"May I join you?" The woman was dark haired and light skinned. She was about Jenny's age and was dressed in a homespun dress very much like what Jenny wore. A shy smile lit Jenny's face. Finally there was a woman to talk with and share after months of bitter and foolhardy men. She missed the companionship of women the past few months. Everyone she met on the trail tended to be guarded and running from something. But then so were they.
"Certainly." Jenny smiled.
The woman was careful as she joined Jenny by the fireside. She sat down slowly, as if pained, on the short plank bench next to the flames. Jenny felt she had found a kindred soul. The woman probably had a husband like hers. Johnny still hadn't come back from his wandering, but Jenny was in no hurry to see him. If he was displeased by something out there in the dark she'd rather find out later than sooner.
She did wonder where Ben was. He'd been trapped underneath that hot canvas too many months and she didn't expect he was in any hurry to come back and see if something had upset Johnny. A chill ran down her spine. The wind had come out of nowhere and the woman watched her with large sorrow filled eyes.
"How long you been in town?" Jenny asked, curious about her new acquaintance. The small dark haired woman had bright blue eyes that glowed with the fire.
"Oh, goodness please forgive my lack of manners!" Jenny blushed as it dawned on her she had forgotten basic courtesies. Her hand launched to cover her mouth and she was ashamed of how weathered and worn the trail had made her skin. She nearly wept from embarrassment from the difference between her skin and the icy smooth complexion of the pretty woman sharing the circle. "I am Mrs. John Foley. Jenny Foley. We're from," she paused briefly and picked one of their past homes but not the one that would attract attention, "Just outside Philadelphia."
The woman smiled and said, "That's fine. I have been in so many places, I swear I just forget them all some days."
Her smile was bitter and slightly crooked. Instantly Jenny felt comfortable. It was like she had known this woman forever. She let a soft sigh escape. Jenny was weary and hadn't noticed her new found friend hadn't returned the favor and given her name. Had they been back home she would have offered something to drink but since they had been traveling so long they really didn't have much to offer to guests.
"Thank you for your hospitality. Most women don't welcome me to their fires." The lady looked up at her with a sly look as if she was expecting something from Jenny.
Jenny felt some unknown sensation run over her, it was like she was missing something vital here. She nodded and said, "We women have to stick together after all."
The warm sense of connection had faded a bit. The fire sizzled and a log shifted sending up sparks of fire and smoke. Jenny's throat itched as the wind blew the gray smoke over her. The ash was floating around on the wind dancing to the dirt. An uneasy feeling pushed at her while she waited for the stranger to speak.
She didn't have to wait long; the stranger sensed it was her turn and came out with, "I'm Molly. I work the saloon some nights and other women find that to be a bit disturbing." Her companion was waiting for Jenny's reaction.
"Molly, we've all had to do things that we aren't proud of, you know," Jenny said while wondering what was wrong with working in the saloon. Then it dawned on her that Molly was one of those 'hurdy-gurdy' girls. She had heard about those types of women before they were kicked out of the wagon trail. Western women who worked the saloons and dance halls and were free with their favors, she blushed slightly at the thought.
Molly relaxed and edged closer to the fire and said, "So what sort of work is your husband looking for here?"
"Oh, well he used to be with the Union Army. Since the war ended he has been trying to find somewhere to use his skills," Johnny's talent for killing and maiming were often redirected at Jenny when work was lacking. He hadn't killed her but there had been a few mishaps on the road. And since the War Between the States was pretty much over there hadn't been much need for a man like Johnny. His temper flared with each rejection along the way and they headed West in hopes of finding the right place.
"When he heard that out this way there was this new Dakota Territory coming up for grabs we loaded up the wagon and aimed west." They hadn't quite made it to the Black Hills but were closer than ever. With each new town and territory Jenny had hoped they would find something Johnny liked but it hadn't happened. Instead Johnny was growing more and more upset with the passing miles. Jenny's ribs still hurt from last night's beating.
Night truly had covered the sky and surrounding countryside thickly so folks nearby were making normal going to bed sounds. Jenny was starting to get nervous that Ben hadn't shown back up. He usually snuck in before it was too late. She knew they had been on the road too long and that recently Johnny had been a bit upset. Her jaw ached with the memory. Her tongue automatically found the hole where her tooth had been. She suppressed a shudder as the ache flooded her body.
"Well, Jenny, this town does have opportunities. Maybe I can introduce him to some folks," Molly said with a straight face. Her eyes were reflecting the flames richly and she was serious. A spark of hope began to ember before Jenny remembered they were talking about Johnny.
