A Sneak Peek At Winter’s Prey

 

Chapter 1

Twin Pines, Montana Territory – 1883

 

“What have I done?”

Joseph Phillips groaned and glanced anxiously over his shoulder. His blue eyes scanned the horizon. Heavy, black clouds laid themselves out across the frozen plains and the sandstone cliffs, which jutted toward him from the southern sky. The storm tumbled deep into the darkening valleys nestled among the cliffs, rushing to devour the snow-laden grassland that lay between it and the long, barren road.

Joe forced his gaze back to the path ahead of him, still scolding himself inwardly. The bearded man urged his team on, gently slapping the reigns across the horses’ backs. The sledge lurched, jangling the riggings and shifting the load, but their pace did not change. Two hours earlier, as he’d stood at his friend’s back door, he’d been certain he could beat the storm that hung low, almost imperceptibly, on the furthest edge of the sky. Jon had said it was too risky. He’d urged Joe to stay in town. But Joe had been certain he could beat the storm. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

A cold breeze lifted the gray fur around the edge of the man’s hat, brushing it across the corner of his eye. Instinctively, he sent a quick, sidelong glance in the direction of the darkening skies. Then he turned sharply and faced them—the mammoth storm seemed closer already. Its foremost edge hung ominously above him, like a behemoth, settling in to devour its prey. The beast dropped feathery, white veils earthward from its belly, warning of the fury to come. Joe could feel the chill of its breath as the storm advanced, driving away the token warmth the sun had offered. The roiling mass stretched its thick arms towards him, taking hold of everything in its path. The very thought of those arms catching him in their grasp sent chills dancing across his shoulders and down his spine.

Joe shuddered and turned back to the road. He calculated the odds of reaching home before the storm caught him in its terrible embrace. They were by no means in his favor. His sledge was heavy with enough supplies to last the remainder of the winter. As it was, the horses often slipped in the snow and ice that lingered from the last storm. Joe knew the road well, but no one knew this part of the prairie well enough to navigate it in a whiteout. No one.

The man let out a low, uncharacteristic growl of frustration, looking over his shoulder once more. It was just too far to go back. He looked forward, squinting thoughtfully as he studied the road. It was still another four miles home. With the way things were going, it might take him as many hours to get there.

He sighed as he tugged the fur-lined sleeves of his heavy coat over the cuffs of his gloves. It was getting colder, there was no question about that. He again flicked the reigns, but the horses’ only response was to shake their heads wildly, as if to say, “We’re giving you all we can.”

Joe searched the road beyond them, wondering for a moment if he was closer to any of his neighbors than to home. He didn’t have to think hard. He knew he’d gone beyond that point. Nothing was closer than home. It made no sense to try to scheme his way out of this one. He’d gotten himself in much further than he’d ever imagined possible as he sat in the warmth of Jon’s sitting room earlier that afternoon.

He took a deep breath and let it out noisily, then leaned back and stared past the horses. His course was set. Nothing could be done about it. He’d made a choice, now he’d have to live with the consequences.

“I should’ve listened.” He mumbled into the faded, woolen scarf protruding around his neck and throat from beneath the coat. “Jon’s always been good at calling storms. He’s almost never wrong.”

The man slapped his gloved hand against his knee, but the pile of furs and blankets across his lap muffled any sound the action might have made. The flat thud only served to bring a scowl of disappointment to Joe’s face. He glanced again to the south, but this time his eyes didn’t go to the sky. Guilt swept over him as he realized he was passing the lane of his former employer, Jedediah Wilkes.

“Should’ve listened then, too,” he muttered.

The overgrown lane led to nothing. Wilkes had turned out to be a scoundrel. He’d sent his men to town, driven off all of the cattle, absconded with a good many tools and cash that he’d found among the men’s belongings, set every structure on fire, and made for parts unknown. No one knew why he’d done it. His debts hadn’t been so great that he couldn’t have easily repaid them upon the sale of his herd. Jon had said it was plain and simple spite, and Joe was inclined to believe him. It little mattered now. Wilkes was gone, never to be heard from again, and good riddance at that.

As he thought of the days that had followed the event, his mind wandered further down the road, past his family’s modest ranch, to another little farm and the young woman who lived there.

