Authors: Julane Hiebert
Book 1 of the Brides of The Feather Series
A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.
To my Bob, who has made our family rich, not with money or things, but because he is a man with a good name.
And to the memory of our daughters: Tamara Jill and Lori Julane, who are with Jesus, but who will remain in hearts and minds until that day when we will see them once again.
Book 1, Brides of The Feather Series
Cedar Bluff, Kansas
Late April 1877
He didn’t come. Now you’re alone. We told you so. Now you’re alone.
Her sisters’ admonitions taunted in rhythm as the big iron wheels of the steam engine began to roll, and the train hissed and chugged past Robin Wenghold. She braced herself against the strong, hot wind and gripped the handle of her valise so tight her fingernails dug into the palm of her hand.
Squinting against the afternoon sun, she limped to the end of the platform that ran the length of the stone depot. Heat shimmered above the silver tracks that stretched as far as she could see in one direction, and a twist of dust skittered down the street when she peered toward town. Why wasn’t he here? He promised. Had he discovered her infirmity and changed his mind?
A sleek, black cat occupied the one long bench on the platform, and Robin pushed it aside so she could sit. Her bad leg throbbed, and she longed to rub the pain away, but even after all these years her mama’s voice echoed in her mind
You needn’t draw attention to yourself, Robin. Your infirmity is obvious. Learn to bear your cross without pity.
The cat nudged its head under Robin’s elbow. “And for whom are you waiting, mister bad-luck kitty? Have you been jilted, too?” A steady purr vibrated beneath her hand while she stroked the cat’s warm back. If her papa were here he’d no doubt make a joke about his little bir
and a cat occupying the same space like long-lost friends. But then, if Papa were here she wouldn’t be in this predicament—stuck in hot, windy Kansas waiting for an uncle she’d never seen to come to her aid.
Sittin’ in a stew won’t fill a man’s belly
Papa’s words. And Papa was right. Worry wouldn’t get her any closer to her intended destination. She stood, and the cat jumped to the floor then sat on his haunches, switching its long tail against the splintery boards. Robin bent and patted the downy soft head. “Suppose you could take me home with you if my uncle doesn’t come? At least I’d have someone to talk to.” She straightened, adjusted her bonnet, picked up her valise—determined not to panic—and sidled into the depot.
One window on the far wall provided the only light in the dark room. The aroma of old tobacco smoke and mildew added to the dread, which lay like a cold biscuit in her stomach. Except for the steady ticking of the large black-framed clock that hung beside the window, silence hovered like a cloud. Even the skinny man behind the counter made no move to acknowledge her presence.
“Ahem.” She eyed the empty room
He had to be aware she was the only one there, didn’t he? She drummed her fingers on the counter under his nose. Hot and tired, she had no patience for such nonsense.
He didn’t raise his head, but pointed to a crudely lettered sign next to the window separating the tiny office from the waiting room
Ring wonce to git my atenshun. Ring twice if I don’t ansur the first time. If you kant see me, I ain’t here so jist take a seet and wate.
This was absurd. Robin tapped the bell with the palm of her hand. Nothing. He didn’t even wince. “Sir?” She stared in disbelief as one bony finger underscored the instruction to ring twice. She dropped her valise to the floor, moved the bell in front of her and with determination hit it two times.
“Name?” The little man licked the end of his pencil and peered from under a green visor balanced on protruding ears.
“Name? Why do you need to know my name? I only want to ask you a question.”
“Can’t answer no questions ‘til you tell me your name. It’s my job.”
“But I only need to . . .”
The man straightened his visor and thumped his chest. “This here says it all, ma’am.”
She moved closer to read the badge, which hung from a frayed ribbon pinned to his vest. “It says, Ticket Agen
His eyes crossed and forehead puckered as he peered at it upside-down. “Whooee, that do hurt them eyeballs.” He blinked, then gave a crooked grin and turned the button to the other side. “Sorry. Now, read it again and tell me what it says.”
Robin rubbed her temples. Her head hurt. Wher
her uncle? “That side says Carl Rempel, Stationmaster.”
“See, what’d I tell you?” The little man shook his finger. “It’s my job, as the stationmaster, to mark off the names of all them what get off at this here station. Gotta make sure ever’body who had a ticket used it at the right gettin’ off place.”
“But no one else . . .”
“Don’t matter. No, siree. Last week I put my mark beside five names. Next thing you know, I’m gonna need me a new pencil.” He tapped the stubby writing instrument on the counter. “Now accordin’ to my list here, you must be . . .”
“Robin Wenghold, sir. R-o-b-i-n. Perhaps you know my uncle, John Wenghold?” She retrieved a letter from her reticule and waved it in front of the man’s face. “He wrote he’d meet me upon my arrival.” She sucked her top lip between her teeth.
Mr. Rempel’s bald head turned red and his shoulders shook with laughter. “Well, what do ya know? Kinda late ain’t ya?” He winked.
“Pardon me?” How could she be late? Had she misread the ticket? That couldn’t be. The silly man had marked her off his list.
He rested his elbows on the counter and stuck his head through the little window. “Most robins what come in here fly in ‘long about the first of March. Here ‘tis late April, and you come in by train. Something happen to ruffle your feathers, did it?”
Robin closed her eyes and counted to ten. “Indeed, sir. I don’t think it’s all that funny.”
“Oh, it ain’t just your name what’s ticklin’ my funny bones.” He yanked a red bandana from his pocket and mopped his brow. “No, ma’am. You see, the real laugher is . . . Oh my. See, your uncle owns a ranch they call the Feather. And it got its name from the creek running through it—Pigeon Creek, they call it.”
