Justice, in all its sometimes grisly glory, is at the heart of DLC's intriguing entry in the newly issued Dark Mountains anthology. It just goes to show that one never really knows what goes on up those picturesque little high country back roads, does one?
Saturday, June 7, 2014
With plenty of the rollicking good times that were the hallmark of Old West politics, DLC's colorful The Political Rally stands out nicely in WESTERN GHOST STORIES, just hitting the cyber shelves.
Posted by DL Chance at 3:08 AM
Newly released, ALIEN features TWO tight little SF stories by DLC. It's a thoroughly entertaining anthology.
Posted by DL Chance at 3:02 AM
Saturday, March 2, 2013
DLC's lively western short story Line Shack Winter is serialized at the online magazine FRONTIER TALES. One of four new westerns featured for March, Line Shack Winter is about how life is turned upside down at a quiet ranch outpost when the boss's teenage son arrives late one autumn to learn how to take care of cattle over the winter months. A rogue grizzly bear complicates the situation even more than it would have been with just the kid around. If enough readers vote Line Shack Winter as the best story for March, it will be included in the annual FRONTIER TALES print anthology.
Posted by DL Chance at 1:36 AM
Saturday, February 9, 2013
(This one has been in three short story print collections so far, and it's set to come out in a new anthology this summer. But offering it here won't make much difference on overall book sales.)
THE UGLY MAN'S GOLD
Everyone agreed that Jacob Reese was the ugliest white man to ever wash out a pan of Bitterroot Mountain river gravel. But if he'd cut a more handsome figure, he probably wouldn't have found so much gold.
And he might not have survived his run-in with the moody Indian spirits determined to keep him from having all that gold.
Jacob spent much of his adult life trapping in the Rockies for salable animal pelts, and trying to hang onto his own hair whenever he wandered onto lands already claimed by Indians who made it clear that they didn't always appreciate his presence. He knew just about everything about every critter that swam, crawled, walked or flew in the high country, and over time he learned how to get along with most—not all of, but most—of the people whose ancient kin had been wandering the same mountains far longer than his ancestors had plowed the rich southeastern lowlands of his birth.
Even so, Jacob occasionally crossed trails with Indians who didn't get along with anyone, especially men who shared his particular shade of skin color—which was mostly why very few who saw him ever forgot his face. Some Indians were experts in modifying faces.
But while the experience left his face a ravaged mess, it also left him completely without a sense of fear. Jacob Reese wasn't scared of the devil, much less ordinary two-legged mortals like himself.
Still, he sometimes missed seeing familiar features in the mirror.
Once ruggedly virile, with a sturdy honesty and an ability to express his opinions in ways spoken words alone often could not, his face was known from Montana to the Mexican border. But run-ins with bears, cougars, wolves and the occasional proddy warrior out to impress pals had left Jacob's face a grisly mask women sometimes refused to look directly at, and that often made dogs growl when he was around.
Even growing his beard long didn't help all that much, since so much of it had been pulled out by the roots over the years, and what remained grew out in wild directions that made each individual tuft of beard hair appear to be in business for itself.
So Jacob no longer deliberately looked at mirrors. Sometimes he'd catch his reflection in a window or a whiskey bottle or the calm surface of a lake, but he was past being surprised by the ragged network of badly healed scars and sullen red rash splotches that had replaced the patrician features he was originally born to wear.
But, strangely, the more mangled his face became, the less Indians wanted to do with him. Another trapper he ran across every couple summers or so offered the speculation that he probably looked something like one of their evil spirits, and if there's one thing high country Indian people took to heart it was their belief in bad medicine. And, no offense, the man said, but Jacob's face was purely loaded with bad medicine if a body chose to think of it in those terms.
Jacob just shrugged and allowed the man might have himself a point there.
When the demand for furs bottomed out, Jacob was almost relieved. He'd never particularly enjoyed making his living by killing animals he held no personal blood grudges against, and he certainly wouldn't miss the unique stench of ripe pelts. But he would need to make a living doing something.
With a sturdy cabin tucked away in a remote hollow, and a warm fire, a man could thrive for a long time on nothing but game from the forests and fish from the creeks, he decided. But without plenty of bullets for his old but serviceable Henry Yellowboy rifle and, even more importantly, coffee and sugar and tobacco and an occasional woman—the finer things in life—merely thriving just wasn't good enough for him anymore.
But all those things cost money; and money seemed to take great pains to make sure that it and Jacob Reese crossed each other's paths as rarely as possible.
Using up the last of his credit at a general store in South Pass City one late spring day, Jacob noted to the trader how it looked like the population seemed down some in the filthy Wyoming mining town.
"That's it exactly, Jacob," the man said, weighing up a last bag of coffee before wiping his sweaty brow. "There's a big gold strike up Montana way. In the Bitterroot country. I hear tell it's one of the richest there is right now. Everyone is skinning out while there's still something left to dig—and my business is shot to hell because of it, too."
"Gold, huh?" Jacob briefly pondered his years of trapping the hundreds of creeks scattered among the Bitterroot Mountains, but he didn't recall ever once catching a glimpse of gold among the beaver and other critters he took out of there. "Any river in particular?"
"Bitterroot River." The shopkeeper shrugged. "That's the one most often made mention of."
"Hmm." Jacob drew a deep breath and motioned at the supplies on the counter. "If we're square, I reckon I'll be on my way," he said.
The merchant studied Jacob's mangled face intently for a long moment, then a crooked grin appeared at the corner of his mouth.
"You're heading out to the Bitterroots, aren't you? Gonna look for gold."
"You can tell all that?" Jacob chuckled. "Hell, if you can see something like that in this face of mine, you're the first one in a long time who could."
"It's that look in your eye," the man said, placing Jacob's merchandise into an empty flour sack he pulled from under the counter. "I'd know that gold glint anywhere. Hell, I've been following them that have that look, that spark of gold hunger, all over this part of the country for better'n twenty years now, and I ain't never been wrong about it yet."
"I reckon a man's gotta do something with his time," Jacob said, signing off on the deal in the store ledger book before shouldering the bag of supplies. "And I ain't got nothing much better to do this summer."
"Well, if you're heading off up yonder by yourself, take this with you." The storekeeper reached into a box on the shelf behind him. He came out with what looked like a pewter medallion on a cheap tin chain. "No charge," he said. "This preacher fella came through here a month or two ago running some kind of revival. He had a tent, and everything. He gave me these medals in trade for a bottle of whiskey before he moved on, and said they'd do a man some good."
"I'm not all that religious," Jacob said, peering close at the exotic designs worked into the front and back surfaces. It was about the size of a ten-dollar gold piece, and heavier than he thought it should be, being pewter. "I doubt it'd do much for me."
"He said they'll chase off any mean-natured spirits that took to pestering a man, too," the trader added.
"Spirits?" Jacob smiled at the trader, which made the man flinch slightly. "Spirits would have to be mighty bored to wonder about anything I might be doing."
"Maybe," the shopkeeper said, shrugging. "At the very least, he said it'll attract good luck. And you might need all the good luck you can get in the Bitterroots."
Jacob considered this. "Might, at that," he said, eyeing the talisman closer. "I believe you said it's on the house?"
