Promises Decide – Sarah McCarty

He’d be damned. Someone had been fool enough to buy the Bentley place after all. Jackson pulled up his horse and studied the betraying plume of smoke that rose above the pine trees in the hollow. Bentley had been trying to unload that place for years to no avail. And no wonder. The place was a living testament to Half-Assed Bentley’s reputation for never completing any job that could be left half done. Heck, his reputation had even stretched the good twenty miles to Jackson’s home of Cattle Crossing, Wyoming. It took a lot to stand out in that town of eccentrics, but Bentley had managed it. So much so that anytime a body did less than necessary, they earned the nickname of Bentley. The mare tossed her head in protest. She wanted her oats about as much as Jackson wanted his bed. This last bounty had been grueling. Bucktooth Bart had led him a merry chase through some of the roughest country, but in the end he’d caught him and hauled his ass back to Dover’s sheriff for trial. In retrospect, the bounty didn’t seem near fat enough for the amount of effort he’d expended. But it was always that way.

Once he got on a trail, it didn’t matter what the payoff was, only that he got to it. Jackson sighed and patted the money pouch in his shirt pocket. He really needed to work on that too-tight focus. He wasn’t as young as he used to be. Crossing the line to twenty-eight last month had made him introspective in regard to a lot of things. Including the fact that the thrill of the chase wasn’t clinging to his smile the way it used to. Instead of feeling victorious after this last bounty, right now he was just damn tired and looking forward to a couple days’ rest and then getting back to working the McKinnleys’ stock. Something he rarely got to do anymore. For reasons that had more to do with that inner restlessness than lack of time. Jackson sighed.

Truth was, he should be working his own stock on the Lazy M, but the life seemed to have left the place upon his mother’s death. As if it, too, mourned the laughter that once had been the heart of their home. He didn’t blame his father for leaving to chase a new love. Jackson had done his own running. It’d simply been easier to hunt bounties and work the McKinnley ranch than to reshape the Lazy M around the hole left by his parents’ absence. Oh, he paid for someone to care for the house and did what was needed in basic upkeep when he was in town, but he didn’t stay long. Part of him kept expecting Big Jake to come back and pick up where he’d left off, but lately Jackson was beginning to wonder how much longer he could let the Lazy M languish. There was an impatience gnawing in his gut to take it out of mourning, to separate his stock out of the McKinnleys’ and . go home. Really home.

If Big Jake had found happiness in California, then Jackson had to make a decision: sell the Lazy M or follow the lead of his friends and neighbors, the McKinnleys, and return the Lazy M to prosperity. Patting the mare’s neck, he asked, “What do you think, Little Lady? Would you like to help me make the Lazy M shine again?” The toss of her head could have meant anything. He chuckled. “As long as you get your ration of oats, you don’t care, do you?” She dismissed the comment with a dip of her head. Once the thought entered his head, though, it wouldn’t leave. The McKinnleys were earning quite the reputation for having not only well-trained horses but also a knack for turning wild into workable. No small feat with some of the horseflesh that came through. The army had them on retainer, which provided a good job for Jackson when he wasn’t bounty hunting. And, truth be told, there was nothing Jackson liked better than working horses. But he could be doing it for himself.

There was enough demand for everyone to make a good living. And before his mother’s death, he’d planned on doing just that. He pushed a narrow branch out of his face as he urged Lady on and corrected himself. Making love to a woman ranked right up there as a favorite pastime, but right now neither training horses nor loving women was of paramount importance, because he who brought the gossip of Bentley’s fiasco having a new owner was going to be in high demand in Cattle Crossing. Heck, Jackson might just get a free pie at Millie’s restaurant for that tidbit. A man didn’t pass up the opportunity for free pie. Especially one of Millie’s. The mare tossed her head again when he turned her off the trail. He patted her shoulder. Dust flew up to dance in the late-summer sunbeams.

“I know, Little Lady, but there’s no way we can pass up the opportunity to get a gander at the fool who swallowed Bentley’s line of bull.” Laying the reins against Lady’s neck and pressing in with his right knee, he directed her down into the hollow. The mare snorted, shook her head, and balked, keeping her nose pointed in the direction of home. “Don’t be temperamental, honey. You know there’s an extra scoop of oats in it for you.” As if she understood the crooning reprimand, the little mare pranced, adding a jig to her get-along. It was the spirit in that jig that had caught his attention when she’d been dropped off at Clint McKinnley’s as part of a broken-down remuda. There had been nothing particularly eye-catching about the little bay. She’d looked no better than any of the rest of the poorly cared for horses delivered to Clint as payment on a gambling debt owed by a local cowboy. That was, until the wrangler had tried to use his bigger gelding to shoulder Little Lady into the corral.

