EXCERPT: JACKSON HOLE JOURNEY
Francesca di Paoli's vision of Jackson's Hole as a peaceful haven lasted until she arrived.
When the wagon topped a rise north of Jackson Town, she caught her first glimpse of the Tetons, a sheer wall of jagged peaks beneath boiling black clouds. Dust devils danced on the valley's broad, sage-covered floor, harbingers of a windblast that sent sand stinging into her eyes.
While a curtain of rain swept down from the heights, she laced her hand through William's arm. His muscles, tight from controlling the anxious team of bay horses, bunched beneath her fingers.
Lightning stabbed and split a lone pine, too close for comfort. At the blinding bolt, Francesca ducked and saw red, bisected by a streak of brilliance. The horses reared and plunged, crying shrilly, as the stench of charred wood filled the air.
"Easy, Eli . . . Jacob." William leaned his shoulder into Francesca's. "Missed us, by God." His voice sounded thick, as hers might if she tried to speak around the lump in her throat.
Thunder crashed, rolling like barrels down the cellar steps at the Castello de Vigne.
Storms had never alarmed her in her native Chianti. From the time she was tall enough to see out the window in the servants' wing, she'd always gotten out of bed at the first faint strobing over the Tuscan hills. Her older cousins might sleep, but she stood by the casement while lightning bathed the vineyards in violent illumination, dogs barked, and rain thrummed the clay roof tiles.
This tempest's violence reminded her she didn't belong in Wyoming.
Opening her eyes, she took in the range dominating the skyline. Beneath towering blue-gray thunderheads, the granite bulwark reached nearly seven thousand feet from valley floor to the pointed crest of the Grand.
Dio! At another dazzling display of lightning, Francesca's carefully practiced English deserted her.
"We're going to get wet," warned William.
The scent of rain hit first, shot through with an aroma of damp sage. A big drop splashed her cheek. Another thumped the top of her hatless head.
While William continued to fight the frightened team, wind tore loose the knot she'd pulled her hair into, weaving dark strands before her eyes. The blowing spray became a deluge, and drenched her.
She wrapped her arms around her torso and shivered. Steam rose off the horses' backs, where the chill downpour struck their sun-warmed coats.
Coming here was mad, as crazy as getting on a train in the middle of the night, leaving New York without knowing how far the money crushed in her trembling fist would take her.
Past midnight, the wind came up and played a moaning dirge, making the big window shudder in its frame. Its keening cadence reminded Francesca of winter, when fierce gusts battered the cookshack.
Laura slept with her jaw slack. The irregular cadence of Cord's snoring helped keep Francesca from nodding off.
She pulled out her rosary and murmured in Latin, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our deaths . . ."
She found herself counting the seconds between Bitter Waters's breaths. He would inhale, chest heaving, then his lips would seal. Ten, thirty, forty-five seconds . . . by the relentless ticking of the wall clock . . . until, with a panicked snort, his mouth gaped like a fish's on the bank and he continued to live.
Hours passed and the clock wound down and stopped. Francesca stared at it and at Bitter Waters, but the cessation of the ticking had not marked his passing. Finally, the realization that she hoped each time he stopped breathing would be the last drove her from the room. Cord and Laura still slept.
Bryce lay on the sofa, his head pillowed on his arm. She touched his shoulder and for a moment, they looked into each other.
"My turn?" His voice sounded thick.
Francesca moved so he could swing his long frame around to sit up. He stabbed both hands into his hair and made the sleep-tousled mess worse. "How is he?"
Bryce put a sinewy hand on each thigh and pushed to his feet. "The suspense is killing us all," he husked. "God strike me dead for wishing it over, but what he has now is not a life."
The living hell of slow suffocation, whether her father with fluid buildup in his lungs, or Bitter Waters's . . .
In the flickering light, the kitchen clock said it was nearly four. Less than an hour until summer's dawn would paint a seam of silver gray above the Gros Ventre.
Bryce went in to Bitter Waters and she lay down. The leather on the couch was still warm. The door to the lean-to opened onto blackness . . . the candle had burned out.
Shifting her position, she tried to ease the places where knives seemed to have been inserted beneath her shoulder blades. She moved her restless legs. Hunger pangs roiled, but she did not want any broth. Giving up on sleep, she went to the fireplace, stirred the embers and added two logs.
From the lean-to, she heard a rasping breath, followed by silence. Her shoulders hunched, her bare toes curled on the chill stone in front of the hearth. Without warning, a wave of relief washed through her.
She seized the lamp from its hook and ran to the lean-to. In the wedge of light across the bed, she made out Bryce, sprawled awkwardly on the straight chair, asleep. His extended hand covered Bitter Waters's.
Cord and Laura also slept.
Francesca tiptoed to the bedside. Bitter Waters mouth hung open; he did not blink at the light.
Though she felt certain his soul had departed, she stood a minute, and another . . . giving Bryce and his parents a little longer to live in the time before Bitter Waters died.
Eli and Jacob spooked, dancing sideways and making the wagon veer.
"William!" she cried.
Accompanied by the oddest sound Francesca had ever heard, a weird yet sibilant growl that made her chest tight, a huge hunk of Sheep Mountain was peeling loose from the top.
