Back Cover Blurb:
ANNIE WHITAKER HAS ALWAYS BEEN A PLAIN JANE. But in the bustling gold-rush town of Cañon City, Colorado, she turns heads, especially that of cowboy Caleb Hutton. Annie's seen Caleb many times in her father's mercantile, and she's surprised and pleased when he takes a special interest in her.
Caleb's faith was shattered when his fiancée jilted him for a wealthier man. But as he gets to know Annie, his view of women—and God—soon takes a turn for the better. Can Annie's steadfast faith help the former preacher find his way back to his calling and a second chance at love?
Book Excerpt :
Annie Whitaker clenched her jaw and wrapped her fingers around the arms of the front-porch rocking chair. It was better than wrapping them around her older sister’s throat.
Of course Edna thought heading for the Rocky Mountains was a bad idea. Everything was a bad idea unless she’d thought of it first.
Perspiration gathered at the nape of Annie’s neck. She uncurled her fingers and relaxed her jaw. Using her sweetest voice, she shifted to Edna’s favorite topic. “Do you have your eye on any particular fella who’s been calling lately?”
Edna batted a silk fan through the heavy air and lowered her gaze. The porch swing creaked as she toed it back and forth. “Maybe,” she said.
Annie rolled her eyes, grateful that Edna couldn’t see out the side of her head like a mule. She rubbed her cheek to hide her smile at the joke.
Annie guessed Jonathan Mitchell topped Edna’s list. He was financially successful, well-bred and handsome in a soft sort of way. And she fully expected Daddy to turn the mercantile over to Mr. Mitchell when he left next month.
When they left.
Annie planned to be on that stagecoach with her father come he—. She stopped at the forbidden word and glanced at her sister who always managed to read Annie’s improper thoughts.
But why shouldn’t she say that word? It was in the Bible. And it certainly applied to Omaha at the moment, which was heavy and hot as an unbroken fever.
Heat waves rolled over their aunt Harriet’s vast lawns and rippled the distant trees into a surreal horizon. Annie unfastened the top button on her thin blouse. She detested summer—particularly July—almost as much as she disliked Edna’s propensity for being coy.
“Annabelle May.” Edna glared. “Don’t be indecent.”
“Don’t be absurd.” Annie released the second button out of spite. “It’s unbearably hot, and there’s no one to see besides you and Aunt Harriett. And she’s half-blind.” So much for her “sweet” voice.
“Well, I never.” Edna’s eyelashes whipped up the humidity even more than her fan.
Annie pushed out of the rocker and leaned over the porch railing. Even the copper daylilies bordering the Victorian home struggled to hold their heads up in the afternoon heat.
Edna's brow glistened with perspiration. "A little warmth does not give a lady license for indecency."
Tired of the heat as well as Edna’s attitude, Annie stomped her foot and spun toward her sister.
“Daddy wants to go to Cañon City, and I’m going with him. You can stay here in Omaha with all your beaus and Aunt Harriett if you like, but I’m not letting our father go alone.” Annie reset a loose pin in her unruly hair, then fisted her hands on her hips. “It will be an adventure. ‘Pikes Peak or Bust,’ they say. All those gold seekers need to get their supplies from someone. Why not Whitaker’s Mercantile?”
“Humph.” Edna expertly flicked her wrist, folding the hand-painted silk fan for emphasis. “That’s all you think about—adventure. You and Father both.” She palmed damp ringlets off her pale forehead, then reopened the fan for a fresh attack. “I can’t believe he’s willing to pull up and take off for those ragged mountains at his age. He should stay here and increase his holdings. The mercantile is doing quite well. Why start over someplace else and risk losing everything?” Edna fluttered furiously and aimed a guilt-inducing glare at Annie. “Including his life and yours.”
Annie folded her arms. Edna’s threat echoed their aunt's petulant scolding. Aunt Harriet was bound by tradition and the social constraints of widowhood, and she dripped resentment over her brother’s freedom to do as he pleased.
