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Martha Mae Stanton yanked the satin ribbon beneath her chin and jerked off the ridiculous black hat. Digging her nails into the fine netting, she ripped the veil away and tossed it on the seat beside her.
A long, hot train ride was one thing. Making that ride while behind a socially dictated curtain was quite another.
Across the aisle, a matron gasped and clutched her reticule to her bulging bosom. Martha picked up the veil, leaned into the narrow walkway and dropped the netting on the woman's shelflike lap. "Here. You wear it. I've had enough."
The matron sputtered and huffed and swatted the black tulle from her knees as if it were a stinging hornet.
A smile almost made it to Martha's dry lips but died for lack of sustenance.
She leaned back against the plush green seat and squeezed her eyes shut. The late afternoon sun boiled through her window. Grit dusted her teeth, and perspiration gathered beneath her arms and dribbled down her back. September had never been so stickynot in the Rocky Mountains.
Mimicking the matron a half hour later, the Denver & Rio Grande wheezed to a coughing stop at Canon City's depot. Steam hissed along the wheels and a knot tightened in Martha's neck. She retied the hat as impatient travelers rushed the aisle. Weary mothers herded their petulant young ahead of them, reminding Martha of her former studentsand the children she would never bear.
The porter stopped at her seat with a shining smile and a tip of his cap. "This be your stop, ma'am. Last one today."
"Yesyes, I know." She looked toward the open door at the end of the car, caught the shouts of reuniting families. With a deep breath she stood and gripped the seat back ahead of her, giving her legs a moment to remember how to proceed.
"May I carry that for you, ma'am?" He reached for her bag.
"No. Thank you." She curled her fingers into the handle, desperate for something to ground her, keep her from running back down the rails.
She made her way to the exit and paused at the step, scanning the crowd for her parents. They stood apart, the only two people not huddled with arriving passengers. A smiling mask lay hard against her mother's gentle face. Martha recognized it from the countless times her father had dealt with the more unpleasant duties of his calling.
She should not have returned. Regret slid from the back of her damp collar and pooled at her waist. She did not want her family to see her as an unpleasant obligation.
The porter cleared his throat. "You all right, ma'am?"
She plucked at her high collar. "I'm fine. Thank you."
Breathing in a dusty draught, she descended to the step and then the ground. Her father appeared and drew her into his arms. Silent. Strong. He held her close, knowing as always exactly what to do.
Her mother wrapped an arm around each of them and bent her lilac-scented hair toward Martha. The fragrance embraced her as closely as her parents and drew her back through the years.
"I am so sorry." Her mother's whisper fell as gently as her scent.
Martha pulled from the embrace and met troubled eyesher father's black as her mourning dress but shining with love. Her mother's, burnished and beautiful as ever, though age had etched their corners.
"Thank you," Martha said. "Both of you. Let's go home."
It was a short walk to the buggy, and she and her mother climbed in while the porter helped her father strap her trunk to the back. Settling her carpetbag at her feet, Martha glanced toward the depot's long covered platform. In a shadowed corner, an abutment jutted from the building and a man leaned against it. Had the sun not been at a sharp angle, she would have missed him in his dark clothing, hat pulled just below the level of his eyes. One knee bent with the booted foot resting on the wall. His thumbs hooked his trousers, draping back a black coat.
It was too hot for a coat of any kind.
She didn't realize she was staring until he raised his head a hairbreadth and bore into her with a blue gaze.
Steeled, perhaps by months of grief, she held his scrutiny without reaction, measuring him as he measured her. Lean and alone, like a wolf. So unlike her beloved Joseph.
All black, like her widow's weeds.
Her jaw clenched at the phrase, and the tightness coupled like a freight car to her cramping neck. It was bad enough to be shrouded in spirit, bereft and singular after sharing life with a fine and caring man. Her eyes pinched at the corners, dry and tearless. Depleted.
She looked down at her pale hands, as white as Joseph's still face, clutched against the gloomy skirt. The memory seared through her chest, scorching what little vibrancy remained. All her hopes and promise of a future lay buried in a pine coffin.
Her father climbed into the seat, gathered the reins and tapped old Dolly's rump.
A shudder rippled through Martha. Cramped as they were, her mother leaned even closer with concern. "Are you ill, Marti?"
