May 2, 1870, Centralia Settlement, Cherokee County, Kansas
A train whistle wailed.
“Women!” The cry went up in unison, echoed off the framed walls and bounced around the smoke-filled saloon. Denim-clad men slammed their glasses down on top of upturned barrels, while others flung empty bottles to the sawdust floor as they bolted out the entrance, past a door that had yet to be hung.
Constantine Valentine gathered the cards, picked up his winnings, and rose from his seat. He wasn’t in need of a woman at the moment, although he could afford one if the urge struck, now that he’d broken his losing streak.
As he stepped outside onto planks forming a makeshift sidewalk, a stiff Kansas wind slipped down the back of his neck. He turned up the collar of his coat. According to a dirt farmer, this settlement—one couldn’t call it a bona fide town—had been purposely situated on the highest point in the county. From here, one could see for miles.
Nature had a drawn a line roughly along the route taken by the railroad, with timbered lands to the east, and to the west, a vast grassland, which, according to the knowledgeable farmer, topped “the richest soil on God’s green earth.”
Val didn’t have much interest in soil, or in anything green for that matter, save greenbacks. He had no use for grassland, but the men around here clamored for it, so he felt certain he could easily sell the deed he’d tucked into his pocket—if he could divert attention away from the women. That seemed unlikely at the moment.
A shiny green locomotive puffed as it pulled a long train through the grassy prairie. Hitched behind the tender box, a single passenger car was followed by a line of freight cars and flatbeds loaded with what looked like ties and rails. As the steam engine approached, the whistle sounded a second time, followed by an ear-piercing screech of brakes.
The eager throng cheered as they splashed across the road, oblivious to the ruts many of them filled with mud and manure. Elbowing and shoving, slipping and sliding, the men engaged in a jostling competition to be first to the railroad platform. More men appeared from a nearby general store. Several others leapt off their wagons, leaving harnessed mules in the middle of the street.
“I grant you, females are scarce out here, but is there always such a commotion over the arrival of members of the fairer sex?” Val asked the saloon owner, who’d joined him outside.
The burly Irishman leaned his shoulder against the doorframe and folded his arms across his chest. “Railroad’s bringin’ us a new shipment.”
Val tried to make sense of O’Shea’s odd remark. He couldn’t be talking about… “Do you mean to say they’re shipping in women?”
“That’s a new line of business for the railroad isn’t it?” Val observed.
“Bribes, more like. To get us to agree to their terms for settling our land disputes. They’re offering special incentives to men who sign up to tie the knot.” O’Shea lifted his arm to grip an invisible rope, tilted his head and grimaced, making it clear what he thought of the institution.
“Enterprising of them. How did they convince the women to come out here?”
“Put advertisements in newspapers, promising them a free trip west to the land o’ plenty.” O’Shea harrumphed. “Kansas has plenty, all right, plenty of horny devils.”
The railroad whistle sounded again, its shrill tone rising above the lusty shouts of the men rushing to meet it. Val felt a twinge of pity for those poor, unsuspecting ladies. Then again, the only women he could imagine taking such an offer would be destitute, ruined…or ugly. He eyed the restless crowd. “Are you sure it’s brides their delivering?”
“Ah, well, we got whores. Maybe not enough to go around, but that ain’t the type of woman these fellows want. They’re yearning for wives. They want to raise families.”
Val nodded with understanding. He’d come to a point in his life where the idea of domesticity didn’t make him cringe. However, it didn’t bear dwelling on at the moment because he wouldn’t consider marriage until he’d made his fortune here in America. Then, he could return to England and get on with his life.
In front of the train platform, mounted soldiers stood guard. The brass buttons on their blue coats winked in the midday sun.
Val withdrew a slender cigar—his last—and enjoyed a smoke, along with the entertainment across the street. “The railroad hired the army to guard their brides? That seems extreme, even for Americans.”
“President Grant sent troops out here, on account of the riots,” O’Shea explained.
“Riots? Whatever for?”
“We came out here in good faith and staked out our claims under preemption. Then the government sold it to the railroad. Now the owner wants five times as much as it’s worth.” The burly Irishman spit into the mud, showing his contempt. “You’d know all about wealthy landowners who charge their tenants too much, being as you’re an English lord.”
“I’m not a lord,” Val corrected. He’d never personally had tenants, he wasn’t wealthy either, not anymore, and the only land he owned was what he’d just won in a poker game.
The locomotive ground to a halt, heaving a smoky sigh. Along the side of the passenger car, feminine faces appeared at the windows. Some of them looked alarmed, others downright frightened. None of them appeared to be in a hurry to depart the safety of the railcar.
