Excerpt from Loving a Harvey Girl:
Cal Stephens gave his reins a quick wrap around the hitchin’ post in front of the mercantile and stepped up to the walkway. The thunk of his boots on the wooden planks accented the jingle of his spurs. Strange sound, leather soles on old wood. He’d spent the past few months in the saddle, herding a thousand head of cattle to Abilene. But he got used to the sound fast. He matched stride to the tinny beat from the saloon’s old piano and thunk-chinged his way toward the bathhouse.
Up ahead, the four Malone sisters huddled together in front of the Post Office, tittering over something or other. Cal tipped his hat, and Miss Melody Malone wrinkled her nose and fanned away his odor. No doubt it was strong. He couldn’t remember when he’d bathed last.
A pretty blonde skirted the mass of sisters and plowed right into him. Her yellow hair wisped carelessly out from under a frilly hat that had probably seen better days. Long lashes fluttered over eyes bluer than the Texas sky, and cheeks flushed a rosy red.
“Pardon me,” she muttered and stepped around him.
“My fault,” he answered, tipping his hat to her back as she scurried down the walkway.
She grasped a worn leather satchel in front of her with both hands as if it was a mite heavy and had the wrinkled look of someone who’d taken a long journey. Since the train was still drawing water from the tower, she’d probably stepped down from it not long ago. He’d never seen her before. But he sure wouldn’t mind seeing her again. Soon as he got rid of the prairie brush on his jaw and the rank odor the sisters had scowled over.
Apparently, they’d never seen the blonde before either. Murmuring about her behind their hands, they watched as she marched with an unladylike stride toward the town’s hotel. Wouldn’t be long before they knew everything there was to know about the poor girl—and if they couldn’t find it out, they’d make it up.
He crossed the threshold to the barber shop, giving way to a freshly groomed townsman walking out.
Walter Neville swept up what looked like a half pound of hair and sent a stream of tobacco juice toward the spittoon. “Afternoon, Cal. Be right with ya.”
“Ain’t in no hurry.” Cal rubbed his jaw and studied the handwritten sign over the fancy new National cash register. Walt had gone up two bits on both haircut and shave. Three bits on a bath. And heaven help anyone who needed a tooth pulled.
“Folks ’round here get rich while we was gone?”
“Nope.” Walt grabbed a fresh towel from a shelf stocked full of cloth, liniments, ointments, and other whatnots. “Took a little trip to Austin not long ago and discovered I’ve been going cheap.”
“You figure we can do the big city prices?”
“These ain’t big city prices. Just higher than my others.” Walt glowered at him. “You here to gripe about how I do business, or do you want me to shave that mess off your face?”
Cal pulled his silver from his pocket and turned his back to count it. He had enough for the works here, some new duds from the mercantile, and a quick beer at the saloon, but he didn’t want Walt to know that. What Walt knew, everyone would know sooner or later. “Ain’t gonna break me, I guess. Shave it, cut it, and set me up with a bath.”
That seemed to please the old man. He bobbed his head and limped toward the bathhouse out the back door. “Ernesto! Get a tub ready.”
By the time the piano player hit the final notes of a jaunty tune, Cal had drained his mug. He lowered it to the bar and winced inwardly. Didn’t matter whether it was Pearl or Lone Star, he still hadn’t developed a taste for beer. Never hurt to be sociable with the other cowpokes—all of whom had bypassed the barber in favor of blowing their wages in the saloon—but one brew was ’bout all he could stomach. He preferred to spend what was left of the amount he’d allotted himself on a meal better’n the grub they’d been fed on the trail the past three months.
He flipped a coin to the bartender, slapped the backs of buddies still sober enough to recognize him, then headed for the swinging doors. And collided with the pretty blonde barging her way inside.
She stumbled, and he caught her around her tiny waist. If anything, she looked more disheveled than she had an hour ago when she ran into him the first time. Her hat sat askew on her head, releasing more cottony curls, but her grip on the satchel hadn’t relaxed.
He let her go and whipped off his Stetson. “Nice to bump into you again, miss.”
She widened her baby blues, then blinked at him. Considering how he’d looked the first time they met, he understood why she was confused. But he didn’t care to clarify.
He waved his hand toward the doors and invited her to precede him from the saloon. “After you.”
“No thank you,” she said, her prim voice somewhat harried. “I must speak with the owner of this establishment.”
Behind him, Curtis Riggs got riled and upturned a poker table, sending cards and coins flying—followed rapidly by fists and language that weren’t fittin’ for a young lady.
Cal urged her outside with a hand on the small of her back. “No ma’am, there ain’t nobody in there you need to see.”
She stared up at him and blinked again, then the water started pouring from her eyes like she was trying to fill a steam engine.
“Whoa there! I didn’t mean to make ya cry.” He fluttered his hands around her, not sure what he was supposed to do with a bawlin’ female. He shouldn’t touch her again. They weren’t formally introduced. But she looked so pitiful with those huge drops streaming down her cheeks. He finally reached into the pocket of his new vest and pulled out a cotton kerchief for her.
She sniffed and accepted it, apparently trying to offer him a smile, but her lips were so twisted, he couldn’t really tell if that was what she meant. Finally, after a sniff or two and a hefty honk into his new kerchief—well, her new kerchief now—she settled down enough to thank him.
