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Orphaned Annie Paxton and her brothers may have lost the only home they’ve ever known, but they’re determined to make a better future in St. Joseph, Missouri. Annie dreams of a pretty house with window boxes, and having friends, and attending church every week. But then her brothers spot the ad for a new venture called the Pony Express. “Wanted,” it reads, “Young, skinny fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders and willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” Sure enough, both her brothers land jobs as Express messengers, and Annie puts her dreams on hold to work as a cook at Clearwater Ranch, a station along the Pony Express route.
Annie struggles to adapt to her new job — work made all the more challenging when she has so many to feed and few ingredients. The gruff station owner, George, doesn’t seem inclined to make her life any easier, or at least not at first. But slowly a friendship builds between them. When Annie attracts the attention of a refined, dashing lieutenant from the nearby fort, she’ll have to learn how to trust her instincts and follow her heart, even if she’s conflicted about which way it’s leading her.
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Buchanan County, Missouri
March 5, 1860
Surprised by the emotion that welled up as she prepared to leave the ramshackle cabin for the last time, nineteen-year-old Ann Elizabeth Paxton hesitated before stepping across the threshold. Slowly, she turned about for a final look; at the rustic table where they'd eaten countless meals; at the two-burner stove she'd struggled with after Ma died; at the front door on the opposite side of the room, barred shut and perhaps never to be opened again. According to Frank, even the stock hands over at Hillsdale Farms lived in better places than this. Hiram Hillsdale wanted the land. He didn't care about the cabin.
Emmet and Frank had both said their good-byes to the cabin and its contents before sunup, wolfing down grits and gulping weak coffee before hauling their trunks out back on their way to hitch the mules to the wagon. While they were gone, Annie laid her own things in the trunk that was hers now—the trunk Ma had brought to Buchanan County years ago and that still contained a faded silk gown, dance slippers, lace mitts, and a few other treasures that had been Ma's.
By the time Frank and Emmet had driven the wagon up to the back door and loaded Annie's trunk, the sun was up. Emmet said they'd wait for her outside. He patted her on the shoulder and said she should take all the time she needed. Pulling her threadbare shawl close about her thin shoulders, Annie looked about the room and summoned the memory of Ma. This morning, it wasn't the Shepherd's Psalm she remembered. This morning, as Annie looked at the pieces of the only life she'd ever known, she remembered Ma saying that even on the darkest day, when all a body wants to do is cry, if she looks hard enough, she can find a sliver of light. The tightness in her chest eased up. Taking one last look, she stepped outside.
Emmet waited beside the team, but Frank had already climbed up to the wagon seat. An unseasonably warm March breeze ruffled his shaggy auburn hair as he reached down to take Annie's hand and haul her up beside him. The minute Annie and Frank were settled, Emmet said something about taking his own last look. He went back inside.
Frank muttered, "I hope another gander finally convinces him we haven't lost much."
Annie was inclined to agree—at least when it came to the farm itself. The earth hadn't yielded much beyond weeds and poor crops for a long time now. She didn't really know why the neighbor, Mr. Hillsdale, even wanted it. Annie knew all about Hillsdale Farms, for working there from time to time had been part of Emmet and Frank's desperate attempts to save their home. Both men were good with horses. Neither could imagine Hiram Hillsdale's fine Thoroughbreds on Paxton land. Paxton land. She stifled a sigh. If only Ma hadn't died. If only Pa could have managed better. If only he hadn't become part of the trouble. If only he hadn't caused the worst of it.
Poor Pa. He never had recovered from losing the woman he called his "Tennessee belle." Oh, he'd determined time and again to "buck up" and "move on," but just when Annie and her brothers thought he might actually do it, Pa headed for town and one saloon or another. For ten years, she and her brothers had locked arms and kept things going. Somehow. But then, just two weeks ago, Pa had tried to find his way home through a late winter snowstorm—and failed. A few days after they laid him to rest beside Ma, the local banker knocked on the front door, and the three Paxton siblings learned that drinking hadn't been their father's only problem. He'd taken to gambling, too. And he always lost.
