His eyes closed as he tugged the blanket over his shoulder, and he wondered if his little waif was asleep yet. He tried to imagine her in Molly’s bed, and laughed aloud as he visualized her in the cook’s nightgown. She’d swim in it, her slender form lost in the enveloping folds. He’d have to buy the child a nightgown of her own tomorrow, he thought sleepily as the weariness of hard work claimed him for the night.
“I’LL BE BRINGING BACK a woman today, Bill, and moving her into the cabin. I’m thinking I need a cook and housekeeper, and I’ve found a girl who needs a place to live and a warm spot to land for a while.” As news went, it was an eye-opener, he thought, as Bill Stanley shot him a look of doubt.
“What are you talking about, John? You can hire one of the men’s wives to keep your place clean. There’s always one or another looking for bit of income if that’s what you need. I can’t imagine you getting a woman to move into your place, doesn’t sound like something you’d do.”
John laughed shortly. “It’s not, come to think of it. But this girl is down on her luck, and she’s been abused by the folks she was living with. Once I get her something decent to wear, I’m gonna bring her back here and turn her into a housekeeper.”
“Who is she?” Bill asked, obviously dubious of the proposal John had made.
“Her name’s Katie. Don’t know if she has a last name or not, but she ran off from the Schrader place outside of town, to tell you the truth. From what I understand from Molly down at the saloon and what the girl herself told me, she was given to the Schraders a dozen or so years ago, and they’ve been using her as a servant ever since. She showed up at the Dogleg saloon last night. Molly, the cook there is taking care of her for me until I can get into town this morning and pick her up. I’m gonna bring her here to live in the cabin you gave me.”
His jaw firmed as he faced his employer, aware that Bill was a man of principle, and the plan for Katie’s welfare might not hit him well. As if he expected a harsh rebuttal, John stiffened his neck and waited for what Bill Stanley had to say. The man was fair, a good man with a prosperous ranch, and his choice of John as his new foreman had been a surprise. John was only thirty years old, but most men would have thought twice before taking a chance on a man so young to run his operation.
But Bill Stanley had a reputation for being smart, and apparently he’d found something in the man standing before him that merited his approval, for he’d not hesitated when the last foreman left to buy his own place and set up business in the next county. Now he tucked his hands into his trouser pockets.
“If you’re sure of your ground you’re welcome to bring her here, John. It’s time and past for you to settle down.”
John laughed and shook his head. “I’m not marrying the girl, Bill. I’m hiring her. Don’t get the wrong idea here. I’ve got no need for a wife, but having somebody to keep my place clean and cooking decent meals for me sounds like an idea I can handle.”
Bill nodded, but his look was still cautious. “Well, if you’re sure this is a good idea, we’ll just have to see how it works out. And it sounds to me like she’d be tickled to death to have a spot of her own to claim.”
John nodded his agreement. “I just wanted you to know what’s going on, Bill. I didn’t want you surprised when I show up later on today with a woman. This way you know right up front what my plans are. I hadn’t planned on moving anyone into the cabin with me right off, but maybe Katie can make it more of a home than it is now. I’ll have to think about adding on a room, though. I’ll need to give her a place of her own.”
“There’s plenty of lumber in the barn, and I’d think the men could lend a hand if you start with a building project. We’ll see how it goes,” Bill said. “I’ve never known you to be devious, John, so I’ll trust you on this.”
John turned and mounted his gelding, taking up the reins and swinging his mount in a half circle. “I need to be in town early on. Molly will be thinking I’ve abandoned the girl if I don’t move along.” he said, tipping his hat brim in a small salute as he rode from the ranch house.
He wondered at his own actions as he rode, thinking back to the night before, the sight of the small female who had burst through the saloon door with fear lighting her features. He knew that his intentions were at least aboveboard, and not those of the men who looked for a fast and furious joining with a woman there in the Dogleg Saloon.
As he thought of the young girl who awaited him in town this morning, John nudged his gelding into a faster pace. It was past breakfast time already, and Katie would begin to wonder if he was a man of his word, or perhaps she’d hope for the opposite. Maybe she’d changed her mind by this morning, and wouldn’t be willing to fulfill her part of the bargain they’d made.
John Roper had lived a lot of years with only his own company, and now he was about to change all that and take on the responsibility of a woman in his house. The thought was a bit daunting, he thought, but not without merit. It would be good to come in at night from the range and find a hot meal waiting for him.
He pushed aside the memory of big eyes, of long hair and a slender form. “I’m looking for a housekeeper,” he reminded himself. “I’ll treat her as I would my little sister.”
THE SALOON WAS QUIET when he approached the front door and he heard only the tinny sound of the piano as the man who tickled the ivories, as he called it, practiced for the night to come. John pushed his way into the barroom and nodded at the man behind the long bar.
“Tom.” It was a single word of greeting, and Tom’s brief nod was all the reply he had expected. His long strides brought him to the kitchen door and he pushed his way within the room, his nose pleased at the fresh aroma of coffee and of bacon frying on the stove.
“Morning, Molly,” he said by way of greeting, and was not surprised at the smile he was offered by the cook. “Is my new housekeeper up and ready to travel?”
“She’s washing up now. I gave her something else to wear. That dress she had on wasn’t fit for wearin’. It was clean, but that was about all you could say for it. And what she had on underneath it was pretty pathetic. Especially the bruises that had her all colors.” Her gaze was sad as she faced John. “She’s just a girl, John. She’s been abused and misused, and it hurts me to see such a thing. I’m hoping your good sense will recognize that she needs help, not the attentions of a man.”
