by KD Miller
Catrina and her husband take in four siblings off the Orphan Train. (Catrina's POV - 1904)
December 1, 1904
Catrina Muller throws her fox fur wrap over her shoulders and races across the snow-covered streets of Sherwood, Texas. Her expensive, leather boots slapped as they made contact with the melted water. Once a week, from ten to noon, she meets up with her husband at his floral shop and they take the train to the town over for lunch. With a deep breath, she inhales and exhales, revealing white puffs in the air.
Brr...The temperature must be dropping by the minute!
Pulling the wrap tighter, she quickens her pace, while ignoring the disapproving frowns from the uppity women. Her old boarding school back in Boston didn't call her, "Catrina the Amazon Runner," for nothing! In the distance, she hears two short whistling shrieks signaling the noon arrivals. Crossing over the north courthouse lawn, Catrina makes a beeline to her husband's store just in time to see him closing the door behind him.
"Hello, darling! Nice day for a swim," he jokes, revealing the small gap between his two front teeth.
Throwing her arms around him for a hug, she felt his own arms circle back.
"I have my bathing suit on under my coat," she giggles playfully. "I'll probably get arrested. Will you bail me out?"
"Hmm," he says. "It will be quite a scandal! Mrs. Frank Muller is spotted roaming the streets wearing nothing but beach attire!"
Catrina could feel her blood boil at the mention of, "Mrs. Frank Muller." She was no man's property. Not her father's, nor her two younger brothers, and especially not her husband's. When she married, the snootier papers published a scathing article, "Should we call him "Mr. Catrina Muller!" A wealthy lawyer's daughter marries the son of a poor farmer!"
There was nothing they could do about the pathetic gossip article. Frank told her not to worry about it. He found it kind of amusing. To prove his point, he cut the article out and framed it. It currently hung in his office, reminding him that he had received the business from his father-in-law as a wedding present. The man may own the biggest law firm in Sherwood, but he owned a floral shop as well. A long-time employee had put up his retirement notice and the position had been given to Frank. Her husband was grateful every day for the opportunity and the town's people warmly welcomed him.
Slipping her arm through Frank's, they began their short walk to the train station.
"I'm no man's property, you know that."
She felt her husband ruffle her hair with his free hand.
"Yes...darling! I'm just messing with you," he laughs, drawing out each word. "You know you're my little firecracker, and I'm quite surprised you're not president yet!"
Catrina angrily kicked a small rock down the alleyway.
"You know women can't vote yet!"
Frank gave a small chuckle as they sidestepped a mud puddle.
"With all the suffrage meetings you've attended, I'm quite surprised our president hasn't retired and given you his job! Being as how you're the most outspoken lady in your group!"
Casting a smirk at her husband, she let go of his hand as they neared the station. He purchases the tickets, while she goes to secure two seats.
"You know darling," Catrina's voice drips with sugar, "if you don't like hearing my little speeches, then you should stay home and cook dinner. It would be nice to have food on the table when I come home at night."
Frank just shakes his head and laughs. "This is exactly why I fell in love with you when you were nothing but my customer at the nursery. Placing orders for your father's store, while bossing me around at the same time! I love it."
Catrina sticks her tongue out and races up the platform steps. An elderly couple raised their eyebrows at her "un-ladylike" behavior, but she didn't care. Stretching her arms out wide, she spotted the train. She was about to approach the conductor when a familiar voice boomed.
"Your four are the dirtiest bunch of ragamuffins I've ever laid eyes on."
Turning her head, she notices an extremely important businessman yelling at what looks to be a group of children. The two youngest hide behind the oldest boy, while he places his hands on his hips in self-defense. The middle boy seems confused about what to do. Catrina began her descent. She knew the man yelling at the children, knew him quite well.
"You would have thought the orphanage would have given you a proper bath and clothing before sending you off to me!" He continued.
Catrina kept walking, growing madder by the second.
"Couldn't the damn orphanage buy you some decent clothing?" The man kept ranting, while the boys cowered behind the oldest. "I'll be damned if you four sewer rats live in my house wearing those rags. In the barn, until my sons claim you. And, I don't care how cold it is."
