Something caused men to stare at Nealie Bent, although just what it was that made them do so wasn't clear. Her body was more angles than curves, and her face, too, had all those sharp planes, far too many to be pretty. She was too tall to suit, and with her long legs, she took strides that were more like a man's than the mincing steps of a young girl. The dress she wore, one of only two she owned, was faded yellow calico, threadbare at the wrists and neck and of the wrong color to complement her pale skin. Her second dress was no better.
Still, men turned to look at Nealie Bent, for there was no question that the tall, thin girl was striking, or at least peculiar- looking, with her eyes the color of the palest blue columbines late in the spring, her hair such a pale red that it was almost the hue of pink quartz, and her face as freckled as a turkey egg. It could have been her youth that drew their attention. After all, Georgetown itself was still young, and youth was highly prized. Most of the young women there were already old, worn out from the work a mining town demanded of them and from childbearing. The Alvarado Cemetery was full of babies, with here and there a mother buried beside her newborn in that forlorn spot. Like all the mountain towns, Georgetown was a hard place, and folks there had a saying: Any cat with a tail is a stranger.
The same might be said in a slightly different way for a young woman, because any female with youth, such as Nealie, was new in Georgetown. But she would age quick enough. Still, for now --- and for a few years hence, perhaps --- the girl's youthfulness matched the spirit of the town, a place that was mightily attractive to those seeking to make their fortunes.
If it wasn't Nealie's youth that drew glances, then it might have been her air of innocence, and innocence was in even shorter supply in Georgetown than youth. But in that, the girl's appearance was a sham, for Nealie's short life had been a hard one. Though she knew more about the dark side of life than most her age, there was not even the hint of those hardships on Nealie Bent, and she appeared as fresh and guileless as a newborn.
So no one could put a finger on exactly what it was that made men take another look at Nealie, not that anyone in that town bothered to analyze. But no one doubted that they turned to stare at her as she passed them on the broad board sidewalk or paused in her rounds of shopping to peer into store windows at the delectable items she could only dream about buying.
Will Spaulding was no different from the rest of the men in his admiration. He'd seen the girl as she filled her basket from the bins of apples and onions and potatoes. And now, as Nealie stood at the counter of the Kaiser Mercantile store, talking quietly with Mr. Kaiser, Will measured her with his eyes. She was five feet eight inches, only two inches shorter than he was. Will's eyes wandered over Nealie, taking in her slender build under the shabby dress, until he became aware that Mr. Kaiser was watching him and clearing his throat.
"I said, ‘What can I do for you, young man?' " the storekeeper repeated. The girl had placed her purchases in her basket and was turning to go, not sending so much as a glance at the man standing next to her.
Will cleared his throat, but he didn't speak immediately. Instead, he stared at the girl as she left the store and walked past the large glass window, leaving behind her soapy scent and the tinkling of the bell that announced customers. "Who is she?" he asked, as if he had the right to know.
"Oh, that's Nealie Bent," the older man replied, a look of bemused tolerance on his face. "You're not the first to ask. Did you come in for something or just to stare at the ladies?"
Without answering, Will turned away from the door and looked at the shop keeper. He removed a list from his pocket, laying it on the counter and smoothing it with his hand. "I'm working up at the Rose of Sharon, and I'll be needing these things." He turned the list so that Mr. Kaiser could read it.
"We take cash," Mr. Kaiser said, which wasn't exactly true. He extended credit to those in town who needed it, as well as to good customers such as Nealie's employer, but he did not extend the courtesy to strangers.
"I'll pay it." Will's voice sounded as if he was not used to his credit being questioned. The older man moved his finger down the list, tapping a broken nail beside each item as he pronounced it out loud: "Three pair work pants, three work shirts, cap, boots, jacket, gloves, candlesticks, candles." He droned on, and when he was finished, he said, "Yep, you work at a mine, all right. You a trammer?"
"Engineer. For the summer."
