Montana Territory, 1882
Sally McClellen fought to control her temper and her horse.
But her horse wasn’t the problem. It was her temper upsetting the horse. He wouldn’t have been acting fidgety if it weren’t for her testy grip on the reins. So any trouble Sally had was all her own doing.
“None of this gets me one step closer to Mandy. She needs me.” Sally was so anxious to get on down the trail she thought she might explode.
They rode around the curve of a steep mountain trail and in the distance caught their first glimpse of a river lined with high banks of stunning red rock.
“Sure it’s a pretty sight, but --- ”
“It’s more than pretty. It’s beautiful.” Paula McGarritt, Sally’s traveling companion, looked at her and smiled. “Admit it. It was worth riding out here.”
Mrs. McGarritt knew full well how impatient Sally was, but Mrs. McGarritt, sweet and friendly as she was, didn’t let anyone push her around. The colonel’s wife sat her horse sidesaddle in a proper riding dress. She had made her opinion known early and often about Sally’s manly riding clothes and her habit of riding astride.
“It is beautiful.” Sally stifled an irritated sigh. They were here now, staring at the rocks. As if none of this group had ever seen a rock before. They all lived in west Texas or New Mexico. Their whole world was pretty much made of rocks.
Sally relaxed her grip on the reins to spare her restless horse. They’d be at Mandy’s in a few days. Less because they’d abandoned the trail and gone cross country. But Colonel McGarritt had agreed to the shortcut because he had a hankering to get out of the train and see some wild country. When Pa had asked if they’d see Sally safely to Mandy’s house, the colonel had studied the area and decided he’d like to see several places along the trail --- this canyon among them.
He’d have just stayed on the train, though, if it wasn’t for Mandy living in the middle of nowhere with her no-account husband. So, Sally took the detours that interested the colonel and his wife in the best spirit she could manage. Griping didn’t help and it made everyone else miserable.
Which wasn’t to say she hadn’t done plenty of it. But still --- the group had voted. She’d lost. This was America. “Thank you for insisting we ride out here.”
“You’re welcome.” Mrs. McGarritt grinned at Sally, not one bit fooled by her forced politeness. The older lady reached out her hand and Sally clasped it.
“Spectacular,” Colonel McGarritt said. “Absolutely stunning.”
Sally tore her eyes from the view to intercept Mrs. McGarritt’s smug look. Paula was too polite to say, “Itold you so.” But Sally caught the superior look and didn’t even mind.
The crimson bluffs were magnificent. But was it worth the time they’d wasted abandoning the most direct path? When Mandy might be in trouble? She was at least suffering from terrible homesickness. Her last letter had been a poorly concealed cry of loneliness. But with a third baby on the way and no womenfolk within fifty miles, she really needed the help as soon as possible.
No, this wasn’t even close to worth it.
Only by sheer force of will did Sally keep her hands loose on her reins and a smile on her face. They had plenty of time to get to Mandy’s before the baby came. And knew, from the map Mandy had sent, that the site of her new home was going to take this party a long way out of their way, and the group had all gone along with it; and they’d been a sight more mannerly about it than she was being.
Mandy would soon have her third baby in three years of marriage. She needed help. A woman’s help. Luther and Buff did what they could, but they had no place at the birth of Mandy’s baby. Sally offered to go.
Ma and Pa had a dim view of Mandy’s husband and they’d relented, though they’d made a fuss over losing another daughter to Montana. But had promised not to let Montana keep her. She’d promised it wouldn’t be forever. A year at most. Sally would help with the babies. Probably end up spending the winter with Mandy and no-account Sidney, then head home.
And now, instead of making the best time possible, here she sat staring at the admittedly beautiful canyon and river God painted with a blazing crimson brush.
She and Paula McGarritt rode with six men. All but Sally were making their way to Seattle. The group had been forming before Sally had gotten the idea to travel to see Mandy.
Pa would have never allowed to travel so far alone. But once Pa had heard of this group of sturdy men, and the stalwart Mrs. McGarritt who would act as chaperone, he’d relented. Now the travelers were slowing Sally down.
