I wrote this in two-and-a-half days. It's not meant to be amazingly original or well written. It's supposed to be a quick, short story you can read in one sitting and come away from thinking "That was fun...". It's probably cliche, it's probably predictable, but I needed a break from more serious writing to pen something fun and quick. So read, don't expect too much, and have fun with it. :) ~Mara
In the heated still of the open prairie, sun beating down on the wilting wildflowers and robust grasses, a man frantically urged his horse faster and sent a harried glance behind him. He saw in the distance a billow of dust, a flurry of dark shapes, a posse trailing the prints of his horse. Beneath him, his brown mare resisted the pace, tired of the heat, the speed, the restless nights and barren meals. She wanted to go home to her comfortable stall with its sweet hay, to her corral where she could see the stallion as he whinnied from the far field.
But her master urged her on, so on she went. He was impatient with her, but she bore it. The heels digging into her sides instilled his panic into her, and despite the heat and the ache of her aging bones, she picked up her pace towards the trees ahead.
The man, with a slightly relieved sigh, swung off of her as soon as they reached the trees, knowing she was getting on in years and would not hold up too much longer in the heat and the hard riding. He led her through the trees, hoping that the leaves and brush would muffle their passing, knowing that the tracker in the posse would find broken twigs and small imprints. He did not know how much longer he could run, nor where he was running to. He just knew that to stop meant death, and he was not ready to die.
Only a few minutes of frantic running passed before he heard the first gunshot. It snapped a twig close to his head, ripped through a leaf ahead of him, and thudded into an aspen tree. With a jerk, he ducked behind a large pine and pulled his mare with him. The second shot whizzed through the branches of the pine and nicked his cheek, burning.
"Come out with your hands in the air, mister, and we'll spare ya' 'till we get back to town." A gruff voice rang out clearly in the afternoon.
The man hesitated. What if they shot him square in the chest as soon as he revealed himself? His mare stomped, and he looked at her. She seemed to be asking him why he had gotten into all this trouble in the first place. Her brown eyes looked a little reprimanding.
"Yeah, yeah." he muttered to her. "I know."
"Or ya' can stay back there and we'll shoot until we hit ya'." The voice called again, and a chorus of guns cocking snapped through the wooded grove.
With a cringe, a prayer, and a deep breath, he slowly moved. "I'm comin'." He felt every muscle in his body tense as he stepped from behind the tree and faced the posse of men waiting. There was a Sherriff, two deputies, a few stocky young men eager for a fight, and an Indian.
The Sherriff, badge flashing in a ray of sunlight, shook his head. "You're new at this, ain't ya'." It was a statement, not a question, and the man felt no need to answer. 'Well." He jerked his head, and the two deputies dismounted. Their faces were stoic as one held a gun on the man and the other grabbed the his hands and cuffed him.
With a long, deep sigh, the Sherriff turned his horse. "Let's get this over with. I got supper to go home to."
Delilah Sutton could not shake the feeling that she was being watched. As she loaded her wagon with goods from the General Store, she felt a chill run up her back. Memories flashed through her mind, and she took a deep breath. She would not let this overcome her. Not now. Not when she needed her bravado to show them she was not afraid. Heaving a bag of flour into the wagon, she glanced at the pile waiting to be loaded. She felt rushed; she wanted to get out of town before he came back. Before he found out what she had done.
There was not one friendly face in the passers-by, but it was not the townspeople she was worried about. She barely noticed the glares, the women who crossed the street in order to pass her, the men who stared at her with distaste. It had been years since she had walked down the boardwalk and received a smile. Years since she'd seen a face in town that wasn't consumed with superiority or lust. And she had come to terms with the way people treated her. It was worse now, but she did not blame them; her past was not something to be proud of, far or near.
It did not help that she dressed as a man out of practicality. She was looked at as worthless by both sexes. Unmarriageable by bachelors, crude by women her age, unladylike by older women, unruly by older men. And now a criminal by all. A few strangers sent curious glances her way, but she ignored them as she hauled another bag of feed out to her wagon and grunted as she heaved the fifty-pound sack into the bed of the rickety vehicle.
