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When daylight crested Siler’s Bald, I taken up my carpetbag and rifle and followed the Middle Prong toward Tuckalucky Cove.
“Echo,” Ma said, “if you be goin’ to the Settlements you better lay down that rifle-gun an’ set up a few nights with a needle.
“You take them Godey’s Lady’s Books the pack-peddler left with us and give them study. City folks dress a sight different than we-uns and you don’t want to shame yourself.”
There was money coming to us and I was to go fetch it home. Pa had wore hisself out scratchin’ a livin’ from a side-hill farm, and a few months back he give up the fight and “went west,” as the sayin’ was. We buried him yonder where the big oak stands and marked his place with letterin’ on a stone.
The boys were trappin’ beaver in the Shining Mountains far to the westward and there was nobody t’ home but Regal an’ me, and Regal was laid up. He’d had a mite of a set-to with a cross bear who didn’t recognize him for a Sackett. There’d been a sight of jawin’ an’ clawin’ before Regal stretched him out, Regal usin’ what he had to hand, a knife and a double-bit ax. Trouble was Regal got himself chawed and clawed in the doin’ of it and was in no shape for travel.
Me, I’d been huntin’ meat for the table since I was shorter than the rifle I carried and the last few years I’d killed so much I was sellin’ meat to the butcher. No sooner did I get a mite of money more’n what was needed than I began dreamin’ over the fancy fixin’s in Godey’s fashion magazine.
When a girl gets to be sixteen, it’s time she set her cap for a man but I’d yet to see one for whom I’d fetch an’ carry. Like any girl, I’d done a sight of dreamin’, but not about the boys along Fightin’ Creek or the Middle Prong. My dreams were of somethin’ far off an’ fancy. Part of that was due to Regal.
Regal was my uncle, a brother to Pa, and when he was a boy he’d gone off a-yonderin’ along the mountains to the Settlements. We had kinfolk down to Charleston and he visited there before continuing on his way. He told me of folks he met there, of their clothes, the homes they lived in, the theayters they went to an’ the fancy food.
Regal had been out among ’em in his time an’ I suspect he’d cut some fancy didoes wherever he went. Regal was tall, stronger than three bulls, and quick with a smile that made a girl tingle to her toes. Many of them told me that very thing, and although many a girl set her cap for Regal, he was sly to all their ways and wary of traps. Oh, he had a way with him, Regal did!
“Don’t you be in no hurry,” he advised me. “You’re cute as a button and you’ve got a nice shape. You’re enough to start any man a-wonderin’ where his summer wages went.
“You hold your horses. No need to marry up with somebody just because the other girls are doin’ it. I’ve been yonder where folks live different and there’s a better way than to spend your years churnin’ milk an’ hoeing corn. But one word of caution: don’t you be lettin’ the boys know how good you can shoot. Not many men would like to be bested by a spit of a girl not five feet tall!”
“I’m five-feet-two!” I protested.”
“You mind what I say. When you get down to the Settlements, you mind your P’s an’ Q’s. When a man talks to a girl, he’s not as honest as he might be, although at the time he half-believes it all himself. There’s times a man will promise a girl anything an’ forget his promises before the hour’s up.”
“Did you make promises like that, Regal?”
“No, I never. When a woman sees a man she wants, there’s no need to promise or even say very much. A woman will come up with better answers than any poor mountain boy could think up. I was kind of shy there at first, then I found it was workin’ for me so I just kept on bein’ shy.
“Womenfolks have powerful imaginations when it comes to a man, an’ she can read things into him he never knew was there, and like as not, they ain’t!”
Turning to look back, I could still see Blanket and Thunderhead Mountains and the end of Davis Ridge. It was clouding up and coming on to rain.
Philadelphia had more folks in it than I reckoned there was in the world. When I stepped down from the stage I made query of the driver as to where I was wishful of goin’ and he stepped out into the street and pointed the way.
“The place I was heading for was a rooming-and-boarding house kept by a woman who had kinfolk in the mountains. It was reckoned a safe place for a young girl to stay. Not that I was much worried. I had me an Arkansas toothpick slung in its scabbard inside my dress and a little slit pocket where I could reach through the folds to fetch it. In my carpetbag I carried a pistol.
Most unmarried folks and others who were married ate in boardinghouses, them days. Restaurants were for folks with money or for an evening on the town. Folks who worked in shops and the like hunted places where there was room an’ board, although some roomed in one place and boarded elsewhere.
Amy Sulky had twelve rooms to let but she set table for twenty-four. She had two setups for breakfast, one for noontime, as most carried lunches to their work or caught a snack nearby or from a street vendor. At suppertime she had two settin’s again.
I’d writ Amy so she knew I was comin’ and had kept a place for me. A nice room it was, too, mighty luxurious for the likes of me, with curtains to the windows, a rag rug on the floor, a bed, a chair, and a washstand with a white china bowl and pitcher on it.
First thing when I got to my room was take a peek past the curtain, and sure enough, the man who followed me from the stage was outside, makin’ like he was readin’ a newspaper.
When a girl grows up in Injun country hunting all her born days, she becomes watchful. Gettin’ down from the stage, I saw that man see me like I was somebody expected. Making a point of not seemin’ to notice, I started off up the street, but when I stopped at a crossing, I noticed him fold his newspaper and start after me.
Back in the high country folks said I was a right pretty girl, but that cut no figure here. Any girl knows when a man notices her because she’s pretty, but this man had no such ideas in mind. I’d hunted too much game not to know when I am hunted myself.
If he wasn’t followin’ because he liked my looks, then why? Anybody could see I wasn’t well-off. My clothes were pretty because I’d made them myself, but they weren’t fancy city clothes. As I didn’t look to be carryin’ money, why should he follow me?
My reason for coming to Philadelphia was to meet up with a lawyer and collect money that was due me. By all accounts it was a goodly sum, but who could know that?
Somebody might have talked too much. The lawyer himself or his clerk, if he had such a thing. Most folks like to talk and seem important. Given special knowledge, they can’t wait to speak of it.
The only reason I could think of for someone to follow me was because he knew what I’d come for and meant to have it.
Back yonder, folks warned of traps laid for young girls in the cities, but none of that worried me. I was coming to get money, and once I had it in hand, I was going right back where I came from. In my short years I’d had some going round and about with varmints, and although I hadn’t my rifle with me, I did have a pistol and my Arkansas toothpick. It was two-edged, razor-sharp, with a point like a needle. If a body so much as fell against that point, it would go in to the hilt, it was that sharp.
Amy Sulky set a good table. She seated me on her left and told folks I was a friend from Tennessee. The city folks at the table bowed, smiled, and said their howdy-dos.
There was a tall, straight woman with her hair parted down the middle who looked like she’d been weaned on a sour pickle, and there was a plump gentleman with muttonchop whiskers who gave me the merest nod and went back to serious eating. Seemed to me he figured he’d paid for his board and was going to be sure he got his money’s worth, and maybe his neighbor’s, too. Opposite me sat a quiet, serious-looking man with a bald head and a pointed beard. He was neat, attractive, and friendly. He asked if I intended to stay in the city and I told him I was leaving as soon as I’d done what I came for.
One thing led to another and I told him about us seeing that item about property left to the “youngest descendant of Kin Sackett.” I told him we’d found the notice in the Penny Advocate. It had come wrapped around some goods sold us by the pack peddler.