You marooned us in a deeper cave than this, and you never came back. How do you forgive that? You deserted a four-year-old girl whose world you made turn ’round. You made me feel worth leaving. How do I forgive that? If I don’t come back, Daddy, no one will ever hear from you again.
Her head emerged into the blizzard as she scrambled out of the cave, nothing but a hole on a steep, snowy slope, rimmed by three feet of powder. She checked her watch—12:32 A.M. She’d been underground for twenty hours. Her fingers, arms, and legs were cramping, and she stood high on a mountain, wind howling, in pitch-black, whiteout conditions, with no idea where she was, or how to find Abandon.
The next morning, they took the air, walking together down Main, the sky midwinter blue, the sun lifting over the east canyon wall and the un-shaded snow already too brilliant to look at.
The fires had gone out in the mercantile and surrounding hillside cabins, so the air smelled cold and crisp, rinsed of woodsmoke.
Harriet looked up at Stephen, squinting, though the bonnet gave ample shade to her eyes. She thought it strange to be with this young preacher who treated her like a grown-up, asked her opinion of things. This had not been her experience with Daddy.
“Where did God take the people?” she asked, and not for the first time since last night.
When Stephen stopped and squatted down, his webs sank another foot in the snow. “Harriet,” he said. “I already told you I don’t—”
Something had moved above them. He glanced up at the second floor of the hotel, saw Molly Madsen standing in the bay window, staring down at them. He grimaced as the ulcer in his stomach flared.
They fought their way through deep drifts blown against the brick building, finally emerging into the lobby of the hotel.
“Go play at the billiard table, Harriet.”
Stephen removed his smoked specs and unlaced his webs, then climbed the stairs. In the dark hallway, he knocked on her door, and when she asked who was there, he replied, “Stephen Cole.”
The door opened. The preacher blushed. Though colder in her room than in the hall, Molly had clothed herself only in a sheer chemise. She stood shivering, breath steaming through corpse blue lips.
“When I saw you on the street, I thought you were my Jack. I’m expecting him any moment now.”
“May I come in? Build a fire for you?”
“Oh. Well. Yes, that would be fine.”
Stephen stepped inside, laid his felt hat on the desk as Molly shut the door after him. Her suite smelled like a night jar, though it wasn’t the filth that struck him as much as the loneliness. It had holed up in this room, over-spread the sad gingham walls, the chipped furniture, its wilting occupant. He knew Molly’s situation—the abandonment and humiliation that had festered and atrophied into madness. He’d visited before, but always from the hall. She’d never invited him in, and in truth, he’d been glad of it.
“The furnace is over here,” she said, leading him to a potbellied stove across from the bed. “Mr. Packer has always provided assistance of this nature. He’s a dear friend and business associate of my Jack, though he hasn’t come around lately.”
Stephen counted enough logs stacked against the wall to heat the room for a day, maybe two. He balled up several sheets of old newspaper so brittle, they flaked apart in his hands. With the fire going, he said, “Why don’t you come sit over here?”
Molly knelt before the open stove, her eyes glazing as she watched the aspen logs blacken in the flames. Stephen grabbed the dusty quilt from her bed and draped it over her shoulders, then unbuttoned his coat, eased down beside her.
“Molly,” he said, “the town’s been vacated.”
“Everyone left? Even Mr. Packer?”
“Him, too, and I’ll soon be leaving, so I was hoping I might persuade you to come with me.”
“What if Jack comes and I’m not here? If no one is here?”
“We’ll send word to Jack the moment we reach Silverton. I’ll even pay for the tele—”
“But that isn’t how . . . I’m supposed to be sitting in the window, looking down on the street. And then I see him walking toward the hotel, and he sees me up here in the window, and he doffs his hat and I smile and he runs up the steps and down the hall and—”
She lost her breath.
“It’s okay, Molly.”
“I will be here when my Jack comes to Abandon.”
“Who’ll bring you food and water? Wood for the stove? Who—”
“Jack will see to these things. He is my husband, after all.”
“Molly,” Stephen said, and the words tempted him: You’ve been in Abandon ten years, this hotel for five, and you’ll die in this room if you don’t leave with me. You’ve got as much a chance of seeing Jack again as those sagebrushers did of making their fortune in this desperate town.
Instead, Stephen stood. “Would you excuse me for a moment?” He left the suite and hurried down the stairs toward the lobby and the clack of ivory balls. The child had made a game of rolling them, three at a time, into the table’s leather pockets.
The preacher slipped back into Molly’s suite, found her basking in the heat of the stove, staring into the smoldering pile of embers. The room now reeked of wood smoke, a great improvement.
He sat with her again, said, “I was hoping you’d tell me of Jack?”
Her face enlivened, and as she spoke, Molly veered into sanity, Stephen catching peeks of the woman she must have been.
She narrated their first meeting in San Francisco and the ball, their courtship, the first time he kissed her, and finally the wedding, straying into the smallest details of the clothing worn, food served, floral arrangements, guests in attendance, everything as clearly recalled as if the event had transpired that morning. Stephen marveled at how thoroughly she described her husband’s face, the tone of his voice, even the smell of him, so by the time she pulled out the crinkled albumen print of Jack, Stephen’s mind had already formed an excellent likeness of the man.
Someone knocked at the door. Molly rose from the warmed floorboards by the stove, crossed the room, and asked who was there.
“Harriet McCabe, ma’am.”
Molly opened the door, looked down at the little girl standing in the hall. “What do you want?”
Harriet’s eyes cut to Stephen, back to Molly. “There’s a man in the lobby asking for you.”
Please God, let her believe the lie she so loves.