Hopes and Dreams in Whitcomb Springs
"Whitcomb Springs" Excerpt
Whitcomb Springs, Montana Territory
April 25, 1865
The letter fluttered to the table. Evelyn stared at the sheet of paper but could no longer make out the words as they blurred together. Surrender. She prayed this day would come, they all had, and after four tortuous years, the war was finally over.
There would be more capitulation on the part of the South, and too many families who would never see their men again . . . but it was over.
Separated, yet not untouched, from conflict, Evelyn Whitcomb lived in the same town her husband and their two friends founded one year before news of the Civil War reached them. By way of her sister, who lived in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania with their parents, they were kept informed as often as Abigail could get a letter through. Evelyn often wondered if she should have returned to Rose Valley to help with the war effort, much as her sister Abigail had done, yet she found the needs of Whitcomb Springs to be vast as the town continued to grow.
Many men and boys left, leaving their wives, mothers, and sisters behind to fight for a cause they didn’t fully understand, yet still felt it their duty to serve. Others remained behind to continue working in the mine and watch over those families with or without kin.
Evelyn read over Abigail’s letter once more, letting the words settle into her mind, for even now she struggled to believe it was over—that her husband might return home.
For too many years now I have shared with you the horrors and travesties befallen many of the young men with whom we spent our childhood. News has reached us that on the ninth of April, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Oh, sister, I dared not believe it was true when Papa brought home the news. He tells us not to become overly excited for there will surely be a few more battles waged until the news reaches both sides, but we can thank God that this war is officially over.
Your news of Daniel’s disappearance has weighed heavy on my mind these past months since we heard, and Papa has attempted to learn of his whereabouts, to no avail. We have not given up! There is much confusion right now on both sides and Papa said it could be weeks or months more before the men return home. Do not lose faith, sweet Evie.
Your most loving sister,
Evelyn pressed her face against her open handkerchief and wept against the cloth. The letter lay open on the table where it landed, for the moment forgotten. She did not have to witness smoke rising from destructed battlefields or watch neighbors’ homes burn to ash like they did in the battle-worn regions back east, but Whitcomb Springs had not been spared from the emotional onslaught. Three husbands and two young sons had been sent home to be buried, including Charles Carroll, one of their partners in the founding of the town and mine. She wrote to Daniel when news of Charles’s death reached his widow and young daughter, but Daniel did not respond for months, and even then it did not sound as though her letter about Charles’s death found him.
He spoke of his love for her and of life after the war. They’d moved away from Pennsylvania five years prior, but he and Charles had still considered it their duty to fight. Friends since childhood, they did everything together, and going to war was no exception.
Evelyn slammed her fist on the letter and freed four years’ worth of accumulated anger into her tears. As the town matriarch, even at her young age, Evelyn taught geography and history at the school, worked alongside the townspeople to establish a community garden, and offered whatever comfort she could to the wives and children whose men were lost or still away. She filled four years of days with enough activity to keep her too busy to feel the weight of the lonely nights. Alone now in the quiet of her parlor with her sister’s letter dotted in tears, Evelyn relinquished herself to grief and the flood of memories from a happier time.
June 15, 1860
“I wanted adventure, Daniel, but I do believe you’ve gone too far this time.” Evelyn dabbed her handkerchief against her neck. The air, still cool on the early summer day, warmed by degrees the farther they rode. It was her first time riding a horse outside a manicured park or gently sloping pasture, and the rough terrain proved to be more difficult than she’d originally credited.
Their guide, who went only by the name of Cooper, promised them what they’d see at the end of the trail would be worth the two days’ ride to get there. Evelyn had seen beautiful scenery, but nothing so far as to make her trust the man whose appearance was as untamed as the trail on which they now traveled.
“We’re almost there, Evie,” Daniel said. He urged his horse forward so he rode beside his wife.
“Didn’t I tell you the West was spectacular?”
“Yes, you did.” They were blessed with so much and yet they’d lost what was most important to them. Two children—sons—passed away shortly after their births, one year apart. They suffered together, mourned together, and dreamed together of a life far removed from their sorrows. He promised her adventure in a place grander than anything she’d ever seen. His promises were based on stories and reports of western expansion, and she loved him enough to believe in his dream as much as he did.