"Won't cost you a penny. You've always been easy to get along with in our dealings, Jacob. Most aren't. So think of this as a little thank you token."
"In that case, I'd be proud to have it." Jacob reached for the gray medallion with his free hand and, feeling a little foolish, hung it around his neck. "Much obliged."
"Good luck, Jacob."
The storekeeper's dog grumbled a bit when Jacob walked past, and the man scolded it for its manners.
"It's okay," Jacob said, shrugging. "Happens all the time."
A month later, entering the southern tip of the Bitterroot River valley, Jacob saw for himself that the merchant had been right about prospectors heading for Montana. There were diggings camps along most of the creeks he passed as he walked steadily north along the river, and he'd come upon a raw new boomtown every two or three days. He also passed through a number of abandoned camps, and was amazed to find that one of them was so recently vacated that several fire pits were still warm and smoking.
"People gone crazy," he muttered, adding more of the firewood lying nearby before settling down for the night beside one of the old campfires. "Ain't no sense in letting a little gold do that to 'em."
Two more weeks of walking north found Jacob in Stevensville, and he could almost feel warmth from the gold fever in the air. But there was an ominous tinge to it, too. Every saloon in the old Jesuit mission town was packed and, instead of gold, all the conversation was about how the Lakota thereabouts suddenly seemed to go on the warpath at the same time.
Even the Flathead Salish, Crow and Blackfoot were giving the Hunkpapa Sioux in the region plenty of elbow room, and apparently the entire Gros Ventre clan had cleared out for parts unknown. Dead prospectors were turning up all over the upper Bitterroot Valley, Jacob learned, and most of the miners were sticking close to their camps and towns; and hoping the Army showed up before the end of the summer to put a stop to the Indian foolishness.
Broke and out of provisions, Jacob traded a couple weeks of work at a pair of busy livery stables for a place to sleep and enough supplies to last him at least a month. A bartender was happy to sell him, cheap, a large second-hand gold pan someone had swapped for something strong and wet. The pan and a small axe, along with his regular cache of personal weapons and the supplies, were all he expected to need. He briefly thought about working long enough at the stables to get a pack mule, too; but he knew that while he could feed himself out in the wilderness with his Yellowboy and his wits, he couldn't guarantee the same for a tame animal that would depend on him. Checking his load one night, he was sure he could carry everything he needed on his back.
Stevensville was even more crowded with grumbling dreamers than when he arrived, each suspiciously eyeing the other on the off chance that someone might know something about any changes in the Indian situation that no one else knew, when he decided the time had come. Jacob slipped out before dawn the next morning, headed due west into the high country.
He didn't know the name of the third large creek he came to north of the town—he didn't know the names of any of the streams he passed—but it looked promising, and seemed to offer a fairly gentle uphill slope toward what looked like a long-extinct volcano in the western distance. After a week's hike, he no longer saw evidence of gold panning along its banks.
A slight sound woke him just after sunrise one morning, and Jacob opened one eye to see an Indian squatting across the fire and pawing through his supplies pack. Slowly, he fisted the axe he had taken to keeping in his bedroll, along with the Henry, at night in the hope of discouraging any bears from visiting without wasting precious ammunition. When the Indian glanced away at a sound farther out in the woods, Jacob jumped from his blankets, the axe in his hand, and screamed a war cry he'd learned from some Northern Cheyenne he used to travel with on occasion.
Startled, the Indian surged to his feet, a tomahawk appearing in his own fist. But with a close look at Jacob's face, his eyes seemed to go as big and round as Jacob's gold pan.
He shouted something unintelligible and lit out before Jacob moved any closer, and leaped aboard a skinny mare standing a few yards into the trees. Man and horse were gone almost before the echoes of the combined yells stopped bouncing off the slopes all around.
"Boy looked like he saw a ghost," Jacob muttered, running a hand through his long, tousled hair and walking over to make sure his supplies were okay. "I hope so, at least."
But Jacob suspected the brave would be back soon, and he'd probably bring along a few friends looking to count a little coup on a white devil man. And he was proven right that very afternoon when, working his way along the narrow bank at the bottom of a sheer canyon wall, he heard what sounded like at least a dozen unshod ponies splashing up the creek a couple hundred yards behind him.
He glanced back once, then started running as fast as he could on the uneven ground toward a large rock just ahead to his right along the steep slope wall. There, he hunkered down and peeked over the top and saw that his guess was very close. He couldn't count them, because they were moving too fast, but there was easily ten painted braves heading straight for him.
Even with the Yellowboy and his axe, and his other weapons, he knew he couldn't keep them off for long. He glanced to his left and saw that beyond the handy pile of boulders, with a creek of its own joining the main stream, a narrow cut led back into the sheer sandstone outcropping. Without thinking, he jumped into the shallow water and started running as quick as he could up the cut.
A few bullets bounced off rocks around him, but Jacob kept going. Within sixty yards, the narrow cut opened into a wider side canyon, and he dropped behind the first substantial pile of rocks he came to. He shucked his backpack, laid the Yellowboy across the top of a boulder and sighted down the cut, and waited.
He could still hear the braves screaming their war cries, and bullets occasionally whizzed from the cut, but the Indians didn't seem inclined to follow him. And if they had, he figured he could drop most of them before they even emerged from the narrow opening.
"Now you're getting smart," he mumbled. "Won't be long before you get tired of waiting for me and wander off."
"They're not going anywhere."
"Sure they are! They're—"
Jacob spun around, bringing his Henry up and ready to fire. But he was alone in the small canyon.
"Damn," he muttered, ducking when another bullet ricocheted off a rock nearby, stinging his arms with pulverized rock. "I need a drink."
He turned back toward the canyon opening and leveled his rifle across the top of the boulder, and was watching for something to shoot at when an icy blast of air blew past him, rustling grass and weeds along the ground as it exited the valley through the canyon mouth.
Three more rifle shots sounded before the shooting stopped. Seconds later, he heard the faint noise of hoofbeats disappearing quickly back down the creek.
Jacob watched awhile longer to make sure it wasn't some kind of trick, that maybe some of the Indians had ridden off while others were trying to pull off some kind of sneak attack. But he only heard the sound of the breeze, the creek and . . . and nothing else.
"Ain't there any birds living in this canyon?" he muttered, turning to take in the scenery he found himself part of. "Sure is quiet."
Laying back against the rock, he took in the scenery.
From fifty or so yards wide where the side branch entered the thin cut leading to the main creek, the canyon spread out as a grassy plain about a quarter-mile wide at its fattest points, and heavily treed slopes rose fairly steeply several hundred feet in every direction he looked. He wouldn't be able to climb out; leaving the way he came in as the only exit. About a mile back from where he sat, the branch entered the canyon as a series of tall waterfalls.
"There's either a plateau or a mesa up there," he murmured, breaking the endless silence. "Might be worth wandering over for a look."
Beyond the top of the waterfall, he could make out what looked like the broken cone of an ancient volcano. It was smaller than the one he'd seen when he was leaving Stevensville. This one couldn't be more than five or six miles away, and he guessed it would look a lot higher to him from the peak of one of the other mountains scattered within sight.
