EXCERPT

The Rainbow's Foot
by Denise Dietz

One ~ Colorado, 1893

“She were named for a cow.”

Seventeen-year-old Bertha Smith gazed at the paying gent who filled her rocking chair. “You’re funning me, Per’fessor.”

“No, I ain’t,” he said. “A cow wandered ’cross our crick an’ took one hell of a spill.”

“Poor critter.” Clothed in chemise and patched petticoat, Bertha perched on the edge of her mattress. Left-handed, she clutched a wooden egg in her right hand. A crib girl didn’t have to darn socks, or even listen good, but the miners forked out extra for those knacks.

“Yep, that damnfool cow broke her leg. A rancher seen the cow fall. Guess what he called the crick, Blueberry?”

She stared with her large eyes whose color had led to her nickname. “Reckon you’ll have to tell me, sir.”

“He called it Cripple Crick.”

Bertha rose, stretched, and handed Per’fessor a bottle of beer. He stuffed a small pouch filled with gold chips down the front of her bodice. The pouch felt warm against her breasts, and the gold handily recompensed her for the half hour atop her mattress, even though she’d have to scrub the sheet beneath her quilt, and she hated laundering almost as much as she hated sewing.

Per’fessor tilted the brown bottle, gulped and swallowed. Bertha thought his neck looked like a turkey’s. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and said, “There was this cowpuncher, Bobby Womack. Bobby named the place where your crib now sets, called it Poverty Gulch. Then he found him some gold. Know what happened next?”

“Tell me.” Bertha returned to her former position and again plied her needle.

“Bobby sold his claim for five hundred dollars, a spit in the bucket.”

“Why’d Bobby do that?”

“He were drunk an’ folks funned him for braggin’ ’bout gold. Nobody believed him.”

Bertha looked down at her wooden egg, pictured a chicken coop, heard Geordie’s voice: Had me a dream what told me to leave. I held a shiny nugget in my hand. Gold, big as one of them hen eggs.

“You promised you’d come back,” she whispered.

“Did you say something, girl?”

“No, sir.”

“You look like you seen a ghost.”

“I, uh, spied a spider creepy-crawling ’cross the floor,” she fibbed. “Big hairy critter.”

“I’ll stomp it for ya. Nope, better not. My foot’ll get gooey.” Per’fessor’s brow puckered. “Where was I?”

“Bobby sold his claim cheap,” she said, sewing faster, trying to expunge the image of a gooey spider.

“Yep. The whiskey made him dumber’n that ol’ cow what broke her leg. Womack sold his claim to Julias Myers and Horace Bennett.” Per’fessor paused to glub-glub his beer. “That’s why our streets’re called Myers an’ Bennett. Guess what happened next?”

“Ouch!” Bertha pricked her finger and dropped the egg.

“I’ll tell ya.” Per’fessor slanted a glance toward his boots, which slumped like dozing sentries against the shanty’s front door. “Don’t stop sewin’. My toes’re as cold as a privy seat in wintertime. Them Denver gents went an’ named the town Cripple Crick. She were named for a cow. What d’ya think of that?”

“I think you tell a good story, sir.”

Per’fessor stood, strutted like a rooster. “It ain’t that I can story good,” he said with a snaggletoothed grin. “You listen good.”

I want you to listen good, said the voice in her head. I’m traveling to Colorado to find me some gold.

Bertha handed her guest his mended sock, replaced the egg in the bottom of her leather-thong chest, and swallowed a sigh. The first time she’d heard the Cripple Creek tale, she’d thought: poor cow. But after she’d heard it over and over, poor cow had begat poor Bertha.

Oh, she realized full well what it meant to be crippled, Bertha did, because her own left foot turned sideways. Her pelvis jutted, her spine curved, and she could foretell bad weather ’cause she hurt real bad whenever rain or snow threatened.

Apart from her foot, she was pretty, even though she believed pretty was as pretty does and what she did wasn’t pretty. Yet men seemed to favor her breasts—unless tightly fettered, they jiggled when she walked—and she’d been told her rounded hips and “wasp waist” were the fashion.

Some said her eyes looked like a cloudless summer sky. A poetic youth claimed her eyes looked like “the trim on the plates and saucers in the dining room of the Continental Hotel.” But Geordie put it best. He said her eyes were the color of the wild blueberries that grew in the deepest woods, and he’d called her Berry.
* * * * *
Bertha closed her eyes. Per’fessor had left for the Buckhorn saloon on Myers Avenue, but his crippled-cow account had brought back hissy whispers from her past. Memories of a room above a Denver saloon haunted her. Over and over she heard the sound of breaking glass. Over and over she saw an ugly giant—and the wrathful face of her brother.

“Berry, gather your things together,” Geordie had said. “We’re leaving.”

