Faith in Cripple Creek
This had to be the worst day of her life. Jane Elliston opened her eyes. Had the stagecoach stopped? Her teeth still seemed to vibrate despite the lack of forward momentum.
Indeed, her eyes confirmed what her body could not—the shaking heat box on wheels no longer sped through the town.
She looked out the window and coughed. Dust surrounded the vehicle. Still, she peered beyond. The stores, rustic to be sure, lined the main stretch. Did everything have to be covered in dirt? The buildings looked as if a thorough scrub would do them good. But what could she expect from such a provincial town?
Her gaze wandered to the platform. The small cluster of people looking in the direction of the coach did not seem threatening. But where was her friend? She had endured this journey with only that hope intact—that she would see Kitty, her dearest, closest friend at its conclusion.
“Miss?” a rough voice cut through the fog surrounding her thoughts.
The driver stood beneath the door, a worn expression on his face. For certain, the trip jarred him as much as it had her. Why, then, did he insist on traveling at such speeds?
“We’re here,” he continued.
As she watched, limbs still frozen in place, he reached for the latch and opened the door.
“Cripple Creek.” He spit. Something dark and foul came from his mouth, landing a short distance from him in the dirt.
Jane swallowed and her stomach twisted. Were such lack of manners common in Cripple Creek?
“You all right, Miss?” The driver looked at her again, an eyebrow raised.
How could she tell him about the roiling in her stomach? Which was more to blame—the upset of the coach ride or the small dark wet puddle inches from the man’s boot?
“You seem a bit…pale.” The driver’s features shifted from the stale tired expression to one that mimicked concern.
“I’m…” She wanted to say quite well. But her inability to quell her nausea did not help matters. She peeled her fingers loose from the window opening and pressed the back of her hand to her lips. Perhaps that would prevent an unladylike and untimely emptying of her last meal.
“I don’t need this,” the man declared. He turned away, muttering something about ‘females’.
Her face heated. Not a pleasant addition to her unease.
“Sir,” the driver called to someone farther away. “I got a lady needs a doctor. You know where I can find one?”
Jane shut her eyes. This wasn’t happening.
“Miss?” another, somewhat kinder voice spoke into the confining space.
She only dared open one eye to see who else had come to witness her embarrassment. Oh, why hadn’t someone been sent to meet her? Kitty had promised that she would be here.
The man that now looked in seemed genuine in his concern. He was taller than the driver. Broader of shoulder. His dark hair grew past his collar and his unshaven face betrayed the beginnings of a beard. But it was his eyes…his deep brown eyes, mirrors of her own…that caught her. When she met his gaze, she could breathe again.
“May I take you to the town’s doctor?” His voice was smooth even as his eyes seemed pained. By what?
“I…I…” This was not the time to lose her words! She sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. “I think I may just need some fresh air.” Indeed her uneasiness abated now that the coach had stilled.
The man with the brown eyes turned his head. What did he seek?
No one stood behind him.
The driver had moved off. Where had he gone? Surely, he wouldn’t abandon his responsibility.
Her would-be savior shot out a breath. “Typical.”
What did that mean?
He turned back to her. “Please, miss, let me help you.” Extending his hand into the coach, he waited.
His gaze landed on her, a question in his eyes.
Was she staring? She jerked back. And almost toppled off the bench.
Hands gripped her forearms.
As she righted herself, she found she was only inches away from the man. Had he stepped into the coach?
She couldn’t tear her eyes away from his enough to take in the situation. As she blinked, she became more aware of their precarious positioning. And her cheeks warmed once again.
“Are you sure you don’t need to see the doctor?” His eyes darkened. He did seem rather concerned.
“No, sir. I thank you. But I am quite well.” Though she asserted it to be so, her voice sounded weak even to her.
He pulled back, stepping out of the coach. But he kept a firm hold on one of her hands. And so, as he removed himself from the space, he brought her as well.
Now in the open, she blinked against the bright sunlight. And allowed him to guide her forward as her eyes adjusted.
She took in her surroundings once again. She had a better view of the rows of buildings lining the main dirt road. It was more than she’d expected of this small town. Still not what she would consider a comfortable place to live by any means. How did one survive with so few businesses to patronize? But it was quaint. Endearing even. Though perhaps impossible to clean.
“Is someone expecting you?”
The man’s question drew her attention back to his face. With his mouth drawn into a thin line and his brows furrowed, she wouldn’t say he welcomed her interrupting his day.
She looked away, chastizing herself for thinking such a thing. That wasn’t right. It wasn’t as if she was free to notice such things.
“Miss?” His head dipped and he squeezed her hand.
Only then did she realize he still held to her fingers. His touch anchored her and sent tingles up her arm. Goodness, she was out of sorts.
“I…did expect my friend to meet me. She must have been delayed.”
He frowned as he glanced down the street. As if seeking out some sort of salvation.