She was well aware she should be ashamed of herself. Then she noticed she’d tightened her hands on the reins again and her horse was tossing its head. Sally relaxed and sat with the most patience possible beside Paula, who wore a prim riding skirt, her gray hair neatly hidden beneath her bonnet, her spine ramrod straight.
Sally knew about tough and considered herself as tough as they came. But she had to admit, the nearly sixty-year-old Paula McGarritt could keep up with her. Maybe not in a footrace, but the woman was frontier born and bred, and she was at home in rugged conditions. And these were rugged indeed.
Though Mrs. McGarritt had clung to her proper clothing to take this ride, Sally had slipped away once they’d left the train and changed into her wrangler clothes. Mrs. McGarritt had scolded, but Sally, already chafing under the delay, refused to change back, so Mrs. McGarritt had relented and allowed to wear chaps and ride astride with a rifle strapped on her back.
Sally had won that small battle but lost on the sightseeing trip. Now here they were looking at pretty rocks when they should be making tracks for Mandy’s house.
Mrs. McGarritt said, “Let’s ride down closer. I want a better look.”
Sally didn’t like it, but she said nothing, resigned to the delay. Now she rode along to take a closer look than their bird’s-eye view from a mountain crest. They funneled down the narrow trail.
The trail made its serpentine way down the mountain. Sally admitted it felt good to be on horseback again after the long train ride. They wove around a curve.
Sally looked at the sheer drop to her left and swallowed hard. They were as far out in the wilderness as a body could get. And this side trip down to those red rocks served no purpose. Food to hunt, cattle to round up, fine. But to stare at rocks, no matter how pretty? Sally shook her head but remained silent.
The land dropped off for a hundred feet on her left. The horses’ hooves scratched along on the loose dirt and round pebbles. The trail was a steep slope downward, which meant slick even on this bone-dry day in June.
As the trail twisted, Sally saw the end of this dangerous stretch only a few yards ahead and breathed a sigh of relief to pass this particularly treacherous section of the trail. Now with only a few more tortuous yards to cover, relaxed. “Mrs. McGarritt,” she called out, wanting to tease the dear lady again about dragging Sally along on her joyride.
Paula, below on the trail, gained nearly level ground. The cliff no longer yawned at her side. She turned in her saddle, smiling. “You can thank me later, girl. When you’re dressed like a proper young lady again.”
Thank her? Not likely and well Mrs. McGarritt knew it. The two of them exchanged a warm smile. Mrs. McGarritt really was a sweetheart, for a tough old bird.
Once she looked away, Sally gently brushed her fingertips over the front of her broadcloth shirt and felt the ribbon beneath the rough fabric. No one knew of Sally’s fondness for ribbons and a bit of lace. She went to great lengths to keep her little bows and frills hidden, pinning them on her chemise when no one was around, removing them before laundry day so even Ma wouldn’t see.
Admiring pretty things felt dangerous to Sally, so she didn’t speak of it. Pa loved having her at his side on roundups and working the herd. For some reason, Sally felt certain that if she went girly on her pa, he might not love her as much. Oh, he’d always love her. She trusted in her pa’s love. But he might not love her in the same way. With Beth and Mandy gone, Laurie owned Pa’s heart as the princess. Sally’s place was beside him riding the range.
Trusting her horse to manage the steep trail, Sally pondered this spark of womanly weakness that drew her to lace and frills and such nonsense. Her foolish daydreams ended with the sharp crack of gunfire.
Paula McGarritt slammed backward off her horse.
Sally’s world slowed down and focused sharply as it always did in times of danger. Her hand went to her rifle before she spun to face the shooting.
Another bullet sounded, from above. Someone shooting from cover.
Smelling the burning gunpowder, hearing the direction of the bullets, Sally’s gun was firing without her making a decision to aim or pull the trigger.
Mrs. McGarritt landed with a dull thud, flat on her back, behind her horse’s heels, a bloom of red spreading in the center of her chest. She bounced once, kicking up a puff of dust, then lay still, her open eyes staring sightlessly at the sun.
Sally raged at the fine lady’s death and focused on an outcropping of rocks hiding one of the outlaws. Her rifle fired almost as if it had a will of its own. The rock hiding the assailants was in front of other, larger rocks, and Sally consciously aimed for a ricochet shot, hoping to get around the stone.
A barrage of gunfire kept coming at her.
