Please, Lord, let my Susannah be on this train. And give me some fancy talking so she’ll stay.
Fourth Siding,” the conductor yelled as he trundled down the aisle. “Your stop, miss.”
Susannah peered through the soot-covered window. Nothing. No false-fronted buildings, no hardy pioneer families riding in wagons, no tented gatherings of fur trappers and gold miners. Just drab brownish-green grass waving all the way to the horizon, as it had since Fargo this morning. Dakota Territory had to be the emptiest place on earth.
She pulled the letter from the pocket of her traveling suit. “Fourth Siding” was scrawled beneath his name, but no further directions. “I’m needing a wife,” he’d written in bold, angular letters, a mix of cursive and manuscript. The second page, folded with it for safekeeping, was written by Reverend Mason in precise script, round letters all slanting right.
Surely this Mr. Jesse Mason would be like his brother the minister—a kindly gentleman with a placid temperament. Susannah stowed the letter.
The engine swung onto the sidetrack. This was it. Time to make a good first impression. She patted her chignon, tucked in hairpins, straightened her bonnet and veil. She shook out her skirt, smoothed her jacket, and pulled on her gloves.
Her fluttering drew the attention of the other passengers, two soldiers and a civilian. The civilian, a grizzly bear of a man, shot a stream of tobacco juice in the general vicinity of the spittoon, then swabbed the dregs on the sleeve of his checked shirt. His beard parted, showing a raw space where an upper incisor should be. Susannah shuddered. Poor dentist.
Please let my husband have all his teeth. And let him be free of the tobacco habit.
Susannah stopped herself. It was no use praying. If God listened, she wouldn’t be in this predicament. The Almighty wasn’t going to help her, that much was clear. She’d just have to manage in her usual way, without divine intervention.
With a squeal and jerk of the brakes, the Northern Pacific westbound run pulled up to a small platform. Late summer sun baked the new wood of a locked shed. No sign of Mr. Mason or anyone else to meet her. No town, no depot, no hotel. Susannah’s heart sank. Well then, she’d ride on, wherever the train went.
The tobacco spitter stood and stretched, filling the aisle with his bulk. “I’ll fetch your grip.” His bristly paw engulfed the handle of her satchel, which contained her change of collars and cuffs, handkerchiefs, and towel, all in desperate need of laundering.
“But . . .” She followed, not knowing what else to do.
He deposited her bag on the platform and handed her down. “Begging pardon, miss, but you’re looking mighty peaked. You all right?”
As much as she’d paid for her breakfast toast, she would not lose it. “I’m fine, thank you.”
At the freight car door, the conductor hauled out two trunks, all that was left of her life in Detroit. Susannah needed to inform the train crew she wouldn’t be staying; please put her luggage back on. But the grizzly wouldn’t let go.
“If it don’t work out with Jesse,” he said in a phlegm-thick voice, “you’re welcome over to my place. Across the river at the next siding. Name’s Abner Reece.”
How did he know she was here to meet Jesse Mason? And was he proposing? Surely she’d done nothing to encourage his attention. She’d avoided even glancing his way. “If you’ll excuse me—”
The train whistle split the air, and the conductor hustled Mr. Reece back into the passenger car.
Susannah raised her voice and her arm, abandoning all pretense of ladylike behavior. “Wait! Pardon me, sir. There’s no one—”
But the pounding steam engine drowned out the conductor’s reply. He pointed north, over her shoulder, to a telegraph pole. When Susannah turned back, the locomotive had huff-huffed west with its two cars.
A shower of red-hot cinders rained down. She jumped, shaking her black serge skirt. When she looked up, the train had grown smaller. It crested the earth and disappeared.
A bone-deep ache pressed down on her, heavy as the August sun. Her knees shook. A tear slipped out. It wasn’t like she’d answered an advertisement in a hearts-and-hands publication. No, her pastor’s brother had written to her, had asked her to marry him. He should be here.
