The old woman peered past the red geraniums in her deep front window at the figure lingering in the moon-white snow at the gate. In the gloom of the late winter afternoon, Hennie Comfort did not recognize the woman, who stood like a curious bird, her head cocked to one side as she looked at the fence, then the front door, and back at the fence again. Hennie watched, thinking it odd that anyone would wait there, mute as the snow itself. Why would a body stand in the cold when she could come inside by the stove?
Hennie had gone to the window to read her letter in the winter light, because the heavy snow had weighted down the wires, causing the electric to go out. It was too dark inside now to read, although Hennie knew the words wouldn't be any different from what they were when she read the letter at the post office that morning.
For years, Mae had urged her to move out of the high country. This time, she'd made it plain that if Hennie insisted on another winter on the earth's backbone, Mae would come to Middle Swan herself and pack up her mother and take her below, to Fort Madison on the eastern edge of Iowa. Mae was a loving daughter, but she was as stubborn as Hennie. "You can spend your summers in Middle Swan, Mom, but I insist that from now on, you live with us during the winters. What if you slipped on the ice and broke your leg? You could freeze to death before somebody found you."
Mae was right, Hennie admitted to herself. If she fell, the snow would cover her up, and nobody would know where she was until she melted out in the spring. It was foolhardy for a person as old as she was to stay another winter on the Swan River. Besides, it was selfish of her to let Mae worry, and Hennie was always sensible of the feelings of others. But Lordy, she didn't want to live on the Mississippi.
Hennie set the letter on the table and returned to the window to look at the woman, covered now in white flakes. She'd be frozen solid as a fence post if she didn't move soon. So the old woman opened the door and walked into the snow in her stout shoes, her hands tucked into her sleeves. "Hello to you," she called.
The stranger looked up, startled, a little frightened. She was a new-made woman, not much more than a girl, and Hennie had never seen her before. "Oh!" the stranger said, clasping and unclasping her bare hands, which despite the poor light, Hennie could see were red and chapped. "I don't mean to be nosy, but I was wondering how much?"
"How much for what?"
"A prayer." The girl tightened the triangle of plaid wool scarf that covered her head before she thrust her hands into the pockets of her thin coat.
Hennie was confused for a moment, and then realizing what had confounded the girl, she laughed. "That sign's been there so long, I forget about it."
"It says, Prayers for Sale. I'm asking how much do you charge, and is it more if you're in need than if you're wanting just a little favor? Do sinners pay more than the righteous? And what if the Lord doesn't answer? Do you get your money back?" The girl asked all this in a rush, as if she didn't want to forget any of the questions she had pondered as she stood frozen-still in the cold.
"That sign's older than God's old dog."
"How come you to sell prayers?"
"The sign says so. I've seen it three times now. I came back because of it," the girl persisted. "I can pay, if that's what you're thinking. I can pay."
Hennie chuckled. "That sign's a story. I'll tell it to you if you'll come inside."
"I've got a nickel. Is that enough for a prayer?"
"Lordy, are you needing one? No money will buy a prayer, I tell you, but I'll give you one for free, if you're in need of it." Hennie put her arms tight around herself to squeeze out the cold, for she had gone into the storm without her coat.
"I need it. I do."
"Just you come inside then and tell me why."
"I can't. I've got to get home and fix Dick's supper. But I'd be obliged to you if you'd say a prayer--a prayer for Sweet Baby Effie, sweet baby that was, that is. Maybe you could ask that wherever she is, she's not taken with the cold--I never knew it to be so cold--but just any words will do."
"I'll ask it," Hennie said, turning and gesturing toward the house, but the girl wouldn't follow. Instead, she took a step backward.
"I thank you," she said, carefully laying her nickel on the crosspiece of the fence. Then she turned and fled. Rubbing her arms now against the cold, Hennie watched until the little thing disappeared into the storm. Then she picked up the five-cent piece and went inside, placing the coin in a mite box that she kept for Bonnie Harvey to take to church. Hennie herself didn't attend services, hadn't in a long time.
As she sat down in a kitchen chair, Hennie picked up the letter, but instead of holding it up to the window to read again, she pondered the young girl. Something about her was familiar, although Hennie was sure she'd never seen her before. It might have been the way she said her words, which told Hennie she was from the South. Or perhaps it was because the girl was new in Middle Swan and appeared to be not a day older than Hennie herself when she'd arrived long years before.
Hennie looked out the window again, but there was no sign of the girl returning, no sign that she'd even been there, in fact. The old woman wondered why the girl wanted a prayer; she seemed to have a powerful desire for one. Well, Hennie knew the need for prayer in her life, and she would do what she could. So slowly, she knelt on her old knees beside the chair, clasped her hands together, and asked God to keep Sweet Baby Effie warm. Then she mumbled, "Now, Lord, there's a girl, a poor girl, by the looks of her, that's needing your help--and maybe mine, too. I'd like it right well if you could tell me what to do." She paused and added, "And I'd be grateful if you'd find a way short of dying to keep me from moving in with Mae."
"You've got it pretty good here," Hennie Comfort said, looking around the room with approval. She ducked her head as she went through the door to Nit's cabin, not only because she was a tall woman, even in old age, but because the doorway was that low.
Rooted to the ground, the cabin, built of peeled logs polished by the sun and wind and snow to a rich gold-brown, was ramshackled outside. Within, there was only one room, and that not much bigger than a coal shed, with a door and a window that held four panes of glass. But the place was tidy, cozy even. A rag rug covered the worn linoleum that was ribbed from the uneven floorboards beneath it. The log walls had been freshly chinked and papered with the Denver Post, the pages right side up so that you could read them at your leisure. A bed was shoved against one wall. The tops of its tall wooden head- and footboards pressed in on each other, making the mattress sag even more than it would have if the boards had been upright. The bed was Dionysius Tappan's old bed. He'd died in it, wheezing and blowing with the miner's puff, and then the cabin had sat vacant until the young couple moved in.
The pretty girl ought to have a better bed, Hennie thought. But young folks who hadn't been married long wouldn't worry so much about a good bed. They might even feel lucky that they had a place to sleep, what with this being 1936 and a depression not likely to end soon. The girl had spread a quilt over the mattress, a patch quilt in gay colors that would brighten the long winters. A second quilt, a design of eight-pointed stars, newly made with new and old fabrics, was folded over a wooden bench. Hennie was always sensible of the quilts.
A pie safe, the green paint half worn off its tin panels, stood near the cookstove, and a crude split-bottom rocking chair, once painted blue, sat in the far corner. The only other furniture in the room was a small table and two dynamite boxes that served as chairs. The girl's husband--she'd said his name was Dick when the two had met outside Hennie's house a few days earlier--must have picked them up at the gold dredge company. "Pretty good, all right," Hennie said again.
