May 24, 1870, Centralia Settlement, Southeastern Kansas
Prudence Walker possessed neither beauty nor a sweet nature. Facts she had accepted long ago. She had in her favor a strict upbringing, which had kept her from straying off the narrow path and had taught her the value of diligence in all things, including cooking.
“He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich.” She quoted one of her father’s favorite proverbs, as she gave the potatoes another good whisking to ensure the fluffy texture her mother had insisted on.
If an eligible bachelor showed up at the Lagonda House for the noontime meal, she might just snag a husband today. She certainly hoped so. That’s why she’d taken the train west, to the end of the line. This was her last chance at matrimony.
Having reached the mature age of thirty and still unmarried, she wouldn’t hold out hope if she weren’t in a place where men outnumbered women ten to one. The odds had encouraged her to answer a railroad advertisement seeking respectable young women willing to immigrate to southeastern Kansas for the purpose of marriage.
The ad hadn’t mentioned that the majority of available men were uncouth, given to violence and indulged in all manner of vices.
Prudence chose to believe that out there somewhere was a Daniel—a God-fearing, peaceable, temperate man—in need of a likeminded wife. Maybe today she would meet him.
She draped a checkered cloth over the bowl to the keep the potatoes warm and checked on the chicken sizzling in a cast iron frying pan on top of a black box stove. There were worse places to be alone than in a well-appointed kitchen. Transferring the fried chicken to a china platter, she set it on the worktable next to the mashed potatoes and snap-peas. Soon, the bread would be ready.
Laughter drifted in from the dining room. Her friend Hope peeked around the door. “Are you still cooking?”
“I’ll be finished soon.” Prudence allowed she would finish sooner if she had help. Thus far, her friends hadn’t offered. In all fairness, she hadn’t asked for help, either. The other ladies, who had also arrived on the Bride Train, had picked up different chores in return for room and board. Not an ideal arrangement, but it would only be temporary. Soon, their prayers would be answered and they would find suitable husbands.
“We’re walking down to the mercantile to see Mr. Appleton’s selection of hair ribbons.” Hope brushed a fringe of mahogany curls off her forehead. She could use a few ribbons. Her hair coiled every which-way, resisting all efforts to tame it. Oddly enough, Hope didn’t seem to care that her hair misbehaved.
“Do come with us, Prudence!” Delilah appeared over Hope’s shoulder. Her saucy black curls were created with a hot iron and pulled back with decorative combs. Prudence admired the style, but she would never wear something that would make her appear vain. She was content to braid her hair into a coronet or pull it back into a brown snood the same color as her hair.
“Thank you for asking me along. I don’t need any ribbons.”
“I’ll find you a pretty one, anyway,” Hope promised. “And we’ll be back in time to help you serve dinner.”
“Thank you, I’d appreciate that.”
A yeasty smell filled the kitchen as Prudence pulled two pans out of the oven. Placing the loaves on their sides, she covered the warm bread with a cloth to keep the crusts soft. She loved baking bread, from preparing the spongy dough to kneading it smooth to removing a fresh baked loaf. Some found the process tedious, but making bread gave her satisfaction. The kitchen had always been the place she felt most comfortable. In here, she didn’t need to be beautiful or desirable. She only had to be competent.
A loud banging came from the back door. Another delivery. As summer approached, more farmers were arriving in town with fresh fruits and vegetables. One of them might turn out to be the kind of man she hoped to marry.
She removed the soiled apron and smoothed her skirt. She’d worn the serviceable gray wool, knowing she would be working in the kitchen. If she had time, she would change into the brown calico for dinner. Pausing by a small mirror mounted on the wall near the back, she checked to make sure there was no flour on her face. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Solemn brown eyes gazed back at her. Would the caller find her attractive? Her nose was straight, but a tad too large to be considered classic. Her upper lip looked thin compared to an absurdly full lower lip. Her brother had teased her when they were children, pointing out her perpetual pout. Her odd mouth would be less noticeable if her chin were less square.
