The Cowboy's Ready-Made Family

BOOK: The Cowboy's Ready-Made Family
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The Cowboy Arrangement

Susanne Collins has her hands full raising her four orphaned nieces and nephews and managing the family farm. So when her cowboy neighbor proposes he plant her crops in exchange for keeping his wild horses in her corrals, Susanne hesitantly takes the deal. Soon her reluctance to accept help ebbs, and she wonders if Tanner Harding will he prove to be the strong, solid man she's been hoping for...

Half–Native American Tanner has always been adrift in a white man's world. Yet the beautiful stand-in mother and her ready-made family give him a sense of belonging for the very first time. But can he convince Susanne to take a chance and welcome him not just into her home but also into her heart?

Montana Cowboys: These brothers live and love by the code of the West

“I agree to your plan. With a few conditions.”

Tanner stiffened, guarding his heart against the words he expected.
Stay away from the children. Don't forget you're a half-breed.

“The children must be treated kindly at all times. And I don't want them getting hurt because of the horses.”

Nothing about his heritage? Nothing at all?

“Ma'am, there is no need for such conditions. I would never be unkind to a child. Or an adult. Or an animal. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. And I would never put anyone in danger. For any reason.”

“Then we have a deal.” Susanne held her hand out.

He took it before she remembered he was a half-breed, and marveled at her firm grip despite the smallness of her hand.

Inside his heart, buried deep, pressed down hard beneath a world of caution, there bubbled to the surface a desire to protect.

The one thing he meant to protect was his heart. No one, especially a fragile blonde woman, would be allowed near it.

“We have a deal,” he said.

Their agreement would certainly solve two problems. But he wondered if it would create a whole lot more to take their place.

Linda Ford
lives on a ranch in Alberta, Canada, near enough to the Rocky Mountains that she can enjoy them on a daily basis. She and her husband raised fourteen children—four homemade, ten adopted. She currently shares her home and life with her husband, a grown son, a live-in paraplegic client and a continual (and welcome) stream of kids, kids-in-law, grandkids, and assorted friends and relatives.

Books by Linda Ford

Love Inspired Historical

Montana Cowboys

The Cowboy's Ready-Made Family

Christmas in Eden Valley

A Daddy for Christmas
A Baby for Christmas
A Home for Christmas

Journey West

Wagon Train Reunion

Montana Marriages

Big Sky Cowboy
Big Sky Daddy
Big Sky Homecoming

Cowboys of Eden Valley

The Cowboy's Surprise Bride
The Cowboy's Unexpected Family
The Cowboy's Convenient Proposal
Claiming the Cowboy's Heart
Winning Over the Wrangler
Falling for the Rancher Father

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Linda Ford

The Cowboy's
Ready-Made Family

The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.

—Zephaniah
3:17

Dedicated to the memory of my grandson, Julien Yake, who passed away July 2015 at age 19; and to his mother, who will forever mourn him.

Chapter One

Spring
1899
Near Granite Creek, Montana

T
he skin on the back of Tanner Harding's neck tingled. Something—or someone—watched him.

He slowly straightened from leaning against the fence but kept his eyes on the horses corralled behind the barricade of intertwined thick branches. He didn't want to alert whatever rustled behind him that he was aware of its presence. He crossed his arms as if his sole purpose was admiring the wild mares he'd captured, but one hand slipped down to the handle of the knife he carried on his belt. Whether it be man or beast, Tanner didn't intend it to succeed in attacking him.

A slight sound indicated the stalker had moved toward Tanner's right, to the little grove of trees. A bear? It was too quiet and it didn't smell. A cougar? A big cat would be up the tree waiting for a chance to pounce. A man? That seemed most likely.

He tensed his muscles, fixed in his thoughts where to strike, and sprang around in a single movement that most men couldn't imitate. But then most men didn't have Lakota blood mixed with white in their veins.

His right arm came up. The steel blade of his knife flashed as he confronted—

A boy? A little boy, with tousled blond hair and blue eyes as wide as moons, who shrank back as far as the tree trunk allowed.

“You gonna kill me?” he squeaked.

Tanner slid the knife back into its sheath as the tension drained from his body. “You're too little to be any danger to me.”

The boy drew himself up to the fullest of his barely three feet. “I ain't too little.” He crossed his arms and thumped them to his chest. “I'm five.”

“Uh-huh.” Tanner perched one foot on the nearby fallen tree and leaned over his leg. “You got a name?”

“Robbie.”

“Is there a last name goes with that, Robbie?”

“Robbie Collins.”

He knew the family. They lived down the valley a bit, scratching out a living on a farm. The mother had died a year or more ago, the father, a few months past. Who was in charge of this child and the other three children in the family? They weren't doing much of a job for this youngster to be a few miles from home.

“What's
your
name?” Robbie spoke with an amusing mix of bravado and innocence.

“Tanner Harding.”

Robbie nodded. “You live on that big ranch over there, don'cha?”

“Yup.”

“You gots some brothers.”

