Main Allemande with Angel

Allemande with Angel

Two hearts separated by time reunite and remind each other of what's really important. Angel Wilson has been running her family's farm, her late father's veterinary practice, and everything in between. She's never had time to be feminine or dream for herself. She never even knew she wanted those things until she runs into her first love Henry again, the owner of the South Creede Livery. Henry Granger has been busy making his father's dream a reality--and to really do it, he needs for the first auction held at his livery to be a smashing success. But everything seems to be going wrong. The last thing he has time for is marriage and family. Those things are far from his mind until he sees the shock of red hair that reminds him of all the dreams he had as a young boy. What will the two of them have to give up in order to make their own dreams take priority over the dreams of their fathers?
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Allemande with Angel

The Matchmaker’s Ball, Book 2

P. Creeden


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14


Don’t miss the next book in the Matchmaker’s Ball…

About the Author

Love Western Romance?

An Agent for Josie

An Agent for Opal

A Bride for James

A Bride for Henry

Allemande with Angel © 2019 P. Creeden

Cover by Erin Dameron-Hill

All rights reserved under the International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Warning: the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

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Chapter 1

Angel Wilson squinted and wiped the sweat from her brow, avoiding the mud and blood she had on the palms of her leather gloves. The afternoon sun shone overhead, glinting off the river at just the right angle to shine directly in her eyes. Blocking the glare with one hand, she wiped the nostrils of the newborn colt with the other and lifted its lip to make sure its airway was clear.

“Summer’s coming early this year,” a deep, gruff voice said from the front of the mare.

A sid; eways glance toward Jeremiah Washington told her that the man was dripping with about as much sweat as she was. After she rubbed the colt down with the cleanest cloth she could find, she slowly stood up, her back aching from having been hunched over for so long. Jeremiah stood with her, releasing the mare, too. Immediately the mare stood as the two of them backed away. She turned around, nickering to her new colt, nudging it with her muzzle. Jeremiah set a hand on Angel’s shoulder. “We did the best we could. Because of your judgement call, the mare survived, but the colt still might not. We just need to wait and see.”

“Not too long, though.” Angel still hadn’t taken her eyes off the colt. Though it had begun breathing, it had barely done more than lift its head from the ground once or twice. Birthing can be exhausting, but if the colt didn’t stand within twenty minutes or so, it might get circulation problems.

The two of them waited anxiously as the mare continued to nicker and nudge. Finally, with a sad cry, the colt lifted its head and scrambled to its feet only to lose its balance and fall onto its haunches, sitting like a dog momentarily before falling on its side again. Its body heaved with each breath.

“Come on, little guy. Don’t give up,” Angel whispered, knowing he couldn’t hear or understand, but needing to cheer the colt on, nonetheless.

The mare nickered and nudged him again. With another great exertion, the colt shot its limbs in all directions before finally managing to stand on its wobbly legs. Each step it took was a matter of keeping its balance and not falling over again. After a few more tentative steps, the colt overcame its lack of confidence and ran in a quick circle around the mare who nickered and chased after it as though she was worried he’d fall down again. Then, finally, the colt settled in and nudged under the mare’s belly for her teat.

A smile finally tugged at Angel’s lips. They were both going to make it. When Angel had first found the mare struggling to give birth, she knew the foal was in breached position. Her father had taught her how to turn around cattle through massage and physical push and pull, but she’d not yet tried it on a horse. The mare didn’t want to cooperate at first, but with Jeremiah’s help and a blindfold, they got the mare to settle down enough to allow them to work on straightening out the foal for birth. At least they weren’t too late. The foal looked to be a solid healthy chestnut colt, like the stud in the herd they were driving toward Creede, Colorado for the auction.

Jeremiah pulled off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow again. “We’re nearly at the south fork of the river. We’ll need to forge it there, where it’s most shallow, and then we should be at Creede in two days—give or take.”

The terrain had been harsh. Angel wished that she’d never left her home in Manassa to head all this way. But she needed to go where the money went, or she’d be in even bigger trouble than she already was. The bank had threatened to take her home because of her late father’s debt, and this was the last ditch effort to pay it off. She stepped into the stirrup of her roan gelding’s saddle and hauled herself up. From that vantage, she could see down the slope of the rolling hill where they stood and counted the heads of horses they brought. “Twenty-seven,” she said aloud. “Including the new colt.”

Jeremiah shook his head, dusted off his hat and replaced it on his balding head. Then he shoved a foot in the stirrup of his gray mare’s saddle and mounted up. “Why is it that twenty-seven horses are sometimes harder to take care of then almost ten times the number of cattle?”

“I’d rather drive cattle,” Angel said, huffing a laugh. “At least they tend to stick together. They are less likely to stampede, and slower moving when they do.”

“You can say that again,” Jeremiah said, laughing with her. “But we’ll see which is harder on our way back.”

She nodded. That was the plan. They’d drove the horses up to Creede because the horse auction would bring in people who would ship good stock on the railroad from the livery. Then there was a cattle sale four days later. There, she hoped to use half the money she made from the horses to buy a herd of cattle to drive back down to Manassa with her. At least three times as many cattle as she had horses. The other half of the money from the sale would go to pay off the debt, on the day it was due. She was cutting it close but she had no choice. It was a solid plan, provided that she made it to the sale with all of her horses. She eyed the sun as it slipped lower on the horizon. “I think we should drive them to the fork and then camp for the night. I want to give that colt a chance to find its legs before we cross. And besides, it will be easier if we’re all fresh in the morning. I don’t know if my aching bones can take trying to forge a river after what we just went through.”

“Wrestling mares and colts can be hard on the bones.”

She didn’t even need to reply to that one. Instead she let out a slow breath before nodding toward the other three cowboys tending the herd. They weren’t far from the cook’s chuckwagon. “Go let them know?”

He winked at her and flashed a smile. “Sure thing, Boss.”

She shook her head after him. Officially, Jeremiah was the trail boss on this journey, but in reality, it had been Angel making the decisions all along. Even though Jeremiah was twenty years her elder, he had told her that he’d rather follow her lead and pass word along to the other cowboys. His eyesight wasn’t what it used to be. On her first few cattle drives as a teen, Jeremiah had been the ultimate trail boss, and had taught her how to choose direction based upon what the weather had been like, how harsh the winter had been, and the locations of water and avoiding hostile territories. They’d taken the journey from Manassa to Creede and back again almost yearly since she could sit in a saddle but not since her father passed on four years prior to this ride. And now Jeremiah couldn’t see well enough to determine the routes, and was glad to let her make those decisions.

However, to keep the other cowboys from undermining her authority, Jeremiah still acted as though he was the same trail boss he always used to be. She reined her gelding over toward the rear of the lone mare and pushed her to return to the herd with her colt. She pinned her ears and swished her tail, but at least she began moving. The leggy colt trotted close to his mother. If they kept the river to one side of them, the horses were unlikely to stampede in that direction. In the morning she and the cowboys were going to need to force them to cross. It was all about the lead mare. If they got her to cooperate with them, the rest would follow pretty well.

It was important to keep the lead mare in sight at all times. If she was happy, chances were the rest of the herd would be as well. Angel couldn’t help but feel a sort of kinship with the older paint mare. She would take first watch that night so she could care for the newborn colt, should it be necessary, too.

Henry Granger pulled the shoe off the lame mare and then cleared the bottom of the hoof with the palm of his work glove. He waved over the owner of the mare. “You see here, Mr. Clyde? This spot right here is an abscess. The weather has been dry for most of March and April then we had a good deal of snow in that storm right at the beginning of this month. Now it’s hot enough for everyone to feel like spring was heading into summer. But with the melt comes mud. Mud works its way up into cracks in the horse’s hoof, and that’s what causes the abscesses. I can cut this out, but this mare is going to need to be soaked in salt today and tomorrow, and poulticed. It’s going to be four or five days before she’s rideable again.”

Mr. Clyde frowned. “But I’m supposed to be in Denver in three days. How am I supposed to get there now?”

“There’s a stagecoach coming tomorrow. I suggest you leave the mare at the livery,” Henry said.

Mr. Clyde frowned and mumbled something under his breath about stealing money before stepping away and back toward the head of the horse. Henry did his best to ignore the comment and get back to work on cleaning out the horse’s hoof and paring out the abscess. Once he was finished with that foot, he peered around and found the owner of the horse, Mr. Clyde, nowhere to be seen. He shook his head and continued with the other three feet, looking for other potential problems, but finding none before replacing the shoes on each one. An hour later, when he finished the rest of the horse’s trim, Mr. Clyde had not returned, so Henry went through the trouble of soaking the horse’s foot himself and packing it with poultice.

“You shouldn’t be doing all of that,” a voice said behind him as he finished the poultice. “At least charge the guy extra for doing it.”

Henry released the hoof, stood, and rubbed the soreness from his shoulder as he turned toward his partner-worker in the livery, Slicker. “Nah. It’s fine. I’d rather see the horse get taken care of right than worry about leaving it up to him.”

Slicker shook his head, his close-cut brown curls glinting in the setting sunlight behind his head. “Mr. Clyde said to put the mare in a stall for the next two days before letting her go out. And then he said something about buying a ticket for the stage to Denver.”

“That’s good. It’s what the mare needs,” Henry said, patting the chestnut horse on the neck.

“Well, I’m going to bill him for the poulticing and extra care the horse needs,” Slicker said as he hooked his lead rope up to the mare’s halter and unhooked her from the cross-ties.

Henry wiped the sweat from his brow as he watched Slicker take the horse away. Sunlight slanted across the sky in streaks from over the horizon in the west. It was getting later than Henry had realized. The wind picked up a bit, bringing a chill and making him wonder if they might get a bit of rain overnight. He hoped not. He needed the mud in the auction paddock to dry up before the event that next Tuesday. It was supposed to allow him to make the rest of the repairs needed to make the place every bit as viable as the best Livery in town on the other end of Creede owned by Mr. Clay.

It had been his father’s dream to own and run a solid livery while working as the blacksmith, and he’d trained up Henry to be his partner. But when his father passed on last spring, Henry didn’t believe the dream would come to fruition. Then the opportunity to buy the old stagecoach stables came available, and Henry sold his father’s home to make that dream into reality. The only thing he’d not been sure about was whether it was his dream he was living or just his father’s.

