It was almost lunchtime when Bartlette Blue sat down on her front porch to watch the gnats swarming over the lake. Taco, her dog, sat with her.
Taco was a good dog. He’d belonged to Bartlette ever since she could remember—way back to the days he’d had to be especially patient because she was a baby who didn’t know any better, and would sometimes pull his tail. That was the kind of goodhearted dog he was. It wasn’t Taco’s fault he was small and scrawny, or that his fur was missing in patches, or that his knees were knobby. It wasn’t his fault one of his eyes turned out the wrong way.
The girl and her dog stared together at the large man standing by the lake. As they watched, the man aimed his shotgun into the air, steadied it on his doughy shoulder, and squinted his large, bug-like eyes in concentration. “Watch this, now,” they heard him say in the distance. He peeked to make sure the woman next to him was watching. He dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief, stuffing it back into his pocket.
The woman daintily plugged her ears. She was Bartlette’s mother, and next to her date she seemed to Bartlette even more delicate than she usually did. Her hair glinted like gold in the sunlight. Her dress waved just a little in the wind, and her straw hat hid her tired, lovely face.
POW! The gunshot split the air, and instantly an angry, squawking cloud of ducks fanned out, scolding in every direction. They did not appreciate having their quiet disturbed. Neither, for that matter, did Bartlette and Taco.
“Did I get one?” the man said. “Aw, come on. Not even one? Well, lo and behold.”
Bartlette’s mother shook her head gently. “Maybe next time. Why don’t we call it a day.”
Bartlette hugged Taco close and scratched behind his ears.
The man was Preacher Dell, and he was over every week. Usually he arrived on Saturday nights in a rumpled suit with flowers from a parishioner’s garden. Mother always accepted them graciously, but Bartlette believed this was because her mother was gracious, not because she was happy to see him. Sometimes, like today, he came over during the daytime to show off his duck hunting skills or some other nonsense.
He and Mother strolled up to the house. Preacher Dell was so large that his footsteps made the porch creak. “Hello there, Bartlette,” he said. “Taco.”
“Hi,” Bartlette said without much enthusiasm.
“I’ll get us some lemonade before I start lunch,” Mother said, disappearing through the screen door.
Bartlette sat on the porch while Taco busied himself chewing what little hair he had left on his back leg. Preacher Dell made himself comfortable on the swing and sat there rocking contentedly. Bartlette wished he wouldn’t feel so comfortable at her house. He belonged at the church parsonage where he lived.
Bartlette’s friend Sally Rae told her once that Preacher Dell was looking for a wife to carry out church duties he didn’t conduct, like putting on church dinners and potlucks and sing-alongs. He had come out from the Midwest to find a wife, and Sally Rae said he had his eye on Mother. That all the visits he paid were to test out her cooking skills, and to make sure she could sing.
Sally Rae also said her mother told her that Bartlette’s mother didn’t really have any choice but to marry Preacher Dell. It’s what everyone in town was saying, she said. That Bartlette’s mother was living off the charity of relatives as it was. That she was poor, she was about to lose her home, and that she would be a fool to pass up a good, decent opportunity like marrying the town’s preacher. That, any day now, he would be proposing marriage to Mother.
“Thank you, Cambria,” Preacher Dell said as Mother handed him a glass of lemonade. Bartlette kept a close eye on him. If he was planning to pop the question, it was up to her to stop him. Secretly she hoped Mother forgot to put the sugar in the lemonade so Preacher Dell would get a mouthful of sour lemon juice. Then he would think Mother couldn’t cook after all, and he would move on to visiting some other lady. Mother handed a glass to Bartlette, too, who took a quick sip. Darn it. Perfectly sweet.
“Lo and behold, Bartlette, I swear you never get any taller,” Preacher Dell said lazily after several long seconds of chugging down his drink.
Bartlette winced. She knew she was small for a nine year old; he didn’t have to remind her. She had been growing out her short hair ever since a girl at school said long hair makes a person look taller. But it didn’t help. She was still short, her eyes were still small and black, and her skin still burned easily in the sun. Her hair was still dark and stick straight. People still said her face was pointy like an elf’s. Preacher Dell always noted these things as if there was something she could do about them. She wished he would keep his opinions to himself.