How did she get herself into such messes?
Sighing, he released her hand. Did he just now realize he retained his hold? “I can’t very well leave you standing out here. Alone.”
“That’s kind of you, sir. But I can manage until…”
He waved a hand between them. “Let me walk you to the cafe. At least there you’ll be comfortable while you wait.”
She swallowed. Should she take him up on his offer? Or dismiss his aid? He appeared rather put off already. But maybe that was just her own embarrassment. There was no reason to think him anything other than a perfect gentleman.
“Thank you,” was all she managed.
He nodded. “I suppose it’s the least I can do.”
As he turned, she wondered after his statement. He had already assisted her rather awkward exit from the coach.
She put a hand on his forearm. “My bags—”
He turned only halfway. “The driver will put them by the telegraph office. They’ll be safe there.”
Uncertain, she glanced at the small building beside the stagecoach where the driver piled bags and trunks.
When she shifted her focus back to her guide, he stared at her hand upon his arm.
She snapped it back as quickly as possible.
His eyes found hers once more. There was something deeper in those hazelnut orbs than she could discern. Something swirling in his thoughts. It entranced her.
“Please,” he said as he held out a hand toward the far end of the road. “Shall we continue?”
“Yes.” She picked up step beside him.
The silence between them became tense. She so dreaded silence, and the awkwardness that came with it.
“I’m Jane,” she spit out.
“My name—Jane Elliston.” She allowed herself another glance in his direction.
He was not looking at her. Rather his face turned opposite, peering at something in the distance.
Her introduction and his lack of response did nothing to improve the awkwardness. Perhaps it even made it worse.
He veered to the right and stopped just short of an open door. There were tables and chairs within and the smell of meat and vegetables. As well as cobbler.
Her stomach growled. It had been a while since she’d fed it. But she wasn’t certain if the gentleman would join her. Or was this where they parted?
Turning back to him, she pressed a smile to her lips. “I thank you…for your assistance.”
He continued to look into the cafe. Was there something of great interest within? If so, she could not discern it.
Tightening her smile, she nodded and stepped over the threshold and into the cafe.
She spun. “Pardon?”
“My name is Timothy. Perhaps I’ll see you around town.”
Her mouth moved, but no words came forth. And in the next instant, he had walked away.
She would have to ask about this Timothy. What, if anything, did her dear friend Katherine Matthews Sullivan know of him?
Timothy resisted the urge to turn back toward the intruding woman. He would not. Instead, he focused on the ground in front of his feet as they carried him farther and farther away.
Lost. Helpless. Infernal woman.
Why did he think it was his job to help her? It wasn’t as if it were his fault she’d been alone. Who had left her so hapless at the station?
It didn’t matter. He couldn’t afford her any more thought. Not one more thought for her reddened hair that shimmered with golden strands when she’d stepped out of the stagecoach. Or how the light had highlighted a sprinkle of freckles across her nose.
He shook his head. No!
He must take his thoughts captive. These musings would not take him anywhere pleasant. It couldn’t.
By now, he noted that his strides had taken him beyond the town center. He found himself moving through tall grasses closer to the schoolhouse.
He halted, hands fisted at his hips. Dropping his head back, he closed his eyes and let out a breath. Why must you tempt me?
Have I not paid my due?
He snorted. Why would he expect anything? There was no answer to be had.
Rustling nearby caught his attention. He jerked his regard in the direction of the sound.
A tall, aged oak stood several feet away. Within its shade, behind it’s trunk, there was movement.
What was that? Or who?
Three young boys ran out from behind the massive tree. The first clung tightly to something in his grasp. And the others laughed as they followed.
Narrowing his gaze, Timothy attempted to home in and determine what had so enraptured them. He did not like the look of it.
The boys didn’t pay any mind that they rushed in his direction.
Timothy moved to the side and intercepted the leader, hooking the boy with an arm across his chest. “Whoa, there.”
Blue eyes stared up at him. The lad gripped his prize all the more firmly. “What gives, mister?”
Timothy hardened the muscles in his face at the disrespectful display. Ignoring that, however, he pointed at the boy’s hand. “What do you have?”
The boy pulled the arm behind his back. “Nothin’.”
Glaring at the other boys, lest they become a threat, Timothy was pleased when they stepped back. Followers only.
“Let me see what you have.” Timothy insisted, his own grip shifting to the boy’s shoulders. He kept his hold firm, but not incredibly so.
“You’re not my pa,” the youngster sneered, rising on his toes, and pressing up until he was just short of Timothy’s face.
“If you would like, I could escort you home and we could have this conversation with your pa.” Timothy kept his tone even, emotionless.
The boy’s eyes widened. Was he so fearful of his father?
Timothy’s chest ached. Why should a boy be afraid of his own pa? But he knew. And he pitied the lad for it.
