A lone figure sat astride a
tall, black Arabian under a single oak tree atop a ridge. It
was a hot day, and in the early afternoon sun, the shade was
welcomed by horse and rider alike, standing as still as a statue.
He was a tall man in a white shirt with dark trousers and black
boots, his unbuttoned vest flapping in the slight breeze, a tan,
wide-brimmed, ten-gallon hat pulled low over his brow. Before
him stretched a sea of prairie, dotted with hundreds of cattle,
lowing and grazing. They were not alone; a handful of wranglers
carefully moved their cowponies around the vast herd, keeping
an eye out for trouble. The movement of the horses disturbed
the man's mount, and he reached down to gently stroke its neck.
"Whoa there, Caesar, rest
easy," William Darcy cooed. "We'll just stay here under
the shade for now. Enjoy the cool." The stallion nodded
his head in apparent agreement and bent to take a few nibbles
of grass. The man's attention returned to the scene before him,
his bright blue eyes taking in every detail.
A flash of moving white caught
his attention. He turned away from his perusal of the herd and
twisted in the saddle. There! Across the ridge of hills was a
rider, moving fast. Darcy narrowed his eyes in concentration.
The horse was a brown-and-white paint, and none of his riders
had such a horse. A stranger--on his land! Caesar began to
prance in place, feeling his master's tension through the reins.
The rider seemed to be alone,
and while Darcy had left his gun belt and Colt revolver at the
house, he did have a rifle holstered to his saddle. "What
say we go check that out, boy?" The horse agreed, and they
loped down the hill.
Darcy moved at an angle to
the stranger, holding Caesar back until necessary. The intruder
was at a full gallop, flying across the crest. Darcy lost sight
of the paint as he reached the valley between the hills, and
he allowed Caesar his head. The stallion dug in and moved quickly
up the rise, and Darcy saw with confidence that he was in the
proper position to cut off the paint. Caesar spotted his quarry
and headed toward the other horse, waiting for direction from
As they grew closer, Darcy
could see that the rider and paint moved in perfect harmony.
The horse was rather small, but so was the rider. A boy? Darcy
thought, before noticing the wild, curly hair flying on either
side of the rider's hat. As Darcy pulled to a halt, blocking
the paint's progress, a shock of realization coursed through
him. That's no boy--that's a girl! A girl in men's clothing!
He pulled his hand away from
his rifle, and unarmed, raised his palm in an unmistakable sign.
"Hold on, miss!"
The surprised girl came to
a halt a few feet away, dust swirling in the breeze. She had
on a red-and-white gingham shirt and dungarees, boots firmly
in the stirrups. She wore a wide-brimmed floppy hat, shading
her face, but even at that distance, he could see her blazing
"What do you want?"
Her voice was lower than Darcy
expected from so short a person--she could not be more than
five feet two inches--but it was not unpleasant to his ears,
though it was Northern and unfriendly. Darcy was not used to
answering demands from anyone in the last four years, and he
wasn't going to change for some strange female.
"Who are you?" he
demanded. "This is private property. Who gave you leave
to ride across Pemberley?"
"Private?" It was
clear he surprised her. "All this? I thought this was open
"Not hardly. Everything
this side of the Long Branch belongs to Pemberley Ranch."
He considered her. "You're not from around here, are you?"
The girl raised her chin. "We
are now. Our place is across the river. My father owns the farm
Darcy relaxed a bit. "The
old Thompson place?" She answered with a nod. "You're
one of Tom Bennet's daughters? I was told he had a herd of them."
Almost immediately he recognized how his choice of words could
be considered an insult, but it was too late.
The girl's voice was ice cold.
"Tom Bennet is indeed my father, sir, and I thank you for
your kind observations about my family. Now, if you'll pardon
me." She pulled her reins to return from whence she came,
only to be halted by Darcy's words.
"I'll escort you back
to the ford, miss, if you don't mind."
She looked over her shoulder
at him. "I do mind. You've made it clear that I'm
not welcomed here, and I can see myself home. Good day."
To her increased irritation, Darcy fell in beside her. "I
see there was no cause for me to voice my preference!"
"The ground is uneven
here, and as it's unfamiliar to you, you might meet with misfortune."
"So--I cannot ride my
horse, is that what you mean?"
Darcy snapped back, "I
truly don't wish to offend, miss, but you're being mighty stubborn!
Your pony might fall into some gopher hole and break his leg
and have to be put down. Now, I call that a tall price to pay
for your pride!"
The girl said nothing, she
only lowered her head. But Darcy could see the color rise on
her cheek as she bit her lip. The two rode in silence for some
time along the ridgeline before turning right and making their
way down to the river. The trees grew more plentiful and thick
next to the riverbank. Darcy tried to come up with some conversation,
but the girl's studied avoidance of his glance stilled his tongue.
After a few more minutes, they reached a shallow ford across
the Long Branch.
"Well, here we are--Thompson Crossing. Your daddy's farm's on the other side. I reckon
this is how you crossed over?"
The girl's sarcastic side reasserted
itself. "It is. Thank you so much for assuring I didn't
cause Turner any injury. I am forever grateful!"
Darcy blinked. "Turner?
Your horse's name is Turner?"
A grin stole across her face.
"It is, sir."
"Strange. Most girls name
their ponies Star or Brownie or Buster."
Her grin turned into a mocking
smile. "But I'm not like most girls, as I'm sure you've
discovered." With that, she spurred the paint across the
ford, splashing water everywhere, leaving a bemused Darcy behind.
He shook his head before turning Caesar back toward the Pemberley
ranch house. It was only then he realized that he had neglected
to introduce himself.
No harm done, he thought. It's not likely we'll
meet up again.