did keep track of itinerant farm workers and other drifters. They also began to assume all of them had brought about their deaths by known or unknown connections to Sarah.
A handful of Sarah’s neighbors and denizens of San Gabriel wondered to themselves if the killer were someone they knew, someone whose soul and mind had been macabrely warped as described in an Edgar Allen Poe story, maybe even Alfredo or the father of Sarah. A few other men living in the valley also fell victim to unspoken suspicions. However, for the most part, people assumed the killer not be a neighbor but an unknown entity, a mysterious demon-like man who for all they knew lived on the fringe of their world. The assumption weighed heavily upon their darkened moods.
During the first days after Henry’s murder, Sarah, too consumed with grief and heartache, had only been slightly aware of people glancing at her and feeling pity. After the third known murder she knew her friends and neighbors couldn’t look upon her as they once did in happier times. After the fourth known murder, she felt the looks of pity turning into fear of a girl cursed by God. She stopped going out to town and seldom came out of her room.
By early spring, on the day she prayed to the Lord for release from her torment, she just knew in her heart that what the cook had said was what everybody was thinking. In helpless despair her parents watched her final retreat from life, from their lives. She secured herself in her room, only coming out at night when everyone was asleep. Her door remained closed the entire day, and she spoke to no one except God.