December 26, 1886
“She’s the Bird Lady, Beau. She ain’t gonna know nothin’ about doctorin’ a pup.”
Sonja Kaplan’s pencil stilled over the page of her inventory record book as the boy’s voice drifted in through the pigeon loft’s small window.
Beau? Chet Lattimer’s son?
“How do you know?” a younger voice–Beau’s–hissed back.
“‘Cuz I’m older ‘n smarter than you, and I know a bird ain’t nothin’ like a pup.”
“So what? She’s expert at trainin’ pigeons, ain’t she? Maybe she’ll know somethin’ about pups, too.”
“Aw, Beau, that’s just plain stupid.” Disgust roughened the other boy’s tone. “But bein’s I brought you all the way out here so’s you can ask her, then you go right on ahead. Just pay me my penny first.”
Sonja frowned. These boys had ridden out to see her? Rarely did folks stop by to visit. Almost never. Were they by themselves? And what’s this about a penny?
She set her record book and pencil down on the ledge holding the rows of nest boxes, then pulled her knitted shawl closer around her shoulders, pushed open the narrow door and quietly stepped outside.
It didn’t take long to find the pair, huddled against the opposite side of the loft. Clearly, they’d had no idea she’d been inside, eavesdropping upon their scheme. And they had no idea she was outside, standing behind them now.
Strangely reluctant to confront them.
She well knew her reputation in their small frontier community. That she was very much an outcast because of her work–covertly training homing pigeons for the United States Army. They didn’t understand. No one did, except for the grateful soldiers, and because of the townspeople’s ignorance, their suspicions grew into malicious gossip and–.
Well, it didn’t matter. Not really.
But she guessed her less-than-respectable reputation had something to do with these young boys sneaking onto her small parcel of land and hiding against the loft, out of sight from her cabin just across the yard. It was why they didn’t come forward and knock on her door like any visitor should.
Were they afraid of her?
Or of what they’d done, coming out here to see her, against the certainty of their parents’ disapproval?
And since no rig waited in the drive, only a lone pony in the shadow of the pines near by, it was evident they’d come alone.
She recognized Herbie Grinnell, the nine-year-old son of one of Chet Lattimer’s ranch hands. Herbie’s mother watched over Beau during the day since Beau, several years younger, didn’t have a mother of his own anymore. Herbie helped keep him occupied, Sonja supposed, with mischievous escapades like this one.
Except Beau had seemed genuinely anxious to talk to her. Only then did she notice the furry bundle he struggled to keep in his arms while rooting in his trousers pocket for the penny Herbie demanded.
The bundle growled and squirmed, loosening the small blanket Beau kept around him. Sonja glimpsed a stain of bright crimson on the covering from an injury the animal sustained, the reason Beau had ridden out to see her. She made a sound of sympathy.
Both boys whirled, and their faces paled.
“It’s her!” Herbie choked, but not before he snatched the penny from Beau and fisted his hand around it. “The Bird Lady!”
Sonja wasn’t sure what they’d expected to find–a woman covered in feathers perhaps?–but she took a careful step forward.
“And you’re Herbie Grinnell, aren’t you?” She smiled to assure them she was quite normal.
“You know who I am?” Looking alarmed, he bolted to his feet. But he looked guilty more. “You ain’t gonna tell my ma I came out here, are you? She won’t like it, bein’s what folks say ‘bout you and all.” He took a wary stride backward, then another. “Please don’t tell her, else I’ll be in a heap of trouble.”
Sonja’s smile wavered, but she managed to keep it in place. “I have no reason to say anything, Herbie. Your secret is safe with me. I promise.”
The chances of Sonja speaking with Esther Grinnell were slim, besides. A coincidental meeting in town, perhaps, and most likely, not even then. The woman, she’d learned, was a notorious gossip.
“C’mon, Beau. Let’s get out of here.”
“No.” Defiant, Beau shook his head and stayed right where he was. “Not ‘til I know she can help.”
“Suit yourself, then.” Herbie kept moving, backward, closer to the pony in the pines. “But I’m not stayin’.”
Suddenly, he turned and broke into a full run.
“Wait!” Startled, Sonja called after him.
“Herbie, stop!” Beau called, too.
But the boy kept running, without a backward glance to the friend he’d left behind. He vaulted onto the pony’s back, dug in his heels and galloped off.
