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About the Author
Rosanne BittnerAward-winning novelist Rosanne Bittner is highly acclaimed for her thrilling love stories and historical authenticity. Her epic romances span the West—from Canada to Mexico, Missouri to California—and are often based on Roseanne’s personal visits to each setting. She lives in Michigan with her husband and two sons.
Annie Webster frowned when she opened the door. “I don’t take nobody but gentlemen in my boardinghouse,” she warned defensively, “and...
Annie Webster frowned when she opened the door. “I don’t take nobody but gentlemen in my boardinghouse,” she warned defensively, “and only them that bathes.”
The young man standing on her porch removed a wide-brimmed leather hat, revealing a cascade of thick, nearly-black hair that fell in tumbled layers. “I don’t know much about gentlemen, ma’am, except that I’m no troublemaker; and I do take baths, often as I can.”
The woman studied him closely, noticing he was clean-shaven. Although he wore buckskins, they were not worn and dirty like those she had seen on so many other men in Omaha who dressed like this one. The young man smiled warmly, his teeth straight and white, too white, she thought. Maybe they looked that way because his skin was so dark. Whatever the reason, it was a very handsome, unnerving smile, and it destroyed her remaining defenses.
She stepped aside, allowing him inside. His lanky six-foot-plus frame towered over her as she closed the door and folded her arms, a look of authority moving into her eyes. “Well, what will it be? Money’s got to be paid up front. I’ve had my share of men comin’ in here and messin’ up a room for a couple of nights, then takin’ off without payin’.”
“I’m not here for a room, ma’am. Name’s Colt Travis, and I came here to see a Mister uh—” He stopped and took a folded piece of paper from where it was tucked into his wide leather belt. Mrs. Webster watched warily, for attached to the belt was a beaded sheath that held a huge knife. Around his hips hung a gun belt and revolver. The hands that unfolded the paper looked strong, and were tanned even darker than his face from exposure to the prairie sun, darker than any white man she had ever seen. “A Mr. Stuart Landers,” he finished. He looked at her with soft hazel eyes, a gentle gaze that didn’t seem to match the rest of his rugged frame. “This poster says I can find him here. He’s looking for an experienced scout.”
“Experienced? You don’t look old enough to have much experience, but then I guess that’s for Mr. Landers to decide.”
“Is he here then?”
The woman nodded, squinting and eyeing him even more closely. “You an Indian?”
Colt felt the heat coming to his cheeks. It was a question he was sick of hearing every time he met someone new. “I’m just a man looking for a job.”
Mrs. Webster straightened. “That’s not what I asked.”
Colt sighed. “Ma’am, will you please just get Mr. Landers?”
The woman sniffed. “Follow me.” She turned and walked over a polished hardwood floor to a small but neat room with a brick fireplace. Vases and knickknacks lined the mantel. “Can’t blame me for askin’,” she muttered. “Them high cheekbones and that dark hair and skin, wearin’ buckskins and all, what do you expect? I got a right to know who I’m lettin’ in my door.”
Colt said nothing. He glanced around the room, wondering if the woman scrubbed every item every day. It was hard to believe that anything in this dusty town could be kept so clean. The room was decorated with plants, and little tables, stuffed chairs, and a sofa with flower-patterned upholstery. “I’m Annie Webster,” she said, turning to meet his eyes. “You can wait here in the parlor, Mr. Travis. I’ll get Mr. Landers.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
The woman started out, then stopped and glanced back at him as though trying to tell him with her eyes he had better not break or soil anything. Colt just nodded to her, and she finally left. Colt remained standing, deciding the furniture looked too fine to sit on. He wondered if Mrs. Webster was a Mormon. Several Mormons had chosen to stay in Omaha since they first settled there for one winter a good ten years before.
The Mormons had a way of making something out of nothing, and this house was an example. There were few fine frame buildings in Omaha, more log and tent structures than anything else; but the place considered itself a city nonetheless. Even in its young stage, it was all the city Colt cared to encounter. He felt closed in in the small parlor, as out of place as a buffalo might feel inside a house. He looked down at his boots, hoping he had stamped off enough dust so as not to dirty Mrs. Webster’s immaculately polished floor and colorful braided rugs.