Chapter 2

The water was higher where they forged it than Angel had expected. It went clear up to her horse’s chest, splashing against Angel’s calves and ankles, soaking her breeches and chaps. She forged across, leading the herd behind her to the other side of the river. The colt on the front of her saddle whinnied and the dam nickered in response. The mare wasn’t letting the colt out of her sight and had stayed right at Angel’s thigh as they traveled to the other side of the shallows of the Rio Grande River. Once they made it across, the mare turned a bit frantic, pinning its ears and baring its teeth at the roan gelding Angel rode. “Easy there, girl. Your colt’s alright.”

Water dripped from the horses’ bellies as they made it to shore. The moment Angel dismounted and pulled the colt from her horse’s withers, the gelding shook from nose to tail like a dog, trying to shed as much water as possible from his body. Other horses in the herd followed suit, making laughter bubble up from the pit of Angel’s stomach as she set the colt back on its feet. The colt loped around them in a circle then to his mother and immediately looked to nurse. Jeremiah rode up beside her as more of the herd made their way across. She shoved her foot back in her stirrup and, taking hold of her saddle’s pommel, she hopped back onto her horse. Jeremiah searched the herd, squinting his eyes toward it. “I’ll have Franklin make a count of the herd and report back, but I think they all made it. Seems like you picked the right spot to cross.”

She smiled and nodded. “Once he’s made the count, we’ll get moving. I’d love to put a few miles in before we have to stop again. The sale is only three days away and I’d like to get there early.”

“Early is better than late,” Jeremiah said as he reined his horse away and cantered toward the other end of the herd.

“Especially when it came to auctions,” Angel said to herself. Auctions waited for no one. Either you were there with your herd when the caller struck the gavel or you weren’t. And when you miss the timing of the sale, you usually ended up with pennies on the dollar as people made offers to take animals off your hands. That wasn’t what Angel needed at all. She needed to get top dollar for every head in the herd if she was going to make it through the year. It had been a rough winter on her and she really needed for spring to go ahead and get started.

“Boss!” Jeremiah yelled.

Angel pulled herself from her thoughts and blinked toward her right-hand man, who was galloping back toward her.

“It’s Colton! He’s been bit by a snake,” Jeremiah said as he pulled up and tried to catch his breath.

Angel bit on a curse and then galloped back the direction that Jeremiah had come from. She chided herself for even thinking of cursing. Apparently she’d been spending too much time with the cowboys and even though Cookie had read aloud from the Bible, missing church last Sunday because of the trail didn’t help. Especially now. Before she even reached the boys, she’d begun praying. “Oh, Lord. Please don’t let it be a water snake.”

She spotted Colton lying on the ground with his head resting against Abram’s chest. Both of the cowboys were wet from the knees down, just as she was. Colton’s eyes were closed, his face contorted, and he held his hands against his chest. Angel sent up another prayer as she hopped down from her horse, her hands already reaching for her saddle bag and the medical kit within. She grabbed the kit and knelt beside the two cowboys. “Where was he bitten?”

Colton opened his eyes and held out his already swelling hand. There, in the meat just below his thumb, two angry, red puncture wounds sat side by side.

“I sucked on it and spit out as much as I could, but I don’t know how much I got,” Abram said, his brown eyes wide as they met hers.

She nodded and glanced up at Abram. “Untie the kerchief around his neck and free the top button. He’s already starting to heave.” Then she met eyes with Colton. “Tell me about the snake. What was it? Do you know?”

Slowly Colton shook his head. “I didn’t see it until it slithered off. I don’t think it was a rattler.”

Angel bit down on the side of her cheek as she poured tincture over the wound. Colton hissed in response. Shaking her head, she wiped away the excess and started putting a loose bandage on it. Then she handed Colton a bit of willow bark. “Chew this to help keep down the pain and swelling. We don’t know for sure what kind of snake bit you, but it’s going to be rough for the next few hours, maybe even days. You need to ride in the back of the wagon.”

“No, I’m fine,” he said, trying to stand. “I can ride. I can still do my job.”

She set a hand on his shoulder at the same time as he collapsed back down, beads of sweat forming on his brow as his eyes became unfocused. “Sit still,” she hissed. “You’re going to make things worse if you don’t keep still and calm.” Then she turned back to Jeremiah. “Call Cookie and get him to bring the wagon over. He’s got room in the back now, I’m sure. Grab a blanket. Keep Colton as still as possible until we make it there. Even though we can keep going, he needs to be prone—laying down.”

Jeremiah met eyes with her, his own filled with worry.

She shook her head slightly as she stepped away from her fallen cowboy and closer to her trail boss. Once they were a few yards away, she leaned into him and spoke under her breath. “I wish we knew what kind of snake this was. If it was a water snake, he may bleed internally. That’s one of the reasons we need him to stay as still as possible. If he can make it through the night and the next day, then I think we’ll be through the woods on this one. In town, the doctor may be able to do more for him, but this is the best I can do.”

Jeremiah nodded and put a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll do all that you say and pray for the best. Your father raised you into a good horse and cattle doctor, and you don’t do too bad a job on cowboys, either.”

She shrugged, feeling a bit of heat in her cheeks. Overhead the sun slanted at an angle that said they still had a good two or three hours until noon. The trail cook stopped and with the help of all the cowboys, they loaded Colton into the wagon and got him changed out of his wet clothes. Then Angel made sure that he was kept under blankets, even though sweat still dotted the man’s brow.

He met eyes with her and complained, “I’m hot though.”

“It’s fever,” she assured him. “If you don’t stay under the blankets, you’ll catch a chill and that will make things worse, too.”

Even though Colton frowned, he nodded and promised to do as he was told. With a nod to the others, they each mounted their horses and began herding the horses toward Creede, one man short. By the time the sun reached its zenith, later that day, they’d barely gone more than five miles or so at the slow pace they had to keep in order to keep the cook’s chuckwagon from jostling too much. Angel frowned and couldn’t help but pull her father’s watch from the pocket of her breeches.

“We’ll make it in time. Don’t worry,” Jeremiah said as he rode up next to her.

She nodded. “But we won’t be early.”

Just as Henry had feared, they’d gotten a solid rain that pulled through overnight and to top it all off, a thick cloud cover remained overhead, not letting in a bit of sun to dry the auction paddock. He stood in his farrier’s apron with his hands on his hips, chewing his bottom lip. How were they going to get the paddock dried out within three days?

Slicker eyed him with wrinkles in his brow as he led a gelding from the turnout pasture back toward the stalls in the livery. It was the big, grey draft-cross gelding that Slicker had told Henry might need shoes. Henry’s frown deepened as he stopped chewing his lip. It was a bad habit, and he really did need to quit it. Moments later, Slicker came up next to him. “We could add some sawdust to the paddock.”

Henry shook his head. “That would be a temporary fix, but one that’s too costly. It will aerate the soil and make the mud deeper for next time.”

“Next time?” Slicker asked. “But that will be months away. Didn’t you say we’d have the auction only twice a year?”

“If it’s successful, we could have it seasonally,” Henry said with a shrug. “Either way, I don’t want to fix the paddock in a way that will make it worse for next time.”

After letting out a long sigh, Slicker said, “Sand’s expensive, and rocks might make the paddock too hard.”

“You’re telling me.” Henry felt like repeating his friend’s sigh, but what would it accomplish? It still wouldn’t fix the problem that they had staring them in the face. Neither would standing here looking at it. Henry turned away from the mud, determined not to let it get him down. “How many confirmed horses do we have for the sale? Any word?”

Slicker nodded and followed Henry as they strode toward the barn. “The Wilson farm from down south is bringing twenty-six heads. That’s the biggest one. There’s a couple people in town that are bringing some older plow horses or kid’s riding ponies, but it’s the Wilson horses that everyone’s going to be looking forward to.”

“Purebred?” he asked, but his mind stumbled on the name, Wilson. He wondered if they were related to the same family he played with as a child. He shrugged the thought off.

“Mostly. Some of them are paint horses, from what I understand. That kind isn’t purebred, but eye-catching and usually sell well for that,” Slicker said as he stepped ahead and pulled the barn door open.

Henry let out a breath as he entered the shadowed interior of the barn. They had made the coach storage area into additional stalls for the horses, and the big grey gelding nickered to them as they came inside. Henry stepped over and patted the gelding’s nose before snapping a lead shank onto his halter. He didn’t have to tell Slicker how much they needed this sale to be a success, but that didn’t help his nerves any. His stomach twisted as he thought more on all the things that could go wrong with this sale. His father would have told him that he needed to put his worries in the Lord’s hands—lay his burden at the Lord’s feet and then leave it there. Henry knew that he was guilty of often returning to pick the burden back up again. His jaw tightened as he breathed a prayer. If anything could give him comfort right now, it was faith that God had all things in control.

If Henry didn’t have control over what would happen in the future, worrying wouldn’t make things any better. He just needed to focus on the things he had control over. After opening the stall door, he led the large draft horse to the cross-ties where he could put shoes on the horse’s feet. The clip clop of the horse’s feet against the cobble stone flooring in the center barn aisle had a calming effect on him. Each step meant that Henry was closer to completing a task that he could see to completion. Once he set the horse up, he stepped over to his forge and stoked the coal fire. The heat radiating from it chased the chill from his arms.

He blinked.

If he could find a way to harness the heat and point it toward the paddock, perhaps he could get it to dry faster. He peered around and sighed. Even though the livery had electrical lights left over from the time it was the stagecoach barn, he’d not used electricity for any other purpose. But perhaps he could.

Chapter 3

Angel continued to monitor Colton through the night. Though he had pain and discomfort, particularly around the bite area, and ran a low fever, he didn’t seem to be suffering from the internal bleeding associated with a water snake bite. Because they were one cowboy down, Angel took first watch with the plan that it would last an extra hour. Overhead, the stars scattered across the sky in an almost chaotic way, but the patterns were far from random. To the west and north, clouds gathered, obscuring the view from both those directions, threatening rain. Though the last several days had been unseasonably warm, she feared that if the rains came, they would bring with them another cold spell. On the trail, snow could be disastrous for their time schedule. Inwardly, she prayed that God would continue to grant them good weather for getting the herd to the livery in Creede in time for the auction.

In the distance, a coyote howled and barked. Angel’s first thought was of the newborn colt. Four of the mares were due to foal in a month or two. The colt had been born three weeks earlier than planned. It was a bit smaller than average, and she’d been keeping an eye on its progress to make sure it didn’t struggle too much through the strain of travel. So far, things seemed to be going well. But coyote were opportunists—not the greatest of hunters, but if they spotted the newborn colt getting too far from its mother, it could be in danger of getting attacked. She swallowed hard, and pulled the shotgun out of the scabbard she’d had attached to the back of her saddle. Then she tiptoed past the camp where the rest of the men were sleeping close to the fire they’d built to ward off the night’s chill.

