Authors: Kaki Warner
“Father, we're ready to go now,” she called, rushing toward him.
Propping a hip against the rear wheel, Ethan crossed his arms over his chest and watched her tuck the dripping pooch under her arm, then gently steer her father toward the coach. He admired her patience. The woman truly did have her hands full with this scatterbrained bunch, yet she hadn't once lost her composureÂ .Â .Â . except with him, of course, but since that had been his intent, he didn't hold it against her.
“Where are you headed, Miss Pearsall?” he asked while she loaded her father into the buggy and placed the dog, wrapped in the lap robe, into his arms. He caught a whiff of manure and swamp and was thankful to be riding outside.
“Not far.” Backing out, she blew that errant lock of brownish gold hair out of her eyes and waved the two Africans to their placesâWinnie in back with the old man, Curtis up front on the right side of the driver's box. “A town called Heartbreak Creek.”
“Oh? What a coincidence.”
“You're going there, too?” With a look of surprise, she turned to face him.
He almost choked.
She was wet from collar to waist. And cold, judging by the way the damp fabric clung to every rounded curve and puckered tip.
He owed the dog a thank-you.
“I am,” he said, tearing his gaze away before she caught him again.
“Excellent. Now we can travel together.”
Not excellent. He didn't want to have to rescue her at every turn. Or feel responsible for her. The last woman for whom he had harbored such feelings had died in agony. Her screams still haunted him.
But then againÂ .Â .Â . Miss Audra Pearsall was a beautiful woman.
And twenty-nine months was a long time.
And he was weary of being awakened by the sounds of breaking glass and screams, and fighting the urge to make them stop by sending a bullet into his brain. It would be nice to feel something other than self-loathing for a change, to be near a woman and not hear those screams in his head.
Just for a while.
So he said nothing. And swinging up on Renny, he waved the woman to follow, and headed down the road to Heartbreak Creek, feeling better than he had since the walls at Salty Point had shattered around him almost three years ago.
eartbreak Creek seemed to be a town in transition, although Audra couldn't tell if it was sliding toward decay, or climbing out of it. Eyesores abounded: a tent city inhabited by idle Chinese workers along a rushing creek, a rambling multistoried structure perched on the canyon wall above the townâprobably an abandoned mineâand piles of rusty metal rails, wooden kegs, tools, and railroad ties scattered beside several canvas-topped buildings and a half-constructed water tower. It gave the place a feeling of impermanence, as if half the structures and most of the inhabitants could be packed up and gone within a matter of hours.
A far cry from Baltimore.
Yet, as they followed the creek into the main part of town, Audra saw evidence of progress here and thereâfresh white paint on the little church at the mouth of the canyon, clean storefront windows, a hotel that seemed to be an actual hotel rather than a brothel, a busy general store, a millinery shop, a bank, and even a sheriff's office. The signs hanging over the un-warped boardwalk appeared newly lettered, and only the one above the doors of the Red Eye Saloon next to the hotel showed bullet holes.
Less than Audra had hoped, but more than she had feared.
Mr. Hardesty dropped back beside the buggy and motioned for her to pull to the side and stop. “Where do you go from here, Miss Audra?”
“Pearsall,” she said absently, looking around. “I'm not sure. The old Prendergast cabin is all I know. I have the papersâ”
“Never mind.” He swung out of the saddle. “Wait here while I check. The local sheriff usually knows everyone in town.” After looping his horse's reins around the hitching rail, he stepped up onto the boardwalk and entered a small stand-alone building with barred windows.
“Was that Richard?” Father demanded from the backseat. “You know I don't like him coming around, trying to get a peek at my work.”
“No, Father. It was Mr. Hardesty. He changed our wheel, remember?”
“Is Mary bringing lunch? She said she would bring lunch.”
“We'll eat soon, Father. I promise.”
Grumbling to Cleo, he settled back.
“Like I said,” Winnie muttered, “a dismal place.”
“You urged me to come,” Audra reminded her.
“How'd I know you'd listen to a simple black woman? Or drag us along?”
“You'd rather have stayed in Baltimore with no work and no place to live?”
“I bet there's not a single person of color in the whole town.”
“'Cept for yellow,” Curtis said. “Lots of yellow folks. And at least one red,” he added when Mr. Hardesty stepped out of the office with a swarthy man wearing normal attire except for temple braids and the feather tucked into a strip of leather holding back the rest of his long black hair.
“Lawd help us,” Winnie mumbled. “We scalped in our beds, for sure.”
“This is Deputy Redstone.” Mr. Hardesty nodded toward the stern-faced man at his side. “He says the Prendergast place is about two miles up the canyon. A bit rough, but still usable. He'll be glad to take you there.”
His constant jibes notwithstanding, Audra would have preferred to have Mr. Hardesty take them. At least she knew and trusted him. Somewhat.
