Secret Chapter – A Wild Woman

© 2016 Vanessa Vale

CHAPTER ONE

Piper Dare

My head lolled when the stage lurched in a particularly large rut and I woke with a start. Drool dotted the corner of my mouth and I wiped it with my fingers. I glanced up to make sure the woman across from me hadn’t seen my less than ladylike spit, but she—thankfully—was asleep, her head tilted back so her chin was angled up toward me. It was quite warm and even with the flaps over the windows open, there wasn’t much breeze. I tugged at my bodice, the fabric damp and clinging to my skin. I had a mighty thirst and longed for a cool glass of lemonade. I blinked once, then rubbed my eyes. Time passed slowly in the stage and I had no idea how long I had rested. Even with a crook in my neck and a sore back… and bottom from the hard and uncomfortable seat, it couldn’t have been for long. Based on the position of the sun in the sky, it should only be another hour or two before the next stop. My last stop.

I’d almost run out of coin and the stage would take me no further than the next town without expecting more. I was glad to be away from Wichita, yet knew my brothers could easily track me; they just had to follow the stage’s path. I’d been gone six days already and had to hope the note I’d left, telling them I was staying in town with my friend, Rachel, had stalled their search by a few days. By now, though, they had to know I’d disappeared. They would come for me, I was sure of it. With five older brothers, none married, no one else was going to cook and clean for them. No women seemed eager to marry the lot of them, so they needed someone to take care of them. Meaning me. I had no intention of being their slave. I couldn’t find a husband of my own if I was too busy taking care of them.

Besides all that, they were ridiculously overprotective. They chased off every possible suitor with their dark stares, cautionary words and loaded rifles. They didn’t hesitate to shoot at the man’s feet to get him moving if he lingered near me too long.

I was twenty-two years old and on the verge of being an old maid, but they only saw me as their baby sister. I hadn’t even been kissed! Hell, they hadn’t let a man get close enough to shake my hand, let alone put his lips on mine.

While none of them were cruel and I knew they loved me, perhaps they loved me a little too much. I didn’t need to be sheltered and I certainly didn’t need to become their maid. They needed wives of their own and I needed a life of my own. A husband.

And so I’d secretly saved up some of the house money, slowly but surely, until I had enough for a ticket on the stage. Unfortunately, it would only take me so far… and that distance seemed to be the next town.

I peeked out the window; prairie as far as the eye could see. I was used to that living on the outskirts of Wichita, but there wasn’t a town of its size nearby now. There was nothing. Would I be able to find work? I could find a job as a maid, a housekeeper, a cook, even a laundress. I’d done it all and was not averse to hard work, if it could be found. I’d rather find a saloon and a game of cards, but I couldn’t be choosy if I was broke. At least it was warm this time of year; I could sleep beneath the stars if I needed to. I’d done that before, too.

The stage jolted and I put my hand out instinctively so as not to bump into the wall. The other woman’s head lolled to the side and I was impressed with her ability to sleep so deeply. She’d introduced herself to me when she’d joined me in Dodge City. Miss Patricia Strong, a mail order bride. She was going to a small town in Colorado, Slate Springs was the name, to meet a new husband. A husband that she’d been matched to through an agency. I couldn’t imagine marrying a stranger, but I knew women struggled in ways men didn’t. She was so lovely with her pale hair and eyes and kind demeanor, I had to imagine beaux swarmed about her like bees to a flower. If she had to volunteer to be a mail order bride, what hope was there for me?

I had red hair. Red! It was like fire and everyone said I had the personality to match. I’d been impressed with Patricia’s ability to take charge of her life, to decide on a path and follow through. To find a husband when one wouldn’t come calling. Or in my case, couldn’t. Not with a brother blockade in the way.

The stage jolted again. I rolled my eyes and sighed, wishing to yell at the stage driver, although it wasn’t his fault there were deep ruts in the path. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Patricia slide sideways, tipping forward as if she were going to tumble forward. Reaching out, I grabbed her shoulder before she hit the dusty wood floor.

“Patricia!” I cried, pushing her back upright, her head settling into the corner awkwardly.

The woman didn’t wake, didn’t put her arms out to push herself up. Didn’t even stir.

I stood, putting one hand on the wall for balance, and leaned over her. I knew the journey was wearying, but this was a sound sleep. Too sound.

It was then that I realized she wasn’t sleeping. She was dead.

“Stop the stage!” I shouted, pushing off the wall away from her. “Stop the damn stage!”

Dropping back into the bench seat across from Patricia, I pounded on the wall that separated me from the driver as I stared wide-eyed, mouth open.

She was dead.

I knew it wasn’t ladylike to swear, but if there was ever a moment to do so, this was it. “Holy fucking hell. Shit on a stick, this is bad.” I kept mumbling every swear word I ever heard my brothers use as I just looked at Patricia.

She was pale, white even. Her lips were no longer pink, but an odd shade of gray, as if all of her color had leached from her. Her body was limp and jostled as the stage came to a halt. I had to put my hand out to keep her from falling on me once again. Cringing, I pushed her back upright.

Once we came to a standstill, I opened the door and jumped down, struggling with my skirts before tripping and landing on my knees in the dirt.

“What the tarnation, woman?” The stage driver hopped from his raised seat and spat tobacco juice into the tall grass, hands on hips.

