Authors: Charles G. West
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Westerns
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Electronic edition: June, 2003
People change. This was not a thought that often occupied Martha Vinings’s mind at this particular time in the day. But it was a thought that had certainly come back to haunt her time and again since her marriage to Robert Vinings. Being of practical mind, she did not waste time lamenting the fact that the Robert who had wooed her so fervently and sincerely in Virginia—with promises of undying love and devotion—could become the dispassionate plodder who, pragmatic in his devotion to his mining claim, had seemingly lost all traces of the desire he had at first expressed. Maybe he was not to be blamed. The work was hard, and there were few pleasures offered in the rugged, unforgiving land that taunted and teased the many hopeful souls who sought to find their fortunes in her streams and washes. Few were the fortunate ones who struck it rich. For the majority, it was an endless succession of grueling toil over a ten-foot sluice box that offered little more than a pinch of the precious metal.
She straightened up to give her aching back a few moments’ rest. As often happened, she caught the watchful eye of Robert’s brother Charley, gazing intently in her direction. The faint trace of a smile turned up one side of his mouth, forming an
expression that suggested thoughts inappropriate for a brother-in-law. Martha looked quickly away. She glanced across the sluice box at her husband, who never seemed to take notice of his brother’s lecherous glances in her direction.
She thought now of the glowing enthusiasm Robert had possessed for the grand adventure he had planned for their honeymoon. At the time, anxious to escape the turmoil of the crowded farmhouse of her father—and the difficult times after the Union army had laid most farms in the county to waste—she joyfully accepted Robert’s proposal of marriage. He had seemed so sure of himself, and of his plan to create a new life in the West, that she finally bought into his enthusiasm—in spite of her father’s misgivings.
It had been a heartrending experience to leave her mother and father, perhaps never to see them again. But she knew that it would be easier for her father to have one less mouth to feed during the hardships that were to come. Her three younger brothers would be more useful than she would in helping her father make a new start. She would miss them all terribly, especially her brother Clay, who had been away from the family since joining the Army of Northern Virginia in December of 1862 at Fredericksburg. Clay, older by a year, was her favorite. They had seen Clay only once since he marched off to war—and that was a week before the last battle of Fredericksburg when the Yankee forces captured Marye’s Heights and took possession of the town. She had prayed every night for his safe return, but there had been no word from him, even after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. When after a year there was still no word, her father assumed he was dead. But Martha could never bring herself to accept that fact—not Clay, not the one person in the family who always looked after her and never teased
her. He always had time to listen to her fears as well as her dreams. No, Clay was a special person—too special to be killed by a Yankee bullet. She would not think of him as dead, preferring to keep a picture of his handsome, suntanned face tucked away in the recesses of her mind. He was just away temporarily.
It had seemed like such a romantic adventure when Robert told her of his dream: to make the long trek across the country, and gather up their share of the fortunes rumored to line every stream in the new land. They would fill their wagon with gold, then buy a farm in the Oregon territory. How wonderful it had all sounded then, to leave the pain and the shame of the tragic war behind; she and her husband creating a new life for themselves in the land of golden promise. At times she wondered if she had been more in love with the adventure than with Robert. There had been no mention that Charley was to accompany them. But, she supposed, as hard as the work had proven to be, it might have been almost impossible without Charley’s help.
I guess lecherous looks won’t hurt me,
she told herself. Looking across the long wooden trough they called a Long-Tom, she stole a glance at her husband, working steadily to feed the sluice with the rocky soil of the streambank. And for a brief moment, she wished he would occasionally look at her the same way Charley did. It might make her life a little more bearable if there was still at least a faint spark of the passion he had professed when he had proposed to her.
Maybe Charley might decide to move on to the Montana gold fields—he had hinted that he might—since it was already obvious that their little claim would not yield the fortune they had hoped for. But she knew Robert would discourage any notion
Charley might have of leaving. To properly work a Long-Tom required three or four men along the sides to keep the soil washing down toward the riddle. It was hard work for two men. For her part, Martha stood with her hoe and shovel, working the rocky dirt back and forth in the iron riddle as it dropped into the riffle box beyond. Robert’s dream of riches threatened to break the backs of all three of them. It would be impossible to work his claim without Charley’s help.
