Volcanoes had piled up the hills, and the area presented a rough aspect of barren rocky ridges. Sudden valleys were marked by scrub trees and, in season, a wealth of wildflowers. Beneath the ground, a lusty devil dwelled, his penis erect. Sometimes he ejaculated gold.
When Whiskey Johnny and Bertha arrived, they were greeted by Amazing Grace. Several members of the Salvation Army stood outside Nolans Saloon.
Johnnie led Clementine down the crowded street, toward the bricked front of Johnsons Department Store. Set, Berry, he said. See that there gal with her geegaws? Soon youll be shopping at Johnsons. Dont move. Ill be back quickern a jackrabbit.
Bertha watched him walk toward some distant shacks. Then she bent forward, rested her face against Clementines furred neck, and closed her eyes.
Im scared, Geordie, she whimpered, and in her head she heard his reply.
Open your eyes, Berry. This aint Denver. See how the mountains try so hard to touch Gods feet? Youre safe now.
I might be safe, Geordie, but Im plumb scared.
You was scared to sing and look how good you done.
Whiskey Johnnie says theres whores here, so I gotta learn me a whores ways and find me a gentleman to wed.
Because you love with a feller on the outside, that dont make you bad inside.
Should I love with a feller on the outside?
Ignoring the sound of horse hooves, squeaky carriage wheels, booted feet, and the Salvation Armys tambourines, Bertha listened for Geordies answer. If he said no, shed starve with her goodness and be glad.
She waited a long time, but the only new sound she heard was the buzz of insects atop Clementines fresh dung.
Geordie, please dont leave me.
A hand gently clasped her shoulder. Bertha opened her eyes and sat up straight.
Weve been dang lucky, Berry, said Johnnie. Leo the Lion owns them Poverty Gulch cribs, and ones empty cause a whore married sudden-like.
Did she wed her a gentleman, Johnnie?
Could be. He cleared his throat. I need your sack of coins to pay the rent, young un. Giddyap, Clementine.
The flimsy shanty fronted Myers Avenue. It sagged, but there were no gaps in the planked walls and the peaked roof, with its black stovepipe poking out, didnt look like it would leak too bad. The nicest thing was that the window panes had real glass rather than paper.
Its mine, Bertha thought with pride, and itll do just fine till I find me a gentleman.
Weve been lucky, Johnnie said again, leading her inside. That gal what lived here left furniture and pretties. See? Youve got sheets, towels, and a pillow.
Bertha strolled around the small room, touching, in turn, the bed, hand-hewn rocker, wood and leather-thonged trunk, and a frilly window curtain.
Outside, she leaned against the door, waving until Clementines whisked tail disappeared from view. Then she walked forward, made an about-face, and studied her new home. Her crib was sandwiched between MINTA and BELLE. She looked up and down the street, moving her lips slowly the way Geordie had taught her, reading the other printed names.
The shacks seemed so tiny, pitted against the saw-toothed mountain range. Once again, Bertha felt an almost overwhelming surge of pride.
Her mountains. Reaching for Gods feet.
Then she dipped a brush into some red paint shed found, and, on tiptoe, printed the name BERRY above her doorway. The letters looked good, almost all the same size. Geordie would be gratified.
Geordie would like her purty flowers, too, especially the white petals with green-streaked lips that formed hoods over that clump of twisty stems.
Them there flowers are called ladies tresses. Theyre blooming cause we aint suffered no frost yet.
The woman who spoke had reddish ringlets, each wrapped with a scrap of colorful rag. Walking toward Bertha, she smiled. Her freckled nose crinkled and her eyes tilted at the corners. Her body was lush, her curves barely concealed by an embroidered kimono.
Clean from a quick wash, Bertha had changed into her white blouse and black church skirt. Her hair was neatly braided, and her blue eyes stared suspiciously into the warm brown eyes of the whore next door.
My names Minta, said the woman.
My names Berry.
