The stagecoach moved along, bumping and rocking as it went. Trees and other green scenery whisked by the window. Views of mountains and open plains were visible from the seat of the coach, vistas familiar to its occupant. Katherine Matthews was coming home. She returned to Cripple Creek, no longer the scared, unsure teenager who had left to further her education so many years ago with hopes and dreams of a new life in a new place. No, she had matured into a confident young woman who had grown in stature and in beauty. Her hair was no longer the mousy color she always hated, for it had deepened into the same beautiful chestnut brown she had always admired in her mother’s appearance. She’d grown out of her awkward teenage features, and was now well regarded among her peers as a rather handsome woman.
Returning to Cripple Creek brought many rather-mixed emotions to the surface. Imagine, one of her first postings would be at the same schoolhouse where she received her educational start. When her mother wrote to her of the interim need, she was glad to help out. What an odd coincidence that the letter would find her, too, in transition. Would this turn into a permanent placement? Did she want it to?
The mountain scenery became more recognizable, and she thought back on her childhood. There were so many happy times here. Unbidden, her mind wandered to the day of the great tragedy that had marred her spirit—the day Ellie Mae died.
Even all these years later, she carried the scar in her heart. The events of that day had left her broken. Why must thoughts of Ellie Mae plague her so? And all the more as her return became imminent? She shivered as the images from her nightmares the previous evening flitted across her mind. They would not stop.
These same visions visited her in sleep night after night. All the more frequently these last weeks.
Closing her eyes, the hazy images took form and became memory. It was as if no time had passed. She and Ellie, walking through the schoolyard just as they did every other day . . .
Hooking arms with Ellie Mae, Katherine stepped out of the schoolhouse and into the yard. A rather large group of students gathered off to the right near the old tree. It didn’t bother Katherine. She turned her attention toward the path that would lead home.
“What do you think they’re up to?” Ellie Mae whispered.
Katherine glanced in that direction and noticed Betsy Callaway at the center, flapping her jaws. Why would anyone listen to anything she said? But they did. The class at large seemed to adore Betsy. It didn’t make sense.
Clenching her teeth, Katherine grabbed for Ellie Mae’s hand. “Whatever it is, we don’t want to be involved.” She pulled Ellie Mae along as she walked on, trying to pass the gathering.
“I know Miss Matthews couldn’t do it,” Betsy said loudly.
Katherine froze in her tracks. What had she just said?
The crowd of students parted and glared at Katherine and Ellie Mae.
“Let’s keep going,” Ellie Mae pleaded, tugging on Katherine’s hand.
She should listen to Ellie Mae and not become a part of whatever game Betsy played. But she could not let Betsy get the best of her. What would everyone think of her?
So, she turned to face her accuser. There stood Betsy with Wyatt Sullivan, the most popular boy in school, right beside her. Betsy’s blonde pigtails, tied back with perfect pink ribbons, shone in the sun. Her dress was no less perfect, pink with just the right amount of lace and even a slight puff to the sleeves.
“Do what, pray tell?” Katherine shot back. Her heart beat furiously in her chest.
“Go down through the mine shaft.” Betsy folded her arms in front of her chest and raised an eyebrow.
Katherine’s heart skipped a beat then, but she tried not to show her fear.
Ellie Mae’s grip tightened on her hand.
“I assure you, Miss Callaway, it’s not that I can’t do it. It’s simply that I have better things to do than to be traipsing about a mine shaft.” She turned to leave and hoped that would be enough to silence Betsy.
“Prove it.” Betsy’s voice rang out after her.
Katherine’s eyes slid closed. Was there any way around this? “I have nothing to prove to you,” she called back over her shoulder.
“Fraidycat!” Betsy laughed.
The other students joined in.
Katherine’s face burned. A fire had been lit within her. She was not afraid of anything! Releasing Ellie Mae’s hand, she then whirled around. “I am not afraid!”
“There’s only one way we’ll believe that.” Betsy’s hands moved from her chest to her hips.
There was no way this would be a one-way challenge. “Are you going?” Katherine poked her chin out, putting her own hands on her hips, attempting to puff up her chest as much as she could.
