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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.
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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 pointless. All the digging, rattling, and mining commotion scared the game away.
She’d tried to coax Pa to leave their claim long enough to hunt elsewhere to no avail.
Mama could’ve convinced him.
Mama isn’t here. Eli straightened her shoulders. “Pa, this is the last—”
“Hey, Eli!” The familiar voice cut her off.
She turned in time to see a small rock sail toward her head and managed to duck it, but the move upset her balance. She tipped backward.
Contorting herself to right her balance without spilling their dinner, she wobbled back and forth as stones rocked beneath her. She shifted her footing, but the sloped face of a large, moss-covered rock hastened her descent. Holding the pan aloft as she fell backward, her body tilted sideways and she overcorrected—
Sending the beans spilling down her shirt and into the creek.
For a moment she sat still, the chill of the icy mountain runoff failing to cool her blood as gales of boyish laughter drifted toward her from the bank. She erupted from the creek, wielding her now-empty pan above her head. “Morgan Channing, I’m gonna have your hide for this!”
She sloshed three full steps to the edge of the creek before she froze.
The eleven-year-old had stopped laughing and was staring at her, mouth hanging open, eyes wide. “Y-you…! Y-you’re a…a…”
Eli followed his gaze to her chest, where a few beans still clung to her drenched, oversized shirt. She dropped the pan and covered herself. Oh, how brainless of her! Would Pa send her away?
“Here now, boy!” Pa jumped to stand between Eli and Morgan. “What’re you doing? Thought you was supposed to be a friend. Did your pa send you over here? You trying to drive us out by starvation?”
Eli peeked around Pa. Morgan snapped to at Pa’s suggestion that he and his pa were trying to steal their claim. Men had been killed over such suspicions.
Pa was thinner than Job’s turkey now, but he still loomed over most men. His presence never failed to intimidate. He patted the ever-present Colt Walker at his waist.
“No! No, sir, Big Jim! I swear!” Morgan backed away, hands raised. “I was just funnin’. I didn’t mean to make ya lose your fixin’s, I swear it. Please, you gotta believe me. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Oh yeah?” Pa scratched his bearded chin, making a show of considering Morgan’s words. “And how am I supposed to know you’re telling the truth?”
“I-I…” Morgan’s eyes drifted downward and then shot back up again. “I’ll bring ya my own fixin’s to make up for it!”
Eli opened her mouth to protest, but it was no use.
The boy was already racing away. “Back in a jiffy!”
“Pa!” She swatted at his back, and he turned to face her. “We can’t take his food!”
“We can and we will, Son. He’s done us wrong, and it’s only right that he should make amends.”
“And we needed to distract him from what he saw.” He lifted an eyebrow, and she blushed. “Now get in that tent and out of sight before he gets back.”
Snapping her mouth shut, Eli ducked into their tent, grateful for the one luxury they’d managed to keep since coming to the fields. She’d sold off everything else they owned, piece-by-piece, animal after animal, as the months turned into a year and all the gold those blowhard trappers and hornswoggling newspapers promised Pa had failed to appear. They hadn’t even found enough to keep their bellies full and their bodies clothed.
She secured the flap and picked at her clinging clothes. Oh, for another set to change into. At least the tent blocked the breeze. She gathered the hem of her shirt and wrung it. Water streamed, trailing a muddy path across the dirt floor until it disappeared beneath the canvas wall.
She was wringing the hem of her trousers when Morgan returned, still apologizing. Pa gave him a brusque thanks mixed with a warning that it not happen again before sending him back to his camp.
Morgan’s hurried footsteps faded away as the crunch of dirt beneath boots grew louder. Pa’s quiet voice drifted through the flap. “You decent?”
She crossed her arms over her chest and tucked her chin. How could she have been so careless? “Yes, Pa.” The words came out just louder than a whisper.
He lifted the flap and crawled inside like a three-legged dog, balancing a plate of beans in his right hand. “Here.” He plunked it on the ground before her.
Her stomach rumbled, but she just stared at the plate. “You need to eat too, Pa. You haven’t eaten all day.” Had he eaten yesterday? She didn’t think so.
When they’d first left Oregon for the gold fields, Pa’s excitement gave her hope that he was healing, but the months of hard labor for little reward had worn him down. His enduring drive to succeed used to be comforting. Then, it grew to an obsession. If Pa sent her away because of what had happened with Morgan, who would remind Pa to eat?
His silence grew long and she lifted her head. He stared at her—no, saw her—in a way he hadn’t seen her in months.
His eyes pinched at the corners. He cleared his throat. “Eat. I’ll be fine. I got work to do.” He crawled toward the flap.
She leaned forward to follow, but he held up his hand. “You just stay here. Understand? It won’t take me long to get our things together, so by the time you’re done with those beans, we ought to be ready to go.”
