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"I am Matilda Susan Cunningham." Annie said clearly as she stood on the deserted streetthe only streetof Trail's End and considered her words. Matilda had spoken like a woman of education, exactly the way Annie wished she spoke. Oh, not that she hadn't tried to improve her speech. She was a natural mimic. Her father used to say she put on airs. Then he'd hit her.
" I am Matilda Susan Cunningham," Annie repeated, enunciating clearly.
The wind blew dust in Annie's face, then swirled down the street and around the dry goods and grocer's store on her left. Behind her was a rickety building, maybe a hotel. It looked as if the wind could knock it over.
Across the street, the dust blew through the doors of a saloon flanked by a bank and a small building that looked like an office. The sheriff's, perhaps. Further down the street huddled a few more little white buildings, all nearly hidden in the approaching dusk of early evening.
At the end of town stood a church. At least she thought the small white building with a squat tower was a church, but it might be a school or a home.
That was all.
If she lived here long enough, she'd learn what all the buildings were, but now she wanted nothing more than to go wherever that unknown employer was supposed to take her. Every part of her body ached. The scrapes on her legs and the bump on her head throbbed while the wound on her arm continued to bleed.
And she was afraid, deathly afraid. What would happen if no one came? If her masquerade were discovered? So many ifs and so few certainties.
In her hand, Annie carried Matilda's purse. Inside, she found two letters, a clean handkerchief, a comb, seven dollar bills,a few coins and some pennies. Including Matilda's meager savings, Annie now had a total of ten dollars and eighty-six cents. How long would that last?
The wind continued to blow down the rutted main street, pulling Annie's hair from its tight bun. It swirled around the prim blue skirt she'd taken from Matilda's satchel and tried to lift it above her now properly shod feet.
Trail's End really was the end of the trail.
As she searched the street for signs of her employer, Annie thought about the accident. After the driver left for the new wheel, she'd checked on the injured guard who lay unconscious by the coach. Then she'd changed into Matilda's clothing and picked up the woman's new valise. When the men returned, they loaded Annie and the guard into a wagon.
"What about about Miss MacAllister?" Annie had asked.
"We'll come back and bury the woman out here. No room in the wagon," said the driver.
With that, the wagon took off. During the ride to town, the poor guard moaned with every bump in the rough road. Annie had tried to calm him, but her experience with men had been of an entirely different nature. She used to sing to her father before his drinking got bad, so she tried singing to the guard, softly, songs she had learned as a child from her beautiful but fragile mother. The guard quieted.
After leaving the injured man at the doctor's farm, the driver had brought Annie into town and abandoned her in the middle of the street. At her feet sat the small valise that contained everything Annie now owned. She'd stood clutching her purse and looking around for at least an hour, attempting to decide what to do.
While she waited, the sun dropped behind the horizon and the breeze grew cool. Had Matilda been mistaken when she said someone would meet her in Trail's End? Annie looked up and down the street, but it was still deserted. No sign of anyone.
When a light went on above the saloon, Annie glanced up where she saw shadows moving behind the windows. She knew who they belonged to and knew that the women in those rooms were looking down at her, wondering who she was. Annie straightened her back and lifted her chin.
"I am Matilda Susan Cunningham," she said.
She considered sitting in one of the chairs on the porch of the hotel but feared they were reserved for guests. If no one showed up, would her money buy her a bed for the night? Probably. However, with no idea of what her future held, she couldn't afford to spend even one penny.
But someone was coming for her. Matilda had said that.
Annie picked up her right foot to ease the pinching caused by the oxfords she'd taken from Matilda's body. She'd hated doing it, but she figured a generous woman like Matilda would have wanted her to. At least, she hoped so. The wind blew down the street again, colder after sunset.
When it was dark, a few men rode into Trail's End, tied their horses and entered the saloon. Without hesitation, Annie turned away from them and picked up her valise. She hurried as fast as her aching legs would take her toward the hotel and the comforting light that spilled out from the open door.
