Savage In Silk

By: Donna Comeaux Zide


Montana Territory—1834

The early August morning dawned clear and hot, the sun lending its first rays to brighten the ranchhouse kitchen. Sunbeams had barely begun to peek through the back porch window, when fifteen-year-old Lil Draper stumbled into the room, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. The heavy mass of silver-blonde hair that was her pride was bound into a reasonably neat bun at the back of her neck, but a few stray wisps escaped to tease the back of her ears.

She moved about mechanically, filling the coffee pot, breaking eggs into a bowl, as she struggled to keep her anger in check. Ma knew how she hated getting up early and still she’d run off to the trading post! Worse yet, she’d dragged dear, reliable Maddy, their housekeeper, with her. “To help me fetch supplies, darling,” Susannah had drawled in her usual affected manner. After fifteen years of frontier life, she hadn’t abandoned her pretentious citified lady’s airs. Lil stationed herself at the sink, peeling potatoes for the morning meal, while silently analyzing her mother’s shallow character. Why, I’ve actually seen Pa flinch when she uses that refined, sugary tone, she thought. In fact, she had a secret form of address for her mother. She answered respectfully enough with “yes, Ma,” but she’d be thinking “yes, your Ladyship.”

“Darn,” she wailed. She had carelessly sliced her finger! It was all Ma’s fault, she thought spitefully. If she weren’t so darn hard to live with, I’d have been concentrating on what I was doing. Well, she was almost finished anyway. Rinsing away the tiny drop of blood that welled from the cut, she quickly peeled the last two potatoes and set the beef steaks to frying.

Managing nicely, despite her dislike for kitchen work, Lil found she had enough time for a quick cup of coffee before the hands came shuffling in to demand breakfast. In her mind, Lil compared her mother’s never-ending petulance with her father’s blunt honesty. Pa always called the shots as he saw them, but if something made him unhappy, he kept his misery bottled inside. Not so with Ma. She hated living here and had never let Mike Draper forget he was responsible for her unhappiness. She never ceased reminding him that Montana was far removed from “civilization.”

Lil was like her father, physically as well as emotionally. She had his bright blue eyes and fair appearance and the same adventurous spirit that had urged him away from overcivilized, overcrowded Philadelphia to the wild, untamed beauty of Montana. He’d fallen in love with its towering, snow-frosted mountain ranges and clear, rushing rivers. Pa had even named their spread the Bitterroot, after the sturdy, heatherlike wildflower that so profusely covered the territory. He’d explained to her that he liked the sound of Bitterroot; that it seemed to symbolize the harsh beauty of life here, where the few settlers who’d stayed were as hardy as the wildflower, clinging tenaciously to the land. The rare Indian attacks were only a dim memory to Lil, but her father had told her of narrow escapes from death and showed her the scar that marked the spot where a Blackfoot arrow had struck him.

Lil had never ceased to admire her father for sticking it out when others had turned tail and run. Susannah, on the other hand, had none of Mike Draper’s indomitable spirit. For fifteen long years, she’d wanted nothing more than to return to her girlhood home in St. Louis and she had her daughter’s wholehearted, if silent, support. They’d all be happier if she left, and Lil couldn’t understand Pa’s stubborn reluctance to let her go.

The aroma of burning steak suddenly roused Lil from her musings, and she rushed about to finish her chores. The sound of heavy boots tramping up the porch steps and low, masculine laughter drifted through the open window. The hands were coming in.

Lil smoothed the stray wisps that escaped her coiled hair. When the door opened, she was putting the finishing touches to the table. Mounds of tempting fried potatoes, scrambled eggs and large cuts of steak were piled high on heavy china plates. She smiled a welcome and the ranch hands respectfully removed their hats and seemed to quiet their rough language in deference to her. They all gave her the respect due a grown woman, but raising her cheek for her father’s affectionate kiss, Lil was well aware that, in his eyes, she would always be his “little girl.”