Edna St. Vincent Millay
Here is a wound that never will heal, I know;
Being wrought not of a dearness and a death,
But of a love turned ashes and the breath
Gone out of beauty; never again will grow
The grass on that scarred acre, though I sow
Young seed there yearly and the sky bequeath
Its friendly weathers down, far underneath
Shall be such bitterness of an old woe.
That April should be shattered by a gust,
That August should be leveled by a rain,
I can endure, and that the lifted dust
Of man should settle to the earth again;
But that a dream can die, will be a thrust
Between my ribs forever of hot pain.
As Adam rode into Virginia City, he thanked his lucky stars that this ordeal was behind him. A simple trip out to the mining camp to check on operations and look over the books should never have taken nearly two weeks. It had been too long since any of the Cartwrights had been out there, and he had found the camp mismanaged, the conditions unsafe, and the overworked men discontent and in a grumbling, dangerous mood, ready to turn on the management and the owners at one more provocation, real or imagined.
No one wanted to let him get close to the books, and Adam soon found out why when he talked to some of the angry workers. Adam had fired the foreman and his henchmen, and had recruited the other workers to his side by helping them shore up the weakened tunnels with timber that had been delivered from the Ponderosa some time ago for that purpose, but had instead been sold, little by little, by the foreman and his gang to a rival timber supplier to make an extra profit on the side. Some of the tunnels still weren’t safe, but Adam told the new foreman to keep his workers out of them until more timber was delivered. That meant, of course, another trip to the camp in the near future to be certain that this time, things were done right.
Adam wiped a grimy hand across his forehead. He knew his face must be as dirty as his hands and clothes. He watered his weary horse outside the Silver Dollar Saloon, and splashed some of the water over his neck, face, and dark hair. A drink to wash away the dust and a bite to eat sounded mighty fine right now. Sport tossed his head and neighed at him. Adam smiled, and stroked his neck. “We’ll be home soon, my friend,” he said. As he walked around the hitching post onto the board sidewalk, his eyes fell on the alleyway next to the saloon. His thoughts drifted back to a day about a month earlier, when he and Joe had been in town to get supplies.
In the alley between the Silver Dollar Saloon and the livery, a young lady in a light blue dress with long sleeves and a high collar was stooped beside a figure in rags lying on the ground covered with a thin blanket. The lady spoke to the person lying before her, who stirred, clutched a bottle close, and finally spoke.
Adam and Little Joe recognized both of them. The young lady was Jenny, who lived adjacent to the Ponderosa with her parents on a small piece of property. The person lying on the ground was Roberta, a saloon girl from the Bucket of Blood, who was dying from the pox. The madam at the saloon threw her out as soon as she discovered the girl had the disease, and refused to let her take refuge in the alley next to that establishment. Desperate, Roberta drummed up what business she could next to the Silver Dollar with miners and lumberjacks who were either too drunk to notice her condition, or too hopeless and penniless anymore to care. Her services earned her a moth-eaten, worn blanket, a few extra clothes, and a bottle to ease her pain. Though many of Virginia City’s decent citizens complained about Roberta, and demanded that she at least move out of view of the main street in town, the madam at the Silver Dollar refused to force the girl to move, and even helped her occasionally by giving her another bottle of whiskey, or another blanket, though she did make it clear that Roberta was to stay out of the saloon and away from the patrons who frequented her girls’ rooms, as well as telling her girls to stay away from her.
Roberta was not the first young prostitute to fall prey to a social disease. Such occurrences were more and more common in Virginia City. Most women in such a position killed themselves rather than go through the horrifying, living death brought on by the pox, or other unmentionable diseases. Most hoped they would be killed by jealous lovers before they went through the torments of such a horrible death, or became too old and ugly to be attractive to the men. The young men were warned by Doc Martin and his assistant, as well as by their fathers, but many of the young men winked to one another and watched as their fathers and the doctor’s young assistant visited those women’s rooms late at night and sneaked out either in the early morning or 30 minutes later, depending on how much they paid. They fully intended to have their fun before they married a decent woman. How could they possibly get a disease like that? They were going to settle down later, weren’t they?
Adam and Joe watched as Jenny left a little food, a flask of water, and some money with Roberta. They weren’t the only ones watching. Most of the citizens of Virginia City had stopped what they were doing, and stared at her, or so it seemed to Adam. Matrons’ heads drew together and disapproving stares and whispers began. Some men looked at one another and laughed knowingly, while others looked on silently or turned aside in shame.
Jenny stood, and with a last compassionate word to the woman before her, went to the sidewalk before the livery and gave her hand to her three year-old niece, whom she had told to stay there and wait for her. As she returned to her wagon loaded with supplies, women moved out of her way, sweeping their skirts away from her. Daughters were pulled aside. Men either gawked at her, or touched their hats and ducked their heads. Jenny took no notice, but lifted her niece onto the wagon seat, and carefully climbed up beside her. Adam smiled to himself when he recalled how heedlessly he had seen her ride her horse alone, astride as often as not, with her hair flying in the wind. Now, her light brown hair was flawlessly curled and pinned under her hat, and her dress was neat and free of dust, despite the dry wind blowing the dust about the hot, dry town.
Two women approached Adam and Joe, pulling their daughters after them along the sidewalk. “Imagine!” exclaimed one. “That hussy! Who does she think she is? And with that child of sin, pretending she’s her aunt! As though we don’t all know what they both are!”
“It takes one to know one,” the other woman agreed.
As they approached the Cartwright brothers, the women smiled, and the daughters inclined their heads ingratiatingly. Joe and Adam smiled and touched their hats in return. Joe felt that if he had to force his mouth up any more, he might crack his face.
Without speaking, they threw the last of the feed bags into the wagon, and moved as one toward Jenny’s wagon in front of the general store. Jenny was trying to turn the wagon so she could go home.
“Jenny!” called Joe.
Jenny looked about her, but didn’t see them in the busy street. Adam reached the wagon and jumped up beside her, followed by Joe, who climbed up the other side. Startled, Jenny stopped the horses and stared at one, and then the other. “What’s wrong?”
Adam and Joe just looked at her, uncertain what to say or do, as Jenny returned their gazes with a puzzled look. “What’s wrong?” she repeated.
“You shouldn’t – you should – be more careful,” said Joe apologetically. As Jenny stared at him, Adam took the reins and pulled the wagon back along the sidewalk.
“What we mean,” he said gently, “is that people misunderstand when you help someone like – like you just did. Not that you shouldn’t have helped her,” he hastened to add, and Joe sputtered his agreement. “You have to realize that – well – people think that –“
“I know what they think,” Jenny replied evenly and quietly. “I’m accustomed to it. Believe me, I’m used to people’s ‘misunderstandings’. It doesn’t really matter to me what they think.”
Joe thought of what the women had just said about Jenny and her niece. “We don’t mean that,” he said earnestly. “If you talk to – help – a – a woman like that, then, well…. Maybe you should….” He let the sentence dangle lamely, wondering how to tell her not to let people see her do something that obviously needed to be done.
“She needs help, Joe,” Jenny almost pleaded. “She needs a doctor. Men have been using her for years. That’s why she needs help. Who will help her now?” Joe and Adam looked down, unwilling to meet her gaze.
“Uh, Ma’am -” A cough and a series of wheezing gasps drew their attention to the street next to them. A stooped, grizzled miner stood next to the wagon with his dirty, misshapen hat in his hand. His greasy hair fell lankly over his face, which was creased with wrinkles. His clothes were ill-fitting and dirty. When the coughing fit subsided, he said, “I can tell the doctor about the lady, if it pleases you, Ma’am.”
Jenny eyed him suspiciously. His blue eyes were bleary and his nose reddened from too much alcohol. She could smell him even over the horse dung and other smells of the city street.
“The doctor can’t do anything for that woman,” said Adam, sounding almost defensive. He recognized the man as one of the town derelicts, who spent all his time gambling with others down on their luck and drinking up his winnings.
“That’s right,” agreed Joe.
“How do you know?” asked Jenny.
“He could give her some laudanum, Ma’am, if he would,” said the miner. “That’s ‘bout the only thing that’s gonna help her now.” He paused as he stared at Jenny. It had been a long time since he had spoken with a lady, and such a pretty one at that. Usually, the ladies hurried to the other side of the street as he approached. Even some of the loose women of the town wouldn’t talk to or associate with him. He considered this woman before him to be one of the finest ladies he had ever seen or known. “My name’s Charlie, Ma’am. And I’ve tried to help Miss Roberta here, but I believe that Doc Martin is the only one who can help her now, if he will.”
“Why haven’t you spoken to the doctor before this?” demanded Jenny.
The miner coughed again. “Well, Ma’am,” he spluttered, “most people won’t listen to the likes of me. But I -” Jenny waited patiently as he again hacked and gasped – “I took a liking to Miss Roberta a long time ago – no offense to you, please, Ma’am – and I try to help her however I can. Perhaps if you speak to the doctor on her behalf…” He gave a tremendous sneeze – “he’d listen to you better than me?” He wiped his nose on his dirty sleeve and fixed her with a hopeful stare.
Jenny wondered if she was the object of a practical joke. She looked at Adam and Joe, but they gave her no indication that her suspicion was correct. If this miner was making fun of her, or joking with her, Jenny was certain that they would speak up. But their faces showed only apprehension and concern. Jenny had been escorted to a dance by Adam, and had gone riding with him several times, and with Little Joe a few times, and she knew that they would never allow this man to take advantage of her.
“I’ll go speak to Doctor Martin,” she said.
Adam took hold of her wrist. “No!” he exclaimed.
Jenny tried to pull away. “But he’ll listen to me!”
Adam held on to her firmly. “No,” he repeated.
“I’ll talk to him,” said Adam.
Jenny looked at him, then at Joe.
“I’ll go with him, and talk to him, too,” said Joe hesitantly.
“You mean it?” asked Jenny. “You’re not just saying this to – to get me to be quiet and go home?” She looked at the miner, who hadn’t stopped staring at her.
“He’ll listen to the Cartwright boys,” the miner said approvingly.
Jenny still wondered if this was a set-up, but one more look at Adam’s and Joe’s faces convinced her that they were sincere. “All right,” she said, hoping their sincerity wouldn’t disappear as soon as her wagon was out of sight. “I’ll trust you to go to the doctor, and get her the help she needs.” She took the reins from Adam, and waited for him and Joe to get down.
“I’ll ride with you to the edge of town,” said Adam, and gently took the reins back from her. “Joe, why don’t you stay with our wagon until I get back?” Joe climbed down from the wagon, and Adam escorted Jenny through the noisy, disapproving throng in the streets.
The red-headed woman hidden behind a tree at the top of the bank near the stream watched and listened. She had heard and seen the eagle, but the rabbit was too far away for her to see. She knew, however, that the eagle’s prey had just had a close call, and wondered how much longer she and her friends could keep going before they, too, were snared, throttled, slaughtered, and devoured. She peered around the tree, and looked about cautiously. There appeared to be no one in sight, but she couldn’t be too careful. They had seen a fence a while ago, as they came out of the foothills near the Sierra Nevada range, and had quickly gone out of sight of it, hurrying toward the trees, so they could get under cover, and hopefully near water again. She stiffened as she heard a shout, and ducked behind the tree again.
A small girl with light brown braids coming undone and dress flying about ran into her view. She gave a mighty yell accompanied by a flying leap, and landed on a mounded hump of dirt covered with scrubby grass and weeds. Dust flew up about her and settled upon her hair, face, and clothes, turning her dress from blue to brown. A young lady with her hair pulled back and fastened under her hat appeared shortly, holding her dress so she didn’t trip over it, hurrying yet managing to appear ladylike as she scurried to catch up with the child. Before she could reach the hillock where the little girl perched, the child gave a shout, leaped up, and ran toward the stream.
The red-headed woman threw herself to the ground and crawled desperately back down the bank, heedless of the additional dirt and grass stains on her dress. She heard a tremendous shout – a man’s shout – and knew he was after her. Her breath caught in her throat as she scuttled under the overhanging bush by the stream with her companions. She could only hope the mule was hidden well enough, and he wouldn’t see it, or them. Terrified, she curled herself into a ball and willed her gasping, wheezing breath to stop and her pounding heart to still.
“Who said you could go down by the stream?” The angry voice approached.
He was coming. What a fool she’d been, to think she could escape him again. She’d run away before, and he’d come after her, always tracking her down, finding her, - and forcing her back.
“What do you think you’re doing, running off down here, and no one with you?” He was at the top of the bank.
“But Grandpa, Aunt Jenny was right behind me” – a little girl’s voice began.
“No, she wasn’t! You ran off and left her! You could fall down the bank and hurt yourself, or fall in the water! You don’t go down near the stream without someone holding your hand!” The last statement was spoken with great emphasis given to each word.
In her hiding place, the woman opened her eyes. His voice didn’t sound the way she remembered. She lifted her head and twisted her neck around to carefully peer back up the bank. The same child and young lady she had seen before stood at the top of the bank. A man with dark, curly hair with more than a touch of gray stood next to them.
“I’m here now, Father,” said the young woman, as she took the little girl’s hand. “Don’t yell at her. She’s just excited. I can take her down.”
“No! She’s too wild right now, and apt to get into trouble. Stay up here!”
“We need to get back home, anyway.” An older woman’s voice from further away floated down the bank. “We’ve visited, had our picnic, and run and played and talked. I need to finish some mending and get dinner started, and the chores need to be done.”
The child’s face fell in disappointment. “Never mind, Karen, we’ll go down another time,” said her aunt. “Let’s go look at my flowers while Grandma gathers the picnic things.” Karen yielded to the gentle tug on her hand, and allowed the young lady to lead her away. The man followed them.
A deep longing stirred within Elise from her hiding place. That and curiosity conquered her fear, and she emerged from the bushes and crawled carefully back up the bank. A muffled whimper of terror followed her. “Don’t worry, Mai Ling,” she said quietly over her shoulder. “It wasn’t him. Stay with Marabelle. I’ll be right back.”
Just below the top of the bank, she stopped, then carefully lifted her head and peered over. The young child and her aunt – Karen and Jenny, Elise told herself – were walking up a slight hill, their backs to her, toward a couple of lone trees standing in the midst of open grassland stunted here and there with bushes. A wagon approached, going slowly over the bumpy ground. As it came closer, she saw it was driven by a boy of about eight or nine. A woman sat next to him holding a baby.
“What are you doing?” asked the man. The woman in the wagon said something about bringing the wagon to everyone instead of waiting for everyone to come to the wagon. The man threw his head back and laughed, a long, loud laugh from his heart. He took the baby from his wife’s arms and held him closely and carefully to him, stroking his hair and kissing him before giving him back. Then he turned and gave a trilling whistle.
Elise followed his gaze. His granddaughter and her aunt were kneeling by the trees, carefully admiring and touching something Elise couldn’t see. They looked back at the sound of the whistle, and Jenny waved to him to show she had heard. After a moment longer, they stood and walked back to the wagon. The grandfather picked up Karen and threw her in the back, to the sound of much giggling, and helped Jenny in more slowly. The boy then climbed in the back, and the grandfather stepped up next to his wife, took the reins, turned the wagon, and drove out of Elise’s sight.
Elise wished they would come back, so she could watch them some more, and listen to the grandfather laugh again. She swallowed the lump in her throat, and was surprised to find herself fighting off tears. She hadn’t cried since – when had she last cried? Shortly after her parents had died, and she’d had to go live with her uncle and aunt, she had learned not to cry. She shuddered at the memory of her uncle: Such a seemingly genteel man, with a kind word for everyone, but who had stared at her all the time. Shortly after she arrived at his home, the night time visits to her room had begun. At first, she was too horrified to resist. When she finally protested, he immediately warned her that any resistance on her part would make things worse for her. He also informed her that if she ever told anyone about what they did, he would kill her. But there was never any chance of her telling anyone about the terrible nights she spent in his house. She knew that no one would believe her, and even if they had, they would look upon her with the same disgust and hatred that her aunt always had in her eyes whenever they were turned toward her.
When her uncle had tired of her, he sold her to Clint. What Clint did to her was far worse than anything her uncle had ever done. She never cried there. She also learned to instantly obey everything he wanted her to do, and to pretend she liked it, no matter how distasteful it was to her, and to never, ever show fear around him. Mai Ling was so terrified of Clint that she shuddered visibly whenever he came around her. Clint had fed off her fear as a leech fed on blood.
Elise emerged slowly from the trees, looking about to be certain no one was watching her. Keeping low to the ground, she went to the small stand of trees where she had seen Jenny and Karen. Though it wasn’t far from where she had been hidden, it was further away than it seemed, and the gradual uphill slope winded her easily in her weakened state. She saw the fabulous blossoms as she approached. Someone had planted beautiful red roses by the trees, and had transplanted some wild prairie roses about them.
Heedless of the danger of being in the open, Elise stood lost in thought. Her mother had grown roses which Elise had helped tend. All of her mother’s flowers had been lovely, just as she was. Elise remembered how she had followed her mother, listening to her humming and singing to herself as she wandered through the garden, pruning, pulling weeds, and carefully choosing blooms to adorn their dining room table. Her father used to say that her mother helped the sun rise in the sky with her singing, and as Elise saw the mornings grow brighter around them, and her mother’s red hair shine in the sun, she believed him.
Elise swallowed and pushed the memory away. These flowers looked a bit scraggly. They needed pruning. She pulled a knife that she carried at her hip, and proceeded to cut them back. She wondered how she could remember how to do this after all these years, but she did the task as though she had just done it yesterday. She cut one blossom and trimmed the thorns. Surely whoever planted these couldn’t begrudge her one flower. The soil about them was dry, as was everything about her, but she could water them later. The stream was nearby.
She went back to her friends much more lighthearted than she’d felt in years. “I brought us a flower,” she announced, as she crawled under the bushes. “Someone planted rosebushes out here! Isn’t it beautiful?”
Mai Ling looked at the rose, then at Elise. “Who were those people?”
“A family. They must live close by.”
“Did they see you?”
“No.” Elise paused. “They seem nice. Maybe they’d help us.” But she knew that no matter how nice they seemed, they were respectable, and would want nothing to do with the likes of them.
Mai Ling looked at Marabelle. “She’s getting worse.”
Elise looked at their friend. Open sores covered her face, and could also be seen on her arms and legs through rips in her sleeve and her skirt. A rash of small blisters was starting to form again, after having disappeared earlier while they rested in the wilderness.
“She’s so hot!” exclaimed Mai Ling.
Elise gingerly touched a part of Marabelle’s face that didn’t have blisters or sores on it. Her skin felt hot and leathery. As she brushed her friend’s neck, she could feel swollen glands. She moved her hand down to the enlarged belly, and felt the muscles contract briefly. Marabelle groaned and drew her hands over her belly, curling into a ball on her side, squeezing her swollen red eyes tightly shut.
Elise whispered to Mai Ling, “It can’t be her time yet!” Mai Ling just looked at her with huge, frightened eyes.
“Let’s get her a drink and sponge her off,” said Elise. “Maybe we can wash our clothes out here.” A fish splashed in a low-lying pool isolated from the stream during this dry spell by a fallen tree and other debris piled against it. “Let’s make a fire, too,” said Elise, grateful for the Indians they’d encountered in the wilderness who had taught them how.
“Someone will see it,” whimpered Mai Ling.
“We have to chance it,” Elise countered. “We can’t eat raw fish, and I’m sick of jerky. We’re running low on food, anyway.” She nodded toward Marabelle. “Give her a drink and wipe her face, while I try to catch some fish. She needs something good to eat.”
Elise fashioned a hook and line from a twig and light-weight branches the way she had seen the Indians do a short while ago, and persisted until she had three fish. Then she built a small fire in a hollowed-out semi-circle under the bank, prayed that the fire wouldn’t smoke or that the smoke would not be seen, let it burn low, and laid the fish on the hot coals.
Meanwhile, Mai Ling lifted Marabelle’s head, brushed her dirty blonde hair out of the way, and gave her a drink of tepid water. “If only it would rain!” thought the Chinese girl. “We could be a little cleaner just by standing in it!” She glanced at the sluggish, muddy water in the stream. They might wash in that, only to come out dirtier than when they came in. Perhaps they had to drink it, but they didn’t have to wash in it. She wet the corner of her shawl in the water, and wiped her sick friend’s face and hands.
As Elise brought a fish to Marabelle, she wondered if she would be able to eat it. But the girl sat up, and despite the tremors that racked her body, reached hungrily for the food. Elise looked at her stringy hair, the dirt covering her from head to toe, along with the sores ravaging her body, and wondered how much longer she could last. They had to get to shelter; they had to find someone with a kind heart who would help them, before the baby came; before it was too late. But Elise knew, despite her young age of not-quite-seventeen, that kind hearts would turn to stone against the three of them. She also realized that no help would be freely given. Everything had a price, and no one would do anything for her unless something was in it for them. And all she knew how to give would be repulsed with disgust as long as anyone knew about Marabelle.
“What a pity,” Elise thought, as she watched her hungry friend devour the fish. Marabelle used to be so pretty. Everyone wanted her. Men even paid extra for her. But now…they never knew her. No one wanted her. Nobody cared.
Marabelle ate two fish and some jerky. Mai Ling ate the other fish. Elise just had jerky. Elise and Mai Ling washed as well as they could in the muddy stream, and washed Marabelle as much as they dared. As the sun set, they huddled under their thin blankets and went to sleep.
Jake, the bartender, laughed. “Yeah, right, Adam! We’d all like that about now.” He dispensed some brew in a glass and put it in front of his customer. “Where have you been? Looks like you’ve been gone for a while.”
Adam took an appreciative sip. “Off to check on some mining operations,” he said, hoping Jake wouldn’t ask any more questions. He was sick of dealing with the problems there, and definitely wasn’t anticipating telling his father about how they’d been swindled. No telling how much money they’d lost in that crooked scheme, not to mention the additional timber they’d have to cut now to shore up the mine. He took another long drink.
“You’ve been gone for a while. Your pa was in town about – oh, maybe a couple days ago now, wondering if you’d been around.”
Adam maintained his composure. Of course his father had good reason to be concerned, but he didn’t want Jake knowing that. “It just took me a little longer than usual, that’s all.” Jake hurried away to answer the call of another customer.
A few minutes later, Adam asked for another beer. As Jake set it before him, Adam asked, “What happened to that girl in the alley?”
“What girl in the alley?”
“You know,” said Adam. “Roberta.”
“Oh! Her!” Jake shook his head and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “She’s gone, about three, four weeks now.”
Adam looked thoughtfully at his friend. “What happened to her?”
Jake stared at him, and raised his eyebrows. “What do you think happened to her?”
“I mean, did she die, get driven away, get taken away, what happened to her?”
“All I know is, she’s gone.” Jake leaned close to him. “Some say the doctor helped her,” he whispered. “That she died right after he saw her. I don’t know; I didn’t see it. But lots of them didn’t, either. They carted her away shortly after his visit to her.” He wiped a few glasses. “What’s your interest in it?”
Adam put his empty glass down. “Just wondering. I asked the doc to see her. Wondered how she was.”
“Well, now you know. Doctor can’t do anything for someone like that. Jake picked up his empty glass to refill it, but Adam held up his hand to stop him.
“I’m heading home. Don’t bother.” He tossed another coin on the counter.
“You sure?” asked Jake. “We got lots of entertainment here later on, if you want to spend the night in town.” He winked.
wondered how Jake could even suggest such a thing after seeing what had
happened to Roberta. He shook his head. “Nope. I’ve had
enough trail dust to choke my horse, and seen enough ‘entertainment.’
I’ll see you around.” He strode out the door, waved to some men playing
cards by the window, and left the saloon. Jake shrugged his shoulders
as he watched him leave.
Later that night
Mai Ling woke before dawn, certain she heard someone at the top of the bank. She strained her ears for the stealthy footsteps through the grass she was sure she had heard, and the soft crunch of booted feet in the dirt. She barely muffled a scream as she heard some pebbles and small clods of dirt rustle through the grass and bushes near her. She held her breath, pressing her face in the dirt beneath her, hoping that whoever it was wouldn’t notice them, and that their mule would be silent. But the startled animal scrambled to its feet and strained against its tether. A screeching bray echoed through the pre-dawn air, and the terrified girl wrapped her arms about her head.
After what seemed to Mai Ling like several minutes of noise and struggle that could wake the dead, the mule settled back down with several loud snorts. When the girl mustered the courage to uncover her head and look, she could see the animal’s shadow in the late moonlight that still glimmered over the very edge of the shallow ravine in which they were hiding. She looked carefully about, but saw nothing and no one.
The coyote that had caused the disturbance trotted nervously along the top of the ravine, searching for a place where it could get water undisturbed. He was roaming far from his usual hunting grounds, looking for water and food after being driven away by roaming Indian tribes and increasing numbers of settlers searching for the same during this drought. He had scented water and easy prey, but humans were also near by, and seemingly all about him, and he was nervous as he ran on.
The minutes passed like hours as Mai Ling strained her ears to hear the slightest sound of anyone about them. She heard only the soft wind in the trees, the call of a lonely owl, and the barely audible ripple of water in the disappearing moonlight. Finally, she sat up slowly and carefully, cringing at the crackle of dead leaves and the snapping of twigs beneath her. The moon set over the lip of the ravine, and she could barely see the darker shadow of the mule as it slept again. She looked next to her, but it was too dark under the dense bushes where they hid to see her companions. She could hear their breathing, but reached over and touched them blindly in the dark just to reassure herself of their presence. Marabelle, next to Mai Ling, jumped when she was touched. Elise, on the other side of Marabelle, stirred, yawned, and turned over.
