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Stagecoach to Liberty

By Janalyn Voigt

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Chapter One

Independence, Missouri, April 1867

Elsa Meier gripped the railing on the riverboat’s hurricane deck and stared at the city beyond the dock. Independence shone in the afternoon sun, a sprawling metropolis with wide streets plied by wagons, riders on horseback, and carriages. The waterfront bustled with activity, and the excitement she always felt in a port thrummed the air. She’d come a long way from her family’s cottage in rural Germany to land in such a place. Hopefully, fortune awaited her in America, or at least enough money to send home to help her mother and the young ones.

She sighed. Leaving had been a hard decision, but she’d made it for her family. If only Peter had taken it better, she wouldn’t have this pang in her stomach. His reaction still mystified and troubled her. She had no taste for hurting another person, and especially not someone who had expressed the tenderest of sentiments for her.

“Come along.” Alicia Peabody tugged her arm. Her words sounded impatient, but she softened them with a smile.

Alicia’s white teeth and creamy complexion were only part of her beauty. She reminded Elsa of the porcelain dolls she’d begged for as a child after seeing them displayed in a store window. That was before she’d grown old enough to realize that no amount of pleading could divert money for such a luxury from her parents’ constant struggle to fill their children’s bellies
and keep shoes on their feet.

Grateful for the distraction, Elsa picked up her valise and joined the other young women traveling with the Peabodys. Red-haired Adele Wargel, who had been her neighbor, grinned at her. “You were daydreaming.” She spoke in German.

“I suppose so,” Elsa answered in the same language.

Adele walked beside her as the small group turned toward the stairs. “Thinking of Peter?”

Elsa lowered her voice. “I can’t figure out why he thought we were promised.”

Adele laughed. “Maybe it was the way you flirted with him during that sleigh ride at Christmas.”

“Oh, that.” Elsa frowned. “I won’t deny that I admired him, but it went no further. I have no idea how he came to the wrong conclusion.”

“Truly?” Adele’s eyes danced.

Elsa arched an eyebrow. “A person might expect to remember something so important. No, Peter chose to believe what he wished. I’m only sorry he’s hurting.”

The breeze off the water whisked strands of hair into Adele’s blue eyes. She clawed them away. “From the sound of it, Peter broke his own heart. I wouldn’t worry about that one. He needs humbling, if you want my opinion.”

Ida Henkel, a tall, blonde girl who had lived across town, looked back at the head of the stairs. “What are you two gossiping about?”

Adele shrugged. “Nothing much.”

“English please, ladies!” Alicia’s voice held a miffed note. For the past month, she’d forced them to speak only English while tutoring them in the language. Elsa had the advantage. Her beloved Papa, an Englishman, had taught her from childhood to speak his native tongue. “And
you’d better keep up with the rest of us. We don’t want to make Mr. Peabody wait.”

Ida rolled her eyes and turned down the stairs behind Alicia.

Adele moved closer to Elsa. “I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t signed that contract.”

Elsa could offer no reassurances since she shared the same feeling. She pulled in a breath and mustered a reply for them both. “It’s too late for second thoughts. We’ll have to make the best of things.” She squared her shoulders and followed the others.

At the foot of the stairs, Miles Peabody waited with ill-concealed impatience. Alicia and her brother were both blond, but there the resemblance ended. Miles was elegant and handsome but lacked Alicia’s fine features.

The two differed in other ways. Even in the short time Elsa had known Miles, she’d become familiar with his peculiar habits. One in particular annoyed her. While Alicia always met her eyes when Elsa spoke to her, Miles glanced away as if neither Elsa nor anything she could say were worth his time.
Miles watched his sister approach with a smile that didn’t include Elsa or any of the other women in his charge. He picked up the twin valises at his feet and tipped his head toward the gangplank, which was thick with passengers. “Shall we?”

He had not behaved so dismissively when persuading Elsa to sign a contract to perform for miners in a gold-rush town. He and Alicia had approached after seeing her play the hurdy-gurdy and dance to draw attention to the brooms her family made. Other girls from her village had come home from entertaining the crowds in Frankfurt with their wares all sold, so she’d decided to try it. She’d been happy to help Mutter put food on the table more often but hadn’t earned enough for her own keep. Miles and Alicia offering to pay her passage to America if she signed their contract had seemed a godsend.

Elsa treaded with her newfound companions down the gangplank, wondering if she’d made a mistake in coming. Miles guided them across the street and turned aside toward the entrance of a brick building with a sign that read “The Hotel Imperial.”

Inside the lobby, Adele halted, causing Elsa to bump into her. “Are we really staying in such a grand place?” Adele whispered in an awed voice.
Elsa could understand her feeling. Dark paneling, plush carpeting, and a prism-bedecked chandelier proclaimed this hotel a fine establishment.

“Only for the night.” Alicia lowered her voice. “You’ll double up and avoid room service. Make the most of the chance to sleep in a bed, ladies. You won’t see another until we reach Salt Lake City.”


Bry stretched and pulled back the chintz curtains at her bedroom window. In the early morning, with the sky washed clean from the night rains and the river bathed in soft light, she could believe in a world where miracles happened. The new school for Indian children would do more good than harm. The town of Liberty, local settlers, and ranch would stay safe from attack. Her brother Con still lived and would return.

She rested her head on the pane and blew out a breath. “God, please watch over my brother.” Tears dampened her cheeks. The door behind her opened, and boots thumped the carpet. She straightened, but her husband must have noticed her moment of sorrow.

