Northern Nebraska, 1876
Reese Carrison reined in his horse and grimly watched the colorful, high-wheeled wagons rolling along the sun-bright horizon. Like a trail of ants, they made their way around the outskirts of Niobrara City and halted near a woodland bordering the river.
There they would camp. One night, maybe two, he guessed. The trees hid them from the townspeople’s view; lush rangeland offered unlimited grazing and valuable water for their horses. And then, as quietly as they arrived, they would leave again, their destination as mysterious as the Gypsies themselves.
Reese breathed a silent curse. He didn’t need them here. Not today. He didn’t need the problems they’d bring, problems that spawned complaints of stolen chickens, unruly children, and women begging in the streets. Niobrara City’s saloons would fill with boisterous, dark-skinned men who, in their drunkenness, hurled insults at the non-Gypsy and left a string of frustrated and angry shopkeepers in their wake.
Reese sighed. No, he didn’t want them here today. Today was special. He’d waited most of his life for this day. Today his railroad would finally link up with the prestigious Union Pacific line.
The Nebraska-Dakota Railroad grew out of his sweat and blood–and every dime he owned. Niobrara City would have been little more than a row of shanties and false-front businesses if not for him. The N & D provided area farmers and ranchers with a shipping point to Omaha markets. It provided employment for the citizens. It put Niobrara City on the map.
The little railroad was his pride and joy. He lived and breathed the N & D. It was his life. His dream. And he would celebrate its completion today.
All he lacked was a wife to share his satisfaction with and sons to someday hand his hard-won legacy down to. But that would come. Rebecca Ann had traveled all the way from St. Louis for the ceremony. She would make a fine wife. Today, he’d ask for her hand.
His mood lightened. He swept a glance toward the riverbank and the wagons spread in a wide half-circle. Already, several campfires flickered and danced.
He tugged his hat brim lower over his eyes, then nudged his pure-bred stallion forward. He’d waited too long for this day and the ceremony that would begin in a few hours time. Nothing was going to ruin it for him.
Not even a band of Gypsies.
* * *
“Come with us, Mama.” Liza arranged stacks of woven baskets in the battered cart and cast a sidelong glance at her mother. “Our pockets will fill with the Gaje’s money quickly. It will be fun.”
“Pah!” Mama twisted and spit in the weeds. “I will not breathe the same air as the stupid Gaje! I will stay right here in the camp. Far away from them.”
“Oh, Mama.” Liza shook her head in exasperation, the gold hoops in her ears swaying with the movement. Her mother’s vehemence in regard to the non-Gypsy–the Gaje–was deep-rooted and permanent. All Gypsies mocked them, but none despised them more than Mama.
Sometimes, Liza grew tired of the hatred. It had been a part of her life since the day she was born. From the time she had been old enough to comprehend the pain the Gaje inspired in Mama, Liza was forced to live with the consequences. The shame. One Gajo had been responsible, and because of him, Mama hated them all. Because of him, Gajo blood flowed in Liza’s veins. Because of him, Liza would be forever different from her people.
But the day was glorious, and the afternoon spent in town promised to be a refreshing change from their travels. Rarely did their kumpania stop to make camp halfway through the day. Liza was determined to enjoy it.
“Look.” Pointing a finger through the trees, she attempted a different approach to convince her mother to accompany them. “There is something special happening in”–she tried to remember what Hanzi, her brother, had called the place–“Niobrara City. See the train? Men and women come from everwhere. Perhaps it is something new.”
“Pah! Another of the Gaje’s expensive toys. I do not want to see it.” With Tekla, Liza’s baby sister, toddling right behind, Mama hefted a dented pot full of water to the newly kindled fire. “Hurry, Liza. The men have already left, and the children are waiting for you.”
“Mama, do not be so stubborn.”
“I am not stubborn.” She straightened and faced Liza. A shimmer of tears glazed her ebony eyes. Wounded pride cried out in her sun-weathered features. “I will not embarrass you, my daughter. Go without me.”
