(If you aren’t caught up in the series, don’t blame me if you accidentally read a spoiler.😉)
The sun was dropping on another beautiful summer day in Idyllwild. Our ridgeline sat in a dry pine forest a mile above sea level but was still not the tallest part of the mountain. Because we perched just west of Tahquitz Peak, sunset was a moment to stop everything and admire the fiery glow that danced fiercely across the naked granite above us.
Legend asserted that Chief Tahquitz resided beneath the peak with a rattlesnake and a condor for company and shook things up once in a while when he got bored. Thankfully, I had never experienced a California earthquake, but the Cahuilla tribes in this area had long known that, after Tahquitz killed his sweetheart, he succumbed to an evil spirit that locked him deep in the mountaintop as penance. The Cahuilla left years ago, but the fire spirit lived on.
The scene would have been altogether romantic had I wrapped my arms around anything other than a chimney top. As it was, the rounded stones beneath my hands mimicked the embrace of gentle shoulders; steady, reliable shoulders that encouraged me to divulge my darkest secrets.
“I’m stuck,” I whispered. “Send help.”
They were, unfortunately, the strong silent type, and I looked around again at the wooden shingles that fed down in every direction from my perch on the roof, daring me to slide to safety. The hotel was two stories tall. The oak tree next to it rose another ten feet above my head, and the pine forest across the road mocked me from another hundred feet in the sky. Squirrels raced from tree to tree, taking a leap of faith between branches at my own eye level. I’d been watching them for a while now, wondering what their secret was.
Courage, I supposed.
The ladder used for my ascent perched between the oak tree and the hotel, leaning against the roofline closest to the chimney which was another ten sloping feet up the roof. The climb up had been simple, even with cheesecloth in one hand and my skirt bunched up in the other. The minute I’d turned to descend, however, a wave of vertigo hit so hard I had to cling for dear life to the chimney, eyes closed, until it passed. I’d been enjoying the view ever since.
My arms ached. The shingles dug into my left leg and hip. I debated over which was worse: staying up here in the fast-approaching dark or falling headfirst at the feet of my incoming guest. I looked down the dusty road that disappeared around a bend and led all the way down into Banning. The stagecoach was due any minute, and inside of it was my future.
An unexpected sound rose through the treetops. It was a bugle, I couldn’t fathom from where, saluting the setting sun. The last pure notes of “Retreat” drifted away, a fitting tune for my predicament. It was time to let go.
The ladder top peeked at me, surrounded by pretty oak leaves. I took a deep breath and released the chimney. As I began the slow drop toward the ladder, I scrabbled at the shingles with my hands while attempting to aim my high-top buttoned shoes. My shoes hit the ladder and sent it backwards into the oak tree. My hands caught the edge of the roof, and there I dangled, feet kicking in the air, dark skirt billowing around my white knickers, shrieking for Mr. Hannahs.
Whether it was my screams for help or the incoming thunder of the stagecoach that brought faithful Mr. Hannahs out of the post office was irrelevant. His voice boomed out below me, and the ladder landed hard against my back.
“Grab hold!” he called.
I was too terrified to let go of the roof, and my flailing feet somehow wedged the ladder top firmly beneath my bottom. The ladder swayed dangerously under me, and my arms shook. Mr. Hannahs shouted something, and although other voices mingled with it, his Swiss accent came through clearly. The front door of the hotel slammed shut, and seconds later, the second-floor window at my kneecaps flew open. A pair of powerful hands reached around my legs and yanked me and the ladder forward. My arms gave out, and in one swoop, I’d been pulled through the window and into the arms of the stagecoach driver, Jim Roster.
“Now there’s something I’ve never done before,” he said. His arms drove a team of four horses every day, and they had no problem holding my petite five foot four inches above the ground, skirts bunched up around my kneecaps. I goggled at him and caught my breath for a minute before struggling to the floor.
“Maybe you should build a balcony,” he said with a smile.
“Jim,” I gasped, rubbing my arms hard, “thank you.” I looked beyond him, and the man I’d been waiting for stood in the hotel room doorway. He was rounder by far than Mr. Hannahs, quite a barrel of a man, with a perfectly creased professional suit and vest. His mutton-chopped jowls, shaved at precise angles to adorn his middle-aged jawline, complimented a thick head of salt and pepper hair. His face was full of confusion, but I watched him rally as I brushed myself off and stood up straight.
The man stepped forward and gave me a little bow. “Esquire Milo Craven, attorney at law, at your service,” he said.
