“I don’t want to marry Burt, Papa.” Susannah held her hands before her, palms up, begging to be heard.
“Doesn’t matter, little girl, you’re going to and that’s that.” Milt Tipton set the plate holding a single piece of toast on the dresser and turned to face the confused young woman.
“He’s my brother. I can’t marry him.” Susannah tried to keep her voice level and calm, but the shrill edge of panic laced her words.
“He’s your step-brother, Susannah. He is not a blood relation. You can, and you will marry him.” He pointed at the plate. “Enjoy your dinner,” he snapped. “A few more hungry days and Burt will look better and better.” He strode to the door. After one more withering glance of warning, he continued, “If that doesn’t work, I’ll let Burt have his way with you. No decent man will have you after that.” The door shut with an echoing click, and the key snapped in the lock.
Susannah approached the cold toast and poked it with her finger before picking it up. She was hungry – terribly, dreadfully, appallingly hungry. She nibbled at a corner of the bread. Best make it last. Her stepfather had locked her in her room three days ago and allowed her a single slice each day.
She did not understand it. Her mama had married him when she was eight. He’d insisted she call him papa the same as Burt did. There was plenty of food, of that she was certain. None of this made sense. A single tear slid down her face and landed on the bosom of her dress.
Marry Burt? Heavens, she had no more desire to wed that cretin than a fish wanted to walk on dry land. As children, Burt had pulled her hair, destroyed her toys, pinched her, pushed her, and got her into trouble as often as he could. He was delighted when his father spanked her for Burt’s own misdeeds. She’d try to explain, but Papa always took Burt’s side, and her mama simply stood outside the door to the study where punishment occurred and wrung her hands.
She sighed. Well, her mama was gone now. They’d buried her in the family plot with the tiny infant in her arms three months ago. The memory smoldered like hot embers. The sound of hollow thumps as dirt hit the lowered coffin haunted her dreams, and the loneliness of her mama’s absence was a well so deep no pebble could ever reach the bottom of it.
Until three days ago, she thought she was safe. She believed her stepfather would continue to care for her. Then he’d come home from town and sent her world spinning like a child’s top. Why would he treat her this way? She’d turned it this way and that in her mind, but she could come up with no possible explanation.
Susannah took another small bite of her toast and followed it with a sip of water. She’d learned that water helped fill her stomach for a little while anyway. Sinking into a chair, she let her head rest and pondered this new and frightening future.
Tap. Tap. She bolted from the chair. The ranch foreman was perched on her window ledge. She threw open the window and motioned him inside.
“Bernie,” she cried, “what are you doing?” She stepped away from the opening. “Come in before you fall.”
“Quiet.” He placed a warning finger to his lips. “We don’t want Tipton to hear.” He opened a bag that dangled from his neck and handed her a sandwich.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “I’m so hungry.” Susannah sank her teeth into the thick bread and salty ham. She closed her eyes and groaned. “I’ve never tasted anything so good.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner, but I didn’t know you were locked in the first day. I’ve spent the last two days coming up with a plan.” Bernie’s face darkened.
“Do you know what’s happened? Why is Papa treating me like this? Did you know he’s demanding I marry Burt?” She paused for a second bite. “I won’t. He can starve me all he wants, but I won’t marry him. He’s mean and nasty. Anyway, I plan to marry Rowdy.”
“When did Tipton lock you in here?” He ran a hand through his silver hair.
“He went to town three days ago. It started when he returned that day,” Susannah said.
Bernie nodded. “That’s what I thought. He found out.”
“Found out what?” Susannah asked around a mouth filled with food. “I’m sorry, Bernie. I’m just so hungry.”
