By Adair McPherson
Sierra Valley, 1864
Todd Ormsbee put out the oil lamp that had lit the kitchen before sunrise and wondered where he would be sore at the end of the day. “Boots and I could use some extra help with the cattle today,” he said to his wife, Belinda, as they ate breakfast. “Can you spare Julian?”
Eleven-year-old Julian stopped chewing his steak, as surprised as his mother by the question. He had begged for permission to move cattle to spring pasture since he could string together three words. His parents had held—since the day of his second birthday when they had turned away for only a moment to find him spinning spread-eagle and face down in a Bonta Creek eddy—that until spring runoff dropped to reveal the boulder they called the Tooth, children were not allowed to enter creeks on horseback or foot, no matter who was present. Julian straightened, thinking that if he looked taller his mother might consent.
Belinda caught the shift that accentuated Julian’s thinness and wondered if he had pinworms again. “I’m making one last batch of butter mints before the weather gets too hot for pulling. Lucy Fetterman has buttons to trade but she won’t swap for bad mints. She can make those herself. I need Julian to watch James while I work. Once the syrup hits hard boil, I only have a minute to pull and cut it before it sets.”
James was Julian’s chubby ten-month-old brother who was sitting on a rug beside his mother chewing a chair rung. “Can’t Cullen and Paul watch him?” Julian offered his sleeping brothers in his place. “Please, Mama,” he begged. “I did all my lessons yesterday. I even finished my letter to Grandpa Clegg.”
Belinda stared at Todd, knowing how tired he would be at the end of the day, but also envying the apparent ease with which help came his way. “When are you leaving?”
“In about an hour. The creeks are still too high for some of the calves to cross on their own. If Julian can keep the mamas in line, Boots and I will ferry the babies across on our horses.” Boots was a black itinerant cowboy he had hired the day before.
Belinda sipped coffee, weary from rising in the night to nurse James. “When will you be back?”
“Before dark, but you know how it is—something always goes wrong. I promise not to keep him overnight, not this first time.” Todd grinned at Julian as he reached for another biscuit.
“All right, Julian,” Belinda stood carefully to avoid bumping the baby. “Get your brothers down here so I can finish breakfast. Do your chores, then come watch James. We’ll pull the candy first thing so you can leave with your father in an hour.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Julian headed for the stairs in a trot.
He turned, afraid she might have changed her mind.
“No matter how late you get back or how tired you are, those afternoon chores still have to be done. Hungry chickens don’t lay—not even in spring. Do you hear me?” Her voice was serious, but her eyes smiled.
“Yes, ma’am.” He took the stairs two at a time.
Belinda put her plate in the sink and adjusted her smock. Belinda Clegg and Todd Ormsbee had taken different routes to California, both seeking gold, yet it was marrying each other and settling on what was considered the wrong side of the Sierra, the eastern side, that had transformed their lives. They had gradually increased their holdings with money earned selling beef, onions, cabbage and peaches to the mining camps. By the time the westward rush dwindled to a steady migration, the Ormsbees had four sons and an eight-hundred-acre ranch.
“You’re probably right about Julian,” Belinda said, setting places for the two middle boys, “but I wish you wouldn’t ask me things like that in front of him.”
“He’ll be fine.” Todd stood and stretched. “Can I finish the coffee?”
“If you’ll pick up that baby boy of yours. With one less set of hands around today, he may not get the attention he feels he deserves.” Belinda twisted her waist-length hair into a coil and pinned it at the back of her neck before returning the skillet to the stove. She wore her hair long in a style popularized by the wives of the Mexican governors that had ruled before statehood. It was heavy, though, and she would have traded it in a second for an Indian to work for her year-round as she heard they had in the missions at the turn of the century. She had been unable to keep a Washoe for more than the month or two each summer the tribe camped in the valley to harvest rabbits and pine nuts.
Todd refilled his cup and walked to where James played on the floor. “Come here, my little nugget,” he said, picking up the baby and returning to his seat. Belinda had pulled a wool sweater over James’s nightgown and tied a cap to his head but had given up on the socks he always kicked off. Todd warmed his hands against his coffee cup before rubbing James’s cold feet. “What adventures do you have planned for your mother today?”
“Watch your coffee,” Belinda cautioned. “He’s a real grabber lately.”
“That reminds me, I saw Wild Ramp Mary by the creek yesterday. She had a sack of something over her shoulder.”
“Nappies, I suspect.” Belinda cracked eggs into a bowl as James explored the pockets of his father’s vest. “Lucy Fetterman sent one of the girls to the creek to wash clothes last week. She had just started when the old woman charged at her from out of the saltbush. Scared her so bad she dropped everything and ran.”