Well that was Aunt Harriett’s choice, not Annie’s. Annie preferred to experience all she could, even if it meant risking her life in the Rocky Mountains. Zebulon Pike, John C. Frémont and others had conquered those peaks. Why not Daniel Whitaker and his youngest daughter?
“Cañon City isn’t even established. It’s an upstart supply town, Annie, on Kansas Territory’s farthest edge.”
Annie rested against the railing and focused on the window’s beveled edge behind the swing. “I know what and where it is.”
“What it is isuncivilized.” Edna slowed her silken assault, tempered her tone. “You know what that means. They have no law yet, and probably even less order with all those gold-hungry miners and speculators and wild, drunken cowboys.”
“And bank clerks and preachers and storekeepers.” Annie pressed her open neckline flat against her collarbone. “Be reasonable.”
An unreasonable request when it came to her sister.
Predictably, Edna stiffened and assumed a superior posture. “And Indians. You know wild savages live there, as well as all along the way. Don’t forget what the Utes did at Fort Pueblo just six years ago.”
Annie gritted her teeth, barring hateful words that fought for release. She and her sister had waged this verbal war about the West more times than she cared to count. She refused to chew that piece of meat again.
A rare breeze suddenly swept the wide front porch, and Annie imagined mountain air whispering along high canyons. She braced her hands against the railing, closed her eyes and recalled what she’d read about the Arkansas River falling from the Rockies, cold and full-bellied with snowmelt. A marvelously deep gorge squeezed the river into raging white water and shot it onto the high plains through a wedge-shaped valley. And guarding the mountain gateway, that brand-new town—Cañon City.
Oh, to be part of something new and unpredictable. To see that canyon, and hear the water’s roar...
Edna’s lofty tsk interrupted the daydream. “I know the stories, too.” Annie’s eyes flew open to see her sister’s shaking head and mirthless lips. Edna read her mind as easily as a dime novel.
“Do you know that at last count, Cañon City had only 720 residents?” Edna said.
Annie raised her chin. “Daddy and I have discussed it.”
The fan snapped shut. “Do you know that out of that number, six hundred are men?” Edna shuddered.
“They’re men, Edna. Not animals.”
“Don’t be so sure, dear sister. With numbers like that, I dare say those men are hard-pressed to maintain their humanity.”
“This is 1860, not the Dark Ages.” Annie stepped away from the railing, tempted to undo a third button just to see how fast Edna could flail her fan. “We are going, and we are leaving in three weeks with or without your approval—or Aunt Harriet’s.”
Annie marched into the house and down the hall to the kitchen, where she retrieved the lemonade pitcher from the icebox. No doubt she’d not have such a modern luxury in Cañon City. She poured a glass, let it chill with the cold drink and then held it against her forehead and neck.
The shocking relief conjured images of clear mountain snowmelt. Goose bumps rippled down her spine. The Arkansas must be delightfully cold, nothing like the Big Muddy slogging along dark and murky on its unhurried journey to the Mississippi.
At nearly a mile high, Cañon City was close to Denver City’s famous claim. That in itself had to present a cooler climate. Much more pleasant, even in the summer. She figured Edna didn’t know that.
Guilt knifed between her thoughts, and she regretted her snippy attitude. But Edna infuriated her so. How had they both come from the same parents?
Annie felt a familiar ache. That was one thing Edna did know that Annie did not—their mother’s comforting arms.
She doused the pain with a sweetly sour gulp of lemonade that quite reflected the two Whitaker sisters. Annie fingered the corners of her mouth, certain that she was not the “sweet” one. She and Edna were no more alike than the dresses they wore. .
Edna was polished satin. Annie, plain calico.
Was that the real reason behind her determination to go west with Daddy?
She slumped into a kitchen chair and traced the delicate needlework on the tablecloth. Several eligible young men called on the fair-haired Edna. But no one called for the wild-maned Annie.
