By 1892 it is already obvious to the residents of Orerich, Colorado that the boomtown is slated for extinction, its mining claims played out and its dead-end rail-line serving as a metaphor for its future. The town is half a Noah’s Ark—one of everything a small settlement might need—one metalsmith, one dairyman, one post office, one “sporting house,” one saloon, and one school. Classes are held in the Gilmore Opera House, which is both church and community center, and now schoolhouse. It is a grand building with a mansard roof and a large three-hundred-seat auditorium. The students sit on the stage, which adds to their discomfort; it is as though their scholastic failures are being scrutinized by an invisible audience. The respectable children sit up front, near the teacher. They have appropriate clothes, the kind that appear in newspaper illustrations, with lacy ribbons and sashes, matching muffs in the winter, tight suspenders, dainty boots the girls can hardly walk in.
The charity cases fight for the seats near the coal stove, fidgeting in their chairs. They are distracted by the bugs on the wall, sparks and shifts in the stove. Each raindrop calls with a sad and surprised sigh as it hits the unyielding ground. Childhood imagination amplifies noises—the roar of the tumbleweed, the creak of distant wagons, even the hum of the rails across town, hours before the train is due to arrive.
The unfortunate schoolmaster is one Mr. Napoleon Pickney, educated in the Jesuit manner at some since-defunct college. He is a religious man, which is why the pious members of the town council have hired him, an inexperienced teacher of undetermined origin. He is a particularly ugly example of America’s melting pot, an amalgam of each race’s worst characteristics: a long, sloping forehead covered by cowlicked red Scottish hair; a flat, truncated nose, which is red in the Irish way and lies flat and lazy against his pale, Scandinavian skin. He has burly Italian forearms and a skinny English torso. In short, he is unsightly and imposing enough that no one thinks to ask where he comes from. Everyone comes West hoping it will deliver on the casual promises made in the East. Maybe he is looking for a wife; maybe he thinks he will strike gold (though the surrounding mountains are so riddled with failed miners’ assays that the hills appear pocked as plucked chickens). Maybe he succumbed to the siren song of the transcontinental railroad and simply detrained here, in the ironically named Orerich.
Mr. Pickney divides the class into those who can read and those who can’t and spends spends hours with the alphabet written on the blackboard, coaching the squirming degenerates to memorize, using blows as the method to cement the acquisition of the building blocks of literacy. Mr. Pickney is a harsh teacher, unschooled in even rudimentary pedagogical techniques and quick to reach for the switch or the paddle. Children come home with eraser prints chalked on their behinds and coal marks from the poker’s sharp jab on their arms and legs. “I can’t teach idiots,” he has been known to murmur. The literate children copy their lessons out of a few worn textbooks ordered from Denver. They write essays on topics like urbanization, labor unions and unrest, the electoral college, and other subjects remote and foreign to their rural existence.
Pickney’s hiding places have one major flaw: they are aboveground. He has dollar bills stuffed among the husks in his mattress, in the bottom of his shoebox, in the leaves of his books, in the vase of dried flowers on the mantel in his small boarder’s room in Mrs. Oliver Tinker’s house. They peek out sometimes, as though sending out roots from a bulb into the daylight. He must be careful to stuff them back in place. This money is his “collector’s fee,” his unofficial salary for the insufferable job he holds as schoolmaster in Orerich, Colorado. It is the payback for all his bad luck, all the hard knocks and unfair twists of fate. And it is at the expense of the generous Episcopal churchgoers whose donations toward the acquisition of their own church he pockets.
Orerich may yet see prosperity, though Pickney doubts it. Regardless, he’ll be long gone by then. He will have enough money to buy up train tracks from Philadelphia to Richmond, bridges especially. He is a man of action, a strong man, born of America, educated in her bosom and set free to play in her skirts. Anything is his for the taking; America owes him, her son.
Here is his plan: He will take Alice, that pearl of beauty among the swine, and run. They will leave at night, as soon as first thaw, with the team Tinker uses to pull the dairy cart. They will ride all night to Leadville, where they will hide, like Pickney’s money, in plain sight in the lawless town. They will lie low, like Jesse and the gang before going on to California. They will rent a room—he will be able to afford it—and make love. And then (and this he longs for more than he longs to see Alice’s body completely naked in the light of day) he will sleep with her, next to her. He will listen to the soft noises she makes in her sleep, the grinding of her teeth, the suck of her tongue against the roof of her mouth, her sighs as she readjusts her position. He will rest his hand on her breast, feeling her chest rise and fall. And she will wake up in the morning and want it, too. This is his fantasy: that she will turn to him, breath sweet with morning’s scent, and she will kiss his mouth with hers, let her tongue travel lightly over his teeth, wrestle with his own, dart in and out like a firefly. She will reach for him with her long fingers, rub his back crossways, her nails a soothing rake, the striations like the lines of a sunset across the sky. She’ll accept no money for it. She will want him as much as he wants her.
Not long now. Just one more cold, snowy Colorado winter until he can make a home for his rescued bride. Once the trail is cold, they will emerge from their den of safety and take the northern transcontinental route to California. And then it will begin—the rest of his life.
In the meantime Pickney squirrels away cash, buries what he can, and waits. The winter’s hibernation will be brutal. But there is the hope of sunshine at the end of it, and his photographic rodent’s memory of buried treasure.
