Annette and Ella Prader made their way home together. They had spent the afternoon helping their father organize The Saddle Shop.
“I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it summer all year long in Abilene. I can feel the long warm days escaping us. That means the harsh winter won’t be far behind,” Ella said.
“I don’t mind the winter as most of our family does. It reminds them of what happened on the lake. Father should have picked up the family and moved to a warmer climate where there wouldn’t be so many memories. It seems like a waste of time dreading the cold weather. We live in Minnesota for goodness sake and not Georgia,” Annette pointed out.
“Mother would never agree to leave Abilene. I think there’s a part of her that believes the boys will return someday. They wouldn’t be able to find us if we moved somewhere different. It doesn’t make sense because you saw them die. If she didn’t believe you, it should have been clear when fishermen found items like hats and shoes as the years have gone by,” Ella noted. “My father identified them as belonging to the boys.”
“Cold weather and sad memories are not a reason to stop living,” Annette reasoned.
The girls trounced through the tall grass as they raced home to help their mother prepare dinner.
“You always see the positive side of things. Why don’t you get melancholy as the rest of the Praders do on occasion?” Ella asked her big sister.
“There’s too much life to be lived. I help father at The Saddle Shop, help with chores and work at Uncle Satchell’s office. That means there’s little time for melancholia. We’ve been through this before; our brothers’ tragic deaths motivated me to live life with vigor. It’s not something I share with Mother because she would think it horrible. She doesn’t believe anything good can be taken from the deaths of Matt and Luke.”
Ella rolled her eyes. “It amazes me that we’re sisters but in some ways, we’re very different.”
“It keeps us from tiring of one another. It would be boring if my best friend were just like me. There’d be nothing to learn and no interesting debate,” Annette remarked.
“Besides the fact that you’re three years older, what do you believe is our greatest difference?”
“Are you searching for a debate?” Annette laughed. “Our ideas of courtship and marriage are vastly different, for one thing. You seem to think marriage will be the answer to all your worries. You’re looking for someone to take care of you. On the other hand, I want to find a partner and friend. A man who makes my heart skip a beat every time I see him.”
A sour look came over Ella’s face. “It doesn’t matter what either of us think. I’m too young to be courted and your marriage will be arranged. I don’t think he cares whether he makes your heart flutter.”
“We’ll see. That’s another thing about me. I don’t waste time worrying about something until it happens. I have yet to begin a courtship so my heart can skip a beat at any moment.”
Just as the girls were nearing the family farm, a wagon came out of nowhere. A cloud of dust burst and covered the girls’ faces. Annette leaped and pushed Ella out of the way in a single action. The Prader sisters ended up laying in a bramble bush. The man holding the reins waved from behind. He didn’t even stop to check that they were okay.
“Are you injured?” Annette asked.
“No, but I’ll be picking brambles out of my hair for days.”
Ella wore her wavy hair loose since she was still considered young. Annette wore her auburn hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. It was easier to manage with her hectic schedule and made her look more mature.
“Whoever that man was, he was a beast,” Annette insisted. “He’s the type of man who would turn my heart black. I wouldn’t care what he looked like or how charming he was.”
Ella laughed when she looked at her sister. “You look like you bathed in the dirt.”
“If you saw your own reflection in a mirror, you’d say the same of yourself,” Annette commented as she helped Ella to her feet. “We’d better pick up the pace because you know Mother doesn’t take kindly to tardiness.”
Mike and Linc Prader were Fourteen and greeted the girls as they approached the house. It was hard to believe but the boys were even dirtier than the girls. There were times Annette felt jealous of the twins. They were too young to remember Matthew and Luke.
“Barrels are full of water in the barn. We had all better clean up before we go in the house,” Annette directed them to wash up. “Mother and Father don’t want their children looking like street urchins when we sit at the table.”
