Caroline Fyffe

Excerpt: Montana Courage

Book 9: The McCutcheon Family Series

Chapter One

Heart of the Mountains Ranch, early January, 1887

“Winter,” Shadrack Petty grumbled through frozen lips, the wool scarf around his face offering little protection. As he approached the ranch, he gazed across the snow-streaked brown plains to the distant purple mountain range, some mountaintops already coated in white. The blue sky gave no hint of the breathtaking cold. A storm was coming; he could smell the sharp crispness on the wind.

He halted in front of the bunkhouse hitching rail, noting how the desolate ranch yard resembled a frosty ghost town. His arms and legs felt like frozen blocks of wood. With effort, he swung his leg over the saddle, stepped down to the rock-hard earth, and tossed his reins over the wooden bar, eager to be inside. The ranch buckboard sat nearby. A large tan oilcloth covered the contents and the harness hung from a sideboard, ready to be hitched to the unfortunate team that would have to pull.

Someone’s going somewhere—but that someone ain’tgonna be me.

Walking stiffly past the horse bits and branding irons displayed on the outside wall of the building, the tall Wyomingite pushed into the warm, musty room smelling of wet leather, smoke, coffee, and fresh-baked bread. The familiarity did little to gentle his growing agitation. He’d postponed speaking with the boss long enough. He’d need to corral Luke, or another of the McCutcheons, today.

Let the chips fall where they may.

He went directly to the fireplace, spreading his gloved hands before the sizable blaze, purposely leaving on his wool-lined coat. He glanced over his shoulder at the men eating their noontime meal.

Francis, his thick brown hair in need of a comb, promptly got up and started for his coat. His bulky wool shirt hung loose at the tails, hiding the young man’s muscular chest and body.

“I’ll see to your horse, Shad.”

“Appreciate that, Francis. Any grub left for me?” The prickly hole in Shad’s belly was beyond painful. Hot food, and plenty of it, was the only cure.

As he spoke, Lucky Langer, the bunkhouse cook, stirred something in a pot on the stove. The other men didn’t even lift their focus from the plates in front of them.

“’Course there is,” Lucky barked. “Does a whale have blubber?”

“Don’t know. Never seen a whale.”

The cook limped over to hand him a steaming cup of coffee. “It does, and lots of it. Now, guzzle this down till I fill your plate. Any snow falling in the upper pastures?”

“Naw, just colder than skinny-dipping in a snowbank. But the high country got some dusting last night, from the view on the plateau. I think the storm’s coming our way.”

Setting his cup on the wooden mantel of the fireplace, Shad peeled off his damp gloves and tossed them to the hearth to dry. He retrieved the cup. The heated porcelain between his icy palms felt like holding the sun.

He momentarily closed his eyes. “Night watch never gets any easier, I swear.”

“Quit your grumbling,” Smokey said with a chuckle. A wrangler, he’d been a permanent fixture at the ranch for years.

Finished with his meal, the bowlegged, weather-beaten, happy-faced cowboy stood and ambled to the kitchen area to deposit his dish and utensils into the wash bucket. Smokey’s red cotton long-john shirt was tucked into a pair of well-worn jeans. If the cowhand felt the cold, he didn’t let on. A moment later, he was at Shad’s side.

“Seniority does have its advantages. Ain’t that right, Uncle Pete?” he called over his shoulder. “You and me been here ’bout since the dawn of time.”

The cowhand at the table grunted and waved an affirmative hand in the air but kept eating.

“You’ll get there someday—if you’re tough enough,” Smokey added with a grin, grasping Shad’s shoulder and giving it a shake. “How’re the cattle up at Covered Bridge?”

“Good as can be expected this time of year. Acre upon acre of frozen earth as far as the eye can see. Found one carcass brought down by wolves. I opened the frozen waterholes and checked the pole barn. Hay’s still high and dry in the loft. I found a few unbranded strays.”

“Well, warm up and then get some grub. It’s tasty.”

Shad slugged down half his cup as he took in the table. John Berg, Bob, Uncle Pete, Ike, Hickory, Pedro. The atmosphere still felt a little off without Roady Guthrie in the bunkhouse. The foreman had married around the time Shad hired on, and moved to a cabin a short ride away. Although Roady didn’t live in the bunkhouse any longer, he was usually around, keeping tabs on jobs and giving orders. Shad could go to him with his problem, but Guthrie would just have to speak with the bosses. Might as well start at the top.

He winked at Hickory sitting next to Pedro. The top of the kid’s head barely reached the Mexican’s shoulder. “Hey, what about school, Hickory?” he asked. “You skippin’ just ’cause it’s cold? I rue all the days I sneaked out, gettin’ into all kinds of mischief. Schooling’s important.”

Lucky straightened, a frown pulling his mouth. “Skip school? Not in my bunkhouse.”

The orphaned boy Luke had brought home from Waterloo glanced up at the mention of his name. His dripping spoon, heaped with the gooey gravy fare, stopped midway to his mouth.

