Ida felt a surge of uncertainty hit her as the weight of her decision began to grow. She had slipped out of the house, like a thief in the night, her face muddied purposefully. Her long, brown hair hiding beneath a cap she had been given by 1 of the staff to complete her look. They believed in her. They feared her father but not as much as they believed in her. One told her they believed in love. That’s why they willingly betrayed her father. That helped keep her going. The doubt that stunk her footsteps clouded the logic and the fantasy in her mind into a lethal cocktail.
She boarded the train, having secured a single one way ticket. No going back. She made no small talk with the other passengers, no one paid attention to her. She looked like any stoic young man. Amazing the freedom a mask can bring. She was thrilled at the thought that she just might pull this off.
“Where you headed?” The conductor asked, intrigued by the boyish stranger with no luggage.
“Hell on wheels.”
Ida replied in an affected deep voice. She grunted and hoped her false identity would hold for a few hours longer.
Ida wasn’t sure what she should do after she arrived. She tried to remain in the shadows as much as possible, drawing no further attention to herself. She took in the bustling street. Screams erupted nearby, and spirited shouting of coarse words soon followed. Ida peered across the street to the saloon. She was absolutely sure something salacious was taking place. Intrigued, she kept her eyes steady. Her first mistake. A single shot sounded, and a body was thrown into the street. Ida felt the queasiness of seeing a dead body hit her wash over her like a wave, but she willed herself to keep the Orlando facade strong.
She watched everyone walk by, hoping on hope that one of them would be her love. Hours went by before Ida saw the familiar bounce in her step. Her lips were set into a thin line, and Ida knew she was in pursuit of a story. It was that passion that kept her warm at night.
“Louise,” Ida heard Orlando whisper. She sauntered towards her, hoping to figuratively bump into her.
Louise had been on the hunt for another lead. There were so few people willing to talk sometimes. She was so entranced with finding the next story that she didn’t see the handsome stranger slam into her. She was knocked off her feet but not by much. The hands that helped steady her didn’t feel rough like a man’s. In fact, they were tiny, soft. Louise looked into her protector’s eyes and a hand flew to her mouth.
“Ida?” she whispered behind her hand.
“Dearest,” her love said.
“How did you get here?”
“William and everyone. They bought me a ticket,” she said surreptitiously. She looked around. She was aware of how out in the open they were. “Is there somewhere we can talk?”
“My room,” Louise said. “I’m renting a small one nearby.”
Ida raised an eyebrow. “That’s a bit presumptuous,” she teased.
Louise giggled despite the people they could not see that were watching them with interest. She grabbed Ida’s arm and led her away. As soon as she shut the door behind them, Ida pressed herself against Louise. She did not fight, and embraced her willingly. Even with her egregious getup, she felt love there. “How I’ve missed you, dear,” she muttered.
It was the lilt in her voice, the intonation of simple words that made Louise wet. With it, brought some strange wave of logic. Louise pulled away to drink Ida’s beautiful face in. The curves, the jaw, the playful eyes, hidden from the world somehow but presented in a way only she could see. “Your father will move heaven and hell to bring you back to New York. You and I both know this. Why would you come here?”
Ida shook her head. “After Daddy sent you away, he arranged a marriage for me. Me! An arranged marriage,” Ida shook her head. “The very thought.” Louise waited for the explanation. “It was after the third dress fitting that I decided I wouldn’t go through with it. Rutherford is fully aware of the arrangement. He was pleased with the generous dowry and pension Daddy floated in his face. It was the only way to get him to accept.” Ida looked at her. “In these modern times, when people have the luxury to marry for love, should they not?”
“Us? Marry?” Louise asked. Love was never a question between the two of them. It was instant, red hot, and passionate, like the love they spoke of in novels. It happened to be between two women. But marriage? That was another can of worms Louise wasn’t sure was worth it.
“Yes, marry,” Ida said, cupping Louise’s face in her hands, bringing them to her lips. “I’m yours forever, if you’ll have me.” Louise parted her lips and kissed her beloved back, their tongues touching ever so slightly. But something snapped inside Louise’s head, further ruining any joy gained from their kisses. There would be consequences. There already had been. She had been sent 2,000 into a lawless hellhole to suffer for all eternity because of love.
Ida’s eyes were dreamy as Louise pulled away to asses the situation further. “Paris,” Ida whispered.
