Authors: Kate Whitsby
Mail Order Annie
Mail Order Romance Series: Book 1
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The steam engine chugged to a slow crawl as it approached the railway platform, and the lone figure of Anne Benning waited at the open door of the sleeping car, her travelling valise in one hand and her hand bag in the other, while the conductor fussed around her, preparing for their arrival. Her dilapidated trunk slumped behind them near the baggage compartment, battered and bound together with rope.
“Get ready to jump down, Miss!” the conductor shouted above the deafening belches of steam exploding from the engine just in front of them. Anne’s heart skipped a beat, and the adrenaline coursing through her blood flushed her cheeks and made her hands tremble. She tightened her fingers around her handbag to keep her hands still, set down her valise, and took hold of the hand rail at the very lip of the doorway. Outside, the gravel and railroad ties rolled away from the train car, until it jerked to a stop at the platform. “Down you go, Miss!” instructed the conductor.
As Anne lifted her valise again and stepped out of the car onto the warped, weathered boards of the platform with the conductor close on her heels, an ear-splitting blast crashed through the air, followed by three more similar cracks in quick succession. Somewhere in the distance, the tinkle of breaking glass punctuated by smashing noises rang out amidst the racket of the engine’s machinery. “Get your head down, Miss!” the conductor yelled, ducking his own head.
Anne looked around frantically, unsure what to do. “Why?! What is it?” she cried fearfully.
“Gunfire, Miss!” the conductor informed her. “You’re in the Wild West now! Better keep your head down until they finish killing each other!”
Bewildered, Anne vacillated between running away and hiding somewhere, but the more she peered around at the deserted platform and saw no hiding places available, the more indecision froze her in place. The terror of exposure to gunfire shattered all her preconceptions about her arrival, and in the vacuum left behind, she could not conceive of any alternative course of action.
“Dear God!” she cried out.
The conductor half-stooped, half-ran into the train car Anne so recently exited and heaved her trunk out onto the platform, where it landed on its corner and another crack split its side, then he vanished into the interior of the car, not to emerge again. Almost immediately, the train crept forward, steadily building up speed, and the bellowing engine blotted out all other noises.
Great hissing clouds of steam escaped from the steam engine’s wheels as it puffed away, obscuring the railway platform until the train disappeared into the horizon. When the white gusts dissipated and floated away in the breeze, they left Anne behind, standing erect and motionless on the platform, her travelling valise on one side and her poor old trunk on the other at her feet. As the bang and whistle of the train receded, she roused herself from her reverie and surveyed her surroundings. Only in the clarity left behind by the billowing exhaust did she realize that the platform backed up to the only building in sight. The town where she intended to disembark did not exist.
After the last train car slid away from her, leaving the space around the platform visible for the first time, Anne paced first one direction to the end of the platform, then back the other way to the other end, still stupefied by the sheer vacancy that extended around her on all sides. To her immense relief, she saw a man walking in her direction from around the side of the building, and she opened her mouth to call out to him for some word of human connection, but as he approached and she saw his expression and the naked pistol held ready in his hand, she shut her mouth with a click. The man did not register anything to his right or left, his face pinched in a grotesque mask of malice and cruelty underneath his hat, but focused solely on an object in front of him, toward which he paced with single-minded intent. As he neared the corner of the platform where Anne still lingered in confusion, he gained enough of a view of the train tracks to see something that made him leap into a crouch behind the platform, raising his gun and peeking over the wooden framework of the platform toward the tracks. Following his gaze, Anne spotted another man kneeling behind a bush across the railroad line, also clutching a gun and aiming it toward the platform. Anne could not see him clearly enough to distinguish anything about him. She only noticed that he seemed to be an inordinately large man, with a checkered shirt and a grey felt hat.
The man closest to her, who hid behind the platform, propped his arm over the corner of the wooden planks and fired his gun toward his enemy behind the bush, and the incredible blast of the gun shots sent Anne into a mania of fright so intense that she wanted to scream and run, but so intense was her panic, that all her intentions came to nothing, and she found her feet only rooted more firmly to the spot, unable to move or even to raise her voice in warning at her own danger. Glancing dreadfully from one man to the other, she saw the man behind the bush raise himself and extend his own gun to answer the shots of his opponents, but at the same time, he caught sight of her standing so close to his target, so that he changed his mind and lowered himself out of sight again. The man at the corner of the platform took no such notice of her and fired his gun until it clicked emptily in his hand. Then he flung it away in a rage of thwarted antagonism and, still sheltering behind the wooden structure of the platform, he crept away in the direction he had come, all the while gracing Anne with not the slightest flicker of his eyes. The other man across the tracks, observing his enemy departing, also slunk away in the opposite direction around the other side of the building and disappeared among the low shaggy bushes.
In the crushing silence that filled the air, Anne shook off her trepidation with difficulty and forced herself to move from her place. She returned to the center of the platform and, ignoring her initial alarm, she intrepidly crossed the threshold of the only doorway that communicated between the platform and the interior of the building. The door stood open, and Anne marched through it and down the passageway in her most businesslike manner, determined to settle what she imagined could only turn out to be a terrible misunderstanding, or perhaps a mistake on the part of the train’s conduction who put her off the train.
