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The rosy kiss of the sun on the newborn day
is God's own touch upon His world.
It was Mae's idea. With Berkley Beck, the Carruthers, and all the roughs hung by the neck, why shouldn't the house be hers? Carina stared at the small clapboard house caught between Mae's boardinghouse and Fletcher's Stationery. It was plainer than it had appeared in the illustration—no chimney, no gingerbread trim, no shrubs, and only one window. Hardly the dream house she had thought she'd purchased. Never mind that the deed was a forgery and the sale a fraud.
Carina figured her claim was as good as any, however. And in a city where claim jumping was a sport, no one had jumped that claim, not since its last inhabitants had been choked to death at the end of a rope. Carina cringed, the sight imprinted on her memory. All those men hanging like hams from the rafters of the livery. Oh, Signore ...
She crossed herself, then brought a hand to her throat. How close she'd come to joining them. Thoughts of that night two months ago still raised the flesh on her spine. But now the sun was shining sharply through the dust-clouded air, and the noise of commerce was all around her. No torches, no shadows, no vicious hollers to "get Beck's woman."
If anyone still thought her that, they didn't say it to her face. Tempers were short in Crystal, but so were the memories of heinous deeds, especially their own. No one spoke of that night. Just days after the bodies had been cut down and buried, the men were about their business as though none of it had happened.
If only she could put it away so completely.Carina wrapped herself in her arms. She was not yet thick-skinned enough for that, but she was trying. Crystal demanded it. Only the hardy survived a place like Crystal, Colorado. And even then it took a bit of luck.
Had she not been dubbed Lady Luck? Dubbed by Joe Turner and the host of miners who believed it was by her hand he'd found wealth and glory? Maybe taking a shovel to one piece of ground instead of another was nothing more than luck, but most of life didn't work that way. Every choice had a result. Why else would she be standing on a rutted street before a shabby house and imagining?
She tipped her head back and looked again at the house. With scarcely four feet between its side wall and Mae's kitchen and the long yard behind ... She considered the possibilities. It could work.
"Pardon me, ma'am."
Carina turned and looked into a broad, pleasant face. Brown eyes, brown hair, square jaw, high forehead. A look of intelligence. "Yes?"
"Could you tell me where to find Mr. Shepard? Mr. Quillan Shepard?"
She stared at the man. Tell him where to find Quillan Shepard? She was the last one to ask. After all, Quillan was just her husband.
"I have a letter here to meet him at Mae's boardinghouse." He held out the paper.
Carina's heart jumped. Two months had passed since Quillan had left. After the first month, he'd sent money to Mae for Carina's keep but hadn't come himself. Did this man's letter mean Quillan was returning?
"This is Mae's." Carina gestured toward the two-story structure beside the little house. "When were you to meet him?"
"He said in the letter I might find a room at Mae's."
"Then you'll be staying." And Quillan might be, too....
"If we conclude our business positively." The man removed his hat. "I'm Alex Makepeace, mining engineer." He held out his hand.
Carina took it. "And I'm Mrs. Shepard."
His eyes widened. "Well, now. It seems I'm on the right track. Is your husband home?"
Alex Makepeace filled his chest with mountain air, then choked. He would learn not to do that in Crystal's streets where the dust was thick. With a hand across his mouth, he cleared his throat. "Then I'll see about a room."
"There's no vacancy. Except ..." Didn't this make her decision for her? "As a matter of fact, there's one room being relinquished today. You're in luck, Mr. Makepeace."
"Please call me Alex. I hope to be working closely with your husband."
She half smiled. "Then you don't know my husband."
Alex Makepeace surveyed her. "Has he fangs and claws?"
Carina laughed. "No. But if he works closely with anyone, it's news to me."
"Now we'd best see Mae together. The room being vacated is mine."
She smiled. "Don't worry. I'm moving into this fine house next door." Carina waved her arm. "Who could ask for more?"
They shared a laugh; then he sobered. "Truly, Mrs. Shepard, I can't take your room."
