A foolishly unguarded moment sends two young men on a journey of adventure in the gold fields of the Old West.
When they met on a ranch in 1876, teenagers Luke and J.J. immediately became friends. It took almost a year for them to become lovers. Forced to admit their love by a hired hand, the two young men set off on a journey which would take them to the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada and forever change their lives. Along the way they meet many interesting people including a red-haired man who needs a doctor, a man with a dog named Ina, a woman with a Chinese servant she won in a poker game, and a Russian Prince.
It was unseasonably warm in Los Angeles with a dry wind from the deserts to the east blowing across the basin, heading west towards the blue waters of the Pacific. The heat of the wind seemed to press in on the town, making the people jumpy and sharp-tongued with each other.
Luke, a dark, slender lad, sat in the center of the town plaza, in the shade of the little pavilion the town fathers had built for no particular reason. He watched the dust blow across the gray paving stones in the mid-afternoon glare. He felt very alone with no one to share the afternoon and he wished his friend Honch was with him. But he was alone, the plaza empty. Across the street though, he could see a few people idling in the cool dimness of the arcade around Pico House. Looking at the hotel, watching the travelers who came and went all day long, always excited Luke's imagination. He could almost see himself as one of them, arriving from some exotic place or setting out on a grand journey.
He sighed at the futility of it. There would be no grand journeys for him, no visits to exotic places; his father would see to that. His father, Silas Davis, was a self-proclaimed preacher who had no use for the exotic or, for that matter, anything he felt was not both Christian and God-fearing. Mr. Davis--or rather Reverend Davis as he liked to be called--made a meager living by staging big, noisy revival meetings and preaching sermons that were filled with righteousness, hell-fire, and frenzy as well as a venom that he spat at anything different or that he didn't understand. Luke hated the revivals and the hatred he heard preached, though of course he didn't dare let that be seen. When he had, once, Silas had beaten him unmercifully, calling him ungrateful for the pure word of the Lord. Life with Silas was hard but Luke had nowhere else to go and so he stayed on with him, keeping a promise made to his mother just before she'd died.
His reveries were interrupted by a heavy set woman carrying several large shopping bags. "Buenas tardes, Luke. Why you aren't at your siesta?"
"Buenas tardes, Senora Rosa." He stood and reached for the bags she was carrying. "Can I help you with those?" Senora Rosa sat heavily next to him on the bench and mopped at her damp forehead with a large red cloth. "Gracias, but no. Just a short rest and then I must get on to the cantina and prepare food for the evening." She smiled fondly at him and opened one of the shopping bags, showing him the fresh young corn she had bought. "For your favorite, green corn tamales. I'll put some away for you, for tomorrow, after you finish your work."
"Oh, thank you Senora, muchas gracias." Luke really did love the little tamales made of sweet young corn and grated onions, steamed in the corn husks. It was always a special treat when Senora Rosa made them.
Luke spent most of his mornings at the cantina, sweeping the dirt floor and scrubbing the bar and the rickety wooden tables and chairs. Of course his father knew about the job, even encouraged it, but he certainly had no idea that the place Luke worked served beer and whiskey, much less that it was owned by Mexicans. Luke shuddered at what the man would do if he ever found out.
Senora Rosa paid him a few pennies for each day's work and, ever since the day she'd found out that his father paid only for two meals each day at the boarding house where they lived, she also saw to it that he had some good, hot food as well. In her view, no boy of sixteen could survive on just two meals a day.
They spoke for a few moments of the wind and the dryness in the air.
"Terramoto," she said, crossing herself. "It is earthquake weather. When the winds blow dry from the East, the earthquake is not far behind." She rose and gathered her bags. "I must get along," she said. "Soon the men will be coming to the cantina and they will be hungry." She gave him a little wave and made her way slowly across the plaza, finally disappearing down Sanchez Street.
Luke remained on the bench a while longer, watching the little horse drawn street car make its way along the front of the hotel. When he finally did move, he crossed the plaza and went off down Main Street to look at the colored posters displayed by the Merced Theatre, next to the hotel. He often studied these posters, admiring the pretty ladies and handsome men and daydreaming about actually seeing a play some time.
Just as he reached the entrance to the hotel he was stopped by a piercing voice calling out his name. It was Mrs. Woods, from the boarding house where he and his father lived.
"Oh, Luke. Luke! Come here. I wish to speak to you."
