Lucius Stewart, a hard-working innkeeper is thrilled he has finally paid off the loan for his hotel. Now all he has to do is convince the love of his life, Mourning Dove, to move in with him. A late night visit brings bad news.
Hotel LaBelle, Billings, Montana, 1905
After five years of hard work, scrimping and saving, today Lucius Stewart’s dream became reality. This afternoon, he paid the Cattleman’s Bank off in full, and now held the deed to the beautiful Hotel LaBelle in his hand. He sat at his desk, sipped an exceptional whiskey from his bar, and dangled a fine cigar between his lips. He liked it when all the patrons and staff were in bed, asleep. During the evening in the crowded bar, with the piano player pounding the keys, it was impossible to even hear his own thoughts.
Lucius blew a smoke ring and stared at the wood ceiling of his office. A good day. Perhaps the best of his thirty-five years of life. Though born and raised in New York City, the West had always called to him. When his mother died, he sold the family home and headed to Big Sky Country. During the ten years of working his way up to general manager in a large hotel in the city, he dreamed of building his own place. He wanted something for city folks like himself who hankered after a taste of the frontier—with the civilized amenities of a soft bed, fine dining, and good wine.
If he’d been married, he would be celebrating with his wife. But the woman he loved turned him down, saying it would never work. In her nation, the women owned the home and all the family possessions. When a man and woman married, the husband moved into the wife’s home. And therein lay the rub. They came from different worlds. To keep the Hotel LaBelle up and running, he had to be present, pure and simple. The place wouldn’t run itself. Lucius knew if he blinked too long the barkeep would water the liquor, the cowboys would tear the place apart, and the hotel would be destroyed.
So, he decided they were getting married, and she was moving in with him. They had to, especially with a little one on the way. An awful thought sprang into his mind. What if something happened to him before he could convince her his way was the right way? Life was unpredictable. Hadn’t his father died when he was a small child? If his father hadn’t provided for his mother, Lord only knew what his life would have been like growing up. Lucius set the deed to the hotel aside, picked up a pen, dipped it into the inkwell, and began to write.
An hour later, satisfied with his work, he dropped the pen on the desk. As soon as the ink dried, he’d put the second document in his safe place, along with the deed. Right now, he was plumb beat. He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and drifted off to sleep.
He fell backward, hitting the chair and his head on the wall. He rubbed the back of his skull and searched for the source of the voice.
“Who’s there? What do you want? I don’t have any money—I took it all to the bank today.”
An old woman stepped out of the shadows. She wore a buckskin dress covered in elk teeth. Eagle feathers perched on her head as if about to take flight. Anger creased her tanned face.
“Beautiful Blackfeather.” The mother of the woman he loved stood before him, the feathers on her head trembling, and her face twisted in rage. “What’s wrong? Why are your arms bleeding? What happened to your hair? Is Mourning Dove not well?”
Shaking from head to toe, his heart thundered in his chest like a bear trapped in a cage. All the traditional signs of mourning were right there in front of him, but he refused to believe his eyes. No, it couldn’t be. His vision blurred and he wailed. “No, no, tell me it isn’t so. Tell me Mourning Dove lives, please!”
“Do not speak of my daughter, you worthless dog,” she spoke in Crow at the same time her hands flew in Plains Indian hand talk so fast and with such fury, he could barely keep up.
“Slow down,” he signed back. “What is wrong?”
“You. You are what’s wrong. You lay with so many women, you thought my daughter was another to toss aside. Now there is a child and you are not man enough to make things right.”
“That’s not true!” Lucius jumped to his feet. “I love your daughter. I want to marry her. Here in my hotel, with a judge. Make it legal in the eyes of Montana law and white folks. Show her she’s worth more to me than a bride price of a horse.”
“Liar,” Beautiful Blackfeather signed. “You love and leave all women. You hurt many and will do it no more.”
“No, no, no. You don’t understand. I don’t want any other women.” Exasperated, he withdrew a gold wedding band from his pocket and held it out for Beautiful to see. “For Mourning Dove.”
She pulled her medicine stick out of her belt and aimed it at his face. A wispy white feather hung on the tip and moved with his breath. She spoke in Crow. Though difficult to understand, Lucius knew enough of the language to recognize she cursed him. Beautiful Blackfeather wasn’t any ordinary mother-in-law to be. The Crow considered her the most powerful Medicine Woman in Montana. He had to stop her, make her comprehend his intentions.
The room spun, colors twisted and whirled like a kaleidoscope, and his fingers and toes tingled. He grabbed the edge of the desk and squeezed his eyes shut to maintain his balance as the floor shifted. He opened them to discover Beautiful Blackfeather was gone. When he raised his hands to wipe away the sweat soaking his face, his stomach hit the floor. His hands had disappeared too.