Once Upon a Mail Order Bride – Linda Broday

The sudden bang of a heavy prison door echoed like a rifle shot down a long, dimly lit hallway. Adeline Jancy flinched as though struck, her hand clenching tighter around the letters from Ridge Steele, the man she’d agreed to marry upon release. In her other hand, she gripped a pitiful burlap bag that contained all her earthly possessions. A nearby door opened, and she blinked at the unaccustomed light, her eyes watering from the glare. For three long and dismal years, she’d lived in solitary confinement below the prison, in silence so complete that she could hear the twitch of a rat’s whiskers a yard away. She’d thought of this moment, dreamed about it for so long. Freedom. A chance to start over. But now that it was here, was she truly ready? Her knees buckled. The squeak of shoes met her ears, and a heavyset woman appeared. “Jancy, it’s me—Nettie Mae.” Now, the door to her cell no longer between them, Addie finally saw the face of the woman who’d brought her food each day. Middle-aged and gray-haired, Nettie had kind eyes. Tears gathered in her own eyes as she hugged her sole friend. Nettie kept talking, the first time Addie’d heard her speak louder than a whisper.

“You gotta listen and listen good. Two men are waitin’ at the front gate to grab you when you leave the prison. I ’spect you know what they want.” Yes, she knew. Addie’d expected her release to be difficult and Nettie confirmed it. During the night, she’d played the scenarios over in her mind countless times. She might get shot, she might die. She might meet a fate even worse than death. But if so, she would face it with her head held high. Not cowering in fear.

Gas lamps held in brackets lining the walls every few yards emitted loud sizzles that sounded like thousands of flying insects. An unpleasant odor permeated the air. “Mr. Luke overheard those men. He’s going to catch you before you reach the door and take you out the back way. You’re gonna be fine. I can tell Mr. Luke’s a right good man.” Addie’s heart pounded. Gonna be fine—if the warden didn’t stop Luke on his way in.

If the ones waiting for her didn’t get wind of a change in procedure. If she and Luke weren’t spotted and followed. Her release involved too many ifs. She braced herself, determined. Now was not the time to panic. After all these years, she had to finally take control of her life. Sweat lined her palms. Her welcoming committee wanted what she knew—and she’d take that to her grave first. Ezekiel Jancy be damned! She’d defied him before and paid dearly. Everything she’d suffered was worth it if it meant that a small innocent stayed safe from Ezekiel’s iron will.

Her pulse throbbed in her neck and she wet her lips. She took Nettie’s hands and wished with all her might to find words to express her gratitude. She forced air up to make herself speak, but not a peep emerged. Prison, trauma, and solitude combined with her rusty, weak throat stole her ability to speak. Before her stood the one person in the world she longed to thank, and she couldn’t utter a sound. She blinked hard and stuffed the letters into her burlap. “I know, child.” Nettie patted her shoulder awkwardly with one misshapen hand. “Save your strength. I’m glad I could help.

” Nettie turned to walk away, and Addie reached for her. “You go on now and marry that handsome outlaw. Leave your memories at the door and have a good life far away from this hell.” Nettie sniffled. “I’ll die in here, but you’re getting out. Make every second you have left count for something good.” She gave Addie a little push. “Go. Mr. Luke’s waitin’.

” Her heart bursting with conflicting emotion, Addie took a deep breath. She walked down the hallway toward freedom—or death, if this didn’t go right. At every noise, she jumped, her nerves like fine glass ready to shatter. A few feet from the door, a tall man appeared quietly from a side room. Dressed as a cowboy, he had the coloring of a Spaniard and wore a soft, dove-gray hat. Long dark hair hung to his shoulders. “Miss Jancy, I’m Luke Legend. Trust me to get you out of here. I won’t let anyone harm you.” He relieved her of the pitiful burlap bag.

Without waiting for her to nod, he took her arm and led her a different way, down a maze of corridors. Doubts jumped into her head like circus fleas on a dog—where was he taking her? But instinct and Nettie’s soft assurance urged her to trust him, and she really had little choice. Finally, they reached a door and emerged into blinding sunlight. She threw her hands over her eyes to block the bright pain. “Un momento. I prepared for something like this.” She heard a rustling sound, and a second later he draped a soft, clean cloth around her head. Ahhh, blessed relief. She could’ve wept at the kindness of this man who’d thought of everything. “There.

You can open your eyes now.” She peered through her fingers and saw she wore a black veil. Again, she tried to speak, to thank him, but nothing came. “Hurry. When you don’t show up at the front door, those men will be onto us. They look desperate.” Though Luke’s voice held an urgent tone, the comforting hand on her back imparted trust that he knew the safest way out of this. She had to trot to keep up with his long strides and was out of breath by the time they reached a horse and buggy waiting in the shade of a tree. He helped her in and went around to his side, strapping on a gun belt and holster. Moments later, as they careened from the prison, shots rang out behind them.