After weeks of train travel, cramped stagecoaches, and a few months’ extended stay in Helena, Evelyn had endured enough dreaming. “Daniel, please tell our guide we must stop and rest.”
Daniel pulled his horse to a stop, called out to Cooper, and helped Evelyn down from the saddle. The muscles in her back and legs were of little help to hold her upright. Daniel kept her steady, and she leaned toward him. He stood half a foot taller than her five and a half feet. Never one to be considered strong, he was lean and in excellent health from years of horse riding and exploring the Pennsylvania hills. When he asked if she wanted to remain in Helena while he joined the scout, she’d been quick to assure him she could handle the journey.
Four days of stage, wagon, and horseback, and she’d kept her silence until now. As though sensing she didn’t want to get back on the horse, Daniel positioned an arm at her waist and told their scout they were going for a walk.
Cooper lifted the saddle off his horse and moved to do the same on the others. “Be sure you stick to the trail and don’t go so far I can’t hear you shout.”
Evelyn glanced back at Cooper, wondering what event would require them to shout, and thought better of asking. She walked alongside her husband, staying on the trail as told. A steady rushing creek followed the trail as it widened, then narrowed. When they turned a bend around a copse of pine trees thick with branches and lush green needles, Evelyn stopped.
“Daniel.” Her voice was a reverent whisper. She dropped his hand and stepped forward, her eyes moving back and forth over the landscape so as not to miss anything.
“I promised you, Evie.” Daniel stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. They were home.
Whitcomb Springs, Montana Territory
April 25, 1865
The Pioneer Mountains, still capped with snow, rose above the hills surrounding their valley and the town. Breathtaking had been the first word uttered from her lips when she and Daniel stood at the edge of the valley. Evelyn picked up where her husband left off, and together they succeeded in building the town Daniel dreamt of, a town that would prosper without destroying the land.
The road was made passable their first summer, with a lot of expense, time, and hard labor of strong men hired to help build the first cabins and a trading post. Daniel promised he would build her a grand house, and it was the last thing he finished before he left.
The trading post was now a general store. Homes and businesses lined the carefully mapped roads, and last year they finished the church. Evelyn wondered what Daniel would say about the town when he returned. Pleased and proud, she hoped.
A gentle yet insistent knock at her front door drew her slowly from her own worries. Though more than two weeks had passed since the surrender, some would have heard the news and shared it with others until the whole town new. They did not have a telegraph or a post office yet, and letters from the East did not always reach them quickly. Townsfolk had families in the North and others in the South, yet here in Whitcomb Springs, they took no sides in the conflict of politics of war.
Evelyn blotted the tears away, took a few deep breaths, and rose from the chair. She wavered and kept herself upright by leaning on the table. Once her legs stopped trembling, she walked through the hall into the foyer. The knocking ceased, but a face pressed against the glass in the window, a cherub’s face with red cheeks and wide brown eyes, surrounded by a halo of wispy blond hair.
The young girl waved and stepped back when Evelyn opened the door. “Missouri Woodward, you appear to have been in a spot of trouble.” She looked over the girl’s dusty dress, muddy boots, and a shawl covered in leaves.
Missouri grinned. “Monroe said girls couldn’t climb trees because we’re too puny.”
“And you proved him wrong.”
The six-year-old bobbed her head and straightened her shawl. “Mama won’t be mad when I tell her. She says girls are just as cap . . .”
“Capable,” Evelyn said while holding back a grin of her own.
“That’s it. Mama says girls can do anything they want.”
Evelyn believed Missouri’s mother, a learned woman from Charleston and supporter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading figure of the women's rights movement, would teach her daughter to stand up for herself, but she also knew Lydia Woodward to be a lady of impeccable taste and manners. Evelyn held the door open and invited Missouri inside. “Your mother will understand, but even so, let’s clean you up a little before you go home, and you can tell me what brought you to my door this morning.”
