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Mercerville, Pennsylvania 1866
Olivia Rose stood at the window in the upstairs hall of the Hedward Girls Academy as the last young woman was being escorted into a carriage by her father. Well, not the last.
She glanced over her shoulder at the eight-year-old who sat alone in the once-bustling alcove used for reading and studying. Emily Sadler had stacked books on the worn divan beside her, and now focused intently on the one she held. The shelves behind her were empty. Everything had been sold to pay debts.
Every time Olivia thought of the war and resulting financial crisis that had forced the school to close, her stomach clenched in fear at the unknown. This was home. She had nowhere else to go.
Mrs. Hugh, the school's headmistress, stood on the curb, watching the last carriage pull away. She held herself stiffly, her posture as perfect as that of the students she'd taught for the past thirty years. Once the carriage turned the corner, the woman gathered the hem of her brown serge skirts and hurried toward the door below, disappearing from view.
"I'm going to see about our supper."
Emily acknowledged Olivia with a polite nod.
Downstairs, she met Mrs. Hugh in the hallway and followed her to the office. "I see Jeanette has taken her leave," Olivia said.
"Yes." The lines radiating from the corner of the woman's eyes had deepened over the past months. "Only Emily remains, and we still haven't heard from her mother."
"If I may have her address, I will continue to try to reach her," Olivia offered.
Mrs. Hugh picked up the only thing on the desk and handed her the folder.
Olivia glanced at the headmistress hesitantly before opening it. Emily had come here on April fifth of the year eighteen hundred and fifty-eight. Her approximate length and weight were recorded, as were eye and hair color. She'd been an infant.
Her mother, Meriel Sadler, was listed. A Mr. Roman Terlesky paid the tuition regularly.
Puzzled, Olivia looked up. "Is Mr. Terlesky her father?"
"I don't believe so. He may be her stepfather or merely her mother's…close friend."
"Has anyone ever visited her?"
"Her mother came once or twice in the first few years," the woman answered. "I doubt the child remembers."
Emily's situation was painfully similar to her own, except Olivia's anonymous tuition had stopped coming when she'd turned twelve. She'd been forced to work in the kitchen and laundry to pay her keep. All these years and she'd never known where she'd come from or who had abandoned her. Her heart fluttered, but she managed to ask, "May I see my own file?"
Without hesitation, Mrs. Hugh turned to a crate and flipped through the meager stack of remaining papers. "You may have it—and the girl's. I have no further need for them."
Olivia's stomach dipped as though she was perched on a precarious limb. She'd never had the courage to ask…though she'd wondered aplenty.
After skipping a few beats, Olivia's heart raced. Fortifying herself for whatever she found written within, she opened the folder. In black ink, the same penmanship recorded the date that she'd arrived at the school. She hadn't been a year old. Aside from the date and her physical description, the page was glaringly bare. She stared, her eyes dry and burning. "There's nothing here."
"We weren't given contacts." Mrs. Hugh moved a page to find her handwritten record on heavy stationery. "You were brought to the front door by a lad along with an envelope that contained money to pay your keep for a year. After that, bank drafts came from an anonymous source." She looked up at Olivia with regret. "Until December 1856, at which time there was no check, no notice, no anything. We never heard from your benefactor again."
Olivia had always known she'd been abandoned. That wasn't news. But she'd imagined—or dreamed perhaps—that one day she'd learn who her parents had been. Even if they hadn't wanted her, she would know their names. She would have an identity.
But this…A soul-deep ache defied her to ignore the humiliation. She wasn't even a person if she lacked parents and a date of birth. She frowned. "Where did I get my name?"
"From one of the teachers," Mrs. Hugh explained. "Miss Porter. Do you remember her?"
"Her mother's name had been Olivia, and she always said your mouth looked like a pretty little rose." Mrs. Hugh actually smiled, something Olivia had seldom seen. "You were a beautiful baby. One of the prettiest we ever had."
Her parents hadn't cared enough to name her, and if they had, they hadn't cared enough to see she kept it. The overwhelming lack of identity made her feel like a nonentity.
"And my birthday?"
"Miss Porter guessed your age and selected a date."
