Published on Thursday, November 6, 2014
A Sister for Five Brothers
By Stephanie L. Rose
At noon three McAllister brothers put down their shovels and wire cutters and took up canteens of sun-warmed water.
Jess wiped his face with a blue bandana stained dark with sweat. "I declare the sun's hotter'n grease in a fryin' pan."
"Too hot to work, Sam," Davey said. He betrayed his meaning with raised brows and a hopeful glance in Sam's direction.
"Told ya not to grow a beard in summer." Jess felt his own smooth jaw. "'Sides, girls don't like kissin' a Saguaro cactus."
Davey scowled. Sam chortled and said, "Oh, I don't know, Jess. Baby stubble like his might be kinda soft an' fuzzy."
Jess grinned. "I'll find out." He reached for Davey, who ducked him and ran. He jumped up on the new fence, where something in the distance caught his eye.
Jess chased after him and tried to pull his brother down, but Davey didn't budge. He pointed to the east. "Look. What's that?"
Jess shielded his eyes and Sam got to his feet. Something moved in the distance.
"Cougar," Sam said.
The brothers watched it come closer.
"Well," said Jess, "I ain't never seen no two-legged cougar."
"It's a girl!" Davey leapt from his perch and sprinted toward the lone little creature. Sam and Jess followed at a slightly slower pace.
The child moved quickly for one so small. Her pink dress was dusty and torn. She wore no bonnet over her mop of sun-bleached brown hair. Her skin was red from the sun and her lips cracked. She hugged a threadbare cloth doll to her with one arm. She stopped before the boys and giggled. There was a gap between her front teeth.
Davey stooped down on one knee. "Well, where did you come from?"
The girl smiled and hugged her doll. Her feet were bare and bleeding.
Sam scratched his head. "There ain't nothin' but desert for sixty miles."
She marched straight up to Jess and held up her arms.
"I think she wants you to hold her," Davey said.
Jess smiled. "Well, I reckon I can do that." He picked the girl up and settled her in the crook of his arm. She circled her arm about Jess's neck, put her head on his shoulder, and closed her eyes.
"Poor thing," Davey said. "She's plumb wore out."
"She needs water." Sam bolted for the work site. Davey ran after him and Jess followed, slowly so as not to jostle the child.
She choked on the water Sam poured over her face.
"Hey, watch it!" Jess snapped, pushing his brother's arm away. "You tryin' to drown the kid? She ain't no half-growed steer, ya know."
Sam glared. "I's tryin' to cool her off."
"Give it here." Jess cupped his hand, poured out some water, then let it trickle into the girl's mouth. She licked it up like a kitten lapping milk.
"I'll bet she's hungry as a buzzard," Davey said.
Jess frowned at him. "Don't say buzzard in front of her. Wonder she wan't picked clean out there in that desert."
"You really think she come all the across?"
Sam shrugged. "Where else did she come from? Look at her, half-baked and fried."
Jess stood up, still holding the girl. "You don't have to make her sound like a doughnut."
"What, you think I hurt her feelings? I bet she don't even talk yet. How do you know she understands English? Heck, her parents spoke German or ... or Alaskan for all we know."
"Alaskan ain't a language," Davey said. "Is it?"
"You got a point, Sam," said Jess. "Where are her parents? Dead? Stranded in the desert? Back on the other side?"
"Well, all I know is we better at least take her back to the house and feed her."
Davey jumped up and grabbed his horse's reins. "Can't wait to see Tom and Gabe's faces when they see us ride in with a girl!"
"Yeah," said Jess. "Tom'll be thrilled as a cattle tick in a bull's skin."
Tom McAllister was breaking in a young horse at the corral when his brothers returned. Gabe McAllister sat perched on the corral fence, his back to the approaching riders.
Tom had just eased himself into the saddle when he looked up and saw his three brothers, with a little girl riding with Jess. Tom stared, he frowned, and he grunted. The horse pranced, then reared back, pawing the air with his hooves. Tom landed hard on his cushion in a cloud of dust. The horse nickered and trotted to the far side of the corral.
Gabe twisted his head around to look. He saw Sam, sitting so serious and determined in the saddle, Davey, grinning like a runaway goat, and Jess, holding a child secure in front of him and beaming.
Gabe looked back at Tom, still stunned on the ground, and burst into laughter. "Did the horse knock you down, brother, or that girl?"
Tom glared. "Shut up, Gabe." He got to his feet stiffly, dusting off his pants.
"Look what we found!" called Davey as the three drew up to the corral.
