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Authors: Margaret Brownley

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Wind Song

BOOK: Wind Song
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Wind Song

 

Margaret Brownley

 

Hard Shell Word Factory

Copyright 1994 Margaret Brownley ISBN: 1-58200-094-8

Published April 1999 by Hard Shell Word Factory PO Box 161
Amherst
Jct.
WI
54407
[email protected] http://www.hardshell.com

Originally published by Topaz, an imprint of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA, Inc.

All electronic rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work is forbidden without written permission from HARD SHELL WORD FACTORY

All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author, and have no relation whatever to anyone bearing the same name or names. These characters are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

1870

The shrill sound of the train whistle pierced the early-morning air as the Kansas-Pacific slid quickly through the wind-rippled grasslands. Massive numbers of buffalo ran from the tracks, allowing the train to divide the herd as easily as a knife slicing bread.

One enormous bull lifted its woolly head toward the sky and let out a loud bellow as if to protest the intrusion.

Watching from the gilt-framed window of the
Pullman, Madeline Percy rallied to the bull's plight. You have every right to complain, she thought, feeling an inexplicable kinship with the animal.

At first glance the buffalo seemed burdened by top-heavy bodies, their short, curving horns barely visible in the masses of dark, curling fur. Even the short, skinny tails seemed ill conceived. But the thin legs had a deceptive strength, carrying the beasts effortlessly over the flat plains that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Maddie hadn't known such power and freedom existed, except in her own mind, and her heart fluttered with excitement as she watched the animals flee.

A deafening blast filled the air, and Maddie watched with horror as one of the magnificent animals stumbled forward, then fell, knees first, to the ground. She craned her neck and glanced back to catch a glimpse of the animal's anguished face before it was left behind by the speeding train.

Stunned by the sudden violence, Maddie required a full minute to realize that the bullet had come from the rifle of the bowler-topped passenger who sat in the seat directly behind hers.

Another shot rang out, and Maddie's shock turned to rage. Swinging herself around she lifted her knees onto the seat and flung herself over the stiff leatherback to face the man. "It's no business of yours what I do."

"I'm making it my business," she retorted. She was so enraged that her normally firm, vibrant voice barely rose above the clackety-clack of the rails.

The man ignored her and once again aimed his rifle out the open window.

Maddie reached for her parasol and struck the offender on the shoulder. Startled by the attack, the man quickly turned, his stiff felt hat flying across the aisle. He gave an incredulous gasp and raised his free arm to protect himself against any additional blows.

"Dammit, woman! What's the matter with you?"

When she made no move to attack him further, he grabbed the end of her parasol. In the struggle that followed, he loosened his hold on the rifle and the weapon dropped against the sill with a clatter, then disappeared through the open window. With a muttered curse, the man lurched toward the window in a futile attempt to save his rifle.

Satisfied, Maddie lowered her now tattered parasol and almost lost her balance in the swaying motion of the train.

Enraged, the man pointed a threatening finger and leaned forward menacingly, "Now look what you did, yo interferin'…"

Maddie raised what was left of the parasol and brought it down hard upon his balding head. The man grabbed the parasol, and Maddie pressed the sole of her high-laced boot against the back of her seat to avail herself of every bit of strength during the tug-of-war that ensured.

"Let go of my parasol," she insisted between clenched teeth.

"Not on your bloody life."

"Excuse me, sir. Is there a problem?" The porter stood looking at the battling duo as if such a shocking display of ill manners were an everyday occurrence.

Not the least bit embarrassed by her lack of propriety, and even less inclined to concede defeat, Maddie yanked hard on the leather handle of the battered parasol.

Momentarily distracted by the porter, her foe caught Maddie by surprise when he let go. Woman and parasol flew backward in a cloud of feminine petticoats. The parasol flew up and popped an English chap on the head, causing the poor man to scramble about in search of his glass eyepiece.

The other passengers, mostly men, stared at the young woman in openmouthed disapproval.

"There certainly
is
a problem," the victim of her attack hissed between thin white lips. "That…that green-eyed witch made me drop my rifle out the window."

Maddie righted herself and glared at the man. "And you made me ruin a perfectly good parasol."

"She attacked me for no-good reason."

"You killed a perfectly innocent animal!"

The porter was clearly out of his element. "Perhaps you would like to change seats." He addressed the man, but it was Maddie who accepted the offer.

"That would be most appreciated. I do not wish to spend one moment longer than necessary next to this murderer."

Ignoring the disparaging looks cast by the other passengers, she reached for the leather handle of her valise and, mustering more dignity than seemed possible under the circumstances, followed the porter down the swaying aisle to the back of the car.

For the next two hours, Maddie endured the snide comments and disapproving glances of her fellow passengers in seething silence.

She breathed a sigh of relief when at long last the train screeched to a halt in front of a wooden platform.

"
Colton!" the porter called out. The passengers snapped forward and back in their seats and glanced around as if to see who in their right mind would be brave enough to disembark at such a bleak isolated stop.

Eager to make her exit, Maddie grabbed her valise and rose to her feet. All eyes followed her progress as she made her way down the aisle.

A triple-chinned woman who had boarded the train with Maddie in
Washington
City
looked up from her knitting to g lance out the window. She afforded Maddie a pitying look before lowering her eyes to resume her work.

Glaring one last time at the man whom she'd attacked, Maddie had to maneuver her valise sideways to accommodate the narrow iron steps that led down to the wooden platform.

It was May, much too early in the year, in Maddie's estimation, for the blast of hot air that greeted her. Upon reaching the platform, she glanced around her. Not a penny's worth of shade was available to protect her creamy white skin from the relentless glare of the noonday sun.

