Excerpt from

The Montana Gallaghers 4-6

Montana Gallagher Series

Books 4-6

AN ANGEL CALLED GALLAGHER


Chapter One


Briarwood, Montana Territory—December 1883


White clouds of warm breath snaked through the cold air. She held her hands in front of her mouth in an effort to bring heat to her stiff fingers. Fresh snow had covered the land while she tried to sleep, and she didn’t want to sleep too long for fear that the small fire would dwindle. Two thin pieces of wood leaned against the inside of the small black pail. She tucked her feet under her legs and pressed them into her chest. The wool blanket was thin and only warm enough for a cool day, not bitter winter nights. When the sun dipped behind the mountains and the moon rose, the cold seeped past the blanket and into her bones.


Sleep came and went like fleeting dreams until the stars faded, and the small window by the door promised to reveal a rising sun over the mountain peaks. It would be a good day to gather more wood and branches from the forest floor. She looked to the two pegs above the narrow stone fireplace where her father’s rifle used to hang. The emptiness in her stomach might be worse if her father hadn’t left behind a cut of deer. She finished the last of the meat the night before, and the gnawing in her gut told her she’d have to find a meal soon.


Her eyes closed when the soft rays of sun touched her skin. As though drawn toward the promise of warmth, she stepped off the bed with the blanket wrapped around her small shoulders and opened the front door.


Catherine Rose Carr had been raised properly and prided herself on her ability to do her numbers, read a full book without too much difficulty, and to follow the moral rules her mother said every young man and woman must abide by to get to Heaven. She wasn’t certain if she was going to Heaven, or if her mother and father were even there waiting for her, but Catie was sure her behavior the past two weeks excluded her from ever finding out.


The snow soaked through her boots and left her legs weighed down with each deep step. Grateful she could find a moment of rest, Catie crouched low, pressing her back up against the wooden structure nearly the size of her cabin. She hadn’t come this far to turn back now. It took almost ten minutes to convince herself that starvation was worse than stealing.


Catie hadn’t been this far from the cabin before, and the ranch was the only place she’d come upon after half a day of walking through the woods. Her father had been adamant that she remain close to the cabin. Two days and he’d return—that had been his promise to her.


“Too many dangers beyond the walls of home,” he had told her.


Catie didn’t understand his concern. Hadn’t he taught her how to shoot the Remington rifle? She might have had better success hunting if he’d left it behind.


Three weeks ago, she swore her father would not forget to return, yet as the days and weeks passed, she was forced to break her promise.


The chickens, who must have sensed the unknown presence, squawked and squabbled from within. Catie covered her mouth with the end of the shabby wool scarf to keep any noise from escaping her lips. She heard the unmistakable sound of boots hitting wooden boards and someone talking softly to the fowl. Catie remained still as a sturdy oak, just the way her father had taught her when they tracked her first buck up the mountain. Someone else walked toward the chicken coop and entered the structure. Voices carried through the planks, and curious to know if they were friendly or a danger to her, she pressed closer against the wood.


“Brenna! You startled me. How did you manage to trudge out here in those boots, and what are you doing with a basket?”


“Then you startle too easily, Amanda.”


The woman laughed, a light and lovely sound. She spoke differently than the other woman, almost like a song.


“My boots don’t seem to fit well these days, so I borrowed an old pair of Ethan’s. I wanted some fresh air, and since my aromatic oils should arrive any day now, I thought I’d gather some pinecones, give them a little scent, and set them around the house.”


“What a nice idea. Would you like some company after I get these eggs back inside?”


“I was hoping you’d join me. I had a few ideas for the house that I wanted to discuss with you. I promised Ethan I wouldn’t attempt to stand on anything when he wasn’t around.”


One of the women laughed, and Catie thought it was the other woman without the music in her voice. “Then we better not let him or your grandmother catch you.”


Catie listened to the light rustling, and finally the door closed with the women on the outside. She shouldn’t have dared. Reason seemed to have little place in her mind at the moment because she peeked around the edge for a glimpse. Starved for human companionship, Catie was desperate to call out. Almost. When the women had disappeared around the other side of the barn, she trudged through the snow to the front of the coop. Careful not to disturb the chickens too much, she collected as many of the leftover eggs as she could carry wrapped in her scarf. Her gaze flitted over the hens once, and Catie shook her head.


“You’re safe from me, little ones. I haven’t fallen that far yet.”


As quietly as she came, she disappeared back into the woods.


The unfamiliar voices halted Catie’s progress into the rough-hewn cabin. Smoke rose from the narrow chimney, and the scent of cooked meat caused her stomach to clench. A smile formed on her red lips, though her happiness did not last. It appeared to be three voices and none sounded like her father. Catie held the eggs close to her chest and walked alongside the perimeter until she could comfortably peek inside the window.


Three men stood or sat in various stages of undress, snug in the nearly barren cabin. One of them turned something in a hot pan sitting precariously over the wood and coals in the fire, even as she wondered how they’d come upon her home so quickly. She looked into the sky where the sun shined directly above her. Her excursion to the chicken coop had taken longer than she realized.


She looked again at the men through the window, careful to remain out of sight. They’d used the last of the firewood. In the months she and her pa had lived in the solitary cabin, she’d not seen another soul come around.


Catie waited for each man to turn around so she could glimpse their faces. She was convinced none were her father now that she’d at least seen their backs, as much as she might have hoped otherwise. The third man turned, and an inaudible gasp escaped her lips. If ever there was a man in her past life she didn’t want to meet again, it was him.


Catie pulled back, her eyes scanning the land around what used to be her home, or the home her father had found for them two weeks ago. Even if the men left, they knew where she lived. Looking down at the eggs bundled in her scarf, she ignored the pain of cold around her toes and walked back the way she had come.


She noticed the line shack in the distance. It was small, unoccupied, and warmer than the cabin. After a quick scan of the little room, Catie stepped inside, grateful to find a cot and a bin of wood for a potbellied stove. With the short winter days and the sun on a downward setting behind the mountains, she was out of options. Trespassing was only the latest in a growing list of wrongdoings. Survival demanded she forgive herself of the sin, and she prayed the owner of the shack would show mercy if they came upon her in the night. She didn’t relish adding jail to her future list of shelters. With the simple hope embedded in her mind, she closed the door.


She set her precious eggs—the stolen eggs—down on the flat surface of the rough table and started a fire. The tinder was still dry, and after half a dozen attempts, a small flame licked the edges of the wood. A few minutes later, Catie’s fingers turned a light shade of pink as the heat soaked into her skin, and she removed her boots to help warm her feet and dry her socks. The shack was better equipped than the cabin, and she found a small skillet and pot in a wooden box by the stove. A single plate, cup, and fork sat beneath the pan wrapped in a dusty cloth. She brushed the sleeve of her shirt over the pan to remove any lingering dust and cracked the eggs open when the heat seeped through the iron.


The eggs staved off the gnawing ache in her stomach, at least for one more night. Her hunger temporarily assuaged, Catie laid on the narrow cot, the scarf wrapped tightly around her shoulders. The few warm blankets were a blessing, and thankful for a sheltered place to rest, she fell into a deep slumber.


