The stagecoach swayed and groaned as it lurched down the dusty road. The canvas window covers flapped at the edges - an action that not only allowed dust to enter, but managed to trap the stale hot air inside the coach as well.
Natalie would have preferred to ride on top of the coach. Surely it wouldn’t be as hot. If she were a man, that might be an option; but not a woman. As her friend Melva had said, she was nineteen now - too old to be running around doing “boy things.”
If only she could doze off for a while, like the Yankee soldier whose tall lean frame was slouched in the corner. His cap was pulled down over his eyes, and he looked annoyingly comfortable. Even the elderly woman seated opposite her seemed oblivious to the heat and dust. The woman who had identified herself as Mrs. Larkin sat propped up in the corner of the seat. Her eyelids drooped and her head nodded every once in a while.
The Yank had never offered his name, and Natalie didn’t want to know anyway. Yankee soldiers had burned her childhood home and shot her father when he tried to defend his family. But their evil deeds hadn’t ended there. After their mother had died of grief, Natalie and her older brother had been forced to live with relatives in Charleston. Embittered, David had joined the first group of southern soldiers that came along. He had finally found peace two weeks before the War Between the States ended. Now he rested under the huge live oak tree near the ashes of their old home. Yes, David had found his way out, and now she had found hers. Against the wishes of her best friend, she had left everything behind. Maybe Melva was right. Maybe she could have done better if she had gone north to find a job. Maybe - but she’d rather die than work for a Yankee.
Natalie gave the Yank a sour look. Her family had never owned slaves, and they had wanted no part of the war. But the Yankee soldiers didn’t care about all that. They had orders to burn and plunder. And that they did - gleefully.
Natalie’s faded blue dress was covered with dust. She tucked an escaped lock of blond hair into her bun. Her stomach was growling in a most unladylike manner. She tugged at her skirt, trying to hide her worn high-topped shoes. Would this journey never end? The trip from Charleston to St. Louis hadn’t been bad, nor the train ride to Abilene. But traveling by stagecoach wasn’t near the “adventure” it was advertised. It was more like a battle.
Mrs. Larkin’s toothless mouth unfolded into a warm smile that brightened her faded blue eyes. Her nasal voice was high and clear.
“We’re almost there. It’s only a few miles now. Will you be staying in Tucson?”
Natalie nodded, barely suppressing a sigh. “Yes, my…fiancé...lives there,” she stuttered on the unfamiliar word. “He has a large ranch outside of Tucson.”
“Oh? Perhaps I know him. I’ve lived in Tucson since I was not much older than you.”
“Tatum,” Natalie offered hesitantly. “Brian Tatum.”
The brim of the Yank’s hat tipped up slightly and one smoky blue eye measured Natalie for a moment before the cap dropped.
Some of the warmth left Mrs. Larkin’s voice. “Yes, I know Mr. Tatum.” She paused, her expression skeptical. “I wasn’t aware he was engaged. Have you two known each other a long time?”
Warmth rushed up Natalie’s neck. “We haven’t been engaged long.” Two weeks, to be exact, and she had never met Tatum. “We’ve been corresponding for over a year. He’s a distant relative of one of my friends. She introduced us.”
Mrs. Larkin nodded, her expression wary. “I knew Tatum came from the south. It doesn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t settle for anything less than a southern belle, but….” her voice trailed off. “Then you haven’t actually met him?” she finally concluded.
Natalie’s stomach gave an uncomfortable lurch that had nothing to do with hunger. Maybe Tatum wasn’t the southern gentleman that his letters had implied? But then, she was hardly a southern belle. Their country home wasn’t a plantation and she hadn’t been brought up to act like something she wasn’t.
She smiled politely. “No. Perhaps you could fill me in. I don’t even know what he looks like.”
The woman eyed her warily. “Well, I’ll say this much. You got yourself a looker.”
The sentence hung in the air like a threatening black cloud. Mrs. Larkin appeared to lose interest in the conversation. She dug some needles and yarn from her satchel and began knitting.
Natalie glanced at the Yank, but he was apparently sleeping. Sergeant stripes ornamented one side of his broad shoulders, and his long legs stretched out to consume one side of the coach. His cap was pulled down so that only the lower half of his face was exposed. He could use a shave and a bath. Hadn’t Tatum mentioned something in one of his letters about a no-account Yankee soldier who had recently bought a ranch near him? Was there no place left to escape the tyranny of the Yanks?
