An Unexpected Redemption
Olin Springs, Colorado
Late August 1881
Elizabeth Beaumont had been thrown off green-broke horses and out of rooming houses, but never from a train.
That’s what it felt like as brakes squealed, the car jerked against its couplings, and the conductor opened the door into darkness. He jumped to the platform, set down his step, and glanced at the depot. “Hope someone’s meetin’ you, miss.”
He offered his hand. “Looks like there’s trouble aplenty in town.”
Thin light haloed the train station, wavering behind it like an uncertain sunrise. Like Elizabeth’s confidence. “But my trunk and crate?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He pointed back down the platform. “There. You hurry now.”
She descended into moonless night, and he snatched up the step, pulled himself inside, and closed the door.
Not exactly thrown off, but close enough to it.
The passenger car eased ahead. Another slid by and the mail bag hit the platform with a thud. She assumed it was the mail bag and not a body.
Startled by the thought, she squinted at the shapeless lump until assured it was made up of letters and not limbs.
Touching the back of her hair, she adjusted her modestly plumed hat, then tugged at her gloves and reticule, both the same deep navy as her plaid traveling suit. It mattered little now since all was a colorless black and no one was meeting her. Still, little was more than not at all.
Some might consider arriving under cover of night weak-hearted, but why suffer scorn when it could be avoided? Six years ago, she had disappeared without warning. An impetuous seventeen-year-old. Now she returned in a similar manner, much preferred to stepping off a morning train to the judgmental whispers and shaking heads of local gossips.
Click-clacking out of town, the train chased its feeble lantern along the tracks, the whistle wailing around the bend for the mountains. In the quieting aftermath, more urgent sounds arose. Men shouted. Horses scrambled.
Coal smoke and steam gave way to the pungent scent of burning wood, nothing like a comforting hearth or campfire. The eerie flicker beyond the depot drew her with morbid interest.
Gathering her skirts, she hurried around the end of the depot and stopped at the next corner. Terror clutched her throat. Two blocks south, bright flames blazed from the second-floor windows of the Olin Springs Hotel.
Men ran past, one snagging her skirt on the bucket he carried. She stumbled forward, but the fabric gave and the bucket ripped away, leaving her petticoat exposed.
Someone shouldered her from behind. “Get out of the way. This is no place for a woman!”
At a trough in the next block, a man worked the pump. Those running with buckets handed them over and rushed ahead to take their place in a growing line.
Elizabeth ran toward the far end, elbowing her way between an older man and a boy. She grabbed the bucket shoved toward her, then handed it off to the youngster and turned for the next one coming down the line.
Time slowed in the wavering glow of yellow flames, and at a lull in the passing, she pulled off her gloves and glanced up at the hotel. Wood groaned and snapped, and debris and sparks spewed skyward as the second floor roared down onto the first. Horses tethered at hitch rails across the street reared and broke loose, then thundered away with heads high and reins flailing.
Had the town no fire brigade? No hose team? If the flames weren’t stopped, they’d consume the entire block.
With her senses numbed by the endless lifting and passing of leather, wooden, and metal buckets, Elizabeth missed the moment that dawn blinked upon the scene. She was weary, filthy, and soaked to the bone. Only her mouth was dry, her throat raw from smoke and ash.
The buckets slowed, and she stepped back from the line. Others did the same, eyes white and ghostlike in their soot-covered faces. Shoulders drooping in fatigue and failure.
Little had been saved.
Only then did she notice the young couple watching from the street, one quilt wrapped around both of them. Feet bare and hair disheveled, they clung to each other. Horror marred their faces as if they’d just watched all their worldly possessions go up in flames.
Likely, they had.
Elizabeth dragged herself closer to the hotel’s black skeleton. Brass and iron beds had fallen through from the upper floor, landing in distorted heaps below. Wash basins, chairs, and trunks lay broken or scorched. Ashes formed rectangular patterns where once-fine furniture had stood.
One corner of the hotel remained oddly intact, a reminder of its former glory.
Turning away, she again faced the desperate-looking couple, clinging to each other and their quilt, unmoving as others milled around them. She had a room reserved at Margaret Snowfield’s boarding house. Where would they go?
“Excuse me.” With the back of her hand, she pushed grimy hair from her face. “I’m Elizabeth Beaumont, and I couldn’t help noticing you standing here. Were you staying at the hotel?”
