Heroes Needed for Four Damsels in Distress
Despite determination to be strong and independent, four women of bygone days are in need of a hero. On the journey to California, the deed to Mattie’s hopes and dreams is stolen. Elizabeth has been saddled with too many responsibilities at the family mercantile. Unexpectedly married, Sofia is ill-prepared for a husband and the society she is thrust into. When her sister is accosted, Aileen will do almost anything to support her. Accepting help isn’t easy when these women don’t want to show weakness, but it is more appealing when it comes with a handsome face. Available for Pre-Order:
Sample of Lady and the Tramps:
September 1874—near Salinas, California
Jake Hicken tugged at his shirt collar. Almost every seat in the Southern Pacific Railroad’s passenger car was full, and the sun hit the windows just so, augmenting the heat to a near unbearable level. Usually on the train, the click-clack rhythm of the wheels would settle his mind and help him focus on his job.
Today was different.
Why in heaven’s name had Ben Figueroa summoned him to Salinas now? Such an incident had never happened. Jake had considered ignoring the summons, but—well, curiosity won out. That and the fortuitous fact that he’d learned Wells Fargo was looking for someone to act as one of the guards overseeing the transport of a money shipment going to Monterey, twenty miles west of Salinas. He’d tried not to overlook his train fare being paid by his employer, which would allow him to satisfy his curiosity.
Would Figueroa finally give Jake some acknowledgement and respect—or would their eventual visit take a darker turn? These and other questions pounded his mind until his Stetson ratcheted tight around his skull like a vise.
Lord God, all this pondering and worrying isn’t doing me any good, is it? He removed the offending hat and wiped perspiration from its band. I s’pose I’m not trusting You if I’m fretting so much.
The silent admission did little to allay his concerns. But then, he shouldn’t be preoccupied with such things at the moment. Until the $25,000 Wells Fargo shipment was delivered, he must focus—make sure no one slipped past him to get into the next car where the safe held their valuable cargo. The two guards inside the safe car—Mel Engvall and Carden Smits—were well-seasoned, but it was his job to be sure no one made it to them.
Jake tugged the Stetson in place and straightened. Unbuckling his saddlebags, he removed his leather-bound journal, then rose and walked toward the back of the car.
Out on the platform, wind whipped around him. He secured the door and, enjoying the cool air, leaned a hip against the metal railing. The loud, rhythmic clatter of the rails finally calmed his spinning thoughts, allowing him to discreetly look through the windowed door and take stock of the rear-facing passengers.
He opened the journal’s cover. Modeled after Wells Fargo detective James Hume’s mugbook, the pages contained pictures and descriptions of known thieves and outlaws. Taking a casual stance, Jake alternated between looking over a few pages, then perusing the car. Of the passengers facing him, none matched the descriptions. Of course, that was only half the car’s occupants, since the rest faced forward. After several minutes of comparing the pictures to the train’s occupants, he secured the journal’s flap and reentered the car. Pacing toward the front, he’d just passed his seat halfway down the car when a quiet voice spoke.
“You remind me so much of my dear Wilbur.”
Startled, Jake stopped. The words had come from the white-haired woman he’d been sitting across from. “Pardon?”
“My husband. He’s been gone for several years now, but with your light brown hair, dark eyes, and strong bearded jawline, you could have been his twin.”
Next to her, the young man—all of about twenty—flushed pink at her comment. “Grandmother.” He laid a hand on her arm. “Leave the man alone.”
Ignoring him, Jake sat and offered a smile. “Is that so?”
“Surely is. Both of you, handsome as the day is long.”
Grandson’s cheeks flamed red. “Grandmother, please.”
Jake’s own cheeks warmed. “Thank you kindly, ma’am.”
“And unless I miss my mark,” she continued, “you’re thinking of someone special. I can all but see your thoughts churning. You’ve the look of a man pining for his woman.”
Oh, his thoughts were churning, all right, but not over a special woman. “Do I?”
Her grandson’s mortified expression stirred mirth in Jake’s chest. Poor fella. The young man clamped a hand about his grandmother’s wrist and whispered in her ear.
“Not to hear my grandson speak,” she whispered. “Eddie says you’ve the look of an outlaw.” She flicked a gaze toward the Colt Peacemaker tied against Jake’s leg. “To me, you look far too refined to be of such ilk.”
