Box Canyon


 Here’s a sample of the first chapter of my upcoming YA western book, “Box Canyon”.

 

Even in the confines of the barn, their ears weren’t safe from the shouts echoing from the kitchen. Two men and their sister looked at each other solemnly. This wasn’t the first night this week their parents had argued. Seventeen year old Noel ‘Button’ McMasters turned back to the cow she’d been milking and pressed her face against its warm side, trying to hide her tears.

Her oldest brother, Dunn, let out an oath too soft for Noel to hear, but the second boy, Tack, turning to frown disapprovingly at him. Dunn spread his hands innocently. Tack shook his head and went back to laying down a thick bed of straw for the new lambs.

Getting to her feet, Noel asked, “Why do they always have to fight, Tack?”

“I suppose that’s just what happens when folks get married.”

“Then I don’t ever want to get married!”

“Ah, Button, it isn’t that bad. Ma and Pa get along sometimes.”

“They fight more often than they agree.” Dunn muttered into his armload of musty cornstalks.

After the chores were finished, Tack put his arm around Noel’s shoulders and promised, “Everything’s going to be fine.”

Dunn seconded, “And just as long as they ain’t mad at us, we’ll make it through dinner unscathed!”

Noel didn’t even have the heart to smile at her brothers’ attempts to lighten the mood.

Sitting around the table in the dusky twilight, Noel was finding it hard to stomach her food. The steak got caught in her throat, the bread tasted like sawdust, and even the sweet pickles weren’t appealing. Looking up, she found her brothers were also disturbed and unable to eat. Ma just sat in her chair, glancing out the window ever now and then, and Pa’s usually twinkling blue eyes started dully at her uneaten peas.

The silence was too much to bear. Noel cleared her throat. Ma jumped in her seat and turned to look sternly at her. Noel looked to her brothers for help. Dunn laid down his fork and leaned forward in his chair, “Pa, one of the mares is getting close to foaling.”

Pa looked up with interest, but one sideways look at his wife dampened his mood all over again.

Noel pushed back her chair and escaped to the empty kitchen. She scraped her food into the pigs’ slope bucket and then hastened up the stairs to her room in the attic. She shared the room with her brothers. There was a blanket stretched across the middle of the room to give Noel some privacy. But tonight, instead of going straight to bed, she waited up, hoping her brothers wouldn’t be long in coming.

Not ten minutes had passed before Tack and Dunn came trooping up the stairs. Noel scooted closer to the blanket and whispered to them.

Tack answered her, face close to the blanket, “Ma’s mad that we don’t have enough money to pay the bank notes. She wants Pa to get a job in town. But he says he can’t because there wouldn’t be anyone to take care of the livestock. So Ma told him to sell off part of the herd. But then Pa said if he did that, then the paycheck in the fall from selling the yearlings would be smaller than ever and they still wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.”

Noel groaned. Her parents found about money several times a year. And for the past two weeks, there had nary been a day gone by that they weren’t squawking about something. “Why are there so many people who are rich and have more than they need, when there are so many poor families who don’t have as much as they should?”

“I don’t know, Button, I guess that’s just the way life works.”

***

The next morning, Ma put Noel to work cleaning. Noel hated to clean. She’d rather be out with her brothers, rounding up horses and chasing cattle. But Ma, who’d been raised in a prosperous southern home, said that the women’s domain was the home, and shouldn’t ever be out riding the range like an ordinary cowpoke.

And so, Noel scrubbed the floor, wiped away cobwebs and dust, and scoured the kettles and cookware with sand. Then she rolled up the sleeves on the sprigged calico dress she was wearing and started washing the breakfast dishes. Out the window, she saw Tack lead a horse out of the barn and tie him to the hitching rail. Dunn followed with two more horses and proceeded to curry and saddle them. They were going for a ride!

Noel stood on tiptoe to watch her brothers, forgetting all about the wash water and suds. Ma appeared, carrying an armload of laundry and snapped, “For heaven’s sake Noel! Stop dallying and finish the dishes, then you can come out and help me hang up these clothes.”

“Yes Ma.” Noel’s heart sank. Ma just didn’t understand that Noel didn’t like this kind of work. Noel was an eagle and she needed to be free to fly, but she was stuck here, in this cage, suffocating.

Just then, Tack appeared in the doorway and called, “Got a minute Button?”

She ran to meet him. “We need some help, we’re missing three hundred or so head off the back forty, and Pa thinks they ventured into the box canyon.”

“I’ll go change!” Noel turned and ran right into Ma. “What’s the rush?”

Tack explained, “We’re short on help. May Noel come with us to the box canyon?”

Ma sighed dramatically, “Oh I suppose so.” Ma shook her head, muttering about how humiliating it was for a mother to have to let her daughter do man’s work because there wasn’t enough money to hire workers.

Noel dashed upstairs and changed into a pair of trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and her flat brimmed Stetson hat. By the time she made it outside, Tack had her little mare, Star, saddled and waiting.

“We almost had to leave without you.” Dunn teased from the back of his tall gelding.

As giddy as a lark, Noel climbed into the saddle and let Star prance around in a happy little circle.

Pa heaved himself onto his own horse, firmly saying, “You do need to learn your place, Button. A woman belongs in a kitchen.”

“But Pa: times have changed! A woman should be free to do as she likes. Besides, I would rather do this than anything else in the whole world!”   

He didn’t reply, but by the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, Noel could tell he was pleased and wasn’t going to force her to do anything she didn’t want to do.

Tack hollered, “Hey Dunn, race you!” and he touched his spur to his horse’s side and shot off down the path and out the gate.

Dunn and Noel raced after him, whooping and hollering like wild Indians.

Small but spirited, Star soon edged past her long-legged neighbors and stayed in the lead until they reached the mouth of the canyon. Here, Noel waited for her family. She’d never have said it aloud, but she was afraid of this place and had been since she was a child and had stumbled upon the carcass of a lion kill. Now she wished she’d thought to bring along Pa’s spare rifle.

Tack understood, and he slid his own rifle out of the scabbard and passed it to her. “Keep your eyes open.” Noel nodded, holding the rifle securely. Tack took the lead from here, and Button followed. Pa and Dunn trailed behind. Noel’s eyes revolved around as she watched for movement of any kind. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end when a crash came from behind them. All four riders turned to look.

There was nothing out of the ordinary, but they could hear bawling cattle and gunfire. “That’s coming from the house!” Dunn declared.

But before they could make it out of the canyon, three men appeared, blocking their only way out. Several more men appeared on the sandstone ledges above, and they could hear more men on the canyon rim. The three men began to advance, pushing Noel and her family further into the canyon. Suddenly, one of the men rushed at them.

Pa took a hasty shot at them before baling off his panicked horse. “Hide!” he ordered, scrambling out of view.

Tack rolled out of the saddle and disappeared behind a log. Dunn grabbed a low hanging tree branch and pulled himself into a tree. Noel dove off Star’s back, twisting her ankle and skinning her cheek on a rock before she managed to squeeze into a little hollow behind a slab of sandstone. She cocked her rifle and peeked out just in time to see a man armed with a bowie knife sneaking up behind Tack.
*to be continued*

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