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The Searching Hearts
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- Mass Market $19.99 $24.99 CAD
- ebook $6.99 $8.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 1, 1997. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Tucker Houston stood in the drifting dust and listened to the jingle of the harness and the soft, cajoling voice of the teamster as he hitched fresh horses to the stage that had just deposited her here. Despite her present worries, the sounds brought back memories of her childhood. The weekly arrival of the stage in Fort Smith, Arkansas, had been an exciting event for the dozen or more children who lived on the farm, the "throwaway farm" as it was usually called.
Tucker reached out a hand and tugged on the calico bonnet tied beneath the chin of the girl standing beside her, tilting it forward so the fair young skin was shaded. Laura Foster stood patiently with her hand on Tucker's shoulder. Anything Tucker did, any decision Tucker made was all right with her. It always had been, ever since the day Tucker had found her clinging to the gate of the throwaway farm, too frightened to move, with tears rolling from her sightless eyes.
After a week of travel, the town of Fort Worth, Texas, had come as a surprise to Tucker. It was just there, rising abruptly out of the flat land. It was larger than she had expected it to be, considering its newness. The stage to Yuma started here, and the town had grown by leaps and bounds. Shops lined the rutted track: blacksmiths, wagon repair shops, mercantile stores, and saloons. All seemed to be doing a thriving business. A man on the stage had said there was even talk of making Fort Worth the county seat.
The departing driver climbed back onto the seat of the stagecoach, ignoring the girls because they were no longer his responsibility, and waved to the man standing beside the tired team of sweating horses.
Tucker half closed her dust-rimmed eyes against the brilliant glare of the surrounding sunlit plains that now looked so desolate and awesomely lonely. The sound of the stage was soon lost to her, but she could still see it snaking its way over the flat land. Perspiration oozed from every pore in her skin. She knew it was hot, but not that hot. She was sweating from fear! Fear of the unknown Lucas Steele and what he would say and do when he discovered she was just a nineteen-year-old girl—with very little in the way of education to recommend her as a teacher and with a totally blind seventeen-year-old girl in tow.
"Why are we standing here, Tucker? Why are you so quiet?"
"I was waiting for the dust to clear. I don't see anyone who looks like he's expecting us. Pick up your valise and let's get in out of the sun."
Tucker led Laura into the shade of a brush arbor that fronted the stage station, if it could be called a station. It was a long building with a dirt floor and a network of pole corrals behind it.
"Phew! It's hot. Take off your bonnet, Laura, and fan yourself with it."
"Is this a very big place? Tell me about it, Tucker. Do you see the wagon train?"
"It's not as big as Fort Smith, and it's rough and new-looking, and it's just squatting right out here on the prairie," she explained. "I don't see any sign of a wagon train, but there's an awful lot of men around, and some of them are giving us the eye," she added crossly.
Laura giggled behind her bonnet. Her unshakable faith that Tucker would take care of them never allowed her a moment of worry. Tucker had been her friend and protector from the time she was a scared six-year-old and Tucker a mature eight. When she was left at the gate of the farm, she had been blind for only a short while and could remember what many things looked like. Tucker had taken complete charge of her and immediately started teaching her how to take care of herself. Having Laura to care for had given new meaning to Tucker's young life.
Tucker had no memories of her childhood before the farm, but she knew there had been a time when she was loved. It would be lovely if she knew what her name had been in those days. She had been found beside a burning prairie schooner that had been attacked by renegade Comanches, according to the cattle-driving outfit that had chased them off. A young cowhand had offered to "tuck 'er" into his coat and, after being tucked into first one coat and then another, she was given the unlikely name of Tucker by the time they reached the farm. The overseer at the orphanage had been an admirer of Sam Houston and had added Houston to complete her name.
When Tucker left the farm at age sixteen to work for Mrs. Rogers in her dressmaking establishment, she took Laura with her. The farm had a new manager by that time, and, from the way he watched Laura, Tucker knew he intended to put her to work—flat on her back, servicing him and anyone else who had the price. That would never happen to Laura as long as she, Tucker, could prevent it.