The Indian must have noted her hesitation. Tapping the badge on his vest, he said in a flat, expressionless voice, “Do not worry. While I wear this, I am not allowed to kill white women.” At Audra's gasp, he grinned, showing strong white teeth in a smile so unexpected and beautiful it took her breath away.
“He's jesting.” Mr. Hardesty glanced at the Indian. “You are jesting, aren't you?”
“White people are so easy to frighten.” To Audra, the deputy added with calm assurance, “I am Cheyenne. I do not kill women. You are safe with me.”
She saw the sincerity in his gentle smile and let her reservations go. She liked the man despite his odd sense of humor. At least his teasing didn't make her feel awkward and bumbling the way Mr. Hardesty's did. “Thank you, sir. I must stop by the mercantile first, if you don't mind, and pick up a few supplies to get us through tonight. Do you know if there is any furniture in the cabin?”
The deputy shrugged, apparently finding furniture of little importance.
Mr. Hardesty frowned. “The sun is already starting down, Miss Audra. Perhaps you should stay the night at the hotel. Redstone says they serve hearty fare and the rooms are clean. There's even a livery on the back street where you can leave the buggy and horse.”
Audra mentally counted her coins. She had a draft on her Baltimore account, but judging by the darkened windows of the bank across the street, she wouldn't be able to deposit it until tomorrow. “Does the hotel allow Africans?”
Mr. Hardesty glanced at the deputy, who nodded, a small smile tugging at his lips. “And dogs.”
“Excellent.” After telling Mr. Redstone she would come by in the morning once she had picked up her supplies, she left the two men talking, and drove back to the hotel.
The desk clerk, an elderly gentleman with a gummy smile and brown teethâwhat few there wereâhappily rented her two rooms. While the freckled bellboy helped Curtis carry their valises up to the second floor, Winnie took charge of Father and Cleo, leaving Audra to attend to the buggy and horse.
The livery was only a few doors down, but once Audra made her arrangements with the liverymanâMr. Driscollâshe took her time returning to the hotel, needing the few moments of solitude to decide what she should do next.
She had been so driven to get Father safely away before Richard knew they were leaving or discovered her deception, she hadn't given much thought to what she would do once they'd reached their destination. The small amount of money left from the grant would last them a month or two if she didn't have to buy too much furniture to replace what she had sold. Then what? There were no more of Father's research papers she could offer for publication, and without them, they had no income. Perhaps she could find employment here in Heartbreak Creek; but would she be able to earn enough to feed all four of them?
“Why so glum, Miss Audra?” a familiar voice said.
“Pearsall,” she said, automatically, and looked up to see Mr. Hardesty standing on the back stoop of the hotel. He wasn't wearing his hat, and the sable hair curling over his collar showed golden streaks where it caught the light of the setting sun. Bareheaded, he looked less imposingâalmost boyishâexcept for the weary droop around his deep-set blue eyes and the dark stubble shadowing his square jaw. “It's been a long, exhausting day.”
“Yes, it has,” he allowed. “What with helping unload the buggy from the train, and harnessing the horse, and changing the wheel. Was that as tiring for you, Miss Audra, as it was for me?”
“Pearsall! And I have no time for your teasing, sir. I still must get my companions settled and fed, and see thatâ”
“I had the dining room send up food,” he cut in. “I hope you don't mind.”
Audra frowned, wondering what he was up to. “Why would you do that?”
He shrugged. “Figured it would be easier. Especially for your father.”
She didn't know how to respond. The man confused her at every turnâteasing one minute, doing something nice the next. She didn't know what to expect, or how to react. But this simple act of kindness after such a horrid day undid her. “Th-Thank you, Mr. Hardesty. That's veryÂ .Â .Â . veryÂ .Â .Â .” Weakness overcame her and she sagged, head down, tears burning in her eyes.
“Good God. You're not going to cry, are you?” When she didn't answer, he bent to peer into her face. “I'll have them take the plates back, if you want.”
Blinking hard, she waved the suggestion away. “Don't be absurd. I'm sure they've eaten every scrap by now, anyway.”
They stood in awkward silence for a few moments, then he let go a deep breath. “Tell me what's wrong, Miss Audra.”
This time, she didn't bother to correct him. It did no good anyway. With a sigh, she looked up at him. He was really quite handsomeÂ .Â .Â . when he wasn't making fun of her. “Do you reside in Heartbreak Creek, Mr. Hardesty?”
“Only temporarily. I'm here on behalf of the railroad. Why do you ask?”
She debated telling him, then thought,
If the railroad was coming to Heartbreak Creek, perhaps there might be a need for someone with clerical skills. “I'm seeking employment, sir. Do you think the railroad would hire me?”
His dark brows rose in surprise. “In what capacity?”
“Transcribing notes, doing accounts, filing, anything clerical. I have a fine hand and I'm a proficient speller.”
He smiled. “I would expect no less.” This time there was no mockery in his tone, and she liked him the better for it. “I'll ask around. Perhaps the businesspeople I'm meeting with tomorrow will have suggestions.”
