It seemed that every outlaw in the territory was moving to Bodie, California. One could barely walk down the dirt street or board sidewalk without the threat of running into one of the "Bad Men of Bodie."
Life was tenuous, at best. If it weren't for illness and natural disasters, now everyone had to be on guard against these evil men that preyed on the weak and sought out the strong to confront and better them until one or the other lay in their grave.
For young Katrina Marie Sturdivant, life was hard and the best she could hope for was to grasp what little happiness she could and hang on.
Katrina's best friend, Polly Schaffer, shook snow from her cape and entered the house where the girls were to attend a sewing bee. She balanced on one foot while she removed her boot from the other and announced excitedly, "The Seeress of Washoe is in town!"
Kat, as Polly called her, looked up from her sewing and handed her needlework to Mrs. Bean for inspection.
Mrs. Bean, a miner's wife who was teaching the two fifteen-year-old girls to sew, studied the stitching. She nodded to let Kat know it was correct, then shook her head at Polly's gossip.
"Eilley Bowers is just another woman, like any of the rest of us. If she's got powers to predict the future, I'll--I'll--well, I just don't believe it!"
"One of the miners said Mrs. Bowers once had a visitor that she suspected of being a murderer!" Polly let the words drag out in a nasal voice.
"So? What happened?" Kat pressed her anxiously.
"Well..." Polly again stretched time and then hurried on, "she left the room, and when she returned the man was gone; pieces of crystal from her peep stone lay scattered across a marble table top where the glass ball had sat, and a fine powder of dust was on her highly polished floor!"
"And do you think it exploded or that the man smashed it?" Kat was curious about this woman that was said to have so much power.
"Oh, go on, Polly," Mrs. Bean chided good-naturedly. "You learn too much from your brother and his working for that newspaper. I swear, I think that boy fancies himself another Mark Twain and it's rubbing off on you!" She shook her head, again, and turned back to her needlework as she thought about the man who was becoming famous for his stories up in Virginia City.
But Polly was Kat's best friend and Kat was intrigued with her story.
Later, when the two girls left Mrs. Bean's house, Kat quizzed Polly further and Polly delighted in sharing her embellished tales about the fortuneteller.
They walked close together, tight against the building fronts where they could dodge inside a store if they heard gunshots or saw someone that appeared to be causing trouble.
"Here's my dad's store already, Kat. Are you sure you can go on home safely alone? Maybe Sam could walk you to your house."
While Kat would have enjoyed Sam's company on her way home, she had something else in mind.
"No, I'll be careful. I'll run to a neighbor's house if I see anyone coming that frightens me."
"Stay close to the other buildings until you get near your house, promise?"
"Yes." Kat tucked her sewing bag under her arm and waved at Polly as she opened the door to Schaffer's General Store and went in.
As soon as Polly closed the door, Kat went alone to the Bodie Hotel to visit the Seeress of Washoe.
Kat placed all the coins she had on the table next to a large crystal ball. Then she sat quietly listening as Eilley Bowers predicted her future. She was absorbed in the details of her life as the cold winter wind whipped snowdrifts against the hotel, giving credibility to the chill that ran along her spine from Eilley's prophecies.
"I see in your future," the portly Mrs. Bowers droned in a monotone, "that you will travel far."
Kat listened intently, not taking her eyes from the smooth crystal ball the miners called "Eilley's peep stone." How she wished she could see the secrets held within that glass for herself!
The expression on the older woman's face changed abruptly. She looked up to study Kat to see how the next words she spoke would affect her young guest. Her hesitation was brief.
"Tragedy will befall your household. You will be forced to seek shelter elsewhere."
"That's all. You must leave," Mrs. Bowers said, dismissing her with a wave of her hand.
Kat rose unsteadily from her chair. She muttered a stunned "thank you" and edged out the doorway of the hotel room. She closed the door behind her and slumped against the hallway wall while fear flooded through her. She had wanted to know her future, but she was looking for a bright spot to aim for. Hadn't she had enough tragedy in her life already?
She tried to regain her composure as she walked through the hallway and out through the lobby and back out into the crisp, winter air.
She knew her father would be home soon, and she urged herself to hurry. She must get home and start his supper, she told herself. Since her mother's death, three years ago, the household chores, including the cooking, had become her responsibility.