The following morning, Catie stood in the trees, her arms filled with small branches for kindling. She watched a tall man dismount and circle the shack, look inside, and then return to his horse and rummage through his worn leather saddlebags. Her body shivered, and the trees offered little protection from the cold breeze. Light drops of wet snow fell from the low-hanging branches of the pine trees, testing the strength of her resolve. The man left the shack, remounted, and rode away.

She hurried back to the scant warmth of the shack and nearly tripped over her own feet. On the edge of the cot, a thick blanket was neatly folded. Her gaze darted around the small space, settling on the thick cut of beef on the table. Beside the beef was a clean, white towel. Catie pulled back the corners to reveal a dozen more eggs and half a loaf of bread. Why would the man leave them behind? How did he know she was there, and would he make her go away? She would worry over those questions in the morning. For tonight, she would feast.


Chapter Two


Brenna Gallagher’s eyes fluttered open. The heavy curtains blocked the cold and moonlight. Her husband’s deep breathing always brought her a sense of security and comfort, except tonight something poked and prodded at her subconscious to awaken her.


She slipped from bed and into her robe. On stockinged feet, she walked quietly from the room and into the hall. Only the roar of the wind beating on the house filled what otherwise would be a silent night. Brenna took comfort in the great home’s strength and foundation, but she knew firsthand that misfortune could penetrate its walls. They’d nearly lost her sister-in-law to her grandfather’s hired man just a few bedrooms down from theirs. She quickly quelled the memory and stepped into the hall.


Brenna walked the short distance to young Jacob’s room. With the events that had transpired over the past two years, it was a mother’s over-protective instinct that drove her to look in on her son in the middle of the night.


Jacob was like his uncle Gabriel—Ethan’s brother—and tended to sleep through almost anything. It wasn’t his cries or quiet murmurs that drew her to the nursery door, but the sound of a familiar tune sung by a soft voice.


Angels watching, e'er around thee,
All through the night
Midnight slumber close surround thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and dale in slumber sleeping
I my loved ones' watch am keeping,
All through the night


Ethan had taught her the lullaby just as his mother had sung it to him. Brenna smiled at the thought of her grandmother, Elizabeth, or Gabriel’s wife, Isabelle, singing so sweetly to her son. They must have heard him awaken when she hadn’t.


Brenna eased opened the door so as not to disturb them, but the empty room left her shivering. No lamp had been lit or curtains drawn to allow the moonlight inside. Panicked, she hurried to Jacob’s crib and found him warm, content, and asleep. She searched every dark corner and checked the windows, but no one else was there.


“Brenna?”


She didn’t take her eyes off of Jacob. “In here.”


Ethan moved up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Did he wake up?”


She shook her head. “No, but I heard someone singing to him.”


“Elizabeth?”


“No. No one else was in here.”


Ethan turned her around. “Is everything all right?”


Exasperated, Brenna looked back down at their son. “I’m not crazy or hearing things. At least I don’t think I am. Do you remember the tune you taught me right after Jacob was born?”


He nodded. “My mother’s lullaby.”


“Yes. Do Gabriel and Eliza know it?”


Ethan shrugged. “I imagine so. Is that what you heard?”


“Yes.” She laughed. “Perhaps I did just hear it in my head.”


“Do you want to bring him into our room for tonight?”


“I don’t wish to disturb him.” Brenna leaned over and tucked the edges of the blanket around Jacob. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. Let’s go back to bed.”


Brenna followed her husband into the dark hall but not without one final study of the nursery. This time, she left the door open all the way.


***

“You look awful.”


Brenna looked up from her morning cup of tea and attempted a smile for Ethan’s younger sister, Eliza. A new bride to Brenna’s brother, Ramsey Cameron, Eliza was now her sister twice over. When Brenna first arrived in Briarwood more than eighteen months ago, she had stumbled unexpectedly into a family whose bond was deeper than any she’d known since the death of her parents. Brenna studied her sister-in-law’s lopsided grin. “You don’t. Marriage agrees with you.”


Eliza grinned. “I won’t argue with truth.” She poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down across from Brenna. “You’re up early. Didn’t sleep well?”


“Something kept me awake.”


“Ethan?”


Brenna tossed a napkin at Eliza. “Where your thoughts drift is remarkable.” Her smile was fleeting. “I thought I heard a woman singing to Jacob, but when I reached his room, no one was there.”


Eliza shrugged. “It’s probably just the house. She’s old and sometimes likes to have her say.”


“Perhaps.” Brenna drank the rest of her tea and asked, “What are you doing here this early?”


“Elizabeth’s attempts to teach me how to cook have gone to waste. I need to place an advertisement for a live-in housekeeper and cook, for Ramsey’s sake, and thought I’d stop in first. I never realized how much work Amanda and Elizabeth did, and Mabel before them, until I wasn’t living here.”


Brenna thought of the grandmother she first met not long after her arrival in Briarwood, Montana. Now, she couldn’t imagine life at Hawk’s Peak without Elizabeth. “Amanda has been a dream, especially since Grandmother refuses to slow down.” Brenna studied her sister-in-law. “Elizabeth is going to teach me how to bake her delicious mince pies this afternoon. Care to join us?”


Eliza laughed. “I’d rather be thrown from a wild mustang.”


Brenna smiled. “Not in that dress you won’t. Not even a riding skirt for your trip to town.”


“Tore up my last one yesterday. Caught it on a nail and ripped it clean through, along with some of my leg.”


“Nothing serious, I hope.”


“Nope. Ramsey cleaned it up.”


Brenna grinned. “A task I’m certain you both enjoyed.”


A blush rose up Eliza’s cheeks. “Always do. Speaking of tasks, I better get to mine. I wanted to ask if anyone needed anything from town.”


“You’ll save Gabriel a trip. He said something about an order of lumber he had to pick up tomorrow.”


Eliza swallowed the last of her coffee. “I’d give him my list, except I haven’t been into town for two weeks.”


“Or here in a week. We miss you around here.”


“I’ll admit, it’s strange not to be here every day. The house isn’t far, but Ramsey and I have been talking about putting up a cabin nearby.” Eliza stretched the muscles in her shoulders against the back of the chair.


“You’d give up the other house?”


Eliza shook her head. “Ever since we decided to put the new stables here instead of at our place, Ramsey and I have considered the time we’ll spend here. We don’t need a lot of space, and we’ll keep the big house, for now.” Ramsey and Eliza now lived in the expansive ranch house that once belonged to Nathan Hunter, and although the land was now a part of Hawk’s Peak, they had yet to call it home.


“I think it’s a wonderful idea.”


Brenna and Eliza looked toward the door where their other sister-in-law walked in, hand in hand with Andrew, her younger brother. Isabelle came to Montana as a schoolteacher, hoping for a new beginning for her and Andrew. Unbeknownst to Isabelle at the time, the new beginning included an unexpected love between her and Gabriel Gallagher.


Isabelle sat down next to Andrew and said, “We’d love to see you around here more often and not just in a saddle as you pass through.”