She dragged bullets from her gun belt as she emptied her weapon then reloaded as bullets whizzed by her head close enough she felt the heat of them.
They came from a different spot. She aimed in the direction of the shot and pulled the trigger as a second member of the colonel’s party was shot off his horse, then a third.
Her horse staggered toward the cliff side, hit. Sally dived to the ground, throwing herself to the cliff side of the narrow trail, with only inches to spare between her and the edge. Her horse went down under the withering fire and fell toward her, screaming in pain.
Gunfire poured down like deadly rain.
Sally was now sure there were three of them. They’d lain in wait like rattlesnakes, attacked from the front, rear, and directly overhead, and were picking them off with vicious precision. Cold-blooded murderers.
Rolling even closer to the cliff, Sally avoided the collapsing horse. Raging at the senseless killing, she used her mount’s thrash-ing body for meager shelter.
Fighting her terrified, dying horse, rolled to her left just enough to twirl her rifle in her right hand, cock it, aim, and fire. She’d yet to see any of the coyotes who were attacking them, but aim was instinctive and she trusted it.
The men around her, the ones who hadn’t died in the first hail of bullets, battled with her against the dry-gulchers shooting from cover. Sally saw Colonel McGarritt take one agonized look at his wife lying dead and turn back to the assault from overhead. He had a rifle in his right hand and a Colt six-shooter in the left. A constant roll of fire came from him as if his rage and grief were blazing lead.
A quick look told Sally only four men had survived the first shots. The cover was bad. Another man jerked backward, struck the ground hard, and collapsed on his back.
A cry from overhead told Sally somebody’s bullet had found its mark. There were three shooters. With the cry, one of them quit firing.
Another of her companions collapsed to the ground. There just was no shelter. The horses weren’t enough. Sally’s horse neighed in pain and made a valiant lurching effort to regain its feet. The movement sent the horse --- and Sally --- dangerously close to the cliff. Bullets whizzed like furious bees from two directions. Sally aimed at the source of that vicious raining lead and fired as fast as she could jack another bullet into her Winchester.
Another yell from overhead and another of the three rifles fell silent. One was still in full action and she aimed in that direction.
A shout from behind told her Colonel McGarritt was hit, but his gun kept firing.
A bullet hit the trail inches from her head and kicked dirt into her eyes, blinding her. It didn’t even slow her down because she was aiming as much with her ears and gut as with her vision. The remaining shooter switched between Sally and Colonel McGarritt with a steady roll of gunfire.
Sally clawed at her eyes to clear her vision in time to see Colonel McGarritt drop his gun and fall limp on his back. She was the last one of their party firing. Everyone was either dead or out of action.
God, have mercy on all of us. Have mercy on me. God, have mercy. God, have mercy.
Her trigger clicked on an empty chamber and she shifted to reload her Winchester. A bullet struck hard low on her belly. Her arms kept working so she refused to think of what a gut shot meant.
Praying steadily for mercy, for safety, for strength to survive the horrible wound, she squinted through her pained eyes to see her horse, riddled with bullets, kick its legs and make a hopeless effort to rise. Furious at the death and destruction around her, Sally was too disoriented to know left from right.
The dying horse staggered up then fell toward her. She rolled aside but not far enough. The horse slammed her backward. Clawing at the rock-strewn trail, she felt the ground go out from under her.
She pitched over the edge of the cliff and screamed as she plunged into nothingness.
“We got ’em,” Fergus Reynolds yelled and laughed when the last one went down. He pushed back his coonskin cap and scratched his hair, enjoying the triumph. “We earned our pay today. Let’s go collect.”
He rose from the rocks he’d chosen for their vantage point on the trail and headed for his horse. Swinging up, he thrust his rifle in his scabbard and kicked his chestnut gelding into motion.
That’s when he saw his brother. Dead. Curly Ike, with that same weird streak of white in his hair that Fergus and Pa both had. He lay sprawled in the dirt, his chest soaked in blood.
Fergus tasted rage. No one killed one of the Reynolds clan without punishment.
He, Tulsa, and Curly had a habit of keeping their ears open in town. This bunch had gotten off the train and talked of the trail they’d take, straight out in the wilderness. There was some sight out the way these folks were riding that drew a small but steady stream of sightseers, so Fergus knew right where to lie in wait.