“That’s all right. Go ahead and eat while I explain.” He cleared his throat and studied the carpet between his boots. “Your daddy was my best friend. I loved him like a brother,” he declared. “When my wife passed, I thought the answer to my pain rested at the bottom of a bottle. He took me in, sobered me up, gave me a job. I owe him my life.” Time ticked by slow and solemn until Bernie continued, “He loved you something fierce. I promised if anything ever happened to him I would watch over you. He was thrown from that devil of a horse when you were six and broke his neck. I’ve stayed these twelve years to fulfill my promise.” He studied her for a minute. “Do you remember him at all?”
“A little. I remember riding high in the air on strong shoulders. I remember a low deep voice telling me good night and tucking my covers up tight,” Susannah said.
“Well, he loved you and your mama, but he worried. If he passed, she would most likely remarry. The ranch would belong to that new husband, some stranger he didn’t know and might not like or trust.”
“Would he have liked Papa?” She thought that moniker over before correcting herself. “I mean Tipton?”
“No.” The word was an angry bark. “The man is lazy, and his son is a no-good son-of-a-gun. I watched him over the years being sneaky and mean. Your mama was his ticket to the easy life. He enjoyed being king of the ranch your daddy built. Thought it would last forever. Thought the ranch would be his alone when she passed.” Bernie gave a low chuckle.
“It’s not?” Susannah stared, wide-eyed, at her father’s friend.
“No, it’s not.” His eyes sparkled with suppressed glee. “Tipton went to town to get the deed moved from your mama’s name to his. That’s when the lawyer must have explained your daddy’s will. The ranch never belonged to your mama. No, sir, your daddy left the ranch to you, your husband, and any issue of your marriage. I doubt your mama remembered. She was swallowed by grief when the will was read, and the ranch continued to operate like always. There was no reason for her to be concerned. Anyway, Tipton and Burt have nothing. They’re no better than houseguests who’ve overstayed their welcome. You’ve turned eighteen. You own the ranch lock, stock, and barrel.”
Susannah’s hand flew to her mouth. “It’s mine?”
“It is. But if you marry Burt, he becomes that husband your daddy mentioned in his will. Then the two of them could continue sitting pretty, owning the ranch, and enjoying all the money and prestige that comes with it.” Bernie scowled. “Your daddy would want better than Burt for you, and that’s God’s own truth. I won’t let him, or you, down.”
“What can I do?” she asked.
“First, we need to get you away to a safe place. Then we can get the law on our side and get those rascals evicted.” Bernie rubbed his hands together. “I can hardly wait to see the backsides of those two.”
“Where can I go? Rowdy is out of town. If he were here, he’d help me, but he went to sell his horses.” She looked at her hands and felt the hot blush in her cheeks. “We plan to marry when he gets back. The money he’ll make on his horses will give us a good start.”
“Before he learned the truth about ownership of this ranch, Tipton would have been happy to see you marry Rowdy. You’d be gone and the ranch his.” Bernie paused. “Rowdy is a good man. Your daddy would have liked him.” Bernie gave his head an earnest nod. “Susannah, I promised to look after you, and I aim to do it. I have a plan.”
“All right. Tell me.” She laid her hand on his muscular arm.
“Your daddy had a brother. He lived down near Ford in southern Oregon. He always meant to go visit, but with one thing and another, it never happened. I checked to see if he was still living. Well, your uncle passed, but you have cousins living on a ranch called Journey’s End. I aim to put you on a coach headed that way. I’m sure they’ll take you in after you explain the situation.” Bernie waited until Susannah nodded. “I don’t want to send them a telegram. Tipton will try to find you, and he’ll check to see who sent telegrams and where they went. I have a copy of your father’s will. Hang onto it for proof of what I’ve told you.”
“What are my cousins’ names?” she asked.
“Harmony and Melody,” he said. “They’re twins and both have married.”
“What about Rowdy? He’ll worry if I simply disappear,” Susannah fretted.
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell him where you’ve gone. I’ll explain what’s happened,” Bernie said. “I want you to pack a small bag. I have horses saddled and waiting. I’ll go out the window first, and then I can help you to the ground. We have to be quiet, Susannah. If Tipton catches us, we might not get a second chance.”
