Millie woke well before sun-up, her body stiff and chill. She rose awkwardly from the iron bedstead, still wearing her faded bluecalico dress. She had simply fallen onto the bed the night before, too exhausted to undress, and had slept immediately.
It had taken her the best part of the previous morning to drag the carcass of the horse a decent distance from the sod-built shack. By nightfall she had almost finished digging the long narrow trench. With darkness, and exhaustion, she had had to quit.
Now, on stiffened legs she walked to the shack's door and drew it open. The pure mountain air was still gasping cold, and would remain so until the sun came up. When it did the earth would scorch instead of shiver. She had to finish before the sun reached its full power, before the flies began to swarm.
Ignoring the bitter air, Millie walked across the baked, soulless ground towards the new-dug trench. With narrowed eyes she judged the width and depth of it. It would do.
She had already tied rope to the legs of the horse. She pulled on this now, first one side then the other, gradually edging the carcass nearer to the trench. When she judged one more pull would do it, she paused, and looked down at her old friend.
Poor old Boxie had been her only companion for the past five years on this bleached patch of earth. She would miss him. It came to her suddenly that without Boxie she no longer had a means of scraping a living.
How was she going to get her dried-apple pies daily into Jasonville, five miles away? And every Sunday, for the past three years, Boxie had pulled the buckboard the ten miles to the miners' camp at Pebble Creek, and back again. She had earned more selling to the miners on a Sunday than she did the whole week to the general store in Jasonville. Even so, she had just managed to break even. There was no money for another horse.
Without her noticing, the tip of the sun had risen above the crest of the mountain range. A shaft of warmth touched her bare forearm, bringing her out of contemplation of her misfortune.
With one final heave on the carcass it was done. She filled in the trench, and then piled the place with as many stones as she could find. When she had finished to her satisfaction, the sun was overhead.
Millie stood for a moment, roughened hands on bony hips, looking down the steep slope of ground that fell sharply away from the shack, and the dirt track that led to Jasonville; a tall woman in her late-thirties, too thin within her calico dress.
Her eyes, large and green, were surrounded with weathered, sun-darkened skin, in which fine lines were already spreading. Her mouth, though wide and well-formed, had a sad, downward cast, as if life had proved a bitter disappointment; a disappointment from which she would never recover.
Her gaze, narrowed against the glare of the sun, swept across the terrain. A moving cloud of dust caught her eye. A rider was coming along the track. Frowning, Millie watched the rider's progress for a few minutes, Soon she knew who it was. Matt Gibson. She knew his tall, rangy figure in the saddle.
She turned and walked back to the shack, wondering why the sheriff of Jasonville was taking the trouble to ride out to her place a second time within a month.
She fed the stove with kindling, set it alight, and put the battered coffee-pot on the top. She ladled some water from the cask in the corner into a tin bowl, splashed her face with it and then wiped away the surplus water on a clean calico rag.
With company coming she ought to fix her hair. Her thick, coarse reddish brown hair, from which the sun had long since dried the natural gloss, was streaked with dull grey. She twisted it with her thin, strong fingers into a bun, and secured it with a hairpin at the nape of her neck.
By now she could hear the rhythmic beat of hooves close to the shack, so she went out onto the stoop to meet her visitor.
"Afternoon, Millie. Didn't figure I'd catch you afore you left for Pebble Creek. But I rode out anyway."
Matt Gibson removed his hat, wiping away the band of sweat on his craggy forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. He had to duck his head as he followed Millie through the shack's doorway.
"Afternoon," Millie replied shortly.
She did not welcome visitors. She could not bear to see what she thought was pity in their eyes. In the past five years few had ventured out more than once to her place. Matt was the exception. She had grown more or less used to him. He stood near the door now, hat in hand; a big, slow, careful man, not pushy like some.
She put two tin mugs on the table, and then poured out the thick, dark brew, motioning him to sit. Matt drew up a chair, picked up the mug and sipped the hot liquid.
"I don't aim to keep you from your business," he said, "but I got some news."
"My horse died yesterday," Millie said flatly, "so I guess I don't have a business anymore."
Immediately the words were out, she was sorry she had spoken. It sounded as though she were asking for help. Her stubborn pride would never let her do that.
"I'm sorry," Matt said quietly, "but maybe it don't matter none, not now.”
Surprised at his words and tone, she looked at him sharply. He seemed uneasy with her today. There was tightness in the skin around his mouth, and a strained look around his eyes.
"What is it?" she asked. Suddenly she felt uneasy too.
"Jake is back."
She felt his words like a blow in the chest. Her breath expelled noisily through her teeth, and then she opened her mouth wide to gasp for air. A sudden dizziness made her grip the edge of the table with both hands.
“Jake is back!”
She let out a long sigh. The lonely vigil was over at last. She could hardly believe it. She had prayed so long and so hard, and now it was true . Shakily, she reached for the only other chair and sat.
"And Marianne, my daughter? Is she with him?"
Millie looked eagerly at him, a new light in her eyes.
"How does she look? Is she well? She was fifteen last month, you know? But why didn't they come straight home?" She smiled suddenly, a rare sight. "Jake sent you out to break the news; to ease the shock?"
"Marianne is looking real fine," Matt said quickly, too quickly. "She is growing into a little beauty. Why, I reckon as you'd hardly know..."
He broke off in confusion, avoiding her eyes. After a moment of barbed silence Millie said quietly.
"Why did you come out here, Matt?"
Matt wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve again. His continued silence frightened her.
"I want to see her," Millie's voice sharpened. "I want to see my little girl."
