Summary: Sometimes a stray word, an un-thought out comment, can change the course of a person's life.
The skinny girl, her dark hair pulled into a braid that hung down her back in a thick braid, several strands escaping and curling around her face, clenched one hand around the corner of the sheet, holding it tight to the clothesline, while reaching up and pulling the clothes pins out of her mouth.
“Yes, ma’am?” she asked.
“Hurry and finish hanging those linens out,” the plump cook called from where her head poked out of the kitchen door, her cheeks flushed with the heat of the ovens inside. “I need you to run an errand for me.”
“Alright,” Louise said, nodding even though the cook had already disappeared back inside. Moving faster, she quickly finished hanging the last of the sheets out to dry, trying not to flinch when the fall winds sent the material slapping against her body, soaking her only dress, worn thin with multiple washings, and settling a chill into her bones. An errand for the cook usually meant some sort of treat for the young girl, and the thought of what it might be kept her warm despite the cold.
Soon, she was grabbing the now empty laundry basket and hurrying inside.
“Ma’am?” she asked, almost timidly, sticking her head around the door of the lean-to and into the kitchen to make sure the cook was alone, before entering the room fully. “What do you need me to do?”
“Come on in, dearie,” the cook smiled at her. “It’s safe. The ‘ladies’ are all still asleep.”
Louise winced at the woman’s unhidden scorn when she said, ‘ladies’. It had taken the girl several months to figure out exactly what sort of place she was working in. Now, she just did her best to avoid the ladies who worked upstairs, not to mention their boss.
Stepping fully into the room, she reveled in the warmth emanating from the large stove and oven that dominated the room. Her grey homespun linsey woolsey dress did little to protect her from the elements, especially when it got wet, which it did often as she did the laundry. She dreaded the coming winter months.
“Here,” the generous woman said, holding out a thickly cut slice of fresh bread, slathered with creamy butter. “You need something to put some meat on those bones. You’re too skinny.”
While Louise happily scarfed down the still warm bread, the cook grabbed a flour sack and handed it to her, as well.
“I need you to run to market for me,” she said.
“I thought you had everythin’ delivered here in the mornin’s,” Louise commented around a last mouthful of yeasty bread.
“Generally, I do, gal,” she smiled. “But I forgot to order apples for this evening’s pies. And you know how Mr. Wicks gets if there’s no dessert to lay out for the customers.”
Louise laughed, albeit a bit nervously. She’d long since learned to avoid Mr. Wicks’ displeasure at all costs.
“Sure thing,” she nodded, already heading for the door.
“And Louise?” the cook called after her.
Louise stopped in the doorway to look back at the older woman. “Yes ma’am?”
“If you make a good deal, keep the change. I understand today’s your birthday. Buy yourself something nice to celebrate.”
A wide smile spread across the girl’s face as she nodded her thanks. This day was starting to look up. Stepping out the backdoor of the bordello, she quickly slipped down the boardwalk and disappeared into the crowd that converged on the outdoor market near downtown.
Looking around her, she smiled, enjoying the chance to take her time away from her tedious job of washing clothes all day, every day. The chatter of the market, farmers calling out the attributes of their produce, housewives bargaining furiously for the best price, children shouting as they ran and played, always cheered her. It was so… normal.
She stopped at the first stand she came to with fruit, but after inspecting the apples on display, she shook her head in dismay. Half were green, the other half mealy. None would do for the evening’s pies.
Moving on, she searched out other vendors.
“Apples, get your fresh apples here!”
She followed the call to a gentleman wearing a dark brown bowler hat and standing in front of a simple handcart with only a few apples left inside.
Seeing her approach, he called out, “Fresh apples!”
Stopping in front of the handcart, she carefully inspected the offering and smiled, pleased. These apples would be perfect. A moment’s bargaining and he was helping her fill her bag with the round, red fruit, firm and crisp. As she handed over the coins to pay, she noticed a young man, maybe a year or so older than her, staring at her longingly.
Looking down, she quickly realized it was the fruit in her hand he was eyeing. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been able to save enough money on the purchase to afford another apple. With a mental shrug, she accepted the change from the vendor and nodded as he tipped his hat to her.
“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” he said as she stepped away, hugging the precious bag of fruit to her chest.