Natalie returned her attention to Mrs. Larkin. The withered fingers wove magic as the needles clicked away. Natalie had mastered sewing and embroidery, but her knitting left much to be desired. She’d rather have a knife and a good piece of wood to whittle - but that wasn’t considered very ladylike.
She propped herself up in the corner and leaned her head back. With her eyes closed to the dust, she finally managed to escape the coach in sleep.
Natalie woke when the stagecoach jolted to a stop. She barely retained her place in the seat as the dust settled around them. She rubbed her eyes and glanced up at Mrs. Larkin.
Mrs. Larkin smiled her relief. “We finally made it.”
The Yank climbed out first, turning to assist Mrs. Larkin. Natalie ignored the helping hand he offered, and flounced down into the dusty street. She brushed dust from her clothes while she glanced at the men lounging on the boardwalk. An old gray haired man in overalls sat on a bench whittling a stick into nothingness. Two skinny cowboys conversed in low tones about something. Where was Tatum?
A thin young boy sat on the edge of the boardwalk, his back arched in a lazy slouch. His britches were ragged and rolled to his knees, and his bare feet dangled in the dust. His bored gaze lingered on Natalie for only a second before he spotted the Yank. He straightened, his eyes brightening.
“Mr. Klein, did ya git any horses?”
The Yank shook his head and pushed back his cap to expose a lock of unruly black hair. His eyes twinkled with mirth as he approached the boy. His smile was disarming - almost boyish, as he spoke to the youth.
“No Brad,” he answered in crisp northern accent. “They were so proud of those nags that I decided to leave them in the pen.”
Brad’s grin revealed two missing teeth in the front. “I know where you can find some horses,” he lisped.
The Yank grinned. “Do you now? Why don’t we talk about it over a steak? Are you hungry?”
Brad leaped off the boardwalk and pranced after the Yank. “You bet,” he answered. His feet stirred little clouds of dust as he tried to keep up with the Yank’s long stride. Their conversation faded as they walked away.
Mrs. Larkin’s voice broke into her thoughts. “I don’t know what that boy would do if it weren’t for Mr. Klein. The kid never knew his father, and his mother died here about a year ago. He’s been living with his grandmother ever since. She does a fine job of taking care of him, but he needs the influence of a man.” She sighed as her gaze left Klein’s back. “Is Mr. Tatum expecting you?”
Natalie glanced at the woman. “I wrote him a letter.” She wiped perspiration from her forehead. The bright hot sunlight was already taking its toll.
Mrs. Larkin nodded. “Well, you’d better get out of the sun while you wait.”
Natalie accepted the small satchel that the stagecoach driver handed her And followed Mrs. Larkin to the boardwalk. “Is it always this hot?”
Mrs. Larkin grinned. “Hot? Oh my dear girl. This is only May. Right now it’s cool.”
A shadow fell over Natalie and she turned to find a tall man standing over her. His dark rugged features formed a polite smile as he dutifully reached for her bag. “You must be Natalie,” he said in a soft southern accent. He surveyed her from head to toe, but the smile on his face couldn’t hide the disappointment in his dark eyes. “I’ll get you a room at the hotel so you can freshen up before I take you out to the ranch.”
Natalie cringed at his words. Did she look that bad? Her stomach chose that moment to growl loudly.
Tatum’s face turned red. He glanced around as if trying to determine if anyone had noticed. “Maybe we’d better get you something to eat first.”
Tatum gripped her elbow and led her toward the restaurant where the Yank and the boy had disappeared. In the middle of the street, he leaned down to speak softly in her ear. “I know you said you didn’t have much money, but is that the best you had to wear?”
Blood rushed up her neck, warming her face. She sent him a barbed glance. “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you. I....”
He waved a hand. “Oh, don’t worry about it. We have a fine seamstress in town.” When they reached the restaurant, he held the door open for her.
She stepped into the relative cool of the restaurant. The smell of food set her stomach to churning. She was so hungry that she felt sick to her stomach. If only she’d had the chance to eat and clean up before Tatum arrived. Not that it would have improved the condition of her clothing much, but at least her stomach wouldn’t be carrying on so. Of course, her nervous state hadn’t helped matters - nor had Tatum’s haughty attitude.