He chuckled and shot Eddie a reassuring glance. “On the contrary, I’ve worked since I was eighteen upholding the law.”
“See?” Grandmother patted grandson’s hand, the young man looking like he might sooner crawl under the train than continue the conversation.
“Are you heading to see her now?” The grandmother seemed unaffected by poor Eddie’s discomfort.
“See her? Oh. . .” Right. His supposed woman. He cleared his throat. “No, ma’am. I’m attending to some business.” He’d not taken the time to find a woman with whom to settle down, and he doubted he would.
Her brows arched. “Oooh, you’re on the job,” she whispered. “In pursuit of someone?”
“Grandmother, leave this poor gentleman alone.” Eddie shot him an apologetic, if embarrassed, look.
“It’s fine.” Truth was, the good-natured woman reminded him greatly of the nuns who’d helped raise him. “No, ma’am. Something much more mundane.” Best if no one knew of the valuable contents in the iron safe one car over.
A wistfulness flashed in her expression but was quickly replaced by a twinkle in her eye. “A word of advice, sonny—something I learned from nigh on forty years of marriage. Let your business keep you from her side only long enough she’ll miss you. Not so long she’ll worry.” She patted his knee with a weathered hand. “It makes the reunions that much sweeter.”
The crimson flush of Eddie’s face as well as her pointed words made Jake chuckle. “Thank you, ma’am. I aim to return home as quickly as I can.”
“Good, good. That’ll please her.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He grinned broadly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, please, I’ve been sitting too long. I think I’ll walk the aisle a little more.”
“Oh, of course.” She nodded. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“It was a pleasure talking to you.” Jake touched his hat brim and rose, continuing his circuit.
As he neared the front, his gaze strayed to the first grouping of seats across from the privy. On a previous trip up the train car’s aisle, the seats had been occupied by two men, each sitting sideways, legs stretched across the benches. Their clothes were dusty and trail-worn. Their dark bushy beards were all he could see of their faces since they’d kept their hats pulled low as they slept, one using his fancy tooled leather saddlebags as a pillow. In an otherwise full car, they’d stuck out for so rudely taking up valuable space, though Jake wasn’t aware that anyone had challenged the men.
Those seats were now empty.
Had they stepped out onto the front platform? Or maybe one was in the privy and the other. . .where? One thing was for certain. They hadn’t slipped past him and out the back door.
As he reached the front, he pulled at the door to the forward platform. It didn’t budge. An odd tingle clawed his spine. Looking out the window, he noted a rope extending from the area of the doorknob to the platform’s railing.
The two space-hoarding men were gone, and the door was secured after them. Not good.
Mattie Welling eased her position between several small bodies scattered across the hard boxcar floor. Oh, how she envied the youngest ones, slumbering nearby. She’d not slept a wink. The jarring clatter of the wheels had long ago grown tiresome, every jolt and bump rattling her teeth. Riding in the boxcar was a far different experience than being on the orphan train where, hardly the height of luxury, at least they’d had real seats. Before they’d stowed away in this car, she’d watched the passenger car two cars ahead fill, wishing she could provide that for her children again. But that wasn’t to be.
Despite their humble accommodations, it wouldn’t be long before they reached Salinas—and soon after, their final destination in the mountains west of the town.
These children, the unfortunate souls left unclaimed at the end of a long orphan train, had waited only days to arrive in Salinas. Mattie, on the other hand, had waited almost a decade since her brother turned eighteen and aged out of the Children’s Aid Society orphanage. On the last of his birthdays they’d spent together, he’d promised to head west, set up a place, then send for her. Owlie, dreamer that he was, vowed it would be open and spacious, where they would raise livestock or crops, where each could raise a family. With those promises on his lips, he’d taken up the small chest holding his scant belongings—the one on which the other orphans had carved their names as a remembrance—and departed. It was the last she’d seen of him.
A part of that dream was nearly a reality. She and the orphans would soon take up residence on the sizeable property her brother had secured. But Owlie wouldn’t be sharing it with them. Heart aching, she opened the carpetbag and removed the now-tattered letter. Despite having the message memorized, she re-read the brief words for the thousandth time.
Dear Miss Matilda Welling,
I have the regrettable duty of writing to inform you of Owlie’s passing. Your brother died on February 2, 1874, of an extended illness. Before his demise, he expressed his heartfelt regret at letting you down and asked me to convey that he loved you dearly. Among his last effects was a deed to some land in this area (though I’m not sure where), a deck of cards, and two pennies. I am certain he would want you to have the enclosed items.
