Chapter One: Callie’s Home
Callie lay on the floor of the closet, her knees pulled up to her chest. Her eyes were shut tight, but she would have had the same view with them open. Not a drop of light could be seen in the small space, which was located in the belly of the house in a room without windows. She didn’t know if it was night or day.
To keep her company were roaches, which didn’t scare her as much as the rats that sometimes occupied the space. Still, she could hear the rodents scratching behind the wall, a constant reminder that they might join her at any moment. The stench in the closet was something Callie never smelled anywhere else—to her, it was best described as fear, but it was likely derived from a cocktail of dirty clothes, rat droppings, and rotten wood.
“This is the last time that cock-sucking sozzle will ever lock me in here,” she said out loud. It felt good to say the words, though she wasn’t entirely sure what they meant. She’d overheard the phrase from a man exiting the saloon, and it sounded vulgar enough to describe Mrs. Bentley, her worst enemy.
It was Callie’s eighteenth birthday. Well, either that or her birthday had already passed, depending on how long she’d been in the closet. Time in there felt immeasurable, infinite, slow. The exact day didn’t really matter, since no one had ever celebrated it and she certainly didn’t see it as anything special. However, this birthday was important because it marked her official adulthood, the day she would no longer be a ward of the state. She’d been counting down the minutes, waiting for the time when she’d be permitted to escape from the orphans’ home, but she hadn’t escaped one last punishment.
A wave of terror washed over her. What if Bentley had left her to die, wishing for her to experience the ultimate punishment? Callie contained her panic by humming. She told herself that was irrational. Bentley wouldn’t murder her; it would be too much trouble. When she grew weary of humming, she counted out loud to one thousand, using the pulse she felt at her neck as a metronome. Then she started at zero again.
Mrs. Bentley released her eventually. By the time she did, Callie’s tongue was swollen from thirst and her throat burned. She was so hungry that her limbs shook and she struggled to walk. She didn’t know how long she’d been locked away. Maybe only a day, though it felt like much longer. With labored steps, she trudged to the well on the far side of the property. She dunked her cupped hands in the bucket and drank the cool water until her throat no longer burned. She couldn’t remember water ever tasting so sweet, though surely it had tasted just as good the last time she’d been parched after hours in the closet.
Out of concern for Callie’s safety, a well-meaning citizen had reported to Mrs. Bentley that he’d spotted Callie wandering the town again after dark. Bentley didn’t care about the children’s safety, only that it made her look incompetent and forced her to defend how she ran the orphans’ home to the townsfolk. Mrs. Bentley would punish any child who inconvenienced or embarrassed her. Callie did her best to avoid doing either, but her very presence bothered the woman.
For more than a decade, Callie had suffered this terrible punishment time and time again. She’d first been relegated to the closet only a couple of days after she was placed in the home following her ma’s death of consumption, for a small infraction Callie couldn’t recall. Her terror over that first punishment led to an extreme fear of the dark, which caused her to scream in the night and resulted in Mrs. Bentley throwing her in the closet to drown out the noise, creating a vicious cycle of fear she couldn’t escape. Each time she suffered a stint in the closet, she felt just as terrified as the previous time. Often, Mrs. Bentley would forget to let her out in the morning, so her time locked away was sometimes longer than would be considered reasonable even by Bentley’s cruel standards.
Her thirst quenched, Callie left the home for good and didn’t look back. She needed to find food, and fast. As she walked the mile to the town of St. Louis by the light of the moon, she placed her hand inside the small suede pouch she always kept strapped to her hip. She felt her cameo brooch, the only thing she still owned of her ma’s. Brushing her fingers along the ridges of the etched profile brought her a sense of peace. She shifted her hand and strummed the edges of the six precious letters from her future husband, Albert, who promised her a happy life as a mail-order bride. Tucked into the letters was the stagecoach ticket for her trip west that Albert had paid for. She knew the ticket displayed a departure date two weeks in the future, but she would try to get on an earlier stagecoach. She needed a new life, and she needed it now.
