Her Bodyguard by E.E. Burke

When Amy finds herself in danger after investing in a railway to bring mail-order brides west, she hires Buck O’Connor for protection. But the former soldier has orders to destroy her plans — orders that become more and more difficult to follow as he falls for her…

Chapter 9

March 15, 1870, Girard, Kansas

Amy turned her back on a stiff wind to address the group of women standing behind her on the railroad platform. “Come to the front, ladies.”

The girls stayed huddled like a gaggle of geese, albeit well dressed fowl. Amy had seen to that before she left Fort Scott. In fact, she’d planned everything down to the last detail to ensure this rally would be successful. Soon, these hopeful young women, most of whom had fled poverty and deprivation, would have husbands and homes. Giving them this opportunity to find better lives wasn’t just beneficial for the railroad. It was good for everyone.

She gestured to a battered table, gripping her notes tighter as they fluttered in her hand. “Stand in front of your picnic basket, but hold onto it or this breeze will whisk it away.”

“Breeze?” The incredulous question was posed by one of the more outspoken girls.

Amy smiled. Even though she was only a few years older, she had a hard time thinking of these young women as anything other than girls, given their fresh-faced ignorance of the life they’d stepped into. The flyers sent east had proclaimed the plains to be a veritable Eden, but it wouldn’t hurt to enlighten them as to the reality of paradise.

“You’ve not yet experienced a true Kansas wind, but you’ll know it when you do. That’s why I had you sew lead shot into the hems of your skirts.”

Amy eagerly scanned the crowd. There had to be at least a hundred men. They’d appeared minutes after a bell-clanging, steam-puffing Manchester engine had announced the arrival of the train. The brand-new engine still hissed as it sat resting on the track behind her.

Six more engines would soon chug down these tracks when the Border Tier linked Kansas to the lucrative cattle country in Texas. With trade would come prosperity, and not just for the rich, but for all who took part in this new era of commerce. Her father’s dream was so close she could smell it in the oil and smoke.

Smiling, Amy stepped up to the podium. Based on current projections, they would cross into Indian Territory within the month, handily beating their rival. That is, if she could prevent the Land League from getting in the way. “Good afternoon, gentlemen.”

The crowd roared their welcome.

She pitched her voice to project over the clamor. “We’re delighted to see so many of you here. We’ll have a prayer, and then we’ll get started on bidding for these picnic baskets. What better way to welcome the newest members of our community?”

“Forget the prayin’ and get to them picnic baskets!” The shout came from a man who’d leapt onto the back of a wagon, presumably to get a better view.

Two soldiers at the perimeter of the crowd nudged their horses toward the buckboard. At the same time, Buck stepped up onto the platform, but not before Fletcher had reached her side.

Amy rested her hand across her stomach, willing her nerves to settle. Major Roy had been good to his word, bringing his troops into town to provide additional security. In fact, he’d insisted on it, after Buck had blurted out that comment about seeing to the safety of the women.

Why couldn’t her bodyguard keep his mouth shut? She hadn’t wanted troops present because it would be interpreted as more heavy-handed tactics. But she had allowed it out of fear of something happening to these girls. The chance wasn’t worth taking.

“Let me remind you before we get started.” She raised her voice to draw attention away from the scuffling at the wagon. “The Young Ladies Immigration Society is sponsoring a dance this evening out at the Jansen place. Keep in mind, the Society is bringing more young women to our fair state. So if you don’t win the hand of one of these lovely ladies, you’ll have another opportunity in the near future.” Amy smiled as applause erupted.

For the first time in weeks, she breathed easy. This rally would be a turning point. She felt it clear to her bones. She gestured to the reverend standing beside her on the platform. The diminutive preacher secured his stovetop hat and stepped up to the podium, smoothing down what appeared to be several sheets of notes.

Oh dear. Hopefully, he wouldn’t go on too long. She had purposely forgone speeches to avoid losing the crowd.

“Let us pray.” His booming bass droned on for what seemed like hours. He blessed the generosity of Mr. Joy; then he gave thanks for the railroad, making some convoluted comparison between the miracle of steam and the magical genie released from Aladdin’s lamp.

Good grief, wasn’t he overdoing it a bit?

Amy tilted her head and peeked up at the man on her right.

Buck spied at her through half-closed lids. He put his lips near her ear. “Next thing you know, he’ll be turning wine into steam.”