I know. Your letters are so new, they shine.
They aint printed good?
Bertha looked around for Clementine before she realized that the braying chuckle came from the freckle-faced woman.
Your letters are hunky-dory, said Minta. The girl what lived here before couldnt write a stitch.
If she couldnt write, howd she wed her a gentleman?
She didnt. She wed a miner with a wooden leg. Hes old enough to be her grandpaw.
Oh, Bertha said, disappointed.
Where do you hail from, sweetie?
Nowhere. The bright autumn sun danced behind a cloud-capped mountain, and Bertha shivered with a sudden chill.
It dont matter where youre from, Minta said softly. Were all running away. Me and Carmen and Belle. Were all playing hide and seek from something or somebody.
You cant play hidey-seek from God.
Thats true enough, Berry, but I believe God made our mountains to let us hide. Unknotting a dark blue scrap from her curls, she advanced a few steps forward, then tied the cloth around both of Berthas braids so that they swung as one. There. The bows colored like your eyes. Blue Berry. Well have to get the miners to bring you real ribbons and doodads. Ill teach you how to ask and make it sound like its their idea. Of course, theyd have to go some to beat them pretty bobs at your ears.
Them bobs were my mamas. She died on the day I was born and my brother said they rightly belonged to me. I didnt steal them, honest.
Never thought you did, Berry. Poor sweet thing, no mama. Mintas eyes misted and she spread her arms wide.
Catching her breath on a sob, Bertha buried her face against Mintas bosom and basked in the warmth of the first female embrace she had ever received.
Tooral lal looral lal looral la la, crooned Minta. My mama used to sing that to me. Shed sing to hug the hurt away.
Ill find her somebody whos sober, clean, and dont mind a tight hidey-hole, thought Minta. Too bad Whiskey Johnnie didnt perform the deed himself.
Was there another clean, sober man in Cripple Creek?
There sure wasnt another virgin.
Atop her bed, shed picture a wise owl. Then shed hooty-hoot, pleasuring the miners. She never rushed her gents in and out. She listened to their stories, and, except for Minta, she earned more wages than others along the row.
Sometimes shed step outside to catch falling snowflakes on the tip of her tongue, and shed remember Noah. Geordies features faded, though the echo of his Ill come back remained.
When they had no visitors, Berry and Minta would brew afternoon tea together. Its what them fancy ladies drink, Minta would say, lifting her freckled nose toward the gray-soot roof, sniffing at the air inside her shack, which in wintertime always smelled of singed wood and cinnamon.
Berry would limp a dance across the floor behind her friend. Placing her first finger beneath her own nose, tilting it upwards, shed shout, Im a lady, too!
After their lady-strut, theyd collapse onto the bed, kick off their shoes, wriggle their toes toward the warmth of the small cookstove, and nibble Mintas sticky oatmeal cookies. Then theyd sing, Oh my darlin, oh my darlin, oh my darlin Clementine. You are lost and gone for-ev-er...
During her third year, on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, Berry fell in love. With a gentleman.
Berry shut the window, then glanced toward the cookstove. Her mouth watered and puckered. Just like the letters above her door, her lemon pie looked almost all the same size. The pie was for tomorrows birthday party, but one small bite shouldnt make any difference.
Lightning flashed. Startled, Berrys gaze shifted to the window, and she caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure outside. Dang! How could she sneak a taste of pie when she was being given the once over? Yanking open the door, her scathing words died unborn.
Before her stood an honest-to-goodness gentleman. He wore a ring set with a twisted nugget. His left earlobe sported a tiny gold hoop. While most other miners had beards, this handsome lad was clean shaven. Tall and slim, his shirt and trousers were blotched by raindrops. As lightning cleaved the sky again, Berry could see that his eyes were as blue as a Jays feathers.
His boots crushed the mouse-eared chickweeds, shepherds purse, and ladies tresses in Berrys wildflower garden. His whiskey bottle hovered above a chickweed, as he bowed and said, My names Nugget Ned. You must be Mary.