Her planning was interrupted by the gnawing in her stomach. One thing at a time, she told herself. She made her way to the place she’d gone before for a meal in the middle of the night—the saloon—because it was the only business still open at that late hour. As she approached the bar, the raucous sound of drunk men singing along with a piano reached her ears. Her spirits lifted considerably after a few more steps, for there outside the saloon, leaning against the wall with a bottle of whiskey in his hand, was Sam. He smiled drunkenly at her through watery eyes.
“Well, if it isn’t the wandering angelica,” he drawled.
Callie offered him a weak smile in return. “Hi, Sam. How you doing today?”
“Fair to middlin’. The wife’s pregnant with baby number seven and as mad as an old wet hen about it. Blames it on me, of course. You wouldn’t wanna be around my missus right now.” He let out a low whistle and shook his head.
If Callie weren’t so hungry, she might have been amused. Sam often complained about his wife, but Callie had seen the two of them together, and Sam doted on her and looked at her like she hung the moon and stars in the sky. He loved each and every one of his six children too, and he would love the seventh just as much. Callie’s heart often ached and burned with jealousy that she wasn’t one of his kids.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, Sam, especially with you having another nipper on the way, but I’m wondering if you might buy me a meal. I’m awful hungry.”
“Sure, darlin’,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. His face twisted into a scowl. “The old harpy lock you in the closet again?”
She bit her lip and nodded. With an angry grunt, he handed her his whiskey bottle. “Hold that and I’ll go fetch you somethin’. No more than one swig, though, ya hear? I’ll tan your hide if you drink more. That’s my sanity and I need lots of it, believe you me.”
Callie smiled and nodded at him, and then watched him disappear inside the saloon. She wouldn’t drink his whiskey, but she knew that even if she did, he wouldn’t punish her. He had a loose tongue and a soft heart.
Callie was the same age as Sam’s eldest daughter. Years ago he had tried to convince his wife to take her in after finding out how badly she was treated at the orphans’ home. His wife refused, though, saying he could barely afford to feed his own family off his cowhand salary and she wasn’t about to let another child into the fold. Still, Callie had been able to count on the kindhearted cowboy over the years to buy her a square meal every so often from his limited income.
It was through Sam that Callie had become acquainted with her fiancé. In St. Louis, there were more women than men, but Sam told her that out west, men outnumbered women six to one and were looking for mail-order brides. Shortly after she turned seventeen, he showed her an advertisement in the paper.
Lonesome miner has struck it rich, wants wife to share stake and prospects. Should be of sound mind and good character. Respond to Albert Smith in Sacramento, California.
Callie responded, which began a series of letters between them. The only thing Callie looked forward to, and with great hope for happiness, was her future marriage to Albert. She imagined that he was very rich and very kind. He would murmur sweet, romantic words in her ear and take her to his bed to do all the wicked things that unmarried women weren’t supposed to think about but which Callie pondered quite often.
Of course, Albert didn’t know anything real about her. She never wrote about growing up in an orphans’ home. As far as he knew, she was a well-bred shopkeeper’s daughter who possessed the manners and charm of a lady. She sprinkled her letters with words such as ‘culture’ and ‘colloquial’ that she read in books found in the home’s attic, and she reported her frequent attendance at operas and theater, with colorful descriptions of the actors and props that were half born of her imagination and half copied out of the dusty books.
Sam returned with a piping-hot plate of food and handed it to her as she handed back his bottle of whiskey. Callie could have wept. On the plate were two large potatoes, a generous cut of steak, and a biscuit slathered with butter and honey.
“Thank you ever so much, Sam. I know this must’ve cost a fortune.”
“You’re worth it, Callie.” In a rare moment of sobered speech, he said, “Don’t let anyone make you think you’re not, just ‘cuz of how you grew up. Here, take the change.” He slipped into her hand a quarter and a penny. “That penny is lucky,” he said, giving her a wink. “Best keep it with you, not spend it.”
She took refuge for the night behind the tack in the town’s livery, making sure to stay out of sight. The summer air ensured that she kept warm overnight. With a lump of hay for a pillow, Callie fell asleep humming and dreaming of a better life—one that included a husband, a home to call her own, and closets without locks.
