She were named for a cow, said the miner. Leaning back, he propped his heels against the beds brass footboard. His bunion, inflamed and swollen, generated a somewhat noxious odor.
Sixteen-year-old Bertha Smith gazed toward the paying gent who filled her rocking chair, then pursed her lips in a soundless whistle. Youre funning me, Perfessor.
Aint horsin around, he said seriously, unaware that hed punned. A cow wandered cross our crick an took one hell of a spill.
Tsk, tsk, poor critter. Clothed in chemise and patched petticoat, Bertha perched on the edge of her thin mattress. She was left-handed, so she clutched a wooden egg in her right hand. A whore didnt have to darn socks, or bake cookies, or even listen good, but gents forked out extra for those domestic skills.
Yep, that dangfool cow broke her leg, Perfessor continued, an there was this rancher that seen the cow fall. Guess what he called the crick, Blueberry?
She stared with her large eyes whose color had led to her nickname. Reckon youll have to tell me, sir.
He called it Cripple Crick, Blueberry. Get it?
Unable to endure the bunions stench any longer, she rose, stretched, then handed Perfessor a bottle of beer. He reached into his trouser pocket for a small pouch filled with gold chips and stuffed it down the front of her bodice. The pouch felt warm against the rising swell of her breasts while the gold easily recompensed the half-hour atop her mattress, even though shed have to scrub the sheet beneath her quilt and she hated laundry chores almost as much as she hated sewing.
Perfessor tilted the brown bottle, gulped and swallowed. Bertha thought his saggy neck looked like a turkeys. Fearfully, she watched him glub-glub, certain hed drown if he didnt stop.
Drown? What a poppycockish notion!
Where was I, Blueberry?
There was this cowpuncher, Bobby Womack. Bobby named the place where your crib now sets, called it Poverty Gulch. Then he found him some gold. Know what happened next? Tell me. Bertha returned to her former position and again wiggled the needle in and out, in and out, trying to achieve the small neat stitches her friend Minta had taught her.
Bobby sold his claim for five hundred dollars, girl, a spit in the bucket.
Whyd Bobby do that?
He were drunk an folks funned him for braggin bout gold. Nobody never believed him.
She glanced down at the wooden egg, pictured a chicken coop, then heard the echo of Geordies voice. Had me a dream what told me to leave. I held a shiny nugget in my hand. Gold, as big as one of them hen eggs.
You promised youd come back, she whispered.
Blueberry, you say somethin?
You looked all white-ish, like you seen a ghost.
I, uh, spied a spider creepy-crawling cross the floor, she fibbed. Big hairy critter.
Ill stomp it for ya. Nope. Better not. My bunionll get gooey. His brow puckered. Dang! Where was I?
Bobby sold his claim cheap, she said, sewing faster, hoping to erase the image of a gooey spider.
Yep. The whiskey made him dumber than that ol cow what broke her leg. Womack sold his claim to Julias Myers and Horace Bennett. Perfessor paused to glub-glub his beer. Thats why our streetsre called Myers an Bennett. Guess what happened next, girl?
Ouch! Bertha pricked her finger and dropped the egg.
Ill tell ya, Blueberry. Perfessor slanted a quick glance toward his boots, which slumped, like dozing sentries, against the shantys front door. Dont stop sewin. My toesre as cold as a privy seat in wintertime. Them Denver gents went an named the town Cripple Crick. She were named fer a cow. What dya think of that?
I think you tell a good story, sir.
Rising to his feet, Perfessor strutted like a rooster. It aint that I can story good, he said with a snaggletooth grin. You listen good, Blueberry.
She heard a voice in her head. I want you to listen good. Im traveling to Colorado to find me some gold.
Bertha handed her guest his mended sock, then replaced the egg in the bottom of her leather-thonged chest. Perfessor looked prideful, and she was glad he hadnt understood that she didnt give a damn about his stupid cow.
The first time she had heard the Cripple Creek tale, shed thought poor cow. By the time she had listened twenty or thirty times, poor cow had given way to poor Bertha.
