A Pony Express Romance - Misty M. Beller - ebook
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 Christian Historical Romance NovelAfter growing up as an orphan, Josiah English wants nothing more than to have his own ranch and raise Arabian horses. Riding for the Pony Express seems like the ticket to his dream. And when he meets the stationmaster’s beautiful sister, it seems he may be within reach of the happy life he craves.Mara Reid is thrilled to finally meet the man of her dreams, and the fact that they both want to raise horses in the Sweetwater River valley seems like confirmation straight from God.But when the Express shuts down and Mara's family home is in peril, the danger looming over Mara's life may not be half as destructive as that threatening her heart.

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A PONY EXPRESS ROMANCE

Misty M. Beller

PRONOUN

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Epilogue

Historical Note

Chapter One

About the Author

Dedication

A Pony Express Romance

Wyoming Mountain Tales

Book 1

Misty M. Beller

Delight thyself also in the Lord;

And he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

Commit thy way unto the Lord;

Trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.

Psalm 37:5-6 (KJV)

~ ~ ~

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Get it here: http://bit.ly/2gvrW1a

~ ~ ~

CHAPTER ONE

~

November 30, 1860

Ellwood, Kansas

“Don’t move, or I’ll shoot ya right through the ticker.”

Josiah English froze as the hard metal of a rifle barrel pressed into his back. His horse danced beneath him, complaining against his stranglehold on the reins. He didn’t dare release the pressure, though. Not until he had a better grasp on the situation. He tilted his chin ever so slowly, scanning the perimeter to get a look at his captor.

The click of a rifle’s set trigger rang loud in his ears, and the air stilled around him.

“I said freeze.”

The sharp bark drew him up. His blood galloped, pounding in his ears as anger started to build. He wasn’t a coward to be so easily taken by this highway bandit. But was there more than one? He forced air in through his nose and out through his mouth as he strained to decipher the noises behind him.

A whizzing sound flew by his ears, and within the same heartbeat, a rope settled around his shoulders. He jerked to pull it off, but the line yanked tight, strapping his arms to his sides. With a violent lurch, he was snatched sideways from his horse. For a second, his right foot caught in the stirrup, stretching him between opposite forces like a deer hide ready for tanning. Pain shot through his midsection. Would they rip his leg off?

His foot finally slipped from the stirrup, and for a moment he was airborne. Then he landed hard on the ground, the thud ricocheting through his back as the rope clenched tight around his midsection. The air exploded from his lungs. His chest seized, fighting a weight that threatened to smother him as he struggled to breathe.

At last, a precious breath seeped in, and awareness filtered into Josiah’s oxygen-starved brain. He lay on the grass, staring into the blue November sky. A shadow moved across his vision—the dark outline of a man.

Josiah squinted to make out features. A dirty face loomed over him, with bushy black brows and a cigar protruding from thin lips.

He fought against the binding around his arms and chest, but the press of cold, round steel in his right temple froze his struggle.

“Take off his boots,” Bushy Brows growled around his cigar.

Another man moved to Josiah’s feet, this one tall and skinny with a blond, handle-bar moustache and droopy eyes. He grasped the heel of Josiah’s left boot and pulled, setting off alarm bells in Josiah’s head. Not the boots.

He jerked his foot hard, then kicked out toward the man, but the robber’s long fingers clung to the heel like a barnacle on a ship’s hull. The gun barrel pressed harder against his temple, pushing his head sideways into the grass.

“Get his boot off.”

Josiah paused his fighting, sucking in breaths to steady himself so he could put together a plan. He may not be stronger than the force of that rifle, but maybe he could catch them in a blunder and overpower them.

The skinny man gripped Josiah’s shoe and pulled. He couldn’t stop himself from flexing his foot to make it harder for the brute to remove the leather.

The man struggled for a moment, then grunted and landed a hard kick in Josiah’s shin. Pain ripped through his leg, loosening the muscles in his foot. The scrawny man jerked again, pulling the black leather free.

Papers slipped out as he turned the boot upside down—an image of a rider on a running horse flashing across the top. Josiah released a breath. Only his dispatch papers for the Pony Express, not the more precious documents.

Then Mustache reached for his other boot. The muscles in Josiah’s shoulders tightened again. But he was in no position to win a fight yet. He could push through the pain in his left shin, but the rope around his chest bound his arms to his sides, and the cold steel pressed against his head kept him immobile.

The other boot slid off and a stack of money fluttered to the ground. He could picture the bills without looking—tens and fifties issued by the Southern Bank of Georgia. Black and red print forming letters, numbers, and pictures.

Half of his life savings. Maybe they’d be happy with their loot and stop searching.

Mustache jumped on the bills as they landed in the grass, clutching them in his grubby paws. Then he turned the boot upside down and dumped the remaining papers.

