Authors: Amelia Rose
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Freedom For A Bride
Montana Passion: Book Two
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The young woman walked the rickety gangplank of the old ship, one arm loaded with a cloth bundle tied up with yarn, the other hand outstretched to help her balance to avoid tumbling into the churning waves below. She turned at the top to look back one last time with tears in her eyes. Her family was already on board, stowed below in the dark of the ship’s belly, out of the way of the sailors who continued to load and unload freight from the deck. Only her father, her beloved papa, would not be coming with them.
“I will follow!” he called out, tears glistening in his eyes as he waved with both hands, the rough calluses on his cracked palms showing above the long sleeves he wore pulled over his hands for warmth. “You will see. I will join you in no time at all!”
“Goodbye, Papa!” the young woman cried, unable to hold back her tears at leaving him behind.
“You will see! You will not even have time to miss me, it will be so soon! And I will bring Uncle Petra and his family, too! We will all be together!” he called, walking closer to the edge of the dock as two sailors reached for the wooden plank.
“I know! We will wait for you in the city!” she called out, ignoring the questioning looks of the sailors who didn’t understand the harsh syllables of her peasant language.
“Take care of your mama and your sisters. Be a good girl, and help them be strong!” he called, cupping his hands to his mouth to be heard as the boat began to move away from the dock, pulled by two smaller vessels with loud steam engines. She waved again, trying to hide the tears to keep her father’s heart from breaking. When he pulled a nearby crate closer and sat down on it, intent on watching his family until they were out of sight, she broke down, unable to control the anguish at leaving her father in the violent land that used to be their home.
The young woman stood on the deck, her hands gripping the railing, ignoring the numbness that started in her fingertips and spread through her hands. The pain from the cold metal burning through her bare skin anchored her to a sliver of reality, keeping everything else at bay. She watched her father’s face as though memorizing it, still mercifully unaware of the truth behind her fear that she would never see him again.
When, at last, the shoreline was only a dark streak connecting the sea to the sky, she made her way below deck, shoving past the sailors who stopped to leer suggestively. She kept her head down all the way to the cabin she would share with her mother and siblings, surprised to find two other families occupying the cramped space as well. Such was the price of paying the barest of third class passage as they tried desperately to sail to freedom. This single leg of the journey would not take them far enough out of harm’s way for her liking, and there was still the passage to America to arrange once this ship carried them as far as England.
She carried her belongings over to where her mother rested on the floor, silent tears pouring down her weathered face. On either side of her, her teenaged sisters stroked their mother’s shoulders or patted her hands, anything to comfort her. She flew to her mother and pulled her close, rocking her soothingly the way the woman had done for her three daughters through the years, the way her mother had done for her only months before when her heart had broken in two.
“It will be fine, Mama,” she whispered over and over as she rocked. “You will see. Papa will come. We’ll be together. And I will take care of us until he comes.”
A fierce wind howled down the gulley formed along the wide dirt road, the squat clapboard buildings channeling the wind in an otherwise unbroken prairie. The newly placed glass windows rattled in their panes, and the drafty walls of the low building that served as the general store made the oil lamps flicker madly. From where she stood on a short wooden ladder restocking supplies, Gretchen O’Brien looked over her shoulders at the new windows, doubting their sturdiness as she pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders with her free hand.
These windows were nothing like the leaded glass of Brennan Castle back home in Ireland, where she’d been a servant for the first seventeen years of her life. Those windows had been sturdy, solid, meant to keep out the weather and miscreants alike. These small, square vapors of clear glass barely blocked the wind that ravaged the plains during the harshest months of the year. They were next to useless for letting in the sunlight, not that the sun shone all that much in December. And small as they were, barely large enough for Gretchen to press her face to the sun, they kept the store nearly wrapped in darkness.
The biggest difference, of course, was the view the windows provided. Instead of the green hills of the Irish countryside that stayed perpetually swaddled in rolling mists, these windows looked out on a muddy thoroughfare that had been churned into an ankle-deep slop by the herds of cattle stomping on their way through town to be carted off by the train. Beyond the handful of buildings that made up the town, there was nothing but swaying brown grass that stretched on almost endlessly until they mercifully ended at a distant mountain range.
There were some who thought Montana to be beautiful, but in her homesickness, Gretchen didn’t see it. She saw only isolation, cold, and work.
, she chided herself sharply.
‘Tis just the winter getting you down. There’s many as would be grateful to trade places with ye.
She went back to her chores, whistling a lively tune softly to herself to lighten her mood. It had been a long winter, nothing like the festive seasons back home. In Brennan, there had been feasts and parties, both those to plan and to attend, especially once she’d risen to being a lady’s maid and chaperone for Lord Brennan’s younger sister, Lady Moira Brennan. It was Lady Moira, who’d brought her maid, Gretchen, to Montana in the first place, and though they saw each other still, Lady Moira was a married woman now, and expecting her first child. She was a frontier wife and didn’t have idle time for visits with her former household staff.