It was a place they often spoke of in their letters written to each other during their time apart. Neither one had ever been on the European continent. They both clung to this ideal of Paris. It fueled their dreams. Louise would write two letters. 1 would be addressed to William or someone else on the newspaper staff. Stuffed inside the letter would be one for Ida. If not for their mutual friends playing postmaster, Louise probably would have gone further mad from the distance apart.
“Paris?” Louise asked, her heart fluttering.
Ida kissed her hands. “We can start over there. No one would pay us any mind. Let’s take the next train out of this hell, go to San Francisco and take the next clipper to the continent. Louise, imagine it. You and me, us together, bashing around Shanghai. Paris. London. Berlin. All the places you’ve ever wanted to go.”
“How – how would we survive?”
“On love,” Ida said with an infectious smile. “Love will tell us where to go.”
“Ida, you know damn well that’s impossible.” Her shoulders fell in frustration. Every ounce of her was willing to walk out that door with Ida by her side. But there was something holding her back.
“Of course they are! Don’t you trust me? Don’t you love me?”
“I do,” Louise said, as she began to pace the floor. Every fiber of her being was firing in a thousand different directions like a bullet from a musket. She willed her skin to hold strong. It was the only thing keeping her in one piece.
“Then tell me.”
Louise felt the weight sink her shoulders. “I love you.”
“And I love you. I have a little bit of money. It should fund us for most of the trip West. You can sell your stories, I can get work doing mending or cleaning homes if we need money. We’ll make it work.”
Neither one could continue to discuss their predicament when a heavy bang, repeated several times, broke them from their stupor. Someone was calling on Louise. But she wasn’t expecting any visitors.
“Louise! Open this goddamned door! I know you’re in there!” a familiar voice demanded.
Ice shot through Louise’s veins. She knew that voice very well. Her fear was reflected in Ida’s playful eyes. It was Horace Greeley, Ida’s bear of a father.
Neither one could react further when something was thrown against the door, and it exploded against its weight. A heavyset man in a suit emerged. Horace followed, rage in his eyes.
“How dare you, you common trollop!” Horace screamed. He raised a hand and slapped Ida in the face.
He turned his seething anger on Louise, raising a hand in her direction. “I gave you a chance. I gave you a million chances, and yet your corruption of my only daughter continues! Give me a reason, Louise! Give me a reason why I shouldn’t have you killed!”
John Campbell’s ears perked up at the noise that caught his attention. It was coming from the general direction of Louise Ellison’s quarters. He had an appointment for an interview with her later. Cheyenne was business, and business is good. The godawful feminine screaming was unsettling. He gestured to his men, who followed him.
A man was standing over a boy and beating him. Louise was trapped in the arms of a large man with a Roosevelt mustache.
“What the hell is going on in here?” Campbell screamed.
The man beating the other didn’t let up. The man holding Louise back waved him away. “It isn’t anything to concern yourself with, sir.”
“You’d be wrong, sir. I’m the governor of Wyoming. Cheyenne is my town, and you’re gonna explain in three seconds what you’re doing, or I’ll have you thrown in jail for obstruction.”
The man beating the other jumped back in surprise. It was then that Campbell got a full look at the cowering body on the floor. It was a woman. The man who answered Campbell let go of Louise, who ran to the woman’s side.
“Did you just beat a woman, sir? What is the meaning of this?”
“Governor, my name is Horace Greeley. I am the editor of the New York Post. This is my daughter, Ida. She – she ran away from home and I’m here to bring her back.” His eyes shot daggers in Louise’s direction. “I figured I’d teach her a lesson while we were here.”
Campbell shared a very long stare with Louise, and she knew that he knew.
“Very well, Mr. Greeley,” Campbell said easily. “However, we don’t beat the free citizens of Cheyenne so mercilessly.”
“I want her arrested,” Greeley replied, jabbing a finger in Louise’s direction. Ida moaned on the floor in response. Louise was holding Ida tenderly in an embrace. “Get away from her, you filthy whore!”
“Mr. Greeley, I’ll not have you speak to the women like that in my presence, if you please,” Campbell said. “But for the sake of the convalescence of your daughter, I will oblige.”
“Are you insane?” Louise screamed.
“Absolutely,” Campbell said. He gestured to his men. One grabbed Louise by her upper arms to drag her away, kicking and screaming. The other scooped the still moaning Ida to follow.