Fergus and his gang had gotten to their vantage point and been ready. Only after they opened up on them did Fergus realize that they’d taken on a salty bunch. Most of the folks that rode this trail were easy pickings. But not this crowd. They’d fought back hard, thrown themselves off their horses and scrambled for shelter, their guns in action almost instantly.
“That cowpoke who went over the cliff shot me!” Tulsa came down the trail toward the horses, raging. “Creased my shootin’ arm.”
Fergus looked at his saddle partner and wondered bitterly why Tulsa was alive while his brother was dead. Fergus remembered from his youth that his family had been one for feuding and fighting for family. It burned him now that his brother was dead. But those who had killed him were beyond paying for that. The family sticks together.
Fergus even thought of his name. His real name. One he’d left behind long ago. “Curly’s dead.”
Tulsa fumbled at his blood-soaked arm, trying to stop the bleeding. He barely spared a glance at Curly, and that made Fergus killing mad. “I put a bullet in the gut of the one who went over the side. He was still aiming and shooting when he was gut shot. He was dead while he was still fightin’. He was just too stupid to know it.”
Fergus could taste the rage and the need for revenge. But how did a man avenge himself against someone who was dead?
“He got off a lucky shot.” Tulsa flexed his hand as he rolled up his shirtsleeve.
No luck, nohow. Skill. Cold-blooded warriors. Fergus and his saddle partners had never had much trouble finding a few travelers who could be separated from their money. They’d loiter around town, watch for people heading out into the back country, then ride ahead and lie in wait. They picked folks who were passing through so no one noticed when they didn’t come back to town, and wherever they were going, if people there missed them, they didn’t know where to start hunting.
But today they’d bought into the wrong fight and it had cost his brother’s life.
Tulsa’s arm worked, and no bones looked broken. But a shot like that would keep Tulsa laid up for a few days. He wouldn’t be any good for shooting for a while. And Tulsa was a crack shot. With Curly dead, they were out of action for a while.
“The one you’re talking about, that went over the cliff, had himself a mighty nice Winchester,” Tulsa muttered. “We won’t get to strip nothin’ offa him.”
“He screamed like a girl when he fell.” It fed a hungry place in Fergus’s gut to listen to a grown man scream.
“I don’t like him getting away with his gun, even if he did die for his trouble.” Tulsa pulled out a handkerchief and tried to tie it around his bleeding arm, his eyes blazed with hate.
Fergus thought of his brother. They’d been riding the outlaw trail together for near twenty years. “I want to go down there and make sure he’s got nothing left. Not a dime in his pocket and not a bullet in his belt.” Fergus ran his hand over the bandolier belts he strapped across his chest and kept filled with bullets. There were empty spaces now, but Fergus would refill them soon. He liked having a lot of firepower close to hand.
Fergus turned from the people they’d killed, sprawled on the ground, including a woman, and looked at the cliff. They haunted this area and they’d turned the bottom of that cliff into a graveyard. If they wanted that sharpshooting cowpoke’s rifle and money, they’d have to climb down to get it. A chill rushed up Fergus’s back when he thought of going down there. Death wasn’t something Fergus worried about much. Not his and not anyone else’s. But he didn’t want to wade into a graveyard where nobody’d bothered to dig holes.
A graveyard he’d created. They’d been throwing their victims over that cliff for three years.
The sick fear made Fergus feel like a yellow belly, and that didn’t sit well. So maybe he ought to go down and see his handiwork. “We’ll have to go a roundabout way to get down there then hope we find the cowpoke’s body. Some of that drop is sheer, but there are enough trees his body could have snagged anywhere.”
They made their way down to where their day’s work lay bleeding into the dirt. The three of them had made a good living on the fools who passed this way. Now there were only two of them.
There was talk about sending armed men into Yellowstone to protect the visitors, and that would settle the whole area. But nothing had come of it so far. And while they dithered, Fergus lived mighty high on the hog.
But he’d just paid one ugly price for his easy living. His brother was dead.
Excerpted from WRANGLER IN PETTICOATS: Sophie's Daughters, Book Two © Copyright 2011 by Mary Connealy. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Books. All rights reserved.