Read an Excerpt
The sun sank slowly onto the hills framing the lush green splendor of the Napa Valley. Jeremiah stood watching the hot orange streaks across the sky, followed by a pale mauve haze, but his mind was a thousand miles away. He was a tall man with broad shoulders and a straight back, strong arms and a warm smile. At forty- three years of age, there was more salt than pepper in his hair, yet his hands still had the same strength they had had when he worked in the mines as a young man, and when he bought his first mine in the Napa Valley in 1860. He had staked the claim himself and was the first to find quicksilver in the Napa Valley. He had been seventeen years old, barely more than a boy, but for years he had thought of nothing except mining, just as his father had done before him. His father had come from the East in 1850, and for him, the promise of gold in the West had been fulfilled. He had sent for his wife and son six months after he arrived, his pockets full of gold, and they had come. But when Jeremiah arrived, he was alone. His mother had died on the way. And for the next ten years he and his father had worked side by side, mining gold, then silver when the gold ran thin, and then when Jeremiah was nineteen, his father died, leaving him a fortune far larger than even Jeremiah had dreamed of. Richard Thurston had saved everything for him, and Jeremiah was suddenly richer than almost any man in the state of California.
But for him, it didn't change anything. He went on working in the mines, beside the men he hired, buying mines, buying land, building, growing, mining. His men said that he had the gift of gold, everything he touched succeeded and grew, just as the quicksilver mines he established in Napa, when the silver mines ebbed. He made the transition swiftly and wisely, before others understood what he was doing. But it was the land he loved best. The rich brown soil he would run through his fingers and then hold lovingly in his hand...he loved its warmth, its texture, and all that it represented, as he looked as far as the eye could see, at the hills, the trees, the tidy- looking valley, the lush green carpet of grass stretching ahead of him. He had bought vineyards too, from which he produced a pleasant little wine. He loved everything that the land produced, apples, walnuts, grapes...ore...this valley meant more to him than anything...or anyone.... He had spent thirty- five of his forty- three years right here, looking out at the same gently rolling hills, and when he died he would be buried here. This was where he belonged, the only place in the world he wanted to be. Wherever he went in the world, and Jeremiah Thurston had been far, this was the only place he wanted to live, in the Napa Valley, standing here at sunset, looking out over his hills.
And yet, as he stood there, the sky turning a velvety purplish gray, his mind was far from here. There was a business deal in Atlanta he'd been offered the day before, for close to a thousand flasks of quicksilver, and the price was one he liked, but there was something about the way he had been approached...for some odd reason, he had a peculiar feeling about it all, and yet he couldn't understand why. There was nothing wrong with the deal, and he was having his bank investigate the consortium. There was something about the letter he had received, about the man's style, that bothered him. He seemed unusually forward and forceful and presumptuous. Orville Beauchamp was the head of the group, and it was stupid to object to the man's flowery prose, and yet...it was almost as though Jeremiah had a sixth sense about him.
"Jeremiah!" He smiled at the familiar sound of Hannah's voice. She had worked for him for almost twenty years, ever since her husband died, right after his own fiancÈe had died of influenza. She had come to him one day at the mine, glared down at him in her black widow's dress, and rapped her umbrella on the floor. "Your house is a disgrace, Jeremiah Thurston!" He had looked at her in astonishment, wondering who the devil she was, and discovered eventually that she was the aunt of a man who had once worked for him, and she wanted a job working for him now. Jeremiah's father had built a shack on the far corner of their land in 1852 and Jeremiah had been content to live there with him, and he had stayed on after his father died, but by then Jeremiah had acquired far more extensive lands, annexing them onto what his father had purchased first in the Napa Valley. By the time he was twenty-five, he began to think that it was time to take a wife. He wanted children, someone to come home to at night, to share his good fortune with. He couldn't even begin to spend the money he had, and he liked the idea of someone to spoil a bit...a pretty girl with gentle eyes and delicate hands, a face he could love, a body to keep him warm at night, and through friends he had met just such a young lady. He asked her to marry him within two months of the day they first met, and he began to build a remarkably handsome house for her. It was in the central portion of his land with a view that stretched as far as the eye could see, beneath four enormous trees that met in a huge, handsome natural arc, which would keep the house cool in summer. It was almost a palace he built, or so the locals thought. It had three floors, with two lovely parlors on the main floor, a wood- paneled dining room, a big cozy kitchen with a fireplace big enough for Jeremiah himself to stand up in. Upstairs there was a pretty little drawing room, a huge master suite, a solarium for his bride, and on the third floor six bedrooms for the large family they would have. There was no point having to redo the house as the children came. And Jennie had taken great delight in the housein the tall windows with their stained glass, the huge grand piano that she would play for him at night.