Driven by an impulse she did not understand, Mai Ling left the shelter of her tangled bush and stood for a moment in the dark beside it. She looked in vain for a glimmer of light reflecting from the water she could barely hear, then turned the other way. Blackness met her eyes. She raised her head, and finally saw light far above her. She wandered blindly forward, and stumbled on her hands and knees up the bank, until she reached the top.
The moonlight still shone over the grassy meadow about her. Bushes and trees stood out starkly against the flowing silver grass drenched in lustrous white. She peered out at this strange world, feeling like a small, lost child. She hadn’t looked upon such a sight since her childhood in China. She recalled the last sight of her homeland three years earlier, as her brother traveled with her to a ship to take her to America.
She remembered the night before they arrived at the ship. It was a beautiful, cloudless, moonlit night like this, with the shimmering grass flowing up the hillsides and the trees standing like sentinels. She and her brother had slept one last night in the open, and he had told her, once again, that she would meet her cousin in San Francisco. She was to travel with him to his home, where she would keep house for him, and he would eventually find her a suitable husband. Mai Ling had clung to the memory of that last night of her free life with her brother many times during the years since then.
She wished she could erase her memories from then on. Her cousin had not taken her to his home, but had sold her to men of her own country who trained her for a life she never wanted to live. Unable to escape from them, and with no place to go in a foreign country often hostile to her people even if she had managed to flee, she learned to please the men who came to her in order to survive. She often wished to kill herself to end her misery, but lacked the courage to do so. She was locked in the brothel, unable to leave. Clint had bought her during one of his trips to San Francisco. She had not seen a nighttime sky until the three of them had fled from Clint.
Clint. Was it he she had heard earlier? Surely not. He would have found them, with all the noise their mule had made. Then again, perhaps he was waiting. Waiting for daylight.
The moonlight seemed suddenly revealing instead of beautiful, and Mai Ling shivered. She moved away from the edge of the trees and slipped back down by the stream. As she crawled about, vainly trying to locate her friends in the dark, she bumped into the mule. She curled up next to him and lay sleepless until dawn.
Jenny looked out the window. The gusts of wind blew clouds of dust along the ground with tumbleweeds, leaves, and branches. Spidery flickers of lightning briefly illumined the blackening sky, occasionally accompanied by thunder, but no rain fell. The dust was getting in the house, despite the tightly shut windows and curtains. She was sure it would be in their food.
She looked about carefully. A few hours ago, the cat, who had been sleeping soundly, had suddenly sat up, listened intently, then rushed to the window. He jumped behind the curtains onto the windowsill, then exploded from there and hid under the bed in Jenny’s room. Shortly after, Karen insisted she saw someone by the barn. Jared had scoffed, making fun of her imaginary friends, but Jenny kept checking outside after that. No one had been to the barn since early morning. There was no sign of anyone outside now that she could see.
Jenny wondered why her father had to leave now on business, and why her mother had accompanied him. She realized that her father’s job representing a company that sold mining equipment, as well as his investigation into the sale of equipment needed for the establishment of factories in some parts of the West, kept him traveling, but there seemed to be an unusual number of trips to Silver City lately. Both of her parents went on those trips, while her father traveled alone on his other journeys. Her father said Silver City wasn’t that far away, and it was a chance for her mother to get away with him, but Jenny doubted that was the only reason. She wondered why her father would have to travel to one place so many times, even a boom mining town like Silver City.
She dropped the curtain and went back to the stove. They could eat an early supper, Jared could do the chores, and she’d put the younger children to bed. She’d had Jared fill the bathtub for their evening bathing that morning, when she saw the storm coming, and it only needed some hot water added. She knew after all the dust, they’d want to wash up thoroughly before bed.
As she set the table, the cat emerged from hiding and watched her expectantly. She looked at his sleek form and glossy black fur, and reminded herself that he didn’t need any tidbits during their meal. She scraped the fat and meat scraps that she had saved for him from their stew onto a plate, and put it on the floor. “Here you go, Comet,” she said. He ran over to the plate with his tail waving in anticipation, sniffed at the offering, then moved in front of the stove and looked longingly at the pot of simmering stew above him.
“Supper’s almost ready!” she called. “Wash your hands.” Karen and Jared came in the kitchen. Karen pushed her stepstool to the sink, bumping it into Jared’s foot as he pumped the water. Impatiently, he kicked it aside. She shoved it right back, and before the incident could escalate into a major confrontation, Jenny spoke sharply. David fussed and called from his cradle near one of the windows. As Jenny took him to the bedroom to change him, she called over her shoulder, “Karen, finish setting the table, please.”
She returned to the kitchen a few minutes later to find her niece pumping water into the sink. As the flow reduced to a trickle, the cat put his head under it and drank. When it stopped, he meowed loudly, and waited for her to pump some more. She giggled and complied. Jenny opened her mouth to reprimand the girl for wasting water during the drought and not finishing setting the table as she was told, when Comet suddenly took fright, leaped out of the sink, and bolted toward her. He ran into her legs, nearly knocking her over, then almost tripping her. As she caught her balance, she heard a horse whinny, and there were several loud raps on the door. Karen leaped from her stool and ran across the kitchen.
“Karen!” Jenny spoke sharply. “Let me get it!” She put David back in his cradle, and hurried to the door, where she had to pull the girl out of the way. She pulled the door open, letting in the hot wind and dirt.
A tall man stood there. The lower half of his face was covered with a bandana. He was so plastered with dirt and grime that she couldn’t tell what color his clothes were. She stepped back in alarm. He pulled the bandana below his chin and hurriedly caught the door with his other hand as she tried to close it. “It’s me, Jenny.”
“Adam!” She recognized his voice, and let him in. “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you!” She gave him a glass of water, and he gratefully washed the grit from his mouth while she rinsed out his dirty canteen at the sink. “What are you doing out in this storm?”
“I’m on my way home from business at the mines,” he replied. “I saw the storm coming after I left Virginia City, and should have gone back to town, but I was too anxious to get home.”
“You can stay here tonight,” she told him. “At least eat supper with us.” She turned. “Jared, see to Adam’s horse.”
“No need for that,” assured Adam firmly. He preferred to care for Sport himself. “I’ll take care of him.”
Jenny looked at Jared. “Go do the chores, anyway. We’ll eat after you both get back.”
Jared and Adam worked in the barn with minimal conversation. Adam was weary from his journey and frustrated with the problems from the mining camp, and Jared was rather in awe of this tall, handsome man who seemed larger than life to him. Adam made some small talk with the boy, and discovered his grandparents were not at home. He frowned. Jenny staying alone with the children disturbed him, even after Jared assured him that Adam’s pa had agreed to look in on them a few times. Adam determined then to spend the night in the barn. Staying in the house would not be proper in these circumstances.
After he cared for Sport, Adam helped Jared finish the chores. Jared knew he shouldn’t let him, as Adam was a guest, but Adam insisted. When they finished, and Jared was following Adam out of the barn, Jared heard a thump and a rustle, and what sounded like a gasp, followed by a suddenly stifled moan. He turned quickly and looked behind him, but Adam had the lantern, and he could see nothing.
Adam returned to his side. “Something wrong?”
“I thought I heard something – or somebody.”
They both listened intently and heard only the wind, some far-off thunder, and the animals contentedly munching in their stalls. “Maybe we should go take a look,” suggested Adam.
“It was probably just the wind, the rats or mice, and maybe some of the barn cats,” said Jared. “There’s some new kittens that are probably getting big up in the loft.”
“There are?” Adam smiled. “I hope I didn’t throw any of them down with the hay!”
Jared laughed. “If you had, you would have heard them. I did it myself, once.” Laughing together, they locked the barn door and went back to the house.
The table was set, and Jenny was reading a story to the children when the man and boy returned from the barn. She looked up as they entered. “Jared, there’s warm water in the pitcher.” She pointed to the wash stand near the door. “Adam, there’s a bath waiting for you, and I’ve heated water to put in it.” She rose and went to the stove, and started to lift the pan of water that was steaming on it.
Adam stopped her. “Jenny. I don’t need a bath right now. If I stay here, and it looks as though I have to, I’ll sleep in the barn, and take a bath when I get home tomorrow.”
“Nonsense!” Jenny exclaimed. “There’s no need for you to sleep in the barn, especially in this storm! And,” she added with a twinkle in her eye, “if you’re eating with us, you need to bathe first.”
Adam couldn’t help laughing. He was tired, filthy, and knew he must stink. A bath certainly did sound delightful right now. He decided to bathe now and argue later. As he lifted the heavy pan of hot water from the stove, he said, “Just don’t hold dinner for me.”
Jenny smiled politely and led him to the bathroom. As he added the hot water to the tub, she asked, “Do you have some clean clothes, or do you need me to wash some?”
“I have some that are clean enough,” he replied. When he’d realized his supposedly brief trip to the mines was going to be a long one, he had washed his own clothes in a nearby stream, and he had some that would do for tonight. “They’re in my saddlebags, by the door,” he added. Jenny brought the bags to him.
After sweeping out the dirt tracked in by the door, she brought down from the shelves above the stove an apple pie that had been baked earlier in the week. Her chief thought while preparing dinner had been to get one step closer to getting the children into bed and out of her hair, not feeding company. Thank goodness she had made stew. That would feed all of them, though it was a good thing, she thought, that it was Adam and not Hoss, Adam’s bigger “little” brother, who had happened by.
Adam hurried through his bath, and entered the kitchen as he finished buttoning his cream-colored shirt. “I would wear a tie for the occasion,” he said, “but I’m afraid I lost it while I was in the mines.”
Jenny and Jared laughed. “What were you doing at the mines?” asked Jenny. “Your father was by early this morning, and mentioned that you’ve been gone for two weeks. He seemed worried about you.”
Adam sighed. “It’s a long story. It was supposed to be a short trip, but it turned into a nightmare, which I will discuss with my father when I get home.” Jenny took the hint, served the stew, and steered the conversation in a different direction.
Everyone was hungry, and for the first several minutes, there was no talk except requests for more biscuits or stew. Jenny had pushed back her plate with a sigh of satisfaction, and noticed happily that Adam seemed to be enjoying his meal (though he was probably so hungry that a two-by-four and a can of nails would have been appetizing). Suddenly, she heard a familiar and aggravating sound: Comet sharpening his claws on the doorjamb by the hall near the bedrooms. She turned toward him. “Comet!” she exclaimed.
He looked at her with huge green-rimmed eyes filled almost completely with black pupils, twitched his tail, and climbed the doorjamb to the ceiling. “Get down!” she shouted. The cat climbed part way down, leaped to the floor, and in two bounds was on the table. He snatched a piece of stew meat from Karen’s plate and jumped from the table like a jackrabbit, knocking over Karen’s milk in the process. As she hurriedly mopped up the milk, Jenny saw him running to her bedroom with his tail held high and his trophy in his mouth.
Jenny was angry for a moment, but soon joined everyone else in their laughter. Adam laughed so hard that he nearly choked. Even David smiled and laughed until he hiccuped with the effort. “Let’s hope he’s happy with just one piece.” Jenny threw the three napkins she had used to wipe up Karen’s milk toward the sink, and got another glass of milk from the pail brought in earlier.
“Maybe you should feed him, Aunt Jenny,” said Karen.
“I did – before dinner. He has fat scraps and some meat, with a little gravy. He wouldn’t eat it. It’s still by the stove.”
“He doesn’t like his water, either,” said Karen. “That’s why I have to run water in the sink for him. That’s how he likes to drink it.” Adam nearly choked again.
Jenny removed the dishes and served the apple pie. Adam pronounced it the best he had ever eaten, but swore everyone at the table to secrecy, as Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s cook and housekeeper, would be very upset if he knew that Adam like anyone’s cooking better than his own. Jenny, pleased and proud, smiled and thanked him.
Jared looked timidly at Adam, swallowed a bite of pie, and said, “It’s a good thing you weren’t here the last time Aunt Jenny fixed dinner, Adam.” He glanced slyly at his aunt, who frowned at him.
“Why is that?” asked Adam.
“Jenny made supper while Grandma and Grandpa were packing to go away,” said Jared a little more boldly. “The broccoli…”
“I suggest you hold your tongue, young man, unless you don’t want to go fishing and camping with your friends and their fathers in a couple of weekends,” said Jenny firmly. She needed no tales of the worm-covered broccoli she had put on the table. Her mother had laughed, thrown it away, and told her to soak it in salted water the next time. But Jenny wasn’t about to let Jared get away with regaling Adam with this tale at her expense.
“You can’t stop me from going on that trip!” Jared hotly shouted. “That’s up to Grandpa, not you!”
“You think I can’t talk him out of it?” Jenny raised her eyebrows. “Try me!”
“Uh, Jared,” Adam intervened. He leaned close to the boy. “Tell me later,” he whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear. “We might be able to use it as blackmail sometime.” He winked at the boy. Almost triumphant but still half scared, Jared glanced at his aunt. To his surprise, she was laughing.
Jenny made some tea as she washed the dishes. “Adam, you can sleep in Mother and Father’s room. I don’t expect them back for at least a week, and there’s no reason for you to go out to the barn tonight. It’s too nasty outside, and you’ve been on the trail long enough.”
“Would your father consider that proper?” asked Adam.
Jenny was silent for a moment. “He definitely would not consider it acceptable for you, a good friend of the family who has escorted me to dances and other events, whose father is a friend and neighbor, to sleep in the barn in a storm like this, especially after you’ve been on the road. Please, if you won’t sleep in my parents’ room, sleep out here, on the couch. It may not be long enough for you, though.” She paused for a moment as she rinsed a glass. “It’s not as though I’m alone. Jared is here, and the younger children. Besides, who is going to find out about it? No one will see you as you leave in the morning , and we’re not doing anything improper, anyway.” She looked at him as she finished the dishes. “Please stay in the house. I can’t let a guest who is a friend stay in the barn, especially on a night like tonight.”
She didn’t add that she was desperate for adult company, or that she often was nervous when her parents were away. Though she liked living in the wide open spaces, far enough from town to be alone, yet close enough to be within riding distance of help if necessary, taking care of three children, the house, and outdoor tasks by herself, with no help within calling distance, made her feel too responsible and frightened. She would welcome his presence in the house, even for just one night.
Adam gave in. “All right,” he smiled. “I’ll sleep out here, by the door, on the couch.” He looked sternly at Karen. “But everyone had better be good, behave, and go to bed on time.” Karen nodded solemnly, but Jared smiled. Jenny dried her hands and poured Adam a cup of tea, then began putting the Karen and David to bed.
About an hour later, Jenny joined Adam in the sitting room, an area next to the kitchen in their small house. She refilled Adam’s cup of tea, and got one for herself. Jared crept into a chair across from Adam, while Comet leaped on Jenny’s lap, curled up, and murred and meowed, demanding to be petted. “I didn’t sleep well last night,” Jenny confessed as she attempted to stifle a yawn. “I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, sure I had heard something. It sounded for all the world like a donkey braying. A crazy dream for sure!”
“Grandma heard it, too!” exclaimed Jared. “I heard her telling Grandpa about it before they left this morning. Grandpa was wondering where a donkey would have come from, and Grandma just said don’t worry about it, it was either a stray donkey from a ranch or farm nearby, or a silly dream. But she and Grandpa both wondered why she’d be dreaming about a donkey!”
“Well, at any rate, it took me a long time to get back to sleep,” continued Jenny. “And Karen was certain that she saw someone by the barn today….though she does ‘see’ lots of things, and has plenty of imaginary ‘friends’….and the cat was acting strangely around the time that she insisted she saw someone, too.”
“‘Cat behaving strangely’ seems to me, in this case, to be a contradictory description,” said Adam as his dimples showed. “I’d say strange behavior from him is perfectly normal.” He took a sip of tea without taking his eyes from Jenny. “If he ever began acting ‘normally’, I’d say you’d best assume he was sick.” He put his cup on the table before him. “The best ‘cure’ for that cat is for him to go live in the barn and fend for himself. Catch a few mice, or rats. Fight the other cats. Teach him a few lessons, and be good for him, too.”
Jenny laughed as she rubbed her tired eyes, then petted Comet. “Not a chance,” she scoffed. “He’s the household baby.” Comet prrowed in approval.
Adam raised his eyebrows. “I thought David was the baby?”
“Noooo,” hedged Jenny. “Well, he’s around a year old, so he’s not really a baby so much anymore.…” She didn’t mention their worry that he wasn’t moving about or developing as he should.
Adam watched her, smiling. “Why don’t you just put the diapers and baby clothes on Comet?”
Jared spoke up. “Karen already tried. He won’t wear them.”
They all laughed. “I need to go to bed,” said Jenny, “and so do you, Jared. I’ll bring some sheets out for you, Adam.”
“Is Adam still here?” he asked. Jenny pointed to the couch.
Jared looked at him with barely concealed admiration. “I was thinking you might have left already.”
“Without breakfast? The way your aunt cooks? Never!” said Adam. He stood up. “Why don’t you finish dressing, and we’ll go do the chores?”
Jenny bit her tongue and refrained from asking if he was referring to the stew from the previous night or the tale he had heard about the wormy broccoli. She knew a guest should not be doing their chores, but also knew the uselessness of attempting to talk Adam out of it. Besides, he seemed to be a calming influence on Jared. He hadn’t once pestered the younger children since Adam had arrived the night before, and even his table manners had improved. So she kept quiet and continued to fix breakfast, and tended to Karen and David when they awakened.
At Adam’s request, Jared instructed him on the chores with the horses and milk cow. Jared went up in the loft and began pitching hay down, after they had both mucked out stalls. Suddenly, Adam called, “Hey, Jared! I didn’t know you had a mule!”
“We don’t,” Jared called down.
“There’s one here, by the back door, around the corner, behind the wall with the tools,” returned Adam. “He’s not in a stall. He just has some hay thrown around him. And…” he paused as he examined the floor. “It seems he’s been given some oats, from the looks of things.”
Jared dropped the pitchfork and walked across the loft to the back wall of the barn, above where Adam was. “We don’t have a mule,” he insisted. “How did you find him?”
“He was just here, across from all the tack and supplies, and behind the wall with the tools,” repeated Adam. He looked him over with a critical eye, noting the matted fur, worn shoes, protruding ribs, and the head drooping from exhaustion. “He’s been worked pretty hard, from the looks of him.” He picked up the animal’s right foreleg. “Has a shoe missing, too.”
Jared moved to the edge of the loft and looked down at Adam. “He’s not ours. Where’d he come from?”
“No telling,” replied Adam. “At least, not yet.”
Jared turned to go back toward the center of the barn so he could descend the ladder and see this mule. He noticed that some of the hay was scattered about toward the edge of the loft, in an area where he hadn’t been throwing it down below, and kicked and threw it away from the edge as he walked. He heard a gasp and a rustle, and saw some movement in the mound of hay. He thought he saw a flash of color: blue, perhaps? He couldn’t be sure. Narrowing his eyes, he walked slowly toward the piled up hay. He began pulling down the stack where he thought he had seen and heard something. What should have been a high and solid wall, fairly tightly packed, easily collapsed before him. Behind a thin wall of hay, Jared saw, in the dusky light of the loft, three emaciated, dirty women, peering at him through their stringy hair with terrified, desperate eyes. One of them held a knife, poised for action; another looked too frightened to move, while the third lay between them, breathing heavily. A groan escaped from the last one while Jared stared at them. The frightened one made a whimpering noise, while the one with the knife simply stared at him, daring him with her eyes to come closer.
Jared couldn’t move or speak for a long minute. Finally, he backed up until he almost fell from the loft. “Adam? Adam! I think you’d better come up here! Quick!”
Adam bounded up the ladder in a few seconds, and was at Jared’s side. He had his hand on his gun, and started to draw when he saw the crouching figures back in the loft. But when he saw they were women, he hesitated, even when he saw the knife in Elise’s hand. He stared in amazement at them. Elise’s stone-cold blue eyes met his unflinchingly, while Mai Ling’s huge brown eyes were filled with terror. Marabelle’s knowing glance spoke volumes, of pain expected and misery anticipated. After looking at him with a piercing gaze, she closed her eyes, curled up, and groaned as another wave of pain consumed her.
Adam took his hand from his gun. “Go get your aunt,” he told Jared tersely, when he finally found his tongue. Jared shuffled backwards, then sideways, until he found the ladder.
Adam hadn’t taken his eyes from the women. “Who are you?” he asked.
Elise gripped her knife and raised it higher. “Stay away, Mister,” she hissed. “We’re doing you no harm.”
Adam raised his hands palm outward. “I just want to know who you are,” he said. “Why are you here?” His eyes drifted toward the woman lying on her side, groaning in pain. He moved closer to look at her.
Elise scooted in front of Marabelle and stood up, the knife before her. “Stay away from her!” she snarled, doing her best to conceal her fear. He was a big man. He could easily overpower her, even with the knife, and Mai Ling was too terrified to fight, and too small to help her, anyway. Marabelle couldn’t help her, nor could she deal with any man’s attentions right now, should this man take it into his head to avail himself of her services, or to beat her due to her condition.
She decided to change tactics. “Look, Mister,” she said coaxingly, “just be patient. Give me some water, and I’ll get cleaned up a bit. Then, you can have me, if you want.” When Adam didn’t respond except by staring at her, she added, “It won’t cost you anything, of course. Just leave them alone -” she jerked her head toward the other two – “and you can have your pleasure with me.” When she saw his incredulous face, she added, “I’ve been on the road for a long time. Let me get cleaned up, and I think you’ll be right pleased.” Her voice was almost sultry. Adam could practically see her in a satin gown trimmed with lace, and with ribbons in her hair, in a fancy parlor, or in a saloon. Her voice sounded exactly like the voices of such women. Even the desperation evident behind her proposition didn’t sound out of place. He continued staring speechlessly at them, wondering almost frantically where Jenny was.
He heard footsteps on the ladder behind him and felt the floor of the loft vibrate as Jared and Jenny hurried to his side. Elise shifted her gaze from Adam to Jenny. She frowned, and her eyes narrowed. Jenny looked at the desperate, emaciated girl with the knife, the trembling Chinese girl crouching behind her, and an obviously ill girl huddled on the floor, clutching her distended belly and groaning in pain. Jenny attempted to approach them, intending to speak with and comfort the sick one, but Adam put out his arm to stop her even as Elise raised her knife and glared at her with murder in her eyes.
“Don’t,” said Adam quietly.
Jenny stopped, but looked in wonder and concern at the ragged figures before her. “Who are you?”
Stony silence met her question. Elise glared at her, recognizing the lady from near the stream a couple of days before. She wasn’t going to talk to her. Nice as she and her family had seemed the other day, she knew the type. This was a woman who would cross to the other side of the street if she saw Elise coming. Should they be near one another, she would turn away and refuse to speak to her. The only reason this little miss wasn’t scorning her now was because she didn’t know what she was. Well, this gent with her would inform her, if she was so naïve. Then she could show her true colors.
Without looking away from them, Jenny said to Adam and Jared, “Go back to the house, please, both of you. There’s some stew in the kettle on the back of the stove. Get some in a big bowl and bring it here, along with three bowls and forks. The biscuits are in the drawer in the counter near the stove. And you might as well bring a pitcher of milk and some glasses, too.”
“I’ll stay here,” replied Adam. “You go in and help get that together.”
“No, Adam.” Jenny shook her head. “You’re scaring them. Let me talk to them.”
“I can help,” volunteered a small voice behind her.
Jenny turned about and saw Karen behind her. Fury seethed through her. “What are you doing here?” she demanded. “You were to stay in the house! The baby may be crying, and no one is with him!” Karen looked at Jenny, then at the three figures in the loft with a sober and troubled expression that made her appear far older than her three years. When Jenny saw the look on her niece’s face, she stopped scolding. Karen moved beside Jenny and continued to look solemnly at the sight before her.
Jenny laid her hand on the girl’s head. “Go in the house and help Adam and Jared,” she said softly. “Make sure you show them where all the dishes are. Then stay in the house with David.” She wiped away a tear that fell from Karen’s eye, hugged her close, and sent her and Jared back to the house. At Jenny’s insistence, Adam reluctantly followed the children, but had a whispered consultation with Jared at the bottom of the ladder, after which the youngsters went to the house while Adam stayed at the foot of the ladder, his ears attuned for any trouble that might arise.
Elise frowned. This was no good at all. The man should have stayed. She could handle a man. The only one she never could fully control was Clint. Now, some men were mean. They were harder to handle, but she could still manage them. She had studied this man while he was talking with this girl. This lady. He didn’t look mean, but he didn’t seem very controllable, either. He knew his own mind, and wasn’t going to run off after a momentary diversion – unless she could convince him of it. If that was the only way he would leave Marabelle alone, or promise not to tell about them, well, she’d simply have to persuade him. But it sure would be a lot easier to do if she was cleaned up!
“Who are you? What are you running from?”
The soft voice interrupted Elise’s thoughts. She glared at Jenny. This “good” girl was being nice now, but just give her time: Time to realize what the three of them were, time to realize that she couldn’t have anything to do with them. That’s all she needed: time. She would turn on them. Her kind always did. They acted so high and mighty, so hoity-toity, that they usually made fools of themselves. If Elise hadn’t been so desperate, she would have enjoyed watching it happen, and might even goad her along a bit.
“My name is Jenny.”
“I know.” Elise finally spoke to her. “And the little girl’s name is Karen. I saw you and your family near the stream the other day.” She continued to watch Jenny suspiciously.
“Why didn’t you come to the house?”
