It wasn’t just their historical value to her family and the town that had her so careful. As troubles around the lodge escalated, so did her feeling of connection with her great-great-great-grandmother. Her ancestor had faced struggles Sorrow couldn’t begin to contemplate. So many of those pioneer women must have. And she figured, if her ancestor could weather the old days as a single mother, then she could buck up and deal with a little stress at the lodge.
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you read these every possible free moment.” He helped her into the kitchen chair and gave her shoulders a squeeze. “Have you finished reading them yet?”
“No, I’m going slowly.” She carefully pulled the collection from their layers of plastic and contemplated the paper, crisp and yellow with age. “Her story takes my mind off my troubles. I want to prolong it.”
She wanted to savor every moment reading them, and the desire to understand what the older Sorrow endured had only intensified since Emerald’s death. Why hadn’t she ever asked Marlene’s mother more questions? About how Sierra Falls used to be? About Marlene’s childhood? So many simple things that’d never been asked and would never be answered now.
She half listened as Billy puttered around the kitchen, getting out tea bags and filling the kettle with water. He asked, “Would you read one to me?”
She popped her head up to make sure he was being serious. Her breath caught to look at him, scruffy in the dim light, wearing just his T-shirt and boxers. She couldn’t believe this guy was hers. “Really?”
He stopped his bustling to pin her with his eyes. Standing still, he held the teakettle poised in midair over the stovetop. “I told you, I’m in this for keeps. What makes you happy makes me happy, too.”
“Oh,” she said simply. She darted her eyes back down, overcome with emotion. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had expressed an interest in her happiness alone. “Okay.”
“And hey, it’s not exactly a stretch, either.” Billy was still by the sink and hadn’t caught her sudden shyness. “Those letters you found are amazing. To think Buck Larsen was prospecting for gold before he was elected as one of the first California representatives.”
“I guess he must’ve bought his post with gold rush money.” The man was infamous in California for having appeared out of the blue, replacing his political advisors with businessmen, then resigning midterm when elected life bored him. Rumors about bribes had followed him out the door. Larsen went on to build a railway empire, but not much was known about his life before he burst onto the scene.
“I guess all his money didn’t come from bribes after all. Maybe some of it came from gold.” The kettle whistled, and Billy poured their tea and joined her at the table. He gestured to the letters. “Where’d you leave off?”
She shuffled through. “Let’s see…last thing I knew, Sorrow Crabtree had been bemoaning the town’s judgmental biddies.”
He gave a thoughtful shrug. “Can’t have been easy, pregnant and alone. Life was hard and cheap back then—especially for women.”
“Well, aren’t you the strong, sensitive type?” She gave him a playful smile and squeezed his hand. He’d been right to bring out the letters—the more they chatted, the further away her troubles at the lodge seemed. “But you know, back then it wasn’t just the men who made names for themselves. I read that some of those gold rush dancers made a fortune.”
Billy leaned closer to scan the writing. “Maybe I’ve seen too many Westerns, but I bet there were other types of women than just dancers. You know, those kind of women.”
She exclaimed, “A ‘lady of the night’? She couldn’t have been, could she?”
Sorrow traced her finger down the page to find her place. “Here’s where I stopped. She wrote, ‘Thank the Lord for Madame Lizzie. I know what you’d say, you’d be like to call her a harlot or worse. But, to me, she’s my angel. She invited me to live with the Parlour Ladies, but she don’t make me dance no more, nor worry about any of that other business on account of my swole belly. Swole with your child, Buck. Maybe I can see how you’d walk away from me, but I don’t understand how you could walk away from your son.’”
Amused, Billy raised a brow. “Doesn’t make her do that other business?”
She put the letter down and met his eye. “Wow. She moved into a…”
“Yeah, what you said.” She put the page down to sip her tea thoughtfully. “It seems that the Madame was a Madam Madame.”
Billy playfully guided her mug back down to the table and handed her the letter. “You can’t stop reading now.”
She gave him a broad smile and found her spot again. “‘Some folk carry a Bible in their hand and judgment in their eyes. But not the Madame. She has only kindness in her heart. Says we women need to stick together. I get the idea maybe she had a man who left her just like you did me. But I’m done being angry. It burned through me, and I’ve vowed to rid my heart of every last bit. Because each day goes by, and love fills my heart instead, feeling the strong kicks of my baby. My baby, Buck.’”
