Here I was, without clean clothes or my left shoe, and the gun in my carpetbag was as good as useless until I could reach the trunk on the stagecoach that contained my one bullet. From my perch in the little second-story window, it appeared that, unless I did something about it soon, I would not be reunited with my trunk until days from now, when it would be discovered at the next stagecoach exchange on the other side of the mountain and returned to my current location. That location being the insignificant hovel of Idyllwild, California.
Damn Billy Dunn.
I was a governess once in a grand home in Boston, and the gentleman who owned it was both a physician and a cad. The lady had twin sons who wished to follow in their father’s footsteps in both arenas; therefore, as part of my duties, I was permitted to access the second-floor library and explain basic anatomy, science, and chemistry to the dear boys. The day that we made a small explosion in the kitchen was also the day I received a telegram from my uncle in California and, as the master of the house had recently taken to running his hand across my bottom when no one was looking, I took it as a sign.
That was in August, the summer I turned twenty-one, and when I left Boston on a train heading west, it was like jumping from a bowl of hot chicken soup full of limp noodles into a parched loaf of week-old bread. El Paso was most of the way to the West Coast, but I was derailed there anyway. I blame the heat.
My Texas venture lasted another year or so and included teaching school in the fall, a whirlwind marriage in the winter, a hasty request for divorce immediately thereafter, and a brief experiment in ranching while I waited. Here it was August again, and once again, I was on the move.
Damn Billy Dunn.
I stood up to relieve the ache in my thigh where I had perched it in the corner of the window frame and considered walking down the carpeted hallway to the top of the staircase and back to stretch. The ride in on the stagecoach had been bumpy at best and downright cramped and nausea-inducing as we’d wound up the mountainside in serpentine curves.
I considered my options now. The hotel proprietor, Miss Nelson, might be able to help me fetch the trunk I’d left so hastily on the stagecoach rooftop. And the fact was, I didn’t want to take the chance of Billy finding me out there.
In my hotel room, there was a porcelain bowl on the nightstand with water in it, and I splashed some over my face and washed my hands. Taking up the scrap of linen provided, I attempted to wipe the road dust from my neck and arms, but the grime clung to me in the room’s sticky heat. My shirtwaist was filthy at the collar and damp at the armpits, and I could feel my brunette curls escaping from under my straw hat and expanding sideways over my ears into a nasty frizz.
August was the absolute worst time of year to travel. I cracked open the single window overlooking the road, hoping for some sort of breeze, and stepped back into the room so I couldn’t be seen from below. A massive oak tree growing in front of the building only partially screened the view.
It was getting dark fast. What breeze came in blew in fits and carried a hint of rain in it. My leather trunk could handle the almighty dust of this place, but I wasn’t excited about trying to wash mud from it. With any luck, the driver had left it on the landing after my hasty disappearance.
After another peek out the window, I rummaged through my carpetbag and pulled out a letter opener. Long, simple, with my initials on the handle, it had been a farewell gift. It was the only weapon I could think of. I kept my hand wrapped around the letter opener, tucking it between the folds of my skirt, and, stepping across the threshold, locked my door and tucked the key into my skirt pocket.
There was no getting around the fact that I wore only a single shoe. Walking made me appear to have a bad case of rheumatism in my hip, but what could I do? In a shoe and a stocking, I came down the stairs. The lobby at the bottom contained a polished oak desk where the proprietor, Miss Nelson, sat. Her back was to the kitchen door. I’d had a peek into the kitchen when I arrived, before the door swung closed, and now, divine smells wafted from it. Her desk faced an unused stone fireplace at the other end of the carpeted room. To her right was the front door and a large window with a view of the veranda outside and the road beyond it.
At the moment, Miss Nelson was deep in conversation with someone I presumed was a chambermaid. The girl wore a drab work dress and apron and hung her head in a weary manner, hands clasped patiently behind her back.
I dallied at the bottom of the staircase and perused the handful of framed photos hung on top of thick, dull, yellow wallpaper. The first showed an elderly Swiss couple surrounded by children, their heritage betrayed by the fancy Swiss lace at throats and wrists. “Domenigoni” was scrawled in the corner with India ink. The next was of a sawmill surrounded by pine forest, inscribed with “1889”. Beside it was a photograph of the hotel itself, but the hotel was smaller, obviously someone’s home, with no road or other buildings to speak of. The oak tree was standing firmly in place, and the lace curtains in the upper floor windows looked very much like the ones in my room. The date read, “1893”. The next photo appeared to be of the post office next door—I recognized the modest stone and mortar structure—but the shingle above it read “Rayneta”. The last photo showed an imposing building, a large one for this one-horse place, with the words “Idyllwild Sanatorium 1902” on its placard.
