May 1895, TEXAS
Jenny Martin would face a gang of outlaws in the hope of finding her sister’s child. Over the past several days, she’d slept upright until her back throbbed, eaten beans as hard and dry as stone, and endured the humiliation of men eyeing her because she traveled the Union Pacific without an escort.
Now, as the end of her travels grew to a close, she couldn’t help but sense an air of excitement despite the long, uncomfortable journey. She attempted to stand and walk about the car, but dizziness forced her back down onto the scratchy seat. Sleep tugged at her stinging eyes, and she closed them for an instant, but a painfully loud snore from an elderly man across the aisle kept her from giving in to the rest her body craved. Other womanly discomforts plagued her aching body, and she did her best to will them away. At least for the present.
I will never take my life as a proper lady for granted again.
The doors between the railroad cars slammed shut, and she startled. Nothing in Cleveland had prepared her for the primitive living conditions of the Wild West. A less than pleasant odor met her nostrils and threw her stomach into a whirl—no doubt from the elderly man who snored. Between that and a portly man’s foul cigar, the last few hours had been nearly unbearable.
Jenny glanced out the window and watched the countryside slip by. This trip was supposed to have been an exciting adventure, one she’d describe to her students once school resumed in September. She’d ridden the Northern Pacific Railroad to Texas and boarded the Union Pacific en route to Kahlerville with the enthusiasm of a giddy girl. Viewing the terrain across this vast land had given her a sense of freedom, but her sentiments faded as the hours moved to one grueling day after another. Still, at the end of Jenny’s journey to Kahlerville, Texas, lived a little girl who needed her family.
She smiled despite her discomfort. The destination of her dreams was but a few miles away. Jenny resisted the urge to open the window and allow some portion of the sultry air to circulate. She wanted to disembark without a fine coating of soot darkening her face and traveling attire. Earlier, she’d changed into a clean traveling dress and a cape of slate gray lined in gray taffeta that could also serve as a mackintosh, but for her purposes it would shield her from smoke and dust. She sighed. Oh, how she’d welcome a fresh, cooling rain. The clear azure sky held no such promise. Instead, she’d think about her niece and how the child must be as beautiful as Jessica.
Within moments, it became increasingly clear that if she didn’t permit some breeze to blow in from the outside, she would surely faint. Jenny lifted the latch on the window. Soon fine black dirt settled on her hat, face, neck, cape, and dress. How foolish to change into clean clothes. Perhaps her little niece wouldn’t mind that her auntie was soiled.
She fanned herself as vigorously as propriety allowed and stared out the window. Tall pine trees grew close to the track and swayed slightly, offering a brief respite from the heat. They reminded her of the gaslights on the street corners of home. The trees passed, and an array of black-eyed Susans covered an entire field. How utterly captivating. Never had she expected such beauty in this desolate country.The porter walked by, and Jenny lifted her gaze to offer a faint smile. “Sir, do you know what time we will arrive in Kahlerville?”
The elderly man, whose molted mustache bent below his chin, tipped his hat. “Late this afternoon, miss.”
“Thank you.” Sometimes she feared her constitution would not allow another minute on board the train. “Sir, can you tell me anything about the town?”
“It’s quite pleasant, rather homey. Let me think. . . . I have an aunt and uncle living there, so I’m more familiar with Kahlerville than some of the other stops. I remember a newspaper, telegraph office, a bank, sheriff ’s office, law office, barber, livery and feed store, a general store, a church, and an undertaker.” He pointed with his right index finger as though he’d memorized the businesses located up and down the street. “I think there are a few other establishments, too. A boardinghouse for one. I remember the food is especially good there. Are you visiting family?”
Jenny pondered how to answer the question. Her mother would have told the porter to mind his own affairs, except her mother’s ways often sounded impolite. “My deceased sister used to live in Kahlerville.” She promptly focused her attention on the cracked and split seat beside her.
“I’m sorry, miss. And I nearly forgot the reason why I’m here.”
She turned her attention back to the kindly man.
“There’s a gentleman sitting in first class who would like for you to join him.”
Jenny sighed and fought the unsettling in her stomach. Sitting in first class had its advantages. Abruptly, her breakfast nearly made it to her throat. “I couldn’t possibly. I feel rather ill, and I don’t have a chaperon.”
“I understand, and I’ll give him your reply. I believe he’s taking the train to Kahlerville, too. I would not have approached you with the gentleman’s request, except he specifically asked for you by name and described your appearance. I thought perhaps you were acquainted.”
A mixture of curiosity and alarm raced through her. “My goodness. I don’t know anyone on board. What is the gentleman’s name?”
“Mr. Aubrey Turner.”
Jenny tilted her head. “Is he from Ohio?”
“He didn’t say. Would you like for me to ask him?”
“Oh, no.” She smiled and allowed the train’s rhythmic hum to soothe her for a moment. “Please give him my regrets.”
“Of course. Mr. Turner did ask that I relate to you that he’d been a close friend of your sister, Jessica.”