"How dare you speak to these boys in that manner?" Catrina's voice boomed over the train station. She saw several people turn to stare. The elderly man froze and then spun around. Catrina could see the look of embarrassment on his face. She didn't know who was more embarrassed though. He or her! She knew this man, or at least she believed she knew him. Never in her life had he ever yelled at someone in such a disgusting tone.
"What is wrong with you?" She kept on. "You cannot talk to these boys like this."
A look of arrogance passed over his face. He took his hat off and smirked.
"I officially adopted these boys to be servants. I can treat them as I please."
"Excuse me," Catrina felt like she had fallen into another dimension.
"You did what?"
She sensed Frank racing up behind her.
"What's going on," he demanded. "I can hear you yelling across the platform. Everyone can!"
Catrina swiveled around, hands perched on her hips.
"Do you--do you---," she stammered, pointing at the group, too upset to talk.
Frank patiently walked forward.
"Mr. Woodrow, would you kindly inform me as to why my wife is in such an uproar?"
With a long sigh, he rolled his eyes.
"I placed an ad in the New York paper last week asking for four orphaned brothers to be "adopted out" as servants to my two adult sons. As you know, my boys are moving to Sherwood in January. They need servants to keep their house and do basic chores. I received a reply from the Brooklyn Orphanage for Boys. I sent my lawyer up there to sign the forms. I am their legal father, but I have no use for them except labor."
Catrina gave an elegant shriek and collapsed on a bench. She could see the boys staring at her in confusion. The smallest one started coughing and running the sleeve of his sweater over his nose. Catrina noticed that the boys were not dressed in winter attire. They stood in front of her with unwashed hair, and dirt on their faces, wearing nothing but short pants, mismatched socks, worn boots, sweaters with large holes, and no coats or hats to protect them from the bitter cold. Catrina wanted to unclasp her fur shawl and wrap the boys up in it.
"This is the most ridiculous thing you've ever done," she fired back. "These are children, not servants."
Mr. Woodrow waved his hand in dismissal.
"I know that," he fumbles in his pocket for a cigar. "Servants get paid. Orphans don't. Servants sleep in the servant's quarters. Orphans sleep outside in the barn with the horses."
Catrina's eyes flew open in disgust. The boys were huddled together with fear in their eyes. They had no idea what was going on. Above them, the snow had begun its descent. There was no way she would allow these boys to spend the night in Mr. Woodrow's barn. Her husband was a patient, rational man, but she sure wasn't.
"You're giving the boys to me," she hears herself say.
Mr. Woodrow tilts his head and blinks. Behind her, she feels Frank's soft gloves on the back of her neck.
"Darling," he whispered, but Catrina shrugged him off.
"It's the Christmas season. I never was around my father during the holidays; the man shipped me and my brothers off to boarding school. All our classmates went home to loving parents, except me."
Catrina paused to study Mr. Woodrow's face. A dark scarlet seemed to sweep over his skin. She couldn't tell if it was from embarrassment or anger. A short sniffle escaped the small boy behind him. His eyes were filling with water. Catrina needed to do something fast.
"Can you at least allow me and my husband to take these boys into our home for the holidays? We can give them a loving Christmas, something I never received when I was their age."
Catrina couldn't tell who looked more shocked, her, Mr. Woodrow, Frank, or the boys. She couldn't believe she was saying this.
"Be quiet," she shot back at her husband. "I'm going to do this!"
"Is that so," Mr. Woodrow stomps back. The children slink in fear. Catrina felt like her body would explode.
"These boys are my property and I'll do what I damn please!" He thunders back.
The silence of the train station was shattered by the tiny boy bursting into tears. Catrina pushes past her husband and Mr. Woodrow. Pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket, she took the boy into her arms.
"Here don't cry," she glares at the two men, her eyes narrowing. "I won't let him treat you like that."
The boy starts sobbing, shaking, and coughing at the same time. Mr. Woodrow looks to be in a panic. The oldest boy steps forward.
"He's sick. We had no heat on the train."
Looking up, Catrina notices his worn-out clothes with holes at the knees, stains on the sweater, and gray socks. This told her that they were already someone else's hand-me-downs when the boy inherited them. Her eyes traveled upwards to his greasy hair and pale skin. God only knows when the boys last had a proper bath. A long sigh escaped Frank and Catrina knew her husband saw it too.
"Mr. Woodrow, you cannot treat these boys like animals. There are laws against this you know, and Catrina is a witness."
