Sneak Peak of FORTUNE’S FLAME

Chapter 1

RECEIVED at

DST.WY 85 -2533 Telex                  13 May 1865

A. MS Dorsey

MONEY RCVD -(STOP)- PRICE OF SUPPLIES HAVE INCREASED -(STOP)- FINANCIER IN RED BUTTE UNKNOWN -(STOP)- MTG WITH RR MEN 8 MAY -(STOP)- IF YOU WISH TO PROCEED REPLY -(STOP)- 

The words were a knife to my guts, and it must’ve shown on my face because Auggie leaned in, the smell of wood shavings and sweat hard on him, and tried to read the telegram. 

“It’s bad, ain’t it?” 

I hid the paper. “No more than I expected.” 

“Your man think Dorsey stands a chance?” 

I sniffed and straightened my shoulders. Any other telegraph office in any other city east of the Mississippi would be busy this time of day, the incessant clicking of the telegraph machine enough to grate on anyone’s nerves. But Dorsey’s was nearly silent. Bertrand, the telegraph operator I recruited from Boston, sat behind the counter, pretending to read a newspaper. 

“I think we have as much chance as any other stopover along the trail,” I said, a rebuttal offered so frequently, Auggie mouthed the words along with me, grinning in the stupid way he does. 

I gathered my skirts and marched from the office. Rain had muddied the streets. The deep ruts cut by the local wagons and carriages would have to be patched over before long. The migrants in their schooners would be arriving soon to fill our town with life. I could hardly stand the wait. Since my father’s death five years ago, our town had nearly dried up. Our only saving grace were the migrants who dared the northern passes to reach Utah and Montana before winter sprung its deadly trap again.

A dozen false fronts faced each other across the street, six on each side. Dorsey’s bread and butter, run mostly by families my grandfather had personally recruited when he founded Dorsey thirty years ago as a stopover along the Oregon Trail. Behind the buildings, houses dotted the landscape as if they’d been dropped from the sky. 

Take any piece of land you’d like, my grandfather had told his recruits with a grin made silly by the size and breadth of his ears. And so they had. Claiming land as fast as they could erect fence posts and raise houses. It made for a haphazard sight and would be hell to rein in when I convinced the railroad to come through Dorsey. 

“What’re you going to do now?” Auggie had caught up. He picked his teeth with a splinter of wood. Auggie always had a splinter of wood on his person somewhere. A pocket, behind his ear, stuck in the brim of his hat. 

“Don’t you have work to attend to?” 

“Jed’s got it covered,” he said. “At least until the schooners arrive.”

Auggie was a wheelwright and not a very good one. Rickets as a child left him bow-legged and weak. After he showed up in a caravan heading west, so sick he could barely stand, Jed’s wife nursed him back to health. Jed, no doubt thanks to the cajoling of his wife, took pity on him and gave him an apprenticeship. That was three years ago, and Auggie still hadn’t mastered the technique. 

“Unless you have a claim on a vein of gold I don’t know about,” I said, annoyed, “would you please leave me be? You’re as irritating as a pebble in a shoe.”

Auggie’s grin widened but he took a step back. “Yes, ma’am.” He tipped his hat. “I’ll leave you to your business.” 

“If you didn’t show so much interest in him, he wouldn’t hang on you like he does.” Anna Kalbrunner and her girls were high-stepping across the street, their skirts held a little higher than was proper. A couple of gamblers hooted. A gaggle of schoolboys turned bright red, jostled one another, and broke apart, running toward the schoolhouse before they were caught looking.

“You’re finished, then?”

Anna insisted her girls get weekly checkups, which meant every Tuesday I had to vacate the house I shared with Mother so she could attend to the whores’ various complaints.

“They going to bring the railroad through?” Anna asked.

“Remains to be seen,” I said, tucking the telegram away. “But it’s getting closer all the time.”

Anna watched the girls tromp and flirt their way to her establishment, which had stood next to the Eli Saloon since Dorsey’s founding. Anna took it over when the last madam, Miss Sarah, succumbed to consumption. So far she’d proven smart enough to run a clean business but not smart enough to move on when prospects darkened. 

Despite the ill repute, Anna’s House brought in a lot of money, and you can be sure we charged the business its fair share of fees and licenses to keep running. Which was the one of the reasons I’d allowed it to continue during our town’s bid for the railroad. That, and the fines Sheriff Fish assessed to the whores who plied their wares on the streets. 

“I can count on the money, then?” Anna said. “From the railroad coming through?”

“Of course,” I lied. Best to keep up appearances until word was official. 

“You give me your word?”

I hesitated. Papa had instilled in me a proper sense of honor, and breaking your word, even to a whore, was unacceptable. 

Anna’s face darkened. “It’s not a sure thing, is it, Clara?”

“Yes, of course it is.” I faked a smile. “I’ve had some bad news, is all.”

