The clattering of dishes, the bubbling of stew, the muffled conversations of patrons hummed in my ears as I assembled yet another apple pie. Several others sat, baked and cooling, on the shelf above my workspace — but I knew they wouldn't last long when the afternoon rush came around.

As I slapped on the top crust and expertly trimmed and pinched the edges, I let my mind wander once again.

You see, I had a plan. Really more of a dream at this point, since I didn't have enough money saved up yet to make it actually happen. But I held tight to my dream nonetheless, in the hope that someday it might become a reality.

I wanted to go east, to the cities I'd heard stories about. To get out of this hard, wild country that had orphaned me, and to live a fine life in a big, rich city like my Mama had done before she married Papa and came all the way out here to Colorado.

I wanted to marry a wealthy man — a smart one, who made his living without the bent back and scarred hands and leather-worn skin that seemed to accompany every farmer, miner, or handyman over the age of thirty.

No, I would marry a gentleman. A banker. Or a lawyer, perhaps. And we'd live in a big fancy house, complete with a hired cook to make my pies for me.

I chuckled aloud at that last thought. I actually used to enjoy making pies, back in the days before I had to quadruple every recipe.

"What're you gigglin' about?" Mrs. Kirkman asked, reaching for one of the baked and cooled pies.

"Oh, nothing," I answered, sliding my newest pie into the oven.

Mrs. Kirkman gave me a knowing look before stabbing a sharp knife into her pie. She cut a thick wedge and placed it on a small plate. "Daydreamin' 'bout Boston again?"

I sat down to rest for a minute on a chair in the corner of the kitchen. "It doesn't have to be Boston. There's also New York City." And others too, I was sure.

"Isn't one city about the same as another?" Mrs. Kirkman asked neutrally, now ladling some of the bubbling stew into a bowl.

"Oh, perhaps so," I allowed, adding a spoon to the bowl and a fork to the plate. But Mrs. Kirkman had never been to any real city before either, so she was no more an expert on the topic than I.

She laid a slice of buttered bread across the top of the stew bowl, rather like a lid. Then taking the bowl of stew in one hand and plate of pie in the other, she exited the kitchen through the swinging door.

Alone again with my thoughts, I banished all cities from my mind for the time being. No sense in dwelling on them right now.

I turned my ears instead to the sounds of the dining room of the Kirkman Hotel and Restaurant. I didn't normally listen in on other people's conversations, but when their dining table is separated from my work table by nothing but a thin board on hinges, it's pretty difficult not to hear everything that's being said.

A man's voice spoke up, one I hadn't heard before. "I'm telling' ya, boss — we gotta get us a new cook. Ain't none of us gonna last much longer eatin' off our own cookin'."

A second unfamiliar male voice answered him. "I already looked. Ain't nobody here wants the job."

"Gonna starve all the way to Virginia and back again," the first voice lamented.

"Aww, you wouldn't know starvin' if it knocked ya in the teeth," the second man argued. "You made it this far, ain't ya?"

Virginia, I thought idly. That was a long way from Colorado. I wondered what they were going to Virginia for.

And then I realized something. It was so obvious that I could've slapped my own face for not catching it immediately.

Someone was heading east, and they needed a cook!

I tore off my apron and threw it at the chair. Attacking the hand pump at the sink, I rinsed the pie flour from my hands. I smoothed my hair and clothes, took a deep breath, and stepped out of the kitchen.

The travelers were easy to spot, being so close to the kitchen door and the only two faces I didn't already know. They were old — past fifty, I would say — and quite tanned and dusty. One was eating from the wedge of pie that Mrs. Kirkman had cut; the other had the bowl of stew and piece of bread.

I put on my best hostess smile. "Good day, sirs. How are you enjoying your meal?"

The stew-eater was quick with a grin. "Best I had in weeks, ma'am, thank-ya."

The pie-eater gave a short but polite, "Fine, thank you, ma'am," without even looking up from his plate.

Well, it was now or never.

"I beg your pardon, sirs," I addressed the pair again. "But I couldn't help overhearing about your need for a cook."

That earned a brief glance from the second man, finally. "Know somebody?" he asked, looking down at his plate again to load his fork with more pie.

Praying that these two men wouldn't laugh in my face at the very idea, I calmly replied, "Yes, sir. I would like the job myself."

The forkful of apple pie paused halfway to the man's mouth. He looked back up at me again, a bit scornfully this time, then shoved the bite of pie into his mouth and spoke around it. "Ain't hirin' no girl."

At least neither of them sniggered at me, although the first man was now studying me as one might observe a curiosity.

"You don't appear to be hiring any men, either," I boldly pointed out in response to the pie-eater's rebuff.

The first man snorted a laugh, which he tried to cover with a clearing of his throat. "She's gotcha there, boss." Then he shoveled in a large spoonful of stew and ignored the scowl the other man sent in his direction.

