by Sevenstars & Aureleigh



Inter-Ocean Hotel

Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory

"Welcome back, Mrs. Standish! Good to see you again!"

"Why, thank you, Mr. Ford. It is a pleasure to find myself in your lovely hostelry once more. Pray tell me, is my favorite suite available?"

"Number Two?" Barney Ford, the proprietor of the Inter-Ocean, was a light-skinned man in his fifties who despite his Caucasian features had been born in slavery in Virginia, escaping to Nicaragua in his teens and later returning to his native land to engage in the hotel and restaurant business. Nearly twenty years ago he had joined the rush to Colorado and staked a mining claim southeast of Breckinridge. Since blacks weren't permitted to own land in their own names, the claim was placed in the name of his lawyer, who promptly stole ownership of it and had Ford evicted. But he hadn't let it stop him. He now owned two hotels, this one and its namesake at 16th and Blake in Denver. Twenty years hence he was to be named to the Denver Social Register, the first of his race to be so honored. His Cheyenne property, located only a block from the railroad station, was a luxury hotel, the leading one in town, and also a principal watering hole--a rather plain, three-storey brick cube that occupied fully half its block, with bow-headed windows set in threes, an overhanging Italianate cornice all around, and iron cresting atop the front and side marquees that sheltered the otherwise unspectacular entrances. From the outside, except for the little cupola above the front corner, it looked rather like a bank or other office building. Inside was a different story. "Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. George, have Mrs. Standish's luggage seen to," he ordered his desk clerk.

Barely a dozen years since the first tents were pitched on its site, Cheyenne had long since put behind it the reputation of being a tent city. A series of disastrous fires in 1874, by destroying much property, had encouraged a massive rebuilding program that had seen many business buildings of one and more storeys reincarnated in brick. Rapid transportation via the railroad had quickly transformed it into a sophisticated city rivaling Denver, indeed in some ways more modern and sophisticated: the Union Pacific, one of the most heavily traversed lines in the country, passed through it, bringing some of the best shows of the times, and also provided direct access to the East, thereby enabling the place to receive the latest styles in furniture, the most recently published magazines and newspapers, and the most fashionable apparel from eastern salons; the cultural ideals of older sections of the country were transplanted virtually intact by way of it. By 1875 the population had grown to almost 5000 residents, who enjoyed a social life unique for the West and on a par with many cities of a similar size in the East. In fact, Cheyenne's culture far surpassed many of the Eastern cities. It was the terminal for the Cheyenne & Black Hills Express, better known as the "Deadwood Stage," which ran from Cheyenne to Horse Creek, Fort Laramie, Rawhide Buttes, Custer City, and on into Deadwood. It was also the nexus for the whole northern-range cattle business, a social center, shipping point, and the mingling place for "Oregon red" cattle coming out of the Northwest and longhorns up from Texas. Officers from nearby Fort D. A. Russell, many from good families, added their own kind of tone.

Round-capped bellboys scurried to gather up Maude Standish's French leather valises, waiting piled on the station barrow. Ford took the brass-tagged key to Suite Two from the clerk, offered his arm to his newly-arrived guest, and they started up the twelve-foot-wide, plush-carpeted stairs while the luggage was swiftly conveyed to the service elevator with its metalwork gate. No one paid much attention to the woman who had been seated in one of the deep, comfortable, leather- and red-plush-upholstered chairs scattered around the lobby, which was really a huge parlor, with its giant ornamental chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling, smaller ones elsewhere, marble-topped tables, hand-painted milk-white lampshades, heavy golden draperies, fine Oriental carpets, gilt scrollwork, polished spittoons, and handmade wallpaper imported from France. No one, that is, except the man she had been conferring with, a lanky, thin-faced specimen in his thirties, with thick dark curls and a beard to match, who despite his neat corduroy suit was clearly a cattleman cleaned up and in from the range; his boots--grass-green leather with yellow dragons stitched in eight rows of thread--and forty-dollar gray Stetson with its concha-studded leather band, his blue satin shirt and the polka-dot bandanna knotted like a tie under its collar, made that obvious.

The woman was also in her thirties, with reddish hair and the blood-brown eyes that often go with it, fashionably dressed in a straight-skirted gown of soft-pink wool with a plaid overskirt bunched up low on the hips in back to form a bustle, box-pleated hem, and a plum velvet jacket, very fitted, trimmed with gray fur and tassels. Her hair was dressed in a chignon down the back of her neck to give the correct rearward focus, with a purple satin hat from Paris perched above her brow, decorated with a matching bow and a shaded purple and pink plume. Plum gloves rested on her lap, and she wore an amethyst and pearl breastpin, earrings with pendant pear-shaped diamonds, and a tiny silver chain around her throat with a locket.

"Somebody you know, Miz Kane?" the man asked quietly, his light salty upcountry drawl hushed in deference to her ill-concealed fascination with the older blonde woman now sweeping up the stairs on Barney Ford's arm, wearing a trim, almost severe brown travelling suit and a brown hat with brown ribbon strings, trimmed with white lace and pink and white flowers. Only her little pearl-and-turquoise earrings, the Oreide hunting-case watch pinned at her waist, the emerald brooch that matched her eyes and her green French kid gloves relieved the monochrome look.

"We've never exactly met," Miranda Kane replied, not taking her eyes off the pair until they had ascended out of sight, "but I know her, yes. That's the woman I told you about, the one who ruined my father, the one I hired the Pinkertons to look into after Owen died."

"Well, hush my mouth," the man murmured in awe. "What do you reckon the odds are on that? Her and you endin' up in the same hotel after all this time when even them Pinks couldn't get a handle on where she was at." He slanted a look at the vanishing duo, then back to his employer. "What are you figurin' to do now?"

Miranda's hand went to her locket and her fingers fondled it a moment as she considered the question. "She's in Suite Two," she mused. "Do you think you could get into it, Cole?"

He boggled an instant. "Miz Kane, there's plenty I'll do for you, but I ain't no woman-killer. I ain't lookin' to get myself lynched or worse."

"I don't intend for you to kill her," Miranda assured him evenly. "That would be much too easy after what she did to my family and me. I've waited twenty years for this, and I'm not going to blow it all in one gunshot. I need to find out about her, what she's doing here, where she's vulnerable. What I want you to do is wait till she goes out and then get into her room and search it. See if you can find papers, letters, anything that would give me an idea of her life and interests, whether she has family--where I can put pressure on her. And be careful. I don't want her coming back to a place that's been obviously ransacked. I don't want her knowing anyone has their eyes on her till it's much too late for her to wiggle off the hook. That's the way she worked my father, and that's the way I intend to work her."

Cole Newbolt gave this a moment's thought, then nodded. "I can do that. The door locks here ain't so cheap as the ones in most hotels, but I reckon I can beat 'em."

"Good. Bring me what you find and I'll decide where to go from there."


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