The Yank and the kid were sitting in a corner. The Yank glanced up as they walked in. His expression was unreadable. The kid was busy chattering away.
Tatum pulled out a chair for her and sat down opposite her. He was silent until the waitress had taken their order. When she left, he leaned forward, his thick forearms resting on the table.
“I understand that you are a woman of strong will,” he began in a condescending tone. “Some say that’s a good thing. I won’t argue the matter, but I want to make something clear, right away.” He spoke in a low tone, but his voice carried well. From the corner of her eye, Natalie saw the Yank glance their way. Tatum continued.
Natalie couldn’t deny she had a hot temper and a reputation for being unconventional. Still, it wasn’t as though she didn’t try to act like a lady in public.
Tatum continued. “We’ll get along just fine as long as you remember that I wear the pants. Women out here tend to get independent. I’ll buy you nice clothes. In return I want you to act like a lady. I have a nice ranch house. I want you to be there when I come home, not riding all over the ranch.
She stared at him. He was making it painfully clear that she was nothing more than an arrangement. Love hadn’t exactly been the reason for her presence. He was security for her, nothing more.
She found her voice. “Is that all?”
He hesitated. “I don’t want you talking to the hands. I can’t stand a flirt. You were born of a good family. Remember who you are.” He glanced down at her faded and dusty dress. “I suppose the south has changed a lot since the war, but we don’t have to act like uncivilized waifs.
She stiffened. No wonder Mrs. Larkin had acted so strangely. Apparently the west didn’t have the best influence on southern gentlemen either. Tatum was a pompous mule who needed to be broke.
“Well, Mr. Tatum,” she began in a crisp tone. “The south has certainly changed, and you’re right. I did come from a good family. My parents were hard working people who never thought of themselves as being better than anyone.”
Tatum glanced around the room, his neck darkening. “Hold your voice down,” he growled.
“Furthermore,” she continued, deliberately letting her voice raise an octave, “If you treat a woman like a lady, she’ll act like one. If you keep her happy at home, she won’t have any reason to ride the range looking for something of interest.”
His eyes glittered. “I’m warning you.” His voice was low and cold.
He was warning her? Who did he think he was? The war was over and he’d been stripped of his rank of captain. She wasn’t one of his cow hands. She met his cold gaze defiantly.
“Yes, Mr. Tatum, you’ve told me what you want. Now let me tell you what I want. I want love and respect. In return I will give my loyalty and devotion. I’m not one of your cattle to be corralled and branded.”
He rose suddenly, towering over her. His thick brows crouched over glittering black eyes. “That’s enough! I paid your way out here, now you’re going to do as I say, or….”
“Or what?” Her voice was controlled as she stared up at him in defiance. “We’re not married, you know.” She reached into her purse and pulled out the last of her emergency money. “As for the money, here is my fare. I’m sorry you’re disappointed in your…purchase.” She threw the money on the table.
His face was scarlet and the veins stood out on his neck. “You’ll be sorry,” he spit out as he snatched the money. “There are other women around here, you know.”
She couldn’t resist. “Yeah, but they all know you.”
“Don’t be cute,” he rasped.
She shrugged. “Hey, you’re the one who had to send off for a wife. I could have found a husband back in Charleston.” She was stepping over the line and she knew it.
He leaned across the table, suddenly deathly calm. His voice was pure poison as he spoke. “Well, little lady, maybe you ought to try going back to Charleston then.” He turned abruptly and stalked out of the restaurant.
As she watched his back disappear through the door, she knew a moment of panic. She had no money left - not even enough for the meal he had ordered. She was hungry and had no place to stay. When would she learn to put a leash on her temper?
She glanced up to find the Yank standing over her. His eyes twinkled with humor.
“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. It appears that he left you in a sticky situation.”
One thing she didn’t need was a Yankee soldier to rub salt into her wounds. Humiliated to speechlessness, she could only glare at him.
His smile was warm and friendly as he spoke. “It amused me to see you put Tatum in his place. You have a lot of sand....” he paused as the waitress stopped at the table with a platter of food. He lowered his voice almost to a whisper so the waitress wouldn’t hear. “But do you have any cash?”