Evelyn helped Missouri clean off her leather boots and remove the leaves and twigs from the shawl. She managed to wipe away some of the dust from the dress, but evidence of her shenanigans remained. From one of the few families in town of old money, Lydia Woodward had remained in Whitcomb Springs with her two children—Missouri and her older brother, Monroe—after her husband returned to Charleston to fight for the Southern cause. Lydia may have supported the beliefs of Elizabeth Stanton and feminist reformers, but she avoided the topic of reform when around Evelyn.
Women’s rights were inevitable, this she believed, yet to speak of such things while her husband and so many other men and boys were at war somehow seemed disloyal to their sacrifices. From an established and wealthy family in Pennsylvania herself, Evelyn had everything she ever wanted, and her father encouraged an education beyond needlework and home management for his daughters. The stifling existence women like Lydia spoke of was foreign to Evelyn.
Even now, thousands of miles from home, she had both money and property. And she would give up both if only to have her husband back in her arms, to wake in the morning with him beside her, and to know he was safe—to know they would grow old together. She smoothed out Missouri’s skirts and declared the girl fit enough to return home.
“Wait, Missouri. What brought you here, besides your dusty clothes?”
“Mama said Papa is coming home soon. Since you know everything and I guessed maybe if you said he was really coming home, it would be true.”
Evelyn leaned back in the chair at the kitchen table and studied the girl. Hope, a useful commodity in the hands of the right person. Missouri Woodward possessed it in abundance. How to speak the truth without quashing hope? Evelyn wondered. If there was one way to quickly spread news of the surrender to those who had yet to hear, it was Missouri. “What has your mother told you about where your father has been these past years?”
“Protecting South Carolina. It’s where I was born, and Mama said her mama and papa live there, but I don’t get to see them anymore. I want to see them, but Mama said when Papa comes home we can go for a visit, so I really want Papa to come home.”
It was not her place to explain the war to someone else’s child, or to reveal the realities of life and death, so Evelyn chose her next words carefully. “Your father and many other fathers and brothers and sons are protecting their homes, but what caused them to fight is over now.”
“Does that mean they’re coming home?”
“Some of them will, and others won’t.”
The big brown eyes looked up at Evelyn. “You mean like when Mary’s papa came back, and we all went to the cemetery?”
Evelyn lowered herself to the girl’s level and squeezed Missouri’s hands. “We don’t know what comes next. However, we need to be strong for each other, no matter what. And you have so much hope in you; hold onto it.”
Missouri nodded and fell against Evelyn. Her eyes remained dry, yet she held herself close for a few minutes before leaning back. “Sally Benson said my papa might not come home. Her mama is taking them back to . . .”
Evelyn kept her sigh silent in the face of frustration. She’d heard of the Benson’s decision to return to their native Georgia a few days ago. They were one of the families where husband and father had died, but there was no body left to send home.
“Missouri, I want you to promise me something.”
“All right, Mrs. Whitcomb.”
“No matter what you hear or what others say, remember to listen to your heart. Be strong and brave and never let anyone tell you your hopes are impossible.”
“I don’t understand, Mrs. Whitcomb.”
Evelyn kissed the girl’s cheek and said, “You will. Now run along to your mother. She’ll wonder where you’ve gone.”
With a quiet “thank you” and another quick hug, Missouri exited the house. Evelyn watched her run down the front walk and pass the beds of flowers eager to sprout and bloom before she remembered to slow down. One day soon, Evelyn thought, young girls will run and jump and play in the dirt without worrying if their fathers or brothers were coming back to them.
She stood on her wide front porch of the beautiful home Daniel had built, nestled in the untouched Montana valley. After four years of living without her husband, not knowing if he’d return to her, Evelyn still sought comfort from standing on the porch and looking up at the towering peaks. A few townspeople turned soil, preparing the community garden for seeds. Everyone who lived in town spent a few hours a week taking turns in the garden, and everyone reaped the benefits.
The community had been her family these long years, and she knew how blessed she was to want for nothing while others struggled. The garden had been a way to fill a need. She supplied the tools and seeds and looked forward to her turn to tend to the beds. The simple task of planting and watching the vegetables and flowers grow was a rewarding task.
