Authors: Stef Ann Holm
“We'll take everything out first, then scour the bed.” J.D. laid his hand on the wagon's side and
hopped in. He tossed Rio the bows and tarp that went on top. “Air out that canvas sheet,” he told him. Then to Hazel, “Hazel, get the boiling water and lye soap.”
J.D. could have sworn he heard Josephine stifle a groan.
“You stand over here,” he directed her, “and take what I hand you.”
Josephine came forward.
The cooking vessels, which had been coated with a layer of grease to prevent rust, had now accumulated an additional coating of winter dust and particles of hay. They'd all have to be washed out with the lye soap and sand to remove the grease, both burned and unburaed.
“Make a pile over there,” J.D. told her, motioning toward the large kettle of water Hazel had set up earlier. Then he gave her a skillet and pan he thought for sure she'd drop. The cast-iron vessels were heavy, and he could see she was barely able to manage holding on to both of the slippery, lard-covered handles at the same time. But she did. Once at the designated spot, she haphazardly dropped them, then stared at her soiled hands. She examined one of her fingernails with a frown.
J.D. gave her more cookware to stack without a break in between. She must have made the trip a good two dozen times before they'd unloaded it all. She never uttered a single protest.
“Come here, and I'll show you the chuck box,” J.D. said as he jumped down from the bed.
Josephine followed him to the back of the wagon, where a high chest had been mounted. Dropping down the tall tailgate, which served as a table, J.D. assessed the compartment. The shelves of the cupboard showed signs of where the rats and mice had wintered.
“Take all the drawers out. They have to be washed, too.”
Dutifully, she nodded. She hadn't said much all morningâwhich suited J.D. fine. He wasn't much of a talker when he was working.
Josephine had no sooner put her hand on one of the knobs and pulled, when she let out a blood-curdling scream that had J.D. palming his Colt.
s Josephine sprinted across the yard, J.D.'s yell of “What's wrong?” followed her.
She couldn't answer him. She just kept on running and screaming until she came to the shed door and pressed her back against it. Out of breath, she gasped. The skin on her arms tingled with gooseflesh.
“What the hell is wrong?” J.D. asked, storming down on her. He brandished a big gun. She gulped. Fighting for air, she remained silent.
His gaze scanned the ground from the spot on which she stood to the wagon. Since there was nothing to be seen, he apparently thought the coast was clear; he reholstered his revolver.
Rio called from behind, “What's going on, boss?”
“I don't know,” J.D. yelled back, then faced Josephine. “What's going on?”
In between the short, huffy pants that possessed her breath, she managed to get out, “M-m-m-mâ”
“There was a m-mouse in the drawer.”
The fear of it still pounded through Josephine's veins. Though the offending creature had been so
motionless it could have been dead before she'd discovered it, she'd instinctively run for safety. A rodent was a rodent. Dead or alive.
J.D. backed away, his eyes full of disgust. “Hell, cookie,” he chided in a tight voice, “if it had been something poisonous, I could see why you'd run.”
When he used that tone, she felt restless and irritable. “Maybe you're used to rodents, Mr. McCall, but I'm not.”
“You better get used to them,
There could be more in that wagon.”
His second-in-a-row reference to her as “cookie” had her lifting her chin and boldly meeting his eyes. She'd let the other times slip by because she hadn't wanted to confront him for fear he'd dismiss her. But when he spoke the word in that mannerâemphasized and sarcasticâher lips thinned. She responded without thought.
“Kindly refrain from addressing me as a piece of oven-baked dough. I'm neither flat nor round, and at this moment especially I'm not at all sweet. You may engage my services, but that doesn't give you the right to speak down to me. I have been in your position, Mr. McCall, and to my credit I can say that I was always civil and courteous to the staff employed in my household. Call me Miss Whittaker or, if you must, Josephine. But don't call me Cookie.”
Stunned by her own outburst, Josephine stood there, mouth agape, waiting for the tongue-lashing that would surely come next. All her life, she'd never talked back for fear her father would take her to task or Hugh would tell her she was being unreasonable.
The longer J.D. stared at her, she realized that nothing was going to happen. No tirades. No chastisement. No berating. Nothing.
“I'll remember that,” he said at length. Then, with a long stride, J.D. left. Only when he was gone did she let out her breath. She'd done it. She'd actually spoken her mind and hadn't been punished for it.
Josephine vented a few quick half-gasps that were more like tiny, nervous laughs. “My goodness,” she spoke to herself, more in awe by the second.
Uncertain of her next move, Josephine lingered. J.D. had climbed back into the wagon. She had no desire to go near it again until every nook and cranny had been searched. She watched as Hazel added another coffeepot of hot water to the wide-mouthed kettle. The one-eyed man wasn't as frightening as she'd gathered by his appearance alone. His voice had been as soft as down.
As he mixed the soapy water with a wooden paddle, she knew what was to come. The washing. In less than twenty-four hours of gainful employment, she didn't recognize her own hands.
Josephine pushed away from the shed and began rolling her sleeves up a few notches higher. She found that in trousers her walk took on a more casual and less careful step, as she didn't have to worry about tripping over her petticoats. At first, she'd been adamantly opposed to wearing men's clothingâmuch less J.D. McCall's. But the shirt and pants were clean. They smelled like sunshine and soap. Not lye, but another variety. And they smelled vaguely like the man who owned them. She couldn't put her finger on the source, but it reminded her of leather to a certain degree. And perhaps, too, of tobacco, though not the sickly sweet blend her father smoked in his pipe.
