Chapter 1: June
"How about marryin’ me?" he says, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, the most natural thing to offer his life to a woman he’s barely spoken to over the back of the cow she’s milking. He’s still smiling down at her like she’s- like she’s sunshine, or cherry pie, or good stew.
He’s got an easy smile, does Adam Pontipee. Comes natural. Makes her want to smile back.
Milly doesn’t. Milly takes a good hard grip on Bess and her own common sense, turns her eyes down. This needs thinkin’ on, and she’s not gonna get any done if she’s too busy looking. You don’t just up and marry someone you met not a half hour ago, even if he’s got an easy smile and kettle-bright hair and shoulders wider than the Rockies and- and brown eyes that crinkle at the corners, like he’s laughing a little. Oh help.
"I know it’s kinda short notice," he adds, like he’s reading her mind, or maybe her face. She can hear the smile in his voice, the confidence as he leans on Bess and pays out a pretty line about the courtship they might’ve had back East, sitting in separate pews and sneaking glances at each other. Hands brushing by the church gate, Plutarch in the front parlour, the heat of him next to her on the sofa, close enough to touch. Sly kisses. Pa sitting her down one bright afternoon and saying, very gravely, do you like him, my dear?
The old ache up and kicks her in the chest like the mule it is. She breathes through it, holding tight to Bess. Back East, of course, she’d have Pa for him to ask, and Ma to tell her about marrying, and a home that was hers, full of knick-knacks and trims and doilies like the Alcotts’.
"Out here, there’s no time," he says, Adam says, Adam Pontipee from the mountains with his farm and his house and fifty acres of wheat, and Milly keeps herself looking down, breathing slow. Bess is warm in her hands, soft and a little sticky. There’s sunlight on her face and grit under her boots. She’s here in Oregon Territory and it’s spring, and she’s got a couple of peach cobblers in the oven and beef going at the back of the stove. She can smell it boilin’ from here. She’s alive and she’s safe and she’s fine.
I’ve gotta be home tonight to tend to my stock,” Adam tells her, and she latches onto his voice, the sureness of it, the words coming easy as his smile. “It’ll be another five months before I get down again with my grain,” he says, leaning on Bess, who flicks an ear back but holds still, good girl. "Are you gonna keep me waiting all that five months, just for your pride?"
His voice is coaxing, warms her body like summer. Oh, she likes his voice. Likes his mouth, half covered by red beard; likes his sureness, his boldness, his straightforward manner. Likes the way he looks at her, like she’s something he wants and he’s not afraid to show it.
She wants to look back at him that way, if she’s being honest.
Well, if she’s being honest, Milly’s been wanting to look at him with wanting clear in her eyes since she went and dropped stew in Harry Wheelan’s lap. And maybe it is that easy, that natural, to give yourself over body and soul to someone you’ve barely met. After all, she’s just gone and done it, hasn’t she?
She lets herself look at him. He’s keeping himself still, waiting on her word, and she likes that, that he won’t press once he’s said his piece. It’s a good sign.
"I’ll have to finish my chores," she says, careful, and oh, look, he’s smiling right at her, just for her, wide and warm and true.
It’s hot and dim in the general store, the air thick with the smell of soap and dust and Mr. Bixby’s pipe. Mrs. Bixby is fussing with the scales and a sack of dried red beans, but she leaves be when Milly pushes through the door.
"Well you’re mighty glad of something, missy. What’s happened?"
Milly is fair beaming and she knows it. She can’t help it.
"I’m gettin’ married, Mrs. Bixby. Have you any more of that blue ribbon? I’m not much of a bride in my workday dress, but- why, what’s the matter?"
Mrs. Bixby’s frown is a proper thundercloud. She props both fists on her hips and tips forward. "Milly Larson, don’t you tell me you’ve gone and said yes to that slummocky Pontipee backwoodsman! I won’t have it!"
Milly stares at her. This is- unexpected. "Matter of fact, I have. What’s wrong, Mrs. Bixby?"
"What’s wrong? What’s wrong? It’s indecent, is what it is! One lone woman with seven scroungy backwoodsmen who can’t pick up after themselves, stranded in bear country with no family or friends or other womenfolk to keep her company. You can’t be serious."
There’s a sinking feeling in her belly. "Seven?"
The wrinkles on Mrs. Bixby’s face rearrange themselves into something like pity. "He didn’t tell you? No, of course he didn’t. How else would he trick you into taking him? Milly."
Mrs. Bixby leans over to take her hands, grips them hard. "Oh, your hands are ice, girl. Now, you listen to me. That Adam Pontipee waltzed in this morning and told me bold as brass that he was wanting a woman to cook and wash and slave for him and his six brothers. Said his home was a pigsty and he couldn’t get a decent meal for love or money, and was lookin’ to change that. Wanted to trade for one of our girls like she was a bag of meal."
The sinking feeling in her belly has gone so deep it’s like someone’s overturned a boat and dropped her out. It’s hard to forget: the shock of the cold, the terrible weightlessness. Her body going down like a stone in the water. The noise of water, over everything.