“Go?” It had taken weeks of pleading to convince Pa to bring her along to California instead of leaving her with neighbors in Oregon. He kept saying he wouldn’t bring a female around so many lonely men.
“My Pa made that mistake,” he told her during one of their many discussions. “My sister came with us when we went to Georgia. He thought we could keep her safe.” Something had flickered in Pa’s eyes. “He was wrong.”
He never said more than that, but it was clear he wasn’t changing his mind. Not until Eli dressed as a boy. Somehow, that made the difference.
She straightened. “You’re not taking me back to Oregon, Pa. I won’t stay there. You need me.”
“Too late to make it, anyway.” He turned away. “Snow’s coming.”
She grabbed his shoulder. “Then where are we going?”
He shook her hand off and glared at her. “How long you think it will take for Morgan to get over that scare I gave him and remember what he saw?” She opened her mouth, but he kept talking. “And when he does, how long you think it’ll take him to go blabbin’ the news all over these hills?”
“But…” She wanted to argue that Morgan could be trusted, but Pa was right. Secrets ate Morgan alive. It was only a matter of time before everyone around knew her secret.
“We’ve got to get before that happens.” His gaze darted away. “Get someplace far away.”
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Three days later, Eli rubbed her arms as Pa stepped up to the front door of the grand two-story house. She shivered and wiped the rain from her face. “Pa, are you sure this is the right one?”
He grunted and knocked on the elegant wood door.
As they waited, Eli took in the fancy carvings, delicate trim work, and second-story balcony decorating the front. She lifted a brow. Uncle Henry had set out west before her birth, so she’d never met him and Pa almost never spoke of him. What little Pa shared about his brother revealed they had once been close friends. Still…
Nothing Pa shared even hinted at Uncle Henry having the means to afford a home as grand as the one before them.
“Did Uncle Henry strike it rich?”
Pa shrugged without moving his gaze from the door.
Why did Pa never mention that Uncle Henry was in California? And that he lived as close as San Francisco? Three days ago, the slightest breeze could have felled her when Pa suggested they see if his younger brother would put them up for the winter.
Eli shifted from foot to foot. She glanced at Pa, still staring at the door. Come spring, they’d return to the cold, muddy fields in search of a new claim. It would be nice to spend the winter somewhere warm, but she didn’t relish the idea of spending so much time with the kind of people who would own a house like this. When was the last time she held a sliver of soap? The dousing she’d given herself earlier this morning would have to do.
At last, a dark-skinned man in a long black waistcoat answered the door. “Yes?”
“I’m Jim Brooks, here to see my brother, Henry Davidson.”
Eli looked at Pa. “Why’s he got a different last name than you?”
Pa squinted at her. “Same ma, different pas. My ma married Henry’s pa after my pa died when I was eight.”
“So he’s your half brother?”
Pa nodded as the servant motioned for them to enter, and Eli followed Pa out of the rain. Their wet boots squeaked on the sleek wood floor. A narrow table stood flush against the wall, topped with an expensive vase filled with dried flowers. A fancy mirror hung above it. Warmth radiated from an open doorway.
Why hadn’t Pa suggested they visit his brother last winter?
A tall, dark-haired man wearing spectacles emerged from a doorway down the hall and hurried toward them.
“Henry.” Pa nodded. “I hope we’re welcome.”
Eli blinked at Pa. Why wouldn’t they be welcome?
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Uncle Henry grinned as he pulled Pa into a tight hug.
Pa returned his brother’s embrace before stepping back.
They stared at one another a moment before Henry took Pa’s shoulders. “It’s been too long, brother. Tell me, how are you?”
Uncle Henry’s gaze swung to Eli.
He offered his hand. “Oh, do forgive me. I’m Henry Davidson. Welcome to my home.”
Eli accepted Uncle Henry’s hand. “I—”
“This is Eliza, Henry.”
Had someone come in behind them? Eli turned to see whom Pa was speaking of.
Oh. Of course. It was so long since she’d heard her full name she’d almost forgotten it.
Uncle Henry’s mouth rounded as he released her hand.
“Your…daughter?” His stared at her, eyes wide.
She drug her fingers through her chopped curls. So her hair was short and she was wearing trousers. So what? Did he have to stare like she’d just sprouted wings and flown about the hall?
He finally blinked. “Eliza?”
A click sounded down the hall. All three turned toward the noise as the most beautiful woman Eli had ever seen emerged from a dark room. She looked to have stepped straight off the fashion-plate pages the miners sometimes carried around in their pockets to stare at when they were lonely. The woman’s rich brown silk dress glided across the floor as if her feet floated somewhere above the carpet. Blond hair hung in perfect ringlets on either side of her pale face. Her pink lips curled in a smile.
