Birdie just nodded, careful not to get him going on one of his rants, and went about picking up the discarded bottles. It was best to stay out of his way when he was like this. He wasn’t quite drunk, but he wasn’t sober either.
“Where did you get that dress? And those boots? You stealing?”
Her heart stopped. If he found out that she stayed with the Langstons, all hell would break loose. “No, sir. I found the dress.” She picked up some more trash to steady her nerves and come up with an answer that wouldn’t have him beating her to death. “Mama must have left them. I found them in an old box out back.”
No surprise that he didn’t ask her about her busted lip or black eye. He never apologized, nor cared how he treated her. It was their way of life. He—and she—didn’t know any different.
Birdie’s answer must have been good enough, because her pa stood and made his way over to a pile of blankets in the corner of the room. There was an old ragged curtain hanging that could offer some privacy, but he didn’t bother to pull it around where he slept. Too much effort for a man who didn’t care. “I’m getting some shut eye. Tonight your Uncle Abe is coming. He’s bringing Jeremiah.”
Hearing of an ‘uncle’ coming was never news. It happened more nights than not. And these evenings always turned into a full drunken night, which usually left Birdie running off and hiding somewhere. Only rule of Jedson’s was to bring plenty of booze and something to eat, and these ‘uncles’ had a place to stay. Birdie hated most of them. But she liked Abe’s son, Jeremiah. He was a little older than her, and had always been nice. They were only children then, but she could tell Jeremiah was different somehow.
When Abe and her pa began drinking and swearing, Jeremiah always took her by the hand and led her deep into the woods. He never tried anything and was nothing but a gentleman. Birdie didn’t have friends, but if she did, Jeremiah was the closest it came to having one. She hadn’t seen him or his father in several years, and hearing they were visiting actually made Birdie a little happy. She just hoped Jeremiah hadn’t turned into a drunk like his pa.
“I will try to find some food for supper then,” Birdie said, wanting desperately to leave the room that often felt like a jail cell.
“No need. It so happens that Jeremiah has done good. Word is that he found gold in them mines in Virginia City. He’s even got a claim somewhere along the Feather River. Uncle Abe gots himself a boy with money now.” He collapsed on the blankets and kicked off his boots. “They don’t be needing our charity. But you best be nice. That Jeremiah could be our ticket. Go on and chop some firewood. I need to sleep.”
Birdie let out the breath she had been holding. She didn’t have to be told more than once to leave that God-forsaken, dark, spider-infested, mud-caked hole that unfortunately was their house. At least outside, Birdie could breathe fresh air and feel some sense of normalcy.
Chopping wood was much easier now that she had some food in her belly. Lifting the ax didn’t feel as if it took every last ounce of strength. And having Anna Mae’s old boots on, sure did help with her traction. She couldn’t help but smile at the memory of her time with the Langstons. They were good people, far too good for a Bluebell, but they had welcomed her with open arms and did right by her. She wouldn’t forget that, and made an internal vow to do the same for them.
The day passed quickly with Birdie completing what chores were possible to do around the homestead. They didn’t have any livestock and no garden to tend, so other than the chopping of wood and basic tidying up, she had a fairly easy load compared to most. But regardless, her body ached when she finally stacked the last piece of wood up against the wall of the house.
“Well lookee here! Is that little girl Bluebell?” The deep voice, followed by a whistle, caused her to jump. She turned to see ‘Uncle’ Abe and a much older Jeremiah emerging from the woods.
She waved and plastered the fakest smile she could muster. Even though she didn’t have anything against either one of them, the sight of them carrying a large burlap sack slung over both of their shoulders, let her know that a night of drinking was about to commence. Glancing at the clear sky, at least gave her a small sense of relief—she wouldn’t be out in the woods in the middle of a snowstorm again.