Blood rushed up Natalie’s neck and warmed her cheeks. How could he know? She glanced up at the waitress, who paused with a glass of water in mid air. The portly woman frowned at the empty chair. “Where’s Mr. Tatum?”
The Yank answered before Natalie could find her voice. “He had to leave. I’ll see that the bill is paid.”
The waitress gave him a skeptical look. Finally she shrugged. “Suit yourself. I don’t care....” Her gaze dropped suspiciously to Natalie. “Just as long as someone pays.” She slid the plate of food in front of Natalie and left the table.
Natalie glanced up at the Yank, her face flaming. “I’m not some little homeless waif. I can take care of myself,” she answered crisply.
His neck darkened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. If you can pay for the meal...” his voice trailed off. “But you can’t,” he concluded in a questioning tone.
“I can wash dishes,” she answered curtly.
“Can you sit it out in jail?” he asked.
Her face felt hot and then cold. “Surely they wouldn’t....”
He nodded. “That answers my question. I’ll pay the bill.” He hesitated, turning his hat in his hands. “Actually, I liked the terms that Tatum found unacceptable. I came over here to ask if you might be interested in working on my ranch. The ranch isn’t much and I’m a lousy cook. I don’t have time to...”
“Thanks for the offer,” she interrupted, “But I couldn’t do that.”
He nodded. “I understand. Tatum was proposing marriage.”
She shrugged again. “It isn’t that.” She let her gaze drop to his uniform significantly. “I could never work for a Yankee.”
He frowned. “I see.” He gazed down at her with a stern look. “Didn’t you know the war has been over for more than a year?”
She gave him a level look. “It is for you Yanks. You still have your homes to go back to. When was the last time you saw Charleston? - when it wasn’t in flames, I mean,” she added bitterly.
The warmth left his face. He suddenly looked old, though he couldn’t have been more than four years her senior. He clamped the hat on his head and surveyed her with what might be pity. Without a word, he turned and walked back to his table.
She stared at the table in front of her, choking down a feeling of shame. Why should she be concerned about injuring the feelings of a Yankee? She had put him in his place. She should be feeling victorious. Or should she? She was hungry, and she couldn’t pay for the food in front of her. Would they actually throw her in jail rather than let her work it off? Of course, that would solve her housing problem as well - not to mention her reputation. She scooted her chair back from the table. She had to find a job. She had no choice.
The town didn’t look very prosperous, and she had no training, but surely there was something.
The Yank watched her walk out of the restaurant, but he made no further attempt to talk to her. She’d show him. Yankees had burned the south, and carpetbaggers had snatched up what was left, but they couldn’t take everything. She still had her pride.
Two hours later she was still jobless and even hungrier than before. There was no work in the tiny town, and the only way she could afford to get out was on foot. Pride was beginning to look like a boulder tied to the leg of a drowning victim. She still had choices. Go back to Tatum (if he would take her back); go to jail; starve or work for a Yankee. She had sunk pretty low, because working for the Yankee sounded like the lesser of the evils.
Right on cue, the Yank stepped out of the general store. He glanced her way and she hesitantly lifted her hand. She swallowed hard and made her way across the dusty street.
The Yank leaned against a pole and waited for her, his expression unreadable. Maybe he had changed his mind.
She gnawed on her lower lip. “Is that job offer still open?”
His mouth slipped into a sidewise smile and his tone was sarcastic. “It just so happens that the last person I asked didn’t want to work for a...Yankee.”
She met his cool gaze. It was pointless to reveal that she still didn’t want to work for a Yankee. If she had to work for him, she would do a good job - but she didn’t have to like him.
“That took nerve,” he finally said. He pushed away from the pole and glanced down the street. “You have a right to your opinions...but you should hear all the facts before you start making judgments.” He glanced down at her again. “The job is yours if you want it, and you can even hate me if you want. But you might as well know that I’ve never been to Charleston. I spent the duration of the war out here in the west, helping to protect people from marauding Indians. I guess if I wanted to be bitter about it, I could say that you southerners caused a lot of innocent people out here to get killed.”
She jerked her head up and looked at him. “How do you figure that?”
“Most of our troops were pulled back east to fight in the War Between the States. I’ve watched people get burned out…and they don’t sit around whining about it. They just start rebuilding.”