Luke sighed to himself. Mrs. Woods' tongue was as sharp as her voice and her voice was as strong as her temper. He turned and nodded to her. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Remove your hat when speaking to a lady." Luke pulled off the battered cap he always wore and held it to his chest as though it could protect him from her strident tones. "That's better, although I'd think a boy of your age would have his hair properly trimmed and combed." She shook her head in dismay. "I know your father has taught you better than this. Now, Luke..." She talked on, admonishing him about idling away his time in the plaza instead of going down to the revival tent and helping his father prepare for the next day's services.
Luke, having heard it all and more from his father that morning, fixed a respectful look on his face and half listened while he looked over Mrs. Woods' shoulder at the people going in and out of the hotel. A horse drawn cab caught Luke's eye as it pulled to the curb and discharged a single gentleman; Luke thought the man must be very rich, having the whole cab all to himself.
The man was elegantly dressed in tightly fitted doeskin trousers and a short, dark brown coat of some rich looking fabric; Luke thought him very handsome. The man caught Luke's eye and smiled as he paid the cab driver.
"...paying attention to me? Well? Are you? Answer me!" Mrs. Woods snapped.
"Uh, yes, ma'am. I..." The man handed his valise to a hotel boy and then nodded at Luke. It seemed to be an invitation. "I will go and help, I promise. I, uh, I have an errand to do and then I'll go down and help Father." The man nodded to him again and went into the hotel.
"Well, see that you do. When I think about all the good your father has done for us, opening our eyes to the evils all around us, leading the campaign to rid this town of depravity. And this is the thanks he gets from you, his own flesh and blood, well, I--"
"Yes, ma'am," he interrupted. "I have to go now." He put his cap back on and turned away from her.
"Well, I never!" She would have reached out and pinched his ear but she was momentarily distracted by a group of men in long black coats emerging from the hotel. They lifted their hats to her.
"Afternoon, Miz Woods," one of them said to her. "Right warm day, ain't it?"
Luke made good his escape, slipping past the men and through the door, into the hotel. Across the dim lobby he saw the man from the cab leaning over a long counter, talking to a man in a hotel uniform on the other side. The man in the uniform selected a key from a rack and laid it on the counter. Luke's throat went dry as he stood there, wondering if he'd misread the man's nod. Then, just as he was about to bolt, the man looked up from the counter and smiled, signaling Luke to join him. Luke barely had the presence of mind to remove his cap as he walked up to the counter.
The man reached out and put his hand familiarly on Luke's shoulder. "My nephew will be visiting for the afternoon," he said to the man in the hotel uniform. Then, squeezing Luke's shoulder, he said, "Why not come up with me now? We can talk while I freshen from my journey."
They followed a bellboy through the court with its cages of colorful birds and up the stairs to the second floor where they were ushered into a finely appointed room. "Now, we don't wish to be disturbed," the man said, dropping a couple of coins into the bellboy's hand. The boy looked at them and broke into a broad grin.
"No, sir. I'll set a sign on the door. Thank you, sir." He left, closing the door behind him.
"Well, now," the man said, tipping Luke's chin up, "let's see what we've got here." He looked into Luke's eyes and ran his thumb lightly over Luke's lower lip. "You know what we're here for?"
Luke swallowed hard, trying not to tremble. "Yes, sir." He had known ever since that first smile out on the street. He didn't know how he knew, but he did. He'd done this only three times before, though never in such elegant surroundings as Pico House, and each time he had been amazed by the pleasure of it. He stepped closer to the man, wanting to get started. The man kissed him and Luke responded hungrily until he was pushed away.
"I guess you do know, don't you, boy?" The man was breathing as hard as Luke was. He removed his coat and hung it over the door knob. "In case some maid should drop something just outside," he said with a laugh and then stepped back to look Luke up and down. "What shall I call you?" he asked in a quiet voice.
"Luke, sir." He began to unbutton his muslin shirt, suddenly conscious of his cheap, rough clothes.
"And you shall call me Carlo, Luke. Not â€˜sir', just...Carlo." He pulled off the leather vest he wore over his embroidered silk shirt and hung it on the back of a chair. "May I help you with that, please, Luke?" He finished the buttons on Luke's shirt and gently pulled it back, over Luke's shoulders. "You are a beauty, aren't you?" He reached for the buttons at Luke's waist and when he finished Luke stood naked, his sex arched proudly out from his body, his shirt and jeans in a heap on the floor.
