The challenge: write a story inspired by the photo below, provided by Emilio Pasquale. If you didn’t read our first team-up, click here to read it! And, if you haven’t checked out his photography site yet, you really should 🙂
Marianne Sutter stoked the fire with a long broken branch she’d foraged in the woods surrounding camp. The logs, moistened by last night’s rain, had been slow to burn, but finally rewarded her with meager warmth stifled by billowing smoke. One of the few women in camp, she kept to herself.
“Well, well, Ms. Sutter. How ‘about you warm yerself by my fire?” The man gave an exaggerated wink.
“No thank you, Mr. Muehlling.” Her revulsion at his advances culminated in a deep shiver that she hoped had been concealed by her wool overcoat.
“If you change yer mind…” He nodded toward his tent.
Marianne’s husband, Cortland, had led her to this God-forsaken land four months ago. Enticed by adventure and gold, he moved them west. When he first shared his plan to leave Virginia, she insisted he take her with him. She’d thought being alone at home would be much worse than being with him on the frontier. How wrong she was. California turned out to be a fickle host. Although Cortland had found a small amount of gold, months later, he succumbed to fever, leaving Marianne to fend for herself.
Marianne’s eyelids grew heavy as her fire dwindled to pulsing orange coals. In the periphery, she caught sight of a movement to her left. She leaned forward and squinted, branch clenched tightly in her hands.
“Who’s there?” She asked in a hoarse whisper so she wouldn’t disturb the panners who’d already retired for the night. The bushes rustled and Marianne raised the stick over her head.
A young child stepped into the clearing.
She gasped and relaxed her arms. “How old are you?”
“Where are your parents?”
The matter-of-fact tone caught Marianne off-guard. “What’s your name?”
Marianne leaned forward so her eyes were at the girl’s level. “Carrie, can you take me to your family?”
They walked a circuitous route in between tents before Carrie stopped and pointed. Marianne moved forward and saw two rigid men in sleeping bags beneath a make-shift tent.
“They been sick,” Carrie said. “Daddy and my uncle.”
A breeze slid through the campsite, flapping canvas and fanning the stench of death. Marianne leaned against a battered supply wagon and heaved, supper barely missing her boots. Shaky and weak, she grabbed a wool blanket. She kneeled down and said a prayer for their souls’ safe-keeping and covered the men.
Marianne smoothed her skirts and took the girl’s hand. “You can stay with me.”
Marianne scraped the charred remnants from the roasted rabbit she’d fixed for breakfast. She’d sent Carrie to search for wood scraps for their evening fire.
“Seems we’re alone again.”
She clenched her jaw. Mr. Muehlling.
He ambled a few steps toward her.
She held the cast iron pan between them. “I’m busy, Mr. Muehlling.” Her voice came out sharper than intended, so she added a quick smile. “I’ve got to get to the river before it gets too late.”
His eyes narrowed. “Good day then. Til tonight.”
A pit settled in her stomach. She didn’t want to see him that night- or ever. She turned her head toward rustling in the bushes just as Carrie burst into the clearing. She dumped an armload of wood at Marianne’s feet.
“I found a friend. She’s alone, too,” the girl said. She reached into the brush and pulled a woman into view.
Had she not been burdened by the shock of impropriety, Marianne might’ve chuckled at the similarity to a street magician plucking a bunny from a black top hat.
“This is Sasha Pearl.”
“Ma’am, pleased to meet your acquaintance,” Sasha offered her right hand.
She couldn’t be upset with Carrie, a child too young to know of the woman’s type. But Marianne could tell by the bold-colored bodice barely restraining her cleavage what kind of living she made. She feared Sasha’s presence would bring unwanted attention. Marianne turned away. “If you could stack the wood, please.”
Carrie disappeared through the brush to retrieve more wood.
Sasha put her hand on Marianne’s arm, tightening her fingers to keep her from pulling away. “I am not my past. I came here to make a new life for myself. Please, give me a chance.”
Marianne hesitated before placing her hand on top of Sasha’s. “Stay as long as you like.”
The three panned in silence. Marianne had instructed them to keep quiet about their finds. Carrie rubbed a tiny nugget and rinsed it in the murky water. She tugged on Marianne’s skirt.
“Is this?” she whispered.
Marianne brushed it with her thumb. She smiled at the girl.
“Put it in your pouch, ‘kay?”
She slipped the nugget away, concerned with the warmth that spread inside. She recognized that feeling. It was attachment; a growing affection- even love… a dangerous emotion in a place rampant with loss.
By late afternoon, they guessed they had a few ounces of gold. Tomorrow, they would head to town to cash in.
That night after supper, Marianne ducked into her tent, pulling the canvas flap closed behind her. She set her lantern by the door and turned to grab her night clothes. A large hand cupped over her mouth. She tried to bite the sausage-like fingers, but he gripped her tighter and shoved her to the ground.
Mr. Muehlling groped at her dress, tearing the fabric.
Marianne could hardly gasp a breath, much less scream. God, please save me, she chanted over and over in her mind.
She heard a grunt, then a thud, and then felt a crushing weight on her chest.
Another shadow lurked in the tent and rolled Mr. Muehlling to the side.
“God bless his wretched soul and forgive his sins,” Sahsa whispered, head bowed. “And forgive me my transgressions as well.” She looked at Marianne. “Perhaps we should leave tonight?”
Marianne threw her arms around Sasha. “Thank you, thank you.” She burst into tears.
“Shhhh.” Sasha patted her back and then pulled away. “We don’t have much time. I’ll get Carrie in the wagon.” She grabbed the cast iron pan, aware of the sticky crimson clinging to the underside, and slipped out of the tent.
“With two supply wagons loaded with everything they owned, the three women left. In the morning, Mr. Muehlling was discovered dead in Marianne’s tent, he’d bled out from a gash in the back of his head.” Bill pointed to a rust-colored smudge on the back of the wagon. “They never spoke of that night, but Mr. Meuelling’s blood served as a constant reminder of the fragility of life.”
She peered over the rim of her sunglasses, alternating a skeptical gaze between her husband’s face and the splintered wood of his latest auction find. “You got that whole story from an old wagon?”
“This is a piece of history, Catherine. It should be preserved and displayed!”
“I get that, Bill. But why us?” She rubbed her forehead and sighed. “Why in our front yard?”
I have doubts about much of what I write, but with this story, I was a bit concerned maybe it was too gritty. I went with it, though because to me, the wagon in the photo represents the harshness of pioneer life – especially during the 1849 Gold Rush, where this piece is set. With this story, I actually wrote the ending first, where the husband is trying to ‘sell’ the wife on his crazy purchase. The inspiration for this came from my own experience at estate auctions with my husband… we both bid on stuff that left the other person questioning sanity!
I did some reading about the Gold Rush to get a feel for the era, which is where I got the idea to write it from a woman’s POV.
Thanks to Emilio for offering another photo inspiration!
And thank you for reading 🙂