In the square of the small town a sale of goods was in progress. Tables, chairs, farm equipment, jars and jugs, lamps and tools, pretty near everything. The man had died intestate and in debt, so I was told.
I hung around, bid on a nice pair of pistols but got out bid and then the auctioneer cried, "Now, I know some a'you's been waited for 'er, here's the last item. He led a tow-headed girl up on the stage wearing nothing but a thin shift which whipped about her long legs and lush body in the stiff breeze. She was a comely girl and the man pushed her chin up with his mallet.
"She says she's sixteen, an' what I got here is an indenture for four years. Might help pay Rufe's debts, leastways that's what his brother hopes."
"Let's see her," somebody yelled.
He made her turn around a couple of times. "You seen enough. What am I bid?" She was barefoot and stayless.
The bidding went by fits and start until it climbed above two pounds, not a bad price for four years service from a likely wench. Then a porcine man bid three pounds loudly.
"You don' need 'er," the auctioneer yelled at him. "Y'got enough girls now."
"Runs a cat house, he does," said my neighbor licking his lips. "Wish I could afford her."
"Five pounds," I said firmly since I had a good bit of blood money, coins from dead Redcoats' purses.
The girl glanced at me and then looked down at the floor again. The big man on the other side said, "Shit. Five and a half."
"I'm bidding silver," I said, "hard money."
"How about it, Paul?" the auctioneer asked.
The big man pursed his lips. "He can have her."
"Going for five pounds, hard money, twice, sold right here." He pointed at me with his wooden mallet. "Sale's over."
I stepped up, signed a paper for him and put the coins in his hand. He gave me her signed indenture contract.
"She got any clothes?" I asked.
"Clogs," he said.
"What's your name?" I asked the girl who was standing at my elbow, watching the proceedings.
"Ain't saying," she said, looking down again.
I looked at the indenture contract. "Says Penelope Claggett, that right?"
"Get your shoes and come along. We'll get us some food."
"Rather go barefoot," she said.
I offered her my hand and she stuck both of hers behind her, but she followed me to the town's only tavern and sat back in a dark corner, mouth a thin line. A fat tear ran down her cheek.
I ordered two bowls of stew, some bread and cheese and two beers.
"Penny," I said, "is that what they call you?"
She shook her head. "Most say Nell."
She shook her head, and then we both dug into the food. She ate as if she had not eaten for some time. I sat back, got another beer and watched her eat her third bowl of stew.
She looked up, caught me at it, wiped her lips and sat back, pushing a crust into her mouth. 'What's wrong?"
"Most pretty girls," I said, expressing an idea I had but was not sure about, "know they are pretty when they are awful young, six or seven maybe, certainly by the time they are ten. When did you find out?"
"Find out what?" she asked after swallowing hard.
"That you are beautiful, truly beautiful."
She made a face and wriggled her nose, looked at the ceiling, sniffed and then at me. "What do you want?"
"Nothing," I said. "I had some money, money I got by killing some men, and I was eager to spend it, blood money, understand."
"Killing. You killed people?"
"I'm a soldier," I told her. "I didn't want you to have to become a prostitute."
"Why not? You don't know me or care two cents about me. Do you?"
"Because you are much too pretty to be a whore," I said.
She waved at me as if I were a fly or a bee or something. "What blarney, nonsense. I've looked at myself. I'm plain as dishwater."
"You must have a crooked glass," I said. She was not a raving beauty nor did she possess classic good looks, but she was a lovely young woman; her youth was her beauty.
"What are you going to do with me, I mean for four years?" She wiped her bowl with a piece of bread.
"Want some more?" I asked.
She nodded and I waved at the serving girl who came to our table. I told her I wanted another bowl of stew and a beer and then asked if she had a looking glass.
"Just a small one," she said.
"Can I borrow it a minute?"
She nodded and smiled, returning quickly with the stew and a mirror that was about three inches by four. I held it out in front of me so I could see my whole head and then turned it around and held it about that far from the girl's eyes.
"Look," I said. She looked up, her spoon halfway to her mouth. She squinted.
"Can't see it way out there," she said.
I handed it to her and she held it a foot from her face and looked. "Plain as dirt," she said, "and freckled besides."
"Now I understand," I said, "you need glasses, spectacles. You can't see how pretty you are. You want me to stop some people and ask them?"
She shook her head, tossing about her heavy mane of auburn curls, a head of hair that probably had never known scissors and was badly in need of washing.
I waved to the serving girl who was standing by the bar, resting for a moment in the crowded place. She came to the table and I asked her to sit. I gave her back her mirror. I put a shilling in front of her. "Girl wants to ask you a question. This is for telling her the exact truth, no fudging. All right?"
The woman smiled at me and nodded.
"Go ahead, Nell," I said