Rapid banging jolted her out of her daze. Good thing whoever it was hadn’t given up and left. She would’ve missed her chance to meet him. That’s what came from being overly concerned with her appearance. No wonder her father had prohibited mirrors except for the small ones on washstands.
She opened the door with what she hoped was a winsome smile.
Three men stood at the bottom of the few steps leading out to the back yard. Cookie cutter replicas of many of the Western men she’d encountered: unkempt and unshaven, wearing dusty denims and scuffed boots and felt hats with brims that flopped over their eyes.
Prudence hid her disappointment behind a polite smile. “May I help you?”
The tallest man, whose coal black beard reached his chest, tugged his hat brim. “Mornin’ miss, um…”
Politeness required they make introductions first, but the men out here seemed to care little for good manners.
“Walker,” Prudence supplied.
“Miss Walker. Right. You’re one of them women who came to town on the Bride Train. I ain’t too good with names.”
She happened to be very good with names, and faces, and she couldn’t recall seeing these three in town and was certain she hadn’t taken deliveries from them.
“Yes, I arrived on the train…” Prudence glanced past them at a wagon hitched behind two mules, which didn’t appear to be loaded with anything, save a coffin. Her heart grew heavy at the memory of two pine boxes in the back of her brother’s wagon. Were the men on their way to bury a deceased relative? “My condolences for your loss.”
“Yes ma’am, thank you…” The youngest looking of the three, a gangly, ginger-haired fellow with bright red whiskers, held his hat in his hands. “We thought we might find a kind woman like yourself who’s willing to help…”
The purpose for their visit became obvious. Possibly, the men had spent the last of their money on a coffin and couldn’t afford to pay for dinner. She hadn’t prepared for extra mouths to feed. Yet, she’d never turned away someone who was hungry. The guests could make do with one loaf, and a few pieces of fried chicken wouldn’t be missed. Prudence glanced over her shoulder. No one had come into the kitchen, so she wouldn’t be seen giving away food.
“Wait here. I’ll get you something to eat.”
“No ma’am, we don’t need a handout.” The younger man reached out. If he stood closer, he might’ve grabbed her skirt. “All we need is your help. We got a hurt pup.”
“An injured dog?” Prudence’s heart went out to the poor creature. Caesar, their family’s sheepdog, had been her dearest companion. Losing him had broken her heart. “What happened? Did the dog tangle with a snake? Or was it a wagon? People drive too carelessly, just yesterday, I was nearly run down…”
She closed the door and set out for the wagon with the men trailing, so close she could smell the tobacco smoke that clung to their clothes and the unpleasant odor of stale sweat. Thank goodness they weren’t suitors. She had no desire to curl up beside a husband who smelled worse than his horse.
The third man, who’d been silent, moved up next to her. His bulky shoulders and heavy brow reminded her of her uncle’s bulldog. Her heart sped up. She disliked being boxed in. He seemed oblivious to the impropriety, and appeared more worried than ill tempered.
“I was raised on a farm, so I have some experience with nursing animals,” she assured him. “Where is the poor thing?”
“Show her,” the bearded man’s command came over her shoulder, making her nerves jump.
The bulky man grumbled under his breath as he shifted the coffin lid to one side.
Startled, Prudence took an abrupt step backwards, bumping into the tallest man’s chest. Flustered, she moved forward and peered into the coffin.
No corpse. No dog.
Just a sick joke, and this wasn’t the first time she’d fallen for mean-spirited foolishness. When she’d been fourteen, the leader of the boys at school had put a dead cat in a box and presented it to her as a gift.
She turned on the freckle-faced man, who’d withdrawn a large blue handkerchief from inside his coat. “This isn’t funny, if that’s what you think. There is no injured dog, is there?”
“Sure there is.” The young man’s tone rang with sincerity, almost convincing her that she’d misjudged. “And you’re gonna get to meet him.”
Unease lifted the short hairs on the back of Prudence’s neck a split second before the bearded man behind her locked a beefy arm around her neck.
A wadded handkerchief cut off her scream.
The coffin lid slammed shut.