“Woo-wee, Charlie. We got us a good’n this time.” The man’s mustache lifted to reveal teeth of varying shades of brown.

“Keep lookin’,” Charlie barked.

The gun barrel dug harder into Josiah’s skull. He hoped in spades the man’s trigger finger wasn’t eager for exercise.

Mustache moved his search upward to Josiah’s belly, a sneer taking over his face when he felt the money pouch Josiah had tucked under his shirt. When the man jerked the tail out of his trousers, cold air blasted Josiah’s abdomen, raising goose flesh across his skin. The wiry man pounced on the pockets sewn into the cloth band.

Right pocket first. A handful of one dollar bills and a paper listing the Express stops he was to follow. The man kept the cash and tossed the document aside.

Left pocket. Another thick roll of bills. Josiah’s stomach roiled, bile churning with his breakfast. They were taking everything he had. Everything he’d worked day and night to save for the last twelve years. The money to start his own ranch. His future.

The man’s ugly face wobbled in Josiah’s vision. The edges of his sight grew blurry as anger pulsed through him.

Josiah strained to focus on their actions. They rolled him onto his stomach and sweat pasted his shirt to his skin. The rifle barrel moved to his back.

After finding nothing when they patted him down a final time, Mustache seemed to be done with the search. The men exchanged words, their voices coming through Josiah’s foggy brain like the buzzing of a bee. He struggled to make his mind focus again.

The gun came away from his back, and the ground thudded with the sound of boots tromping away from him. He twisted around—pulling against the rope biting into his arms—just in time to see the two men tearing down the road on horseback. They were headed west, the same direction he’d been traveling. Were those the kind of men he could expect to encounter in this new territory? He’d have to strengthen his defenses. The pistol tucked in his saddle pack had done little to help him with this fiasco.

He struggled to sit, then exhaled a long breath. With his hands, he loosened the lasso enough to slip it off over his head. At least they hadn’t tied his hands and feet. Speaking of his feet, he glanced down at them, his wool socks left exposed without his boots. He reached into his left sock and pulled the small wad of ten dollar bills out from under the arch of his foot.

Fifty dollars. All that was left of his hard work and scrimping. It would get him to his destination at the Rocky Ridge Pony Express station, but wouldn’t be enough to buy land, build a house and barn, and purchase good Arabian breeding stock. He wrapped his arms around his knees, dropped his head to his wrists, and took deep breaths.

Inhale. Exhale.

At least he had a job. A good one at that. He’d earn a hundred dollars a month riding for the Express—and improve his horse skills in the process. Now he’d have to stay on longer than the six months he’d planned. But he would still get his ranch, even if he had to scrape and save another few years. He wouldn’t be stopped this easily.

Josiah raised his head and looked around. They hadn’t even left his boots. The only things still lying in the grass were his papers from the Express.

He took another long breath, then exhaled. His horse had disappeared, and he was shoeless. At least he was alive with nothing broken. He pushed up to his feet, then strode to the road and considered both ways. If he went left, it was about two miles back to Ellwood. In the other direction, roughly seven miles on to Troy. It’d be quicker to go back the way he came and get a fresh horse. Start over.

Josiah sighed, then headed left. One painful step in front of the other on the rocky lane.

Around the first bend in the road, his bay gelding munched a patch of clover. The lean, muscled animal ate as if it hadn’t seen green grass in a month of Tuesdays. At least someone was pleased with this situation.

Josiah eased forward, and the horse’s ears flicked, but it never stopped ripping at the clover stems. He released a sigh as his hand closed around one of the reins. Stroking the gelding, he checked his saddle bags. Good. His Colt revolver and the few personal possessions were still secure. He lifted a stockinged foot into the stirrup and swung up.

The sun arced a couple hours short of high noon, and he’d been ordered to report at the Rocky Ridge stop on the Sweetwater River by December sixth, just six days from now. He didn’t have time to stop for lunch, much less go back to Ellwood to report the bandits. He’d do it at the next town.

Lord, please let them have boots for sale there.

~ ~ ~

Sweetwater River Valley, Wyoming Territory

Only a few more miles.

Josiah pushed his horse to a canter. This animal’s rocking-horse rhythm was much smoother than the last two mounts he’d had. Changing horses every day had been interesting. Even though he wasn’t on an official mail ride, the man at the Pony Express office in St. Joseph said he should ride Express-owned horses and stay at the regular stations—anything to get him to Rocky Ridge faster. He’d be taking over the mail line from a man who’d been injured, so the riders on the neighboring lines were pulling double duty until he could get there.

And after six days on the road, the boulder-strewn hills and buttes he’d been maneuvering now leveled into a rocky grassland. Should only have a couple miles left to the station he would call home.

Already, he felt like an Express rider. That is, now that every move didn’t make his body scream. Riding horses woke up parts of his insides he hadn’t known existed. But after living in the saddle this last week, his muscles were getting used to the new life.

