You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and the book:
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (March 20, 2013)
***Special thanks to Meg Mims for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Visit the author's website.
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
October, 1869: Lily Granville, heiress to a considerable fortune, rebels against her uncle’s strict rules. Ace Diamond, determined to win Lily, invests in a dynamite factory but his success fails to impress her guardian. An explosion in San Francisco, mere hours before Lily elopes with Ace to avoid a forced marriage, sets off a chain of consequences. When Ace is framed for murder before their wedding night, Lily must find proof to save him from a hangman’s noose. Will she become a widow before a true wife?
List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 258 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (March 20, 2013)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
‘Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father is also merciful… forgive,
and ye shall be forgiven.’ Luke 6:36-37
I jumped at a screeching whistle. Men swarmed over the distant slope like bees over a wax honeycomb in a mad scramble. “Good heavens. What is that about?”
Uncle Harrison pulled me out of harm’s way. “Just watch. They’re almost ready to begin the hydraulic mining,” he said and pulled his hat down to avoid the hot sun. “You’ll see. This is far better than panning for gold in a creek bed.”
“I can already see how destructive it is, given the run-off,” I said, eyeing the rivulets of dried mud that marked each treeless incline. “I’ve read about how the farmers can’t irrigate their fields and orchards due to the gravel and silt filling the rivers—”
Water suddenly gushed from two hydraulic nozzles in a wide, powerful stream. The men’s bulging arm muscles strained their shirts, their faces purple with the effort to control the water. I turned my gaze to the ravaged earth. Mud washed down into the wooden sluices, where other men worked at various points to spray quicksilver along the wide stretch. Others worked at a frantic pace to keep the earthy silt moving.
An older man with a grizzled goatee and worn overalls held out a canteen. “Have a sip while you’re waiting, miss,” he said. “A body gets mighty thirsty out here.”
“Thank you so much.”
I sipped the cold, refreshing ginger-flavored liquid that eased my parched throat. Dirt from the canteen streaked my gloves. Not that it mattered. At least the spatters of fresh mud wouldn’t show much on my black mourning costume and riding boots. Two days of rain earlier in the week had not helped.
The kind man offered the canteen to Uncle Harrison, who brushed it aside with a curt shake of his head. Steaming, I bit back an apology. The man had already headed back to his position near the sluices.
Bored of watching the ongoing work, I wandered over to several horses that stood patient in the sun and patted their noses. A tooled leather saddle sat atop one gelding’s glossy brown hide, and the silver-studded bridle looked just as rich. The horse gave a low whicker in greeting. If only I’d pocketed a few carrots or sugar lumps from breakfast.
“You’re a beauty. I wish I could ride you for a bit.”
The gelding’s ears dipped forward. One of the men left the knot of others in a huff. His dusty open coat swung around him as he stalked, spurs jingling, and closed the distance. He passed by me with a mere tip of his wide-brimmed hat and untied the reins. The horse pawed a bit while the man mounted, jittery, sensing his foul mood. I noted his scowl. Was he upset that I’d dared touch his property? A scruffy beard and thick black mustache hid his mouth. He rode off, keeping the gelding’s gait easy, down the gully toward the Early Bird’s entrance.
“Who was that?” I asked a miner.
The worker wiped sweat from his forehead with a sleeve. “Senor Alvarez? He’s got a burr under his blanket as usual. Pay him no mind, miss.”
I rubbed the remaining horse’s flank and glanced around the mining site. My uncle continued to chat with the foreman close to the shack near the head of the sluices. Another section of the wooden troughs was raised from the ground further north at a different bank of earth. My curiosity increased. I walked to the sluice and stared down at the filth in the bottom. No glints of gold flecked the bits of rock and slag. I had no idea what quicksilver looked like either. This whole business seemed crazy, although Uncle Harrison disagreed.
In the distance, pines smudged the lower half of the Sierra’s tiny white-capped peaks. To the west, gray clouds threatened the pale blue sky. No doubt rain would soak everything again by morning. My uncle had mentioned how winter was wetter here than back home in Chicago, or even St. Louis. I hadn’t known what to expect for autumn in California. Now that it was close to October, the stands of golden aspen on a ridge high above sported various shades of green, gold and hues of orange.
