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Northern Colorado, 1885
A variety of passengers scurried across the wooden platform of the Black Hawk depot, but only one held Clay Hoffman's attention, or better yet, his irritation. Women had a way of annoying him, and this one was in a tizzy, waving her hands, gesturing toward the train as she spouted off to Stan Thomas, the porter. Though he had no doubt the man could handle the situation, Clay moved to the depot door. Perhaps her luggage had been damaged or something. Loads had been known to shift during the ride up the mountain from Denver. That was why he was giving this woman, dressed in her canary-colored finery, the benefit of the doubt. His sister insisted he needed to do that once in a while. Therefore he was trying, but in reality, not getting too far. Old habits and all that.
"Clay?" Stan motioned for him to approach. "This is Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts."
Clay nodded, stepping closer and briefly assessing the woman, whose fancy bird-yellow outfit included a feathered hat with a lacy veil falling almost to her nose. Some might claim she deserved a second look, but he had no time for women, pretty or not, and turned his gaze to Stan, waiting to hear what the issue was.
"I'm inquiring as to the whereabouts of one Samuel Edwards," she said before Stan could speak.
Clay's insides froze as he narrowed his gaze on the little veil hiding most of Katherine Ackerman's face. "Why?"
She lifted her chin a bit higher. "That is between Mr. Edwards and me. Now if you'll be so kind as to"
"No," Clay said. The fact she'd called Sam "mister" told him all he needed to know. The kid was barely seventeen. Anyone who knew him knew that.
"No?" she repeated. "No what?"
Clay had a dozen questions about what a woman such as thisclearly from out East, by the sound of her nasally little voicewould want with Sam, but none of them mattered. She would never meet his ward. That, of course, should be Sam's decision, but Sam liked his privacy and Clay knew women. This one even smelled like troubleall sweet and flowery. He turned to the porter. "Was there something else she needed?"
Stan, one of the finest railroad men in the territory, hesitated and then cleared his throat. "Miss Ackerman was a bit upset by the, uh accommodations on the ride from Denver."
What a surprise. Train rides up a mountain were very different from train rides across the plains, and those out East, no doubt. Going down wasn't any better. Judging by her appearance and attitude, this woman wouldn't be happy about anything unless it was the very best, which made Clay's spine tighten. He rerouted his thoughts.
Sam had never been out of the mountains, but the kid's father had, and a part of Clay always wondered if someone would show up, claiming to be a relative. With a single nod, Clay turned to the woman. "I apologize if your train ride was uncomfortable." It wasn't his usual policy, but she'd already wasted enough of his time. "Stan," he said to the porter, "refund the passenger's fare and give her a ticket back to Denver."
"Denver?" she all but sputtered. "I don't want a refund," she added snootily. "I want to know the whereabouts of Sam"
"I," Clay informed her, nerves ticking, "am Sam's representative. I'll deliver a message to him for you."
"No," she said. "I prefer to talk to him in person."
"That's not possible," Clay retorted, his voice just as clipped as hers. His hackles were rising by the second. Outside of a few miners, Sam didn't interact with people much, and Clay respected that.
"Are you a relative of his?" He might as well get to the bottom of it.
She swallowed but didn't answer, and the little veil made it impossible for him to see more than her chin and pert lips, which were drawn into a pucker.
Just as he suspected. A woman after the kid's money. "Sam's not a social person," he said. "If you want to give me a message"
"No," she interrupted. "I"
"Fine," he snapped. "Refund her money, Stan." Clay spun around and started making his way toward the other end of town. That was the second person asking about Sam in less than twenty-four hours. A message from Big Ed over at the general store had arrived this morning, saying a trapper was asking questions about Clay's ward, and now this woman turned up. The first incident wasn't too much of a surprise; Sam's father had been a trapper, and others probably wondered what had become of the boy. But a snooty woman from out East made no sense at all. The ride to Sam's place next to the Wanda Lou was a long one, and Clay had a thousand other things to do. But Sam was his responsibility, and warning him about this woman couldn't wait. Plus he had some business to follow up on, anywaya miner causing a bit of trouble. Best to nip it in the bud. The kid didn't like taking the train, preferred to borrow a mule from the mine to haul his furs to Black Hawk, and had left town only a few hours ago.
