ANIEL MCLAIN WRAPPED HIS ARMS ACROSS HIS
chest and fought to keep warm. He stood on the cold, damp dock and watched an ancient trunk being unloaded off the day’s only steamboat. Dark, brooding clouds reflected his mood while the boat’s whistle echoed to the far bank covered in cypress trees. His massive strength could no more help him now than he could hold back the impending storm. He was alone.
If he were a swearing man, this would be the time for a few carefully chosen words.
He’d been talked into coming to a Texas town so wild, federal troops were pulled from along the frontier to handle the riots. Law was nonexistent. The worst of men, both Northern and Southern, poured through the streets as though it were the only hole in the dike. Corruption spilled like sewage, fouling even those trying to mend the country’s cavern-wide rip. Prison corrals, not fit for pigs, held innocent men while the guilty walked free, bragging of their crimes.
Daniel shoved the old trunk, engraved with his late wife’s maiden name, into the bed of his wagon. “Hell,” he mumbled low enough he hoped Heaven wouldn’t hear. As if he didn’t have enough problems, the trunk
from May’s aunt had arrived without the old woman attached.
He had his hands full trying to stop war from breaking out. Thanks to one old maid who’d missed the only boat from Shreveport, he had no one to keep his three-year-old daughters out of harm’s way.
As rain broke free from above, Daniel closed his eyes and fought back the loneliness that shook from his very core. “Why’d you have to leave me, May?” he whispered for the hundredth time since his wife died. If she’d known how hard his life would be, would she have fought a bit longer to survive? He lived through his war injuries to come back to her. Why hadn’t she lived through childbirth?
Maybe this mess was his fault? He could have said no to his best friend’s request. He could have stayed in the small religious community near Dallas, teaching and writing papers on brotherly love. But, no, his belief in justice wouldn’t let him. There comes a time when every man has to stand and fight for what’s right, even when it’s not his battle. For if he doesn’t fight, he has to live with a slice of the guilt that comes with injustice.
This time…this place was Daniel’s stand.
He slapped the horses into action and set his jaw. Somehow, he would do what had to be done. And amid the chaos, he’d raise his daughters. Then, when his days were over, he’d hold his head high when he went to meet May again. He had no doubt there was a Heaven with her waiting, for he was living in Hell.
Karlee Whitworth fought to stretch her cramped leg amid the scratchy woolens and once-starched cottons that surrounded her like a stagnant tornado. If she’d realized her stay in the trunk would be so long, she would have removed more of the clothing before climbing inside.
“Help,” she whispered, knowing no one would hear her. “I’m trapped in here! Help!”
The swaying had stopped hours ago, so she knew she was no longer being transported. She’d recognized the rocking of the ship last night, then felt a shifting when moved to a wagon. The uneven bumpy ride had seemed endless before she’d felt the trunk lifted and set on solid ground. But where? A night and a day must have passed while she waited.
What if the baggage housing her had been set aside in some storeroom? It might be weeks before her cousin’s husband picked it up! Karlee wasn’t even sure Aunt Rosy had sent him word she was coming in Rosy’s place. The last letter he’d probably received had listed plans for the old aunt to make the trip.
Rosy and Violet, her old maid sister, had hatched up the idea of Karlee going to help the widowed husband of her first cousin and presented it to Karlee as a surprise. She was packed before the shock had time to wear off. The entire clan seemed in such a hurry to get rid of Karlee, they probably hadn’t thought of posting word of her arrival.
What if she had to wait days until someone noticed the shipment? When Reverend Daniel McLain finally opened the chest addressed to him, he’d find nothing but the bones of Karlee Whitworth, an unknown cousin-in-law, amid her wrinkled clothing.
Karlee pounded against the inside of the trunk in earnest. “Help!” she screamed knowing the fabric around her muffled her cries.
