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Wyoming, Fall 1895
"They say if he whispers, the fillies cuddle right up to him."
"And that he's a wonder with a lasso ."
"Maybe Eric can get some pointers, if he wants to steal a kiss from"
Sarah Hansen cleared her throat and the raucous laughter from the group of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys broke off.
"I rang the bell," she reminded them. "Please return to your desks."
Three of the four young men filed around the corner of the school with only a murmur of complaint. The fourth, Junior Allen, remained in place, arms crossed belligerently over his chest. "You gonna make me?"
She considered the strap her predecessor had left in the bottom drawer of the schoolteacher's desk. She'd never used it on a child before, had always been able to maintain order in the classroom with warnings or sometimes a rap with a ruler. But this particular student challenged her more than any other. His father was the head of the school board and Sarah's bossand Junior would likely go running to him if she dared punish him.
"Please go inside," she said, putting as much authority in her voice as she could muster. Junior was tall for a fourteen-year-old, already a few inches above her height. Sarah knew she couldn't physically overpower him if he chose not to obey, but thankfully he backed down and followed his friends.
She paused at the building's corner as the boys tromped up the rickety wooden stairs, kept her eyes focused on the few remaining leaves clinging to the trees behind the schoolyard. She breathed in deeply of the crisp air and tried to find a shred of patience for the afternoon lessons.
She didn't have to ask who the boys had been talking about.
Oscar White. Legendaryha!horse trainer. The horseman, some called him.
A single schoolmarm, Sarah boarded at the Allen Ranch, and the entire spread had been buzzing for days over the man's impending arrival. Now the news had spread to the nearby town of Lost Hollow, in the northern part of the state, and to Sarah's schoolchildren, as well.
And it was all because of a horse. Sarah's employer, Paul Allen, had purchased a colt from an expensive race horse breeder and wanted the horseman to train it.
Sarah had known Oscar White back in the tiny town of Bear Creek, where she and her sisters had spent their growing-up years. He'd been sweet on Sarah's younger sister, but that had happened after Sarah had already begun attending the normal school in Cheyenne. Possibly he wouldn't even remember Sarah, as they'd only been in the schoolhouse together for a few months.
But Sarah would always remember the time he'd humiliated her in front of her classmates, calling her a shrew when she'd corrected the behavior of one of her sisters. He'd been right, but he hadn't known why she'd had no choice but to be that way. His and Sally's flirtation hadn't lasted, and Sarah had forgotten about him until recently.
Because she boarded at the Allen ranch, she supposed there was no way to avoid seeing Oscar around the place. She'd grit her teeth and endure it. And hope that his job training Paul Allen's horse went quickly.
She had plans to put in motion, plans for her future, and she didn't need the distraction of this man. But she had no choice but to bear his presence. How long could it take to train a horse? Weeks?
Inside the schoolroom, the children murmured and shuffled, but at least they remained at their desks. She called them to attention and began the after-lunch lessons.
The afternoon was coming to a close when two of the girls, sisters, began fidgeting in their seats and whispering.
Sarah nodded to the girl in the second row who was reading aloud and went to stand behind the two sisters, Cecilia and Susie Caldwell. They glanced up at her guiltily, and when she peered down at their shared desk, she noted that the afternoon's assignment hadn't been completed.
The girls' lack of attention was a surprise. These two were usually attentive and well behaved. Before she could question them, one of the boys threw a pencil across the room, striking another child in the arm.
Moving to correct the rowdy child, she forgot all about the girls in the hullabaloo that ensued and didn't get a chance to speak to them after the day ended, as she had to rush off to join the so-called "welcoming committee" at her boss's behest.
The life of a schoolteacher was never boring, but there were some events she wished she could avoid. Greeting the horseman was one of them.
"They say he's magic with the long reins"
"I saw him ride once in an exhibition down by Cheyenne
Sarah clutched the satchel with her schoolbooks until her knuckles turned white. The men of Lost Hollow were no better than little boys, excited over a wild cowboy! Unfortunately, her boss had insisted that as the schoolteacher and a prominent member of the town, she should come along as part of the welcoming committee. And because she'd known Oscar White in Bear Creek.