Homesickness overwhelmed me. I longed to see the brilliant shades of orange, red and yellow oaks, the thick forest of elms and birches behind my father’s house in Evanston. To ride along the shoreline of Lake Michigan’s navy waters, and watch the snow falling fast on a chilly winter’s day. I wouldn’t even mind listening to Adele Mason’s endless chatter about the latest dinner parties she attended with her many beaus.
It seemed like an eternity since I’d crossed two thousand miles of prairie and mountains on the Union and Central Pacific railroad. Donner Lake had resembled a sapphire jewel nestled among pristine snow fields. Perhaps it was frozen already.
I shivered, remembering the darkness of Summit Tunnel. It also brought back the delicious memory of feeling safe, nestled in Ace’s strong arms. Feeling the sudden shock when his tongue sought my own…
“Miss? It’s dangerous standin’ that close to the sluice. Over yonder is best.”
Guilt flooded my heart. Nodding to the man, I twisted around and glanced in the direction he indicated. My uncle remained at the shack. “Will they ever stop talking business?”
“Doubt it.” The miner was the same one who’d offered me water earlier. He carried a roll of canvas slung over a shoulder. Shrugging, he swiped his muddy goatee and cheek against his burden’s nubby surface. “Reckon they’ll yammer on for a while more.”
“Thank you. I’ll be careful.”
“Sure thing, miss.”
He passed by and handed the canvas to a pair of men. They unrolled it and laid the fabric inside the wooden sluice. I walked across the shifting ground, trying to avoid the worst of the mud’s damp patches. One claimed my uncle’s shoe when we arrived that morning. I fought hard not to laugh aloud, watching Uncle Harrison hop about on one foot, so comical with his blustery red face. At last a worker retrieved his shoe, mud up to his elbow, half his face coated as well. My uncle had not thanked the man for the rescue, either.
On higher ground, two workers held long snaking hoses that spurted water at the high bank. Two others sprayed quicksilver over the sluice. It didn’t look like anything but dirty water. I sighed. This entire trip had been a waste of time. Uncle Harrison resented the questions I’d peppered the foreman with and ignored my opinions on how the operation damaged the countryside. Why had he suggested I tag along in the first place?
I should have stayed back in Sacramento. My sketchbook drawings needed work. I had yet to finish anything I’d glimpsed during the journey on the train. Etta had brought all my watercolor supplies from Evanston, and most of my books too.
But I didn’t want to read or paint. A deep melancholy robbed me of energy. Nightmares haunted my sleep, of the deep ravine and the lizard I’d caught, of the sandy slope I climbed on Mt. Diablo, desperate to escape my father’s killer. Of being trapped, with no way out, and facing death, and of seeing that shocked surprise… and hearing the gunshot.
Self-defense, as Ace claimed. My uncle and the sheriff agreed.
Poor Ace. He’d felt bad afterward, forced into a cowardly deed. I had never shot anything except a badger with Father’s Navy revolver. Missed, too. But I’d tried to protect my darling pet lizard’s clutch of eggs in the garden back home. The thought of shooting a human being turned my stomach. I suppose stabbing someone wasn’t any less of a sin. Heavy guilt weighed on me. Had it been self-defense? I shuddered at the memory.
As Mother used to say, it was ‘water under the bridge.’ Nothing I might say or do now would change the past. But I’d rather avoid making such a horrible choice again.
Instead I trudged toward the shack. The foreman held a large piece of blueprint paper between his hands while my uncle pointed at various sections. Two other men argued with them, their heated words carrying over the whooshing of hoses and creaks and jolts of skeleton wagons over the rutted ground. Most of their argument was peppered with technical jargon that didn’t make any sense. Even Chinese sounded more familiar.
“We haven’t made enough headway,” said a man in a tailored suit, whose gold watch chain glinted in the sun. “I say we dig out the ridge all the way.”