Nobody offered help. She did not expect them to. She did not need the help. She had been on her own for five years now, and at twenty-four years of age, knew how to take care of most things by herself. What she could not do, she made do without. Only recently had she begun to wish she had a few friends to hide with, but she didn't. She would have to be brave and stick it out.
Dust swirled through the street, catching in a few stray puddles from the rainfall the day before. It had been a welcome rain, a much needed one. The summer heat was almost unbearable come midday.
After a short pause to catch her breath, Delilah bent to lift the other fifty-pound bag and swing it up into the wagon. It stretched her back the wrong way and pulled at the still-healing wound on her stomach, but she ignored the pain. She had a few more items to throw into the wagon, and she could be on her way. Out of the way of all the dirty stares of those who knew her in Aspen, away from the strangers she avoided.
Ever since the preacher had died, she had been a complete outcast. She had no safe place but home. The old preacher had welcomed her into the church with open arms, but she'd been thrown out by the uproar of the pious patrons who frequented the pews, even though she'd only come after church hours. So, to spare him the pain of dealing with the rampant rumors, she'd quit visiting him. He had not been concerned with the spite of the town, but she had.
The preacher had been too good a man to be accused of sins of any kind, and she had been sick of the hypocrites who called themselves godly. Had the preacher not said that all were welcome? That Jesus had not turned away anyone, nor would he, nor should they? Yet they sat and they glared and they whispered and they condemned. If the world was made by their jurisdiction, she had just bought her ticket to hell.
Throwing a few bolts of sturdy cotton into the wagon, she wiped her hands on her pants and looked at the church. She missed the old man and his lively conversations. He would have known what she should do. At times like these, she was reminded of all she'd had and all she'd lost. She needed to be brave and on her guard, but she was lonely and afraid. With a small shake of her head, she turned back to the wagon.
It was full to the brim with goods. Since it was a two day journey out to her place, she made sure to stock up for a month or more of living before she had to come to town again. She did not like the townspeople, nor did they like her. Thankfully, it was summer, so the roads were dry and the rains were few. She rarely had trouble hauling a wagon full of goods in the summer.
Climbing onto the seat of the wagon, she snapped the reins and urged her horse forward. He balked a little at the load put on him, but Delilah knew that the stocky cross-breed would be fine once he got going.
She waited until they were out of town before she shoved her hat off of her head and tilted her face up to the sun, shaking out her vibrant red curls in the warmth. Delilah had once liked the silence in the prairies. It was a different silence than that of the town. Out here in the open, a man could hear the wind as it spoke to the crickets, the birds in the sporadic aspen trees.
But now, all she saw was the shadows, all she heard was the snapping of branches and rustling of grass. Every time she was outdoors, she felt like she was being watched. He would come for her soon, she knew. It would be sudden and unexpected. She could never put down her guard or her gun until it was over.
Forcing her mind away from her fears, she made herself notice the beauty of the colors dotting the grass. The flowers bobbed their heads as she passed, and she was tempted to stop and pick some. Though she dressed like a man, Delilah had always been partial to frills and prettiness.
She took after her mother. Her mother had loved everything about being a woman, from the dresses to the beaus to the perfumes and lotions and baubles and jewelry. Rose Sutton had been feminine through and through. But then they'd come here, and everything had rolled downhill. It was a wonder Rose had lasted four years under the circumstances.
Delilah pretended to have a tough skin, though, and few people saw beneath the silent, independent demeanor she portrayed. It was the only way she could convince everyone, herself included, that the spite and rumors did not matter to her. She had the entire town fooled that she was impervious to their hate. That she had no fear of what tomorrow would bring.
But every word stung, and she was terrified that tomorrow would bring her death.
She had dreamed, when she was young, that she would live on a beautiful farm and marry a loving husband and live the perfect life with lots of children to raise and love. The dream had slowly evolved in a downward spiral, until all that remained was the hopeless longing for a companion. She needed someone to stand by her when it happened.
But she had a severely damaged past, and she doubted that any man would take her knowing where she came from and what she had done. Especially now.