She pushed a loose strand from her forehead as tears stung her eyes. Swallowing the dregs of jealousy, she whispered, “Forgive me, Lord. Help me love my sister. Even if I don’t like her very much sometimes.”
The screen door slammed against its frame, and Edna’s full skirts rustled toward the kitchen.
Annie rushed to the icebox and filled a second glass with lemonade for her sister.
It was the least she could do.
The late October sun bled pink and gold, impaled on an uneven ridgeline. Caleb Hutton stopped at the lip of a bowl-like depression, leaned on his saddle horn and studied the jagged silhouette. He could just make out a shadowy monolith jutting from the mountain and at its base a narrow green vein that pulsed across the valley floor. To the right a dozen buildings stood below a craggy granite spine. The faint sounds of hammers and people and livestock drifted across the valley.
The fledgling town huddled north of the tree-lined Arkansas River, where canvas tents, lean-tos and campfires sprouted. Approaching from due east, Caleb crossed the valley and rode into town past a livery, corral, and framed-in shops. A white clapboard building stood across from the livery—a schoolhouse or a church.
He stopped at the largest structure, the Fremont Hotel, dismounted and looped both horses’ reins around the hitching rail. Rooster tongued his bit and Sally heaved a sigh. Caleb patted the gelding’s neck, slapped dust from his hat and stepped through the hotel door in need of a room and a bath.
He found neither.
Rumors had been right. The burgeoning mine-supply town was full to bursting. Every chair in the crowded parlor held a man, and laughter and cigar smoke drifted from the open doorway to the adjoining saloon. Caleb’s empty stomach roiled, and he returned to his horses.
Besides the substantial brick-faced hotel, the saloon and a few other establishments, buildings in varying degrees of completion lined the short, broad street. Fading daylight drew carpenters and masons from their work and into their wagons, but others lingered along the boardwalk. Mostly miners holed up for the winter, Caleb supposed, from the looks of their grimy dungarees and whiskers.
At least he’d beat the snow.
Rooster’s head drooped over the rail, eyes closed. Caleb rubbed beneath the red forelock.
“Tired as I am, are you, boy?” After gathering the reins, he mounted the gelding, pulled Sally along behind them and turned back the way he had come. The river should be running low and smooth with summer long past, and the cottonwood grove he’d seen on his approach would be hotel enough.
He’d keep the horses with him rather than board them at the livery and sleep somewhere else alone. After three months under the stars with the animals’ heavy presence nearby, he doubted he could sleep without them anyway.
Come dark he’d brave the cold water for a bath.
Near the street’s end, a woman swept the boards in front of a narrow storefront. Above her hung a painted wooden sign: Whitaker’s Mercantile.As he rode nearer, she stooped to reclaim something, and a hunk of chestnut hair fell over her shoulder. She leaned her broom against the building and twisted her locks into a knot. He didn’t realize he was staring until her eyes flashed his way, challenging his steady observation.
As he came even with the store, he touched the brim of his hat. “Evening, ma’am.”
She dropped her hands as if caught stealing but held his gaze, nodding briefly before she turned away.
Caleb swallowed a knot in his throat. He reined Rooster toward the river, down the gentle slope to the cottonwood grove, and set his mind on making camp. No point digging up what he’d spent the past three months riding away from.
The horses drank their fill, and he hobbled and tethered them close by. Didn’t need some hard case sneaking off with them while he slept.
The breeze danced downstream and shivered through the trees. Caleb's campfire was not the only glow along the river and he was grateful for its warmth. As he cut open his last can of beans, he counted a half-dozen flickering lights scattered up and down the banks.
Beneath his saddle lay his father’s old friend, a Colt revolver. Good for snakes, his pa had always said. On the backside of Kansas Territory—as anywhere—some of those snakes had two legs and would likely kill to get what they wanted. He would not fall victim.
He sank onto his bedroll, eased back against his saddle and waited for the stars to show—again. He could nearly chart them from watching them wink into view each night, as constant and familiar as his horses.
