Adela Baldovino was already nervous when the first sounds of trouble started up.
She had spent this leg of her train journey opposite a lady and older gentleman, headed, like herself, to Billings, in the Montana territory. The very phrase “Montana territory” was enough to make Addie wonder if she’d lost her senses when she accepted the ticket Papa handed her. It brought to mind disturbing images of violence, and Mr. and Mrs. Brennan, seated across from her in on their maroon velvet upholstered, stowed sleeper berths, did nothing to assuage her fears. Fort Fred Steele, they told her, had been closed down:
“And they were the ones responsible for protecting the trains from savages, don’t you know,” Mrs. Brennan said. “At least along this line.”
“That’s nothing,” Mr. Brennan said, stuffing his pipe in a way that brought Papa to Addie’s mind. “Did you hear about the massacre in Rock Springs? A bunch of miners went mad.”
“Oh my,” fussed Mrs. Brennan.
“I beg your pardon, my dear, but it’s the God’s honest truth. They slaughtered a number of those poor Chinamen that used to work the mine there,” Mr. Brennan said, holding up a folded newspaper with emphasis.
Well, between the crazed miners and the closing of the fort, Addie was on pins and needles as the train rattled on, but one couldn’t remain on pins and needles indefinitely. It was exhausting. Eventually the repetitive scenery--no trees, just lots of yellow and brown grass, and her own bonneted, brunette, somewhat travel-disheveled reflection--lulled her, and the fear, oddly enough, made it easier to retreat into dozing.
Images flitted without logic through her mind. Worries. Billings, so far from New York--would she settle there? Would she find work as a teacher? Formless fears shunted through the pictures she tried to shape of a life as a school mistress in Billings. Ruffians, hassling her. Fallen ladies called from balconies. Scenes from dime novels she'd stolen from her cousins.
If Billings was inhospitable to unmarried young women, as she feared it might well be, would she have to start a new life as a boy? And what would she do, if she put on the trousers and bowler that were packed deep in her trunk? What employment would she find? How would she manage after a while, when no beard began to grow?
The sound of banging woke her. She couldn’t place the noise, but the wild eyes of the other travelers brought her to a full awakening.
“What in heavens?” Mrs. Brennan said in a tremulous voice.
Mr. Brennan wore a deep frown. “Sounds like gunshots, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, no,” Mrs. Brennan said. There were murmurs across the traincar. Addie sat on the edge of her berth and strained to look around, but there was nothing to see, yet.
Then the door to the car opened, and a man walked through.
He wore a dark clothes and a black cowboy hat. He was tall and swarthy, with a bronzed complexion. He had wavy hair of ebony. He wore a black scarf over his face. Addie’s heart stopped in her chest.
Her hands clutched her narrow skirt, bunching the green and white striped fabric up in her fists. She thought of Gran’s little book and the small, embroidered, drawstring bag she had tucked carefully away in her baggage. If she grabbed for her luggage, would the man notice?
Would she have time to get the book and bag out?
If she dared use them, what would happen then?
It was too much to consider, after everything that had happened to lead her to this point. It was all too fresh.
The door opened again and two more outlaws joined the first--all three wore scarves--one black, one blue, and one red. They began to make their way down the center aisle. They held guns, Addie saw with horror.
The passengers fumbled with their belongings, dropping watches and jewelry in the sack one of the black-scarfed outlaws held. Then the door opened and two more joined them. Addie thought she might die right then. What would they take from her? She had no golden watch, no fancy jewels.
As if in answer to her question, the red scarfed outlaw, who’d come in second, began hassling a young woman in a yellow dress a few seats away.
Meanwhile the first man, the one all in black, approached. He moved like the panther at the Brooklyn Zoo. She’d always liked that panther, and felt rather terrible for him, pacing back and forth in his cage. But now she found the similarity quite terrifying. The basque bodice she wore restricted her breathing, which began to come in gasps. This man was a predator, and he was almost upon them. He took a step in between her and the Brennans, looking down at each of them with dark, cold eyes with drooping eyelids. He had sooty eyelashes and thick eyebrows. His weary eyes met hers, and she lost her mind.
Addie leapt up and hauled back her arm, striking him in the face and dislodging the scarf in the process.
She caught sight of the rest of his features--a long nose and a sharp jawline covered in a shadow of stubble.
The outlaw grabbed her wrist and yanked her arm up.
“That, young lady, was a mistake,” he said, his vowels and s’s thickened with a Hispanic accent.
“See here, sir,” said Mr. Brennan--Addie felt a rush of affection for the man. “Unhand her. She’s just overwrought.”
The outlaw shot Mr. Brennan a look of cold disdain. “Shut your mouth.” He turned back to Addie, yanking on her arm a bit to look at her closer. “You’re not with them. Traveling alone? That’s not safe for a young lady such as yourself.”
Addie’s thoughts were a nest of bees. She couldn’t form words. “Let me go!” she blurted at last, and to her shock, he did.
She stumbled back onto her berth. Only the padding of her bustle saved her a bruised rear end.
“Come on,” the outlaw shouted to the others in his gang as he pulled the black scarf back up over his face. Addie covered her mouth with her hands as the five of them made their way through her train car and exited to the next one--the dinner car. How many poor souls were eating their dinner, Addie wondered?
