Springwater, Montana Territory,
Fall of 1882
The distant hills were skirted in every shade of crimson, yellow, and brown, the sky a blue so deep that it caused something to twist softly in the depths of Olivia Wilcott Darling's spinsterly heart, the air crisp with the promise of an early frost, perhaps even of snow.
Olivia, busy throughout that October morning burning dry branches pruned a month earlier from the trees, shrubs, and lilac bushes growing in her yard, stopped to touch the back of one hand to her brow. The acrid, autumny scent of woodsmoke roused within her an odd but familiar feeling of sorrowful festivity. Though she mourned the summer, vibrant early on with peonies and lilacs and sleepy bees, and then later with roses, the fall was still her favorite time of year. She loved its vivid colors and strange, chilly promise and, at moments like this one, with the fragrant fire crackling cheerfully nearby, with her fine, spotless white house rising behind her, solid and very nearly grand, she felt expectant, as if something were about to happen. Something out of the ordinary, something wonderful.
A friendly female voice interrupted her revery. "Olivia? Aren't you planning to join us at Rachel's for the quilting bee?"
She managed a smile for Savannah Parrish, who lived with her husband and several children across the road, then approached the neatly painted fence. She'd hired young Toby McCaffrey to whitewash the pickets in the spring, and he'd done a fine job.
Savannah, a lovely woman with hair the color of copper and eyes that shone with happiness, was married to the town's only physician. She'd told Olivia herself, right off, that she'd once been a saloon owner and singer, news that had amazed Olivia at the time, since those were not things most women would have admitted to a close friend, let alone a mere acquaintance. Now, clad in a gray cloak and a practical, lightweight woolen dress, roughly the color of cornflowers, she stood beaming at Olivia, her basket of sewing supplies over one arm, and waited expectantly for a reply.
Olivia shook her head, looked away for a moment, looked back. The women of Springwater couldn't be accused of shunning her -- she was invited to every tea party, every church social, every quilting bee. Once or twice, she had actually attended, but she had felt so painfully out of place in the swirling midst of all that joyous chatter that it seemed easier just to stay away.
"We'll be finishing up Cornucopia's quilt today," Savannah prompted, smiling. "Who would have thought that trail boss would just ride into town one day, buy a pouch of tobacco from her over at the general store, and ask her to marry him, just like that?"
Olivia's effort at a responding smile simply wouldn't stick to her mouth. At thirty-two, she had long since given up on marriage and a family of her own -- she'd been passed over and that was that, as her late aunt had so often reminded her -- but that didn't mean she didn't still pine sometimes. While she liked Cornucopia just fine -- indeed, she liked them all, Mrs. McCaffrey, Mrs. Wainwright, Mrs. Hargreaves, Mrs. Kildare, Mrs. Calloway and, of course, Savannah and all the others -- secretly, she'd been bruised by the tidings of the store mistress's good fortune. It only served to reinforce what Aunt Eloise had always said: she, Olivia, was too tall, too plain, too thin, too smart, and far too contentious to attract a good man. She might just as well accept the fact and move on. The trouble was, it wasn't always such an easy thing to do.
"I've -- I've got to tend this fire," Olivia said, finding her tongue at last. "I'm all sooty and my clothes smell of smoke -- doubtless my hair does, as well. By the time I finished making myself presentable, you'd have that quilt finished up and tied with a bow."
Savannah shook her head, but her expression remained kindly. "Nonsense," she said. "Everyone will be disappointed if you're not there."
Olivia glanced back at the fire, already settling down to embers, then met Savannah's gaze straight on. "I'm sorry. I'm just -- too busy."
Savannah looked at her in silence for a long moment, then nodded and gave a small sigh. "Maybe next time," she said.
"Maybe," Olivia replied. She would have another excuse at the ready when another social occasion arose, and Savannah plainly knew that. She hesitated briefly, nodded once more, and hastened away toward the home of Rachel and Trey Hargreaves.
Olivia watched until the other woman had disappeared around the corner of the Springwater stagecoach station, and felt even lonelier than usual.
He reined in the strawberry roan and leaned forward to rest an arm on the saddle horn, surveying the valley, the springs, the tight cluster of buildings in the midst of an ocean of grass, bustling with enterprise despite the first purple shadows of twilight creeping across the landscape.