"Yeah, I see." Tom retrieved his hat from the ground and slapped it against his thigh. He climbed over the corral fence.
"Where'd you get her?" asked Gabe.
Sam shrugged. Jess dismounted, holding the girl with one arm about her waist.
Davey dropped to the ground. "She just walked out of the desert."
"Wan't nobody with her?"
"Nope," said Sam.
Jess set the girl down. She curled one thin arm about his leg and clutched her doll with the other. Jess shook his head. "It's a miracle, an' that's the Lord's truth. Ain't nobody survives that desert."
Tom settled his hat on his head. "What makes you think her folks ain't still out there?"
"You're crazy, Tom," said Sam.
"Well, I think it's crazy to think she crossed the desert by herself."
"Look at her," Jess said. "She wasn't walkin' through no field of daisies."
The girl toddled over to Tom, craned her head back, and giggled.
Gabe grinned. "Well, lookey there. She likes you, Tom."
"No, she don't!" Tom turned his back and stalked to the corral gate. "Y'all better just saddle up fresh horses an' start lookin' for her folks."
Jess scooped up the girl. "Well, I'm gonna take her into town an' have Doc Hennessey look at her."
"Better talk to the sheriff while you're at it," Sam suggested.
Tom led the young horse from the corral as Jess rode away.
"Why don't Tom like kids, Sam?" Davey asked. "Shucks, he used to have two of his own."
Sam just shook his head.
After taking the girl to Doc Hennessey's, Jess made his way toward the sheriff's office. As he passed the saloon, a soprano female voice called out, "Oh, yoohoo! Jess McAllister!"
He stopped and peeked into the saloon over the batwing doors. A woman sitting at the bar and wearing nothing more than a glorified corset waved to him. She beckoned him inside. Jess nodded at the girl in his arms.
He was about to continue on when the woman jumped from her stool and hurried outside. "Hello, Jess," she cooed.
He blushed. "Hello, Jemima Lou."
"I declare, what a sweet, adorable little child," she said with a New Orleans accent. "Is she yours, Jess?"
"Well, actually, uh, she--that is--"
"Why, Jess McAllister, I had no idea you were such a ladies' man!" Jemima Lou tickled him under the chin with a long fingernail.
Jess rubbed his chin, neatly pushing her hand out of the way as he did so. "I don't know who she belongs to. My brothers an' I found her on the edge of the desert."
"Well, I swan! A little thing like her lost in the desert all alone? Why, that sounds positively dreadful! Lucky for her a big, strong man like you came along an' saved her from a sandy grave." As she spoke, Jemima Lou eased close and pressed her hands against his chest. "Why, one shudders to think what might have happened if you hadn't come along."
The girl giggled and reached out to pat Jemima Lou's painted lips, half-puckered up for a kiss. Jemima Lou took a step back and shot a glare in the girl's direction.
Jess cleared his throat. "Uh, I guess one might shudder at that. But I didn't come along, Miss Jemima. She's the one that happened along."
Jemima Lou laughed. "Oh, such manly modesty! I'm simply dyin' to hear the whole story. Let's say dinner in my room, seven o'clock?"
A squeak interrupted them. Jess turned just as a young woman fled across the street, her bonnet flying out behind her.
Jess took off after her. "Marcy! Wait!"
Jemima Lou clucked her tongue. "Looks to me you're in the fire now, Jess McAllister, an' it's getting' mighty hot."
Jess easily caught up to her, the girl bouncing on his hip. He seized the young woman's elbow and spun her around.
She jerked herself loose. "Let go of me, you--you King Solomon!"
"King Solomon? Hey, wait a minute, Marcy. Things ain't the way they look."
"I should say not!" The red that flamed Marcy's cheeks brought out her freckles. "Talking to that woman in the street in broad daylight!"
"Would you rather I talked to her under cover of darkness?"
"I'd rather you didn't speak to her at all!" Marcy swept a wisp of auburn hair from her forehead and glared those blue eyes of hers. "Pa was right about you--just women and whiskey and worldly pleasure."
Jess leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Marcy, people are staring."
Marcy bit her lip. Jess took her arm and led her out of the town's sight between the mercantile and the telegraph office.
The child squirmed and pushed against Jess. He set her down, but held onto her hand.
Marcy put her hands on her hips. "Jess McAllister, you explain yourself this instant. Just where did this child come from?"
"I can't explain. She came out of the desert just like she'd been out for a romp in a meadow somewheres."
