Silver Fish, Montana Territory, Early June 1886
Fox Dancing lifted the leather flap of the tepee and let her eyes adjust to the inky blackness of the night. Dark thunderheads blanketed the sky in every direction, covering the moon’s glow and promising a hellish storm within the hour.
The night I’ve been waiting for. One that will erase any tracks I might leave behind.
The camp was quiet. She waited patiently, her knapsack packed at her side, and beside it, her bow and quiver. She fingered the small leather pouch that dangled from a cord around her neck, and pushed from her mind the crouching cougar of fear that threatened to weaken her heart. The amulet held her talisman, formed of several downy tufts from the underbelly of a baby eagle, mixed with the tail feather from its mother.
Because a vision quest was required only of the young braves, she’d had to sneak off last year against the protests of her father’s two wives. Her mothers’ worried glances had fueled her determination all the more. The moment she’d seen the eagle’s nest perched high in a craggy cliff off the mountainside, understanding had flooded her heart. The Great Spirit had put it there just for her. After climbing the sheer wall, she’d wrestled the feisty chick to get a fistful of its down. She wore her talisman now as she always did. It would protect her throughout the journey.
Her grandfather, Talking Tree, was the only one who understood her. She could no more stay in the tepee mending and cooking with the other girls than fly like an eagle. After months of begging, he’d taught her to ride when she was only four, to hunt and track the year after that. And she was a good hunter! Unafraid of the kill. By the time she turned sixteen years last month, the others were frightened of her and gave her a wide berth.
Everyone except Painted Bear Stone. Whereas the other young warriors thought her strange, her strength and wit seemed to charm Painted Bear Stone. Three years older, he’d made it a habit to watch over her since she was a young girl, even when she’d asked him not to. He teased her unmercifully, forcing her to dig her nails into her palms until they bled. It was as if he lived to make her life miserable. His playful smile and sharp gaze knew her every move even before she did, and haunted her dreams. But this year, his attention had changed. Turned into something else, much to her dismay. To her utter shock, he had asked her father for her five nights ago.
She would be his wife by the next moon.
At least, that is what the village thinks. They believe once I marry I will forget my desire to ride and hunt, to protect my people. They think I should settle into a woman’s way. Gathering food, cooking meals, mending clothes—and having babies. A shudder ran through her body. Instead, I will go to my white half brother, the one I’ve heard our father speak about.
The idea had come in a dream. Her father’s whispered conversations about the great son he had sired, the one who lived in the white world, sated her unconscious like raindrops in spring until she knew what she must do. She would miss her family here, but at least she wouldn’t be shackled to a husband—or be forced to move to the reservation, where she would die without the wind in her hair, a horse galloping under her, and the freedom to come and go at will.
In the dark of the tepee, she remained motionless. One false move now could jeopardize her plan. She needed to be smart, like her grandfather had taught her to be. At the thought of his ailing health, her heart seized. Annoyed by her weakness, she pushed her emotions away.
A soft whistle reached her ears. She took one last look at Biting Horse and Crow Foot Woman, each deep asleep inside a heavy buffalo robe. This would be the last time on this earth that she would see them. She’d been lucky. Wakhan Thanka had blessed her with amicable mothers. She would miss them.
When the signal came a second time, Fox Dancing whispered a silent prayer of deliverance, then picked up her things. I am a fierce warrior. Nothing can stop me. The words played over and over in her mind as she crept silently out into the night toward the horse pasture where her mare would be ready and waiting.
Y Knot, Montana Territory, July 1886
“Mother!” Charity McCutcheon scrambled from the stagecoach and rushed into her mother’s embrace. Oh, how she’d longed to feel these arms so many times while living far from home in Texas. The familiar scent of sweet lemony butter soothed Charity’s heart. “How did you know we’d be arriving today?”
Her father and the rest of the family waited on the boardwalk in front of the Y Knot stage office. “A very special birdie told us,” Claire replied, still holding her close. “And we’re all indebted. We wouldn’t have missed your homecoming for anything.”
