Briley of Crooked Creek
Crooked Creek Series
"Briley of Crooked Creek"
Crooked Creek, Montana Territory
UNTOUCHED SNOW SURROUNDED the small cabin. A narrow stream of smoke did not rise from the chimney. The small barn tucked away behind the cabin stood in silence, as though its occupants had long abandoned the sturdy structure.
“Are you certain you have the right place, ma’am?”
Briley Donaghue sat perched on the seat of the buckboard next to the older man with a friendly smile who answered to Clete. The stagecoach driver had greeted Clete with a grand handshake and broad grin, asking after his wife. The driver assured her that no one would look after her better than Clete, and so she hired him. She had expected her future husband to meet the stage and escort her to the home they would share. At least, that had been the fanciful notion Briley’s imagination had concocted when she answered the advertisement. His letters hadn’t been filled with romantic gestures nor had she really expected such things from a stranger.
Now that she gazed upon her immediate future, Briley thought that if she’d had any sense at all, she would have found a way to return to Ireland rather than venturing to Montana Territory. “It’s the right place.” Her voice was filled with apprehension.
Clete jumped down from the driver’s perch and hurried to her side of the wagon. With greater ease than Briley expected from the older man, Clete lifted her down. Briley’s black leather boots were no match for the deep snow, but Clete walked alongside her until she reached the front door. With a discouraging look first at the door and then at her, Clete returned to the wagon to fetch her belongings.
Briley’s gloved hand knocked once, then twice. She gripped the metal latch on the primitive door and pushed inward. A burst of cold and musty air from the dark room greeted her. A few minutes later, Clete joined her inside and set the two bags on the board floor.
“Was someone expecting you?”
Briley walked farther into the room and rested her hand on the back of one of two chairs in the room. A large stone fireplace covered a third of one wall and a shelf filled the space of another. Dust filtered through the air, landing on everything already covered in a thin layer.
“It would seem they weren’t.” Briley reached for an envelope on the table—it, too, was covered in dust. Her name was scrawled across the front of the faded paper.
Briley turned to Clete. “I’ll manage quite well here.” She didn’t mistake both the concern and hesitation in Clete’s eyes and was quick to reassure him. “Not to worry. I’m quite used to country living. Might I call upon you again should I need assistance?”
“Yes, ma’am. I looked around some outside. The woodshed is good and stocked for a few weeks. There ain’t no horse in the stable, but there’s an old wagon.”
Briley didn’t know how to ride a horse. However, she would need a horse to pull that wagon. She thought of the limited funds she had brought with her—some her own and some from her husband-to-be. “Is there a place in town where I might purchase a horse?”
“Blacksmith don’t have any right now, leastwise that I know, but Miss Hattie sells horses. She lives by the mountain on the other side of town. I’ll tell Peyton, uh, Sheriff Sawyer, that you’re looking since he goes out that way once a week.”
Briley managed a smile for the man. “Thank you, Clete, I’d appreciate that. Would you care for some tea? I brought a tin with me, though it may take a few minutes to boil the water.”
“Don’t mind if I do, Miss Donaghue.” Clete smashed his worn hat atop his head and started for the door. “I got to see to a few things first.” Without encouragement or instruction, Clete started a fire in the hearth to take the chill off the room. He then carried in enough wood for at least three days’ worth of fires. When Briley thought he was done, Clete stepped back outside and returned ten minutes later with two buckets of water. She had the tea brewed and offered her guest a place at the table. Clete wrapped his hands around the warm tin cup and drank deeply.
“This is mighty good. I thank you.”
“It’s I who am grateful.” Briley sipped her own tea and enjoyed the warm emanating from the hearth. It had been far too long since she’d taken pleasure in simple comforts. “You better get home to your family before dark settles in.”
“I reckon so.” Clete finished his tea and placed his hat back on his head. “There’s a spring down yonder behind the cabin that runs all year. I reckon there’s a pump around here, but I can’t see one.” He stepped outside and returned immediately with a sack tied off at the top. “There’s a springhouse, mostly covered in snow, but I smelled the meat and it’s good. The place was left good and stocked.”
Briley hadn’t considered even the smallest of necessities when she assured Clete that she’d be all right alone. “Thank you. You’ve done more than I could have asked or expected, and I’m grateful. Now, I promise that all is well here.” Briley pulled out her money purse, but Clete shook his head and backed away.”
“No, Miss Donaghue. You done already paid me for the ride.”
“Yes, but this is for—”
“My place is a few miles east. I’ll be looking in on you again.” Clete tipped his hat and sauntered from the cabin.
Briley stood in the silence, the occasional crackle from the fire filling the void.
End of Preview. Excerpted from "Briley of Crooked Creek." Copyright © MK McClintock.
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