Oh, she realized full well what it meant to be crippled, Bertha did, because her own left leg and foot had turned sideways since birth. Her pelvis jutted, her spine curved, and she had the power to predict bad weather cause the hurt was real bad whenever rain or snow threatened.
Apart from her foot, she was pretty, even though Bertha believed that pretty was as pretty does, and what she did wasnt pretty. Yet men seemed to favor her annoyingly oversized breasts; unless tightly fettered, they jiggled when she walked. Her rounded hips and tiny wasp waist were the fashion, but Bertha didnt know that.
She also didnt know that her face possessed a pair of eyes whose vivid tincture very nearly surpassed description. Some said Blueberrys eyes resembled a cloudless summer sky. Men who had traveled and seen oceans remarked on that colorful similarity. A poetic youth claimed her eyes looked like the trim on the plates and saucers in the dining room of the Continental Hotel, and he was close.
Geordie put it best. He said her eyes were the color of the wild blueberries that grew in the deepest woods, and he had nicknamed her Berry.
Eyes closed, her face resembled a full moon capped by midnight hair. Eyes open, her face was mesmerizing—part ragamuffin, part prostitute, all woman.
Berry, gather your things together, Geordie had said. Were leaving.
She had heard the very same words a few months before, when the sound of breaking glass had been the cackle of chickens.
Behind her closed eyelids, Bertha pictured the West Kansas farm, its pitiful acres furrowed for seed, dependent on weather that was not too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold; her father, bent and gnarled from plowing, looking like Moses on the Mount, holding a plow handle instead of a biblical staff.
Her mother lived inside a picture frame.
Bertha had been born on July 4, 1876. It was Centennial celebration Day. But nobody on the farm cared about the American Revolution a hundred years prior to that windy Kansas afternoon, except ten-year-old Geordie. He lit home-made firecrackers to honor both Bertha and the United States of America, shortly after Jubilation Smith severed his wifes umbilical cord, muttered, Shit, its a girl, then returned to his plowing.
Following the difficult labor and delivery, Berthas mama rose from her soiled bedding, cooked dinner for her husband, christened her daughter with tepid water from the well, changed the bloody bed linen, curled up again on the mattress, and died as the sun rose the next morning.
Bertha was fed and clothed, but she had the gut feeling that Pa wished she were a boy. Or a mule. Or a tick on a mule. Or a sunspot on a tick on a mule.
In 1887, the preachers wife told Bertha about something called Christmas. So she tied her only hair ribbon to a clump of pigweed, found her dead mamas handkerchief, and sewed Baby Jesus. Then she laughed and cried when Geordie gave her a baby turkey, a Christmas present. She named it Noah. For several months she brushed its wing bar and crooned hymns, but the name turned out to be prophetic. Noah died in a thunderstorm. Geordie said Noah was trampled by other dithered fowl. Pa said he saw the turkey glub-glub the raindrops and drown.
Geordie plucked feathers, Pa chomped Noahs drumstick, Bertha threw-up inside the privy, and that was the end of Christmas.
A month after Bertha had silently celebrated her fifteenth birthday, on a hot dusty August afternoon, Geordie found his sister outside the coop. She tossed feed, reaching from the gathered apron that covered her dress.
Bertha owned two dresses; gingham for summer and gray serge for winter. Even at age fifteen, her body had developed rich curves, and today the brown cotton fabric stretched across her bosom. Perspiration stained the neckline and created half-circles under her arms. She had inherited her mamas long black skirt and white high-necked blouse with real lace trim, but she kept that freshly washed and ironed, ready for Sunday church.
Come to say good-bye, Geordie muttered, not meeting his sisters eyes.
Here, chick. Chick, chick, chick. Here, chick.
Im twenty-five, and I aint hardly been off this place. Dont you be shutting your ears like Pas stubborn mule; I want you to listen good. Im traveling to Colorado to find me some gold.
Here, chick. Bertha drew circles in the dirt with her bare toes.
Ill come back, I promise. When Im rich with gold, Ill come back and bring you jewels. Blue stones the color of your eyes, and red doodads plucked from the color of a setting sun, and white sparkle-gems that look like nighttime stars.
Here, chick. Chick, chick, chick.