Susannah pulled a valise from her closet. She placed two dresses, a skirt, a white blouse, clean underclothes, an extra pair of shoes and her hairbrush in the little portmanteau. She glanced around one last time. This room had been her sanctuary, her private haven, now turned prison. A small, framed photo of her mama and father on their wedding day sat on her dresser. Their young, hopeful faces gave her heart a painful squeeze. She would not leave them behind. Wrapping it in her favorite blue shawl, she added it to her bundle.
“Put on a split skirt and bring a warm coat,” Bernie instructed. “We’re going to ride all night. Can you manage it?’ His grizzled face sank into a worried frown.
“Yes, I can, if it means escaping from Tipton and Burt.” Susannah exhaled the words on a puff of disgust.
“Good girl,” Bernie praised. “The stagecoach leaves from town in the morning, but if you board there it would be too easy for Tipton to trace. Right now, we have the element of surprise. He expects you to be sitting here, hungry, in the morning. When he discovers you’ve gone, he will search. He won’t want the neighbors to know you ran away. Folks here about know you’re a good girl, and they’d wonder what you were running from. He’ll be cautious whom he asks, but make no mistake, he’ll search. I doubt your mama talked about your father’s brother much, so time is on our side for now.” He moved toward the window and slid it open. “I aim to stop the coach a good way south of town. We’ll give the driver your fare.”
“How far to Ford?” Susannah moved behind a screen and exchanged her skirt for a split one. She emerged from behind the screen and took a long, slow gaze around her childhood room.
“I reckon four days on the stagecoach if all goes well. Faster by horse, of course, but I can’t take you all the way. I need to get back here before Tipton notices I’m gone. I need to keep an eye on them.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew some folded bills. “You’ll stop along the way to eat and spend the night. This will see you through.”
“I can’t take your money,” she protested.
Bernie placed the bills in her hand and folded her fingers around them. “You wouldn’t want me to break my promise to your daddy. He wouldn’t want me send you off without any money to get you to your family.”
“Thank you,” Susannah declared before tucking the bills into her bag and snapping it closed.
Bernie climbed out the window and turned to offer Susannah a hand. They worked their way slowly down the roof.
“Sit down,” Bernie whispered when they reached the edge. “I’ll swing down. You wait while I get the horses. It will only be a short drop into my arms.” He studied her face. “Can you do that?”
“Yes, but hurry, Bernie. I want to get away,” Susannah begged.
He nodded and ran for the barn returning with two saddled horses. He positioned himself under her. “Slide off, Susannah. I’ll catch you.”
She followed his orders and landed in his outstretched arms. He let her slide to the ground and pointed at the horse behind him. “Quick, now. I brought Ginger. I know she’s your favorite filly.”
Susannah swung into the saddle and with a click of her tongue Ginger set off down the road with Bernie in the lead. When they cleared the boundary of the ranch, she blew a breath of relief. If they’d heard them leave, Tipton would already be on their heels.
Bernie set a steady pace – one the horses could maintain for hours. The moon rose and stars burst into the dark velvet sky, and on they rode. When the rays of dawn sent fingers of golden fire over the horizon, they stopped.
Bernie pointed at a copse of trees. “Go rest, Susannah.”
He held Ginger’s reins while she dismounted. Her legs trembled from the long hours in the saddle, and she leaned against her horse’s warm flank until she could stand.
“The stagecoach will be along in an hour or two. I’ll stand watch.” He tipped his head toward the trees. “Go,” he repeated.
Susannah sank to the ground under a tree. She pulled her knees to her chest and rested her forehead. Tears streaked down her face and left a puddle in the dirt. Life had been predictable. Then her mama had died in childbed and left a pall of grief thick as a deep fog. Her stepfather was a snake in the grass, and Burt, well, she’d always known Burt was no good.