Susannah knew what they said about her at Lafayette Avenue Church. With her plain looks and her family’s limited means, she could hardly expect to attract a husband. Her shyness made others uncomfortable. And her interest in her father’s veterinary surgery was highly inappropriate.
She hadn’t been invited to parties, hadn’t had a proper coming out, hadn’t been courted, not even by the battle-scarred soldiers limping home from the War. Becoming a mail-order bride seemed like her best chance, her only chance, for a home and family of her own.
Susannah removed her veil, wiped her cheeks, and drew in a breath. As she stuffed her gloves into her pockets, her fingers brushed the handkerchief knotted around the last of her funds. After paying for train tickets, hotels, and restaurant meals, she was left with $3.72.
Not much. Not enough. She had no choice. She would simply take the next train, wherever it went, whenever it came.
After four days on the train and three nights in noisy, smelly hotels, the platform was a fine place to wait. Fresh, quiet, like a raft floating on a sea of grass.
A loud thump shook the boards beneath her feet. Susannah spun around, her mind conjuring images of stampeding buffalo, cattle rustlers, Indians on the warpath. Her heel caught on her satchel and she fell.
As she lay there breathless, she heard heavy boots cross the planks and caught a glimpse of a wide-brimmed straw hat and broad shoulders covered by a faded blue shirt. His open hands carried no weapons. He must have been hiding under the platform, holed up like a bandit. But Susannah didn’t have a derringer in her pocket or a bowie knife in her boot or even a next-door neighbor with a fireplace poker.
“Are you all right?” His low voice cut through the wind.
Due to the current fashion of bustles and petticoats, Susannah could fall on her backside without injury, but standing was another matter. Gathering the fragments of her dignity, she straightened her back and lifted her chin. “Have we been introduced?”
The man wiped his palms on his pants and reached for her. “Miss Susannah Underhill?”
Susannah planted her hands as far down as she could reach, trying to keep the wind from blowing her skirts over her head.
She’d lived anonymously her entire life in Detroit; now all the inhabitants of Dakota Territory seemed fully informed of her identity and intentions. “How do you know my name?”
The man sat on his heels. One corner of his mouth curved as if he couldn’t manage a full smile. “I’m Jesse Mason. Your husband.”
She looked up into a face that seemed oddly familiar. Then the image changed, like a stereopticon picture coming into focus. The high forehead, prominent nose, and mouth that tilted to the right were the same as his brother’s, but this man was a few years older, his skin weathered. His face was rounder, the cleft in his chin more pronounced. Deep-set eyes—hazel, not blue—inspected her.
“Guess I gave you a scare. Sorry about that.” He grinned, and she was glad to see he did indeed have all his teeth.
His wide hands, clean for a farmer’s, enveloped hers, and the touch of his skin reminded her she’d removed her gloves. So much for a good first impression. The only thing worse would be bursting into tears, making her nose run and her eyes red. Or losing her breakfast. She clamped her lips together, squeezed her eyes. A small hurt sound, accompanied by a tear, got away from her.
“You’re crying. Hurting from your spill?”
She fumbled in her pocket, but her least dirty handkerchief was wrapped around the evidence of her poverty, and she wasn’t ready for him to find out about that just yet.
He removed his neckerchief, then frowned and stuffed it in his back pocket. “Can’t use a sweaty bandanna on a lady.” One warm, calloused finger skimmed her cheek. “Got you shaking like the cottontail my dog brought me last week.” The planks creaked as he sat beside her. For a moment, they were eye to eye.
Susannah wanted to say how relieved she was that he came for her, to explain she was crying from nervousness. A word scraped up her throat, past the dry lump of her breakfast. “Hotel?”
“Closest is a tent with bunks, ten miles west. Half-dollar more fare and no place for a lady. Nearest one with real rooms is fifty miles back in Fargo. You stayed there last night.” His thumbs rubbed her palms. “I got your trunks down below.”
