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Chapter One

“Must you smoke that infernal thing?”

Cora Beckman focused her gaze on her friend, Delores. After a long moment she put the cigar in her mouth, inhaled, then formed her mouth into a circle and let small rings float out.

“It’s really unflattering, Cora,” said Marybelle, who sat next to Delores. “We come to these afternoon card games to get away from our husbands and their horrible habits. Smelling your cigar is, to put it quite bluntly, annoying.”

Cora stuck the cigar in her mouth as she put her hand on the shoe, ready to deal the cards for the game. “You come here to win money, Marybelle; money that your husband refuses to give you to support the amount of brandy you drink. Are we ready to play cards, or are you going to continue to gaggle like a bunch of old women?”

One by one, Cora pulled the cards from the shoe and set up the faro board. The other four women sitting around the table were silent as they examined the offerings and decided on bets.

What they were doing there, truthfully, was trying to keep from being bored to death, Cora thought. Their husbands were all officers in the Beckman & Associates Bank, based in Kansas City. But none of their husbands lived with them. They were all working at various branches of the bank in small, out of the way towns.

“The purpose, Cora, is to build up cliental so we can move into the larger cities,” Cora’s husband, Luke, had told her as he packed his bags, prepared to head to San Reno, New Mexico, a small town outside Santa Fe where he now lived and worked.

“The purpose, Luke, is to get away from your wife,” Cora had retorted. Not that she cared. She and Luke had never loved each other. They were married only because their fathers, his of the Beckman fame and hers of the no-named associates, wanted to keep their assets together, and their children were definitely assets.

“We have to keep things in the family,” her father had said right before he’d given her in marriage to Luke. “You’ll learn to love him.”

But that hadn’t happened. They’d been married for four and a half years now, and there were no children, and wouldn’t be, since they lived apart now, she in Kansas City and he in San Reno. He came home for Christmas, and when he did, he spent the night in the room next to hers. Cora could count on one hand the number of times her husband had been inside her. She’d always found it cold and impersonal, and didn’t wish to repeat the ritual unless she had to, and Luke was disinclined to pursue his husbandly rights.

She often wondered if it would be different with other men, ones who spent more than ten minutes in the bed. Cora had often thought of asking Marybelle, because she knew her friend had quite a few lovers, men who visited her often when Marybelle’s husband was in Texas. But she never did, and men never provided any distraction for Cora in her boredom.

That meant Cora had to amuse herself in other ways. She did so by playing faro with her friends, holding parties as often as possible, smoking cigars, and racing horses on the illegal track set up outside town.

Henry, her father-in-law who acted as her parent since her own father lived in New York City, chastised her daily.

“We have a duty as bank officers to hold ourselves to high standards,” he often said. “You are an embarrassment to us all.”

“I’m not a bank officer,” she often told him. “Be glad that I haven’t taken a lover. I’ve had many offers, and have behaved myself in that matter.”

Henry had always turned bright red when she said that, and had huffed and left the room, which was exactly the reaction Cora had wanted. But then, days later he would hear that she had been participating in a race, and he would be calling her back into the parlor, telling her that he would tie her to the chair when he left for work if that was what it took to make Cora behave herself during the day.

But he never did, and Cora continued to smoke, drink and place her bets all over town.

Today, however, turned out to be different. She had just set up the board, and reached for a match to relight her cigar, when a hush fell over the room. She turned to see Henry standing in the doorway. He looked pallid and his shoulders were sagging.

“Ladies, if you please, I need to speak with Cora,” he said. “I’m afraid the card game is off for today.”

Without any sort of objections her friends grabbed their things and exited the room as if it were on fire. Cora sat there, tapping her fingers against the soda, the card that had been burned at the beginning of the deal.

“What is it now, Henry? Did I use too much jam at breakfast, or did you hear that I lost fifty dollars during a horse race yesterday? I assure you it was only twenty, and it was my own money.”

The room was silent for almost a full minute. Cora turned her gaze toward him. “Henry?”

“Luke is dead,” he said, his voice flat.

“What?” Cora laughed nervously. “This is the most astonishing way you’ve tried to end one of my card games, and I assure you I do not think it’s funny.”

“I am not laughing,” he said, and for the first time since she’d known him, Cora was afraid Henry would faint. She hurried from her chair to the wall where she pulled the bell for the servant. She ran back to Henry just as he started to slump to the ground. She grabbed his arms, and was happy for the promptness of the servants. The butler helped her move Henry to the sofa.

“Call for a doctor, Frank,” she demanded of the butler. He hurried from the room just as Henry objected that he was fine and didn’t need a physician.

