Margaux went and got herself another lung sickness. When she started her complaints, I thought it was to get more attention. So far on this trail she has been the prettiest girl at camp, but we have since met up with another wagon that boasts a younger, blonder daughter, and Margaux was panicked. She spent all that first day just trying to put powder on her nose and fix her hair, even though I was kept busy washing laundry and checking our wagon axles. After all that, Margaux was nervy enough to ask if I had any black berries around. When I said yes, I had gathered some just one day before, she wanted them. I gave her half and she smeared the juice all over her eyes.
That wastefulness upset me something fierce. Find your own supper, I told her, and went away with my half of the berries. I ate them in peace, away from all those other people and the clamor of children and chickens. I was so sick of moving each day, and of being so cramped. I ached to be free. When I ate those berries, I dreamt about a bear coming up and letting me climb on his back, and us going back to his cave where it was silent and dark. I would sooner live among forest creatures that go back to the racket of those wagons.
A man named Samuel found me hours later. I had fallen asleep in a patch of meadow, and he said come back quick, your sister has
the lung fever.
She does not, I told him. She says that so you’ll let her rest and feed her sweets. But Margaux did have a lung fever. When I returned, she was covered in sweat and shaking badly. My chest hurts, Sophie, she complained. Why didn’t Pop send a doctor with us? You write to Pop and tell him to send a doctor. I won’t die out here like this. I refuse.
Margaux had been planning her death from a young age. She had settled on expiring in some form of martyrdom. Dying under a blanket in the back of a wooden wagon, of some common fever: the idea of it upset her more than the illness itself. I was convinced
the only reason she hadn’t passed on yet was her determination to be eaten alive by cannibals as she ministered Christianity.
We had to break camp the next day but I put Margaux up next to me on the seat, and fed her honey and garlic water. I didn’t know what else to do. I prayed over her as we moved forward, and asked God to keep my sister here with me and not take her away, no matter how much she had riled me the day before. I had a very serious worry that if Margaux died, I wouldn’t see her again because she would go to Heaven and I would not. I didn’t tell Margaux about this because she would say that I was being awful to worry about my own situation
when she was in dire straits.
Samuel came by that night and sat with me as we took turns cooling Margaux off. He was nearly our age, traveling with his parents and two brothers. I had seen him around a few times, mostly as he traded with other travelers or tended to his livestock. They had a fine cow that walked alongside their wagon when we moved. She’ll pull through this fine, Samuel told me. He had his legs stretched out. His hair was a shaggy kind of brown, but his eyes were sharp and green. I’ve seen this a few times.
You have? I asked.
Peter had lung fever last year, Samuel said, naming one of his
brothers. He had it worse than her. I was worried when I first called you, but her cough isn’t so bad. She’ll work it out. He looked at Margaux, who was resting in her bed at the back of the wagon. I didn’t know what he was hearing, because her cough sounded plenty of bad to me. It was like a cat pulling a tractor. You’re giving her drink?
Water, I said.
That’s good, Samuel agreed. He kept looking at Margaux. I realized he fancied her. I was glad Margaux wasn’t awake, or she would be horrified any man had seen her in such a wretched state. All that juice she smeared on her eyes had melted and made them
look sunk and blue.
You ought to hitch up with us, Samuel said suddenly. It’s just the two of you ladies.
I couldn’t ask a favor like that, I said. I didn’t know if I wanted to hitch up with him at all.
Dangerous country for women, Samuel said.
Dangerous country for anybody, I said.
Samuel nodded. Yes, he agreed. It sure is that.
We sat together a little while longer. He told me about going to school back home. He had made it to the sixth grade before his father made him come work in
his shop. That’s what he is, Samuel said, a shop keeper. That’s what I’ll be when we settle in Oregon. We plan to make a fine general store. It will be a good living. He looked at Margaux again. I smiled to myself.
You could provide for a family, I said.
Samuel didn’t understand my tease. Yes, I suppose I could.
Or you might at least provide for a wife, I said. Especially one with expensive tastes.
He paused a moment and then said, I suppose it depends how expensive those tastes were. Then, fast, But I would certainly
spoil any wife of mine as best I was able.
She’ll be lucky, I said to Samuel. I meant it. He looked back at me and smiled, and poked the little fire I had started. I said, I’m sure Margaux would be happy you showed such concern.
