“That’s all for today Matthew,” Sal told him.
“Do you still want two pounds of hard candy in separate bags?” he asked.
“I almost forgot. Yes, please,” she smiled through her decayed teeth.
“Sal, you know old doc will pull those teeth of yours for a good price,” he told her
She grabbed her goods off the counter and gave him a quick wave as she walked out the door.
The old mule stood perfectly still as she packed items tightly into the saddle bags. It upset her that Matthew reminded her of how bad her teeth really were. She wished he hadn’t. Now she didn’t feel like meeting with the gang but there was no way out of it. She promised she would be there.
The mule followed behind her as she walked towards the river. Folks were curious why the mule didn’t stray. Beating mules to death was common among a few of the miners.
Sal would get furious when she saw a poor mule being packed down with great amounts of weight. They would sometimes buckle at the knees and then get a worsebeating. She would cuss at the miner but he would often become meaner. Blood would roar inside her veins as she walked away.
At the river she spotted the children, parents, and a few town folk waiting for her.
“Sit, sit. Now where did I leave off?” she asked them.
“Your mother died,” someone shouted out.
“Yes, I remember now. Momma died in childbirth and papa raised us five girls. I was the second youngest and a handful. Papa didn’t even try to tame me. I would follow him from morning to night watching every move he made. By the time I was seven, I knew more about the ranch than most boys.”
She wiped her brow. Someone handed her a drink before she continued on.
“I was horrified when papa told me I had to go to school.” She jumped up from her chair and growled, “That’s when I bit him!”
A few of the young ones began to cry.
“A bit of brat you were, Sal,” someone yelled.
“Papa thought I was,” she smiled. “I wanted to be a ranch hand and he forbade such nonsense. I should have bitten him harder,” she winked.
The children in the front row covered their mouths and giggled.
“What happened when you went to school?” a little girl asked.
“I spent most of my time staring out the damn old window,” she sulked.
“Sal, the children,” a parent scolded her.
“One day, I overheard the teacher reading a story to the class. For some strange reason, it captured my full attention. When she stopped reading, I suddenly felt as if I had fallen back into my seat. Something happened that day and I no longer needed the window. I know some of you know exactly what I mean,” she smiled.
“When did you come to Dawson City?” a boy hollered.
“Papa was furious when he heard I was going out west to teach; it was the last time I saw him. I was at the general store one day when I overheard a bunch of men say the Klondike was bursting at the seams with gold. A few weeks later my papa died. I went to his funeral and sold my share of the ranch to my sisters. That’s when I decided I was heading to Dawson City to see the gold fields.
“It was a long and painful journey. I taught school here for several years and then went back to Texas. I think gold dust must have gotten into my blood because I longed to be here. After a year, my family couldn’t stand my whining, so they packed me up and sent me back,” she grinned.
She shifted her weight on the chair that the town folks had given her. The heat from the direct sun was beginning to make her perspire a little. She fanned her body with a big rim hat that she bought on her last trip outside.
“Should I stop for today?” she asked.
“No,” a little girl moaned.
“Let me tell you then about the time I went to town with papa. It was a hot day like today. Momma prepared us a lovely basket lunch so that we could stop at the creek on our way home. Momma was a tall woman with this long red strawberry hair.”
Sal stopped talking for a minute.
“Now where was I? Oh yes. When we got to town, I was flabbergasted, isn’t that a funny word, flabbergasted? It means I was shocked to see so many people in one place. I was happy when papa finished his business and we got to go to the creek. We sat on a blanket, ate sandwiches, and counted the butterflies that kept coming our way.
“Papa said the butterflies were a sign from heaven and we should thank the Lord for our good fortune. I remember, turning to papa and asking him if he was a preacher man like the one at church. He took my little face in his hands and kissed me on the nose and said, ‘No child, I’m just an old rancher that knows hard times from good.’
“Thanks Sal,” folks shouted as they left.
“I won’t be back,” she whispered to the old mule.