She decided she didn't care if someone from the hotel tried to run her off. She was staying. She dropped the valise and lowered herself onto a chair. Perhaps she would have to spend the night here. She shivered again.
She'd fallen asleep, she realized. With a shake of her head, Annie attempted to wake up. Who was this Miss Cunningham? She quickly realized that she was Miss Cunningham and she jumped to her feet, every joint in her body complaining.
"Yes, sir," she said, ignoring the pain.
In the light streaming through the open door of the hotel, she could see the man. Handsome but serious, tall and strong, clean shaven with thick black hair and a square chin. Concern showed in his blue eyes. Solemnly, he studied her face for a moment, which made her want to turn away, to escape his perusal. Then she remembered who she was and stood up, tall and proud.
"I'm sorry you have had such a wait," he said in a deep, commanding voice. "The stage was supposed to bring you to my ranch. I didn't hear about the accident until I arrived in town to look for you. I hope you haven't been too uncomfortable."
He reached for her, and she started to leap away out of habit until she realized that he was reacting to the blood on her sleeve.
"You've been hurt, Miss Cunningham."
"A few bruises and scrapes. This," she said, looking at her arm, "and a cut on my head." She leaned against the chair to steady herself.
He surveyed her, his eyes moving from what she thought must be a bruise on her cheek and to the blood on her sleeve and skirt. "Let's get you back to the ranch."
She started again when he leaned forward, but he'd only picked up her valise. Of course.
"Is this all your luggage?"
"Yes, sir." She looked at his back as he strode away toward a trim little surrey, then hurried after him. He carried nearly everything she had, and she didn't even know who he was or the location of the ranch where he was taking her.
"And you are?" She lifted her head and spoke in the tone that she thought Matilda would use in this situation, strong and certain, despite the hunger, exhaustion, fear and pain competing for her attention.
"I'm sorry." He turned back toward her. "I'm John Matthew Sullivan, a member of the school board and president of the bank. Certainly you know that from my letters."
He smiled at her, an expression that showed both confusion and concern, a smile that so changed his stern visage that it might have warmed her except that she knew how easily men's smiles could come and go. Instead she said, "Oh, yes. Your letters." She put her hand on her forehead. "It has been a difficult day."
"It must have been." He placed the valise on the floor of the vehicle. "Do you feel well enough to start school tomorrow?"
She stopped, one foot inside the surrey, the other on the ground. She couldn't move as she struggled to make sense of his words. "Start school tomorrow?" she repeated.
She didn't want to go to school. What kind of school would there be in such a tiny place? What would they expect her to study and why?
"I know it's soon, but the students are so glad you're here. Because it was so difficult to find a qualified teacher, they've been out since the term ended last April. They're eager to get started again."
Teacher? I'm a teacher?
Oh, dear. Annie bit her lip. Matilda had been a teacher.
"Are you all right, Miss Cunningham?" he said, studying her closely.
She placed her hand on her aching head. No, she was not all right, but she was not going to tell Mr. Sullivan that and destroy her chance to sleep in a bed tonight.
"It's obvious you're exhausted. We'll postpone class until Wednesday so you may rest."
"That would be nice."
He handed her into the surrey, touching her arm for a moment to steady her. Then, as she settled herself in the carriage, he smiled at her, a flash of warmth lighting his eyes. Annie quickly looked away. She did not like it when men smiled at her that way. It made her want to run.
"You may have noticed that Trail's End is not a large town, but the people are friendly." He got in on the other side of the surrey and snapped the reins over the horses. "This area is beautiful in the spring."
The carriage was splendid, new and shiny with leather seats. The matched bays trotted in time with each other. Obviously Mr. Sullivan was a wealthy man.
"Where are we going?" Here she sat, in a vehicle with a man she'd never met, heading off to who-knew-where. Curious and frightened, she wished she could have read those letters Matilda had carried in her purse. "Is the ranch far?"