"It's a gem of amber," the girl replied. She clasped and unclasped her hands in delight. "Would you sit?"
"If it wouldn't put you out any," Hennie replied.
"Oh no. I'm starved for company. I get so lonesome. But my hand had an itch to it this morning, so I knew I'd be shaking hands with a stranger. You're my only caller--that is, my first caller. I guess there'll be others . . ." Her voice trailed off.
"I reckon so. Not many know you're here yet. I didn't myself till you stopped at my fence." After meeting the girl in the snow, Hennie had inquired at the Pinto store about the new couple.
"They live in the Tappan place. I don't recollect the name. He works the dredge," Roy Pinto had told her. Then he'd shaken his head. "There's some in Middle Swan that resent him getting hired on. They're out to get him. Besides, he's not stout enough for dredge work." Not many were, Hennie had replied.
Hennie gave the girl her name and said she lived at the end of French Street, in the two-story hewn-log house, just before the road turned to go up to the old We Got 'Em mine. Hardly anybody remembered the We Got 'Em, but Hennie liked to say the name. She remembered when Chauncy Stark had come running down the trail yelling, "We got 'em, gold ore like you never saw." "But you know where I live," Hennie told the girl.
The young thing nodded and said, "I'm Nit Buckley . . . that is, Nit Spindle. I haven't been married very long, not even two years, and sometimes I forget I'm married. I mean, I'm glad, because I love Dick and all, but it still seems strange to be somebody's missus instead of me."
"Pleased to meet you again, Mrs. Spindle," Hennie said. "I gave the prayer like you asked, gave it more than once." When the girl turned away, embarrassed, mumbling her thanks, Hennie knew she'd have to wait until Nit felt like talking about the prayer, if she ever did. It wouldn't do for Hennie to push the girl just to satisfy an old woman's curiosity. So instead, she drew the clean dishcloth off the top of the pie she was holding and presented the dessert. "This pie's nothing special, but it'll do you if you're hungry." In fact, the pie was a thing of beauty, with a perfect crust, pinched around the edges, the latticework woven, not just laid on, and it was stained red where the juice had seeped onto it. "It's a welcome-to-home present," she added quickly, in case the girl thought she was bringing charity. There'd been that other young couple on the Upper Swan who'd lived on a little flour and porcupine meat, too proud to accept help. They wouldn't take relief even from the county. Those two had nearly starved before somebody took them down below where they'd come from. "I bottled the raspberries last summer," Hennie continued. "Picked them myself up by that burned place that's under the saddle on Sunset Peak, before the bears got to them. The bears are harbonated still, and so are the raspberries. Fresh raspberries, now that's the best eating there is, might near be."
Nit's eyes widened as she took the pie and set it reverently on the shelf of the range. "Thanks to you. I'll return the compliment someday," she said. "I'm glad it's not pieplant. I don't love pieplant. I just don't love it. But I've always been a fool all my life about raspberries. I never expected to find them here. I mean now, that is, this time of year."
"I'll take you raspberrying come summer. I know the best places all around. You can find rhubarb just anywhere. All you have to do is look for an old cabin. But like you say, you don't just love it." Hennie took off her heavy wraps and laid them on the bed, before she seated herself slowly on one of the boxes. "I ought to know the place for raspberrying. Almost seventy years have I been living in Middle Swan." She didn't add that this might be the last year. Although Mae had written that Hennie could spend her summers in Middle Swan, the old woman was afraid that once she was settled in Iowa, she'd most likely stay put. Mae would find reasons for her not to return to the high country. Hennie reminded herself that if she was ever to deal with her life's deepest secret, she'd have to do it soon.
"Seventy years? Why, I didn't know Colorado'd been here that long." Nit flushed and bit her lip, looking anxious for fear she'd given offense.
Hennie only laughed. "It hasn't. But I have. I'm almost as old as these hills--eighty and six." She didn't look it. Oh, her skin was brown from years of living too close to the sun, and her hair was the color of the snow that had fallen for days now. But there was a toughness and sense of purpose to Hennie Comfort that belied her age. And while she'd never been pretty, she had been handsome and still was, with her tall angular body, her large mouth and straight nose set in a long face. She sat upright, her back straight as a pine, not stooped like most mountain women.
Nit stared at Hennie, about to say something but too tongue-tied. She shook her curls and said at last, "We've got coffee, the grounds not used but once."
"I'll take a cup if it wouldn't rob you."
"No, ma'am. It would not." Nit turned quickly and busied herself at the range, putting kindling into the firebox, watching the fire flare up, adjusting the damper, then adding stove wood. After she dipped water from a bucket and poured it into the cast-iron tea kettle, fitting the kettle into the eye over the firebox, the girl lifted down a basket and took out a bundle wrapped in newspaper. She removed the paper to display two fine teacups and saucers, which she polished with a dish towel before setting them on the table.
"Oh my, real English bone china," Hennie said.
"Sometimes I'm afraid to use them. They're delicate as birds' eggs, and I've got nary another. But you're my first caller." She paused. "I guess I already said that."
Hennie wanted to tell the girl that cracked mugs would do for her, but seeing Nit's pride, she said instead, "I thank you for the honor."
"I didn't mean you'd break them." Nit turned back to the stove and spooned the used grounds into the coffeepot, then added a spoonful of fresh. She poured boiling water into the pot and let the coffee steep, the grounds settle. "I hope you don't think I'm putting on airs, Mrs. Comfort. The cups are a wedding present, and I love them so. I'm saving them for good, for callers such as yourself. Have you ever seen anything so pretty?"
A long-ago look came over Hennie Comfort's face. "Somebody gave me china cups as a wedding present, too. I was younger than you." The old woman had packed them in a barrel of flour for the trip to Colorado, and she had them yet, chipped and mended but still good enough to use.
Nit said she was seventeen. Small, with clear pink skin, her bobbed hair the color of the rust that covered Middle Swan's abandoned mining machinery like a patina, and wearing a prim little dress with cap sleeves and a sash, she was just a chunk of a girl.
Hennie told her she'd been fourteen, going on fifteen, when she'd married.
"It's old enough," Nit said.
"That was eighteen and sixty-four. There was a war, and Billy was taken for a soldier and scared he wouldn't come home."
Hennie Comfort shook her head.
Nit waited for her guest to say more, and when she didn't, the girl brought the pot to the table and poured the coffee. She returned the coffee to the back of the stove to keep warm and sat down on the box across from Hennie. After a minute, she jumped up, saying, "I forgot my manners," and reached for a sugar bowl on the shelf and set it on the table. She took down a pickle jar that served as a spooner and placed it in front of Hennie. "You use the silver spoon. It's real silver," she said.
