Something caused men to stare at Nealie Bent, although just what it was that made them do so wasn’t clear. Her body was more angles than curves, and her face, too, had all those sharp planes, far too many to be pretty. She was too tall to suit, and with her long legs, she took strides that were more like a man’s than the mincing steps of a young girl. The dress she wore, one of only two she owned, was faded yellow calico, threadbare at the wrists and neck and of the wrong color to compliment her pale skin. Her second dress was no better.
Still, men turned to look at Nealie Bent, for there was no question that the tall, thin girl was striking, or at least peculiar-looking, with her eyes the color of the palest blue columbines in the spring, her hair such a pale red that it was almost the hue of pink quartz, and her face as freckled as a turkey egg. It could have been her youth that drew their attention. After all, Georgetown itself was still young, and youth was highly prized. Most of the young women there were already old, worn out from the work a mining town demanded of them, and from child-bearing. The Alvarado Cemetery was full of babies, with here and there a mother buried beside her newborn in that forlorn spot. Like all the mountain towns, Georgetown was a hard place, and folks there had a saying: Any cat with a tail is a stranger.
The same might be said in a slightly different way for a young woman, because any female with youth, such as Nealie, was new in Georgetown. But she would age quick enough. Still, for now–and for a few years hence, perhaps—the girl’s youthfulness matched the spirit of the town, a place that was mightily attractive to those seeking to make their fortunes.
If it wasn’t Nealie’s youth that drew glances, then it might have been her air of innocence, and innocence was in even shorter supply in Georgetown than youth. But in that, the girl’s appearance was a sham, for Nealie’s short life had been a hard one. Though she knew more about the dark side of life than most her age, there was not even the hint of those hardships on Nealie Bent, and she appeared as fresh and guileless as a newborn.
So no one could put a finger on exactly what it was that made men take another look at Nealie, not that anyone in that town bothered to analyze. But no one doubted that they turned to stare at her as she passed them on the broad board sidewalk or paused in her rounds of shopping to peer into store windows at the delectable items she could only dream about buying.
Will Spaulding was no different from the rest of the men in his admiration. He’d seen the girl as she filled her basket from the bins of apples and onions and potatoes. And now, as Nealie stood at the counter of the Kaiser Mercantile store, talking quietly with Mr. Kaiser, Will measured her with his eyes. She was five feet eight inches, only two inches shorter than he was. Will’s eyes wandered over Nealie, taking in her slender build under the shabby dress, until he became aware that Mr. Kaiser was watching him and clearing his throat.
“I said, ‘What can I do for you, young man?’” the storekeeper repeated. The girl had placed her purchases in her basket and was turning to go, not sending so much as a glance at the man standing next to her.
Will cleared his throat, but he didn’t speak immediately. Instead, he stared at the girl as she left the store and walked past the plate-glass window, leaving behind her soapy scent and the tinkling of the bell that announced customers. “Who is she?” he asked, as if he had the right to know.
“Oh, that’s Nealie Bent,” the older man replied, a look of bemused tolerance on his face. “You’re not the first to ask. Did you come in for something or just to stare at the ladies?”
Without answering, Will turned away from the door and looked at the shopkeeper. He removed a list from his pocket, laying it on the counter and smoothing it with his hand. “I’m working up at the Rose of Sharon, and I’ll be needing these things.” He turned the list so that Mr. Kaiser could read it.
“We take cash,” Mr. Kaiser said, which wasn’t exactly true. He extended credit to those in town who needed it, as well as to good customers such as Nealie’s employer, but he did not extend the courtesy to strangers.
“I’ll pay it.” Will’s voice sounded as if he was not used to his credit being questioned. The older man moved his finger down the list, tapping a broken nail beside each item as he pronounced it out loud: “Three pair work pants, three work shirts, cap, boots, jacket, gloves, candlesticks, candles.” He droned on, and when he was finished, he said, “Yep, you work at a mine, all right. You a trammer?”
“Engineer. For the summer.”
