You know life's upside down when your engagement is pretend, but time travel is real.
Why don't I just jump right in, then catch you up as needed? That's how I had to do it a week ago, when I was found naked, with no memory, in a creek bed, in 1878 Kansas. I'd had to do more than a little catching up myself.
Everything made so much more sense once I finally realized I was neither from Kansas nor the 19th century.
Everything except the freakin' time travel…and maybe giving my virginity to a middle-aged trail boss, now my pretend fiancé, whom I had no intention of ever seeing again, because he and his two-thousand cows had moved on.
But we'll get to him later. Oh yes. We will.
So—this last Saturday in June, I took the back route from Mrs. Rath's boarding house on First Avenue. This implies that there were clear roads, or sidewalks. There weren't. Not in frontier Dodge City. I restrained myself to a carefully modest pace along the dirt road called Tin Pot Alley. I longed to run—if anybody had reason to hurry, considering what could be at stake, it was me—but I did not.
Do you know why I did not run?
Because I am a young lady, and girls in 1878 are supposed to behave in a certain way, even if they aren't actually from there. Or maybe especially when we're not from there. Why raise suspicions by standing out?
Not to mention the tactical issue of running with a pail of soup, sans Tupperware. And I wore a long skirt with three petticoats, as well as ill-fitting, button-up footwear.
From what I'd gathered in the two days since taking up residence at Carrie Rath's boardinghouse, I was lucky to have gotten temporally stranded in the Old West, instead of the Old East. Otherwise, it might not even be proper for me to walk alone. Apparently, the West was like one continuous dress-down day in comparison.
But contrasted against my own time of Starbucks and multiplexes, every day felt like a school play's dress rehearsal, with a too-heavy costume and too-easy mistakes. It was hot out, too, especially for morning. Little whirlwinds of dust danced across the road. Yet I'd layered.
And no, I wasn't crazy.
I turned south onto Second Avenue so that I wouldn't be exposed to the wild, party atmosphere of Front Street, where cowboys and soldiers celebrated daily. Front Street didn't actually bother me—it was no worse than how I remembered Frat Row on a Friday night, back in college, except for the train tracks running right down the middle. Oh, and the occasional gunfire. But people expected me to be bothered—another estrogen thing. And one must keep up appearances if one was going to survive long enough to get one's butt the hell back to one's own time.
I wasn't about to go through everything I'd gone through this last week without making it home. And my key to making it home lay, injured, at the doctor's office.
"Good morning, Dr. McCarty," I greeted as I entered the City Drug Store. I made sure to sweep my new, sedate blue skirt clear of the threshold. I had a bad habit of forgetting how much material trailed after me and thus getting it shut in doors—on the rare occasion some male wasn't holding them open for me. "And how is our patient today?"
I used a fake southern drawl, since realizing my modern Chicago accent sounded vaguely foreign around here.
"Good morning, Miss Rhinehart," greeted the white-haired doctor. With his goatee and his button-up vest, he looked unnervingly like the snowman from the classic Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer cartoon, swear to God. He paused in measuring powders onto a shiny brass scale to nod at me. "His leg is setting nicely, although I am concerned...." He paused, then shook his head.
He wasn't going to tell me what concerned him. After all, I was a young lady and shouldn't worry my pretty little head.
Welcome to the 1870s.
Like I said, this was just over a week since I'd been found in that creek bed. Four days with an honest-to-god cattle drive had gotten me to Dodge City where, after a few false starts, I'd finally found myself and learned my truth:
I'd been sent back in time, against my will, by my corrupt former employers, to shut me up.
It had been two more days since the drive's boss—a certain Jacob Garrison—had left me with Mrs. Rath, under the helpful pretense that he and I were engaged, which we of course were not. But I'd already gotten a taste of how women of questionable moral character were treated around here, so I'd accepted Garrison's borrowed respectability.
Now the way decent women were treated blew my mind. You could get dizzy from the way hats flew off heads and doors were thrown helpfully open. Then again, men seemed to assume we ladies were naturally dizzy anyway.