“Teacher got sick yesterday, Shad,” he said over a mouthful. “School’s out till she’s better, which I’m hopin’ll be next month.”

“Hickory!” Lucky said, admonishing the boy whose wide grin looked like a raccoon’s.

Shad took notice of the others’ plates, but couldn’t discern what they were eating. “What’d Lucky concoct today?”

“Chicken and dumplings,” Smokey replied. “Two whole crocks full, plus lots of bread. Good and hearty.”

Lucky set Shad’s plate at his normal spot.

Smokey gave him a nudge. “Go on. Fill your belly.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Shad got comfortable between Hickory and Pedro.

They both gave a sideways glance without coming up for air. When Lucky prepared something especially good, the fellas ate fast so they could get a second helping before it was all gone.

“After I eat, I’m gonna roll up in my blankets and sleep until tomorrow morning,” Shad mumbled, swallowing down a hot mouthful. “Nobody better wake me, neither.” He glanced sideways at Hickory to be sure the boy was listening. “And that means you. I need my beauty rest.”

“I won’t wake ya, Shad. I’ll be quiet.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll just see about that.” He held back his teasing smile, then took another spoonful and chewed and swallowed, thankful to be home. “What’s with the loaded buckboard? Someone going somewhere?”

Uncle Pete opened his mouth to answer but before he could get the words out, Luke McCutcheon came through the door. The boss’s sheepskin-lined coat was pulled up about his neck, sweat-stained chaps lined with wool wrapped his denim-clad legs, and the new black leather gloves the boys had chipped in for a Christmas present protected his hands. He looked around and nodded to Shad before addressing the men at the table.

“Faith has a box of things she’d like to add to the buckboard before you pull out,” he announced. “Be sure to swing around and give a knock on the front door. It’ll be ready when you are. I’m riding over to Roady’s for a few hours,” Luke went on. “If you need Flood, he’ll be in his office all day. Matt and Mark are at their own homesteads.” He shook his head and gave a happy whistle. “With the two newest McCutcheon boys making their appearance in November and December, my brothers have their hands full.”

Lucky ambled up close, and Shad noted the tenderness brimming in his eyes.

“How are the little tykes,” the cook asked. “Amazing how Miss Rachel and Miss Amy birthed ’em so close together. They’ll grow up more like brothers than cousins. Can’t wait till we get ta see ’em.” He chuckled. “And it’s about time we got some more boys.”

“If the weather was warmer, I’m sure Matt and Mark would have already brought ’em by the bunkhouse,” Luke replied. “They’re about ready to burst their buttons with pride. Especially Mark. A man will get like that over his first son.”

“When’s the next one for you, Luke?” Shad swilled down the last of his coffee. He set the mug on the table and pinched a coffee ground off the tip of his tongue. “You don’t want to get left in the dust.”

“Our hands are adequately filled to overflowing with the little ones we have, Shadrack. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be plenty happy when another one does come along.” Luke strode to the door but stopped and turned back. “You finished eating, Hickory? Colton’s riding with me to the Guthries’. If you don’t mind the cold, you’re welcome to come along.”

Hickory’s eyes grew large at the prospect.

Seeing how much the boy idolized Luke wasn’t difficult. The few months since he’d been living in the bunkhouse he’d gained weight, did his reading lessons every night, and often visited Luke and Faith.

“Want to go?” Luke asked again.

Hickory jumped up and practically ran his empty plate over to the dish pail filled with water. “I sure would. I’ll go saddle Punk.”

“We won’t be ready to ride for a good ten to fifteen minutes,” Luke said. “That gives you plenty of time to layer on more clothing.” He nodded at Lucky. “Be sure he’s covered head to toe. It’s cold out there. And don’t forget his gloves.”

“You think I was born yesterday?” Lucky frowned and jammed his hands on his hips. “Hell, I was making sure you had your gloves not that long ago.”

Luke chuckled. “Guess you were. Hey, Hickory, heard tell Sally is making a cinnamon cake today. Let’s hope she did.”

If the kid even heard Luke’s last remark about the cake was debatable. The boy was moving faster than a roadrunner with a coyote on his tail feathers. He yanked on another heavy shirt, an extra pair of socks, wound a wool scarf around his neck, and then went down on hands and knees to look under his cot for anything else he might have forgotten.

Shad felt his eyelids drooping. The warmth of his coat, a full belly, and the fire were making him sleepy. “Who’s goin’ where in the buckboard? No one ever said.”

“Me, amigo,” Pedro replied. “To the Blanchard farm.” Finished with his meal, the Mexican withdrew some cigarette papers from his front pocket, along with a skimpy pouch of tobacco, and began to roll a smoke. “Taking supplies out to the widow.”

“Never know when a big snow will hit,” Luke said. “Wouldn’t want to see her get snowed in without the things she needs. Since Behemoth killed her husband, Mrs. Blanchard has only made a handful of trips to town. Faith and the other women are worried about her. The least we can do is make sure she has food and firewood.”

