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Angel County, Montana Territory, December 1883
"Ma, when is Da coming back from town?" Fiona O'Rourke threw open the kitchen door, shivering beneath the lean-to's roof. Please, she prayed, let him be gone a long time.
A pot clanged as if in answer. "Soon. And just why are you askin'?"
"Uh, I was just wondering, Ma." Soon. That was not the answer she had been hoping for. Her stomach tightened with nerves as she set down the milk pail and backed out the door. She wanted to hear that Da had gone to his favorite saloon in town for the afternoon, which would give her plenty of time to fix the problem before her father returned.
"You are still in your barn boots?" Ma turned from the stove in a swirl of faded calico. "Tell me why you are not ready to help with the kitchen work? What is taking you so long outside today?"
The word lazy was not there, but the intonation of it was strong in her mother's fading brogue. Fiona winced, although she was used to it. Life was not pleasant in the O'Rourke household. Love was absent. She did not know if happiness and love actually existed in the world. But she did know that if her father discovered the horse was missing, she would pay dearly for it. She had school to think of—five full months before she would graduate. If she was punished, then she might not be able to go to school for a few days. The thought of not seeing her friends, the friends who understood her, hurt fiercely and more than any punishment could.
"I will work harder, Ma. I'll be back soon." She scrambled through the shelter of the lean-to. Wood splinters and bark shavings crackled beneath her boots.
"It will not be soon enough, girl! I've already started the meal, can't you see? You are worthless. I don't know if any man will have the likes of you, and your Da and I will be stuck supporting you forever." A pot lid slammed down with a ringing iron clang. Unforgiving and strict, Ma turned from the stove, weary in her worn-thin dress and apron. She raised the spatula, clutching it in one hand. "When your Da comes home, he will expect the barn work to be done or else."
It was the "or else" that put fear into her and she dashed full speed past the strap hanging on a nail on the lean-to wall and into the icy blast of the north wind. Outside, tiny, airy snowflakes danced like music. She did not take the time to watch their beauty or breathe in their wintry, pure scent as she plunged down the steps into the deep snow. She hitched her skirts to her knees and kept going. The cold air burned her throat and lungs as she climbed over the broken board of the fence and into the fallow fields. Snow draped like a pristine silk blanket over the rise and fall of the prairie, and she scanned the still, unbroken whiteness for a big bay horse.
Nothing. How far could he have gone? He had not been loose for long, yet he was not within sight. Where could he be? He might have headed in any direction. Thinking of that strap on the wall, Fiona whirled, searching in the snow for telltale tracks. The toot, too-oot of the Northern Pacific echoed behind her, a lone, plaintive noise in the vast prairie stillness, as if to remind her of her plans. One day she would be a passenger on those polished cars. One day, when she had saved enough and was finished with school, she would calmly buy a ticket, climb aboard and ride away, leaving this great unhappy life behind.
In the meantime, she had a horse to find, and quick. But how? It was a big job for one girl. She lifted her skirts, heading for the highest crest in the sloping field. If only her brother were still alive, he would know exactly what to do. He would have put his arm around her shoulder, calming her with kind, reassuring words. Johnny would have told her to finish her chores, that he would take care of everything, no need to worry. He would be the one spotting the hoofprints and following them. He would know how to capture a runaway. She lumbered through the deepening drifts, watching as the snow began to fall harder, filling the gelding's tracks.
How could she do this alone? She missed her brother. Grief wrapped around her as cold as the north winds and blurred the endless white sweep of the prairie. She ached in too many ways to count. It would be easier to give in to it, to let her knees crumple and drop down into the snow, let the helplessness wash over her. Snow battered her cheeks, stinging with needle sharpness. If she wanted the future she had planned, the promise of a life on her own and alone, so no one could own her or hurt her, then she must find the gelding. She must bring him in and finish the barn work. Those were her only choices.
What would her friends say? She plunged deeply into the snow, following the set of telltale tracks snaking through the deeply drifted snow. She sank past her knees, hefting her skirts, ignoring the biting cold. She imagined sitting in Lila's cozy parlor above the mercantile her parents owned with the fire crackling and steeping tea scenting the room, surrounded by those who were more family to her than her own parents.
"Fee, you ought to stay with one of us instead of leaving town," Kate might say in that stubborn, gentle way of hers. "I'm sure my folks would put you up if I told them what your home life is like."
"Or you would stay with us," Lila would offer with a look of mischief. "My stepmother would be more than happy to take you in and manage your life."
"Or with me," Earlee would say. "My family doesn't have much, but I know we could make room for you."
Fiona's throat ached with love for her friends, and she knew she could not share this with them. Some things were too painful and besides, her parents would come for her if she stayed anywhere in Angel County. The new sheriff was one of Pa's card-playing buddies. She feared for her friends. There was no telling what Pa might do if he were angry enough. It would be best to find the horse.
A plaintive neigh carried toward her on the cutting wind. Flannigan was easy to spot, standing defiantly on a rise of the prairie, a rusty splash of color in the white and gray world. Thank heavens! She faced the brutal wind. If she could get to him fast enough, she could lead him back to his stall and no one would be the wiser. The strap would remain on the lean-to wall untouched and unused. Relief slid through her and her feet felt light as she hurried on. The deep snow clutched at her boots as if with greedy hands, slowing her progress.