“It was a sanatorium,” said a gravelly voice. I jumped and turned to see Miss Nelson standing face to face with me, her brown eyes the level of mine had I not been tottering on the heel of one shoe. “They treated tuberculosis patients there until it burned to the ground. Gonna make it a resort.”
She sniffed with offense, and the dirty blond bun at the top of her head jiggled. “Huh! ‘Idyllwild Among the Pines’. Been running this place for fifteen years. What do we need a resort for? I don’t agree with putting on airs. Folks don’t stay up here. They pass on through.”
She squinted an eye at me. “How are you? A bit of a hurry to get to your room when you came in. I was about to send up Annabelle here to check on you.” She jerked her thumb backward at the girl in the drab dress, who disappeared into the kitchen. “You aren’t from around these parts. Visiting friends, maybe?” Curiosity animated the fine lines in her middle-aged face.
“I actually need my trunk. It was left on the stagecoach roof, and I wondered whether you could send someone to fetch it from the post office. I hope it was left on the landing for me.”
“Why?” Then she stepped back and took a critical look at my feet. “I see.”
“I’d rather not be seen on the road, if it’s all the same to you.”
“I imagine not.” She smiled. “You’re probably from a finer place than Idyllwild, but don’t worry, honey, no one here cares if you’re missing a shoe.” She went to sit back behind her desk.
“No, that isn’t quite it.” I followed her, trying to keep one eye on the large, plate glass window facing the road. “Someone is following me, and I don’t want him to find me here. He may have come through on a previous stagecoach or be in the one behind. But I mustn’t be discovered.”
“You in some kind of trouble with the law?” Her hand fluttered to the brooch at her collar.
“Of course not. I’m on my way to Los Angeles. I’m only staying the night to make sure that I’m traveling alone, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, my. I know it’s 1912, but I never did think it was a good idea for a lady to travel alone. People can get all the wrong ideas about you. You young ladies these days are so independent.” She sized me up again, all five foot four inches, the way I’d seen men take my measure. It irritated me. “I can send Annabelle over for it. What name should she ask after?”
I’d already registered in her guest book. “Brown,” I sighed, “Loveda Brown. The tags will say from El Paso, Texas.”
“Now there’s a miserable route to take in this heat. Thought I placed the accent, but it’s covering over another. Where you from, honey?” She’d taken another look at the guest book and nodded to herself with satisfaction.
“Boston originally. Funny. I thought I’d all but erased my eastern twang.”
It was really nobody’s business, but people were nosy. Miss Nelson folded her hands, and I could see she was forming further opinions of me. I needed her help.
“Have you always lived here?” I nodded amiably toward the photo.
She smiled then. “Why, yes, indeed,” she nodded, and gestured to the framed pictures. “My folks came up here from Louisiana and built the place in 1892. Been here ever since.” She looked around her with the pride of possession. “O’ course, we’ve added a few rooms here and there.” That elicited a cackling laugh from the room behind her, where the clatter of pans indicated supper preparations.
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention me to anyone tonight.” I leaned closer and whispered, “I’ll be leaving on the morning coach.”
Miss Nelson frowned then, and her hand rested again on her bosom. “You poor thing. You’re shaking. I thought you were ill, but you’re terrified.” She wasn’t sure what to make of me, but if she needed convincing, I could do it.
What I was included exhausted, anxious, nauseous, and sad, but terrified rounded it out nicely. I wanted to get back to my room. “Miss Nelson, the man following me is a monster. He has a wicked temper and a fast draw. He thinks he owns me.” I put my chin up. “But he doesn’t.”
“Now, don’t you fret, honey. If the fella shows up, he’ll try to get a room here. It’s the only place for miles. That silly resort is years away from finished.” She winked at me. “If he’s in town, I’ll know. I still have the power to refuse a room. I’ll send him right back out the door.”
“Oh, thank you Miss Nelson.”
Late that evening, a summer thunderstorm blew through, rattling the windowpane and startling me awake. I’d skipped supper. My trunk was wedged against the door. I was sleeping in my clothes. One shoe on. And a gun under my pillow.