The stage coach bounced over the rough terrain, its team of tired horses kicking up dust as they raced towards a lonely cluster of buildings. Sighting the short line of drab buildings, the driver turned the team, then cried “Whoa,” and brought the coach rattling to a halt.
As the dust settled, a pale face in a cheery yellow bonnet peered out of the window.
“Here we are, Miss Winters,” the driver called.
Carrie Winters pushed back a curl that had escaped her bonnet and looked over the few squat buildings aligned around a rocky street. “This is the town?”
The stagecoach driver leaned down and grimaced at the young woman. “Yes, ma’am. This is it.”
She opened the door to get a better look. “Are you sure?” The buildings?too few for Carrie to call them a town?were barely larger than some of the rocks she’d seen on the side of the road. They sat, dusty and insignificant in the barren landscape. She leaned further out of the stagecoach and saw nothing but dry soil and scrub brush all the way to the jagged mountain range on the horizon.
She, Carrie Winters, had come to the middle of nowhere to meet a man.
My name is Miles Donovan. I am a farmer and homesteader near Royal Gorge, Colorado.
A rough voice broke her thoughts. “Help you down, missy?”
Clutching her skirts, she shook her head and managed the long step off the coach on her own. She could hear the other passengers muttering jokes about her hesitation, but she ignored them. She’d had six days of travel with the dirty lot, and although they’d been polite enough to the only woman aboard, she couldn’t stand to look at them anymore.
Turning her back on the stagecoach, she tottered towards the nearest building. Her feet still felt the sway of the carriage, even though they were firmly on the ground. After a few steps towards the nearest desolate structure, her resolve crumbled. Biting her lip, she looked back at the carriage. Mean and dirty, it had been her home for six days, and was the most familiar thing for miles.
One of the passengers, an older man with a grizzled beard, poked his head out and grinned at her, showing a mouthful of half rotten teeth. “Looks like a lonely place to find a husband.”
The driver laughed. “You want to give up on this venture?” he asked, looking down at Carrie from his seat atop the stage coach. “I’ll drop these prospectors off, then take you back to Colorado Springs. I’m sure you could find a man to marry you there.”
“No, thank you,” Carrie told both men, wishing she’d never confided in her carriage mates the reason for her journey. “I’ll have my bag, please.”
The driver handed it down, and she clutched the sack to her, for the first time grateful that she hadn’t enough money to bring a trunk. There wasn’t a soul around to carry it, and no one in the stagecoach was gentleman enough to help.
The grizzled man shut the coach door. “Oh ho,” he called to Carrie, then nodded at the nearest building. “That could be him. The lucky groom.”
A man, short and lean except for a rounded stomach, stood on the porch, wiping his balding head with a red handkerchief.
“Good day,” he called. “Wasn’t expecting a delivery so soon in the month.”
“No deliveries,” the driver called back, not bothering to disembark. “Just her.” He nodded down at Carrie, and the man with the red handkerchief stared at her as if he’d never seen a woman before.
Perhaps he hadn’t.
Carrie started to speak and got a mouthful of dust, as the driver clicked to the horses and the coach took off towards the mountain range. Coughing, she stumbled towards the town.
“Here you are, ma’am.” The balding man had come off the porch to help her. Clutching her bag, she let him guide her inside the low building, stopping in the doorway to let her eyes adjust to the dim light inside. The building held shelves with a few bags of flour and a pitiful amount of dried goods on them.
Inside, the sweating man moved more confidently, fussing behind his counter and setting a pail of water and a cup on his counter.
Was this Miles Donovan?
I seek a wife, age 18-25, and in good health, willing to journey west and join me on my homestead.
She studied the shopkeeper and wondered if he could have penned the letter she had in her bag. Written in neat cursive, it had journeyed two thousand miles east to end up in her hands. Strong words, sure of themselves, that drew her to this lonely place.
“You must be thirsty,” the man said, nodding to the cup of water sitting on the counter. She realized he’d poured it some moments ago, and she’d been sitting there like a ninny. She drank, relishing the water, cool from sitting under the counter. Everything seemed hotter out here. Even the mountains looked burnt.
“Thank you, sir.”
The shopkeeper’s rounded face now flushed the color of his faded kerchief. He seemed older than she’d taken him to be. She pretended to pay attention to her cup and realized the townsman was sizing her up as much as she was him.
She knew what the man saw: a short, plump woman of three and twenty, in a well-washed calico gown, with a few unruly curls escaping her bonnet. Her face was pretty enough, with cheeks pinched pink by the relentless Colorado sun, and a few unsightly freckles?the bane of her existence?pattering across her nose.
She set down the cup. “Thank you, Mr.??”
“Martin. Lawrence Martin, at your service. And you?”
“Oh, forgive me, I’ve been rude. I’m Carrie Winters.”
“Miss,” she corrected. “I’m looking for Mr. Miles Donovan. Could you tell me which house is his?” She thought of the rugged buildings along the street, and felt she was being polite to call them houses.
“Miles? He doesn’t live here.”
“No?” Her heart sank, and she pawed at her bag to find the letter.
“No, I mean, yes, ma’am.” Drops of sweat rolled down Mr. Martin’s temple anew. “He lives outside of town, a good ways towards the range.”
“This is where Mr. Donovan told me to come. He sent me the fare.” She blushed as she realized what deductions a stranger might make from that. “He wrote to me, through my brother. We’re to be married.”
“Married.” The shopkeeper’s head jerked back like she struck him. “Miles Donovan, married?” Then, as if realizing his rude outburst, the poor shopkeeper grabbed the water pail and ducked behind the counter, leaving Carrie staring at the roughhewn board that served as a counter top.