With a stoic lack of emotion, Olivia thumbed through the pathetically few pages and notations. Her grades and academic achievements had been listed. She noted her first date of employment at age twelve and her gradual promotions from the kitchen and laundry to teaching. Her entire life consisted of a list of financial records and class grades.
Refusing to sink beneath the rising tide of hopelessness, Olivia closed the folder and picked up Emily's. "Thank you."
"The academy did its best by you, Olivia," Mrs. Hugh said.
She'd always had a bed to sleep in and meals three times a day. This place had been her entire life.
"There is other family listed in Emily's file. An uncle, I believe."
Olivia quickly reopened the folder. Flipping over a page, Olivia found the notation. "Jules Parrish. Oregon City, Montana."
"I only wrote him last week," Mrs. Hugh said. "I kept thinking I'd hear from her mother."
"Did you telegraph?"
"Selling off the furnishings and supplies barely fed us these last weeks. I was hard pressed just to afford postage to notify all the parents."
During the past few years, wages had ceased, and all the teachers had dipped into their own money for food and supplies.
"I'll take care of Emily," Olivia reassured her.
"The new owners will be here Thursday," Mrs. Hugh reminded her. "You only have until then."
"We'll be gone," Olivia replied.
"You haven't had good fortune with finding a teaching position?"
All she knew how to do was teach young ladies, cook and clean. She had no prospects to continue here in Mer-cerville. She'd queried as far as Ohio. Even the paper mills were no longer operating. The war had taken a toll on the entire country. "I'm sure I'll find something soon."
She wasn't as confident as she let on, but she'd never given in to fear in her life, and she wasn't going to start now.
Their beds had been sold, so Olivia and Emily prepared pallets in the room Olivia once shared with another teacher. Emily hadn't asked what was going to happen to her.
"Your mother still hasn't replied to our letters," Olivia told her as she spread the last blanket.
"She probably didn't get them wherever she is," Emily replied, her voice and expression void of feeling. She'd always been a quiet and undemonstrative child, and Olivia understood the need to keep thoughts and feelings private.
Olivia knew well the importance of holding oneself together. "The gospels tell us that our heavenly Father knows how many hairs we have on our heads, remember?"
Emily nodded. "Yes."
It had always meant everything to Olivia to know how much God loved her. "Even as He cares for and feeds the sparrows, He cares for us even more. We are valuable and special to the Lord."
"And He said not to fear because He is with us," Emily added.
As good as it was to know God loved them and was with them, it wouldn't hurt to know there were one or two people concerned for them, as well.
"I'm going to take care of you," she assured Emily. That was the only promise she could make and keep to the best of her ability. Olivia knew exactly what being unwanted felt like, and she wasn't going to let this girl think nobody in the entire world cared about her. Emily had become the closest thing Olivia had to family.
For the past several years, Emily and Olivia had remained at the academy over the holidays, just the two of them, celebrating with minimal fuss. As the only two without any family whatsoever, they were bound by yearnings and inadequacies only they shared. Olivia understood every unspoken dream and glimmer of trembling hope that shone in Emily's eyes. Her dearest wish was to care for her as her own, but she had no means to provide for her.
Since her conversation with Mrs. Hugh, she'd been thinking. Emily had at least one relative besides her mother. She deserved to know her uncle. Perhaps the man and his family would be ecstatic to learn about their niece. And once Emily had been united with her family, Olivia could find a teaching job, maybe even nearby.
Olivia sat cross-legged on her pallet. "You have an uncle in Montana."
Emily studied Olivia with solemn brown eyes. Was that a flicker of hope Olivia detected? "I do?" Emily appeared to digest the information, though her expression remained guarded. "How far is Montana?"
Olivia stood and picked up the oil lamp from the floor. "I'll be right back."
Her bare feet padded on the wood in the empty silence of the hallway and alcove. She found several rolled maps, located the one she wanted and returned. Unrolling the map, she used the lamp to hold one side and Emily's book the other.
Emily folded back her blanket and leaned over the map opposite Olivia. Her dark braids fell forward with the tips grazing the paper.
Olivia pointed, locating a far western spot in Pennsylvania with her fingertip. "Here we are."
Emily ran a finger across states and cities. "Here's Montana, Miss Rose."
