Authors: Alix West
Bounty Hunter Proposal
Old West Alpha and Sass
Author’s Note: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to other real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Alix West
All rights reserved.
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Isabelle Holt awoke to the sound of a child’s cry. “
Monsters. Belle, make the monsters go away.”
She tossed the bedding aside, jumped from her warm bed and ran down the darkened hall. She climbed the steps two at a time. Seth, the six year old, stood at the top of the narrow staircase, his eyes wide and terror stricken. He was panting, deep, fearful gasps that shook his small body.
“I saw the monster. I know you don’t believe me, but I saw him. He had fangs, and they were-”
Isabelle mounted the last steps. “Bloody. I know, sweet boy. Just like last night and the night before. Try not to wake your brother.”
Even in the dim light she could see he was pale, chin trembling. Isabelle pressed her hand to his forehead to check for fever. Last week both boys fell ill with head colds. He was clammy but not feverish. He clutched her hands with a desperation that pinched her heart.
“Pa told me not to wake him. He told me to pray when the monsters come.”
Isabelle swung him into her arms and hugged him. The boy’s father, Jerome, didn’t believe in coddling. He’d passed away, leaving the children to her, and while she didn’t believe in coddling, she did believe in treating children with patience and tenderness.
“Come to bed and I’ll tell you a story. One about…” She tried to think about a subject that might bring a smile to his face. “Bears.”
He shook his head.
“Knights in shining armor?”
He thought for a moment, and his eyes softened. He nodded gently in approval.
She gave him an answering smile. Her stories were not very good, but they seemed to enthrall the boys, and they never tired of listening. Two-year old Luke liked stories about animals, while Seth liked tales of adventure.
Moonlight streamed through the window, lighting the small bedroom. She led Seth to his bed, passing his brother who slept in a corner crib. She was grateful Luke still slept. Both boys suffered from nightmares since their father passed away two months ago. While she could always calm Seth with a nighttime story, Luke insisted on being rocked back to sleep. Sometimes it took an hour or more to calm the younger boy.
Seth climbed into bed, and she sat down as she tucked the blankets under his chin. Her story began with a fierce knight by the name of Sir Robert. She described how he prepared for battle. Seth drew a deep sigh and listened intently. Isabelle described Sir Robert’s gleaming armor, his bright, unscathed shield and sharp sword. Seth’s lids grew heavy, and by the time she got to a description of the knight’s fine steed, the boy had fallen back to sleep.
She tiptoed down the stairs and went to the door, checking once again that the bolt was secured. She would sleep better at night if only she had a dog. When she traveled west to become a mail-order bride she imagined her husband would have several dogs, but Jerome had only one sway-backed mare, a few chickens and some barn cats. No dogs.
Her marriage to Jerome was short lived. When he picked her up at the Colter Canyon train station, he was pale, clammy, and feverish. He was so weak that he’d hardly been able to drive the buckboard back to the cabin. They were already married by proxy, but instead of falling into the role of wife, she took on the job of nursemaid. She put him to bed, made soups and teas, wiped his burning skin with cool cloths, never leaving his side. Despite her efforts, he passed away less than a week later.
She recalled the shock of finding herself a widow as she padded to the kitchen, the floorboards creaking under her bare feet. Moonlight cast a silvery glow over the farmyard and the barn. Not that she wanted it, but it was all hers now. Jerome had written the mail-order agency, looking for a bride. She wrote back, telling him yes, she would marry him and tend to him and his children.
was what she dreamed of, a family.
Jerome’s first wife had died just after Luke was born. And now he was gone too. The two boys were orphans. Everybody imagined Isabelle would put them in an orphanage and leave Colter Canyon. Living in the cabin without a husband terrified her, but in spite of that she decided to stay. She herself had lived in an orphanage for ten years and refused to take those two precious children away from their home and hand them over to strangers.
Bread dough for the morning's breakfast rested in a bowl on the counter under a linen cloth. She pressed her fingers into the soft dough. It gave under her touch with a sweet-smelling puff of air. She kneaded the dough gently. In the morning she would wake at dawn and make three loaves. Two she would keep, and one she would take to her neighbors, the Suttons.
