1891 . . . Spinster librarian, Olive Wilkins, is shocked to learn of her brother’s violent death at a saloon gaming table and her sister-in-law’s subsequent murder, traveling far from her staid life to rescue her niece and nephew, now orphans. She arrives to find the circumstances of her brother’s life deplorable and her long held beliefs of family and tradition, shaken.
Accustomed to the sophistication of Philadelphia, Olive arrives in Spencer, Ohio, a rough and tumble world she is not familiar with, facing two traumatized children. Her niece and nephew, Mary and John, have been living with a neighboring farmer, widower Jacob Butler, the father of three young children of his own and a man still in pain from the recent loss of his wife.
Real danger threatens Olive and Mary and John while Jacob and his own brood battle the day-to-day struggles for survival. Will Olive and Jacob find the strength to fight their battles alone or together? Will love conquer the bitterness of loss and broken dreams?
Spencer, Ohio 1891
Olive Wilkins found the sheriff’s office as promised, beside a busy general store. The walls were thick stone, and the bars at the windows cast striped patterns on the floor. A weary-faced man with sun-toughened skin sat behind the desk.
“Just a minute . . .” the sheriff said.
Olive waited dutifully as he wrote, letting her eyes wander from the cells in the corner of the room to the gun belt looped over the hook near the door to the sign proclaiming Sheriff Bentley the law in this small Ohio town.
“What can I help you with, ma’am?’ he asked, as he looked up from his papers and tilted back his hat.
“My name is Olive Wilkins, and my brother, James Wilkins, and his wife, Sophie, lived here in Spencer. I am here to take his children back to my home in Philadelphia, but I am not quite sure with whom they are staying. The note from my sister-in-law’s family is unclear,” Olive explained as she pulled the oft-folded and unfolded letter from her bag.
The sheriff sat back in his chair and tapped his pencil stub against his mouth. “John and Mary are staying with Jacob Butler.”
“How are the Butlers related to my brother’s wife?”
“They’re not,” Sheriff Bentley replied.
“Then how did the children come to——”
“None of Sophie’s family, the Davises, would take them in,” he interrupted.
“Jacob Butler couldn’t abide two children living on their own in that shack, so he took them home. He was your brother’s closest neighbor,” the sheriff explained.
“Sophie’s family abandoned them?” Olive asked. Could this man be talking about James’s nearest relatives? Could there be two sets of orphaned children in one small community? With the same names? No, there could not be.
“The Davis clan couldn’t tell you how many children or dogs belong to them, but they sure didn’t want more.”
Olive frowned, certain she had misunderstood. “My brother’s children lived alone on a farm? Surely Sophie’s family would have never ——”
“I don’t rightly know I’d call Jimmy’s place a farm,” the sheriff interjected, and met Olive’s bewildered eyes. “The worst part is I don’t know how long the children were in the house with their mother dead and if they saw her murder.”
Olive’s knees threatened to buckle, and her eyes darted from the sheriff’s face to her handbag to the desk. “How could that be? The Davises’ letter only said that James and Sophie had died. I . . . I just assumed that it had been influenza or a dreadful accident of some kind.”
The sheriff stood, came around the desk, and seated Olive in a chair. “Jimmy was killed when he got caught cheating at cards. He wagered the farm, and the man who killed him rode out and tried to stake his claim.” He looked away and grimaced. “When I got back to town a couple of days later, I rode out to check on Sophie. It looked like she put up a hell of a fight.”
Olive clutched the letter from her brother’s in-laws in her hand. In her mind’s eye she pictured her only sibling as a young man when she had last seen him. The pride of her mother and father, a charming and handsome boy who filled their Church Street home with laughter. At twenty years of age, he had loved Sophie Davis with such abandon; he’d left all he’d known behind to make a life with his new wife on the plains of Ohio. Sophie’s kin were farmers, and she wanted no life other than that which the soil and the tilling of it brought. So James announced his intentions of making Ohio his new home where he would farm and raise his family.
