Trying to reclaim a happiness she'd left behind long ago, Vanity returns to Mississippi to discoverand fight forthe love she thought she'd lost forever.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
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The deserted landing at Crystal Point, Missouri, shimmered in the silent dawn. The muddy Mississippi River curved around wooded hills like a sleepy lover, its broad surface reflecting the rising sun's brilliant gold.
Though Crystal Point wasn't so large as St. Louis downriver, it was an important stop for the local mills. Like laying hens, small white clapboard houses roosted atop the bluff on the river's Missouri side, looking down on clustered brick buildings along unpaved streets still swimming with mud from a recent spring rise.
Without warning, a battered stern-wheeler at the wooden wharf split the quiet with a whoop from its steam whistle. Bare-chested deck hands of all colors heaved up the wide stageplank at the bow.
With its gracefully curved boiler deck laden with bulky crates and a full thirty cords of wood, the broad white boat eased out and began paddling its frothy way upriver, headed for Hannibal and farming centers to the far north.
Soon the black smoke left behind by powerful smokestacks dissipated, leaving the air sweet with the fragrance of new grass. Townsfolk stirred from houses to stores. Another crisp spring day had begun.
Sitting on a stack of spattered crates, a brightly dressed creature recrossed her long dark-stockinged legs and sighed. With her defiant chin resting in her hand, the girl glowered down the broad, undulating brown ribbon of water.
Not far from her mud-caked high-button shoes the water licked the pebbled bank. An odor of decaying catfish wafted around her, but with the exception of the lingering dawn chill, this land was comfortingly similar to California. The lands she had traveled since the fall before had been frightening and alien.
Upriver, a hulking side-wheeler appeared, splashing steadily around the point. Sending a spine-tingling echo up and down the river, it eased toward the dock, reversed its paddle wheels, and churned to a stop. A deck hand lowered the stageplank against the wharf.
Mary Louise stood up and squinted through the soft morning haze, wondering if this was the boat she waited for. Those she'd questioned said Maxxmillon Blade's floating gambling palace would likely come from the south. Then they looked down at her as if she were asking after the devil.
She couldn't have read the boat's name, even if it had been the Natchez Trace. She had only recently mastered twenty pages in her reading primer, so she could scarcely remember four-letter words, much less a riverboat named after a famous Indian trail.
Annoyed, Mary dropped back down, pouted, then cursed herself nine ways to Sunday because she couldn't read worth shoe nails and would be danged if she'd ask again! She crossed her legs and fussed with her ruffled red satin petticoat. Her shoes had been ruined by months of travel, but they'd been her mama's old ones and too big besides, so she didn't trouble herself over them.
What did trouble her was a niggling notion that she had lost her favored place in the world. In the past months she'd passed through an astonishingly vast land, herself an insignificant, bothersome speck.
No longer was she the adored darling of a boom camp. She was a stranger, a queer little bird to be smirked at.
With her jaw set, she plunked her chin into her hand again and glared. Mr. Maxxmillon Blade had just better come along soon before she lost her patience. Well-meaning folks were forever asking her who and what she was. If one more son of a snake asked where she'd dug up her dress, she'd spit nails!
She'd taken great pains to alter her mama's gown. She smoothed the kelly-green satin and adjusted the gaping neckline as best she could. Her mama had not taught her enough about the art of sewing.
Regardless, Mary simply didn't have the puppies to fill a bodice ... yet. Certainly, her mother's boned corset did nothing for her since she was lean as a post. And her lamentable stockings had more holes than she possessed the patience to mend. Whose dad-blamed fool idea was this to come so far just to ...
She froze when she heard footsteps.
"Bless my soul! If you aren't the most unusual white female girl I have ever laid eyes on." The voice came from the direction of the side-wheeler being off-loaded into the mud and weeds.
He was a compact, muscular youth with satiny skin the color of a fine tobacco, and he was wearing a loose, hip-length white shirt of some very fine fabric indeed, except that it looked long overdue for a rag bin. His britches were gray cotton homespun, frayed at the bottom and skintight. They fell well above his ankles.
He was barefoot and bareheaded. On his broad shoulder he balanced a small ornate traveling chest of tooled brown leather bound in sun-catching brass.
She leaped to her feet and gave him a theatrical bow. "How-do! I'm mighty glad to have somebody to talk to!"
He approached with caution, but she saw his brown eyes dance over her getup.
"Can you tell me the name of that riverboat?" she asked.
"Brunswick Queen, missy. Can't you read?"
With her chin out, she waved her primer at him. "I'm learning, but it's harder than hell to learn without somebody telling me the words first."
The tawny-skinned youth gaped at her shining face with the kind of wonder she had enjoyed since babyhood, but like everyone else she'd met since leaving Sacramento, his keen brown eyes crinkled with disbelief at her gown.
Nevertheless, she felt safe demanding an explanation. "I'll thank you not to gawk!" Unease washed over her. "How come folks keep staring at me?" She balled her fists, ready to slug him.
