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Under Montana Skies
Darlene Graham

Laura lay stiffly in the dark, feeling that he was staring at her. The bed was under the eaves, cloaked in complete darkness, but even so, she wondered if he could feel her staring back.

She feigned sleep, waiting to see what he would do. After a long moment she heard him cross to the stairwell, cautiously, soundlessly. Just as he reached it, faint flashes of lightning in the distance made his silhouette visible. She watched him descend until finally his head disappeared below the landing.

Lightning continued to pulse in the distance, and she heard the sound of one stealthy creak as he opened the door at the bottom of the stairs.

The whole thing gave Laura a roaring case of the creeps.

THE NEXT MORNING she awoke before the sun peeked over the mountain. She padded barefoot across the cold wooden floor to gaze out the window onto the dewy green expanse of meadow between the cabin and the outhouse. What had he been looking at last night?

Doc was hiking stiffly up the misty path. When he spotted Laura standing in the window, he raised his arm and gave her a jaunty salute.

Everything below looked normal. So idyllic and beautiful, in fact, that she could hardly believe the unsettling incident last night had happened.

Beyond the meadow, Sixteen Mile Creek sparkled in the deep valley, the narrow road beside it winding lazily down, finally intersecting with a bigger road. The view from this window clearly showed the route up to Adam Scott’s property—the only route. He must have been checking that. But why?

Shivering slightly, she slipped into her plaid robe and slippers and made her way gingerly down the creaky stairs, concerned that she might awaken Katherine.

But Katherine was already bustling around the kitchen.

The fire crackling in the old stove, the eggs gently boiling in a pan, the teakettle steaming, all made the small room feel toasty warm and inviting. Laura hated to venture out into the chilly morning, but she needed to make a trip to the outhouse. After she returned, she started to wash her hands at the sink.

“Oh, use the basin, dear.” Katherine suggested. “That pipe water is freezing.” Katherine poured hot water from the kettle and cooler water from an old-fashioned pitcher into a matching basin. Laura submerged her hands in the warm water, then washed her face with the glycerin soap Katherine had provided, marveling at how this primitive setting seemed to enhance the simple pleasures.

When she was finished washing, she accepted a warm bran muffin and a fragrant mug of tea from Katherine.

“There’s a small jar of strawberry preserve in my basket,” Laura offered.

“No!” Katherine exclaimed. “You don’t need to use the things from your basket.”

“But I want to.”

“Well, I make gallons of cherry jelly every year.” Katherine reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a pint mason jar and unscrewed the lid. Then she opened a drawer and produced an ornate silver condiment spoon. All the homey touches in the kitchen were likely this older woman’s doing.

“Thank you.” Laura took the jelly, thinking how much nicer her stay would be with this lovely woman around.

“No trouble.” Katherine smiled. “By the way, Doc and I are strict vegetarians. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll do the cooking while we’re here.”

Laura took a bite of the muffin—heavenly. “Mind?” she said, and swallowed. “I’m a vegetarian, too!”

Katherine’ s smile grew wider. “Why don’t you sit down on that stool?” She pointed at a well-worn bar stool that looked hand-hewn. “We can chat while I finish filling these hummingbird feeders.”

While Katherine measured a batch of red nectar into a large bowl and slowly stirred the mixture, the two women talked about ordinary things.

How well Laura had slept: “Pretty well,” she hedged. “It’s so very quiet up here.”

Where she came from originally: “Texas—Dallas. But I could never go back. So hot. So hectic.”

Where Doc and Katherine came from: “Seattle. Doc isn’t a medical doctor, you know. He’s a botanist.”

How the older couple had long dreamed of retiring up on Sixteen Mile Creek: “Because there is no more beautiful place on earth.”

Laura had to agree. “Where’s your house?”

“Oh, quite a distance back down the road. It takes a good thirty minutes to get there, but one can go faster in a canoe when the creek’s high. There’s also the shortcut—nothing more than a rough logging road. I don’t recommend it to the uninitiated.”

When Katherine showed no signs of volunteering any information about Adam Scott, Laura decided to ask.

“How long have you known Mr. Scott?”

“Oh, many years.” Katherine smiled as she used a little funnel to fill the feeder.

This seemed to Laura a cryptic answer. She tried again.

“What, exactly, does he do for a living?”

“Oh, he doesn’t like to talk about that much.” Katherine screwed the lid on the feeder, carefully turned it over and held it up by its chain, examining her handiwork. “All done,” she said cheerfully.

“And Mrs. Scott? Did you know her?”

Katherine dropped the hummingbird feeder onto its side, and as the sticky cherry-colored liquid gurgled out, the woman did nothing to stop it. She touched her gnarled fingers to her heart and paled, staring at Laura while the mess ran over the side of the cabinet top and onto the floorboards.

“Oh, dear,” Laura said as she jumped off her stool and righted the feeder. “Let me help you clean that up.”

Katherine swung her gaze to the red liquid dripping at her feet, but still she didn’t move.

“Did I say something wrong?” Laura asked gently as she snapped off a handful of paper towels and started soaking up the puddle.

“No.” At last Katherine seemed to come to herself. “No, dear. You didn’t.” She turned toward the sink and ran water over a dishrag. She twisted the rag, wrung out the water, then started furiously mopping up the mess on the counter-top. “It’s…well, Adam’s wife is…” Katherine stopped cleaning and looked at Laura with eyes full of something unspoken. She seemed to be gauging how much to reveal. “Adam’s wife is deceased.”

“I know that. I read it in his chart. I was just wondering about her.”

“I see.” Katherine resumed scrubbing the counter, and Laura could see that her hands trembled.

“She died in the car wreck?” Laura asked gently.

Katherine nodded. “Instantly. The car plunged off the side of a mountain back in Washington.” She kept on scrubbing.

“Oh, that’s terrible,” Laura whispered. “No one told me exactly how it happened.”

Katherine continued to clean.

Laura sensed the woman was holding something back. She squatted down with the paper towels and started wiping up the mess on the rough wood as best she could.

“I’m sorry.” She looked up at Katherine’s back. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Tension built in the quiet kitchen while the ashes in the old cast-iron stove collapsed with a pop and a hiss and bird song filtered in from outside.

Finally Katherine turned and looked down at Laura. Her wrinkled old eyes communicated an unspeakable sadness when she spoke. “I…I did know Elizabeth. Quite well. And I knew their little girl, too. Anna. She died in the accident, also…with her mother.”
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