Margaux was not happy, upon waking from her feverish sleep. Samuel Wallings? she cried. Samuel came to see me when I was in the throes of certain death? How could you? she howled.
He likely saved your life, I said. To calm her down, I said, And he left you a letter. He wrote it himself.
Her tears stopped. Let me see it, she said, curious.
I gave her the folded paper, and she opened it up. Margaux could read as well as any educated man I had met. She frowned at the words at first, then giggled a little near the end. What does it say? I asked.
None of your concern, Margaux said. It’s private.
It don’t matter, anyway. I already read it, I said. That was a lie, but Margaux gasped and threw a coughing fit and cried more, which made me laugh, because I have got some mean in me for sure. I was lying all the way because I can’t read very much. It is hard for me because the letters just seem to switch themselves around, and the words get backwards and confusing. I have never let that on to anyone, not
even Margaux. I have gotten real good at faking reading things.
What hand did he write with? she asked.
I said, What’s that matter?
I just want to know. She batted her eyes at me for a minute and finally I said, He writes left sided.
Oh, I just knew it, Margaux said. There’s something wrong with everyone.
Margaux thought that anyone who wrote with their left hand was influenced by the Devil. I had only met two boys who wrote that way, and they were both unusual smart and pleasant, and I couldn’t figure out how the Devil
played any part in that. There ain’t a thing wrong with Samuel, I said, feeling defensive.
Then you go marry Samuel and start a shop with him, she said, and rolled over in bed.
That’s fine. I will, I said. To be extra mean, I said, I’ll go get married and have myself some fine children, and you just go on being all priggish and alone. See what man will have you when you come to your senses.
Margaux didn’t say nothing for so long I thought she had just fallen asleep. Then she said, Samuel wouldn’t even have you. He can spot a ruined woman woman like anyone else.
I had been through some awful things, even had a stick taken to me once for letting a horse free in our pasture, but nothing in my life had hurt as bad as when Margaux said that to me. It upset me worse that she was right: everybody knew that I had been laying around with Aubrey, and some people from our wagon trail had likely even seen us. It hadn’t ever occurred to me that they might think there was something wrong with me. I had been so worried about God judging my actions, I hadn’t never thought about all the other people.
I got off that wagon and went out into the dark plains. We had moved from the towns and the trees and now there was nothing
out here but little patches of grass and sand. There wasn’t even a moon to speak of. It was hidden by clouds. The wide world seemed to be in mourning. I breathed the air and missed our farm, and I missed Michael. Joseph, I just wondered about. I wondered if he had gotten far with them ranchers. They didn’t seem like the best lot, but I suppose I shouldn’t be passing verdicts on anyone in light of things.
Aubrey had won a pipe in a dice game and was smoking it all over camp, putting things in it that I don’t think one even ought to smoke. I swear, that fool would have lit up a squirrel if it was ground up. He found me by a
shrub, stinking of tobacco. Your sister ain’t dead, he said.
Ain’t you nice to notice, I said.
Aubrey said, I suppose I am.
I shook my head and glared at him. He crouched down near the ground, not so close to me but near enough that we could talk. Anything else you want to say or should we just get to it? he asked.
I’m not doing anything with you, I said.
I didn’t ask about if you wanted to.
It’s my woman time, I lied. Aubrey huffed but I knew he wouldn’t bother me any more about it. I expected him to leave,
but he didn’t. He got down more, sitting on the ground, and he stomped his boots in front of him, making ruts in the dirt. I got a hole in my winter shirt, he said.
I said, So what?
So, goddammit. I want you to darn it up.
This is all your fault, I said to him. His face was making me angry. You made me a ruined woman.
What does that even mean? he asked, kicking his boots more.
It means those things you and I did made it so I can’t even get a decent husband anymore. I won’t never get married and I’ll just die all alone by myself.
Aubrey laughed. Oh, shut your hole, I said, even more furious.
You women are crazy, he said, laughing more, like I was some show he had got tickets to. You just figure stuff to get yourself worked up over.
You don’t understand a thing, Aubrey, I said. You don’t understand how the world is.
Aubrey got quiet for a little while and he stopped laughing. He took his gun out and put between us. There’s geese over a half-mile, he said. I had seen them out earlier, flapping their wings and squawking. You like geese meat?