"I-I-I," he looks flustered. He took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his brow, and shook his head.
"I don't want the damn law involved," Mr. Woodrow let out a long sigh and looked over the boys. "I just want my sons to be taken care of when they move to Sherwood. That damn orphanage lied to me! I was expecting four well-dressed young men! Can you not see my dilemma?"
Catrina gestures toward the other boys to come to sit next to her. They throw panicked looks at their new "father," who ignores them. Frank rolls his eyes at the scene in front of him.
"Go sit next to my wife," his voice came out all soft, but not patronizing. "We will figure something out."
With their eyes on the ground, they shuffle over to Catrina and stiffly sit beside her. She could smell dirty garbage. The boys have been forced to sleep on the animal cart. Her hands shake in fury.
"Well, Mr. Woodrow," Frank takes off his hat and stares at the elderly gentleman, "will you take my wife's offer? We will house, feed, bathe, and clothe the boys until after Christmas. Then they will go back to your sons."
Catrina removes her fur wrap and drapes it over the crying, shivering boy beside her. Slowly she moves him into her lap. His eyes grow large at the nice offer. A bright smile tugs at the corners of her mouth, and then she frowns again. She knows Mr. Woodrow's sons. Knows them quite well! They need to know exactly what their father has planned. Perhaps she could stop it somehow?
Mr. Woodrow spits on the ground. The train station quickly fills up with the lunch crowd. A sharp pain pierces Catrina's stomach.
"Bah," he spits once again.
"I'll sell the brats to you! A thousand dollars worth of my labor will be at your house until the twenty-sixth! That's how much I want for them! They're my property and when my property is not in use, I want my money!"
Beside her, all four of the boys tense up. A look of fury passes over the older boy's face. Catrina slaps her hand on the bench and hauls herself up. Frank was quickly at her side.
"Sit down," he places his hands back on her shoulders. "He's right. The boys are rightfully his sons. We must do as he says." Catrina didn't know if she should slap her husband or Mr. Woodrow. She wants to grab the boys and make a run for it. Looking deep into her husband's eyes, she knows he is right. For the first time in their marriage, she does what he tells her to do.
Frank turned to Mr. Woodrow, who had calmly lit another cigar.
"The money is at my shop. I'll go get it." He says to the older gentleman.
Catrina let out a long snort of disapproval, as her husband's eyes grew large. Shaking his head, he begins his journey back to the florist. Beside her, the tiny boy burrows into her fur wrap. She knows she would have to have it thoroughly cleaned. Raising her eyes, she comes in contact with the eldest; his blue eyes seem to drill into hers.
He doesn't trust me. But, why should he? The boys had possibly been abused for years.
Catrina's eyes trail over the boys once again. They all have black hair, except the middle one, whose hair is light red like the Irish. Glancing down, she notices the boy in her arms has a slightly darker complexion than his brothers. His eyes were shut and he had his head lying on her chest. Catrina wants to reach down to touch his hair but stops. She remembers horror stories that Frank has told her about his childhood: bedbugs, lice, roaches, rats, and mosquitoes in the bed and there was nothing they could do about it. Up until the day he married her, he slept in a bed with his brothers.
On the morning of his wedding, Frank packed his bag, boarded a train, and checked into the hotel where they had their first lunch date almost six months prior. For the first time in his life, Frank took a real bath, meaning he didn't have to share the water with someone else. The following morning, after the wedding, Frank opened his eyes to stare at her in bed. After a moment's hesitation, he whispered, "That's the best sleep I ever got in my life." Catrina remembered her heart leaping with joy, until he muttered, "I didn't get bit by a single bug." Not exactly romantic words a bride wants to hear first thing in the morning. With a snort, Catrina put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him back on the pillows.
"I made sure the hotel put out a generous amount of boric acid, Diatomaceous Earth, and freshly laundered sheets to kill the little pests!"
Frank just smirked at her sarcastic retort and pulled her close to him. Her father had paid for the hotel suite in Dallas at the Majestic Grande Hotel. After the honeymoon tour of Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the pair headed back to Sherwood. Frank took over the floral business but had to have weekly business etiquette lessons given to him by her father.