“Sun’s gittin’ low,” Robert suddenly announced, breaking a silence that had filled most of the afternoon.
Charley paused to rest on his shovel, his lewd grin in place once again as he watched Martha prop the hoe against a large boulder behind her. Robert’s simple statement was her signal to go back to the cabin and prepare supper while he and Charley worked on until almost dark.
“You’re gonna have to go hunting pretty soon,” Martha said as she rinsed her hands in the rushing water. “We don’t have but a little of the salt pork left.”
“I know,” Robert replied. He straightened up and stretched his back, reaching his arms high up over his head. “I just hate to quit working now that we’re starting to see a little color.” He glanced at Charley then reluctantly admitted, “I reckon we’ve got to eat, though.”
“I could use a day off,” Charley said. “My dad-blamed back is killin’ me.”
“I reckon it wouldn’t hurt to take half a day off,” Robert reluctantly conceded. “Me and you could light out early in the morning, maybe find us a deer, and have him dressed down before noon.”
Charley laughed. “I swear, brother, you sure are one to work a man to death.”
“You got to git it while the gittin’s good,” Robert returned. “I don’t intend to linger in this country no longer than I have to, what with the Injuns and such.”
Charley grunted contemptuously. “Shoot, we ain’t seen the first sign of Injuns anywhere near this valley.”
“If we’re lucky, we won’t,” Robert said. “Come on, let’s empty that riffle box.”
Martha made her way through the large rocks skirting the stream and started up the hill toward the cabin. As she climbed the steep slope, she was careful to hold her skirt tightly around her ankles, knowing that Charley was watching closely for any glimpse of leg. Why, she wondered, did Robert never instruct his younger brother to mind his manners when it came to her. Maybe it escaped his notice—maybe he just didn’t care—she was too tired to worry over it now.
At the foot of the slope, Charley leaned on his shovel handle, watching his sister-in-law until she disappeared from view. Reluctantly turning his attention once again to his work, he glanced up to find his brother watching him intently. Not at all ashamed to be caught ogling his brother’s wife, Charley just shook his head and grinned.
“Come on and help me empty these rocks,” Robert said, hoping to avoid talking about what he knew was on Charley’s mind. It didn’t work.
“Hell, brother, it ain’t hurtin’ nothin’ to look,” Charley said. “Besides, the way she walks up that hill, wrigglin’ her little behind, she’s wantin’ you to look at her.”
Robert paused, shaking his head slowly, weary of his younger brother’s undisguised lust for his wife. “No such a thing,” he finally said. “She don’t wriggle her behind, and you know it. Martha never has thoughts like that. She’s the most decent woman I’ve
ever known.” He fixed Charley with a stern scowl. “I ought to give you a good whuppin’ for saying such a thing.”
Charley’s grin was immediately replaced by a pouty frown. “I reckon you know that would be the hardest day’s work you ever tried to do.” The frown faded after only a second, replaced by the almost constant grin. “Dammit, Robert, I’ve got needs same as you—hell, more’n you, I reckon. Martha’s a healthy young woman. She’s got needs, too—and you ain’t doing her no good.”
“Damn you, Charley, you better watch your mouth!”
Charley brushed the warning aside. The time when he feared his older brother had long since passed. “Hell, Robert, don’t you think I can hear everything that goes on behind that blanket? You ain’t givin’ her nothin’ a’tall. It’s a damn waste is what it is, and that’s a fact.”
Calmed by a weariness deep within, Robert didn’t say anything for a few moments. When he spoke, his words were slow and measured. “Charley, I know what you got on your mind, and it’s a sin. I don’t wanna hear no more talk about it.”