Pickney is writing a letter to his mother in New Jersey. There is a soft knock, and Mrs. Tinker announces that he has a visitor, the slight crack in her voice betraying her disapproval. “A Miss O’Malley,” she says, stressing the Mal so that she sounds like a bleating sheep.
The door opens, and there she is. He has never seen her outside the sporting house, in a day dress, and some of her luster is dulled by the lack of sequins and sheen. She removes her gloves and smooths back her hair. Her neck is long, Pickney thinks. It is wrong to see her here; like a fish on dry land, she does not belong in his small rented room. She does not belong out of bed.
She moves closer, places her hand on his neck. He feels the familiar thrill of her attention, the tight buttons of her high neckline exciting him in the obfuscation of their treasure. She leans over and whispers into his ear, tells him, softly, that her husband has come back for her, that she has to leave. Pickney is still a moment. Then he takes her roughly and pushes her onto the narrow bed, undoing the buttons with haste.
If she smells of another man he does not stop to notice, or care; her smell is a trail of men’s pleasure, and he has never known her otherwise. She accepts his caresses, and the bed frame makes porcine squeaks while their bodies rustle the straw and money hidden in the mattress. Pickney can hear the bills rubbing, symbols of their future together.
Afterward, as she dresses, redoing the long row of buttons, reconfining her breasts and belly, he explains what she must do. He takes out the money and counts it in front of her, but does not give her any, not right now. He asks if she is pleased by his planning, and she does not think to question his authority, or to consider her own options. She merely nods to show she understands. She passes his landlady, whose mouth is agape as she furiously stirs a custard. Alice is gone before Mrs. Tinker can formulate the withering Christian invective she wants, and she has to vent her rage on the well-whipped dessert.
Napoleon Pickney and Alice O’Malley’s escape is inauspicious from the start. A snowstorm traps them in Colorado, at an inn just shy of the Wyoming border. There are three long days while the wind blows snow fiercely. When it stops long enough to allow them to venture out, they discover that the barn door has blown open, and the damn team has frozen to death.
Pickney should know he is no gambler. What money his daddy didn’t drink up in bourbon he lost at the tables by the waterfront. Pickney should know that those tendencies are passed down through generations like the inverse of wisdom. Yet he sits in at the poker table, betting long after he should, raising when he should fold, out of sheer obstinacy. He is owed something. Luck, life, they both owe him his due, and with his ante already in, each card represents new hope that his hand will win, will produce the right combinations of colors and symbols so that the pot belongs to him. In this way he loses all the money he stole from the people of Orerich.
With no money and no horses, Pickney and Alice are forced to linger there, and Pickney, for the first time in his life, shovels and sweeps for his keep. He does not allow Alice to ply her trade, although he suspects she does so secretly while he is out. The men in town smile at him slyly, as though they know his secret. But she still responds to him when he inches toward her in the night, and though she refuses to perform some acts that he used to pay her for, she is still loving and generous. When her belly begins to swell, she swears that it is his.
Just as the squirrel retraces the same route over and over again, Pickney begins to steal, or to “liberate” as he calls it. In late fall, he slips on the slick ground, and from his pocket falls the town doctor’s watch, missing since the previous week. Pickney and Alice are driven out of town, and though Alice is pregnant, they decide to press on to California, where Pickney has aspirations of striking it rich.
They are ill-prepared for such a journey, and Alice begins to complain as they climb into the foothills. Her feet hurt. She is cold. Her back is bothering her. She is carrying too much.
Pickney looks at his pretend wife. She seems tired, old, and when the gas lamps aren’t shining their soft light, when she isn’t draped and perfumed with satin and oil, she looks worn and rather plain. She has deep lines in her face that makeup cannot hide, and the pink of her lips bleeds into the space below her nose. Pickney begins to reexamine the wisdom of running off with a whore who is married to someone else. And does he really want another mouth to feed, a child who might not even be his?
Still, it is hard to leave her. They have almost reached the top of the pass when Alice sits down, exhausted. It has snowed steadily for days, and they are up to their thighs in drifts of it, the tracks of wagon wheels that precede them all but obliterated. He leaves her the tent and almost all the food, building her a fire before kissing her on the lips and heading down the other side of the pass, toward California, toward his fortune. He promises he will be back with horses in one week. Two at most.
The minute she loses sight of him, his leather vest disappearing into the swirl of gray snow, Alice knows she is sitting in the place where she will die. There is little likelihood of a wagon passing this late in the season, and if any Indians find her, she’ll be of more use without her scalp than with. Pickney has no money and even less sense. How will he get horses? How will they make it up the mountain if Alice can’t herself?
Strangely, the idea of her imminent death does not depress her. She looks around the tent. It reminds her of her first night with a man, his inexpert hands cold on her stomach. She felt resigned then, too, but hopeful in the same way she feels now. Her only regret is for her children—that she will not meet the one she carries and that she will never again see the one she gave up. But he will be better off wherever he is, she thinks, just as Alice herself will be better off where her journey takes her.
She feels sleepy now. The fire is dying. She gnaws on some jerky, but it is too frozen. She is no longer cold; her feet do not ache; her teeth have stopped chattering. The baby inside her sleeps. And so Alice lies down inside her tent. Through the small opening in the canvas she can see the dark sky. Snow swirls above like a silk camisole flowing over her head. The drift beneath her is a downy nest. And when she closes her eyes she continues to see the snow dance its lace patterns; her ears still roar with the rush of wind as it blows over the pass, even as her heart arrests its rhythm, coming to a slow, slow halt.