His warm breath sent a shiver racing across her skin. She nudged him and whispered. “That’s disrespectful.”

“I agree. A waste of good wine is downright sacrilegious.”

Amy curled her lips around her teeth to keep from laughing. She darted a glance at Fletcher, who stood at her other side with his head dutifully bowed.

A frown creased his brow as he watched her through his lashes. Was he upset with her for whispering, or was his antipathy for her bodyguard? Hopefully, the attacker would be caught soon and she could send Buck on his way and her life would get back to normal.

She tried to ignore the trickle of disappointment. Wasn’t normal what she wanted?

“Amen.” The reverend stepped back.

Scattered applause rippled through the crowd. Perhaps they were clapping out of relief, but she couldn’t fault the good man’s intentions. He was the only preacher within fifty miles who supported the railroad.

Her jitters started up again. Which of these men were members of the secretive Land League? They’d no doubt infiltrated this crowd. No matter. She would preempt their troublemaking by focusing on why these men were here—to meet decent young women.

Amy stepped up to the podium. “Let’s get started.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Buck leave the platform. He’d told her he would be milling about, looking for anyone who resembled the man who’d fled across the rooftops.

She turned, gesturing to a golden-haired girl in spring-green calico. “Why don’t we begin with your basket, Martha?”

“Hold on there!”

Amy’s head whipped around at the angry shout.

A robust man clad in farmer’s denims moved closer to platform. “If I marry one of these gals and sign your agreement, does it give me rights to any piece of land I staked out?” He waved a tattered piece of paper. “This letter King Joy posted all over creation puts a whole host of limits on our claims. Are you saying he’s changed his mind?”

Amy moistened her lips. The angry settler must be referring to town site claims, one of the most hotly contested issues. “Right-of-way can’t be claimed, nor can town sites. The railroad reserves the right to hold back these acres so we can ensure a fair means of selling the land to those who’ll actually reside there. We don’t want speculators to abuse good people by taking prime real estate and then selling it back to them at exorbitant prices.”

“Well, hell, little lady, ain’t that exactly what King Joy is doin’?”

She gasped as the man leapt onto the platform. His feet had barely touched the wood when he flew backwards and then landed flat in the dirt with a startled expression.

Buck glared down at the prone man. “You’re not allowed on the platform with the women.”

The red-haired farmer stood slowly. He picked up his hat and slapped it on his thigh. His narrowed eyes locked on her bodyguard.

Vicious insults and profane encouragements peppered the air. The crowd spread out, opening a circle around the two men.

Amy’s stomach clenched. God forbid this gathering disintegrate into a brawl.

“You men move back!” Major Roy’s directive rang out. His troops urged their mounts forward through the tightly massed bodies, their guns at the ready.

“No!” Amy cried. She would not allow this to turn into a bloodbath. She shook off Fletcher’s constraining hand and moved to the edge of the platform. “Mr. Joy wants nothing more than to see those who’d settle and improve this land be given the opportunity to do so.”

She yelled over the shouting men. “He’s acting in good faith by offering incentives, like providing the means for eligible young ladies to come west, so you can marry and have families. Let’s get back to the reason we’re here, to bid on these baskets and meet some of these ladies.”

Finally, the soldiers broke through. One of them escorted the grumbling farmer away at gunpoint. The crowd shifted like a human sea, their discontented voices rising in waves.

Desperate to avoid a riot, Amy hauled the reticent young woman up beside her. “I’m pleased to introduce Martha Lennox.”

The girl trembled, clutching her basket as if it were a lifeline. Had it been a mistake to bring these girls down here?

“Martha is an excellent cook. I can smell the fried chicken she’s packed in this basket, and a delicious apple pie.”

The rumbling subsided. Amy anxiously searched the faces in the crowd. Some glowered, others appeared disgruntled, but most looked interested. For the most part, these were decent, God-fearing men who were looking for a better life, men who needed wives and wanted families. But the troublemakers were stirring things up.

Buck remained in front of the platform with his arms crossed and his feet planted in a wide stance. Her rational mind told her one man couldn’t stop a mob, yet there he stood like a knight before his lady, willing to defy the dragons who would devour her.

“I’ll take that basket!” The shout had gone up from the middle of the crowd. A pleasant faced young man elbowed his way forward. But before he could approach the platform, a black-haired settler stepped in front of him.

