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Little Creek, Colorado
Meri McIsaac stepped through the doors of Van Deusen's Dry Goods and Mercantile into the enveloping aromas of dried spices, leather goods and pickle barrels and straight into the even more enveloping arms of Mrs. Van Deusen.
"Oh, it's so good to see you. It's been an age since you've been in town." The diminutive, white-haired proprietress ambushed Meri with an exuberant hug. "Are you going to be at the church picnic a week from Saturday?"
Meri shrugged. She'd forgotten about the annual church picnic that heralded the end of a long winter and the welcome arrival of spring. "I don't know, yet. The weather's been so wild lately "
"Oh, the roads are drying up nicely now, and you just have to be there. The new marshal has arrived, and you have to meet him. I've told him all about you. And if you don't like him, there are a several other new single men who'll be at the picnic, as well. You can look them all over and see which one strikes your fancy. You're not getting any younger, my dear, and it is high time you found someone to marry. Your dear mother wouldn't want you grieving for her any longer. She'd say it's time you got on with your life. You don't want to spend your entire life as an old maid, so be sure to come to the picnic where you can meet all the new bachelors at once." The woman's head nodded sharply to emphasize her point as she finally took a breath.
Meri struggled to hide her annoyance at the well-meaning assault, but the old maid comment flicked a raw spot, sparking her temper. Ducking her head and taking a deep breath, she pretended to study the list of needed ranch supplies and hastily changed the subject before losing control of her tongue. She was already feeling guilty for snapping at her father on the ride into town. He'd innocently mentioned a lighthearted memory of her mother, but it had stung the still fresh wound of her loss, and she'd saddened him with a harsh reply. She didn't need another biting retort on her conscience.
"I have a list of things we need at the ranch. Faither asked me to leave it with you. He'll stop by after he finishes at the bank to load the order into the buggy. I've got another errand I need to run, so if I can leave it with you, I'll be on my way." Meri thrust the list into Mrs. Van Deusen's outstretched hand.
"Of course, dear. Are there any special instructions?" The woman was already perusing the list.
"No. I think the list is pretty self-explanatory." She hid a relieved sigh. As pushy and nosy as Mrs. Van Deusen could be, she was also easily distracted by a long list. She prided herself on filling orders to the exact detail and fretted if something was not in stock. If Meri could get away before the proprietress finished reading the paper, she would escape another round of unwanted advice about her unattached status.
Mr. Van Deusen walked out of the supply room and around the end of the long counter. "We'll see to the order, Miss McIsaac. You feel free to go about your other errands. Naoma can catch up with you when you return." His wink went unseen by his wife.
Meri managed a weak smile and a thank-you and escaped out the door. This was supposed to be a fun trip to town to get away from the ranch for a little while after a long, hard winter, but she was out of sorts and already regretting the trip. She'd forgotten Mrs. Van Deusen's escalating matchmaking efforts and the terms old maid and spinster beginning to be linked to her name. Being twenty-nine years old and unmarriedby choice, mind youdid not make one an old maid!
Feeling her temperature rise as she dwelt on the subject, Meri ducked down the alleyway between the mercantile and the clock maker, taking the back way to the livery stables. She wasn't in the mood to deal with any more nosy, opinionated females at the moment, or she'd have a new title to add to the irksome ones of old maid and spinster. Something along the lines of the cranky and snippy old maid.
Meri walked past the line of businesses and outbuildings that made up the north side of First Street and reached the pastures belonging to Franks's Livery Stable and Smithy.
Franks, a former slave freed during the War Between the States, had worked his way west during the turbulent years following the war, eventually settling in Little Creek. No one knew for sure how old he was, but he seemed ageless to Meri with his unlined chocolate skin, sharp black eyes, closely cropped black hair with a few touches of gray and an upright frame rendered massive by years of working with horses and blacksmith's tools. He could be intimidating to those who didn't know him, but a gentler, kinder man didn't exist outside of Meri's father, in her opinion, and Franks had become a close friend. He never failed to calm her down when she was riled, cheer her up when she was sad or just be available with a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on and words of wisdom when she was ready to listen.