"- stood right there by the flannels and eyed Sarah and Dorcas and the other girls up when they came in, like they was trussed hams. Said they were pretty enough but he was gonna look you all over ‘fore he decided. Why, Mr. Schmidt told me the fellow hung about outside his store and eyed up his draper’s dummy before he realised she weren’t real-"
She’s a fool. She’s gone and fallen head over heart for a man who sees her as little more than a cooking, cleaning, washin’ draper’s dummy. She is a dummy, for all he cares about her. She’s a fool.
"Milly? Milly. Child, you’ve gone real still. Are you alright?"
A warm, rough hand on her forehead. Milly blinks up at Mrs. Bixby, who pats her on the cheek. "There you are. You know, I’m dreadful sorry to be telling you this. You looked so glad and all, and the good Lord knows you haven’t had much gladness, but it ain’t right, Milly. Not like this."
Milly breathes in deep. Soap, beeswax, tobacco, dust. The familiar drift of sunlight through a glass window. She squeezes the hand tucked in hers, the hard warmth of Mrs. Bixby’s wedding ring against her palm. "It’s fine, Mrs. Bixby. I appreciate you telling me."
The bell rings. She lets go. Brushes her skirt down, as if that might make some difference to how her skin feels, how her body’s trembling right through the bones of her, deep below the surface. "I’ve got to go talk with him."
Mrs. Bixby’s face is crumpled tight with worry. She reaches out to pat Milly’s arm as she passes. "Now you be careful, girl. You come right back if he makes trouble, you hear? I’ll not be havin’ you hurt."
The bell rings again as Milly pushes outside. The June sunlight is hard on her face. After the drowned dimness of the store, the clamour and clatter of the living world is too loud, too shrill.
Too late, she thinks.
He’s waiting for her outside the Alcotts’, leaning on the front gate and watching the town go by. He’s shaved. The clean line of his jaw hurts to look at. Why did she have go and fall for a man so handsome she plumb forgot her common sense? She should’ve known nothing comes so easy or so simple. Why, look at Susanna. Look at what happened with Daisy O’Sullivan. She should’ve known.
He smiles when he sees her, swinging away from the gate to tip his hat. Even knowing what she knows now, it heats her up from her bones on out. "Morning, ma’am," he drawls. 'Nice day for marrying, ain’t it?"
After a moment, his face changes when hers doesn’t. "What’s the matter?"
"We’ve got to talk," Milly says. She balls her fists up in her skirt. "Over there." There’s a stand of apple trees down by where Mr. Martinez keeps his goats, a little way back from the main street. She walks fast but he catches up quick, those long legs of his keeping easy pace. He’s frowning now. "Something troubling you, Milly?"
"Miss Larson." She looks straight ahead, keeps her eyes on the trees. "That’s my name."
"Well sure, Miss Larson." Easy, good-humoured, charming. Why’d he have to be a liar and a deceiver to boot? "And you can call me Adam, seein’ as we’re to be married and all."
They’ve reached the trees. The goats stick curious heads through the fence, bleating high and thin, their bells jangling. Milly turns her back on them. "Mrs. Bixby told me you’ve six brothers who live with you," she says. Looks him square in the eye, watches his face change again. Watches him cough and look away.
"Well," he says. "Proposin’ and all must’ve thrown it right out of my head."
"Sure it did." She works her hands in her skirt, feeling at the neat stitches she put in the latest patch. "Were you going to tell me before we got ourselves hitched, or were you gonna wait until I got to your house and couldn’t leave, being several hours out from town?"
He looks injured. "Now there’s no call to be so accusin’, Miss Larson. I was going to tell you on our way out."
"After we married."
"After we married." Now he’s watching her right back, and she’s the one who has to turn away at the look on him. "I was thinking," he says, soft, "if I told you before we married, you might’ve chosen not to marry me, after all. And I want you to marry me, Miss Larson. I want it real bad."
"Sure you do." Milly is breathing slowly as she knows how. She can smell him, the sweat and dust of him, the smell of horse and soap and shaving cream from the Leroys’ washhouse. There’s heat in her bones, heat in her belly, simmering like a pot of soup about to boil over. "I’m young and strong and there’s lots of work in me. You’ve seen I’m capable of cooking and cleaning and washing for a bunch of men without wearing out like a bad scrub brush, and it’s what you want for yourself."
"Well. That’s partly true." His voice is quiet. "It’s a hard life out in the forest and wilderness. There’s trees waiting to be felled, land waiting to be ploughed and fenced, stock to be fed. Man wants a wife who can work alongside of him."
He’s moved in closer. The nearness of him makes her more aware of her skin, more aware of her whole body. She’s not looking at him, she’s not. "Of course," he says, lower still, "if she’s got eyes that are bluer than cornflowers and hair the colour of wheat in the sunshine, he counts himself real fortunate."