With sincere condolences,
Dr. Richard Preston
The tearful shock of the letter’s contents had long ago waned, but the haunting loneliness of Owlie’s passing still remained. Her beloved older brother—the only family she’d had since she was eleven—was gone. Thank God for Dr. Preston’s honesty, or the deed could easily have disappeared without her being any the wiser.
She flipped to stare at the deed.
“Again, Miss Mattie?” Fifteen-year-old Derry Beglin glowered at her. “You’re reading that blasted letter again?”
She glared back at the cantankerous young man. “Why does that bother you?”
Her eldest charge’s dark eyes flashed. “For one, it says the same thing as it did the day you got it. And for another, that stupid deed would stay a whole lot safer if you weren’t pullin’ it out every two minutes to gawk at it.”
“Watch your tongue, young man. I’ll not abide your disrespect.” Mattie shook the paper. “This stupid deed is the key to our futures. Yours, mine, all of ours.” She motioned to the seven children around them. “And I’m unsure how to make you understand the compulsion I feel to re-read this letter. I suppose I’m hoping to find some clue into Owlie’s life since he left. He wasn’t the best about writing, and the few letters I did get were brief, more describing the land and house than about himself and his life. Or maybe I’m trying to remember all the wonderful things he told me about where we’re going.” Her throat knotted. She folded the worn letter and deed, tucked them into the special interior pocket she’d sewn into her carpetbag to hold them, and cleared her throat roughly. “The truth is, I miss my brother, and that letter makes me feel some little connection to him.”
A loud thump sounded on the far end of the car’s roof, followed by another. An instant later, angry voices argued for a moment before something slammed against the narrow door at the end of the car. The door burst open, and the two youngest MacGinty children awakened with frightened wails. The other children stirred at the sound.
Mattie and Derry both shot to their feet, the carpetbag tumbling from her lap as a tall, muscular man swung into the car. She gaped at the masked figure when he stepped to the side and, seemingly startled himself, drew his pistol.
Oh, Lord! Protect these children!
She inched forward, discreetly motioning her charges behind her. Derry moved to her shoulder, though she shot him a glare. “Stay with the littles,” she hissed. “Please.”
A second form swung from the roof into the boxcar. Just as his companion had, he drew his pistol.
Mattie’s heart pounded. “Please don’t hurt us.”
The first man spoke to his companion. “Cierra la puerta. ¡Rápidamente!”
At the foreign words, twelve-year-old Augustina Garza rose as the second man shoved the door shut. The girl took a couple of steps toward them, expression perplexed.
“Augustina, stay,” Mattie hissed and darted a look to nearby Sam Beglin. The second-oldest caught the Mexican girl’s arm and herded her and those children nearest him into the corner.
“What do you want with us?” Mattie demanded.
The first man stepped toward her. “Nothing, except I could make use of that bag.” He nodded to the carpetbag.
“There’s nothing of value in it. Only clothing.” And the deed.
“Then it will suit our purposes quite nicely.” He leveled the gun at her head. “Give it to me.”
The second man turned, stepping farther into the car. “Es hora, mi gemelo.”
“The bag. Now!” The first beckoned for it, then cocked the gun.
Derry’s crowding presence disappeared, and an instant later, the carpetbag sailed into view, landing feet in front of the men. “Take it. Just don’t shoot her.”
Mattie shook as the first man grabbed it, then holstered his gun and rushed toward her.
“Get down. Now!”
Before the word could fully form, the men dropped to their bellies. In the same moment, a deafening explosion roared. The concussion stole her breath and pitched her backward, tumbling into little bodies. The door the men came through slammed open, and the terrifying grind of metal against metal filled the air. Their boxcar teetered on its wheels. All around her, children screamed.
As suddenly as she was blown backward, all momentum shifted toward the front. An unseen force hoisted Mattie like a marionette in unskilled hands and threw her toward the other end of the car. Pain jolted her as she tumbled. The metallic scream grew louder, more ear-piercing as the train braked. She skidded across the wooden floorboards, past the two men, as two tiny children raced her, sliding toward the door.
Instinctively, Mattie reached for the kids, latching onto one’s arm and grabbing the other by her dress. She barely had time to pull them to her before her right side slammed the front wall and her head cracked hard against the doorframe, sinking her into blackness.