Embarrass her? Liza’s heart plummeted within her breast. The last basket to be loaded into the cart slipped from her grasp, and she threw her arms around her mother’s rigid shoulders. “You would never embarrass me. Never!”
“I am no better than an ugly old hag. You love me too much to admit it, but it is true.”
Liza drew away and fought the sting of her own tears. Stricken by her mother’s words, she could find none of her own to offer comfort.
Involuntarily, her gaze lifted to the faded kerchief wrapped around Mama’s head. The colorful cloth helped hide her shame, her humiliation, the judgment handed down by the Gypsy court of law, the dreaded kris.
Mama’s head was shaved, the punishment for adultery.
As if that were not enough, their wagon would always follow at the end of the line during their travels. For the rest of their lives, they would choke on the dust raised by the wagons ahead of them, and Mama would be deprived of the long braids other Gypsy women wore.
It could have been worse, Liza knew. Mama could have been banished from the tribe, but the kris had given her mercy out of respect for Nanosh, her husband.
Mama had been only fifteen, but already a young bride. A sweet-talking, handsome horse trader with hair the color of newly-minted pennies had swayed her impressionable, feminine heart. By the time Nanosh finished his dealings at the horse fair, the Gajo’s seed had been planted in Mama’s womb. Mama never saw him again.
Nine months later, Liza was born. Nanosh accepted her as his own, but his affections were rare. Through the years, two sisters and two brothers followed, but only Liza was different.
“I made a mistake, my daughter. Now, I must pay for it. I will not go into the Gaje’s world and hear them speak of my shame and my ugliness. They will only laugh at a Gypsy woman with no hair.”
“You will always be beautiful to me.” Liza looked into her mother’s face and saw her pride. Her skin had aged too soon from the toils of the weather, and her dark eyes often showed fatigue, but the loveliness from her youth had not been destroyed. Liza tenderly kissed each of her cheeks.
“Enough of this. Go.” Mama gently, firmly, set Liza aside. “Take Paprika with you. And Putzi is growing impatient.”
“Yes, Mama.” For the first time, she noticed her five-year-old brother tugging on her skirt. She smiled, tweaked his nose, and hurried back to the two-wheeled cart filled with her baskets.
She picked up the one she had dropped. Of all of them she had made, this one was the smallest. She had experimented with the design, weaving strips of bark in with the dried leaves of a yucca plant she had gathered during the kumpania’s travels.
Most likely, the Gaje with their fussy tastes would only turn their noses up. They would not think the little basket fine enough to buy. Nevertheless, Liza tossed it in with the others. She did not care what they thought. The basket was one of her favorites.
“Are you ready, Putzi?” Liza grasped the handles of the cart and turned it toward the road leading into Niobrara City.
“Yeth.” He spoke between two missing front teeth. “I been waiting and waiting.”
“I know, little one. Here. Help me push. You are so strong, do you know that?”
“Yeth.” His young shoulders squared, and he leaned into the task with all his weight. Liza pretended not to help.
She turned and found her mother stepping from their wagon, a silk kerchief of vibrant gold and crimson stripes in her hand.
“You must not forget this,” Mama said and draped the kerchief over Liza’s head.
“I do not want to wear–”
The sharpness in her mother’s voice stilled the protest on Liza’s tongue. A hint of sadness crept over Mama’s features. Her work-roughened hand cupped Liza’s cheek, and her tone softened. “You have suffered from my shame, too, my daughter. Wear it so that the Gaje men will not look at you as they did me.”
Liza’s mouth curved downward in a pout. She could not yet wear a kerchief tied with the special knot of the Gypsies. Only the married women were allowed the privilege, never appearing in public without their head covered. The unmarried braided their hair, the thick plaits hanging down to their waists, free to the day and the night.
But with the Gaje, Liza could not be so free. The kerchief would hide her hair from their curious, mocking stares, hair that glinted coppery-red in the sunlight, hair that made her forever different.
It was the one thing she inherited from her natural father. As a child, she hated it, wanting the deep blue-black color of her sisters and cousins and friends, but eventually, she grew to accept the imperfection while among her own people.
