WACO, TEXAS, 1858
That one right there—he’s your mark.”
Annie Sheffield slipped past her daddy and peeked around the corner of the building. A handsome youth with wheat-colored hair stood in the dirt road in front of the mercantile, a shiny pocket watch dangling from his fingers on a silver chain. Annie squinted when a shaft of light reflected off the watch, and she blinked several times, refocusing on her prey. A much younger boy with the same color hair reached for the watch, but the other boy lifted the treasure higher to safety.
The older boy’s look was stern but gentle. “No, Timothy. Remember this watch was Grandpa’s. It’s very old, and we must be careful with it.”
The younger boy’s face scrunched up but he nodded. Then the comely youth bent down and allowed Timothy to hold the shiny watch for a moment before he closed it and put it back in a small bag, a proud smile on his handsome face.
Ducking back into the alley, Annie leaned against the wall in the early evening shadows. She glanced at her daddy. “Do I have to?”
“You wanna eat, don’tcha? We need that watch.”
“But that boy looks so proud of it.”
Her father narrowed his gray eyes. “I’d be proud if’n it was mine.”
Annie sighed. If her father possessed the watch, he’d just go hock it or gamble it away.
“Go on with ya.” He flicked his thin index finger in the air, pointing toward the street. He tugged down on the ugly orange, green, and brown plaid vest that he always wore. “Scat!”
Annie peered around the building again, taking a moment to judge how fast she’d have to run and where she could hide once she’d taken the watch. She’d come to hate being a pickpocket. Ever since she heard that street preacher several months back in Galveston hollering to a small crowd of spectators that stealing was breaking one of God’s special laws, it had nagged her worse than a swarm of mosquitoes. But she was hungry, and they had no money.
She studied the boy’s long legs. Could she outrun him? And what about his little friend?
Her daddy was an expert pickpocket. He could snitch a wallet and disappear into a crowd like a crow in a flock, but when it came to running away from a target, well, that’s where she came in.
The tall cowboy was probably only a few years older than her thirteen years. He motioned to the younger boy, and they hopped up on the boardwalk and strolled toward her, completely unaware they were being spied on. He held one hand on the younger boy’s shoulder, as if wanting to keep him close. Now that they both faced her, she could see their resemblance. They had to be brothers. The big boy glanced at his watch bag, tucked it in his vest pocket, and gave it a loving pat.
Annie jumped back. “He’s coming,” she whispered over her shoulder.
Her father scowled. “I want that watch. Go!”
He gave her a shove. She stumbled forward and turned.
The youth’s blue eyes widened. “Hey, look—”
They collided—hard. Annie was knocked backwards, arms pumping, and her cap flew off. The youth grabbed her shoulders, and in a quick, smooth move that had taken Annie her whole life to master, she slipped his watch from his pocket and into hers. She ducked her head and stepped back. “Sorry, mister.”
Her apology was more for stealing his treasure than crashing into him. She spun around and ran, hating the baggy trousers her father made her wear so she’d look like a boy. Hating the life she was forced to live. Hating that the handsome youth would hate her. She ran past a bank and a dress shop, then ducked down another alley. Behind the building she turned right instead of going left and back toward her daddy. Right now she didn’t want to see him.
“Hey! Come back here, you thief!”
Annie’s heart lurched, and she switched from trot to gallop. She could no longer see the watch’s owner, but she knew it was him hollering. Bumping into that young man had flustered her. She hadn’t expected him to be so solid for a youth not even full grown yet. Men grew taller and tougher here in Texas than in the other cities of the South where she’d mostly grown up—a different city every few weeks. A thief wasn’t welcome in town for long.
Loud footsteps pounded behind her. She ducked under a wagon that sat behind the smithy, rolled, and dove into the open doorway. She crawled into the shadows of the building and curled up behind a barrel that had oats scattered on the ground around it. She took several gasps of air and listened for footsteps. The watch pressed hard against her hipbone, causing her guilt to mount. A horse in a nearby stall snorted and pawed the ground. Annie’s heartbeat thundered in her ears as she listened for her pursuer’s footsteps. Would he thrash her if he found her?
She peeked around the barrel. The tall boy stood in the doorway, looking around. She shrank back into the shadows like a rat—like the vermin she was.