On the rise ahead, the gelding watched her brashly. Now all she had to do was to hold out her hand and speak gently to him, and surely he would come to her as he did in the corral. To her surprise, the gelding tossed his head, sending another ringing neigh echoing across the landscape. He turned and ran, disappearing into the folds of land and the veil of snowfall.
No! She watched him vanish. Her hopes went with him. What if he kept running? What if she could never catch him? What if she had to return home and face Da's wrath? She plunged after him. She reached the crest where he'd stood and searched the prairie for him. Her eyes smarted from staring into the endless white. Panic clawed at the back of her neck, threatening to overtake her.
Get the horse, her instincts told her. Run after him as far as it takes. Just get him back before Da comes home. She closed out the picture of the dark lean-to and her father's harsh words as he yelled at her, listing everything she had done wrong. Desperation had her lunging down the steep rise, sobbing in great lungfuls of wintry air, searching frantically for any movement of color in the vast white.
There he was, flying through an empty field, black mane and tail rippling, racing the wind. What would it be like to run as far and as fast as you could go, to be nothing but part of the wind, the snow and sky?
"Flannigan!" she cried out, praying that her voice carried to him. But it was not her voice that caused the giant workhorse to spin and turn toward town. A distant neigh echoed across the rolling fields and like a death toll it reverberated in her soul. Would he keep running? How would she ever catch him?
The horse hesitated, his tail up and his black mane fluttering in the wind. Proud and free, the gelding tossed his head as if troubled, torn between galloping over to her and his own freedom.
She knew just how he felt, exactly how attractive the notion of fleeing could be. Please don't do it, she begged with all her might, but it made no difference. The gelding rocked back on his hooves and pivoted, running like a racehorse on the last stretch. She took off after him, wishing she could do the same, her skirts fluttering in the winter wind.
Ian McPherson sat up straighter on the hard wooden edge of the homemade sled's seat, trying to get a better look at the young woman in the fields. Flecks of white stung his eyes and cheeks and the storm closed in, turning serious, as if to hide her from his sight. He caught flashes of red skirt ruffles beneath the modest dove-gray coat and a mane of thick black curls flying behind her. "Who is that running through the snow?"
"If I tell you the truth, you will have a mind to get back on that train." O'Rourke was a somber man and his hard face turned grim. "We couldn't beat common sense into that girl. Don't think we didn't try."
Ian gulped, knowing his shock had to show on his face. He could find no civil response as he turned his attention back to the young lady who hiked her skirts up to her knees, showing a flash of flannel long johns before the storm and the rolling prairie stole her from view. "She's got some speed. Can't say I have seen a woman run that fast before."
"Likely her neglect is the reason the gelding got out. That girl hasn't got a lick of sense, but she is a good worker. My wife and I made sure of it. That's what a man needs in a helpmate. She will be useful. No need to worry about that."
"Oh, I won't." Useful. Not what he wanted in a wife. He didn't want a wife. He had more than enough responsibility resting on his shoulders.
Aye, coming here was not the wisest decision he had ever made. But what other choice did he have? Creditors had taken his grandparents' house and land, and he still felt sick in his gut at being unable to stop it. Gaining a wife when he was near to penniless was not a good solution, even if his nana thought so. A better solution would be to find his own wife sometime in the future, even though, being a shy man, courting did not come easily to him.
"Don't make up your mind on her just yet." O'Rourke hit the gelding's flank fairly hard with his hand whip. The animal leaped forward, lathering with fear. "You come sit down to eat with us and look her over real good."
Look her over? The father spoke as if they were headed to a horse sale. Ian strained to catch another glimpse of her, but saw only gray prairie and white snow. What would the girl look like up close and face-to-face? Probably homely and pocked, considering her parents were desperate to marry her off.
"Remember, you gave us your word." O'Rourke spit tobacco juice into the snow on his side of the sled. "I don't cotton to men who go back on their word."
"I only said I would come meet the girl. I made no promises." Although he did have hopes of his own. He couldn't explain why his eyes hungrily searched for her. Maybe it was because of the pretty picture she made, like a piece from a poem, an untamed horse and the curly haired innocent chasing him. It was his imagination at work again, for he was happier in his thoughts than anywhere. Hers was an image he would pen down later tonight when he was alone with his notebook.
"Your grandfather promised." O'Rourke was like a dog with a bone. He wouldn't relent. "I knew this would happen first time you caught sight of her. Fiona is no beauty, that's for sure, but I'm strapped. Times are hard for me and my wife. We can't keep feedin' and clothin' her and we don't want to. It's high time she was married and your family and me, we had this arranged before you both was born."
He had heard it all before. Nearly the same words his grandmother had told him over and over with hope sparkling in her eyes. After all that she had lost, how could he outright disappoint her? Life was complicated and love more so.
Would the girl understand? Was she already packing her hope chest? She swept into sight, farther away, hardly more than a flash of red, a bit of gray and those bouncing black curls. From behind, she made a lovely pose, willowy and petite, with her flare of skirt and elegant outstretched hand, slowly approaching the lone horse. The animal looked lathered, his skin flicking with nervous energy as if ready to bolt again.
"Fool girl," O'Rourke growled, halting the horse near a paint-peeling, lopsided barn. "She ought to know she'll never catch the beast that way."
Her back was still to him, distant enough that she was more impression than substance, more whimsy than real with the falling snow cloaking her. If he had the time, he could capture the emotion in watercolors with muted tones and blurred lines to show her skirt and outstretched hand.