A long sigh escaped him. He ought to rein that roan around and ride off for parts unknown. Put the whole matter behind him, once and for all.
On the other hand, he'd be thirty-seven years old, come the spring, and he'd been living under an assumed name for so long that he had to think twice sometimes to recall who he really was. Damn, but he was tired of running. Tired of telling lies, tired of waking up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, with his guts wrung into a ropy knot and his heart thundering fit to crash right through his rib cage.
He'd go right on calling himself Jack McLaughlin for the time being, he reckoned; no sense in shocking folks right off. They'd be getting on in years now, the people he'd come to see, and one or both of them might be in failing health. He'd keep a careful distance, take things slow. Once he'd reasoned out what was what, he'd either tip his hand or get back on that roan and take to the road again.
He didn't much cotton to the latter prospect, yearning the way he did for a roof over his head, regular woman-cooked meals, and real beds with clean sheets on them, but if he'd learned one thing in his life, it was that only fools expected an easy path.
He waited another few moments, watching smoke curl, blue-gray, from the chimneys of that little town, then pressed his heels lightly against the roan's sides and loosened his hold on the reins. As though anxious for gentle company himself, the gelding obeyed instantly.
* * *
It was nearly dark when he showed up at her front door, that hulking, shaggy stranger, hat in hand, blue eyes meeting her questioning gaze straight on.
"They told me over at the Brimstone that this is a rooming house," he said.
Olivia's back straightened slightly. Most travelers slept at the Springwater Station, where they could indulge in June-bug McCaffrey's legendary cooking, if they were the sort to seek indoor sleeping quarters. Therefore, the request caught her slightly off guard.
"Yes," she answered, but primly. She couldn't afford to be too cool, though; after all, she'd spent Aunt Eloise's entire bequest buying this house, she was down to her last few dollars, and she needed paying guests. In truth, she hadn't had any guests at all, paying or otherwise, as of yet. Still, she made no effort to open the screened door between them.
His mouth tilted upward at one side, in a semblance of a quizzical grin, and Olivia was thunderstruck by his resemblance to -- to someone. She couldn't for the life of her think whom it was he looked like, but she relaxed a little all the same, if for no other reason than that sense of benign familiarity.
"I'm sorry I bothered you, ma'am," he said, and started to turn away. He was tall and powerfully built, especially through the shoulders, and his clothes, dungarees, a colorless woolen shirt, battered buckskin chaps, and a long gunslinger's coat, had all seen better days, as had his boots.
"Wait," Olivia said, and bit her lip.
He stopped, turned back.
"I charge two dollars a week, without meals," she told him, well aware that she was falling over her own tongue and there wasn't a thing she could do about it. "Four if you want breakfast and supper. I do laundry, too, but I charge by the piece for that." She paused, cleared her throat. "You'll have to pay in advance. The two dollars, I mean."
He might have chuckled; the sound was so low, she couldn't be sure. "Fair enough," he said. He'd been about to don his hat again, but now he held it loosely in the fingers of his right hand. "Name's Jack McLaughlin, if that's important."
Praying she would not be murdered in her bed -- or worse -- Olivia unlatched the hook and opened the screened door. "It is. Come inside, Mr. McLaughlin," she said. "I'll show you your room, and put on some supper, if you're hungry."
"Do you have one?" he asked, standing there in the foyer, taller than the long-case clock ticking against the wall.
Olivia hesitated, hoping her voice wasn't trembling, the way the pit of her stomach was. She had the most peculiar sensation of dizzy exhilaration, as though she'd just stepped over a precipice in the dark, trusting that she would survive the fall. "A room?" she asked.
He smiled. "A name," he prompted.
She raised her chin. "Miss Olivia Wilcott Darling," she said. "Miss Darling will do, when you have occasion to address me." She had never wanted to barber a man in her life, wouldn't even have thought of such an intimate thing, but just looking at Mr. McLaughlin brought up a fierce desire to take her sewing shears to all that light brown hair, that dreadful beard that hid so much of his face.
" 'Miss Darling' it is, then," he responded, with ease, still holding his hat.
