Rosalie's first sight of home came as she stepped off a stage coach into Helena. She had arrived in Fort Benton three days previously, after a long journey by steamboat on the Missouri river. From there, she caught a coach to her destination. Although travel left her exhausted, the thrill of nearing her journey's end helped the days pass quickly. Her husband, Tom, had spent last summer and all winter preparing a new home for her and the cattle, caring for her late father until he passed had prevented her from joining Tom until this day in late June.
Months had passed since Tom's last letter. Nagging anxiety insisted that something was wrong, but she insisted on thinking to herself that everything was fine. Rumors abounded of a particularly tough Montana winter. The post must simply have experienced some difficulty in delivering the letters he had sent so frequently those first few months.
So, it was time for Rosalie to take matters upon herself. Travel from Missouri to the Montana territory was exhausting and rough for one lone woman, but by the grace of God, she finally made it to Helena. Although Tom's letters had indicated that Helena was a major city (he brought his letters there for delivery), Rosalie had assumed that was only in comparison to the wildness of the territory at large. She hadn't expected to see a city every bit as loud and bustling as her own town.
The streets were filled with people, horses, and wagons in a whirlwind of noise and movement. Imposing buildings stared down at her from every direction, and many more were being built. She blushed as women in loose, low-cut dresses and rouge waved out of windows in one fine hotel, and walked past quickly.
Rosalie had no idea where to find her husband. She had difficulty breathing as she realized the enormous task she had taken upon herself. She knew Tom had built them a home. He'd written often about their little house waiting for his wife to come make it into a proper home. But out here in the west, she knew absolutely nothing about where to go or how to even attempt finding him in either a city this large or the vast wilderness ahead. The only hints were exultant descriptions of a little place miles west of Helena, a one-room home built for a pair of lovers and mountain plains rolling with enough greenery to glut their whole herd. Practical things like how his wife would find her new home didn't worry Tom. Why would she need an address when he'd bring her home himself by spring?
As she stepped into the city, Rosalie found herself panicking. Taking deep breaths, she tried to stop running through scenarios. What if she found herself waylaid in some alley? What if she never found Tom? What if he was, at this moment, in Missouri to pick her up? What if Tom had somehow forgotten he even had a wife? This last thought made her chuckle just enough to help calm herself with a deep breath and straighten her posture. If she was going to make it anywhere, she'd need to be rational.
Before setting out on a wild trek to who-knows-where, Rosalie needed something to eat. Her driver had left her outside a saloon, adorned with a snowy owl Rosalie wasn't sure was real or a replica, which seemed to be a central point for travelers. Clutching her purse and bag, Rosalie stepped through the doorway. She entered a room full of men reeking of sweat and alcohol. The atmosphere was rowdy, but not as much as she'd expected of similar establishments. In the dim light, it was hard to see much of anything. She muttered a silent prayer of gratitude that at least nobody here recognized her.
Rosalie approached the bar, coughing quietly as the owner finished serving another patron. The large man leaned over the counter toward her.
"What can I do for you today?" the man asked.
"I'd like something to eat," Rosalie said. "I'm not particular about what."
"Not particular, huh?" the owner said, chuckling. "The menu's about the same as it's been for months now—beans and onions. Whiskey optional."
Completing the transaction, Rosalie took her food to a corner of the room, hoping that the dark table would leave her essentially invisible. The food was bad. Rosalie admitted that she came from a comfortable life, but still struggled to understand the vim with which others devoured their meals as she consciously chewed and swallowed each bite.
Soon another woman approached Rosalie's seat in the corner. Her dress and appearance looked quite similar to the women Rosalie had noticed in upper windows earlier, and Rosalie found herself avoiding the woman's eyes.
"Mind the company?" the woman asked.
Rosalie shook her head, gesturing politely to a seat across the table from her.
"I noticed you don't look as if you rightly belong here," the woman said. "And thought you might need some company. The name's Betsy, by the way."
"And mine is Rosalie. Rosalie Carver."
"What brings you here?"
Rosalie looked at Betsy for a good while, debating inwardly whether to confide in her or not. Probably this woman wouldn't know Tom anyway—although, if she did, Rosalie certainly wanted to know.
"To be honest, I'm worried," Rosalie said. "Last year around this time, my husband Tom came to settle down and raise cattle. I stayed back home to help care for my dying father, but after he passed in November, I heard nothing from Tom. I don't know where he is or how to find him, and I am beginning to think I should have never come."
