She would always remember the roses in the snow.
The roses weren't real. Roses couldn't survive a Montana winter, with the wind howling like a banshee and the snow piling up in drifts taller than a man on horseback. The roses were red and made of silk, and each one had been left by one of the ranch hands.
Her name was Odalis Renata Sinclair. She was from New Orleans, educated by the Ursuline nuns to be the perfect wife of an affluent businessman. She had come to Montana to teach school, lured by the call of an adventure and a longing to see what lay across the Mississippi River. She had traveled by train over half the continent to a little town called Missoula. The school was on land donated by Colonel Henry Wilkes. His daughter, Melissa, would teach grades one through three and advanced mathematics to any child wanting to learn. Odalis would teach reading, grammar, history, and Latin to the older children.
Odalis had intended to teach for only a year, then return to Louisiana. But sometimes, well, life has other plans. She was met at the train station in Missoula by the Colonel Wilkes' ranch foreman. His name was James Bronson, a tall, dark haired, dark-eyed man from South Carolina. He was surprisingly well educated, extremely well mannered, and very much a gentleman. He had taken one look at the woman getting off the train and had fallen in love on the spot.
When school ended in June, instead of returning to New Orleans as she had planned, she eloped with the quiet man from South Carolina.
Every year the Colonel hosted a grand Christmas party. People would come from miles around; ranchers and their wives, cowhands, wranglers and every drifter who happened to be passing through. Candles glowed in every window and the house smelled of fresh cut pine boughs and good food accompanied by the sounds of music and laughter and people having a good time. As good wishes for the coming year were exchanged, the ranch foreman and the lady from New Orleans announced they would be expecting a visit from a little stranger. There were toasts of congratulations, kisses, and hugs and wishes for good health and happiness.
Except, for that time, it wasn't meant to be. Sometimes bad things can happen to good people, without rhyme or reason. Or maybe the reasons were lost in the snows of a Montana winter, to lie hidden in the snowdrifts until spring.
It was after midnight on the first of February. Snow lay thick and heavy on the ground. The potbellied stove glowed red in a futile attempt to heat the bunkhouse while the ranch hands were all bedded down under as many covers as they could find. Bronson woke his assistant and told him to go get the doctor, that something was wrong.
Beau didn't hesitate. He saddled the Colonel's stud horse, a black Arabian named Zeus, without bothering to ask permission and rode hell for leather into Missoula, the big horse's hooves throwing up showers of snow. Later, when the Colonel asked why he hadn't awakened him first, the man, known only as Beau, had answered without hesitation.
"I've seen Jim Bronson mad as hell, I've seen him worried, I've seen him drunk and acting a damn fool, I've seen him when he's been sick, when he's been hurt, and when he's been so tired from trailing a herd of hard-headed longhorns from Texas to Montana that he was falling asleep on his horse, but that night was the only time I've ever seen him scared. So, if you want to fire me for taking your horse, go ahead. I'd do it again if I had to."
Beau wasn't fired. The Colonel gave him a bonus and told him if he wanted to breed his mare with Zeus, he'd be happy to accommodate him.
Odalis had recovered, physically faster than emotionally. One Sunday afternoon around the middle of March, when it was cold but not unbearably so and the winter sun was shining bright, Bronson had carried her out to the front porch, hoping that the sun would put a little color back into her cheeks. He tucked a quilt around her and brought her a cup a tea, sitting quietly beside her as she sipped her tea and watched the ranch hands going about their chores.
The Colonel's wife had died some ten years before, and in his grief, he had declared that she would always have the roses she loved. Mrs. Wilkes had lovingly tended and nurtured her rose garden until it was famous throughout the area and people started calling the place Rosewood Ranch. After she had passed away, the Colonel had hired a Chinese gardener named Lo Chi who kept the roses blooming and beautiful. Every day, while the roses were in bloom, the Colonel would pluck one perfect blossom and lay it on his wife's grave.
No amount of forcing or hothouse pampering could make roses bloom in a Montana winter, and the Colonel, ever mindful of the promise he'd made his wife, would order silk roses from San Francisco, always more than enough to last through the long, snowy winter. The only time he missed a day was when the snow and the wind made it impossible to see the small burial ground on the hill overlooking the ranch. As soon as the snow quit blowing and the wind stopped howling, there would be a newly broken path, sometimes from the Colonel's boots, sometimes his horse's hooves, leading up the hill and a fresh silk rose would replace the one battered by the blizzard.
None of the ranch hands had seen Odalis in weeks. Word slowly began to make its way down to the bunkhouse that she and Bronson were sitting on the porch.
They were all tough men. They had to be to do what they did for a living. In the summer they rounded up cattle, branded the calves, and somehow managed to get them to market without losing too many to stampede, fire, flood, disease, or any number of the many interesting ways the bovine species could find to do itself in with. When they weren't herding cattle, they were fixing fences, mending harness, chopping wood, digging ditches and wells, and any of a thousand things the Colonel and Bronson could think up for them to do. They worked hard, played hard, and all too often, died too damned young. What they didn't know how to do was tell two people they respected and cared for that they were sorry.
Billy, one of the youngest in the crew came up with the idea first.
"Back home, when womenfolk was sick, my Ma would always take over some food and some flowers."
"Billy, you idiot, you lived in Texas," said Jake, a grizzled veteran of more cattle drives than he could remember. "Where you gone find flowers in Montana in the middle of winter? And Lo Chi has been bringing 'em food since it happened, only he says she ain't eatin' none of it."
