It was still light out, though it was nearing dinnertime. The Ringmaster arrived first, with a few workers. They put up bright flyers all over Hadleigh, with big letters announcing daring trapeze artists and live animals that I had only seen in picture books. My Papa was the Sheriff, and he told me not to talk to them. He said circus people were strange.
So I kept my distance as I watched them. The Ringmaster wore a blue and purple jacket with sparkles and a tall, shiny hat. His black hair curled over his collar, and he didn’t have a beard; my Papa and most of the men in our little town had beards and wore cowboy hats.
“Hurry up, Jaime, quit gawking at everything and bring those flyers over here!” He barked at a boy who looked to be my age, who was carrying a leather satchel across his back with several rolled-up flyers stuffed into it.
I studied his face from my hiding place on the roof of the Jail. Papa was sitting at his desk in the building below me, writing some papers. He told me not to leave the Jailhouse until he was done, I figured the roof counted, so I wasn’t disobeying being up here.
The boy called Jaime had pretty eyes, just as blue as the sky above us. I wondered if he was friendly. I didn’t like playing with the other little girls who lived in town, they only ever wanted to play with dolls or have tea parties, and that stuff was boring. I would rather catch frogs in the stream with the boys, but they wouldn’t let me play with them; they always thought I would tattle to my Papa when they did bad things like steal…
“Kat! Where are you?” My Papa strode out of the Jail, his spurs jangling. He pushed his hat back on his head as he looked up and down the street for me.
I had been standing on the roof, watching the circus people. At the sound of my Papa’s bellow, I ducked behind the facade, so only my face was visible. The movement must have caught Jaime’s eye because he turned, and those pretty sky eyes met my brown ones.
I shook my head and put my finger to my lips, silently pleading that he not be mean and give away my location. His serious expression curled into a slight smile, and he nodded once and looked away.
Relieved, I crawled backward on my belly until I felt the back edge of the roof, then I lowered myself by my arms and dropped onto the back porch and hurried into the back door of the Jail and on through the front door to where Papa was still hollering “Kat!”
“Here I am Papa, I saw a snake on the back porch, and I chased it off with a stick.”
“I was calling you! You should have come right away and never mind playing with snakes,” He looked me over. “Widow Harrison invited us over for supper tonight. You need to go on and change your dress. That one there is all dirty.”
“Ok, Papa. Can we go to the circus?”
He looked at one of the flyers and rubbed his beard. “We’ll see. I expect the deputies and I will be busy while they are here; circus people tend to be rowdy.”
I obediently went home and put on one of my pretty dresses. “I don’t like Widow Harrison, and she don’t like me either, I can tell, even though she pretends to be all polite. She’s always batting her eyes at my daddy, and the worst part is he seems to like it.”
I remembered the toad I had found earlier and hurried to fetch it from the pocket of my play dress that I wore earlier. I put him in a box and shoved it under my bed. Papa knocked on my door.
“I got a bracelet for the Widow Harrison,” he said as he handed me a pretty red box with a ribbon on it. “I think it would be charming if you handed it to her. Are you ready?”
“I need to brush my hair.”
Papa nodded. “Don’t take too long. I’ll go get the wagon.”
Five minutes later, I bounced out the door and climbed up next to Papa on the rough wooden plank that served as the seat of our old wagon, holding the gift for Widow Harrison on my lap.
We arrived in just a few minutes in front of the Widow’s white clapboard house on the outskirts of town. Papa gave the horse to the Widow’s servant to take care of, and Papa went up and knocked on the door.
She opened the door right away, so she must have been watching out the window for us. She was young for a widow; she still had hair black as a raven wing, no silver at all. One of the gossips had said she married a much older man who got rich in the gold rush, and he died of heart trouble a few years ago. I often wondered why she didn’t move back East. Her gray eyes crinkled at the corners as she smiled and batted her unnaturally long lashes at my Papa. Everyone said she word too much rouge and lip stain.
“Hello,” Widow Harrison said in her cultured Eastern accent, presenting her cheek for Papa to kiss. After he did, Papa looked at me expectantly. I curtseyed like my teacher Ms. Miller had taught me.
“Excellent, Katherine. I can tell you have been practicing; you will be a proper lady in no time.”
I smiled at her, careful not to show teeth, lest it look like I was snarling, which I felt like doing. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
She led us to a fancy dining room where her table was set with fancy china. Papa took his hat off and put it on the back of his chair. He had curly brown hair and brown eyes like I did.
Widow Harrison’s maid began serving food. “Give her the gift we brought, Katherine,” Papa told me.
I handed her the box, and Papa came to stand next to her,
“Here, let me put it on you,” he said. I started backing toward the door as Papa opened the box, regretting what I had done, thinking at the time that it would be funny.
When Papa opened that pretty box, and that fat toad jumped out and landed right in the middle of the Widow’s fancy plate, and Papa immediately turned a red-faced scowl in my direction, I knew I was in for a whupping, so I swirled around and bolted for the door.
“Katherine Melissa Tudor! You get back here this instant!” Papa raged.
