Authors: Texas Destiny
When it was most needed, you gave
us all a strong shoulder to lean on.
How proud I am that you are my brother.
is was not a face that women carried with them into their dreams.
Houston Leigh skimmed his thumb over the black eye patch before tugging the brim on the left side of his hat down lower. The right side showed little wear, but the crumpled left side carried the oil and sweat from the constant caress of his hand. Although the day was warm, he brought up the collar on his black duster.
Irritated with the world at large, his older brother in particular, Houston leaned against the wooden structure that had the dubious distinction of being Fort Worth’s first railway station and gazed into the distance at the seemingly never-ending tracks.
He hated the railroad with a passion.
Fort Worth had been fading into obscurity, turning into a ghost town, before the citizens extended the town’s boundaries so the railroad could reach its outermost edge. It had taken nothing more than a whispered promise to change the fading cow town into a thriving boomtown that the elected officials boasted would one day be known as the Queen of the Prairie.
The Queen of the Prairie.
Houston groaned. His brother had taken to calling his mail-order bride that very name, and Dallas had never even set eyes on the woman.
Hell, she could be the court jester for all Dallas knew, but he’d spent a good portion of his money—and his brothers’ money—building this woman a palace at the far side of nowhere.
“We just need to get one woman out here and the rest will follow,” Dallas had assured his brothers, a wide confident grin easing onto his darkly handsome face.
Only Houston didn’t want women sashaying across the windswept prairie. Their soft smiles and gentle laughter had a way of making a man yearn for the simple dreams of his youth, dreams he’d abandoned to the harshness of reality.
Houston had known men who had been disfigured less. Men who had taken a rifle and ended their misery shortly after gazing into a mirror for the first time after they were wounded. Had he been a man of courage, he might have done the same. But if he had been a man of courage, he wouldn’t have been left with a face that his older brother couldn’t stomach.
He saw the faint wisp of smoke curling in the distance. Its anticipated presence lured people toward the depot the way water enticed a man crossing the desert. Turning slightly, Houston pressed his left shoulder against the new wood.
Damn Dallas, anyway, for making Houston leave his horses and come to this godforsaken place of women, children, and men too young to have fought in the War Between the States. If Houston hadn’t been stunned speechless when Dallas had ordered him to come to Fort Worth to fetch his bride, he would have broken Dallas’s other leg.
He still might when he got back to the ranch.
He heard the rumbling train’s coarse whistle and shoved his sweating hands into his duster pockets. His rough fingers touched the soft material inside. Against his will, they searched for the delicate threads.
The woman had sent Dallas a long, narrow piece of white muslin decorated with finely stitched flowers that he was supposed to have wrapped around the crown of his hat so she could easily identify him.
Flowers, for God’s sake.
A man didn’t wear flowers on his hat. If he wore anything at all, he wore the dried-out scales of a rattlesnake that he’d killed and skinned himself, or a strip of leather that he’d tanned, or … or anything but daintily embroidered pink petals.
Houston was beginning to wonder if Dallas had broken his leg on purpose just to get out of wearing this silly scrap of cloth. It wouldn’t do to anger the woman before she became his wife.
Well, Houston wasn’t going to marry her so he could anger her all he wanted, and he wasn’t going to wrap flowers around the crown of his brown broad-brimmed hat.
No, ma’am. No, sir.
He hadn’t stood firm on many things in his life, but by God, he was going to stand firm on this matter.
No goddamn flowers on his hat.
He squeezed his eye shut and thought about breaking Dallas’s other leg. The idea’s appeal grew as he heard more people arrive, their high-pitched voices grating on his nerves like a metal fork across a tin plate. A harsh whisper penetrated the cacophony of sound surrounding him.
The two voices fell into silence, and he could feel the boys’ gazes boring into him. God, he wished he’d never shut his eye. It was harder to scare people off once they’d taken to staring at him.
“Looks like he’s asleep.”
“But he’s standin’.”
“My pa can sleep while he’s sittin’ in the saddle. Seen him do it once.” “
So touch him and see.”
A suffocating expectation filled the air with tension. Then the touch came. A quick jab just above his knee.
