Authors: Lisa Harris
Copyright © 2007 by Lisa Harris. All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the permission of Truly Yours, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., PO Box 721, Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683.
All scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.
Our mission is to publish and distribute inspirational products offering exceptional value and biblical encouragement to the masses.
Tara Young stuck her hand into the satin lining of her fringed jacket. The thin paper crinkled between her fingers, assuring her of its presence. All she had to do was carry the message into the mercantile and pass it to the young clerk who worked there. A simple task considering her last assignment. Stopping in front of the sheriff’s office, Tara measured the distance between her and the front door of the store. Ten steps, maybe eleven. A quick look down the boardwalk, which ran parallel to the town’s whitewashed storefronts, confirmed her assessment that no one was paying attention to her.
And why should they? There was no reason for anyone to sense anything out of the ordinary with her presence in the busy passageway. She looked like any other fashionable young woman out for a day of shopping for ribbons or perhaps a peek at the latest dress fabric that had just arrived from the East. There was no cause to suspect her of carrying confidential information on the war. No grounds for anyone to guess she was a spy for her country.
A man stepped in front of her, his boots clanking on the wooden flooring. The afternoon sun caught the shiny ivory handle of a gun beneath his black overcoat. Tara swallowed hard. The moment of truth had arrived. And this time, she was ready.
Tara’s head smacked against the back wall of the stagecoach, jarring her from her slumber. She sucked in a deep breath of air and held herself upright, hoping the other five occupants of the horse-drawn vehicle hadn’t caught her snoring. Two trains, and now a stagecoach that had seen better days, had been enough to prove to her the inconveniences of traveling. How was a lady supposed to endure mile after mile of wheels jarring at every rut and fellow passengers snoring like an off-key church choir?
Sighing, she glanced down at the fawn colored material of her traveling suit and winced at the condition of the garment. When she’d purchased it two weeks ago, it had been one of the most stunning ensembles in the store, guaranteed by the saleswoman to travel with ease. Now the folds of fabric were wrinkled, covered with a layer of dust, and stained with coffee. Any positive first impressions she’d hoped to leave with her new employers were bound to be sadly lacking.
The man beside her, who oddly enough resembled the ruffian in her dream, shifted his weight, causing his elbow to gouge into her side. By the end of her journey to Browning City, she’d be bruised from head to toe, if not from the two men between whom she sat sandwiched, then from the rickety springs and constant bouncing of the stagecoach.
He nodded his apologies, then turned toward the small window overlooking endless miles of rolling hills and farmland. As the hours continued to pass, there had been little change in the scenery. Cornfields seemed to have swallowed up every inch of the fertile soil, interspersed by only an occasional farmhouse or apple orchard.
She knew little about the state except for stories from her aunt Rachel, and more recently, memories from the pages of her aunt’s journal. A sudden bout with cholera may have taken her beloved aunt away from this world, but in her short lifetime, Rachel Young had traveled from San Francisco to London and had seen more of this world than Tara might see if she lived to be a hundred.
A second glance at her attire brought a frown to her lips. Her aunt would have arrived at her destination in the height of fashion with barely a crease to show for her venture. Tara, on the other hand, seemed to have more in common with an Iowa farmer’s wife than with a cultured lady. It was the latter role that had allowed her aunt to work above suspicion as she carried messages across enemy lines as a spy during the recent War Between the States. No one had anticipated
Young to be anything other than a charming and beautiful socialite.
But expectations often ran sour. Tara stared at the heart-shaped stain on her skirt. Hadn’t she always wanted to be like the other women in her family? Courageous and spirited. Even her parents, despite her mother’s somewhat eccentric behavior, had worked for the Underground Railroad, helping dozens of slaves find freedom in the North, something President Ulysses S. Grant himself had attested to with a letter of recognition.
But most of the time she wasn’t convinced it was even possible for a young woman of nineteen, as herself, to live up to the high standards that had been placed upon her.
