So now he settled his hat on his head and made ready to take his leave from the kitchen where Molly reigned, cook and general overseer of the women who lived and worked under the roof of Tom Loftin’s saloon. A woman who watched him now with eyes that questioned his motives.
“You’ll be back in the morning? And you’ll guarantee this girl a safe place to live?”
“That’s what I said, Molly. You’d ought to know enough about me to know that I don’t tell lies or make promises I can’t keep. I’ve been around these parts for a while, and you won’t find anybody to point a finger at me.”
She shrugged. “You’re right there, John. And it don’t look to me like this child has much choice. Not for now anyway.”
His gaze scanned Katie’s face once more and his words were kindly. “Do I need to know anything more about you, Katie? Is there anything that would stand in the way of you working for me. I don’t even know where you’re from, now that I think about it. I’m not about to do anything illegal here, so if there’s anybody with any ties on you, speak up.”
“I can tell you where she’s from,” Molly said. “I knew when I saw her that she was familiar, and after watching her for a few minutes, I figured it out. She’s been livin’ at the Schrader place outside of town for a dozen years or so. Ain’t that right, girl?”
Katie nodded, her eyes wide as Molly spoke words that amazed her. How the woman knew anything about her was some sort of miracle, she thought, and she waited silently to hear more.
“She looks like her mama,” Molly said. And Katie closed her eyes, her mind turning back to the days before she had gone to live with the Schraders. In just such a kitchen as this she had eaten meals and spoken with women around a table such as this one.
“Have I been here before?” she asked, her voice soft, her heart pounding in a rhythm that threatened to choke her.
“Just think about it a minute and you’ll remember. You’ll know you have, girl,” Molly said. “You’re old enough to remember the days when you lived upstairs with your mama.”
Her mind flooded with almost-forgotten thoughts, Katie sat at the table, stunned by the words Molly spoke. “I was a little girl, wasn’t I? Surely not more than five or six. But I remember you, I think.” And the vision of a younger Molly filled her mind, a kindly woman who had fed her and held her in her ample lap.
“Why would she have lived here?” John asked, his tone dubious, his look skeptical. “And why was she sent to live elsewhere?”
“This was no place for a young’un, and when her mama died, the boss looked for a couple to take her and give her a home.” Molly was silent a moment and her eyes touched Katie’s face, perhaps noting the swelling on one cheek, the bruise that bloomed in purple splendor on her jaw. “It looks to me like he chose the wrong place for a child.”
The door leading into the saloon opened and the bartender stood in the entry. “What’s goin’ on back here, Molly? John? What’s this gal doing here? Is she lookin’ for a job? We don’t take on kids, Molly and well you know it.”
“She’s not lookin’ for a job, Tom. Just a place to sleep for the night, and I’ve already offered the other half of my bed. She’s just hungry and John brought her back for a meal.”
The man, Tom, looked at Katie with awareness dawning in his eyes. “Who is she?” His tone was strident, his words harsh.
“Just who do you think she is?” Molly asked, her chin tilted up as if she offered it as a target. “You know damn well who she is. One look at that face oughta tell you.”
“What’s she doing here?” Tom’s face reddened, his eyes sparking fire as he stepped into the kitchen and closed the door behind himself. “She don’t belong here.”
“I already told you,” Molly said. “She was hungry and John brought her in for a meal.”
“You know what I mean,” Tom said harshly. “She don’t belong here,” he repeated, more sternly this time. “Where’s your folks, girl?”
“I don’t have any folks,” Katie told him staunchly. “I lived with the Schraders outside of town for a lot of years, but they’re not my folks.”
“Well, they’re all the folks you’ve got,” Tom said, stalking across the kitchen, his eyes never leaving Katie’s bruised face. “How’d you get here?”
“I walked. I didn’t intend to come in here, but a man frightened me out in front and I got pushed through the door into the saloon and this gentleman offered me a chair.”
The gentleman in question shot a grin at Tom. “She looked hungry and frightened, and you know what a gentleman I am, don’t you, Tom?”
“You’re a cowhand, is what you are, John. And what are you plannin’ to do with a young girl like this?”
“Maybe you’d better sit down while I tell you about that,” Molly said with a look of warning. “You’d might as well know, Tom.”
“All right. I’m sitting.” Tom pulled out a chair and sat in it, his eyes never leaving the girl across the table from him. “Now tell me what’s going on.”
“This little gal is gonna go to work for John Roper tomorrow. John here said he’s got a cabin out at the Bar-S ranch. Bill Stanley gave it to him as part of his wages out there. So he’s gonna take Katie home with him tomorrow morning and make her his cook and housekeeper.”
“Katie? Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Tom examined her minutely, her face and slender form, the rough, tattered homespun of her dress, the dark hair that hung down her back in a ragged braid. And then he turned to John with a shake of his head and words that growled with anger. “She don’t look old enough to know much about keeping house, John. You sure you know what you’re doin’?”