Not having been raised to such behavior, I found myself alternating between immense flattery and immense annoyance, depending—I'm embarrassed to admit—on whether the special treatment happened to be working for or against me at the moment.
Doc McCarty's delicacy leaned toward working against me, this morning. Was something wrong with "our patient," other than his broken leg and bad attitude? Or was it just....
"The pain medication?" I prompted.
"He should be weaning himself from the laudanum," the doctor agreed, as if his patient hadn't become an opium addict under his care. "And I fear I cannot keep him here indefinitely. I have other patients in this town."
Oh. Or, uh oh. I had my room and board taken care of—yes, I'd wheedled it out of Carrie Rath that Garrison had paid ahead an entire month. And damned right, I knew I'd been blessed. But my only concern for "our patient," shorter straw or not, focused on keeping him alive until he was well enough to travel with me and get the both of us home.
You see, "our patient" was also a time traveler. When our employer, A Closer Look, decided I needed shutting up, because I'd complained about sexual harassment? Turns out they decided to shut up my harasser, too. His personal path from naked arrival to Dodge City had apparently been a lot rougher than mine, to which I say, good.
But the scum-pig and I had a plan.
As Elizabeth Rhinehart, 21st-century W-O-M-A-N, I itched to take charge and offer the doctor solutions. Perhaps the patient could do accounts to pay for his care or medicine? Or I could simply argue: he was just an invalid, one who should at least be able to hobble before getting thrown out onto the dirt and manure-spattered street.
Luckily, I had been cramming on the subject of life in the guise of a respectable Victorian lady for several days now. I'd learned a trick or two. Instead of arguing, I widened my eyes and said, "What a terrible shame, Doctor! Whatever do you suppose will happen to him?" At least I didn't lisp or pout.
"I'm certain something will work out," assured Doc McCarty, with that there-there half-smile that I was coming to recognize and usually resent. "It always does. Did you bring more soup for him?"
"Compliments of Mrs. Rath." I held up the little napkin-covered pail I'd carried from the boarding house, not missing that he'd dropped his street-the-patient topic for now.
"You and she do far more for the gentleman's recuperation than my meager skills, Miss Rhinehart." Then, to show just how indispensable I was, he went back to measuring his powders.
Dismissed, I headed through the surprisingly elegant, overcrowded store to the back room with my excuse for visiting with a poor, injured stranger.
"About time you got here," greeted Everett Heard, his usual charming self. "Do you know how bored I am? Close the door."
We'd had this door argument twice already. I didn't even bother to answer him this time. I just handed him the soup, pulled my chair a few inches nearer the open door—and away from him—and sat primly on it. Yes, I fully planned to go home. But I wasn't home yet, and it was my borrowed reputation that was feeding and housing me in the interim.
Borrowed, let me repeat, from a man who had left for Wyoming two days ago. If some masochistic side of me enjoyed pretending to be engaged, pretending I belonged to someone, I tried not to notice. The truth is, Garrison was too old for me—even discounting the hundred-and-thirty odd years to my world—and not the least bit in love with me, despite the sex, and, oh yes, from another time! Literally. He'd been more craggy, and dusty, and bossy than he was attractive. But he'd been honorable, and damned competent, and that had gone a long, long way toward keeping me alive.
In contrast, here sat a man I'd once, in another life, thought was gorgeous. Everett had been clean shaven, crisply dressed, and good smelling. His dark-blond hair tempted even a prude like me toward fantasies of running my fingers through it. Just fantasy, though. Then he'd turned predatory.
Now look at him. Dirty, greasy hair. Uneven, wispy stubble on his jaw. Patchy skin showing the trauma of his dangerous sunburn, before his own rescue. Stains on his stinking, borrowed nightshirt. And a broken leg, splinted with rough-hewn boards.
Yes, of course I sometimes thought, nyah nyah nyah! I'm not that good a person!
I'm only a good enough person not to say it out loud.
Instead I said, "This may surprise you, Mr. Heard, but your boredom isn't one of my bigger concerns just now."