Luke unbuttoned Carlo's silk shirt and helped him remove the soft, calfskin boots he wore. Carlo hung his shirt on the back of the chair and set the boots neatly beside it. He pulled away when Luke reached for his trousers saying, "No, I'll do it." He opened them and slid them off, folding them carefully before placing them on the chair. "They must be carefully handled," Carlo said, stepping towards Luke, his sex pushing out against the short silk drawers he wore. He allowed Luke to help him out of those.
Later, with his head buried in the soft hotel pillow and Carlo lying over him, filling him, Luke let out a soft growl of pleasure and pushed back, urging the man deeper.
"You surely do like this, don't you boy?"
Luke answered by working some muscles, making Carlo gasp. They had been at it, in various ways, for several hours now. When they'd finished the first time Luke had been afraid Carlo might send him away but he didn't. He had held Luke, slowly stroking him back to a hard readiness and then they had begun again. Now was their third time.
Carlo reached around and fondled Luke's hardness, stroking it towards climax again. "You are a pretty thing," he murmured, biting at Luke's earlobe. "Just a colt. And hung like one, too." His voice cracked. "I can't last much longer, boy. I'm going fill you again. I'm gonna do it."
Luke felt his own spunk begin to rise and urged the man on, pushing back against each stroke, forcing the man deeper into his body. His toes began to curl under and a low growl escaped his throat.
Just as his spunk shot high into the air the door to the room slammed open and Silas Davis, like a crag faced apparition, stood in the opening.
"So, Mrs. Woods was right in what she saw," he said quietly, dangerously. "This is the errand you were so anxious to complete. In God's name, boy!"
The man's face contorted into a mask of black rage. "You are an abomination in the eyes of the Lord," he screamed. "He will see you both roast in the fires of hell..." He crossed the room and grabbed Luke by the hair, pulling him off the bed, holding Luke's face only inches from his own as he spat out his words. "My flesh and blood! An obscenity to the eyes of God. A plaything of Lucifer, not even fit to be called a man!"
He threw Luke to the floor and advanced on the other man. Carlo scrambled off the bed and backed away until he was crouched against the wall, his partially erect sex dribbling spunk onto the rough plank floor. "Pervert! Degenerate!" He clenched his fist in the man's face and hissed at him, "Get out! Get out or I shall kill you and no man will ever lay blame to me."
Luke pulled himself up. "Father! Don't..."
He whirled and struck Luke in the face with the back of his hand, the stone in his ring opening a bloody gash across Luke's cheek. "You dare speak to me? You who are nothing but a...a filthy whore and a desecration of God's laws, you dare speak to me?" He kicked Luke savagely in the groin, causing Luke to double over and fall to his knees. "That's right, harlot, get on your knees. Pray, boy. Pray to God that he may not abandon you to Satan's fires and the eternal stench of hell which is where you belong. Pray!" He struck him in the face again.
Carlo, seeing his chance, grabbed his brown leather bag, the clothes on the floor, and edged his way out. Once in the hall, outside the room, he ran for all he was worth.
The raging pain in Luke's groin caused him to retch terribly until his world went black and he crumpled to the floor, lying in his own blood and vomit, conscious of nothing but pain.
When at last he was able to see again he found his father sitting calmly in a chair, reading the small Bible he always carried with him.
"No, please do not call me father." The voice was ominously quiet. "I disavow any relation to you and you are certainly none to me, neither son nor daughter. You are not fit to be my son nor are you fit to be called a man and I am sure the fairer sex would not claim you as its own, either. No, you have abandoned God, decency, and your manhood. In my eyes, and those of God, you have ceased to exist." He closed his Bible and stood. "I believe you are no longer welcome in this establishment, or in this town." He crossed the room and opened the door, then turned on Luke, his voice filled with loathing. "May you rot in hell."
Luke listened to his father's footsteps until they faded into silence down the hall; only then did he begin to cry.
When he tried to stand the pain in his groin stabbed through him like fire but he bit his tongue and forced himself to bear it. The sharpness of the pain somehow helped to clear his mind. He knew he had to leave here before someone came and threw him into the street, or worse.
His shirt and boots had been kicked under the bed but he couldn't find his jeans anywhere. Then he saw the soft, tailored doeskin trousers Carlo had worn. They were in the corner, still neatly folded on the straight backed chair, along with his silk shirt and dark leather vest. The soft calfskin boots he had worn stood beside them.
