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The Cowgirls of Serratogha.
By Wendy Scott.
A companion scene to my fantasy WIP, ‘Rainmaker’.
My spirits lifted when I spied structures rising above the prairie. For the last three days, the landscape had consisted of uninterrupted cornflower skies above an endless sea of grassland. Occasionally, a wild cow had burst out of the greenery and trotted alongside the horses, before abandoning our company to munch on the juiciest shoots lining the roadside.
I grasped the seat as my boss snapped the reins, urging the horses to quicken their pace. The wooden wheels creaked, and the glass bottles in the back of the wagon chinked together, but Zachery didn’t ease up. Towns equalled business and Dr. Zachery Theopold Montgomery knew how to charm the purse strings open from even the most sceptical non-believers.
This place wasn’t like any of the other towns Zachery plied his lies. Most townships’ main thoroughfares consisted of churned sludge. A medley of mud and manure, with a few planks placed precariously over stagnant puddles. Dried splotches marked my breeches from where I’d previously stumbled into a knee-deep pothole filled with slush I hoped was only mud and water.
Up close, there were only a handful buildings, but a freshly painted signpost declared we’d entered the township of Serratogha. The horses’ hooves clip-clopped on a smooth expanse of cobblestones. Pastel pink paint coated the hotel, tubs overflowed with rainbow-hued pansies and white roses entwined the veranda posts. I breathed in the floral scents. It sure smelt sweeter than any of the other places we’d passed through.
Laughter tinkled from above, and a feminine voice purred, “Theo, you old snake charmer, about time you came back for a visit. Ya’ll make sure you mark my dance card.”
A lacy handkerchief dangled out of another upstairs window. “Forget dancing, come and play tie-ups.”
Zachery straightened and pushed his shoulders back, but the brass buttons on his red jacket strained across his chest and stomach. “Gals, no need to fight over me. I plan on being here for a few days, so plenty of time for us all to get acquainted.”
A blonde head peeked out a third window. “Don’t be shy. Bring your good-looking friend.”
Zachery’s ginger eyebrows arched as he coaxed the horses around the corner. “Shame on you, ladies. Harper’s a mere lad of fourteen.”
“Not for long. We’d make a man out of him.”
My cheeks reddened, and I slunk down on the wagon seat.
Window boxes, bursting with sunflowers decorated the stables, and the same shade of pink paint glazed the boards. As soon as we pulled up, two teenage girls, garbed in tight legged chaps, pink and white checked shirts, and cowboy hats darted up to the side of the wagon. Zachery climbed down and tossed the reins at the tallest girl.
One leather-gloved hand caught them. “Jersey-Jayne said for you to go on up to the bathhouse first, as she wants to discuss business. Daisy and I will see to your horses, and we’ll secure your wagon out back.”
Zachery flicked a couple of brass coins toward the other girl. “Young ladies, I’m much obliged.”
He unbuttoned his coat, stuck his thumbs inside his suspenders, and whistled as he pranced towards a third pink-frosted building. I scrambled after him.
Bells chimed on the door, announcing our entry. A placard on the wall listed the range of bathing services available at the ‘Squeaky Inn’. I wasn’t sure what they all meant, and the lowest price was more than I’d earn in a month. Back home, our mamma had insisted her seven children all bathe monthly. We had to share the tepid, murky water and I reckon sometimes I emerged filthier than before I took a dip in the tin tub.
Beaded curtains swished aside, discharging a fully grown woman. Under her pink cowboy hat, dark chocolate plaits swayed on either side of her doll face. Her checked shirt was unbuttoned, but hog-tied under her breasts, revealing a mountainous cleavage, and tanned midriff. Zachery licked his fingers and fussed with his ginger moustache, smoothing the ends until they resembled feline whiskers.
She slipped her arm through his elbow. “Welcome to Serratogha. I’m Jersey-Jayne, Head Wrangler for the cowgirls. Come through, and let’s get you all cleaned up before we discuss business. My girls report that you specialize in elixirs that are beneficial for enhancing particular social activities.”
“You’re well informed, little lady.” He patted a bottle-shaped bulge in his jacket pocket. “Fortunately, I have brought some samples with me. May I be so bold to suggest we partake in a demonstration where we can mix business and pleasure?”
My face flamed, wishing I’d never agreed to be his assistant. I shouldn’t have left the family farm. Zachery turned to me and made shooing motions. “Harper, out back there’s facilities for the hired help. Go and wash up. I’ll see you at suppertime in the hotel.”
Outside I found tendrils of steam escaping from a trough of frothy water scented with lavender. I’d never had a bath all to myself before. No one was around, so I stripped off my stained clothes and slid into the water. Travel-weary muscles unwound, and I closed my eyes. Bliss.
“Is that a tattoo?”
A tidal wave sloshed over the side as I bolted awake. Daisy, the shorter stable girl, peered at the feather shape on my arm. I was thankful for the camouflaging layer of bubbles.
“No, it’s a birthmark.”
She pulled back her shirt sleeve and compared the tanned, but unblemished skin on her forearm against my cinnamon tones. “Are you from the Tribes?”
I shook my head. “I’ve never laid eyes on a native. Zachery mentioned he’d once taken one on as an assistant, but he didn’t last long as he was a drunkard. Reckons they’re all horse-thieving savages.”
Daisy shrugged. “I dunno about that. Anyways, I brought you some clean clothes and a towel.” She scooped up my discarded outfit. “If you want, when you’re done, I can show you around.”
I leapt out of the cooling water and scooted into the garments before she returned. They fit well and were of a better quality than the ones I’d been wearing. I wondered if I’d get to keep them. Zachery wasn’t fond of spending coins on anyone but himself.
Five minutes later, Daisy appeared. “Come on. Follow me, and I’ll show you the real Serratogha.”
A path, well trampled by many boots, cut through the tall grass and led away from the township. We threaded past corrals filled with cattle. Further afield, cowgirls on horseback steered herds of cattle in and out of the larger pastures. Ahead, smoke rose from several chimneys and mingled with the smell of manure. This settlement was much larger than the sugar-coated town we’d come from. There were over fifty dwellings, including a church, and trading post. Bright flags fluttered from posts, wind chimes swung in the breeze, and cow horns adorned gates.
Daisy grinned. “Most gentlemen visitors don’t know this place exists. They don’t tend to venture far from the bathhouse or the hotel.”
High-pitched giggles followed a horde of barefoot children who skipped around the houses. Their contrasting shades of hair and skin reminded me of my cavalcade of brothers and sisters. Annabel and Sue-Ellen, blue-eyed and fair, like our mother. Ginger curls and green eyes complimented Katie’s pale skin. The twins, Billie and Willie, sported light brown hair and hazel eyes. Jimbo was the spitting image of our Pa, with his darker shade of brown hair and grey eyes. And then there was me with my straight raven-hair and amber eyes.
One small boy with feathers threaded in his dark hair paused and stared at me. Amber eyes met amber eyes for a brief second before he raced off and joined his friends. The feather mark on my arm tingled.
“You sure you’re not part native?” asked Daisy.
Pa’s leaving words flooded my thoughts. Is this what he’d been hinting at? Could it be that he wasn’t my real father? And if he wasn’t, who was?