Eliza sneaked a cookie and winked at Andrew. “You will over the next couple of weeks since we’ll be bunking in my old room. Between the extra horses and Gabriel finishing up the new house, we thought we’d be of more use here.”


“I couldn’t be more pleased, especially with Christmas so close.” Brenna added more hot tea to her cup. “Have you decided where you’d like the cabin?”


“There’s a spot west of the main house near the trees.” Eliza pushed her now empty coffee mug away, her gaze moving to her nephew. “What’s wrong, Andrew? You’ve barely touched your muffin, and I know for a fact that Amanda’s muffins are the best in the territory.”


Isabelle smoothed a hand over her brother’s hair. “He didn’t sleep well. Wandered into my and Gabriel’s room early this morning.”


Brenna watched Isabelle encourage the sleepy boy to sit up straight at the table. “What kept you up?”


Andrew yawned. “The lady singing.”


Brenna fumbled with her teacup.


Isabelle set a cup of milk in front of Andrew. “Are you well, Brenna?”


She nodded, then focused on Andrew. “You heard a lady singing last night?”


“Uh huh. It was pretty.”


Brenna looked up at Isabelle. “So you weren’t the one in Jacob’s room last night?”


“Brenna, I’m sure it’s nothing,” Eliza said. “Like I said, this old house likes to make noise.”

“Yes, I’m sure it’s nothing.” Brenna pushed away from the table. “I better get Jacob up.”


“Can’t be coyotes or wolves. They would have killed their share of the chickens.”


“I’m telling you, Ethan, something or someone is taking eggs from the coop.”


Ethan studied his wife. “What were you doing out in the chicken coop?”


“Fresh air.”


Ethan smiled and draped an arm around his wife’s waist. “With the chickens?”


Brenna nodded once, sprigs of red hair framing her face. “Does it matter? That’s not the only thing strange happening around here.”


“What exactly has happened?”


“Someone’s been staying in the east line shack.”


“Is this about the singing you heard?”


Brenna managed to keep her frustration in check. “No. I’m willing to concede that I might have imagined a woman singing to our son, though Andrew heard it as well, but I am not imagining this. Ben mentioned it this morning when I was outside.”


“With the chickens again?”


“Ethan.”


He held up his hands and grinned. “The teasing is over.”


Brenna smiled and raised up on her toes to kiss him. “You’re an exasperating man, Ethan Gallagher.”

“You love me anyway.”


“Heaven help me, I do.”


“Are we interrupting?”


Ethan and Brenna turned when Gabriel and Eliza walked into the room. Ethan’s younger siblings brushed the snow from their coats and stepped into the kitchen.


“Always,” Ethan said, but Brenna swatted his arm and smiled at the other two.


“Is the coffee hot?” Gabriel blew into his hands and rubbed them together.


“Fresh pot.” Brenna filled two mugs full and passed one to each of the newcomers.


Gabriel said, “We have a problem at the line shack.”


“How is it you know and I don’t?” Ethan asked, ignoring his wife’s smug smile.


“I just spoke with Ben.” Gabriel refilled his mug. “Thought he saw smoke, but when he went to check, no one was around. He did say someone’s been there. Fresh cinders in the stove.”


Eliza pulled out a chair and made herself comfortable. “Ramsey swore he heard something out in the barn last night, and he found fresh prints—too small for a man. He went out to look . . . found nothing suspicious.”


Ethan glanced at each one of them. “I can understand that with everything we’ve been through, there’s cause for concern, but you’re all a mite paranoid. Bad guys don’t sing lullabies or only steal eggs.”


Eliza glanced over at him. “And you’re not paranoid?”


He shook his head. “For the first time in a decade, our family is going to have a normal and quiet Christmas. The fighting is over, and I for one plan to enjoy it.” Ethan pulled his wife closer and pressed his hands gently to her middle.


Gabriel slapped his brother’s back. “You already got the best gift a man could want.”


Eliza grinned. “Another Gallagher. Now there’s something to celebrate.”


Gabriel moved his empty cup aside. “Speaking of celebrating, I think we ought to have a holiday gathering.”


Brenna’s bright smile lit up her green eyes. “What a lovely idea, Gabriel.”


Skeptical, Eliza stood and carried her cup to the sink. “Lovely indeed.” She turned to her brother. “Since when do you like parties?”


“Dear sister, you’re the one who doesn’t like them. I, however, will enjoy any chance I get to dance with my wife.”


Ethan shrugged. “It’s a good idea, although we can’t ask people to ride out here in the snow, Gabe.”

“We can celebrate in town. I think it’s time for everyone to enjoy a fine Christmas. Do you remember the last time Briarwood celebrated the holiday with the entire town?”


Ethan smiled, a faraway look in his eyes. “Not since Mother and Father were around.”


Brenna looped her arm with Ethan’s. “I’ll work with Amanda and Elizabeth. Perhaps we can meet with some of the women in town and plan the details.” She gazed up at her husband. “I’ve not enjoyed a true Christmas celebration since I left Scotland.”


Ethan brushed a finger over Brenna’s lips and gently squeezed her hand. “You have to promise to take it easy.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “You’ve not been feeling well these past few days.”


Surprised, she met his eyes. “I didn’t realize you’d noticed. I’ve already born you a child, Ethan Gallagher. I can manage, and I know my limits. My guardian angels have kept a close watch ever since I shared the news.”


Eliza glanced around the kitchen. “Speaking of Amanda and your grandmother, where are they?”

“Oh, here and there.” Brenna swung a white towel through the air. “They won’t allow me to do anything more than stir soup or read a book when Jacob is asleep. I’m going mad.” Brenna’s thoughts drifted to the older couple who had helped raise her and still looked after Cameron Manor in her absence. “Iain and Maggie hovered just as much when I was in Scotland, pregnant with Jacob.”


Gabriel cupped his sister-in-law’s face. “You’re not going mad, but you are going to have another baby.” He grinned up at his brother. “This is going to be a Christmas to remember.”


“Not if we don’t get our work done around here,” Ethan interjected, though he winked at his wife before turning to his sister. “I have a few ideas for the spring stable expansion I’d like to run by you and Ramsey.”


Eliza sneaked a sample of the unfrosted cake someone had left on the counter. “I’m headed over to meet Ramsey right now. We have a mare who took a tumble a few days ago.”


“Is it serious?” Gabriel asked.


Eliza shook her head. “Ramsey knows what he’s doing, but she’s one of the mares for the new breeding stock, and he doesn’t want to takes any chances. Ethan, if you’re ready, we can head over now.”


“Let’s go, then.” Ethan brushed a kiss over Brenna’s lips, kissed his son’s forehead, and headed outside with Eliza and Gabriel.


They covered the distance between the main house and the old Hunter spread—Ethan wondered if they’d ever stop thinking of it as Nathan Hunter’s house. Two of the men Ramsey employed had cleared a crude path between the two ranches using the horse-drawn wedge plow. The rest of the snow in many areas was flattened by the cattle during the daily rotations for winter grazing and feeding. It made travel between the two properties easier, but not ideal.


