Friday, February 20th, 1885
Winnie Freeman dismounted her mare and watched the little mercantile from across the road. Looking around at the dusty little town, she took note of how many Negros she saw walking the streets. The last thing she needed was to stick out like a sore thumb. She always knew she wasn’t welcome in the town that lay on the outskirts of her daddy’s farm. While treated with courtesy and civility, she was always painfully aware that the black sharecroppers in the area were welcome to conduct their business in town… and leave immediately.
According to the signage above most of the businesses, she was now in a town called Percival, Texas, where there were several black cowboys walking in and out of the town’s saloon, drinking and gambling with the white cowboys.
But as far as she could tell, she was the only Negro woman in town. She would still be somewhat of a sore thumb.
She weighed her options. The first was to ask the store owner for a job cleaning or cooking for a few meals, and then be on her way… and the second, to steal a can of beans under her coat, and share it with her long-suffering horse who was just as hungry and as terrified as she was.
Winnie cinched the insufficient coat around her chest to shield herself from the harsh February winds blowing through Percival, Texas, and strode purposefully to the front steps of the little store.
As she walked through the entrance, she saw a black man in a flannel shirt, chinos, chaps, and boots talking to the proprietor. Sturdy like an oak, he stood a head taller than the man behind the counter. His skin was a walnut brown, and at first glance one might have missed the wider nose and the fuller lips. His body bore the ruggedness of a man conditioned in manual labor since childhood. The cut of his shoulders and arms suggested power of strength, and the skin on his face was weather-beaten with a noticeable scar over his right eyebrow.
“I swear, Sam, sometimes I think if I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have no kind’a luck at all.”
She stood still, again, careful not to draw attention as she watched him. The cowboy was agitated as he spoke to the merchant. Winnie pretended to take an interest in a display case of cigars as she inched her way closer to their conversation.
“Don’t you know anyone who can do this job? I’m at the end of my rope. I ain’t looking for nothin’ fancy… just someone who can warm up beans and make a decent pot of coffee.”
“You know I’ll ask around, but this is awful short notice, Adam,” the proprietor said in a thick Irish accent. “You’re talking about taking off on the Chisholm Trail for a couple of months in just a few days.”
“I’ll do it,” Winnie said. She had surprised herself by speaking up, almost as though the outburst was involuntary. But her daddy had always said, Sometimes God speaks through you when you ain’t expectin’ it.
The cattleman turned around and regarded the girl with bemused condescension. “You’ll do what?”
“I’ll cook for you.”
He turned all the way around and leaned against the counter as he pushed the front of his hat above his brow with his finger. “And who are you?”
“You’re looking for a cook, right?” she said, ignoring the question.
“I’m a cook, mister. I’m a real good cook.”
“I’m sure you are.” He glanced over at the store merchant in amusement. “But this ain’t no job for a girl. Hell, there ain’t a lot of men who can handle it.”
“Ain’t no man can cook better than me, mister. I swear, I’ll do a real good job.” The desperation was overflowing with each groan of her stomach.
“Miss, you don’t seem to understand. This ain’t a job for a cook in a kitchen.”
Winnie tilted her head in confusion.
“This is for a chuck wagon cook.” When the blank look in her eye persisted, he went on. “It’s like a kitchen on wheels,” he said.
Winnie glanced at the merchant and then back at Adam as she gave little thought to her next lie. “O’course! I know what a chuck wagon is. I was just ‘spectin’ a kitchen job is all. But I worked a chuck wagon before,” she said as she allowed her eyes to roam over the canned goods on the shelves behind the counter.
The big cowman eyed her suspiciously, and Winnie thought she caught a hint of a smirk at his lips. “You? You handled a chuck wagon? On a cattle drive?” he said.
Winnie pursed her lips, wondering what would have made her lie so blatantly. She defiantly raised her chin with mock pride. “Yes, sir,” she said with a definite thrust of her bosom.
“Look, girl, I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing here, but I don’t have time to…”
“This ain’t no game, mister. I need a job real bad, and you need a cook, right? Chuck wagon cooking ain’t nothin’ compared to what I can do.” As much as she had lied already, she could honestly say that there was a spark of truth to her words. She had been taught to cook since the age of twelve by a Creole woman from New Orleans, and she knew she was certainly smart enough to figure out how to work a kitchen on wheels.
“I’m sorry, kid. I really am.” Adam turned back to the merchant. “Sam, if you think of anyone, send them out to the ranch, okay? I only have a few days to put this thing together.”