Restfulness settled over him for the first time since he’d left Saint Joseph. The muscles in his neck and legs relaxed, and tension seeped from his spine as the river chattered a few feet away like a secret companion.
Three months riding alone had given him plenty of time to think about his life, where he’d been and where he was going. One more day and he’d be at the Lazy R, where cattle outnumbered people fifty to one.
Suited him just fine.
He pulled off his hat and linked his fingers behind his head.
He knew his way around horses better than most, thanks to his pa, rest his soul. Cows weren’t that much different.
At least they wouldn’t be sitting in pews waiting for him to say something inspiring.
He snorted at the image, but guilt twisted his gut. He’d tried his hand at people and failed. God must have made a mistake.
Or Caleb had misheard.
A twig snapped, and he slid a hand beneath his saddle. The hammer’s click cut through the silence and drew a quick confession.
“Don’t shoot, mister—don’t shoot.”
Caleb aimed for the voice, though the tremor in it belied the owner’s young age.
“Show yourself,” he ordered.
Another snap and a boy stepped from between the horses, arms raised stick straight as if he were being hung by his thumbs.
“I ain’t stealin’ nothin’, mister—I swear.”
Caleb sat up. “Right there’s two things you shouldn’t be doing.”
Firelight licked the boy’s skinny neck, and his Adam’s apple bobbed. “Yessir. What’s that, sir?”
Caleb eased the hammer back and lowered his gun. “Stealing and swearing. Both will get you into trouble.”
He waved the boy over and kept the revolver in his lap. “How old are you, and what’re you doing out here by yourself at night? Don’t you know you could be shot?”
“Twelve, huntin’ a bush and yes, sir.”
Caleb held back a chuckle at the nervous answer. “You can put your hands down now.”
The youngster dropped his arms fast. The gesture reminded Caleb of the woman at the mercantile.
“What’s your name?”
“My Christian name is Benjamin, sir, but my folks call me Springer.”
“Well, Springer, where are your folks?”
The boy pointed upstream. “See that light there in the trees? That there’s our camp.”
“Aren’t you a little far from home for this time of night?”
“Yessir, but like I said, I was huntin’ a bush.”
A woman’s voice called through the dark, quietly at first, then with greater urgency.
“You’d better answer,” Caleb said.
The boy’s voice cracked, and Caleb dropped his head and smiled. He poked the fire with a broken branch, and sparks licked the sky. “So, Springer, before you head back, I have two questions for you. First, tell me why they call you Springer.”
The boy grinned and stuck his thumbs in his suspenders. “That’s ’cause I can jump higher ’n anybody.”
Life should be so simple.
“Okay. Second, why were you sneaking up on my horses?”
Springer hung his head, and his hands dropped to his sides. “I just wanted to pet ’em. We had to get rid of our horses, and I miss ’em somethin’ fierce.”
“Benjamin Springer Smith—I’m gonna tan your hide if you don’t get your tail over here right now.”
Caleb laughed out loud. “Okay, Benjamin Springer Smith, you better get going or you won’t have a hide left to tan the next time.”
“Yessir. Thank you, sir.”
The boy crashed through the cottonwoods like a razorback on the run. A high-pitched yelp signaled that his arrival home had not happened as quickly as his ma would have liked.
Caleb chuckled and stashed the revolver. He poked the fire again. Embers scattered like Missouri fireflies, and the wood snapped and cracked in surrender to the flames.
The sound punctured his chest, reopening a wound. He shoved the heel of his hand against his breastbone, winded by the unexpected pain.
He’d surrendered once to a searing flame. Twice, really. Answered a call that proved fruitless and offered his soul to a woman who proved faithless. Both failings twisted into a noose, and he wanted nothing but to rid himself of it.
Inexperience had cost him his life’s endeavors—his small pastorate and the heart of the woman he loved. Too young to earn many converts, he thought he’d at least turned Miss Mollie Sullivan’s heart.
