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Cedar County, Nebraska, March 30, 1881
Shivering and nearly naked in her damp, lacy underwear, Missy Devlin gazed across a prairie that seemed as big and empty as the universe.
"The Western Adventures of Missy Lenore Devlin and her Intrepid Pup, Muff," she wrote in her brand-new copybook.
She dipped her pen in the ink bottle, wishing there was a quicker way to write down her story. Life unfolded faster than she could scribble words across a page.
On only her first full day in the west, adventure had come upon her as easily as a cat comes to cream.
Mercy if she hadn't fallen bottom-first into a stream rescuing her puppy. Now, here she sat, all alone on God's great prairie in her next-to-nothings waiting for her dress to dry. It was a mishap that would cause any well-bred young lady no end of distress.
Back home, it was well-known that Missy rarely felt distressed. Truly, she could not have daydreamed a better adventure.
She blinked away an image of her older brother's frown, intent on savoring the hint of sunshine teasing her bare shoulders. Poor Edwin would turn as red as a Boston sunset if he could see across the miles.
Her brother had tried, valiantly, she would have to admit, to do his duty and keep her on a socially proper path, but sadly for Edwin, some things were just beyond a sibling's control.
A crisp wind whined through the rotten slats of wood that tacked together the abandoned wagon she sat upon. She licked her lips, certain that she tasted the green of a thousand acres of newly sprouted grass.
The pages of her journal rippled over her scandalously and oh-so-delightfully naked knees. She smoothed the paper flat once more and wrote another line.
"As related to her sister, Suzie," she read out loud.
Writing tales of adventure was what she had been born to do. Tea parties and cotillions were lovely for her friends, but putting words on paper was what made Missy's heart soar.
With each page that she wrote the world of black-and-white became more real than the wind nipping at her petticoat.
Shrill yapping beside the stream nearly disrupted her burst of creativity.
"Quit that barking, Muff, you'll frighten Number Nine!" she called without glancing up from the inspired text.
Number Nine, the horse she had rented this morning in Green Island, whinnied as if he agreed. His hooves splashed in the stream where she had tethered him to a nearby bush.
"Don't make me tie you to the wagon." With no little effort she closed her mind to Muff's racket.
If Suzie were here to entertain the pup, Missy would not have lost the descriptive phrase that had flitted across her mind. She would have read it out loud to her sister and they would both have admired it.
Missy's heart squeezed in a bittersweet knot. She pictured her twin sitting, hour upon hour, on the front porch of their stylish home. In spite of the fact that it was a haven of security, of love, Suzie would be gazing west, wondering about Missy's great adventures.
The telling would be a joy and a burden. She would have to pick brilliant words so that Suzie could live the adventure as though they traveled side by side, the way they had always planned to do.
Early this morning, while gazing out the window of her hotel in Green Island, she had determined to begin her tale with a description of the crisp spring scene spread before her.
Seen from the upper floor, the Missouri River cut across land that looked like an endless pasture of rolling green. The hills rose in easy swells and then sloped down just as gently. Scattered patches of a late snow glittered and melted in the sunshine.
Pristine beauty is what she had intended to relate, but upon closer inspection, the Great American West was dirtier than she had first thought.
In only seconds, Muff had fallen victim to burrs, rascally things that burrowed into his fur with ferociousness. Suzie would laugh her corset loose if she could see his ragged condition.
"Hush, Muff! I can't think of a word with all that barking!" Missy glanced toward the stream. A stern glare would silence him. "Oh, mercy me!"
The splashing in the stream had not been Number Nine. It was a giant cow.
Missy set aside her writing and stood up. Old wood creaked and groaned. She wiped her suddenly damp palms on her corset.
Gently bred eastern cattle had smaller, daintier mouths than their wild western cousins. Missy made a mental note of the fact, determined to remember how a piece of meadow grass clung to a glittering glob of spittle oozing out of the cow's jowls while it munched in apparent contentment on the bodice of her dress!
Muff snipped at the cow's hoof. He whirled to yap at the flick and swing of its fat brown tail.
A brass button shaped like a rosebud clicked against the cow's lower tooth then snapped off and plopped in the grass.
"Adversity holds the seeds of adventure" was a motto Missy lived by, but really, that was one of her favorite gowns.
