The Slow Trail Home

Chapter 1. The Incident at Toyah Station

Toyah Station, Texas
Sunday, 23 March 1884

 

“You know we shouldn’t be here, Maddie.”

“Oh, come on, Kat. Quit being such a stick. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

Katja Black sighed. Sometimes her cousin could be extremely annoying. Make that most of the time. “My sense of adventure has nothing to do with it,” she explained. “However, the fact that your father specifically told you not to go about town by yourself has everything to do with it.”

“Stepfather. And I’m not by myself—you’re here with me!”

Kat blinked. Well, she is following the letter of the law, if not the spirit. “Nevertheless—”

Maddie interrupted her with a squeal. “Oh, look! There’s a milliner’s shop! That wasn’t here last time I came in!”

They just had to stop and look at the window display. Kat was thankful it was Sunday afternoon and the shop was closed. Otherwise she was certain Maddie would have insisted on going inside to investigate every furbelow and feather in the place.

You know, had I known just how annoying she would be, I would have put off coming to Texas for a later time, Kat thought, removing her glasses and rubbing her forehead wearily. She’d mostly enjoyed her visit, especially the time spent conversing with her cousin Warren Anderson. But Warren’s stepdaughter was . . . shallow, flighty, self‑centered, voluble. She let Maddie’s voice wash over her, ignoring most of what was said. Thank goodness I’m going home in just two days.

As they stood there, Maddie pointing out little bits of lace and ribbon on the different hats and cooing contentedly, Katja felt a peculiar prickling begin to crawl up her spine, a sense of being watched. Under the pretense of repositioning her wire‑rimmed frames, she glanced about and spotted a man leaning against a porch column of the hotel across the street, openly staring at them. He was well‑dressed—too well to be either soldier or cowboy. The top hat and brightly embroidered vest said “businessman,” but the calculating look on his scarred face screamed something else entirely. Gambler? Gunfighter? Whatever he was, his interest made her extremely uncomfortable.

What made her even more uncomfortable was the sense that she’d seen him several times over the month she’d been here in Texas. She couldn’t be certain, but she thought he’d been back in Fort Stockton as well. She wished again Maddie had not convinced her to sneak out of the hotel, otherwise Corporal Thomas would have been with them, and she doubted anyone would bother them with Major Anderson’s huge striker standing guard.

The man shifted positions and began walking purposefully toward them.

“Come on, Maddie. Let’s go.”

“Oh, all right. But—oh, pardon me!” She’d turned, almost running into the man.

He bowed slightly, lifting his hat and revealing long blond hair tied back in an unfashionable manner. Then he straightened and looked directly at Katja. “I beg your pardon for being so forward, miss, but you remind me most forcefully of an old, dear friend of mine. Might I ask the name of so lovely a young lady?”

“You just did,” she said coolly. And I’m not going to answer you any more than that.

“Katja Black, that was so incredibly rude! You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Maddie chided.

“Katja Black? I knew from the first time I saw you that you must be Robbie Black’s daughter—you look exactly like your mother.” The man’s eyes began to gleam in a most disconcerting manner. “Are your parents here with you?”

“Oh, no. They stayed in Montana,” Maddie volunteered helpfully. “She came down here by herself to visit me.”

“Good day, sir,” Katja told him, then hissed at her cousin, “Will you shut up?” She grabbed her by the arm and dragged her down the street. “Haven’t your parents ever taught you about talking to strange men?”

“But he knows your mother and father; he even said he was an old friend of your family’s!”

“Maddie, none of my da’s friends would ever dream of calling him Robbie. Therefore, this man can not be an old family friend.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know that?”

“I didn’t expect you to, but I also didn’t expect you’d start blurting out my name and the particulars of my visit to an absolute stranger in one of the worst towns in Texas. Do you ever stop to think before opening your mouth?”

Maddie pulled away and stood in the middle of the dusty street, arms crossed, pouting. “You needn’t be so mean about it, just because you’re a genius and already know everything.”

What does the level of my intelligence have to do with this? I thought I was just using common sense. “Fine. I’m sorry I snapped at you. Now, can we please get back to the hotel?” I don’t trust that man, she thought, glancing over her shoulder and seeing him still standing there, watching them far too intently. He feels . . . wrong.

 

Tuesday morning the train was late coming in, so it was nearly noon by the time she was finally seated in a rather empty first‑class car and heading east. They’d passed Pecos City but not yet reached Pyote Tank when it again ground to a halt. Katja sighed. I will be so glad to get back to Montana, she thought while staring out the partially open window at the too‑brown Texas landscape. It’s truly been an experience, but it’s not one I wish to extend any longer.

It had been a snowy Sunday afternoon in early February when there was a knock on the door of their little house on Officers’ Row. Her da had answered it but hadn’t recognized the tall, red‑haired major standing there.

“May I help you, sir?”

The major’s smile was rather self‑conscious. “I do hope so. Are you Captain Black?”

“I am.”

“And Danica Anderson is your wife?”

“Yeeess.” Da’s manner and back stiffened.