He’d turned her all right. All the way into the arms of the wealthiest man in his congregation. Who also happened to sit on the elders’ board.
He grunted and stabbed at the fire again, refusing to let it burn out. He dug for the brightest ember and held the stick against it until the wood flamed into a torch.
A similar torch had gutted him, left him ruined for both the ministry and matrimony. He refused to stand in the pulpit avoiding their eyes while he preached God’s love and forgiveness. Nor could he call a meeting of the board and explain his sudden departure.
He’d simply traded his frock coat and collar for a duster and broad brim and tacked a note to the chapel door.
Not exactly Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.
A sneer lifted his lip.
He had wanted to smash the man’s smooth-skinned face. But then he’d be no better than the thieving scoundrel himself. And what would that tell his parishioners? Turn the first cheek so he could punch the second?
He shoved the charred branch into the dirt, stretched out on his bedroll and folded his arms across his chest. For three months he’d argued with himself about returning and owning up. But he’d already said his piece in the note on the door—told those gentlefolk they needed a more experienced preacher and left them the name of his seminary professor.
And if he went back and knocked out one of his congregants with anything other than preacherly conviction, he’d have to apologize all over again.
Better leave well enough alone.
He rubbed his chin, scratched at the stubble.
Tomorrow he’d start forgetting. Forget Mollie, the ministry and everything familiar, including the three people he’d met since riding into Cañon City—an apologetic hotel clerk who didn’t have a room for him, a beautiful woman with a broom, and a youngster camping on the river with his family. Two of the three he wouldn’t mind seeing again, but that likely wouldn’t happen.
Setting his boots aside, he slipped into the shallow water, submerging himself with a harsh gasp as the current wrapped around him. Cold but cleaner, he quickly dried off, dressed, stirred the fire and crawled into his bedroll.
The familiar mix of wood smoke, leather and dried horse sweat swirled above him, and he stared at the only thing there was to see. A starry band swept across the sky, sparkling a thousand times brighter than it did in Saint Joseph. A glittering contrast to the black vault.
Not unlike the shimmer he’d seen in the broom lady’s lovely eyes.
Tomorrow. He’d forget all of them tomorrow and start his new life.
Annie heard the “plop” before the smell penetrated the rough wall. Her nose wrinkled, and she buried her face in her pillow.
Never in all her seventeen years had she dreamed she’d wake up in a barn.
A horse whinnied and pawed, impatient for breakfast. Annie’s stomach returned the complaint, but the stench of the fresh deposit warred with her hunger pangs. She pulled the quilt over her head and burrowed into the blankets on her straw-filled pallet.
The Overland Stage had safely carried Annie and her father across the wide prairie last month, and they’d shared some primitive accommodations along the way. But the Planter’s House in Denver City and their weeklong stay there had led her to believe that maybe the rugged Rockies weren’t so rugged after all.
Ha. That was Denver; this was not.
What would her sister say if she could see Annie curled up in the Cañon City Livery? A vision of Edna’s tightly seamed lips and disapproving fan roused Annie’s ire, and the imagined words shot heat through her veins.
I told you so.
Annie tossed the quilts back and reached for the clothing she’d draped over the foot of her pallet. After pulling her arms inside her cotton gown, she traded out the stockings and drawers she’d slept in but kept her chemise. She tugged on a flannel petticoat, topped it with two skirts, then exchanged her gown for a long-sleeved shirt and buttoned on her high-top shoes. She loosened the long braid that hung down her back and, with dexterity born of practice, brushed through the thick strands and deftly twisted them into a knot and pinned them in place.
Not that she counted on it to stay. By noon it would be hugging the base of her neck.
She smoothed her quilt top, tucked in the edges all around and prayed that no mice had worried their way into her bed looking for warmth.
A shiver scurried along her spine.
What were their chances of surviving the winter in this place? How would she and her father not freeze to death?
Needing relief, she had no time for fearful thoughts. She pulled her heavy cloak about her shoulders for a trip to the necessary.