“I’m sorry.” The smile she gave him this time was undeniable and apologetic as she tried to return his kerchief.
He waved it off, then tipped his hat again. “Let’s start over. I’m Cal Stephens. I work at the Rolling Oak Ranch outside of town.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Stephens. I’m Eva Knowles, and I’m … I’m …”
Her eyes welled up again, and before she could start to wailin’ a second time, Cal said, “You hungry? I’m hungry. Why don’t you come and have some grub with me, and we can have a nice talk? Would you like that?”
“I–I—” She sniffed and nodded, and her cheeks flushed rosy. Then, as if she’d remembered her manners, she straightened her shoulders and nodded once more. “I would appreciate that. Thank you for your kindness.”
He walked her to the restaurant in the Harvey Hotel, close to the train depot, and soon they were breathing in the beefy scent of roast, with mashed taters, and carrots. But nothing could top the smell of the fresh-baked bread. No sooner had the aproned Harvey Girl set their plates in front of them, Cal grabbed his fork—but Miss Knowles cleared her throat.
She sat with her hands in her lap and her head slightly bowed, glancing up at him from under her cockeyed hat. “Aren’t you going to thank the Lord for our food?”
“Oh. Umm, yeah.” He scrubbed his hands down his britches. He’d never prayed for eating. Not to say he never prayed at all, just not usually before a meal. He bowed his head. “Thank you, Lord, for this grub and the fine young lady I get to share it with. Amen.”
He peeked at her for her approval, and at her nod, reached for his fork again. “So, what brings you to town?”
“I have to find work.” Miss Knowles picked at a carrot. “Mama died and Papa’s sick. I have four brothers and sisters who are going to go hungry if I don’t find some way to feed them.”
Ladies didn’t usually speak that frankly—at least none that he knew of—but this one bore such a weight on her shoulders the ease with which she’d burst into tears earlier no longer surprised him. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” She rested her fork and returned her hands and gaze to her lap. “I used up most everything we had just to get here. What’s left ain’t enough for a room at either of the hotels or the boarding house, and no one’s hirin’ women. I was about to beg a job at the saloon and maybe get a room there when you stopped me.”
“Pardon me for sayin’, ma’am, but you ain’t got no business working in a place like that.” He took in her plain cotton dress with its frayed cuffs and almost too tight collar buttoned at her throat. “You ever live in a city before?”
“No, and I ain’t sure I’m going to like it. But better here than Austin, where Pa said I should go.”
“Yes’m. Better here.” He reached for his tea. “Austin’s too big, but it seems like we’re in a race to catch up.”
Seemed she didn’t have much more to say. She picked up her fork and took a halfhearted stab at her food.
“Miss Knowles, it ain’t none of my business, but I figure you oughta eat them taters.”
She sighed. “Yes, I suppose I should.”
He squinted at her, watching her take a bite or two. Sometimes when she spoke, she sounded just as country and rough around the edges as he did. Other times, seemed she had a bit of learnin’ in her head. If she did, then the answer to her problem was right here, in this very diner.
“You know what kinda work you want to do?”
Having just filled her mouth with a bite of the roast, she nodded. Then, she swallowed and said, “After Ma got sick, I did all the cookin’ for Pa and the young’uns. Washed the clothes too. Did the mendin’ and ironin’. My sister does it all now so I can find a job here, doin’ the kinds of things I did at home.”
“What about school? You got any schoolin’?”
“Finished all eight grades. Got high marks too.” She took another bite and studied him as she chewed. “You got something on your mind, don’t you?”
Cal leaned toward her. “You oughta be here instead of the saloon. That’s no place for you.”
“But I already asked for a room here. They’re full up.”
“I don’t mean askin’ for a room. I mean for you to ask for a job.”
Considerin’ the look she gave him, he might as well’ve told her to work over at Madam Dallie’s. When she finally found her tongue, she exclaimed, “Oh, goodness! How could you suggest such a thing? I could never! Back home, Pastor Roberts has been preaching against ladies leaving hearth and home and going to work at these”—she lowered her voice and leaned toward him—“at these kinds of places. Why, he says places like this are where young ladies lose their virtue.”
“That ain’t so. They’re more likely to find husbands here.” Cal speared a chunk of his roast. “Besides, wasn’t you just tryin’ to get a job at the saloon?”
She flushed again and lowered her eyes. “I wasn’t thinking straight at that moment.”
“I reckon not, you being new in town and all. Reckon that can be kinda scary for a young girl all alone.” He sawed off another hunk of beef. “Your preacher is wrong, though—meanin’ no disrespect. But there’s a housemother or something here that keeps them girls in line. You break one of the rules, you’re likely to get yourself fired.”
“A housemother? Would I have my own room? How much would it cost?”
“That’s just it. Don’t cost ya nothin’. You go to work here and get room and board on top of your wages.” He popped the bite into his mouth and chewed while he watched her cogitatin’ all he’d told her. Wouldn’t hurt to sweeten the deal a little with another bit of information. “I happen to know the housemother here—Miss Henrietta Bacon—and I bet I can get you on. If you want the job, that is.”
For the first time since he’d met her, her eyes lit up with her smile. Great howlin’ coyotes, he wanted to see that happen more often.