“My name is Warren Anderson. I believe Danica is my cousin.”

Over coffee and slices of one of Mama’s famous dried‑berry pies, Major Anderson explained that his father, Kit Anderson, was Mama’s uncle. Kit had been stationed in Indian Territory before the War and had fallen in love, married, and settled in what was now the Texas panhandle before disappearing from the family’s view for years.

“The last time I saw Uncle Kit was at Grandfather’s funeral,” Mama said softly. “I did wonder what had become of him.”

“Father didn’t purposefully try to hide, but after his parents died, he didn’t actively seek out our remaining relations back east,” the major said. He grew quiet for a minute, and Kat wondered what had happened between Great‑Uncle Kit and the rest of his family.

“Once the War started, it wasn’t safe for anyone with Union sympathies to remain in Texas. Since Father was not quiet about his leanings, we moved up to Colorado and stayed with friends near Bent’s Fort. As soon as I turned sixteen, I set out for Missouri and joined a Union regiment for the duration of the hostilities.” He had done well and afterward remained in the army. Currently he served as an adjutant with the cavalry at Fort Stockton, down in Texas.

“I was assigned to Fort Custer for a short time to work with your colonel. When I heard a Danica Black mentioned in passing, I was startled. I knew I had a cousin named Danica, and you must admit ’tis not a common name.”

Mama laughed. “Very true. I’ve never met anyone else with my name.”

“So I asked a few questions and discovered your maiden name, and here I am.”

“Fascinating,” Da said with a smile. “A small world, is it not?”

Over the next fortnight, Cousin Warren joined them for supper most nights. It was obvious he and Mama were related—they had the same bright hair and blue eyes and frank way of speaking. Kat even saw him call Fire to light his cigar one evening as he and Da sat talking. The two men hit it off rather well, as both had a passion for mathematics and science; Kat listened in on their conversations as often as they allowed.

“Supposedly I get my love of numbers from our grandmother Andrea,” Cousin Warren said. “From what Father has told me, she had quite the affinity for them.”

“See there, Katja? You come by it naturally from both sides of your family,” Da said.

Then, a few days before he was due to leave, Warren Anderson made an interesting suggestion. “My stepdaughter Madeline is also fifteen, only a few months younger than Katja here, and I know Maddie would love to meet her. Would you be willing to allow Katja to come to Texas with me and stay for a few weeks?”

Da looked over at her. “Well, Katja? What do you think?”

She was already perched on the edge of her seat. “Oh, may I? I would love to see Texas for myself.”

“I’ll talk it over with your mother, but if she has no reservations, I don’t see why not. You’re certainly mature enough to handle the trip.” He chuckled quietly. “You’ve not had the chance to travel much outside of Wyoming and Montana—just that one trip back east a few years back. That’s atypical for an army child. I know young Ida Alsop has lived in seven different posts in four different territories, and she’s only eight. Going down to Texas would give you a chance to see a great deal more of the West.”

Three days later her bags were packed and loaded on the stage along with the major’s luggage, ready to head to the Northern Pacific depot at Custer Station. She was wearing a new plum‑colored traveling outfit—made over from one of Mama’s old dresses—and her first real hoops and steel bustle. Kat didn’t care much for either contraption, and new clothes usually didn’t thrill her much, but when she took a quick peek in the looking glass by the front door to make sure her little hat was pinned in place properly, she had to admit that she liked what she saw. Da agreed.

“My little girl’s all grown up,” he told her fondly. “And she’s as lovely as her mother,” he added with a smile toward his wife.

Mama blushed as if they were still courting and had not been married nearly seventeen years and then hugged Kat close. “Farewell, cariad,” she said, kissing her cheek. “I hope you enjoy your visit.”

 

The visit had been enjoyable over all, and certainly very educational. So, I guess I’m glad I came, Kat allowed. However, I am even more glad to be going home.

The conductor was walking through the car reassuring its few scattered occupants. “Don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen. Just a wagon with mule problems stuck on the tracks. We should be moving again momentarily.”

Such things were not unexpected; Kat ignored the rest of his message, straightened her glasses slightly, and bent her head back over her handwork. She didn’t really enjoy sewing, not like Mama did, but it was something to keep her hands and mind busy while she waited. However, her thread kept knotting, and she didn’t have the patience to deal with it; after four weeks of nonstop Cousin Maddie, Kat’s considerable store of patience was nearly gone. Enough, she thought.

She fished in the small, hidden side pocket of her skirt for the tiny sewing scissors she always kept secreted there—one never knew when a pair of scissors would come in handy. Then she snipped the offending thread and tucked her scissors back away just as someone paused in the aisle beside her. Kat felt again that peculiar sensation of being watched and glanced up, annoyed.

“Good afternoon, Miss Black.”

It was the strange man from the milliner’s shop, smiling broadly. Ignore him and perhaps he’ll go away, she decided. Only then did she notice the gun pointed straight at her. She froze, her heart skipping several beats before she managed to get it back under control.

He gestured with the other hand. “Please, stand quietly and come with me.”

 


 

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