“Excuse me, Mrs. Maher,” the conductor began as he bowed politely. “May I assist you with your overhead luggage? A little lady like you can’t reach that high.”
“Yes, thank you,” she murmured, while thinking, If only I were a lady. Aislynn sat erect, her hands resting in her lap, trying to look like the proper widow. In the elegant Ladies Coach, with its prim, green silk seats and the clean smell of lemon oil rising from the black walnut walls, it was easy to appear respectable. However, beneath the black crepe, her shame festered.
Slowly stuttering toward the station, the train jerked forward and back, rocked side to side and jumped every time the iron wheels clicked over a seam in the iron rails. Coal smoke from the locomotive, dust from the prairie and tiny flies rushed in when the conductor opened the door. Aislynn waved her black-gloved hand before her nose and mouth, warding off the vexation.
When the brakes screeched the train to a halt, the conductor appeared at her side. He extended his elbow over the vacant seat next to hers. “Please take my arm, and I’ll walk you to the door. You can wait there while I collect the steps.”
The warm, dry wind grazed Aislynn’s cheeks as she stood above the platform in the railcar doorway. Below, a chaotic scene unfolded. To her left, gray smoke rose from greasy cook fires while vendors hawked food. Two large women wearing stained aprons and straggly hair argued over the noise of the throng. At the center of the platform, a two-story sandstone station with the words UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD boldly carved over heavy wooden doors dominated the scene. A flood of people flowed in and out. Freight wagons crowded the building on two sides, all eager to get close to the train and its treasures. Near the station’s doorway, a weather-beaten Indian hunched under a dingy blanket extended an empty hand. To Aislynn’s right, a gang of scruffy, rowdy men swarmed a boxcar and deposited a ramp at its door. Her eyes caught a slice of Cheyenne beyond the station. A small parade of low, dust-stained buildings sitting on muddy streets formed the “Magic City of the Plains.” Aislynn wondered what had happened to the magic.
When the locomotive exhaled its last smoky breath, the prairie wind brought new scents her way. The air filled with the smell of fried meats, boiled coffee, roasted peanuts, laboring animals and sweaty men. Passengers disembarked like soup pouring from a tureen. They spilled in every direction. Some attended to necessities during the thirty-minute stop. Others, like Aislynn, were meeting friends or family and staying a while.
The conductor returned with the wooden steps. He placed them below Aislynn and offered his hand. Simultaneously, three men, dressed in rough camp clothes and carrying packs with bedrolls, stumbled from the adjacent car. Each one stopped on the platform and gawked as Aislynn gathered her skirt to descend.
“Need some help?” The tallest man approached Aislynn.
“Get away, you ruffians!” the conductor barked as he shooed the men with his free hand. They scoffed and turned to join the rowdies with the ramp. “We have a terrible element in these parts, Mrs. Maher; they are scoundrels of the worst sort. You must beware.”
“I will. Thank you for rushing to my defense.”
“I hope there’s someone here to meet you. You shouldn’t be alone.”
Aislynn surveyed the cacophonous crowd one more time before stepping down. Toward the end of the platform, she spied Orrin Sage. “Please don’t worry about me. I see my escort now. If he takes care of me half as well as you have, I’ll be quite fine.”
The frontier had altered radically in the two years since she had last seen Sage; apparently, he was unaffected. He wore the same buckskin shirt covering shoulders wide enough to block the horizon. His hefty arms cradled his old rifle and two Colt revolvers filled the holsters hanging low on his narrow hips. Buckskin covered his muscular, saddle-honed thighs. Knee-high boots with an enormous hunting knife strapped to his right calf completed the outfit. With an expression that could sour milk, he watched the scruffy men pulling a cannon down the ramp from the boxcar. Aislynn closed her eyes and took a deep breath. He’s all you’ve got, she told herself. You have to make the best of it.
Quick to feel her gaze, Sage flashed his gray eyes to hers. He nodded and made his way through the bustle. Reaching her, he removed his hat and bowed his head. Aislynn, standing on the platform with a carpetbag in her hands, bobbed a quick curtsy. He scanned her and grinned. “You’re lookin’ good, not so scrawny.” His words rolled out in a slow, rumbling bass.