She had heard those very same words a few months before, when the sound of breaking glass had been the cackle of chickens.

Behind her closed eyelids, Bertha pictured the West Kansas farm and her pa, looking like Moses on the Mount, his staff a hoe.

Her mother lived inside a picture frame.

Bertha had been born on July fourth, 1876. It was Centennial Day, but nobody on the farm cared about the American Revolution a hundred years prior to that windy Kansas afternoon except ten-year-old Geordie. He lit homemade firecrackers to honor Bertha and the United States of America, shortly after Jubilation Smith cut the umbilical cord, said, “Shit, it’s a girl,” and returned to his plowing.

Following the difficult labor and delivery, Bertha’s mama rose from her soiled bedding, cooked dinner for her husband, christened her daughter with tepid water from the well, changed the bloody bed linen, curled up again on the mattress, and died as the sun rose the next morning.

Bertha was fed and clothed, but she had a feeling Pa wished she were a mule. Or a tick on a mule. Or a sunspot on a tick on a mule.

In 1887, the preacher’s wife told Bertha about something called Christmas. So she tied her only hair ribbon to a clump of pigweed, found her dead mama’s handkerchief, and sewed Baby Jesus. Then she laughed and cried when Geordie gave her a baby turkey. She named it Noah. For several months she brushed its wing bar and crooned hymns. But the name turned out to be prophetic. Noah died in a thunderstorm. Geordie said Noah was trampled by the other dithered fowl. Pa said the turkey swallered too much rain and drowned.

Geordie plucked feathers, Pa chomped Noah’s drumstick, Bertha threw up inside the privy, and that was the end of Christmas.

A month after Bertha had silently celebrated her fifteenth birthday, on a dusty August afternoon, she stood outside the coop. She flung feed like rainy grain, reaching from the gathered apron that covered her dress.

Bertha owned two dresses: gingham for summer and gray serge for winter. Her body had developed rich curves and the cotton fabric stretched across her bosom. She had inherited her mama’s black skirt and white high-necked blouse with lace trim, but those were freshly washed and ironed for church.

“Come to say good-bye,” said Geordie.

“Here, chick. Chick, chick, chick.”

“I’m twenty-five, sissy, and I ain’t hardly been off this place. Don’t you be shutting your ears like Pa’s stubborn mule. I’m traveling to Colorado to find me some gold.”

Bertha drew circles in the dirt with her bare toes.

“I promise I’ll come back. When I’m rich with gold, I’ll bring you jewels. Blue stones the color of your eyes and red doodads plucked from the color of a setting sun and white sparkly gems that look like nighttime stars.”

“Here, chick. Chick, chick, chick.”

“Please give me your blessing.”

“Gotta feed these here chicks then serve up dinner. I baked buttermilk biscuits.”

“Had a dream what told me to leave. I held a shiny nugget in my hand. Gold, big as one of them hen eggs. In my dream, a voice said ‘Time to git, George Smith.’ ”

Her lips quivered as she said, “False prophets will come to you in sheep’s clothing, Geordie, but inside they are wolves. Did a false prophet come in the night? Did he wear sheep’s wool?”

“Taught you reading and writing from the Bible and now you throw sheep and wolves in my face.” He reached out and wiped away her tears. “Aw, Berry.”

“Biscuits’re fluffy and there’s ham. I cut the fat off. You don’t hanker to eat fat. Heard you say it’s like chewing a piggy’s wet shirt collar.”

“All right, you can tag along.”

Her eyes lit up like candle flames, but her full lips still quivered. “If Pa catches us, he’ll whup me good. It pleasures Pa to pull down my drawers and belt my be-hind. I saw his face once and it made me all goose-bumpy, so I told the preacher, but the preacher says Pa’s in the right ’cause he’s my pa.”

“That preacher don’t know his ass from his . . . sermon. Why ain’t you told me ’bout Pa?”

She cringed at his angry tone. “I done something wrong, Geordie?”

“Lord, no!” He took a deep breath. “Berry, gather your things together. We’re leaving.”

Hand and hand, brother and sister walked away from the farm. It took them seven weeks to trudge the almost four hundred miles to Denver, stopping along the way to work for their food, repairing a fence here, whitewashing a house there. At night they huddled out in the open. Sometimes they were given the hospitality of a barn or hayloft. Days were soft and yellow, and Geordie said the air smelled like sun-dried clothes, but nights were touched with autumn’s chill.

When they reached Denver, Geordie found employment working for a man named Tiny who owned a saloon.

“A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance,” Geordie told Bertha the second night, after he had swept the sawdust-strewn barroom floor, emptied spittoons, washed down privies, and hauled drunk gents to their horses.

“Your countenance ain’t so cheery,” she said, thinking how her brother was aging faster than the rose-patterned wallpaper that bedecked their walls. The roses had once been pink but now they looked like Noah’s denuded skin before he got cooked.