Youre not the Irish lass they talked about at the Buckhorn saloon?
No. Berrys heart skipped a disappointed beat. Irish Mary bides two cribs down, sir. Aint you seen the printed letters above my door?
Ignoring the drizzle, he squinted upwards. Its hard to read letters when your minds muddled with booze, Mary.
Dang it! Im Blueberry!
He grinned, then spit rain. Believe Perfessor mentioned you. White skin and black hair; cream and pepper. I had a hankering for Irish stew, but home cooking will suffice.
Home cooking? Theres a lemon pie atop my cookstove. I baked it for my birthday. She waited for him to say happy birthday, but he didnt. Why dont you set while the pie cools?
I prefer my cuisine hot. Loosening Berrys bodice, Nugget Ned tasted both firm breasts beneath her chemise.
Come inside, sir, she gasped, her plump cheeks patched with crimson.
He dropped his whiskey bottle and staggered through the shantys entrance. Tripping over the rocker, he pitched forward, caught the tables edge with his fingertips, then slid to the floor.
The beds over there, Mr. Nugget. Berry tried to lift him, but he was too big, so she stripped off his wet shirt, placed a pillow beneath his dark hair, and covered his body with the quilt. Then she blew out all candles except one, curled up in her rocker, and nibbled at a piece of warm lemon pie.
Ill set here till he wakes, she thought, her breasts still throbbing from his brief caress.
Hours later, her eyes felt heavy, her lashes fluttered, and the empty pie plate fell from her lap.
When she awoke the next morning, her candle had guttered, the pie crumbs had attracted ants, and Nugget Ned was gone.
Outside her crib, Minta was singing, Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...
Please, God, bring my gentleman back again, Berry prayed.
He confessed all this to Berry during his second visit, after plopping himself atop her rocker.
When Im rich, Ill tell Father to go to the devil. Father said Id never amount to anything. Father said Id crawl back to Denver. Father said Id kneel at his feet and beg forgiveness. Ill kneel at his grave first, Blueberry.
I prayed youd come back, and God heard my prayers. What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye receive them.
He scowled. Dont quote the Bible, Blueberry. Dont ever quote the Bible to me. How about a song?
If that be your pleasure, sir. She folded her hands upon her naked bosom and trilled, Oh promise me that some day you and I, will take out love—
No, girl, dont sing of love. Sing a song for fun.
I can sing some lines I learnt from a piana playin man, she said slowly, but I dont like to recollect the saloon where I learnt them.
Make me laugh, dammit, he said, rising from the rocker.
His fingers pinched the tender flesh above her elbows. Hes a gentleman, she thought, and they act different from other fellers. He dont mean to hurt me.
Ben Battle was a soldier bold and used to wars alarm, she sang, her voice blurred by tears. But a cannon-ball took off his legs, so he laid down his arms.
Ned burst out laughing. Releasing her, he fell upon the bed and leaned back against the pillow. Come lay down in my arms, Blueberry. Lets see if you can love as good as you sing.
I can love good, she said, removing his boots, trousers and underwear, then burying her face in the nest of dark hair between his legs. His erection was rock-hard against her cheek. If she moved her face upwards, he might even leave a dent in her chin, just like his. I can love good, she repeated, delighted by his shouts of pleasure.
Ned Winthrop cussed like a gentleman.
I dont care for that ditty, Ned. Its terrible cruel.
Its the truth. Grover Cleveland admits he bedded Maria Halpin. She had a son, and Cleveland assumed responsibility.
But he didnt marry her. President Cleveland aint no gentleman.
He won the election just the same, Blueberry. Ill bet my father didnt cast his ballot for Cleveland. Father agrees with you. Laughing, Ned searched through Berrys leather-thonged chest for a clean pair of socks.
Are you funning me, Ned?
No, Im funning Father. It amused me to think that a whore and a capitalist hold the same viewpoint.
