Tucker Houston stood in the drifting dust and listened to the jingle of the harness and the soft, cajoling voice of the teamster as he hitched fresh horses to the stage that had just deposited her here. Despite her present worries, the sounds brought back memories of her childhood. The weekly arrival of the stage in Fort Smith, Arkansas, had been an exciting event for the dozen or more children who lived on the farm, the “throwaway farm” as it was usually called.
Tucker reached out a hand and tugged on the calico bonnet tied beneath the chin of the girl standing beside her, tilting it forward so the fair young skin was shaded. Laura Foster stood patiently with her hand on Tucker’s shoulder. Anything Tucker did, any decision Tucker made was all right with her. It always had been, ever since the day Tucker had found her clinging to the gate of the throwaway farm, too frightened to move, with tears rolling from her sightless eyes.
After a week of travel, the town of Fort Worth, Texas, had come as a surprise to Tucker. It was just
there, rising abruptly out of the flat land. It was larger than she had expected it to be, considering its newness. The stage to Yuma started here, and the town had grown by leaps and bounds. Shops lined the rutted track: blacksmiths, wagon repair shops, mercantile stores, and saloons. All seemed to be doing a thriving business. A man on the stage had said there was even talk of making Fort Worth the county seat.
The departing driver climbed back onto the seat of the stagecoach, ignoring the girls because they were no longer his responsibility, and waved to the man standing beside the tired team of sweating horses.
Tucker half closed her dust-rimmed eyes against the brilliant glare of the surrounding sunlit plains that now looked so desolate and awesomely lonely. The sound of the stage was soon lost to her, but she could still see it snaking its way over the flat land. Perspiration oozed from every pore in her skin. She knew it was hot, but not that hot. She was sweating from fear! Fear of the unknown Lucas Steele and what he would say and do when he discovered she was just a nineteen-year-old girl—with very little in the way of education to recommend her as a teacher and with a totally blind seventeen-year-old girl in tow.
“Why are we standing here, Tucker? Why are you so quiet?”
“I was waiting for the dust to clear. I don’t see anyone who looks like he’s expecting us. Pick up your valise and let’s get in out of the sun.”
Tucker led Laura into the shade of a brush arbor
that fronted the stage station, if it could be called a station. It was a long building with a dirt floor and a network of pole corrals behind it.
“Phew! It’s hot. Take off your bonnet, Laura, and fan yourself with it.”
“Is this a very big place? Tell me about it, Tucker. Do you see the wagon train?”
“It’s not as big as Fort Smith, and it’s rough and new-looking, and it’s just squatting right out here on the prairie,” she explained. “I don’t see any sign of a wagon train, but there’s an awful lot of men around, and some of them are giving us the eye,” she added crossly.
Laura giggled behind her bonnet. Her unshakable faith that Tucker would take care of them never allowed her a moment of worry. Tucker had been her friend and protector from the time she was a scared six-year-old and Tucker a mature eight. When she was left at the gate of the farm, she had been blind for only a short while and could remember what many things looked like. Tucker had taken complete charge of her and immediately started teaching her how to take care of herself. Having Laura to care for had given new meaning to Tucker’s young life.
Tucker had no memories of her childhood before the farm, but she knew there had been a time when she was loved. It would be lovely if she knew what her name had been in those days. She had been found beside a burning prairie schooner that had been attacked by renegade Comanches, according to the cattle-driving outfit that had chased them off. A
young cowhand had offered to “tuck ’er” into his coat and, after being tucked into first one coat and then another, she was given the unlikely name of Tucker by the time they reached the farm. The overseer at the orphanage had been an admirer of Sam Houston and had added Houston to complete her name.
When Tucker left the farm at age sixteen to work for Mrs. Rogers in her dressmaking establishment, she took Laura with her. The farm had a new manager by that time, and, from the way he watched Laura, Tucker knew he intended to put her to work—flat on her back, servicing him and anyone else who had the price. That would never happen to Laura as long as she, Tucker, could prevent it.