The passageway ended in a shabby saloon. The only other occupant, the barman, eyed her vapidly while he dried glasses with a towel behind the bar. Through the front window of the saloon, Anne saw another building across the dusty, nondescript expanse of empty street with a large painted sign above its front door that read
. On either side of that, as far as Anne’s eye could see in every direction, nothing but scrub wasteland extended into infinity. Anne’s heart quailed in her chest even more severely than during the fire fight she just witnessed. What if, Heaven forbid, it wasn’t a mistake, and she found herself stuck in this God-forsaken place? How could she, so at home in the vitality and culture of the Eastern cities, hope to survive this squalid, lawless purgatory? Even if it was a mistake, how long would she have to stay here before another train came along and took her—anywhere other than here? Anne pulled her handkerchief from the wrist of her glove and dabbed the sweat and dust from her forehead and upper lip. Then she covered her nose and mouth with it and inhaled the delicate rose-water aroma that she used to perfume her own personal linens. The smell momentarily banished the scene from her mind and replaced it with the familiar gentility to which she was accustomed, just enough to quiet her nerves and restore her composure.
Once again, she stiffened herself behind her tough, professional exterior and stamped up to the bar, assuring herself that fortitude would win the day. “There seems to be some mistake,” she addressed the barman shortly. “I was supposed to get down at Eckville, but the conductor put me down here, instead. Could you please tell me when the next train comes through and kindly direct me to a hotel where I can wait for it? I would appreciate it.”
The barman, a youngish, wiry weasel of a character, shot her a fidgety, distant sort of glance, but did not interrupt his laborious drying. “No, ma’am,” he slurred carelessly. “No mistake. This here is Eckville, and this here is the Eckville Hotel. It’s the only one in town. In fact, it’s the only one for about a hundred miles in any direction. You can talk to Parnell if you want a room. As for the next train, today’s Tuesday, and it don’t come through again ‘til next Tuesday, going back the other way. You gotta wait ‘til the Tuesday after that if you want to catch another train goin’ on.”
“But,” Anne whimpered pathetically, “I was told that Eckville was a town, you know, a going concern, as it were. This is not a town. A hotel and a post office in the middle of nowhere is not a town.” Distantly she heard the rising desperation in her own voice and realized the nonsensical idiocy of her own assertions, let alone the futility of trying to argue the point with this man who obviously did not care a whit about her situation or, it seemed, about much of anything else.
His response confirmed her assessment, and drove a barb of hopeless despair into her heart. “I don’t know what you were told,” he retorted, clanging his glasses together. “But this here is Eckville and all the Eckville you’re gonna get. If you want, I can go get Parnell to give you a room, to wait for the next train. That’s all I can do for you.”
Anne clutched her handkerchief to her breast and choked back the sobs that inevitably gripped her by the neck. No, kept repeating in her mind. No, it can’t be. It can’t be. Finally, she swallowed the lump in her throat. “Well,” she croaked, “could you please give me a glass of lemonade?”
“No lemonade,” the barman sneered, flipping his towel over his shoulder and training his full, leering grin at her. “We got whiskey by the glass and beer by the bottle. That’s all we got.”
“Well, then, how about a glass of water?” Anne begged.
“Water?” the barman exploded. “There’s a horse trough outside.”
In a last heroic effort to suppress the tears that smarted in her eyes and the choking hiccups that strangled her breath, Anne covered her mouth with her handkerchief again to hide her despondency from the barman. She whirled away from the bar and flung herself into one of the chairs at a nearby table, concealing the first stifled sob behind a huff of annoyance. The last thing in the world she could tolerate in any female, especially herself, was any show of helplessness, and she wouldn’t be caught dead breaking down in front of this cretin of the wilderness.
She directed her eyes toward the front window of the saloon, even as she commanded herself not to look at the bleak landscape outside. She determined to wait until she calmed herself down before deciding what to do next. She could do nothing other than wait. She dared not tell the barman that she had no money to hire a room, much less another train fare either forward or back. Maybe, with luck, something more hopeful would reveal itself.
As if in answer to her prayers, another man that she hadn’t noticed before emerged from the shadows of another corner of the room and stepped lightly up to her table. He rested his hand indifferently on the back of the chair nearest her. “Excuse me, Miss,” he drawled, “would you mind if I join you?”
Without waiting for an answer, he slid the chair out and draped his lanky frame across it. Anne immediately remarked his fine, tailored clothes, his velvet jacket and silk tie knotted expertly at his neck, and his alligator-skin boots polished to a high shine. The curls of his moustache moved with the stiffness of wax on his upper lip when he spoke, and he dangled a manufactured cigar between the fingers of his left hand. Anne recognized these accoutrements of wealth as the first such she had seen since leaving home three weeks previously. She gazed on them greedily, as familiar friends from her most cherished memories.
Only after he sat down, when Anne examined every stitch of his clothing and admired the gold watch chain hanging across the front of his waist coat, did she remember all these details from her nightmare on the platform outside and realize that this was the same man who squatted behind the corner of the platform and shot at his adversary in the bushes. For a fraction of an instant, a blaze of apprehension stopped her heart and the man seemed to wear a halo of danger around his genteel manners, but the next minute, his unruffled docility and impeccable appearance soothed her mind and dismissed her fears.
“My name is Webster Forsythe,” the man continued in a melodious voice. “I couldn’t help but overhear your plight, and I wish you to know that I am at your service, should you require assistance. If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is a lady in distress.” He still seemed utterly oblivious to the fact that she had stood just inches away from him during his gun battle without him seeing her.
Anne stiffened. “Thank you for your kind thoughts, sir,” she clipped her words as closely as she dared. “But I am not in distress, and I do not require assistance. I am waiting for someone to come and pick me up.”