The sun sank slowly until it brushed against the horizon, making the western sky blush deep shades of red. Kate never noticed nature’s modesty. She was focused on the thin line of dirt in the distance as she peered through a small sliver in her crimson curtains that had faded to pink. The cloud of dust that floated lazily in the air soon became a train of horses that swept into town. Word of their arrival would spread through the Velvet Inn quickly. Kate knew that getting ready for the long night ahead of her should be her only priority, but curiosity chained her to the window.
The riders pulled up in front of the hotel, but did not dismount. Most sat still, while a few tapped the butts of the their guns nervously. Their attention seemed focused on the one who had led them into town on a horse as black as midnight. Enough daylight filtered through buildings for her to see that he was the only one not wearing a gun.
Kate found it strange the way they all watched the man on the black horse, as if waiting for instructions. His eyes slowly panned from one end of the town to the other. Without a word, he dismounted and the men with him immediately followed suit. As their boots touched the ground they turned from twenty hard faced riders to a band of friends who began laughing as they tended to their horses.
When Kate looked back to the man from the black horse she saw that his expression had remained unchanged as he continued his survey of their new surroundings. He was only a half-head taller than any of those he rode with, but something in the way he carried himself made him seem like a man among boys. A million bumps flecked her skin when his gaze lingered on the Velvet. Satisfied with whatever he saw, he turned and strode into the hotel across the street.
The men quickly busied themselves with a practiced routine of unloading and taking the horses to the stable. Kate slid away from the window and settled into her own routine.
A mix of upbeat piano music, laughter, and shouting found its way through the cracks in the floorboards as she finished powdering. Kate inspected herself in the mirror with disdain. Long ago she had learned that her eyes and smile were her best weapons. Her figure had never filled out like her mother’s and this gave her the look of a girl more than that of a woman. There never seemed to be a shortage of men who preferred that sort of thing though. Her father certainly had.
Kate stood and ran her hands over the tattered dress that hung from her thin shoulders. A deep breath transformed her countenance and with a carefully placed smile she left her room to find her perch.
The soft yellow glow of lamplight flickered over worn planks that lined the hallway. Kate’s nostrils cringed at the stale smell that escaped from each room she passed. She quickened her pace to the sounds that beckoned her from the main hall.
The arrival of men from out of town always brought a large crowd; most of them looking for news or hoping to win a few hands against some outsiders.
Kate looked out over the full house and began her secret game of find the pig. Who would be the twisted man looking for a child tonight? If she had to bet money, she would pick the fat man with the pockmarked cheeks sitting at the end of the bar. He had the look of a hawk eying mice as he watched the current of people flowing around the room. But she would never bet on it. If she had learned anything in her years at the Velvet, it was that you could never tell a pig just by looking.
Out of the corner of her eye Kate caught the motion of the doors swinging open. She turned to see the man who rode the black horse step inside. Once again, he stopped to measure everything around him with what Kate now saw were deep brown eyes. Satisfied with what he saw, he ambled over to an empty table.
It did not take long for Abbie to find her way over and see what his appetite might be for the evening. A quick exchange ended with a nod and a smile. She pranced back to the bar with her hips swaying. The corners of Kate’s mouth tightened into a real smile. It was hard to tell from her position on the balcony, but Kate thought that he must be handsome. Abbie only walked that way when she was willing to offer her own services for a gentleman.
Abbie returned a moment later with his glass of beer. He accepted it and tossed a coin lightly on the table in return. Abbie appeared to linger for a moment before shuffling off to check on her other patrons.
Kate’s eyes roamed the room, looking for the one who would beckon her, but they always seemed to return to the same table. There was something about this man that seemed to draw her. A quick look down the rail of the balcony showed that she was not the only one who felt it.
Reluctantly, she pulled her eyes away and began her sweep of the room again purposely avoiding his table. But her strength did not last and when her eyes found him again he was talking to Leon.
Kate could not imagine why this man was spending so much time talking to a slave. Their conversation drew quite a few looks. Leon was bright enough to know that would only mean trouble for him. He tried to excuse himself, but the man spilled his beer and Leon pulled out his rag to clean up the mess.
Leon quickly cleaned the table. He spoke as he worked and when he finished he took the empty mug to fetch a refill. Something that the man said stopped Leon in his tracks for a split second before he hurried away. The moment Leon was gone, the man looked up to scan the balcony. Kate felt a growing ball of nervousness deep in her stomach. His eyes passed the more popular girls and came to rest on her. He had found whatever he was looking for. She knew that she should go to him, but her legs would not cooperate.
