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Christmas at Fort Bennett

2021 ACFW GENESIS WINNER

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Excerpt from Christmas at Fort Bennett copyright © Stephanie Rose Finsterbush, 2021.

Reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part, by any means, is forbidden without written permission from the author.

Zach set his oil lamp down on a trunk beside Hoss’s stall. The stables behind the stage station were dark and frigid. He checked his pocket watch. Quarter past eight. Despite thinking about Maddie for the past eight hours, he still hadn’t the foggiest idea of what to say to her. He’d evaded her at the first seven stops by ordering his men about, checking the stations for signs of the Dempseys, and questioning the station owners and managers. 

Zach hadn’t let his guard down for one second. They’d made good time through Nebraska and entered the Colorado Territory without fuss. The stagecoach would often travel through the night without stopping, but with the snowfall growing heavier, Mr. Updike and Zach had agreed to stop for the night. It wasn’t Zach’s preference to stop, but he wouldn’t risk an icy accident in the dark or an ambush, for that matter. 

The passengers were settling into the station’s sparse rooms and warming themselves in the kitchen while Zach tended the horses. Perhaps if he stayed outside long enough, Maddie would go to bed by the time he went inside. 

 

Coward.

Zach’s breath puffed out a white cloud as he held out a carrot to Hoss. The appreciative horse gobbled it up in seconds. Zach could get by with a carrot for dinner. He’d gotten by with less before. Of course, he could go into the kitchen and dine with the others… but then he’d have to face Maddie. 

Zach rubbed Hoss’s nose, and the horse nudged him back, giving Zach the comfort he sought. Horses were easier than humans, which was why Zach had always gotten along better with them. They didn’t ask questions or require him to be something he could never be. Horses were the reason he chose the cavalry when he enlisted. 

He pulled a blanket over Hoss’s back, settling it over the gelding’s haunches, and then secured the clasps. “That should keep you snug tonight. I wish I could stay in here with you.”

The shadows surrounding Zach faded, and a lantern illuminated the stable entrance.

 

“No offense, Lieutenant, but I don’t get it. You could be inside talking to Miss Malcolm and instead, you’re out here talking to the horses.” At the familiar sound of Cassidy’s tsking, Zach relaxed and tended the next horse.

 

Then suddenly, Cassidy’s words fully registered and his hand froze in the feed bag. Cassidy called her Miss Malcolm. Not Mrs. Vander-something. 

 

Zach spent the entire day wrangling his anger toward her missing husband for letting her travel across the country alone. He hadn’t allowed himself to consider the possibility that she was still unwed. How, after all this time, could one of the most beautiful, sought-after heiresses in the country be unmarried?

 

Zach dropped a scoopful of oats into a bucket and then placed it in an appaloosa’s stall. Taking a step back, he eyed Cassidy. “She’s not married?”

 

“Nope.” Cassidy grinned. 

 

“Hmm.” Zach grunted, and picked up another bucket.  

 

“Are you going to go inside and talk to her?”  

 

“I don’t know what to say,” Zach admitted. A bay mare whinnied impatiently as he opened her stall door and slid her precious oats inside. 

 

“The same thing you’d say to any other woman.” 

 

“She’s not just any woman.” Zach let out a frustrated sigh and closed the stall door. He picked up the lantern and moved down the aisle, but when he turned toward Cassidy, he stilled.

 

Maddie stood in the stable’s open doorway. She’d appeared quieter than a mouse. Even Cassidy hadn’t registered her presence ten feet behind him. Zach logged that fact away. They both needed more training. She shouldn’t have been able to sneak up on them like that. 

 

Zach expected her to say something. Anything. Instead, she leaned her shoulder against the doorframe with her hands clasped behind her back and settled in, like she was waiting for a show to begin.

 

Cassidy carried on without noticing Zach’s reaction. “You’re saying you can lead soldiers to certain death but can’t say a few words to a woman you once knew?”

 

“That about sums it up.” Zach looked at Maddie, hoping she would see the apology in his eyes. Suddenly, her dimples appeared, and Zach about had the wind knocked out of him. God, how he missed those dimples. 

 

“You should know—” Cassidy crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the stall. “She spent the entire day ogling you, but I couldn’t get her to talk much.” 

 

Maddie’s dimples fell, and her brow scrunched. Zach fought a chuckle. He crossed his arms and gave Cassidy his full attention. “Miss Malcolm ogled me all day?” 

 

“Yes, sir.” Cassidy winked.

 

Zach didn’t miss the way Maddie rolled her eyes and shook her head, but she didn’t stop smiling. Zach nearly burst into a full-on laugh.

 

“What would you suggest I say to her?” Maybe advice from Corporal Casanova would actually help Zach. He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of asking the kid before. 

 

“You don’t have to say anything fancy. Just introduce yourself again.”

 

“You think it’ll be that easy?” 

 

Cassidy bobbed his head with a “yup,” but Zach looked at Maddie for the answer. A sparkle of light filled her eyes, and she gave a small nod. That was all the encouragement he needed. 

 

“Thanks for the advice, Corporal.” Zach stepped forward and slapped him on the shoulder the same way the major was always doing to Zach. “Why don’t you go get some coffee?”

 

“I already had—” Cassidy started and then stopped at the sound of Maddie clearing her throat behind him. He spun to face her. 

 

“Good evening, Corporal.”  

 

“Oh—Miss Malcolm, I didn’t hear you come in.” He fumbled with his words and his hands. “I… uh… I think I’m going to go get some more coffee.” Cassidy pointed to the house, then looked back and whispered to Zach so that Maddie couldn’t hear him. “See what I mean? Women. Follow. You. Around.” Cassidy raised his eyebrows and then shook his head with disbelief before walking out of the stables with hunched shoulders.

 

Maddie pushed off the wall and started down the aisle toward Zach. She stopped just shy of him and looked up with timid eyes that told him she was just as nervous as he was. At least she was brave enough to seek him out. Persistent as ever. That was his Maddie. 

 

His Maddie. It was so easy to think of her that way. As if nothing had changed between them.

 

For a moment, he allowed himself to stand there and take her in. Land sakes, she was stunning. She took his breath away and his senses with it. 

 

She was here. Close enough that if he took one step forward, he could pull her into his arms. But that would probably frighten her, so he held his hands at his side instead and, like the coward he was, waited for her to speak first. 

 

“Hello, I’m Maddie.” She said the words with a straight face and then laughed. With those three small words, she’d brought their friendship back to the very beginning and magically put him at ease. He knew he’d never get a second chance with her. He wasn’t good enough for her. But that didn’t stop his pulse from irrationally galloping ahead like a cavalry charge. 

 

“Name’s Zach.” He held his hand out.

 

Her hands, which were, until now, clasped behind her back, came in front of her, and she held something out to him. It was covered in a white handkerchief, with tiny red roses embroidered on one corner.

 

“It’s not pie, but…” Her words trailed off as she set the item in his hands. He peeled back the handkerchief, revealing none other than a ham and cheese sandwich. 

 

He laughed. “How did you manage this?”

 

“I bribed the stationmaster’s wife.” She lifted her shoulders nonchalantly. 

 

He probably would’ve starved a long time ago if not for all the handouts she’d given him. That was his Maddie, always taking care of people. And him.

*Excerpt from Christmas at Fort Bennett copyright © Stephanie Rose Finsterbush, 2021. Reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part, by any means, is forbidden without written permission from the author.

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