Annette was responsible for keeping the boys in line. There were times she felt more like a mother than a sister. As twins, Mike and Linc took care of each other a lot. Annette didn’t have to worry about keeping them occupied since they handled that themselves. She made sure they did their chores, learned manners, and went to school. Ella helped too. She was an excellent seamstress and mended their clothes and provided new ones when necessary.
Ella made the mistake of dressing them in Matt and Luke’s clothes once. Their mother Laura had a fit and went on to bury her dead sons’ clothes next to their headstones. Annette wondered if her mother believed they’d need the clothes in heaven. They were not ever to be reused. Laura didn’t allow any of their things to be touched after they died. Laura Prader had been in a fragile state for the ten years since the accident as the rest of the family tried moving on.
Annette made chicken stew in the morning before she went to The Saddle Shop. Dumplings finished off her masterpiece and stretched it would feed the Praders for a couple of days. Out of necessity, Annette developed into a good cook.
Laura cooked an occasional dinner, but it never turned out like it was supposed to. Her father Jason relied on a hearty meal because his job was laborious at times. Annette picked up the slack without a hitch. There wasn’t a night Mr. Prader or anyone else in the family went to bed hungry.
The family-owned Saddle Shop had been in the Prader clan for three generations. It was supposed to pass to Matt and Luke. Now Mr. Prader had to come up with an alternate plan. Annette was waiting to hear what he came up with, although she was fairly sure what it would be. She just waited until she was told what to do.
“Good stew, like everything else you make Annette,” Jason Prader said.
“Thank you, Father. It had better be good because it’ll be served up again for the next two nights.” She smirked and giggled. “I figured we’d need biscuits or bread for tomorrow. Are you up to that?” Annette asked her mother.
She knew the one thing Lara still made better than anyone else was bread. The doctor said it was helpful for Laura to work on things she was good at. The family praise her baking and that boosted her self-esteem. She was carried away at one point and made eight loaves of bread. Jason took the extras into the shop and unloaded them on customers. Ella brought hot biscuits to the church to have them distributed among the needy.
Mr. Prader had come to rely on Annette for more than just help at home and at the shop. They had the clearest memories of what Laura was before the deaths of her sons. It was something they formed a bond over. They leaned on each other for support. Jason, especially, wanted to bring back the skilled, spunky, and social wife he had married. Until she improved, they tried to keep things as normal as possible at home. The young boys deserved some semblance of normalcy.
Annette went out of her way to please her father since he had lost so much. Not only did he lose his sons but in many ways his wife too. He would have been inclined to feel like a widower if not for her help.
“Do you know all those saddle orders that we have backed up?” Mr. Prader asked Annette.
“The ones that require the layer of fur underneath?”
“Those are the ones. One of the best trappers in the area is back in Abilene so I’ll purchase whatever he has to offer. He hasn’t been here for a while. There are rumors that he was kin to some bad folks because he doesn’t have much of a background. Some say he’s shifty and don’t trust him for that reason. All I know is that he sells the best animal hides in Minnesota. He’s friends with the Chippewa that live in the area and some folks count that as a mark against him.”
“Regardless of who he is, it’ll be nice to fill those orders. Have you thought of my idea about the horse blankets?” Annette asked.
“I’m still considering it. I wanted to make sure they aren’t already selling them at the mercantile. I’ll go over there this week,” he said.
“Did I hear you say you were going to the mercantile?” Ella asked.
Annette knew her sister wasn’t interested in the mercantile per se. She was, however, interested in Max Willer, the owner’s son. It was a secret and of course, she’d keep it as that was what they did for one another. Unfortunately for Ella, she had another year until Mr. Prader would even discuss the idea of courting.
“Are there sewing supplies you need?” Annette asked as she gave her a secretive wry smile.
She did her the favor of giving her an excuse to go to the store.
“Yes and while I’m there, I’ll ask about blankets. I like the idea of selling horse blankets at The Saddle Shop,” Ella commented.
After dinner, Mr. Prader sat by the hearth with his pipe as Mrs. Prader got involved with her needlework. She made many errors that would have frustrated her if not for Annette’s help. She secretly corrected her mother’s needlework before going to bed. Then she put the frame back where she had found it.