Sonja waffled between exasperation for his cowardliness to stinging hurt that one so young thought of her like he did.
Just like everyone else.
But there was no help for it. She couldn’t bring him back if she wanted to.
Which she didn’t. Not when little Beau worried her more.
Her gaze dragged back to him, still crouched beside the loft and staring dumbfounded after Herbie. Her heart squeezed. What was he thinking, being abandoned like this?
“Beau,” she said gently.
He turned wide eyes on her. Eyes thickly-lashed and a rich, deep brown. Like the sweetest of chocolates. He wore a child-sized version of a Stetson, which still seemed a mite too big for his head. The brim slipped down over his forehead. He pushed it up again to see her better.
“You know my name, too?” he asked.
She knelt beside him, entranced by those eyes, so much like Chet’s. “Of course, I do.” It became imperative that he not shun her like Herbie did, that he be assured she’d be his friend and wasn’t the strumpet everyone else around these parts thought she was. “Your papa told me about you.”
His face lit up. “You know my pa?”
She hesitated. “Yes.”
But not as well as she’d like.
Something curled in Sonja’s belly and nudged aside the loneliness she often felt living by herself with only the pigeons to keep her company. Something warm and arousing whenever she thought of Chet Lattimer, and was there anything more foolish?
His spread butted her land. He provided her the straw she needed for the birds, but she had little more dealings with him than that.
Yet, from the moment they’d met, she had a swift and disconcerting attraction to him that he didn’t seem to notice. And she didn’t dare reveal.
“He told me your full name was ‘Beauregard Charlemagne’, but you refused to be called anything but ‘Beau’,” she said softly. The child listened, his expression rapt, as if he’d forgotten the injured pup in his arms. As if he was hungry to hear all Sonja had to say about his father. “He told me you were six years old, and you’re one of the best cowboys he’s ever known.”
Well, she was stretching the truth a bit on that, but she figured the little boy needed to hear it, considering he’d only arrived in Montana Territory a few weeks previous. With no warning to the man who’d fathered him.
“Really?” Beau’s sweet face beamed with pleasure.
“Really,” she said, that pleasure wrapping ribbons around her heart.
Chet Lattimer was a handsome, rugged, blood-stirringly virile man. And aloof as could be. She suspected the feelings he had for his son, whatever they might be, were kept locked inside until he could come to terms with them.
The thought saddened her. This little boy clearly craved what Chet wasn’t ready to give. As far as Sonja knew, Chet Lattimer had never been married. Beau had no mother, of which Esther Grinnell didn’t count.
But he had her, she realized. Sonja. The Bird Lady he believed could help the injured pup. Beau had paid his penny and braved an illicit ride out to see her. His trust and hope in her could not be dismissed. She would do nothing to disappoint him.
Besides, Christmas was only two days away, and she couldn’t help thinking Beau Lattimer was an unexpected gift.
* * *
Chet pulled up in front of the Grinnells’ cabin with his thoughts riding on different roads. He didn’t dismount, but glanced up into the sky instead, and the dirty gray clouds forming thick and heavy. He could smell snow in the air, which meant he’d have to haul extra hay out to the cattle. Break up the ice in the tanks, too, so they’d have water. A few of his cows could calve early, and he’d need to bring them in to the home range where he could keep an eye on them if they did.
And then there was Beau to take care of. The son he never knew he had until he showed up on Chet’s doorstep, clutching the hand of a man claiming to know the boy’s mother before she died. Chet had been stunned to recall the one evening he’d spent with her, a flirtatious actress from a troupe traveling through town seven years earlier and whom he hadn’t seen since. The gruff troupe owner produced a worn page from a Bible showing him as Beau’s father, as well as a letter from the woman pleading that he take their son in for raising. The man was gone before Chet could fathom the turn his life has taken.
It’d taken a big turn, for sure. And he’d yet to decide if it was a good one.
Fatherhood didn’t fit into his plans, not when he had his ranch to run and troublesome Indians to fend off. He had no time to raise a child, had pitifully little knowledge of how, besides. And with Christmas coming, what was he expected to do?
He sighed. He needed a mother for the boy, no doubt about it. But unfortunately, females were few in this part of the country. Those that had settled in had already been claimed.
Except for Sonja Kaplan.