He tugged off the napkin and claimed the spoon hanging on the side of the pot. "You oughtta be nicer to me," he said. "I'm the answer man."
Unlike me, he'd known what A Closer Look had been up to even before they guinea-pigged us.
"Well maybe I don't trust your answers."
We'd had this argument, too. "I'm telling you, we can't change history… or the future we've lived, anyway. Something called temporal inertia stops us. The bigwigs were really pissed, too. They had this great tool, and no way of killing off the competitors' mothers or buying early stock in IBM or whatever. This isn't an episode of Star Trek, Rhinehart. No prime directive."
"I'd like to hear that from someone other than you."
"The telegram will come!" And he began to gulp down spoonfuls of soup.
"I'll believe that when it happens."
"Yeah, well when it happens, I want to be ready to hop a train out of this shithole!" He didn't mean a train to the future. He meant a train from Dodge City, Kansas, to Julesburg, Colorado, where scientists sent by the company were supposedly doing long-term field studies in some kind of lab. If anybody could get us home, they could. If we could trust them—and if they were really there.
I sat silent and watched him eat, hoping that he'd told the truth about that part, at least. Yesterday I'd sent a telegram to the team leader, one Mitch Haywood, via Julesburg: R U who we think U R? I'd signed it, Mary Ann and Gilligan.
Castaways, get it? I hoped they either were old, or had watched TV Land like I had, so they might get it.
I hadn't even checked for a response, yet. A whole day felt like forever to a brain used to phones and email. I had to keep reminding myself that telegrams take a bit longer.
So here we sat, doin' time in Dodge.
"Didn't you even price the trip?" begged Everett, after he finished his soup. One benefit to feeding him, other than the smokescreen it threw over our confabs, was that the food tended to clear his head of the opium...a bit, anyway.
"You mean the trip to Colorado that you and your colleague are planning?" I rolled my eyes toward the open door. Hopefully McCarty couldn't hear, but just in case....
Everett huffed, but he had to go along with the ruse, because I'd threatened to publish his real name in the Dodge City Times if he didn't. He'd gotten downright paranoid about the idea that upper management might have historians combing newspapers and hotel records to track us. As he put it, he didn't want them to get squat out of our misery.
He even wanted me to call him Thomas Cruise. Subtle.
"Yeah," said Tom. "That trip. Colorado."
This time, I was the answer man. "Yes, I went by the train depot and asked some questions for you." I drew the promotional schedule from my reticule—which means, my purse—and handed it over. "Second or even first class would take 'you' two nights, three days. You take the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe into Colorado. Then you change to the Union Pacific and head northeast to Julesburg. FYI, you and your acquaintance can't afford first class, which is fifty dollars a day. As in, a hundred fifty dollars total. Each."
"Each? When a restaurant meal costs fifty cents?"
"A really delicious restaurant meal," I agreed, and made a yum sound. Because when goaded I can totally be a bitch. "Still, I hear those new Pullman cars are really something."
He used a pencil—which I'd bought for him, with paper—to mark up the schedule. "Oh, I bet. But do they give you slippers to wear and little sleep masks, like Lufthansa does?"
I grinned before I could stop myself. We spoke the same language, even if I was faking a local accent. Still, I didn't want to encourage him by joking back, so I said, "Second class will also make it in under four days, but again, it's expensive. About fifty dollars for the whole trip. Each."
"What other choice do we have?" He groaned when I scowled at him. "My business partner and me, that is."
"There's emigrant class. The cars hook to freight trains instead of passenger trains. I hear they're pretty medieval—just benches. They pull aside to make way for the faster trains, so if you went emigrant class, it could take five or six days to get to Julesburg."
Faster than a cattle drive, anyway. Those move maybe ten, fifteen miles per day.
"I'm generally a first-class guy, myself, but—lay it on me. How much for medieval?"
"Twenty dollars each."
He considered that. "And how much do—does my colleague have?" Good save, Everett.
"Not enough." And despite my inroads to employment, I meant it. Yesterday, I might have had enough.
But I'd been clothes shopping.