"Hello, cow," she crooned, dismayed to witness a red satin bow disappear between the great hairy jaws. She slid by slow inches off the wagon. "Let go of my dress."
Missy shuffled a step forward. The cow was shorter than she was, but weighed Heaven's-own-guess more.
So far, the beast seemed to care for nothing beyond the lovely red-and-white cloth being crushed in its mouth. It didn't even kick at Muff who resembled a snowball-sized fiend, nipping and yapping at the cow's muddy hooves.
If the creature wasn't annoyed enough at Muff to silence him with a kick, perhaps it would be safe to walk right up to it.
Chances are it was someone's large pet, a creature used to being coddled and fed a daily ration of women's apparel.
With a deep, steadying breath, she left the security of the wagon behind.
"There's a good brown cow." She knelt and gripped the hem of her gown in both fists. "I'll take my dress now."
A tug on the fabric made no impression on the beast's dedicated gnawing.
She glanced about. Perhaps help would come trotting over one of the rolling hills.
Drat! Where was a heroic, handsome cowboy when a girl needed him? Surely the plains must be speckled with them. As far as she could see, though, the only movement was the grass bending under the breeze and a building mass of clouds that darkened the afternoon horizon.
She yanked. The cow yanked back, tossing its head. A seam ripped and a snort from the bovine nose sprayed something unpleasant into the air.
Muff snarled. The heifer's gaze swung sideways at him. One stomp of the cloven hoof and the dog would be done for.
"Come, Muff, come," she commanded.
Muff charged. Missy let go of the dress. She snagged him by the curl of his tail.
The cow snorted and pawed the ground. It lunged.
She scrambled onto the wagon with the heat of a deep "Moo" raising the hair on her neck.
"Quiet, Muff." She clamped her fingers over his muzzle, her breathing quick with the narrow escape. "Hush or I'll toss you right back down to get stepped on."
The beast butted the wagon. Three slats of wood splintered under the impact. Missy scrambled for balance and nearly toppled overboard.
Apparently pleased at having the last say, the cow turned and waddled off, dragging the remains of Missy's dress through the dirt and across the stream.
Perhaps she ought to mount Number Nine and follow the giant until it became bored with her gown and dropped it. The problem would be keeping Muff out of harm's way.
Missy plunked down on a slat of wood. She huffed out a sigh. Apparently not considering the day lost, Muff attempted to scramble out of her lap. He would, no doubt, pursue the bovine filcher over hill and dale if he had the chance.
Grasping the fringe of grimy fur that had fallen over his eyes, she flipped it back and settled him securely in her lap.
"You've lost your pretty blue ribbon, you little scamp. You won't be able to see a thing now."
At least he wouldn't see how the clouds on the horizon seemed to boil and blacken by the second. The sun shining down on the wagon lost its kiss of warmth.
She tried to tug her own ribbon and curls back to the top of her head but they sagged in a steadfast knot halfway down her scalp.
"Adversity does hold the seeds of adventure," she announced to a crushed flower on the ground. Its remaining petal twisted in the breeze.
It would take a bit of creativity to write this adventure so that Suzie would laugh and Mother not swoon.
Gossip was bound to spread. She knew from some experience that embarrassing stories had an uncanny way of speeding across the miles.
It wouldn't do for Edwin to hear that Missy had come trotting down the public streets of Green Island wearing nothing but a dirty shift and toting a bramble-infested, purebred Maltese.
No sooner had Muff settled into a quiet, filthy ball on her lap than he growled and scrambled to his paws, stretching to look taller than he was.
"Now what?" She glanced across the prairie, peering through an afternoon being steadily dimmed by the heavy-hung clouds.
A man appeared over the rise of a distant hill, walking. He spotted her and waved his arm.
She had wished for a bold cowboy to ride to her aid and was a good bit disappointed.
The man, breaking into a trot and shouting, "Hello," looked like a gentleman, with his cravat neatly tied and his polished shoes winking with the last ray of sunshine. His pale cheeks jiggled with his awkward gait.
He might as well have been plucked from her mother's drawing room.
Zane Coldridge fastened the top button of his coat against the rising wind and tugged his Stetson low on his forehead.