“So,” Preacher Dell said, leaning back on one elbow, “what will the lovely Cambria be taking to the church picnic tomorrow?”
This is exactly what Bartlette’s friend had been talking about. It was a test question, to test Mother’s potluck skills.
“Oh, I guess a huckleberry pie,” Mother said.
“Her famous huckleberry pie,” Bartlette added. If Preacher Dell hadn’t been such a recent arrival to the Canyon, he would have known that. Everyone did. Mother always brought huckleberry pie to the summer picnic. Peanut butter ice cream, too, if she had time to make it.
That was the thing about outsiders. They just didn’t understand there were certain ways things were done in the Canyon. Plainly, Preacher Dell did not understand these ways.
For a moment he held his nose and closed his eyes. “Oh, thought I was going to sneeze,” he said. He started to say something else, but then he did sneeze, violently and unexpectedly. The sneeze was so powerful that, all of a sudden, the hairpiece he wore atop his head dislodged from his scalp and landed with a soft plop! in the pitcher Mother had set out next to them. To everyone’s horror, it floated in the lemonade, stirring around in circles like a drowned rat. Taco growled at it.
“Lo and behold,” Preacher Dell said with a giggle that sounded like an apology. “Lo and behold.” He set his glass down, replaced the hairpiece after a moment of vigorously shaking the lemonade from it, and sat up taller.
“Cambria,” he said now, turning to face Mother, “I was hoping I might be able to talk to you about something….” He sat up. A drop of lemonade snuck out from his hair and dripped down his temple. “Something,” he said, wiping his face, “of great moment.”
Think. Quick! Bartlette ordered herself.
Looking around, she took tally of anything she could use to distract them. There wasn’t much to work with. She and Nana and Mother didn’t have much. Really, it boiled down to one thing: Taco. In Bartlette’s pocket was the little chewed up toy mouse Taco went crazy if he saw. When no one but Taco was looking, she slipped it out and tossed it in Preacher Dell’s direction. It landed just behind his seat. Taco growled, low, and sprang for it with a series of barks and a fierce snap of his teeth. Which, unfortunately for Preacher Dell, sunk partly on the toy, and partly into Preacher Dell’s trousers.
“Oh, ho ho!” he bellowed, springing up, both hands over his rear.
Mother lifted her eyebrows. She hadn’t seen Taco bite.
“Ha ha ha,” Preacher Dell said. He chuckled again and patted Taco’s head. “Nice dog,” he said, patting some more. “Nice, nice pup.”
But Taco still had Mousie in his grips, and he was in no mood to be patted. Mousie made Taco think he was fierce. A monster. A wolf. A bear! He dropped it just long enough to bite Preacher Dell’s finger.
“Ouch!” Preacher Dell thundered, pulling his finger into his mouth and holding back what looked like the urge to swear quite loudly.
Bartlette could have kissed her little dog.
“Taco!” Mother scolded. “Oh, my. Here”—she reached for Preacher Dell’s hand—“let me look at that.”
“No,” he said with a sideways glance at Bartlette. He gripped his finger. “No, I really should be on my way.”
“But…” Mother asked, “won’t you stay for lunch?”
“I really should go…” he said, clearing his throat, “…work on my sermon.”
“Oh,” Mother said.
Bartlette was triumphant. “That’s too bad,” she said.
Preacher Dell was leaving. Even Nana was away for the day visiting friends. Bartlette would get Mother all to herself for lunch!
“Well,” Mother continued, “I’ll see you at the picnic tomorrow?”
Preacher Dell’s eyes crinkled, and he smiled warmly. “Yes,” he said. “I’ll be there. Till tomorrow, then.”