“You take that ridge down any more than we have and we’ll never get equipment to the furthest point of the claim, over here,” my uncle said and prodded the map. “That was Alvarez’s advice. He knows this land better than you, Williamson.”
“I agree, it’s too dangerous,” the foreman said.
“I’m the engineer! Are you implying I don’t know my business?”
“I’m saying it’s stupid to undermine that ridge. You’re being a stubborn coot.”
“You’re a fine one to call me stubborn—”
Good heavens. I reversed direction and headed back toward the sluice. They were sure to argue for another few hours. I wanted to ride that horse, even if it meant hiking my skirts to my knees and baring my ankles. The poor animal looked like it a good run, or at least a trot over the rough ground. I had to do something productive or I’d go mad.
Steering around the same boggy patch of mud, I cut close to the sluice. A blood-curdling yell halted everyone. I whirled to see the entire bank of earth, a huge avalanche of mud, rocks and two large trees root-first, rushing straight for me. Someone grabbed me by the waist from behind. I found myself sprawling head-first in the wooden trough. Other men shouted. The mine whistle screeched in my ears, so loud my head throbbed.
Spitting mud and gravel, I struggled to my knees. The tidal wave of mud and rocks hit the trough, rocking me backwards, and then pushed it off its moorings. I screamed when the miner was swept off his feet. Reaching out, I grabbed for his hand—he lost his grip and vanished. A large boulder slammed into the trough and almost tipped me off my perch. I fought to keep my grip on the wooden edge. At last the massive mudslide halted.
Somehow I found myself staring up at a huge tree trunk that hovered over my head. The thing teetered in the wind. Terrified it would crush me, I held my breath. Several workers waded waist deep into the mud and threaded ropes over the tree’s boughs. Two dozen men scampered from all directions, pulling and tugging, until the huge trunk slid backwards a few inches.
“Hold still, miss! We’ll get you to safety quick as a wink.”
“There’s a man buried somewhere! Please try to save him first!”
The crew, grunting and panting, lugged the tree out of harm’s way. Two other men lifted me off the wooden sluice’s remnants. The younger one carried me up the slope toward the shack and set me on my feet. I sagged like a limp rag doll into Uncle Harrison’s arms. White-faced with shock, he stripped off my gloves and chafed my hands.
“Are you all right, Lily? Say something!”
“That worker was buried alive. He saved my life—”
“Hush. They’ll find him.”
Together we watched the workers dig and scrabble with bare hands at the massive runoff. Horrified, my body shaking, I prayed hard that they’d find him before it was too late. My uncle pushed me onto a camp stool. Once he thrust a clean handkerchief into my hands, he forced a drink down my throat from his silver flask. The brandy burned its way to my stomach. I almost retched, but it calmed my jangled nerves. Uncle Harrison wiped my face and neck before he departed. Shivering, wet and muddy, I glanced down at the cotton cloth in my hand. Brown grime stained it along with streaks of pale pink. Blood.
I mopped my neck again, aware now of the stinging pain below my earlobe, and scraped away tiny bits of gravel. My uncle had left his flask. I tipped it against a clean spot on the handkerchief and dabbed my flesh. That burned as well.
A worker pushed me back onto the stool when I stood. “Better rest, miss. You look ready to faint, and we ain’t got any clean clothes for you.”
“Have they found that poor man yet?”
“They will. One way or another,” he said, his tone mournful. “This ain’t the first accident we’ve had at the Early Bird.”
Mortified, I clenched a fist. “How many others have been hurt? Or killed?”
“I better not say.”
He stalked toward the crowd, who continued to clear rocks and a second tree trunk from the muddy runoff. I heard a shout. Five men jumped to assist a sixth who called for help. They lifted a prone figure between them. My heart quailed at the sight of a huge splinter of wood protruding from the man’s blood-soaked shirt. I turned away, tears blurring my vision. I could have suffered the same fate if not for his courage.
The poor soul. He’d been so kind, offering a drink of ginger water, even warning me away from the sluice. He’d given his life to save mine. How could something like this happen? And he had not been the only victim to this destructive mining practice.
