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Loving the horseman, p.1

Loving the Horseman, page 1

 

Loving the Horseman
 

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Loving the Horseman


  Books by Davalynn Spencer

  THE FRONT RANGE BRIDES SERIES

  An Improper Proposal - Book 1

  THE CAÑON CITY CHRONICLES SERIES

  Loving the Horseman - Book 1

  Straight to My Heart - Book 2

  Romancing the Widow - Book 3

  Novella Collections

  “The Wrangler’s Woman” - The Cowboy’s Bride collection

  “The Columbine Bride” - The 12 Brides of Summer collection

  “The Snowbound Bride” - The 12 Brides of Christmas collection

  The Cañon City Chronicles are back.

  With fresh edits and new covers, this three-book series tells the story of the fictional Hutton family set against the historical backdrop of Cañon City in what is now the state of Colorado. Loving the Horseman is close to my heart as Book 1 in the series, for it is here that I first met Annie and Caleb in their search for something better. I’m thrilled to release it again, retitled since its first appearance in 2014.

  Loving the Horseman © 2017 by Davalynn Spencer

  Wilson Creek Publishing

  Second edition, revised from previously published, The Cowboy Takes a Wife © 2014 by Davalynn Spencer

  All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law.

  Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.

  The characters and events in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental.

  Ebook formatting by www.ebooklaunch.com

  ~

  Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of those who through trial have burnished their faith to shine brighter than the purest gold.

  ~

  ~

  “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you an expected end.”

  —Jeremiah 29:11

  ~

  TABLE OF CONTENTS

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgements

  About the Author

  Straight to My Heart

  CHAPTER ONE

  Omaha, Nebraska

  Summer, 1860

  Annie Whitaker wrapped her fingers around the arms of the front porch rocking chair rather than her sister’s throat.

  Of course Edna thought heading for the Rocky Mountains was a bad idea. Everything was a bad idea unless she’d thought of it first.

  Perspiration gathered at the nape of Annie’s neck. She uncurled her fingers, relaxed her jaw, and in her sweetest voice, shifted the conversation to Edna’s favorite topic. “Do you have your eye on any particular fella who’s been calling lately?”

  Edna stirred the heavy air with her silk fan and lowered her gaze. The porch swing creaked as she toed it back and forth. “Perhaps.”

  Annie rolled her eyes, grateful that Edna couldn’t see out the side of her head like a mule. The comparison brought a smile to Annie’s lips and she rubbed her cheek to hide it.

  No doubt Jonathan Mitchell topped Edna’s list. He was financially successful, well bred, and handsome in a soft sort of way. Annie fully expected Daddy to turn the mercantile over to Mr. Mitchell when he left next month.

  No—when they left next month.

  She planned to be on that stagecoach with her father come hel— She pinched off the forbidden word and glanced at Edna, who always managed to read Annie’s improper thoughts.

  Why shouldn’t she say that word? It was in the Bible. And it certainly applied to Omaha at the moment, hot and heavy as an unbroken fever.

  Heat waves rolled over their Aunt Harriet’s vast lawn and rippled the distant trees into a surreal horizon. Annie unfastened the top button on her thin blouse. She detested summer—particularly July—almost as much as she disliked Edna’s propensity for being coy.

  “Annabelle May.” Edna glared. “Don’t be indecent.”

  “Don’t be absurd.” Annie released the second button out of spite. “It’s unbearably hot and there’s no one to see besides you and Aunt Harriet. And she’s half blind.” So much for her sweet voice.

  “Well, I never.” Edna’s eyelashes whipped up the humidity even more than her fan.

  Annie pushed out of the rocker and leaned over the porch railing. Even the copper day lilies bordering the front of the house struggled to hold their heads up.

  Edna’s brow glistened with perspiration. “A little warmth does not give a lady license for indecency.”

  Tired of the heat as well as Edna’s attitude, Annie spun toward her sister.

  “Daddy wants to go to Cañon City and I’m going with him. You can stay here in Omaha with all your beaus and Aunt Harriet if you like, but I’m not letting our father go alone.” She reset a loose pin in her unruly hair, then fisted her hands on her hips. “It will be an adventure. ‘Pikes Peak or Bust,’ they say. All those gold seekers need to get their supplies from someone. Why not Daddy?”

  “Humph.” At fourteen, Edna had begun her wrist-flicking. Now, four years later, she had perfected it to a fine art, and the hand-painted silk fan folded in one swift movement. “That’s all you think about—adventure. You and Father both.”

  She palmed damp ringlets off her pale forehead and flicked the fan open for a fresh attack. “I can’t believe he’s willing to pull up and take off for those ragged mountains at his age. He should stay here and increase his holdings. The general store is doing quite well. Why start over someplace else and risk losing everything.”

  Edna fluttered furiously and aimed a guilt-laden glare. “Including his life and yours.”

  Annie folded her arms. Edna’s threat echoed their aunt’s petulant scolding. Aunt Harriet was bound by tradition and the social constraints of widowhood, and she fairly dripped resentment over her brother’s freedom to do as he pleased.