You like it better than fish? he asked.
Aubrey hardly ever asked me a question. Mostly he just told me things. Having his interest cheered me up some. I like it better than fish, I said.
Let’s go shoot us some geese, he said, and you cook ‘em.
So we killed us some geese. Aubrey loaded his gun and let me take two shots myself, and I landed both of them, which was pleasing. We brought back three big geese to camp, plucked and skinned and washed them. Aubrey wouldn’t share his goose with anyone but I let Samuel and his family eat some of mine. This is sensational, Samuel told me. It
was a word I hadn’t heard used much, but it was a nice word to roll around in my mouth, like it tasted almost as good as the goose meat. I saved some and brought it to Margaux, even though I was still cross with her. She sat up in her bed and ate a few bites. You always were a better cook than me, she said. Then she went to sleep.
By the time we were leaving Nebraska, Margaux was well enough to powder her nose again. That blond girl that was so pretty had gotten diphtheria and her whole wagon wouldn’t leave till she was over the worst of it, so they stayed behind in the prairie. Bless her soul, Margaux said. I certainly hope she isn’t stricken with lesions.
A SAVAGE WILDE: THE TRAIL Kimbel
1854 Oregon City
Land: that's all nineteen-year-old Sophie Wilde wants. Her own farm, her own stables, land to till and harvest. When her father mentions the plots being given away in Oregon, Sophie volunteers to settle the homestead; even if it means a thousand miles of being saddled with her prim twin sister, Margaux. The journey brings Sophie face to face with others that share her dream-- a notorious outlaw, an immigrant family, a circus performer, and a freed slave-- and sets the beauty and violence of the western territories against her own coming of age.
The trade was taking place outside town, six miles south in a flat field. It was a long walk but it was easier to take one horse back than two. They had got posts and tents up with wares, and I spent some time looking at embroidered saddles. Some of the tents had cooked meats or sugar floss, and I spent ten cents on sweets. The sun had calmed that day so it was pleasant to walk and eat. When I came to the other side of the field, I saw men standing next to lines of fine-bodied Morgans and Appaloosas. They was higgling about prices.
I found a mustang tied down by hisself. He was a big creature, brown with a white muzzle and poll. There was nobody near, so I
walked over and rubbed his nose. Not for sale, said a man nearby.
Oh? I said. I didn’t figure he’d be high scuds.
He’s a show horse, the man said. He seems quieted now, but get him in a ring, he’ll dust a man.
Why would anyone get throwed off a horse? I said. What show is that?
You ain’t aiming to get dusted, the fellow said. You penny up, you hold on long as you can. Nobody ever stayed on Thunder a full minute.
I looked at Thunder. He seemed gentle as could be. I pet his flanks, and he whinnied, happy.
It’s a contest, then? I asked the man.
Yes ma’am, he said. We start at dusk. You aim to watch?
How much to try? I said.
Men only, he said.
How much? I asked.
The man raised his brow. If we was letting women in, he said, we’d charge premium. Two dollars entry fee.
What if I stay on a whole minute? I asked.
Whole minute gets a pick of the Appleby Farms mares, he said. Nobody ever done it.
I got two dollars, I said. I aim to
try. I reached into my satchel and pulled out the banknotes. I was gonna save my money to get a new skinning knife, but two dollars for a mare would be a shirk. The man shook his head without taking my funds, and said, Miss, you ever been shot off a back? It hurts like the dickens. You got a pretty face, you don’t want to get it ruint by the ground.
I’ve been tossed before, I said. And I’m standing now, ain’t I?
The man sighed, and looked me up and down. Crowd ain’t gonna like you, he said, but he took my money anyhow.
I was jittery with nerves before the show. I went off and drank some lemon tea, then relieved myself
quick in a fresh dug outhouse. They had set up some benches round a fenced space, and men and women and children was sitting down, getting rowdy and cheering. A band had struck up in the background, with banjos and bells. There was a drum that beat loud when the man I gave my money to went to the center of the space, and he started shouting about the contest they was having. It is a battle of violence! he yelled. Triumph of man over beast, or beast over man! Be a spectator as the brave and foolish are thrown to their doom! Witness the bloodshed that ensues! Feel the terror in the air!