Violet and Savannah Sutton had taken her under their protective wings when Jerome died. They checked on her, fussed over her and worried constantly. They had reason to worry. It wasn't safe for a woman to live by herself in such a remote cabin. When she went to town, men, strangers she’d never even been properly introduced to, tried to make conversation with her, attempted to woo or court her. They were relentless even though she had two small children with her.
Jerome left her five hundred acres. She was sure the men of Colter Canyon coveted her property. One time a man had even gone so far as to follow her home. The young cowboy stood on her porch telling her that she should put the children in an orphanage, and he would marry her and give her children of her own. He’d gone so far as to say that she needed a man around because
His words were a threat, she had no doubt, and it frightened her. Her first thought was for the boys’ well-being. They depended on her completely for protection. Without a thought she blurted out that she was engaged to be married. It was a lie, a necessary lie. The young cowboy tipped his hat, offered an apology and left.
Violet and Savannah both thought her lie was
. They came over the next morning to discuss the christening gown for Savannah's baby girl. She’d told them of the cowboy’s surprise when she told him she was spoken for. The three women spent the morning giggling over Isabelle's make-believe fiancé.
God gives and God takes away, she thought. She lost her husband before she even knew him, but He’d given her Seth and Luke and the sweet friendship of the Sutton ladies.
She covered the dough with the linen cloth and left the kitchen, returning to the stairwell. She listened. The cabin was quiet, unnervingly quiet, the only sound the soft breathing of the two small boys. In a few hours they would waken, come down the stairs and sit at the foot of her bed to plan what they would do that morning. It was something they did each day.
She returned to her bedroom, finding her way easily in the moonlit night. In the mornings when Seth and Luke came to her room, their hair tousled, their eyes shining, she always felt her heart overflow with love. Never before had she dared to be so happy.
Sometimes she felt guilty. When she found herself doing her chores and humming a happy tune, she would chide herself. Jerome had passed away, she should mourn him, but all she could think of was what she saw before her. A cabin, her cabin. Two boys, her boys. And prime land that she leased to the Suttons for more money than she could imagine.
Pulling the cold blankets over her, she shivered. A breeze stirred, and the paddock gate banged against the post. Nellie, the mare, whickered. Isabelle held her breath. The nights were the hardest part, and while she’d never had trouble sleeping before coming to Texas, here in her new home she only slept for short stretches at a time. Every sound woke her and sent her heart racing.
She waited, but there were no more noises. The breeze died away, and Nellie was silent. Closing her eyes, she sank into the bedding and let sleep claim her.
A pounding at the door woke her sometime later. She looked around her room trying to make sense of the noise. It was dawn or nearly so. Who could be at her door at daybreak? Another knock came, this time louder, the man's tone urgent. She snatched her wrap from the peg and put it on.
"Isabelle, open the door. It's Ben Sutton."
She shoved the bolt back. It wasn't decent to open the door clad just in a gown and wrap, but this had to be an emergency. There could be no other reason for Ben to be at her door this time of day. She threw the door open and was about to ask him what on earth was the matter, but her words died in her throat.
Ben stood on the porch, his face cast in an orange glow. She turned to see the source of the strange light. It was her barn. Not the big barn where Nellie was stabled, but the smaller one where she cooped her chickens. The entire structure was engulfed in flames. She watched in horror as the blaze licked the dry wood. The fire crackled and hissed. One of the walls gave way, sending a burst of sparks skyward.
"One of my ranch hands saw the flames this morning. I got over here as fast as I could."
"Dear God," she whispered.
"I don't think there's any point in trying to save anything. At least the chickens escaped. Either that, or someone let them out before they started the fire."
She shook her head, staring in disbelief. Behind her came the sounds of the boys coming down the stairs. They stepped onto the porch and gazed silently at the conflagration.
