The Lady Fugitive
By Ada Brownell
How does a respected elocutionist become a face on a wanted poster?
Jenny Louise Parks escapes from the coal bin, and her abusive uncle offers a handsome reward for her return. Because he is a judge, he will find her or he won’t inherit her parents’ ranch.
Determination to remain free grips Jenny, especially after she meets William and there’s a hint of romance. But while peddling household goods and showing a Passion of the Christ moving picture, he discovers his father’s brutal murder.
Will Jenny avoid the bounty hunters? Can she forgive the person who turns her in? Will she find peace, joy and love?
Published by Elk Lake Publishing, a division of Book Club Network.
~~~ CHAPTER ONE ~~~
April 1908, Peachville, Colorado
The barn door creaked. The judge’s massive body loomed in the opening, his scowling face crimson. He slid a razor strap back and forth in his manicured hands. “Jenny!”
Her heart thumping like a dasher churning butter, seventeen-year-old Jennifer Louise Parks dropped the curry brush and moved past the buckskin’s large rump toward the side door.
The huge man limped closer. “Didn’t I tell you to quit flirting with those young men at the opera house?” His deep voice boomed among the stalls. “I want it stopped.”
Jenny inched backward. She swallowed. Icy tingles crawled up her back, her neck, and over her scalp.
“But…but…I was just being polite. I was honored they came to hear an elocutionist. They complimented me on my recitations.”
Judge Danforth Schuster, her uncle, stepped closer, looking her up and down in the dim light. When she backed away, he grabbed her wrist and tightened his sausage fingers. He lifted the strap with his other hand.
“It’s about time you had a good lickin’.” Tobacco and liquor breath sprayed her cheeks as he tried to turn her around.
This nightmare was not happening. Jenny wiggled, twisted, and scratched like a cat caught by a naughty child. The man clenched her tighter. Gritting her teeth, she braced her legs and shoved. She might as well have tried to move the boulder out by the windmill.
Relaxing a moment, she took a deep breath, jabbed an elbow into his dome belly, and stomped her boot heel down hard on his foot with the ingrown toenail.
A deep cry ripped from his throat. The hairy arms lost their hold, and she whirled out of his grasp. She ducked in time for his fist to miss her face. Then she ran past the horses and out the door.
Breathing hard, she slammed into a wall. She stumbled backward.
The wall moved, and gentle hands kept her from falling. A smile crinkled the young man’s cheeks. “In a hurry, ma’am?”
“Yes!” Winded and trembling from her ears to her ankles, she gulped air.
His hand steadied her, and then he released his tender hold. “Sorry. I apologize for not announcing my arrival. I came to see if the judge needs any merchandise today.” He gestured toward his peddler wagon.
She stared at the contraption with Household Goods painted on the side. He was not one of the judge’s hired “investigators.”
“I—I don’t know if he does. He’s in the barn.”
The peddler’s olive-green eyes picked up the color of his shirt. His gaze lingered. “Are you sure you’re all right?"
She blinked, still breathing hard, nodded, and turned to go to the house. Trying not to show the handsome man the white-hot anger searing her insides, she relaxed a bit. She didn’t want him to guess something she didn’t like happened in the barn.
“Is there anything I can help you with?”
Jenny glanced to see if her uncle was coming. He wasn’t. She shook her head.
“Ma’am, I enjoyed your poems and songs about Colorado the other evening at the opera house.”
Freckled cheeks crinkled into a shy smile. He extended his tanned hand. “I hoped to run into you, but had no idea you’d run into me. I’m William O’Casey.”
Glancing at the barn again, Jenny’s face heated. She lifted her chin and stuck out a shaky hand. “Nice to meet you, William.” He held her fingers, looking intently into her eyes until she pulled free. “I need to go.”
“Nice to meet you,” he called as she rushed to the house.
Each step brought her closer to admitting the truth. Her life here was over.
She entered the large two-story home Daddy built before she was born, and gently closed the screen door.
Aunt Gertrude sat on the country French settee in the parlor. Her fingers lazily tatting lace, the lady’s thin cheeks crinkled into the sour expression she wore at home.
Jenny scooted toward the stairs hoping Gertrude wouldn’t notice.
“What’s the rush?” The woman slicked back and tucked loose dyed hair into her brunette bun. “In the time you’ve been gone it looks like you would have that mangy horse exercised and groomed. See why the judge and I are selling the animals except our personal mounts? This ranch is too much work, even with the judge’s men helping. Wouldn’t hurt you to help more around the house. Since I’m going to Denver tomorrow, you will need to take charge while I’m gone.”
Gertrude’s sharp voice and nasal tone grated against Jenny’s smoldering insides. “Wouldn’t you like me to go with you?”
“Why would you need to go? The judge wants you here.”
Should she tell her aunt “his honor,” tried to spank her, a grown woman?
She took one step toward the parlor, and then shame paralyzed her. The terror over staying with the man emanated from more than the razor strap. She didn’t like the way he looked at her. But sharing that would only result in accusations. Aunt Gertrude would blame Jenny as she had Jenny's friend when a wealthy neighbor compromised the maid.
“She’s a little tramp,” Gertrude had said, her blue eyes large with pride over having such wisdom.