But it didn’t quite reach her brilliant blue eyes.
The woman scrutinized Eli and Pa in a head-to-toe glance so swift Eli almost missed it. The tiniest lift of her chin said they’d been found wanting.
The woman paused beside Uncle Henry, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Henry dear, I can handle this.”
Uncle Henry opened his mouth, but the woman had already spun to face Eli and Pa.
“I’m sorry. There seems to have been some misunderstanding with The Society. We are fully staffed.” The woman lifted a hand toward the door, signaling they should leave.
Pa frowned. “But—”
“I’m terribly sorry for your inconvenience, but truthfully, were we in need of services, I’m afraid you would not do.” The woman stepped around them toward the front door.
Eli clenched her fists. This wasn’t the first time they’d been treated rudely, but she’d be hanged if she was going to stand here and take it from this slicked-up ninny. “We—”
“While we are sympathetic to your plight, we must insist on a certain level of personal cleanliness and pride in appearance.”
“Why, you…!” Eli stepped forward, ready to plant a sockdollager on the ninny’s smeller, but Pa caught her shoulders.
“Cecilia.” Uncle Henry’s face had grown redder with the woman’s every word.
She raised her free hand to silence him. “Don’t worry, darling. I’m sure they understand and there are plenty of positions with lower standards to which The Society can refer them.”
Uncle Henry needed to bat Cecilia’s hand away as Pa would have Ma’s. Instead, he sucked in a deep breath, clamped his lips together, and squeezed his eyes shut.
Cecelia opened the door and poked her head outside, checking both directions before swinging it wide. “Now go, please, before someone sees you.”
Uncle Henry’s eyes flew open. “Cecilia!”
Cecilia jumped. She stared at him with wide eyes and a gaping, thankfully silent, mouth.
Eli pressed her lips against a cheer.
Uncle Henry spoke through his teeth. “Shut the door.” He waited for the woman to comply. “Cecilia, this is my brother, Jim, and his daughter, Eliza.”
Cecilia gasped. “Your…”
Eli sneered as the color drained from the ninny’s cheeks.
Uncle Henry ran a hand down his face. “Jim, Eliza, this is my usually charming wife, Cecilia. I do hope you’ll stay for supper and allow us the opportunity to make amends for this…misunderstanding.”
Pa kept hold of Eli’s shoulder as he accepted his brother’s proffered hand. “Of course.”
Eli forced her pinched lips to curl upward. Dinner, fine. She’d never turn down free food. But as soon as she could, she’d convince Pa to escape this snooty home. And she just might shove haughty Cecilia into the mud on her way out.
“Thank you.” Uncle Henry smiled at Pa, then narrowed his eyes at Cecilia. “They’ve had a long journey. Please instruct Martha to prepare rooms for them. I’m sure they would like to rest before joining us for supper.”
“Yes, of course. You must be freezing in those wet clothes.” Now all stiff smiles and open arms, Cecilia ushered them into a nearby room, which had carved furniture and a blazing hearth. “Come, you can warm yourselves by the fire while I fetch Martha to prepare your rooms.” She hesitated, one fine brow arching. “I’ll have her heat water for baths as well.”
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Eli leaned back and rubbed her full belly through the soft, brown fabric of the maid’s dress that she’d been blackmailed into wearing.
Two hours ago, she’d emerged from her bath to find someone had stolen her clothes. A pile of women’s garments sat in their place. Eli shouted for Pa. Instead of fetching her clothes, he gave her a choice—wear the dress or go hungry. So she’d tugged the impractical thing over her head. But left the undergarments where they lay. The ninny might choose to suffocate herself with corsets and petticoats, but Eli wanted to be ready to run if the need arose.
A satisfying belch burst from her mouth and she had to admit—the meal was worth the sacrifice.
Her gaze settled on Cecilia’s empty chair. Too bad the ninny had claimed a headache and disappeared. Her reaction might have been fun.
Uncle Henry pushed his chair back from the table and stood. “Shall we move to the drawing room, then?”
Eli’s eyelids tugged downward, but she forced them open.
Pa set his napkin on the table. “Did Amanda send you Pa’s Bible when he passed?”
Uncle Henry quirked a brow as Pa stood. “Yes. Along with a crateful of other things our sister thought I might like. Why do you ask?”
“It’s in your study, I suppose.”
Eli eyed the door the servant had disappeared through. The kitchen must be that way.
Uncle Henry clapped his hands together. “Would you like to see it?”
Had she spoken her thoughts aloud? No. He was looking at Pa.
Pa faced the hallway. “You get to bed, Eliza.” Without a glance in her direction, he strode from the room, Uncle Henry trailing behind.