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Buffalo Hollow, Dakota Territory, 1884
Nineteen-year-old Jenny Archibald spared a moment to dab at her forehead. If only she could escape the heat sucking at her pores and driving two-year-old Meggie to fretfulness. Jenny sensed the annoyance of those who shared the passenger rail car, cooped up in the same hot box as she and Meggie and having to endure the fitful cries of a child.
She pulled a clean cloth from the valise at her feet and spread it over the leather seat across from her. "Meggie, lie down and I'll fan you." They'd both be considerably cooler if Meggie didn't clutch at her neck and struggle in her arms.
Meggie whined a protest but allowed Jenny to put her down and, as she promised, Jenny waved over the child the book she had hoped to read on the trip.
She'd naively thought Meggie would sleep the entire way from Center City, Ohio, or be happy to stare out the window at the passing scenery.
After a few minutes of fussing, Meg stuck two fingers in her mouth and her eyelids lowered. Jenny let out a sigh of relief. And hid a smile as the other occupants let out echoing sighs.
She glanced about the car. Apart from a withered old lady mumbling in the far seat, Jenny was the only woman aboard. Across the aisle sat two men who seemed to be business associates. They had persevered in wearing their suit coats for the first hour of the trip but now had shed them and waved paper before their faces trying to cool themselves.
Further along, a cowboy hunched over, his legs stretched out beside the seat in front of him. He spared her a sharp look then pulled his hat low and let his chin fall to his chest.
Jenny told herself she would not look at the man who sat across from the old lady. She'd been aware of him since he joined them several stops backdressed in black, with black hair, and black eyes that seemed to see everything.
Pa was right when he said to her, "Pepper, you must learn to restrain your impulses. Think before you leap."
Only it wasn't that she exactly jumped at the sight of the man. Or the thought of him sitting there so calm and self-contained. More like her heart did a funny little jerk and her eyes jolted to him and away as if controlled by a power beyond her mind.
Like now. Despite her best intentions, she glanced at him. He watched her, his eyes bottomless. Her breath caught in a pool of heat somewhere behind her heart and she couldn't look away.
It took Meggie's wail to free her from his intense stare.
"Mama. I want Mama."
Jenny's heart ached for this child. How could she begin to comprehend the loss of both parents? As Lena and Mark lay dying of the raging fever that had taken so many lives Jenny promised them she would see their child delivered to Lena's brother and his wife and stay long enough to see her settled.
She did her best to soothe Meggie and fan her without resorting to picking her up.
The men across the aisle sighed. One muttered loudly enough for the whole car to hear. "You'd think people would know enough to teach their children how to behave in public."
Jenny stung under the unfair criticism. Meggie wasn't her child but even if she had been, the child could be excused her crankiness. No doubt she felt the heat even more than the rest of them.
If only she could find some cool refreshing water for her. She'd tasted the water from the jug at the back. It was hot and smelled funny. All she needed was for Meg to take sick. But even that inadequate supply had disappeared a short time ago.
The conductor assured her they would soon reach Buffalo Hollow where she could find fresh water before the next stage of her journey.
The muttering of the old woman increased in volume. She was clearly annoyed with Meggie's fussing. The slouching cowboy sat up straight, pushed his hat back and fixed Jenny with a belligerent look.
"Needs a good whupping."
Tears stung the back of Jenny's eyes. She blinked them back, tossed her head and pursed her lips. She would not let their comments affect her.
"Leave her be. The kid's as hot and cranky as the rest of us." The low words from the black-clad man made Jenny's tongue stick to the roof of her mouth. If only she could find a drink.
She glanced at the speaker, again felt that funny sensation deep in her heart. Knowing her feelings were spilling from her eyes, she ducked her head.
Guilt stung her ears. She'd promised Pa to return as quickly as she could, promised she would then hear Ted's offer of marriage. It was only a formality. Ma and Pa both highly approved of Ted Rusk who worked with Pa in the store. When Jenny protested she didn't feel like settling down despite her age, Ma cautioned, "Jenny, you must learn to think with your head not your heart."
"Ted is steady," Pa said. "He'll settle you down."
They knew what was best for her. And didn't the scripture instruct her to honor her father and mother? She intended to obey God's word. Didn't intend to follow her foolish heart into any more disasters.
Both parents had given cautious consent to her plan to take Meggie to Lena's family. No doubt they figured this adventure would get her restlessness out of her system.
She hoped it would, that she'd be ready to take her role as Ted's wife and partner as she intended to. Having given her word, she would fulfill it. Her word was her bond. She would learn to still the restless voice whispering from the dark corners of her imagination. She knew too well the risks of listening to that voice and would never again do so.
Meggie wouldn't settle and begged to be held. They were both sticky with heat but Jenny gathered the baby in her arms and rocked her, crooning soothing sounds which did little to ease Meggie's fussing and nothing to ease Jenny's feeling of being watched.
Stealing a glance from under her eyelashes, she saw the dark-eyed man studying her, a tightness about his mouth. He realized she looked at him and nodded, giving a smile that barely widened his mouth and pushed the tightness upward to his eyes. Yet he didn't look so much disapproving as simply hot and tired like the rest of them.
