by Velda Brotherton
The monster swayed and roared. Frantic, Wilda clung to its neck, Tyra beside her. Clawing fingers closed around her cousin’s arm. Had to save her from the beast.
“Ow, what’s wrong?” The arm was yanked from her grip.
Wilda rubbed her eyes, took in her surroundings. Tyra sitting in the seat next to her massaging her skin. They were aboard a train, its heartbeat the clickety-clack of the engine’s wheels.
“I dreamed someone was chasing us and we were astride a monster of some sort.”
“You scared me.” Tyra rose and leaned across Wilda’s lap to peer through the smoke-smudged window. “I never rode on a locomotive before. It is almost like a monster, isn’t it? Did you ever see so much open space?”
Beyond the glass a sun-drenched prairie stretched to the horizon, hazed by an endless summer sky.
Ah, this must be Kansas. At last.
Wilda swallowed, her throat and tongue parched. Another lurch of the car and she clutched her stomach.
Tyra’s elbow dug into her lap. “How much longer now? I thought there would be buffalo. I’m hot and tired and thirsty.”
As for the buffalo, she had no idea, but she could certainly sympathize with the girl’s impatience. They’d departed England over a year ago. At long last they had left behind the ship and boats and wagons and were on a train bound for Victoria City in America.
“It can’t be far.” She grimaced when the girl continued to squirm and poke at her to get a better look. “Would you like to trade places?”
Wilda rose, clung to the seat in front. If the day ever came when she set foot on solid ground, she would never, ever, ever step aboard anything that moved.
Wheels screeched. Tyra slid behind her, touched her nose against the glass. Still on her feet, Wilda stepped to the aisle seat, glanced up. A masked man filled the doorway, pointing a gun at her. Standing so close, she could reach out and touch him . . . or he her.
Still asleep? Still dreaming?
A startled O escaped her lips. Her heart raced. Frozen in a hunched position, she peered at him. He wasn’t real, he couldn’t be. Of course she was still dreaming, one of her cousin’s favorite fantasys of an old west outlaw. A beautiful one, at that, or at least what she could see of him. Above the dusty bandana that covered the lower half of his face, green eyes flashed with amusement, as if he shared a secret with her.
No one in the car paid him the least attention. Obviously she hadn’t awakened after all, but still slept, not in her room back in Manchester, but on a train in the middle of nowhere.
How to react to a scruffy outlaw who arrives in a dream? No harm had ever come to her while dreaming, so she might as well play this out. Be calm, speak to him. All she managed was a stiff smile. Odd how her tongue lay numb, her throat dry as a ball of cotton. How silly, for what harm could it do to befriend a figment of her imagination?
Bronzed skin crinkled around his eyes, and he lifted the gun barrel to push up the brim of his disreputable, sweaty hat. She imagined he returned her smile for the skin around those incredible eyes crinkled. He placed a gloved finger over lips she couldn’t see. Winked.
The outrageous man! She gasped, sneaked another look around. Attempted to shout and alert the other passengers. Nothing came out. Some slept — no doubt enjoying their own dreams — while others gazed out the window. Surely one would glance up, see him. But they didn’t.
No one paid the least attention to the man with a gun. Not even Tyra, who bounced about and gazed out the window. Weird how real everything seemed. The smell of cinder laden smoke, the hot wind on her face, the trickle of perspiration down her back, the heavy intolerable weight of her traveling toilette. So heavy she slipped down into her seat, glanced around once again.
Was he still there? Had he disappeared because she’d taken her eyes off him? Dare she look one more time?
Holding her breath, she peered through nearly closed lids. No, he hadn’t left. He continued to watch her as if he had all day. A shiver raced up her spine and she offered a gloved hand. With graceful ease, he took it, bent over and gently kissed her bare wrist above the cuff. Though she could not see or feel his lips, he kissed her all right. The heat of his breath flowed through the dusty bandana to coil about her arm.
Dear Lord. Had the fear of what awaited her in Victoria City caused this . . . this leap into unreality? In her most secret dreams, had she not dreamt of a royal prince who would ride in and carry her away from her responsibilities? A gallant man who would put a stop to this damnable marriage toward which she traveled with continued apprehension. She had no power to stop it, so perhaps she had dredged this man up from deep in her subconscious. Summoned him to save her when no one else could. But this stranger was no prince, and certainly not a knight in shining armor.
