Elk Lodge, Montana Territory 1888
The mule brayed and balked, its incessant calls mixing with the sounds of harnesses jingling and horses trotting down the busy main street of Elk Lodge. Levi Colter tugged on the lead rope and cursed the ornery critter he’d dragged behind him for the last ten miles since coming out of the mountains.
He nudged his horse forward, skirting around a buggy whose driver yelled at him to get out of the way. Levi gritted his teeth, ready to throw some colorful words at the man. He held back. His appearance in town was already drawing enough attention. He mumbled obscenities at his mule instead.
Reining his horse toward the mercantile, he dismounted in front of the hitching rail.
“Git up there,” he chastised his mule, giving it a slap on the rump, for all the good that would do. If the animal didn’t want to move, it wouldn’t. Thankfully, it complied, and Levi tied the critter next to his dependable horse.
“Time to trade you in for something more useful. If you hadn’t been Buck’s favorite, I’d have gotten rid of you a long time ago,” he grumbled under his breath.
Levi pulled his hat from his head, and raked his fingers through his overgrown hair. Perhaps he should visit the barber in town, but shook his head. He didn’t need a haircut. He preferred his hair long, and kept his face clean-shaven.
“Keeps the vermin away,” Buck had always said.
Levi glanced toward the store in front of him. It had been over a year since he’d last been in town. He’d come more often while Buck was still alive, but folks had looked down their noses at him even then.
A woman holding a screaming child’s hand headed toward him. She shot him a quick look of apprehension, then averted her gaze and walked a wide arc around him. Levi set his hat back on his head. Things hadn’t changed much. If he didn’t need to stock up on a few items, he wouldn’t have come out of the high country at all. He had most things he needed at his cabin. This was his first venture out of the mountains since Buck’s death, and a sudden wave of loneliness washed over him.
“Man’s gotta have coffee and biscuits every now and then,” Buck would say during their twice-a-year visit into town.
The old trapper had gone under more than a year ago, and the coffee had finally run out. Levi tossed a quick look over his shoulder toward the hitching rail. More than a year’s worth of furs were piled onto the mule’s back. Hopefully the owner of the mercantile would buy them, or trade for some supplies.
He headed for the store, when a woman emerged, and he nearly collided with her heavily pregnant belly.
“Beg your pardon, ma’am,” he stammered, and skirted around her.
“No harm done.” She smiled, and Levi’s brows rose. That wasn’t the reaction he usually received from folks.
He tipped his hat and nodded, offering a tentative smile of his own, then hurried into the store. Best to get his business over with so he could get out of town and back where he belonged. The longer he stayed in town, the more his skin crawled.
A heavy-set woman glanced up from the counter when he approached. She stood straighter, a disapproving, tight-lipped frown on her face. She took a step away from the counter and leaned back, craning her head into the stockroom off to her left. Levi approached, and pulled his hat from his head. The woman still looked as if she were praying someone else would show up and take her place so she wouldn’t have to talk to him. Luckily, there was no one else in the store.
Levi strode up to the counter, and waited. The woman ignored him, still craning her neck. She was probably hoping he’d go away if she didn’t pay him any attention. She huffed, and motioned with her hand to someone who was clearly in the other room, then turned to him. Her lips curved in a false smile, and she raised her chin. Her eyes darted from his face downward, the disapproval in her scrutinizing gaze gleaming stronger with each second.
“Can I help you?” she asked, clearing her throat.
“Yes, ma’am.” Levi nodded. He curled his toes in his leather moccasins to keep from walking out of the store.
“I got a year’s worth of pelts and hides I was hopin’ to trade for some coffee, beans, flour, and other necessities.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “We’re not a trading post,” she said, pursing her lips as if he’d said something insulting.
Levi nodded. “I know, ma’am. The closest trading post shut down about five years ago. The owner of this establishment used to trade with my… partner, and I was hopin’ to do the same.”
The woman looked at him with a critical eye. Her gaze narrowed. “You’re that young man who lives with old Buck Thornton up in the mountains, aren’t you?” Her question sounded more like an accusation. “Haven’t seen him in town in a long time. We figured he’d moved on.”
“Buck passed away last summer.” Levi held the woman’s stare.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Her eyes spoke that she wasn’t really sorry. “Never did think it was natural, a man living alone in the mountains, raising a boy. Never did see much of you when he came to town.”
“I ain’t much for meeting folks, ma’am. I came with Buck most of the time, but I stayed out of the way. I do need some supplies, though.”