“This ain’t what I dreamed,” Geordie confessed a week later, entering the closet-sized room they shared and sitting on the edge of their bed.

“It ain’t so bad.” Steamy fingers seemed to reach out and pinch Bertha’s plump cheeks as she scrubbed at her gingham dress, pushing it against the side of the wash tub. Geordie’s other shirt soaked in the same tub.

“You never leave this here room, ’cept to use the privy and lug water upstairs. You ain’t even said a howdy to the others. You bake Tiny’s bread in the dead of night and spend the day reading Mama’s Bible.”

“There’s a flower growing, right there in the woody walk.” Bertha waved her dripping hands outside their one small window. “Come look at my flower, Geordie. It’s got no sunshine, nor water, but it’s growing just the same. I’ve seen it nod howdy.”

He joined her at the window. “That ain’t no flower, Berry. That there’s a weed.”

After two weeks Geordie considered moving on. He had planned to stay the winter, but Berry didn’t belong amidst the drunks and whores. She was like that weed stuck between the planks of the sidewalk, trying to grow without water or sunshine.

Inside the saloon it was hard to tell day from night. Geordie sang “I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines” as he tossed a chunk of pyrite from one hand to the other. He knew the nugget had no value—the miners called it fool’s gold—but he kept it as a talisman.

Tiny sopped up the last of a dozen fried eggs with a loaf of Berry’s fresh-baked bread. “Dora left for the gold fields this morning and we’re short some girls,” he said. “Can your wife serve or sing?”

“She ain’t my wife.” Geordie stared at his boss. Tiny’s beard encircled a neck the size of a tree trunk and he was seven feet tall in his boots. Even sitting, his stomach spread like a wagon wheel. “She’s my sister.”

“Well, fancy that.” Tiny’s eyes looked like shoe buttons. His nose flared at the base and tufts of hair, like pieces of tumbleweed, grew from his nostrils. His ears were so big they looked like the flaps on a knapsack, and his hands could heft twelve steins. “Can she serve or sing?”

“She can sing.” The saloon had a raised platform behind a tinkling piano, which gave the performing girls some protection from drunk customers. And if his sister earned enough coins, they could leave for the gold fields that much sooner.

Bertha was horrified. “Sing in front of all them men? I can’t.”

“Sure you can, Weed. They ain’t listening for your voice. Just move around and smile. Bartender told me ’bout some lady named Little Egypt. She twists her belly”—he demonstrated—“and folks call her dance the coochie-coochie.”

“Maybe I can dance coochie-coochie, Geordie, but I ain’t never sung nothing ’cept hymns. And don’t call me Weed!”

“The piano player gave me words writ on paper. All you gotta do is learn ’em proper. You can wear Dora’s dress. It’s right here. Ain’t it purty? Red and yella. As yella as your hair.”

Bertha’s face lit up like sunshine after a storm. “My hair ain’t yella, it’s black.”

“Why, ’tis holy truth. Black as the preacher’s carriage. Hard to tell in this dark room.”

“Must I sing, Geordie?”

“Yep. When you’re real good, the men throw coins. Do try. Please?”

Dora’s dress was loose at the hips and waist, but it strained the seams on top so that Bertha’s breasts threatened to rise and overflow like loaves of bread cooked with too much yeast. The red-and-yellow skirt swirled above her knees, gathering into a bustle where exaggerated daisy petals flopped backwards. Black net stockings sheathed her legs.

Tiny had decided she’d sing in the afternoon for practice then join the other performers at the highly touted nighttime show.

Her twisted foot and curved spine made her graceless but the customers didn’t seem to mind, drawn to her bodice as she lifted her arms toward heaven and wrung her hands. “Human hearts and looks deceive me,” she sang.

Watching from the back of the room, Geordie grinned. His little weed of a sister wriggled her flounce-covered bottom like a friendly sparrow at a birdbath. She sang her hymn to the tune of “After The Ball,”and despite her bouncing breasts and husky voice, her innocent joy stilled the men’s usual obscenities. Everybody stared beyond the smoking stage lanterns, and even the gamblers soon forgot their games.

“This here,” said Bertha, rotating her tummy in ever widening circles, “is called the coochie-coochie.”

A man yelled, “Seen Little Egypt hootchy-kootchy in Chicago. Swear this here young ’un’s better.”

A shower of coins, like heavy chicken feed, rained upon the platform boards. Bertha merrily limped and pranced about the stage. The lusty crowd roared its approval. When the applause died down, she collected her coins, left the stage, ascended the stairs and entered her room. Struggling to get free from her tight bodice, she managed to wriggle the material down to her waist.

“That was fine, dearie.” Tiny stepped out from the room’s corner.

