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Authors: Joan Johnston

Sweetwater Seduction

BOOK: Sweetwater Seduction
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Contents

 
 

For my mother
Emogene Mertens,
a woman of indomitable spirit

 

Acknowledgments

 

I am indebted to Ken Alstad's collection of Savvy Sayin's as a source for most of the cowboy wisdom found at the opening of each chapter.

I am also indebted to Edgar R. “Frosty” Potter, whose book
Cowboy Slang
provided inspiration and education on the succinct, pithy, cowboy way of saying things.

Finally, I want to thank my friend Mary Pershall, who, when I called her excited about an idea I had for a book, naturally assumed I would use a western setting to tell my story—which had never even occurred to me until she happened to mention it.

 

Chapter 1

 

W
YOMING
T
ERRITORY
1880

 

The West is where water has the same value as blood.

 

M
ISS
E
DEN
D
EVLIN, SPINSTER SCHOOLTEACHER, FELT
a chill of foreboding as she watched Bliss Davis, a nester's fifteen-year-old daughter, and Hadley Westbrook, a rancher's sixteen-year-old son, making cow eyes at each other across the schoolroom. It wasn't that she disapproved of young love. In fact, at an on-the-shelf twenty-nine, she envied the blushing glow on Bliss's cheeks and the liquid warmth in her eyes that was sparked by Hadley's admiring gaze. What concerned Eden was the violent reaction their fathers would have if they discovered that their children didn't share their parents' enmity toward one another. Because, as sure as hell took sinners, Big Ben Davis hated Oakley Westbrook's guts.

To Miss Devlin's horror, it seemed the once peaceful community of Sweetwater was only one short step away from a full-fledged range war. Eden knew there were honest grievances between ranchers and nesters. The homesteading nesters had fenced water holes the ranchers needed for their cattle. The ranchers had retaliated by cutting fencnd ruining crops. Cattle were being rustled in alarming numbers.

But Oak Westbrook had denied the ranchers were cutting fences. And Big Ben Davis had denied the nesters were rustling cattle. There seemed to be no hope of working out their differences peacefully.

With the exception of Bliss and Hadley, the animosity of the adult ranchers and nesters was being played out among their children at school, disrupting Miss Devlin's teaching efforts. It was a good thing she was a peace-loving woman, because Miss Devlin had a good mind to knock some heads together. She had about decided that if she wanted the sixteen young minds in her one-room schoolhouse to concentrate on geography and arithmetic and spelling again, she was going to have to do whatever was necessary herself to get the situation peaceably settled.

But first she was going to make sure that the love blossoming between Bliss Davis and Hadley Westbrook didn't provide the spark to ignite a blazing battle between ranchers and nesters.

“Children, you may pick up your lunch boxes now. Be sure to wear your coats if you decide to eat outside. I'm afraid we've seen the last of Indian summer.”

Miss Devlin watched Keefe and Daniel Wyatt jostle Jett and Wade Ives as the four adolescent boys—once good friends—raced for the best seats at the picnic tables outside. The girls were no better. Sally Davis and Henrietta Westbrook, better known to her friends as Henry, fairly hissed at each other as they rushed for the sunshine. The Carson girls, Emmaline, Enid, Elaine, and Efrona, managed to stall long enough to irritate the twins, Glynne and Gerald Falkner. Even the youngest joined the shenanigans. Seven-year-old Elliott Wyatt yanked six-year-old Felicity Falkner's golden braid and then scooted for the door.

“Elliott!” Miss Devlin's voice held a ring of command that would have done a general proud. Elliott Wyatt skidded to a halt. Miss Devlin's voice was quiet but firm when she continued, “I believe you owe Felicity an apology.”

“Aw shucks, Miss Devlin. Do I hafta?”

“Absolutely.”

“Aw shucks. I'm sorry, Felicity,” he said in a sullen voice.

“You stink like your cows and I hate you, Elliott Wyatt!” Felicity retorted.

“Felicity! That will be quite enough of that,” Miss Devlin said, feeling the utter futility of her efforts even as she continued to make peace. “I want both of you to . . .”

What could she say? Make up and be friends? Hardly likely considering what they heard their parents saying at the supper table every night. No, the problem with the children wouldn't be resolved until the problem with the parents found a solution. Miss Devlin sighed.

“. . . behave yourselves,” she said at last. When Miss Devlin dismissed them, the two children bolted down the school steps like calves out of a loading chute.

Miss Devlin stepped in front of Bliss and Hadley as they reached the doorway. “I'd like to speak with both of you for a moment.”

The nester's daughter and the rancher's son exchanged guilty glances that made Miss Devlin sigh again.

“Sit down, both of you.” Miss Devlin watched as Hadley painstakingly pulled out a wooden bench and seated Bliss. It was true love, all right. “I want to speak frankly with both of you, because I think you're old enough to understand the importance of what I have to say.”

Hadley and Bliss sat up straighter at this indication of their maturity.

“I've noticed lately that you both seem to have developed certain . . . feelings for one another.”

Hadley reached out to grasp Bliss's hand, and their fingers automatically entwined. “I love Bliss, Miss Devlin,” Hadley said in a solemn voice. “And I don't care who knows it,” he added defiantly.

That was exactly what Miss Devlin had been afraid of. “You know the situation between ranchers and nesters is a powder keg just waiting for a spark to ignite it. What do you think your fathers would do if they knew about the two of you?”

Miss Devlin paused long enough for both young faces to flush before she continued. “I'm not going to say you shouldn't share these wonderful feelings you have for one another. But I'm going to ask you to be very careful about expressing your feelings where they can be observed.”

“Why, Miss Devlin?” Bliss asked. “I love Hadley. We want to get married.”

“Do you think Big Ben would approve of such a match?” she asked.

Tears appeared in Bliss's large blue eyes, and one spilled over. Hadley had to clear his throat before he could speak. “We plan to be married whether our parents approve or not.”

“I can understand your feelings—”

“How can you possibly understand how we feel?” Hadley challenged.

Hadley said no more, just stared at her. Miss Devlin's lips took on a prunish look, and unflattering lines appeared around the edges of her mouth. Hadley was well aware that during the entire three years Miss Devlin had been teaching school in Sweetwater, she had never had a beau.

Miss Devlin had never had a beau in her entire life. Not that she had wanted one, of course. When she had left St. John's Academy for Orphans in Wichita at nineteen and headed north, the last thing on her mind had been finding a husband. She hadn't been sure exactly what she was looking for, she'd only known she had to go out into the world and seek it.

She would go somewhere and teach for a year, decide that the nebulous
something
she was looking for, but never able to define, was missing, and move on. It was a good thing teachers were so scarce, because after a while her reference letters always contained the acerbic warning, “While Miss Devlin is a superior teacher, she has not indicated a willingness to extend her stay beyond a single school term.”

BOOK: Sweetwater Seduction
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