He’d passed a couple of other Express riders along the way, mostly at the stations. It made his blood pump to see one of them tear out with the mail bag on a fresh horse, as if a pack of Indians was on his tail.

Indians… Josiah scanned the tree line on his left again. No visible movement. At the last few stations where he’d slept, the men shared quite a few stories about Paiute braves attacking Express riders, or burning down stations and stealing the horses. Josiah touched the wooden grip protruding from his waistband. His Colt revolver waited ready, should the need arise.

He turned his attention back to the horizon in front of him where the gray-blue sky merged into pinks and purples. In the fading light, a cluster of buildings stood in the middle of the flat, grassy stretch. A niggle of anxiety tugged in Josiah’s chest. This would be his home station for a while. Would he like the people here? It didn’t matter. He’d learned to live with whatever necessary to accomplish what he’d set out for. Life wasn’t an easy walk down a country lane. Not for a single moment.

He pulled his horse back to a jog, then reined her to a walk for the last few minutes. The bay mare was lathered, but her breathing returned to normal by the time they rode into the little courtyard between the four buildings. The structure on his left stood the largest by far, and looked to be the barn.

Josiah kicked his feet from the stirrups and rotated his ankles. Sharp needles pierced all the way up his calves, so he let his feet dangle for a moment until the pain lessened.

The door opened in the cabin to his right. On the threshold, a woman paused, then strode down the step and toward him. Her blue dress swished around her feet as she walked, determination marking her stride. She was a willowy thing, and wore her brown hair tied back in a way that revealed the strong curve of her jaw and the slope of her neck. Pretty, but younger than he’d expect for the stationmaster’s wife. And she didn’t look hardened enough to have lived long in this uncivilized country. Maybe she was passing through on one of the stagecoaches that followed this route.

She neared, close enough to rest a hand on the bay’s neck, then brought up the other to shield her eyes from the sun as she looked at him. Those eyes. Even with the shadow of her hand, their shiny brown was wide enough for him to see clear through to her soul. The other features on her face were strong and balanced, maybe even refined, but those eyes pulled his focus so he had to fight to look away.

Pull yourself together, English. Josiah reined in his thoughts and removed his hat.

“Hello.” Her voice was sweet and soft. “You’re the new Express rider?” He strained to catch her words.

He nodded. And several seconds passed before he realized she waited for him to speak. “Yes, ma’am.” He cleared his throat to steady the pitch of his voice. He was ogling like one of the simple-minded wharf-workers where he’d grown up in Savannah.

She didn’t seem to notice his clumsiness—or at least, had the grace to ignore it. Instead, she reached for the mare’s reins and pulled the loop over the horse’s head. “Go on and get settled in the bunkhouse.” She nodded toward the shed-like building next to the barn. “I’ll get this girl taken care of, then finish dinner. When I ring the bell, come to the main house to eat.” She pointed a thumb toward the structure behind her.

He swallowed to work some moisture into his mouth. She must belong to the place. “Is your…uh…husband around?”

Her lips pinched, and one corner quirked up. Her big brown gaze met his, light dancing there. “No husband. But my brothers are in the barn haying the horses.”

The tension in his chest eased, but he tried not to look too deep into the reason. It sounded like she had men here to protect her. But not a husband.

Sliding from the horse, Josiah caught himself so he landed softly on his sore ankles. “I’ll get my saddle bags before you take her.” His fingers fumbled with the leather straps. Finally, he had both the front and back bags off, and she led the horse away without another word.

Even the weariness in his bones didn’t stop him from watching her go, her long skirt feathering across the tops of the grass as she stepped with a self-assured grace.

His mouth pressed in a frown. Why hadn’t he asked her name?

CHAPTER TWO

~

MARA REID SLICED A KNIFE through the potato, splitting it in half like a cracked egg, then cutting long slices to go in the frying pan. This new Express rider was not what she’d expected. He was tall for a hired rider, and certainly not a kid like the last few they’d hosted. Maybe in his late twenties. And those clear blue eyes… He might be lean, but there was no way he was under the one hundred twenty-five pounds the Pony Express allowed. They must be getting desperate for capable riders willing to brave the dangers.

The surprise of his appearance had flustered her so, she’d forgotten to ask his name.

She tossed the potato chunks into the pan where they landed with a sizzle among the buffalo meat. Giving it a good stir, she centered the pan over the heat, then turned to add grounds to the coffee pot.

The front door swung open, and Ezra—her brother younger by a couple years—stepped in with a bundle of cloth in his hands. “Where do you want these wraps from Roman’s leg?”

“In the corner. I’ll put them to soak in a bit.” Mara nodded toward the wall farthest away from the kitchen. No sense adding the odor from the horse’s wound to the aroma of dinner.