Elise laughed. “And have your father throw us out, and your mother threaten us with the sheriff? No, thank you! We take what we can get how we can get it, which usually means sneaking around. Guess you wouldn’t know much about that.”
Jenny privately thought that this woman didn’t know anything about her past, or any of the painful events in it, but knew it was best to leave that be for now. She had to admit that this stranger was right in assuming that she herself never had known the kind of suffering this woman was apparently acquainted with.
Jenny glanced at the other women behind the one speaking with her. “What are your names?”
“I tell my friends my name.”
Jenny wondered at the rebuff. She was obviously desperate. Why would she be so hostile to her? “I might be able to help you if you’ll tell me where you’re going and why you’re running.”
“Where are we going? Anyplace where there’s no men. You know someplace like that, besides a convent?” She laughed bitterly. “They wouldn’t take too kindly to us! The ‘why’ is our business.”
“If you’re on my father’s property, it becomes our business,” Jenny replied gently. “But I’m not asking you to tell me anything you haven’t a mind to.” She heard Jared coming across the barn. “We’ve brought some food for you.” She took the tray of bowls and glasses, then the tray of food. As she ladled the stew into bowls, she realized there were no utensils.
“Where are the forks?” asked Jenny. Jared ran back in the house to get them.
Jenny handed the food to their visitors, and started to tell them that the forks were coming. Her three guests, however, pounced upon the stew as wolves upon prey. She noticed that even the sick one lying down took on new strength as she struggled mightily to sit up, and desperately consumed the food before her. Burned fingers scooped mouthfuls of meat, vegetables, and gravy, which were hastily gulped down. The biscuits were devoured, the bowls licked clean, and crumbs even picked from the straw before Jared could return with the forks. Jenny and Adam looked at each other. Elise looked at them hopefully for more. Adam shook his head firmly.
“No,” he said. “You eat too much now, you’ll get sick.”
“You can have more later,” Jenny promised. She walked hesitantly to them to retrieve their bowls, expecting to be challenged with the knife again. Sated with the food, however, the exhausted trio lay back against the hay, and their eyelids drooped. As Jenny stooped to take Marabelle’s bowl, she saw the all-too-familiar sores and rash on her face, as well as on her legs and arms through the tears in her dress. She gasped sharply. “Just like that woman in the alley,” she thought. “Just like Roberta.” She turned to find Elise watching her curiously.
“Now you know,” said Elise. She closed her eyes wearily, then opened them a moment later. “I suppose you want us to leave.”
“She needs a doctor,” said Jenny. “I’ll send someone into town for him.”
Elise smiled bitterly. “A doctor can’t help her. And he probably wouldn’t see her, anyway.”
“Doc Martin will see her,” Jenny assured her.
“He’s gone right now,” said Adam. “I heard yesterday in town that he won’t be back for a while. Visiting family, I guess. His assistant, Doctor Young, is there.”
Jenny hesitated. She didn’t like Doctor Young. She was afraid of the way he stared at her, the ingratiating way he spoke to her, and how he tried to put his arm around her or brush up against her. She hadn’t told her father about that. She was too embarrassed and didn’t want any trouble. So she stayed away from him, and determined that if she needed a doctor, they would only see Doc Martin. She had a feeling that Doctor Young had heard the rumors about her and Karen, and believed every one of them.
She turned to Adam. “I guess you’d better go to town and get him.”
Adam shook his head. “No. I’ll stay here. You go get him.”
Jenny swallowed and looked down. Of course, Adam didn’t know about Doc Young’s behavior toward her. She thought of Jared, and immediately dismissed any idea of sending him to town. How could she instruct an eight year-old to say, “Doc, there are three women at our place. They’re all half-starved and filthy, and one has the pox and is with child.” No, she would have to do this. Adam was right. He should stay in case there were problems. She turned toward the ladder. “Jared can stay with the little ones, then. I’ll go make sure everything is settled with them before I leave.” She stopped as she saw Jared at the top of the ladder.
“I brought the milk out,” he said, and pointed to the tray on the barn floor.
“Hand it up here.” Jenny took the covered pitcher as he handed it to her. She placed it near Adam, next to the empty glasses. “Maybe they can have a little of this when they wake up.” With one glance back at the exhausted women, she left. “I’ll be back with help.”
Elise jumped and turned about, feeling vainly at her hip for her knife. Damn! Where was it? She’d just had it, when Jenny had tried to get too close. She’d gone to sleep with it in her hand. It must be in the hay back where she’d slept. She ran desperately back toward her two friends, but tripped over her skirt. Her head swam as she tried to rise to her feet. She couldn’t do it, not as weak as she was. Harsh travel conditions and too little food had sapped her strength. As her head cleared, she saw booted feet before her. Her eyes looked up the black pants and cream-colored shirt to the hazel eyes observing her with a mixture of wary caution and concern.
“Are you looking for this?” He held up her knife.
She stared at him. He returned her gaze evenly. His expression was inscrutable. He made no move toward her, and the usual leer or poorly concealed lust that she always saw in men’s faces was missing from his. Well, of course it was! She was a mess! But that sure hadn’t stopped some men as they’d fled from Clint and their old way of life. Elise glanced at Marabelle and Mai Ling. They were still sleeping.
“You dropped the knife while you were asleep,” Adam explained. “I took it before you rolled over on it. I’ll keep it, for now. I don’t like having knives pulled on me, especially when I haven’t done anything, and the people threatening me are someplace where they don’t belong.”
Elise’s eyes never left his face. He didn’t seem angry, and still he made no move toward her. What did he want of her? He wasn’t an easy one to figure out. She could hear the madam of Clint’s parlor house talking to her, shortly after Clint had tired of keeping her to himself and she had begun entertaining customers, “They all want the same thing, Elise, honey. It’s how they want it that’s different. Study them. Figure them out. Give them what they want, how they want it. And don’t make ‘em mad: An angry man is dangerous.” Well, she could play the ingratiating, apologetic part for threatening him with the knife, if that’s what this man wanted. But she needed more time to figure him out. Carefully schooling her face to show no fear, she said, “I sure am thirsty, Mister. Think I could have a drink of whatever’s in that pitcher over there?”
Without taking his eyes from her, Adam slowly nodded. “I’ll get it for you.”
“Oh, there’s no need,” Elise protested in her best coaxing voice. “I don’t want to trouble you, any more than I already have.”
“Stay there,” ordered Adam.
Elise shrank into the floor as he passed her, silently cursing herself for acting afraid of him. When Adam gave her a scant half glass of milk, she smiled as graciously as possible and let her hand linger against his as she accepted it. “Thank you,” she said demurely.
“Drink it slowly,” said Adam as he pulled his hand away from hers. “You don’t want to get sick by eating or drinking too much of anything too quickly.”
Elise nearly choked with anger. Why wasn’t he responding to her? But it had been a long time since she’d had any milk, and she drank it quickly despite his warnings.
He pulled the glass away from her. “Wait a minute before you drink the rest of it.” He looked at her as she watched him. Her stringy red hair was tangled and greasy, with wisps of hay in it. Her dress might have been a pretty shade of sapphire once, but was now ripped and soiled beyond repair. Her blue eyes, however, were clear and piercing, and Adam could see, despite her valiant efforts to hide it, that she was afraid of him. Beneath the dirt covering her and beyond the hardness of her face, he could read depths of pain that it disturbed him to contemplate.
Elise smiled timidly. “Mister, I’m sorry I pulled that knife on you. Really, I am. It’s just, well, with the three of us on our own, we need to be careful, you know? I’m real sorry.”
Adam looked sharply at her, and Elise’s hopes withered. He knew her. He knew what she was trying to do.
“You need to get cleaned up,” Adam said, as he returned the glass to her. “I’ve told Jared, the boy, to heat some water, and we’ve found an old tub in the barn that you can use. Jenny left some dresses for you to change into after you wash. We’ve set it up down below, in the barn. Of course, with the drought, there’s not a whole lot of extra water, so you’ll have to be sparing. But you’ll at least be cleaner than you were.” He stood up. “I’ll finish getting it ready, and you can bathe first.”
Elise smiled knowingly. This was finally going her way. “I think you’ll like me, Mister, once I get cleaned up.” She tossed her head confidently, and flashed him her best seductive smile. “I know I’m not much to look at now, but- ”
“My name is Adam.” She was surprised at his interruption. “Call me ‘Adam’. And I should make it clear to you that I’m not in the habit of frequenting the company of ladies who sell their services.” His voice was quiet and calm, and she looked at him in trepidation again. “It has happened on occasion,” he continued with a rueful smile, “but I’m rather selective about the company I keep. I don’t want that from you.”
Elise was furious. Why didn’t he just say she wasn’t good enough for him? There were few men she had met whom she couldn’t bend to her will. Of course, she didn’t stop to think that most men came to her for that express purpose. “Mister – uh, Adam – please,” she begged, “don’t bother Marabelle. I’ll do anything you want, just don’t bother her.”
“I’m not going to bother any of you,” replied Adam gently yet firmly. “No one here wants anything from any of you. We just want to help you. Now, I’ll call you when the water’s ready.” As he went toward the ladder, Elise didn’t know whether to be relieved or offended. She decided she simply hadn’t yet figured him out, and hoped that he really wouldn’t bother Marabelle while he made her bathe. She’d scratch his eyes out if he did.
Adam stopped before he came to the ladder. He pointed to the sick woman. “She must be Marabelle,” he said to Elise. “What’s your name?”
There was no point in not telling him. He was obviously a man accustomed to having his own way. She bit her lip, and replied, “Elise.”
Adam looked at the Chinese girl, then back at Elise. “And hers?”
Elise hesitated. “Mai Ling,” she whispered.
Adam nodded. “Thank you. Good to know who I’m talking to.”
Elise wanted to cry or
scream, but didn’t dare. What had he heard about them? Clint
was after them, she knew. Did Adam know Clint? Had word of
them come to this area before they arrived? Would Adam betray them?
If he didn’t want her, or either of the other two, he surely would sell
them off somewhere. That couldn’t happen. They wouldn’t go
back to their old life. They had made a pact that they would die
first. They had all sworn on Marabelle’s rosary that if they couldn’t
escape, they would kill themselves. If any of them lacked the courage
to do that, they would kill each other. Elise had run away from Clint
twice before, and each time, he had brought her back. She broke out
in a cold sweat as she remembered what he had done to her. But worse
than that was what he had done to the men who had aided her flight.
She felt sick to her stomach as she tried to block out those memories.
Was Adam was having her bathe, so he could sell her to someone? That
must be it. Elise felt like crying, but had forgotten how long
Later that day
Jenny stopped her horse outside Doc Martin’s office. She dragged her feet up the steps and reluctantly opened the door. The few people in the room looked at her curiously. She smiled hesitantly and waited with them, dreading to see Doc Young. When a patient emerged from the back room, she rose, and under the scrutiny of all the people waiting, went to the door of that room and knocked. She hated to be in a room alone with this man, but she could hardly present her request to him before a roomful of people. Under the disapproving eye of the others waiting their turn, she entered the room at the doctor’s query.
Doctor Young watched Jenny appraisingly and greedily as she entered the room. His light brown hair fell over his forehead, and his mouth tipped slightly upward in a calculating smile. Jenny left the door cracked, and walked halfway across the room. “Good morning, Doctor.”
The young doctor barely tipped his head. “Good morning, Miss Barnhart.”
“We’ve had some unexpected visitors at my place this morning,” said Jenny, aware that her heart was pounding and her face flushed. “There are three women who are half-starved and ill, and they need to see a doctor. One of them, I’m afraid, has – well, an unmentionable disease, and appears to be – with child.” Jenny knew that most properly bred Eastern ladies would never speak of such things, but this wasn’t the East, and besides, with Doc Martin, she would not be judged. But this wasn’t Doc Martin.
The young mans eyes narrowed, and he smiled a most unpleasant smile. “Indeed,” he said soothingly. “And how did you happen to become – acquainted – with such – ‘visitors’?” His eyes ran over Jenny’s figure.
Jenny wanted nothing more than to run from the room, but knew she couldn’t. “They were in our barn this morning,” she explained, knowing this man heard almost nothing of what she said. “They’re sick, and need to be seen right away.”
“And your father and mother sent you to tell me?”
Jenny didn’t want to tell him that her parents were gone, much less that Adam had been there overnight. She simply nodded.
The doctor smiled as though he could guess what she had left unsaid. “Perhaps we could arrange something,” he said. “I believe that I heard from – someone? – that your mother and father are gone right now. Is that correct?” When he received no reply, he continued, “Perhaps, I could be persuaded to make the rest of my patients – some of whom have been waiting for quite a while – to wait a bit longer. You and I could have lunch, perhaps? And then, I might be persuaded to go to your home and see these women.” He approached her with a hungry look on his face.
Jenny backed away. “Never mind,” she whispered. She turned and fled from the room, wishing she had never come. She had known it would be a mistake. Why had she bothered? She’d had to try, but had known that this vile man would press his advantage with her. She stopped by her horse and attempted to compose herself. A couple of cowboys who had spotted her as they left the saloon across the street approached her and asked if she was all right. She assured them that she was, mounted her horse, and rode carefully down a maze of several side streets, unaware that Doc Young was following her.
She stopped before a ramshackle building. As she tied her horse to the hitching post before it, she looked about her apprehensively. Shabbily dressed men recovering from hangovers and a night of celebration leered at her. Scantily clad women passed by, looking at her suspiciously. The steps creaked and snapped beneath her as she gingerly climbed them, and she noticed that some of the wood was rotted about the door as she knocked on it. She wasn’t even sure that this was the right place. She had heard many people talk about the man who lived here, and several of them knew only that he lived “over on the wrong side of town”. It was finally Charlie, the miner who had approached her about Roberta about a month before, who had privately told her (some time after she had helped the girl) exactly where this man lived, and that he doctored the poor. Charlie had also told Jenny that this man had done what he could for poor Roberta, but couldn’t be convinced to do what it took to release her from her suffering.
Jenny was about to flee in a panic when the door opened, and a man dressed in clean working clothes stood before her. Jenny stared at him for a moment. Was this the man she was searching for? Doc Gabriel, as he was known, was supposed to be half Negro and half Indian. Word was that Gabriel had fetched Doc Martin during an outbreak of influenza in one of the poorer districts. Gabriel had shown such skill and compassion in caring for the ill that Doc Martin offered to teach him medicine when he learned that Gabriel’s parents had just died and he was all alone. Gabriel was still a young man when the doctor had taken him under his wing, and Paul Martin had taught the younger man much of his own medical knowledge. He had to be careful while doing it, of course. Many of the proper citizens of Virginia City and the people scattered around the countryside did not approve of him practicing medicine with them. As a result, Doc Martin had taken Gabriel on trips to Indian villages and to the poor sections of town, to help people who either couldn’t afford most doctors or who were frowned upon when soliciting a doctor’s care.
Jenny had no idea if any of that was true. She had heard of this man a number of times, but only knew that people called him “Doc Gabriel”, not because he was a doctor, or because his name was Gabriel, but because those in the poorer sections of town considered him to be an angel of mercy who often cared for the poor at no or little charge. She held her breath as she looked at the man before her. He could be Doc Gabriel. She didn’t know.
“Are you the man they call ‘Doc Gabriel’?”
“That’s what they call me.” He looked at her steadily.
Uncertain as to how her request would be received, she told him the same story she had just told Doc Young. “I told Doctor Young, but I’m not sure that he’ll come.” She shut her mouth firmly.
Doc Gabriel nodded knowingly and sympathetically. “Let me get my bag.” He opened the door. “Come in while I get ready.”
Jenny wondered if that was proper, but decided it was more risky to stay outside. The doctor quickly gathered his instruments, placed them in his bag, and left. He carefully locked his door. “Tell me more while we ride to your place,” he said.
As Jenny spoke, she led them back through the streets to the main road out of town, unaware that she was being watched. As she rode past Doctor Martin’s place, she didn’t notice Doc Young on the porch, smiling as he jingled several gold coins in his pocket.
She also didn’t see the man in front of the saloon. His hard brown eyes followed her and Doc Gabriel, and he pushed his gray hat up to get a better view. His face was hard, shrewd, and devoid of emotion as he studied them. He thought of what Doc Young had told him: three women, one with “an unmentionable disease” and also with child, as this little lady put it. He would have laughed with glee if he’d known how. Not wanting to draw attention to himself – not yet – he went to the hitching rail and untied his horse. He wore a ghoulish grin that was as cold as the grimace on the frozen face of a corpse. This sounded perfect to him: A young lady taking care of three young children, her parents gone, and the women he was hunting taking refuge with her. His caricature of a smile spread across his face. This was easy pickings, indeed. It was worth the gold he’d paid to Doc Young for the information. He had known these women would be forced to seek out medical care sooner or later, and he’d given every doctor who would listen in every town near where they’d fled a description of them and a few coins of gold , with promise of more to come if they gave him any leads.
This time, he’d make Elise pay for what she’d done. She thought, and so did he, that she’d paid before, the other times she’d run away. But this time, she’d really pay. She would see what she had done to those around her. She would watch every single person, those who had come with her as well as those who had aided her, pay. One by one. Person by person. Inch by inch. Drop by drop. She’d pay. Elise would know who owned her. She was his. He had bought her. He owned her. He possessed her. And he vowed right now that she would know that, realize that, and never, ever forget it again. He followed Jenny and Doc Gabriel as they rode out of town, far enough behind them not to be noticed, but close enough to see where they were going.
“They just drew water for one of the women to take a bath,” replied Karen.
Jenny got a glass of water for Doc Gabriel.
“Aunt Jenny,” continued Karen, “who are those women?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Why are they so dirty?”
“Because – they don’t have anyplace to stay right now.”
“Can’t they stay here?”
“Yes. We’ll help them. I’ve brought the doctor.”
Karen looked up for the first time since Jenny had entered the house. “That’s not the doctor out there!”
“Doc Martin isn’t in town, but he taught this man to take care of people. He’s the only doctor who would come.”
“Not too many people want to take care of - women like this.”
Before Karen could ask “why” again, Jenny heard voices. She hurried outside. Adam and Jared were exchanging greetings with Doc Gabriel. Jenny handed Gabriel the glass of water, and he drank it thirstily.
“Karen said something about one of the women taking a bath?” Jenny asked.
“Elise has finished,” replied Adam. “Mai Ling is bathing now. I gave them the clothes you left. You sure you can spare them?”
Jenny nodded. The clothes had belonged to her, her mother, and her sister. For a moment, she was overcome with sadness at the memory of her sister, whom she hadn’t seen in a few years, but she pushed the thoughts aside. “Elise?” she asked. “Mai Ling? How did you find out their names?” She had witnessed their fear of Adam and Elise’s contempt of her.
“I asked.” Adam smiled slightly.
“I asked, too,” said Jenny. “They wouldn’t tell me their names. Which one is the sick one?”
“That’s Marabelle,” replied Adam. “She’s still in the loft.”
Jenny led Doc Gabriel to the barn, while Adam and Jared went into the house. “They were in the loft this morning,” she explained. “Jared found them hiding there when he was in the barn doing the chores with Adam.” She explained how Adam had arrived during the storm the previous night and had slept on the couch. She marveled at the naïveté of her words to Adam that no one would know if he spent the night at her house while her parents were away. She believed Doc Gabriel would mention it to no one, but still had the uneasy feeling that by the time this was over, the entire Nevada Territory would know. As they climbed the ladder to the loft, Jenny could hear Marabelle panting. “This is the one who is sick.”
Doc Gabriel stooped beside the woman, put his bag down, and looked at her with a critical eye. Jenny saw him close his eyes and shake his head. Obviously the pox, he thought, and possibly the clap as well. He pulled her lower lid down to examine her swollen, inflamed eye, and pushed her hair from her face, observing her open sores and the rash spread over her face, arms, and legs. Hell, this woman could have as many as three social diseases, and was with child as well. He felt a surge of anger. Did she know what this would mean for her unborn child? These diseases affected the children in the womb, so if they weren’t stillborn, they died shortly after birth, as the disease was usually far more progressed in the children than in the mother. No, he concluded, she probably didn’t know. He figured she most likely didn’t care, either. She probably didn’t even know who the father of her child was.
Gabriel had seen many women die of the diseases associated with prostitution. He had also known of men afflicted with them who infected their wives. He had been ushered in the back door of many fine houses, because people were too proud to go to Doc Martin or Doc Young with a problem of this nature. Many figured that since he worked with the poor people, Doc Gabriel would know more about “this sort of thing.” Where the hell did they get that idea? If it wasn’t for the people who paid for the services of these women, “this sort of thing,” as they so delicately put it, wouldn’t even exist. Many people didn’t even know they were infected until they broke out in a rash, had some kind of discomfort they were only willing to whisper in his ear about, or gave birth to a child severely affected. Many “respectable” men wanted to blame their wives, and that was one situation in which Doc Gabriel stood firm. He had made it clear to many men on countless occasions that they had themselves to blame for their own, their wife’s, and their child’s condition. He had made a number of enemies that way, but no matter. What were the men going to do, protest that he shouldn’t have come to see them because he blamed them for an unmentionable social disease that was in their household? No, their lips were sealed.
Marabelle opened her eyes and looked at Gabriel. She tried to say something, but he couldn’t understand her. “Get me some water,” he said tersely. Jenny ran back to the house.
Gabriel tried to make Marabelle more comfortable. She looked at him for a long time, and finally whispered so he could understand, “Who are you?”
“You can call me Doc Gabriel. We’re getting you some water. Try to relax.” The woman was breathing hard. He elevated her head and gave her the water that Jenny handed to him. She drank a little. “Has she had anything to eat?” he asked Jenny.
“Yes, she had some beef stew earlier. Not much. I was afraid they’d make themselves sick if they ate too much at once. She went to sleep before we brought the milk out, though.” Jenny looked at her. “She needs a bath, but I don’t see how we can get her out of the loft.”
“That’s the least of her worries,” Doc Gabriel assured her cryptically. He turned to Marabelle. “Do you know when your baby is due?”
Marabelle shook her head. “Not sure,” she said in a raspy voice. “Maybe a couple more months.”
“You’re having labor pains, and you’re also bleeding,” Gabriel told her. “That means you’re about to give birth.”
Marabelle tossed her head in agitation. “Not time, yet. Not time!” She looked at the doctor, then at Jenny, who thought, despite the redness of Marabelle’s swollen eyes, that they must once have been a beautiful shade of blue. “My baby! Don’t take this one away from me!” She tried to rise from her bed in the hay, but sank back down, clutching her abdomen and groaning. Her face broke out in a sweat and she panted shallowly. When the wave of pain passed, she looked at Jenny. “I need this baby! You can’t take him – her – away!”
“No one is going to do anything to hurt you,” Jenny assured her. “We only want to help.” She glanced at Doc Gabriel, who avoided her gaze. The sooner Jenny learned that the best help for this woman lay in an overdose from a bottle in his bag, the better. He had seen this type of situation too many times before, and hated to see someone as gentle as Jenny drawn into it.
Marabelle stared at Jenny. “I know you,” she whispered. “I’ve seen you before.”
Jenny shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Yes,” insisted Marabelle. “In Silver City. I’ve seen you there, several times.”
Jenny smiled. “I’ve never been to Silver City,” she told her. “You must have seen someone else.”
“It was you,” Marabelle insisted. “Sometimes you were with your mother and father. I saw you talking to them, and heard you call the woman ‘Mother.’ You looked happy.” She sounded envious.
Jenny opened her mouth to deny it again, and froze. Silver City. Her parents were in Silver City right now, before heading on to Carson City, supposedly on her father’s business. She thought of her missing sister. Her parents had sent her away long ago, and Jenny hadn’t known her whereabouts. Yet, Jenny knew that her parents would never throw her out. All those trips to Silver City….could it be…?
Jenny heard a sound on the ladder behind her, and turned as her niece shuffled through the hay to her side. “Mai Ling is finished with her bath,” Karen said. She put her thumb in her mouth and looked cautiously at Marabelle.
Marabelle looked at Karen, then at Jenny. “Your daughter?”
“No, my niece.”
Marabelle smiled sadly and knowingly. She gave Jenny a piercing look. “She looks just like you. And like the woman I saw in Silver City.” She closed her eyes as she rode another wave of pain.
Jenny watched uncertainly, unsure of what to do. When Marabelle opened her eyes again, Jenny asked cautiously, “You’re from Silver City?”
Marabelle nodded. “Yes, that’s the last place we lived. I think we were going to move on to California soon, though.” She grimaced as another pain took her, then looked at Karen. “I bet it’s the little girl’s mother I saw in Silver City, isn’t it?” Marabelle asked
“She looks a lot like you, that lady I saw. Unless it was you, of course,” Marabelle continued.
Jenny knew she mustn’t mention her sister. She should deny ever having one. That was what she had always been told to do: Never mention having a sister, and present Karen as the daughter of her brother and his wife, both dead. But Karen’s mother was very much alive, though her parentage must be hidden and always disguised as acceptable. As Jenny longed to see and remember her sister, this was often very difficult for her to do.
She stared at Marabelle, wondering at her perceptivity and discernment. “I don’t know who you saw,” she said carefully, as she struggled with her tears. “But the girl is my niece.”
Marabelle’s knowing look pierced her. She laughed mirthlessly. “I had a child five years ago, when I was sixteen. My mother and father took it away from me, and threw me out of the house.”
Jenny swallowed, and looked at the shadow of a woman before her with pity. “My mother and father would never see any of us turned out, no matter what.”