Its been a full month since we met, but I still cant reckon half your words. Whats a cap...cappilllist?
A person of great wealth and prominence; a nabob.
Is that anything like an earbob?
Ned dropped his socks, fingered his gold hoop, then glanced toward her ruby earrings. In a way. Your gems must be worth plenty. You could sell them, invest the profits, and soon youd be a capitalist.
Id never sell my mamas bobs, Berry gasped, wriggling her rump along the mattress, toward the pillow. Clothed in a cotton shimmy, she clutched a piece of Queen Dolly soft gingerbread. Minta had said that Dolly Madison dreamed up the recipe during President Thomas Jeffersons administration. The recipe included molasses, beef drippings, flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, and powdered sugar. Whats the ladys name, Ned?
Maria Halpin. How many times—
I meant the rich lady you told me of during your second visit. The one whos with child. Her you wronged.
I didnt do her wrong. She wronged me. Her names Johanna. Unbuttoning his trousers, he slid onto the rocking chair. Fetch the whiskey bottle, girl.
Jo-han-na. Berry tasted the name, then heard Ned snap his fingers. Please dont drink, honey. You aint been drunk for days, and you get nasty on whiskey.
Fetch it! Now!
Rising from the bed, she retrieved the bottle, hidden inside the pocket of the yella slicker he had left behind a week ago. Then, kneeling by the rocker, she left a trail of nibbled kisses across his thighs. Maybe by keeping her mouth busy, she could stop herself from asking another hurtful question.
Whats Johanna look like, Ned?
Have you ever seen a Chinese dog, Blueberry? The kind with beady eyes and lots of hair?
Did you kiss Johanna?
How could I kiss a woman who has a mustache when I dont?
Whyd you love with her?
Why do I love with you?
Did you give Johanna coins?
Of course not. His eyes narrowed. Why all these questions? Do you want me to pay for your love again?
Oh no! We lay for joy, not coins. You told me so, and its true, aint it? I didnt sucker you, like Johanna did. When you find your gold, well be wed good and proper.
Thats right. He pushed her face toward his open trousers.
She resisted. Whyd you love with Johanna?
It seemed the thing to do at the time.
Did Johanna hooty-hoot for your pleasure?
No, Blueberry, she squeaked a mouse song.
Whered it happen?
It was during a party given by my father, the honorable Edward Winthrop. Johanna lured me into my fathers study.
Berry watched Ned drink. Then he rocked back and forth, his eyes half-shut. Still on her knees, she scurried across the floor, trying to avoid the chairs motion.
My fathers study, Ned repeated, where he used to beat me with his cane. Listen to me, son, Father would say. He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it. That night, the night of the party, I was somewhat the worse for drink, and Johanna stood there with her skirts up, her back against my fathers bookcase. Dickens. First edition. Great Expectations. Do you get the irony, Blueberry? Great expectations. Christ, you dont know what the hell Im talking about! Dickens could be the man in the moon, you ignorant—
Eat some gingerbread. Minta and me baked em special this afternoon. Dont drink no more, honey. It makes you talk nasty.
Ned tilted the bottle, finished its contents, then threw it against the wall. Berry shuddered at the sound of breaking glass.
Sing to me, Blueberry. My mother used to sing. First, help me to bed.
She supported his heavy body, limping the short distance. Then she undressed him, lay beside him, and cradled his face against her bosom. Tooral lal looral lal looral la la, she crooned.
Mother sang lullabies, Ned murmured drunkenly. She died when I was twelve. Her name was Dolly. My father built her a big house in Colorado Springs, but she left for France and never came back. I remember her voice. She said she loved me, but she lied.
Poor Ned. Oh, my poor, poor Ned.
Love me, Blueberry.
Dimly, she wondered why he never made love to her.