Jessica Bennett. The thought of her made him warm inside; and yet somehow, in the same moment, it rebuked him. If only he’d listened to Jon and stayed in Twin Pines this wouldn’t be happening. He’d be seated comfortably next to Jon’s fire, with a meal in his belly and a warm bed waiting. But, no, he hadn’t listened, and now he was just where the other man had predicted he’d be—and for that, there was no excuse. Jess would be horrified if she knew what he’d done.

 

 

Chapter 2

The Bennett family arrived in the Twin Pines area just a few months after Joe’s own family had staked their land. At the time, few had come to the territory to make a permanent home for themselves and their families. The country was rough and untamed: Indians, cattlemen, miners, soldiers, and the elements themselves, all fighting for their place of dominance and continued existence. Somehow, in the midst of it all, the two families had survived.

The Bennett’s oldest son, Jon, had quickly become Joe’s closest friend. The two had met while hunting. The truth was, they’d nearly shot one another, each thinking the other was his dinner. If it hadn’t been for Joe’s horse suddenly letting out an ear splitting call to Jon’s mount, the day might have ended badly. As it was, the two fifteen year olds had both dogmatically made their cases as to why the other was a fool for hunting in that particular spot, and then they had settled upon the idea of finishing their hunt as a team. From that day on, the two had done everything together—when their work allowed for it, that is.

If a man followed the road, it was a good five miles between the two homes; but if he cut across country, as they had as boys, it was little more than three. More often than not, they weren’t alone in their escapades. Two, or even all three, of Joe’s own brothers usually joined them, and Jon would drag along his brother Marc when he could get the younger boy away from the barn. Joe and Jon, however, had always been the instigators—of everything. If there was trouble to be found, they found it. And the other boys almost always ended up taking the blame, especially Joe’s brother Aaron and Marcus Bennett.

When Jon made the decision to go east to attend college, Joe had considered going with him. In the end, however, he’d chosen to stay home and help his parents with the ranch. They had at last seemed to get a hold on what it took to keep the place running. It was beginning to prosper and the workload was considerable. He had no doubt but what it would keep him busy, which was all that really mattered to him. He’d never been set on an education, just a living—and as little sitting as possible. So the two young men let life take them in separate directions.

With Jon gone, interaction between the two families diminished. They dropped in on each other a couple of times a month in the summer, and occasionally bumped into one another in town or along the road, but their spontaneous trips across the fields all but came to an end.

Life had changed for the Bennetts in those days. Even now, more than seven years later, a shadow of sorrow crept into Joe’s blue eyes at the thought. Mr. Bennett’s health had simply disappeared. In a single moment it was gone, and the weight of the farm and the family had fallen to Marcus, a gangly fifteen year old who loved his Pa more than anything in the world and wanted nothing more than to please him and to provide for his parents and four younger siblings. That was a weight Joe could not imagine, but Marc never complained. He never complained about leaving school, even though he’d been one of its most eager and promising students. He never complained about planting or harvesting alone. He never seemed to notice that his friends were courting and establishing homes of their own while he was tilling land for his father from dawn to dusk.

For as long as Joe could remember, Marc had wanted to ranch. He’d grown up saying someday he’d be a cowboy. Joe had always assumed this was how his friend had earned himself the nickname “Poke.” (Although, in reality, it had nothing to do with punching cattle and a great deal to do with Marc’s methodical approach to life.) When Mr. Bennett became ill, Marc’s dreams seemed to disappear, but the boy never mentioned it. He simply plodded on.

Marc’s younger sister Marianne worked right alongside of him, always encouraging, always smiling. Mary, as most folks called her, spent her days helping their mother with the cooking and the cleaning and the younger children. At first, Marc had insisted that she stay in school, but when little Gretel was added to the family, Mary came home. She seemed happy getting Joy, their quiet redhead, ready for school each day and helping the twins, David and Elizabeth, with their letters and numbers until they were big enough to make the long ride across the open prairie. Like Marc, Mary never complained. She was, in fact, one of the happiest and most content creatures Joe had ever met. That, Joe was sure, was why Marc had long ago taken to calling her Merry Girl.