He laughed and then coughed. Rubbing his nose as if looking for the exact words, he shifted the traveling chest to his other shoulder and glanced around quickly. "You're asking honest-like?" He looked as if he couldn't believe she didn't know why. What was more, he couldn't believe she was asking his opinion. He wasn't sure which was the more remarkable.
"I'd be obliged if somebody would tell me why I've come two thousand miles to find folks staring and snickering like I've got mud on my face. I've washed. Mama taught me cleanliness is next to godliness." Whatever that really meant, the words usually had an effect on people who stared at her.
"Two thousand ..." He stepped closer, electrified with curiosity. He had a gentle, voluptuous mouth, but his eyes were skeptical.
Standing on the crates, Mary swaggered in a happy circle. It was like a stage. "Aren't you going to set down that chest? It looks heavy."
He glanced around again to see if anyone was watching. His brown eyes had a penetrating quality that made her think he knew too much. "If I set it down, my boss man'll have my ears. Are you some kind of fancy lady? You don't look near old enough."
Mary leaped down in a flash of red petticoats and gave him a warning poke. "Don't start in calling me names!"
He backed away, wide-eyed with alarm.
She flounced after him and shoved. "Don't start with me!"
"Sweet Miss Susie's pearls! I'm not calling nobody nothing! Please, don't shout like that, missy! I'll get strung up quicker than lightning. You said you was asking honest-like, and so I asks, honest-like, if you was ... Settle down, missy! You can't go around in red and green satin like some Natchez floozy and not draw an eye or two. Sweet Susie! When am I going to learn to mind my own business! Good morning to you!" He spun on his bare heel and marched away.
She hadn't expected his reaction. She hated the way his eyes danced from side to side, as if he really did expect to get strung up on her account. She shook her fists. "I'm sorry!" she called.
But he kept moving, giving her a backward look that said she was as dangerous as blasting powder.
"Don't go! Please!" she called, dashing after him and grabbing his arm. No one had ever walked away from her before. "I really am sorry! I don't have manners at all."
"You haven't told me nothing I hadn't figured out already for myself!" he said, slowing. He eased away from her touch.
"Please, stay and talk to me for just a minute more. I don't know a soul here. All I can do is wait day after day for the Natchez Trace. You don't happen to know when it'll get here, do you?"
"No, I don't, and if you're getting on it, I hope I'm a-staying behind," he snapped. He would never trust a white woman.
She didn't understand his anger and was alarmed that he was not charmed out of his socks by her beauty. Maybe it was because he had no socks. "I said I was sorry!"
He finally stopped and heaved a sigh. "I must be a fool," he muttered, turning. He sniffed a bit, but she saw him fight a smile. He couldn't help himself. He liked her.
"I'd tag along and talk awhile, but I've got to stay near my trunk," Mary said, sidling back toward the crates. "All I have in the world is in it. If you hear about that riverboat, will you tell me? Folks I've been asking think I've got no true business with it, but I'm staying put till it gets here. You can bet on that!"
"You got no place to go, missy?" he asked, his eyes growing soft and concerned. "Sweet Susie."
She shook her head. "I been taking my meals over there," she said, pointing toward the town's muddy main street where there was a restaurant. "I'm waiting for my papa. He owns the riverboat!" She gave him a prideful smile.
He shifted the chest again, his expression skeptical. "If I hear about it, and I ain't a hundred miles off somewhere, I'll likely let you know. But you watch yourself sitting in plain sight like ... like that. I'm surprised you haven't been hauled off for wearing that getup in broad daylight. Don't you know what you look like?"
She looked pretty like her mama and as bright and sassy as Belle, she thought. But her throat thickened. This was the new bewildering world where ladies didn't dress in gaudy colors. "I'm wearing the best I got!"
"Well, missy, my boss man don't take lightly to idle folks, so I got to go. He'll be along any minute. You got any money?"
She clutched at her reticule, which still bulged with greenbacks and her mama's old pistol. "Why you asking?"
"You ought to buy something more fitting to a nice young lady. Look out for yourself, hear? These docks ain't no place safe after dark."
Mary knew that only too well. She'd waited nearly two weeks, and in that time she'd seen plenty that was reminiscent of Tenderfoot's rowdiest days.
Hurt that he couldn't stay, she settled once again on the crates. "Will you come back when you're done with your chores?"
"Missy, I'm never done, but I'll try." He scratched his head.
"Are you somebody's servant?" she called, watching him glance nervously at the boat. Travelers turned to stare at her now, just as everyone had been doing for days.
"Missy, I belong to my boss man. If he says I got to work till I drop, then I'll do it. But don't fret. We'll be around a night or two. I may have time to talk. I want to know where a girl like you comes from."
"California!" she said, her spirits lifting at the mention of home. "That's gold country, in case you didn't know. What's your name?"
"Quarter Dollar." He grinned. He gave a salute and started away toward several hump-backed trunks.