Ezra deposited the items and stomped back out the door, letting it thud shut behind him. The silence that settled in his wake was relieved only by the crackle from the frying pan.

She scanned the room, eyeing the piles of blankets, discarded boots, and jackets her brothers had left scattered. Zechariah, the oldest in their clan, was usually somewhat organized. But Ezra didn’t seem to notice his clutter.

Of course, their little home didn’t leave many options for space. This tiny cooking section comprised one end, with the cook stove, work counter, and a wet sink. A table and chairs dominated the center of the room—large enough to accommodate stage passengers and other guests, along with their little family of three. The fireplace took up the wall opposite the kitchen, with Pa’s old arm chair and Ma’s rocker standing guard. Even though neither Pa nor Ma were still here to use them.

The aroma of meat tickled her senses, mingling with the stinging in her eyes that still pricked when she looked at the worn chairs. The rocker not as much—memories of Ma had softened to sweet treasures over the ten years she’d been gone. But Pa. He’d sat in that very chair just six months ago.

With her big wooden spoon, she stirred the contents of the cast iron fryer. Chunks from the bottom of the pan had turned dark brown. Time to ring the dinner bell. She cleared the emotion from her throat and made quick work of the job. By the time she had the potatoes on the table and the coffee poured in mugs, the sound of boots thumped on the outside step and the door opened. Ezra strode in first. Then the new man. Zechariah was the last one through the door, and pulled it hard against the wind that whistled outside the cabin.

She raised a brow at her older brother. “Sounds like the weather’s picking up. You think it’ll snow?” Zechariah was older than her by three years, and the expert when it came to the land, weather, and anything else to do with this wild country.

“Looks like it. Still have a couple hours before it hits, though.”

The new man scanned the room. Taking the measure of the place?

Her brothers settled into their usual chairs around the table, and Mara looked at the tall stranger as she motioned toward the empty chair next to Zeche. “I put your place where Henry used to sit. And I guess I didn’t catch your name.”

As he turned to her, his eyes captured her gaze with an intensity that cleared every last thought from her brain. Those orbs were more green than the blue she remembered from earlier. But the dark shadows underneath added a hint of rogue to his look. Not to mention the shadow of growth coating his jaw. “Thank you, ma’am. Josiah English. Call me Josiah.” He moved to the chair, but didn’t sit.

She nodded. She did usually call the Express riders by their first names, but they weren’t usually so tall and attractive. Not like this blue-eyed stranger whose presence seemed to soak in all the air from the room. Maybe if she treated him like the others, she could begin to think of him that way. “Please call me Mara, then.”

She focused on her work, but as she placed the biscuits on the table, the strength of his nearness loomed at the edge of her vision. Why didn’t he settle in and relax himself? Surely he was exhausted from his long journey. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him again yet, so she sank into her own chair.

At last, he did the same.

While Zeche said the blessing, Mara chanced another look at the new man. His brown hair curled in loose circles as he bowed in prayer, but she couldn’t see his face. The few words he’d spoken had been laced with a southern drawl. Where was he from?

Her brother’s words to the Almighty pressed through her thoughts, pricking her conscience as she closed her eyes again. Sorry, Lord.

When the prayer ended and their plates were piled high, Ezra settled both arms on the table, fork poised in one hand, and eyed the new Express rider. “So your name’s English. You hail from the old country?”

Oh, Ezra. Even though they were an Overland Stage stop as well as a Pony Express station, they didn’t get many guests in this deserted part of the Territory. He usually jumped at the chance to visit with those from the civilized world.

Josiah nodded, not lifting his gaze as he speared a potato with his fork. “My grandparents.”

Ezra swallowed a bite and scooped up another. “Really? Which part?”

“Kent, near Birchington.”

Ezra leaned forward. “Birchington-on-Sea?”

Josiah glanced up, then went back to his food. “You know it?”

“We came from Margate, just down the road. Had a farm there where we raised horses and produce.”

Now Josiah straightened, curiosity flicking in his gaze. “You don’t sound like you were born in England.”

Ezra’s grin flashed. “You mean you don’t detect me brogue?” He dipped into such a strong accent with the words, emotion stung the back of Mara’s throat. He sounded just like Pa. Even though they’d come over from England more than fifteen years ago, Pa had never lost his thick, working-class accent.

Silence took over their group while Ezra’s stomach gained priority over his eagerness to hear news from their new resident. Then as he speared another slab of meat from the pan, he resumed his line of questioning. “So where is it you hail from, if not from England?”

“Savannah.”

“You’re a seaman then?”

“No.” There was something about the way he said the word. Flat. As though the very thought of what Ezra had asked drained him. What was so wrong with the sea?

She could understand preferring this mountain country over the briny air of the coast, but something in his tone said it might be more than that. Although it had only been one word. Maybe she was imagining his reaction.