At least—until he could get out and away—he had water. And where there was water in these mountains, there was always plenty of trout. He didn't particularly care for fish, but he liked them better than starving; and he hadn't seen sign of anything but himself alive in this place yet.
Making sure he was out of a direct line-of-sight with the canyon entrance, he stood and removed his coat and outer shirt, and laid them carefully on top of the boulder with his Yellowboy. The branch couldn't have been more than ten feet wide, and he knew it was shallow enough to wade comfortably. The sandy bottom was mostly dark gray to black.
But were there any trout?
At first, he was a little worried, until a flash of movement in the clear water to his right caught his eye. Looking close, he spotted two large cutthroats and a rainbow holding position in the current with their backs to him as they watched for food coming toward them from upstream.
"You'll do," he said, chuckling as the rainbow darted forward ahead of the others after a bug or something only they saw. "Go get good and fat, now, because . . ."
Jacob peered intently at the creek bottom where the fish had been. Someone had been here at some time, he decided. If not, how could that gold watch have gotten into the branch?
"Wait a minute here, that's not a watch."
He walked over and, ignoring the irritated trout, knelt down and reached into the water. He came up with a smooth, flat gold nugget almost as big across as his palm. Peering closer in the water, he saw the unmistakable glint of color scattered throughout the black sand creek bottom everywhere he looked.
The tops of the pine trees in the distance began swaying, but Jacob could only stare at the gold. When he glanced back up, and spotted another big sparkle in the water, he jumped in and reached for it, wrapping his fingers around something even larger than the nugget he still held in his other hand.
He pulled it from the water and stood to study it in the sunlight. It was another nugget so large that his mind dismissed the word nugget altogether.
"That there's a gold boulder," Jacob murmured, not noticing that a gust of wind approaching from the direction of the waterfall had trees dancing and grasses whipping in a manic frenzy. "It's a whopper!"
Suddenly, the wind arrived and air around him was so icy cold he could see his breath. And among the wild gusts was a frantic wailing and moaning that turned his blood as cold as his skin.
He spun around, his pewter medal bouncing on its chain, and, through squinted eyes, thought he could make out a half-dozen or so wispy man shapes in the dirt and grass of what appeared to be a big dustdevil swirling around him. One of the figures floated a few inches above the ground no more than two feet away, and had what looked like a hand reaching out for him.
"What the hell?"
He held tight to the massive gold chunks, ready to throw one if he had to. But the wispy figure jerked backwards, seemingly startled a bit, a moment after Jacob turned. The man figure studied him for a few more seconds, than backed slowly away. Jacob transferred the gold in his right hand to his left side, where he held it tight against himself with his elbow, and on a whim he jumped at the ghostly vision.
"Howdy!" he barked.
When he did, the . . . whatever it was suddenly backed further away. Screaming an eerie, agitated wail, it rejoined the others.
"Now get the hell away from my gold!" Jacob took two steps toward the spirits and grinned an evil smile of his own. "I'm not gonna tell you again!"
Like startled sheep in a pen, the wispy figures jumped, shocked, and began screeching what sounded like a ceremonial chant in an incoherent howl before rising a good ten feet or more into the air.
With one last frigid gust, the dustdevil, along with the ghostly figures inside it, then lifted straight up and shot toward the waterfall in the distance. Jacob watched it go, noting how trees and other brush under it thrashed about wildly as it passed.
Jacob fingered the anti-spirit medal, and peered closely at the designs on it.
"You sure didn't do me much good," he muttered. "Evil spirits all over the place, and you just hung there asleep. What have you got to say for yourself?"
Disgusted, he let the silent medal fall back against his chest, where it seemed every bit as unconcerned about the odd events of the past few moments as ever.
Jacob put the useless medallion from his mind and reached for the gold under his elbow; and when he looked back up he noticed a white man standing a few feet back the creek bank a hundred yards or more upstream. He was so startled that he dropped the massive gold nugget—which, he saw glancing down, rolled back into the water.
When he looked back up, the man was nowhere in sight.
"Well don't it get just more and more peculiar 'round these parts?" he murmured, searching the open grassy plain on both sides of the creek. "Where'd he get off to?"
The man, if he'd been there at all, was gone. Jacob sighed and turned back to the creek, looking for the nugget he dropped. But, like the man, it was gone.
Holding tightly to the other nugget, Jacob peered intently into the clear, fast-moving water. Thinking the current moved the one that got away, he was getting ready to search downstream to his left when movement upstream caught his eye.
"Now that just ain't possible," he muttered, staring as the enormous nugget rolled slowly along the sandy creek bottom and upstream against the current. Stepping into the stream, he followed the nugget for a few feet before reaching for it.
But it jumped just out of his reach.
"Okay," Jacob barked, standing and grabbing his long hair with both hands, and leering angrily at the nugget, "I told you to stay the hell away from my gold! Now—" he waved his hair and spread his eyes as wide open as they'd go "—git!"
The surface of the stream boiled like a trapped gator was thrashing around in the creek. Trailing water, a sudden wind gust blew from the creek and off in the direction the spirits had gone just moments before.
"And don’t come back," he yelled, reaching for the nugget.
On the bank, with both nuggets in his hands again, he looked around for a place to camp where he could dig a hole; intending to spread his bedroll over the gold and sleep on it if he had to. And, apparently, he might have to if he meant to keep it.
He scanned the area closely, and his eyes slid right past the white man in the same place again before his mind registered the presence. When he jerked his head back to where he'd seen the figure, it was gone, again, and he wondered briefly if he'd actually seen it or just imagined it.
But the medallion felt warm against his chest. Looking down, he saw it glowing faintly.
"Okay," he said, raising his voice and moving closer to his rifle and other weapons, "who are you, now?" Standing beside the big rock he'd used for cover earlier, and reaching for his Yellowboy, he suddenly dropped to his knees when a rifle bullet spanged off the front of the rock and whistled away across the creek.
"I told you they're not going anywhere."
Ignoring the . . . voice? Ignoring the intrusive voice in his mind Jacob gingerly reached for his rifle again and, levering a round into the chamber, bounded to his feet and pegged a couple of shots down the cut in the otherwise solid sandstone wall.
"I'm not going anywhere either," he shouted. "Not until I get the rest of that gold!" He fired another round through the cut, and thought he heard a cry of pain in the distance. "Good! That'll teach you to respect your betters!"
He turned back, expecting to see the mysterious stranger again. But if he was around he was keeping himself hid. And there weren't any dust devils moving in the tops of the trees anywhere in sight.
"Good enough," he mumbled.
Jacob gathered up the gold, his clothing, backpack and rifle and moved carefully toward where the spruce trees crowded down the slope of the canyon to his right. From a spot fifty or so yards back from the creek, he reasoned, he could easily see the entrance to the mysterious canyon, but anyone coming in would be well within his sights before they could spot his camp.
He wrapped the two gold nuggets in his shirt and, using his axe to break up the dirt, dug a foot-deep hole in the ground. He dropped the nuggets into the hole, and looked around for some rocks to make a fire ring. Then he gathered up some firewood.
An hour or so later, he stretched out on his bedroll, the gold buried safely under him, and considered his situation.
