After taking that first step, Mari froze in place thinking about her mama and how unhappy she would be that her daughter was even contemplating such a thing. Tears filled her big violet eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
“I don’t know what to do, Mama,” she said softly, wishing with everything in her that her mama was still here with her to make everything okay. The cold reality was that Mama was gone, planted deep beneath the hard, unforgiving soil of the San Angelo cemetery.
She loved her father, but after her mama had died he’d stopped working and had started drinking. If he was awake he was drunk and it was as if the loving, doting daddy she’d always known was gone. He looked through Mari and her younger sister like he couldn’t see them and she’d long ago given up on trying to reach him.
Marigold had done the best she could to take care of her little sister Emma. Every night when her father passed out she’d emptied his pockets of whatever money she could find. She couldn’t think of him as Daddy anymore, that man no longer existed. At first she railed at him that she and Emma were still there, begging him to see them, but he never did… he just looked at them with those cold dead eyes until she finally had to accept her daddy was dead as surely as Mama was.
She’d tried to find work; Marigold was a fine cook and had actually been preparing her family’s meals since she was around twelve. Her mama had said she had a gift with vittles, but no one believed a nineteen-year-old was up to cooking for hungry men who came into town to eat.
The Johnsons who owned the general store took in Emma. She was a pretty little eleven-year-old and they had never had children. Mrs. Johnson told Mari she was sorry but they just couldn’t take in more than one extra mouth to feed.
Mari understood. She was a grown woman and most women wouldn’t want to bring an adult female into their home. At least she knew Emma was safe but she needed a job if she was ever going to be able to bring her home to live with her. She snorted through her tears at the thought, home… they didn’t even have one anymore.
She would have to be able to afford a roof over her head before she could even think about supporting Emma. That was how she came to be standing on the bottom step of Miss Hattie’s front entrance. Her shoulders slumped; if she worked upstairs she’d never be able to bring Emma home with any kind of future to offer her.
Marigold didn’t completely understand what went on upstairs but she knew if she worked up there she’d be ruined and no decent man would want to marry her. She just didn’t know what else she could do; with a defeated sigh Mari gave in to her misery and sank down to sit on the bottom step, her shoulders heaving with sobs.
The scent of jasmine enveloped her just before she was pulled against a womanly bosom. “Shush, baby girl, everything will be all right. You just tell Miss Hattie all about it.”
“I don’t want to work upstairs!” she wailed against the woman’s chest.
A deep chuckle escaped Miss Hattie. “Oh, honey. You don’t have to work upstairs.”
Mari sniffed loudly. “I just don’t know what else to do. I can cook but no one will give me a chance.”
“Well, I just happen to need a cook. So dry those eyes, little girl, Miss Hattie will take care of you, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.” The madam stood up and hooked her arm through Mari’s, lifting her to her feet. “You’ll room with Rose and you’ll work with her in the kitchen. Your reputation will be intact and none of the yahoos that frequent the upstairs rooms would dare come after one of Rose’s chicks.”
Mari dried her eyes and found herself pulled down from the step and led around to the downstairs entrance. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting but soon she was stepping into a regular-looking parlor with nothing out of the ordinary or anything that even hinted at the business being run on the upstairs level.
Miss Hattie smiled at her warmly. “Have a seat and I’ll call Rose,” she told her before turning toward the back of the room and yelling, “Rose!”
A beautiful elderly woman came into the room. “What in tarnation are you hollering about, Hattie. You know I raised you better than that. Ladies don’t holler… they call softly.”
Hattie laughed, shaking her blonde curls ruefully as she shot Mari a conspiratorial wink. “Rose is still trying to turn me into a lady after all these years.”
“Don’t give me any of that sass, young lady, I can still take a wooden spoon to your skinny behind,” Rose threatened fiercely and Hattie just laughed again, clearly unconcerned about her skinny behind.
“Rose, you’re scaring the little girl I just hired to help you in the kitchen,” the madam told the old woman.
Rose studied Mari with a cluck of her tongue. “Child, what on earth are you doing out on your own in a cow town?”
“Mama died and my father went to drink and never stopped. The Johnsons are keeping my little sister but they didn’t have room for me,” she explained.
