Mosqueros, Texas, 1879
Beth McClellen would die before she missed Mandy’s wedding.
That wasn’t some cute expression. It was a plain, bald fact.
She would probably be pounded to death any minute now.
The stagecoach, in its four-day-long quest to hit every bump and rock in northwest Texas, lurched into the air then slammed back onto its wheels. She’d planned to take the train all the way to Mosqueros, but a cyclone had ripped out a bridge somewhere and the trains weren’t running. So Beth had no choice but to take the much slower stagecoach. He’d still hoped to make the wedding. But it was cutting things really close. Even with the irritating delay, the stage had appealed to her. Horses, fresh air, Texas scenery --- after four years in the teeming city of Boston, she thought the stage was brilliant.
He was an idiot.
The coach tilted up sharply as the trail rose. Beth fell against the seat back. “How can this thing stay in one piece?”
He didn’t expect an answer from the drunk across from her and she didn’t get one. He did slide farther down on the seat, slumping sideways, growling in his --- well, Beth wasn’t about to call it sleep. Stupor was more like it. She braced herself to shove him to the floor if he fell forward onto her. She’d use him as a footrest, and for the first time in days the man would serve some use on this earth.
Give me strength to keep from knocking him to the floor on purpose, Lord.
They reached the hilltop and the ascent switched to descent. The stage picked up speed and the hooves of the horses rose from plodding walks to fast clips.
Beth knew it by sound and feel, not sight. She’d closed the curtains to block out the sun, hoping to also block some of the billowing dust that seeped through the windows. And if it lessened the stifling heat of an August Texas a few degrees, it might also lessen the stench of her fellow rider.
Darkness might keep him asleep, too. She could only pray to the good Lord it would. The few times he’d been semi-lucid, he tended to break into rants about the dreadful state of the world. He’d start with generalities then launch into particulars, muttering to himself as if she wasn’t there and he was a lunatic.
Well, if he thought he was alone, then he was wrong, wrong, wrong. But he was right on one count --- he was definitely a lunatic.
More than once in the last four days, she’d been tempted to shut him up with the butt end of the pistol she had strapped to her ankle.
The driver shouted over the thundering hooves of his four horses. He’d been shouting at the poor horses for days.
Beth was tempted to swing out the door, clamber onto the top of the stage, and beat the man to within an inch of his life for the way he pushed his horses. And it didn’t pass unnoticed that Beth was contemplating violence against every man within her reach.
It had been a long trip home.
The driver wasn’t completely heartless. They’d stopped several times and gotten a new team, but the relentless pace, the shouting of the driver --- they wore the poor horses down long before they finished their run.
Another shout had Beth sitting straighter. It was a new shout, laced with fear --- nothing she’d heard from the driver before. She pushed aside the curtain on the window and saw the same desolate, broken range she’d been seeing all day. West Texas, a brutal, barren place.
Her family had found a fertile valley in this desolation, but almost the only one. A rugged, man-eating, soul-crushing country that either hardened people into gleaming white diamonds or pulverized them into useless coal dust.
Beth liked to think she was a diamond. And she’d crushed her share of men into dust right along with Texas.
The trail was narrow. They were rolling quickly down one of the thousand dips in the mountainous area.
The driver shouted again. “Whoa.”
That really caught her attention. The man never said whoa. Not outside of town. He stopped for nothing.
She leaned forward, holding her breath because she was a little too close to the snoring, reeking passenger. She’d been on this stage for four days in the sweltering heat and roiling dust and she was no fresh posy herself, but this guy was ridiculous.
The stagecoach slowed, slid sideways, and picked up speed. The driver shouted and cursed and Beth could see, if she angled her head, the man battling with the brake.
Had the brake given out? Was the stagecoach a runaway? No, not a runaway. She could feel the brakes dragging on the wheels, hear the scrape of the brake as it tried to slow the heavy stage.
“Keep your head. Keep your head.” Muttering, Beth knew the side she’d just looked out of rode too close to a rock face that rose high on her left. She slid to the other side of the coach. Before, she’d been too close to the man’s feet. Now she could smell his breath.
Inhaling the dusty air and stench through her mouth to make it bearable, she pushed back the curtain on this side and her stomach twisted.
The whole world fell away from this side of the coach.
He stood, holding on to the rocking, jouncing stagecoach. Letting go with one hand, she shoved the door open. Poking her head out she saw. . .disaster. Dead ahead.
Emphasis on dead.
No way was she getting home for that wedding.
A stagecoach lay on its side not a hundred yards down the trail. Bodies everywhere. A quick glance told Beth that five people were unconscious or dead on the ground. If they hit that wreckage, they’d kill any passengers left alive then plunge over the side of the mountain.
Beth saw a horse racing away far down the trail, dragging harness leather behind him. No sign of the three other horses that had pulled the ruined stage. A sudden twist in the trail concealed the accident, but it was still coming.
Beth started praying with every breath. And she asked for the thing this country demanded most.
Lord, give me strength.
The driver shouted again, throwing his whole body on the brake while he sawed on the reins. His horses leaned back until they were nearly sitting on their haunches, fighting the forward motion of the heavy stagecoach. He didn’t have the strength to hold the brake and the horses on this steep incline.
