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"Hip hip, hooray! Hip hip, hooray!"
Blushing furiously, Low Down scowled at the men saluting her and waving tin mugs of beer that Olaf had brewed for the occasion. As she'd never before been a guest of honor or been cheered, she didn't know how to respond or where to look or if she should raise her beer mug, too.
Feeling flustered, she turned her gaze down the mountainside toward the haze of smoke hanging above the ashes of the schoolhouse. Burning the school had been the first order of business; then everyone had climbed up to Olaf's cabin for a celebration dinner of fried trout and elk steaks, followed by spirited talk about rebuilding.
It was a gorgeous day to consider new beginnings. Blue gentian and thick clumps of purple aster spilled down the mountainside like jewels strewn among the boulders. Daisies danced along the valley bottom, chasing the creek, and the rabbit brush had spiked into golden bloom. High overhead an eagle circled against a bottomless sky, so graceful and wild and free that Low Down's chest ached to watch. Right now she wished that she, too, could fly so she could escape the speech it appeared that Billy Brown, Piney Creek's self-appointed mayor, was preparing to deliver.
Stepping up on Olaf's sagging porch, Billy pulled back his shoulders, thrust out his belly, and led the enthusiastic salute in Low Down's honor. If she'd known she would be cheered, if she had even suspected this would turn into the proudest day of her life, she would have bathed in the creek this morning and washed her hair and donned some clean duds for the occasion. Instead, the guest of honor wore an oversized men's shirt and denim trousers, neither of which were too clean, and mud-caked gum-rubber boots. While self-consciously stuffing a hank of hair up under her old hat, she noticed that everyone else had spiffed up.
Billy Brown wore an almost-new red flannel shirt under the bib of his overalls, and he'd combed his hair and trimmed his beard. In fact, all of her former patients were nearly as tidy as they had been before the women left camp at the beginning of the epidemic. It touched her that the men had done some laundry and combed some hair in her honor.
"First we need to thank Olaf Gurner for today's fine repast and for stepping up to the stove and feeding our sick after Jacob Jansen drowned," Billy Brown said, beginning his speechifying. A chorus of good-natured insults erupted, directed at Olaf's fish broth, followed by a round of hearty applause.
"There are sixty-four of us here today," Billy Brown continued, his expression turning sober. "Six weeks ago Piney Creek had a population approaching four hundred souls. Men were finding nuggets; this place was thriving. Then the scourge hit."
Along with the others, Low Down shifted to gaze down at the camp. The empty storefronts made her think of a ghost town. No music tinkled from the saloon doors. Even the assay office was boarded up. A light breeze chased a paper scrap across a trampled section of yellowing grass where campfires had burned before rows and rows of tents. Already wild roses had sprouted where the tents had been. Low Down turned back to Billy Brown with the sad conviction that Piney Creek would never fully recover from the epidemic.
Billy frowned at the bottom of his tin mug. "I guess you men and the men up there in the cemetery braved the pox and stayed for the same reason I did. To protect your claim."
Lifting his head, he stared hard at Low Down. "But one person stayed who didn't have to."
"Well, I had a claim to protect, too," Low Down murmured. It seemed that a guest of honor ought to be a bit modest.
"You ain't found enough gold dust to support a chipmunk," Jake Martin said, leaning to spit a stream of tobacco juice at an anthill. "You coulda left your claim without a backward glance."
"God heard our prayers and gave us an angel of mercy who didn't desert us in our darkest hour."
The breeze blowing off the high peaks felt cool against the heat of embarrassment rising in her cheeks. She wished Billy Brown would end his speech right here. At the same time she secretly hoped he'd say more good things. Compliments were as rare as finding a nugget in her pan. She remembered every one that had come her way.
"This person stepped forward to fill our desperate need at great risk to her own health and life."
"Well ..." A guest of honor ought to tell the whole truth even if it put a dent in Billy's speech. "I had the pox as a kid, and someone said you can't get it twice."
Coot Patterson rolled his eyes, then glared at her. "Nobody knows that for sure. Maybe it's true, and maybe it ain't. The point is, you stayed and took care of us when you didn't have to and nobody expected you to. Now shut up and quit kicking at the nice words ole Billy is saying."
"Will you people stop butting into my speech?" Billy Brown snapped. "Now, where was I? All right. Everybody here knows I'm talking about Low Down. If she hadn't fed you, cleaned you, nursed you, most of you would be pushing up grass right now. There weren't no other volunteers, that's for sure."
