In the middle of forested mountains, the Rusty Springs Store was built upon a cleared plateau. The plain, one-story, rustic building served the rural community and sold fuel, beer, smokes, canned goods and packaged snacks.
Items for sale vied for position. At the front of the store, a small counter space held an old-time cash register. The glass case below was filled with lottery tickets. It was busy from early morning until late afternoon and usually found Barbara Blue, one of the owners, waiting on customers. Her husband, Robert, manned the propane tanks and purchased and shelved the supplies he bought either in the town of Rusty Springs, or Great Falls, the bigger town up the road offering items not found locally.
Folks liked to gather at the store, especially during the off-seasons of winter and early spring. Men collected around the coffee station across from the front counter. A few women would go to the back and relax around a large, worn picnic table. A group of kindred souls had even begun showing up on a regular basis and calling themselves, “The Stitch ‘N’ Bitchers.
It was mid-morning in mud season when Joy Ann Oliver was seated with Gladys Long, a widow, and Stormy Smith, a young woman who had just moved into her father’s house a few miles up the road.
Joy Ann lived on a ranch a few miles north of the store. She was almost salivating with excitement about her big news. Newcomers were seldom seen in the valley of Rusty Springs, and she had information about a cowboy coming to their ranch. It was juicier gossip than if they talked about the pitfalls of mud season, an event that seemed to be dragging on longer than ever.
“Larry’s hired a Winnemucca cowboy,” she said in a whisper. “He’s supposed to be here any day.”
“Is he married?” begged Stormy. She was a recent transplant from Great Falls and longed to hear details about any eligible bachelor.
“Don’t know,” said Joy Ann.
“Is he cute?”
“Stormy, he isn’t here yet. I’ve never seen the man. Larry needs a hired hand for a couple of months to put up a pole barn. He hasn’t said much about this man except that he’s coming.”
Joy Ann paused, a slight cringe on her lips. “He’s not from around here so Larry says he’ll be staying inside the house with us.”
Gladys leaned over the table and sought Joy Ann’s eyes. “You seem bothered. Will this be a burden to you, having an extra man at the table at every meal?”
“It’s not that. We have plenty of food from the garden and the livestock. I’ve just never had someone live inside with us before. This man is a stranger. There’ve been some weird folks who come to this area. He might even be part of the old Hill family.”
“Heavens above,” said Gladys. “Let’s not worry about him ahead of time. This man may work out just fine.”
“He might even be handsome and single,” Stormy said with glee. Gladys groaned.