The sun had just set behind the mountains as Connor Franklin started his rounds of Gold Hill. The main street was slowly filling as the day-shift miners began their weary march home and the drunks began their pilgrimage to the saloon. The lean years were making it harder to tell one class from the other. Working man and town nuisance shuffled along side by side, dull-eyed as corpses.
The coming night smelled like so many others: stale and tired like the spring drought. He doubted he'd have cause to do anything more than doze in the marshal's office or waste an hour or two at the saloon. But the marshal liked his men to maintain a presence on the streets. And Connor's horse needed the exercise.
Sitting back in the saddle, he nudged his mount down the steep hill of the Divide. The sleepwalking miners drifted by in silence. Not one of them raised their heads in greeting. Connor didn't expect it. A lone pair of females trudged up the street, arm in arm, and the deputy doffed his hat in greeting. Mother and daughter, probably out too late paying calls and now hurrying home to the better part of town with as much haste as decently possible. The mother ignored him pointedly, but the daughter risked a saucy smile. Connor smiled back; parting his lips just enough to reveal his pointed canines. The girl's expression faltered, just as the mother nudged her on with a disapproving glare.
Connor kept smiling as the pair disappeared behind him. He liked reminding the little debutantes that he was not a creature to be trifled with. It did them all a world of good.
His growling stomach reminded him that he had set out without breakfast. His pantry was bare, and what little had been left in the icebox had gone to the dog--who was far less flexible with regards to mealtimes. A visit to the butcher was in order. Miles Nolan always kept a package or two ready for him; he could pick one up on his way to the marshal's station and have a quiet meal while waiting for the emergency that would never come.
The breeze shifted, and he caught a new scent on the air. It made him sit tall in the saddle and breathe deeply.
Human, definitely, with that mammalian base, like oil and leather. The scent had the full body of rude health, and the distinct flavor of the individual made his mouth water: the comforting smell of fresh dough, the buttery sweetness of burnt sugar. Suddenly he was famished.
He searched the crowd of northbound workmen, trying to pinpoint that distinct smell in a sea of dust and salt. His gaze fell on one lone figure wading against the tide, heading south down the canyon road: a tow-headed boy in faded denim, struggling under the weight of two rucksacks.
An aging man with shaking shoulders bumped the youth, then cackled and shot out a grimy hand.
"Let me go!" snapped a voice, low and gruff but unmistakably feminine. The boy whirled around and became a girl.
"Hey now, take it easy, Puss."
The girl's face flushed hotly. "What did you call me?"
"No cause to be ornery. Let me buy you a drink."
She balled a fist. "You just keep walking downwind, old man."
He laughed and reached for her again.
"Is there a problem, ma'am?" Connor called sharply from the saddle. Both girl and miner looked up, and the man drew back as if burned.
"Evening, Morrison," Connor added with a tight smile. "You bothering this nice young lady?"
"No sir, no sir," Morrison mumbled, and quickly retreated uphill. The girl held her ground, looking up at the man on horseback quizzically as she brushed Morrison's dust off her shirt.
Connor tipped his hat politely. "Can I be of assistance, ma'am?"
"If you can tell me the way to the Canyon Hotel."
"You got a gentleman meeting you there? I'm afraid they don't serve unescorted ladies."
The girl seemed to shrink inside her oversized work-shirt. "I'm looking for Kathleen Brennan. I'm her niece," she added in her defense.
"Katy Brennan's your aunt?" A smile came to his face. "Wait--are you Tommy Gardiner's girl?"
She nodded warily. "Charlie Gardiner." Her blue eyes were steady, but her scent was beginning to curdle with the bitter edge of distrust.
He tipped his hat again, reflexively. "Connor Franklin. Deputy Marshal of Gold Hill."
"Gold Hill? I thought--am I already out of Virginia City?" She looked over her shoulder at the road she'd taken. "I--I think I took a wrong turn. The letter said 'The Divide, Virginia City.'"
"You're in the Divide. It's what we call this whole hillside. Sort of a bridge between the towns. Just keep following the street around that next corner. Canyon Hotel's the first building on the right."
She contemplated the steep hill with poorly concealed distaste.
"If you need a hand with those bags--"
"I'm fine, thank you." She squared her shoulders and hitched up the worn straps of her rucksacks. Connor watched her pick her way over the uneven ground, bowed under their weight. It took every ounce of restraint not to follow her.
For Charlie Gardiner, the day had gone from bad to worse. She had risen before dawn to settle accounts at the boarding house and wrestle her bags down to the train station, to crowd onto a rusted old Zulu train bound for Reno. Her third-class ticket had bought her little more than a scrap of bench, surrounded by coughing immigrants. She'd worn her roughest work clothes, mindful of the dangers a lone woman faced, only to find the trousers that had won her respect in her old neighborhood had the opposite effect outside San Francisco. How was she to know only whores wore pants in Nevada?
Virginia City was nothing like she'd expected. Her father had never liked to speak of his birthplace, but she knew of the great Comstock Lode--who hadn't when its silver had paid for half the mansions in San Francisco? She'd read Mark Twain's Roughing It more times than she cared to count, and enough dime novels about the Wild West to conjure images of the devil-may-care world of the Silver Rush. This was a world where fortunes had been built from a patch of ground bought with a half-bottle of whiskey and a blind horse.
Of course, so much was ancient history now. The mines were all played out twenty years past, the prospectors fleeing to northern Canada to look for gold. But to hear the papers tell it, the area was still reaping the rewards of those first silver strikes. Shakespeare troupes visited Piper's Opera House. Celebrity sightings were commonplace. Virginia City's International Hotel had its own elevator, for God's sake!