Bartlette and Taco watched him cross through a swarm of jubilant gnats down by the lake. Poor Mother. She simply didn’t understand what was going on here, just sashayed around the kitchen, humming to herself as she prepared lunch. Preacher Dell’s figure grew smaller and smaller. When he was out of sight, Bartlette brushed off her hands and took Taco indoors. At last. Preacher Dell was gone, and she had Mother all to herself. A whole afternoon together, just the two of them.
And good thing, too. Because it was to be their last.
Later that night, Bartlette sat at the kitchen table coloring, curled up next to the hissing Rochester lamp. The windows were flung wide open, and a chorus of frogs croaked companionably. “Will the DeWitts be coming up Suicide tomorrow?”
Nana didn’t look up from her knitting. “I believe so.”
Suicide was the perilous trail that lined the impossibly deep mouth of Hell’s Canyon, and it was unforgiving──hungry for failure. The tiniest misstep of man, child, or mule, and it would grab you by the ankle and swallow you up in one big irreversible gulp. But that was life in the Canyon. It wasn’t enough to stop the DeWitts or the other families from coming to the summer picnic. And thank goodness for that.
Way out where Bartlette lived with Nana and Mother, there weren’t many children to play with once school was out. Unless you counted the three-year-old Bascal twins up the road, which Bartlette did not. Beyond her house, past the frogs on the riverbank was an old abandoned log cabin that served as Bartlette’s own playhouse. It had been built by horse thieves with enough money for screens on the windows, and it sat in a cheery meadow of lilac bushes sprinkled with ancient, gnarled apple trees. A cheery house in a cheery lilac meadow. Whenever Bartlette could steal a break, she played school in her fresh air playhouse. She was always the teacher. And since there were no kids to play with, Taco was the student.
“Bartlette, get me another jar of huckleberries, would you?” Mother, in the dim, hissing light of the lantern, was still in the kitchen preparing for tomorrow’s picnic. Kettles hummed on the stove, and on the counter sat an enormous jar of ice cream.
“Honestly, Cambria, I don’t know what you’re going to all this fuss for,” Nana scolded. “Leave well enough alone.” Bartlette got the sense Nana didn’t want the question popped any more than she did.
Sliding from her seat, Bartlette opened the hatch door and headed down cellar. All Mother’s beautifully canned things lined the shelves, with red checked cloth under their lids. Apricots, huckleberries, and green beans sat next to squashes, kettles of cream, and large pats of butter, all the result of their hard labor and the care they took of their garden and Daisy, their milk cow.
“Careful of snakes!” Mother shouted from upstairs.
Bartlette hesitated. “Don’t worry.”
Down in the cellar, the frog chorus was muted and everything seemed very still and dark and cool. Just the way rattlesnakes liked it. Bartlette grabbed the berries and ran upstairs as quick as she could. A sheep ranger down the Canyon was rumored to have survived four snakebites, but if Bartlette had her way, she would never endure one.
As she reached the living room, she watched Nana pack away her knitting needles. “Day is done; we’ve earned our rest,” Nana said.
“You two go on to bed,” Mother said, crouched over the oven. “I just have a few more things to finish up.”
Nana shook her head, but then she kissed Bartlette’s cheek. “Goodnight, dear.”
In her room that was just big enough for a bed and a dresser, Bartlette slipped on her nightgown, cool as the silky moonlight. Taco jumped up, turned around exactly three times, and closed his eyes. And then, in the dry Idaho heat of their snug lakeside cabin, a million frogs sang them both to sleep.
Toward afternoon the next day, Bartlette’s family loaded up potato salad, pickles, ice cream, and pie, and headed for the Brodie Sheep Ranch. Crab apples scented the air as they hiked, and birds chirped through the sunlight.
“Look who’s here,” Nana said, looking ahead while Bartlette watched a cottontail rabbit frisk across her path.
It was Nettie. The DeWitts had made it up Suicide! Bartlette broke into a run. “You’re here!”
Nettie, tall and lean and raven-haired, threw her arms around Bartlette, bucket and all. “In the flesh,” she said. “Came through Suicide on Foul Beast, four of us kids astride, and we made it!”
Foul Beast was the mule the littler DeWitt kids rode.