Because of the full moon, Angel could see the shapes of the horses in the darkness and was able to make her way slowly toward them. They were a friendly, well-handled lot of horses, so they weren’t likely to get spooked and take off because of her presence. And besides, they’d hobbled the lead mare overnight to keep her from traveling far. For the last several months, the horses had been fed grain through the winter to keep them fat so that they could be sold in the spring. Fat horses tended to get much better bids than skinny ones, even if they had the same amount of training. Since Angel had done much of the feeding herself in the wee hours of the morning, she knew each horse by their silhouette and didn’t necessarily need much light to determine which horse was which.

The lead mare nickered to her as she drew close. She patted the paint mare on the forehead as she continued past, her shotgun slung over her shoulder. “Easy girl, nothing to worry about.”

At least, Angel hoped that was true. The coyote howled again, seemingly closer this time. Not good. Angel needed to find the foal and its mother so that she could keep an eye on them and if the coyote continued to get to close, she might need to either shoot it or fire off a warning shot. She frowned and chewed the inside of her cheek. The gunfire would wake the others. It wasn’t worth waking them if she could avoid it. She stalked along the edge of the herd silently, measuring the silhouette of each horse, trying to find the colt’s mother. Finally, she spotted them toward the middle of the herd. The colt lay sleeping while the mare hung her head over it. Angel took measured steps as she walked closer, her eyes watching the edges of the herd now, searching for the coyote and making sure it didn’t get too close. When she reached the mare, it perked up its ears and eyed Angel curiously.

“Shh,” she patted the mare on the shoulder and checked on the prone colt. Everything seemed to be okay so far.

For a long while Angel just stood there, leaning against the mare’s shoulder while she eyed the horizon in all directions, waiting for the call of the coyote to come again. After several long minutes, the sound of the bark and howl came once more, farther off. Angel breathed a sigh of relief. Exhaustion overcame her as the tension caused by the sudden threat melted away. Closing her eyes, Angel prayed again, this time in gratitude that she didn’t need to kill a wild animal, nor did she need to lose a colt. After spending a few minutes leaning against the warmth of the mare, Angel pushed off and headed back to camp. This time she walked with purpose instead of measuring her steps. When she got back to where the rest of the cowboys were sleeping, she stoked the fire and added a log to it. Then she went to where Colton had his sleeping bag set up. His forehead still felt warm, but it seemed that his fever was finally breaking. Good. She woke him gently and offered him a canteen, holding a finger to her lips and then saying, “You need to keep fluids going through you if we’re going to flush out the poison.”

Colton nodded and then took a long pull from the water. When he’d finished, he handed it back to her. She pushed the plug back in and the screwed on the top. Colton had already turned over and seemed ready to go back to sleep. The breeze picked up a bit more, causing Angel to look up and see that less of the sky had become visible as the clouds moved in. A frown tugged her lip as she pulled out her pocket watch. The last thing they needed was to worry about rain, but they would battle whatever they needed to to get the job done. She still had another twenty minutes in her watch. With a yawn, she moved away from the camp toward a rock outcropping that allowed her to keep an eye on the herd. If the silhouettes of the horses were more defined, she’d probably start counting them. Angel always felt comfort in numbers and counting. She didn’t know that it was unusual to her until she was about seven or eight years old and shared her habit of counting steps with a friend who had no idea how many stairs there were between the first and second floor of the mercantile. The wind continued to blow her red hair around her face until she finally grabbed hold of it and held it to the side. To her relief, the clouds already seemed to be moving past her, letting her feel the relief that maybe they’d get by without rain that night. Slowly she stood and stretched and then made her way toward Jeremiah to wake him for the next watch.

“It’s not a bad idea,” Slicker said, scratching the stubble on his chin. He’d been trying to grow out a beard for the last few days because some woman in town told him he’d look better with one. “But how do you suppose we’ll get it done.”

“If we clear some of the mud away and get to dry ground, we can build a few coal fires around the paddock. Then if we can keep wind continuously blowing in the area, it will heat the water and help the mud to dry faster,” Henry said, while leaning against the board in the paddock. The mud wasn’t watery, but thick and somewhat dry, but not yet dry enough to have the auction. If they continued as it was now, the horses would work the mud until it was deep enough to cover them halfway up to their knees. That wasn’t conducive an environment for having a sale.

“I guess it’s worth giving a try, but how are you going to keep wind blowing on the area?”

Henry scratched his own chin, suddenly feeling a bit itchy after watching Slicker scratch his for the past several minutes. But Henry’s chin was bare—he hadn’t been trying to grow a beard. “I was going to go talk to that guy in town, the one who works with the electricity and helps build the lamps.”

“Mr. George?”

“Yes! Him. If he helped build the lamps throughout town, then maybe he could invent something that would blow wind using electricity in a similar way.” Henry snapped his fingers and pushed off from the board.

“Are you planning on talking to him now?” Slicker asked, lifting a brow.

“Since we only have two days before the auction starts, I better,” Henry said, pulling off his work gloves and farrier’s apron. “If we’re going to be working with metal, maybe I can even give him a hand.”

Slicker shook his head and then started toward the barn with a dismissive wave. “Well, good luck. I’m sure if there’s something Mr. George can do for you, he will.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Henry said quietly, unsure whether his friend and partner was being honest, patronizing, or derisive.

After setting down his work clothes, Henry pulled down his sleeves against the wind that had picked up unsuspectingly. Then he started making his way through town to the workshop of the man who some people called a genius, while others considered him a kook. But Henry had met Mr. George before and found the man to be brilliant. He hoped that he could help him on this one small project.

When he got to the open area in front of Mr. George’s shop, Henry saw the man working in the yard area on some piece of machinery. He sat over the machine and didn’t lift his head as Henry drew near. He stepped forward and knocked against a nearby bench made of wood. “Hello?”

The man lifted his face, let his gaze brush across Henry before going back to giving the machine his attention. “What can I do for you?” he asked without peering up again.

Henry let out a slow breath before starting. “I’m in a bit of a pickle. In two days we’re supposed to be having a horse auction—you may have heard—but our paddock is full of mud from the rain we had a few days ago. I don’t have the money to get more sand to put into the area, but I need to dry it out. I was thinking if there was a way to create a wind machine we might be able to warm the paddock up using fire and wind.”

That seemed to get the man’s attention. He leaned back, running a hand through his wild, curly gray hair. A bit of oil smudged the man’s cheek. “A wind machine?”

“Yes. If you have time at all,” Henry said, “I was hoping you could help me build something like that?”

The man tapped his chin lightly with the wrench he had in his hand. “You’re the blacksmith, right?”

Henry nodded, smiling at the man’s recognition. “I am.”

He nodded, lifting a brow. “Two days isn’t much time. But I think I can modify this machine I’m currently making to do the job. Let me think on it a couple hours. Come back after lunch and see if I’ve figured anything out. I know that no matter what, I’m going to need your help and expertise to get the job done.”

Henry’s eyes widened a bit. “It’s that simple?”

The man huffed a laugh. “Did you expect something else?”

His shoulders lifted up and down in a shrug. “I really didn’t know what to expect.”

Mr. George waved a hand at him dismissively, his wrench and gaze already back in the machine he’d been working on. “After lunch.”

It didn’t take much for Henry to get a hint. He backed away with excitement pooling inside him. Maybe his idea hadn’t been the worst one after all. He could only hope that Mr. George had enough time to bring the idea to fruition.

Chapter 4

Even though it was only drizzling, Angel had to shut her eyes and lower her head toward it. The wind blew directly into their faces as they traveled. Every inch of exposed skin burned with cold. The herd moved especially slow as they wanted to stop and turn their hindquarters toward the wind instead of driving directly into it. Jeremiah had the idea of tying the lead mare to the chuckwagon so that the wagon and mare could lead the herd while he, Angel, and the other two cowboys could drive the herd forward from the back. Angel’s horse’s head was held low and under him as much as possible in order to keep out of the driving wetness.

For an hour they drove through the harsh weather, and once the rain had dissipated, the wind continued to howl around them, blowing their wet clothes against their skin. The temperature had dropped fifteen degrees or more. Shivers began in the pit of Angel’s stomach, and her teeth chattered. Another quarter hour passed before Jeremiah rode over toward her. “I think it’s safe now to stop and get changed into something dry if we have it. The rain has moved out.”

Overhead, the sun was beginning to peak through the cloud cover. Angel nodded. “Ask Cookie to fix up something quick for lunch, I want to drive until dusk if we can in hopes of getting as close to Creede as possible.”

In the distance, a train’s horn blew. The sound brought a smile to Jeremiah’s lips. “That’s a good sign. If the train tracks are near, we’re closer to Creede than I thought.”

Excitement fluttered in Angel’s stomach. “Closer than I thought as well. Maybe we’ll make it there by dark.”

“If not, definitely sometime in the morning tomorrow,” he said with a nod.

“Actually, go tell the others to get out of their wet things first. I’ll tell Cookie to make us lunch. It will give me a chance to check on Colton while I’m at it,” Angel said, suddenly feeling a bit warmer even though the weather hadn’t changed at all.

With a nod, Jeremiah reined his horse away from her and trotted toward the others. Angel loped ahead and pulled up at the cook’s wagon. She waved toward him to get his attention. “We’ll go ahead and stop here, give the horses a break and a chance to get a bite to eat. Let’s do the same.”

The cook nodded as he pulled up his cart horses. “Were you thinking a light lunch or heavy one?”

“Let’s go with heavy but quick. We need to get moving again as fast as possible, and plan on driving straight through till dusk. It’s possible that we’ll make it to town tonight.”

“Not likely, though,” the cook said with a shrug as he began to dismount the cart.. “It’s been slow going ever since we crossed the river.”

It was Angel’s turn to nod. She knew he was referring to the fact that they had to drive slowly in order to keep Colton as comfortable as possible. The last thing they wanted to do was make him worse by adding a lot of jostling to his rest for recovery. With that thought, she dismounted her horse and loosened its cinch. Then she reached over and pulled the bridle from the gelding’s face. Immediately the horse put his head down and began tearing at the grass around him. Angel patted him on the neck, confident in her ability to catch any of the horses if necessary. Because she’d hand raised them all herself over the last several months to years for some of them, they all respected her as their true boss mare—even though they followed their top mare as leader. The respect they had for Angel as their provider and handler was what made these horses hers. When she reached the back of the wagon, she untied the boss mare and tied the shank to the halter that the mare wore, so she’d be easier to catch as well.