Josiah forked more food, but didn’t take a bite. The way he stabbed those poor potatoes, something was definitely bothering him. Even Ezra seemed to realize the change in mood, and silence lapsed again as he went back to eating.

At last, Ezra rested his fork on his empty plate and looked at Zeche first, then Josiah. “We’re glad to have you with us, English.”

Josiah raised the chiseled lines of his face and met Ezra’s gaze. A shadow passed across the man’s face, turning his eyes a grayish blue. It was fascinating how they could change so completely.

His mouth tipped in the slightest of smiles, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Me, too.”

~ ~ ~

Josiah shoved his left foot into the boot, pushing hard to get his heel past the stiff leather of this new pair. Daylight sifted through the cracks around the bunkhouse door. Maybe it was the long days of riding and his body being bone-tired, or maybe it was the way it seemed he was finally home—even in this shack of a bunkhouse. Whatever the reason, he’d slept like a man with a clean conscience.

In these new surroundings, it was easier to imagine the weight of his past was behind him. He could start fresh. Make a new life for himself. A good life.

After buttoning his coat, he settled his hat on his head. The fire in the little warming stove had gone out sometime in the night, but not even the biting cold had awakened him as he snuggled under three quilts.

When he pulled open the door, a world of white greeted him. No wonder the air had teeth to it. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the blinding glitter of sun on snow. The white stuff piled higher in front of him where it had built up against the door, so he stepped forward to kick it aside. Once he’d slogged through the drift, only a few inches covered the open ground.

When he made it to the main house and stepped inside, a muted assortment of smells wove through the air. He picked out a yeasty scent that was probably biscuits, and an underlying hint of burned food. Or maybe that was the coffee. One thing he’d come to dread at the Express stops was the fare. Most of the stations he’d eaten at were run by a handful of grubby men, and breakfast had ranged from a hunk of dried buffalo meat, to cakes made of flour, grease, molasses and dirt—probably in equal parts.

But he shouldn’t care about the food anymore. That was part of his old life, and he had another focus now. He had to keep that focus in the forefront of his mind.

“You hungry?” Ezra sat at the table, brows raised and mouth tipped in an easy smile. A stack of papers and a book lay in front of him. “The rest of us ate, but coffee’s still hot and Mara left a plate of biscuits and gravy for you.”

His mind summoned an image of a savory breakfast that tugged at the hole in his belly. “Sounds good.”

He moved to the work counter Ezra indicated and lifted the cloth draped over a plate. Underneath lay a flat, blackish object that might’ve passed for a biscuit—or unleavened bread, depending on which country you were in. It was covered with a gelatinous gray blob. Maybe he wasn’t so hungry.

But he had a hard ride ahead of him today, with not much time for a sit down meal as he changed horses mid-stride. He’d need to build up his strength. At least this stuff would stick to his ribs—probably better than molasses on honeycomb.

He poured a mug of muddy coffee—most likely the cause of the burning odor—and settled across the table from Ezra.

The man focused on what he wrote in the book—a ledger or something like it. He had the awkward motions of an overgrown boy on the verge of manhood. Maybe eighteen or nineteen. His hair was a wavy dark brown, cut short to frame his oval face.

Ezra looked enough like Miss Reid—or Mara, as she’d said to call her—they could have been twins, except for the eyes. Where Ezra and Zechariah’s eyes were small and dark, almost black, her eyes were a lighter, luminous brown. Like coffee with just the right amount of milk, or warm caramel mixed into a chocolate cake batter.

Soon Ezra looked up and flipped the cover closed, releasing a long breath. “That’s done. I’m the only one who likes numbers in the family, so I get to keep the books up.”

Josiah nodded and tried to break through the biscuit with the side of his fork. “The Express give you a lot to keep up with?”

“Between the Express and the stage and the horses we raise, there’s plenty. Plus the trading we do with the Indians.”

Josiah honed in on one piece of Ezra’s comment. “You raise horses? What kind?” He’d seen a few dark dots scattered across the snowy pastures that morning, but assumed they were horses the Express owned. It hadn’t occurred to him the Reids may have a full operation of their own. This could be his chance to see a ranch in action before he branched out on his own.

Ezra shrugged. “Riding horses.”

Josiah tamped down a surge of frustration. “But what breed? Are they Thoroughbred? Arabian? Morgan? Quarter Horse?”

Ezra raised both brows. “You’ll have to ask Zeche or Mara. They’re in charge of the stock, I just train the ones I’m assigned.”

Josiah slumped against the ladder back of his chair. How could this kid not care about the horses?

~ ~ ~

Josiah pulled open the barn door and almost collided with Zechariah, leading a small brown horse. The animal let loose a high-pitched whinny that vibrated its body.

“Easy,” the man crooned, stroking the horse’s neck. “Get back. This filly’s rarin’ to go.”