When they rode up to the barn, Ethan remembered the day he first brought Brenna to meet her grandfather. Brenna remained strong that day despite Nathan Hunter’s cruelty, but it had also been the day Ethan fell in love with Brenna, and that was a memory worth keeping. Ethan refocused when Ramsey stepped out of the barn.


Eliza dismounted and joined her husband. “How’s the mare?”


“The leg doesn’t appear to be damaged. She’s standing on it now.” Ramsey kissed his wife and then shook hands with Ethan and Gabriel when they joined them. “Good to see you both. I don’t get over to Hawk’s Peak as much as I’d like these days.”


They followed Ramsey back into the barn and out of the wind. Ethan walked to the stall where the injured mare stood, her head over the stall door. “You’ve done a good job around this place, though I, too, have to admit we wouldn’t mind seeing you around the house more often. Besides, this is a part of Hawk’s Peak now.”


Ramsey grinned and looked at his wife who said, “We wanted to speak with both of you. Ramsey and I have talked about building a cabin nearby, on the west side of the main house close to the trees. Neither of you would mind, would you?”


Ethan grinned. “Mind? Of course not. It’s your land, too.”


Gabriel asked, “Why only a cabin? Will you still keep Hunter’s . . . I’d better stop calling it that.”


“Yes, we’d still keep this ranch house for now, but we’d have a place close by. I wasn’t going to say anything . . . as nice as this place is, it still has a feeling of Hunter around it. Ramsey and I want to tear down the old house and start new, make a place that’s ours and not something Hunter built. Did you know Elizabeth won’t come and visit? We don’t press her for a reason, or bring it up, but we know it’s because of the unhappy memories.”


Ethan draped an arm over Eliza’s shoulders. “We can clear land and start on the new cabin after Christmas.” He pressed his lips to her forehead in a brief kiss and then ruffled her messy hair, knowing it would bring out a smile.”


She swatted his hand away and leaned into Ramsey.


Ramsey said, “I’d like to be the one to tell Elizabeth and make sure she’s in agreement. It’s one thing not to want to visit, but another knowing the place is gone for good.”


“We won’t say anything, and I’ll ask Brenna to keep your plans quiet as well.”


“Appreciate it.” Ramsey checked the mare once more before they left the barn.


Gabriel stopped, turned a full circle, and asked, “Where are the men you hired?”


“Gone.” Ramsey secured the barn doors and slipped an arm around Eliza’s waist. “One of them took off and the other I had to fire. He spent more time with a bottle than working. You take it for granted, but good help is hard to find. Most of your men have been with you for years, and they’re loyal. As you’ve reminded me, this is a part of Hawk’s Peak now, and the men who work here should be as loyal.”


Ethan said, “Work’s always a tad slower in the winter, so if you need some extra help around here, let me know. I’m sure the men would be happy to come over.”


“I’d be grateful, though it’s helped since we’ve combined the herds. Eliza and I can manage the horses until we get the next phase of the stables completed.”


“I wanted to talk to you about that,” Ethan began.


He shared his ideas for the new expansion as the small group walked into the house. Ramsey and Eliza, in turn, shared their thoughts about what would be best for the animals. When they’d finished their second cup of coffee, Ethan and Gabriel said their goodbyes and headed back to the main house.


Ben met up with them halfway home.


“Something wrong?” Ethan asked.


“We have a visitor.” Ben brushed his gloved hand across his brow and replaced his hat. “On a hunch, I left a few things out at the line shack in the north pasture the other day, and sure enough, the blanket was used and the food eaten.”


“Drifter? Trapper, maybe?” Ethan scanned the open land between the ranch and the tree line. The shack was too far out to see, but there was no mistaking the gentle curls of smoke rising from the chimney pipe. “They haven’t gone after the cattle.”


Ben shook his head. “I can’t see that they’ve done anything more than steal a few eggs.”


“Eliza said Ramsey heard something out at their place.”


Ben nodded. “You want me and the boys to take shifts and catch the fella?”


“Not yet.” Ethan shifted in the saddle and looked to Gabriel. “The winter was off to a cold start, and it’s not getting better. Last night was one of the coldest in memory.” Ethan bit down on a piece of jerky. “On second thought, let’s go have a look now ourselves.”


Catie patted the low flames with the pan in an effort to extinguish the fire but only served to ignite it further. Panicking, she left the fire burning, and stumbled from the shack. She raced toward the trees, and once she was safely beneath her canopy of pines, she realized her scarf still lay on the bed.


She huddled between two large pines, remaining low to the ground with the hope that the needled branches would hide her from view. Her hope did not last long.


“Not what I expected.”


Catie slowly rose and turned around. She had not heard the man approach from behind.


“Do you have a name, young lady?”


She debated answering him. She was not keen on going to jail for trespassing, nor could she outrun him.


“Catherine Rose Carr, but I’m called Catie.” She watched his warm blue eyes study her and realized his presence offered her more comfort than fear.


“Well, Catie, I suppose you’re the one who’s been sleeping in our range shack.”


She nodded and stepped back when the man began to remove his coat. He stopped.


“You’re scared, but it’s cold out, and you can’t remain here on your own. You don’t need to fear me.”


“That’s what bad men say.”


He chuckled and finished removing his coat. “You don’t have to take my word for it. While you’re sorting out whether you can trust me, take this.” He handed her the coat.


Unwilling to freeze, but still wary, Catie accepted the large garment and slipped her arms into the sleeves. The heavy coat smelled of horses.


“Thank you,” she mumbled. “Don’t go thinking we’re friends now.”


“I wouldn’t dare, but you’ll still have to come with me. We need to talk, and I’d rather not stay out here in the cold. I know my wife would like you to meet you.”


“What’s your name, mister?”


He tipped his hat. “Ethan Gallagher. I believe you’re acquainted with our chicken coop.”


She had the courtesy to blush. “I reckon I’ll go.” Catie paused and narrowed her eyes. “You wouldn’t be trying anything funny, would you?”


Ethan grinned and held up his hands in defense. “On my honor, I am not.”


End of Preview


Excerpted from An Angel Called Gallagher by MK McClintock. Copyright © MK McClintock. Published by Trappers Peak  Publishing and Cambron Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be  reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.


****


JOURNEY TO HAWK'S PEAK


Chapter One


Hawk’s Peak, Montana Territory—May 1884


A hawk and its mate soared high above their heads. White clouds tipped with gray created a continuous patchwork in the vast, blue sky, casting shadows over the snow-capped mountains. A cool, spring breeze caressed Amanda’s face and whipped her unbound hair over her shoulders. She’d left the house wearing only a shawl, preferring to relish in the warmer air after the long, harsh season.


The winter of ’84 had been one of the coldest in Amanda’s memory. Although it had been her first in Montana, she was no stranger to the hardships of the western frontier. No matter how settled the land became or how many people from the East ventured in search of the same dreams which brought her parents west, she loved the wildness the land fought to retain.


“I’ll never tire of this sight.” Not a soul within one hundred miles could miss the grand mountain ranges that crisscrossed the land and protected their valley.