“Before we get started, I want to know for certain our titles will be secure. We won’t sign off on cutthroat trust deeds and be at the mercy of some Boston capitalist.”

Murmurs of discontent swept through the crowd.

Amy met the man’s sky blue eyes. A vague familiarity flickered. Had she met him before? “The investors have no interest in taking away your land.”

“S’at so?” His lips curved in a mocking smile. Ah, now she knew. His cocky attitude reminded her of Buck. “As it stands now, the railroad can foreclose without us even knowing.”

Amy moistened her dry lips. He’d touched on a prickly issue: the right of the railroad to revoke the settlers’ titles by posting publication of foreclosure in eastern newspapers. It was a move designed to protect investors in case struggling farmers didn’t make their payments, but it appeared to be an attempt to swindle these men out of their land. “No one is going to take away your land if you pay for it.”

You say. But why should we believe it? You work for King Joy.”

The grumbles grew louder.

Fletcher touched her arm, his eyes asking permission. Amy stepped back and let him have the podium. Lord knows she didn’t have a good answer for that volatile question. He gripped his lapels and faced the crowd as if he could calm the storm with a single word.

“The reason you men are gathered here today is to pursue what we all want—homes and families. Those of you who truly desire this have nothing to fear. No one will take your land if you are honest and hardworking. The richest soil is yours to till, and this railroad will open the door to markets eager for the fruits of your labor. The possibilities are boundless.” Fletcher’s rich baritone projected over the crowd, conveying firm conviction and deep empathy.

“But there are those among you who would spoil your hope for happiness.” He paused and seemed to search the upturned faces. “Yes, that’s right. These men want you to suspect Mr. Joy and the railroad because it takes the attention off their own misdeeds. They don’t want to till the land. They want to get rich quick at your expense. They want to twist the truth and disrupt the peace until you’ve missed the opportunity to benefit from the wealth that will come to you on this track.” He gestured behind him, his expression pleading. “If it can be completed. Don’t let these wolves fool you. They are your true enemies.”

The soft hiss of the engine seemed to punctuate his fervent appeal.

Amy held her breath. The men were listening. Fletcher exuded confidence and empathy and his brief speech had been downright poetic. He had the makings of congressman, even a senator. Working together, they could accomplish great things. The future shone like a beacon, luring her to its light.

Thundering hooves shattered her reverie.

“They’re burning the ties!” The shout came from a soldier on horseback, tearing down the middle of the street. He waved his arm. “Major, the settlers, they’re burning the ties laid out by the railroad bed. You can see the fires for miles.”

Chaos erupted. Men shouted, some running away while others cheered. Even the wind kicked up its heels, flinging dirt into the air. Amy blinked, her eyes and nose stinging.

In what seemed like mere minutes, Major Roy had rounded up his men and galloped out of town, leaving a dusty brown cloud in their wake. What was left of the crowd dissipated until only a handful of men, looking vaguely disappointed, wandered down the street.

“Come along, ladies.” Dr. Warner shooed the colorful flock towards his office.

Behind them, the train stood silent.

Fletcher swore softly.

Numb with shock, Amy sank to the edge of the platform. The bright future she’d glimpsed flickered and vanished, as she tumbled back down to the foot of the mountain she’d worked so diligently to climb.

She’d been so certain the answer to their problems was bringing wives to these men who longed for families. The loneliness and yearning in their faces was proof enough it was something they wanted, something that would be good for everyone. Now, the Land League had taken even this away. There was no chance she’d be able to convince the directors to continue supporting her program. She would be fortunate if she kept her job.

She clenched her fists until her nails bit into her palms. By heaven, she hadn’t come this far to be defeated. Her father hadn’t struggled and died in vain. He had started this state on a path to prosperity, and she would see his work completed even if she had to drag every man, woman and child kicking and screaming down that railroad track.

“Mrs. Langford?” Buck’s shadow blocked the bright sun.

She raised her eyes. He only used that deferential tone when he wanted something.

His brow furrowed. “Are you all right?”

“Are you an imbecile?” Fletcher hovered over her. “Of course she’s not all right. This rally was a disaster.”

Buck snorted. “You’re just sayin’ that to make her feel better.”

Amy shot to her feet, furious with herself, the situation and these two exasperating men. “If you want to fight like mongrel dogs, go do it somewhere else and stop wasting my time. I have to figure out how to get things back on track. This railroad will strike the border by May. Even if I have to spend every penny I have to ensure it.”