Prudence’s shrieks came out muffled. One of the devils had gagged her, while the other two bound her wrists and ankles. They’d tossed her, still struggling, into the pine box, sealed it and then sped away.
The wagon lurched and hopped, bouncing her up and down.
She writhed, twisted her wrists and kicked her bound legs, winced at every bruising jolt. No matter how hard she struggled, she couldn’t free herself. She was at the mercy of three men who thought nothing of stealing a woman. What kind of creatures would do that? Where were they taking her? What would they do with her once they reached their destination? The likely outcome was too horrible to consider.
Prudence bit down on the cloth, grinding with her teeth. That didn’t work, either. What should she do? What could she do?
Pray without ceasing. That’s what her father would’ve advised.
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come thy will be done…” Her heart thrashed in her chest like a trapped bird beating its wings against glass. The sound reverberated in her ears, drowning out her ability to think. She couldn’t recall the rest of the prayer. Thy will be done…will be done…will be done…”
No! This couldn’t be God’s will.
She labored to breath as her chest grew tight and a burning sensation closed her throat.
Nothing happened outside the Lord’s will. Her father declared this from the pulpit with absolute certainty. He’d never wavered in his beliefs, never weakened…not like her.
Maybe the Almighty was angry with her. The Lord knew she longed for a husband and children, and wouldn’t be satisfied if His will required her to remain single and miserably alone.
Forgive us our trespasses… Forgive me…
The wagon dropped. Her breath left her lungs as the coffin lifted into the air. Just as abruptly, the pine box slammed down. Her shoulder struck one side, the pain barely registering before she was flung to the other side and treated to the same punishment.
A thud, followed by creaking wood, indicated someone sat on the lid. Muted curses were followed by low laughter. How could humans be so heartless? Maybe they weren’t human. Angels had visited earth. Why not demons?
Fear slammed into her with the force of a tidal wave, dragging her under…suffocating her… Her racing heart felt nigh unto bursting.
Calm down. Take slow breaths. Don’t pant like a dog. Above all, keep your wits about you.
She had weathered other storms—the horror and grief when her best friend had drowned, the anguish over the loss of a beau who’d died in the war, a disastrous wedding, the loss of both parents within days of each other. She could make it through this crisis, but only if she regained her composure and used her head for something besides a hat rack.
First, assess the surroundings.
A gleam of light shone through a pencil-sized hole above her feet. In her panic, she hadn’t seen it before. So, they hadn’t planned on smothering her. But they had planned on abducting her. What had they asked? If she was one of the women who’d arrived on the train. That meant they were after one of the brides. Had they singled her out? The thought that they might’ve been watching her made her stomach turn.
Whoever they were, whatever the reason for their bizarre behavior, they were up to no good.
If she could draw attention… She hammered the side of the coffin with her heels. Someone pounded on the lid, followed by more laughter. The noises drowned in the rattle and rumble of wheels rolling over rough ground.
Prudence strained to hear a muted conversation.
“Nobody saw…got clean away…”
Away to where?
The town, such as it was, ended at the hotel. From there, the road led south. At a fork, the road veered southeast and followed the railroad tracks. Another path curved west and ended at the edge of the vast grassland. Trapped, with limited use of her senses, she had no way of knowing which direction they’d gone.
Her continued attempts to draw attention by kicking the coffin were ignored.
The wagon rolled on for what seemed like an eternity.
Perspiration poured from her skin and soaked her underclothes. Her throat grew parched. The sun had turned the pine box into a sweltering oven.
Her arms were the first to lose feeling, and then her legs. Numbness spread like an insidious disease. Even her mind grew numb.
Was this what it felt like to die?
Her parents spoke of their lives passing before their eyes. Prudence imagined a whirling zoetrope like one she’d seen at the fair. Only, hers didn’t feature colorful, exotic images. Every picture remained the same. Dull. Unremarkable. Uninteresting. Just like her. The decision to immigrate west and marry a virtual stranger had been the most exciting thing she’d ever done. It might turn out to be the last thing she ever did.
