Teton Mountains, Spring 1855
The ominous gray clouds darkened the late afternoon sky like the ashes from a long burned-out fire. In the blink of an eye, the tallest peaks of the jagged Teewinots were enshrouded in the dense mist, completely obstructing the orange glow of the setting sun. Several ravens fluttered through the air, their loud caws in apparent protest to the impending weather.
Lucas Walker stared off into the distance. He lowered his reins, giving his horse a chance to find its way through and around the snowdrifts. His gaze followed the fast-moving clouds. By the looks of it, he would have to find shelter for the night much sooner than he cared for. A late spring snowstorm a few days ago in the high country had already made his travel more difficult than he’d anticipated, and judging by those clouds, there was more snow on the way.
Lucas shrugged. The weather was nothing more than a minor inconvenience. He was used to traversing difficult passes that everyone said were impossible to get through. He’d spent his entire life in these mountains, and knew every crevice like the back of his hand. It would take more than a little snow to slow him down.
His horse stopped suddenly, and raised its head. The gelding’s neck tensed, and his ears pitched forward, their tips nearly touching. He snorted nervously through his nostrils, sending up swirls of grey mist.
Lucas focused his eyes in the direction his mount’s ears pointed. His left hand inched slowly toward the butt of his rifle, which rested in its saddle scabbard, while his other hand tightened around the reins. The gelding was young and skittish, not as experienced and surefooted as the mare he preferred to ride. His brother, Joseph, had offered him the young horse to put some miles on him, and Lucas readily accepted. While a well-trained horse was definitely preferable in the high mountains, working with the inexperienced colt would bring some welcome diversion to the monotonous journey that lay ahead of him.
Lucas narrowed his eyes and, without moving his head, scanned the countryside. The waters of a fast-flowing creek splashed over countless rocks, and the cold breeze caused the tops of the taller evergreens that grew at this altitude to sway, their trunks creaking in protest. He hadn’t climbed as high as the timberline, and with the ominous weather, he would have to forego those plans for several days. The young gelding tossed his head in the air, and pranced nervously, his muscles bunched tightly beneath the saddle. No doubt the horse would bolt if given the chance. In his effort to keep the animal calm, Lucas inhaled a deep breath and relaxed his legs, even as a chill crept down his spine. An undeniable feeling that someone was watching seeped through him.
Movement between the trees up ahead caught Lucas’ eye, and he pulled his rifle fully from its sheath. Seconds later, his fingers relaxed around the weapon. A figure clad in a thick buffalo robe astride a brown and white speckled horse rode into view. A single eagle feather fluttered in the man’s black hair, which whipped around his face.
Lucas’ lips curved in a lazy smile, and he raised his hand in greeting. The gesture caused his young mount to half-rear. Lucas corrected the horse with a swift kick in the sides, sending the gelding forward. At least the action brought all four of his hooves back to the ground. Lucas would rather be astride a runaway horse than one who might rear over backwards.
The Indian on the paint horse laughed loudly, the sound carrying in the wind. Lucas pulled the gelding’s head to the side to stop his forward momentum, and gritted his teeth. Not that he didn’t like the challenge of training this unruly colt, but the horse’s antics might break his neck once they reached the higher mountain passes.
“Care to do some horse trading, Buffalo Horn?” Lucas greeted the man sitting casually atop a calm pony, while his own horse continued to prance nervously beneath him.
“Your horse is as impatient as you are, Walker,” the Indian said, a wide grin on his face. “You two are well suited for each other. I see not even the winter cold will keep you at home.”
“Speak for yourself,” Lucas scoffed. He finally managed to bring his skittish mount to a stop. He turned the animal in such a way so he didn’t have to twist his body to face the Indian. “What are you doing in the mountains this time of year? Ain’t it a bit early for your band to return? Is the hunting that bad in the lowlands?”
Buffalo Horn smiled. “I have been sent ahead to watch for danger from Blackfoot. We’ve endured several of their raids this winter, and do not wish to be caught by surprise on our travels to the valley of the Teewinots. My people are a few days’ ride to the south of here.”
Lucas nodded. “Raven and Joseph will be glad of your return. Raven will be anxious to visit with her grandfather. Is Two Bears well?”
The Indian nodded. “Ever since his granddaughter has returned from the white man’s city where the sun rises, he has become a young man again. It will be many seasons before Two Bears joins the spirits.”
The Indian tilted his head and studied him with a knowing glance, his eyes twinkling. Lucas grinned. Buffalo Horn was a nephew to the old chief of the Bannock people who made the Jackson Valley their summer home. The Indian was of similar age to Lucas’ father, and he’d known him all his life. More than once, Buffalo Horn had caught him in the midst of some mischievous act in his adolescent years. No doubt the Indian wondered if he was up to no good.
“We did not see you last summer, Walker. Your brother told us you have traveled to the east.” Buffalo Horn leaned forward as if the action would offer him a better assessment of how Lucas responded to the statement.
“I’ve been buffalo hunting on the plains.” Even though tension between many of the tribes and the army was on the rise, Lucas didn’t see a reason not to be honest with the Indian. He’d spent the better part of the previous year at Fort Laramie to the east, hunting buffalo and scouting for the army and a few of the wagon trains that moved west in ever-increasing numbers. He’d returned home to the Jackson Valley late last fall to visit with his folks. Now, barely spring, he was heading east again. His extensive knowledge of these mountains and the landscape was the reason for his travels this time.