Please give me your blessing.
Gotta feed these here chicks, then serve our dinner. Baked some fresh buttermilk biscuits and ham.
Had a dream what told me to leave. I held a shiny nugget in my hand. Gold, as big as one of them eggs. In my dream, a voice said, Time to git, George Smith.
Despite their age difference, Bertha was the same height as her brother. She met his pleading gaze, and her eyes seemed to grow until they filled her whole face. Lips aquiver, she said, A dream aint truth. Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheeps clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Did a false prophet come in the night, Geordie? Did he wear sheeps wool?
Taught you reading and writing from the Bible, and now you throw them same words in my face. Reaching out with one hand, he wiped away Berthas tumbling teardrops. Aw, Berry.
Biscuitsre fluffy, and I cut the fat off the ham. You dont hanker to eat fat. Heard you say how its like chewing a piggys wet shirt collar.
All right. You can tag along.
Her eyes lit up like twin candle flames, but her full lips still quivered. If Pa catches us, hell whup me good. It pleasures Pa to pull down my drawers and belt my be-hind. I seen his face once, and it made me all goose-bumpy, so I told the preacher, but the preacher says Pas in the right.
That preacher dont know his ass from his...sermon. Why aint you told me bout Pa?
She cringed at his angry tone. I done something wrong, Geordie?
No! Lord, no! He took a deep breath. Berry, gather your things together. Were leaving.
Hand and hand, brother and sister walked away from the farm. It took them seven weeks to trudge the almost four hundred miles to Denver, stopping along the way to work for their food, repairing a fence here, whitewashing a house there. At night they huddled out in the open. Sometimes they were given the hospitality of a hayloft. Days were soft, yellow, and Geordie said the air smelled like just-washed, sun-dried clothes. But evenings were already touched with autumns chill.
They spent three days at the farm of a friendly widow whose brood of children reminded Bertha of the chickens she had left behind on Pas struggling acres. The children pecked round her body while Geordie disappeared into the widows bedroom. Afterwards, his eyes looked happy.
When they finally reached Denver, Geordie found employment working for a man named Tiny, who owned a saloon.
A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance, Geordie told Bertha the second night, after he had swept the sawdust-strewn barroom floor, emptied spittoons, washed down privies, and hauled a few drunk customers to their horses.
Your countenance aint so cheery, she said, thinking that her brother was aging faster than their rose-patterned wallpaper. The roses had once been pink, but now they looked like Noahs denuded skin before he got cooked.
This aint what I dreamed, Geordie confessed a week later, entering the closet-sized room they shared and sitting on the edge of their bed. Never mind, Berry. When weve saved enough money, well move on.
It aint so bad. Steamy fingers seemed to reach out and pinch Berthas plump cheeks as she scrubbed at her gingham dress, pushing it against the side of the wash tub. Geordies other shirt soaked in the same tub.
Aw, you never leave this here room, cept to empty the chamber pot and lug water upstairs. You aint even said a howdy to the others. You bake Tinys bread in the dead of night, then spend most of the day reading Mamas Bible.
Theres a flower growing, right there in the woody walk. Bertha waved her dripping hands outside the one small window. Come look at my flower, Geordie. Its got no sunshine or water, but its growing just the same. Ive seen it nod howdy.
He joined her at the window. That aint no flower, Berry. That theres a weed.
After two weeks, Geordie seriously considered taking his chances and moving on. He had planned to stay the winter and save his wages. Work was hard to come by, especially since Denver overflowed with other men trying to earn money for trail supplies.
Ive been dang lucky to find work at Tinys, he thought, fingering a nugget in his pocket. Geordie knew the nugget of pyrite had no value—the miners called it fools gold—but he kept it as a talisman.
Sissies the problem, he thought, sweeping the barroom floor with a worn-out broom. Berry didnt belong among the drunks and whores. She was like that weed stuck between the planks of the sidewalk, trying to grow without water or sunshine.