Mama had not. Mama tortured herself with the disgrace. Mama wanted to protect her from the humiliation she endured.
“Come back hungry,” Mama said, tying the kerchief beneath Liza’s chin. “Hanzi promised me a fat hen for supper.”
“He is craving a stew, I think,” Paprika piped up, her bare feet rushing across the tree-shaded ground with a twelve-year-old’s enthusiasm. She picked up Tekla, planted a loud kiss on her chubby cheek, then set her down again. “We must hurry, Liza. I want to see the big train in Niobrara City.”
“Me, too!” Putzi grunted with the effort of pushing the cart forward by himself. “Will I get to hear the whithle?”
“Yes, little one,” Liza said, laughing. “It will be very loud. Everyone will hear the whistle.”
With waves and good-byes, Liza left the camp with her brother and sister and joined a group of Gypsy women and children on the road toward town. As they walked, Paprika’s excited prattle lifted Liza’s spirits, dulled from the somber conversation with Mama.
“I will do some begging today,” Paprika decided with adult-like confidence. “So many people will be there! I could easily make a fortune.”
“Oh, Paprika.” Liza frowned, her tone showing disapproval. Begging was not her favorite thing to do. She had always secretly thought it was hardly more than glorified stealing and did little to improve the Gaje’s impression of the Gypsy. “You have plenty of money. Sit with me and help sell baskets. I will split the profits with you.”
“And what if you do not sell many?” her sister challenged. “We do not get an occasion like this often. I cannot let it pass without a little fun.” She cocked her head, her black eyes alive with mischief. “How about you, Liza? Will you tell fortunes today?”
With one hand helping Putzi push the cart, the other toyed thoughtfully with the strands of gold beads around her neck. “Maybe.”
Mama claimed she had a gift. Liza was not always sure. There was a certain skill in hand-reading, of interpreting the moles on one’s body, or divining with sticks and stones, but she was wrong as often as she was right. The Gaje were gullible, though. They would believe anything she told them if she told them what they wanted to hear.
Liza smiled to herself. Yes, the Gaje were gullible. Paprika spoke the truth. It would be easy to take their money today.
“I want to buy something special in Niobrara City,” Liza said.
“Like what?” Paprika asked, skipping slightly ahead.
“A new kerchief for Mama. Silk, of course. In the color of the brightest sunflowers. It will make her feel pretty. And maybe some perfume.”
Liza thought of the bottle she had found in an alley once. The crystal stopper had been chipped and broken, but the fragrance inside smelled wonderful, and in her weaker moments, she dabbed a little–just a little–on her wrists and the tip of her nose.
The Gaje enjoyed such frivolous pleasures, but material possessions were not important to the Gypsy. Her people needed only the basic necessities to be happy in life, yet Liza found a certain fascination with all those things that made her feel . . . like a woman.
Mama never spoke of the frills and lace and lavish dresses of the Gaje world. Paprika was yet too young to dwell on it, but sometimes Liza had a yearning for them so strong–.
It was the curse of the Gajo whose seed had given her life that made her feel that way. His lust had ruined Mama. He was responsible for making Liza different, and she would blame him forever.
“What will you buy me, Liza?” Putzi asked, working so hard to push the cart her heart swelled with love for him.
“She will buy you a big piece of coal. How about that?” Paprika answered impishly. “Or maybe a bag of broken sticks to play with.”
Putzi looked so aghast that Liza scolded Paprika for teasing him. “I will buy you anything you want, little one. But you must be good and help me sell many baskets.”
“He will not sit still long enough to sell even one,” Paprika chided. “And he will always be hungry.”
“Will not!” Highly offended, Putzi stopped pushing and took off after his older sister who suffused into giggles and more teasing. They tousled on the road, alternating between tickling and poking each other, until Liza took up the cart and began pushing it alone.
