Fiction Writing Contest XLVI, First Place (2018)
NEW MILLENNIUM AWARD FOR FICTION
Patricia Sammon of Huntsville, Alabama for “Since”
Sammon will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
By Patricia Sammon
April, 1866 The 20th or 21st
Three days of snow have imposed a heavy silence on the town. To this I say, Good. It is difficult enough for me to compose my thoughts to you without my having to hear mule teams racketing along the planked road.
You recognize the red-ruled paper I sliced from your ledger. I will enclose two more sheets so you can write back to me. I doubt the Denver jail makes gifts of stationery to its inmates.
It is thanks to the snowstorm that I learned you are alive. All this time I have been sorrowing and you have been just two day’s ride away. My informant was a rough looking sort of a man. He banged at the door and asked if he’d been lucky enough to come upon a brothel in the middle of a blizzard. I told him I was the Widow Maddox and that I run a clean boarding house. (Yes, Husband, I now have a boarding house. Hush. I cannot begin this letter to you from all different points at once.) The man remarked on my name. He said he’d arrested a man named Maddox a few years ago. I told him that while it was true that I did not know the particulars of my husband’s death, you had been possessed of a fine moral character and you were no criminal. Then I told him to get his horse off my front porch and make his way to the saloon which he would find more to his liking. He asked if your name was Joe Maddox. I will tell you, Joseph, my limbs gave way. I had to sit on the blanket chest and struggle for breath. He asked if you were a gold miner. My hopeful heart flapped like a caught goose, but I resisted. There are hundreds of gold miners in these territories. He told me he was a bounty hunter and he recalled the Maddox case because you were no ordinary criminal. He said that all you did was poke fun at how some poor fool in the mining camp was making his coffee. Oh, Husband, you have ever been such a tease. When the insulted man lunged at you, you knocked the gun away but it discharged, killing someone’s horse. Now you are reading this letter, fretting over your ledger paper and interrupting me about how it is we have a boarding house, and wondering why I wasn’t offering this man a free supper for bringing me news that you are alive. But you know me. I like to get a clear sense of what’s what. I demanded to know why the law would arrest a man for knocking away a gun. He pointed up the staircase (Yes, our house has a staircase now) He asked if there mightn’t be a few sporting ladies up there. I blocked his path and insisted he tell me why you were locked up for self-defense. Up close, the man was not so ferocious looking. There were beads of ice in his mustache and they swung in a silly sort of way as he spoke. He told me that if you’d just paid the one dollar fine the judge charged you for the act of provocation, you would still be a free man. But being a hothead, you stormed out of the courtroom and a bounty hunter had to be called. I asked if he’d captured you on the mountain slope above town, panning for gold. He said no, you must have been in a high, holy fury because when he surprised you well north of here, by Camp Collins.
Do not be disheartened, Husband. There’s a smart chance your sentence is almost fully served. And now you are holding this very sheet of paper in your hands and you are reading the words of someone who is not, after all, a widow. It will be some time before the roads clear, but I will come to visit you after the next thaw. I’ve never seen such deep snow. Yesterday I looked out from my upstairs window and what did I see, poking up from a great snow bank, –the tips of branches where I knew no tree stood. Annie helped me reach the place. You don’t know who Annie is but I never mind. Just read about a tree that was not a tree. Annie and I had to use swimming motions to scoop and kick a path. What we came upon was a deer, perfectly alive, buried in the deep white. Only the tips of his antlers reached beyond the surface. His eyes were black and large. I put a rope around his neck. He followed me back through the snowy corridor to the house. Did he think I was leading him to safety? I grabbed hold of the antlers and wrenched his neck and he crumpled to the ground, foaming at his nostrils. We need food, but it did not seem a fair or proper hunt. More like a crime that I did not mean to commit. I used my knife to slice his neck and drain the blood into a bucket. For a time, that bucket held the only color in the world.
In all the times that the mail courier has stopped here to buy a meal of corn bread and cup of stew before continuing on his way, I never had the thought he would one day be carrying a letter from me to you. The snow will delay his arrival here so I will add to this letter when I can. Right now I must attend to the front hall which is puddled by heaps of wet scarves and socks. When you return here, you can set an example for these boarders as to what good grooming and ‘care of appearance’ mean. Remember, five years ago, when our wagon train finally reached this territory? Remember the general amazement when you opened your wooden crate and took out a neatly folded, black linen jacket, as if you’d known all along you were going to meet a woman on the westward trip and you’d be in need of a wedding coat.