“Mr. Travis.” Colt turned to see a man of perhaps thirty approaching. He guessed the man’s suit was silk, as was the paisley-print vest he wore beneath the perfectly fitting jacket. A gold watch chain hung from the vest pocket. The man looked Colt over appreciatively. “Stuart Landers,” he said, putting out his hand. “I am very glad to meet you. Mrs. Webster says you’ve come in answer to my poster.”
Colt took his hand, thinking what a weak grip the man had. Landers’s dark hair was already beginning to thin dramatically, his temple area and the area just back from his forehead already bald. In spite of the man’s obvious wealth, evident by his dress and manner, there was an honesty to his dark eyes that Colt liked right away. “Well, sir, the words excellent pay kind of struck my eye.”
Landers laughed and motioned for Colt to be seated across from him. Colt reluctantly lowered himself into a stuffed chair, deciding not to lean back. “I am afraid I might have made a mistake putting those words in the ad,” Landers told him. “Oh, the pay will be excellent, but the ad attracted every sort of man imaginable. Most of those who answered it so far have turned out either not to have near enough experience, or have been so dirty and dangerous-looking that I just felt I couldn’t trust them.” The man studied Colt intently as he spoke. “Mrs. Webster said you, on the other hand, gave a very good appearance and didn’t, uh…well, to put it bluntly, she said that ‘this one doesn’t smell bad.’”
Colt frowned, trying to decide whether or not the remark was a compliment. He rested his elbows on his knees, fingering his hat. “Mr. Landers, I don’t know what this is all about or why it matters, but before my folks died, I was raised to be clean and respectful. My father was a missionary, came west with the Cherokee back in the thirties. Fact is, my mother was a Cherokee herself, but she and my pa lived in nice houses and brought me up a Christian. I have to say, though, that whether or not a man is clean and educated doesn’t have much to do with how good a scout he is.”
“Oh, I am sure of that; but this is a situation that calls for both—an experienced scout who can ensure our safety, but a man presentable and mannerly enough to be around my younger sister. She’s never been exposed to this rough frontier life. My father won’t allow any nonsense around her—foul language, uncleanliness, that sort of thing. You’re half Indian, you say?”
Colt felt the defenses rising again, but he did not detect an insulting ring to the words. “Cherokee. Lived most of my early years down in Texas. My folks were both dead by the time I was fourteen, and I’ve been kind of a wandering man ever since.”
“Well, whether or not you’re a half—I mean, being part Indian isn’t really so important as long as you were raised by a white, Christian father. You speak well and give a good appearance. I must say, you look young, though, Mr. Travis. May I ask your age?”
“I’m twenty, but I’ve been on my own and lived a man’s life for a lot of years. I’ve been to Oregon and back four times and to California twice. I’ve fought Indians and killed my share, led wagon trains, hunted buffalo, you name it. I even know a little bit about surveying. After my mother died, my father moved to Austin and worked for a surveyor for a few years down in Texas, and I worked right alongside him.”
Landers’s eyes lit up. “Surveying! Why, that’s wonderful! That kind of experience is just what we need! I knew if I took my time I’d find the right man.”
Colt watched him warily. “I ought to tell you I have a partner, name of Slim Jessup,” he said, speaking in a soft Texas drawl. “He’s a little less prone to bathing, but I’d make sure he cleaned up. He’s quite a bit older, taught me everything I know. He’d be here with me now, but he’s over seeing a horse doctor about getting a tooth pulled.”
“A horse doctor!” Landers grimaced. “For a tooth?”
“Out here you take help wherever you can find it,” Colt said. “Slim’s in a lot of pain.”
Stuart Landers shook his head. “Well, will this Mr. Jessup be willing to come along?”
Colt rose, beginning to feel restless within the four walls. “I can’t answer that until you tell me what this is all about, Mr. Landers. I haven’t even said I’d do it myself for sure, but even without Slim, I can assure you I can do as good a job as anybody. I have a couple of letters of recommendation from people whose wagon trains I’ve helped guide west. I hang on to them to help me get new jobs. You want to see them?”