The old nickname rang foreign in Martha's ears. No one had called her Marti since she'd graduated and married Joseph three years ago. She glanced over her shoulder as if the name belonged to someone else. The stranger's eyes caught hers.
Foolishness flooded her cheeks, a convincing sign for her mother to think she was feverish.
"No, Mama, I'm fine. Justjust noticing all the changes in Canon City." A flimsy excuse, one sure to wither beneath her mother's scalding scrutiny. But the woman had pity on her only daughter and simply patted Martha's folded hands.
"Yes, a lot has changed since last you were here."
Everyone looked the same to Haskell Tillman Jacobsroad-weary, dusty and glad to be off the train. Everyone but the red-haired beauty in black.
Anonymity suited him and he preferred to blend in with whatever background availed itself. But she had stared straight at him as if she knew the man he sought and could tell him the varmint's whereabouts.
Obscurity returned when the parson drove them from the depot and turned east onto Main Street toward home at the opposite end. Knowing what people did and where they lived was part of Haskell's job.
He just hadn't known about her.
He pushed from the wall, left the wooden platform and stopped at the second car. The porter leaned down for the step. Haskell pulled back one side of his coat.
The man straightened. "Yes, sir?"
"Anyone else on the train?"
"No, sir. This our last stop."
"I'd like to see for myself."
The porter stepped aside. "Yes, sir."
The interior smelled of sweaty clothing, dust and sour lunches. Haskell walked the narrow aisle, scanned the seats for any telltale sign or forgotten belonging. The porter followed.
"There ain't nothin' left behind, sir. I done checked it all."
Haskell cast a look at the man who obviously took his job as seriously as Haskell took his, but continued on, pausing at each bench.
Something lay on the floor halfway back. He bent to look beneath the seat, snatched the dark netting and wadded it into his vest pocket. He opened the door, passed through to the next car and repeated his inspection. At the opposite end, he turned to his dogged follower.
"And a fine job you've done."
"You lookin' for somethin' special?"
The man's voice carried more than the cursory question. He saw more than most.
"Where did the woman in black board the train?"
"You mean the widow Stanton? Kansas City, sir."
Haskell fingered the netting.
"You pick up anyone in Pueblo today?"
"Just a mother and her two young'uns. If'n somebody else jumped on the back, I couldn't say." Coal-black eyes looked to the low ceiling. "We carried a body or two without knowin' it at the time." He regarded Haskell with a near smile. "But not in a long time." His thick brown fingers flexed open and closed.
Haskell nodded and stepped outside. "I'll have a look."
When the train had arrived, he'd seen no movement on top of the cars, saw no one jump. At least not on the depot side.
Climbing up, he scanned the length of the train and found what he expectednothing. He squinted back along the rail bed, noted the houses huddled near the track with small fenced yards hedging the narrow road between the gravel bed and their gates.
Working his way down, he jumped clear and walked downtown.
Word had it that the man he sought was last seen in La Junta and headed this way by train. Obviously, the speed and comfort of such travel balanced out the risk, especially for one so gifted at slipping into a crowd unseen.
He could have missed him once the widow stepped down. She'd drawn Haskell's eye like a prospector's nose to a nugget. The hazards of a solitary life, he figured. But he had no intention of being turned from his purpose.
He pulled the black netting from his vest pocket. Intricate needlework hung from one side, stretched and torn thread from the other. Crumpling the ripped piece, he dropped it in a wire basket just inside the front doors of the Hotel St. Cloud.
Across the lobby, the dining room beckoned and he took his usual table in the farthest corner. A seat against the wall offered a clear view of the guests who dotted the room. He set his hat in an empty chair.
The Yale University professor with more hair on his face than his head dined with his entourage, each member intent upon impressing the easterner with some tidbit of knowledge.
The serving girl interrupted Haskell's observation with her coffee and inviting smile.
"Good evening, Mr. Tillman." She righted the cup on his saucer and filled it to just beneath the brim.
"Evening. Thank you."
"Did you enjoy your day?"
She waited expectantly for him to answer, but he didn't chitchat with girls young enough to be his daughter and obviously angling for a beau.
"Yes. And what's on the board tonight?"