The young man's voice carried the slightest bit of authority as he corrected the misimpression, and Mr. Kaiser looked up and squinted at him, taking in the cut of his clothes, which made it obvious that Will was too fashionably dressed to be an ordinary miner. "You somebody's son?" he asked.
Will appeared taken aback at the impertinence, but he replied pleasantly enough, "Grandson. I'm William Spaulding. My grandfather's Theodore Spaulding. He owns half of the Sharon."
"Owns mines up in Leadville and Summit County, too," Mr. Kaiser added. Like everyone in the mountain towns, the shopkeeper was caught up in the mining fever and was as sure of the names of prominent investors as he was of those of his own customers. And well he might be, because outside capital was the lifeblood of the mining industry. Without development money, the gold and silver deposits were all but useless. Theodore Spaulding was not only a man of wealth but one respected in mining circles for his understanding of ore bodies and extraction methods. That did not make his grandson anything more than a trifler, however. "So you thought you'd see what goes on underground, did you?"
"I've already seen what's underground. I have an engineering degree, so I know about mining, you see, at least theoretically. The old man thought I ought to get some practical experience for the summer. I've only just arrived."
"You'll get it." Now that he seemed satisfied about his customer's identity, Mr. Kaiser returned to the list. "I reckon we got everything you need." He moved around behind the counter, taking down boxes and holding out shirts and pants for sizes. He told Will to try on the heavy leather cap, then nodded, because the fit was right. Then he handed the young man two pairs of boots and told him to see which ones suited. Will sat down on a kitchen chair propped against the cold potbellied stove and removed his fine shoes. He clumped about on the floor in the stiff boots, and settled on one pair. Then he set his shoes on the counter and said that with all the mud on the streets, he might as well keep the boots on.
"Socks. You'll need plenty of them, because the Sharon floods, and you don't want to get your feet wet. Worst thing there is, wet feet in a mine. If the water doesn't rot your feet, it'll give you pneumonia." Mr. Kaiser placed four pairs on top of the pile of clothing. He checked the list again, then pulled a dark blue bandana from a drawer and set it on top. "Present," he said.
"Splendid! It will look grand."
"It's not for looks, Mr. Spaulding. You'll need the handkerchief to wipe your face when it's slashed with muck and cover your mouth and nose after a dynamite blast so's you won't get the miner's puff ."
"Then I thank you, sir."
Mr. Kaiser licked the tip of the lead pencil he kept behind his ear and wrote the charge next to each item on the list, totaled the amount, and turned the paper toward Will, who pulled the money out of his pocket.
"There's one other thing I'm needing," the young man said, as he watched Mr. Kaiser wrap the purchases in brown paper and tie the bundle with string. "A boardinghouse. I'm staying at the Hotel de Paris until my cottage is ready. Once I move in, I'll need a place to eat, because I don't fancy cooking for myself. Nor do I want to dress up every night for supper at the hotel."
"Georgetown's got a plenty of eateries."
"Somewhere clean where the food is good."
"That narrows it some." Mr. Kaiser thought a minute. "You might try the Grubstake up on the hill. The bosses prefer it, since it's a good bit tonier than the others. Ma Judson's place is up on Main. She sets a good table. Then there's Lydia Travers's house on Rose Street. If I was you'd, I'd board with Mrs. Travers --- Lidie, she's called."
"She's the best cook?"
"I didn't say that."
"Fact is, when it comes to cooking, Mrs. Travers's second to Ma Judson and not much better than the Grubstake."
"Not so's you'd notice."
"Then why should I take my meals there?"
Mr. Kaiser studied the young man a minute and chuckled. "That's where Nealie Bent works."
Will reddened, and the shopkeeper added, "You wouldn't be the first to pick Mrs. Travers's place because of Nealie. But I ought to tell you she's all but spoke for by Charlie Dumas. He'd marry her in a minute if she'd have him."
Will took his bundle and started for the door, ignoring Mr. Kaiser's last words.
