March 1883 Odessa tried to shove back the wave of fear as the slow suffocation began. It was too much, this long ride west. Three days they had been on cursed trains chugging across endless tracks—three days! Hours of dust and dark, choking smoke from the train, the sweet-sour body odor from fellow passengers. She could even smell herself, and the combined force seemed to pour sand in through her nose and down into her lungs, filling them, filling them like two sacks of concrete.
Her father had meant for her to chase the cure; instead, she was merely hastening her own demise.
“Odessa? Dess!” Dominic said, leaning forward in his seat.
“Moira, quick. Dampen this handkerchief.”
Odessa closed her eyes and concentrated on each breath, her brother’s voice, her sister’s movement. She willed herself not to panic, not to give in to the black demon that loomed over her. This was worse than before. The creature had moved in and around her, tormenting her as he sat upon her chest.
“Dess, here. You must take your laudanum. Just this once. You’ve made it this far; we’ll be there within hours.” Odessa could feel the cold stares of the people in the seats next to them as she sipped from the blue bottle. She knew she was not the only consumptive patient on this train, but the healthy passengers seemed to consider all of the consumptives a nuisance. She had not the strength to care at this point.
She had to keep herself from coughing.
To begin coughing was to never stop.
But her throat, the mucous, the tickle, the terrible desire to try and take a deep breath, to give it just one attempt, one huge cough to clear the way, to free her from the storm cloud that covered her now, roiling like a summer thunderhead. Oh God, she cried silently. I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! Don’t let me die!
Visions of her little brothers filled her mind. Gasping piteously. Blue lips, blue fingernails, eyes rolling back in their heads. Michael, thirteen; Clifford, eleven; Earl, eight; tiny Fred, only three … “Dess,” Dominic said urgently. “Dess!”
She could feel herself sliding sideways, her head spinning. She knew it improper, such public loss of control, but she was helpless, giving in to the dark demon that was casting her about, twirling her about like a chicken on a spit.
Dominic picked her up in his arms and laid her gently on the floor between the seats. From far away, she could tell he was placing his coat beneath her head. She could feel the rough woolen fibers at her neck. But how was that possible? Spinning at this rate—
“Stay with us, Odessa St. Clair,” he called to her firmly. “We are almost there! Fight it! Fight back! Stay with us!”
It was as if he called to her from the mouth of a long, dark cave. Could he not see the monster? The demon cloud that was spiriting her away? How was she to fight such a thing? Why did they call it the White Death when it was dark, so dark?
The laudanum, the blessed drug, moved through her and began its soothing work. She did not wish to be the latest St. Clair invalid, wasting away of consumption, wasting away the family money, the family’s time, the family’s attentions. If she was not strong enough to chase the cure, she didn’t deserve it at all. She had to find it within her, the hope, the desire, hovering somewhere deep within. Was it even there any longer?
Moira returned to her side and placed a delicate white handkerchief over her nose and mouth, cool and light and smelling faintly of soap—clean, clear soap. It reminded Odessa of her mother, of years ago when she would come to Odessa’s sickroom to care for her, to nurse her back to health. She wanted to thank her sister, knowing this collapse was embarrassing her, embarrassing them all, but she could not find the breath to utter one word.
“Nic!” Moira said in alarm. Was she outside, floating away from Odessa? Or was Odessa floating away from them? Out of this train, out of her cave, breaking free?
“Is there a doctor on the train?” Dominic yelled. “Is there a doctor? Can anyone assist us?”
“You listen to me,” Dominic said lowly and fiercely in her ear, suddenly right beside her. “You are not going to die on this train. You are going to reach the sanatorium and regain your health. You have a life ahead of you, Odessa St. Clair. A life. Not as an invalid. But as a vital, healthy woman. You will know freedom. You will beat this curse on our family. We will be friends into our old age. Do you hear me? Do you hear me, Odessa?”
“Is there a doctor aboard this train?” Dominic yelled as he watched Odessa slip into unconsciousness. He looked down the aisle of the rocking, swaying train car, meeting the doleful glances of thirty other passengers. No one moved to help. Moira, his younger sister, wept behind her hand. Odessa grew more lax in his arms. Never had he felt so helpless. What had Father been thinking? He could barely keep himself out of trouble; he was supposed to watch over his sisters, too?
He rose, Odessa in his arms. “Is there anyone who can help us?” he cried.
Halfway down the car, a man rose, hat in hand, and a woman beside him. They hesitantly made their way toward the St. Clairs. Nic studied their faces, then saw the man’s collar. A preacher. Nic looked over his shoulder, hoping another was rising, a physician, a nurse, anyone. But no one moved.