And I still stood before the two, waiting for an answer.

The scornful man looked up at me once more, considering. The frown on his face softened a smidgeon as he sighed in resignation. "Alright…sit down, we'll talk."

I took the empty chair across the table from him.

He pushed the remainder of his pie aside to conduct business. "What's yer name?"

"Jessie Randall." Middle name was unimportant.

"I'm Travis MacBride," he introduced himself, then hitched a thumb toward the other man. "My foreman, Zeke Burns."

"Howdy," Zeke offered a polite nod.

"I'm pleased to meet you both," I answered genially.

"How old are ya?" MacBride now wanted to know.

I gave him a half-truth. "I'll be twenty in August." But I didn't specify what year, and he didn't think to ask. They might not hire me if they knew I was really just seventeen.

"Married?"

"No, sir."

"You a good cook?"

"You tell me," I replied smoothly. "That's my pie you're eating."

"Hmnh," he grunted noncommittally. "Make more than pie?"

I'd been making pies for so long that I'd almost forgotten there was much else. But they didn't need to hear anything like that.

"Much more," I stated with confidence. "Stew, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy—"

"Rattlesnake?" Mr. Burns put in impishly.

Yuck. But I was not without a sense of humor myself, so I answered with a smile, "Sure. Rattlesnake, beaver, muskrat…but I do draw the line at skunk."

It startled me (and probably a few of the other restaurant patrons, too) when a loud guffaw burst forth from Mr. MacBride. And yet it put me at ease somewhat, to know that this gruff old man knew how to laugh after all.

MacBride's voice was a tad lighter with his next question. "You can manage three decent meals for five hungry men on the trail every day?"

I nodded solemnly. "With adequate supplies; yes, sir."

He shifted in his seat, then leaned forward over the table a little bit. Apparently mindful of listening ears, he lowered his voice and pinned me with a significant look. "Cattle drive's a serious business. Can't have no homesick little girl cryin' for her mama once we hit the trail."

I understood his concern, though there really was no need for it in my case. I leaned forward too and spoke quietly. "Mr. MacBride, I have been on my own since I was twelve years old. My folks are buried on that far hill out there. I can assure you, sir — homesick, I will not be."

My answer must have satisfied him, because he sat back in his chair once more and took a long, silent look at me.

I returned the stare with more boldness than I felt. Truth be told…now that it looked like I may actually be hired, a tiny seed of apprehension was beginning to creep up.

But I squashed it. I couldn't afford to doubt myself now. This was my ticket out of here, and I wasn't going to waste it.

I had a question of my own — one I probably should have asked before we'd gotten this far. "What are the wages?"

But MacBride had remembered his half-eaten wedge of pie, and took a minute to finish it off before giving a response. "Should take us 'bout seven more weeks to get 'em to the buyer. Job pays eight dollars a week — but you won't see a penny of it 'till the cattle's sold. Return trip pays half that much, but it's shorter without cows slowing us down."

The return trip didn't concern me, since I didn't plan to be on it. But we could settle that later.

"Will I have to pay for my own meals?" I inquired now.

"Nope. Company covers 'em."

So…I would get fifty-six dollars salary, and free meals along the way. The fifty-six dollars didn't seem like much compared to what I already had saved up…but with the cattle drive taking the place of a railroad ticket — and my not having to pay for meals for nearly two months — I figured I should have enough money to get settled comfortably in the city once I got there.

It was exciting…and a little bit frightening. My dream was coming true so quickly that I almost pinched myself to make sure it was really happening. I swallowed the dryness in my throat and asked, "When do we leave?"

Zeke Burns spoke up again for the first time in quite a while. He'd silently finished his stew while MacBride and I talked, but now he rejoined the conversation. "Tomorrow morning, six o'clock. We'll be outside that front door there."

"And if you ain't ready," MacBride added, as if to remind me of his reservations in hiring a girl. "We're leavin' without'cha."

Tomorrow morning! That was so soon — there wouldn't be time to say goodbye to anyone!

But I wanted this chance so much, so I put another smile of confidence on my face and extended my hand to seal the bargain. "I'll see you gentlemen at six o'clock."

Mr. MacBride hesitated, then gave my hand a brief, somewhat awkward shake, as if he already regretted allowing me the job. Or maybe he wasn't accustomed to shaking women's hands.

Mr. Burns' handshake seemed a little more genuine. "Lookin' forward to havin' real cookin' again," he voiced heartily.

Business was concluded, so I politely excused myself from their table with the offer of a second helping of pie. "On the house," I added graciously. I could spare a dime to show my thanks for convincing them to hire me on to their cattle drive.

Both men accepted, so I snuck back to the kitchen and snagged two thick new wedges of pie.

"Much obliged," they said in unison as I set the plates before them.

"You're quite welcome," I replied, and left them to enjoy it.