Authors: Maggie James
The stagecoach struck another gopher hole in the road, and Tess bounced so high she nearly struck her head on the roof. Her bonnet slipped to one side, and just as she tried to straighten it, she was thrown to the side.
“Gracious, Sam, do we have to go so fast?” She leaned out the window to call up to the driver. “I’m getting bumped to pieces down here.”
He spat a wad of tobacco juice, and she ducked back just in time to avoid being hit as he yelled down, “We’re almost there, missy. I guess the horses smell that cold beer a-waitin’, ’cause it’s all I can do to hold ’em back.”
“Cold beer, indeed,” she muttered with a disgusted sniff, settling back against the worn leather seat. Out of all the drivers she had encountered during the arduous trip west from Philadelphia, Sam Conch had been the most uncouth. His partner, Rooney Wessner, was no better. They were both as dirty and unkempt as the stagecoach itself, but since they were private hire, she supposed she could not expect much better. After all, the stationmaster back in Prescott had explained how difficult it was to get to her destination—a watering hole, as he had called it, for prospectors in from the desert and drovers traveling to and from cattle drives. Devil’s Eye, Arizona, she had been told, was truly in the middle of nowhere.
Glumly, she stared out at the desert glistening in the late afternoon heat of the April sun. Giant saguaro cactus with their fluted columns of plant flesh, shaped and sized in as many different ways as humans, dotted the landscape in every direction. In the distance, a vast carpet of verbena and golden poppies trailed up the mountain slopes.
It all looked so lonely and desolate, which was exactly how she felt, for it had not been a journey she had wanted to make. Still, she was anxious to get it over with, anxious to meet Saul Beckwith…the man her father had sold her to.
It was an ugly description of the situation, but she could think of it in no other way, because that was exactly what her father had done. He had taken money from Saul Beckwith in exchange for forcing her to marry him.
Her father had said she should be grateful he had arranged the union. After all, at nineteen, Tess appeared destined for spinsterhood, but not because men found her unattractive. Actually, she had always been too busy for suitors, as running the household for her widowed father and caring for her younger brother, Perry, took up all her time, and potential swains had turned their attention to young ladies without family responsibilities.
The last four years had been particularly burdensome due to her father having gone away, like most able-bodied men in Pennsylvania, to fight for the Union in the Civil War. But she had managed, looking forward to the day when the war would end and things would settle down to normal.
Normalcy, however, was not to be, for when her father did return, he was nursing a serious wound, his health declining.
Fearing he might not live long, Jasper Partridge had wanted to make sure his family would be taken care of after he was gone, and Tess was horrified when he announced that he had made arrangements for her marriage. But he assured her that Saul Beckwith, a man he had met during the war, would make her a fine husband. Saul needed a young, healthy wife to bear the many children he wanted, as well as share his life in Arizona prospecting for silver. He was a widower, having gone west before the war, and his sickly wife had been unable to withstand the hardships there and died.
Tess had begged her father to change his mind, but one night when he had been drinking to try to quell the pain of his wounds, he admitted Saul had paid him. And money, he’d said, was what he desperately needed, for he now also had the burden of providing for his sister, Elmina, who had been widowed in the war. Therefore, Tess getting married was the ideal solution. Elmina could take over the house and the rearing of Perry, and Tess would not be an old maid after all.
She squeezed her eyes shut against the painful memory of the night her brother had crept into her room to kneel beside her bed and cry unashamedly in his misery over both their fates. Aunt Elmina had no children of her own and no patience with anyone else’s. She was mean-spirited, bad-tempered, and they both knew his life with her would be unbearable.
“I’ll send for you,” Tess had vowed, gathering him in her arms as they wept together. “I’ll find a way just as soon as I can. I swear it.”
Tess liked to think that as the time for her to leave for Arizona had crept ever closer, she would have been able to persuade her father to renege on his agreement, for he actually seemed to be having second thoughts. But all hope ended the night he died in his sleep, and her aunt could not send Tess on her way fast enough.
But maybe, she told herself—and not for the first time—it wouldn’t be so bad after all. Maybe Saul Beckwith really was a kind man and they would have a nice life together, even though she had not been able to stretch her optimism to think she might ever love him. And she fully intended to do her best to be a good wife from the very start so he would yield to her request to send for Perry as soon as possible.
She wondered when the wedding would take place. She had sent Mr. Beckwith a wire two days earlier from the territorial capitol of Prescott, just as he had instructed in his letter when he had enclosed her tickets. No doubt he was planning on having the ceremony right away. After all, it was a matter of propriety after having traveled so far all by herself. Decorum demanded that he make her his wife as soon as possible after her arrival.
The stage hit another hole, and this time Tess was almost thrown to the floor. She dared to lean out to protest again, and that was when she saw what looked like a town just ahead.
“Is that it?” she called, but without enthusiasm. She had no excitement at all, for every beat of her heart was another stroke of dread.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Sam confirmed in his loud, robust voice as he popped the reins over the horses’ rumps to set them into a wild, frenzied gallop.
Beside him, Rooney took off his hat to wave as he shouted, “Yah-hoo! Devil’s Eye, Arizona. Wildest women and best whiskey in the West, and here I come to get me a bait of both.”
