Prairie Girl

 

The ranch buildings in front of him were in a dilapidated
state and stood out like a sore thumb in the beautiful but
remote countryside in which it was located. He had driven for
almost three days to reach the place.

It was not the ranch though that depressed him it was the
thought of meeting the rancher and his wife that made him
feel heavy hearted. He had seen them when they had visited
the orphanage three months before. He remembered the
rancher’s rough manner and equally rough temperament.

His wife had been different though, quieter, more subdued;
‘close to tears’ was how one of the cooks in the orphanage
had described her. ‘A high-born lady who’d married beneath
her’ was the consensus in the kitchen.

The rancher approached him with a scowl on his face.

“Who are you and want do you want around here?” he demanded
in a menacing voice.

The driver explained who he was and why he was there.

“They’re in the back,” he concluded, indicating the back of
his wagon.

The rancher gave him a smug look.

“Ah yes, we’ve been expecting them,” he said. “Me and my wife
have no kids of our own so we’ll treat them real good!”

“OK, you guys, we’re here,” the driver called, opening the
canvas cover.

Three boys clambered out and looked around them.

“Hey! What gives? There’s three of ’em!” the rancher
exclaimed in surprise. “The lady in the orphanage said we
were only getting two?”

“No, I was told three. Mrs. Mellon … she’s the matron …
she picked out these three,” the driver said, scratching his
head. “You say you were told you were getting two: want me to
bring back one?”

“Uh? No, no, no, … my memory must’ve slipped me … yes, it
was three …” the rancher replied hastily. “No, we’ll take
’em.”

The driver took out a piece of paper from his pocket and
asked the rancher to sign the form. He handed the rancher a
sealed letter which he said was from Mrs. Mellon to his wife.

Before the driver left he warned the rancher that if any of
the boys escaped the others would be taken from him.

He wished the boys good luck and as he clicked the horses
away on the long journey back to the orphanage he saw the
rancher giving one of them a cuff on the side of the head. He
wanted to turn around and take the kids back with him but he
knew it wasn’t possible. He sighed, he had seen this
situation so many times before: young boys from the orphanage
being used virtually as unpaid laborers by unscrupulous
ranchers. But the orphanage was under pressure to make space
for new arrivals so the older children were placed wherever
they could.

++++++++++++++++

The rancher told the three cowering boys in front of him he
was to be known as Boss. He showed the boys to their
quarters, a large, draughty building, set a short distance
from the two-storey house where Boss and his wife lived.

Two make-shift beds had been set against one wall. There they
met the rancher’s wife, Queenie, who was putting blankets on
straw mattresses.

“They’ve come,” Boss grunted to her.

“There’s three of them — you didn’t tell me about a third
one — I’ve only made beds for two!” she said sharply.

“Well, you’ll have to make another bed cos’ we’ve got three
now!” her husband retorted.

The new arrivals felt the woman’s piercing blue eyes
scrutinize them.

“Look at that small skinny one!” she hissed, pointing at the
boy in the middle. “He’ll never last a day out with the
herds! You’re a fool for taking him!”

Boss looked at the boy.

“Damn orphanage — I asked for big strapping guys and I get
these two and this little weakling!” he cursed loudly. “The
driver said that woman in the orphanage … what’s her name
… ?”

“Mrs. Mellon,” his wife interjected.

“Yeah, Mrs. Mellon … picked them out. Uh, that reminds me,
the driver said this was for you,” Boss said, taking an
envelope out of his pocket and passing it to her. “She’s
doing this to spite me — I never liked that stuck-up bitch
anyway!”

The other two bigger boys looked protectively at the blonde-
haired boy in between them. He hardly came to their shoulder
and compared to him they were built like giants. They were
used to manual labor from their days in the orphanage but
their friend looked like he couldn’t lift a stone.

Boss continued to rent the air with his curses. The
atmosphere in the building became ominous and threatening.
The two bigger boys feared the enraged farmer might do their
companion harm.

“I’ll take him.”

“You’ll what?” spluttered Boss.

“I’ll take him,” his wife repeated, quickly putting the
letter she had been reading into her pocket. “He’s plainly
not suitable for outdoor work. He wouldn’t last two days out
there!”

“What would you do with him?” Boss demanded.