Olivia took up her skirts, just high enough to keep from getting her feet tangled in the hems, and started up the broad center stairway. She did not dare look back at Mr. McLaughlin, for fear he'd have sprouted horns and a pointed tail while her back was turned. What, she wondered, had possessed her to buy this house, sight unseen, from an advertisement in a newspaper, using up practically every penny she had, and travel to this remote and rustic community, where she had known not a single soul? It had been the first impulsive thing she'd ever done, in the whole of her dull and sheltered life, lighting out for the wild west barely a week after Aunt Eloise had been buried in the family plot back in Simonsonburg, Ohio.
What had made her think she was suited to the demands of running a rooming house? Why, given her reputation for being unsociable, she might lie dead in this house for a considerable length of time before anyone missed her...
"I may not look it, ma'am," Mr. McLaughlin said, from a pace behind her as they mounted the stairs, "but I'm a gentleman. Never laid a hand on a woman -- not against her wishes, anyway -- in my life."
He'd read her mind. Olivia did not dare allow him to see her face, which was surely flaming with color, so hot did it feel. "I am not afraid of you or any other man," she said, falling back, in her desperation, on bravado. "Besides, I keep a thirty-eight in the drawer beside my bed, and I know how to use it."
An eloquent and perhaps slightly amused silence followed, and Olivia had ample time to regret mentioning her bed, let alone the little pistol she had purchased upon her arrival and never once fired.
Gratefully, she reached the door of the best of her three guest chambers, turned the knob, and stepped aside.
Mr. McLaughlin passed her, lingering there in the hallway, and stepped over the threshold. The room was dark, and Olivia was forced to go in and light the lamp on the table just to her left, revealing the plain iron bedstead and its coverlet, one of the many she had crocheted during Aunt Eloise's declining years. There was a bureau, too, and a small washstand, but little else.
"This'll do just fine," Mr. McLaughlin announced.
He shed his coat, and Olivia, frankly disturbed by the simple but innate masculinity of the gesture, felt her breath quicken and her face color up again. His presence seemed to fill the room, to push at the very walls, and she would have sworn he was using up more than his fair portion of the air.
She remained near the door, one hand on the knob. "I'll bring up some water, so you can wash before supper."
He was standing with his hands on his hips, and Olivia noticed for the first time that he was armed. He carried the pistol -- a .44, she suspected -- in a shoulder holster, just under his left armpit and within easy reach of his right hand.
"There are a few rules," she said, raising her chin a notch.
Mr. McLaughlin thrust a hand through his hair. "I reckoned there would be," he replied, with a smile in his voice. He removed the pistol -- he noted she'd been staring at it -- and laid it aside on the bureau top, though he didn't bother to unbuckle the holster. "No smoking, I'll wager. No drinking, either. And no visitors above the first floor, the female sort in particular. Anything else?"
Although he had spoken in a polite, even friendly fashion, Mr. McLaughlin's words made Olivia feel like a fussy old maid, and she was irritated, though she could not have said whether with herself or with him. "No swearing," she added. "No spitting, and no animals of any kind."
He very nearly laughed out loud; she could see that he wanted to, and she turned and fled like a coward, scurrying along the back corridor and down the narrow rear stairway leading to the kitchen. There, she immediately set herself to the tasks of heating the promised wash water and planning supper, but staying busy didn't help the way it usually did. Her thoughts trailed behind, lingering upstairs, with Mr. McLaughlin. She heard his boot heels echo on the hard wood floor as he crossed the room, probably to the window, and marveled at the effect he had on her.
Like most men traveling alone in the west, her new boarder almost certainly had a past; no doubt he was dangerous, too, though in an entirely different way than an outlaw or a drunk or any other sort of rascal would have been. He hadn't done anything wrong, had treated her cordially and with quiet respect from the very first, and yet -- and yet, she was troubled. He'd had an instant and profound effect on her, one she didn't begin to comprehend, and her virtue, always firm around her like a corset pulled to the point of bursting its laces, suddenly seemed slightly, well, loose.
"Preposterous," she murmured, and banged down the lid on the hot water reservoir, at one side of the stove.
"Beg your pardon, ma'am?"