She put the letter down. “Jeez, he sounds like such a jerk.”
“I can’t believe the infamous Buck Larsen knocked up a dance hall girl and left her alone and pregnant in a pioneer town. He’s even more of a bastard than everyone thought.”
“Pregnant, alone, and living in a whorehouse,” she marveled. “At least it sounds like she didn’t have to do the…extra duties.”
“She must’ve done something to earn her keep.”
Sorrow nodded and read on. “Wait, listen to this. ‘Trouble came round this morning. I was in the parlour when some men came. They looked at me funny, all demanding like, wanting to buy my time. They said some nasty, un-Christian things, and I had to say a quiet prayer not to curse you, Buck. But then just when it seemed I was a goner, the Sheriff stepped in. I suppose Madame Lizzie done told him about my babe, and he sent those men packing.’”
She beamed back at him. “Too bad Sorrow Crabtree ended up with the mailman instead of the sheriff. That would’ve been just too cool.” She flipped through and saw they’d just about reached the end of that one. “Should I stop? It’s getting late.”
Sorrow felt her grin grow even wider. She loved these old letters, loved getting to know her ancestor this way, and she was positively tickled that Billy honestly seemed to enjoy them just as much. “Okay,” she said, flipping to a new page full of cramped script. The beginning spoke about mundane things—the food, the coming weather—but then they finally reached a juicier bit. “You said she had do something to earn her keep; well here we go. ‘Madame L says from now on I’m just to work at the cooking and laundry. It’s hard work and my hands bleed from it, but it’s better than lying under a man. Some of them come round with their suits and pocket watches, and they remind me of you. And I’d rather my hands bleed, Buck. How do you like that?’
“‘One fellow came by yesterday, had with him a newspaper from Sacremennto. And whose name would you figure was on the front page? Mister Buck Larsen, all right. News is you were voted to Congress Man. My compliments. I guess the folk of California believed your promises just like I did. Fools, all of em.’
“‘But I tell you, Buck, maybe it stung extra bad because today is an angry day. None of my dresses fit no more. I let them out all I could, and now I had to sew an extra panel just to cover my belly but all I had to use was an old bit of calico from my apron. And I tell you, Buck, that bit of calico makes me spitting mad. At you. Angry how you had your pretty words for me. You told me I was so lovely. Like a winter bloom on the mountainside, you said. But you plucked that bloom and left me, no good for no man now.’”
She looked over the paper at Billy, making a funny face. “Yikes. Pregnancy hormones, you think?”
Billy raised his hands in surrender. “I’m not touching that comment with a ten-foot pole.”
She laughed and read on. “‘I shoulda known watching you glad-hand folk the way you did. You wanted me on your arm, so pretty you said. Like a picture. You’da shown a picture more care though. The moment the Rassmussens came to town, with their fancy Foreignn money, you jumped fast enough for their girl. ’Tis unkind of me to say, but I get comfort thinking of those teeth of hers like a Truckee River Beaver, and trying to picture you kissing on her. I swear, I hope you have a flock of beaver-faced children. Not this babe in my belly though. Hes a fine boy. I can feel it.’
“‘And he’s getting big too. I move slow now, but it don’t matter. Madame L lets me hide in the kitchen with my cooking, and it’s fine by me. I work and I think about the places I’ll take my boy some day.’”
A sensation overwhelmed Sorrow, of a connection across generations. “She liked to cook. It was an escape for her.”
She studied him. Stubble was faint along that strong jaw and his hair went every which way. Being with Billy like this, in the middle of the night serenity of the kitchen, she knew a fierce stab of emotion. She felt loved and complete. “You get it, don’t you? Get me.”
“Of course I do.” He scooted his chair closer, and gently swept the hair from her brow, tucking it behind her ear. “And I’m the luckiest man alive that you’ve let me in to see.”
When Sully woke that morning, he knew at once—it was in the smell of the air, in the way he’d thrown the covers from the bed in the night. Spring had sprung, no doubt about it.
His bare feet hit the timber planks of his cabin’s floor, and he drew up the shades. The snow had melted to a thin, crusty layer. Water dripped from the eaves, catching the dawn sunlight like crystal. The sky was clear, and the birds were chirping.