Tess drew back inside with a shudder but only momentarily, for she was anxious to see her new home.
Sam slowed the horses to a walk as they began to pass the jerry-built false-front buildings of unpainted pine that lined the street on both sides.
People stopped to stare, most unable to remember the last time they had seen a stagecoach in Devil’s Eye.
Tess knew she was about to be an object of curiosity and hoped Mr. Beckwith was there to quickly whisk her away.
She looked at her traveling suit—a soft blue velvet gown with matching cape. All the women she could see were wearing plain muslin dresses and wide-brimmed bonnets that hid most of their faces. None of the outfits she had brought were as ordinary, but maybe Mr. Beckwith would buy new ones for her so she would not feel so out of place.
“Whoa, now,” Sam called to the horses with a final yank of the reins. “We’re here. And Lordy, I can hear the beer calling.”
He jumped down and opened the door for Tess.
She took his hand, though she would have preferred not to, as she glanced about in hopes that one of the staring men would claim her. But, after seeing how rough and dirty they looked, she found herself hoping none of them
Sam had stopped the stage in front of a saloon. Rooney had already disappeared inside, and Tess could hear the men’s voices and women’s laughter over the sound of a tinny piano.
Sam made a clamor taking her trunk down, and when he set it on the boardwalk next to her, she whispered, “Did you have to stop
? Couldn’t you have gone to the way station?”
He spat another wad of tobacco juice. “Nope. ’Cause there ain’t one.”
He stared past her, and she caught his arm. “But where can I go to wait for the gentleman I’m to meet?”
Sam shrugged her hand away. “It’s a small town. He’ll get wind you’re here and show up directly.”
“But—” She felt so helpless.
“I done my job,” he said testily. “Now you’re on your own, missy.”
He pushed through the saloon’s swinging doors, to be swallowed up in a cloud of smoke and shadows.
The crowd that had gathered was starting to move away. There was no mail delivery, which some had been hoping for, just a city slicker who piqued their curiosity, but not enough to take up any more of their time.
Frantic because she did not like some of the looks a few of the men were giving her, Tess rushed over to one of the women as she was turning away and begged, “Wait, please. I need your help.”
The woman regarded her silently, coolly.
“Could you tell me where I might find the constable’s office?”
“Constable?” the woman echoed, baffled. “What’s that?”
The others tittered.
Tess said, “He’s like a policeman.”
“You mean like the law?”
“Yes. You see, someone is supposed to meet me, someone I’ve never met, but he isn’t here, and I don’t know what to do since I’m alone, and…” she fell silent, not wanting to admit that she was frightened.
The woman looked at her like she thought she was crazy. “We ain’t got no
,” she said with a grin as her cohorts continued to giggle. “Fact is, we don’t even got no law. Just Worley Branson, and he ain’t really law. He’s really the undertaker, but he locks folks up when they get rowdy and lets the circuit judge see to ’em when he rides by every few months.”
, Tess thought in a panic,
where is Saul Beckwith
? Surely he got her wire…or had he? “Your telegraph office? Where would it be?” She could talk to the agent. He would know if Mr. Beckwith had received it. He might even know where she could find him.
The woman pointed down the street. “It’s inside the barbershop.”
Tess, excited, turned in that direction, but skidded to an abrupt halt as the woman added that the barbershop was closed for the day and would not reopen till the next morning.
“But you might find the man who runs it, Will Summers, in there.” She jerked her head toward the saloon.
Just then several shots rang out. Tess screamed and dove for cover, but instead she stumbled on the rough-hewn boardwalk, fell, and tumbled down the steps to land in the mud.
Wrinkling her nose in revulsion, she realized she had landed in something else, as well.
Gales of laughter erupted. Someone pulled her to her feet, and she bit her lip to keep from bursting into tears to see that her gown and cape were smeared with horse dung.
“You’re jumpy as a cat on a hot stove, little lady,” said the man who helped her up. “No need to be. Somebody’s just celebratin’ a winnin’ poker hand. That’s all.”
Tess could not believe her ears. “You mean people actually fire guns over something like that?”
“That ’n other things.”
“But…but…” She was flabbergasted. “How did you know someone didn’t get shot?”
“’Cause nobody came flyin’ out the door with holes in ’em.”
There was more laughter, but Tess had had enough of being the brunt of everyone’s humor. With as much dignity as she could muster, she dusted herself off and asked, “Could someone please tell me where I might find a room for the night? I’m to meet my fiancé, but evidently he’s been detained.”
“And who might that be?” the man asked. Everyone else had drifted away.
“Mr. Saul Beckwith,” Tess announced proudly, sure that he was a prominent man. He had to be, since he had so much money. “Do you know him?”
The man scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Can’t say as I do, but I ain’t from around these parts. Just got to town yesterday, as a matter of fact. Just passin’ through. You’ll have to ask one of the locals.”
He continued on his way.
Tess was left in a quandary. Not only was she unable to find her way around, but she did not have much money left, and, in addition, she smelled to high heaven and was not particularly looking forward to meeting anyone just then, much less the man she was to marry.
Her trunk, she decided, would have to stay where it was. It was heavy, and there was no one around to help. Besides, where could she ask them to take it, anyway? She did not even know where she was going, herself.