The cheers almost deafened her, and she didn't know what to do with her hands or where to turn her eyes, and her lips were twitching in a peculiar way. Being a guest of honor was a nerve-wracking affair.
"There's no way to adequately repay you for sticking by us and keeping most of us alive. But every man here agrees that we won't rest until we've expressed our gratitude. We want to do something for you, Low Down. Something big and something nice. Something as important and lasting as what you did for us. So you tell us what you want, and by damn it's yours. Anything at all, you just name it."
Heads nodded, and the men gathered in front of Olaf Gurner's cabin smiled appreciation at her and waited. Cheeks flaming, Low Down waved her beer mug in a gesture of dismissal.
"Hell, boys, I just did what anyone would do, that's all." She tugged the ragged brim of her old felt hat and fidgeted beneath the weight of so much unaccustomed attention. "You've thanked me enough. I never had a party in my honor, and I'll remember this all my life."
"No, sir, a party isn't near enough." Stony Marks pushed forward. "You worked like a dog. You fed us, washed us, forced that vile medicine down our throats. By sheer force of will you made some of us live who would have died if you hadn't bullied us, threatened us, maybe sweet-talked some of us that I don't know about." He waited for the hoots and chuckles to die down. "But we couldn't have survived if it hadn't been for you, and that's a fact. There must be something you've always dreamed about and wanted. Maybe something you never expected to get. We want to give it to you. We owe you."
Now Frank Oliviti stepped forward, gratitude softening his wrinkled gaze. "First, I want to thank you for not stealing my gold like you threatened." Low Down grinned, waiting out the laughter. "If you want a house instead of that ratty little tent you got, we'll build you a fine cabin and furniture to go with it. Whatever you want, it's yours."
"If you've always hankered for a pi-ano, we'll go to Denver, buy one, and haul it up here," Billy Brown agreed. "You just tell us your fondest wish, no matter what it is, and we'll make it come true."
Max McCord was next to urge her to accept their gratitude. "Maybe you always wanted to stay in the finest hotel in Denver and eat oysters and drink champagne in a suite. You just say so, Low Down, and we'll make that dream happen."
He didn't look like the same man she'd fed and washed and browbeat. Today Max McCord was so handsome that the sight of him made her feel peculiar inside, like her stomach was on fire. Frowning, she noticed the pox had left a few pits along his jawline, but he wasn't as scarred as some or as vain as the men growing beards to hide the marks. He was clean-shaven, his dark hair trimmed to collar length, and he wore fresh denims and a plaid wool shirt that was almost the same blue as his eyes.
It was while she was staring at Max McCord and wondering about the hot, uncomfortable tightness in her stomach that the idea came to her. There was only one thing in the world that she really, really yearned to have. She doubted it was the kind of thing the prospectors had in mind, but they were urging her to name her fondest wish. They wanted her to have something special that she'd never expected to get. But ...
Preacher Jellison walked up beside her and hooked his thumbs under his suspenders. "These are proud men who owe an honest debt, and they won't rest until they've repaid you. So let them," he advised. "Everybody wants something, Low Down. Now's your chance to have it."
Squinting, she gazed down at the sunlight glittering on the serpentine surface of the river coiling through the valley. This morning she'd seen a family of foxes at the water's edge. The kits were summer-grown, almost ready to leave for territory and dens of their own.
"There is one thing," she said finally. Pulling a hand down her face, she tried to steady her thoughts. "But I don't think ..."
"Let the men decide. Whatever you want, no matter how far-fetched you think it is, you've earned it, and these men are committed to giving it to you."
Sudden hope, hot and fierce, struck her with enough force that she swayed on her feet, feeling light-headed. Everyone was saying that all she had to do was ask
and her dream would come true. This was her chance, maybe the only chance she would ever have. And like the old saying went: If you don't ask, you won't receive.
Billy Brown had been watching, and he knew when she made up her mind. A broad smile widened his beard. "Shut up, everyone. She knows what she wants. What's it going to be, Low Down?"
"I don't know about this," she said in a low voice to Preacher Jellison. He smiled, squeezed her arm, and urged her to state her wish.
Oh Lord. Well. This opportunity wasn't going to knock twice. Squaring her shoulders, she drew a deep breath and felt the fires in her stomach burn hotter.
An expectant hush stilled the men's voices, and they looked at her with encouraging smiles.
