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The Prairie Thief

By Melissa Wiley, Erwin Madrid

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CHAPTER ONE

It Ain’t Right

THE SMIRCHES TOOK LOUISA IN WHEN HER PA WENT to jail, but they weren’t happy about it.

“Another mouth to feed,” griped Mrs. Smirch. Her cold eyes looked Louisa up and down. “And she’s too puny to be any help around this place. I can’t fathom what got into your head, Malcolm.”

Mr. Smirch shrugged. His lips were pressed into a thin line. He had the same grim look on his face Louisa’s pa always had when it was time to kill a pig—the look of someone who can’t get out of doing a thing he hates to do.

“Don’t see as we had much choice in the matter, Matilda,” he said. “Sheriff only had the one horse.”

Louisa blinked hard, trying to stop picturing Pa riding away on that horse, hatless, his red hair blowing back, sitting in front of the sheriff with his hands tied, looking over his shoulder at her until the sheriff cuffed him on the arm and made him face front. Before he turned away, Pa had winked at her; that was the worst part. She had almost cried then. But Mr. Smirch had been standing beside her, and she would sooner have died than shed a tear in front of the man who had called the law upon her father.

Now here she was in that man’s own house, being scowled at by his wife, a wispy-haired woman with sharp eyes and a greasy apron. The little Smirch boys, Winthrop and Charlie, stood behind their mother, making faces at Louisa when their pa wasn’t looking. Near the table, a young girl with long straggly braids stood working butter in a churn that was almost as big as she was. She was staring at Louisa, smiling a little as she thumped the wooden dash up and down, up and down. Louisa remembered Mr. Smirch telling her pa—was it really only the day before yesterday?—that his nine-year-old niece had arrived on the train from Topeka a week or two earlier. That had been right before Winthrop came charging down the hill from the old dugout, jabbering about Mrs. Smirch’s missing clock and Mr. Smirch’s lost hatchet. Louisa could still picture the way the friendly look on Mr. Smirch’s face had gone sharp and wary, his eyes narrowing at Pa.

“I never heard of such nonsense,” muttered Mrs. Smirch, hands on her hips. “Man robs us blind, and the sheriff expects us to look after his young’un? Trained to thieve herself, I shouldn’t wonder. You best not try any tricks here, girl, you hear me? There’s room in that there jail cell for you too, and don’t you forget it.”

Louisa breathed hard, too angry to speak. My pa’s no thief, she wanted to holler, but she couldn’t say one word. All she could do was stand there stone-faced, looking at Mrs. Smirch.

“Don’t you glare at me, child. You ought to be grateful we was willin’ to take you in.” Mrs. Smirch whipped around to stir something in a pot on the iron stove, clattering her tin ladle angrily against the sides. Winthrop Smirch, the six-year-old, snickered and stuck out his tongue at Louisa. And to think I gave you fresh biscuits the other day, Louisa thought furiously. She remembered how that visit had ended and had to swallow hard again. If Winthrop and Charlie Smirch hadn’t poked their noses where they didn’t belong, she might not be standing in this miserable kitchen right now.

Mrs. Smirch resumed berating her husband. “Sheriff ought to come back for the child himself, if you ask me. It ain’t right, our havin’ to keep her.”

“It’s thirteen miles each way, Matilda,” said Mr. Smirch wearily. “Man’s got a job to do in town. Can’t be traipsin’ back and forth across the prairie.”

“Then he ought to send someone else to fetch her,” snapped Mrs. Smirch.

“She can ride in the wagon when I take the wheat in,” said Mr. Smirch. “We ain’t got to keep her all that long.”

His wife snorted. “It’ll be weeks before you get that crop in. And her eatin’ us out of house and home all that time.”

Louisa opened her mouth to protest, but she was stopped short by a giggle from the girl at the butter churn. Mrs. Smirch whirled around, clutching her ladle.

“Jessamine! What are you snickerin’ about, girl?” she demanded.

“Sorry, ma’am,” said the little girl. “It’s just . . . I don’t guess Louisa could eat us out of house and home, seeing as she’s so puny and all.”

“Don’t you dare sass me, girl!” Mrs. Smirch brought the tin ladle down—smack—on top of the girl’s head. Louisa gasped. The little girl’s face turned red, and her lips pinched together. She went back to churning, thumping the dash over and over with all her might.

Louisa felt sick to her stomach. She had never seen a grown-up hit a child before. But then, living so far from town, Louisa had hardly ever been around any other families. After the Smirches, the next nearest neighbors were some six miles away.

Maybe, thought Louisa, that was how people in other families treated each other. A horrible ache rose in her throat.

Oh, Pa, she thought. How could you let this happen?

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