Travis Stetson was the wealthiest and most powerful man in Dodge City. After his father died, he inherited Stetson banks and all the fortune that came with them. He owned nearly every bank in Kansas. Outwardly, he seemed kind enough. But, it was something about his eyes that made me uneasy. It was if they didn't quite match his charming smile. It was something cold and dark, deep beneath their pale blue.
What made me even more uneasy was the fact that he seemed to be interested in Grace. He had stopped by the school house two days in a row with flowers for her. She accepted them politely, but I couldn't tell if she returned his affections or not.
I put him out of my mind once school started the following Monday. I had no talent for teaching, but luckily, Grace took over most of that aspect of it. For the most part, the children seemed exited to be able to attend school. There had not been a schoolteacher in years, so most of the children were illiterate. It was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. I had never before realized how difficult it would be to teach children who didn't even know the alphabet.
Apart from the challenges, I fell in love with the job instantly. It wasn't so much the teaching that I loved, but the children. They were a mixture of the poor, children of farmers, and the offspring of the town’s shopkeepers and wealthier occupants. It was difficult at times teaching around twenty children ages ranging from six to thirteen, but worth it all the same.
Before I realized it, we had been living at the ranch for a nearly three months. The harvest season had just begun so school was closed until it was over. As most of the children were the offspring of farmers, they were needed at home. These days seemed to crawl by as Grace and I stayed at home, bored out of our minds. We had nothing to do but help around the house. After the first week, I couldn't stand it anymore. So, I plucked up the courage and made my way out to the barn where Uncle Billy was working. I found him in one of the stalls brushing down a beautiful black horse.
He glanced up from his work. "Well, hey darlin'. Nice to see one of you girls come visit me out here."
"Uncle Billy", I began. I shifted nervously on my feet, my hands fidgeting in front of me. "Will you teach me how to ride and shoot like a cowboy?"
He chuckled deep in his chest. "I'd love to teach you, Kitty Cat. But why do you wanna learn anyhow?"
"Well, I wanted to learn when I first arrived here, but with school and everything it never crossed my mind to bother you about it. But, because of the harvest I'm bored out of my mind in that house."
"Have you talked to your sister about this?"
"Grace doesn't exactly approve of me wanting to learn. She doesn't think it's ladylike."
He sighed before waving me into the stall. "Well, come on then." Uncle Billy then showed me how to properly saddle a horse. Once I mastered all of the buckles and straps, I tried my hand at mounting. It felt odd. As a child I had only ever ridden ride saddle while the horse was being led by one of our servants. I grinned as I looked down at my uncle from atop the noble beast. "Can we go for a ride, now?"
"I don't see why not." Uncle Billy led my horse out of the barn into the bright sunlight. "Now, take the reins. If he starts moving, just give em a yank and he'll stop. Don't kick him; just hold still til I come back." He left me alone for a few minutes as he saddled his horse. I took the time to run my fingers through the soft black mane of the horse.
Uncle Billy came out leading a brown and white horse which he mounted and made his way over to me. "Now, Cat, to make him start walking, just give him a little nudge with your heels." I did just that and my horse began walking away from the barn, Uncle Billy rode by my side. "Now, to go left just pull on the left side of the reigns and the same for the right."
"How do I make him go faster?" I inquired.
"You give him a little sharper kick, but let's just walk for now."
We rode for the rest of the afternoon, before heading back to the barn. By the time we put the horses away and got back to the house, the sun was going down and Grace was standing in front of the house with her hands on her hips. "Cat, where have you been? You've been gone all afternoon."
"Well, Uncle Billy has been teaching me how to ride a horse." I glanced up at my sister through my eyelashes.
"Horseback riding? Uncle Billy, you've been teaching her how to ride a horse? Do you realize how unladylike that is? Next thing you know she'll be chewing tobacco and shooting a rifle. We were raised to be Southern lady's not cowboys."
Uncle Billy led us into the house before responding. "You girls are living in the west now. It wouldn't hurt to learn how to properly ride. It's much easier and faster than taking the wagon into town every day. And Cat has asked me to teach her how to shoot, and I intend on teaching her. That doesn't mean she'd going to stop dressing like a lady and herding cattle."
I could tell the argument with Grace was useless, but she dropped the subject. I knew she would never approve, but she never spoke about it after that. Over the next few weeks, I learned how to ride a horse very well, and I had taken to riding across our property most every morning. Uncle Bill even taught me how to shoot both a rifle and a revolver. I wasn't very good at first, but with more practice, I slowly got much better at my aim.
It was a couple weeks before school was to start, in early October, when we got the first snowfall of the season. It was light and barely stuck to the ground, but its presence marked the beginning of the end my life as I knew it.
It was late afternoon when the front door banged open and four of the ranch hands burst in leading Uncle Billy in and sitting him down at the kitchen table. There was a cloth wrapped around his left hand, it was once been a cream color, but was now crimson, soaked through with blood. Grace immediately knelt at his feet and unwrapped his hand. She gasped as she looked at his palm. The skin was shredded as blood trickled down his wrist. I pressed my back against the rough wooden wall, the room swimming.
"What happened?" Grace turned to one of the ranch hands.
One of the men stepped forward. "We was puttin up a fence in the North field when he sliced open his hand on some rusty barbed wire."
Uncle Billy looked pale like he was about to lose consciousness. Grace cleaned his wound as best as she could before putting him to bed. She sent for a doctor, but it was over a week before one came. By then, infection had set in and so had a raging fever. Our beloved uncle had died along with our dreams of having a happy life on the cattle ranch.
We had to sell the ranch and move in to a small dilapidated house in town. Luckily we still had our job at the schoolhouse to pay for it. Ignoring Grace's disapproval, I saved up enough money to by myself a mare. She was a beautiful soft brown. Grace claimed that we had no need of a horse when the school house a five minute walk away. But, I still loved to ride whenever I could. To ride away from town, I could pretend that I was leaving for good. Setting off on an adventure that I was sure I would never have. But, I always came back. I had the children and my sister. I could never leave her.