"Best you take no notice of her, Mr. Spaulding," Mr. Kaiser called after him. "It's certain she took none of you."
The young man grinned and turned back to the counter where Mr. Kaiser stood fingering the canned goods.
But in fact, Nealie Bent had taken considerable notice of young Will Spaulding. She had caught sight of him as she ran her hands through the bin of potatoes to find ones that were firm, with no rotten spots. She had glanced up and observed him through her pale lashes, taken in the young man's face, which was strong with no soft places, a little like a good potato. He was clean shaven, a nice thing, because Nealie was not partial to whiskers. Will's eyes were a deep brown with flecks of gold the color of aspen leaves in the fall, and his brown hair fell across his face in waves. He might have been the handsomest man she had ever seen, and certainly, he was the best dressed in a town where few wore anything but faded work shirts and rusty overalls.
She admired Will's jacket, a thick corduroy the color of a mountain sheep, that was handsomely tailored to fit his shape, not store bought at a place like the Kaiser Mercantile. He wore tight-fitting trousers that were better suited to a big city than a mining camp, and his shoes --- Nealie had to keep herself from smiling --- were of leather as fine as a glove and wouldn't last a day in the muck of the Georgetown streets.
The man was a stranger and a well-fixed one. And not for the likes of you, Nealie told herself as she pushed so hard at a soft spot in a potato that she broke the peel. She hastily placed the spoiled potato back in the bin, hoping Mr. Kaiser wasn't watching her. He was a bad one to tease, and she would die of mortification if he remarked on the way she had appraised the new fellow.
Such a man wasn't likely to notice her, she told herself. Nealie was not aware of the effect that she had on men, and if she had been, she would have been bewildered. Still, she wondered, as the young man came up to stand beside her at the counter while Mr. Kaiser wrote down her purchases on a piece of brown wrapping paper, what it would be like to be courted by such. Her mind wandered to thoughts of carriages and roses in the winter and diamond rings. But not for long. She could more easily find a gold mine than attract a man like this stranger, and so she turned her attention to Mr. Kaiser, double-checking his addition in her mind, because she was smart with numbers. Nealie considered questioning one of the figures so the young man would turn and look at her and maybe wish her a good morning, but she blushed at the thought, and without a word, she signed beside the amount entered in the ledger on the page that bore Mrs. Travers's name.
Then wishing that instead of her soundless cotton shift, she owned a satin petticoat with a ruffle to wear, a garment that would create a soft whish as she moved, Nealie turned to the door, shifting the basket from hand to arm to free her other hand for the handle. She went out then, forcing herself not to turn around for another look at the young man, and walked past the big window without so much as a backward glance. She would think about him later, for what was the harm in dreaming about matched horses and diamonds as thick as stars?
At the corner, she confronted the mud, slick as treacle, that was the street. The runoff from the snow had turned the dirt streets into a wet mass as thick as fudge. Although it was May, spring --- or what passed for spring --- had not quite reached the high country. Houses bore bare spots where the wind had scoured off the paint, and yards were covered with patches of late snow. But the drifts high up on the peaks were melting, and water cascaded down the gullies and through the streets. Although Nealie wore serviceable boots instead of slippers, she did not care to dirty them. It was an unpleasant chore to scrape off the mud that clung to them like glue and to oil the leather. She looked for dry spots in the muck or a board placed across the street for pedestrians, but such was not available. Nealie sighed and was just about to step into the brown stew when a man grabbed her arm.
"I'll carry you across, Miss Nealie," he said.
Remembering the man in the store, Nealie felt a wave of disappointment at the voice. Yes, Charlie Dumas could carry her as easily as if she was a feather. Charlie was a giant of a man, with the strength of a mule, and he could have picked up her and Mr. Kaiser and the stranger all at the same time and transported them across the street. But Nealie didn't want Charlie, who stood there with the neck buttons of his union shirt unbuttoned and his baggy pant legs tied to his boots with fuse cord. He snatched off his wide-brimmed hat, which had been rubbed with linseed oil to make it hard, and grinned at her.