Before she could consider the questions, bedlam broke out behind her. Women screeched, men shouted, and she twisted to stare at them, to tell them to shut up, to get out of her dream and leave her and the handsome outlaw alone. He was about to do a lot more than kiss her wrist. A second masked man appeared inside the doorway at the other end of the rocking car. Seated near the other bandit, her sister Rowena and her companion Marguerite Chesshire screeched in unison. Neither of them ever grew excited over anything, but they hugged each other and squealed in fear. Looking not at “her” outlaw, but toward the far end of the car where a bigger, more menacing gunman stood. This one truly frightened her.
She turned back to the younger man, half expecting him to help. But his demeanor had altered, he dropped her hand as if it were hot and pointed the gun.
She found her voice amidst the shouting. “How dare you kiss my hand then point that thing at me? If you’re going to shoot me, then please do so and put me out of my misery. I’m hot and tired and have no patience for such Tom foolery.”
He was nothing more than a lowly bandit. Acting as if his appearance might possibly be the least bit amusing to her.
Perspiring and miserable under the heavy drape of silk fabric, she glanced at Tyra who stared wide eyed, mouth open. This was real. Her heart nearly shut off her air, it beat so hard in her throat. Shifting, she put herself between the child and the outlaw. Addressed him with a trembling voice:
”Aren’t we indeed the brave one? Pointing a gun at a child and an unarmed woman. What would your mother think of such actions? Or were you dragged from under a rock?”
The bronze skin crinkled and he chuckled. “If you was a filly I’d unhitch you from that garb you’re wearing, give you a nosebag of grain and a good long rubdown. Work out the stiffness.”
The rich timbre of his voice sent chills to places she was loathe to admit existed in a well brought up lady. Her rebuttal sounded weak. “Not only are you a thief, you can’t speak the King’s English.”
“Ah, I think you understood me, all right.” Despite the intimate behavior, he remained watchful of his companion, who worked his way up the aisle, ordering the travelers to deposit their valuables in a very disreputable hat.
Tyra clutched her arm. “Real outlaws. With guns. Are they going to shoot us? Are you going to shoot us?” She bounced to her feet, addressed the laughing one with more excitement than fear.
Shoving Tyra down between the seats, Wilda studied the outlaw closer. He might be no dream, but she was right about one thing. He was no prince either, with that sweat-stained hat, scuffed boots and threadbare clothing. A patch of skin peeked through a rip high on one leg of his pants. To keep from staring at it, she roamed her gaze over the half-masked face to the threatening pistol, the low-slung leather holster, the wicked knife on his belt. Even in this wild west of America, he couldn’t be accused of wearing fashionable attire.
To add to the insult, this ruffian continued to mock her while pointing his weapon at her friends and family. Obviously, it was his job, for he made no attempt to take any valuables from those near him.
Drawing back her shoulders, she struggled for something to say. “I hope you aren’t coward enough to shoot anyone.”
“I’m still thinking on putting you out of your misery.”
The peculiar American accent took some deciphering, while he continued to stare at her as if she were a sweet in a bakery window.
The moment between them stretched out like string slowly unwinding from a huge ball. Behind her, the other outlaw barked sharp orders as he moved along the aisle, appearing much more dangerous than “her” outlaw. Strangely enough, she found herself less afraid than intrigued, which could prove to be foolish. Truth be told, either of these dreadful men could easily shoot to kill and smile while he did it.
“Wilda, can I get up now?” Tyra tugged at her arm.
“No, stay right where you are.” She dare not take her gaze off him. No telling what he might do. Did this sort of man ravage women? She trembled, her knees threatened to buckle.
The possibility wrapped her in terror. Had they journeyed all the way from England and undergone such hardships only to be killed in this foreign place?
Her outlaw leaned down toward her. “Ma’am, I’d surely appreciate it if youd hand over your valuables.” His sensuous drawl and the obvious double meaning of the words agitated her temper.
Shivering at her own temerity, she lifted her chin and met his gaze straight on. “If I did possess anything of value, I would not ‘hand it over’ to you, sir. Have you decided if you are going to shoot me like the brazen, fatherless coward that you are?”
His eyes hardened. “Not many get away with calling a man that.”
“Some, I suppose are reluctant to speak the truth with a gun in their face. Tell me, is it the word coward or bastard that disturbs you so?”
His jaw worked and he stepped close, raised the gun as if to hit her.
“Go ahead.” She wanted to stand so as not to be looking up at him, but dare not for fear she might faint from the heat and fear.
“What in thunder you jawing about?” the other outlaw shouted right at her back. “Let’s get this done and over with, fore this blasted train makes it all the way to Fort Hays.”
