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January 5, 1885
Susan Hurst pushed back a strand of auburn hair and clutched her wrapper to her throat. If anyone found her wandering the halls of Saint Francis Academy so late at night, questions were bound to be asked. But right now Susan had too many unanswered petitions of her own to worry about such an event.
She paused only once in her trek. At the doorway of the primary dormitory, she leaned inside to peek at her charges. A dozen tousled heads rested serenely upon feather pillows. Muttered snatches of dream-talk filtered into the air, a sniffle, a grunt.
Susan envied their state. It had been weeks since she'd slept through the night. Not that she'd had bad dreams — to the contrary, in fact. Actually she would have preferred the nightmares. At least then she would have a reason for being afraid to lay her head on her pillow and surrender herself to the sweet stuff of her imagination.
Leaving the girls to their slumber, Susan ran down the hallway to the steps beyond. Without a candle to lead her, she found the corridors black as pitch. But her feet knew the way through the twisted hallways that led from the living quarters of the academy past the cloister to the small private chapel nestled deep in the heart of the building.
Fourteen years ago Susan had come to Saint Francis as a student. After four years of schooling, she had stayed to begin her novitiate. But time had a way of catching up to a person. Susan could feel the future looming in front of her, forcing her to make decisions that would bind her irrevocably to a life that had become as familiar as breathing.
The door to the chapel swung open on well-oiled hinges, giving no clue to Susan's errand. Once inside, she hesitated, staring up at the elaborate stained-glass window behind the altar. Moonlight filtered through the tiny jewel-sized panes, bathing the room in muted color.
During the day Susan had no problems dealing with the choices she'd made. She had been happy at Saint Francis. Very happy. She felt a bond with the sisters that went beyond that of mere co-workers; she adored her students and her work. So it had only been logical to begin her novitiate with the intent of some day joining the order. Whenever she'd felt qualms, Susan had told herself that she had ten years to consider taking her final vows. Then she had ignored the passage of time with a desperate glee.
In the space of a few weeks her grace period would expire. Each tick of the clock pounded into her conscience with such force she couldn't deny that something was missing — some deeper devotion. Thoughts of officially joining the sisters caused a heaviness to grip her chest.
In the daylight she could push the foreboding aside, telling herself that such feelings were natural. A permanent step like this deserved careful consideration. She was acting as normal as a bride-to-be with last-minute jitters.
But at night she couldn't thrust away her fears. She couldn't forget that she would be marrying not a mere mortal but the church. And she couldn't ignore the fact that her commitment was a little strained. A part of her wanted ... more.
Susan sank to her knees, seeking answers in front of the altar just as she had every night for the past few months. The dark shadows of the chapel pressed heavily upon her shoulders, cloaking her in an inky chill that sank into her bones. The stones of the nave were icy, their surface worn to a glossy smoothness by the penitent worshipers who had knelt in this same spot hundreds of times over the past twenty years.
Locking her hands together in fervent supplication, Susan Hurst began, "Holy Mary, Mother of God." But the vaulted ceiling swallowed the words whole, leaving a gaping emptiness. She doubted that heaven had even heard her plea.
Sighing, she rubbed her forehead and ran her fingers through the loose silky auburn tresses that hung unbound to her waist. Above her, the serene visage of the Virgin Mary looked down with guarded eyes.
The restlessness in Susan's heart swelled another degree. Why hadn't God answered her prayers? Why hadn't He taken away the longings? If she was to become a member of the order, she had to eradicate these half- formed yearnings from her heart. She knew that. Yet, she fought a wayward spirit that wanted things it could never have — in or out of the order.
Sister Mary Margaret had once told her that God's children gave energy to those wishes and desires they pondered the most. So for the past month, Susan had tried to think solely of her duties and her students. But she couldn't seem to stop the phantoms that came to her once she slept. Sweet passionate demons that made her body tremble and her arms reach out for ... what?
A cool draft drifted across the floor at her feet, piercing the loose weave of her wrapper. A bout of shivering racked her body, and she stood. Hugging her arms tightly to her chest, she tried to warm herself as best she could. Saint Francis became as cold as an icehouse each night, trapping the winter's bite deep in its thick, irregular walls. Nevertheless, the rugged rock structure would soon become her home, so she'd best become accustomed to it. Something akin to panic gripped her at the very thought, and she stumbled closer to the statue, touching the Virgin's feet. "Holy Mary, Mother of ..." The familiar prayer locked in her throat. "Holy Mary ..."
Drawing back, Susan searched the shadows, seeking a measure of comfort. For years she had been coming to this altar, craving the balm it offered her aching spirit. But lately that peace was getting harder and harder to find. She couldn't stop the burgeoning mixture of anger and dissatisfaction that churned in her chest.