“Lucky you,” whispered Marabelle, “to have a father like that. My mother would have let me stay, but my father wouldn’t hear of it. I had to leave.” She closed her eyes as she waited for another wave of pain. “I tried to find a job, but no one would hire me. The church wouldn’t help me. The priest said I had to pay for my sin. Clint was the only one who would help. He took me in, and gave me a home; fed me and clothed me.” She tried to laugh. “I’ve been paying for my sin ever since. And my sins have grown. I keep paying, and owing, every day.” After a malevolent glance at Jenny, Marabelle shut her eyes, and turned away. Jenny sent Karen back to the house.
Doc Gabriel opened his bag and pulled out a bottle. He administered some laudanum, and the woman finally fell into a stupor. He didn’t tell Jenny that if he’d had enough courage, he would have administered an overdose and put the woman, as well as her unborn child, out of their misery. Jenny looked on, relieved that Marabelle was temporarily out of pain, but knowing that, but for the grace of God and the love of her parents, she might have been looking at her sister. She couldn’t help but wonder why the grace of God was greater and more merciful for some people than for others.
As Ben untied Buck from the rail before the bank, Joe ran toward him. “Pa!” He hurried across the street to his father. “I just talked to Jake, in the saloon, and he said Adam was in the saloon yesterday. Looked like he had just come into town, he said. He tried to get Adam to stay, but he said he was heading home. Jake said that was shortly before the storm hit. You don’t suppose Adam got caught in it?”
“Adam has enough sense to stay out of a storm like that,” mused Ben.
“Unless he was in such a hurry to get home that he decided to ride through it,” countered Joe.
Ben shook his head. “He would have stopped someplace safe, someplace where he could have stayed out of the way of the lightning strikes. And he would have been home by now,” he added emphatically.
“We should ride toward home and check along the way,” said Joe, unwilling to spend more time speculating rather than searching.
“The Barnhart place is along the way.” said Ben. “I told Thomas I’d keep an eye on the place, and on his daughter and the young ones, while he’s gone. We might as well stop there.”
“Yes, and a few other places as well,” said Joe. “But he knows the Barnharts the best. I think he’d be more likely to stop there, but he may not have had much choice about where to stop, once that storm was in full swing.”
“Well, I’m waiting for a wire back from one of the bankers in San Francisco,” said Ben. “Let’s go eat supper at the hotel, and send word to Hoss with Pete.” Pete was the hired hand who had accompanied them to town to get the supplies and bring them back to the Ponderosa.
Once they had eaten supper, Ben returned to the telegraph office. He read it with a grim face, and turned to Joe and Pete with brows drawn low over his eyes. “This says that the bank has seen diminishing returns on the mine that Adam just went to check on,” he reported. “Something must be wrong, and Adam probably found out what it was. He either hasn’t had a chance to send a wire about it, or is in trouble.”
“And now, we can’t find him,” said Joe. “We need to keep looking, Pa. He was here, and was heading home.”
Ben turned to Pete. “Go back to the Ponderosa,” he said. “Unload the supplies, and tell Hoss as soon as possible that something is wrong with the mine that Adam went to investigate. Tell him Adam was seen in town yesterday, and that Joe and I are looking for him. We’ll stop at the places between here and the Ponderosa, including the Barnhart place.”
“Sure you don’t want me to come with you, Mr. Cartwright?” asked Pete.
“I’m sure,” said Ben. “You get home, and talk to Hoss tonight. Joe and I will keep looking.” As Pete drove the wagon toward the Ponderosa, Joe and Ben made a few more inquiries in town, and then slowly rode into the late afternoon sun, looking for signs of their brother and son.
Jenny had left Marabelle and Doc Gabriel in the barn, and was returning to the house when Clint rode boldly up to her. “Good afternoon, Ma’am,” he drawled in his most polite voice.
Jenny turned to look at him, and felt a chill creep up her legs and down her arms to freeze her heart. This man had the hardest eyes of anyone she had every seen. The smile curving his lips didn’t reach his eyes. Jenny shivered as she saw his cruel eyes travel over her, the house, and the yard. He finally looked at her, and for a brief moment, she couldn’t breathe under the calculating, cold gaze he passed over her. She took a deep breath, thinking that she had appraised horses and cattle with more feeling.
She suddenly realized, in an almost total panic, where she had seen him before. No, no: She hadn’t seen him anywhere, but someone just like him. They had been living in Chicago, and she had just left a store with her family. As they gathered their belongings on the sidewalk, a man standing near them had looked at her and through her, appraising her as so much merchandise, just as this man was doing. It had taken her breath away and frightened her so she couldn’t move. Her father had come to her side, speaking her name, and leading her away. He had succeeded in staring the man down, so that he turned away, realizing that she wasn’t easy pickings. This man was like that other one. This time, however, her father wasn’t with her. She was home alone, with three children to care for, and three vagabond women relying on her for help. She stood paralyzed, unable to move, staring at his unfeeling brown eyes. She wished for her father to come and chase this man off, or for Adam to emerge from the house and defend her.
Clint’s smile changed from cold to triumphant as he saw the effect he had on her. This would be easy – too easy. He rode closer so he could tower over her. “How are you this fine afternoon? A mite hot and dry now, isn’t it? A cold drink of water sure would go down smooth right now.” Clint’s gentility was as smooth as oil. She stood her ground for a moment, then thought better of it and put the hitching rail between them.
Jenny didn’t want to refuse him hospitality, but she also didn’t want to turn her back on him, or bring him in the house where the children were. She watched him carefully while she caught her breath. “I’m afraid our water isn’t cold,” she replied. “Is there a reason for your visit, Mr. -” She hoped this stranger couldn’t hear her pounding heart.
Clint looked icily at Jenny, and she could tell he was angry at her evasiveness. His glance strayed to Doc Gabriel’s horse tethered to the hitching rail. “You have other guests,” he observed. “Did you refuse them water, too? Are you always so inhospitable to strangers?” His frown was as sudden as a cloud obscuring the sun, and his hard eyes threatened her. Jenny felt chills run down her back. She was convinced that this was a man she could not turn her back on.
“You still haven’t told me your business, Mr-?” Jenny watched him evenly, not flinching from his stare despite her sweaty palms. Clint feared this wasn’t as easy as it had first appeared. Well, she had obviously been gently reared. She wasn’t being very polite to him by refusing him a drink, and perhaps he could still get the upper hand by changing his tactics.
He dismounted from his horse. “You can call me Clint. And I’m looking for somebody, some people dear to me.” His eyes darted about the yard as he tethered his horse to the rail.
Jenny hoped that she would never be “dear” to such a ravenous wolf.
Clint smiled as brightly as possible, changing his demeanor from that of the hungry wolf to a circling vulture. “Could you please, Miss - ? I don’t know your name!” He paused, but Jenny didn’t respond. His smile grew no less, but much colder. “Please, may I have a drink of water? And may I sit a spell? Then I can tell you my business.”
I’m sorry.” Jenny tried unsuccessfully to keep her voice from trembling. “My parents are not home, and I can’t have a stranger in the house.” She was prepared to get him a drink while he waited outside, but Clint’s eyes narrowed, and he stopped smiling.
“You have other company here.”
“Friends, yes,” replied Jenny.
“Anyone else?” His eyes never left her face.
Jenny’s eyes fell from his. Resolutely, she looked back at him. “Why do you ask?”
“I told you, I’m looking for someone.” Clint’s voice was clipped, with a threatening undertone. “Some three, to be exact. And I know they’re here, so why don’t you just let me have them, and save yourself – and that pretty little child I saw with you – a lot of heartache?” He watched the fear creep across her face with satisfaction. “You won’t like what I do to you, or especially that little one, if you don’t show me where they are,” he said in a low voice. “And I would like a drink of water first. Please?”
Jenny looked at him, fighting her fear. This was a ruthless, cruel man, and it was no wonder that the women in the loft had been so frightened of her and Adam, and reluctant to tell their names. If it was Clint they were running from….
The door opened suddenly behind her. “It sounds to me as though you’ve outstayed your welcome, Mister.” Jenny stepped aside and looked gratefully at Adam. She knew she could never have handled this man by herself. She glanced back at the door, hoping that Karen would not come out, too, but would stay in the house. Jenny’s quick glance was not lost on Clint, but the child could wait until he had dealt with this stranger.
His mouth pulled into a straight line, and his narrowed eyes never left Adam’s face. His hand strayed toward his gun. He had dealt before with men who had championed Elise’s cause. They had just wanted her all to themselves. This one should be no different than the others. The ends of his mouth twisted as he thought of the man who had run away with her the last time, as well as the Indians in the Sierra Nevada foothills who had obviously aided the three of them recently. Anyone who helped Elise escape from him either wasn’t around to talk about it, or didn’t dare come near her again.
“Get on your horse and leave,” ordered Adam.
Clint glared at him, and his smile grew. “Who’s gonna make me, Mister?” His drawl was so genteel that it seemed impossible that his face was so hard.
“Get out!” repeated Adam. “You’ve insulted the lady, and threatened her and her niece. Go, before I shoot you!”
Clint threw his head back and laughed uproariously. “Why, Mister, I do believe you’re mistaken! First of all, I don’t see any ‘lady’ here! I see a woman who is entertaining two men, one of them Negro”- he spat the last word – “while her parents are gone! Isn’t that right, Miss?”
“My friends are always welcome here,” retorted Jenny, shivering at the hate implicit in his reference to Doc Gabriel, and wondering how Clint knew he was there.
“Jenny, get in the house,” said Adam shortly.
At the same time, Clint laughed again. “Of course they are! Some ‘lady’s’ friends’ are always welcome, day and night! And – did you call the little girl her ‘niece’, Sir? There’s a few in town who say otherwise!” He continued to laugh.
Adam didn’t answer, but moved around the hitching rail and approached Clint menacingly. “Go!” he said quietly. “No one insults a lady while I’m around.” Both men’s hands drifted toward their guns. They circled each other, one looking like a wolf ready for the kill; the other like a lion defending his cubs.
Jenny watched with mounting horror. She had to do something, or this ruthless man would kill Adam. She hurried to the hitching rail and started to untie Clint’s horse, prepared to drive it off if necessary to distract the man. But Adam was the one who was distracted. His eyes moved toward her, watching her, worried for her safety. Clint saw his adversary’s distraction, turned, grabbed Jenny by the hair, and pulled his gun in one fluid motion. “Now it’s your turn to get lost, Mister,” he gloated. He held the gun to Jenny’s head. “Unless you want this ‘lady’ you’re so fond of to die.”
Adam had no doubt that he’d do it. He had overheard most of the conversation between Jenny and Clint, and had no doubt who he was, or rather what he was, and why he was there. He recognized the type of man, and thought he might even recognize him from someplace a while back. Adam figured that Clint would rather not kill anyone, as that would put the law on his trail. He wanted Jenny – and Karen – alive, for his own purposes. But he would kill her without hesitation if Adam didn’t cooperate with him. But this was hardly the time for speculation. He had to act quickly, or disaster could follow.
“Let her go,” he said in a low voice. “If you need a hostage, take me, and leave her alone.”
Clint smiled, amused at the offer. “And what would I do with you? I know just what to do with her.” He pulled Jenny closer to him, releasing her hair and grabbing her about the waist while still holding the gun to her head. The hitching rail still stood between them, digging painfully into Jenny’s side, but made no difference to his hold on her. “If you make me shoot her, there’s others around just as good. Especially her little ‘niece’ inside!”
Furious, Adam stepped toward him, reaching for his gun. Clint cocked his weapon and held it closer to Jenny’s head. “I wouldn’t,” he said softly.
A haze descended about Jenny’s eyes. She tried to breathe, but couldn’t. She knew what this man intended, and knew death was better, but was too frightened of dying. She gasped, and a whimper escaped her lips. Clint’s hand moved to her throat. “Quiet!” he hissed. Despite his order, Jenny’s breath rattled in her throat.
From the shadows of the bushes by the front door, Comet observed the scene. His eyes grew ever bigger, making him totally black and therefore invisible in the shade beneath the shrubbery. Ever since this stranger had ridden into the yard, he had smelled danger. Initially, he had growled when he heard the man approach, and run and hid when he saw him. But when Adam had left the house, Comet had slinked unseen out the door with him. This man who smelled rotten was talking with his favorite person, and she was very afraid. Comet could smell her fear. He didn’t like this man. This was someone he would never approach and rub on. When Clint grabbed Jenny, Comet stifled a growl, unwilling to reveal himself. Instead, he waited. When he saw Clint put his hand on Jenny’s throat, he ran under Clint’s horse, intending to claw and bite this man who would dare threaten his person.
But the horse, unused to the feel of a cat running about his legs, started, whinnied, and reared. His foot kicked Comet, who gave a loud yowl. He grabbed hold of the offending leg with all four of his, clawed, bit, and dodged back toward the bushes. The panicked horse reared repeatedly, breaking his rope that Jenny had already loosened, and galloped back the way he had come.
Clint swore freely, and looked about for the black creature he had seen flash past. His hand tightened on Jenny’s throat, and she gave a strangled cry. Furious, Comet leaped onto Clint’s arm, clawed, and climbed onto his head. In a couple of seconds, he had done his work, and Clint released Jenny, holding his hands to his slashed and bleeding face and saying words that Jenny had never known existed. She tried to go toward the house, but everything was fading into a black mist with tiny stars running throughout it. She fell on the ground.
Adam ran around the hitching rail, and kicked Clint backwards, away from his gun which he had dropped on the ground. Adam pulled his gun and pointed it at Clint. Jared came outside cradling the rifle his grandfather kept above the front door, poised to shoot at this stranger. Jared couldn’t use the rifle. His grandfather wouldn’t let him. He was too small. But Clint, though he probably knew that handling the rifle was beyond the boy, also knew that point-blank range from two weapons was certain death. Continuing his string of curses, he rose and attempted to take Doc Gabriel’s horse.
“Leave it alone!” shouted Adam. “Get away from it!” He had seen the rifle next to the saddle, and couldn’t allow Clint to get his hands on it.
Clint wiped the blood out of his eyes and tried to stop the bleeding from his scalp. He hurled constant venom at the semi-conscious girl on the ground, and started toward her. Adam stepped between them. “Go,” he said softly. “It’s a long walk back to town, or wherever you came from.”
“You won’t get away with this,” Clint snarled. “I’ll be back with the sheriff. You attacked me, you have a vicious animal that attacked me and my horse, and I know you’re harboring three criminals who belong to me!”
“You bring the sheriff back,” Adam shot back. “We have a few claims of our own to make against you. Attempted kidnapping and threatening to murder someone is a crime around here, in case you didn’t know. So get the sheriff. Bring him back. I just hope you catch your horse soon, or you have an awful long trip ahead of you, and I don’t like to be kept waiting.” He gestured the man away from Jenny and away from the house. “Get out of here!”
Clint complied, but not without a stream of invective. This was the first time in years that anyone had gained the upper hand with him, and all because of that damned cat. At least, he thought it was a cat. It had flashed by so quickly he couldn’t be sure. Stuffing his blood-soaked handkerchief in his pocket, he searched in vain for another one to stop the bleeding from the numerous gashes on his face, scalp, and arm. Finally, he stripped off his jacket and used it. If he saw that cat, he’d shoot it. Then he realized he didn’t have a gun.
“I’ll be back!” he promised. “I’ll be back, and you’ll see what happens to anyone who does this to Clint. You’ll wish you were dead before I’m through with you!” He glared at Jenny, still lying motionless on the ground. “I’ll see her in my establishment, and that fine little girl will come with me, too, and there will be nothing you can do to stop me! No one crosses me without paying a price!
“Right, Elise?” He suddenly shouted as he turned toward the barn, then the house. “I know you’re here! I know that so-called ‘doctor’ is here with you. And Mai Ling and Marabelle are here, too. See? I know where you are! You can’t get away from me. I’ll always find you! You owe me money, remember? I’ve spent a lot of gold on all of you, to put clothes on your backs and feed you, and you need to get on your backs to pay me! You’ll come with me! You just remember who you belong to! You’ll never run fast enough or far enough to get away from me! There’s no place you can hide! And don’t even think of running back to the hills to those Indians you stayed with. There’s not too many of them left after I tracked you all there! But they did have some nice women there that I got to sample, all because of how you led me to them! I’d like to thank you kindly for -”
Adam fired a shot that grazed his right arm, already gouged by the scratches. Clint whirled about, a horrible specter with blood streaking his face. He raised his fist toward Adam. “You won’t get away, either, Mister-” Adam fired a shot next to his head. Clint jumped back, and with one final venomous glare, turned and staggered toward town, wiping blood from his eyes as he went, and cursing himself for not simply shooting that unexpected stranger while he had the chance. Of course, that would have put the law on his trail, but if he was careful, that could be hard to follow, especially with the lead he would have had. He’d always been careful not to run afoul of the law, but he figured if he ever did, he probably had enough money, and attractive bait, to wriggle out of any charge. But murder? He wasn’t sure about that. He cursed anew as he realized he’d been defeated by a cat.
While Adam washed Jenny’s face and examined her neck where Clint had grabbed her, Jared said, “The doctor’s in the barn. We should take her out there.” David stirred and cried as he spoke.
Adam nodded. “We should all be in one place, anyway. Bring the rifle,” he told Jared. He looked at Karen. “Can you carry the baby out to the barn?”
Karen nodded. David was heavy, but she wasn’t going to stay alone in the house. Adam lifted David from the bed, and for safety’s sake tied him about Karen’s body with his blankets. He grabbed a few diapers stacked near the bed and stuffed them in his saddlebags that remained by the door. “Fill my canteen, and grab a few towels, too.” Jared hurried to comply. Adam lifted Jenny in his arms, and they hurried out the door and to the barn.
As soon as they entered the barn, Gabriel met them. “Thank God you’re all right!” he exclaimed. “We heard the shots, but I couldn’t see enough from the windows to tell what was going on. The women were absolutely terrified as soon as they heard that man’s voice. It was all I could do to keep them – except Marabelle, of course; I had to give her some laudanum earlier - from running out the back door in a blind panic. I left my gun on my horse, at the hitching rail by the house. A mistake I won’t make again!” He looked at Jenny. “Has she been shot?”
“No,” replied Adam. “He grabbed her, about the waist and the throat, and she’s bruised. He held a gun to her head, but she’s not shot.”
Gabriel motioned them to an empty stall, and examined her after Adam laid her down. “How did she get away from him?”
Adam sighed. “It’s a long story. I’ll go get your horse.” He came back several minutes later with not only the horse, but with a basket full of food and drink for everyone.
Jared was attempting to comfort David, who was thrashing and fussing. Adam pulled out a cup from a basket loaded with the food, and spooned some stew broth into his mouth. David stopped crying, swallowed, and opened his mouth for more. “Where is Karen?” Adam asked.
“I don’t know,” replied Jared.
Doc Gabriel was replacing his stethoscope in his bag. “She went up into the loft a few minutes ago. I thought I heard her talking to something - one of the barn cats, I suppose - before she went up the ladder.” He stood up. “Jenny will be all right. She’s talking a little, and responding to me. She’s been through a big scare and an awful shock.”
Adam turned over David’s feeding to Jared and knelt by Jenny. He touched her face in concern. “Jenny! Can you hear me?”
Jenny opened her eyes. “Adam – Is he gone?”
“Yes,” Adam assured her. “He’s gone.”
“Where are the children?”
“They’re here, in the barn with us. I’m taking care of them.”
Jenny closed her eyes in relief.
Adam climbed the ladder to the loft and looked around. All three of the women lay close together, far back in the loft, sound asleep in their exhaustion, or, in Marabelle’s case, from the effects of the drug Gabriel had given her. A short distance from them lay Karen, with her thumb in her mouth, covered with her favorite quilt cross-stitched with a picture of a house, a tree, a red cat, a blue dog, and a brown horse, which Adam had used to tie David to her. Next to her, curled up in contentment, lay Comet, sound asleep. Adam approached Karen and made certain that she was comfortable. He wiped a stray tear from her cheek.
As he looked at Marabelle, he frowned. He stepped over Karen, stooped down beside the drugged woman, and pulled something from the hay next to her. The thorns on the wilted rose pricked his fingers as he picked it up. He brushed the hay from the petals, wondering how a rose came to be in the barn. He looked at Elise and Mai Ling as they slept in fearful exhaustion, and saw a rose partly buried near each of them. He gathered them together, looked at them in wonder, and finally laid one rose next to each woman. Glancing once more at Karen, he went back down the ladder.
“It’s all right. It’s my father and brother.”
Elise crawled to the edge of the loft and peeked over in time to see Adam striding out the door. That doctor was still there. She hadn’t seen him until after he had examined Marabelle. He told her what he had done with her friend, and had wanted to examine her, but she wasn’t about to let him touch her. No man would touch her again, unless she had to let them, to preserve her freedom from Clint, or to protect Marabelle.
Ben and Joe walked into the barn, followed by Adam, who was explaining about the storm, and how quickly it had come on. “So that’s why I stayed here last night. I couldn’t leave this morning, because there were other problems.” He stopped by the stall where Jenny sat next to Doc Gabriel, who assisted her as she drank. Ben and Joe looked in horror at the dark bruises about her throat. Ben’s face became dark with anger. Jenny attempted to smile and whispered “hello”. Doc Gabriel nodded and said, “Hi, Ben, Little Joe,” before turning his attention back to his patient.
“What happened?” demanded Joe.
“We had some company this morning,” Adam replied.
In the silence that followed, Ben said, “Perhaps you’d care to explain?”
Adam pierced Jenny for a moment with a brooding gaze, then gestured curtly to his father and brother. “Follow me.” He led them up the ladder to the loft. Comet leaped to his feet and gave a menacing growl. Karen stirred for the first time since ascending the ladder. She pulled her thumb from her mouth, and slowly sat up, looking sleepily about. Not recognizing her surroundings, she cried out softly for her aunt. As Adam’s head appeared at the top of the ladder, she drew back and gasped softly. Comet growled again, then twitched his tail and sniffed as he scented Adam. He laid down and made no protest as Adam approached Karen. When Ben, followed by Joe, climbed into the loft, Comet sniffed at them cautiously, and allowed them to pass unchallenged. As they gathered about Karen, Comet went to the edge of the loft, turned about, and quickly backed down the side of the ladder as though he was climbing down a tree. He ran to Jenny and sat by her.
Adam lifted Karen into his arms. He pointed to the two women sleeping behind her. “These women were here in the barn this morning,” he said. “Jared found them, as we were doing the chores. But there was one more.” As he looked about, he saw Elise, creeping back from the far edge of the loft.
Elise was not pleased to see three men. Three men and three women: It had to have been planned this way. Well, she and Mai Ling would just have to keep them happy. The two of them had bathed and changed, so that would help. These dresses they had been given weren’t exactly designed to entice men, but she could make the most of it. So could Mai Ling, even though her ways were different from Elise’s ways. She was sweeter, quieter, more docile, and many men found that enticing. Unfortunately, it often drew the most brutal of the men back over and over, as they loved to dominate someone like her. Elise shuddered as she recalled the way Clint loved to intimidate, then dominate and possess, Mai Ling. But they couldn’t let these men touch Marabelle, so they’d have to get busy right away.
For a brief second, a flash of anger flared up within Elise. It wasn’t fair! She hadn’t asked for her parents to die, to live with an abusive uncle, or to be sold to Clint. If she wanted to survive, what choice had she but to do as she had done? She had run away with her friends not only to get away from Clint and her old way of life, but also to prevent Marabelle from being dispatched by Clint, as she had all too often seen him do with other pregnant, diseased girls. She didn’t want to do this. She hated men; hated being used by them; hated what they wanted her to do; and above all, hated them for despising her after they had used her. But that was her life. She, Mai Ling, and Marabelle had all been bred for it by cruel twists of fate. She long ago believed she had been born for that purpose: to be used.
Thrusting these thoughts behind her, she forced a smile on her face. “Hello,” she said, tossing her long, glossy red hair over her shoulder. Despite the hardships and privations of her flight, she still was beautiful, and knew how to use her charms to beguile a man. She liked the feel of her clean hair, and knew that it fanned out and glistened about her shoulders. She wished she’d been able to curl it, and put on some paint, and was painfully conscious of her covered shoulders and bosom, but she knew her business. She’d been doing it for most of her short life. She glanced at each of the three men in turn. Adam barely merited a glance. She already knew him, and he knew her. He wasn’t fooled by her for a moment. She looked from under sultry lashes at the older man next to him. Handsome, he was! What a catch he might be! He looked angry, though. She’d have to soothe him, and assure him things would be better, and she could make them better, or he might hurt her or one of the others.
When she saw the third one, she smiled triumphantly. Here was a young man who looked like a lamb ready to be led to the slaughter. She slowly approached him, tossing her head and swaying her hips. “Well! Hello, stranger!” She stopped just before him, looking from the corner of her eye to see if Mai Ling was awake. She was, and was watching her. Why didn’t she get up and help her? They needed to keep these men occupied, not only so Marabelle wouldn’t be hurt, but so the men would protect them from Clint, at least until they could get away and run a little farther. Elise didn’t know how they could do that with Marabelle’s condition, or how much longer they could keep on running, but one thing, one day, at a time.
“Hey, handsome! I can show you a real good time!” She ran her hand down Joe’s face, throat, and down his chest, lingering at the top of his unbuttoned shirt. Joe swallowed hard, and wanted to step back and protest, but felt mesmerized and paralyzed at this woman’s brazen approach. “Why don’t you come with me, and one of the others can take Mai Ling ?” She nodded toward Mai Ling, who schooled her face into a careful mask to conceal her fear. “There’s lots of places where we can have some privacy up here, you know?” She smiled and laughed with the false happiness she was accustomed to project. Most men bought it; were enslaved by it. She had no doubt this young man would come, and the others should follow.