From the side of the wagon, Cookie banged pots and pans and worked on making a fire. Angel peered around the side to watch for a moment, and when she felt it was clear enough at the back she pulled down the tailgate and hopped up in. Colton lay still on the floor. Angel reached for his knee and shook it, calling out to him, “Colton, we’re stopping for lunch. Do you think you’re up to eating? Maybe even sitting up a bit?”

No answer.

Frowning, Angel stepped crawled into the wagon to get closer. “Colton?”

The cowboy didn’t answer again, but continued to stare up at the top of the wagon. Angel reached for his hand, finding it limp and cold.

Her heart sank as tears stung the backs of her eyes. “No,” she said as a sob escaped her.

She knelt close to his head and leaned over, placing her ear against his chest. Even as she prayed she’d hear his heart beat or feel his chest rise and fall with breath, she felt neither. The tears blurred her vision a moment before they slipped from her eyes. She blinked them away and then peered up into Colton’s staring eyes. They were bloodshot and his face was a little bloated. Dark bruising showed up just under the collar of his shirt. She’d been wrong. He had been bleeding inside, and she’d not been able to see it. A water snake. Regret gripped her insides. They’d had ginger, garlic, and cayenne in their dinner last night. All of them were known blood thinners. She’d considered it before letting Colton eat, but she’d thought for sure he’d been all right. She’d been so very wrong.

More tears slipped over her wet, cold cheeks. Would he have died if she’d been more diligent? Maybe... maybe not.

She swiped at her face. This wasn’t a time to make excuses. After letting out a slow breath, she pulled the blanket up over Colton’s face and started to make her way back out of the wagon.

Cookie caught her just as her feet touched the ground. His brow furrowed as he looked into her eyes. “What’s wrong?”

A lump formed in her throat and she couldn’t speak past it. Instead she shook her head and gestured toward Colton with her chin.

Realization smoothed the cook’s brow. “Oh, no.”

The sound of trotting hoof beats, even in rhythm, approached. Jeremiah hopped down and came over, a smile still spread across his face as Angel turned toward him. “The other cowboys are watching the horses if you—” He stopped mid-sentence as he met her gaze. “Is something the matter?”

“Colton,” she finally pushed the word past her clenched throat but then it tightened again and she could only shake her head after.

Without needing to look, Jeremiah shook his head as his face fell, then he reached over and pulled her into a fatherly embrace.

Henry beat on long pieces of iron until they were mostly flat, but also slightly scoop shaped. Mr. George had said he wanted five of them approximately three feet long. They needed to be shaped as flat as possible except for the scoop to grab hold of the wind and push it the direction that he wanted. Henry wasn’t sure of the exact concept, but Mr. George had supervised the making of the first flat piece, helping Henry understand the shape of the metal. That was all that he’d needed to continue making the other four. He worked the last piece of metal against his anvil until it matched the ones he’d made previously. Sweat beaded on his brow and clung to his skin. The clouds that morning had been threatening rain, but they hadn’t had so much as a drizzle. That made Henry smile. At least it seemed that his prayers were getting answered in regards to the weather.

No. That wasn’t right.

God was answering all of Henry’s prayers. The fact that the Wilson farm was sending up good horses was a blessing. The fact that everything according to the building and plans was going well and on budget was a blessing. It was a blessing that Mr. George could make the small idea Henry had into a design that just might work to dry the paddock before the sale started in about thirty-six hours. Even if they couldn’t get the paddock completely dry, they would do their best to get it as dry as possible—Henry only had to hope that it would be enough.

Later that afternoon, he intended to take the five steel panels back to Mr. George’s workshop, but was surprised when he heard the older gentleman’s voice calling into the livery, “Hello! Anyone inside?”

Henry turned from his anvil and faced the new visitor. “Hello, Mr. George. What are you doing here? I thought I’d be meeting you back at your place.”

Mr. George smiled wide. “No need. I brought my machine down this way along with everything I need to tap into the stable’s wiring and get it hooked up to the power source.”

“Wow,” Henry said, blinking. “You certainly work fast.”

The older gentleman shrugged. “You said you needed the paddock dried as fast as possible, did you not?”

A smile tugged at Henry’s lips. “I did.”

“Great,” Mr. George said dismissively as he pulled out a pair of pliers out of his work bag. “Then let’s get started.”

Henry learned a bit about the way the livery was wired and how to change the direction of the current, detour it, splice it and use power by tapping into the line. Once finished, it took both of the two of them to get the metal panels Henry had made placed into position and bolted into place. By the time they stepped outside and pushed the giant machine toward the paddock, the sun had began tossing oranges and pinks across the azure sky, threatening to set in moments. The two of them pushed the machine into position nearest the paddock. Henry had already cleared out an area in the paddock to attempt fire-making in such a way as to heat as large an area as possible. First though, they needed to test the machine.

Mr. George flipped on the on switch. Slowly the engine in the machine began to turn, the blades on the front began spinning, slowly at first and then they began to increase speed. Just then, Mr. George cut the power to the machine and the blades slowed down.

Henry frowned. “What are you doing?”

Mr George shook his head. “I may have a head for numbers, but sometimes, even I make a mistake when it comes to practical things. The blades are facing the wrong direction.

Continuing to frown, Henry eyed the machine. How could Mr. George even tell that he had put the blades on backwards at all? They all seemed to be going in one direction anyway. “Does it really matter?” he asked.

Mr. George worked to get the bolts off that they’d just tightened up in the making of the wind machine. Once he turned the blade around, he tightened it right back up again. Henry shrugged. Although he wasn’t sure he could see how the small change would make much difference. After all of the bolts were tightened, Mr. George stepped back from the machine again with a nod of his head and looked up at Henry. “If you’ll push the switch?”

Henry peered at the machine and pushed the switch that he’d seen Mr. George push earlier. The wind machine began again, whirring and squealing as it began. A faint, unusual smell came from the machine, like burning oil. Then Mr. George smiled wide as the hair on his head began dancing in the wind created by the machine. “Perfect.”

Chapter 5

Angel stood over the newly filled grave with her hat off and her head bowed. Her tears had dried up, but her heart still twisted with guilt. She should have done a better job with Colton. It was one thing to lose a horse or cow, but quite another to lose a good cowboy friend. Jeremiah recited the 23rd Psalm from memory and each of them said their good-byes in the quiet of the afternoon as the sky became a clear, azure blue.

After the moment of silence passed, Jeremiah came over and set a hand on Angel’s shoulder. “I can tell by that look that you’re blaming yourself. But don’t do that. There’s only so much you could have done. It was a snake bite, and men are more fragile than they look. Just like a flash of lightning in the sky, you have no control over it. It was God who called Colton home.”

Even though her head nodded, Angel’s hands fisted. Jeremiah’s kind words did very little to soothe her aching heart. Together, the other two cowboys, Cookie, Jeremiah and she trekked down the hill back to the herd and back to the chili lunch that Cookie had made for them. Angel’s stomach growled with hunger, but she could barely force herself to finish her bowl before it was time to mount up and move the horses again.

Angel’s heart ached in her chest, but she needed to push those feelings aside so that she could get the job done. They weren’t going to make it to Creede that evening at all, but they would likely make it by tomorrow afternoon. The importance of the job had dwindled in the light of the loss of life. Suddenly, she didn’t feel that getting to the auction on time was as strong a factor as it had been before. Yes, Angel wanted to save the Wilson Family Farm, but life was short and men were fragile, just as Jeremiah said. And knowing these facts brought a sense of sadness that was hard to shake off.

The wind around them had dissipated and the afternoon sun helped them feel warm even though the temperature had dropped considerably. The horses in the herd trudged forward, following the lead mare who was once again tied to the cook’s wagon. It was two or three hours until sunset. Angel had lost track of time, so she was unsure. She only hoped that they could put in as many miles as possible before camping for the night. A small whinny brought her out of her reverie.

To her right side, the chestnut colt trotted along, his mother following. It ran around her horse and its mother in a circle, throwing little bucks and standing up on its rear legs. Angel couldn’t help but huff a laugh at its antics. Maybe life was hard. Maybe life was fragile. But it didn’t mean that people should give up living. Animals didn’t give up, but kept on living and keeping up hope. And that was what Angel needed to do as well. She needed to remain hopeful and press forward, no matter what obstacles came her way.

Determination filled her as she nodded toward the herd. Each of those horses represented life and hope. As long as she had her farm to work for, she could keep trudging forward. The colt slipped in a muddy patch and fell down. It shook its head and immediately shot back to its feet. After taking several tentative steps forward, the colt went back to cantering around them, though its behavior was a bit more subdued than it had been before. As the other horses walked in the direction the lead mare led them, they grabbed tufts of grass with their teeth, eating mouthfuls at a time. Angel remembered the verse in Ecclesiastes her father used to tell her,

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

She’d never really considered what it had meant until that moment. Everything had a season, everything had a time. Even the horses seemed to understand that. They didn’t let things bog them down, and neither would Angel. And she found some peace in that resolve.

For most of the afternoon, Henry stoked the fires that he’d set around the auction paddock and watched the mud around it dry slowly. The wind machine was working. Though it was overloud to the point that no one could have a conversation anywhere near it, it blew nearly gale winds across the ground where it was pointed. Slicker had attempted to walk a horse past the machine, but it spooked, shied away, and refused to go forward. After trying for a few minutes, Slicker gave up and turned around, shaking his head. He went out the side door of the barn in order to take the horse up the hill and around the long way to the turn-out pasture beyond.

Henry looked to the eastern side of town in the hopes of seeing the Wilson horse herd coming, but saw nothing. A frown tugged at his lips. He half wondered if he should send someone out to scout and see if they were still coming. The last he’d heard was almost a week before when he’d gotten a telegram saying that they would be bringing a herd of over twenty-four. Surely if something had changed, he would have heard of it. They could still come. No need to let panic rise up just yet. But he couldn’t help at the way his stomach twisted.