I hear one of the boarders coming upstairs. I will ask him the date and add that to the beginning of this letter.
• • •
2 days later
The last time I waved goodbye to you, your new sluice box and tin pans were making a merry noise as your mule trotted along beside you up the mountain slope. When you did not return at the new moon as planned, I tramped uphill to find out if you were sick or hurt. I went first to the big mining camp. The men said they hadn’t seen you. If they were gentlemen they would have told me about the fight and your stormy exit. But they are not, and they did not.
I made my way to your stretch of river and fully expected to see you there, kneeling by the water’s edge, swiveling the tin plate. You– in the grips of gold fever, forgetful of your wife in town or your need for coffee, beans, lard. Then I looked for you crouched among the boulders, working your pick ax, reading the grooves like some old scholar. But I couldn’t even find your sluice box and pans and rocker irons. Not even your tent, though I fingered the holes in the dirt where you had staked it down. Husband, you often teased me about my genteel upbringing but let me tell you, frontier life has made me sturdy. I marched further up river to the next claim. The man kneeling there by the water’s edge was red-headed and stout, but still I had the idea that he would become you, turning at the sound of my voice. I hallooed at him for a while before he heard me above the roar of the river. I asked about you and he said Git! The mule beside his own tent looked just like yours but then, all mules look identical. I asked if there had been any trouble with bandits. He took his rifle and fired once into the air. I asked if that meant yes or no. He leveled his rifle so that it was pointed at me. I turned and left. Let me tell you, I was not afraid of that scoundrel. I was so angry I was like an image in a wavy mirror. He had nothing to aim at.
Yes, Husband, there is now a mirror in the front hallway. And I have an upstairs room from which I can look out over the fields. You will find many more changes when you return. There are about fifteen new homes in Clear Creek. The supply goods store has doubled in size.
I had none of the blood pudding I made the other evening but the men all had extra helpings.
How lovely it has been just to tell you a little about how things are with me.
Your loving wife.
• • •
Last week of May, mud everywhere
Husband, Perhaps I am not so very sturdy. I had to fight back tears when the mail wagon from Denver brought no letter from you. I know you have barely had time to read my letter, let alone begin an account of the past three years since we saw each other. Another courier will soon pass back through here on his way into Denver. I want to have a letter to put in his care so I will take up this pencil whenever a quiet moment presents itself.
I had not realized, until I learned that you are alive, how neatly your death had fit itself to the corners of all these rooms that I sweep and mop, day after day. Your stillness was my steady work. Now, like a wakened breeze you have tossed all the curtains and rattled the door hinges. I am glad, of course, but I do not mind telling you I am flustered at the thought of seeing you. I find I must grip the stair railing even when I am carrying nothing.
The day after I told the marshal that I had searched your claim and could not find you, the bodies of twelve miners were washed into town, cruelly delivered by the roaring snowmelt. Finding that you were not among the drowned brought me no relief. The following month a Mrs. Smith, mother of five here in Clear Creek, wondering at her husband’s failure to return home for a month’s supplies, walked up to his claim and found the poor man’s body, flyblown in a gulch, a bullet in his back, his tent ransacked.
Drowned or murdered, the two means of your death propped themselves upright against one another and I knew I was a widow.
I have my own news to convey but I know the only news you want to hear right now is what became of your claim. The answer is, I asked the marshal’s help me sell it. Do not be vexed. You must realize I had to find a way to survive. I sold the claim for $148 and gave the marshal $1 which he did not want to accept but his wife is sick and I insisted. I did not hide the $147 in that particular place in the house where your pouch of gold dust and your scale are buried. Not even Annie knows the hiding place. Joseph, when you return, you can give up prospecting and use the gold you buried in the house to buy some cattle or sheep. Yes, the snows get deep here and they can close in on grazing animals but you, on a horse, with a dog, would make quick work of the round-up.