Robin gritted her teeth and waited for Carl Rempel to quiet his funny bone
She knew all about the silly ranch name. Papa thought it quite humorous to tell anyone who cared to listen that his family included a nest of little birds—Robin, and her sisters Wren and Lark. But his one and only sibling’s claim to fame was a feather.
“What d’ya know. Robin. Feather. That do make me laugh.” Mr. Rempel slapped the counter with his hand.
Robin clenched her teeth. A lady could only take so much. Uncle John didn’t keep his word. She wouldn’t keep hers, either. She would take the first train home and forget she ever heard of Cedar Bluff, Kansas.
She rummaged in her reticule. “Mr. Rempel. I would like to purchase a one-way ticket to Chicago, please.” She counted the money and plunked it on the counter.
The man sobered. He took his watch out of his pocket, tapped it on his hand a couple of times, then peered at it from arm’s length. “Oh, I’m sorry Miss Robin, ma’am. I can’t sell it to you.” He removed his visor.
“What do you mean you can’t sell it to me? I have the money.”
“Well now, you see, according to my granddaddy’s pocket watch, the ticket agent is off duty ‘til t’morrow mornin’.”
“But . . . but . .
the ticket agent, aren’t you?” She pinched the bridge of her nose.
the ticket agent when the train came in, but weren’t nobody what needed a ticket, and ain’t no more trains comin’ or goin’ today so that makes me the stationmaste
and his job ain’t to sell tickets. His job is to
. . .”
“I know, I know. His job is to take names.” A lump worked its way up her throat, but she would not let this little man get the best of her. “Mr. Rempel. Please try to understand. I don’t know what to do. I have nowhere to go.”
He sidestepped around the counter, closed the half door, and hung his visor on a peg on the wall. One crooked finger beckoned her to follow him out of the station; then he locked the door behind them.
“Sorry to leave you all alone like this, but it’s the rules.” He plopped a tattered black hat on his head and bow-legged his way down the steps. Tiny puffs of dust followed him as he shuffled a few steps away, then stopped and pointed to the sky. “Storm a brewin’ I’d say. Hope John gets here before it hits.”
“Wait! What if he doesn’t come? Where can I go if it storms?
Don’t they have gentlemen in Kansas? Does he plan to leave me here all alone in this strange town?
“Don’t suppose you need to get fretful, ma’am. That there weather change has a whole lot of hills to cross before it gets to Cedar Bluff. If John Wenghold told you he’d come get ya, he’ll be here. Never knowed the man to whistle a windy.” He scratched his head through a hole in his floppy hat. “Reckon if you have to, you could go to Emma’s Mercantile down the street a ways. That’d likely be the first place John would look if ya wasn’t at the station.”
He pursed his lips and kissed the air. “C’mon, cat. We best see what Mrs. Rempel fixed us good to eat.” The black cat hopped from its seat on the platform, then arched its tail and marched behind the man as he shuffled away from the depot.
So much for taking me home with you, fickle kitty.
Robin waited until she could no longer see the stationmaster and his cat, then checked the gold watch pinned to her lapel. Four-thirty. One hour since the train chugged away, but it seemed a lifetime. Uncle John still had time to get here before dark. She rotated her shoulders and moved her head from side to side. No need to panic.
She sat on the long bench and massaged her left leg. She would give Uncle John another hour. Mr. Rempel said the storm remained a long way off, and her leg was too painful to attempt to walk any distance.
She leaned her head against the rough stone. Did her uncle know she was crippled? Surely Papa mentioned something to him over the years. But what if he hadn’t? Would Uncle John send her back to Chicago
Oh, Papa. If only you could tell me what to do.
Hot wind stung her cheeks, and she closed her eyes against the glare of the sun in her face. It wouldn’t do any good to pray, but she did so want Uncle John to get there before the storm.
Robin jerked from unbidden sleep. Heat radiated from the stone wall of the station behind her, and perspiration trickled down the side of her face. She limped to the end of the platform to search once more for any sign of her uncle. Another glance at her watch revealed a mere forty-five minutes had passed. Yet, in the short measure of time, the storm had crossed Mr. Rempel’s whole lot of hill
Ever-changing clouds scudded low across the prairie toward her. Behind them, a roiling, seething mass of green-black turbulence advanced above the horizon and flattened into a seemingly impenetrable wall as it continued its march across the prairie. An eerie silence hovered over the little Kansas town like a pall, yet belied the fury of activity up and down the dusty street.
Men ran to untie skittish teams from the hitching rails. Conveyances of all sizes careened past her. Many held wide-eyed women clutching open-mouthed babes in their arms—infants’ cries swallowed by the pounding of hooves and clatter of iron wheels.
She gulped down the growing knot of fear. To venture forth amongst such bedlam would be foolhardy. She needed time to navigate any distance, and time evaded her.
Lightning snaked from cloud to cloud, occasionally spearing the ground. Thunder reverberated through the dusty streets. It reminded her of a Fourth of July parade she’d witnessed once—the boom of the bass drum and the vibration of marching feet sensed long before the band could be seen.
The sky darkened and long fingers of hot wind hurled handfuls of grit and dirt at anyone who dared to remain within range. Her eyes stung from the debris, and salty tears added to the pain. As quickly as the heat of her tormentors passed, large drops of rain began to fall. She hid her face in her hands and sought refuge against the side of the building.