Shanna Marie Johnston would remember this day forever after,
as the day her life exploded. Everything changed. As a rule, her life was
bland. She got up, walked to work at Tanner’s Mercantile, walked home, did her
chores, and went to bed. Once a year she took a train ride from Pine Bluffs to
Omaha for a week to see Mama. That was as exciting as her life got, until
today. The day started simple enough. She rose, dressed, and helped Mama get
breakfast. She packed her traveling case with the few things she had and joined
Mama at the table. While they ate, Shanna broached the subject of staying in
Omaha instead of going back to Rock Creek. Shanna didn’t want to be alone
anymore. She wanted a family. She wanted to belong. She wanted a sister or a
brother, Christmas presents under the tree, Sunday dinners, picnics, walks by
the river, and nights in front of the fire playing checkers. She wanted someone
to love and to be loved in return. She wanted to be with Mama.
Mama smiled and shook her head. “It’s too dangerous,
darling,” she said and rubbed a hand wearily through her thinning dark hair. “I
do not dare have you here for more than a few days once a year. Someone might
see you and recognize you. It’s safer for both of us if you go back to Rock
Creek with Joseph and Sara. Thank God you don’t remember the terror, darling,
but I do. I miss you dreadfully, but it’s better if you stick to the yearly
Shanna rubbed her sleeve against the little window of the
Overland Express as it chugged its way toward Pine Bluffs. She peered through
the cloudy glass hoping to see out. She wanted to look at something else
besides the happy couple in front of her. Or the young family sitting two rows
back. She pretended she didn’t notice the two brothers who sat shoulder to shoulder
to her left, or the elderly couple whispering together in the far corner.
Everyone had someone. Everyone but her. Shanna blinked back tears. She thought
that this year she could stay in Omaha. She counted on it. She didn’t want to
go back to Rock Creek and face Daniel Anderson. Not after he broke their
engagement and humiliated her in front of the whole town. She didn’t want to
face Delphine Otis, either. Delphine lived to torment her. She did a pretty
good job of it, too. Shanna sighed. She would rather take on whatever terror
frightened Mama, than face the people of Rock Creek.
The little boy two
rows back dropped his ball. It rolled toward Shanna and stopped by her feet.
Smiling, Shanna bent to retrieve it. She looked into the little boy’s chocolate
brown eyes and everything went black.
Shanna regained consciousness sometime later. She could
smell dirt and smoke. There was no sound except the beating of her own heart in
her ears. Nothing stirred. Nothing moved. She winced at a blinding pain in her
head. God, she hurt. Where was she? Where was the smoke coming from? She
blinked her eyes trying to see. Someone’s hands rolled her onto her back,
A smooth, husky voice murmured, “You’re okay. I’ve got you.”
Shanna threw an arm over her eyes to protect them from the
sudden glare of the sun. Did she know a man with a husky drawl? She didn’t
think so. She moved her arm to get a peek at him and winced. She caught sight
of a bulky figure before the sun blinded her, and her eyes watered. Hastily,
she covered them again. She didn’t want to move. She listened. Everything was
quiet. Did the man go? She decided she didn’t care. She was hot as all get out,
and sticky. Her head throbbed. Every part of her body ached. Shanna wrinkled
her brow. Where the hell am I? She blinked and reached tentative fingers to the
sore spot on her head. She wasn’t bleeding. A movement above her caught her
eye. So, the man hadn’t gone away. She could hear him moving in the grass
beside her. She heard a metallic click as the hammer of a gun was pulled back
right above her. Shanna moved her arm and looked up. She gazed into the barrel
of a pistol. It loomed in front of her face. It looked about ten feet long and
six feet wide with a gaping black center. Her heart stopped. Funny how guns
looked bigger than life when they were pointed at you. Shanna’s mouth went dry.
Who the hell would want to shoot me? Cautiously, she moved her arm away from
her face and gazed past the gun at the giant man holding it. She met the ice
blue stare of a scruffy, blond-haired man. He knelt by her side frowning
ferociously. He must be the owner of the smooth, husky drawl.
Shanna swallowed. “Who are you, mister, and why are you
pointing your gun at me?” She gazed at him trying to remember who he was, or
why he wanted to shoot her.