Marcy studied Jess's face a moment. Then she looked down at the child, who was preoccupied with making lines in the dirt with her finger. Marcy put a hand to her cheek. "I feel so foolish," she said softly.
Jess slipped his arms about her waist. "I wouldn't go behind your back, Marcy. I'd have to be plumb out a' my head to pass you up for anybody else." He kissed her, not noticing the child tugging on his pant leg to be picked up.
Two strong hands seized Jess by the shirt and shoved him against the mercantile. A man dressed in black right down to his scowl shook his fist. "I told you to stay away from my daughter!" He wrinkled his nose as though he smelled something fowl. "Corruptin' her with your sweet talk and sinful ways. Your kind is never satisfied 'less you be destroyin' anything good. Someday you'll answer to the Almighty for the seeds you've sown."
His gaze rested on the child, who was cowering at Jess's feet. The man clasped his large hands together and raised his eyes heavenward. "May the Lord have mercy on this little one's soul and not hold her accountable for her father's many sins."
He silenced his daughter with a single look. "And you, lettin' him kiss you thataway. I'm ashamed of you."
Jess took a step forward. "Reverend Moses, Marcy don't deserve to be spoken to like that. She ain't done nothin' wrong."
The reverend turned dark eyes on Jess. "Next time you fool with my daughter, Jess McAllister, I'll have the sheriff lock you up."
He took Marcy by the arm and ushered her away. As they rounded the corner, Marcy glanced back over her shoulder. Jess winked at her.
When Jess returned from town with the little girl in tow, Tom was getting a drink from the well. He frowned as Jess dismounted. "What'd you bring her back here for?"
Jess laid the sleeping child's head on his shoulder. "Don't wake her up," he hissed.
Tom lowered his voice. "I thought you were gonna talk to the sheriff."
"I did. He don't know nothin' about nobody being lost in the desert."
"That still don't explain why you brung her back."
"What was I s'posed to do with her? Leave her in the street?"
"You coulda 'least took her to Reverend Moses."
"I don't think he'd much care to listen to me." Jess started toward the adobe house. "Take care a' my horse, will ya, Tom? I'm gonna put Molly down for a nap."
"Oh, no, you don't!" Tom stepped in front of his brother, blocking his path. Then he stared. "Molly?"
"Well, I reckon she oughta be called somethin'. An' seein' as we don't know her given name--"
Tom snatched off his hat and slapped it against his thigh. "That's enough, Jess!"
Little Molly began to whimper. Jess stroked her hair and glared at Tom. "Now look what you done."
Tom swore under his breath.
"Hey, Jess!" Davey emerged from the stables and waved. He was followed by Sam and then Gabe, who was usually last on account of his limp.
Tom turned his back and mumbled to himself as the three approached.
"Find anything?" Jess asked.
Sam shook his head. "Nothin' out there but sand an' cactus. Didn't even see any vultures."
"What'd ya make out in town?" asked Davey. He tickled Molly under her chin and she giggled.
"Doc says Molly here is fit as a fiddle, only she needs some proper food an' water."
"Molly? Is that her name?"
"It is now."
Davey frowned. "I don't want to call her Molly."
"What'd you have in mind, little brother?" asked Gabe.
Davey shrugged. "Well, we ain't never had a sister. I think we oughta call her Sis."
Sam snorted. "That ain't a fittin' name. I say we call her Sarah, after our ma, rest her soul."
"She don't look like no Sarah," protested Gabe.
"You got a better idea?"
"Yeah. I'm rather partial to Amy. Amy McAllister sounds kinda poetic, don't ya think, Tom?"
"Shut up, all a' you!" Tom spun on his heel and glowered at each of his brothers. "This has gone far enough! We ain't adoptin' her, for Pete's sake. Jess, get on that horse an' take her back to town."
Sam took a step forward. "Now hold on. You been bossin' us around since we was old enough to spit at. But you're out-numbered this time, brother. This girl needs us. I think Cassie would be ashamed if you let what happened to her an' the kids get in the way of takin' in this little one."
Tom's face was red and hard by the time Sam finished. "Do what you want," he said.
Gabe rubbed the back of his neck. Davey stuck his hands in his pockets.
Sam shook his head. "You do it, Jess."
"'Cause she likes you."
Jess shot Sam a glare. "Thanks." He raised an eyebrow at Davey. "But I think our little brother should get the honor."
Davey's eyes widened. "I don't know anything 'bout kids," he protested.
Sam cleared his throat. "The fact is we got us a tyke that's gettin' more ripe by the minute. One of us gonna hafta to do somethin', and quick."