Something in Jenny's stomach flipped. She wasn't sure what Molly had in mind but she was thinking back on that girl servicing the town official in the alley when they got in town. Molly looked into Jenny's eyes and said, "That's if you want me to help him. Do you really want him to succeed?"
That made some bit of hope resonate deeper inside Jenny. It seemed like Molly was giving her some sort of choice. A luxurious heat flew through her kindled by the idea as a warm spot grew larger and the ember was soon glowing inside of her. She had forgotten what it was like to have choices.
Ben burst into the circle and said, "Ma, I met a boy named Nate! And-and-and he is my age!" His face glowed from within and Jenny's heart soared with the joy on his face. It had been too long. Maybe this place wasn't as bad as she had first thought.
He stopped short and noticed Molly sitting on the plank that served as a seat by the fireside when they stopped. He couldn't recall ever seeing anyone sitting with them since they left the wagon caravan. Shadows danced around the campfire and silence grew while Ben looked at Molly. While Molly was frozen, as if unnerved by Ben's arrival, Jenny was confused.
"Excuse me, miss. Sorry I didn't see you there." He hung his head and waited for his mother to scold him. The expected reprimand didn't happen and Ben was now the one confused. The fire snapped, crackled and sputtered some more while the crickets chirped far off in the field. The sounds of folks finishing up and settling down for the night washed over the three. Molly continued to watch and wait.
Jenny fluttered off to the side as she watched her son square off on Molly. There was no other way to describe it. Molly simply waited. It was like there was a different conversation going on between the two of them. What they said aloud wasn't what they were feeling. Ben puffed his small chest up and said, "My name is Benjamin John Foley and you are?"
"Pleased to meet you, Ben." Molly didn't even look at the boy. Something lurched in Jenny's heart. Her son was trying so hard to be the man of the hour. Johnny hadn't even taken the time to find if they were settling in okay. But if he wasn't having any luck in town, she was perfectly aware he may have strayed into the saloon where Molly usually set up her trade, then he wouldn't be happy when he got back to their campsite -- and that wasn't bad given Johnny in a mood could be harmful at best. She didn't know what was going on between her son and her new friend but it was obvious they both instantly took a complete and utter dislike to each other.
"Sorry, Molly, this is my son, Ben. Ben, Molly lives here." She shot him a look. Mothers had the look down, it was one that said, Stop being disrespectful, this is a nice person and Ben met his mother's glare and unexpectedly shook his head softly. Jenny was ready to pull his ear off and thrash him but stopped herself when Molly said, "So Ben, did you catch any fish?"
Like any boy he grinned and said, "I did!"
He pulled at his rough cloth bag Jenny had made him for fish and treasures and showed a bulge to the ladies. His animosity towards Molly was forgotten by his natural male pride at bringing home food. He looked to his mom, handing her the cloth sack and let Jenny pull out the string of fish he had caught. A few were meager morsels and others actually were sizable. Jenny smiled and said, "That is wonderful! Ben, thank you!"
She didn't kiss or hug her son, because that wasn't something either of them were comfortable doing. But her eyes shone with joy. Molly didn't say anything but gave them both that crooked smile. Just then Johnny found them.
It didn't take but a minute for Johnny to run his mean eyes upon the folks huddled by the fire, "My, my look what we have here! A strumpet sitting with my little family. Get the hell outta here, whore." Johnny had obviously had a bad evening.
Molly stood, she came up to the middle of Johnny's chest, and nodded to Jenny politely while saying, "Obviously your husband doesn't wish to work in this town."
Johnny's face clenched and his moustache went straight as he pinched his lips tight. His anger was washing over him like a nightmare. Unfortunately one that was too familiar to both Jenny and Ben. Jenny wanted to stop the words but they flew out of her mouth, unbidden, "No, Molly, stay."
Ben gasped and dropped his fishing gear. Jenny was standing there holding a string of fish and Ben ran into dark without a word. He didn't want to see his ma beat again. Molly smiled to Jenny and said, "I think I just might."
"Jenny, why don't you put the fish up for now and go find Ben?" Molly suggested with a firm tone. Jenny was torn but something in Molly's manner and words gave her strength she didn't realize she had.
"Thank you, I'll be right back." And to Johnny's amazement his wife left to go after the boy leaving him with the stranger.
Molly went to where Jenny had stacked some of the green and half wet wood grabbing up a large piece. Johnny was standing by the fire with his mouth half open, stunned by the way his evening had eroded. He had little to no guilt over his losing yet more of Jenny's money. Instead he was shocked Jenny left on this whore's command.
The field had gone silent. Not with listening but with exhaustion. The long day and hard work most of the camp dwellers endured made sleep precious and healing. Nobody was watching or even awake. Molly knew this. Johnny didn't.
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