This western romance came about as a result of a writing prompt that challenged me to write in a genre I don't usually read. As a result, it's thick with tropes and might offend a true connoisseur of the Wild West. Or romance. Or bandits. Or steam locomotives (though I did do a little bit of research in that area). But it was sure a lot of fun to write! (The title still makes me snicker.)
It was just a kiss.
A kiss that meant everything.
A kiss that meant nothing.
Except that now Prudence Thatcher was barreling through the wide expansive desert, watching the cactus and sagebrush go by as the relentless sun crested above her. She wished she could open the window. The breeze must be glorious at this speed, but instead she was trapped in a stuffy train car, trying to ignore the sweat tickling her scalp under her hat. She wished she had a free hat pin and could reach up under her tightly wound hair to scratch the itch…just there.
Prudence kept her hands in her lap, clutching the novel she had yet to open. Robin Hood. It was a favorite, but it couldn’t hold her attention today. She wanted to see this new land that would be her home through the winter. Maybe longer if Dry Creek agreed with her.
All because of a kiss.
Prudence straightened her shoulders. That was giving Rusty Barnes too much credit. His dark hair and smooth manners wouldn’t have driven her away from Tucson if she hadn’t already had an urge for adventure. It was just coincidence that this teaching post came available in Dry Creek after she found out who he really was.
She would embrace this new start, bringing her East Coast education to the wilds of New Mexico. And she would forget Rusty Barnes, maybe falling for a cattle rancher with expansive acreage or a banker with an expansive fortune or a lawman with an expansive history of adventure —
It was hard not to think in exaggerated terms in this large country where possibilities seemed as vast as the open sky.
She would start fresh and have adventures of her own. No man required.
Rusty Barnes probably wasn’t even his real name.
He’d played his con well. Endlessly patient, wooing her with conversation and an interest in books and science. She wondered where he’d learned enough about physics and literature to keep up with her. She didn’t believe any of his backstory, not since that ugly day when the pieces fell into place and she realized that her lover was the one orchestrating the collapse of her father’s real estate deals, using bits of information she’d offered in casual conversation to steal from him thousands of dollars.
Her cheeks burned with the shame of it.
It wasn’t like he was even much of a lover. That’s what really made her angry. Angry at herself. They’d shared one kiss, and he’d known her so well that he’d really made her want that kiss before he gave it to her. Had he pushed her at all before she was ready, she might have seen his true character earlier. But instead, he waited. Always a perfect gentleman. Always respectful. Never imposing on her at all. Never more familiar than a hand helping her down the stairs, the pressure of his hand at her waist making her heart flutter helplessly.
Oh, she’d wanted that kiss. When it finally came, everything about it was perfect. They had stood under the grapevines in her mother’s garden, the moon full of promise above them. His voice was low and tender, and his eyes shone with wonder.
“I’ve never met a woman like you, Prudence,” he’d murmured. “You’ve changed things for me. I don’t quite know what to do with myself. The future seemed so clear before, but now…”
“Does that mean you’ll consider staying in Tucson?” Prudence had asked, raising her eyes to his and almost looking away again for fear of the passion she saw. And the fear that his passion was reflected in her own eyes. “When your business is finished here?”
“If only I could. I’ve dragged things out as long as possible. If I don’t go soon, things won’t…things will fall apart with my other interests. But I swear to you that I’ll return as soon as I can. And maybe then I’ll be worthy of you.”
He’d said it wistfully, and his hand brushed her cheek. She’d wanted to tell him he was already worthy. That there was no other man in Tucson she wanted to be with. That she knew her father would approve. That she loved him. But that touch, so gentle, had stilled the words in her throat. And then there was nothing but his lips on hers and her heart pounding so hard she could hear it, and she melted into his arms. It might have lasted an eternity but it didn’t. It was only a moment. And then it was over and he was gone.