She just wanted to get this "welcome" over with. She needed to finish her plans for the basket auction social this weekend and to that end, her thoughts wandered until the train came to a hissing stop at the platform.
The man who strode off with a confident gait bore resemblance to the Oscar White she'd known, but this man was assuredly different. Stetson tilted back rakishly to reveal brown eyes his face no longer had the slight roundness of youth. No, those lean craggy features belonged to a man, without question. Broad shoulders easily parted the small crowd on the platform, and he headed straight for their group.
Sarah turned away, alarmed by the pulse pounding frantically in her temples. Why this reaction now, to this man?
Through the rhythmic beating in her earstoo fast!she heard the men exchange greetings and then Mr. Allen cleared his throat.
"And I believe you already know our schoolteacher "
Obediently, she turned and their gazes collidedhis brown eyes curious until he glimpsed her face.
" Miss Sarah Hansen."
His eyes instantly cooled and the handshake he gave her was perfunctory. He quickly looked back to the other men. "I've got to get my horses from the stock car. I'll catch up with you gentlemen in a moment. Miss Hansen." He tipped his hat before rushing off down the line of train cars.
Sarah found herself watching him and forced her eyes away. Obviously he remembered her, and perhaps what had passed between them seven years ago.
That was just fine with her. She had no use for reckless cowboys. She was looking for a responsible man for a husband.
Oscar strode toward the stock car, shaking his head slightly. Sarah Hansen. That old shrew. Who'd have known he would run into her here in Lost Hollow? She'd probably never married, since she was still the schoolteacher. He'd been friends with her sister Sallysweet on her for a timebut had forgotten about Sarah's existence after she'd left his hometown of Bear Creek.
Well, he'd stay out of her way if she stayed out of his. He had a job to do. One last job, and he'd be able to purchase the stallion he wanted and start breeding the mares he'd spent years collecting. Breeding quality horses had been his dream for years, and after he'd built a little cabin just across the valley from his pa's place, he'd spent the past months riding in exhibitions and cattle drives, saving up all he could to purchase the fine stallion he wanted from a man his neighbor and family friend Poppy Walt had told him about over in Idaho.
One job, a few weeks, and then he could go home. Maybe by Christmas.
The flimsy boards that stretched from the ground to the stock car wobbled under his weight as he climbed in. He wasn't looking forward to bringing the new mare he'd bought down the incline. She was flighty as a cat in a roomful of dogs, and anything could spook her.
It was a fairly modern stock car, with the animals separated into stalls. He'd tucked both horses into one of the larger stalls, hoping that the presence of his gentle gelding, Pharaoh, would soothe the mare.
Oscar came to Pharaoh first, as he'd been the last animal on board, and began untying the rope that had been used to secure the horse.
A railroad employee stomped up behind Oscar, causing the mare to neigh and bob her head against the rope holding her.
"Got to get a move on, mister," the man said. "The train is pulling out now."
"I need a moment to get this boy down the ramp," Oscar explained with a winning smile. "The gal there is pretty skittish, so I'll need to take her down myself."
"Hurry it up, mister."
The gelding came easily, trusting Oscar without question even on the creaky ramp. They'd been together for years, and it showed.
Oscar was tying him off to the closest hitching post he could find when the train whistle blew and a high-pitched whinny broke out.
Racing back to the stock car, Oscar's boots pounded against the packed dirt that made up the unloading yard. The railroad employee fought with the mare, struggling with all his might to hold on to the lead rope while she thrashed and tossed her head at the top of the ramp.
Oscar pushed past a small group of folksthe men and schoolteacher, he realized absentlybut didn't reach the stock car in time. The horse pulled away from the railroad man and galloped down the ramp, heading away from Oscar and straight for the small knot of people.
The men scattered, but Sarah Hansen stood frozen and wide-eyed, right in the mare's path.
Oscar shouted, but the mare was too far gone in her fright to stop.
