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Her name was Eleanor Marlowe, but most people called her Nora. The nickname was straightforward, without artifice. So was Nora herself, most of the time. Born into the Victorian era, she was raised in Richmond, Virginia, in a manner befitting a lady of quality. But she had a surprisingly adventurous streak for so conventional a young woman. Nora tended to be impulsive and sometimes reckless. Her quicksilver nature had been a constant concern to her parents in the past.
As a young girl, she survived dunkings while sailing on yachts, and a broken arm in a fall from a tree while bird-watching near the family's summer home in Lynchburg, Virginia. In private school she achieved high honors, and later she attended one of the best finishing schools. By the time she reached her twenties, Nora had settled a bit, and with her family's great wealth behind her, she became a socialite of note. She had traveled up and down the eastern seacoast and in the Caribbean as well as Europe. She was cultured and well-mannered and very knowledgeable about other countries. But her lingering infatuation with adventure dealt her a devastating blow in Africa.
She had been on safari in Kenya, traveling with three of her male cousins and their wives, and an overbearing suitor who had invited himself along. Their hunting party also included Theodore Roosevelt, who was now running for vice president under President William McKinley, who was seeking a second term.
Roosevelt had gone hunting with her cousins and the other men, while Nora had stayed with her female cousins in an elegant mansion. She was thrilled when she was allowed to join the hunting party for an overnight stay when the men were camped by a nearby river.
Her particularly persistent Louisiana suitor, Edward Summerville by name, was irritated by Nora's continued aloofness. She had a reputation of being cool, while he was known as a ladies' man. Her indifference seemed to enrage him, and he redoubled his efforts to captivate her. When he failed, he made himself fright-eningly offensive when they were left briefly alone on the bank of the river. His unwanted caresses had made her panic. In her struggle to escape him, Nora's blouse had torn, along with the net veil that had protected her delicate skin from the bites of swarming mosquitoes along the river. While she was struggling to cover her exposed flesh, she was repeatedly bitten. One of her indignant cousins knocked Summerville down and threw him out of camp. But before he left, Summer-ville accused Nora of leading him on, and swore vengeance. She hadn't led him on, and everyone in camp knew it, but his pride was crushed and he wanted to hurt her. However, Summerville's ire was the least of her worries afterward.
Nora had known about the dangerous fevers that could come from mosquito bites, but when three weeks passed and she was still healthy, she had relaxed. It wasn't until she was home again, almost a month after she was bitten, and in the throes of a desperately high fever, that the family physician diagnosed malaria and prescribed quinine crystalline powder to combat it.
The quinine upset her stomach at first, and she was told that it would only protect her from infection while she was actually taking it. There was no cure for her malarial condition, a prognosis that made her sick at heart and furiously angry at Summerville for putting her at risk. Her family doctor in Virginia hadn't told her until she was through the first paroxysms of the attack, and on the road to recovery, that he thought it possible that she might yet contract the fatal "black-water fever." And, as well, he said, the paroxysmal fever would surely recur unpredictably over a period of years, perhaps for as long as she lived.
Nora's vague dreams of a home and family died. She had never found men very attractive physically, but she had wanted children. Now that seemed impossible.
How could she raise a child when she was subject to a recurring fever that might one day prove fatal?
Her dreams of adventure died as well. She had wanted to go down the Amazon River in South America, and to see the pyramids in Egypt. But faced with recurrences and the terrible fever, she was afraid to take the risk. As much as she craved travel and adventure, she valued her health more. So she led a remarkably placid life for the next year and contented herself with recalling her African adventure for her friends, who were impressed by her courage and daring. Inevitably her exploits were exaggerated and she became known as an adventuress. At times she enjoyed the reputation it gave her for daring, even if it wasn't quite accurate.
She was lauded as a prime example of the modern woman. She was asked to speak at women's suffrage rallies and afternoon charity teas. She rested on her laurels.