The sun gave way to the darkness of night, and a moon barely hidden by clouds. Henry stayed up to stoke the fires and watch the wind machine until well into the night. The city of Creede slept under the glow of the electric lamps that dotted the streets about them like so many stars. When Henry couldn’t fight the yawns anymore, he stamped out the last of the fires and shut off the wind machine. Though he could spare an hour or two in the morning to continue the drying, much of the paddock was as good as it was going to get. Instead, he’d need to attach the landscaping rake to the back of his plow horse and work the paddock until it was perfectly flat, intermixing the dry portions of ground with the wet to even out the moisture and level out the surface of the ground in preparation for the day. When he thought about how much work he still had left, his shoulders drooped in exhaustion. The moment he pulled the lever on the machine to shut it off, blessed silence surrounded him. He’d gotten used to the constant thrum of the electric motor as it had run all evening powering the wind machine.

On the way to his house, he peered down the hill toward the main street. Several of the businesses and homes on the thoroughfare were lit by electric lamps, just like the ones that lined both sides of the street. But none of the other buildings quite lit up as brightly as the Tivoli Ballroom. He hadn’t yet attended one of the monthly balls there—probably because he didn’t have a mother around to badger him into going. The Matchmaker Balls, as they were becoming known, were gaining reputation for miles around as the place where couples meet up and soon get married. He had enough to worry about without adding a wife to the mix. For now, he was just happy that the wind machine idea he’d had was working. Hardly able to contain the excitement within him, he decided to make for the kitchen in the house next to the livery and get a midnight snack. He lit a lantern the moment that he opened the door and stepped into the house which was not yet powered by electricity.

After starting a fire in the wood stove, he set a teapot of water on the top to boil. A cup of tea with a bit of toast and honey sounded good enough to help him get to sleep. He hoped that it would curb the excitement and nervousness that he felt about the next day. Henry needed for everything to fall into place. He needed the cowboys from the Wilson Family Farm to get to the livery with the herd of horses they’d promised to run through the sale. He needed for the paddock to be dry and flat well before the start of it. And he needed for buyers to show up and be ready to spend the money needed to buy the animals so that the livery could make their ten percent cut on the sale as well. He let out a slow breath. It was a lot to ask for. But God had blessed him this far. Was he just being greedy if he continued to ask for more?

The kettle on the stove top whistled, and Henry moved the pot off the burner and poured himself a cup after he set the griddle on the stove to warm. Then he sliced the bread, buttered it and then set it on the griddle. After a short wait, he flipped the bread over to brown the other side as well. Once the toast was on his plate, he poured a bit of honey over top both slices and then took them to the table with the lantern and his tea.

These comforting items soothed his weariness and helped him feel more ready for bed. Once he finished them, he pulled his journal out from the seat of the opposite chair and wrote in it the day’s events. He’d found a long time ago that keeping track of the day to day events on the farm in a journal was essential in order to know how much time had passed between things that he did regularly. The horses needed their feet trimmed every six to seven weeks. They needed to get medicated for worms every other month. He needed to keep track of other events so that things didn’t meld together and become hard to remember. Otherwise, he’d lose track of when things came due again. No one was there to remind him. No one was around to ask how long ago something had happened.

Even though he called Slicker his partner, Slicker was really more of a very reliable friend and employee. When things were tough, as they were now, Slicker still got his paycheck even when Henry had to forgo anything short of essentials. He needed to believe that things would turn around and get better, but he didn’t need to let anyone else suffer until they did. As he downed the last sip of tea to wash down the last bite of toast, Henry truly felt as though he was ready for bed. Whether he was ready for the events of the next day remained to be seen, but he decided that tomorrow would worry about itself.

Chapter 6

By the time it reached noon, Henry truly began to worry. Using the plow horse they had, Henry had spent most of the morning leveling out the field and making it as flat and smooth as possible. When finished, he wiped his brow and looked at it, knowing that it was a job well done. Mr. George had come by to collect his wind machine soon after. “Well, it seems the machine did the trick then?”

“Very well,” Henry answered with a smile. “Better than I could have hoped.”

“Excellent,” Mr. George answered, a wide grin spreading across his lips. “Then I will chalk that up as a success. Please don’t hesitate to come to me with your ideas again. I honestly didn’t know for sure what I was building that engine to do until you came to me with your problem.”

“I’d say that the Lord had a hand in that one.”

Mr. George nodded. “I couldn’t agree more.”

After helping Mr. George load the machine into his cart, Henry waved goodbye. It was then that he realized he was looking to the east end of town, and still could not see hide nor hair of the horses from the Wilson family. What was he going to do if they didn’t make it? Could he postpone the auction? The buyers would feel that the event was unreliable. As such they weren’t likely to come all this way to try again.

Slicker stepped up. “I’ve got some straw bales to put out so we can make a platform for the auctioneer.”

“At least he’s arrived,” Henry said as he started chewing on his bottom lip.

Slicker set a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry too much. They’re coming. I’m sure of it. Your worrying isn’t going to help them get here any faster or surer. Just have faith both in yourself and the people who promised that they would be here. We haven’t heard any bad news, so we can only assume that things are fine.”

“I wish I had your sense of optimism.”

Huffing a laugh, Slicker said, “It would be nice if I could share it.”

Henry found himself laughing with the man and then gave him a nod. “I think I’ll mount up and ride east, see if I can spot the herd.”

“If it will make you feel better to do so, do it. I can handle setting things up here for the auction. I heard at the saloon that there are four rooms rented at the hotel with people from out of town who came specifically for the auction. Things could be worse, you know. We could have had no buyers come.”

With a nod, Henry continued chewing his lip. No buyers would be bad. No horses would be bad. Which was worse? He wasn’t sure of the answer. But he did know one thing, if he headed out and didn’t find the herd that was on its way, he’d have to consider selling some of the horses currently owned by the livery. They had the one plow horse, four cart horses, and seven good riding horses that they rented to people who needed them. If they sold them, they might see a profit of some kind, and then if the Wilson family horses ever did show up, Henry could replace the herd he lost with ones from the herd that arrived. It would be an expensive venture since those horses were supposed to be worth more than the ones he was selling, but at least he wouldn’t be disappointing buyers with a complete lack of horses for the sale.

Still, he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Holly, the small bay mare, nickered at him when she saw him. He stepped up to her and patted her on the forehead. “You ready to go for a little ride?”

She nudged him in a sort of impatient answer. That was Holly’s nature. She was impatient most times, didn’t like standing still, so that she often paced in her stall when she had no extra hay to munch on. But that impatience was what Henry needed at the moment. He needed her to want to go and maybe she could help him find the herd that he was missing. With determination, he snapped the lead shank on the horse’s halter and pulled her out of the stall to groom and tack up.

Every time Angel looked back, she couldn’t see anything, but the hairs on the back of her neck told her that she was being watched. Not just her, but all of them. Were they being followed?

“That’s the third time you’ve looked back that way. What’s going on, Boss?” Jeremiah asked as he pulled up his horse beside hers. “I don’t see anything.”

“I don’t know,” she answered, rubbing the back of her neck as though it would help get the hairs there to settle back down again. “I just get the feeling that we’re being followed.”

Jeremiah frowned, wrinkles forming over his brow as he set a hand on the rifle slung to the back of his saddle. “That’s not good. I’m going to hang back and check it out.”

Angel’s core quivered. She didn’t feel good about that idea. “Take one of the boys with you.”

Shaking his head, Jeremiah answered, “They need to stay here and keep the herd together. We’re not far out from Creede now. The houses are getting close together, and it’s become easier to travel the main road than across the open fields.”

“Then stay here, too,” Angel said. “If were almost to town, it’s not likely that whoever it is will attack us, right? Once we get to town we’ll be safe for sure.”

“Maybe. But if these folks are brazen enough to have been following us for the last quarter hour, then they might have the guts and ability to pull off a last minute heist.” Without staying to hear another protest, Jeremiah reined his horse away from Angel and loped through the herd off the road and across the land there. It made sense that he was circling around whoever it was that was following them. If he attempted to meet them head on, they were likely to stray off and possibly even get away. But her stomach twisted. She didn’t like it that Jeremiah was leaving them. She’d already lost one cowboy on this trip, she didn’t want to lose another. The thought of that left a sour tang in her mouth as bile rose up in her throat. She gagged a bit and then swallowed it back down. That feeling that she just wanted to give up on everything rose again, too. She swallowed once more, hoping to shove that feeling down with the bile.

The last thing she needed was to give into the despair that had been lurking around her ever sense they’d left Colton’s grave. She had things to do and people relying on her. She couldn’t just lay down and give up, no matter how much she wanted to. A strange horse and rider appeared over the next hill as they crested it. Angel’s heart sank toward her stomach. Whoever had been following them likely had a partner who was going to stop their herd from continuing forward. She reached back and pulled her rifle from the scabbard and then trotted ahead, yelling back to the other two cowboys, “Stay with the herd. Keep an eye out behind us. Don’t let anyone come and pick off some of the horses.”

They both nodded and pulled their rifles out of their scabbards as well, frowning as their eyes locked on the person ahead of them, too. As she posted the trot to keep from bouncing as much, Angel checked to make sure her rifle was loaded and a bullet was set in the chamber. Then she held it across her lap as she continued forward to meet the person ahead of them. The rider on a little bay came trotting forward to meet her. When she was several yards out, she yelled, “Whoa there!” As she pulled up her horse and aimed her rifle. “Keep your hands were I can see them.”

The man’s eyes went wide as he reined in his horse and lifted his hands higher, past the horse’s neck. He blinked at her and frowned. “What’s this about? Are you from the Wilson Family Farm?”

Her eyes narrowed on the man. For a thief, he certainly knew more about her than she’d expected. Still, she decided that it would be smarter not to answer the question. “State your business.”

“I’m Henry Granger from the South Creede Livery. I came out to meet with the Wilson Family Farm herd to see if I could be of assistance.”

The name struck a familiar chord in her and she studied the man’s face. Then she blinked twice. Was it possible? Was he really the same person? “Henry Granger?”

He nodded. “That’s my name.”

She swallowed hard, laid her rifle across her lap, and pulled the hat off her head, freeing her long wavy red hair. If it was the same Henry that she knew when she was twelve, would he recognize her now?

“Angel?” He blinked at her, swallowing so that his Adam’s apple rose and fell as his eyes went wide. “Is that really you?”

Her heart squeezed in her chest. He remembered her. Suddenly her cheeks heated as she nodded. “It’s been a long time.”

“Nearly ten years. You... you haven’t changed a bit.” His eyes sparkled as he lowered his hands and took her in.

