Like a clap of thunder on a day with no clouds, or the whisper of ocean waves in the middle of the prairie, the sound stopped Charly Slade in his tracks for the simple reason that it did not belong.
He pulled up on the reigns and held his breath. Humming?
A soft, girlish voice.
Way out here?
His feet landed silently as he slid off the saddle, looped the horse's reins around a tree branch and adjusted his rifle strap across his shoulder. He followed the sound, tracking the voice as he had tracked the deer earlier in the day, fresh-killed now and draped across his horse's back. Quiet as a field mouse despite his intimidating frame, he moved a branch back and there was the source of the humming: a girl huddled under a precariously-leaning pine branch shelter. Charly's eyes scanned the clearing. No signs of another person.
Why on earth would a kid be out here alone?
He squatted and studied the scene: her back was to him, her hair long, tangled, grimy. He could see no sacks of supplies, no weapon, no sign that her being here alone was anything more than an unplanned misfortune.
Maybe from a settler family? Wandered off and got lost? Salt Creek Valley was the nearest settlement and it was a hard day's ride away; Charly was saddle sore from the return trip. He might not even have stopped to investigate if he'd come upon her closer to the settlement, but now, only a handful of miles from his claim...
Charlys horse winnied softly and the girl's head snapped up with a start.
Cursing under his breath, Charly rose to his feet and stepped out from behind the tree. "It's alright. It's just my horse. Need some help, Missy?" He kept his voice quiet, gentle, approaching her like he would a skiddish foal.
She shot to her feet, eyes darting from him to every conceivable point of escape.
He held up his hands and took a reassuring step forward. "Hey, settle down. Not gonna hurt you. Name's Charly Slade. My claim's just down yonder." He waved vaguely to the west. "What's your name?"
Now that she was on her feet, Charly could see that she wasn't exactly a kid. Her dress was ragged, and full, round breasts strained against a bodice that was too small for her.
He thought back to yesterday in Salt Creek Valley. He hadn't heard anything about a lost girl while he'd been listening to the gossip in the saloon or chewing the fat with Will Gainor as he'd packed up Charly's supplies and handed him the single letter waiting for him. A letter from home.
No, not home. From back East. Home's right here. Charly had tucked the letter into his jacket pocket, envisioning reading it in front of the fire in his own cabin. He'd read it and hear all the news from the folks…
"Where's your folks? They nearby?" He prodded again.
The girl dropped her eyes, twisting her fingers together.
"Are you lost?"
A cold wind rattled brown leaves on the trees, a timely reminder that the cold winter was getting ready to settle in for its extended stay. Charly chewed on his lip. "You shouldn't be out here alone."
She shivered but said nothing.
"I can't leave you out here in the cold, so tell me where your people are and I'll help you get back to them." The silence and shifting eyes were beginning to frustrate him. "Better speak up or I'll have to just take you home with me."
What am I thinking? That'd look just dandy in a letter to the folks: Dear Mama and Papa, your young bachelor of a son, eager to escape the matrimonially-ensnaring females of society, finds that even in this remote spot where he is diligently tying to scratch out a life on his claim of land, it is impossible to fully avoid the fair sex. Why, just the other day, I came back from a hunt with not only a fresh deer, but also a girl. Charly chuckled to himself. Back home...Back East, that would be fodder for scandal. He squared his shoulders. Good thing we aren't back East. He stepped forward quickly to seize her arm. "I'm sorry, but I can't leave without doing right by you, so what's it going to be, Missy? You gonna tell me where I can find your folks so I can being you to 'em, or are you coming home with me?"
She struggled, protesting with wordless grunts and squeals.
Charly wrapped an arm around her waist and wrestled her back to where his mount waited. “Last chance to tell me different or you're coming home with - ow!” The girl's heel slammed into his shin and he hobbled on one leg momentarily. “Alright Missy, how about riding second class for a while. See if that doesn't make you a bit more agreeable.” He swung into the saddle and pulled her over his lap, gripping her waist firmly while he clicked to his horse and set off at a lazy gallop. He could feel her vice grip on the leg of his trousers, hanging on for dear life. Serves you right, he thought, flexing his foot in the stirrup, working the ache out of his shin.
After a short spell, he eased up on the reigns. “Ready to ride like a little lady?”
She twisted her head to look at him and nodded vigorously. Reaching down, he grasped beneath her arms, lifting her so that she straddled the horse, her stiff back against Charly's chest. He smirked to himself. Miles to go before we're back to my place. I'll give it a hundred paces till the pride goes all out of that ramrod spine of hers.