Bride by Mail. Katy Madison
be of assistance. “I’m sure he is just trying to be helpful.”
“Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Ben Kincaid.” He doffed his hat and made a slight bow.
She nodded but didn’t answer in kind.
He extended his arm. “Why don’t you come with me, ma’am? I’m sure you don’t want to be standing in the street.”
“I’d rather wait a bit longer. I am expected.” But she’d be grateful if the gentleman would get rid of the man in the dirty suspenders. Ironic that she, who couldn’t seem to attract a single man’s attention back in Connecticut, had two men vying for her attention. She reached to take the proffered arm.
“You ain’t safe waiting here all alone,” Mr. Kincaid said, shattering the illusion of being a well-bred man while clamping her hand into the crook of his arm. He insolently looked her up and down.
His bold appraisal made her feel unclean. Her heart thudded in her chest, threatening to break through her ribs. Where was Jack?
A frisson of fear sliding down her spine, she tugged, but Mr. Kincaid didn’t let her loose. She gave up trying to free her hand rather than create a scene. He was at least preferable to the unkempt man. Or was he?
The scruffier man folded his arms across his suspenders. “Better off comin’ with me. Leastwise, I’d marry you.”
Mr. Kincaid flashed a big smile. “Now, I have a private room over yonder where you could...freshen up after your journey. I’d be happy to see to your...comfort.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.” Olivia wasn’t at all sure she would be fine. But at this point she’d opt for tagging after the Indian braves who had ignored her, rather than with Mr. Kincaid, who offered an unsavory sort of assistance, or with the man who needed a bath.
Several men toddled out of the saloon. They took various poses along the opposite sidewalk. What on earth were they doing?
“I’m sure I don’t want to keep you.” Perhaps she should go down to the mercantile and inquire within, but she couldn’t manage her trunk without help. Inside were the last of her links with her parents. She didn’t want to abandon it.
She suspected if she asked Mr. Kincaid to assist her, he’d take her trunk into the saloon. Her throat closed and she swallowed.
Her friend Anna would have laughed at the men. Selina would have shooed them off, but Olivia’s tongue was tied and it was all she could do to keep from trembling.
Where in heaven’s name was Jack, and why was he leaving her alone to contend with these uncouth men? Horrors that could befall an unprotected woman cast big black blots in her thoughts.
“I’m waiting for Mr. Trudeau. P-perhaps you know him.”
Mr. Kincaid’s eyes narrowed speculatively. “I ain’t seen Jack, nor his mules, lately.”
Mules? Olivia again looked around for Jack or mules, but no mules were in sight. A new buckboard wagon and horses waited in front of the mercantile, but no Jack. Her stomach somersaulted.
“Jack’s got him a woman already. He don’t need you,” objected the scruffy man.
Every fiber in her went rigid.
“Now, didn’t Jack tell you he had an Indian wife? Shame on him,” said the slick man with a sigh, as if he expected no better of Jack.
Her future husband had a wife already? He hadn’t said anything about a wife. Her mind blanked as icy dread crept up her spine.
“You’d better come with me.” He patted her captured trembling hand as if to soothe her.
She snatched it back and gripped her reticule as if it might shield her.
The men watched her with an intensity that made her neck tighten.
She wanted to crawl under the boards of the sidewalk or run away, but her feet were stuck as if vines had twined around her ankles to hold her in this awful place.
Mr. Kincaid reached out and caught her arm. “You’re coming with me. You look like you need to sit down.”
The suspender man grabbed her other arm. “I saw her first.”
The idea that she could be fought over like a child’s plaything made noise rush in her ears. As if she was being swept into a roaring river, she sought the purchase of a rock or a muddy bank. She didn’t know what to do. If Jack had a wife, she couldn’t go with him, either. Trembles shuddered through her and she fought to breathe.
* * *
Jack Trudeau waited for the poky grocer to fill his order. He checked the sack of coffee for nuts and twigs that were often used to bulk up the precious beans. He inhaled deeply of the rich scent.
The mercantile owner painstakingly penciled a list on butcher paper.
A brightly colored array of tins resided on the shelf behind the counter. Olivia might want tea.
“I’ll take a tin of tea, too,” he said.
“Orange or black?” asked the grocer.
What was the difference? A red tin with a white flower stood out. If his bride didn’t like the tea, she might like the metal box to store whatever small things a woman liked to accumulate. “The red one.”
Her request for a photograph had struck him as bold, exactly the kind of woman needed on the frontier. Olivia probably wanted the photograph to make certain he wasn’t a grizzly, unshaved mountain man. He’d been fortunate to find a man taking photographs of the sprouting Denver City, who’d said he’d take Jack’s picture because he reckoned the portrait would help get a pretty wife.
But pretty didn’t matter. His first wife hadn’t been pretty. She’d been short and dark and built like a tree stump, but he’d loved the way Wetonga’s eyes would disappear into upside-down half-moons when she laughed. She had been the wife of his heart.
But Wetonga was gone. He could not raise a plot of vegetables or keep varmints out of his cabin while he had to go farther and farther north to find the lucrative beaver and red fox.
The worst vermin were the two-legged variety who thought an empty cabin was an invitation to track in mud, sleep on his bed and burn his food into his pots. The pots they left behind anyway. Upon returning from a trapping run and finding his home defiled, Jack had decided he needed a new wife.
He glanced toward the window, where he’d been looking out every now and then to see if the stage had arrived.
Jack shifted impatiently. He’d already waited half an hour to be helped. His bride was due to arrive. He’d promised to meet her, but he hesitated to leave for fear if he returned later he would have to wait another half hour before his shopping was seen to. He wanted to be ready to leave for home as soon as they were hitched.
A group of Arapaho entered the store. As they unwound lengths of cloths, the squaws giggled about a pale-eyed woman with a skirt as big as a tepee.
Jack turned and asked in an Algonquian dialect where they had seen the woman.
A brave stepped forward and said in perfect English, “Pale Eyes arrive on the stage. Many men wish to claim her.”
A miner standing near the door leaned out. “It’s a right fine-looking lady. Kincaid’s got her. She goes to work for him, I’ll be first in line.”
“Merde!” How had he not heard the stagecoach’s arrival?
The Indian switched to a French patois. “Pale Eyes afraid.”
Were they playing musical languages? Jack stared at the brave, who slowly smiled as if they were sharing a great joke.
“Merci.” Jack swiveled around to face the grocer as he backed toward the door. “I’ll be back before you finish.”
Imagining that a scared-horse