"Tom . . . " Betsy said slowly. "What did you say your surname was? And can you describe Tom?"
"Carver. Tom Carver is about my height, not very tall at all. He has black hair, a little birthmark right on the tip of his nose," Rosalie said. She stopped and eyed Betsy. "Why? Do you know him?"
"No, no, not like that," Betsy said quickly. Then she paused. "But I knew of him. He was up here just about every weekend, helped me out of a real tight spot once when a client wouldn't leave me alone. He never even remembered me, I'm sure, but he had a way about him that I couldn't forget. I'm sure you know what I mean. Like he actually cared about the rest of us."
"Yes, I know exactly what you mean," Rosalie said, relieved. "Can you help me find him, then?"
"Oh, honey," Betsy said. "Tom is dead and buried."
Dead. No letters. Maybe the postal service wasn't to blame after all. Rosalie stared at Betsy, who shifted in her seat.
"I'm so sorry to throw that on you like this," Betsy said. "It's just been a bad, bad winter here and your poor husband being so new here, well, he was found frozen solid once the snow began to clear up a bit. His cattle too. I'm sure you must have heard something . . . " Betsy kept talking, but Rosalie stopped listening. Rosalie sat, trying to breathe. Her husband's name caught her attention.
"Tom is buried in a local churchyard now, along with some of the others we had to save until the ground warmed up enough to dig a pit. But say, that means you don't have anybody to care for you now, right?"
"Yes, that's right," Rosalie said, speaking for the first time since hearing Tom's fate.
"And nowhere to go?"
"Why don't you come home with me? I'm sure you know what I am and where I live," Betsy said. She blushed. "But I'm sure we can find a spare room just for now. And occupation, if you're interested."
Rosalie stared. She nodded her head vaguely, and followed as Betsy stood to leave, grasping her hand.
A few days passed by. Betsy had cared for Rosalie and given her more aid than any stranger could possibly feel obligated to. Rosalie lay in her room, only eating if pressured to do so and hardly moving. Her father's death had been expected, and although she missed him, the pain wasn't crushing. Tom was supposed to be here, waiting for her to come home, not lying in a mass grave through the still-cold nights and occasional snowfall.
But Tom was gone. Winter had destroyed their future, but here Rosalie was, still in need of basic things like food and shelter. She felt a pressing need to get out, because a brothel was hardly a permanent residence for a lady, after all, and she couldn't rely on generosity forever.
With no idea of where to go or what to do and very few skills worth anything in this new world, Rosalie took to walking through town. Muddy snow drifts still remained under eaves and trees, sheltered from the sun. Although May had seemed late enough to avoid any trace of winter, reminders of winter's desolation remained even as new growth began to push through. These walks never led anywhere but a convoluted path back to Rosalie's room.
One evening, as she returned to her room at sunset, she noticed an old, grizzled man with one arm sitting on the entrance steps. Men were no strangers here. Rosalie usually took no notice, but this man just sat, watching. Rosalie sat next to him, leaving plenty of room for patrons to move back and forth. He nodded at her briefly, then resumed his watch.
Sunset turned into night, and Rosalie finally spoke. "Excuse me, sir, but what are you doing here?"
"I could ask the same about you," the man said gruffly.
"I live here, in a way," Rosalie answered.
"Can't say I expected that one," he said. Rosalie felt as if she were being inspected. "I'm just an old cripple sifting the bottom of the barrel for an apprentice. Catching my prey, as it were."
"What sort of prey are you looking for?" Rosalie said.
"Young man, but not too young to know how to work. Gotta be desperate or he won't give me a second glance. Determined, certain set of the jaw or something."
"And you think you can determine that by a glance?"
"Instinct, more like. Be a lot easier if you'd leave me be."
Rosalie leaned in, just slightly. "What about me?"
The man scooted just a bit further. Rosalie stepped into the light streaming from the window, standing as tall as she could muster.
"I fit your qualifications, or almost all of them. I have nothing to lose. My husband is gone, my cattle are gone, my property is gone as far as I know. Teach me a trade," she said. She had very little experience working at any kind of physical labor. But she could learn quickly. She certainly had the motivation.
"You don't even know which trade," the man said.
"I don't care. Teach me. It's either work with you or work here," Rosalie said, waving toward the brothel.