It had been weeks since she'd had an opportunity to chat with him due to the stormy weather of late winter. Her father had remarked that any other female would want to visit their "women friends" after being cooped up at the ranch for weeks, but Meri preferred Franks's company to anyone else in town.
Franks ran the livery stable and had also acquired enough land to allow him to breed horses on a small scale. No one knew horses like Franks, and Meri loved to discuss every aspect of them and their breeding with him, which would have scandalized the finer sensibilities of the prim-and-proper matrons of town if they could overhear.
She reached the corner of the closest pasture and slipped through the fence boards. Franks's pastures ran almost the entire length of the town, with the livery located at the northeast end. A walk through the pasture to the livery would be just the thing to soothe her irritation.
She hadn't covered much ground before she attracted the attention of Franks's horses. They trotted over, curious about the newcomer to their pasture. "Hello, fellas. I don't have any treats, but how 'bout some scratches?" Warm, eager bodies surrounded her, and she was kept busy for several minutes giving hearty scratches behind ears and across shoulders, backs and bellies. As the horses shifted and stretched to allow access to itchy places, Meri felt the tension begin to drain from her own body.
"Hey, Abe." She scratched a tall, rawboned black gelding. "Who's the new guy?"
A large muscular bay with a white star peeking through a long black forelock was eyeing her coolly from the edge of the herd.
"Aren't you a handsome fella?" she cooed, slowly advancing toward him. The tall horse, probably over sixteen hands high, snorted and stepped cautiously away from her. Meri mirrored his actions and backed off to take away the pressure she'd inadvertently put on him. "A little shy, are you? Okay, I'll leave you alone, but we'll be friends soon just like these other fellas. Come here, Abe. Why don't we take a ride to the barn?"
Abe, hovering just behind her shoulder in hopes of another scratch, stepped in front of Meri and dropped his nose to the ground in silent invitation. With a little jump, she landed on her stomach across his lowered neck. Raising his head calmly, he lifted Meri off her feet. Using Abe's movement, she slid down his neck toward his withers, twisting her body and swinging one riding-skirt-clad leg up and over his back to slide into riding position.
Meri rubbed his neck. "You're such a smart boy."
Settling herself and flipping her black, flat-brimmed hat off her head to hang down her back by its rawhide strap, she grabbed a hunk of mane and turned the sensitive horse in the direction of the barn using the lightest pressure from one calf muscle. "Let's go find a treat."
Abe sprang into a smooth lope that defied his rather gangly appearance, and Meri relished the feel of his muscles rippling under her and the wind across her face. This was much better than the rough buckboard ride into town and more soothing to her frayed emotions than visiting with "women friends."
Franks's land was divided into multiple pastures, and a fence was quickly coming closer. A gate provided access to the next pasture, but instead of slowing and heading toward it, Meri leaned over Abe's neck urging him into a gallop. Nearing the fence, the horse bunched his muscles and jumped, leaping up and over as if on wings, clearing the obstacle with plenty of room to spare and eliciting a delighted whoop from Meri.
Smoothly landing on the other side, she allowed Abe to gallop several more strides before sitting back and tugging on his mane to slow him to the smooth, rocking lope for the remainder of the ride. All too soon they reached the barn gate, and Abe halted, turning sideways to allow Meri to reach the latch. Meri patted Abe on the neck and leaned down to unfasten the gate.
"Hold it right there!"
Meri flinched hard at the unexpected voice, startling Abe and sending him sidestepping away from the gate. Her hand had tightened around the latch in surprise, and she was unceremoniously dumped on the ground when Abe moved, smacking her head against the gate as she fell. Shocked by the unfamiliar occurrence of fallingshe hadn't come off a horse in yearsMeri struggled to get her bearings and sit up, massaging the ache in her scalp. Pushing loosened strands of hair away from her face, she snapped, "What is your problem, scaring us like that?"