The heat building up in her body is definitely rage, she’s decided, and she’s boiling with it, spilling over with it. It tastes like bitterness in her mouth, sourness in her belly. She’s so mad she could spit. Turns out she could just as easily be Ruth Gibson, then, or Hannah Schmidt, or Tavia Adler. He just saw her first, is all. She could even be Mr. Schmidt’s dummy if it had a wig and a lick of paint, that’s as much of a human as she is to him. I knew the minute I set eyes on you that you were the gal for me, he’d said, and she’d thought he meant that he’d felt the same way she had, that easy hunger, that trust, that lightning-quick liking. Well, more fool her.
She looks at him. Whatever he sees in her face makes him hold still, like he’s been caught out by a bear or a mountain lion.
"I said yes to you without needin' any courtin’," she says, plain as plain, "because I fell in love with you the first time I saw you standing there, and I thought it was the same with you too. Turns out I was foolin' myself."
"Oh, now I don’t reckon-"
"No," she says. He shuts up. She looks him in the face, that strong, clean, charming face, and says, clear as the church bell she ain’t getting now, "You listen to me, Adam Pontipee. Might be it’s true you want to marry me real bad, but only because you want to marry somebody, and it may as well be me as anyone. You think all women are the same, don’t you? You think a wife is just a body to cook and clean. Well you got no understanding. You got no respect."
"No." She grips her skirts so tight the stitches creak under her fingers. Heat’s flooding up her throat, her cheeks. Oh mercy, she’s going to cry. "I can’t abide to look at ya," she says, hoarse. "Get."
Milly goes and has herself a little weep on Alice, who pats at her and coos, soft and warm as any mother dove. "I should’ve known," she repeats, twisting a handkerchief. A.A. is embroidered on one corner in pink rosebuds.
"Well I think it was brave of you," Alice murmurs, passing her another. There’s a bird on this one, tiny and blue. "Brave and dreadfully romantic."
"Bollocks," Milly says, and blows her nose.
"Seven of them! My."
Susanna props her elbows up, paring knife flicking out in quick wet flashes of light. It’s quieter here, the clang and clamour of drinkers muffled by the door. The occasional argument bites through the wood, but Milly’s used to ignoring loud men by now.
"They do say it’s one white woman for every ten men," Susanna says, "but I didn’t expect you to take it quite so literal."
"Hush, you." Apple peel uncoils across the table, red and patchy yellow. Milly fishes up an end, puts some in her mouth. Says, "I was just so mad. What was he thinkin’? We’d get there and he’d say ‘darlin’, you thought you were done with a pack of grown men yellin’ for their vittles. Surprise!’ and I’d take it just fine?"
"Thinking," Susanna murmurs, "might not be a virtue we can ascribe to him, dear. But if we were to, I’d guess he was betting on you being stuck." Seeds pop across the scabby wood. "Darn."
"I’ll give him stuck." Milly fumes. "It’s plain deceitful, is what it is."
The grumbling of the inn behind the door splits to laughter and Tom Heughan’s grizzled head. "Milly! Them pies!"
"They’re coolin’, Tom! The boys know when supper is, it ain’t changing."
The head grizzles itself out. Quiet drops on in again as Susanna arches a dark brow, knife flicking in and out of apple bruises. "Mighty odd way of showing he’s glad you stayed on."
"Oh, he’s payin' me more now."
"Good. You’re the best cook he’s ever had and he knows it." The knife flicks out again. "I’m sorry I wasn’t here last week."
"Don’t be. Esther needed you; birthin' is hard enough without birthin’ twins." The dough is too wet under her fingers; she’s not paying nearly enough attention today. Milly reaches for the flour tin. "I went and sobbed a bit on Alice, who said it was all dreadfully romantic."
"Oh mercy. Alice is a goose."
"She’s sweet. She’s just young, is all."
"That’s worse. A gosling’s even less use than a goose, and a sweet gosling is supper ruined."
"Milly," Susanna mocks. She brushes seeds from her apron, watches Milly out of those dark eyes. "Honest, now. Would you have said yes to him, if he’d told you the truth?"
"What, that he was wantin’ a hired girl he’d get for free?" Milly slams the tin down with more vigor than strictly necessary. "A bondservant with no way of buyin’ herself out? A body to warm his bed that he’d not paid for? A slave? Breeding stock?"
"Milly Larson!" The brow again, scandalised. "What language! One would almost think you were one of them female agitators. Why, next you’ll be fomenting about women’s suffrage, and then where’ll we be?"
"Heavens." One brown hand reaches up to fluff at a bunch of imaginary lace. "Lawdy. We’ll hafta give them shiftless Indians back all that good land. Set all them blacks loose on civilized society. Let them heathen Orientals and Mexicans overrun our country. My, we might even hafta be civil to the Guthries at church on Sunday! Quelle horreur."
"Susanna." Milly can tell her glare is halfhearted at best, but she’s trying. "Stop that. Mrs. Gibson is a respectable, God-fearing woman-"
"-don’t know what God she’s fearing-"
"- who means well. It ain’t right to mock."