"Well, you'd better. It'll be filled before the cot cools." She would never have said something like that four months ago. But that was when she'd learned that it was literally true. In fact, she had stolen her room from Joe Turner, whose deposit was already down. Well, not she; Berkley Beck had stolen it for her.
Carina sighed. Too much had happened in four months' time. She led the way up the front stairs, still hardly weathered, having been so recently replaced after the flood removed the old ones. Mr. Makepeace jumped ahead and held the door. Carina walked in.
Mae was at the desk, doing her books. Nearly a foot of blue dress fabric extended on each side of the chair back. Mae had lost no weight while she recovered from the bullet wounds she had received. But then, while Mae was laid up, Carina had fed her on pasta and bread and good Italian cheese—until the ingredients Quillan had brought her ran out.
Mae looked up, but the rolls of flesh still connected her chin to her chest. "Well, what is it?"
"Mae, this is Alex Makepeace, Quillan's mining engineer."
He started to protest that nothing was settled yet, but Carina interrupted. "He needs a room, and I told him he could have mine."
Mae widened her violet eyes. "You're taking the house?"
"Why not? I bought and paid for it." Along with any number of people with deeds exactly like hers. But in Crystal, possession was nine-tenths of the law, and everyone else believed it haunted. "I'll be packed and out in an hour." It would take ten minutes, thanks to her husband, who had rid her of all her belongings.
Of course, he had done what he had to, clearing the road of her broken wagon and its contents so that he and others might pass. And he hadn't been her husband then. It had been their first encounter. Bene.
The difficult part would be making the house livable. She cringed at the thought of Walter Carruther and his foul brothers who had lived there. If anyone could haunt a house, they could. And she had seen enough of them in life, grazie. She didn't need ghosts to remind her. Still, the house was hers.
Mae heaved herself to her feet. "I'll need your name in the book there, a deposit, and the first week's rent. Rent's due at the front end every time." It was her standard proclamation, in case they met with an accident so permanent Mae could not collect.
Carina left them to handle the details and climbed the stairs and entered the canvas-walled cubicle only slightly larger than a horse stall that had been her home these last months. Though she'd been desperately lucky to find it, she wasn't sorry to leave it.
Only through her diligence had she not acquired lice from the thin mattress on the cot. And the small toffee-colored topo, whose acquaintance she'd made her first morning there, skittered regularly across the floor and under the door. No cats, Berkley Beck had told her. No cats lived in Crystal to limit the rodent population.
Bene. Fine. She had learned to live with things as they were. She took from under the bed a carpetbag and black leather satchel. The satchel was heavy with Nonna's silver, the books she'd rescued from the mountain, and the letters and photographs she'd brought up with her, mementos of a life so different from now. It also contained the sea green gown she'd worn for her wedding.
Carina thought of the gown. Like the ceremony for which she had worn it, it was not what it had once been. Though she'd carefully brushed the silk and repaired the remaining lace, most of it had been torn off and thrown away. Still, it was maybe not past saving, and her other clothes were few enough, the trunkload she'd brought having landed in the creek far beneath the cliff, along with her wagon.
She gathered up her spare skirt and blouse, undergarments, and nightgown and put them into the carpetbag. A hairbrush and mirror, tooth powder and brush, and the remains of a bar of soap given her by a hawker the day she came to Crystal were the extent of her possessions. It was little enough to make a home with.
From under the thin straw pillow, she took a red leather book and caressed the name within. Rose Annelise DeMornay, Quillan's mother. The words inside were precious, bringing to life a woman Carina might have known if life were not so cruel. But God knew best. She placed it gently into the leather satchel. One last look around the room showed nothing else. She took the bags and started down the stairs, straining with the weight of them.
Mr. Makepeace saw her and hurried to her aid. "Let me help you with that." He reached for the bags.