“Get down as low as you can.” Luke drew his revolver, leaned out, and returned fire. Hoofbeats pounded on the hard-packed road, and she could scarcely tell the sound apart from her frantic heartbeat. Each time they made a curve, the buggy came near to overturning. Addie hung on for her very life, praying to see the town of Austin coming up ahead. They should be close. If memory served, the prison had only been a mile or so out of town. But it had been so long since she’d been brought to the prison, and the years could have blurred the details in her mind. Though she didn’t rise to look, the pursuers mounts sounded upon them, and a flurry of shots kept her head lowered. One round barely missed her, splintering the wood just above.

Luke yelled for his poor horse to go faster. The ground sped past until finally the sound of the men behind began to fade. They pulled into Austin at long last, but Luke slowed little. He wove their buggy in and around the other wagons and horses before pulling to a head-jerking stop. “Come on.” Luke lifted her from the overworked buggy and set her down. Taking her hand, he pulled her into a mercantile. They raced through the store and went out the back. Addie struggled to keep up, while dozens of curious pairs of eyes stared, probably wondering about the woman in the black veil. They must think she was late to a funeral.

Luke paused outside to glance around. Wrinkles between his eyes deepened in thought, and he muttered something in Spanish that sounded dire. Two men entered the other end of the alley. Even from the distance, she knew neither was her father. They must be on Ezekiel’s payroll instead. Or… Her throat caught. Maybe one was the dead girl’s father. He could be after Addie as well, seeking revenge and his grandson. Gunshots splintered the wood of the back door, and hard pieces of metal and wood landed around her as the men gave chase. Luke grabbed her hand again, and they ran back onto the street, dodging passersby on the boardwalk.

She gasped for air, and her lungs burned. Her weak muscles and too-large shoes added to the struggle of keeping up. Plus, being short made for a whole lot of discomfort when the man pulling you had long legs. “I’m sorry,” Luke panted. “Keep going. I’ve got to get you safe.” The busy street helped a great deal in losing the two men. They wove over, around, and through tight places, running until Luke finally spied the Houston & Texas Central Railroad depot ahead with a train sitting on the tracks. “There! We’ve got to make that train. With any luck, it’s going to Fort Worth.

” Hope sprang up inside her, and her heart leaped. Maybe this would be their escape. White smoke billowed up around the steam engine, and the monstrous hunk of metal began to inch down the tracks, picking up speed. Oh no! “We can make it if we run,” Luke shouted. She gathered some breath and put wings to her feet. She sprinted along beside him, her very life depending on her ability to keep running. They arrived as the last four cars were pulling past the platform. Gunshots sounded somewhere close, and Luke ducked behind a wall. “I don’t know how they found us, but here’s the plan. Both of us can’t make it, so I’m putting you on.

If I’m right, this train’s going to Fort Worth. I’ll wire my wife, Josie, and she’ll meet you there. I’ll follow when I can.” Beads of sweat rose on her face and trickled down her back. Her hands trembled as fear set in at the thought of being on her own again. Trains terrified her, especially without Luke to help. She’d never done it before, nor been in a strange city alone. The caboose was about to pass them. Oh Lord, she’d have to jump! What if she missed and landed under those big wheels? Luke pressed some bills into her palm. “This’ll pay for your ticket and anything else you might need.

Ask anyone if you have questions. I’ll stop those bastards from getting on.” Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord! She couldn’t do this. She barely had a second before he took her hand, and they bolted alongside the train, now moving at a pretty good clip. Run faster! A bullet slammed into the wood at her feet, and others plinked against the side of the iron car. Please don’t let them hit me. Please don’t let them hit me. Her hammering heart leaped into her throat, and her mouth—as parched as a piece of sun-dried bread—wouldn’t let her swallow. One second before the caboose cleared the platform, Luke yelled, “Jump!” As she did, he pushed from behind. The heel of one shoe caught on the edge of the metal landing of the caboose.

The ground underneath passed in a blur as she used all her strength to pull herself upright. She raised her gaze in time to see one of their pursuers holding Luke’s arms behind him while the other thug drove a fist into his stomach. She sagged against the metal railing. Luke Legend had been shot at, chased across the countryside, and was taking a beating —all for a woman he’d never laid eyes on before today. Gratitude burst inside her for the gift she’d been given. But at such cost. They sped down the tracks. She was on a train going who knew where, with everything she owned in the world left behind in Luke Legend’s buggy, the most cherished of which were Ridge’s letters. It didn’t matter though. She’d read them so often, she could recite them.

