Sam Noonan was in love for the first time.
Like all men, he had tried to flirt with pretty young girls when he was young, and had availed himself of saloon girls back then, but this was as different as night from day.
He knew the first time he heard her, since that came even before seeing her beautiful face.
Sam Noonan was Ma Smalley's favorite full-time boarder. He had shown up at her front door on a sunny mid-afternoon six months ago to inquire about a room. When Ma opened the door, the bright sunlight was blocked by one of the biggest men she had ever seen, and who had a face like a wanted poster.
"My goodness…uh…what can I help you with?" she croaked, as she slowly backed up into the hallway.
"Ma'am, I'm Sam Noonan, the head barkeep at the Long Branch, and Miss Kitty thought maybe I could rent a room here," he said in a deep voice.
"Oh, KITTY sent you!, Ma smiled. "Please come on in, and we can talk." Ma waved towards her large, front room, and led Sam in, indicating the largest chair near her own well-worn rocking chair by her small desk. She smiled at how Sam's six feet six inch bulk filled the chair like the Marshal's did. He was dressed very neatly in black pants, shined black shoe-boots, a well-fitting brown suit coat, a white shirt with red stripes under a tastefully patterned vest, and a black string tie. Under the trim brown hat he removed, his big head was topped by a thick array of well-groomed black hair, and a trim black mustache adorned his upper lip. And Ma saw that his deeply furrowed face with thick, prizefighter-like ears was graced with kind, deep brown eyes under drooping lids.
"Now, tell me what you need, Sam, and please call me Ma."
"Well, Ma'am…Ma…I sure would like a room as far away from your other boarders as possible." The big man looked down at his own massive hands, one atop each knee. "It's not that I don't like folks, but you see, I play the fiddle a little, and sure don't want to disturb anyone when I practice."
Ma quietly stared at him, smiling slightly at the thought of those dinner plate sized hands delicately playing a fiddle.
"Sam, you must be the fiddle player my younger boarders were excitedly chattering about the morning after the barn dance last Saturday! Now, I really MUST go to the next one!" Ma hadn't been to any dances in the over twenty years since her Stan had died. They had loved the joyful fun of a good square dance, swinging around, arm in arm until happily exhausted. Ma closed her eyes remembering, a small smile softening her care-worn face.
Sam cleared his throat and Ma's bright hazel eyes snapped open.
"Oh, forgive me, Sam. I was wool gathering there for a moment," she chuckled. "I think I have just the place for you. Would you like to have a look?"
"Sure would, Ma'am…Ma," but he looked down, gripped his hands together and firmly spoke.
"First I need to tell you something about me, Mrs. Smalley," and held up one hand as Ma started to speak.
"About fifteen years ago, I got in with a bad bunch and we did some bad things." At the slightly apprehensive look on Ma's face, Sam quickly added, "But we never hurt anyone, I swear! Just took things that we didn't have any right to. And well, I spent a few years in prison," he said as he glanced up at her gentle, calm face, "and no one would hire me after that. They would all hear about my prison time from the gossip, take one look at this mug, and suddenly there weren't any jobs. I was on my last worn nickel when I was in the Long Branch almost a year back. I had given up on the asking by then, when the loveliest woman I had ever seen walked over to the bar and stood next to me…Miss Kitty. SHE actually asked ME if I wanted some work 'cause there was a trail outfit coming in that night and they were short a bartender's assistant to handle the cowboys. Been there ever since. Got moved up to head barkeep fast after her current one suddenly left for California."
After Sam had told Kitty about his past in a low, flat voice, her warm, sky blue eyes had studied his dark, soulful eyes in silence for a good minute. Then she had put a slender white hand on his dirty sleeve, and said "Welcome home, Sam."
"Mrs. Smalley, I would gladly die for that woman." Sam said in a low, fierce voice.
The big man sat hunched forward, hands on his knees, head down, waiting for another rejection.
With no hesitation, Ma reached forward and took his callused right hand in her own work-worn one.
"Sam, anyone Kitty sends is more than fine with me. That girl can see through people as if they were made of glass! Let's go look at your room."
After he cleared his throat and swiped a hand over his eyes, Sam looked up, smiled, and nodded his head.
Sam followed Ma up the main front stairs that split the house in two. On the second floor, Ma turned right and led Sam to a door on their left at the end of the long hall. Before she opened it, Ma turned to Sam.
"Now Sam, these stairs go up the attic where I have a just-in-case, overflow type room set up on this side of the house. None of my boarders have ever lived in it. Apparently, an artist lived and worked up there before I bought the house."
Sam nodded, then followed the small woman up the narrow stairs.
At the top of the steps, Ma unlocked and opened another door, turned around and beckoned with her right hand. When Sam got to the top, he had to duck a little to not bump his head going in, and when he looked up, he stopped and stared, a slight smile on his face. Light streamed in through a large, round, stained glass window set in the wall to the right, bathing the room in streams of bright red, green, blue, and yellow light. The room was long and narrow, with the high peaked roof of the house visible through wooden slats laid on the crossbeams overhead. A large bed with a multicolor quilt was against the left wall, with a small nightstand holding an oil lamp beside it. The wall Sam and Ma were facing contained a dresser, and a small roll top desk with chair was in the far right corner. A washbasin stood on a stand near the door. A simple wooden table with two chairs was in the middle of the room. A sturdy potbellied stove was in the corner opposite the desk.
Mesmerized by the window, Sam walked over to it, and saw that it was a scene of a beautiful angel with dark brown hair watching over two small children as they crossed a bridge. He gently touched one of the panes and noticed a latch on the right edge of the frame. Ma nodded as he looked at her questioningly.
"Yes, please open it, Sam, and you will see a wonderful surprise." Ma walked over and stood near as Sam undid the latch and pulled the four feet in diameter window in and fully open to the left. They both went up to the edge and looked out.
Below and off into the distance was a large, walled-in garden. The walls were stone and covered with blooming ivy. A curved path of flat stones led from a hidden gate at the back of the house to their left, and curved under them into a straight walkway down the middle of the space. On either side of the walkway bloomed wild roses and lilac bushes. Tall shade trees set back in several alcoves on both sides of the path shaded concrete benches. The scent of the blooms and the sounds of birds wafted up through the open window.
"Lovely, isn't it, Sam?" Ma whispered. "You are the only boarder who knows of it. This is the only window with a view of the garden. I can't bring myself to allow just anyone in there…it is my secret, special space, but I know you will appreciate it as I do. I just know it. The only gate is not locked, but the ivy and bushes by it are so overgrown that it isn't easily found. Go out the back door, turn right, and walk over to the wall. Feel for the iron ring handle where the house meets the wall, behind a lilac bush.
Sam looked down at this older woman, known for her matter-of-fact sensibilities, and even toughness, and recognized a kindred soul.
"Yes'm, thank you, Ma. I surely will respect it and enjoy it,"