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Authors: Rosanne Bittner

Thunder on the Plains

BOOK: Thunder on the Plains
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Copyright © 1992, 2012 by Rosanne Bittner

Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design by Dawn Adams/Sourcebooks

Cover image © Zia Soleil/Getty Images

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

Originally published in 1992 by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, New York.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the publisher.

To my husband, Larry, who helped me with the idea for this story. It takes a unique kind of man to be married to a writer, one with a lot of patience; a man who is not selfish about how his wife's time is spent, who understands the times when a writer needs to be left alone, and who understands that writing is as necessary for me as breathing.

Thank you, Larry, for believing in me through the years, for your love and support.

Love is the emblem of eternity: it confounds all notion of time; effaces all memory of a beginning, all fear of an end.

—Madame de Staël,


August 1869

Sunny opened the journal she had kept since her first trip west in 1857. It was a long time since she had the courage or the desire to continue the diary; but now, finally, there was an ending to her story…or was this just a beginning?

She picked up her fountain pen and made another entry.
Plains, as wild and untamed as the land itself. Through these many years it has endured, like the land—solid, unchanging, always beckoning…

Part One
Chapter 1

May 1857

Annie Webster frowned when she opened the door. “I don't take nobody but gentlemen in my boardinghouse,” she warned defensively, “and only them that bathes.”

The young man standing on her porch removed a wide-brimmed leather hat, revealing a cascade of thick, nearly-black hair that fell in tumbled layers. “I don't know much about gentlemen, ma'am, except that I'm no troublemaker; and I
take baths, often as I can.”

The woman studied him closely, noticing he was clean-shaven. Although he wore buckskins, they were not worn and dirty like those she had seen on so many other men in Omaha who dressed like this one. The young man smiled warmly, his teeth straight and white, too white, she thought. Maybe they looked that way because his skin was so dark. Whatever the reason, it was a very handsome, unnerving smile, and it destroyed her remaining defenses.

She stepped aside, allowing him inside. His lanky six-foot-plus frame towered over her as she closed the door and folded her arms, a look of authority moving into her eyes. “Well, what will it be? Money's got to be paid up front. I've had my share of men comin' in here and messin' up a room for a couple of nights, then takin' off without payin'.”

“I'm not here for a room, ma'am. Name's Colt Travis, and I came here to see a Mister uh—” He stopped and took a folded piece of paper from where it was tucked into his wide leather belt. Mrs. Webster watched warily, for attached to the belt was a beaded sheath that held a huge knife. Around his hips hung a gun belt and revolver. The hands that unfolded the paper looked strong, and were tanned even darker than his face from exposure to the prairie sun, darker than any white man she had ever seen. “A Mr. Stuart Landers,” he finished. He looked at her with soft hazel eyes, a gentle gaze that didn't seem to match the rest of his rugged frame. “This poster says I can find him here. He's looking for an experienced scout.”

“Experienced? You don't look old enough to have much experience, but then I guess that's for Mr. Landers to decide.”

“Is he here then?”

The woman nodded, squinting and eyeing him even more closely. “You an Indian?”

Colt felt the heat coming to his cheeks. It was a question he was sick of hearing every time he met someone new. “I'm just a man looking for a job.”

Mrs. Webster straightened. “That's not what I asked.”

Colt sighed. “Ma'am, will you please just get Mr. Landers?”

The woman sniffed. “Follow me.” She turned and walked over a polished hardwood floor to a small but neat room with a brick fireplace. Vases and knickknacks lined the mantel. “Can't blame me for askin',” she muttered. “Them high cheekbones and that dark hair and skin, wearin' buckskins and all, what do you expect? I got a right to know who I'm lettin' in my door.”

Colt said nothing. He glanced around the room, wondering if the woman scrubbed every item every day. It was hard to believe that anything in this dusty town could be kept so clean. The room was decorated with plants, and little tables, stuffed chairs, and a sofa with flower-patterned upholstery. “I'm Annie Webster,” she said, turning to meet his eyes. “You can wait here in the parlor, Mr. Travis. I'll get Mr. Landers.”

“Thank you, ma'am.”

The woman started out, then stopped and glanced back at him as though trying to tell him with her eyes he had better not break or soil anything. Colt just nodded to her, and she finally left. Colt remained standing, deciding the furniture looked too fine to sit on. He wondered if Mrs. Webster was a Mormon. Several Mormons had chosen to stay in Omaha since they first settled there for one winter a good ten years before.