She left them to their banter and gazed at the countryside, alive and golden with fields of swaying wheat. Wisps of clouds, grayish-white like dirty cotton, dotted a vibrant blue sky. Trees fanned a light, summery wind that tugged at the hems of Liza’s skirts and flapped the ends of her kerchief. She took in a slow breath, inhaling the sweetness of freedom. Nebraska was a peaceful place, she decided. No wonder so many Gaje lived there.
An unusual-looking bridge broke into the horizon and snared Liza’s attention. She lifted a hand, shading the sun from her eyes, and in her curiosity, she took a few moments to study it.
A trestle bridge, Hanzi had told her when their wagons rolled past. The Gaje built such a thing so that the big train could cross over the canyon beyond the river. Liza had never seen one before, and she was forced to admit to a grudging fascination at its construction, a complex maze of lumber and steel that rose from the bowels of the canyon and seemed to reach for the sky.
But in the next moment, she chided herself. It was only one more expensive toy the Gaje enjoyed. She would not give it another thought.
The ground shimmied through the thin leather of her shoes, and for a few moments, she did not comprehend the reason for it. A slight frown pulling at her brows, she turned and glanced at the road behind them.
Hoofbeats pounded the packed dirt, thundering louder as a massive horse advanced steadily upon them. Its rider had the wild look of a man possessed, as though the spirits of the dead gave him chase. He charged toward them with no regard to their safety, his mighty arm upraised, his powerful fist clenched.
A scream of alarm bubbled in Liza’s throat, and the cart’s handles fell from her grasp.
“Putzi! Paprika! Get away!” she cried.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Liza feared she could not move fast enough, would not reach her little brother and sister in time to pull them from the road, and her heart froze in her breast.
The horse and rider loomed ever closer. The roar of hooves bellowed in Liza’s ears, shutting out the shrieks and curses from the other Gypsy women. An enormous coat made of buffalo hides magnified the man’s size, making him even more formidable, more frightening. A raccoon-skin hat covered his head, its furry tail swinging behind him.
“Out of my way, you fools!” he boomed, irate fury throbbing in the command.
He was nearly upon them, and by the sheer grace of God, Liza found the impetus to move. She threw herself against Putzi and Paprika and flung them to the side of the road. The horse veered slightly, missing them by mere inches. Clods of earth flew upward, hitting her in the face, the arms, the legs.
In a few horrible seconds, it was over. He was gone, galloping onward toward Niobrara City, out of their sight, oblivious to the danger or the scare he had given them.
Putzi started to cry. Liza hugged him tightly against her, comforting him, soothing his pain from the elbow he had skinned. Paprika trembled and fought tears of her own; Liza found room for her within the circle of her embrace.
The other Gypsy women hastened toward them, concern in their dark faces, but Liza stared past them, past the cart and the baskets strewn about the road, and glared in the direction the wild man had fled.
Only a Gajo would behave so abominably, so carelessly. A Gypsy would never have been as thoughtless toward innocent women and children. A Gypsy would never have provoked such fright. A Gypsy would have shown infinitely more compassion.
The Gaje. It was little wonder the Gypsy despised them.
Her lip curled in renewed disdain. More than ever, she was ashamed to have their blood coursing inside her.
* * *
“Does she always take this long?” Reese snuffed out yet another cigarette and wondered when in hell Rebecca Ann would finally come downstairs.
Amused, Bram Kaldwell, his trusted friend and Rebecca Ann’s father, peered over the top of his newspaper. A haze of smoke from the pipe clenched between his teeth curled upward and dissipated throughout the lobby of Niobrara City’s Grand River Hotel. He grunted an affirmative reply. “Her mother was always late, too. Better get used to it, Reese.”
Reese shifted restlessly. He’d spent the afternoon pleasurably enough with Bram, but after waiting almost an hour, he’d grown increasingly impatient. He had things to do, people to see. It was almost time to meet the governor, and he wanted to view the train–his train–decked out in all its glory before the christening and his dedication speech.
Maybe Bram was right. Maybe waiting was all part of it. Husbands were often left with nothing to do but wait on their wives while they readied themselves for special occasions. And though Rebecca Ann was hardly his wife, he already felt like she was. He had no doubt she would agree to his intended proposal of marriage because she, like himself, needed a spouse.
