Katie James sat in the corner of her family home, rocking the sleeping infant on her lap. Never once had she been the center of such attention, yet here she was, listening as Pa, Mama, and a complete stranger discussed her future—a future she had no say in.
She glanced at the child snuggled against her body. I envy you, Matilda. Your pa loves you so much he’s willing to sacrifice so you can have a mama, while my pa willingly offers me up as a sacrifice, so he can get a plot of land.
Katie tried to ignore the gamut of emotions vying for her attention. Uncertainty. Fear. Sadness. But the wound that cut the deepest was betrayal, knowing it was Mama who asked Mr. Clark to meet with them.
And why is she calling me Kathryn?
It sounded strange to her ears. Even though it was her given name, she’d never been called Kathryn—not a day in her life. She’d always been Katie.
“Mr. Clark, I assure you, my Kathryn is completely trustworthy. She’s nineteen, very responsible, and wonderful with children—always has been. And even though she doesn’t speak, we have no trouble communicating with her.”
Why, Mama? Why are you saying such things?
Katie thought about the years of pain she had suffered to protect her mama and her brother, Seth.
And for what? To be bartered away like the livestock in the field.
Katie dared to look at Mr. Clark as her mama continued to speak about her.
“Kathryn practically raised Seth by herself when I was taken ill. He tore me up something awful when he was born, and it was months before I was back on my feet. But Kathryn kept him fed, and clean, and took to him like he was her own. She will take good care of your Matilda.”
Mr. Clark glanced her way, but Katie quickly lowered her eyes.
“Kathryn’s also a good cook,” her mama continued, “and she can keep a tidy house. She’s sturdy too, not fragile like other girls her age. You can put her to work outside doing just about anything, and she’ll give you an honest day’s labor.”
“But Mrs. James, I’m not looking for a field hand.” Though Mr. Clark didn’t raise his voice, he spoke with intention. “I’m looking for someone who can care for Matilda. Someone who is sure-minded and . . . sensible.”
Mama snapped to her feet and planted her fisted hands on her slight hips. “Don’t believe the gossip, Mr. Clark. I know what the town folk say about Kathryn, but I can assure you, it’s nothing but lies. She’s not crazy. Even though Kathryn chooses not to speak and keeps to herself more than most kids do, the cruel things people have said about her are simply not true.”
Katie studied the way Mr. Clark milked the brim of his hat as he spun it between his straddled knees. Clearly, he was not convinced.
“It’s not just the gossip, Mrs. James. Her own brother told me this wasn’t a good idea. Wade said she was slow and not quite right.”
Mama whirled around to Wade sitting at the kitchen table, his downcast eyes a sure sign of guilt.
“How dare you say such things about your sister!”
“Step-sister!” Wade sneered. “She’s no blood of mine.”
“That’s enough, Wade!” Pa hollered.
But it was true.
Even though Pa forbade them from using the word step, Wade was her step-brother and Jethro James her step-father.
“Come on, Pa, you know as well as I do that Katie ain’t right. She don’t talk, she don’t laugh. Who knows what’s going on in that head of hers? She’s a crazy mute.” He smiled at her, but she could read the evil in his eyes. “I think she should stay right here with folks who know how to handle her.”
Though Katie was chilled by Wade’s menacing words, she refused to react. That’s what he wanted, and she would not give him the satisfaction. Instead, she stared at Matilda, asleep on her lap. I would never hurt you. And I would draw my final breath before I ever let anyone take a hand to you.
Mr. Clark rubbed his jaw, looking fatigued and uncertain. “Mr. James, since this is such a big decision, maybe it would be best if Kathryn came to my place for a few days, just to see how she and Matilda get along. Then I could—”
Katie flinched at Pa’s roar, startling the sleeping child. When Matilda squawked, Katie quickly stood and pressed the little one to her shoulder, soothing her with gentle strokes and soft words. When Pa stormed across the room, she braced herself for the punishment he so easily dished out, but he just glared at her something wicked before turning to Mr. Clark.
“How stupid do you think I am, Travis? Do you actually think I’m gonna let my daughter go stay at your house without a certificate of marriage? I guess you think if she isn’t in her right mind, you can take her home and do what you want with her and not be held accountable. Well, that ain’t how it’s gonna work. If you want Kathryn to see to your youngin’, then you’ll be takin’ her as your wife. I will not let my daughter’s reputation—be that as it may—be sullied by the likes of you.”
Katie felt nothing but compassion for Mr. Clark. It had only been two months since losing his wife, and here he was, trying to do the best thing for his baby girl.
With shoulders sagging and his head hung low, Mr. Clark let out a weary sigh. “I meant no disrespect, to you or your daughter.”
“Well, of course you didn’t,” Mama said in the sickening sweet tone she usually reserved for Pa when he came home drunk and in a dark mood. “And Jethro didn’t mean to bark at you. He just—”
“Be quiet, woman! I don’t need you to speak for me.” Pa sauntered from one end of the room to the other. “Didn’t you hear the man? He wants to take your daughter home. Sample her. Then decide if he wants to marry her.”
“No, sir. That is not what I meant.” Mr. Clark stood. “And I’m offended you would suggest such a thing.”
Katie cringed at Mr. Clark’s defensive stance. Pa had controlled his temper so far, but if Mr. Clark challenged him, it would not end well for him . . . or Matilda. Just leave. Take your daughter and leave before it’s too late.
“Travis, please . . . sit down. I’m sure we can discuss this calmly, like adults.”
What is Mama doing?
Katie watched Pa’s shoulders rise and his jaw clench. When he took a step toward Mama, she quickly pulled up a chair next to Mr. Clark and rested her hand on his forearm.
“The way I see it, Travis, you really don’t have many options. You have a farm to tend to. Livestock. Chores that keep you busy from sunup to sundown. How are you going to take care of all those things and raise your daughter at the same time?”
Katie saw Mama glance at Pa. When he gave her a subtle nod, she continued.
“As you can see, Jethro is fiercely protective of Kathryn. Yet, he’s sympathetic to your plight. He’s willing to give you her hand in marriage, but it must be done according to God’s law. On that we will not waver.”
Why, Mama? Why are you trying so hard to get rid of me? Have I been such a bad daughter? Haven’t I done everything you taught me—everything I’ve been told? Followed every rule, every command?
Even though Pa had lowered his voice and allowed Mama to do his talking, Katie watched him draw his fisted hands behind his back, his knuckles white with fury. She knew firsthand the strength of those calloused hands, the punishment they had inflicted over the years, and the many times those thick, sturdy fingers clamped down against her mouth to silence her midnight cries.
And now he was bartering her away to another man.
What if Mr. Clark is just like Pa?
As his wife, he would have no need for secrecy. Or to wait with patience for the house to go to sleep each night. He could take her at any time.
Katie swallowed back the bile in her throat, looked at Matilda laying in her arms, then at Mr. Clark. She studied him as he continued to talk with Pa.
He didn’t seem the type to be heavy-handed or given to rage. He had yet to raise his voice—even though Pa had questioned his character—and he didn’t have the reputation for such behavior. She’d never heard an unkind word spoken about him, and in their little town, people gossiped about any hint of sin, real or imagined. Not only that, but he had a daughter who looked in good health.
And his entire reason for being here is for Matilda, not himself. Surely, this isn’t a man as evil as Pa.
Then again, Jethro James had the whole town fooled.
Katie continued to watch Mr. Clark’s mannerisms as Mama and Pa persisted with their negotiations. He didn’t clench his hands or raise his voice. The few times he glanced her way, his countenance was never hard or his eyes menacing. If anything, he looked at her with an expression akin to . . . hope.
Maybe this is my chance.