By Brinda Banerjee
Ma always said you were the luckier of us two girls. Born with a full head of curly black hair you nestled into the crook of her arm, eyes tightly shut, sure of yourself even at age two days. Then nine years old, I stood at the door of the midwife’s shack aghast at the iron smells and the rapt look on Ma’s face as she stared at you. What would Ma say now, as we stand on the San Francisco dock, with the dawn fogs rolling in over a flat steel gray sea, and your face constricting with fear, watching the crate heaved by the burly sailors.
Ma drank herself to an early death when you were just six. She’d be pleased with the way I take care of you. You’re all I have left, Betsy, now my Herbert is gone. You were six and I was fifteen when I snagged my man. I found him lying on the meadow behind Aunt Gracie’s shack by the river, cowboy hat covering his head, long legs that looked so strong; his spurs rusty and broken. Do you remember how he’d smile up the left side of his tanned lean face and his eyes would caress my face? No, you do not. He took us to San Francisco – in a covered wagon drawn by bullocks. We traveled the Oregon trail to golden California in 1848, even before the gold rush began. I think I was happiest those first years, in the settlement upstream from American river, running his store for him. Cleaning and cooking sure seem like fine things to do when it’s for the man you love.
But this is the story of your love – who is more dashing -dashing from folks chasing him that is. Samuel Thurst burst into the house on that morning I cannot forget. I was the one naked about to step into my tin tub for my one weekly luxury, my bath, yet his eyes were fixed on you singing in your high voice as you scrubbed your pantyhose in the sink.
“’Morning, ladies. Might I trouble you to hide a good man from them crazy goons in the sheriff’s office?” His voice was honey, eyes like golden butter and smile so charming I felt like I was hearing orchestra music in our poky two room shack above the store. He was running from an argument over a poker game that time.
You gave him one of your own dazzling smiles and jumped up to hide him in your chiffrobe as if you’ve known him all your life. Don’t think I never saw that first stolen kiss before you shut the chiffrobe door on his lanky frame. Not a moment too soon. The horses pounded below and the sheriff’s men shot a couple rounds into the air scaring the crows off the roof. I barely managed to get back into my dress, sans hoops, before they were pounding on the store door. You ran down ready to sweet talk those vinegary old men. From the very first day you were willing to do anything to save that cursed man’s skin.
He left for panning gold in the river again. I never saw anyone as enamored of the gold as young Samuel with his eyes that are a such a queer gold color that I’ve never seen anywhere; and even though he was just a cowboy with no land, money or house to his name, he had plenty of optimism and was always sure he’d hit the next big find. Whenever he wandered back to town in search of warm food or his favorite game of poker with the boys, he’d be sure to look you up. “Missin’ me,” he’d drawl, chewing his tobacco and smiling his charming devil smile.
Was it Missy, the hussy that served over at Ogie’s salon that pushed you over? She is a two-bit wench for all her fancy airs. I think it might have been her that started the talk about your fella being sweet on her. You tossed your dark curls and laughed but I could see the tightening of your mouth and the hardening of your eyes.
You fixed in your head you would get that man to make an honest woman of you. He was going to propose when he next came to town. He just didn’t know it yet.
Samuel came to town once a fortnight to spend his gold dust – he’d weigh it on the Wells Fargo bank scales in exchange for money and he’d save a few pinches for us – in exchange for some pie or even for us to do his laundry. You always did it for him even though I knew laundry is a losing proposition and bad for business. Why you hadda go and fall in love with that scamp of a miner?
So on that day as I helped you curl your hair, when you smiled your ravishing smile and asked me to come with you to Ogie’s to wait for Samuel, how could I refuse?
The saloon was crowded and when we walked in, you with your new green flowered skirts swishing, your hair curled under the straw bonnet trimmed with daisies, it seemed as though the men all held their breath and let it out in soft whistles. “Bartend!” you called crooking your little finger. When he served us you drank deep, the long outline of your white neck striking against the dark green of your dress collar. Your face was flushed as you smiled around at everyone as we waited for Mr Samuel Thurst to show up. I sat beside you, my mouth screwed into a thin line, my dark widow’s skirts a perfect foil to your brightness, tapping my bony fingers on the table in my nervousness. At twenty-six, I feel old and frightened. Not coz I’d lose you to Samuel Thurst, but because he was a scamp underneath all that dazzle.