The woman’s face crumpled into tears, and she hid against the man’s shoulder.
“Yes.” He tightened one arm around her. “We arrived three days ago to set up shop. I’m Hiram Eisner, a tailor, and this is my wife, Abigail.”
Abigail peeked out and started weeping anew.
“Do you have a place to stay?” A pointless question, since Elizabeth had nothing to offer but her own room, if she still had a room.
“We will stay in our shop,” Hiram said as if coming to a conclusion.
She laid a hand on Abigail’s quilt-covered shoulder and leaned closer. “It will be all right.” Such assurance from one who had none for herself.
Abigail looked out from her hiding and nearly smiled. Hope dampened her dark lashes. “Toda.”
“She said thank you.” Hiram nodded once in agreement.
Elizabeth rushed back to the depot, hoping to find her belongings still there and wondering if things would ever be all right for her again. Go home and wait, had been Erma Clarke’s encouragement after the humiliating debacle with their employer. Though Erma was Elizabeth’s only friend in Denver, her directive was easier heard than followed.
This homecoming was not what Elizabeth anticipated, though it certainly was ignored. That small wish had been granted.
But the waiting part would no doubt prove more difficult because it involved, well, waiting. Something at which she had never excelled.
The mail bag and her trunk and small crate sat like orphans on the platform’s edge. No thieves in Olin Springs to abscond with them, as might have been the case at Denver’s Union Station.
Alone once more in quieter surroundings, she fingered her reticule, sodden but still dangling from her wrist. Little sparkle if any shown from the dirty glass beads, though if the light hit at just the right angle, one or two still winked.
Her gloves were gone.
She slumped against her camelback trunk, stealing a moment’s rest before trekking the few blocks to Mrs. Snowfield’s boarding house across the tracks. From her low vantage point, she could just make out the cupola atop the mansion. That’s what she and Sophie Price had called the ornately scrolled, two-story house on Saddle Blossom Lane when they were girls. At the moment, she didn’t know which was more foolish, their girlish conjecture of secretly meeting suitors in the romantic cupola, or that ridiculous street—
A low growl vibrated through the cord of her reticule and shimmied up her arm. Jumping to her feet, she faced an enormous beast that had clamped onto her bag.
“Oh no you don’t!” She slapped the cur, snatching her once-lovely accessory from its drooling jaws.
Quick as a snake, it reclaimed its prize with a sickening rip. The tear unbalanced her, and she tumbled backward into the dirt along the tracks.
Clearly the winner in the tug-o-war, the brute shook her reticule in triumph, flinging coins and beadwork for yards. A rouge pot rolled beneath the platform.
She didn’t know whether to swear or scream.
Pearl? The tawny four-legged thug looked past the depot, ears flattening at the commanding tone.
It dropped to its haunches, the ruined bag dangling from its mouth.
Elizabeth rubbed her wrist. A fine homecoming, indeed
“Give it back.” A scowling stranger approached from beyond the platform, his long legs making light of the distance. The mongrel inched closer, giving Elizabeth a woeful look, then opened its mouth and released her reticule as well as its atrocious breath. She gagged.
With a whine, the animal dolefully watched its master stop before them.
The man bent over and took Elizabeth’s elbow. “You all right, miss?”
Most unladylike, she spread her feet to stabilize her footing and gripped his hard hand, pulling herself to a standing position. He did not immediately release her fingers, and she looked up into laughing gray eyes framed by a mask-like layer of soot.
He smelled of wet clothing and smoke. Or was it she who smelled? Snatching her hand away, she dusted her backside, long past caring about deportment. “Does this beast greet all train passengers so vigorously?”
The man tipped his hat up, and morning light glinted off the star on his vest. Quite unlike the stout little lawman she remembered, a point in her favor.
“Only the beauties.”
His attempted flattery stung, in spite of the humor that danced in his eyes. Surely she hadn’t run from one lecher into the jurisdiction of another.
“My apologies, miss. I had no idea Pearl was loose until I heard you holler.”
At that, she sniffed. Ladies did not holler. But neither did they work bucket brigades or sprawl in the dirt on their backside.
She glanced at his Colt .45 long barrel. The man took his job seriously.
Re-securing her hat pin, she wondered why she hadn’t thought to use it against her attacker. “Accepted.”
“Your apology. I accept it.”
A tilted nod. “My pleasure.”