Hennie didn't care for sweetening in her coffee that late in the day, but rather than hurt the girl's feelings, she picked up the spoon and dipped it into the sugar bowl. "It's as fine a spoon as I ever saw. When I married, I had but two spoons, and they were tin."
Nit flushed. "I shouldn't have bragged. Mostly, we don't have any stuff that costs a lot." The two were quiet for a moment, sipping the coffee. Then the girl asked, "Were your people for the Union?"
"We weren't for anything, not to start with. We didn't want the war in our part of Tennessee. But if you didn't enlist for the Confederacy, you got shot. Billy didn't have a choice. He was only two years older than me, but they told him it was his time."
"Tennessee!" Nit almost shouted. "Ah gee, I'm from Kentucky."
"I thought you might be. Welcome to Middle Swan, Mrs. Spindle." Hennie held up her cup in a toast. She'd been right, after all, about the girl being from the South, and she was glad she'd come to welcome her. Hennie remembered the long days after she herself had arrived, lonely because she had but one friend in the camp, and that one lived high up on the mountain at a mine, too far to visit every day. The other women in Middle Swan didn't call on Hennie. Only later did she learn that they were hookers. Still, she wouldn't have minded.
Nit thanked her for the welcome, and the two sat a minute longer, picking up their cups, sipping, and carefully setting the cups down on the saucers, which had a design of pale pink roses on them. When she finished her coffee, Hennie reached into her pocket and took out a bit of sewing.
"Oh, you quilt!" Nit said. She took the square from the older woman and examined it, running her fingers over the squares and triangles that made up a pattern the younger woman knew--Bear Paw.
"Lordy, I love it! I'd rather quilt than eat on the starvingest day of my life. Law yes! I reckon I do love it!" Hennie told her.
"Why, me, too. I don't know why I do, but I do." Nit jumped up and returned with her own workbasket. "I love to quilt and watch the snow come down. I've been doing it all week since we came here. Imagine snow in May. Why, I had my cotton coming up long before now."
"May, June, July. I've seen it snow in Middle Swan every month of the year. If you like snow, you'll be happy here." Hennie commenced sewing, taking stitches the size of mustard seeds.
Nit removed her own piecing from the basket and set it in her lap. After a bit, Hennie asked to see it, and Nit shyly handed her the square. "I'm not so good," she said. "It's just an old scrap quilt." She didn't have to explain that a scrap quilt was made from fabric leftovers of every pattern and color; there wasn't a woman who didn't know that.
"Nobody starts out a perfect quilter," Hennie said, marking down in her mind to give Nit some of her scraps, for it wasn't likely that the girl, who would have come by train, for few cars could get into Middle Swan in the snow, had thought to pack leavings from dresses and shirts. Hennie, on the other hand, had brought her scraps on the trip west, because she'd come by covered wagon and wanted something to do in the evenings around the campfire. Of course, it had turned out that on the trip, she hadn't had a minute of leisure to pick up her needle, except for mending--and then that time when she'd gashed her arm. Hennie had sent the man whose wagon she rode in for her sewing basket, and while he watched, she'd sewn up the gash herself. The man had fainted.
"Did you make those over there?" Hennie asked, indicating the quilts on the bed and bench. The girl twitched her shoulders, uncomfortable at the attention, and nodded. The quilts were thick, lumpy, probably filled with rags or worn-out quilts for batting, and they were put together with large stitches--not quilts that a fine stitcher like Hennie would make. Instead of edging the quilts with binding, the girl had turned the backsides over the quilt tops and stitched them. And they were pieced from a variety of fabrics--mattress ticking, feed sacks, old towels, domestics that had been dyed with onions, walnuts, and red clay. But the variety of colors was like sunshine on a day when storm clouds hovered over the Tenmile Range, so gay and bold that Hennie wanted to shade her eyes.
"I can see they're from the South," she observed, for she was familiar with quilts. "Some folks tell where a woman's come from by the way she talks, but I tell from her quilts. Women from the East bring those fancy red and green quilts, and there isn't a woman in Kansas who hasn't made a Drunkard's Path. Oh my yes, your quilts are from the South. Happy quilts, I'd call them." Hennie smiled at the girl, thinking it was all right if a woman quilted with her heart instead of her hands.
Nit's face burned, and to hide her embarrassment she took the cups to the stove and poured more coffee. As she set the coffee down on the table, there was the sound of metal scraping far off up the river. The creaking of the dredge boat's bucket line went on day and night. "I can't stand that chatter. It punishes my ears, and I can't sleep," she said.
"You'll get used to it. After a bit, you won't notice it at all. One day, the bucket line'll break, and the noise'll stop, and that's what will wake you," Hennie told her. She didn't add that when the dredge was silent too long, the women in Middle Swan got fidgety, worrying that the dredge had been shut down on purpose because of an accident. The girl would learn soon enough about the dangers of the gold boats. No need to tell her now.
"It's a funny way to mine gold, with a boat."
"It's not mining. It's dredging. A real miner works underground, not on a rackety boat." Hennie's voice was sharp. She was one of the old people in Middle Swan who hated the gold boats. But then, most people did. Even some of the folks who worked on the dredges hated them. But they didn't have any choice. Even with the price of gold at thirty-five dollars an ounce, only a dozen mines were open. The men who toiled underground nowadays owned the workings, and they employed just a handful of others. The laid-off miners found jobs on the huge dredges that squatted in the mountain streams up the gulch of the middle branch of the Swan River and over on the Blue River at Breckenridge. Those were paying jobs, and the dredge men were grateful for the paychecks. Men in Middle Swan fought for those jobs, and Roy Pinto had been right when he said they resented an outsider getting hired on. Nit's husband would have to be careful.
A gold boat was a big, brutal thing, with a high gantry like the gallows frame of a mine. A dredge sat in a pond of its own making and used a bucket line made up of huge iron scoops that were permanently attached to a revolving chain. The buckets went down through the water in the front of the boat, down thirty or forty or fifty feet to bedrock, scooping up dirt and rocks, then rode the chain up a ladder to the top of the gantry. Large rocks were separated out, while sand and gravel were dumped into a kind of sluice box. Then the sand and gravel were washed away, leaving the heavier grains and nuggets of gold behind in the riffles of the box. The waste went out on a conveyor belt and was dropped behind the boat in piles as high as the chimney of a two-story house. The riffles were cleaned every week, and the gold melted out and molded into a brick. Where once a good, clear river had flowed, there were mountains of tailings that dammed the water and forced it to trickle through gray piles of rock.
Dredging was dangerous work. A man could get caught up in the bucket line and lose a finger or worse. More than one worker had died when he touched the electric. In winter, the decks and gangplank froze and a man might lose his footing--or maybe get pushed--sliding into the icy water. With his heavy boots and coat, he would sink into the dredge pond with barely a cry. Even if someone heard him and rescued him before he drowned, he'd likely come down with pneumonia, which at ten thousand feet was just a slower death.
