Clay tossed his head with a touch of frustration. He really had to stop calling her that. She gave him one of her little looks every time it rolled off his tongue. Maybe that’s why he did it. He certainly didn’t like her. She was as annoying as bedbugs.
A tiny screech had him spinning about. “Are you all right?” he called.
“Yes,” she answered, sounding somewhat winded with pain.
“Give it a minute,” he shouted. “It’ll ease.”
Smiling, he reached down to tighten the saddle cinch strap he’d loosened when they stopped to eat. She had grit, he had to give her that. All in all, she was quite remarkable. Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts. Once again, he chided himself. “Katherine” just didn’t fit her. It seemed too formal for someone so youthful and charming. Maybe she went by Kathy.
Leading Andrew to the blankets, he proceeded to fold them into a neat pad for Kathy to sit on. Nope. Kathy didn’t fit her, either. He turned toward the woods, where she was tenderly stepping from between the trees. Now dry, her hair had turned straw colored and hung in spirals around her shoulders, while the ends bounced near her elbows.
It was all he could do to stop staring. Spinning around, he laid the bedroll behind the saddle. As soon as he got Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, back to Black Hawk, he’d see she got on the next train heading east, and he’d never think about her again.
“Thank you.” She handed him the tin. “You were right. It stung like the dickens at first, but now I can’t feel a thing.” Her eyes twinkled as brightly as specks of gold in a creek bed as she leaned a bit closer and whispered, “I can’t thank you enough for that.”
His throat thickened, and for a moment Clay thought about something he hadn’t contemplated in years: kissing. Her lips seemed to have been made just for that purpose.
He managed to mumble, “You’re welcome,” as he took the tin and stuck it back in the saddlebag.
Once he’d climbed into the saddle, he held one stirrup on top of his boot for her to use as he took her hand. After she’d settled onto the blankets, he asked, “You set?”
She grasped the saddle with both hands near his hips before answering, “Yes, thank you.”
He clicked his tongue, setting Andrew moving, and held his breath at the way his skin near her hands tingled. He’d have been better off riding all the way back to Black Hawk smelling the foul kid Henry. “What was in that pouch, anyway?”
The tinkle of her soft giggle tickled his neck. “A dead fish.”
“Well, parts of one, anyway. I’d stuck it in there.”
“In case someone caught me tailing Mr. Edwards. I figured the smell would keep them at bay.”
Clay had almost forgotten that part—that she was looking for Sam. “All this just to meet a miner?”
“I’ve always wanted to meet a miner.”
I’m a miner, Clay had an unusual urge to say, but of course didn’t.
He glanced heavenward, as if Oscar could see him. Why me? he asked. Why didn’t you leave someone else in charge of your will and your wayward grandson?
Clay was still asking the same question the next evening when he sat across the fire pit from Sam outside a small cave not far from the Wanda Lou, the gold mine owned by the two of them and Oscar’s other grandchild, a young girl named Kit who lived in Chicago. It had started out simple enough. Nine years ago, he and Oscar had agreed to continue the partnership his father, Walt, and Oscar had formed years before. That joint venture had been for the Wanda Lou when she was little more than a hole in the side of Clear Creek Mountain—named for the creek that split to flow both eastward and westward off the mountaintop, and carried specks of gold all the way down on both sides.
Staring into the light of the fire, watching the flames spout sparks into the air, Clay was more than a touch reflective, given all that had happened lately. And there was a wall of frustration in his head due to the fact he couldn’t get a set of big brown eyes out of his mind.
She was in more places than his mind. That woman had gotten right under his skin. “So,” he asked, “you’ve never heard of Katherine Ackerman?”
Sam let out a sigh. “I already told you, no. And I ain’t got no relatives in Boston. My pa didn’t have any family.”
“And you were just in Black Hawk to sell your furs?”
“Yep, got a good price for them, too.” Sam removed his hat to scratch his head, which was covered with an unruly mop of red hair. “Why would a woman from Boston want to talk to me?”
Clay wished he knew. His gut said it was because of Sam’s inheritance. All in all, that came down to the only explanation. “You haven’t sent any wires? Discussed the will with anyone?” He’d already asked, and for the most part believed Sam when he said that he hadn’t.
“No, why would I do that?”
There was no reason, Clay knew. But he also knew Sam was relatively unknown, even in the mountains he’d lived in all seventeen years of his life. That was the way of most trappers, and Sam was especially shy around people.
“Maybe she’s here to see your opera house,” Sam said. “Folks come from all over for that.”