The young man’s voice carried the slightest bit of authority as he corrected the misimpression, and Mr. Kaiser looked up and squinted at him, taking in the cut of his clothes, which made it obvious that Will was too fashionably dressed to be an ordinary miner. “You somebody’s son?”he asked.
Will appeared taken aback at the impertinence, but he replied pleasantly enough, “Grandson. I’m William Spaulding. My grandfather’s Theodore Spaulding. He owns half of the Sharon.”
“Owns mines up in Leadville and Summit County, too,” Mr. Kaiser added. Like everyone in the mountain towns, the shopkeeper was caught up in the mining fever and was as sure of the names of prominent investors as he was of those of his own customers. And well he might be, because outside capital was the lifeblood of the mining industry. Without development money, the gold and silver deposits were all but useless. Theodore Spaulding was not only a man of wealth but one respected in mining circles for his understanding of ore bodies and extraction methods. That did not make his grandson anything more than a trifler, however. “So you thought you’d see what goes on underground, did you?”
“I’ve already seen what’s underground. I have an engineering degree from Cornell, so I know about mining, you see, at least theoretically. The old man thought I ought to get some practical experience for the summer. I’ve only just arrived.”
“You’ll get it.” Now that he seemed satisfied about his customer’s identity, Mr. Kaiser returned to the list. “I reckon we got everything you need.” He moved around behind the counter, taking down boxes and holding out shirts and pants for sizes. He told Will to try on the heavy leather cap, then nodded, because the fit was right. Then he handed the young man two pairs of boots and told him to see which pair suited. Will sat down on a kitchen chair propped against the cold pot-bellied stove and removed his fine shoes. He clumped about on the floor in the stiff boots, and settled on one pair. Then he set his shoes on the counter and said that with all the mud on the streets, he might as well keep the boots on.
“Socks. You’ll need plenty of them, because the Sharon floods, and you don’t want to get your feet wet. Worst thing there is, wet feet in a mine. It’ll give you pneumonia.” Mr. Kaiser placed four pairs on top of the pile of clothing. He checked the list again, then pulled a dark blue bandana from a drawer and set it on top. “Present,” he said.
“Splendid! It will look grand.”
“It’s not for looks, Mr. Spaulding. You’ll need the handkerchief to wipe your face when it’s slashed with muck and cover your mouth and nose after a dynamite blast so’s you won’t get the miner’s puff.”
“Then I thank you, sir.”
Mr. Kaiser licked the tip of the lead pencil he kept behind his ear and wrote the charge next to each item on the list, totaled the amount, and turned the paper toward Will, who pulled the money out of his pocket.
“There’s one other thing I’m needing,” the young man said, as he watched Mr. Kaiser wrap the purchases in brown paper and tie the bundle with string. “A boarding house. I’m staying at the Hotel de Paris until my cottage is ready. Once I move in, I’ll need a place to eat, because I don’t fancy cooking for myself. Nor do I want to dress up every night for supper at the hotel.”
“Georgetown’s got a plenty of eateries.”
“Somewhere clean where the food is good.”
“That narrows it some.” Kaiser thought a minute. “You might try the Grubstake up on the hill. The bosses prefer it, since it’s a good bit tonier than the others. Ma Judson’s place is up on Main. She sets a good table. Then there’s Lydia Travers’ house on Rose Street. If I was you’d, I’d board with Mrs. Travers—Lidie, she’s called.”
“She’s the best cook?”
“I didn’t say that.”
” Fact is, when it comes to cooking, Mrs. Travers’s second to Ma Judson and not much better than the Grubstake.”
“Not so’s you’d notice.”
“Then why should I take my meals there?”
Mr. Kaiser studied the young man a minute and chuckled. “That’s where Nealie Bent works.”
Will reddened, and the shopkeeper added, “You wouldn’t be the first to pick Mrs. Travers’s place because of Nealie. But I ought to tell you she’s all but bespoke for by Charlie Dumas. He’d marry her in a minute if she’d have him.”
Will took his bundle and started for the door, ignoring Mr. Kaiser’s last words.
“Best you take no notice of her, Mr. Spaulding,” Mr. Kaiser called after him. “It’s certain she took none of you.”