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Ten Thousand CharmsA Novel
By ALLISON PITTMAN
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2006 Allison Pittman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWyoming Territory
Gloria forced herself to take another step. Then another. And another. For most of the journey, she'd been lucky enough-and pretty enough-to ride along with supply wagons and men migrating to another promised land. But her luck ran out at the opening of this narrow, winding pass.
"Ain't nothin' up there to go to," her latest anonymous benefactor had said. "There's a little camp called Silver Peak, but it don't have no future. Prob'ly gonna close down next year."
"I have friends there," Gloria said.
"I just bet you do." His leer gave Gloria a momentary hope that he would take her up the pass, but he insisted that the journey was too dangerous for his rig.
"Ain't but about seven miles," he said, dismissing her from his wagon seat. "Get started now and you might make it before dark."
For once, a man's promise turned out to be true, because it was nearing dusk as Gloria rounded the last bend. In fact, there was just enough light for her to get a glimpse of something red.
The red-shingled roof was the trademark of any Jewell Gunn fancy house, and the closest reference Gloria had to a home. Now it served as a beacon, guiding Gloria's steps until the entire establishment-hugeand gaudy compared to its rough-hewn neighbors-came into view.
As she approached, the closest thing Gloria had to a friend, Jewell herself, leaned out a second-story window. Dressed in a silk robe wrapped haphazardly at the waist, Jewell planted her elbows firmly on the sill.
Gloria shifted her bag to a fresh hand, straightened her shoulders, and forced a spring into her final steps as she set her eyes firmly on the door.
She needs to be the one to call to me.
Within minutes, Jewell's distinctive whiskey voice filled the yard.
"Well, Glory-be it's Glori-A!" It was the phrase Jewell coined whenever she paraded the young Gloria through a crowded parlor. "Lord, girl, if I hadn't seen your feet movin', I'da swore you was the mangled mess of a bobcat snack."
"Is that right?" Gloria set her case down, planted her hands on her hips, and tried to keep the quaver out of her voice. "And if I didn't know you were the richest woman in Wyoming Territory, I'd swear you were some old whore seein' the first light of day."
There was a beat during which Gloria wondered if she had gone too far, but then Jewell leaned further out the window and said, as if shouting a secret, "All us rich women are whores, honey. I'm just not one who needs to hide it."
The first thing Gloria did upon entering the house was drop her bag in the hall.
"Would you like to sit down, miss?"
It was an impossibly small voice, one Gloria might have missed altogether if there had been a breeze to rustle the curtains.
"Some water, please, would be nice," Gloria said. She sank gratefully into overstuffed cushions, feeling guilty for asking this little person to fetch anything. The girl was every bit as slight as her voice.
"Nothing to eat? Some bread? Cheese? An apple? One of the men shot a goose. We're roasting it, but it won't be ready for hours."
Gloria ignored the now familiar rumble in her stomach. "Just water, thanks."
The little one turned to leave, and in her haste ran headlong into a newly dressed and coiffed Jewell.
"Fetch a light supper for our guest, Biddy," Jewell said once she'd set the reeling girl straight on her feet again.
"She says she just wants some water, ma'am." Biddy's voice grew smaller with each syllable.
"Nonsense," Jewell's voice addressed Biddy while her eyes remained fixed on Gloria. "Boil some tea. Toast some bread and open that last jar of marmalade."
Biddy scuttled out of the room.
"Sorry we don't have a fatted calf," Jewell said, "but then you're not exactly the prodigal son, are you?"
"Darlin', you are ignorant."
Gloria nodded in the direction of Biddy's exit. "So is this a whorehouse or an orphanage?"
"You tell me," Jewell said, wedging herself into a chair just opposite of Gloria.
"I'm not exactly an orphan."
"When'd your ma die?"
"It's been a few years."
"She held on a long time."
Gloria ran a fingernail along the edge of the dried mud on her boots sending crumbs of her journey onto Jewell's braided rug. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Jewell's reaching hand and stopped.
"You coulda stayed with me," Jewell said. "I could have made you something special."
"As special as Mama?" Gloria looked up at Jewell.
"It's not my fault she got sick."
"She got sicker after you kicked us out."