Then that pretty little head had come up and her tail had swished one disdainful sweep before, neat as a pin, she’d tattooed the bigger horse’s nose with her hooves, driving him back. And then with another toss, she’d pranced right into the corral like a princess. A tattered bit of royalty, for sure, but a princess nonetheless. Jackson had made up his mind to claim her then and there. The only thing standing between him and his goal had been Clint’s cantankerous nature. Clint was as tough a son of a bitch as his cousin Cougar. Jackson had nothing but respect for both. They were deadly fighters and honest men, and over the years they’d formed a deep friendship, but that friendship was spiced with some good-natured rivalry. Part of that rivalry was seeing who could finagle the best deal out of the other. Clint hadn’t wanted to sell the spunky mare.

He’d planned on breeding her to his blood stallion, but Jackson wasn’t one for giving up on what he wanted. That being the case, when Clint had rejected his initial request, in the form of “Not a prayer in hell,” Jackson had waited Clint out, refusing payment for favors, until the debt had gotten high enough between them to weigh in Jackson’s favor and Clint had gotten tired of hearing the inevitable “So, about that mare . ” Jackson’s tactics might have been a bit underhanded, knowing Clint’s bone-deep sense of honor, but Little Lady had been worth the twinge of his conscience. The mare had heart. The kind that wouldn’t quit. The kind that could drag a man out of hell. Jackson patted her neck again, smiling. Now, if he could only find a woman as sweet as Lady with that same spit-in-the-devil’s-eye jig in her step, he’d snatch her right up and to hell with his bachelor status. Fortunately, such a creature didn’t exist. He smiled as he cut through the woods.

Being a bachelor had some mighty fine side benefits, like the widow in Cheyenne who enjoyed the sense of danger she claimed clung to him. The wind blew up from the home site, bringing the stench of smoke with it. Too much smoke. The kind that came from burning green wood. Which didn’t surprise him. Anyone who looked at the Bentley place and saw promise had to be a tenderfoot. Oh, it was a pretty enough spot, but the ground was too rocky for farming, too wooded for grazing, and the house didn’t have a right angle in it. While all of that was bad, it wasn’t the worst of it. What made the Bentley place an unsellable disaster was that it sat square in a wash that took the runoff from the mountains. One big storm in the highlands and the unsuspecting new buyers could wake up one night to find a flood knocking at their door.

Jackson sighed, wondering just how dumb the new owners had to be. One look at the well should have clued them in to the trouble they were buying. It was too shallow to be good water, and making it deeper in the rocky soil was going to take more muscle than most wanted to put into the job. It was certainly more than Bentley had wanted to put into it. The so-called well was only twenty feet deep and was fed more by runoff than from a clean, underground supply. Jackson shook his head and pushed another branch out of his way, shaking it again when his long blond hair got in his line of vision. The best thing that could happen to the new owners was for the well to be dry, because otherwise, they were likely to take seriously sick from any water pulled from it. He released the branch. It swished back in place behind him, rustling as it collided with another. Reaching into his vest pocket, he pulled out a leather tie.

Lady twitched as the knotted reins dropped to her neck. With a quick gather he tied his hair back. He really should cut it. The comment that had started him growing it all those years ago had long since stopped stinging, but amusement could be as inspiring as resentment, he’d found. And he did get a chuckle from the surprise on the faces of the men he laid out who’d thought he was more pretty boy than threat. The high-pitched sound of panicked children’s voices rode piggyback on the wind and smoke. He grabbed up the reins. What the hell? The fool who’d bought the land had children? Shit. That was going to complicate his get-a- gander-and-run plan. Jackson had a lot of things riding double on his conscience, but leaving kids as sitting ducks for disaster wasn’t one of them.

With a curse, he urged Lady forward. As soon as he cleared the trees, Jackson saw the source of the commotion. Two boys and a very young girl were milling around the rough stone wall above the well. As he watched, the little girl clambered up the side, the clunk of something metal in her hand against the hard rock carrying in the late-afternoon quiet as she leaned over the edge. A heartbeat later, the boys were in the same position, peering into the well. No doubt they’d lost a toy down there. Jackson shook his head. They ought to know better than to lean over like that. No telling how stable that wall was. No matter what the prized possession, it wasn’t worth a broken neck.

