Chapter OneWhitneyville, Idaho TerritoryApril 15, 1878
The keening whine of the train whistle deepened Emma Chalmers' despair at the ending of Anna Karenina,
and she sniffled as she slammed the book closed. She then hastily dried her eyes with a wadded handkerchief trimmed in blue tatting and smoothed the skirts of her prim brown sateen dress.
Grabbing up a new supply of posters she'd just had printed over at the newspaper office, Emma dashed for the door. The Whitneyville Lending Library was empty, and she didn't bother to lock up, since no one she knew would have stooped so low as to steal a book, and she'd collected only two cents in fines.
She saw a slim figure reflected back to her as she passed the spotless windows of the general store. Emma quickened her steps, as it had been her experience that some of the conductors and stagecoach drivers would evade her if given the opportunity.
As she passed the Yellow Belly Saloon, with its peeling paint and sagging porch, the smells of whiskey and sawdust and beer and sweat came out to wrap themselves around her like an insidious vine. Emma broke into a ladylike sprint, clutching her posters to her shapely bosom with one hand and keeping her skirts out of the dirt and tobacco juice on the sidewalk with the other. Her bright hair, pulled into a single thick plait, swung as she ran.
The railroad yard was crowded with arriving and departing passengers. Most were human, but there were some pigs and horses and an occasional crate of squawking chickens.
Emma picked her way through the throng as daintily as she could, and with a practiced eye sought out the conductor. A well-fed man with a ruddy complexion and thick white hair, he was half-hidden behind a shipment of canned meats bound for the general store.
After clearing her throat, a sound barely discernible in the din, Emma approached. "Good afternoon, Mr. Lathrop," she said politely.
"Miss Emma," Mr. Lathrop answered with a nod of his bushy head. His blue eyes revealed both kindness and apprehension. "I'm afraid there's no news today. It just seems like nobody in this whole part of the country knows anything about your sisters."
Even though she'd expected this answer -- after all, she'd gotten virtually the same one every week for nearly thirteen years -- Emma was stricken, for a moment, with the purest of sorrow. "If -- if you would just pass these bills out, as you go along -- "
Mr. Lathrop accepted the stack of crisply printed placards and held one up, with great ceremony, for his pensive perusal. It read:
REWARD! $500 CASH!
For any information leading
to the location of MISS CAROLINE CHALMERS,
dark of hair and eyes, or
MISS LILY CHALMERS, fair, and having brown eyes.
Please contact MISS EMMA CHALMERS
In care of the Whitneyville Lending Library
Whitneyville, Idaho Territory
"Perhaps I should have said 'thank you'," Emma fretted, bending around Mr. Lathrop's ample shoulder to read the bold print.
The conductor smiled gently. "I figure it's plain enough that you'd be grateful for any help, Miss Emma."
She sighed. "Sometimes it just seems hopeless. Sort of like the ending of Anna Karenina.
Have you read that book, Mr. Lathrop?"
He looked bewildered. "Not so as I remember, Miss Emma. A man doesn't get much chance to read when he spends his days on the rails."
Emma nodded soberly as she handed over the rest of the posters. "I suppose not. The noise would be powerfully distracting, I should think."
It was Mr. Lathrop's solemn duty to see that pigs and people found their proper places aboard the train. Therefore, he left Emma, her posters in his arms, after favoring her with a little tip of his hat. Every Christmas, Emma remembered him with a pair of knitted socks and a box of walnut fudge, and she wondered now if that was proper recompense for a man who had tried so steadfastly to be helpful.
Pausing for just a moment, Emma scanned the arriving and departing passengers, for she'd never stopped hoping to find one of her sisters among them. Walking alongside the track, she nearly collided with a ramp extending from one of the boxcars.
Not to mention the man and horse coming down
Emma gave a startled gasp and leaped backwards, while the man smiled at her from the saddle and touched the brim of his battered hat. He looked like a seedy saddlebum, with no gentle qualities to recommend him, and yet Emma felt a not unpleasant tug in the pit of her stomach as she returned his regard.
"You ought to look where you're going," she said crisply.
Controlling his mount with barely perceptible movements of his gloved hands, the stranger urged the nervous horse into the dirt and cinders at the side of the tracks. Apparently, he found the fact that Emma had taken umbrage very amusing, because he was still grinning, his teeth wickedly white against a sun-browned, beard-stubbled face.
