“Brady, hold still. I know you hate this but I’m trying to keep you safe.”
Faith Dantin’s fingers shook as she tied the bow of a girl’s bonnet under the chin of her six-year-old nephew. “You know what? You make an awful cute little girl.” She kissed his nose and laughed as he wiped it away.
“Don’t call me a girl. My mama would be mad with you if she knew what you’re making me do.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest, his chin jutted in defiance.
She knelt in front of him and shook his shoulders. “Look, little man. Your mama would thank me over and over again for doing this. It’s just for a little while and you’re going to cooperate. Need I say more?”
Tears puddled in the small boy’s eyes. “I’ll be good, Auntie Faith, but I’m scared.”
She lowered herself to the floor and cradled him close. “I’m scared, too, Brady Cooper. But please wait until we’re safe on the train and then we’ll both cry. Now, are you ready?”
“Ready.” He took an angry swipe at the tears that threatened.
“Okay. Let’s go over it all again—what’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Six. . . no, seven—I’m seven.”
“Good. Now, where are we going?”
“To visit relatives.”
She hugged him. “You’ll do fine. Now, remember—if there are other questions you let me answer. And Brady, no matter what you may hear me say, don’t you try to change it. Do you understand? You let me do the talking.”
“Are you going to lie some more, like telling people I’m a girl?”
“Brady, anything I might say, or do, is to protect you. It’s wrong to lie, but sometimes I might have to in order to keep you safe. Just don’t argue with me, okay?”
He ran his fingers under the ribbon tie around his neck and stuck out his tongue.
“Is that too tight? Why do you keep messing with it?” She would address the ugly face later.
“Not too tight—just feels stupid. Besides, I would get in big fat trouble if I told a lie.”
Faith sighed. Yes he would, and she should. “Don’t argue with me. Now remember, pretend to be shy. And please don’t get mad and punch somebody. Young ladies must act… well, lady-like”
He giggled. “You get mad sometimes. Aren’t you a lady?”
“That’s different, and I don’t need your sass.” She tweaked his nose. “Now, help me up so we can get out of here”
She took one last peek in the mirror to make sure the black veil completely covered her face.
Oh God, if you’re really up there, please let me get out of here. If it were only me, I would stay and fight with the old man, but I have to get Brady to safety. I promised Danielle and I can’t go back on my word.
She took a deep breath then picked up her mama’s ragged tapestry valise. “Okay, sweetie, here we go. Remember to skip. Little girls skip, not drag their feet. And don’t kick at rocks, and don’t forget to giggle now and then.”
“My legs get all mixed up when I skip, and I don’t giggle. I ho-ho-ho.” He pulled on her hands and puckered his mouth to demonstrate.
“I’m just teasing, Auntie Faith. That’s what little boys do, you know?”
“I know, and they carry frogs in their pockets and don’t like to wash their hands. But for now, until we get to Denver, you’re a girl and don’t you forget it.” She took one last look around the room then clicked the door shut behind her.
I’m doing my best, Danielle, my sweet sister. Sleep well in the arms of your Jesus.
Faith breathed a sigh of relief when the train was finally on its way. She smiled at the young imposter sitting next to her. “You’re doing great, Miss Betsy,” she winked. “Except next time you let the man help you up the step. No more crawling in on your hands and knees like a ruffian. Girls don’t do that.”
“I’m sorry, I just forgot.” Brady’s chin quivered.”
Faith’s chest tightened. The little fella was trying so hard to be brave.
“You can cry, Brady,” she whispered. Even big men have tears inside of them. But remember—you’re Betsy now, so act like a girl.” She winked and gave him a hug.
He hid his face in her lap and cried until the tears soaked through her skirt. Then, with a
shudder, he closed his eyes in sleep. Good. That would give her time to herself. She never dreamed the promise she made to her dying sister would lead to this. Never in her twenty-six years could she remember her grandfather ever caring about what happened to the family. But now he wanted Brady. Was quite adamant, in fact, that he would go to any measure to see his great-grandson taken away and raised properly, not wild and wayward as he deemed her twin, Danielle. Faith rested her head against the back of the seat and let the water out of her eyes, too. She was grateful for the black veil. No one could see her.
“Pardon me, ma’am.”
Faith jumped at the man’s voice. She scolded herself for being so careless. The gentleman leaned toward her across the narrow space that divided the seats and was now full of legs and feet.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you would mind me sitting next to you? It’s. . . it’s rather crowded here. ” He nodded toward the passengers flanking him. A fat man, on one side, snored loudly and his head bobbed against the stranger’s shoulders. The lady on the other side of him had a large feather in her stylish hat that hung in his face like it was alive and looking for a perch. The train car lurched and the man sneezed when the tip of the feather hid itself in one nostril.
Faith bit her cheek to contain her laughter. It was a good thing her face was covered with the veil. She gathered her skirts and scooted over. “My little girl is sleeping right now so there isn’t much room.”
He slid in next to the sleeping child and winked. “Thank you,” he mouthed. “ I think the feather in the lady’s bonnet is still attached to something living—I would swear I heard a gobble-gobble come from somewhere.”
His smile was kind, but his eyes seemed to bore holes through her veil. Did he know her? Was this the man grandfather threatened would find the boy—no matter what? Her chest tightened.
“Perhaps I should introduce myself. Traveling alone like you are I expect you would be somewhat hesitant to be my friend, now wouldn’t you?” The man’s dark eyes softened and he patted the sleeping child on the head.
Faith stiffened. She could use a friend—but not a man. “I’m sorry, sir. You may sit here, but I really don’t care for conversation. You see . . .”
“I understand, ma’am. Excuse me. I was not trying to be forward.”
There was a time, not so long ago, when she would have welcomed the attention of this handsome stranger, perhaps even encouraged it. Black hair, graying at the temples, was combed away from his face and fell to his pristine white collar. Tight fitting black britches, black boots, and a string tie with silver tips set him apart from the other older, flabby men inside the coach. He smelled good, too—bay rum, she surmised.
Brady stirred and the stranger moved to accommodate his wiggles.
“She sure is a pretty little thing. I’m partial to little girls. Got me a passel of boys back home.” He smiled at her then patted the child’s shoulder. “Do you have a long trip ahead of you? I’d be more than happy to help . . . “
Think before you speak, Faith. Once words leave your mouth you can’t take them back. “Not far, and thank you. I have someone waiting to help me when I arrive at my destination.”
That was a lie. How easy it was to lie these days.
“Well, Mrs. Dantin, just let me know if you need anything—anything at all.” He smiled and leaned his head back on the seat and closed his eyes.
How did he know to call her Mrs. Dantin? How could she have been so careless. If he knew her name, what did he know about Brady? Faith’s spine tingled as she drew the child closer to her.
God in heaven, where are you? We haven’t gone twenty miles and I’m in trouble. I thought I had this all planned out. I’m so afraid.