Now she was being invited out West, to a fabled land she'd read about and always dreamed of seeing, a region that was as potentially wild as Africa. Her fever had not recurred for several months. Surely there would be no risks out West, and hopefully she would remain healthy for the duration of her visit. She could see something of the Wild West, and perhaps there would be an opportunity to shoot a buffalo or meet a desperado or a real Indian.
She stood with brimming excitement at the lace curtains of the family parlor in Virginia, looking out at the pretty late-summer landscape while she fingered the letter from her aunt Helen with delight. There were four Tremaynes of East Texas: her uncle Chester, her aunt Helen, and her cousins, Colter and Melissa. Colter was on an expedition to the North Pole. Melissa was desperately lonely since her best friend had married and moved away. Aunt Helen wanted Nora to come and spend a few weeks on the ranch in East Texas and help cheer Melly a little.
Nora had once taken the train to California and had seen the rugged country between the Atlantic and Pacific through the window. She had read about ranches and Texans. They both sounded romantic. Dashing cowboys fighting Indians and one another, rescuing women and children, and making all sorts of heroic sacrifices paraded through her mind as she recalled the old Beadle dime novels that she'd been reading of late. She would meet a real cowboy if she went to visit her kinfolks on the ranch. And it would be an adventure, even if it didn't involve lions and hunters. It would be a great adventure and she would have a second chance to test her courage, to prove to herself that she wasn't crippled by the African fever that had kept her confined so long.
"What have you decided, dear?" Cynthia Marlowe asked her daughter as she scanned the latest issue of Collier's magazine.
Nora turned, the soft material of her lacy blue dress swirling gracefully around her trim ankles. She touched the fashionable big tulle bow at her throat with fingers that almost shook with excitement. "Aunt Helen is very persuasive," she said. "Yes, I should like to go! I look forward to seeing the majestic knights of the range that my novels describe."
Cynthia was amused. She hadn't seen Nora so enthusiastic about anything since her disastrous trip to Africa. Her daughter's chestnut-brown hair in its elegant high coiffure caught the light from the window and took on the sheen of copper. Cynthia's hair had been that color when she was younger, before it went silver. But Nora also had the deep blue eyes of the Mar-lowes, and the high cheekbones of a French ancestor. She was taller than her mother, but not unusually tall. She had elegance and grace and manners, and a gift for conversation. Cynthia was deeply proud of her.
Nora was peculiarly cool with men, especially after the fright Summerville had given her and the dreadful illness that had plagued her. She would really have thrived on the adventurous life, Cynthia thought sadly, but the African fever had clipped her wings. Now, at twenty-four, she had settled down to spinsterhood with resignation.
"Among other things, this visit would at least give you respite from your father's attempts to bring socially acceptable young men home for you," Cynthia murmured, thinking out loud. Her husband had, in fact, made himself painfully obvious of late, and he tended to be overbearing and a little insensitive.
Nora laughed, without real humor. A man in her life was the very last complication she needed. "Indeed it would. I shall have Angelina pack for me."
"And I shall have my social secretary make the necessary reservations at the train station," Cynthia agreed. "I'm sure that you will find the trip enlightening."
"Of that," her daughter replied with sparkling humor, "I have no doubt. It has been a long time since I traveled so far alone." Her face went taut with the memory of Africa. "But after all, Texas is not Africa."
Cynthia stood up. "My dear, it is unlikely that the fever will recur so often. It has been several months since your last bout. Try not to worry. Remember that Chester and Helen are family, won't you? They'll take care of you."
Nora smiled. "Of course they will. It will be a delightful adventure."
Nora was to remember those words when she stood on the deserted depot platform at Tyler Junction, Texas, waiting to be met by her aunt and uncle. The train ride had been comfortable enough, but it was long and she was very tired. So tired, in fact, that her enthusiasm had dimmed, just a little. And she had to admit that this dusty railroad terminal did not live up to her expectations. There were no gloriously attired Indians, no masked desperadoes, no prancing stallions with gallant and colorful cowboys riding them. In fact, it looked like a small eastern town. She became aware of mild disappointment and vicious heat as the Texas sun beat down on her pretty hat.