She stretched her legs in front of her and massaged her aching thighs before leaning into the comfort of the solid tree. Her mama always said when you felt low to count your blessings. Rowdy would top the list. He loved her, and she loved him. Their love shimmered like sunlight on water. She’d learned she had cousins, twins. Family. The word sent a swirl of warmth swishing around her heart. She didn’t want to leave Bernie off the list. He’d always been a solid presence on the ranch. Now she knew he’d been watching, protecting, and guarding her. He was the angel her father left behind. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and mopped her face. She had plenty to be thankful for. Time to quit with the whining. She closed her eyes and let her chin dip to her chest.
“Susannah.” Bernie gave her shoulder a gentle shake. “Wake up, girl.”
Her eyes snapped open. “Is the coach here?”
“Yes, I stopped it and paid your fare. Your valise is stored on top. There’s a young woman with a small child and a man about thirty on board. Just make small talk, Susannah. Don’t tell anyone you are running away. I told the driver we didn’t want to ride all the way to town, so I decided to stop them on the road.” He pulled his hat from his head and rubbed his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “It’s unusual, but he’s happy with the extra fare.”
She grabbed the extended hand, and Bernie pulled her to her feet.
“Hurry up. They’re waiting,” he admonished.
Susannah threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Bernie. You’ve saved me.” She planted a hearty kiss on his cheek.
“You just get on the way to your cousin’s house. I’ll see you after we get this straightened out and send Tipton and his son on their way.” He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t trust him. Be careful. He could still have some tricks up his sleeve.”
Bernie opened the stagecoach door and helped her inside. The coach started with a lurch that threw her back against the seat with a hearty thump.
The passengers already in the stage regarded her with surprise and speculation.
“Hello, my name is Susannah. I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused. My uncle didn’t have time to take me all the way to the depot, so he waylaid the coach.” She offered a rueful smile.
“I’m Laura,” the young woman said, “and this is Mark. He’s a little over two.” She struggled to keep the child on the seat. He was big and strong for his age. The poor woman had her hands full with an active child stuck on a coach.
“Jeff,” the man added before turning his gaze out the window.
The hours ground by. Dust swirled through the window and coated her face, teeth and throat. They bounced and bucked over the rutted road. Susannah helped entertain the small boy, telling stories and singing songs. She ignored the man who ignored them in return. He clearly wished to be anywhere besides trapped in a stage with two women and a rambunctious child.
A stop for lunch and a chance to use the outhouse was welcomed but brief. Susannah ate a quick meal and washed her face with cool water before watching the boy while his mother did the same. Laura managed to change the child’s diaper and clean him up despite his wriggling protests.
“Oh, my Lord,” she sighed. “I took him to visit my mother, but I won’t travel with him alone again. My husband gives him one steely look, and he behaves. I suppose I should spank him, but I just don’t have the heart.”
Susannah agreed a little swat on his well-cushioned backside would not be amiss, but she held her tongue. If she ever had children, they would behave. For now, she would help Laura with her rascal of a son.
The sun set in a blaze of brilliant pink as the coach pulled to a stop in a small town.
“Prescott,” the driver shouted.
The silent male passenger threw open the door. “Ladies.” He gave a tip of his hat. Relief to be free of the conveyance and their company was writ plain in his ear-to-ear grin. “This is my stop.” He sprang to the ground, grabbed his bag and strode away from the stage as if he’d just discovered they carried typhus.
The driver appeared at the door and offered his large hand. “The hotel is across the street. We leave in the morning at eight sharp. Don’t be late.”
“Thank you.” Susannah gave a grateful smile. She lifted her bag with one hand and Laura’s with the other. The young mother took her child’s pudgy hand in hers and the three made slow progress across the dusty street.
Fatigue wrapped her mind and body in a tight grip. The world she’d trusted and believed in all her life had dissolved like so much salt in water. She clung to the idea that her cousins would welcome her surprise arrival. If they didn’t, she had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Another week might come and go before Rowdy returned, and Bernie had warned her against sending letters or telegrams. What she wanted most was quiet, a warm bath and a hot supper.