Spinning about, I pointed with a shaky finger at the open door and Patricia’s prostrate body.

Swallowing heavily, I took a deep breath. The sun beat down upon us and I felt perspiration dot my brow. “She’s dead.”

The driver looked at me as if I was joking with him. When I didn’t get up off the ground, he walked to the open door and peeked inside.

“Fuck,” he swore, then looked up at the sky. It was as if he were silently asking God why the woman was dead, in his stage. “She was fine two hours ago. What the hell happened to her?”

He took off his hat, ran his fingers through his sweaty hair. He was in his forties with a graying beard and was missing a few teeth. He was travel worn, body and soul, and I had to assume Patricia was not his first dead body.

It was mine, however, and I was glad for the hard ground beneath me. I’d never been considered missish, but I’d never had someone die right in front of me before, especially someone as young as Patricia.

As I shook my head, I replied, “How the hell should I know?”

The driver’s eyebrow winged up at my use of the word “hell.” That was nothing. Being raised by brothers had taught me quite a few unladylike things.

“I have no idea,” I added, finally answering his question. “We were asleep and she just didn’t wake up.”

He frowned at me, spit on the ground again. “People don’t just not wake up. Not at her age. Hell, she can’t be more than twenty.” He waved his hands in the air as if that would help, as if arguing with me would change anything. It didn’t matter how she died. It wasn’t as if we could fix it, or her.

“Well, she certainly isn’t going to wake up,” I countered. The wind blowing over the grass, the chirping of the grasshoppers seemed so normal, as if we didn’t have to figure out what to do with a dead woman.

“Fine, let’s go then.” He reached into the stage.

“What? You’re just going to leave her out here?” My voice went loud and shrill, my queasiness growing at the casual attitude this man had for the dead.

He sighed, shook his head as he walked away from the stage.

“Sitting here gabbing isn’t making her any fresher,” he grumbled. “You’ll have to stay in the stage with her until we get to the next town, where you’re getting off.”

He glanced at the dead woman again, then at the vast prairie, probably ready to change his mind.

“While I have no interest in spending one more second in the stage with a dead body, it just isn’t honorable or the least bit Christian just to leave her out to rot.”

“Hope there’s an undertaker at the next town, too,” he grumbled, spitting in the grass.

Poor woman. Patricia was—had been—so brave. As she’d shared her story, I’d actually been a little jealous. Knowing a man was waiting at her final destination was quite enviable. Someone who wanted her enough to submit an advertisement and pay her way. Someone who was actually eager for her.

And then there was me, homeless and destitute as soon as we arrived at the next stop. No man. No husband. No—

An idea formed in my head, making my heart skip a beat. Patricia had a man waiting for her. A husband. Someone who wanted a wife. He didn’t care particularly who since he’d chosen a mail order bride. A stranger. I could be the mail order bride. I could take Patricia’s place.

It could work. Couldn’t it? Was it right to take advantage of a dead woman? I stood on shaky legs and glanced at Patricia’s dead body, then away. She was no longer of this world and wouldn’t care. She wouldn’t blame me. Hell and tarnation, women had to take advantages that were given to them.

“All right. I’ll stay in the back with her,” I told the driver.

I tilted my chin up, met the man’s sharp gaze as I walked over to the stage, peeked in, then reached for my small bag. “But you’ll take me to where Miss Strong was headed.”

“Take you…” He shoved his hat back on his head, spit into the grass again. “I see what you’re about.”

“Oh?” I asked. “And what’s that?”

“You’re going to take her place.”

I slid my gun from my bag, aimed it at him. He slowly raised his hands.

“And you were going to leave a passenger out on the prairie for the wolves,” I argued.

“Now there’s no need for a gun.” He eyed me. Not fearfully, but suspiciously. “What kind of lady are you?”

“The kind of lady who has five older brothers. A gun adds a certain level of… assurance that you’ll do the right thing by me and take me to Pueblo and the man she was to marry.”

“And the right thing is to let you become a stranger’s wife?”

Obviously he knew more about Patricia than he did me.

“The man waiting in Pueblo requested a woman, not specifically Miss Strong. Listen, Mr.… um, driver.” I had no idea of his name. “My brothers taught me a few things besides shooting.” I gave a slight shrug, but the gun didn’t even quiver. “They taught me to take an opportunity when it falls in my lap.”

Even when it was a dead body.

Did I want to marry a man I’d never met? Patricia was going to do it. Why couldn’t I? It’s what I wanted, a man of my own, children someday. But I knew nothing of him. What if he was old or had seven children already? What if he was mean? A drunk? Well, I could just shoot him. It would serve him right.

The driver thought for a moment, scratched the back of his neck, then slowly he shook his head. “Don’t matter to me one way or another. Her way’s been paid and I’d rather not have to explain to the man when I get to Pueblo that his wife just up and died.”

I lowered the gun then. “So we’ll be doing each other a favor.”

He walked toward the front of the stage, hoisted himself up. He looked down at me before he climbed up onto the high bench, then pointed into the stage. “We’re leaving Miss Strong’s body at the next stop and we’re not waiting for her burial. I have a schedule to keep and you have a man to meet.”

While seeing the woman properly buried was the right thing to do, I knew I couldn’t argue. I was gaining a husband.

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