Historical Western Romance/Western
Cooper McCord needed no one. When he first showed Daniel and Evelyn Whitcomb the beautiful mountain valley in Montana, he didn’t expect to stick around. When the War Between the States broke out, Cooper remained close and helped build the town, not realizing all the time he was building a home for himself. When an unexpected arrival to Whitcomb Springs makes him question his reclusive life, will Cooper retreat to his wilderness or allow himself to embark on the greatest adventure of his life?
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Whitcomb Springs, Montana Territory
May 30, 1865
She never imagineddying at the hands—or paws—of a bear. Either she’d end up dead like the poor driver she hired in Bozeman or find a way to escape unscathed. Considering the layers of skirts and petticoats she wore, Abigail wasn’t going to bet on her ability to outrun the great animal.
She remained still in the low branches of a tree. Unable to climb higher unless she removed her skirts, Abigail controlled her breathing so as not to alert the animal. The past few years of her life had been in pursuit of an education. Her work in the war relief had kept her busy for four long years, but she found time in the evening hours to consume knowledge. The more she learned, the more she wanted to know.
Abigail read most of the leather-bound volumes of work in her family’s library, from philosophy to geography to history, and everything in between. Unfortunately, not a single text had explained what to do when confronted by five hundred pounds of bear. Magnificent though the animal was, Abigail didn’t want to become dinner.
Poor Mr. Tuttle had fallen from the wagon and broken his neck when the horses spooked and ran off. She’d been unable to drag him away, let alone pull him up a tree. Even now, she watched as the massive brown bear sniffed around the body. She dispelled a deep breath when she realized it wasn’t going to eat Mr. Tuttle. It looked around instead, smelling the air.
Abigail swore it stared directly at her. Too late, she recalled that bears climb trees. Her first thought had been to escape, and unable to outrun the creature, she went up. She calculated if the bear stood on its back legs, it could reach the low-hanging branches where she hid and knock her from the tree with one swipe. She grabbed the nearest branch above her head and pulled herself up. Abigail ignored the loud rip in her skirt and the sudden gush of cool air that hit her legs and climbed higher. Two more branches put her out of swiping distance.
The grizzly sauntered toward her and stood, staring and studying. She imagined it thinking of all the ways it could rip her apart and savor her like a delicious meal. The stays on her corset would be no match for those great claws, and the teeth . . . Abigail shuddered and reminded herself that most living creatures weren’t vicious by nature.
Abigail knew the animal was aware of her location. It landed back on all fours and approached the base of the tree. The heavy breathing and snorting filled the silence.
“I don’t suppose we can work something out?” she called down to the bear, feeling foolish but not knowing what else to do. “Why don’t you go your way and I’ll go mine?”
Abigail covered her ears and pulled herself as close to the tree trunk as possible. The bear turned its head toward the sound of the gunfire before dropping on all fours. Another bullet hit the tree near the bear's head. The bear snorted again and after the third shot hit the ground a few feet away, the animal turned away from the tree and headed across the clearing to the forest. Abigail kept her tight hold on the branches and didn't look down when she heard the sound of a horse beneath her.
"If you can manage to climb back down, he's gone."
"Yes, but now you're here." Abigail thought she heard a chuckle. She dared a glance but couldn't see much of the man's face, shadowed by his hat.
"I can ride away if you prefer, ma'am, but there isn't another soul likely to come by today." After a minute of silence, she heard a loud sigh. "If you aren't coming down, the least you can do is explain what happened to Tuttle."
"You know—knew—Mr. Tuttle?"
The man below her didn't answer right away. She heard movement and saw he was no longer on his horse.
"I did. Looks like a broken neck."
She squeezed her eyes shut and asked, "Did the bear . . . make it worse?" She dared not ask if the bear tore the poor man apart.
Another chuckle. "No one calls me sir, ma'am. The bear probably figured Tuttle wasn't going anywhere. He was more interested in finding out what crawled up the tree."
"I didn't crawl!" Abigail realized the ridiculousness of her situation and studied the branches beneath her. The climb down wasn't too far. One of her petticoats was caught on a protruding branch. She shifted and the delicate fabric ripped even more. "I don't suppose you'll tell me the truth, but if I come down, will you promise not to harm me?"
"Interesting question seeing as how if I wanted to harm you, I'd've come up after you by now or shot you out of the tree straight away. The bear was more dangerous, and I gallantly, if I may add, chased the bear away."
"That's hardly reassuring." Abigail thought she'd kept her mumbling quiet enough for him not to hear, but she heard that damnable chuckle. "If you'd be so good as to move away, sir, I'll climb down."
Abigail lowered a foot to the next branch down, found her footing, and shifted her weight until she stood entirely on one branch. Only a few more to go, she told herself, unaware until now how far she had climbed up. She searched for the torn petticoat still caught, slipped, and fell before the shriek left her lungs. She landed with a soft thud, arms wrapped around her, and tangled skirts in her face. "Put me down!"
Once on solid ground, Abigail stumbled away from her rescuer. She brushed hair from her face that had fallen from her once neat coiffure and straightened her skirts to preserve modesty. She saw only her outer skirt was torn, and most of her petticoat still intact. "I apologize. It was unkind of me to be ungrateful when you went to so much trouble . . ." Her eyes met his.
She imagined a woman in one of the silly romance stories her mother enjoyed. Heart fluttering, nearly out of breath, and eyes enraptured by the dashing gentleman. Only this wasn't a story and there was nothing dashing about the stranger before her. Dangerous, rugged, and beneath the days' worth of beard, a handsome man. She wondered if he kept his hair long to protect from the elements or detract from his striking features. Could a man be beautiful, she wondered? His blue eyes fascinated her so much she looked up to the sky to confirm they were the same color.
"Excuse me, sir. I meant to express my gratitude. There is no excuse for my poor manners. You rescued me from that bear and I am in your debt." Abigail stepped forward, showing some of the moxie her sister possessed in abundance, and held out her hand.
When the stranger didn’t reciprocate, she dropped her hand to her side. “My name is Abigail Heyward, and Mr. Tuttle was escorting me to Whitcomb Springs.”
Excerpted from "Forsaken Trail" by MK McClintock. Copyright © MK McClintock. Published by Trappers Peak Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.
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