It was late afternoon, the sun still shining, but with only one wee window for light the room stayed gloomy, so Bertha hadn’t seen Tiny before. With a gasp, she grabbed a blanket and held it against her breasts.

Tiny licked his lips and pushed her gently but firmly onto the bed.

He looks like Goliath, she thought, sitting up. “What are you doing, Mr. Tiny?”

“You pleasure me good and I let you keep all your wages.”

“Geordie didn’t say . . . I didn’t know . . .” Rising, she scooped her coins from the top of the bureau and thrust her hand toward Tiny.

He groped at his trouser buttons. “I don’t want your coins, girl. I want you.”

“But I don’t want you.”

His eyes squinted like a bag of nails. He twisted her wrist above the bureau until she dropped the coins. Then he pushed her, this time roughly, onto the bed.

She screamed.

“Touch her and I’ll kill you!” Geordie stood just inside the doorway. “Berry, gather your things together. We’re leaving.”

“No, you ain’t.” Tiny’s voice was a guttural growl. “I thought her your wife so she’s been living here outta the goodness of my heart. Now I mean to git paid.”

“I’ve been working for both of us and you know it!”

“Git outta here, boy!”

Geordie looked around for a weapon. He dug in his pocket until he encountered his lucky nugget, then threw the small piece of rock at Tiny.

Instead of being felled, the giant simply ran his thumb across the scratch on his forehead. With an ugly grimace, he picked Geordie up by the shoulders and hurled him against the wall. Geordie crumpled like a concertina, bleeding from a gash in his scalp. A bright trickle of blood dripped from his nose and mouth and formed a crimson puddle.

Scrambling across the room on her knees, Bertha tugged at her brother’s shirt. “Geordie, open your eyes and say something. You can call my purty flower a weed. You can call me Weed.”

Tiny yanked at a scalloped mirror attached to the scarred bureau. He held the glass above Geordie’s slack lips. “Shite, he ain’t breathing.”

“Geordie, move your fingers and wave howdy.”

“Bejesus, you idiot, he’s dead!”

“He can’t be dead. He promised—”

“Shut up!” Tiny flung the mirror at an opposite wall, where it shattered with an explosive sound.

Bertha crawled backwards. Splinters of glass tore her black net stockings, leaving small gashes in her knees. Unaware of the pain, her fingers closed around a jagged shard the size of a long comb. Standing, arms flailing, she attacked Tiny.

“Stopitbitch!”The howl emerged as one word.

“You killed my brother, I’ll kill you back!”

Tiny pushed her away, changed his mind, and stepped toward her. His boot caught in Geordie’s legs. Teetering back and forth, he fell rump-ward, landing with a thud that shook the floorboards. He tried to rise, but his hands slipped on a patch of Geordie’s blood.

Bertha carved a smile across Tiny’s throat, then deepened the smile with another swipe of her shard.

Tiny sputtered, gurgled, lay motionless, his neck sliced like a Christmas turkey.

Bertha placed two of her coins on Geordie’s eyes. Tiny stared toward the ceiling, sightless, but Bertha chose to leave his eyes open, unprotected.

“I’ll feed the chicks and cook piggy meat,” she cried, shoving her few pieces of clothing into the carpetbag satchel that held her mother’s ruby earbobs and Bible. Reflexively, she added her brother’s money pouch and the coins from her performance.

I forgot to bury Geordie, she thought, dropping her satchel and turning round and round in small circles. Spying her brother’s lucky nugget, she scooped it up, fell to her knees, and dug at the floorboards.

A woman’s high-pitched laughter sounded from the hallway. Bertha ceased her frantic motions, thinking how she had to get away fast. She had killed a man. They would kill her back. In her head, she heard Geordie’s voice: Run, Berry!

She replaced her ruined stockings with cotton stockings. She tried to reattach her dance dress bodice, but couldn’t close it without help, so she thrust her feet inside her shoes and slipped her gingham gown over her head. Ignoring the back buttons, she fled.

After descending the staircase, she awkwardly rebounded off tables and chairs. Somebody yelled, “Coochie, girl!” Others joined in. “Coochie-coochie, coochie-coochie.”

Pasting a smile on her face, Bertha rotated her tummy. At the same time, she maneuvered toward the entrance. Then she curtsied and limped through the swinging front doors.

Run, Berry!

Her feet lurched over the planked sidewalk, her left leg pivoting in an arc. Rounding the corner, she halted, unable to take another step. Her legs crinked, her sides stitched, her bosom heaved, and she couldn’t seem to get enough air.

“I’m snuffed out, Geordie,” she whimpered.

As she stared at the ground, she felt a warm breath on her back where the dress material hung open.

    


©2011 by Denise Dietz
Excerpt from
The Rainbow's Foot

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