Must have been something I et. Sinking to her knees again, Berry thrust her fist inside a sock and waved it around like a hand puppet. Ned brung green apples and purple grapes last night, she said, as if the gift of fruit was a string of green and purple pearls.
I dont trust that bastard, thought Minta. Aloud she said, You dont have no others, and you wont take coins from Nugget Ned. That aint smart.
I wouldnt take coins from Ned. We lay for joy.
It aint smart, Blueberry.
Ive never been wise like the hooty-owl, Min, but I aint stupid like that bunglesome cow who broke her leg crossing this here crick. That cow was ill-starred while Im lucky to find me a gentleman.
Nugget Ned aint no gentleman.
Yes he is, and more. Irish Mary told me of the wee folk who live in a far-away city called Dublin. They leave pots of gold at the rainbows foot. Neds my pot of gold.
Pooh! That Irish Marys fibbing. Aint no wee folks to hand over gold. Golds found by digging in the ground or blasting through mountains. A pots for stew. Aw, dont turn away. Im sorry. Youre my friend and I dont hanker to see you get hurt, thats all.
When he finds his gold, Neds gonna buy me pretty gowns and a fancy house. Im to be a lady like weve played. Me hurt? No, Min, its Ned whats been hurt by his pa.
The rich dont hurt that bad, Blueberry, and dont hump your shoulders like a dang camel.
Its easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, Min, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Ill tell that straightway to Neds pa whensoever we meet up. Just wait and see if I dont.
Minta slapped a chemise against the rocks.
Babies, Berry murmured dreamily. Ned says were gonna have babies.
Nugget Ned said he was wanting babies?
He says he loves to lay with me and that means babies, dont it?
Not always. Not if you take care to...mercy! Are you with child?
Dont know for certain.
Go see Mab.
I cant stomach Mabs touch. She walks like shes shat her drawers, and looks like she aint had a wash in weeks.
Have you told Nugget Ned, Blueberry?
No. But hell be so pleasured. Ned says he loves me.
Dont talk dirty, she said, raising her face.
He grinned. I purely enjoy the act of copulation.
We cant do this no more when Im a lady, she murmured sleepily. A lady loves from the bed in the dark, with her nightie still on.
Id love to dress you up and introduce you to my father, Blueberry. I think I might do that even if my gold doesnt pan out soon. Father has a weak heart, and Im his only heir. If he hasnt changed his will, Ill transport you to Denver, knock on Fathers door, then introduce you as Mrs. Edward Winthrop the Third. You can hobble into Fathers drawing room and straddle a rocking chair twice as big as this one, my lady.
Berry opened her eyes wide, trying to keep the tears from falling. Dont talk nasty, Ned.
We dont have to talk at all. Lets poke.
Not if you spit that dirty word.
Are you defying me?
No. But Ill boot you out if you aint respectful.
He tilted her chin with his finger, and stared into her eyes. Would you care to join me in coitus, Miss Blueberry?
Thats better, she said, although she had the feeling that coitus meant the same thing. But she didnt want to fight, aware that Ned was sucking her breast, while, at the same time, he pushed at the floor with his boot heels. Her nipple slid in and out, in and out, while he slid in and stayed there, rocking with the chair, until she didnt care if he called it copulation or coitus or poking.
I love you, she cried.
Im coming, he shouted.
Minta loaned her a lace chemise, then twisted her hair into swirls on top of her head. Curly tendrils escaped and wisped around her mamas ruby earrings.
Have you told Nugget Ned about the baby, Blueberry?
No, Min. I wanted to be sure first. Ill tell him tonight, after the party.
Ned impatiently fastened the gowns small back buttons while Berry tried to pull up her bodice. This dont seem a lady-like gown, honey, she said. If I bend, it shows my teats.
But your teats are so purty, he mocked, sipping from a bottle of whiskey. Hurry, Blueberry. Why are you pouring scent all over? Itll be lost in the smell of sweat and cigars. His broad shoulders shook with laughter. Did you know that the words perfume and fumigate are both originally from the Latin source fumus, or smoke.