Mrs. Meddler’s raspy voice brought Tara out of her reverie. A bright smile erupted across the face of the older woman who sat across from her. While Agnes Meddler’s thin nose was too long and her brown gingham dress most unfashionable, at least she had been a pleasant source of conversation. The four men sharing the cramped quarters with them, on the other hand, had spent their time either sleeping or passing the bottle, much to Tara’s disgust.
“Look outside.” Mrs. Meddler jutted out her pointed chin. “We’re almost there.”
Tara strained her neck to look out the window. The dozing man beside her, his greased hair now plastered with dust, blocked most of the view, but if she stretched high enough she could catch a framed snippet of the terrain. The tops of the cornfields waved in the warm summer wind like a friendly greeting, but she could see no signs of houses or people or even Browning City.
Tara lowered her brow. “Are you sure we’re almost there?”
“We’re not more than a quarter of an hour away, I believe.” The woman leaned forward in her seat and caught Tara’s gaze. “No matter what anyone tells you, there’s no better state than Iowa. Fruit trees, walnut trees, corn as far as the eye can see, and did you notice the lavender wildflowers? We call them wild bergamot, and they are but a sample of summer’s colorful offering. . .”
Tara barely listened as the woman chattered on regarding the vast resources Iowa possessed and its good citizens. She
hoped Browning City would boast something other than
wildflowers, cornfields, and pleasant companions. While it might not offer all the cultural opportunities or the latest collections of fashionable clothing from Europe, she hoped it would at least offer a shaded city park or perhaps an ice cream parlor to provide a refreshing relief from the heat.
Of course, choosing to leave the comforts of the city had been her decision. Three weeks ago, she accepted the job as a companion for two of her distant elderly relatives, Thaddeus and Ginny Carpenter, in Browning City. But she hadn’t taken the job for the income. Her aunt Rachel’s journal mentioned a cache of gold lost by the Union army just waiting to be recovered—by her. She knew the Bible well enough to know that it was a sin to store up treasure here on earth, but this was different. This was her one chance to prove she could live up to her family’s reputation and bear the Young name proudly.
When Mrs. Meddler hadn’t been gossiping about how the sheriff had finally hired a deputy, or that the Dutch blacksmith and his wife recently had been surprised with twins, Tara had spent her time formulating her ideas to find the gold. And she was ready to put her plan into action.
Tara pressed her hand against her coiffed hair, wishing she had a chance to freshen up before alighting from the stage. A quick check with her fingers confirmed her suspicion that the combs had slipped beneath her velvet bonnet the saleslady had described as a regal shade of plum. And her skewed bonnet was no different from her misaligned life. Besides having the striking auburn color that ran in the Young family, she was the misfit who had never done anything that could even be considered courageous. Leaving the city to come to Iowa had been the first step to correct that image.
Fifteen minutes later, the stage came to a stop. Tara grasped the handle of her small beaded carpetbag, forcing herself to relax the tight muscles in her shoulders and still the flutter of butterflies in her stomach. She exchanged pleasantries with her short-term companions and disembarked with Mrs. Meddler while the driver unloaded their trunks.
From the edge of the station platform, she scanned the western horizon where the sun was already making its descent toward the rolling terrain. Mrs. Meddler had informed her that to the north lay the main street of town. Two dozen businesses, at the most, lined the wooden boardwalk, advertising their trade on hanging signs or hand painted on windowpanes. It was a far cry from Boston.
She tried to ignore her disappointment. “So this is Browning City?”
Mrs. Meddler laughed. “What did you expect? Chicago?”
Tara cleared her throat, wondering how the woman had managed to read her thoughts. “Of course not, but I. . . Really, it is beautiful with the sunlight shimmering through the clouds like a painted mural.” She turned to her new friend. “And if the citizens are even half as nice as you say they are, then how could I not be happy here?”
Despite her sudden trepidation over the situation, Tara tried to sound convincing. The sky was beautiful, and she was glad to have a friend. Those two things, at least, were true.
“Will you be all right if I leave you now?” Worry shone through Mrs. Meddler’s smile. “I do hate leaving you here all alone when you don’t know a single soul in town besides me.”
Tara gripped the handle of her bag. “Really, Mrs. Meddler. I’ll be fine. Mr. Carpenter assured me that he would meet me here at the station, and I’m sure he will be along any minute.”