Charlie was altogether too familiar, and for reasons she didn't quite understand, she did not care to see the stranger come out of the store and find her in Charlie's arms. But it was that or muddy her boots and maybe her skirts, too. Besides, if the stranger had not noticed her in the store, he surely would pay no attention to her on the street. So Nealie said she was obliged and let Charlie lift her as easily as she did her basket and ferry her through the muck.
He walked slowly, furrowing his brow as if thinking of a way to prolong the trip through the mud. Then his face lit up, and he stopped in the middle of the street. "Did I tell you I saw a man down by Taos Street in mud up to his neck? I told him that was deep muck." He grinned at Nealie to make sure he had her attention. "That man told me, ‘Stranger, it wouldn't be so bad if I wasn't sitting on a horse.'"
Charlie guffawed as he watched Nealie hopefully, to see if she found the joke funny, and she laughed politely, although she'd heard the tale two or three times already.
On the other side of the street, she escaped from Charlie's hold and struggled to stand up, putting as much distance as she could between herself and the big man.
"I'm grateful to you, Mr. Dumas," she said formally.
"Aw, won't you call me Charlie?" he asked. "You did last week. Do you remember?"
Nealie remembered all too well, because it had been a magical time, and she was beside herself with joy. The two of them had sat together on chairs in the balcony of the opera house, watching a traveling troupe of performers. Charlie hadn't exactly thought to invite her, but Nealie had hinted so obviously that she wanted to go that he finally understood and bought the tickets. He sat restlessly on a chair that was too small for him, but Nealie was captivated by the performance and especially the star, an actress from Denver, who pranced about the stage, her satin dress and paste diamonds shimmering in the glow of the gaslights. Nealie grabbed her companion's arm and said, "Oh, Charlie, I never saw anyone so lovely." She smiled at him as if he were an actor himself, not a miner whose fingernails were black with grime and who smelled sour in his ill-fitting black suit.
"I don't remember that I did," Nealie told him now as she stood on the street corner, straightening her skirts.
"Well, I do. Besides --- "
Nealie didn't want to hear the "besides," because she knew it meant "Besides, you know how I feel about you." "No besides," she said brusquely. "Thank you for the escort, Mr. Dumas. I'll see you at the supper table." She pulled away.
"I could carry your basket."
"It's not heavy," she said, not thanking him.
"No bother. I'm going that way."
"No," Nealie said forcefully, and walked away. She did not look back but knew that he did not follow her, because she no longer felt the stifling presence of the big man.
Charlie Dumas was a nice enough fellow, probably the nicest she had met in Georgetown --- in her life, even --- and she could do worse than marry such a one as he. After all, Charlie worked hard setting charges in the Bobcat Mine, and he didn't drink or gamble away his wages. Instead of spending his spare time in the pool halls, he prospected a little, and there was talk that he had a bit of money put away from a silver strike he'd made in Leadville. In fact, it was said that Charlie had discovered the Black Mountain Mine and sold it to H.A.W. Tabor, the silver king, but Nealie paid no attention to the gossip. Similar was told about everyone in Georgetown. Besides, a man who was well fixed wouldn't work underground if he didn't have to, would he?
She had to admit that Charlie was generous, buying tickets to that opera house performance when he didn't want to go himself, and she had been flattered when he began to court her. Except for his nose, which had been smashed in a mining accident, he was not such a bad-looking fellow, either, with his thick blond hair and deep-set blue eyes. Charlie was easygoing, too, slow to anger, and he was liked by the other boarders.
But Nealie had grown tired of his presumptions, the way he followed her on her walks, pretending to come across her by accident. When there was an amusement in town, such as a boxing match or a band concert, he'd announce to the table at the boardinghouse that he was escorting Nealie, discouraging the other men from asking her out, not that there was anyone else among the boarders with whom she'd care to associate.