“Not the doc you’re seeking, man,” said the tentative preacher. “But it looks like we’re the only ones. Why don’t you put your wife—”
“Put your sister down, and we’ll pray over her. Heading to the sanatorium, I take it? Best there is in these parts.”
“And not far,” put in his wife. “We’ll be there soon.”
Nic studied them a moment longer, then glanced down at Odessa in his arms and Moira on the floor in a heap. “Quit your weeping, Moira,” Nic hissed. “And get back on the seat. She’s not dead yet.” Her tears chafed at him, made him feel more helpless.
Moira only cried harder, but she rose and went back to the bench seat by the window as instructed. Nic gently set Odessa down beside her, head in Moira’s lap, then moved aside to let the preacher and his wife gain entrance to the bench seat facing them.
Moira kept crying, her slender shoulders shaking, one hand on her unconscious sister’s forehead, the other on the handkerchief dabbing at the corner of her eyes. Her face depicted the same horror Nic felt inside.
He pinched his temples between his third finger and thumb, trying to think his way out of this. “Use your brain as well as your brawn,” Father had said to him as they said good-bye in Philadelphia. “I’m counting on you as a St. Clair.” If he failed in this, failed his father again, here on the border of hope, if he failed his sisters … But try as he might, he could not think of what else to do.
“Nothing to do but pray,” said the preacher, staring up at him, waiting, as if reading his thoughts. The preacher’s wife stood beside him, silently seeking his permission with her eyes. Odessa was still deathly pale and her breathing now emerged as a tight, wavering whistle.
“No other option, I guess,” Nic groused. “Go to it.”
The preacher stared at him with eyes of understanding and pity. “It’s in God’s hands for sure, friend. Let’s ask Him to help her make it to the sanatorium. Let’s ask Him to restore her to life itself. Will you join us?”
Nic pulled back a little. “No. I mean, you do what you need to. I’ll … I’m going to go and ask the conductor how long until we reach the Springs.” He turned away and headed down the aisle.
The preacher’s wife handed Moira a clean handkerchief and patted her arm. “What’s her name?” she asked softly. There was something in her voice that soothed, warmed Moira. Something that reminded Moira of her own mother, dead and gone a year now.
“Odessa,” she whispered.
“Your older sister?”
Moira nodded. “By two years.” She smiled and stroked Odessa’s cheek. How many times, growing up, had Odessa held her, comforted her, nursed her when their mother had been so busy with the boys? “Do you think God will hear us?” she whispered, the woman’s face swimming through her tears. “That is, do you think He’ll actually save Odessa? I’ve never seen her...so poorly.”
“I hope so,” the woman returned, reaching out to squeeze Moira’s hand. “All we can do is ask and hope. Hope.”
Moira glanced up to see her brother pacing, waiting to talk to the conductor, clearly not wanting to rejoin them. He had refused to go to church ever since their mother died, claimed he wanted nothing to do with a God who would rob them of so many dear ones.
Nic had gotten into trouble again and again; he’d even gone to jail for brawling. It had horrified her father, infuriated him. Nic claimed Moira’s incessant desire to perform, sing, had brought their father so low, but Moira thought Nic’s troubles and Odessa’s illness were the more likely cause.
Moira looked back down to Odessa, stared at her hard when she realized she wasn’t moving, wasn’t even taking the tiniest of breaths. “Odessa! Odessa!” she screamed. She cast desperate eyes toward her brother, and he came barreling back down the aisle. The preacher and his wife were on their knees beside Odessa, heads bowed, praying. Heart filled with dread, Moira forced herself to look back to her sister, terrified she’d see the same death mask steal over her lovely features as she’d seen on their brothers, their mother.
“Here, let me take her,” Dominic demanded, roughly squeezing between the preacher and his wife, pulling Odessa from Moira’s arms.
“Don’t be so rough, Nic!”
Nic ignored Moira and stared only at their sister. “You hold on, Odessa St. Clair. We are just minutes away. You hold on. This is where it begins, your new life. Wake up, wake up and see the mountains. See your new home. It’s beautiful, Dess. Beautiful. Wake up.”
Beat this curse. Fight it. Wake up. Odessa considered his words from far away, as if she were a judge hearing both sides of a case. She could give in to this demon, let it spirit her away, so her siblings could bury her at the foot of the towering Rockies and be free to open the bookshop, live their lives without her as a burden. Or she could find the sword at her side and strike back at the curse of her family, this dark cloud that had stolen her brothers, that now came back like a foraging, hungry monster seeking more sustenance from the St. Clair fields.