The smile slid away and she pulled the coffeepot to her waist. "Roast beef, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans and peach pie. Will you be dining alone again?"
She didn't give up easily, he'd give her that.
"Yes." He reached for the coffee without looking up.
She huffed away in a swirl of skirts and stopped at the Bentons' table, her smile back in place, her coffee at the ready.
If the food wasn't so good, he'd eat his fill of canned peaches and jerky in his room. But it wasn't often he found fare like the new hotel offered. Canon City had more to recommend it than its bathhouse and hanging train bridge in the canyon.
Which were a few of the reasons he'd considered sticking around, maybe settling down.
The young widow's bold gaze rose before him, framed by her black hat and coppery hair.
Her image nettled him. Irritated him. He had business to attend to and could not be distracted by a beautiful, aloof woman.
"I tell you, the second quarry will be as forthcoming as the first."
Drawn by the professor's insistent tone, Haskell tuned his ear to the conversation at the far wall. An animated man, the easterner waved his fork like a bandleader's baton.
"Finch has made further discovery across the gully and has been digging there for several weeks now with great success."
The listeners murmured over their plates, and from the gleam of fortune in the speaker's eye, Haskell guessed the man and his absentee companionFinchhad uncovered an oil bed or a rich ore vein.
"I am confident that these bones will rival even the Al-losaurus and Diplodocus unearthed here a decade ago. Perhaps another Stegosaurus will be discovered, even more complete than the first."
Haskell coughed as the hot coffee slid down his windpipe. He set the china cup in its saucer and wiped his mouth on the linen napkin.
If he recalled his school days accurately, the bald professor in the fine jacket was talking about dinosaurs.
Mlartha stood in the doorway and looked around her old roomthat of a girl on her way to college. She set her bag on the trunk her father had placed at the foot of the iron bed and flopped onto the bright, fan-patterned quilt. Running her fingers along the fine stitches, she recalled the piercing needle that had bit repeatedly until she got the feel of the thimble.
She removed her hat and tossed the dreary thing aside. With a heavy sigh she hugged a pink pillow to her chest and fell back across the bed.
Life had not turned out as she'd hoped.
Familiar footsteps sounded on the stairs, but Martha had no energy to sit up and invite her mother in. Nor had she the right. This was no longer her home, though she had called it such at the station.
She turned her head toward the door.
"Supper's in a half hour. Will you be down?"
Her mother came in and sat on the bed. "There is a new seamstress in town. We can visit her in the next few days and pick out some lighter fabric for a new dress or two."
Martha huffed. "You don't like my widow's weeds?"
"No, I do not."
Such characteristic honesty did not surprise Martha, but it bolstered her enough to sit up.
"It's been more than a year, Marti. You are young and beautiful and smart, and it breaks my heart to see you grieving away to nothing." She pulled one of Martha's hands from the pillow and pressed her fingers. "Life goes onlike the river. Ever the same but with new water fresh from the mountains."
Martha turned her hand over and closed her fingers around her mother's. "It's hard, Mama. It's not only that I miss Joseph so much, I just don't know how to go on living."
Her mother nodded but said nothing.
"I buried my heart with him." The whisper fell so lightly Martha doubted it had been heard.
An aching smile pulled her mother's lips. "I know, dear. Not exactly how you feel at losing your husband, but I know how it feels to lose someone you love. That person leaves an irreplaceable hole in your heartlike your grandfather did in mine." She tightened her fingers. "But we go on in Christ's strength. He shares our sorrow. He grieved when His friend Lazarus died."
Martha pulled her hand free. "But Jesus brought Lazarus back. He hasn't brought back Grandpa or Joseph, and Joseph was a minister. A preacher, like Daddy, who loved his wife and his congregation. A man who should not have been struck down by a stray bullet in a street brawl."
Anger stiffened Martha's aching neck and her fists clenched involuntarily. Her mother stood and faced her.
"I could not agree more. Life is not fair. But it is life. While you are home with us, I pray you will take it up again." She leaned forward and lightly kissed Martha's forehead. "Come down when you are ready. We'll be waiting."
Martha let out a deep sigh and surveyed the bookshelf her father had built when she was in grammar school. A china-faced doll sat on top in her beautiful blue taffeta dress. Below, an assortment of rocks and fossil fragments