Authors: Colleen Faulkner
Celeste folded her trembling hands in the lap of her pearl gray sateen gown. "I'm sorry, go on."
"I'm leavin' what's left of my bank account to her, too. Hell, it
would have been hers anyway if the stubborn tart would have married me."
Celeste smiled, taking no insult from his words. She was a tart.
"And… and the mine claims I bought up," John wheezed. "I'm leavin'
half to Celeste, half to that rich son of mine back in California." He
tapped on the tip box. "There's a sealed letter for him inside,
Celeste. All you gotta do is post it."
She nodded, afraid to speak. She didn't want John's fancy house with
the gaslights and flush commode. She didn't want his money. She didn't
want his worthless gold claim. She wanted John. She wanted him to live.
"That's all I got to say." John signed the crinkled document with a trembling hand.
Celeste caught the pen as it fell, while John was seized by another
coughing spasm. "That's enough visiting," she told the group as she
eased his frail shoulders back onto the pillow. "Go on back to Kate's."
John's eyes flickered open. "Bye to ya, friends. It's been a wild ride."
One by one the men and women filed out of the bedroom, each stopping
to touch John's hand or kiss his cheek. Each said goodbye in their own
way, then left the room. Celeste closed the door behind them, and
returned to John's bedside.
"You still here"—cough—"Celeste, love?" John didn't open his eyes.
"Still here." She took his hand once again.
"Tired," he murmured.
"More tired than that."
A lump rose in Celeste's throat. Doc Smite said John should have
been dead days ago. He didn't know what was keeping him alive. Celeste
was keeping him alive. John was staying here for her sake.
"So go," she said softly. She brushed a lock of his hair off his
forehead, fighting tears. "Go find that mother lode you've been looking
for all your life."
"Think I might"—cough, hack—"do that. First, a kiss."
She smiled. Tears ran freely down her rice-powdered cheeks. "I thought you'd be wanting something more than that," she teased.
As she brushed her lips against his cheek, he lifted one hand to caress her breast. "Maybe after a nap, eh, sweetheart?"
She kissed him again. "Whatever you say, John."
He opened his eyes, his mouth widening into a grin, and for a moment
John looked like the handsome man who had swaggered into Big Nose
Kate's Dance Hall and into Celeste's life a little more than a year ago.
His eyes drifted shut and the smile faded with a sigh. It was a full
minute before Celeste realized he was no longer struggling for breath.
John MacPhearson was dead, and she was once again alone in the world.
Carrington, Colorado 4 Months Later June, 1867
Fox MacPhearson stepped off the train with a leather satchel in his hand and a strange sense of hope in his heart.
The Baldwin locomotive's whistle wailed and the wheels screeched as
it pulled through the station behind him. In a puff of smoke the train
was gone, and Fox was alone on the wooden platform.
So what now? Fox brushed his hand over his bare chin. He'd worn a
beard and mustache for years, but on impulse had shaved it the morning
he'd left San Francisco. A cleansing ablution. As he washed the facial
hair down the drain, he'd washed away his past. Here, in Carrington, he
hoped he would find the start of a new life.
He removed his father's letter from inside his dusty wool tweed
overcoat. Plum Street. That's where he was headed. That was where his
new life would begin. Number 22 Plum Street.
Fox deliberated on the platform and stared at the rickety depot
steps that led to the street below. For some reason he was hesitant to
go. Not just because in going to his father's home he would have to
deal with the emotional baggage of words left unsaid, but because…
because… He sighed. Hell. He didn't know why he was standing here.
Fox took the warped steps two at a time. He reached the wooden
sidewalk that kept pedestrians' shoes out of much of the mud of
Carrington's rutted street, and made a decisive right turn toward the
false-fronted stores lining both sides of the road through town.
It was mid-afternoon, but there were few people on the street. Many
of the stores' window shades were drawn shut. The community did not
appear to be the bustling gold mining town that, in his letters, his
father had led Fox to believe it was.
A creaky sign, hanging by a nail from a corner post, read:
Fox nearly laughed aloud. After the bustling city of San Francisco
with its port of call, opera houses, and art museums, Carrington was
little more than a crossroads, a slum near the docks of the bay city.
From the look of the loose shingles and broken windows, Carrington
hadn't seen gold in years. Maybe that was why Fox had been forced to
wait two days in Denver for a train passing through.
He passed a boarded-up storefront.
peeling painted sign stated over the door. He walked past several
private homes. Tinny piano music filtered through the open door of The
Three Caballeros Saloon. He passed the saloon, though his heart pounded
and his palms broke out in a sweat at the thought of a shot of rye
whiskey. But he no longer drank. Drinking was one of the vices that had
brought him to this pathetic one-horse town to begin with.