She could not tolerate that. She could not bear the thought of her father, so thin, aging so fast, coming west to simply attend her funeral. She longed for hope, for light to again settle into the lines of his face. To see a smile and not that dim look of desperation, defeat. I will fight, she thought. The words gave her strength. God almighty, You have the power of all in Your hands. Give me the strength to fight!
Odessa opened her eyes and then quickly closed them, blinded by the bright, clear sun shining through towering windows all about her. She had a vision of brilliant white and wondered for a moment if she had already landed in heaven. Recognizing that the tip of her nose and cheeks were very cold, and supposing that heaven was bound to be warm, not frosty, she chanced a second glance through squinting eyes.
She was on a covered porch, all painted in white, upon one of ten beds—only two others occupied—and covered in ivory sheets and blankets. A porch, a blessed porch, and off that cursed train! She saw that two windows on either side of the long porch were open, letting a cool draft wander past. But she was laden with heavy woolen blankets that were tucked neatly on either side of her, cocooned against the cold. And she was propped up against several pillows.
Outside, towering pines gave way to the majestic mountains, purple in the light of morning’s glow. One far outweighed all the others in girth and height; it had to be the famous Pikes Peak, the mountain that guided the way for the wagon trains heading west from as far away as Kansas.
They had made it. The St. Clairs had made it to Colorado.
She had survived, lived to awaken in the sanatorium where she might find the cure.
“Awake at last,” said a voice from down the porch.
Odessa turned her head, suddenly aware that she must look frightful. She tried to give an older man, also cocooned from the chest down in his own bed, a small smile. It was an odd situation, this. Being on a porch alone with two men, even at a distance of twenty feet.
“You’ve been here three days. Doubt you remember most of that.”
Odessa nodded and gave him a quick glance, not yet trusting her voice, uncertain of how to behave in such a foreign social situation. He was a small man, with a wild, wiry gray beard and eyebrows that appeared to be taking over his forehead. His eyes, sunken and darkrimmed from the consumption, were still alert, a spark of humor within.
He nodded at her, encouraging her to stay engaged. He seemed clearly bored with his hours of lying about. “Name’s Sam O’Toole,” he said. “I, too, came from Philly, but it’s been …” He paused to cough, a long, hacking process that Odessa tried not to listen to. It made her want to join him. And although she couldn’t take a long, deep breath, it was better than coughing and not stopping. She closed her eyes, tried to concentrate on the fact that she was alive, she hadn’t died on the train; she was in Colorado Springs....
“It’s been twenty years,” Sam continued at last. “I imagine it’s quite different now.” There was a note of sorrow, separation in his tone. He was quiet for a moment and then seemed to remember himself. “Our companion here is my neighbor from down south, Bryce McAllan.”
The other man, his cot set at an angle, was partially hidden by a canvas and easel.
Brown wavy hair. Kind eyes. He gave her a gentle smile and nod in greeting. He dabbed a brush in the paint somewhere that Odessa couldn’t see, laid his head back as if summoning the strength to move, and then lifted an arm to place the color upon the canvas. But then he looked her way again.
Where was the nurse? Her doctor? Her siblings?
“You need not respond to Sam’s idle chatter,” Bryce said. “We know your struggle well.” His smile faded and he returned his attention to the canvas. He dabbed his brush on the unseen palette, settled back among the pillows, took a few breaths, and then lifted his arm again toward the painting.
“We’ve met your brother and sister,” Sam said, then paused to cough again. He leaned his head back, exhausted from the effort, but couldn’t seem to stop himself from speaking. He pulled an age-spotcovered hand from beneath the covers and wiped his upper lip with a handkerchief. So he struggled with the fever, too. “Fine people. And I know your name is Odessa. I assume you know you arrived in Colorado Springs in the nick of time. They’ll be very glad to see you awake.”
Odessa moved a little and smelled the herbal poultice still upon her chest. Peppermint and sage and a deep, mossy scent that reminded her of the shady forest just after snowmelt. “My brother?”
“They’ll return soon, I’m certain. They’ve hardly left your side. Your sister appeared faint herself, so he left to take her back to the hotel. She’s been through an ordeal, between the journey west and their bedside vigil. Quite the beauty she is … almost as pretty as you, miss. If I was a few years younger—” He paused to cough and Odessa dared to glance his way, and further, to Bryce.
She fought the urge to squirm, touch her hair. She knew that he, too, was comparing her to Moira. She concentrated on the view outside instead. No wonder he painted it. Cloaked in springtime snow, the mountains were magnificent.
Bryce cleared his throat. His lungs sounded good, the way hers sounded on her best days. But she had seen the sheen of sweat upon his brow, how he leaned back among the pillows from the mere exertion of painting. She wondered so many things, how long he had been here, how many other patients there were...