The distance was a good ten inches. They studied the vast gap for several minutes.
Their eyes met, Emily's dark and filled with questions. The child was so dear, her fears and concerns had become Olivia's own. Olivia had no idea what being a mother—or having a mother—felt like, but she expected a mother felt toward her child the way Olivia felt toward Emily: Protective. Concerned.
"How far is that?" Emily asked.
"Let's figure it out using the scale," Olivia answered in her teacher's voice. "Do you have a bookmark?"
Emily reached for a slip of paper she'd had positioned between pages.
Olivia painstakingly marked the paper with her thumbnail, and together they laboriously followed the marks that represented railroad lines.
After several minutes of tallying, Olivia sat back on her heels. "Seventeen hundred miles. Plus about another inch or so, because I'm not certain where Oregon City is."
The distance was inconceivable to someone who'd rarely left the safety of this house. At that moment Olivia knew desperation at its peak, but she kept her expression and her voice calm for Emily's sake. "I have a little savings left for train fare and food. We could go to Jamestown tomorrow and learn about the train schedule."
Emily turned beseeching eyes on her. "Do you really think we should go to Montana?"
Olivia yearned to comfort the child, but she was at a loss as to how. No one had ever been affectionate with her, so physical demonstrations didn't come naturally. She reached out and gave the girl's shoulder an awkward pat. "We will find your family, and then I'll acquire a job."
Emily's gaze turned to the hand on her shoulder, an unaccustomed touch that clearly puzzled her, before picking up her book. The map rolled back into a cylinder against the oil lamp. The girl set the book aside and crept back to her pallet. "Maybe my mother will come tomorrow."
Olivia didn't have the heart to support the girl's hope with an encouraging reply. She moved the map and lamp aside and turned down the wick.
She lay down, darkness closing around her. This wasn't the same secure cover of night she'd known until now. She focused on remembering one of her favorite verses from the Book of Isaiah. Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. Yes, I will help you. I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
She had no choice but to put her trust in God's Word.
Nothing remained for her in Pennsylvania. She had no connections to anyone in the entire country. No one else needed her—no one except Emily.
Emily had people somewhere, and that meant she had a chance for a good future. She was going to do whatever it took to unite Emily with her family. Every child deserved a chance, and Olivia was her only hope. She would trust God to help her do whatever it took.
Corbin's Bend, Montana, 1866
The afternoon sun was still blistering when Jules Parrish slowly rode toward his stable, leading a horse with mud fever. He needed to treat the animal's legs and get back to the herd.
Half a dozen mares, bellies heavy with foals, stood in the shade of the slope-roofed shelter built for their protection inside a fenced pasture. One of them whinnied, and the bay he led replied with a snort.
Jules took a moment to admire the structure. The stable was a thing of beauty, built in the style of a traditional barn, though a hundred and fifty feet long to comfortably accommodate twenty-four horses. It had only been constructed last fall, but he'd given it a fresh coat of white paint this spring. Besides the bunkhouse, this was the only structure he'd had time to build. His one-room cabin and the supply sheds had been here when he'd bought the land before the war.
All he'd thought about during his four-year stint in the army had been getting back. Sleeping on the ground during freezing winter nights, tromping through sweltering heat and eating meager rations, the dream of what he could make this land into had kept him going.
Jules appreciated the shingled roof and twelve symmetrical windows with a nod of satisfaction. Could be it was the most impressive stable in all of Montana. And his herd was taking shape.
A flicker of motion caught his eye, and he squinted from beneath his hat brim, certain the waves of heat were playing with his eyes. A lone hemlock and a hedge of chokecher-ries stood twenty feet from the squat cabin, transplanted by someone who'd long ago given up his dream and moved on. A stack of trunks had been abandoned in the shade of the tall tree, and two females—one wearing a blue dress, the other green—stood as he approached the stable. Even from here, it was clear one was a woman, the other a child.
The woman separated from the girl and walked toward him, her skirt hem stirring clouds of dust that rose with each step.
Jules dismounted and, holding the reins to his mount and the lead rope for the bay in one hand, approached her. "What are you doing here?"
The woman stopped several feet away. "Mr. Parrish?"
"Yeah. Who are you?"