What did Mr. Martin mean? Was Miles Donovan unfit to be a husband? Was he rude, or uncouth, or given to drink? The man who wrote the letter seemed to be a steady, sincere gentleman. A Christian man.
Her thoughts turned to another horror. What deformity did Mr. Donovan have that kept him from getting married to another woman, perhaps one he’d met face to face? She’d never considered it. When her brother Thomas had first read her the letter, she’d felt relieved and eager to accept the offer. It was a chance to escape, and one she badly needed.
Now, in the wilderness, having made her escape, she wondered if she hadn’t properly thought things through.
The sound of a horse galloping down the street broke her thoughts, and she left off waiting for Mr. Martin to resurface from his hiding place. Leaving her bag on the floor, she stepped to the door in time to see a magnificent black stallion slow to a trot and then stop in front of the porch. The rider also wore black to match the horse’s shining, sweating flanks, and his face was obscured with a black, wide brimmed hat. The horse snorted and arched its proud neck as its rider swung down, looped the reins around the porch railing and strode up the steps.
Carrie forgot all about Mr. Martin’s alarming words as the newcomer stopped to remove his hat and slick back his dark hair. The man was tall, lean. His face bore dirt from the ride, but oh, those eyes, blue and shining like the summer sky. Was this her new husband?
Beside her, Mr. Martin cleared his throat and Carrie jerked her gaze away from the beautiful, blue-eyed man. A blush flared on her cheeks. Would he think her too bold? Hastening away from the door, she drifted down one aisle, pretending to study some of the dried goods.
“Mr. Wilder,” The shopkeeper called to the stranger. “You have the mail?”
The newcomer fished into his black vest and pulled out a small parcel. “Here, Mr. Martin. And who is this?” The rider was boldly looking her up and down. Carrie flushed further.
“Lyle,” Mr. Martin said in a warning tone. “She’s here to become bride to Donovan.”
An ugly expression flashed across the beautiful man’s face, but it was gone before Carrie caught it, replaced by a bitter smile. “That old goat has all the luck.”
“Is there something wrong with Mr. Donovan?” Carrie blurted. She’d held her tongue with the shopkeeper, but the newcomer’s twinkling eyes teased it out.
Mr. Martin opened his mouth but Lyle Wilder beat him to it.
“Wrong with him? Other than he’s a stern old stick-in-the-mud who acts as if he’s better than anybody?” His tone was light hearted, but the words had a bite to them. He stared at her as if waiting for her to challenge him.
“Now, Lyle,” Mr. Martin said. “That’s not what she meant. She’s never met the man.”
The blue eyes went astonished. “Never met him? And you’re here to marry him?”
“I am.” Carrie drew herself up. “We corresponded, and he is to be my husband.”
Wilder noted her stiffened backbone and changed tacks immediately. “Well, I’ve got it all wrong then. All this time I’ve been carrying letters and I should have been writing them. Then maybe you’d be here for me instead of Dour Donovan.” He winked at her and Carrie jerked back as if she’d been stung.
“That’s enough, Lyle.” Mr. Martin lost some of his meekness. “Miss Winters doesn’t need to hear talk against Mr. Donovan.”
“She knows I mean no harm.” Lyle grinned, but his charm only put her guard up further. She’d had enough of charming men with silver tongues back east. The black clad rider gave a small bow. “Miles’ homestead’s not far from my land, so we’ll be neighbors, if you do go through with the marriage. So I am very pleased to meet you, Miss Winters.”
“Pleasure’s all yours,” she snapped and he chuckled.
“So you do have some spirit hiding under that little bonnet. Good for you. Maybe Donovan won’t snap your will in two like he does his horses.”
“Have you gotten all you need, Lyle?” The shopkeeper thumped his hand down on the counter to get the mail rider’s attention.
“Oh yes, Mr. Martin, all I came for and more.” With a smirk in Carrie’s direction, Lyle picked up his hat and set it on his head, reversing his smooth dance from horse to shop. Once he was gone, Carrie heaved a sigh of relief. Pretty though he was, she was relieved she hadn’t come all this way to marry the likes of Lyle Wilder. She might as well have stayed back east.
As the black stallion galloped off, Mr. Martin came around the counter. “Watch yourself with that one. No love lost between him and your new husband, I’ll tell you that. Lyle wants the land Miles laid claim to.”
“Thinks there’s gold on it.”
“Haven’t you heard of the mines? Pike’s peak?” He tossed his head to the north as if she could see through the wall. “Ever since they struck gold up there, prospectors come from all over the country. Not too many round Royal, which is why Donovan moved here. Then Wilder found some gold flakes in the river, and said he had claimed the land before Donovan. So there’s a land dispute. Out here, that’s enough cause for a fight, and worse.” Mr. Martin frowned at her. “I’m surprised Donovan didn’t tell you. I figured he did to get you out here.” The shopkeeper read her puzzled look and added, “Most gals hear a fella’s got land with gold on it, that’d be enough for them to trot out here.”
Carrie picked up her bag. “I don’t need gold, Mr. Martin. I need a good man to marry.”
Mr. Martin’s speech had worn off the last of his shyness, and he met her eyes boldly. “Plenty of men around.”
“Not of the right morals.” She glanced out the door at the route Lyle had taken, then back at Martin. He nodded, but still seemed put out.
“Well, Donovan has morals all right. Wilder wasn’t lying about that. He’s can be a soggy strip of leather, make no mistake.”
Carrie frowned. “I don’t take your meaning.”
“He’s just very?” the shopkeeper searched for the word, “stern. Has a firm set of rules and lives by them.”
She liked the sound of that, but instead of saying so, she shrugged. “What’s the harm in that?”
“This is the free West, ma’am. We don’t care much for rules.”