Nettie was so lucky. If only Bartlette had sisters to ride a mule with. She didn’t say this aloud, though. If she did, Nettie would just say, “You can have one of mine!”
Up ahead the picnic was already teeming with children. Everyone, young and old, was dressed in their Sunday best, even though it was Saturday. A picnic was a dressy event! Bartlette, for her part, wore her Sunday dress with the heavy black boots she always wore. Everyone in and around the Canyon wore them, fancy dress or no. Those rattlesnakes.
“Did you hear what happened to Slim Brodie?” Nettie asked, slipping her arm through Bartlette’s as they walked.
“No. What?” A picnic was not only a place to dress up and eat peanut butter ice cream. It was the place to catch up on all the latest gossip.
“Last month he turned eighteen, and he told his parents he was leaving home. Leaving the Canyon.”
“Yes. Just up and left.” Nettie smiled scandalously, making the dark freckles splashed across her nose more visible against her tan. Her hazel eyes lit up. “You can imagine how shocked his parents were.”
Ahead was a decorated table with all the food—the best recipes the women of the Canyon had to offer. “I can.”
“It gets worse,” Nettie continued. “When he left, he went straight to Kennewick, and you can imagine, there’s nothing good going on there.”
“No sir,” Bartlette agreed. It was delicious to be in such close agreement with Nettie. “Nothing good going on outside the Canyon, if you ask me.”
“Well, in Kennewick, he got to hanging around bootleggers.”
Bartlette narrowed her eyes. “Hooch.”
“Mmmmm hm.” Nettie brushed her bangs away from her eyes. “And one night he was just drunk out of his mind, and a young lady convinced a judge to marry the two of them, right then and there.”
Bartlette blanched. She could not have been more stunned. Not if Nettie had told her aliens had landed a spaceship down at the bottom of the Canyon in the DeWitts’ sheep pasture and gotten out to introduce themselves. Slim was a boy who had walked to his last day of school with them not three weeks before.
“No,” Bartlette said.
“Slim Brodie got married?”
“Yep,” she said, “he did. To a drunk girl. She’s living in the Brodies’ house now. My mom says she’s a ‘real winner’. And then she rolls her eyes. Like this.” Nettie did a dramatic eye roll that stretched all the way from one side of the earth to the other. Bartlette was entranced. This was almost too much to believe. It couldn’t have really happened.
If it did, it only confirmed what Bartlette had long suspected. One, that nothing good came of question-popping. Especially if a girl drunk on hooch was the one who popped it. And two, no good, ever, could come from leaving Hell’s Canyon. Terrible things happened when people left. Mother had never left: Nana had never left: Nettie had never left. And Bartlette would never leave. She had been born in the very house she lived in, had slipped into the world and into Nana’s calloused, waiting hands, and then she’d been proudly displayed to a river of guests streaming through the door bearing homemade cheese, bread, and jarred pumpkin.
Bartlette’s own father had left a long, long time ago, and no one in the Canyon had heard from him since. No one had the slightest idea what had become of him. It was as if he had blown away into thin air, like the curling gray smoke of a campfire.
“I’m never leaving,” Bartlette announced to Nettie. “There’s enough trouble here in the Canyon. Safest thing is to stay put,” she said, knowing Nettie would heartily agree.
“Pinky swear?” Nettie implored.
Bartlette held up one finger. “Pinky swear.”
“Oh, you’ve brought your mother’s peanut butter ice cream,” Mrs. Brodie said, standing at the table of food, nibbling here and there. “You know we just couldn’t have a picnic around here without it. Just wouldn’t do!”
The compliment warmed Bartlette. She skipped off with Nettie through the shade of a great oak tree and on to a grassy hill before the cliff. They plunked down tummies-first.
“So what’s new up north of the Canyon?” Nettie asked. “I haven’t been up here for an age.”
Bartlette shrugged. “Nothing much.”
“Has the preacher popped….”
“No,” Bartlette said. “And he won’t, if I have anything to say about it.”