“Of course,” Betsy said, though her voice caught.
“Then, let’s go.” Katherine grabbed after Ellie Mae’s hand and headed out in the direction of the old mine shaft. She hoped Ellie Mae didn’t feel how her palms had started to sweat. Perspiration covered her whole body. How was she to keep up this façade?
The group of students followed, a din of voices behind. As they neared the cavernous opening, they became quiet as they halted several feet short of the forbidden place.
Wyatt pushed through the crowd once they had stopped. “Now, girls, this is foolishness. Talking about it is one thing, but you’re not actually going down there, are you?”
Katherine glanced at the mine opening. It looked dark and ominous. Not what she wanted to see. Then she eyed Betsy. She had everything— the popularity, the most handsome boy in school ... But she would not have Katherine’s pride, too. “I am.”
“Then I am, too.” Betsy stared at Katherine, matching her glare through slitted eyes.
“Kath-rine,” Ellie whispered, tugging on her hand.
Katherine looked over at her friend.
Ellie’s eyes begged her not to go.
Katherine wondered again at the danger. Her friend had every right to be concerned, she supposed. But it would not last. Betsy would go but a few steps in and give up. Katherine was sure of it. So, she would not be dissuaded.
Wyatt’s eyes moved from one girl to the other. A couple of years older than the girls at their thirteen years, he stood a good head taller than Katherine. At last, he threw his hands up in the air. “Then I’m going too.”
“And so am I,” came Ellie Mae’s quiet response.
Katherine leaned toward her friend. “Ellie, you don’t have to go.” Her eyes held Ellie’s. What was she going to do? She couldn’t take Ellie into that place. But something had eased in her when Ellie Mae volunteered to go. Was it selfish of her to want her friend to accompany her?
“Yes, I do.” Her voice was firm, though her chin quivered. “I’m sticking with you.”
A bump in the trail jolted Katherine from her reverie. The scenery outside became blurred. Or was it her? Touching her face, she felt moisture. She wiped at the tears. This would not do! Whatever happened when she returned, Katherine was determined she would face it with as much bravery she could muster.
Not for the first time, she wondered what had become of Wyatt Sullivan and Betsy Calloway. She had avoided this subject in her correspondence with her parents over the last few years. Knowing Wyatt, he had gone on to bigger and better things and gotten himself out of Cripple Creek. And Betsy had probably caught the first stagecoach that took her wherever Wyatt went. So that was that.
The coach slowed and the town she knew so well appeared in the distance. In a matter of moments, she would be home. What a state this trip had left her in! With gloved hands, she smoothed over her dress and straightened her jacket. Her fingers worked to once again secure the pins that held her hat in place as the coach turned. Then they trotted down the main stretch into town.
Some of the changes her parents had written her about became visible. Cripple Creek had become a mining town. When Ol’ Bob Womack filed his claim, which he’d named the El Paso Lode, he’d started another gold rush, this one in Cripple Creek. She remembered the old man. Everyone thought he was crazy and at first no one paid attention to Ol’ Bob until a mining man formed the Cripple Creek Mining District, bringing in thousands of miners and prospectors within weeks. And then a stranger to their town, a Mr. Winfield Stratton, struck gold as well. Not just a little bit of gold, but such a lode that he became the first millionaire to grace this part of Colorado. That did nothing to deter interest. Some of these things were part of her memories, some her parents had told her through letters, but the events blurred between the two.
The stagecoach came to a slow stop, and the door opened. Katherine coughed at the burst of dust that flew into the coach. Once that settled, she was thankful for the fresh air. She gathered her things and stepped out of the coach.
Taking in the sights around her, she was struck at the amount of activity that filled the main thoroughfare. The main street appeared quite different with tents, makeshift cabins, and lean-tos set up all along the way. At the same time, it amazed her how little Cripple Creek had changed. As she gazed down the street, she spotted the bank, the church, the General Store... Katherine could almost see Ellie Mae standing there at the corner of the street, waiting for her so that they could walk the rest of the way to school. Blinking back tears,