"We've nearly got him, boy," he murmured to his horse.
The criminal, Wesley Wage, had so far been able to outrun the five-hundred-dollar price on his head, but if his behavior of the past two hundred miles held true, Zane would be able to track him to the saloon in Dry Leaf.
From a quarter mile away, Dry Leaf looked like a pass-through town. With any luck the slick bank robber would follow his usual pattern and be settled in at the saloon, belly-up to the bar, without the marshal being any the wiser.
That was often the way it went. Wesley Wage looked like an eastern dandy so folks seldom realized he was the robber who had been terrorizing innocent bank patrons over the greater part of three states.
Zane urged his horse down the main street of Dry Leaf, taking note of the location of the saloon and the marshal's office. The two were far enough apart so that a busy or inattentive lawman might be unaware that his town harbored a criminal.
Zane tied his horse beside a trough of water outside the marshal's office.
"Take a long drink and a short rest, Ace." He stroked away a film of prairie dust on the horse's neck. "We might not be here any longer than the last ten towns we've ridden through."
Zane took the steps to the marshal's office two at a time, swatting a clinging layer of dirt off his wool coat.
A feminine giggle met him when he opened the door. The rustle of a petticoat and a gasp welcomed him inside. A woman, blushing like a summer peach, leaped off the lap of a young man sitting behind a big polished desk. The marshal's badge hung from his shirt as though it was too heavy.
He didn't look to be more than a boy. The sudden blush of red flooding his cheeks didn't age the image.
"Afternoon, Marshal." Zane nodded to the couple. The woman spun away, tugging at the bodice of her dress. "Miss."
"Mrs.," she muttered. She turned again with her clothing restored. "Mrs. Taylor."
"My wife just " The young man stood up and extended his hand across the desk. Zane shook it. " she just brought lunch."
The couple must have been quick eaters. Zane didn't spot a single crumb on anything that might be an eating surface.
"Mind if I have a look at your wanted posters?"
The boy marshal indicated the wall beside the door, the crimson in his cheeks fading to mottled pink.
"Not much to look at," he said. "Don't get a lot of criminal traffic through Dry Leaf."
Not any that the marshal would recognize by the faded posters on the wall, at least. Wesley Wage was there, half hidden under a bright new page with the sketch of a young lady on it.
Zane stared at her likeness for a moment. She had a pretty smile. On top of her head sat a bundle of curls held up by a ribbon. She seemed to stare out at him with eyes all sparkling with humor and curiosity. He'd give up a cold beer to know whether they were blue or brown. Maybe even green?
She didn't look like any criminal he'd ever trailed, but someone wanted her bad enough to offer a two-thousand-dollar reward.
"What's the lady's crime?"
"Oh, there's no crime, mister. She's just a runaway whose family wants her back in the worst way." The marshal walked over to the wall of wanted posters and tapped the likeness on the nose. "If you read the small print down here on the bottom, you'll see that the money's only good if Lenore Devlin is returned in as chaste and unharmed a condition as she was when she fled the bosom of her family."
"What about this one?" Zane flipped the woman's poster up to reveal the faded image of Wesley Wage. "Have you seen him?"
"Like I said, wanted men don't pass through Dry Leaf much."
"I've lived here all my life." A sigh shoved the curve of Mrs. Taylor's bosom against the boy's canvas sleeve.
"I can't recall ever seeing anyone notorious."
The marshal glanced down at his wife's chest and hiccupped. Likely, a villainous horde could ride down the main street of Dry Leaf and Marshal Taylor would never see it.
"Thank you for your time." Zane opened the door and stepped out onto the boardwalk. "I'll leave the two of you to finish your lunch."
He hadn't taken two steps toward the saloon before he heard Mrs. Taylor's giggle cut short by the closing of the door.
He ought to feel relieved that the lawman was too occupied with wedded bliss to notice that Wage had passed his way, but instead he felt an odd sorrow tugging at his gut. Being witness to their intimacy set a yearning smack in his heart.
Zane shook himself from the inside out. He didn't want a wife, couldn't have one even if he did. The life of a bounty hunter was a solitary one.
He set his sights on the saloon half a block down. Wage might be able to outrun the law, but that five-hundred-dollar bounty was about to come crashing down on his head.