"Ain’t right?" The bench squawks back. "Means well? Have you seen the way she looks at the Guthries? Have you heard her speak to me?" The knife clatters to the table. Susanna stands. "Have you heard her speak to Leah? Milly, you don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know what it’s like to be looked at as if you’re- you’re less than somebody’s dog, like you’re not fit to scrape her slippers on. You don’t, or you’d never tell me she means well."
Her face is flushed, hands screwed tight in the loose cotton of her apron. Milly could bite her own tongue off for bringing that look back to her friend’s face. "Oh mercy, Susanna, I’m sorry." She stands too, reaching out floury hands. "You’re right. I don’t know. I’m sorry."
"Lord." Susanna drops her apron and then her eyes. Sweeps scattered scraps into the bucket in jerks. "Don’t- don’t. It’s not- look, I’m sorry. I passed her on the way here, is all, and she. Well.” She tries for a smile, tight at the corners. "I’d best get back. Leah will be needing her supper."
"Susanna." Milly manages to catch her friend’s hands, which tremble in hers a moment until she squeezes them. "I really am sorry. Not just for me."
"Oh Lord, Milly." Susanna’s smile is a watery thing, but it’s real this time. After a moment, she squeezes back. "Come on. Walk me to the Guthries’."
The moment they step out the inn, there’s an unearthly howling. Dogs bark. Men shout. A vast cloud of white is billowing up outside the general store, swallowing a wagon up whole in the noise of frightened horses. "Mercy," Susanna says, sounding delighted. "What’s happened?"
The horses reappear, dragging the cloud with them. "Adam’s gonna whup me into next year," the cloud shrieks, before the horses vanish again in a torrent of tangled curses and whinnying. Milly jerks.
"Did you hear-?"
"Adam’s gonna turn me into buckskins," the cloud howls, directly before a gangle of limbs dances out with a tub that's throwing white fog everywhere. FLOUR is stencilled 'cross the wood, and just like that, everything becomes clearer. And hazier.
"Adam’s gonna make me into ‘tater stew," the gangle gargles, barrelling backwards. Just before it vanishes into thick air, Milly makes out a gleam of copper. Oh mercy.
"Hold this," she says, and shoves her basket at Susanna. "I’m- I’ve got to-"
The flour-cloud is heavy around her, swirling away like fog as she plunges in with her apron over her face. The gangle of elbows in the gloom is probably a boy, but what’s visible is either so grubby or so white it could well be a straw poppet that’s been left out in the rain, rolled in mud and dipped in sugar. But there’s the copper colouring she’s seen on nobody else, and-
"Adam’s gonna mince me up for puddin’," the boy chokes, mouthing lungfuls of powdery air. He’s lost the barrel. He doesn’t seem to know where his knees are. Milly lurches forwards, grabbing for his collar. "Come away, child!"
The boy skids on all fours through sloppy new dough. "He’s gonna make me cook myself for dinner!"
Oh mercy. "He’s not," she says firmly into her apron, dragging backwards until she can see clearer, eyes watering. She keeps backing up. She’s going to be finding flour in her hair for weeks, this rate.
How is this child still talking? Milly takes a step back, grips hard and yanks. Abruptly, there’s air, and sunlight, and dirt, and Juan and Pieter with the horses. The edge of the fog lets go of the boy. Milly doesn’t.
"He is," the boy chokes again, insistent. Milly ignores him. She’s too busy coughing her belly out her throat to answer, and anyway, she’s not five.
"My goodness," a voice says from just behind her. "What a mess. Stand up, boy, stop wriggling about like a fish. Milly, let go."
Milly does. She backs away from the dust and billow to keep coughing, wiping at her streaming eyes. The boy’s like a stepladder when he unfolds, taller than her with room still to grow, even hunched over hacking.
"Good," the voice behind her says. "Susanna, what’s the news?"
"Still some left, Mrs. Guthrie. Less than half."
"I see. Tom, would you mind straightening-? Thank you. Milly." A dark hand on her arm. "Good work."
The hand lifts away. Purple rustles at the corner of her vision, and Mrs. Guthrie moves forward to inspect the front of the shop. Milly straightens a bit to survey the damage alongside her, feeling like she’s stripped her throat raw.
A second look tells her things aren’t so bad as they'd appeared. Mrs. Guthrie is here, for one thing, and nobody can argue that Mrs. Guthrie don't fix things up right and proper, Negro or no Negro. Juan and Pieter are settling the horses, who seem calmer now they’re not being chased by a shrieking white cloud. Even the fog seems to be thinning itself out, thanks to the breeze. Everything’s dusted with flour, of course, and the windows of the general store will need a good cleaning and there’s a few toppled tubs in the street, but not much else seems hurt. Milly thanks the Lord for small mercies and looks about further, finding Tom straightening the barrel and Susanna stepping back, freeing her handkerchief from her face.
"Why," Mrs. Guthrie says, dry as dust. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Bixby. What a surprise to see you."
