River Queen Rose – Shirley Kennedy

Rose Peterson shivered in her underwear as she stood in the freezing cold creek. She flinched as she splashed cold water on herself. She’d gone days without a bath and gladly endured the shock of it just to get clean. She turned to her sister-in-law who stood in her chemise beside her. “Just one more day. Think of it! One more day and we’ll be there.” Drucilla returned her familiar mocking smile. “Just one more day? Thanks for telling me, Rose. I hadn’t noticed.” “I’ll wager you hadn’t.” Rose accompanied her words with a scoop of creek water splashed over her sister-in-law’s head. Drucilla splashed her back. “Are you excited about seeing Emmet again?” “Of course I am.” Rose hoped she sounded convincing. Strange, how she didn’t feel the least excited, even though she hadn’t seen her husband for over two years.

She wasn’t the only wife who’d been deserted when word of the Gold Rush reached Illinois. Like thousands of others, Emmet rushed to California. Unlike most of the thousands, after finding a little gold, he concluded there were other ways to make money without breaking his back in a freezing cold stream. He bought a hotel in Sacramento and a small farm outside of town. Everyone rejoiced when he finally sent a letter asking his family to join him. “I’m clean enough,” Drucilla announced. “Let’s get out of this freezing water.” Rose readily agreed. She was getting goose bumps from the cold. She ran a hand over her thick, golden-bronze hair that hung halfway to her waist.

What a relief to have it clean again. She laughed to herself. Before they left Illinois, she’d taken great pride in her appearance. Perhaps that pride involved a bit of vanity, but when she looked in her mirror, she couldn’t help but be pleased at her tall, slim figure, her even-featured face that everyone said was pretty, and her long, thick hair that she loved to wear hanging loose or sometimes swept in a bun atop her head. Those days were long gone. After spending five miserable months in a wagon train with her in-laws, she didn’t much care what she looked like, nor did anyone else. Her main interest now was keeping her daughter safe and staying alive. As they climbed from the water, Drucilla called, “Just think, the next time I take a bath, it will be in a real tub with real hot water.” “I can’t even imagine it.” Her teeth chattering, Rose quickly pulled her dress over her head.

There were lots of things she couldn’t imagine. Like sleeping in a real bed. Like eating at a real table. Like being a wife to Emmet again. Since they were married, they’d lived with his family, so she’d never had to worry about cooking his meals or washing his clothes. Coralee, his mother, did all that. Thin and wiry, a never-stopping bundle of energy, she treated her daughter-in-law as nothing more than a willing helper. The one area that didn’t belong to Coralee was the bedroom. On the long trek west, Rose hardly gave it a thought, but now, with their destination less than a day away, she was remembering those many less-thanthrilling nights when Emmet insisted they “make love.” He misspoke.

Love had little to do with his near nightly performance: a quick kiss—climb on—a few hard-breathing grunts—final big grunt— roll off, and it was over. How very tiresome. In fact, Emmet and his wooden personality were tiresome. He was a good husband in many ways, but not in the bedroom, not like… Anthony. Like a sinful pleasure, thoughts of that long-ago night crept uninvited into her head. She quelled them quickly, as she always did, telling herself it never happened, that she could never have behaved in such a wanton, disgraceful manner. The truth was, she’d enjoyed these last two years when she slept alone and didn’t have to deal with Emmet’s attentions, but she’d better face the fact that those enjoyable days were nearly over. She recognized her wifely duties and would never dream of complaining. After all, Emmet wasn’t a bad man, a bit quick-tempered, perhaps, but in all other ways, he’d been kind to her. He was surely a good provider, and when Lucy came along, he got tears in his eyes when he saw his new daughter for the first time.

Indeed, he couldn’t have been a better, more loving father. So, of course, she’d be glad to see him again. Not thrilled, maybe, but happy enough, and really, what more could she expect in life than the role Fate had assigned her as a wife and mother? Or so she kept telling herself. Sometimes a hunger rose from deep within her for something more in her life. The trouble was, she didn’t know what. At the age of twenty-six, she sometimes got the feeling that life was passing her by and what had she accomplished? Lucy, of course. Watching her little girl grow was an ongoing, joyful miracle, but couldn’t she have something more? Well, of course not. After all, she was a woman, so what more could she expect? She should count her blessings and forget such foolishness. * * * * The Petersons were part of a train of fifty-five wagons, now parked in a circle far down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Returning to the campsite, Rose sensed the excitement all around her.

California! After months of grueling travel, they’d reached the Golden Land. Fortunes would be made. Life would be good in this sun-drenched state that brimmed with opportunities. She searched for Lucy. Of them all, her five-year-old daughter had fared the best on their wearisome journey. She never complained about the monotonous beans-bacon-and-biscuits diet. After a long day on the trail, when the adults moaned about sore muscles and aching feet, Lucy was running around with other children on the train, bright and happy with endless energy. Rose spotted her daughter playing at the wagon next to her own. As she drew close, she sensed something different. Something, but what? Somehow her little girl with the bright eyes and long, blond curls didn’t look the same.