“You are far from fine,” Cora said. She sank down to her knees and put her fingers against his forehead. He felt cold and just a little sweaty. She moved her hand away and stared at him. “Luke is dead?” She could hardly believe the words. Even if she did not love him, he was still her husband.

“Killed in a bar fight in Santa Fe,” Henry said.

Cora snorted. “A bar fight? Luke? Now I know someone is lying to you.”

Henry swallowed hard, and Cora could see tears forming in his eyes. “Apparently he was…” He shut his eyes and tears leaked from the sides.

“Just say it, Henry,” Cora said.

“He was seeing the woman who owned the place,” Henry said. “He got into some sort of disagreement with a man, and the other man pulled a knife and stuck it in Luke’s chest.”

“I’ve sent for the doctor, Mrs. Beckman,” Frank said as he rushed into the room. He had a cloth in his hand, and as he drew nearer Cora could see that it was wet. He folded it and placed it on his employer’s head. “I’m sure it won’t be long. What else can we do?”

“Get him a shot of whisky, Frank, and get one for me, too,” Cora said. “And have one yourself while you’re at it. Henry has disturbing news to tell us.”

Later that evening, Cora sat in the dining room, twirling her fork around the uneaten food on her plate which, truthfully, was everything she’d been served that evening. She was having trouble wrapping her mind around the fact that, not only was Luke dead, but that he’d had a lover. Luke. A love. Luke. A lover. The words repeated over and over in her mind until her grip tightened on the fork so hard that it became painful.

She released it and it clattered to the plate. That seemed to break the spell that had come over the room. Her father-in-law took a drink from his glass, and Florence, her mother-in-law, murmured a cry of distress.

“Of course, I’ll have to go collect the body,” Henry said.

Florence’s sobs became more noticeable.

“Nonsense,” Cora said. “You’re in no shape to travel to Santa Fe. I’ll go.”

For the first time since he’d appeared with news of Luke’s death, Henry seemed to come alive. He slapped his hand on the table and yelled, “Out of the question! You are a single woman and cannot travel across county by yourself.”

Cora stared at him. “And you are in shape to do so, following the episode you had this afternoon? The doctor said you needed to rest. Taking off to New Mexico is not rest.”

“I’ll wait a few days,” he said. “Luke is not going anywhere.”

His voice broke on the words, and at the other end of the table, Florence started to sob in earnest. A maid came and put her arm around the older woman’s shoulders. After a nod from Henry, the maid helped escort Florence out of the room.

“That should be you,” Henry said after his wife was gone. “You haven’t even shed a tear.”

“I’m offering to go collect his body,” Cora said. “You have no business traveling that far in your health, which wasn’t good before this. Now it’s even worse.”

Henry took a drink of his whisky, something the doctor had told him to stay away from. “I’ll send Milton. He’s the one who will have to take over the bank in San Reno.”

“Milton?” Cora huffed in disgust. “I have more business sense than he does. The man hardly knows anything about investments, and he probably can’t tell the difference between a one dollar bill and a two dollar bill.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Cora,” Henry retorted. “He’s perfectly capable of running a bank.”

“But do you trust him with your son’s body?” she asked.

“He can make arrangements to ship the body back, and stay in San Reno.”

Cora stared at him. “What a cold way to treat your son’s remains.”

“No colder than what you’re being.” Henry glared at her. “Milton will go, and that’s final. You will stay here and help plan Luke’s funeral.”

Cora bit back a reply and focused on her plate. There was no way that she was staying in this house now that Luke was gone. She was a free woman, a widow, and she wanted to leave before her father thought of someone else he would force her to marry… like Milton. That man was almost fifteen years older than she was, but it wouldn’t surprise her if her father suggested it, since Milton was high up in the bank’s ranks.

An idea started to form in her mind. She let her attention center on her plate and ate tiny portions as she started to plan. With any luck she would be out of the house tonight and Henry would have no idea where she had gone.

***

“Can you tell me how I can travel to San Reno?” Cora asked the young man standing near the ticket widow of the Santa Fe Depot. A smile appeared on his face and he shook his head. “Not by train,” he said. “You’ll have to ride, or take a wagon. One goes there once a week, on Mondays, and you’ve missed it for the week.”

“Well, damn,” she said. The young man’s smile widened, and then he tipped his hat and walked off.

Cora stood on the platform, with one bag and a trunk next to her. She hadn’t been able to take as many clothes as she’d wanted, because she’d had to leave in the middle of the night. Then she’d had to hide out at Marybelle’s house the next day. That gave her time the next morning to go to the bank and withdraw money from her account so that she had funds to travel on. Marybelle had been willing to help with the adventure, and had even helped Cora write one of the carefully crafted letters that would keep her absence from being discovered.