“I have plenty of work for him,” Queenie assured him. “With
three extra mouths to feed I’ll be stretched to my limit, but
with him I’ll be able to get through the work.”

Boss looked at her incredulously.

“He’ll work with me … end of story,” he snarled.

The woman fell silent but the two bigger boys saw that her
eyes never left their blonde companion.

The next day the three boys accompanied Boss out to where the
herds were grazing; the work was hard and unremitting. The
two bigger boys coped with the workload but their smaller
companion struggled. Despite Boss’s curses and wallops the
boy was not able to work any faster.

When they returned to the ranch that evening for dinner the
boy was hardly able to eat his meal from exhaustion. The
woman had a broad smirk on her face as she served dinner.

The same pattern was repeated the next day; this time Boss
found himself losing his temper at regular intervals. It was
clear that the boy was not up to the physical work in the
fields.

Boss hated to be proven wrong by his wife and especially in
front of the two older boys, Homer and Dutchie. But he was
losing so much time over the slightly built youngster that he
had no choice. He decided, however, to keep the boy one last
day in the field to at least prove his wife wrong that he
wouldn’t last two days.

During dinner time Queenie asked the boy to show her his
hands.

“I’ve never seen such soft hands on a boy!” she exclaimed in
wonderment, taking his hand in hers. Seeing that his hands
had cuts and bruises she offered to put ointment on them. But
Boss roared angrily at her to mind her own business.

Boss was to regret his decision to keep the boy one extra
day. He spent so much time supervising the smaller boy that
hardly any work was done that day. When they arrived back at
the ranch that evening he yelled impatiently for his wife.
Queenie appeared in the kitchen doorway, a knowing smile
playing on her lips. Grabbing the boy by the collar Boss
shoved him in her direction.

“OK, you’re in charge of him, do you hear! If he steps out of
line or tries to escape, you’ve had it!” he roared at her.

Queenie turned pale.

“I’ll see that it doesn’t happen,” she replied, recovering
her composure. Then, beckoning to the fair-headed boy she
said: “In here, Blondie.”

Homer and Dutchie watched as their younger companion shuffled
slowly towards the kitchen.

“I’m in charge of him now, Boss: he’s my responsibility now,
OK?” Queenie asserted.

Boss shrugged dismissively: “You can do what you like with
him, he’s useless!”

Homer and Dutchie saw the woman give the boy a gloating,
almost possessive look as he passed by her. She followed him
into the kitchen and shut the door behind her.

++++++++++++++++

The days that passed gradually developed into a pattern.
Queenie was first up and when she had dressed she would go
out to the building where the boys had been locked in for the
night and wake her fair-haired assistant. Together they would
prepare breakfast for Boss and the two bigger boys, Homer and
Dutchie. Then they would fill bags with food and drink which
Boss and his helpers would have for lunch.

They would wash the breakfast dishes when Boss and the two
boys had saddled up and departed for the day. Next they would
tidy the house and collect items for the laundry. Washing was
done in a large tub for which they had to collect water in
buckets from the well.

After lunch they would feed the farm animals before going
inside to prepare the dinner. Dinner was served at six,
sometimes it was later. They always knew when Boss and the
two boys were coming: the barks of the dogs would herald
their arrival. After dinner Boss would lock the two bigger
boys into their quarters for the night. Queenie and Blondie
would then clear away the table and wash the dishes. When she
was satisfied that the kitchen was clean Blondie too was
brought out to the out-house and locked in with the other two
boys.

Then Queenie would sit with Boss until it was time for bed.
Sometimes they would talk but mostly they sat in silence, she
sewing and he smoking his pipe or drinking.

++++++++++++++++

Though they were in each other’s company all day they rarely
spoke apart from Queenie giving Blondie instructions and he
acknowledging his understanding of them.

He liked to keep his distance from her: he showed that by
chatting and joking with Homer and Dutchie at meal-times. It
irked her that when he was in their presence he liked to
behave as if she didn’t exist.

Blondie was a good worker: he kept the kitchen neat and tidy;
he did his chores without complaint; he had become a good
cook (a fact appreciated by Boss and the two boys). He seemed
glad not to be out working with the others though he never
admitted it. Homer and Dutchie liked to tease him about his
soft, easy job as a ‘maid’.