She nearly started out of her skin; had the man removed his boots and sneaked down the stairs in his stockinged feet? She whirled, the blue spatterware ladle in one hand.
He grinned in a way that could only have been described as boyish, though there was no denying he was a full-grown man. "Sorry if I scared you," he said. "I figured on sparing you a trip up the stairs with that hot water, that's all."
She stared at him mutely for a few moments, wondering why just looking at him, just hearing the timbre of his voice, should quicken her heartbeat the way it did, and cause her breath to come with ever-so-slightly more effort. "You'll -- you'll be wanting supper?"
He nodded. "Please," he said. Then, after reaching into a pocket of his dungarees -- he'd removed the buckskin chaps -- he drew out a gleaming twenty-dollar gold piece and laid it on the table. "I'll be here a month or two, I reckon."
It was all Olivia could do not to bolt over to the table and snatch up that substantial coin before he changed his mind, decided he'd stay at the Springwater Station after all, and took back his rent money. She indicated a bucket hanging tidily on a nearby peg, and he took it and the ladle and began drawing steaming water out of the reservoir.
He smelled of horse and man and fresh October air, and of something else that was quite indefinable, and Olivia was profoundly aware of the heat and power of his body, even though they weren't touching.
"Do you have a trade, Mr. McLaughlin?" she asked, because if she hadn't said something, she would have bolted like a shy bride confronted with a naked husband.
His eyes twinkled when he looked at her, his large, callused hands still busy with the bucket and ladle. "Well, ma'am, I've done a lot of different sorts of work in my time. Helped build a railroad or two. Did some blacksmithing once or twice -- I'm a fair hand with a hammer and saw, too. And like just about every other man west of the wide Missouri, I've herded my share of cattle." He paused. "You?"
Olivia did not quite know how to answer. Indeed, she did not quite know how to breathe. Not for the first time, she wished she were closer to Savannah Parrish and Rachel Hargreaves and the others. It would have been a comfort to have someone, a married woman with a working knowledge of such phenomena, to ask about the strange impact this man had upon her nerves and senses.
"Have I herded cattle?" she stalled.
He laughed, replaced the chrome lid on the reservoir, steam from the bucket of hot water a mist floating between them. "I guess I was asking how you came to be way out here in Springwater, all by yourself, running a rooming house."
"How do you know I'm alone?" Olivia demanded.
"That's pretty obvious, given the fact that you're scared to death of me, but willing to have me under your roof and at your table, all the same. Besides, you introduced yourself as 'Miss' Darling, remember?"
She wanted, inexplicably, to tell him everything about herself, that was the odd thing. Wanted him to understand that she'd had fine dreams once, and high hopes, just like every other woman, explain how she'd been orphaned at fifteen and subsequently spent her best years looking after a crotchety aunt. But it simply wouldn't do, spilling out such personal details.
"Your question is a bit too familiar, Mr. McLaughlin," she said.
He grinned, shrugged those massive shoulders, and turned away to head up the stairway again. Why did he seem so very familiar when he was unquestionably a stranger?
"Supper will be served in an hour," she called after him.
"I'll be here," he replied.
Jack stood in front of the wavy mirror over Miss Olivia Wilcott Darling's spare-room bureau, assessing himself. He looked like one of those old codgers who lived off in the tucks and folds of nowhere, and all of the sudden his beard itched fit to set him to scratching like a hound dog. A shave would have been just the thing.
No, he thought, with a long sigh. No sense getting reckless. He wasn't ready to be recognized, not just yet, anyhow.
So he washed at the basin, with the hot water Miss Olivia had provided, and put on his spare shirt. After supper, he would have to go out again and find shelter for the roan, as he'd left the poor critter tethered in front of the Brimstone Saloon, but for now he meant to enjoy the rare and singular pleasure of taking a meal with a handsome woman.
Miss Olivia was tall, lithe as the willows that had once grown alongside the creek back home. Her hair was a rich reddish brown color, like fine rosewood polished with beeswax, and her eyes put him in mind of the kind of sherry genteel folks drank, when they had cause to celebrate.
He leaned forward, his hands braced against the edges of the bureau, and once again gazed at himself in the mirror.