Someone grabbed my arm and told me to get in line. I was
second to last in a group of nine men. They had Thunder in a small stall off the side of the fenced area, and the first man saddled up. Then they blew a horn and opened the stall gate, and Thunder started bucking like he got caught in a bee hive. That first man got bucked so hard he hit a fence post and fell down, grabbing at his guts and manhood and crying out to Jesus. His face was all bloodied up. My heart had just about stopped.
Two men in front of me said they was done, and they would lose their money because there wasn’t no way they would try that demon horse. They wrangled Thunder up and got him stalled again, and the next fellow got on. He ain’t held
on but a second longer than the first. His fall weren’t so bad, but I reckon he busted his arm the way he was holding it and limping away.
I was scared to Heaven but something in me was anxious too. I knew Amos would be angered, and I knew I might be stoved up, but every time that horn went off and Thunder slatted its sails, I wanted it to be my turn more than ever.
Finally they called me and I went up to the stall. They had a ladder I climbed up so I could get lowered on to the saddle. Last chance, said one of the man there. You got a change of heart?
I shook my head. There wasn’t no reins, but they got a horn on the saddle. I gripped it and tucked my head low next to Thunder’s. Be good, I said. I said it low and calm even thought I felt quivery. Then they blew the horn, and the gate opened.
I never felt a jar so hard as that in my life. First time Thunder bucked, holding on took nearly all my energy and rattled my bones. I kept my eyes closed so I couldn’t see the world spinning round. I couldn’t think about the horse or I would lose nerve, so I locked myself onto that saddle and dug my heels in his hindquarters and I said NO NO NO like Eliza did when she was birthing that baby. I thought if I
said it enough the pain would stop. NO, I said. NO NO NO. Thunder was whining loud and snorting. He was still jerking and I was aching, but I was holding on to the saddle horn so hard I felt my fingers might rip. He bucked and bucked and stamped his feet and bucked, and then I felt myself slip and I was in the air like a bird, real slow, and I opened my eyes. I could see the ground below me, and I thought that I was flying. It was quiet and the sun was going behind the mountain, and banjo strings filled the air around me, sweet and lonesome. It was like a dream.
Then I knew I was going down hard. I hit side-first and rolled away, curled in a ball. I felt my
foot hit a fencepost, but I was already in the dirt. Bully for you! a boy was shouting nearby. Bully for you!
My brain was clouted in my head. I finally got to my feet and the crowd was cheering. One of the fellows that had gived up his spot came over to me to shake my hand. Good golly, he said. I never seen anyone hold so long, much less a woman.
How long? I said. I felt dazed.
Thirty-eight seconds, the man said.
Thirty-eight seconds, I said. I was awful disappointed. Now I got all these bruises and pains, and I didn’t even get a mare out of it.
They gave me a ribbon with a number 1 on it and a piece of pie, but then they took Thunder away, and said they was closing shop in an hour. If I didn’t buy any horse, I had to walk miles home on my busted legs. I was glad Margaux weren’t here. She wouldn’t let me hear the end of it. Margaux was happiest when I got a bad idea.
I hobbled round behind some empty tents with my pie and sat down to eat it. It was delicious. By the time I was done, some of the traders was already gone, leaving early in so they got home before full dark. There weren’t much left to chose from in the way of rides. Just as I was standing there looking at a hard case Morgan, a young man walked over and said, Are you Sophie?
I frowned. I am, I said. Then, quick, I said, If this is on the horse bucking, and you ain’t letting women win, you can have your ribbon back but that pie is gone.
No, he said. I have a horse for you.
I didn’t stay on the full minute, I said. Only thirty-eight seconds.
The man looked confused. He was wearing a nice bowler and had a pair of reading glasses. I’m not sure what you’re referring to, he said. You have a purchase to collect on before we can leave.
I’m sorry, I said. You got it wrong. I didn’t buy a horse. I tried to leave, but the man chased after me and said it was a gift from a man. He had been impressed by
my turn on Thunder. What did the man look like? I asked, and the horse fellow said, Tall and skinny, with yellow hair. Then the horse fellow reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter. Here, he said. He left this for you.
I took the letter. TO S WILDE, it said.
Okay, I said to the man. Show me the horse.