His thoughts locked on her and stayed put, which they tended to do when he least expected it. Sonja was a beautiful woman, fair-haired with eyes a soft shade of blue that could drag a man in and hold him captive before he even realized he’d been caught.
Trouble was, she was a strange one. Her obsession with those damn birds . . . he couldn’t figure it. Most women preferred to do something different with their time and talent–raise a family, sew, cook, tend a garden–and the way folks talked about her . . ..
Well, Chet refused to let himself get drawn in by malicious gossip. Truth was, though, she was alone out there in that cabin of hers with those pigeons. Understandable he’d be thinking of her like he was.
He was concerned about her, that’s all.
“Oh, Mr. Lattimer!” Looking surprised, Esther Grinnell stopped short coming out her front door. Her husband, Don, had worked for Chet for years. Both of them, honest and trustworthy. “I didn’t know you were out here.”
Chet’s thoughts scattered. The woman would think it odd to see him in her yard just sitting in the saddle, ruminating like he’d been.
“Sorry I’m late picking up Beau, Esther. Not enough hours in the day lately.”
He made a move to dismount, though his son was nowhere in sight. Usually the boy came running out to meet him.
She held up a work-roughened hand to stop him. A large woman, she wore her gray hair in a severe bun, and her smiles were few and far between. But she was clean, upright and dependable. Main thing was, she took good care of Beau. Chet knew the extra money he paid her was appreciated.
“Don’t bother gettin’ down, Mr. Lattimer,” she said. The tight set to her mouth showed displeasure. “He ain’t here.”
Chet tossed her a hard look. “What do you mean, ‘he’s not here’?”
“I’ll let Herbie explain.” She disappeared inside the cabin, but stepped right out again, dragging her son by his shirt sleeve. “Go on, boy. Tell him.”
Herbie’s downcast expression spelled guilt about something he was loathe to admit. And that something included Beau. Unease crawled through Chet.
“I’m listening,” he said sharply.
“We rode out to the Bird Lady’s place this afternoon,” Herbie mumbled.
Chet blinked. A five mile ride, one that took them off Lattimer land. Herbie knew better. Beau knew better.
“That’s right,” Esther said, grim. “To see that hussy, Sonja Kaplan.”
“Why? What business did you have with her, Herbie?” Chet asked, disregarding the woman’s jaded opinion of Sonja.
“We was just ridin’ out by the Yellowstone River ‘cuz we didn’t have nothin’ else to do, but then Beau saw a wild pup with his leg caught in the rocks. He was yippin’ and bleedin’ bad, the pup was, so we got him out. It was Beau’s idea to ask the Bird Lady to doctor him, Mr. Lattimer. Not mine. No, sir.”
Chet’s mind worked to put together the pieces. “So what’d you do? Leave him there?”
The boy hung his head. “Yes, sir.”
“With the pup?”
Chet breathed an oath. “Why?”
“Guess I got scared.”
He narrowed an eye, tried hard not to show his annoyance with the boy.
“She do anything to make you that way?” he demanded, his gut telling him Sonja would’ve done nothing of the sort.
“No, sir. But well, Ma says she’s strange, you know, bein’ around those pigeons all the time.”
Chet glanced up at the sky and those gray, darkening clouds. Nightfall would come early because of them. He thought of how narrow-minded Herbie Grinnell was, too, and how his mother’s gossip affected the boy’s thinking.
“I told Beau we had to go,” Herbie said. “Honest, I did! But he wouldn’t listen.”
“Didn’t mean you should’ve left him behind, did it?” Chet countered, letting his disapproval show.
“That’s not all, Mr. Lattimer.” Esther gave her son a firm nudge on the shoulder. “Go on. Finish the story, Herbie.”
Herbie dug in his pocket, pulled out a shiny penny, and held it out to Chet.
“Ma don’t want me to have this,” he muttered, looking guilty again.
“Tell him why,” Esther prodded.
“Beau paid me to take him out to the Bird Lady’s. Guess I don’t deserve it for runnin’ off and not bringin’ him home like I should, bein’s it’s Christmas and all.”
Chet gathered up the reins. He ignored the boy’s outstretched hand and hoped Beau hadn’t tried to make it home on his own. He’d get lost for sure, alone in the cold and dark, and Chet tried not to think of the consequences.
“Reckon Christmas doesn’t have a thing to do with it, Herbie,” he said, then turned his mount and rode hard toward Sonja’s place.