The Women of Crooked Creek
Collection of Historical Western Romances
"Emma of Crooked Creek"
Crooked Creek, Montana Territory
Thunder woke Emma from the first decent night sleep she’d had in months. She looked around at the dark room. It wasn’t the crash of thunder or even that grizzly her neighbor swore she saw last week. The front door of the one-room cabin reverberated as the pounding continued.
Emma reached for her husband’s old Colt Navy Revolver, the only thing he’d left behind when he went to fight and die in the war. Her husband had taught her how to use the pistol on the long wagon ride out west, but only small critters ever saw the bullets from the well-oiled gun. She pulled back the lever and pushed away the heavy quilts.
On bare feet, she moved along the wall to the small window by the front door. The moon was high but dim, and all she could see was the outline of a man hunched over. She stepped back when the thunderous knock was accompanied by a plea.
“Anyone in there?”
Emma considered not responding. No lamps were lit, but the remnants of logs burned in the fire. The man would not believe the cabin was empty, and if he did, he might decide to come in anyway.
“Who are you?” Emma quelled her nervousness.
“Thank God. Casey Latimer, ma’am.”
Emma slowly lifted the bar blocking the door. She moved a few paces back. “Come on in but be warned. I’m armed.”
The door swung open and the man stumbled inside, falling at Emma’s feet.
“If it’s all the same to you, ma’am, I’ll just stay here.”
Emma waited, but she only heard the man’s heavy and ragged breathing. With one hand holding the Colt, she lit a lamp and returned to stand beside the stranger. Her bare feet stepped in something wet and sticky. She lowered the lamp until it illuminated the small pool of blood seeping between the cracks in the boards and staining the edge of the rug.
“Gracious, Mr. Latimer, what have you done?” Emma set the lamp on her eating table, and after a deep breath and moment’s hesitation, she lay the pistol down beside it. “You might have at least fallen inside far enough for me to close the door.”
Emma gingerly pulled underneath his arms, but he was too large. She then tried to move his legs enough to secure the door against any animals that might smell the blood and come looking for an easy meal. She spent a few seconds recovering from the exertion of maneuvering the long legs and studied her unexpected guest.
“At least you had the good sense to pass out.” Emma hurried to lay the quilts from her bed on the floor. She grit her teeth and raised the edges of her long, white nightgown. Once more, she attempted to drag the unconscious man but to no avail. “I want to apologize in advance, Mr. Latimer.” She rolled him once, hefting his body closer to the fire. From there, she managed to lift first his torso, and then his legs, onto the quilts.
Long strands of copper hair fell from her loose braid, and she quickly secured the heavy mass before returning to her patient.
“Let’s see what you’ve done to yourself.” Emma removed his long coat away from the injured side. The dark shirt beneath was soaked through. “There’s no help for it. The shirt must go.”
Emma hurried to gather supplies and retrieve the lamp from the table. She cut through his wool shirt and peeled back the edges. A wound, long and deep, scored the side of his chest, curving along the ribs. Her concentration set, Emma soaked up the blood around the injury. Methodically she cleaned the wound and checked for signs of dirt or foreign material. Satisfied that she’d done all she could, Emma threaded one of her needles and stitched the skin until a meticulous line of silk sutures replaced the jagged cut.
Emma sat back on her feet, rolled her shoulders, and then reached for an amber bottle. She spared a quick glance at the patient before pouring a healthy dose of the liquid over the stitches. Latimer twitched and his body shifted, but his eyes remained closed.
Once she’d done all she could, Emma gathered her supplies and cleaned up the blood from the floor. A few more logs were added to the dying fire, and she tossed the bloody rags into the ash. The cloth ignited and the flames returned to life. She draped the last blanket from her bed over the long body.
After she scrubbed her hands in a basin of cold water, she sat in her grandmother’s rocker. Her husband had lovingly transported the rocker and her books across the plains and over mountains because a stubborn wife had refused to leave them behind.
The Colt rested in her lap. “You better wake up in the morning, Mr. Latimer because I don’t want to have to explain a dead man in my cabin to the sheriff.”
"Hattie of Crooked Creek"
Crooked Creek, Montana Territory
HATTIE STARED UP at the early morning rays as they glistened through her watery grave. She should have known better than to ride out before the sun rose above the craggy peaks, but she had to prove herself day after day, if to no one else but herself.
Glen Meek, her foreman, scolded her two mornings ago when he learned that she’d been heading out on her own in the mornings before he and young John, his nephew, had even put their heads on the pillow from the night before.
