Authors: Andrea Parnell
Copyright © 1988, 2011 by Andrea Parnell.
All rights reserved.
Published 2011 by Trove Books LLC
Amazon Kindle Edition 1.0, December 2011
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
A previous print edition was published by Onyx/NAL in 1988.
Cover by Frauke Spanuth, Croco Designs
eBook Designed and Developed by eBook Architects
With love to Genia, my sister, my friend
“Dang it, gal! Yer a-cheatin’ ol’ Sulley.” Sulley Jones’s grizzled black beard swayed with the motion of his shaking head. “Blast it! I never shoulda taught you all o’ my tricks.” His coal-black eyes drilled an accusing look at his pint-size poker opponent. “If yer pa...”
Lilah Damon cut Sulley off with a merry laugh as she scooped a stack of wooden matches, her winnings, from his hand.
“Papa doesn’t know. He thinks you’re teachin’ me solitaire.” She carefully added her latest winnings to the growing pile of matches beside her on the bunk.
“Don’t you tell him no different,” Sulley growled. Lilah laughed at Sulley’s threatening tone. Once or twice a week the old prospector stopped by her father’s camp for a hot meal and a little conversation. Usually he spent the evenings playing cards with Lilah, finding his friend Clement Damon’s young daughter the most refreshing person in the valley.
“I won’t,” Lilah said sweetly. “Poker is lots more fun than solitaire.”
“Well, then, you better stop yer cheatin’ or nobody’s gonna set down with you. Why, if we was playin’ fer nuggets I’d be busted.” Sulley slapped his knee. Grinning, he got up from the second bunk in the Damon tent, gathered up the deck of cards, and slid them into the pocket of his flannel shirt.
“Sulley, you ol’ sidewinder.” The more time she spent with Sulley, the more Lilah sounded like him. “How can I practice if you take the cards?” Hands on her hips, she stood on the bunk to talk eye to eye with her friend.
“You don’t need no more practice. Them little fingers is slippery as a snake’s hide already.” Sulley rested a callused palm on Lilah’s curly hair and planted a quick kiss on her forehead. Not ready to go to bed, Lilah frowned and pleaded for one more game. Sulley shook his head decisively. “Nigh on yer bedtime now,” he said, neglecting to mention that his dried-out throat craved a long drink of whiskey from the bottle stashed at his camp. “Tomorrow,” he said. “Now, git yerself to bed before yer pa comes back and skins us both.”
Lilah bounced down on the bunk. “Papa says I’ve gotten wild as an Indian out here in Californy.”
“That ain’t fer from the truth, gal.” Sulley scratched beneath his hat. “The way you scat around here whoopin’ and hollerin’. I heared you say a word the other day oughta have got yer mouth soaped out fer. Hope yer pa don’t ever hear sech talk.”
Lilah giggled. Not worried about her papa ever giving her more than a gentle scolding, she yawned and stretched her arms. “Good night, Sulley,” she said softly as he trimmed the lamp and eased himself past the tent flaps.
Lilah sighed. Papa would be working late across the compound in the smaller tent he used as an office for the Damon Star Mine. Tomorrow was payday for the thirty Chinese workers he employed to dig out ore. His choice of employees hadn’t made him a popular man in California, particularly since he paid his Chinese miners the same wages he paid the few whites who also worked with him. But little Lilah Damon wasn’t aware her father had enemies. She only knew she had the best papa in the world and that there was no better place to live and play than in the Damon Star camp in the California hills.
After Sulley left, Lilah brushed her hair, counting the strokes the way Mama had taught her. It was one of her favorite things to do. The brushing always made her think of Mama. She closed her eyes as she pulled the bristles through her hair, almost seeing Marie Damon’s soft smile and hearing her musical voice. Three years earlier Lilah’s mother had died giving birth to a second daughter. Lilah’s little sister stayed the weekdays in town with a nurse Papa had hired.
Lilah wanted her sister in the camp and frequently tried to convince Papa she was old enough to care for Sissy. Papa had pointed out that Lilah herself still had Loo, the half-Chinese girl who lived with her grandfather, attending to her. Undaunted, Lilah kept pestering him to bring Sissy to the camp. Papa hadn’t yet agreed to that; he had promised to take her into town tomorrow for a visit.
Smiling and deciding she would take her doll to see Sissy too, Lilah began braiding her shiny tresses. Poker wasn’t the only thing old Sulley had taught her. As she worked, she softly hummed the tune of a song he often sang. Sulley claimed hearing his young friend’s sweet rendition of “Oh! Susanna” brought tears to his eyes. Lilah liked singing almost as much as she liked playing cards and often entertained Sulley or Papa with a song she had made up herself.
Just as she finished one braid and started on the other, a loud clap like thunder sounded close to the compound. Lilah shrieked and lost her hold on the sections of hair. Another clap sounded and the tent walls shook. Lilah, terrified of storms and the occasional earth tremors that came in the camp, shrieked louder and snatched a blanket over her head.
