By Humanity Possessed

A COVENANT WITH DEATH by Stephen Becker. 240 pages. Atheneum. $4.50.

The convicted murderer was dragged to the gibbet and eyes dipped for the last benediction. The sentenced man also lowered his head—and then suddenly drove it into the hangman's belly, sending him hurtling off the scaffold to his death on the cobblestones below During the 24 hours set aside for a second executioner to get to Soledad City near the Mexican border, new evidence surfaced, exonerating the "murderer" of his original charge. But what about the murder he now had committed?

Soledad City was part Old Mexico, part American frontier. Its ethic...

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