Kathleen stepped off the stagecoach in Fargo, and felt as if she'd stepped into another world. The terrain had been changing steadily since they had turned north at Independence, but she was still unprepared for the shock of the Dakota Territory. "And I thought Boston was strange." she muttered to herself. This had seemed like suchlike a brilliant idea when Dr. Barclay suggested it, but now that she was standing on the dirt road that made up Fargo's main street...
"Will you be taking your bags, miss?" The shotgunner asked her somewhat impatiently.
"I..." Kathleen looked around; how was she supposed to get her things to a boarding house?
"We'll take them back with us, but it'll cost you."
"No, I just need a moment to decide what to do with them." She pressed her lips tightly together.
"Ma'am, a moment is absolutely all you've got. We have to be on the road as soon as they get these horses changed out."
"I understand, sir," Kathleen replied, trying to sound calm even though she was anything but. "I'm just not quite sure where I am taking it yet."
"Well, I'll throw it down for you," he offered, "But don't tell anyone, because I'm not supposed to be leaving my post." so saying, he climbed onto the rack and tossed Kathleen's trunk overboard.
"Be careful if you please," she's cried, wincing at the thud it made and hoping that the latch held. Her leather valise soon joined its partner in the dirt. The mad quickly scrambled back to his seat as the driver and agent emerged from the office, and a stable boy brought out a team of fresh horses. In under five minutes the driver slapped the reigns and they were gone, leaving Kathleen standing alone. The coach kicked up a cloud of red dust upon its departure, soiling the white fur hemming Kathleen's black velvet cape. She wanted to cry.
"Can I lend you a hand, miss?" Kathleen turned to see a tall, well-tanned man standing behind her. He was what she would definitely describe as handsome, and the dust for one the street did nothing to detract from bus appearance. His clothing, (Levis and a striped shirt) was simple, but well kept. He wore a leather jacket- even though it was the beginning of May; the air still held a chill this far north.
She felt an involuntary smile curving her lips. "I'd be forever in your debt," she said softly.
He grinned somewhat roguishly, and settled his hands on his hips, drawing Kathleen's attention to the gun belt residing there. She swallowed hard. "Well, forever is a mighty long time, miss." he said with a small chuckle. "But I think I would like having you indebted to me for such an amount."
She frowned at his response, as well as the cheeky grin that accompanied it. "It was a figure of speech." She replied flatly. What sort of man is this? Kathleen wondered. He carries a gun and mocks me. She should probably take those as warning signs and avoid him at all costs, but no one else had presented themselves to help her, so just this once, she would have to trust him. "But if you would be so good as to transport my things to a boarding, a reputable one," she emphasized. "I would appreciate your service."
"I think I can manage that." he replied. "But first, I do believe introductions are in order. My name is Connor Hastings, and I am the sheriff of this fine town."
Well, that explained the gun, at any rate. It also served to vouch for his character in Kathleen's mind. He wasn't like to mug her. "Kathleen O'Rourke, pleased to make your acquaintance."
He frowned slightly, so much so that she almost missed it. "The pleasure is all mine, ma'am." he replied, stuffing away the concern she had noted. "Now," he said, picking up her things, "I'm sure you're tired after such a long journey, let's see if we can't get you a room."
Two days later, Kathleen put on her green muslin dress, the one that brought out yet eyes so well, and pinned on her grandmother's cameo. Hopefully no one would accuse her of trying to steal it this time. After checking her hair once more in the mirror over the washbasin in her small bedroom, Kathleen wrapped her black cape around her shoulders, and slipped from the room. She was halfway down Main Street before realizing she had forgotten her reticule. After a moment of contemplation, she decided not to go back for it. Where she was going no one would notice if she has forgotten her purse.
"You wish to open a business, Miss..." The commissioner, Mr. Brady Dinwiddie, leaned back in his chair and scratched his sizeable paunch as he spoke.
"O'Rourke," Kathleen repeated for the third time. "Yes, sir, I would like to start a millinery shop. I notice that Fargo does not currently offer this convenience, and I feel it would make a fine addition to the town."
"And whom do you expect to be frequenting this millinery of yours."
"Well, the local women I would think. I've not met many men with an inclination to buy sewing notions."
"You may have noticed there aren't an excess of women in the city of Fargo, miss..."
"Baer." she supplied just for a change of pace. "Yes, I agree there is a lack of women within the city limits." she did not mention the... ladies of the evening, of which there was a not insignificant populace. "But there are a growing number of mining camps in the surrounding area, and many of the men who come here to strike it rich are bringing the wives and children along. I think these women will appreciate having such a convenience in town."
"And just how many of these women do you think there are, Miss..."
"Alcott. Well, I have it on good authority that there are over thirty different mining camps that use Fargo as their exclusive supply source, and fifty more that come in a couple times a year. Now even if there are only ten women in each of these camps, I see no reason that I shouldn't become quite successful."
"There isn't much call for fancy ball gowns out here, like you're used to, Miss..."
"March. I am aware of that, Mr. Dinwiddie. However the ladies will still require serviceable clothing, and the men and children will occasionally need new wardrobes as well."
"Well that is certainly a point worth considering, Miss..."
