We didn't always eat this good. Ever since Daddy went away to fight in the war, food had become scarce. Our garden got smaller each season that he was gone. There were times when we would eat from the same pot of soup for days on end.
But not this night. Mother had made our favorite for dinner, chicken and dumplings. My sister and I put on our Sunday dresses, and Mother put hers on too. We sat around the table together and Mother actually had a smile on her face. I noticed because ever since we found out that Daddy wouldn't be coming home, they were few and far between. We held hands and said Grace. We felt truly blessed to be able to have such a fine dinner.
Not a moment later, several soldiers waving their guns in the air, came crashing through the front door. Mother screamed for us to get to the root cellar. I didn't think I had enough time to make it that far, so I dove behind where the curtain hung beneath the sink. Mother and Victoria were slow to get away from the table and were grabbed by our intruders. I stayed as quiet as a mouse hoping that one of them hadn't seen where I hid.
A big burly soldier with a head full of curly bright orange hair grabbed onto Victoria. She tried to wrestle herself away but to no avail, she just wasn't strong enough. Mother kicked and scratched at the two others who fought to hold her down, all the time screaming and yelling at the big guy to let Victoria go.
Their captain casually strolled into the kitchen brushing the dust from his blue uniform. He was an ugly man. He had a nasty scar across his face, from his forehead, through his left eye and down his cheek. He didn't say a word to the men, but he helped himself to a spoon and proceeded to eat from our kettle. When it seemed as though he'd had his fill, he looked around and took Daddy's bottle from the cupboard and drank from it until it was empty, then smashed it upon the wall.
He ordered the two men to hold Mother by her arms and they shoved the plates aside and bent her over the table. The captain walked up to her, ripped her Sunday dress open, and had his way with her. When he was finished, the captain walked back out the front door telling the men that they knew what to do.
One by one the other soldiers took turns with both Mother and Victoria, who were holding onto each other's hands across the table from each other. Victoria was sobbing through it all, while Mother made eye contact with me and shook her head no, I knew what she meant.
When the last man was done, the one with the orange hair began to beat Mother and Victoria until their faces were red with blood. As they both fell motionless to the floor, it was all I could do to keep from screaming out to them, but I knew that Mother would be mad if I didn't do as she wanted.
On their way out, two of the soldiers tossed our oil lamps onto the parlor floor, setting the carpet on fire. I kept still all the while smoke was filling the house. When I was sure they had all left, I rushed to Mother's side. By this time, the flames had engulfed the entire front room and were creeping toward the kitchen.
"Emma," she said in a faint voice, "do as I tell you and get to the root cellar and be quick about it. I'll get Victoria and follow you, now go."
I was more scared of not doing what Mother had instructed me to do than I was of the fire, so I opened the trap door and got myself into the root cellar. I could hear the crackling from the fire above me, and I feared that Mother and Victoria weren't coming.
The temperature got very warm as hot embers sifted through the floorboards, but I waited until there was nothing but silence from above before I tried to leave. I climbed the ladder and stuck my head out to see that the house was burned to the ground. All around me there was nothing but the night sky and plumes of smoke rising from the ashes. Across the kitchen floor I could see the charred bodies of Mother and Victoria.
I was alone.
Frightful chills shot through my body, and I retreated into the root cellar. There, feeling sick to my stomach, I curled up in a ball and cried myself to sleep. It was still dark when I woke up, but I waited until dawn before I ventured out.
The blue coats had set up camp along the road to town, and I had to walk for miles through the woods and thickets to avoid them.
I was desperately hungry and knew that I could sneak around by the back door of the hotel where Miss Mamie was the cook. She liked me. Not many people in town did, because I had befriended Miss Mamie's daughter Izzy. We always had fun watching the people's faces when we would stand arm in arm and tell them that we were sisters. Me with my yellow hair, blue eyes and fair complexion, and Izzy with her black curly hair and dark brown eyes, and skin as dark as the burnt timbers of my house. Many times, we would swap dresses, and I would show off Izzy around town in my bright yellow sundress with the snow-white lace around the neckline, while I wore her handmade burlap dress. She looked so pretty in that dress that I just had to let her keep it.
"Missy Emma, what you doing here child?" Miss Mamie asked, looking around to see if anyone was watching her.
"Soldiers in the blue coats burnt our house down last night. Mother and Victoria are both dead. I hid in the root cellar till morning and I'm mighty hungry, Miss Mamie."
"You wait right here while I fetch you a piece of my fried chicken and a hunk of bread."
Miss Mamie was not one to turn her back on a living soul in need, and since I already held a special place in her heart, befriending her Izzy, she took me into her home and Izzy and I became 'real' sisters. Mamie got permission for Izzy and I to work with her in the hotel kitchen. We didn't get paid, but we were allowed to eat whatever we wanted. While we were expected to help serve the food, clean the tables and wash the dishes, Mamie also taught us as much as we wanted to know about cooking. She was a great teacher, and before long, we were fixing dinners right alongside of her.