The girls cleaned the dishes while the boys carried firewood inside. They had to make sure there was enough to warm up the house in the morning. It was summer but the mornings still tended to be cool.
Annette found her father on the front porch before she went up to bed.
“Are you saying good night to the moon?” she asked as she joined her father on the porch swing.
“Something like that.” Jason hung his arm around her shoulder. “I’m glad you came out because I have news to share with you. I’ll give you more details as I figure them out.”
“I’m guessing it regards the future of The Saddle Shop. I know that’s been weighing heavy on you,” Annette remarked.
“You know me too well. A thought enters my head and minutes later you know what it is.” He laughed. “Kidding aside, I’ve decided to select a man for you to marry. He’ll be a businessman who can take over The Saddle Shop with you by his side.”
“I expected this moment. I can’t say I’m thrilled to be marrying a stranger, but I understand. You’re not about to leave the family business to a daughter and the twins are only fourteen years old.”
“I thought about waiting for Mike and Linc to grow older, but it just can’t happen soon enough. I need time to work with the person who inherits the shop. Your future husband can start helping me later this year,” Mr. Prader explained.
“Oh, that’s soon. Have you chosen the man? There aren’t too many to choose from in Abilene.”
In her mind, Annette was flipping through the unmarried young men in Abilene. Unless there were some she didn’t know about, she couldn’t think of anyone that would excite her. She began to perspire as she thought of marrying a much older man. Would her father do that to her?
“It is soon so I’ve expanded my search to the towns of Redding, Orleans, and Port Casper. You’ll have time to see him before the union and I’ll make him age-appropriate,” Mr. Prader promised.
Annette spontaneously hugged her father. “That’s a relief I pictured someone like Mr. Healy at the post office.”
Mr. Prader chuckled. “I would never do that to you. I love you too much to see you unhappy.”
Annette continued to sway on the porch swing. She had expected an arranged marriage and was thinking positively about the unknown. It wasn’t as if she had met anyone who made her heart flutter. Maybe the husband her father chose would do just that.
Annette was known to fall asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. Ella slept in her bed across the room and tossed and turned throughout the night. The girls could have had their own rooms by using Matt and Luke’s old room. However, that room was kept as the boys left it as if it were frozen in time. The girls didn’t mind much because all they did was sleep in their rooms and they liked each other.
Annette lived her life with as much joy as she could muster. Most often she never thought of the day she lost her brothers. She didn’t have to because so often that day was recreated in her dreams. It was something only Ella knew because Annette made noise as she was struggling to open her eyes. They were the most personal memories she had of Matt and Luke.
The dream always started with waking up that cold January morning. Mr. and Mrs. Prader never allowed the children to go on the ice until after the first of the year. It gave the lake enough time to fully freeze.
“I want to come. Please, don’t make me stay home with Ella and the young boys,” Annette begged.
She idolized her older brothers. Matt was thirteen and Luke was fourteen. Annette had just turned eleven and it annoyed her that she’d never catch up.
“You can come,” Matt said, “as long as you don’t cry when your toes get cold.”
“Yea,” Luke agreed. “If you do, you’re walking home all by yourself without us to protect you from the monsters in the forest.”
Luke’s voice had recently changed. It was deep, so when he made threats, Annette paid attention.
“I’ll put on two pairs of stockings and there are no monsters in the forest. Dad says and he’s smarter than anyone else in this family,” Annette shot back.
She was terrified of monsters, but she’d never show her fear to the boys.
Laura had just put the twins down. She quietly invited Annette to slip into the pantry with her. “Here are three oatmeal cookies to share with the boys,” she whispered. “They’ll stop teasing you if they know you have these. It’ll be our little secret. Use them when you need them.”
They giggled together.
The day was sunny, and they almost forgot it was winter when they walked out the door. The trees made it shady, and they quickly remembered what time of year it was. They saw their breath and the boys pretended they were smoking cigars. They picked up twigs and held them as Grandpa Otto did. They puffed away.