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Guthrie." Mrs. Bixby’s voice is stiff as she picks her way around the side of the building, skirting the edges of the loosening fog. She’s more flushed than usual, Milly notices, and her usual neat braid’s askew. "I don’t know as it’s surprising, myself. We was both out back sortin’ stock, is all, Paw and me. I was up a ladder, is all. By the time I got myself down, of course, we was- we was- Susanna McLoughlin! Don’t think I don’t see that face you’re making, I won’t be havin’ with your cheek!"
"Sorry, Mrs. Bixby."
Mrs. Bixby pats at her hair, going redder as she finds loose pins. Adds hastily- "what has that Pontipee boy gotten up to now?"
"Lost half a barrel of flour and made himself into a biscuit, seems," Milly says, smacking small clouds from her skirts. Beside her, Mrs. Guthrie turns, slow and stately as a ship changing course.
"Milly," she says. "The Pontipee boy will need a good scrubbing, and you look as if you need some dusting down, too. If Tom can spare you-?"
"He can a bit. I’ll take this one to Hanmei’s."
"Good. Susanna, Leah should be wanting her supper now, yes?"
"I believe so, ma'am."
"Good. Tom. Would you mind very much taking this barrel-?"
Susanna sidles over as Mrs. Guthrie glides away, still issuing decrees like requests. "There’s our marching orders," she says. A soft puff of flour lifts up as she hooks the basket over Milly’s arm. "Here’s your baking. You get that Pontipee boy clean, then."
"Yes, yes. I’ll come help when I’ve put Leah to bed."
Milly sighs. "I’d be grateful." She turns to the Pontipee boy, who- oh mercy, is the child trying to sniff her hair? Was he raised by wolves? She takes him firmly by the arm, rather than the ear the way she’d like, and steers him like she would one of Mrs. Martinez’s brood. "Come- what’s your name, child?"
"Alright, Gideon. Mrs. Guthrie looks to be takin’ care of your mess here, so you come along with me."
Scrubbed and soaped and shaved at the pump outside Hanmei’s laundry, Gideon Pontipee is a surprisingly good-looking boy, even goosepimpled up in one of Mr. Lim’s spare blankets. That red hair gleams like a new kettle and a grin keeps growing across his face as he tucks into a flapjack, stuffing like he’s been starved for weeks. She’ll have to bake Rachel Guthrie something else instead, with the way he’s eating, although she doubts he’d get through all the flapjacks and a whole apple pie himself in one sitting.
"‘Nother," Gideon says, mouth full. Crumbs spray the dirt. He shoves a hand at the basket but Milly’s too quick for him, smacking him on the wrist. He yelps and snatches it back, eyes going big and betrayed.
“Ain’t you got manners?” she demands, holding the basket out of reach. "Don’t you know how to behave civil with food that’s not yours?"
He looks at her mutely. Good grief, he was raised by wolves. "Y’ever heard of the word please?" she says. "Or thank you?"
He brightens, nodding. Swallows. "Used to. Ain’t heard it so much after Ma died."
Oh mercy. "When’d she die?"
"‘Bout twelve years ago. Fever got her. Nearly got Ephraim, too." He rubs his nose, looks longingly at the basket. "Pa died after I was born. Was mostly Adam raised us, see, and there ain’t much time for civil on a farm."
Wolves is right. The Gunnarsons are farmers, as are the Kowalskis and the Brownings and half the townsfolk hereabouts, and they’re all civilized enough to say good mornin’ when they pass and mind their manners at the barn raisings and visitings. Still-
Still. Adam must’ve been barely a boy himself when his Ma died, she thinks. Barely a boy, raising six brothers all on his lonesome, way up in the mountains with a farm to keep and land to tend and no family or friends around to make the work less hard.
She swallows down her sympathy. It doesn’t excuse the way he treated her. He knew what courting looked like, from his talk of walking her home after church and sittin’ in her parlour; he just up and decided she didn’t merit it, is all. It still makes her mad, even a couple weeks out. She’s not wastin’ good feelings on that kind of disrespect.
"Can I." Gideon tugs on her sleeve, his face screwed up with memory. "Can I please have a biscuit, Milly?"
"May I," obediently. Milly holds out a flapjack and waits. Gideon stares at her a second, and then his face clears.
"Thank you," he says, civilized as anything. Milly beams at him. She catches herself doing so as she hands it over, and catches her breath as well; oh mercy, she’s training him like a puppy and she can’t be thinking that way of a human being, can she? It ain’t right. Pa would be sore disappointed. But how else is this boy to learn, if nobody else will teach him?
"Gideon," she says, to keep herself from fretting over things she can’t fix, "is-" a deep breath in- "Adam gonna beat you when he learns about the flour?"
Gideon’s eyeing her again, as if she’s the odd one here. "Nah. He’s gonna be mad, though. I’ma be on cookin’ duty for the next year." He hunches up a little more, the blanket with its strange foreign scribbling sliding down his shoulders. "Well, joke’s on him, ain’t it? He can’t stand my cookin’."