“No.” John laughed softly. “I probably don’t, but I’m gonna do it anyway. I can’t see sending her back to where she came from, Tom. It don’t look like the folks who were responsible for her have taken very good care of their obligation, does it?”
“No, I can’t say that it does,” Tom agreed, his eyes dark. And then he eyed John again. “What will Bill Stanley say when you bring her home with you and put her in your cabin? Won’t he wonder—”
“Maybe,” John said quickly, before Tom could finish his query. “But I’ll explain things to him. There won’t be a problem.”
Katie felt her head swimming, her attention splintered between the three people who seemed to be settling her future for her, her eyelids drooping as the heat of the cookstove penetrated her clothing and the food she had eaten weighed heavy in her stomach. She drank the last of her milk and set the glass down on the table.
“Could I go to bed now, ma’am?” she asked Molly quietly. “I’m pretty tired.”
“I’ll take her up,” Molly said, motioning toward the open staircase that led upward to the rooms overhead. “I’ll see you in the morning, John. Unless you change your mind.”
He shook his head, lifting Katie from her chair, his eyes widening at her flinch as his fingers clasped her wrist. One big hand under her elbow, his head bent to speak softly into her ear. “I won’t change my mind, little girl. I’ll be here in the morning. I promise you won’t be abused again, by anyone. Can you trust me? Will you go with me?”
She looked up at him, at the strong features, the dark hair, the sharp eyes that seemed to see within her, that offered kindness she had not thought to find here tonight.
“I’ll go with you,” she said quietly. “I’ll do anything you want me to.”
HOW HE’D GOTTEN INTO this fix was a conundrum, John thought, his mind filled with plans for the morning to come. But there was no way in hell he’d leave that bit of a child in the hands of whoever had dealt her blows that left bruises. No one deserved treatment of that sort, and certainly not a young woman. And for a moment he wondered at what her clothing must conceal. No doubt more of the same, and that thought only served to make him even more certain that he’d decided to do the right thing.
His mama would roll over in her wooden casket should he turn his back on a woman in peril, especially one so vulnerable and in need of the simplest of human care.
And if he found that the Schrader fella had abused her in another way, he’d be looking him up and handling it for himself. The memory of her reaction to the touch of his hand on her arm thinned his mouth, and he wondered what sort of peril she had faced in her years with that family.
If it took putting his life on the line, he’d see to it that she was tended to and cared for as a young woman should be. He didn’t know much about girls of her age, only the memory of his younger sister, a much-cherished and loved child. More than once he’d been cast in the position of protecting her from harm, whether from a balky horse or young boys intent on teasing, as boys would.
His scant knowledge of women had come later on, when as a husband he’d faced the knowledge that the woman he trusted had abused that trust and found pleasure with other men. Perhaps he’d been molded by that, for he’d held himself aloof from females, from those who cast their eyes upon him and offered themselves. He wasn’t husband material, apparently, if his past could be relied on as a record of his skills in the art of marriage.
But he’d guarantee he could do a better job of looking after this female, this small waif without anyone to look after her and protect her, than her erstwhile guardians had done. And there was something about her that had hit him hard, right where a man was most vulnerable.
She was frightened, her face bruised, her body no doubt skinny from lack of a decent diet, and yet she had a beauty that appealed to him. Maybe not just her beauty, but the valiant effort she had made not to cry, not to show how frightened she was. He’d caught a glimpse of his younger sister in Katie, had experienced a backward look at the girl he’d once felt deserved his protection. He’d known in those first few moments that Katie was worth his attention, as his own sister had been, and now he was in this over his head, for he’d committed himself to looking after her.
And that, he decided with a grin, wasn’t all bad. For he suspected that she held the ingredients of a house keeper within that slender form. And that was what he needed. And when she was healed and whole again, she might be willing to consider something other than what he could offer, perhaps a marriage with one of the other men who worked the ranch, or a position in town with a decent family.
Now he rode up to the small cabin Bill Stanley had allotted him as a part of his salary and looked at it in the moonlight with eyes that saw the sagging porch, the bare windows. He knew that the interior wasn’t much better than what anyone passing by could see. The front door swung open beneath his hand and he stood in the darkness, smelling the musty scent of field mice and the odor of wood smoke from the fireplace.
He’d might as well settle in for the night, he decided, ignoring his own empty stomach as he found his bed in the back room. The blankets that covered his bed were warm, the mattress was wide and the room was as clean as a broom and mop could make it under his hands. He wasn’t much of a housekeeper, but he’d quickly managed to clean it up enough to take possession of it as a resting place at night. Preferable to the bunkhouse where an assortment of cowhands slept and ate.
Now he thought of bringing a girl here, a woman really, for most females her age were either already married or planning a wedding. Marriage had probably not entered her head, for she had not likely seen much of an example of happiness between a man and wife out there on the Schrader farm.
Maybe, someday, when she had healed, both in body and soul, and felt ready to be on her own, he’d talk to her about the years to come, help her to face a future that would in all certainty be better than the past she’d left behind.