“Clarence Dodge, in Washington?” 

“He says we need more money. He says there’s a financier in Red Butte offering three times what we put up.”

Anna’s painted brows rose. “Three times?”

“Dodge said we can still get the railroad through Dorsey, but we need to be more . . . persuasive.”

Anna hesitated. “Here.” She dug into her bag and pulled out a fold of bills. “Take this. It’s all I have.”

My heart lightened at the sight. “I can’t, Anna. It’s too much.”

“I insist.” She forced the money into my hand. “I gave your mother more for the exams. Surely she can spare some for the cause?”

I stiffened. Not a chance.

“Thank you, Anna.”

“I’ll have it returned to me,” she said with a tight-lipped smile. “One way or another.”

I mirrored her smile but bristled at the veiled threat. 

The money still wouldn’t be enough.

After Anna disappeared into her brothel, I carried on. I said hello to Mr. Huntington, the street cleaner. Dorsey was one of the few towns with such employment, but I knew if we were going to win the route, we had to impress the rail men when they came through, and for once the other citizens had agreed. Mr. Huntington was a dull old man, but he did the job without complaint. 

When I stepped inside Dorsey’s Outfitters, the smell of onions and leather and iron greeted me. Paul would be in the back, busy inventorying the supplies delivered yesterday in anticipation of the migrants’ return. I went behind the counter and glanced through the receipts from the last hours of business yesterday. I opened the till and took out ten dollars. I’d pay it back once the railroad came through. And besides, it was my money, wasn’t it? 

Dorsey’s Outfitters had been my grandfather’s store and Dorsey’s first established business. We made a fair living, but times had been tough with the building of VanArc’s Trading Post down in Red Butte. Immigrants traveling east recognized VanArc’s name and so set their course to that vile town instead of trekking north twenty miles to Dorsey. 

“Good morning, Clara,” Paul said, stepping from the back room. 

I shoved the money into my pocket. “Paul,” I chirped. “You gave me a fright!”

“Apologies.” I needn’t have worried. The man had his nose pressed so far into an inventory ledger, he would’ve missed a roaring fire. “Davidson shorted us a couple vials of carbolic acid, I’m afraid.”

“No, they didn’t. Mother took them.”

Paul blinked in surprise. “Mrs. Dorsey?”

“She came after supper last night. Today is Tuesday, Paul.”

Paul’s cheeks reddened. He coughed and averted his eyes, sputtering something incoherent. 

To save him further embarrassment, I changed the subject. “I’ll return this afternoon. I’ve got some business to attend to.”

Paul said, “Does this have to do with the railroad?” 

When I didn’t answer, he frowned. 

“Clara, I don’t think I have to tell you you’re fishing a mud puddle hoping for a trout, do I?”

After my father’s murder, and despite only six years’ age difference, Paul thought of himself as a father figure and treated me accordingly. It had caused innumerable fights between us, and yet he persisted. 

“I’ll return this afternoon,” I repeated. “The inventory should be complete by then. I should think.”

###

Mr. George Remberton lived in the only other mansion in Dorsey besides my own. He owned the Remberton Hotel, a three-story brick building my father had helped build. In fact, the only reason my family didn’t own the hotel was because my father enlisted in the army before it was finished, and while he was away my mother handed over the deed to Mr. Remberton. 

Mother claimed that without Papa’s help, she couldn’t manage the hotel and the store at once, but Elizabeth and I always believed it was because my mother had a thing for handsome Mr. Remberton and wished that the wealthy banker from Cleveland would stay.

My father, rest his soul, could never stay mad at Mother. “Your mother is too altruistic for her own good,” he’d joke. 

If he only knew . . .

Mr. Remberton’s butler ushered me into the receiving room. It had large windows that splashed sunlight across the walls. The furniture was imported from London—a luxury we had never been able to afford. Elizabeth and I, despite our jokes regarding Mother’s affections for the wealthy man, had spent many nights giggling over our own fantasies of Mr. Remberton, who was fifteen years our senior and widowed for seven. 

I repinned my hair and smoothed my dress. Mr. Remberton had become a prize heavily sought among the women of Dorsey, though it was assumed that I would be the natural choice if and when he decided to remarry. 

“Miss Dorsey.” Mr. Remberton came into the room. He was a tall, handsome man with dark hair and eyes. He held himself as straight as a steel rod and comported himself with about as much warmth. 

The east was full of men like Mr. Remberton: wealthy, privileged, utterly impersonal. Before my father’s and sister’s deaths, I spent a summer with my aunt in Boston in the hope of procuring such a man. As that summer drew to a close, Mother and I traveled to Denver to join the rest of my family. It was there that Papa testified against Joseph Hogben, the commander of the 21st Cavalry who ordered his men to slaughter two hundred innocent Cheyenne outside Buffer Creek, Colorado. 

