A chilly autumn wind blew on the day Maddie buried her parents. By the time she was finished her hands were blistered, her tears had dried on her wind-whipped face, and her heart was raw. Her parents had died alone except for their daughter and son. No doctor, no sympathetic friends, no tending minister. No one had come by in over a week, but that was no surprise. They had established a mountain homestead far out from civilization, on the wild edge of Arapaho and Ute territory. Her parents had sickened and died quickly, of something Maddie had seen before that was commonly called "Prarie Fever". Standing over their graves, she bitterly wished she had died with them.
But Maddie was not dead. And at seventeen she was a woman grown, and well trained in accepting responsibilities given to her. Her hand lifted, then rested on the touseled hair of her little brother sobbing into her skirt. He had tried to help her bury Mama and Papa, but at five he could not do much. So it was up to her to tend to him and take care of their home. Squaring her shoulders, she went into their small but well-built two room cabin, rifle in one hand, his smaller hand in her other.
"Jacob, I miss Mama and Papa too, but we got to make it together now, just us." The achingly small boy looked at her soberly. "I need you to be strong, your the man of the house now. That means no more whining about feeding the chickens, or taking care of Dunkie." They both looked over at the small black and white terrier lying unhappily at the open door staring at the graves.
"I won't, Maddie. I pwomise, no more whinin'" The boy promised with such an aching sincerity Maddie couldn't help hugging him, and they clung to each other for a long moment. But his rumbling stomach interrupted them, and he giggled as she snickered.
"Fine, let's get you something to eat. Go fetch some eggs."
Jacob dashed out the door, but she saw his eye catch the fresh cut graves under the aspens, and his joyous childish gait slowed. Sighing, she turned to the stove in the corner of the house. It would take time, but he would recover. But would she? There would be little enough joy ahead for her in a struggle to keep them fed and clothed and housed and ...well....alive. The cabin would last years, and they had plenty of food for the quickly approaching winter, and papa had just finished stacking hay for the 3 horses and 4 cows in the barn for the winter before he got sick. Iron clanged as she shoved more wood into the cooking stove before turning and mixing up cornmeal and buttermilk and a bit of salt for some cornbread. There were still some beans left from dinner. It would be an easy but filling meal, and there was still a lot of work to be done before the snows came. Papa had said they would come soon, within a week or two. And once they came, there would be no going to town. No one travelled these mountains in winter except a few Indians, outlaws, and ghosts. Decent folk hunkered down and waited out the howling winds, aching for spring.
They ate their simple meal of eggs, cornbread, and beans. Then they went to work. It was a busy week for them. What had been hard work for a grown man, two grown women, and a young boy was near impossible work for the two of them. There were meals to be made, laundry to be done, the last of the garden to be brought in and put up. Potatoes, onions, turnips, and squashes were bedded down in the cellar. She harvested her mother's herbs and dried them near the fire. The cows were taken to the meadow each morning and brought back each night by Jacob, and he carried a rifle and knew how to use it. They butchered the oldest cow, a horrible job for Maddie but one that had to be done if they were to have meat for the winter. Some of the beef was salted, some was smoked, some made into sausages and hung to cure. Already it was cold enough she did not have to worry about the meat turning. She chopped wood while her blisters broke open again and again, but Papa had not managed to get enough wood chopped to last them the winter, and it needed to be done before the snows came. She stopped only when the leanto was stacked to the ceiling with firewood, and that night soaked her blistered hands and fought back her tears while Jacob slowly worked his way through reading his reader out loud for her. He was just learning to read with the books Mama had brought from the East with her, insisting despite Papa's reluctance to haul a heavy trunk of books across the country.
It was nearly a week later and the feeling of snow was heavy in the air when their first encounter with people came. Maddie had not realized how much she depended on Papa for her security until she found her heart freezing when an excited Jacob came bursting in the door, exclaiming about two men riding up through the meadow.
The cabin was situated for defense, huddled against the side of a high and steep cliff, overlooking a sweeping meadow rimmed by heavy forest. It gave the cabin plenty of notice of people coming up on it, and the treeline was far enough away from the cabin that a man would have to be a perfect shot to be able to ambush anyone stepping outside the cabin until they had moved away from it. She sent Jacob to the root cellar and pulled a rug over the trap door, setting a chair and small table down over it to hide it. Then she barred the door and waited by an open window with her rifle. The men did not look to have good intentions. Two of them, hard and lean, with watchful greedy eyes. They rode pitiful horses, skinny and uncared for. When they were within earshot she rapped the windowsill with her rifle, keeping the heavy cloth curtains closed so they could not see all of her. She did not find herself to be beautiful, but many men in this country were woman starved.
The men froze at the sound of the heavy gunbarrel accompanied by her finger cocking the rifle.
"What can I help you gentlemen with?" Her voice was hard and unyielding.
The two men looked at each other, hiding their smiles. A woman alone, for no man had spoken up yet.
"Just lookin' fer a bite ta eat, Ma'am." The left handed man's voice was oily and smooth, but Maddie heard nothing but trouble in it. It was against her nature to send a man away hungry, even a man like this. But she had no Papa to protect her now, so she had little enough choice. If she had better feelings about him perhaps she may have allowed something for him, but there was nothing that felt good about him or his friend.
"We have nothing extra. There is a town about ten miles east. There will be food to be had there. Or you can shoot some game."
The man on the right noticed the two freshly dug graves.
"Pr'aps you could use a man or two on the place, ma'am. We be lookin' fer a job."
"We have no money to pay you nor food to feed you. Move along now."
The men did not move, and Maddie punctuated her order by a shot that rang out through the mountains, the bullet kicking up dust at their feet. That got them moving, their faces darkening in anger.
"Bitch! You will regret that!"
"Move along!" She tried to hide the quiver of fear in her voice, and watched as the men reluctantly turned and rode away. It was an empty threat, she told herself. Outlaws or not, few men dared to harm a woman in this country. Still, she kept a watchful eye for the next few days, and kept Jacob close to the cabin. After three days she relaxed a bit more. There had been no sign of the men, and the clouds lay heavy in the sky with snow. Any minute now it would fall, hiding the little cabin from the world for a winter.
I have been reading Louis L'Amour! So! This one is set in the old west. A sturdy and beautiful girl orphaned with her younger brother, determined to provide and care for him. But forces move against her. With snow coming soon, she will be cut off from help. Outlaws know of her vulnerability, and some hungry Indians will be about. She has enough food, has books and sewing. I am looking for a solidly built, educated, respectful but woman-hungry and dominant man to stumble upon her. Someone she will fall in love with and learn to trust, who can protect her and her brother from the forces being arrayed against her. I am hoping for a slow, detailed, easy-moving story set at the edge of the Rocky Mountains during wintertime, probably ending about springtime. Any number of things can be created for plot fun. Brother gets kidnapped, SHE gets kidnapped, someone gets shot (maybe he shows up wounded - a lawman after outlaws), they get burned out, etc.