After a moment, he spun around and quick steps took him away. Annie leaned against the wall, hating herself all over. Why couldn’t she have been born into a nice family who lived in a big house? She’d even be happy with a small house, if she could have regular meals, wash up every week or so, and wear a dress like other girls.
But no, she had to be born the daughter of a master pickpocket.
The blacksmith—redheaded, with huge shoulders and chest—plodded over to a shelf directly across from her, pulled something off it, then returned to the front of the building. He pounded his hammer, making a rhythmic ching.
What would he do if he found her hiding in his building? Would he pummel her like he did that horseshoe? He’d have to catch her first, and surely a man that muscled couldn’t run very fast. And if she was anything at all, she was fast.
Annie yawned and glanced at the door. Was it safe to leave yet?
Nah. She’d better wait until dark. Her stomach gurgled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since early this morning, when her pa stole a loaf of bread right off someone’s table. The family had been out in the barn, doing chores, and he’d walked right in as if he owned the place. He’d laughed when he told her that the only person who saw him was a baby in her cradle—and she wasn’t tattling.
The sweet scent of fresh straw and leather blended with the odor of horses and manure. Annie leaned back against the wall, wincing when it creaked, then closed her eyes. She was so tired of her life. Of moving from place to place. If only her daddy could get a real job and they could live in a real house. . . .
Riley chased the boy, running until his side ached, but the little thief had disappeared. He bent and rested his hands on his knees, breathing hard as he watched the street for any sign of the pickpocket. Few people were on the streets of Waco this late. Most businesses had closed before suppertime, except the saloons. The lively tune of a piano did nothing to soothe his anger. How could he have not noticed that thief had slid his grandpa’s watch right out of his pocket?
Movement drew his attention to a couple strolling arm-in-arm on the far side of Main Street. Maybe he should ask if they had seen the pint-sized robber, but then they only seemed to be looking at each other. Riley glanced toward the boardinghouse where his family’s wagon was parked. They’d stay there tonight, then travel to their new ranch, a few miles outside of town, along a river called the South Bosque.
Riley heaved a sigh and shoved his hands into his pockets. He studied the small town that sat all cozied up to the Brazos River. He hadn’t wanted to come here in the first place—and neither had his mother. Their old farm had been perfectly fine, but his father said there were new opportunities in Waco and inexpensive land, too. Riley scowled and blew a heavy breath out his nose. He hadn’t wanted to leave his friends, especially Adrian Massey, a pretty neighbor girl he planned on courting once he was a few years older. He hoped that she would follow through and write to him as she promised.
His mother’s tears hadn’t swayed his father, though they made Riley’s heart ache. She wanted to go back to Victoria where her family and the rest of the Morgans lived. But not Pa. He loved his siblings, but he had a need to be independent, to play a part in developing Texas—and now they were even farther away.
At least his pa had pacified his ma by taking her for a visit back with her family and then on to the ranch where the Morgans had been raised, so they could see his aunt and attend her wedding. Talking with his aunt Billie about her time as a captive with the Comanche had been the most interesting part of the trip—that, and seeing the beautiful Morgan horses his uncle Jud raised. At least he could look forward to the delivery of the dozen broodmares and the young stallion his pa bought.
Staring down the street, he watched his pa take a small box off the wagon and hand it to Timothy. Riley winced, as the realization hit that he’d run off and left his little brother. Pa slowly turned in a circle, looking all around. Riley ducked into the alley. He couldn’t head back without searching for that thief again. The boy had to be here somewhere, because the town wasn’t all that big.
He ran his fingers through his hair, dreading seeing his father’s disappointment. Riley had overheard his pa’s initial objection to giving him the watch when Uncle Jud had suggested it—said that he wasn’t responsible enough to have something so valuable to the family. Riley kicked a rock and sent it rolling. Why didn’t his pa have more faith in him? Gritting his teeth, he had to admit he’d been right—at least in this instance. He raked his fingers through his hair and gazed down the alley, realizing that somewhere along the way he’d lost his hat too.
Half an hour later, as the sun ducked behind the horizon and cast a pink glow on the clouds, Riley headed back to the boardinghouse. Maybe if he were lucky, Timothy hadn’t tattled about him losing the watch. But as much as he loved his younger brother, he knew the truth. Pa would be waiting, and he would insist on hearing the whole story. And once again, his pa would be disappointed.
