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 ser vices, 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.”
Excerpted from PRAYERS FOR SALE © Copyright 2011 by Sandra Dallas. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.
Prayers for Sale