“Well, you’re a beautiful woman and Mr. Johnson is a healthy man so I can’t say I blame Helen,” Miss Hattie said with a sigh.
“You’re better off here with me,” Rose said firmly. “What’s your name, child?”
“Marigold Haney, ma’am… I’m a real good cook,” Mari said earnestly.
Both Miss Hattie and Rose smiled at her. “I’m sure you are, honey, but you look plumb wore out. How ‘bout I fix you some cornbread and buttermilk then you have a good night’s sleep? You can show me all about cooking tomorrow.”
Just like that, Mari found herself fed and tucked in a big feather bed she’d share with Rose, quickly falling asleep without worry clouding her dreams for the first time since Mama died.
“Poor child,” Rose said as she closed the bedroom door once Mari had fallen asleep.
“You should have seen her crying those big purple eyes out on the stairway, Rose. That little girl has no business upstairs. Besides the fact that her purple eyes, black hair, and creamy skin would start fights between the men folk and the women folk alike; more trouble than it’s worth to be sure,” Hattie said with a laugh.
“My baby isn’t ever setting foot on those stairs again,” Rose said sternly. “If she does, I’ll paddle you both!”
Hattie suddenly grabbed Rose in a tight hug. “I knew you’d take to her. She needs you as much as I did at her age.”
“Hmmpf… I did a great job there, didn’t I?” Rose said with a shake of her head.
“Pooh, you know things turned out just as they should, Rose. I’m where I’m meant to be, watching over my girls. Speaking of which, I need to get back upstairs.” Hattie kissed Rose’s still smooth cheek and hurried out the front door.
Mari woke up at four determined to earn her keep. Rose was still lightly sleeping so she quietly dressed and made her way to the large kitchen.
Rose had shown her last night where she stored things so Mari got to work making biscuits and getting them in the oven before starting on bread for lunch and dinner. She knew they fed all the girls upstairs, the bartender, and the two men Miss Hattie kept for security as well as Rose’s grandson Nate who kept everything neat and orderly upstairs.
She knew they also served plate specials to some of the men who came to Miss Hattie’s; apparently they didn’t all come in for a poke, some just wanted the company of a friendly lady over a hot meal and a drink.
As Marigold kneaded her bread she wondered why the activity in the rooms upstairs was referred to as poking. She tried to get a picture to form in her mind but then decided she was better off not knowing. It all sounded very unpleasant.
By the time Rose entered the kitchen Mari was pulling two huge pans of biscuits from the ovens and eight loaves of bread were rising on the shelves. She’d also made a pot of oatmeal with some of the brown sugar she’d found in the cellar and a little butter.
“Land sakes, child, did you leave me anything to do for breakfast?” Rose teased her.
“I wanted to show you I can earn my keep,” Mari told the woman earnestly as she placed a bowl of oatmeal and two biscuits on the table for Rose.
“Thank you, serve yourself and sit here with me, Mari girl,” Rose instructed.
Mari eagerly complied; the smell of the biscuits cooking had been almost more temptation than she could take. She quickly made herself a bowl and snagged a biscuit before sitting down next to Rose.
She watched nervously as Rose took a bite of a biscuit then moaned in appreciation. “These might be the lightest and fluffiest biscuits I’ve ever had.”
“Thank you, Rose,” Mari said before tucking into her own breakfast. “I wish there was some jelly to have with the biscuits. They’re really good with jelly.”
Rose sighed. “I must confess I often miss preserves myself but I don’t often get much of a chance to go berry picking.”
“My mama taught me to use all sorts of wild fruits you can find if you look near the river,” Mari told the woman. “If you’d like I could spend the morning picking and have some jelly ready to go with the biscuits in the morning. There should be quite a few fall berries to choose from. I even know how to make prickly pear jelly,” she said proudly. She knew even though it was late September, given the warm temperatures of their fair land there were always berries and prickly pears clear into October if you knew where to look, especially when there had been a good rainy season.
“You mean cactus fruit?” Rose asked with a doubtful wrinkle of her nose.