"I want a baby."
"Excuse me?" Preacher Jellison stepped back and stared.
"A baby. That's what I want."
Dead silence met her announcement.
She heard leaves rustling on the aspens, heard the crash of utensils against plates as Olaf dropped a pile of dishes. The silence was so complete that Low Down imagined she heard ants digging tunnels, imagined she could hear her hair growing.
Billy Brown pulled his hat from his head and raked stubby fingers through the thin strands that lay like fence pickets across his scalp. "Well." He glanced at the men staring at Low Down with blank expressions. "This here is a surprise, but nothing we can't handle. Right, boys?" He thought a minute. "There must be some orphans in the camps. We could--"
"No, I don't want someone else's baby. I want a baby of my own." At least no one was laughing at her.
"Aw hell, Low Down." Frank Oliviti frowned. "Are you saying you want one of us to ...?" A mottled red flush climbed the back of his neck, and he kicked at
a clump of columbines. "Damn it. Are you sure you wouldn't rather have a bag of gold?"
She hadn't peered into a mirror in months, but judging from the way every man took a step backward, she decided she must look like hell. And she wasn't a beauty to start with. Nevertheless, she hadn't expected them to be so appalled at the prospect of bedding her. It was damned insulting, that's what it was.
Who the hell were they to be so particular? She'd seen most of them buck naked, and she didn't recall grabbing her heart and swooning over any perfect sculpturelike bodies.
"You asked what I wanted, and I told you," she said, raising her chin and narrowing her eyes. "If you didn't mean what you said, that's fine. I didn't expect anything anyway." She glanced at the angle of the sun. "Let's finish our beer and go back to the diggings. We've still got a few hours of good work light."
"Now, just hold it a minute." Billy Brown faced the men from Olaf's porch and raised his hands. "All right, boys, this ain't what we expected." A chorus of low swearing erupted. "But we did mean what we promised." A threat glittered in his gaze. "We voted on this. We agreed we'd give Low Down whatever she wanted. We made a commitment, and by damn, that hasn't changed."
A rumble of muttering and mumbling rose and fell, then silence returned. A resigned voice inquired, "So what happens next? How do we decide who has to
"A volunteer would simplify matters a whole lot." Billy skimmed a hopeful eye over the men, none of whom would look at her. "Do we have a volunteer?"
When no one stepped forward, Low Down felt a wave of heat flood her cheeks. Even her eyes felt hot. "To hell with all of you," she shouted, twisting pride and humiliation into a knot of anger. "I don't want to sleep with any of you either, so just forget it!" She'd never felt so offended in her life.
Worse, she had relied on the wrong proverb. The one she should have remembered stated: Promises are like piecrusts, made to be broken. They hadn't meant it when they told her to pick the thing she wanted most and she could have it.
Preacher Jellison grabbed her arm as she spun to storm down the mountain and back to her tent. "Let me go!"
This was no longer her proudest day. All she wanted to do now was pack up her few belongings, get out of Piney Creek, and pretend these last minutes of stupidity on her part and insult on their part had never happened.
Preacher Jellison held her at arm's length, keeping his body away from her kicking feet and flailing fist. "Shame on you, gentlemen. The angel of mercy who put herself in grave peril to save your worthless hides ..." Pausing, he took a minute to stare into the unhappy gaze of every man present. "... wants a baby."
Billy Brown rose to the occasion. "And by God one of us is going to give her one," he promised grimly, speaking between clenched teeth. "We are going to repay the debt we owe. Aren't we, boys?"
They looked at her now, sliding sidelong glances of speculation in her direction before they looked up at Billy Brown again. A long sigh of resignation skittered down the mountainside like an ill wind.
Stony Marks stepped forward. "I think Low Down is a good-hearted woman, and she might be right tolerable if she was cleaned up some," he said gamely. "But much as I'd like to honor our debt and do my part to repay her for keeping my butt alive, I can't be the man who does the poking. I'm married." He looked to Preacher Jellison to back him up. "It wouldn't be right to ask a married man to sin against his innocent wife."
"Well, damn. He's got a point, Billy." Preacher Jellison tightened his iron grip on Low Down's arm. She tried, but she couldn't pry off his fingers.
"Damned if he don't," Billy Brown agreed unhappily. "But we can cope with this development. You married men step over there beside the big spruce." He counted the bachelors remaining in front of Olaf's porch steps. "All right. We got twenty-three contenders."