Robert had scoffed at her decision to be a “railroad bride.” Her brother’s frowning face—angular, severe, so like her father’s—invaded her mind. “You disappoint me, Sis. What do you think you’ll find in Kansas? I’ll tell you what: rioters, drunkards, outlaws and savages. Take heed. Forming alliances with disreputable men will result in a lifetime of sorrow.”
He’d quoted their father to make her doubt the wisdom of her plan. She knew her place in God’s order, but she couldn’t bring herself to bow to her eldest brother’s decrees. His arrogance rubbed against her pride.
Yet, he’d put his arm around her shoulder, concern warming his brown eyes, a feature they’d both inherited from their mother. Father’s eyes had been the clear, cold gray of a winter morning.
“You’d be better off coming with us to California…”
Much as she hated to admit it, Robert had been right. If she’d gone with him and his family, she wouldn’t be in this fix. Better unhappy and alive than adventurous and dead.
A shudder racked her body and then another. She didn’t want to die. She wanted to live. If God would save her, she would never do anything imprudent again.
“Whoa!” The driver’s call interrupted her misery. She tensed as the wagon rolled to a stop.
Whoever sat atop the coffin moved and the lid was lifted off.
Prudence blinked. A flash of blue sky, a scowling, bearded face…and then she was hauled out of the coffin, passed from one set of rough hands to the next. Her limbs hung numb and useless. She could resist no more than a rag doll.
The bearded giant grabbed her hair, tore off the snood and fished out the pins. Still gagged, she moaned in protest as her unbound hair tumbled down her back and into her face.
“That’s better… Get her loose.”
The burly man untied the binding around her ankles and released her wrists. She still couldn’t feel her hands and feet and would’ve collapsed had someone not been holding her up.
“We don’t need this no more.” The ginger-haired accomplice untied the gag. “You can scream all you want. Nobody to hear you. Except us.
Scream? She couldn’t produce a sound through her dry throat.
The wagon had come to a stop in a clearing about a stone’s throw from a small dwelling sided with unpainted clapboard that might’ve been shipped in by rail. Beside the open doorway, a red coonhound barked. Behind the house, a timbered area would indicate the presence of water, possibly a stream. Railroads tracks were laid near water, weren’t they?
She frantically scanned the landscape, praying she would recognize something, a landmark, anything that might help her find her way back after she managed to escape.
The sun hung low in the sky. That direction was west…and out there was nothing but a sea of tall grass, undulating like waves. She had no idea where she might be, or which way she ought to run, or if she could run.
Feeling returned to her limbs with a vengeance. She flexed her fingers to speed the painful process. Her rubbery legs threatened to give way. She didn’t have the strength to wrench away from the bearded man’s grip. She was at the mercy of three brigands whose plans seemed abundantly clear. They’d brought her to this lonely place to ravish her and would likely kill her afterwards.
The air smelled fresh, like newly mown hay. But being able to breathe freely didn’t calm the sick churning in her stomach. Weakened, unable to hold back the nausea, she leaned over and vomited on the trampled grass.
With a grimace, the ginger-haired abductor held out the handkerchief he’d used to gag her. “You almost got my shoes.”
“Won’t make you smell any worse,” cracked the bearded man, who held her arms fast. If he released her, she would run. Even if she fell on her face, it was better than accepting her fate.
The shorter, heavyset man ambled toward the cabin. “Arch! Git out here…we brung you a present.”
Dear God. They planned on passing her around?
A man’s figure darkened the doorway. His shoulders filled the framed-in entrance. Her heart accelerated as he emerged, half-dressed, his chest bare as a savage’s. Suspenders dangled on either side of his legs from the waistband of worn denims. He threaded his fingers through shoulder-length hair the color of a tarnished penny. He stared at her with a fierce scowl.
Prudence tasted fear. The metallic essence that filled her mouth also seemed to permeate her bones and muscles, rendering her paralyzed. Four strapping males, and this last one appeared to be half-wild. How could she hope to fight, or escape? She was doomed.
The man behind her tightened his grip, keeping her upright, holding her out like a prize. “Come meet yore new bride!”
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