Lady Moira and her husband, Mr. MacAteer, had set Gretchen up in Moira’s cabin, the one her ladyship had originally come to Montana to homestead. Once Lady Moira married, the cabin sat empty while the land around it adjoined and became part of the MacAteer property. They’d gifted the cozy home to Gretchen for as long as she had need of it, but for her part, the former maid was severely torn. She couldn’t imagine leaving her mistress in this cold, barren place—especially not now, and not in her condition—but her heart longed for home. Instead of taking the nearby cabin, Gretchen had accepted a position as the assistant to the elderly shopkeeper. It kept her several hours’ ride from the MacAteer homestead, but it provided a diversion, a warm room in town, and a meager income, replacing the wages she’d lost when her mistress married a simple farmer.
“Gretchen, are you up there?” the old man called, poking his head up through the square trapdoor in the floor that led to the root cellar.
“Aye, sir! That I am!” she called back pleasantly, forcing herself to be cheerful despite her glum mood. It certainly wasn’t Mr. Jorgenson’s fault that she was feeling out of place.
“The train will be coming within the hour, can you see to it that all the parcels and letters get posted?”
“‘Tis nothing that could make me happier!” she answered, joking with the kind old proprietor. She smiled when she heard his deep laugh echoing down in the cellar, frowning a good bit when the laugh turned into a rattling cough. She’d have to remember to get out the syrup and send it upstairs with him when he retired for the night. She made a note to herself to scour the wares for the makings of a poultice to put on his chest, just the way her own mother had taught her.
She finished stocking the last of the goods and climbed down from her ladder to retrieve the mail. Farmers and townspeople alike all sent their posts from Jorgenson’s shop, and, likewise, received their correspondence there. The shopkeeper stored the letters and packages in a locked chest in one of the smaller storerooms, taking his responsibility as the unofficial but only postmaster quite seriously.
Gretchen emptied the contents of the chest into one of the oversized canvas bags, carefully placing all of the mail inside before cinching it tightly. She went to the row of coat hooks behind the counter and retrieved her coat, the shawl she’d brought from Brennan, and the thick woolen mittens that Lady Moira had knitted for her for days like this. She bundled up in the coat and mittens and wrapped the shawl over her head, then carried the canvas sack out into the bitter wind.
It was only a few hundred yards to the train platform, but every step felt like it took her ever further away from the rails. The howling gusts of frigid air pushed against her until she wondered more than once if she was actually moving backward. When Gretchen finally reached the platform and the scant shelter provided by its wooden roof, she rested the sack at the bottom of the mail pole and worked feverishly to loosen the hook that would hoist the sack aloft; within the next half hour, the train would come through and snag the sack with a large hook held by the engineer’s assistant, while another sack containing new correspondence would be tossed from the train and left on the platform.
There would be time to retrieve the new mail later. Gretchen raced back to the shop, this time, feeling the wind on her back as it propelled her toward the warmth inside. She had barely entered the shop and had time to remove her wraps when her eyes landed on a small folded letter, discarded on the floor and carried by the wind that had blown in the open door until it barely peeped out from behind a barrel of herring.
Gretchen raced to pick it up and gasped when she saw the address scrawled in chicken scratch.
she thought miserably.
This letter is most important, he’ll be devastated if it does not reach its destination in haste!
There was nothing else to be done but to brave the cold again and try to reach the mail sack before the train. She threw on her coat, leaving her mittens on the counter because she’d only have to take them off to untie the rope securing the hook.
Her teeth were chattering and her breaths were coming in shallow gasps by the time she reached the platform. With the train whistle already sounding in the distance, she reached to untie the sack to lower it. In just the short time since she’d first brought the mail out, though, the rope had already refrozen around its hook. Gretchen’s fingertips began to bleed from tearing at the knot while the train rumbled closer and closer. Her nose ran from the biting temperature, and her tears ran at the thought that this important letter would not reach its recipient in time.
In desperation, she abandoned the pole and raced over to an overturned crate lying on the other end of the platform. She dragged it to the pole with all her strength then climbed on top, nearly being blown off the rickety wooden box by a sudden gust of wind, saved only by clinging to the frozen metal pole.
Instead of lowering the mail sack, Gretchen held the letter between her teeth and began to climb, stretching as far as she could to try to untie the opening of the sack to fold the letter inside. She looked over her shoulder once and her eyes went wide at the sight of the train bearing down on her, the assistant’s hook already thrust out the open window of the engine. She prayed as she cried, begging the Lord to help her get the letter there safely.
Her fingers pushed the last corner of the letter through the opening just as a blast of welcome heat from the engine bathed her in its comforting warmth. The feeling was almost disorienting as the hot air surrounded her, only to be replaced by icy blackness when a sharp blow to her head threw her from the crate and sent her sprawling across the icy platform.