• • •
5 days later
You can be sure that the cash from the sale of the claim felt alive and kicking as I walked over to a group of newly arrived wagons. I struck up a conversation with some of the women. Yes, plain, quiet me can be a church bell if I need to be. When I made it obvious that I was a respectable sort, I asked if the men could gather round. I addressed my inquiry to a kindly looking man. Joseph, do stop interrupting me! I admit that I enjoy the sense that you are reading over my shoulder as I write, but you must not rush me. You want to know why I would carry a fortune in a dress pocket when I was going to meet strangers. I’ll just say that it seemed yet more foolhardy to leave a fortune unguarded in the house. And the reason I knew the man was kindly was because he was holding his young boy on his hip and tickling him. I told the assembly that I needed some construction done on my house. I wanted it greatly enlarged, with a second story. I wanted the walls to be made of proper brick with framed windows and I wanted the inside to be canvassed and papered. The father holding his boy asked if he might know how I would pay. No, Husband, I did not show the money. Just read! I said the marshal could vouch that I had $147 in cash. The men were happy for the work. Mining equipment is always more expensive than anyone expects.
Annie helps me run the place. She does not want me calling her an Indian. She says she is a Shoshone. Can you imagine such cheekiness? She is about as ladylike as a wild cat. At first I was put off by her ignorance. She was actually afraid to tread on the stairs, never having seen any before. But I have come to put great store in her ferocity. My boarders would sooner have her drop them out the second story window (she is no longer afraid of the stairs) than have her catch them trying to steal anything. Last month, before the big snow, she and I were scrubbing laundry alongside the stream. She noticed some young boys getting too close to the butter box that was cooling there in the ripples. She threw pebbles at the lads. I suppose that wasn’t a friendly thing to do, but it had taken me a long time to churn and set that butter. I do not know what her real name is so I gave her the name of the little sister I had for a time. It is pleasant to hear the name flit about the hallways of this house whenever I need help.
Your loving wife.
• • •
By now you know a mail courier stopped by the Denver jail and asked if inmate Maddox was receiving his letters and the jailor said you are. To which the courier said, ‘Then please pass along word that Mrs. Maddox awaits a reply.’ Did the jailor call you hen-pecked? To that I say, good. I do not care if you are being teased. It was teasing that got you into this bad luck. Send me word in your own hand that you fare well enough. Our marshal here in Clear Creek has reason to go to Denver soon, and he will check on your wellbeing himself. I long to abandon this boarding house and go with him, but of course I cannot travel alone with the marshal, especially now as he is widowed.
• • •
Last night when the house was filled with snoring, I went downstairs to the dirt floor where your gold is hidden. I just wanted to touch what you had touched and smooth over again what you had smoothed over. I am building my courage to write to you of everything that has happened. No, I am not being courted by some young fool. No, I am not in debt and tempted by your cache. Here is one interesting fact for you. It was rumors of gold that caused Julius Caesar to leave the known world and set off across the ocean to invade the island of Britain. Are you surprised I know such a thing? As surprised as you are to learn that there is a plank street in Clear Creek and there is a wild Shoshone woman helping me wash clothes and fry up bacon and cabbage for our boarders?
A year ago, one of my boarders confessed he’d be unable to pay the month’s rent. I told him that before he cleared out he had to give me something of value to cover the debt. I suggested the calf skin boots he was wearing but he pretended not to understand. He said he owned several books and he opened his valise so I could see my options. One book was a treatise on temperance and I said I was already well familiar with that topic as my deceased husband had felt favorably about the cause. Another was a published lecture on how to dig irrigation ditches for desert farming. The next wasn’t a book at all but a photograph of Ulysses S. Grant in military uniform, standing by a tent. I told the man I’d grown up in a big home with a fine library and didn’t he have a good reading book—something by Cooper or Poe. He said he had only one other book: “The History of the Roman Conquest of Britain.”
Annie is calling that she is ready for help with the laundry. I do not go into the various rooms to collect dirty clothes. If a boarder wants his shirts and socks washed, he needs to leave them in a basket by the back step on Monday morning. I will go down now and see how many of the men remembered such a simple instruction. They will grumble this evening at dinner that I failed to remind them. Lord, that Annie can scream. If the mail carrier comes tomorrow, you will get this letter without a proper ending but you will not care.