She looked at Laura now as they stood beneath the shady, yet breezeless, bower. Laura was so pretty, so sweet and cheerful, despite her blindness. She was eager to learn and could do many things sighted people could do. She could even make better biscuits than Tucker could. She did their washing and kept their room in order, and she could stitch in a hem after Tucker had pinned it for her. And . . . she was pleasant company. If Lucas Steele didn’t want Laura, he could darn well send them both back.
A June bug buzzed around under the brush arbor. Tucker brushed it away before she pushed a tendril of hair from her damp forehead. It was curly hair of a remarkable copper color, and it was often inclined to be unruly. She was resigned to its contrariness in much the same way she was resigned to her orphan status in life. Her skin tones were pale and fine, and
she had learned to protect herself from burning by wearing a bonnet when in the hot sun. The unbrushed tangles of her coppery hair now hung about her face, thick and cloudy and glistening in the sunlight, accentuating her green eyes, deepening them to brilliant emeralds.
Her face was beautiful. Most men stared at it, as well as at her long, supple swaying body, with riveted attention. Once that had unnerved her, but her attitude had changed, leaving her with a residue of ready hostility toward a certain sort of man.
“I’m nervous, Laura,” she admitted.
“Don’t be nervous. Mr. Steele will like you. You can be awfully nice when you put your mind to it.” Laura’s face brightened and dimples appeared in her cheeks. She was a small, softly rounded girl with lovely white skin, rosy cheeks, straight dark brows and curling eyelashes. Her hair was the color of light honey and she wore it tied at the nape of her neck with a colorful ribbon.
“A man on a black horse is coming toward us,” Tucker said softly. “Put on your bonnet, Laura, and face your left. We might be about to meet our Mr. Lucas Steele.”
He was a big, lean, broad-shouldered man with a ruggedly handsome face. He wore a black hat pulled low over his forehead. He sat easily in the saddle and studied them carefully as he approached. He rode up to within a few feet of the arbor and sat looking at them. He stared at them for so long that his level gaze took in the faint but unmistakable hostility in
Tucker’s expression. His eyes were of a gray so light as to be almost colorless at times; but as he moved his head and the sunlight glinted on them, Tucker saw them take on a startling blue gleam. His hair was blue-black, thick and smooth, and dark sideburns framed a cleanly shaven face. His nose had a classical line, straight and faintly arrogant. Tucker’s eyes did not linger on his mouth, nor on the deep creases on both sides of it. She did not like the faint, amused smile it wore as he watched her.
“Who are you?” he asked as he threw a leg over the saddle horn and continued his lazy inspection of them.
Tucker regarded him coolly. “Who are you?” was her response.
Taking his time in an infuriating way, he ran his narrowed eyes over her face, down her slender figure in the dark cotton dress, and back up to the flame-colored hair that framed her forehead and cheekbones. Tucker stiffened as his eyes roamed. When they came back to her flushed face, there was amusement in them, and she wanted to snap at him, ask him what was so all-fired funny. Instead, she did what she had done in similar circumstances. She controlled her temper, took a deep breath, and eyed him in exactly the same way he had eyed her. In most cases it embarrassed even the most blatant of men. This time, however, it didn’t work.
“Handsome, don’t you think?” The gray eyes mocked her.
She stared at him without a hint of amusement.
“I’ve seen better sights riding behind a team of mules.”
He grinned. “She’s just got to be Tucker Houston, the schoolteacher.” He spoke as if he was thinking aloud; his voice was smooth. He watched her all the time as though trying to gauge some reaction to what he was saying. “If she’s such a sour old maid, I wonder what curdled her sweetness.”
“You can wonder till the cows fly!” Her temper crept up as she spoke, clouding her reason.
“You’re waspy.” He gave her a wicked, teasing smile. “And after all the trouble I’m going to to get you to California. You just might find yourself a husband out there, if you’re lucky. ’Course you’ll have to sweeten up some.” He slid from the saddle and came toward Laura. “Lucas Steele, young lady. Are you as waspy as your sister?” He held out his hand, and when Laura simply smiled up into his face, Tucker’s heart stood still. “Come on, shake hands. I’ll not bite.”