“Was Buck your father?” she asked, a gleam in her eyes. She even smiled, and leaned forward over the counter.
Levi scrunched his eyebrows. The woman seemed to be all too eager to know. If he didn’t want to get her all riled, he’d better indulge her prying into his private business.
“He raised me like I was his, but he wasn’t my pa.”
A balding man, wearing spectacles, emerged from the storeroom. He stopped in mid-stride, and shot a curious look past the woman. This was the reason Levi didn’t come to town. People always stared. It had been the same in Deer Lodge, Anaconda, and every other town. That was one of the reasons he hated mingling with people. The only place where he and Buck had been accepted had been at the old Blackfoot trading post, but the Indian running it had moved on. No one there cared that they didn’t live on a farm or ranch, or some stuffy place in town, and that they kept to themselves in the mountains.
“Ya can’t hide from folks all yer life,” Buck had always told him. “It don’t matter what folks think. As long as yer happy livin’ in the mountains, it ain’t none a their business what ya do. We don’t look down our noses at folks who come into the mountains, yet they look at us as being loco fer livin’ the way we do. Don’t pay ‘em no mind. Some folk’s jest gotta think they’re better than others.”
Levi held the merchant’s inquisitive stare. The man stepped up beside the woman.
“The name’s Levi Colter, sir. I got some nice furs outside on my mule. I was hopin’ you’d trade for some supplies.”
The man studied him, then held out his hand. Levi reached for it, and shook it.
“How’s old Buck doing?” the balding man asked.
“He passed on,” Levi repeated for the second time in the span of a few minutes.
“Sorry to hear it.” At least he sounded a bit more sincere than the woman. “Let’s go and see what you’ve got. Buck’s furs always sold well in the store. I’m sure we can reach an agreement.”
Levi led the way out the door to where his horse and mule were tied to the hitching rail. The pregnant woman stood on the sidewalk, glancing up the street, as if she was waiting for someone. Her gaze followed three large freight wagons that moved down the street. Levi glanced at them, and stared. The backs of the wagons were filled with children of all ages. His heart rate increased. Wagons filled with orphans. He’d bet his entire cache of furs on it.
“These look like fine furs. Let’s go back inside, and I’m sure we can settle on a price.”
Levi nodded absently, his eyes still trailing the wagons. He met the young pregnant woman’s gaze, then quickly followed the merchant back into the store. Twenty minutes later, he piled the sacks of supplies he’d traded onto the mule’s back. His pocket jingled with some extra money, not that he had much use for it. Maybe the next time he came to town, he’d find something to buy.
He turned to his mule and checked to make sure all his supplies were tied down securely. If he rationed properly, he wouldn’t need to come into town for another year at least. He stared down the street again, toward the wagons with the children. Walking around the mule to his horse, he stuck his foot in the stirrup, when someone called his name.
“Levi Colter? Is that you?”
Levi’s hand went to his belt out of habit. One could never have quick enough reflexes in the mountains, but the dangers there usually didn’t call his name first. He turned to the man who’d yelled out to him. A familiar figure strode toward him, holding the pregnant woman’s hand. He tilted his head slightly to the side, and narrowed his eyes, trying to place the man.
“Cade?” he asked slowly. His hand remained on the hilt of his knife. The man he remembered from more than five years ago at the Blackfoot trading post had been a reformed hired gun. Talk back then had been that he’d killed the man who’d murdered his Injun wife, the trader’s daughter. Levi eyed the woman by his side.
The man nodded as he held out his hand, a friendly smile on his face. He didn’t wear a sidearm. Levi moved his hand away from his knife, and clasped the other man’s wrist.
“Been a long time.” Cade smiled. “How’s Buck?”
Levi shook his head. The man’s smile instantly faded.
“Sorry to hear,” he said sincerely. He turned to the woman. “This is my wife, Laura. Laura, this is Levi Colter. We knew each other at my former father-in-law’s trading post.”
“How do you do, Mr. Colter?”
The woman’s soft smile held him mesmerized. She held out her hand. Levi took it, giving it a quick shake, then dropped his arm. It had been a long time since he’d been in the company of a female who wasn’t an Indian. His chest tightened, and his jaw muscles twitched.
The last time a female smiled at him with such genuine warmth had been more than a decade ago, when he was a young boy. Hell. More like fifteen years. Visions of Maggie flashed before him. He cursed silently. Would the pain and memories ever go away? He shot another hasty glance up the street toward the church, where those freight wagons had stopped. People were starting to gather, and the children unloaded.