We was the last folks around, seemed like, by the time we got to his tent. He said they had already sold the others and were about to head off when this last purchase got made. The steed they brought me was near the prettiest thing I ever seen. It was golden bodied, with a white mane and tail. How
much did it cost? I wondered, feeling struck. Two thousand, the man said. They’re a Spanish breed. Quite expensive.
He gave me the reins and saddled the horse up, and when I got on top, I felt so light, like I might just drift off into the pink and purple sky. Even my aches went away. I never felt my heart so open. The steed was well-broke, and I got him to a trot and rode him round the field, even jumping him over the fences. He was smooth as could be. I never owned such a fine animal before. I wondered if I could ride real slow home so everyone could see my Spanish horse, shining gold under the street lamps.
I thought to open my letter before I made my way to town. I was curious who sent it, since I didn’t know any men that was skinny with yellow hair. I unfolded it careful, and I saw a real familiar writing, the ink pressed in the paper with hard strong letters. It said: 38 SECONDS, GODDAMN. DON’T SAY YOU AIN’T A WITCH.
I laughed, then I laughed harder. My eyes starting tearing. He must of got someone else to deliver it, but it made me mighty pleased that he was watching the whole time. I never missed that mudsill so much as then. At the bottom was two lines that read: HOLED UP IN SHILOH. COME THANK ME PROPER.
A SAVAGE WILDE: THE WEST Kimbel
1856 The Southwest
Sophie's adventure continues as desires and mistakes take center stage. The Wilde family-- reshaped by a string of births, deaths, marriages and dissolutions-- remains as tumultuous as ever. Her own association with the outlaw Aubrey Grange has been profitable, but turned her into a target for lawmen and awestruck fans alike. Outrunning the complications of Oregon only leads to darker exploits in the desert, and returning forces her to decide where her true allegiances lie.
We looked up and down the street. Aubrey said, There a jeweler nearby?
Doubt it, I answered. I didn’t even see a livery.
General store then, Aubrey said, pointing. It had a big sign overhead reading Barnes & Barnes Particulars, and it was the only building painted in town, a unsightly blue. The closer we got to it, the more ugly that blue was. It was shaming the sky, and not in a pleasant way.
For however bad the outside was, the inside was worse. It weren’t much bigger than the room we stayed in, and it was filt floor to ceilings with curiosities. None of them was agreeable. There was a
monkey head and a shrunk skull, and tiny baby creatures floating in bottles. I walked over to one shelf that was just full of sharp, pointed tools. One was a curved saw for bone cutting, and another was a tube with rotating blades. I held it up for Aubrey. False leeching, he said. I frowned, and set it back down.
Aubrey had found a counter with mounted hand. It was wearing all sorts of rings. Is that real? I asked, and Aubrey said, Might be. He took a ring off one of the fingers and put it on his own. What you think? Aubrey asked.
I don’t like this place, I said.
What you think about the ring?
It’s a dollar and a nickel, said a voice from the back. A little man had appeared. The shopkeep, I reckon. He came up to my shoulder, but he was bow-backed, so he might of been taller if he’d been straighter. He had glasses that made his eyes look huge. Huh, Aubrey said. He turned his hand a bit, staring at it. Curious weight, he said out loud.
I was ready to leave. It smelt like salt and dying things in here. Worse than a butchery, even. I turned toward the door, and then I saw a big Injun hat hanging from a hook.
In my picture books, Injuns always had a band wrapped around their head with two feathers on it,
but this was mighty looking. It had feathers coming out the back like tails, running all the way to the floor, and two buffalo horns poking out the top. Aubrey wandered over. Put it on, he said. When I did, he chuckled.
I look fearsome? I asked.
He said, You look wild, that’s true.
I touched one of the horns. Well, what do I look like?
What sort of question’s that?
I mean, what tribe would I be? If I was Injun?
I ain’t seen them all. You could pass for a Sioux.
I been told I look Cherokee.
He chuckled again. Who you been told by?
Then I expect you look Cherokee, he said.
Excuse me? the shopkeep asked from behind the counter. Are you interested in that item?
I looked to the shopkeep. Depends, I said. How much’s it cost?
Let me see. The shopkeep had a book, and he opened it up and ran his finger along the lines. Then he said, Fifty cents.
Fifty cents? Aubrey asked. For this here hat?
