Chapter One—Back Home

     Aunt Martha had moved into town after the death of Uncle Ben. With her mind still on Rob Conners, Robin stopped her horse in front of the house and tied it down to the picket fence. It was the first time she had seen the house, of course. It was small, and white framed, painted with light blue trim, with a swing on the front porch and some flowers lining the walkway to the single stair up to the porch and front door. It was going to be Robin’s home and she liked her first view of it.
     Aunt Martha came running out of the house when she saw Robin. She was almost hysterical with worry, so Robin knew she had made the correct decision in leaving Rob—hard as it was.
     “Oh, you poor, poor child!” Aunt Martha said, hugging Robin tightly, tears streaming down her cheeks. Wow, this isn’t the Aunt Martha I remember. “Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”
     “No, Aunt Martha, he didn’t hurt me. In fact, he was actually very nice. When I told him the situation with you and…Uncle Ben…I guess…well, I guess he had a pang of conscience and decided to let me come home to you.” She smiled. “He even bought me that horse.”
     “Oh, I’m so glad you’re safe. Are you sure he didn’t hurt you? The sheriff is out looking for you—him—right now and if he hurt you…”
     “No, Aunt Martha, he didn’t hurt me at all.”
     “Well, I’m so glad. You come into this house this instant. You are as skinny as a rail. Your Aunt Martha is going to have to fatten you up.”
     Oh, joy. “Thank you, Aunt Martha.”
     Aunt Martha had sold the ranch almost immediately after Uncle Ben had died. “It was much too much for me. So I got a very good deal and bought this house in town.”
     She had told her niece, in her last wire, that she now lived in town, so Robin had stopped and asked where. Whitewater had grown quite a bit since she’d last been there. It had a population of about 2,000, which included the surrounding area. There was ranching in the valley and some mining interests in the mountains. There was talk of the railroad coming through, but it hadn’t made it yet. That would help town growth more.
     Inside, the house was small, cozy, and comfortable. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, and living room with a fireplace against the left wall. Besides the pleasant front yard, there was a stable in the back where Robin could keep Roberta. The whole thing was tidy, just like Aunt Martha had always been.
     After making sure for the tenth time that her niece was all right, Aunt Martha caught Robin up on all the local gossip—who had died, who had married, who had left town, and so forth. Some of that was interesting to Robin because she remembered a lot of those people, in fact, some of them had been her friends whom she had lost track of over the years. She chuckled at a few of the “she married hims”. Oh, that poor girl, to get stuck with that jerk…you can’t be serious! THEY got married?…wow
     “Oh,” Aunt Martha said, “There is the cutest, sweetest man that I want you to meet. He works with the mining company here and he’s such a doll. I’ve told him about you and I know he’s dying to meet you. His name is Len Kramer….”
     Robin mentally rolled her eyes. Aunt Martha was the matchmaking type, though she had always thought her niece was a little too young for boys when she was living in Whitewater. Robin hadn’t thought so once she hit about 14 or 15, and the boys hadn’t, either. She thought of Rob and felt a pang, but she also thought that, since she had known him for such a short time, that the feelings weren’t too deep and would go away soon. At least she hoped so. Maybe some of the local male clientele could help with that.
     But even as Aunt Martha talked on and on, Robin listened with only one ear. It wasn’t that easy to shake the overpowering feelings that had come upon her since last night. They were still with her, strongly with her.
     And when she went to bed that night, sleep didn’t come that easily. I wonder where he is…what he’s doing…where he’ll go…I’ve got to forget him, that’s all there is to it…

     Over the next few days, Robin settled in nicely. Aunt Martha had changed, mellowed, and seemingly quite a bit. She could still be a little bossy and obnoxious, but Robin was older now and perhaps able to deal with it better. Robin did what she could to keep the peace. She wasn’t going to fight her aunt, and wanted to make her last years as comfortable and pleasant as possible. Robin was old enough and mature enough to accept her aunt’s faults and foibles—at least, she hoped she was. And, she thought, maybe Aunt Martha hasn’t changed at all; maybe it’s me who’s changed, and she came to the conclusion that that was probably the case.
     Yes, she still thought about him, but there were distractions now.
     A little more about Whitewater. As noted, it was a mining/ranching/farming community of about 2,000 people, which included the rural ranching and farming people, plus the miners who lived in barracks up the mountain. The town ran east-west at the eastern end a long, narrow valley. The terrain opened up about a half mile west of town into open range grassland for farmers and ranchers. There were high, pine covered mountains to the northeast and north that sloped down to the valley west of town. Lesser, but still formidable hills to the south bordered the open range grasslands as far as the eye could see. If the railroad came through, the town could grow to be a fairly large size, but most of that growth would have to be east, for reasons noted in a moment. Whitewater, like most western towns, was laid out in a grid, with one long street down the middle—Main Street—but with several cross streets. Given the nature of the terrain, the town was rectangular. And, being partly a mining town, it had its share of male riff-raff; miners were not the salt of the earth by any stretch of the imagination. So, to accommodate that, much of the northwestern part of the town had been given over to saloons and brothels, and the town fathers were determined to keep that element bottled up there. That was why any residential growth would be east. There was a little room north and south, but not much because of the mountains and hills. Whitewater, if it grew, would spread east, across the Whitewater River which meandered northwest to southeast near the current city limit, no more than a quarter mile away from the town’s eastern edge. It wasn’t much of a “river,” more of a stream, maybe 60 feet wide and 5 feet at its deepest, though it could get deeper in spring when the mountain snows started melting. But it wasn’t the Mississippi by any means.
     Uncle Ben had been a rancher, not a big one, but enough so that, when he died and Aunt Martha sold out, she had a very comfortable retirement in town. She intended to supplement her income with a little part-time dress making for a local clothier, but nothing major. Robin had been a little surprised to hear about the mining business that had begun; that was very new, within the last two years, and thus the over-abundance of saloons and brothels were recent as well. But so far, that “element” had stayed in its place and not created too many headaches for local law enforcement. But it wasn’t terribly uncommon to hear of a shooting or stabbing death in the “Miner’s Corner,” as everyone called that section of Whitewater. Aunt Martha strongly cautioned Robin to stay away from there, a warning that her niece didn’t need.
     So Whitewater, overall was a nice town, slowly growing, in a beautiful part of the country. But it had one serious, serious problem. A dangerous and potentially deadly one.
     The mining industry…