A real miner, now, he worked underground and was as comfortable as you please, because the mines were warm in winter, cool in summer. Of course, mines were as dangerous as the gold boats. Hennie knew that as well as anybody, better than most. A miner got old early from working underground. He could be crushed in a cave-in or blown to kingdom come with blasting powder, or he could get rock dust in his lungs and develop the miner's puff. Not for nothing were the drills used in the mines called "widow makers." Some men couldn't take it underground, where it was as dark as a dungeon. But unless a blast released a wall of underground water, which was rare, you didn't drown in a mine. It might be said that dying in a mine was a better way to go, although it was dying just the same.
A man was proud of his work as a miner, proud of how he developed a feel for where a gold vein twisted or hid after it looked like it had pinched out. Mining was a calling. And there was always hope of a big strike--finding rich ore or even breaking through into a honeycomb. She remembered Lonnie Trucker, who'd done just that years before--hit the rock wall with a pick, and that pretty little vug like a honeycomb of gold had opened up. Lonnie mined it out with a trowel, saving the biggest nugget for himself. He carried it around wrapped up in a doll's quilt that Hennie had given him, unfolding the blanket to show off the nugget, just as if it had been his son. Folks called that nugget "Trucker's Baby."
Men weren't proud of their work on the dredges. Dredging was a poor excuse for a job, Hennie thought, no better than working in a big factory. But there was no call to tell that to Nit Spindle. Or to warn her husband to watch out for foolishness. Most likely, he'd learned that already.
Hennie took a few stitches in her quilt square, made a knot, and bit off the thread. "I expect your husband works on the Liberty Dredge," she said. The Liberty was the gold boat on the Swan River above Middle Swan, the boat whose clanking had interrupted them.
"Oh yes, ma'am. Dick's a deckhand."
Hennie asked how he'd gotten hired on.
Nit replied that Dick's cousin once removed worked at the dredge company's office in the East. She chewed at her finger. "Do you think people hate us for that? Maybe Dick took the job away from somebody else."
Instead of answering, Hennie said, "Not everybody wants to work on a dredge."
Nit sighed. "I thought maybe that's why nobody's come calling. But we were so desperate. There aren't any jobs at home, so Dick wrote his cousin. He's always been partial to Dick. I've been afraid that people here didn't like us 'cause Dick took a job that rightly belongs to somebody else. I'm so lonesome."
The old woman reached over and patted the girl's hand. "They'll come along. A mountain woman, now if she wants to visit, she makes an errand. If she comes on an errand, she pretends it's a visit. Don't fret. They're just taking their time thinking up errands."
Hennie remembered again how lonely she'd been that first year and how she'd vowed to call on every new woman in Middle Swan, and over the years, she had. Except for the hookers. She visited them at first, but they looked at her warily, their eyes shifting back and forth. They didn't ask her in, and Hennie knew she made the girls uneasy. She meant well, of course, but one of the prostitutes told her, "Most women like you want to send we girls to a farm. Well, I come from a farm. Why do you think I turned out?" And Hennie had understood, because she knew too many women in Tennessee who had gone to the grave young from farm work.
Hennie's eyes watered then for no reason, the way old women's eyes do, and she reached into her pocket for her handkerchief, but instead she pulled out a smoky blue feather. "I forgot about this. I found it on the trail this morning, lying in the snow. Now what do you suppose a bluebird's doing here this time of year?" She placed the feather on her palm and held out her hand to Nit. "Go on. Take it. You can pin it on the wall. Bluebirds are luck. Up here, they're like bits the Lord cut out from the sky, just like you'd cut quilt pieces, and sent down to us."
"Oh gee!" The girl took the feather and stared at it. Suddenly, she burst into tears.
Now what have you gone and done, old woman? Hennie asked herself. She set down her sewing and got up to put her arms around the girl, who cried even harder at the tenderness. Hennie patted her on the back, but the crying continued. "There now, dearie. I was lonesome, too, when I first came here, lonely as the devil at a revival meeting, as they say. But I came to like it right well. Why, in no time at all, I couldn't hardly stand to go down below. I can't breathe in that thick air. You'll find a woman along the Tenmile Range, now it takes her a time to warm up, but once she does, you'll never have a better neighbor. And a good neighbor's worth more than money."
The words only made Nit sob harder. There was nothing for Hennie to do then but let the girl cry herself out, and after a bit, the tears slowed, then stopped. Nit sniffed and wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. "It's not that," Nit said. "You see, that feather's the color of my baby's eyes. I had to leave her behind when we moved here, leave her in the cold ground." Nit reached into her pocket and withdrew a handkerchief that was white and neatly folded, and blew her nose. "She's all alone, my little girl. I buried her under a marker that says 'Sweet Baby Effie,' but what if nobody remembers who Effie Spindle is? What if the sign falls away? I asked you to pray for her that day at your house. I left the nickel for you. I'd be obliged if you'd pray she won't be forgot."
"I will." Nit's tears brought an aching to Hennie's own heart, for she understood the girl's sorrow. "You don't have your people there?"
Nit shook her head. "When we got married, Dick and I wanted us to go out to ourself. So we moved away from our homefolks."
"Then God will tend that baby's grave."
The girl stared at Hennie.
"You've got to believe that. Besides, it's just a grave. Your baby lives in your heart now." Hennie seemed to debate something with herself, and the thinking took a long time. Was there any reason to bring up what had happened so many years before? If she let herself talk about it, she wouldn't sleep that night but, instead, would thrash about, reliving that time, because the pain never went away but only lay hidden in her mind. The story took such a toll on her that she rarely told it anymore. But she felt a kinship with the girl, who seemed little more than a baby herself. Besides, Hennie had asked the Lord to let her be the answer to Nit's prayer, and He sometimes answered prayers in the oddest way. The old woman couldn't overlook that. So, sighing, she said deliberately, looking down at the sewing in her hands, "My baby's eyes were that color, too. She's buried in Tennessee. I never went back. Not once."
"In seventy years?"
Hennie shook her head. "I couldn't go back. I have my grievements." One still needed to be attended to, she thought, but didn't tell that to Nit.
"Was she dead-born, too, like Effie?"
"She was eight months and two days when she got taken. Or maybe three days. I never knew for sure."
"Why couldn't you go back, Mrs. Comfort?" The girl leaned forward. Her eyes still glittered with tears, but there was a questioning look in them. "Did you think you'd left her all alone, and you were afraid to see what became of her grave? That's what it's like for me. I feel I just left Effie by herself in the cold. If she'd been born alive and got sick, I could have helped her. I'm real good with the herbs. There's a plant for every disease if you have the sense to find the right one, but Effie never lived long enough to get a disease. She was just born a small, puny little old thing that never took a breath."