Her first husband had died unexpectedly, leaving her with a three-year-old daughter to raise. Bram claimed the death had devastated Rebecca Ann, and she had become somewhat of a recluse in St. Louis. She seemed willing enough to travel to Niobrara City, however, and Reese considered that a good sign she wanted to see him.
He leaned forward and rubbed the ache in his right knee, wrenched years ago when he’d slipped on an icy rail pulling a switch. The joint had dealt him trouble ever since, flaring up whenever it damn well felt like it. Bram claimed the ache foreshadowed a change in the weather.
Reese glanced out the hotel’s tall, velvet-draped window, and a corner of his mouth lifted. Not today. Only a light breeze stirred the daisies and goldenrods growing wild outside Niobrara City. Few clouds decorated the sky. The temperature was perfect. Not a finer day could be found to celebrate the Nebraska-Dakota Railroad.
He debated lighting another cigarette until a rustle of petticoats drew his attention. Rebecca Ann descended the stairs, slowed by the child clinging to her hand. Reese rose, unmindful of the stiffness in his knee, and watched her approach.
She seemed nervous and fragile. So very fragile. She was petite, with milky skin that glowed in all the right places. It would be easy to love her, he thought with some relief. Someday, he would. But for now, he was content to just look at her. Niobrara City rarely had a woman as beautiful as Rebecca Ann grace its streets, and he was proud to have her on his arm when he dedicated his railroad.
The little girl was a miniature portrait of her mother. A porcelain doll dressed in a confection of pink ruffles and eyelet lace, complete with matching bows in her blond ringlets. Another man’s child, but he would learn to love her, too.
“Hello, Reese,” Rebecca Ann said softly.
“Rebecca Ann.” Reese moved closer, bent and dropped a kiss to her ruby lips. Her lashes lowered, she turned away, giving Reese the vague impression he’d been far too bold in his greeting. He fought the feeling, but vowed to be more careful with her. If he were to ask for her hand, he couldn’t have her too leery of him.
“We were about ready to come up and get you, Rebecca Ann,” Bram said. “Reese was squirming in his seat. He isn’t used to sitting still for so long.”
“Really?” At her father’s subtle admonishment, she glanced at Reese. “I didn’t know you were in such a hurry.”
Irritation flickered through him before he banked it. Surely she realized how important this day was to him, to his railroad, and to the town of Niobrara City in particular. Yet her expression registered no chagrin, and he knew she didn’t realize it all.
“No harm done. We have plenty of time,” he lied and hunkered down to the little girl’s level. She stared at him with heavy-lashed blue eyes. “Hey, Margaret. You look almost as pretty as your–”
“Michelle,” Rebecca Ann said. “Margaret Michelle. She goes by both names.”
The child whined and tugged her hand from her mother’s. Reese straightened to his full height. “That’s a lot of name for a half-pint like her.”
“Michelle is the feminine form for Michael. My husband was quite pleased that his daughter bore his name. Even though he is no longer with us”–her voice quavered, but she regained her composure quickly–“I intend to keep his memory alive for her. Margaret means ‘pearl’ in Greek.”
“That so?” he murmured, having no idea what his own name meant. The futility of the conversation frayed his patience.
Bram came to his rescue. “Well, what do you say, Reese? Ready to head on out to that fancy train of yours?”
Reese shot him a grateful glance and opened his mouth to voice agreement, but a gasp from Rebecca Ann stopped him short.
“Where’s Margaret Michelle?” She darted a frantic look all around her.
“There she is.” Bram pointed toward the hotel doors.
“I’ll get her,” Reese said and sprinted in that direction. For a three-year-old, she was damned quick, and she had no fear wandering among strangers. He reached her before she left the hotel altogether and scooped her up into his arms.
“No! No!” She howled and squirmed against him. Reese tried as best he could to keep a firm grip on her.
“We’re going to have to watch her like a hawk,” Bram said grimly.