“I would be most grateful.” When he put forth the effort, Ethan Hardesty could be a very nice man. “For the second timeâor is it the third?âyou've come to my rescue. You've been quite the hero today, haven't you?”
His smile abruptly faded. His face went dead set. Cold. Even his blue eyes turned glacial. “Don't ever call me that, Miss Pearsall. I assure you I am no hero.” And spinning on his heel, he went into the hotel, leaving her standing, dumbfounded, by the stoop.
*Â *Â *
The next morning, after another bout with night terrors and restless dreamsâthe latter thanks to Miss Audra and her wet dressâEthan left his room to attend the meeting with the Rylanders. As he came down the stairs, Yancey looked up from the front desk.
“Boss is looking for you.”
“Where is he?”
“She. Her usual table.” Looking past Ethan, he called, “He's finally up.”
Turning, Ethan saw a man coming out of the dining room. About his height and dark like himâalthough his hair was black, rather than brownâwith intelligent gray eyes and a scar down one side of his face. “Mr. Rylander?”
“Tait.” Smiling, the newcomer extended a big-knuckled hand. “Welcome to Heartbreak Creek, Mr. Hardesty. And to my wife's hotel. Lucinda and I have been looking forward to meeting you.”
Ethan took the proffered hand, noting the scarring, the thickening around Rylander's eyes, and other evidence of his violent past. He had heard that Tait Rylander had once been a bare-knuckle fighter, but it didn't seem to fit with the fine suit and elegant bearing. “Hope I'm not late. And please call me Ethan.”
“Ethan it is. And no, you're not late.” Releasing Ethan's hand, he gestured toward a striking blond woman watching them from a table beside one of the back windows. “Please join us.”
Even spoken in a polite tone, it sounded more like an order than an invitation. A man of authority. Ethan respected that.
“Thank you.” He could be gracious, tooÂ .Â .Â . when it suited him.
Too bad his parting words to Miss Audra hadn't reflected that. Hopefully, he would see her again before he left. But only to apologize. Nothing more. She was the sort of woman who would expect too much from a man, and he was a man who had nothing to give.
Lucinda Rylander was even more striking up close, but in such a cool, reserved way she appeared unapproachable. Ethan sensed that beneath her watchful green eyes swirled dark currents of distrustÂ .Â .Â . except when she looked at her husband. Then her face softened and she became almost playful. Younger. He had thought Miss Audra an intelligent woman, in spite of her addlepated manner, but as he chatted with Lucinda Rylander, he saw a woman so astute it was almost off-putting. Hardly a simpering matron, but a poser of sharp questions and insightful comments, she showed a barely masked strength of will that would have made any battlefield commander proud. Ethan didn't envy her husband, but as they talked, he could see the man had no trouble keeping up with her.
“Your letter said you were having problems with both water issues and rights-of-way?” Ethan leaned back as the serving woman placed before him a plate overflowing with beaten eggs, bacon, sausage, and pan-fried potatoes with onions. While she poured coffee into a china cup on a china saucer, another server loaded the table with bowls of oatmeal, stewed apples flavored with cinnamon, a plate of flapjacks, another of toasted bread, and pots of cream, butter, honey, and jam. He wondered if this was the usual fare, or if they were trying to impress him.
His hostess must have noted his surprise. “I didn't know what you would prefer, Mr. Hardesty, so I had Cook prepare a bit of everything.” She watched him try to fit his finger through the delicate handle of the china cup, and smiled. “Shall I have them bring a mug, Mr. Hardesty? Tait prefers that, too.”
Relieved, Ethan carefully set the cup aside. “I'd appreciate that, ma'am.”
The server brought a thick crockery mug and filled it with steaming coffee. Ethan sipped. Strong and hot. Perfect. Picking up his fork, he dug in.
“The water issues are more of an inconvenience,” Rylander explained as they ate. “Vandalism and minor theft of tools. But there are other problems, too.”
“One of the Irish riding bosses. Seems too fond of his whip.”
Ethan knew it was customary for the western railroads to use Irish bosses to manage the Chinese work gangs. For one thing, they were bigger and more intimidating. For another, they spoke English. But several years ago, during construction of the Transcontinental, when the Irish went on yet another strike for higher wages, the Central Pacific had responded by hiring Chinese laborers at half the wage. It was immediately clear that the smaller “Celestials” were stronger than they looked. They also proved to be more industrious, and worked cheaper, never went on strike, and didn't waste time in gossip or smoke breaks. Soon the CPRR was importing thousands more Chinese to work on their railroad. An insular group that provided its own food, medical men, supplies, cooks, and religion, the Chinese worked tirelessly and caused little trouble, even when assigned the most dangerous tasks, like blasting out the tunnels. They were too valuable an asset for Ethan to allow them to be brutalized by a resentful Irishman. “What's his name?”