Hope Sanders gripped the branch above her with both hands and prayed the limb she stood on wouldn’t give way. What would happen if help didn’t arrive soon? Though today was unusually warm for late October, last night was freezing once the sun went down. And there wasn’t a soul, other than her best friend, Adelaide Simmons, who would even guess she was clinging for life smack-dab in the middle of their secret hiding tree on George Hazlett’s ranch.
Ooh, Addie Belle, just you wait. This is your fault, you know. All Hope wanted was a peek—just one little look-see at the cowboy Adelaide said was the most handsomest man she ever did she…and Hope would be sure to agree.
“He’s Mr. Hazlett’s new ranch hand, and his name is Chance Manning. Isn’t that just the dreamiest name—Chance?” Adelaide had fluttered her long lashes and held her pink dress away from her in a mock curtsy.
“And where did you see him, Addie Belle? Your papa would switch you good if he caught you spying on a boy”
Adelaide giggled—Addie Belle giggled at everything—Oh, Hope―he isn’t a boy. No siree, he’s a…a man. And I wasn’t spying. I was…I was considering.”
“Considering what? How you were going to meet him?”
Addie’s eyes twinkled. “Weren’t you listening to Preacher Stewart last week?” She straightened and opened her hands like they were a book. “Ahem” She made her face as long as her round cheeks would allow then lowered her voice. “A virtuous woman considers a field and buyeth it and she perceiveth that her merchandise is good…and waits for her chance.”
Hope gasped. “Adelaide Belle Simmons…that’s sacrilege and you know it.”
“No it isn’t, missy-never-does-anything-wrong. I was going to see if Papa would buy me the field.”
“What field? And what would you do with it anyway? You’re a banker’s daughter, not a rancher.”
“Mr. Hazlett sends Chance Manning to town every day to check on Miss Olive—I heard Papa tell Mama—and to get there he has to ride right past our secret tree.”
“Why Adelaide Belle. You weren’t considering a field. You were perceiving the merchandise.”
And that’s all Hope intended to do—perceive. But now, here she perched on a branch no bigger around than her arm while one of Mr. Hazlett’s bulls spewed slobber and pawed the ground beneath her.
“Shoo! Go away.” She was too frightened, and in too precarious a spot, to do more than holler. “Get. Away. From. Here.” She might as well have been a leaf twirling in the wind for all the attention the animal paid to her threats. But how much longer could she hold on? Her fingers cramped, she was thirsty, and the calves of her legs burned from standing on her tiptoes so her arms could reach the branch above her. It was evident the woman Preacher Stewart talked about never spent much time in a tree.
And why didn’t someone come looking for her? Though, if Papa found her like this she would have some explaining to do. Papa didn’t take much to explanations after the fact, and if she quoted Preacher Stewart, Hazlett’s old bull would seem like a puppy dog.
Hope’s mouth was so dry her lips stuck to her teeth, and her stomach growled for lack of food before she heard the rhythmic clip of horse’s hooves coming her direction. Although the big animal below her no longer paced, it laid beneath the sprawling branches. When a lone rider approached, the brute raised it’s head, then rump-first heaved its gigantic form to all fours and walked away as though just waiting for replacements.
The rider circled the red and white bull, slapping it’s broad back with his lariat. “Hey, Reuben. You lazy old man, I’ve been looking all over for you. “He leaned from the saddle to scratch the beast between its ears.”
Hope suppressed a harrumph. Reuben? This old man that allowed the cowboy to pet him was the same animal that kept her treed the entire afternoon? Of all the…
The descent from her roost was less than graceful. She should have remembered where she was before clamping her hands on her hips in disgust. Her left arm hooked over her previous perch while the rest of her body dangled in the air like the worm on the end of a hook. When her swinging weight became more than one arm could support, she landed at the base of the tree and bounced like a bobber on the water. She grabbed for something to hold her upright, only her hands filled with grasses, dirt still clinging to the roots.
Hope’s head thumped against the tree trunk, and her teeth clamped onto her tongue. Silvery spots danced before her eyes, and just before a curtain of black obscured her vision she perceived the handsomest man she ever did see.