Landers rose. “Well, yes, I suppose I should.” He studied Colt more closely as the young man took the letters from a small leather bag that was tied to his belt. He took note of the weapons Colt wore, intuition telling him this young man did indeed know what he was about. Colt handed him the letters, which he had obviously been carrying around for a while. They were worn from being folded and unfolded often, but the writing was still legible.
Colt walked to a window while Landers read the letters. He looked out at the dusty, rutted street in front of the house, again wondering how Mrs. Webster kept the place so clean. It felt strange to be inside a normal home now, even though he had been brought up this way. It had been many years since he had lived in a real house. Since losing his parents, the whole West had become his home, the sky his ceiling, the earth his floor. He had grown to like it that way. Slim said it was the Indian in him.
“Well, these people praise you highly, Mr. Travis,” Landers said. He walked over and handed the letters to Colt. “I am impressed and delighted. Time is getting short, and I wasn’t sure I would find the right man. You’re pretty young, but better qualified than anyone else I’ve interviewed. It would be good if your partner would accompany you. An extra man never hurts, but as far as protection goes, my father will be bringing along his own little army. What we need is someone who knows the way, at least as far as Fort Laramie; someone who can communicate with the Indians and keep us out of trouble; and a man who knows a little about surveying, well, that’s all the better. We want the best, Mr. Travis, since my little sister is coming along.” Landers reached into a vest pocket, taking out a little gold case and opening it. “Would you like a smoke, Mr. Travis?”
Colt eyed the five thin cigars inside the case. He nodded, taking one. “Never saw cigars this small before,” he commented.
“Oh, they’re quite pleasant and very expensive.”
Landers closed the case and walked back to sit down. Colt put the thin smoke to his lips and wet the end of it. “I don’t understand why your sister has to come along at all,” he said then. “The land west of here is no fitting place for a young, pampered girl who’s used to a fine house and all the comforts.” He moved to the fireplace and took a large flint match from a pewter cup, striking it and lighting the cigar. He puffed on it until the end glowed good and red.
“You don’t know Sunny, or my father,” Landers answered, smiling almost sadly. “Sunny’s got spirit. She’ll try anything. And she’s the apple of my father’s eye. He named her Sunny because he says she brought a new ray of sunshine into his life when she was born. He doesn’t go anyplace without her, and she wouldn’t let him if he tried.” Colt sensed a tiny hint of jealousy in the words, but it vanished in the next sentence. “Sunny’s name truly fits her,” Landers added, looking away from Colt and out a nearby window. “She has hair as yellow as the sun, eyes as blue as the sky, and a smile that makes it very hard not to love her, at least for me anyway. My older brother, well, I suppose he loves her like any other brother loves a sister, at least a half sister; but he’s afraid my father will give her a little too much of the family fortune. Still—”
The man shifted in his chair and looked suddenly embarrassed. “Excuse me, Mr. Travis. I didn’t mean to go on like that about personal family matters that are of no interest to you. I never answered your original question—what this job involves.” He leaned back, putting his right foot up on the opposite knee. “It’s about a railroad, Mr. Travis, a transcontinental railroad—one that will link Chicago with California.”
Colt’s eyebrows arched, and he could not help grinning. He took another puff on the cigar then, thinking what good tobacco it was. “A railroad clear across the country?” He could not suppress a snicker at the ridiculous idea.
“Go ahead and laugh, Mr. Travis,” Landers told him. “You wouldn’t be the first man to scoff at the idea. Even I am no exception.”
Colt shook his head and took the cigar from his mouth. “To each man his own dream, I guess.” He walked back over to the chair but remained standing. “Your father intends to build this railroad?”
“He and several other enterprising men who don’t know what else to do with their millions. I am perfectly aware there are plenty who think he’s crazy, my older brother included. He won’t have anything to do with any of this. Fact is, he thinks my father’s foolish dreams are going to bankrupt us.” The man rubbed at his neck. “Much as I tend to agree he’s a little crazy, I personally don’t believe my father would let the family business go under because of his dreams. He and his own father and grandfather worked too hard to build what they have, Mr. Travis. They come from rugged stock. My father and grandfather helped settle Chicago when it was just a trading post—Fort Dearborn. They survived the Pottawatomie massacre of 1812, built a trading and shipping empire that’s worth millions today. Started out in the fur trade. We own ships that travel the Great Lakes, and we own a good share of stock in the railroads that come into Chicago. More railroads lead into Chicago now than any other city. I’ll bet you didn’t know that.”