Matt was the youngest, so he used the squiggly tool to make a hole in the ice. Annette’s job was to pull pine boughs onto the ice to sit upon. They didn’t want their bottoms to freeze. They used bait their father kept in a bucket behind the house. They used worms and chicken bones.
The ice was slick because the warm sun melted the top layer. It didn’t affect the safety of the ice because it was at least six inches thick. They did have to be very careful not to slip into the hole. It wasn’t wide enough for a grown man to fit through but any one of the Prader kids could fit. Mr. Prader always told the boys to keep the hole no bigger than your wrist to your elbow. Matt thought bigger was better and the boys always argued the point.
“It’s not happening for us. You must have picked the wrong spot,” Luke said.
He had a habit of blaming things on his younger brother. They traded barbs and would have come to blows had the ice not been so slick. Annette had become upset as their battle escalated. She remembered the cookies.
“Stop!” Annette screamed. “You can each have one of Mother’s delicious oatmeal cookies.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the cookies. “I’ll eat them all if you don’t stop arguing.
Matt and Luke grew silent, and their eyes widened. Laura Prader was known for her oatmeal cookies. Like that the arguing stopped.
“We can argue any time. Right now, it’s cookie time,” Luke said.
“You can come with us again if it means you’ll bring treats. Careful walking over here. You’re liable to fall and my cookie might fall into the hole. That would be a tragedy.”
Annette was standing on the bank of the lake. She had pleaded with her brothers to sit on the pine boughs with them. They denied her request and told her to wait on the banks as her constant chatter would scare away the fish. Walking three yards wouldn’t be that bad but Matt had a better idea.
“Toss the bag with the cookies over here,” Matt said, and Luke agreed.
Annette made a gentle underhanded toss. Matt tried to catch the bag and slipped on the ice. Matt fell and slid into the hole before Luke could react. At the last second, Luke put forth his hand and Matt grabbed it. He desperately took hold of Luke’s other hand and then moved his grip up to his forearm. Within five seconds, they were gone. There were no cries for help, only deafening silence.
Annette screamed but no one was around to hear. She ran as fast as her legs would carry her back through the forest to her parent’s home. Tears escaped her eyelids and ran thickly down her cheek. Branches scraped her face and nettles grabbed onto her hair.
It was always the same in her dream. This was the point that she tried and always failed to wake up. Ella knew Annette was dreaming again and allowed her to finish.
Annette burst through the front door. Both her parents were home because it was a Sunday. The Saddle Shop was closed. Laura was in the rocker with a baby in either arm. Laura cocked her head.
“Did the boys race you home? They should know better than to give you a big head start,” Mr. Prader joked. “You’re upset. Did they say something to make you cry?”
“Annette, where are Luke and Matt?” Laura asked.
Her mother stared blankly. A mother knows things and she realized at that second that her boys weren’t coming home. She stood and dropped the twins in her husband’s lap before falling to her knees. She put her hands together as if praying.
“Please tell me where my boys are?”
“Matt and Luke are in the lake. They went under the ice and didn’t come back. I couldn’t help. It was slippery and I’m scared. Do something, Father,” Annette pleaded.
Mr. Prader grabbed his coat and flew out the front door. He went to see if he could do anything to help save his boys. He dropped Mike and Linc in Annette’s arms before he went out. The younger boys were only four-years-old.
The pained look in Laura’s eyes turned vacant. It was a horrifying sight. Annette had just seen her brothers die and now her mother left too.
“Annette, wake up, It’s Ella and you were having the nightmare again.”
Ella grabbed a blanket from her bed and snuggled in with her sister. No one else knew that she relived that horrible day in her dreams. It was the way she dealt with her pain and even Ella didn’t really understand.
Fletch Skinner checked into the boardinghouse and couldn’t tell Mr. Smith how long he’d stay. Schedules weren’t something he paid much attention to. He hadn’t been to Abilene in more than a year. The place wasn’t kind to his mind, and the folks asked too many questions.