William looked back once, wall-eyed. "Here!" he shouted to the team. "Gi-yah!"
The landslide gathered speed, its voice reverberating in the canyon.
Eli and Jacob turned runaway.
Francesca clung to the sideboard, braced to keep from flying out of the jouncing wagon. When William had spoken of this mountain sliding down, she wished she'd thought to spit for luck the way her mother had taught her.
The slide gathered momentum, focusing an angry vibration that penetrated Francesca's bones. Her stomach heaved. The wagon wheels leaped a rut, and she bit her tongue. Blood welled, salty in her mouth.
Beside her, William hunched over the reins connected to the galloping team.
Eli and Jacob swerved, and the wagon went up on two wheels.
George Hall was riding along the lower river bench when the thumps and bumps he'd heard all day turned into an odd hissing purr.
Above, on Sheep Mountain, beneath a cloud of strange brown mist, the forest transformed to a living thing, tossing and writhing as though some giant in the earth gripped the tree roots and shook them. The resonance became a roar, and on looking back, George found a gigantic wall of debris sweeping toward him.
Even as he spurred his mount, the massive landslide tumbled behind his horse's heels. Carrying fences, corrals, all the ranch buildings except the house, haystacks, cattle, chickens, and telephone poles, it cascaded into the Gros Ventre. The impact threw the river from its bed, water roiling upstream.
Though they were at least fifty feet above the bank, George and his horse got as drenched as if someone had thrown a washtub over them.
The mass of mountain churned on to slam into the red sandstone cliff face, four hundred feet up on the north canyon wall.
Watching the pale scar spread down Sheep Mountain, Laura shouted to the people in Raleigh house. But the door was already open in response to the earthquake.
The first woman out was blond and buxom Prudence Johnston, wearing a fashionable short-skirted crimson dress, silk stockings, and crystal beads. For a time last fall, Laura had thought William might make Prudence a member of their family, but couldn't say she was sorry about their breakup.
Anne Raleigh emerged from the house with her blanket-wrapped infant. Her sister-in-law Bettina, married to her husband's brother, John, followed, along with Larry and Benjy, their six and four year old boys.
"Another damned quake," Prudence swore. "I . . ." She stopped and stared across the valley at the falling mountain. "Looks like it might be coming down on Hall's place." Her expression was one of unmistakable enjoyment at nature's destructive force.
With both her husband and son up the Gros Ventre, Laura dropped her bag of vegetables.
Ranger Duran, in the yard of the Horsetail Station, noted the earth tremor. He checked his watch, found it twenty past four, and started back about his work. As a stranger to the Teton country, he'd found the earthquakes in the past few days unsettling.
But when he heard a strange grating and rumbling from down the canyon, he stopped work again and frowned. Not twenty minutes ago, he'd made the acquaintance of rancher Cord Sutton and seen him on his way downriver, riding his black stallion Lucifer.
What was happening down there?
Pounding hooves announced a rider barreling up the canyon. Duran expected to see Sutton coming back, but instead a long-legged young man on a sweating cow pony dashed into the muddy yard. He leaped to the ground, landing square on his long legs in what Duran found an improbable feat. "Jesus Christ, Ranger. There's the whole mountain come down in the damned . . . begging your pardon, Ranger. Fer chrissake, how's the river gonna get past the damned dam?" He touched the brim of his cowboy hat. "Sorry, sir, I'm Bobby Cowan from Circle X and I can't help swearin' for the life of me."
Duran headed for his Model T. "Leave your horse and let's go see."
When Lucifer detected the earth tremor, Cord had a deal of a time controlling him.
"Steady, boy," he soothed.
Then the strangest thing, a vibration in his collarbones and an accompanying growl. The pressure in his ears became painful.
Lucifer pranced, while Cord, who usually gave him his head, pulled hard on the reins. A look up at Sheep Mountain showed a rumbling, tumbling gush of earth's entrails.
His gaze traveled down to the wave front at the base of the slide and his gut clenched. Near the leading edge, Eli and Jacob galloped flat out. The wagon, with William at the reins and Francesca on the seat beside him, veered and made drunken side-to-side jerks.
William shouted, "Hold on."
Eli and Jacob struggled to stay up, side footing and going down in a tangle of extended necks and legs. Their screams stood out against the pursuing slide's thunder.
The wagon began to topple. Francesca's valise tumbled out.
William threw away the reins and swiveled toward her. She had a fraction of a second to wonder what he was doing before he swept her over the back of the seat into the wagon bed and dove in after her.
The side of the wagon slid along the road. William snagged Francesca around the waist and hung on to the bottom of the high seat to keep them from falling out.
They seemed to grate along forever, until finally the tangled-up horses came to a tumultuous halt; Christo, they must have broken all their legs.
In the next instant, it seemed as if a giant slammed his boot into the wagon and dumped it bottom up. The brake handle and the back of the seat sheared off.
The light between the wagon boards snuffed out. Francesca's senses narrowed to the sensation of William's arm around her, the cries of Eli and Jacob, and the continued thunder of the monstrous landslide.