Moving away, intent on returning her purchase to the cook as quickly as possible, Louise heard the shouts of Irish Johnny McClarnen behind her, hawking his friend Paddy’s skills in the ring. Pushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear with one hand, she shook her head. If they managed to fleece the ignorant farmers and greenhorns like they usually did, they’d be by Wicks’ place tonight. She’d have to warn Cook. Paddy enjoyed the attentions of the ladies in the front room and upstairs, but Johnny was sweet on the cook and always tried to finagle his way back to the kitchen. Cook didn’t want anything to do with the old shyster.
“Oh, good, I caught you.”
Louise stopped in her tracks as she entered the kitchen to deliver her purchase to the cook. She hadn’t been aware anyone else was there. Then she relaxed and smiled at the third woman. Charlotte Rohan was the only one of the working girls who’d taken the time to get to know Louise, let alone treat her kindly.
“Mornin’, Charlotte,” she called, as she resumed her motion toward the table where Cook was already rolling out the crusts for the pies. “Here ya go,” she said. “Perfect fer pie fillin’s.”
“Thank you, dear,” the cook said with a harried smile.
“Oh, and I wanted ta warn ya, Johnny McClarnen’s back in town.”
“Oh, joy,” the cook muttered, blowing hair out of her face.
“Don’t worry about him,” Charlotte said, smiling as she sipped daintily at her morning tea. “The girls and I’ll make sure he stays out front.”
“You’d better, if you want decent food tomorrow.”
Charlotte laughed, then turned to Louise. “I hear it’s a big day for you today, young lady.”
Louise looked at the other woman, startled and confused.
“Your birthday?” Charlotte reminded her gently.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, blushing as she looked down at her toes.
“So, how old are you?”
“Almost a woman,” Charlotte marveled, shaking her head. Her smiling face grew serious. “Listen, I’ll take care of clearing the linens when they’re dried. Why don’t you take the day off. Go. Have some fun.” She dug into the pocket of her wrap and pulled out a handful of small coins. “Here,” she said, ladeling them into Louise’s hand and wrapping her fingers around them. “On me.”
“Thank you!” Louise cried, flinging her arms around Charlotte’s neck. “Thank you!”
Charlotte laughed, delighted with the girl’s joy. “Go on with you now,” she said, pushing Louise toward the door. “And don’t forget to stay out until well after we’re open for the evening. Then sneak in the back and head straight to your room.”
Louise nodded, already skipping toward the door as she happily dreamed about how she’d spend the few cents Charlotte had gifted her with. She totally missed the concerned look Charlotte shared with the cook behind her back.
Wandering down the boardwalk a short time later, Louise held her head high in mimicry of the fancy ladies in pretty dresses she saw wandering along, chatting to each other behind pretty fans, their hair piled up in corkscrew curls underneath hats bedecked with flowers and ribbons. One day, she thought to herself, one day she would get enough money to get her brother and sister out of that orphanage outside of town and they’d all have pretty clothes like those.
She looked down at the candy stick she’d bought at the general store for a penny, thought about the apple hidden in her skirt pocket for later and wondered if she should have put the birthday money Charlotte had given her in her stocking under her mattress along with the rest of her wages. Then she shrugged her shoulders. She’d been working hard and deserved a little treat. She’d save the rest.
Following a sudden surge in shouting, she soon found herself pushing past several men handing money back and forth near McClarnen’s boxing ring. Seeing 10 year old Laura Bryant, who’d been adopted away from the orphanage shortly before she herself had run away, Louise called out, “Laura! Laura!”
The girl turned at the sound of her name and a bright smile split her face. “Louise!” she exclaimed, running to her side. “What are you doing here? Did you get adopted too?”
Louise shook her head. “No, I left the orphanage. I’ve got a job. I’m tryin’ ta save up ‘nough money ta get Jeremiah and Teresa out too.”
“Where’re ya workin’?”
“A… ah boardin’ house,” Louise muttered, unwilling to admit what sort of place it really was. “I do the laundry, run errands sometimes, stuff like that. Doesn’t pay much, but it’s better than nothin’.”
Laura nodded in understanding.
“What are you doin’ here?” Louise asked.