She was about five miles from town when she saw the Sherriff and his rabble of a posse gathered around a sturdy oak. Her horse slowed of his own accord as she drew closer to where the posse and tree were located about ten feet away from the road. In their midst was a man no older than twenty-seven, strong build, dark haired, handsome. His black hair was pulled back from his face with a leather lace, and there was blood trickling from a wound on his left cheek.
The Sherriff tipped his hat and rode over as she stopped. "Who is he?" Her curiosity was piqued by the slight humor in the doomed man's eyes. He was being read his rights and asked for any last words.
"Horse thief." Sherriff answered, leaning on his pommel. "Caught him about twenty miles yonder, runnin' like the devil was after him."
Delilah did not comment. The dark-haired man certainly did not look like a criminal. His clothes were plain, but well made and clean, and the saddle he sat on was not new. As they tightened a noose around his neck, he looked up. And he met Delilah's eyes.
The gaze was not pleading, nor angry. It was a strange, amused, wry look, the light brown eyes quirked in a little bit of a smile. His jaw was set, though, and he tensed a little as the rough rope tightened around his neck. But he said not one word of protest as his eyes bored into Delilah's. She bit her lip.
He looked far too young to die, far too… alive. Did he have a family somewhere? A wife? "He married?" she asked, before she knew what she was saying.
Sherriff looked at her and slowly shook his head. "Nope. No family." He grunted and looked back as one of the deputies asked if the man had any last words. "Nobody'll miss him. Just a wet-behind-the-ears stranger tryin' to make money that ain't his."
Delilah could not look away from the eyes that studied her. She felt tense and uneasy as the Sherriff raised his hand and nodded, and the deputy reached out his hand to smack the horse's rump. With a slight nod, the man clenched his teeth and bowed his head. But just before the deputy's hand connected with the horse, Delilah jerked.
"Wait." She was as surprised as the Sherriff looked. All eyes turned to her. She lowered her voice. "Sherriff, I need a man around the place." It came out before she knew what she was saying, and she did not stop to think about it. "I've got tasks I can't manage, enemies who will pop up sooner or later, and this man… he doesn't look like the sort to repeat his crime." That was a lie. He looked ready to jump from the horse and do all sorts of mischief.
Sherriff frowned at her. "You're askin' me to release him into your custody?"
"Yes." Delilah answered slowly. "I am." And if he chose to run again, so be it. She would face her fate alone, and the posse could hunt him down and hang him.
For a moment, the Sherriff considered it. Then he shook his head. "Sorry Miss Sutton, I know you'd be a mite safer with a man around, but it ain't proper, and you already got more rumors and trouble surroundin' you than any woman should have. If you was to take a strange man into your home, people might run ya' off." The Sherriff didn't like her, she knew, and even he was not sympathetic of her plight.
"What if I married him?" Delilah did not hesitate. A man's life was on the line, her life was in turmoil without protection. She didn't know why she wanted this man when she had seen so many others, but it was out and she was going to go through with her word.
"If you what?" Sherriff was taken aback.
Delilah leveled his incredulous expression with a calm gaze. "If I married him, it'd all be legal and proper. No one would have a cause to protest me taking my own husband home with me." She glanced at the man just briefly, and saw his slight frown as he strained to hear what she was saying.
Sherriff shook his head. "Sh--" He shoved his Stetson back and rubbed his forehead. "Miss Sutton, if you ain't the strangest woman I ever did know."
She smiled only slightly. "Sherriff, you know as well as I do that I am alone out there, and I need a man to help with the workload on my shoulders. Even if I had the place under control, I'll be safer with him around."
"He's a horse thief." Sherriff argued.
"You said yourself that he's inexperienced at it." Delilah glanced at the man again and found he was watching her with an admiring gaze. "So I doubt he's been in the business for long." She was used to that.
"You sure 'bout this, Miss Sutton?" With a slight frown, the Sherriff adjusted his Stetson.
Honesty was key in dealing with the Sherriff. Delilah knew this. So she laid it out with all the honest reasons. "There isn't a man in town who would marry me, Sherriff, not after… everything. You know that. And I don't have any other options to get help. Nobody will agree to work for pay, atop of that I do not have the money to pay them." She let out her breath in a short sigh. "Yes, I'm sure."