“Welcome to Idyllwild, Mr. Craven.” I smiled weakly at both men, then led them down the staircase and into the lobby on shaky feet. Mr. Hannahs was waiting there, his white handlebar mustache quivering with anxiety. Jim retrieved his hat from the floor where he’d flung it on his way up and, fitting it snugly in place, tapped a finger to the brim and went outside with Mr. Hannahs to finish their business. The post office next door was the only spot on the mountain where the stagecoach stopped. Jim delivered mail, parcels, and people to Mr. Hannahs who held them for the tiny town that scattered for miles along the twisting highway. I would have to thank them both for saving my life when Mr. Craven was gone.
“You are the widow of William H. Dunn?” my lawyer asked.
I nodded. “It’s Loveda Brown,” I said, attempting to get my bearings. “I use my maiden name now.”
I handed him a pen and waited while he signed the guest book on my desk, searching for something that a perfectly calm, rational hotel proprietor who had not recently fallen off a roof would say.
“It’s a good thing I’ve already got your information, Mr. Craven. Your signature is truly indecipherable.”
“All professionals cultivate signatures that are impossible to replicate,” he said, adding another curling flourish to the page. It was hard to tell whether he was offended or flattered. “Certain affairs, you understand, would end in disaster in the wrong hands.”
Jim opened the door and set a leather suitcase and a sturdy briefcase inside. Mr. Craven thanked him and collected his things. Jim shot one last smile at me that guaranteed my notoriety in his immediate circle of acquaintances and left.
“So they would,” I agreed. “Now, Mr. Craven, your room is, um, actually the one we were just in.” I twisted my raw hands together in embarrassment. “I suppose you know the way.”
“You mean to say it is only you and I on the property?” He frowned as he looked around the small room. “I expected to find you with your parents. Widows generally return to their family homes. Most unusual.”
“No family. No home. Let’s just say that Billy and I had some things in common.” It was silly that I felt intimidated, and I shook the feeling off. “Not to worry, Mr. Craven. Your character comes highly regarded in professional circles. If I thought impropriety was an issue, I’d ask Carlos to stay over.”
“A man next door who likes to hit things with a hammer.”
My attempt at levity fell flat, so I didn’t mention that I also had a Winchester under my bed and a Colt revolver under my pillow. The fact that I hadn’t had time to get ammunition for them was beside the point.
Supper was a brief and tedious affair. I had begged our nice meal from Mrs. Hannahs ahead of time, but Mr. Craven was intent on impressing me and it left little room for the impression of others.
Mr. Craven leaned back in his chair, napkin in one hand, and said, “Now, Mrs., er, Miss Brown? I know you understand how out of the ordinary it is for me to be here this evening.”
I nodded but had no chance to reply.
“Normally, of course, I would remain in my seat in Tucson, but it was of particular personal interest to me when my old colleague, Dr. Prost, asked.” He reached for another pickle.
“Such a marvel, this telephone. I can’t tell you the pleasure it brought me when his call from Boston came all the way into Arizona to my office.” He crunched the pickle with relish.
“The man said you worked with him at one time and were now in need of the best legal advice possible.” He left no pause for me to confirm it.
“And he called the right man, Miss Brown, he did. I was there to witness my beautiful territory of Arizona ushered into glorious statehood. Stood at attention as the cannon fired, as our beloved President Taft declared us the forty-eighth state of the Union and inaugurated Governor George W. P. Hunt himself!”
I wondered whether I should rise and sing the national anthem, but Mr. Craven continued unabated.
“Shook hands with Supreme Court Chief Justice Alfred Franklin, Miss Brown, and my own promotion followed thereafter.” He lifted his goblet. “Danced until dawn at the Hotel Adams,” he said with a nod.
I took advantage of his swallowing and said, “I am grateful that you are willing to travel, Mr. Craven. The ranch in El Paso is extensive and, so far as I’m aware, Billy didn’t leave a will. I’m not willing to return in order to settle the affairs.”
Billy’s ranch—our ranch—covered miles of Texas badlands near the El Paso border with Mexico. We’d run cattle, horses, and sheep on it, a sprawling operation that appealed to me at the time.
Until I caught Billy in our bed with the maid a week after our wedding.
“This is why I asked Dr. Prost to recommend a lawyer willing to travel there on my behalf.” I sat up straight. “I want you to liquidate the entire estate. I’m taking the cash money for all of it. Once it’s settled, I’ll pay your fees and cover your travel expenses, as agreed.”
When I first came to Idyllwild, I’d been running from betrayal and a ruined marriage. I was twenty-two years old, and this hotel represented the end of my running. My husband, Billy, was dead now, and if his parting gift was the opportunity to never run again, then I intended to pursue it. Pursue a home of my own. Pursue the chance to stand on my own two feet.
“It appears to be a straightforward probate,” Mr. Craven said. “No one to dicker with over the fine china, eh?”
He was a pompous old windbag, but he was all I had.