Heart of the Mountains Ranch, Y Knot, Montana Territory, September 1886
Roady Guthrie exited the bunkhouse, his overstuffed saddlebag thrown over his shoulder. Excitement mixed with a good dose of restlessness tumbled around in his gut. He stepped off the porch, strode to his horse tied at the hitching rail, and hefted the burden over the sorrel’s hindquarters, securing it behind the saddle. Next, he picked up his bedroll and tied it on top. Finished, he sucked in a lungful of fresh morning air and let it ease away his disquiet.
Across the ranch yard, the door to the main house opened and Luke McCutcheon stepped out. He crossed the distance between them, scattering a handful of chickens. “You ready to head out?”
“Reckon so.” Roady ran his hand down the rifle scabbard at his mare’s shoulder, then checked one more time to be sure he’d packed enough ammunition. His gaze strayed to the other rifle, the one that would stay in its case, the one he brought along just because.
“Sure you don’t want to go, Luke? Bear hunting’s a good diversion, especially when there’s a baby in the house. I’ll hold off if you want to grab a few things and saddle up.”
Luke chuckled, then gazed longingly at the mountains. “I’d ride along, but Faith just might come hunting me if I did.”
“The joys of bachelorhood,” Roady said with a cocky smile. “I can go and do as I like. No one to ask permission.” He gave his horse a firm pat on the neck. “Actually, I prefer going alone. It’s the only solitude I get all year. Living in a bunkhouse don’t afford much privacy—or thinking time. A few days in the woods puts things into perspective, and rights my soul.”
Luke arched a brow. “Talking pretty deep, aren’t you?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe this’ll be the year I bag Behemoth.”
“I wish you’d let the past go. Let me take that rifle to Waterloo with me when I go, consign it in the gun shop.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
Luke’s brows rose. “Can’t or won’t?” The moment stretched out. He grasped Roady’s shoulder. “Be careful. That man-hunting grizzly has earned his name. It’s been a handful of years since he’s been spotted. I’m thinking maybe he’s dead.”
“Could be, but I don’t believe so. He’s just playing it safe by staying up in the high country since he mangled his front paw in Taylor’s trap. He’s a clever one. Knows he’s easier to track.”
Francis came out of the bunkhouse, pulling his suspenders over his shoulders. He gazed around with eyes still dull with sleep and hair resembling the bristles of a broom. “Thought I heard you out here, Luke.”
Francis ran a hand over his lightly stubbled jaw as he took in Roady’s horse and camping gear. “I’d sure like to go along, Roady.”
“You’re needed around here, Francis,” Luke said. “Especially when I go to Waterloo next week.”
Francis’s chest puffed out, and he missed the thankful expression Roady sent to Luke. It wasn’t that Roady didn’t like Francis—because he did. A lot. Thought of him as a younger brother, and cared about him mightily. The fact that they had no blood ties didn’t matter. But going alone was important. There was just something about being in those mountains all by himself. He’d meant what he’d told Luke.
A gleam of interest lit Francis’s eyes. “I hear Matt and Mark are going to Waterloo with you, Luke. Should be an eventful trip.”
Luke nodded. “That’s why Flood will depend on you more than ever with most of the men gone, as will the women.”
The sounds of deep male voices and laughter filtered out from the bunkhouse. The hands who weren’t out on watch were waking up.
Francis glanced at Roady. “How long you staying out?”
“That’s tough to say. Probably about ten days.”
Francis leaned back against the hitching rail. “You’re not heading straight to the hunting cabin?”
“Not this time. Going to spend a day or two in the high mountains first.”
Luke’s face darkened. “Keep a watch on the weather. It can change in the blink of an eye this time of year.”
The bunkhouse door opened again and Lucky limped out, carrying a pail of water. He pitched it off the porch opposite the men. “Breakfast is ready. You best come get it before it’s gone.”
When Francis headed in, Roady turned back to Luke. “Care to join us inside?”
“Thanks, but no. I ate with Ma and Flood.” He patted his stomach but his smile faded. “I mean it, Roady. I want to see you back here in ten days, or a few days after. Don’t take any undue chances with that hide of yours.”
Luke’s concern touched him. They went back years; were best friends. They didn’t mollycoddle each other, either. This bear-hunting trip was something he did every year. To clear his head. Get back to his roots. But mostly, to try to collect on a debt long overdue.
“You know I won’t, Luke. I have too much to come back to.”
Really? Like what? A bunkhouse full of smelly men?
Roady pushed away a seed of loneliness, not letting it take hold. He’d been working for the McCutcheons so long it was darn difficult to remember when he’d started. He wasn’t complaining for the good life he’d been handed, it was just that he was starting to believe a man needed something more. Something to leave behind after he’d passed on to show he’d been a part of this world. The notion had started a year ago, and with each passing season the yearning grew. “Spring roundup will be here before we know it.”
Luke chuckled in his dry way, making Roady smile. “We have winter to get through first. Last year was a doozy.”
“You’re right about that.” He shrugged and headed for the bunkhouse door. He was hungry and intended to stuff his belly past full, enough to keep him stoked up most of the day. After which, he’d subsist on jerky and the other items he had packed in his saddlebag until he arrived in the mountains and set up camp. When his beans and biscuits ran out, he’d hunt for fresh game. The thought of a mouthful of fresh venison or a big fat turkey cooked by his own hands made his mouth water.
“You remember what I said,” Luke called as Roady went through the bunkhouse door. “Two weeks at the very most. If not, I’ll come looking.”Return to Montana Snowfall