She whirled to challenge the blackness around her. "I don't belong here! Can't you see that?" The echoing ricochet of words on stone mocked the fervor with which they'd been spoken. A weary defeat colored her added confession. "But I don't belong anywhere else, either."
She stabbed the air with an accusing finger. "Why? Why? Why am I cursed with these ... these feelings? Why am I tormented with thoughts of a man's arms and a man's touch when you know I can never ... can never ..."
When she couldn't even force herself to say the words, Susan ran down the aisle, her hair flowing behind her like a brilliant auburn pennant. At the last row of pews, she turned to confront the shaft of moonlight spilling through the stained glass and casting a pale pattern of stardust onto the floor.
"You did this to me. You killed my parents and my childish illusions. Now all I want is an answer. Either give me back my life or give me the serenity I need to surrender my future to the church."
Her only reply was silence. But Susan Hurst had become quite good at waiting. Maybe God wasn't ready to tell her now. He would, one way or the other. Only three weeks remained until the orphanage reunion, which would see her home to Ashton for a brief respite. Susan could only be grateful that the reunion would be held in Wyoming and not in Pennsylvania. Years ago, the headmistress of the Benton House Orphanage had married and moved the institution west, away from the crowded cities. Since many of the children had come with her at the time, most of them still lived within a few hundred miles of Ashton in the Wyoming Territory.
She intended to enjoy herself, to relax, and to think things through.
After the celebration, if Susan had not received some kind of sign that heaven was opposed to the idea, she would return to Saint Francis and take her vows.
Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory January 7, 1885
The pounding on the door could have roused the dead, but it barely pierced the haze clouding Daniel Crocker's brain. Moaning, he rolled onto his stomach, dragging a pillow over his ears; but the blasted racket continued, offering him no choice but to get up and answer the door.
One hand reached blindly toward the bedside table, patting the unfamiliar assortment of items — lamp, key, matchbox — until he encountered the smooth contoured shape of his Peacemaker revolver.
"Go away." There was no need to shout or raise his voice. The pure rage that sizzled in the careful intonation of each syllable conveyed his foul mood clearly enough. Stuffing the pillow in a ball under his cheek, he held the Peacemaker at arm's length and sighted down the barrel with one fever-reddened eye. The steadiness of his aim and the hard cast of his jaw belied the weakness of his body.
"Mr. Crocker, I know it's you," a boyish voice called through the panels. "I saw you come in late last night. I'd recognize you anywhere. I've seen the pictures."
Daniel didn't answer. The gun didn't waver. Except for the steely gleam that entered his ice blue eyes, he showed no reaction.
"Mr. Crocker?" the voice came again, more hesitant this time.
"Who wants him?"
"Well, nobody — that is to say, I've got no business with you personally ... I mean I've got a telegram for you, but I don't intend no harm." The person on the other side of the door waited a full ten seconds then tentatively added, "Please?"
Damn. Daniel released the hammer and set his revolver on the nightstand. Moving as gingerly as he could, he eased upright from the bed.
His head pounded. Cupping his aching side, he took a quick indrawn breath when the action pulled at the blood-caked strips of cotton wrapped around his waist.
Retrieving the revolver, he padded to the door. The mirror over the bureau eloquently testified that, except for the stained bandages, he was naked. However, the freezing air had little impact on his skin. He'd been fighting a fever for over a day now. Even the cold January weather couldn't seem to shake it loose.
"Mr. Crocker?" The wavering summons was followed by a soft tap. "I don't want to bother you, but —"
"Who are you?"
"Jordie. Jordie Davis. I work with Mr. Smythe down at the telegraph office. I do all his running. I've also got some medicine Doc Goddard ordered for you. He said to bring it straight here."
Before the boy had a chance to speak again, Daniel opened the door and leveled the gun at a spot in the center of the boy's forehead. Jordie Davis stared at him with eyes as round as marbles. Swiftly Crocker checked the hall in either direction then pinned the boy with a penetrating glare. "What do you want?"
Jordie gulped, cowering beneath the loaded pistol like a cornered rabbit. Daniel Crocker's reputation had preceded him. "Ruthless" would have been a kind word to use in connection with his work for the Pinkertons. Last summer Jordie had seen the gruesome newspaper photos taken after Crocker apprehended the murderer Mackie Beeb. Beeb had worn a serene expression. Had it not been for the pennies over his eyelids and the bullet hole through his neck, no one would have guessed how swiftly he'd been sent to his Maker.