The nightmare wasn’t over. Addie rubbed her hand over the skin of her wrist where the outlaw had gripped it. Moments later, the sound of gunshots carried through to them again.
“Lord’a mercy!” Mrs. Brennan cried.
There were other exclamations.
Then the train’s brakes screeched.
“We’re stopping?” Mr. Brennan said. “Why are we stopping?”
“Those robbers--they’ll be wanting to leave the train, won’t they?” an Irishman on the berth on the other side of the aisle from them answered.
“Well they aren’t the only ones,” Addie muttered. She’d had enough. She stood up but the train rocked and she landed back in her seat, her fall padded by her bustle again.
“What are you doing?” Mrs. Brennan demanded.
“I’m getting off. I can’t stand this any longer,” Addie said.
She waited for the train to come to stillness, her hands fisted in her lap, knuckles white.
“You can’t be serious,” Mrs. Brennan said.
“Now see here, young miss,” Mr. Brennan said. “You’re in a state of agitation. You’ve already endangered everyone with that attack on that robber. You sit right where you are, you hear? I won’t allow you to leave. Understand? I won’t allow it.”
Addie’s affection for Mr. Brennan dissipated.
She didn’t reply. Best to let him think she was minding his words when all she was doing was waiting for the train to finish braking. She’d give the train robbers a head start, but she was leaving. No two ways about it. Papa always said that she was stubborn. He said she’d never make a fit wife for anyone, in fact, and he might be right. But she couldn’t worry about that now. She had to get off this train or she couldn’t be held responsible for what she might do. This whole trip had been a terrible mistake.
Although what she might have done instead, she didn’t know.
If not a train, it would have been a ship, and train fare was much less costly. Still, she might have been on her way to seek out relatives in Italy right now, and you never heard about Indians or outlaws attacking ships, now did you?
In the end the Brennans could do nothing to dissuade her, and soon Addie was standing on solid ground, knee high yellowing grasses blown by an icy northern wind as far as the eye could see. For a moment, she despaired, and then she saw the sheriff riding toward her, followed by two deputies.
She knew he was a sheriff when she saw the star on his chest reflect the sun in a flash of light.
His bay trotted right up to her while the deputies rode on in the direction of the front of the train. The sheriff removed his tan cowboy hat as his blue eyes met Addie’s hazel. He was a handsome man, with sandy hair and a clean-shaven face. He wore a thick buckskin coat and a gunbelt holster over it. The contrast of his attire--everything the dime novels claimed about heroes of the Wild West appeared to be true--with his calm demeanor was a contradiction Addie felt she did not have the resources to untangle.
“Howdy, miss,” he said. “I understand there’s been an attack on this train. Are you hurt?”
Addie shook her head and suppressed a shiver as the wind picked up again. She felt a lock of hair escape her bonnet but she made no attempt to catch it. Her hands were gloved, and she held her traveling cloak around her tightly. She didn’t want to let go just to fuss with her hair, as embarrassing as it might be to look such a fright.
“I couldn’t bear to stay aboard,” she said to the sheriff.
“It’s safe now, miss,” the sheriff said. “The robbers are long gone. I’m afraid it may be some time before the train gets moving again, though. They’ve... well, you’ll be waiting for an engineer and some other staff for a time.”
Addie shuddered. She didn’t want to ask what had happened to the engineer and the rest, but she could still hear the gunshots, and she could guess.
“You’d best go back to your seat, miss, or you’ll catch your death of cold,” he said.
Addie gave him a quick smile, but she was fighting the need to let her teeth chatter. “I simply can’t,” she managed. “I can’t bear it. I hope to never ride on a train again.”
“What’s your destination?” he asked.
“Billings,” she said.
He shook his head, leaning on the pommel of his saddle with an ease that spoke of years of experience on a horse. “You’re not getting to Billings but for a train, miss.”
Addie grimaced, feeling tears sting her eyes. She blinked and turned away.
“What’s in Billings?” the sheriff asked.
Addie struggled to swallow the lump in her throat--after a moment, she could reply, “Nothing much. Opportunity, I suppose. I thought I might find a position, teaching. My Papa has a business associate. His family was going to let a room to me.”
The sheriff pondered this, his mouth working in a way that suggested he was sucking on his cheeks.
“Well,” he said at last. “We’ve a need for a school mistress in Copperwood, now that you mention it.”
“Copperwood?” she asked.
“That’s my town,” the sheriff said. “Closest one to here, I reckon, though it's a fair ride. If you’re interested, I could take you there once I’m done with my business here. I gather the schoolhouse comes with living quarters above.”
“Oh,” Addie said, the possibility washing over her. A teaching post and a living space, and no need for any more time on an infernal train? “Why, yes, please, sheriff--”
“Leland,” he said. “I’m Sheriff Leland. Please to meet you, Miss...?”
“Adela Baldovino,” she said. She wondered if she ought to offer a hand. What kind of etiquette did people expect when one’s train had been robbed and stranded?
Sheriff Leland didn’t seem concerned. He sat up in his saddle and tugged on the reins, turning the bay’s head. “Alright then, stay put. I’ll be back around for you by and by.”
And that’s how Addie came to be Copperwood’s school marm. But little did the small town know, she brought with her a big secret. And little did Addie know, that secret was going to become a big problem.