Laura held both her son’s hands and helped him climb the three stairs to the hotel. She paused at the entrance and speared Susannah with a look of sorrow and despair.
“Susannah, I know this is a terrible imposition but would you share a room with Mark and me?” She hurried on. “I haven’t slept well without Mark’s father, and I’m so tired. If I had company, I think I could rest.”
“Well,” Susannah began.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask such a thing,” Laura apologized.
Susannah surveyed the exhausted woman. Her eyes were bruised a dark blue, and her skin sallow. She needed help. No denying it, the child was a handful. There would be no quiet, but she still might get a warm bath and a hot supper. She sighed.
“All right, let’s go get a room.” She held the door open until the boy toddled through.
Susannah led the way upstairs to room eight and opened the door. The room was pleasant. A large bed was covered with a colorful patchwork quilt. The linen was clean and fragrant, and the window with its billowing curtains was open to allow a cool breeze.
The boy pulled on his mother’s skirts, whining and wet. Well, Susannah felt mighty grouchy herself. If she could get away with it, she’d throw herself to the ground and pound her heels into the carpet. She swallowed an angry scolding. He was, after all, just a little fella. She’d dig deep for her last shred of patience.
A brisk knock signaled the arrival of bath water. Two men carried a tub into the room and were followed by a troop of hotel employees with hot water.
“Would you have supper sent up in about an hour?” Susannah asked the last water bearer.
“Yes, ma’am,” she replied. “Fried chicken is the special tonight. Would that be all right?”
“That sounds heavenly. Thank you.” She shut the door and locked it.
“You and Mark bathe first,” Susannah said.
“Are you sure?” the young mother asked. She gazed at the water like a nomad approaching an oasis.
“Yes, he’s plumb tuckered out. You go ahead,” Susannah assured her.
Laura stripped the baby and herself, and they climbed into the tub. The two splashed and squealed and more than a little water landed on the floor, but the child’s mood was much improved, and Susannah was grateful.
When they finished, she took a turn in the tub. It wasn’t the peaceful soak she’d envisioned, but it felt good to be clean even if she had to share the water.
Susannah threw her nightgown over her head, and it drifted to the floor in a billow of white cotton. Laura sat in the single chair nursing the boy. The child wrapped his hand around a strand of his mother’s hair and held on tight until his eyes floated closed.
“My husband says he’s too old for me to nurse him, but Doc said it would help me not get pregnant. I’m not ready to do that again just yet. Having him was terrible rough, and I’m scared.” She frowned. “I’ll put him down on those blankets. He sleeps like the dead.”
Susannah understood. Her mother had labored for two days before the little blue baby slithered into the world followed by blood pumping and pulsing from her womb until the bed was awash in red. The midwife tried to stop the flow but nothing worked. She squeezed her eyes shut and wished the memory away, but a haze of scarlet flooded her closed lids. Being a woman was dangerous business.
Susannah answered a tap at the door.
“We came for the tub,” a short man with a stomach hanging over his belt and a mustache doing the same over his upper lip announced.
“Sh.” She held a finger to her lip. “Baby’s sleeping.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said. “Got a baby myself. Only peace we get is when he’s asleep.”
They emptied the water out the window and carried the tub away. As they disappeared out the door, dinner arrived. The two women ate in exhausted silence before placing the dishes outside the door and crawling into bed.
The next day and the next were a montage of dust, dirt, rocking and soothing the bored and cranky child. When he slept, the women leaned exhausted heads against the seat and closed their eyes in gratitude to silence.
When dusk fell on the third day, they pulled into the town of Big Elm. Laura’s husband threw open the door and snatched his wife from the coach as soon as the wheels stopped turning.
“Lord, woman, you’re never leaving me again. I missed you and Mark something fierce.” He leaned over and planted a firm kiss on his wife’s lips.