She hired two of the young widows, Harriet Barker and Tabitha Armstrong, to help with her personal gardens and tend the house. Both women lived in rooms on the second floor, rooms that remained vacant and too quiet after Daniel left.
“Mrs. Whitcomb!” Lilian Cosgrove, who lived with her wounded husband in a small cottage on the other side of the meadow, hurried up the walkway. “Evelyn, please come quickly to the church.”
Evelyn darted a glance down the road, but didn’t see or hear a reason for Lilian to look flushed or to carry the heavy burden of worry in her eyes.
“Lilian, what’s happened?”
Lilian darted a glance to the family across the way in the garden and lowered her voice. “There’s something you need to see in the church. Ever since Reverend Mitchum left to tend that orphanage in San Francisco, Jedediah has been keeping a watch on the church, as you know. Today he found . . . oh, please come.”
Bemused, though not surprised as Lilian had a tendency toward melodrama, Evelyn followed the woman down the street, past the small hotel, and into the meadow where the church stood. Daniel and Evelyn always meant for it to be a place of solace for anyone who stepped through its doors. It wasn’t uncommon to find people passing through town, spending a few minutes inside before they moved on.
“Lilian, what is going on?” Evelyn stepped into the dimly lit building. The gray skies outside blocked much of the natural sunlight the row of windows often let into the church.
“You’ll see, in the back.”
Evelyn followed her friend to the back room where the reverend once lived. Sitting around the scarred table was a man, a woman, and a young boy, who looked no more than four years old, nestled on his mother’s lap. Jedediah Cosgrove stood in front of the only exit.
The man at the table started to stand but quickly took his seat again. Evelyn moved her eyes to look at the man’s legs. One appeared to be confined in a wooden leg brace. “Please, there’s no need to stand.” She took in the frightened expressions of the mother and child and looked at the others.
“What’s going on, Jedediah?”
“Jed saw her stealing from our garden,” Lilian said. “He followed her here and found them living in these rooms.”
Disappointment flooded through Evelyn’s heart. She would speak with her friends later, but now, the couple and their children needed tending.
“There is no reason to be afraid. What are your names?”
The man again attempted to stand, but his wife pressed him down with a gentle touch and passed him their son. “Corbel. I’m Olive and my husband, Levi. This is our son, Elijah. We didn’t mean any harm.”
Evelyn was quick to reassure her. “I’m sure you didn’t. I see you’re injured, Mr. Corbel.”
Olive spoke instead of Levi. “My husband doesn’t speak, ma’am, not since . . .” she looked at her man, “. . . since he came home.”
“I’m Evelyn Whitcomb.” Evelyn turned to Lilian and Jed. “Thank you, Lilian, and Jed, it’s okay. Please leave us. I’d like to speak with the Corbels.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Lilian asked.
Evelyn fought back the sadness at her friend’s words. “Yes, I’m sure. I would like to visit with the Corbels alone for a few minutes. I’ll come see you afterward.” She rarely used her place in the community as a voice of authority, but when she did, those around her offered no argument. Evelyn waited until she heard the front doors of the church close.
When she faced the family again, Olive was still standing. “May I sit with you?”
Surprise replaced wariness and Olive nodded. Once Evelyn sat in the only empty chair, Olive followed suit. Evelyn said, “I’m sorry for my friends’ behavior. They’re protective when it comes to strangers.”
“I shouldn’t have stolen from them.” Olive lifted her son back onto her lap. “We were traveling and sorry to say, we found ourselves off the trail.”
“That’s not difficult to do up here.” Evelyn studied each of them, the gaunt faces and mended clothes. They were clean, indicating Olive’s close care of her family. “Does the leg pain you, Mr. Corbel?”
He shook his head. “I can take it, ma’am.” She barely caught his words. The hoarse whisper lost what little volume it had between them.
Evelyn cast a surprised look in Olive’s direction. Olive explained, “I didn’t tell you a falsehood, Mrs. Whitcomb. It’s easier, you see, for people to think . . . Levi was scarred something fierce, and it pains him to speak.”
“I am not accusing you of misleading me, not at all. How was he injured, if it’s not too impertinent to ask?”
