This is an excerpt from my novel Snow White and the Civil War.
I was standing up to stretch when I heard voices, and with a shock, I realized they weren’t dwarves. I grabbed my knitting and ran inside, barring the door behind me. I darted to the back corner of the cave behind my bed and wrapped my arms around my knees.
“What have we here?” The door was tried several times in succession, ending in a crescendo of effort, but the dwarves had built it well. It would take axes to get through those thick planks.
Thank heaven they hadn’t found me last week. I would’ve had to run into the woods, and they would’ve known a woman lived here from my clothing. I couldn’t afford to shake like this–I had to think. The dwarves would be here in the morning—all I had to do was wait. If I didn’t move, I couldn’t make a noise, and then those men wouldn’t know I was here.
“Well,” said another man, “we might as well wait and see who comes home. Maybe they’ll have seen the girl.”
They were looking for me. I took a couple deep breaths. The good news was they didn’t know I was in here.
“There’s plenty of wood in the fire pit, but it’s not smoldering. They might be gone for a while.” One of them picked up wood from the kindling pile; the sticks clattered together as it collapsed. “It’s getting on for dark anyway,” the first man continued. “This is as good a place as any to spend the night.”
“Do you want to put up canvas?” asked the second. He sounded younger.
“Nah, it makes us look like claim jumpers,” said the first. “No point in gettin’ ‘em mad. It doesn’t look like rain.”
“A thousand dollars,” said the second, in the same tone a man might use to describe the love of his life.
“A man could set himself up for life with that kind of money,” said the first. “Get himself a farm and a pretty girl and settle down.”
It was a nice plan, but it was too bad it would cost another girl her life. Although to be fair, they could hardly be expected to know that.
“And even if we only find the body, it’s still a hundred,” said the second.
“I hope she’s still alive,” said the first. “I’ll drag her kicking and screaming back to her Pa for that kind of money. Hell, I’d kill her boyfriend if I had to.”
So much for being fair. I decided to thoroughly dislike everything about them instead. It would give me something to do.
“Wonder why a rich girl would run away,” said the second. “If I had that kind of money, I would for damn sure never run away from it.”
“She fell in love with the stable boy or the blacksmith,” replied the first man. His voice was deeper. “Only thing that explains it.”
“But nobody else is missing, I heard tell,” objected the younger one. “They went through all Placerville looking and didn’t find anyone.” He paused a moment and asked, “Do you reckon his family is hiding her?”
“How many people would hide a girl who was worth a thousand dollars?” replied the older man. “They’d give her back and tell the kid to fall in love with someone else. What I think is he’s hiding her from his family, too. Only they would’ve found her by now if she was up in the barn. That’s why I thought we’d search all the abandoned claims.”
Mr. Wallace was right; they’d have found me in the cabin at Coloma. Although without the dwarves, they would have found me here, too.
“This place don’t look abandoned,” said the second. “That woodpile’s too new. Reckon they just got it in for the winter.”
“So we’ll wait and find out if they’ve seen her,” said the first man, sounding like his patience was wearing thin. “Maybe they haven’t been to town to hear about it, and they’ve seen the girl in a cave somewhere. Don’t reckon a rich girl would know how to make a place like this, but I’ve heard of caves over closer to the north fork. Or she could be in an abandoned mine, hunkered down.”
“We could rescue her from it,” said the second. “Why, it’s practically our duty. That thing could come down around her any time.”
“That’s right.” After a pause, he added, “What’s left for supper?”
“Just some hardtack and beans,” said the second man. “I’ll go fill the pot after I rest.”
“Not a bad idea,” said the older man. “If by some chance she comes back, we don’t want to frighten her away.”
Too late for that. I was already frightened, although away was beyond my power. They were going to spend the night. But they were outside and I was in my nice, safe cave. Maybe later I’d get cold enough to crawl into my bed and sleep. Right now, I was too afraid to move.
It got very quiet for a time. They built up the fire, and once in a while it popped, but that was the only sound. I had no idea if they were asleep or just busy with their thoughts. Mine were centered around the increasingly important one that I needed to pee, and I couldn’t afford to make any noise. My bladder felt like it was going to explode.
When the first coyote howl came, I crept as quietly as I could to the stove to get my pot. When two more joined in and the men started cursing, I had what might be the single most relieving experience of my entire life. Then I crept into bed while they were still complaining. I even had time to pull off my shoes first.
The rest of the night I listened to them spend a thousand dollars, over and over, along with variations on what they’d do to get that kind of money. I’d thought Father and his business associates were focused on the stuff, but they had nothing on these two. As I drifted off, my final thought was an urgent prayer that I make no noise while I slept.
I woke up in exactly the same position, and the men outside weren’t rattling on the door. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only an hour, I heard Ewald’s voice. “What the hell are you doing at our cabin?”
There were sounds of movement at the front, and the first man said, “Uh, right. Well, uh, gentlemen, we are looking for a runaway girl, and we were wondering if you’ve seen any signs of her.”
Othmar said, “This wouldn’t be the girl they’re offering a thousand dollars for in Placerville, would it?”
The second man answered, “That’s right, a thousand dollars.” His voice caressed the words.
The first man sounded like he was getting ready to kick his companion. “And that kind of money tends to get your attention.”
“It does indeed,” said Hartwin. “Which is why we’ve been looking for her, too. We could give you a long list of places that she’s not, but as to where she is, don’t you think it’d be worth the walk to Placerville to collect it ourselves? The seven of us are plenty to bring in a little slip of a lovesick girl.”
The first man sounded even more annoyed now. “I guess that’d be true. You reckon she’s off with a boy?”
Othmar snorted. “Well, I don’t think she ran away from all that terrible money. We’ve checked all the places we can think of. Maybe she got away on the stage before the hunt was on, but then she could be anywhere. All I know is she isn’t here, or we’d be considerably richer.”
“You don’t mind if we have a look, do you?” asked the first man.
“It’s a free country,” said Ewald. “Who knows? Maybe she moved into a cave after we checked it. We came up empty, as you can see. But you can go look away from our cabin. We’ve had a frustrating few days and I’ve a mind to eat and get some rest.”
“Uh, right,” the first man said. “Well, we’ll bid you good day, then.”
After a long pause, Othmar said, “Make sure they’re gone, will you, Hartwin?”
“Open up, Janet,” Ewald said, very quietly. “It’s just us.”