Except that she never did. She was struck by the epidemic of influenza that struck the valley in the autumn of 1868, and she died within three days of falling ill. For the first time in his life, Jeremiah's luck had failed him, and he mourned her as a mother would have a lost child. She had been just barely seventeen, and she would have been the perfect wife for him. He rattled around in his house like a marble in a shoe box for a while, and then in despair he closed it up and went back to the shack he had lived in before, but he was no longer comfortable there, so in the spring of 1869, he moved into the house he had planned to share with Jennie.... Jennie...he couldn't bear to wander through the rooms he had destined for her, couldn't bear to think of what it would have been like if she had lived there. He had visited her parents often at first, but he couldn't stand seeing his own pain mirrored in their eyes, or the hungry way her less attractive older sister looked at him. Eventually, he closed up the rooms he didn't use, and he seldom, if ever, went to the second or third floors. He grew used to living on the main floor. Somehow, Jeremiah managed to make the two rooms he used look like his old shack. He turned one of the parlors into a bedroom for himself, and never bothered to furnish any of the other rooms. The grand piano had never been used once since it had been touched by Jennie's hands on the day it arrived. He opened the enormous kitchen, where he ate, occasionally with some of his men when they came by to see him. He liked eating with his men, liked knowing that they felt comfortable about stopping by. There was nothing grand or standoffish about him. He remembered from whence he had come, from a cold, desperately poor little house in the East, shivering all winter long, wondering if they would have enough to eat, over the trails and the Rockies to the West, to the rivers, and the dirt, and the mines, working at his father's side. And if he had a fortune now, it was thanks to his hard work and that of his father. It wasn't something Jeremiah forgot, or ever would...just as he never forgot Jennie...never forgot a friend. He had never been tempted to marry again, as the years slid by. Somehow, no matter how appealing a young girl was, she never seemed quite as sweet as Jennie had, or quite as much fun...for years he had remembered the sound of her laughter, her gasps of delight as he showed her the progress on the house. It had delighted him to build it for her, like a monument to their love, and after she died it meant nothing to him. He let the paint chip, the roof leak in the unused rooms, he used every dish and pot and pan he had until there was none clean, and they said that the parlor in which he slept looked no better than a barn. Until Hannah arrived. It was she who changed everything, and cleaned the place up for him.
"Look at this house, boy!" She had glared at him in disbelief when he brought her from the mine to show her around. He still wasn't quite sure what to do with her, but she was determined to come to work for him. She had nothing else to do now that her husband was dead, and Jeremiah needed her, or so she told him. "What are you, a pig?" He had laughed at the outraged look on her face. He hadn't had anyone to mother him in almost twenty years, and so at twenty- six, he was amused to suddenly have Hannah. She had started working for him the next day, and he had come home that night to find the rooms he used spotless and neat, almost distressingly so, and in an effort to make a niche for himself again, he had strewn some of his papers around the room, dropped cigar ashes on the rug, inadvertently knocked over a glass of wine. By morning it looked like home to him again, much to Hannah's dismay. "I'm going to handcuff you to the well if you don't behave yourself, boy, and take that damn cigar out of your face, you're dropping ashes on your suit!" She had pried it from his lips and dropped it in the remains of the previous night's wine as Jeremiah gaped, but he was a good match for her. He provided an inexhaustible supply of ashes and disorder and filth, which gave her a constant supply of work. She felt needed for the first time in years, and he felt loved for the first time in longer than that, and by Christmas of that first year they were an inseparable pair. She came to work every day, and refused to take a day off.... "Are you crazy? Do you know what kind of a mess I'd find after two days of not being here? No, sir, you're not keeping me out of this house for a day...not for an hour, you hear?"