Just then the door opened and Biddy made her way into the room, carefully balancing a tray, which she set on a small table in front of the parlor's sofa.
"We can talk some more later," Jewell said. "Right now, eat."
She woke up naked and nestled underneath a heavy down coverlet. Her mind struggled through fog to capture memories from the previous night. She ate toast. She drank tea. And then black.
"Your little journey must have wore you out." Jewell was sitting once again at her open window; the early morning chilled the room. Jewell closed the window, crossed the room, and sat on the corner of the bed.
"I tried shakin' you, callin' you, but you'd have none of that. I figured freezin' would be the gentlest way."
Gloria tried to croak out a response, maybe an apology, but her tongue was like cotton in her mouth. No noise.
Jewell took a glass of water from the nightstand and watched Gloria struggle to one elbow before handing it to her.
"We had a slow one last night," Jewell said while Gloria forced the water down her throat. "I actually had a chance to get some rest." She leaned toward Gloria in a gesture of conspiracy. Her breath reeked of coffee and sleep. "I hope you don't mind sharin' a bed with some old whore."
"That depends," Gloria rasped, testing the taste of words. "Who else was invited?"
Jewell snorted and snatched the glass away. "I've got a house full of healthy girls. Why would I waste my reputation on a half-dead path rat like you?"
"Sorry." Gloria turned her back and drew the coverlet over her shoulders.
"Especially one in your condition. How far gone are you?"
Gloria turned back to face Jewell, clutched the coverlet to her chin.
"Is that why you're here? Did you expect me to get rid of it for you?"
"Not until you start tellin' me the truth," Jewell said. "How far gone did you say?"
"That's what I figured. You're stick-thin except for that little bump. Ain't you been eatin'?"
"I've been traveling." Gloria sat up again and reached for the water. "I thought you might, well, help me with it."
"You mean get rid of it."
"You did it for Mama once."
"Yes, I did. And for others, too. Some lived, some died. But none were as far gone as you, at least not that I knew goin' into it. So, now that that's off the table, what's your next plan?"
"I don't have a next plan. I was counting on-"
"Well stop countin' on that. So who is he?"
"The King of France," Jewell said. "Who do you think? Who's the father?"
Gloria chuckled. "The King of France."
Jewell did not chuckle back.
"I could pay you. I have money, nearly-"
Jewell brought up a hand. "Biddy checked your bag last night. You don't have a dime. I checked your clothes while you were asleep. Couldn't find a dollar."
"It's sewn up in the hem of my dress. Some of it, anyway."
"So that's how you trust me?"
"No," Gloria said. With each sentence her voice became stronger. "That's how I trust the world. I came here on foot remember? You think I'm going to walk from camp to camp toting my money like a picnic lunch?"
A slight shrug granted that point to Gloria, but the next breath brought back the voice of accusation.
"So I ask you again, who's the father? Better yet, what makes you think he's here?"
"I didn't come here looking for any man," Gloria said. "I came here looking for you."
Now Jewell did laugh. "Listen, missy. A girl like you could pull in five hundred a night in Virginia City. Why would anyone walk away from that to hide out in the woods? You're runnin' away from somethin'."
Jewell got up from the bed and crossed the room. A brocade dressing gown was strewn across a chair. She picked it up and held it out to Gloria, who took it and shrugged her arms into the sleeves before emerging from the bed.
"Leaving's not the same as running," she said, wrapping the warm material around her and cinching the belt with a determined knot.
"I ain't so sure of that," Jewell said, heading for the door. "Let's go downstairs and get some breakfast and we'll see which it is."
A fire was already burning in the large cookstove that dominated one wall of the kitchen. Along a second wall, a washbasin overflowed with dirty dishes. The odor of the previous night's roasted goose lingered, the smell of it colliding with the early morning nausea somewhere near the top of Gloria's throat.
Jewell walked over to the stove and lifted a burner to stir the embers within.
"Sounds fine," Gloria said. Her hunger was nearly unbearable by now.
"I'll cook, you talk," Jewell said.
Gloria took a deep breath and began the story she'd rehearsed with every step up this mountain.
"Just after Mama died, I left California. Went straight to Virginia City. I walked right up to the biggest, fanciest house in the district and said, 'My name's Gloria. I'll have them lined up at the door.' The first two places turned me down, then spent the next two years fighting to get me back."
