Caroline Fyffe

Excerpt: Montana Reunion

Book 11: The McCutcheon Family Series

Chapter One

Arizona, May 1888

Gusts of gritty wind whipped off the Arizona horizon and peppered Chaim McCutcheon in the face as he squinted into the sun. His cheeks, dry and darkened from too many hours in the harsh climate, felt like old boot leather. Any vestiges of humor remaining inside his soul after Emmeline’s betrayal was gone, left behind in Rio Wells the night of Dustin and Sidney’s wedding—when he’d ridden away and hadn’t looked back. Chaim remembered the conversation with clarity, as if it had transpired yesterday, not eighteen long months ago.

“I’m not going for good. Just need to get out of town for a while. Maybe I’ll head up to Montana. See Y Knot for myself.”

“Don’t do this, Chaim!” Dustin had begged.

“I lost her, Dustin,” he’d whispered. “Tell me you’d sit around doing business as usual if Sidney went back to Santa Fe. Somehow, I don’t see that happening.”

“What was her reasoning?”

“Does it matter?”

Dustin shook his head. “Guess not. But I’ll go with you. Sidney and I both will.”

Chaim had forced a smile for his brother’s sake. “Your destiny is here.” Chaim stared Dustin in the eye. “Making Ma and Pa happy with all the little ones you and Sidney will have. They’ve waited a mighty long time for grandbabies. You can’t follow me over hill and dale.”

“Have you told ’em yet?”

“Nope. Didn’t want to spoil their time.” Without warning, Dustin had pulled him into a strong embrace, making Chaim’s throat squeeze closed.

“You be careful,” Dustin had choked out. “Don’t get yourself hurt, or worse.”

A dust devil swirled effortlessly along the sunbaked ochre horizon. The small twister tossed small rocks and twigs as it zigzagged this way and that. Emmeline’s duplicity—her departure a month before their wedding all those months ago, never to return, write, or contact him in any way—had left him a man adrift. Chaim had set out immediately to ease his troubled heart. Once he’d found Arizona, the perfect place to scourge his soul, he’d sent Brick Paulson, his traveling companion and ranch hand, back to Rio Wells. With no demons of his own to exorcise, Brick had no reason to remain.

Since then, Chaim had called Arizona home. The magic of the desert challenged him. The hardness, too. He’d needed the pain the harsh climate inflicted. At times, he’d been close to insanity with grief. The scorching heat, giant saguaro, spiky prickly pear, and abundance of rattlesnakes was his medicine. To teach him a lesson he’d never forget. And it had—in spades. “Almost a year and a half since I’ve seen Texas,” he whispered to the landscape. “I wonder what’s changed. Did they build the new barn? Has Rio Wells hired a new sheriff?”

Dustin came to Arizona, intending to bring Chaim home but failed. His brother used every tactic to guilt him back to Texas, the ranch, their parents, and sistersWhen nothing worked, Dustin’s patience gave way to anger. Back when they were boys, Dustin could strike the fear of God in Chaim, but not anymore. When a man had nothing to lose, nothing much frightened him.

The dust devil now gone, Chaim raked his arm across his sweaty brow, feeling the ever-present sand that seemed to appear out of nowhere and coat everything. When Dustin’s anger hadn’t worked, his brother had begged. Something Chaim had never seen before. Chaim didn’t want to cause strife to his family. He just wanted to be left alone.

Shaking off his thoughts, he took in the broken-down ranchero he’d purchased for pennies. His small herd grazing the sparse pasture were a far cry from the beefy, well-fed steers produced at the Rim Rock. Tired of his musings, he gathered his hammer and shovel and started for the barn.

Scottsdale, or so the area had been recently dubbed, possessed potential. New folks looking for a dry, healthful climate arrived daily. And where people congregated, there were mouths to feed. Where mouths needed feeding, beef was a prime commodity. Chaim’s knowledge of the cattle industry had already been an asset to the growing stockyard in town. 

Stripping off his sweaty shirt, Chaim trudged toward the house. The place must have been something special in its time, but now it just looked old and tired. He stopped at the lopsided rain barrel, ladled out a dipper of water, and poured it over his head.  As if on cue—lest I forget—grit again peppered his body. The sting felt good. Grounding. Escaping the granite rigidity of this land wasn’t possible. 

Emmaline’s face wavered before him. Her silky-soft skin, made even more attractive by her dark, alluring eyes, mesmerized. Her kissable lips were drawn down in a seductive little pout.

Always the same!

Pain gave way to resentment. How long before her ghost left him? He’d vowed months ago he was done. Over her. Her memory would inflict no more pain…

I have a life. The one here and another back in Texas, if I decide to go home.

Angrily, he stomped into the structure he now called home. He went to the dilapidated pie cabinet and withdrew a handful of letters, mostly from Dustin. Taking the top envelope, he extracted the missive he’d already read and looked it over again. His extended family was planning a surprise birthday party for Uncle Flood up in Y Knot.

Last year, on his uncle’s fiftieth birthday, the party was postponed following the hellacious winter which took cattle and people alike, or so the invitation stated. But this year, they were proceeding. Aunt Claire and his cousins planned a historic gathering of the two McCutcheon families and wanted him to come.

Everyone in Texas planned to go. His cousin, John, who moved to Texas after medical school and was now the doctor in Rio Wells, would make his first trip home, bringing his wife, Lily, and their new daughter.

He turned the letter over in his hands. It had arrived last month. He’d telegraphed Dustin he wasn’t going, then stuck the correspondence in the drawer and hadn’t bothered since.

But now…

Am I prolonging my pain by staying here and mooning over Emmeline? Didn’t I swear I was finished with that part of my life? Don’t I need to begin to live again? Put my declarations to work? 

Chaim set the letter on the table and paced to the window. Far off, a deep brown line wavered on the horizon. A dust storm headed their way. He needed to get the steers into the shelter of the barn.

Shouldering back into his sticky shirt, he returned his gaze to the invitation, thinking of the young rancher who owned the spread next door. He’d approached Chaim a month ago about buying the place. The fella had a wife and son not yet four years old and couldn’t afford to pay much. And that’s about how much this ranch was worth. The fact cattle could survive on such barren lands still amazed him. Arizona was not Texas.

Was he ready to go home? Or, at least, to Montana? After the reunion, he could make the final decision about Texas. If he departed in a few days, and made good time, he’d arrive in Montana around the same time as Dustin and the rest of the family. Perhaps a change would finally vanquish Emmeline from his heart and soul. For the first time in many long months, the corners of his mouth pulled up. He’d go. The time had come. Yanking open the door, he ran toward the lowing cattle, plans tumbling around in his head.

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