     Aunt Martha’s new home was in the southeastern section of the rectangle, where a substantial portion of the populace lived. Whitewater had recently built a new school building, right at the edge of the city limit in the northeastern quadrant, and that was where Robin would work. The town had grown sufficiently enough to need several teachers now, for the younger kids, and for the older. Robin got one section of the younger children and she preferred that. She arrived in Whitewater right near the end of the school year in May, so she only got to meet with the children for a few days. Thus, she was fixing to have the entire summer off since school wouldn’t start again till September. She was on a 9-month contract, but her pay was spread out over 12 months. But she wouldn’t start getting paid till she started working in September, so she thought about maybe trying to get some work in the summer, and intended to pursue it.
     Since Whitewater was a little off the beaten path and the railroad hadn’t come through yet, the town had to provide its own entertainment. And actually, it did a pretty good job. There was the ubiquitous monthly dance, but there were also ice cream socials, church functions and potlucks, ladies and gents’ social clubs, various local intramural sporting events, a small group of amateur musicians who performed frequently and were pretty good, a small performing arts cast who put on plays periodically, and the occasional traveling professional troupe or circus that came through town. There was plenty of hunting and fishing for those who wanted to do that. Of course, in a farming/ranching/mining community—and especially in the summer—a lot of people worked sunup to sundown getting crops, etc. in. Yet those who serviced them, the townspeople who owned and operated the various shops, had a little more time on their hands thus the various social functions were a welcome diversion.
     Robin renewed acquaintances with several old friends from days of yore, but nearly all were married now and had two or three kids, several of whom would be in her class. Some of her friends had moved away—as she had—but there were enough left to remind her of some fun times and so that she wouldn’t have to start building friendships from scratch. Susan Markum—well, she had been Susan Hightower when Robin lived in Whitewater before—had been Robin’s best friend and she was still in town, but had obviously married. A rich rancher named Frank Markum. Some girls have all the luck…The Markums didn’t have any children yet.
     As noted, Aunt Martha had wanted her to meet a man named Len Kramer, who was fairly new to Whitewater. He was one of the managing partners of the Kilmer Mining Company, the business interest working the mines in the mountains just north of town. About a week after she arrived in Whitewater, Robin and Aunt Martha were in a local grocery store when Len came in.
     “Oh, come along, Robin, there’s Len Kramer. I want you to meet him. He’s a doll.” Then she called out, “Len! Oh, Len!”
     Robin grimaced. She didn’t mind meeting men, of course, but usually preferred to do it on her own terms. Yet there was nothing for it now. Len looked over, saw Aunt Martha, and they went towards each other. Robin tagged along behind her aunt.
     “Len,” Aunt Martha said, “This is my niece, Robin Morrow. Robin, this is Len Kramer. He’s the Vice-President of the largest mining company in town.” Emphasis on “Vice-President” and “largest.” Actually, it was the only one, but that wouldn’t have sounded quite so good.
     Well, Aunt Martha was right about one thing—he was certainly a doll. Thick, light brown hair and eyes, tanned, strong chin, nicely proportioned nose and mouth. About 5’10 or so, and trimly built. He had a nice smile.
     “Pleased to meet you,” he said with a smile. He waited for Robin to hold out her hand, which she thought was appropriate. She did, and he shook it, firmly, though he didn’t try to squeeze her fingers off.
     “You, too.”
     “You’ve just moved from back east to teach at our school, Mrs. Morrow tells me.”
     “Yes. I used to live here, went to school and worked in New York, but when Uncle Ben died, Aunt Martha asked me to move back, so I did.”
     “Well, that was very dutiful of you. I’m sure she appreciates it very much and I’m confident that the town has got a good new teacher. My condolences on your Uncle Ben. He was a fine man, one of the best.”
     “Thank you, and yes, he was.”
     Aunt Martha was beaming, but there was no electricity passing between Robin and Len Kramer. He was handsome and he seemed nice enough, but he wasn’t ogling Robin or giving any indication of any overt interest. Just meeting someone new. But Aunt Martha already had the wedding planned.
     “Len, you simply must come over for dinner some night. Robin is an excellent cook and sh—we’d enjoy your company. Say this Friday night?”
     Robin winced, and Len noticed. He smiled his understanding and even gave her a wink. “I…don’t think I’ll be able to make it this Friday evening, Mrs. Morrow, although I certainly appreciate the invitation and love good cooking. Perhaps we can make it for another time.”
     Fortunately, Aunt Martha left it at that. “Well, that’s disappointing, but I’ll expect you soon.”
     He was very diplomatic, and Robin liked him for that. He looked at her. “I certainly enjoyed making your acquaintance, but I’m on a quick lunch break and need to pick up a few things. I’m sure I’ll see you again sometime.” And he smiled again.
     “Yes, it was nice to meet you, too. Bye.”
     When he walked away, Aunt Martha whispered to Robin, “Isn’t he a dreamboat? And such a gentleman, too.”
     “Yes, he was very nice,” Robin said. And that was that.
     As aunt and niece rode home, Aunt Martha talked on and on about how wonderful Len was. Robin frowned. Her mind was still on somebody else…I wonder where he is…