The hours were long and the pay was negligible, but on occasional warm days, the job of “free-lance contractor” had its pleasurable moments. Casey sat on a bench in the Botanic Garden, with her legs tucked up under her, hands resting on her knees. She stared at her tree, letting the sun warm her back, listening to birds sing. The little oak seemed unfazed by its backward trip through time, and had grown a couple of inches over the last few months. She came to see it as often as she could. Somehow, as long as the little tree was okay, Casey felt like she would be okay, too.
After a while, she tilted her face to the sun, sighed, replaced her cap and stood. She was hungry and had not made any money today. Almost none this week. Sam was not having any luck, either, and their rent was overdue. She knew they didn’t have it. Tomorrow, they would have to leave the boardinghouse, and their prospects for shelter were slim. Her stolen moment of peace over, Casey headed back into the market.
She had just stepped onto the walkway fronting the stores when a rock came hurtling past her, grazing her leg. She yelped and jumped back. The rock smashed into a shop door, a hail of stones close behind. Casey flattened herself against a building just as the yelling started, and she turned in dread to see a gang of men and boys coming up the street. Rocks were the least of their weapons: some of them carried cricket bats or torches, many had guns. They flaunted the weapons as the rocks flew. Several of the rioters entered a store, reappearing within moments, dragging two men with them. They threw the prisoners on the ground and kicked, while others swung at the shop’s window with a bat, sending glass flying into the street. A torch was waved at the shopkeeper, who fell to his knees in apparent supplication. Another shop was attacked just as a second gang appeared from a side street. They joined in the fray, two of them close enough to Casey to head for her.
“No papists! Papists go home!”
They were nearly at her side and she frantically waved her hands. “I’m Protestant! And American!”
A hand closed on the back of her neck and a face shoved itself in front of her eyes. “Wot’s yer name?” came the demand.
“C-Casey. Casey Wilson.”
“Yes! Ow!” His hand had tightened on her neck.
“Come on, then. Be a good Protestant and give us a hand.” One of them thrust a bat into her hands and pointed at the shop next door. “That shopkeeper hires Catholics. Let him know he’s wrong to do that.”
As she stared at him, screams filled the air. A nearby house had been set ablaze and the occupants were streaming outside. Most of them were men and they had weapons too. The brawl distracted Casey’s tormenters. She dropped the bat and ran.
They were after her in an instant, rocks grazing her as she ran. She ducked down a side street just as a rock clipped her shoulder. Terror put speed to her feet as another rock landed in the middle of her back. She tripped forward, past training instinctively making her turn it into a forward roll. The roll caused the rest of her training to flood her muscles and she leapt to her feet, turning with a side snap to the boy just reaching her. Her foot connected with his thigh, knocking him down. Not slowing, she went for the next guy, with a forward snap to his chest that quite possibly broke a rib as he fell, unable to breathe. The two others behind them stopped short, unwilling to get within her range.
She narrowed her eyes, and her mouth twisted in contempt. “Help your friends. I’m going home.”
No one tried to stop her.
“I don’t get it!” she yelled at Sam later that afternoon. Mrs. Fitzsimmons had fussed over her bruises when she got home, and then had given Sam a piece of her mind for letting Casey run around town dressed as a boy and without any protection. Casey and Sam were in the little parlor now, waiting for dinner. “There must be some signal between people. They have to have this planned out. But how do they know who’s Catholic and who’s not? It’s not as if the Catholic’s have purple skin or feathers growing out of their heads!”
Sam just shook his head, torn between his anxiety over her safety and a fatalistic amusement that somehow, all of this was his fault. “I don’t know. I imagine word gets to them about where the Catholics are working. And I’m sure they have a signal.” He sat on the sofa and rubbed his face. “I’m just glad you’re all right. Thank goodness for that karate training.”
She sniffed. “My leg hurts like hell. I haven’t been practicing, you know.”
“Maybe you should.” He was despondent. “I didn’t make any money today, either. I don’t know where we’ll end up, but it will probably be a more dangerous area. I asked Mrs. Fitzsimmons if she could let you stay if you could help out around the house or with cooking. Even if she just gave you a cot in the basement. But she said she can’t.”
Casey was touched. “She probably gets that all the time. A certain amount of hardheartedness is necessary, I guess. But thank you for trying.”
“I don’t know where we’ll go.”
“We’ll find something.” She turned to the stairs, intent on putting on a skirt for dinner, and hoping her words were true.
Hunger forced them to a charity meal at a church, for dinner the next night. Casey tried to be upbeat as they took their bowls of soup and bread to a long table. “I grew up in Berkeley. It’s not as if I’ve never seen homeless people. We’ll find a protected spot and sleep in our cloaks.”
But Sam refused to let her sleep outside. Desperate, he asked everyone around them where he could send Casey. Then he began going to other tables to ask. She tried to stop him, telling him that she’d be okay, but finally, she forced him to sit in an empty corner and listen to her.
“Jesus, Sam! Do you know what you’re doing?” She whispered furiously, hoping she wasn’t calling attention to them. “In the first place, you’re letting everyone know that we’re alone and helpless. They’ll see you as an old, weak man and me as a small, weak girl. You’re making us marks, do you understand?”
He stared at her, then closed his eyes. “Damn. I’m sorry. You’re right, it’s stupid.” His eyes snapped open. “But you need to be somewhere safe.”
She shook her head. “Not without you.” Despondent, she turned and sat next to him on the bench. “I’m afraid to go somewhere without you. What if I can’t find you again? I’m a single girl. What if they send me someplace like those laundries or something?” She looked up at him and winced at his astonished expression.
“I’m not suggesting leaving you, Casey.” He touched her hand. “You’re single, but you’re not alone. I’ll tell them I’m your guardian, just like we told Mrs. Fitzsimmons. I just want you someplace safe and warm for the night. We can meet up in the morning at a prearranged spot.”
A volunteer approached them, her hands full of dishes, her smile friendly. “Some are sayin’ you need a place for your daughter to stay,” she said to Sam. “Sometimes, there’s still room at the poorhouse. Might be that both of you can get in.”
They stayed for a week in the poorhouse, men on one side, women on the other. True to his word, Sam met Casey every morning at the door to the dining room, where they could pick up a bowl of porridge and day-old bread. Sam went out every day to look for work, and they put Casey to work cleaning in the kitchen. They wouldn’t let her go out on her own and she didn’t dare put on her boy clothes.
Between the two of them, they scraped enough money together to rent another room, smaller and meaner than the first boardinghouse. This one did not include board and there was no place to cook anything. Sam had hopes he could build a hot plate out of scrounged parts. Until then, they would eat cold food or try to get dinner at the charities.
Worst of all, Sam had picked up a virus in the crowded shelter. He coughed a lot, and had a low fever. He just couldn’t shake it, whatever it was, and Casey lived in fear of his illness getting worse. There was no running water in the building, and the water pipes outside worked only a couple of hours a day, and not at all on Sunday. It was a struggle to stay clean and almost impossible to clean their room. Casey looked for work, worry a constant companion.