Allison Webster ran out of the train station, cursing herself. How had she managed to miss the porter’s call for everyone to board? She had to catch that train. She couldn’t risk staying any longer in Omaha. Someone had followed her to the boarding house last night and even though reason told her she was being foolish, she was certain she recognized the man as Nathan Garrison, from Colton County, Georgia.
“Wait!” Allison ran as fast as heeled boots would allow. Her small carpetbag banged against her leg as she chased after the train. “Please, wait!”
She caught up to the caboose, but the train was increasing speed. Black smoke belched from the behemoth’s massive diamond stack. A man poked his head out of a boxcar just in front of the last car. Even running for all she was worth, she noticed his smirk.
“Toss that bag up here and give me your hand,” he shouted, holding his hand out to her.
Without thinking of the possible consequences, Allison tossed her little bag into the car and grabbed the offered hand. He caught her wrist, and with one pull, lifted her into the air and swung her into the livestock car. Momentum carried her forward, and she fell to her knees in the straw, presumably bedding for the two cross-tied horses. At least it was clean, she comforted herself, and she hadn’t landed in anything distasteful. She knelt for a few moments to catch her breath and gather her scattered thoughts. Goodness, she never would have thought it possible for someone to pick her up and throw her as if she was little more than a sack of feed.
After several gulping breaths, she pushed herself to stand and turned to the man who had rescued her. He stood in the open doorway, leaning a shoulder against the frame, his back to the landscape speeding by at a faster and faster pace. He wore a threadbare gray overcoat, the double row of brass buttons tarnished, the elbows patched. Fraying canary yellow overlay bordered the cuffs and stand-up collar. A single gold star graced either side of the collar, the thread in the embroidery faded to almost the same shade as the frayed overlay. Three thin stripes of age-dulled gold braid spiraled up the sleeves from the cuffs in an intricate pattern. A battered, sweat-stained cavalry styled hat covered his head and shaded half his face.
Even though she couldn’t see his expression, Allison had the most uncomfortable feeling she was being looked over, sized up, and found to be lacking, a reaction she experienced all too often, but usually only in the presence of Alice, her fraternal twin sister. Selfconscious, she ran her hands down the front of her skirt.
“Thank you,” she managed.
He dipped his head. “First time we stop to take on water and wood, you can go on up to the passenger cars.” His rich, silken baritone startled Allison not for the depth of his voice but for the curtness of his words. Beyond a doubt, she had been dismissed.
The train jerked as it picked up even more speed and Allison stumbled forward, falling into him, the length of her upper body pressing against the wall of his chest. She grabbed his upper arms to steady herself. It was like grabbing hold of two solid posts of sturdy Georgia pine. She risked a look up into his face. Eyes the color of fine Italian cobalt marble set in a surprisingly youthful face regarded her with a detached expression. Dark beard stubble covered his lean, hollowed cheeks and hard jawline. A thin scar ran the length and slope of his right cheekbone, disappearing into his dark hair. The combination of unnaturally youthful features with a trim body defied a guess at his real age.
She couldn’t look away from his face and was unable to move. Struggling to form even a single word and aware she was gaping like a fish out of water, Allison snapped her mouth closed. Just the night before, she had seen that face depicted in the little dime novel she was reading and unless she was sorely mistaken, she was face to face with one Major A.J. Adams, rumored liberator of a lot of Confederate gold.
A muscle clenched in his jaw while something icy filled the depths of his eyes. His hands closed on her waist, and a small squeak escaped her. Without apparent effort, he lifted her and set her down a foot or so away. “Go sit down over there on that hay bale, before you fall out the door, or worse, knock me through it.”
Jolted out of her shocked silence and immobility, Allison managed a mumbled “Of course,” and cautiously walked to the hay bale in a corner of the car. She sat, then dropped her head to the wall behind her and shut her eyes, all the while tucking in the strands of hair that had escaped the chignon at the back of her head in an attempt to recreate a semblance of order.
After subduing her rebellious hair, she brushed the remaining strands of hay from her traveling suit and glanced over to the opened door, pondering her disbelief and shock in coming face to face with the main subject of the novel shoved into the depths of her carpetbag. With a small start, she realized she had looked up into his face earlier and she had never been accused of being short. And, he had lifted her—twice— as if she weighed no more than a feather tick.
Her brusque rescuer had his back to her. Black hair brushed over the top of his collar, a hard contrast to the canary yellow. He stood with his right shoulder pressed into the door frame, right ankle crossed over left. Shortshanked, blunted spurs were buckled onto his boots. Growing up and living all her adult life in rural Georgia, she knew many men who had fought for the Confederacy. Most of them, if they still wore part of their uniform, did so out of necessity. Reconstruction had brought poverty to the South and abject poverty among the “Sons of the South” was the norm rather than the exception.
He didn’t seem to wear that overcoat out of necessity. His denims weren’t faded, and even though there was wear from what she could see of the sole of his boots, they didn’t appear to be in poor repair. Rather it appeared that overcoat was worn as a badge of honor and even more so as armor, to keep the world at bay.
“Do you know how long before we stop to take on more water and fuel?”
He twisted his head to look at her over his shoulder. “Probably about an hour.”
“Thank you, again, sir.”
“Try not to make a habit of missing the train.”
When the train stopped to take on water at the first jerkwater little town, Allison admitted to herself that it had been the longest hour of her life. Her attempts at any conversation were met with silence at the worst and at the best, noncommittal grunts.
At least, she comforted herself, she was leaving Nebraska. If she had truly seen Nathan Garrison last night, and if he had been looking for her, the search would have to start all over. She quelled a sigh. She wasn’t going to be talking with the members of the school board in Omaha any time soon about a teaching position.
She should have kept going, and disappeared somewhere along the rail line, changed her name, even changed her hair color. Supposedly, there were ways to make her dark hair lighter, even red or blonde. And, if she had truly been smart, she would have done those things before she left Georgia. She could hear Alice’s outrage at just the contemplation of changing her hair color to red. Proper ladies did not dye their hair to any shade of red, regardless of the necessity of that action.
The train shuddered to a halt. He grabbed her bag and set it next to the open doorway and waited for her to leave the boxcar. Allison slid down from the car, took the strategically placed bag and before she could offer her thanks, he stepped back into the shadows and slid the heavy door shut. For a long moment she stared at the wooden barrier. If he was an example of what the defenders of chivalry and honor had been reduced to, Allison wanted to tell him she much preferred the carpet-bagging Yankees. And, yet, she knew that wasn’t true. She had no use for the carpet-baggers. They had invaded much as a horde of locusts of Biblical proportions and with the attitude common to all conquerors. “You, sir,” she said, not caring if he could hear her, “are no gentleman.”