The man looked at her and nodded. "We'll try it. But it's hard work, and lonely work. I'll give you the night to pack your things, and tomorrow we head to the woods. You'll stay in the shanty for now. I'll be by around sunrise."
"And what's your name?" Rosalie asked.
The man left, and Rosalie went up to bed, explaining to Betsy that she found a new place to live and giving as much money as she could spare in gratitude for the care Betsy had shown. She left out the details of her new employment, and Betsy didn't pry. Work was work.
Next morning, she got up just as the vast Montana sky began to turn gray before sunrise. Waiting outside with her bag in hand, she looked around at the city again. It was hard to see the land itself through the buildings, but she began to understand why Tom had written so ardently about its beauty. He had specifically mentioned evenings spent with the cattle, seeing the mountains looming in the dusky light like specters straight from a storybook. The same snowy owl from the tavern rested on the eaves of the brothel now. Rosalie thought to herself that it must have been a real bird after all.
Jefferson showed up on horseback just as the sky began to turn orange with the sun. He seemed surprised to see her, seated in the same location as last night. Waving briefly, he dismounted. Another horse, saddled and ready to go, walked beside him. Rosalie felt her stomach tighten as she realized she was meant to ride. Although she had learned to ride horses, it had been as a hobby, not through the wilderness.
Jefferson turned out to be a cattle rancher. He had survived the hard winter with a small herd of about two hundred cattle fenced into property he'd fenced as his own, having foreseen difficulty coming on the open range. Although he housed hired help, an injury last fall had taken his arm. Keeping up the ranch became increasingly difficult as spring turned into summer, so Rosalie learned the trade. She practiced her riding daily, checking on the herds and fences with Jefferson by her side. Often she would see a snowy owl watching from a tree or a fence post. Jefferson never seemed to notice the bird, but Rosalie felt the eyes of the owl, watching silently. It appeared most often during the hours of dawn and dusk, but she caught occasional glimpses even in full sun.
Rosalie became confident over the next couple of months, learning how to manage herds, communicate with the other hired help, ride her horse and work hard. Jefferson's late wife had left behind a functional wardrobe, allowing Rosalie to work with less restriction, and she threw herself into each day. Thoughts of Tom haunted her, and she dreaded time spent alone with nothing to distract her. She sometimes even fancied that her owl was Tom himself. She dismissed the idea as irrational and somewhat pagan, but held on to a hope that somehow Tom had ripped the veil between heaven and earth just to see her.
August began to fade into September. Rosalie awoke one night to the sound of pounding on the door to her little shed. Muttering a prayer, she opened the door. Jefferson stood in the starlight, lantern in hand.
"It's time you learn something new, Carver. Ellen's ready," he said. Rosalie nodded, shut the door and put on her clothes. The night was chill, and as she walked after Jefferson, she saw the outline of a large bird blocking out the starlight above her.
It didn't take long for her to hear Ellen, a cow Jefferson had warned her was almost ready to deliver. She had never attended a birth of any kind, but fervently hoped they weren't all so loud.
"The first thing to watch for is the sack," Jefferson said. "She looks to be pretty far along, see how she's panicking? Stay back a bit!"
Rosalie stepped back. The cow was circling frantically. Rosalie wasn't sure how much time had passed, but the calf began to emerge. Jefferson warned her to leave it, assuring her that he had seen this process time and again, and that the cow was unlikely to need assistance. He was right. Ellen's calf emerged, dropping to the ground.
Jefferson approached the pair carefully. Although Ellen still seemed upset, he was able to approach the calf and dry it off with a towel he'd brought for the purpose. He motioned for Rosalie to approach, which she did, at a healthy distance from the mother cow.
As she bent down toward the calf, grief struck. Motherhood seemed like an impossible dream now. Ellen, however, didn't seem to have any maternal inclination at all. She stood near the gate, mooing balefully, as if she had absolutely no idea what to do with the little calf.
"Why doesn't she want to be with her baby?" Rosalie asked Jefferson.
"She's just new to this. Life out here's a little wild and we can't expect the poor cattle to know what they're doing the first time, anymore than you knew anything about life on the ranch when you came out here," Jefferson said.
"I still don't know much," Rosalie said.
"You've come a long way. You know why I was out in town that day, anyway? Why my ranch hands weren't enough?" Jefferson said, beginning to help the calf onto its feet.
"No," Rosalie said. She had often wondered why, as the other workers seemed much more capable of every task.