He laid in his clothes, which weren’t much since he didn’t need much. He stayed at the boardinghouse and not down by the lake when he was in Abilene. He did business when he was in town and needed a room so he could clean up. Fletch was most comfortable in a buckskin tunic he got from his Chippewa friend, Tala. His woman Shadow made it for Fletch and it was warmer than anything a white man could make. He traded hides and pelts to the tribe for whatever he needed that they were offering.
Fletch’s first stop in town was the mercantile. He had been doing business with Brick Willer for a long time. They had a business relationship but like most, Brick didn’t trust him much. He made it a point to deal with him and wouldn’t let him near his wife. Fletch didn’t take it personally as he thought people were allowed to form their own opinions.
The bell jingled when Fletch opened the door.
“Welcome back,” Brick Skinner said. “Thought you were dead, frozen or something. Where have you been?”
Fletch rarely had a conversation that wasn’t littered with questions for him to answer.
“I was out trapping critters up north to sell to merchants like you.” Fletch smiled through his coarse black beard.
“How long are you staying this time? You disappear before we get a chance to know you. One night at the tavern a bunch of us were piecing together what we know of you. It was like we were putting together a puzzle. Most of us had different details and nothing matched. You wouldn’t be telling tales, would ya?”
“I don’t get why people feel they need to know everything about me. I come to Abilene to do business and then I make myself scarce. I don’t bother anyone,” Fletch commented.
“It’s just that some of the older folks think they’ve seen you before, but they can’t say from where.”
“If they figure it out, have them let me know. I’d like to find out about this past I’m supposed to have had. Are you ready to do some buying?”
“If you’re ready to do some selling,” Mr. Willer said.
As Brick and Fletch were finishing their transaction, a young lady walked into the mercantile with a sour look on her face. Other than her down-turned mouth, she was a pleasant-looking girl. She stomped towards the counter.
“Hello, do either of you know who owns the dusty wagon hitched up to the post out front? I recognize it as the one that nearly killed my sister and me. We were minding our own business when he came rambling through the meadow. Annette and I were covered with dirt and looked like pigs. The driver didn’t bother to stop to make sure we weren’t badly injured.”
“What are you going to do if you find him?” Fletch asked.
“I’m going to give him a piece of my mind. I’ll also tell him that his mother would be ashamed. I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know you. I’m Ella Prader.”
“Nice to meet you and if I come across such a monster, I’ll give him a warning and tell him that his mother would be appalled. If you’ll excuse me, I have to be going. It was nice to meet you.”
He walked outside to retrieve his wagon hitched to the post in front of the mercantile. Fletch regretted running Ella and her sister off the road. He didn’t think it would cause as much of a fuss as it did. She said his mother would be ashamed and was right about that. He looked to the heavens and apologized to his dearly departed mother.
Fletch hadn’t been in Abilene for more than twenty-four hours. Already, he was bristling at all the rules coming at him. It was the way people were thinking one thing but said another. Brick Willer hadn’t trusted him. He hadn’t asked him outright to clarify any information about who he was. Instead, he had just danced around by telling a story about men solving a puzzle in the tavern.
He was a mystery, and folks didn’t like that. They incorrectly believed that another man’s life was their business, and they had been wrong. Fletch had a story that he kept close to his vest because he didn’t trust the town’s folk to do the right thing with it. That story was in his dreams, and so far, that had been enough. He hadn’t been required to talk about it since his mama died. As far as Fletch was concerned, that piece of his past was buried, for now.
A roan grey and white horse approached. An imposing figure sat tall in the saddle with feathers in his long black hair. He was a Chippewa Indian according to the decoration he and his horse wore.
“Down from the north?” A smile broke out on the man’s face. Now, he looked anything but stoic.
“I told you I’d be back, Tala. When have I ever broken my word?” Fletch asked.
“Never, my friend. Would I call you friend if you had?” Tala asked. “Did you get what I asked for?”
