Lake of Fire
By Linda Jacobs
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Linda Jacobs
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-933836-21-8
Chapter One June 20, 1900
Above a scarf of morning mist, the Grand Teton blazed in a rose glow that would not touch the valley floor for another half hour. Though the snowcapped peak towered above Jackson's Hole, it looked so sharp and close to Laura Fielding she thought she might brush the snow from a wind-sculpted cornice.
The Snake River's willowed bottomland and the jagged mountains were like nothing she knew from life in Chicago. If she were home at Fielding House, she'd be basking before a banked fire.
Laura wrapped her coat closer and stepped away from the red-painted coach into snow-muffled silence. In last night's sudden storm, swirling darkness had forced the driver to give up searching for the stage station. As the only passenger left on the Yellowstone run, she had passed a restless night on hard-sprung seats, wondering if she'd been wrong to defy her father and travel alone.
With rising light revealing the ramparts, she breathed deeply and exhaled a little cloud. Beneath a nearby cottonwood, a moose rubbed antlers in velvet against bark. Behind him, next to a white-flocked spruce, three more of the stately animals nosed aside the snow to reveal spring shoots.
Postcard perfection, until a snort from the nearest moose signaled alert. The others raised their heads. In the same instant, Laura detected the drumming of horses' hooves. Perhaps it was the stage scouts, searching at first light for the overdue coach, but she could not see through the snow-draped brush.
She looked to the high driver's seat. Angus Spiner, a mustachioed man in the khaki duster of the stage line, threw off his snowy poncho and reached for his Smith & Wesson lever-action shotgun.
Laura dropped to her knees behind a willow and peeped through thick spring foliage. When the hoofbeats grew louder, the tethered team of four stage horses surged in restless motion.
Two men rode into the clearing. The lead horseman reined in his palomino and shifted his eyes to his stocky partner astride a handsome chestnut. Bandana masks over both men's faces sent a clutch through Laura's gut.
Without a word, the men on horseback snapped their rifles up.
Angus raised his weapon; too late, for a pair of sharp cracks echoed over the snowy plain.
He tumbled from the high seat, falling ... in macabre slow motion to land with a thud.
Laura suppressed a gasp.
Not thirty feet away, Angus lay facedown, his hand limp on his gun stock. A red stain spread from beneath his coat; another bloomed in the snow beside his head.
Bile rose, burning Laura's throat. In her twenty-six sheltered years in the city, she'd never seen anything like this.
The leader called, "Dismount!" in military style and swung off his palomino. He was very tall, with dirty blond hair straggling over the collar of his black duster. Though his mask kept her from getting a good look at his narrow face, his eyes were dark as coals.
His partner obeyed, sliding to the ground. He bore a hungry look, but his protruding stomach, along with the well-fed look of his horse, told her he didn't want for food. His plaid cloth coat looked unsuitable for the cold Wyoming morning.
From her hiding place, Laura tried to memorize what the men looked like.
The tall outlaw approached the coach, rifle at hand. Searching for passengers, no doubt, and after what happened to Angus, she suspected she knew the fate of anyone they might find. It was only a matter of time before they detected her tracks in the snow.
Off to her left, a twig snapped. It must be one of the moose; she preferred their company to cold-blooded killers. Then another noise, this one closer, like a boot crushing snow.
In a blur of motion, the blond leader whirled and shot toward the sound. The ball buried itself in the trunk of a cottonwood, three feet from her. She crabbed sideways toward a narrow ravine, where a stream ran beneath a skim of spring ice. Rolling down, she pressed herself into the snow.
Silence reigned in the copse. From where Laura lay beneath the spicy-smelling cottonwoods, she could see the untracked perfection of the far creek bank.
How she wished she had never heard her father utter the word "Yellowstone." That she had not changed her plans without his knowing. Not taken the southern stage route rather than the Northern Pacific direct to the park.
She should be home safe in bed, just thinking of shaking off slumber. Instead, she lay on a blanket of snow, shivering so hard her teeth chattered. Here, she could cower and wait for the outlaws to follow her trail, or she could try to save herself.
Pulling her wide-brimmed hat down over her knot of hair, Laura crawled to the lip of the ravine and peeped over. The outlaw's palomino, his reins looped over the saddle horn, side-gaited away from the coach to within fifteen feet of her.
No good. Though she was an excellent horsewoman, the men would see her mount up and shoot her down.
Angus's gun lay in the snow beside the coach wheel. If she could get it, she knew how to use it. Against her father's orders, she'd persuaded the coachman at Fielding House to teach her to shoot bottles and cans on the Lake Michigan shore. Her own weapon, a tiny brass-framed, four-barrel pepperbox, bought without Father knowing, was in her valise.
Another faint shushing to her left, but she ignored it, dug in her elbows, and pulled forward. Scanning the hummocky bottomland, she planned her path to stay behind the coach until the last moment. Then grab Angus's gun and stand for a clear shot.