Charlie's table manners were against him, and Nealie couldn't imagine eating in a fine restaurant such as the dining room of the Hotel de Paris with him. He drank his coff ee from a saucer and stirred everything on his plate into a mess before shoveling it into his mouth with a spoon. He was kind in his way, bringing her specimens of ore that he found in his wanderings in the mountains or presenting her with a special oil to waterproof her boots, but he knew nothing about presents that appealed to a young girl's heart --- hothouse flowers, books of poetry, kid gloves as smooth as custard. Not that anybody had ever presented her with such gifts, Nealie thought, smiling to herself. And what would she do with a book of poetry anyway?
Nealie wondered then if Charlie could read. She herself had worked so hard to get a little schooling that she couldn't abide a man who couldn't read. But he must, because in Georgetown, Charlie Dumas was not considered stupid. In fact, men had a way of seeking him out and asking his advice on mining.
Nealie mulled over the big man as she made her way back to Mrs. Travers's boardinghouse. She'd given Charlie a good deal of thought already, but now she pondered whether she ought to encourage him, not that he needed it. She didn't love him, and at times, she came close to detesting his ways. Although she had no right to expect anything more than Charlie, she did dream of better, and in an odd manner, she thought she deserved it. She couldn't have said why, because she didn't even know she thought that way. If Charlie were the best she could find, then she might just as well have married one of her pa's friends in Hannibal, Missouri. She hadn't run away just to hook up with a miner and live in a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor. She wasn't going to wear herself out scrubbing clothes and butchering hogs and caring for a bunch of squalling babies, an old woman at thirty. There had to be something else for her, although she wasn't sure just what it was.
Nealie had a vague sense that life had more to offer her than work as a serving girl in a boardinghouse. It was not a thought fully formed, however, and if it had been, Nealie would have been surprised at it, for she was of humble and penurious origins and had no cause to think so highly of herself. Had she been more conscious of the effect she had on men, she might have used her freshness and unusual good looks to advantage. But she was not aware that men turned to stare at her and wouldn't have believed it if someone had told her. After all, her father had said savagely that she was as ugly as a pig's foot and had proclaimed her curious pale red hair to be the mark of the devil, and he'd whipped her for it. Whipped her and worse. No, Nealie Bent considered herself no better than plain. And although youth and innocence were marketable commodities, she did not consider that she possessed them and could use them to her benefit.
The girl paused then, her hand on the fencepost of Mrs. Travers's boardinghouse, and looked back over her shoulder to see if Charlie was trailing her, but he was gone. And of course, there was no sign of the stranger. Nealie doubted that she would see him a second time, and she put him out of her mind.
"You're dawdling again," Mrs. Travers called out from the back porch, and Nealie straightened up and hurried into the house through the back door.
"It was muddy," Nealie explained, setting down her basket on a table whose wooden top had been scrubbed until it was smooth and almost white. The kitchen was neater than the yards outside that were stacked with piles of lumber and cord-wood. A black cookstove occupied one wall of the kitchen, a kindling bucket beside it. Across from it was a dry sink painted bright orange and a walnut pie safe whose tin panels were punched with hearts and the initials ET. A wooden icebox stood next to a door that led into a tiny pantry that was filled with dishes and platters and foodstuffs --- sacks of dried beans, tins of flour, cones of sugar wrapped in blue paper, a bag of coffee beans.
"I was all right early on, but by the time I came home, the street wasn't froze anymore, and the mud was deep enough to swallow me up," Nealie explained. "Charlie told me a story about a man in the street in mud up to his neck."
"And he was sitting on a horse." Mrs. Travers waved her hand dismissively. "They tell it every year during runoff. It's 1881, and Georgetown's been here for twenty years. You'd think we'd have decent streets by now." She paused. "So you waited on the corner until Charlie Dumas came along. Am I right?"