Numb, I staggered to my feet and hunted down the foreman. “What was the man’s name, the one who died? Please tell me. Does he have any family?”
“Hank Matthews.” The worker swiped mud from his bearded cheek. “Wife and three kids from what little I know.”
I marched off to find my uncle, ignoring the itching from my stiff clothing. He was busy consulting with the engineer and three other men, supervisors no doubt, given their clean clothes. Uncle Harrison turned to me at last.
“We must send money to Mr. Matthews’ family,” I said, “for the funeral, and to care for his wife and children—”
“We will discuss the matter later.”
“I insist that we support his family! It’s the least we can do. He saved my life, you must see that—ow.” He’d snared my arm and pulled me aside, his voice lowering.
“We cannot support every family of all the men who’ve suffered accidents,” Uncle Harrison said. “They knew the risks. They chose to work at the Early Bird.”
“Enough, Lily. I said we’ll discuss it later.”
He marched me back over the rough terrain to the small camp. Someone brought a real chair and placed it inside the “store,” a crude canvas tent shelter. Two wooden barrels covered with a plank served as a counter. Fifty pound burlap bags of flour, coffee beans, sugar, salt and dried navy beans covered the shelves, along with tins of pepper and saleratus. Another man brought a wooden bucket of clean water. I washed my face, hands and neck, weeping in silence over Hank Matthews’ death. He’d died in a horrible fashion. How many others had suffered similar fates or life-threatening injuries?
At last my uncle arrived to fetch me. I stood, exhausted, still filthy and depressed. “I’d like to find out where Mrs. Matthews lives—”
“That’s not important now. This landslide will set back production for a few weeks,” he said, “but that can’t be helped. Forget what happened, Lily.”
“I cannot forget what happened! I won’t forget.”
Uncle Harrison shrugged. “Suit yourself. It’s time to return home.”
Furious, I followed him toward the coach we’d hired in Folsom earlier that morning. My stiff skirts and jacket rustled with every move. I refused his help and climbed inside on my own. For the past month, my uncle refused to listen to reports in the newspapers about farmers who complained how their orchards and soil were ruined by silt and gravel from the hydraulic mining runoff. The Early Bird was only one of over a hundred or more sites in the high hills surrounding Sacramento. Now I’d seen the truth of the destruction first hand. Somehow I had to get through to Uncle Harrison. To him, this tragedy meant nothing.
I had to take matters into my own hands.
Etta flung the door wide. “Miss! What in the world happened—”
“A bath, please, as fast as you can prepare it.”
I pushed past her into the house. The ride to Folsom had been bad enough, along with the short trip to the railhead at Roseville. Uncle Harrison gave in when I rejected his offer to find a hotel and have my dress sponged. I’d borne the scrutiny of several late night passengers on the train to Sacramento with wounded pride, and in extreme discomfort. My skin crawled, my muscles ached to the point of agony. I wanted to scream with impatience.
Once upstairs in my bedroom, I stripped every bit of clothing off with a weary sigh and tied a wrapper around my waist. My whole head itched, as if plastered in place. I pulled several hairpins out and dislodged a hunk of dried mud. Ugh.
Etta knocked. “I’ve heated water. Let me have your clothes, miss.”
“There’s no use salvaging them.”
“Now, Miss Lily. Your uncle explained everything, and it’s not your fault what happened.” She bent to gather the filthy clothes. “I’ll get you something to eat.”
“Hot tea, with milk and sugar, thank you. I’m exhausted. I need to sleep.”
“You received a letter, miss. I left it on the dressing table.”
“I’ll read it tomorrow.”
Etta held out a small bowl with creamed paste. “Your favorite type—lavender, honey and a bit of oatmeal. Cover your face and hands with that, and I’ll mix some fresh beeswax with rose hips and almond oil when you’re done.”