Hennie patted the younger woman's hand but did not speak.
"Didn't you ever want to see your girl's resting place once more? I couldn't bear it if I never saw Effie's again. They say you shouldn't name a dead baby, but I did anyway, named her for Mrs. Effie Pickle, who tended me during my labor."
Hennie shook her head. "I just couldn't stand to be there again, knowing my little Sarah was under the ground and never deserved it--God's precious child. I couldn't look at the place where she'd died. Sometimes, it's easier for me to look ahead than back."
Snow, which had stopped when Hennie set out for Nit's cabin, was falling again, big, wet flakes, a sloppy spring snow, not one of the screaming mountain storms of winter, and the light was gone from the room, but neither of the women thought to strike a match for the kerosene lamp. "How did she die?" the girl asked in a whisper.
Hennie went as rigid as a drill bit. "Drowned. Drowned in the creek where there wasn't six inches of water." She sighed deeply, recalling that tiny body, clad in a white dress that Hennie had embroidered with forget-me-nots.
"Oh, Mrs. Comfort! There's been a lot of suffering in it for you." The girl cried softly now.
Nit's quiet sobs went to Hennie's heart, and in a minute, a tear wet the scrap of quilting in the old woman's lap. Hennie sniffed. She was not a woman who cried much, and she didn't want to add to the girl's misery. "There's some here that know the story. I'm known in Middle Swan for my stories, but not this one. I haven't told it in a long time, not since I stopped going to church. There's not many that remember it."
"Do you need to tell it now? Do you feel the need of it?" The two seemed to have changed roles, and it was the girl now who offered solace to the old woman. Nit stood and took down the dipper hanging beside the stove. She filled it with water from the bucket, and held it out to Hennie. "Would you drink?" she asked.
Nit's concern made Hennie's hands shake, for there was not a great deal of tenderness in a mining camp. She steadied the dipper and drank the water, which was cold. Most likely, it was melted snow, because the cabin didn't have a well, and the stream was a long walk away.
The girl took the dipper and hung it up. "I don't mean to pry."
"You didn't." Hennie picked up her needle and took two or three stitches on the quilt square, but it was too dark to sew, and she knew the stitches were crooked and she'd have to take them out later. She stabbed the needle into the cloth. "I try not to bother folks with my troubles, and this happened so long ago that it's best forgot. But you never really forget a thing like this, just like you'll never forget about your little Effie." She paused, still debating with herself. "It's not a pretty story." The old woman looked at Nit, half hoping the girl would stop her, for she still didn't want to tell the story. She'd have a bad case of the blue devils tomorrow if she did.
Instead, Nit leaned forward, her eyes on Hennie's face, waiting for the woman to continue. Hennie felt a hairpin loosen in her white hair, which was pulled into a knot at the back of her neck. Without thinking about it, she scooped up stray hairs with the loose pin, which she secured in the knot. After a minute, she folded the sewing, although she did not put it into her pocket. Then taking a long breath, which was more of a sigh, she began. "Back then, I wasn't Hennie Comfort. In those days, I was called by the name of Ila Mae Stubbs."
In the golden days before the start of the War Between the States, Ila Mae was the precious only child of Obadiah Stubbs, a successful miller, and his wife. They lived in White Pigeon, Tennessee. The girl was raised with advantages, attending a school for young ladies where she was taught to cipher and write a fine hand, sew a seam with stitches as tiny as specks of salt. Her framed sampler, with its embroidered house and willow trees and a verse about serving the Lord, hung in the place of honor over the mantel in the parlor.
Ila Mae was not a pampered child. Although the Stubbses had servants--paid servants, because Obadiah Stubbs opposed slavery and owned neither man nor woman--Ila Mae helped at the cook stove and the laundry tubs. She loved the days spent in the barn and the garden, and truth be told, she was happier at the flour mill where the men argued about whether to join the North or the South if Mr. Lincoln were elected president than she was dressed in satin over corset and hoopskirt, gossiping at the tea table with her mother's friends. Like her father, Ila Mae did not hold with human bondage, and as a girl of strong opinions, she sometimes joined the men's conversations. Even at that age, she was one to speak her mind.
"Teach her to curb her tongue, and she'll make a good match," said Barton Fletcher, foreman of the Stubbs Mill.
"Some like a woman that speaks her mind," Obadiah replied.
"None I know. A husband could teach her."
"A husband that harms a hair on her head will be the worse for it," Obadiah thundered.
Both men were aware that Barton's son, Abram, had a fondness for Ila Mae, but they knew, too, that she would have none of him. Abram Fletcher was a handsome-made man, but he was randy and ill-tempered as a hornet and had too high an opinion of himself. He'd been spoiled by his mother and never made to work by his father. "Rather than marry with him, I'll betroth myself to a hog," Ila Mae told her father when he asked her view of the young man. Obadiah was not upset by his daughter's answer, for he considered Abram to be a fortune hunter.
While Obadiah did not hold with the war, he thought nonetheless that when the fighting broke out, it was his duty to enlist for the South. He was killed at Shiloh. Had Ila Mae been older, she might have been trained to run the mill, for she had a clear head, and her father had no quarrel with a woman who was ambitious. But she was a girl yet, so the mill was entrusted to Barton Fletcher. The mother left business affairs to him, while, dressed in widow's weeds, she sat long days in the parlor, the curtains drawn against the light. Death, when it came only a year after her husband's, was welcome to her.
By then, Barton Fletcher was running the mill with a free hand. Because her father had trusted him and he had eaten at their table, Ila Mae looked to him for guidance. She did not know a man would cheat a girl out of her inheritance, and when he told her to sign a paper, Ila Mae did so. Barton smirked at her then, handed her forty dollars, and claimed that she'd just sold him the mill and the house where she'd lived all her life, and every other thing that had belonged to her mother and father.
She could stay on in the house, Barton told her, if she would marry his son. But Ila Mae would not allow Abram Fletcher to court her. Besides, she thought the world and all of Billy Lloyd and had promised herself to him. Billy wasn't pretty like Abram. He was short and square-built, and at times, when riled, he had a temper. But he was a better man than Abram, kind and quiet-spoken, almost always showing a sunny disposition. Some thought those qualities made him soft and cowardly, and hoping to eliminate him as a rival, Abram used some trifling matter to challenge Billy to a duel. Given the choice of weapons, Billy selected fists, and he beat Abram nearly senseless. Ila Mae worried that Abram would try to even the score, but Billy said that Abram was too afraid of another fisting.
Obadiah had liked Billy, had told Ila Mae he would not mind if the boy joined him in running the mill one day, although he asked the young people to wait until Ila Mae was sixteen to wed. But homeless now, with both of her parents dead, Ila Mae found no reason to postpone marriage.