He had plenty of water and, with the fish to supplement the scant supplies in his backpack, food. There might not have been any birds, or any decent eating game in the canyon, but there was plenty of firewood in the trees—he'd already gathered up enough wood to last him a couple of days and piled it beside a neatly arranged circle of stones within easy reach of his bedding—and it was still early enough in the year that he didn't have to worry about building some kind of shelter for the winter.
So, he guessed, all he had to do was get as much of the gold out of the creek as he could fit in the flour sack he got from the storekeeper in South Pass City, and be on his way before the end of summer.
But considering the sheer weight of gold, could he pack out enough of it to . . . to what? To do him some good. To make him rich, of course. Rich enough to enjoy an easy life in a nice warm house, in a nice little town somewhere far away from the monotonous mountainous wilderness he'd wrestled a hard-won living from for so long. Enough to find a good woman who could look past his obvious facial defects and see the man behind the scars, even if the bright gleam of gold in his hands meant she had to squint to do it.
Maybe buy a farm.
Maybe buy a ranch!
Maybe buy a big ol' house in town, too!
"What the hell?"
The very ground under Jacob's bedroll started rippling like wavelets on a lake, and something—he could clearly see where it looked like the bottom edge of his bedroll was bunched up as if hands had hold of it—started pulling him slowly toward the creek.
"No you don't!" he roared, sitting up and glaring at the invisible entity moving him off the gold. He stuck out his tongue and shook his hands wildly. "Did I mention how much I like to eat Indian spirits? They're mighty tasty!"
Screaming "And I'm damned hungry, too!" he lunged at the end of his blanket.
It instantly stopped moving, but the ground continued to ripple. He whipped around and pulled his bowie, and saw a faint image reaching for the depression where the gold was buried.
"Might as well start with you, pardner!" he cried, coming to his knees and thrusting the massive blade at the specter. "How 'bout a little bite?"
The ground settled down and, with an eerie howl, the second figure disappeared in a dusty whirlwind that quickly blew off into the distance.
"I told you don't come back," Jacob shouted at the retreating dustdevil. "And I mean it!"
With them gone, he drew a deep breath and, noticing movement in his peripheral vision, cut his eyes upstream.
Where he saw the white man again.
Heavily bearded and with long, dark hair, the man was dressed in ordinary clothing—a hickory shirt and sturdy pants, with suspenders and tall mule-ear boots—and he leaned on a shovel. Beside him a boulder about the size of a clothing trunk tipped up on its edge stood in the knee-high grass.
Jacob raised a hand to wave.
Wordlessly, the man waved back, and then pointed at the ground under his feet. He nodded once, and slowly faded away.
"Hmm," Jacob muttered. "'Fella must be buried over that way, or something."
He watched the spot for a long time, until the sun slipped over the western ridge and out of sight. The man didn't come back, so Jacob eventually sighed and noted the lateness of the day.
He scanned the trees up the canyon for a moment and didn't see any unusual wind activity in the treetops. Satisfied he was alone for the time being, he piled up some dry kindling in his stone circle and lit a fire, adding larger and larger pieces of wood to work it up to a size he could use. In the gathering gloaming, he balanced his pint-sized tin frying pan on a couple of rocks at the edge of the flames. A little later, canteen water in the hot skillet re-hydrated a few chunks of buffalo jerky and a handful of coarse yellow corn meal for his supper.
Jacob briefly wished he had an egg to help make the meat-stuffed corn cake a little heartier, a little firmer, but he wasn't packing along any eggs and had yet to see the first bird in the odd canyon.
Not being used to sharing his camp with either the wild spirits of Indians or more genteel and well-behaved ghosts of white men—or, indeed, human ghosts of any skin color or occupation or, come to think of it, religion, lodge affiliation or political party—Jacob felt an unusual twinge of concern over the night to come. He had his Yellowboy and other firearms, along with his bowie knife and a freshly re-handled iron-headed tomahawk; and he could, and definitely would, use any or all of them if any of the braves waiting outside the narrow cut decided to be a big man in front of the others and come sneaking up on him in the dark.
But he doubted all the weapons in the hands of every prospector and hunter in the whole Bitterroot range would do him any good if the damn Indian phantoms acting so touchy about the gold came howling back before sunup.
Sighing, he reached into his backpack for his rusty harmonica. Figuring his only chance was to stay ugly enough to keep the mean-natured spirits cowed awhile longer, at least until he could load up on as much of the gold as he could carry out of this canyon, he played a few dear old hymns before drifting off into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Birdsong woke him just before sunup the next morning.
Groggy, he stretched and sat up to look around . . . and found himself and his bedroll smack in the middle of the braves' camp outside the canyon! He counted six of them lying asleep around the dead fire.
Not knowing what else to do, he grabbed the nearest old repeating rifle from beside a sleeping warrior and screamed as blood-chilling a wail as he could manage.
All half-dozen Indians came awake instantly. Jacob levered and fired wildly at them, and was gratified to see them all take off running down the creek, most leaving their weapons behind. When the last of them were out of sight, he quickly gathered up his bedroll and as many of their rifles as he could carry and made his way back into the narrow cut.
A stiff wind blew down the entire length of the sixty or so yard gap, but he kept trudging through the shallow water and emerged into the canyon, where he quickly crabbed to the side in case one or two of the braves came back and still had something to shoot at him. The wind ceased the moment he emerged from the cut.
"That weren't too damned funny," he yelled. "You're not getting rid of me that easy!"
He made his way to his campsite, and wasn't surprised to find the stones of his campfire circle scattered and an empty hole where the massive nuggets had been buried. His backpack and other gear—including his weapons—were undisturbed.
He arranged his bedroll on the ground, and refashioned his campfire circle. Gathering up some of the scattered firewood, he left it ready to light come suppertime.
Then, feeling eyes on his back, he turned to see the white man standing in the same place.
"What?" he snapped, knowing he shouldn't be taking his irritation with the Indian spirits out on this ghost who'd yet to show him any ill will. "I mean, is there something you want from me, pard?"
The specter stabbed his finger twice at his feet and, as if in a snit, suddenly flicked out of existence.
"All right, dammit!" Jacob hefted up his Henry rifle. He carefully scanned the entrance to the canyon again before turning and walking toward where the ghost of the white man had been standing beside the large rock in the tall grass. The medallion against his chest became warmer and warmer the further he walked.
"Now what's so damn . . ." He slowed to a stop when he saw that the remains of the white man weren't buried. What was left of the corpse—which must have been here at least a year or more—lay atop the dirt, grasses growing up through the gray-white ribs and one otherwise empty eye socket. "Begging your pardon, friend," he said, lowering his head and sitting on the sandstone rock. "I reckon I could have ended up like that once or twice in my time, too."
Glancing away, Jacob noticed the bony carcass of a dead mule a couple yards away. In a pile beside it was what must be the departed prospector's equipment and supplies, and Jacob noticed a rusty shovel among the gear.
Sighing, he carefully set his Yellowboy on the ground and walked over to retrieve the shovel.
"Someday, it might be me in your place," he said softly, returning to the dead man's side. "If it ever is, I'd hope someone would give me a proper burial, too."
The dirt beside the body was softer than Jacob would have figured. An axe would have helped him break up the earth, but there were none among the dead man's effects, which struck Jacob as rather odd. Without an axe, how did the prospector expect to get wood for warmth and shelter out here in the tall and uncut? Still, Jacob had a decently deep hole dug within a couple hours.