Too much pleasure, to her way of thinking. He’d been entertained by the exhibition with his dog.
She turned toward her trunk and crate. Another coin slipped from her mangled bag, and he picked it up with several others and offered them to her.
“Wilson, miss. Garrett Wilson. Sheriff and apologetic dog owner.”
Witty too. Taking the coins, she discounted his breadth of shoulder and confident stance. A similar confidence had once enticed her to make a very poor decision, but she was wiser now. “Mrs. Elizabeth Beaumont.”
“I don’t recall seeing you in town before. You weren’t planning to take a room at the hotel, were you?”
Nosy or protective of his territory, at least he didn’t know her. She let her gaze linger on the camelback, hoping he’d take the hint. Independence was one thing. Dragging a heavy trunk to the boarding house by herself quite another.
He bit. “This yours?”
She bit her tongue. One trunk, one passenger.
“It is.” She’d been deliberating, as well as resting, when the lion-dog attacked, considering which to take first—the trunk or her treasure. Valuing the means of her livelihood over her meager wardrobe, she reached for the crate.
The sheriff was quicker. He wrapped one arm around it and rested it against his gun belt.
“I’ll be happy to bring this along—and the trunk—if you’ll just point me in the right direction. After slinging water and tangling with Pearl, I imagine you’re spent.”
Either he’d seen her in the bucket line, or she looked like she’d been in the bucket line. Probably the latter. “I am far from spent, Sheriff Wilson.”
Mother had warned her about her temper, relentlessly insisting Elizabeth display humility and grace. However, good manners paled in the burning glow of assaulted sensibilities, overriding her need of help. With both hands, she took hold of the crate. “Thank you just the same, but I shall take care of my own affairs.”
He studied her a moment, amusement spattering green flecks across his gray gaze as he took in her hat and face, her dirty jacket and torn skirt. But he did not release the crate.
She tugged in a one-sided struggle that drew her closer.
Watching her from mere inches above, he stood stalwart. Dark stubble shadowed a jaw as strong as his hold, and a small scar on his left cheek ticked into a dimple-like crease. His mouth opened as if he would comment, then clapped shut.
He let go.
She fell to her southern side again, the heavy crate adding injury to insult.
Without hesitation, he offered his hand, brows slightly raised.
She glared and shoved the crate off her lap. “I think not.”
“Suit yourself.” He took a step back, touched his dirty hat brim politely, and strode away.
The yellow monstrosity that had started the whole affair rolled out a deep-throated woof, and trotted after him.
Elizabeth pushed up using the crate, reminding herself that she’d been bucked off snottier colts—only slightly taller than the sheriff’s dog. But this time the bruising reached deeper, all the way to her pride.
Mother was right about that particular trait preceding a tumble.
A few colorful beads lay in the dirt around her, but she let them lie, gathering only the rouge pot from beneath the platform. Anger, fatigue, and humiliation warred for preeminence as she glanced around.
A hatless man stood at the narrow gap between the depot and the express office, writing on a small pad.
He caught her watching him, and ambled off still writing.
A reporter for the Gazette taking notes on her standoff?
She hefted the crate and turned for Saddle Blossom Lane—as ridiculous a street name as Pearl was for that monstrosity of a dog. If the scribbling gent really was a reporter, surely the fire was a bigger story than her surreptitious return.
Shifting the crate against one hip, she limped away.
Cade would have a wild-horse fit the moment he learned she’d come home but not to the ranch. She disliked the prospect of squaring off with her big brother, but refused to let him plot her future. On the other hand, he had assisted her financially after Edward’s abandon—
The remaining syllable came growling up from her chest much like the dog’s departing remark.
It took great restraint to keep from glancing behind her. No need to see if Sheriff Wilson and his sidekick were watching her progress. She could feel his smirk, the lout.
Give a man a gun and a badge and he thought he ruled the world.
Dust danced around her shuffling steps and clung to her damp hem like a bad reputation. Who was she kidding? The residents of Olin Springs had memories like elephants. They didn’t need to witness her arrival to know that she’d returned. Alone. Without a husband. Tongues would wag faster than that yellow dog’s tail for a ham hock.
She’d need a running iron to change the brand she’d acquired.
The ornamental brackets and wide eaves of Mrs. Snowfield’s elegant home came into full view, exactly the sanctuary Elizabeth sought. Perhaps the elderly widow had someone to assist boarders with their belongings. Someone not prone to supposition and a flapping jaw.
