Promised by Post

By: Katy Madison

 Chapter One

  California rancher, in good health, age 26, dark hair and eyes, seeks agreeable woman for purposes of matrimony. Interested parties send photograph.

  San Joaquin Valley, California, August 1862

  Today was the day. Anna O’Malley slid her damp palm over the silk of her skirt and darted a furtive glance at her good friend Selina’s pinched face. They would meet their future husbands in just hours, perhaps be married by nightfall.

  The stagecoach rolled over a rut, and all the passengers swayed. “Are you nervous?” Anna whispered.

  Selina pressed her lips together, looked at the other occupants of the coach, all men, and then gave a quick nod.

  After traveling with the others night and day for twenty-one days straight on this last leg of their journey, they all knew as much about each other as they were willing to share. Across from Anna sat a California miner returning from a trip back east to settle his recently deceased mother’s affairs. Opposite Selina was a one-armed soldier, mustered out of the army and hoping for a better life out west. Seated beside the soldier, a slender man wearing a threadbare suit cradled a case of paint jars and assorted brushes.

  On the far side of Selina, a preacher dressed soberly in black bent over his worn Bible and mouthed the scriptures as they rumbled along. He was headed to a new flock in San Francisco. Three farm boys from Illinois riding on the backseat preferred California over getting conscripted. The youngest brother looked as if he should still be in school instead of worrying about fighting in Mr. Lincoln’s war.

  Anna and Selina had reluctantly shared with the other passengers that they’d worked in a mill until the cotton shipments dried up over a year ago. The lack of work had forced them and their roommate, Olivia, to answer advertisements for brides. Knowing all they wanted to know about each other, the passengers’ conversations had descended into banalities about the ever-changing landscape, the weather and the monotonous beans and bread offered at the eating stations.

  Most of the trip Anna had been concerned that Selina’s secret would be found out. But Anna could scarcely contain her own worries anymore. With each passing mile, her misrepresentations to her future husband had grown into massive cankers. She leaned close and cupped her hand around Selina’s ear. “I didn’t tell Rafael that I worked in a mill.”

  Selina’s gaze flicked to hers. “Why? You had nothing to hide.”

  Who would want to marry a dirty Irish immigrant? Anna whispered, “I told him my family was well-to-do.”

  “Oh, Anna.” Selina put her hand over hers and squeezed. “Anyone who knows the real you will love you.”

  Anna shook her head. She didn’t believe that. She was nothing special. Not beautiful like her friends Olivia and Selina. Not American born as they had been. They hadn’t been spit on for merely being Irish.

  Anna’s friends had at least come from respectable families with property before the deaths of their fathers had drastically changed their circumstances. Certainly no stranger with a spread would want a freckled working-class girl like her. She’d written that her father was a successful businessman and she was one of only four children instead of one of more than a dozen.

  In reality, her four older brothers built railroads, dug canals or laid road, and they lived in shantytowns. Two sisters and her mother worked as maids for the kind of families she’d told her fiancé she came from. Her father had died of cholera barely five years after leaving their farm in Ireland. After his passing, they’d been evicted from their tenement apartment. She and the rest of her siblings had scattered to the mills and factories that would hire them.

  Her parents had endlessly debated leaving Ireland for the land of opportunity. But that drawn-out decision had been one of the worst of their lives.

  No Irish Need Apply signs had turned them away from the best jobs. Without their own land, they were powerless to gain stability. She was determined to marry a landholder. Selina might have found a store owner acceptable, and Olivia had wanted to be certain her future husband owned a real house, but Anna had quickly weeded through the newspaper until she found advertisers who owned land. With land came the power to live independently. She’d fired off responses pretending to be worthy of a good marriage before she’d thought about the dozens of ways her husband could eventually learn the truth.

  The seemingly endless journey across the country had given her too much time to fret. She was better off when she just acted and didn’t have a chance to worry about making the right choice.