“Come here, you.” Nick enfolded her in his arms. He didn’t ask what troubled her, having comforted her often enough to know.

She sheltered against her husband and poured out her grief, then dried her eyes with the back of her hand. “How much longer must we wait to find out what happened to Con?”

Nick kissed the top of her head. “As long as it takes.”

She turned in her husband’s arms and lifted her face to gaze into the warmth of his eyes. “You always know how to comfort me. What would I do without you?”

A smile dented the corners of his mouth. “God willing, you won’t have to find out.” He smoothed her cheek, then lowered his head for a kiss that brought her thoroughly awake. “I love you, Mrs. Laramie.”

She laughed. “That’s best, since we’re married.”

His eyes gleamed. “I need no reminder of that.”

“I hope you don’t mind being stuck with me.” She treated him to a flirtatious glance.

He tightened his arms. “Look at me like that again, and I’ll settle your mind on the matter.”

She smiled but refrained from taking his invitation. That was not easy with passion emphasizing the dark handsomeness of her half-Cheyenne husband. “I have a thousand things to do today.”

“Shouldn’t your husband find a place at the top of that list?” He nuzzled her neck.

“Of course.” She walked her fingers up his chest. “Don’t you have a list?”

Nick captured Bry’s hand and kissed each of her fingers in turn. “Mine can wait.” He claimed her lips in a caress that left her breathless, but then released her. “I came to tell you that your brother Rob is back from Liberty.”

She smiled. “He’s remembered to tear himself away from Maisey, has he?”

Although Rob wouldn’t admit it, he was clearly smitten with Bry’s friend. Since the thaw, he had traveled to Liberty often to help build a cabin for Maisey, who taught children from the local tribes in the new Indian school.
“He’ll be in after he tends his horse. Seems like he has something on his mind. He wants to talk to you particularly.”

Bry’s forehead puckered. “What about, I wonder?”

“You’ll find out, I’m sure.” He gave her a wolfish smile. “Dress yourself, woman, and meet us downstairs.”

With Nick’s footfalls dwindling down the hallway, Bry topped her linen chemise with a soft dress made of green wool. Remembering Con’s disparaging remarks about the unflattering widow’s weeds she’d worn as a servant in Boston brought a smile to her face. He’d thereafter lavished clothing on her.

Bry’s smile vanished. After being kidnapped by the Cheyenne, she’d lost the trunk Con had bought her. She’d been forced to start over in so many ways, including her wardrobe. Almost a year later, memories still plagued her, the worst being when Con took an arrow and fell from his horse.

Pushing her thoughts away, she went downstairs and found Rob pacing in the parlor. Against walls papered in beige with a brown fleur-de-lis pattern, her brother seemed utterly masculine and, after his journey, rather unkempt. The ginger hair, so like Da’s, lifted in peaks, and red shot the whites of his blue eyes.

Nick watched Rob from one of the leather armchairs scattered throughout the room.

“It’s good to have you home, brother of mine.” Bry sank into a blue cushioned chair across a small table from her husband. “What brings you so early in the day?”

A sheepish look crossed Rob’s face. “I left Shane’s house later than planned. It seemed best to make camp before sunset instead of pushing on. I figured you wouldn’t want me barging in at midnight.”

“Very sensible.” Nick saluted him with his coffee mug. “Night travel holds too many dangers.”

“Yes, well. I almost came then anyway.” Rob ran a hand through his hair, a habit that probably explained its rumpled state. “I made a decision while on the road, and it presses my mind.”

Bry exchanged a glance with Nick. From the determined expression on Rob’s face, she could guess what he meant to do. “Oh?”

Rob plunked into the chair across from her. “It’s late enough in spring that I should make it to Fort Sedgwick.” His voice shook with eagerness.

Bry pulled in air. “I’d feel better if you waited for summer. Why go at a time of year at risk for avalanches?” What with Indian unrest, road agents, natural disasters, and predatory animals, many perils faced a lone traveler in the wilderness. Taking more chances than necessary made no
sense to her.

Rob jumped to his feet and began pacing again. “We’ve already waited too long. If I’d gone after Con sooner, I might have found him before the snow set in. I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.”

Bry put a hand to her stomach to soothe its churning. She hated that Rob was right. Please, God. Don’t let me lose two brothers.


The man called Reilly stood outside the Fitzgerald homestead as light ebbed from the sky. Why did the reluctance to enter take hold of him? He should welcome an evening spent in the company of the family that had taken him in after the accident stole his memory. Finley had felt responsible, since it was his freight wagon that threw Reilly when it overturned.

Reilly shook his head. Whatever the cause, he couldn’t deny the feeling that he belonged elsewhere.

The lighted window framed Keira, the oldest of the Fitzgerald daughters. Black-haired and lovely, she possessed blue eyes put in, as the saying went, with a sooty finger. Whatever she was talking about lit her face with excitement, but then Keira always embraced life with enthusiasm.

He should go in. At the back door, he stamped the mud from his boots and reached for the knob. The world slid away, and he stood in another location, reaching for a different doorknob. A brisk wind shook the cottonwoods behind him, and a mourning dove raised its lament above the rushing leaves. He paused and glanced around with a feeling of pride. He’d built this ranch from nothing but love for the Bitterroot Valley.

A dog barked, returning Reilly to the present. He closed his eyes and tried to bring back the memory. Hope quickened his breathing, but the wisp of memory was gone. Reilly took a moment to compose himself. He didn’t want to explain what had happened to anyone, not when he needed time to absorb it himself. His hand shook as he turned the doorknob and went inside.

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