Couldn’t get a decent meal for love or money, Milly remembers, plunging briefly through a dim, too-hot memory. She pleats at her skirts, thinking hard. Gideon’s spine is knobbled out between the lines of Mr. Lim’s blanket. He’s too bony for a boy his age, really- hasn't he been eating? Adam hadn’t looked too skinny to stand, but buckskins hide a multitude of sins, as Dorcas likes to say.
Oh mercy. She’s going to do something real foolish, isn’t she? She can feel it coming.
"Gideon," Milly says. She takes another breath in, holds it. Lets it out. Tries again. Here it is: "Gideon. Will Adam be less mad ‘bout everything if you bring home a pie and a fresh batch of flapjacks?"
Susanna is based very loosely on Marguerite McLoughlin, Jane Schoolcraft, Amelia Douglas and various other half-Native women on the frontier around that time. Mrs. Guthrie and her family are educated free blacks, probably from abolitionist states like Massachusetts. The Martinez family are Hispanic, and Hanmei and the rest of the Lims are Chinese. There were a lot of people of colour in real-life Oregon Territory in the 1850s (as well as Poles, Germans, Irish, Dutch and other non-English folk), so I thought I'd better put them back into the narrative.
Chapter 3: August
It’s a good month or so into spring when the ruckus of the inn cuts her kitchen wide again. The door slams. "Milly," Tom bellows. "Fella askin’ for ya out front. Name of Pontipee. Know him?"
Milly doesn’t curse, but it’s a close thing. Broth's boiling, dough needs punching down, biscuits will be done any minute and the beef’s gonna burn if she takes her eyes off it. She’s up to her elbows in potatoes and has no time for feelings right now, let alone a handsome, charming, no-good deceivin’ man.
"I’m busy," she shouts back and jams her knife into a potato eye. Flicks out a sprout. "What’s he want?"
Some murmuring. "Says he brought your plate and basket."
Well, she has been needing them. A month is too long to go without a good pie plate. "Send him through. I ain’t got time for chattin’, mind."
"I’ll tell him."
Tom’s head disappears. Milly shoves her knife back in, flicks another sprout out, reaches over to turn a bit of beef. A breath later the door bangs out. She looks up.
Her shoulders drop. "Gideon!" she says. "You brought back my plate?" Now is that relief or disappointment flippin' her stomach over?
"Sure did, Milly." He sidles in, all elbows and knees. They’re clean, though, as is his face and that bright hair, even if that patched net he calls a shirt's gone grubby again. "Brought you some coon pelts and a couple rabbits," he says, grinning easy as his brother. "Where do you want ‘em?"
"Why, child!" Milly scrubs her hands in her apron, points. Has he shot up more since she last saw him? "That’s mighty kind of you. Over there’s just fine."
"Sure." The door swings to again, clapping the noise back down to sizzling fat and a stove at full roar. Gideon shuffles around her chair, peering curiously into pans as he passes and sniffing deeply. "Weren’t me that sent ‘em," he adds. "Adam made me. Oh Milly, that smells mighty good."
"Well, you ain’t having any," Milly says, reaching over again to shift a couple chunks of beef. They’re cookin' nicely, going all brown and deep. "What's in here is for them that can pay out there. And what do you mean, Adam made you?"
"Just what I said." Gideon drops plate, basket and bundles of fur into a heap by the molasses barrel. "Adam caught ‘em himself. Told me strict to bring ‘em over and thank you all polite-like for the food and your helpin’ out, you and that Injun girl and Mrs. Guthrie."
"Mrs. McLoughlin," she says, going to punch the dough down in the bowls. "Not ‘that Injun girl’. Mind your manners." She’s unsurprised to find that Mrs. Guthrie has made an impression on him, though, skinny motherless child that he is. 'Course, Mrs. Guthrie would make an impression on anyone. Mrs. Guthrie would make an impression on the Queen of England, and probably out-dignify her to boot.
"Yes, Milly." Gideon's stuck his face over the beef, now, staring at it bubbling away in the bacon grease. He turns huge eyes on her, looking for all the world like a pup that’s been starved for weeks. "Aw Milly, I know that man in there said you’re real busy, but I’m real hungry."
Mercy. The boy seems to have taken to her like a duckling. "I can’t always be feedin’ ya, Gideon," she says, grabbing for dishcloths. "I’m not your Ma." And there's a warning in there somewhere about feeding strays, but she's too busy with the oven to recall it. 'Sides, the biscuits are done all right, fluffy and steaming when she breaks one halfways to check. Pleased, Milly pulls the tray out with a cloth and steps straight into six foot of bones and freckles.
Down goes the tray. Biscuits scatter as Gideon leaps back, yelping.
"Gideon Pontipee!" Milly snaps, clutching him and then a chair to keep herself from toppling backwards into the stove. "Sit yourself down this instant and don't move!"
