Chapter 5 - Gossip
A loud cheer went up when they arrived back in Dirty District 12. The snow had stopped the miners from panning at the river and most were congregated around fires throughout the camp. Peeta dismounted and immediately set to work baking.
Gale helped Katniss down from the horse and into the welcoming arms of her sister.
Prim was crying. "I thought you were dead Katniss," she sobbed. "I thought you froze to death in the snow."
"No," she assured her sister. "Peeta and I found shelter before it got really bad. It was alright. I'm alright."
"It was so cold last night," Prim continued.
"Yes, it was little duck. But it's warming up now, the snow is melting."
Katniss wanted to change the subject. She didn't want to tell Prim she'd spent the night snuggled next to Peeta with his arm tight around her. Because while the temperature had been cold, she had been warm, cozy even, despite the circumstances.
Of course it meant nothing, she wasn't interested in Peeta in that way at all. He'd really been a gentleman about the whole thing and for that she was very grateful. He was probably the only trustworthy person in the entire camp, other than her relatives. If she had to share a gold find with anyone, she was glad it was him, because he struck her as an honest person. At least she hoped he was.
She ran her fingers over the nugget in her pocket. Peeta had the other one. He said he'd try to find out if it was real and he'd let her know. She wanted to ask around on her own as well, if she could figure out who to ask. Because what if Peeta told her it was fake, but it really wasn't and he went back and got the rest of the gold out of that cave. She hated thinking that way about someone she liked, but Peeta himself had said that the gold made people greedy; it changed them even.
"Prim, how's Mama doing?"
"About the same. We didn't tell her about you being gone. We didn't want to upset her."
Katniss nodded. She doubted her mother even noticed she was missing.
She went inside to visit her and found her mother staring at the side of the tent, watching shadows form on the canvas.
"How are you doing today?" Katniss greeted her. "It's getting warmer now. The snow is melting. I got some squirrels for us."
Her mother didn't respond. Katniss frowned. What was she supposed to do now? Winter was coming. Was her mother planning to spend the entire winter in a tent in the middle of nowhere? How would she ever get her mother ready to travel back to Oregon? She left the tent discouraged.
Her Aunt Hazelle was waiting outside the tent. "You gave us a terrible scare," she said, as she hugged her niece. "Where did you spend the night?"
"We found shelter in a cave along the hillside," she admitted. She had to say something and she didn't think telling about the cave was too much information. Her aunt didn't know about the gold.
Aunt Hazelle lowered her voice. "Your mother isn't well right now, so she doesn't know what's going on, but spending the night with that crippled boy..." She shook her head as if to chastise her niece.
Katniss' temper flared at her aunt calling Peeta crippled. He'd been in a wagon accident, which gave him a bad limp. He walked slowly. There was nothing wrong with him.
"What was I supposed to do Aunt Hazelle? Try to make it back to camp and get lost in a white out? Peeta was a gentleman."
"I hope so, but I'll have you know there are plenty of salacious stories going around this camp regarding you and him. These young men are worse gossips than a bunch of old biddies. Gale got into two fights yesterday defending your honor."
Katniss flinched, as if someone had struck her. The miners were talking about them. Why?
Her aunt continued. "Look around. You're the only unmarried woman of appropriate age for the men in this camp. You've kept very much to yourself, except for your friendship with him. Of course there's going to be gossip. "
"He accompanies me while I go hunting. Gale was the one who suggested it. "
"Oh Gale has told me a few other things, as well."
He must have told his mother about her questions regarding Effie' girls.
"I don't know why Samuel and your father thought it was a good idea for all of us to move here," she complained. "This is no place for families and certainly not for young ladies. Even Prim has been approached by the miners."
Prim? What was Aunt Hazelle talking about?
But her aunt didn't elaborate. Instead she complained that now Prim had to be with a family member at all times. "It's becoming a burden."
Yes, the Everdeens were trouble, Katniss thought. First her father had died, gambling away whatever gold he had acquired. Now her mother was lying in a tent in despair, while she and her sister were drawing unwanted attention to themselves simply for being unmarried women in a sea of unwashed and unshaven miners. They had to leave this place soon.
But then she put her hand into her pocket and rubbed her hand around the golden rock she and Peeta had dug out of the cave wall. Yes, they had to go, but not just yet. Not when she might be part-owner in a gold claim.
"I've been talking to your uncle," her aunt said. "Once he's feeling better, we're leaving this camp and moving to town."
"When do you think he'll be healthy enough to move?"
"In a few weeks," Hazelle said. "Meanwhile stay away from that boy. I don't want to hear anymore about the two of you."
"But what about hunting? Do you want me to go out by myself?"
Her aunt frowned. "You can go out with Rory."
"Isn't he searching for gold at the river?"
"Well, he can spare a few hours each day to help you."
"Alright," Katniss agreed, reluctantly.
She didn't see Peeta again until he showed up at their campfire the next morning to go hunting.
Aunt Hazelle was sitting by the fire drinking coffee. She glared at Peeta. "Katniss will be hunting with her cousin Rory from now on," she stated firmly. "She won't need your help."
Katniss was embarrassed at her aunt's sharp tone. Peeta had helped keep her alive during the snowstorm. He didn't deserve to be treated poorly because of the stories the miners were making up about them.
He glanced at her quickly after her aunt spoke. She shook her head at him and mouthed "later," before getting up to get her bow and arrows and game bag. When she returned Rory was ready. He held a rifle in his hand.
"I thought I'd help you," Rory said. "It'll go much faster if both of us are hunting."
She scowled. Hunting was her way to make money. She didn't want Rory cutting in on her work.