Damn! He’d hoped the boys were older, bigger, so he could grab one by the scruff of his shirt, hoist him to eye level, and scare the holy hell out of him. Only he knew a bigger boy wouldn’t have jabbed him so low.
Reluctantly, Houston slowly opened his eye and glanced down. Two ragamuffins not much older than six stared up at him.
“Git,” he growled.
“Heh, mister, you a train robber?” one asked. “Is that how come you’re standin’ over here so no one can see ya?”
“I said to git.”
“How’d you lose your eye?” the other asked.
His eye? Houston had lost a good deal more than his eye. Trust boys to overlook the obvious. His younger brother had. Austin had never seemed to notice that his brother had left the better part of his face on some godforsaken battlefield.
“Git outta here,” Houston ordered, deepening his voice.
Blinking, the boys studied him as though he were a ragged scarecrow standing in a cornfield.
With a quickness they obviously weren’t expecting, he stomped his foot in their direction, leaned low, and pulled his lips back into a snarl. The boys’ eyes grew as large as their hollering mouths just before they took off at a run. Watching their bare feet stir up the dry dirt in the street leading away from the depot, Houston wished he could run with them, but family obligations forced him to remain.
In resignation, he repositioned himself against the wall, slipped his hand inside the opening of his duster, and stroked the smooth handle of the Colt revolver. The thought of breaking Dallas’s leg no longer held enough satisfaction.
Houston decided he’d shoot his brother when he got back to the ranch.
Amelia Carson had never been so terrified in all her nineteen years.
Afraid the train might hurtle her onto the platform before she was ready to disembark, she clung to her seat as the huffing beast lurched to a stop. The wheels squealed over the wobbly tracks, the whistle blew, and the bell clanged as the engine settled with an ominous hiss. The pungent smell of wood smoke worked its way into the compartment as the passengers flung open the doors, forgetting their manners as they shoved each other aside in their hurry to scramble off the train. Amelia had never seen such an odd collection of people crammed together in one space.
Women with throaty voices and low-necked bodices had graced the compartment. A few well-groomed men had worn tailored suits as though they’d been invited to dine with a queen. Only the guns bulging beneath their jackets indicated otherwise. Some men, smelling of sweat and tobacco, had squinted at her as though contemplating the idea of slitting her throat if she closed her eyes. So she’d rarely slept.
Instead, she had spent her time reading the letters that Dallas Leigh had written to her. She was certain the bold, strong handwriting was a reflection of the man who had responded to her advertisement indicating she had a desire to travel west and become a wife. He was a hero—inasmuch as the South could claim a hero in a war that it had lost. He had been a lieutenant at seventeen, a captain at nineteen. He owned his land, his cattle, and his destiny.
He had wrapped his proposal for marriage around dreams, dreams of building a ranching empire and having a son with whom to share them.
Amelia knew a great deal about dreams and how frightening it was to reach for them alone. Together she and Dallas Leigh could do more than reach for the dreams. They would hold them in the palm of their hands.
Countless times during her journey, she had envisioned Dallas Leigh waiting for her in Fort Worth, impatiently pacing the platform. Once the train arrived, he would crane his neck to see into the cars, anxious to find her. She had imagined him losing his patience and barging onto the train, yelling her name and knocking people out of the way, desperate to hold her within his arms.
With her dreams rekindled and her heart fluttering, she gazed out the window, hoping to catch sight of her future husband.
She saw many impatient men, but they were all rushing away from the train, yelling and shoving through the crowd, anxious to make their mark on the westernmost railhead. None wore her handiwork wrapped around the crown of his hat. None glanced at the train as though he cared who might still be on board.
She fought off her disappointment and turned away from the window. Perhaps he was simply being considerate, giving her time to compose herself after the arduous journey.
She pulled her carpetbag onto the bench beside her and opened it. With a shaky breath, she stared at the conglomeration of ribbons, flowers, and a stuffed brown bird that her betrothed had labeled a hat. Since she had no portrait to send him, he had sent her something to wear that he could identify.
She was grateful….
