Milly's proposal is the first and the hardest. "My name's Milly," she says, her hands knuckled out of sight in the pockets of her buckskin jacket. They've met once. She thinks - she hopes they might learn to trust each other. "I've got a farm up the mountain. Got sheep, hogs, fifty acres of good arable. How about it?" Her voice is sharp with nerves.
Adam has broad shoulders, big hands, a mustache with a jaunty curl to the ends. He looks honest, and he touches the heifer gently and with care as he straightens and reaches for a hat he isn't wearing, scrubs his hands against his overalls. "I ain't looking for work, ma'am," he says.
She knows that. "I know how it is that women ain't supposed to do the asking," Milly says, "But I get into town every three months, excepting winter, and that don't leave a mort of time for courting. I'm asking you to marry me."
"Kind of short notice," Adam says.
He says it slowly. He's not a talking man, Adam Pontipee, but there's a stillness to him makes Milly reminiscent of that small quiet voice in the wilderness. Later, exasperated, she'll think him stubborn as a bull in a field of clover.
"Well then," Adam says, considering. He scritches at the heifer's ears, smoothes the short hair at her poll. "Best get cleaned up before we see the preacher."
Alice proposes in spring, when the crocuses are flowering, "Will you..., oh, Gideon, wouldn't it be wonderful if..." she hopes he'll read her mind the way lovers should, but he stares at her bright-eyed and smiling and oh, oh, "Marry me!"
"Purtiest girl I ever did see," Gideon says, and kisses her yes, yes, yes.
Outrageously indecent, Dorcus is naked, stretched out in sunshine on the bank of the creek. "Well, shall we?" she says, her hair all tumbled down her back and her smile slow.
"I reckon so," says Benjamin.
He makes Dorcus a June bride, the last of the sisters to marry, although she is the only one who goes to the preacher with her stays loosened and the seams of her dress let out.
"Dorcus!" Martha says, scandalized.
"Ah, hush," says Dorcus, sweetly, ripely rounded. "I did so want a baby." She will have five, four girls and a boy.
It's Ruth, who loves the young calves and the wobbly-legged foals and thrills every spring to the bluebirds cooing in the meadow, who never has children. "A body's never lonely around these parts," she says, and organizes Easter egg hunts and Christmas stockings, birthday parties and summer picnics. But when Caleb dies Ruth puts up the shutters on her little house and travels. She sees Boston, New York, Washington: she takes the Northern Pacific to Chicago City and tours the World's Fair, coming back with a cypress sapling and an electric light bulb. "Dang it, Ruthie," Adam says. "What do you expect me to do with that?"
Ruth laughs and upends her carpet bag, spilling boxes of store-bought candy over the split pine slabs of Milly's dining table. "Aunt Ruth!" "Zac, Zac, look!"
"Oh, Ruth," Milly sighs. "Where-ever next?"
"Paris," Ruth says, and goes.
When, for the first time, Adam pulls the horses up outside the farm and meets Alice, then Dorcus - dark and glowering, then, before Caleb - and then Sarah, and Lisa, and Martha, and Ruth, when he sees the beaten down fences and the untended fields, Adam nearly high-tails it out of there fast as a bobcat with a firecracker under its tail. But he's never been a quitter. He rolls up his sleeves. "Let me know when supper's ready," he says.
Months later, after the kidnap, Milly does run. She is the first of the sisters to flee the farm, although much later Ruth says, "I always come back!"
Lisa never does.
It's six months into her marriage and winter when Milly leaves the farm and she is furious, so angry the tears freeze on her cheeks as she climbs to the cabin. That first night is hard. "Adam, why, why?" Milly asks over and over again, although Adam is pacing sleepless across the floor of their bedroom four miles away and cannot hear her. He does not yet know she's pregnant. They are yet to learn how to fill each other's spaces.
"Oh, Milly," says Alice. "This is so sad!"
"Adam, we haven't known each other long, but I've always respected you." Gideon's chin is up. "I gotta tell you, this ain't right. Not with the baby and all."
"Nobody cooks like Milly." Frank says it very quietly.
"Guess I was pretty mad," Milly says. "But I'm not going back. Thank you for the quilts."
"I had such dreams," she tells her baby.
Adam has dreams, too.
