Wolf Mountain by L. J. Martin Excerpt

wolf mountainAn excerpt from: Wolf Mountain By L. J. Martin

Colin took a deep breath before he began, and waited for Norval to stack the firewood, then join them. “Don’t rightly know how it started. I was in bed. Guess they’d just lopped this leg off’n me, and the next thing I knew, Brigid was screamin’ at the top of her lungs. Somebody else was here, but I just can’t remember…”

“And the leg?”

“Gunshot. Damned Hunkpapa. Went green on me. Brigid and this other fellow, whoever the hell it was…. They took the saw to me. But I’ll be damned if I can remember. What I don’t understand is why none of them got out?”

“Well, maybe tomorrow.”

“Don’t matter now,” Patrick offered in a low tone, “they’re all dead.”

“Not Kev. Not Sean,” Norval said, then was silent for a moment. “Sorry about you getting’ shot, Colin. I never shouda followed that yellow bellied cousin of mine out of there.”

“Old business, Norval, don’t speak on it again. …I’ll be forever obliged for you two coming on back and taking care of Da, Brigid, and Pattiann. Little Pattiann, my God that is…was…one beautiful child. I knew it, knew they was all dead…lying there in the damnable darkness. I knew it, but I still think I might just die from the pain of it.” He shuddered, covered his face with both hands, but did not sob.

“Didn’t have no good book, Colin,” Patrick said. “Someone should read over them, sometime soon. You want a chaw?” Patrick fished a twist out of his pocket, changing the subject, fearing that Colin was about to break down in tears.

“No. …Fact is, I want my wife and daughter back.”

There was an awkward silence, then Patrick offered, “Tomorrow, we’ll saddle up and take you back to our place.”

“No. No, I’m staying right here. Most of my kin is over in that plot,…my child…my children…my wife and da and ma…and all we’ve worked for is here. It’d be like turnin’ tail on all of them, should I leave now.”

“You can’t tend no cattle,” Norval said, “with one damned leg.”

“It’s damned sure enough, but not so damned as the one got threw away,” Colin said. “I’ll manage here. I’d appreciate it if one of you would carve me a crutch. …I know the 23rd Psalm, and I’ll say it over them as soon as I can hobble over there…and face it.”

Patrick rose and stretched. “Guess we can hang around for a couple of weeks and see you get on your feet…er’ get that good leg under you.”

“God willin’, Kev and Sean will be back by then. I…I’m obliged to the both of you.”

The campfire had burned down, so they found some horse blankets to cover Colin with, rolled out their bedrolls, and slept where they lay.

*

Chad Steel rode into that night’s cow camp just as Kev was dishing up some stew from the Dutch oven, and just as the sun touched the mountaintops to the west.

For the first time since they’d left the Rocky Butte Ranch, Sean showed some interest in what was happening on the drive. He arose from the log upon which he had perched himself and eyed the fancy dressed dismounting man.

Kev, too, stood from his perch on a rock. “Mr. O’Connor, grab a tin there and dish yourself up some stew. There’s coffee there.” Kevin’s tone turned a little sheepish. “I ain’t much at biscuits, but there’s a bit of hard tack in that sack.”

Steel walked over to a pannier near the fire and fished out a tin cup. He poured himself a cup of syrupy coffee from the pot on the fire, then turned to Kev. “Before I get a plate of food, I should tell you I’ve got another mouth to feed.”

Kevin eyed him suspiciously. “Just one?”

“Just one. An a small one at that.”

Kev relaxed a little, thinking he had a child with him. “Well, fetch ‘im on in. It’s better than having him watching from out there in the shadows.”

Steel walked to the camp’s edge and whistled.

The hawthorn brush a few paces away rustled, and a mounted rider pushed through.

Kevin and Sean stared at the rider, and even Sleeps-in-Day and Badger-Man, who shared a fire twenty five paces from the McQuades, rose and watched with interest.

The rider sat sidesaddle, her face hidden under a wide-brimmed bonnet with a scarf tied around her head, anchoring the bonnet but effectively hiding her face in shadow.

Steel met her, reached up and took her by her narrow waist and helped her down. She stood brushing her long shimmering skirt back into some semblance of order, then reached up and untied the scarf from under her neck, removed the bonnet, then untied a bow at her neck and let her wrap fall away. Her white blouse was trimmed in lace, and well
fitted.

Kev and Sean stared even harder as she shook out long blond tresses across her shoulders. Chad Steel took her by a fine, long fingered hand and led her forward.

“Gentlemen, this is Caitlin Steel.”

Kev managed to set his coffee cup aside and move forward. He doffed his hat, standing with hat in both hands in front of him. “Pleased to meet you Mrs. Steel.”

She laughed, and Kev blushed. Then she spoke, “It’s actually Mrs.Tolofsen, formerly Miss Steel.”

Kev couldn’t help but notice the hard look the man gave her, but she seemed to shrug it off. Kev was still trying to figure out their relationship. “Then you’re…”

“I’m Mr. Steel’s daughter,” she affectionately placed a hand on his shoulder as she related this, then stepped closer and nodded. “It’s nice to meet you…Mr.?”

“McQuade, Kev McQuade. And this here’s my nephew, Sean.”

Sean had retaken his seat, and blushed as Kev had, cutting his eyes away without greeting her.

Ken continued, “And that’s Badger-Man and Sleeps-in-Day over there by the other fire. …Get your feet, boy.” Kev chastised his nephew.

“This is Mrs. Tolofsen.”

Sean stumbled to his feet, spilling his coffee and managing another blush as he brushed it off his trousers. “Nice to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Tolofsen.”

“My, that smells good,” she said, stepping into the firelight. “It’s been sometime since we’ve dined.”

In the last glow of sunlight and with the glowing embers below, Kev could see that she had her father’s eyes, amber, cat’s eyes. With the blond hair, and complexion perfectly tanned from days in the sun, she
was so strikingly beautiful she took Kev’s breath away, …and she was young. Younger than Kev.

He finally managed, “I’m sorry, ma’am. Let me fetch you a plate.”

“You finish your supper, Mr. McQuade. I’m perfectly capable. In fact, I understand we’re to ride along with you to the Tongue River. If it pleases you, I’ll do the cooking and camp work until we reach there.”

It was a hard picture for Kev to contemplate, this beautiful woman doing camp work, but he managed, “That would be just fine, Mrs.Tolofsen, if that pleases you.”

“It does. Now let’s eat. I’m famished.”

As she got even closer to the fire, Kev could see that she was not quite perfect. A crow’s foot scar showed in her left eyebrow, still a little red and angry, maybe only a few weeks old. But it was a tiny flaw, and she was still by far the most beautiful woman Kev had ever seen.

If he could even imagine the deed, it looked as if she’d been struck in anger with a fist.

Who could be so low as to hit a woman, particularly a woman this perfect? He eyed the tall gray haired man with her for a moment, thinking the worst.

Convinced he was mistaken, he went back to his supper while she dished up a plate for her father, then one for herself.

She smiled at him as she took a place on the log next to Sean, and managed to say just before she took the first spoonful, “Tomorrow evening, we’ll have biscuits, if you have the makings.”

To Kev’s surprise, all the pair had for bedding was their saddle blankets. He offered the lady his bedroll, but she refused, so he fixed them both up with pack tarps from the mules, and left them to camp alone in the hawthorns.

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