“You live here?”
“No, I—we—have a house south of here a few miles.”
“You knew I’d arrive today?”
“Matt sent a telegram, and here you are, right on time! Welcome to Fourth Siding, Dakota Territory.”
“Is this the town?” Her voice betrayed her with a squeak.
“Northern Pacific built the siding this spring. Us New Yorkers want to call it Buffalo. Expect naming will have to wait until we get a few more people.”
What New Yorkers? she wondered.
“Here, let me help you up.” He pulled her to standing, bringing her level with the tuft of brown hair curling from his collarless neckline. “Hey, you’re a little bit of a thing.” He gave her an extensive perusal, a farmer inspecting livestock. She might as well have opened her mouth so he could figure her age by her teeth.
“Gets pretty cold and lonesome out here.” He shook his head, his jaw set in the “not buying” mode.
Panic shot down her spine. Was he going to send her back before he’d even given her a chance? “I brought warm clothes.” Susannah rose on tiptoes to look taller. “Ellen thought—”
But she’d already lost his attention. He squinted over her head and whispered, “Dear Lord.” In one swift move he spun away, kicked the shed door, and broke inside. He jerked the pump handle, working it furiously. Water sputtered into a bucket. “Cinder sparked the grass!”
A tiny puff of smoke spiraled alongside the tracks half a block west. “Fire! Fire!” Susannah yelled. “Where’s the nearest fire department?”
“Fargo, maybe. Or St. Paul.” He grabbed the sloshing bucket and dashed off the west end of the platform. “Fill the other!”
Smoke rose above her, tainting the air. A line of flames slithered toward the platform. He swung. Water hit its target, but the fire grew, chewing through the dry grass. At this rate, the whole territory would go up within minutes, taking them with it. Susannah grabbed the pump handle.
Arms aching, she hauled the full bucket and he swapped it for the empty one. The blaze raced toward them. This time she made it to the edge of the platform before him.
He disappeared into grass taller than his head, then popped out nearby, both arms raised. “Hallelujah! Who needs a fire department? I got you!”
Susannah leaned against the shed, wheezing like a horse with the heaves. Her bonnet hung on her ear, her chignon drooped on her neck, and her skirt sagged with water. She had passed the glowing allotted to ladies and dripped sweat like a horse.
With one hand he vaulted onto the platform and landed with another loud thud. As their handwriting predicted, this man was nothing like his brother. In spite of the heat, a shiver ricocheted through her, shoulders to toes. “Forgive me for raising my voice.”
“Shouting is warranted when facing an inferno.” He rinsed his bandanna under the pump, wrung it out, then reached for her.
What a mess she must be. Susannah raised her hand. “It’s all right. You don’t have to—”
“I promised God I’d take care of you.” He moved so close she had to shut her eyes. The cool cloth brushed her forehead, wiping from hairline to jaw, then down the other side. “You shouldn’t wear black in summer.”
“I’m in mourning.”
“I know,” he said, his tone patient. “But you’ll melt with this sun. Take off your hat and coat.”
Undress in public? Her corset inexplicably tightened. Her heart beat against her ribs in protest. What kind of man had she married? She had kept her jacket on the entire trip, in spite of the heat, so strangers wouldn’t stare.
A twitch of a smile crossed his face. “Queen Victoria will never find out. Guaranteed.”
This stranger was her husband. She’d promised to obey him. Susannah nodded. He helped her out of her redingote. She untied the ribbons from her neck and lifted off her bonnet. The breeze wove cool fingers through her hair.
“Fine, thank you.” Truth was, she felt exposed. Without the protection of her hat’s brim, her words vanished on the wind. Her blouse flapped in an unseemly manner. She crossed her arms to maintain some particle of modesty and hide her frayed cuffs.
He looked her up and down. “Prettier than I thought.” He made a sound in the back of his throat, somewhere between a groan and a cough, then glanced at the sun. “We’d best head for home.”