Old Sam kept coughing, sitting up now to try to get on top of it. As if reading her agitation, Bryce set down his brush and settled long, strong fingers around a glass bell. It looked desperately dainty and a bit silly in his big hand. She met his eyes, wide and blue, and then noticed his hair was streaked, his face weathered, as if he had spent many summers in the sun. He smiled, and his eyes crinkled again at the corners appealingly.
He was handsome. Terribly thin, but handsome. And only a few years older than she.
Blessedly, the nurse arrived then. “Oh!” she cried in delight. “Miss St. Clair, you’re awake! The doctor will be so pleased. Let me go and fetch you some water—no doubt you are parched—oh, and Sam, you too …” She turned back to Odessa. “I’ll make the doctor aware of your condition.”
“Thank you,” Odessa croaked.
“Not at all,” said the nurse with a bob of her head, and with that she hurried out as quickly as she had arrived.
“Nurse Packard,” Sam managed, still coughing as he grinned Odessa’s way. “A saint in white.”
“Everything is white around here,” Bryce muttered.
A few minutes later, the nurse arrived with a pewter pitcher that was sweating from the blessedly cool contents within, and a tin mug. She poured a cup and set it against Odessa’s lips. “There now, just a few sips. All right, one more. I know you must be terribly thirsty. But we must take it easy. We don’t want it coming right back up now, do we?”
Odessa closed her eyes and pushed back a frown at the woman’s words. She concentrated on the cold liquid she could feel slide all the way down her throat, easing, soothing, calming.
Nurse Packard set the mug on the table beside her, and Odessa noticed that she, too, had a bell beside her bed. “I’ll return with the doctor,” she said, and with another bob of her head, was gone.
“They’ll bring food at some point,” said Bryce. “More food than you’ve ever seen in your life. I’ve gained ten pounds in my two weeks here.”
Odessa said nothing, thinking only of how perilously thin he must have been if he was already ten pounds heavier.
“Are you from the East as well, Mr. McAllan?” she said at last.
“Betrayed by the accent, eh? Bangor. But I’ve been in Colorado for five years running our horse ranch near Sam’s land,” he said easily. “It’s in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos. Have you heard of the Sangres?”
She shook her head.
“The way they rise off the valley floor, it makes these mountains appear as princes to their kings.”
“They are taller than Pikes Peak?”
“Ten that rival her. Another couple of dozen not far short of reaching her height. But it’s more that there is one after another, marching together as if in some grand parade.”
“It sounds magnificent,” Odessa said.
Odessa heard no response from Bryce. She imagined he was irritated with the doctor’s patronizing manner. But she understood his motivation. If they were to be ensconced in beds, all together as men and women … it was highly unorthodox.
“Is there not a separate porch for women?” she asked gently.
The doctor shook his head with a small smile and reached out a hand for hers. “I am Doctor Morton, Miss St. Clair. Forgive our arrangements, but we have twenty-two patients and only five of them are women. We are nearly at capacity. There is little choice but to intermingle our patients.”
“Only five women? How is that possible?”
He gave her another small smile and a shrug of his narrow shoulders as Nurse Packard brought him a chair on which to sit. “You’re in the West now. We have a preponderance of men, all intent on seeking their fortunes. And here, mining, ranching, farming, all subject them to uncommon levels of dust, weakening their lungs. They are primed for consumption. And others arrive from the East—those from coal mines or printer’s shops. Still more that have lived in the shadows of factory smokestacks. We receive them all.”
He took some papers from the nurse and gazed down at them. “I’ve seen to your welfare since you arrived on the train. We were expecting you, of course, but had hoped you would not arrive in such dire straits.” He looked her in the eye. “It is fortunate you arrived when you did, Miss St. Clair.”
“I am aware of that. Do you … do you believe you can help me? Heal me?”
Doctor Morton smiled more broadly and patted her hand. “We have brought you this far, haven’t we? Back from death’s door? I see no reason why you won’t enjoy a complete recovery and live a long life. But it will probably have to be here, near the sanatorium, in case you experience any setbacks.”
Odessa stared at him for a long moment. “I can—I can never go back? To Philadelphia?”
Doctor Morton’s face sobered. “I would advise against it. I tell all my patients to settle here, make this your home.” His eyes slid over to the men at the end of the porch and back again. He was quiet for a moment, carefully choosing his next words. “Your father did not tell you? I was quite clear about it.”
Odessa barely shook her head, aghast when her eyes began to fill with tears. Papa had sent her off, sent her off knowing he might never see her again, that she might never return to him. How could he? How could he?