This isn't as shallow as it sounds. One dress would have been fine if I'd taken a job as a housekeeper, or shop-girl, or a laundress. But I would suck at any of that. More importantly, people now thought I was the next best thing to someone's wife. That meant appearing as if any money I earned on my own was for trifles, not necessities.
Egg money, folks called it.
To maintain that appearance, I'd had to buy a second change of clothes, underwear, and a nightgown. At the Rath boardinghouse, I pretended I was waiting for my trunks from back east.
"Well maybe my associate can earn it," suggested Everett.
"Maybe you could earn it yourself," I lobbed back.
"I am crippled." And he reached for his laudanum.
He frowned back. "Look, the sooner my associate and I get to Colorado, the sooner we can go home, file charges, check into the appropriate mental health resorts, and catch up with our favorite TV series or baseball team. What is there to keep us here?"
Nothing, of course. I only had a place here a month. I had a far better place back in 21st-century Chicago. According to Answer Man, time passed there the same as it did here. So with every day we spent in Western purgatory, our loved ones worried about us, our bills went unpaid, and our lives grew shorter by one full day. If I hadn't been confident that my best friend Rita would check on my pets, I would never have dialed down from "frantic."
There was nothing better for us here than mere survival, and uncomfortable survival at that. But still....
"I already used my own money—"
"Mine now, for your writing supplies." I didn't ask how he got more laudanum. "And my landlady is the one feeding you. And, oh yeah. You're scum. I'm not doing anything else until a certain telegram arrives."
He'd not only come close to ruining my life, but also Garrison's. The trail boss and I had done the deed only after Everett helped convince us I was the wrong kind of "working woman," so—
Anyway. The Boss, as everyone called Garrison, was a decent, respectable man. Our afternoon delight, then separation, had done nothing to dissuade me of that. I'd helped him tumble off his high moral standard, then refused to let him "do the right thing."
Even if I didn't despise Everett's manipulations for myself, which I did, I despised them for the Boss. Ergo, I would make no major decisions based on Everett's chemically influenced word.
"It will be here," Everett said, not sounding as annoyed as you'd think. That was probably just the opium. "Anyway, I've got something to show you that I think you'll like."
I arched a suspicious eyebrow.
He rolled his eyes and lifted his unlit lamp off some of the stationary that I'd brought him. "See what you think."
I read it.
To: Smith, Hawthorne and Jenkins, Attorneys at Law, Chicago IL
From: Everett Heard, Process Manager, A Closer Look, Inc.
RE: My Recent Disappearance
Dear Sirs: Please excuse the apparent age of this letter; I assure you the message is legitimate. As my attorneys, you should be aware that I vanished on June 21. What I am about to tell you will strain your credulity. However, if you will check my signature against that which you have on file, or the fingerprints I will enclose against those in my records, you will see that no matter how improbable, my story is nevertheless true....
And I'd been proud of my coded telegram? Everett's letter was a work of genius, proving him master of the paper trail. He named names. He leaked project codes. He gave dates; apparently A Closer Look had been working on this time travel/virtual reality project for several years.
Everett even warned in the conclusion that he'd arranged to have copies distributed to the authorities, in case his 21st-century lawyers couldn't be trusted.
Did I mention that he'd gotten paranoid? Despite or even because of his paranoia, he had created a masterpiece of vengeance...and the basis for one hell of a lawsuit.
When I finished the letter and handed it back, I didn't know what to say.
"I found a firm I recognized in an old paper," he told me now. "Which means they can archive this and still be around to forward it in our time, too. So if we can just raise enough money to hire them, it's a done deal. My business partner should be willing to go in with me on this, shouldn't...he?"
"You barely mention your business partner's name," I pointed out. A guy sexually harasses you, lies about it, gets you sent back in time and, before your wits clear up, convinces you you're a whore? It's a little hard to trust.
His voice sharpened as he tucked the letter, along with the train schedules, back under the lamp. "In return for that, my business partner should cover the whole cost, but I'm gonna be nice."
I decided to let that slide for now. "If it's such a good idea, why not have it delivered to them before we even get sent back?"