Inside the saloon it was difficult to distinguish day and night. The bartender, Manitou Pete, spit on his rag and polished glasses; he had just finished cooking breakfast for Tiny. Redeye, the saloons mangy cat, stalked a fat sassy mouse. Tiny sopped up the last of a dozen fried eggs with a half loaf of Berthas fresh-baked bread, then gulped down his ale. Wiping the foam from his dripping mustache with the back of his hand, he turned toward Geordie and said, Dora left for the gold fields this morning, and were short some girls. You wifes got a fine shape. Can she serve or sing?
She aint my wife. Startled, Geordie stopped sweeping and stared at his boss. Tiny had a rough shaggy beard that surrounded a neck the size of a tree trunk, and he was seven feet tall in his boots. Even sitting, the mans stomach spread like a wagon wheel. Shes my sister, sir.
Well, fancy that, Tiny muttered. His eyes were round shoe buttons. His nose flared at the base and tufts of hair, like pieces of tumbleweed, grew from his nostrils. His ears were so big, they resembled the flaps on a knapsack, and his hands could heft twelve steins. Can she serve or sing?
She can sing. The saloon had a raised platform behind a tinkling piano, which gave the performing girls some protection from drunk customers. And if Berry earned enough coins, they could leave for the gold fields that much sooner.
Bertha was horrified. Sing in front of all them men? I cant.
Sure you can, Weed. They aint listening for your voice. Just move around and smile. Manitou Pete told me bout some lady named Little Egypt. She twists her belly... he demonstrated ... and folks call her dance the coochie-coochie.
Maybe I can dance coochie-coochie, Geordie, but I aint never sung nothing cept hymns. And dont call me Weed!
The piano player gave me words writ on paper he calls sheep music.
Bertha pictured the preachers wife at the organ while several sheep stood on their hind legs, singing Baa, my Lord, baa, baa, baa. Sheep music, Geordie?
I was only funning. Its called sheet music, and all you gotta do is learn the words proper. You can wear Doras dress. Its right here. Aint it purty? All colored red and yella. As yella as your hair.
Berthas face lit up like sunshine after a storm. My hair aint yella, Geordie, its black.
Why, tis holy truth, Weed. Black as the preachers carriage. Hard to tell in this dark room.
Do I have to sing, Geordie?
Yep. When youre real good, the men throw coins. Do try. Please?
Doras dress was loose at the hips and waist, yet it strained the seams on top so that Berthas breasts threatened to rise and overflow, like loaves of bread cooked with too much yeast. The red and yellow skirt swirled above her knees, gathering into a bustle where exaggerated daisy petals flopped backwards. Black net stockings sheathed her thighs and calves, ending in heeled button shoes which she stuffed with newspaper cause they were too big.
Tiny had decided shed sing in the afternoon for practice, then join the other performers at the highly-touted nighttime show.
At first Berthas twisted foot and curved spine made her appear graceless, but the customers didnt seem to mind, drawn to her bodice as she lifted her arms toward heaven and wrung her hands. Watching from the back of the room, Geordie grinned. His little weed of a sister wriggled her flounce-covered bottom like a friendly sparrow at a birdbath, yet she looked so different from the others. Despite her bouncing breasts and husky voice, her innocent joy stilled the mens usual obscenities. Everybody stared beyond the smoking stage lanterns, and even the gamblers soon forgot their games.
This here, said Bertha, rotating her tummy in ever widening circles, is called the coochie-coochie.
A man yelled, Seen Little Egypt hootchy-kootchy in Chicago. Swear to Christ this young uns better.
A shower of coins, like heavy chicken feed, rained upon the platform boards. Bertha joyfully limped and pranced about the stage. The lusty crowd roared its approval. One gambler wended his way through the tables, bowed low, and tossed her the carnation from his jacket lapel. Bertha curtsied prettily several times, then threw both a kiss and the flower toward Geordie. When the applause had died down, she collected her coins, left the stage, ascended the stairs, then entered her bedroom. Struggling to get free from her tight bodice, she managed to wriggle the material down to her waist.
That was fine, dearie, said Tiny, stepping from the rooms corner.
It was late afternoon, the sun still shining. But with only one wee window for light, the room stayed gloomy, so Bertha hadnt seen Tiny before. With a gasp, she grabbed a blanket and held it against her breasts.
