Mail Order Chloe by Margaret Tanner

Chapter One

Boothby, Colorado mid 1870’s.

“Dead!” Chloe Smith exclaimed. “She can’t be.” Her eyes filled with tears as pain gripped her with cruel fingers. Her friend was dead. It could not be true. The livery stable man must be mistaken. Maybe there were two Rebecca Maynards here in Boothby.

“I’ve traveled over a thousand miles to get here, and now you tell me my friend is dead?”

The elderly livery man glanced at her small, covered wagon and the two ordinary looking horses pulling it, and shook his head sadly. “There’s no mistake. You were lucky to make it this far, if you ask me.”

His tone of voice indicated he didn’t think much of her conveyance, and her most probably. She was dressed in male attire, and wore her hair tied back with a leather thong so it would be easy to shove under her wide brimmed hat, if necessary. She had let her guard down now that she had arrived in Boothby; wanted to weep for the loss of her friend but dared not in case the tears, once they started, would go on forever.

Over the years they had regularly corresponded, and now Rebecca was dead. She had no reason to stay any longer in this town, but where could she go? Traveling back to Virginia was out of the question, as there was nothing left for her there except memories.

“What happened to Rebecca?” She blinked back the threatening tears, resolving to stay strong, no matter what.

The man nervously glanced around. “I reckon she was murdered.”

“Murdered!” She would have collapsed in a heap had the man not grabbed her by the arms and led her over to an old wooden chair.

“Who would murder a schoolteacher?”

He gave her a hard, penetrating look. “She wasn’t no schoolteacher, Miss.”

“What do you mean? Of course, she was, we’ve been exchanging letters for about three years.”

“Rebecca Maynard worked at the Lady’s Garter saloon.”

There was a roaring noise in Chloe’s ears, although she managed to stutter. “She did not. She was…”

“I don’t know what she told you, but she waited tables and, well, took men upstairs.”

All moisture dried up in Chloe’s mouth as sickness curdled her stomach. They had grown up near Richmond, Virginia, poor but respectable, and to think Rebecca had been reduced to… No, she didn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. “I think there has been a mistake.”

“There’s no mistake. Rebecca was shot by a disgruntled customer, so the sheriff says, but I’m not convinced she was. She died out the back of here. I was with her when she died. You must be Chloe Smith. She talked about you quite often.”

“We grew up together; the Maynards took me in when I was orphaned as a child. Were you the only one with her when she died?”

“Yes, she left a message for you, that’s if you are really Chloe Smith. I’ve got a few of her belongings here and some letters. She used to come here to see the horses. She was a sweet gal who had been wronged.”

“I still can’t believe it.”

“With her dying breath, she asked me to give you everything when you arrived.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, then she said something strange.”

“What?”

“Tell Chloe to play our swap game.”

The swap game Chloe remembered from their childhood. They used to change places and pretend to be each other. Not that they ever fooled anyone with such a ploy.

“It’s a real shame because Rebecca told me she was waiting for you to come, then leaving here to start a new life. Probably what got her killed.”

“Why?”

“The saloon owner didn’t want her to leave; she was a star attraction. It’s why she never told anyone she was thinking of going. And it’s why they killed her. Somehow, they must have found out. It’s the only reason I can think of.”

Chloe’s blood turned ice cold in her veins.

“She used to come here whenever she could,” he said. “To pet the horses.”

“Rebecca always loved horses, even as a child, but I can’t believe she would work in a saloon, of all places.”

“If you get hungry enough, you’d work anywhere. She was tricked into coming here. There was no teaching job. It was a ploy by the saloon owner to get girls here,” he said.

“I…I was going to come with her.”

“Lucky you didn’t, or you would have probably ended up at the Lady’s Garter, as well.”

“Call me Chloe, and you are?”

“Doug.”

“I never would…” She pulled herself up. How could she say never when she had not been hungry or homeless? Well, she would have been both hungry and homeless if the Maynards hadn’t taken her in after her parents were murdered by vigilantes during the war.

“Rebecca left a box with me, so I guess it’s yours now. There are letters in it.”

“Letters?”

“Yeah, they were from a man in Colorado.”

“Oh?”

“I didn’t read them,” Doug hurriedly assured her. “I just saw them because they were sent here with your name on them, so no-one would know what she was up to. She kept telling me she had a plan to get away from here and become respectable again. She used your name.”

Chloe gasped. Things must have been really bad. Poor Rebecca.

He glanced around to make sure they were still alone. “This is not a nice town for young women on their own. My advice is to say nothing to no-one about why you’re here, stay the night at the hotel and…”

“I can’t afford a hotel. I spent most of my money getting here. I was hoping to stay with Rebecca.”

“Well, I dunno what you can do.” He scratched his head.

“I can sleep in the wagon, if I had somewhere safe to set up camp.”

“There’s a back entrance to this place and I always lock it at night. At least you’d be safe here.”

“Thank you, I will stay.” It was the best offer she was going to get, and she wasn’t too proud to take it.

“If you can attend to the horses yourself, there won’t be no charge. Rebecca’s visits used to brighten up my day,” he said sadly.

“She was such a sweet person.” Chloe blinked back the tears. “I still can’t believe she’s dead. How about I clean out the stalls to repay your kindness to me and her?”

He hesitated.

“I would feel better about accepting your offer and imposing upon you, if you let me do a few chores.”

“Okay, it would be helpful. The place is getting too much for me, but what else can I do? You drive the wagon in here while I get Rebecca’s box.”

“Thank you, Doug.” She watched him walk away. He was slightly bow-legged, so it was likely he had spent a lot of time in the saddle at some stage in his life.

Maybe she could treat herself to supper in the diner. Then again, maybe not under the circumstances. Strange how she had a bad feeling about this town the moment she got near it. There had been an aura of something. Was it evil? Fingers of dread played up and down her spine.

Luckily, she did have a few supplies left. She didn’t want to light a fire in here and set the place ablaze. Cold beans and water would have to suffice. Better than a bullet in the back, or worse.

She could not believe she had ended up almost destitute like this. Her parents would be rolling around in their graves if they knew. Thankfully, they never would. It was the only grain of comfort she could cling to.