“I don’t know a whole lot about anyplace east of here,” Colt answered, sitting down again and taking another puff on the cigar. “And call me Colt. Mr. Travis is too formal for me.” He met Stuart’s eyes. “Actually, I don’t even know much about railroads. Only saw a train once in my life myself, when I went through Iowa and met some people who’d taken a train out of Chicago as far west as it went, then went on with wagons. I have to say, I was pretty impressed with that big locomotive, but I’ll tell you, laying rails clear across the plains and over two mountain ranges sounds impossible to me. Hell, it’s hard enough to get mules and wagons over those mountains; but then I guess that’s not my problem. All I want to know is what my role is in all of this.”
Landers pulled at a dark, neatly trimmed mustache. “My father is on his way to Omaha. He’ll be here in a few days. He wants an experienced scout who can give him a rough idea of what would be the best route to take in building a railroad west. He just wants to get a feel of the land, to see if it really could be done. He’ll need to get a lot of financial backing for this, and before he can get others involved and talk them into investing, he wants to be sure he knows exactly what he’s talking about.” The man rose and began pacing. “Oh, there has been talk around Washington about such a railroad for a long time now, Mr.—I mean, Colt. There have even been one or two surveys done.” He ran a hand through his thinning hair. “My father is convinced that Congress will eventually pass a bill supporting such a railroad. He wants to get in on the ground floor—sees the possibilities. If it is a success, he’ll be an even richer man. Of course, if it fails, he’ll be a much poorer one. At any rate, he asked me to come out here and set things up, find a good scout.” He glanced at Colt and smiled nervously, a hint of fear in his eyes. “I would have hated to face him and tell him that after all this time I hadn’t come up with anyone. When my father barks, people jump, except for my older brother, Vince. They never have gotten along very well. But my father really is a good man, Colt. He’s just a man who worked hard all his life and is used to ordering people around, except for Sunny. She’s got him wrapped right around her little finger, but she doesn’t seem to take advantage of it.”
Colt felt a little awkward hearing the added personal comments the man offered, wondering why he was telling him these things about their private family life. It mattered little to him, except that this sister the man kept mentioning did not sound like the type who should be trekking through dangerous country.
Landers walked closer to Colt, putting his hands in his vest pockets. “Will you take the job? There will be a few rules because of Sunny’s presence, but I don’t think they will be things you can’t live with. I have a feeling you know how to behave around proper ladies. My father will pay five hundred dollars, and if something happens to your horse, he’ll replace it. Whatever supplies you say are needed, he’ll provide them.”
Colt let out a light whistle. “Five hundred dollars?”
“To each of you, if your partner comes along.”
Colt set the cigar in an ashtray and rose, standing a good four inches taller than Landers. “That’s a lot of money. A man would be a fool to turn it down, but in a case like this, once we’re out there, what I say goes. I can’t be spending half my time arguing with your father. I don’t care how many millions he’s worth, he’s got to listen to me once we’re out there on the trail.”
“My father has great respect for your kind, Colt. Our business was built on traders and trappers. My father did a little wilderness trapping of his own when he ·was younger. He understands these things. He’ll listen to you, especially if it means Sunny’s safety.”
Colt nodded. “I’ll go talk to my friend and come back this evening with an answer.”
“Fine.” Landers put out his hand again, and Colt took it, trying to envision the “little sister” called Sunny. How little was little? And just how spoiled was she? He had a feeling it was the daughter who could end up being the real headache on this trip, but for five hundred dollars, he could put up with her smart-aleck talk and snooty ways. The girl would probably spend most of her time complaining about the discomforts of life on the trail and whining to go back home, but that was her problem. Besides, he’d spend most of his time scouting well ahead of the actual wagon train. He wouldn’t have to listen to most of it.
Colt said his good-byes and donned his leather hat, walking on long legs to the front door, eyeing the lace curtains at the window and vaguely remembering his mother. He had been only five when she died, but he still remembered how lost and lonely he had felt. Every once in a while some little thing would remind him of her. He stepped out into the sunshine then, breathing deeply of the fresh spring air, glad to be out of the stuffy parlor.