Clay swallowed a sigh as he started up the street. Good thing he'd brought his horse with him on the train from Nevadaville this morning. The ones at the livery here were as barn sour as they came. If luck was with him, he could finish his business and still catch up to Sam before nightfall.
Kit Becker stared at the man walking away, half in utter disbelief, half in relief. Encountering Clayton Hoffman this early in her adventure was not in her plan. She wanted to meet Sam first. Had to meet Sam first. The desire to lift her veil so she could see the man more clearly, even if it was just his back, was hard to curtail, but she kept her hands at her sides. The veil was part of the disguise she needed to maintain.
"Right this way, Miss Ackerman."
It was a moment before Kit realized the porter was addressing her. She hadn't gotten used to the name. She had used the alias so her grandfather's solicitor, Mr. Watson, wouldn't learn she had left Chicago. Purchasing her ticket under a different name guaranteed a bit of time in her search for Samuel Edwards. That was another name that made her want to shake her head. Why hadn't Gramps told her about him? It just didn't make sense. Both he and Grandma Katie knew how badly she'd always wished their family was larger, and this past year, since their deaths, her loneliness had grown overwhelming and she'd wished it even more.
Turning to the man dressed in his bright blue suit with gold buttons, she sighed. "I don't want a refund. I just wanted oh, never mind." The train ride that had left her wanting to kiss the ground was no longer a concern. Finding her only living relative was. She dug in the drawstring bag on her wrist, pulled out a coin to hand to the man. "I apologize, sir, for the fuss, but I'm fine now. Would you be so kind as to see my luggage is taken to the hotel?"
"Yes, ma'am, but Mr. Hoffman said"
"I am not concerned about Mr. Hoffman, or his refund." She spun around and stepped off the platform, wondering where to start her search. All she knew was that Gramps had traveled to Black Hawk. Her eyes, practically of their own accord, turned in the direction Clay Hoffman had taken. He most definitely knew where Samuel Edwards was.
"Did I hear you say you want to see Sam Edwards?"
Somewhat startled, and cautious, since the gruff voice had the hair on her arms standing up, Kit turned slowly. The man who'd stepped up beside her was huge and covered from head to toe in animal skins. She swallowed.
"I'm a friend of his," the burly man said. "Saw him just a few hours ago."
Kit willed herself not to shiver. People just looked different here from how they did in Chicago, she told herself. At least this one did. "Could you tell me where I might find him?" she asked, flinching at how her voice cracked.
"He headed back to Nevadaville."
She couldn't help but glance at the train. Embarking on another ride up the side of that mountain was the last thing she wanted to do. She'd seen how easy it would have been for the entire locomotive to fall over the edge, tumble end over end down into the ravine. Gramps had never mentioned how treacherous the train rides were out here. The journey from Chicago had been fun, but not long after the locomotive had rolled past the fancy homes bordered by tall shade trees, and the rows of manufacturing buildings of Denverthe moment they'd started to chug uphillthe trip had become quite nightmarish, downright nerve-racking. Not right at first. To the west she'd seen Pike's Peak, boldly crowning the mountain range with regal glory. The sight had left her breathless, but then the train had crossed a bridge. Not a bridge like they'd crossed before, but a bridge. With nothing but emptiness below it. She could still hear the echoing rumble that had bounced off the mountainsides and sent her scrambling away from the window.
The way the train rocked and rolled on the narrow tracks, she'd half wondered if the metal wheels would bounce right off the rails and the whole thing, herself included, barrel down the mountain slopes that fell away on both sides. She'd tried to keep her gaze averted from the scenes outside, but something kept making her sneak peeks at the landscape, which varied from deep gulches to steep inclinations covered in pines and spruces and reaching thousands of feet into the air. Reading the bills advertising a list of shows available at Nevadaville's newly built opera houseeverything from single magicians to full performances of Hamlethad been a pleasant diversion. A necessary diversion. For each quick glance out the window had left her insides rolling. "He didn't take the train."
