Western Short Story
Daniel and Evelyn Whitcomb dreamed of adventure as they made a home in the Rocky Mountains. Four years after Daniel left Montana, he returns from the Civil War a man uncertain of where he belongs. Through courage, honor, and the arrival of an old friend, Daniel finds a way back to the life he once imagined. Join him in “Unchained Courage” for a lesson in the power of hope, faith, and remembrance.
Journey to the little mountain town of Whitcomb Springs, Montana, and meet a delightful group of settlers whose stories and adventures celebrate the rich life of the American West.
A NOTE FROM MK
"Unchained Courage" is a continuation of Daniel's story. Unless one has been in battle, one cannot fathom what a person goes through. I know I cannot, save for what I have heard from my uncle and others who have served. Daniel had struggles and "ghosts" to overcome if he was truly going to start anew back home with Evelyn. This is a series of hope, love, promises, and overcoming odds. How many stories will there be? None of us know. Join us as we enjoy the journeys, adventures, and sweet romances of Whitcomb Springs.
Be well, be kind, and enjoy!
Whitcomb Springs, Montana Territory
July 4, 1865
Daniel led his horse over the familiar two-mile ride up the mountain trail. He reached a small clearing, and in the center a lake spread out in glistening glory, reflecting the mountain peaks behind it. He dismounted and stared in awe at the vista as his speckled horse grazed. Images of Evelyn overlapped his vision until it seemed a transparent silhouette of her smiling face hovered over the mountains.
A well-kept cabin stood a dozen yards from the crystal-clear lake. The stream feeding into it from the north flowed out to the east and created a short waterfall down a slope of rocks. Cooper McCord, the man who had been by Evelyn’s side while Daniel had been at war, called this part of paradise home when he wasn’t in town.
Cooper’s friendship had become a steadying hand in the three months since Daniel’s return. Without speaking of it, Cooper understood what Daniel had been through. They never spoke of their experiences: Daniel’s in the war between the North and South, and Cooper’s from his days serving as a civilian tracker in the army, occupying the West and witnessing the travesties wrought against the natives.
Cooper first brought Daniel to this same mountain lake a week after the nightmares had begun. Since then, Daniel had found solace in this place high above the town, the people, the noise. When he craved silence, he came here. Daniel had seen the disappointment in Evelyn’s eyes when he remained quiet about his experiences, but she never pushed.
He heard the crunch of horse hooves on rocks and twigs covering the trail. Only Cooper came here—it was his home. Daniel wondered where he had been for the past three days.
Daniel did turn when Cooper said nothing and saw the extra horse with the large buck draped over the saddle and covered in heavy canvas. Cooper walked over and stood next to Daniel. The dawn’s warm sun promised a clear and sunny day.
“Thought you might be here this morning.”
“The buck is for tonight?”
Cooper nodded. “Evelyn will understand if you aren’t there.”
“I can’t do that to her.” Daniel watched the sun inch higher on the horizon. The first Independence Day in four years without the screams, trumpets, cannons, and muskets echoing in his ears. Instead of a body-strewn battlefield, Daniel gazed upon the most beautiful valley he’d ever seen in his life. Instead of cries coming from a hospital tent, the town of Whitcomb Springs below was a haven for him and anyone else seeking solace and a peaceful place to live.
Daniel still heard the screams in his nightmares. Muskets firing, filling the air with the stench of smoke and death. He relived it often. Most nights, the comfort of holding his wife was enough to waylay the madness within, but the worst of the memories sneaked through his barrier.
“She doesn’t ask about it.”
Cooper said nothing for a few seconds, and then, “She may not. Your wife never asked me about my days in the army, not once in four years.”
“What about Abigail? Have you spoken with her about those years?” Daniel watched Cooper toss a pebble down the mountain.
Cooper nodded. “I couldn’t court her without telling her everything. It wasn’t easy. You’ve been back three months, and what you went through is nothing even I can imagine. Give it time.”
“And did it help, telling Abigail?”
“Nothing has brought me more peace before or since.”
Daniel kept his eyes focused on the rising sun. Soon it would be high enough to bring light to the entire valley. Where they sat, the mountain shielded them in its shadow. Turning to Cooper, he asked, “Do you ever regret not going?”
“I’m grateful you stayed, for what you did for Evelyn and this town.” Daniel stood and walked back to his horse. It had remained close yet still wandered to find the sweetest grass with morning dew. “If I had known how long I would have been away—”
“No one knew how long it would last.” Cooper also walked back to his horse, checking to make sure the large buck was still secure on the second animal. “And if our roles had been reversed, you would have done the same.”
Daniel studied his friend. “Evelyn tells me you’ve been spending a lot of time with her sister.”
Cooper grinned at him, and though Daniel reciprocated the smile, his heart remained heavy with too many memories. He lived in a constant fog with only glimpses of light, a brightness he found with Evelyn, but still the darkness remained beneath the surface, waiting to rise at unexpected times.
“Abigail is special. I love her, and I only tell you this so you know my intentions are honorable.”
Daniel pulled himself into the saddle. “If I doubted that, I would have done something about you a long time ago.” This time his sincere smile blew away some of the darker clouds as he headed down the mountain trail toward home.
The town was quiet as expected this time of morning, and yet an eerie silence filled the air like the mist still dispersed over the valley floor. He and Cooper traveled down from the mountain on a trail that connected to the north road leading into town. A hard-packed dirt road passed by Daniel and Evelyn’s home, where Evelyn and Abigail could often be found in the garden at this early hour.