“I did. I went to the place you mentioned. It was farther north than I normally go, and I saw Chippewa, Sioux, and Ojibwa people who were pushed from their lands. A hearty bunch they are. They confirmed what you told me about the spotted hare. I snared many and brought back the pelts for you.”
“The chief will be pleased as those are hard to come by. It’s not easy to find someone willing to travel so far for a pelt,” Tala explained.
“It’s not the distance but the cold. I’m only able to stay warm because of the garments your woman makes for me.”
“Shadow has been busy lining a new coat for you. It will keep you warm next time you head up. Are you interested in a blanket for your cabin?” Tala asked.
“If Tala sewed it, it will be guaranteed to keep me warm. I think those two items and some buffalo jerky will make a fair trade.”
“Follow me, and we’ll make the exchange.”
Fletch followed Tala towards his home on the shore of the lake. It was amazing how much space there was in a teepee. The Chippewa kept things they needed to live and spiritual items.
Fletch and Tala exchanged items that he stored in his saddle bags.
Getting out of Abilene and spending time with a friend had been just what Fletch needed. He lived a nomadic lifestyle, and there weren’t many humans Fletch trusted. It was one of the reasons he understood and enjoyed the company of animals.
Tala guided Fletch back to the edge of tribal land.
“This is as far as I go. Is something concerning you? I can see the creases of your face have deepened,” Tala commented.
Fletch shook his head. “You are a good friend to have, and I can’t keep anything from you. I think too much about the past when I come to Abilene. I’d stay away, but I have good business here.”
Tala smiled. “That’s only one reason. The other isn’t easy for a man like you to express. You feel drawn here. Am I right?”
“Yes, for the same reason I want to stay away from Abilene, I must return. I told you my mother’s dying wish, did I not?”
“You did. The path will be laid out for you.” Tala adjusted himself in his saddle. “Man to man, have you thought about getting a wife. The Chippewa men take a woman early. I believe it would help you.”
“I’m not interested in such a thing. I honored my mother, but now she’s gone. She was the only woman in my life that I felt was necessary. I see no need for the responsibility or the potential heartbreak,” Fletch explained.
“There’s a chance you won’t have your heart broken but healed. Have you thought of that?”
“I don’t think a woman exists that can have any positive impact on my heart,” Fletch declared.
“I’ll pray to the gods that such a woman is found in your path.”
Fletch rode back towards Abilene. Tala never failed to give him something to think about. He chuckled at the thought of finding a woman to heal his heart.
“When Loving Eyes Meet” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
At the young age of twenty years, Annette Prader has already tasted tragedy. After the loss of her older brothers, she stepped in to help with both the family’s saddle shop and the household with patience and grace. Ever the dutiful daughter, Annette agrees to an arranged marriage and puts aside her dream of a fairytale romance. Her world is turned upside down, though, when a charming but mysterious man enters her life, and soon she finds herself deeply in love. Annette’s destiny is about to change for good but will this mean risking her loyalty to her family?
Unbeknownst to her, this charming man comes with a secret that may break her heart and perhaps cost her very life…
Αfter his father was falsely accused of murder twenty years ago, Fletch Skinner has been living a secluded life carrying the burden of his true identity. Sick and tired of the injustice, Fletch has vowed to find the real murderer that cost his father’s life, and to clear his family name. When he comes back to town though, he can’t imagine that a saddle shop will be the place to meet the woman of his dreams. Will this fateful encounter be the reason to break his solitary habits and to allow a glimmer of light back into the darkness of his life?
Seeking truth and justice, Fletch will find danger and even a chance at true love…
When their paths cross, Annette and Fletch’s fates seem predetermined. However, a life-threatening accident will bring them together and change the course of their lives forever. Yet, with Fletch’s identity getting revealed and Annette’s fear to not let her family down, can they even dare to follow their hearts and replace old grievances and long-held secrets with hope and love?
“When Loving Eyes Meet” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.