She listened, praying to hear any human sound. Riding in the trunk had seemed such a good idea in Shreveport when she’d run out of money. But now, it was more likely to fall into the category of half-baked schemes. She always had trouble telling good ideas from half-baked
schemes. In the beginning, they were twins. In the end, opposites.
something wrong with her brain. Her aunts had whispered often enough that Karlee was “perplexing, at best.” They used the phrase as though talking of an incurable illness to be tolerated. The whole town seemed to agree, for gentlemen callers were as scarce as fleas on a catfish.
Maybe her aunt hadn’t sent word of her arrival for fear the good reverend would turn her down. Announcing a “perplexing, at best” cousin-in-law might be rather like wiring ahead of a plague’s arrival.
Since her parents’ deaths when she was six, more than one relative had refused to take a turn at raising her. But the matronly aunts had taken precautions this time. They’d provided what they hoped to be enough money to make it to Jefferson, Texas, and not a dime more. No return passage. The reverend would have to take Karlee in.
But she was no charity child. She was years past grown, and she’d come to help. Surely, he’d understand and allow her to earn her keep. That is, if she ever got unpacked.
Hometown headlines flashed through Karlee’s mind, “Crazy old maid dies in box left in warehouse. No kin. No one to care.”
She pounded harder.
Her plan had seemed so simple. She’d watched the docks knowing the codes used by the workers, thanks to her father, who’d been a captain. He had explained to her that most of the workers couldn’t read, so playing cards were placed on all unaccompanied freight to indicate destination. Jefferson was known all along the waterways as the King of Spades.
Karlee had simply taken a card from the deck in her pocketbook and stuck it on the trunk already addressed
to Daniel McLain. Then she climbed inside, planning to sleep the night away and wake at her destination.
But the dockhand had slapped the latch closed when he’d loaded the trunk.
Now, she might sleep forever! Karlee pounded again, then waited, hoping, praying.
After a few seconds, something, or someone, pounded back!
She let out a cry, expecting the lid to open, but nothing happened. The tiny sliver of light between the top boards was too small to see through. She felt like a Jack-in-the-box waiting for the tune to end.
Karlee knocked again.
A rapping echoed her cry.
She tried once more with three sharp taps.
Three answered, but nothing more.
Karlee’s hopes began to fade as, again and again, the rapping came and she answered, but nothing happened. Whoever was on the other side was toying with her but allowing no freedom.
Pulling into a tight ball, she tried to look at the bright side. If she died in this box, she wouldn’t have to worry about all the wild stories she’d heard of Jefferson. Rumors were told that a man could rape and kill without even going to jail in this town called the porthole to Texas. Riverboat trash, outlaws, thieves, carpetbaggers and angry rebs populated the booming port.
Oh, well, in this coffin she didn’t have to worry about the criminals. She’d simply starve to death in her warm, dark prison.
She knocked again. She’d rather take her chances among the outlaws than die in silence.
A devil knocked back without touching the latch.
“Girls, stop knocking on the trunk,” Daniel ordered from the stove where he was trying to make pancakes.
The twins looked up at their father without the slightest hint of planning to follow such an order. They had his blond hair and their mother’s brown eyes. As soon as he returned to the cooking, they returned to knocking on the tattered old box he’d brought in.
A few minutes passed before Daniel lifted one daughter off the ground with a hand clamped over the back of her overalls. She squealed and wiggled as if on a carnival ride, but showed no fear of her only parent.
“I said…,” Dan couldn’t help but smile. “Stop knocking on your great-aunt’s trunk.”
“But, Daddy,” the child on the ground corrected. “It knocks back.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow as he lowered the other girl to the ground. “It does? Next you’ll be telling me it talks as well.”
Both girls nodded, sending their curly hair flying around their faces.
Daniel pictured May’s plump little Aunt Rosy being stuffed into the trunk and shipped. Impossible.
“Can we open it?” one twin asked as the other knocked once more on the lid.
“No,” Daniel answered. “It belongs to …”
The faint sound of a rapping froze his words.