"We got twenty-four," Jack Hart said sharply. "McCord, get over here. You ain't married."
Max McCord appealed to Billy Brown and Preacher Jellison. "I'm as good as, since I'm pledged to marry in two weeks, and I'm leaving tomorrow."
"Yeah, well, you ain't wed yet. You wouldn't even be alive to think about getting married if Low Down hadn't nursed your sorry butt back to life. So get on over here with the rest of us!"
For the span of a heartbeat, Low Down thought McCord would refuse. Since she'd read his letter to Miss Philadelphia Houser, she would have understood. But he marched forward with a frown and joined the men waiting in front of the steps. The bachelors glared at the married men, who had helped themselves to more beer and who grinned back. Then everyone scowled up at Billy Brown, waiting for whatever would happen next.
"I'm asking one last time for a volunteer," Billy Brown said in a coaxing tone.
The only thing Low Down heard was her own teeth grinding together as she considered taking a bite out of Preacher Jellison's arm and breaking free. To hell with them all.
Except she wanted a baby. And they had promised.
"It isn't you," Albie Davidson said, spreading his arms and giving her an apologetic look. "Well, it's you, but what I mean is, I just can't think of you as a woman. You're one of us, you know? One of the boys."
"You're all bastards," she shouted, struggling to jerk free of Preacher Jellison's grip.
Preacher Jellison hissed at her. "This is what you want. Now stop fighting and take whatever you're given. The Lord works in mysterious ways."
She couldn't argue with that. Because the Lord had sent an epidemic down on Piney Creek, she had a chance to get the one thing she longed for. That is, if one of these bastards agreed to sleep with her and if she could stomach sleeping with him. At the moment, that was a big if. She hated them all. But she reckoned she'd put up enough of a fight to appease her injured pride so she didn't stomp off in a huff when Preacher Jellison released her.
"Hold everything," Preacher Jellison called suddenly, his gaze going sharp. "What did I just hear?"
Billy Brown sighed. "Albie is going to place twenty-four marbles in a hat. I'll scratch an X on one of them. Whoever draws the marble with the X has to poke Low Down."
Preacher Jellison strode forward, his florid face clamping into a thunderous expression. He climbed up to Olaf's porch and elbowed Billy Brown aside.
"What are you pathetic sinners thinking of? You don't thank God for sparing your lives by committing a sin with His angel of mercy. No sir! I won't stand for that, and neither will the Almighty. Whoever draws that marble with the X marries this woman! I'm warning you. Anything less than marriage is just begging God to smite you with disaster. God didn't save your butts to have you spit on His commandments!"
"Oh my gawd," Billy Brown said, staring in disbelief. "Marry her? Lord A'mighty, this just gets worse and worse."
"Now wait a damned minute," Low Down shouted over the roar of protest. Shock widened her eyes. "I never said anything about marrying or a husband! All I want is a baby!" Preacher Jellison was turning this into something she'd never intended and didn't want. Shouting to get his attention, she fought to be heard. "No husband. Just a baby!"
The preacher pulled a worn Bible from his jacket pocket and waved it above his head for all to see. "Would you offend God by heaping sin on your angel of mercy?" He flung a pointing finger at Low Down.
"Honestly, I don't mind having a little sin heaped on me. Just enough to get a baby, and I don't think God would object to that too much. I don't want to do this if it means getting married. I just want a baby, that's all." Her voice trailed when she realized no one was listening. All attention was focused on the preacher.
"Does this good woman's child deserve to be born a bastard? Is there any son of a bitch here who truly believes that piling sin and shame on this woman and her child is the way to thank her? Is that your idea of expressing gratitude to the woman who saved your miserable lives?" Contempt curled his lip.
"Listen, on second thought, a pi-ano would be real nice," Low Down said loudly. She didn't know how to play a piano and had no place to keep one, but those problems could be worked out.
No one paid her a lick of attention. Preacher Jellison was gathering momentum and working up a lather, holding his audience spellbound with the thunder of his voice and the weight of his listeners' increasing guilt. By the time the last echo resounded off the opposite valley wall, the married men were in a fury of righteous indignation, shouting insults at the bachelors, castigating them as selfish weaseling ingrates who were going to call down the wrath of God on everyone if they didn't do right by the poor self-sacrificing woman who had risked her life to save theirs.