Jude downed his shot of whiskey in one gulp and flicked a nickel on the bar as a tip. It spun and settled on the flat surface as the heat from the liquor settled in his belly. “A little bottled courage is better than coffee in the morning, I always say. Until next time, Dobbin.”
The barkeep scraped the nickel across the bar to the edge and caught it in his hand, then shoved it in his pocket. “I tend to agree with you there. Have a good journey and be safe. I hear bandits have been robbing stagecoaches at the Texas–New Mexico border.”
“Yeah, that’s old news.” Jude stood from his stool. He patted his Colt revolver on his left hip. Jude was right-handed, but his other hip contained his more oft-used weapon, a horsewhip coiled in a ring that fell to his knee. “It’s better to have a shotgun rider up front in the box with me, but Abe’s missus is sick so he can’t come along. As my army buddies were quick to point out, my aim’s not even as good as the worst gunslinger, but it’ll have to do this go-around.”
Dobbin shook his head. He picked up a white bar towel and wiped the wet ring left over from Jude’s whiskey tumbler. “You’d think Wells Fargo would give drivers more of a backup plan. It ain’t good business, making whips like you responsible for leading the team and guarding the passengers.”
Placing his black Stetson on his head, Jude grinned. “I’ll be sure to let Mr. Wells know you said so, my friend. Anyway, I’d better make hay while the sun still shines. You take care now.”
The men said their goodbyes, and Jude strode out the double swinging doors into the warm summer air. In the street stood his stagecoach, right on time and ready to go. The groom was performing a last-minute check of Stormy’s hooves for debris. Stormy, one of the leaders of the four-horse outfit, was the smallest, smartest, and most alert horse. Her counterpart was Thunder, also one of the smaller and smarter horses. The two in the rear were large, powerful, and dumb as a box of rocks. It was a good team that Jude used most every time in the first leg. The horses would pull the stagecoach for a hundred miles, until they reached a swing station, where they would be traded out for a new team. The same would happen twenty times after that, until he and his passengers reached their destination in Sacramento.
Even after having driven a coach for nearly five years, Jude still felt apprehensive at the beginning of each new trip. It was a dangerous profession, one he thought he’d be done with by the time he reached age thirty, but his thirtieth birthday had come and gone, and another year was upon him. Both occupations of Jude’s adult life were dangerous, first as a soldier in the Civil War and then as a whip for Wells Fargo.
He longed for the more peaceful existence of his youth, when he followed his pa around on his sprawling ranch, learning all there was to know about raising horses and cows. He recalled learning to ride when he was barely knee-high to his pa, and never far from his mind was the hope that someday he would own a ranch of his own. His dreams of a different life included a pretty wife with a sweet disposition, who would bake him cherry pies and keep his bed warm at night. Jude would have stopped driving if he’d met such a woman to settle down with, but no such woman existed in Jude’s life, and he reckoned he might as well continue to earn a lucrative living while he was unattached.
His four passengers loitered around the coach and looked up expectantly as he approached. Jude openly appraised the people he was responsible for safely transporting from St. Louis to Sacramento. They appeared to be two married couples—the most common type of passengers. One couple was smartly dressed and obviously came from money. The woman wore a broad hat that sprouted colorful plumes, and the man wore a silk tie. They held their heads a little higher in the air than their poorer traveling companions. There was a soft look about the rich folks, and Jude guessed that they would be whining about the discomfort of traveling after no more than fifty miles.
The man in the silk tie held out his hand. “Tom Tucker, former U.S. senator,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.”
It wasn’t unusual for his passengers to inform him of their political rank or other important stature in society, but everyone knew it meant very little on their journey. During the staging, the driver was king, master, president, or God—whichever sounded most important to a person. The driver could choose one or none of them to sit next to him in the highly sought-after box seat, which didn’t shake as badly as the seats in the coach, and the passengers would rely on him to safely transport them across half the country—no easy feat, where Indians, outlaws, bad weather, and poor roads were only some of the potential problems they could face.
Jude gave the former senator’s hand a firm squeeze. “Howdy, Senator. I’m Jude Johnson. I answer to Jude, driver, or whip.”
The other man introduced himself. “I’m Billy Adams and I’m headed west to work on the tracks. The railroad augers are lookin’ for blacksmiths like me and I hear tell that they’re paying a pretty penny for our services.”