“My Pa came inta town ta do some tradin’ at the general store,” Laura smiled. “Decided ta stop and bet on the fight. I got to bet, too. And I won!”
“Really? Did ya bet on Paddy?”
“Nope,” the blonde smiled. “I bet on the kid what fought him. Some stranger. Don’t know who he was, but Paddy kept knockin’ him down and he kept gettin’ back up. He was standing on his own two feet when that bell rang. You should’ve seen Johnny’s face, too! He sure lost a lot on him today!”
Louise laughed with Laura.
“Look,” Laura suddenly said. “There he is.”
“The kid I was tellin’ ya ‘bout, silly,” Laura said, pointing toward a boy a little older than Louise limping slowly toward the livery. “That’s him. Wonder what he’s doin’?”
Louise watched him, wondering the same thing. He looked a little on the lean side himself, as if he hadn’t had a lot to eat recently. She wasn’t sure, but thought maybe he was the same boy that had passed her by the apple stand that morning. But he moved with an unusual eagerness to his footsteps for a hungry man with money in his pocket who was walking away from where food was sold.
“Oh, that’s my Pa,” Laura said as a man called her name. “Gotta go. See you later?”
“Uh, sure,” Louise said. “I’ll be… around.”
Laura ran off to join her adopted father, but Louise never took her eyes off the boy she’d pointed out. There was just something about him. Without realizing it, she began to follow his path and walked up to the edge of the livery yard, just as the boy walked back out of the barn, holding the leadlines to a beautiful paint mare. He was grinning broadly, despite the multiple bruises and cuts marring his face. Louise winced as she saw the damage he’d accepted from Paddy to win his money.
She continued following him, forgetting about her previous plans for the day, totally absorbed in finding out more about this young man who’d captured her attention so completely.
Despite his slow movement and limp, one arm pressed tightly to his ribs as if in pain, it wasn’t long before they were walking out of town. Soon, he disappeared into a copse of trees near the river.
“I don’t know what I was thinkin’, spendin’ all that money on you, gal,” she heard the boy saying as she neared a clearing along the edge of the water. “But I just couldn’t walk away. Yer a real beauty, you know that?”
The horse, which he’d obviously been talking to, whinnied in what sounded like agreement. He laughed.
“Yep, I s’pose you do, at that,” he said. Louise moved past the last of the trees obstructing her view and saw the boy had led the horse to the water’s edge and was letting the mare drink her fill. When he just stood there, admiring her, occasionally running a hand down her neck and across her withers, but not stopping her thirsty gulping, Louise couldn’t keep quiet anymore.
“You need ta pull her back,” she said. “You keep lettin’ her drink so much cold water that fast, she’s liable ta get the colic.”
“What?!” The boy spun around to stare in her direction, his shoulders stiff. But when he saw her, he relaxed. “Oh, what do you know? Yer just a girl!”
Louise couldn’t accept that. She knew a lot about horses. “I know more’n you do, obviously. My Gramps was a racehorse trainer. He taught me ever’thin’ he knew ‘fore he died. And I know if’n ya don’t stop her now, she’s gonna be mighty sick in a couple a hours.”
“Really?” the kid asked in wonder, reaching out to gently pull the mare’s head away from the water. “They can do that?”
“What are you doin’ with such a nice horse iffen ya don’t know nothin’ ‘bout horses?” Louise asked in response, walking up to pat the animal from the opposite side. She missed being around horses. She’d often felt more comfortable around them then around people.
The boy shrugged and looked down at the ground. “I dunno,” he said. “I just took one look at her and knew I had ta do anythin’ ta get her.”
“I kin see that,” she smiled, reaching across the horse’s withers to gently touch the boy’s bruised face. He flinched away from her touch. “Does it hurt?” she asked.
He looked away before eventually nodding. “Yeah.”
“Here,” she said, reaching out to place her hand on the leadlines next to his. “Let me help ya take care of her. Then ya can rest a bit.”
Soon, she’d shown the kid how to tie the leadlines around two of the mare’s feet, hobbling her so she couldn’t wander off, and then setting her loose near a nicely grassy area. Then she’d shown him how to start a fire, not that he had anything to cook on it. But it helped warm them both up as the sun dipped behind the clouds, leaving only the autumn chill in the late afternoon air.