“I won’t either.” Brenna wore a heavier wool shawl, the edges gathered over her growing belly. Amanda smiled at her friend—one of many she’d made since arriving at Hawk’s Peak—and imagined Brenna as a new mother once again.


Brenna and Ethan Gallagher already had one son, Jacob, named after Ethan’s father and born in Scotland, Brenna’s homeland. The courage to leave behind everything and everyone she knew at Cameron Manor to journey across an ocean and vast continent impressed Amanda. She’d embarked on her own journey when she left home, but it compared nothing to what Brenna must have experienced.


Brenna stopped at a point in the meadow and bent over to pick a few sprigs of wild lupine and add them to the basket she carried over one arm. Calves frolicked in the nearby pastures, another sign that spring had come regardless of winter’s efforts to linger. In her lyrical voice with her refined Scottish accent, Brenna said, “When I first stepped foot off the stage, the sheer enormity of what I’d done paled in comparison to the beauty of these mountains. I abhorred the circumstances that forced me to flee, and yet without those trials, I wouldn’t be here now. I wouldn’t have Ethan or Jacob.” She patted her belly and smiled. “Or this one.”


“I envy you, Brenna.” Amanda continued walking, but it was Brenna who stopped, surprised by the quietly spoken words.


“What a dear thing for you to say, but there are many who could say the same of you.”


Amanda was quick to assure Brenna. “Please, don’t think me ungrateful for what I have. I’ve been blessed many times over in my life. I envy the way you approach life, every day with such hope.”


“It got me into trouble often as a child,” Brenna said with a smile. “Give yourself time.  I often feel as though you’ve always been a part of our lives, but it wasn’t so long ago when you arrived.”


Amanda stared across the quiet meadow, fixated on the swaying grass. “Before you met Ethan, did you ever . . .”


“Did I ever what?” Brenna asked. “You may ask me anything, and I’ll answer if I can.”


“Did you ever wonder if you were strong enough to live the life you always wanted?”


Brenna’s soft and understanding smile was immediate. “Oh yes, but then my circumstances were different. I came here for truth, and perhaps even revenge, and I was blind to everything else. Then I met Ethan, and my . . . destiny evolved quickly. Before I realized what I truly wanted, events led me down an unexpected path, for which I’m grateful.” Brenna reached for Amanda’s hand and squeezed it. “Don’t fight your heart too much.” Without another word on the subject, Brenna continued walking along the water.


They walked over the low bridge Ethan and his brother had built so the women could easily cross the rushing creek now that Gabriel and his wife lived on the other side. Isabelle and Brenna, both near the end of their pregnancies, visited each other often, and the bridge made the walk easier. Still, Amanda kept a close eye on Brenna as they crossed.


Two new lives would soon be brought into this world, adding to the growing generations of Gallaghers. Isabelle’s younger brother, Andrew, and Catie, the young orphan girl who came into their lives at Christmas, were as much a part of this family’s legacy as the children born to the three siblings. Hawk’s Peak and the Gallagher birthright were safe.


Ethan, Gabriel, and Eliza Gallagher were among the most kind, decent, and honorable people she’d ever met. Without them, there would be no guessing where she might have ended up. When Eliza and her husband Ramsey—also Brenna’s brother—found her serving in Millie’s saloon, they didn’t hesitate to bring her back to the ranch and offer her a job. What a sight she must have been working in the dingy drinking house.


Millie had been kind enough to her and wouldn’t allow any of the customers to give Amanda trouble, but just when she would have quit and left Briarwood, the fates had intervened. People like the Gallaghers were rare, at least in Amanda’s experience, but it turned out the family surrounded themselves with like-minded and generous individuals.


Amanda once asked Eliza why they brought her home. Eliza had cryptically told her, “Sometimes we cross paths with a person, and we don’t always know why we’re meant to help them.”


The women stopped and watched as two of the ranch hands rode toward one of the corrals where the last of the calves would be branded before they were turned out to pasture. Amanda avoided that part of the ranch once she realized the calves had to be restrained before the hot iron scored the staggered HP brand into their hides. She understood the necessity and knew the ranch hands took great care with the animals. Still, she cringed every time.


Ben Stuart, the ranch foreman, would be working alongside the Gallaghers and other men. Everyone worked on the ranch from sunup to sundown. It was rewarding work, the kind that made a person grateful for the health and strength to wake up each day, earn an honest living, and make a mark on the world. Amanda’s mind often filled with thoughts of Ben, ever since he kissed her beside the town Christmas tree as snow gently fell around them. Neither of them had spoken of it since. She avoided him at times when the memory of their single kiss overwhelmed her and when deep and unfamiliar emotions stirred within.


“Amanda?”


She turned to face Brenna. “I’m sorry, you asked me something?”


Brenna smiled and her eyes shined with curiosity. “The last time you drifted off, Ben was nearby.”


“Ben is always near. I prefer not to make more of it than it is.”


Brenna remained quiet, but Amanda sensed it wasn’t because she had nothing to say.


She continued the walk over the green grass toward Isabelle and Gabriel’s house with Brenna by her side. They’d brought fresh cookies baked earlier in the morning, and Amanda was eager to arrive at their destination where Isabelle and Andrew would offer a distraction and take their minds off the conversation. In truth, she wanted to avoid Brenna’s inquisitive glances.


She thought of Eliza, who had a knack for looking into people’s souls and measuring their worth and integrity with her piercing Gallagher-blue eyes. Amanda had long since given up trying to hide her secrets from that particular Gallagher, though it helped that Eliza spent most of her time with the horses in a new stable built farther from the main house and barns. Eliza, like the others, allowed Amanda her privacy, not asking probing questions about how she ended up in Briarwood with little more to her name than a satchel and a few dollars.


Unfortunately, Brenna seemed to have developed a talent of her own for rooting out secrets. With her quiet demeanor and trusting mannerisms, there were times when Amanda wanted to share everything with Brenna. Or Amanda had simply grown weary of hiding. Brenna let the subject of Ben recede and instead repeated the question she asked earlier. “How are the children in town? I know how grateful both Isabelle and Gabriel are that you’ve filled in at the school.”


Amanda relaxed her shoulders and smiled. She spent three days a week in town, helping out the reverend when there was a family in need. She cooked when a mother was ill or in the late stages of confinement, she cared for young children when both parents had to spend time in the fields, and visited with a few of the elderly residents who weren’t able to move around without assistance. When it became evident Isabelle would be unable to travel to and from town without great discomfort, Amanda took over teaching duties for a few hours every day when she was in the village.


“They’re wonderful, though I suspect they miss Isabelle and are too kind to say so.”


“All your time volunteering in town and working here doesn’t leave you much time for socializing.”


They stopped a few yards away from Isabelle’s front door. Amanda held the basket of cookies and a loaf of fresh bread close to her side. “You know I don’t mind spending time with the children. I like to keep busy. Besides, I’m no longer one for socializing.”


“I heard a rumor the last time I was in town that a young farmer had shown some interest.”