She looked at Laura now as they stood beneath the shady, yet breezeless, bower. Laura was so pretty, so sweet and cheerful, despite her blindness. She was eager to learn and could do many things sighted people could do. She could even make better biscuits than Tucker could. She did their washing and kept their room in order, and she could stitch in a hem after Tucker had pinned it for her. And . . . she was pleasant company. If Lucas Steele didn't want Laura, he could darn well send them both back.
A June bug buzzed around under the brush arbor. Tucker brushed it away before she pushed a tendril of hair from her damp forehead. It was curly hair of a remarkable copper color, and it was often inclined to be unruly. She was resigned to its contrariness in much the same way she was resigned to her orphan status in life. Her skin tones were pale and fine, and she had learned to protect herself from burning by wearing a bonnet when in the hot sun. The unbrushed tangles of her coppery hair now hung about her face, thick and cloudy and glistening in the sunlight, accentuating her green eyes, deepening them to brilliant emeralds.
Her face was beautiful. Most men stared at it, as well as at her long, supple swaying body, with riveted attention. Once that had unnerved her, but her attitude had changed, leaving her with a residue of ready hostility toward a certain sort of man.
"I'm nervous, Laura," she admitted.
"Don't be nervous. Mr. Steele will like you. You can be awfully nice when you put your mind to it." Laura's face brightened and dimples appeared in her cheeks. She was a small, softly rounded girl with lovely white skin, rosy cheeks, straight dark brows and curling eyelashes. Her hair was the color of light honey and she wore it tied at the nape of her neck with a colorful ribbon.
"A man on a black horse is coming toward us," Tucker said softly. "Put on your bonnet, Laura, and face your left. We might be about to meet our Mr. Lucas Steele."
He was a big, lean, broad-shouldered man with a ruggedly handsome face. He wore a black hat pulled low over his forehead. He sat easily in the saddle and studied them carefully as he approached. He rode up to within a few feet of the arbor and sat looking at them. He stared at them for so long that his level gaze took in the faint but unmistakable hostility in Tucker's expression. His eyes were of a gray so light as to be almost colorless at times; but as he moved his head and the sunlight glinted on them, Tucker saw them take on a startling blue gleam. His hair was blue-black, thick and smooth, and dark sideburns framed a cleanly shaven face. His nose had a classical line, straight and faintly arrogant. Tucker's eyes did not linger on his mouth, nor on the deep creases on both sides of it. She did not like the faint, amused smile it wore as he watched her.
"Who are you?" he asked as he threw a leg over the saddle horn and continued his lazy inspection of them.
Tucker regarded him coolly. "Who are you?" was her response.
Taking his time in an infuriating way, he ran his narrowed eyes over her face, down her slender figure in the dark cotton dress, and back up to the flame-colored hair that framed her forehead and cheekbones. Tucker stiffened as his eyes roamed. When they came back to her flushed face, there was amusement in them, and she wanted to snap at him, ask him what was so all-fired funny. Instead, she did what she had done in similar circumstances. She controlled her temper, took a deep breath, and eyed him in exactly the same way he had eyed her. In most cases it embarrassed even the most blatant of men. This time, however, it didn't work.
"Handsome, don't you think?" The gray eyes mocked her.
She stared at him without a hint of amusement. "I've seen better sights riding behind a team of mules."
He grinned. "She's just got to be Tucker Houston, the schoolteacher." He spoke as if he was thinking aloud; his voice was smooth. He watched her all the time as though trying to gauge some reaction to what he was saying. "If she's such a sour old maid, I wonder what curdled her sweetness."
"You can wonder till the cows fly!" Her temper crept up as she spoke, clouding her reason.
"You're waspy." He gave her a wicked, teasing smile. "And after all the trouble I'm going to to get you to California. You just might find yourself a husband out there, if you're lucky. 'Course you'll have to sweeten up some." He slid from the saddle and came toward Laura. "Lucas Steele, young lady. Are you as waspy as your sister?" He held out his hand, and when Laura simply smiled up into his face, Tucker's heart stood still. "Come on, shake hands. I'll not bite."
