Authors: Jacqui Nelson
Can the pursuit of an old enemy lead to a new love?
March 28, 1870
Standing on the fringe of a courtyard full of women, Adella Willows waited to make a bargain with the Devil. Not that the Devil himself was coming to meet her. He was sending a fat, yellow-bellied Yankee senator dressed in a suit as fine as President Grant’s.
Moreton finally sauntered out of Emporia’s most stately building and through the now disbanding suffrage rally. He passed Adella and her tripod camera without a glance, so close that even out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed the silver in his mutton-chop whiskers.
didn’t turn her camera to follow him. She wasn’t here for a picture. Her camera was only a ruse to throw off anyone watching, as was her decision to keep her back to the senator. Both she and the senator knew this meeting was best kept clandestine. But her inability to see him made the skin between her shoulder blades itch as if a sniper’s rifle were aimed at her back.
Leaving her camera facing the thinning crowd, she draped the cloth hood over her arm and set a spare lens atop the camera to catch the senator’s reflection. He’d settled his heavy frame on the bench behind her and to her left. His image was distorted and unearthly, as if she viewed him through Alice’s looking-glass.
“You don’t really believe in all this equality for the masses, do you?” he asked her, angling his body away from her so he appeared to be watching the women departing the square with their “right to vote” picket signs.
She busied herself packing the rest of her equipment. “I’m a photographer with the
.” The lie flowed unbidden from her lips—a force of habit. The truth that followed came more slowly. “I believe only in my next assignment, the one that’s in your best interest to support.”
The senator snorted a laugh. “My contacts said you could be blunt. You talk like an equal or worse, a superior. The Union may have freed the slaves and one day may grant women the vote, but mankind will never be equal. We are different. We are individuals. That’s what has brought you to Emporia. You hold a grudge against an individual, a very long-standing grudge.”
Her hands froze. But her gaze darted to the lens.
The senator’s regard remained on the last lingering protestors. “The war’s been over for five years,” he added.
“The war’s over for the dead, not for their families.” Her voice sounded only slightly high-pitched, thank Dixie.
Aiming for a nonchalance she did not feel, she lifted the camera hood from the crook of her arm and pretended great interest in smoothing out its wrinkles before folding the cloth in half. “Too many soldiers, on both sides, suffered needlessly to pad the pockets of the wealthy.”
“Ah, once again we speak of an individual—a prisoner of war who died a month before Lee’s surrender.”
Pain sliced her heart like a saber strike, swift and merciless. The war had stolen her home and her youth. She’d been fifteen when the fighting started. All of that was forgivable. The loss in that final month was not. Declan—
She must not think of him. She must focus on the task at hand. Concentrating on keeping her hands steady, she finished folding the hood.
“I’ve been checking up on you, Miss Willows.” The senator propped one ankle on his knee and laid his intertwined fingers over his round gut. “Why do you think you’re here and not some other agent?”
“I’m here because the law won’t prosecute a prominent northern businessman who illegally sold rations meant for Confederate prisoners of war.” She knew this well, had witnessed it firsthand. Rich Yankees—even ones supposedly assigned to deal out justice—only took care of each other. For her there hadn’t been any justice, which told her that if she didn’t look out for herself, no one else would.
Moreton? She’d thought he was here to increase his already ample wealth. But maybe helping her ruin Levi Parsons was also retaliation for a business deal gone wrong or a political slight. Did Moreton hold a grudge against Parsons as well?
Moreton closely, she asked, “Why did you give me the document incriminating Parsons?”
The senator’s image shimmered. The line of his shoulders and the angle of his jaw suddenly radiated tension. “To determine how far you’re willing to go—off the books, of course. You’ve known Parsons was responsible for your brother’s death for a week. But the judge still struts around unscathed.”
Anger stiffened Adella’s spine. She pushed the emotion into a far corner of her heart and made herself relax. “I won’t become a murderer like Parsons, if that’s what you’re wondering. Death is too quick. I wish to bleed Parsons dry, but only of his precious greenbacks. Tell me, Senator Moreton, why do you think you’re here and not some other government bigwig?”
“Me? What the blazes are you talking about? I organized this meeting, not you.”