Thinking on it now while she sat beside Frank on the wagon seat and Emmet lingered inside invited a fresh wave of emotion. Oh… Pa. Annie flung another plea at heaven. Help Emmet. Please. All Emmet had ever wanted to do was farm. It had taken him several days to accept the truth delivered by the town banker. Earl Paxton had left his three children a farm with so much debt carried against it that the only thing to do was to sell it.
"That can't be right," Emmet protested. "We own the place, free and clear."
The banker shook his head. "I'm afraid not." He was sorry, but his hands were tied. Surely they could understand that under the circumstances, he simply could not give another extension. He seemed pleased with himself when he told them they were not left "without recourse." He was authorized to make an offer on behalf of their neighbor, Mr. Hiram Hillsdale. A "generous offer" the banker called it—one that would not only cancel the debt but also free Earl's adult children to "explore the world."
They would of course be able to keep things considered personal. Clothing and the like. Whatever would fit in a trunk—three trunks, since there were three of them. The team of ancient mules and the farm wagon would also be "overlooked," since they'd need transportation off the property. Mr. Hillsdale would give them a full forty-eight hours to vacate the premises once they'd accepted his offer.
Annie had never seen Emmet lose his temper, but he came close that day. His face flushed bright red. He spun about and strode to the open door of the cabin, standing there for a long while, his body fairly vibrating with emotion. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned back around. "Forty-eight hours to pack up the only life we've ever known? You can't be serious. We need more time."
The banker grimaced. "I suppose I could speak with Mr. Hillsdale—if you insist."
Frank intervened. "Don't bother." He scowled as he said, "We'll not be begging crumbs from the table of the illustrious Hiram Hillsdale." Frank put one hand on Emmet's shoulder and gave it a little shake. "Remember how Annie blabbered about St. Joseph that time Pa took her to the city? We'll go there. It's March. The ice will be breaking up on the Missouri and that'll mean a lot of business coming into St. Jo. We shouldn't have any trouble finding jobs." He winked at Annie. "What d'ya say? Shall we give St. Joseph a try?"
It was strange to look back on that moment now and realize that Frank had been the one to make peace with their situation while Emmet struggled. No one who knew the Paxtons would ever have called Frank a peacemaker. His auburn hair and deep brown eyes were visible indications of a dark, stormy temperament. Blond, blue-eyed Emmet was the quiet, steady one who never wanted more than what already lay within reach.
Weathered boards and rusty hinges creaked as Emmet finally exited the cabin and pulled the door closed behind him. When he climbed aboard and lifted the reins to signal the mules to move out, the team refused to budge. Slapping their rumps with the reins, he called out, "Come on, now, Bart. Git up, there, Bill. You can retire the minute you pull us up to the livery in St. Joseph. And that's a promise."
Frank muttered something about retirement "courtesy of Mr. Winchester."
Annie frowned at him. "You don't mean that." When Frank only shrugged, she appealed to Emmet. "He doesn't mean that, does he? You can't let anyone hurt the mules. They can't help being old."
Emmet flashed a warning look at Frank as he said, "No one's going to hurt the mules, Annie. Not as long as I have a say." He flicked the reins across the team's flanks. With a brayed protest, they leaned into the creaking harness. The wagon began to move. "Now don't cry," Emmet said as they pulled onto the road. "We're going to be all right."
"Darned right we are," Frank said. He nudged Annie. "We've got us a fresh start, and we're going to make the most of it."
Annie nodded. She rather liked the idea of a fresh start, although it sometimes made her feel guilty to admit it, even to herself. After all, but for Pa's dying they might have been able to hang on. Maybe she shouldn't be glad to be leaving, but still—there were good things about moving on, not the least of which was an end to being seen as one of "that drunken Earl Paxton's poor kids." From what she remembered of St. Jo., it was as different from home as one of Mr. Hillsdale's fine Thoroughbreds was from Bart, the lop-eared mule. This time of year, thousands of travelers would be poised to begin spring journeys either to gold mines in the Rockies or homesteads in Oregon. The city would be bustling. If one job didn't work out, a body could try another and another and another, until finally he or she landed on whatever was just right. St. Jo. was the perfect place to get a fresh start.