“Here it comes.” Slim Jessup craned his neck to see, then winced with pain, touching his swollen jaw. He had already decided that if he ever had tooth trouble again, he would just shoot himself before he would go through having one pulled. He took a flask of whiskey from inside his buckskin shirt and uncorked it, taking another swallow as he watched the approaching coach and the wagon train behind it.
“Watch that stuff,” Colt warned. “We aren’t supposed to drink, remember?”
Slim, a nickname applied because his physique was quite the opposite, wiped his lips. “I’m not so sure I’m going to like this job,” he told Colt. “This is what I get for lettin’ you do the choosin’.”
“You find me another wagon train that will pay us five hundred dollars each, and we’ll forget about this one.”
Both men stood waiting on the porch of Mrs. Webster’s boardinghouse. Stuart Landers had ridden out to greet his father in the distance, and the whole train stopped momentarily while a tall, husky man got out of a grand but very dirty coach. Colt and Slim watched the men talk. “That must be the old man,” Slim grumbled. “A bastard to work for, I’ll bet. And look at all them men with him, all them wagons. Hell, you’d think it was the president of the United States in that coach.”
“Or the queen of England,” Colt commented. He glanced at Slim, wanting to laugh at the sight of the man in new buckskin pants and shirt, wearing a new hat, his face clean-shaven and his hair cut and combed. Slim Jessup was not a man prone to spruce up for anyone, and that was part of what Colt loved about him—he had done all this for him, respecting his decision to take this job. Slim had been like a father to Colt for years, ever since Colt saved his life.
Colt was only fourteen at the time. Having set out on his own after his father’s death, Colt had come upon Slim’s camp in the foothills of the Rockies. Slim invited Colt to share his coffee, and before their first conversation was ended, Colt had shot a rattler that had slithered up behind Slim and looked ready to strike. From then on the friendship deepened, and Colt began traveling with the seasoned scout, learning how to track, how to handle Indians, how to find food where it seemed none could be found. Colt had come to be as skilled as his mentor. The two men shared a mutual respect for each other and had traveled together now for six years.
“Somethin’ tells me we’ll dearly earn the five hundred, and wish we had asked for more,” Slim commented.
“Relax. Lord knows we’ll probably eat good. Stuart Landers has arranged for one hell of a supply of bacon and dried beef, potatoes, you name it. And he says two men are coming along who will cook for everybody. At least you won’t have to eat cold beans out of a can, and we won’t have to drink that rot-gut brew you call coffee.”
“I make the best damn coffee this side of the Mississippi, and you know it.”
“If that’s true, I’d hate to taste the rest.” Colt moved off the porch as the wagon train began moving again. “Jesus,” he muttered. “Would you look at that coach? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Special made for Her Royal Highness, I expect,” Slim answered. He straightened, trying to pull in his big belly. He removed his hat and smoothed back his graying hair, then scratched at his chest. “All this pretty-smellin’ junk you made me put on over at the bathhouse has got me itchin’,” he complained. “I need a little dirt and sweat under this shirt.”
Colt did not seem to be listening. Slim watched him push his own hat back, exposing a few dark waves that framed his finely chiseled face. Colt had his mother’s dark skin and hair, his father’s height, and hazel eyes. The young man’s handsome looks had cost him run-ins a time or two over young white girls on wagon trains, girls who were quite taken with Colt in spite of his efforts to avoid them. Colt was fully aware that the girls’ fathers considered a half-breed not good enough for their “chaste” young daughters.
Colt had learned the pleasures of being a man at the tender age of fifteen, in the arms of a whore in Portland whom Slim had paid to entertain Colt as a birthday present. Slim grinned at the memory. He supposed he loved Colt; felt almost like a father to him. Colt was as close to family as Slim figured he would ever get. It pained him to know that most of his life Colt had wrestled with not knowing to which world he belonged, white or Indian. Slim had tried to teach the young man that he was simply a man, his own man, worthy of being accepted with respect by both races.