Together they walked next door. Carina halted on the stoop and girded herself before trying the door. It was open, as it had been the last time she'd tried the knob. The floor was still littered with blankets and garbage, and two months of vacancy had not removed the smell. Ghosts did not smell. But the house did.
She looked at the brown stains on the walls and floor and recalled the scarred Carruther spitting tobacco at her feet. Bene. She could rid this place of them. "Just leave the bags there on the stoop," she stated. Carina turned and saw Alex Makepeace's expression. It was almost comical, so like her own first look must have been.
"Mrs. Shepard, you can't ..."
"If you would be so kind as to help me remove these blankets."
He looked over the floor. "Where would you like them?"
"Out back. Far enough so that the flames won't reach the house."
Again they laughed. He stooped and filled his arms with the rotten-smelling wool. Carina did the same. When everything from the floor was heaped in a bare spot in the center of the yard, Carina doused it with kerosene from Mae's kitchen and lit the pile. She stepped back beside Mr. Makepeace, who stood with a bucket of water to douse anything that strayed too far. The blankets kindled and blazed; then Carina watched the flames die. Alex Makepeace extinguished the ashes with the water and his boot.
"Thank you." She turned again toward Mae's. "The rest I can handle myself."
"Then I suppose I'll gather my baggage from the livery. You're absolutely certain about the room?"
"Absolutely. By the way, the little topo, the mouse, is quite tame."
Alex Makepeace smiled, then stopped walking. "Mrs. Shepard, this has been a most pleasant welcome. Thank you."
"You're welcome. Watch your pockets."
"What do you mean?"
"Although Crystal has recently purged itself of violent men, there are still quite a number with sticky fingers."
He raised his brows. "Then I thank you for the warning." He paused a moment. "Do you know when your husband might ..."
She shook her head. "I have no idea." Nor did she want to think about it. Two months apart after only one night together and then the horrible things that followed and her near escape.... No, she couldn't think about it. Quillan would come when he came. She was obviously not important enough to notify.
Alex Makepeace headed off toward the livery, and Carina went into Mae's kitchen. She filled a bucket with green lye soap and boiling water, then carried it and an armful of cloths back to the little house. It was a single room, with a black cookstove on one wall that vented out the roof. The floor was wood planks, better than her friend Èmie's cabin floor which was pressed dirt.
Carina set down the bucket just inside the open door and surveyed the room. Without the detritus, it was only filth with which she must contend. Bene. The sooner begun, the sooner done. She dipped the first cloth and started on a stain halfway up the wall.
Quillan reined in his blacks, Jack and Jock, and his wheelers, two heavily muscled Clydesdales. The team had pulled his freight wagon, loaded to its limit, to the livery on Central Street. He stopped outside the two huge doors he'd helped Alan Tavish hang on his rebuilt livery after the flood had washed away the first.
Tasting the dust of the road, he jumped down from the box, lifted his hat, and shook back the hair that hung to his shoulders. There was a definite chill in the air, but then, at this altitude, September was chancy. Quillan surveyed the street, choked as always with miners, and hawkers who made money off the miners, and freighters who made money off the hawkers, and thieves who made money off anyone who left his pockets unguarded.
Crystal had become a boomtown. Joe Turner's mine, Elden Jeffries' mine, and Samuel Furber's mine were all producing silver almost to the tune of the Leadville giants. And soon Cain Bradley's mine would do the same. Quillan dropped his chin. Yes, it was Cain's mine, though the title had transferred to Cain's son, D.C., and to him, as equal partners.
He didn't think of it as his, though Quillan supposed he ought to start, since he was hiring on the engineer the eastern investors had sent out. Meeting with him today, in fact. He expelled a slow breath. He hadn't looked forward to this—still didn't. And he had dreaded returning to Crystal.
Two months on the road wasn't long enough to again face the streets where vigilantes had avenged Cain Bradley's death. At least that had been the final excuse. The town had risen against the roughs who'd terrorized it for so long. Since then he'd heard that Ben Masterson had been elected mayor and the trustees were purged of Berkley Beck's dogs. All positive, but it didn't change the fact that Cain was dead. Quillan was twenty-eight, and in all those years, Cain was the only man he'd have liked to call father.
