Delilah Sutton could not shake the feeling that she was being watched. As she loaded her wagon with goods from the General Store, she felt a chill run up her back. Memories flashed through her mind, and she took a deep breath. She would not let this overcome her. Not now. Not when she needed her bravado to show them she was not afraid. Heaving a bag of flour into the wagon, she glanced at the pile waiting to be loaded. She felt rushed; she wanted to get out of town before he came back. Before he found out what she had done.
There was not one friendly face in the passers-by, but it was not the townspeople she was worried about. She barely noticed the glares, the women who crossed the street in order to pass her, the men who stared at her with distaste. It had been years since she had walked down the boardwalk and received a smile. Years since she’d seen a face in town that wasn’t consumed with superiority or lust. And she had come to terms with the way people treated her. It was worse now, but she did not blame them; her past was not something to be proud of, far or near.
It did not help that she dressed as a man out of practicality. She was looked at as worthless by both sexes. Unmarriageable by bachelors, crude by women her age, unladylike by older women, unruly by older men. And now a criminal by all. A few strangers sent curious glances her way, but she ignored them as she hauled another bag of feed out to her wagon and grunted as she heaved the fifty-pound sack into the bed of the rickety vehicle.
Nobody offered help. She did not expect them to. She did not need the help. She had been on her own for five years now, and at twenty-four years of age, knew how to take care of most things by herself. What she could not do, she made do without. Only recently had she begun to wish she had a few friends to hide with, but she didn’t. She would have to be brave and stick it out.
Dust swirled through the street, catching in a few stray puddles from the rainfall the day before. It had been a welcome rain, a much needed one. The summer heat was almost unbearable come midday.
After a short pause to catch her breath, Delilah bent to lift the other fifty-pound bag and swing it up into the wagon. It stretched her back the wrong way and pulled at the still-healing wound on her stomach, but she ignored the pain. She had a few more items to throw into the wagon, and she could be on her way. Out of the way of all the dirty stares of those who knew her in Aspen, away from the strangers she avoided.
Ever since the preacher had died, she had been a complete outcast. She had no safe place but home. The old preacher had welcomed her into the church with open arms, but she’d been thrown out by the uproar of the pious patrons who frequented the pews, even though she’d only come after church hours. So, to spare him the pain of dealing with the rampant rumors, she ceased her visits. The kind man had not been concerned with his own reputation, but she knew all too well how harmful the talk of the town could be.
The preacher had been too good a man to be accused of sins of any kind, and she had been sick of the hypocrites who called themselves godly. Had the preacher not said that all were welcome? That Jesus had not turned away anyone, nor would he, nor should they? Yet they sat and they glared and they whispered and they condemned. If the world was made by their jurisdiction, she had just bought her ticket to hell.
Throwing a few bolts of sturdy cotton into the wagon, she wiped her hands on her pants and looked at the church. She missed the old man and his lively conversations. He would have known what she should do. At times like these, she was reminded of all she’d had and all she’d lost. She needed to be brave and on her guard, but she was lonely and afraid. With a small shake of her head, she turned back to the wagon.
It was full to the brim with goods. Since it was a two day journey out to her place, she made sure to stock up for a month or more of living before she had to come to town again. She did not like the townspeople, nor did they like her. Thankfully, it was summer, so the roads were dry and the rains were few. She rarely had trouble hauling a wagon full of goods in the summer.
Climbing onto the seat of the wagon, she snapped the reins and urged her horse forward. He balked a little at the load put on him, but Delilah knew that the stocky cross-breed would be fine once he got going.
She waited until they were out of town before she shoved her hat off of her head and tilted her face up to the sun, shaking out her vibrant red curls in the warmth. Delilah had once liked the silence in the prairies. It was a different silence than that of the town. Out here in the open, a man could hear the wind as it spoke to the crickets, the birds in the sporadic aspen trees.
But now, all she saw was the shadows, all she heard was the snapping of branches and rustling of grass. Every time she was outdoors, she felt like she was being watched. He would come for her soon, she knew. It would be sudden and unexpected. She could never put down her guard or her gun until it was over.
Forcing her mind away from her fears, she made herself notice the beauty of the colors dotting the grass. The flowers bobbed their heads as she passed, and she was tempted to stop and pick some. Though she dressed like a man, Delilah had always been partial to frills and prettiness.
She took after her mother. Her mother had loved everything about being a woman, from the dresses to the beaus to the perfumes and lotions and baubles and jewelry. Rose Sutton had been feminine through and through. But then they’d come here, and everything had rolled downhill. It was a wonder Rose had lasted four years under the circumstances.
Delilah pretended to have a tough skin, though, and few people saw beneath the silent, independent demeanor she portrayed. It was the only way she could convince everyone, herself included, that the spite and rumors did not matter to her. She had the entire town fooled that she was impervious to their hate. That she had no fear of what tomorrow would bring.
But every word stung, and she was terrified that tomorrow would bring her death.
