Read Short-Straw Bride Online

Authors: Karen Witemeyer

Tags: #FIC042040, #FIC042030, #FIC042000, #Texas--History--1846-1950--Fiction

Short-Straw Bride

BOOK: Short-Straw Bride
8.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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© 2012 by Karen Witemeyer

Published by Bethany House Publishers

11400 Hampshire Avenue South

Bloomington, Minnesota 55438

www.bethanyhouse.com

Bethany House Publishers is a division of

Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan

www.bakerpublishinggroup.com

Ebook edition created 2012

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

ISBN 978-1-4412-7115-0

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cove
r design by Dan Thornberg, Design Source Creative Services

Author represented by WordServe Literary Group

To Gloria and Beth
my eagle-eyed critique partners and beloved friends.

You strengthen my stories, encourage my heart,
and corral my characters when they get out of hand.
Thanks for walking this road with me.

Bear ye one another's burdens,
and so fulfill the law of Christ.

G
ALATIANS
 
6:2

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

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40

About the Author

Books by Karen Witemeyer

Back Ads

Back Cover

Prologue

Anderson County, Texas—1870

T
en-year-old Meredith Hayes balled her hands into fists as she faced her tormentor. “Hiram Ellis! Give me back my lunch bucket this instant!”

“Oh, I'm sorry, Meri. Did you want this?” His voice dripped sarcasm as he dangled the small pail in front of her.

She lunged for it, but her hands met only air as the older boy snatched it away and tossed it over her head to his snickering brother. Meredith ricocheted between the two, never quite fast enough to get more than a finger on the tin.

Why was she always the one to get picked on? Meredith stomped her foot in frustration. She thought she'd gotten enough of a lead today after school, but Hiram must have been watching for her. He'd had it out for her ever since her family moved to the area last spring. Probably because the land they bought used to belong to his best friend's family.

“Meri, Meri, quite contrary,” Hiram sang in a ridiculously high-pitched voice, skipping in a circle around her and swinging the lunch bucket back and forth. A group of girls came around the bend and stopped to giggle behind their hands. Meredith asked for help, but they just stood there smirking and whispering behind their schoolbooks. Even Anna Leigh, her desk mate and the one girl Meredith thought a friend. Angry tears pooled in her eyes, but Meredith blinked them away. She'd not let Hiram win.

“You're a bully, Hiram Ellis.”

“Yeah?” Hiram stopped skipping and glared at Meredith. “Well, you're a carpetbagger's daughter.”

“My papa's not a carpetbagger. He's a teacher, just like your sister.”

Hiram's face scrunched up like a pumpkin that had started to rot. “My sister teaches white kids. Not good-for-nothin' darkies.”

Meredith raised her chin and repeated the words she'd heard her father say countless times. “They're freedmen. And they have just as much right to learn as you do.”

“If those
freedmen
were still slaves, like they oughta be, Joey Gordon's pa wouldn'ta been killed by Yankees, and Joey would still be here.” Hiram glowered and strode toward her, his boots pounding into the earth. Meredith instinctively retreated a step before she remembered she wasn't afraid of him.

“You want this stupid tin back?” Hiram growled out the question as he halted a couple of feet in front of her. “Go fetch!”

He sprinted to the edge of the road and hurled the pail through a thick stand of pine trees. Meredith watched it fly, wondering why God thought it fair to give a mean-tempered boy such a strong throwing arm.

The bucket clipped a tree limb and disappeared over a small rise. A hollow clang echoed through the pines followed by a series of quieter thunks as it tumbled down the back side of the hill.

Meredith winced. Mama was going to skin her alive for bringing her pail home dented and busted. The only thing worse would be not bringing it home at all.

Meredith glared at Hiram and trudged forward.

“Meri, no!” Anna Leigh ran up and clutched Meredith's arm. “You can't. That's Archer land.”

Archer land? Meredith looked around to get her bearings and swallowed hard as recognition dawned. Anna Leigh was right.

“No one steps on Archer land. Not if they value their life.” Anna Leigh shook her head, eyeing the trees as if their branches might reach down and snatch her off the ground. “Just let it go, Meri.” She backed away, tugging on Meredith's arm. But when Meredith made no move to follow, Anna Leigh released her with a heavy sigh.