She nodded, her own smile small and polite even though inside she felt such an unusual touch of excitement. Again she ducked her head and studied the back of the bench before her.
Lord, I have promises to keep. I have tasks to do. And You know me. I have a side of me that rebels, overreacts, enjoys a breathless gallop. She thought of the verse Ma had drilled into her head and heart, 'Godliness with contentment is great gain.' There was no point in longing for things she couldn't have. She tried to find contentment even as she wondered that God had made her a womanone who must abide by the tight restraints of society when she longed to be free to explore and adventure. She smiled as she thought of how she hadin the not so distant pasttried to talk Pa into heading for the Black Hills to look for gold.
Pa laughed. "Pepper, don't let the glitter of gold make you blind to the beauty of stability."
She loved Pa. He understood her better than anyone, perhaps even better than she understood herself. That's why she'd promised she and Ted would be engaged as soon as she returned. Pa approved of Ted and thought he would be the perfect mate for her. She trusted Pa's love and wisdom.
The conductor came through the car calling, "Buffalo Hollow next stop." He paused at Jenny's side. "I'll help you with the little one when we get there."
Her insides did a tumble as she thought of what faced her. She must find transportation to Lena's brother's ranch and turn Meggie over to the man and his wife. She would see Meggie settled as she promised then return home. Butshe allowed a trickle of excitementthe settling-in period would surely give her a chance to explore the countryside. Just the thought made her shift so she could watch out the window. The golden prairie drifted past. The sky seemed endless, making her feel small yet light, as if she could float forever under the blue canopy.
The train jerked to a halt, puffing and groaning. The old woman muttered about having to endure the ride longer. All the men rose and headed for the door. Only the black-haired man paused to indicate she should precede him.
Flustered at his kindness, she fumbled to pull the two traveling bags from the overhead rackan impossible task with Meggie clutched in her arms. She tried to put Meggie on her feet so she could manage but Meggie clung to her and refused to stand.
Jenny grew even warmer as the man patiently waited.
"I'll take your bags. You carry the child."
She managed to untangle her thoughts enough to murmur "thank you," then hurried down the aisle and let the conductor assist her to the platform.
The stranger set her bags on the wooden platform. He considered her with a dark intense look. "Ma'am, if I might give you some advice?"
"Go home. This is no place for a woman and child." He tipped his head in good-bye and strode away.
"Go home?" she sputtered, but he continued on without a backward glance. No place for a woman and child? Who was he to make such a statement? Lena said her brother had sent for his intended six months ago. That woman had come outno doubt happily married by now. Besidesshe sniffeddid he think women were too fragile for frontier life? Too fussy? Too soft? She sniffed again. She could prove him wrong if he cared to hang about and see.
But of course he didn't and would never know how she would welcome the challenge of this life if it were offered to her. However, that wasn't going to happen. She would deliver Meggie and return home to her stable life. But notshe glared at the place where the man had disappeared from sightbecause she couldn't stand the challenge of living out West.
As Burke Edwards rode from town he restrained the urge to lean forward and gallop all the way home.
He wouldn't find any sense of peace and release until he could shed his Sunday-go-to-town clothes for jeans and chaps, and ride out on the prairie. He'd wished for a different outcome to his trip though in the back of his mind he knew the futility of hope. Had known, he supposed, from the first, but he had fought it. Perhaps if he'd accepted it from the beginning, made the necessary changes, all this would have turned out differently.
He sighed and settled back into the saddle, letting the rhythm of riding and the familiar scents and sights of the open prairie soothe his troubled mind.
Unbidden, unwelcome, his thoughts turned back to his recent train ride.
He'd noticed the girl the minute he got on the trainher hair trailing in damp disarray from the roll coiled about her head, her bonnet askew as the baby batted at it, her brown eyes both weary and patient. When he sat facing her he saw how her smiling brown eyes darted about, taking in everything. He admired her for coping with the fussy little girl, for smiling and nodding politely when the other passengers complained of the noise.
But the way she peered out the window in awe brought such a surge of heat to his brain, he'd seen stars. He wanted to tell her, yup, that's what most of Dakota Territory was likeflat, endless prairie. Great for cows and horses. Deadly for women.
He'd studied her. Held her gaze steadily when she glanced his way. In that moment he'd felt something promising, even hopeful as if she dared him to venture into the unknown with him.
Just remembering that fleeting sensation made him snort. "I guess I've learned my lesson," he muttered to the silent prairie and uninterested horse. This was no place for a woman. He'd told her so then marched away without giving her a chance to reply.
A smile lifted the corners of his mouth. Her eyes had fired up a protest. She'd sputtered. Would have argued if he'd given her opportunity. If he hadn't learned his lesson a little too well he might have paused long enough to see her let off steam. Instead he marched away. Heard her words of protest follow. Had to steel himself not to turn and satisfy his desire to see how she looked all het up.
For a moment he wondered at her destination. He knew most people from the area who did business at Buffalo Hollow. Hadn't heard of anyone expecting a visitor. From what he'd overheard the woman explain to the conductor, this was more than a visit. She'd said something about joining an uncle. He'd heard her mention the child's father dying from a fever and guessed she was a widow.
He shrugged. He'd not see her again, of that he was certain.