Wild Ramp Mary was an eccentric who had wandered Sierra Valley for nearly two years, limiting her encounters with people to brief, fiery interactions in which she demanded what she wanted and declared what she would provide in return. She would appear at the kitchen door the day after Belinda made candles and take too many as she left behind the watercress Belinda hadn’t had time to collect. Nobody knew her real name, where she came from or how she survived. They called her Wild Ramp Mary after the garland of wild onions she wore around her neck. “She scares me too,” Belinda confessed, picturing the old woman rising out of the marsh like an ill-tempered Great Blue Heron. “By the time Lucy got there, the old witch had taken off with half the baby’s nappies. Lucy tried to track her but lost the trail after she crossed the creek.”
“Lucy Fetterman and the old hag,” Todd chuckled. “Sounds like a fair fight to me. What did the old woman leave her?”
“Rabbit pelts—but nappies?” Belinda poured eggs into the skillet. “What does she want with those?”
“Maybe she’s got a silver tea service that needs polishing.” Todd peeled lint from James’s fingers and gave him the empty coffee cup to chew. James pounded his father’s chest with it instead.
“What I can’t figure out is how she survives the winter. She wanders all over the valley for eight months and then disappears when the weather gets really bad. Seems like in winter she’d need more help, not less.”
“Maybe she flies south with the geese,” Belinda shuddered.
“Well, speaking of nappies,” Todd turned James toward Belinda, “this boy is finished with his morning chore and I need to get to those cows.”
Belinda lifted the frying pan off the stove as Cullen and Paul stumbled into the kitchen, dressed, but uncombed and unwashed. “My hands are full and here come the last two sleepy heads. I’ll feed them while you take care of James. Unless Wild Ramp Mary was here last night, you’ll find nappies in the washstand.”
“Wild Ramp Mary was here?” Six-year-old Cullen snapped awake. Of all the children he was the most fascinated by the old woman, having once traded her an apple for a peek inside her mouth. She had teeth although her receding gums gave her a skeletal grin.
Todd shifted James, stomach down, across one arm as he stood. “I guess if I can follow a dozen nervous cows to pasture, I can change one diaper.”
“You saw her?” Cullen repeated.
“You’re a brave man, Todd Ormsbee.” Belinda laughed as she refilled the plate nine-year-old Paul had quietly emptied.
“Dad?” Cullen tugged his father’s sleeve. “Did you see her?”
“Just don’t mention this at church.” Todd put a hand on Cullen’s head to block the noise. “I doubt the other deacons would understand.”
“Your secret is safe with me, but I can’t vouch for your shirt sleeve. You might want to hurry along.”
“Mom!” Cullen exploded. “Was Wild Ramp Mary here?”
“Your father and I are just playing,” Belinda said, leaning forward to kiss him. “Sit down and eat before Paul gets all the eggs.”
“Belinda,” Todd called from the back porch. “Come take a look at this.”
“There isn’t anything out there I haven’t seen a thousand times before,” she laughed. “You’re fine.”
“It’s not that.” Todd stood by the tin bathtub someone had taken from its wall peg and set on the porch. A basket of nappies rested inside as if someone had delivered a present without wanting to disturb them. As Belinda approached, something inside the basket moved. Using a piece of kindling from the woodpile she lifted the top napkin. “Kittens,” she cried. “Todd, where did you find kittens?”
“They’re not from me.”
Paul shook his head for himself and Cullen. Their previous cat had grown so decrepit Belinda had taken to muttering, “Honestly, I wish someone would kill that cat for me.” The boys tied it in a sack, put it at the bottom of a hole they filled with dirt, and jumped on until there was no more crying. They were as devastated as Belinda to discover their mistake.
Belinda frowned and lifted the cloth to her nose—ramps. She handed the cloth to Todd for verification as she scanned the porch to see what was missing. She couldn’t tell what Wild Ramp Mary had taken.
“At least now we know why she wanted the napkins. It’s getting late,” Todd said. “Can you take him?” James reached for his mother as he felt himself being tipped in that direction.
“I’ll never get that candy made,” she said, settling James on an old sheepskin that covered the washstand, her dream of the boys in new Sunday shirts with Lucy Fetterman’s whalebone buttons fading into the evermore distant future. Cullen and Paul leaned over the washstand to pet the kittens and argue about which one belonged to whom.
Fifty minutes later—breakfast cleared, and kittens fed—Cullen and Paul sat at the kitchen table trying to write thank-you letters to their Grandpa Clegg in Missouri. Julian had run upstairs to grab an old hat. Belinda stirred the boiling syrup on the stove with one hand while propping James on her hip with the other. She knew from the tension on the spoon that she would need both hands soon. She was just about to call upstairs when someone pounded on the kitchen door.