She startled. How did this Mr. Turner know she and Jessica were sisters? The thought frightened her. Could he have been a part of Jessica’s unmentionable profession? Perhaps Jenny should have accepted Oscar’s proposal before she left Cleveland. At least she would have had a ring on her left hand to eliminate inappropriate advances. This Mr. Turner—what if he thought she shared her sister’s livelihood?
She took a deep breath. I do look like my sister. Humiliation swept over her as though every passenger knew Jessica’s disgraceful behavior had caused their parents to disown her. Jenny glanced down at her clothes, now wrinkled and soiled, but certainly not the attire her sister would have chosen. Even when Jessica had sought to please their parents, she chose brighter colors and a much snugger fit.
Why did he want to talk to me? Jenny’s mental distress now matched her physical uneasiness. Poor Jessica needed to stay buried. Jenny had no desire to learn about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s wayward life or her men friends. She settled back and closed her eyes in hopes the troublesome thoughts would dissipate.
The arrival into Kahlerville held no fanfare, and Jenny’s expectations were only to find the boardinghouse. She’d grown very accustomed to Cleveland and all the finery a city offered, but she didn’t expect anything more than the quaint country town that greeted her. For the present, a warm bath and a real bed with fresh linens would ease all the annoyances of travel. Weary beyond description, she stepped down from the rail car and onto the first step.
A mass of fiery air nearly suffocated her. She gasped for breath, and tears stung her eyes. A mixture of dirt, soot, and intense heat spun her into a coughing spasm. Bile rose in her throat. She tasted the familiar acridity of the past several days.
Please, no, I’m not going to be sick. I’d rather choke first.
Jenny dropped her small traveling bag and heard it hit the ground with a thud. Her right hand reached for the side rail, but her fingers refused to wrap around the metal. A wave of blackness enveloped her head and numbed her senses. She realized the brittle limbs that supported her body were about to give way, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. A pair of strong arms reached from behind.
Darkness washed over her, and she felt herself falling forward.
Jenny woke to the muffled voice of a man calling her name. “Miss Martin,” he said. “Miss Martin, can you hear me?”
“Must be the heat.” She heard another man’s voice and recognized it as the porter’s. “It’s a scorcher.”
“Let’s get her inside the train station,” the first man said. “Doesn’t this town have a doctor?”
She felt herself being swept up and carried as though she were but a mere child. I’m all right. I don’t need a doctor. The words refused to come. She raised her head and gave into the blackness again.
When Jenny forced open her eyes, she blinked and swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth. Slowly the fog in her head lifted, and she found herself looking up into a pair of deep violet eyes.
“Are you feeling better, Miss Martin?” he asked, and she recognized the voice as the man who had been with the porter. “A doctor should be here shortly.”
The doctor of this town was the last person she needed. She should be presentable. . .a proper lady in appearance and demeanor.
“I’m. . .fine.” Suddenly, she became distinctly aware of reclining in the arms of this strange man. She stirred and tried to move, but a dull throb beat across her right temple.
“You fell and hit your head.” His deep voice reminded her of Shakespeare and the reading of Hamlet. “I tried to catch you, but I wasn’t fast enough. Please accept my apologies.”
“Thank you. I mean, I’m sorry.” Jenny noted the man’s incredible good looks: handsome with wavy, straw-colored hair and a deeply tanned face. And it wasn’t her imagination. His eyes were the same color as the spring lilacs that bloomed outside her mother’s kitchen window.
“There’s no need to apologize,” he said. “Just rest until the doctor arrives.”
“I don’t need a doctor. Really. If only I could get to the boardinghouse where I might rest.”
“Nonsense. You have slept very little since leaving St. Louis and eaten even less. The journey from Ohio has been very difficult for you.”
His accurate accounting of the past several days of train travel disturbed her. How did this stranger know these things? She swallowed again and fought the urge to be very ill. The train pulled away from the station, its deafening sound making her head throb worse than before.
“How do you know about me?” she asked after several moments of ordering her body to cease its churning.
“Excuse my poor manners, Miss Martin, and allow me to introduce myself. My name is Aubrey Turner. Do you recall the porter extending my invitation to join me?”
Jenny nodded and closed her eyes, feeling even more miserable.
“I feared you shunned my invitation due to my association with your sister,” he said. “But now I wonder if I should have contacted you sooner.”
Before she had a chance to consider Aubrey Turner’s words, Jenny heard the sound of boots stepping across the wooden plank floor of the train station.
“You must be the doctor,” Mr. Turner said. “I do say it has taken you long enough.”
“Yes, I’m Dr. Grant Andrews.” He paused. “I was tending to a patient when I received the message.”
Jenny turned her head. Her stomach convulsed. Her head pounded, and her throat burned. Beads of perspiration trickled down her face and slipped beneath the fabric of her dress. Disgusting vomit covered her. She neither had the strength to wipe her mouth nor the ability to stop the sickness. Whatever have I done to deserve this humiliation? Not only did she feel wretched, but she also knew she looked awful and smelled even worse. She fought the tears. How could she ever face anyone in Kahlerville after the spectacle she had just made of herself?
I’ve fainted, fallen, hurt my head, and vomited. And I haven’t been in town an hour. For the first time in her life, Jenny wished she could die.