Charity slid a conspiratorial glance toward Brandon. The happy crinkle around his eyes and the squeeze of his warm hand around her own gave her his answer.
“You didn’t think I’d let an occasion like this go by, did you, darlin’?” he asked, one side of his mouth lifting in a half smile. “Everyone’s eager to see you home safe and sound.”
With his hat pushed up, she had a perfect view of his face. She almost lost her ability to breathe, he looked so handsome. Her worries that he might have second thoughts suddenly seemed just plain silly.
“I don’t know if I should hug you or beat your bottom red, missy,” her father boomed. Flood McCutcheon gathered her into his arms as the others shook Brandon’s hand or kissed his cheek. “You scared the life right out of us when we received Brandon’s telegram. Sneaking off to Texas without a by-your-leave! You should be ashamed of yourself. A McCutcheon is always straightforward and honest.”
Cocooned in her father’s embrace, she felt like a child again, with a scraped knee or bee-stung finger. His words were harsh, but only because he loved her so much. Happiness surged in her chest as she thanked the Lord above for such a loving family.
“I’m so glad you’re home, princess,” he whispered. “In all honesty, the place has been too quiet without you to mix things up. We need a little of your spark.”
She heard him sniff and wondered if he was also battling tears.
The stage rolled away after the last passenger disembarked, leaving their luggage stacked on the boardwalk, and Brandon’s and Charity’s horses transferred from their spot tied to the back of the stage to the hitching rail.
As soon as their pa let her go, Luke pulled Charity close. “Who’re you kiddin’, Pa? You’ve never whipped Charity once in her life. Not like us boys. It’s your leniency that’s created the problem in the first place.” He hugged her tight, causing her unshed tears to fall. “She’s spoiled to the core.”
Impatient, Faith dragged Charity from Luke’s arms. “A girl should have a mind of her own,” she said, then took her turn to hug her sister-in-law. “Keeps the men in her life on their toes.”
Brandon groaned loudly, while Mark and Matt, Charity’s older brothers, nodded emphatically. “And don’t we know it,” Brandon said. “Did you know Charity was a schoolteacher in Texas?” Everyone gasped. “We have stories that’ll take a month to tell.”
“It’s so good to have you back, dear girl,” Faith murmured. “I’ve missed you more than you could know.” They stepped apart. Amy and Rachel followed with hugs, both women’s growing pregnancies evident. Then came Matt and Mark.
Charity looked around. “Where’re all the children? Billy and Adam, Colton, Dawn, Beth, and Cinder. My goodness. And also little Holly. I’ll bet she’s growing like a weed.”
“Back at the ranch with Esperanza and her grown niece.” Faith sent Luke a flirtatious glance. “Dinner out at Cattlemen’s doesn’t come around often, so we’re all making a night out of it by leaving the children at home. Lucky’s back at the ranch helping with the young’uns.”
“Besides,” Mark added. “We want to be able to hear what you have to share about our little brother, John, and his new wife, Lily. That’s a mite difficult with all the babies and toddlers we have.”
Charity couldn’t help a little hop of excitement. “Oh, Mother. Lily is so lovely. You’re going to adore her. She’s from Germany and has beautiful long blond hair. But that’s not what makes her so special; it’s her goodness and…” She took in the faces of her family, each so dear to her, as they listened intently. “She and John are so in love. It’s a wonderful thing.”
She glanced at the buildings along Main Street. To an outsider this rugged cow town with its clapboard structures and dirt streets would seem ordinary, but to her it was anything but, and it held a special place in her heart. Y Knot seemed the same, yet different too—perhaps her perception was what had changed the most.
She stepped closer to Brandon and found his hand. Their fingers entwined. By the looks she was receiving, everyone seemed to know what must be coming. She and Brandon hadn’t moved a foot from each other’s side since exiting the stagecoach. It felt good to finally know where her destiny rested. Still, the thought of their marriage announcement tonight sent a flock of butterflies racing around inside.