He gave a mocking bow from the waist. "My apologies, your ladyship," he said. Then he let out a low hoot of laughter and rode off.
Emma smoothed her hair, then sighed as she lifted her skirts and started back the way she'd come. It seemed to her that no one bothered to cultivate good manners any longer.
Because something about the man on the horse had disturbed her, Emma forcibly shifted her mind to the search for her sisters. Even if she came face to face with Lily or Caroline, she thought in despair, she might not recognize them. People could change so much in thirteen years. They would be grown women now.
Emma did not come out of her reverie until she was passing the First Territorial Bank. Through the window, she spotted Fulton Whitney, who made no secret of the fact that he aspired to be her husband. He was tall and blond and he looked very handsome in his gray pin-striped trousers, with a vest over his white linen shirt, and there was a gentlemanly garter on his sleeve.
He smiled distractedly at Emma's wave, and she went on walking, knowing Fulton would be displeased if she slipped inside the bank to speak to him. Business was business, he always said, and Emma belonged to another part of his life.
Emma frowned as she continued along the sidewalk. Sometimes Fulton made her feel like a straw hat stuck away on a wardrobe shelf for the winter, and it worried her that her pulse never quickened when she looked at him.
Lifting her skirts again, Emma looked both ways and then crossed the road, wishing to avoid further contact with the Yellow Belly Saloon. It was so much pleasanter to look at the shining blue waters of Crystal Lake, hardly more than a stone's throw from the main street of town.
Fulton firmly believed that Whitneyville would someday be a thriving resort city because of that enormous and beautiful lake, and he'd invested his money accordingly. Chloe had chosen the town for the same reason.
Cheery music flowed from the Stardust Saloon, and Emma marked the spritely beat with small movements of her head while she hurried on to the library. She found the place empty, as usual, and was just putting Anna Karenina
back on the shelf when a thunderous explosion rocked the walls and rattled the windows in their frames.
Emma's heart did a startled double beat as she hurried to the front door to look out, fully expecting to see the Lord Himself riding on a cloud above, surrounded by His angels. The world had ended, and it only remained to be seen whether she would be taken to heaven or left behind to swim in a lake of fire.
But there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and there was certainly no sign of the Lord. Emma was quite relieved, for there were those who said she was as much a sinner as Chloe and there might not have been space for her in Glory.
People were running past her in the street, and shouts of excitement rose all around. The fire bell was clanging, and Emma caught the acrid scent of smoke.
She hadn't moved more than three or four steps when she realized that the Yellow Belly Saloon was nearly in ruins. Its front had completely disappeared, showing the men inside draped over tables like rag dolls forgotten in a playhouse. And there was a fire, picking up momentum with every passing second.
For all the clanging clamor of the bell, Emma could see no sign of the fire wagon, with its long hoses and special pump. She pressed closer to watch as townsmen dragged the injured out into the crowded street.
"Get back!" shouted Doc Waverly, who had never been known for his patient nature. "Get back, damn it, and give these poor bastards some air!"
Emma's cheeks heated at the doctor's language, but she remained where she was. It was as though she were helping somehow, just by being there.
Although she stood on tiptoe, she couldn't get a good look at any of the wounded men, but she did see Chloe and her girls flowing across the street from the Stardust Saloon in a river of brightly colored silks and satins.
"What the hell happened here, Doc?" Ethan Peters, the editor of the Whitneyville Orator,
wanted to know.
"I've got no idea," answered the bristly old man who had been mending broken limbs and removing bullets and infected toenails in Whitneyville almost since the day of its founding, "and don't get in our way. When somebody knows the story, we'll damned well tell you about it!"
Emma bit her lip briefly as she watched some of the men carrying the wounded, under Doc Waverly's supervision, into the Stardust Saloon. She got as close as she could, but even now, at the age of twenty, Emma didn't dare defy Chloe's standing order that she never set foot inside the place.
She waited on the sidewalk until all the excitement had died down, until the smoldering remains of the Yellow Belly Saloon were drenched in water pumped from the lake, and then she went slowly back to the library.
Emma stayed there until closing time, cataloging books and consuming a page or two of Littl...