He was as careful as he could be with the corpse, but pieces broke away from it anyway when he gingerly used the shovel to roll it into the hole and arrange it more or less face up. That's when he noticed that the left shinbone was severely damaged about halfway down from the knee. It looked to have been cut almost clean through by something, and could very well have been what killed the man. But he was here to bury the prospector, not investigate the man's death.
With all the body parts accounted for and in the grave, he carefully covered the remains over, and then filled the hole as quickly as possible when the body was completely out of sight. The stranger properly put to bed, Jacob straightened up and worked some kinks from his back, and bowed his head for a long, respectful moment.
The sandstone boulder made a dandy grave marker. Using a rusty bowie he found in the prospector's supplies, Jacob scratched the word "Unknown" and the year.
Sitting on the stone again, he relaxed for a few minutes and considered his handiwork, and decided under the circumstances it was the best he could do for the poor dead wretch. It wasn't long before he felt his eyes inexplicably drawn to the remains of the mule.
"Sorry," he said out loud. "I don't mind helping out a fellow . . . well, fellow when he needs it. But I don’t bury no mules."
That settled, Jacob was coming to his feet and reaching for his rifle when he saw something shining yellowish in the dirt under where the corpse had lain. He brushed away the surface soil and found it was a once-shiny brass keepsake box. Thinking it might contain some clue as to the dead man's identity, he slowly eased it open and pulled out a single folded piece of paper.
"Okay, I'll carve your name too," he muttered at the headstone. "I just might not get to it right away."
But the paper was a hand-drawn map. A map, he realized when he studied it for a few minutes, of this very canyon; with an X in the creek beside the large rock Jacob had first taken cover behind, and another X in what appeared to be a drawing of a cave somewhere off in the distance toward the waterfall. "Break the pot" was written in a sloppy scrawl under a drawing of what appeared to be a piece of pottery decorated in a jagged Indian design. A smaller drawing showed the vessel inside the cave.
Jacob stood and walked a few steps toward the waterfall and consulted the map again. It must mean there's a cave up there somewhere, he reckoned, and it must have some kind of Indian pot inside.
"Break the pot?" he muttered. "Now what in the world—"
"Do you want the gold or not?"
Jacob whipped around, and only saw the serene grave and silent headstone he'd just finished working with.
"Okay," he said, "but half the day is already over. Them waterfalls yonder are at least a mile off, and it'll take me awhile to find this cave of yours. I'll get on it in the morning when—"
Suddenly the medallion blazed hot against Jacob's chest, and the white man was standing in front of him on the grave and slowly shaking his head. Without a word, he brought up his hand and pointed into the distance, and then jerked his head in a single, no excuses accepted, nod.
Jacob jerked the chain from his neck and held it out in front of him, causing the ghost to flinch and take a small step backwards. But instead of disappearing, he clenched his jaw jerked his finger at the distance again.
"Okay!" Jacob dropped the medallion into his pocket. "I'll go now. But if I'm killed, I swear I'll haunt you for as long as we're both stuck in this damn canyon together!"
The white ghost shrugged his eyebrows, nodded subdued agreement, and faded away.
"At least he's an amenable cuss," Jacob muttered when the apparition was gone.
He turned toward the waterfalls and, consulting the map one more time, lay his Yellowboy over his shoulder and started walking.
At first, the going was easy. Jacob strolled casually toward the series of cascades, which became louder the closer he got. The wind also picked up more and more as he approached the falls. A hundred yards or so from where he could see several cave openings of various sizes in the steep slope to the left of the falls, where the canyon should be protected from such heavy winds, he had to lean into strong gusts blowing directly at him.
As he got closer, he realized he needn't worry about which cave he was looking for. All the wind blew from one of the larger holes in the canyon wall.
"So that's where you've been hiding out," he muttered, pretty sure the Indian spirits could hear him. "Now it's my turn to pester you some!"
As if in answer, the wind almost doubled in strength. Jacob dropped to the ground and began crawling toward the cave on his belly. The gusts were shrieking like a train whistle over his head, but he kept going.
And then he was at the mouth to the cave, and the wind stopped.
He came to his feet and allowed his eyes to adjust to the dimness. A couple yards back from the opening, in the diminishing light from outside, he could make out what looked like deteriorating buffalo hide shields, a bow and a few arrows, and a handful of lances. Lying on a dirty deer skin, he saw a pot about the size of a large pumpkin. It had the zigzag pattern the dead prospector had drawn on the map.
"Well look what we've got here! It's—"
The inside of the pot began glowing like someone set a fire in it, and a hoard of spirits suddenly flew up and out of it to surround him, their unearthly screeching almost deafening him.
But none came close.
Oh, several tried, but when he turned to catch them at it, they shied back and joined the others.
"Never come across someone meaner and uglier than you, did you?" he yelled, his voice getting lost among the screeching, and the almost hypnotic constant swirling of the spirits. "Now you have!"
He glanced at the pot again, and noticed that it was even brighter. In a moment or two, it would be like the sun took up residence inside the cave, and he might not be able to see.
He definitely didn't want to be blinded in this situation.
Looking down, he saw something at his feet that he recognized instantly. Its iron head was rusty, even inside the dry cave. It didn't take long to figure out why the dead prospector's leg was cut, and why his axe wasn't among his possibles.
A new sound began coming from the pot, a deep vocal rumble in some language he didn't recognize. The overexcited spirits in the cave became even wilder in their movements and screams, and Jacob realized something even worse than them was coming.
He started to reach for the axe, and remembered what happened to the dead man.
Instead, he levered a round into his Yellowboy and fired at the pot. Then, pumping bullet after bullet into it, he saw it begin to break up.
The spirits became a dizzying blur of swirling noise and wispy menace.
A malicious black mist began to float from the pot when Jacob, out of bullets, swapped rifle ends and attacked the pot with the butt stock. He smashed the vessel, and kept on smashing it until it was nothing but glowing shards.
The dark mist rose to the cave ceiling before settling in front of Jacob and taking shape. It had a face and looked . . .
"Damn!" Jacob murmured.
It looked a little like him!
Its mouth opened as if saying something, but only a deep growl came out.
"You got nothing to say that I want to hear," Jacob shouted. "Now get the hell back to wherever you came from!"
The dark, misty face expanded until it was taking up most of the space in the cave, and its bellow became a roar that shook dirt and small rocks from the ceiling and walls.
But Jacob refused to back off. Instead he took a step closer to the entity and smiled an evil grin. He stretched out left arm, and put his fist right into the phantom's eye. Even though the only difference he could feel was that his fist suddenly went ice cold, he swished his hand around in the mist and steadied his voice.
"Now don't make me tell you again" he said softly.
The misty black creature suddenly backed away. Then, swirling with the other spirits before diving at what was left of the pot, it rumbled one last time and was gone among the many broken pieces. The wispy specters immediately followed it.
Breathing heavily, Jacob backed off and, in the gathering darkness, cussed softly.