A horse’s whinny startled Annie and she jerked awake. During the night, she’d huddled up in a ball to stay warm and must have pulled hay over her from the empty stall on her left. She yawned and stretched, her empty belly growling its complaint. Bright shafts of sunlight drifted through the cracks on the eastern wall, and dust motes as thick as snow floated in the air. The front door creaked open. She jumped, then ducked back behind the barrel and peered over it. Chilly air seeped through the cracks in the walls, making her wish for her blanket. She wrapped her arms tight across her chest.
Her daddy would be so mad that she’d disappeared all night.
At least this town—Waco, he had called it—was small enough she shouldn’t have trouble finding him. The blacksmith plodded through the building and opened the back door, letting in a blast of cold air. Annie waited a few minutes while he fed the five horses, then grabbed a bucket and headed out the back door. She tiptoed to the opening and peered outside. The large man walked toward the river then bent down, lowering the pail into the water. Annie spun around and raced to the front door, peeked out, then dashed down the street and into the first alley she came to. Would her daddy be upset with her for being gone so long? Would he wallop her? Keeping as close to the buildings as possible, she hurried back to the spot she’d last seen him.
Three long days later, Annie nibbled on the moldy bread crust she’d dug out of someone’s trash heap and gazed out over the small town from the tree she had climbed. Her pa had up and left her—as he’d threatened on so many occasions when she hadn’t returned to their meeting spot with enough stolen goods.
She watched people coming and going, doing their Saturday shopping. Mamas held the hands of their youngsters and stood chatting with other women or walking between shops. Men compared horses, checking their hooves and sometimes their teeth. And the girls all wore dresses—some prettier than others—but dresses all the same. Her eyes stung. One man swung his daughter up in his arms, and even from so far away, Annie could see her smile. She rubbed her burning eyes. Her daddy wasn’t much of a family, but he was better than none at all—most of the time, anyway.
She swung on a nearby branch and dropped to the ground. With so many folks around, she should blend in. Hurrying past the livery and several other buildings, she stopped only to dip her hand in the horse trough for a quick drink, then continued to the far end of Waco. The house she aimed for sat a short ways out of town. She’d been there the past two days, drawn by the delicious aroma of baking bread and the children’s happy squeals.
Squatting down next to a sparse shrub, she peered through the wooden fence at the house she’d dreamed about—the one she longed to live in. Two stories, white with a dark roof, half a dozen rocking chairs on the porch, and even a few flowers out front, in spite of the chill that still lingered at night.
The children, all younger than she was, were an oddity, though. They walked around, holding their hands out in front of them, feeling their way along knotted ropes that lined the path. She decided they must be blind, just like some of the beggars she’d seen in New Orleans.
But these children wore nice clothes without ragged hems and torn sleeves, and their cheeks were rosy, and smiles lit the faces of most of them. Annie shook her head. What kind of person was she to be jealous of the blind?
The youngsters felt their way to the far side of the house, and Annie stooped down and ran around back. The odor of something delicious wafted out the back door. Someone inside banged cooking pots.
Annie hunkered down behind a rain barrel. A barn sat a short ways behind the house. Maybe she could sleep there tonight.
The back door opened, and a pretty woman who reminded Annie of her mama glided down the steps in a bright blue dress. Her yellow hair was piled up on the back of her head. Annie tugged at her short, plain brown hair. It had never been long enough to put up like that—not after her pa hacked it away with his knife. Besides, she wouldn’t know how to fix it anyway.
Fragrant odors drifted toward Annie. Her stomach moaned a long complaint.
The woman clapped her hands. “Children, time for lunch.”
As one, the youngsters turned toward her voice, carefully feeling their way toward her. Would anyone notice if she sneaked inside with them?
She glanced down at her dirty hands and fingernails. Her pants stunk, and her head itched. Maybe those kids couldn’t see her, but they sure would be able to smell her.
The idea she’d been chewing on for two days sounded better and better. Those children had everything she wanted—they were clean, had decent clothes, ate regular meals, and lived in the house she wanted.
Come morning, she’d be sitting on the front porch. And if she had to pretend to be a blind orphan in order to be taken in—so be it.