Dont talk wordy, Ned. You know I aint been schooled. I learned me some songs and Bible verse, but—
Did I buy you that cheap perfume? Soon well toss it in the crick. With my gold, Ill buy you pretty smoke from Paris, Fran... He stopped short, gagging.
Berry paled. Are you sick, Ned? Fevered? Minta told me Old Tom up and died of the fever yesterday.
Its not the fever...whiskey-sick... happy. Ill hand a sack of gold over to my friend, Richard Reed. Did I tell you bout the Ku Klux Klan? Thrusting both thumbs inside his ears, he waggled his fingers. I wore donkey ears.
Donkey ears? Whatever for?
Im not sposed to tell. Pouring Berrys perfume into his mouth, he gargled, tried to spit, swallowed instead. Jesus! That cheap shit tastes worse than it smells. Go smear some paint on your lips, sweetheart. I want everyone to see your mouth.
Berry felt like purring. It was the first time Ned had called her sweetheart.
Together, they entered the saloon. Immediately, Ned hoisted Berry atop a crude wooden stage, joined her there, then whistled through his fingers for attention.
Ive brought the entertainment, he announced. This here is Blueberry Smith. Some of you know her from Poverty Gulch. What you dont know is, she was once a Denver dance hall girl.
That was a secret, she gasped.
Pinching the flesh above her elbows, he leaned close until they were face to face. Youll sing for my friends, Blueberry, or suffer the consequences.
She smelled the whiskey and perfume on his breath. I dont care what you do to me, Ned, for I cannot sing in front of all these men and whores.
I promised bawdy entertainment, and I wont go back on my word or look the fool.
How can you do this to me? Im your lady.
If you dont sing, Ill never marry you.
If I sing, do you promise well be wed good and proper?
Sure, sweetheart, good and proper.
Tearfully, she stepped to the front of the stage, clasped her fingers together until they formed a tight knot, then began to trill Yankee Doodle. Through the haze of cigar smoke, she saw Ned plunge his hand down the bodice of a woman wearing a yella gown. The woman shrieked with drunken laughter as she pulled Ned toward the staircase that led to the bedrooms on the second floor.
The crowd pressed closer. Maybe it was her imagination, but Berry heard: Coochie-coochie, girl, coochie-coochie.
Please, I have need of the privy, she cried desperately, her moon-cheeks patched with crimson.
The men passed her over their heads until she arrived at the back of the room. When her feet finally hit the floor, she fled.
I told Minta I wasnt stupid like that crippled cow, she whispered, limping toward her crib. But were the same, that cow and me.
Go way! she shouted. I aint clothed in nothing more than my shimmy.
Ive seen you in less. Open the damn door.
Go way. You aint no gentleman to treat me so nasty at your shindig. You acted like I were your whore, not your lady. What have you been doing this past week? Drinking? Making donkey ears? Poking? I hope you was sick as a dog. You said you was whiskey-sick, Ned, but I prayed you was fevered like Old Tom. A shame God didnt hear my prayers, you runty toad. Ive told all the girls how small-sized you are, yes I have, or at least I will. Runty, runty, runty!
Blueberry, please, open the door.
You done me one favor, Nugget Ned Winthrop. Ive been practicing my talk and manners sos I can work at a different trade. I aint gonna lay with men, and Ill sing no more bawdy songs for the asking. I can be a lady without you. Get gone, just like your smoky perfume.
Okay, Blueberry. I only came to tell you that Im leaving Cripple Creek.
I thought wed be wed before I leave.
She opened the door a crack. Truly?
I swear. Preacher should be here first thing tomorrow morning. Please let me in.
Ill let you in tomorrow morning.
Im leaving after we say our vows, so Id like to spend my last night with you. I plan to travel through the mountains, with Preacher as my guide. After were wed, Ill sell your ruby earrings. A wife wouldnt deny her husband a stake, and I must leave soon. He clenched his fists. Everybodys laughing at me.