Joe had watched their struggles from a distance, wishing he could help but not knowing how. To his frustration he found that, more often than not, it was Marcus Bennett who showed up at the Phillips’ place just as Joe’s own family was in need of a helping hand. Those days had taught him to appreciate the caliber of the family. Better neighbors he’d never known. In fact, Joe realized he’d never heard his father speak more highly of anyone than he spoke of the Bennetts. It wasn’t, however, until Jon’s return that Joe realized just how much he had himself come to admire them. And, to his surprise, he found himself quite captured by one particular member of the family.

Jon had been away for five long years, having only returned for a short period of time to help his family. It was rumored he was coming back with a wife, which, of course, Joe knew to be true from Jon’s letters. He knew that a wife would change everything. Their friendship would be different. Just the same, he couldn’t resist the excitement and temptation of meeting the stagecoach the day his friend arrived home.

More than three years had passed since that day, yet he remembered it as clearly as if it had been yesterday. The sky was its beautiful sapphire self, with not so much as a wisp of a cloud. The sun beat down on them relentlessly. Had he been in the fields it would’ve been sweltering, but a soft breeze and the ease of his ride to town had made the afternoon pleasant. He’d just passed the first structures on the edge of the little settlement and was headed toward the livery when he heard the thunder of the stage approaching behind him. Much to the chagrin of those passing on the streets, he’d let out a loud whoop of the sort he normally used in directing cattle, and kicked his horse into a full gallop. He reached the livery, where the stage was serviced, just in time to dismount and pull his horse out of the way as the stage jolted and rattled to a stop beside him.

Jon greeted him with as much enthusiasm as Joe himself had felt, barely waiting for the coach to stop its shuddering before he had the door open and was jumping to the ground.

The two men exchanged hearty handshakes, bear hugs, and slaps to the shoulders, laughing and throwing out a barrage of unanswered questions. Then they stopped, looked at each other and broke into full-bellied laughter as Jon turned and helped down his young bride, Hannah. The pretty blond blushed at the sight of them, but her smile told them she was pleased. Joe knew immediately that Jon had chosen wisely.

Then it happened. Jessica Bennett stepped down from the coach.

In the excitement of seeing Jon, Joe had forgotten that his friend was bringing his younger sister home as well. At the sight of her, Joe’s heart stopped. She had changed. Grown up. She’d always been pretty, everyone said so, but she was no longer the sweet-faced, tan-skinned prairie girl that had left them. She had grown into a fine lady. He found himself nervous in her presence. His palms grew sweaty, and he could hardly form a coherent sentence—though he seemed quite proficient at shifting his weight anxiously from one foot to the other. So taken was he with the young woman that he didn’t even notice the rest of the Bennett family filtering in around them from the livery. Jon’s incessant questioning eventually won out and drew Joe’s attention back to the man and his wife, but from that moment on Joseph Phillips was a changed man.

Although Jon had already bought a place for himself and Hannah in town, Joe found that he rarely went to town to see his friend. Instead, he invented reasons to go east to the Bennett place. They were silly reasons usually. In fact, he often contrived them while making the trip. The mile and a half up each lane and the two miles that lay between provided sufficient time for such plotting. His true reason, however, had always been to see Jess. To watch how she interacted with the younger children in the family. To hear the gentle tone of her voice and the music of her laugh. To study the sweetness of her face as she worked in the kitchen with her mother. She had gone away a nervous, uncertain girl and come home a confident, radiant young woman. He quickly discovered that the light in her brown eyes could capture a man and draw him so deeply into whatever she was saying that he forgot everything else around him. Her smile, too, was like some kind of powerful magnet; once it took hold of you, there was no getting away. But then, he had no desire to get away.

His trips became more and more frequent until Marc finally called him on it. “Why don’t you just admit it,” the other man had said, “You’re here to see my sister not to borrow my tools.”

The truth of the matter was that on that particular day, Ethan Phillips had actually sent his son to get the requested implement. But Joe was almost certain that he’d been chosen for the task because of the same suspicions Marc had just voiced.

