Western Short Story - The Quest, Chapter Five
The decision to return to the ranch proved to be the right one. They left at first light in Jacob’s wagon, with the riding horses tied on behind. It was a rough quarter of a mile down to the old mine road, but the snow was not too deep. From there, it was a steep downhill slope to below the snow line, and then, the main road to the ranch. The drifts were deep, but narrow, and the draft horses were rested and ready. Even then, it was afternoon before they entered the ranch yard, scattering chickens and Uncle Charlie’s pet goats.
He helped Bonnie down, and she stood looking all around. At last she turned to him, and her face was bright with delight.
“It’s beautiful! Oh, Chancy, I see why you love it so!”
He had never really thought of the ranch as beautiful, but now that she mentioned it, it was a serene oasis, with its tall cottonwoods and expansive lawns. The large, main house had a covered porch on three sides, an arrangement his mother had wanted, so his father and his uncle had it done. It was rumored that his Uncle Charlie, who never married, had also courted his mother, but finally lost out to his father. Chancy had never asked the old man about it.
Bonnie’s words of praise gave Chancy reason to take a new look at the ranch, and he liked what he saw. It was sprawling affair, situated in a long, low, valley, surrounded on three sides by majestic peaks, snow covered most of the year. The land was dotted with cattle, and several streams ran through it, fed by snow melt. Bonnie was right. It was beautiful.
A door slammed, and his Uncle Charlie was walking across the ranch yard, his old eyes taking in the wagon, Chancy, and Bonnie.
“I sent Slim and Pecos up to the cabin yesterday to check on you, and here you are with a lovely young woman and a strange wagon.” He paused, touched the brim of his hat, and nodded at Bonnie, a smile on his leathery face. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
Chancy explained the situation to his uncle, and turned to take care of the horses while the old man escorted Bonnie to the house. He was just finishing when he heard a shout from up the road. He shaded his eyes and recognized the two hands returning from the cabin, with a third man riding between them. As they walked their horses into the ranch yard, Chancy recognized Jacob Cross, who weakly raised a hand to him in greeting.
The three men lifted Jacob off his horse and carried him into the house, placing him on a bed. Jacob gripped Chancy's hand for a moment, and whispered his thanks. Chancy turned around, and saw a weeping Bonnie standing in the door. He stepped aside, and she rushed to Jacob, sobbing and kissing his face. He walked away, relieved, but strangely empty.
Slim Baker and Pecos had found Jacob up and around, weak, but able to fend for himself. He had availed himself of the pot of rabbit stew, and the cabin was warm and cozy. He told them of Chancy’s quest to see to Bonnie’s safety, despite the impending storm, and the two hands nodded. That described Chancy Dolan to a ‘T’. They decide to bring him to the ranch, a ride that exhausted the already weak man.
Supper that night was a joyous affair, with Bonnie happily chatting away with Uncle Charlie, and the hands. Jacob had eaten some soup and had fallen into a deep, healing sleep. Chancy joined in, nodding and smiling with the rest, but his Uncle Charlie noticed that he was unusually subdued.
After supper, Chancy excused himself and retired to the porch swing, where he pulled out his pipe and was preparing to light up, when Bonnie came and sat softly beside him. For a moment, they sat in silence, and then she began to speak, so quietly that he strained to hear.
“I must ask you something, Chancy Dolan, and I know you will think me bold for doing so, but I must hear it for myself, before saying anything more. A woman knows when a man has feelings for her, but she must hear it from his own lips. So I ask you straight out, do you have feelings for me Chancy Dolan?”
Astonished at the sudden question, he caught himself nodding, before he realized what he was doing. “Yes, I do Bonnie, but…”
She pressed her finger against his lips for silence. He watched her face in the moonlight, and saw the reflected glow in her eyes.
“When you told me Jacob was alive, my knees went weak, and I collapsed with relief. But when you picked me up so effortlessly and carried me to my bed, I was suddenly very aware of you. I felt the hard muscles of your arms around me, your breath on my cheek, and I even caught your scent.”
She looked away, suddenly embarrassed. After a moment, she turned back to him, and placed her small hand on top of his.
“I realized that I was thinking and acting the fool, and I desperately did not want to do anything to cheapen myself, so I built a barrier that I knew you would not cross, even if I succumbed and invited you. I almost did you know. I even put on some powder and combed out my hair.”
“Yes, I know.” He looked away miserably. “I noticed everything you did that night.” He turned back to her. “But you were never in any danger from me. I would never bother a married woman.”
“Yes, I knew that, Chancy. I knew what sort of man you were right from the moment you put me in that bed and then walked away. It wasn’t you I feared. It was me, so that’s why I put a barrier between us that I knew you would never cross.”
She smiled and lifted his hand, first to her cheek, and then to her lips. Then she pulled his arm over her shoulders, and leaned against him.
“I must ask you to forgive my deception, Chancy. You see, Jacob is not my husband. He’s my brother."