Jude noticed a shotgun strapped to Billy’s back, something that provided him with relief. If they ran into trouble, Jude wouldn’t be the only one with a gun.
“This here is my wife,” Billy continued. He placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“You can call me Annie.” She smiled at Jude politely when he tipped his hat. She had a sturdy look to her, with tanned skin and red hands, likely from scrubbing dishes and clothes, but her eyes were soft and kind.
Jude tipped his Stetson at the senator’s wife too, who introduced herself as Mrs. Tucker as she rearranged her cumbersome hat using delicate white hands with manicured nails. She already looked uncomfortable, and Jude made a silent bet to himself that she would be ridding herself of her hat before they reached the home station in Paselo.
Introductions out of the way, Jude cleared his throat, ready to inform the travelers about some particulars of the journey. He didn’t get the chance to speak, however, for at that moment a loud female voice cut through the quiet. “I’m here!” the voice shouted.
Jude turned to find a girl running toward the group. She kicked up dust behind her, and when she stopped in front of Jude, she bent and placed her hands on her knees, breathing hard.
“Sorry I’m late,” she panted. “I had to say goodbye to a friend of mine. I reckon I won’t be seeing him again.” The girl wore a thin yellow dress with holes in the sleeves and tears along the seams of the skirt, revealing an off-white petticoat underneath. Her hair, the same dirty gold color as her dress, fell wildly around her shoulders except where it was pasted to her sweaty brow.
Jude rested a hand on his hip and allowed her a moment to catch her breath before he addressed her. “You’ve got the wrong coach, miss. I’m only transporting four today. Another stagecoach will travel the line in two weeks. That must be yours.”
The girl straightened and shook her head emphatically. “No, sir, this is definitely my coach. I specifically asked for you as the whip. I know your coach has the best reaches.”
She referred to the leather strap braces underneath, which gave the coach a swinging motion, unlike the old-fashioned spring suspension, which jostled passengers up and down. He knew that the reaches were top-of-the-line, but most people didn’t know one type of reach from the other. Jude found it interesting that she did. He frowned thoughtfully and held out his hand, palm up. “Let me see your ticket then.”
The girl reached into a suede pouch at her side and pulled out a thick strip of paper, which she placed on his hand with her eyes downcast. Jude studied it carefully. It was a valid ticket, but the original departure date had been scratched off and the current date rewritten in calligraphy—a pitiful attempt to resemble the letters of the station’s ink stamp.
He handed it back to her. “That’s quite dishonest of you, scratching out the real date. Did you really reckon you’d get away with that?”
The girl stood a little straighter and focused wide green eyes on him that seemed bright against her fair skin. “I promise you won’t be sorry if you let me come along. I can take care of the horses. I was a groom for the best stable in Missouri for a year. Also, I know how to repair each and every wagon part on that outfit,” she said, pointing at the stagecoach.
Jude opened the door to the body of the coach and held out his hand to assist Annie up the steps. To the girl he said, “I don’t need a groom or repairman. They’re at every swing and home station along the line. Run on home now, young lady.”
“That would be mighty difficult, mister, seeing as how my home is in California. I swear, you won’t be sorry if I come. I’m real useful. Have you heard of Nurse Nightingale? She personally taught me how to stitch up wounds and tend to fevers and other sicknesses. Imagine if something happened on the line and you had among your passengers someone with medical training. That would be a right smart benefit, I’d think.”
Jude sighed. “Why do I get the feelin’ you’re stretching the truth a bit?”
She didn’t pick up on the rhetorical nature of the question. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re not a trusting person. But what I say is true. Why, I bet I’d be the most useful person of all your passengers. I can shoot a target from three hundred yards away and hit it ninety-nine out of a hundred times. If you need a guard, I’m your huckleberry,” she asserted, jutting a thumb at her chest.
Jude groaned and rolled his eyes. Reaching down, he picked up the senator’s large red travel case and hefted it onto the back of the coach. He secured it to the boot with straps. “Let me get this straight. You’re a groom, repairman, nurse, and gunslinger?”
“Yup. And I’m good at singing too, if people want some entertainment along the way.”