Tiny licked his lips and pushed her gently but firmly onto the bed.
He looks like Goliath, she thought, sitting up. What are you doing, Mr. Tiny? she squeaked.
This is the last part of your performance. You pleasure me good and I let you keep all your wages.
Geordie didnt say... I didnt know... Rising, she scooped money from the top of the bureau and held it out with one hand. Take the coins, sir.
Tiny groped at his trouser buttons. I dont want your coins, missy. I want you.
But I dont want you, she blurted, and instantly knew it was the wrong thing to say. Tinys eyes squinted like a bag of nails. He twisted her wrist above the bureau until she dropped the coins. Then he pushed her, this time roughly, onto the bed.
Touch her and Ill kill you! Geordie stood just inside the open doorway. Berry, gather your things together. Were leaving.
No, you aint. Tinys voice was a guttural growl. I thought her your wife, so shes been living here outta the goodness of my heart. Now I mean to git paid.
Ive been working for both of us and you know it!
Git outta here, boy!
Geordie looked around for a weapon. He dug in his pocket until he encountered his lucky nugget, then threw the small piece of rock at Tiny.
Instead of being felled, the giant simply ran his thumb across the scratch on his forehead. With an ugly grimace, he picked Geordie up by the shoulders and hurled him against the wall. There was a loud thunk. Geordie crumpled like an accordion, bleeding from a gash in his scalp. A bright trickle of blood dripped from his nose and mouth, gathering into a crimson puddle.
Abandoning the bed, Bertha scrambled across the room on her knees, then tugged at her brothers shirt. Geordie, open your eyes and say something. You can call my purty flower a weed. You can call me Weed. Please?
Tiny yanked at a scalloped mirror attached to the scarred bureau, then held the glass above Geordies slack lips. Shit! He aint breathing.
Geordie, Bertha pleaded, grasping her brothers hand, move your fingers and wave howdy.
Bejesus, you idiot, hes dead!
He cant be dead. He promised—
Shut up! Tiny flung the mirror at an opposite wall, where it shattered with an explosive sound.
Dropping Geordies hand, Bertha crawled backwards. Splinters of glass tore her black net stockings, leaving small gashes in her knees. She was unaware of the pain. Her fingers closed around a jagged shard the size of a long comb. Standing, arms flailing, she attacked Tiny.
Stopitbitch! The howl emerged as one word.
You killed my brother, Ill kill you back! Bertha cried.
Tiny pushed her away, then changed his mind and rushed toward her. His boot caught in Geordies legs and he lost his balance. Teetering back and forth, he fell rumpward, landing with a thud that shook the floorboards. He tried to rise, but his hands slipped on a patch of Geordies blood.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, chanted Bertha, as she carved a smile across Tinys throat. He sputtered, gurgled, then lay motionless, his neck sliced like a Christmas turkeys.
She placed two of her coins on Geordies eyes. Tiny stared toward the ceiling, sightless, but Bertha chose to leave his eyes open, unprotected.
Ill feed the chicks and cook piggy meat, she cried incoherently, shoving her few pieces of clothing into the carpetbag satchel that also contained her mothers ruby earbobs and Bible. Instinctively, she added her brothers money pouch and the coins from her performance.
I forgot to bury Geordie, she thought, dropping her satchel, turning round and round in small circles. Spying her brothers lucky nugget, she scooped it up, fell to her knees, and dug at the floor boards.
A womans high-pitched laughter sounded from the hallway. Bertha ceased her frantic motions, thinking how she had to get away fast. She had killed a man. They would kill her back.
In her head, she heard Geordies voice: Run, Berry!
She pulled the ruined stockings from her legs, replacing them with cotton. She tried to re-attach her dance dress bodice, but couldnt close the tight material without help, so she thrust her feet inside her shoes and slipped her gingham gown over her head. Then, ignoring the back buttons, she fled.
After descending the staircase, she awkwardly rebounded off tables and chairs. Somebody yelled, Coochie, girl!
Others joined in. Coochie-coochie, coochie-coochie.