“You should see Texas,” she said to take her mind off her unsettled feelings. She let go his hand and stretched her arms wide. “It’s big and desolate and dry.” Not all the time, though, she thought, remembering the rainstorm the day her Texas cousin Chaim took the bullet that almost killed him. “I didn’t realize just how blue our skies are here in Montana until I left them behind.”
“And vast,” Brandon added.
She nodded. So many things here at home she’d taken for granted, but she wouldn’t anymore. “Uncle Winston and Aunt Winnie are such good people. I felt as if I’d known them forever, and loved them right from the start. The ranch is beautiful, so different from ours and yet the same.” Everyone nodded, her meaning clear. “And our cousins are fine people too. At first I wasn’t sure about Dustin, but he turned out nice in the end. He and John almost came to blows over Lily.” She laughed at the surprised looks. “Actually they did on John and Lily’s wedding night. Brandon not only showed up to save me from a rattlesnake, but had the funds to bail John and Dustin out of jail—”
“Whoa, now, sweetheart,” Brandon said with a chuckle. “Save some for later.”
“I will. I will. I just think the whole family needs to take a trip to Texas so they’ll experience firsthand what I’m talking about.”
“Hold up, Charity, you just got home,” Flood said. His brown vest hugged his chest; he was as tall and fit as her brothers. “We’ll take one day at a time. No more fancy trips without telling us—or, I should say, without us.” His face was set, but she knew that with a kiss to his cheek she could persuade him to say yes to just about anything.
Excitement and longing zipped through Charity. She missed her relatives and friends in Rio Wells already, a consequence of her travels and expanding her circle of loved ones.
Her father gave her a stern eye. “We’ll all make it to Texas—someday. To visit John and his new bride. But for right now, I hope you and Brandon are hungry.” He slung his arm around Brandon’s shoulder and pulled him close, like he did often with her brothers.
A touched expression lit Brandon’s face and Charity had to look away or cry. This was going to be so good for Brandon, for them. Now that the decision had been made, she couldn’t wait to become his wife.
“We have the large round table reserved at Cattlemen’s,” her pa went on. “I say we head that way now before Jackson or Lenore think we’ve changed our minds and give it to someone else. You can regale us with every single thing that happened while we get some grub into our bellies.”
“I second that,” Luke said.
Everyone nodded. When they turned, Charity threaded her arm through her mother’s, just like she used to as a girl. Their energetic talk and laughter garnered more than a few curious glances. Some acquaintances waved and called out to Brandon or Charity. A man dressed in a raggedy top hat and vest came riding down the street on a mule, a tear-shaped instrument in his hands. He smiled and strummed a few chords as he passed.
“Who’s that?” Charity asked.
“Y Knot’s own town minstrel,” her mother said. “Casper Slack. You never know where he’ll show up next—to sing you a song. It’s really quite nice.”
As they neared the hotel, Charity navigated a step on the boardwalk, glancing away from Luke’s reenactment of Colton trying to saddle his new horse. Her gaze slid past a man standing in front of the leather shop, and she stopped abruptly when she recognized him. Her heart gave a happy leap. “Chance!”
Smiling from ear to ear, Chance Holcomb and a young woman with a head of curly blond hair started their way.
“Miss Charity, it’s darn fine to see you. I’ve heard all the news about your time in Texas and John getting married from the telegrams Brandon has sent back.” He laughed and shook his head. “It’s still hard to believe since I haven’t seen John since he went away to school. Why all the hands at the Heart of—”
He stopped abruptly and turned to the woman on his arm. “Forgive me, I’ve forgotten my manners. Charity, this is my wife, Evie Holcomb.” The proud ring to his tone was unmistakable. “Evie, this is Charity McCutcheon”—he motioned with his head—“the boys’ little sister. She’s been away for three months. That’s Brandon Crawford, her, uh—the sheriff of Y Knot.”
Brandon smiled and touched the brim of his hat.
“Wife!” Charity blurted, taking in the pretty woman in the lovely yellow dress. Her features were delicate and she had blue eyes full of wonder. Where the heck had Chance found her?
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss McCutcheon.” Evie’s hand, tucked into the crook of Chance’s elbow, flexed.