In the lingering ghostly light, he gathered up the deerskin that still held most of the still-glowing pot shards. Like a housewife whipping dust from a long unused quilt, he scattered the broken pottery chunks as widely as he possibly could, and hoped it would be enough. It took only seconds for the glow to completely subside.
In total darkness, he made his way back to his camp and a supper of cold jerky. The next morning, with a bird chirping brightly in a young spruce nearby, he cooked and ate a leisurely breakfast before ambling down to the creek. There, gold lying in the black sand glinted merrily in the morning sun as far upstream as he could see. He couldn't help smiling, his terribly devastated face taking on an almost beatific radiance.
He wished the ghost of the white man would show up so that he could thank him. But the dead prospector was apparently content to just lie peacefully in his new grave, now that he had one.
Jacob spent the next two weeks panning as much gold from the creek as he could. He'd never seen so many large nuggets in one place before, and he doubted anyone else ever had, either.
When he'd recovered all the gold he could get at, and had most of it buried safely under a large rock just inside the edge of the woods, he went ahead and buried what was left of the mule beside its owner. After all, it had seemed to matter to the dead man; and Jacob wouldn't have been able to get the gold if the prospector hadn't shown him how to eliminate the spirits who so jealously guarded the creek.
Three days later, with birds singing in what sounded like every tree in the secret canyon, and a flour sack filled with as much of the gold from the hidden stream as he could carry, Jacob walked boldly through the narrow cut. As he expected, the braves were nowhere in sight.
Glancing back once, he saw the wispy man at the grave waving at him before he turned and started walking down the creek toward town.
Posted by DL Chance at 2:57 PM
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Now that all the publishing contracts have (as far as I can tell) expired for this one, I'd like to offer it to anyone who might be interested in reading my Christmas fable. At just over 4,000 words, it's a fairly quick read. I hope you like it.
Gold in California! Silver in Nevada! Gold in Montana and Idaho! Silver in Arizona and New Mexico and Utah! Gold and silver in Colorado – lots of it. They’re taking it out by the ton. Why, in the Pikes Peak country alone they’re drinking from the streams and picking riches from their teeth!
Let’s go! Let’s get up to the Victor diggings. Let’s stake out a claim in Anaconda. Let’s catch a ride to Cripple Creek, and do it now!
But it wasn’t easy. It was hard. When determined, hard-natured men moved into hard country and faced hard winters to scratch a hard living by hardrock mining, they sometimes brought along their equally hard-natured women.
But more often than not, they made do with the life-hardened women already there; the women who were always there, no matter where the gold strike happened.
Cripple Creek was booming in 1895. Squatting just inside the cone of the huge extinct volcano forming the western-facing secret side of Pikes Peak, the wealthy mining town boasted every luxury of life teams of sweaty horses could drag over the mountains from Denver, seventy-five miles to the northwest as the wind blows or a good hundred or more miles off as the rutted wagon trails lay.
Claim speculators, mineral brokers, equipment salesmen, second-hand equipment salesmen, undertakers, gamblers, lawyers and every other kind of criminal, crook and conman afoot prowled the town’s muddy streets every day the dawn broke over the Peak, while a growing army of miners, teamsters, shopkeepers, blacksmiths and dreamers of all the other trades necessary to support such a thriving mining district held onto their wallets and hoped the next big-money deal would be the score that led them back to a gentler climate somewhere at a lower altitude. To a place where the beds were clean, the whisky was not watered down, and lovers were willing for reasons other than the asking price.
Women coming to such a place wanted the same things as the men. But, while men just might see their golden dreams realized no matter how impossible the dreams might seem, for the women it would take a miracle.
And sometimes, those miracles happened.
High up near the top of the Cripple Creek tenderloin, among the filthy mine tailings and soot-belching mills where three shifts of double-jackers, powderhands and muckmen plodded past their doors in a never ending stream of grimy humanity, those brave and often aging courtesans preferring to go it alone without the protection of regular pimps, parlor houses and madams arranged their own little district into orderly rows simply called The Line.
There, a prostitute known only by the name of Hannah shared a neat three-room crib with a longtime friend and business partner known only by the name of Little Sweet Pea.
Through at least a dozen of the biggest mining booms to hit the west, and numerous smaller ones – they’d long ago lost count – Hannah and Little Sweet Pea had survived an endless succession of tent cities, roadside hovels, dancehalls, barrooms and street corners by the time the unusually harsh winter of 1895 settled so early and heavily on the always frosty shoulders of the Pikes Peak region.
The first deep snows blowing in during the middle weeks of September that year would have buried a less robust mining camp. But Cripple Creekers just shrugged into an extra set of longjohns, hitched up their britches, buttoned up their coats, and went on gouging wealth from the generous hillsides. Like everyone else, Hannah and Little Sweet Pea made do the best they knew how.
They’d already learned life’s harder lessons as those lessons applied to them.
Little Sweet Pea was a southern-born mulatto who never knew exactly which field buck sharecropping for the nearby plantation cuckolded the man she grew up calling Daddy. He must have been no more than a quadroon himself though, to account for her mild but distinctively African features – looks that made her so different from the other eight children born in her own wretched family’s crumbling sharecropper shack.
But she did know that by the time she turned fourteen, the men who came around bearing the gifts she could keep if only she’d please them in very private and often very demeaning ways were paying her shiftless father far more for her attentions than she was getting from them. Or him. As she continued to develop into a stunning high-yellow goldmine for her trashy old daddy, and the only hard-cash income for eleven hungry mouths, she began to wonder why she shouldn’t just keep all the gold for herself.
One night, promising to give herself wholly to a wealthy local banker with illegal tastes in intimate man/woman relations if only he’d take her into town, she slipped out of the tumbledown house. She robbed the banker and left him chained naked in his office; knowing he’d never admit to attempting unspeakable sexual acts with, or being robbed by, what was essentially a little girl. Especially one with black blood running in her veins.
The next morning’s sunrise found her awake, alert and taking personal inventory on a train farther away from home than she had ever been in her short life. She’d cried for awhile in the darkness, weeping bitterly over her loss of childhood, modesty, virtue and, even as bad as it was, the only life she had ever known.
But with the sun came the life-changing realization that she owned herself fully now – her mind and her hopes along with her body – and the hard determination that she would survive in the world, no matter what the uncaring world may come up with to defeat her. In that cold, gray light of dawn, she wiped her eyes for the last time and made the resolute, unshakable decision to never, ever, let herself cry again.
She left the name she was born with in the dead past, along with those who birthed her.
A portly old Louisiana judge later took to calling her Little Sweet Pea during the year he allowed her to “work off” a petty theft charge in the luxurious New Orleans apartment he kept secret from his wife, children, grandchildren, and at least one other mistress. She liked the name so much that she kept it, along with the detestable fat bastard’s massive gold watch and chain, when she boarded a northbound riverboat at the invitation of a scheming first mate who mistook an innocent-sounding alias and an even more innocent-looking face for genuine innocence.
A couple years later, she met Hannah in an upscale St. Louis brothel.
At nineteen, Hannah was new to the prostitutes’ trade when the little dab of hard cash she’d been able to steal from her wealthy family’s Boston home ran out on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
Because Hannah bore them a grandson without the blessed sanction of a showy church marriage – an unforgivable offense in that time, place and social standing – the stern old Yankee patricians who somehow became intimate with each other long enough to produce her turned her out penniless to starve or freeze; they didn’t care which after she firmly refused to quietly enter a French convent in disgrace.
