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That day Aaron escorted his mother and older sister, Jennifer, to the outsized front door of the Armbrister mansion, then he walked the length of the portico in search of shade and a cool breeze. He found no relief from summer's dog days, but in looking out to the horizon he did have a grand view of the fl at, sun-cooked Colorado prairie. Turning and walking to the other end of the portico, Aaron looked due west and saw snow and glaciers on the distant peaks of the Rocky Mountains. He had never been in those mountains.
For a moment Aaron wished he was there in what he imagined was carefree coolness; the next moment Aaron wanted to be nowhere else but here.
The great door of the mansion eased open several inches. The movement caught Aaron's eye. He saw a young woman slip out through the aperture. She was tall. Her waist was very small and her breasts very full. Long auburn hair fell around her face in soft curls, framing red lips and brown, doe eyes. She walked gracefully to Aaron. Her lips parted sensually as she spoke, and Aaron was caught in her spell.
"I don't like your sister," she said.
Aaron grinned. Throughout the summer his expression had been glum as he dutifully escorted his mother and sister around Denver and performed all of the gentlemanly tasks that were expected of him. For the past two years-going on three and forever, he feared-Aaron's role as the "perfect young gentleman" was defined entirely by his mother. Aaron's father had recently expanded his printing business and now spent little time at home.
Aaron stoically went through all of the correct motions. As needed, he held an umbrella or parasol over coiffured heads. He helped his mother and sister in and out of the new family carriage. And he opened and closed countless doors for the Mills women.
Because the Mills women never ventured far from the safe, settled sections of Denver, Aaron's travels were limited and his only adventures were those that he fantasied. In 1891 the streets around Capitol Hill and Armbrister Hill were paved with brick, the homes along the tree-lined streets were uniformly tidy, and the men and women on the walks were generally civilized and proper.
By contrast, many of the sprawling city's streets were only muddy or dusty tracks between long rows of dreary frame buildings. The boardwalks in the saloon district near the railyards were crowded with rowdy men and painted ladies. Of the men, some were cowboys and ranchers who had come into Denver after the sale of their stock. Others were miners and mill workers from the mountains. These were a rough breed, of various nationalities-Italians, Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, Cornishmen, Russians-who stormed into Denver to let off steam and see the elephant.
Aaron's regular pastime at age sixteen was to read the crime news in the Denver newspapers. He was fascinated by the goings-on in the city's rougher sections, but he was shielded from seeing them for himself by his mother. The nearest Aaron came to being in Denver's saloon district was an occasional carriage ride across town to the new Mills Job Printers building. Aaron's time, for the most part, was carefully divided between the Hawkins Academy for Boys, where Aaron attended school, and the Mills home at the base of Armbrister Hill.
Armbrister Hill was the peak of Denver's high society. The pine-studded hill was topped by the famous Armbrister mansion. This grand structure was embraced by a tall iron fence in the shape of hundreds of upturned spears, and was guarded at the front gate by a pair of stone lions. Half fortress and half luxurious residence was the outside appearance of the mansion. Two high turrets stood at either end. The building between them was built of Colorado granite, trimmed with Colorado marble, and all of the interior metalwork was plated with Colorado gold.
Wallace Armbrister, builder of the mansion, was known in his lifetime as the Gold Baron of Colorado. He was one of thousands of young men who flocked to the Rockies in the rush of '59. But unlike the multitudes, Wallace Armbrister stumbled onto a bonanza. With his fortune, he built a flamboyant reputation and the greatest mansion Denver would ever see. And then at the zenith of his life, Wallace Armbrister shot himself through the brain in a Denver hotel room. This event took place in 1875, the year of Aaron's birth.
Wallace Armbrister's widow, Harriet, inherited the fortune and the mansion, but she became financially stingy and socially gracious in order to live down her late husband's reputation as a reckless philanthropist and a man for the ladies. Harriet, though plain, was known as "The Queen of the Queen City," but on that hot August afternoon when she greeted the Mills women at her front door, Aaron saw her for what she was: a bent, shriveled woman now well into her seventies, white-haired and drawn about the face as though she were in constant pain.
Perhaps she was. Less than a decade after her husband's suicide she suffered through a second tragedy when her only child, a daughter named Cleo, was thrown from her horse during a Fourth of July parade. Cleo was trampled to death by a following team of draft horses that pulled a red, white, and blue ore wagon. The big wagon was loaded with gold ore from the Colorado Rockies.
Cleo Armbrister had endured a life of endless wealth and unkind remarks. She had inherited her mother's looks and a streak of madness from her father. Cleo believed she was a great horse woman and set out to prove it by riding half wild horses in the city's parades. These animals pranced, pitched, ran sideways for great distances, and were inclined to bite any human in sight.