The panting throng surged forward.
Soldiers intercepted the men before they could reach the platform. Only a conductor, baggage handler and an official of some importance were allowed near the train.
Besides Val, the railroad official was only other gentleman wearing a proper suit. He lifted his hands as if to roll back the Red Sea. “Keep your distance. Don’t crowd the ladies.”
O’Shea lifted his chin. “That’s Mr. Hardt, our new land agent. The one before him got whipped and run outta town. He was a molly, though. Don’t know what to call this one.”
The Irishman chuckled. “Maybe we’ll put an apron on him before we toss him on a rail.”
Didn’t sound as though this agent would be around for long either.
An overeager farmer slipped past the soldiers. As he climbed up onto the edge of the platform, the strapping railroad agent shoved him off, sending him ass-first into the mud. “We’ll proceed in an organized fashion…” Shouts and whistles drowned out the rest of the official’s remarks.
At last, the women exited the train. Val counted heads…only a dozen. “Do you know how many men signed up for brides?”
“Least a hundred, I’d wager,” O’Shea answered.
These sex-starved men had rioted over land prices. What would they do in light of a limited supply of women?
“More soldiers might be in order.”
The ladies huddled together, remaining close to the car, as if they might dash back inside should things get out of hand. In the midst of the feminine company stood the tallest lass Val had ever seen. The color of her hair remained hidden under a drab scarf that reached past her shoulders, but even from this distance he could tell she had the distinct pale complexion common to the British Isles. He couldn’t distinguish the color of her eyes, but he’d swear they were green.
The shapeless garment she wore gave the word ugly new meaning. That might be why she’d wrapped her upper half in a plaid shawl. It didn’t help. The hem of her skirt needed another three inches to cover her petticoats, not to mention her ankles. And what was she wearing on her feet? Looked like her father’s boots. Regardless, even an ill-dressed, gangly gal like that one could find a husband among undiscriminating suitors—him being the exception.
He’d only noticed her because she had to be one of the few women who wouldn’t have to crane her neck to meet his eyes. Beyond her remarkable height and coloring, she had little to recommend her.
“Poor things, they must’ve run out of luck,” O’Shea murmured. “Wonder if they’ll last?”
“That one in the middle looks like she might stand a chance.” Val buttoned his coat as the wind picked up. “Think I’ll get a better look.”
He started across the street. Circling the crowd, he moved in the direction of the frame building adjacent to the brick depot. When he reached the opposite sidewalk, he doubled back as far as he could go, given the throng. From this point, he could easily see over men’s heads, one of the advantages of his extraordinary height.
Just beyond the steps leading up to the platform, the women remained close together, consoling each other perhaps, while baggage handlers removed their trunks and cases.
A strong wind whipped at the Amazon’s scarf, and in the next moment, the invisible prankster ripped it away. The railroad agent bolted, and missed. The scarf fluttered off in Val’s direction. Dancing over the crowd, it remained tantalizingly out of reach, despite men leaping to claim it. Val had but to raise his arm to snatch the prize out of the air. Exultant, he waved the cloth as the girl looked over.
Streamers of hair the color of flames whipped across her face. She pulled them away, and spotting him, broke into a grateful smile. He grinned in return, and then realized he was acting like a fool over some woman he’d never see again, at least after he returned her scarf.
He tamped down the strange mood and examined the article that had captured every man’s attention. Nothing more than a large square, washed out blue, perhaps repurposed from a dress or shirt. He rubbed the worn fabric between his fingers. She ought to have a nice bonnet or hat to set off the color of her beautiful hair.
“When do we start the bidding on picnic baskets?” yelled a man from the center of the crowd. His remark drew more laughter than was warranted. The railroad agent didn’t find it amusing. He stood with his feet braced, like a sailor anticipating the next swell.
“There won’t be any picnics,” he announced. “We have more requests than brides, so we’ll hold a drawing later today over at the courthouse.”
Shouts of outrage and more than a few curses peppered the air. Had armed troops not been present, the crowd might’ve rushed the platform.
The women’s expressions ranged from shocked to furious. Apparently no one had told them their husband’s names would be drawn from a hat. Val couldn’t decide whether he admired the land agent for being clever or despised him as an unfeeling cad.
Hardt pitched his voice above the noise from the crowd. “There’s more…only men with registered claims will be considered. A list of qualified candidates is posted outside my office.” He didn’t allow time for questions before he escorted the stunned brides-to-be off the platform.