Rebecca Ann was right behind him. “Oh, put her down, Reese.”
“There are a lot of people out there, Rebecca Ann,” he said, trying to be heard over the child’s tantrum. “More than usual. I’ll hold her until we get to the train.”
“You’ll crush her dress. I spent half the morning ironing it. Please.” She pulled her daughter from him and set her down, all the while fussing and fretting, trying to smooth the wrinkles from the fabric. She appeared to be near tears.
“All right. Sure. I’m sorry. Just hold her hand, okay?” He regretted upsetting Rebecca Ann and wished he could start over with her. Pulling the hat from his head, he raked his fingers through his hair on a wave of rising frustration. He took a slow breath, replaced the hat, and vowed the rest of the day would go better.
“Are we ready?” Bram asked.
“Yeah,” Reese said. “Let’s go.”
Outside, Rebecca Ann gazed at the throng of carriages and townspeople crowding the streets.
“Where did everyone come from?” she asked, her features bewildered.
“Everywhere,” he said and knew a sense of pride that it was true. To see him and the N & D. “The Nebraska-Dakota Railroad is a positive thing for Niobrara City. This celebration has been a long time coming.” He gestured in the general direction where his train waited on the edge of town. “It’s only a few blocks. We’d best walk. We’ll never get a buggy through the crowd.”
Bram agreed, and since Margaret Michelle seemed better inclined to behave herself, they joined the throng on the boardwalk. Bram took the child under his supervision, leaving Reese and Rebecca Ann to follow them.
Reese glanced over at Rebecca Ann. He’d yet to really touch her, he thought. If she was going to be his wife, she’d better get used to the idea that he intended to touch her. Often. He took her hand and curled her fingers in the crook of his elbow.
Her fair features registered surprise at his show of possessiveness. Her initial stiffening eased, and she allowed him the privilege, though she made no effort to move any closer to him.
Reese satisfied himself with the small victory. She would warm up to him soon, and he to her. It would only take a little more time.
As they approached the Empty Saddle Saloon, George Steenson, its jovial owner, stood in the doorway, his arms crossed over his apron-covered chest. Reese knew most of the shopkeepers in Niobrara City, and George was one of the best. He took it upon himself to know his customers, and he knew the comings and goings of nearly everyone in town. The Empty Saddle was the nicest place around for a man to slake his thirst, and Reese had given him a fair share of business over the years.
“Today’s the big day, eh, Mr. Carrison?”
“Sure is, George. Going there now. Seen the train yet?”
“Yes, sir. She’s a beauty. You oughta be real proud of her.”
“I am.” Reese couldn’t help the spread of a grin. “Been busy today?”
“Yep. Governor was here for a spell earlier. So was some of them Union Pacific bigwigs. They all went on down to see the N & D. Reckon they’re waitin’ for you.”
“We’ll get there.” Reese waved and continued walking, but George called him back. Some of the joviality had left his expression.
“Silas McCrae was in, Mr. Carrison. Thought you might want to know that.”
Bram halted and turned around.
“And?” Reese narrowed an eye warily.
“Lookin’ for you, he was. Madder’n a rained-on rooster, too.”
“So what else is new?” Bram muttered.
Reese cocked his jaw and fought a stubborn sense of foreboding. The day that should have been perfect had already taken a few troublesome turns. Silas McCrae didn’t help matters any.
Instinctively, he scanned the crowd and spied a group of Gypsy women huddled on the street corner. The sunlight bounced off the brilliant hues of gold and crimson stripes, a kerchief worn by one of the women. A couple of children were with her, laughing and playing, while she arranged stacks of baskets in a two-wheeled cart.
Reese refused to let an ornery three-year-old, Silas McCrae or a bunch of Gypsy women dampen his spirits. This was his day. Nothing was going to ruin it for him.
The thought had no sooner formed in his mind when lightning flashed through the sunshine. Peals of thunder rumbled, signaling the onslaught of rain sure to fall from the wall of storm clouds hovering over Niobrara City.