Love in

Cripple Creek

Chapter One

Betsy Callaway had never been so humiliated in her entire life. She was quite certain this was so. What could she do but duck and run? So she held her breath, kept her head down, and bolted for the nearest exit. Had he seen her?

She was mortified. As much as anyone could be. She was Betsy Callaway, the darling of Cripple Creek. And now, nothing more than a governess. How far she had fallen. From having every hope in the world for a fine match, to…hired help. It was too much.

As she rushed for the door that would bring her some form of escape, she heard a voice call out. “Miss Callaway?”

She could just die.

But she turned toward the telegrapher.

“You left your ticket.”

She glanced around and then slinked to the counter. There were so many eyes on her. Too many. Didn’t these people have anything better to do? Dare she peer in his direction and see if he had noticed?

If he had, he gave no indication. Paul Hammond talked adamantly with another man. She prayed his attention on the man would hold. As the son of Cripple Creek’s largest banker, a man who had grown up with much privilege, could not know how she struggled.

“Miss Callaway,” the telegrapher called out even louder. He seemed miffed. Well, so was she.

She rushed to the window and grabbed for her ticket.

The telegrapher all but rolled his eyes. Who cared if he was bothered? She certainly didn’t. All she cared about was not being spotted by…

She spun and smacked into a wall. Or what she hoped was a wall. But as she glanced up, she renewed her prayers for death to come swiftly. For the young Mr. Hammond stood watching her.

Maybe he wouldn’t recognize her. If only.

“Betsy?” There was a tinge of amusement in his voice.

“Why, I didn’t see you there, Paul.” She pulled out her fan and tried to wave away the red that likely rose in her face.

“That much is clear.” He grinned.

She could just smack that smug smile off his face. Longed to. But that wouldn’t rescue her.

“What brings you to Victor?” His eyes danced, proving that his carefree attitude had not changed. As schoolmates, she had continually been frustrated by his tendency to make everything and anything a farce for his own amusement.

Unfortunately, many of their classmates had enjoyed his wit. The lack of a group to laugh with him now was her only saving grace.

“I am…” She fanned herself faster, her gaze darting about. But no one paid them any mind. Then she turned her focus back to him. “It’s not really any of your concern.” Her words took a sharper turn than she’d meant.

Paul jerked back as her tone bit at him.

Just as well. It wasn’t as if she wanted to renew their childhood acquaintance. She had not seen him in Cripple Creek for near on five years. So, there was little point to ingratiating herself to him now.

“I only wondered,” he muttered.

“What was that?” She firmed her expression, determined to not let anything give.

”I only wanted to express how good it is to see you.” His smile—that had always been a little too charming—spread across his features. “You are looking good…I mean, well. You are looking well.”

She frowned and stuck her nose in the air. “I did not invite you to look.”

His grin fell. Quickly. “Same old Betsy.” He sidestepped and started for the door.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” She should let him go. And be thankful that he did without a further word. But she couldn’t help herself. Why give him the satisfaction?

He spun, appearing just as surprised at her words as she. He scanned the small office. Was he looking for reinforcements? More friends to join him in laughing at her? At length, he shrugged. “You always did have a way with words.”

She stared and her fan halted. There was no way she would let him know how his words pinched at her. It wasn’t as if he looked any better off. In fact, his dusty trousers and wrinkled plaid shirt told a different story than the suits his father wore. Perhaps he, too, had fallen from grace.

Her lips parted and she stopped the comment before it was uttered. They were not the same. They had nothing in common except some rather unfortunate schoolyard memories. That was all.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have a stage to catch.” With that, she grabbed for her skirts, whirled away from him, and stomped outside.

A rush of wind and dust assaulted her senses. And she cringed, wishing she was anywhere but here. But she refused to let Paul Hammond tell her what was and what should be. His judgment stung, but she wouldn’t have it. Not today. Not with what she faced.

Another woman, perhaps the same age as Betsy, dragged over to the platform, a small girl at her heel. The child’s blonde ringlets and pink bows reminded Betsy of herself at that age.

”Mama, when will the stage be here?”

“Soon, dear,” came the woman’s tired response. Indeed, everything about her looked haggard. It seemed that such just came with mothering.

Not that Betsy’s mother ever had one hair out of place. From the look of this woman, she had hastily pulled her hair up. There were pieces falling here and there. She’d spent much more time on the child. Was this a peek at what Betsy would be like in a few months? The two children she was hired on to watch and teach were young. Their mother described them as being ‘full of life.’ Betsy was no dunce. She knew that meant ‘difficult.’ But she hadn’t many other options.

She had become an old maid. Done before her time had come.

The girl bounced on the fronts of her feet as if she could spot the stage better that way. Her gaze caught on Betsy. And she smiled widely. How ignorant. How naive.

Her mother glanced about as well, only she appeared to be concerned about something.

“Excuse me, miss.” The woman’s warm, worn voice called to Betsy.

These two were likely to be on the stage with Betsy. Dare she ignore the woman and face an even more uncomfortable ride to Denver?

“Yes?” She tried to put a kindness she didn’t feel into her words.

“Do you know…has the stage come?”

“Not yet. But it’s due any minute.”

The woman nodded and thanked Betsy.

”I’m Diana,” the small girl announced.

Who was she talking to? Betsy chanced a glance and found a pair of brown eyes staring at her. Could she just ignore the child? Maybe if she didn’t look at her more than necessary.

“What’s your name?” The girl was unfazed.

“Leave the nice lady alone,” her mother admonished her.

Betsy nodded at the young mother, relieved she wouldn’t have to play nice with the child. That only struck her anew. How was she to manage two ‘lively’ children if she couldn’t answer this girl’s simple question? This was not how she had planned out her life. It was not what she wanted.