Blood rushed to her cheeks. Did he think she was whining?
His gaze burned into her eyes. “This isn’t a Yankee uniform, and I’m not a Yank. I came here from Boston in a covered wagon with my parents - before the War Between the States started. What I’m wearing is a union army uniform. I’ve finished my turn in the cavalry, but I have been proud to wear it.” His gaze held her eyes captive. He made it sound so...honorable. “If that offends you and Tatum,” he concluded, “then so be it.”
Their differences out in the open, they embarked on an agreement. Natalie would take care of the cooking and cleaning, and Klein would take care of the rest of the ranch. Klein’s ranch house was a two room shack in the middle of 160 god-forsaken acres of mesquite and cactus. No one could make a living off such poor land, but he’d have to figure that one out for himself. Meanwhile, her job of turning the ranch house into a home wasn’t much easier. A pot-bellied stove took up the better part of the main room. The table was a rough hewn slab of cedar strapped to cross timbers. Most of one wall was filled with shelves, on which canned goods and cooking utensils were haphazardly piled. Clothes were stacked on top of some books in another corner. The other room became her bedroom. The bed was hard and smelled of sweat, but it was probably better than the dirt floor where Klein slept. It wasn’t much, but it was shelter from the wind-driven sand, and she had food in her stomach. She wasn’t about to whine, but it was rather ironic. For this she had left a comfortable home in Charleston?
Klein stuck around the ranch house for almost a week. Finally he announced that he would be out gathering cattle and would be gone for a few days. Natalie took that opportunity to work on the house.
She found some feed sacks in the lean-to where he kept the horses. Using the juice from a jar of berries, she dyed the sacks and sewed them into curtains to cover the shelves of canned goods and utensils. She used the berries to make a pie. Using a knife from the kitchen, she whittled some pegs and worked them into the cracks in the wall. There she hung the clothes that she had washed. Using the same method, she hung some of the pots and pans so that she had some room left to put the books on the shelf.
By the time Klein returned, the shack looked much better...almost homey. Klein stepped through the door and stopped. He glanced around with obvious approval, and when his gaze settled on her, he smiled. “You’re a woman who knows how to make a house into a home.”
His words of praise warmed her cheeks. He walked around the house, running his fingers across the clean table, and feeling the curtains. “Clever,” he mused, and then he noticed the pie. His eyes lit up in that innocent way he had of looking like a little boy. “I’m starved.”
She blushed. “You look it.” She picked up a knife and began slicing the pie.
He hung his hat on one of the pegs and examined a few of them. “Did you do this?”
She glanced up from the pie, and her cheeks warmed again. “I used to sneak my father’s pocket knife and carve things when I was a child.” She nibbled on her lower lip, avoiding his gaze. “I guess I was just bored.” Why was she telling him such a thing?
She could feel him watching her. From the corner of her eye she saw him dig in his pocket. He held out his hand.
“I met a man once down Yuma way who could carve the likeness of anything he saw. I always wanted to do that, but everything I carve always looks the same as the last - just a block of wood.” He handed her a small knife. “Maybe you could make better use of this.”
She hesitantly took the knife from his hand. Was he actually sanctioning such activity from a woman?
He smiled warmly as he patted her on the shoulder. “Go on. I’m dying to see what you can do with it.”
She held the knife in her hand and gazed down at it. Her own carving knife. She smiled at him nervously, not knowing what to say. Finally she responded with a simple “Thanks.”
Gradually the house began to feel like home, and the land became less formidable. Sometimes Klein took her with him when he rode the fence line, and when he went alone, she was surprised that she actually missed him.
When she expressed interest in a garden, he provided seeds and demonstrated how to irrigate it with water from the well. He was the first man she had ever met who actually listened to what she had to say. Sure, they disagreed...frequently - sometimes even fervently. All the same, she looked forward to supper with him, and the cooler evenings when they would sit outside and listen to the coyotes howl. Together they talked while she whittled things from the wood he always managed to find on his rides.
Never say never. She could almost hear her mother’s voice. Yet Charleston seemed a million miles and a lifetime away. Life with Tatum would have been easier in many ways, but here with Klein she had finally found peace and acceptance. For her, the war was finally over.