(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores June 2019.)
"A thousand Yellowstone wonders are calling, Look up and down and round about you!" — John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Elsie closed her eyes for a moment and breathed in the steamy air, imagining she stood beside Grand Prismatic Spring instead of the massive laundry boiler in the back of the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge. She tucked a damp curl behind her ear before loading another stack of folded bedsheets and towels onto the molly cart. After pushing it through the swinging doors, she rolled the cart down the wooden ramp, the outside air a welcome respite. Two more summers—three at most. That's all it would take.
Mary stood waiting, fiddling with the pink kerchief protecting her pale-blond hair. "There you are. If we get these last housekeeping cabins finished in time, we can meet Hal and Bernie at the cafeteria for lunch." She flashed a smile at Elsie. "You'll come, won't you?"
Elsie guided the cart's wheels through the icy slush on the sidewalk. "You've only been back in Yellowstone two days, and you're already angling for dates? I thought you told me you weren't seeing pack rats anymore."
Pack rats, pillow punchers, pearl divers—the concession staff had a language all its own, and it all sounded like more laughs than being boring old porters, maids, and dishwashers. The rangers lumped the lot of them together, calling them all savages. No one could remember how the ridiculous name was chosen, but it had stuck for close to fifty years already.
"Hal's been promoted to front desk at the hotel—hadn't you heard? And though he's hardly the man of my dreams, I don't see any better choices around here at the moment." Mary leaned in with a conspiratorial air. "I hear the new gear jammers are coming in a couple of weeks. They always hire the best-looking fellas to drive the tour buses."
"That's probably why the jammers are notorious for having a girl at every stop." Elsie veered left to avoid a puddle. "I'd like to join you for lunch, but I need to run home and check on Mama. I'll be back right after, and we can fold the rest of the sheets."
"I've been meaning to ask how she is. Your last two letters didn't sound promising."
A knot formed in Elsie's stomach. "She had a few bad spells this winter. The doctor says it's her heart. He wants her to rest more."
"Has she had heart problems before?"
"She had rheumatic fever as a child." Elsie tightened her grip on the cart handle. "But I've never seen her like this."
"I'm sorry to hear that. She's like a second mother, not just to me, but to all the pillow punchers." She unlocked the cabin door and pushed it open. "I suppose it was a good thing you were here to help and not off at college with the rest of us."
Elsie had told herself the same, though it did little to ease the sting of being left behind. "When does Rose arrive, do you know? I've missed her."
"Around the same time as the jammers, I believe." Mary grabbed Elsie's hand and squeezed. "I'm glad I came early. We'll be the three musketeers for at least one more summer. Who knows where Rose and I will go after graduation?" She heaved a sigh that stirred the dusty air in the room. "Oh, my. This cabin looks worse than the last one. How is that possible? Ugh, the smell."
"That's what happens when you latch the door and leave it abandoned for months on end." She understood too well. Elsie reached for the bottle of vinegar and a handful of newspapers. "I'll start on the glass. You can knock down the cobwebs."
Mary wrinkled her nose and lifted the broom. "If I find any spiders, it'll be up to you to dispatch them."
As Elsie scrubbed the veil of dirt from the panes, sunlight filtered into the tiny space and revealed a fine layer of dust coating the room. It was the maids' job to refresh the old cabins, just like spring renewed the world each year, and prepare for the visitors to come.
She'd continue making beds and sweeping floors until she had enough money for the teacher program at the University of Montana. She'd dreamed of being a teacher since she was little, and spending her winters helping at the school in Gardiner, just outside the park's northern boundaries in Montana, had only deepened the desire. Every new student arrived with potential hidden inside, like the seeds sealed up in the cones from the lodgepole pine trees. It was her job to help them find it.
After sweeping and dusting, Mary tucked the crisp white sheets around the mattress and patted the top. "I think we're almost done here. Are you sure you can't join us for lunch? Hal's brother will be odd man out if you don't come."
"Bernie is an odd duck, no matter what I do." Elsie shoved the dresser back in place after cleaning behind it. "Of course, I'm no catch myself." Her hand went to her collar out of habit, her fingers checking that the blouse was buttoned all the way to the neck.