Some of the jokes about Cleo found their way into print in the less reputable newspapers of the day. One reporter claimed to have seen a man observe Cleo Armbrister in a parade and wonder aloud which was the horse. Disparaging remarks followed Cleo to her grave. A story made the rounds that although Denver's "Princess of the Prairie" had been trampled by horses, no one could tell the difference. And in truth, despite the riches her name represented, Cleo was probably well on her way to spinsterhood when she was killed at the age of twenty-four.
Harriet Armbrister left Denver immediately after her daughter's funeral. The servants were let go. The mansion gate was bolted. Huge stained glass windows at ground level were boarded over.
No one in Denver knew where Harriet had gone. Rumors sprung up. Harriet Armbrister had booked passage on a steamship bound for the Continent, but she had leaped overboard in mid-ocean. Another rumor had it that Harriet now lived quietly back East, refusing to speak to anyone. Her sadness was so profound that she would never return to the West. Broken hearts do not mend.
Everyone in Denver wondered what would happen to the grandest residence in the city, the Armbrister mansion. Weeds grew up in the drive and spread to the lawn. Trimmed shrubs grew raggedly. Passersby peered through the gate and shook their heads at the forlorn sight of the proud mansion with its boarded windows and chained front door. Within the year the mansion was said to be haunted by the ghosts of a mad Wallace Armbrister and his hideous daughter, Cleo.
But in two years Harriet returned. She brought a teenaged girl and made it known that she had adopted the girl. And when Harriet presented her to Denver society in a debutante ball the likes of which Denverites had never seen before, everyone realized the girl possessed all that Cleo had lacked. This young woman was a beauty in the classic mold, with a perfect hourglass figure, and an angelic face. So great was her feminine power that she could stop a man in his tracks or bring a bud to flower with a mere glance. Such was the talk.
One fact came to light, however, that brought a hush. Harriet Armbrister called her adopted daughter by the name of Cleo.
Aaron was vaguely aware of these circumstances, and of the many rumors that had heated cold parlors last winter, but in his sixteenth year he was much more interested in crime news and the lurid accounts of murder and mayhem he read in the Police Gazette. Aaron had also recently discovered dime novels. He had an active imagination. As he read, he virtually lived the lives of famous explorers, hunters, Indians, and soldiers, and he rode the Owlhoot Trail with courageous lawmen in their relentless pursuit of outlaws.
Aaron's interest in these garish publications intensified when his mother, after being tipped off by Jennifer, confiscated his entire collection. Thereafter, Aaron, who always had to buy the dime novels through his friends at school, sneaked them into the house beneath his shirt. He hid them under the bottom drawer of a clothes chest in his bedroom. Reading the forbidden stories in secret made them more exciting than ever.
"I don't like your sister."
Aaron realized he was smiling crazily, but could not stop himself. "What ... what did she do to you?"
"She dismissed me. I live there, but she dismissed me. Can you imagine?"
Aaron nodded. "Jennifer does that when she's through talking to someone who's younger than she."
The young woman glanced back toward the door. "Your sister calls you 'that young man.'"
"You should hear what I call her," Aaron said recklessly.
The young woman laughed suddenly. "I'd like to, Aaron."
Aaron felt a blush sweep over his face when she spoke his name. "What's your name?" he asked.
The young woman reached out and took Aaron's hand. She twisted his arm, hard. Aaron's obvious confusion brought another laugh from the girl.
"Can't you guess?" she asked.
Aaron shook his head. "Who are you? Do you work here?"
"Armtwister," she said. "My name is Armtwister."
Suddenly Aaron realized she was the legendary girl, the adopted daughter of Harriet Armbrister. "You are ... Cleo."
Her face darkened. "I am not. My name is Moose. Moose Armtwister."
Aaron laughed. "Wait until old Harriet hears about this." He made an elaborate pretense of calling out, "Mrs. Armbrister!"
"Don't," the young woman whispered urgently. She moved closer and touched Aaron with the length of her body. The pleasant sensation made Aaron feel excited and uncomfortable at once.
"I hate that name," she whispered. "Please don't call me that."
"What do you want to be called?" Aaron asked. "Besides Moose."
A smile crept over her face. "I like you."
Aaron swallowed hard and tried to think of something to say, but failed. All he could do was grin.
"Sadie Anne," she said. "Call me Sadie Anne."
"That's a pretty name," Aaron said.
She nodded seriously. "It was my mother's."
"Where are you from?" Aaron asked.
"Not far from here," she said. She stepped away from Aaron, but held on to his hand. Aaron followed her eyes as she looked out across the portico to the prairie out east.
"Out there?" Aaron asked.
