West Winds of Wyoming– Book Three in the Prairie Hearts Series
When widower Charlie Rose shows up looking for work at the struggling Cotton Ranch, no one knows he’s secretly trying to outrun trouble—and he intends to keep it that way. He wants to start over fresh in the small town of Logan Meadows, where his blind daughter can grow up safe…and where danger can’t find him.
Feisty and independent, Nell Page is determined to protect the Cotton Ranch, despite threats from the bank…and the mysterious stranger lurking on the ranch’s borders. In spite of her better judgment, Nell instantly feels drawn to handsome, dependable Charlie. The more they ride together through the beautiful Wyoming mountains and plains, the more their feelings grow into a love that could be strong enough to last forever. But will Charlie’s past catch up with him and dash their hopes for a future together?
Logan Meadows, Wyoming Territory, April 1882
Nell Page tugged at the collar of her shirt, feeling her moist, prickly skin underneath. The mercantile was stuffy. Too warm for this blustery spring day. Meandering down the wide aisle, she
marveled at the items on display. Everything from butter stamps to cherry pitters. Who dreams up all these gadgets? And who would want to spend their hard-earned money on them?
“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.” Maude Miller rounded the long pine counter and stopped at Nell’s side. Maude had owned the mercantile for as long as Nell could remember. The woman
resembled the apple-faced dolls Nell had seen once as a girl. A traveling Mexican merchant had shown her how he carved a face into a peeled apple, then left it in the sun for several months to dry. The finished product, leathery-soft brown and deeply wrinkled, had seemed so real. Nobody quite knew Maude’s age, and she wasn’t saying, but every time the two of them spoke, Nell couldn’t help remembering those dolls.
The store owner slipped her feather duster into her apron pocket, handle first, so the plumes stuck out like the tail of a rooster. “Something special I can help you find?” Her eyes brightened. “That color would look pretty in your hair.”
“Oh.” Nell pulled her hand away from where it had strayed to touch a bolt of silky yellow ribbon. “I’m just browsing while I wait for Seth. He’s over at the sheriff’s office talking with Albert and Thom.”
Maude’s eyes widened. “There’s no trouble out at your place, is there?”
“No.” Things at the ranch were good. Least, good as could be expected. “I think my brother just gets lonely for male companionship. It’s only been him and me since Ben passed.”
Maude’s face softened.
Nell glanced away, wishing she hadn’t mentioned Ben. Maude probably remembered the funeral, and the spectacle Nell’d made of herself.
Uncomfortable, Nell picked up a twisted copper tube that
looked like a knot. “What is this, anyway?”
“The newest innovation to—”
A menacing rumble of thunder cut off her answer.
Nell stepped closer to the window. Down the street, dark clouds swirled in the sky. “Storm’s brewing and won’t hold off for long. Seth better hurry. I don’t fancy riding home through a downpour. I’ve seen too many trees charred by lightning.”
The sun completely disappeared then and the room darkened even more, as did the whole of Main Street, casting an ominous premonition over Nell’s soul. She pushed the feeling away and tried to smile. “Won’t be long before the sky lets go.”
“You’re right,” Maude said, joining her at the window. “Sure is deserted out there. Maybe you and Seth should stay in town and wait it out.”
Nell waved off her disquiet, sorry she’d worried the old woman. “We’ll be fine—fine and wet is all.” She made a funny face and shrugged.
The timeworn wooden floorboards shook as the Wells Fargo stage rolled past the mercantile’s plate-glass window toward the El Dorado Hotel.
Maude clapped her hands together. “Oh good. Here’s the stage.” She untied her apron, revealing an azure-blue prairie-style dress that was a mite too small for her portly frame. “Mind if I leave you alone
for a moment while I fetch the merchandise I ordered?”
Nell didn’t mind being alone in the store or out on a deserted prairie. As a matter of fact, she preferred solitude. No one yammering in her ear. No one telling her what to do. “I don’t mind at all. But how about if I go with you, Mrs. Miller? Help you carry in your things.”
Acutely aware of the men’s denims, plaid shirt, and leather jacket she wore, Nell followed Maude out the door, pondering what dressing like a lady would feel like. A gust of wind whipped the hat hanging down her back, held secure by a twisted-leather stampede string. She didn’t have time to wonder about silly things like that, not with chores to do and horses to be worked. Besides, she liked her life just fine.