The death of Olive’s parents, only a year apart, had left her bereft, but she had cared for them through their illnesses and had seen their demises inch closer with each day. The news of James’s and Sophie’s deaths, however, left her grief-stricken. But her misery would certainly pale in comparison to the devastation John and Mary must feel. Without preamble, this pair of deaths had orphaned her ten-year-old niece and four-year-old nephew.
“And the children?” Olive asked.
“Couldn’t find hide nor hair of them wild things. Searched everywhere. Jacob checked the house about a week later and found them living there. Mary gave him a fight. She was scared to death, even though she knew Jacob and his children. And John, that boy hasn’t spoken a word since,” he replied.
Tears threatened Olive’s eyes. She could not decide which of all of this horrifying news was the worst. But it could not be. The sheriff must have some of this information wrong, otherwise . . . “I’ll have to make sure that Mr. and Mrs. Butler understand how thankful I am someone took in Mary and John.”
The sheriff propped a hip on the corner of his desk. “There is no Mrs. Butler. Jacob’s a widower. His wife died a year ago giving birth to their youngest son.”
“How . . . can you tell me how to arrange transportation to the Butlers’?” Olive asked.
“I’ll be going out that way tomorrow. I’ll rent a wagon, unless you ride. No? Then I’ll take you out there,” he offered.
“That’s very kind of you, Sheriff,” Olive replied. The social courtesies came without thought while her heart grappled with what the man had said. She pulled her cloak tightly around her and left the office feeling numb.
Olive found herself walking aimlessly through town. In her mind she played and replayed the story the sheriff had told her, and it rubbed raw all that she knew to be true of how she was raised, how James was raised, how life was to be lived. She glanced down and only then realized she still held the letter that had brought the heartbreaking news.
Sophie’s family had written her that there was no one to take in the two small children after their parents’ deaths, so Olive faced the greatest challenge she had ever known. She would rescue these orphans, blood of her blood, and love them and take them back to Philadelphia where she would raise them in their father’s childhood home.
Olive had stared out the train window on the trip to Spencer, mile after mile, dreaming of Sunday afternoons at the ice cream parlor, helping John with his studies, and someday leading Mary into womanhood. What a wonderful continuation of the Wilkinses’ legacy Olive would be able to bestow. She would be firm but gentle, patient, with high expectations of these bright shining pennies. She would read them the letters their father had written, take them to church, and love them, and they would love her.
Olive made her way back to the Jenkins Hotel as night drew closer. There was no need to dwell on the sheriff’s grim tale. She would discover the truth on her own soon enough. She sat on the edge of the bed and surveyed the room. The wallpaper hung precariously above the bed, and a small nightstand held only a chipped washbasin and pitcher. She smelled mildew, and the oil from the kerosene lamp, now throwing shadows, revealed dark stains where rain had run down the wall. Turning the lamp down to a soft glow, Olive undressed and dusted her skirts. Her hat she placed over the flowered pitcher. After fastening all twenty-eight pearl buttons of her nightdress, she undid her hair and let the waist-length mass pull at her scalp as she massaged her head. Glory, does that feel good, she thought while brushing her hair the required one hundred strokes.
* * *
“Good morning, Sheriff,” Olive said as he escorted her down the street to the livery. “Has my brother’s killer been apprehended? I failed to ask yesterday.”
“Not enough men in this town willing to join a posse. Anyway, he had a three-day lead, me being out of town,” the sheriff said as he tipped his hat to a young woman sweeping the sidewalk.
Olive halted midstride. “So nothing’s to be done? Is that what you’re implying?”
Sheriff Bentley stopped and turned to face her. “I sent a telegram to the sheriff in Cincinnati. And to some of the towns close by. But I’ll be honest with you; I doubt he’ll ever be caught. From what Mabel said over at the saloon, he was just a drifter. She’s been working there for years, and she’d never seen him before.”
“So, on the word of a saloon girl, my brother’s killer will go free,” Olive said flatly.
The sheriff continued his brisk walk, shaking his head as he went. “This ain’t Philadelphia, ma’am. There’s miles of open country and not enough lawmen to go around. I’ll do what I can, but I’m telling you now, chances are your brother’s killer is halfway to Texas by now.”
Olive listened to the sheriff haggle with the young boy at the stables and sat silently beside the sheriff on the buckboard seat. This certainly was not Philadelphia. The idea that a man could murder two people and orphan two children on the turn of a card and ride away was astonishing. Olive wondered whom she could appeal to if the sheriff himself had given up any hope of apprehending the outlaw. But the morning was beautiful and already warm, and she undid the clasp on her cape, smoothing the black fabric of her dress. Rolling streams and meadows and an occasional man behind a plow made her imagine her brother at work in his fields.
“Will we pass James’s home on the way to Mr. Butler’s?” she asked.
“No. Your brother’s land is a couple of miles past Jacob’s,” the sheriff replied. He turned to her with a smile. “Beautiful morning, don’t you think, Miss Wilkins?”
Olive eyed the sheriff’s smile and felt suddenly uncomfortable. Here she was, alone in the middle of God’s acre with a man she’d met only the day before.
“Lovely,” she replied, and turned away, content to envision her brother’s home as she had been doing on her long train trip west. Would it be brick or painted white with a picket fence? Would it look anything like their family home, her home now, on Church Street, clapboarded and lace-window trimmed? Whatever it looked like, she was certain it would be a haven for John and Mary as her home had been for her and her brother as children. That safe, comfortable home, the guardian of her precious memories and the keeper of her childhood.
It had been nearly an hour since she and the sheriff set out. Olive was growing impatient and edgy, wondering if this man did indeed know exactly where he was going.
“You’ll see Jacob’s place over the next rise,” the sheriff said finally, nodding ahead.
“What kind of man is Mr. Butler?” Olive inquired near the top of the hill.
He turned and stared at her. “The kind of man who couldn’t leave two children alone, even though they’re no blood relation, and he has enough mouths to feed as is. A good one, I reckon.”
Olive knew a set-down when she received it and concentrated instead on this mission of mercy she had now embarked upon. She would care for John and Mary as if they were her own, as they certainly would be, just as her parents had nurtured and cared for her and James. At thirty-five, she had long abandoned dreams of a family of her own. Her job in the library and her family home were meant to be enough to sustain her. This tragic twist of events would place two young children in the care of an aunt they had never met. Olive took a deep breath to steady her nerves and scanned the landscape around her.
Fields of dark soil, turned and waiting for seed, lay before her, cut through with stripes of high grass as the morning breeze waved the hay. Olive caught sight of a cabin and a barn behind in a gentle valley at the crux of the fields. As they steered down a path to the house, Olive’s eyes closed spontaneously as she drew in the rich aroma of moist fertile soil. Something so primitive, so basic about the smell of spring-turned ground.
When she opened her eyes, Olive saw a man behind a plow, and as they drew closer, she was shocked. He seemed nearly as tall as the horse he guided. His plaid shirtsleeves were rolled up and revealed enormous forearms. The man’s back was to them as he coaxed and whistled to the horse. His hair hung in huge curls over his collar. His black boots reached to his knees, and suspenders made a giant X on his back, holding up his rough pants. The sheriff shouted, and the man turned his head. He pulled back on the reins of the plow horse, and Olive watched him unharness himself from great bands of leather attaching him to the plow.
“Sheriff,” the man said as he approached the wagon.
Olive looked in amazement at this Jacob Butler. He could only be twenty-five years old, and yet he managed a farm, motherless children, and John and Mary. In her mind she had envisioned a man closer to her age and certainly not a man this . . . rough.
“Ma’am.” The man nodded.
Olive nodded back nervously, and the sheriff looked at her expectantly as he rested his elbows on his knees and pushed the brim of his hat back on his forehead. Jacob Butler stood so tall the two men were nearly eye to eye, Olive noticed. She heard birds chirping and the soft tap of the sheriff’s boot. She had no idea where her sensibilities had gone.
“This here is John and Mary’s aunt. Jimmy’s sister,” the sheriff said.
“Mr. Butler, I cannot thank you enough for taking in my niece and nephew,” Olive finally managed to reply.
“Not a problem.”
“No, really, had I known they were not being cared for by relatives, I would have come weeks and weeks ago. I will not impose on your generosity a moment longer than necessary. If the sheriff will wait, I will get the children and return to town,” Olive said in a rush. Surely this very young man was struggling with all the responsibilities that parenthood entailed.
The man tilted his head and looked at her. “Suit yourself,” he replied.
Olive watched as he sat down on the end of the wagon, and the sheriff drove them on to the house. Her palms were sweating as the wagon stopped and the front door opened. A boy and a girl flew into Jacob Butler’s arms.
“Daddy! Why aren’t ya plowing?” the boy said through two missing front teeth.
Two more children stood in the doorway with such looks of longing it nearly broke Olive’s heart. John and Mary. She watched Mary hold her younger brother back and whisper something in his ear. But John would not be stopped and found himself a place on the man’s neck and latched on. Jacob Butler laughed and kissed each child and tickled the little girl’s side. Olive watched the formerly stone-faced giant cuddle the three clinging to him. He looked up to Mary, standing in the doorway.
“How is Mark this morning?” he asked.
“I can’t get him to eat,” the girl said with a shrug.
“Let’s see if I have any better luck than Mary,” Mr. Butler said as he looked at the other children in his arms.
Olive stepped down out of the wagon and followed the man as he carried the three children, hanging on at odd angles. He stopped at the door and reached to touch Mary’s shoulder, but the girl shrank back and ducked into the house.
Olive noticed then the remains of a woman’s touch and its decay as she stepped onto the porch and into Jacob Butler’s home. The flowers near the steps were overgrown with weeds, and once brightly colored fabric now hung limp and dirty at the windows. The sink was piled high with dishes, pots, and pans, and a quilt, maybe white, maybe gray, covered a rocker. Her eyes rose to a small boy tied into a high chair with a wide band of fabric. The child’s head was limp, and his chin was covered with drool. Jacob Butler untied him as he cooed, and a grin came to the child’s face although his eyes never found his father’s.
“Why won’t you eat for Mary?” he asked, as he kissed the infant and turned to the doorway. “This is my youngest son, Mark. And those two are Luke and Peg.”
Olive latched onto the stares of the two remaining children. “And they are Mary and John?”
“How does she know our names?” Mary asked.
John saw his sister’s scowl and ran behind Jacob Butler’s legs.
“This is your aunt,” Mr. Butler said.
“Which Davis are you?” Mary said, with fists clenched.
“I’m not a Davis. I’m your father’s sister. My name is Olive Wilkins.”
“Well, there’s no money left, if that’s what you’re here for,” Mary challenged.
Olive shook her head. “I . . . I don’t know anything about any money. I came to take you back to my home in Philadelphia.”
John clung to Jacob Butler’s leg, crying, and Olive saw fear grow in his eyes. And, conversely, hatred in Mary’s. The Butler children, sensing Mary’s and John’s distress, began to wail as well, and Olive thought her eardrums would burst. Mr. Butler carried Mark, while Luke and Peg clung to his arm, and he dragged John, firmly latched to his leg, to the rocker at the window. When he had finally settled into the chair with four children in his lap, he rocked slowly and talked softly until the wails began to subside.
“Miss Wilkins?” the sheriff said. “I’ve got to get going. Are you coming?”
Olive looked from the sheriff’s sympathetic face to Mary’s seething one and onto Jacob Butler’s comforting smile for the children he rocked.
“Mary,” Olive said, “I know you’ve had some difficult times, but I have a home with a yard and a lovely school nearby. It’s where your father grew up. He’d want you to be there. I want you to be there.”
“How would you know what Pa wanted?” the girl spat.
“Well, we grew up together, had a wonderful childhood, and I just know that James—”
“If it was so wonderful and you two were so close, how come I never met you before? I don’t want nothing to do with Mama’s family, but at least I know who they are. Where you been?”
Olive was stung by the scorn in her niece’s voice. “Mary, we’ve just met, but I will not stand for disrespect from you.”
“Miss Wilkins?” the sheriff said.
“If you could please give me a few more minutes, Sheriff,” Olive replied.
“Going to take longer than that,” he said, as he walked out the door.
“Mary, listen to me. I have the finances to provide you with a good education and clothes, and in my home there is a bedroom for each of you. A yard to play in and . . .” Olive stopped as she saw Jacob Butler’s mouth turn into a grim line. “Oh, Mr. Butler, I didn’t mean to imply that your home is less than . . .”
“If it’s all right with Jacob, we’ll stay here,” the girl said.
“But he’s not family, Mary,” Olive replied, and took a step toward her niece.
Mary moved to within a foot of Jacob Butler, and he watched as she did.
“He come and got John and I and buried Mama. He’ll do.”
“Came and got,” Olive said.
“What?” Mary asked.
“The correct grammar is ‘he came and got John and me,’” Olive said as she wiped her forehead. “Never mind.” The sullen state of the children, their tattered clothes and dirty hair, was shocking. Their anger and fear, palpable with every word Mary spoke, were horrifying. How could this Jacob Butler, even as a widower, allow these children to fall to such a state?
“Mary, will you hold Mark for me?” Mr. Butler said as he rose.
He went out the door without a glance at Olive. She followed his broad back, and when he stepped down from the porch, he turned to her.
“Miss Wilkins, may I make a suggestion?” he asked.
“Certainly,” Olive replied.
“Why don’t you stick around here for a while and let John and Mary get to know you?”
“I could tell the sheriff to have someone come back for me this evening, I suppose,” she said, and shaded her eyes with her hand.
“No. Not one day. I mean for a while,” Mr. Butler said.
Olive brooded a bit, mumbling to herself. “I imagine it would be easier on the children if I did. I can’t imagine staying much longer at the Jenkins Hotel, though. Is there a reputable boardinghouse in Spencer?”
“There’s nothing reputable in Spencer. And anyway, I don’t mean an hour away in town. I mean here.”
Olive’s face tightened, and her mouth flew open in shock. “Mr. Butler, to suggest such a thing!”
“Look, all I’m saying is that you don’t get to know children or anyone for that matter, ’til you’ve lived with them,” Mr. Butler replied.
“Miss Wilkins!” the sheriff called.
“Fiddle dee dee! Can’t you see I need a moment?” Olive said and began to pace the narrow porch. “Sheriff?” she said when she looked up.
“Yes, Miss Wilkins?” he replied.
“Couldn’t I stay at my brother’s farm? Would anyone object?” Olive asked.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” the sheriff replied, shaking his head.
“That would solve everything,” Olive said. “The children would be back in their own home, and we could get to know each other. In time I could convince them to move back to my home in Philadelphia.”
“Before you talk to John and Mary, I think you should go see you brother’s place,” Mr. Butler said.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. I may have to go back to town for supplies. Sheriff, can I trouble you?” Olive asked.
“Sorry, no, Miss Wilkins. Got to get going,” the sheriff said with a shake of his head.
Olive looked to Mr. Butler, and he turned and went into the house. When he came out, he motioned her to follow, and they walked to the barn.
“What are we doing, Mr. Butler?”
“Going to your brother’s place,” he said, as he began hitching a wagon.
“Who will stay with the children?” Olive wondered.
“Mary can handle them for an hour or two. It’s not far, and if there’s trouble, I taught her to fire the gun,” he said as he harnessed the horse.
“Mary is going to defend herself and four children?”
“No, she’ll fire into the air, and I’ll come,” he said and climbed up on to the seat.
Olive pulled herself into the wagon on her own, scuffing her shoe and nearly putting a hole in her stocking. “Humph,” she said, and turned to face this giant beside her.
The man lifted the reins lightly to the horse’s back. Olive was anxious to see her brother’s home and make it ready for the children. She might be scrubbing floors and beating rugs for days to come, but she knew John and Mary were worth the effort. Olive made a mental list of supplies and groaned when she could not remember the name of the soap that Millie, her mother’s housekeeper, had used to make the furniture and floors shine. She felt Mr. Butler’s eyes on hers, and she turned to look at this stranger who was so intimately entwined in her life without her permission and without her regard.
Jacob Butler’s chest was huge, and his arms barely fit through the rolled-up cuffs of his shirt. The gentlemen of her acquaintance, business associates of her father or patrons of the library, were smallish men who made their way with their heads not their hands. They were gentlemen and learned men. Olive caught a whiff of earth and lard soap as she stared and raised her brows in question.
* * *
Jacob looked at this spinsterish woman riding beside him. He could hardly believe this frightened, mousy thing was Jimmy Wilkins’s sister. Not a hair was out of place under her dark bonnet. Schoolmarm glasses, a brown cape, and a black dress. Was she dressed for mourning? The only hint of color on the otherwise drab woman was a pair of clear blue eyes. Her skin was pale, but she obviously enjoyed the feel of the sun on her face.
“What was the grunt for?” he asked.
“Ladies do not grunt, sir. I did not grunt,” she replied.
“Yes you did, ma’am.”
They rode on silently for a few minutes.
“I can’t seem to remember the name of the soap our housekeeper used. And I was wondering if it would be available in Spencer,” she said finally.
“Yes, Mr. Butler. I can’t think of the name. But it certainly did work. Mother wouldn’t let our housekeeper use anything but it on our furniture and floors and banisters. I can smell it as I sit here.” She turned and looked at him from under the wide brim of her bonnet. “What, Mr. Butler? Have you never been unable to remember something? It’s on the tip of my tongue.”
Jacob could only tilt his head and shake it in amazement at this woman. She had no idea of what she was going to see when they came to Jimmy’s farm. It might be fun watching this proper know-it-all when she realized there were no floors to polish, just dirt to be swept. He could have revealed a thousand indignities surrounding the home of Jimmy and Sophie, but he decided this woman needed to see it with her own eyes.
* * *
Humph, Olive thought. Does he think I’m so old, I’ll forget my name like Mrs. Patterson? That poor soul didn’t know a spoon from a fork and needed round the clock attention from her daughter Theda. Poor Theda. She would never experience anything like this and couldn’t wait for Olive’s return with her niece and nephew. Theda and Olive had discussed at length this mission of mercy that she was now on. Olive was counting on Theda’s help with John and Mary, knowing her lifelong friend would love these children nearly as much as she would.
Mr. Butler turned the wagon onto a rutted lane, and Olive was nearly knocked from her seat by the jostling. The holes were filled with dark, slimy water, and Olive felt a fine spray of moisture hit her face as the horse trotted down the road. She grunted as the wagon pitched and, noticing on her brown cloak, picked away the droplet of mud. Olive saw Jacob Butler didn’t shift at all in his seat, just braced one long leg on the buckboard as Olive hung on to her glasses.
“Is there another road we can take to get to James’s home?” Olive asked.
“We’re on Jimmy’s land now. No other way to get to the house.”
Olive sat up at his announcement. This was James’s farm. Her head twisted and turned, but she saw only barren ground with an occasional boulder here and there. A huge, dead tree lay on its side, partially pulled from the ground, some roots still holding. Grass grew from a hole in the side of the trunk and contrasted with the gray of the bark. A fence began on her right only to abruptly stop at a stack of rotting rails near the end, weeds growing up and around them. A rusting saw straddled the wood, and the sun caught the edge of the metal, forcing Olive to shield her eyes. James must have been very busy with his home and crops to leave the entrance in such disrepair. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, she reminded herself.
Olive sat up straight as they crested a hill. The sun shone brightly, and Olive squinted to get her first look. “Where’s the house?”
“Right there,” Jacob Butler said, and nodded ahead.
“All I see is a shed of sorts, Mr. Butler,” Olive said as she shifted in her seat.
“That’s the house, Miss Wilkins.”
Realization dawned on Olive, and she turned to the man beside her. “No, I’m sure you’re mistaken.”
Mr. Butler stared straight ahead. No reply. Olive turned and focused on the grim scene before her. She saw a clothesline strung from a tree to the house. A line of birds sat on it and sang and chirped beautifully. Olive wondered if Sophie could see them from her kitchen window in the morning. But as Olive let her gaze roam, she was overcome with despair. The house was big enough for just one room, listing a bit, with shingles tumbling off. The plank siding was brown and weathered. No yard really, just a stretch of mud broken by an overturned bucket.
Olive stepped down from the wagon and watched Mr. Butler wrestle the door to the house off its hinges. He ducked through the opening and came back outside.
“Seen enough?” he asked as he approached.
Olive’s hand was a fist around a wooden slat on the wagon. She glared at him as she marched by. He grabbed her arm, stopping her abruptly.
“No need to go in the house,” he said.
She shook off his hand with a huff and turned a determined face his way.
Mr. Butler looked skyward and dropped his hold.
Olive walked slowly to the doorway. She heard buzzing from within and stepped into the dark interior, unable to see, but overwhelmed by a powerful stench. When her vision adjusted, she found the source of the noise. Thousands of flies and maggots swarmed over a dark blotch on the dirt floor. The sight and smell was so horrid she turned and ran outside.
“The bugs? Why are there so many bugs in the house, Mr. Butler?” she asked through pale lips. He barely met her eyes, yet Olive could see the pity on his face and felt the blood drain from hers.
“Miss Wilkins, why don’t we head back to . . .”
“Tell me, Mr. Butler.”
”Look, there’s nothing to be done.”
“Tell me!” Olive screamed.
“Sophie was cut up pretty bad, and by the time I got her buried, she had pretty much bled out all over the dirt.”
“When I lifted her, the bugs and maggots were already nesting in her face,” Mr. Butler said, his voice rising. “That’s what happens when there’s blood spilled.”
Olive straightened, horrified with the picture he painted, yet certain he told the grim truth. She found herself at the side of the house emptying her stomach on the bare earth.
“It’s clean,” Mr. Butler said.
“Thank you.” Olive replied as she accepted the folded bandana from his hand.
“Like I said before, let’s go back to my place and try and sort this out.”
Olive did not understand any of what she had seen or heard. She desperately needed to know the whole story. She held the hanky to her nose, walked back to the house and inside.
Piles of rags were heaped in a corner, near an unswept fireplace. The table was piled with filth, its chairs overturned. Olive saw scurrying movement under a blanket covering straw. She picked up a pair of glasses from the mantel with a shaking hand. Olive closed her eyes and held her brother’s spectacles to her breast.
“As if killing their parents wasn’t enough,” she whispered as Jacob Butler came through the doorway.
“Pardon?” he asked.
Olive swept her hand around the squalid room. “Wasn’t it enough that this outlaw killed Mary and John’s parents? What possessed him to destroy their home as well?”
“You think the man that killed Sophie did this to the house?”
“So vicious,” Olive hissed, staring wide-eyed around the room.
He closed the gap between them in two strides. He turned her roughly to face him. “For the love of God, woman. Don’t you get it? Your brother was a cheating, lazy gambler and his wife a drunk.”
Olive’s mouth opened in shock. “It cannot be. James married a woman who drank alcohol?” Mr. Butler’s hands fell away from her shoulders.
“Drank alcohol? She could drink most men under the table, and when she did, she spread her legs for any man in the room.”
Olive’s hand flew to her mouth, and she whispered, “Poor James.”
“Poor James?” he shouted. “He knew what she was. He didn’t care. He gambled with the money she made and drank the whiskey that was left when she passed out.”
“She made money? James couldn’t provide for his family?”
“She was a whore, Miss Wilkins,” Jacob Butler said quietly. “It kept food on the table. Jimmy never could figure out why his crops wouldn’t grow, while he spent his days in the saloon at the poker table.”
“So you are saying that Sophie and James’s home always looked like this?”
He nodded his reply.
Her eyes rounded in horror. “John and Mary lived like this.”
“Let’s go,” he said, and reached to cup her elbow in his hand.
Olive pulled away and turned to the rough wooden trough overflowing with dishes and dirt and looked out the solitary window to an elm tree. There, standing clean and pure, were two white crosses in the ground. An involuntary gasp escaped her and tears threatened again.
Outside, she knelt on the hard earth, between the graves, and picked up wilted wildflowers.
“You buried them,” Olive said without turning.
Jacob Butler knelt down on his haunches, hat in hand. “It gives me comfort to go to my wife Margaret’s grave. I knew the children would want to know where their parents were buried.”
Oddly, tears would not come as Olive stared at the hard earth. Her shoulders shook, but not a single drop escaped. Sordid visions flew through her head and countless questions begged answers, but she could do nothing but softly ask, “Why?”
* * *
Jacob watched the woman’s tall, slight form shake, and he regretted his anticipation of seeing her surprise. Her complete and utter shock was so genuine and heartfelt that he could feel nothing but guilt for letting her see her brother’s dismal existence. Jacob knew what it was like when your world began to crumble before your eyes, and he knew this woman, right now, was watching all that she believed and held dear filter through her hand like so much August dirt. He watched her rise, stumble over a root, and right herself before he had time to reach out. She climbed into the wagon and folded her hands in front of her.
Jacob pulled himself into the wagon and clucked the horse to turn. He regarded Olive Wilkins in a new light. Clearly shaken, but not broken. To this sheltered woman’s credit she had held her head high and demanded to understand the ugliness surrounding her brother’s demise.
“Thank you, Mr. Butler,” she said.
“Miss Wilkins, I should have never brought you out here.”
“No, Mr. Butler, I would have never believed you if you had merely tried to tell me. I needed . . . I needed to see it for myself.”
He nodded, and they bumped along toward the morning sun.
“My God, Mr. Butler. What did Mary see go on inside those four walls? How will she ever get over it?”
“Children are stronger than we give them credit for. I don’t think Jimmy ever let one of Sophie’s ah . . . friends near Mary. Not that I’m sure they didn’t try.”
“Is that why Mary shrinks away from you when you reach to her?”
Jacob nodded. “I think so. I was pretty surprised she stood as close to me today when you were talking about moving back to Philadelphia. She doesn’t usually get within ten feet of me.”
“There must not be a soul on this earth she trusts,” she whispered.
“No, I don’t think there is.”
The long ride home was quiet. Jacob stole glances at Olive Wilkins and watched her swallow and purse her lips.
“Mr. Butler? When you asked me to . . . when you mentioned my staying on . . . were you, are you still . . .?”
“You’re welcome to stay, Miss Wilkins. I’ll bunk in the barn.”
* * *
His quick response brought Olive to tears faster than the horrid sights she had just seen. She buried her face in her hands and wept. The tears poured unheeded for her brother and his wife and for John and Mary. For herself and her shattered daydreams.
Mr. Butler’s arm crept around her, and she turned and clung to him. His flannel shirt was soft and warm and caught her tears. She was sobbing uncontrollably on the chest of a man she had met that morning, but it felt right, was right. As if there were no other humans left on the earth but this man. Two strangers, stranded in a tragedy they had not written. Olive sniffed, righted herself, and focused on the unwilling victims of this play. Convention be damned, she thought. If she must live on Jacob Butler’s farm until John and Mary could be coaxed back to civilization, then so be it.
“Don’t let the children see your tears, Miss Wilkins,” he said.
Olive realized they were pulling up in front of the Butler house. She quickly dried her face and stood up in the wagon. This weathered house, with its patterns of crops, looked clean and new and righteous. What she had dismissed as shabby earlier in the day was in a dire need of scrubbing, yes, but held a family, and held it with love. No wonder Mary did not want to leave. This was a castle and this man, Jacob Butler, a prince, compared to what Mary had known.