Inez Stannert had nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
Since she couldn’t escape the purgatory that was the confined and crowded stagecoach, Inez tried to let the droning voice of the man seated across from her wash over like the water in a mountain stream. But Edward Pace, Boston businessman and investor questing after yet more wealth in the West, went on and on. His monologue was interrupted only by the occasional screech from one of his three children—pushed beyond endurance by the heat, the cramped quarters, the dust—or punctuated by the muffled shout of “G-long!” or “H-up!” from the coach driver on the seat above them.
Mr. Pace’s voice accompanied the rhythmic cadence of horses’ hooves as they pounded mile after mile of red dirt roads. Yesterday, the coach had stopped only for short rest breaks and a non-restful scant handful of hours sleep at a “hotel” in Fairplay. Today, the hapless passengers continued their journey, crammed together shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, as the coach steadily lengthened the distance from their starting point in Leadville and drew ever closer to their destination of Manitou.
The coach was now edging toward Florrisant, and the final descent out of the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the lesser lands at the edge of the mountain range.
The end of the trip could not come soon enough.
Inez clenched her hands, fingernails biting through thin leather gloves. The backs of the gloves were covered with the fine dust that swirled throughout the interior of the stagecoach. A rusty tinge painted every surface and every passenger—Inez, her friend and traveling companion Susan Carothers, the Pace paterfamilias, his wife, their three children, and the unintroduced nanny. Inez fervently wished the dust would simply choke Mr. Pace into silence. But Lady Luck was betting against her, and the businessman appeared impervious to the dust’s strangling effects.
Behind Inez’s traveling veil—which had proved almost useless in keeping the airborne dirt at bay—sweat trickled from her hairline, down temples and cheeks to drip off her chin.
The clattering stage rocked forward, back, forward, back: a metronome in motion, a mother’s nudge to a cradle.
There was a sudden, violent pitch forward, a sharp jerk back, a whistle from the driver above, and the snap of a whip. Inez, crammed on the leather seat between her friend Susan and the nanny, clutched Susan’s arm to keep from falling forward into Mr. Pace’s lap. As the stage lurched from rut to rock, a hard jolt shuddered through the thinly padded leather seats. Pain raced up Inez’s back, tracing the corset laces, and set her teeth rattling. She bit the inside of her mouth to keep from uttering an oath that, most likely, would have stopped the businessman dead in his oratorical tracks.
The two older Pace children—a girl of about five and a boy of perhaps three—yelped. Mrs. Pace turned to them with a “shush,” her brown-gold hair a muted flash beneath her own dust-coated veil. The youngest child, a baby planted in the nanny’s lap, uttered not a peep. A strand of drool made a rusty wet streak across one chubby cheek.
Crowded by Susan and a stray hatbox on one side, and by the ample proportions of the nanny on the other side, Inez felt her temper rise from a simmer to a boil. She prayed more fervently than she had in a long time that the next stage stop was near. If I must endure many more hours of this, I fear I’ll do something fatal to my reputation.
Undeterred by the howls of his progeny or the ruts of the road, Pace leaned toward Inez, his knees jostling her own, nearly spitting at the net covering her face. “The air is so vile in Leadville, it is a wonder that the entire population is not sickened to the point of disease.”
Behind her veil, Inez’s upper lip curled as Pace continued to vilify the town they’d left yesterday. She glanced at Mrs. Pace. Sitting at her husband’s side, the woman appeared immune to her husband’s vitriolic speechmaking and instead whispered urgently to the boy and girl beside her, who alternately squirmed and jabbed at each other. After one particularly hard poke to the ribs from his sister, the little boy lashed out with a grimy laced-up boot, leaving a dusty streak on the nanny’s long skirts.
“Enough!” the nanny snapped. The boy froze, sullenness stamped on features a miniature of his father’s.
The sister smirked.
Inez reflected that, given the history of the past hour, the two would be back pinching and jabbing each other within a space of minutes.
And there had been some very, very long hours since leaving Leadville the previous morning.
Inez had stepped up into the coach sent to bring them from Leadville to Manitou’s Mountain Springs House if not with a high heart, at least with a hopeful one. It was a journey she had long been anticipating: In two days, she would rejoin William, her not-quite-two-year-old son whom she had not seen in a year. The sweat beneath her travel clothes damped the locket stuck to her skin, the locket holding a photograph of William at eight months.