Josiah stepped out of the way, and the horse charged forward. She wasn’t a large mare, but the man’s stride lengthened to keep up with her jigging. Her head tilted as they moved, displaying her impatience and the firm grip he held on the reins.

The pair halted in the courtyard, and Josiah eased toward them. The mare dropped her head to nibble at dry shoots of grass poking through the snow. But when he reached a hand to stroke the thick chestnut hair on the horse’s neck, she startled, sending them both a couple inches backward.

“Easy there, girl.” Josiah kept his voice in the same crooning tone Zechariah had used. The mare’s ears twitched, and one swiveled toward him while the other faced behind her. She dropped her head back to the ground and tore into the clumps of brown grass.

The door from the main house opened and Mara appeared with a bundle in her hand. It was a little easier to think of her as Mara instead of the formal Miss Reid when she was there before him, standing out from her drab surroundings like a Cardinal perched on a pile of sticks. He’d like to get to know her better, although he couldn’t let her distract him from his goals. As she strode toward them, the somber tone of her navy gown couldn’t hold back the light that resonated from her eyes. Her full lips parted in a smile that could’ve melted the snow. In the distance, a bird sang. Or maybe that was in his mind.

“You all set?” Her pretty brows raised.

He nodded. He should probably say something, but his mouth had filled with cotton. He forced a swallow.

The mare jerked her head up, providing a welcome distraction. She let loose another ear-splitting whinny, this time focused into the distance. Josiah followed her attention to a horse and rider cantering from the west.

“Your ride’s here.”

Zeche’s words brought much needed focus into Josiah mind. He turned to the man. “Anything I need to know?”

But it was Mara who spoke up, pulling his attention once again. “I’ve got a bundle of food here, biscuits and cheese to carry you through. Once you move the mail mochila over, I’ll hook it on your horn while you mount.”

He nodded, putting forth effort not to look directly at her. But his traitorous gaze found her face for one final glimpse, and those luminous eyes caught him for a moment before he could pull away. “Thanks.”

And then the rider was upon them. As the other man reined his horse to a stop and jumped to the ground, Josiah had to look twice. He was just a kid—maybe fourteen, if that. Horse and rider stood blowing while Josiah grabbed the mail bag and tossed it over his own saddle. He’d watched this routine closely at the stage stops on the way from Missouri.

As soon as the mochila was settled over his saddle, Mara slipped the loop of her bundle on the horn, and Josiah placed his foot in the stirrup. This was the part he hated to do in front of an audience. The mare sidestepped away as he pulled himself into the saddle, leaving him hanging sideways. He clamped his jaw and gripped the horn tighter. He’d get in the saddle if he had to pull himself up with his teeth.

Another shimmy from the horse, and he almost lost his hold. With a mighty effort, he heaved himself up, straddling the animal under him. He clung tight with hands and legs, so she couldn’t shuck him if she tried. At last, he thrust his right foot in the stirrup and gathered the reins.

“You ready?”

Zechariah scrutinized him, and Josiah had an urge to get far away from these people. His clumsy effort to mount had just proven him a novice.

He forced his body to relax, inhaling a steadying breath. “I’m ready.”

The man released his grip on the reins, and the horse bolted forward like a fish tossed in a river.

Josiah kept a hand tight around the horn, while the other gripped the reins. He hunkered low over the horse’s neck. She started off at a gallop, releasing raw energy underneath him as her muscles flexed with each lunge. The scenery flew by in a blur.

Snow still covered much of the rocky ground. Would she slow down when they started into the mountains? He applied pressure to the reins to test her response. The mare didn’t seem fazed, as her legs covered ground with dangerous speed, churning the powder beneath.

He pulled harder. The horse’s head came up and she slowed a bit. Then she jerked her mouth, yanking the reins so they slid through his fingers. He gripped the leather tighter.

This one would be a handful.

CHAPTER THREE

~

DARKNESS COATED THE LAND BY the time Josiah reined in at the Three Crossings station, his last stop on the eastbound ride. He’d long since traded the wiry chestnut mare for a muscle-bound bay who took the bit in his teeth and ran for a solid twenty minutes. And each of the other six horses he’d ridden over the past ten hours had been similar, covering ground like they’d been locked in a stall for a week. The minute they were turned loose, there was no holding ‘em back. But he’d finally arrived at the last stop.

A middle-aged man with a shaggy brown beard met him in front of the barn. “You the one takin’ Henry’s line?”

“Yep.” Apparently, each route was known by its rider. “The next man not here yet?” Josiah eased his feet from the stirrups, rotating his ankles even though agony shot through his legs.

“Nah. A couple of the buttes get icy, so Neil’s usually late when there’s snow on the ground.”

Josiah nodded. He needed to dismount, but experience told him bullets would shoot through his legs when he landed on the frozen ground.