“You know why, Jenna,” the man answered. His eyes narrowed
on her face. Shanna’s throat tightened. He stared at her for a long minute, and
then he got to his feet. He searched the area around them on every side. The
pistol moved with him. She let out a shaky breath when he moved his gun away
from her. Her heart started to beat again. Shanna sat up, keeping her eyes on
the stranger. He was wound as tight as a rattlesnake ready to strike. Dizziness
forced her to drop her head for a minute. The man turned slowly in every
direction. He surveyed the area carefully, his gun still cocked in his hand.
Cautiously, Shanna slipped her hand into the pocket of Aunt Sara’s old dress
and through the hole in the bottom. Her hand closed around the ivory handle of
the knife she wore strapped to her thigh.
She frowned up at the man, hoping he didn’t see her hand
moving inside her pocket. She had no idea where she was, or why this stranger
had his gun pointed in her direction. There was no way in hell she was going down
without a fight. He stared down at her. He pointed the gun at her head, again.
It was still cocked. Shanna quit breathing.
“Where are they, Jenna?” the man asked.
“Where are who?” she answered slowly inching her knife
“Your men. Where are your men?”
“What men?” She moved her knife to the opening in her
He waved his gun in her face. “You know what men. Answer the
question.” The big man said the words between clenched teeth. He leaned toward
her until the barrel of his gun touched her nose. He was angry if the muscle
working back and forth in his jaw was any sign.
“I don’t have any men,” she answered without blinking. Her
mind searched for any memory of him, or a woman named Jenna. She drew a blank.
He stood up and scanned the area around them, again. He took
his revolver with him. “I know they’re here somewhere,” he said. His gaze
swiveled back to her. He leaned forward, caught her wrist in one big hand, and
squeezed. “You still have a knife strapped to your thigh?” he asked. His eyes
narrowed on her face.
“No,” Shanna lied.
She barely had time to shove it back into the scabbard before he pulled her
hand out and glared at her empty fingers. How the hell did he know about her
knife? Her blade was the only defense she had.
The big man stared at
her for several minutes. “If I find out you’re lying to me, you’ll regret it,”
Shanna held still for a few minutes. Who was he? How did he
know she wore a knife on her thigh? She glanced at his pistol and swallowed.
She decided to stay quiet until she figured out who he was and what he wanted.
“How long have you
been this far west?” he asked studying her face. “Why are you here?” He
narrowed his gaze on her. “What could you possibly want in the middle of
Wyoming territory?” he murmured. His sharp gaze swept over her again. “Tell me
what I want to know, and I’ll tell the judge you cooperated. It’s the best
offer you’re getting from me.”
Shanna didn’t answer. The man was out of his mind. He wasn’t
making any sense. She wiped the perspiration from her forehead and took the
opportunity to stare back at him. He was handsome with dirty blond hair, a
coating of whiskers, and piercing blue eyes. He wore a dirty blue shirt
stretched tight over his broad shoulders. One sleeve was missing, revealing a
large, bronzed bicep. Her gaze caught on the bulging muscle. His skin looked as
smooth and golden as melted caramel. She licked her lips. He sure is big.
Shanna’s gaze traveled over his flat stomach and focused on the missing sleeve
tied around his massive thigh. The giant man was injured. The sleeve around his
thigh was bloody.
“I’m in the middle of Wyoming Territory because I live here.
What I want is to go home. I don’t know why a judge would care where I am or
what I’m doing.” Shanna locked gazes with him. “I think you hit your head, or
you’ve gone loco in the sun. You’re not making any sense. Now, let me go.”
He glared at her. He didn’t believe her. She could see it in
his expression. She got unsteadily to her feet. Every part of her ached. Shanna
swayed. She put a hand to her head to stop the dizziness.
“Where are they? I won’t ask again, Jenna,” he said softly.
Shanna shivered. When he spoke soft, it scared her to death.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, mister. I do not know you, and I do
not have any men. You’ve got the wrong girl. My name is Shanna, not Jenna. I
haven’t done anything wrong.” She hoped she sounded stronger than she felt. As
soon as her head quit spinning, she’d figure out what to do with him.