Cant you file a new claim near the crick...creek?
Theres too many digging, Blueberry. Why should I dig when theres gold for the asking farther north?
It aint that easy up in the mountains, and winters coming, she said, opening the door wide, stepping aside.
He entered, then pressed his face against the hollow of her neck. You dont understand. All I need do is kneel. All I need do is bow down and ask.
Kneel? Bow down? Youll pray to God?
Thats right. Ill ask God. He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it. I tried, Blueberry, but my pit was full of fools gold.
Berry felt his tears. Ned weeping? Astonished, she rubbed his back. Then, discarding her shimmy, she maneuvered their bodies toward the bed. Ned sucked her nipples until waves of desire caused her limbs to weaken and she fell backwards, clutching at his shoulders to ease her descent.
He kissed her twisted foot. She moaned and spread her legs. He caressed with his mouth, his tongue moving upwards, along the inside of her thighs.
Suddenly she realized that he was loving her, pleasing her, satisfying her. She had waited so long, but it was worth the wait.
Early the next morning, Preacher knocked on the door. Berry donned her church skirt and blouse, picked every flower in her patch to wind through her long hair, and wore her mamas earbobs for the last time.
Afore God, Nugget Ned Winthrop an Blueberry Smith are now wed, said Preacher, making the sign of the cross with his gnarled finger.
Ned pushed Preacher outside, then undressed Berry. She didnt feel him remove her earbobs, since his tongue wickedly circled her inner ear, sending shivers up and down her spine. This time, when they lay upon the rumpled quilt, she used all her skills to bring him to fulfillment.
Ill miss you, sweetheart, he said sincerely.
Youll be back... She thought for the baby, but merely said, Soon.
Why burden him with her discomfort?
Later, watching her gentleman-husband walk away from Poverty Gulch, she murmured, Good-bye, my love.
The sun momentarily blinded her, so she shut her eyes. When she opened them again, Ned was gone.
She nibbled whatever food she could scrounge from trash bins of scraps behind Delmonicos, The Saddle Rock, and Merchants Cafe. One night she fought with a mangy mongrel over a small curved carcass. Throwing rocks at the snarling dog, she recalled her brother hurling his nugget at Tiny.
Ill name the babe George Edward, she thought, kissing Neds nugget ring, twined with thread to fit her middle finger.
She hadnt told anybody about her marriage, not even Minta. Ned had asked her to keep it a secret until he came home. He owed money, he said, and he didnt want his wife hounded by creditors.
His wife. Mrs. Edward Winthrop. Berry didnt mind the hush-hush ploy because God knew.
You cant play hidey-seek from God.
Perfessors mistaken, thought Berry, stroking her bloated belly. He glimpsed a man who looked like my Ned.
Then Preacher returned for Christmas, his lined face and emaciated body blue with cold. His eyes were hollow, unfocused. Several tattered shirts and jackets hugged his thin frame. With those clothes, eyes, and beak of a nose, he resembled a colorfully clad vulture, and folks whispered that Preacher had picked the bones of dead prospectors for his sustenance.
Some citizens recollected the Packer Party of 1847, when only Packer had returned, alive and well-fed. At his trial, the judge had supposedly stated: Goddamn you, Alferd Packer! There was only six democrats in Hinsdale County, and you et four of them!
I dont believe its true what they say about Preacher eating folks, Berry told Minta. Hes a man of God.
No, he aint, Minta replied. They named him Preacher cause he sinned so awful in his youth, but hes never been ordained.
In her head, Berry heard the echo of Whiskey Johnnies words: People seem to favor the opposite.
Ned believed him a man of God. Ned gave me his ring, believing we had the Lords blessing. Thats enough for me and George Edward.
She waylaid Preacher as he walked down the icy streets. Ned? she asked, her blue eyes pleading.
Who? Do you mean Nugget Ned?