The man's voice pulled her from the memory, and turning, she waited for him to elaborate. Anything would be better than climbing back in that rolling box on wheels.
"He took the trail," the man said. "He's headed to the Wanda Lou."
Excitement zipped up her spine. That was Grandpa's mine. Now hers and, according to the will, Sam's.
He nodded, but it was the gleam that appeared in his narrow eyes under those dark, bushy brows that made her stomach flip. "I could show you," he said.
Barely able to contain the shivers this time, she shook her head. "No, thank you, that won't be necessary." She'd find someone else to assist her, which had her mind going to Clayton Hoffman. Grandpa's partner or not, there was no way she'd ask for his help. If he discovered who she was, he'd send her back to Chicago immediately.
Kit gave the frightening-looking man a parting nod, and recognizing her luggage being toted across the street by two young boys, hurried to follow them to the hotel. The boys waited as she checked in, and then carried her bags to her room. By the time they left, with coins in hand, she'd come up with her next disguise. A boy traveling the trail to the mine wouldn't fetch a second glance.
That might have been the longest night of his life. It had left a kink in his back as hard as a boulder. Clay stretched, flinching slightly at the ache, and then blew into the swirl of steam rising from his battered cup. When the coffee entered his mouth, instead of familiar appreciation, sharp, clawlike tendrils of repulsion dug into his shoulders and his throat locked up. Shuddering, he issued a silent curse and spat. Twice.
As another shiver raced over him, hitting every muscle and making him vibrate from head to toe, he tossed the rank coffee out, splattering dew-covered blades of spring grass.
How was that even possible?
Nothing, not even the sulfur-infused air of the gold smelters, stank this bad. Breathing through his mouth, he turned toward the other side of the fire pit, where the source of the eye-watering, nose-burning stench sat.
Head down, with an ugly leather hat hanging almost to his shoulders, the kid sipped his own cup of coffee, quite unaffected by the way his odor had corrupted the brew.
How he did so was unfathomable to Clay. He'd slept with his hat over his face just so he could breathe, and he'd been ten feet or more from the kid, on the other side of a smoldering fire.
Regretting the waste, but unwilling to dare a second taste, Clay picked up the flame-darkened pot sitting beside the fire, dumped out the contents and carried both the cup and pot to the trickling creek forging its way across the rocky ground and around squat trees.
Far enough away to breathe, Clay filled his lungs, and rinsed the utensils in the slow-moving water. Moun-taintop-cold, the creek was only a foot wide and barely ten inches deep, but farther along the trail, where the water collected before rolling downhill again, there was a pond.
One that would do quite efficiently.
The thought floundered for a moment, but ultimately, there was no other option. Time was awasting, as his old partner used to say. After stuffing the gear in his saddlebag, Clay grabbed the pommel of his saddle and carried everything toward his horse. "Time to move out."
The kidHenry, he called himself, though Clay knew when someone was lyingdidn't glance up. He did empty his cup into the dying embers, and then threw a couple handfuls of dirt over the coals before he pulled the hideous hat farther down on his head and stood.
Tightening the saddle cinch, Clay tossed another glance over his shoulder, to where the skinny kid, shoulders drooped beneath a filthy black-and-red-plaid shirt that should have been turned into a rag months ago, stood staring at the snuffed-out fire. The ride wouldn't be pleasant, but the pond wasn't too far, and if Clay held his breath, he might just make it.
Mornings, no matter what season, were chilly in the Rockies. Most months, apart from July and August, you could see your breath before the sun made her way over the snow-capped peaks to brighten and warm the hills and gulches. The pool would be cold, icy even, but there was no way he could tolerate that stench all the way to Black Hawk.
Sticking a foot in the stirrup, Clay hoisted himself into the saddle and then held out a hand. "Come on, Henry, climb up."
Arms folded across his chest and head down, the boy gave a negative shake. "I'm thinking I'll walk."
Henry nodded, at least the hat did. Actually, Clay had yet to see the kid's face, other than a dirtencrusted chin and neck. He'd found "Henry" last evening, crouched beneath a half-dead ponderosa pine.