The first letter Cora had written was to Henry. It had been easy to draft, and she told him that, after she’d gone to bed that evening, she realized that Luke’s death had hit her harder than she’d thought. She needed time by herself, and as such had gone to Marybelle’s house. Her friend’s residence had a small cottage in the back where Cora could stay by herself. She would come home in a few days, since it would be at least two weeks before Luke’s body would arrive back in Kansas City.

The second letter was a little trickier, and Cora was happy to have Marybelle’s help on that one. Cora wrote to Milton Savage. Since Henry had his secretaries write his letters, it didn’t matter about the handwriting. In the letter, she said that Henry had changed his mind about sending Milton to San Reno to bring back Luke’s body. Henry had decided to send one of the servants to do that. But, she wrote, he still wanted Milton to take over the banking duties in San Reno, and he should focus his time on preparing to leave, so he shouldn’t come in to work for the next two weeks. Henry would let Milton know when he was scheduled to leave for New Mexico.

Cora had then presented the letter to Marybelle, who excelled at copying people’s handwriting. The older woman signed Henry’s name with a flourish, and they sent off the missive that afternoon.

Since Cora’s train didn’t leave until noon the next day, Marybelle had sent one of her servants to watch Milton’s house to see if the letter had worked. If he left for the bank, Cora was sure it hadn’t. But when he had not exited his residence at nine, Cora was sure that he had taken the letter to heart.

She had boarded the train to Santa Fe, and spent the next few days, being jostled and bounced around as they made their way down the tracks.

Now that she was in Santa Fe, she realized that she hadn’t planned very well for the next leg of her journey. But necessity was the mother of invention. She went up to the window where a bored man was counting stacks of paper.

“Excuse me,” she said.

“Yes ma’am?” He looked up at her. “You need a ticket?”

“I need to find a way to San Reno, and it needs to be today,” she said.

The window clerk shrugged. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen, unless you find a private carriage to hire. Can you handle a team?”

“Oh yes,” Cora said with a smile. “I’m quite adept around horses. Where is the local blacksmith?”

The man gave her directions, then agreed to hold her bags, for a small fee, while she went out to find transportation. It didn’t take her long to hire a wagon and two horses. The blacksmith told her to leave the wagon and horses with the blacksmith in San Reno, a man by the name of Quentin Morgan.

As Cora passed over the funds, she wondered how the man would get his horses back, but then she decided that it wasn’t her problem. He was charging her almost fifteen dollars, which would cover whatever time he was without his animals, she thought.

She watched as he hitched up the wagon, and then she drove back to the station where they loaded the bags. After they pointed her in the right direction, and said it was an easy three-hour drive, Cora took off.

But as she headed toward the road that would take her to San Reno, she thought about her husband’s body. Would it still be here in Santa Fe? Perhaps she should find the local law enforcement office and ask them where she could find it, and what she would have to do to ship it back to Kansas City.

After several questions and answers, she found out that she would have to speak with the people at the marshal’s office, which was off the plaza. She drove down the crowded streets carefully, found someone to watch the equipment while she went inside, and was shocked when she entered the building and got her answer.

“You did what?” she repeated after the young man had imparted his information.

“We buried him,” the officer repeated.

“Why would you do such a thing?”

The officer stared at her as if she were headless. Finally, he said, “What were we supposed to do?”

“Keep him until I got here,” she said, her voice rising. “His family should have the right to decide what happens to his body. I’m his widow, I should have the say.”

“Where would we have kept him?” was the man’s reply. “He would start to smell, if you’ll pardon me pointing that out. The marshal said to bury him, and that’s what we did.”

Cora sighed heavily. “What about the man who killed my husband? Is he in custody?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the officer said, obviously happy to give a positive answer. “He’s in the jail, but I can’t let you see him without the marshal’s approval.”

“Then I’ll be back,” Cora said. She went outside and found a man talking with the teen that she’d hired to watch her wagon. Her heart went pitter-patter when she saw the newcomer.

He was the most handsome man she’d ever seen in her life. Tall, with black hair that went past his broad shoulders, he didn’t seem to be too happy. He had his hands on his hips, upon which rested a holster and gun, and he seemed to be arguing with the boy.

“Her,” the kid said as she drew near. Then he dropped the reins and ran.

The stranger wheeled on her and Cora felt like she should take a few steps back. But she refused to let him intimidate her. “May I help you?” she asked.

“What are you doing with my horses?” he demanded.

“Your horses? I just rented these animals from the blacksmith. I’m going up to San Reno.”