Everything she had read had stressed the liveliness of the city: modernity wed to the old romance of the West. But what she'd found was a ghost town. The buildings were all in need of repair and repainting. The roads were unpaved, the sidewalks overgrown with weeds. A great feeling of weariness hung in the air, as heavy as the gray dust. Instead of cowboys and celebrities she found bleary-eyed miners and sour drunks.
Now she learned that her aunt didn't even live in the city proper, but somewhere among the ugly mining works and wooden shacks of Gold Hill. She could have saved herself the long walk by getting off the train one station sooner. From her vantage point on the steep hill, it looked less like a town than one sprawling factory, crammed against the barren mountainside. Steam plumes rose up all along the narrow canyon, but she heard few sounds of machinery. She wondered how many of the mills were still open.
She cast a glance over her shoulder, looking for the deputy on horseback, but he had disappeared around the sharp turn in the road. He at least looked like a man from the West ought to--in denim and chaps, with a Stetson and a six-shooter. A good line to his nose, too, and a nice clean-shaven man seemed a rare breed here in the mountains. Still, she wasn't sure she liked the way he had looked at her. After a long day of travel, she had become wary of smiles.
She followed the line of electrical poles and the precious cables strung between them, silently thanking her stars that at least one modern luxury had made it over the Sierra Nevada. She heard the sound of a honky-tonk piano, and her heart swelled with sudden nostalgia. Ragtime. For a moment, she thought of the old grog-shop down the street from her boarding house and the way she could set her watch by the nightly brawls. A smile began to lift her face, but it promptly fell as she caught sight of the Canyon Hotel's blocky silhouette and outdated facade.
The planks of the porch creaked under her boots. Inside the swinging door the saloon barely warranted the name. A handful of workmen sat at tables, staring into the depths of their glasses, while another clung to the bar counter. The low ceiling trapped the smells of beer and tobacco and unwashed bodies. The bare patches on the wall where Charlie expected to see oil paintings of naked women were instead camouflaged by hat pegs. In fact the only painting in sight was yellow writing on a wooden placard proclaiming, Stay in Historic Room #8--Supernatural Sighting Guaranteed.
The bartender was a heavy-set woman, her heroic proportions strapped into a wasp-waisted corset. Full cheeks and a fat neck concealed any familiar lines of the jaw, but Charlie recognized the masculine cleft to the chin. It looked just like hers.
The bartender immediately spotted the newcomer. Charlie knew the familiar span of expressions well: the benign smile, followed by a blank stare, then a scowl as she realized the waifish boy she was about to address was actually a waifish girl.
The matron swung out from behind the bar counter. "I'm sorry, no ladies without escorts--" she began crisply. Then, as she drew closer, a second recognition dawned on her.
"Charlotte? Is that you? What in creation are you wearing? Why, I nearly took you for a prostitute!" She blurted the last part out loudly enough for half the saloon to hear. Charlie felt herself blush.
"Hello," she mumbled into her shirt.
"Here, let your Aunt Katy look at you, girl. If you aren't the spitting image of my Tommy. Terrible what happened to him...and your mother," she added a beat too late. "I always said those big cities were nothing but cesspools. You're quite well, aren't you? Did you have trouble finding us? I sent Mr. Brennan to the station to meet you, but you weren't there."
"I...uh...thought I was supposed to ride all the way to the Virginia station."
"You poor thing, do you have a cold?"
Charlie frowned in confusion. "No, ma'am."
"You sound a touch congested. I'll secure you some cough syrup, just to be safe. And call me Aunt Katy. We're family, aren't we? So you rode the train all the way to the top of the hill--no wonder you're so out of breath. You should have hailed a cab--we do have them, you know! Well, come, let's get you settled." She paused, then gingerly lifted a hank of Charlie's cropped hair as though it were coated in disease. "I think it's best you change before you meet Mister Brennan--you do have some proper clothes, I hope?"
Charlie forced a blank expression before she nodded. Once again she reminded herself that she had to start out on the right foot.
She expected to be escorted up to the second floor, but instead Katy led the way down creaking stairs to the basement and a locked door opposite the root cellar.
"Now we're a small establishment, and we expect everyone to do their part," she explained. "We have three other girls working for us, seeing to the kitchen and the rooms. Nell's in charge of housekeeping--it's her you'll be bunking with." Katy sorted through the keys hanging from her waist. "She's...a colored girl," she added in a seemingly apologetic--or possibly fearful--tone.
She knocked hard on the door before unlocking it.
The room was small, windowless and dark, with timbered walls and only a single candle for light. An iron bedstead took up most of the floor space, and the smaller cot was wedged against one wall, next to the battered chest of drawers. A woman a few years Charlie's senior with skin the color of black coffee sat in bed, her nose in a tattered magazine. She looked up and took in her new roommate with a skeptical expression.
"Nell, this is Charlotte. Never mind the clothes--she'll be changing them. I trust you'll explain to her how we do things here. Now get yourself cleaned up proper, Charlotte, and put on a nice indoor cap. Mr. Brennan will be anxious to meet you."
With that, Katy was gone. Charlie set her bags down on the empty bed and gave her roommate a hesitant smile. Nell smiled back with a cocked eyebrow.
Well, her expression said. Guess you know your place now.
So much for family ties, Charlie thought glumly. She should have known better than to be seduced by so much ink on paper. She should have asked her father why he had never bothered to write his kin until he was on his deathbed.