The Snowfield grounds took up a generous acre. In the morning’s fresh light, the mistress stood at her wrought-iron fence, leaning over the decorative spires as she craned her neck and dabbed her forehead with a hankie.
Elizabeth was sweating like a lame pig.
The gate swung open. “My dear Betsy, what happened? I heard the train arrive last night and when you didn’t come—and then the fire. Oh my lands, I was worried sick about you. And look at you. Let me help you with that box.”
“It’s quite heavy. If you could open the front door for me, that would help.”
As wispy and lithe as ever, Mrs. Snowfield fluttered up the veranda steps and held open the ornately carved door.
Elizabeth made it to the oak staircase and set the crate on the second step before plopping down beside it.
Her new landlady closed the door with purpose and turned, hands on her narrow hips. “My dear, you look as if you walked all the way from Denver and then helped fight the fire.”
Just what Elizabeth needed—a reminder of her bedraggled appearance. She unpinned her hat and laid it atop the crate. “You’re half right.”
“Let me get you some refreshment and then you can tell me what happened.” Whisking down the hallway, Mrs. Snowfield called over her shoulder, “Your room is on the second floor, first one to the right.”
Clearly, there was no one to help guests with their belongings. But there was indoor plumbing and a bathing room. Elizabeth had confirmed that bit of rumor in her letters when making arrangements to board with Mrs. Snowfield. At a dollar per day, certain amenities were expected.
A thick floral runner carpeted the stairs, and Elizabeth welcomed its cushion beneath her weary feet. Rather than share refreshment and information, she preferred to take a long nap and soaking bath, but the latter must wait until she had her trunk.
At the open door to her room, she stopped with a gasp. The furnishings were as lovely as anything Denver had offered, though she’d not enjoyed the opulence of the Windsor Hotel. She set the crate and her hat on a writing desk at the curtained window, then tossed her ruined reticule onto the four-poster bed. The embodiment of her emotional state, it too, had come home in tatters.
An in-laid rosewood bed table and washstand complemented an imposing wardrobe and dressing table. The elegantly carved mantelpiece bore keepsake boxes, cut-glass dishes, and painted figurines. The cheval mirror accentuated the grime clinging to her torn skirt, and she opened the wardrobe in search of a clothes brush. Lavender sachet wafted out, and she nearly burst into tears at the long-lost luxury.
Matured by betrayal and thinned by the formerly unknown experience of true hunger, she counted on the residents of Olin Springs not recognizing her as the impulsive rancher’s daughter they’d once known. Not until she was employed, providing for herself, and no longer in need of her brother’s assistance.
And her plan did not call for sitting mildly by and letting things work out.
Pushing aside blue damask curtains, she lifted the window. A hesitant breeze replied, tainted by the smell of wet ash, but a clear view of the depot lay beyond the tree tops. Perhaps a mile or so in the hazy distance rose the nearest ridge, around which the railway curled.
Exhaustion drew her to the bed, where she fell onto a matching damask counterpane and feather tick, judging by the absence of lumps and crunching husks. Just pure, downy comfort. Oh, to skip dinner and simply sleep…
“Betsy, dear. Are you all right?”
Waking with a start, she elbowed up. Betsy again.
A gentler light filled the room, and her hostess stood in the doorway, concern bunching her dark brows. Oddly, those brows had not faded to match the cloud of white atop her head, and they accentuated the woman’s worry.
“I must have dozed off.” Elizabeth threw her legs over the edge, embarrassed that her landlady saw she’d not taken time to remove her soiled clothing before flopping across the bed.
“Well, yes, you did doze. It’s almost suppertime.” A forgiving smile. “But you must have needed it, I dare say. Come down when you’re ready and we’ll have a bite. It will be just the two of us this evening. Sheriff Wilson has a late meeting.”
“Excuse me?” Surely Elizabeth had misheard.
Mrs. Snowfield paused at the door. “The sheriff, dear. When he delivered your trunk, he said to go ahead without him.”
Elizabeth choked, her raw throat burning as she coughed until she couldn’t breathe.
Mrs. Snowfield rushed to the washstand, filled a tumbler with water from the pitcher, and handed it to her with a sharp slap on her back. “Goodness, child, whatever is the matter?”
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