ANIEL FLIPPED OPEN THE LATCH ON THE OLD
trunk. An explosion of fabric rocked him backward. As he sat on the floor watching, a mass of red hair pushed through the dull-colored clothing, looking more like a huge ball of yarn than a woman’s head. Daniel forced his mouth closed as the boxed creature stretched and climbed, none too gracefully, from the trunk. Her arms and legs were long and grew stronger with each movement. The clothes she wore were wrinkled and thread-bare.
Bright green eyes glanced at him a moment before the woman yelled, “Clear the decks!” at the top of her lungs. In a mad dash, she ran across the room and out the back door as if her hem were on fire.
Daniel raised to his knees and fought to keep his balance as the twins rushed toward him. He rocked his daughters in strong arms. They all three stared out into the night where she’d vanished. The low howl of the wind and the blackness beyond the door seemed to erase any hint of her passing. She could have been a mythical creature born to full life before them and disappeared just as quickly, if he believed in such things.
“Who was that, Daddy?” the twin on his right knee whispered.
“I’m not sure,” he answered honestly, feeling very much as though he’d just opened Pandora’s box. “I think it was a woman.” Of course it was a woman, he corrected mentally. He might have been a widower for years, but he hadn’t yet gone blind. “One thing I know, that wasn’t your mother’s Aunt Rosy.”
“Lock the door before she comes back, Daddy!” The other twin stretched and clutched his neck. “I’m afraid.”
“No, let’s wait and see if she returns. You’ve nothing to fear.” He only hoped he spoke the truth. Women, even normal ones, tended to make him speechless. And he had a strong feeling this one was not within shouting distance of normal.
He lowered his voice to a calming tone. “From the speed she left, she may be halfway to Shreveport by now.” He lifted the twins as he stood. “We might as well eat supper. If she’s not back by the time we finish, I’ll go outside and try to find her. It wouldn’t be right not to look after whoever, or whatever, Aunt Rosy shipped us.”
The twins dove into their pancakes with zest as Daniel poured himself a cup of coffee and watched the door. A hundred questions drifted through his mind. Answers were way outnumbered, which wasn’t all that unusual if May’s family was involved.
Quirkiness seemed the only common batter in the mix where the Whitworths were concerned. Even Aunt Rosy, who’d offered to come help, was a woman who liked to do most of the talking and
the thinking in a conversation. She not only was free with telling you what she thought, but if given a moment, she’d tell you what you should think also. Her sister, Violet, hadn’t ended a sentence in years as far as Daniel could tell. Even when she paused, she began again as soon as possible by starting
with an “and” or a “but” or her favorite, “furthermore.”
One thing he knew, whoever this woman was, she’d been sent by the aunts. But had they packed and shipped the fiery redhead to help him, or to sweep her off their doorstep? From the glance he had of her, he guessed her to be mature, mid-twenties, maybe. She didn’t seem a bad looking woman. He’d noticed no deformities. Except, of course, her hair. She seemed too thick of body to be stylish, no eighteen-inch waist, he guessed, but not fat. He’d also noticed an ample chest packed into a properly tight bodice.
Judging from the speed with which she ran, she must be healthy enough.
The woman was back, standing just inside the doorway, her dress and hair whirling in the night air.
Daniel stood slowly, forcing himself not to look at the way her clothes clung about her in the wind. “Yes, I’m Daniel McLain,” he answered in his most formal voice.
The stranger leaned her head back and shook her hair as though enjoying the wind’s combing. “Good,” she said. “I’m in the right place. That’s something at least. Sorry about the sudden exit, but sometimes, it’s a ‘clear the decks’ you know, no time to stop and chat.”
Daniel had no idea what she was talking about. Her chatter reminded him of years ago when seminary students were required to visit the insane wards. One poor man flashed to mind. Daniel prayed to God with the ill soul for an hour before the man informed Daniel that he
God and had grown tired of listening.