Oh, no, her hair! This morning, Rose had swept it back from Lucy’s forehead and fastened it into two braids. Now it hung loose, and someone had cut low-hanging bangs so long they nearly touched her brows. Lucy skipped up to her, blue eyes sparkling. “Mommy, how do you like my hair?” “Why, I…I…” “Grandma cut my bangs. She said I’ll look my best when I see Daddy again.” The nerve! To conceal her rage, which surely must show on her face, Rose bent low, as if to closer inspect her daughter’s new hairstyle. How dare Coralee cut it without even asking! That was a mother’s job and nobody else’s, not even a doting grandmother’s. But too late now. Above all, she mustn’t make Lucy feel bad. With an effort, she forced her lips into a smile and raised up.

“You look very pretty, sweetheart. Daddy will think so, too.” As Lucy ran off, Rose took a deep breath to compose herself. This sort of thing had happened before, and she shouldn’t have been surprised. No use complaining. Emmet always took his parents’ side. She’d long since realized she wasn’t first in his heart, not like a wife was supposed to be. Even when he sent the letter telling them to come, he’d addressed it to Ben and Coralee, not to her. She and Lucy were a mere mention at the bottom of the list. She admired his fierce loyalty to his family, but there were times when her resentment ran deep, especially the times when she pleaded for a home of their own, and he turned a deaf ear.

But she always tried to count her blessings. Thank goodness she got along well with the Petersons. Their trip west, spending five months cramped in two wagons, could have been a nightmare, but it wasn’t. Ben and Coralee were strict but fair. They adored little Lucy, and she adored them. Thirtyyear-old Drucilla, her sister-in-law, was the ongoing despair of her parents, but Rose got along with her just fine. Often they rode together, Rose on Star, her chestnut mare, and Drucilla on her beloved buckskin gelding, Arion, whom she’d named after a Greek god. As for Raymond, her strange brotherin-law, what could she say? He certainly wasn’t her favorite, not with his silly jokes and childish behavior, but he had a generous heart and not a mean bone in his body. When Rose led Lucy back to the wagon, they were met by a beaming Coralee who asked, “Doesn’t she look darling in bangs?” Rose forced a smile. “Yes, indeed, she looks adorable.

” No use complaining. Although Coralee had a heart of gold, she blundered through life with absolutely no conception of how her actions might affect others. At least she adored Lucy, her one and only grandchild. In her own mind, she was only being a good grandmother. The thought would never have occurred to her that she was wrongly invading a mother’s territory. That settled it. Rose felt a new sense of purpose as she made up her mind. Ever since they were married, she’d pleaded with Emmet for her own home away from her inlaws. Now she’d demand it. She would not be a submissive daughter-in-law any longer.

As soon as they reached Sacramento, she would inform him she wanted a home of her own. High time he cut the apron strings, and he’d better not say no. * * * * The next morning, in a high state of excitement, they packed up for the last day of their journey. As usual, Rose’s father-in-law took complete charge of everything. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a full head of snow-white hair, Ben had such a domineering nature that as always, they scurried around to do his bidding. They started out in their usual fashion, Ben driving the first wagon, Coralee and Drucilla beside him. Raymond drove the second wagon, Rose and Lucy sharing the seat. As the train wound its way down the ever-more-gentle western slope, Rose gave thanks that tomorrow she wouldn’t have to sit beside her brother-in-law all day, listening to his silly conversation and raucous, unnecessary laughter. Raymond might be twenty-eight years old, but he’d yet to find a purpose in life, although to hear him talk, you’d think he was on his way to becoming a millionaire. “Soon’s we get there, I’m heading back up the hill,” he’d just declared.

“I’m going to find me some big gold nuggets and get richer than anyone.” “That’s fine, Raymond.” She’d long since learned the best way to handle her brother-in-law was to humor him. He always had big plans that went nowhere. He and his brother, Emmet, looked alike, both with a large build, but there the resemblance ended. Whereas Raymond was a fool with no ambition, hard-driving Emmet never had an idle day in his life. He took life far too seriously, but maybe the past two years had loosened him up a bit, at least she hoped so. Besides all that, Lucy loved her father and could hardly wait to see him again. By noon the train had left the last of the foothills behind and was rolling along the flat surface of the northern San Joaquin Valley. They began to pass farms where fields of vegetables and cotton lay ready for harvest.

Finally they reached the outskirts of Sacramento, and the train stopped for the last time. Rose and her family said goodbye to their fellow travelers. From now on, they’d go their separate ways. Rose’s heart beat faster as they headed through town. Real streets! Real houses with front and back yards! Following Emmet’s careful directions, the two wagons came to the edge of town and traveled two miles farther on a country road. They started looking for a small sign on a fence that said Peterson Farm. “There it is,” Ben called. “Ahead to the right.” The two wagons turned off the road, down a long driveway that led to a large, two-story farmhouse with a wide front porch that wrapped around three sides. A large barn stood in the yard behind, along with a stable and corral, tank house, and what looked like a large chicken coop.