The unexpected tightening in his jaw had Clay shifting. The opera house was a part of Nevadaville and brought in a good income, so he’d buried the memories associated with it—and Miranda. Yet ever since Katherine had mentioned the playhouse, his past had started to haunt him again. Picked at his nerves like buzzards on a carcass.
Maybe she’d met Miranda at one of the playhouses in Boston. Clay had no idea where the acting troupe was performing now. Perhaps Katherine had heard he was an easy target. She’d find out differently. He’d spent money on a woman once, and wouldn’t do it again. He’d grown up with next to nothing, and now that his mines were successful, he enjoyed sharing the wealth, investing in things that helped others prosper, but he wasn’t a fool. Once was enough. He’d learned a hard lesson.
Clay’s insides recoiled. What was he thinking? Katherine wasn’t after him, she was after Sam. Just because Clay couldn’t get her off his mind didn’t mean the opposite was true. Furthermore, he’d bought her a ticket east, and told Reggie Green she had to use it. She was probably in Denver by now.
Sam, poking a stick into the flames and sending sparks flying, glanced up with a deep frown. “Did you meet One Ear Bob?”
“That trapper who was looking for you?”
“Yeah.” The youngster kept stirring up the fire. “Pa knew him.”
Clay sensed there was more behind Sam’s words, but knew he’d have a hell of a time getting anything more out. Sam had a shell as hard as an acorn’s. Clay let out a long breath. “No, I didn’t. Why, did he give you any trouble?”
“No. He just wanted to know where I was living now.” Sam shook his head and then glanced up. “You thought any more about signing over the deed to this piece of land?”
A gut reaction said there was more to One Ear Bob than that, and Clay made a mental note to poke around when he got back to town. “I told you, it’s not mine to give you,” he answered.
“Yes, it is. This chunk of land is in the will, and you have control of it.” Sam tossed another log into the flames. “It’s all I want. You can keep everything else.”
Clay squeezed his temples. “It doesn’t work like that, Sam. I can’t give it to you until you’re twenty-one.” The terms of the will had shocked him. As if he didn’t have enough to do, Oscar had saddled him with two underage wards. Thank goodness the other one, Kit, was back in Chicago, being looked after by Oscar’s lawyer, Theodore Watson. The lawyer had traveled to Colorado a year ago to tell Clay the terms of the will. Everything Oscar Becker owned was divided in half, between Sam and Kit, and until the two grandkids turned twenty-one, Clay was in charge of investing the earnings. Once the youngsters were old enough, he could either buy them out or take them on as partners.
The whole thing was a mess he hadn’t expected. Then again, Oscar’s untimely death—a carriage accident in a rainstorm—had been a shock, too. Life was like that, throwing in things a person didn’t expect. Like Katherine Ackerman.
“You could give it to me now,” Sam said. “If you really wanted to.”
Clay pulled his mind back around. “I can’t. The will’s ironclad. If either you or Kit attempt to claim your share early, it’s to be sold to P. J. Nelson for a dollar.”
Clay didn’t comment. He should have stopped talking before saying the man’s name. That part of the will had surprised him, too, for if it happened, it would jeopardize everything Clay owned. Oscar would have known that, and, Clay fumed, had used it to make sure he kept close tabs on Sam.
“P.J. ain’t nothing but a drunk.”
“Maybe, but he was Oscar’s first partner, and Oscar said if there ever came a time when he no longer wanted the claim, he’d give P.J. first chance to buy it back. Guess he figured if you or Kit tried to mess with the will, it meant you don’t want it.” Clay didn’t mention he’d written to Theodore Watson six weeks ago, asking if there were any alternative options. Four more years of arguing with Sam over a small chunk of land was useless. Made no difference in the long run, and if he had his way, he’d put Sam’s name on the deed.
Up until two years ago, Sam had lived in a shack in the mountains, never coming to town. His old man, little more than a hermit, had downright despised people of any kind ever since his wife, Amelia, who was Oscar’s daughter, had died. Leastwise that’s what Clay had heard. He hadn’t known anything about any of them until Sam had shown up at the Wanda Lou, claiming to be Oscar’s grandson. Clay had wired Oscar, who’d made the trip west immediately, and spent half of the next year trying to convince Sam to move to Chicago and live with him.
“Sam,” Clay started, trying not to sound repetitive.
“Why don’t you come to work at the mine, or the stamp mill, or even the railroad?”
“Because I don’t want to work at any of those places,” Sam said, puffing out his narrow chest. “I’m a trapper.”
Clay’s temples were now pounding. This was the same conversation he’d had with Sam for a year, and it was tiresome. Almost as wearing as Katherine had become the past two days.
Kit pushed the ticket back under the little half-moon shape in the wire cage of the train depot ticket booth. “I will say this one more time. I don’t want this ticket, I want one to Nevadaville.”
