Elizabeth Davenport let out a startled scream, the sudden high-pitched wail cut off as tiny granules of hot Wyoming prairie clogged her already parched mouth. The stage coach tipped sharp to the right and slammed her against the dark padded wall. A thick cloud of dust billowed around the stage as six frightened horses dragged the toppled coach over the rough, rocky landscape.
The glass window shattered as luggage and bulging canvas mail sacks spilled from under their bench seats. A heavy cold metal container tumbled across the floor and crushed her ankle, pinning Elizabeth against the door and shards of broken glass. For one brief moment her aunt’s constant complaint during their long trip came true. Why hadn’t they taken the train?
Aunt Matilda’s taffeta-clad girth smashed against her, the woman’s sweaty bulk squeezing out the little air left in her lungs. The widow, Hazel Henderson bashed her head against Elizabeth’s jaw, knocking her head back against the metal floor clamp of their seat. Sparkling pins of light stabbed behind her eyes and she teetered on the brink of loosing consciousness. The topsy-turvy carriage knocked against boulders, rocking the passengers back and forth as the panicking horses dragged them through a billowing cloud of dirt, weeds and gravel.
* * * *
Lieutenant Eric Ryan dismissed his men and watched the parade ground of Fort Laramie empty. A hot late afternoon wind blew across the grassless earth and he tilted the brim of his hat to shield his eyes. Unlike other forts Eric had seen, Laramie had no manmade walls to protect its occupants from the harsh Wyoming landscape.
Shouts and happy greetings rose from the center of the fort as lonely wives swarmed around the two storey stone guard house, eager to reunite with their tired men. Eric shook his head. Fort life was no place for a woman.
The stress of breaking in city-born recruits on the art of horse riding hung heavy on his shoulders and he felt the officer's quarters, ‘Old Bedlam’, beckon him home. He wanted nothing more than a bath and sleep.
He didn’t get far before a hand clamped down hard on his shoulder. "Oh, no you don't!"
Eric spun to find Major Gregory Bowers behind him, a cigar clenched between yellowed teeth, half hidden by an overgrown graying mustache.
"You've been dodging dinner invitations all month. Not this time. There's a pot roast waiting inside and several bottles of Irish whiskey, badly in need of drinking. Finish them off and the evening won't be so bad. What’s a mere headache to having Martha off our backs?"
Eric thought of Ms. Rachel Applegate, Martha Bowers youngest sister and gave an inward groan. The wide gap between her front teeth was hard not to stare at. The young, demure lady was nice enough, even sweet, but Eric had enough of these set ups. For some reason, Martha Bowers wouldn't rest until he was married again.
He shook his head. "Major, I have paperwork."
"It can wait," his commanding officer barked, steering him toward the impressive, two storey white Fort Commander's quarters.
Major Bowers spun. He yanked the cigar from his lips and glared up into Eric's face. "You want to make Captain, don't you, Lieutenant?” He narrowed his dark eyes. “Your father has inquired into your record here at Laramie. I could write him…"
"I told you before, sir, I don't want special treatment. Not from him, or from you. Besides, that's bribery. "
"I don't give a tinker's cuss what you think it is. A couple years in the stockade would be nothing compared to having to spend the rest of my life with Martha chewing my ear about why you snubbed her baby sister."
Martha Bowers appeared in the doorway of the large white house and stepped out onto the long wrap-around porch. The men fell silent as the petite woman glided closer and greeted her husband with a loving kiss upon his bearded cheek. Thick brown braids crowned her head, giving the woman the appearance of height. The ever-present cameo was clipped tight beneath her chin as her kind gray eyes twinkled in greeting. "Lieutenant, you will be joining us for dinner, won't you?"
Since coming to Fort Laramie the year before, the Major had embraced Eric, inviting him to dinners, introducing him to family and friends. Newly widowed, he knew Mrs. Bowers felt the need to offer him solace. The unnecessary attention only caused more guilt. How could he grieve for someone he hadn’t loved, nor hardly knew?
Not wanting to appear rude, he gave Martha a half smile and nodded. "I thank you for your hospitality, Missus Bowers."
"Rachel made a cobbler," she added, snaking her light blue ruffled muslin sleeve around his arm to escort him into the parlor. Her heavy skirts rustled as she ushered him to an overstuffed red sofa and offered them both a glass of whiskey. It was a room found in the grand houses back East, decorated much like the home he grew up in with ornate polished woods and gold etchings. The familiar sitting room smelled strong of jasmine and faint cigar.
"I'll let Rachel know you've come for dinner." She lifted her gray skirts and ascended to the second floor without a sound.
Eric took the whiskey in one hard gulp. The Major sauntered over with the crystal decanter and poured him another shot. "Relax, for God's sake. You act like Rachel is the end of the world. It's just one dinner."
"It's hardly one dinner, sir. It's moonlight strolls, home baked sweets and walking her to church on Sunday." Eric rolled his eyes. "God help me if there is a dance."
"Is that so bad?"
Eric stood, towering over him. "Yes. With all due respect, sir, I resent being your wife's social project."
"Sit down, that's an order! My wife loves you like the son she's always wanted. Martha wants you happy and she's crazy enough to think a woman will do it."
Eric downed the whiskey and once again found it refilled. "Sir, I've told you before, my life is here, in the garrison, with the military. I don't want another wife." The memory of Sarah’s gentle laugh, her nervous smile, stabbed at his conscience and he flinched. "Marrying was a foolhardy mistake,” he mumbled. “That girl deserved a much better husband than me.”
“If I remember the rumors correctly, you were forced to marry.”