Uncle Pete stood and stretched. “I’m going along too. And Jonathan. She’ll have some chores that need doin’. The three of us can get ’em done quicker than one.” He grinned, giving them a nod. “I surely don’t mind her company; I can tell you that. She has that certain way of looking at a man …” His words drifted away.

Pedro lifted the rolled paper filled with tobacco, wetting the length of the seam with his tongue and then twisting the ends. He struck a match and looked over the small orange flame at Shad. “That bear mauling her man has her a bit touched in the head.” He moved the flame to the end of the cigarette hanging from his lips. “Not good for a woman to be alone much. Comprendes? Not with winter knocking at her door.”

“Not good at all,” Shad agreed.

Rosalind Blanchard was quite the widow. Any whisper of her name brought the bunkhouse to life. Seemed all the cowhands had a secret hope of catching her eye. Uncle Pete had all but said as much a moment before.

Everyone except me . . . and maybe Francis, since she’s too old for the lad. I enjoy my bachelorhood too much to ever settle down. When I get lonely, I head into town. Fancy Aubrey’s sass and flash is more my type. The saloon girl avoids any ties that bind, just like I do.

As Luke opened the door to leave, Shad stood. “Wait up, boss,” he called, quickly following him into the biting cold.

Luke stopped and turned. “Petty? Something on your mind? Wouldn’t you rather talk inside, where it’s warm?”

Shad ignored the cold that zipped through him, bringing back the gooseflesh he’d only recently gotten rid of. Best to get this discussion done quickly.

“This is a private matter.” Shad hoped now was a good time to bring up the request. He hadn’t worked at the ranch all that long, although he’d like to be a permanent fixture. He liked living here. Could see himself settling in for good. “Everything’s fine with the beef, Luke,” he said in response to his boss’s wrinkled brow.

“Good to hear. Then what’s on your mind?”

Shad swallowed. He’d started the conversation, and now there wasn’t anything to do but finish. “My brothers. I got a letter about a month back. They didn’t say much, except they were on their way here from Wyoming. I’m expectin’ ’em any day now. Was hoping you’d hire ’em on.”

Luke’s lips pulled tight, and in the quiet yard, his deep sigh was evident. “We don’t usually take on men this time of year, Petty. You should know that. We have winter to get through.”

Shad shuffled his boots. Yeah, he did.

“If we need extra hands, we hire in the spring.”

Disappointment weighed heavy. With his years of ranching experience, Shad had expected that answer. Still, he’d been watching out for his two brothers since his grandma Girdy passed on some twelve years back. Keeping them on the straight and narrow, so to speak—as best he could. Times were tough. Work was scarce. If they hired on here, they’d get the stability he’d found at the Heart of the Mountains. He couldn’t give up just yet.

“They’re good workers, Luke,” he added, trying not to sound desperate.

Luke held his gaze. “Chance Holcomb just hired a man a couple weeks ago. Said with Evie so close to delivering, he wanted the freedom to stay close to the homestead. Too bad we didn’t know sooner.”

Shad nodded. “Yeah, I heard about that myself. It’s a shame. Well, thanks, anyway. My grandma used to say it never hurts to ask.” He turned to go.

“Hold up, Petty. How old are they?”

“Nick is twenty-four, and Tanner twenty-three.”

“Any experience in the saddle?”

“Plenty. Just like me. They’re good hands. Honest.” Although, Tanner’s a bit of a hothead . . .

Luke gave him a nod. “Tell ’em we’ll hire ’em on half-time until spring. When we begin work on the new barn at Matt’s place, they can go full-time. That’s the best we can do at the present. They can live in the bunkhouse just like everyone else.”

“Thank you.” Shad thrust out his hand. “That’s darn nice of you.”

Luke smiled and shook his head. “Nothin’ nice about it, Petty. Business is business. Now, get back inside and get some sleep. You’ve earned time off. Tomorrow, you’ll be back out in the cold. I want you to ride out to the Holcomb ranch and the Preece farm.”


Luke looked up at the sky.

Shad followed suit. In the distance, foreboding black clouds hung low to the ground. He shrugged deeper into his coat. “Those weren’t there a half hour ago when I rode in.”

“Exactly. That’s why we’re sending men out to every homestead within ten miles of town, just to be sure everyone is ready. Flood and the rest of us are feeling a mite gun-shy since the early snowstorm that caught Roady and Sally unaware in the mountains. We’ve been expecting snow—but since then, it hasn’t come.”

“I’ll deliver your message first thing after tasks tomorrow.”

Without a glance back, Luke lifted a hand and clamped down his Stetson as he strode toward the ranch house. A sudden gust swept past, setting the evergreen branches dancing and scattering aspen leaves across the frozen dirt.

Shad grasped his coat lapels together and started back for the bunkhouse, thinking of the hot fire burning inside, the great weight lifted from his shoulders.

Tanner and Nick had jobs. His first obstacle conquered.

The black clouds in the distance caught his attention once more. Shad stopped and stared, the satisfied feeling in his belly pushed away all too soon by disquiet. Now his brothers just had to arrive in one piece. The sooner they did that, the better he’d sleep.

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