Waves of confusion threaten to drown her as she watched Abbie, instead of Leon, return with a fresh beer. He raised his arm and Abbie followed the imaginary line to where Kate was digging her nails into the railing. Quick exchanges meant that they were bartering, but Kate could not figure out what for. If he wanted her, the price was set.
A simple nod from Abbie signaled that they had finally come to an agreement. Abbie turned with a look that Kate had never seen before and beckoned her. It took all her strength to let go of the railing and climb down the stairs without falling. Two sets of eyes tracked her every move as she weaved through the room to where Abbie and the stranger were waiting.
The man stood as she arrived and looked into her eyes until she dropped them to stare at the blood and beer stained floor.
“We have a deal?”
His voice was deep, and seemed to carry a nervousness that Abbie might change her mind. Kate looked up to see what she would have thought was sadness if it had been in any other eyes that Abbie’s.
“We do. Enjoy your prize.”
The man pulled out a leather pouch and removed several bills. It was far more money than Abbie would charge for her best girl. Kate clamped her hands together to stop them from shaking. Other girls had whispered about a man who had paid triple the price for a girl named Rose the year before Kate had arrived. They said that half that money went to the doctor just to keep her alive for weeks after. A month later they had to fish her out of Snakeback Canyon.
He handed the bills to Abbie and she counted them again. Satisfied, she turned to Kate one last time. Her mouth cracked as if she wanted to speak, but left only silence as she whirled around and stalked off.
Instincts caused her to look up when he spoke. He was the most handsome man she had ever seen, but his dark brown eyes still terrified her. She reminded herself that you could never tell by looking at a man what he was inside.
Thoughts of the playful flirtations she was required to offer could not overcome the fear of what lay before her. She uttered a “Follow me” that was barely audible.
Time seemed to both stretch out and race by as he followed her upstairs. His boots cast hollow echoes with each step they took down the quiet hallway. She could not rid herself of the fear that raced inside her, but resolved to not let this pig see it.
Kate opened her door and ushered him in. She watched with morbid fascination as he walked immediately over to the mirror and picked up her brush. The sound of the door closing caused him to turn back to her.
She commanded herself to be strong as she strolled across the room. As she stopped within arms reach of him she could not help but notice that he still held the brush in his right hand. All her strength could not hold back the single tear that escaped to crawl down her cheek, but she held her head high in fierce defiance of this single weakness.
Kate reached up to the straps that rested on her shoulders and began to slide them off. In a blur of motion his hands shot out and firmly but gently clamped on top of hers.
They stood frozen for nearly a minute before he slowly took his hands away. Her arms fell limp at her sides. He bent to pick up the brush he had dropped and held it out for her. Kate could not force herself to move and take it.
“I don’t understand.”
The man turned around and replaced the brush on the small dresser.
“Gather your things. We will be leaving in the morning.”
Kate could hear her voice shaking as she asked, “Leaving? Where are you taking me?”
He placed his hands on her shoulders and waited for her to meet his gaze. She could feel a difference in his touch. It was not as if he owned her, but as if he were trying to give her strength.
“No man will ever again take from you what you do not want to give. My home is seven days ride from here. You will come with me. My wife, May, will want to meet you. From there, you are free to do as you choose. Stay or go, it’s up to you, but no one can make a bread pudding like my May.”
A broad smile broke across his face when he spoke of his wife and widened at the mention of the bread pudding.
“But… but… I belong to Abbie. Daddy sold me to her.”
“And I paid well to make sure that will never happen again.”
“I ain’t worth nothin’ mister! I ain’t never gonna be able to pay you back.”
Laughter bounced off walls that had never known it before.
“Worth has nothing to do with money Katherine. And I hope you will never speak of paying me back again. If you could it wouldn’t be much of a gift now would it?”
Author’s Note: Have you ever heard or read a story that you wish you could write the ending to? This story was born from that desire. Kate is not my own creation, but belongs to a phenomenal writer named Annie. I am humbled and honored that she would give me her permission to add my own simple words the story that she has woven. If you would like to meet the author who’s work inspired this piece, you can find her here. Just click on the “Kate” page to read more of her amazing story.