I sank into the hot bath water in the screened alcove. Once I scrubbed all over, Etta washed my hair and brought fresh water to rinse all the dirt out. She poured a mixture of rose-scented mineral oil and massaged it into my curls. The room’s cold air sent shivers up my spine. I slipped into my nightdress, slathered my face and hands with cream and crawled into bed. It seemed the minute my head hit the feather pillow, I woke to tugging on my scalp. Etta sat beside me, comb in hand. Mid-morning sunlight streamed into the room.
“I’m sorry, Miss Lily. I couldn’t see all the tangles in your hair last night,” she said. “You’ll never grow it long again if I have to cut snarls out.”
Flexing my sore limbs, ignoring the pain, I yawned wide. “I don’t care—” Yawning again, I hunched down while she tugged and pulled. “Go ahead and cut it short.”
“That’s silly. Your future husband wouldn’t appreciate that.”
“I will never have a husband.”
“Didn’t Mr. Mason marry that young lady you met on the train?”
“Yes, Kate Kimball.” I hadn’t been surprised at that news when the telegram from San Francisco arrived last week. “She’s better suited to be his wife than I ever was.”
“That doesn’t mean you won’t find a suitable young man to marry.”
I didn’t bother to answer. Etta clucked to herself and left the room. I rolled onto my back, yawning again, too tired to rise. Disappointment lingered inside me when I recalled Kate and Charles’ news. They hadn’t asked me to witness their vows or invited me to a small celebration. Not that I’d expected them to host a lavish wedding. But I had lost the chance to share in their happiness. Perhaps they assumed I wouldn’t leave Sacramento, being in mourning for Father. They were wrong. Wearing black wouldn’t have stopped me. Friendship and loyalty meant far more than the customs of the day.
California wasn’t as exciting as I’d expected. I hadn’t made friends in the neighborhood. Most women here were either elderly or married with children, none my age. Uncle Harrison often missed meals, and only returned home to sleep. Thank goodness Etta had arrived from Evanston to keep me company.
I stretched, working out the soreness in my shoulders, back and limbs. Boredom had driven me to visit the mine yesterday. Now boredom struck again, harder than ever. Kate would be cooking breakfast for her new husband right now. To think a few months ago, Charles had wanted me to marry him and fund his mission trip to China. I snatched up the letter that Etta brought last night and slit the envelope with a hairpin. Kate’s scrawled handwriting covered every inch of the paper, both sides. Father had often written letters to Mother during the War like this, the inked words smeared a little, and difficult to decipher.
Padding barefoot over the rug, I curled up on the window seat. Thick gray fog shrouded the city streets below, and a scent of mildewing leaves invaded the room. A horse-drawn milk wagon clopped over the cobblestones and halted, its outline faint. The driver scurried toward the porch with a wire rack of bottles. He walked back with the empties and vanished. At last I turned my attention to Kate’s letter.
Dearest Lily, I hope you are well…we are so happy, even though we haven’t a penny to our name. At first we had to accept the kindness of strangers, staying two days here and another elsewhere. But our ministry has grown here in San Francisco. We hope to build a permanent church in Rock Canyon. The poor come to us, and bring whatever they can to share a meal every Wednesday and Sunday. That’s when Charles preaches the Word. He is winning souls to the Lord’s work every day…
Charles? Preaching, when he never had the courage to speak to Father back in Evanston! Had he changed that much? To think I might have slept on the floor in a stranger’s house next to a husband—but no. My inheritance would have guaranteed a hotel room, a house, and passage to wherever Charles wanted to serve as a missionary. But that door had closed. I was thankful, too, because Kate proved a better choice for him.
She’d made no mention of Ace Diamond. What was he doing now?
I let out a long breath. He’d taken the three thousand dollars my uncle had given him and vanished. Had he forgotten me? Gone back east on the railroad to buy a ranch somewhere? I had no idea. I’d been curious enough to send Etta when she first arrived in Sacramento, inquiring at every hotel, steamer and ticket clerk for the Central Pacific. She failed to learn anything about the young Texan. That hurt far more than I expected.
Our last conversation in the Vallejo hotel hallway was clear in my memory. Ace’s fury, the gleam in his odd mismatched eyes—one blue, one blue-green—matched his determination to win me. But my uncle’s insults had been too much to bear.