"Because I can tell you care. I don't know your story, and I don't need to," Jefferson said. "But I know that somehow this means everything to you. I can trust you to care for these animals and this land just like I do. Skill comes with time, heart doesn't."
Rosalie nodded, grateful for the praise. She helped Jefferson calm Ellen and guide her with her calf into a special pen set up for new mothers. Once they could tell that Ellen had become comfortable nursing the calf, Jefferson went to bed. Rosalie remained outdoors. The quiet night gave her time to reflect. Her thoughts were as bleak as ever. Two months did very little to heal her wound. She wondered if things would have been easier or harder had she been with Tom those last several months. In a way, their marriage seemed like a dream more than anything, as they had been married shortly before Tom left. She was now a widow, but had barely had the chance to be a wife, anyway.
Knowing that she wouldn't sleep tonight, Rosalie just stood, watching the stars. The snowy owl had perched on a post during the whole birth and labor. A couple of minutes after Jefferson left, the owl flew toward Rosalie, making her jump. Landing on the ground in front of her, it hopped a few times, and she could have sworn it jerked its head as if asking her to follow it. Cautiously, she stepped forward. It hopped again, stopping to watch her. This time as she stepped forward, it began to fly slowly toward the gate leading to the woods.
Feeling almost as if she were sleeping, she ran to the stable and prepared her horse for a ride. As she approached the gate, the owl began to fly into the woods. Anytime she began to lag behind, the owl stopped on a rock or branch, seemingly to wait for her. The starlight was just bright enough to allow glimpses of white that disappeared altogether while passing through thickets. Rosalie rode on. As the sun began to rise behind her, it cast its light on a little house lying just at the base of a mountain, barely larger than her own shanty. The owl flew ahead, landing on a little wooden sign in front of the house.
Rosalie brought her horse to a stop, hesitant to trespass. The owl hopped impatiently on the sign, and Rosalie and her horse ambled forward. As she dismounted a little way from the door, she saw that nobody had been home for quite a while. A plot where a garden should have been grew nothing but weeds, and nothing moved about save a few birds flying away at Rosalie's approach. The snowy white owl seemed firm that this was their final destination, no matter if anybody lived there. Whoever had been here must have left in a hurry, leaving a fence half-built, tools strewn about. She tied her horse to a post.
She continued to approach until she saw a word carved on the owl's perch, covered in the dust of who knows how long: Carver.
Rosalie had found her home.
Cautiously, she opened the door. The snowy owl flew in behind her. The little house was just one room, but the builder had constructed it with care. A little table lay in the middle of the room, with a dirty bowl on one end and a clean one set up on the opposite side. Rosalie envisioned Tom setting a place for her to help him while away the lonely winter. A bed stood in a corner, and on the other end was a stone fireplace with the ashes of Tom's last fire still in it. A journal lay near the fireplace. She could see Tom lying on the floor, writing in front of the fire as he tried to fight the bitter winter.
Rosalie walked over to the bed and threw herself facedown, raising a small pile of dust. The owl stood next to her, gently nuzzling her cheek. Rosalie lay there, somewhere between sleep and mourning, and knew that this was one last present from Tom. When she awoke around mid-day, she sat on the edge of the bed, taking a last look at the home-that-could-have been, seeing exactly where she and Tom would have raised their family together, imagining a nice chair in the corner where she could sit and work in the summer evenings as Tom chased their children around the house in a game of tag. She could see their little black-haired children with Tom's mischievous smile, giving her sticky hugs and kisses before bed. Those children and those memories were mere phantoms, but seeing their home affirmed that Tom had lived and he had loved her and waited for her.
Stooping down near the fireplace, she picked up Tom's journal. She gave it a kiss, and stowed it in her pocket to read later. It was time to say goodbye to this home and return to her new future. She fastened the door gently, and pulled the little wooden sign from the ground. She stowed it in her saddlebag and prepared to ride again. The owl flew by her side now as they made their way home.
Jefferson was tending to Ellen and the new calf again when Rosalie approached the gate. Leading her horse to the stable without stopping to talk to Jefferson, she fed and groomed the animal tenderly before heading to her shanty. It would be time to find a more permanent home before another winter came in just as harsh as the one that took Tom, but for now, this was her home. She leaned her sign against the wall and went back to work with Jefferson. The snowy owl remained, nestling in to sleep in the Carvers' new home.