The coach drew up beside them then, interrupting Slim’s thoughts. Colt stepped back a little. Men shouted at the mules that pulled the following three wagons, and dust rose skyward. Besides the eight men who drove and rode shotgun on the coach and wagons, six more rode on individual horses, all sporting rifles and pistols. Some of them rode behind the wagons, driving a small remuda of horses and mules, apparently extras to be used to switch teams on the coach and wagons so that the animals would not be worked too hard.
The man has thought of everything, Colt thought. He glanced back at Slim, who shook his head in wonder.
Stuart Landers trotted his horse up to Colt and dismounted as the coach door opened and a well-dressed graying man stepped out. He looked even bigger now that he was closer, standing as tall as Colt but much heftier, a man who obviously ate well. “Hello!” he bellowed. “So, this is Omaha. Sure isn’t much compared to Chicago.” He took a quick look around, then reached inside the coach. “Come on out and have a look, honey.”
A small, gloved hand took hold of Landers’s hand, and in the next moment there appeared a young woman, certainly not the child Colt had expected. She wore a pink cotton dress that fit her slender waist and developing body enticingly. Although the dress had become wrinkled and dusty from the ride, its poor condition did little to detract from the beauty of the young lady who wore it. She stepped down, looking too warm in the long-sleeved dress. A feathered hat topped her golden hair, and when she looked at Colt, he wondered if anyone possessed eyes quite so blue. He could not help staring, especially when the young lady broke into a brilliant and genuinely sweet smile. “Hello,” she said, little hint of shyness in her demeanor. “Are you the scout Stuart told us about?” Before he could answer she turned to her father. “Daddy, he doesn’t look like those Indians we saw a few miles back.”
“Those were full blood. Mr. Travis here is only half Indian.” The man let go of his daughter and offered his hand to Colt. “You are Colt Travis, I take it. You certainly fit my son’s description.”
“Yes, Father, this is the one,” Stuart put in.
Colt quickly looked away from the daughter, whose age and beauty surprised and intrigued him, but whose remark had left him wondering if it was meant as curiosity or an insult. He took Landers’s hand. “I’m Colt Travis,” he said. “The man up on the porch there is my partner, Slim Jessup.”
Landers nodded to Slim. “I’m Bo Landers,” he said loudly, “but then, I guess that’s obvious by now.” The man let go of Colt’s hand and stepped back a little, eyeing him more closely. “Awful young, aren’t you?”
“Old enough,” Colt answered, feeling the daughter staring at him. It was the first time in his life a young lady had made him feel strangely uncomfortable, made him wonder if he looked presentable. “I’ve done a lot of scouting and can match anyone else you might pick.”
“Stuart has already told me all of that. He says you even know a little bit about surveying.”
“Well, I never learned it all, sir, but as far as the land to the west, I can tell you where the solid ground is, where it usually floods, where the ground is always too soft—that kind of thing.”
“That’s all I need. Pardon my daughter’s remark about your Indian looks. It’s just curiosity. Makes no difference to me. I’ve called many an Indian friend in my day. If a man is honest and hardworking and good at what he does, makes no difference to me what runs in his blood.”
Slim eyed the conversation closely, grinning to himself. Yeah, he thought, unless that hardworking half Indian man takes an interest in your daughter. What kind of a difference would it make then, Mr. Bo Landers?
Landers thundered every word, unlike his quieter son. The skin of his face was a ruddy red, and when he removed his silk hat to apply a handkerchief to his sweating brow, the remaining hairs on his balding head were pure white. He replaced his hat and turned to his daughter, putting an arm around her. “This is Sunny, Mr. Travis. She’s fifteen. Whatever else we do on this trip, the one thing to remember is that she is to be protected at all costs.”
Colt glanced at Sunny, removing his hat. “Miss Landers,” he said, nodding his head slightly. She smiled again, a bright, winning smile. Colt thought how her brother’s description truly did fit her.
“We’re glad to have you guiding us, Mr. Travis,” she told him. “I’m so excited about the trip. It’s going to be such fun.”
Colt suppressed an urge to roll his eyes in exasperation. Fun? He looked back at her father. “I have to say, it might be better for your daughter if you left her here in Omaha or sent her back to Chicago, Mr. Landers.”
