Read an Excerpt
1 June 1897
See that man over there?”
Vivian had no trouble hearing Aunt Alma over the clicketyclack of the train wheels. She poised her pencil over her sketch pad and followed her aunt’s gaze to the man who slouched in the seat two rows ahead of them.
“He’s been chewing and spitting most all the way from Colorado Springs.” Aunt Alma, Vivian’s chaperone, shook her head, causing the penny-colored braid encircling it to rock back and forth. “That’s the kind of man you need to watch out for,” she said. “You’re not in Maine anymore, child.”
The label stung Vivian’s ears. Why did everyone think of her as a child? It didn’t help that she was four or fi ve inches shorter than all three of her sisters. Straightening, she pressed her back against the seat.
“I’m not a child. Aunt Alma, I hardly think one can determine which man to watch out for by what he wears or how he looks.” Nothing in Gregory’s debonair style of dressing indicated he was a cad.
“You can’t be so trusting of men out here in the West. They’re, well…” Blushing, her aunt cupped her mouth with a gloved hand. “They’re quite lonely.”
Vivian tugged the sleeves straight on her percale travel dress. She might be the baby in her family, but she wasn’t a child. She’d lost her mother before she’d lost her fi rst tooth. Her father had left home before she did. So had her sisters, Kat and Nell fi rst and then Ida.
Plus she’d had to leave Sassy in Maine. Her poor cat didn’t understand being left behind any more than Vivian did. And her familiarity with growing up too fast had to remain her secret.
Moving to Cripple Creek hadn’t been her choice. But any plans for a future with Gregory were history, and Father had made it clear as rainwater in his last letter that she wasn’t welcome to join him in France. Even New York’s latest fashions couldn’t measure up to the costume prowess of Paris. There she would have had the opportunity to secure her future as a fashion designer.
But instead Father insisted she reunite with her sisters in Colorado. That would have suited her fi ne before Gregory. At least the move to Cripple Creek ushered her away from Portland, if not her past. She did miss her sisters and wanted to see them, but she couldn’t bear the thought of them seeing her for what she was.
She returned her attention to the opera gown she’d been sketching. Too much fl ouncing at the waist. She pulled a pink eraser from her reticule and brushed away the last lines she’d drawn. If only mistakes in life were that easy to erase.
Vivian drew in a fortifying breath. She had to hope her new home could offer her the fresh start she needed. Nell had written more than once about the wondrous growth taking place in Cripple Creek. While an opera house or two did not a thriving metropolis make, perhaps the move to Colorado wouldn’t be as bleak as she had expected. Surely the town was big enough now to host a clothing designer who would value Vivian’s eastern fashion sense.
“I’m sorry if I upset you.” Her aunt punctuated her whisper with a frown.
Vivian dropped the eraser into her bag. It wasn’t Aunt Alma’s fault her youngest niece wasn’t lovable enough to make anyone want to stay with her. “You needn’t worry about me, Aunt Alma.”
Aunt Alma patted Vivian’s knee. “But you know I do.”
Vivian offered her aunt the best smile she could rally. Would her prim and proper aunt care so much if she knew the truth? But she couldn’t know. Neither could her sisters. Enough had changed for Vivian already, and she couldn’t bear the blame she deserved. Especially if it meant seeing her guilt refl ected back to her in the virtuous eyes of her sisters.
While the train’s steel wheels screeched and howled, slowing it down for what Vivian hoped was its fi nal descent, her mind stalled on thoughts of her sisters. Ida would be so relieved things didn’t work out with Gregory that she probably wouldn’t even mention him. Nell would want to match her up with a suitable beau. When she just wanted to forget.
A sharp clanging noise drew their attention to the glass-paned door at the back of the train car. Vivian twisted in her narrow seat in time to watch two men dash up the aisle toward her, their faces covered by bandannas. Both wore soiled dusters. The shorter man in front clutched a large metal box. The man behind him ran bent but still nearly brushed the hanging lights with his straw hat. He wielded a pistol. “Bandits!” Vivian wanted to turn away from them and slide to the floorboard, but her legs refused to move.
“Remain calm.” The bandit carrying the box sounded as if his mouth harbored marbles. “Everybody mind your own business, and nobody’ll get hurt.”
Vivian intended to do just that, but Aunt Alma’s arms encircled her, knocking her off balance. Her sketch pad and pencil fell to the floorboard. She had no idea her foot lay in the aisle until the first man tripped on it.