Ila Mae and Billy moved into an old log blockhouse on land Billy had inherited when his own parents died. The house was hidden away in the timber just off the Buttermilk Road, so-called because a farmer had blazed it to haul his milk into town. Ila Mae loved her new home, with its thatched roof and a fireplace that Billy himself built out of mud and rocks. He put in a window, too, because he didn't want Ila Mae to live in a blindhouse. "It's okay for a mole like me, but not a girl as pretty as stars." Billy blushed then, because he was not much for fine words.
Ila Mae reddened, too, for she knew she was not pretty. Her face was strong, not soft, and brown from working outdoors, and she was as tall as Billy. "You're not a mole," she said fiercely. "You're as finely built as an oak tree and just as strong." He picked her up then and carried her to the house to show her how strong he really was.
Billy was gentle, too, and Ila Mae loved the way he stroked her as they lay on a bed on the ground under a strip of cheesecloth hung from the branches of a tree as a mosquito net. They slept outside in the heat of the summer, and Ila Mae joyed to the touch of Billy's hand on her hot body. Sometimes, warm with lovemaking, they lay on their backs looking up at the stars and talked about their future. Although the war had intruded into their young lives, they saw years stretching out ahead of them filled with children and a fruitful farm. "Lordy, we'll live good," Billy promised.
They planted a garden, and what they raised was about what they had. Billy hunted, and Ila Mae cut the meat into strips and hung it to dry from a rope that they stretched from the tree in front of the house to the fence. They weren't more than a few hundred feet from a creek, but Billy still dug a well for Ila Mae. The two lived outdoors most of the time, except when the weather was bad, Ila Mae cooking over a campfire. Billy made a frame for Ila Mae to lay her quilts on, made it from pieces of seasoned oak so it would last, and she stitched outdoors, too. They were young, not jelled yet, but Lordy, they were full of life. When to no one's surprise, Sarah was born just nine months and three days after the wedding, "I didn't know a person could be so happy," Billy told Ila Mae.
The couple figured that being back in the woods like they were and Billy not very old and with a family to care for, nobody would expect him to go for a soldier. They talked about whether Billy ought to join up. He was willing, for he was more of a Confederate than Ila Mae. Besides, other young men had left their families to fight for the South, he said.
But Ila Mae pointed out that by then, everyone knew the South wouldn't win the war, and what was the good of risking his life for a cause that was lost? Better to stay where he was and help the families of Confederate soldiers, as he had been doing. There wasn't a widow along the Buttermilk Road who didn't know she could ask Billy Lloyd to mend her fence or hunt a lost cow. "You'll be here to rebuild after the peace. The men coming back'll be wounded and sick, and you can help them," Ila Mae told Billy, and he agreed. They were green yet and didn't know they were fools.
White Pigeon had a home guard. It was made up mostly of old men and the lame--soldiers who'd come back missing a leg or an arm or who'd gone queer in the head from the noise of the guns and the cannons, and the fear. But there were local boys in the guard, too, single men who ought to have joined up themselves. Ila Mae didn't understand why they weren't made to be soldiers. The guard was supposed to protect the women whose husbands were fighting the Yankees. But instead, they strutted around, threatening to arrest anyone they didn't like for not being patriotic. They stole guns and crops, saying such was for the army, but the home guard sold it all and kept the money. Folks around White Pigeon knew to stay away from them. Ila Mae knew that, too, because Abram Fletcher was one of the guards.
One morning, Ila Mae came in from cutting Christmas greens and found the home guard in her yard. The men had dragged Billy out of the house without his shoes on and tied him up in a wagon. He was bruised and had one eye nearly swollen shut from fighting with the guards. Abram Fletcher was there. "So you married a feather-legged man, Ila Mae," he said.
"That's a black lie! If there's any cowards about, it's you, Abram Fletcher. You tied up Billy because you're afraid he'll fist you. How come you haven't joined up? Are you too lazy or just too scared?"
Abram didn't like that, but with the other men around, some of the older ones once friends of Ila Mae's father, Abram didn't dare strike her. Instead, he punched Billy, saying, "Your wife would make a better soldier than you." Billy kicked at Abram, who dodged and laughed.
Ila Mae knew that if she said more, Billy'd get the worst of it, maybe get beat up a ways down the road. So she bit her tongue and said, "I'll get Billy's shoes." There was frost on the ground, and she didn't want Billy's feet to freeze.
Ila Mae went into the house and came back with the shoes, but just as she reached the wagon, Abram, who was seated on the bench, larruped up the horses. The wagon lurched, knocking Billy onto his side. The men started up after Abram. Ila Mae threw the shoes at Billy, but only one of them landed in the wagon. She picked up the other from the ground and ran after that wagon as long as she could, but she never caught up to it, and the farther it went, the farther behind she got. Finally, Ila Mae just stopped and waved and called, "I love you, Billy."
"I'll be back. I promise. I'll come home," he yelled, as the wagon went around a bend in the Buttermilk Road. She didn't see Billy after that. She would have followed him all the way into town then, but she couldn't leave Sarah alone in the cabin. So Ila Mae picked up the shoe and went back to the house and fed Sarah, then walked into White Pigeon with the baby, but she was too late. Billy'd already been taken off to the Tennessee volunteers--him wearing one shoe. Ila Mae never saw him again, never knew where he went. He wrote her--one letter anyway. There might have been more, but one was all she received. Billy wrote that if he ever got the chance, he'd come home, and Abram Fletcher and anybody else who tried to make him go back had better watch out.
Two or three months later, folks in the neighborhood spotted a soldier hiding out in the woods. They knew he was a Confederate because he was dressed in gray. Talk was that the soldier was Billy, but Ila Mae knew he wasn't, because by the time Billy was in the army, there weren't any uniforms left. Besides, the man had on two shoes. But most important, if he were Billy, he'd have come to see his family right off.
Whoever he was, he didn't come to the farm. Instead, while Ila Mae was sitting at her quilt frame one afternoon, Abram and some of his fellows rode up. They'd been drinking. She could tell that right off, and she was scared, because they were all young. None of the old men who might have calmed them down were with them.
"Where's your man?" one of the guards called out to Ila Mae.
"He's in the army, least he ought to be," she replied. "That's where you took him, isn't it?"
"We heard he's run off and is somewheres out in the woods, hiding like the yellow scum he is," Abram Fletcher said, leering at her.
"What makes you think that's Billy?" Ila Mae asked.
"Because Billy's not good for much 'cept taking to ground." The men laughed at that, and one took out a jug and handed it about.
"Billy's too much of a man to run!" Ila Mae told them.
"Well, ain't we men, too, and white at that? Not yellow like Billy," Abram said, and the others laughed again.
"You can look all around. He's not here," Ila Mae told them. She continued quilting, taking the worst stitches she'd ever made in her life but keeping on sewing because she didn't want the guards to think she was afraid of them.