They both looked over the guests. Preacher Dell and Mother snuggled close together on the porch steps.
“Don’t worry,” Nettie said sagely. “He won’t ask her now, not here.”
“I sure hope you know what you’re talking about,” Bartlette said. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep him from asking.”
Lying under the enormous cloud-filled sky with Taco usually gave Bartlette a sense of contentment she just didn’t feel today. Something gnawed at her. Something she couldn’t shake.
She sighed and turned away from the party. From the Brodies’ ranch she could see all the way over to the Idaho edge of the Canyon. Every night she watched the sun sink behind that wall, illuminating the steep, rugged cliffs and the valley below. The trail stretched so deep that if Bartlette hollered down, her voice wouldn’t reach to the roaring river. Bartlette and Taco watched a bald eagle glide across the Canyon screeching its eerie, echoing cry.
“Don’t worry,” Nettie whispered. She squeezed Bartlette’s hand. “Hey,” she said, “guess what?” She fished out a pad of paper and pencil from her canvas bag. “Mother is taking three of us kids to see a moving picture tomorrow while we’re up here. Come with us!”
“A moving picture?” Bartlette said. She was surprised Nettie’s mother would splurge on something so impractical. Bartlette was poor, but Mother and Nana didn’t have seven little mouths to feed the way Nettie’s parents did. “How did you get so lucky?”
“They’re having a nickel show.” Nettie scratched out in curly cursive the title of the film and handed it to Bartlette. “Every Dog Has Its Day.”
Taking the paper from Nettie, Bartlette scrunched up her nose. “And you really want to go?” She had only been to the pictures once before.
Nana had talked endlessly about films ever since she heard of them, and one day her curiosity had overcome her. In a completely out-of-character splurge, she had pulled Bartlette into the little makeshift theater to see what this was all about. Nana had not been disappointed, but Bartlette wasn’t as enthralled. Going to town was enough excitement for her. Buying fabric, brown sugar, flour, garden tools—just seeing people rushing about their town business—that was much more fun. Moving pictures were silly. Silly people doing silly things.
“Are you joking?” Nettie gushed. “I’ve never been to see one, but I just know I’m going to love it! Everyone says they do. Come with us. We’re only up out of the Canyon one night.”
“BOO!” said a voice before Bartlette could answer.
Taco shook next to Bartlette.
An impish little face framed by curly brown hair popped up in front of them. His nose and cheeks bore the dark tan and trademark freckles of all his siblings.
“Sam DeWitt!” Nettie hollered. “How dare you startle us like that?”
Defeated, Nettie’s little brother settled himself next to them. He rested his chin on chubby fists. “What do you got there?” he asked, pointing.
Nettie took the pad of paper from Bartlette and handed it to him. “Here,” she said. “Read it.”
“You know I can’t read cursive writing,” he said, taking the paper and frowning at it miserably.
Nettie always loved a good chance to torment her little brothers. “Lord knows they torment me enough!” she would always say in her own defense.
“What does it say?” Sam demanded. “Tell me! I’m telling.”
Nettie snatched it back from him. “It says monsters hide at the bottom of the Canyon to eat little boys who are a nuisance to their sisters!”
“That’s not what it says,” Sam moped. “I’m telling.”
“Go ahead. Tell. Mother will take my side.”
Sam jumped up and stomped off to the food table, frowning, but he lit up when he realized a plate of devilled eggs was within reach. Grabbing one, he stuffed it in his mouth then announced, “Bartlette, your mother is swinging with the preacher!” And he ran off to play with the other boys.
Both girls turned to look at the swings hung from high branches in the shady oak tree. Sure enough, Mother and Preacher Dell were sitting, side by side, gently swinging with their boots touching the ground.
“Ugh,” Bartlette groaned. “Nettie, help.”
“Say you’ll come to the movies with us.”
Bartlette sighed. She hated to think of wasting a whole week’s allowance on a film, but, after all, Nettie was her very best friend. “Okay, I’ll come.”
“Hurray!” Nettie said. She sat up, cupping her hands around her mouth. “Sam, come here.”