  Well, that was Aunt Harriet’s choice, not Annie’s. She preferred to experience all she could, even if it meant risking her life in the Rocky Mountains. Zebulon Pike, John C. Fremont, and others had conquered those peaks. Why not Daniel Whitaker and his younger daughter?

  “Cañon City isn’t even established. It’s an upstart supply town, Annie, on Kansas Territory’s farthest edge.”

  Annie rested against the railing and focused on the window’s beveled edge behind the swing. “I know what and where it is.”

  “What it is is uncivilized.” Edna slowed her silken assault, tempered her tone. “You know what that means. They have no law yet, and probably even less order with all those gold-hungry miners and speculators and wild, drunken cowboys.”

  “And bank clerks and preachers and store keepers.” Annie pressed her open neckline flat against her collar bone. “Be reasonable.”

  An unreasonable request when it came to her big sister.

  Predictably, Edna stiffened and assumed a superior posture. “And Indians. You know wild savages live there, as well as all along the way. Don’t forget what the Utes did at Fort Pueblo just six years ago. And on Christmas, no less.”

  Annie gritted her teeth, barring hateful words that fought for release. She and her sister had waged this verbal war more times than she cared to count. She refused to c
hew that piece of meat again.

  A rare breeze suddenly swept the wide front porch, and Annie imagined mountain air whispering along high canyons. She braced her hands against the railing, closed her eyes, and recalled what she’d read about the Arkansas River falling from the Rockies cold and full-bellied with snowmelt. A marvelously deep gorge squeezed the river into raging white water and shot it onto the high plains through a wedge-shaped valley. And guarding the mountain gateway, that brand new town, Cañon City.

  Oh, to be involved with something new and unpredictable. To see that canyon, and hear the water’s roar—

  Edna’s lofty tsk interrupted the daydream. “I know the stories too.”

  Annie’s eyes flew open to her sister’s shaking head and mirthless lips. Edna read her mind as easily as a dime novel.

  “Do you know that at last count, Cañon City had only 720 residents?” Edna said.

  Annie raised her chin. “Daddy and I have discussed it.”

  The fan snapped shut. “Do you know that out of that number, six hundred are men?” Edna shuddered.

  “They’re men, Edna. Not animals.”

  “Don’t be so sure, dear sister. With numbers like that, I dare say those men are hardpressed to maintain their humanity.”

  “This is 1860, not the Dark Ages.” Annie stepped away from the railing, tempted to undo a third button just to see how fast Edna could flail her fan. “We are going, and we are leaving in three weeks with or without your approval—or Aunt Harriet’s.”

  She marched into the house and down the hall to the kitchen, where she retrieved the lemonade pitcher from the ice box. No doubt she’d not have such a modern luxury in Cañon City. She poured a glass, let it chill with the cold drink, and then held it against her forehead and neck.

  The shocking relief conjured images of clear mountain snowmelt. Goose bumps rippled down her spine. The Arkansas must be delightfully cold, nothing like the Big Muddy slogging along dark and murky on its unhurried journey to the Mississippi.

  At nearly a mile high, Cañon City was close to Denver City’s famous claim. That in itself had to present a cooler climate. Much more pleasant, even in the summer. Edna didn’t know that.

  Guilt knifed between Annie’s thoughts, and she regretted her snippy attitude. But Edna infuriated her so. How had they both come from the same parents?

  A familiar ache squeezed Annie’s heart. That was one thing Edna did know that Annie did not—their mother’s comforting arms.

  She doused the pain with a sweetly sour gulp that quite reflected the two Whitaker sisters. Annie thumbed the corners of her mouth, certain that she was not considered the “sweet” one of the mix. She and Edna were no more alike than the dresses they wore.

  Edna was polished satin. Annie, plain calico.

  Was that the real reason behind her determination to go west with Daddy?

  She slumped into a kitchen chair and traced the delicate needlework on the tablecloth. Several eligible young men called on fair-haired Edna. But no one called for the wild-maned Annie.

  She pushed a loose strand from her forehead as tears stung her eyes, bunching up for an ambush. Swallowing the dregs of jealousy, she whispered, “Forgive me, Lord. Help me love my sister. Even if I don’t like her very much sometimes.”

  The screen door slapped against its frame, and Edna’s full skirts rustled toward the kitchen. Annie rushed to the icebox and filled a second glass with lemonade for her sister, hoping the gesture would ease the tension between them.

  It was the least she could do.

  CHAPTER TWO

  Cañon City, Colorado

  Autumn, 1860

  The late October sun bled pink and gold, impaled on a rugged ridgeline. Caleb Hutton stopped at the lip of a bowl-like depression, leaned on his saddle horn, and studied the jagged silhouette. He could just make out a shadowy monolith jutting from the mountain and at its base a narrow green vein that pulsed across the valley floor. To the right, a dozen buildings stood below a craggy granite spine. The faint sounds of hammers, people, and livestock drifted across the valley.

  Cañon City.

  The fledgling town huddled north of the tree-lined Arkansas River where canvas tents, lean-to’s, and camp fires sprouted. Approaching from due east, Hutton crossed the valley and rode into town past a livery, corral, and framed-in shops. A white clapboard building stood across from the livery—a schoolhouse or church.