Laura put out her hand. "I wasn't sure, Mr. Steele." Her small laugh was open and friendly. "Tucker isn't waspy when you get to know her."
"I'll have to work on getting to know her then, Miss Laura, but in the meantime I'll get a buckboard to take you to the camp. We're about a mile away. We'll be heading out in the morning, so if there's anything you need, you better get it now."
"There's nothing we need," Tucker said in a tight voice. "Mr. O'Donnell gave us a list, and we outfitted ourselves before we left Fort Smith."
"Got stout shoes?" His face altered slightly. "You'll be doing some walking."
"Of course." Not for anything would she let this man know that they had less than five dollars and couldn't buy anything even if they needed it.
"Of course," he echoed. "Well, sit tight. I'll be back." He looked at Tucker and grinned. "Bet you can hardly wait."
Tucker kept her lips pressed firmly together and glared at his back as he left them.
"What did he look like, Tucker?" Laura whispered.
"Well . . . he had two arms and two legs . . . and I suspect two horns under his hat!" Tucker's face was still burning from the way he had looked at her. "I've seen his kind before. A blowhard, that's what he is. I don't like him!"
"I thought he sounded . . . nice."
"Nice? He sounded to me like he thought an awful lot of himself."
Laura giggled. "Hold onto your temper, Tucker. Wait till we get started to California before you explode. Besides, I think he was just teasing you."
Tucker swung her bright head around so she could see Laura's flushed cheeks. Seldom did she see her when she wasn't calm and cool. She was excited now. Tucker reached for her hand and squeezed it. Come to think about it, she reflected, I'm all aflutter myself.
A flatbed wagon driven by a Mexican came rumbling around the corner.
"Here comes the wagon. Lucas Steele, too, darn it! Look down, Laura, like you're real bashful." Tucker picked up her valise.
Lucas dismounted and let the hanging reins ground-tie his horse. "I'll take that, Red." He took the valise from Tucker's hand and bent to scoop up Laura's. He set the bags up on the wagon and lifted their trunk, set it on the tailgate, and gave it a shove.
Tucker moved with Laura to the end of a wagon.
"Here you go, little gal." Lucas seized Laura by the waist and swung her up onto the end of the wagon. He then moved so fast Tucker had no time to protest. Hard hands gripped her waist, and effortlessly he lifted her. Automatically her hands went to his shoulders when her feet left the ground. He held her there for a moment and looked deeply into angry green eyes before he sat her down on the end of the wagon beside Laura.
"Don't expect that kind of service all the time, Red. From now on, you're on your own. Everyone on this train will pull his own weight. That means you, too, Laura."
It was Laura's giggle that caused Tucker's temper to snap.
"I didn't ask for your help. From now on you can keep your hands to yourself." And as usual, once her tongue started, she didn't know when to stop it. "And my name is Miss Houston."
"Miss Houston? O'Donnell said you were a widow." Sharp eyes searched the face that was now flooding with color.
"I am!" Tucker's defenses were not what they should be. She was tired, and his infuriating presence was too distracting.
"Liar!" His grin more than the word infuriated her. "See you at camp, Red. You, too, Laura." He wheeled the horse and was gone.
"He wasn't mad, Tucker," Laura said as soon as the wagon was in motion. "He just likes to tease you." Laura's keen perceptiveness was always a surprise to Tucker.
"He's crazy as a bedbug if he thinks I'm going to be his amusement all the way to California!" She was shivering with suppressed agitation.
"Then don't rise to his baiting, Tucky."
"It's hard not to, darn it. It's just our luck that Lucas Steel would be that kind of man."
Laura's laugh was a little shaky. "Don't worry, Tucky. We'll be all right."
The sun was sinking and the sky was hazed over. A wind kicked up a sudden gust that flapped the brims of their bonnets. For as long as she could see them, Tucker kept her eyes on the sparse buildings that made up the town. The driver cracked the whip and the wagon picked up speed, stirring up a cloud of dust. They rounded a curve in the trail and left the town behind them.