Annie glanced over at poor Emmet, who wasn't the least bit interested in living somewhere different. All twenty-four-year-old Emmet cared about was farming, Luvina Aiken, and God—although probably not quite in that order. For Emmet, St. Joseph was only a temporary necessity. A place to earn the respectable living that would convince Luvina's father to consent to a wedding. A detour on a path that he hoped would lead him right back to farming—and to Luvina.
They'd been on the road for a while now, and Emmet had apparently mistaken Annie's silence for sadness. "I know things seem bleak," he said, "but God hasn't forgotten us. The Lord is our shepherd, and He still means everything for our good, whether we can see it or not. Thinking about our going to St. Joseph just now had me thinking about Joseph in the Bible. You remember that story? Ma used to tell it. I think it comforted her when she felt homesick for Tennessee."
"I remember Joseph," Annie said, although the memory didn't come from Ma. Compared to Emmet, she remembered so very little about Ma. She had a vague notion of warmth and feeling safe. A gentle voice. Sitting in church and liking the sound of Ma's voice singing hymns—although she wasn't sure if she actually remembered the part about church or if she'd just heard Emmet talk about it often enough that she thought she remembered. It especially bothered her that she didn't remember what Ma looked like. Emmet said if she wanted to know that, all she had to do was look in the mirror. Annie wasn't sure if that helped or hurt, because if Ma looked like her or she looked like Ma, then why didn't she remember her better? Then again, Emmet was five years older than she and Frank, and the extra years had given him more memories of Ma. Memories from a time when life was better and Pa was sober all the time. Sometimes Annie thought the hardness of the past ten years had put a jagged edge to her memories and cut away most of the good. Maybe that was why she couldn't remember Ma better.
"Joseph," Emmet was saying, "found himself in a far country because of terrible things he couldn't control. But God never lost track of Joseph." He paused. "He won't lose track of us, either."
Annie nodded. She remembered the story. She hoped it meant what Emmet said. She liked the way he could be counted on to share comfort from the Bible. Ma's Bible, actually. He read it morning and night. Sometimes he read it aloud, although most of the time he kept it to himself. Annie knew that was because Frank was like Pa when it came to religion. Neither of them had any use for it.
One thing she did remember clearly was the day after Ma's funeral, when Emmet brought Ma's Bible to breakfast with him, planning to read one of Ma's favorite passages to the four of them. One she'd underlined, he said. But Emmet didn't so much as get the Bible opened before Pa grabbed it and threw it across the room. Then he stormed out the back door, leaving his eggs and grits to grow cold. After that, Emmet did his Bible reading when Pa wasn't around. When Annie mentioned remembering Ma reciting the Shepherd's Psalm, Emmet helped her learn it—on the sly. Frank never showed any interest.
Emmet had also talked about Joseph and God's keeping track of him when he'd told his sweetheart about the Paxtons' losing the farm. Sixteen-year-old Luvina Aiken had promised to wait, but Annie had witnessed that promise, and while she knew very little about love, she knew quite a lot about emotions, and it seemed to her that pale, prim Luvina's were decidedly lukewarm. She hadn't shed a tear. It seemed to Annie that a woman in love ought to show a little more enthusiasm.
Annie hoped she was wrong. For all she knew, the girl was making quilts for her hope chest and counting the days until she could keep house for Emmet. In the meantime, Annie had her own dreams, and they revolved around keeping house, too—for her brothers in St. Jo. As the wagon creaked along the rutted road, Annie closed her eyes and envisioned it. Four rooms would do, one for living and cooking, and three for sleeping. They would paint the exterior white and the trim blue. She would ask Frank to build window boxes where she'd plant sweet peas to spill out and down like a blooming waterfall.
When she really let her imagination fly, Annie envisioned a front porch where she could sit and have her morning coffee and keep an eye on everything going on just beyond a picket fence nearly hidden beneath yards of rambling rosebushes. She imagined a vegetable garden and a medium-sized dog to bark and announce company, and a cat to keep mice out of the pantry.
Once they had jobs and a new home in St. Jo., Emmet would realize that losing the farm was for the best. He certainly deserved better than a battered cabin and a drunken father and land that grew very little besides waist-high thistles. In St. Joseph, he could work toward something better—the future he wanted with Luvina. They could all work toward something better.
