By DiVoran Lites
Elizabeth Morgan, riding backward, looked out the train window at a sign that said, Clifton. It was here she hoped to find a plan and purpose for her life. As she stood, she studied the Victorian-style train station with several men milling on the boardwalk. They wore ragged clothes, battered hats, and down-at-the-heel boots. For a moment, she tried to imagine them dressed in well-fitting woolen suits with homburgs or fedoras on their heads. Then shaking her head, she gave it up. All the imagining in the world would not make this burg into downtown Chicago, and that was fine with her. She needed a new life, maybe she’d find it here.
Smoothing kiss curls over each cheek, she straightened her narrow-brimmed cloche. As she reached toward the shelf for her tapestry carpet bag, an arm went over her head and carefully lifted it down. She looked up at a tall man with silver-blond hair and gray eyes that were the kind that turned blue on a sunny day. He now held the carpetbag in one hand and a deep brown Boss of the Prairie Stetson in the other. She didn’t know yet who he was, but she knew from working in her grandparents’ department store back home, that he had good taste in hats. His frayed khaki shirt, however, looked as if it were part of a uniform from the Great War.
“Name’s Aldon Leitzinger, Miss Morgan. The conductor told me you were in this car.” Warmth radiated from his clean-smelling body before he stepped into the aisle and started moving away. Ellie hurried to throw her camel hair cape over her arm and follow.
“Are you from Spruce Creek Ranch?” she asked. He paused to toss an answer over his shoulder.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m foreman there.” He moved on. When he got to the exit, he jumped two feet down onto the boardwalk and turned to help her. She hesitated and before she could discern his intention he jammed the hat on his head and snaked an arm around her to lift her down and deposit her on the boardwalk. Her Russian boots wobbled on the uneven platform.
“Whoa there.” He steadied her. “Don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to the altitude.” He put a hand under her elbow, but she shook him off.
“It’s not the altitude. I wasn’t ready; that’s all.” She had meant to be courteous, but she found herself irritated by this lanky, confident cowboy.
“You’re as scrappy as a banty hen, aren’t you?” He grinned.
“What is the altitude here, anyway?” she asked to cover her outrage at his arrogance.
“Right here we’re over eight thousand feet above sea-level.” He started walking toward the station house and she stepped quickly over the uneven boards trying to keep up. He pointed at a range of mountains in the distance. “The ranch is at ten-thousand feet and some of those peaks go up to fourteen thousand. What’s the altitude in Chicago?”
So he knew not only her name, but where she had come from. Maybe as foreman he’d read her resume. No harm in that. She knew she’d been hired not for the words on a slip of paper, but mainly because of Granddad’s love of the West.
“Five hundred eighty-six feet.” Fortunately, Granddad had read that statistic to her from the morning paper five days ago before she left their home in Chicago.
“Did you bring any more baggage?” He stopped at a wooden bench outside the office and motioned for her to sit down.
“A trunk,” she said.
“Okay, I’ll be a minute.” Setting down the carpetbag and her violin, he strode off toward the last cars on the train. She was deep in thought when he returned with her Douglas Vulcanized Wardrobe Trunk on his shoulder. He picked up the carpetbag and was off again.
“Those mountains are beautiful,” Ellie said as they stepped onto the sidewalk that lined one side of the only block of Main Street.
“That’s the Sangre de Cristo range.” His body exuded the same kind of nonchalant confidence she had noted in Cooper Randolph, her favorite western movie star. Before she left home, Granddad had taken her to see him in “The End of the Trail,” at the converted Palace Theater, which only a few years ago had been dedicated to burlesque.
“The name means blood of Christ. You see how the snow turns reddish as the sun goes down?” I heard pride and tenderness in his voice. Are you hungry?”
“Yes. I missed lunch in Pueblo because the whistle blew before we passengers got our food. I paid in advance, too.” That still rankled. She believed in fairness in business.
“The springboard’s at the livery here on Main Street. We’ll be at the ranch in half an hour. Molly can give you some supper—and she won’t make you pay first, either.”
The broad gravel street still held faux-front buildings even though it was already 1924. To Ellie, the town looked old and shabby. Several farm type wagons with their teams of horses waiting patiently were lined up on one side of the wide street. On the other side, she saw turn of the century Model A and Model T Fords angled toward the buildings.
Mr. Leitzinger carried her trunk into a livery stable full of warm animal smells and dust motes. A dappled gray horse thrust its long nose over a stall door and Ellie stepped back a pace.
“Do you ride?” Mr. Leitzinger inquired.
“Do I have to?”
“Most ranch hands do ride. Besides, horses are mighty fine creatures once you get to know them.” He opened the half-door of the stall and pulled the big horse out by the rope halter. “Pardon me for saying so, ma’am, but you don’t look much like a ranch hand.”
“Oh, I can do anything I set my mind to.” She said eyeing the horse warily. “Besides, I’m supposed to help the housekeeper and act as lady’s maid to the woman of the house.”
“Evenin’, Aldon,” A man wearing suspenders over a long-sleeved undershirt came out of the livery office. “Who’s this purty lady?”
“Miss Elizabeth Morgan.” Mr. Leitzinger put extra emphasis on the Miss. “She’s our new ranch hand.”
Ellie choked and started coughing. Those words reminded her that if she were to fail here, she’d report straight back to Grandmother to work in the department store beauty salon again. Once there, she’d give haircuts and machine waves until such time as Grandmother could find the proper husband for her. He would be a man so politically adept that he would end up in the governor’s mansion with Ellie as wife and chatelaine.