Even if they escaped broken bones, there were other dangers. Snakes loved a dry well, and for sure any well dug by Half-Assed Bentley wouldn’t hold water in the recent drought. Jackson nudged Lady into a lope. As he did, the boys grabbed the girl by the ankles and, to his utter horror, lowered her over the edge. “Son of a bitch!” Were they crazy? There was a cry. “She’s slipping!” Jackson’s heart leapt into his throat as the girl’s skirt flew over her head, exposing her skinny legs. The boys made desperate grabs for the back of her faded blue dress. Jackson prayed the material held. Something that little shouldn’t tumble that far. Lady charged across the clearing.

Jackson leapt from the saddle as soon as he got close, scooping all three of the precariously perched children away from the edge of the well. The tinkle of broken glass followed his roll. He let the boys tumble to the ground, their squeals of surprise ringing in his ears. The little girl he clutched to his chest, protecting her from the brunt of the fall. He braced himself for the little girl’s wail, but instead, unbelievably, she giggled. Damn. He stood, brushing off the seat of his pants with his free hand, keeping a tight hold of the girl with the other. “What the hell were you doing?” he barked. All three children blinked at him, then the middle child, a boy of about seven or eight, glared at him through a shock of bright red hair. Pushing up onto his elbows, he stuck out his lip.

“I’m going to get the soap!” It took Jackson a minute to figure out what the kid meant. And when he did, it took all he had to bite back a smile. “You’ll be wanting to get a bit bigger before you go threatening to wash my mouth out with soap.” The kid’s belligerence didn’t budge as he got to his feet. The little girl dangling in Jackson’s grip whispered too loudly for a secret, “Mimi will do it.” The dark-haired boy stepped closer, tension and frustration humming off him. “Hush up, Melinda Sue,” he ordered in a surprisingly deep voice. “Mimi?” Jackson asked, setting Melinda Sue down. She immediately went to stand by her brothers. Melinda Sue nodded, her long blond hair a tangle about her face.

The smudge of dirt on her cheek only made her eyes seem bluer. He frowned and glanced at her brother. His eyes were green, and the older quiet one’s, brown. They were a mismatched bunch, for sure. “She can make anyone do anything,” Melinda Sue declared righteously. Interesting. “Where is Mimi?” For that matter, where were their parents? All three children looked to the well. Shit. “Mimi is in the well?” In unison the children nodded. The lower lip of the blond urchin trembled.

“What is she doing in the well?” “She wanted to see where the water was.” The water was a good thirty feet farther down and likely somewhere else entirely, but Jackson didn’t say that. He studied the area surrounding the well, his mind working on how best to get the child out. “And she fell in?” The older boy nodded. His skin and hair were darker than his much fairer siblings. Jackson guessed his age around ten. “What’s your name, son?” “Tony.” Jackson held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Tony.” Tony ignored his proffered hand, countering with, “What’s yours?” “Jackson Montgomery.

” Tony cocked his head to the side. “Is that name supposed to mean something to me?” “Nope.” Not if a body wasn’t from around these parts. Jackson changed the subject back to the relevant. “So, Tony, did Mimi get hurt when she fell into the well?” He shrugged. The urchin piped up. “She didn’t cry.” Hell, that could mean anything from she was dead to just terrified. “I guess she’s a brave girl, then.” The redhead with the pugnacious attitude chimed in, “No one’s braver than Mimi.

She dares anything.” Which was probably why she’d landed in the well. Where the hell were the parents? Feigning nonchalance he didn’t feel, Jackson wiped his hands together. “Well, good, then we shouldn’t have any trouble getting her out.” Melinda Sue looked him over from head to toe. “You’re going to get her out?” Damned if he didn’t detect skepticism in her look. “Yup.” “You’re not very big.” It wasn’t the first time he’d been told his five foot ten inches of height didn’t measure up. “Big enough.

” She cocked her head to the side. “You’ve got pretty hair.” Was that supposed to make him feel better or worse? “Thank you. What did you put down the well when I rode up?” “A lantern so she could see.” “See what?” “Where the snakes were.” Double shit. “There are snakes down there?” The little girl nodded and leaned against her older brother. For the life of him, Jackson couldn’t see a family resemblance. “Really ugly ones.” “Snakes aren’t ugly,” the middle boy retorted.

“You’re just scared of them.” “Are not.” “Are too.” “Shut up, Kevin,” Tony said without inflection. Jackson cut Kevin a glance as he headed to where Lady stood waiting patiently for instructions. “Anybody would be smart to be cautious about snakes around here, boy.” “Mimi hates snakes,” Tony said in a quiet statement devoid of emotion. “We were giving her the lantern so they couldn’t sneak up on her.” Jackson remembered the sound of broken glass just before he’d scooped up the kids. He glanced again at the well.