"Now, Millie, you just hold on a minute," Matt held up a large hand. "Jake has changed like you wouldn't know him. He's got money aplenty now. He's got big plans, too," He shook his head. "And, Millie - you just don't figure in them."
In the dry heat of the day she felt a chill. So, her agony was not over yet. Maybe it was just beginning.
"He stole my child," she shrilled. "And he shamed me; running off with that painted hussy."
"Francie is still with him." Matt said.
They regarded each other in silence. There was something he was still afraid to say. Her eyes held his, waiting.
"He married her." Matt blurted at last.
Millie stared at him across the table. "But how could he? He's married to me."
Matt's voice was soft, as if trying to soften the blow he was reluctant to deal her.
"When Jake left Jasonville, they headed east first. Got hisself a divorce, and married Francie. Then they took out for California. Jake made good in California, real good."
Millie rose abruptly from the table, her chair scraping backwards along the wood floor, She moved to the shack's door, and leaned against the jamb, watching the heat outside shimmered upwards in perpetual columns.
Jake had put everything they owned into this piece of land believing it to be silver-rich. She had hated the land, but she had believed in her husband, and she had struggled on against the poverty, the loneliness, against the cruel land itself.
Then came the silver strike at Pebble Creek. So close! Jake had turned bitter and remote after that. She felt that, somehow, he blamed her. Then suddenly he was gone, taking her whole life with him.
But she had hung on, clinging to the hated land; afraid to leave lest they, her husband and child, should return and find her gone; too proud to leave, lest the world thought her weak. She had believed he would come back to her eventually. She had believed he would not deprive her of her child for ever.
Five years of waiting; of loneliness; of grieving - they were not yet done. Now Jake had come back, not as a husband, but as a stranger. He still stood between her and the only thing she wanted, her child. And now pride was a luxury she could no longer afford.
She turned slowly to the man seated silent and tense at the table. There was acid in her voice when she spoke.
"What kind of a fool marries a saloon strumpet? I want Marianne away from the likes of her. I'm going to get my daughter back. You've got to help me, Matt. It was cruel, taking my child, cruel."
He rose, shaking his head, his grey eyes soft with sympathy. He reached out a hand as if to touch her; to comfort, but her independent spirit defeated him.
"Within twenty-four hours of hitting town, Jake bought hisself a half-share in the silver mine at Pebble Creek." Matt said. "Yeah! He's a big man in town now. He's got the mayor and the town council jumping through hoops already."
Millie's eyes were green icicles. "And you too, Matt, eh?"
He bent his head. "It pains me that you think so, Millie. I got my job to do, and sometimes I purely hate it."
Millie nodded, "So Jake did send you out here, but it weren't to ease me none. My God! What have I still got left that he could want?"
Millie turned away, ashamed forhim to see any weakness in her.
"This land. He wants you off the place by tomorrow," Matt answered quickly.
"What?" She spun around to stare.
Matt spread his large hands in despairing apology, "He owns it. Clear and square. He wanted me to get you to leave town." Matt sounded angry. "But I told him there weren't no call for that. He got a right to his property, sure, but that's all."
Millie walked out onto the stoop, and sat on the crude wooden seat under the window. Matt followed, and sat on the step, shifting his weight restlessly in the uncomfortable silence; nervous hands turning his hat around and around.
"There won't be any trouble, Millie, will there?" he asked at last.
She looked at his bent, shaggy head, and a small smile touched her lips. She was free of the land at last, and she felt a new strength permeate her being, in the wake if a new and exciting goal.
"No, there won't be any trouble, Matt."
His worn face brightened. "I fixed it so's you can lodge with Widow Perkins. Maybe you could carry on your pie business from her place. I'll bring the wagon out first thing in the morning, and take your stuff into town."
"There isn't much," Millie said. "Just my stove, my bed, and maybe a small trunk. Sure, bring the wagon, but take me out to the mining camp at Pebble Creek. That's where I'll be living from now on."
Matt rose to his feet, his expression shocked.
"The mining camp! That's no place for a woman like you. Its fine for an hour or two, doing business maybe, but to live there..! Few decent women; no law."
"Pebble Creek it is, Matt, or I don't budge from this spot," Millie cut in stubbornly. "I've been doing business with the miners for years. They respect me. Jake may own half the mine, but the camp is on free ground. Do you think he would really let me earn a living in Jasonville? Besides, I couldn't bear it, Everyone knowing; pitying, laughing..."
Her gaze rested on the distant mountains where, even now, men were digging feverishly in the earth in search of dreams.
"I never thought much on making money," she said. "But from now on, I'll bet things will be different. Jake ain't heard the last of me."
She smiled, "I guess my life really is beginning again." She stood up. "You'd best leave now, Matt. I got things to see to."
She did not watch him ride away. She pulled out the old tin trunk from under the bed, and lifted the lid. It had been years since she had looked at these things. The memories they recalled were too painful. Amongst the carefully preserved baby-clothes were a new, stiff cotton-print dress; a pair of soft leather pumps, hardly worn; a tablet of sweet-smelling soap, still in its wrapper.
She regarded the things thoughtfully. She had never had much time for fripperies, but there was Marianne to think of now. A girl needed a mother to be proud of.
The waiting time was over, and with it, the hardest time of all.
Yes, Pebble Creek was the place to begin. She would get herself a second stove; double her output of dried-apple pies, and other cookeries. Maybe she'd even get herself a milking-cow. There was real money to be made where there were hungry miners.
She rose quickly from the bed, looking around the shack. Yes, there were things to do. She had better get started.