  He stopped at the largest structure, the Fremont Hotel, then dismounted and looped both horses’ reins around the hitching rail. Rooster tongued his bit and Sally heaved a sigh. Caleb patted the gelding’s neck, slapped dust from his hat, and stepped through the hotel door in need of a room and a bath.

  He found neither.

  Rumors had been right. The burgeoning mine-supply town was full to bursting. Every chair in the hotel’s crowded parlor held a man, and laughter and cigar smoke drifted from the open doorway to the adjoining saloon. Caleb’s empty stomach rumbled, and he returned to his horses.

  Besides the substantial brick-faced hotel, saloon, and a few other establishments, buildings in varying degrees of completion lined the short, broad street. Fading daylight drew carpenters and masons from their work and into their wagons, but others lingered along the boardwalk. Mostly miners holed up for the winter, Caleb supposed, from the looks of their grimy dungarees and whiskers.

  At least he’d beat the snow.

  Rooster’s head drooped over the rail, eyes closed. Caleb rubbed beneath the red forelock.

  “Tired as I am, are you, boy?” He gathered the reins, swung up, and pulled Sally along, turning back the way he had come. The river should be running low and smooth with summer long past, and the cottonwood grove he’d seen on his approach would be hotel enough.

  He’d keep the horses with him rather than board them at the livery and sleep somewhere else alone. After three months under the stars with the animals’ heavy presence nearby, he doubted he could sleep without them anyway.

  Come dark, he’d brave the cold water for a bath.

  Near the street’s end, a woman swept the boards in front of a narrow storefront. Above her hung a painted wooden sign: Whitaker’s Mercantile. As he rode nearer, she stooped to reclaim something, and a chunk of chestnut fell over her shoulder. She leaned her broom against the building and twisted the strands into a knot. He didn’t realize he was staring until her eyes flashed his way, challenging his steady observation.

  As he came even with the store, he touched the brim of his hat. “Evening, ma’am.”

  She dropped her hands as if caught stealing but held his gaze, nodding briefly before she turned away.

  Caleb swallowed a knot in his throat. He reined Rooster toward the river, down the gentle slope to a cottonwood grove, and set his mind on making camp. No point digging up what he’d spent the last three months riding away from.

  The horses drank their fill, and he hobbled and tethered them close by. Didn’t need some hard case sneaking off with them while he slept.

  The breeze danced downstream and shivered through the trees. Caleb’s campfire was not the only glow along the river, and he was grateful for its warmth. As he cut open his last can of beans, he counted a half dozen flickering lights scattered up and down the banks.

  Beneath his saddle lay his father’s old friend, a Dragoon Colt. Good for snakes, his pa had always said. On the backside of Kansas Territory—as anywhere—some of those snakes had two legs and would likely kill to get what they wanted. He would not fall victim.

  He sank onto his bedroll, eased back against his saddle, and waited for the stars to show—again. He could nearly chart them from watching them wink into view each night, as constant and familiar as his horses.

  Restfulness settled over him for the first time since he’d left St. Joseph. The muscles in his neck and legs relaxed, and tension seeped from his spine as the river chattered like a secret companion just a few feet away.

  Three months riding alone had given him plenty
of time to think about his life, where he’d been, and where he was going. One more day and he’d be at the Lazy R, where cattle outnumbered people fifty to one.

  Suited him just fine.

  He pulled off his hat and linked his fingers behind his head.

  He knew his way around horses better than most, thanks to his pa, rest his soul. Cows weren’t that much different.

  At least they wouldn’t be sitting in pews waiting for him to say something inspiring.

  He snorted at the image, but guilt twisted his gut. He’d tried his hand at people and failed. God must have made a mistake.

  Or Caleb had misheard.

  A twig snapped, and he slid a hand beneath his saddle. The hammer’s click cut through the silence and drew a quick confession.

  “Don’t shoot, mister. Don’t shoot.”

  Caleb aimed for the voice, considering the scant years that rang out in its tremor.

  “Show yourself,” he ordered.

  Another snap and a boy stepped from between the horses, arms raised stick straight as if he were being hung by his thumbs.

  “I ain’t stealin’ nothin’, mister. I swear.”

  Caleb sat up. “Right there’s two things you shouldn’t be doing.”

  Firelight licked the boy’s skinny neck, and his Adam’s apple bobbed. “Yessir. What’s that, sir?”

  Caleb eased the hammer back and lowered his gun. “Stealing and swearing. Both will get you into trouble.”

  He waved the boy over and kept the revolver in his lap. “How old are you, and what are you doing out here by yourself at night? Don’t you know you could have been shot?”

  “Twelve, huntin’ a bush, and yessir.”

  Caleb held back a chuckle at the nervous answer. “You can put your hands down now.”

  The youngster dropped his arms fast. Like the woman at the mercantile.

  “What’s your name?”

  “My Christian name is Benjamin, sir, but my folks call me Springer.”

  “Well, Springer, where are your folks?”

 
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