Mail Order Mayhem (Mail Order Romance Book 2 - Benjamin and Annie)

BOOK: Mail Order Mayhem (Mail Order Romance Book 2 - Benjamin and Annie)

Mail Order Mayhem

Mail Order Romance Series: Book 2

2013 by
Kate Whitsby





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Thank you for reading and joining me on this road.

Chapter One

Annie Moran left the cabin in the Angelfire Valley and hiked up the trail to the northern end of the canyon, where she knew her husband Benjamin worked his cattle herds. For three years, ever since she married Benjamin Moran, she maintained her daily ritual of walking out to fetch him home for lunch and supper, and each time, she experienced the same enjoyment of anticipation at seeing him, followed by the fulfillment of that aspiration when his figure entered her sight. She lifted her voice into the wind and sang hymns into the churning power of the storm. Above her head, black thunder clouds rumbled and threatened, and the first spattering of raindrops moistened her face. She tightened her knitted shawl around her shoulders as she climbed the steep slope toward the upper pastures that lined the banks of the river. Even as the sharp wind cut through her clothes, chilling her, and the blustery gusts of the first lashings of rain whipped her hair around her face, the electric tingle crackling through the air exhilarated her, and she laughed as much from exhilaration as from fear of the weather.

At the crest of the rugged trail, she stopped briefly to drink in greedily the sweeping vista of the hills rising before her into the towering peaks, and the glorious valley falling away behind her into flat meadows of golden grass. But she cut her admiration short
when she saw the looming wall of solid black clouds already sending curtains of inky precipitation down to the earth. In the short time Annie took to hike up the canyon from the cabin, the massive towers of grumbling clouds completely blotted out the northern ranges and lumbered in to engulf the head of the canyon itself. Just at their feet, Annie spotted a man on horseback, his coat collar flipped up against the pelting rain, and his shoulders hunched to protect his neck and ears from the biting wind. He inched along with excruciating slowness behind a cluster of clumsy cows, interspersed with a few dull-witted sheep. He swung a leather whip around in a circle, first on his left and then on his right, in a vain effort to goad his flock forward. Annie couldn’t hear his voice over the howling wind, but she knew he would yell himself hoarse to encourage them to move faster. Even now, the tempest bore down on him from behind. He didn’t look back, but focused all his attention of driving his stock before him. As she watched, an ominous heaviness filled the air and a blinding streak of lightning sizzled down to the ground from the cloud. Its ghostly light cast eerie glowing shadows around the blades of grass at Annie’s feet. Only the briefest pause followed before an ear-splitting crack racked the valley, almost knocking Annie off her feet from the concussion. His slow progress at the front of the storm alarmed her so much that she stopped singing and ran to meet him.

She hastened up the path, wading through the long grass at the shoulder of the trail
to let the cattle pass her by. Then she hurried over to her husband’s mount.

“You shouldn’t have come out in this weather,” he yelled as she came within earshot. “It’s dangerous, with the lightning and thunder so close.”

“Do you need help to get them down?” she called back, ignoring his admonishment.

“They won’t go down,” he spat at the backs of the
cows. “They’re too frightened to move fast enough.”

She refused to accept his defeat.
“Let me help you!” she offered. “Between the two of us, we should be able to get them down.”

Benjamin shook his head dolefully. “It’s hopeless. I’ve been trying to get them moving for two hours now. They won’t go any faster than this, no matter what I do.”

“Well, let’s at least try,” Annie urged plaintively. “They may act differently with two of us doing it.” She couldn’t accept the idea of standing aside and leaving their stock to their fate. There must be something they could do to salvage the situation.

Without waiting for a reply, she picked up a large branch lying on the ground at the base of a nearby tree. Its dried leaves rustled and rattled noisily in her hands, and she shook it at the herd of lumbering animals
, her heart beating wildly. Almost instantly, the cows near the rear of the herd broke into a trot, spurring those in front of them onward, and before another minute passed, the whole group started running down the canyon. Flanking them on both sides, Annie and Benjamin pursued them to the head of the trail. The animals shot through the gap and barreled down the slope to a flat landing where the river tumbled over a rocky ledge into a pool above the canyon floor.