Catrina sat on the silk couch in the parlor of their house and cringed while watching her father lecture her new husband on the importance of dressing nicely, speaking in public, eating correctly, and practicing correct posture. Not that he taught her any of this. Instead, she received her education at strict boarding schools.
Glancing up from her little daydream, she pulls the tiny boy to her. At that moment she doesn't care about lice or bedbugs, or any other type of insect the boys might have crawling on them. She wants the boys cleaned up and in her house as soon as possible. She wishes her husband would hurry. The wind seemed to be growing colder and the boys were literally in rags.
Across the platform, Mr. Woodrow keeps puffing on his cigar, while constantly tugging at his cashmere coat. Catrina wants to rip it off him and give it to the boys. As if God heard her prayers, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a local department store delivery boy race up to the platform to gather the packages that were being dropped off.
"Hello, Benjamin!" Catrina calls out, causing the boys to turn toward her. "Come here for a minute."
With a smile, the young kid races over to her, ignoring the fact that four orphaned children, who probably didn't smell too good, were huddled around her.
"Yes, ma'am," he smiles, revealing his chipped front tooth. Benjamin was the thirteen-year-old son of Mr. Felix, who owned Felix's Department Store.
Clasping her arm around the tiny boy in her arms, Catrina moves him over to her right side. She could sense the older boy watching her every move like a hawk. She wishes she could convince him that she wouldn't harm them.
"Benjamin, it seems I have four unexpected guests in our house this holiday season. Would you be so kind as to deliver a week's worth of boy's clothing to our home as soon as possible? Have your father pick everything out. I need coats, shoes, hats, trousers, sweaters, socks, scarves, boots, underwear, night clothing, and anything else you can think of."
To her right, the oldest boy lets out a huff.
"Ma'am, we can't possibly accept any of this. Who..."
Catrina knew what he was about to say and gently cut him off.
"I will not have you four freezing to death and I will not have you leaving for Mr. Woodrow's home wearing what you have on now."
The boy's eyes grow large. In front of her, Benjamin pulls a small notepad and pencil from his pocket.
"Yes, ma'am," he nods. "Can I ask how old the boys are so my father can pick out proper attire?"
"I..." Catrina trails off. It dawns on her that she doesn't know their ages or their names for that matter. Behind Benjamin, Mr. Woodrow, who has been listening in on the conversation with a look of amusement on his face, tosses his cigar on the ground and smashes it to ash with his heel.
"Their names are Theodore, Francis, Millen, and Dylan and they range from ages ten to sixteen." He says. "The little runt you have in your arms is Millen. Tell that damn orphanage in New York I am extremely upset that they lied to me. So, yes, get them cleaned up, and fattened up so when they come back to me in three weeks they'll be strong enough to work."
Catrina's eyes blaze with fire. She wants to drop Millen in his brother's arms and slug Mr. Woodrow in the face. She can't believe the act this man is playing!
Benjamin stands in between Catrina and Mr. Woodrow, his head moving back and forth. In his hand, a pencil poses over the notepad. Catrina knows what a gossip his mother is, and within hours, the whole town would know she and her husband had taken in Mr. Woodrow's orphaned boys. She better make it good.
"Well, Mr. Woodrow," her mouth forms each word with amusement. "If you're not Christian enough this holiday season to take care of four orphan children, especially one who is sick and developing a small fever, then you have no business in what I say. It's not like you know how to raise children; you sent your daughter and two sons up north to boarding school."
Benjamin's mouth drops open and he quickly fumbles with his notepad writing down the boy's ages and clothing requirements. He slips the notepad and pencil back into his coat pocket, grabs hold of three boxes the conductor threw at his feet moments prior and takes off in the direction of his father's department store. Mr. Woodrow is at a loss for words. Catrina knows she has him. To her left, where the other two boys have been silently sitting, she sees her husband race up the wooden steps of the platform, a leather money bag clasped tightly in his hand.
"Sorry, it took so long." Frank shakes his head, causing flurries to fall off. "It's dreadful cold out here."
Catrina shoots her husband a death glare, as she watches his eyes travel over the poorly dressed children beside her. In her arms, Millen shifted, gave a little cough, and dropped his head back onto her chest. Catrina didn't even care that the front of her dress was now covered in dirt and coal. Her wrap would need to be properly disposed of...in the fireplace. There was no way to clean it.