One of the home guards dismounted, and he went into the house. Ila Mae heard things falling onto the floor. In a minute, the man came out with the skillet of cornbread she'd left on the hearth to bake. He'd wrapped the hot pan in the Seven Sisters quilt she'd made just after she was married. "I thought Billy'd be hiding under the bed, but he ain't there. Found his dinner, though," the man said, passing around the skillet so that the others could scoop out the cornbread with their hands. Then he flung the skillet into the woods. Abram took the quilt from the guard and tucked it in front of his saddle.
"You going to tell us where he's at?" Abram rode his horse over next to Ila Mae, so close that the animal knocked against the quilt frame. Abram reached down with a big knife and slashed the center of Ila Mae's half-finished quilt. "Martha Merritt sewed a Yankee flag in the middle of her quilt. If she hadn't lit out, we'd have took care of the traitor. You get what I mean?" he asked.
Ila Mae knew what he meant. "I told you, Billy's in the army. He hasn't been back since you took him off to town."
"We'll see about that." Abram climbed off his horse then and grabbed Ila Mae's arm so hard that she thought he'd pulled it out of its socket. "I always did fancy this girl," he told the others.
Despite the pain in her arm, Ila Mae made a fist, ready to defend herself. No man but Billy had ever touched her, and she didn't intend for any other man to try.
"Now, Abram," one of the men said. "We ain't here for that."
"Aw, what are you thinking?" Abram replied. "She's not so lucky. I just thought we'd tie her up so's she'll tell us where Billy's at."
"Maybe we ought to beat her with a whip," the man with the jug suggested. That was whiskey talk and it scared Ila Mae.
Abram took down the rope that had been strung for meat drying, and he tied Ila Mae's hands together. Then he fastened her hands to the crosspost of the well. After he finished, he leaned down and kissed her hard. Ila Mae spat at him, and he slapped her across the face, then put his fingers through the gold hoops in her ears and ripped them out. "We'll come back later on and see if you've changed your mind," he said, then whispered, "You be nice now, and I'll show you a good time." He mounted his horse and rode off with the others, the earrings in his pocket, Ila Mae's Seven Sisters quilt still affixed to his saddle.
Although Ila Mae wasn't able to move, she was grateful that the men were gone. Her ears ached, and her wrists hurt where the rope was tied too tightly. She cried out, hoping a neighbor would hear her; with Billy gone, the old farmers still living in the neighborhood were in the habit of checking in on her. Even if none of the neighbors heard her cries, somebody would come down the Buttermilk Road and set her free. Or one of the guards might sober up and be bemeaned by what the men had done and come back to cut her loose.
At the worst, Abram would return. As the day wore on, Ila Mae's arms began to swell, and she developed a terrible thirst. She was tied to the well, but she might have been in the middle of a desert for all the good that the water did her.
Still, Ila Mae didn't lose heart until she became sensible of Sarah, who began to cry. Ila Mae ached for the little girl, hungry and thirsty, although she knew the baby was safe inside the crib Billy had made for her. Ila Mae pulled with all her might, hoping the rope would come loose, pulled until she scraped the skin off her wrists.
It was on toward evening, when Ila Mae heard Sarah calling, "Ma, Ma," for Sarah was a bright thing who even at that young age knew her mother was Ma. Ila Mae realized the sound was louder than before. She wrenched herself around toward the house and saw then that the little girl was in the doorway. The man who'd gone into the house had upset the baby's crib, and Sarah crawled through the door and out into the dirt. Ila Mae called to her, "Sarah, come to Mama. Come to Mama, sweet girl."
Sarah heard her mother's voice and laughed and crawled toward the well. But something turned her head, and despite Ila Mae's pleadings, the little girl sat in the dirt and played with sticks. When she grew bored, she looked around and began to crawl again. Ila Mae called her to come, and she did, but with Ila Mae's hands tied over her head, the mother couldn't grab the baby. Ila Mae tried to hold the child with her feet, but Sarah pulled away and started down the hill, cooing and talking. The baby must have tumbled then, because after a time, the little thing began to cry. The crying grew fainter and farther away, until Ila Mae could hear it no longer. She called until her voice gave out, but she never again heard her baby's voice. Ila Mae strained her eyes trying to make out the baby in the moonlight, but she couldn't see her, either. She pulled at the ropes that bound her until they rubbed almost to the bone, but the restraints held. Finally, she gave up and closed her eyes and prayed--prayed that someone would come along and free her or that Sarah would crawl back up the hill to safety. Billy was gone and Sarah was all she had now. What if Billy survived the war, only to come home and find that his little girl had perished? Or maybe he wouldn't come home, and she'd have lost them both. Bitter tears ran down Ila Mae's face, and with her hands tied, she couldn't even wipe them away.
Just at dawn, Ila Mae heard something stir behind the house. A man darted across the yard, and Ila Mae called out. It wasn't much of a sound, because her voice was gone, but the man heard her, and moving from tree to tree, he came close. He was the Confederate, and Ila Mae thought he was there to rob her.
"You got yourself in a pickle," he said.
If God had heard her prayer and sent this man, then maybe Sarah was all right, Ila Mae thought. But they had to hurry. "Quick. They think you're my husband, Billy, hiding out. The home guard tied me up because I wouldn't tell on you, and my baby's crawled off. I can't see her. Please help me, mister," Ila Mae whispered. "Please hurry."
"You won't turn me in if I do? You got to promise me that."
"I won't turn you in. My word's as honest as gold. They made my husband enlist and he'd run off, too, if he could."
The soldier studied Ila Mae a moment before making up his mind. Then he cut the rope. He took her raw wrists to rub the circulation back into them, but Ila Mae wouldn't wait. "I've got to find Sarah. She's my baby, and she's loose out here. Help me."
The two took off down the hill, Ila Mae going one way, the man another, and it wasn't two or three minutes before she heard him call, "Missus."
There was such sadness in his voice that Ila Mae knew he'd found Sarah. She tried to rush to him, but her feet were as heavy as if they'd been weighted down with sad irons, and she could hardly move. It seemed as if it took her five minutes to go three hundred yards. When she reached the soldier, he was squatting down next to Sarah, who was lying facedown in the creek. The surface of the water had frozen a crust around her face. When she picked up that tiny body, dressed in the white gown that was now ripped and stained with dirt, Ila Mae saw that Sarah's face was wet, and she dried it with her hands, then wrapped the baby in her apron and carried her to the house. She could not cry, because her heart was too broken. Her mind was dull, and her stomach seemed as if she had swallowed a lump of clay. A voice inside her kept saying, "Sarah's dead. Sarah's dead." And Ila Mae felt as if she were dead, too.
