Stillwater Springs, Montana December 20, 1910
The interior of Willand's Mercantile, redolent of saddle leather and wood smoke, seemed to recede as Juliana Mitchell stood at the counter, holding her breath. The letter had finally arrived.
The letter Juliana had waited for, prayed for, repeatedly inquired after—at considerable cost to her pride— and, paradoxically, dreaded.
Her heart hitched painfully as she accepted the envelope from the storekeeper's outstretched hand; the handwriting, a slanted scrawl penned in black ink, was definitely her brother Clay's. The postmark read Denver.
In the distance, the snow-muffled shrill of a train whistle announced the imminent arrival of the four o'clock from Missoula, which passed through town only once a week, bound for points south.
Juliana was keenly aware of the four children still in her charge, waiting just inside the door of a place where they knew they were patently unwelcome. She turned away from the counter—and the storekeeper's disapproving gaze—to fumble with the circle of red wax bearing Clay's imposing seal.
Please, God, she prayed silently. Please.
After drawing a deep breath and releasing it slowly, Juliana bit her lower lip, took out the single sheet folded inside.
Her heart, heretofore wedged into her throat, plummeted to the soles of her practical shoes. Her vision blurred.
Her brother hadn't enclosed the desperately needed funds she'd asked for—money that was rightfully her own, a part of the legacy her grandmother had left her. She could not purchase train tickets for herself and her charges, and the Indian School, their home and hers for the past two years, was no longer government property. The small but sturdy building had been sold to a neighboring farmer, and he planned to stable cows inside it.
Now the plank floor seemed to buckle slightly under Juliana's feet. The heat from the potbellied stove in the center of the store, so welcome only a few minutes before when she and the children had come in out of the blustery cold, all of them dappled with fat flakes of snow, threatened to smother Juliana now.
The little bell over the door jingled, indicating the arrival of another customer, but Juliana did not look up from the page in her hand. The words swam before her, making no more sense to her fitful mind than ancient Hebrew would have done.
A brief, frenzied hope stirred within Juliana. Perhaps all was not lost, perhaps Clay, not trusting the postal service, had wired the money she needed. It might be waiting for her, at that very moment, just down the street at the telegraph office.
Her eyes stung with the swift and sobering realization that she was grasping at straws. She blinked and forced herself to read what her older brother and legal guardian had written.
My Dear Sister,
I trust this letter will find you well.
Nora, the children and I are all in robust health. Your niece and nephew constantly inquire as to your whereabouts, as do certain other parties.
I regret that I cannot in good conscience remit the funds you have requested, for reasons that should be obvious to you….
Juliana crumpled the sheet of expensive vellum, nearly ill with disappointment and the helpless frustration that generally resulted from any dealings with her brother, direct or indirect.
"Are you all right, miss?" a male voice asked, strong and quiet.
Startled, Juliana looked up, saw a tall man standing directly in front of her. His eyes and hair were dark, the round brim of his hat and the shoulders of his long coat dusted with snow.
Waiting politely for her answer, he took off his hat. Hung it from the post of a wooden chair, smiled.
"I'm Lincoln Creed," he said, gruffly kind, pulling off a leather glove before extending his hand.
Juliana hesitated, offered her own hand in return. She knew the name, of course—the Creeds owned the largest cattle ranch in that part of the state, and the Stillwater Springs Courier, too. Although Juliana had had encounters with Weston, the brother who ran the newspaper, and briefly met the Widow Creed, the matriarch of the family, she'd never crossed paths with Lincoln.
"Juliana Mitchell," she said, with the proper balance of reticence and politeness. She'd been gently raised, after all. A hundred years ago—a thousand—she'd called one of the finest mansions in Denver home. She'd worn imported silks and velvets and fashionable hats, ridden in carriages with liveried drivers and even footmen.
Remembering made her faintly ashamed.
All that, of course, had been before her fall from social grace.
Before Clay, as administrator of their grandmother's estate, had all but disinherited her.
Mr. Creed dropped his gaze to the letter. "Bad news?" he asked, with an unsettling note of discernment. He might have had Indian blood himself, with his high cheekbones and raven-black hair.
The train whistle gave another triumphant squeal. It had pulled into the rickety little depot at the edge of town, right on schedule. Passengers would alight, others would board. Mail and freight would be loaded and unloaded. And then the engine would chug out of the station, the line of cars rattling behind it.
A full week would pass before another train came through.
In the meantime, Juliana and the children would have no choice but to throw themselves upon the uncertain mercies of the townspeople. In a larger community, she might have turned to a church for assistance, but there weren't any in Stillwater Springs. The faithful met sporadically, in the one-room schoolhouse where only white students were allowed when the circuit preacher came through.