Inez shifted on the seat. Her hip bumped the nanny, who managed one evil glance before turning to the baby in her clutches. “There’s a little dumpling,” she cooed, rocking him with her knees in time to the coach’s sway. The infant’s head lolled on her lap.
As far as Inez could tell, the “little dumpling” was out cold, no doubt thanks to the liberal dosing he’d received of Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral. Inez had sneaked a peek at the label as the nanny had struggled to uncork the bottle while baby Pace was engaged in one particularly intense infantile fit. The tonic had effectively rendered mute his non-stop screaming, crying, and coughing.
“Furthermore, the mines in Leadville are played out.” Pace settled back against the coach seat, pulling out a limp linen handkerchief from his wilted travel suit and mopping his pale, dust-streaked face. “The management of such is lackadaisical and not prepared to handle the workers with the firmness required. Witness the strike of May. Poorly handled, all around.”
Unable to stand it any longer, Inez said loud enough to drown him out, “Pardon, Mr. Pace, I am curious as to what brought you to Leadville to begin with, if all it held for you is a dark and bleak vision more suited to Hades’ world than our own?”
Pace stopped talking. She was pleased to see that her words, or perhaps it was her tone, had done what the road’s ruts and rocks could not.
For a blissful moment, his mouth hung slack and without sound. His dark mustache, no longer so impeccably groomed, was streaked with damp and dust. He looked as astounded as if the leather side curtains had suddenly given voice.
Susan’s black-gloved hand crept over to cover Inez’s balled fist, a mute warning to watch her tongue.
Pace removed his Homburg and swiped at his streaming forehead.
Inez noted with a nasty curl of satisfaction that although his mustache was carefully blacked, his hair was iron-grey. That, and the lines on his face, placed him on the far side of fifty, at a guess. She risked a sidelong glance at the veil-shrouded missus beside him. Inez had judged the wife and mother at about five-and-twenty, no more. Inez’s brow contracted in sympathy. There could only be money behind this union. His or hers, she wondered.
Inez had seen Mrs. Pace without her veil a few times now, the longest stretch of time being the previous evening at the Fairplay hotel, where they had stopped for the night.
Having vowed to not imbibe on the trip, Inez had found the Fairplay evening, apart from the respite of the coach ride, less than stellar. The food was wretched, and the company for the most part dull. Excusing herself early, Inez had repaired to the room she was sharing with Susan for the night to do a more thorough wash than the hurried splash of hands and face she had managed before supper.
Inez was brushing her hair when Susan had knocked and entered an hour or so later. Inez set her silver-backed hairbrush on the simple desk that served as a dressing table and said, “I am sorry I suggested taking the stage to Manitou, Susan. If we had gone by train, as I originally planned, you would not have to endure this miserable trip.”
“Oh, no, Inez, I’m enjoying it. Well, mostly. The dust is quite something, isn’t it?” Susan took a clothes brush and vigorously attacked her travel cloak, hanging on a wall peg. “Some of the scenery is wonderful. I’m making notes for later. Too, I’m thinking, there’s a spot east of Leadville that is perfect for capturing the city with a stereoscopic camera. I could sell stereoviews like Mrs. Galbreaith’s views of Manitou.”
She stopped brushing and pulled a stereoview card out of her coat pocket, examining the twin stereoscopic image on the front. “I’m so honored that Mrs. Galbreaith offered to share her photographic techniques and that I can stay in her boarding house for the duration.” She flipped the card over. “It is quite clever of her to list the different springs in Manitou on the back, along with their mineral compositions. I shall have to think of something similar to say about Leadville. ‘Manitou Springs—Saratoga of the West’ sounds so romantic. Maybe I could offer up ‘Leadville—Silver Sensation of the Rockies.’ Or ‘Leadville—Cloud City of the West.’”
Inez sighed. “I just wish things had worked out as I had planned. I had thought we would have the coach to ourselves and be able to stop whenever you wanted. I had not counted on the Paces appearing, seemingly out of nowhere, and demanding passage to the Mountain Springs House as well. Now, there is no stopping to gaze at the scenery, and I am sorry for that.”