Annie hadn't said anything about it to Frank or Emmet yet, but she'd decided that as soon as they were settled she would see about getting a job as a cook. Ma had been a cook at a big hotel when she met Pa, and while the Paxtons had never been able to afford much in the way of cuisine—Ma said that meant fancy cooking—still, Annie remembered her doing things like sprinkling cinnamon on grits. She remembered bunches of herbs hanging from twine strung between the rafters of the cabin. She remembered smiles around the supper table.
She would get a job as a cook and learn new things and one day she would gather her family around the table and serve delicious food. Instead of gulping down whatever was before them for the sole purpose of staving off their ever-present hunger, they would take their time. They would smile and say things like, Trying something new? We love your cooking, Ma. How come everything's always so good? We love you, Ma. There was a shadowy "Pa" somewhere in that daydream, too, and now that they were leaving the farm, Annie let herself think about the possibilities. Maybe she'd meet "him" in St. Jo. She allowed a little smile. The Lord is my shepherd. As far as Annie was concerned, the farther they got from the farm, the more the future shimmered with bright promise.
The world seemed a little less "shimmery" as the day went on—mostly because of the growing concern that Bart and Bill might not make it to St. Jo. Annie felt bad for the poor mules, their heads hanging low, their hooves barely clearing the earth as they ambled along. What would they all do if Bart and Bill dropped in their traces?
Around midday, when Frank said they were going to have to walk, Annie immediately thought of the hole in the sole of her right boot. Emmet did, too. "You and I can walk," he said to Frank and proceeded to climb down. But when Annie moved to join her brothers, Emmet stayed her with his hand. "Those boots of yours won't take much walking. Besides, you don't add much to the load, little as you are. Bart and Bill can manage a few extra pounds."
Truth be told, there wasn't much to any of the Paxtons. They were a fine-boned, wiry lot, with twins Annie and Frank not quite five feet tall and Emmet not much taller. Still, with Bart and Bill almost on their last legs, Annie said that every pound would make a difference, and she wasn't going to be the reason they ended up stranded beside the road with three trunks and no way to move them.
"That's our girl," Frank said. He directed Annie to take off the boot with the biggest hole in the sole and then snatched up dried grass to provide a little extra padding over the folded paper that already shielded her stocking from the earth.
Emmet slipped his hand beneath the throatlatch at Bart's head and pulled to keep the team moving. The sun was sinking fast when the wagon finally topped the last hill. The mules seemed to know they were near the end of the journey. They didn't move any faster, but they lifted their heads and picked up their feet a bit.
Annie took note of the scarlet-rimmed clouds in the western sky and smiled. Colorful slivers of light, even as night descended. She began to pay attention to the city itself. What she saw as they made their way into St. Joseph fascinated her. In one candlelit room where the drapes were drawn back, a family sat around their dining table. As Annie watched, a maid wearing a white apron presented something to the man sitting with his back to the window. So enthralled was Annie as she watched that she nearly fell when she encountered a rut in the road. She would have fallen if not for Frank's steadying hand.
"If you lived there," he groused, "you'd be the one in the apron—not the one sitting at that fancy table. You'd have a tiny room in the attic and you'd freeze all winter and swelter all summer. And be at some stranger's beck and call every hour of the day and night."
I wouldn't care. I bet their cook doesn't have to make do with a tiny stove in a corner. She probably doesn't have to worry about stretching the grits or making the molasses last, either. If I worked there, I'd be able to set the table with china. And polish the silver. Real silver.
She thought those things, but Annie didn't say them. It was pointless to argue with Frank when he was in one of his dark moods, and the set of his jaw and the way one corner of his mouth turned down were evidence enough that such a mood was fast descending. Poor Frank. Only nineteen years old and already sporting a permanent furrow between his eyebrows—a furrow that would only deepen if he didn't find a way to harvest happiness from life.
Tucking her hand beneath his elbow, Annie gave his arm an affectionate squeeze. "You're probably right, but once they tasted my apple dumplings, I bet they'd give me an extra day off and a bigger room, just to keep me on."
Frank snorted softly. "And plant you an apple orchard, I suppose." He was still grousing, but his downturned mouth didn't look quite so grim.
"Not an entire orchard, silly," she teased. "Just a couple of trees would be enough. After all, that yard wasn't all that big." She glanced behind them. "Although peach trees and a cherry tree or two would be nice."