Tom entered the two-room adobe house, kicking the door shut behind him.
Jess's eyes twinkled. "I got me an idea."
Tom swore. "Who brung a cow pie in here?"
Jess glanced at Molly on the floor, who was rocking her doll to sleep. Sam urged Jess on with nods and raised eyebrows.
Jess cleared his throat. He marched forward and grasped Tom's hand in his. "Congratulations, big brother. You've just been elected."
"Elected for what?" Tom jerked his hand loose. Then he spotted his brothers standing in a circle about the child. He held up his hands, shaking his head. "Not me, boys. No, sir."
"A job like this calls for professional know-how," Jess said. "An' you're the only one that's changed dirty pants afore."
"That was different!" Tom snapped.
"Why?" Davey asked. "You had a little girl."
"This ain't my young'un an' I ain't gonna be no nursemaid!"
"But Tom, none of us knows what we're doin'," Sam said.
"Then you oughta do what I told ya to begin with an' take her to Reverend Moses. A little girl don't belong with no unmarried men. She needs a woman."
Davey pouted. "Aw, Tom--"
Jess snapped his fingers. "Hang on, boys, I got me an idea!"
Gabe rolled his eyes. "Not another one."
"Ever'body keep calm. I'm goin' to town an' I'll be back with the answer to all our problems." Jess sprinted out the door, leaving the rest of the McAllisters to hold their noses.
"Pa's gonna tan my hide if he finds out," Marcy said as she and Jess rode to the ranch. She shivered and tightened her arms about Jess's waist, for it was cold when the sun slipped below the horizon.
"That's the sixth time you said that." Jess drew up his horse at the stables. He swung his leg over the saddle and slid to the ground.
"Well, it's true. I shouldn't have listened to you, Jess. Why didn't you just bring the girl with you?"
"What's to be scared of?" Jess reached up for her. Marcy put her hands on his shoulders and he set her on the ground. His winsome grin was plainly visible in the moonlight. "Don't forget you got five McAllisters to protect ya."
Marcy giggled behind her hand. "In that case, I feel much better."
The child wailed from inside the adobe. Jess and Marcy took off for the house. They found the girl in the corner, red-faced and sobbing.
As Marcy rushed for the child, Jess scowled at Gabe and Davey. "What's the matter with you birdbrains, letting Molly sit there an' cry like that?"
Gabe returned the scowl. "What were we s'posed to do about it? You said you was gonna be right back."
"Boys, I'm going to need something clean to change her into," Marcy said, bouncing the wailing girl in her arms.
Jess lightly smacked the back of Davey's head. "Go get some of them things out a' Tom's trunk for Molly."
"Her name is Sis." Davey jumped to his feet and darted up the ladder to the loft.
Gabe shook his head. "Tom ain't gonna like that, Jess."
"Hang Tom. He ain't using 'em." Jess glanced around the room. "Where is he, anyway?"
"Dunno. Left soon after you did. Reckon Sam's hidin' somewheres. Couldn't take the smell no more."
"Well, it ain't that bad. You boys smell horse manure every day, don't ya?"
"It ain't the same thing."
Davey shimmied down the ladder with an armload of baby things. "Didn't know what ya wanted," he said to Marcy as he deposited the things on the table.
Marcy came to the table, still holding Molly. "All right nnow, shoo, all of you."
"Don't ya think we'd better watch?" Jess asked. "We're gonna have to do it ourselves sooner or later."
Before Marcy could answer, Tom entered the adobe. He took one look at Marcy sorting through the baby things and shouted, "Leave them things be! You got no right to be usin' them. They belong to me."
Jess took a step forward. "Now look, Tom--"
"This is your doing, Jess McAllister! You insist on keepin' this girl just to spite me."
"So what if I am? I'm sick of bein' bossed. 'Sides, you were out-voted four to one, as I recall. Molly came to us an' she's stayin'."
"Her name is Sis," Davey piped up.
"Amy," said Gabe.
Jess lifted his chin. "I named her first and we're callin' her Molly."
Davey folded his arms. "Now who's bossin'?"
"Enough!" Marcy stomped her foot. For a brief moment everyone was silent, except Molly, who continued to cry. "You can argue about a name later. But right now I need some clothes for this poor child."
"Well, you ain't gettin' none of these things." Tom started gathering up the baby things.
"And just what is your suggestion, then?" Jess asked.
Tom shrugged. "Let her run butt naked for all I care."
Marcy gasped. "Shame on you, Tom McAllister!"
"Well, Cassie let our young'uns go naked once in a while. Said the air was good for their skin."