“It is all right, Inez. We still have the train ride back to Leadville, at the end of the trip. This way, we get to see more of the country. I truly appreciate you underwriting this trip and supporting my efforts to expand my business. ”
“You have a rare talent. I cannot imagine a better way to invest my money than in helping you with your enterprise. Others may grubstake prospectors and pray for a silver bonanza. I prefer putting my money into a surer operation.” She smiled briefly at Susan. “I have seen you as you weathered good and bad times. You are careful with your profits and minimize your losses. Your business sense is sound.”
Susan blushed in the light of the oil lamp. “Thank you. That is high praise from one of the most successful businesswomen in Leadville.”
A sudden jolt brought Inez back to the confines of the stagecoach.
Mr. Pace was saying, “Well. Since you ask, Mrs. Stannert, my business in Leadville involved an exploration of possible investment opportunities. My wife’s father has much to do with metals and thought I should investigate.”
In a gesture that mimicked Susan’s, Mrs. Pace placed a gloved hand over his. His fingers, clamped tightly atop his bony kneecap, visibly relaxed beneath her touch. Behind her veil, Inez raised her eyebrows, intrigued.
“And, you, Mrs. Stannert?” He spoke stiffly, as if unused to making polite give-and-take conversation. “Do you and your husband reside in Leadville?”
Susan’s hand gripped tighter as Inez’s fist spasmed. “Indeed,” she said, ignoring her growing rage. “We, that is to say, Mr. Stannert has a number of business ventures in town.”
“Indeed.” He echoed her and gave her that odd look again. It was a cousin to the one he’d provided at their introduction. On hearing her name, he’d done a visible double-take, then stared with increasingly narrowed eyes, before finally offering her a stiff short bow. She had held her breath, to see if he would add anything damning, such as “You are that harlot who runs the saloon on Harrison and State streets!” He didn’t, but for that moment, it seemed as if he knew her, or knew of her, and not in a positive way. Inez had racked her mind, but could not recall having seen him in the Silver Queen Saloon. When he said nothing after his bow, she had decided to let it pass.
Realizing her musings had taken her mid-explanation from the conversation, she added belatedly, “What with all his various undertakings and his many investments in Leadville, Mr. Stannert decided it was best for us to remain in the city year-round. To keep an eye on things.”
“Leadville is a hard place for a gentlewoman,” Pace remarked, glancing at his own wife.
Inez smiled tightly. A sudden flash of memory from the previous week: her reflection in the Silver Queen Saloon’s dressing room mirror, hair in place, evening gown a rustle of satin and silk, diamonds glistening at her neck, brandy goblet on the washstand, and pocket pistol tucked safely in a hidden pocket. Her regular Saturday night visitors waiting across the hall for her to appear and for the late-night high-stakes poker games to begin.
“You are staying at the Mountain Springs House for the rest of the summer season, then? Are you intending to take the waters?” The wife’s question could scarcely be heard over the creaks of the coach, the squeaks of horse tracings, and the clatter of hooves.
“Miss Carothers and I are staying in the area for a short while. I imagine we will sample the mineral springs while we are there.” Inez started to say more, then stopped.
No need to explain her personal business to these people. No need to tell them that she was on her way to see her sister Harmony and her own son William, whom she had not seen since the previous August. Definitely no need to explain that the reason her husband, Mark Stannert, was not in the coach beside her was because she had threatened to put a bullet through him if he were to accompany her to Manitou.
Inez’s nightmare had begun eight days before the trip to Manitou. Memories of that early morning still burned like acid through her waking hours and her restless dreams. She had said her good-byes to Reverend Justice Sands at the Malta station, a few miles from Leadville.
The train waited, prepared to carry former president and Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant and his entourage onto the next stop of his Colorado tour. Darkness still shrouded the sky while Grant, his family, and others descended from their carriages and buggies. In the sheltered interior of the hired hack, Inez and the reverend exchanged one long kiss and lovers’ promises and counterpromises.
“Less than a month, and I’ll be back,” he said.
She’d closed her eyes, focusing on his voice, his touch as he traced the line of her cheek.