Yes, the shopkeep said.
That the regular price or you discount it for us?
This looks like a costly hat, Aubrey said. Seems you’re letting it go for a song.
It’s a headdress, the shopkeeper said. Not a hat.
A headdress? I asked. What’s it for?
The shopkeep went quiet a spell, but he finally answered me. It’s a warbonnet.
That just made me curiouser. This was used in Injun wars?
I expect so.
You took this off some Injun’s head, then?
I didn’t, the shopkeep said. It was brought in.
Same difference, ain’t it? Aubrey said. His voice was dark. Still a robbing.
I don’t... the shopkeep said, but that was it. He just blinked behind his big glasses.
It got quiet in the store. I took my hat off and eyed Aubrey some, but Aubrey was already headed for the counter. There was a jar of teeth resting there, next to the hand of
rings. Aubrey took his pipe out, then tapped the teeth jar with his barrel. Where’d these come from? he asked the shopkeep.
I don’t know, the shopkeep muttered.
I expect you do. Aubrey tapped the jar harder. It made a chilling rattle. You a grave-robber, too?
I don’t get... I don’t collect the items.
You sell them.
No. I... You can take what you like.
Really? Aubrey said. He still ain’t changed his tone, but I could tell he was amused. Now you’re pulling teeth out of fellows heads
at no cost? You just take pleasure from it?
The man was hardly speaking. He was spooked to his core. Aubrey
said, Well. He moved slow and deliberate, taking the pipe away from the jar and putting it in his mouth. Then he asked, You got Brightleaf Virginia?
Tobacco. I don’t want no dark-leaf.
The shopkeep said, Yes, sir, and Aubrey said, Get me six tins.
The shopkeep hurried off to the back room to get the tobacco tins. I walked over to the counter, and Aubrey glanced at me.
You getting your hat? he asked. I was still holding the headdress. Part of me didn’t want anything that was stole right off another person’s head, specially if they were kilt for it. The other part knew if I didn’t buy it, the next greenhorn that blew in would, and he wouldn’t give it a moment’s appreciation. I reckon I will, I said.
Get it on the counter then, Aubrey said.
The shopkeep came back with the tobacco, and Aubrey added, The hat, too.
The shopkeep nodded. Three dollars and six cents.
Three dollars? I thought I could take what I like, Aubrey answered.
Aubrey and the shopkeep looked at each other, and Aubrey smiled. The shopkeep swallowed.
Of course, sir, the shopkeep whispered. Very good.
He reached down like he was going for a bag to put our goods in. I saw the handle of a rifle from where I was before Aubrey did, and I snapped my pistol out of my holster and had it up to the shopkeep’s ear before I knew I did it. Set it down, I said. My voice shook.
Nobody did a thing. Aubrey kept grinning.
Please, I said to the shopkeep, finally. The man was still crouched, holding his rifle. He was under the counter but I got a good aim. Please drop your fire. We’ll pay and be on our way.
If I let go, you’ll shoot, the man said.
I won’t, I said. You got my word.
What’s your word worth? the shopkeep said, angry, and I didn’t know how to answer. We all just stayed there a minute, paused in spot, then he stood up quick, jerking his rifle up. It surprised me and I pulled the trigger, which hit his shoulder, and the shopkeep pult his trigger too. A blast went off in the room. Plaster dust came raining down.
Aubrey had his Smith & Wesson out, and aimed it. Everything was moving like a picture book being flipped through slow. I saw smoke from Aubrey’s gun, and then I
flew back against the counter. It knocked me right over the top. I fell on the ground beside the shopkeep, who was reloading his rifle. Aubrey fired again, and the register exploded. The shopkeep was still loading. I could feel something wet against my elbow.
Aubrey said, Shit, so low it was hardly hearable but I knew he was out of bullets. He forgot to load a full round before we set off for the saloon. The shopkeep had his rifle set, and aimed it at Aubrey.
A SAVAGE WILDE: THE CITY Kimbel
1857 New York City
The pursuit of money leads Sophie to the east coast, and into the belly of a corrupt and restless New York City. A foothold in the liquor industry catapults her from the criminal underground into polite society, but creates new power plays between the affluential and influential. Sophie struggles to navigate among allies, enemies, politicians and gangs in one of the most volatile urban landscapes in American history.