“And you, sir, haven’t changed a bit,” she said, with a dismissive shake of her head. His sandy hair still hung down to his shoulders. His bushy beard and long, thick moustache remained rooted on his face. A hint of bay rum reached her nose. She thought, At least he bathed. The conductor surveyed Sage’s guns and looked at Aislynn with fear in his eyes. She smiled and said, “He’s not as bad as he looks.” They said their goodbyes as Sage frowned over them.
“Friend of yours?” he asked with a critical tone.
“He’s a very sweet man, and so are you when you come out from under your arsenal. Are you trying to scare me?”
“That’d take more than three guns,” he stated without a grin. “I booked you a room at the Ford House. Let’s get you settled and a bite to eat.” Sage stuffed one bag under his arm and lifted the other two by their handles with his huge paw. He leaned his rifle on his right shoulder and told Aislynn to “grab hold.” As they started to proceed, the scruffy men dragged the cannon into their path. Sage shot them an angry look.
“Are we at war?” Aislynn asked.
“They’re fixin’ to start one.”
“Sioux and Cheyenne.”
“I thought that war was over.”
“For them men, as long as there’s Injuns, there’s cause for war.”
Aislynn sighed and said, “Pity.”
“It ain’t your business.” He cocked his head toward the street and added, “Let’s go.”
Just as their path cleared, the argument between the two women developed into a violent fistfight. “Stop them!” Aislynn cried.
“Ain’t my jurisdiction. I’m a deputy federal marshal. Right now, they’re the sheriff’s job. When they kill each other, it’s my job.”
He pulled her along through the depot. The street was perfect pandemonium. Dozens of freight wagons teamed with dozens of horses, mules or oxen jockeyed for positions. Ruts carved in the thick mud corrugated the road. Puddles and piles dropped by the draft animals fouled the way and the air. Rotting, fly-covered garbage increased the stench. Pieces of wire, bottles and trash impeded their path. Long boards, laid as a bridge across the mucky moat, were nearly submerged in the mire. Sage barked over the din of shouting men and braying animals. “You’ll have to lift your skirt.” Aislynn bundled her carpetbag beneath her arm and gathered her dress in her hand. She grasped Sage’s arm with her free hand. Together they navigated the perilous roadway.
They stepped up on the boardwalk into a knot of men loitering in front of a saloon. The men stopped speaking when they spied Aislynn’s ankles. Flushed with embarrassment, she dropped her skirt and
defensively smoothed the wrinkles. Sage’s eyes burned over the men. They doffed their hats, bowed their heads and cleared a passage.
Aislynn stayed tethered to Sage as they negotiated the boardwalk along Eddy Street. The heart of the town seemed to be packed in a six-square-block area north of the station. With a few glances, Aislynn could see Cheyenne still held the rawness of a town recently raised from the dust. Despite its young age, the town wore a weary face. Frigid winters, blazing summers and abrasive winds can scar even the best of man’s efforts. A scattering of two-storied stone buildings stood among false-fronted, frame structures tilting and sagging under peeling paint. Farther down the side streets, small homes dotted the way until the settlement faded into the endless prairie.
Sage and Aislynn shared the street with businessmen dressed in baggy sackcloth suits, roughs wearing tall hats and low hanging guns and dusty cowboys in chaps and spurs. The first women they encountered wore bright frills, store-bought faces and unnaturally colored hair. Aislynn wanted to peer into the windows and faces, but matching Sage’s long strides took all her effort.
A few blocks on, they stepped into the dimly lit hotel lobby. Feelings of sadness and regret caught in Aislynn’s throat. Peeking into the dining room, she could almost see Johnny sitting at the table they had occupied a mere two years ago. Through her reverie, she heard Sage’s voice. “This here’s Mrs. Maher.” Aislynn turned toward the reception desk.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Maher. I’m Barney Ford. I own this place. I have reserved my best room for you. I’ll get my wife to take you upstairs.” Ford turned and called into the kitchen, “Julia, Mrs. Maher is here.”
A small, dark-skinned woman emerged and introduced herself. “You must be wantin’ to freshen up. You come with me, and I’ll get you settled.”
Aislynn turned to Sage. He handed her a bag and gave the other two to Mrs. Ford. “Go on. I’ll be waitin’ in the dinin’ room.”
She listened to Mrs. Ford as they climbed the stairs to the second floor. “You’re way back here. We think it’s the best bed, and it’s the quietest room.”