“Come in,” she shouted. “He’s almost ready.”
The door opened with such force that it hit the inside wall. The caller wasn’t Boots, as Belinda had assumed, but Wild Ramp Mary, hands on her hips looking as if there was to be a party and she the honored guest. She entered, bringing a gust of cold morning air with her. Decades of smoking had stained her teeth a brownish yellow. The gray hair she pinned up and back didn’t hide the ringworm on a scalp that was a patchwork of fungal inscriptions. “Good morning. How is everyone at the ranch with all the little boys?”
Belinda shrank in horror as the old woman approached. This meeting was the first in which Wild Ramp Mary had entered the house. Cullen and Paul slid beneath the table, transfixed by shoes so close they smelled the mud and manure. Behind them, ink from the overturned bottle spilled from table, to chair, to floor, spattering across fallen stationery and pens.
“How is the baby this morning?” Wild Ramp Mary hissed.
Belinda faltered as the old woman studied the kitchen. She had never done more than exchange nods or waves with Wild Ramp Mary from a distance. She knew there was no reason to be frightened of someone who looked as if the wind might easily sweep her across Sierra Valley. Still, the skin on the back of Belinda’s neck tingled. Her heart pounded. “Why are you here?”
“I see you found the kittens.” Cracked, red hands materialized from the cuffs of a man’s shirt folded over to fit. “I’ll take him while you work.”
Belinda raised her spoon as if to block her. Opaque liquid slipped down the handle of the spoon onto her fingers. The smell of burning sugar rose from the stove as the syrup boiled over. With a flick of her wrist, Wild Ramp Mary skimmed a finger across the cook pot’s surface and slung droplets of the scalding mixture in Belinda’s direction. Belinda felt the bite on her cheeks as the syrup stuck and burned.
Wiping her own finger clean against her skirt, Wild Ramp Mary gripped the pot handle. “Let me hold him while you finish up.”
“You want to hold him?” Belinda asked as James rubbed his face against her shoulder and screamed.
“That’s right.” Wild Ramp Mary slipped both hands under James’s arms. Belinda grimaced as she felt James being extracted from her side. He quieted briefly to examine what held him, but—looking to his mother for reassurance—burst into tears again. Wild Ramp Mary hoisted him more securely onto her hip and strolled toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Belinda asked.
“You worry too much. Make yourself a cup of tea. Take a rest. You’ve earned it.”
“Wait!” Belinda glimpsed James’s wool cap over Wild Ramp Mary’s shoulder as the old woman stepped onto the back porch and closed the door.
Belinda pushed the pot of overflowing syrup off the heat and sank to the floor. There were Cullen and Paul at eye level, under the table, looking as stunned as she felt.
“Mama?” Cullen said. All three scrambled to embrace one another.
Julian entered the kitchen, hat in hand. “What’s wrong?” he asked when he saw the disarray.
No one answered immediately. Mouth open and breathing in gasps, Belinda stared at Cullen and Paul, although she saw nothing, heard nothing, thought nothing. “What is she doing?” she finally said. “What am I doing? Stay here!” Belinda hoisted herself onto her feet, grabbed the scissors intended for cutting mints and ran to retrieve her baby.
Belinda and Todd returned home just after dark. Lucy Fetterman had fed the boys and put them to bed, but they were still awake. Belinda stopped at the entrance of their room, suspended just beyond their reach by an unconscious belief that forfeiture of her place in their arms must be offered and might be required given the nature of her fall.
Todd hung the lantern from a ceiling hook and slipped into the chair between the two younger boys’ beds. He picked up the story from the Morning Call he had read to them the night before, a piece by someone named Mark Twain. At times, the boys’ enthusiasm for fanciful tales worried Todd. He wondered if he should stick to the classics. Like the boys, however, he admired Twain for having had the fortitude to travel all the way across the continent just to look around, save that he had burned a quarter of the timber in the Tahoe Basin unwilling or unable to control his own campfire.
“Where’s James?” Cullen asked, chewing a corner of his blanket.
Belinda covered her mouth and looked away.
“Some of the neighbors are still out looking.” Todd smoothed back Cullen’s blond hair—the only hair that had stayed blond so long. “We’ll go out again tomorrow if we have to. We’ll find him and bring him home.”
“What about us?” Paul asked. “Who’s going to take care of us?”
“Your mother and I will take care of you just like we always have.” As he leaned forward to kiss Cullen goodnight, Todd found himself anchored to a child with arms strengthened by fear.
“She’s going to get me,” Cullen whispered loudly.
