Lily peered out the window of her sparsely furnished room to the street below. She could see the entire length of Main Street that wound through Bitter Falls like a fat, filthy snake. Rain had been falling for three days now, churning mud beneath the horses’ hooves as they made their way up and down the thoroughfare. The animals were covered in mire past their fetlocks, wagons carving ruts that would linger until spring.
Turning from the window, her red hair billowed around her face, a fiery nimbus in the dry heat from the stove in the corner. She sighed. There would be few customers tonight. Her fingers traced the spine of a bedside book. It would be nice to sit by the window’s light and read, but every day that went by without making money was a hardship. Most of her earnings were given to Jacob, the owner of The Nugget. There was precious little left over for herself.
The moment Lily arrived in Bitter Falls five years ago, she was a sensation. Nobody had seen such red hair on a girl before. When she stepped through the swinging doors of The Nugget, men turned their heads, their intake of breath palpable in the mote-filled room.
She was only sixteen years old at the time. Rescued from starvation in a sod house on the prairie, her family dead, Lily thought nothing could be worse than what she had endured. She was wrong.
Ma and Pap moved to South Dakota years ago, hoping to carve out a living in the rocky ground. Ma was a schoolteacher. She came west with a satchel full of dreams and a trunk packed with china and useless petticoats. She taught her children to read and write. Lily was always proud that she had these talents. Pap was a farmer, a man who wanted to stake a claim on a large parcel of land. It was a hard scrabble life. Somehow they managed to feed Lily and her two little brothers, Caleb and John.
Their cabin was spare. Wind blew through chinks in the timbers. Dirt constantly sifted down from the ceiling of the sod roof, bringing with it bugs and twigs. Sometimes a snake fell through, causing all sorts of bedlam as it slithered around the three-room shack.
When Pap came back from town one day with supplies, he fell sick with a fever. Ma tried to care for him, but she eventually caught it too, strawberry blond hair stuck to her sweaty face like deathly tendrils. Then it was up to Lily and the boys to tend them, wiping their faces with damp cloths, spooning soup to their lips, changing the filthy linens.
Lily gasped when she and her brothers woke a few mornings later, and found Ma and Pap dead in their bed, eyes rolled back, worn faces drawn in rictus. The children weren’t strong enough to dig a proper grave. They dug a shallow hole and dragged their parents out of the cabin by their feet, placing them in the ground with little ceremony. Lily knew enough to pack the top of the grave with rocks so wild things couldn’t reach her parents, but that night she heard scraping and clawing outside in the darkness.
By the next day, her brothers were sick, and although they lasted longer than Ma and Pap, they did not survive, despite Lily’s desperate attempts to dribble water down their throats and keep them cool.
Then, it was her turn. She lay on the dirty mattress, tossing fitfully. The fever rose, her chest rumbling like thunder.
You could call it luck or call it a curse, but two days after she fell ill, Lily heard someone roaming around outside the cabin. She was too sick and feeble to care if it were Indians or bad fellas, or even the Lord himself. The cabin door swung open. Sunlight filled the stale room. A shadow fell upon her face.
“Good God almighty,” came a rough whisper, then the sound of retching as the stench of dead bodies rose like a fist and punched its way out the door.
“Help” was all Lily could say, so weak that the word alone made her swoon. She was lifted up and off the bed by several hands, heard voices she didn’t recognize. Lily learned later that there was a caravan of covered wagons passing through on their way west. They were God-fearing enough to wrap the girl in blankets and take her with them rather than let her die alone, but weren’t too inspired to help much more than they did. Frightened of getting sick themselves, the wagon train took a side journey to the nearest town for help.
Without preamble, they left Lily on the steps of the one and only church in Bitter Falls, a small building on the edge of town flanking a tattered graveyard. It was divine providence that it was a Sunday morning. Lily was the first thing folks saw when they trudged up the hill to worship. Between a few townspeople and the local mortician, they cleaned her up and tended her in the church until she recovered.
After that, Lily became a problem. Her future was bleak as a summer storm. The only place in town big enough to take in a young girl, and perhaps put her to work in the kitchen or sweeping floors, was The Nugget. Jacob, the saloon owner, took one look at the fierce red hair, the sea-green eyes, and the slight, supple body and offered to provide her with a home.
Now, Lily sighed. The rain had finally stopped. A few townsfolk ventured out from their dwellings. In the distance, a dog barked. The sun was setting behind the hills as angry clouds rolled across the sky.
From the saloon below, the piano player struck a tinny chord. Music poured through the doors and out into the muddy street. Voices edged their way up the stairs, male voices, the sound of boots clicking on worn wooden floors.
Lily smoothed her skirt and ran a comb through her flaming hair. She rubbed color on her cheeks from a rouge pot that sat next to the unread book. Then she walked down the stairs with the other girls to greet the night.
Bitter Falls is written by Sharon Frame Gay.