“Jim, this is Susannah.” Laura waved toward the interior of the coach. “She’s been so much help. I’m not sure we would be in one piece if not for her.” Susannah appeared at the door with Mark in her arms.
“Let me take that rascal.” Laura’s husband grabbed the boy and threw him in the air. The child shrieked with glee and threw pudgy arms around his father’s neck.
“I’ll get your bag, and we’ll see you to the hotel.” The tall cowboy put the child on his shoulders, looped a long arm around his wife and picked up Susannah’s bag with his free appendage.
The little family escorted Susannah all the way to the front desk of the Big Elm Hotel.
“Do you have a nice room for this lady?” Jim enquired.
“We do. Room two at the top of the stairs is one of our finest,” the clerk replied.
“That will be lovely.” Susannah took control of the conversation. She knew the man meant well, but she wasn’t a child. “Could I get a hot bath sent up?”
The man nodded and motioned to a man to carry her bag up the stairs.
“Thank you for helping my wife and son,” Jim said. “He needs a firm hand. Laura lets him get away with too much.” He leaned over and planted a kiss on his wife’s forehead to take the sting from his words.
“It was my pleasure. I enjoyed having traveling companions. I reach my destination tomorrow, but I will miss their company.” Susannah stretched the truth a smidge. Laura was harried and the boy a rascal, but they had kept her mind off the reason for her flight. For that, she was grateful.
Laura put both arms around her and squeezed. “Travel safe, Susannah. Thank you.”
With the child still riding his shoulders and his wife tucked under his arm, Jim turned them around like a unit forged of steel and propelled them through the exit.
The quiet of the room soothed Susannah’s spirits like honey on a sore throat. The tub and hot water arrived. She would not only be the first but the only one to use it. She’d not thought a clean, quiet bath a luxury before, but she wouldn’t take one for granted again.
When the water lost its restorative heat, she stepped from the tub and dried with the scratchy towel provided by the hotel. Pulling a clean dress from her bag, she gave it a shake. She’d wear it tomorrow when she met her cousins. A good impression was important, and she wanted the twins she’d never met to like as well as help her.
She dressed in clean clothes from the inside out and ventured down the stairs.
“How may I help you, Miss Williams?” the clerk enquired.
“I’m tired of eating in my room. I’d like a table and silverware,” she confessed.
“We have a small dining room,” he said. “It would be safest for you not to go out after dark.” His dark eyebrows rose towards a receding hairline.
“Thank you.” She followed his finger pointing toward a door on the left side of the lobby.
It was a simple room that served simple fare. She tucked into her meal of chicken potpie and coffee. Large chunks of chicken floated in a creamy gravy. The vegetables were fresh and tender to the fork. Susannah sighed with pleasure and sent a silent thank you to Bernie for the money that allowed the luxury of hot baths and nourishing food.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” the stagecoach driver hovered near her table turning his hat around and around in his hands.
Susannah’s fork clattered to her plate. “Oh, you startled me.” She added an apologetic smile. “Is everything all right?”
“Well, no, ma’am, I’m afraid it isn’t,” he began. “We will get a late start tomorrow. I felt as something weren’t quite right with the coach, so I took a good look underneath. Sure enough, the blacksmith needs to repair the undercarriage. It’s not safe to go on, and we’re lucky it didn’t break on the road yesterday.” He shook his head, and his mouth turned down in a fierce frown.
“Better safe than sorry, my mama always said,” Susannah offered. The man’s frown lightened to a scowl. “Do you have any idea when we might leave?”
“The smithy will have to look tomorrow when it’s light. He can’t do anything tonight. I hope around noon.”
“How far to Ford?” she asked.
“Four hours or there about. If we get away at noon, it will still be light when we arrive,” he said. “I’ll send word when the coach is ready to roll.”
Susannah slept until light filtered through her curtains and crept across the floor. Well, there wasn’t a hurry. She raised her arms over her head in a bone-cracking stretch and smiled. Today she’d finally arrive in Ford and meet her cousins. A shiver made a trip around her body. Family, the beauty of the word brought tears to her eyes.
