The storms in Montana were often unpredictable and vicious. A pure blue sky waxing from mountain range to mountain range could darken within an hour. Clouds as inky and velvety as moldy bread would fold themselves over and over until the air became foul with the suffocating smell of ozone. And then the thunder would come.
Thunder louder than winter avalanches would growl and boom until ears were deafened by the noise. Lightning, like thin, silver knives would slash the blackness, stabbing through the heat and the sound like a lunatic hunter gone mad. Stabbing and slicing until the ground was pierced, and huge chunks of earth were rent in the soil.
During these storms, Annie Mayall would be curled up into a tight, frightened ball in the corner of the tiny one-room log cabin that had been her home for the past three years. She would press the palms of her hands to her ears as tears coated her face. With every shock wave of sound, she would jump. With every flash of light, she would squeeze her eyes tighter, all the while praying the storm would soon be over.
The storms were the only thing she ever truly hated about living in such a lonesome and isolated place. But she had to admit that afterwards, after the clouds had skipped back over the Talosota Mountains, Dry Lick Valley was more verdant and beautiful than anything out of a fairy tale dream.
Well ... almost the only thing.
Like the rest of the country, Montana in 1940 was thin on possibilities. America was trying to stay out of a war with Japan. Unemployment was high. But unlike the rest of the country, if a man owned a bit of land and had the grit to work long, hard hours, he and his family could become self-sufficient.
In Montana, it was easy to become self-sufficient. Land was cheap, especially in the more wooded places far away from populated areas. This was where Foster Mayall brought his naive young wife. This was where Foster Mayall built the tiny log cabin with its pump handle washbasin and the big stone fireplace, and then left his bride of four months to seek his fortune in the silver mines.
That was three years ago. Three long, difficult, isolated years ago.
It had only taken her a few months, however, to get accustomed to life in Dry Lick Valley. She had been raised on a small farm in rural Ohio. Her father had raised her and her two younger siblings amid fifty-two acres of corn. Being the oldest, Annie had become mother to her brother and sister. She had done the cooking, the cleaning, the washing, and the tending of both livestock and family. She had gone to school long enough so that when she had to bow out in order to help with the farm, no one questioned her decision.
Her days had been filled with hard work. Her nights had been equally filled with dreams and wishes of a better life. Saturdays were for dressing up and going to town in the family truck--all four of them ready for a movie and perhaps an ice cream afterwards.
Which was probably why she fell for Foster Mayall like a hammer on an anvil. He hadn't been much older than she was, but he already wore the ways of the world on him like a fancy coat. He talked fast and moved faster. He was from Connecticut. To a country farm girl like Annie, he was a knight in shining armor.
The night of August sixth, the Prichard family had gone into town for their usual Saturday escapade. Mabel and John Ray Junior each begged for a nickle to see the next installment of the serial showing at the Palisades. Their daddy had gone over to Ruby's Diner to make eyes at Dorie Fines over a piece of apple pie. Rumor around town had it that John Prichard would be taking the petite, redheaded waitress to wife pretty soon, and wouldn't that be a tremendous burden off of poor Annie's shoulders?
The Bellflower Dance Hall was having a "single's only" dance, and Annie had opted to go there. That was where she met Foster Mayall, with all his high talk about silver mining in Montana. Maybe his clean-cut, pale, good looks might have been enough to sway her judgment. Yet, with all his promises about having a life "out there," away from dusty Ohio, away from the tedium and drudgery that came with running a farm, Annie realized he was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with--as long as it wasn't anywhere near Dirkins, or in Ohio.
So, a little over six weeks from the day she'd met him, Annie Prichard became Annie Mayall. They left for Billings, Montana that very afternoon, with barely enough time for her to say goodbye to her family.
Annie spent her honeymoon on the road, what honeymoon there was. Foster didn't want to waste his money on motels along the way, so they slept in the front and back seats of the car, and used gas station restrooms to take a quick spit bath before continuing their journey.
Once they reached Billings, Foster brought out the map and the title to the piece of land he'd bought through the mail. He sold the Ford, bought a wagon, a cow, a horse, and a mule, and then filled the wagon with an assortment of food and dry goods before they set out again. It took them another three days to find the exact spot, and Annie knew she'd died and gone to heaven.
Despite its name, Dry Lick Valley was as lush and full of trees and wildlife as she'd ever seen. The overall beauty of the place was more than breathtaking. Annie found herself immediately falling in love with the place, despite its remoteness.
"We're gonna build us a place and live here the rest of our lives," Foster announced. And that night they made love for only the second time in their marriage, with just two thin blankets to keep them warm under the sparkling night sky.
And he did build them a place. Although the cabin was small compared to the farmhouse where she'd grown up, it was beautiful to her. Annie was amazed by her new husband's abilities with an ax and awl. From sunrise to sunset, she helped him select and fell the trees. She showed him how to hitch the mule she'd affectionately named Murphy to the chained logs and drag them back to the site where Foster had plotted out the groundwork for the cabin and a barn. And while Foster planed and cut the logs to fit, she cooked over an open fire.
It was the middle of summer. The days were tolerable, but the nights still grew chilly. Too often he would drop onto his bedroll and fall fast asleep, leaving her awake and aching, to watch the night sky and the moon travel through the stars, flowing from new to full and back to new over the course of the months.
As the season melted into fall, the cabin was finally finished. In two more weeks Foster cobbled together a crude but functional off-the-floor bed, a table, and two chairs. He spent another week getting a suitable barn raised.
"It'll last the winter, but not two," he told her. The wind blew through the cracks between the boards, and rain managed to sneak around the roof, but at least the animals would be able to survive in it until spring.
Now the trees were beginning to turn. Annie woke up one morning to find Dry Lick Valley spread out in a quilt of colors that took her breath away. She also discovered her husband and the horse gone. Left behind was a note.
I'm afraid I've spent too much time on the farm as it is. If we're gonna get rich, I need to get to the mines. I should be gone until spring. You should be fine until I get back. I left you some money to help tide you over. If you run short, you can butcher the cow. Your loving husband, Foster.
That was three years ago. Annie hadn't heard from him since.