Mamie had many years of hard living behind her, and when her health started to decline, I was able to handle the majority of the kitchen responsibilities without anyone else finding out about Mamie.
Miss Mamie lasted long enough to see the war's end and was comforted by the knowledge that her Izzy would be able to live as a free woman. Our little town became desolate as many people moved westward for new beginnings.
One morning, a traveler left his newspaper behind after eating breakfast at the hotel. I was able to find time to look at it later in the day. Buried inside was a feel-good story about a small-town sheriff who had heroically saved the lives of a sow and her three little piglets from a barn fire just before the building collapsed around them. Along with the article was a photograph of the sheriff holding one of the piglets.
The blood rushed from my head, and I felt like I was going to pass out. There he was, the scar across his face, from his forehead through his left eye and down his cheek. It was him, the son of a bitch who took my mother, my sister, and my house from me. He was being treated as a hero. He was no hero; he was a murderer. The anger inside me was making my blood boil. I was so mad that I shredded the paper. I made my mind up right then and there, I was going to that little town in Kansas and find him. I didn't have any idea what I would do when I got there, but I had to go.
* * *
The sweat dripped off my chin and sizzled when it landed on the hot griddle. Dinnertime at the hotel was winding down, the last thing to do before cleaning up was to put together meals for the jail. One for the sheriff and one for each of the prisoners.
Mr. Hudson, the hotel manager, came into my kitchen to tell me that our server, Mary Jane, wasn't feeling well and he sent her home as soon as dinner was over. He said that he would help me clean the dining room if I would take the dinners to the sheriff's office. I had avoided seeing the sheriff, on purpose, because I was afraid of what my reaction would be when I saw him up close and in person. But I couldn't say no to Mr. Hudson, after all, he gave me a job and a room to stay in when I arrived and had nothing to my name but the clothes on my back.
I used my toe to knock on the door. When the sheriff opened it for me, I thought I was going to pee myself. My brain was doing flip flops in my head. All I could see was him in his blue uniform standing behind my mother as she lay across our dining table with tears falling from her eyes. I turned my head as to not make eye contact with him and set my tray on his desk.
"Would you like me to take the dinners to the prisoners for you?" I asked in the politest voice that I could muster.
"Just be careful and don't get too close," he said.
I set his dinner down in front of him.
As I carried the tray with the dinners for the two prisoners down the hallway to their cells, I heard the sheriff yell out, "This is what you call dinner . . . cabbage soup?"
I passed the plates through the slots in the iron bars and one of the prisoners also grumbled about having cabbage soup as his dinner. Then he sniffed the cloth napkin that covered his plate.
"That don't smell like no cabbage soup."
"It's not. Not for you, only him," as I nodded toward the door, and pulled the napkin back exposing a nice thick slice of beef and a potato. "Shh. Don't say anything."
I cringed as I walked back toward the office and the prisoner started to yell, "Hey sheriff," my heart skipped a beat, "this cabbage soup sure smells mighty good."
I smiled to myself all the way back to the hotel.
* * *
I laid sleepless on my bed. My brain cells were square dancing with each other trying to figure out a way to avenge what I watched him do to Mother and Victoria.
As I stared at the strange shadows on the wall, caused by the candle flickering on the nightstand, I wondered to myself, did I have it in me to be a murderer too? I certainly could never get away with just walking up to him and putting a bullet through him. No, I had to come up with a way that no one would ever suspect me.
I was startled back to reality when the shadow of a mouse was cast upon the wall. I grabbed the candle and held it high above my head, frantically searching around the room for it. I spotted it. It was the biggest mouse I'd ever seen.
That's when it struck me. Poison. To get rid of the mice that our big old cat didn't get, Daddy always put down poison for them to eat and die. From now on, the sheriff will be getting a new spice added to his meal every night. He'll never know what hit him.
Days turned into weeks, and nothing seemed to be happening to the sheriff. Did that poison only work on mice? Maybe I'd have to shoot him after all.
* * *
After we cleaned the kitchen, I offered to take the sheriff's dinner to him and sent Mary Jane home. When I got to the sheriff's office, I found him slumped in his chair behind the desk. His breathing was very labored, and he was sweating profusely.
"Are you alright sheriff?"
My heart began to race. Could the poison finally be working? I could only hope.
"I must be getting sick," he said faintly. "I don't feel well. Will you go fetch the doc?"
"Sure, I will. But you know, the first thing he's going to ask you is when was the last time you had something to eat? I brought you your supper. You should try and eat a little bit. Here let me help."
I spoon-fed him a few bites, then he asked me again to fetch the doc.
"Sure, I will. As soon as you finish your dinner."
"I ain't hungry, I want the doc," he screamed. His voice was becoming garbled, and he was slurring his words.