A faint, lopsided smile appeared. "Don't forget the raspberry bushes."
"And strawberries," Annie said.
"And asparagus and a blackberry bramble. I know."
"And—"Annie broke off when she caught sight of a massive brick building looming in the distance. Visions of blackberries faded, as she stared at the cupola reaching toward the sky. Four stories. Brick. Iron posts supporting a platform that served not only to protect the main entrance from weather but also to create an observation deck. Annie pointed at the dozen or so well-dressed people gathered there. "They must feel like royalty, gazing down on us." She peered down the hill. "I bet they can see all the way to the river from up there."
Frank harrumphed and muttered something about dandies looking down their noses at the pathetic rig he and Annie were following down the road, but Annie didn't pay him any mind. She was concentrating on every detail of what was surely one of the finest hotels in the country. Just look at all the chimneys. And the elegant trim just above the top row of windows. And the windows—at least a dozen on a side. Was this the kind of hotel where Ma had met Pa? A girl could surely learn to cook wonderful food working in such a place. Would she dare go through that arched doorway to ask about working there?
Again, Annie stumbled. This time she was still holding onto Frank's arm. Unfortunately, it wasn't a rut in the road that had tripped her up, but a steaming pile of manure. And she'd stepped right in the middle of it. With the boot with the biggest hole in the sole. She crinkled her nose at the idea of removing the manure-soaked newspaper acting as a patch. Hurrying to the side of the street, she did what she could to free the shoe of manure, scraping the bottom and sides along the edge of the boardwalk.
"Now the stitching's coming out across the toe," Frank said. He swore softly.
"It'll be all right. I'll stitch it with some cord. I think I have some in my trunk."
"Let me see the other one," Frank demanded.
"They're fine," Annie said. "Really."
Frank pointed toward the hem of her skirt. "Let me see the other one."
Reluctantly, Annie extended her other foot. The toe of her red stocking showed through a hole in the leather. "It's all right," she said. "It's not that hard to keep it tucked under my skirt." She pulled her foot back and tried to erase the frown on his face by teasing. "I hope you're happy. We've probably scandalized one of the fine ladies up on that observation deck."
Frank blurted out a response that included some not very complimentary things about "cads who'd never known an honest day's work and their primping paramours." Emmet, who'd come back to check on them when he realized Annie and Frank had stopped following the wagon opened his mouth to say something, but Frank held up a hand and apologized. "I know. I shouldn't talk like that in front of Annie. I'm sorry. It just bothers me. Hiram Hillsdale's daddy hands him an easy life and what do we get? A drunken father who can't even keep hold of a failing farm." He glowered at Emmet. "And I'm in no mood to hear all about how God hasn't forgotten us and everything's going to be just fine." He nodded Annie's way. "Our sister doesn't even have a decent pair of shoes."
Annie squeezed Frank's arm. "I do, however, have two superb brothers. And from what I know of him, Mr. Hiram Hillsdale doesn't have a single family member who so much as speaks to him. That means we're better off. And I really don't care about the shoes."
"Well I do, and if it's the last thing—"
Annie tugged on his arm. "All right. I understand. Just—stop acting like everything is terrible. Terrible is behind us. Think good thoughts, Frank. Good thoughts."
It wasn't easy, but Frank managed to keep "good thoughts" all the way to the bottom of the hill. For Annie's sake if for nothing else. But then they pulled up to the back door of a stone livery and Emmet begged the owner to buy the team and the wagon. Of course Emmet put it a little more subtly than that, but that's what they were doing. Begging. Frank could barely stand it. He was too embarrassed to so much as look the livery owner in the eye.
The spry old guy wasn't exactly rude, but he barely glanced at Bart and Bill before shaking his head. "Can't think they'd do me any good. I buy and sell some, but these two old boys aren't fit for much beyond—" He glanced Annie's way. Didn't finish the sentence.
At least the old guy had considered Annie's feelings before stating the obvious. Bart and Bill weren't fit for much beyond the meat market. The livery owner nodded toward a large corral where several other mules were lined up at a trough filled with fresh hay. "You can leave them for the night," he said. "I'd offer you stalls inside, but I'm full up."