Queenie though she was glad he was a willing worker found his
presence increasingly uncomfortable. She realized deep down
she was afraid of him. She feared that Blondie would try to
escape: sometimes she woke up in a sweat at night thinking of
what her husband would do to her if he did.

Her other great fear was that some day he would attack her
before escaping and by the time Boss returned home he would
be long gone. In this scenario she pictured herself as a
defenceless female at the mercy of a vengeful man.

The responsibility of watching him all day was a much greater
mental strain then she had anticipated. She tried to reassure
herself that if he did attack her she would be able to defend
herself. She knew she was stronger than him: she had just
been able to lift a bag of corn while he could barely budge
it.

Yet there were times she was glad he was around. Before his
arrival she had a long day on her own and even when Boss was
at home in the evenings sometimes he hardly spoke to her.
Though she only gave orders to Blondie at least she was
communicating with another person. She was uneasy though
because she never knew what was going on in his mind. She
imagined he must hate her — particularly for making him do
women’s work.

++++++++++++++++

One day Queenie sent him out at noon to feed the hens. When
he hadn’t returned after a quarter of an hour, cold fear
clutched her heart. She ran outside calling him: there was no
answer.

Trembling with fear she searched the out-buildings. To her
horror she could hear her husband’s dogs in the distance; she
realized that he must be coming home early. Panic-stricken,
she intensified her search for the missing boy. Even if she
saw the boy, she said to herself in a panic, with her long
skirts she would never be able to catch him.

She had searched all the out-buildings bar one: an old shed
where a young calf was tethered. Opening the door cautiously
she caught sight of a movement beneath the straw. She pounced
and dragged the boy out of his hiding place.

Queenie was white with anger. The boy lay shaking with fear
on the ground while the calf tied to a ring on the wall gazed
at both of them in dumb curiosity.

What happened next was like a blur to Queenie, a searing
anger exploded deep inside her obliterating all her natural
instincts. She seized a length of rope and struggle though he
might, Queenie soon had the boy’s wrists tied behind his
back. She hauled him back to the house and then to the spare
bedroom upstairs. There she opened a large empty closet and
pushed the boy in locking the solid wooden doors behind him.

She rushed downstairs to meet her husband to explain what had
happened.

When she opened the kitchen door there was no sound from the
fields. No dog barked, no voices could be heard. With relief
she guessed the dogs must have been chasing a coyote or
something and had come close to the house.

Still trembling with shock, Queenie sat down in the kitchen.
It would be another five or six hours before Boss would be
home. She knew she had been lucky … very lucky: the boy had
probably heard the dogs too and had come to the same
conclusion that she had — which was why he had hidden in the
out-building. He was probably even more afraid of Boss than
she was. If it hadn’t been for the dogs barking he would have
run off and she wouldn’t have had a chance to catch him in
her long skirts.

The knowledge though that she was physically stronger than
the boy comforted her. She had been able to tie him up and
drag him into the house. But Blondie would run off again, she
thought to herself, of that she was sure. Then she would have
to face Boss’s rage — there would be no lucky escape like
today.

How then to keep him from escaping? Queenie knew she couldn’t
keep him tied up or locked away all day. How could she
shackle him so that escape was impossible?

++++++++++++++++

When Boss and the two bigger boys arrived back for dinner
that evening their eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.

“What’s … what’s … going on here?” Boss spluttered,
wiping the sweat from his face.

“What do you mean?” Queenie replied nonchalantly.

“I mean … him! What’s he doing in those clothes!” her
husband roared, stabbing a dirty finger at the fair-haired
boy.

“That’s his uniform …” she started to reply.

“Uniform! Why the hell does he need a uniform like that?”
Boss interrupted in a demanding voice.

“Because I say he needs a uniform and don’t forget I’m in
charge of him!” she flashed back angrily.

Boss was momentarily taken back by Queenie’s sharp retort.

“He doesn’t need a dress for a uniform!” he fumed.

“Whose in charge of him?” Queenie demanded, her hands on her
hips. “You or me?”

“You are. But –”

“And if he’s going to do a maid’s work then I say he’s going
to dress in a maid’s uniform,” she interrupted.

“But –” Boss repeated.

“But what?” she challenged.