She poured water from the pitcher into a bowl. After washing her face and brushing her teeth, she braided her light brown hair and wrangled it into a bun. Last night’s clothes lay over a chair ready and waiting for this day, the last one of her journey. She buttoned the bodice and tied the matching belt into a bow at her back. Rowdy liked a bow to dangle over her bottom. He said those strings dancing on her behind was an invitation for a friendly pat.
Rowdy had driven his horses north to sell at auction, and he might be home by now. When Bernie explained why she was gone, he’d ride this way as fast as his horse would carry him. Of this, she had no doubt. Rowdy was strong and true. They could marry right away and face that skunk of a stepfather together.
Susannah returned to the hotel restaurant for lunch. The special was ham, beans and mashed potatoes. Having slept through breakfast, she was mighty hungry. She scraped the plate clean with the back of her fork and gave a happy sigh.
“Sorry, Miss Williams.” The stagecoach driver appeared beside her table. His mouth was a study in unhappy.
“Are we ready to go?” She knew even as she asked what the answer would be. If they were leaving, he wouldn’t look like he’d lost his best dog.
“No, we’re not.” The words were like bullets shot from a gun. “The blacksmith has a weakness for the bottle, and last night he decided to give into it. The damn fool just now rolled out of bed and stuck his head under the pump.” He gave a disgusted snort. “I told him I got a schedule to keep. We have to get to Ford today. I make the return trip north in the morning.”
“When will the coach be ready?” Susannah asked.
“He says we can roll out of town around five.” The driver pursed his lips. “That gets us into Ford about nine. It’ll be dark. You got someone waiting on your arrival? You could send a telegram.”
Bernie had warned her about telegrams. She’d best not risk it. Anyway, her cousins didn’t know she was coming. A telegram wouldn’t make sense to them.
“No, I’m surprising my family,” she explained. “I’ll spend the night in the hotel and go out to their ranch the next day. Not what I’d hoped, but nothing we can do about it.” She shrugged her shoulders.
The driver reappeared when the sun had begun its trip toward the horizon. “We’re ready to go, ma’am.” He waved an arm in the direction of the hotel door. “There were two more passengers, but they decided to stay the night and travel tomorrow. You’re the only passenger.”
“I had plenty of company on the first part of the journey. I don’t mind the peace and quiet.”
He tried to suppress a chuckle. “That was one busy boy.”
“He certainly was,” she agreed. Susannah handed the driver a box. “I bought us each dinner.”
“Well, that was mighty nice. Thank you.” He peered at the sky with concerned eyes. “Sun will set by seven. We’ll travel the last two hours in the dark, but I know the road. Travel it every week.” He helped Susannah into the coach, swung up to the driver’s seat and snapped the reins. With a jolt, the stage shot forward.
Before the sun disappeared for the day, Susannah ate her dinner. Then she draped a shawl over her body, leaned into the corner and drifted into rocking slumber. The rocking morphed into jarring blows, and Susannah was catapulted from sleep. A crack shook the air with the force of a ball leaving a cannon’s mouth. She grabbed the strap and pulled herself to the window. The horses had separated from the coach and raced down the road throwing their heads in confusion and whinnying in fear. The driver’s body flew through the air as he leapt from the driver’s perch.
Susannah was thrown to the floor. She rolled into a ball and put her arms over her head, but no small human could withstand the forces of speed and gravity. The stage rolled, and she dropped to the ceiling. It rolled, and she fell to the floor. Ceiling, floor, ceiling, floor. She was a rag doll caught in a whirlwind of violence.
The coach broke like a ship cast upon the rocks. Susannah flew from the shelter of the wooden shell and landed on the rocky ground. Her head hit and hit and hit as her body rolled like a tumbleweed in gale winds until she lay quiet, unmoving, silent and still.