The question was never answered. The door of the mansion swung open. Aaron's mother and sister came outside, followed by Harriet Armbrister. Mrs. Armbrister made a quick, beckoning motion to her adopted daughter.
Aaron whispered, "Good-by, Sadie Anne."
"Don't say good-by-ever," Sadie Anne whispered, then turned and walked across the portico to Mrs. Armbrister's side.
Aaron caught up with his mother and sister before they reached the carriage. High in the driver's seat, the hired man took reins in hand and held the team. Aaron opened the carriage door and helped his mother and sister in, then he climbed in after them.
Aaron looked back at Sadie Anne and Mrs. Armbrister. Sadie Anne raised her hand in what might have been a secret wave. The carriage moved ahead.
Jennifer glanced at her mother, then spoke to Aaron. "Well, you two seemed to get along very well."
Aaron shrugged in reply.
Jennifer went on in a teasing voice, "I'll bet you're the only young man in town to have held that young lady's hand. Harriet never lets her out of the house, they say."
The carriage rolled through the gate, past the stone lions, and entered the street. Aaron wanted to look back to see if Sadie Anne was still there, but he forced himself to watch the passing scenery.
Aaron's mother said, "I certainly would wonder about the girl's background. All kinds of children end up in those orphanages back in New England."
"Where?" Aaron asked.
"Pay attention, Aaron," Jennifer said.
Aaron's mother explained, "Harriet said she had adopted the girl over a year ago from an orphanage in Boston. Did she say anything about her background to you?"
Aaron shook his head.
"The way you two were holding hands," Jennifer said, "I just wonder what you were talking about."
"Well, she is pretty," Aaron's mother said. "But her manners are rusty."
"Nonexistent," Jennifer said. "She is no Cleo."
"Isn't it odd that Harriet insists on calling her by that name," Aaron's mother said.
"Harriet's living in a dream world," Jennifer said. "She simply can't face the fact that she's lost her daughter."
"Perhaps so," Mrs. Mills said slowly. She looked at Jennifer. "I can understand that."
The carriage descended the slope to the base of Armbrister Hill. Around the corner at the first street, Maple Avenue, the Mills home stood among other brick and frame houses. Most were two story, and most were painted in reds and whites, sporting gingerbread decorations and latticework.
Aaron looked out of the carriage window at the familiar neighborhood scene, but he saw none of it. Sadie Anne's voice still echoed in his mind and he saw a lingering vision of her.
Chapter Two In the following days Aaron overheard his mother and sister repeat their severe judgments of Sadie Anne to their friends. Aaron wanted to defend Sadie Anne, but he kept silent. He knew he would only start an argument with his mother. Aaron had learned from past experience that it was easier to go around his mother than through her.
Aaron began taking evening walks in the neighborhood while his mother and Jennifer sat at home reading aloud to one another, sewing, or painting china. Aaron's father, Jacob Mills, was swamped with orders for printing and was rarely home before eight o'clock.
Aaron's walks, by design, took him up Armbrister Hill. He walked slowly past the great mansion, hoping to see Sadie Anne "by accident." Aaron planned elaborate explanations for his presence in front of the mansion, and he imagined himself smoothly engaging Sadie Anne in witty conversation. Aaron also wanted to find out what Sadie Anne had meant when she'd said she did not live far away. Certainly she had not meant Boston, Massachusetts.
After several days Aaron realized his plan would never work. The street was too far from the mansion, and Aaron did not yet have the courage to walk through the gate.
Next Aaron hiked up the weed-grown hillside behind his house. He climbed to the thick stand of pine trees near the top of Armbrister Hill. He walked through the fragrant trees to the iron fence that surrounded the Armbrister property. From here the mansion was even farther away than it was from the street, over a hundred yards distant. A summer house stood halfway between the fence and the mansion. The small building was octagonal with a peaked roof and screened sides.
Aaron noticed several places along the fence where he could crawl under, and he was tempted to sneak in for a closer look. But the prospect of getting caught was more frightening than walking through the front gate.
The next evening Aaron did that. He walked past the stone lions, up the walk, and mounted the steps to the portico. At the mansion's front door, Aaron turned the bell handle. His knees quivered while he waited, and he desperately hoped Sadie Anne would open the front door.
After a few long minutes the door was opened by a uniformed maid. "Sir?" she asked.
"I've come to call on Miss Armbrister," Aaron said.
"Who shall I say is calling?" The young maid spoke in an Irish brogue.
The maid smiled briefly, then closed the door. Aaron endured another long wait. The more time that passed, the higher his expectations rose. Earlier, Aaron had planned exactly what he would say to Sadie Anne, but now his mind was blank.
Excerpted from Field of Death by Stephen Overhoiser Copyright © 1977 by Stephen Overhoiser. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 17, 2011