“After we’re finished,” Elise continued, “I can take another one.” She thought of suggesting that they could both come with her at the same time, but couldn’t do it. She had been forced to do that once, before the Madam could stop it, and the memory was still a horror that she couldn’t afford to dwell on. Not even for Marabelle could she endure that again. She beamed her best seductive smile, and unobtrusively started to unbutton Joe’s shirt. “You’ll be real pleased with me, I’m sure,” she whispered. “And I’ll do a good job with two of you, twice over, if you want.” She glanced at the men next to him, positive that her words would be lulling them into her clutches, readying them for her spell. She should be able to get any promises she wanted from them, at least for the next half hour or so. Her smile almost faded and her confidence faltered when she saw the glowering glares of Adam and the older man with him.
What was wrong with these men? She’d done everything she knew to do. It should have worked! It had worked, countless times, on their road to “freedom”. Men had seen them as they fled. Some had recognized them from Silver City, and for a “price”, had not turned them in to Clint, who had followed close behind them, or the authorities, who wouldn’t take kindly to runaway prostitutes. A couple of self-righteous ones had finally promised not to reveal who and what they were in exchange for the girls’ favors. They had to be convinced, but Elise was real good at that. If Mai Ling was too frightened or tired, Elise took on more than one. They had gained food, money, and freedom that way. Other times, they had traded guns, knives, or other items they had stolen from Clint or unsuspecting customers on the way for supplies. But Clint was always after them, asking about them, and finally they had fled into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, in the opposite direction they intended to flee, to get away from him. But Clint had tracked them there, too, according to what he had just shouted as he left, and probably had killed most of the Indians who had helped them, the same way he had killed or destroyed anyone who ever tried to help her get away from him.
The young, curly-headed man with the big, expressive eyes yanked away from her as she took him by the hand to lead him away. “Hey! Cut that out! I’m not going with you!”
Elise schooled her face into her best hurt expression as he pulled away. “What’s wrong, little handsome man?” She pouted. “Aren’t I pretty enough for you?” She looked sidelong at him, then away, as though she was hurt.
“Uh – no, it’s not that!” protested Joe. “It’s just – I – I don’t -”
“What my brother means,” Adam interjected, “is that he really isn’t any more accustomed to frequenting the company of ‘ladies’ who sell their services than I am. That’s not what we intend with you.” He pierced Joe with a quick glance. Joe dropped his eyes from his brother’s penetrating gaze, and looked apprehensively at his father.
“I suggest you go back with your friends, and stay there,” said Ben. One look at his smoldering eyes and angry face told Elise she’d best not argue with him.
As she dejectedly returned to Mai Ling’s side, Ben said, “All right, Adam! Tell me what happened!”
Adam briefly related to his father how Jared had discovered the three women in the loft, and he had discovered the mule below. He told of feeding them, sending Jenny to town for the doctor while he and Jared readied baths for the women, and the arrival of Clint. Ben’s face hardened as soon as he heard the name.
“This man, Clint, threatened Jenny if she didn’t tell him where these three women were,” Adam continued. “He told her that he’d hurt Karen if she didn’t.” He glanced down at the girl in his arms, who had buried her face in his shoulder as he spoke. “Of course, he didn’t know I was there at the time. When I came out, he managed to get hold of Jenny, and pulled a gun. But -” He hesitated, wondering if his father would believe what had really happened. “Jenny got away,” he finished lamely.
“Does Clint have light brown hair, and was he chasing a horse?” asked Ben. “And did he have scratches and gashes all over his face?”
Adam nodded. “Did you see him?”
“Yes, not far away from here. He was after a horse that had stopped a little ways off the road.”
“Pa asked him if he needed help,” added Joe, “but he cursed a blue streak, and told us exactly where to go. His face was all covered with blood, and he looked mad enough to be in league with the devil.”
“I think he was the devil,” said a voice just below the loft. “But Adam and I ran him off.”
The men looked at the ladder as Jared’s head emerged. He was slowly and carefully climbing, and seemed out of breath. As he climbed into the loft, they saw he was carrying David. “Jared!” exclaimed Joe. “What are you doing?” He ran to take the child from the boy. “Why didn’t you ask for help? You could have dropped him, or fallen!”
“I wouldn’t drop David!” Jared exclaimed indignantly. “And I don’t need help, thanks!” He walked to the rest of the men and looked them over, then hesitantly looked at the female visitors. All were awake and watching him. His eyes dropped and his face turned red.
“Why did you come up here?” asked Adam.
“I got tired of staying down there with a baby,” said Jared. “Aunt Jenny can’t take care of him right now, so I brought him up here.”
“I heard you say that you and I ran Clint off,” said Adam. “Aren’t you forgetting someone? Or should I say, something?”
Jared looked at him with a puzzled expression. “Oh, you mean Comet,” he said. “He doesn’t count, does he? I mean, we had the guns.” His chest swelled and his face glowed as he smugly claimed his prowess in protecting the household.
“And Comet had the claws and the element of surprise,” said Adam.
“What are you talking about?” demanded Ben.
“Jenny’s cat, Comet, startled Clint’s horse, and it ran off,” replied Adam. “He also attacked Clint when he grabbed Jenny. Comet scratched his face up.”
“Comet?” exclaimed Joe. “That cat never once batted an eye around me! The only thing he ever did to me was rub on me and trip me up! He wouldn’t hurt anyone!”
“He hurt Clint,” assured Adam.
“He didn’t like that man,” said Karen. She struggled in Adam’s arms, and he put her down. She went to Little Joe and pulled at David’s blanket, indicating that she wanted to see the baby. Joe stooped down, and she stroked her hand over David’s brown curls and kissed him on the cheek. “Where’s Aunt Jenny?”
“She’s still down below, with the doctor,” replied Ben.
Suddenly, Marabelle, who had been quietly watching them for a few moments, cried out and thrashed about. Elise ran to her side, and looked threateningly at Ben when he approached. Ben looked down in horror as he fully realized the seriousness of the young prostitute’s condition. Gabriel rushed up the ladder to the loft, and ordered them to leave. “Everybody down the ladder, NOW!” Elise hovered, knowing that her friend needed the doctor’s attention, but reluctant to leave her. Gabriel glared at her. “You, too! Both of you!”
“I can help you, Doc,” offered Elise, but Gabriel rebuffed her.
“If I need help, I’ll shout,” he responded. “Now, go!” Elise and Mai Ling followed the others down the ladder.
Karen huddled next to her aunt, frightened by Marabelle’s lonely, pain-filled cries. Jenny heard the girl, and felt she should be in the loft, assisting the doctor if she could, but knew she was too dizzy and exhausted to help him. She asked if someone could take the children to the house, but Ben said they had to stay together.
“This man, Clint,” Ben said, “looked and sounded familiar to me, even with his injuries. If he is who I think he is, he owns a parlor house in Silver City. He is also involved in politics there, and is in the pockets of the mayor and all the other governing officials. He’s a hard and ruthless man, very cruel; and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. If he is after these three women, he’ll see to it that he gets them.”
“We can’t let him get them!” exclaimed Jenny.
Ben looked at her, wishing he could get her away from there. “No, we can’t. But he finds ways to get what he wants. He’ll be back – with others, you can be sure.”
“With the condition he was in when he left, it’ll be a while before he gets back here,” said Adam. “Do you know if he caught his horse?”
“Yeah, he caught it,” said Joe. “He was riding hell-bent-for-leather as we left him behind.”
“Joe!” exclaimed Ben.
“Oh – er – sorry, Jenny,” said Joe, his face turning red.
Jenny pretended she hadn’t heard. “Has he run up against the law before?”
“No,” said Ben, “not to my knowledge. At least, he keeps his dirty dealings a secret from the law. Or he pays the law to turn the other way.”
“Isn’t it illegal for him to be chasing these women?” Jenny asked.
“Not if they owe him money, like he said,” Adam replied.
Jenny looked at Elise, who sat outside the edge of the circle of people about her and Karen. “Is it true, that you owe him money?”
Elise raked her scornful gaze over the girl. “Yeah, I imagine it is.” She gave a small laugh. “We all owe Clint money. That never ends.”
“What do you owe him?” Jenny asked. Adam pressed her hand, indicating, she knew, that she should be quiet and stay out of it, but she impatiently pulled her hand from his grasp.
Elise laughed. “Everything,” she replied. “Everything. Money for food, fancy clothes, housing, sheets, towels, baths….” She laughed again. “You name it, we owe it. We never get out of debt.”
Joe looked at Ben. “Pa, does he have any legal claim on them?”
Ben nodded reluctantly. “If they owe him money, and he can document it, yes, he has a claim on them.”
“But if they can’t pay him?” asked Joe.
“He can bring legal action against them, I suppose,” Ben replied slowly. “But most likely, he wants them, not legal action.”
Jenny looked at the two women. “How long have you been – been with Clint?”
Mai Ling looked down, frightened and silent. Elise glared derisively at Jenny. “What does it matter to you?” she spat in disgust.
Jenny looked at the woman in concern. “Marabelle told me that she had a child when she was 16. Her parents threw her out. Is that what happened to you?”
Elise turned on her in fury. “I told you before, lady, I don’t tell anyone – not ANYONE – about myself! No one knows! No one will ever know!”
“If you tell us, we might be able to help you,” offered Ben.
Elise whirled on him. “Why would you help us? What do you want from us? Why would you care?” She pulled back and looked at him suspiciously. “Look, Mister,” she said. “Marabelle, up there -” she gestured toward the loft – “she was real beautiful once. Men stood in line for her, fought over her, said they loved her. Lots of them spent all their gold and silver on her. But where are they now? Do any of them care? Are they here? No. They just wanted her body, for one night, or one-half hour, whichever they paid for. That’s all you care about. And then you go and marry a ‘lady’, like her-” she pointed at Jenny – “and don’t care a whit about us. Oh, we’re used to it! That’s what we’re here for, for sure. But we never asked for it. I didn’t. Marabelle didn’t. And Mai Ling here, she didn’t ask for it, either. But that’s what we’re stuck with. And we know you! We know you men! You only want what you can get from a woman, and then you leave her, settle down with a ‘lady’, and come back for a few treats on the side.” She laughed contemptuously. “And you have the nerve to say we’re the bad ones! So don’t offer me your ‘help’. We just stopped in here to get out of the storm. We’ll be moving on as soon as we can. You don’t need to trouble yourselves about us.”
Joe watched her with troubled eyes as he listened to her. How differently she acted down here than she had in the loft! He thought back to his conversations and dalliances with women of questionable reputation. Not that there had been that many; after all, he didn’t want his father hearing about anything of the sort. And he really wasn’t too comfortable with women like that. He preferred to do the seeking after and pursuing himself. How many of those women who had flirted with him and tried to lure him upstairs secretly harbored the hate and animosity he was now witnessing? He had nearly gone with her up in the loft. If his father and brother hadn’t been there, he would have had a hard time turning her down. She certainly was alluring, and knew how to please a man. He wondered how she could act so enticing, yet possess such venom and bitterness of spirit. What had happened to make her so desperate that she would run through the wilderness, filthy and hungry, to get away from a man who had apparently nearly enslaved her, yet then turn about and attempt to entice him into a corner of the barn?
Adam watched her, too, with a guarded expression. Jenny could see that he was deeply troubled, but Elise, after one glance at him, dismissed him as a hard man; in other words, one who could not be easily persuaded. They were some of the hardest men to please in her business. If they came calling, it was hard to read what they wanted, and hard to deliver how they expected. Men like that were often the most dangerous type of customer.
The older man, the one the other two called “Pa”, was glaring at her, but his expression was softening. He still didn’t look much more pliable than Adam. She might be able to work her way around him, but he wouldn’t be much easier, if any easier, than Adam.
Adam broke into her thoughts. “Pa, you said this man, Clint, is from Silver City. I thought he looked familiar. I think I’ve seen him, possibly, on one of my trips there. But not from any place of his ‘business’,” he added hastily. “Just about town. It seems to me that he’s an important man in that town. But I can’t believe he is the same man whom I remember seeing there before. He seemed -” Adam hesitated – “much less dangerous.”
“He’s an important man, all right,” replied Ben. “He’s involved in the city’s politics, and is a prominent member of a church there. He knows how to project a good image, and most folks who know him see him as a good, honorable man who wants to do the best for the town. He’s a charismatic man: very good at winning people to his side; getting people to see things his way. Most of the men and women in Silver City would not believe that he is capable of what you have witnessed here, much less that he could possibly be involved in the type of business that he’s in. Many people who suspect his dealings on the side can’t prove anything against him. Everyone is either too well-paid by him to keep quiet, or they’re too afraid to speak up.”
Adam looked at Elise, then at Mai Ling. “I think I can see why.”
Weak cries from the loft startled them. They suddenly realized no one had heard a sound from Marabelle for some time, and that these cries were those of an infant. Everyone rose and looked up.
Adam held Jenny’s arm. “You should stay down here.”
Jenny tried to pull her arm free. “I need to go up there!” She attempted to follow Karen, who was scuttling the bottom rungs of the ladder far ahead of Joe.
Adam held her fast. “You shouldn’t be seeing this! Your father and mother would not approve of any of this!”
Jenny looked at him, wondering what he meant. “Adam, Mother and Father would not turn these women away! They would do their best to help them!”
“I know that,” he softly replied. “But they wouldn’t want you involved.”
“I am involved!” she exclaimed. “Don’t try to coddle me!”
Ben gently took hold of her other arm. “Adam is right. You need to rest, after what you’ve been through. Joe and I will go up with him. You stay down here.” When he saw Jenny about to protest, he added, “Your father did ask me to stop by and keep an eye on you.” Realizing that further protest was useless, Jenny sat down. Adam sat next to her.
Ben was not even halfway up the ladder behind Joe before he heard Gabriel’s sharp cry. “No!” Joe climbed into the loft just in time to see the doctor stop Karen from touching a tiny bundle on a blanket near Marabelle. Joe raced to them and grabbed the girl. “Don’t touch it!” hissed Gabriel. “Get her out of here!” he said to Joe. Joe saw the baby, partially wrapped in a blanket, covered with sores and blisters. He stared in horror for a moment, then turned hastily away, and bumped into his father.
Ben looked at the sight before him. His dark eyes moved from the baby to Marabelle to Gabriel. Gabriel met his gaze, and his hard eyes and set mouth told Ben the hopelessness of the situation.
“I need some water,” said Gabriel. “And some needle and thread.”
Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Son, you and your brother get what Doc Gabriel needs. Leave Karen with her aunt.” As Joe hurried to comply, Ben turned back to the doctor. “Are they alive?”
“The baby died right after birth. Too small, too early to survive. If she hadn’t died from being too early, though, she’d have been dead in a short while, anyway.”
“How about the girl?”
“She’s still alive. For a while. Be best if she’d die soon.”
Marabelle opened her eyes and whispered. Ben approached her. “My baby, I want to see my baby.”
“Miss….” Ben didn’t know how to break the news to her.
“Your baby is dead,” Doc Gabriel was gentle but forthright.
“I know,” whispered the girl. “I want to see it.”
Reluctantly, Gabriel carefully picked up the tiny bundle, and moved it next to Marabelle’s face. She turned her head, pulled the blanket aside, and examined her daughter. Ben realized she was counting the fingers and toes. “She would have been perfect, if not for me,” she said. She carefully covered the baby, and let her hand rest on her child. “Mister,” she whispered, and looked at Ben. Ben stooped next to her. “Will you have a preacher say something over her when she’s buried? Please!”
Ben nodded. “I promise you, I’ll have a preacher say a service over her.”
“Ben!” Gabriel whispered. The doctor led him several steps away. “Ben, we have to get that child in the ground! You saw her! She didn’t just die from being early, she’s -”
“I know,” Ben assured him. “But the preacher can give a service even after the burial.” He turned and saw that Marabelle had overheard the conversation.
She closed her eyes wearily, then opened them, and struggled to speak. “I never had a chance to see my other babies.” She spoke slowly, as though every word was battle. “Father took my other child from me before I could see it. I don’t even know if it was a girl or a boy. He threw me out.” She gently moved the dead child onto her breast. “When Clint took me in, I got pregnant there, too. He made a doctor get rid of the baby. I didn’t want to, but he made me.” She hugged her daughter close to her. “This is the first child I’ve been able to keep. I want to name her ‘Grace.’ Mister,” she looked back at Ben. “I went to two churches, after my father threw me out, and they wouldn’t help me. Promise me you’ll get someone who is kind to say the words over her. Someone like you, or your family. If there is such a thing as a kind preacher.” She closed her eyes.
“I promise you, it will be done,” Ben assured her.
Gabriel moved next to her. “I need to get her cleaned up and the baby ready for burial,” he said.
Ben turned to go, and saw Adam and Joe standing behind him, with a pan of water and a sewing basket they had found in the house. Ben hadn’t even heard them lug the items into the loft. Both men were frozen in place, looking in sad realization at the sight before them. Ben wondered how much they had overheard. He knew that none of them could ever look at the women who sold their services in the same light again.
Jenny realized that her mother and father weren’t coming back for at least a week. She might be able to send a telegram to one of her father’s business contacts, the only one whose name she recalled, in Carson City, but wasn’t sure when her father would be there. Then it would take time for them to return home. If anything was to be done, it would have to be done by her and the Cartwrights.
Jared had wanted to help Adam and Joe fetch the items the doctor needed, but when they refused, he busied himself polishing a saddle and mending some of the tack, as his grandfather had shown him how to do. Karen stirred restlessly next to Jenny, kicking hay into her face and raising lots of dust. David fussed in the heat. Jenny picked him up, attempting to quiet him, and gave him something to drink. She patiently answered Karen’s questions about Marabelle’s baby as best as she could, but since Joe hadn’t told her anything when he brought Karen to her, she wasn’t sure what to say. From the child’s questions, she gathered that the baby was sick, which didn’t surprise Jenny. She hadn’t heard the baby cry in several minutes, and feared the worst.
Jenny pulled at the cloth that Doc Gabriel had bound about her bruised neck. It was no longer either wet or cold, but dry, scratchy, and hot, and it came off as she scratched under it. She propped David up near her, and gave him a string of colored beads she found in her pocket to keep him occupied. She found a few cookies in the basket Adam had brought from the house, and gave one to Karen. Seeing Elise and Mai Ling sitting silently at the edge of the stall, she took two more to offer to them. They looked up at her in surprise. “Would you like a cookie?” she finally asked. Mai Ling turned her face down and whispered her thanks as she timidly took it. Elise stared at her, measuring her up and grudgingly decided she might be worthy of some respect. As she ate the cookie, she watched Jenny dig through the basket and bring out some tin cups, which she filled with water from a nearby canteen. Jenny set two cups near the women, and gave the other one to Karen.
“What happened to your neck?” asked Elise.
Jenny self-consciously put her hand to her throat. “Oh – that man – Clint – he grabbed me.”
Elise looked her up and down. She had a nice figure, long, glossy, and wavy brown hair that shone in the sunlight, and pretty brown eyes with a touch of green. “He’d want you,” she said. She took a drink of water. “He’d want her, too.” She indicated Karen.
Jenny looked at him in horror. “What could he possibly want with her?”
“What do you think?” Elise watched her as she took another bite. “Clint has a hankering for little girls.”
She was serious. Jenny didn’t believe anyone could do what Elise was saying, but she remembered Clint’s cruel eyes and cold smile, and shuddered at the thought of her niece in his hands.
“She’s only three,” Jenny told her.
Elise gave a humorless laugh. “He likes them young. Real young.” She recalled her own time with Clint at age nine, and knew he had taken much younger girls unfortunate enough to be sold to him.
“Has he been following you long?”
“Ever since we left.”
“When was that?”
“About three months ago.”
Jenny glanced at Mai Ling, and found the shy Chinese girl was watching her. As soon as she saw Jenny look at her, she dropped her eyes. “Are you all from Silver City?”
“That was our last place.”
Jenny tried to imagine what their lives must have been like, running through the country about here, trying to survive, with Clint always ready to tighten the noose about their necks again. She hesitated, then decided to ask again, “Have you been with Clint very long?”
“Long enough,” Elise snapped. Her blue eyes flashed fire, and Jenny wisely changed the subject.
“The men who are here are my friends,” she told them. “They live on a big ranch next to us, and they won’t let anything happen to you. I won’t, either.”
Elise smiled at the unworldly promise. “Why, Miss, that’s very kind of you, but see, you don’t know Clint. Once he decides on something, it goes his way. He wants us, and he’ll see to it that he gets us. He’ll try to get you, too, eventually, and your fine friends may die for helping us. I’m very sorry we stopped in to trouble you, but the storm, and Marabelle’s condition, didn’t leave us much choice. I’m just sorry that you’re in Clint’s way now. That’s a bad place to be.” She spoke in a straightforward and matter-of-fact voice, as though discussing the weather.
“Things didn’t exactly go his way this afternoon,” said Jenny.
Elise looked at the bruises on her neck. “Looks like they didn’t go your way, either.”
“If it’s so hopeless, why did you run away?”
Elise looked at the girl. She wasn’t about to tell this lady about being locked in a room at age nine, a room to which two people had the key: the madam who brought her meals and switched the chamber pot, and the man who abused her. Nor was she about to share the details of what had happened to anyone who had attempted to help her before. She knew this gently reared girl would never understand the abuse she endured from her uncle, either. A bitter smile crossed her face as she thought of what Jenny’s reaction would be to their suicide pact. But that reminded her: She needed her knife back. Adam had it. They had traded the guns they’d stolen from Clint and other people along the way for food and supplies. That knife was the only weapon they had left. Marabelle couldn’t run anymore. Elise was tired of running. She knew Mai Ling was too frightened to keep running much longer. Clint had finally caught up to her once again. The thought of a quiet release at the sharp edge of a knife brought relief and contentment almost unknown to her. It was the only peace she was ever likely to find.
David dropped his beads, reached for them, and slid slowly onto his side, giving a cry of dismay. Jenny lifted his limp form from the hay, sat him on her lap, and attempted to brush the hay off of him, but it stuck to his sweaty skin. She stood, pulled him over her shoulder, and started to leave the stall, intending to go outside where they might be able to catch a breeze, however slight.
“What’s wrong with him?” Elise watched him with a puzzled and startled expression. “Why did he fall over like that?”
“He can’t move much on his own,” explained Jenny, as she shifted his floppy head on her shoulder. “We have to do most things for him, and put his toys within his reach. He’s not strong at all.”
Mai Ling watched the boy’s dangling arms and legs, and said softly, “In China, children like that are left to die.” She cowered in shame as soon as she had spoken. Her words sounded judgmental, as though this child should not be permitted to live. But what she meant to express was admiration for this woman who would care for a child such as this. Unlike Elise, she liked this lady. Though she was still afraid of the men, she liked Jenny, and wished that such a lady would consider being friends with her.
Jenny looked at her in surprise, both at the girl speaking to her and at what she said. She had heard that the Chinese did not value life as other people did, but had no idea if that was true. “Well, someone left him here, in America,” she said. “He was abandoned at an orphanage. A family took him from there, but when they found out he was weak like this, they didn’t want him, and left him with us. So, some people here don’t want children like this, either.”
Elise looked incredulously at the weak child in Jenny’s arms. “If he’s not yours, why do you keep him?”
“Because we love him,” came the gentle reply. Jenny wondered what this hardened young girl knew of love, and what her life had been like before she was unfortunate enough to meet the horrible man Jenny had encountered earlier.
Mai Ling looked at her in gratitude for not taking her words amiss. She wished that they would not bring harm to this lady, but she feared that they would. The men here had not hurt or used them – not yet, anyway – and Mai Ling knew that Jenny could have thrown them out after Clint’s visit, or even during it. Neither she nor the men had done so. She thought of Clint so close, and shuddered, knowing that even without Marabelle, they could not outrun him now. She trembled and paled at what she knew would happen when Clint returned.
Adam entered the stall with Joe. “Where are you going?” he asked Jenny. He had heard most of the conversation, but had waited around the corner, unwilling to interrupt, as he knew that his presence would make the women uneasy.
“Outside to try to cool him off.” Jenny indicated the baby in her arms.
“You need to stay close to the barn door,” Adam said brusquely. “We may have some unpleasant company sooner or later.” He looked at Elise and Mai Ling, wondering how or if to tell them about Marabelle’s baby.
“The doctor said you may go up and see your friend.” Ben spoke from behind Adam. As the women silently ascended the ladder, Ben said, “You two may as well start digging the grave.”
“Guess we should just dig two and be done with it now,” said Joe glumly. Adam grabbed a couple of shovels by the tools, and led his brother behind the barn.
Jenny looked at Ben. Tears brightened her eyes. “I knew this would happen,” she said, “but it’s still no easier.”
Ben put his hand on her shoulder. “Death never is easy.”
“Mr. Cartwright, why are some people’s lives so hard, and others have it so easy? She didn’t ask for all of this! And I don’t believe the other two did, either.”
“I don’t know,” Ben gently replied, looking at her with a furrowed brow and troubled eyes. “All we can do is make it easier for them.”
“We’re a little late for that, aren’t we? After everyone else has finished using them?” Tears flowed down her cheeks. She heard a stifled sob behind her, and turned to see Karen crying. Jenny knelt down and put her free arm about the girl. “Let’s go outside,” she said. “It may be cooler in the shade.” They went out back, and sat in the shade of a large tree not far from the barn. They could see Joe and Adam digging two separate graves further away. Jared had followed them out and was attempting to help, which Jenny gratefully saw was tolerated by the two men. She turned aside Karen’s questions with “I’ll tell you later”, and sat in somber thought with her two young charges.