“Yes, ma’am, it’s actually quite delicious. I’d love to make some and I would just need a few dried apples and lemon slices from the general store if that would be okay. Not much, just enough to help the jelly firm up.”
“Well, you are welcome to go picking what fruit you can find, Mari girl, but you’ll take Rufus with you. I don’t want you wandering around this rough town unescorted,” Rose said firmly as she stepped out the kitchen door and hollered, “Rufus!”
A big man hurried down the side stairs and came into the kitchen. His eyes lit up when he saw the biscuits and Mari hurriedly dished him up some oatmeal and sat them on the table with three biscuits.
Rufus smiled at her as he sat down. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Mari smiled back then gasped when he immediately shoved one biscuit in his mouth before smashing the other two into the oatmeal and starting to shovel it in with the biscuit. She wasn’t sure he’d had time to swallow.
Rose gave a huffed sigh of exasperation. “I’ve never been able to do anything with this boy’s manners. We’re lucky he bathes weekly now. At least I accomplished that much.”
“This is good, Rose,” Rufus said, the words muffled because his mouth was still overstuffed with food.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Rufus!” she snapped. “Now when you finish eating, you’re going to take Miss Mari here berry picking by the river. Then you’ll stop by the general store and buy any supplies she says she needs. Have Mr. Johnson deliver them.”
Rufus nodded as he continued to shove food in his mouth until his bowl was empty. Then he shot Mari a hopeful look as he wiped his face.
Mari couldn’t help but grin; it was becoming very obvious that this very large man had the mind of a child and Rose and Miss Hattie looked out for him even as he protected the women in the house. She laid two more biscuits in his bowl. “If you help me find some berries, tomorrow we’ll have jelly with the biscuits and maybe a pie.”
To her amazement Rufus nodded eagerly then shoved both biscuits in his mouth as he stood. “C’mon.”
She tried not to look at the mash of food in his mouth when he talked; Rose stepped up, still shaking her head at the big man. “Shame on you, Rufus. I know I’ve taught you better manners than an ole billy goat!”
Rufus laughed, obviously tickled at being compared to a goat. “Aw, Miss Rose, billy goats ain’t got no manners at t’all.”
Rose couldn’t help but laugh with him as she handed both him and Mari buckets to put their berries in. “Off with you, scamp… you keep a close eye on Miss Mari now!”
“I will, Miss Rose!” he called over his shoulder as Mari followed him out the door.
Mari walked side by side with Rufus through town down to the edge of the Concho River; her mama had always told her to look along the banks of a river for wild berry patches. Especially during years like this one when there had been a lot of rain, wild berries flourished when the river was swollen.
It was a long walk but it was a beautiful day. The mesquite trees were still green and there were patches of grass mixed in with the dry sands that marked the beginnings of the west Texas desert lands. Mari knew that just a few miles out of town toward the west, the land became barren and harsh for travelers. The wild land of Texas was vast with expanses of land as far as the eye could see. Even though there were settlers scattered about, you could go days and nary see another living soul.
You had to be tough to live in this part of Texas, at least that was what her daddy used to say before he lost the will to live and care for his children. Mari shook the sad thoughts from her head as she began to get hot from the walk and the bright sun beating down. It was too bad they couldn’t take a dip in the river. It would be a welcome relief on such a hot day.
Unfortunately the extra rain made the river to unsafe to swim in, the waters churning angrily and swirling with the strong current. It would be too dangerous until the water levels came down quite a bit. Even a strong swimmer was likely to get carried away in that current.
As they looked for a good patch of dewberries, blackberries, or even gooseberries, Mari wondered how long it would take her to save enough money to make a home for her and Emma. It was May now and if she worked really hard, maybe she could have Emma home for Christmas.
It had to work. She had to bring her little sister home. She’d promised her mama she’d take care of her.
She was pulled from her thoughts by Rufus’ shout of triumph; he’d found a large gooseberry patch. The big green berries were tart but could make a lovely jelly and a good pie when handled right.
The lard buckets they’d brought were very large so they would hold plenty enough berries to make a couple of batches of jelly and several pies.
“Rufus, if you’ll pick berries, I want to look around a little to see if I can find any dewberry patches for next time,” Mari told him.
