Authors: Erica Vetsch
The Cactus Creek Challenge
“Two couples + too many chuckles and chortles to count = a doubly delightful read. Those who pick up Erica Vetsch’s fun-filled story will be roped in from the start and will flip pages faster than a chuck wagon cook does flapjacks, as they race to find out how her captivating characters deal with the many challenges that come their way. Another winner from a talented storyteller!”
—Keli Gwyn, author of
Family of Her Dreams
“The characters stole my heart as they stepped up to the challenge of walking a mile in another’s shoes, so to speak. By trading professions for a month, the characters creatively carried out tasks outside their own comfort and talent. Ms. Vetsch skillfully weaves multiple subplots together to create a novel true to the historical West sprinkled with humor and wit and a good dose of sigh-worthy love.”
—Audra Harders, author of
Rough Road Home
“Vetsch brings Cactus Creek—and romance!—to life in Ben and Cassie’s beautifully executed love story. Her warm words made me smell bread baking and romance brewing … two heady effects that worked perfectly together. Kudos, Erica!”
—Ruth Logan Herne, bestselling, multi-published author
“A story full of adventure and laughter with not one, but
, romances. The characters are sharply drawn. Ms. Vetsch has the delightful ability to turn a phrase in a way that brought a smile of pleasure to my lips.”
—Linda Ford, author
“… I love how Erica Vetsch sprinkles fresh language (biscuits as hard as doorknobs) and characters (every single one is unique) into an ageless story of change, love, and restoration. You’ll find yourself challenged in Cactus Creek, too. I loved this book!”
—Jane Kirkpatrick, bestselling author of
A Light in the Wilderness
© 2015 by Erica Vetsch
Print ISBN 978-1-63058-927-1
Adobe Digital Edition (.epub) 978-1-63058-931-8
Kindle and MobiPocket Edition (.prc) 978-1-63058-930-1
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted for commercial purposes, except for brief quotations in printed reviews, without written permission of the publisher.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual people, organizations, and/or events is purely coincidental.
All scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
Cover design: Faceout Studio,
Published in association with Books & Such Literary Agency, 52 Mission Circle, Suite 122, PMB 170, Santa Rosa, CA, 95409-5370,
Published by Shiloh Run Press, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 719, Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683,
Our mission is to publish and distribute inspirational products offering exceptional value and biblical encouragement to the masses
Printed in the United States of America.
As always, to my husband, Peter, the hero of my story.
Cactus Creek, Texas Saturday, March 31, 1888
ou’d think, after all this time, I’d be over him
Cassie Bucknell’s chest constricted as it always did when she encountered Sheriff Ben Wilder. She didn’t need to examine him. She knew him by heart—from his scuffed, high-topped boots to the leather-banded black hat on his dark brown hair—but she looked him over just the same. A longing ache made her drop her gaze, and she regained control of herself lest someone guess her thoughts.
Around her, voices buzzed, men laughed, women gossiped, and people jostled to find their seats before the town meeting commenced, but Cassie heard and felt little beyond the beating of her heart against her ribs.
“I declare, we’re cheek by jowl in here. Are we all going to fit?” Jenny Hart took the seat next to her, gathering in her skirts. “I am beginning to have sympathy for sardines.” The new town baker righted her straw bonnet after an elbow knocked it askew. “I didn’t even know there were this many people in town, much less that would come to a council meeting. I fear the schoolhouse will burst.” Her Southern accent, so different from the Texas twang Cassie was used to, was as rich and beautiful as her clothing.
“Normally, you can hardly get a quorum to attend.” Cassie dragged her attention back to her surroundings. “But today they’re announcing the Challenge contestants. Everybody wants to see who they are.”
“I never heard of such a thing being done by a town before, and I can’t believe you talked me into entering.”
I can’t believe I entered myself
. Cassie surveyed her little kingdom, this schoolhouse-turned-temporary-council-chambers where she’d taught for the past seven months. Women occupied the desks where her pupils normally sat, and around the edges of the room and crowding the entryway, men lounged and waited for things to get under way. “This is the first time they’ve opened the Challenge to women.”
Dr. Bucknell—mayor, head of the town council, and Cassie’s father—rose and placed his fingertips on the teacher’s desk. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank y’all for attending today. I know you’re anxious to get to the Challenge part of the meeting, but there are a few other matters to clear up before we do.”