And her stomach flipped. She didn’t realize that she’d had enough of an effect on him that he would remember her, only that he had an effect on her. She’d fallen in love with him those summers when his father and her father had been working together on learning advanced blacksmithing techniques at the University of Denver. It had only been a week long course each year from the time they were nine to twelve, but they’d spent nearly every waking minute with one another. He was her first love. She wiped her cheek with the back of her leather work glove. She was so dirty and her hair was full of knots after being on the trail for nearly a week. How could she let him see her like this? Demurely, she looked away. “I... I didn’t realize you worked for the livery.”

“I didn’t realize that the Wilson Family Farm meant... I mean I knew your last name was Wilson, but I just... I didn’t...” his voice trailed off at the same time as two shots rang out to the back of the herd.

Reality hit Angel hard. What was she doing, swooning like a school girl when they were in danger. She shoved her hat back on her head and reined her horse around, picking up her rifle. Then she galloped back in the direction where she’d heard the shots. Cookie called out to her as she passed him, “What’s going on, Angel?”

Shaking her head, she galloped past him and continued to the back of the herd. There she found both of the cowboys, riding back and forth. She yelled to them, “Where did that come from?”

“Back there! Should we go check it?” one of them asked.

She shook her head. “I’ll go. Stay with the herd—no matter what!”

“I’ll go with you,” Henry said from behind her, and her hairs stood on end for a different reason as a shiver went through her.

She glanced back at him and found him holding a pistol in his hand. She nodded to him and then started off directly to their east, hoping only that Jeremiah was all right.

Chapter 7

That shock of wavy red hair mesmerized Henry. She remembered him. They were only twelve years old the last time they’d seen each other and much of their summer was spent climbing trees and catching frogs, but he’d never forget how he felt for her. And she still looked the same to him... only less boyish and more... feminine. He swallowed hard. Not that much less boyish, he thought with a smile as he watched her gallop ahead of him astride in a cowboy’s saddle, wearing men’s breeches and chaps. Another gunshot rang through the air, and a bullet hit near his mare’s feet, making a divot in the ground nearby. His heart rate picked up as adrenaline rushed through him. He pressed his mare forward so that he could come up alongside Angel. “Someone’s shooting this way. We should take cover.”

“I don’t see Jeremiah yet,” she answered without even looking his direction. He scanned the valley in front of them, but couldn’t make out a single person. Only rocks and grass and hills and the river winding in the distance.

Another shot.

He growled and pressed his horse more. If he couldn’t get her to stop, then he could at least shield her. The sunlight glinted off of something metal behind a boulder moments before another shot was fired. That was it. All he needed to make his move. Henry aimed toward the boulder and fired his pistol. The shot sheered off a piece of the rock and blew up dust.

“Stop!” Angel yelled. “Hold your fire. It could be Jeremiah.”

Henry’s heart sunk at the affection that name held for her. Maybe he was her husband, or the man she held in her heart at least. It hadn’t occurred to him yet that she might be taken. That thought made him grind his back teeth. He’d just found her, only to lose her again? No matter. He lowered his pistol and ran harder ahead. The quick little mare that he rode proved her worth as she put more distance between Henry and Angel. He reached the boulder in very little time and found the man there hunkered down, trying to avoid being shot. Henry hopped down from his horse before she’d even stopped entirely and pointed his pistol at the man. “Jeremiah?” he asked.

The man’s eyes went wide as he shook his head, dropped his rifle and put up his hands. “Who?”

Good, Henry thought, suddenly feeling like shooting this young man who’d been aiming and firing that rifle in Henry and Angel’s direction. He couldn’t abide letting someone threaten them. Instead, he stepped forward, grabbed hold of the man’s collar and lifted him to his feet. After slamming the man’s back against the boulder he asked, “What are you doing here? Why are you firing at us.”

The man’s eyes watered as he swallowed hard. His Adam’s apple brushed against Henry’s knuckles. “I was just told to keep people out of the canyon. Anybody. You were riding this way, so I shot at you. Please, mister. I didn’t mean no harm.”

“No harm?” Henry hissed between his clenched teeth. “How can you say that when you were firing upon us. You could have hit me... or the lady.”

“Lady?” the man asked. “I was aiming at the ground.”

Behind him, the pounding of hooves approached quickly and stopped just as fast.

“Henry!” Angel called out, rushing forward. Her boots scuffed against the ground and then stopped just behind him, her hands landing upon his shoulders. Even through the fabric of his shirt he could feel the heat and pressure of her fingers. It sent lightning through him straight down to his toes. He’d never had a woman touch him so intimately, but then he remembered that Angel always had. Had always touched him like a friend and close companion. He swallowed hard as heat rushed to his cheeks.

Then he tightened his grip on the scoundrel’s collar. “You said you were supposed to be keeping people out of the canyon. Who do you work for? How many are there?”

“Four of us, including me. And then there was that guy who snuck past me. I didn’t see him until it was too late.”

“Jeremiah,” Angel whispered under her breath as her grip on his shoulder tightened.

As much as Henry enjoyed her touch, the thought that another man’s name was on her lips twisted his heart. “Where?” was the only word that he could push past his tightening throat.

The young man pointed toward the rock outcropping. If riders had stuck to the road and main trail, they could just about miss the hidden opening to the canyon. The boulders and large rocks there looked as if they were in a straight line, making it impossible to pass, but instead they were staggered in a way that just made the path zig-zag instead. Angel pulled away her hands and started for the path. Henry immediately missed the feel of her hands on his shoulder, but he swallowed hard and yanked the man with him. He grabbed hold of the lasso attached to the side of his saddle and then worked the rope around the man’s arms, torso, and hands.

“You’re coming with me.” Henry yanked the rope, giving the young man little more than a yard and a half of distance.

He stumbled, but caught himself before actually falling, and then followed Henry’s tugs on the rope. Henry chewed his bottom lip. The last thing he needed was for Angel to get much ahead of him going into a dangerous situation, but that seemed to be exactly what she was doing.

Henry growled and tugged the rope harder. “Pick up the pace.”

The boy did as he was told and followed Henry’s lead. As they rounded the next boulder, they found Angel flat against another across from them, a finger to her lips, shaking her head as her eyes went wide.

Henry turned around and slapped a hand against the young man’s mouth. He pushed the miscreant against the boulder they stood by. He glared into the young man’s eyes as he whispered, “Not a word of warning or I will shoot you first. Understood.”

Tears slipped from the young man’s eyes as he mumbled his assent under Henry’s palm. With a nod, Henry pulled his hand away slowly. He needed for the young ruffian to think Henry of being without mercy. If a rascal like him knew that Henry was soft-hearted, forgiving, or kind—they were likely to try to take advantage of him. Much like when training horses, Henry had to be a bit firm with them at first to earn their respect before he could then be gentle and kind. To his credit though, the young man stayed silent so that only his quickened breath reached Henry’s ear.

After peering around the boulder again and finding nothing amiss, Henry stayed low and started toward the boulder where Angel stood, tugging on the rope behind him. When he reached her, he asked in a sharp whisper, “What’s going on?”

She shook her head and then peered around the boulder once before coming back down and gesturing toward Henry’s eyes and pointing past the boulder. He nodded, understanding what she meant and then looking past it all for himself using slow movements to keep himself from being spotted. There, on the other side of the rock outcropping stood three cowboys, with a fourth, older cowboy on his knees between them. In a small corral nearby, four saddled horses were tied along with three mares and a young colt loose within the paddock, running around and calling frantically now and again.

Angel took hold of Henry’s arm and met eyes with him. “We need to get Jeremiah out of there,” she said in a measured breath.

Henry nodded, his mind whirling for a solution. When he finally came up with one, he decided immediately that he didn’t like it. And he doubted very seriously that Angel would as well. He turned toward the young man who he’d tied up. “We’re going to need your help.”

“I don’t like this idea,” Angel whispered as she followed Henry’s plan to the letter. She’d unloaded her rifle and then handed it to the young miscreant who had fired on both her and Henry when they were galloping this way to save Jeremiah.

“I knew you wouldn’t,” Henry said, nodding to her before he handed her his second pistol. “Put this at the buckle in the back of your chaps. This is the only way that we’re going to get close enough to get things done.

She groaned as she took the gun from him and put it where he’d said. The cold metal seeped in through the cloth at the back of her shirt. Now she remembered, Henry had a knack for getting her into trouble. It had been his idea to catch a load of frogs and release them into the lecture barn back when they were ten. She’d went along with him because she was smitten. This time she was going along because she couldn’t think of a better plan. But she wasn’t happy about it. They were going to pretend to be prisoners of the kid who was supposed to be on lookout. But it required them to trust that the kid wouldn’t give them away before they were close enough to save Jeremiah.

Luckily the miscreant didn’t look much older than fifteen or sixteen years old. She believed him when he’d said that he’d only been trying to shoot at the ground near their feet when they were coming toward him earlier, but what if he’d missed? What if the stone had ricocheted and caused injury to one of them or the horses. She couldn’t just forgive him. Slowly, she released a slow exhalation. If the kid was any older she wouldn’t trust him with this job at all, but because he was young, she was inclined to give him a chance.

“I’m going to leave your hands tied around your waist,” Henry said as he glared at the boy. “Since we’ll be directly in front of you, the others won’t be able to tell. Don’t get any bright ideas about running or wrestling us for our weapons. The lady and I will be pretending to have our hands tied behind our backs, but will be able to pull our pistols out at any time.”

Angel’s heart thrummed in her chest; it beat so fast and so hard. Her gaze focused on Henry. This was what it was always like being around him. Exciting and fast paced. Yes, he often got her into trouble during that week each summer when they became fast friends, but being with him was never boring. His eyes met hers and then he winked at her before they both turned their backs on their captive. Now it was time to play as if they were the ones held captive. Angel didn’t feel brave, but when Henry stepped forward, she stepped forward with him. As long as he was sure of himself, she would trust him, just like she did when they were twelve years old.

Chapter 8

Henry took a deep breath before making his way around the boulder and rock out-cropping. As he exhaled, he turned his head slightly to say under his breath to the young man behind them, “Signal to the others that you’re coming. But don’t let them know that you’re in any kind of danger.”

Behind them, the boy let out a sharp whistle.

The cowboys and the man on his knees all turned toward them at the same time. Each of the men standing turned their weapons on them. A rifle and two pistols, Henry made note as his heart beat hard against his chest and fear poured down his back like cold water. But funny enough, he didn’t fear for himself. He hated that he was putting Angel in this situation. He didn’t want her to be in any danger, and now men pointed their loaded weapons at them both—at her. His teeth ground together as his jaw flexed.