Amanda only offered a shrug. “Mr. Patterson. He arrived with two young children a few months ago. He’s a nice man and I adore teaching his son and daughter, but I don’t share his interest.”


Brenna’s face softened and her eyes revealed a touch of worry. “It’s not my business, but after Christmas I suspected . . . I had hoped, you and Ben . . .”


Amanda turned up her face to the sun and closed her eyes to gain a moment of courage. When she opened them, the pine-covered mountains filled her vision before she faced Brenna. “I’ve discovered the life I’ve always dreamed of right here.”


Brenna hesitated, though Amanda could see she wanted to say something. “I’ve seen the way you look at him, or how your interest in a conversation increases when his name is mentioned. You haven’t spoken of your life before arriving in Briarwood, and I haven’t asked, but is there something stopping you from finding your own happiness?”


“I am happy, Brenna.”


“You know what I mean.”


Amanda nodded and exhaled, buying herself a little time. “I’ve feared this moment.” She soaked in the sounds of geese flying overhead, the gentle rush of the creek as the water bubbled and flowed over rocks, and the breeze as it carried the fresh scents of pine and spring grass.


“Do you still have family somewhere?”


Again, Amanda nodded. “Some of my mother’s family, though they were never close. I haven’t seen them since I was a young girl.”


“If there’s anything we can do to help—”


“Please, no.” Amanda gripped Brenna’s arm. “If they found me, I’d be dead.”


Brenna’s rose-leaf complexion lost all color. “In the name of all good . . . Who wants you dead, Amanda?”



End of Preview


Excerpted from Journey to Hawk's Peak by MK McClintock. Copyright © 2016 by 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.


****


WILD MONTANA WINDS


CHAPTER ONE


Briarwood, Montana Territory

August 5, 1884


Colton Dawson reached the ravine and looked over the edge into the river below. He’d ventured far enough from the ranch and town to make him wonder if the men he currently tracked knew something about the area he didn’t.


Not likely.


There wasn’t a copse of trees, a body of water, or a mountain peak within one hundred miles that Colton hadn’t scouted, drunk from, or climbed since his arrival in Montana a decade earlier. The Gallaghers’ ranch had spanned more than thirty-five square miles ever since they tore down the fence between Hawk’s Peak and the former Double Bar Ranch. All of it had been explored at one time or another by a Gallagher and half the men who worked the land, cattle, and horses.


The cattle were a prize to any rustler and it was well known throughout the territory that the Gallaghers’ horse breeding operation produced the most highly valued stock in the area. No one had yet been able to figure out whether the cattle or horses drew the raiders onto Gallagher land, but they intended to find out.


Colton gentled his horse until it stood as silent as its rider. He listened to the wind move through the trees and caught the scent of summer pine. The river below rushed over rocks and echoed through the gorge. He knew the land leveled and the river rose a few miles to the south, where it wound back again toward the ranch.


The tracks pressed into the soft ground indicated the riders had shifted direction and now headed north, away from the river. Colton concluded the men didn’t know where they were going, which gave him the advantage. The mountains and forests that stretched north is where Colton gained his education, where he’d learned how to trap, hunt, and track.


His horse scraped a hoof over the ground and sidestepped back from the ravine, but it wasn’t the drop or the water below that bothered the gelding. Colton smelled the fire and the burning flesh, and he searched the sky on the other side of the river for signs of smoke.


Flames licked the damp air and the fire sizzled with each drop of rain. Sunshine quickly made way for dark, rolling clouds, and Colton doubted the two men in the makeshift camp had anticipated the sudden change of weather. He followed the smell of the fire and wasn’t surprised when some of the rustlers’ tracks crossed the same path.


He dismounted and crouched behind a boulder, his horse now six yards away. Colton watched the men scramble to keep the flames alive by tossing wet sticks onto the smoky pile. They were no longer on Gallagher land, but the meat roasting over their fire no doubt came from Gallagher stock. A carcass lay a dozen feet away from the camp, on the ground in the open for any animal to find.

Idiots, Colton thought. He despised fools and rustlers alike, and these men were both. If he moved closer, he knew he’d find the staggered HP brand of Hawk’s Peak Ranch on the remains. He listened and waited. The tracks told him more than two men rode with the outfit currently making rounds of cattle ranches in the region. Hawk’s Peak was bigger than most in the state, which made rustling the cattle tempting. More cattle meant more land to cover, and people of a mind to steal might figure a few head here and there would go unnoticed.


A good cattleman always noticed.


Ethan Gallagher, head of the family, had put a bullet in one two nights ago, and the culprit now sat in the Briarwood jailhouse awaiting transport or a judge, whichever came first. Three men who lived in or close to town were rotating the watch at the jail, but it had been a heavily spoken-about topic for some time. His younger brother, Gabriel, was able to catch another one, but the thief managed to ride away into the night.


They needed a sheriff, someone with experience they could trust. Ramsey Cameron, Eliza Gallagher’s husband, was an obvious choice. He pinned on his marshal’s badge when needed, though they knew he did not wish to make it a long-term profession. Ben Stuart, Hawk’s Peak foreman and close friend of the family, had the necessary experience, yet he was more valuable at the ranch. Colton knew it was only a matter of time before more of these rustlers were brought to jail, the doctor, or the undertaker. He didn’t care which one.


The rain fell hard from the sky, dropped from branches, sizzled on the dying fire, and slickened or muddied every surface. The men scrambled, shouting at each other. Colton could handle two of them without worry. He watched the direction where the other riders had gone and heard nothing.

He raised his rifle and stepped out from behind the boulder. He was close enough to the men, and he didn’t have to shout over the weather. “Meal time’s over.”


They both turned. Colton followed a low curse with,  “What the hell have you gotten yourself into, Ike?”


Ike didn’t answer. His partner raised a pistol to Colton, who fired, disarming the other man and putting a hole through his hand.


“What you go and do that for!”


“You’re next, Ike, if you pull that shooter from its holster.”


“I ain’t goin’ to jail.” Ike’s hand hovered over the butt of his gun. “We didn’t harm no one.”


“You’re rustling. You’ve worked the land. Hell, you’ve worked one of the ranches that

have lost stock.”


Ike spit on the ground. “Not no more.”


Colton knew Ike had a reputation for spending too much time at the saloon. It was why when he first inquired about work at Hawk’s Peak, they had turned him away. “It’s your drinking that keeps you out of work, not the ranchers.”


“Them Gallaghers never gave me a chance.”


Colton kept Ike’s partner in the edge of his sight while he spoke with Ike. He preferred taking both in alive. “The Gallaghers offered you a train ticket out of Bozeman to a place where no one knows you. You could have a new start, Ike.”


“Money is what I need.”


“Stay sober and you might keep a job. But not this time.”


Colton recognized the panic in the other man’s eyes. He looked like someone who believed he didn’t have options. Ike’s hand returned to the butt of his pistol.


“Don’t do it.” Colton aimed, his finger on the trigger of the Winchester rifle that had seen him through a decade of life in these mountains. “There’s still a way out of this.”