Berry nodded. Why aint he come back with you?
Nugget Ned never gone with me. Preacher chuckled through his decaying teeth stumps. Why would Nugget Ned travel with a preacher man?
To look for gold.
I aint gone to the hills fer gold. I brung the word of Jesus to them sinners with their yella idols. Repent, I sez. He eyed her swollen belly, now five months full. Repent, child.
It was a hard winter, yet the crib girls managed to share a few of their coins so that Blueberry could keep her lodgings.
Minta cooked up huge pots of soup and noodles, then brought the leftovers next door. I wont take any more charity! Berry cried, after a few weeks of Mintas largess.
I made too much, sweetie. If you dont eat it, Ill toss it to the dogs.
Woof, woof, said Berry, showing a rare spark of humor. When Ned returns with his gold, Ill give you a sack, Min. Hell be back. Neds a gentleman, and he promised hed never forget me. See how the skys turning blue and my flowers are growing? George Edward will be coming soon, and so will his pa.
Spring arrived, but Berry, in the throes of labor, couldnt appreciate colorful buds dotting the mountains while lush green brought the hope of new beginnings.
The delivery took two days. Crib girls worked in shifts. They crooned comforting words and wiped Berrys brow with melted snow-water. In the secret circle of their womanhood, they all felt her pain. Inside their own shacks, they pandered to the miners, simulating moans of delight, their cries mingling with Blueberrys screams.
The midwife refused to help until money was advanced. Minta insisted that Mab wash her hands, including long filthy fingernails, before payment. Mabs body looks like bread dough dropped in dirt, Minta thought with disgust.
Placing a knife beneath the mattress to cut the pain in half, Mab sat by the stove and swilled from bottles of dark beer.
Late afternoon arrived, and the scent of cooked food drifted down the row like a thin shadow. Mab rooted in her garden for turnips and plucked the feathers from a slaughtered chicken, which she then fried for her supper. The red painted name BERRY shined in the glow of sunset as Mab re-entered the shanty. Immediately, she thrust her grimy fingers into Berry. The babes turned wrong, she said, opening another bottle of beer. Its in Gods hands now.
At dawn, Whiskey Johnnie showed up. He booted Mab from the crib, soothed Berry through the last of the difficult delivery, then cut the cord with his own hunting knife.
The baby mewed piteously.
Berry heard. She opened her glazed eyes and saw crib girls. They all floated through the room like ghosts.
Am I dead? If Im dead, wheres Geordie and Noah?
About to shut her eyes again, Berry heard a sneeze, then a loud wail. Leg...foot, she whispered.
Minta leaned closer. What did you say, love?
Whiskey Johnnie slipped out the door. If he had been a doctor, he would have recognized signs of puerperal fever and the additional complications of heavy hemorrhaging. He wasnt a doctor. He only knew that Berry lay dying in pools of her own blood. Draping his arms across Clementines fuzzy neck, he let the burro lead him toward the purple-hazed hills.
What did you say? Minta asked again.
My babys leg.
Its perfect, Blueberry, all ten toes kicking. Her eyes are as blue as yours, as blue as the creek in summer.
I birthed a girl? Let me see her.
Sweetie, shes right here.
Dark. Berry thrashed her head from side to side. Ned...
Hes on his w-way, sobbed Minta.
No. I was a fool to believe. Dark. The wise mans eyes are in his head, Min, but the fool walketh in darkness. I see the hooty-owl. His feathers are soft and clean. Whiskey Johnnie says theres peace of soul in the dark. I aint afeared to sleep. Its just...oh, my poor baby...no mama.
Irish Mary knelt by the bed. What do you want to name your wee girlie, Blueberry?
Berrys lashes fluttered until they lay across her pale cheeks. Behind her closed lids, a white light appeared, and she saw Geordie toss his lucky nugget from one hand to the other.
No, Geordie, no. Its not real gold. Its...
Fools gold, she whispered.
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