It couldn't be as bad as all that. Could it? Meredith gazed through the pines, to the small hill that hid her lunch bucket. Her heart thumped against her ribs. It wasn't very far. If she ran, she could get her tin and be back before the Archers even knew she'd been there. Then again, everyone in Anderson County knew the Archer boys were trigger happy and plumb loco, to boot. What if one of them was hiding out there somewhere, just waiting for her?

“I hear they got bloodthirsty hounds that can sniff you out the minute your foot steps off the road.” Hiram spoke in a low, husky voice. “Dogs that'd sooner gnaw your leg off than look at you.”

Meredith told herself to pay him no mind. He was only trying to scare her. But she couldn't quite banish the image of a big black dog barreling down on her, teeth bared.

“You know Seth Winston . . . and his hand?”

Meredith didn't turn around, but she nodded. The man ran a store near her father's school. He only had three fingers on his right hand.

“Travis Archer shot them two fingers clean off when Winston tried to pay a call after old man Archer died. Woulda done worse if Winston hadn't hightailed it outta there as fast as he did. And don't think you'd be safe just 'cause you're a girl. They peppered Miss Elvira's buggy with buckshot when she came to collect the young ones to take them to the homes she'd found for them. Nearly put her eye out.”

“At least . . .” Meredith's throat seemed to close. She forced a little cough and tried again. “At least they weren't hurt too bad.”

“Only because they escaped.” Hiram came up beside her and spoke directly into her ear. “Five other men weren't so lucky. They came out here at different times, each with hopes of buying the Archer spread. None of them were ever seen again.” Hiram paused, and Meredith couldn't fight off the shivers his words provoked. “Their bodies are probably buried somewhere out there.”

Something rustled just beyond the pines. Meredith jumped.

Hiram laughed.

She should go home. Just leave the pail and go home. Mama would understand . . . but she'd be disappointed.

“I dare you,” Hiram said, finally drawing Meredith's attention. “I dare you to go after that tin.”

“Don't do it, Meri,” Anna Leigh begged.

“Oh, she won't. She's too scared.” Hiram's cocky grin resurrected Meredith's pride.

Crossing her thin arms over her chest, she glared up at him. “I'll get it. Just see if I don't.”

The girls behind her gasped, and even Hiram looked a bit uneasy, which only served to bolster Meredith's determination. She marched to the tree line, turned back for one last triumphant glance at the stunned Ellis boys, and dashed off in the direction the pail had disappeared. Her shoes crunched on fallen pine needles and twigs as she ran, her breath echoing loudly in her ears as she huffed up the hill.

She stopped at the top and clutched her aching side as she scanned the ground for her lunch bucket. Something shiny glinted in the sunlight down and to the left. Meredith smiled and hurried forward.
This isn't so tough.

Her fingers closed around the handle of the battered tin, but when she turned to head back, the hill blocked her view of the road. Suddenly feeling very isolated, she bit her lip as forest noises echoed around her. A twig snap to her left. A rustle to her right. Then from somewhere in the distance behind her, a dog barked.

The Archer hounds!

Meredith fled, scrambling up the hill. But the sandy soil was too loose. Her feet kept slipping. She clawed at the ground with her fingers, to no avail.

Another bark sounded. Closer this time.

Meredith gave up on the hill and just started running away from the barking. The slope gradually lessened, and she spotted a flat section up ahead where the pines turned back toward the road. Aiming for the opening, she veered between the trees.

As she looked up to gauge how close she was to the road, her right foot hit something metallic. A loud crack rent the air a second before a pair of steel jaws snapped closed on her leg.

“Good girl, Sadie.” Travis Archer folded his wiry adolescent frame as he hunkered down and stroked the half-grown pointer. “We might turn you into a huntin' dog yet.”

She still barked too much when she got excited, frightening off the game, but she'd successfully pointed a rabbit and held when he called
whoa
, so even though the hare scurried away before he could get in position to shoot, Travis was proud of the pup's progress.

“Let's try again, girl. Maybe we'll find some quail for you to flush. Jim's getting tired of fixin' squirrel mea—”

An agonized scream cut Travis off and raised the hair on his arms. He hadn't heard a cry like that since his mother died birthin' Neill.