"I don't think the doc can help you now. I think this is it for you."
"What do you mean this is it?" he mumbled.
I leaned in and whispered in his ear, "I mean that you're dying, you son of a bitch. I've been feeding you rat poison every day. Now you are going to pay for what you did to Mother and Victoria."
"I . . . don't know . . . what . . . you're talking about," and his head crashed onto his plate, spilling what was left of his food.
I grabbed him by his hair and lifted his head up, and as the beans dripped from his chin, I said to him, "Richmond, Virginia, April 1865, you and your blue coats stormed my house, killed my mother and my sister, and burned my home to the ground. I have fought to survive just to see the day when you would pay for what you did. And that day has come. And I'm gonna sit right here and watch you go straight to hell."
* * *
Mr. Hudson never spoke to me more than was necessary for several weeks. Then the day came that he sat me down before I started cooking and said to me, "Emma, I don't pretend to know anything about things that I don't know fer sure. And there are things that I don't need to know either. But there is a new sheriff coming to town shortly and I suspect that you'll cater his meals more to his liking than you did the last sheriff."
"Why Mr. Hudson," I said in my most dramatic southern drawl, "whatever do you mean? You know I'm the best cook you've ever had in this here establishment. I serve ALL of my customers like they are the most important people on the face of this here earth. Sir."
* * *
The dinner dishes were all washed and dried and put away when Mary Jane asked me to sit down.
"You're not going to like what I have to say," she said as a tear welled up in her eye. "I'm leaving soon to go back east to go to school."
I stood back up and gave her a hug. "That's fantastic. I'm so happy for you."
"I thought you would be upset. I'm leaving you here by yourself."
"That's Mr. Hudson's problem. He'll just have to hire someone to replace you. I will definitely miss you, but you gotta do what's right for you. I would love the chance to go back home, but my home is gone."
Mr. Hudson stuck his head through the doorway, "Oh good, Emma you're still here, there is someone out front asking for you."
"Who is it, Mr. Hudson?" I couldn't imagine who in the world could be looking for me.
"She didn't give her name, but it's a young Negro woman."
I swung open the pass-through to the dining room and stopped dead in my tracks. Standing right there in front of me was none other than my Izzy.
"Oh, my," was the only thing that came out of my mouth.
Izzy did a little curtsy and said, "Good evening, Miss Emma."
I curtsied back and said, "Good evening, Miss Izzy."
We both started giggling and ran into each other's arms.
Both Mr. Hudson and Mary Jane stood there gawking at the two of us.
Izzy explained that even though the war had technically ended slavery, a lot of the attitudes back home remained the same, and when the opportunity arose for her to leave, she jumped at the chance.
"Where are you going? What are you going to do?" I asked her.
When she told me that she was on her way to San Francisco to work as a maid for some rich guy, I looked her straight in the eye and said, "Oh no you're not."
I turned and looked at Mr. Hudson, "Sir, I think I just found Mary Jane's replacement. Izzy's momma taught me everything I know around that kitchen, and Izzy here learnt right along with me. What'ya say, Mr. Hudson? Will ya hire her?"
"But Emma, she's . . . "
"She's what, Mr. Hudson, a good cook? You bet she is. She's as good as me. And she's like my sister. And if you don't hire her . . . "
"Okay, okay, okay. But I'll only give her a room and meals until she can prove to me that she's as good as you say she is."
I looked back at Izzy. "Please say you'll stay with me. I've missed you so much. And things here aren't like back home, you'll see. Please say yes."
Izzy smiled that big toothy smile of hers, turned her eyes to Mr. Hudson and said, "After you've eaten my cooking tomorrow, sir, you won't be sorry."
I threw my arms around Izzy, and the two of us jumped around the dining room like little kids on Christmas morning.
* * *
Izzy and I made a great team running the kitchen. Our down-home southern style vittles were very popular. Mr. Hudson's hotel became the go to place in town to eat.
"The new sheriff arrives today, Emma. I'd like you to fix him something real special for his first dinner."
I looked over at Izzy, she got that big toothy grin on her face again and nodded.
"Yes sir, Mr. Hudson. Me and Izzy are gonna make Miss Mamie's famous fried chicken. I promise you he'll be back for more."
Izzy piled the plate high with the chicken, while I added some boiled potatoes and carrots, and a big slice of peach pie. I took off my apron and made sure my hair looked nice and made my way over to the jail.
Some of the town's prominent businessmen were gathered around the new sheriff when I walked in. I butted in between them and set the tray down on the desk.
"Excuse me Sheriff, this is compliments of . . . Mister . . . Hudson's . . . hotel . . . "
The big burly sheriff roared with laughter and said, "What's the matter, Miss? Haven't you ever seen orange hair before."
My whole body began to tremble. I choked back my tears and said, "Yes sir . . . just once . . . a long time ago."