Pasting a smile on her face, Bertha rotated her tummy. At the same time, she maneuvered toward the entrance. Then she curtsied and limped through the swinging front doors.
Her feet lurched over the planked sidewalk, her left leg pivoting in an arc. Rounding the corner, she halted, unable to take another step. Her calves crinked, her sides stitched, her bosom heaved, and she couldnt seem to get enough air.
Im snuffed out, Geordie, she whimpered.
Then she felt a warm breath on her exposed back where the dress material hung open.
I aint the devil, child.
Bertha heard only two words—devil child. She scrambled to her feet, made an about-face, then stared at the man clothed in a red plaid shirt, blue denim overalls, and a floppy brown hat that matched the color of his curly beard. Next to the man stood a grayish-brown animal whose fuzzy ears pitched forward, as if he favored Berthas psalm. The critter brayed, pushed its nose toward her, and this time its warm breath misted her gingham bodice.
Why, its a mule, she gasped.
Clementine aint no mule, said the man. A mules the get of a female hoss and a male ass, and it cant make no babies. Clems a burro.
The man kept talking, but Bertha didnt hear him. She pictured a room filled with Tiny, and instinctively her hand closed about an invisible shard of mirror.
The burro hee-hawed.
That sound, so different from Tinys growl, cleared the shadowy saloon images from her head. Opening her fingers, she stared at the blood stains. Might there be some place close by where I can wash my hands, sir?
The man pointed toward a trough. Bertha limped over to it, stared down at the water, and saw Geordies face, anxious with love and caring. But he vanished when she plunged her hands beneath the troughs scummy top layer.
Dry em off on Clementine, child.
Stroking the burros neck, Bertha said, She sure did scare me.
Not half so bad as you scared us, rounding that corner like you was being blown by a kite-wind. You never even seen me and him come after you.
Him? Clementines a girls name, aint it?
Yep. Mwife named him from a mining song. She only knew the front line and she had one uncle called Clem, so she christened our burro for the song and her kin. Clementine dont mind none, long as hes got food and kindness. Names dont matter.
Names dont matter, Bertha repeated. Whyd you call me a devil child?
Huh? He scratched behind his ear with one hand, behind Clementines ear with the other, then his face brightened. I said I werent the devil, child, though mwife might disagree. I do beg your pardon for Clem. Hes never seen a gals nekkid back and thought it might be fun to snuffle skin.
Bertha felt sudden heat bake her cheeks. My shimmys in my satchel, she murmured, reaching behind her back for the open buttons on her gown.
Here, let me help.
She flinched, but forced herself to stand still. The man stopped at her waistband, unable to fasten the last few buttons.
Lordy, I disremembered to take my dance dress off, she yelped. Geordied say Im a caterpillar putting butterfly wings atop my old skin before it sheds.
Wriggling the dance costume free from beneath her gingham skirt, she kicked it away, where it heaped on the walk, yella as Geordies lucky nugget, red as Tinys blood. She waited for the bearded man to ask questions and tensed her tired body to run, praying that her crimpy leg would support the attempt. But the man simply scooped up the dress and stuffed it inside his knapsack.
Whyd you do that, sir? she asked.
No use letting good cloth go to waste. Ill hand it over to mwife.
Wont your wife wonder where you got it?
Yep. Keep her on her toes, it will, and she can use the scraps to stitch fairy-tale britches for my young uns.
Whats a fairy-tale?
A story that ends happy. Aint you heard fairy-tales? When she shook her head, he said, Whos Geordie?
My brother which art in heaven.
Theyll find Tiny and Geordie, thought Bertha. The law could say it were a fight and they killed each other, but I left coins on Geordies eyes. Thatll mean I was there, and theyll come looking for me. She tried to swallow, and knew how Noah felt when he drowned on the raindrops.
The man looked like he was still fretting over fairy-tales. Wheres your ma and pa, child?
Never had me no ma.
And your pa?
Pa favored my cooking and my be-hind. Geordie said I done nothing wrong, she added anxiously.
The late afternoon sun was in the mans eyes, so Bertha couldnt read his expression. Circling her waist, he hoisted her atop Clementine, already loaded with frying pans, coffee pot, bedroll, and double knapsacks.