“Marcus! What’s going on? Whatcha got there?” the man with the rifle hollered as he stepped away from the man on his knees and started toward them. Then he turned back and spat at the other two. “Don’t take your eyes off that one. He’s a slippery sucker.”

A measure of relief came over him. Two weapons turned away from Angel. Only one left, and the roughneck had it aimed at Henry. Rightly so. He was definitely the greater danger between the two of them. Luckily, the boy behind them—Marcus, since they now had a name—hadn’t said a word to the others about being a hostage yet himself. Actually he hadn’t said a word at all. The man ahead of them wasn’t going to take the boy’s silence for long.

Henry had about two more seconds before he’d have to make a move. The man ahead of them could take three more steps in that time. They could get three more steps closer as well. That would cut the distance between them. Would it be close enough? Henry would have to move quickly. Sweat dripped down his temple as he gripped the handle of his pistol. He mentally willed Angel not to do anything before he did. But he knew she wouldn’t—even when they were children she followed his lead. Hopefully she’d do the same now. Two steps... three... and now!

“Get back,” he hissed at Angel as he kept his eyes fixed on the man in front of him. Then Henry pulled his pistol from the waist of his work pants and then jumped to the side and back. He took hold of Marcus, but pointed his pistol at the man with the rifle. Henry sneered at the man so that he would know he was serious. “Drop your weapon.”

Henry shot a glance to Angel and found her behind them both. Good she was safe. And then watched as the man in front of him lifted his weapon higher. His brow furrowed. “Marcus?” he growled as he asked.

“Sorry, Joe,” Marcus said, his shoulders shrugging a bit.

Joe cursed and spat before aiming the rifle directly at Henry’s head. “Release my brother now and I’ll consider letting the girl go. If you don’t, I’ll kill you both.”

Henry bit down on his jaw to keep the wrong answer from coming out. These were nothing more than a bunch of teenagers. Kids, all of them, but the one in front of Henry was a bit older than the one he had in his hands. Besides, Joe had let them in on a secret. As his brother, Marcus was important enough to him that he was willing to make some kind of deal in this situation. Slowly, Henry shook his head. “No. We’re going to work a trade. Jeremiah and the horses that you stole for the kid. Do it now, and I’ll consider this your first offense since you’re young and we won’t tell the sheriff where you’re hiding. Now drop your weapon.”

Sweat beaded on the teen’s brow. His eyes were shaking, but his hands were still steady as he held the rifle on Henry. Then the kid did something that made Henry’s blood run cold. He shifted his rifle so that he could aim it at Angel.

Henry’s finger pulled the trigger before he’d even had time to reconsider. He’d only had a half a second while the rifle wasn’t aimed at either Angel or himself, and it was the best time to act. The deafening sound of the discharge echoed off the rocky sides of the canyon. Joe cried out as he grabbed hold of his shoulder where he’d been shot. Then a second shot rang around them as the rifle hit the ground. Marcus collapsed in front of them, falling to his knees and then his side. The boy screamed and yelled, “You shot me, Joe! How could you shoot me?”

More gunfire rang out from the other two cowboys.

“Get down!” Henry yelled, and Angel wasted no time following the order.

The four of them scrambled across the ground, and Henry grabbed hold of the rifle at the same time as Joe did. He punched Joe in the jaw to get it from him. Rocky shards showered around them as the bullets hit the boulders surrounding them. Everyone ducked down once more. Then there were shouts and scuffles coming from that direction, one more gunshot, and then a moment of quiet. Just as Henry started raising his head, a deep voice shouted, “All clear, Boss! You can get up.”

“Jeremiah!” Angel called out as she scrambled to her feet and started running in that direction.

A pinprick of jealousy stabbed at Henry’s heart. He didn’t like for her to seem so excited to see someone else. It had been ten years since they’d last seen each other. Even though she looked as beautiful as he remembered... maybe more beautiful... she was a different person. She was grown. Slowly, Henry pushed off the ground and got up, making sure that both Marcus and Joe were still secure on the ground.

An older, darker-skinned man stood with his arms open, accepting Angel’s embrace as she jumped into them and squeezed him tight. Henry lifted a brow. What kind of relationship did she have with the man? He was at least twenty years older than them, but she was certainly familiar enough with the man. The other two cowboys lay on the ground, one unconscious. The other holding his knee in much the same manner that Marcus did. Good. Neither of them seemed to have fatal injuries, but all of the kids were subdued.

Angel pulled back from the embrace she had on the man. “I was so worried about you.”

Jeremiah patted the top of Angel’s head, his fingers catching on some of the wild waves before laughing and pulling it away. Then he frowned as he hissed in pain and put a hand to his swollen and bleeding lip. “I had everything under control. I could have taken all three of them. But thank you for the distraction anyway.”

Angel shook her head and smiled up at him.

Jeremiah lifted a brow in Henry’s direction. “That’s not Franklin or Abram. Who do you have with you?”

“Oh!” Angel said, stepping back and waving a hand in Henry’s direction. “This is Henry Granger, a childhood friend and the man who runs the South Creede Livery. Henry, this is Jeremiah, my trail boss and close family friend. I consider him to be an uncle.”

“Uncle?” Henry barely withheld a sigh of relief. No wonder she’d been so desperate to keep her friend and family member safe. Henry offered the man a hand to shake. “A pleasure to meet you, sir.”

Jeremiah’s brow was still lifted as he took Henry’s hand and gave him a firm shake before releasing it. “Seems I owe you one, Mr. Granger.”

Shaking his head, Henry rubbed the back of his neck. “Not at all. Glad to help a friend in need.”

Once they had the cowboys secured to their saddles with their various injuries, Jeremiah, Henry, and Angel freed the horses that had been stolen from her herd and then drove them through the craggy area and back to the main road. Once there, the horses could sense the direction the rest of the herd had gone and galloped that way on their own. Henry had each of the roughnecks tied together and to their saddle while he lead them in a line, with the rope attached to his saddle.

Angel’s heart fluttered in her chest when she looked over at him. Henry had done more than just help her get Jeremiah free, he’d saved her. How could she have ever done it on her own? She didn’t know if she would have been able to subdue Marcus on her own, much less all four of the cowboys. How had her childhood friend shown up exactly when he needed him? If he’d been a stranger to her, would he have risked so much to help? Yes. She knew he would have. It was his nature to help others; it always had been. Even though he was an occasional prankster and troublemaker, his motivations were good. Even in the frog incident when they were children, he’d said he was certain that his father and hers had to be bored listening to the lecturer drone on and on. He wanted to do something to make them smile. And it did, for a moment before all mayhem broke loose and people panicked. Then they both were punished for causing the disruption of the class.

The smallest of giggles bubbled up at the memory. Then the other memory came to the forefront of her mind and heat rushed to her cheeks. Her first kiss—her only kiss. It was little more than a peck, but he’d held her hands and kissed her on the forehead just before they said their last good-bye. She’d never forgotten. Had he?

She peered over at him again as he rolled his shoulder with his other hand resting on the joint. Had he been hurt at all? She’d forgotten to ask before. Now it felt a bit late to be asking. A lump had formed in her throat. She’d never found herself tongue-tied around him in the past, but it had been ten years since they’d last seen each other.

They’d both changed. A bit of a stubble peppered his chin. His jaw was larger, squarer than it had been before. There were lines around his eyes that hadn’t been there when they were younger. Still, he had the same smile and the sparkle of mischief when he’d winked at her earlier... Her heart fluttered again at the thought of it.

Soon they rejoined the herd and the other two cowboys and Cookie. Everyone peered over toward Henry and the four men he towed behind him.

Jeremiah cleared his throat. “These four ruffians had picked off a part of the herd. Mr. Granger here helped us out when we needed it, so we’re in his debt.”

“Not at all,” Henry said, shaking his head and bowing it a bit humbly. “I only did what anyone else would have done.”

“I’m not so sure,” Jeremiah said with a smile. “Mr. Granger is the owner of the South Creede Livery—the very destination we’ve been heading toward. So, he’ll help us make our way back.”

Angel jumped from her horse’s back and rushed over toward the chuck wagon. She grabbed her medical bag which had been set inside it. “Before we go anywhere though, I need to tend to their wounds.”

Henry lifted a brow. “Why would you do that? Let the doctor see them when they get to town.”

“I am a doctor,” Angel said with a frown. “A veterinarian—but I can certainly tend to a few gunshot wounds.”

“I ain’t letting no animal doctor near me,” Joe said, narrowing his eyes at Angel. “What if she messes us up and makes us worse. Keep her away from me.”

Henry glared at him. “What? Are you afraid that she’s going to make you want to chew cud? Eat grass? That you’ll be unable to say anything but moo?”

The other cowboys surrounding them snickered.

Angel’s heart squeezed in her chest. Henry had defended her. It was in a somewhat coarse, back handed way but he’d defended her, nonetheless. She’d been afraid he would act the same way as Joe had—as many others had when they heard she was a veterinarian. Taking a deep breath, she gripped the handles of her medical bag and headed toward Marcus. His friendly eyes told her that he’d be least likely to protest, and it was time to get them patched up enough to make it the rest of the way to Creede.

Chapter 9

After they’d gotten the miscreants dropped off with the sheriff and the horses settled into the paddock, Henry stepped closer to Angel and Jeremiah. “Slicker put the horses that you all rode in the livery. He’ll let you know what kind of discount we can afford you since there are six of them including the chuck wagon’s horses.”

“Thank you,” Jeremiah answered. “We’ll take any discount we can get.”

“Not a problem. There’s room in the hayloft for both the cowboys and you, too, as the trail boss. Unless you’d prefer to rent a room at the inn?”

“No. You’re right. I’d rather stay in the hayloft with the boys,” Jeremiah said with a smile and a nod.

“Just add those to the bill as well. Cookie will stay in his wagon, and I’ll join the boys upstairs,” Angel said with a firm nod, too.

Henry’s stomach twisted, and he frowned. “You?”

She blinked at him as if it were a question that made no sense at all. “Yes, me.”

He shook his head. “I can’t have you staying in the hayloft. There’s room at the inn nearby, or you could stay at the ladies’ boarding house at Hearth and Home.”

Her brow furrowed. “Are you refusing me lodging in the loft? For what reason?”

He gestured her direction. “It’s inappropriate for a lady to lodge in a hayloft, especially with men.”

