Driven from their homes by circumstances both without and within, Justin Halifax and Ling Fu arrive in California at the height of the Gold Rush. Justin and his young wife Norma, along with his long-time friend and business partner, Alex, strike a large vein of gold on their claim, and need help to mine it. Ling Fu has a vision of someone that they must find, and leads her master and his men toward what is assumed to be a rich discovery. The two groups meet and form a partnership. Though the wild and unpredictable nature of the mining camps blazes to life around them, they must adapt to the dangers posed by both nature and society. Ling Fu’s master, Qi Shumin, has long suffered a strange and frightening curse. As he gradually loses control, the new friendships and alliances that have formed, will be challenged to the utmost. And everyone must come to decide, where they stand, and what is worth fighting for.
The north fork of the Feather River
Damnation Ditch, California
Along with the surge of expansion came the more unfortunate reality of life in the diggings. Low-brow cheats, swindlers, and men with bad reputations trickled in. The memory of the recent hanging was in the past, and did little to deter these types.
A scoundrel whom they all despised was the tax collector.
There was an official levy on all foreign miners, of twenty dollars a month per person. It was an exorbitant sum, and Justin knew it was designed to challenge and discourage, to assert the notion of American superiority. Before the recent population boom, the tax collector hadn’t bothered to ride up their way so much. But, with more foreigners in the Ditch nowadays, they had to deal with the obnoxious fellow more often.
Qi Shumin always paid what was due, but he shouted and carried on after coughing up the sum.
One hot afternoon, the team was breaking into a troublesome part of the riverbed. The boulders in the way were enormous, and they had to harness Peach Pie and one of the horses to drag them out. The men were tired and grumpy.
Peach Pie balked at the tough job. She brayed, planted her hooves, refusing to budge. She was spoiled, and he knew it was his own fault. It was beyond frustrating.
Fai Peng returned from his break at the cabin.
It was Justin’s turn to have a breather next. He led Peach Pie up the slope, as she was throwing a tantrum, and the other men were about to tan her hide. He was near to doing it himself.
Norma and Ling Fu stayed together during the day, as it was easier to keep an eye on both of them. They usually worked at one cabin or the other, assisting each other with various chores. One man from the team would always be on a break with them, making sure things stayed safe. This rotated throughout the day, giving everyone time to rest and eat.
He was glad to get out of the sun. Tugging on Peach Pie’s lead, he clucked his tongue. “Come on, you cantankerous beast.”
The women were at his own cabin, sitting on the porch. Norma had a basket of potatoes from her garden, she and Ling Fu peeling away. They both looked up when he approached.
“How are things going down there?” Norma asked.
He sighed. “Well, if Miss Prissy-Tail here would cooperate, we wouldn’t have just lost an hour of time.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “Well. If it makes you feel better, Fai Peng and I just finished lunch. There’s soup and fresh bread inside.”
Justin was famished, and tethered the mule to the porch post. “Thank you.”
He served himself, took it outside on the porch and ate. Afterward he watered Peach Pie, and stroked her a while to calm her down.
Then, Chen ran up the hill.
“Justin,” he shouted, panting for breath. “Please come quick.”
No hesitation, Justin leaped onto Peach Pie’s back. Digging his heels into her sides, he rode as fast as he could to the claim.
He reached the river, and pulled his mule to a halt.
Before him were two opposing sides, his own team on one. On the other was the tax collector, Mr. Rodwin Lashbrook, and a group of five shifty men, all on horseback.
Qi Shumin stood brazen between them, his hand on the revolver at his belt.
Justin dismounted, and ran to join them.
Alex rushed to Justin. “Mr. Lashbrook says Qi Shumin owes him in back taxes. And the boss isn’t happy about it.”
“Oh, dear God,” Justin said, his heart pounding.
Lashbrook glared from his tall chestnut mare. He had a narrow face, and even narrower eyes. Dirty blonde hair and shabby whiskers edged his features. A perpetual sneer stretched his lips, displaying his yellowed teeth.
“Afternoon. Mr. Halifax. Purty day, isn’t it?” Lashbrook said.
Norma, Chen, and Ling Fu arrived, standing nearby with worried expressions.
“It is indeed,” Justin said. “What brings you through our humble Ditch today, sir?”
Lashbrook spat, always chewing. “Official business. These Chinese need to pay me some gold.”
Alex stepped to their side. “Qi Shumin paid you for the month. I was there, saw it happen. I suggest you get a move on.”
Mr. Lashbrook and his men laughed.
“Turns out there was a delay in the new legislation. See, I got this document, from the alcalde down in Marysville, saying the new law went into effect three weeks ago. Letter was delayed getting up here on time with all that rain we had. What a shame.’
“What new law?” Justin asked.
“Well, says here,” Mr. Lashbrook whipped a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, and put on a pair of spectacles to read. “All foreign miners now pay twenty-five dollars a month, not twenty. So your Chink owes me, and I’m here to collect.”
Justin’s anger flared. “You will not use that word around our claim.”
“And what word is that?” Lashbrook asked.
“You know which one. Refer to people respectfully, or get the hell out of here.”
“Looks like we got a Celestial lover,” said one of the men behind Mr. Lashbrook. “Maybe he’s doing that pretty little girl over there.”
The tax collector and his cronies laughed. Justin resisted the urge to pull the bastard off of his nag, and smash his face into the nearest tree.
Mr. Lashbrook rode to Qi Shumin, and held out his hand. “Pay up, China man.”
Qi Shumin gave his usual cocky, sideways grin. “No.”
Several of Lashbrook’s men whistled.
“Whoa, there,” Lashbrook said. “Did I just hear you say something?” He leaned down, with a hand to his ear.
Too quickly for anyone to predict, Qi Shumin drew his weapon. He siezed Lashbrook around the neck, pulled him from his horse, and put the revolver to his head.
Lashbrook’s men aimed their guns. Alex and Justin did the same.
Fai Peng brandished his sword in a swift flash of steel and sunlight. He stepped between Lashbrook’s men and his boss, blade to one side, feet square to the ground.
Qi Shumin trembled. He held Lashbrook firmly by the jaw.
Chen ran to his boss, knelt next to him, and said something in Chinese.
“Let him go,” Justin said. “We can talk this out.”
“No…” Qi Shumin said. His voice trailed off, and it sounded as if he growled.
Ling Fu walked slowly, deliberately, into the line of fire. She came to Qi Shumin, placed a hand on his chin, and forced him to look at her.
He trembled, sweat dripping. When he met her eyes, he gasped.
She spoke some strange words, and brushed a hand across his forehead.
The moment her fingers passed over him, he dropped the gun. He fell to his knees, eyes rolled back, and passed out.
Chen caught his boss, cradling Qi Shumin’s head before it hit cold stone.
Ling Fu stood over them, looking down, a breeze stirring her short black hair.
Everyone stared, not a word spoken.