What are you d-doing, s-sir? she sputtered.
I want to leave before darkness falls, and its falling quick, like the curtain on a bad stage play.
You gonna give me to your wife along with the dress?
He laughed. The sound started in his boots, rose to his chest, and boomed through the air like the noise of a thunderstorm.
Not hardly, he said.
What should I do, Geordie? Does this laughing man mean to harm me?
She pictured the long walk to Denver, and knew that, even without her lame leg, a return journey would be impossible. Watching a vee of geese, she thought: Wish I were a birdie. Then she wove her fingers through Clementines shaggy mane. Whats your name, sir, if you dont mind my asking?
I dont mind. Its John Templeton, but friends call me Whiskey Johnnie. Im headed for a mining town, Cripple Creek, where Ive been panning for gold.
You drink lots of whiskey?
Cant touch a drop. Thats why folks call me Whiskey Johnnie.
Dont believe I figure that.
People seem to favor the opposite. It makes the truth more fun somehow. Long time ago I lived in Texas where exaggerating comes natural. In them days I could drink from sundown to sunup, cept Id get so durn drunk theyd say I couldnt hit the ground with my hat in three throws. In them days they called me John. Didnt add the whiskey part till I couldnt drink no more. Whats your name, child?
Names dont matter.
True. But I gotta call you something.
Call me Berry.
Hang on, young Berry. Giddyap, Clementine.
Outside Denver, Whiskey Johnnie made camp by the side of the trail. Bertha was so tired and stiff, she slid from the burros back, then fell to the ground. She tried to rise, but her head felt twisty, like a Kansas tornado she had once seen. Geordie had said the tornados swirly winds were rings of smoke from a giants corncob pipe.
Giant. Tiny. Bertha shuddered.
Whiskey Johnnie picked her up and propped her against a tree. Whens the last time you et, child?
Cant recollect for sure. I was gonna cook piggy meat and bury Geord...Noah...
Never mind. He fetched out a packet from his knapsack and handed her some hardtack. I et me a huge dinner in Denver, Berry, so its all yours.
She bit and chewed, but couldnt get it down. My bellys still doing coochie-coochie, she thought, hiding the biscuit beneath a clump of brush.
Meanwhile, Whiskey Johnnie had tethered Clementine and returned with his bedroll. Ive only got one blanket, so we gotta share.
Id favor sleeping neath that there other tree, sir.
I wont touch you. If you disbelieve me, you can tether my hands together.
Durn, I was only funning. Lie down, Berry, and Ill sing you a lullaby.
Youre funning me again, sir. Cradles dont sing.
A few hours later, she tugged at Whiskey Johnnies shirt.
Geordie, she whimpered, you can call me Weed and say my hairs yella.
Hush, little un, go back to sleep.
She pressed her head against Johnnies chest, like a broody hen nestled into its own feathers. Geordie had him a dream. He saw a nugget big as an egg, but it was only fools gold.
Sleep, Berry. Theres peace of soul with the dark.
Geordie promised hed come back. He promised.
Gazing up at the sky, Bertha heard her brothers words: Ill bring you white sparkle-gems that look like nighttime stars.
But the sky was as black as her hair. Black as the preachers carriage. Black.
Wont your wife wonder where youre at? Bertha asked, whomping wet clothes against the rocks of a nearby stream.
Johnnie sat at a distance, on the bank, fishing for speckled trout. Mwifell be mad as a bull tangled in a clothesline, but I brung her gifts from Denver.
Gifts? Bertha pictured the red and yella dance dress.
He gestured toward his gear. I was lucky at the gaming tables. The coins I won should keep us going yet a while. Ive brung shoes, thread for sewing, and lots of store-bought soap.
Ive got coins, Johnnie.
Keep your money, Berry, he said gruffly. The fishing string tugged and he fell plop into the water, while the music of her giggles filled the air.
Indian summer warmed the stream and allowed Bertha to bathe her bruised knees, if not her bruised soul. The Chinook wind swirled tinted leaves from tree branches, and the wild sarsaparilla stems nodded hopefully toward a sky that ranged from the deepest blue to the lightest green.
