Authors: Mona Hodgson
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance
When she arrived at the second-to-last row, she couldn’t help letting out an audible gasp. A portly man slouched in the aisle seat, his eyes shut and his double chin propped against his chest. His rumpled shirt and tousled gray hair spoke to a serious neglect of personal hygiene.
Although he was a far cry from her preference for a seatmate, she saw no choice in the matter. Ida nestled her satchel on the pipe-framed shelf above the seats and laid her coat on top. The young couple sitting across from the man and the only empty seat were huddled together.
“Pardon me,” Ida said.
They tucked their legs, allowing her passage to her window seat. As she passed, the tang of whiskey soured her stomach. The man reeked of it—which explained his capacity to sleep in this jostling conveyance.
Ida squeezed into the small space beside the man and held her reticule in her lap. How would she bear the next two hours? Hopefully he would disembark at an earlier stop.
She’d planned to arrive at the train platform early that morning for the last leg of her trip from Maine to Cripple Creek. She’d even spent the night at a hotel within walking distance of the depot to assure her timeliness. But who would have expected that the rains last night would have formed ponds in the roadway disguised as mere puddles? She’d headed straight for the washroom at the depot to change into dry clothing, not a task she could tend to quickly when soaked clear through her petticoat.
Ida’s head began to ache, and she pressed her fingers to her temples, trying to assuage it. She drew in a deep breath she hoped would cleanse her of the frustration. She was aboard now and seated. And although she found the seat lacking on many levels, it had to be more comfortable than the baggage car—her only other option. Besides, her sisters waited for her on the other end. This would be a mere tick on the clock in comparison to the near week’s worth of traveling to get to this point. She could do this.
If she kept herself occupied. Fortunately, she’d come prepared to do just that. Ida pulled out the envelope wedged against the inside edge of her reticule. Vivian had slipped the mysterious packet into Ida’s hand before she boarded the train in Portland and told her to save the surprise for an especially tedious stretch. This was it.
Ida opened the flap and removed a colorful, folded page obviously taken from a magazine. Unfurling the telltale newspaper-sized sheet, she recognized it as part of an issue of
. Vivian, the fashion connoisseur in the family, occasionally picked up a copy of the magazine.
Ida studied the sheet, which only held advertisements for Pears Soap and soiree fashions. Was Vivian implying she needed a more efficient soap or fresh fashions for her new life as a businesswoman? No, such subtlety was not one of her little sister’s traits.
She flipped the page over and found the answer. The surprise had nothing to do with advertisements and fashions and everything to do with the first article: “Women Out West” by Kat Sinclair Cutshaw.
Ida’s mouth dropped open. Drawing encouragement from her sister’s accomplishment, she began to read.
Kat had written about her introduction to the West, filling in a few of the blanks left in the two letters she’d sent home. And she quoted Hattie Adams, the landlady at the boardinghouse where Kat and Nell stayed before their double wedding. “Strength and wisdom are
the same thing. And a wise woman knows her limits.”
The quote swirled through Ida’s thoughts like the autumn wind stirring leaves outside the train window. Strength would most certainly be required to accomplish what she intended. Bradley Ditmer had proven few men took women in business seriously.
Brushing her fingers over her lips, she still felt the sour remnants of his stolen kiss. Now that she’d had miles and miles of time to think, it was
possible the experience could be a blessing in disguise. The actual business world, and in a booming mining town no less, was sure to be all the more challenging, and she’d best be on guard. She needed to be both wise and strong.
The thought had barely formed when the train began to descend a steep hill. As the cars caught up to each other and banged their hitches together, her inebriated neighbor jerked himself upright and blinked, then leaned back, shutting his eyes again. In the process, he encroached on her already cramped space.
Ida shifted closer to the window. Fresh air and solid ground couldn’t claim her soon enough. A week’s worth of breathing in the acrid stench of burning coal presented enough of a challenge to her senses. The past several minutes, body odor and alcohol had mixed with it to create a repulsive combination.
The man’s snores and snorts provided an offbeat to the
of the train wheels and the staccato huffing of the locomotive. But the man’s snores or smell wasn’t what troubled her most. The narrowing of her small space had her teeth clenched and her blood about to boil. She returned the magazine page to the envelope and began fanning herself with it.
She needed to keep her mind occupied. Her future in business was sure to do the trick.
Twisting the latch on her reticule, she opened it and pulled out the wire from Mollie O’Bryan, then stuffed the
packet back into its proper place.
Ida unfolded the note she’d received at Aunt Alma’s home in Portland the day before she’d boarded the train. The Cripple Creek businesswoman’s message instantly redirected her attention.
Received your telegram stop
Could use competent help stop
You look good on paper stop
We can talk stop
My office Wednesday thirty September stop
Three pm stop
She wouldn’t have looked so good on paper if Mr. Alan Merton, her former boss, had his way. But she did, thanks to some fast talking and the director’s concern she would spread “her exaggerations” about the guest lecturer and cause “undue harm” to the school. While their compromise wasn’t fully fair to her, she had found it acceptable. He had awarded her the certificate as if she’d completed the last two weeks of the course and written a letter of recommendation based upon her attendance record and work up until the day Mr. Ditmer tried to have his way with her.