By the time the stagecoach had settled and the horses stood quietly in their harnesses, the shotgun messenger was up top with the freight and the driver stood in front of the opened coach door. Maude and Nell crossed the street, a loud clap of thunder making them both duck. The strength of the wind practically pushed them back one step for every two forward.
Several other merchants had braved the wind to see what the stagecoach brought, and they formed a loose circle around the driver. Seth, along with Albert and Thom, watched from several doors down in front of the jail.
“Come out, sweetie,” the driver coaxed. He put out his hands in supplication to someone inside the stage and smiled from behind a shaggy beard come alive by the wind. “No one here is gonna hurt ya.” After several seconds, he dropped his hands and turned to the crowd. “Ain’t no use. I can’t get her out for the life of me.”
“What’s this? What’s going on?” Maude asked. Nell followed close behind and rose up on tiptoe to peek into the window of the coach.
A young girl sat alone on the bench, a darling little ragamuffin no more than six or seven years old. Even in her disheveled state, she was a beauty. Her legs were tucked up underneath a calico dress and she gripped a crocheted doll in her hands.
Maude pushed past the driver. “Aw, she looks frightened to tears, Mr. Martin.” Her voice softened to barely a whisper. “Where’d you get her?”
The child’s eyes followed a pattern. They studied the door, moved to one window, then the other, before pausing on her doll, then back to the door. From there, she started all over again. She reminded Nell of a skittish weanling just taken from her mama.
Mr. Martin shook his head. “She boarded with an ol’ woman in Denver. Coulda been her grandma.”
Maude straightened up, alarmed. “What do you mean? Where is this woman?”
Mr. Martin waved his hand, put a finger to his lips. “Shush, ma’am.” Maude pulled back, red-faced.
“She went to meet her maker yesterday.” Mr. Martin spoke as quietly as he could over the growing storm. “The tyke won’t say a thing ’cept her first name. And she’s blind.”
Maude placed her hand over her mouth. “Oh, my. That’s horrible.”
Nell stepped closer to the door. “Do you know anything about her?”
Mr. Martin hoisted a tan carpetbag that had been lowered from the roof and handed it over. “This was the woman’s. Had a note pinned inside.” He slid a folded scrap of paper from the pocket of his denims.
“May I see it?” Nell asked. By now, the prolonged activity at the stage had drawn Albert, Thom, and Seth down the street. One by one, they glanced inside the coach as Nell read the note aloud.
“Please deliver Maddie to Brenna Lane in Logan Meadows. The child is blind, so I appreciate you looking out for her. Thank you, Cora Baxter.” Nell looked from face to face. “To Brenna Lane?”
The widow already had three children of her own, plus a boy she’d taken in last year. Is Brenna kin?
“Do you know why she died?” Albert Preston asked. The lines on the sheriff’s forehead bespoke his concern.
Mr. Martin shrugged. “She felt weak when she went to bed, didn’t wake up the next day. Her grave’s back at the Gold Bug stage stop.”
Albert nodded as he took the note and carpetbag.
“Has the child eaten anything lately?” Nell asked. “She looks hungry. And more than a bit scared.”
“Breakfast. I done the best I could for the scared little rabbit,”the driver said. When Maude prepared to climb in for the child, Nell stopped her with a touch to her arm. “I’d like to try, Mrs. Miller. Do you mind?”
At first, she thought the shop owner would object, but then Maude drew back to make room. The child’s dirty face, messy hair, and frightened eyes reminded Nell of her own childhood. Just her and Seth, no parents in sight. “Hello, Maddie,” she said softly. “You’ve arrived in Logan Meadows. This is where Brenna Lane lives. Is she your aunt?” Another bolt of lightning ripped through the sky, lighting the dark interior of the coach.
The little girl—Maddie—swallowed and fear skittered across her face. She clutched her doll tight to her chest.
“Never you mind about that right now. I bet you’re worn outfrom this rickety old coach.” Worried about the growing storm, Nell inched in a little farther and stopped. “That sure is a pretty doll you have.” She smiled even though the child couldn’t see her. “I used to have one just like her when I was your age.”
Are dreaming and owning two different things?
“Let’s you and me go over to the Silky Hen and have a cup of hot cocoa. Then Hannah will fry you up some fat chicken drumsticks. Afterwards we’ll march right over to Brenna Lane’s house.”
The child appeared uncertain. After a moment she nodded, lowering her legs to the floor, and reached out. When their fingers touched, another flash of unease moved through Nell, a warning of a coming storm that had nothing to do with the weather.