"You are." Nealie didn't look up, although she knew Mrs. Travers was staring at her. The widow had taken a personal interest in Charlie's courtship and had told Nealie she'd best make up her mind soon or Charlie would find himself a girl who was not so particular. "I'd be real sorry to lose you, but I have to admit he's a good man. He treats you like the Queen of Turkey," she'd said.
"Then marry him yourself," Nealie had retorted.
"I would, but he's not partial to a woman old enough to be his mother. Besides, he means to marry you if he has to tear the stars out of heaven."
Nealie had laughed, since she was good- natured and fond of the woman who was almost a mother to her.
Nealie wouldn't have left home if her real mother had been alive. They had protected each other. But her mother had died, and after a year, Nealie had fled the farm in Missouri. She could have gone up the river to Fort Madison, Iowa, or even Galena, Illinois, but her pa likely would have found her and fetched her home --- dragged her back was more like it, because she wouldn't have gone willingly. So instead of running off to one of the neighboring towns, Nealie had saved up the coins she'd earned scrubbing for neighbors and working as a hired hand during harvest, supplemented them by stealing the money her father had put away for next year's seed, and one day when she'd been sent into Hannibal for supplies, she'd purchased a train ticket to the place everyone was talking about --- Denver. And then because she was afraid her father would follow her even there, she'd bought a ticket to go forty miles farther to Georgetown. She'd never heard of the place, but she'd always been partial to the name George. She'd thought it was a sign.
When she reached Georgetown, Nealie was bewildered. The depot was crowded with bearded men in muddy boots, talking and gesturing, noisy as schoolboys. Here and there stood frightened women, their hair covered by dirty squares of cotton, clutches of crying children clinging to their skirts. Those women babbled in languages Nealie didn't understand. She saw men in tailored suits and starched shirts, soft felt hats on their heads, and she turned her face from them, because she had seen such in the gambling halls in Hannibal. And she knew to stay away from the women who were dressed in flashy clothes cut low in the front, their hair arranged in fanciful swirls. One of them looked over the girl and smiled through lips that were tinted an unnatural red, but Nealie didn't smile back. She knew well enough about prostitutes, because her father had prophesied that if he didn't beat the devil out of her, Nealie would become one of their sisterhood someday.
And then there was Lidie Travers. Nealie hadn't noticed her, although the woman had seen Nealie as she climbed aboard the train in Denver, probably taken by the young woman's odd looks. The woman had watched the girl, who looked like someone's daughter or perhaps a bride. She saw Nealie step off the train in Georgetown and look around, lost, because until that moment, Nealie had not considered what she would do once she reached her destination. Her plan had been just to get away. The girl wondered if she could afford a room for the night, and she removed from her pocket the little string bag that served as a purse and began to count her money.
Just then, a man who'd been looking over the crowd spotted Nealie and moved toward her, all but hidden from her behind a fat woman who was shoving her way through the throng. As the man reached Nealie, his long fingers grabbed her purse, and he slid away through the disembarking passengers. Nealie was too startled to cry out, and the crook was nearly gone when a strong hand grasped his arm and wrenched it behind his back. "Thief!" Mrs. Travers called in a loud voice. "He stole this woman's purse." She held him, because Mrs. Travers was a strong woman; lifting iron pans and carrying trays of food had toughened her arms as much as if she'd worked with a hammer and drill. Within seconds, the purse snatcher was surrounded by a crowd of men, because even in that rough town, a robber was despised, especially one who preyed on women.
Two of the men hustled the thief off to jail, and Mrs. Travers returned the purse to Nealie. "It's best not to be so public with your money," she warned. "A place like this attracts the worst men there is." Then when the girl looked alarmed, Mrs. Travers added, "The best men, too, but sometimes you can't always tell the difference."
Nealie thanked her. "Georgetown sounded so nice, the name and all."
"You're here because you like the name?"
"I was always partial to ‘George.' "
Mrs. Travers laughed. "Some are here whose reasons for it aren't any better. You don't have kin in Georgetown? Friends?"