She was tough with him, but there were hot meals when he came home, his sheets were immaculate, his house perfectly kept. Even the rooms he didn't use were spotlessly maintained, and when he brought home a dozen men from the mine to discuss some new plan to expand, or just to drink the wines made from the grapes he grew, she never complained, no matter how drunk they got, or how vile. And in time, Jeremiah teased her mercilessly about her devotion to him, and loved her more than he ever had anyone...except Jennie, of course...Hannah was wise enough never to ask him about her. But when he was thirty she finally began to hound him about finding a wife. "I'm too old, Hannah, and no one else cooks as well as you." To which she hotly replied, "Bull." She insisted that he needed a wife, a woman to love and bear him sons, but he no longer thought of it anymore. It was almost as though it frightened him, as though if he allowed himself to care about someone that much again, they might die, as Jennie had. He didn't want to think of it, or to build up his hopes. The wound of Jennie's death no longer pained him as it had for years. It was over now, and he was comfortable as he was. "And when you die, Jeremiah?" The old woman would look pointedly at him. "Then what? Who do you leave it all to?"
"You, Hannah, who else?" He would tease and she would shake her head.
"You need a wife...and babies...." But he disagreed. He had no desire whatsoever for anything different than he had. He was comfortable as he was, he had the biggest mines in the state, land that he loved, vineyards with which he was well pleased, a woman he slept with every Saturday night, and Hannah to keep his house neat. He liked the men who worked for him, he had friends in San Francisco he saw from time to time, and when he needed excitement he went on trips to the East, he had even been to Europe a few times. He needed absolutely nothing else, and certainly not a wife. He had Mary Ellen to meet those needs, once a week at least, and he smiled as he thought of her. Tomorrow he would go to see her after he left the mines...just as he always did.... He would leave the mines at noon, after locking up the safe himself, there was almost no one there on Saturday, and he would ride to Calistoga and let himself into the tiny house. Years before he had been cautious about being seen, but they were no secret anymore, hadn't been in years, and she had long since hardened herself to what people said. It was none of their business what they said anyway, he had told her that himself, although it was a little more complicated than that, but not much now. And then he would stretch out in front of the fire, and look at the copper in her hair, or they would sit in the swing in her backyard, looking up at the big elm, hidden by the hedge, and he would hold her and
"Jeremiah!" Hannah's voice broke into his reverie. The sun was lost behind the hill and there was suddenly a chill in the air. "Damn, boy! Don't you hear when I call?" He grinned at her, she treated him as though he were five years old, instead of forty-three.
"Sorry...I was thinking of something else."...Someone else...he looked into Hannah's wizened old face with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Trouble with you is you don't think at all...don't listen...don't hear...."
"Maybe I'm getting deaf, ever think of that? I'm almost old enough."
"Maybe so." The twinkle in his eyes was met by the fire in hers. She was a feisty old woman, and he loved her that way. She had been giving him a bad time for years, and he counted on it. It was part of her charm, and an essential part of the banter between them. But now her face looked serious as she looked down at him from the porch. "There's trouble at the Harte mines. Have you heard?"
Jeremiah's brows knit in an answering frown. "No. What happened? Fire?" It was their greatest dread, all of them, they worked so closely with fire, and it could so easily explode into a costly disaster in the mines, taking countless lives as it ran wild. Jeremiah hated to think of it. But Hannah shook her head.
"They're not sure. Influenza, they think, but it could be something else. It's running like wildfire over there." She hated to tell him that, hated to stir up the memories of Jennie, no matter how long ago it vas. Her voice was gentle as she went on. "John Harte lost his wife today...and his little girl...and they say the boy is hard hit too, he may not live the night...." There was a look of pain on Jeremiah's face as he turned away. He lit a cigar, stared silently into the night, and then turned to Hannah again. "They've close