Seated in a first class carriage, next to a window that would not open, the woman from Rhode Island sat sweltering in the desert heat. Though New England summers were far from tame most years, and the young woman was not a stranger to oppressive heat, she found herself suffering quite severely as the train plunged further into the orange void.
A large blob of sweat fell down from her damp hair, the heavy mass of fabric that cocooned her burning body making the terrible ache in her head grow. She had given up on reading more than an hour previous, but it had only forced her to turn her eyes outward to relieve her terrible boredom. From time to time she might spot a magnificent rock structure kissing the sky in the distance. She would stare for as long as she could, and once gone, she set out in search for the next.
But staring out into the void did nothing but remind her of home. She thought of the green of her back yard, the red and purples in the garden and the live saving swimming hole in the Fleischman estate. Her parched throat turned dryer and her tongue desperately attempting to bring dampness back to her mouth.
Her head continued to throb in time with the train. The constant chug, chug, chug, brought a brand new pang of pain in her temples, the dull throb behind her eyes. It would all be worth it in the end. She never once doubted that the weeks of such horrific travel was but a small price to pay for the joy she would find on the other end of the country.
California was waiting and there, the love of her life. Expressive chocolate eyes, a warm, loving smile, and a full head of neatly combed black hair came to mind. So kind, gentle, and sure, she longed for the moment she would step off the train in California and run into his arms. He had gone away three years ago with a promise. He would go west, make a fortune that her father could not refuse, and send for her. And true to his word, he had done all three.
She was thinking of his smiling eyes, the shape of almonds, when the chugging slowed. The throbbing in her head continued on the path for so long that it was not until she heard the high pitched screeching of the train coming to a halt that she realized the chug chug chug she still heard was in her head.
She looked around toward the old grey woman two seats behind her and found her to be equally as bewildered. She knew not the distance, but she knew they were hours yet from the next station. Suddenly, the words her brother had spoken when he dropped her off at the Texas border came to mind and her heart rate quickened, her extreme discomfort momentarily forgotten.
She reached down and grabbed the carpet bag at her feet, covering the book still resting open in her lap, and clutched it with trembling hands. The chug chug chug of her brain intensified but she did not feel it. She only heard it.
"Outlaws!" a frightened woman at the back of the car whimpered, holding her children close to her breast.
"Oh, may God have mercy," the grey woman murmured, crossing herself and pulling out an ornate rosary. The young traveler looked to her carpet back, trying to unfasten the buckle with hands shaking so terribly, she could not even get a firm grip on the metal.
It was with impressive speed that the outlaws made their appearance. They heard them coming, from the back and the front, but there was no time to prepare. One man came in from the back, two from the front.
She looked down at the carpet back, her movements halted. She began her prayer. The brim of her hat fell downward, covering her sweating face from the gaze of the three criminals now in their car. She focused not on her fear, the terror or agony. She focused only on trying to keep her meager breakfast from swelling up from her stomach and spilling out onto the carpet bag clutched so tightly in her hands.
"Alrighty, now, ladies and gents," a masculine voice made its way through the car, light and amused. "Now I don't wanna hurt nobody and I aint gonna, you hear? Not as long as you do as I say. Now, would y'all be so kind as to please place your belongins on the outside of your seats right by the floor. We'll just snatch those up and be on our way."
He clapped his hands together at the front of the car and she hugged the bag closer to her. She heard the soft scramble behind her, listened as personal belongings were being placed on the floor by the different seats. She clutched the bag more tightly. They would have her items in storage. They could not have this bag.
"Ay, girlie," another man said. She flinched as a firm hand slapped her shoulder. It was a gentle touch, meant to coax, not hurt, but she let out a muffled whimper all the same. "Give it here."
She shook her head, pressing her chin to her chest.
"Ay," the man said again, this time more gruffly, and she felt hands reached for the back. Tears came to her eyes as her fear exploded but she shook her head. She pushed herself back, trying to move more deeply into the seat. The man put a hard grip on her bag and yanked, but she held firm, pulling back with more force. The grated curse "Bitch" left the man's grinding teeth as he tugged one more time.
"Hey, hey, hey," the first man to speak said. His voice was soft and still light, friendly. "Now, that ain't how we treat a lady. Let it go. Let it go, Jeb. Go on. Get those bags, get 'em."
The man's hands left her bag and she felt him move away. She kept her face down, adjusting her hold on the bag. Her muscles tightened when the brim of her hat was lifted upward, revealing her face to his gaze. Her face was down, eyes closed but she felt him lean against the back of the seat before her, knew his gaze was on her.
"My, my, you're a pretty thing," he murmured. He clicked his tongue and she felt him near her. "Now now, no need for tears. I told you, we ain't gon' hurt nobody that does what their told. Now, open those pretty eyes and look at me. It's rude.. to ignore a man when he's talkin' to you."
Her eyes opened and she looked up, lower lip trembling wildly. The man's eyes were alight with excitement, icy blue eyes brighter than anything she had ever seen before. His hair was covered with a hat, leaving a tanned, leathery face streaked with sweat and dirt beneath a wide brimmed hat.
"That's a good girl," he said, thin lips curving into a smile. "What's your name, darlin'?"
She stared at him, knuckles turning white around the leather of the carpet bag.