“Here.” The boy’s demeanor changed. He was no longer the aggressive mean kid, but rather a child. Compliant and scared.
The smaller hand came from around his back.
Timothy loosened his grip.
The boy’s hands came together and turned slightly. Then he exposed the tiny creature captive in his clutches—a small brown lizard.
Timothy examined the innocent animal. It’s breathing was rapid. What else should he expect? It might very well die from having its heart work so hard. But there was a chance it may not.
The boy’s eyes were fixed on the reptile.
“Why did you take it from its home?” Timothy knelt, his eyes softening as they met the boy’s gaze again.
But the youngster looked down. This time the child shrugged. He was quite near tears, seemingly uncaring of his friends staring at him.
Timothy placed hands under the boy’s, still outstretched. “We need to put it back in its home. Where his little lizard family is.”
The boy’s head bobbed, but he still would not look at Timothy.
Licking his lips, Timothy tried again. “Do you like these? Lizards and snakes and whatnot?”
The big blue eyes met Timothy’s again. A jerk of his head was all the boy managed.
Timothy offered a smile. “Me, too.” He glanced in the direction of the other boys, hoping to include them. “When I was your age, I used to go on reptile hunts.”
That sparked interest. The three sets of eyes were on him.
“And I think,” he gently removed the weakened lizard from the boy’s still open hands, “that I feel up for a hunt. Maybe later this week?”
The boys exchanged wide-eyed glances.
Timothy stood. “Oh? Would you three like to come?” He pointed between the boys.
He smiled. “Let’s check with your parents.”
If possible, the boys’ eyes became wider. Except the one who’d had the lizard. His head dropped. Because he feared his pa wouldn’t let him go? Or because he was afraid to ask?
Timothy put a hand to his shoulder. “Let’s get this lizard back and make sure you get home.”
A chorus of “yes, sir” followed and they moved off to the tree they had just left behind. How far had they carried the little animal? How likely was it to survive? Timothy didn’t know. But he was thankful he now had a place for his thoughts that did not involve the helpless red-head.
Jane shoved a spoonful of vegetable beef stew into her mouth. The savory meat filled her stomach, but did little to distract her.
Where was Kitty? Had something happened?
And why had that man, Timothy…something, seemed so put off?
No. That last thought was probably out of place. Dear Lord, she had barely set foot in Cripple Creek and here she was, fawning over the first man she met…quite literally the first one.
What was wrong with her? Was she so desperate?
At that moment a breathless woman rushed into the cafe.
“Ms. Abby, have you seen—” she started, before halting and gasping for more air.
Jane turned in that direction. Katherine!
Jerking upright, Jane nearly toppled her glass of water. “Kitty?”
“Oh, Jane!” Katherine put a hand to her heart. Her chest heaved. “I have searched everywhere.”
Jane moved to intercept her dear friend as Katherine stumbled forward. They embraced. It was sorely needed. She hadn’t realized she’d felt so lost and lonely…for so long.
When Jane pulled back, she drew her brows together. “I had expected you at the station. Did something delay you? Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Katherine managed as she held onto Jane’s forearm. “Ellie Mae is with Wyatt. We had some…challenges…at home this morning.”
“Challenges?” What could she mean? Was someone injured?
Katherine smiled despite her difficulty regaining her composure. “You’ll understand when you have little ones toddling about.”
A dagger. Right into Jane’s heart.
Her own family. Would it ever happen? Especially now that…
“We should sit and let you finish your meal.” Katherine glanced over Jane’s shoulder to the recently vacated seat.
Jane looked back at the bowl. She no longer had any appetite. She shook her head and opened her mouth.
“I insist.” Katherine tilted her head. “I’ve interrupted your meal. No doubt one much needed after your travels.”
“I won’t hear it,” Katherine said firmly. “Go, finish your lunch. I need to find Wyatt and tell him to call off the search anyway.”
Jane swallowed. How many people were combing this town looking for her?
Katherine smiled and leaned forward, pulling Jane into her embrace again. “I am so glad you have come.”
Allowing that contact to provide what comfort it could, Jane was tempted to linger there. But she dare not prolong it. And so, when Katherine pulled back, Jane released her.
“Just give me ten minutes.” Jane winked.
“Don’t be choking on your food now.”
Jane felt the corners of her mouth rise a bit. “I won’t.”
And then Katherine was gone. Out the door and around the corner. Jane was alone…again.
If possible, she felt even more alone than before.
When you have your own family…
Katherine surely hadn’t meant anything by it. Still, it had stung. Deeply.
Jane stepped back to the seat she had occupied moments before and settled into it.
Your own family…
Her eyes pricked. She blinked as she glanced around the room. Everyone seemed intent on their own meals and conversations. Rubbing her arms against a chill that did not exist, she felt exposed, vulnerable.
But she would not let this get the better of her. She would be strong. She had to be strong.
That was the way of it.