Nealie shrugged, watching the woman, who was not pretty. She wasn't even handsome and never had been. But she had a strong face.
"Are you running away?"
"I'm seventeen. I can do as I please." Nealie wasn't seventeen, but she would be in six months.
"Oh, don't you worry. I'm not for sending you back if you don't want to go. I'm just asking. Do you have a place to stay?" Before Nealie could answer, Mrs. Travers said, "I didn't think so. Well, I've got a room off the kitchen. You could sleep there a night or two till you get your bearings."
"I'll pay," Nealie said. "I've got a little money left."
"Save it. But if you're of a mind to, you might help me cook supper."
"For your family?"
"I run a boardinghouse." She looked Nealie up and down. "I don't suppose you came here to cook for a bunch of miners, but if it suits, I could give you room and board and something besides. You could help me until you figure out why it is you're here." It was doubtful that until that moment, Mrs. Travers had ever considered hiring a girl, but Nealie appeared strong and good-natured, and Mrs. Travers was a capable judge of character.
She was practical, as well, and undoubtedly, she knew that a young girl waiting on the table would attract business. It was possible that Mrs. Travers also believed the girl might be good company for her. The woman was a widow with no children, and Georgetown was a lonely place, with few females and those who were there too overworked to sit down for a chat.
Lydia Travers had come to Georgetown five years before, after her husband died, the brute. She'd run a boardinghouse in Kansas City, not just an eatery like the Georgetown boardinghouses, but a place that provided beds as well as meals. She'd run it with Lute Travers, worked her fingers to the bone, while he drank up the profits and fisted her, to boot. She was not yet forty, but she looked ten, fifteen years older, thanks to the poundings Lute gave her. Then he died, passed out in the street and drowned with his face in the mud, and Mrs. Travers sold the boardinghouse and moved to Georgetown, vowing she'd never take another husband.
Nealie thought over the proposition for so long that Mrs. Travers said, "Well, come and stay anyway. You don't want to get mixed up with the likes of her, a sorry girl, if you take my meaning." Mrs. Travers nodded her head at the woman in the fancy dress who'd smiled at Nealie.
"I know about such," Nealie said. She added quickly so that Mrs. Travers wouldn't think she was acquainted with them, "Their kind was at home. And I'd be obliged to accept your offer, missus."
"Travers, Mrs. Lidie Travers," the woman introduced herself. By then, the crowd had thinned out. Mrs. Travers picked up her bags and looked around for Nealie's luggage.
"Oh, I don't have anything but my extra dress, and I'm wearing it under this one," the girl explained. "If Pa had seen me leaving with a box, he'd have tied me up in the barn and switched me good."
"How did you think you'd manage without so much as an extra handkerchief ?" Mrs. Travers asked.
Nealie laughed at the idea. "I never had even one handkerchief, so I guess I can get along just fine without an extra. I didn't think about packing, not that it would have made a difference. I never had much. I had to get away is all, just had to."
The girl was so fierce that it was obvious she carried some secret. Perhaps she'd been beaten, or even worse. But Mrs. Travers only nodded and didn't ask questions, because she had never been one to pry into what wasn't her business. Perhaps she thought that in time, the girl would tell her where she'd come from and why, but until then, Nealie's past was hers to keep.
Without a word, Nealie took one of Mrs. Travers's bags from her, and the two walked out of the station into sunlight bright enough to hurt Nealie's eyes. The sun warmed her back, and the air was so thin and dry that Nealie felt as light as a blade of grass. Sounds of hammering swept down from the mountains, and the distant boom of a dynamite charge made the girl jump. A fog of smoke from the smelters hung over the town, but that did not bother Nealie, because it brought only a little haze. She liked the bustle, the sense of importance.
And now, just two months after her arrival, Nealie felt more at home in Georgetown than she ever had on her parents' farm.
Excerpted from THE BRIDE'S HOUSE © Copyright 2011 by Sandra Dallas. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.