The authorities didn’t even look at Roberta’s bruises.
Jenny spoke with a steady voice. “I need to clean up. Then I’ll go to the kitchen and help Polly with supper.”
“About time.” Her aunt’s long nose drug out the whine in time.
A vision of her twin brother’s bloody back after the judge took the horse whip to him flashed through Jenny’s mind. Aunt Gertrude was going to Denver tomorrow. Heart pounding with urgency, Jenny swooped up the spiral staircase, then on up the narrow stairs into the attic. She pulled her mother’s satchel from behind the chimney where she stashed it, running her hand along the bulging lining to see if it remained intact.
Satisfied and breathing fast, she planned as she worked. She would not stay here one more day. Surely Daddy didn’t know what he was doing when he changed his will so the ranch went to his sister and the judge. Shaking her head, she recalled how her uncle had visited Dad in the tuberculosis sanitarium after Mama died. The judge needed a place to live after he lost his elaborate home in a drunken gambling frenzy. And everything changed.
After filling the ceramic basin from the water pitcher on her dresser, Jenny washed her face and dried on a white towel. She would leave when her aunt and uncle were asleep. But how would she make sure no one followed to keep her from getting on the midnight train to Minneapolis—to John and Aunt Betsy?
She’d need a disguise. She tiptoed into John’s old room. Digging through drawers and closet, she collected pants, shirts, a coat, and their pa’s old wire-rimmed eyeglasses.
“Jenny! What are you doing?”
“You need to get down here,” Gertrude droned. “The judge will want his supper right away. Polly is so slow.”
When would Gertrude get it through her head Polly could prepare a meal without a lot of help? Gertrude, used to having servants, expected Jenny to be one.
“I’ll be right down.”
Back in her room, Jenny stuffed a few more things into a large leather bag and placed the bags she packed in the closet.
Downstairs she paused by the kitchen window. The peddler and the judge stood talking in the yard. The judge laughed and chattered as always, his chest puffed above his swollen belly as he stuck a cigar under his bushy mustache and smoked.
The young man held his hat in his hand. His auburn locks curled around his ears and glistened in the evening sun. If only she could ride in his wagon and catch the train!
Remembering his gentle hands around her, she hugged herself.
“That peddler is a handsome un,” said Polly, her black face beaming. She handed Jenny Mama’s blue-patterned plates to set the table. Then the woman, who had been a part of the family for as long as Jenny remembered, took another look at her. “Y’all looks disturbed, baby. What’s gone wrong?”
Jenny transferred the dishware to her other hip. She leaned over and whispered into Polly’s ear. “I’m going to Minneapolis like John did. Tonight.”
The wrinkled face clouded, yet a gleam lit her eyes before the old woman spoke. “Ah wondered when you’d go.”
As Jenny worked, the peddler climbed on the high seat above his mule team and drove away. Most folks would have invited him to supper. She turned from the window. Nausea stirred her stomach. Daddy’s chair, the china, the silver, the goblet awaited the judge’s entry. How would she survive this meal?
When night yanked the sun over the mountain, releasing a deluge of darkness, she placed the last dried supper dish into the cabinet. As soon as she hung up her towel, Polly thrust an oilcloth bag into Jenny’s hand.
“Food. Y’all needs it.”
“Thank you.” Jenny planted a kiss on Polly’s soft cheek, clutched the bag to her chest, and darted up the stairs to her room. There she wriggled into John’s clothes. Her toes peeked out the bottom of the trousers, the extra fabric puddled on the floor. She grabbed a straight pin, inserted it where they needed cutting off, and surveyed the plaid shirt. Rolling the cuffs would be good enough.
Hoping the clicking metal scissors didn’t make too much noise, she shortened the pants. Her fingers fluttered like a bird’s wings as she hemmed the bottom.
She’d just turned off the light when a key rattled and her door lock clicked. She gasped. “What are you doing?”
“We’re not taking a chance you’ll run off like John.” The judge’s voice hit her heart like his fist had nearly hit her face. “Your aunt is leaving for Denver tomorrow, and I want you here to cook while she’s gone.”
Jenny clamped her teeth. She’d get out, even if the door was locked.
After waiting long enough to hear snores from the other room, she lifted the window. She dropped her things into the huge snowball bushes below and skimmed down the trellis as she’d done most of her childhood. Thunder rumbled and a few sprinkles dripped on her face when her feet hit the ground. She reached for the things she dropped.
“Gotcha.” The judge grabbed her. His loud laugh echoed in the night air.
“I figgered you might escape. Now you won’t be so comfortable. You’re going to the cellar.”
When they came around the house, Aunt Gertrude stood on the back porch holding a lamp that flickered in the breeze. Great. She’s watching.
Fury loosed Jenny’s tongue. “Quit twisting my arm. That hurts.”
She stumbled and rolled, bent on escape, but he held her like a mousetrap sprung on a rodent.
“You can’t hold me! I will get away.”
The judge laughed louder. “We’ll see.”
Short breaths came like hiccups as the judge guided her to slanted wooden doors leading down the concrete steps to the cellar. He shoved her into the darkness and slammed the opening shut. A padlock clicked.