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California gold fields
The scream pierced Eli, ripping her from sleep. Cramming a fist in her mouth, she muffled her sobs. The voice that used to sing her nursery rhymes, pray for her, hum her to sleep. She couldn’t hear it. Now it only came to her in echoes of that ghastly scream, tearing through her mind, shredding her heart.
No more. She clamped her hands over her ears, squeezed her eyes against the blackness.
Dark images forced their way in. Shovels of dirt falling onto that dear, beautiful face, skin pale with death, smile gone forever. Loving eyes shuttered. Arms that once comforted her now crossed over a faded blue bodice as the grave was filled in. Pa, her rock, crumpled on the ground. Inconsolable.
Stop! Don’t think about it!
She sat up. Crawled from the tent. Cold night air slapped her cheeks. She hugged herself, rocking.
Her eyes sought the heavens, the weight of His gaze suffocating her. “Make it stop. Please. I’m sorry.”
The pockmarked moon stared at her through the trees. And the cow jumped over the moon. The familiar tune crushed her heart.
A frosty breeze cut through her shirt. She shivered and ducked back inside.
Pa’s snores continued. She curled onto her thin blanket, wrapping the end over herself.
Of course God wouldn’t answer. It didn’t matter.
Eli wouldn’t fail again.
She forced her eyes shut. One of them needed to be thinking clearly come dawn. And it wouldn’t be Pa.
They were going to starve to death, if they didn’t freeze to death first. Sure, they had beans for dinner, but Eli had had to trade her spare shirt for them—the one she’d been wearing beneath her everyday shirt to keep the early-October frost from biting her skin. She shivered beside the fire. Not much left to trade for supper, but then, there wasn’t another miner in these diggings that had grub to spare even if she had something worth trading.
She studied each bean, careful not to burn a one. Her hollow stomach cramped as the sweet smell of the simmering meal mixed with the scent of wood smoke filling the air.
A pinch of rosemary would have added flavor. Would Mama have been disappointed Eli’d traded the last of their herbs for Pa’s new coat? She shook her head. If Eli couldn’t coax Pa from the creek, the least she could do was keep his shoulders warm. Mama would have understood.
A shift in the cold wind blew soot into Eli’s eyes as she lifted the pan from the fire. Brushing a grimy strand of hair from her face and blinking away the sting, she turned her back to the smoke and stirred the beans.
Time to get Pa.
She walked to where he squatted in the icy mountain creek.
He wouldn’t be happy she’d traded the spare shirt. He’d wanted it to hide her blossoming womanhood. Of course, he’d have to notice the shirt was gone first.
Standing beside the babbling water, she toed off her boots before yanking her tattered socks off. After stuffing them into a boot, she pulled up her trousers and, with a bracing breath, waded into the chilling water.
She held the spoon out handle first, but he shrugged her away. Afternoon sunlight bounced off his thin, greasy hair—brown like hers, but darkened by muck. His dirt-encrusted brown eyes continued squinting into the swirling pan of water. The gentle rotation of his wrists never ceased.
“Come on, Pa. You gotta eat.”
He cleared his throat and spat to the side opposite where she stood, never taking his eyes from the water. “I’m fine. You eat.”
Eli lifted the spoon higher. “But, Pa—”
“I’ll eat later.” He shifted in the calf-deep water so that her worried stare landed squarely between his broad shoulder blades.
Her fingers tightened around the spoon as she planted her fist on her hip. The rocks shifted beneath her feet. “That’s what you said this morning.”
“I’m busy, Eli. Now hush and leave me be.”
She stood there a moment longer, taking in the sight of him. That tall, too-thin frame draped in the now too-large, threadbare shirt. She’d mended that thing more times than she could count. The trousers he kept up with a rope at his waist needed mending in the right knee, but she doubted the fabric could endure another stitching. She peered down at her own trousers. The worn threads of the cuffs drifted and tugged with the current.
She frowned at the beans cooling in the pan. A body shouldn’t have to choose between clothes and food. But miners upstream caught any fish in the creek, and hunting around here was . . .
Don’t forget to preorder your copy of Waltz in the Wilderness if you haven’t already!