At the last moment, Sarah jerked, her skirt swishing, and that saved her. The mare stopped her wild gallop, rearing instead.
Oscar moved toward the horse slowly, not wanting to scare her into running again.
Now Sarah found her feet, finally turning to flee, but the movement incensed the already-nervous horse, which reared again and stamped its front hooves, apparently attempting to drive the offending fabric away.
Sarah shrieked and that set off the horse even worse.
Oscar followed as the girl ran and horse chased, continuing to stamp and snort.
Sarah ducked into a narrow alley and the horse followed. Oscar paused at the opening, peering into the darkness, afraid of flying hooves if the horse kicked out.
Sarah had fallen midway down the shadowed alleyway, and the horse continued to follow. Afraid the woman would get trampled, Oscar braved the alley, taking care to stay close to the nearest building. If he could avoid those hooves flying his direction, he would.
As the horse neared her, he willed Sarah to stand up. To move. Anything. But she remained still on the ground, although she shrieked like a banshee.
Finally, he came even with the prancing, stamping horse and was able to catch her dangling lead rope. He spoke calmly to her and she began to settle, though her eyes remained wild and rolled in their sockets.
"I've got her steady," he told Sarah. "C'mon outta there."
With the narrow alley leaving no room to turn the horse, he was going to have to get Sarah out of the way and guide the horse forward. But the woman didn't move.
"I can't," she finally whispered.
She jerked her head.
That's when he looked past the surface. Sarah's entire body was shaking. Her breaths still came rapidly.
She wasn't scared of a wild horse on the loose. She was terrified.
Two fillies frightened out of their wits. What would his ma tell him to do?
Comfort the one who was worse off. Glancing from woman to horse, it was a toss-up. But if Sarah kept flailing and making noise, he'd never get the mare calm enough to get them out of there.
"All right," he said to the horse, patting its neck gently. He tied her off to a protruding nail on one of the walls, aware it might not hold if she jerked her head. The horse protested his movements with a gentle neigh, bobbing her head.
"It's all right," he said again.
He approached Sarah, aware of the pointy toes of her boots beneath those skirts and petticoats. If she got scared and kicked out.. He scooted to one side, just like he'd done with the horse.
"Sarah," he said softly.
Her eyes darted to him, wide and frightened.
"Take it out. Get it away!" Her voice rose and he instinctively clasped her hand in his, instantly silencing her.
"I'm not gonna let anything happen to you," he promised.
Her eyes held on his. In this shadowy light between two buildings, the blue looked almost gray. His stomach clutched at the fear still there.
He squeezed her hand. "We can't move the horse until she calms down. There's no room to turn her in this narrow space and she won't back up when she's riled. You should've picked a better escape route."
Her eyes flashed once. "Are you saying this is my fault? " she asked.
One long strand of straight flax-colored hair had slipped free of its pins and fallen against her cheek, making her look much younger. Oscar knew she was at least his age, if not a year older, but at the moment she didn't look twenty-three. She looked about twelve.
"Why do you even have such an unpredictable animal?" The fire was returning to her tone, even as she continued to tremble.
"I found her a few weeks ago. She's got scars where someone used her hard I've been working to earn her trust, but we're not there yet." He didn't mention the cash it had set him back, cash he could've used to get started on his breeding program. He blamed his nature. He couldn't let the animal continue to suffer.
Sarah's eyes narrowed on his face as if she didn't recognize him. She'd finally stopped shaking, and some color had returned to her cheeks.
"Miss Hansen!" a male voice called out, somewhere outside the periphery of this small enclosed area.
She glanced warily over Oscar's shoulder and shuddered.
"Sounds like they're looking for you. Think you can get up now?"
She didn't answer verbally, just struggled to stand. He kept a hand under her elbow to assist, but she pulled away as quickly as she'd gained her feet. "Just keep that beast away from me," she demanded softly, brushing at the dirt and debris from her skirt.
She swung around and bolted out of the alley, not waiting for him to check on or untie the mare. So much for catching up with an old friend.