His lips thinned and he clenched his hands as she spoke. Knowing that he had been right in his estimation of facts didn’t do much to improve his mood. He’d like to take Schrader out behind a barn and show him how it felt to wear bruises. There was nothing meaner than a man who’d hit a woman, and if he ever got the chance, he’d show the man how it felt to get back a little of his own.
“I’m not looking for a woman thataway, Molly. She’ll be safe with me.”
A look that might have been relief touched Molly’s countenance. “Sit yourself down and have some coffee while you wait, John,” she said, pouring him a cup from the big pot on the stove. “You have breakfast already? Or did you skedaddle out of there before the cook fed you?”
“I was in a hurry, Molly. I haven’t eaten.”
“Well, neither has Katie, so you can take a few minutes and eat with her. The ladies have all finished their breakfast, but I’d thought to share mine with the girl. I don’t mind including you.”
“Thanks.” He sat and picked up the cup she’d placed before him. It steamed and the scent was pure ambrosia to his senses. Nothing like a cup of coffee in the morning to get a man ready for the day. And then he heard footsteps on the back stairway and his gaze shot to where Katie’s slender form descended the steps, heading in his direction, her steps hesitant, her limp not pronounced, but apparent.
She looked at him, a flush touching her cheeks, as if she had been thinking of him, and now the reality of his presence had startled her. “Good morning,” she said, crossing to the table where he waited. The dress she wore was clean, but ill-fitting, and he hid a grin at the sight of her slim form wrapped in an old dress from Molly’s closet.
“Sit yourself down,” Molly said, and Katie did as she was told. Probably used to being given orders, John thought.
“Haven’t changed your mind, have you?” he asked her quietly, and was almost relieved when her head shook once, back and forth, letting him know that she was still of a mind to go home with him. “I’ll take you to the general store and find you some clothes before we go out to the ranch,” he said and was stunned at the tears that appeared in her eyes.
“What did I say? I didn’t mean to make you upset,” he said quickly.
“No. It’s not that,” she said, wiping at her cheeks with a bit of white fabric she had apparently been given to use as a kerchief. “I just didn’t expect to have anything new to wear. Molly gave me this dress and I’d thought it would be fine, long as I can find a needle and thread to take it up so’s it’ll fit me better.”
Molly snorted. “That dress is about ready to use for dust cloths and scrubbing rags,” she said firmly. “Once you take it off, you’d as well rip it up and make better use of it, child.”
John nodded his agreement, for surely he could buy her something that would fit her. “You’re gonna be working in my house, Katie. You’ll wear decent clothing and shoes, not heavy boots. You can pick out what you need at the store and I’ll buy it for you.”
“I knew you had a good heart, John.” Molly turned from the stove and nodded at him approvingly, carrying a plate to place it before him as she spoke. “This little gal hasn’t got much of anything to her name it seems. A new coat will be little enough to pay for somebody keeping your place up, and fixing meals for you. I’m gonna let her use mine this morning, but she’ll need one of her own.”
John sent Molly a grateful look, and added another black mark to the Schrader family name as he looked back at the girl he’d decided to take home with him. “Just be thinking of what you need, Katie, and we’ll take care of it right after breakfast,” he told her and she only nodded, as if she could not find words to speak.
Another plate of food was settled in front of her and with an admonition from Molly to get busy and eat, Katie picked up a fork and dug into the steaming food. From the corner of his eye John watched her, watched the furtive looks she cast toward the door as if she feared someone would enter the room and take her plate from her.
“It’s all yours, Katie girl,” he said quietly. “No one’s gonna take your food away from you. Just take your time and finish your breakfast. It’s gonna be a long time till dinner, and we’ve got a lot to accomplish this morning.”
With a grateful look in his direction, she did as he said and tackled the eggs and bacon Molly had prepared. A thick slice of bread, buttered and spread with jam was placed on another plate and pushed in her direction as Molly sat down across the table.
“You need some weight on those bones, Katie. I’ll warrant that John here will make sure you have enough to eat from now on.”
“You’re right, Molly.” He agreed with her, his nod determined, thinking that the child looked as though she hadn’t had a decent meal in months. Her arms were thin, her cheeks hollow and she wore the frightened look of a baby bird, just being shoved out of the nest for the first time.
“You won’t be overworked, Katie. There’s just me to look after, and Berta, the cook at the big house, will lend a hand if you need anything.”
“Thank you, John. I could hardly sleep last night, thinking about what will happen today, what with you taking me home with you. I’m not sure just what you expect of me, but whatever it is and wherever you take me, I want you to know that I’ll do the best I can.”
“That’s easy enough, Katie. Like I told you last night, I’ll give you a place to stay and something decent to wear and you’ll keep up my place and tend to my clothes and keeping me fed.” He frowned then and his thoughts became words. “You said you know how to cook, didn’t you?”
She nodded quickly. “I did most of the cooking at the Schrader house. I learned a long time ago how to bake and churn butter and make biscuits. I can tend a garden and can the vegetables and cut up the meat when it’s been butchered.”
She was not yet eighteen years old and already had done the work of a woman full grown. John shook his head, unable to believe that she had been so used, that the family who should have cared for her as a child had instead made a servant of her.
“Well, just cooking for me won’t be too big a load for you then,” he said cheerfully, not willing to let her see his shock at her former circumstances. “Can you keep my clothes clean for me? Do you know how to wash and iron?”
She laughed. Joyously and without restraint, as if she had been given permission to express her happiness. “If you have sad irons, I can use them. If you don’t, you’ll have to buy a pair of them and a handle. I can iron on a kitchen table if need be. I’ll keep your house clean and when spring comes I’ll plant a garden.”