"You dumb, girl?" he asked, reaching out and gently unthreading the ribbon holding her hat to her head. Her eyes fluttered closed a moment as he took in her flushed face. "Hmmm?"
She shook her head, forcing her eyes open.
"You sure? You may be dumb but you are a pretty one. Come now, what's your name, pretty, dumb girl."
He reached up a calloused, sandy sand and nudged her white hat up, knocking off her head and letting it fall to the seat beside her. The heat suddenly became less oppressive and her lips parted as she sucked in a deep breath.
"Ara-arabella," she finally got out, swallowing hard, throat scratchy. His little smile widened, revealing a crooked smile of white teeth, two made of gold, an incisor and a bottom front tooth.
"Arabella. You a yankee, Miss Arabella?" he asked her, tucking a wet strand of chestnut hair behind her ear. She nodded, vocal cords rebelling. He changed his smile, giving the right side of his face an extra push.
"Now am I gon' have to take that form you, sweetheart? Or are you gon' give it to me?"
"My," she began, voice just a scratch. She cleared it and the outlaw waited patiently. "My picture… of my mama."
He looked down at the bag, head moving up and down slowly.
"Get it," he said abruptly and she struggled once more with the buckle. She tried to move quickly, but only made her trembling fingers more impossible to control. So fearful was she that if she did not move quickly enough, he would change his mind, she all but doubled the time.
Her hands were halted by his own large, calloused hands brushing hers out of the way. She looked up at him as he unfastened the buckle and an icy eye winked at her. Once finished she dug her hands inside, reaching for the bottom of the back where the picture lay, wrapped snugly in a piece of cloth. She found it and pulled it free but once she had it on the bench beside her she reached back inside. He looked at her, amused annoyance dancing across his face, swimming in those cold pools.
She retrieved the box that held the necklace she received from her mother her last day at home. He began to click his tongue again, shaking his head.
"No, no, no, darlin'. That looks mighty valuable to me and I'm gonna be takin' that with me," he scolded softly, reaching for the box.
"Please," she whispered, a tear falling down her cheek. She kept her grip firm on the box. His hand wrapped around the other end but he did not try and tear it away.
"Now, Miss Arabella, I've been a perfect gentleman, but I'm gonna get frightfully angry if you try and take advantage of my kindness. Now you let that go."
"My mama –"
"Miss Arabella," he murmured, bending down to look her more closely in the eye. Those icy depths were suddenly void of lightness, no more friendliness could be found within them. In their place was hardly concealed aggression. "I'm startin' to get angry."
She released the box and he placed it back into the bag. He buckled it and slung it to another outlaw by the strap. He leaned back, sunbaked hands on his hips, and looked her over.
"My, I don't think I've ever seen such a pretty little thing. All the way from Yankee country. How's about a little kiss, huh? A thank you?"
She shook her head, stomach in tightly wound knots.
"No? In the south, women know to say thank you to men that do 'em favors such as this."
"We are not in the south, sir," she replied, somehow managing to put a flippant bite into her voice.
"Ooooouweeee!" he tossed his back and said, followed by a little cackle. "Girl's got a little bit o' spirit after all."
He bent down close to her, eyes once more moving rapidly, taking in every aspect of her face. His eyes were once again amused, twinkling with amusement. He smelled like dirt and sweat, but it was not overwhelming nor was it oppressive. As he leaned in, the scent of whiskey was added to the mix. It all mixed into a toxically masculine mix.
Before she could realize what it was he was doing, his lips were on hers. It was forceful, hard, and the grip on her chin ended her retreat before it began. Stubble scratched her chin and the area around her mouth and he extended the kiss a second more, moving his face to intensify the feeling.
Finally, he pulled away, face still close to hers.
"Hmmm, thank you, kindly Miss Arabella, that will see me though many a lonely night."
He straightened then, tipping his hat to her.
"I do hope we might meet again, in a more… intimate environment?" he winked at her once more and her face burned, itched, and quivered. He reached for her carpet bag and slung it over his shoulder. He looked back to her and tipped his hat with a smile. "Miss Arabella."
And then he gone. The train empty. Silent, save the soft cries of the children at the back of the car, soon joined by their mother's soft attempts to sooth them.
Her husband checked on them both, kissed his children, and then moved up the length of the train. She was vaguely aware that he sat down beside her but her face was turned out at the duty window. A group of horses plunged into the desert, toward the large mountains miles and miles and miles in the distance. The sun beat down hard. Her ears were buzzing. The chug chug chug returned full force, but the train remained still.
"Miss?" he asked, southern accent coming out softly from the faceless man's lips. "Did he hurt you, miss?"
"I…" she began but fell silent. Her eyes were focused on the men as they retreated. She forced her swollen lips into a smile and turned her head. She could do nothing but give him a jerky nod of assent. She looked back to the window and with trembling hands, reached for her hat. Her hand touched the cushioned seat beside her, grey eyes turning downward. She looked at the spot beside her but only found the hat missing. She looked behind and then to her right. The man stood to reveal he had not sat on it.
She looked back to the window. Off in the distance it looked as if one rider had separated from the rest. She was positive, despite the distance, the glaring sun, and the fog of dust, that when he raised his arm to wave at the soon to be departing train, it was her hat he had waving in his hand.