She regretted the loss of her parasol. Freckles, which she called "sun dots" during her more charitable moments--and a most unladylike term during her least--were bound to pop out all over the place, most certainly on her nose. Still, as unsightly as she thought sun dots to be, they were a small sacrifice to make for the life of a buffalo.

Next to the platform, a swayback horse stood harnessed to a springboard wagon. The horse tossed her a long, soulful look, its owner nowhere in sight. Nor, for that matter, was anyone else.

Maddie set her valise on the platform and tucked an unruly strand of red hair beneath the brim of her hat. She had hoped for an opportunity to freshen up before meeting her employer, Mr. Boxer, Superintendent of Public Instruction. Since there was no depot in sight, or so much as a drop of water, it appeared she had no choice but to greet her new employer in her travel-stained condition.

The uniformed porter hauled Maddie's trunk off the train and placed it on the platform, next to her valise. He gave her a polite smile and touched his fingers to the visor of his hat. He appeared no older than sixteen, seventeen at the most.

With an anxious glance around her, Maddie pulled a coin from her small change purse and handed it to him. "I didn't expect the station to be so deserted." A blast of steam shot across the platform, making it necessary to raise her voice. "Is it always like this?"

"I wouldn't know, Miss. I've only been working for a few weeks and this is the first time we've stopped here. We only stop here upon request."

"Are you sure this is
Colton?"

"Absolutely, Miss." He pointed to a wooden sign attached to a post over their heads. "Says so right there, Miss. Colton, Kansas."

He signaled to the engineer and, grabbing the handrail by the open door of the parlor car, jumped aboard. "Good day, Miss!"

Maddie was sorely tempted to jump aboard after him. But she stoically held her ground. She had agreed to teach for one year, and she felt obliged to live up the agreement. Besides, after the fuss her widowed mother had made over he plans to travel westward, she could hardly go back without allowing adequate time to prove herself.

Still, she was tempted. She had never thought she would see the day that the stiff, stuffy parlor rooms of
Washington
would be a welcome sight. But then she'd never known a place as bleak and lonely as
Colton,
Kansas
, existed.

The train inched forward with a clank and rattle of the socket pins that linked the
Pullman cars together. The smokestack coughed up billowing black clouds.

Maddie lifted her chin in staunch resolve and plunked herself down on her trunk. Surely Mr. Boxer had only been detained and hadn't forgotten the promise made in his letter to meet her train.

She made every effort to shake off her apprehension. No doubt the man would arrive at any moment. She sat stiffly on the trunk and watched the train pull farther away, picking up speed with a long, lonely whistle.

It occurred to her that the land was so flat that if Mr. Boxer were, indeed, anywhere in the vicinity, she could pick him out miles in advance. It was not a comforting thought, by any means. For it meant she had a long wait ahead of her.

She wondered again about the owner of the horse. Despite the hot sun, she shivered at the sound of the now distant train whistle. But nothing could be worse than the silence that followed. Soon the train was nothing more than a speck on the horizon.

She'd heard about the wide-open spaces of
Kansas
, but nothing had prepared her for the enormity of sky and land that seemed to go on forever. And never had she imagined such a dreadful smell, like ashes, that permeated the air.

The wind had picked up in the few minutes she'd been sitting on her trunk, and the air now reeked with the sickening odor. Already her throat felt parched and dry.

"Where is he?" she muttered to herself.

As if to reply, the horse gave a soft whicker and nodded its head.

Never one to sit still for long, Maddie began pacing up and down the platform. She was dressed in a blue woolen traveling dress and velvet jacket. She should have worn her trousers, she thought, her usual mode of dress.

That had been her original plan, but her mother had made such a fuss about the importance of making a good impression that Maddie wore the bothersome travel suit to appease her, along with the fussy concoction of lace and feathers that masqueraded as a hat.

Maddie pulled the brim of her hat lower, but the fancy headgear was designed for the sake of appearance, not service, and provided precious little protection from the blazing hot sun, no matter how she wore it.

Her traveling outfit was equally ill suited to the sweltering heat. Yes, indeed, she should have worn her usual attire, which was so much more comfortable and functional. Maddie's fondness for her trousers scandalized her social conscious mother, who finally conceded that the masculine garments might be acceptable attire for participating in certain ladylike sports, but should never be worn to White House teas or church services. And most certainly not to meet a new or prospective employer.

Less than a half-hour later, Maddie decided that Mr. Boxer wasn't worth the discomfort. And if he didn't present himself soon, he would no longer be an employer of hers, prospective or otherwise. She would never under any circumstances consider working for a man who did not respect time, and at the moment she wasn't willing to consider the possibility that Mr. Boxer might have a perfectly legitimate excuse for failing to meet her train.

She rummaged through her trunk and pulled out her favorite pair of trousers.

She glanced around in the unlikely event that someone might be watching her, and after assuring herself that she was indeed alone, she eagerly pulled off her worthless hat and the stifling hot layers of wool and petticoats.

She stepped into her trousers, which tied at her waist and gathered at her ankles. She topped her trousers with a short skirt that flared gracefully from her slender hips and fell to mid-knee length.

Free of the heavy fabric of her traveling suit she felt immediate relief. She chose a simple linen waist shirt, and after carefully folding her dress and jacket, she repacked her trunk. She then traded her fashionable but otherwise useless hat for a more practical sunbonnet. Feeling more like herself, she reassessed her predicament.

BOOK: Wind Song
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