When the shots rang out all of us were shocked, lulled as we’d been by the festive mood. Someone screamed, the men surged as one toward the doors. We were pressed against the wall then carried out to the road with the crowd. The rumors spread fast, there was trouble. Someone had tried to jump claim on a field that was not abandoned after all, and the owner wanted it back. They’d chased the culprit into town and heated arguments were going on in the sheriff’s office. As soon as I caught a glimpse of the accuser’s furious face I knew it – this was grouchy Gerald Bart. Herbert had known him and disliked him intensely. Never very lucky in the fields he’d been mining for years now. Just like him to want a field back after having walked from it.
It sounded like the wanted criminal who had tried to jump claim the land had no rights, and moreover, he was accused of shooting Gerald’s right hand man and partner to death in the scrimmage. If so, then that man was in serious trouble. He would hang.
“Who’d you think it is?” you said in a wondering little voice, as we returned to our home. I knew even before we shut the door behind us, I could smell him. So could you, you ran whimpering to our fugitive and clung to him as he stared, white faced, his golden eyes dark with fear. He told us it was an accident, there was a scuffle and then a shot rang out. He said Gerald fired the gunshot that finished off his partner, and then framed him. No matter if he were really innocent, if the sheriff’s men found him, this time he would hang. Our house above the shop was on outskirts of town and the first place Sheriff would come to look, once he realized the wanted criminal is my Betsy’s Samuel.
I just had the few hours before dawn to come up with a plan. First things first, we will need money. I go to the kitchen while you pull the shades down. I stamp and bend – even you don’t know which floor board is loose and can be pried up to reveal my hard earned money. Those stuffy bankers with their beaver hats would not get me near their establishment if they begged. No, sirree, my money is safe enough in the tin box my Herbert left me, buried under the kitchen floorboard and sanded over.
The sky was barely light when the fogs rolled in from the sea, and wrapped in our thickest shawls we drove our loaded mule cart to the dock. I was looking for Mr Dwight, the merchant ship owner that usually brought me sugar and other goods from Hawaii. Spotting him at last I approached, my heart beating fast. He was supervising the loading of his steam ship; he would be casting off for Hawaii within hours. “Good morning Mr Dwight. “
Doffing his hat he said, sounding surprised, “Why Mrs. Herbert – why’ve you troubled yerself to come out here – I already have your order marked.”
“I have a last minute consignment – it is a shipment of laundry that must go to Hawaii. My sister has started taking in laundry. What can one do – the folly of youth. As soon as the laundry poured in she realized it’s too much for her alone. I always said I will manage my store but not take in washing!”
The good man guffawed and strode over to inspect the large box of dirty washing. “No problem mam. We’ll deliver this to the women in Honolulu and bring it back for you in a week with the next shipment.” We agreed on a price, shook hands and I whipped up the mules, hands trembling. You craned your neck watching anxiously, as the porters wheeled the crate onto the ship. But sister dear, one can only do so much. Samuel Thurst will manage crouched in that crate, I know he will. He will charm the Hawaiian woman when she unpacks him and he will figure out the best way to carry forward from there. I managed to stamp out your silly idea of running away with him. Two will get caught easier than one, I said, and Samuel agreed, his frantic eyes staring. You are quiet, don’t worry little sister, you will learn to live without him. (Not that I will tell you that. No, I will let you hope. I hoped to find love after Herbert died. Look at me now, running my business, taking care of you.)
I almost rode those mules into the ditch just then when, you rose, near pitched yourself out the carriage! Yanking you back by the shoulder, I barely managed to keep the trap straight on the road. Listen now, I just had an idea, what if we take up religion? The church is always looking for missionaries to go out to Hawaii. We’ll look for Samuel once we get there – huh? There now, sit back down. We have to let the fuss settle down, the hunt for the missing miner run cold – no point in rushing; and then we will find our faith.
Brinda Banerjee lives and works with her young family in New Jersey, writing fiction is her weekend/night/vacation passion and pastime. Brinda’s short stories have been published in online journals such as ‘Escape into Life’ , and an Indian national newspaper. Visit Brinda’s blog to read more of her fiction at modscheherzade.wordpress.com.