EXCERPT: LAKE OF FIRE
How different this frigid land was from Chicago. Back home, summer brought the fecund aroma of algae and other water plants off Lake Michigan. Here at Jenny Lake, the chill air on her back and the fire's warmth reminded her of more of October than June.
She turned to Cord. "What's it like here in winter?"
"Cold." His voice conveyed the depth and breadth that cold could reach. "The lakes are frozen. Elk and moose come down from the high country by the thousands. The wind blows and blows, and the snow is a weightless dry powder that doesn't even stick to your clothes."
He looked up at the peaks. "For weeks on end, you can't see the summits because they're shrouded in clouds. When you catch a glimpse of the high country, it's blinding white. Dante here," he gestured toward his stallion, "spends stormy weeks in the sod barn."
Odd that a cowboy would be well spoken; he must have had a good teacher in some mountain schoolhouse.
"It sounds very difficult," she replied.
"It's beautiful." His husky voice bespoke his love for the high country.
"Do you think it will snow again tonight?" She huddled closer to the fire and surveyed the clouds against the blacker sky.
"No." Cord's breath came out smoky. "The air is dry, and I don't smell a hint of snow."
Laura knew what he meant. She'd tried to describe the biting aroma in the wind to her cousin Constance and hadn't been able to make her understand. Of course, Constance, with her delicate airs, tended to stay inside when it threatened snow in Chicago.
Cord threw more wood onto the fire, his shadow looming on a boulder. Then he pulled a bedroll from the items he'd been drying. Made of waterproof tan duck with a sheepskin lining, it carried the label of Sears and Roebuck. He went back for blankets. "This is all we have for bedding; we'll have to share."
She hoped the firelight hid her flushed cheeks.
Cord stirred the fire once more and lay down. She waited until he breathed with the even tempo of sleep before she climbed atop her side of the still-damp bedroll and pulled up the blankets. Keeping her coat on, she turned her back to him.
After a while, the fire burned down. Hard diamonds of stars appeared, except for where the bulk of mountain blotted out the sky. Beyond the clearing where they slept, the blackness seemed absolute. Minute by minute, the night grew colder, tempting her to move closer to Cord.
But Aunt Fanny had cautioned her and Constance that even a simple thing might drive a man to take liberties.
Though Laura hugged herself, she continued to shiver. If this was June in Wyoming, she wondered how Cord could possibly love the winter here.
Unless he was as hard as the land.
Laura clung to Cord where they lay with the blanket drawn over them. She had lost track of time while his words painted an orphaned boy raised to riches through the kindness of Aaron Bryce . . . vivid pictures illuminating the man with whom she had cast her lot.
Cord's arm tightened around her. "As long as the hate continues, the blood keeps being shed on both sides."
"There's so much hate. Captain Feddors is horrible to you." She reached to slide her hand over his cheek, encountering the puckered ridge of raised flesh.
He went still beneath her tentative exploration.
"How did you get this scar?"
He fingered the welt. "A schoolyard fight got out of hand. A couple of older Mormon boys got wind of where I'd come from before Aaron took me in."
"And you hate them still."
In the silence that followed, Cord sat up, leaving her uncovered. He drew his knees to his chest and, though he stared at the stall boards, she believed he saw that far-off battleground where bigotry turned children into monsters.
"I hate that I'm in the middle, neither white nor red. I hate that my adopted white brother Thomas has his name on the title of my Hotel Excalibur . . . he never misses an opportunity to point it out. I loathe the supercilious Captain who marked me the moment he saw me and won't let it drop. I abhor that poster on the wall of the hotel meeting room, showing the Northern Pacific line built on the back of a fallen red warrior. I despise that my grandmother, mother, and father died senselessly."
His Adam's apple dipped. "And I hate myself for thinking being adopted by a white man would wipe away the stigma of Nez Perce blood."