Beside her Tyra struggled, and Wilda clutched at her, terrified the child would twist free.
The floor underfoot jerked, throwing her outlaw off balance and he clutched at the seat, gloved hand coming down on hers.
Recovering, he kept up the repartee. “Only a fool would shoot someone as lovely as you. But I might just drag you off here by the hair and take you with me.”
A rising temper fueled her bravery. “You just try and you won’t ever get a moment’s sleep again.”
A sharp command from the other outlaw jerked her back to reality, and she pulled away from the insolent one’s gaze. Around her women clutched their mouths, men flexed their knobby hands into fists, sobbing children hid behind their mother’s skirts.
And here she sat in the midst of such havoc, engaging in a war of words with this upstart. But she’d seen worse on the back streets of London. Much worse. And handled herself quite well, thank you.
Once again the other outlaw interrupted. “I’m gonna tell you what to do, and you’re all gonna do it, if you want to live.”
Time to take a look at this one. Unkempt brown hair and muddy eyes above a bandana that looked like it had been doused in a pig sty before he wrapped it around his lower face.
“I’ll have your rings, jewelry, watches and cash,” he bellowed. “Put ‘em in here.” He extended a hat that made her outlaw’s look as if it had just come from a millinery, and continued to collect jewelry and purses. In his presence women cried and trembled, men cowered.
Rising anger threatened to turn her into a complete fool.
“Do you intend to simply stand there like an idiot while your friend terrifies these women and children and takes what little we possess?” Her stare caught his. Imprudent of her, but she wasn’t known for either temerity or common sense.
The two men were cut from the same cloth, One used brute force, while the other had learned to charm. It didn’t make him any the less dangerous.
Easy to see he thought her highly entertaining, however. At least for the moment. “You are all rich Englishmen. You’ll not miss it, and your gold and coins will go to a good cause, I promise. No one will get hurt.”
Again Tyra struggled to arise from her cramped position between the seats, but Wilda forced her down. She would likely want to try on the man’s sweat-stained, shabby hat or play with the gun.
Behind her, poor Mrs. Stanley obviously took all she could stand and let out a high pitched wail. The keening roused the others, as if they had been awaiting permission to panic. Other women added their cries, a harmony of wild proportions. A baby near the front squalled, Rebecca and Donald Wainscott’s little girl Katrina, yowled for her mama.
A stout man, dressed in a grey suit and black bowler, who had boarded in St. Louis and was not a part of the Victoria group, climbed to his feet and shouted in a stuttering voice, “N-n-now s-s-s-see here, young m-m-man.”
Ignoring the challenge, Muddy Eyes stuck the barrel of his pistol under the screaming Mrs. Stanley’s nose, and ordered her to shut up. The poor soul fainted dead away, tumbling onto the floor like a huge sack of flour, one corpulent stockinged leg exposed like an obscenity.
He whirled, waving the revolver around in the air. “The rest of you, shut up.”
All obeyed except the baby, whose mother held it close to her breast to muffle its squalls.
Muddy Eyes was not nearly as equitable as her outlaw, who so far had done nothing but exchange verbal thrusts with her. That caused her to attempt to appeal to him one more time.
For a moment he regarded her, eyes glittering dangerously. Clearly he would take only so much. Unable to look away, she met his stare, but remained silent. He swept off his hat, releasing a wave of midnight dark hair, then taunted her with an exaggerated bow and moved toward his partner, passing so close he brushed against her.
An odor of sweat and prairie heat crawled over her. Yet she could not stop watching him rob these poor people, visiting with them in a friendly tone that caused some to actually respond favorably to his boyish charm.
The oppressive summer afternoon gripped them all, added to the misery and tension.
“Well, little lady, what do ye have fer me?” Muddy Eyes’ gruff demand muffled all hope that everything would somehow be fine.
“I have nothing of value to anyone, sir.“ She lifted her chin and set her lips firmly, though her heart thumped so hard he surely could hear. Mama’s tiny gold cross hung in the dampness between her breasts, and she would not give it up. Not ever.
”Put it in here, gal.” He poked her arm with the gun.
The cross was all she had left to remember her dear departed mother. In stubborn silence, she glared into his doughy features. The train lurched abruptly, throwing him against her, smothering her with his rank odor of unwashed flesh. The hard cold barrel of the gun pressed between her breasts. Her skin crawled and she shoved away from the distasteful contact, gloved fists clenched to control the trembling. He would shoot her, surely, but he only ripped the delicate chain from around her neck and dropped it into the hat.