Olive and her husband exchanged a silent look, and he nodded once. Olive said, “He fought for the Confederacy. There was an explosion, but Levi prefers not to talk about it, ma’am. Not the explosion or the war.”
“Please, call me Evelyn. And it’s all right, I shouldn’t have pried. Please accept my apologies. My husband hasn’t returned home, and I don’t know if he will, so I do understand a bit of what your family has suffered. Where are you going, if I may ask?”
“We’re from Texas. When Levi was . . . after he returned, we lost our farm. We came north, heard there were opportunities up here, been finding work where we can.” Olive sat higher in the chair, her back straightening as she held her son closer. “Are you going to turn us over to your sheriff?”
“As it happens, we don’t have a sheriff right now.”
“But we saw—”
“A sheriff’s office, yes. We’re a growing town and like to plan for the future.”
“We saw a sign when we came into town: Whitcomb Springs. Is that you?”
Evelyn nodded. “My husband is Daniel Whitcomb. This town was our dream.” Evelyn stood. “It’s a place for new beginnings, if that’s what you’re after.”
All three pairs of eyes met hers. Levi said in his whispered words, “Mrs. Whitcomb?” Those two words asked far more than a confirmation of her name. She couldn’t help Daniel except with prayers, and right now she believed these people needed her attention more.
“These rooms are yours to use while you decide what to do next. There’s a well out back and I’ll have clean linens, food, and changes of clothes brought over. If you choose to leave, at least you will be rested. If you choose to stay, we will find a place for you and discuss your options.”
“I don’t understand, Mrs.—Evelyn.”
“It’s our way, Mrs. Corbel. There’s work for those who are willing to work hard and there’s a home here for those in search of one. Life in Whitcomb Springs is not always easy. It’s rewarding, and the community is strong, and most importantly, it’s ours.” Evelyn saw from the way they looked at her that she’d given them enough to think about. “I’ll send someone along with the items I mentioned. If you’d like to visit again, my house is down the north road past the general store. I would like to help if you’ll let me.”
Evelyn left them to their privacy. She didn’t know if she’d see them again or if in the night they planned to disappear in hopes of reaching a new destination. Either way, there was another matter to tend, one she dreaded.
Lilian and Jed weren’t waiting outside. She walked to the edge of the meadow and crossed the bridge over a narrow point of Little Bear Creek. They stepped outside when she approached.
“Have then gone?” Lilian asked.
“They are welcome here, Lilian, as you and Jed were five years past.”
“They stole from us.”
Evelyn’s heart ached at the other woman’s harsh words. “True, and I suspect they will repay you in any way they can. Where is your charity, Lilian, and yours, Jed? You were injured and by grace you came home to your wife. Others have suffered far more. Olive had a son to feed and only a mother’s desperation would have had her committing a crime, but it is a minor one. She stole food from your garden to feed her son, food that can be replaced. They are to be forgiven.”
Jed stepped forward, chagrined. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Whitcomb. You’re right. I don’t reckon I know what would have become of Lilian and me if we hadn’t found this town, or if I hadn’t come back to her.”
“But I ain’t never stolen.”
“I see.” And Evelyn did.
Lilian held a white cloth in one hand and her other still showed evidence of flour from baking. “This town isn’t for people like them. We’ve worked too hard.”
Evelyn fought back tears for the loss of two people she’d called friends—family, even. “I know well enough what kind of people belong in this town. People like the Corbels. These mountains that surround us, the valley where we build our homes and grow our crops, don’t belong to us. We put our name on a sign and erected this town. We burrowed into the earth so the mine could support the town and the people in it, and when we’re done, we do everything we can to make the land whole again. We don’t take what we don’t need, and we give what we can. That has always been Whitcomb Springs.” Evelyn walked away, stopped after a few feet and looked back at them. “At what point did you forget?”
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Excerpt from "Whitcomb Springs" Copyright © MK McClintock. Published by Packsaddle Press. No duplication or copying allowed without permission from the author or publisher.
"Forsaken Trail" Excerpt
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.”
End of Preview
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.
"Unchained Courage" Excerpt
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.
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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.
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