The man shifted from one foot to the other, and then back to the first, wrapping his coat tighter across his girth. “Coffee’s on the stove an’ some beef an’ taters under the cloth.” He probably didn’t appreciate standing in the cold while Josiah worked up the nerve to climb off the horse.

Better get to it.

Josiah gripped the saddle horn as he lowered himself to the ground. But his legs had bowed from holding the bent position so long in the chill, and they almost didn’t support his weight. He leaned against the saddle until his limbs reawakened.

And, oh, did they come to life. Pain shot through his lower half like knife slashes, but he gritted his teeth and reached for the mochila that held the mail. With it draped over his shoulder, he dragged himself toward the house while the man led the horse away.

As Josiah pushed open the door, he found himself looking for Mara’s pretty face, with those doe-like eyes and the smile that could cut through the thickest darkness. But she wasn’t here.

Anyway, he had a job to do, and soon the relief rider would show up with the westbound mochila. Then Josiah would mount up and be off again. Ten more hours back the way he’d come with a new mail bag. More bone-jarring rides on crazy horses over icy hills. In the dead of night, to boot.

A lonely plate sat on a small table near the cook stove. Josiah poured himself a cup of coffee, then eased down on the bench in front of the food. No fork or knife, just a burned chunk of beef and some shriveled potatoes. He poked the meat. Cold.

He drew in a long breath, then exhaled. Before long, he’d have enough money saved to find good land, build a house, buy some stock, and raise the finest Arabian horses in the west. He could do whatever it took for his dream.

~ ~ ~

Mara kept steady tension on the rope until the filly bobbed her head and stepped forward, releasing the pressure on her halter. Stubborn thing. At eight months old, with steady handling from birth, she should be leading easily by now and learning to stand quiet when tied. But not this sassy gal.

“Good job.” Mara kept her voice soft and crooning as she stroked Bandita’s neck. With horses, you had to reward good behavior every time, even when the mare was working on her last thread of patience.

She straightened. Time for another lap around the corral. Squaring her shoulders, she spoke a loud, two syllable, “Wa-alk.” Bandita moved forward and Mara fell into step beside her.

Their new Express rider had made it back that morning in one piece, but with dark hollows under his eyes. After riding hard from Kansas to get here, he’d had to turn back around and pull a two-hundred-mile mail run in less than a day. That was more than most men would take on, but he hadn’t complained. Just took the ham and biscuits she offered and dragged himself to the bunkhouse.

Mara’s eyes drifted in that direction. The door was still closed, even though the sun had passed the noon mark a few hours ago. He’d missed lunch, but he probably needed sleep more than food right now.

A tug on the rope stopped her. She turned to face Bandita, who stood with feet planted and head raised. The rascal. Mara kept steady pressure on the rope as the animal’s wide eyes flashed white around the edges. The feisty thing hadn’t yet learned Mara could outlast her. Just a bit more patience.

A chuckle drifted from the fence, and Mara peered over the filly’s head at Zeche sitting on one of the two-year-old geldings.

“She’s a tough one.” His voice hinted at amusement.

Mara squared her shoulders. “I’ll get through to her.”

“I’ve no doubt.”

She gave him a look that expressed a little of her frustration.

“You’ve never met a horse you couldn’t win over to your way of doing things, whether you coaxed it out of them or just plain outlasted the animal.”

Mara eyed the filly. “Well, Bandita definitely requires outlasting, but I think we’re close to an understanding.”

Zeche nodded and signaled his horse forward, holding the reins high over the palomino gelding’s neck so the young horse could feel his directions. Typical of his usual gentle touch, coupled with firm direction and patience. What Pa used to call the common sense approach.

They worked with the animals from birth, so by the time each horse reached three years old, it handled like a seasoned saddle horse. Their horse training had always been a family operation, but the hole left by Pa’s passing hadn’t been so easy to fill in.

Mara worked in silence as she put the filly through her paces, and on the other side of the pen, Zeche did the same with his gelding. He seemed aware of her presence, but was engrossed in the interplay of training—the one-on-one interaction that built a measure of trust and respect between man and beast.

Mara’s gaze drifted to the bunkhouse. Again. But a hard pinch on the back of her arm jerked her back to her surroundings. In a reflexive action, she shoved her elbow back, catching the filly on the side of her mouth before the animal knew what had happened. Bandita threw up her head, white flashing around her dark eyes again.

Mara eyed the horse, rubbing the soft flesh on the back of her arm where the horse’s teeth had connected. “Brat.” From the sting, she’d see a bruise there tomorrow.

The filly only blew on her.

“Don’t ever trust a horse that shows the whites of their eyes.” Zeche’s voice drifted from across the pen. A saying she’d heard from Pa more than once.

She squared her shoulders and pulled on the rope again. She had to get Pa’s voice out of her mind. The horses had always been her safe place, her love. But hearing him in everything just made the work harder.

