...where the men are steadfast & the women are adventurous
Cascade Mountains, Oregon –1868
The scent of fresh blood on an undercurrent of primeval decay choked Élodie Rousseau, nearly bringing her to her knees. She strove to keep her steps silent in the deep snow below the cave’s gaping black maw. High overhead, the midday sun turned the pocket of white brutally bright but gave no warmth.
A cold sweat chilled her to the bone and played havoc with her grip on her rifle. The eerie scream that sent her sprinting up the final leg of the incline still rang in her ears, echoing with disbelief and horror.
Gray Owl was right. Only death lived in this once sacred stone.
A wise daughter of the land would’ve heeded her old friend’s warning to stay away, to look to the future, to focus on her gift helping people find their way in the wilderness… rather than getting lost in the past. But death was what had drawn her to this isolated mountainside.
Were her parents inside this cave? After sixteen years, would she finally find their remains only to stay with them forever?
The leather-skinned prospector she’d heard drowning his demons in Fort Shelton’s rum-hole had babbled like a spooked greenhorn. This cave, he’d proclaimed, held far too many bones. The human kind. Lost loved ones lay here. Long forgotten.
Not so her parents. She’d never stopped searching for them in the faces of all she met.
Behind a jagged fall of rock, barely a dozen strides up the slope, the humped shoulders of a giant creature rose like a phantom.
She froze with her finger on her rifle trigger. Her adoptive father, Eagle Feather’s counsel steadied her hand: Never shoot until you see, with clear eyes, what you might kill.
With an echoing snort, the creature disappeared into the cave. Its sudden movement made the tips of its dark fur flash like frosted sliver. The fear threatening to smother her vanished as well. She hadn’t stumbled upon an evil spirit, but a grizzly bear guarding its den—and maybe its cubs.
The smell of a battle, blood, and gore but surprisingly no gunpowder, remained strong, coming from a stand of dark green firs on her left. Glancing between the trees and the cave, she hastened toward the bear’s prey. The snow beneath her feet plummeted into a ravine. A swathe of scarlet severed the white in two.
Down to the bottom and up the other side, someone had rolled, and then crawled. Eluding the bear and saving their life. Temporarily. With that much blood lost, they wouldn’t last long.
She cast a final look at the cave.
Nothing stirred. At least as far as she could see.
She sprinted across the ravine. The frigid air bit her lungs, puffed out in wraithlike bursts. She marshaled her strength for the final push. On the other side, she vaulted over a fallen tree, landed in a crouch, and froze—face-to-face with a man sitting slumped against the stump.
Wide and wild, the man’s dark pupils nearly obliterated his pale blue irises. He stared at her through a waterfall of blood spilling from too-many-to-count slashes across his dark hair and ashen face, but somehow miraculously missing his eyes. He didn’t blink.
Dread squeezed her chest and trapped her breath. Was he dead?
Her gaze dropped, searching for a sign of life in his broad frame. He clutched a long-barreled Winchester 66—a rifle coveted for its accuracy and firepower by both big game and bounty hunters—against a jacket shredded with more bloody claw marks.
She leaned closer to him.
A low growl rumbled in his throat. Or was it a groan? Whatever it was, the sound proved he still lived. His wounds would become scars mightier than Gray Owl’s or Eagle Feather’s or anyone’s she’d ever seen—if she could keep him alive.
Looping the strap of her old carbine rifle over her shoulder, she reached out to him with both hands. “I need to stop your bleeding.”
He dove sideways and scrambled away on his elbows and belly. One of his legs trailed behind him. Twisted at an unnatural angle. Limp and broken.
“Stop!” She struggled to keep her voice low as she tried to grab hold of him. “You’re making your injuries worse.”
He evaded her. Even ripped apart, he was a wily opponent. But she wasn’t his adversary.
“Sacré Dieu,” she grumbled. “Quit being so ornery.” She lunged and snared the tail of his jacket.
He collapsed on his side.
“I only want to—”
The muzzle of his rifle striking her chest halted her words. Beneath the hard press of iron, her heart missed a beat then took off at a gallop.
She slowly raised her palms. “Don’t shoot. I mean you no harm.”
His eyes darted over her and the forest around them with a feverish intensity, but his rifle didn’t budge. She pushed back the fur-lined hood of her coat so he could better see her. He closed his eyes and shook his head, as if rejecting a dreadful sight.
She strained to hear in the silence that followed. No bear or creature of any sort approached. Or so she hoped.
“You’re safe with me.” She repeated her words in French and then the Spanish she’d learned from her uncle Alejandro. She even tried the local dialect of the Molalla that Gray Owl had taught her. When the stranger showed no reaction of understanding any of those languages, she switched back to English.
“Trust me,” she urged. “Open your eyes. I’m not your enemy.”
A tortured grimace sealed his eyes even tighter.
“We don’t have time for this.” She tamped down the impatience hardening her voice and strove for a sweeter tone. “I can help you. Ask any of the locals. They’ll tell you I’m a first-rate guide, a steadfast friend.” She stifled her sigh.
They’d also say she was dangerously impulsive, to herself and to him. If she hadn’t charged blindly to the rescue, she wouldn’t be wasting precious seconds scrambling to gain his trust before he died.
The pressure of his rifle against her eased. His strength was fading.
Her mind sped through the steps to save him: stitch his wounds, splint his leg, drag him down the mountain to the nearest settlement. On the long trail westward, Auntie Hannah had saved Uncle Paden’s life using a travois.
She could build sled from branches and cheat the reaper as well—if this man let her.
“Lay down your weapon and we can help each other. Together we’re stronger.”
“Lies. All lies!” The words exploded from his lips, followed by the click of his rifle being cocked.
Disbelief shook her like a deer realizing too late she’d run up against a wolf. She’d die here after all.
Would she find her parents in the land beyond? Before she embraced that final journey, she yearned to explore so much more on earth. The world was a bigger place than the home she cherished, a home that had given her strength but limited her growth. This man and his rifle were proof of that.
She wanted to learn, to live, to fall in love. All she had to do was end the life of a man who judging by his wounds would surely die today anyway. Why had he come to her mountain? What demons did he shut his eyes against and wrestle inside his head?
Would anyone miss him if she put her future above his?
“Kill me,” he whispered.
Shock made her flinch. Had he heard her thoughts?
“Or—I’ll—kill you.” His halting words pierced her heart like arrows. “It’s—what—you taught me.”
She stiffened with outrage. Who’d told him that? Did it matter? This dying man had given her a choice: her life or his.
Her hands easily found her rifle but struggled to raise it against him. Instead, her gaze lifted to the bright sunlight dancing above the dark evergreens. Her voice was hoarse but determined when she spoke. “I’ve been taught differently. Never shoot until you see, with clear eyes, what you might kill. I choose bravery.”
Fall in Love with a NEW Old West
( Lonesome Hearts series, book 3 )
When legends collide, will the sparks ignite their love or drive them apart?