“To jail?” Ike’s hand gripped his gun handle. “It wasn’t my drinkin’ this time, I swear it. Couldn’t do it no more, scrapin’ and beggin’ from these ranchers. They don’t deserve any of it more’n I do!”


Colton had heard it before, from drifters and out-of-work cowboys who detested wealthy cattle ranchers because they’d been in the right place at the right time and worked hard to build their empires. He knew some came by their spreads through less than honorable means, but most fought to carve out a life in a land where most folks found it tough to survive.


“You’re going to jail. Nothing you can do about it.”


Ike’s eyes softened around the edges. His shoulders relaxed. Colton saw defeat and expected Ike to make the second worst decision of his life. The first had been to join up with the rustlers. Ike drew, but before he pulled the trigger, a bullet from Colton’s rifle sliced through Ike’s upper thigh. The pistol dropped from Ike’s limp fingers and his companion became bold, reaching for the fallen gun.

“It would be a shame to lose the use of both hands.”


The rustler pulled his uninjured hand away from the gun. “Who the damnation are you, mister?”


Somewhere Outside of Briarwood, Montana Territory

August 5, 1884


Her hands slipped for the second time. She struggled to remove her gloves and remain on the wagon bench. A few more minutes and she would lose the battle with speed and gravity. She reached for the reins and prayed for a miracle.


The driver was slung over the bench, lying between Ainslee and the brake. Not far ahead, she saw a turn in the well-traveled dirt road. Beyond the bend was a thick copse of pines.


“I’m so sorry, Mr. Sykes.” Ainslee heaved with all her strength and rolled the body off the bench.

The pair of geldings pranced at the sudden shift of weight. Ainslee fought to maintain her balance while keeping the reins in her grasp. She failed. One of the leather straps flew forward, snapping against the right horse's rump before flailing to the side of the speeding animal. She glanced up. The turn was no more than a few hundred yards, and the horses would cover the distance faster than she could regain control—a doubtful prospect. Her untamed riding over the hills in her beloved homeland did not prepare her for a runaway team of horses and a wagon more suited to the firebox.

With one strap in hand and a silent prayer, Ainslee pulled, much to the annoyance of the animals. They tugged and she pulled again. "Please! Dinna dae this to me now, laddies!"


Gunfire. Ainslee had spent enough time in the company of hunters, primarily her father and his brothers, to know the sound of gunfire. Not rifles or shotguns. Her father boasted an impressive collection that included an original Thomas Guide creation from 1646. What she heard now was newer and too close. She wondered what kind of bullet had put an end to her driver.


The horses jerked and shifted course, away from the turn and off the road. The wagon slowed as the team pulled it over rough terrain in an open meadow, heading toward a forest so heavy with pine trees, she saw no light beyond the first branches. Ainslee looked over the side at the ground. It appeared to be moving but she knew that couldn't be right. A rush of dizziness overcame her, and she fought it back before she contemplated jumping.


The rumbling of riders, horses' hooves pounding over earth, drew closer. A stranger rode up alongside one of the animals, reached for a loose rein, and pulled back on the harness. Ainslee didn't know how he managed to get so close or why the team pulling her wagon—Mr. Sykes's wagon—chose to listen to the man rather than to her.


Ainslee righted herself and continued to hold tightly to the back of the seat in case the animals got the idea for another run. The pair of horses breathed heavily, and Ainslee imagined they needed water. She faced the man.


Filthy. No other word in any language was more apt. With his hair matted in tangles and dirt, she couldn't tell the color. Light brown, perhaps? From his torn clothes and muddy boots, to the thick beard and yellow teeth, Ainslee nearly gagged. It was one thing to see such a man described in the pages of a novel and another to be so close that even the breeze didn't mask his putrid scent. Her parents had guarded her from such men back home, and for the first time since she reached adulthood, she silently thanked them.


Ainslee considered her options and thought of the dirk in her valise. The worthy weapon had been used by Highlanders in battle. Surely it could get her out of this mess, if she could reach it. A gun would be beneficial, but it fell from Mr. Sykes’ hand when the bullet hit.


"Lucky we came along, missy."


We?


Ainslee shifted when she felt the wagon move from extra weight in the back. Another man, not quite as disgusting yet still in need of a good bar of soap, had dismounted and now stood in the wagon bed. Caught between the two, Ainslee wished she had not decided to make her visit a surprise. The train didn’t go to Briarwood, the stationmaster had informed her, and wasn’t that Ainslee’s bad luck.


Instead, she was now at the mercy of two ruffians who were bound to carry her into the forest, commit a heinous act too horrific even for words, and leave her to die. Her vivid imagination played out every possible scenario, one of which she was the heroine with a broadsword and the men stood no chance against her unmatched skills.


Think, Ainslee. The words remained a whisper, or so she thought, until the men started laughing. She was raised in a land of heroes and barbarians. Without doubt, she could handle these two. Maybe. The thought fleeted as the man in the wagon moved forward.


"What do you think, Virgil? She pretty enough for ya?"


The man still on his horse laughed louder and smacked his lips. "She sure is, Lee. Why don't you make her comfy and I'll—"


A bullet pierced the side of the wagon. A single shot landing an inch away from Lee, who stopped moving.


"Where'd that come from, Virgil?"


He quickly scanned the area. "I don't see nothing!"


Ainslee took advantage of their distracted state and reached for her valise beneath the wagon seat. She had the bag open before Lee yanked her back against him and lifted her from the seat into the wagon bed. Another shot, this time into Lee's leg. His scream rent the air, and as they say in the dime novels Ainslee read too many of, “All hell broke loose.”


Virgil fired wildly toward the trees. Ainslee slipped away from Lee who held his bleeding leg against his body while he writhed. Ainslee fought with her skirts before she climbed back over the seat, reached for her bag, and pulled out the dirk. Her arm was raised, but she didn't move. Virgil's pistol now pointed at her as he moved his horse closer.


"You out there!" Virgil held his gun pointed at her, but his eyes shifted to the trees. "I'll kill 'er!"


He reached for her and Ainslee slapped his hand away. A bold move under the circumstances. A dirk in a skilled hand was useful but rarely against a bullet. "Ye might live if ye leave now," Ainslee said. 


Her confidence rested entirely on the hope that whoever came to her rescue was on her side and not someone eager to take these men’s place.


Colton followed the other rustlers’ tracks on the most convoluted path he’d ever seen man or horse take. They wound around where he’d found Ike and the other one, a Jesse Pitts who had paper on him. The doctor assured him both of the men would live and then kindly asked Colton to stop bringing him any more business.


An outbreak of desperate, out-of-work cowboys plagued the area, and all the men at Hawk’s Peak and the surrounding farms and small ranches pulled together to do their part. Most folks in Briarwood and the neighboring area looked to the Gallaghers and their men when trouble broke out.

Colton accepted the responsibility of tracking while the other hands ran the ranch. Ethan, Gabriel, and Ramsey rotated the duties of tracking and overseeing the cattle and horse operations. They considered anything that happened on their land their responsibility and never shirked their duties.