She had dreamed, when she was young, that she would live on a beautiful farm and marry a loving husband and live the perfect life with lots of children to raise and love. The dream had slowly evolved in a downward spiral, until all that remained was the hopeless longing for a companion. She needed someone to stand by her when it happened.
But she had a severely damaged past, and she doubted that any man would take her knowing where she came from and what she had done. Especially now.
She was about five miles from town when she saw the Sheriff and his rabble of a posse gathered around a sturdy oak. Her horse slowed of his own accord as she drew closer to where the posse and tree were located about ten feet away from the road. In their midst was a man no older than twenty-seven, strong build, dark haired, handsome. His black hair was pulled back from his face with a leather lace, and there was blood trickling from a wound on his left cheek.
The Sheriff tipped his hat and rode over as she stopped. “Who is he?” Her curiosity was piqued by the slight humor in the doomed man’s eyes. He was being read his rights and asked for any last words.
“Horse thief,” the Sheriff answered, leaning on his pommel. “Caught him about twenty miles yonder, runnin’ like the devil was after him.”
Delilah did not comment. The dark-haired man certainly did not look like a criminal. His clothes were plain, but well made and clean, and the saddle he sat on was not new. As they tightened a noose around his neck, he looked up. And he met Delilah’s eyes.
The gaze was not pleading, nor angry. It was a strange, amused, wry look, the light brown eyes quirked in a little bit of a smile. His jaw was set, though, and he tensed a little as the rough rope tightened around his neck. But he said not one word of protest as his eyes bored into Delilah’s.
She bit her lip. He looked far too young to die, far too… alive. Did he have a family somewhere? A wife?
“He married?” she asked, before she knew what she was saying.
The Sheriff looked at her and slowly shook his head. “Nope. No family” he grunted and looked back as one of the deputies asked if the man had any last words. “Nobody’ll miss him. Just a wet-behind-the-ears stranger tryin’ to make money that ain’t his.”
Delilah could not look away from the eyes that studied her. She felt tense and uneasy as the Sheriff raised his hand and nodded, and the deputy reached out his hand to smack the horse’s rump. With a slight nod, the man clenched his teeth and bowed his head. But just before the deputy’s hand connected with the horse, Delilah jerked.
“Wait!” the word came out of her mouth and surprised her just as much as anyone else. All eyes turned to her. She lowered her voice. “Sheriff, I need a man around the place,” she said before she knew what she was doing, and she did not stop to think about it. “I’ve got tasks I can’t manage, enemies who will pop up sooner or later, and this man… he doesn’t look like the sort to repeat his crime.” That was a lie. He looked ready to jump from the horse and do all sorts of mischief.
The Sheriff frowned at her. “You’re askin’ me to release him into your custody?”
“Yes,” Delilah answered slowly. “I am.” And if he chose to run again, so be it. She would face her fate alone, and the posse could hunt him down and hang him.
For a moment, the Sheriff considered it. Then he shook his head. “Sorry Miss Sutton, I know you’d be a mite safer with a man around, but it ain’t proper, and you already got more rumors and trouble surroundin’ you than any woman should have. If you was to take a strange man into your home, people might run ya’ off.” The Sheriff didn’t like her, she knew, and even he was not sympathetic of her plight.
“What if I married him?” Delilah did not hesitate. A man’s life was on the line, her life was in turmoil without protection. She didn’t know why she wanted this man when she had seen so many others, but it was out and she was going to go through with her word.
“If you what?” The Sheriff was taken aback.
Delilah leveled his incredulous expression with a calm gaze. “If I married him, it’d all be legal and proper. No one would have a cause to protest me taking my own husband home with me.” She glanced at the man just briefly, and saw his slight frown as he strained to hear what she was saying.
The Sheriff shook his head. “I’ll be–” He shoved his Stetson back and rubbed his forehead. “Miss Sutton, if you ain’t the strangest woman I ever did know.”
She smiled only slightly. “Sheriff, you know as well as I do that I am alone out there, and I need a man to help with the workload on my shoulders. Even if I had the place under control, I’ll be safer with him around.”
“He’s a horse thief,” the Sheriff argued.
“You said yourself that he’s inexperienced at it.” Delilah glanced at the man again and found he was watching her with an admiring gaze. She was used to that. “So I doubt he’s been in the business for long.”
“You sure ’bout this, Miss Sutton?” With a slight frown, he adjusted his Stetson.
Honesty was key in dealing with the man. Delilah knew this. So she laid it out with all the honest reasons. “There isn’t a man in town who would marry me, Sheriff, not after… everything. You know that. And I don’t have any other options to get help. Nobody will agree to work for pay, atop of that I do not have the money to pay them.” She let out her breath in a short sigh. “Yes, I’m sure.”
The smile on the Sheriff’s face was not friendliness towards her. It was a wry admiration for her spunk. “Okay.” He turned to his posse and waved his hand. “Get that noose off his neck. We’re gonna have us a weddin’.”