Laura put out her hand. “I wasn’t sure, Mr. Steele.” Her small laugh was open and friendly. “Tucker isn’t waspy when you get to know her.”
“I’ll have to work on getting to know her then, Miss Laura, but in the meantime I’ll get a buckboard to take you to the camp. We’re about a mile away. We’ll be heading out in the morning, so if there’s anything you need, you better get it now.”
“There’s nothing we need,” Tucker said in a tight voice. “Mr. O’Donnell gave us a list, and we outfitted ourselves before we left Fort Smith.”
“Got stout shoes?” His face altered slightly. “You’ll be doing some walking.”
“Of course.” Not for anything would she let this man know that they had less than five dollars and couldn’t buy anything even if they needed it.
“Of course,” he echoed. “Well, sit tight. I’ll be back.” He looked at Tucker and grinned. “Bet you can hardly wait.”
Tucker kept her lips pressed firmly together and glared at his back as he left them.
“What did he look like, Tucker?” Laura whispered.
“Well . . . he had two arms and two legs . . . and I suspect two horns under his hat!” Tucker’s face was still burning from the way he had looked at her. “I’ve seen his kind before. A blowhard, that’s what he is. I don’t like him!”
“I thought he sounded . . . nice.”
“Nice? He sounded to me like he thought an awful lot of himself.”
Laura giggled. “Hold onto your temper, Tucker. Wait till we get started to California before you explode. Besides, I think he was just teasing you.”
Tucker swung her bright head around so she could see Laura’s flushed cheeks. Seldom did she see her when she wasn’t calm and cool. She was excited now. Tucker reached for her hand and squeezed it. Come to think about it, she reflected, I’m all aflutter myself.
A flatbed wagon driven by a Mexican came rumbling around the corner.
“Here comes the wagon. Lucas Steele, too, darn it!
Look down, Laura, like you’re real bashful.” Tucker picked up her valise.
Lucas dismounted and let the hanging reins ground-tie his horse. “I’ll take that, Red.” He took the valise from Tucker’s hand and bent to scoop up Laura’s. He set the bags up on the wagon and lifted their trunk, set it on the tailgate, and gave it a shove.
Tucker moved with Laura to the end of a wagon.
“Here you go, little gal.” Lucas seized Laura by the waist and swung her up onto the end of the wagon. He then moved so fast Tucker had no time to protest. Hard hands gripped her waist, and effortlessly he lifted her. Automatically her hands went to his shoulders when her feet left the ground. He held her there for a moment and looked deeply into angry green eyes before he sat her down on the end of the wagon beside Laura.
“Don’t expect that kind of service all the time, Red. From now on, you’re on your own. Everyone on this train will pull his own weight. That means you, too, Laura.”
It was Laura’s giggle that caused Tucker’s temper to snap.
“I didn’t ask for your help. From now on you can keep your hands to yourself.” And as usual, once her tongue started, she didn’t know when to stop it. “And my name is
Houston? O’Donnell said you were a widow.” Sharp eyes searched the face that was now flooding with color.
“I am!” Tucker’s defenses were not what they
should be. She was tired, and his infuriating presence was too distracting.
“Liar!” His grin more than the word infuriated her. “See you at camp, Red. You, too, Laura.” He wheeled the horse and was gone.
“He wasn’t mad, Tucker,” Laura said as soon as the wagon was in motion. “He just likes to tease you.” Laura’s keen perceptiveness was always a surprise to Tucker.
“He’s crazy as a bedbug if he thinks I’m going to be his amusement all the way to California!” She was shivering with suppressed agitation.
“Then don’t rise to his baiting, Tucky.”
“It’s hard not to, darn it. It’s just our luck that Lucas Steel would be
kind of man.”
Laura’s laugh was a little shaky. “Don’t worry, Tucky. We’ll be all right.”