But they did keep the boy. They hid his parentage as deeply and securely as they’d buried the shame-laden secret of their Black Irish lineage, and explained away his presence to friends and acquaintances as the orphan child of recently departed relatives. This was mostly the truth given the circumstances they’d forced onto Hannah and the young maritime officer she’d intended to marry before his whaling ship was last glimpsed going down during a vicious winter squall off Nova Scotia.
Little Sweet Pea had once promised herself she’d never get close to another human being again. But when Hannah showed up at the bordello hungry, exhausted and desperate, Little Sweet Pea realized she still retained more human compassion than she would have previously bet good money on.
Ordinarily, Hannah’s generous mane of dark chestnut curls, delicate alabaster skin and shocking blue eyes, along with a petite, compact body and a gracefully genteel manner, would have made her Little Sweet Pea’s business rival and instant enemy. But Little Sweet Pea was also smart enough to recognize Hannah’s potential value as an ally in the callous industry of selling carefully measured rations of feminine virtue to strangers.
Soon, to her surprise, she soon knew Hannah’s value as a genuine friend, too.
Though Little Sweet Pea was a journeyman in the flesh trade, having served out her apprenticeship as a child, Hannah was never able to distance herself – her mind and spirit – from her body in the act of earning her living. With Little Sweet Pea’s guidance, Hannah learned to please the nameless, faceless, soulless men who drifted unremembered through her life. In return, Hannah taught Little Sweet Pea how to read books and figure numbers, along with the refined, ladylike attributes of a woman born to high social standing. Little Sweet Pea admired Hannah’s quiet grace and gentility, and always worked to nurture it in her own character. Hannah admired her friend’s remarkable inner strength, but simply could not duplicate it, and tears came easily to her.
Especially after she took sick that bad winter of 1895.
“He’d be ten now,” Hannah would often say, as the snow piled ever higher on the uncaring mountainside. “Ten years old, and I wouldn’t know him if I saw him on the street.”
“Now Hannah,” Little Sweet Pea would reply, like she had so many times before, “you’ll see him again just as soon as we can get you enough money to go back home for a spell.”
Hannah usually just smiled, understanding her friend was trying to help – though both knew such a thing as going back home would never happen. Little Sweet Pea had been a strong shoulder to lean on for a long time, and Hannah was grateful; more grateful than Little Sweet Pea would ever fully realize. But, rubbing absently at the hard knot growing larger all the time just above her navel, Hannah couldn’t help crying herself to sleep more and more often after the last dirty miner paid up and departed in the wee hours.
As the gloomy winter days pressed relentlessly in, and the gnawing pain in her abdomen fanned itself into a constant burning agony, Hannah found herself crying almost all the time; disgusted with herself for showing the one weakness Little Sweet Pea detested above all other human frailties. Still, she didn’t want to let on just how severe the pain had become. Hannah knew apologies for her unusual behavior were useless, but she couldn’t stop herself from offering them.
Little Sweet Pea typically brushed aside Hannah’s concerns with her usual good cheer.
“C’mon, girl,” Little Sweet Pea said one day, taking both of Hannah’s hands into hers and grinning like an excited child, “it’s just this nasty old weather getting you down so! You know your own self that Christmas is coming. There ain’t a soul anywhere don’t like Christmastime.”
Hannah nodded and forced a smile past her tears. “You’re absolutely right,” she chimed brightly, hiding a sudden twinge of belly pain from her only friend in the world. “Christmas was made for miracles, and I sure could use a couple of them about now.”
“There you go!” Little Sweet Pea’s smile became strained as she noted the stress lines on Hannah’s face, and the way the younger woman constantly clenched her fists over her stomach. “Two miracles it is!” she exclaimed. “And besides, this is just a little winter weather we’re having. We’ve seen lots of these cold winters, and summer always comes ’round afterwards no matter how cold they get.”
“You’re right.” Hannah drew a deep breath. “It’s just the winter.”
The days dragged on toward Christmas. Hannah became so sick she could no longer help keep the fire going, or help with any of the other chores necessary to keep the drafty shack clean and livable; and presentable to the continuous string of tired miners who came knocking on the door every night. Little Sweet Pea tended the cleaning and kept food on the table while Hannah spent more and more time in her room. Taking over the extra work didn’t bother Little Sweet Pea because Hannah had done the same thing over the years when the situation was reversed and Little Sweet Pea was the one too sick to do anything but stay in bed.
But when Hannah started talking, and usually rambling on endlessly, about her son, Little Sweet Pea began to suspect that something was seriously wrong this time. Hannah was not the strongest-willed woman ever to take up the prostitutes’ occupation, but she’d never been one to just give up before. Hannah was a survivor, not a quitter.
Before long, Hannah was too weak to even feed herself. Little Sweet Pea often sat beside Hannah’s bed, spooning sips from a warm bowl of thin soup and listening patiently while Hannah talked wistfully of old times, of shared experiences, of pleasant memories.
Of her child.
“If I could just see him one more time, I could go to my grave in peace,” Hannah said one evening, as Little Sweet Pea dabbed rouge on prematurely aging cheeks and readied herself for another night’s business. “Oh, I know it’s a miracle. But surely I can have just this one? I’ve never asked for a miracle before, so I must be due.”
“I promise you you are,” Little Sweet Pea said, wriggling into the cheap but gaudy dress that was so easy to slip out of when the time came. “You most surely are. But don’t you be talking so about graves and such, Hannah! You’ll get over this little bout of …whatever is ailing you soon, and be ready to go see your boy come summertime.”
“You think so?”
“I already guaranteed you two miracles, didn’t I?”
Hannah forced a slight smile. “Yes,” she said, “you did. And I’m going to hold you to them.” She gazed thoughtfully at her friend for a long moment. “You’re so strong,” she finally said. “How do you do it? You never whimper, never complain. Never let the world make you cry.”
“Honey, that’d take a sure-nuff miracle.”
“I know. And I’m grateful.” Hannah chuckled weakly. “In fact, I’m so grateful that I’m going to give you back one of those miracles you promised to me. It’s the least I can do.”
“It’ll be my pleasure to take it, then.” Little Sweet Pea met Hannah’s smile with one of her own. Then it slipped slightly. “But you gotta try not to cry out so much tonight,” she said, hating herself and the entire situation for the need to point it out. “It runs the trade off to hear it when they knows you ain’t in here with no man.”
“I’ll try,” Hannah said. “And tomorrow night, I’ll handle the business while you rest up.”
“Sounds good to me.” It had been awhile since Hannah could stand the weight of a customer on her unnaturally swollen belly – Hannah could just barely stand the weight of the two blankets and three quilts it took to keep her warm enough in the constantly chilly hovel. But Little Sweet Pea also knew the offer was made from love more than any real possibility of it happening. “You got yourself a deal.”
Throughout the Cripple Creek Mining District, gaudy Christmas decorations went up in all the storefronts, and even gaudier decorations appeared on the fancy houses of those lucky enough to have cashed in on the gold boom.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Ancient Order of The Knights of the Mystic Circle, on and on, all the fraternal lodge dances and dinners celebrating the season were always packed. The high society crowd attended Christmas balls at the finest hotels while the common miners and workingmen enjoyed even better times at raucous dancehall blowouts.