Prudence’s head knocked roughly against the wall of the train car. She must have dozed off. Chagrined, she looked around the car at the other passengers. No one seemed to have noticed. Across the aisle from her sat a mother with a sleeping infant and young girl, plainly dressed in faded calico with cracked boots on her feet that looked too big. The girl was barefoot. Prudence assumed her husband was the gaunt man in the seat behind with a gangly youth next to him. An old man sat behind her, his skin tanned like rawhide. The seat in front was empty. They were marvels, these locomotives. In her father’s day, she would have been stuck making this journey by stagecoach. But now, her father’s railroad stretched all the way to Santa Fe. Only the final part of her journey to remote Dry Creek would have to be done in the discomfort of a coach.
Prudence reached for her watch pinned to her tailored waistcoat. Five minutes to 3. They would reach Santa Fe by sundown, she would be comfortable in the best room the hotel had to offer, thanks to her father’s generosity and advance arrangements. He’d only regretted not being able to send her with a traveling companion. But Prudence was glad not to have to make conversation with someone else. She had too much on her mind as it was —
A movement out the window caught her attention.
Far in the distance a shadow moved against the gray hills, churning up a cloud of dust. Might it be a wild mustang? Prudence hadn’t seen any yet but hoped to before her journey was over. She watched the speck with idle interest. The shape was headed toward the train, so it would be only a few minutes before they drew close enough for her to see it clearly. Another cloud of dust indicated a pair of mustangs. For Prudence was sure now they were horses. What a delightful —
Was the train picking up speed? Yes. That was strange. They’d kept up a steady speed for most of the day, why accelerate now?
Prudence peered out the window and her stomach plummeted, a strong feeling of nausea washing over her, leaving her trembling. They were horses, sure enough. But they had riders. And they were coming fast.
Prudence had heard tales of bandits robbing stagecoaches. That was yet another blessing of the railroad. But to rob a train? A train at full speed. You’d have to be crazy.
A shrill screeching erupted at the same time the car shook. The child across the aisle covered her ears and the baby stirred in its sleep, fat fists waving in protest. Still the scream of metal continued.
Brakes, Prudence realized with dread.
How do you safely board a high speed steam locomotive? Give it a reason to stop.
She pressed her hands to the window and craned her neck trying to look out, but she couldn’t see the tracks ahead. The other passengers were doing the same thing, calling out in alarm, their cries drowned out by the horrible screeching of the brakes.
The cries of the damned couldn’t be more fearful, Prudence thought.
Still the train moved. Suddenly, Prudence felt a new fear. Her father said a train at full speed would take at least a mile to stop, even with emergency brakes applied and the throttle bleeding steam. What if they didn’t stop in time? What if the bandits had blown up a bridge with dynamite? What if the train went careening into a deep ravine? She sat back on her vibrating seat and curled up in a ball, her arms wrapped around her head, imagining what it would feel like to plummet to your death in a great iron beast.
In spite of her fears, the train did slow. With one last shudder, the car finally came to a stop and the screeching brakes stopped. In the silence that followed, Prudence’s ears rang. She uncurled and peeled herself off the bench, vaguely aware of the fussing baby and the other grumbling passengers around her. Dust leaked through the cracks of the wooden car, filling the air with a golden haze. She held a handkerchief to her nose against the dust and pondered her situation.
No bandit in his right mind would go through this much effort to rob a handful of passengers. There must have been a safe of gold or silver hidden somewhere on this train. Likely, the bandits would focus on that and wouldn’t even bother the passengers. But she removed her pearl earrings and cameo brooch just in case. She glanced at her pocketwatch one last time — 3:10 — before unpinning it and slipped everything into her carpetbag. If she had more time, she would have undone the lining and hidden them more securely in the secret pocket of her bag. But she didn’t dare. It would be better to lose the jewelry rather than risk alerting the bandits to the secret pocket where her her father’s cash was stowed.