Since she was always up before her father, Annie quietly stepped around the curtain they’d hung to separate their pallets. She stopped short. He sat at the pallet’s edge, suspenders drooping off his hunched shoulders, his head in his hands.
“Daddy?” she whispered. “Are you all right?”
He raised his head, and she saw worry in his moist eyes. “We are not all right, Annie.” He spread his hands, palms up. “Look where we are. We sleep in a barn. I’ve brought my beautiful young daughter all the way to the Rocky Mountains to live in a barn.”
His head sank to his hands again.
His words burned into the doubts she’d so carefully hidden in the back of her heart. Some very hostile, unladylike thoughts of their new landlord—one Jedediah Cooper—sparked her resolve. “Oh, Daddy, we’re going to be fine.” She knelt beside him and clasped his arm.
He pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his eyes. “We should have stayed in Omaha. My sister and yours were right.”
Annie’s hackles rose at the idea of Edna being right—again. “No, they were not. They simply don’t have the adventurous streak that you and I have.” She forced her lips into a smile and smoothed his uncombed hair off his forehead. “We’ll talk to Mr. Cooper again about giving us the back room in the store. It’s whiskey he’s got in there, and he can move it to his saloon. I’ll even help.”
Her father’s eyes latched on to hers, and his bushy brows lurched together. “You will not. You don’t go near that place of his.” He stuffed the handkerchief in his pocket and shook his head. “If we sold the mare, we’d have money against a loan and could build a small cabin of our own. And we’d save on her feed, too. She eats as much as the other three horses combined.”
Annie stood and brushed off her skirt. It wasn’t completely true—her beloved mare, Nell, didn’t eat quite that much. Maybe just as much as two of their other horses, but that wasn’t the point.
She buttoned her heart against her father’s remark and her cloak against the cold. “I’m going out back and then to the mercantile. You banked the fire last night, so it won’t take me long to get the place warmed up.” She bent to kiss his snowy head. “That potbellied stove is a blessing. I’ll have coffee going in no time.”
Her father slapped his hands on his knees and threw back his shoulders. “You’ve got spunk, Annie girl. Just like your mama.”
His words picked at an old scab, the one that always opened anew when he mentioned the mother she didn't know.
“I’ll feed Nell, too, Daddy.”
He huffed, wagged his head and grunted as he pushed to his feet.
Annie opened the stall door and gathered her skirts against her as she pulled it closed. The mare whinnied and hung her massive head over the railing across the alleyway.
“Hungry again, are you, Nell?” Annie scooped an armload of loose hay and tossed it over the gate. She brushed off her skirt again and picked stubborn pieces from her cloak.
“Take it slow, girl.” Reaching over the gate, she stroked the thick golden neck and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Daddy’s going to sell you like the others if you don’t quit eating so much.”
Nell’s ears flicked forward and back as if taking due note.
They’d needed all four animals to pull their heavy supplies south to Cañon City because Daddy refused to drive mules or pay someone else to do it. But after renting and stocking the mercantile, he’d sold off the other three horses, their harness and the freight wagon. Everything excess had to go, he’d said. She’d fought dearly to keep the big yellow mare.
She checked over her shoulder for unlikely onlookers, then rubbed her backside, remembering how it ached during the jolting ride south after purchasing supplies in Denver City. The trip had been much worse than the dust-choked Overland Stage ride from Leavenworth but mercifully shorter.
Annie hurried to the shanty behind the livery, then to the boardwalk, where few people appeared so early. At the mercantile door, she slid the key in the lock and entered to the brass bell’s cheerful welcome. The scent of coffee beans, tobacco, and oiled leather soothed her nerves, and she drew in a slow, deep breath. Her heart swelled with pride at their modest store, full of everything a person could want—a person with a soul brave enough to head west, that is.
Fine flour and sugar, pearly oats and smooth dried beans, barrels of sour pickles and pale crackers. Bright dress cloth and drab canvas, blue-speckled dishware and cast-iron skillets. Black leather boots and shoes and a few saddles. Strong soaps, wooden toys, a precious sampling of books and notions like needles and threads and buttons and pins—better than a drummer’s wagon.