She set the hood on the leather valise that she always kept close at hand. Inside was the document Moreton had given her. The proof she’d searched so long to find. The form named Parsons as the ration contractor for Camp Douglas.
She raised her chin and focused solely on the senator’s reflection. “You and Parsons are business partners promoting the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad.”
He shrugged. “That’s common knowledge.”
“But not common knowledge that you own stock in its rival, the Joy Line.”
The senator’s silence stretched her nerves taut.
“If Parsons fails to reach Indian Territory before the Joy Line,” she continued, “he forfeits the land grants. His share prices become worthless. He’ll lose a fortune. I can ensure his loss is your gain.”
“You presume to know everything, you tell me.”
“You’re merely a rabble rouser, a former Rebel spy turned unofficial government agent. You—” Planting both feet on the ground, he twisted round on the bench to stare at her openly. The whites of his deep-set eyes flashed in the glass. “You can provoke enough dissent to halt a railroad?”
“I need only delay its construction from reaching the border before your favored railroad. But to do so I need you to finance my efforts and keep the other agents out of my way—off the books, of course.”
“I underestimated you, Miss Willows. Don’t make the same mistake with others. You may scheme above the masses, but you can return to them very quickly.” The senator stood and turned to leave. “Get the job done and don’t get caught,” he said, not looking back. “Or you might end up with a fate equal to your brother’s.”
New Chicago, Kansas—340 miles north of the Indian Territory border
One day later
The steam whistle howled. Brakes screeched. Then the cheering of Adella’s fellow passengers joined the hullabaloo as the train halted at New Chicago’s station. Only a week off a ship from Ireland, the men had talked of nothing but employment and adventure at the end of the railroad line. The simplicity of their ambitions made her feel ancient beyond her twenty-four years.
Sadness squeezed her chest with the force of a thousand gloomy days rolled into one. A new town held the allure of new beginnings.
But not for her. Never for her. She was only here to avenge the death of one man by ruining the life of another.
She waited until the last passenger left the train before she followed. Her muscles protested, her body aching after sitting on the hard bench for hours. On the other side of the platform, the station—a rectangular building cobbled together from scrap wood fit only for a bonfire—wasn’t any more comforting. Nor were the steps leading down to a narrow path of boards thrown over a sea of mud.
Or the towering cloudbank, heavy with the scent of rain.
She might never come face to face with Levi Parsons in this rough and tumble place, but this was where she’d exact her revenge on him.
Behind her, the engine hissed, spewing one final plume of smoke. At the end of the train, a man dressed in the latest fashion of a bowler hat and a dark-blue three-piece suit descended from a private railcar. Reaching back, he helped down a woman with vibrant red hair only slightly more remarkable than her outfit. Her jacket might have been commissioned by some unknown army, but the trouser cuffs—visible under the billowing hem of her ankle-length skirt as she stepped down—could only have been inspired by a free spirit. The man offered her his arm. Then he strode toward the stairs, forcing her to keep up with his swift stride.
recognized the pair from her time skulking around public events while she searched for the Yankee who’d killed Declan. Tears pricked the back of her eyes. She blinked them away. Your mission, she reminded herself, think only of your mission.
Henry Stevens, Levi Parsons’ Chief of Operations, was in charge of ensuring the Katy reached the Indian Territory border before the competition.
Adella was here to ensure he failed.
But why was Parsons’ daughter here?
Adella made a beeline for the stairs, timing her pace so her path crossed the couple’s. She knew the instant her amethyst silk dress snared Stevens’ attention. His pace slowed. His gaze lowered, taking in her low-cut décolletage, corseted waist and swaying skirt—then travelled up again, pausing just a little too long on her bosom before finally finding her eyes. In her experience, people chose clothing for the wrong reasons or worse no reason at all. She’d assembled her wardrobe to trigger certain reactions.
Stevens halted, forcing Miss Parsons to do the same.
Adella’s dress had done its job.
“May I be of service, Miss…?” Stevens gestured to the leather valise in her hand.
The case held her letters, and a glut of photographs and documents she’d painstakingly assembled over the last five years. Those years had been necessary to prepare for this day. So had the years preceding—the years she’d spent dressed as a boy in order to play her part for the Confederacy as a Rebel spy. In every stage of her life, she’d employed whatever tools she could.