“Oh, no.” Sunny spoke up, taking her father’s arm. “Wherever Daddy goes, I go. It’s always been that way. I’ll be just fine, Mr. Travis.”
Landers patted her hand. “My daughter goes everywhere with me, Mr. Travis. We have plenty of well-armed men and plenty of supplies. Sunny’s personal tutor is also with us, Miss Gloria Putnam. She’s still in the coach, not feeling too well, I’m afraid, but she’s getting used to the travel. Miss Putnam will help Sunny bathe and dress and do her hair, as well as continue her lessons. I keep my daughter well schooled, Mr. Travis. Sunny will be taking over a good share of my business someday, and by the time she does, she’ll be as adept at doing accounting and figures as any man.” The man beamed with pride. “Don’t you worry about my Sunny. She’s looking forward to the adventure. She’s got more strength and spunk than you think, and she comes from rugged stock, brave and uncomplaining, loyal to the death.” The man scowled then. “Which is more than I can say for my oldest son.”
“Oh, Daddy, Vince will come around one day.” Sunny tried to soothe him. “He’ll see how right you are in this.”
Colt allowed himself to look her over once more. Rugged stock, he questioned silently. And she comes out here with her nanny, dressed like she’s going to a dance.
“I do hope the Indians farther west have tamed down some,” Stuart Landers put in.
“We shouldn’t have too much trouble if we stick to the main trail,” Colt answered. “It would be wise to take along plenty of things to trade, like ribbons and tobacco and such.”
“Right,” Bo Landers agreed. “See to it, Stuart.”
“Yes, sir. We’ll have all the supplies we need. I already have a lot of things waiting in storage.”
Colt took a quick inventory of the wagons and coach, deliberately not allowing himself to look at Sunny again. He had been prepared for a whining little child, but Sunny Landers was certainly no child, nor did she seem prone to complaining. More than that, she was beautiful.
He immediately chastised himself for the thought. Someone like Sunny Landers was as dangerous and wrong for him as a rattlesnake. Besides that, once they got going and she showed her feathers, she would probably prove herself to be spoiled to the point of unbearable. That sweet smile didn’t fool him any. She was a “Daddy’s girl,” and her beauty would likely fade as her personality showed itself. “Your wife isn’t coming?” he asked her father.
The light momentarily left Bo Landers’s eyes. “Sunny’s mother died shortly after Sunny was born,” the man answered.
Colt chastised himself inwardly for asking the question, thinking that he should have realized why the man took his daughter everywhere with him, why she had a nanny along. He saw the pain in Landers’s eyes, the same pain that had been in his father’s eyes when his mother died. “I’m sorry, Mr. Landers. I didn’t know.”
Landers cast a scowl at his son. “Stuart should have explained,” he grumbled. He looked back at Colt, his eyes brightening more. “Well, that was fifteen years ago, and I have learned to live with it. And my beautiful Lucille left me with an equally beautiful daughter, the light of my life. The older she gets, the more she reminds me of her mother.” He patted Sunny’s shoulder, and turned then, opening his arms to draw attention to his entourage. “So, are we well enough equipped, Mr. Travis?”
Colt stole one more glance at Sunny, feeling a little sorry that she had never known her mother. He thought he detected a distant loneliness in those blue eyes, even though she was smiling. He walked past her to the coach, glancing at the frail-looking Miss Putnam, who remained inside the carriage. He nodded to her, but she only held a handkerchief to her mouth and looked away. Colt guessed her to be perhaps in her mid-thirties, and he supposed she was coming along only for the money, or perhaps under the threat of losing her job if she refused. Then again, maybe she was along out of loyalty and love for her young charge.
He scanned the wagons and men, then nodded to Landers. “Looks like you’ve prepared yourself well.” He crouched down to take a closer look at the coach. “That’s a hell of an undercarriage,” he commented. “Looks strong. I’ve never seen one quite like it.”