“A sin?” Charley exploded. “There ain’t no sins out here in this country! I’ll tell you what’s a sin: It’s a sin to waste a good woman when she ain’t being seen to proper. Besides, it’s all in the family.” He turned to pleading. “Dammit, Robert, I’m your brother. It’d be different if there was any other women around here. If it was the other way around, I’d do it for you. Hell, look at them Mormons we saw back at Fort Laramie. They’ve got the right idea about it—and it ain’t a sin to them.”
Robert desperately wished that the problem didn’t exist, that it would just go away. But there was
Charley, standing before him, looking at him like a starving calf. He had no desire to share his wife with any man, even his brother. The very thought of it made him queasy inside. What Charley said was true, there had been no real passion between him and his wife for some time now. But that didn’t change things. She was still his wife. Knowing Martha as he did, he knew she would be appalled by the suggestion—even if he gave it his blessing.
“You could ask her,” Charley prodded. “She might want to.”
“Hell no,” Robert quickly responded. “I didn’t say
was willing. Besides, Martha don’t hold to sinning.”
Charley began to plead again. “I’m just asking to be with her once in a while. I wouldn’t expect it all the time, just once in a while to keep from going crazy out here. You know I respect the fact that she’s your wife. It’d be different if we was back in Virginia. Things are different out here.” He paused while he watched his brother intensely, searching for some sign of weakening. “Ask her, Robert. Just see what she says about it. Will you?”
Bone-tired and brain-weary, Robert wasn’t sure whether he should kill his brother for suggesting such a thing or talk to his wife as Charley pleaded.
If I was half the man I should be, I’d kill him for lusting after my wife.
Finally beaten down by Charley’s persistence, and knowing that he desperately needed his brother’s help working the claim, he said that he might talk to Martha about it—but warned that Martha’s say would be the final word on the matter.
Peering into the iron pot to make sure no uninvited pests had found their way into the beans while they were soaking, Martha set it over the fire and stirred up the coals. All the cooking was done in the stone
fireplace Robert and Charley had built. She often wished she could have brought a stove to cook on, but they had to pack everything they owned on three mules, and there was no room for a stove.
“Damn!” she muttered to herself, as she brushed a couple of small white worms from the slab of salt pork she was about to slice. She regularly found worms in the pork, and weevils in the flour, but it still disgusted her. During moments such as these, she tried to discipline herself not to think of her home in Virginia, the home she had been so anxious to escape. Her tiny corner, partitioned off from her four brothers by a blanket, seemed luxurious to her now. She paused for a moment, staring at the slab of salt pork, her mind’s eye recalling a time that now seemed long ago. She pictured a serious young man in Confederate gray, home on convalescent leave while his wound healed.
Robert had wooed her relentlessly, and she now admitted to herself that she had allowed her emotions to be fueled by romantic thoughts of a gallant young soldier, wounded in battle. She longed so for the passion that would sweep her heart away, that she willed him to be the prince of her dreams. She was in love with love itself. Suddenly she focused on the cold impersonal slab of meat in her hand and the intruding little white worm that wiggled rudely before her eyes. Here was her reality. Her reverie shattered like her romantic schoolgirl dreams, and she flicked the offending worm from the pork and brought her mind back to the mundane business of preparing supper. It was childish fantasy to think dreams came true. There was nothing to do but make the best of what life offered. Maybe things would change.
The evening meal was eaten in almost total silence. There seemed to be a heavy air hanging over them
that Martha could not help but notice. It was as if the two men had been in an argument, yet there was no apparent sign of animosity between them. She decided that the cause was most likely simple fatigue. “You two are awfully quiet tonight,” she finally commented, not really interested in the cause.
“I reckon,” Robert replied, never looking up from his plate.
After supper was finished, Martha cleared away the dirty plates while Robert pushed his stool back, stood up, and went to fetch his pipe. Charley remained seated at the rough little table for a few minutes longer, watching Martha as she washed their plates. She could feel his eyes on her back as she swished the tin plates around in the bucket of dishwater. She was relieved to hear him rise and announce that he was going to walk down to the stream to get some fresh air. Charley gave a meaningful glance to Robert as he walked out the door.