Joe angrily hurled aside one shovelful of dry, drought-hardened dirt after another. Adam worked more methodically, thinking about the shape of the grave and the size of body each one would hold. “Joe, it needs to be a little wider,” Adam said as he looked at the hole Joe was digging. “Even for the baby, it’s going to need to be bigger.”
Joe rammed his shovel into the hard, dry earth, and shouted, “How can you think about something like that right now?! There’s a baby dead up there, through no fault of its own!”
“I know, but we still - ”
“Is that all you care about? How big the graves should be? Who they’re each for? Which one we’re digging? Don’t you care about anything else?”
“Of course I care!”
“Well, I don’t see any sign of it! You just looked at those women and walked away! You hate them, don’t you? Why, Adam? Why? Could it be you had something to do with them once?”
Adam looked at his youngest brother in amazement. His green eyes were flashing fire, and his face lit up with fury. He knew Joe wasn’t thinking or speaking rationally, but that last accusation, phrased as a question, made Adam’s blood boil. Whatever his brother may think of him, whatever Joe may have considered to be his “exploits”, whether here at home, on business, or while away at college many years back, he had never treated women with anything less than consideration and respect. Yes, he had loved women, physically as well as emotionally, but he would never thoughtlessly use any woman and then toss her aside.
“You just said a mouthful, little brother,” said Adam. “Maybe even bit off more than you can chew.”
“Yeah?” challenged Joe. “I think I just hit the nail on the head!”
“Well, maybe you need someone to hit you on the head to knock some sense into you!”
Joe picked up his shovel and started for him. When he tried to swing it, Adam grabbed it, wrested it away from him, and tossed it away. “What is the matter with you?” he demanded.
Joe leaped on him without warning, and knocked Adam on his back. He tried to pummel him, but Adam shoved him away, got to his feet, and dodged him as he rushed back. “Joe, stop it!” Adam exclaimed.
Joe rose to his feet and watched his older brother. Suddenly, he dived for his legs, knocking him down again. He hit him once in the stomach, then hesitated. Adam clutched his abdomen, and tried to breathe, but couldn’t. Suddenly, Joe was lifted off of him, and Adam heard Hoss say, “What the blazes do you two think you’re doin’ out here?”
“Let me go!” Joe struggled furiously in Hoss’s grasp. Hoss lifted him off the ground and held him at arm’s length, so his legs kicked and arms punched the air.
“Little Joe! Stop it! Unless you want me to knock some sense into you and the air outta ya!” When Joe responded with more kicks and punches to the empty air about him, Hoss tossed him onto the pile of dirt by the grave Adam had been digging.
Adam stepped quickly near Hoss, bracing himself for Joe’s attack. But it never came. Joe lay still, looking at the brassy, cloudless sky above him, breathing hard. Hoss and Adam looked at each other. Finally, Hoss approached his little brother. “You finished with all this nonsense, Little Joe?”
Joe didn’t answer. He sat up, dangling his legs into the grave before him, and bowed his head in his hands. Adam moved to his side. “Joe. Tell me what’s wrong!”
Joe moved his hands to his side, and stared into the hole. After what seemed like several minutes, he said, “Adam, how many women do you suppose there are in Virginia City, in the saloons and girls’ boarding houses, like that?”
Adam was reluctant to answer. Finally, he said, “I don’t know, Little Joe.”
“She came to me!” Joe exclaimed. “She wanted me! I would’ve had a hard time not going with her, if you and Pa hadn’t been there!” He looked at his brother, the torment evident in his eyes. “And then, she hated me! She hated both of us! She hated her life!”
Adam looked at him, wondering what to say. He didn’t want to tell his littlest brother that Elise had come to him because he appeared to be the most gullible of the three of them.
“Do you - ” Joe was hesitant – “do you think that they all – women like that - feel that way?”
Adam wondered. “I don’t know. Maybe. It’s likely, at least.”
“How did they end up like this?” Joe wiped a tear from his eye.
“I don’t know,” replied Adam. “She – Marabelle - had a baby a few years ago - ”
“Yes, she had a baby!” exploded Joe. “How many women, unmarried women, have babies? Most of them get married before the baby arrives! And even if they don’t, do they end up like this? Dying, with a dead child? Running for their lives, and freedom? Hating everyone about them?”
“I don’t know, Joe - ”
Joe stood, retrieved his shovel from the ground where Adam had thrown it, and began digging a hole that Adam thought might reach to China.
“You wanna tell me what’s goin’ on, Adam?”
Adam looked at Hoss, and wondered how to explain. He saw Jared, standing back, watching and waiting for the fight to be over, and wondering if he should now come back. Adam beckoned to him. When the boy approached him, Adam said, “Help Joe with the digging. I’m going to talk to Hoss.” Adam put his arm about his brother, led him aside, and explained as well as he could what had happened.
Hoss’s brow furrowed. “When I rode up here, I went to the house. No one was there, so I went to the barn. I heard someone up in the loft, but then I heard you ‘n Little Joe in a row, so I ran out back.” He glanced back at his brother and Jared. He could tell by the vicious jabs of the shovel that Joe was still angry. He knew that what Joe and Adam had seen in the barn, and what had transpired in the yard with Clint earlier, was enough to make any decent person angry, but he wondered what was really bothering his brother. He suspected that it was more than his strong sense of justice that was disturbed.
“Adam,” Hoss continued, “when do you think this Clint fellow will come back? You know he will come back – with lots of people or in secret.”
“Depends on how long it takes him to get back to town, or wherever he’s going, and make his plans,” replied Adam. “I wish I had more of an idea what he was going to do.”
“At any rate, Jenny and the young’uns had better get inside,” replied Hoss. “And we all need to stay in one place. Either the house, or the barn.”
Adam nodded. “The barn is the best for now.”
“I’m gonna go find Pa.” Hoss left Adam and took determined strides toward the back door of the barn. Adam went to tell Jenny to get in the barn with the children.
Hoss saw his father climbing down the ladder, with a bundle of cloth in his arms. “Pa!” he called.
Ben turned. “Hoss!” he exclaimed. “Good to see you!”
“Pete told me what was goin’ on after you sent him home,” said Hoss. “I came here as soon as I could.”
“We found Adam,” Ben said. “He’s here.”
“I know,” replied Hoss. “I just talked to him and Little Joe, outside.” He looked at the small stitched-up bundle in his father’s arms. “Is that the baby Adam was telling me about?
Ben nodded solemnly. “Yes.”
A noise above them made them all look upward. Hoss quickly averted his gaze as he saw two women coming down the ladder with their dresses flapping about as they descended. As they reached the floor of the barn, Hoss glanced guardedly at them. He saw two attractive women, conservatively dressed, who looked him over and huddled back, as though afraid of him. Hoss removed his hat and bowed his head courteously. “Ma’am,” he said, nodding to each of them. “I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to be – well, lookin’ at you as you came down that ladder. I’m sorry.” He watched them shyly.
Elise and Mai Ling looked at this new man. Was he ever big! They didn’t know that they’d ever seen such a big man. He certainly had good manners – at least outwardly. No telling how he’d act if they were alone, which they might be, soon enough. Elise watched him from a distance, while Mai Ling tried to hide behind her and ducked her head. Hoss could tell that they were afraid to go past him, and he said, “I don’t intend to hurt you none. My brother outside there, he’s just been telling me about you all. We don’t intend to let no one hurt you.”
The women still hung back, unwilling to go near him. Ben cleared his throat and stepped between them. “Hoss, why don’t you take this baby outside - ” He was interrupted as Jenny entered the barn, with David in her arms and Karen clinging to her skirts. Adam followed closely behind them.
Mai Ling felt dizzy, and sank down on the floor. She had had little to eat all day, except for some stew and bread early that morning, and a cookie that afternoon. And now there was this big man in the barn; this huge man, who reminded her of a gent who used to come to Clint’s parlor house to see her. She hated him. He hurt her, and she was afraid of him. She hadn’t dared tell Clint about it, as she was afraid of him, too. But she had told the Madam about him.
The Madam had said, “Never mind, Mai Ling. You know what he wants: Give it to him. Act grateful. Act pleased. Act afraid. Act however he wants you to act. The men pay for you, and you give them what they want, no matter what. He always leaves you with a smile, so you must be doing something right. Just think about something else, honey, while he’s there. That may help. Just so long as he doesn’t know,” she quickly added. “Someone like him could get dangerous if he suspects you’re doing that.” Seeing the terrified look on the celestial’s face, she said, “Don’t worry. He’s likely to be movin’ on soon. He’s a drifter. He likes you, and likes what you give him, but he likely won’t be here long. Most of these men aren’t.” Seeing she was still reluctant, the Madam had added, “Remember, we’re here to serve these men. We all have our problems, honey, and our own sad stories about our past, and how we came to be here. Some of them are worse than yours. You’ve had a bad break. You make the best of it. If you don’t, I’ll send Clint up to help you sort it out.”
With that threat hanging over her head, Mai Ling had entertained her customer countless times, attempting to down as much whiskey as possible and still remain coherent before he came to see her. Every time he left, she cried, then cleaned herself up, repaired her damaged paint, and learned to greet the next customer with a smile. She became so good at it that the Madam of the house made certain that she didn’t drink too much, and that there were no knives or guns within her reach. She knew her girls. After all, she had once entertained such men herself.
Jenny saw the women huddled near Ben, and noted the puzzled, strained expression on Hoss’s face. She stepped forward. “Hoss, why don’t you take the ba –go outside with Joe and Adam?” She took the stitched up sack from Ben with her free hand, and attempted to give it to Hoss. But Karen grabbed the bundle and pulled on it, crying and moaning as she did so. Jenny pulled it away from her, and gave it to Hoss. Karen grabbed hold of his legs, and refused to let go.
Finally, Adam stepped forward. He took the bundle from Hoss, and quickly left for the yard. Jenny futilely attempted to loosen her niece’s grip on Hoss’s legs. Hoss finally picked Karen up and held her close. “It’s all right, honey, it’s ok,” he assured her. “I’m sorry, darling. It’s all right.” He stroked her hair as he continued calming and assuring her, and when she finally stopped sobbing, carried the child to the same stall she had been in earlier.
As he set her down, she looked about. “Where’s the baby?” she asked.
Before Hoss could respond, Jenny replied, “The baby’s not here anymore.”
“But where is she?” asked Karen.
Jenny wondered how Karen knew that the baby was a girl. She must have heard some of the talk since the child had been born. “She was very sick, and died, Karen. That happens sometimes.” She fumbled for comforting words. “We’ll get to say goodbye at the funeral, later.”
Karen looked upset, but said no more. She put her thumb in her mouth and sucked hard on it, trying to find comfort. Jenny lay David in the hay, and tried to pick Karen up, but David screamed, and Karen wriggled away from her. Finally, Jenny left them both alone. Karen went to David and put a corner of her favorite blanket over him. She held another corner of the blanket in her hand, and sucked her thumb hard. David was suddenly quiet as he watched her, and his eyes began to droop. He went to sleep, and Karen sank into slumber shortly after.
Elise and Mai Ling watched as Hoss comforted Karen. After the children were asleep, they continued to stare at him. He looked at them, and they dropped their eyes. When Elise dared to look back at him, he was directly in front of her. “Ma’am,” he said, “why don’t you both come here and rest near Miss Jenny and the young’uns? You both most be tuckered out from your long trip.”
Elise couldn’t believe the gentleness of his touch as he took her by the arm and led her into the stall. This was one man she wouldn’t mind entertaining, if he was as gentle in other ways as he was right now. But Hoss spread a blanket out for her, helped her down upon it, and then went back to Mai Ling. She shrank in fear from him as he stooped near her. “I won’t hurt you, Ma’am,” he quietly assured her, as he lifted her and laid her next to Elise. “You all just go to sleep, y’hear? It’s been a rough day for you, from what I’ve heard. No one here is gonna let anything happen to you.” With one final look at them, he went back to his father.
Elise and Mai Ling looked at one another. They watched and waited for a man, or men, to return, but no one did. Mai Ling heard soft, regular breathing next to her, and saw her friend had fallen asleep. She suddenly realized how exhausted she was, and thought perhaps, for now, she could sleep without fear. Maybe these people really wouldn’t allow anything else to happen to her. Perhaps they could get away from Clint after all. She could at least sleep for a little while….a few minutes…. Her eyes closed, and she sank into an exhausted slumber.
Adam approached his brother. Joe was helping Jared finish the second, bigger grave now. Adam desperately hoped that the second grave would not be necessary, but after what he had witnessed in the loft, he knew it would be. Cradling his burden in one arm, he laid a hand on Jared’s shoulder. “Go back into the barn,” he told the boy. “There’s a pie in the basket I brought in. You might want to help yourself, and pass it around.” Jared looked from Adam to the bundle he carried, then to Little Joe. He started to say something, but thought better of it. He leaned his shovel against a nearby tree and went back to the barn.
Little Joe had stopped working, and watched his brother lay the baby in the smaller grave. “Pa promised he’d get a preacher to say something over her.”
“It’ll have to be later,” said Adam. “There’s no preacher here right now, and we need to get her into the ground.”
“We can at least say something ourselves.”
Adam looked at his brother. “All right, Joe. Do you want to, or shall I?”
Joe glared at Adam. “I can do it, if you’re afraid.”
Adam ignored the insult, and bowed his head, waiting.
Joe cleared his throat, and said in a small voice, “Dear Lord, accept this little soul into heaven, and let her rest in peace with you forever. And Lord,” Joe’s voice broke at this point, and his breath trembled as he drew a deep gulp into his lungs, “prepare her mother to meet you. Let her find her peace, at last.” Joe’s head remained bowed as tears spilled down his cheeks. He took a deep breath, turned his back to his brother, and impatiently wiped his face.
Adam began shoveling dirt into the grave, hoping his brother would have time to compose himself. After a moment, Joe helped him. Together they tamped the hump of loose dirt down, and put their shovels against the tree. Adam pulled his brother down into the shade next to him, and took a swig from a canteen resting on the ground near him before offering it to his brother. “Time we rested a while,” he said. After a moment’s silence, he asked, “You want to tell me what else is bothering you?”
After a long silence, Joe began to speak in such a quiet voice that Adam could hardly hear him. “About a year ago, I met this girl. I was on my way home, after running some errands in town for Pa, and thought I’d stop off at the Silver Dollar for a drink or two before I left town.” He swallowed, looked at his brother, then continued. “There was this new girl there. Usually, the girls in those places are all over you, but not her. She hung back; seemed a little shy. I left the table where I was with my friends, and went over to her. She was - ” Joe searched for the right word – “sweet. I know that doesn’t seem right, for a girl in a place like that, but she was. I talked with her for a while, and found out, when I asked, that her parents and brother had died. She didn’t have anyplace to go, and had ended up there.” Joe hung his head. “It didn’t seem fair to me, that she didn’t have any more of a chance than that. I thought she deserved better, and I told her so.” He paused for a long time.
“Well, I went back several times, to see her. And one time, she was real upset. She tried to hide it from me, but I could tell. I asked her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t tell me. Finally, I insisted she tell me.” Joe looked at the dusty road beyond the house, and the wilted leaves on the trees beyond it. “Suddenly, this guy appeared from out of nowhere. He said he wouldn’t have men like me hassling his girls. He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her upstairs. I tried to stop him, but several of the guys in the saloon pulled me away, saying he owned the place and all the girls in it. There was no way to stop him, they told me.”
Joe impatiently wiped another tear away. “I finally had to give up and leave, but I went back. First, they wouldn’t let me in to see her. I got thrown out that day. Then, later - ” He squeezed his eyes closed and sobbed. “Later,” he continued when he could speak, “they said she had left. I finally bribed one of the other girls with a lot of money. She told me this girl had been pregnant, and that man had made her get rid of the baby, and had taken her away.” Another tear escaped. “She didn’t deserve that Adam; she didn’t deserve that! She was a sweet girl, who never had a chance!”
Adam glanced about him, glad to see that Jenny and the children were out of sight and couldn’t hear the conversation. He tightened his arm about Joe, attempting to comfort him. “What was her name?”
Joe lifted his head from his hands. “Sylvia. Her name was Sylvia.”
“Did you ever find out what happened to her?”
“No. No. I never did. I was told she went to San Francisco, and I looked there, when I went there with Pa, but I never found her. That’s why I wanted to go on those trips with Pa so bad a couple of times, because of her. I looked all over, and asked, too. No one had ever heard of her. I offered to pay people a lot of money if they could tell me about her. But nobody knew anything. I never found out any more about her.” Joe hung his head and cried, impatiently wiping his face, only to find more tears.
Adam put his hand firmly on his brother’s shoulder, careful not to baby him, but enough to offer him comfort. He stared at the mounded hump of dirt before him, the mute testimony of a futile life, and wished he’d realized what his brother had been going through those times he’d insisted he accompany their pa on trips over the mountains. He would have been more understanding of Joe’s desire to go, and might have been able to help him, had he known. Instead, he’d been resentful of being the one stuck on the ranch, the responsible one who could help negotiate the timber contracts, the reliable one who could check out the mining operations, or the oldest son who had to take charge of the ranch simply because he was the oldest.
“Were you - ” Adam hesitated. “Were you the – the father?”
Joe looked up sharply. “No!” he exclaimed. “No! Never! I couldn’t have done that to her, Adam! Not after I found out about what had happened to put her there! But I still would have helped her! I wanted to help her! But I couldn’t find her, Adam, I couldn’t find her anywhere!”
Adam nodded. He understood. He understood all too well. He looked at the second gaping grave, and wondered how long they had to wait before it was filled. He wished he could take his brother away from what he knew had to come, but realized that they all had to stay together. “We’ve done all we can out here,” he finally said. “We’d best go back in the barn. You know that fellow, Clint, won’t be long now in coming back.”
Joe nodded. He wiped his face, both men gathered their shovels, and returned to the barn.
Jared shook his head. “Nope. Sorry, Hoss. You got the last piece.”
“Dadburn it! How can that be? You have a piece, so do I, and who else? Ain’t no one else here to have one!”
“Aw, Hoss, c’mon!” exclaimed Jared. “I gave a piece to Aunt Jenny, and saved some for these women who are here. I had to save pieces for Adam and Joe, or they’d be sore. And your pa and the doctor, too. So the pieces had to be small.”
“Well, some of them are asleep!” exclaimed Hoss. “Or busy! They can eat something else later, can’t they?” Hoss licked his plate.
“No!” exclaimed Jared. “They’ll all be hungry. We need to save them something!”
“Save us what?” came a voice from the doorway.
“A piece of blackberry pie,” replied Jared, relieved to see someone who was actually in time to retrieve some food before Hoss claimed it. “You told me to pass it around, and I’ve had a dickens of a time saving a piece for everyone!”
“I can’t imagine why,” replied Adam dryly.
After witnessing the near battle that took place over distribution of the remaining slivers of pie, Jenny announced she was going back to the house for more food.
“That’s a good idea,” said Hoss enthusiastically. “I’ll go with you, and help you carry it out.”
“Oh, no you don’t!” protested Joe and Adam together. “If you go with her, there won’t be anything left to carry out!” After more discussion, it was agreed that Joe would go with Jenny. Hoss insisted that neither of them eat anything while in the house. They returned with apples, cheese, some loaves of bread, and fruit preserves, as well as some more water. Jenny shooed the men away, and distributed the food.
Mai Ling stirred, and Hoss hastened to her side. He poured her a cup of water, and offered it to her as she sat up. Seeing the big man hovering over her, she shrank away. “It’s all right, Ma’am,” Hoss assured her. “Are you thirsty?” With trembling hands she accepted the cup. “We got some food right here beside you, Ma’am,” Hoss continued, pulling back the napkin from the plate next to her to show her. “Eat up, when you feel like it.” Hesitantly, Mai Ling lifted the plate onto her lap. She hungrily ate the cheese, bread, and apple, and shyly refused the preserves when Jenny and Hoss offered it to her for her bread.
Hoss watched her as she ate. Jenny noticed that the Chinese girl trembled under his gaze, and started to invent a reason for Hoss to go outside. But before she could speak, Hoss said, “Ma’am my name is Hoss. Hoss Cartwright.” When he received no response, he said, “Would you mind tellin’ me your name, Ma’am?”
For a moment, he thought she wouldn’t answer. Looking down at the floor, she finished a bite of cheese. “Mai Ling,” she whispered.
“Mai Ling,” mused Hoss. “That’s a right pretty name.” He watched her for a moment, noticing that she sat completely still, not eating any longer. “Aren’t you hungry any more, Ma’am? Uh, I mean, Mai Ling? There’s plenty more food – don’t be shy!” When she only looked at the floor and shuddered, Hoss’s brow furrowed in concern. “Mai Ling? Is something wrong?”
Jenny had watched the interaction between the gentle giant and the tiny Chinese girl, and took a deep breath. “Mai Ling,” she said softly. “No one here will hurt you.”
“No, Ma’am!” Hoss agreed whole-heartedly. “We won’t let anyone hurt you, will we, Adam? Joe?”
“Hoss won’t hurt you, either,” Jenny added. “No one here will.”
Hoss stared at Jenny in shock. He looked back at Mai Ling, realizing for the first time that she was still afraid of him. “Ma’am,” he said contritely, “I’m sorry I’ve frightened you. I wouldn’t hurt you. I’ll go and – and just leave you be.” As he rose to go, Mai Ling’s shoulders slumped forward, and tears rolled down her cheeks. Jenny went to her side and put her arm about the young girl. Hoss looked back at her, troubled and unable now to leave. He slowly returned, and stooped down a few feet from her side. “Ma’am – Miss Mai Ling,” he said, “is there anyone we can contact for you? Any family, or friends, who could come and help you? You sure do seem to need some friends, and if there’s anyone else who we can get in touch with who would do something for you, we’d be glad to do it.”
When she didn’t answer, Jenny added, “We’d be glad to help you. We can wire someone, or write a letter, if you need us to do so.”
Mai Ling shook her head as the tears rolled down her cheeks. “There is no one, no one,” she said. “Only my two friends here. No one else. They are my only friends.”
“Do you have any family? Perhaps in San Francisco?” asked Jenny, with a glance at Hoss. She felt the girl tremble, but received no answer for a long time.
“No, no family,” Mai Ling finally cried. “No family, only two friends. No one else.” She cried harder as she remembered Clint’s visit to this place, and knew he would be back. She wished again for the courage to take her life, not only so she would not have to endure his revenge, which she knew would be unspeakably brutal, but so she would not be forced to watch what he would do to these kind people. She knew what he could do. He had related to her, with great relish, what he had done to the men who had tried to assist Elise in eluding him before.
“Is your family dead?” asked Jenny. “Perhaps we can help you.”
Mai Ling continued to cry.
“Were you sold into this life?” Jenny looked up, surprised to hear Adam’s question. All eyes turned to him, then back to Mai Ling.
Mai Ling buried her head in her arms and refused to answer. The others exchanged glances.
“Where are you from, Mai Ling?” Jenny asked.
“I am from China,” the girl hiccuped between sobs.
“What happened, to bring you to this life?” Adam persisted.
Mai Ling stopped crying. She was drained, and wished these people would leave her alone. She could not reveal her shame, or bring shame on her father, by revealing her people. But she was tired of running, and weary of her life. What did it matter, if these people knew? “My father, he had my brother take me to a ship,” she finally said. “When my cousin meet me in San Francisco, he supposed to take me to his home. But he sell me instead, and I – I live this life I hate. I wish to die, but I cannot. Now, I run away, with friends, but Clint, he owns me, and will come and take me back. He is very bad man. I wish to leave him, but have no place to go.” She shut her eyes and willed herself to stop before mentioning their suicide pact. These people would not understand such things.
Hoss slowly stood. His brow furrowed and his mouth drew into a hard, straight line. He turned around, and said, “Don’t you worry, Miss Mai Ling. We’ve got a Chinese cook at our place, and he’s like a member of the family. He has lots of relatives in San Francisco. He’ll know who your cousin is, Ma’am, or he’ll be able to find out, and we’ll get him! He’ll pay for what he’s done to you!”
“No, no!” cried the Chinese girl. “He is my honorable father’s brother’s son! You must not do this!”
They stared at her in amazement. Ben came around the corner, the expression on his face revealing that he had heard the conversation . “Her family would probably disown her, if they knew what happened,” he said. “If she needs help, and she certainly does, it’s up to us to provide it.”
“That’s not gonna stop me from dealin’ with this cousin of hers!” exclaimed Hoss. “I’ll get him, and Hop Sing can at least help me, if it’s the last thing I do!”
“That won’t help her now,” said Jenny.
At the same time, Ben said, “Son, we need to think about right now. We can deal with her cousin later.”
A horse neighed outside. Everyone turned nervously toward the window. Adam grabbed a rifle and looked carefully outside. Hoss and Ben grabbed their guns, and went to the barn door. Joe drew his gun and stayed near Jenny, who huddled near the children.
“We’re in trouble.” Adam’s grim report made chills run down Jenny’s spine.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Here’s the sheriff, the Baptist preacher, and many fine citizens of Virginia City, along with many of the not-so-fine citizens, all headed up by our friend, Clint.” Adam rested the rifle in the window, and loosened his gun in his holster. He noted silently that someone had given Clint a gun since they had last seen him.
Ben started to swing the barn doors shut.
“They lock from the outside,” Jenny told him. “You can’t lock them out.”
Mai Ling huddled down into the hay, curling herself up and hiding her face in her hands. Her weeping and gasps could be heard by all of them, and Jenny was convinced that they could also be heard outside. Elise sat up straight, reaching instinctively for the knife at her hip. It wasn’t there.