Long minutes passed filled with the creaking of the train as passengers moved about, looking out windows, comforting children, and keeping a dreadful eye on the door at the opposite end of the car. Prudence kept very still, tension holding her spine erect. Again, she was grateful not to have a companion. No one she had to talk to or soothe. She could sit in perfect silence, waiting for it all to be over.
The car grew increasingly stuffy. What would happen if they opened the doors on either end to let in a breeze? She dabbed at the perspiration on her forehead and the handkerchief came away brown from the dust in the air collecting on her skin.
A thunderous crash shook the car, and Prudence clutched her carpetbag in fear. The baby let out a full-throated yell in protest, and other children began crying too.
They’ve blown the safe, Prudence thought. Surely they’ll be gone soon. She closed her eyes, waiting to feel the lurch of the train starting again. For the baby to be soothed. For her throat to stop itching from the dust in the air. Waiting for it to be over.
She started at the sound of a loud crack. A gunshot. Her hands trembled on the handle of her carpetbag.
Just go away, she pleaded in her mind. Go away and leave us alone. And in the midst of that thought, another bitter one. Rusty Barnes, you louse. I wouldn’t be on this train right now if you hadn’t broken my heart. If I get murdered on this train, it will be all your fault.
The door at the end of the car banged open, and Prudence jumped in her seat. A man pushed his way in, pistols raised. He was swarthy and roughly dressed, a thick beard on his chin and dust puffing from his clothes with each step.
“Howdy there, folks. Just sit down please, that’s right,” he said genially, waving his pistols at them. The frightened passengers sat obediently. “Can you quiet that baby, ma’am? I’m afraid I can’t hear myself think with that caterwauling.”
The woman across the aisle shot a terrified glance at Prudence as she held her baby tightly against her chest. It was the wrong thing to do. The baby’s cries muffled, but grew more insistent. She needs to walk around with the baby to calm it, Prudence thought. But the mother was clearly too afraid.
“Now we’re going to start by having you hold out your hands. Up high where I can see them. Good, good, just like that.”
All around her, the other passengers were raising their hands above their heads, palms open toward the bandit.
One by one, he started inspecting their hands. “Good, thank you. Nope, keep ‘em up where I can see ‘em. Good, good. Nice fine callouses I see there. Ma’am can’t you do something for that baby? You’re his mother, ain’t cha?” His voice, which had been pleasant, was hardening dangerously.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the woman whimpered. “I’m trying.”
“Well I can think of a few things that would get him to be quiet,” the bandit growled.
Before she knew what she was doing, Prudence was out of her seat, carpetbag forgotten on the seat behind her.
“Hold on there, miss!” the bandit yelled. “Get back in your — ”
But she was already reaching for the child, taking him from the arms of his stunned mother. “He needs to be walked. If you want him to quiet down you need to let her stand with him.” The baby burrowed his wet face into her shoulder, screaming again. But she bounced as she walked back and forth in the aisle and immediately he started to calm. She murmured soothingly to him and let him gnaw on her knuckle until his cries quieted.
“There, you see?” she looked up triumphantly and faltered. The bandit was right before her, a look of keen interest in his eyes as he looked her over.
“Well, well. What have we here? You’re no farmer or ranch hand.”
“We’re about done, Buster,” a voice called from the doorway. “Find anything good?”
“I’d say so,” Buster said with a grin. “Not the rest of ‘em. No offense, y’all. We don’t rob good working men. But this gal here looks like she’d rather be sippin’ tea with her granny sittin’ on a fine lace pillow. I bet she’s got a few treasures to share, and likely won’t miss ‘em at all.”
Prudence tried not to look at her carpetbag, but his eyes went there anyway. He grabbed the handle and yanked, breaking the lock as easy as a horse swatting away a fly. She cringed as he pawed through her things, rough hands tossing about her white linens. He pulled out his hand with a cry of victory.
“Look at this! I told ya!” He held out the brooch and pocketwatch to the other bandit. But his companion just frowned.
“I don’t know, Buster. You know the boss has a rule against taking women’s personals.”