“Shall we have a drink at Mrs. Porter’s, Mr. Greeley?” he said, gesturing to follow him out the open door. “My treat.”
Greeley wiped the errant sweat from his brow and nodded. “The second sensible thing you’ve said all day. Thank you Governor.”
In the jail, Campbell’s men let the two women stay together. “Can’t I have a bowl of water and some rags?” Louise asked. Ida had protected as much of her face as she could, but a few blows left visible damage on her pretty face. “Please?”
They looked at each other wordlessly and did as they were asked.
Ida was curled up in the fetal position on the poor excuse for a cot in the makeshift Cheyenne jail. “Darling,” Louise whispered, ripping the linen into small compresses and placing it in the cool water. She patted Ida’s face carefully. “Can you hear me, darling?”
Ida moaned in response. “I can’t – I can’t…”
“Save your strength. The governor may have bought us some time. To what ends, I do not know.” Her run-ins with the governor thus far had been polite. Their lovemaking had been an experiment. She felt nothing beyond the education she received. He had an uncanny ability to read between the lines. She knew he was a politician, and knew of his past. He would only spin his knowledge of her true nature to his own advantage. That was alarming enough.
Several hours later, Horace Greeley and his men came upon Ida and Louise in their cell, asleep. Louise was sleeping sitting up in a chair provided by Campbell’s men, Ida sprawled out on the cot. They were holding hands. Her father’s man banged on the bars, awakening the women with a start.
Horace stared at his daughter hatefully. “You’re used goods, you disgusting whore. And you!” He turned his vitriol back on Louise. “I hand you a chance to redeem yourself. Cast away your unchristian way of life and live far away from us. Louise, you were 1 of my best writers. I couldn’t afford to lose you but you forced my hand.” He turned his gaze back to Ida. “Despite the shame you have brought to the Greeley name for generations, I have some exciting news to share. Governor Campbell has asked for Ida’s hand in marriage. You are to be married next week.”
Ida howled in pain, perhaps more from the bruising on her stomach and legs. “Daddy, no! Have you gone mad?”
“You will marry the governor, you spoiled, ungrateful brat. The governor has offered to spare your lives in return for a few good words in our paper, which you will write Louise, or I’ll make sure you’re never found.”
The proceeding week was a blur to both Louise and Ida. The wedding day arrived. Ida favored a black funeral dress but the women her father imported from New York to plan the shotgun wedding of sorts refused. John Campbell smiled at his future wife as they stood outside the chapel doors. He kissed her hand as she tried to tug it from his embrace. “You’ll learn to love me.”
“The hell I will,” Ida replied through gritted teeth.
Months passed. Ida was as willful as ever. It was no secret about her true preference. Campbell treated her like a queen and she despised him. He played mind games with her, withheld food. It was as if she were living in a Shakesperean circle of hell. He held onto her money very tightly, hid it away in bank accounts she had no access to.
“You’re a fool if you think your reputation doesn’t precede you, John Campbell. I know who you are. I know what the papers said about Atlanta,” she said coldly. “You’re a pathetic man.”
Campbell raised his hand and Ida stared at him defiantly. “Make no mistake, woman, I did what I had to do.”
Ida trained her icy glare onto him. “Then so will I.”
Once when she asked for her weekly allowance, he shoved the bills in his drawers and encouraged her to dig around for them. She was so affronted – as he expected her to be – that she didn’t speak to him again for the rest of the week. She would lose this war eventually. That’s how all women were.
She performed her wifely duties as expected. Cold, unresponsive. He didn’t mind. She might try to trick herself into believing she didn’t enjoy his caresses during their lovemaking, but her body told another story. She thrived under his touch. The sounds she made, the moans that escaped her lips as he brought her to ecstasy. Ida could say a lot of things when her clothes were on that cut under his skin, but he thoroughly enjoyed driving her completely mad in bed.
Ezra was angry at the church lady again, trying to teach him things. Sometimes he slipped and called her Mom when he wasn’t thinking clearly. She was as close to a mom as he was going to get but he still felt shaken by everything that had happened. Ruth tried to provide for him, as much as she could. In his manic state, he didn’t see where he was going and ran headlong into a person.
“Oops,” Ida said. She helped straighten him up, brushing the dust from his pantaloons. “How are you, darling?” Ezra tipped his hat in Ida’s direction. “Would you like a sweet?” She dipped her thin fingers into her pocket and pulled out taffy and hard candy. Ezra greedily grabbed them all and stuffed them in his mouth at once. Ida laughed at the sight. The governor was right behind her and watched the two of them with amusement. The young man tipped his hat at the both of them and took off in the opposite direction.