“No, she isn’t,” Todd vowed. “I won’t let her.”
“She might come in through the window.”
Todd started to stand but Cullen gripped his leg. “What if she comes down the chimney or up through the floor?”
Belinda fled. When Todd started to follow, Cullen and Paul each grabbed an arm. “Don’t go,” they begged.
Todd settled back down, noticing the ink stains on Paul’s hands for the first time. “What happened here?” He held Paul’s hand and stared even after he understood.
“What if she comes back with a gun?” Paul pulled free.
Todd had never hidden the fact that there were dangers in the world, although he had always believed they were safer at home than anywhere else. Now, recalling how weak Belinda had looked with her hand over her mouth, he bowed his head, exhausted.
Julian lay quietly in bed, too far from the lamp for Todd to see his face. “Julian?” The boy turned his back to Todd and pulled a blanket over his shoulder. Todd sat between Cullen and Paul, every lamp in the house lit, and sang the song he sang every night:
Where will I shelter my sheep tonight?
Where is that peaceful shore?
Where will I shelter my sheep tonight?
I will shelter my sheep at God’s door.
What mother, Todd wondered in the silence that followed, doesn’t fight for her baby with everything she has? He recalled Belinda ceremoniously unwrapping a music box every Christmas and placing it on the kitchen table for everyone to hear “The First Noel.” He remembered her crying when, as a toddler, Julian had accidentally broken a pitcher she had brought from Missouri and he questioned, for the first time in their married life, whether Belinda had the stuff required to make it in California. He listened to the boys’ loamy breathing, drifting on its cadence until he too slept.
When he woke a few minutes later, he stood—back muscles aching—and made his way downstairs carrying the lantern. From the kitchen he could see Belinda sitting on their bed, James’s quilt in her hands. He left the lantern on the kitchen table and entered the bedroom to slump into the rocker by the cradle.
“I’m going back out,” Belinda said, catapulted forward by the creaking of floorboards underneath the rocker. “I might spot a fire in the dark. No one has ever tried to track her at night.”
“The best trackers in the valley are out there right now. One more person wandering around in the dark will just confuse things. Besides,” he said, taking her hands and squeezing them, “we need you here. Tell me again what happened.”
Belinda collapsed back onto the bed and covered her face. She saw an openmouthed parody of herself standing frozen as Wild Ramp Mary plucked James from her arms. “I was trying to get the mints pulled before Julian left. Someone came to the door. I thought you’d sent Boots to get Julian, but it was her. She kept saying, ‘Give me the baby. Give me the baby.’ She grabbed the pot on the stove and threatened us. I didn’t think she meant to take him. It was pride—nothing more than sinful, stupid pride—and greed that made me want those buttons.”
Todd moved the rocker closer and lifted one of Belinda’s booted feet into his lap to untie the lace. She seemed on the verge of delirium. It wasn’t like her to preach, but one didn’t lose a baby every day and certainly not to theft.
“She tore out of the house and disappeared,” Belinda groaned. “Most of the cows were at the creek, but a few had broken away and were coming back. Boots was whistling. Mud was flying. I couldn’t see her, so I ran north up this side of the creek toward the Fettermans’. When you found me, I’d switched to the other side trying to pick up her trail.” Belinda crossed her arms against breasts hard with milk. “What’s going to happen to him now?”
Todd removed one shoe before taking up the other. This was the third time he had heard Belinda describe the kidnapping, but the first in which he noticed the marks on her face. “Did she throw syrup at you?”
“I don’t know.” Belinda winced as he touched a blister on her cheek.
“Did it hit James?”
Belinda ran her hand over the shoulder of the cooking smock she hadn’t removed and felt crystallized sugar. She nodded as tears streamed down her face.
“If he wiped it off right away, he’s most likely not burned.” Todd removed Belinda’s other shoe and covered her with a quilt. He released the clips that had held her hair in place all day. “Are you thirsty?”
Belinda pulled the quilt over her head and sobbed.
Todd moved to comfort her, but she was so stiff he couldn’t get his arms around her. He sat on the edge of the bed, resting his handkerchief on the top of her head until the worst passed, and she pulled it down to blow. “I’ll find us something to eat,” he said.
The lantern he had left in the kitchen glowed in the middle of the table, but without his wife and children around, nothing was familiar. He uncovered one of the plates Lucy Fetterman had prepared and, still standing, stabbed the fried steak with his fork and bit off a chunk. Todd heard the cattle low and knew that Boots was throwing hay into the lot. There was very little feed left and he had to get spring seed into the ground soon if he was to get a double yield from every arable plot. If James is going to die, he wondered, what will kill him and how fast?