Before heading home, Captain William Raynolds had approached him with a lucrative offer to lead an expedition of some easterners with large wallets through the Teton Mountains this summer. All in the name of scientific exploration, whatever the hell that meant. He was supposed to meet with the army detail that would escort the expedition through the Wind River Range in a few months.
The pass that led through his mountains wasn’t well known except to a few of the old fur trappers who used to inhabit the area, and Raynolds had been looking for an experienced guide when Lucas’ name came up. Apparently word had gotten out that Lucas had grown up in the mountains and valleys below the mighty Tetons, and Raynolds had sought him out eagerly.
Why anyone would want to explore the Teton Mountains for anything more than hunting was a mystery to Lucas. They were difficult to traverse, and thousands of miles separated them from civilized cities. The area had been a prime habitat for beaver a few decades ago, but the streams and ponds had long been trapped out. His own father was one of the many mountain men who had scraped away a living as a trapper some thirty years ago. Now, the land was once again deserted by all but the hardiest white men, and the Indians.
Other than spectacular scenery or a place for a man to challenge his endurance, it offered nothing of real value. Even the land itself was too harsh for most men to scratch out a living. The winters were too long and brutal for much of anything to grow. His folks had remained simply because they loved the land. They worked hard to produce enough vegetable crops and raise a small herd of cattle and a few horses to sustain them.
Although he had several months yet until he met his employers, Lucas had left his folks’ homestead early to do some exploring on his own before he had to meet the group. Since his brother Joseph was married and pre-occupied at home with his new wife, Lucas had seen no reason to remain idle any longer. He had no desire to settle down for most of the year to till the soil or chase after cattle like his father and brother. For years, he’d roamed the mountains for months at a time, coming home and leaving as he pleased. His mother may not be happy about his wandering ways, but Lucas knew that his father understood his need for independence.
The mountains and the vast country surrounding the Rockies called to him, ready to be explored further. Scouting for the army gave his restless spirit a perfect outlet.
Buffalo Horn studied him intently while he listened to Lucas retell his experiences from the previous year. Would the Indian react in anger? As far as he was aware, the Bannock hadn’t had any trouble with the army or with white settlers. He raised his eyebrows at Buffalo Horn when the Indian suddenly smiled brightly.
“I thought that perhaps you are searching for the Ghost Woman,” he finally said. “It is clear that you have not taken a wife yet, or you would be at home in your lodge.”
“The what?” He ignored the Indian’s last comment. Ever since his brother Joseph had gotten married over a year ago, people seemed to think that he, too, needed to get hitched.
“What is a ghost woman?” Lucas couldn’t keep the mocking tone out of his voice.
“You have not heard of her?” Buffalo Horn raised his brows and straightened in his saddle. “It is said she is a woman of exceptional beauty, the one with golden hair the color of the setting sun and eyes as green as a mountain meadow in spring.” The crazy Injun swept his hand dramatically in front of his face.
Lucas smirked. Golden hair? Eyes like a spring meadow? The description didn’t fit an Indian woman.
“She sounds like a real prize. Maybe you could introduce me to her?” He leaned toward Buffalo Horn, feigning eager interest.
Buffalo Horn’s mouth contorted in a disapproving grimace. Lucas couldn’t suppress the smirk on his face, and he laughed out loud.
“You have not changed your ways, young Walker.” Buffalo Horn grumbled. “It is not good that you make light of the beliefs of the People. While on a hunt for mountain sheep, my cousin’s son has seen her with his own eyes during the summer moon.” The Indian’s face turned serious, as if he believed his ridiculous words.
“Women don’t usually hide from me, Buffalo Horn.” Lucas maintained his grin. “I’ve been all over these mountains my entire life, and I’ve neither seen nor heard of a ghost woman before. If your relative has met her, then I’m a little upset that she hasn’t shown herself to me,” he continued to tease, and sighed dramatically. “I guess she don’t like me if she’s that elusive.”
He turned his head from side to side, glancing into the distance. “Would be mighty nice if she’d offer me a warm place to stay for the night. Looks like we’re gonna get some snow.”
Lucas tried with all his might to - as his mother often told him - wipe the grin off his face. If Buffalo Horn believed that the spirit of a woman haunted these mountains, Lucas could at least have some fun with the idea, especially since his family seemed to think he needed a female in his life.
Buffalo Horn gestured impatiently with his hands. “It is said she mourns the death of her beloved. A great tragedy has befallen her, and she roams these mountains because her spirit cannot be free.”
“She told all that to your relative?” Lucas was playing with fire, but he couldn’t help himself. His mockery might get him in trouble if Buffalo Horn was in a bad mood.
He cleared his throat. As much as he enjoyed the conversation, he needed to be on his way. He glanced toward the darkening sky.
“Well, if you find your ghost woman, Buffalo Horn, send her my regards.” Lucas gestured with a wave of his hand. The move sent his horse to jump to the side, a reaction Lucas had anticipated and was ready for. The colt shook his head as if he couldn’t believe his maneuver hadn’t worked to unseat his rider. Lucas grinned broadly.
“I’m glad our paths crossed today. I’m sure we’ll see each other again before autumn,” he called a final greeting to the Indian.
Buffalo Horn glared at him, then his face softened, and an almost tolerant smile formed on his face even as he shook his head. “May your path be safe, Walker,” he finally said, and nudged his horse into a walk without a backwards glance.
Lucas stared after the Indian for a moment, then reined his jumpy gelding in the opposite direction. A strong gust of wind pelted his face. Finding shelter for the night became his primary focus, and the thought of some female apparition drifted quickly from his mind.