And it was there that Hogben, released on bond, tracked my father’s whereabouts and murdered him and Elizabeth before disappearing. 

“The anniversary of your family’s deaths is coming up,” Mr. Remberton said as though reading my thoughts. “Five years has it been?”

“Yes. Although I must confess I haven’t thought much about it.”

“Have you not? I should think a tragedy as that would weigh heavily on a person.”

“Yes, well,” I said, carefully. “Such a weight puts one at risk of drowning.”

“I’d drink to that. Would you care for one, Miss Dorsey?”  

After we were settled on opposing ends of the sofa, tumblers in hand, Mr. Remberton said, “What business has brought you my way this morning?” 

I took a sip of wine. It was richer and more flavorful than the wine we owned. “I’m here on behalf of Dorsey’s Railroad Committee in hopes—”

“I believe I’ve already donated all that I can to the cause.” 

“Yes, of course. But if you’ll hear me out, I think you’ll—”

“Miss Dorsey,” Mr. Remberton interrupted. “While I admire your tenacity in the matter, I assure you, I simply cannot donate any more to the cause.”

“But if the rail passes through,” my voice rose to match his, “you stand to make the most.”

“Yes, I—” He stopped, composed himself. “Be that as it may, circumstances preclude me from giving more than I have already.”

My cheeks flushed with anger. I dug in. “Mr. Remberton, I need not remind you that it will either be you or nameless investors from New York who will grow wealthy as a result of the unification of our country.”

Mr. Remberton held firm. “I’m sorry, Miss Dorsey.”

Bolstered by the wine, I tried a different tack. I settled myself onto the cushion and in so doing, moved myself closer to him. If I won his favors, I would no longer have to beg; his money would be mine to do with as I pleased. “Our families are well positioned to profit—”

“So you have said, Miss Dorsey.” He shifted away from me.

“And you have been widowed so very long, and I—I have yet been able to procure a husband of proper standing. It seems only natural for our two families to join our resources.”

Mr. Remberton’s discomfort was evident in the rising red of his cheeks. “Miss Dorsey, you are a beautiful woman and will no doubt make a fine wife one day, but need I remind you that I am still in mourning.” He indicated his black suit, tie, and vest.

He’d used this on me before, but this time I was ready. I placed a gloved hand on his shoulder, resting it but a moment. “Then you must be very, very lonely.”

The color on his cheeks darkened. 

Before he could speak, I got to my feet. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Remberton.” I left him sputtering.

Let him stew on that for a few days, and no doubt he’d come calling with money—or better yet, a proposal. 

Chapter 2

Although I told Paul I would return to the shop by afternoon, every declination I received from the wary citizens of Dorsey only bolstered my determination to try the next person. And the next. And the next until I’d visited everyone in Dorsey’s three-mile radius. Half gave an additional donation (though it didn’t amount to much), a third asked for a stake in the railroad (something that was not mine to give), and the rest turned me down for reasons that ranged from simply not having enough money to give to fear that the railroad would corrupt Dorsey in ways unforeseen (silly, if you ask me).  

By suppertime, my boots were caked in mud and as heavy on my feet as the dread of returning to a house full of my mother’s perpetual happiness. The Dorsey home started out as a single-room mudbrick abode along the banks of Trapper Creek, smack dab in the middle of Dorsey. But after the success of our store, grandpa sold the shack and built the house that stands today, a hundred yards from its nearest neighbors. Two stories tall with gabled eves and four bedrooms, it’s not as big as the Remberton’s, but because of its size in a newly minted town, it became known as the Dorsey Mansion. 

“Hello, dear,” Mother called, dashing across the hall in pursuit of a small, shirtless boy. “Someone got his clothes all wet,” she sing-songed from the hollow cavity of what our father had hoped would become a library of great renown. 

I hung my jacket and peeled off my boots. The heel of my stocking had torn through. I sighed. 

“Nora, is the darning finished yet?” I called to our housekeeper, but the woman wasn’t within hearing.

“Grab him!” Mother cried as Jonathon smashed into my legs, his laughter ear-shatteringly high-pitched. 

“Where is his mother?” I took a flailing arm across the face as I wrestled for control over the little monster. 

“She’ll be here soon.” Mother slid one tiny arm through the shirt. Before pulling it over the child’s head, she tickled him across the belly, eliciting another ear-splitting squeal of delight.

“We’ll all go deaf if you keep agreeing to watch him.” 

But Mother, as she always did, ignored me. Jonathon, now fully clothed, dashed off again with a whoop. 

“Children bring delight into an otherwise ordinary life,” she said.

“Ordinary?” I regarded her skeptically. 

“Paul was asking about the carbolic acid. He thought Davidson shorted us.”