"You've been on the trail too long," he muttered. "She's a lady, Miss Olivia is, and a Yankee at that. Not interested in the likes of you, Jack McLaughlin."
He frowned. The name felt threadbare all of the sudden, grayed by time and worn through, like an old pair of long johns, and he wished he could discard it, square his shoulders, hold up his head, and set the truth right out there in plain sight.
Yet he didn't dare, he knew that. His backbone curved, and his shoulders sagged. He was a coward, pure and simple, a yellow-belly. He'd been trying to escape that one, horrible, irretrievable, cast-in-stone day for better than half his life, and he was likely to continue, futile as it was.
He shouldn't have come to Springwater in the first place.
The thing to do, he decided, was eat supper with Miss Olivia, leave her with the gold piece for her trouble, and get out. Ride all night, and all the next day, and never so much as think about coming back.
He raised his head and this time saw contempt in his eyes. Contempt for himself. "You're not going anywhere," he said fiercely, and then he turned his back on his own image.
Olivia went outside, lantern in hand, cornered one of the hens in the chicken house, wrung its neck, and prepared it for the soup kettle with dispatch, a talent she had developed only after her arrival in Springwater. The first few times, she'd nearly retched, but now she could swing an ax, clean a carcass, and pluck feathers as ably as any farmwife in the territory.
By the time Mr. McLaughlin appeared, looking brushed and scrubbed and wearing, she couldn't help noticing, a fairly fresh shirt, that bird was boiling on the stove, steaming up the window over the sink and filling the house with a delicious aroma.
"I've made dumplings," she said, feeling only slightly less rattled than before, "and I could put on a pot of coffee. If it wouldn't keep you awake, that is."
"I'd enjoy drinking somebody's coffee besides my own," he said. He didn't take a seat at the table, although it was set. Somewhere along the line, Jack McLaughlin, drifter, had learned at least a modicum of good manners. It was a heartening thing to know. "Thank you very much."
Olivia inclined her head to indicate the table. "Go ahead and sit down, Mr. McLaughlin. I don't mind serving your food. This isn't a social occasion, after all."
He hesitated briefly, then drew back one of the chairs and sat. "You get many boarders?" he asked, sounding as shy and awkward as she felt.
She shook her head. Might as well be honest, since she had a choice in the matter. She had Mr. McLaughlin's twenty-dollar gold piece, and she wasn't about to give it back, not without a fight anyhow. "Not many," she said, lifting the lid off the chicken and dumplings and blinking away a rush of steam. "Most people stay down at the Springwater Station."
He arched an eyebrow, watching as she pumped water into the blue enamel coffeepot at the sink. "Oh? Why's that?"
She set the pot on the stove, took a glass jar down from the shelf, and scooped coffee beans, ground by Cornucopia at the general store just the day before, into the small metal basket. "Mrs. McCaffrey -- June-bug -- is a fine cook. Folks just seem to take to her, and to her husband, too."
He was quiet for so long that Olivia finally broke down and glanced his way. "Mr. McLaughlin?"
He smiled, but it seemed like an effort. With a sinking heart, Olivia began to suspect that her precious boarder already regretted staying in her establishment instead of at the station.
"Must be hard to make a living," he said, after a long time.
It took Olivia a moment to sort out what he meant: he wasn't referring to the McCaffreys and their thriving business, but to her own pitiful efforts at supporting herself. Aunt Eloise had been right, she thought, with an inward sigh. She hadn't the stalwart nature for running a frontier rooming house; she should have stayed in Ohio, crocheting and teaching Sunday school, given a few piano lessons perhaps, and lived in dignified poverty, off the interest on her modest inheritance.
"Yes," she admitted, softly. A little reflectively. "Yes, it's hard. I guess that makes me a bona-fide member of the human race."
He chuckled. "You're not much given to self-pity are you, Miss Darling?"
Using two crumpled dish towels for pot holders, Olivia hoisted the kettle of simmering chicken off the stove and carried it across the room. "What good would that do?" she countered, setting the meal down on the table with a thump and going back to fetch a ladle and give the coffeepot a little shake. "Feeling sorry for myself, I mean?"
"Not much, I guess," he allowed, resting his hands on the table, fingers interlaced. "Still, sometimes that's the only way a body can get any sympathy."