Molly began to hiccup between sobs. Marcy patted the girl's back. "Tom, be reasonable. Who needs those clothes more, the child or your memories?"
Tom looked at the clothes in his hands. Finally he put the clothes back on the table and left the adobe.
Jess and Marcy talked long into the night. They talked of marriage, but Marcy was reluctant to marry without her father's approval.
At length the two ambled hand in hand toward the stables. Marcy sat down on a pile of hay while Jess saddled a horse. By the time he was ready, he found Marcy sound asleep.
He reached out a hand to wake her, but then he paused. With a grin he drew back. He settled against the wall a few feet away from Marcy and watched her sleep. Within moments, his head began to nod. The steady breathing of the horses soon lulled him to sleep.
Jess and Marcy were rudely awakened the next morning by the thunderous voice of Reverend Jethro Moses.
"The Lord have mercy on your souls! God forgive me for not doing a father's duty." The reverend staggered back against the wall, covering his face.
Marcy hurried to her father's side. Straw clung to her hair. "Pa, it's not as it looks. Jess and I have done nothing to be ashamed of."
Reverend Moses moaned. "Have you no shame, child?" He took his daughter by the arms and gave her a little shake. "Oh, Marcy Moses, what curses have you brought upon yourself with your sin?"
"Pa, listen to me. I only came to help Jess with the child and--"
"The child! Marcy, how could you even speak to the wretch, knowing what he is?"
"He's no more a wretch than you are, Pa. He was about to take me home when we fell asleep."
"A likely story."
Jess came forward, leveling his eyes on the reverend. "Would you call your own daughter a liar, sir?"
The reverend's brow overshadowed his eyes. "And you, son of Shechem, are you prepared to do right by my daughter?"
"Marry her, for God's sake!"
Marcy gasped. "Jess McAllister, you planned this all along!"
A smile flitted over Jess's face and he shrugged one shoulder. "Well ... the thought did cross my mind."
"Well, sir, will you or will you not marry my daughter?"
Jess looked at Marcy, who resembled a flower wilted in the sun. "I will if she agrees."
Marcy laid a hand on her father's arm. "If you don't believe me, Pa, I can't help that. But I do love Jess and I'll marry him if that's what you want."
The reverend's features softened and he cupped Marcy's cheek in the palm of his hand. "It grieves me to entrust you to such a man, my child, but it must be."
"Then I will marry him." Marcy turned to Jess with a shy smile.
Jess whooped, caught her in his arms, and swung her around a few times. "Marcy Moses, I love you!"
"Watch what you're doing, Davey." Jess snatched the bowl of mashed potatoes from his brother. "How much you think a little tyke like Molly can eat? She's only two, ya know."
Molly, seated between Davey and Jess, clapped her hands and giggled.
Davey straightened in his chair. "Her name is Sis, an' she can eat as much as she wants to. I reckon she's got some catching up to do after bein' half-starved in that desert."
"I still say we oughta call her Amy." Gabe looked at Marcy. "What do you say, Marcy? Don't you think Amy McAllister sounds better than Sis McAllister?"
Marcy froze with her spoon halfway to her mouth. "Well, I--"
"Hey, hey, hey, none of that." Jess rapped his fork on the plank table. "She's my wife an' she's only allowed to agree with me."
"No fair!" exclaimed Davey.
"Get your own wife, squirt."
Before Davey could even ball up his fists, Sam cleared his throat. "I for one agree with Gabe. Sis McAllister is no fittin' name. It might do for now, but what'll we do when the boys start courtin' her? It just don't seem right for a feller to call his sweetheart Sis."
Gabe sat straight in his chair, smugness curling his lips. "Amy it is, then."
"I didn't say that," Sam said. "I want to call her Sarah."
Jess slammed his fist on the table. "Molly!"
Davey jumped to his feet, knocking over his chair. "Sis!"
"Amy!" shouted Gabe.
"Enough!" Tom stood and glared at each of his brothers. He shook his head. "If you can't agree on a name, then I'll name her." He left the table and snatched his hat from a peg by the door. He turned back and cast a stony glance about the room. "Emily."
Then he left the adobe. The door banged shut behind him.
No one spoke for a long moment. Chairs squeaked and the child babbled.
Sam said, "He hasn't said his girl's name since she died."
Jess grinned. "Emily it is."
Stephanie L. Rose is a native Pennsylvanian now living in North Dakota. She writes historical fiction and Westerns. She enjoys reading other Westerns and watching honest-to-goodness Western movies