A half block ahead, Fox spotted the first humans he'd seen in
Carrington. So it wasn't a ghost town, after all. There was a big woman
dressed in waves of red crinolines. She had a rather prominent nose,
but pretty blue eyes and a come-hither smile. Her rouged red lips and
cheeks gave evidence of her profession. The woman standing beside her,
laden with brown paper parcels, was barely more than a girl, with a
fine mane of wheat-blond hair. A whore, too, but a natural blond whore.
Fox had known enough bleached women in his life to recognize a natural
one when he saw her.
The blonde was dressed in a shimmering sheath, not the billows of
skirts and protruding bustle common to the day. The gown met tightly at
her ankles, so that she had to take tiny steps to walk. On anyone else
the outfit would have been ridiculous, but on this woman, it was
exquisite. Up until a few months ago, she would have been just the type
he would have taken for a tumble in bed.
"Good afternoon, ladies." Fox swept off his bowler hat and gave a slight bow.
"Afternoon to you," the woman with the big nose responded warmly.
"Just come to town on the four-thirty, I see." She offered a gloved
hand. "Kate Mullen, but my friends call me Big Nose Kate."
He hooked his thumb in the direction of the train depot. "Guess the
stop's not long. The conductor nearly pushed me out the door as the
train passed through."
The young blond woman laughed shyly. Her heavily rouged cheeks and
the thick blue shadow on her eyelids detracted from her ingenuous
beauty. "Have business in town, sir?" She shifted the weight of the
bulky packages from one slender arm to the other. Her steady gaze made
no excuses for her appearance, nor for her vocation.
"Um. Yes." Fox hedged, hesitant to say why he was here, just yet. "I suppose I do. I'm looking for Plum Street."
Big Kate's blue eyes lit up as if she were privy to some secret.
"Plum Street? Expected there, are you?" She studied him more carefully.
"Yes, as matter a fact, I am."
The wooden sidewalk creaked under her weight as Big Nose Kate took a
step toward him. "We could show you if you want. Not that this
sniveling town is so big a fine, smart man like yourself couldn't find
your way on your own."
For a moment Fox thought she would reach out to stroke his coat, or
perhaps his cheek, but she didn't. For a whore, she had a touch of
class. He replaced his black wool hat on his head. "Just point me in
the right direction and I'll be on my way. I don't mean to trouble you."
"Wouldn't trouble us a bit if you stopped by Big Kate's Dance Hall
tonight," the blonde said in a finely textured voice. "I'm Sally, Silky
Sally." She managed once again to blush beneath her heavily rouged
"I just might do that." He smiled and winked. He had no intentions
of frequenting a whorehouse. That fragment of his life was gone, washed
down the drain with his beard. "Plum Street?" He lifted his brow.
Kate pointed a red lace-gloved finger. "You're headed in the right
direction, handsome. Two blocks south. If Petey, the town drunk, is
passed out on Plum and Peach, just step over him. He's harmless."
"Thank you. I'll do that." He tipped his hat and passed the two women on the plank sidewalk.
"Big Nose Kate's is on Peach Street," Kate called after him. "Can't
miss it. It's one of the few places still open on that side of town."
Fox waved over his shoulder, but did not turn back. Two blocks down,
he turned right onto Plum Street. The wooden sign at the corner had a
plum painted beside its name, only the purple had faded to a pale blue.
The street seemed to be mostly residential; white clapboard houses with
varied roof lines, elaborate porticoes, and gingerbread moldings. Each
home was trimmed in a different confection color; bright pink, seafoam
green, lavender. The houses appeared to have been no more than ten
years old, built during the town's short gold boom, no doubt.
Plum Street was a pleasant, tree-lined street, out of place in the
desolate, muddy town. He smiled to himself as he passed an empty porch
swing shifting in the breeze. No wonder his father had liked it here.
At Peach and Plum, Fox did not encounter the town drunk. He read the
numbers on the houses as he walked, amused that the townspeople would
actually anticipate the need to give the houses numerical addresses, as
if they had expected the town to grow to the size of Denver or Colorado
Springs. But the practice served his need.
Number 22, Plum Street. He halted on the wooden sidewalk to study
the white frame house, trimmed in sunshine yellow. It looked almost
identical to the other houses, except that while some of the others
appeared abandoned, this one was definitely occupied. While many of the
others had been left to deteriorate, someone had obviously taken care
of this house. The clapboard walls had been painted recently. The
shutters hung straight. The glass of the windows were squeaky clean and
unblemished by cracks or breaks. A stone walk had been laid and flowers
planted on either side of the walk. It was like a house out of a
child's fairy tale.
Fox halted on the stone walkway feeling somehow undeserving. Would
his father be disappointed that he intended to sell the home? Surely he
hadn't expected Fox to live here in Carrington. Fox, who had traveled
the world, Fox, who had once owned town houses in San Francisco and New
York City at the same time.
Fox chuckled. Maybe the joke was on him. Who in their right mind would buy this fairy-tale house in the middle of a ghost town?