Hattie had waved off Glen’s concern with a distracting grin and a load of grit. The McBride Ranch was Hattie’s responsibility, her late husband’s legacy, and no one would take it away from her.
Lights swam through the sky above her. If she reached out far enough, her fingers might be able to skim the surface of a star before the sun’s light washed them all away. She must have fallen into the river. Her shift clung to her body as though wet, but she knew how to swim. Why, then, did the black waters of unconsciousness seem determined to carry her away?
The raging fire burned within as her lungs expanded. The pounding on her chest surely couldn’t be good for her ribs.
“Don’t do this. Stay with me.”
Her lungs exhaled, but instead of air, water escaped from her mouth in a frenzy of coughs.
“That’s right, let it all out.”
Twigs and small rocks dug into her back, but she lay flat and ignored them. Sunlight threatened her eyes to open.
“You’re going to make it.”
What was he talking about? The words didn’t make it past her thoughts. Her lips still scorched from the heat, of what she didn’t know. Her body no longer lay upon the hard earth, and her mind began to wake to greater awareness.
“Put me down.”
Of course, the man couldn’t hear her. She barely heard the scratchy whisper.
“I heard you, Mrs. McBride, but I’m not putting you down.”
Hattie’s arm disobeyed her when she tried to reach for the colt strapped to her hip. Her captor, though apparently strong, handled her with great care, but Hattie knew the worst of what could happen to her awaited. “So this must be Hell.”
"Briley of Crooked Creek"
Crooked Creek, Montana Territory
UNTOUCHED SNOW SURROUNDED the small cabin. A narrow stream of smoke did not rise from the chimney. The small barn tucked away behind the cabin stood in silence, as though its occupants had long abandoned the sturdy structure.
“Are you certain you have the right place, ma’am?”
Briley Donaghue sat perched on the seat of the buckboard next to the older man with a friendly smile who answered to Clete. The stagecoach driver had greeted Clete with a grand handshake and broad grin, asking after his wife. The driver assured her that no one would look after her better than Clete, and so she hired him. She had expected her future husband to meet the stage and escort her to the home they would share. At least, that had been the fanciful notion Briley’s imagination had concocted when she answered the advertisement. His letters hadn’t been filled with romantic gestures nor had she really expected such things from a stranger.
Now that she gazed upon her immediate future, Briley thought that if she’d had any sense at all, she would have found a way to return to Ireland rather than venturing to Montana Territory. “It’s the right place.” Her voice was filled with apprehension.
Clete jumped down from the driver’s perch and hurried to her side of the wagon. With greater ease than Briley expected from the older man, Clete lifted her down. Briley’s black leather boots were no match for the deep snow, but Clete walked alongside her until she reached the front door. With a discouraging look first at the door and then at her, Clete returned to the wagon to fetch her belongings.
Briley’s gloved hand knocked once, then twice. She gripped the metal latch on the primitive door and pushed inward. A burst of cold and musty air from the dark room greeted her. A few minutes later, Clete joined her inside and set the two bags on the board floor.
“Was someone expecting you?”
Briley walked farther into the room and rested her hand on the back of one of two chairs in the room. A large stone fireplace covered a third of one wall and a shelf filled the space of another. Dust filtered through the air, landing on everything already covered in a thin layer.
“It would seem they weren’t.” Briley reached for an envelope on the table—it, too, was covered in dust. Her name was scrawled across the front of the faded paper.
Briley turned to Clete. “I’ll manage quite well here.” She didn’t mistake both the concern and hesitation in Clete’s eyes and was quick to reassure him. “Not to worry. I’m quite used to country living. Might I call upon you again should I need assistance?”
“Yes, ma’am. I looked around some outside. The woodshed is good and stocked for a few weeks. There ain’t no horse in the stable, but there’s an old wagon.”
Briley didn’t know how to ride a horse. However, she would need a horse to pull that wagon. She thought of the limited funds she had brought with her—some her own and some from her husband-to-be. “Is there a place in town where I might purchase a horse?”
“Blacksmith don’t have any right now, leastwise that I know, but Miss Hattie sells horses. She lives by the mountain on the other side of town. I’ll tell Peyton, uh, Sheriff Sawyer, that you’re looking since he goes out that way once a week.”
Briley managed a smile for the man. “Thank you, Clete, I’d appreciate that. Would you care for some tea? I brought a tin with me, though it may take a few minutes to boil the water.”