She realized he was teasing and might have smiled, except that the coffee started to boil and she had to hurry back to the stove and take the pot off the heat.
"Sympathy," she said, upon her return to the table, "weakens the character."
He watched as she pulled back her own chair and sat down across from him. He had not touched the food, although she could see that he was ravenously hungry. In fact, in the spill of shadowy lamplight, he looked downright gaunt, as though he'd been wandering the face of the earth for a long time, with nowhere to settle in.
"Maybe," he allowed, after some thought. "But it does make the world seem a little warmer, doesn't it?"
She didn't know how to answer, and so reached for Mr. McLaughlin's dish and the ladle, simultaneously. Though she would normally have offered a brief blessing before eating, she was so distracted that she forgot entirely. Instead, she served up her boarder's supper and set the food before him. "It seems to me that there's no profit in pretending the world is anything other than cold," she said, realizing only after the words were out of her mouth how embittered they must have made her sound.
Well, perhaps she was a little bitter. As a child, she'd envisioned herself as a smiling and balanced adult, with a loving husband and several lively offspring. Instead, she'd wound up nursing Aunt Eloise through a series of illnesses, some real and just as many others imagined, and after a few years, she'd begun to abandon her dreams, one by one. Now, they were all gone.
A silence fell between them then, broken only by the usual sounds from the Brimstone Saloon, down at the corner. Olivia held that particular establishment in very low esteem.
Mr. McLaughlin ate with gratifying appreciation. "You sit right there," he said, when Olivia would have gone to the stove for the coffee. "Finish your supper. You take sugar or cream?"
Olivia was, for a moment, too startled to respond. No one, but for June-bug McCaffrey, during her brief stay at the station, when she'd first arrived in Springwater the winter before, had served her anything in as long as she could recall. If she'd had her wits about her, she would have told him that she didn't take coffee at night. Instead, she replied, "With sugar, thank you. It's there on the shelf next to the stove."
He brought the sugar bowl to the table, along with two fragrant cups brimming with fresh, stoutly brewed coffee. She wouldn't get a wink of sleep, Olivia thought ruefully, but she didn't care. It was a treat, having someone in the house, even if he was only a drifter, badly in need of barbering.
"What brings you to Springwater, Mr. McLaughlin?" she asked.
Just like that, his face lost all expression. It was as though he'd pulled a set of wooden shutters closed with a decisive snap.
"I don't reckon on staying long," he said, when he saw that she wasn't going to back off from the question. It had been a reasonable thing to ask, after all, given that he would be spending the night -- perhaps many nights -- under her roof. "I've got some business to attend to, when the time's right. Then I'll be moving on."
She sat a little nearer the edge of her chair, concerned. He sounded so mysterious, almost secretive, as though his "business" in Springwater might be less than honorable. "It takes an effort to get to this town," she persisted. "Folks don't come here by accident, or just for something to do."
He took a sip of his coffee, eyeing her over the rim of his mug. Perhaps, she thought, she'd been foolhardy, renting a room to someone she didn't know. On the other hand, if she wasn't going to cater to strangers, she might as well move into the nearest poorhouse and be done with it.
"I'm looking for a place to winter over," he said, at long last. "When I heard about Springwater, back in Choteau, I figured it would do as well as anywhere else. The Jupiter and Zeus silver mine is here, isn't it? I reckon I might find work there."
Olivia rose from her chair and began to clear the table. "I imagine there's work in Choteau, too," she observed, without looking at him. Why, she wondered yet again, was she trying to drive away the only customer she'd had since she'd come to Springwater herself? Was it because he'd stirred her emotions and senses, without apparent effort?
She heard his chair scrape lightly against the floorboards as he stood.
"I'll just see to my horse," he said quietly, and then he was gone.
Olivia held her breath, figuratively at least, until much later when, reading in her room, she heard him enter the house and climb the stairs.
He paused outside her door. "Good night, Miss Olivia," he said.
Olivia's heart was thumping; had she lost her mind? For all she knew, the man could be a rounder and a rascal. An outlaw. Even a murderer, bent on vengeance.
"Good night," she replied, all the same.
Copyright ©1999 by Linda Lael Miller