Penny knew she didn’t belong. She squatted beside the open barrel, controlling her breath and listening. The footsteps grew quieter. They were moving away. A slight vibration in the deck beneath her feet rose up, shuddering the barrel. It struck her elbow. She gasped and held her breath. The footsteps grew louder. They stopped.
“Did you hear that?” a husky male voice asked.
“Here what?” asked the craggily voice of a decidedly older woman.
“It came from over there,” he said.
Two steps closer. Penny squeezed her eyes closed. Her stomach churned, dangerously close to rumbling. She’d ate the last of her traveling bread in the morning. Nothing more than crumbs and crust. If only she could have begged a little more off the kindly baker in town she could have stayed put in the cargo hold. She silently clapped her hand to her mouth and held her breath. Maybe they would go away.
The old woman said, “You’re hearing things. Night on the river does that to you.”
He took another step closer. “Maybe it was a rat.”
“Ain’t no rats never been in my kitchen,” the woman said, voice raised and cracking, “and I be having words with the Captain if you dare say otherwise.”
“I’m not prone to imagining,” he said.
The woman laughed. “You ain’t prone to working either. Come on, we got tables to clean.”
Their footsteps retreated. Penny began breathing again. She lowered her hand down to the deck and leaned back against the wall. Eyes open, she slowly raised up, sliding her back against the wall. Their backs were turned. She looked over the barrel’s lip. Apples. Shiny, red apples. She glanced into the dining hall. Their backs remained turned. She grabbed an apple with each hand, tucked them into her satchel and grabbed two more. They wouldn’t be missed.
“Rat!” The husky male voice declared.
Penny stared into the dining hall, wide eyed. A burly man dressed in a soiled white tank and grease streaked trousers pointed at her. She blinked at him. Fear thudded in her chest.
“That ain’t no rat,” the woman said. “It’s a stowaway. Get her!”
The man ran toward the kitchen. His boots pounded on the deck, rattling the boards. Penny sucked in air and glanced around the kitchen. The way she’d came remained clear. She grabbed a pair of apples and threw them at the running man. The first smacked him in the forehead and the second pegged him in his open mouth. He spit apple and seeds on the deck. He kept coming. She grabbed the barrel and pulled, hoping to tip it over, but the apples were too heavy. Desperate, she braced her hands on the opposite walls of the hallway, swung into the air, kicking the top of the barrel with both her feet. It tip forward, started to tip back and she kicked it again. The barrel tipped completely, crashing to the deck. Apples rolled out and bounced in every direction. Penny turned tail and ran.
Pursued by pounding footsteps, Penny sprinted through the narrow hallways, brushing past well-dressed passengers. Her burly pursuer shouted orders. She ignored him, changing course as often as possible in hope of leaving him confounded and lost. The passengers were either too afraid or too stunned by the disorderly disruption she created on her way. They left her alone and got out of his way. She weaved her way around and found the stairs. Hesitation plagued her. Up or down. Pounding footsteps were getting closer. She descended. He followed.
The stairs only descended so far. With nowhere else left, she bolted from the stairwell back into corridors. They were different than above. Steel, cold, dimly lit and narrower. She ran for the corner and rounded it. Pounding footsteps clanked behind her. At the end of the corridor, an open door with brighter light on the other side awaited. She sprinted for it. Her satchel bounced against her leg. She glanced behind her. Burly man was coming. She ran faster. If she could get inside, lock the door, maybe she could find another way out. Scurry through the places not meant for people. Hide in the dark. Most days, she disappeared into the shadows without even trying.
She passed through the doorway, slid to a stop bouncing against steel railing. Her fingers gripped frantically at the edge of the door. Burly man was close and getting closer. The door creaked in protest, but it moved. She slammed it closed, pulled the red lever latching it and locking it. Burly man pounded on the door and yelled. His voice was muffled and she could not make out his words, but they were angry and frustrated. She rested her hands on her knees and caught her breath. The lock would hold long enough and she needed a calm, clear head if she expected to find a way out.