Today, her specialty had become using information to provoke unrest. Pictures and words were powerful motivators, but only with people who had a conscience. The contents of her valise would be no help when dealing with a social climber like Stevens.
“My name is Miss Willows,” she replied, keeping a firm grasp on her valise. “Thank you for your offer, but I wouldn’t want to be a bother. I apologize if I seemed to be racing you to the stairs.”
She widened her eyes and talked quickly to make her voice sound breathless. “As a new employee of the
, I’m just eager to record as much as possible about the railroad, and the towns springing up around it. Can you imagine being responsible for something as big as the Missouri, Kansas and…Texas Railroad?” She forced herself to stumble over the name, as if it were unfamiliar.
Stevens chuckled. “In fact I can. I’m Henry Stevens. We call this line the Katy, and I’m in charge of building her.” His chest swelled with the proclamation. “And this is Miss Parsons.”
Miss Parsons tilted her head, but the acknowledgement, although polite, was a tad stiff. Was Miss Parsons jealous of Stevens’ interest? Adella racked her brain for a way to soothe any ruffled feathers. If Miss Parsons were annoyed with her, it would serve no purpose.
“There are so few women on the frontier. I hope you won’t think it forward of me, but will you consent to calling me
Miss Parsons’ eyebrows shot up, but just for an instant. “I’ll only agree,” she replied, “if you call me Kate in return.”
Adella admired Kate’s gracious acceptance of her offer. But the surprise Kate had shown gave her pause. What kind of life had this well-to-do woman led that she expected Adella to be unfriendly?
couldn’t afford to be impressed or concerned about Parsons’ daughter. She’s your enemy’s flesh and blood, she reminded herself. During the war, Parsons had been awarded the government contract to supply food to Confederate prisoners detained at Camp Douglas. The soldiers hadn’t been fed. Parsons had gotten richer. Thousands of men had starved to death, including Declan. The pain and suffering her twin brother must have endured—
She quickly bottled up the grief that threatened to engulf her again. She couldn’t afford to be weak. Not now. Not ever.
“You’re here to photograph the railroad, aren’t you?” Kate asked. “I saw you taking pictures at the suffrage rally in Emporia.”
Adella like a mule kick to the forehead. What else had Kate seen? Shoving down her panic with her grief, she recalled her activities yesterday in Emporia. She’d insisted on meeting Senator Moreton after the rally. She’d chosen the bench on the edge of the square, so they’d be less noticeable. She’d been careful.
, she reproached herself. She’d agreed to the meeting with less than her usual forethought, because she wanted the senator to support her mission.
Had Kate seen them?
Best to find out immediately. Best to be bold. Best to bluff.
She plastered a smile on her face and dredged her mind for a pleasant memory to make it appear genuine. “Were you there at the end of the rally? I could have taken your picture too.”
“I had to leave early to luncheon with my father,” Kate replied.
Then Kate hadn’t seen her with the senator.
Adella’s smile became real.
“It must be rewarding,” Kate continued, “capturing such monumental moments in our nation’s evolution.”
“We race toward change. I can only hope that certain transformations arrive before others, and that I am present when they do.” Adella bowed her head, striving to not only appear humble but to gather her wits.
She was doing more than hoping. She was making sure the changes she wanted happened. But if she wished to shape the future—to revenge
Declan’s death and make up for failing him during the war—she must exercise greater caution in the present. It wouldn’t do to have Kate uncover her real purpose for being here. The information gathering should only flow one way. Information like why Parsons’ very observant daughter was in New Chicago.
“Are you in town for a visit?” she asked.
Kate raised her chin. “A business endeavor.”
“We’ll discuss that later,” Stevens muttered.
Pink flared across Kate’s cheeks. It was hard to tell if it came from embarrassment or anger. Kate gestured toward the train. “You’ll want to get a photograph of the new engine.”
Stevens was suddenly all smiles. “Yes. Why don’t you come by my railcar tomorrow? I can show you how best to photograph the Katy. Surely your newspaper, or you, could use the donation I’m willing to bestow for a favorable article.”
Kate’s fingers tightened on his arm. “Buying good will isn’t the same as creating good will.”
held her tongue, waiting for the pair to reveal more insights into their personalities.