“I’m sure it will be fine.”
“So you’re here to visit with Mr. Sage? Can’t say he’s ever had a visitor before.” Mrs. Ford dropped the bags to unlock the door. “Here you go.” She opened the door and waved Aislynn inside. “I left the window
closed to keep out any dust and noise. I put fresh water in the ewer and there’s a new bar of soap. If you get cold, you’ll find an extra blanket on the chair.”
“You’re very kind to have gone to such trouble.”
“It ain’t trouble. No, not for you; you’re Mr. Sage’s friend.” She winked and placed the valises on the floor.
“Thank you.” Aislynn put her carpetbags down and waited for Julia to leave.
“How is it you know Mr. Sage?”
Aislynn sensed Mrs. Ford suspected a romantic relationship between her and Sage. She searched for a way to quash her misconception immediately. “My dear husband, Johnny, and I met Mr. Sage when we passed through Cheyenne on our trip from New York City to the Utah Territory. In fact, we stayed here at your hotel. Mr. Sage helped us a great deal. He is simply a good friend.”
Mrs. Ford studied Aislynn for a moment. “Of course.” Doubt dripped from her tone. “If you need anything, just let us know,” she offered as she left the room.
Aislynn assessed the spartan room. Blue stripes and red roses faded on the walls. The scrolled iron bed wore a quilt stitched from remnants of calico. Between the dirt-streaked windows, a whitewashed vanity table supported a mirror spotted with silver rot. A washbasin and pitcher sat on the vanity and a chamber pot hid under the bed. Aislynn fell on the hard mattress. Running her hands over the coverlet, she wondered about its cleanliness. Aislynn sighed and reminded herself the room came cheap. In her current circumstances, she had to conserve her money.
Lying there, Aislynn could see the sky through the dingy window. She studied the unbroken blue until tears blurred her sight. Closing her eyes, she prayed, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Aislynn paused at the dining room door. Back in April 1868, she and her fiancé, Johnny, had arrived in Cheyenne, the terminus of the transcontinental railroad. They were hungry and tired. They found the Ford House and checked in. Here, in this dining room, they got their first real view of the Wild West. Seated at a corner table, four hard-looking men drank and gambled. Menacing six-shooters rested at each man’s fingertips. The gambler in her view possessed pale eyes, frozen in a permanent squint. A huge moustache and bushy beard clung to his face.
His long blond hair hung down to his shoulders. His hands were large and strong with veins protruding through the dark, weathered skin. He held cards in one hand, while the fingers on his other twitched against the table. Aislynn thought him alarming and terrifying until he became her friend.
She sat on the edge of the stiff chair across the table from Sage. As always, his threatening Colts rested on the table between his ever-ready hand and a glass of whiskey. Scanning the room, Aislynn did not see anything new. The porch roof shaded the windows facing the street, making the room gloomy despite the fair afternoon. All five of the empty tables scattered around the space sat under unlit kerosene lamps. The only bright spot was their corner table, dressed in a white cloth and glowing under the orange light of the burning lamp.
He greeted her with, “You hungry?”
“A sandwich and a cup of coffee would be lovely.” Aislynn tried to present a buoyant, positive attitude.
“Julia,” Sage called without leaving his seat. Julia immediately burst into the room and took the order, leading Aislynn to assume she had been waiting and listening behind the kitchen door.
Sage silently sipped his drink, studying Aislynn. His scrutiny made her uncomfortable. “Well, Cheyenne has become quite a town,” she said without conviction.
He shrugged. “We got all the makin’s of a town: stores, restaurants, a school, churches, even a museum.”
His description brightened Aislynn’s expectations. “How wonderful. I am tired of life confined to a mining camp. For a full two years, I barely left Treasure Mountain. I simply went from my home to my restaurant. I found no polite society or amusement.”
Leaning over the table, Sage’s eyes met hers. “Cheyenne ain’t all that polite or amusin’.”
Sage shook his head. “You just said you’ve been west for two full years.” His tone indicated his statement answered her question.
Frustrated, Aislynn pushed on. “So?”
“Most men here ain’t no different than the ones in your camp. They’re varmints seekin’ fortune and pleasure and don’t want to abide by no rules. It’s still a place favorin’ the strong and the violent.”
Aislynn listened with growing unease.