She placed her hands on her hips. “That’s utterly ridiculous. I’ve just spent the better part of a week with these same men on the trail, sleeping outside, under the stars. Are you telling me that just because there’s a roof over our heads, that things have changed.”

Suddenly, Henry felt a bit flustered. What he was saying and how she was reacting to his words were all wrong. He tried again. “It’s not just because of the roof. It’s because of the town. When you’re out on the trail, there’s no one around to judge your behavior, but here, in town, it’s a different story.”

She shook her head. “Since when should I care about what other people think of my behavior.”

“You’re a lady,” Henry said, a touch of anger coloring his words. “You should act like one.

Her eyes widened a bit before she spun on her heel and marched away, her hands forming fists. Henry immediately chided himself. What did he accomplish by arguing with her? Now she was angry with him. He chewed his bottom lip as he watched her go.

Jeremiah stepped up beside him. “That didn’t go quite the way you planned, did it?”

Henry shook his head, but didn’t look the elder man’s direction. “Not quite.”

“You know that her father passed away four years ago. He’d been raising her up on farm work and teaching her veterinary medicine all that time. She finished school early and went away to university when she was seventeen. She wasn’t around to see her father go. She wanted to quit school and take care of the farm, but me and the boys wouldn’t let her. We promised we’d take care of the farm while she was gone so she could study without worry. She studied straight on through without a break so that she could graduate in three years instead of four. And when she got back, that independent girl did everything. All the ranch work, all the business side, all the animal husbandry and vet care. And though she worked herself to the bone, she still couldn’t keep up with the debt her father had amassed his last few years.

“Working for trade on chickens and eggs at the farms around didn’t help pay the bills, and Angel did the same—followed in her father’s footsteps almost exactly. She’s used to making her own decisions. She’s used to scrimping and saving and making sacrifices. What she’s not used to is behaving and being treated like a lady,” Jeremiah said with a brow raised as he met eyes with Henry. “Maybe it’s about time she learned to.”

Henry swallowed hard. “I hadn’t realized the years we’d been apart had been that hard on her. I knew she was older and more mature, but I hadn’t realized just how much she’d changed.”

“It’s all for the better, I’m sure. But I’m glad that you’ve both crossed paths again. She’s having a tough time right now, so be sure to go easy on her. When in doubt be gentle and kind. She’s got a soft heart under all that rough exterior.”

“I will,” Henry said and nodded. He’d remembered that about her from their childhood, too. She always put on a mask of strength, and then when she was by herself, she’d let the tears fall. Something about what Jeremiah had just told him made him feel that maybe she hadn’t changed as much as he’d thought.

Just taking a walk out to the turn-out field made Angel feel a little better. She breathed out a sigh as she watched the days-old colt run around his mother in a circle. Putting space between herself and the conflict she’d just had with Henry made her feel a bit better. He was right. But the thing that was wrong in the situation, the thing that she couldn’t control the most, was the fact she’d been born a lady instead of a man. How much easier would life had been if she’d just been born the other way?

She let out a sigh and thought about the colt in front of her. He’d have hardships in his life, working in some fashion for the man who bought him. Would he be a riding horse? Would he pull wagons? Would he ever get to race or even open up to a full gallop again after he grew up?

Bittersweet feelings flooded her as she swiped a tear that had fallen down her cheek. She counted the herd and thought about the memories she’d had with each one of them. They would soon be gone. The whole herd would be sold in little more than two hours. How could she part with them. Each one was a friend and family member. But she needed to save the farm. If she couldn’t do that much, then she’d fail to uphold her father’s legacy.

After letting out a slow breath, she turned around and leaned against the fence so that she faced the livery and the city of Creede beyond, instead of the horse pasture. People were already starting to gather for the sale. Mr. Slicker was setting up chairs in the nearby paddock with one of the other workers in the livery. She pushed off from the fence and went over to join them. When she reached Mr. Slicker, she asked, “Would you like a hand?’

He tilted his head her direction. “Certainly. We’re lining up these chairs in rows of ten, make sure there’s at least two feet of space between the seat and the back of the chair on the row in front of it. Follow my lead, okay?”

Angel nodded and then helped set up the chairs. Before long, one hundred seats were set up for the people coming to the sale in two sets of fifty chairs, five rows each. When she thought of that number of people coming to the sale, her heart squeezed in her chest. She hoped that they would like her horses and bid top dollar for them. Not just because she needed the money from the sale, but also because people usually took better care of animals they paid more money for. If they valued the horses, they were more likely to pamper them and give them each a good home.

Jeremiah came by with sack lunches. “I got these at Hearth and Home. I was willing to take the ones left over from the morning, but they insisted on making new ones for us. I got enough for all the workers in the sale.”

That was just like Jeremiah—generous and thinking ahead. As she bit into the turkey sandwich, she was surprised by the flavor. “This is delicious.”

A laugh bubbled up from Jeremiah’s throat as he started away from her distributing the rest of the sack lunches. “Then it’s a good thing they made fresh ones, then after all.”

She nodded and finished the rest of the sandwich before turning back toward the auctioneer who’d arrived just before a crowd started gathering at the table where they would register and get their numbers for bidding. Nervousness twisted Angel’s gut. What if no one bid on her horses? What if they didn’t like them?

Letting out a slow breath did almost nothing to calm her down. She felt almost panicked, and couldn’t get control of it, even as she counted her breaths. She closed her eyes and concentrated, counting to three as she breathed in, and three as she breathed out. It still wasn’t working. Her legs itched to run away and find a place where she could breakdown and cry. She didn’t want to watch the sale. She didn’t want to watch people bidding on her precious horses... or maybe not bidding and letting her horses go for pennies on the dollar.

Then a warm hand touched her shoulder and a familiar deep voice said, “I’m sorry.”

She blinked at Henry, both surprised and confused. “What do you mean?”

His sincere brown eyes fixed on hers, his brows wrinkled. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier. I wasn’t trying to tell you what to do or even accuse you of being inappropriate.”

She shook her head, a giggle bubbling up. With all that was going on, she’d forgotten about their tiff earlier. And now that he was bringing it up again, it was soothing that part of her that had been panicked and worked up over fears that might never come to fruition. After setting a hand on top of his, she said. “Don’t spare it another thought. I am not one to hold grudges for very long.”

A smile spread across his lips. “You never were.”

She lifted a brow toward him. “Good thing for you, since if I did, we’d never have spoken to one another again—perhaps from when we were nine years old even.”

He huffed a laugh, took hold of her hand in both of his and squeezed it. “I just want for you to be safe and protected—and that includes protecting your reputation.”

Her face and heart warmed equally as a flush went through her whole body, down to the tips of her fingers and toes. She wasn’t sure how she should respond to his words, and the feeling of the warmth of his hands on hers distracted her and made her mind scramble.

“Henry Granger!” an older woman called out, waving as she came near with a very young man on her arm, about the same age as she and Henry.

Henry turned, releasing her hand and folding his behind his back, his cheeks pinking just a bit. “Mrs. Morgan!”

The tall, older woman had a warm smile and a twinkle in her eye as she took Angel in. “And who is this lovely young lady?” she asked.

“Oh!,” Henry said, clearly getting flustered. “This is Angel Wilson, from the Wilson Family farm. Her farm has provided over two dozen quality horses for the sale today. And Angel, this is Mrs. Seffi Morgan, one of the founders of our town, and her youngest son, Holt.”

Chapter 10

When Holt Morgan took Angel’s offered hand to shake, that pinprick of jealousy that Henry had earlier returned, but this time it felt as though the pin that pricked him was dipped in red pepper sauce. It burned when the two of them met each other’s eyes and smiled. Henry didn’t really want for her to smile at anyone like that. He cleared his throat and stepped up, taking Angel by the shoulders. “Well, we have a lot to do to get ready for the horse sale. So we really should be going.”

Seffi Morgan lifted a brow. “That’s well and good, but how long will you be staying with us, Miss Wilson.”

“Oh,” Angel said, “Please call me Angel.”

Seffi smiled. “Only if you do me the pleasure of calling me Seffi.”

Angel smiled wide. “All right. We plan on remaining for the cattle sale on Saturday. Then we’ll likely leave to drive the cattle back home after church on Sunday.”

“That’s a rather tight schedule,” Seffi said. “I wish you were staying longer. However, on Friday night, we’ll be having our monthly ball. I hope you’ll attend?”

Angel’s face fell a bit. “Monthly ball?”

“Yes,” Seffi said, leaning forward to take hold of Angel’s hand. “It’s a fabulous event we have every month where much of the town gets together and have a lovely night of dancing and fellowship.”

“I don’t know,” Angel said, her brow furrowing. “I didn’t bring a ball gown, and I don’t know how to dance.”

“Hodgepodge,” Seffi said. “That’s no problem. There is a practice tomorrow morning where you can learn the dances with others who aren’t sure of themselves, and my daughter-in-law is a dressmaker. I’m sure she can whip something up for you in no time.”

Swallowing hard, Angel deflected. “Let me think about it.”

“You do that.” Seffi squeezed her hand before letting it go. Then she winked at Henry. “It’s often called the Matchmaker’s Ball around these parts because several of the people who attend end up getting married soon after.”

Henry’s heart squeezed in his chest as his stomach flipped. Hadn’t he just been thinking about the ball and the nickname the other day? At that time, there was not one female he could think of who he’d want to dance with and attend the ball. But now that Angel was here, he was having second opinions.

Seffi elbowed Holt. Holt smiled, bowed his head, and stepped forward. “If you’re worried you don’t have an escort, Miss Angel, I’d be happy to take you.”

Henry took hold of Angel’s shoulders again and pulled her backward a step. “I’d be happy to escort her to the ball if she decides to attend. We’re old friends after all.”

“Oh!” Seffi covered her mouth, eyes widening in feigned surprise. “I didn’t realize you two knew each other so well.”

Henry lifted a brow at the older widow, suddenly feeling a wee bit manipulated. “Her father, the veterinarian and mine used to study together at the university for lectures. We got to know each other quite well, growing up. Now, if you’ll excuse us both?”

“Of course,” Seffi said with a wave of her hand. “You both have an auction to attend to. I’ll talk to you later.”

And with a smile, the elder woman took her son’s arm and walked away. Henry let out a breath he’d been holding and then turned to Angel. Angel’s brow was raised as she looked up at him. He blinked. “What is it?”

She shook her head and started walking away. “Nothing.”

Henry skipped a couple steps to catch up with her. “Why did you look at me like that?”