"You are to get out and be quick about it." One of the Mexican housemen stood in the doorway; when Luke turned, the man looked him up and down and then stepped into the room, closing the door. He silently went to the dresser, poured water into the big china wash bowl and wet one of the cloths. "You're a mess, boy," he said gently and began washing Luke's face.
Ragged pain shot through Luke's groin again, doubling him over. When the spasm passed and he could straighten up again the Mexican man stood back and looked carefully at Luke's crotch. "Mother of Jesus," he swore, "somebody kick you in the cojones?"
Luke could only nod. The tears were coming again.
"Wait." The houseman hurried out, leaving Luke swaying in the middle of the room. A minute or two later he returned with more cloths, soap, and a tumbler of whiskey. "First the man, then the wound." He laughed, holding the tumbler out. Luke took a sizable swallow of the whiskey, feeling it burn its way down to his gut. The houseman then poured some of the whiskey on a cloth and waved the cloth in the air. "The whiskey makes it cool," he said. He carefully wrapped the cloth around Luke's swollen testicles and the pain there began to subside almost at once. Luke held the cloth in place while the man gently washed his back and chest with a wet cloth and some of the soap.
"That other one, he sure looked funny, trying to run and get in his pants at the same time." The Mexican chuckled. "Lucky there were no ladies downstairs. The deskman gave him a shirt and he made himself decent in the cantina." He laughed again, recalling the sight.
"Where's he gone?" Luke asked. "He has my jeans. His clothes are here." He gestured at the chair in the corner.
"I guess he traded with you," the man said with a quick smile. "He's on the train to San Pedro. Said he was taking the first boat to anywhere." He pointed to the cloth around Luke's testicles. "You feeling better down there?"
"Then you better get dressed and get out of here. Old Mr. Rutledge, he was very definite that you be out quick. I gotta go, be back in ten minutes to clean up the room. You be gone then, huh?" He patted Luke on the back and left before Luke could even thank him.
Luke drank the last of the whiskey in the tumbler and picked up the doeskin trousers. Carlo's silk drawers were there too and Luke put them on. The trousers were loose on his spare frame but he had no choice but to wear them. His own shirt was spattered with vomit and blood so he put on Carlo's, along with his vest and the soft, calfskin boots.
Luke folded his own boots into his shirt and left the room, edging quietly down the hallway. As he started down the stairs the Mexican houseman reappeared and pulled him back into the hall.
"No," he said quietly, "this way." He led Luke to the end of the hall where the hotel was connected to the theatre by a set of wide, ornate doors. "Through here," he said in a whisper, pulling Luke along.
They went silently along the passageway to the end where Luke could hear the actors on the stage. They turned left and then, a little way down, the houseman unlocked a door that gave on to a steep flight of stairs. "Down there. You come out the stage door." He clapped Luke on the shoulder and urged him down the stairs. "You don't come back. Trouble if you do. Bad trouble."
"Thank you. I..."
"It's nothing," the man said. "Go." He turned and walked away.
Luke took a deep breath and made his way down the stairs. The door at the end was stuck and he had a little trouble getting it to open. When he finally did and stepped out into the dim street he was momentarily dizzy and had to lean against the building so he wouldn't fall. In a sudden, bitter flash he realized that he had nowhere to go.
But I can't just stay here, he thought to himself. He began to walk, aimlessly at first, then with purpose. He turned toward Sanchez Street and Senora Rosa's cantina. He was suddenly hungry and he knew Senora Rosa would give him something to eat and maybe let him sleep on the floor of the little store room.
As he turned off Sanchez Street into the alley with its few lighted cantinas and shops he was almost run down. "Hey, easy there." He caught the man's arm.
"Luke? Is that you, Luke?"
"Honch? What're you doing?" Relief swept over him as he recognized his friend.
"Where you goin', Luke?"
Luke heard the alarm in Honch's voice. "Why?"
"Oh, Luke, I don't know. They're all mad at you." Honch was a couple of years older than Luke but he was a little slow, making Luke seem the older one.
Luke put his arm around Honch's shoulder. "Come on, let's go down to Senora Rosa's and--"
"No, Luke, we can't. See, they're all mad at you. Your papa, he said you done a bad thing Luke, somethin' so bad he couldn't say. They're gonna hurt you, Luke. Mr. Woods, he take some men to go look for you, catch you, maybe kill you. Oh, Luke." Honch's voice began to crack. "What'd you do? What'd you do that's so bad?"