Embarrassed over her outburst and the hurt in Evie’s eyes, Charity hurried to say, “I’m sorry. That was rude. I’m so very glad to meet you too, Mrs. Holcomb, but I do have to say I am a bit shocked. It must have happened very quickly.”
She sent Chance an apologetic glance for her blunder.
“We all think Chance is a sweetheart,” Charity went on, “which I’m sure you’re well aware of, because you married him.” She couldn’t stop the wide smile from taking over her face. “I’m certainly happy to have another woman in town. Do you ride?”
“Not well. Chance is teaching me, though.”
“You should see their home,” Faith said, holding on to Luke’s arm. “It’s beautiful. And Evie’s stove is the most extravagant contraption any of us have ever seen. Amy and I both want one just like it.”
“That’s so true, Charity.” Amy fairly glowed with excitement. “It practically fills the whole kitchen. Evie’s planning a baking day with all of us. Now that you’re home, you can come along.” Her shy sister-in-law looked lovely today, and adoration radiated between her and Mark.
“A house? When I left that was just an open piece of land with a barn and some fancy French cattle. You sure have been busy.”
One of her brothers cleared his throat. Then a chuckle eased its way around the group.
Charity glanced back. “What?”
“He’s been busy, all right.” Luke’s eyebrow peaked.
Chance’s face resembled the red saddle blanket on her horse.
“Oh!” Charity couldn’t help herself. She stepped forward and gave Evie a hug, then cuffed Chance on the arm. “I think that’s wonderful. Congratulations.” Heat wove around inside her belly when she thought of her and Brandon making a baby. Maybe by this time next year her arms would be full.
“Come on, folks,” Flood said. “We haven’t made much progress to the restaurant. Chance, we’re headed to Cattlemen’s for an early supper. We’d be pleased if you and Evie would join us. You’re practically family. It’s our treat.”
Chance looked down into Evie’s eyes.
“I insist,” Claire said, before they had an opportunity to say no. “I haven’t seen you for a month of Sundays, Chance. And I’m sure Evie would enjoy some time with other women. My gosh, for days on end it’s just you and the cattle.”
“Well, when you put it like that,” Chance said, chuckling, “how can I refuse? But I’m paying for Evie and me.”
“You’ll do no such thing.” Claire gave him a stern look. “We’ve meant to invite the two of you out to the ranch since your marriage. This will make up for our bad manners.”
Charity smiled. “Good. I’m glad that’s settled.”
She and Brandon led the way to the hotel. Before they went in, Brandon pulled her to the side, letting the rest pass. “I’m going to poke my head in the office for one minute and speak with Jack if he’s there. I’ll be quick.” His gaze slid to the sheriff’s office next door and his expression went hard.
“Promise you’ll be quick?”
“Of course. We have big things to talk about.” He leaned in close. “I wish I could kiss you.”
“I know. Me too.”
“And we can’t make the announcement until I speak with Flood. It wouldn’t be proper.”
Charity couldn’t stop this odd feeling that something was going to go wrong. Somehow, some way, their intentions would be jumbled. Just like all the other things that had kept them apart through the years.
“You’ll speak with him today, at the party, right?”
He gave her a smile that had the power to send her stomach somersaulting. Since the hayloft in Rio Wells, her awareness of Brandon had changed. Grown deeper. She’d experienced a sliver of what husbands and wives held special. The secret power that connected them. She couldn’t wait to be man and wife.
“That’s our plan. Now go inside and get comfortable,” he said. “I’ll be right in. I’ll take Flood aside and do the asking. You don’t think he’ll say no, do you?”
“Charity and Brandon, are you going to stand out there all night?”
Her mother had come outside looking for them. The light shining in her eyes said she knew exactly what they were discussing.
“We’ll be right there,” Charity called. She gave her mother a smile and turned back to Brandon. “Say hello to Jack for me.”
At the mention of his deputy, Brandon gave an exasperated sigh. “He’s the only one I’m not anxious to see.”Return to Moon Over Montana