“Two. Johnny and Levi. They're both younger than me.” Was the boy purposely trying to divert Tanner from finding out what he was doing here? “Won't someone be worried about you?”

Robbie ignored the question and moseyed over to the barricade of tree branches. “Those your horses?”

“They are now.” Three of the mares for sure were descendants of his mother's mare, which had been turned out to join the wild herd after her death. No one but his mother had been able to ride her. He meant to gentle them, breed them to a top-notch stud and start a herd that would have made his mother proud. He would be proud, too. Might even gain him a little respect from the white men in the area. At least he hoped so. Though it might be too much to hope they would at some point accept him as their equal.

“They're wild horses, right?”

“I'm going to tame them.”

Robbie might only be five, but the look he gave Tanner overflowed with so much doubt that Tanner chuckled.

He dropped his booted foot to the ground. “We better get you home.”

Robbie's shoulders sank. “Auntie Susanne is not going to be happy with me.”

“Oh?”

He hung his head. “I'm not supposed to go away without telling her.”

Tanner studied the boy. So Robbie had wandered off before. “Then why do you?”

Robbie shrugged. “Just 'cause,” he mumbled. He lifted his head and fixed Tanner with a desperate look. “'Cause things is different now.”

Tanner swung to the back of his horse and reached down to lift Robbie up. “Different how?”

“I's got no mama or papa. Just Auntie Susanne.” Sorrow dripped from every word.

Tanner felt sorry for this motherless five-year-old boy. Tanner had been seven when Seena, his own ma, died. But his pa was still alive and strong as an ox. A suitable time after Tanner's mother died, Big Sam Harding had married Maisie and provided the three boys with a loving stepmother.

But it wasn't the same. Maisie was blonde and white and sweet as honey. Tanner's ma was a full-blood Lakota Indian and more tough than sweet, though she loved deeply. She'd been injured escaping the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Big Sam had rescued her, nursed her to health, married her and built the ranch for her. After her death, Tanner had felt lost. A half-breed boy in a white world.

Turning the offspring of Ma's mare into a fine herd was meant to correct the lost feeling that lingered to this day.

He took one more look at the mares. The fence was meant only to capture them. He needed solid corrals in which to train them. There were solid corrals back at the ranch, but Pa said he couldn't bring in a bunch of wild horses.

“First thing we know, the wild stallions will be coming around stealing the mares back and taking our stock, too.” Pa was right, of course, but being right didn't solve Tanner's dilemma. He'd build a new set of corrals out here, but that would take time he didn't care to spend when he could be training the horses. Somehow he hoped to find an easier solution.

But first he needed to deal with the boy before him.

“Best get you back home,” he told Robbie as they headed toward the little farm.

A short time later a low house with smoke rising from the chimney came into view. A cow wandered through some trees to the south, while a big workhorse grazed placidly in the farthest corner of the farm.

A boy climbed the pasture fence, and in the yard two girls chased chickens. Made him think of a poem Maisie used to recite.
Chasing the chickens 'til they won't lay.

A man rode from the yard on the trail toward the town of Granite Creek, Montana. Seems if he'd come to help, he might have stayed and done a little helping. The fact that he didn't caused Tanner to think the man came for other reasons, though he wasn't prepared to guess what they might be. But a woman alone except for four children would appear, to some, an easy mark. His hands clenched the reins.

He saw no Auntie Susanne as he rode onward, Robbie's arms tight about his waist.

“Auntie Susanne is going to be awfully angry,” the boy mumbled. “Maybe you could say it was your fault.”

Tanner stopped the horse and turned to Robbie. “I won't lie for you. You have to face the consequences of your actions.” How would this woman react to the boy's wandering? “What do you think your aunt might do?”

“I dunno. But she won't be happy.” He drew in a deep breath. “I promised I wouldn't disappear again but I forgot my promise when I heard your horses.”

The boy would have already been a distance from the farm in order to hear them, but Tanner didn't point that out.

Robbie perked up. “Not sorry I saw them, either. They're fine-looking animals.”

Tanner chuckled. “Thanks. I happen to agree.” He prodded the horse onward until he entered the yard.

A woman dashed from the barn, dusty skirts flying, blond hair blowing in the wind. She skidded to a halt as she heard the hoofbeats of Tanner's mount and spun about to face him.

From twenty feet away, he could discern this was not an old aunt but a beautiful young woman with blue eyes fringed by dark lashes.

She stared at him, then blinked as if unable to believe her eyes.

He could almost hear her thoughts.
What's this wild Indian doing in my yard?

If she'd had a man about, he'd most likely come after Tanner with a weapon like Jenny Rosneau's pa had. The man had taken objection to a half-breed wanting to court his daughter.

“Go join the rest of your kin on the reservation,” he'd said. Mr. Rosneau obviously did not think being a Harding mattered at all.

Big Sam might have objected had he heard. But Tanner did not tell him. All that mattered was that Jenny shared her pa's opinion. Nothing his pa said would change how people looked at Tanner or how the young ladies ducked into doorways to avoid him.