Gideon squeaks. Gideon drops benchwards. Milly hangs onto the chair back, heart hammerin' like a whole heap of miners, and tries to catch her balance and breath before she dies of shock or burning or, heaven help her, frying to death in bacon fat. And wouldn't she like to explain that one to her Ma?
A couple moments go by like this. And then, when she thinks she can stand again, she straightens. Kicks the oven door closed. Bends. Picks up the knife. Gideon stares wide-eyed up at her.
"You," she says, and slams it down on the wood in front of him. "You are going to sit here and peel these potatoes. You are going to stay out of trouble. You are going to stay out of my way. You hear?"
He nods, mutely. Milly slaps her open hand onto the table. "You hear?"
"Good." She ducks down to gather dropped biscuits, fuming. Most have scattered across the bench, but some've floored and can’t be saved. And oh damn, the beef’s burning. "If I’m late getting dinner out, Gideon Pontipee, I will have your hide."
He’s looking appropriately terrified, now. "Yes’m." He picks up the knife. Milly turns back to salvaging what she can.
The next little while keeps her right busy browning meat, chopping onions, scrubbing carrots and making up a fresh batch of biscuits. Every time she turns around, though, Gideon is peeling away industriously, eyes down. The tub of scrubbed potatoes dwindles. The pile of skinned potatoes grows. Milly mops the sweat from her face with the edge of her apron and allows herself mollified.
"You can start choppin’ them when you’re done with peeling," she tells him, pushing the bigger knife over. "Chunks, like this. See? I’ll do the carrots."
Milly hesitates. "And you can have a biscuit to tide you over. When the stew’s done, you’ll have some of that too, seeing as you’ve been working so hard."
Gideon brightens. "Aw, thanks, Milly! I been thinking real often about your cookin’." He smiles at her, shy. "All of us have. Benjamin said them flapjacks were the best he ever had. Caleb said that pie was like he died and gone straight to heaven. Daniel said Adam shoulda grabbed holda you afore someone else did, or 'least grabbed holda somebody, so he dint hafta eat my cookin'. Adam said you weren't a flapjack for grabbin' or a body just for cookin', neither. Ephraim didn't say nothin', he was too busy stuffing his gob. Frank said-" and then his face changes. "Frank."
"Adam said what-?" Milly starts, and stops short as Tom's head reappears, cross as a kicked bear.
"Milly!" he bellows. "Another Pontipee! I ain't payin' ya to chat-"
And then his head vanishes. Abruptly, Tom's solid back is filling the doorway and a body's tryin' to shove itself through the gaps, all elbows and grubby copper. "Gideon! Where ya at?"
The noise picks itself up right sudden, from that point on. There's shouting. A lot of shouting. Milly springs to her feet, but Gideon's beside her, knife in one hand, potato in the other, looking guilty. "Oh heck, I plumb forgot! I went and left him in the wagon! Milly, it’s Frank. You gotta let him in, it’s Frank!"
This, she assumes, is meant to be some kind of explanation. But that familiar bit of colour's telling enough. She grabs the door and raises her voice.
"It’s alright, boys," she hollers. "Let him in. He’s come to help with the cookin’."
There’s more shouting, of course. There's always shouting, where a bunch of overgrown layabouts are concerned.
Eventually, though, the menfolk figure out their ears from their rears and slope back off to their drinking and chewing and spitting. Tom grumbles himself back behind the bar, after lookin' on in to check that Milly's fine and the food's not worse. Gideon sits back down. The door swings shut. And then another grubby-faced Pontipee is looming over Milly's kitchen table, clutching his ragged shirt and lookin’ like he could eat a horse, and would if you just stepped away a minute.
Good heavens. Just look at him, starin' first at her, then at the hot biscuits, then at Gideon slicing potatoes, then back at the biscuits, then at the tubs of roots for chopping, and back at the biscuits again. Is the whole family starved? Is the whole family taller than barns? Tall and redheaded and still too bony by half. This one even is all over whiskers, a little like Adam before he shaved.
Milly swallows hard and shoves that thought away with the tub of carrots. Clears her throat. "Frank Pontipee?" Odd name, that. Just like- good grief, she needs to stop. Frank Pontipee is staring at her again, although she guesses it won’t be for long with the biscuits still steaming away on the bench.
He gawps at her, like she's up and grown another head. "Yeah?" he rasps.
"Frank!" Gideon says quickly. "This is Milly, Adam’s Milly. She says if we help her with the cookin’ we can have stew and biscuits." He points at the pot steaming on the stove. "You hungry?"
Adam’s Milly? Oh mercy. Milly opens her mouth to object, but seems Frank’s made up his mind. "Yeah," he says again, shoving dirty sleeves up. "I’m starvin’. What do I do?"
Chapter 4: September
Summer winds itself in, flushing the town with heat and dusty winds that sweep the streets. Gideon turns up like a bad penny every couple weeks or so, poking his bright head through doors, windows, Alice's front parlour, the Guthries’ kitchen, the Martinez goat stalls, Ruth Gibson's laundry room, Mrs. Bixby's storeroom out back. And not just Gideon. Milly finds herself collecting Frank, Ephraim, Daniel and Caleb the way other folk collect eggs, lanky redheads gathered around her and staring solemnly down at a panful of potatoes like it’s a miracle.