Benjamin reined in his horse at the top of the trail and
glanced back over his shoulder toward the storm that all but consumed him. Successive sheets of rain tore at his face, and he clenched his eyes and listened intently to the howling wind and the crack of the thunder. A low hissing noise issued down the canyon from behind that impenetrable barrier of charcoal preventing him from seeing more than a dozen feet. Bracing his back to the thrashing sting again, he rounded to the trail just in time to see Annie’s head disappearing down the path after the cattle herd. He urged his horse to the edge of the slope and strained his aching throat to yell at her, attracting her attention enough to make her stop and wait for him. He reined to a halt again next to her.

“There’s a flash flood coming down the canyon!” he screamed. “Leave the cattle and get out of here as fast as you can! Get to high ground! Drop that branch and run! Go, now!”

She clutched her branch resolutely, as if it alone held any hope for her. “We can’t leave them!” she shouted back. “Help me get them all the way down!”

It’s suicide!” he shot back. “Leave them and get out of here, now!”

“We can’t leave them!” she repeated. “This herd is our whole livelihood! If we lose them now, we’ll starve this winter. Now, come on and help me!”

Small cries of hysterical apprehension squeaked from her throat as she rushed the bewildered cows and sheep. She shook her branch as menacingly as she dared, grimacing and bellowing, although she couldn’t hear her own voice over the wind. The few animals closest to her reared in alarm and rolled their eyes. One young steer lowered its head and pretended to confront her, snorting and grunting. She bared her teeth like a wolf and bellowed back at it, rattling her branch in its face. Then Benjamin swung his whip and charged his horse at them. They finally veered away and scampered the rest of the way down the trail, kicking up their heels and tossing their heads excitedly.

Annie ran after them to keep them moving, simultaneously laughing and crying in relief. Her soaking wet hair slapped her burning cheeks.
She chased the cattle all the way down the trail to the corner where it leveled off. There she allowed herself to slow to a walk as the herd fanned out into the meadow and ambled off to graze among the swaying grass. The storm front overtook her from behind, and the intense shower of rain beat and pummeled not only her, but everything else in its path as well. The deluge so saturated every fiber of Annie’s clothing and every strand of her hair, down to her smallest eyelash, that she no longer thought about being wet, except to drink the droplets trickling into her mouth from her nose and lips. Even then, she simply enjoyed their sweet freshness and admired their vital fragrance.

The thunder echoed around the valley and the lightning
brightened up the ridges. Annie exulted in the magnificent spectacle that never ceased to inspire in her the new joy and awe she experienced from her first sight of the valley and recurred almost daily with its changing moods and colors. Annie ducked under a drooping overhang of cedar boughs where the wooded riverbank and the expanse of meadow began. Though the heavy foliage dripped noisily around her, the canopy afforded a modicum of shelter. She waited there for Benjamin to finish tending to his horse in the barn. Panting for breath but exuberant in her success, she tossed her branch aside and sought the best position inside the little refuge.

Almost the moment she found an advantageous location, a deafening rumble drew her attention back toward the river. It reminded her of a freight train barreling into a station. Her head pivoted around to witness a massive wave of mud-brown water, dotted with tree trunks
and boulders, explode over the crest of the canyon and crash down the narrow stone chute. It surged through the pool at mid-level, inundating the landing where Annie and the cattle herd so recently tarried, before forcing a path of destruction down the remainder of the canyon and into the creek bed. Several trees standing close beside the bank toppled and submerged under the pressure of the torrent. Once the flood reached the relative flatness of the creek bed, its power dissipated somewhat into a boiling, roiling tide of mud, rocks, and debris charging through the once-placid creek. The overflow lapped up over the grassy banks, around the roots of the trees, higher and higher, to the very edge of Annie’s vegetable garden by the south wall of the cabin. It rose to the rear wall of the barn and dampened the bottom tier of the firewood pile before it ebbed slightly into a steady stream.