Keeping her voice steady and controlled, she said, “Wa-alk.” She would have this animal leading and tying if it killed her.

Zeche watched from atop his mount on the far side of the pen. “I got a letter from Uncle Martin in today’s mailbag.”

Mara kept her body moving, face forward but eyes on the filly beside her. Why did he bring this up again?

“He and Aunt Greta are excited about you coming to stay with them in Washington, D.C. Says Greta’s already planning your welcome reception. She wants to make sure you come before they leave town for the summer.”

A pulse ticked through Mara’s jaw. How many ways could she say no before her brother would let this go?

“I’m thinking you could wait until April, after most of the foals are born. I can spare Ezra long enough to travel with you.”

She inhaled slowly, then released the spent air. “I thought we talked about this.” She glanced over to study his reaction. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt him, but she wasn’t leaving this place. Now more than ever, they had to stick together.

“You know that’s what Pa wanted. And it’s what I want.” His voice strengthened with that last sentence.

Did he think she could trade this wild, wonderful land for some eastern city, where her aunt would do everything possible to match her up with a high-society dandy? As nice as it would be to see her mother’s family, she wouldn’t put herself in that position. Nothing good could come of it.

Zeche’s hard expression softened. “It’s best, Mar. You have to see that.”

No, she didn’t, but arguing with Zeche wouldn’t get them anywhere. Her brother was as hard-headed as this filly.

Mara ran her hands over the horse’s back and sides. Down her legs, under her belly. The young animal had to get used to human touch. And it gave a good excuse to keep her face and her focus away from Zeche.

If she had to marry—which she didn’t—it would be to a man who loved this territory as much as she did. Someone who would help her carry on her father’s legacy as a breeder of high-quality, highly trained steeds.

An image of the new Express rider flashed in Mara’s mind. Loose curls of brown hair, crystal blue eyes. A hint of sadness lined the corners of those eyes. What was his story? Most of the Express riders had little or no family. No one to talk them out of the dangerous work. No one to miss them if they never came home. The pain that had stiffened his movements when Ezra mentioned the sea… Something deep within her ached at the thought of his past. It had to be tragic.

~ ~ ~

When Josiah opened his bunkhouse door the next morning, huge flakes fell from the sky, so thick he could barely make out the semi-circle of buildings forming the courtyard. A hunched figure strode from the barn toward the main house. Josiah trudged the same direction.

He stepped into the cabin behind Zechariah, a tug of guilt pulling at his chest. The other man had a solid layer of snow covering both shoulders and his hat, compared to the handful of flakes that had gathered on Josiah’s coat. Red splotched the man’s cheeks and nose. How much work had he already done out in the weather this morning?

When Josiah shut the door against the cold, the warmth of the cabin crept through his frozen shell. He reached for the buttons on his coat, a savory aroma drifting through his senses. Coffee. And not burned this time. He turned to the table where Mara poured the dark brew into cups.

Against the plain backdrop of the wooden cabin walls, she stood out like an angel. Making his heart stutter, even in a plain white shirtwaist and brown skirt. Her hair was pulled back in a simple ribbon, leaving the length of it to float halfway down her back. Full lips pursed as she poured the steaming liquid, and her eyelids were lowered to reveal thick black lashes. She snatched his breath every time he saw her, which accounted for the tightness in his chest now. It wasn’t good that she had such an effect on him. He’d have to work harder to control his body’s reactions.

Mara stopped pouring long enough to look up, and her luminous brown eyes found his. A dimple formed in her right cheek. She’d caught him staring.

A new heat crept into his neck, and he moved his attention to Ezra, who added logs to the fireplace. A flurry of sparks shot up as he dropped a big chunk in the center of the flame.

“Breakfast is ready.” Mara’s soft voice drifted from the cook stove, pushing all three men into action.

Josiah ambled to his chair and stood behind it while Mara stirred something at the stove. He may be deficient in many things, but at least he knew better than to sit while a lady still stood. Pa had drilled that into him when he was a child. Then after his parents’ deaths, his time as kitchen runner, and then chef, at the John Wesley Hotel in Savannah had only reinforced that habit. Of course, he typically hadn’t been able to sit down at all during meals at the hotel, but especially not while a lady still stood. It was a habit he hadn’t lost in these last few years of wandering.

After Ezra said grace, Josiah started into his eggs, fried beef, and biscuit. The eggs needed salt, and the beef might be hardtack in disguise, but they were both edible compared to the biscuits… The hard lumps seemed to be nothing more than flour, water, and enough soda to douse a campfire.

He scanned the table. Blackberry preserves. He heaped on a healthy coating and closed his eyes as he bit down. The berry mixture had a tangy aftertaste, but it did help mask the floury texture of the brick biscuits.

“You think it’ll snow all day?”