As the two wagons pulled to a stop, Raymond let out a whoop, stood, and waved his hat. “Hey, Emmet! We’re here!” All smiles, everyone climbed from the wagons. Holding Lucy’s hand, Rose looked toward the front door. Emmet would be coming out any second now, big smile on his face, delighted they’d finally arrived. “We’re going to see Daddy?” Lucy asked. Rose swept her up in her arms. “Yes, we’re home, sweetheart. We won’t have to live in a wagon anymore.” They waited. The front door remained closed.

“Do you suppose he’s not home?” Ben asked. He started up the porch steps. “Maybe he’s sleeping.” Coralee followed him. “Emmet would never sleep in the middle of the day.” They had almost reached the front door when they heard someone calling. Two people came around the corner of the house. One was a tall man around fifty with a neat beard who looked like a farmer in his button-down shirt, soft, felt hat, and twill pants held up with suspenders. The other, a small, white-haired lady with a hunched-over walk, spectacles, and a deeply wrinkled face, could well be his mother, or maybe his grandmother. As they approached, the man called, “Are you the Petersons?” Ben answered with a nod.

“This is Emmet Peterson’s farm, isn’t it?” Close up, Rose could see the man had a strange look on his face. He was not smiling as he extended his hand to Ben. “Hello, sir, I expect you’re Emmet’s father. I’m Tom Murphy, his neighbor from next door.” He glanced toward his companion. “This is Dulcee Bidwell, my mother.” He cast an affectionate glance her way. “She looks fragile, but you don’t want to mess with her.” “Yes, I’m Ben Peterson.” Ben shook his hand.

“Pleased to meet you.” Not one to mince words, he asked, “Where is Emmet?” Tom Murphy’s brows drew together in an agonized expression, as if he had something terrible to say and dreaded saying it. What was wrong? Rose got a sick feeling in her stomach, watching the man struggle for words. Her father-in-law broke the heavy silence. “Out with it, sir. If you have something to say, then say it.” Dulcee Bidwell jabbed her son with an elbow. “Wait, Tom.” She nodded toward Lucy and addressed Ben. “I believe I’ll take the little girl inside.

Do you mind?” Ben shot an inquiring look at Rose. Sick at heart, she nodded. She was beginning to guess what Murphy was going to say. They watched in silence as the old lady led Lucy into the house. When they were gone, Murphy gave a decisive nod, as if recognizing he had an unpleasant task to perform and no way out of it. His gaze swept over them, eyes full of sympathy. “I can’t tell you how excited Emmet was, waiting for his family to arrive. That’s all he talked about. But now? We were all shocked. Such a tragedy.

I’m sure sorry to have to tell you this, but we buried him this morning.” * * * * Afterward, Rose had only a vague memory of those terrible moments after they learned her husband was dead. Drucilla breaking into rare tears. Coralee’s piercing scream and near collapse, and Ben and Raymond holding her up. Rose couldn’t remember how she acted, other than she stood frozen in shock, staring in stunned disbelief. Ben was the first to speak. “Tell us what happened.” “There’s something you must see.” Murphy turned, motioning them to follow. Along with the rest of her stricken family, Rose trailed him around the side of the porch where a row of tall Eucalyptus trees shaded the house.

A grave lay under one of the trees. Plainly, it was newly dug with its mound of dirt on top, strewn with fresh bouquets of flowers. Rose drew close. On a small, roughly constructed cross at the head, someone had neatly printed, EMMET PETERSON. In stunned silence, the family gathered around the grave as the neighbor continued to speak. “A fine man if ever there was one. If we’d known you were coming so soon, we would have waited, but we didn’t know, so we held the service this morning. Quite a few came. Neighbors. People from town.

Reverend Walters was in charge. You can rest assured, Emmet got as fine a sendoff as his friends could give him.” Ben’s face had turned a sickly white. His arm around Coralee, who was quietly sobbing, he asked, “My God, what happened? Far as I know, my son was in good health.” Murphy shook his head. “He didn’t get sick, Mr. Peterson. Health had nothing to do with it.” “Was it an accident?” “No.” “Then…?” Ben could hardly get the words out.

“You mean he was murdered?” “Not exactly. You could say he was and he wasn’t.” Through gritted teeth, Ben exploded, “For God’s sake! Tell us what happened.” Murphy heaved a regretful sigh. “I wish it had been his health, a stroke maybe, or his heart. Or some kind of accident, but the truth is, Emmet was killed in a duel with a fellow named Mason Talbot. He’s a big man in these parts. Owns a brewery as well as the Egyptian Hotel. He keeps a collection of paintings there and fancies himself an art connoisseur. The thing is, I reckon you can’t call him a murderer, being as Emmet started the whole thing.

He’s the one who did the challenging.” Ben’s jaw dropped open. “Emmet never held a sword in his hand in his life.” “Oh, it wasn’t swords, Mr. Peterson. It was dueling pistols. I don’t know if he ever held a gun in his hand either, but a bullet to the head is what killed him.”


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