“Don’t mind if I do, Miss Donaghue.” Clete smashed his worn hat atop his head and started for the door. “I got to see to a few things first.” Without encouragement or instruction, Clete started a fire in the hearth to take the chill off the room. He then carried in enough wood for at least three days’ worth of fires. When Briley thought he was done, Clete stepped back outside and returned ten minutes later with two buckets of water. She had the tea brewed and offered her guest a place at the table. Clete wrapped his hands around the warm tin cup and drank deeply.
“This is mighty good. I thank you.”
“It’s I who am grateful.” Briley sipped her own tea and enjoyed the warm emanating from the hearth. It had been far too long since she’d taken pleasure in simple comforts. “You better get home to your family before dark settles in.”
“I reckon so.” Clete finished his tea and placed his hat back on his head. “There’s a spring down yonder behind the cabin that runs all year. I reckon there’s a pump around here, but I can’t see one.” He stepped outside and returned immediately with a sack tied off at the top. “There’s a springhouse, mostly covered in snow, but I smelled the meat and it’s good. The place was left good and stocked.”
Briley hadn’t considered even the smallest of necessities when she assured Clete that she’d be all right alone. “Thank you. You’ve done more than I could have asked or expected, and I’m grateful. Now, I promise that all is well here.” Briley pulled out her money purse, but Clete shook his head and backed away.”
“No, Miss Donaghue. You done already paid me for the ride.”
“Yes, but this is for—”
“My place is a few miles east. I’ll be looking in on you again.” Clete tipped his hat and sauntered from the cabin.
Briley stood in the silence, the occasional crackle from the fire filling the void.
"Clara of Crooked Creek"
Crooked Creek, Montana Territory
THE SILVER CREEK EXPRESS stagecoach rolled over rough roads against a backdrop of some of the most spectacular vistas Clara had ever seen. She was no stranger to lush meadows, but the green fields of Connecticut paled in comparison to the thousands of acres spread out on either side of the dusty road.
Her smile widened at the sight of a pair of eagles dancing overhead. Clara’s hand pressed against her chest when a herd of horses basked in their freedom as they ran across the abundant fields.
“I see them, Alice.” She expertly reached for her daughter before she fell on the passenger opposite them. Clara peeked around Alice to see out the window on the opposite side. Antlered animals, too many to count, moved as one against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
“What are they?” Alice asked.
“I believe they’re elk. Do you remember the photographs from the book we brought? Tonight we’ll take a look.”
Alice turned to the man across from him. “Do you know?”
The man’s brow shot up in apparent amusement. “Your ma is correct. They’re elk.” He looked to Clara. “You’ve come a long way.”
“It is that evident?” With a pleasant smile on her face, Clara smoothed the lines of her gray-and-white striped traveling dress. Gideon had told her it highlighted her smoky blue eyes, though in hindsight, it might be a bit too elegant for their destination. Then again, she had not risked everything and ventured out west to relinquish all holds on her cultured upbringing.
The gentleman’s mouth quirked. “Are you headed to Salt Lake City or Denver? Maybe even San Francisco?”
“We’re going to Montana.”
The man’s eyes traveled the length of her, and his face reddened beneath his gray whiskers. “I don’t reckon Montana’s a place for a lady like yourself. It’s a mite different from what I reckon you’re used to.”
Clara only smiled again and gazed out the window. “I do believe it’s the perfect place.” She turned her attention back to the gentleman, an older man who reminded her of her father, tall, with a stately appearance and military bearing. His clothes, clean if not a little worn, betrayed him as a man of some means.
“Are you from around here, sir?”
“Jesse Pickett’s the name, ma’am. From Missouri, but I’ve spent a few years in these parts with the army. Missed Montana something fierce when my enlistment ended a few months ago, so I’m going back.”
Clara wondered what a man of his age was still doing in the army, unless he served as an officer. “The war has been over for a year, Mr. Pickett.”
“Not the war with the Indians, ma’am, or with the vigilantes.”
Clara glanced at her daughter, but Alice remained oblivious to the conversation as she continued to watch the passing landscape out the stage window. “Vigilantes?”
“Nothing to worry yourself over, ma’am.” The man also glanced at the young girl and lowered his voice. “The army knows what they’re doing.”
Clara did not share the man’s confidence in the army. Although freedoms had been won and a country remained intact, had they not just lost countless lives? To speak so casually of killing men sent a shudder through Clara’s body. She had loved one of those lives taken much too early.
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Excerpted from The Women of Crooked Creek by MK McClintock. Copyright © MK McClintock. Published by Packsaddle Press and 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.