Mother let loose her hair. It cascaded across her shoulders. She was still pretty, but since Papa’s and Elizabeth’s deaths, she’d aged considerably. Her hair had gone stiff and dry, the lines around her eyes and mouth more pronounced. “You reminded him it was Tuesday, I trust?”

“I wish you’d stop catering to those girls, Mother. The town already thinks you’ve lost your marbles.”

Mother frowned. Ever since the murders, she’d taken up medicine and minding children and pretending everything was fine, life was joyous, love abounded. 

“Don’t start, Clara.”

“My bid was turned down.” It felt good to tell someone the truth, and even if Mother’s transformation grated on me, it at least meant she was always good for a comforting hand. 

She didn’t disappoint. “I’m sorry, pumpkin. I know how much this has meant to you.”

“Mama Dorsey!” Jonathon peeked into the hall. 

Mother smiled and whirled around. “Boo!” 

Jonathon ran away in a storm of laughter. 

“Will you donate some of Papa’s money to the cause?” It was a phrase I’d been saying, in one form or another, the entire day, yet saying it to my mother, the words felt like tar in my mouth. Sticky and forced.

Mother sighed. “Oh, honey, you know I won’t.”

I clenched my jaw. It was an argument we’d had a million times before, but I refused to accept her answer. “Why not? Dorsey will be a ghost town if the rail bypasses us. Don’t you even care about that?”

“Clara, really . . .”

Mother believed Dorsey would become a tool of corporate ambition if the railroad passed through, manipulated, controlled, and consolidated to maximize profits for the creditors, leaving Dorsey little more than a husk of its former self. 

“You pretend to care about Dorsey,” I said, “but you don’t. That doctor—”

“The doctor has nothing to do with this.” Her calmness grated on me. “You know why he’s not here. And before you pass judgment, perhaps you should reflect upon your encounter with Silas VanArc. Because I’d hate to be the one to point this out, dear, but if you hadn’t treated that nice man so abominably, Dorsey might now be the home of VanArc’s esteemed trading post instead of Red Butte.

“Mrs. Dorsey!” Jonathon again.

Mother glanced over her shoulder and back at me. She placed a quick hand on my arm. “No matter what becomes of Dorsey, your father would be proud of you.” She bounced away, more like a schoolgirl than a woman well past the prime of her life. 

Her insufferable happiness! She was like the Sahara Desert in summer, forever bright and full of sunshine. It annoyed me to no end. 

She never used to be that way. When Papa and Elizabeth were alive, she had normal humors. Yet after their deaths, she’d become mired in perpetual happiness that had people questioning her mental state. You don’t lose your husband and child and believe life is more rewarding than ever. 

I wondered if that wasn’t half the reason I had trouble securing the funds I needed to sway the railroad men. 

###

“No word, Miss Dorsey,” Bertrand said without looking up from the paper. 

“I expect not, Bertrand. I’m here to send a couple letters. When is the next delivery expected?”

Bertrand looked up. “I thought you heard?”

“Heard what?”

“The post ain’t stoppin’ here anymore. All our post’s out of Red Butte. Next pickup is Friday.”

I closed my eyes, concentrating on the heavy beat of my heart. When I spoke, my voice was calm, if a little high. “When did that happen?”

“Got the letter last week.” 

“Whose—?” I broke off. It didn’t matter whose idea it was. The point was Red Butte had won something else that should rightfully belong to Dorsey. 

“About those letters . . .”

“Of course, ma’am. Two sheets enough?” 

“Better make it four.”

I could see the question on his lips, but Bertrand was a man of subtlety. It was his best quality, which was precisely why I’d pulled him out of an ether-filled basement in Boston and set him up in the telegraph office in Dorsey. He knew how to keep secrets.

I took the letter paper and allowed Bertrand to carry the pen and ink to one of the writing tables.

Dear Sir, 

My name is Helen Stanley, wife of Herbert Stanley, of Dorsey, Wyoming, and I wish to offer my support of Dorsey as route through which your esteemed railroad might pass. Dorsey is laid out across a flat plain with Tanner Creek passing through, which offers more water than our small but growing town could hope to use. Furthermore, we have many thriving establishments, including two chapels, a hotel, and a dance hall that rivals any in the east. 

I continued in that vein, and when I finished, I folded the paper and addressed it to Clarence Dodge, Washington D.C. I took another sheet of paper and wrote much of the same, changing only the tilt of my pen to give it a more masculine bent, and signed it Ulysses Coleman. Ulysses had passed years ago, but I expected no one in Washington would know that. I again addressed it to Dodge and did the same on the last two letters, borrowing the names of two more deceased citizens. 

“I’ll take these to Red Butte myself,” I said. 

“Very well, Miss Dorsey,” Bertrand said, not at all interested.

I folded the letters and tucked them into my pocket. We’d get the railroad through Dorsey even if it meant a courtship with the devil himself.

fortune's flame cover

I love hearing from you! Comment below!