Montana Territory, August 1883
An eerie keening echoed through the trees. Luke McCutcheon straightened in the saddle, and his filly’s ears flicked forward, then back. “Easy, girl. Don’t dump me now.” Not with ten miles to go, he thought as he felt the green-broke filly hesitate. Lightly reining her to the solid side of the slippery embankment, he pressed her forward. Still, she balked at a mud-covered tree stump, snorting and humping her back. Rain came down in sheets now, drenching them both. Squinting through the darkness, Luke scanned the clearing for any sign of the others he’d split from some three hours before.
A bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, followed by an explosive boom. Chiquita whirled a complete circle and crow-hopped several strides, sending an icy rivulet gushing from the brim of Luke’s hat.
“Hell.” Luke squeezed with his legs, pushing her onto the bit. “Flighty filly,” he said under his breath. “You’d be a great one if you’d ever settle down.”
Cresting the rise, Luke searched the horizon through the downpour. Nothing. Nobody in sight. “Long gone.” Frustrated, he slapped his gloved hand against his thigh and spun Chiquita in the opposite direction. He’d head back to camp and try again at daybreak.
Suddenly the uncanny cry came again, peculiar in its tone and just as troubling as the first time he’d heard it. “What . . . ?”
He’d never heard anything like it in his twenty-six years. He reined up for a moment, listening. A minute slipped by, then two. Still nothing but the unrelenting storm. A wounded animal? No. That queer sound was totally unfamiliar. He headed in its direction to investigate.
His efforts proved useless, and after several minutes he stopped. As if called, a streak of lightning lit up the landscape, revealing a dilapidated wagon half-hidden in the brush. It listed to one side, the wheels buried up to the axles. As quick as the light came, it vanished, leaving him in darkness.
He dismounted, cursing the jingle of his spurs. His gloved hand dropped to his sidearm and slid the gun from its holster.
Another ghostly cry emanated from the wagon, raising the hair on his neck. Silently, he made his way over the uneven ground. With his back to the wagon’s side he reached around with his free hand and cautiously pulled back the canvas cover.
Only the wind answered, whipping a smattering of rain against his face. Not daring to take his eyes from the dark opening, he steeled himself against the chilly water dripping down his neck. He flexed his shoulders, willed himself to relax. Then a sound, like the rustling of a mouse, caught his attention. He held his breath.
“Coming in,” Luke warned. He trusted his instincts, and it didn’t feel like someone had a gun pointed at him. Cautious, however, his boot on the wheel axle, he lifted himself slowly through the opening. He paused, letting his eyes adjust to the dark interior.
The aroma of musty canvas engulfed him. And the smell of something else. Fear? Bending low he inched slowly through the cramped interior. He winced: a sharp edge. Fire and ice coursed up his leg. He stopped. Something was in the corner.
With his teeth, he pulled his glove from his hand and reached into his inside pocket for a match. He struck it and held it high. It winked brightly for only a moment and was extinguished by a gust of wind. But not before he saw a woman crouched down, her eyes the size of twin harvest moons.
A soft panting was her reply.
“Your lantern. Where is it?” He felt around the rafters.
Finding a lamp, he lit it and turned down the wick until a soft light glowed around the cramped area. He knelt beside the woman. Beads of sweat trickled off her brow and her breath came fast. Eyes wide with fright were riveted on the gun he held. Then he noticed a stick clenched between her teeth. His gaze flew downward. Her knees were drawn up and a blanket covered the lower half of her body.
But there was no mistaking what was underneath.Return to Montana Dawn