Day or night, brass bands would gather spontaneously on street corners and play loudly to thunderous applause, and none of the appreciative audiences seemed to notice how badly out of tune the finicky metal instruments were in the biting cold wind.
But Hannah saw none of it. Her pain-wracked body seemed to shrink in on itself as the days slowly counted down toward Christmas. Leaving the bed for even a moment’s respite from the endless monotony of constant suffering became almost impossible for her.
Sweet Pea made a point of getting a daily paper and sitting beside Hannah’s bed to read about goings on around town.
Some of the stories were tragic. Fragile human bodies were hopelessly outclassed in the frequent run-ins with heavy machinery in constant motion, and sudden and gruesome death in the mines and mills was an almost daily event on the winter-whipped backside of Pikes Peak.
Some stories were funny. Teams of miners armed with mucking scoops hiked to the cemetery at the top of Mt. Pisgah, where they shucked their clothing and, using the big shovels as sleds, raced naked through the deep snow down the grade and into the outskirts of town. The winner was awarded five free visits to Madame Pearl DeVere’s Homestead parlor house.
“I hope that uppity old cow loses a fortune on him,” Little Sweet Pea snorted. “That old bag!”
“Now Madame Pearl does good work and you know it,” Hannah pointed out, chuckling in spite of the pain. “Giving money to widows and orphans, and all.”
“Yeah, but that’s money she made from their own menfolk before they died.” Little Sweet Pea snorted contemptuously. “And you know as well as I do how she overcharged them to get it!”
That was true, Hannah reckoned. She asked what else was in the paper.
Little Sweet Pea laughed and went on reading. Every day, she tried to find something else in the paper to laugh about.
The churches, as much in a lively spirit of competition as goodwill, sent groups of carolers into the streets. Sometimes the competition got out of hand. After one particularly violent physical confrontation between a pair of boisterous protestant choirs at the corner of Masonic Avenue and Second Street, the town marshal, an old cowboy, was called on to divide the city into territories, and issue strict warnings for the various church singers to keep off the other church’s range. That’s why groups of carolers began venturing further and further into the tenderloin and eventually ended up serenading along The Line.
Lying in her bed, barely able to move, Hannah could only listen to the clear young voices through the thin walls. But she heard them, and it was enough. She remembered the sound, and joyously sang the dear old songs in her mind long after the carolers would move on.
Like he might be doing, wherever he was.
“P-Pea,” Hannah said one day, interrupting her friend’s reading in mid-sentence, “I’m so sorry I’ve let you down. I’ve been a burden to you for so long. I want you to know that I’ll appreciate that forever. I—”
Her mouth jerked into a grimace. The torture in her abdomen suddenly seemed to explode throughout her already pain-wracked body. She screamed weakly, clawing at the misshapen, swollen torment her midsection had abruptly become.
“I-I can’t bear it,” she gasped.
Little Sweet Pea shot to her feet and threw the newspaper aside.
“What can I do?”
Hannah could only struggle for air.
“Hannah, what can I do?”
One of the mine company doctors – a sad-faced little man with too strong a taste for whisky to get a better job somewhere else – was a regular customer. When Little Sweet Pea fully explained Hannah’s symptoms to him a couple of weeks before, he’d suggested regular dosing with laudanum because he knew Hannah stood no chance of surviving, even though he couldn’t bring himself to say so to Little Sweet Pea.
But Hannah had steadfastly refused to take the vile brew. She’d watched many other working women fade away into insane nothingness because of the strong opium-based elixir, and she didn’t want to become one with them. Still, Little Sweet Pea kept a small brown bottle of it out of sight near the bed just in case it was needed.
Now, she snatched up the medicine and deftly plucked out the cork, intending to pour most of it down Hannah’s throat whether the other woman objected or not.
But as Little Sweet Pea watched, the agony on Hannah’s face eased a little before the bottle was halfway to her fever-ravaged lips. Then Hannah turned ashen and gray, and her sunken eyes rolled back in her papery eyelids.
Torn between the desire to run for help and the need to stay close in case her oldest friend came around and needed her, Little Sweet Pea clutched the laudanum bottle tightly and held her breath. She stared intently into the other woman’s face, once so beautiful but now agony-ravaged almost beyond recognition, and silently willed Hannah to stay alive for just a while longer. She reached out to touch Hannah’s disheveled hair, stroking it gently while keeping her eyes on the eyelids of the other woman.
A freezing finger of bitter cold wind blew through an unseen crack in the flimsy walls to swirl briefly, cloyingly, at Little Sweet Pea’s cheek before settling where her hand rested on Hannah’s scalp.
“No you don’t!” Little Sweet Pea shouted, fanning her hand to chase away the frigid draft and coax warmer air onto her friend’s pallid face. “You’re not going to take her that easy!”
Breathing heavy, the chill gone, she became perfectly still and just watched. Oblivious of the passage of time, everything in her being fixed intently on Hannah.
Finally, she thought she heard a slight moan.
Did Hannah’s lips move?
Did her eyes twitch the least little bit?
“Hannah, did you—”
“Oh, Honey, I thought you was gone.” Little Sweet Pea dropped the bottle and held one of Hannah’s bony hands. “I thought you left me, girl.”
“It’s just a little pain,” Hannah whispered, trying to smile and failing. “It’ll go away.”
“Why, sure it will,” Little Sweet Pea lied. “Having that old pain go away is just one of those miracles you got coming.”
“Now we’ve got a miracle apiece coming,” Hannah murmured, her eyelids becoming heavy as sleep began to cloud her mind. “But only one. And I don’t intend to waste mine on a little pain.”
Thinking she’d gladly give Hannah her own lifelong share of miracles if only Hannah would get better, Little Sweet Pea sat at the bedside for a long time before answering the first knock of the evening.
Finally, Christmas came.
Little Sweet Pea was out arranging a trade for a load of coal when Hannah’s first miracle arrived at the flimsy whore shack in the heart of the Cripple Creek red light district. But when she returned, with a satisfied businessman’s promise that enough coal would be delivered before dark to get them through at least a week, Little Sweet Pea found Hannah unusually quiet in her bed.
Her friend didn’t answer. Didn’t even move. This time, there was no doubt.
Little Sweet Pea lowered her head.
A relaxed angelic smile was on Hannah’s lifeless face, and lying on her chest was a hastily opened envelope and a photograph of a bright-eyed little boy who looked just like the vivacious young Hannah that Little Sweet Pea had come to know so long ago. On the floor where it came to rest after falling from death-stiffened fingers was what looked like a hand-drawn Christmas card.
Little Sweet Pea picked up the card and read it through, then she read it again.
With the second of Hannah’s miracles flowing freely from Little Sweet Pea’s eyes and down her cheeks, she couldn’t stop reading the words scrawled on the card in a child’s exuberant hand.
“Merry Christmas to you, Mother. P.S. I love you.”
Little Sweet Pea cried and cried, while outside the blizzard howled indifferently on.
Posted by DL Chance at 11:03 PM