“Laura, Buck Thornton was one of the last true mountain men left in these parts,” Cade said, drawing Levi’s attention back to him. “He’s raised Levi since he was something like ten years old, wasn’t it?” He laughed, and their eyes met. “Buck used to tell us how he found you nearly starved and frozen to death.”
Levi nodded wordlessly. He glanced back toward the church. A young girl, with her brown hair in two braids, stood shyly off to the side of one of the wagons. She glanced around nervously. Maggie had worn her hair that way. She would have been about that girl’s age the last time he saw her. He clenched his jaw. That had been a long time ago.
“Ain’t that right, Levi?”
Levi turned to face the couple. “Sorry, what did you say?”
Cade smiled. “I said there isn’t anyone better in all of Montana Territory at tracking and wielding a knife than you.”
Levi frowned. Yeah. Some tracker he was. He hadn’t been able to track down the whereabouts of his own sister until it was too late. He lived with the guilt every day of his life.
“I’d best be on my way before I run out of daylight,” he said, and gave a polite nod.
“Next time you’re in town, or out of the mountains, come stop by for a visit. Our place is just five miles due east,” Cade offered.
Levi mounted his horse. “Next time I come to town, I will,” he said, to be polite. He had no plans to come back here again before next spring, at the earliest. He tipped his hat to the woman, and then reined his horse down the street. The mule brayed loudly behind him, and Levi tugged on the lead rope.
He could go the other way through town and avoid the church and the group of orphans. A man stood on the church steps, calling for people’s attention. Memories flooded back; memories of the humiliation of being paraded in front of strangers who had inspected him and his sister as if they were at a cattle auction. Maggie had finally been placed with a couple who wanted a daughter to help care for the woman, whose health had been failing. They didn’t have room for him. They’d only wanted a girl. The muscles along his jaw twitched.
He rode past the throng of people. A man and woman appeared to be interrogating the young girl who’d reminded him of his sister. She held her head low, and her hands clasped in front of her. The woman lifted the girl’s chin and fingered her hair.
Levi’s spine tensed, and he inhaled a deep breath to ease the tightness in his chest. Perhaps today would be her day, and she’d be going home to a new family. It didn’t appear as if she had siblings, which would spare her from being torn away from them. Unless, she’d already been separated from a brother or sister at a different time.
Levi nudged his mount on, and ignored the protesting mule. He looped the lead rope around his saddle horn, and cursed the stubborn animal. He glanced over his shoulder at the critter to make sure it still carried all of his supplies. His horse shied unexpectedly and jumped to the side. Levi tugged on the reins.
“What the hell?” He cursed under his breath, his head snapping forward. Someone gasped in surprise. Legs clad in tattered, brown britches flailed in front of him, and a body fell to the ground, inches from his horse’s hooves. Damn. He’d nearly trampled someone darting out in his path.
Levi jumped from the saddle.
“Are you all right? I didn’t see you.” He knelt to the ground, just as the person raised himself to a sitting position. His hat fell from his head. Levi’s eyes narrowed. A woman’s dark hair was tied in a tight knot at the back of her head, and her eyes widened.
“I’m fine. It’s my fault,” she said quickly. She reached for a wooden stick lying next to her, and pulled herself to her feet.
“Can I help you?” Levi stammered, which did little to conceal his surprise that he’d mistaken this young woman for a man.
He reached his hand out, unsure of where to put it to help the woman steady herself. All he needed was for her to cause a scene. She looked up at him, and their eyes connected. Levi quickly snapped his hand away from where he was about to touch her elbow. His heart sped up in the same way as it did whenever he felt the thrill of a successful hunt, or completing a difficult task. He shook off the odd sensation.
“I said I’m fine,” she snapped, and pulled her gaze from his. She grabbed for the hat on the ground, and plunked it back on her head, leaning heavily on the stick. “It wasn’t your fault. I tripped and fell.”
Before he had a chance to apologize again, she limped away, using the stick as a crutch. Levi cursed. She could have broken her ankle, and it would have been his fault. He stared after her until she disappeared behind the church. He mentally shook his head to rid himself of those haunting brown eyes that had held him mesmerized. He grabbed his horse’s reins, and pulled himself into the saddle.
He kneed his mount into a trot. It was high time he put as much distance between himself and this place as possible. Of all the days he’d picked to finally make the trip into town,
today had been the worst choice, for more reasons than one.