• • •
The first time I read “The History of the Roman Conquest of Britain,” I had to keep my knife at hand in order to slice apart the pages. But now I have read it often enough that the pages are well thumbed and smudged. Before Julius Caesar set off for Britain he asked some merchants who traded in the northern realms to tell him about the habits of the wild men of Britain. He was informed that the Celts do not fear disease or death. “Do they fear anything?” the scribes record Julius Caesar asking. And came this answer: “Only one thing. They fear that the sky could fall down upon them.” I find that so strange, Joseph. Not afraid of suffering or death. Only the heavy hand of the air above.
Last night my history reading carried me once more to a famous surprise attack on the Celts. Just to set you straight, this is 100 years after Julius Caesar. The emperor of Rome is now Claudius and his general in Britain is assembling his forces at the banks of a river, in full view of the Celts on the other side. The general has his men staking their tents, digging ramparts and setting up large cooking fires. I put myself in the place of the Celts and I pretend I do not know what is about to happen. I look across the river and I wonder what to think about all this activity. Are they building a town? Do they mean to stay? Meanwhile, Husband, a special force of soldiers with the Roman army has snuck away from the great commotion. In full armor, at a much wider stretch of the river, they swim across. The Celts had not known that men in armor could swim, let alone that they could swim so well that they would choose a wide stretch of river just for the element of surprise. Husband, the surprise was terrible. The special force did not begin by attacking the Celtic warriors. They attacked the horses and mules, slashing tendons and muscles so that there would be no animals to pull the dreaded Celtic chariots. Each time I read of this, I think of the bellowing animals, the smell of blood. When the bounty hunter pounced on you, near Camp Collins, what became of your mule? If you were in such a fury about the one dollar fine, why did you not just come home? I would have hidden you well. Then you could have slipped away from the town under cover of night and set up somewhere where you could not be surprised by the law or bandits or floods.
The historian of the Roman invasion is one Reverend Welland-Smythe. He is of the opinion that the surprise attack took place at the River Medway because he found Roman coins with the image of Emperor Claudius buried not far away. But the Rev W-S says we will never know for sure. He makes ample use of the phrase ‘lost to the mists of time’. I wonder if the Medway is a slow moving, peaceful river like the South Platte, or a raging torrent such as Clear Creek. I asked a Cornish miner who boarded here for several weeks about the River Medway but I could not understand his answer. His words were English but so strangely knotted together they held no sense.
• • •
October 30th, 1866
I heartily repent of my impatience. The marshal returned with word that you are among those inmates who recently enlisted with the militia in order to hurry the completion of your sentences. Well, bully for you, but now you are pressed into dangerous work, fighting Indians who only want to fend off invaders.
Last week there was word that Indians were going to raid Clear Creek. Annie refused to join us as we barricaded ourselves in the saloon. She said if the raiders were Shoshone, they would not bother her. And if they were Utes, she’d kill them herself. I forget that these Indians are not just one large group. The different tribes wage war against one another. Reverend W-S is of the opinion that the armored soldiers who swam across the wide stretch of the River Medway were not Romans but Celts, disloyal to their own people. I had not even allowed for that possibility. Perhaps it was a traitorous friend who directed the bounty hunter to your hiding place near Camp Collins.
The rumor of an Indian raid began because an old couple traveling at dusk, spotted shapes along the mountain rim. Who can imagine what they actually saw—a bear and her cubs, some Shoshone slinking deeper into the western mountains. I find myself siding with the Celts more and more.
The mail courier dreaded telling me he had no letter for me but I told him you were off fighting Indians and would soon be home, carrying my packet of letters with you. As he ate his stew, I pestered him for news of the world. He said there was fever in Boston and Philadelphia, and earlier this year a ship traveling from Britain sank, taking hundreds of lives. Certainly troubles are evenly distributed the world over.
• • •
Four days later
The boarder across the hall coughs a good deal and I can feel the draft from his open window, flowing like an invisible river beneath my door, pooling at my feet. Mr. Johnson cannot possibly be his true name. He claims to be a New Yorker but I suspect him of being a Slav or even a Turk. He has odd, foreign habits such as bobbing his head as he serves himself a bowl of soup, and smiling when no one has uttered a remark that is either funny or pleasant. But he pays promptly and happens to smoke a tobacco that puts me in mind of you. I still think of you each day, Joseph Maddox, as these pages make manifest.