The lead outlaw, apparently confident he and his partner were alone, jerked his mask down from his nose and mouth. Angular planes of jaw were revealed, along with deep creases from his nostrils down to the sharp chin. He opened the stage's boot, dragged Laura's luggage out onto the ground, and unlatched her valise. She cringed as her clothes came out in a ragged pile. And again when he bent and retrieved her pistol with a chilling smile.
Something grasped her ankle; her heart began to race. A jerk and she was dragged back down the slope.
Breath gathered in her throat, but a large hand choked off her scream. She kicked out and tried to bite the callused palm.
"Quiet, boy." A rough male whisper.
Damp seeped through the trousers Laura had purchased from the Marshall Field's men's department for the trip. At the time, she'd kept it secret from Father and Aunt Fanny, but figured people on the Union Pacific train and the stage would be less likely to bother a boy. With her captor's weight lowering onto her body, she felt fortunate to be mistaken for a male.
She twisted her head, and a man's hard face filled her vision. With untamed black hair and a ragged beard, he had eyes of glacial blue. Wearing a thick sheepskin coat and trousers matching the willows' bark, his weight pressed her to the cold earth.
Her chest heaved. Scrabbling through the snow and down into the dirt, she grabbed fistfuls in an effort to gain traction.
"Want to get us killed?" His hand clamped down harder, obstructing her nostrils.
She continued to struggle until reason won out. Whoever this man was, he wasn't with the outlaws.
Though she forced herself to go limp, he held his grip a moment longer. "Will you be quiet?"
She gave a jerk of a nod.
He released her and rolled away. She took a ragged gulp of air, trying not to gasp out loud.
"Where's your piece?" he whispered with a furtive glance up the bank. His gloved hand drew his own pistol and held it before her eyes. Thick-barreled and heavy, it bore a grip of creamy bone, with "Colt" lettered on the side.
He inched his way up the embankment to peer over the edge, and a fine trace of lines appeared at the corners of his eyes. Laura crawled up beside him.
Behind the coach, both outlaws rooted through the mess of her belongings. Thankfully, her leather-bound journal was secure in her coat pocket, but she despaired for her fine cameo, sharp white on black onyx, one of the few things she had left from her mother. Dirty fingers parted the carefully packed tissue paper, and she wished she held the Colt.
"Lookit," said the plaid-coated one and pointed to her tracks.
The leader pocketed her pistol and drew a large handgun from a holster beneath his coat. His partner brought up his rifle.
Less than a foot from Laura, the Colt roared. Her left ear twanged and commenced a piercing ring.
Plaid-coat was down, blood spreading from his stomach.
The man beside her fired again.
The leader's gun cartwheeled into the snow. With a single glance at his bleeding partner, he rushed for his palomino and leaped to the saddle. The chestnut spooked and ran, hoofbeats accelerating until both horses and the single rider disappeared into the brush.
The man with the Colt leaped up and dodged through the trees. Laura scrambled to her feet and followed, staggering through a snowdrift to keep up.
When they reached the coach, his sharp blue eyes took in the driver's limp form. Angus's head lay turned away as if he were sleeping; the pool of blood had melted a patch of snow beneath his temple.
Crumpled amid the scattered clothing, Plaid-coat didn't look hungry anymore. His face was slack and his eyes muddy. Keening like a child, he tried to press his intestines back inside.
"Gut shot," Laura's rescuer murmured with a shake of his head. She watched him raise his Colt in a hand that trembled, so slightly she wondered if she imagined it.
The blast reverberated through the vast cold wilderness.
* * *
Cord Sutton lowered his gun, his pulse pounding as though he had run a long way. Though the outlaw richly deserved to die, killing a man still made him sick inside.
He turned on the boy, who sagged against the coach wheel, face pale with shock. "What were you thinking? Hiding in the woods while they killed the driver ..." Cord spat into the snow.
The kid shoved small fists into the pockets of a brown woolen coat and looked away toward a stream running to join the torrent of the Snake. He looked even younger than Cord had thought, not old enough to shave. A glint of tears shone in hazel-flecked green eyes.
"Name's Cord," he offered.
The youngster bit his lower lip with even white teeth. Something in his manner suggested a city child; no doubt, he had never seen anyone die. For that matter, Cord had never killed a man.
How he wished he could turn back the clock to when he'd risen in the predawn darkness, eager to embark on his journey.
With another appraisal of the frightened boy, Cord put two fingers to his mouth and let loose a piercing whistle. A vague movement in the willow bottoms became his well-muscled black stallion trotting into the clearing. "There, Dante." He stroked the horse's flank.
Cord needed to be on his way, but he turned back to the kid studying the snow.
Without warning, the child dove on a black velvet pouch beside the steel-rimmed wheel. Trembling fingers shook out tissue paper that floated to earth, and he went onto his knees and pushed piles of snow aside with cold-reddened hands.
"What are you looking for?"
"A cameo on a gold chain. My mother's."
