WILD MONTANA WINDS
Book 6 in the Montana Gallagher Series
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.
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."
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.”
“’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—”
Colton held up a hand. “Wrong choice of words. Brenna is a friend. I knew her husband, Ethan Gallagher, long before they met.”
“Temper isn’t too far off, either. Could be you’re related.”
“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.”
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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.