There were, however, tradeoffs to the masculine garb. In denim trousers, the outlines of her legs showed. Though the pants weren't tight, the definition was still there, and it made her feel painfully exposed.
Nearing the kettle, Josephine decided to plunge into the dishes without being told rather than return to the wagon and more mice.
Although less leery about Hazel, Josephine still skirted around him widely to get to the pots and pans. She dumped them one right after the other into the
pot, causing a flow of water to run over the rim and spot her French kid shoes.
“What are you doing?”
She barely turned toward the direction of J.D.'s voice. “Washing dishes.”
She was glad he didn't take issue with her, though her relief was short-lived when he said, “When you're done with those, you've got all that.”
She followed his gaze to Rio Cibolo, who was crouched by the front wheel of the wagon with a bucket of thick black paste. At his back was an immense stack of plates and tin cups, not to mention a mound of knives, forks, and spoons.
Forcing her thoughts at bay, Josephine kept her mind on one pot at a time.
After a while, Hazel drew up to her with a bucket.
“Ma'am, I need some of your water.”
She moved her waterlogged hands out of the way, mindful of how she gazed at Hazel. She didn't want to stare into his good eye or overly linger at the patch. The simple fact was, there was no place to look at Hazel's face without potentially insulting him. So she cast her eyes downward and watched his hands.
He had stubby fingers with cracked thumbnails embedded with lines of dirt. A scab covered one knuckle, and blue veins rose distinctly on the backs of his hands as he held on to the bucket's handle.
“Thank you, ma'am.”
Hazel hoisted the bucket to J.D., who emptied it on the wagon floor and then called for another. From the corner of her eye, Josephine watched J.D. as he stood tall waiting for Hazel to return with more water. He removed his hat and tunneled his fingers through his thick hair before settling the leather hat back on.
“This is the last I'll be disturbing you, ma'am,” Hazel said as he dunked the bucket into the tepid water. Then he climbed into the wagon with J.D. to scrape out the cracks, corners, and nailheads for what she assumed were an accumulation of dirt and grease.
While they did that, Josephine continued to wash. And scour. And scrub.
Periodically, a cowboy would come over and talk to J.D., all the while stealing glimpses of her. One by one they'd come. She lost count after thirteen. Each time, J.D. would send them off with a quick glance in her direction and a shake of his head. She didn't like being on display. She'd run away from that. As a child, she may have enjoyed dressing up in her mother's best finery and playing lady for attention, but now she didn't want to be an ornament.
By the time she plopped the last fork into the rinsing water, she was ready to crawl back into bed for a week. Muscles that had never been abused in such a manner achedâher lower back, her forearms, her legs. Her hands were sore, the skin wrinkled. Her fingernails were an abomination.
Squaring her shoulders to stretch the tension from them, she gazed around at the conglomeration of pots, pans, and skillets in various sizes, the utensils, plates, cups, and silverwareâall laid out to dry on the grass beneath the sun. In disbelief, she wiped her hands on a soggy kitchen towel to the amazing thought that she had cleaned every last piece herself. Though the defining emotion was foggy, she almost feltÂ .Â .Â . satisfied.
A tinny peal erupted from the porch. Josephine spied Boots at the triangle. Stoop-shouldered, he put a lot of zeal into the banging of the metal. “The banquet awaits, fellers!” he hollered. “Grab 'er now, or I'll throw 'er out!”
Josephine heard J.D. grumble above the noise, “Throw it outÂ .Â .Â .”
Her gaze veered to him. He was still standing in the wagon's bed, which was gleaming from the ash and sand he and Hazel had used on the wood. His arm was propped on the end of a mop handle, supporting the mop upright. His firm mouth was curved in an expression bordering on cynical.
J.D. caught her looking, and she felt the need to say something as she folded the towel. “We've finished just in time for lunch.”
He rewarded her with a sheepish smile that quickly turned out to be a wolfs in disguise. “Miss Whittaker, we've barely even started.”
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“I couldn't believe it when I saw her things still in that room this morning,” Boots said around a bite of toast.
“Close your trap, Boots,” J.D. cautioned, eating while trying not to taste what was in his mouth.
The others at the table kept their heads down and wolfed what was in front of them so they could be quickly on their way back to the corral and the yard.
Boots waved a spoon. “I figured y'all would've sent her packing after last night.”
J.D. stabbed the air with his finger in the direction of Boots. “I'd keep her on just to irritate you.”
“Good gawd, y'all hate me that much.” Boots dove the spoon into a side plop of beans on his plate. “I'm telling Hazel to shoot me in the head when my number is up. I'm going to cheat you out of the chance to watch me turn into a drooling old man.”
“You already are an old man.”
“But, by gawd, I don't drool!” Boots shouted.
With that, the crew made a fast exodus out the front door.
Shoving his half-eaten plate aside with disgust, J.D. remembered a time when Boots had talked like a southern gentleman. Over the years, his drawl had become a blend of western quips with only lingering traces of the Mississippi dialect present.