She stared at the hat.
She was grateful … grateful …
She furrowed her brow, searching for something about the hat for which she could be grateful. It wasn’t an easy quest, but then nothing in her life had been easy since the war. Suddenly she smiled.
She was grateful Mr. Leigh had not met her in Georgia. She was grateful that she didn’t have to place the hat on her head until this moment, that none of her fellow passengers had ever seen it.
She plucked it out of her bag, settled it on her head, and took a deep breath. Her future husband was waiting for her.
She just hoped none of the cowboys still mingling at the depot took a notion into their heads to shoot the bird off her hat before Mr. Leigh found her.
Standing, she stepped into the aisle, lifted her bag, and marched to the open doorway with all the determination she could muster. She smiled at the porter as he helped her descend the steps, and then she found herself standing on the wooden platform amid chaos.
Tightening her grip on the bag, she eased farther away from the train. She felt as though she were a shrub surrounded by mighty oak trees. She had little doubt that even the hat was not visible among all these men asking directions, exchanging money and paper with a purpose, and shouldering each other aside.
She considered calling out for Mr. Dallas Leigh, but she didn’t think she could lift her voice above the horrendous yelling that surrounded her. She had expected Texas to be quiet and unsettled, not reminiscent of all the carpetbaggers who had come to stake a claim in the rebuilding of Georgia.
She shuddered as the blurred memories, images of Georgia during and after the war, rushed through her mind. With tremendous effort, she shoved them back into their dark corner where they couldn’t touch her.
The men and women began to drift away. Amelia considered following them, but Mr. Leigh had written that he would meet her at the train station in Fort Worth. The sign on the wooden framed building proudly boasted “Fort Worth.” She was certain she had arrived at the correct depot.
Slowly she turned, searching among the few remaining people for a man wearing a hat that bore her flowers. What if he had been here? What if he had seen her and found her lacking? Perhaps he had expected her to be prettier or made of sturdier stock. She had always been small of stature, but she was competent. If he’d give her the chance, she could prove that she was not afraid of hard, honest work.
She dropped her carpetbag and the platform rattled. Tears stung her eyes. She wanted so little. Just a place away from the memories, a place where the nightmares didn’t dwell. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to sort through her disappointment.
No man would send a woman tickets for a journey and then not come to meet her. Somehow, she had already disappointed him … or a tragedy had befallen him, preventing his arrival.
People referred to portions of Texas as a frontier, a dangerous wilderness, a haven for outlaws. Newspaper accounts drifted through her mind. She latched onto one, and her imagination surged forward. Outlaws had ambushed him. On his way to Fort Worth, on his way to meet her, he had been brutally attacked, and now, his body riddled with bullets, her name on his lips, he was crawling across the sun-baked prairie—
Amelia’s eyes flew open as the deep voice enveloped her like a warm blanket on an autumn evening. Through her tears, she saw the profile of a tall man wearing a long black coat. His very presence was strong enough to block out the afternoon sun.
She could tell little about his appearance except that he’d obviously bought a new hat in order to impress her. He wore it low so it cast a dark shadow over his face, a shadow that shimmered through her tears. Although he wasn’t wearing her flowers on his hat, she was certain she was meeting her future husband.
Brushing the tears away from her eyes, she gave him a tremulous smile. “Mr. Leigh?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Slowly, he pulled his hat from his head. The shadows retreated to reveal a strong, bold profile. His black hair curled over his collar. A strip of leather creased his forehead and circled his head.
Amelia had seen enough soldiers return from the war to recognize that he wore a patch over the eye she couldn’t see. He had failed to mention in his letters that he had sacrificed a portion of his sight for the South.
His obvious discomfort caused an ache to settle within her heart. Anxious to reassure him that his loss mattered not at all, she stepped in front of him. With a tiny gasp, she caught her breath. She had expected the black eye patch. She was unprepared for the uneven scars that bordered it and trailed down his cheek like an unsightly frame of wax melting in the sun. With fresh tears welling in her eyes, she reached out to touch his marred flesh. His powerful hand grabbed her trembling fingers, halting their journey of comfort.