No smoke billowed out. “You didn’t light it?” Melinda Sue shook her head. “I’m not allowed to touch sulfurs.” And a good thing that was, too. Dropping a lit lamp down the hole would have been like tossing raw fire. Everything down there would have burned when the kerosene spread. “Good to know you can follow some rules.” Tony cut him a glare. He ignored it. Pointing to the off-kilter porch steps, he told the pixie, “Go sit over there.

” Her lip stuck out a bit, but she did move away from the well. One tiny step. He looked to the oldest boy as he took the rope off Little Lady’s saddle. “I’d appreciate it if you took Lady over to the stream and got her a drink.” The boy didn’t move, just stared at the mare. “We don’t have a horse.” How the hell did anyone not have a horse out here? “Well, I’m sure Lady will enjoy being the center of attention.” Jackson held out the reins. He was trying to keep from looking in that well as long as possible. He hated snakes, too.

The boy came forward. For all the excitement in his face, he was cautious taking the reins. Inexperience with horses or a bad experience? Jackson guessed it didn’t matter. The boy would have to conquer that fear. A man was dead out here without his horse. “Don’t worry. She doesn’t bite. As a matter of fact, if you scratch the spot above her nose, she’ll be your friend for life.” “Will she be my friend, too?” Melinda Sue asked. “Don’t answer that unless you want her bothering your horse all the time,” Tony warned.

Jackson looked at the little girl. She personified knee high to a grasshopper. And he most certainly didn’t want her anywhere near the horse without him there. Little Lady was gentle, but any horse could spook. “Well, now, if you let me introduce you, I imagine she will like you just fine, but until you grow a bit, you’ll only be able to pet her when I’m around.” She immediately nodded her head. “All right.” He didn’t buy that ready agreement for a second. First chance she got, Melinda Sue would be over at Lady’s side. Jackson reached in his pocket and pulled out a thick stick of peppermint.

It was his last one, but sometimes a man had to make sacrifices, and this was one of them. “Why don’t you take this and go sit on the porch.” Her eyes grew big as dollars. “That’s candy from in the jars!” Had she never had penny candy before? “Yup.” She all but snatched it from his hands. Before she could pop it in her mouth, Tony said, “You mind your manners, Melinda Sue, and say thank you.” His eyes lingered on the candy in her hand, but he didn’t ask for himself. Jackson felt the heel. The kids’ clothes were threadbare, and whoever was taking care of them had fallen—hook, line, and sinker—for Bentley’s pitch, which didn’t speak well for their business sense. The family had likely never had a penny to spare.

Hell, had any of them ever had penny candy? Melinda Sue frowned at her brother, took the candy between her fists, and grunted. Only half paying attention, Jackson tied a hitch in the end of the rope. With a huff, Melinda Sue poked him in the arm and shoved the candy at him. “You don’t want it?” She frowned at him. “Want you to break it.” He didn’t have time for this. “Just suck on one end.” She folded her arms across her chest. “Can’t.” He had even less time to argue.

He took the candy. “How many pieces?” The older brother looked uncomfortable, the middle one hopeful, and the little girl determined. “Two will do,” the oldest said. The middle kid’s lip came out. “Three’s fair.” Jackson approved of the elder child’s sense of sacrifice and of the middle’s sense of fair play. Whoever had raised these children was doing a heck of a job. “Three it is.” He broke the stick into three pieces, which was a good thing, because the study the little girl gave him was nothing compared to the study she gave those pieces. He had a feeling he’d have been in for a lecture if they hadn’t come out roughly equal.

“What about Mimi?” The little girl shook her head. “She doesn’t like candy.” There wasn’t a body alive that didn’t like candy. Was she the oldest, then? “Fine, then. Go sit on the steps there and eat that while I get Mimi out of the well.” As if he’d tugged her chain, the little girl’s lip quivered. The stick of peppermint caught in the corner, smearing her cheek with red. “It’s a long way down.” “But I’m a grown man with a long reach.” It was a measure of her age that she fell for that nonsense.

She plopped down on the steps and smiled at him. The oldest boy called from the stream, “You’re not that big.” “You got a last name, kid?” Jackson asked, heading over to a suitably thick maple. Instead of a surname he got a shake of the boy’s head. Not an unusual response out here. Lots of people moved west to hide their past and a man respected that. But most of them had a few more years on them than this boy. “Well, Tony, you’re right.” He looped one end of the rope around the trunk and tied it. “Size isn’t everything, but you back it with a bit of smarts and a pile of muscle and I’ve found you can accomplish just about anything.

” “Even getting Mimi out of the well?”


PDF | Download

Thank you!

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments © 2018 | Descargar Libros Gratis | Kitap İndir |
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x