Stevens patted Kate’s hand. “I’m neglecting my duties. It’s time I secured you a room at the hotel.” He tipped his bowler to
Adella. “Until tomorrow, Miss Willows.”
The formality of calling her by her surname wasn’t lost on her. Stevens knew the power of words and money. But he didn’t seem to know the power in a woman. That could make him an easier nut to crack than the complex creature that was Kate Parsons. Although a frown marred Kate’s brow, she let Stevens steer her down the stairs toward town.
Adella’s thoughts spun with ideas for using the friction between the pair to delay the railroad’s construction. What was their relationship? Whatever it was, it was a bonus she hadn’t expected when she approached them. But that was for tomorrow, as Stevens had rightfully said.
They weren’t the only people in New Chicago she could use to stall construction. If the Katy lost the race, Parsons’ stock would plummet. He’d lose everything he valued. Parsons had destroyed the one thing she cherished, so she’d do the same to him. Parsons still had family but, judging from her research on him, he only seemed to care about wealth and power. When she was done with his railroad, he’d have little left.
She crossed the now empty platform to the station’s solitary window. The porter had left her trunks next to it, but he was nowhere to be seen. Standing under the sagging eave, she cupped her hand against the glass, and leaned close to peer at the shadowy interior.
“Look lively,” a deep Irish brogue boomed.
She flattened her spine against the station’s wall. Its uneven surface jabbed her in a dozen uncomfortable places. She didn’t move.
Footsteps pounded up the stairs, making the boards shudder beneath her feet. Then a lone man bounded up the last step and across the platform, his attention fixed on the train. From his shaggy hair to his massive back to his powerfully built limbs he was a series of shades of brown. She squinted. He was covered in mud.
“Hop to, lads,” he hollered. “We’re late!”
A dozen men raced up the steps, swarming the platform like ants summoned from the earth to capture a hill.
Brown ants. They shared their leader’s coloring. Like him, they were caked in mud so thick it covered them like a second skin, like armor on toy soldiers cast from the same mold…except they were the varying size and shape of ordinary men. All save their leader. Nothing ordinary about that one. With the height and muscular breadth of a giant, he towered over everyone.
The men who’d arrived with her on the train returned. They shuffled up the steps at a much slower pace. Startling clean standing next to the mud-covered men, they clustered together and darted glances at the big Irishman.
He crossed his arms and turned to face them. “Supply master usually meets new recruits rather than letting you wander off. Informed me last minute he had another task requiring his attention. Every delay means less track laid at day’s end. So we’re moving fast to make it up. Some of the McGrady Gang—” he gestured to the dozen mud-caked men, “—will show you how to uncouple Stevens’ railcar.”
Two men leapt between the cars. Metal clanged and scraped.
“Pay attention. You’ll all take a turn eventually. When they’re done, jump aboard the train. It’s time to earn your pay.”
“But we’ve been
travelin’ since dawn,” one of the new recruits grumbled.
“And you’ll work every day from dawn till dusk,” the big Irishman replied. “Welcome to the life of railroader,
boyo. You’ll get used to it soon enough.”
“It’s not me that needs convincing, it’s me
All of the workmen broke out in guffaws. Their leader didn’t join them. Then a deafening squeal came from the front of the train. The laughter died as they spun as one to face the sound.
The platform was barely long enough to provide access to the two passenger cars. Between those cars and the engine stood a stockcar piled high with the iron rails used to form the track. A man, wearing loose fitting railroad bibs and a wide-brimmed hat drawn low over his face, crouched on top of the rails. The workmen—both clean and muddy—surged to the edge of the platform, blocking her view.
“It’s one of the Joy Men.” The declaration came from the big Irishman hidden somewhere beyond the wall of bodies between her and the train.
A spy for the rival railroad? If James Joy had sent a rabble rouser from his line, she’d best learn as much about him as possible. Starting with what he looked like.
She pushed through the workmen. Each man spun with a scowl, ready to berate whoever poked him in the ribs or stepped on his toes. When they saw her, they stumbled back, jaws dropping. She reached the platform’s edge just in time to see the man on the stockcar leap to the engine, run across its back and slid down the cattle guard to the ground.
“After him, lads!” The big Irishman roared from somewhere close.