"That's no kind of name!"
"It is when that's all you're worth to the boss man!"
She watched him wait a good ten minutes beside the trunks. A slave, she thought with a shudder of curiosity and horror. He was scarcely dark enough to be taken for a black man. In the slaveless wilds of California she had gathered from general talk that slaves were mule-like people, but he was just like anybody else.
Then a young gentleman wearing a buff-colored frock coat and snugly tapered trousers sauntered down the wide stageplank. He wore a cream- colored hat with a narrow flat brim and a flat top, nothing like Doby's and Otto's stiff black derbys. Everyone in the states dressed so different. She was beyond understanding how folks could dress in such sober colors.
The elegant gentleman had clipped side-whiskers, a jutting jaw, and wavy black hair. His short moustache curved in a thin dark line along the edge of his upper lip. She guessed at once that he was a gambler. She knew his stripe and turned up her nose. The memory of Smiling Ace Malone made her clench her teeth and narrow her eyes. He'd been a gambler of the worst sort! If she ever saw him again, she'd break his dad-blasted nose!
Maxxmillon Blade was a gambler, too, but that didn't trouble her because a man who owned a riverboat wasn't in the same class as that no-account bastard Ace Malone.
Quarter Dollar's boss man flicked his gloved hand toward the humpbacked trunks. Quarter nodded, almost bowing. After taking a second one up onto his shoulder, he staggered along at a respectful distance. The white gent ambled into town like visiting royalty.
Boss man, Mary thought, eyes flinty. She'd never take to the likes of him!
Pacing to work off her impatience, Mary thought of the trip that had brought her to this town alongside the mighty brown river.
She'd arrived in Sacramento knowing someone waited to take her to an orphanage. She'd exited the boat in a clutch of disgruntled prospectors, then had hidden on the crowded docks until nightfall, when she hired a Chinese to tote her trunk to the stage office.
Her reticule tightly in hand, she'd taken a four-seater Concord stagecoach south on the Butterfield mail route to Los Angeles and on to Fort Yuma. She'd been lucky to be traveling in winter. The temperature was bearable.
At times they were detained at missions, awaiting a clear way past Apaches and Comanches. For a time, no one questioned her right to travel alone. She repeated as often as necessary that she was on her way to meet her father, implying he was expecting her.
The mission priests had asked after her religious education. Learning she had none and could neither read nor write, they set to work at once introducing her to a bewildering constellation of thou-shalt-nots that she made a point to ignore. Any decent person already lived by such laws. It came naturally, her mama had always said.
By the time Mary reached Fort Bliss she could recite several pages from her new primer. She survived southern New Mexico Territory's wilds by memorizing. Everyone who listened thought she was actually reading. Only now did she realize how useful reading might prove.
They had gone on to Fort Chadbourne, Fort Belknap, and Fort Smith in Texas, until they finally reached a part of the country she recognized as real country and no longer scrubby desert.
Those men who took it upon themselves to watch over her would have taken her on up the Mississippi and Missouri and back around to California by way of the Nebraska Territory, probably. But she had declared her father would have them hanged and horsewhipped for kidnapping if they didn't leave her off.
She had come two thousand, four hundred miles by coach and paddle- wheeler, and she'd worn the green satin most of the way, with an occasional change into a slightly more subdued but equally improper gray-and-red- striped silk.
She had yet to see a properly dressed girl her own age. Young ladies didn't tend to ride dusty mail coaches, or travel open-deck passage on no- account riverboats.
She'd seen priests, soldiers, Indians of a dozen tribes, traders, cowboys, and ranchers, as well as pioneer folk looking no different from a cross between a trapper and a Comanche. She'd seen fancy ladies aplenty, and felt no particular kinship with them, though she did feel at home among them.
Since waiting at Crystal Point, she'd hidden herself when anyone resembling a pious matron had appeared. She knew well-meaning ladies in gray, brown, or black had "orphanage" branded in their brains. She'd even met a few who might've hired her to tend children for a few pennies a week!
She hadn't come this far to fall prey to some stranger bent on taming and reforming her. She prided herself on being wild. She was California's gold rush princess, bound to find her papa, and find him she would.CHAPTER 2
Returning from a hastily eaten lunch, Mary noticed a curious assemblage gathering on the grassy riverbank several hundred yards up from the wharf.
A number of gentlemen in dark suits and tall hats stood among the somber gowns of married ladies whose fringed lace-work shawls fluttered in the afternoon breeze.
Mary saw several children dashing along the edge of the group. This would be her chance to see how young people were properly dressed! She didn't want to greet her distinguished father looking like a little harlot.
Making sure her trunk was covered by a mud-encrusted tarp, she moved quickly alongside a deserted brick warehouse, climbed a woodpile some hundred cords long, then strolled along the grassy bank to a secluded place where she could hear a brimstone sermon being preached by a man perspiring in God's name.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Vanity Blade"
Copyright © 1987 Samantha Harte.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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