“Look at ‘er, though, Rough. She’s rich! Even the boss steals from women if they’re rich enough.”
“I’ll go ask ‘im. Hang on.”
The baby’s mother apparently decided she didn’t appreciate the extra attention Prudence was attracting. While Rough stomped out of the train car to go find the boss, she pried her baby away from Prudence. Prudence missed his warmth immediately, and folded her arms before her as if to protect her from Buster.
“You sure had a way with that baby,” he said, conversationally. “You got kids?”
“Kids?” she asked, startled by the question. “No. I’m not married.”
“You traveling alone? Unmarried?” Buster let out a low whistle. “Purty face like yours could run into all kinds of trouble. You never know when you’ll meet some ruffians out in a place like this.” He cackled at his own joke, and Prudence blinked at the smell of his breath.
“Well, you might be in luck. Boss has a weakness for unmarried ladies. Especially the purty ones.”
The train car swayed as Rough returned, climbing the steps. Behind him followed another man whose voice sounded smooth and slightly bored. “All right, Buster,” the newcomer said. “Let’s see what you’ve got. The wagon’s almost loaded so we need to be on our way.”
In an instant, Prudence’s fear was replaced with dismay. It couldn’t be.
But she knew that voice.
“Rusty Barnes.” She said it like an accusation.
His eyes widened in surprise before crinkling in a grin. “Well, hello, Miss Thatcher. You’re the last person I expected to see in a place like this.” He tipped his hat in greeting. Prudence’s throat dried up on a response. His eyes were just as bright as she remembered. The louse.
“You know each other?” Buster asked.
Rusty glanced at Buster. “Miss Thatcher’s daddy made a fortune laying the track this train sits on. Are those her only valuables?”
“That’s all that I found, boss. I can dump out the bag if you’d like.”
Prudence felt a wave of fear. Rusty would find the hidden cash. Buster was satisfied with the jewelry. But Rusty? He knew her father would never send her away without plenty of money to keep her comfortable.
If Rusty took her cash, she’d have nothing. She’d truly be helpless and alone. Her new life crumbling into dust before it even started.
Rusty watched her carefully as if guessing her thoughts. He held her gaze for a long, long moment which stretched out like the anticipation before a kiss.
Prudence felt her cheeks warming but refused to look away. She would keep what dignity she could.
At last, something like decision flickered in his dark eyes.
“Buster, Miss Thatcher and I are old friends. We don’t rob our friends. Return her belongings. My apologies, Miss Thatcher.”
Prudence let out a silent breath of relief. Buster handed over her things reluctantly and disappeared down the aisle. But Rusty stayed. Clutching her brooch and watch, Prudence found her voice. “Robbing trains now, Mr. Barnes? That seems rather crude, even for you. What happened, you ran out of wealthy heiresses to swindle?”
He smiled a crooked grin. The kind that used to make her heart almost hurt. “You’d be amazed how few desirable young heiresses there are out in these parts. But I found that particular scam wasn't to my liking.”
“Indeed? Did I spoil it for you?”
“You could say that.”
His words stung and sharpened her anger. Prudence turned and thrust her jewelry back into the carpetbag, snapping it shut.
What's the matter with you, Prudence? Your feelings are hurt because he didn't fall in love with you while he was using you to rob your father?
“I do apologize for any inconvenience, Miss Thatcher. I see that your luggage is damaged. Was that Buster’s exuberance? Please allow me to compensate you.”
He was standing entirely too close, and although he didn't smell like she remembered — far too much horse and sweat in his odor now — she still didn't appreciate the memories that came to mind at his nearness. How familiar it all felt.
“If you please, Mr. Barnes,” she said, leveling him with what she hoped was her coldest glare, “I would appreciate it if you would take your gang and leave, so that this train can get moving again. We’ve lost too much time as it is.”
“And just why are you so interested in going to Santa Fe, Miss Thatcher?”
“That is none of your concern, Mr. Barnes.”