Colton was the best tracker in the area, possibly the entire territory. He’d heard men speak of his reputation; more still sought him out to find what was lost. He didn’t pay them much mind unless it was a child or missing person in danger. He preferred to remain anonymous, but even in a territory where a man could lose himself for days or weeks at a time, anonymity wasn’t easy. He worked for the Gallagher family of Hawk’s Peak, which meant at some point someone would hear of him.


He used those tracking skills to guide him through a thick forest along a deer trail almost too narrow for a horse. The riders went over a hill, backtracked, and returned to another trail more well-used than the last. They’d obviously been lost, which told Colton they were just as stupid as the last two. By the time he followed the tracks to where they met with the main road between Bozeman and Briarwood, he was a day and night’s ride from town.


The men tried to cover their tracks on the road, but even the fresh wheel imprints of a wagon didn’t cover the hoof indents made by their horses. Colton turned and made his way back toward Briarwood. Rain earlier, followed by sun, had turned the road into caked mud, and the wheel impressions revealed a heavy load, more than one person or a driver with a lot of cargo. The tracks were fresh after the rain, which meant they weren’t too far ahead.


He urged his gelding into a gallop. Two miles up the road he saw the wagon and pulled his horse to a stop. Colton stood far enough away to not be noticed but close enough to see a woman and two men. He’d bet his Winchester the men were his elusive rustlers.


He slid the barrel of his rifle from the leather scabbard. In a smooth and natural move, he raised the gun, aimed, and fired. The bullet flew past one of the men, close enough for him to know the next shot would hit flesh.


The men scrambled, one of them reaching for the woman again. She raised her arm, holding something Colton couldn’t identify, and brought her hand down onto one of her attacker’s arms. A loud shriek followed. The woman lifted her skirts and jumped from the buckboard.


Colton swore and rushed toward them, firing another two shots at the fleeing man, who caught a bullet in the shoulder. The woman ran away from the wagon—away from him. Impressive considering her skirts. Knowing what awaited her if left to her own defenses, Colton abandoned the bleeding culprits in favor of going after her.


She spun around and threw a knife, narrowly missing him.


“Damn it, I’m not going to hurt you!” Colton brought his horse up alongside her and cut her off. Sliding off the animal’s back, he held up his hands, one still holding the rifle. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated.


“Och, I’m to believe ye?”


Colton turned his back on her, a sure sign of trust, and slid the rifle into its scabbard. When he faced her again, she’d backed away another half a dozen feet.


She raised a neat brow and pointed to his hip. “Ye’r still armed.”


“And you almost killed me with your knife.”


“’Tis a dirk.”


He studied her with both curiosity and interest. Her thick curls of dark hickory hair fell loose and free around her shoulders, tangled from the wind and her struggles with her attackers. He moved his eyes over her, from the brown leather boots peeking beneath her full skirts, over her bodice and face, stopping at her eyes. They were almost the same shade of grayish-blue as her dress.


Colton knew the voice, or one similar, and he hadn’t heard the likes of it since Brenna Cameron, now Brenna Gallagher, arrived at Hawk’s Peak less than three years earlier. “Your dirk almost hit me. Either you have good aim or you got lucky.”


She smirked as though daring him to guess which.


“I’d like to go back and tie those men up before they hightail it.” Colton looked beyond her shoulder. 

“Then again, it appears to be too late for that.”


“Then ye should have gone after them instead of me.”


“I don’t care if they live or die.”


Her features softened, giving Colton a chance to study the delicate lines of her face. Freckles, a shade lighter than her hair, dusted her fair skin.


“Ye’r really not here to hurt me?”


“I’m really not.” Colton grabbed the reins of his horse. “My name is Colton Dawson. You have no reason to trust me. I can understand how it looked, me riding after you.” He saw no injury beyond a few scrapes on her bare hand, but he had to ask. “Did they hurt you?”


She shook her head and wiped her hands together. “Ye stopped them. I am grateful, Mr. Dawson. Ah’m Ainslee McConnell, and not in the habit of trusting men I dinna ken. If ye’ll point me toward Briarwood, Ah’m sure to find my way.”


Colton glanced at her hand and saw no ring. No sane husband would allow a woman like her to travel alone. “I’ll guide you there, Miss McConnell.”


“I didna ask for help.”


“Do you have family back in Scotland?”


Surprised, she stared up at him. She had a fair way to look up, standing no taller than Brenna. “How did ye know?”


He smiled. “You’ll have to be in America a long time before you lose the accent.”


“Ye get many from Scotland here?”


“We get all kinds, but no, not too many in Briarwood, though some in the territory. Happens that I know a woman from your country. You sound just like she did, when she first came. Her accent wasn’t as strong. I like it.” Colton didn’t know why he added the last part. “Listen, I can wait out here all day and night with you until you come to your senses, or we can start back. We’re only a day and bed away from town.”


“A day and . . . ye’r no thinking quaht ah think ye’r saying, ur ye?”


Colton had to stumble through the words. Her brogue thickened when she spoke quickly.

“I’m thinking you’ll have to sleep in the back of the wagon. I need to go back and bury your driver, then we can head out.”


“Ye saw him?”


Colton nodded. “What happened?”


“A bullet. He was slowing down the wagon and I had to push him out. I pray his soul forgives me.”


“His soul will understand. Why didn’t you take the stage? There’s a private coach that still runs from Bozeman to Briarwood every seven days.”


“Aye, the railroad man told me, but it dinna come around for four mair days.”


Colton did not comment, for they both knew her lack of patience almost got her killed.


“You do that nicely, moving from your words to ours.”


“I prefer mine.” She surprised him by grinning. “I attended college in England. I find people treat me differently when they hear me speak like I have just climbed down the highest peak in the Highlands.”


“It’s a pretty way of speaking. Even with your fancier talk, you can’t hide the Scottish.”


“Ah dinna want tae.”


He smiled again at her and started walking. “I’d offer you my horse, but we’re not far from the wagon, and I’m not certain you wouldn’t ride off and leave me.”


“’Tis possible.” She fell into step beside him, keeping more than a few feet between them. She stopped to pick up her dirk, kept it palmed.


Not a fool, Colton thought.


“This woman you met from Scotland,” she said. “What was her name?”


“I know her still. Brenna Gallagher.”


Ainslee halted, and Colton suspected he only needed one guess as to why.


“Ye ken her?”


“How about you tell me first how you know Brenna.”


“She is my cousin.”


“Your cousin?”


“’Tis clear you do not believe me.”


Colton gave her a sardonic smile. “You have the accent down, and you look Scottish enough, though seeing as how Brenna is the only Scot I know intimately—”


“Intimately?”


Colton held up a hand. “Wrong choice of words. Brenna is a friend. I knew her husband, Ethan Gallagher, long before they met.”


“I apologize.”


“Temper isn’t too far off, either. Could be you’re related.”


“Mr. Dawson.”


“Colton.”


“Mr. Dawson, you have saved my life and ’tis grateful I am for your service. I will be going now.”


“Sorry, Miss McConnell, but whether you come with me or I follow you, you’re not going alone.”


End of Preview


Excerpted from Wild Montana Winds by MK McClintock. Copyright © 2019 by 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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