But none of that mattered. It was what she faced just the same.

Movement at the door drew her attention. But it was only Paul Hammond and the other man exiting the establishment.

She jerked away, but not before Paul tipped his head in her direction with a too-wide grin. Again, would it be terribly rude to smack it from his face?

Then a thought struck her…was he on this stage too? She shut her eyes and told the Lord He could not be so cruel… But He had been. Landing her in a situation she loathed and then topped it with this uncomfortable interaction.

But Paul and his companion moved off farther into town.

Maybe God did hear her. Maybe.

But she doubted it. Why would he start now?

The rumbling in the air told that something approached. And, soon enough, the stage coach rounded the buildings on the edge of town and barreled toward the small group.

Destiny had come for her in a dust-covered and mud-marred coach. A far cry from Cinderella’s grand carriage. And this one would not bear her to a prince, but to a family in Denver. She sighed as she looked at Paul’s retreating form. At least it would take her far from that ogre.

And that, she was truly grateful for.


Paul Hammond checked his wares at the mercantile counter. Their journey would not last much longer, but they would need some provisions. Just in case. Anything could happen on the trail. His pile consisted of jerky and a few other foodstuffs.

A quick glance at what Elias had gathered had Paul shaking his head. The man-child had mostly candy. What good would that do?

Paul opened his mouth to encourage the younger man to think more of his purchases, but stopped himself. He wasn’t the man’s father…or overseer. There was really only one way the pup would learn. And Paul had plenty of sustenance for the two of them for this short journey.

The General Store owner tallied their wares and gave them each their total.

Paul pulled out a few coins and set them on the counter.

“Who was that lady you talked with?”

Paul jerked toward his companion. “What?”

“That pretty blonde. Who was she?”

“Just someone I knew. Not very well.”

“That’s not what it seemed like. Wish I had a beautiful blonde that I didn’t know that well.”

Paul wanted to shove Elias’s shoulder, or do something to make him shut his trap. But he simply gathered his few things and moved out of the store. Maybe that would communicate to Elias that he didn’t wish to speak of it any further.

All in all, he had not been prepared to see anyone from Cripple Creek, much less Betsy Callaway. The girl had always put on airs, had always been a bit much in that regard. How was she not married by now? He fully anticipated that, with the way she threw herself at Wyatt Sullivan, she would have been able to convince him by now.

Such was apparently not the case. What, in fact, was she doing in Castle Rock? And about to board a coach for Denver? Did she have business there? Or a beau? Not that it was any of his concern. The woman was barely tolerable at best.

He shifted, noticing that Elias still watched him.

“What?” Why would Elias give him such a look? The man fairly stared him down. Was his distraction so obvious? It was far more due to the surprise of the interaction from the past than for Betsy herself. She was a pretty picture. But sometimes those were the riskiest.

“Ready?” Elias smiled far too broadly.

Paul tipped his hat brim before mounting his horse. “You bet.”

Soon enough, the two men urged their horses out of Castle Rock. Paul could not help a glance back at the stagecoach. Betsy slipped within, making a show of how carefully she did so. Did she not want to soil her dress? That was for naught. With the amount of dirt those wheels would kick up, she was wasting her time. That made him grin. Perhaps a little too much.

Then he turned his attention forward and pressed his horse to go faster.

Elias did the same and they set Castle Rock…and Betsy Callaway…in their past.

He and Elias were never much for conversation. It was a blessing, as the speed of the horses eliminated any sort of exchange of words. But that gave him time to think…time to mull. Too much time. He had not considered the town he had left behind for many years. Not that he never thought of his family there, but he could not allow himself to dwell there. Did his father know he wrote home? Did Pa care? Probably not. His father had likely never given Paul another thought but to regret his son’s choices.

Choices that Paul had to make. For himself. He couldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps. It would have been too stifling. Paul would have suffocated if he tried. Leave that to Liam, the perfect son, the son that Pa always wanted, the son that Paul couldn’t be.

His heart ached at that truth. But he couldn’t deny who he was. He needed to work with his hands. A life of numbers and people was just not for him. Why couldn’t Pa ever understand that? And more, why couldn’t Pa let him be who he was born to be? Not try to force him into a mold he could never fit?

This line of thinking was nonsense. Not only had he puzzled on it far too long today. He had a history of doing so. It just wasn’t what God intended for him. It had been a long road getting to this place where God’s plan was enough—more than enough—to bring Paul joy and worth.

Suddenly, Elias dropped back. Was something amiss?

Paul slowed his horse and turned. “You all right?”

Elias had brought his horse to a halt and swung one leg over to dismount. “Not sure.”

Paul eased his mare back a few paces to where Elias examined his animal. When he lifted one of the back hooves, he frowned.

“Threw a shoe.” Elias grimaced. “That’s going to be a delay.”

Paul nodded. “There’s a small town just a half mile that way. Think we can make it?” Looking in that direction, Paul examined the terrain. It wasn’t as rough as it could be. That may be their saving grace.

Elias shrugged. “Guess we’ll have to see.” He walked toward the side of the horse, patting the animal to offer what comfort he could. Stroking his mare’s neck, he made soothing noises.

“You sure?”

“We can give it a try.” Elias grabbed for the reins and started walking the horse. It would take longer, but it was not worth potentially injuring the animal worse by riding.

The horse jerked a bit at Elias’s urging, it shifted back and forth, definitely favoring the un-shoed hoof.

Sheriff Brandt wouldn’t be happy about their delay, but it couldn’t be helped. And the man wasn’t unreasonable.

Paul nodded and urged his horse to a slow walk forward. How long would this half mile journey take? It would be drudgery. But necessary. 

All things considered, today was definitely not going well.