Beth’s ma hadn’t raised her to spend a lot of time fretting and wringing her hands. If there was a bronc to bust, Beth busted it. there was a wagon to pull, hopped out and started pulling before anyone had to ask.
That was the McClellen way.
So helping was a given, and it didn’t take but a second to know she wasn’t going out on the side that might crush her between the mountain and a racing stage. So the cliff side was her only choice.
One horse whinnied, a terrible, frightened sound. Beth could have wept for the scared animal if she was inclined toward tears --- which she wasn’t.
The shout and the frightened horse jerked the nasty scourge of a man who was Beth’s traveling companion upright in the seat, as if he’d been poked by a pin. “Wha’waz’at?”
Ignoring the idiot, Beth swung herself onto the roof, grateful she’d changed into her riding skirt for the journey home. Just as she heaved herself upward, the stage rounded a bend in this poisonous sidewinder of a trail.
Beth’s feet had just hooked over the top of the stage and they slipped. For a terrible second, Beth was thrown out. Her legs dangled over nothingness. Her fingers clawed at the railing atop the stage. Her wrists creaked as the weight of her body fought her slender hands. One hand lost its grip. She clawed frantically for a hold. Her fingers ached; the palms of her hands were scraped raw.
Give me strength.
After heart-pounding seconds of doubt that she had the strength, she regained her hold.
Then the trail straightened and Beth’s legs swung back with nearly as much force as they’d flown out. Her boots, with their pointed leather toes, smacked into her fellow passenger.
It felt like she hit him in the head. That cheered her somewhat and helped her ignore her now-bleeding hands.
Give me strength, Lord. Give me strength.
Scowling at the mess ahead of them on the trail, Beth assumed --- if they figured out a way not to die in the next five minutes --- they’d be held up for a good long time. She was definitely going to miss the wedding, and that made her mad clean through.
Rage gave her the burst of energy she needed to drag herself onto the roof. She landed on her side on top of her wretched home for the last few days with an oomph of pain. didn’t know if God gave strength in the form of rage, but she took it as a gift anyway.
Rolling to her hands and knees, she scooted forward. “Get over!”
The stage driver shouted in surprise and practically jumped off the seat. A stage driver ought to have steadier nerves.
“Can drive a team. Get over and hand me the reins. You concentrate on the brakes.”
The man didn’t move, staring at her like he was a half-wit.
Beth dropped down beside him and wrenched the reins out of his hands.
“You can’t drive this thing.” But before he was done yelling, the lout must have noted her experienced grip on the handful of reins. He left her to the horses, turned to the brake, and threw every ounce of his considerable weight against it.
The wheels scratched on the rocky trail, skidding, slowing, shoving the horses along in front of it.
“Whoa!” Beth shouted, rising to her feet, hauling with all her strength --- and some strength besides that must have been supplied by the Almighty because the horses responded.
With the stage slowing from the brake, the horses weren’t being pushed as hard. They slowed.
It was taking too long.
They came around the next curve. Death and destruction loomed only yards ahead.
Beth leaned harder, bracing her feet, calling to the team in a voice she’d learned years ago got an uncommon response from animals. Her family being the exception, she’d rather be with animals than most people she’d met.
Give me strength. Give me strength. Give me strength.
Suddenly, a weight hit her from behind and almost tossed her headfirst onto the horses’ hooves. A viselike arm snaked around her waist to stop her fall. Then, the second she was steady, two hands gripped the reins. And she had the strength of ten.
And the stench told her who was helping her.
High time the drunk got involved in saving his own worthless hide.
The stage driver shouted with exertion. The stage slowed. The wheels locked, sliding now, scratching on the coarse, rocky trail.
They skidded straight for the wreckage. The trail narrowed. No getting around it.
Just ahead the stage lay on its side. It looked like it had rolled at least once, judging by the damage. Doors were broken off, wheels shattered.
Only a miracle had kept the coach from plunging off the edge.
One woman lay closest to Beth’s stage. Her four horses would trample the injured woman. Then the stage would roll over what was left of her.
She shouted to the team, but the horses were nearly sitting on their haunches now. The lead horse on the left, a dark red chestnut with black mane and tail, screamed in terror at what lay straight in their path.
Give me strength. Give me strength. Give me strength.
The man’s arms flexed. Muscle like corded steel flexed as he pulled and added his voice to the shouts of “Whoa!”
The woman on the ground lying facedown stirred. She raised her chest up with her arms and turned to the noise. Blood soaked her hair and face. Her blue gingham dress had one arm ripped off and the woman’s bare shoulder looked raw. Her eyes widened at the oncoming stage. Her mouth gaped in horror as the stage skidded nearer, nearer, nearer.
Twenty feet, then ten, then five.
Give me strength, Lord.
The man behind found more strength and pulled until his muscles bulged.
The stage passed over the woman.
The skidding stopped.
Excerpted from DOCTOR IN PETTICOATS: Sophie’s Daughters, Book 1 © Copyright 2011 by Mary Connealy. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Books. All rights reserved.