Her trembling increased with the clamor. She wished Sulley hadn’t left so soon. She wished Loo was with her or that Papa had already come to bed. She wished she wasn’t alone. Finally she gave a choked cry, grabbed her rag doll, and dashed out of the tent in her night-clothes, dashed blindly into the blackness of a nearly moonless night. All around rose scared screams, those of the Chinese workers also emptying out of tents.
A few coherent voices warned of an attack, and Lilah realized the sound she had heard came from neither storm nor tremor, but instead from the beat of hooves on hard earth. Crying out in terror, she bolted across the grounds with the others. Maybe renegades were riding into camp. Maybe Indians were coming to kill them all. Sulley had warned her that a band of renegades roamed the nearby hills and that a little girl should never go out alone. Papa had said it too, so it must be true.
Outside the camp, swirls of dust soared up like thunderclouds as forty or more stampeding horses bore down on the compound. Like bolts of lightning, hooves flashed and struck the earth. The shrill screams of the frightened animals pierced Lilah’s heart. Whimpering for her papa, Lilah clutched her doll to her chest and kept running.
But when the stampeding herd flattened the makeshift fence bordering the compound, she stopped, face ghostly pale. Lilah screamed. Even a child of ten could see the horses would destroy all in their path. Her young mind searched for a reason this devastation had come to her father’s camp. Was it her fault? Was it happening because she had once told Papa she wished Sissy had never been born? She had wished it for a while because having the baby made Mama die. But didn’t God know she didn’t wish it anymore? Didn’t God know she loved Sissy more than anyone, anyone except Papa?
Where was Papa? She needed him. At any sign of trouble she wanted her father, and now, feeling the full measure of panic and confusion in the Damon Star camp, she sought him frantically. Around her the shouts of alarm rang louder and stronger. People scrambled in every direction, looking for cover on the flat ground around the creek.
“Papa! Papa!” her voice, too soft and too full of terror to be heard, called desperately. She was glad Sissy wasn’t in the camp, so very glad Papa had left her in town. At least Sissy wouldn’t be killed because Lilah had wished something bad.
Bewildered by it all, Lilah dropped her doll and followed the horror-ridden few racing along the creek bed, her only thought to find Papa. She tried to spot him among the frightened, running men but saw him nowhere. Hands clenched into tight fists and pressed against her cheeks, Lilah stopped again, thinking she might have a better chance of seeing him if she stood still. Crying, her feet cut by sharp stones, Lilah stood alone on the bank, but only for seconds, before being knocked to her knees by someone running past. Lilah quickly clambered to her feet, but now stood almost petrified except for her sobs.
She could see six riders driving the horses that had been corralled above the creek. Lilah wondered why those men had freed the horses and why they drove them through her father’s mining camp. Didn’t they know people would be hurt?
“Stop! Stop them!” Lilah shouted, and waved her arms wildly at the advancing herd.
“Lilah!” From far away she heard a shout and whirled to see her father racing toward her. Screaming his name, she broke into a run, only to be halted after a few steps by his yell to turn back. Lilah obeyed as she always obeyed her father, but now stood even more perilously close to the path of the oncoming horses.
Clement Damon ran as he had never run. With his precious Marie gone, he had only his two daughters left to him in the world. He would never stop blaming himself that Marie had died. His precious Marie. If he had stayed in the East where she could have had a doctor, she might have survived. But here...
He ran harder, his lungs burning and near to bursting with the effort. It was his fault too that Lilah was in danger. Befriending and hiring Chinese workers was dangerous in this valley. Still, he hadn’t taken the threats seriously. He wished he had.
God! The horses were almost on her. Why hadn’t he listened to Marie and stayed in Pennsylvania? Why had he let himself be lured to the goldfields? God forgive him. He had spent her life to have his adventure. If it cost him his own, he could not let Lilah double the price.
Hearing the horses almost on his heels, he added the last of his wind and strength to his strides. He would have been at her side in another instant, except that the stampeding horses raced faster than Clement Damon.
Lilah, small hands clamped bloodlessly tight, held her breath as her father twisted and spun, dodging one horse and then another. Before he could clear those last few feet, a dozen more crazed horses bore down on him. He leapt away from a big bay, only to land in the path of a roan mare whose foam-flecked shoulder struck him in the back and drove him to the ground.
Years later Lilah would still remember the deadly thunder of horses’ hooves crashing into dry earth, crashing over tents and housing sheds, crushing the life from her father’s legs. His scream, one of agony, one of unbearable pain, set the memory forever in her mind.
Lilah watched in horrified fascination as the horses trampled her father. She felt every blow on her own small frame, and through silent lips screamed each scream with him, her mouth woolly dry, her jaw slack. Her eyes were frozen on the spot in the dust cloud where her father had been a moment before.
The horses thundered on. She watched them come, knowing she would be trampled like her father and yet unable to move so much as an inch to save herself. Lilah covered her eyes with her small hands and waited for the crush of death. She thought it had taken her when two strong arms gripped her waist and jerked her from her feet with such violence that the air gushed from her lungs.