Of them all, it's Lisa who dreams biggest, in lights. Four years after she and Ephraim marry, they leave the farm. There are postcards from San Francisco, Atlantic City, Chicago, billboards from the concert saloons and vaudeville theaters where Lisa dances and Ephraim plays piano in a red waistcoat and a wax bontierre.
"You're the gal for me," Adam croons, but Lisa sings it out loud and proud above the footlights. The diamonds around her neck could almost be real.
"What were you doing last night, out by the woodpile?"
"I'll work your land for you," Adam says, that first night. "But I ain't sleeping in that bed. It's not a husband you wanted."
Milly turns down the covers and tugs the ribbon on her nightdress tight, all the swift bubbling happiness of that first trip home with Adam by her side turned to ice. "I know how it is," she says. "Me and the girls." The girls and I. She can hear the soft shuffle of stocking feet and gingham outside the bedroom door. The house is immaculate, mama's clock wound on the mantelpiece, but there are weeds in the pasture and the shingles on the barn are so crooked the winter storms will send them flying over the pass.
"You must be plumb tuckered out," she says. "I'll sleep in the barn."
"Not before I've fixed the roof," Adam retorts. "Now, see, I'll..."
"I'll just get some water," Milly says, real quick, and whisks out of the door.
"Oh Gideon, Gideon!" Alice will say.
"Please don't - oh, please don't cry!" Gideon is close to tears himself.
"It's just that I'm so happy!" Alice confides.
Frank says. "Kiss me. Again, darlin', we're married now."
"I know," Sarah says, smiling, and sets Frank's hand at the top buttons of her dress.
Ruth says nothing at all. Her eyes are as bright as stars.
"I'd follow you to the ends of the earth," Ephraim promises Lisa.
For fall, the night is cold. The quilt is thin. Milly's all curves and ruffles, and her smile - her smile is so sweet and her hands so small. "I ain't never-" Adam says, and checks himself.
"It's fine, Adam," says Milly, very small and quiet. "You're my husband now."
There is such joy in their marriage Milly can hardly remember how it was, those first weeks, that first year, before Hannah. Even before Hannah, when - "Why, Milly, you're <i>glowing</i>" Alice breathes. Milly is still unsure, uncomfortable with Adam's silences, has not yet realized that the Adam will never toss out pretty compliments the way Gideon and Frank do. His love, his respect, shows in practical ways, and if he ever says - "I count myself real fortunate. Real fortunate, Milly" - oh, he means every jewel of a word heart-felt and honest.
"It's our duty to settle this land," Milly says, but even in that first fall far more than duty runs deep and warm between her and Adam and her sisters know it, even if she does not.
"I have such dreams," Alice says, and Lisa sighs with her.
"Will there be a baby?" asks Ruth. "Oh, Milly, say there will!"
"A baby," says Dorcus, hungry.
"I should so like to be courted," whispers Sarah.
"Who'll come courting up here on the mountain?" asks Lisa.
The sisters are quiet, heads bent over their darning, needles still. It's a month after the barn raising. Alice has written <i>Gideon</i> fifteen times over in the cover of their shared primer.
"Well," Adam says, determinedly cheerful in this room full of silent women. "Milly, why don't you read to us from that book of yours?"
Milly reaches for the Bible, lets her fingers walk along the bookshelf, and pulls down her father's Plutarch. The pages fall open in her hands. "In the fourth month, after the city was built, as Fabius writes, the adventure of stealing the women was attempted," Milly begins.
"I don't believe you gone and done such a thing, Milly Pontipee!" Adam yells.
They take Caleb first, stuffing a flour sack over his head and bundling him up with the harness from the barn. Caleb's a big man, powerful, but there are six sisters even not counting Milly on the box on the wagon and all of them farm-raised. Then they take Ephraim, stealing him right off the organ bench in the church ("Forgive us our trespasses, Oh Lord," Alice mutters as she tightens the ropes). Gideon was star-gazing before he was pulled head-first out of the window. Benjamin was asleep in his own bed. Frank was sweeping the floor in the store. Daniel was eating supper.
By the time the alarm bell sounds, they are a mile out of town and Milly is whipping up the horses.
Milly can't quite believe herself either. There's no going back for any of them. The pass is closed.
"It's a right good thing I fixed that roof," Adam growls.
"Girls, you're sleeping in the barn," says Milly. "That's fair enough."
"But-" Dorcus starts.
"Oh, Adam, was it such an awful thing to do?" asks Ruth.