Everett rolled his eyes. "Because clearly it didn't get there. Temporal inertia? Since we can't affect our own pasts, I don't want to lose the chance of affecting our futures too. Look, I wouldn't try this for some Don't Worry 'bout Me Ma note. I don't think her stress levels would exactly go down if I laid this craziness on her, you know? I don't want to write home, I want to go home. I can't not believe we'll get there—death is better than this place. And when we get there, I want the Closer Look top dogs to fry."
Wow. For the first time I thought I understood why a jerk like him was able to drive a BMW.
"Anyway," he muttered, obviously wearied from his speech. "We need money. My business partner and I, that is."
I said, "I guess your business partner will do what can be done. But until the telegram arrives...."
He gulped more laudanum, maybe to punish me for my lack of faith. I decided it was time to end today's charity visit. Collecting the empty pail, then bidding farewell to Doctor McCarty, I crossed Second Avenue to go about earning some of that money we needed.
On that front, I'd hit the wooden sidewalks running. Figuratively speaking, I mean. Since "ladies" don't run.
Mrs. A. E. Staunton, the seamstress down at the Dry Goods, was teaching me to sew. She'd even given me what she called "piece work"—mostly hemming handkerchiefs for a nickel each, if I managed neat enough stitches. It's amazing how much better I'd gotten, with money involved—I succeeded with every third handkerchief! That, plus some of that "cowboy charity" Everett envied, then helped establish my own little business.
My idea? Letters Home, 50 cents a page. I'd gotten the inspiration that first morning at the boardinghouse, when my landlady, Carrie Rath, gave me a letter Garrison had left on his way out of town. She'd said, "You're lucky. Some menfolk hardly write at all. Their sweethearts must get very lonely."
Considering that her own husband was moving them south to Texas, and had just arrived a week late for a visit, I read gigabytes of extra meaning under her comment. But it also gave me the idea for something legitimate and ladylike I had, which still catered to the big money in town: the Texas cowboys.
I had good penmanship.
My landlady talked to her husband's business partner, who managed the biggest outfitter in town. The newly named Wright, Beverley & Co., which many people still called Charles Rath & Co, got a lot of business. "It's good for a new wife to have a little egg money put by," Carrie Rath said.
The folks at the Dodge City Times even helped me write an ad, and—for a price—printed copies for me to post around town:
"HAVING A GOOD TIME IN TOWN? Wish you could tell your mother and sweetheart about your adventures getting here? Don't wait for your trip home! Let a REAL LADY write your most innocent stories, IN YOUR OWN WORDS, into loving letters to ease the minds and gladden the hearts of your loved ones. For no more than the cost of ONE MEAL, have a lasting memento of your good, clean fun in Dodge City, to look back upon in the years ahead! Enquire with Miss Rhinehart, afternoons at Wright, Beverley & Co."
Wordy, yes, but that apparently fit the times. And I'll admit, using print ads to draw in an illiterate customer base felt wonky. But what else was there? Hopefully, the cowboys who could read would spread word. I also worried that the only fun cowboys had in Dodge City was hardly the kind they'd report to their mother or sweetheart, nor ask a "real lady" to transcribe. But my one hope was the memory of the more innocent of the cowboys I'd met in Garrison's outfit. If a few sweeties worked for Garrison, might some not work for other trail bosses too?
My concerns proved unfounded. Dodge boomed on cowboys who'd just gotten paid, and apparently the idea of spending wages on letters home caught their fancy. Many were just boys, unwilling to share how homesick they'd gotten with anyone on the drive. And some may have been paying as much to tell their trail adventures to a respectable lady—as opposed to risking their souls with the less respectable females—as to have letters sent home.
Yesterday, my first day of business, I'd earned four dollars.
"Good afternoon, Judge Beverley," I greeted sweetly, after yet another man opened yet another door for me and I entered the store. This one, with its leather goods and cured hides, had an earthier atmosphere than Doc McCarty's. They supplied the buffalo hunters and drovers, meaning people who drive cattle. Judge H. M. Beverley—who helped run the store when he wasn't acting in his official capacity—was a slow-talking Southern Gentleman, father of seven, veteran of the Civil War, and former Texas rancher. For what it's worth? His partner, Wright, was the County Representative. This was a business of some stature.