“Are you?” He stared down at her. “For what?”

If it was one thing Cora hated, it was a bully. She stared up at him, hoping her gaze was mean. “If you must know, my husband was the manager at the bank there and was recently killed.”

The newcomer relaxed his features. “I knew Luke. I was sorry to hear about his death.”

“And who are you?”

“You first,” the man said.

“Cora Beckman,” she said.

The man stuck out his hand. “Quentin Morgan.”

Cora offered his hand, and she swore she felt lightening bolts shoot through her as they shook. “You’re the man I’m supposed to return the horses to,” she said.

For the first time since she’d laid eyes on him, his expression softened. “I would hope so, since they belong to me. I can’t believe that scallywag Clark took money from you just so you could return my property. We’ll go get your money back, and then we’ll head north.”

Cora shook her head. “I don’t think I should travel with a man I don’t know,” she said.

Quentin’s laugh was deep. “Trust me, it will be better than you traveling on your own. It’s dangerous out there, and you don’t know the way. You could run into outlaws, or bears. You’ll be glad of my company once we start that way.”

Bears? Cora shivered as the big man helped her into wagon. Once he’d climbed up he took control of the reins.

“I can do it,” she said as she tried to snatch them back from him.

“It’s my wagon and my horses,” he reminded her. “I’ll do it.”

After they stopped at the blacksmith’s shop, and she watched Quentin and the other man exchange some heated words, they started back on the road. Things were silent for a while, and she wondered how Luke ever managed to live in country like this. The outlying mountains and beautiful trees provided excellent scenery, but the air was cool, and the road was rough.

Luke was one who always liked his comforts. She imagined him riding this road back and forth between San Reno and Santa Fe.

“How well did you know my husband?” she asked after they’d been on the road a while.

“Not that well,” Quentin replied. “I don’t have much business to do in the bank, but I do have a little bit of money I keep locked up there.”

Cora waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, she asked, “Did you not see him socially?”

“Socially,” Quentin huffed. “There’s not much of a social life in San Reno, just a watering hole and a few places you can get something to eat. Most men work at the mines up in the mountains.”

Cora knew that. The silver mines brought in money, and they were what made Beckman & Associates want to open a bank in San Reno.

“Most men come down to Santa Fe for fun,” Quentin said. “They play in the saloons and the—”

He stopped speaking abruptly and Cora turned to look at him. “The houses of ill repute? You forgot to mention that when you were describing the places a man could go to forget his troubles in San Reno.”

“Didn’t think it was proper to mention it in front of a lady like yourself,” Quentin said.

Cora laughed. “I do believe I know what most men do for fun. Well, I thought I did.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, and then she turned to Quentin. “Did my husband visit those houses, also?”

“Well…” his voice dropped off. “I don’t think it’s right for me to speak ill of the dead.”

Cora laughed louder. “Mr. Morgan, my husband ignored my bed when he was at my house. I’m surprised to hear he made friends with a woman in Santa Fe, and am curious who else he – shall we say, visited? – while I wasn’t around.”

Quentin flicked the reins. “I didn’t really keep up with his social life. I run my business and keep to myself.”

“I’m sure your wife appreciates that,” Cora said as she looked off into the passing trees.

“No wife, no kids, just me,” Quentin said. “Listen, I’m not sure what you’re expecting to see once you get to San Reno. There’s not much there for a lady like yourself.”

If she was smoking one of her cigars, he might not think she was much of a lady, Cora thought. “If you’ll just take me to my husband’s house, I’ll be fine.”

“He didn’t have a house,” Quentin said. “He just kept a room at the hotel.”

That shocked her. “He told me he was building a house there, so that he had the nicest one in town.” The statement came out as an accusation, as if she expected Quentin was lying to her. She felt him stiffen beside her.

“No house,” he repeated. “And I’m sure they’ve rented out his room now that he’s dead.”

Cora felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. She had expected a house, one that needed a woman’s touch, true, but someplace she could live while she took over matters at the bank. She needed to get her foot in the door before Milton showed up. She could overpower him, unless he brought Henry with him. In a different scenario than what she’d planned, she could see Henry coming to San Reno after he found out that she’d gone there.

Since she’d been gone for a week now, she had no doubt that Henry knew she was no longer in Kansas City, which meant that she needed to hurry up and get things done. She prayed that a telegram hadn’t shown up and alerted the people at the bank that she was not to be trusted.

“Please just take me to the hotel then, Mr. Morgan,” Cora said. “I can handle things from there.”

His muttered, “I have no doubt of that,” made Cora smile.

 

 


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