No fool he, Billy Brown seized the moment to pass the hat containing the marbles and every man in the single group glared at the married group, then did his duty and withdrew a colored glass ball. One after another they examined their marble, then headed for the beer barrel with a grin of relief.
Except Max McCord.
McCord stood as if he'd put down roots, staring at the green glass in his palm. All around him men slapped each other on the back, made jokes, and looked around to see who had drawn the marble with the X.
When Low Down couldn't bear McCord's frozen silence another minute, she turned her back on him and faced down the mountain. She hadn't expected that anyone would jump for joy to discover the scratched marble in his hand. She wasn't happy either. But she had secretly hoped the man she ended with wouldn't look as shocked and stricken as Max McCord.
She had mixed feelings about him. Part of her felt sympathetic that he wouldn't be able to marry the woman he loved. He had to marry her instead. Events had spiraled so far out of control there was no stopping them now. Preacher Jellison had everyone churned up and eager for a wedding. No one cared that she and McCord didn't want this.
Frowning down the mountainside, she thrust a hand into her trouser pocket and closed her fingers around the copy of Max McCord's letter that she had written out from memory. She didn't know why she'd copied his letter. Well, yes she did. She liked to read it and pretend that someone had sent this letter to her. McCord had some beautiful words inside of him.
"Gather around, and somebody bring the bride and groom up front."
"We have to do it right this minute?" Low Down would have at least liked to wash her face and comb her hair. But the men cared only about repaying their debt right now in case God was watching and prepared for swift retribution if they faltered, and in case McCord might be tempted to shirk his duty if they permitted any delay.
McCord continued to stare at the marble like it was a miniature crystal ball revealing a future that sucked the marrow from his bones.
Coot Patterson and Stony Marks each took one of McCord's arms and dragged him forward. Frank Oliviti and Jake Martin led Low Down through the crowd. She felt as if she ought to say something to McCord, but she didn't know what. He looked dazed anyway, and probably wouldn't have heard anything she said.
She felt a little dazed herself and suddenly nervous. She wet her lips and rubbed her palms along her trouser legs. Damn, she wished she'd washed this morning and had put on some clean long johns and a better shirt. She wished things hadn't gone this far. She was going to regret the husband part, she just knew it.
"Wait a minute." Billy Brown pushed to the front, twisting a gold ring off his little finger. He thrust it into McCord's hand. "This belonged to my mother. It's for the bride," he added when McCord frowned like he didn't understand why he was looking down at a gold ring.
"Take off your hats and quit talking." Billy gave the men a hard stare and followed with a hint. "McCord's doing the hard part, carrying the major thrust of our gratitude, so to speak. But the rest of us ought to do something. Like chip in to help the happy couple set up housekeeping. Keep in mind what we all owe Low Down. And we also owe McCord for taking this like a man. Remember that it could have been you saying the 'I do's,' so give generously."
Preacher Jellison waited for the muffled guffaws to ebb, then he smiled at Low Down as if this whole wedding had been her idea instead of his, as if she and McCord were indeed a happy couple who sought his blessing on a joyful event. She seriously considered punching him in the stomach, but he began the ceremony before she'd made up her mind about doing it.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together in the presence of these witnesses ..."
It didn't take long to bind a man and woman together for the rest of their lives. In less than five minutes Preacher Jellison smiled and said, "I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride."
Low Down and Max McCord reluctantly turned and stared hard at each other. Then McCord spun on his heels, walked through the crowd of men and continued on down the mountainside.
Low Down pushed her fists into her pockets and watched him stride away. She didn't really care if he kept going, jumped on his horse, and rode out of here. Getting married was a mistake that neither of them had asked for.
Fingering the letter in her pocket, she watched until McCord reached his diggings and ducked inside his tent, dropping the flap behind him.
She should have settled for the bag of gold or the stupid piano.
Thrusting out her hand, she squinted at the ring, bright and shiny against her sun-dark skin. Well, whatever happened, she'd keep the ring. They'd convinced her that she deserved something for emptying all those vomit buckets.
But she'd really wanted a baby, someone to love who would love her back. A real family of her very own. Like an idiot, she'd let herself get her hopes up.
"Olaf? Isn't it time to break out the whiskey? The bride needs a stiff drink. And I want to hear more about that generous chipping-in part."
No sense crying over spilled milk. She might as well have a few drinks, hear a few prospecting stories, and enjoy what was left of her wedding day.
From the Paperback edition.