"Good day, Miss Rhinehart," Beverley greeted from his counter, where he was doing banking for a customer. For some reason, Dodge didn't have a bank. "A gentleman came lookin' for you. I suggested he return later today."
"Thank you, sir," I said, but my proper-lady facade felt a lot less like a survival technique and a lot more like a lie, here. First the Raths, and now Beverley, knew Garrison. They'd done business with him for years. They thought that, by helping me, they were helping him.
Carrie Rath thought she'd delivered his love letter to me!
Overwhelmed by a sudden exhaustion, I made my way to the back corner of the store and sat to wait for my first customer. I'd brought piecework to do—every nickel counted, and Mrs. Staunton had been kind to offer the work. But suddenly the hot morning, sparring with Everett, my uncertain future, and mainly my own duplicity had me too drained to do even that.
I pulled my own letter from my purse to read. Again. The paper felt soft from having been read several times a day already, as if I couldn't stop looking for something it didn't say.
Garrison had brought it by the boardinghouse before leaving town, while I'd slept. He'd written my name on the outside—"Miss Elizabeth Rhinehart." It wasn't until I read that, that I realized he'd never once spoken my name, neither Elizabeth nor Lillabit, which is the nickname the cowboys had given me during my amnesia.
Inside, the letter read: "Stabled your horse at Ham Bell's Elephant Barn through the month. Bell will pay fair price for it, need be. If you see consequences, post through Fort McKinney, Wyoming Territory. Sincerely, J. Garrison."
That was it. My love letter. Sincerely, J. Garrison.
Maybe that's another reason I was working so hard, staying so busy. My inner Lillabit wanted to romanticize that last day we'd had, even the week leading up to it. Who wouldn't want to pretend that her first time had been with someone who loved her, as opposed to someone who'd simply been celibate for so long, he couldn't resist her blatant invitations? Who wouldn't like to think the man who'd saved her life felt some small affection, instead of mere responsibility?
But my more practical, modern side—my Elizabeth side—recognized that stranded as I was, a place to stay and my own horse mattered far more than anything as tenuous as affection, especially an imagined affection. Garrison had obviously offered the help in that spirit. The best way to respect his gifts, other than not destroying his reputation around here, was to survive long enough to go home.
Home where I belonged.
Home where I didn't need someone else to take care of me...no matter how surprisingly nice it felt, sometimes, to be taken care of.
Home, I reminded myself firmly. And, having caught my breath, I put away my letter and took up a piece of sewing.
Stranded in 1870s Dodge City, Lillabit remembers: She's Elizabeth Rhinehart, a modern woman thrown back in time against her will.
Also? Someone may be out to kill her.
Her only hope of returning home lies with a trio of scientists in Colorado. To get there, Elizabeth needs passage with someone she can trust... perhaps someone like the no-nonsense trail boss who first rescued her from the desert. But even if Jacob Garrison lets her rejoin his cattle drive to Wyoming--once he learns her secrets, will he let her go home? Will she WANT to?
With her memories intact, Lillabi-- that is, Elizabeth--is able to see the Old West even more clearly through her modern-day eyes. But is going slowly always a bad thing? Are men of strict morals and poor social skills less than desireable? Soon, she'll have to choose between her own desires and something bigger. Something... impossible.
OVERTIME 1: SEARCHING is the second book in the somewhat romantic, sometimes comic cattle-drive time-travel OVERTIME series.
Written by Rita award-winning author Yvonne Jocks, OVERTIME can be seen as a very loose prequel to her series of historical romance novels (if you look those up, consider yourself "spoiled"). However, OVERTIME--despite its romantic subplot--is not a strict romance. It is a journey...
A journey that may draw you into the world of the Old West, complete with cattle drives, Army forts, and the infamous Dodge City, as thoroughly as Lillabit was drawn in.