Sam came scurrying back, his pockets stuffed with cookies. Delicious food was not in plentiful supply in the DeWitt household. Not when money was better spent on warm coats for winter or boots to keep rattlesnakes away. “What?”
“Go tell Bartlette’s mother she’s needed to help dish up the lunch.”
“Go on,” Nettie said calmly. “Tell her Mrs. Brodie asked for her.”
Nettie crossed her arms. “Sam DeWitt,” she said. “Am I going to have to tell Mother you were the one who let the frogs out of the jars? The night she stepped on one and screamed as if she’d seen the ghost of Grandma Alice again?”
Sam wriggled uncomfortably. “No.”
“Then go and tell Bartlette’s mother.”
Sam huffed and stomped his little foot. “Fine.”
This greatly impressed Bartlette. Oh, the things she could learn to do, if she only had a brother or sister.
“Come on,” Nettie said. “Let’s go find those cookies.” The two girls returned to the picnic table and took one each.
From around the back of the house, a group of ranch hands from down in the Canyon was assembling near the kittens that had recently been born to Brodie Sheep Ranch.
“That ain’t good,” one of the men said, shaking his head gravely. “That sure ain’t good.”
Other ranch hands closed in around him. With soft marmalade fur and marble blue eyes, a kitten was hopping on all four feet to her left. She was so light, it was like watching an orange feather bounce. Taco hid in Bartlette’s arms, whimpering. No stranger to the Canyon, Taco had encountered sharp kitten claws before.
“I seen it, too,” one of the other men said.
“Six toes,” a third whispered.
They all leaned in to look more closely.
The kitten, spooked by the attention, walked in front of a church lady carrying a plate of butter. Tripping over the little ball of fur, the lady lost her grip on the plate, and the butter went sailing through the air, landing a few feet from the startled kitty. But she smelled the butter. And the expression on her little orange face was as readable as a book: I’m going to eat that butter.
“What are you talking about?” Bartlette asked. “She’s a sweet little kitten.”
The orange fluff ball busied herself lapping up the creamy butter, oblivious to the turmoil she was causing.
“Don’t you know?” the third man whispered. “It’s bad luck. It means…”
With their eyes shifting around nervously, none of the men seemed able to say the rest.
Nettie and Bartlette exchanged looks.
“Means?” Bartlette said.
The first ranch hand looked left, then right, then took a step closer to the girls. “Means something bad’s going to happen,” he said. “Soon.”
Nettie giggled. “That’s just superstition,” she said. “You sheep ranchers are all just too superstitious.”
“Yeah,” Bartlette agreed. But the look in Nettie’s eyes told her Nettie wasn’t any more convinced of this than she was. And she wondered if the bad thing could have anything to do with a certain preacher making a certain proposal to a certain Cambria Blue. “Nettie, let’s go check on Mother.”
The two girls scurried across the lawn to the tree swings, but Mother had already gone to help in the kitchen.
“Automobiles,” Mr. Brodie was telling Preacher Dell and a merchant from town. He sniffed. “They’re just a passing fancy. Never replace the horse and buggy.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” the merchant replied. “Have you ever ridden in one?”
“Don’t need to,” Mr. Brodie said. “The day we see a car on Brodie Sheep Ranch, that’s the day they’ll put me in my grave.”
“Oh, now don’t be so dramatic,” the merchant said. “I’ve ridden in one several times. They go nearly forty miles per hour. With no need for a rest. Horses can’t do that!”
“Automobiles are just an amusement for men with too much money and too much time,” Mr. Brodie said. “They’re the devil’s work.”
Mrs. Brodie emerged from the house with her son, Slim, and a girl on his arm. Nettie jabbed Bartlette in the ribs. “That’s her,” she whispered. “Slim’s bride.”
Bartlette sized up the outsider. Once again, she concluded that she didn’t need anything or anyone from beyond Hell’s Canyon.
“Lunch is served,” Mrs. Brodie announced.
Mother, her face flushed from being in the hot kitchen, carried out a tray on each arm.