Juliana swallowed, wanting to cry, and determined that she wouldn't. "I'm afraid it is bad news," she admitted in belated answer to Mr. Creed's question.
He took a gentle hold on her elbow, escorted her to one of the empty wooden chairs over by the potbellied stove. Sat her down. "Did somebody die?" he asked.
Numb with distraction, Juliana shook her head.
What in the world was she going to do now? Without money, she could not purchase train tickets for herself and the children, or even arrange for temporary lodgings of some sort.
Mr. Creed inclined his head toward the children lined up in front of the display window, with its spindly but glittering Christmas tree. They'd turned their backs now, to look at the decorations and the elaborate toys tucked into the branches and arranged attractively underneath.
"I guess you must be the teacher from out at the Indian School," he said.
Mr. Willand, the mercantile's proprietor, interrupted with a harrumph sound.
Juliana ached as she watched the children. The storekeeper was keeping a close eye on them, too. Like so many people, he reasoned that simply because they were Indians, they were sure to steal, afforded the slightest opportunity. "Yes," she replied, practiced at ignoring such attitudes, if not resigned to them. "Or, at least, I was. The school is closed now."
Lincoln Creed nodded after skewering Mr. Willand with a glare. "I was sorry to hear it," he told her.
"No letters came since you were in here last week, Lincoln," Willand broke in, with some satisfaction. The very atmosphere of that store, overheated and close, seemed to bristle with mutual dislike. "Reckon you can wait around and see if there were any on today's train, but my guess is you wasted your money, putting all those advertisements in all them newspapers."
"Everyone is sorry, Mr. Creed," Juliana said quietly. "But no one seems inclined to help."
Momentarily distracted by Mr. Willand's remark, Lincoln didn't respond immediately. When he did, his voice was nearly drowned out by the scream of the train whistle.
Juliana stood up, remembered anew that her situation was hopeless, and sat down again, hard, all the strength gone from her knees. Perhaps she'd used it up, walking the two miles into town from the school, with every one of her worldly possessions tucked into a single worn-out satchel. Each of the children had carried a small bundle, too, leaving them on the sidewalk outside the door of the mercantile with Juliana's bag.
"There's a storm coming, Miss—er—Mitchell," Lincoln Creed said. "It's cold and getting colder, and it'll be dark soon. I didn't see a rig outside, so I figure you must have walked to town. I've got my team and buckboard outside, and I'd be glad to give you and those kids a ride to wherever you're headed."
Tears welled in Juliana's eyes, shaming her, and her throat tightened painfully. Wherever she was headed? Nowhere was where she was headed.
Stillwater Springs had a hotel and several boarding houses, but even if she'd had the wherewithal to pay for a room and meals, most likely none of them would have accepted the children, anyway.
They'd hurried so, trying to get to Stillwater Springs before the train left, Juliana desperately counting on the funds from Clay even against her better judgment, but there had been delays. Little Daisy falling and skinning one knee, a huge band of sheep crossing the road and blocking their way, the limp that plagued twelve-year-old Theresa, with her twisted foot.
Lincoln broke into her thoughts. "Miss Mitchell?" he prompted.
Mr. Willand slammed something down hard on the counter, causing Juliana to start. "Don't you touch none of that merchandise!" he shouted, and Joseph, the eldest of Juliana's pupils at fourteen, pulled his hand back from the display window. "Damn thievin' Injuns—"
Poor Joseph looked crestfallen. Theresa, his sister, trembled, while the two littlest children, Billy-Moses, who was four, and Daisy, three, rushed to Juliana and clung to her skirts in fear.
"The boy wasn't doing any harm, Fred," Lincoln told the storekeeper evenly, rising slowly out of his chair. "No need to raise your voice, or accuse him, either."
Mr. Willand reddened. "You have a grocery order?" he asked, glowering at Lincoln Creed.
"Just came by to see if I had mail," Lincoln said, with a shake of his head. "Couldn't get here before now, what with the hard weather coming on." He paused, turned to Juliana. "Best we get you to wherever it is you're going," he said.
"We don't have anyplace to go, mister," Joseph said, still standing near the display window, but careful to keep his hands visible at his sides. Since he rarely spoke, especially to strangers, Juliana was startled.
And as desperate as she was, the words chafed her pride.
Lincoln frowned, obviously confused. "What?"
"They might take us in over at the Diamond Buckle Saloon," Theresa said, lifting her chin. "If we work for our keep."