Rufus frowned disapprovingly. “I don’t know iffen you should do that, Miss Mari, Miss Rose said you was to stay with me.”
“I know, Rufus, but I promise not to go far,” she said with a reassuring smile. “I just want to see if maybe in the next day or so we can come back for more berries.”
“Okay,” he said and he went back to picking the gooseberries.
Mari walked along the grove of trees that grew about twenty feet away from the river; there was a large thicket of mesquite trees, and their thorny brambles were a likely place to find a berry patch.
She walked carefully as she navigated the thicket of trees, knowing their protective branches were also a good place for snakes and other unpleasant critters to hide. Sure enough, she found a large patch of the dark purple berries; they were so dark they almost looked black.
Since she was so close she couldn’t resist walking to the banks of the Concho. They’d had quite a bit of rain recently so the river was swollen and she watched as a log spun madly as the current carried it away. Sometimes when she was a child her parents would bring her for a picnic on the banks of the river and when it was calm they swam.
Mari missed those innocent days of childhood, when her mother was alive and her father didn’t drown himself in a whiskey bottle.
“It’s not safe to be wandering around alone this far from town,” a stern voice spoke from directly behind her.
Mari jumped and spun around in alarm. The sheriff sat on his horse leaning down on the pommel of his saddle to frown disapprovingly at her. Mari found herself bristling under his stern regard. Sheriff Lucas Watkins was a sinfully handsome man but Mari resented his interference. She was after all an adult and fully capable of making her own decisions. She’d known Lucas all her life. They’d both grown up in town and he was about eight years her senior. She’d had a huge crush on him when he first became sheriff but it was soon painfully obvious he still thought her a child.
It was about time he realized she was no longer the little girl he sometimes bought peppermints for when he worked at the general store as a teenager.
“I’m perfectly safe, Sheriff Watkins,” Mari explained primly. “I brought Rufus with me so I’m not alone. I just wanted to check for a dewberry patch before we made the walk back to town.”
“Rufus is good protection for Hattie’s girls in town but out here is another story. Neither of you have any business so far from town,” he told her as he climbed down from his horse.
“That’s just plain silly,” she told him as she planted her hands on her hips to frown up at him.
“Silly or not, I do not want to catch you out here alone again, Miss Marigold. It’s not safe; the Comanche and Kickapoo tribes are stirred up and looking for trouble, not to mention all the cowpunchers we have drifting in and out of town,” Lucas said with another frown.
“You listen to me, Lucas Watkins, I am not a child. I need berries to make jellies and pies for Miss Hattie and Miss Rose. I am perfectly capable of coming to the river to collect some,” Mari said, using the same prim voice. “There is no need to worry, Rufus and I will be careful.”
“I tole her she needed to stay with me, Mr. Lucas, but she wouldn’t listen,” Rufus said as he walked up carrying the buckets of gooseberries.
“I don’t want either of you out here again, Rufus,” the sheriff told the man.
“Yes, sir,” the big man said respectfully.
“Rufus has no say over my comings and goings either!” Mari said with a stomp of her foot. Rufus eyed her warily and backed away from the sheriff.
The big sheriff walked straight toward Mari with a purposeful glint in his eye. She gulped and backed away until he’d herded her straight into the trunk of a tree. He leaned down until they were nose to nose. “Let me put it this way, Marigold. If I catch you out here again I will turn you over my knee, flip up those skirts, and spank your grown woman backside. Are we clear?” he asked sternly.
Mari’s breath came out in a little squeak of shock at first as she stared up at him with wide purple eyes. “I… ummm… you can’t…”
“Don’t test me, little girl,” he said warningly as he straightened away from her and walked back to his horse.
“I’m not a little girl,” Mari whispered softly, suddenly wanting to cry.
The sheriff shook his head as he led his horse back to where she still stood beneath the tree. Without a word he caught her around the waist and lifted her into the saddle. She opened her mouth to protest but he stopped her with a raised brow. “Not a word, Marigold. You will ride and I will walk with Rufus and carry these berries that were so important you risked your safety.”
It was a long trip back to town.