The soldier wasn't a Rebel, he told her. He was a Union man who'd been captured and escaped and taken the uniform from a dead Confederate. He was a good man. He built a fire in the hearth and cooked up some bacon for Ila Mae, then heated water so that she could wash Sarah. He told Ila Mae that his little girl was just about Sarah's age. "I ought to never have left her, and your man ought to be here now," he said.
Ila Mae wrapped Sarah in a quilt to warm her, just as if she'd been alive. "Have you had her baptized in the Lord?" the man asked. "I'm a preacher and can do it if it would ease you some." Ila Mae had been waiting until Billy came home before asking a preacher to bless the baby, so she told the Yankee that she'd appreciate it if he'd say the words over the child. Ila Mae drew fresh water from the well, and the man made a wet cross on the dead child's forehead and said a Bible verse from memory. The words comforted her a little. Then Ila Mae dressed the baby in a clean gown, and they laid Sarah in a little grave that the Yankee dug in the burial ground out back where Billy's people rested.
After that, the soldier offered to walk Ila Mae to White Pigeon, but she told him no. She had to stay beside the grave. She couldn't leave Sarah alone. Besides, if the home guard caught the Yankee, he'd be shot. "Take my husband's clothes from the trunk. You'll be safer in them than dressed like a Confederate. Throw your uniform in the fire." She filled a pillowcase with bread and bacon and a sack of cornmeal. "Go west," she told the Yankee. "That's where they're fighting. You'll run into the Union Army. If you see a boy with one shoe, don't shoot him. That's my husband."
"I seen plenty of men barefoot but never one with one shoe. I'll keep a lookout for him."
"I'll say a prayer for you."
"The name's Simon Smith, missus, but the Lord's acquainted with me. I'll keep you and yours in my prayers, too," he replied, and was off.
Ila Mae never knew if he made it.
She wrote Billy to tell him Sarah was dead, although she didn't tell him how it had happened. Time enough for that after he returned home, although he never did. After the war ended, a man came looking for her. He and Billy were pards in the army, he said, and they'd promised each other if one of them got killed, the other would tell the family. The man couldn't write, so he came all the way to Tennessee to find her. Billy was shot less than a week before the war was over. The man said Billy died easy, saying he'd given his life for a noble cause and wasn't sorry, but Ila Mae knew that was what they always told the widows. She never found out where he was buried.
In a day or two, after the soldier was well away, Ila Mae forced herself away from the little grave and walked into White Pigeon and told what Abram and his fellows had done. People believed her and wouldn't speak to him after that. When the fighting was over and the soldiers came home, they ran off Abram, declared he had bemeaned the town and wasn't ever to show his face there again. Not long after that, a soldier came to Ila Mae's cabin and set $500 on her table. He said the men had had a talk with Barton Fletcher and told him that if he didn't want to leave White Pigeon like Abram, he'd have to come up with more than $40 to buy her father's house and mill. The men said she could have a better life with the money, but that meant nothing to Ila Mae. She believed she'd already lived the happiest days of her life.
The bucket line, which had stopped while Hennie was telling her story, started up just then, the clanking and screeching breaking the stillness in the room, jarring Hennie loose from the past. She hated the sound of it, but she was relieved to hear the clatter, for it meant no one had been hurt. When there was an accident, the dredge stayed shut down for a long time. "You see, it was just a little thing wrong with the dredge," Hennie said.
With an effort, Hennie put the story of Sarah out of her mind. She glanced at the window and saw that it was black as tar outside and exclaimed, "Law, you've got supper to fix, and here I've been talking. That's what happens when you live by yourself. You lose sight of the time. I'll get on home and fix hotcakes. I can't seem to take them for breakfast, so I have them at night." She wondered if she could swallow the hotcakes after telling her story. Hennie stood and looked around for her coat.
Nit stood, too. She noticed the dark and struck a match and lit the kerosene lamp between them. It sent out a weak circle of light that didn't illuminate much. The corners of the room were still in shadow. The girl's eyes were red, and she wiped them with her fingers, then put her hand on the old woman's arm. "Did Ila Mae--I mean, did you, back when you were Ila Mae--burn the quilt you were working on the way you did that army uniform?"
At first, Hennie didn't understand, but when she did, she smiled, because the question tickled her. Only a true quilter would remember such a thing as a spoiled quilt. "The Murder quilt," she mused. "That's what I call it. I put it away half done, and I've kept it all these years. There might be a use for it yet."
Hennie shook her head. That quilt was one of the things she had to deal with before she left Middle Swan.
"What happened to Abram Fletcher?"
Hennie pulled away from the girl and went to the bed for her coat. Her back to Nit, Hennie put on the coat and tied a scarf around her head, as she thought what to say about Abram Fletcher.
"Do you hate Abram Fletcher still?" Nit continued. Hennie had put on her mittens and was fumbling with the buttons, so the girl fastened the old woman's coat for her.
"No, I guess I don't hate him anymore. But I never forgave him. What he did lodges in my heart like a wild licorice burr. You don't forget. You never forget. You don't forgive, either. But time passes, and you find peace of a kind. You will, too, Mrs. Spindle. That's why I told you my story. You'll wake up and go an hour without thinking about your baby. And one day, when you think of her, why, you'll remember her sweetness, not her death." Hennie sighed.
"Your story heals me," Nit said.
The old woman thought to tell the girl that there would be other babies, but she wouldn't, for she knew that might not be true. Hennie herself had suffered miscarriages in Middle Swan. Instead, she said, "You know, I believe Sarah's death was as painful for Abram Fletcher as it was for me."
"How can you say that?"
Hennie stared at the light on the table, then looked Nit in the face. "That's a story with no ending. But I've got other stories, happier ones. You come over. I'm there most days, and I'd welcome the company. You come and sew and hear my stories. You know what a storyteller is, don't you? It's a person that has a good memory who hopes other people don't." The old woman chuckled and stood in the cold doorway a minute. "I promise you you'll find peace yourself, Mrs. Spindle. Not tomorrow, but one day."
She studied the girl a moment longer, thinking again how much Nit reminded her of herself at that age. There was indeed a reason the girl had stopped at her gate for a prayer, and maybe the Almighty had Hennie Comfort in mind as the answer. Perhaps it was tied up with letting the old woman stay in Middle Swan a little longer. It surprised her sometimes the way the Lord replied to a prayer, for He didn't always answer the way Hennie would have answered it if the two of them had traded places.
Nit stood in the doorway and watched as Hennie disappeared into the darkness. Then she called after the old woman, "I thank you for your story. And I'm awful proud we got acquainted."
PRAYERS FOR SALE. Copyright © 2009 by Sandra Dallas.Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride’s House, Whiter Than Snow, and Tallgrass, among others. Her novels have been translated into a dozen languages and optioned for films. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.