"I make it a point to scare rustlers."
"Rustlers? Where?" Meri scrambled to her feet, and the world spun wildly. Grabbing for the gatepost to steady herself, she closed her eyes against the dizziness blurring her vision and pulsing in her ears.
"I'm lookin' at her," replied the now-muffled voice.
"You're not making a lick of sense." Meri tried to shake off the vertigo. Moments before, she'd been flying across the pasture on Abe's back, and now she was crawling off the ground, attempting to make sense of a confusing, disembodied voice.
"I mean" the voice slowed as if addressing a simpleton "when you steal a horse, you deserve to be scared off of that horse."
Her whirling vision finally began to clear. Meri looked up and up again before she located the source of the voice. A tall man, boot propped on the bottom rail of the gate and arms folded along the top, stood looking down at her. He wore a tan cowboy hat that cast a deep shadow over the upper half of his face, but the lightly tanned skin around his mouth was creased in a small smirk.
"I am not stealing a horse." Meri blinked away the last vestiges of dizziness.
"That's not how it looked from here," he replied. "I watched you sneak through a fence, snatch a horse and try to ride it out of the pasture without renting it at the livery first."
"I was riding it toward the barn. If I were stealing it, why didn't I just jump the far fence and ride away from town?" Meri flung her hand to gesture toward the bottom end of the pasture.
"I can't begin to try to explain the workings of the criminal mind, ma'am," he said politely.
"C-criminal mind?" she sputtered. "I'm not a criminal, and I wasn't stealing that horse!" She reached for the latch and pushed on the gate. Neither it nor the man budged.
"Let me out!" Meri gritted, shoving against the gate once more. She'd controlled her tongue with Mrs. Van Deusen, but she was quickly losing any desire to do so with this infuriating stranger.
"Sorry. I'm not in the habit of releasing horse thieves, especially ones who don't have any manners." A tinge of laughter denied the validity of the apology, and a dimple winked in his left cheek.
Meri had had enough of this ridiculous conversation and turned. Abe stood behind her, head cocked, looking a little perplexed at all the commotion, but awaiting further directions. She placed her hand under his chin, gently urging him forward until he stepped up to the gate.
"Abe, open the gate." She held the latch open and pointedly ignored the stranger as she added sweetly, "Please."
The horse pushed his chest into the gate, forcing the tall man to hurriedly step out of its arching path. As the gate swung wide, Abe calmly stepped through and to one side to allow Meri to close and latch the gate behind him. Remounting in the same manner as before, she looked down at the shadowed, grinning face watching her. With tart civility she uttered two words. "Good day!"
At the touch of her legs Abe loped toward the barn and his stall. Meri ignored the chuckles coming from behind them and welcomed the protective shelter of the barn.
Wyatt Cameron watched the fiery female disappear into the shadows of the barn. She had caught his attention when she'd crawled through the fence, and as Franks had been helping another customer at the time, Wyatt had stepped outside for a closer look. The horses had blocked his view of her, however, until she'd appeared as if by magic atop the black gelding and come flying toward him.
Where had she learned to ride like that? She rode with all the skill and effortlessness of an Apache warrior. He'd commanded cavalry soldiers who hadn't ridden half so well. Wyatt leaned against the fence replaying her jump. She was clearly a capable rider, but that jump had been foolhardy. The ground in the pasture was still muddy enough that the horse could have slipped and fallen on either the takeoff or landing. At least the soft ground would have cushioned her fall. He grinned as he remembered her rubbing her head. Or maybe not.
He hadn't intended to frighten her off the horse, he'd only aimed to tease her a bit, but she'd come up fighting, again like an Apache. Reminded him a bit of his sister when he'd pushed her too far as a kid. Either that or a wet cat. Not that she resembled anything close to an Apache warrior or a wet cat. She was attractive, though not in the same overdressed style as the women he'd met around town so far. There was a fresh, carefree prettiness about her with her honey-brown hair twisted back in a windblown braid and her cheeks flushed with exercise.