Am I to live with you, Johnnie? Bertha sat close to the fire, braiding her hair, preparing for sleep.
Live with me? Not hardly. Mwifes got a heart as big as the rest of her, but shes also got our five young uns to care for.
I could help.
It aint that. Weve barely got enough to feed em all, and my gambling windfall should only just carry us through the winter months.
I wont eat much.
Berry, mwife aint too fond of me right now. She didnt want me to gallyvant off to Denver, and swore shed be gone when I got back. Dont figure shed truly leave, but I cant gift her a pretty gal along with the soap and thread.
I aint purty.
Texans would say you was pretty as a red heifer in a flower bed.
I aint purty, Bertha repeated stubbornly. Whatll I do when you get us there, Johnnie?
He shrugged, then added kindling to the fire. Clementine brayed at the sudden flash of light. I seen you running, like a sheep culled from the herd for supper, so I acted quick and didnt think that far ahead.
How do the other girls earn their keep? She watched him poke at the fire with a forked stick. Aint there no other girls, Johnnie?
Theres gals, Berry. Some are wives, like mine. He grinned. Fact, mwifes the size of two or three gals put together. But the others...give relief.
Relief? Like a physic for the belly ache?
Johnnies booming laugh seemed to set the moon spinning. Guess you could call it medicine, he gasped between chuckles. Berry, in Cripple Creek theres whats called parlor houses and crib houses. Whores live there. They bare their, uh, chests, and spread their legs, and lay with a feller for wages.
I could be one of them whores if I learned me their ways, she said eagerly. Wont you teach me how to pleasure a feller?
No. He lowered his head and pushed at the fire, until his stick broke in half. Youre too dear, like one of my young uns.
Leaping to her feet, she tugged at the straps of her shimmy. You gotta teach me, Johnnie. If you dont, Ill starve with my goodness. Theres only whores and wives in your town. I aint wed. The Bible says, Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.
Whores aint ants. Anyway, you was born wise.
No sir, that aint true. Geordie once said how the owls wise to fly through the night and hooty-hoot his song. I can hooty-hoot a song, Johnnie, but I cant fly. Wish I could.
He led her away from the fire, gently placed her on the bedroll, then pulled up her shimmy straps. Theres as many parlor and crib gals as fleas on a pup in summer, he said, thinking out loud. Sometimes, Berry, if you please a feller, hell up and marry you. I seen it happen lots. Youre pretty, yes you are, dont shake your head. And youre smart, not sassy. Maybe you can find a gentleman to wed.
A gentleman. She yawned and closed her eyes. Wont you learn me how to love with a gentleman?
Why not? thought Johnnie. Physic for the belly ache! He swallowed his chuckle.
I wish I had the coins to keep her safe, Lord, he said softly. Too bad I aint struck my gold vein, but thats up to you, Lord, though I do wish youd hurry.
He gazed down at the thick lashes shadowing Berrys plump cheeks. Her sweet mouth quivered with her slow breathing and Johnnie felt his own mouth tighten.
It aint my fault, Lord. I was just helping out a lost calf and meant no harm. I could teach her the ways of a whore, gentle her like Id train a bronc, but she aint no broom-tailed mustang, Lord.
Returning to the fire, Johnnie poured himself a mug of coffee, then stared toward the sleeping girl.
Look at her layin in the moonlight, Lord. Her dang straps fell again and what it shows dont belong to no child.
With a swift gesture, he threw his coffee into the flames, then listened to the hiss of wet wood.
Ive shared the bed of other gals, Lord. Mwife dont care if I stray from the barn every now and then, long as I dont touch spirits and kneel inside a church come Sunday. Ive lain with Minta and never felt the weight of m wifes skillet.
Minta. If he slipped Minta a few coins, maybe shed teach Berry the ways of survival. On the other hand, he could teach Berry and save his coins.
After checking Clementines tether, Johnnie hunkered down by the fire. Lets dicker, Lord. You help me get the child settled, and Ill leave her be. If mwife is waiting for me in Cripple Creek, he added for good measure, Ill never gallyvant off to Denver again. Amen.
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