Smiling as if he couldn’t make another facial expression, the little bald-headed man, whose shiny black string tie rubbed on his Adam’s apple, pushed the ticket back toward her. “That’s the ticket that was purchased for you, ma’am. And the one I was instructed you’re to use.”
“I don’t care about that, Mr….” She paused, waiting for his response.
“Green. Reginald Green, at your service, ma’am.” His grin widened, exposing a plethora of oddly angled teeth.
Kit shivered at the experience, but pushed the ticket back under the wire. “Mr. Green … Reginald,” she started sweetly. “I understand Mr. Hoffman purchased that ticket for me, but you see, he didn’t inquire about my plans prior to his purchase.” She pressed a hand to her chest. “I must see the opera house in Nevadaville before I head back East.” Stopping Mr. Green from sliding the ticket back in her direction with her fingertips, she pulled up a smile that hurt her cheeks. “I will accept this ticket after that. Until then, I need one to take me to Nevadaville.”
Mr. Green had been shaking his head the entire time she’d been speaking. “I can’t sell you a ticket to Nevadaville, ma’am.”
Keeping the smile plastered on her lips became increasingly difficult. “Why not?”
“Because Cl—Mr. Hoffman said so. He said you might want to go to Nevadaville and I wasn’t supposed to sell you a ticket to there. I was to give this one to you and see you got on the train.”
“Really?” The evening before last, when he’d dropped her off at the hotel, she’d almost grown to like Clay Hoffman. Actually, for a few hours she’d pondered all the wonderful things Gramps had said about him, and confirmed they were true. However, right now she loathed him more than before she’d met him—sky-blue eyes and all. She took a moment to get her anger under control and ignore the flutters that happened inside her at the memory of those eyes. The simple thought of that man did odd things to her. In some ways it reminded her of the giddiness she experienced when opening a new book.
“Tell me, Mr. Green, is Mr. Hoffman your boss? Does he own the railroad?” she asked, ready to declare the man had no right—
Mr. Green’s “Yes” stalled her thoughts.
“Yes to what?”
“Yes, he’s my boss, and yes, he owns the railroad.”
Startled to the point that her breathing stopped, she asked, “H-he does?”
Mr. Green was still smiling brightly, teeth and all. “Yes, he does.”
“He owns the Colorado Central Railroad?” she asked for clarification.
With a bout of fury, she picked up the ticket and ripped it in half. Twice. “Fine.” Laying the pieces back on the counter, she lifted her chin. “I’m sure there’s another way for me to get to Nevadaville.”
Mr. Green’s smile faded. “Not really, ma’am.”
She cast a severe gaze his way.
Gulping until his Adam’s apple sat on top of his tie, Mr. Green said, “Well, there’s the wagon road, but there are places they gotta tie ropes around trees and stumps to keep the wagons from tumbling over the edge, and of course, the horses gotta wear blinders, especially while crossing the bridges.”
It was Kit’s turn to gulp.
“I wouldn’t recommend traveling that way. Besides, the only wagons that traverse the road are Cl—Mr. Hoffman’s, and he most likely wouldn’t want you traveling on them.”
She spun, huffing as she took a few steps, but then stopped and stomped back to the ticket booth. “Tell me, Mr. Green, what else does Mr. Hoffman own?”
“Here or in Nevadaville?”
Hiding the surprise rippling her spine, she crossed her arms.
As if the thought just came to him, Mr. Green pointed a shaky finger. “He doesn’t own any of the saloons.”
“How honorable,” she spat, spinning on her heels.
“He doesn’t own Miss Clarice’s society house, either. She does. But he built it for her.”
Kit closed her eyes, regaining her composure. Black Hawk was more than a small town, and she could only imagine Nevadaville was similar in size. It wasn’t a city like Chicago or Denver, but it had several businesses, and the streets were made of cobblestones to keep the mud and dust down. She cast her gaze up and down, glancing at buildings of all sizes and shapes built on the hillside, while she waited for the traffic to clear so she could cross the road from the train station to the boardwalk that led to the two-story hotel she’d been staying at. How could one man own all this? Reginald Green must not know what he was talking about. Her grandfather had been a wealthy man, but not even he owned an entire town.
A slow-moving thought had her scanning the town again. Or did he? She’d read the will, several times, but all it said was all Gramps’s holdings were to be divided equally between her and Sam. That could include a town and a railroad. Clay Hoffman was Gramps’s partner. Had been for years.