Beau spoke up. "Billy's right, we need to do something. I doubt if Miss Odalis would appreciate any of our cooking. So that leaves flowers. All we have to do is find some."
"Where you plannin' on lookin'?" Jake asked. "Ain't even none blooming in the hothouse."
"There's the ones the Colonel has in his office," Billy said. "A whole bunch of 'em. Made out of silk. Pretty as the real ones and they don't care if'n it's cold."
"How we gone get 'em out of the Colonel's office?" asked Sam, a lanky wrangler from Oklahoma.
Everyone in the bunkhouse had ideas about flower stealing, everything from lowering Billy down the chimney with a rope (What if he's got a fire going, knuckleheads?) to luring the Colonel to the barn to check on one of the new foals and enlisting Lo Chi to create a diversion with a small kitchen fire.
Beau got tired of their bickering, slammed a tin cup on the table for order, pointed out the flaws in each of their ideas and said: "Or maybe we could just ask him. There's ten of us here. We ask him for ten roses. The worse that can happen is he tells us no, and if he does, Billy goes down the chimney. Head first."
The ranch hands all cleaned up for the ordeal. They washed up, broke out clean shirts, polished their boots, and generally put on their best Saturday night on the town dress. Usually, when they needed something from the ranch house they would go to the back door, not wanting to risk tracking in dirt or snow on the Brussels carpet in the entryway. Today they knocked on the front door and stood respectfully with hats in hand waiting for Lo Chi to usher them inside.
Lo Chi looked at the worried and embarrassed faces of the men standing in front of him and led them to the Colonel's study, bowing as he left.
"What can I do for you boys?" Colonel Wilkes asked. He could sense they wanted something, he just wasn't sure what.
Beau had been elected spokesman of the group.
"Well, sir, it's like this, and we hate to ask, but Miss Odalis is out on the porch getting some sun and we wanted to let her know we're sorry, you know, about what happened and all, and maybe bring her some flowers as a present." Beau was twisting the hat in his hands so tightly the Colonel was afraid he was going to twist the brim completely off.
"Where are you going to find flowers in Montana in the middle of winter?" he asked, knowing full well what was coming next.
"We was kind of hoping that you'd let us have some of the silk ones you ordered from Frisco. We'll pay for them. Billy said that when womenfolk was sick his ma would bring over food and flowers, only we ain't cooks and you got the only flowers in Montana."
The Colonel gave his men a long, studious look, noticing they had all smartened themselves up for the visit. Billy had even attempted to subdue the cowlick at the back of his head with some sort of pomade that smelled suspiciously like saddle oil.
"Beau," the Colonel said, smiling at the men's discomfort, "you men have worked for me for some time now. I couldn't run this ranch without your help. The flowers are all yours, no charge." He knew they hated to ask anyone for anything. He had ridden with most of them for years. Without them, Rosewood Ranch would have been just another big house on barren acres. He went to the cupboard where he kept the roses, still in their long boxes from the shippers. "How many do you need?"
"We were hoping for one each, sir," Billy said, speaking for the first time.
The Colonel gave each man a flower. As he was leaving, Beau asked the Colonel if he wanted to go with them.
"No, son, I'll sit this one out. This is for you and the boys."
"Thank you, sir," he said, closing the door softly as he left.
They trooped down to the foreman's house, ten men, each carrying a red silk rose. They stopped at the front steps.
"Afternoon, Jim, Miss Odalis," Beau said, once again acting as spokesman for the crew.
"Afternoon, Beau," Bronson said. "What brings y'all out here this fine afternoon?" He glanced over at Odalis, hoping for at least a ghost of a smile.
"Well, we saw that you and Miss Odalis was out and thought we'd stop by and pay our respects. And to tell you how sorry we are about what happened. I know sometimes things don't make sense, and I guess there are some things we ain't supposed to figure out. We just wanted you to know we was sorry, and that we hope you get better soon."
Odalis, who had hardly spoken to anyone in the last few weeks, gave the boys a sad little smile. "Thank you," she said. "That is very kind of you. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?"
"No, ma'am," Beau said. "We don't want to trouble you. We just wanted to bring you some flowers and then we'll be on our way." He gently placed the long-stemmed silk rose on the snow-covered walk. The ranch hands followed him, each one expressing his condolences and leaving a single red silk rose laying in the snow.
Bronson watched as they made their way back to the bunkhouse. Billy made a snowball to throw at Jake, who chased him around the yard, threatening to beat Billy like a red-headed stepchild when he finally caught up with him. He glanced over at Odalis. For the first time in ages, she didn't look sad. She was smiling at the crew's antics, and this time the smile reached her eyes.
"Feeling better?" he asked.
"I think so," she said. "They are good men, Jim. They just don't know it."
He gathered the roses from the snow. "I'll put these in a vase for you. At least you won't have to worry about keeping them watered."
"Roses in the snow. If I live to be a hundred I will never forget. Red roses and white snow." She paused for a moment, looking into the eyes of her husband. "I married a good man. Sometimes I wonder if he knows it."
"If I am," he said, "It's because I found a good woman." He kissed her softly as she smiled up at him.
The first robin of the year landed on the porch rail and started singing its heart out. Soon the trees were filled with the sound of birdsong as the robins staked out their nesting territory.
Bronson smiled, relieved. Odalis was getting better. It looked to be an early spring.