When the rain subsided to isolated drops and dripping off the eaves, Laura left her room where she'd barricaded herself. Wearing one of Aunt Fanny's shawls over emerald silk, she made her way downstairs, past the dining room occupied by the last luncheon stragglers, and into the dim east hall to room 109.
Without hesitation, she rapped.
Cord had to believe she hadn't been the one to tell Hank. She'd explain how she went to the meeting because she promised her father, never intending to say anything to undermine Cord's cause. To prove it, she'd tell her father about them, that she'd chosen her man and it wasn't Hank Falls.
She knocked again. "Cord! If you're in there, open up!"
All was silent, within and without. It was the time of day when guests had checked out and their replacements weren't due until the cocktail hour.
She pounded with her fist. Beneath her assault, the portal swung open.
The bed was made. There was no sign of Cord's saddlebags on the luggage stand. The top of the bureau was clear.
Laura advanced into the room and found nothing in the drawers or on the windowsill.
But wait. Peeking from beneath the bedspread was the sparkle of black glass: Cord's obsidian, the guardian spirit without which he might be open to harm.
She jumped at the tentative voice from the hall. "Miss, if you're looking for the man who was in this room . . ."
"He checked out a little while ago."
The young man from the desk held the door and gestured for her to come out. She hesitated then bent to grab the stone.
"What's that?" he asked in a suspicious tone.
She closed her hand over it. "Just something Mr. Sutton would want. I'll hold it for him."
He shook his head and held out his hand. "Everything that's left in a room is given to Mr. Falls. His strict orders."
Laura's fingers clenched. The stone warmed, as did her courage.
"It's just an old piece of rock." She opened her hand so the young man could see and closed it.
She turned toward the door and almost bumped into Captain Feddors's stocky chest.
"Here," he said. "Let's see this rock Sutton has left behind."
On instinct, she clenched her fist and thrust her hand behind her back.
Feddors laughed. "You dare to defy me? A'hm the law and ah say show me what you've got."
Laura looked up and down the hall, but there was no one. Of course, if there had been, what guest or employee would help her defy the ranking officer in the park? Yet, feeling the stone in her hand almost glowing, she was loath to part with it.
"What do you care about a rock?"
"Nothing. But when a rock becomes someone's magic, someone ah despise, then ah'd best take that magic away from him."
Laura recoiled. How could Feddors know she held Cord's connection to the spirit world?
The Captain took her arm, using his fingers like pincers. Her hand opened and the obsidian dropped to the boards.
He scooped it up. "Lots of Injuns use this kind of stone to ward off evil."
His laugh followed Laura as she hurried down the long hall and out into the gray afternoon. Within a few yards, she regretted the gown and thin black satin slippers. The smooth soles slipped in the mud, and the hem of the dress dragged over wet roots on the path. Droplets fell from the trees, making a soft sound where they landed on pine needles. When the wind picked up, they showered down, wetting her face and hair, and spotting her silk skirt.
Nonetheless, she pressed on toward the stables.
Cord had to be here. He couldn't have packed his saddlebags and be gone already.
To save time, she left the path beside the lake and cut through the meadow. Soon her skirts were soaked above the knee from the long grass and thigh-high sage. As the wet aroma rose, it reminded her of the morning she'd fought her way out of the Snake River.
Yes, this land was wild and filled with dangers. But she didn't want to go back to Chicago. She wanted to find Cord and stay with him, to see his ranch.
She reached the stable and pulled open the door. "Cord!"
The door at the opposite end of the stable was closed, the tackies evidently having taken shelter elsewhere during the storm. The interior was darker than it had been the morning she'd come to visit Dante and seen Constance slide her arms around Cord. Strange, how that no longer mattered.
"Is anybody here?"
No human voice replied, but a dozen large heads poked out over the stall gates. The horses nickered for an apple or oats.
Dante did not appear.
Laura walked the length of the barn, in case he'd been moved to another stall. She paused to stroke White Bird's nose, then carried on. When she reached the far end, she was forced to admit that both Cord and his horse had gone.