Frank's eyes closed at the sight in front of him. "I cannot believe that you're treating these children in such a manner."
Mr. Woodrow gave him a side glance. "Let's go to the courthouse, shall we," his eyes twinkled in amusement. "Make it official? My brats are your brats for three weeks."
With a snarl that made Catrina's heart leap with joy and admiration for her husband, Frank threw the bag of money at the old man, who coyly caught it.
"Catrina, take the boys immediately home, wash them, feed them, and put them to bed. I'll be there as soon as I can with a doctor."
Standing up from the bench, she gathered the children to her. She felt like a mother hen. Millen opened his dark, almond-shaped eyes and smiled up at her. Catrina found herself smiling back down at the tiny boy.
"Let's go home. I'll take care of you."
As she led them back down the streets, more than a few of the town's people stopped to stare. The boys kept their eyes on the sidewalk. Catrina glared back, as she tightened her grip on the child in her arms. As they rounded the corner to Crockett Street and her three-story Victorian home came into view, it finally dawned on her what happened. Had she taken four orphaned children from Mr. Woodrow? What had possessed her body? Never in her life had she talked to anyone in such a manner, or demanded something so extreme. For some reason, she wanted these four boys and she couldn't allow them to spend the night in a barn. A motherly instinct she didn't know she had flowing through her blood commanded it.
Stopping in front of her home, she gestured the boys up the massive porch steps. Her butler, George, opened the door.
He paused when he saw Catrina with a group of ratty children, his eyes frowned.
Without skipping a beat, she pushed past him, taking the boys with her. Upon seeing the marble entranceway, they stopped in shock. Behind her, George closed the door. The warmth of the fireplaces hit them all at once.
"George, I want you to prepare the guest room with the double beds," Catrina called out, as she started up the winding stairs. "We will be having visitors for the next three weeks. I need the two large beds made up. I'm taking the boys into the guest bathroom. A doctor will be here shortly. The boy in my arms is quite ill."
Catrina knew she didn't make any sense, she also knew George wouldn't question her.
"Yes, ma'am. I will fetch my wife to help."
"Thank you," she called back.
With a turn of her head, she led the children up the stairs and into the guest bathroom. Placing Millen on a lounge sofa, she bent down to prepare the bathwater.
"I want Millen to go first," she heard herself rambling. "
"Theodore can you take care of him I will have Dylan and Francis take a bath in my and Frank's bathroom. Please use the lye soap and clean his hair well. When you're finished, wrap him up in one of the blankets in the cabinet above the washbasin, and through those doors, you will find the guest bedroom. Put him immediately to bed and the doctor will be here shortly as well as Benjamin with your clothes. After he is in bed, please take a bath yourself. Empty the dirty water and refill it for yourself. I want you to throw all of your clothing down the laundry chute and wrap up in one of the wool blankets until the new clothing arrives."
Catrina placed the stopper in the tub and turned the knobs, making sure the water was extra hot. When she was satisfied, she turned around to see all four of the boys staring at her in bewilderment. It took a few seconds to realize they had never taken a proper bath in their lives. She then realized the boys didn't know how to operate a bathtub. Catrina mentally kicked herself for being clueless. Not everyone had running water in their house, let alone hot water from their basement boilers, especially not an orphanage.
With a sigh, she turned the knob as the water quickly reached the top of the bathtub.
"Please, come fetch me if you have any questions. If you need my husband to help you in any way, he will be here shortly."
"Yes, ma'am," the boys whispered.
Theodore stepped forward, his eyes still downcast. None of the boys were moving. Catrina then realized he wasn't going to undress Millen until she left.
With a nod, she took hold of Dylan's hand, almost dropping it in shock as her skin made contact with something sticky.
"Please, call me Catrina," she smiled, hoping to get a reaction. The boys seemed to look up to the oldest.
Theodore's mouth drew up in a half-smile and he turned to unlace Millen's boots.
"Good," she walked out of the bathroom, softly closing the door behind her. They walked down the hallway to the master bedroom. With a backward glance, she saw tiny puddles of dirty water from the boy's boots. Francis then reached up to scratch his head. A shiver ran through Catrina's body as she realized the boy might have lice. He would be the first to take a bath. With a sigh, she pushed open the bedroom door, reminding herself what she had done was for the best.