He continued, “I would not leave you now, but I promised the General—”
She placed a finger on his lips, stopping his words. “Justice Sands, you made a promise. You must honor it. No need to worry about me. The worst is over. What else can happen? I’ll be here, waiting for your letters and your return.”
Weeks ago, Grant had asked that Reverend Sands accompany him on his much-publicized Colorado tour. Such a request from his former commander-in-chief and supporter could not be refused.
Reverend Sands took her hand in his own, kissed her fingers. “Still, all the trouble of the past days, and now, your home is gone. Burned to the ground. I don’t like leaving you to deal with all this alone.”
“Nonsense.” She forced herself to speak lightly, glad that the dark interior hid the yearning that she was certain showed on her face. “It’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ll settle into the second story of the saloon for now. That will keep me busy. That, and sorting through to see if anything escaped the fire. Besides, I’m not alone. I have Abe to help with the business. Susan for friendship. The church for solace. I also have another meeting scheduled with the lawyer, to see what the next steps are in obtaining a divorce. He has assured me it will be simple. With no husband around to fight my suit on the grounds of desertion, how complicated a process can it be?”
His grip on her fingers tightened. “The sooner you are free of the past, the sooner we can forge a life together. I love you, Inez. From the moment I saw you. Meeting you was a gift from God.”
“Well, let’s not give thanks to the Almighty quite yet,” she said. “You may yet have cause to curse falling in love with a saloon owner and soon-to-be divorced woman.”
“That will never happen.”
Shouts from outside, the whistle of the train: it was time for him to leave.
Inez and Reverend Sands descended from the hack for a more formal farewell and parting.
Afterwards, back in the carriage alone, Inez watched with an aching heart as the train swallowed her lover, along with Grant and his followers.
Returning to the Silver Queen Saloon, Inez had felt weary to her very bones. Yet, with the graying of the sky toward dawn, a lightness lifted her spirit. She was finally looking forward with something approaching anticipation and hope. Thinking about her plans to see her little William and her beloved sister Harmony, in less than two weeks. Thinking about promising business deals, recently made, glinting like newly minted silver coins and shining bright with promise. Thinking about her impending divorce from her husband, Mark Stannert, who had been missing for well over a year. At last, she was moving forward with purpose in her heart.
Inez unlocked the door to the Silver Queen Saloon and walked into the gloomy interior. She could just make out the tables with chairs resting upside down upon them, creating a forest of wooden limbs. The rising sun hadn’t yet penetrated to the corners of the room.
By the backmost table, in the darkest shadows, a figure stirred, stood up.
Inez tensed, then relaxed, identifying a familiar black hat, pulled low, on a black-garbed figure. Did the reverend change his mind? But I saw him get on the train.
Then, a voice.
A voice she hadn’t heard in over a year.
He removed his hat.
Inez froze. For a moment, it felt as if all the blood had left her body, leaving her an empty shell, ready to collapse. Then, all that missing blood suddenly rushed back to her head and chest.
“No,” she whispered, willing it to be a bad dream. “It can’t be.”
Mark stepped out of the shadows. “Not the kind of welcome I was expecting from my wife after one year, two months, and fifteen days.”
“You! You can’t be here!” She swayed. The room swirled around her, darkness grew behind her eyes, blocking her sight. Inez reached out blindly for something to support her.
She heard the thump of a cane on the floor as he moved forward and grabbed her elbow to steady her.
More than his touch, it was Mark’s overwhelming familiar scent— sweat, travel, even the same pungent cinnamon-almond Macassar hair oil—that brought the old days stampeding back.
Sight clearing, Inez yanked her arm out of his grasp. “Stay back!”
He held the offending hand off to one side, as if trying to assure a jittery poker opponent that he was unarmed, with no cards up his sleeve.
Inez grabbed a nearby chair leg for support. At that moment, the forest of chair legs looked for all the world like a wooden audience, arms high in shock and horror.
“I stopped at the house,” said Mark. He eased both hands over the head of his cane and leaned on it. “When I saw nothing but a burned plot of ground, I feared the worst.”
She closed her eyes. She could block the sight of him, but not the sound of his voice, the soft Southern accent blurring his words, smoothing them out until they were like silk wrapped around her throat.