As the train snaked around a mountain, Ida’s neighbor slumped against her shoulder, fanning the flames of her headache. The wire in her hand fluttered to the floor.
“Sir.” Ida raised her arm, pushing against his.
The man only snuffled, his hibernation undisturbed.
She’d paid for a whole seat. This was unacceptable. Bracing herself against the window with one hand, she shoved him, letting his arm fall to his lap. “Mister!”
The man jerked and flailed his arms, and then stared at her, his wide eyes looking like a map with a route penciled in red. “Huh?” He pointed his unsteady finger at her. “You, madam, are one pushy broad.”
Ida huffed. “Pushy? You haven’t seen pushy yet.” She paused, taking in a breath of stale air. “You, sir, are—”
The understated male voice quieted Ida, and she looked up. A dark figure had appeared in the aisle. Surely a brawny angel had come to her rescue, as she hadn’t heard anyone approaching.
The gentleman laid one hand on the drunk’s shoulder. With the other, he pushed back the bowler on his head and smiled. “Ma’am.”
She raised her chin. “You’re relocating this man?”
He nodded, his hazel eyes full of understanding and compassion.
“Thank you.” Not that she needed to be rescued, exactly, but she’d endured quite enough distress this day and gladly welcomed the man’s help—though she kept a careful watch for any strings attached to his consideration.
Her incorrigible neighbor gazed at the other man, blinking as if he could send a message by Morse code. “You, sir, need to strike a deal and calm these waters.”
“I’ll see about that, Baxter. But first, I’m moving you to a window seat with less turbulence. Where you’ll be able to sleep undisturbed.” Her knight in a pinstripe suit grinned at her, and then helped the man he’d referred to as Baxter to his feet and guided him up the aisle, away from her.
Already, the ache in her head began to subside. Ida glanced at the floor where the telegram lay. She extended her leg and drew the paper back with the toe of her boot. She’d bent forward to retrieve Miss O’Bryan’s message when she heard her new hero returning to the seat beside her.
“I would have gotten that for you,” he said.
“You’ve already done more than your fair share of good deeds by relieving me of that man.”
“Happy to help, ma’am. Colin Wagner at your service.” He removed his bowler. “And you’ll be happy to know I’m not a leaner. Nor do I drool.”
A smile came despite her. “I’m glad to hear that, Mr. Wagner.” She held his gaze, searching his eyes for any hint of ulterior motive in his kindness or in his humor.
“And you are?” he asked.
“I’m Ida Sinclair.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Sinclair.” He returned his hat to his head.
“You know that man?” She looked toward the seat where Baxter was now collapsed against the window.
“We’re both from Cripple Creek. I’m a legal counselor there. What brings you to Colorado, Miss Sinclair?”
“I’ve recently completed course work in a business college.” She tucked the telegram into her reticule. “I have an employment interview with a businesswoman in Cripple Creek—Miss Mollie O’Bryan.”
“Miss O’Bryan is one of my steady clients.” Mr. Wagner rubbed his smooth chin. “You certainly possess the poise and spunk Miss Mollie would admire.”
“I doubt you’ll need it, but I’d be happy to put in a good word for you. That is, if you’d like me to.”
Ida focused on a swirl of soot on her sleeve.
“Without any obligation on your part, Miss Sinclair.”
“I’d appreciate that, Mr. Wagner.”
Colin Wagner began a conversation with the older gentleman across the aisle, likely unaware that he’d redeemed the last leg of her trip.
ell smoothed a plaid cloth over the maple table, then set a quart-sized Mason jar of daises in the center of it. She put five stoneware plates and settings in place, and then stood back to inspect her kitchen. No sooner had Judson left for the mine that morning than she had put her hand to sweeping and cleaning. The nickel trim on the stove her husband bought her last month shone like a mirror. The polished pine flooring gleamed in the slivers of light that spilled in through the paned-glass window.
Kat and Morgan came to supper every other week. On the off weeks, she and Judson went to their home. They didn’t normally meet on the first day of the workweek, but today was no ordinary Monday. Ida arrived in Cripple Creek today, and a celebration was in order.
Since Nell had moved into Judson’s home, she’d added yellow calico curtains to the two windows in the main room and the window in their bedchamber. She’d also added the True Lover’s Knot quilt her aunt had made for her to their bed. Her gaze lingered there while memories sent a wave of warmth up her neck and into her face.
Judson was a good man. Tender and passionate. Fine qualities for a husband. And for a father. She was a blessed woman, and she so longed to bless her husband with a child.
Nell squared her house slippers with the edge of the quilt and nudged the photo frame on the side table straight. She was pulling the curtain panels back to see if Kat was on her way yet when she felt that familiar searing ache low in her abdomen. Sighing, she sank onto the bed. She’d said a prayer and hoped things would be different this month.
Help me be patient, Lord
“Nell, are you here?”
Kat had arrived.
“I’ll be right there.” Nell pulled her mantle from the maple wardrobe and joined her sister in the main room.
Kat stood near the stove, wearing her duster. “I was beginning to think you’d gone off without me.”
“On sisters’ day?” Nell smoothed the rug at the entry one last time as she followed Kat out the door. “I was making sure everything is ready for when we get back from Hattie’s.”