The soldiers formed a protective wall between the ladies and the grumbling men.
Val kept to the front of the crowd. He waited as the ranking officer rode by on a spirited bay. Before the next soldier blocked his view, he saw the railroad agent stride by with his face set in stone. Several of the women followed. Val scarcely took note of them, being focused on looking for the tall girl. When she passed, he could step in and hold out her scarf so she could take it.
He heard her clomping before he spotted her. She walked with an odd gait, as if her boots didn’t fit well or pained her. Soon as she drew near, Val stepped in between two mounted soldiers and held out her scarf.
Her head swiveled at his movement, and the moment their eyes met, hers went wide with surprise. He’d been right. Only her eyes weren’t just green, they were the color of spring leaves. She reached for the scarf at the same time her foot slipped off the plank and she stumbled.
Val leapt and caught her by the arms as one of her boots sank into the soft mud. She gasped. Clinging to his shoulders, she gazed at him with a startled expression, as if she hadn’t expected him to assist her. Or maybe she was just surprised by his quick reflexes.
“Get back,” shouted the soldier immediately behind her. He appeared to be talking to the other men trying to crowd in.
At any rate, Val didn’t loosen his grip, but the girl tried to scramble backwards, apparently thinking the order had been directed at her. Her boot made a sucking sound then popped off as she tried to dislodge it.
Three soldiers closed ranks around them and the parade came to a halt.
Val slipped his arm around the woman’s waist—a surprisingly supple, slender waist. He steadied her as she hopped back to the sidewalk. She perched on one foot like a heron while he turned to pluck her shoe out of the mud.
“Put your hand on my shoulder for balance. If you’ll pardon my taking the liberty, I’ll slip your boot on so you won’t risk falling again.” When he knelt before her, she looked horrified.
“Oh-oh no, sir, you don’t hafta…”
Hearing her Irish accent took Val aback, though he might’ve expected it. Her ragged dress and plaid shawl looked like something worn by the peasantry. The uncharitable thought fled as he looked into her eyes and saw a soul as pure and innocent as his was debased and wicked.
“Do me the honor,” he urged her.
This time she didn’t hesitate. Her long, elegant fingers curled over his shoulder. At her touch, desire flickered. There was something about a woman’s hands, and this woman had beautiful hands. Likely, her feet, which were presently covered by wool stockings, were also long and slender and just as pale.
Val grasped her ankle. The flicker ignited into a flame. His face grew warm at the uncontrollable reaction. What in God’s name was wrong with him? He hadn’t gotten hard this fast the last time he’d been with a woman wearing nothing but stockings—and silk ones at that.
Her hand trembled.
Hating that he’d unsettled her, Val clenched his jaw and tried to be gentle as he guided the girl’s foot back into the boot and then laced it up. He secured the loose laces on the other one. “Wouldn’t do to have you tripping again. I might not be there next time to catch you,” he quipped to distract her from noticing his overheated condition.
The railroad agent wound his way back through the other women and halted. He frowned at Val as though he’d done something wrong. “What’s going on here?”
Val rose to his feet, slowly. He thought it apparent what was going on, but maybe the surly agent hadn’t been paying attention. “This young lady slipped, and I assisted her.”
He drew the scarf out of his pocket and presented it to her.
She took it rather gingerly. “Th-thank you,” she murmured.
Val had little patience with women affecting shyness. In most cases it was a flirtatious pretense. However, this girl’s blushes weren’t accompanied by a fluttering of eyelashes. Nor did her tongue-tied reaction come across as feigned.
She might be flustered because she’d experienced the same reaction he had when he touched her foot. Or, something more in line with what a lady would feel at the pull of attraction. Whatever the reason for her rosy glow, he found it enchanting.
He executed a formal bow. “A pleasure, my lady.”
“All right, the damsel is saved. Let’s get moving.” Hardt flicked an assessing gaze over him and then gave a nod to one of the soldiers, who motioned for Val to move away.
He found the entire exchange insulting. However, there was little point making an issue of it. He’d done his good deed. Before he turned away, he made eye contact one last time with the young woman, considered wishing her luck finding a husband and then changed his mind. Being bartered off to these rough men who didn’t have the least idea of how to treat a lady would not be considered lucky by any stretch of the imagination.
He turned away, focusing his attention on getting through the crowd and down the street without being turned the same brown color that stained everything and everyone. Time to get back to business. At that popular saloon, he’d find an interested buyer, quickly sell the deed and get the hell out of this Kansas mud-hole.