The young new wife set a large plate of chicken salad on the table.
“Let’s bow our heads in prayer,” Preacher Dell said, and, obediently, every head bowed while he gave the blessing. Bartlette began with her eyes closed, but halfway through the interminable prayer, she peeked. Everyone, including the ranch hands, including the DeWitts, including Mother, was listening intently to the preacher’s words. It made Bartlette realize something she would rather not admit: Preacher Dell commanded respect. He didn’t just act authoritative: he was an authority. Whatever Bartlette’s own misgivings were, Preacher Dell was respected by Canyon folks.
Walking back through the lilacs in the late afternoon sun, Preacher Dell spoke softly to Mother. Nana had stayed behind to help the Brodies clean up, so it was just the three of them, but Mother and Preacher Dell were ignoring Bartlette, so she tagged along behind.
She thought, not for the first time, how their house looked like a very cheery face from a distance. The windows upstairs looked like eyes, the red door like a kind smile. Without anyone home, it seemed asleep, like it was napping peacefully in the late afternoon sun.
“Cambria,” Preacher Dell said suddenly. He cleared his throat for several long seconds. “I really need to talk to you…”
And then, they heard it. An automobile. Preacher Dell glared at it, then at Bartlette, as if the interruption had been her fault.
All the forebodings of the ranch men came flooding back to her. The six-toed kitten. The men had been right!
The auto in the distance headed toward the cabin. Out by the lake where they lived near Hell’s Canyon, no autos ever drove by. In fact, not many small-town people even had cars in 1928. As Bartlette and Taco watched, Mother shielded her eyes to see if she recognized who was coming. “Who in the world?”
It was an elegant car bouncing over the holes in the dirt road. Bartlette had never seen anything quite like it. Resplendent with two different colors of paint, beige and dark brown, it sported fancy white wheels, and its horn sounded, “Aoooga.”
It was heading straight for the cabin, though nobody had any idea who it was, and it kicked up dirt as it went, sending it up in dusty clouds.
When the auto stopped in front of the house, they were all astonished to see a petite, curly-haired woman step out and say in a friendly manner, “Hola, I am Maria. I’m here for Bartlette.”
For a long moment, no one spoke.
Mother’s hand went to her throat. “For Bartlette!” she sputtered. “What in the world….”
“Did you not get the telegram?” Maria continued, unfazed. She pulled a piece of paper from her bag and unfolded it. “It’s from—”
But Mother snatched the paper from her hands and read it herself.
“It’s Blue!” she said with uncharacteristic venom. As she continued reading, her jaw dropped, and Preacher Dell peered over her shoulder.
Lane Blue. Bartlette’s father.
“He’s sending for Bartlette,” Mother said, reading frantically. “Wants her to spend the summer…” she sputtered. “In Los Angeles.” She couldn’t continue. She dropped the papers and put her hands on her cheeks. “No…no. I will not let him do this. He can’t just swoop in and disrupt Bartlette’s life. I won’t let this happen. I won’t!”
Relief coursed through Bartlette’s veins. Mother wouldn’t make her go. Mother was on her side.
“Well, now,” Preacher Dell said, picking up the papers, “let’s not be too hasty.” His voice carried that air of authority, something he was well used to in stewarding his congregation. Bartlette didn’t appreciate him flaunting his authority in her mother’s home. “This could be a real opportunity for Bartlette. Think, Cambria.”
“What?” Mother said. “What in the world do you mean? I couldn’t just send her like that with no warning to California. She’s never been out of Hell’s Canyon. No. I won’t do it. I won’t hear of it.”
Preacher Dell put his hands on Mother’s shoulders. “Now, now. Of course it’s sudden.” He had a pious and, Bartlette thought, fake look of sympathy on his face.“But think of your child, Cambria.” Preacher Dell looked at Bartlette, and so did Mother. “After all, Bartlette is a Blue, and she has the right to know her own father. It’s at times like this we must set our own selfish interests aside and think of what’s best…” he said, smiling smugly, “…for another.”
Oh, go away! Bartlette thought.
