Those who came later were always surprised by the small size of the pioneer cabin. Men with gold fever didn’t spend much time building shelter, especially when most likely they would be moving on in a few days or weeks, wherever the next rumor of gold called them.
The Valorys hadn’t come for gold. John was a timber man. As for his cabin, the Valory cabin was bigger than most: 20×20 feet square with a loft for the children, Petr and Annabel, and a good fireplace with a stone chimney (not stick and mud) up the backside of the cabin–by Sierra standards, a palace.
The woman was Magya Pavlovich Valory, who had never been less happy in her life. Her life had been reduced to living in a wooden hut in a vile wilderness in the middle of nowhere. How had she ended up here? By age fifteen she had been a rising star in St. Petersburg, Russia. She could sing like an angel but was not an angel. John Valory, who was a handsome American sailor, who said he was the captain of a ship, had swept her off her feet–but in reality was a ship’s carpenter. True love propelled them to America to the dreary humdrum Harrisburg where the dashing husband slowly became the town drunk. Next the dreamer promised the glory of San Francisco. They would go west! She could rekindle her singing career!
Instead John Valory had marooned them in a pine forest on slanted waves of stone in a land of dirty men. Her voice remained musical, how she didn’t know. Whether she complained or said the plainest things, “Please pass potatoes and gravy to sister, please you”–it became a song.
They finished four big wedges of white cake, then came birthday presents. Annabel gave Petr a foot-long pinecone she had painted red. Saying, “This is for my favorite brother.”
John excused himself. “I am right back.” He went to his toolshed.
Magya took something from her apron, small and bright. A beautiful watch, enamel on gold, too beautiful for a man, its fancy blue case with a circular painting of a man and a woman harvesting wheat–she looking away, him leaning forward. What a precious keepsake Annabel should have. Magya pressed it almost violently into Petr’s hand.
He opened the case. The pointing hands were gold with starbursts on the end, pointing at 12:30.
She said musically, “Now you know when to come home to mama.” Beneath her music a sharp anger bright like the edge of a knife.
Petr pocketed the watch. She hugged him squashing her big bosom into him, whispering, “Don’t ever forget I was your mama.”
Annabel screamed, “It’s mine! How can you give it to him?”
Petr tried giving Annabel a brotherly hug, but she shrank away, hissing at him. She made a funny, whiny voice, “We’ll see about this, buster.”
She scrambled up the ladder, quick as a monkey, into the loft–where it grew very quiet.
John returned with a small, efficient-looking rifle, holding it out like a magic wand. Its revolving cylinder was engraved with a hunting scene of men shooting buffalo. Curiously, it had “U.S.” stamped on its stock. Where did Papa get such an amazing thing in the wilderness?
“A repeater shoots six times. You gonna be king of the mountain: shoot bear and deer.” He handed it over. Petr took it, admired it, set it down, and hugged Papa.
John warned him: “Top all the cylinders with grease–always!–or bullets go off at once.” He pushed Petr roughly away. “Go now. Be a man now. Bring home some meat.”
Petr said, “Guess I’ll go get a bear or a deer or a big chunk of gold.”
John laughed. “Your birthday–you get what you wish.”
Magya didn’t smile. In Harrisburg she was slightly plump and beautiful. The journey west had ruined her. She was gaunt-looking, and her once proud skin had yellowed from the miserable death march across the Nevada desert. Now her musical voice was sad.
“You come home by four o’clock, okay? You have the watch, okay?” She looked pained.
He told her he would be home by four o’clock–but he wouldn’t, and he wouldn’t be okay.