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.
Mary straightened, her eyes darkening. “Bite your tongue, Elsie Brookes. Any man would count himself lucky to earn your affection. You just don’t grant it easily.” She leaned on the broom. “Maybe this summer we’ll both find nice boys to take us away from all this.”
“Take us away? Why would anyone want to leave?” Elsie glanced out the open door toward the distant springs, the late morning sunshine casting a golden glow over the rising steam. If she could secure a teaching position in Gardiner, she would stay forever.
“You’ve got a classic case of park fever. You should just marry a ranger and get it over with.” Mary dropped her broom and dustpan into the cart. “What about the new fella? He’s a little quiet, but he looks like a movie star. What was his name?”
“Teddy Vaughn.” Elsie managed to speak his name without her voice wobbling. The first time she’d encountered the brown-eyed ranger, she’d somehow lost all ability to string words together or even swallow for a heady moment. But she couldn’t let her heart go there. No one would ever want her in that way. “I’m dedicating my life to education; you know that. I’m not looking to get married.”
“I’ll never understand you.” Her roommate wrinkled her nose. “Why waste time on other people’s children when you can have ones of your own? You and Ranger Vaughn would make beautiful babies.”
Elsie couldn’t help giggling at Mary’s silliness. Just having her friend back in the park made everything brighter. “Why don’t you head off to meet the boys for lunch? I can finish the last cabin.”
Mary brightened. “Really? But what about your mother?”
“I’ll still have time to check in. Go have fun.”
Her friend tore off her kerchief and fluffed her hair. “You’re the best, Els. I’ll give Bernie a peck on the cheek from you.”
“Don’t you dare.”
Elsie made short work of the last cabin and then pointed the molly cart in the direction of the laundry. A small herd of elk grazed on the green lawn surrounding the lodge. A cow elk, heavy with her unborn calf, lifted her head to stare back, chewing leisurely. The animals had over three thousand square miles of park to wander but seemed to prefer it here. And the visitors enjoyed the close proximity to the wildlife.
“There’s my girl. I was looking for you.” Her father strode toward her, the broad-brimmed Stetson casting shadows over his face. “Are you finished for the morning?” He reached for the cart handles.
“You don’t have to do that. I’ve got it.”
“You think I’m too good to haul laundry?” He cast her his usual grin. “How do you think I won your mother’s affections? It wasn’t with my stamp collection. Or my dashing good looks.”
“She said it was your servant’s heart.” Her mother’s true words wrapped around her own heart.
“Yes, indeed. ‘Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.’ It’s not just the key to a happy home, Elsie—”
“I know. It’s the key to a happy life.” Only her parents could make the golden rule sound romantic. “And I’ll remember that when I finally get all my pennies saved for college. Then I’ll make you proud.”
“I’ve always been proud. You were meant for bigger things than this place.”
“Bigger than Yellowstone?” The idea rippled through her. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Bigger than being a simple ranger like your old man.”