Swallowing a sudden attack of sadness, wishing Grandpa was here so she could ask him, Kit squared her shoulders. Both he and Grandma had been tight-lipped about Colorado. She’d only recognized the name Black Hawk because Grandma Katie had let it slip one time. Was that because they didn’t want anyone to know how wealthy they were? How wealthy Kit now was? Grandma always said it was best for women not to know their worth, for it often drew uncouth and undesirable men. Actually, in Grandma’s eyes everything drew men, therefore Kit had never been allowed to do anything.
Her gaze landed on the old Indian sitting on the front porch of the mercantile. The man waved, and she fluttered a hand his way and then stepped back so a wagon hid her from other onlookers. Running Bear had confirmed that Clay lived in Nevadaville, and Sam as well. Naturally, it had cost her another package of chewing gum.
The traffic continued to flow by without the slightest break for her to cross the street. Another thought made her frown. Who was Miss Clarice and what was a society house? Kit’s heart skipped a few beats. Could it be a house of ill repute? Certainly Grandpa hadn’t owned one of those. He could have visited one, though, and that could be how Sam came to be. It was a disquieting thought, but over the past several months she’d thought of that possibility more than once—for ultimately, there were few other answers. Sam had to be Grandpa’s son. Her uncle. And she wasn’t leaving here until she met him, scandal be damned.
The curse had her sending up a silent plea for forgiveness—but if she had family, she had a right to know. More than that, she needed to know. She hated the feeling of being totally alone in the world.
The train whistle sounded, indicating that the locomotive pulling a passenger car, two freight cars and a small green caboose would soon leave the station and head for Nevadaville without her.
Kit turned, eyed the cars closely, thoughtfully, and then scanned the area for Mr. Green. The little booth was empty. Convinced her sudden idea was a good one, she hitched up her skirt and hurried past the passenger car, as well as the wooden freight cars. Steam shot out from under the wheels, forming a cloud around her as the whistle sounded again. It made her jump, but she kept her nerve.
The freight conductor, the one who sat in the little square pilothouse on top of the last car, was already there, looking over the tops of the cars and paying no attention to the ground below. Kit hurried forward, grabbing the metal sidebar and pulling herself onto the small platform at the very back of the train as the wheels creaked and shuddered. She tucked her skirt between her legs to climb over the rail, and then dashed through the doorway. Heart pounding, she glanced out the window as she closed the door, to assure no one had witnessed her unfashionable boarding.
Success made her smile, but moments later, when the little caboose shook as the wheels started to rumble, memories of her last train ride flashed in her mind. Her grin faded and a bubble formed in her throat. Pressing both hands over her eyes, she moaned, “Oh, no.”
Clay caught the rail of the caboose at a run and pulled himself onto the little platform. He paused, peering through the window, as his fingers grasped the door. She was sitting on the bench, but had her head hanging between her knees. He’d been watching, had seen her arguing with Reggie Green, and wasn’t surprised when she’d sneaked on board, nor was he surprised that she stayed down, not wanting anyone to notice.
Katherine Ackerman was one determined woman.
His hand went to his front pocket, where the medicine bag he’d bought from Running Bear was tucked. This morning, after leaving Sam’s cave, Clay had taken the early train to Black Hawk, claiming he needed to oversee the delivery of the new boiler, whereas in reality, though he barely admitted it to himself, he wanted to see if she had left. And again, not something he was overly willing to divulge, he was glad she hadn’t. Though he still wouldn’t let her get near Sam.
The train picked up speed, chugging and clanging, and the clatter disguised the sound of the door opening. Once inside, Clay closed the door, half wondering what to do next. Anger at how she’d scampered aboard was nonexistent. A hint of admiration was playing about inside him instead.
Small as it was, the caboose hosted only a tiny wood stove near the back wall and two long benches along the sides. The entire car swung left and right, rattling and shaking as the train picked up momentum.
Katherine let out a little yelp and one hand moved to the bench beside her knee, grasping tightly. He sat on the seat opposite her, their knees almost touching across the tiny aisle. Clay found himself wishing he could see more than the top of the little blue-and-white hat covering those glorious golden waves that had fluttered around her face and shoulders back on the mountainside. It was only four miles to Central City, and then another three to Nevadaville, but the train had to wind around the mountain to get there, making the ride a bit longer. The way she quivered said her nerves were already getting the best of her. Perplexing, considering the trail she’d traversed on horseback.
Maybe it was for show. Maybe she knew he was sitting across from her, and this was just another part of her act.
A clatter and clang had her jolting, and then the great clunking and banging of the wheels making a sharp turn had her snapping her head up. Clay held in a flinch at her paleness. No one was that good an actress, and his heart thudded in response. She was a beauty, no man could deny that—even with a tint of seasick-green covering her cheeks.