Kat drew her scarf closer around her neck, stuffing the extra material inside her coat to help block out the cold that seemed even more severe with the gloom Eilley Bowers had predicted.
When she reached the small cabin where she lived, she tried to put her thoughts of the meeting with Mrs. Bowers aside.
Inside, she stirred the remaining embers in the fireplace to life. Then she put yesterday's stew into a kettle to hang on a bracket above the coals. Having dallied at the hotel, she rushed the food, urging the pot to heat as quickly as possible, Still bundled up while her small home warmed, she set the table and waited for the chill to leave the room.
She removed her wraps just before she heard her father stomping the snow from his boots onto the front steps.
"Evenin', Kat." Dutch greeted her with a smile on his face. "Boy, I'm hungry," he said as he looked toward the cook pot. "Dinner sure smells good."
"Stew's always best the second day," Kat returned, forcing conversation to push away thoughts of the afternoon session at the hotel.
Dutch washed, then straddled one of the benches in front of the rough hewn table and waited for Kat to dish up his plate.
"Pa..." she began with hesitation as she placed the salt and stiff butter on the table. She brushed at imaginary crumbs. Should she tell her father what she had done? "I," she said, then, blurted out the whole story.
"Malarkey," Dutch said when she had finished. "That woman just told you part of her own life's story. Don't you believe all that bunk. You tend to your own doings and things'll be jest fine."
"Yes, Pa." She was relieved to hear the common sense in his denouncement of the prophet's powers.
There was silence as they ate the vegetables that she had raised during the summer. Her arms ached with the memory of toting buckets full of water from the little creek that ran through a section of Bodie, but the effort had been worth it when she harvested the produce. And, now, she liked the pleasant aroma that lifted from the brimming plate as she placed a chunk of coarse bread next to the stew. The smile her father gave her, when he looked up, assured her that her effort had been well spent.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Dutch said teasingly, as he pulled a crumpled envelope out of his shirt pocket. "This came in on the stage from Bridgeport today."
Since the weather had become increasingly worse over the past few days, Kat had feared they had seen the last stage come into Bodie until spring arrived to thaw the town and allow the outside world in once more.
Now she saw the familiar handwriting of her brother, TJ, and clutched the letter with joy.
"All the way from Alaska!" Kat stared at the travel-worn piece of mail.
"Go ahead, read it," her father urged, poking at his food with a fork while his second helping cooled.
Eagerly, but slowly so her father could hear clearly, she read the words he could not.
"Dear Pa and Kat," the letter started, and Kat smiled remembering that TJ had been the one to nickname her, just as she had nicknamed him when she, as a baby, couldn't pronounce his given name, Tobias James.
As she held the letter she remembered how, once, when she was a small child, she had climbed a scrub pine. Their mother sent TJ to bring her down.
Although TJ was several years older, she eluded his long-armed grasp and giggled senselessly as she played a game of striking out gently at him with one arm while she clung to the tree with the other. She dared him to take her down.
"Katrina," TJ said, looking up at her and seeing the image of a small Dutch girl in her crisp pinafore with her blonde hair plaited into two stiff braids. "You come down here this very minute or you'll get a whipping."
His threat was very real, but she could not control the effervescence she felt at the chase and giggled more, delaying the possible punishment.
"You little cat! Come here!" TJ insisted, becoming impatient with her game. Finally, she relented and climbed down to be dragged by the hand back home.
"Cat fits you fine," TJ said as he tugged her along. "You're that curious, too" he added and turned her over to their mother.
Now, Kat smoothed the letter on the table before her and brought her thoughts back to reading TJ's words out loud.
"So you'll know this big country better--all I can say is, it's not that much different than where you are."
Kat shuddered at the thought of another place as winter bound as Bodie. High in the Sierras, the town could become isolated quickly and frozen in time until a thaw hit.
"Only thing is, you get a lot less cold than we do. We have to warm the ground with fires to dig out the gold. Sometimes the smoke nearly chokes us to death, but the earth stays frozen so deep we don't have any other way of digging.
"By the time you read this you'll probably be fighting the snow, too. So, in a way, we aren't so far apart.