Jordie gnawed at the inside of his lip. Why, oh, why, had he agreed to make the deliveries to this man? Nine times out of ten, telegrams meant nothing but bad news. Fear inundated Jordie in sleeting waves. He had the rotten luck to bring sad tidings to a man who appeared as touchy as a grizzly roused from a long winter's nap.
"I didn't mean to get you up — honest!" He took in Daniel's sleep-mussed hair and stubbled jaw, then noted his bare chest, makeshift bandage, and naked thighs. Silently he thrust a small package and the folded paper into Daniel's free hand, then backed away.
Jordie froze, standing ramrod stiff next to the flocked paper on the hotel wall. "What?"
"You deserve something for your trouble."
"No! No, no. No trouble at all. No trouble. None. Honest!" Then, scrambling toward the staircase on the far side of the building, he disappeared from view.
The weapon became too heavy for Daniel to hold. Dropping his arm, he backed into the room and shut the door. Setting the gun and the telegram on the nightstand, he drew the covers over his legs and settled onto the bed. The sheets were speckled with streaks of blood from his restless night.
Flinging an arm over his eyes to block out the light streaming through his window, he ignored the crumpled scrap of paper waiting for his perusal. He didn't want to look at it — didn't need to look at it. No doubt the missive held a summons from Jedidiah Kutter, his superior. Since Daniel had taken a knife in his side while apprehending Grant Dooley and most of his gang, the last thing he wanted to think about was going back to work. This past year he'd been on a horse more often than not. He'd been beaten, shot at, and cursed. He'd traversed most of Wyoming Territory tracking the Dooleys, and most of the Mountain West trailing the Beebs, and if the Dooley gang had been trouble, the Beeb brothers were his personal nightmare. Daniel was tired. Bone weary. Not just of the last few weeks, but of everything: his job, his routine. His life.
Squeezing his lashes closed, he willed his body to settle into the arms of sleep. But sleep had never come easily to Daniel Crocker, and right now it seemed an impossibility. The presence of the telegram burned into his consciousness.
"Damn." He shifted his arm and rolled his head on the pillow. The paper beckoned him like the crooked finger of a practiced whore, promising the sweet fulfillment of his curiosity, yet mocking him with the emptiness of that same fulfillment.
Knowing he would have no rest until he read the contents, Daniel stretched to take the note between two knuckles. He held it up in the light as if he could read through the paper, then finally tore it open.
There was no return address, no signature. Just one simple line: "She will take her vows."
"'She will take her vows,'" he read aloud. He crumpled the telegram in his fist. If he closed his eyes, he could see that bitter October day when he had helped little Susan from the train and handed her over to the care of a special friend, one of the new novices at Saint Francis. He had persuaded himself and her guardians at the orphanage that Susan would need to stay at the academy only a few years in order to receive her education. In the meantime, Belle would watch over her and protect her — something Daniel could no longer do.
But Susan had not left Saint Francis four years later. She had stayed to begin her ten-year novitiate. In all that time, Daniel had visited her once, on the day of her graduation. He hadn't seen her since. He'd contented himself with infrequent reports from Belle. This most recent telegram was no different from any other he'd received over the years. Except for the message.
She will take her vows.
"Like hell she will," he ground out between his teeth. He rolled to his feet and reached for his trousers.
As soon as he'd cleared the building, Jordie ran down the front steps. The man was waiting for him, just as he'd said he would.
"I gave him the package; now leave me alone. I've got to get back to Mr. Smythe or he'll have my head."
The stranger reached into his pocket and withdrew a twenty dollar gold piece. "For your trouble," he said.
Surprised, Jordie reluctantly took it. Twenty dollars was a lot of cash. More than he could make in months and months of running.
But as he stammered his good-byes and raced down the street, he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd just been paid blood money.CHAPTER 2
January 10, 1885
In Susan Hurst's opinion, Saint Francis Academy for Young Ladies became as sterile as a tomb once the girls went to bed. She missed the restless energy and the sound of muffled laughter. She longed for the faint trace of forbidden toilet water that sometimes wafted into the air. But most of all she yearned for the company of another human being.
As one of the few novices serving at Saint Francis, Susan was given duties that kept her busy long after the sun set in the sky. Most of her assignments required solitude, providing her with the time and opportunity to ruminate over her upcoming admittance into the order. Yet sometimes the loneliness became unbearable.
Arching her back to relieve the weary crick that had settled low in the nape of her neck, she made her way through the night-blackened corridors to her room. Her footsteps echoed against the vaulted ceiling. The frost, condensed on the surface of the stones, lent a bite to the draft that snaked beneath her skirts.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Distant Thunder"
Copyright © 1992 Lisa Bingham.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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