• • •
I am myself a house of strangers. Inside one room, I pace back and forth, thinking of you. In another room, a make lists of the hundred things that must be ordered if this place is to be kept running. My own memories belong to someone else. They are the big, old boots lined up at my front door. I close my eyes and see my baby sister in her cradle. But I must be imagining that scene. I was only four years old when she died. I try to remember my father’s library. I can feel my hands on the wooden steps of the ladder, propped against my father’s great bookcase. Was I really allowed to go up and down that ladder, holding books? Unlikely, both for my sake and for the sake of the books. If I take my time I can see the tasseled lamp, the patterned carpet, but then my father in his casket, looking like someone else’s father. Mother, begging in the street, looking like someone else’s mother.
Tell me, Joseph, what was the first thing you said to me? Ha! I knew you would say you can’t recall. I knew you’d just straighten your collar and tuck in your shirt and say, ‘Such foolery.’ Here is the answer. The evening you first spoke to me, the wagon train stopped, only a few days out of St. Louis. As I gathered fuel for the cooking fires, I was telling the little children stories about Ivanhoe or maybe the headless horseman. You teased me about how gingerly I picked up the buffalo chips. Then you asked me what kind of work a storyteller was going to do out in the territories.
I never properly thanked you for asking that question. It let me see myself as others saw me—a scrawny young woman who would be a burden if all she knew how to do was tell a few stories. Then and there I started teaching the children their sums and letters so I could win myself a place at the cooking fires. I wish Annie would let me give her a few lessons. She refuses to learn how to read or write and says our people will be gone one day and her people will return to their old ways. Who is to say? Certainly the Romans do not prevail in England today.
Last night my reading carried Claudius’s general beyond the victory at the Medway. Emperor Claudius himself must make the long journey and preside over the final conquest. The general waits busies himself building a timber road and also a bridge at the River Thames. When the emperor arrives he brings war elephants with him. What must the Celts have thought of such giants? I once saw a picture of an elephant. It was on a circus poster. When that circus was about to come to town, we were still a well-to-do family. But by the time the circus had arrived, there was not a nickel for admission. Father was bankrupt, then sick, then dead.
Joseph, I am unable to sleep, no matter my exhaustion. I sit at the noon of night, using up fine tallow candles, waiting for your return.
The Rev. W-S says that the Celtic chieftain who died of his wounds at Medway had a twin brother who survived the battle and traveled off into the western mountains. I do not know what becomes of that brother. Perhaps there is another volume to the history book. Perhaps no one knows. That is more likely.
Now that the pencil’s lead is worn so soft that it outraces my scribbling thoughts, I will tell you what I must tell you. Let me begin by remarking on the inanities uttered by well-meaning people who hope to offer consolation when a baby dies. “A better place,” the Reverend of Clear Creek said. “The Lord called her home,” said the mothers. I wish you had been able to return from your claim at the new moon as you had planned. I would have told you I was bearing a child. When you returned again for supplies you could have met our newborn babe. But now, since I know a little of the history of you and me, I am grateful you were spared the heart stab of losing her.
• • •
I named our daughter Josie, for you. She kept me in my right mind as your death settled into fact. She was a year old and taking her first steps when the sickness struck. Would it be any help to know for bottom fact that it was diphtheria? What I do know is that the fiercest armies attack unseen, inside stagnant air. I lit buckets of tar to rid the air of pestilence. It did no good. Her eyes were open as I sang to her but her lips blued and her gaze clouded as if she were at a great distance though she was right in my arms.
I like the phrase “a vale of tears.” It is a good expression. It matches perfectly what it means to be alive. Josie’s burial took place April 15, 1864. I put her in a white dress and the coffin—which had been a box with a shipment of rifles—I bedded with the striped calico of my old dress.