“Them fellows just do what they want no matter who gets stomped on. We’re tryin’ to make a town,” he continued, “a place with laws and rules, a place where a man who breaks them laws faces judgment.” Sage shook his head. “Right now the law ain’t big enough.”
Aislynn sank back in her chair, her stature and hopes shrinking.
“We got a full measure of drinkin’, gamblin’ and whorin’ men. There’s shootin’s every night and sometimes durin’ the day. Now, we got that nuisance, the Bighorn Expedition. You seen them men with the cannon? Ne’er-do-wells of every stripe. Four hundred of them are here, Injun haters all and more comin’ every day.”
“Why are they coming here?”
Sage steamed on, “They’re a bunch of miners, ex-soldiers and speculators. They know there’s gold in the Black Hills, Red Cloud’s Black Hills. While they’re spendin’ money and makin’ businessmen rich and happy, they’re also skirmishin’ with any braves they come across. They’re draggin’ us back into the bad old days. Last week, Injuns attacked two families settled just north of here, killed everyone, even the children.” Sage took a breath. “And soon, the cattle drives will hit town. All hell’s gonna break loose with them dry, lonely cowboys carousin’.”
Julia appeared with Aislynn’s meal. Bending over her sandwich, Aislynn weighed Sage’s news while she watched him from under her lashes. One hand held his drink while the other beat a nervous tattoo next to his guns. Sage’s gray eyes scanned the room. She remembered his heightened senses: his eyes were like spyglasses, his ears could hear a spider crawling on the wall and his nose rivaled any dog’s. But his hands cemented his reputation. Those browned, lined, blue-veined hands wielded knives and guns fast and accurately. Aislynn knew he was a man to be feared, but he was also a man she could trust. She did not doubt his assessment of Cheyenne. But, Aislynn was searching for a place to make a home. As bad as Cheyenne might be, it made no difference; she had nowhere else to go.
“Is there any hope?” Aislynn asked, thinking more of herself than Cheyenne.
Sage’s eyes returned to hers. “Well, we got laws and courts.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“They ain’t workin’.”
Aislynn’s aggravation and fear expanded. “Can’t someone fix them?”
Aislynn took a sip of coffee and quieted her eagerness. She knew the information would come, but Sage required patience.
“The federal government is replacin’ our U.S. marshal. In two days, there’s a hearin’ to decide who gets it.”
“You?” Aislynn brightened.
“That’s the idea.”
“How wonderful for you.” And for me.
“Me and Justice Howe got an idea how to turn things around.”
Curious, Aislynn rested her elbows on the table and cradled her chin in her hands. “Tell me.”
“Women,” he stated and drew on his whiskey.
Again, she waited for an explanation.
He relaxed back in his chair, keeping his hands on the table. “The problem is we arrest them outlaws and bring them to court, but nothin’ happens. Lawyers are drunk and more shiftless than the criminals. Justice Howe already sent two of them lawyers to jail for thirty days. The jurors have no respect for the law. They don’t want to convict men for the same crimes they’re committin’.” Both of Sage’s hands began tapping the table. “When it’s murder, the jury says, ‘One man’s dead, why kill another?’ That’s why we need women.”
Aislynn cocked her head and wrinkled her nose; expressing her bewilderment plainly on her face.
“Women.” He repeated the word and lifted his hand in emphasis. “Justice Howe says, ‘Women are a civilizin’ influence.’ Him and Justice Kingman got Governor Campbell to sign a law lettin’ women vote. That law even lets them hold a government office. In Wyoming, married women get to own their own property.” Sage nodded with conviction, his pride showing. “We even got a law that says women teachers get paid like men. It’s called nondiscrimination. We got ourselves three women teachers in Cheyenne.”
“How revolutionary.” Aislynn’s excitement rose.
“Most important, they can sit on juries. Governor Campbell says, ‘Women will conquer the Wild West.’ We just gotta get them here. We’re thinkin’ givin’ them rights will help.”
“Having more rights appeals to me.”
Sage’s brows rose. “You a suffragette?”
Jerking her chin at him, she said, “Proud of it. I even voted in a camp election.”
“But you ain’t 21.”
Aislynn thought for a moment and grinned. “Prove it.”
Sage chuckled. “Got me there.” His demeanor altered, replaced with an accusatory tone. “A handful of rights ain’t why you’re here.”
“No, but they’re another reason to stay.”