He seemed to sway backward with her words, then nodded with a sigh. In a low voice he said, “You’re right. I have no business asking after the way I left things in Tucson. I feel mighty sorry for that, I do. I was a scoundrel and you have every right to hate me.”
“I do hate you,” Prudence said in a fierce whisper. But it was a lot harder to mean it when he was standing before her, his brow furrowed in contrition.
“It wasn't how I wanted things to be.”
“Wasn't it? Do you imply you didn't choose to take advantage of my…my affections?”
Prudence noticed the woman across the aisle glancing at them surreptitiously and felt her cheeks warming again.
“I did and I didn't. It was my plan, yes, but once I actually got to know you, I realized it was horribly flawed. Because of all the people who could get hurt, I couldn't bear to hurt you.”
Her heart swelled but she clamped it down with anger.
“Oh, but hurting my father was okay?”
“Your father,” Rusty said with a hardness she hadn't heard before, “is not the innocent man you think he is. Do you know how many people have died building his railroad? Do you know the way they’re treated? They’re malnourished and live in camps full of disease. He treats his horses better than the men and women who work for him.”
Prudence drew herself up to her full height, indignant. “How dare you…malign my father in such a way! He’s an honest man with a kind heart who always treated you with respect and — ”
“Your father is a crook who built his fortune on the broken backs of better men,” Rusty spat.
That was too much. Anger clouded Prudence’s mind, jumbling her words, and fear that he was right choked them in her throat before they could be released. What did she know of her father’s business besides that it had allowed her the finest education and a comfortable home? She sensed that she was gaping at him, and her eyes burned. The humiliation that she might shed angry tears just made her angrier.
Rusty didn’t grin wickedly at her distress. It would have been easier to hate him if he had. Instead, his eyes softened and he looked pained. “My apologies, Miss Thatcher. It’s not something I ever wanted to tell you. But it’s the truth. Your father is not the man you think he is. But you, Miss Thatcher, you are kind and honest and sharp as a whittling knife and I never wanted you to get hurt in all of this.”
“You lied to me.” She hoped it sounded like a pronouncement of justice and not a pitiful plea. But in her own ears, she wasn’t sure.
“I did. I did indeed. And I’ll regret it ’til my dying day. I got caught in the lie myself, wishing it could be true. Wishing I could be the man you thought I was. Wishing I could be worthy of you. Wishing life were different and we weren’t two opposite ends of a compass, always pointing in different directions.”
A part of Prudence’s heart soared to hear the words. He did care.
Or was this just part of an act too?
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” she said bitterly. “Whatever might have been is gone and never coming back. Now please, get off this train so we can get on our way.”
The sadness in his eyes hardened to resolve. “Of course, Miss Thatcher. Apologies for detaining you.”
He tipped his hat and turned away. Prudence leaned against the seat as if she were drained of all strength. But she waited until he left the car before collapsing into it. She’d done it. She’d never expected to see him again, but she had, and she’d faced him with courage. She could do this. She could move to Dry Creek alone and start a fresh life. She’d build a new school and make a real difference in others’ lives. All on her own.
Outside the train, she noticed a wagon waiting with a large canvas tarp draped over the bed. Four or five bandits roamed the area, eyes on the horizon, waiting for their leader to appear. When Rusty stepped down to the dirt, she drew back a little, but still watched. His words came to her through the glass.
“Come on, boys. Let’s get out of here so they can get on their way. Dry Creek is waiting for their schoolteacher.”
Prudence straightened with a start. He knew. But she hadn’t told him. She hadn’t even said where she was going. How did he know?
As the engine rumbled to life, the wagon with the stolen goods pulled away, flanked by riders on either side. But Rusty waited, sitting relaxed on his horse, his hat shading his face. When the train started to jerk forward along the track again, he looked up at Prudence’s window, offered a crooked smile, and tipped his hat. Somehow, Prudence knew this was not the last she would see of Rusty Barnes.