He turned and whistled to the dog still sitting on the wagon box. The brown-and-white mottled mutt stepped to the side and leaped down to accompany Quillan as he started for the open livery entrance. Alan Tavish was settling with a man whose bags stood around him as he paid the fee for boarding his team. This was one newcomer who hadn't come in on Steven's and McLaughlin's stage.
Alan turned. "Ah, Quillan." And to the other, " 'Tis yer man now."
The newcomer looked up. "Quillan Shepard?"
Quillan advanced into the shade of the entrance. "Just Quillan. Are you Alexander Makepeace?"
"Alex. Yes." They shook hands. "Well, this is fortuitous. I was just coming for my baggage. I've taken a room at Mae's. That is, your wife gave up hers for me."
Quillan released the man's hand. Had he heard right? "My wife? She's leaving Mae's?" Had it taken all of two months for Carina to accept defeat? Was she even now planning her departure? Her escape?
Alex Makepeace shook his head. "I was afraid you wouldn't be pleased. She's moving next door into that shabby little dwelling."
Quillan considered the house Carina had purchased fraudulently through Berkley Beck. What did she mean, moving in there? Did she think to set up housekeeping with him? His heart jumped, then stilled. He knew better than to let those feelings return.
"Have you seen the rooms at Mae's?"
Alex shook his head. "Not yet."
"You might redefine shabby."
"Ah." Alex looked out through the doors of the livery. "Then the sooner we make something of this mine of yours, the better, eh?"
Quillan didn't bother to tell him he was already comfortably set with the income from his freighting and wanted no part of the mine. That was no one's affair but his own. "I'll let you get settled while I make some deliveries. I've a wagon full of freight to unload." It was more accurately sales than deliveries, but Quillan knew exactly where he'd take the things he'd purchased and who would buy them without quibbling one cent on his price. Only Carina thought she could haggle him down. Only Carina could.
Quillan frowned. "Shall we meet back here in two hours?"
Alex Makepeace raised his brows slightly. "Would you like some time with your wife first?"
Quillan's response revealed nothing. "We'll handle our business first, while there's daylight to see the mine."
Alex's mouth formed a downturned arc as he nodded. "All right."
Quillan watched him walk out, arms filled with baggage. He tried not to imagine Alex Makepeace sleeping in Carina's cot, but then, he'd tried hard enough not to imagine her sleeping there. He turned to Alan and gripped the old ostler's shoulder. "How are you, Alan?"
"Well enough. And what's so pressin' ye can't see the lass?"
"Mary and the saints, man, she's your wife!"
"I know she's my wife. I offered to let her out of it."
Quillan lifted his hat and forked his fingers into his hair. "It was misbegotten from the start. Cain would—" He dropped his hand and looked away.
"Cain would what, boyo?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Aye, it matters. Ye've got some twisted idea keepin' ye from what's important."
Quillan closed his eyes with a weary breath. "Leave it, Alan. I've had a long road."
"And it's good to have ye back."
Quillan looked at him, bent and gnarled with rheumatism, his craggy face gentle and honest. Too honest. "I guess I can't avoid her for long."
Alan shook his head. "Ye're daft. Ye've got a bonny lass, one any man would be proud to call his own, and ye talk of avoidin' her. Ye've been too long in the sun, man."
Quillan smiled. "Maybe I have. But just now I have the fruits of my labor to collect. I'll bring you my team when I'm done. You have stabling?"
"For yours? Always."
Quillan patted his shoulder and walked out with the dog on his heels. It would take all of two hours to unload his goods at their various locations. Just now he was glad none were going to Mae, though he did have a dozen eggs for his wife. Why he'd picked them up, he couldn't say. It was certainly no peace offering.
Copyright © 2001, Kristen Heitzmann
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.