He looked at her again with a puzzled glance. "As I told you in my letter, you'll live in a room that adjoins the schoolhouse. It's located just a few minutes from my home and about as far from town."
The bays frisked along the road. After only a few minutes, he slowed and turned between stone pillars. "This is my ranch, the J bar M." He pointed at a sign over the drive.
J bar M. Annie carefully studied the sign. "The J bar M," she said.
In silence, they rode down a smooth dirt drive and turned onto a rougher trace. They traveled only a minute or two before Mr. Sullivan halted the surrey.
"Here we are." He jumped from the vehicle.
Annie searched both sides of the road until she spotted a stone building on the edge of the clearing, partially hidden by trees.
His voice startled her, as did the way he addressed her. She must get used to her new name as quickly as possible. With a jerk, she looked to her right where he stood ready to hand her down from the carriage. What would Matilda do in this situation? No one had ever helped Annie from a surrey. In fact, she'd never been in a surrey, but she'd seen enough to know she shouldn't leap out on her own.
She suddenly remembered the mayor's wife in Weaver City getting out of their wagon. She'd put her hand in her husband's and let him steady her as she descended. So that's what Annie did. As soon as she was on the ground, he dropped her hand and stepped away, smiling at her again with that look in his eye.
She'd seen that expression flicker in men's eyes before, but those were rude men, men who frequented saloons or tried to take advantage of young women in the stagecoach. Mr. Sullivan seemed different, upright. She must have misunderstood his smile, his warm gaze.
Scolding herself, she lifted her gaze to study the building for a few seconds. "It's very pretty."
"Yes, it's made of gray limestone, quarried only a few miles from here." He picked up her valise. "My wife chose the material shortly before her death," he said matter-of-factly.
Along the side of the building were three windows with clear glass that reflected the light of a bright moonrise.
"I'll go inside and light a lamp." He headed toward the building, going up two steps before disappearing through a door. In no time, a glow from an oil lamp shone softly through the windows.
As Annie entered, she saw six rough benches, each with a narrow table in front of it, and a deskoh, my, her deskin the front of the room, on a little platform. Stacked on the desk were a pile of slates and another stack of books of various sizes. The sight alarmed her.
"This is the schoolroom," Mr. Sullivan said, "as, I am sure, you must have surmised."
Surmised. Annie rolled the word around in her mind. It had such a weighty feeling. "Yes, I'd surmised that." She nodded.
He motioned toward a narrow room at the other end of the building. "That's the kitchen. You'll warm the students' lunches there and may use it to prepare your own meals."
So that's how schools did things. "How many students are there?"
Even in the faint glow of the lamp, Annie could see his puzzled expression. He must have written Matilda about that, too. "Twelve. Not a terribly large group to teach, but they are in all the grades from one through seven."
"I'd forgotten." She nodded again, precisely, a gesture that seemed to belong to her new character.
"Your bed and drawers for your personal accoutrements are through this door," he said as he put the bag on the floor in front of it.
Accoutrements. Another word to remember. "I have few accoutrements."
"There is a door to the outside in your room." He pointed. "The facility is behind the building."
She nodded again.
"Several of the mothers cleaned the building to prepare for your arrival. You have a new mattress, several towels and clean bedclothes."
"How nice of them. I must thank them."
"I'll leave you now to settle in. The children will arrive at seven-thirty on Wednesday. I trust you will be ready for them?"
"Yes, Mr. Sullivan."
"A lamp is on your desk with a box of matches next to it." For a moment, he studied the bruise on her cheek and her arm. "Miss Cunningham, may I send our cook, a fine woman, to help you with your wounds?"
"Thank you, but I'll take care of them myself. I'm very tired."
He nodded. "Then I'll wish you good-night."
"Good night, Mr. Sullivan."
His hand brushed her arm as he moved to the door. At the contact, he stopped and glanced at her as if trying to decide whether he should apologize, and then he turned away quickly, opened the door and closed it behind him.