"Who'd you work for?"
"Cat House Ellie? She's a tough one."
"Not if you're bringing in money."
"Is it true what I hear about the money in Virginia City? I heard some gals could bring in a thousand a night."
Gloria flashed her perfected sly smile. "It's true."
Jewell stopped in mid-whisk and gave Gloria a look full of suspicion and resentment.
"What can I say?" Gloria assumed a dramatic pose. "I inherited my mother's charm and it paid off handsomely."
"Knowin' Ellie, she was the one gettin' paid. She always took more of a cut than I ever thought was fair."
"That's if she knew how much a girl was bringing in."
By now the coffee was brewed, and its aroma filled the warm kitchen. Gloria inhaled the smell of breakfast and let out a small sigh.
Jewell scooped a pile of scrambled eggs out of the iron skillet and onto a clean blue plate. Next to the eggs she plopped two biscuits fresh from the oven. This she set in front of Gloria with a steaming cup of coffee.
"Sugar? Don't have no milk."
"So, when did you get caught?" Jewell poured herself a cup of coffee and settled across from Gloria with her own plate of food.
"What makes you think I did?"
"You're here. You're broke."
Gloria popped a bite of piping hot biscuit into her mouth and savored the sensation as it crumbled, melted, and found its way to her waiting stomach. She allowed herself one more bite, plus a forkful of eggs and a sip of coffee before continuing.
"We all got caught," Gloria said, gesturing with her fork. "All of us in Ellie's house. Everyone in the district, really. The wives of the town went on a rampage."
"They got to put their upturned noses in everything, don't they?"
Gloria continued to eat, making every effort to remember to chew.
"Ellie said we all had to pay our fines out of our own money. I knew if I sent her to my stash, she'd find out I'd been cheating her, so I told her I'd used all my money ordering a silk gown custom made in France. She let me sit in jail for a month."
For a minute the only sound was the scrape of Gloria's fork.
"I was in jail when I realized I was pregnant," she said, not looking up. "I knew when I got out Ellie'd never keep me on, and eventually she'd learn that there wasn't any dress coming from France. So one night I just left."
Jewell had been steadily eating throughout Gloria's story. Now she set down her fork and reached for a small tin in the middle of the table. From it she drew out a pinch of tobacco and a small white rolling paper. Neither woman spoke again until the paper was licked, sealed, and lit with a match struck across the bottom of Jewell's shoe.
"Why here?" She puffed a bit of smoke, grimaced, and plucked a bit of loose tobacco off her bottom lip. "Why me?"
"Where else? I needed someplace where I could be safe."
"Everything," Gloria said.
"And you think you're safe with me?" Jewell's voice was a mixture of curiosity and insult.
"As safe as anywhere, I guess."
Jewell stubbed the rest of her cigarette out in a half-eaten biscuit just as Gloria made a move to snatch it off the plate. "Where's the money?"
Gloria made every effort to hold Jewell's gaze. "Locked up in a bank back in Virginia City. But I have a little with me. I just need to hole up here for a while. I can pay."
"Forget pay. You plannin' to work?"
Gloria looked around the kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled everywhere.
"I can clean up."
"That I expect. You know what I mean." "Maybe in the spring. I figure my time will come in March, so ..."
"I got two little one-rooms out back. I was hoping to expand this spring. Looks like I got my wish. You can take one of those."
Jewell heaved herself up from the table and walked toward the kitchen door. Gloria got up, too, and searched for a bucket to take to the pump outside. When she found it, she turned to leave and was surprised to find Jewell hadn't yet left the room.
"One more thing, missy," Jewell said, pointing an accusing finger. "Don't for a minute think you're gonna saddle me with this kid while you skip off back to the big money."
Gloria let her mouth fall open. "Jewell!" she exclaimed, bringing a hand to her heart. "What makes you think I'm capable of that?"
"'Cause that's what I'd do if I was in your boots." Jewell pointed to Gloria's bare feet, winked and walked out the door.
Excerpted from Ten Thousand Charms by ALLISON PITTMAN Copyright © 2006 by Allison Pittman. Excerpted by permission.
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