Sadie barked and took off like a shot. Travis called for her to stop, but the pup ignored his command and ran west—toward the road. Snatching up his rifle, he gave chase. If a new threat had wandered onto Archer land, he'd do everything in his power to protect his brothers.

The barking intensified, and it sounded as if Sadie had stopped. Travis slowed his pace and brought his rifle into position against his shoulder. It wouldn't be the first time some greedy land grabber tried to draw him out, thinking four boys were easy pickings. He might not be full grown, but he was man enough to defend what was his. No one was going to drive him and his brothers out. No one.

Travis wove through the narrow pines, catching a glimpse of Sadie's black coat. He recognized the spot. It was one of several places he'd hidden coyote traps. He'd posted warning signs, but some idiots were too cocky for their own good. Hardening himself against any pity he might feel for the interloper, Travis fingered the trigger on his rifle and stepped around the last tree that stood between him and his target.

“Hands where I can see 'em, mister, or I'll put a bullet in . . .” The threat died on his lips.

A girl?

Horror swept over him, loosening his grip on the rifle. The barrel dipped toward the ground.

“D-don't shoot. P-p-please.” The girl turned liquid blue eyes on him. “I didn't m-m-mean any harm.” Her tearstained face stabbed him with guilt as she bravely tried to swallow her sobs.

“I ain't gonna shoot you.” Travis relaxed his stance and set the weapon aside. “See?” He held his palms out and took a cautious step toward the girl sitting sideways beneath the tree. “I thought you were someone else. I ain't gonna hurt you.” Although judging by the blood staining the edge of her ruffled pantalets, he already had.

“W-what about your d-dog?” She eyed Sadie as if the pup were some kind of hellhound.

“Sadie, heel.” The pointer quit barking and padded over to Travis's side. He motioned for her to stay, then gingerly approached the frightened girl. “I'm gonna get that trap off your leg. All right?”

She sucked in her bottom lip, her eyes widening as he approached, but she nodded, and something inside Travis uncoiled. He'd no idea what he would've done if she'd gone all hysterical on him. Thankfully, this gal seemed to have a decent head on her shoulders. Travis smiled at her and turned his attention to the trap.

His stomach roiled. The thing was clamped above the ankle of her right leg. She whimpered a bit when he reached for the spring mechanisms on either side of the trap, no doubt anticipating more pain. The metal chain clanked as she moved.

“Try to keep still,” he instructed. “Even when the trap opens, don't pull yourself free. Wait for me to help you. Your leg might be broken, and we don't want to do anything to make it worse. Understand?”

Another brave little nod.

Travis grabbed the release springs and was about to compress them when the girl spoke.

“Can I . . . hold on to you?”

Closing his eyes for a second, Travis swallowed, then gave a nod of his own. “Sure, kid.”

Her hands circled his neck as he bent over her, and she leaned her head against his shoulder.

He cleared his throat. “Ready?”

The side of her face rubbed against his upper arm. “Mm-hmm.”

Travis pressed the spring levers with a firm, steady pressure until the trap's jaw released. Once it clicked back into its open position, he gently removed her foot from the trap.

“I need to check your leg to see how bad it is.” Her arms still around his neck, Travis rotated her until her back brushed the tree trunk. “Rest here.”

He eased away from her hold and lifted the edge of her pantalets a few inches up her shin. The skin had been broken, and there was a deep indentation where the steel had clamped her leg, but she'd had the good sense to keep still, so the bleeding was minimal. There seemed to be swelling and discoloration around the indentation, though, and that worried Travis.

“Can you move your foot?”

The girl flexed her foot and immediately hissed in pain. “It hurts.” Her voice broke on a muted sob.

“Just be still, then.” Travis gritted his teeth. Probably a fracture. “I'm gonna look for some sticks to splint your leg with, and then I'll get you home. All right? Don't worry.”

On his deathbed, his father had made him swear never to leave Archer land, to protect it and his younger brothers at all cost. And Travis had done exactly that for the last two years. But today, he was going to have to break his promise. He had to make things right with this little girl. Had to get her home.

BOOK: Short-Straw Bride
8.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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