Marcus was generally a reasonable and, at times, overly serious young man. Anyone who knew him well, however, knew that when a certain glint came into his eyes trouble was sure to follow. That day had been no exception. He’d refused to give Joe the tool until he’d not only promised to talk to Mr. Bennett about pursuing Jess but had actually gone and done it. Mr. Bennett had willingly granted his permission, laughing that it was about time and wondering what had taken Joe so long.

Now, a year and a half later, Jess had willingly…no…happily consented to be his wife. It remained only for spring to come and their home to be built. A smile crossed his face at the thought, and that warm feeling returned. Just a few more months.

A jolt from the sledge hitting against ice brought Joe’s thoughts back to the road. He’d let his mind wander too long. A quick glance toward the sky had him pushing the horses a little harder. Joe had always been a gentle, happy soul, but he knew that in this instance his life, and theirs, depended on the team giving him all they had.

“Up, up, up!” He called to them, his voice rising in the quick, melodic pattern they knew well. He grinned as their ears twitched at the sound. They lifted their feet a little higher and arched their necks a little more, straining against the harnesses. They were good horses, some of the finest his family had ever owned. They knew his voice, knew when he was pleased with them, knew when he needed just a little bit more. They picked up their pace just a touch. Joe was about to relax at the hope that they might be able to maintain this new speed the rest of the way, when the sudden realization that the sun had been swallowed by the storm drove the thought away. He glared at the sky. He would never beat the beast home.

He moaned, pushing the thought away and letting his mind return to Jess and the life they would have together. He knew their future wouldn’t be easy. Nothing about this territory was easy. But they would build their life and their home together, and that was what mattered. He’d already chosen the land for their new home. It was perfectly situated for cattle breeding and the few crops they would need to grow. Better yet, it was none too far from either of their families. It was also a bit closer to town, which would’ve been a definite benefit at the moment.

The man sighed. The gray world around him was beginning to take a toll on his spirits.

In all of the good that he hoped for with Jessica, one thing concerned him. As he thought back to that day when she’d come home and stepped smilingly from the stage, he realized it had been a long time since he’d seen so much joy in her face. True, it had been a special day—she’d been gone as long as Jon and was finally home—but little by little he’d seen her happiness disappearing. The fine lady with the shining eyes and sweet face was slipping into the shadows of a woman somehow out of place and overwhelmed by some great weight.

At first, Joe thought the change was due to the load of work Jess bore as the only teacher at their small school. In recent months, however, he’d realized there was more. A sorrow, which he didn’t understand, had come into her eyes. Sometimes, the once prevalent happiness was replaced entirely by an empty, hollow gaze that hid everything he wanted so desperately to see of her heart. He hoped to be the one to restore that smile with which he’d fallen in love all those months and years ago. He told himself often that when they had a place of their own and when she was away from some of the conflicts she’d faced at home, the worry, then she would be happy again.

A sharp blast of wind shattered his reverie. The snow had come—not in gentle flakes, but in a white frenzy of ice and wind. It came at him in sheets and blankets, sometimes falling vertically, sometimes being propelled horizontally across the frozen road. Tiny bits of ice pelted his face like shards of wind-driven glass. They stung as they struck him and then melted against the warmth of his skin, only to run down his cheek and freeze in his golden beard.

Joe called loudly to his team, urging them on as never before, but they struggled against the wind and driving snow. “Come now, boys, it’s too cold to give up. We’ll freeze out here. We’re more than half way home. Gid’ up!” Although his voice hadn’t lost its kindness, he had to yell to be heard over the wind that whipped angrily about them.

“Come on now! Up! Up! Up!” he urged them over and over until his voice began to break, but they made little progress. The man heaved a great sigh of weariness. He gathered the reigns into one hand just long enough to wipe the moisture from his cold face. He struggled to see more than a few feet beyond the team. The new snow was accumulating quickly. It wouldn’t be long before the line of the road would disappear all together. He had to get as far as possible before that moment, had to get as far as he could before the winter sun made its early retirement for the day. Time was short. They had to move faster. As he reached for the reigns again he could feel panic taking hold of his heart.

“Stay calm,” he chided himself. “You’ve got to stay focused.”

A loud, cracking sound shattered the cold air, and the rig jerked to a halt. To no avail, the horses struggled and fought. The sledge would not move.

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