The Mormons had a way of making something out of nothing, and this house was an example. There were few fine frame buildings in Omaha, more log and tent structures than anything else; but the place considered itself a city nonetheless. Even in its young stage, it was all the city Colt cared to encounter. He felt closed in in the small parlor, as out of place as a buffalo might feel inside a house. He looked down at his boots, hoping he had stamped off enough dust so as not to dirty Mrs. Webster's immaculately polished floor and colorful braided rugs.

“Mr. Travis.” Colt turned to see a man of perhaps thirty approaching. He guessed the man's suit was silk, as was the paisley-print vest he wore beneath the perfectly fitting jacket. A gold watch chain hung from the vest pocket. The man looked Colt over appreciatively. “Stuart Landers,” he said, putting out his hand. “I am very glad to meet you. Mrs. Webster says you've come in answer to my poster.”

Colt took his hand, thinking what a weak grip the man had. Landers's dark hair was already beginning to thin dramatically, his temple area and the area just back from his forehead already bald. In spite of the man's obvious wealth, evident by his dress and manner, there was an honesty to his dark eyes that Colt liked right away. “Well, sir, the words
kind of struck my eye.”

Landers laughed and motioned for Colt to be seated across from him. Colt reluctantly lowered himself into a stuffed chair, deciding not to lean back. “I am afraid I might have made a mistake putting those words in the ad,” Landers told him. “Oh, the pay
be excellent, but the ad attracted every sort of man imaginable. Most of those who answered it so far have turned out either not to have near enough experience, or have been so dirty and dangerous-looking that I just felt I couldn't trust them.” The man studied Colt intently as he spoke. “Mrs. Webster said you, on the other hand, gave a very good appearance and didn't, uh…well, to put it bluntly, she said that ‘this one doesn't smell bad.'”

Colt frowned, trying to decide whether or not the remark was a compliment. He rested his elbows on his knees, fingering his hat. “Mr. Landers, I don't know what this is all about or why it matters, but before my folks died, I was raised to be clean and respectful. My father was a missionary, came west with the Cherokee back in the thirties. Fact is, my mother was a Cherokee herself, but she and my pa lived in nice houses and brought me up a Christian. I have to say, though, that whether or not a man is clean and educated doesn't have much to do with how good a scout he is.”

“Oh, I am sure of that; but this is a situation that calls for both—an experienced scout who can ensure our safety, but a man presentable and mannerly enough to be around my younger sister. She's never been exposed to this rough frontier life. My father won't allow any nonsense around her—foul language, uncleanliness, that sort of thing. You're half Indian, you say?”

Colt felt the defenses rising again, but he did not detect an insulting ring to the words. “Cherokee. Lived most of my early years down in Texas. My folks were both dead by the time I was fourteen, and I've been kind of a wandering man ever since.”

“Well, whether or not you're a half—I mean, being part Indian isn't really so important as long as you were raised by a white, Christian father. You speak well and give a good appearance. I must say, you look young, though, Mr. Travis. May I ask your age?”

“I'm twenty, but I've been on my own and lived a man's life for a lot of years. I've been to Oregon and back four times and to California twice. I've fought Indians and killed my share, led wagon trains, hunted buffalo, you name it. I even know a little bit about surveying. After my mother died, my father moved to Austin and worked for a surveyor for a few years down in Texas, and I worked right alongside him.”

Landers's eyes lit up. “Surveying! Why, that's wonderful! That kind of experience is just what we need! I
if I took my time I'd find the right man.”

Colt watched him warily. “I ought to tell you I have a partner, name of Slim Jessup,” he said, speaking in a soft Texas drawl. “He's a little less prone to bathing, but I'd make sure he cleaned up. He's quite a bit older, taught me everything I know. He'd be here with me now, but he's over seeing a horse doctor about getting a tooth pulled.”

doctor!” Landers grimaced. “For a tooth?”

“Out here you take help wherever you can find it,” Colt said. “Slim's in a lot of pain.”

Stuart Landers shook his head. “Well, will this Mr. Jessup be willing to come along?”

Colt rose, beginning to feel restless within the four walls. “I can't answer that until you tell me what this is all about, Mr. Landers. I haven't even said I'd do it myself for sure, but even without Slim, I can assure you I can do as good a job as anybody. I have a couple of letters of recommendation from people whose wagon trains I've helped guide west. I hang on to them to help me get new jobs. You want to see them?”