At least, she hoped she was right. Surely her employer would be prompt when it came to time. After days of traveling, she wanted nothing more than a hot bath and a soft mattress on which to sleep. She’d then feel fresh enough tomorrow to put her plan into action.
Mrs. Meddler paused at the edge of the platform. “If by chance you do need to find me, just go into town and stop by the hotel and ask for me by name. It would be a pleasure to extend our visit over a cup of tea. Which, by the way, you must do once you are settled into your new position.”
Tara smiled as the woman embraced her. “Thank you for your kindness, Mrs. Meddler. I’ll take you up on the offer for tea one day soon.”
Forty-five minutes later, Tara checked the time on the gold locket she wore around her neck. Clearly she’d been wrong about two things. Not only was Browning City far from the bustling town she’d hoped for, Mr. Carpenter obviously had no sense of time. Both revelations made her uncomfortable. Except for the stationmaster, who’d disappeared around the back corner of the building a few minutes ago, the place was deserted.
After pulling a lace handkerchief from her bag, she wiped the moisture from her forehead. She hadn’t counted on the weather being so humid. From the edge of the platform she looked down Main Street. Painted houses with picket fences skirted the edge of the town. She wondered what it would be like to live in such a quiet place. The Carpenters lived outside of town on a farm, meaning she’d be even more secluded. The very idea of being so isolated made her stomach clench.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
Tara spun around at the sound of a man’s slurred voice.
“These here your trunks?”
“Yes, they are.” When the driver had unloaded them from the stage and set them down, she’d seen no problem with where they’d been placed. She certainly wasn’t in anyone’s way. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason, except. . .you’re a fine-looking woman.” He
took a step toward her.
Tara froze. Although he dressed as a cowboy, with denim jeans, chaps, and a bowler hat, there was no doubt in her mind that he was out to round up something other than cattle tonight. Sunlight caught the butt of a gun partially hidden inside his shirt.
Tara looked around, but the stationmaster was nowhere in sight. The knot in her stomach tightened. She measured the steps between them as he came closer. Five steps, maybe six? Why was it that in her dreams she was courageous and ready to face any challenge, but in real life all her instincts demanded she run the other direction?
She had to ponder the question only a fraction of a second. Deciding her trunks weren’t worth her life, she bolted across the platform toward the dusty street, running until she felt the ironclad grip of the man’s fingers encircle her arm.
Aaron Jefferson dismounted his horse, trying to brush away the past five hours of dust with a few measured sweeps of his hand. Nothing but a hot bath was going to get rid of all the grime he’d gathered from the long trek across the state.
Scanning the horizon, he worked to stretch out his legs and sore back muscles. Before him lay the same rolling hills he’d seen for the past three hundred miles. Or so it seemed. At least he’d made it to his destination. The sun would be setting in less than an hour, and all he wanted was a hearty meal and a good night’s sleep before another full day’s work tomorrow. A lame mount hadn’t been on his schedule.
Aaron checked the front hoof of the mare and frowned as she flared her nostrils at him. The rambling station on the edge of Browning City was in view. Surely there’d be someone who could help him find a farrier to care for his horse, even at this hour.
This latest setback, though, seemed to be a simple quandary compared to the mounting pressure of his current government assignment. Patting his front pocket, he felt the folded letter of introduction and wondered if this town, like countless others before it, would prove to be nothing more than another wild goose chase. So far, none of his leads on the missing pile of Union army gold had gotten him any closer to the truth than when he first started. And Browning City was his last stop.
A scream rippled through the early evening air. Tugging on the rim of his Stetson to block the piercing rays of sunlight that hovered on the edge of the horizon, he caught the silhouette of two people struggling on the station’s platform. Instinct kicked in, and he ran toward the commotion. Ten yards closer made clear that there was a woman in trouble.
By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, she’d managed to hit the man over the head with her handbag and break away from his grip. She glanced behind her before running straight toward Aaron. In the next instant, he caught a glimpse of skirts and petticoats flying at him as she stumbled down the platform stairs and into his arms.