Notorious in the West(5)

By: Lisa Plumley



 It was fortunate for Olivia that her father was so brilliant. Without Henry Mouton’s tutoring and encouragement—and willingness to barter with the J. G. O’Malley & Sons traveling book agent who occasionally came through town—Olivia would have been in quite a fix herself. As it was, she spent less time studying, though, than she did helping with the day-to-day duties of running her beloved father’s nascent hotel business. At the moment, The Lorndorff Hotel was not much more than a few nailed-together timbers for beams, an array of canvas for walls and several lumpy beds. But someday, Olivia knew, the hotel would define Morrow Creek as a place for sophisticated and educated folk to gather, converse and entertain socially.

 The collecting crowd was right to be interested, Olivia reasoned as the peddler’s avowals grew ever more animated and persuasive. At least some of the claims the man was making had to be true. This was the nineteenth century after all! Miraculous scientific achievements had taken place.

 Some of those achievements had been made by women, too. Olivia knew that because she loved to read. She’d learned about Mary Fairfax Somerville’s experiments with magnetism and about Maria Mitchell’s astronomical discovery of her new comet. Olivia had daydreamed about creating and publishing botanical photograms like Anna Atkins or unearthing a Plesiosaurus fossil like Mary Anning. She’d thrilled to periodical accounts of Lady Augusta Ada Byron’s invention of the analytical engine. Of course, she also idolized pioneering medical professionals such as the physician Elizabeth Blackwell and the tireless nurse Florence Nightingale. To Olivia, those women were true heroines.

 While her best friend Annie’s oak bureau held hairbrushes and pearled pins and precious scraps of scented soap, Olivia’s makeshift crate-turned-nightstand held Familiar Lecturers on Natural Philosophy by the intellectual Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps. The work was somewhat dated, but it was fascinating—as was The Mechanism of the Heavens by Mary Somerville, another of her favorites. Naturally, Olivia also treasured her well-thumbed copies of texts by authors such as Charles Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, but she preferred reading the work of female scientists and scholars. Somehow their achievements felt all the closer to her own life...and all the more real for it.

 Even if those women didn’t live in a single-street Western town with not much more to brag of than a church, a popular saloon and more tobacco spittoons than were strictly reasonable.

 As far as Olivia was concerned, anything was possible. The lives of the great women she’d studied proved it. They’d all asked questions, encountered important turning points in their lives and let their curiosity guide them on to greatness.

 Maybe this encounter with the peddler’s scientific wonders was her own call to greatness, Olivia fancied. So, fully ready to begin her own quest for enlightenment, she stepped a little nearer. She picked up one of the bottles for closer study.

 As she did, though, someone jostled her. Startled, Olivia held tight and glanced to the side...only to see a familiar and dispiriting sight. Old Mr. Richter, one of the railway foremen, was staring at her with a contemplative expression on his face.

 He tipped his hat. “Afternoon, Miss Mouton.”

 In time with his greeting, his gaze dropped to her skirts. He peered at their simple calico folds as though hoping to penetrate them, then moved on to her high-buttoned bodice...and lingered. His attention took a very meandering path back to her face, leaving her feeling fidgety and uncomfortable in its wake.

 Ugh. Why did men have to ogle her? She’d noticed this happening more often as she grew taller and more mature. Her father insisted the townspeople were merely being friendly. Olivia had her doubts. The leers she garnered didn’t feel like simple neighborliness. But without a mother to rely upon for advice—her own poor mama had died during the journey westward—Olivia was on her own, swimming in a sea of adult interactions she wasn’t entirely prepared for and certainly did not want.

 Politely, she inclined her head. “Hello, Mr. Richter.”

 With that accomplished, Olivia directed her attention back to the patent remedy in her hand. Studiously, she examined its label. It purported to use bottled extractive magnetism as a curative. That was an innovative approach that Olivia had never heard of before. According to Mary Fairfax Somerville’s work—

 Before she could consider the scientific implications further, Mr. Richter’s brusque voice intruded on her thoughts.

 “Did your pa talk to you about my prop’sition?”

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