  Outside, the coachman cracked his whip, and the stagecoach jerked forward as the horses broke into a gallop. They bounced on their bench seats and grabbed for the leather straps. Anna cast a glance out the window, wondering if hostile Indians had been sighted. Maybe they had hit a patch where the driver felt vulnerable, or they had fallen behind schedule.

  A rocky hill rose up beside the stagecoach until she could no longer see the horizon through the small opening. She leaned forward to look out the opposite window. The ground sloped up slightly less steeply, a fringe of the grassy meadow still visible beyond the rise, but they were in a gully or tight valley nonetheless. The stagecoach drivers didn’t like these narrow spots and ran the horses through them. Her breath caught as she waited for the pace to ease when they reached safety.

  “Ya, ya—get!” shouted the driver.

  A shout in what Anna suspected was Spanish rang out. A shiver ran through her. Her husband-to-be was of Spanish descent, even though he wrote in flawless English and his surname was northern European.

  Of course, there were a lot of Spanish-speaking people in California. Other than the Indians, the long-standing residents had arrived when Spain owned the land.

  The brake was applied with a loud thump, and the thunder of the horses’ hooves ceased with a jangle of the traces. The stagecoach screeched and jerked as the horses neighed. Wheels slid, no longer rolling. The occupants bounced around like beads in a baby’s rattle.

  As the skinny artist slid off the center bench with a thud, his bottles clanking, Anna leaned toward the window. Dust clouded the air, obscuring the road.

  Selina grabbed her and tugged her back.

  “We’re being robbed,” the miner said tightly.

  They all sat still as stones as the driver replied in that same foreign tongue. They’d very nearly made it to Stockton without any of the incidents they’d been warned about: no scalping by marauding Indians, no breaking a wheel and being stranded dying of thirst in the desert, no toppling over and floating downstream in one of the many waterways they’d forded.

  The preacher began a prayer, but the soldier shushed him.

  The miner held up a hand. “He says he has accomplices in the rocks. If we don’t get out, they’ll shoot, but if we cooperate, no one will get hurt.”

  He squinted and tilted his head as he strained to listen to the exchange. “He says he’s looking for a man who cheated him in Santa Fe, but if he’s not on the stage, he has no affair with the rest of us.”

  Anna looked at the men one by one. The wide-eyed farm boys gripped each other’s hands, and the soldier glowered at the silently praying preacher, while the artist carefully moved off the floor. None of them lowered their eyes or reddened with shame, nor were any of them likely to have been in Santa Fe lately, except the miner.

  “Did you?” Anna asked their translator.

  He shook his head. “I didn’t cheat no one. Not in Santa Fe, not anywhere.”

  “Ain’t me,” said the oldest farm boy. “I ain’t been to Santa Fe ever.”

  “I was fighting until three months ago,” the soldier said. The pinned empty sleeve of his shirt moved as if to point out he’d been in a hospital until coming on this trip.

  “He wants the passengers to get out,” the miner said.

  Anna got up from her seat and opened the door. “Soon as he sees the man he’s looking for isn’t here—”

  Selina grabbed a fistful of her skirt and yanked, and Anna landed back on the seat. She couldn’t risk ripping her only good dress, a dress Olivia had painstakingly made over from the stash of her mother’s old gowns. It wasn’t as if Olivia were there to sew the green silk back together again with her perfect tiny stitches. No, she was in Colorado with her mail-order suitor—likely her husband by now.

  “It’s just a ruse to get us out so he can take our valuables.” The artist pressed his case of paints to his chest.

  The driver shouted back.

  “What did he say?” demanded Selina.

  The miner held up his hand again. “He asked for the name of the man who cheated him.”

  There was a pause, and the robber yelled.

  “He says the name doesn’t matter. It was like as not false.”

  The sound of scrabbling above her head had Anna looking up as if a skylight might materialize to allow her a view through the roof panel. She hated not being able to see what was going on.

  “The coachman told him if he put his weapons down on the ground, he’d let the male passengers disembark to be inspected,” said their translator.

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