“I sure will, Adam,” Sam replied.
The big, black cowboy walked out of the store, and tread heavily past her as though she had been only a momentary figment of his imagination.
Winnie wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass her by without a fight. She clamped her mouth shut and watched his tall, broad frame as he sauntered by her. The muscles in his neck flexed with tension above the collar of his coat. He dressed as though he had money, and that scent of soap mingled with the smell of livestock suggested he had bathed recently. She knew custom-made boots when she saw them, and spied the gold chain of a pocket watch, clipped to his belt loop, that dangled teasingly about his muscled buttocks and disappeared under his coat.
She followed him outside and stood, watching him securing the girth under his saddle. She needed to get his attention before he rode away forever. She felt herself shout after him, “It looks to me like you ain’t got a lot o’ choices, mister. Looks like I’m all you got.”
The cowman raised his head, frowning. “Who are you? What the hell are you doing out here alone, anyway? Where’s your husband?”
She opened her mouth to introduce herself, and then she stopped and closed it before her name could escape her lips. She had to be careful. “I ain’t got no husband.”
“Well, the way you nag, I ain’t so surprised.”
Winnie’s heart sank. This was useless. He was clearly not going to hire her. It was just as well. She wouldn’t know a chuck wagon if one had run over her in the street. Her expression turned from assertive to defeated. She wanted to sit down on the steps of the mercantile, cover her face with her hands, and cry.
“Why don’t you tell me where you live? I’ll take you home,” he said. He sounded almost as if he felt bad for teasing her.
Winnie sighed and turned her head, staring off down the road in an attempt to hide the tears welling up in her eyes. The enormous Stetson hat she wore sloped down over her forehead and covered her ears. “Forget it, mister.” She abruptly turned and with a swish of her ugly dress and the stomp of her boots, she disappeared into the mercantile.
Adam shook his head. He knew the face of almost everyone who lived in town and on the neighboring farms and ranches. Hers was new.
He started to go in after her, but thought better of it. She wasn’t his responsibility, and he needed to stay on track and find a cook for the cattle drive. Ever since the man he had hired took ill a couple of days earlier and backed out of the job, Adam had been scrambling to replace him in order to stay on schedule.
Adam perked up his ears to the sound of the Percival Saloon a few steps down the road, and decided to take a look in there to see if anyone was drowning their unemployed sorrows in a bottle of whisky. He walked to the saloon front and stepped into the smoke-filled stench of unwashed men, heavy whore’s perfume, and old beer. It was teeming with all the local cowhands from the four largest ranches in the area, of which The Circle T was one. Cowpokes—white, black, Mexican, and Indian—filled the spacious saloon as they puffed, bickered, and bragged, and poured last week’s pay down their gullets.
He saw some of the men who worked with him on the Circle T Ranch. Most of the men hired for the drive were the transient Negro cowboys. They tended to show up this time of year looking for work, bunking down in the cowhands’ quarters for the end of the winter, and working the herds for the spring mating and birthing season. Half of them would get hired for that year’s cattle drive, and take off again at the end of the trail.
Adam had roots here. He was the only black foreman and trail boss in this territory, and anyone who didn’t know him, knew of him. Most treated him with respect, and those businesses run by people who resented his status simply lost out on the income from one of the four major ranches in the area, as he took his rather significant business elsewhere.
By most standards, the cowhands at the Circle T were treated and paid the best, and it wasn’t unusual for a surplus of eager men to show up every spring at the Circle T before they went looking for work at the neighboring ranches. But no amount of reputation was going to find an experienced trail cook on such short notice.
Adam stepped over to the bar and signaled for Rudy, the bartender.
“Hey, Adam,” Rudy said as he grabbed the whisky bottle and held it up for him.
“No, not today, Rudy, thanks. Can you tell me if anyone new has come in lately?”
“Still looking for a cook?”
“You cuttin’ it kind of close, huh, Adam?” Rudy said sympathetically.
“There’s always some damned surprise that throws me off schedule. Every damned year,” he said bitterly as he took his hat off and slapped it anxiously against his thigh.
“Sorry, Adam. It’s been the same old crowd for the last month. And as far as I know everyone’s got a job for the spring.”
