This story is by Judy Blackburn and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dust swirled in puffs kicked up by the loping horse.
Millie set the hoe against the garden fence and quickly untied her skirts she’d tied to make it easier to weed. She removed protective gloves and reached for the rifle.
The cowboy tipped his hat and grinned. Millie smiled but didn’t put the gun down. His blocky hands and swell of shoulders, with the full holster on his hip, made her hold guard.
“Your welcome to water,” she said. She threw the bucket down the well turning the crank with one hand to bring it back up, slopping over with fresh, cold water. She handed a cup to the stranger and poured water into another bucket on the ground for the horse. She admired the cowboy seeing his horse drink before taking a sip himself.
“You live out here alone?”
“My parents are buried over there.” She pointed to a grove of trees. “This is my place now.”
“Lot of work for one little lady.” He removed his hat and splashed water over wavy bread-brown hair.
Millie shrugged. “You do what you have to do and somehow it gets done. My uncle lives here too.”
“What’s your name? My name’s Les Olsen. Nice area around here.”
“I’m Millie Harris, and I agree.” She gazed out towards the bare hills and the river flowing.
He thanked her for the water. Millie watched the young man ride away towards town. “I’ll stop in again,” he hollered and waved.
She wondered. Others had tried to win her affections, but she thought it was mainly for her land. This one seemed different.
The memory of his handsome smile cheered her as she finished the chores. Maybe he’s the one, her dream cowboy. The thought of a good man caring for her and real love warmed her heart.
Two days later Les rode in. Millie watched from a window, then quickly glanced at her golden hair in the mirror and tweaked a flyaway strand. She’d never had a steady beau before. The excitement of that possibility overwhelmed.
She met him at the porch trying to be casual, but her smile lit her whole face.
He handed her a bouquet daisies. “They’re beautiful, Mr. Olsen. Thank you.”
She ran in the house for a vase as he tied his horse to the post.
“You’re pretty, you know.” He leaned against the porch rail. Millie sat the vase on the table on the porch. a hint of strawberry red flushing her cheeks.
“Anything I can help you with today, Millie?”
“Miss Harris, please.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “My father kept this place in good shape and Uncle Josh and I mostly maintain it. I was thinking we could go for a ride? Maybe later you could help me feed the stock. Uncle is feeling poorly today.”
She introduced him to her horse Ebony. “He’s the man in my life.” She grinned.
Les helped saddle him and they headed out. She showed him her favorite spots by the river. They brought a picnic.
“Here, this is for you.” He handed her a heart necklace.
“Oh, it’s beautiful, Mr. Olsen.” She turned and moved her flighty curls so he could hook the clasp.
He placed a soft kiss on her neck. Millie’s heart melted. He lifted her flawless chin and kissed her lips.
Les came out one afternoon to fix a broken corral rail. He had driven the last nail to its destination.
Millie handed him a glass of lemonade. He sipped then pulled something out of his shirt pocket. “I made this for you.” He handed her the bracelet made of horsehair with bright colored beads.
Millie gushed with excitement. “I should be paying you something, not you giving me more gifts.”
“Your company is good enough for me, Miss Harris,” he whispered.
Weeks passed. Les continued to visit Millie and help on the farm.
“I’m like a foreman around here,” Les said one day.
Millie smiled thinking he’s going to propose. He’d rather be a husband than a foreman. Wouldn’t he?
“How about dinner tonight?” Les asked.
The young couple sat in the local restaurant. Millie’s blue eyes sparkled from the flickering candlelight.
He took a box out from under the table and handed it to Millie. Her eyes fell as she saw a box too big for a ring. A silk shawl with flowers and birds floated out. “Oh, my. It’s beautiful. You’re spoiling me.” Millie bowed her head, hiding disappointment.
Millie loaded supplies in her wagon from the porch of the store. “Hi, Millie. How are you doing, dear? Been meaning to get out to see you,” said the store keeps wife.
Millie looked around. “Oh, hi Mrs. Penny. I’ve been pretty busy. Come out anytime, I always have a moment for tea.”
Just then Les rode by. He winked at Millie and she blushed.
“He helps around the place now and then.”
“Be careful, Millie. I haven’t heard much good about him. He’s a drifter.”
Millie laughed. “Look at the necklace he gave me.” She pulled out the heart on a chain.
“He’s always bringing me little trinkets and flowers.” Millie fingered the necklace. “You know my old saddle that needed fixing all the time? Well, he gave me a new saddle. It fits me and Ebony perfectly. And this shawl, isn’t it gorgeous? Next, it’ll be a ring. I just know it.”
Mrs. Penny shook her head. “Are you sure he’s not after your land?”
“Why, ma’am, he’s never said a word. He’s not like the others. I’m sure…” she sighed and ignored the skeptical look from the proprietress.
On her way out of town, Millie saw Les again and started to call to him, but a scantily dressed lady hung on his arm. She gushed and kissed him on the cheek, keeping a hold of his arm as they walked into the saloon.
Millie followed and peeked in the doors, saw Les laughing and kissing the barmaid back. “Oh, honey, I just love this bracelet.” She flashed the bobble around. “And you made it for me, how sweet.”
Millie slipped in, seeing the bracelet that looked a lot like the one he’d made for her. Les turned from the bar and saw her. The smile left his face. “Miss Harris, what are doing here?”
“I… I saw you and… well…” Millie ran out the swinging flaps. She made it to her buckboard and clambered to the seat.
Les got there and grabbed the reins. “Hold on a minute, please let me explain.”
“I don’t see much to explain. Her bracelet looked a lot like the one you made for me.” Millie held back tears. She yanked the reins from him and clucked to her team, leaving him standing in the dust.
Millie held her chest, the anguish crushing. He was just a drifter, a no-good man. He’d swept her off her feet. Made promises he never intended to keep. He implied marriage. The feeling in her stomach was like the kerosene in her lanterns. It burned her insides, ready to explode.
She took a breath and sat straight. I refuse to be treated like horse droppings, she thought.
When she got to her place she didn’t unharness the horses but instead packed up everything he had given her, even the last bouquet though they are ugly and wilted now. She threw everything in the wagon and drove back to town. She also grabbed the rifle.
Les was coming out of the saloon when she pulled up.
“Hi there, honey. Was just on my way out to see you.” His smile was big and wide like nothing had happened.
She jumped down and went to the back of her wagon. The saddle was first. She did hate to let that go, but… Then she threw other items on top. She yanked the necklace off and bracelet. She covered it all with the shawl and laid the wilted flowers on top. She ignored chuckles from men who stood around watching. Les stood silent. He finally didn’t know what to say.
Millie jumped on the wagon and reached for her rifle. She fingered it. The trigger was right there. She couldn’t miss him at this distance. With smoldering eyes, Millie lifted the rifle to her shoulder and pointed it straight at Les. He suddenly went a little white around the lips. Men on the boardwalk moved away.
“Millie, Miss Harris, please, don’t…”
Then as fast as she had aimed the gun she put it down. The feeling of freedom flowed through her and she thought how stupid it would be to shoot the man. Then spend time in prison or worse, at the end of a rope. Not worth it. She was free, had her farm, her horse. Her dream cowboy would come someday. In the meantime, she had her life and the limits of the wide-open sky.