Cassie kept her eyes focused forward on her father, but she knew where Ben was as easily as a compass needle knew north. Across the room to her right, he stood next to Carl Gustafson, the livery stable owner. Not as tall as Carl—nobody in town matched Carl’s height—he still stood nearly a head taller than Cassie herself. He would have his thumbs hooked into his gun belt, and the star on his placket-front shirt would be shined to a gleam.
When the three councilmen—her father, also the town’s doctor; Ben’s father, the newly retired sheriff; and Hobny Jones, Cactus Creek’s only attorney—finished dealing with preliminary business, a ripple went through the crowd. Who would be chosen this year?
“Because interest in the Cactus Creek Challenge has grown so much, the council has decided to increase the number of contestants from two to four. We’ve extended the Challenge this year to include women, and we will choose two women and two men to compete.” Cassie’s father adjusted his necktie. “We took the names of all those who signed up and put them in these punch bowls. Men’s in this one, and women’s in this one.”
Mrs. Pym, across the aisle from Cassie, sighed and dabbed her upper lip with a lace hankie. “I do hope they’re careful. Those were my grandmother’s, the only matched set of punch bowls in this part of the state.”
Cassie hid a smile. The punch bowls made an appearance at nearly every town function, and each time, Mrs. Pym said the same thing. Everybody in town knew the history of those crystal bowls. They’d traveled all the way across the country and had survived a stagecoach robbery. Mrs. Pym had dined out on that story for two decades.
“Who do you think it will be?” Jenny removed her lace shawl, laid it across her lap, and straightened her cuffs. She wore a pale blue satin dress and, as always, was one of the most stylish women in town. Perfect golden curls piled high on the back of her head, and her summer-sky-blue eyes studied everything carefully. She had a guarded tenseness about her mouth that rarely relented, as if she feared something but was determined not to give in to the fear.
Cassie quit biting her lower lip. “We’ll know soon.” Her glance flicked to Ben’s face, then away. He was smiling, and even though it wasn’t directed toward her, his grin had a way of making her stomach feel swoopy and her chest hollow.
Jenny adjusted the strings on her bag. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“I thought you agreed that it would be a good way to feel part of the community and make a place for yourself in the town.”
Her mouth twisted in a rueful smile. “In a moment of weakness, I might’ve said something like that. But at
moment, I’m wishing I could snatch my name out of that bowl and go hide in my kitchen.”
Cassie knew how she felt. And yet, just as this was a chance for Jenny to meet new people and become known in the town, so it was for Cassie, too. She’d grown up in Cactus Creek, but so many people—she glanced once more at Ben Wilder—still thought of her as a child, the youngest of the Bucknell girls, the mayor’s daughter.
But she wasn’t just the mayor’s daughter, or the kid sister of Louise and Millie, or even the little hoyden she had been. She was a grown woman, properly educated and trained at one of the finest normal schools in the country. She had a teaching certificate, charge of a dozen children each day, and the trust of the superintendent of schools. She was a grown-up, and it was high time people realized it. Her hands fisted and she raised her chin.
“Our first contestant is …” Her father paused for dramatic effect, riffling his fingers through the slips in the bowl labeled M
. “Carl Gustafson.”
Carl grinned, and Ben slapped him on the shoulder. So the livery stable would be one of the locations. Ben’s father, Obadiah Wilder, wrote Carl’s name on the blackboard.
“Our other male contestant will be”—once more fingers dug into the bowl and removed a name—“our new sheriff, Ben Wilder.”
Applause broke out, and Carl elbowed Ben, pointing to his badge and making a “hand it over” gesture. Several folks cheered when Ben waved.
His dimples made Cassie’s heart start bumping again.
“And now for the ladies’ names.”
There weren’t nearly as many ladies who had signed up. After all, most women worked in their homes, and the Challenge winner would be difficult to choose under those circumstances.
“Mrs. Jenny Hart.”
Cassie reached out and clasped Jenny’s hands in her lap. “Congratulations.”
A polite round of applause swept through the room, not nearly as raucous as that given to the men.
Jenny’s face froze in a tight smile, and her face paled until Cassie worried her friend might faint.
“Well, look here, my own daughter, Miss Cassie Bucknell.” Her father beamed. “Our schoolteacher.”
Cassie’s mind spun, and her hands went clammy. For a moment, she knew just how Jenny must be feeling. She’d been chosen. Relief and anxiety clashed inside her. She forced her muscles to relax and her lungs to exhale. More applause, then the room quieted.
“I maintain it isn’t proper for women to be included in the Challenge.” Mrs. Pym’s whisper pierced the brief silence. Several glares turned her way, and she harrumphed. “Still, I suppose it’s for a good cause.”