I rode under the overcast sky losing track of time as my mind travelled everywhere from the dark depths of my past to the strange possibilities of the future.
Outlaw. The word sounded so much better than “painted lady” or “saloon girl”. Outlaw referred to someone entirely different from one who served drunken men. I still wondered if I might wake up in my room with the young cowboy’s arms still wrapped possessively around me. I felt as though I were either in a dream or dead. Both seemed to be the only possibilities to my exhausted mind.
I pulled on my horses’s reins when a pond consisting of more than mud came into view. I jumped down from the saddle and nearly toppled over. I hadn’t realized how painful and exhausting half a day’s ride would be.
My weakened legs shook as I led the horse to the water. Keeping a hold on the rope, I wandered along the water’s edge, pinching my arm several times. I felt pain, which likely meant that I was not a ghost. I was simply living some other life that I was not prepared for in the least.
The tall cat tails rustled to my right and I jumped at the sight of a straw hat appearing above the long grasses. My hand rested on the hand gun secured in my belt. It had one bullet in it and the last thing that I wanted to do was use it at the beginning of my journey.
“Hello?” I called, forgetting to lower my voice.
A soft, sun kissed face appeared from beneath the hat.
“You know how to use that thang?” asked the strange woman.
“I’ve been huntin’ since I was fourteen, Ma’am.”
I took my hand off the weapon.
“Runnin’ away from home?”
“Somethin’ like that. I should be on my way.”
“I was huntin’ frogs. I’ve grown tired of eating potato soup and my shakin’ hands ain’t reliable for huntin’ these days. Ya hungry?”
I shook my head. Food was the last thing I wanted to think about.
“Help me catch some. Put ’em in that bucket.”
“I should be going.”
She laughed as I remounted and rode away. Her chortling chased me like an evil spirit. I reached the next town as the sun began to set. I kept my head down as my horse trotted through the boisterous streets. I understood why Papa hated town and I decided then that I would avoid towns as much as possible in the future.
A high-pitched shriek sounded down the street. My horse’s ears flattened against his head.
“Easy, boy,” I cooed, patting him gently.
I searched the streets for the source of the scream. My eyes found a group of preteen boys across the street surrounding a little boy no older than seven.
“Hey!” I shouted, deepening my voice.
Only one of the youths looked at me over his shoulder at me. I steered my mount closer to them as they shouted curse words and shoved the little boy. I could barely breathe as rage burned from the pit of my stomach.
“Let him go, you bloody wolves!” I shouted.
“What’s it to you?” balked the tallest one.
“Why hurt someone so much smaller than you?” I asked angrily.
They laughed at me. For being so young, they carried the same entitled cockiness that most of the saloon men had. I stared at them and shuddered before looking at the frightened little boy. I got down from my horse and drew my weapon. The boys backed away.
“Whoa. Who the hell are you?” asked the chubby one.
“Get lost before I send one of you to hell!”
The three of them ran down the road like frightened rats. My anger simmered down as the filthy, roughed up boy stared up at me with wide eyes.
“Best be gettin’ home now,” I said.
Without a word, he nearly tripped over his own feet as he ran the opposite way down the street. I watched him until he turned down an alley. I took a deep breath and scanned the street. No one seemed to notice or care about the confrontation. Max would possibly search for me for the next few towns. No one ever expected a girl to be able to fend for herself. I wasn’t so sure I could, either.
I rode a ways down the road when my eyes began to close involuntarily. I was exhausted and my horse probably felt the same way. I steered him off the trail toward a cluster of rocks. It was doubtful that anyone would see us from the road as we rested for the night.
I curled up into a ball on the hard ground wishing I had brought a blanket with me. My new horse stared out into the darkness, seemingly content with being tied to a bush for a chance to sleep.
“Did you know your old master was a terrible man?” I asked.
A chill tightened my scalp and raced down my spine as the sound of approaching horses disturbed the evening air.