She looked around again for her relatives. The train had been late, so perhaps they had gone to get something to eat or drink at the restaurant she could see in the distance. She glanced around her at her elegant leather cases and trunk, wondering how she was going to get them out to the ranch if no one came for her. Late summer was going to be even more uncomfortable in southeastern Texas than in Virginia, she decided. She was dressed in one of her stylish traveling suits. The garb that had felt so comfortable when she left Virginia was suffocating her now.
Aunt Helen had written her about this place. Tyler Junction was small and rural, a southeastern Texas town not too far from Beaumont. Here most of the local gossip was passed around at the post office and the drugstore soda fountain, although the daily Beaumont Journal gave all the national news as well as social notes and local-interest stories. There were two of Henry Ford's little black automobiles on the dusty streets, driven by founding-family members, and the rest of society made do with buggies and surreys and buckboards and horses. That ranching was still an important local occupation was not difficult to see. In the distance Nora's eyes spotted several men wearing boots and jeans and those wide-brimmed Stetson hats. But they weren't young, dashing men. Most of them, in fact, seemed stooped and bent and old.
Uncle Chester had told her once when he and Helen visited the family home in Virginia that most of the ranches in Texas these days were owned by corporations, held by big businesses. Even Chester's ranch was owned by a big West Texas conglomerate, and he was paid a salary for managing it. The old days of ranching empire builders like Richard King, who had founded the famous King Ranch in southeast Texas, and the equally famous ranching giant Brant Culhane out in West Texas, were gone forever.
These days the money was in oil and steel. Rockefeller and Carnegie had control of those industries, just as J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt controlled the nation's railroads, and Henry Ford the new transportation rage, the automobile. It was an era of empire builders, but industrial ones, not agricultural ones. The day of the cattleman and the cowboy was almost at an end. Aunt Helen had written that a handful of prospectors were drilling for oil over at Beaumont, because some geologist had said a few years ago that the land around the Gulf was probably sitting on a veritable lake of oil. She found the thought amusing. As if anyone were going to find great patches of oil in this lush green land!
As she considered that, Nora absently watched a striking, tall man in chaps and boots and a dark Stetson walk through the dusty street toward the station. Now, there was a real cowboy! Her heart quickened as she imagined what sort of dashing man he was. What a shame to see men like that go the way of the Indian, driven to extinction at the end of a railroad track! Who would rescue widows and orphans and fight off the red man?
She was so engrossed in romanticizing the rapidly approaching myth that it took a minute to realize that the cowboy was heading straight toward her. Her brows lifted excitedly under the pert veil of her Paris hat, and her heart pounded.
It occurred to her quite suddenly that the man she'd been romanticizing about was actually little more than a paid servant. A cowboy did, after all, tend cattle. And she suddenly discovered that looking at a romantically picturesque and immaculate cowboy in the pages of a book was a good bit different from coming face-to-face with the real article.
The cowboy, so dignified and attractive across the width of the street, was a definite shock when he got closer. This man looked unshaven, even dirty. She restrained a fastidious shudder as her eyes fell to the bloodstains on the worn leather chaps that flared out from his long legs as he walked. Spurs jingled musically with each step he took. His boots were curled at the toes and they were liberally caked with a substance that was emphatically and explicitly not mud. If this man tried to save a widow or orphan from an upwind direction, both would probably run from him!
His blue-checked Western shirt was wet with sweat and plastered to him in a way that was almost indecent, disclosing broad muscles and thick black hair from the area of his collarbone down. She clenched her purse tightly in both hands to maintain her composure. How odd, that she could feel a skirl of physical attraction to a man so uncivilized and in need of cleaning. Why, lye soap would hardly be adequate for such a job, she thought wickedly. He would have to be boiled in bleach for days