“That’s a swing suspension,” Landers answered. He proceeded to explain that the coach was specially built for him by an Englishman. Sunny took the opportunity to stare at Colt while he and her father were involved in their conversation. Sometimes men came to Chicago dressed like Colt, mysterious beings from an unreal world. She had always thought of them as wild things, like a bear or a wolf. She had never spoken to such a man, nor had she ever seen one quite as clean and handsome as Colt Travis. She watched how he walked as he took a look at the rest of the wagons. He had an ambling gait that spoke of a young man who was relaxed and sure of himself. She wondered how people like him survived, living off the land and sleeping under the stars. Did Colt Travis have a place to call his own? Stuart had said the man’s parents were dead. Did he just wander all the time, never staying in one place? It didn’t seem like he could only be twenty. He had the sureness and build of an older man.
Another wagon clattered past them, and dust rolled. Sunny squinted and turned away, wondering at the primitiveness of this place called Omaha. Were all towns west of Chicago like this? Would such places turn into big cities once the railroad was built, as her father kept saying would happen? Oh, how she hoped that railroad would become a reality. It meant everything to Bo Landers, and what her father dreamed, she dreamed too. She knew others laughed at him, and it hurt terribly to see anyone scoff at her father, who was her whole world. He was more than a father. He was her best friend, and he needed her. She was sure she was the only one who truly loved him, who understood his dreams. A transcontinental railroad was a great challenge to him, and Bo Landers loved challenges. It took men like her father to make such ideas become a reality. Your brothers have grown up taking everything they have for granted, he had told her more than once. They’re satisfied to leave things as they are, but a man has to take chances in life, Sunny. We have to step out into unknown territory, take the bull by the tail and see where it kicks. That’s how my grandfather and my father built all that we have.
“Once you pick up the supplies your son and I arranged for, we can be on our way, by tomorrow morning if you like,” Colt was saying. He and Bo Landers were walking back toward Sunny.
“We’ll be ready,” Landers answered. “Let me ask you, Mr. Travis, what do you think of the idea of a transcontinental railroad?”
Colt decided to weigh his words. “I suppose a man can do whatever he sets his mind to,” he answered. Especially if he has enough money behind him, he wanted to add. He decided not to tell the man he thought the idea was crazy. If Bo Landers wanted to dump his millions into an impossible dream, that was his business.
“That’s the kind of talk I like to hear,” Landers answered. He began shouting some orders, and Colt allowed himself one more look at Sunny. He caught her staring right back at him. “I hope we can become friends on this trip, Mr. Travis,” she told him. “I’d like to find out more about you. I’m keeping a journal about our trip and the interesting people we’ve met along the way. Tell me, what is that fascinating accent you have?”
Colt watched her stunning blue eyes, still trying to determine if this spoiled little rich girl was as genuinely nice as she appeared, or just trying to trick something out of him. “People down in Texas would say you’re the one with the accent,” he answered. He shifted his hat. “I, uh, I don’t think you’d find much about me that’s interesting enough to write about,” he told her. He turned and walked away, mounting his horse then to join Slim and Stuart. Sunny took note of how he sat his horse, almost as if he were part of the animal. She wondered if she had offended him by commenting about his accent, and earlier about his Indian looks, hoping she had not gotten off on a bad footing with him.
Sunny began to compose her journal entry in her mind. We have reached Omaha, and tomorrow we will head into the wilderness. Our guide is Mr. Colt Travis, and he seems quite skilled and knowledgeable. I am sure he will get us through safely, and that we will become good friends before this trip is over.
“THUNDER ON THE PLAINS contained characters that I was quickly introduced to and within a few chapters, I realized they were not going to be forgotten anytime soon. I laughed with them, ...
“THUNDER ON THE PLAINS contained characters that I was quickly introduced to and within a few chapters, I realized they were not going to be forgotten anytime soon. I laughed with them, I cried with them, and I rejoiced with them throughout their journey until the very end.” - The Romance Reviews
“Bittner has a knack for writing strong, believable characters who truly seem to jump off the pages.” - Historical Novel Review
“I enjoyed this novel very much and look forward to reading more of Rosanne Bittner’s wonderful stories and characters.
” - Historical Escapes
“Ms. Bittner has a way of bringing the pages and characters to life which pulled me right in from page one and I hated having to put it down for even one second.” - Romancing the Book
Length: 8 in
Width: 5 in
Weight: 15.92 oz
Page Count: 528 pages