Evelyn doted on her flower gardens, but this morning the flowers stood alone, glistening with water droplets in the early morning light. The town’s shared vegetable garden to the south of the house was also empty, tools set against the fence with no one to yield them.
“Mr. Whitcomb!” Cody Skeeters jumped up and down on the front porch of the big house and ran toward them. “Mrs. Whitcomb says I ain’t supposed to move until you and Cooper get here!”
Daniel held up a hand and looked down at the boy. “Is she hurt?”
Cody shook his head. “There’s a dead man, Mr. Whitcomb! A real dead man. I ain’t never seen nothing like it.”
“Come here, Cody.” Cooper motioned the boy closer. “Where is he?”
Cody pointed toward town. “In the clearing next to Miss Maggie’s saloon.”
“You take this packhorse down to Mr. Andris at the blacksmith’s barn. Can you do that for me?”
The boy nodded, his eyes still wide from excitement, and clasped the reins Cooper passed to him.
“Is Miss Abigail with her sister?”
Cody shook his head again. “I ain’t seen Miss Abigail.”
Both men urged their horses forward. Most of the townspeople had yet to leave their homes, which Daniel considered a blessing. His horse skidded to a halt a short distance from where a few early risers had gathered near the grass next to the saloon that also doubled as a restaurant, if one didn’t need variety. The saloon didn’t serve much beyond stew and biscuits or meatloaf, but it was one of the best meals in town.
He spotted Maggie Lynch, the proprietor, on the front boardwalk of the Blackwater Tavern, named after the pub her grandfather once operated in Ireland. Her wild, flame-red hair curled around her head and shoulders.
Daniel searched the faces but did not see his wife. His heart rate accelerated, as it always did when he thought of Evelyn in possible danger, and he pushed his way through the small circle of people.
He saw Evelyn kneeling on the ground next to a prone body covered with a canvas tarp. Daniel touched her shoulder, and when she looked at him, it was with damp and worried eyes. He helped his wife stand and took her place next to the body. Daniel inched the canvas away from the head, careful to block what he uncovered. Whitcomb Springs still awaited the new doctor, but the dead man did not need healing.
No one immediately answered his question. Daniel heard Cooper move up beside him and ask, “Where’s Abigail?”
“She’s all right, Cooper. She went to the school early to prepare and doesn’t know this has happened.” Evelyn added, “Maggie found the body about a half hour ago. We wanted to move him, but then thought you and Daniel should see him first.”
Daniel didn’t yet know everyone in town, and from his appearance, he suspected the young man worked in the mine or timber camp. Cooper confirmed his suspicions.
“That’s Jacob Smith. He was hired at the start of this season at the mine.” Cooper squatted and ran a hand along the back of Jacob’s head to what appeared to be the source of the blood. “Feels like someone hit him. Had to have been a powerful blow to kill him.”
Daniel looked up at his wife who now stood next to Maggie. He asked Maggie, “Did you or anyone else see what happened?”
Maggie shook her head. “I saw nothing. We don’t open for hours so no one else was inside. I came outside to go walking, like I always do first thing, and saw Jacob instead.”
“You know him?”
“Sure do,” Maggie said. “He came into the saloon once a week for the meatloaf. Sweet kid, only nineteen years old.”
“He dreamed of becoming a rancher,” Evelyn said, another reminder of how much more Evelyn was connected to the town than he. Daniel helped wherever he could, went to church, frequented the businesses, but he realized he’d yet to allow himself to become a part of the town the way his wife had. He wasn’t yet ready. A young man he never met—one of his employees—lay dead on the streets of his town. Daniel’s days of mourning the years he’d lost to war were about to be over. Time to focus on the now.
The sun’s path into the morning sky continued. Many who lived in town or nearby would soon appear. Men on the first shift at the timber camp would already be at work, and the mine would open for the day. Daniel shared a glance with Cooper, who nodded once and rose. Cooper pointed to two of the men standing nearby. “Help me carry him to the clinic.”
One man felt it necessary to speak the obvious. “But there ain’t no doc there.”
“No, there isn’t.” Cooper motioned them over when Daniel moved out of the way. “But it’s empty, close, and we have to get him off the street.”
Daniel waited for them to carry the young man across the road before he faced his wife and Maggie. “You have an extra room over your saloon, is that right, Maggie?” He caught the look shared between the two women.
“I’d feel better if your brother stayed with you until we find out what happened. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind leaving the timber camp for a few days.”
Maggie’s eyes narrowed and Daniel looked to Evelyn for help. “Maggie, Daniel’s right, it will only be for a short time, and it would ease my worry.”
“Of all the—”
Cooper’s return interrupted the start of Maggie’s tirade.
“He has a point, Maggie. This happened in front of your saloon. Might not be a coincidence.”
“If I agree to this, I’m doing it for Evelyn.” She pointed a finger at Cooper’s chest.
“We’ve got him! We’ve got the killer!” The shouts came from outside the circle of people, now parting to allow the newcomers passage to the center.
Daniel and Cooper watched a tall, black man being dragged toward them by two miners Daniel had met soon after his return home. Daniel stared in shock. Before him, hands bound and blood on his shirt stood Gordon Wells, the former slave who had saved his life.
Excerpted from "Unchained Courage" 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.