"You fry ‘em in an inch of bacon grease," she explains, "salt them and toss them with the ham Ephraim’s shredding there. Give that a go. Frank, pass me that onion."
Susanna calls them Milly’s ducklings when she first sees them huddled barelegged in Hanmei’s courtyard, after a fistfight sets all five boys to rolling in cornmeal like fried chicken. Milly throws them out in a fury, driving them before her to the laundry to scrub up and learn how to be decent Christian folk. Susanna just laughs until she cries. Susanna's got a lot to laugh at, these days. Milly’s never seen a body so foolish over a woman as Ephraim Pontipee, who moons around after her like he’s never seen a girl before in his life.
"He’s a child," Susanna says, laughing harder. "I’ve got a child. Don’t need another, Milly." But she’s kind to him anyway, teaching him to mend the holes Frank ripped in his shirt. They sit in the dappled sunlight of Mrs. Guthrie’s kitchen, Susanna murmuring instructions as Alice and Gideon make cow eyes at each other over the peaches they’re chopping. Juice slides down Alice's wrist. "Watch your fingers, Gideon," Milly calls. Gideon stammers, blushes, drops his knife in the pits. Susanna laughs.
Adam never comes.
He sends pelts, sometimes, and cords of wood, and sacks of wool, and once a side of lamb, but he never comes. It’ll be another five months, he’d said then, back in early spring, and it seems he’s holding to his word. A more stubborn, prideful man she’s never met in her life, but somehow she’s managed to adopt five of his brothers, who plague her with visits and rattle about her kitchens and swing knives about like they were born chopping. Their poor Ma. She’s even met Benjamin, who offered Dorcas a chaw of tobacco in the street and sent her giggling away, driving him sulking to her to ask what he'd done wrong. Adam, though, stays up in his mountains like he’s trapped there.
Are ya gonna keep me waiting all that five months, she thinks, just for your pride?
"He’s sore, is all," Caleb says, once. He’s mending a neckerchief, pulling great crooked stitches through the cloth. It bunches in his hands and he frowns at it, yanking threads. "Gets all quiet-like and goes off on his lonesome, every time we come home with vinegar pie or doughnuts or somethin’. Gets back with a bit for us to take to ya, like we can’t think to be neighbourly or civil on our own." His scoffing turns to cussing as he jabs himself with the needle.
"Aw Milly, you shoulda seen his face when we came home together all shaved and done up!" Gideon hollers from the stove. He's flipping bacon like he's been doing it since he was a babe. Milly's so proud. "Some days, we get back and he's like a dog sulkin' for something it ain’t got."
Milly punches down. "Good," she says, short. Dough plushes up around her knuckles. "He’s got to learn he can’t treat folk like that." It's too wet again by half, this bread. She looks about for the flour tin, but Caleb's already elbowing it over so she can reach.
"Oh, I think he’s learnin’," he chuckles. Turns back to his kerchief. Drawing the needle up, he stabs it in and through his thumb.
"Yeah, he’s not complaining ‘bout my cooking no more," Gideon says, cheerful over Caleb’s cussing. Reaches over, pops a pot lid. "Hey, coffee's done."
It’s five months to the day she first laid eyes on a Pontipee when she sees that hair again, gleaming in the lamplight. She's used to catching copper everywhere she turns by now, but this time looking does something right queer to her stomach.
She'd known, of course. All through the sermon she’d felt his eyes on her, heard the whispering of Ruth Gibson and Dorcas and Sarah Kane up the aisle. Susanna beside her had glanced back and said nothing. After the benediction, though, she’d caught Alice by the arm and they’d stepped forward, stopping the others right in their pews.
"Why girls, did you hear about the quiltin’ bee-?" Milly heard her sing out, Alice’s soft voice adding something about fabric scraps. They're in there now, chatting about sewing patterns, while she stands by the church gate in the yellowy evening and looks at him.
Him. Adam. Adam Pontipee from up the mountains with his farm and his fifty acres of wheat and his brothers. Adam Pontipee with his offerings and stubbornness and pride, eyes warm on her face. The shirt he’s wearing is green and new, stitches crooked. There’s a little blood at his throat from where he's caught himself shaving.
"Evenin’, Miss Larson," he says, quiet.
"Mr. Pontipee." There’s heat in her bones again, building slow. She’s not so sure it’s anger this time.
He ducks his head, acknowledging her look. "I was wondering." His smile comes easy as she remembers, but now it’s a little less sure, a little more hopeful. "I was wantin'- that is to say, I thought- Miss Larson." He takes in a breath. "Might I walk you home?"
Happy yuletide, Melitot! Please forgive the lack of babies, Christmassy fluff, cheery songs about kidnapping and all manner of dancing around with sharp objects. I hope this suffices instead.