Before she could react, Tyra rose from the floor, delicate fists clenched. “You leave her alone, you dreadful man. Can you not see we have nothing? Nothing. Everyone knows we Duncans are poor as church mice.”
Fingers clawed, she launched herself at the man.
The beast did exactly the opposite of what Wilda expected. He captured Tyra’s fine wrists and began to laugh. “Look it here, Raines, we got us a wildcat.”
Tyra kicked him in the shins, and he hopped backward but didn’t let her go. “Hey, that hurt.”
“Well, then release her, you lout.” Wilda grabbed his arm. “And give me back my cross, you nasty man.”
He shook her off as if she were a pesky insect, shoved her back into the seat and flung Tyra down beside her. “Dang it, Raines. You said this’d be easy.”
The one called Raines grabbed his partner’s arm, raised as if to strike someone, anyone.
“Foolishness must run in the family. I’d advise you settle down and let us take our leave.” To Muddy Eyes, he said, “Leave them be, no need to beat up on women and children.”
“Dang it, it’s them beatin’ up on me. She kicked me.” He pointed at Tyra like a pouting little boy. A very dangerous one.
The young outlaw’s emerald gaze slid over her and he executed a curious little bow. “Sorry, ma’am. I do apologize for my friend. Is the child hurt?”
“Her hurt? Hell, she kicked me. And that’n too.”
Encouraged by Raines’ gentleness, Wilda stuck out her chin at Muddy Eyes. “And I’ll not apologize, either, you great bully. I want my cross back.”
Raines laughed and, though muffled by the dusty bandana, the dark hilarity gathered chills along her spine. Danger flared behind those flinty eyes.
Tyra renewed her attack on the unfortunate outlaw. “You overgrown lunk. If I were a man I should challenge you, here and now.”
Raines’ eyes crinkled. “Little spitfire, ain’t you? Ma’am, you’d better put a rein on that one, or she’ll get in deeper than she can wade out.” He held up his pistol. “Girl, this is a gun. It shoots real bullets that kill. You’d best not rile my friend here, or I don’t know if I can keep him bridled. He’s got one of these too.”
Again, Wilda barely comprehended the dialect.
“Nobody tells me what to do,” Tyra said.
“Tyra, behave yourself. Go sit with Rowena.”
The child made a face, but struggled down the aisle of the swaying car, hanging on to the seats as she went.
“And what about you, ma’am? Does anyone tell you what to do?” The young outlaw’s gaze absorbed Wilda, and she couldn’t forget his earlier challenge.
Drawing herself up straight, she glared at him. “No man. Certainly none such as yourself, nor your less than decorous friend. You are impudent, sir, and quite uncivilized, even for this country of yours.”
He laughed heartily. “You English don’t have no room to pick at the way we talk. With all your fancy words. You’d a thought you’d swallowed a persimmon and couldn’t get rid of your pucker. But make no mistake, I’m worse than uncivilized, and you’d do well to remember that.” He tipped his revolting hat, revealing once again the luxurious mane of hair the color of polished mahogany wood.
Coming on the heels of his flirtatious behavior, the words frightened her more than the actions of Muddy Eyes, but he didn’t give her a chance to say so.
“Madame, with your permission I’ll take your leave.” Once more tipping his hat, he turned and shouted at his friend. “We’re done here, let’s skedaddle or we’ll arrive in Hays City in the lap of Sheriff Calumet.”
How disconcerting, the way his hair curled from beneath the soiled hat. Worse was his devil-may-care manner under such frightening circumstances, and then that pointed threat. As if they might see each other again and she should beware. As if, should he be forced to kill her he would do so while laughing. How dare he play games with her after he had as much as threatened to shoot Tyra? Yet, whatever was crawling around in the pit of her stomach was not disgust, but rather a thinly veiled longing to stand too near a fire. She dared not examine the emotion too closely.
A few minutes later, the outlaws were gone, much as they had come, leaping onto their horses led by a companion who rode alongside the moving train.
Wilda leaned out the open window, squinted her eyes at the smoke and grit from the steam engine until they disappeared from sight against the distant horizon. Her heart still thudded so hard she could scarcely breathe. What a country. And what frightening inhabitants. All the more terrifying was the way the outlaw’s mere glance set her on fire in places a Victorian lady never dared consider.
She touched the cleft between her perspiring breasts. How she hated to lose Mama’s cross, but perhaps it was fitting to approach her husband-to-be Blair Prescott with nothing of her old life but memories. All the same, the loss brought tears to her eyes. She brushed them away and refused to give in to a feeling of extreme loneliness that enclosed her in its grasp.