“We don’t,” Mrs. Tucker interjected. She sat next to the window and peered out, scowling at the girl. “We want peace and quiet.”
“I can give you that too,” the girl said cheerfully, not seeming daunted in the least by the older woman’s condescending manner toward her.
Jude struggled not to smile at her response. “There’s been little evidence of that, darlin’. Now I’m sorry, but there’s no room in this coach for you. You’ll have to go west on the date you scratched out on the ticket.”
“There is too room!” she exclaimed. “I don’t see a shotgun rider. Like I said, I can be the guard and sit with you up front. I’ll keep my eye out for Pawnee and road agents, and I’ll be real helpful to you. After all, I was taught how to shoot by Jesse James, the outlaw. He’s one of the best guns around.”
She placed a foot on the wheel, grasped the seat’s metal bar, and swung up to the box. Once settled, she placed her hands in her lap, folded them, and sat with her shoulders back and her head high. She stared straight ahead as though the conversation were over and her riding along was a sure thing.
Stunned by her initiative, it took a moment for Jude to respond. He was about to swing her right back down and give her a scolding as well as a parting smack to her impertinent hind end when the senator bellowed his displeasure. “Driver, get that barrel boarder off our ride so we can be on our way! We’re wasting time.” He stepped inside the coach and sat down heavily next to his wife.
The girl focused pleading eyes down at Jude. He stared up at her, wondering what her real story was and why she was so determined to come along. A wounded look crossed her face after the senator’s insult, but she quickly masked it and replaced it with a hopeful and slightly stubborn expression.
Jude had already decided he didn’t care too much for the senator, and now he cared for him even less. There was no need for him to call the girl names, and he certainly shouldn’t have bossed around a driver. Jude removed his hat and smacked it against his knee to shake off the dust, then readjusted the red bandana around his neck. As he placed his Stetson back on his head, an idea came to him. It just so happened that the girl was valuable in imparting an important lesson about who was in charge for the next twenty-six days. He addressed the senator sternly. “That’s the last time you’ll be giving orders if you want to stay on my coach. Also, I won’t tolerate any disrespect toward the other passengers, including my new guard here. We all need to get along for the next twenty-two-hundred miles of rough travel, and squabbling will only make the journey more uncomfortable.” He looked up at the girl and addressed her just as sternly. “What’s your name, young lady?”
Her face lit up and split into a grin. “Miss Caroline Broderick, at your service. You can call me Callie, though, seeing as how we’re gonna be working together.”
Jude stifled another smile. He found her pluck rather cute, but he knew the challenges that faced them meant he couldn’t be indulgent and tolerate any more misbehavior. The girl seemed half-feral, and the last thing he needed was someone causing trouble on what already might be a troublesome journey. “All right, Callie. You can be my shotgun, but that means you’ll have to mind me. No more taking liberties without permission. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” she said eagerly. “I’ll be no trouble to you whatsoever. You’ll hardly know I’m here.”
Jude had a strong suspicion this wouldn’t be the case, but he kept that thought to himself. He also kept to himself the thought that she desperately needed a new dress to accommodate her womanly figure. The dress, obviously made to fit a girl, not a woman, was too short and too tight. Her breasts pressed against the fabric of her button-down bodice, revealing gaps between buttons. She would have been showing off most of her generous cleavage if it weren’t for the chemise she wore underneath.
He turned his attention to the four passengers sitting in the coach. “On our journey, we’ll encounter everything from bad weather to treacherous terrain. Worse, we might have to modify our route if word comes through to a home station alerting us to Indians or bandits. I’m not trying to scare you, but those are the facts. I need you all to agree to follow my lead. You do that, and we should all arrive to California in one piece.”
“We understand,” Billy said. He removed his tattered slouch hat. “My wife and I have heard good things about you, driver, and we’ve no problem following your lead.”
“Yes, same here,” Callie confirmed. “Mr. Fargo recommended you to me personally. That’s why I chose to come on your coach.”
Jude couldn’t help but laugh then, despite the obvious lie. “Remind me to thank the boss for providing me with the pleasure of your company,” he said, and winked at her.
She grinned back at him, her green eyes sparkling with delight.