• • •
Two days later
Annie knows all the words that have to do with laundry and cooking , and those are enough to include words for river and wooden boards and mud and grass so, the other day, as the two of us were boiling up beans and salting some mutton, I told her the story of you and me traveling west and of our adventure crossing the river. First I helped her see the twenty wagons moving out from St. Louis. I told her I couldn’t remember the name of that first river we encountered. It was deep and had an uncertain bed, muddy and thick with grasses. I told her it would not have been suitable for cleaning clothes. I explained that our head driver determined we must take apart each wagon, haul the boards and axles and wheels and bundled canvas across the water and then reassemble the wagons on the other side. I let her see you there, tall, shirtless; standing in your dark trousers. I told her you climbed up onto the back of one of the horses and guided it as it swam safely across. Then you returned to get on another horse. Seeing your example, I hopped up onto one of the horses. You said it was a foolish thing to do in a dress but you had to admit, I could ride. On the far bank you watched me wring river water from the dress and you said, “You would make somebody a good wife.” And you laughed when I said, “You asking?” I don’t know that you ever did ask, but you were smiling when you put on your good-looking jacket and the Reverend placed your hand over mine. Did I speak vows? I must have. Then we set off for Clear Creek to minister to your gold fever. I don’t know how much of the story Annie was able to understand. Perhaps it sounded like a succession of strange facts about a time that has nothing to do with her. But when I turned to her, she smiled, helping me hold up the largeness of such a beautiful recollection.
Tonight, it will once again be 55 BC. Julius Caesar is setting off across the ocean. He does not yet know about the strong tides that will damage his ships, and I have no way to warn him. He has not yet seen the fierce Celts, their faces stained blue. Next month I will reach the part where Emperor Caligula (Husband, he comes before Claudius) goes to Britain and orders his men to pick up seashells as bounty. Perhaps Caligula was not in his right mind. Or perhaps it was not seashells he said but something else and the scribes wrote down lies or errors, or made spelling mistakes.
Your loving wife.
• • •
Late Spring, 1867
During the past year I wrote several letters to you. I know now that you did not receive them. No matter.
I am dictating this letter to Mr. Johnson who has promised to faithfully write down my words to you. He is the only person in Clear Creek who has contracted the fever and survived. It kills young and old alike. Last night it claimed my only friend, a woman with long, dark hair. The disease advances by orderly progression beginning with something the doctor calls Break Bone ague. I think Break Bone is a good name. Certainly I am unable to hold a pencil.
Last month the marshal discovered that the person who was held for a time in the Denver jail for provoking a fight has a name that sounds exactly like yours but is spelled differently. So, that is the end of that.
Shortly after learning that you were never in jail, I received a visit from the man who bought your mining claim. He said he had found some shards of bone in the riverbank and feared that they were evidence that you had drowned. He presented me a packet containing splintered fragments. They were tangled in a scrap of fabric that might have been wool or blue denim, but could just as easily have been canvas sacking. He expressed his condolences and then left to see his family. The marshal told me the bones look like those of a deer. The cloth is moldered and useless for identification. I buried the packet at Josie’s grave. You don’t know who Josie is but that doesn’t matter. The guess about deer bones was the marshal’s last official act. Four days later he was dead of this fever.
I enjoy the thought of Mr. Joe Madicks sitting in the Denver jail, reading of the details of a stranger’s life. Perhaps the letters are not lost to the mists of time. Maybe, upon his release, he brought the packet home with him to Camp Collins. I think of him married now, with a young daughter to whom he will tell stories about wild, blue men. His eagerness to hold his daughter tight will be the only evidence that I ever lived.
I am glad it was not you who was jailed. A lonely plight, that. And not in keeping with your fine character.
Having had you alive for the past year, I cannot quite shut the door against the thought of you returning here one day with a story for every scar on your body, your eyes lit with a teasing smile. Did you take apart your life and reassemble it elsewhere? Did you travel on alone, forsaking the pouch of gold you buried here? I do not think so. You are not a disloyal person, and you were definitely not one to be heedless of a good supply of gold. Just think of your fury when you were told to pay a simple dollar fine! Ah, but of course, that that wasn’t you. There are more shadows in this room than a single candle and a desk and chair and a scribe can account for.
I leave you this farewell. And I leave you a history book that I enjoyed. Mr. Johnson has told me my thoughts are disordered and that I should speak no more but rest. I will do so, but I have insisted he write down what he just said to me, and then that he write down this one last thing.
This history book proved to be a fine sluice box. I rolled it back and forth and caught many sun-flash glimpses of you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patricia Sammon was born and raised in Canada and immigrated to the United States when she was 16 years old. She studied history at Cornell University, then completed graduate school at Queen’s University in Canada. Sammon has written a novel, many short stories and is working on a play.
“Since” © 2018 Patricia Sammon