Frank glanced over at Annie, wondering if she realized what a "good thing" it was for a businessman to so much as consider offering stalls at the livery to people like them. After all, the man had to realize the situation. Then again, only an evil so-and-so would have the heart to turn away blond-haired, blue-eyed Annie Paxton. Who wouldn't fall under the spell of a girl who could walk into a strange town with shoes so worn they were nearly falling off her feet and encourage her cranky twin brother to "think good things."
Annie. If not for his sister, Frank would have signed the farm over to Emmet, wished him well, and left the day Pa was laid to rest. If not for Annie. Guilt washed over him at the flicker of resentment. It's not her fault. He quieted the tug-of-war inside him and looked over at his sister. She shouldn't have to stand here in the chill of the evening wondering where she would lay her head tonight. Come heck or high water, he was going to see to it that life got better for Annie. Once that was done—well, then he would be free. Maybe he'd hire on with a wagon boss and see what California had to offer. Shake the last of Missouri off his boots and think good thoughts somewhere else.
Emmet thanked the livery owner for the offer regarding a place for the mules for the night, then pressed to settle the matter of payment. "If you don't want to give cash money for the team, would you take the rig in trade for board? The harness isn't too bad."
"To be honest, I heard you coming from up Patee House way. You're about to lose an axle." Again, the livery owner looked over at Annie and then back at Emmet. "Tell you what. I'll look it over in the morning when there's good light. You can set your trunks inside if you like. For now, though, you should find yourselves a room before it gets too dark. I'll see to the mules before I lock up. We can talk business in the morning." He offered his hand and introduced himself. "Name's Gould, by the way. Ira Gould."
Emmet introduced the three of them.
"What brings you to St. Joseph?"
"Looking for a fresh start," Emmet said.
Frank chimed in. "Our sister, here, has a hankering to conquer the big city."
The old man chuckled. "Well, you'd better get to it. Decent rooms tend to be in short supply these days." He suggested a few boardinghouses and then added, "You're welcome to just climb up to the loft for the night. It's a bit dusty, but there's plenty of fresh hay and the price is right."
"Thank you," Emmet said, "but I hope we don't have to take you up on it."
"Suit yourself. I'll leave the side door open just in case. And if you do come back, don't let my other boarder startle you. There's a bunk in one corner of the barn. I get paid to board freighters now and again. The season's starting and they're thick as thieves in St. Jo., competing for contracts to haul supplies west. Luther's as big as a bear, but he's harmless—except for snoring loud enough to raise the dead. I'll introduce you tomorrow."
- "Whitson's fascinating look at the Pony Express and those who lived in the Midwest during that time is entertaining and intriguing. The romance is unexpected, beautifully developed and well-balanced with action and family drama. The faith message is touching and relevant."—RT Book Reviews on Messenger by Moonlight
- "Messenger by Moonlight is a well-researched tribute to the strong and courageous men and women of the Pony Express."—Historical Novel Society
- "Whitson writes amazing stories."—RT Book Reviews
- "Whitson celebrates the strong but unknown heroines who marched off to war with their men, as well as those who maintained the home front, in this Civil War-era inspirational...Based on true events, this story will capture the hearts of historical fiction fans."—Publishers Weekly on Daughter of the Regiment
- "This stand-alone novel has all the makings of a great romance: love, intrigue, mystery and unforgettable characters. Whitson's historical details on female riverboat captains are incredible. She brings to life a long-gone way of life on the river when women far superior than their male counterparts had to prove their worth."—RT Book Reviews, starred review, on A Captain for Laura Rose
- "A vivid portrait of life on the Missouri River, from the cramped quarters of the packet boat, through the outpost settlements up the river, to the squalid docks of St. Louis. . .[A]n entertaining historical tale of faith, action, and romance."—Publisher's Weekly on A Captain for Laura Rose
- "Stephanie Whitson is a master storyteller who has once again woven a tale of adventure, romance and inspiration that will touch your heart. A Captain for Laura Rose is a novel rich with exciting details of riverboat life during the 19th century and the well-drawn characters will steal your heart. Don't miss this exceptional read."—Judith Miller, award winning author of the Home to Amana series on A Captain for Laura Rose
- On Sale
- May 10, 2016
- Page Count
- 352 pages