The Cowboy

By: Vanessa Vale

Montana Men, Book II



CHAPTER ONE

EMILY



The sway of the coach should have lulled me to sleep, especially with the heat of the day making the small space stifling. The flaps on two of the windows were open to fresh air, but the continuous stirring of dust from the large wheels had us considering the heat the lesser of two evils. Caroline, my remaining travel companion, was asleep, her head tilted back as she leaned into the corner, her small mouth open. The never-ending boredom had my mind restless. I was too nervous to rest, my hands pressed tightly together in my lap, as if I could hold myself down. I wanted to jump out of the stage and run in the opposite direction, but there was nothing but endless prairie for miles and miles around. The Montana Territory was not a place to roam alone, without a weapon, food or any kind of means of survival. The question was, when I met my husband at the next stop, would he be worse?

At Mrs. Bidwell's offer, I'd agreed to be a mail order bride, instead of just surviving off the good graces of others. I'd been left at the back door of my aunt's brothel one morning at the age of thirteen by my mother. I never knew I had an aunt, divorced from the family as she was by her profession. My parents had been poor and with seven children, not enough of anything to go around. My father, a cruel and abusive man, decided I could provide for the family since I'd developed womanly curves at a very early age. He dragged me the ten blocks to his sister, since the purpose for the visit suited him and offered him financial gain. He offered me to her, for money, and threatened to take me elsewhere if she declined, telling her I was quite the commodity.

I was young, but I remembered the encounter quite vividly, for it was the moment when my life changed. Aunt Trina was much kinder than my father and paid him for me without question, for the sole reason of making him go away. When I was settled at the kitchen table with the first real breakfast of my short life, Aunt Trina had told me that I would need to learn my letters and numbers in order to be a proper lady someday. For the first time, I felt safe.

Six years later, I was still at the brothel, with Aunt Trina watching me like a hawk. I was kept hidden as best as possible, but men began asking after the girl and I knew to be careful. I was wary, but became restless, ready to find a life of my own. When Mrs. Bidwell - a longtime friend of Aunt Trina's who I'd known for many a year - approached me with the prospect of my becoming a mail order bride, both Aunt Trina and I both agreed this would be the life I'd been waiting for.

The coach hit a deep rut and I was pulled from my thoughts. I missed Aunt Trina; she was more a mother to me than my real one, and I owed her my life. What would have happened to me if I'd stayed with my parents was unknown, or if my father had sold me to another madam? I was certain it would not have been good. But what of my husband? Would he be like my father - cruel and tied more more to the bottle than his family? Would he be old? Most importantly, what would he do when he discovered the truth about me? Surely there wasn't a brothel out on the open prairie, so would he be so disappointed in his new bride as to force me out to survive on my own?

"Lewistown!" The driver's voice was loud, even over the horses' hooves and the rattle of the coach.

I took a deep breath and swallowed down my nerves. People spoke of getting butterflies in their stomachs when apprehensive, but this sensation of panic was more like a carpenter's vise about my chest. My heart beat frantically, each pounding thud loud in my ears. My breath was ragged, and the heat had become overwhelming.

As Caroline stirred in her corner, I tossed the flaps up on my side of the stage, leaning out to gulp in the cooler air, the dust all but forgotten.

The town was bigger than August Point where we'd left Eleanor two hours earlier, yet nothing but a blot on a green landscape in comparison to Minneapolis. The air was fresh, the colors verdant and bright.

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