I heard the voice of the Ringmaster in the distance and bolted that direction, thinking it would be easy to hide. I watched them set up tents and unload animals; my eyes widened when I saw a real-live elephant! I could smell animal sweat and the sweet smell of straw drifting toward me on the breeze.
There was a man, taller and with more muscles than any man I had seen; he even looked stronger than my Papa, taking big boxes out of a wagon. Papa said they were rowdy, but all I saw were regular-looking people working hard.
“Hey, I remember you! You was on the roof earlier. Whatcha doing?” a voice spoke close by, startling me. I was relieved when I spun around and saw that it was only Jaime.
“Watching the circus. I’ve never been to one before.”
“They just settin’ up. The real circus ain’t till tomorrow,” Jaime waved his hand dismissively. He climbed up next to me on the log I was sitting on. The sun was just beginning to turn everything golden, including Jaime’s hair. He smelled like sweet hay, sunshine, and freedom. I hoped we could be friends.
“It must be so much fun, traveling with the circus.”
Jaime shrugged. “Sometimes. I like seeing places, but it’s not always fun. What were you doing on the roof earlier?”
“Hiding from my Papa. He always wants me to stay at the Jailhouse while he’s on duty. He wants me to be like the other little girls and drink tea and never get dirty. I don’t want to be like them.”
“I’d rather be outdoors. How long have you been with the circus?”
“My whole life. My parents were part of the circus; they died when a fire broke out.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said sadly.
“It was a long time ago. C’mon, I’ll show you around.”
I felt sad about his parents, but it seemed like he didn’t want to talk about it.
“My mama died a long time ago. I was just a baby, and I never knew her. Papa has a picture of her on his nightstand from their wedding. She had blonde hair, Papa said. I wish my hair was blonde.”
“I think your hair is pretty,” Jaime blurted out, then got red-faced like he was embarrassed.
I started to say thank you, but then I spotted a grey head and flapping ears not far away.
*Can we look at the elephant?”
“Sure, she’s friendly.”
The elephant looked huge when we were standing next to her. She looked down at me with her wise long-lashed brown eyes and sniffed my clothes and hair with her long grey trunk.
“Her skin is bumpy, and I didn’t know elephants had hair,” I commented as I petted her.
In pictures, elephants always looked like they were hairless. I rubbed her smooth white tusks and rubbed her big flappy ears; she snorted and tilted her head, indicating she liked it.
She must be used to people, I thought. “She smells like hay and peanuts. What is her name?”
“She doesn’t have one yet. What do you think we should call her?”
I thought about it. “How about Stella? No, Nelly. Or Sam.”
“Sam isn’t a girl’s name!”
“I’ve read about girls named Sam; it’s short for Samantha.”
“I like Stella.”
“I’ll have to keep thinking about it.” My stomach growled at that moment.
“Are you hungry?” Jaime asked.
“Yes, I missed dinner.”
“I gots some bread,” he said as he hurried off, returning in a few moments with a thick slice of course brown bread, which I tore in half to share with him.
“There you! Jaime, get over here! There is work to be done!” The Ringmaster yelled as he spotted Jaime and I seated on the log, talking.
“I hafta go,” Jaime sighed and trudged over to where the Ringmaster was waiting, who immediately cuffed Jaime hard in the ear. Jaime cried out and put his hand over his ear. I could see it reddening from where I sat.
I jumped up and grabbed a handful of stones, about to race over there and defend my new friend, but a firm hand gripped my upper arm and jerked me to a halt.
“Kat, what do you think you’re doing? I told you to stay away from these people!” My Papa spun me around and glared into my face as he said this.
He didn’t wait for an answer as he started hauling me off behind him, me trying to keep up with his longer strides. “Papa, stop, he’ll hurt him!”
“The Ringmaster,” I pointed back toward the circus tents. “He’s beating that boy, my friend Jaime.”
Papa turned and looked back, but Jaime wasn’t in sight, and the Ringmaster was now yelling at someone else.
“I don’t see anyone getting a beating, ‘cept you when we get home. ‘Sides, I don’t want to interfere, those circus people can deal with their own, and they prefer it. Let’s go.”
I looked back for a second, but Jaime didn’t reappear.
“I’m very upset with you, Katherine. You were very rude to the Widow, and you are going to apologize to her tonight.”
I didn’t want to, but I knew I would for sure get that threatened whupping if I refused, so I meekly followed Papa to the Widow’s house.
She surprised me by patting my hand when I told her I was sorry, with my eyes downcast. “Don’t fret, dear. No harm done. I don’t mind a stepdaughter with a bit of spirit. I think you and I will get along splendidly.”
I felt like someone had thrown ice water over me, and my stomach started to knot. “Did you say, stepdaughter?” It came out in a choked whisper.
Papa cleared his throat, and the Widow’s eyes looked from me to him and back again. Her gloved hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, dear. I thought you told her.”
Papa stepped behind me and wrapped his arms loosely around my shoulders; I knew it was more to keep me from bolting than to provide comfort.
He kneeled down to my level and turned me to face him. “Adella and I are going to be married. I asked her tonight. I love her, and she will make you a good mother.”
I only nodded and lowered my gaze so they couldn’t see my thoughts reflected in my eyes. Night had fallen in more ways than one.