"Nothing, Honch. Nothing. My pa and I argued is all. He's mad at me but I didn't do anything bad." He squeezed Honch's shoulder. "You have my word on that, and you know I never lie to you."
Honch looked up at him and, even in the darkness, Luke could see the beginnings of a smile. "I know, Luke. But when I heard them talking I was so scared for you. Luke? I...I maybe did a bad thing but..." His voice trailed off.
"What, Honch? What'd you do that's so bad?" It was only then that Luke realized Honch was carrying something.
"You can't come back. I heard them, Luke. They won't let you come back. So I went up to your room and I took some of your things. I wrapped them in the extra blanket from under the bed. It wasn't bad, was it, Luke? I didn't steal anything..."
Luke felt a lump rising in his throat. "You did just right, Honch. Just right. It's always right to help someone in trouble." Luke clutched the bundle to his chest for a moment. "Honch?" He asked very quietly, "Was there a box..."
"You mean the cigar box behind your clothes? With the picture of the pretty lady on it?"
"Yea, that's the one. Did you happen to..."
"I was afraid to take it, Luke. Your Pa would see it gone and he'd know it was me that took it. So..."
Luke tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice. "That's okay, Honch. Really. I just--"
Honch interrupted him. "So I took the stuff out of the box and wrapped them in a kerchief."
Luke caught him up in a bear hug. "Oh, Honch, thank you." They heard the sound of angry voices moving down the next alley and Honch began to shiver. "You better get back, Honch. Before they miss you."
"Yeah... I guess I better." He hugged Luke, hard.
"Thank you, Honch. You're a good friend." He held him for just a moment. "Now go on."
Honch turned and ran, fast so Luke wouldn't see him cry.
Luke, drying tears of his own, shouldered the bundle Honch had brought him and set off down a side alley. He knew this labyrinth of dirt streets and walkways well, certainly better than Mr. Woods and his friends. For it was Mr. Woods coming after him. Luke had recognized his voice yelling orders to the others. In half an hour he was well away from any pursuers and on the road out to the San Fernando Valley.
Some time later, when he felt a little safer, he stopped and opened the bundle Honch had made for him. It contained a clean pair of jeans, a shirt, and two pairs of socks. Wrapped in the socks was a knotted kerchief; there was also a paper containing half a loaf of stale bread, probably all that Honch could take from the kitchen without being caught.
Luke put on the jeans and shirt and his own familiar boots, then he carefully folded the doeskin trousers, the silk drawers, and the other clothes into the bundle. He didn't think he'd ever have use for them but they were handsome and fine, something he'd never had before and he couldn't bring himself to discard them.
He un-knotted the kerchief and fingered his little collection of souvenirs, the only things he had, now, from his past. He took the gold ring his mother had given him just before she died and slipped it on his finger. Somehow wearing it gave him comfort.
An hour or so later the pain in his groin became so great that he couldn't walk any further. He crossed the ditch at the side of the road and found a hollow at the base of an enormous old oak tree. He sank to the ground and doubled over, staring into the night with pain glazed eyes.
His father's words rang in his ears. â€˜An abomination... Not fit to be a man... Abandoned by God.' Then the tears came again, this time not of pain but of sorrow. He had been abandoned, but not by God. God, that god, had never meant anything to Luke, but his father had; even in his rigid, unrelenting coldness he had meant something. And now even that tiny bit of human connection was severed. Luke was completely, totally alone.
The pain was worse now and had started a fire in his gut. Waves of nausea came over him and he retched until there was nothing left in him and even then it didn't stop, exhausting him so that he hardly cared that he had wet himself as well.
He dozed off, finally, for an hour or so and then the very earth beneath him began to shake and rumble. He jerked awake, sure that the gates of hell were opening, ready to swallow him just as his father had said they would. He looked up and saw the moon redden behind a cloud of dust; a sudden roar assaulted his ears as the rock wall alongside the road collapsed onto itself. Surely, he thought, it's the end of the world and the devil has come to take me. Something fell out of the tree and hit him, something alive, screaming and clawing at him in its terror.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, it was over. He found himself still alive and saw that the world had not come to an end after all. The earth had trembled but it had not swallowed him up. If Lucifer had tried to take him, he had failed and there was some comfort in that.
The shaking came again, three, maybe four times, and each time Luke's calm increased until, finally, he slept.