“I am sorry,” Maria said, as calm as the cool waters of the lake behind her. “I did not know you weren’t expecting me. I thought the telegram would have gotten to you by now. But the train is leaving soon. Mr. and Mrs. Blue will expect me to return with Bartlette.”
“Mrs. Blue,” Mother repeated flatly. “So Blue has taken up with a new wife.”
Never, in all her life, had Bartlette seen her mother so upset. Anything Canyon life could throw at them, Mother always responded in her strong, graceful way. Unlike now. Now, Mother shook from head to toe, her face pinched with emotion.
But Preacher Dell gently pushed Mother toward the door of the house. “Just go inside and pack a few things. Think what a wonderful time Bartlette will have in California, Cambria. Like summer camp! She’ll be back in time for school to start.”
“Mother, no!” Bartlette pleaded. “I don’t even know Lane Blue. Please, don’t make me leave!”
Leave. The very thought made the hairs on Bartlette’s arms stand on end. Leaving meant going where Outsiders came from. Where terrible things happened and people were completely ignorant of the Canyon way. Where people disappeared like smoke, then reappeared like a rabbit pulled from a magician’s hat. Bartlette’s knees went weak.
Preacher Dell whispered something to Mother, and a tear appeared on her cheek.
It was no use. Bartlette’s fate had been sealed. Without warning.
She was going.
An hour later, clinging to Mother’s old, broken carpet bag, Bartlette sat petrified on the unmoving train in a seat next to Maria. Mother, Preacher Dell, and Taco all stood on the platform waiting for the train to leave. Almost all her family was there—Mother, holding back sobs as she clutched Taco in her arms; Taco, watching the train, with his good eye anyway, and shaking all over. Nana hadn’t even come back from the picnic yet. They never got to say goodbye.
Bartlette leaned her head out the window. She was crying, and she held a handkerchief to her nose. She had never been sadder in her life. Her heart was breaking—it seemed she was leaving everything important in the world behind. She’d had absolutely no time to prepare herself for this wrenching goodbye. And she was scared.
“‘Board!” the conductor shouted, and the train let go a mournful whistle.
Preacher Dell waved cheerfully. “’Bye, Bartlette Blue,” he said. “Have a wonderful summer.”
I hate you! Bartlette silently screamed. She hated him for being so cheery, hated him for convincing Mother to make her go. Bereft of her loves ones, Bartlette’s thoughts were dark and chaotic and stormy. Her thoughts were especially grim toward Preacher Dell.
Mother lifted a limp hand to wave just as the train crept into motion. She gave a leap and began walking alongside on the platform. “Bartlette,” she said, “write me as often as you can.” She seemed to want to say more, but just as she was about to, Taco wriggled out of her arms. “Taco!”
He was on the platform in an instant. Just as Mother reached down to grab him, he took a running leap to the window where Bartlette sat. He lifted off and was airborne.
The problem was that, from the second he leapt, the train picked up speed, and Taco realized too late that he was heading not for the open window but for the side of the car. Midflight, his expression fell into a worried one. He froze and looked around for any possible escape. If he could talk he would have said, “Uh-oh.”
But Bartlette was quick. As Mother stood with her hands over her mouth, and as Preacher Dell’s bulging eyes bulged even more, Bartlette leaned out the window, spread her arms wide, and caught Taco just before he landed, splat! against the car. He whimpered in gratitude. She pulled him inside as the train chugged away. She held him, a trembling, warm little bundle, tight in her arms, close to her sorrow. She had never loved him more than she did at that moment.
Maria sat next to them, staring in stunned disbelief.
The train wheels clattered over the tracks, picking up speed.
But Bartlette clutched her dog tight and whispered in Taco’s pointy little ear.
She told him he didn’t have to worry. That he had been very brave, and she wouldn’t let anything happen to him. And that they would never, ever be apart.
With a long look back, Bartlette Blue said goodbye to Hell’s Canyon and faced the future in California, where she had no earthly idea what to expect.
But whatever was going to happen, Taco would be with her.