"All this belongs to your mother?" Cord gestured at the scattered clothing. "Is she here?" He hoped there wasn't another body.
The kid shook his head and kept searching.
Relieved, Cord knelt and sifted snow alongside. He lifted a blue-green ball gown trimmed in black lace and shoved aside a gold satin wrapper. After a few minutes, he realized the pendant might be beneath the body of the outlaw he'd killed. He'd never realized a gut-shot man would smell like a deer or elk carcass, a rank, sweetish stench.
Cord pushed to his feet. Reaching down, he touched the kid on a slumped shoulder.
"I have to go," he began. "As we shouldn't steal the stage horses, and mine can't carry you and your mother's bags, I'll have to leave you."
"No!" The boy's tone went shrill. "There might be more of them." He looked at the man Cord had shot in the head and then away.
"The stage company scouts will find you soon."
The last thing Cord needed was a greenhorn to slow him down. If he waited or took the kid back miles to the small town of Jackson, he'd be late for his appointment in Yellowstone. The deal waiting in the park promised to be the most important thing he'd ever done.
The child in the snow looked up and, for the first time, met his eyes. "I need to get to Yellowstone."
Cord saw himself at age six, ragged, homeless, dependent on charity. They could ride for Menor's Ferry; he'd speak to Bill Menor, who was a friend. He'd leave the kid there and report the outlaw.
Before he could speak, something in the way the youngster moved, rising lithely to stand before him, set off alarms. Cord's eyes narrowed, and he studied the smooth jaw. The whisper of suspicion grew stronger when he looked at long-lashed eyes and the generous curve of smooth lips.
This was surely no boy, but a young woman. A lady of wealth, from the look of her belongings spread in the snow.
"Please." Her voice was not a beggar's.
Of all the times to play Good Samaritan, this was the worst. But there was something appealing about traveling with this spunky and mysterious female. Her green gaze was wary while she awaited his verdict.
"I'll take you to Yellowstone," Cord agreed.
* * *
For the first hour riding on a folded blanket behind Dante's saddle, Laura sat numbly, aware of nothing but the impossible fact she had survived.
Then, with the rising sunlight, she began to notice her surroundings. Her skin prickled in the chill air; her ears tuned to the scrabble of the black stallion's hooves in the cobbled bottomland. With her nostrils flaring at the pungent mix of sage, horse, and male perspiration, she realized she also stank from the sweat of fear.
It flashed her back to the stream bank, counting the seconds she had to live before her tracks were found. Cringing in anticipation of bullets tearing into her flesh, heart racing, breath cut off when Cord covered her mouth and nose. The sharp concussion of the Colt going off still had her ears ringing.
Tears welled so quickly she couldn't blink them back. She stifled a sob, and her chest felt as though it would explode. Shoulders shaking, she pressed her lips together.
Don't think about it. Wait until you're alone and can write it all down. Then you can fall apart.
Pressing a fist to her mouth, she held her breath until the sharpest agony abated. Though the immediate danger seemed past, she had to keep her wits about her. Would Cord believe a young man sobbing like a girl?
Laura wiped the tears from her cheeks and studied him. His profile might have been carved from brown sandstone, with a hawkish nose and a sculpted jaw his beard could not hide. High and prominent cheekbones might have belonged to an Indian, but she'd never heard of one with blue eyes and thick facial hair. Though the set of his jaw conveyed he was still angry at a boy who'd done nothing to defeat the outlaws, he seemed to have accepted her story about the valise of women's things being taken to her ... his ... absent mother.
Laura sighed. If only there had been a chance to know her own mother better.
The rustle of skirts and the scent of lemon verbena had always preceded Violet Fielding into a room. On the hottest August day when the breeze off Lake Michigan died and flies droned, Violet's hands always felt cool. During her life, Forrest Fielding's rigid demeanor had been tempered by his wife's unquenchable lightness of heart. When she died, he turned from merely wooden to stone. Pushing ten-year-old Laura into the role of hostess and supervisor at Fielding House, he had set exacting standards for everything.
In the years since, she'd yearned to break free, but stayed with him because she had no better place to go. A woman's options were limited: entering a convent, for which she had no vocation; becoming a nanny or companion, preposterous with the Fielding wealth; or getting married.
With deft motions of his knees, Cord steered Dante several hundred feet down a pair of steep river terraces. In the innermost valley, the Snake River sparkled in the sun. Although it rushed smoothly past, boiling eddies revealed its turbid depth. Born in Yellowstone, the spring torrent flowed south forty miles from its headwaters.
"Menor's Ferry," Cord said.
A wooden frame on each riverbank supported a metal cable works strung across the flood. Tied to the far shore, a board platform topped two flimsy-looking pontoons. She couldn't imagine Dante balancing on the raft and riding the current.
"Halloo!" Cord called, his voice coming back in an echo. The wind stirred the squat willow bushes and wild roses.
Excerpted from Lake of Fire by Linda Jacobs Copyright © 2007 by Linda Jacobs. Excerpted by permission.
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