He lunged forward, snarling as the box crashed into the seat two rows ahead of her, narrowly missing the shoulder of the kind of man she needed to watch out for. The hem of the bandit’s coat snagged on the arm of the seat, revealing a large belt buckle at his waist. Quickly regaining his composure, he turned and glared at Vivian over the filthy blue bandanna tied across his mouth and nose that did little to mask the pungent scent of licorice-root candy.
Vivian clasped her trembling hands and swallowed hard against the lump forming in her throat. “I’m sorry.”
“You tryin’ to be a hero, are you?” His beady eyes narrowed. “Think you’re smarter than us?”
Before Vivian could manage a response, the conductor charged through the door, carrying a shotgun. “Stop those thieves!”
When men in the back of the car began to stand, the taller bandit waved his gun, and the shorter man jerked open the door at the front of the car. He tossed the metal box into the passing brush, and both men jumped from the train. The conductor stopped just short of leaping off the train himself. Vivian watched out the window as the two bandits tumbled down a hill, then disappeared into the scrub and short trees. The conductor retrieved his shiny black cap from the floor and straightened his vest. His forehead sported a lump the color of a pomegranate.
“The danger has passed, folks, and we’ll arrive at the Cripple Creek station shortly.” He traced the curls on either end of his thin mustache. “Please do all you can to remember what you’ve seen and heard, so the law can bring these criminals to justice.”
Aunt Alma laid a quaking hand on Vivian’s arm. “Now do you understand what I mean about judging by a man’s costume out here?” Vivian nodded. “I’ll do my best to stay away from men who wear dusters and bandannas.” And gaudy belt buckles.
Carter Alwyn pinched the bridge of his nose. Tuesday was his least favorite day of the week. The other women usually created a stir on their designated morning in town. Not that they set out to do much more than shop for baubles and bustles, but the activity never failed to provoke at least one citizen’s self-righteous indignation and drive him—or her—to Carter’s office with his chin in the air. This week’s upstanding representative of the moral community scowled at him from the other side of his desk.
“It’s scandalous.” Mr. Updike stiffened to his full five feet five inches. “And we want to know when you’re going to do something about it, Deputy Alwyn."
Carter leaned forward. If only he had a nickel for every time he had engaged in this same conversation. He had his own reasons for avoiding the other women, besides the obvious moral ones, but as long as they paid their fees and checked in with a doctor regularly, their services were a legal and accepted practice in Cripple Creek—an enterprise welcomed by many influential people here.
Mr. Updike tugged on the lapels of his oversized herringbone suit jacket and glared at Carter. “I’m here as a representative of the business community, and we want change. We insist you outlaw such depravity.”
If the business community really was making such demands, a large segment of the business owners were shooting themselves in the foot. A lot of money flowed between Bennett and Myers Avenues. And Carter knew the banker would be the first to whine about the shortfall created by losing that breed of businesswoman. No doubt the man’s zealous campaign was on his wife’s insistence. It wouldn’t surprise Carter to see Mrs. Updike waiting outside the door with her hands planted on her hips, but he resisted the temptation to stand and look out the window. He opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a file folder, then looked up. “Mr. Updike, you know about the recent rash of bank robberies this side of the divide. I’ve been more concerned with protecting your bank and the money that belongs to the fine people of Cripple Creek than with what our citizens choose to do with their money in the moonlight.”
“Yes, well, I do appreciate that, but—” The whistle on the incoming train blew, and Updike jumped.
It took all the self-control Carter could muster to stifle the laughter camped in his throat. He swallowed hard against it. “Mr. Updike, I suggest you raise your concerns at the next city council meeting.” He opened the folder full of wanted posters.
The banker huffed. “I can see I’m getting nowhere with you.” Carter looked up. “By the very nature of my job, sir, I am a man with a measure of authority to enforce laws, but little say in the creation of those laws.”
Updike spun on his heels. The force of the door slamming behind him rattled the window and Carter’s nerves. The man was a weasel and probably just as nocturnal as the others.
Carter’s energy needed to go into keeping his town safe. He thumbed through the stack of posters. Robert LeRoy Parker, also known as Butch Cassidy. Clean shaven, square jaw. Rounded chin. Harry “Sundance Kid” Longabaugh. Narrow oval face. Dark eyes. And a guy known only as Pickett. Six foot two. Lean and lanky. Carter tipped back in his chair and scrubbed his face, already stubbled by this time of day. Witnesses to the bank robberies over in Divide had described one of the three robbers as lean and lanky.