Behind her, Marguerite Chesshire’s bustling and chattering, captured her attention. Red faced, the woman fanned herself with a handkerchief, and stopped to peer at poor Mrs. Stanley, who had come to her senses and been helped into a seat.
Tut-tutting, Marguerite moved on. “Oh, dear. Dear me. A wonder we weren’t all murdered where we sat. Such a country. Child, child, come in out of that wind. Look at your hair, let me pin it up. You must look your best for Lord Prescott.” Plump fingers patting and poking, she mumbled, “There, and there. That’s much better.”
Satisfied, Marguerite sighed, lowered herself in the seat across the aisle and mopped her heated face, at last able to speak of what had occurred. “My goodness, so much excitement. I thought my poor heart would stop beating. Do you suppose this sort of thing happens often in this place?”
A few seats away, a tall, lean cowboy who’d scarcely roused himself from his slouch during the robbery, spoke in a slow drawl. “Near as regular as clockwork. The sheriff’s been after them three for a coon’s age. Even gets the army involved on occasion. That there was Calder Raines and the Black Baron. Rode with Quantrill, they did. Other one with the horses, Deacon James. Did a little preaching in his time. Boys ain’t never learned the war is over. Still think they can get back at the Yankees for all they done to the people around these parts. Drives Sheriff Calumet near crazy with didoes such as this.”
Not sure she caught the real meaning of the man’s unfamiliar words, Wilda did catch the young one’s name: Calder. Calder Raines. How American, how western. A real outlaw name. Again she shivered, recalled the warmth of his breath against the pulse at her wrist, the sensual scrutiny that turned to ice so easily.
Marguerite tugged at her sleeve. “Cover your ears, child, and mind your manners. The good Lord knows some of us still possess such a thing.” She shot a fiery glare at the cowboy, but he had turned away to stare out the window, and paid her words no mind at all.
Eager to hear more, Wilda protested. “Don’t you care who those men are?”
The cowboy turned back to face her, went on as if Marguerite’s concern or scolding meant little to him. “Now, Raines, yonder.” He nodded toward the prairie slipping past the window. “Went into the war when he was just a lad of sixteen. After his older brothers was killed. Reckon he didn’t get enough of the fighting, fer it was over within a few months, and him rarin’ to kill him some more Yankees. Rode out west and sure enough found him some more war. Carries a lead ball in his back, I hear, from Palmito. That there was the true last battle of the Civil War, you know. In May it was. A good month after General Lee surrendered. All more’n ten years ago now, but no one can seem to get enough of talking about it. Reckon, though, he made a better soldier than he does an outlaw. Easy to see his heart ain’t in robbing common, ordinary folk.”
His thoughtful expression slid over Wilda. “You’d better take care. They’s gals in ever town willing to hide that one in their beds . . . and perform deeds not fit for a young lady’s ears as well.”
“Sir,” Marguerite gasped and fanned viciously.
Not deterred, the cowboy went on, appearing amused at the response his tale elicited. “He’s free with his charms, is Calder Raines . . . and the spoils of his little adventures as well. Gives the most of it away to folks what lost everything in the war. Or so I hear. This place was bloody, right bloody, ma’am. And plenty of suffering. Yes, siree. Reckon that explains the bad reputation of Hays City. Boot Hill’s been filling up fast, yes siree. You English’d do well to remain in Victoria and not set foot there. Cain’t be tamed, that town. Why, they done run off Wild Bill Hickok, one of the best lawmen in these parts.”
Marguerite tut-tutted, her glower darkening. “That’s enough, Wilda. Quite enough. You must stop listening to such talk. And you, sir. I’d appreciate it if you would kindly mind your tongue.”
The cowboy shrugged, and Wilda stared out the window at the empty plains flying by, wondering if it was always so hot and dry and windy in this place called Kansas. And secretly hoping she’d see this Calder Raines again.
The train stopped at Hays City where both Wilda and Tyra leaned against the smoky windows to get a glimpse of all this American wildness proclaimed by their cowboy traveling companion.
“Looks okay to me,” Tyra muttered in a disappointed tone.
“Maybe it only gets wild at night,” Wilda replied.
After a pause, what the cowboy said was spent informing the sheriff of the robbery, the train moved on, carrying the weary English at last to their final destination. Despite what might await them at the end of this long, tedious journey, Wilda wanted only for it to end so she could solve her problem of being promised to that crazy and weird Lord Prescott.