The smile on Sherriff's face was not friendliness towards her. It was a wry admiration for her spunk. "Okay." He turned to his posse and waved his hand. "Get that noose off his neck. We're gonna have us a weddin'."
Jonas Avery was not sure what to think of the woman who had stepped in to save his life. She seemed to be confident, but he had seen just a little panic in her eyes when she'd convinced the Sherriff to take the noose off of his neck. Every feature about her face had been calm except the eyes. The eyes told a different story.
As they left the courthouse a half-hour later, man and wife, she silently and competently climbed up into her wagon, and waited for him to join her on the seat. She barely glanced at him as they rolled out of town. And he wondered: why him?
What had possessed this creature to save him from a hanging he well deserved, if not from the failed attempt at horse thievery, than some other crime he had committed in the past? She certainly looked like she could have any man in town, with the fiery red curls that flamed about her shoulders, the wide brown eyes and full lips. And the manly clothing she wore did very little to hide the feminine form curving beneath it.
Why would a woman like this be desperate enough to save his neck and marry him without any foreknowledge at all?
Leaning back, he decided to make conversation. The judge and the Sherriff both had warned him that if they heard he was making any trouble, they would hunt him down and hang him. He had thought perhaps he would run once they reached the woman- Delilah's home, but he was intrigued by her silence, and the contradiction of quiet strength that radiated from the straight posture and the nervousness in her forward gaze.
"Why me?" He asked the question foremost on his mind. "Was it my good looks and charm that prompted you to save me from the noose?" The latter suggestion was only half joking. Women had done insane things for him before.
With a raised eyebrow, Delilah looked at him. "I married you because I need a man on the farm. I'm not indestructible, and there are things I cannot do."
Still, the question remained. "And… why me?"
"Because nobody else was available." Her voice sounded slightly bitter as she replied.
Jonas studied her face, her form, her hair, and leaned a little closer. "I can't imagine why, with a face like yours and the body hiding under the men's clothing." He was not shy, nor had he ever been, and he had never censored what came out of his mouth around a beautiful woman. "I'm looking forward to everything being a husband entails."
A muscle in Delilah's oval jaw twitched, and she glanced at him. "And what exactly do you think that entails?"
"Oh," He slung an arm across the back of the seat. "A fire, a chair to sit in after a hard days' work… although we may not need a fire with the warmth we conduct in a certain room of the house…" He did not hold back on the suggestion in his voice.
Her eyes were steady as they flicked to his face. "You seem very confident about that." She was not even blushing.
He smiled. "We're married, aren't we?"
There was a smug look on her face. "We are. But perhaps I should make it clear right now that you will not be sharing my bed."
"And I was hoping you'd give me a wedding night to remember…" He smirked at the raised eyebrow as he said the words. It was hard for him not to bait pretty women, especially those with stubborn personalities.
"I'm sure you'll remember it as the first night a woman ever threw you out of her house," she shot back.
"What, are you going to put me in the barn?" He was not as incredulous as he sounded. Jonas had slept many a night in the hay.
She smiled, just a little. "With the rest of the animals. It might be fitting." But she shook her head. "You'll sleep in the lean-to."
"Ah, improved. From animals to firewood." He wanted that smile to come back. "I hope the house doesn't catch on fire, I will be doomed."
Delilah only clucked her tongue and snapped the reins, urging the horse to go a little faster.
He glanced around at the open prairie and breathed in the air. It hit him just then that if she had not come along, he would be dead and buried in a shallow, unmarked grave. They passed the tree he had been set to hang from, and he rubbed his neck. There was a little bit of rope burn to remind him of his close call. He turned his attention back to Delilah.
"How far is it to your land?"
"We'll be there by tomorrow night," she answered, and he noticed the slightly husky tone to her voice. He wanted to hear more of it.
He let his eyes slide from her smooth skin to her full lips to her eyes, which steadfastly stared ahead. It did not even phase her to be admired so blatantly. "How long have you lived there?"
Five years was a short time. "Always alone?"
She sighed. "Yes."
After the quick wit and banter, it frustrated him a little that her answers were so short and precise. He was used to women who elaborated to a fault when asked a simple question, and she gave him only the necessary answer. He wanted to know more about her. For a few minutes, he let the silence settle. They passed a small grove of trees, and a few birds sang out, accompanied by a frog and a few crickets.