She looked at Adam, standing near the window above her. “Adam,” she said, “I need my knife. The one you took from me. We need to help you, with all these folks here against you. That knife is all I have left. Unless you want to give us some guns?”
Adam looked at her with a distracted yet penetrating gaze. “No guns to spare, Ma’am. Sorry.”
“Then give me my knife!” she insisted.
Adam didn’t respond. There was as yet no challenge from outside. Suddenly, he caught Elise’s hands as she felt around his belt. “Sit down!” he commanded. “Stay out of the way, and keep away from the windows and the door!” Elise looked at his lowered brows, clenched jaw, and flashing eyes, and backed away from him. As she slumped down next to Mai Ling, Adam turned his attention back outside.
To his surprise, Clint was talking quietly with the crowd. When someone raised his voice in anger, and a murmur of agreement was heard rumbling throughout the mob, Clint raised his hand and spoke softly, so quietly that Adam couldn’t hear what was said, though he cocked his head and strained his ears. He saw Sheriff Roy Coffey approach Clint. Roy shook his head and looked intently at Clint as he spoke to him. Clint smiled, waved his hand in a deprecating gesture, and attempted to subdue the lawman with a soft word. Roy nodded reluctantly, or so it seemed to Adam, and looked apprehensively at the barn. The crowd drifted back, and seemed willing to wait.
Adam noticed several men go into the house, and watched closely. They soon came out, shaking their heads and said something to Clint, who spoke to them, approached the barn door from a respectful distance, and waited. Adam saw the men and women behind Clint fan out about the barn. Once they stopped moving, Clint raised his hand above his head.
“Hellooo! Cartwrights! Miss Barnhart! We’d like to talk to you, if you don’t mind! Please come out where we can see you. No one here means you any harm! We just want to talk!”
Adam didn’t take his eyes off Clint. Jenny watched Adam, wondering what to do.
“We know you’re harboring three fugitives,” Clint continued. “They’ve done a lot of people around here harm, stealing from them, corrupting their menfolk, and spreading lies about these parts. I’ve come here to undo the damage, make reparations for the harm they’ve done, and to take them back into my care. Surely you’re not going to try to stop me from making amends to these fine folks who’ve come with me?”
Jenny listened in disbelief. How could this man sound so charitable and solicitous? She put her hand on her throat, wincing as she pressed on a bruise left by Clint’s ruthless grasp. She looked at Adam, but he didn’t turn his eyes from the window where he stood guard above her.
“I only want to help,” said Clint solicitously. “These girls have strayed, but I’ll take them back. It’s my duty, after all. Now, I know they’ve stolen from you and other folk about here, as well as further away on their roaming about. You have a strange mule in your barn, don’t you? They gave it some of your horses’ feed, didn’t they? They stole that mule, and stole the feed from you. I’m willing to take full responsibility for these young girls, and you won’t have a thing to explain or account for. Just come out, and we’ll talk about it.”
“That’s not going to work, Clint,” Adam shouted out the window. “We know too much – about you, and about these girls. Don’t think you’ll get away with this so easily!”
Clint smiled forbearingly and spread his hands. “My friend, I don’t blame you,” he said expansively. “Doubtless, you’ve heard tales about me, stories that malign my character. These young girls are rebellious, and need a firm hand. When they ran away, they felt they had to tell hard-luck stories to survive. Unfortunately,” he continued reluctantly, “they did a lot more than that. But I’m willing to take them back and do my duty by them. That can’t be done at the end of a gun, Adam Cartwright. Please, put your guns away, and come outside. Let’s talk like civilized men.” He glanced at the crowd behind him, and exulted inwardly. They were waiting, hanging on his every word. This was going just the way he wanted it to go.
Jenny rose from her place beside the slumbering children, and walked toward the barn door.
“Where are you going?” demanded Adam.
Jenny stopped behind Ben and Hoss, who were peering out through a crack in the barn door. “I’m going out there,” she said. “This is my parents’ property.”
“You’re not going out there,” said Ben. “Hoss and I will go out, and talk to them. You stay in here.” He swung one of the wide doors open, and walked slowly outside, followed by Hoss.
Ben and Hoss stopped several paces outside the barn door. They noticed that several men near the edges and back of the crowd drew their guns and aimed straight for them.
“What do you want, Clint?” demanded Ben roughly.
“Why, Mr. Cartwright, I’ve told you what I want,” Clint protested mildly. “I want to help these girls, and take them back home, but you keep me from doing so!”
“Don’t play games with me!” Ben’s eyes flashed angrily. “These young ladies have had more than a few things to say about you and about their life with you, and I have no intention of turning them over to you. You and I, as well as more than a few citizens gathered here, know that you are not what you’re pretending to be!”
Clint smiled patiently. “Mr. Cartwright,” he said, “let me explain the situation to you. These young ladies are – well, they’re free spirits; wild and independent. They don’t like anyone telling them what to do. Now, many of these folks will attest that I’m a member in good standing in the Congregational Church in Silver City.” Several folks murmured, and Hoss and Ben saw several heads nod. They noted that the ones with the guns drawn did most of the nodding and affirming, and that others followed their lead.
“These girls,” Clint continued reluctantly, “are rebellious. They’re disobedient, and ungrateful.” Several angry exclamations came from the crowd. “Now mind you,” Clint continued, raising his voice above the disruption, “I won’t turn them away. They’re young, and can mend their ways. But they’ve committed many crimes, many of them of a grievous nature; crimes that may stain them for the rest of their lives.” He sighed, and looked gloomily at the ground as though burdened with the weight of the trespasses of his young charges. “I’m willing to reimburse Miss Jenny’s folks for the cost of the feed they stole for that mule, as well as for any other expenses they’ve incurred or inconveniences they’ve encountered with these young ladies, just as I’m willing to repay the cost of the mule they stole from the folks near Carson City, and to recompense you, Mr. Cartwright, for the time and effort you’ve spent on them.” He smiled graciously. “Now, I understand that some of their – sins – cannot be atoned for with money. But if you hand them over, I promise you that I will do my best to see that they are reformed. They just need a firm hand, that’s all.”
Even Adam felt a chill run down his back as he watched from the side window of the barn. Mai Ling pulled away from Elise, who had gathered her close and hugged her fiercely, and stumbled away. Joe glanced at her, but turned his attention again to the mob outside. Adam kept his eyes fixed on the men at the back of the crowd.
Jenny could tolerate no more. She suddenly rose and went out the door, standing first behind Ben and Hoss, then moving beside them. “Don’t listen to this man,” she said. “He’s not what he wants you to think he is. He was by here earlier, and he did this.” She pulled down her collar and revealed her neck. Many in the crowd murmured and gasped at the sight of the dark bruises. “He grabbed me and threatened me, and my niece, when I wouldn’t tell him where those young ladies were,” she continued. “He claims to care about them. That’s not what he said while he was here! He’s angry, vengeful, and hateful, and has anything but protective and fatherly instincts toward them. They’re scared to death of him!”
“The fact is,” said Hoss, “this fine man, Clint, runs a parlor house in Silver City. These young girls hiding here are trying to get away from him, and away from that kind of life. And we aim to see to it that they do. My brother Adam, he saw this man threaten Miss Jenny and her niece. We have no intention of watching him walk away free, or giving him these girls.”
The crowd rumbled, and a few people shouted their disbelief. “You’re lying, Cartwright!” came a voice from the back of the crowd. “We’ve heard how these women have been going from one place to another, tempting the men, and stealing from decent folk, just to live like hussies!”
Clint stepped forward. He glared at Jenny with pure hatred, and said, “It wasn’t me who gave her those bruises about her throat! I heard the girls were here, and came just in time to see that so-called Negro doctor, Doc Gabriel, grab her around the throat, and tell her what a slut she was for even trying to help my girls!”
“There, you see?” came an angry shout from the edge of the mob. “He tries to help them, and gets run off, because they’d rather believe those hussies than decent folk! Look what they did to him! He’s all scratched up!” The crowd advanced. Jenny, Ben, and Hoss stood their ground.
“Is getting these girls, whom you don’t even know, worth some of you getting killed?” shouted Ben. “Because that’s what’s going to happen if this goes on.”
The crowd stopped and quieted, but one man pushed his way to the front. A silver star glinted from Roy Coffey’s vest as he approached. “Ben,” he said. “I agreed to give Clint here a chance to present his case to you before I started talking. I didn’t intend for any of this to come to shooting. These folks all insisted on coming along, and they’re all riled up. Ben, there have been rumors of – of – disreputable women stealing from folks, among other things, all around these parts.” Roy looked down and cleared his throat. “Now, rumors aren’t fact, I realize that. And since no one has made any complaint of theft, or of – well, of any kind - to me, I don’t have any call to arrest anyone. Ben, this man has documents claiming that the young women he says are hiding here are in debt to him.” He started to pull some papers from his pocket inside his vest, but Ben waved him aside.
“You don’t need to show me his documents,” said Ben. “I’m sure they’re all legal and binding. He’s too smart to do otherwise. If they’re good enough to convince you, I don’t need be convinced. But I tell you, these girls have been in the business of ‘entertaining’ so-called gentlemen, and they want out. That’s why they ran away, and I intend to see to it that he doesn’t get his hands on them, no matter what ‘documents’ he may have putting them in his debt.”
Roy Coffey nodded knowingly. “I just wanted you to know exactly what you’re getting into, Ben.”
Jenny mustered her courage and spoke up. “Doc Gabriel did not give me these bruises,” she repeated, touching her throat. She pointed at Clint. “That man did. He wants these girls, and for no good purpose, either.”
Many in the crowd shook their heads. “You’re helping them because you’re like them!” someone shouted.
“I believe some of you gentlemen can explain why your friend, Clint, wants these young ladies,” said a voice behind her. Jenny turned to see Doc Gabriel in the doorway to the barn. His hands were bloodstained, as were his clothes; his face and hair were drenched with sweat, and he clenched his fists as he emerged outside. “I know many of you fine men.” Gabriel looked about the crowd. “Don’t I?” As his eyes swept across the crowd, faces dropped, one by one, before his stare. The men at the back turned their guns toward him, unsure of what to do.
“What?!” mocked Gabriel. “Isn’t anyone going to come forward, and say what this fine gentleman wants? You’re all gentlemen yourselves, aren’t you? There’s nothing to fear from telling the truth, is there?”
The only response he received was a slight movement toward the edges of the mass of people, as men moved outward and back. Ben and Hoss instinctively moved in front of Gabriel. Jenny felt a hand on her arm, and turned to see Joe pulling her into the barn. “Stay inside,” he said. Once she was back near Adam, Joe moved to the back door of the barn, listening closely.
“Why, gentlemen, I’m surprised at you!” mocked Gabriel. “How many of you have told me that you’re men, real men, not afraid to face anything, and that any man would do as you have done? Do I really have to say what you’ve done? Or why I’ve needed to come to your houses, in secret, instead of Doc Martin, or Doc Young? Do I have to repeat what I’ve told you, and the unfortunate news I’ve had to give to – well, let’s say, other members of your families? Of course, in normal circumstances, that news is confidential, but these are not normal circumstances!”
He looked about. No one would meet his eyes. “Let me tell you, gentlemen, these young ladies are not being gently reared by this man!” He nodded toward Clint. “He may claim that they have strayed, but just let me say that I find evidence of a long history of misuse of these women! Now, I could go into details, but I’m afraid I’d embarrass some of the fine folk here. And I know that some of you in particular would not care to hear it for other reasons! Am I right?”
People backed away, muttering to one another.
“Tell me,” shouted Gabriel, “would a man interested in the welfare of his young female charges allow them to be abused in the way I have witnessed these women to be abused? Would he threaten them? Would he threaten someone who tried to give them shelter, the way he threatened Miss Jenny? And would he bring men to support him who know nothing about the situation, but who know everything about his ‘business’?” Gabriel’s eyes traveled about the crowd again. No one would meet his angry glare. “Perhaps I should tell something about this business,” said Gabriel slowly. “Or, perhaps, one of you ‘gentlemen’ who is more familiar with it should tell it instead?”
Several men began walking hurriedly away. One by one, others followed.
Clint shouted, “Don’t listen to him! I saw him grab Miss Jenny about the throat, and threaten her! That’s what she gets, for going to someone like him for help! She talked to Doctor Young first, and he told her to report these girls to the sheriff. But she didn’t do it. She went for this man. Now, he has attacked her!” He turned to the crowd behind him. “Are you going to stand for this outrage?”
The angry murmur of the men who were left rumbled about the barn. The men at the edges of the crowd drew in, pushing the mob about them closer to the Cartwrights. “Let’s get them!”
“Get that so-called ‘doctor’!”
“Those women are a menace to decent folk everywhere!”
“We won’t stand to have this kind of thing around here!”
“Stand back! If you won’t take care of this, we will!”
Ben was about to fire a shot over the crowd and retreat into the barn when he saw an old man ride up on a run-down, tired horse. He stopped next to Ben and Hoss, sniffed loudly, and wiped his nose. “Howdy, folks,” the man shouted. “I think I might be able to help, if you’ll be so good as to listen for a few minutes.” He looked about, and the crowd slowly quieted. “I know a lot of you,” he continued, as he looked at them. “I’ve seen you here in Virginia City, and I used to see some of you in Silver City back when I lived there.” He looked the men before him in the eye. Some of them returned his gaze in skeptical bewilderment. The rest dropped their eyes and shuffled their feet.
“I heard Clint, here-” he bobbed his head politely toward Clint, who was glowering at this unexpected interruption- “in town earlier, talkin’ about these women that are here. He talked about these ladies as though they’re dear to him. When he mentioned them by name, and described them a little, I remembered who they were. I think some of you may remember them, too,” he went on. “As a matter of fact, I know you do, because I’ve seen you with them, in the past. But you don’t know them because they’re friends, or your sisters, or your friends’ daughters. You know them for another reason. The same reason I know them. You visited them at Clint’s parlor house, for the same reason I visited there, a while back.”
Dead silence met this revelation. Some of the men glanced suspiciously at one another, but no one dared say a word.
“Now, I’m not saying I’m better than any of you,” the man continued. “You all know who I am. At least, most of you do. I’m Charlie, the old washed-out miner who everyone makes fun of now. I’m the old drunk who can always be counted on to give everyone a laugh. Once in a while, though, I win a few poker games against some of you gents – right? – and then, I know how to spend it. Same as you do. See, I’m not really that much different from the lot of you. I just don’t hide it so well. And I knew these girls from Silver City, just like some of you do. Problem is, I want to help them. You want to help yourselves.
“You see, I can’t just sit by, get drunk like I usually do when things go wrong, and let you do somethin’ bad to these girls. And when I heard that you were comin’ out here, to Miss Jenny’s place, well, I can’t see nothin’ happen against Miss Jenny. She’s a real lady. One of the finest I ever seen. She took an interest in Miss Roberta, when she was sick, back a couple months, outside the Silver Dollar. And she talked to me, real nice-like. Some ladies, they won’t even look at the likes of me. Most of ‘em cross to the other side of the street. But Miss Jenny, she talked to me, and was polite, and saw to it that Miss Roberta, who was a friend of mine, got some help. Some of you knew Miss Roberta, didn’t you?” He looked at the crowd. “Yep, lots of you did. So did I. Ain’t no shame in that. Is there?”
Charlie turned aside and gave a loud series of coughs, holding his chest as he bent over. “Many of you know these ladies, just like you knew Roberta. You should be glad that there’s someone around who will help them. Why don’t you step in, and lend a hand? After all, you’ve been quick enough to show up at other times. Why not now, when they need someone helpin’ them?”
Another man suddenly rode away. Someone else quickly followed. Several others left in quick succession, first trotting from the crowd, then galloping toward town. Many who were left shook their heads in bewilderment and stepped away from Clint.
“Well, Clint?” Ben met his adversary’s eyes unflinchingly. “What now? We’re not giving you these young ladies, or anyone else. And I have the feeling if you show your face around here again anytime soon, you’ll be less than welcome, to put it mildly.”
Clint’s venomous glare nearly made Ben’s hair stand on end. “You’re forgetting something, Ben Cartwright,” he hissed from behind clenched teeth. “Not only do I feel obliged to see to it that these women mend their ways, they owe me money. The sheriff has documents proving that.” His menacing, sibilant voice and narrowed eyes reminded Ben of a poisonous snake coiling and readying itself for a strike. “I have every right to take them with me, so they can ‘work off’ their debt, and neither you nor anyone else can stop me. Isn’t that right, Sheriff?”
“He’s within his rights, Ben,” Sheriff Coffey reluctantly said. “I can’t prove otherwise – not yet.” Clint glanced sharply at the sheriff’s last remark, but smiled triumphantly.
“I’d just like to ask one thing,” said Charlie. “Mr. Clint, I understand that there was a question in Silver City a while ago about the dead body of a little girl, no more than seven or eight years old -”
“Shut up, old man!” interrupted Clint. “What do you know about that, or anything in Silver City? You’re just an old drunk, who nobody listens to anymore!”
“I used to live in Silver City,” an undeterred Charlie explained. “And when that little girl was found, why, a couple of witnesses swore they saw some of your men throw her in that alley the night before. And -”
“Shut up!” Clint’s shout was accompanied by several choice epithets that made Jenny wince and cover her sleeping niece’s ears. “None of that had anything to do with me! Those men lied, just to malign my character, and nothing was ever proven against me!”
“No, it wasn’t,” said Sheriff Coffey, who remembered the incident. “And the witnesses mysteriously disappeared. Their bodies were found cleverly hidden in an abandoned silver mine a couple of months later.”
“So somebody performed justice for me,” snarled Clint. “Did me a favor, and I never had the chance to thank them, because I don’t know who they are. But they saved me from defending myself against a murder I never committed!”
“Only problem is,” continued Charlie, “I saw the little girl in your establishment the night she was murdered. I wondered what she was doin’ there, child that she was, and so did several other men there. The Madam of the place at the time saw her same time we did, and ran to her, and got her out of sight quick, but the damage was done. We’d seen her, a little girl, dressed like a fast woman, in a place like that. Apparently, she wasn’t supposed to be anywhere in sight, was she? What happened, Clint? Were you so angry with her that you beat her to death? Or did you quickly kill her and get rid of her, so no one could see her there again? Maybe you used her so hard that she died. Whichever way it was, you took care of the problem, didn’t you? Did you kill the men who dumped her body, since they’d been seen, too? No one saw them after that night, either.”
Fear entered Clint’s eyes as he stared at Charlie. The old drunk! Who could have thought that he’d ever know so much? He would’ve shot him back in Virginia City had he known he was such a threat. He couldn’t do that now. The sheriff was here, and too many other people as well. They would see, and he’d be charged with murder. He glanced out the corner of his eye at his henchmen, whom he had told to stay at the fringes of the crowd and keep their eye on everyone and their guns on the Cartwrights. They were looking at each other, realizing they were found out. One of them backed away, and the others followed. They hadn’t counted on this. These people knew too much.
“I heard about that little girl,” said Roy Coffey. “There were too many strange circumstances surrounding her death, and too many people afraid to say anything afterwards. It looks as though your luck is changing, Clint. Perhaps you’d like to come with me to my office in town, and answer a few questions?”
“Maybe the good people of Virginia City would like to know about that little girl,” said Ben. “We should tell them, the first chance we get.”
“I’d be happy to help you do that, Mr. Cartwright,” said Charlie. “I’ll tell them. I may be old Charlie the drunk to some, but I do know what I and a few others of this town and Silver City saw that night. It’s about time that the truth came out.”
Clint backed away as his friends left him. “Don’t think you’ll get away with this,” he snarled. “I may have to wait, but I’ll be back. I’ll get all of you! I’ve never lost a battle yet! Just wait! I have friends in high places, not only in Silver City, but everywhere I’ve ever been or plan on going. Even if you take me in, you won’t be able to make any charges stick to me! No one can prove a thing!”
Ben didn’t doubt it. “Then it’s a good thing that you and your friends won’t ever be in Virginia City or Silver City again, isn’t it? That way, no one who has been here or there will ever have to bring up any of your – questionable behavior.”
“Go, Clint!” Roy commanded, holding his gun on him. “If you or any of your friends show your faces around here again, you’ll be shot on sight.” Clint glanced at Ben, who met his gaze evenly. He looked at Hoss, and then saw Adam’s rifle pointed at him from the side window. This battle wasn’t for him. At least, not now. He turned and rode away, not without a few choice words which made even the Cartwrights wince. He rode toward the road, as though to go back to Virginia City. Once near the back of the barn, he suddenly turned toward the building and drew a gun. Joe pressed against the wall and watched him carefully. Clint saw him move, and fired quickly. The bullet ricocheted off the doorway close to Joe, who dodged, then immediately fired back. Shots rang out as the other men ran around the barn. Clint’s horse reared. He fired wildly, yanked on the reins, and galloped away. Ben, Hoss, and Roy watched as he left the road and headed across the dusty ground and parched grass toward the hills in the distance.
“Where do you suppose he’s goin’?” asked Hoss.
“Someplace where nobody knows him,” replied Ben grimly.
“He’ll get as far away as possible until he feels it’s safe to come back,” said Roy. “And if I know him, he knows he won’t be safe in these parts for a long, long time.”
“Pa! Adam! Hoss!” Joe’s scream tore through the silence following Clint’s departure. “Come here! Quick!” Ben, Adam, Hoss, and Gabriel raced into the barn.
“Over here!” shouted Joe.
Ben charged toward his son’s voice, and nearly ran into several people. He shoved through them, and found Joe stooped by Mai Ling. He held her lower arm clasped tightly in his hand. Despite his efforts, bright red blood seeped from her arm, staining her dress, running onto her hand, onto Joe’s hand and clothing, and the straw and floor beneath them. A scythe lay half buried in the straw next to her.
“Doctor!!” shouted Ben. “Come quick!!”
Gabriel was right behind him. He combined his efforts with Joe’s to stem the blood flow, and curtly directed Ben to his medical bag in the loft above them, near Marabelle. Finally, he managed to slow Mai Ling’s bleeding, and sew up her arm. He looked at her pale face, and knew that she may not survive. Slowly and wearily he rose, and slipping through the dark red puddle on the floor, went through the barn to wash his hands at the pump outside.
“Excuse me.” A deep voice interrupted his thoughts as he walked toward the door.
Gabriel looked up. A tall man in clerical garb stood next to him. Beads of sweat stood out on his face, his loosened collar was askew, and his clothes were dusty.
Gabriel wiped some of the blood from his hands onto his pants. “What is it?” he asked skeptically. He had seen too much this day to be very polite, or to grant this man much faith, whether or not he was a man of the cloth .
The minister wiped his brow with his hand, leaving a dirty smear across his face. “My name is Alden. Though I have not yet had the pleasure of making your acquaintance, I have seen you in town, and know you to be a man who helps those in need.”
Gabriel looked at him suspiciously. “What is it you want?”
Alden looked at him in awe, noting his bloodstained clothing, the weariness in his face, and his stooped shoulders. “I’m a circuit preacher, Doctor,” he replied. “I come here about every four to six weeks, and I am acquainted with the Barnhart family. When I heard this crowd was coming here, I had to come along, to try to help the family however I could.” He smiled apologetically. “I haven’t been much help yet,” he admitted. “You and the Cartwrights seem to have gotten rid of the troublemakers with no assistance from me. But I would like to speak to Miss Barnhart, and the young ladies who are taking refuge here, if they are able to speak to me?” He looked with concern at the men gathered about the other end of the barn, and at the doctor’s bloody hands and clothes.
Gabriel stared at him with narrowed eyes. Reverend Alden shifted uncomfortably, wondering at his scrutiny. Finally, Gabriel pointed behind him. “Miss Jenny is back there. The girl in the loft, Marabelle, is dying. You’d best see to her quickly.” Raking the clergyman with a final doubtful glare, he left the barn and washed up at the pump.
Adam and the other men stepped aside, allowing the minister to draw near to Mai Ling, but watching him closely. The man stepped carefully over the bloody straw and slick floor. He stooped next to the girl without regard for his clothes, and took her hand carefully in his. He rubbed her tiny hand between his two large hands, and moved his lips in silent prayer. As he rose and turned to Jenny, everyone around him saw the tears in his eyes. “Miss Barnhart,” he said.
“Reverend Alden,” she replied. “Thank you for coming, but….” Her eyes strayed toward Mai Ling’s limp form and pale face.
“I can only hope I’m not too late,” he said in a strained voice. “In town, I heard talk about a woman who was very ill having a baby. Of course, it wasn’t put in quite those words, but-”
“She’s in the loft,” said Jenny quickly. “I don’t know if she’s – how she is. Her baby – well, she -” Jenny’s voice faltered.
“Her baby died,” said Adam. “We buried her out back, before everyone showed up.” He led the Reverend to the ladder. Jenny followed.
Suddenly, Elise ran past, nearly knocking them over as she pushed past Reverend Alden and Adam. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“We’re going to see Marabelle,” explained Jenny.
“She asked for a minister to say something over her baby,” said Adam quickly.
“I only want to speak to her,” the minister assured Elise. “I intend no harm to her.”
Elise stared at him hesitantly before she ascended the ladder ahead of them.
Adam led the Reverend to Marabelle. As the minister stooped next to her, the others stared in shock. Marabelle’s eyes were dull and sunken into her waxen and pale face. Her breaths were shallow, lifting slightly but swiftly the blanket which covered her.
Reverend Alden rested on his knees, and grasped the young prostitute’s hand. He touched her hot, fevered cheek, heedless of the sores on it. “Marabelle,” he said quietly, “can you hear me?”