At least the woman before him appeared unarmed, so he wouldn't have to defend himself.

He reached back for Robbie, lifted him from the horse and lowered him to the ground. “He belong to you?”

* * *

Susanne's mind whirled. What was a stranger doing in her yard? Even more, what was he doing with Robbie? She grabbed Robbie and pulled him to her side. “Did this man hurt you?”

The man in question studied her with ebony eyes. He wore a black hat with a feather in the band and a fringed leather shirt. Leather trousers and dusty cowboy boots completed his outfit except for a large knife at his waist. She glanced about but saw no weapon she could grab. She was defenseless, but if he meant to attack she would fight tooth and nail.

His appearance was the icing on the cake for an already dreadful morning. First, the milk cow was missing. Frank had gone looking for her. He was a responsible boy but, still, he was only eleven. He shouldn't be doing her job. She needed to get the fences fixed so the cow wouldn't get out. But she simply couldn't keep up with all the things that needed doing.

Then Liz went to get the eggs. She was ten but had gathered eggs for her mother even before Susanne had come out to help. But six-year-old Janie had followed her and left the gate open. Now all the chickens were out racing around. If Susanne didn't get them in before dark, some predator would enjoy a chicken dinner.

She thought that was as bad as the morning could get. Then on top of that Robbie had disappeared again. The boy wandered about at will. She had been searching for him when Alfred Morris had shown up with a renewed offer.

“You can't run the farm on your own,” Alfred had said, as he did every time he crossed her path—which he made certain occurred with alarming regularity. “That's obvious to anyone who cares to look. Sell it or abandon it. Swallow your pride and accept my offer of marriage. You'd have a much better life as my wife.”

“Mr. Morris, I'm flattered. Truly I am. But I don't want to sell my brother's farm. Someday it will belong to his sons.”

Alfred lived in town where he ran a successful mercantile business. She was sure he'd make someone a very good husband. Just not her. No, marriage was simply not in her plans. Hadn't been even before she became the sole guardian of four children.

Her own parents had died, drowned in a flash flood, when she was twelve. Her brother, Jim, was fifteen years older and had already moved west. He'd come for the funeral and made arrangements for Susanne to live with Aunt Ada. But living with her relative was less than ideal. Aunt Ada treated her like a slave. Never had she let Susanne forget how much she owed her aunt for a roof over her head and a bed. Well, more like a cot in the back of the storeroom but, regardless, according to Aunt Ada Susanne should be grateful for small mercies.

When Jim's wife grew ill, he'd sent for Susanne to help care for her and the children. Weeks after her arrival, Alice died. And now Jim was gone, too, dead from pneumonia right after Christmas.

The farm had gone downhill since then. Now it was time to plant the crop, but Susanne wondered how she'd be able to get it in the ground.

Only one thing mattered—the children. Keeping them together and caring for them. She would never see them taken in by others, parceled out to relatives or neighbors and treated poorly as she'd been. Somehow she'd take care of them herself.

But she hadn't counted on having to face an Indian. Didn't he look familiar? Where had she seen him before?

“Auntie Susanne, he gots some of the wild horses.”

At Robbie's words, she tore her gaze from the man before her. “Is that where you were?” Her voice came out higher than normal. “You stay away from wild horses. You could get hurt.”

“Mr. Harding brought me back.”

She jerked back to the man on horseback. So that's why he looked familiar. He was a Harding. The family owned a big ranch—the Sundown Ranch—to the east of Jim's little farm. She hadn't recognized him right away because he'd always worn jeans and a shirt when she'd seen him in town. Why did he dress like an Indian now? “Thank you for seeing him home safely.”

“My pleasure, ma'am.” He touched the brim of his hat. “Don't guess we've been properly introduced. I'm your neighbor Tanner Harding.”

The girls left off chasing the chickens and stared at Mr. Harding.

Frank trotted up. “Aunt Susanne, I can't find the cow.” He turned his attention to their visitor. “You an Indian?”

“Frank,” Susanne scolded. “You shouldn't ask such a question.”

Mr. Harding chuckled. “It's okay. I'm half Indian, half white.”

“He gots wild horses in a pen,” Robbie said with some importance.

“I'm Frank.” The boy held his hand out for a proper introduction.

Mr. Harding swung out of his saddle with more ease than most men. Certainly with more ease than Alfred Morris, who struggled to get in and out of the saddle.

Mr. Harding took Frank's hand. “Pleased to meet you, neighbor.”

Frank's chest swelled at the greeting. “You, too, Mr. Harding.”

“Prefer you call me Tanner. Mr. Harding is my pa.” He let his gaze touch each of them.

That left Susanne little option but to introduce herself and the others. “I'm Susanne Collins. You've met my nephews. These are my nieces, Liz and Janie.”

He doffed his hat at the girls and they giggled.

“Ma'am.” He brought his dark eyes back to Susanne. “I know where your milk cow is. I can bring her in if you like.”

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