The sun began to cast its light within. She opened her eyes and took a hard look, still not quite believing that her errant husband, who had been gone for so long, was standing there before her. Not a ghost, but real. A few things in his appearance registered as different from before. New lines creased his face, and he was lean in a way that spoke of illness, past or present. A scar extended from the corner of the left eye and disappeared beneath his light brown hair. He leaned upon a walking cane.
He smoothed his sandy mustache, which, she noticed with an odd detachment, was still the same. “I must ask—William?”
His shoulders loosened as he sighed, a sound of relief. “You’re both alive and safe. My prayers are answered then. When I first realized that you were still here in Leadville, I thought that William was…” He shook his head. “But then, when I got to town and saw the house gone, I imagined the worst. So I came here to wait. Waiting, for what, I didn’t know. So, where is he, our boy?”
The concern and relief in his voice sounded real. Or was it all for show? Even in the old days, even after ten years of marriage, sometimes she wasn’t sure. Her love and jealousy had so often blinded her to where the truth lay.
She slipped a hand in her coat pocket. “You need to leave.”
The cane was suddenly against her wrist. He took one limping step closer. “You still in the habit of carrying that little Smoot pocket revolver, darlin’?” The cane pressed lightly, testing her.
“The Smoot,” she said coldly, “went up with the house.”
With the cane resting against her arm, she slowly extracted a ring of keys. The cane slid away as she held one up before him at eye level.
“This is the key to the dressing room behind the office.” She saw him glance up toward the second floor. She continued, “My room. I’m the only one with the key. We—Abe and I—changed the locks to the office and dressing room some time ago.”
She stared past the key, straight into his eyes, willing him to recognize the depth of her seriousness. “Speaking of the Smoot and such, do you remember what you impressed upon me, early on, in our marriage? Shoot first, ask questions later. If you gain entrance to my room through any means whatsoever—pick the lock or copy the key—I will shoot you with your old Navy revolver, which I just happen to have up there. I’ll shoot first, deal with the questions later. Actually, I doubt there will be questions. I will simply claim I didn’t know it was you, that I thought you were an assailant, breaking in.”
She pressed her lips together and stared, daring him to call her bluff, hoping he wouldn’t.
To her surprise, he nodded, and took a step back. “We need to talk, darlin’. Not now, but soon. I know you’ve got questions.”
“No questions.” She started toward the stairs and the office. “I’m tired. Leave.”
“Just tell me,” he said, “and I’ll go for now. Is my son up there?”
One foot on the stairs, she turned. Her hand gripped the handrail so hard she felt her knuckles shift. Finally she said, “William is back East with my sister. He’s safe. He’s well.”
With that, she continued up the stairs without another look back.
Once in her room, she waited by the window. A few agonizing minutes ticked by. Finally, she saw his lean figure appear on the boardwalk below and, with that unfamiliar limp, cross the street to the Clairmont Hotel.
Inez paced from one end of the modest room to the other, trying to calm herself. She thought of all the plans she had put into motion, with the expectation that her husband was dead or, at least, not returning. Her plans to obtain an uncontested divorce from an absentee husband. Her ever-closer liaison with the reverend. Her plans to reconnect with her young son, William.
My God, he’s back. Why? Why now?
She had arranged to meet her sister Harmony and William in Manitou, less than two weeks hence. Keeping those plans secret from Mark would be impossible. Once he knew that William would be in Colorado and that Inez would be traveling to see him, he’d insist on coming. Maybe I can insist that I must go to Manitou first, alone, to prepare Harmony. She thinks he’s dead. Good God, I thought he was dead.
Inez stared at the silver lamp sconce on the wall, unlit, her mind racing. Does he expect to just pick up where we left off before he disappeared?
She went to her fainting couch and gripped the tasseled pillow in both hands. Underneath, Mark’s Civil War Navy revolver lay in cold, dark stillness. Loaded. Ready.
Inez twisted the pillow viciously, as if strangling it.
“God damn you, Mark Stannert!” she hissed. “God damn you to hell. You can’t just waltz back in here and expect me to forgive your sins and kiss your wounds. I don’t care what happened to you! I will not let this happen. Not now. You will not ruin my life. The life I have planned. I’ll kill you first.”