Several of the Sutton ranch hands came on horseback, their expressions grim. The lead cowboy dismounted and ambled over to talk. He was an older man, a fellow that went by the name of Shorty. The name didn't fit. He was tall, lanky and always soft-spoken.
"I about dropped my teeth this morning when I saw the flames on the horizon. All I could think of was you over here with the two boys and no husband or foreman. I was praying it wasn't your house that was on fire."
“Thank you, Shorty,” she murmured. “I’m grateful for your prayers.”
Ben spoke. "Why don't you gather up the boys and come back to the house. Violet and Savannah are going to be sick with worry. Shorty and the boys will make sure the fire doesn't spread."
She nodded and hurried away to pack a few things. After she dressed she helped the boys find proper clothes for visiting. It didn’t need to be fancy, like church clothes, but it needed to be a notch above what they wore at home. Both boys had pressed trousers, and she gave them a simple white shirt to put on over their undershirts.
“Why did the chicken coop burn down?” Seth asked as she helped Luke tie his shoes.
Seth’s eyes were wide and so were Luke’s. Even though Luke didn’t talk yet, he understood everything. Her heart squeezed painfully to see their sweet, trusting faces etched with worry. The two had lost so much, their mother and father. She couldn’t bear to see them looking so fearful.
“The chicken coop burned down because…” Her words trailed off as she tried to think of a story. “The rooster told the chickens that he wanted to roast some chestnuts.”
“Where did he get the chestnuts?” Seth wanted to know.
Isabelle held out his shirt, and he slipped his arms in the sleeves.
“He got them where every rooster gets chestnuts,” she said.
Seth opened his mouth to ask another question, but Isabelle forged on. “He built a small fire in the middle of the coop, and he and the chickens had a fine time roasting chestnuts. But then they fell asleep, their little bellies full.”
Both boys nodded.
“And then the fire spread across the hay. But then the rooster woke up, and he made all the little chickens and the chicks run outside.”
“Well, that was smart,” Seth said.
“It was smart,” Isabelle said. “Our rooster is clever. No doubt.”
Both boys were dressed, and she told them to pick a toy or something to take to the Suttons. Any time they visited, they were whisked away by the Sutton nanny who over saw Violet’s two boys and Savannah’s boy and girl. Both Luke and Seth were sure to have a fine time, and once again Isabelle felt a wave of gratitude for the Sutton family. Sometimes she thought it was their friendship that made her life at the cabin possible.
Outside Ben waited by the buckboard in the dazzling morning sunshine. The buckboard was pulled by two matched bays, shaggy with the beginning of a winter coat. Isabelle carried a satchel with a change of clothes and a basket with the proofed bread dough. Ben’s smile widened, and he took the basket from her.
“That smells mighty fine.”
“I can’t come empty-handed,” Isabelle said.
Ben helped her up and then lifted the boys to sit between them. “Violet and Savannah always want a visit from you and the boys. Neither Cameron nor I will have a chance today to get a word in edgewise.”
He smiled at her and snapped the reins. They drove down the drive until they could turn the buckboard. The Sutton ranch hands were raking coals and keeping an eye on the last of the fire. Shorty worked with another fellow cobbling together a temporary coop for the chickens. The small flock pecked and scratched by the barn, seemingly unaware that anything unusual had happened.
“Shorty will get them under cover by this afternoon. He’s going to stay overnight with one of my men.”
Ben gave her a pointed look over the top of the boy’s heads. She knew he was looking out for her, and that he was sure there was some sort of mischief underfoot.
He sobered, and his mouth curved into a smile. “It warms my heart to think of ol’ Shorty rounding up that flock of chickens. They’ll give him a time about going into a new coop. I can just picture him running around and waving his skinny arms, like a featherless duck trying to fly.”
Ben looked down at Seth and nudged him. “That should be good for a story.”
Seth smiled. “Maybe Shorty should give them some roasted chestnuts.”
Ben grinned. “I heard that story Isabelle told. I think we’ll just leave Shorty to chase down those chickens without roasted chestnuts. He’s an ornery guy, and a little running around will do him good. The fellas back at the ranch will enjoy hearing about that.”