Ida continued to walk and caught her right heel in the mud of the main street of Cheyenne. Campbell caught up with her, proffering his arm to steady herself as she removed it. She accepted and said nothing. She had a soft spot in her heart for children. The mute boy was being raised well by Ruth, who had confessed to her that sometimes he felt like a lost cause. Ida encouraged her to continue. She told Ruth of her own childhood, of her long dead mother who was a massive influence in her life. She assured Ruth she could be that kind of woman in the boy’s life if she didn’t give up.
She loved Bohannon’s son, William, as if he were family. She had become close to his Mormon wife, Naomi. They were both strangers in a strange land. True, they were from different social classes, but it was their alienation that brought them together. She had Naomi for tea every so often. The other scamps that followed Hell on Wheels all took a liking to Ida’s kind and generous nature. They learned very quickly that they could get small sweets and candies if they were polite to the governor’s wife. She made it a point to have candies in her pocket when she enjoyed her daily post-breakfast constitutional. Campbell saw the genuine joy in her face when she did. He began to join her on these walks, which almost endeared him to the people of Cheyenne. The townsfolk saw them as quite the pair. They all knew of her past and how intertwined it was with Louise’s, but thankfully, no one gossiped much about their hurried courtship.
Her smiling face caught Campbell’s gaze. She instinctively looked up to see him studying her, the secret smile on her lips melting his heart. His face softened. “That’s the first genuine smile I’ve ever seen you give me,” Campbell said to her.
She immediately dropped the joy from her face, pressing her lips together in a thin line. “It wasn’t for you. It was for the child.” Ida continued to walk. He felt the cold emanating from her hands on his arms, although it was midsummer.
His generous natural height allowed him to bend down to whisper in her ear. “I know what’s in your heart. You wear it on your sleeve, no matter how hard you try and fight it. I can give you a child to bear, if it were to make you smile like that for the rest of my days,” Campbell offered.
Ida shook her head and snorted. “I would not suffer a child to be brought into this sham of a marriage,” Ida said immediately, trying not to sound as sad as she truly felt. She always said the first thing on her mind and never thought of the consequences. But it planted a seed in her mind. She loved Louise dearly and always would. But she knew that she would never be able to have a child if they were to spend the rest of their lives together. She had entertained every possible scenario of being a mother, and taking on a child that had already been born seemed like it had the most potential. But there would always be a part of her that would want a child that was half hers. It was only natural.
Later that night, as they were preparing for bed, Ida turned to look at Campbell in the mirror of her vanity. She was brushing her brown locks with the set he had purchased especially for her from New York. “Did you mean what you said today? About having a child?”
Campbell nodded and smiled, trying not to show that he had perhaps finally won her over. “Yes, I did. No matter your proclivities darling, you’re my wife. You’re of child-bearing age. You’ve always wanted to be a mother. Why should you deny yourself the pleasure because of what you are? You need only ask.”
Ida blushed and looked away. She put the brush down a few moments later, satisfied with how her hair finally looked, and joined him in bed. He leaned over and blew out the lantern light. The only light that filled the room was from the full moon above. Ida leaned against the down pillow, her hair fanning out around her, as she looked out the open window. She wondered what secrets the moonlight heard from all the millions of people in the world, the whispers in the night that she held and never shared.
“John?” she whispered in the dark, her back to him.
He turned over in their bed. “Yes?”
“I want to have a child,” she whispered. It was then that she rolled over to look at him. It felt like a business transaction to Ida, asking permission to have a child, but there was something freeing about admitting that to him. He reached over to touch her cheek, and perhaps for the first time since they had been married, she didn’t shy away. He kissed her and smiled.
“Can’t you smile, sweetheart? Just this once?” he begged gently. “I’m going to make you so happy.”
Against her better judgment, Ida smiled, blushing at the same time. The veil had finally burned away. He moved closer to her, running his hands under her dressing gown, hiking them up past her waist. He caressed her where he had always touched her, but that night, it felt different to Ida. It was her finally surrendering to the needs of the flesh and the demands of the heart. Feeling the weight of his body against hers, feeling the heat build and crest inside her… it was nothing like how she had made love to Louise, but things had changed. Not forever. But maybe, just this once.