Penny straightened and turned around. A tall man stood in her path with his arms crossed in front of his chest. There was no place left for escape. She grabbed at her satchel. He cleared his throat. She grabbed an apple. He grabbed her wrist before she could throw it.
He said, “Hold up there lassie.”
She let him take the apple and pulled her wrist free. “I’m not a dog.”
He smiled. “Aye, I can see that. Judging by the pair of bumps under your blouse I reckon you’re a girl.” He bit into the apple with a satisfying crunch.
Penny’s stomach growled. He held the apple out to her. She snatched it from his hand and sunk her teeth into it. Burly man continued pounding on the door.
She said, “I’m not supposed to be here.”
He nodded. “Names Goodman, I’m the engineer and that means I pretty much know who is supposed to be down here and who isn’t.” He nodded his head toward the locked door. “It seems like you’ve upset someone.”
She glanced at the door and shrugged. “I only took four apples. He had a whole barrel of them.” She took another bite.
Goodman leaned against the railing. “You’re a stowaway.”
Penny nodded. “I heard there was work upriver.”
Goodman looked her over. “Aye there’s work upriver. There’s work here too.”
Penny stopped mid-bite and lowered the apple from her mouth, looking wide-eyed at the engineer. “You’d hire me?”
Goodman smiled. “That’ll be up to the Captain, but he’s a good man.”
“Your papa?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
He laughed. “We aren’t related. Captain Cobb will give you a fair shake though. Finish up that apple and we’ll go have a chat with him.”
Penny glanced at the half-eaten apple in her hand and hesitated a moment raising her gaze back to Goodman. “He won’t be mad?”
Goodman’s smile turned sympathetic. “He won’t be happy you’ve snuck aboard and stole. Still, if you truly want work, he’ll likely give you a chance to prove you’re more than a thief. All you have to do is prove yourself worth the chance.”
“How do I do that?” she asked.
“You’ll figure it out.” Goodman took her by the arm and gently escorted her through the engine room to another exit, avoiding the burly man.
Penny sat on a bench in the Captain’s office. Her satchel sat on the Captain’s desk, its contents emptied out around it. She kept her hands folded in her lap and remained silent as the Captain sorted through the few personal belongings she still owned. The three remaining apples were, of course, not hers.
Cobb looked every bit the Captain of a riverboat. The brown pipe in his mouth, unlit and possibly empty, went hand in hand with the image as well as the white scraggly beard hanging off his chin and cheeks. He had warm blue eyes though.
She watched as he stood up from behind his desk and sauntered around to the front of it. He leaned back, partially sitting on the front edge of the desk. The pipe left his mouth, held between two fingers on his left hand, rocking back and forth.
He shook his head looking at her. “Stowaway, eh?”
“I imagine you’d like it if I just hand you over to the authorities when we dock,” he said.
She shook her head. “No, sir.”
He didn’t seem to hear. “They’ll put you in a nice warm cage, put food in your tummy and keep you all healthy for a half year, maybe longer if you’re lucky.”
She looked at her lap. “I heard there was work upriver.”
Cobb raised an eyebrow at her. “Who would hire a thief?”
She looked up. “I’m not a thief.”
“Did you buy a ticket for my boat?” he asked.
He picked up an apple from his desk and showed it to her. “Did you pay for these apples?”
She shook her head.
“What do you call a person who takes things without paying for them?” he asked.
“I’ll pay for them,” she said.
“How?” Cobb asked. “You don’t have any money.”
Penny said, “Give me a job and then I’ll have money to pay you.”
“Why should I?” He dropped the apple back on his desk. “You stole from me.”
Penny thought for a moment. She bit her lip. “Because you know I’ve only done what I thought I had to do and if you give me a job you know I’ll work hard to keep it because I already know what it’s like not to have a job.”
He slipped the pipe back in his mouth. “So you’d have me give you a job and forget all about the fact you’ve stowed away on my boat and stolen from me?”