"I'm well, and fine. Hope you're the same. Your loving son and brother, TJ."
Kat looked up with tears in her eyes. "I don't see how he stands it, Pa. I hate these cold, horrible winters."
"I know, but we have to make a living, Kat. Mining's the only way I know." Dutch dipped thoughtfully into his stew with a chunk of buttered bread and watched the oil from the melting butter streak across the top of the hot liquid. "TJ's young. He's jus' startin' out. I know you miss him, but you don't want to move to Alaska now, do you?"
No! She'd just have to put up with Bodie.
"Besides, I promised your Ma I'd see to it you got an education and got settled down, yourself, before I took to following the strikes again, Katrina," Dutch said.
"I know, Pa," she whispered back, remembering when her mother had died in childbirth and the baby boy had followed her a few days later.
Kat remembered how none of her efforts had helped to keep the tiny infant alive.
"Kat," Doc Bacon had told her, then, when the baby stopped breathing and Kat clutched the bundle close to her willing him to breathe again, "you've done all you can."
Dazed, she had turned helplessly with the baby in her arms and held him out to the doctor.
Doc Bacon rechecked for a heartbeat and shook his head.
"He was born too early. Sometimes there are things going on inside we just don't understand."
"Now, Kat," Dutch's voice brought her attention back to TJ's letter. "You snap out of it. You hear me? This Bowers woman's got you all upset. Tomorrow's a better day. You best be getting started on your presents for the Christmas tree down at the Union Hall," he said, hoping to distract her from the unsettling session with the fortuneteller.
"But, Pa, it's only the first part of November. Christmas is a ways off," Kat protested.
"Good, it'll keep you busy!" He slid the bench back and brushed the crumbs from his shirt. Kat watched as he got his coat from the nail by the door.
"Goodnight, Katrina," he said as he left for his evening walk to Shanigan's Saloon.
Kat closed the door behind him and packed the rag rug her mother had crocheted tightly against it to stop the snow that melted along the threshold from forming a puddle.
Her father had never told her where he went in the evenings. But, once, in the late summer daylight, she had watched him make his way down their rutted, dusty road and cross over to the saloon on the corner of Browne Street.
In the dim lights that showed now from the windows of other homes down their street, she watched men walk toward the various saloons as the storm ebbed. She wondered what mysteries were hidden behind the doors that drew them each night until nearly time to report to the mines for the next day's labors. She prayed that her father wouldn't run into one of the outlaws that hung out there, as well.
She slowly cleared the table, picking up TJ's letter to place it on the mantel where it would be available to read and reread as she searched for the flow of communication between them to lessen the physical distance and pain of loss. How many years it now seemed since she had taunted TJ from that tree!
When TJ still lived at home, he had been her companion once she grew beyond the incapable child stage. In the evenings, they played checkers. As she grew older, he often teased her about the boy she would someday meet and marry. She smiled to herself as she thought about the happier times.
Kat put the butter back into the coldest corner of the cabin and covered it with a dishtowel her mother had embroidered. She ran her fingers lovingly across the fine stitching and remembered the warmth of her mother's hug.
Katrina Marie Sturdivant, you stop that! Tears bubbled to her eyes. You're going on sixteen. It's time you were thinking about finding a fella and settling down yourself! After all, TJ had been only eighteen when he set out to make his fortune. Besides, what else was there for her to do but care for her father and bide her time until she had a home of her own and a husband to care for? She no longer attended school, having completed the highest class the teacher at the one room schoolhouse in Bodie offered.
Surely, there must be something else to be, besides a wife!
But Bodie already had a schoolteacher and, while she could assist the local dressmaker when she polished her sewing skills, most of the Bodie women made their own clothes and clothes for their family, so the town didn't need another full-time seamstress.
She thought of her visit to Mrs. Bowers' hotel room, again. Now, she wished she had asked the fortuneteller what her vocation would be.
She sat down in her mother's wooden rocking chair and picked up her own sewing as she turned her future over in her mind. Her fingers methodically pieced together bits of cloth scraps as she chose the colors to best compliment each other and rocked as she worked. The soothing motion helped ease her troubled mind. But the question remained when she put her sewing aside and went to bed. What would she do with her life?