Landers rose. “Well, yes, I suppose I should.” He studied Colt more closely as the young man took the letters from a small leather bag that was tied to his belt. He took note of the weapons Colt wore, intuition telling him this young man did indeed know what he was about. Colt handed him the letters, which he had obviously been carrying around for a while. They were worn from being folded and unfolded often, but the writing was still legible.

Colt walked to a window while Landers read the letters. He looked out at the dusty, rutted street in front of the house, again wondering how Mrs. Webster kept the place so clean. It felt strange to be inside a normal home now, even though he had been brought up this way. It had been many years since he had lived in a real house. Since losing his parents, the whole West had become his home, the sky his ceiling, the earth his floor. He had grown to like it that way. Slim said it was the Indian in him.

“Well, these people praise you highly, Mr. Travis,” Landers said. He walked over and handed the letters to Colt. “I am impressed and delighted. Time is getting short, and I wasn't sure I would find the right man. You're pretty young, but better qualified than anyone else I've interviewed. It would be good if your partner would accompany you. An extra man never hurts, but as far as protection goes, my father will be bringing along his own little army. What we need is someone who knows the way, at least as far as Fort Laramie; someone who can communicate with the Indians and keep us out of trouble; and a man who knows a little about surveying, well, that's all the better. We want the best, Mr. Travis, since my little sister is coming along.” Landers reached into a vest pocket, taking out a little gold case and opening it. “Would you like a smoke, Mr. Travis?”

Colt eyed the five thin cigars inside the case. He nodded, taking one. “Never saw cigars this small before,” he commented.

“Oh, they're quite pleasant and very expensive.”

Landers closed the case and walked back to sit down. Colt put the thin smoke to his lips and wet the end of it. “I don't understand why your sister has to come along at all,” he said then. “The land west of here is no fitting place for a young, pampered girl who's used to a fine house and all the comforts.” He moved to the fireplace and took a large flint match from a pewter cup, striking it and lighting the cigar. He puffed on it until the end glowed good and red.

“You don't know Sunny, or my father,” Landers answered, smiling almost sadly. “Sunny's got spirit. She'll try anything. And she's the apple of my father's eye. He named her Sunny because he says she brought a new ray of sunshine into his life when she was born. He doesn't go anyplace without her, and she wouldn't let him if he tried.” Colt sensed a tiny hint of jealousy in the words, but it vanished in the next sentence. “Sunny's name truly fits her,” Landers added, looking away from Colt and out a nearby window. “She has hair as yellow as the sun, eyes as blue as the sky, and a smile that makes it very hard not to love her, at least for me anyway. My older brother, well, I suppose he loves her like any other brother loves a sister, at least a half sister; but he's afraid my father will give her a little too much of the family fortune. Still—”

The man shifted in his chair and looked suddenly embarrassed. “Excuse me, Mr. Travis. I didn't mean to go on like that about personal family matters that are of no interest to you. I never answered your original question—what this job involves.” He leaned back, putting his right foot up on the opposite knee. “It's about a railroad, Mr. Travis, a transcontinental railroad—one that will link Chicago with California.”

Colt's eyebrows arched, and he could not help grinning. He took another puff on the cigar then, thinking what good tobacco it was. “A railroad clear across the country?” He could not suppress a snicker at the ridiculous idea.

“Go ahead and laugh, Mr. Travis,” Landers told him. “You wouldn't be the first man to scoff at the idea. Even I am no exception.”

Colt shook his head and took the cigar from his mouth. “To each man his own dream, I guess.” He walked back over to the chair but remained standing. “Your
intends to build this railroad?”

“He and several other enterprising men who don't know what else to do with their millions. I am perfectly aware there are plenty who think he's crazy, my older brother included. He won't have anything to do with any of this. Fact is, he thinks my father's foolish dreams are going to bankrupt us.” The man rubbed at his neck. “Much as I tend to agree he's a little crazy, I personally don't believe my father would let the family business go under because of his dreams. He and his own father and grandfather worked too hard to build what they have, Mr. Travis. They come from rugged stock. My father and grandfather helped settle Chicago when it was just a trading post—Fort Dearborn. They survived the Pottawatomie massacre of 1812, built a trading and shipping empire that's worth millions today. Started out in the fur trade. We own ships that travel the Great Lakes, and we own a good share of stock in the railroads that come into Chicago. More railroads lead into Chicago now than any other city. I'll bet you didn't know that.”

BOOK: Thunder on the Plains
6.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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