The 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 snow below the cave’s gaping black maw. High above the evergreens stretching to the mountain peak, the midday sun blazed down. The pocket of white shone brutally bright but gave no warmth.
A cold sweat chilled her to the bone and played havoc with her grip on her rifle. The scream that sent her sprinting up the final leg of the ascent still rang in her ears, echoing with disbelief and horror.
Gray Owl was right. Only death lived in this once sacred place.
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 of 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 mountain cave.
Were her parents inside? 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 cavern, he’d proclaimed, contained far too many bones. The human kind. Lost loved ones lay here. Long forgotten.
Not so her parents. She’d never stopped searching for a glimpse of them in everyone 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 advice 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. The tips of its dark fur flashed like frosted silver with the sudden movement. The fear threatening to suffocate 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 no gunpowder—remained strong. It came from a wall of dark green firs on her left. Glancing between the trees and the black hole, she hastened toward the bear’s prey. The snow plummeted into a ravine. A slash of scarlet severed the white in two.
Down to the bottom and up the other side, someone had rolled, 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 down the gulch. The frigid air bit her lungs, puffed out in wraithlike bursts. In the middle, the thigh-deep snow weighed on her legs like chains. She fell, struggled to her feet, slogged across, and up the other side. Her feet found solid ground. She marshaled her strength for the final push.
She vaulted over a fallen tree, landed in a crouch, and froze—face-to-face with a man 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 constricted her chest and trapped her breath. Was he dead? Had she reached him too late?
She searched 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 attempted 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.
“Nom de Dieu,” she grumbled. “Quit being 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 gaze 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 see her better. 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, and 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. This man shared Paden’s sturdy size. A small concern. Hannah had shown that a man’s weight was no match for a woman’s determination.
The snow would help. She could build a sled from fir 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!” His words exploded with surprising strength.
The click of his rifle being cocked said the rest. 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.
“Kill me,” he whispered.
Shock made her flinch. Had he heard her thoughts? 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. Or…I’ll kill you.” His halting words pierced her heart like arrows. “Only…two choices. It’s…what…you taught me.”
She stiffened with outrage. Who’d taught him that?
“You decide,” he urged. “Don’t wait. Choose.” He’d placed his life in her hands.
She 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.”
~ * ~
Four months later…
Through the trees circling the cave where his humanity had almost ended, Lachlan Bravery saw everything his heart desired and dreaded. His wildly beautiful savior had finally left him. Élodie Rousseau had taken her sharp wit and tender heart and returned to the place that had torn him apart.
After a grim childhood in the far north and an equally arduous rise to fame crisscrossing the continent hunting fugitives, how could such a small patch of earth—that he’d only seen once and now couldn’t remember clearly—have this much power over him? He’d survived too much for his strength to desert him completely.
Ignoring the aches and pains nagging his still mending flesh weakened by months of lying flat on his back, he limped to the edge of the trees separating him from Élodie and the cave, and froze.
The familiar nightmare roared down the mountain and hit him like a landslide.
Lashes of freezing cold and scorching heat bit his flesh. The seasons—then years—whipped by, blinding him. As did his struggles to find the outlaw gang who’d murdered his mentor.
Crazed laughter rang in his ears as he caught each fugitive. Next came the condemnations, his and theirs, as he hauled them to jail. How could a famous tracker find them but not Jellon Jerome’s body?
A monster’s consumed your master. The beast’s holed up in a cave.
An unearthly scream. Kill or be killed.
I choose bravery.
Three whispered words. They yanked him free from hell. Same as when he’d first heard them.
He came back to earth with only Élodie Rousseau between him and absolute madness. His name on her lips had stopped him from putting a bullet in her heart. She hadn’t been talking about choosing him, though. Back then she hadn’t known his name or his reputation.
He ran a shaky hand through his hair and across his face, tracing the scars, reminding himself of what was real. His world was ugly and brutal, inside and out.
He had no bravery. No choices.
Staying sane enough to keep Élodie away from this cavern and his insanity was all that mattered. He pushed past his weaknesses, out of the trees, and up the slope to halt her and Alexandre Duval. The man she’d left him for.
Surprise widened the Frenchman’s dark eyes—so very different than the man’s crown of golden hair. A glower of disapproval quickly followed. The leather-bound journal he’d been scribbling in shut with a gunshot sharp crack. After only a week at Fort Shelton, a fort in name but not form, Duval had made it clear he disliked Lachlan intruding on what he’d decided was his territory: Élodie plus any artifacts or unusual land formations on this mountain.
Duval’s gaze went to the cave first and Élodie second. He had his priorities wrong. When his focus finally found Lachlan again, the furrow on his brow deepened—a single wrinkle marring the man’s perfect appearance and life.
Golden Boy huffed out a breath. “Why are you here, Tracker?” His river smooth voice couldn’t be more different than Lachlan’s backwoods rasp. The man’s superiority rang clearest in his word choice. He’d yet to address Lachlan by his name. He’d chosen to reduce him to a single word.
Lachlan sealed his lips against firing back with the double-barreled moniker he’d given Duval. Verbal battles had never been his calling. No matter what he said, this suave Golden Boy would win.
Besides, a long time ago in another life, his profession and perfect track record had meant everything to him. Then Jellon had died. And every day he failed to find his mentor’s body, the label of Tracker had chipped away his self-worth until he despised the word.
But not today. Today, being a tracker had allowed him to find Élodie and stop her.
Her hazel eyes, usually sparking with so many emotions they rivaled an autumn forest at full blaze, shone with only one sentiment.
She’d been aware of him lurking in the trees. She’d let him take his time choosing to turn back or join her and halt her ascent. He’d wasted too much time. She’d gotten too close to the cave. She stood two strides above him, one above Duval, with her back to—
His mind grappled for the words to explain the horror that had shredded his reality. If the devil’s spawn sprang out of this rift, Élodie wouldn’t see the monstrosity until it was too late. The woman he’d learned so much about during the months of his recovery was often impulsive but never flat-out careless.
Worry and bewilderment loosened his lips. His words burst out gruff and a hundred times more imprudent than she could ever be. “Why do you continue to put your life in jeopardy? You know you’re not safe here.”
~ * ~
STEAM LEVEL: Sweet
READING ORDER: Chronologically Choosing Bravery (set in 1868) is book 3 in my Lonesome Hearts series, but it is also a standalone novella. You do not need to read the other books first. This series can be read in any order.
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