“I know you remember. Quit playing games, Jenna, and answer
the question.” He let the hammer down slow on his gun and put it back in its
holster. “Tell me what I want to know, and I won’t hurt you.” His voice was
smooth as Tennessee whisky. It wrapped around her and settled in her stomach.
His blue eyes gazed into hers, and Shanna nearly swooned on the spot. With his
gun safely in its holster and no longer distracting her, she realized he was
more than handsome. He was perfect.
Her mouth dried, and her palms started to sweat. She must
have hit her head hard. She dropped her gaze and sucked in some air. She
couldn’t remember what she was saying. This is crazy! Who the hell is this man?
“I don’t remember you because I don’t know you.” It was the truth. She would
have remembered a man like him.
The man laughed.
Shanna turned away from the husky sound of his voice. It
warmed her through. The last time a handsome man paid attention to her, she
jumped in with her whole heart and both feet. She almost drowned. Best get some
distance between her and the stranger before she did something she regretted.
She needed to head for home as soon as she figured out where the heck she was.
Shanna turned around. Her eyes widened when she spotted the mess. A train lay
on its side not fifty feet away. Debris and twisted metal were everywhere. It
looked like an explosion split the train in two and scattered pieces of it all
over the countryside. Black smoke billowed from a roaring fire licking away at
the cars. Now she knew why she hurt so badly. She remembered everything, her
mother, the train ride, the little boy and his ball, and the explosion. Shanna
choked back a sob. The last thing she remembered was handing the ball back to
the little, brown-eyed boy. She thought of the other passengers.
“Did anybody else make it?” Shanna whispered.
“No.” His words were
clipped. He stared at her. “I don’t know how you sleep at night after the
things you’ve done. Most people couldn’t.”
Shanna looked over at him. “I sleep fine,” she lied. She
would if her life wasn’t so complicated.
“You’re going to prison if it’s the last thing I do on God’s
green earth,” he promised.
Shanna stared at him in disbelief. The man was several
bullets shy of a loaded barrel. Then she frowned. It occurred to her this
delusional man might have a reason for being so aggressive. He might be
connected to Mama. Was he part of Mama’s secret?
“Do you know Mary Johnston, from Omaha, Nebraska?” She
watched him intently, searching for recognition. Was he the reason Mama sent
her back to Rock Creek instead of letting her stay in Omaha? Was Mama’s secret
the reason he pulled a gun on her?
The man’s gaze narrowed. He looked at Shanna suspiciously.
“Who the hell is Mary Johnston?” His hand dropped to the butt of his gun,
pulling it from the holster. He scanned the area around them again.
Shanna shrugged. It was worth a shot. The man looked
as surprised by the name as she was when she opened her eyes with his pistol
pointing at her. He probably didn’t know who his own mother was, let alone
hers. She looked toward the train once more, and suddenly it dawned on her. She
was stranded out on the prairie, alone. Well, except for the giant cowboy with
the delusional mind and smoky voice. Granted, he was handsome as all get out,
but he was also too gun happy. It took the edge off his good looks. Shanna
kicked at a clump of sagebrush and then looked at the sky. It was late
afternoon and high time to skedaddle. Nobody would be coming to look for her,
so she’d best get a move on. Uncle Joseph and Aunt Sara would throw a party if
she didn’t show up. They didn’t like taking her in any more than she liked
being there. And Daniel Anderson? Daniel would make some mean comment, and then
he and Delphine would laugh. Delphine. Shanna frowned. Delphine Otis would
gloat over her demise. She’d think she won, too. The thought stopped Shanna for
a second or two. She didn’t know why she cared. Delphine Otis could take a wild
train ride to Hades.
Then she thought
of Rose. Rose would worry. Shanna smiled. Rose Tanner was her best friend and
the only good thing about Rock Creek. If Shanna didn’t make it home, Rose would
scare up a search party and come looking for her, one way or another. Shanna
turned toward the wreckage. She had a long way to go before she got back to
Rock Creek, and on foot, it would be infinitely longer.
“Who is Mary Johnston and how does she tie in with you and
your men?” the man asked again.
“She doesn’t. Forget I asked,” Shanna said, walking away.
She had too much to do and a long way to get there.