Pulling off her cloak, she surveyed the cramped, full-to-the-brim space. She was useful here, working beside her father, as if what she did mattered. They met people’s needs, and that was important. Much more important than sitting on Aunt Harriet’s front porch waiting for one of Edna’s many beaus to give her a second glance.
To pick up Annie as second best.
Disappointment clawed at her as she thought of her sister’s beauty. Annie’s rippling hair never stayed put like Edna’s flaxen tresses, and her thin chest only half filled Edna’s ruffled bodices. Daddy had called her “beautiful” this morning, but she knew she would never be as fetching as her sister.
Her chin jerked up. So be it. It was better this way, better that she didn’t turn the head of every man who saw her. Her father needed help, and she refused to sit by and wait for some manto come along and make her life better when she could do that herself.
She marched to the stove that anchored the long, narrow room, bunched her skirt to protect her hand and opened the door. With a poker she scraped at the ash pile and uncovered a glowing red eye. Perfect. She added a few chunks from the nearby coal bucket and adjusted the damper.
Lord, you promised you’d meet ourneeds. She rubbed her hands together and held them open above the squat stove, careful not to let her skirts touch its iron belly.
Of course, some folks had it worse. How many were camped by the river in canvas tents, cooking over open fires?
Frustrated that she couldn’t build a house with her own two hands, Annie squirmed inwardly at the doubt behind her pleading prayer.
She left the warm spot to grind fresh coffee, filled a blue enamel pot with water, and set it on the stove. Satisfied with the fire, she closed the damper and arranged several chairs around a braided rug before the stove.
She and Daddy could getwarm and be out of the crisp fall air. The acknowledgment settled like a warm quilt around her soul, reminding her that small blessings were still blessings.
“Thank you, Lord,” she whispered, chastened.
Since her father had agreed to handle the mail for Cañon City, at least a couple hundred people trailed through the mercantile each week. Not everyone had family to write to them, and a few, she’d learned, preferred not to have folks know where they were.
In the few weeks they’d been there, her father’s store had become a gathering place for several of the town’s more respectable residents, as well as a few who were not—like Jedediah Cooper, their landlord who owned nearly two blocks and acted like he owned his renters, too.
She shuddered at the memory of his whiskey-colored gaze.
With everything in order, Annie hung her wrap on the back wall that separated the mercantile from the small storeroom. She pulled an apron over her head, dislodging her hair in the process, and peeked around the doorless frame.
Anger stirred in her chest. That ol’ miser Cooper should have rented them the whole building. What was eight more feet, give or take?
She tied the apron strings and quickly repinned her rebellious strands. Combs. She’d order more combs and hairpins the next chance she got. Other women must have the same problem, and combs might sell along with the gloves and hats they kept on hand.
The bell chimed.
“Smells good in here, Annie.”
Relief rushed in with the return of her father’s usual cheerfulness. She offered another prayer of thanks and set about greasing a cast-iron skillet. “Coffee’s almost ready. Come have a seat and I’ll make some pan biscuits.”
He pegged his coat and donned an apron. “If the freighters stop in today, I’ll mention the mare again. Then you could have a cabin with a real cookstove. Maybe an iron bed, too.”
Annie swallowed at the thought of saying farewell to Nell as she floured the sideboard and rolled out the dough.
The bell rang again, and Duke Deacon and his son, Joseph, stomped in. Of course the day’s first customers had to be the freighters. Who else was out this early?
By the time she had the biscuits on the stove, the men had taken chairs and coffee. Annie set to making a fresh pot, praying the freighters wouldn’t want her Nell.