Events of the last few weeks had crowded in on Tucker so fast she found it hard to believe that she and Laura were actually sitting here on this buckboard that was carrying them out to the wagon train bound for California. Of course, none of this would have happened if she hadn't pricked one of Mrs. Rogers's richest customers with a pin when the woman had angrily slapped her hand away from the sleeve she was working on, or if she hadn't hit Mrs. Rogers's husband across the face when she caught him peeking into the room while Laura was undressing.
It had taken being fired from her job to jar her out of the dull life she was leading as Mrs. Rogers's seamstress. The dresses she made were always for someone who needed them in a hurry and didn't care a whit if she sat up all night sewing by the light of the kerosene lamp. She hated the job, but it paid the money she and Laura needed to live on.
Their savings were almost gone, and Tucker was beginning to get panicky when she saw the advertisement in the newspaper.
Women of good moral character to travel to California. Hardworking men are seeking wives. Teacher also wanted. Apply Logan Hotel on Tuesday.
Almost desperate because she had looked so long in vain for work, Tucker read the advertisement to Laura. The two girls talked long into the night about the possibility of going to California. The idea of accepting transportation on the premise that they would marry unknown men at the end of the journey—no matter how hardworking they were—was simply out of the question. Yet their circumstances in Fort Smith were grim. Laura, with her unfailing confidence in Tucker, insisted that Tucker could teach school. Hadn't she taught all the younger children at the farm after she had been allowed to go to school? Hadn't the teacher said that Tucker was the best student she had ever taught? After long, whispered discussions it was decided that Tucker would apply for the teaching job and, if she was hired, would insist on taking her younger sister with her. They would conceal Laura's blindness for as long as possible in the hope that, when it was discovered, it would make no difference.
Later Tucker relayed every word of the interview to Laura.
Mr. O'Donnell turned out to be a lawyer hired to recruit the women. He stood in the airless room at the hotel and talked in quick, jerky sentences, as if hurrying to get the interviews over with.
"I have been commissioned to select six ladies from Fort Smith to travel to Coopertown, California. The town was established fifteen years ago in eighteen forty-three and is located in a green valley where warm sunshine and gentle rains raise crops beyond your imagination. There are twenty unmarried men in this valley who live in comfortable cabins, some with artesian wells and established grape arbors. They want wives and have raised the money to bring them to California."
"You mean . . . six of us can choose from twenty? I like them odds. I'll go!"
Tucker looked around to see who was speaking. It was a plump girl with hair on her upper lip.
"There will be twenty women, plus a teacher, making this trip. Only six from Fort Smith, the rest from Texas. Mr. Cooper, the man who founded the town, thought it best to provide women from different areas, since not all the men are Texans. The train will form in Fort Worth, Texas, and be led by Mr. Lucas Steele. He will be in complete charge, and should he not be pleased with any one of you he will pay your fare back to Fort Smith." The man was nervous, sweating, and he mopped his brow with a handkerchief. "Now I'd like to speak with each of you privately." He motioned to the woman in the first chair, and she followed him into another room.
Tucker was almost the last woman to be interviewed. She walked into the room on shaking legs. The man looked harassed; the interviews before had obviously been trying. She sympathized with him. She wouldn't have picked any of the women except the one with the small boy, and she looked too frail to withstand the journey.
"I'm applying for the teaching job," Tucker announced before she sat down.
The man looked surprised. "Mr. Cooper hoped for an older, experienced teacher, but he did say that if one couldn't be found who was willing to make the journey, a female of marriageable age would do."
It was pure desperation that caused Tucker to say she was a twenty-four-year-old widow and had taught school. That wasn't such a big lie, except that she was really only nineteen. But she had taught the younger children at the farm. The man laid down his pencil and gave her his rapt attention, and from there on she lied brazenly.