Benjamin joined her. H
e took off his coat and spread it over both their heads like a miniature tent. They watched their stock grazing placidly on the open plain. “Should we get them into the barn, do you think?” Annie suggested.

“Let them graze a while,” Benjamin
countered. “I left the door open. When they get sick of the rain and they calm down some, they’ll come inside by themselves.”

“Do you think we’re in any danger from the flood?” she asked.

“Nah,” he mused. “We’ll just have to keep an eye on the creek. The floor boards might get a little bit wet, but we’ll be okay here. It’s up in the narrow parts of the canyon where the danger is greatest. I’ve seen it like this before. The creek will rise and start to spread up into the meadow, but it won’t get so big that it’ll wash us out. We can thank God for that.”

“Yes, thank God for that,” she agreed.

She cast her gaze around the meadow once more, caressing the grass, the violent storm clouds, and the swaying cedar trees with her eyes, loving it all and rejoicing in it once again. The whole scene, with its danger and its violence, reiterated the glory of God. As she gazed, a slight motion tickled her peripheral vision. Looking that way, her eye fell on the black bark of the tree next to her. Upon closer inspection, she saw an iridescent purple lizard crawling up the damp bark.

“Oh, look at that!” she marveled. “Look at that lizard! Look at its color! I’ve never seen anything so amazingly bright before!” Instinctively, she extended a finger toward it.

But Benjamin restrained her with his hand gripping her arm, and pulled her back away from the tree. “Don’t touch it!” he warned. “It’s poisonous.”

“Can it really be that dangerous?” she doubted. “I wasn’t going to eat it or anything like that.”

“Better to stay away from it,” he cautioned. “If you got any of its juices on your hand and then touched your eye or your mouth, you’d be dead by morning. One lick on the back of its neck can kill a man.”

Annie examined the lizard from the safe distance of their make-shift canopy. It
zigzagged its tiny body side to side as it inched up the side of the tree, completely oblivious to the larger creatures near it and apparently unconscious of all danger. It ambled along its way, climbing steadily with one stubby limb in front of the other, until it ascended out of Annie’s sight into the lofty branches of the tree. For some reason unknown to her, the lizard made a profound impression on her, and she could not dispel it from her thoughts. Its blazing color reminded her of something from a dream, a magical talisman appearing at coincidental moments to remind her of something exceptionally important she could not retrieve from her conscious mind. She pondered its meaning as they trudged back to the cabin through the downpour. As Benjamin indicated, the cows headed for the open barn door as the two people reached the cabin door. He glanced back at them. “I’ll come out and close the door in a few minutes, once they’re all inside. The storm’s likely to continue all night long, and I don’t want them out in it.”

Benjamin lit the lantern, though full dark didn’t normally fall for a few more hours. The clouds obscured the light of day and brought
nightfall early. Annie completed their supper while Benjamin attended to his separate chores, and she dished the supper out into plates while Benjamin stepped out into the rain to close the door of the barn. When he returned, they sat opposite one another in front of the steaming food. Annie folded her hands and paused.

Benjamin bowed his head. “For
what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful. Amen.”

“Amen,” Annie responded with a ghost of a smile to herself. Then they both fell to their meal.

Though he rarely intoned any other Grace than this simple Sunday-school formula from his childhood, Annie secretly applauded Benjamin every time he did so. She admired him for the minute advances he made, season after season, toward a fuller religious life, and celebrated each private victory rather than harassing him to progress faster. In this way, she enjoyed a religious communion with him that ignored their differences, and allowed him ample space to assume an ever greater role as spiritual leader of their family nucleus. She counseled herself to remain patiently vigilant, that this miniscule concession laid the foundation for their future together and any children who chanced to bless their home.

The same diligent contentment marked their routine after supper. Annie cleared the supper dishes and dumped the dirty dishwater out the door while Benjamin sat at the table with the lantern at his elbow, selecting their nightly reading from the Bible. She smiled happily to herself as she observed him surreptitiously at this task
, and when she dried her hands on the corner of her apron and took her own chair near him, she sighed in the fulfillment of another blessed day.

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