They’d found a place in her heart. Addie glanced around. For now, she was safe and on her way to finally meet him. * * * Ridge Steele walked down a dark street near Fort Worth’s Hell’s Half Acre long past dark. The week’s ride from Hope’s Crossing had worn him out. But he’d arrived in time to collect the books the schoolmaster, Todd Denver, had desperately needed for the school term to begin. If they didn’t arrive, Denver would have to move on and the school year would have to be canceled. No parent wanted that. With the freighters on strike and no end in sight, they’d had no way of getting the books there, and as the mayor, it had fallen to Ridge to make the trip after them. The telegram from Luke had said that Ridge’s bride wouldn’t arrive for another week or so, due to needing some recovery time, so he’d had nothing holding him back from making the trip.

Ridge paused and leaned against the gaslight outside the Sundance Saloon and debated going inside. From the raucous yells, it sounded a little rougher than he liked. He gazed up at the stars and found he was grateful for the extra time Luke had given him. The idea of marrying a woman he’d never met could be daunting. Who knew what sort of disposition Adeline Jancy would have? His friends had all gotten lucky with their mailorder brides, but there could always be that one to spoil the string. The lights from his hotel beckoned at the far end of the street. He tugged his worn Stetson lower over his brow, pushed away from the gaslight, and strolled toward his bed. Tomorrow, he’d start for home. The thumbnail moon didn’t hold back the darkness, the night offering more than a dozen places to hide. This wasn’t the safest part of town, and he regretted taking the shortcut.

As usual, when away from the protection of the outlaw town of Hope’s Crossing, a heightened sense of awareness tingled beneath his skin. Blame that on the price on his head and too many narrow escapes. Two figures drew his attention, moving erratically about twenty yards ahead. At first, he thought they were drunks holding each other up. But upon taking a harder look, he noticed one was a man, dragging a woman by one arm toward a dark alley. Before he could wrestle her into the space, the woman managed to get to her feet. She walloped the man about the head and shoulders with a shoe until he turned her loose. The varmint tried to reach for her again only to have her sidestep his grasp. She lunged, grabbing his shirt, then before he could blink, slapped him across the face with the shoe. The sharp sound ricocheted up and down the row of dark buildings.

“You little slut!” the man shouted, backhanding her. “I oughta kill you!” Without a word, the petite woman kept hitting him. Her hefty companion, or accoster, whichever he might turn out to be, cowered on the ground. Ridge chuckled. She had more grit, more fight in her than ten women. But when she faltered, the man leaped up and grabbed her again. “I’ll show you what happens to someone with your temper, you bitch.” He put a hand around her throat and lifted her high in the air, her feet dangling above the ground. Ridge pulled one of his twin Colts and rushed forward. He jammed the barrel of the gun to the back of the man’s head and snarled, “Turn her loose and let her down easy.

” The man’s shoulders tensed. The piece of horse dung released her and slowly turned. “This ain’t none of your affair.” “I’m making it mine.” Ridge held the pistol on the man and made a half turn. “Are you all right, ma’am?” Anger filled the scrappy woman’s eyes. She nodded and jerked her shoe from the ground, holding on to the side of the building for balance while sliding her foot into it. Though her bottom lip trembled, she didn’t cry. She didn’t appear to be a working girl, her clothes far too simple and plain for someone who sold her body. She looked young, and too soft to have been part of that life.

Although he couldn’t tell what color her eyes were, he was struck by the shape and size and the fringe of black lashes framing them like expensive Spanish lace. Some women were only pretty in the dark, and he’d seen plenty of those, but he got the feeling she’d also be pretty in daylight. He softened his voice. “Are you lost, ma’am?” Another pert nod. He got the impression that if she’d had something more than a shoe to fight with, she might not have needed his help at all. “Keep going west on this street, and you’ll get out of this neighborhood. Or tell me where you’re headed, and I’ll take you myself.” “I saw her first!” the man yelled. “Me an’ her was gonna get acquainted.” “There isn’t a ‘you and her,’ you imbecile.

Got that?” Ridge twisted the man’s arm behind his back and returned his Colt to the holster. “Bother her, or any other woman, again, and there won’t even be a ‘you’ anymore.” He shoved the man against the side of the building and was rewarded with a loud grunt. The poor excuse of humanity shook his head to clear it of drunken cobwebs then stumbled off, cursing the woman, Ridge, and himself. But by the time Ridge swung around, the lady with gumption had disappeared. After looking up and down the street for her, he had little choice but to pray she reached her destination without further incident. The hotel beckoned again and he set off, his thoughts remaining on the silent angel who’d lost her way.

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