As soon as Jon, one of two deputies under the authority given to Carter by the El Paso County Sheriff, returned to the office, Carter would ride to Victor for a chat with Gilbert about the bank robbery there yesterday. None of the criminals pictured on these posters would spend any time in his town. He had to make sure of it.
Carter had just closed the folder when the telephone on his desk jangled. He lifted the earpiece from the hook and spoke into the cone.
“Deputy Alwyn speaking.”
“Yes, good afternoon.” As usual, the young woman’s voice sounded too sweet. “Deputy Alwyn, you have a call from Mr. Wilbert Ratcliff.”
“Yes, thank you.” Why would the agent at the Midland Terminal Railroad be calling him?
A click followed, then a sentence that made no sense to Carter, but its fevered pitch burned his ears and set his heart racing. “Mr. Ratcliff, you need to slow down.”
“The train’s in. Bandits got the cash box. Jumped off just north of town.”
Carter leaped from his chair, knocking it against the wall. “Anyone harmed? You need a doctor down there?”
“I sent for one. But except for a nasty lump on the conductor’s head, no one was hurt.”
“Good.” Carter slapped the folder on his desk. “No one else steps foot off the train. I’ll be right there.”
On his way to the depot, Carter saw Jon walk out of the boot shop and waved him over. While they took long strides to the depot at the far end of Bennett Avenue, Carter briefed his fellow deputy on what little he knew from the station agent. Jon went inside the depot to let the agent know they’d arrived while Carter made his way through the crowd gathered on the wooden platform.
Carter recognized the woman’s voice that rang loud and clear. He turned to see Mrs. Raines—his friend Tucker’s wife—standing in front of him, flanked by her two sisters, one holding a baby.
“Ladies.” He touched the brim of his Stetson and then glanced at the folder in his hands. “I have duties to attend to.”
They fell in step with him as he walked toward the train’s passenger car. “We have family on that train,” Mrs. Raines said. “No one will tell us anything. What has happened? We need to know if they’re all right.” Carter climbed the metal stairs to the deck of the train car. Turning, he faced the impatient throng. “There’s been a robbery.” The murmurs rose to a hum, and he raised his hand for quiet. “No passengers were harmed. We need your full cooperation while we try to gain pertinent information from those on board. We’ll release the passengers and ready the train for its continuance as soon as possible.” He turned and pushed open the heavy steel door.
In contrast to the charged anticipation on the platform, the atmosphere inside the smoky car was solemn. He could have heard a feather drop on the hardwood flooring.
“Folks, I’m the sheriff’s senior deputy stationed here in Cripple Creek, Deputy Carter Alwyn. I need to speak to any of you who saw or heard something that may be useful in capturing the bandits.”
“Sir.” From a window seat several rows back, a matronly woman waved a gloved hand. “My niece here…” She glanced at the young woman sitting beside her. “She tripped one of the outlaws.”
Carter’s jaw tensed. “You did what?” He didn’t care that he’d shouted. This girl who had tried to play the hero couldn’t be a day over sixteen. He’d seen similar circumstances, and being reminded of their outcome soured his stomach. “Young lady, do you have any idea—”
“First of all, Deputy Alwyn…” She squared her shoulders and glared at him, her eyes a fiery brown. “I am not stupid. Nor am I heroic. I didn’t trip the man on purpose, so you can save your lecture. I haven’t the time or the patience for it.”
Perhaps she was older than she looked. Sassy, no matter her age. “Secondly, bandannas covered the two men’s faces, and they wore long coats. None of us saw very much, so this is clearly a waste of time.”
Carter choked down his frustration. “Miss—”
He met her defiant gaze. “Miss Sinclair, I am the professional here, and I’ll be the judge of what very much includes.” He had outlaws to track down. He didn’t have time to bicker with a petulant female. Jon stepped into the train car, and Carter rested a hand on his partner’s shoulder. “Folks, this is Deputy Jon Ondersma. He’ll accompany those of you going on to Victor to hear your statements concerning the matter. The conductor will get the names and contact information from those of you planning to depart the train here.” Carter looked at the young woman sitting in the aisle seat five rows back. “And I’ll speak to any of you who may have critical information. Miss Sinclair, if Cripple Creek is your destination, I’ll begin with you.”
Shifting his attention to the others, Carter walked toward the door.
“Deputy Ondersma and the conductor will direct the rest of you. Please meet me inside the depot, ladies. Directly.”
His mother had taught him to get the most unpleasant tasks out of the way first, and he’d learned his lesson well.