He shifted, mind wandering. "Do you have family?"
Delilah glanced at him, her eyes unreadable. "No." The answer was simple, but the tone was intense and complex.
"No one?" he pressed. "No… brothers and sisters? No aunts, no uncles, no cousins?"
She bit her lip. "I was an only child."
What a lonely life. He had grown up in the middle of a very productive family. The count of his relatives was unknown now. "And your parents? They had must have had relatives."
Clearing her throat, Delilah shook her head. "I never met my mother's family."
"What about your father?" As soon as he asked it, Jonas could see he had hit a sore spot.
She winced a little at the question, and only shook her head, red hair tumbling about her shoulders.
Jonas wanted her to elaborate on that little movement. On anything. "Are you always this silent?" It was a rare thing to find a woman this unwilling to talk, especially about herself.
She shot him a look. "Do you always ask so many questions?"
"Well." Jonas tilted his head. "Excuse me for the curiosity, but it is my first time being married, and you are my wife."
"You might do well to forget that and think of yourself as just a hired hand." Even as she said it, there was just a hint of hesitation in her voice. Did she really think he should? Something in her words made him think she wanted more but would not allow more. She glanced up at the sky, where the sun was rising to its apex, and pulled her hat atop her head to shade her fair, freckled skin.
"Well," Jonas raised his right hand and wiggled it a little. "This hired hand will have no problem forgetting, but this hired hand…" He raised his left hand "…has a ring on it, and that's hard to ignore."
Before he could react or figure out what she was doing, Delilah reached out and slid the slightly loose ring off of his finger. "There." She stuck it in a pocket in her pants. "Problem solved."
Jonas looked at her. "That's what you think." With a little smile, he leaned back. "But there's still a memory of that ring, and I can get it back."
A slight frown crawled over her face. "Why do you care? You could just run off as soon as we stop and no one would know."
His smile grew a little wider. It was getting to her, and he was enjoying the annoyed look on her face. "You know, I was thinking about it. I was going to leave the first chance I got." He drummed his fingers on his leg. "But you are an infinitely more interesting woman than I first imagined, and I aim to have all of my questions answered before I ever think of leaving."
Delilah glanced at him, her eyes narrowed. "More questions?"
"Yes." He shifted so that his body was tilted towards her, and leaned his elbow on the back of the seat. "For instance, why does a beautiful, independent, witty, obviously smart woman like you marry a two bit outlaw from nowhere? And why don't you talk about your family? What happened to your mother?" He noticed the muscle in her jaw twitched again. "And what did you do that made every bachelor in Aspen unavailable for marriage and courtship?" He snorted. "Or perhaps you're a cold-hearted witch and you killed them off."
Delilah let out a deep sigh. "I would appreciate it if the rest of this trip was made in silence." Her tone was calm, but she could not hide the annoyance in her eyes.
"See? You're hiding something." He pointed a finger at her. "I want to know what it is."
"Well, it was the fact that you are extremely irritating and I'm beginning to regret my impulsive decision to save your sorry hide." she shot at him. "So if you don't mind, be silent before I throw you off the wagon."
He chuckled. "Is that all the threat you have?"
Delilah glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. "It's the middle of summer, the hottest time of the year and day. There is no water to be found for miles in any direction. You wouldn't last an hour after the battering you would get rolling from the momentum gained falling off of your perch."
Jonas sat back. She certainly knew how to shut a man up, and she was right. The area they traveled through was rocky and unforgiving, fields riddled with coarse, dying grasses and large stones, and the pace of the wagon was enough that he would have most likely been beaten senseless by the force of his fall.
With a long, slow breath, he nodded. "Silence it is." He agreed, but he was not discouraged. She was as fiery as her hair, independent, and smart, but he could see a little smile quirk her lips at his words. That little show of amusement was all he needed to decide that he most definitely wanted to stay. This woman was much too intriguing to leave.
(and in case you didn't notice, there is more than one chapter. I broke it up because otherwise it would be one honkin' huge 22,000 word chapter.)