Ever since, I’d engaged in daily shouting matches with Uncle Harrison over acting as my guardian. He proved to be a dictator of my clothing and behavior, disregarded my opinion on the Early Bird mine or about social events, parties and dinners he insisted I attend. My resentment grew over being treated like a child. I cherished independence from a young age, since my parents had fostered that. Father had indulged me further after Mother’s death. Uncle Harrison wasn’t aware of that, however, and his iron-fisted control irritated me.
I sighed aloud and stretched once more. My black skirt and jacket were ruined after the trip to the Early Bird. I’d have to order new mourning attire or else give up my intention to observe the custom. Father would no doubt laugh if he stood here. He’d shake a finger and remind me about his wish to dandle a grandchild on his knee.
The only way to fulfill that was to marry. One man had sparked my interest, yet he was gone. I yearned to hear Ace’s drawl, see his face and that boyish grin again. I missed him. We’d spent so much time together on the train, and several pleasant hours on Mt. Diablo waiting for my uncle’s return with the sheriff. My heart quickened at the memory of sharing his hot kisses. And I hadn’t protested when his warm hands roamed my neck and shoulders. Or the sly way he’d tugged a few buttons free on my shirtwaist to kiss my bare skin. Along the curve of my bosom above my corset cover, and then…
Etta’s loud rap at the door scared me witless. She carried in a tray with a silver urn, cups and saucers plus a covered dish. “So you found the letter from San Francisco?”
“Yes. From Kate.”
“There’s another this morning. I hope you’re hungry. You missed dinner last night. Captain Granville told me about that poor man yesterday, who saved your life.”
“He did?” Surprised, I glanced up at Etta. She looked wary.
“He’s not keen on sending them any money like you suggested, miss.”
“I don’t understand. He was always generous in the past—”
“To you, maybe, because you’re family.”
I let out another long breath. As if a little money would help that family anyway. No amount could substitute for a man’s life. My resentment increased. I rubbed my forehead and temples, wishing my headache away. The delicious scent of coffee and bacon wafted over me.
“Where’s this other letter?”
Etta poured two cups of coffee and handed me one. “I didn’t recognize the handwriting on the envelope.” She drew it from her apron pocket.
I studied the spidery writing and then used the same hairpin to open the thin envelope. “Hmm. Mrs. Wycliffe says she wrote every word that Aunt Sylvia dictated. It’s postmarked from Sacramento, but I thought she was in a San Francisco hospital.”
“Could be your uncle brought her here to recover.” Etta perched on a chair. “What does it say, miss? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Of course not.”
I crunched a rasher of bacon, ate the still warm eggs and then wiped my hands on a linen napkin. What did Aunt Sylvia want? She’d warned Uncle Harrison about Ace being a gambler. She’d cursed me, Ace, Uncle Harrison, and every one of the men who rescued her from the ravine that day at Mt. Diablo—worse than a miner—while they carried her on a makeshift litter to the buckboard wagon. Aunt Sylvia hadn’t stopped cursing on the journey back to Vallejo. She deserved every bit of such rough treatment for what I’d suffered at her hands.
After I flattened the letter, I started reading aloud. “‘The doctors say I have little time to live.’ That’s doubtful, I bet. ‘Gangrene has taken one leg, and another infection is spreading fast. Come and visit before it is too late. We have much to discuss.’”
“Gangrene is bad, Miss Lily. My father suffered terrible from that before he died. They cut off his leg that summer, but it spread past that point. Maybe you ought to go.”
“What could we possibly have to talk about? She hates me.”
“True enough,” Etta said bitterly, “but she is family. Remember that.”
“Father never wanted me to speak her name.”
“The colonel’s gone to his reward, miss, and is resting in peace. Along with your mother, God rest her soul.”
I didn’t reply to that, scanning the rest of the letter to myself. The words on the page blurred—words that cut me deep. Words my aunt knew would summon me to her deathbed. My mother’s favorite Scripture verse from Luke, and one word stood out.