Tearing off a corner of her petticoat, she dipped it in the cold river water and handed it to the boy. “Here, put this on the bruises,” she said. “It’ll help the pain and stop it from swelling too badly.”
“Thank you,” he muttered shamefacedly.
“Yer new out here, ain’t ya?” she asked, settling down on the opposite side of the small blaze dancing cheerily.
“Uh, yeah. Just arrived by stage. Took the last of my money ta get this far,” he said.
Louise furled her brow in thought.
“Where’s yer family?” she asked.
“Dead,” he muttered, looking away, using the wet cloth to hide the rest of his face from her. “Or as good as.”
Sensing his discomfort, she changed the subject. “What are you going to call her?”
She pointed toward the mare, grazing contentedly nearby. “Yer new horse? What are you gonna call her?”
“Katy,” he answered almost immediately, with a reverent sigh in his voice. “Her name’s Katy.”
They sat in silence for a moment, both contemplating the elegant lines of the horse. Louise broke the silence.
“You should find a job at a ranch or somethin’, where you can learn ta ride proper and take care of her,” she finally said. “Then, you can get a job somewhere’s ridin’. With a horse like that, all you’d have ta be is a decent rider and just ‘bout anyone’d hire ya.”
“You think?” he asked hopefully.
She smiled and nodded.
“How’d ya learn so much ‘bout horses?”
“I tol’ ya,” she started to answer.
He finished for her, “Your grandpa was a horse trainer and taught you everythin’ he knew.”
“Too bad ya ain’t a boy,” he said softly. “Then you could teach me and we could go find jobs as riders somewhere together.”
Louise looked at him, a light entering her eyes.
“It sure would be better…” she let the thought slide away, shaking her head. It didn’t matter. She wasn’t a boy and that was that. Looking away from the fire, she noticed the gathering dusk. “I’d better get goin’,” she said, standing up and straightening her skirts. “Gotta get back ta town ‘fore it’s complete dark out.”
He stood as well, like a proper gentleman in a sitting room or something. She smothered an amused grin at his manners, and dug into her skirt pocket to pull out the apple she’d bought earlier that afternoon.
“Here,” she said. “I think you need this more’n I do.”
“Thanks,” he muttered, accepting the gift. Then lifted his eyes to meet hers, “Will I see ya again?”
“Um, yeah. I work in town, so you’ll probably see me in around if ya stay in these parts.”
Without another word she turned and began walking away. He moved to catch up to her, grabbing her elbow to stop her.
“What’s yer name?” he asked quietly.
Looking down at her toes, she blushed before lifting her eyes to meet his again and answering. “Louise. My name’s Louise.”
He held out his hand, “Nice ta meet ya, Louise. I’m….” he paused as if re-thinking what he was about to say, then finished, “most folks just call me the Kid.”
Three years later….
Lou McCloud sat atop her mount, Lightning. She’d never admit it to anyone, but she’d stolen him from a racetrack down near Des Moines, Iowa, about a year ago. She’d been riding west ever since, trying not only to escape any hunt for her and her horse, but also her past.
A few days ago, she’s seen a sign that read, ‘Riders Wanted, Orphans Preferred.’ Well, that was her alright, and then some, she thought with a sigh. She’d gone straight in and signed up.
Now she found herself sitting here on her stolen horse, just watching as several young men of varying ages and types moved about the yard between the house, bunkhouse and barn and corrals. Even as she watched, another come trotting around the corner of the house and up to the bunkhouse on a familiar paint horse, a horse and rider she would never forget.
“Kid?” she breathed, anxiety and joy flooding her simultaneously. She’d always wondered what had happened to him. He looked to have learned a lot in the last few years, judging by the way he sat so comfortably in the saddle. But, simultaneously she suddenly wondered if this was going to work. No one had penetrated her disguise in three years. But no one who’d actually known her had had the chance. Until now.
Sighing, she pulled her hat lower over her eyes, and pushed her glasses up on her nose. Jerking her coat closed around her, she clucked to Lightning, setting him into motion. She had to take the chance. She was tired of running. She needed this job. The pay was good and it would let her do what she was best at, work with and ride horses. She just had to trust that she’d become the boy Lou well enough over the last few years that Kid would never see the girl Louise he’d once met lurking beneath.