Although they had a good haul after a couple of hours of hunting, five rabbits, a half-dozen squirrels and at least 10 quail, she was frustrated. Rory had scared game she was tracking because of the popping sound of his rifle. A couple of the rabbits Rory shot weren't hit very cleanly and the meat was in poor condition.
He irritated her. While Peeta had been noisy, dragging his leg as he walked, at least he'd kept quiet. Rory was constantly talking. He never let up. When she got back to camp, she pulled out the two rabbits Rory had shot clear through the middle to give her aunt for the family's dinner. She gave the rest to Sae. Rory demanded that he receive half of the money Sae paid her.
"I could have made more money searching for gold," he complained when she offered him a small pinch of gold dust. He stomped off to put away his rifle and grab his pan so he could go the river.
Katniss walked over to the table where Peeta was forming biscuits and setting them on a small metal pan. He paused for a moment to greet her.
"Get much game?" he asked.
She nodded, biting her lip nervously. "I'm sorry about my aunt," she said. "She wants me to go hunting with my cousin instead now."
She wanted to tell him that about the stories that were circulating, about Gale getting into two fights because of them, but she was embarrassed. Besides maybe he already knew. Maybe his brother had told him.
Her aunt had warned her to stay away from Peeta, but that was silly. Nothing was going on. They were only friends.
He didn't react to her explanation. He simply went back to shaping the dough, rolling it between his broad hands, then working it into the round form of a biscuit before placing it onto the baking sheet.
"Were you able to ask around about the nugget yet?"
He stopped for a moment to look at her. "I haven't asked anyone yet, but I ran a test of my own."
"What do you mean?"
"Well if you hit gold with a hammer it flattens, iron pyrite shatters."
She opened her eyes widely. "What happened?"
Peeta set the dough in his hands down onto the pan, and reached into his pocket. He pulled out his chunk, which was now as flat as the biscuits he'd been forming.
She took one look at the flat lump lying in Peeta's hand, a tiny bit of dough now stuck to the side of it, and then glanced up at him. He was grinning.
She stared at him for a moment, before the news sunk in.
"It's real," she finally said.
"Real," he agreed.
They had found gold. She grabbed his wrist to hold it still and snatched the gold piece from the palm of his hand.
"I can't believe it," she said, holding it up in front of her face, turning it over carefully, before handing it back.
"Peeta, we're rich." Without thinking, she threw her arms around him, raised up onto her toes, and kissed his cheek.
For just a brief moment, Peeta froze. But then his arms went around her as well, pulling her tight. He lowered his head, pressing it partly into her hair, his stubbly chin scratching at the side of her face.
The hug, which lasted only a few seconds, was interrupted by Sae who wanted to borrow some flour. Peeta's arms dropped quickly to his side. Katniss lowered her arms, as well, and hopped backwards, her face beet red in embarrassment.
Why had she acted so impulsively and kissed Peeta? Especially when they were already the subjects of camp gossip? She couldn't explain it even to herself. She just knew that the flattened gold nugget had made her so giddy she hadn't been thinking clearly.
Did Sae hear her cry out? She wondered. Peeta shoved the gold piece back into his pocket and immediately left to get more flour.
She wanted to talk to Peeta longer, ask him how soon they could return to the cave with a pick so they could try to extract more of the gold, but she didn't want to wait there with Sae.
Instead, she returned to her family's campsite. Prim was sitting on the ground darning a sock.
"Whose is that?" she asked, not recognizing the red, cable knit monstrosity that Prim was holding.
Her sister looked up cheerfully. "It belongs to Mr. Boggs," she said. "I'm mending it for him."
She frowned. "How much is he paying you?"
"One pinch of gold dust," Prim said proudly.
Katniss scowled. Not only was she upset that her sister had lowered herself to repairing the holey sock of a miner, but now her sister was making even more money than she did by hunting since she had to give half of her earnings to Rory.
Katniss remembered her aunt's earlier comments about miners approaching Prim. She had to ask her sister what was going on.
Prim bit her lip and concentrated on her work, not looking at Katniss' face. "I was bringing dinner to Uncle Samuel the night of the snow storm. It had stopped snowing by then, but it was cold. Two of the men near his tent blocked my way. They offered me some whiskey. They said it would keep me warm. I think they were drunk. They were laughing kind of loudly. I was able to get away, but I stayed in Uncle Samuel's tent until Gale came looking for me."
Katniss grew angry. She wanted to know who these miners were who had accosted her sister. She was ready to go after them.
"Were you scared little duck?"
"Yes," Prim said, tears filling her eyes. "I don't like it here Katniss. I want Mama to get better. I want to go home."
Home. It was becoming clear to her that even if her mother did get better, even if they were to travel back to Oregon, they would never truly be able to go home again. With the death of her father that life was over. Or maybe it had already ended when her father had written the letter that brought them to California. Maybe she was only realizing it now.
"I know Prim," she said. "But things will get better. Very soon. I promise." She smiled at Prim and almost stared to tell her about finding gold with Peeta. But she caught herself. Not yet, not just yet. First they had to get it out of the cave wall.
Katniss went inside the tent to find her mother sitting up eating. It was the first time she'd taken any food since her father had died nearly two weeks earlier.
"Are you feeling better?" she asked her mother.
Her mother smiled weakly. "No, just hungry."
She filled her mother in on Aunt Hazelle's scheme for all of them to move to town when Uncle Samuel got better. Katniss thought her mother would be happy, but she didn't respond. When her mother had finished eating, she set her plate down and turned toward her daughter.
"Is something going on with you and that boy with the bread?"
Author's Note: The early wave of gold miners in California consisted mainly of men -young single men and married men without their wives and families.