Running a ranch and fending off three meddlesome aunts leaves Whit McCandless no time, and even less patience, for the prickly new schoolmarm’s greenhorn carelessness. The teacher needs educating before somebody gets hurt. Ruth Avery can manage her children and her school just fine without interference from some philistine of a rancher. If he’d pay more attention to his cattle and less to her affairs, they’d both prosper.
He didn’t expect to need rescuing. She never intended to fall in love.
The bare limbs of the peach trees reached for the sky as if someone held the small orchard at gunpoint. A gust of wind swirled dust through the branches and set them to rattling like old bones.
A corresponding shiver rattled through Whit McCandless. He crammed his hat lower and pulled the collar of his sheepskin coat up around his ears as he knelt beside a hunched-up lump in the tall grass. “Got a name, boy?”
Trembling hard enough to churn butter, the tyke answered between chattering teeth. “T-T-To-Toby.”
“You belong somewhere ’round here, Toby?”
A thin arm clad only in a long, flannel sleeve pointed to the schoolhouse on the far side of the peach grove.
Figured. Whit opened his coat and the boy scuttled against his chest, small arms wrapping Whit’s neck like a noose. He buttoned the child between his body and the wool, then climbed into his saddle. The lineback dun stamped and tugged at the bit, and Toby shimmied up Whit’s trunk. Took him pert-near forever to convince the kid they’d both be warmer and less apt to take a tumble if the sprout scooted down toward the cowpony’s back.
A scornful twist pinched Whit’s lips. If anybody in Young County needed educating, that person was the new schoolmarm. What kind of dolt let her offspring ramble around without a coat in December—and on fenced cattle range, to boot? City folk had no inkling how fast a riled longhorn could move. Luckily, he’d spotted Toby before the fractious new bull took exception to the pint-sized trespasser.
The frigid breeze moaned through the trees, raising Whit’s gaze to the army of clouds rolling southward across a gray firmament. Storm coming. Like as not he’d need to crack the surface of Flat Rock Creek by morning. The cattle watched him perform the chore every winter, yet the entire herd would die of thirst before any of the critters learned to break ice.
The peach orchard, though… Those damn trees knew how to survive. Defying storms, drought, and neglect, in thirty years only one had fallen.
Whit filled his lungs with cold air and let the breath go in a long, frosty plume. Shifting in the saddle to relieve an ache in his hip, he gritted his teeth and nudged the gelding into a wide arc toward the old farmhouse. The bundle inside his coat burrowed closer to Whit’s belly. Small fingers dug into his waist. He glanced down. “You okay, boy?”
The kid’s head jerked in what must have been a nod. Whit huffed an exasperated breath. How did Toby’s mother expect to ride herd on a passel of other folks’ young’uns if she couldn’t keep track of her own? The fool woman’s greenhorn carelessness was bound to get somebody hurt. He possessed neither the time nor the patience for schooling the schoolmarm, but if one stern lecture could keep her kids off McCandless range, then by God he’d rise to the challenge.
Irritation building like steam in his chest, he wrapped his free arm around the shivering lump inside his coat and gigged the dun into a brisk jog.