With a biscuit in his mouth, he gathered a napkin, cup and plate. The biscuit fell when he inadvertently bit through it. As he bent to retrieve it, the water spilled. “Damn it!” Searching for a rag, Todd heard a whimper outside. He paused to listen, and it came again. Belinda hurtled past him, banging into the bathtub on the back porch, her hair unwinding as she ran. In their urgency to get outside, neither brought a lamp. They couldn’t see what they were looking for or hear the whimpering over Belinda’s, “my baby, my baby, my baby.”
They found the kittens in their basket underneath the oak tree, brought outside earlier by the boys and forgotten. “No!” Belinda shouted, grabbing one in each hand. “I want my baby back. Do you hear me? I want my baby.” The kittens squealed as she threw them into the dark and flung aside the basket. “James.”
Todd walked Belinda into the house, dressed her burns and put her to bed. When he was sure she was asleep he went back outside with a lamp and hung up the bathtub. One kitten was dead, its neck broken by the throw. Grabbing it by a hind leg, he flung it toward the creek knowing something would carry it off before morning. He took the others inside. After pouring himself a glass of Cyrus Fetterman’s gin, he thinned cornmeal mush with cream for the kittens. By simultaneously reducing the amount of gin in his glass and cereal in the bowl, he got everyone fed. Todd tucked the kittens into their basket and put out the lamp. He stood in the dark listening to the ticking of the cooling stove.
Belinda startled awake after five minutes of morbid sleep with both sides of her gown soaked; her milk had let down. She pieced together the sounds coming from the kitchen and, without opening her eyes, pictured hanging herself from an icehouse rafter—near enough that they wouldn’t have to look long to find her, far enough away that they could go on living in the house. Tears puddled in her ears.
Boots had been waiting for Todd in the front yard since he stabled the horses. He had set the lantern off to the side of the porch to draw away the bugs. Two years before he had heard whisperings of emancipation while being transported from a farm east of Vicksburg to a New Braunfels, Texas cotton plantation deeper in the Confederacy. He had waited until Christmas Eve to take a knife, a flask and a pair of boots and run fifty miles to Comfort where a Unionist gave him a horse and a map of the Whiting Trail west. When he tried to trade the boots for food, he was told, “I don’t want no nigger boots.” He kept the boots and the name. He was Boots, Nigger Boots, Laman Boots or Boot Boy depending on who was talking. He thought of himself as Emancipation Boots but wasn’t going to say so until standing on his own land. Emancipation Boots had worked for almost everyone in Sierra Valley the summer before and was back, this time asking to be paid in land.
“I’ll trade you room and board for work if you’re willing to bunk in the barn again,” Todd had said a week earlier, “but if you want land, you should probably try to get on with the Webbers. I’ll tell you this, though—if Sam Webber’s got land he’s willing to part with, you’ll be bidding against me and I hate to lose anything.”
“Sir,” Emancipation Boots approached the porch when Todd finally came outside, “them folks in Beckwourth thinks the old woman lives up near Yuba Pass. One of them that traps seen her smoke.”
“Cattle all right?”
“How much feed do we have left?” Todd asked, gripping the porch railing with both hands and prodding with his foot a bag of wool a neighbor had left as down payment on a fall heifer.
“Maybe a week’s worth.”
“Could you work full-time for me for a while? For wages?”
“I promised Mr. Arrigone I’d go to work for him Monday morning, but I believe if you speak to him, he’ll understand.” Emancipation Boots disliked choosing between white people. Worse yet, he had found James’s cap on the floor by his bunk before walking over. He had initially laid it across the porch railing. Pacing away the thirty minutes waiting for Todd Ormsbee to appear, anticipating possible reactions, Emancipation Boots had lifted the cap from the railing and stuffed it in his back pocket, determined to burn or bury it as soon as he was alone.
“If they don’t find James tonight, we’re all meeting at the church in the morning. You can ride in with me if you like and I’ll talk with him then.”
“I’m sorry for your troubles, Mr. Ormsbee,” Emancipation Boots felt again the crimp his heart had sustained sixteen years earlier when a favorite brother was sold.
“Your supper’s in the kitchen.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll go around back and get it.”
About Adair McPherson
Adair McPherson, PhD has published scholarly articles in refereed journals of psychology. A short piece, “Night Waltz,” was a finalist for the 47th New Millennium Writings 2019 Flash Fiction Award. My short story, “1824 Charleston Etude” has been accepted for publication in a 2020 edition of Soundings East. I self-published Roadkill abc in 2018, a picture book of items that met a premature demise on the road, available on Amazon. I live with my family in Davis, CA.