Marabelle’s eyes fluttered open, and she looked at him steadily. “What do you want?” she panted.
“I’m a minister, a man of God,” the Reverend replied. “The doctor tells me you’re dying.”
Marabelle tried to laugh. “Mister,” she said, “you may be dressed like a minister, but you’re no more a man of God than that Negro is a doctor, or I’m a lady.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alden.
“Any doctor who isn’t white, and who tends publicly to the likes of me, is no real doctor,” panted Marabelle. “Just ask the people who’ve been around here today. They’ll tell you. They’ll also inform you that I’m no lady.” She shut her eyes and gasped for breath. “And since you’re around here, talking to me, you must not be any man of God.”
Reverend Alden’s brow knitted in solicitous concern as he studied her, and he grasped her hand tightly. “Why do you say that?”
Marabelle tried to laugh again, but coughed instead. She swallowed the blood and bile that had risen into her mouth. “I talked with men of God a long time ago, when I first needed them real bad. They turned me away. They told me I deserved whatever I had coming to me. Is that what you’ve come here to tell me? If so, you might as well save your breath. I’ve no interest in hearing you tell me that my life is a monument to the wages of sin.”
“I came here because I was told a woman was ill and dying, and because I’m a friend of the Barnharts.” The Reverend lifted her other hand. “I’ve also been told that your baby died.”
Marabelle turned her face away from him, and cursed her softness as tears streamed from her eyes. “Yeah, well, it isn’t the first baby I’ve had.” She yanked one hand free and impatiently wiped her tears. “I’ve had three, Mister, you hear? Three! I don’t know anything about the first one. My father threw me out right after it was born. I don’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. The second one, Clint made me get rid of. He brought a doctor in, had me tied down, and the doctor took it, before it could ever be born. I didn’t want that to happen, but that didn’t matter much, now, did it? I didn’t even know who the baby’s father was! Might have been Clint; it might have been someone else. I didn’t mean to be with child, but Clint, he was furious. I did everything he said to do, and the Madam too, but I still got pregnant. And now, there’s this baby, and she’s dead. I guess she’s the final payment for my sins, huh?” She laughed. “No – no. The final payment is yet to come. That’s what the priests and preachers told me before. I’ve lived in sin, and now I’ll die in sin. Right?”
Reverend Alden took her face in both of his hands. “There is no sin that God will not forgive,” he said.
Marabelle stared back at him. “Well, why didn’t somebody tell me that before?” she hissed. “When I needed help, why didn’t they tell me that, and help me, instead of telling me how bad I was, and how my life from now on must be payment for past sins?” Tears streamed down her face as she stared at the man of God. “Clint was the only person who would help me!”
The minister abruptly let go of her and buried his face in his hands. When he lifted his eyes, they were wet with tears. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know why no one would help you. We’re supposed to help one another, but people often fail each other.” He took hold of her right hand. “Someone should have given you the help you needed years ago, instead of preaching on the wages of sin.” He was interrupted by a gasp and a wheeze, Marabelle’s attempt at a laugh.
“Mister,” said Marabelle, “Let me make myself clear.” Her voice was raspy, and she was breathing harder. “There’s help, and there’s ‘help.’ Many people have tried to ‘help’ me in the years since I had my first baby. Lots of them have been ‘good’ people. Sometimes, they’re the first ones to show up when things get really awful. They think they’ll be bad with me, have their fun, and then go back to being good again. Trust me, they only make things worse.”
Tears coursed down Reverend Alden’s face. “Please forgive us,” he whispered. “Forgive me, for not being there when you needed me; for not helping you when you needed me.”
Marabelle’s eyes squeezed shut, and she gasped and coughed. “Reverend, you’re only a man, and one man at that,” she whispered. “You can only do so much, right?”
The Reverend Alden took both of her hands in his as he prayed, asking forgiveness for her sins and his, and the sins of those about her. Marabelle watched him, and slowly closed her eyes. He spoke softly to her, and clasped her hands tightly. When the girl’s lips began moving slowly, Adam gently escorted Jenny and Elise away from the scene.
When she finished praying, Marabelle whispered to Reverend Alden, “You’ll say a service and prayer over Grace?”
“I promise you, I will,” he staunchly replied. “She’ll receive a Christian burial service. And so will you.”
Marabelle weakly squeezed his hand in gratitude. Her breathing was growing more shallow. Jenny looked at her ashen face, and called the doctor in alarm. Gabriel hurried up the ladder, took one look at the girl, and reported there was nothing more he could do.
Elise pulled away from Adam, and went to her friend’s side. As she took Marabelle’s hand, the Reverend Alden left the two alone. He gathered those left in the loft, and ushered them down the ladder. As Adam climbed down, he saw Elise, her face wet with tears, lay her head next to her friend.
Reverend Alden stood at the head of the graves, and somberly looked at the faces of those gathered about him. “My friends,” he said softly, “we are gathered here to mourn the loss of two young lives, Marabelle, and her baby, Grace.” As he spoke, he realized he had no idea what Marabelle’s last name was. How could he pray with someone, watch them die, bury them, and not know their last name? Swallowing hard, he brought himself back to the duty at hand. “These two lives, in the brief time they have been here, have not only touched our lives, they have shaken us – hard. Hopefully, we’ve been shaken hard enough to wake up.” He looked at the small hump of mounded dirt on the baby’s grave, then at the body, sewn head to toe in the blanket which served as a shroud, and shuddered as he recalled the effort it had taken to prepare Marabelle’s filthy, diseased body for burial. He was glad that this day would be behind him soon, and only hoped he could fulfill his duty.
Joe listened as the Reverend spoke of their obligation to help those about them, and to give to others as they had received. This duty went beyond helping the poor, he emphasized. Anytime they saw someone in distress, even if the trouble seemed to be of the person’s own making, they needed to give their assistance. “ ‘Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin, +’ ” Reverend Alden continued. Joe bowed his head to hide his tears as the man of God emphasized how the woman dead before them had been trapped in a life she did not want to live, and was never offered the forgiveness of either God or those about her. Those she had turned to for help had self-righteously sent her on her way, and the only man who would offer her any help did so in order to use her and to profit from other’s misuse of her. The social disease she and her baby died from was the result, and those who thought to lightly use her and then despise her, as well as those who refused to help her, were just as guilty of her predicament as the man who had brought her to this life.
Joe wiped his eyes as he remembered the gentle girl from the Silver Dollar. “I’m sorry, Sylvia,” he thought. “I tried to help you; I really did. I would’ve found you if it could’ve been done.”
Hoss thought of Mai Ling and the cousin who had betrayed her, and his brow knotted in anger. He resolved to see that the gentle Chinese girl received any help she needed to get a new start in life. As for that cousin….Hoss’s face darkened in fury as he recalled the sight of Mai Ling on the floor of the barn, with the life draining from her arm.
Reverend Alden reminded the men of the biblical admonition to treat women “as mothers or sisters, in all purity, ++” even those who might seek them out for another purpose. Yes, they may well be scorned when doing so, by their friends, and even by the women whom they wish to treat decently. But if they wouldn’t treat all people, even those least deserving of it, with respect, who were they fooling when they looked in the mirror, or sat in church on Sunday morning?
Adam glanced at Elise. She stared straight ahead, her lips in a hard, straight line, with one hand resting on Mai Ling’s shoulder. Adam thought of her icy blue stare, bold smile, and brazen propositions. He remembered the fear that he had seen behind her eyes, and the poisonous hatred she had flung at them later. As his brother had done earlier, Adam wondered what had happened to give her such a cold, impenetrable shell.
Reverend Alden scooped up a handful of hard dirt, and ground it into powder in his other hand. “We now commit this body to the ground, and give them both, Marabelle and Grace, into your hands, O Lord. ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away…. Earth to earth….ashes to ashes… dust to dust….in sure and certain hope of resurrection unto eternal life….’ Amen.” As he concluded the service, he sifted the dirt over the grave and the body.
The men lowered Marabelle’s body into the empty grave, and silently buried her. The men from town tipped their hats to Jenny and the other women, and after rinsing their hands and getting a drink outside, mounted their horses and rode back to their homes. The rest of them stumbled wearily into the house. Adam picked up Karen, who was yawning and stumbling, and Hoss hurried to Mai Ling’s side, and helped her to a chair indoors.
Hoss got a drink of water for Mai Ling and himself. As he handed the cup to the girl, he said, “Why’d you do it, Mai Ling? Why’d you try to hurt yourself like that?”
The Chinese girl looked at the floor. “I not go back to that man,” she softly replied. “Never again. I go with no one who make me live like that. I die first.” She looked resolutely at Hoss, but after one glance at his furrowed brow as he towered over her, she trembled and looked back at the floor.
Hoss sat down next to her, and reached for her shoulders. She flinched, and cowered away. “Hey, Mai Ling!” Hoss gently turned her toward him. “I won’t hurt you!” He watched her for a moment, then brushed her hair from her face. “Why are you still afraid of me?” Still trembling, she allowed him to draw her close, and leaned her head on his shoulder. He stroked her hair. Mai Ling began to weep. All of the long, endless years of misuse, betrayal, and despair rose within her, choking her with gulping sobs, and blinding her with tears that would not stop. Hoss held her tightly, kissing her forehead and stroking her hair, murmuring comforting words to her. “It’s all right, sweetheart. You can start over now. We’ll help you get a fresh start, and you can put this horrible time behind you.”
comforted Mai Ling, the room darkened. Adam lit a couple of lamps
as Jenny wearily prepared some food for the exhausted but hungry crowd.
Suddenly, lightning flickered about, illuminating the blue-black clouds
about the house, and thunder resounded. As everyone silently ate
some soup, bread, and beans, a downpour beat against the windows and roof,
replenishing the parched ground. The darkness of the storm was so
complete that those inside the house could barely see one another or their
food while eating.
2 weeks later
“But I don’t understand why you even tried to help us. Why didn’t you just throw us out, or give us to Clint? That would have been lots less risky for you.” Elise stood next to Jenny in front of the roses, near the stream.
Jenny inwardly sighed. She was weary of this girl’s skepticism and antagonism. The antagonism had gradually faded since Clint had been run off, but she was still skeptical, and believed Jenny, her family, and the Cartwrights wanted something from her. “Why would we give you to a man – a monster – like Clint?” asked Jenny. “You heard what he said to me, and about me and my niece, to me and the Cartwrights! And you saw what he did to me! You know what kind of a man he was. Why would I want to see anyone in his hands?”
Elise looked at her doubtfully.
Jenny turned her attention to the roses before her. The ground about them was damp, even muddy, after the rains that had finally come during the last couple of weeks. The grass had changed from a dry, brittle brown to a lush green. The stream, which had been low, muddy, and stagnant, could be heard running briskly behind them and was densely shadowed by tall trees which had suddenly grown an abundance of thick leaves.
“These look a lot better than I thought they would.” Jenny lovingly touched the roses, and thought longingly of her dead brothers, in whose memory she had planted them. “I haven’t been out here, not since you came. They were very dry then. I thought they’d be half dead from the drought, or choked with weeds since the rain.”
“I’ve been taking care of them,” said Elise.
Jenny looked at her in amazement. “You have? When?”
“Most every day, since we came here. I saw you by these flowers the day before we met you. You were with your family, and almost came down to the stream with your little niece, Karen. I pruned them and watered them after you left. If you had come down the bank, you probably would have seen us. We were hiding near the stream until the dry storm hit. Marabelle was real sick.” Elise’s eyes grew misty, and she fought to keep tears from falling. She still couldn’t think of Marabelle without almost crying, and speaking of her was nearly impossible. “I guess if you’d found us that day, your father would have run us off, huh?”
Jenny glanced at her with a perceptive eye. “No more so than he has right now.”
Jenny had been amazed to see her parents arrive home two days after the confrontation with Clint and the townspeople. They had quickly concealed their panic when they saw that she and the children were all right. Jenny later learned that one of her father’s business associates and friends in Virginia City had telegraphed him as soon as he heard Clint rousing a mob against them in town. Her father had immediately concluded or postponed his business out of town, and had hurried home as speedily as possible. He and her mother had been surprised to see the young working girls at their home, but once they heard the story from Jenny and the Cartwrights, were willing to let them stay and help them get started in a new life.
“I don’t think my parents could ever throw out anyone who needed help.” Jenny turned her attention back to the flowers before her. “You must have weeded and trimmed these.” She didn’t say that the girl had done it much better than she ever could have done.
Elise looked proudly yet wistfully at the roses and wild prairie roses before her. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Someone went to a lot of trouble to plant these roses way out here, away from everyone, near the stream. Who did it?”
“I did,” Jenny whispered.
“Why?” asked Elise. “There’s nicer places close to the house, that get a lot of sun. Why plant them out here, where no one can see them?”
Jenny fought back tears. “I wanted a quiet, lonely place, to honor - people who were dear to me who have died. I don’t have a grave to sit by. They’re buried back East.”
Elise looked at her with sympathy, without a shred of doubt or scorn in her face.
Jenny changed the subject. “You must have taken care of flowers before.” Flowers and gardening were not Jenny’s areas of expertise. Unlike some who could make blooms of paradise appear within a desert, she was did not have that gift, and struggled even to take care of their vegetable garden.
Elise looked at the roses, then at the green grass and ever-encroaching weeds surrounding them. “My mother had flowers.”
“Your mother?” When the girl didn’t answer, Jenny said, “Tell me about your mother.”
Elise swallowed. “She loved flowers. She grew roses, and every kind of flower that she could. She used to walk around the garden in the early morning, singing as she tended it, and my father - ” she fought back tears – “my father said that she made the sun rise with her singing.” She stopped talking, and valiantly kept the tears from falling.
“What happened to them?” Jenny was fearful that she’d be stingingly rebuked and verbally abused, but Elise shut her eyes and bowed her head.
After a long moment of silence, Elise finally said, “They died, in an accident. The horses pulling their wagon spooked at some gunshots, and they were killed.”
“What happened to you then?” Jenny asked gently.
Elise kept her eyes closed. “I had to go live with my aunt and uncle.” She deliberated whether or not to continue, and finally concluded that what this girl already knew about her could hardly be any worse than the truth of her earlier life. “My uncle…..” She clenched her fists and kept her eyes tightly closed. Best to skip that part. “Once my uncle was – finished - with me - ” She took a deep breath. “Once he was finished, he – he – sold me – to Clint.” She opened her eyes, and stared at the ground. “I don’t think I need to tell you any more.” She looked at Jenny defiantly, looking for accusation within her eyes, and waiting to hear recrimination from her lips.
She found neither. Jenny was looking at her with compassion and sympathy, a very different attitude than that to which Elise had become accustomed. When she saw tears stream down this properly bred lady’s face, she could hardly believe that they were shed for her. Mockery, scorn, disgust, and hatred Elise was accustomed to, especially from ladies, but pity? That was something new. She stiffened, and her eyes hardened. “I don’t want your pity!” she hissed.
“Pity?” asked Jenny in a trembling voice. “You don’t have my pity. Or at least, not just my pity. Do you know how many ladies could have traded places with you, and not even realized it was possible until it happened?” Jenny thought again of her sister, and wondered once more where she was. “You can start over now,” she said. “You can begin a new life. We’ll help you.”
Elise stared at her. Did this girl really think it was so easy to put her former life and all the abuse she’d endured behind her? Did she actually think she could just forget it? She shook her head. “I’ve never done anything else. I’ve been a prostitute for so long, I don’t know how to do anything else! No matter where I go, no matter what I try to do, I’ll always go back to that. It’s meant to be. It’s who and what I am. I’ve been a whore since I was nine years old!” The last statement was hissed desperately, and she turned away. “Better tell your parents not to waste any more time on me!”
Jenny looked at the hardened girl, wondering what to say.
“You’re a smart young lady,” said a voice behind her. “You’ll learn how to do something else, and how to stick with it. You know you don’t have to do stay in your old profession, or keep going back to it. You can do something different, if you decide you want to do it.”
Elise whirled about, and glared at Adam. “Where’d you come from?” she snarled.
“A few cattle decided to break through the fence,” Adam replied, “so while some of the hands rounded them up, we had to make repairs. I sent the men off on another chore, so I could play hooky to visit Jenny and her folks.” He winked at Jenny. “I saw you two, and came over here.”
Elise stared at him suspiciously. “I didn’t hear you.” She wondered how much he had heard. She saw both Adam and Jenny looking at her, and wished she could disappear. “I don’t know how to change!” She was angry when she heard her voice catch and felt tears spilling down her cheeks. “I’ve never done anything else!”
Jenny put her arm about the girl’s shoulders. Angrily, Elise shook it off. “The reason I wanted to come out here with you is, since I took care of these flowers for you, even back before I met you, I figured that you wouldn’t care if I took some. After I watered and pruned them, I picked one for each of us, before we hid in your barn. Mind if I take some more now, to put on the graves?”
Jenny shook her head. “Go ahead.” Elise pulled a knife, which Jenny recognized as one from the kitchen, and proceeded to cut some flowers.
Once she had cut several blooms, Elise trimmed the thorny stems, then walked toward the house. When she reached the graves behind the barn, she knelt before them, and carefully arranged the flowers into a circle between the graves, with the stems interlacing. Adam and Jenny stood back to give her privacy.
“I miss you, Marabelle,” she said. “I know you’re with your baby now, and no harm can touch you.” She wiped her face, and gave a soft laugh. “When I was little, and I asked Mama if I could help her with the roses, she always said,
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,I wish I could give you and your baby flowers that aren’t dying. I’ve not seen roses since I was young, and living with Mama and Papa. They’re so pretty. I wish they’d still be alive tomorrow. I wish my mama and papa had never died. I wish you were still here, and none of this had ever happened to us. I wish we could both start over, and just pretend everything, including us, was fresh and new.” Mai Ling came out of the house, and knelt beside her friend. They held each other and wept.
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.+++
Adam and Jenny watched and waited from a respectful distance. “What’s going to happen to them now?” Jenny asked softly. “Father said something about friends of your pa’s in San Francisco, and that they would give them a respectable job.”
“That’s right,” said Adam. “Pa telegraphed a couple of his old friends, and one of them has a wife who runs a dress shop in San Francisco. They’ve offered to take on one of them, and teach her how to work there. The other one runs a dry good store, and he and his wife said they’d take one of them, too. They can learn to live another life, and have a chance.”
Jenny looked at the two grief-stricken girls before her, and wondered if they would ever fully be able to put the horrors of their lives behind them. “Do you think they can do it?” she asked.
“It’s up to them,” said Adam. “This is the opportunity they say they’ve been looking for.”
“They’ll need a lot of help,” Jenny managed to say. Words seemed so inadequate to express the hurdles these young ladies needed to overcome.
“They’ll have it,” Adam assured her, but Jenny wondered if he really understood; if anyone could understand.
Once Mai Ling and Elise went into the house, Jenny and Adam approached the graves, and looked at the flowers. Elise certainly had a knack for arranging them. In the short period of time that the girls had been with them, Elise had helped with the garden, and it was growing better than ever before. Jenny hoped that this gift would not be neglected or ignored once she left.
Boards stood at the head of each grave, which would suffice for markers until headstones could be made. Adam had burned the names “Marabelle” and “Grace” into them with a hot poker. Not even Marabelle’s friends knew her last name. When Adam realized that, he had wondered how anyone could notify the girl’s family of her death. Then he remembered that her family would not wish to know, and most likely would not care. He recalled the first time he had seen her in the loft, and how stung he had been by her obvious terror that he would beat or otherwise abuse her.
Jenny broke into his thoughts. “Adam, this woman lived with one horror after another, and anyone who might have helped her only gave her judgment and scorn. I doubt that many, if any at all, of the men who claimed to love her really did so. How did she get through it? How did any of them get through it?”
“She didn’t,” Adam starkly replied.
“No, she didn’t,” Jenny softly replied. “But she must have had an awful lot of iron determination to last as long as she did, and to die free, as nobody’s chattel, even though the odds were so against her.” She heard the door slam, and glanced at the house. Mai Ling began gathering vegetables from the garden, while Elise, obviously grumbling beneath her breath, assisted Jenny’s mother with the washing. “They all must be so strong, simply to have lived from one day to the next.” She didn’t add that she probably would have chosen Mai Ling’s way of escape long before, had she been in their position.
“It’s that kind of strength and iron will that will see them through to a new life in San Francisco,” said Adam.
“People there – men, especially – may recognize them,” worried Jenny.
“They may,” Adam agreed. “But the families they’ll be with will protect them, and stand up for them, if need be. The rest is up to them.”
Jenny knelt and touched the roses. “Why did she have to die to find peace?” She crumbled some dirt from the baby’s grave in her fingers. “And why did her baby have to die? Why couldn’t she have found some grace from others, from God, sooner?” A tear splashed on the ground.
Adam remembered the near-angelic peace on Marabelle’s face as he helped sew the shroud about her before burial. “She found grace, finally,” replied Adam, looking intently at Jenny, and wiping the tear from her cheek. “She found it, with some help. What a shame no one helped her sooner.” He looked at the other two women. Mai Ling was now snapping beans, while Elise was wringing and hanging clothes. “It’s not too late for those two. They can start a new life, and have a new beginning. With some help, they can come to terms with their past, and find their own measure of grace.” He helped Jenny up, and they started toward the house.
Suddenly, Jared’s pony cantered past them. Jared reined him in, and quickly dismounted. “I’m hungry!” he announced. “Is dinner ready?” He led his pony into the barn.
Adam pulled his watch from his pocket and smiled. “It’s not even 11:00, Jared,” he said.
“We’ll eat in an hour,” promised Jenny.
“I’m hungry now!” came the howl of protest from the barn.
Jenny rolled her eyes. “He’s always hungry!”
Jared caught up with them as they approached the house. He slowed down long enough to snatch a few beans from Mai Ling’s bowl.
They all turned at the shout. Elise was standing, hands on her hips, in front of a pair of trousers she had just hung on the clothesline. “Get your grubby paws out of the green beans!”
Adam tried not to laugh. If he had harbored any doubts that Elise would be all right in San Francisco, he had them no longer .
“I gotta wait an hour for dinner, ‘cause you women are all so slow!” returned Jared hotly.
“Jared!” Jenny remonstrated. “Go take care of your pony. You couldn’t have groomed him already. Then, you can help weed the garden.”
“That’s women’s work!”
“You can always do the laundry,” suggested Adam.
Jared scowled and dragged his feet all the way to the barn.
Adam and Jenny looked at each other. Jenny said, “You don’t suppose he could find a little grace somewhere in the corners of the barn, do you, so we could have a bit of peace here?”
Adam started to laugh, but the smile died on his face as he looked behind Jenny.
Jenny turned to see Joe near the barn hailing his brother. He approached the house, dismounted, and tied his horse to the hitching rail. “What are you doing here, Adam? Pa had a job out at the north pasture he wanted you to do, after you finished with that fence. He wasn’t too happy that you missed breakfast this morning. He was going to tell you about the job then.”
“I ate breakfast,” said Adam quickly. “I just ate it early, that’s all.”
“Must have been plenty early,” said Joe, noticing his older brother’s discomfort and taking pleasure in riling him. “Guess you had some other mighty important business to attend to, huh?”
“I’ve been fixing that fence all morning!” started Adam.
“Oh, all right, all right! I’m just kidding! But really, Adam, Pa wants to discuss that mining camp with you.”
Adam scratched his ear nervously. “Mining camp?”
“Yeah, mining camp! You know: the one you left at least a month ago to check on? And were way late getting back from? Pa was worried about you. He figured something must have happened to you, and was looking for you. We all were, but no one has had a chance to talk about it yet. He’s been waiting for you to give him a report on it, Adam. There was an awful lot going on here the past couple weeks, ever since you got back, so he knew it had to wait. But now, things are back to normal, and, well, he thought you’d give him a report on it finally this morning.”
“I…Uh, I….” Adam wasn’t looking forward to telling his pa about firing the foreman and some of the workers, the swindling, the illegal sale of their timber, the unsafe mine, or of the additional timber he’d already arranged to have sent out to that camp. He hadn’t talked with his father about that trip at all, and the longer he waited to do so, the more ominously it loomed over him. Adam glanced at Jenny, then at Elise and Mai Ling, hoping for a way of escape. They all looked back at him. Joe and Elise particularly enjoyed his discomfort.
Jenny took pity on Adam, and took him by the arm. “Actually, Joe, Adam was going to join us for dinner in a little while. Why don’t you tell your father he’ll be home later? I’m sure he’ll discuss the mining camp with your father then.”
“Uh, yeah, that’s right!” Adam hurried through the door with Jenny, nearly getting them both stuck in the doorway. “Tell Pa I’ll be home later,” he called over his shoulder.
Comet raced out the door, nearly tripping Adam as he yelled, “Just later, Joe!” The door banged shut, nearly cutting off his words. Joe stared dumbfoundedly at the closed door. He heard peals of laughter behind him, and turned to see both Elise and Mai Ling laughing heartily. He realized that he hadn’t yet heard Mai Ling laugh, and that the only humor he had so far observed in Elise was biting sarcasm. The change in the women was astounding. They actually looked and sounded happy! He wondered how long it had been since they had laughed like that.
Joe mounted his horse. “Well, ladies,” he said, “it appears that I need to get ready for an interesting discussion this evening. I’m sure it will be worth the wait!” He tipped his hat to them, and rode toward the Ponderosa, hearing their laughter follow him for a long time before it finally faded into the heat of the Nevada summer and the sound of his horse’s hooves.
+ James 4:17, King James Version
++ I Timothy 5:2, King James Version
+++ by Robert Herrick, 1591-1674
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