“You could take the money for the passage and the apples out of my pay,” she said.
He took the pipe in his fingers again. “Then you’d just end up stealing more from me cause you’d have a job and no way to pay for food or a roof over your head.”
“There has to be something,” she said.
Cobb nodded. “I tell you what. I’ll give you a job, take room and board out of your pay each week and with what you got left you pay me for an apple a week until all four are paid off.”
Penny smiled. “Thank you, sir. You won’t regret this.”
Cobb held a hand up in the air. “Don’t thank me yet, girl. I’m not finished.”
“Oh.” Penny waited for the rest.
“As I said, you’ll have a job and pay me back for the apples you stole, but first, you’re going to apologize for stealing and stowing away on my boat and then I’m going to give you a good paddling just to make sure you’ve learned your lesson.”
She stared at him open-mouthed.
“Now if that sounds fair to you, we’ve got a deal,” he said. He stuck the pipe back in his mouth and crossed his arms over his chest waiting for her response.
Penny closed her mouth and nodded. A spanking was nothing new to her and she even understood how she probably deserved one. Getting a job, now that was well worth just about anything, even a spanking she didn’t deserve. “I’m still thankful, sir. I’m sorry for sneaking aboard and stealing the apples and all the other trouble I’ve caused you.”
Cobb nodded. “Alright then. Just take your trousers down and whatever you’ve got on underneath them.”
She blushed. Her hands fumbled at the waist of her pants. She felt uncomfortable with his eyes locked on her, but then he turned his back and moved to the paddle mounted on the wall behind his desk. The pants came undone and she pushed them to the floor along with her panties. Her hands covered herself in front and she fixed her gaze on the wood decking beneath her feet.
He approached with paddle in hand. “Turn around and grip the seat of that bench.”
Penny didn’t hesitate in obeying. Her fingers gripped the wooden bench and she stared straight ahead at the back preferring to avoid looking at the Captain. She felt the cool smoothness of the oak implement resting against her naked butt. A shiver ran down her spine. Wood always stung.
“Stealing is never right,” Cobb said. He slapped the paddle against her bottom.
She blinked and inhaled sharply. A dozen warm prickles interjected themselves in the cold blanketing her buttocks.
“Just cause you need something doesn’t give you the right to take it from someone else.” He whisked the paddle through the air, bringing it down on her butt.
Her breathing turned sharper. She blinked away tears. The prickles intensified.
“If you need something you don’t have and can’t afford, you come talk to me.” The paddle slapped against her bottom.
Penny yelped. The prickles covered her entire bottom in a rising heat. Tears stung at her eyes.
“Is that clear?” he asked. The paddle impacted like punctuation.
She jerked and wiggled her butt. She sucked in air and only narrowly avoided a sob escaping her lips. A pair of tears spilled from her eyes. “Yes, sir.”
He brought the paddle down twice. “It better be.”
More tears spilled from her eyes, streaking down her cheeks. Her knuckles turned white from gripping the bench.
“You’re going to work hard,” he said. The paddle struck hard. “You’ll follow instructions.” The paddle instructed. “Or you’ll be back here again.” The paddle visited and revisited her bottom.
She moaned and yelped. Tears fled her eyes in streams, rolling down her face. Her bottom quivered, heated and tender. The familiar tingling pain coursed through her body.
Cobb rested the paddle beside his leg. “I understand there are tables to be cleaned in the dining hall before sunrise.”
She blinked away tears, sniffling. “Yes, sir.”
“Get your trousers up,” he ordered.
She wasted no time despite the brief intensification of pain caused by pulling the material over her reddened bottom. Hesitantly she turned and faced him, wiping the tears from her face.
He held a key out to her. “Clean yourself up and change into a uniform. There should be one in the closet. Then you get yourself to the dining room and get those table spic and span for morning. Understood?”
She nodded, taking the key. “Yes, sir.”