I was startled awake to the sound of, "Next stop, Dodge City. Next stop, Dodge City, Kansas." The brakes squealed as we pulled into the station. The car gave a jolt as the train came to a stop. I groaned as I stood, the train had only stopped once, in Memphis, and my legs we stiff.
As Grace and I stepped off the train, I squinted to try and see through the smoke covering the platform like haze. I smiled for the first time in days when I spotted a large man waving at us from the edge of the station.
"Grace, Cat!" Uncle Billy made his way over to us and scooped up Grace in a bone-crushing hug. She glanced at me for help.
"Grace, you're more beautiful every time I see you. How is it you're not married yet?" I let a giggle slip before he turned his attention on me. "Kitty Cat, when did you get so tall? Last time I saw you, you were begging me for a piggy back ride." He brought me in for a hug. His jacket was a rough cow hide that smelled of smoke and horses. It was somehow comforting to me.
"Come on, ladies, I've got Seth getting your bags." Uncle Billy offered us each an arm as he led us over to on open wagon drawn my two black horses. Getting onto the wagon was a different story. It involved climbing onto the large wheel before clambering onto the rough, wooden seat.
"I'll be right back, girls. I'll go help Seth with your things." Uncle Billy returned shortly with a grey-haired man who walked with a slight limp. After placing our things in the back, Billy climbed onto the seat next to us.
Dodge City was bigger than I expected it to be. It was complete with a bank, general store, hotel, saloon, and church along with a vast array of other buildings and houses. Once we made it out of town, there wasn't much else around except for the occasional ranch or cabin. I had never before felt so small. The land seemed to stretch on forever, the horizon blending seamlessly into the clear blue sky. It took less than an hour to get to the ranch, but we were jostled around in our seats the entire time. Grace and I sighed in relief when we passed under the sign telling us we were entering the Carson Cattle Ranch.
"It may not seem like much, but the land from here all the way to those trees on the horizon is all my land." As Uncle Billy pointed out the boundaries of the land, the wagon pulled in front of the large barn positioned beside the house. He helped Grace and I down before giving directions to some of his ranch hands on what to do with the wagon and horses.
"Come on, you two, let me show you the house." He led us across the yard and through the front door. "I know it's not as grand as your house in Smithville, but I hope you'll come to think of it as home."
He was mostly right, it wasn't much. It was one large room for the kitchen and living space with a small bedroom off to the side. It was small and sparsely furnished, but it was warm and cozy inside. It felt like someplace that could one day feel like home.
There was a knock on the door, and a tall man with a beard that smelled vaguely of manure, carried our bags in before going back outside.
"You girls can take the bedroom and I'll bunk out with my ranch hands." Billy brought our things into the bedroom before returning with an armful of his belongings.
"Oh, no, this is your house, Uncle Billy, we couldn't possibly take your bedroom," Grace protested.
"Don't think anything of it, you two are the only kin I have left. I just want to make sure you're looked after properly." He smiled at us, warmly. It was the smile I remember when he used to visit us in Georgia when I was a little girl.
I leaned forward to hug him. As he wrapped his arms around me and I buried my face in his chest, I felt like a little girl again. A little girl who ran to him crying her eyes out because the boy next door had pulled her hair. "Thank you. Thank you so much for taking us in when daddy died."
He just pulled me in closer for a tight squeeze before pulling back and gazing down at me. "Don't think anything of it, darling. Now, go get yourselves all settled in. Supper's in an hour, Cookie's making his special stew just for you two." He winked before leaving through the front door.
"Well," Grace smiled over at me, "let's go have a look at our new room, shall we?"
Through a small wooden door set against the wall was our bedroom....if you could even call it that. It was more like a closet with a bed in the center and a wardrobe against one wall. The was a window above the bed with a fantastic view of the cattle field.
Grace laughed and pointed at the frilly white curtains hanging over the window. "Uncle Billy went all out, didn't he."
I giggled as I began to hang up our few dresses in the wardrobe. After I was finished, I stepped back to see all the space that was left. "Grace, maybe we should go into town sometime and buy some material. We should use a few dresses that are better for work."
"Work? You don't think we'll be working on the cattle ranch with Uncle Billy and all those men do you?"
"Well, why not? We are living here now. So, why don't we help out some?"
"Cat, they don't need us getting in there way. Besides, Uncle Billy told me that the town was looking for a new school teacher and asked if I might like the job. Perhaps you could come teach the children with me, or maybe find something else to do besides trying to be a cowboy."
"School teacher? But, you've never taught a day in your life. Why would they let you teach?"
"They are letting me teach, because finding a woman who is willing to do it and knows how to read and write well is a rarely out here. And why not make some use for myself rather than sit here on the ranch all day."
"Fine, I give. If they give you the job, I'll come help you out at the school house."
"Good, school starts in a couple weeks anyhow, and they still need a teacher. I'm a shoo-in."
It was the next week that Grace and I took the wagon into town to shop and clean up the schoolhouse. The town was fairly busy for a Thursday afternoon. After we bought enough material from the general store to make us two new dresses each, we went to the far edge of town to see what the schoolhouse was like.
We stood outside staring up at it in shock. "Cat, when the sheriff said it had been closed down a while, I didn't think he meant it was entirely dilapidated."
A chuckle escaped my throat as I contemplated the daunting task that was ahead of us. The building was one room, with a door off its hinges, a shattered window, and an old rusty bell hanging next to the door. Apparently, there hadn't been a school teacher in Dodge City for years.
"Well, let's get started, we have just over three days before school starts," I said before rolling my sleeves up to my elbows and walking inside.
It was just over an hour later that I was scrubbing down the chalkboard while Grace was outside sweeping off the stone steps in front of the door. I heard the approach of someone on horseback. From where I was, I could see Grace through one of the windows. The man who road up was tall, and handsome with golden hair just like my sisters. I could tell by the suit he was wearing that he was rich for sure.
"Good afternoon, ma'am, you must be Miss Carson if I'm not mistaken. I heard you were the new schoolteacher." The man's voice carried through the front door.
"Hello," my sister replied. "You're not mistaken. I'm Grace Carson. It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."
I wasn't sure what it was, but something about the strange man rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe he was too cocky, or perhaps it was the way he looked at Grace, like a lion smiling down at an antelope. But something about his voice ran a chill down my spine.
"It's nice to meet you too, Miss Carson. My name is Travis Stetson."