She had gone to school until she was sixteen, she told him, and after that she had taught for two years until her marriage. Now that her husband was dead, she wanted to leave Arkansas and all her sad memories. No, she assured him, she didn't fear the long trip to California. And yes, she was a strong, healthy woman. The lawyer looked doubtfully at her slender frame, and she was tempted to flex her muscles for him.
"Perhaps I should make something clear at this point, Mr. O'Donnell. I have a young sister and I will not leave her behind." Tucker held her breath while she waited for his answer.
"Is she a stout, healthy child?"
"She isn't a child. She's . . . fourteen." Tucker hoped her small laugh wasn't too forced as she lied about Laura's age.
"Give her a year or two and she'll be of marrying age," he said tiredly. "I don't see any problem in taking along a girl of that age. And frankly, you are the only applicant I've had for the teaching job. Not many teachers want to cut loose and travel to a new, raw land. If you want the job, it's yours. No doubt you'll be the prettiest woman on the train and will have no trouble at all getting another husband when you get to California." His eyes were smiling.
Tucker tried not to let her elation show. "I'm not interested in remarrying at this time in my life. I only want a job so I can support myself and my sister."
He pulled at the mustache that curled down on either side of his mouth. "I wish it was as simple to select the other women as it was to select the teacher. There are but two here I'd even consider sending to Coopertown," he told her confidentially. "I'll have to wire Lucas Steele to find the others elsewhere." He stood and held out his hand. "I'll be in touch with you, Mrs. Houston. You and your sister will leave on the Friday stage if you can be ready by that time."
"We'll be ready." Tucker shook his hand, then walked out of the hotel, dazed that it had been so easy.
The camp stood out clearly against the skyline. It looked small out there on the prairie, the wagons scattered around a spreading oak. Tucker suddenly remembered to describe it to Laura.
"We're almost there, Laura. The wagons aren't the big Conestogas, but a lighter type of covered wagon. There're a few people standing together looking this way." She groped for Laura's hand, to reassure herself as well as Laura. "Here comes Lucas Steele again! What are you giggling about, Laura Foster?"
"It's the way you say it, Tucker. I can tell you're just fit to be tied."
"Thank goodness he's only motioning for the driver to come around to the other end of the line. It'll be all right with me if we don't see him again during this whole trip."
Tucker looked at each of the women as she passed. Some answered her smile, some waved. She saw two young children clutching their mothers' hands and a boy who looked to be ten or twelve years old.
When the wagon stopped, Tucker jumped down and then helped Laura. Lucas Steele was there beside them and pulled their trunk out so he could lift it down. "Lottie," he called.
The woman who came toward them was large without being fat. She had a dark, straight-brimmed hat crushed down on her head and a black apron tied about her waist. She was plain, her face so weathered it was impossible to tell her age.
"This is Lottie, Lottie Fields," Lucas said without ceremony. "Do as she tells you and you'll make out all right. This is Tucker Houston and her sister Laura Foster."
Laura murmured, "Ma'am."
Tucker said hello in answer to the woman's nod.
Lucas let his eyes slide over them briefly before he mounted his horse. "We'll have a meeting after supper."
Tucker looked after him. He was all business now. That was the way she preferred it. She turned and found Lottie looking at the way Laura was standing so patiently, holding her valise. Tucker started talking nervously.
"What do we do first, Lottie? We're both dog-tired and hungry."
"First we ort to get this trunk up inta the wagon."
Tucker took one end of the heavy chest, Lottie the other. They lifted it up onto the wagon bed, and Lottie sprang up to tug it into a space that seemed to be reserved for it. Her eyes kept darting curious glances at Laura.
"Laura. Come to me, honey." Tucker held out her hand and Laura came toward the sound of her voice. "We'll have to tell Lottie. I can see now that it was foolish of me not to tell Mr. Steele." She put her arm across Laura's shoulders. "If we can't go to California, we'll just have to do something else. I just bet we could get laundry work at the Fort." They were brave words and she almost choked on them.
"Mr. Steele will let us go, Tucky. You worry too much." Laura's voice was soft and gentle and trusting, and Tucker wanted to cry.
- On Sale
- Oct 1, 1997
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing