Historical Romance set US midwest circa 1891
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Holly Bush Books
In 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 as 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?” Olive asked.
“They’re not,” Sheriff Bentley replied.
“Then how did the children come to . . .”
“None of Sophie’s family, the Davis’s, 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’ 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,” the sheriff said. “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 right know I’d call Jimmy’s place a farm,” the sheriff interrupted 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 Davis’s 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-law in her hand. She pictured her only sibling in her mind’s eye as a young man when she had last seen him. The pride of her mother and father, a charming, 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 she saw their demise inch closer with each day. The news of James and Sophie’s death, 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 sheriff 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 heart breaking news.
Sophie’s family had written her that there was no one to take in the two small children after their parents’ death, 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 Wilkins’ legacy Olive would be able to bestow. She would be firm but gentle, patient, but with high expectations of these bright shining pennies. She would read them the letters their father had written and 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 point or 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 and revealing dark stains where the 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, Olive 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 mid-stride. “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 town’s close by,” the sheriff replied. “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 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’ 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 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 nodding ahead.
“What kind of man is Mr. Butler?” Olive inquired near the top of a hill.
The sheriff turned and stared at her. “The kind of man that couldn’t let 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 was now embarked on. 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 was 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, lie 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. Black boots to his knees and suspenders making a giant ‘X’ on his back, held 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 can not 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 stone face 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 slunk back and ducked into the house.
Olive noticed then the remains of a woman’s touch and it’s 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,” she replied.
“Well, there’s no money left, if that’s what you’re here for,” Mary said.