"And it does appear that you've done your homework. Now, you understand, of course, that I'm not authorized to make exclusive decisions regarding the issuing of business licenses, it still has to go before the board of directors, but with my recommendation as Commissioner, a favorable response is generally granted."
"I certainly appreciate your consideration, Commissioner. If you would make such a recommendation to the council, I would he extremely grateful."
"Not a problem, Miss..."
"Brooke. When is the next meeting?"
"Monday week. I do recommend that you have a gentleman with you when you come. I don't have any problems doing business with women, but I know some of my colleagues don't feel the same way."
Kathleen bristled. "Why some people insist on being so pig-headed is utterly beyond me." She commented. "The world would be a better and more enlightened place if only women were allowed to take their rightful places in leadership."
"I don't know that I'd go that far, ma'am, but I agree that some people are a bit narrow minded for my liking."
Kathleen bit her tongue before she said more and risked ruining her chance of him helping her. "Thank you again, Mr. Dinwiddie, I look forward to attending the council meeting on Monday." She rose.
He did likewise, "I anticipate seeing you there, ma'am." He showed her to the door. "Thank you for coming in, today, miss. I," he paused a moment. "I don't believe I caught your name though."
The comment shouldn't have surprised her. "O'Rourke," she said quietly, letting it roll off her tongue. "Kathleen O'Rourke. You can write it down if it'll help." She suggested. The last thing she needed was for him to forget her name when he went to make his presentation to the council.
"Excellent suggestion my good lady; I'll do just that."
"What were you thinking, going into the commissioner's office un-chaperoned?" Sheriff Hastings asked as they were seated at the local café having lunch a few days later. Kathleen had found the sheriff to be a wellspring of information regarding Fargo- it was from him she had received the statistics she had so proudly quoted to Mr. Dinwiddie- and she was beginning to think he regarded her as a friend. But this was something she wouldn't tolerate, even from a friend.
"I was thinking that I am a grown person, and am completely capable of conducting business matters without assistance."
"Miss O'Rourke, no one need verse me in your competence or ability. We're either of those drawn into question; I would be the first to defend you. Nonetheless, the business arena, and most especially the political sector thereof, is a man's world, and you oughtn't to concern yourself with it, and certainly not without a chaperone."
Kathleen resisted the urge to stomp her foot. "This is exactly why it is so hard for women's rights to make any headway." She said, "'business is a man's affair'. Well, I don't see why. And chaperone! It wasn't as though I were courting him."
"I should fervently hope not!" the sheriff raised his eyebrows. "The commissioner is a married man."
His words injected an altogether insufferable scenario into Kathleen's mind. She shuddered in mild revulsion, recalling the man's crude personal habits, "I wouldn't be interested in any case. Now, you said you were in favor of me opening a shop, didn't you Mr. Hastings?"
"I said, Miss O'Rourke, as you may recall, that I saw no reason you shouldn't operate a millinery shop. I did not at any time suggest you march yourself into the city offices."
"Well how else was I supposed to obtain a recommendation for a business license? Commissioner Dinwiddie informs me that women's are not looked upon favorably at assembly meetings either."
"I intended to procure the license on your behalf. With me acting as your advisor, there would be no question of its approval."
"I don't need an advisor!"
"I meant for legal purposes only. Calm yourself, Miss. There's no need to cause a scene."
Sourly, Kathleen turned her attention to the dish of warm rice pudding that was before her. "Advisor indeed." She mumbled before taking a bite.
The Monday night of the city council meeting, Sheriff Hastings came to the boardinghouse to call for Kathleen half an hour before the meeting was scheduled to start. She had chosen to wear a lavender dress with a wide white collar, and drape a plaid shawl around her to ward off the evening chill. The sheriff still wore Levis, although these were obviously freshly laundered, and his shirt was a crisply pressed blue chambray. She found herself wondering, not for the first time if he did his own wash, or if some other woman was responsible for the pristine creases in his clothing. "You look quite fetching tonight, miss," he said as he offered her his arm. "Not that I expected any less."
"Thank you, sir," she said, accepting his escort. "You look nice as well."
"I'm glad to see you've heeded my advice." Commissioner Dinwiddie said quietly to Kathleen as she was sitting down. "No one will think twice about you being with the sheriff."
"Good evening to you too, sir." Kathleen said, becoming distracted from whatever else he might have to say when Sheriff Hastings wrapped his arm around the back of her chair. And just where did he think he was going? She wondered, contemplating the possibility of relocating the offending limb, but deciding such a maneuver would be impossible and would likely only serve to anger him. Besides, she reflected, it was kind of nice having his arm around her.
The meeting proceeded with the predictable boringness of such affairs. The old minutes were read and the old business was attended to. There was talk about repairs needing to be made on the city building, and discussion over the impending erection of a church house. Finally, the commissioner rose to present his recommendations on new business licenses. To Kathleen's shock he remembered both her name and the type of business she was interested in as well as some of the facts she'd given him that day in her office. Certain members of the council inquired of him whether or not she were in attendance that evening, and she saw the lines in their faces soften when he mentioned she was escorted by sheriff Hastings. When it was put to a vote she was awarded a business license unanimously.