"Ain't never hit a women yet," Benjamin mutters. He's left a mother and two sisters in town. Dorcus gives him a long, heated glare. "Ain't about to start, neither," he adds hastily.
"Nice time of year for it," Caleb says bitterly, shivering. "Cold as a monkey's-"
"Blanket?" asks Ruth brightly.
"Why," says Caleb. "Don't mind if I do."
"Bunch of - bunch of-" Ephraim's teeth are chattering.
"There's coffee on the stove," Lisa adds. "Stew, too."
"Now then, little ladies," Frank starts.
"Frank," says Sarah, "We aren't asking for nothing but a little bit of time. You don't mind now, do you?"
"Well," Frank says, eyes slipping down as Sarah loosens her wrap.
"Boys, come on in the house," Adam says. He waits tall and stern by the door as they climb up the steps, until Milly's nose to nose.
"How could you?" he mutters.
"Ain't you never had a dream, the way these girls did?" Milly asks him. "Ain't you ever wished and wanted and worked for something good? Haven't you no feelings, Adam Pontipee?"
"I got some strong feelings," Adam says. "I got me all kinds of real strong feelings."
"When we got married," says Milly. "I was so happy. So happy, Adam. I fell in love with you right there in the barn at the boarding house, and I thought you felt the same. Don't you want the girls to feel the same way?"
"This was your idea," Adam says. "Not mine."
"Fine," says Milly. "I'll be up at the cabin when you change your mind."
Hannah changes everything. Hannah, who has Adam's chin and Milly's eyes and the sweetest smile in all of Oregon, who needs Milly like no-one - Mama, sisters, husband - has ever needed Milly before, just like all those other mamas are needed, back in town.
"Hush, little girl," Mille croons to her baby as the pony picks its way down the mountain. Hannah's so wrapped in quilts she looks like a June bug. "Hush-a-bye, baby girl. It's all gonna be just fine, you'll see."
"She...looks like you," Adam says. They'd been playing parlor games. Adam looks strong, happy. The girls are flushed and laughing, the boys too.
"She's got your hands," says Ruth. She slips hers into Caleb's.
"And your nose!" says Alice, sidling closer to Gideon. He puts his arm around her shoulders.
"I...got to thinking," Milly says.
"Come on, girls," says Lisa. "Out."
"Got those sidings fixed," says Adam. "Cleared out the field barn. Stitched up all the harnesses too, built you girls a sewing room out back. I ain't saying what you did was right, but a few extra pairs of hands around here don't go amiss."
"Every one of those boys got a mama just like me," Milly says. "Thinking and dreaming and missing their children. The pass is open, and we're going to take them back."
Privacy's always been a rare privilege in a household of women.
"No!" cries Alice, from the doorstep.
"I won't go," Gideon tells her, taking a firmer grip of her hand.
"Me neither," says Frank firmly.
"Get the horses harnessed, girls," says Milly. "Git."
When she looks at Adam, he's smiling at their daughter. Milly says, soft as if they were in their own bed, because Adam is someone's son too, "You were all my dreams."
Adam looks up. "You're mine," he says, and holds out his hand. He smiles, just for Milly.
Then, then, right at that moment, there is the sound of horses, sleigh bells and shouting men, and Alice screams, and Gideon's father is yelling his name, and Frank's brother is cursing him out of the barn, everywhere there are men running and women crying, but Milly is in Adam's arms and nothing else matters. Milly will never remember Hannah crying nor Preacher bursting in the door dragging Gideon in with one hand and a shotgun in the other. "I won't go back, papa!" Gideon cries out, and when Benjamin crashes inside his knuckles are bloody and his shirt torn open. Alice is still screaming, Martha is wailing, and Dorcus is beating her fists on Preacher's back.
"Which of you boys-" Preacher blusters. "Which of you-"
"The baby!" Dorcus snaps.
"That baby." But Preacher too is silenced by Hannah's eyes and her smile. "Well," he says, and he lets her curl her tiny fingers around his.
is still smiling, and the space where his and Milly's hands are clasped
is small and quiet in all that hustle and yelling. "It's gonna be fine,"
he says to her. He gives everyone else there a final glance, her sisters,
their menfolk, Alice and Gideon and Dorcus and Benjamin and Preacher
with his bible, and then he turns his back and his shoulders are broad
enough to carry the world. "Milly," he says, all soft, and then he kisses
her, long and slow, like they're only just beginning.