Boss, tired and weary from a day’s toil and confused by his
wife’s maddening logic, banged his fists on the table.

“Where’s my dinner?” he shouted.

Queenie nodded to the fair-haired boy who started to serve
the meal. Dinner was eaten in silence except for Boss loudly
slurping his soup. The two bigger boys each got a cuff from
Boss when he caught them staring at his wife’s helper.

++++++++++++++++

“I’ve put them away for the night,” Boss grunted to his wife
after dinner. She and Blondie were clearing away the dishes.

Queenie nodded.

“I’m going to keep him in the spare room from now on,” she
told her husband, indicating the boy beside her. “That way I
can get him up earlier and make him work longer and harder.”

“How long are you going to keep him in that?” Boss asked,
pointing at the boy with distaste.

“In what?” Queenie asked, feigning innocence.

“In that dress, damn you!” Boss exploded.

“For as long as it’s needed,” she replied insouciantly. “Why
should it bother you? You said I can do anything I like with
him …”

Boss looked at her in astonishment; then he threw his arms up
in disgust.

“Have it your way,” he replied wearily. “I think you’re
crazy.”

He sat down on his favorite chair and picked up a half-
finished bottle of whisky. Soon his snoring resounded
throughout the house.

“Upstairs,” Queenie ordered the humiliated boy. “I’m not
finished with you yet.”

++++++++++++++++

The next morning Queenie was up earlier than usual. She
washed and dressed while her husband slept on in the bed.

She went down the passageway and taking a key from her pocket
she quietly unlocked the door to the spare bedroom.

The boy was still asleep. While he was rousing she secured a
length of cord to each wrist. Then she released the rope that
tied his hands to the head of the bed. Before he could react
she dragged him out of the bed and forced him to face the
foot of the bed. Despite his struggles she effortlessly tied
the cord attached to his left wrist to the bed-post and then
the other wrist.

“What are you going to do with me?” he asked sullenly, his
face suffused with the twin humiliation of being bound and
finding himself still wearing her clothes.

“You’ll see soon enough,” she replied curtly.

Queenie first took off his night-gown, untying each wrist as
necessary to take off the garment.

Then she passed a cotton chemise over his head and pulled it
down over his slim frame. She released each wrist at a time
to do the sleeves and then retied it to the bed.

Next she attached a pair of black stockings on his legs and
held them in place with garters.

The boy’s face fell as he saw what was coming next.

“No, no, no, not that, please, please, …” he beseeched.

“Do you know how tight I’ll make it? Tighter than yesterday!”
she sneered, placing the corset around his middle. She
started lacing it at back, tugging each lace as hard as she
could.

“That’s tight enough –” he gasped. “I can hardly breathe!!!”

Queenie redoubled her efforts. “I want to <tug> show off
<tug> your figure!” she panted.

Next she put on five petticoats, trimmed with lace and
ruffled to give them volume, followed by a purple dress. The
dress was put on in the same laborious way as the chemise:
she would release one arm at a time so she could put it
through the sleeve before retying it to the bed-post and
doing the other arm.

She buttoned up the dress at back and taking a wide leather
belt she placed it around his waist with the buckle at back.
Then she pulled the belt through the buckle as hard as she
could so that it cinched at the tightest notch-hole possible.
The belt fitted so tautly around his waist that she couldn’t
even insert her finger in between it and the dress. More
importantly, it was so tight fitting that he wouldn’t be able
to pull the buckle around to the front to open it.

“There’s nothing like a dress to make you quit thinking of
running away! Just wait till you get used to the idea of a
skirt limiting the length of your step!” she breathed
triumphantly in his ear. “And I’ve fixed that you won’t be
able to get out of that dress without my help!”

Next came a white, full-length apron and then his feet were
squeezed into a pair of lace-up ankle boots.

Finally, she worked his blonde hair with a brush and then
pinned on a snood, a loose bag-like ornamental net which held
his hair at back.

“Why are you making me wear these clothes?” he cried
piteously as she untied his wrists. “Why are you doing this
to me? What are you going to do with me?”

Queenie gave him a hard, spiteful look.

“What am I going to do with you? I’m going to see that you
never, ever escape from me again!” she hissed venomously.

Before she led her hapless assistant down to the kitchen she
dusted his face with scented powder.