“Gonna be a long, hard winter, Whitaker,” the elder driver said. His blue eyes shone like lights from his weathered face, and his black hair lay slick and flat against his skull. “If there’s somethin’ you’ll be needin’ ’fore spring, better order it now. I’ll be freightin’ ’tween storms, so won’t be near as regular as it is now. Fact, this is my last trip to Denver City for a spell. When I get back, I’ll be stayin’ put for a couple weeks.”
Her father leaned against a cracker barrel, nursing his own tin cup. “Tell me how you figure on a hard winter.”
“Skunk cabbage,” Joseph piped up. He was a shorter, smoother version of his coal-haired father. “Higher ’n it’s been in a long time. Ain’t that so, Pa.”
Duke nodded and sipped. “That’s right. Surprised to see it, too. Don’t usually get that much snow down here ’long the Arkansas. Not like falls up on the Platte.”
Annie caught her father’s laughing eyes above his coffee cup. He didn’t put stock in such folklore about cabbage and snowfall and hard winters, and he was more inclined to refer to the almanac he kept under the front counter. But he was good with his customers and would never say such a thing out loud.
The Deacons left with a dozen biscuits in their bellies and an order for ladies’ combs and hairpins. All the cabbage talk must have driven Nell from her father’s mind, and Annie heaved a sigh of relief when the freighters climbed onto their wagon without having bought her beautiful mare.
Strange, the things she’d thanked the Lord for lately.
Perspiring in the cramped store now that the stove was hot, Annie rolled up her sleeves and wiped her neck with her apron hem. No time to cool herself with a brief walk outdoors. More customers were sure to come.
She plopped a fresh batch of dough onto the floured sideboard, sending up a dusty cloud. Rolled and cut and amply greased, a second batch browned on the pot belly within minutes.
“Believe I’ll buy this tin o’ molasses to go with those fine biscuits you’ve got there.” Her father stood behind the front counter, dusting the tin top with his shirt sleeve. Then he penciled the item on a notepad where he listed his personal purchases.
Annie sighed. They might freeze to death in the livery but at least they’d not starve their first winter.
Hefting the black skillet with a towel, she carried it to the sideboard, where she split two biscuits each onto two tin plates and drizzled dark molasses over both servings. After adding a fork to each plate, she joined her father already seated and waiting.
Settled and warm with food on her lap and her dear father close by, Annie’s heart overflowed with gratitude as he prayed.
“Thank you, Lord, for feeding us and keeping us safe. And open Cooper’s heart, Lord. Before it snows, if possible. Amen.”
Refusing to let their stingy landlord’s image lay claim to her thoughts, Annie forked off a bite and savored the sweet molasses-covered mouthful. She dabbed at her mouth with her apron and eyed her father who heartily attacked his breakfast.
“You don’t believe that nonsense about skunk cabbage do you, Daddy?”
He cut into the second biscuit and sopped it in the pooling molasses. “Nope.” Closing his eyes, he chewed slowly and shook his head. “Delicious, Annie. Absolutely the best biscuits this side of the Rocky Mountains.”
Annie swallowed another bite. “You can’t say that anymore.”
“And why not?”
“Because now we are in the Rocky Mountains, Daddy,” she said, giving him the very best smile she could muster.
When the handsome, dark-eyed cowboy sauntered into Davalynn Spencer’s life, the gate to adventure swung wide. So began her journey as a bullfighter’s wife and an award-winning national rodeo journalist. Her passion for words has also taken her from the city crime beat of a mid-size daily newspaper to inspirational publication with David C. Cook, Standard, Chicken Soup for the Soul and others. When she’s not writing western romance, she teaches at Pueblo Community College and writes a slice-of-life column for her local newspaper. She and her handsome cowboy have three children and four grandchildren and make their home on Colorado’s Front Range with a Queensland heeler named Blue. Connect with her online at www.davalynnspencer.com, Facebook: and on Twitter @davalynnspencer.
Links to your website www.davalynnspencer.com and where you blog, www.davalynnspencer.com/blog/ FB, www.Facebook.com/AuthorDavalynnSpencer.comYou can find her on Twitter, @davalynnspencer
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