Adam replaced his hat on his head and looked over the room once again to see if there was anyone he may have missed. At this rate, he was going to have to take a trip out to San Antonio to see if he could track down an unemployed cook in the city. That would take a few days out of his schedule when he had so much work to do to prepare for the drive to Abilene. He could probably teach a decent cook how to man the chuck wagon if he had to, and the money alone was the best pay a man could hope to get for only two months’ work.
Why was this so hard?
“You changing your mind about the whisky?” Rudy asked, noticing the anxiety in Adam’s face.
Adam raised his eyes and nodded. Just a quick one to warm the chilled ride back to the ranch before he had to pack up for his ride to San Antonio.
Suddenly the late afternoon light shot across the floor, and the voices in the room became quieter as eyes turned toward the entrance. Adam turned around, and saw that girl again standing in the frame of the door.
Or was she a woman? He couldn’t tell. He had assumed earlier that she was just a kid because of the way her clothes fit. A poor girl would have clothes big enough for her to grow into in the next few years. But this… this was the face of a full-grown woman. He looked a little closer, focusing on her body, but he couldn’t make out what kind of shape she had under that dress that just hung on her like wet draperies. He could tell she wasn’t petite, though. She had a nice height on her, at least 5′7″, and her face and neck were full and healthy underneath that tent of a dress.
He knew one thing, woman or girl, she didn’t belong in a saloon. Adam leaned back against the bar and glared at her. “What are you doing in here?”
The girl caught his gaze for a moment and then looked away, turning her back on Adam’s existence the way he had turned his back on her in the mercantile. She boldly marched over to the bartender, leaned over the bar, and said something in a low voice so that Adam couldn’t hear her. Rudy leered at her and told her to stand back, lift her dress to her knees, and turn around. She timidly stepped back, grabbed the front of her skirt and lifted it above a pair of huge, clunky boots, the rim knocking against her knees. She began slowly turning around like a nervous ballerina on a music box.
Rudy grinned lasciviously, and Adam immediately recognized the look in the greedy bastard’s eye. This would be a good business investment. A black whore during the months when the Negro cowpokes were all over town would be a boon for business. Rudy had let the black cowboys in his saloon because they spent a lot of money on beer and whisky, and once he did, profits increased almost thirty percent. But there wasn’t a white man in town who would put up with them touching his white girls. This girl could pick up the slack where he was missing out on the prostitution dollar. And on the off season, the white cowboys would probably want to play with a new toy.
Adam moved his gaze from Rudy to the girl. She reminded him of a rodeo clown with the huge balloon-like dress and the ridiculously oversized Stetson hat that wobbled on her head and almost completely covered her eyes. There was something about her that made him instinctively want to protect her from the horny bastards who frequented one of the busiest saloons outside of San Antonio.
He stood behind her and drained his glass. “I suppose you’ve done this kind of work, too, huh?”
The girl turned on him abruptly. “Go to hell.” Her voice was shaking, whether from anger or fear, he wasn’t sure.
Adam’s head flew back as though she had hit him with her fist, and a chorus of “ooooh” swelled the room as every cowboy within a ten-foot radius heard her rebuke. She stood her ground and lifted her chin. “What I done, or ain’t done, ain’t none of your business,” she said curtly.
One of the Negro cowhands standing at the bar suddenly took an interest in the girl, and sauntered up behind her, slipping his hand around her waist. “Now here’s a meal I can wrap my hands around! What’s your name, sweetheart?”
She stiffened, and took a deep breath as she dropped her eyes to the floor. Adam could tell that she hadn’t been in this position before. A wave of fear constricted her shoulders for only a moment, just long enough for Adam to catch before she forced herself to relax. She was desperate, and he could tell that whoring was her last resort.
But she’d do it.
“Ray…” Adam said to the man. “Back off.”
“I don’t think you can claim this one, Mister Adam. She don’t seem to like you so much,” Ray said jovially as he tightened his grip around her waist and pulled her close to him. This brought more chuckles from the patrons as the terrified girl’s breasts were pressed against his employee’s ribcage. His mouth was only seconds away from crushing down on hers.
“Ray! I said back off,” he said a bit more forcefully, as he kept his eyes glued on the girl. “Now.”
Ray frowned and released her. He lifted both hands in the air and shrugged innocently, stepping back. He didn’t need any trouble with the boss this close to the drive.
The girl locked her eyes with Adam’s, and he couldn’t decide if he saw confusion, anger, or gratitude in her eyes. He definitely recognized a twinge of embarrassment.
“You’re hired,” Adam said.