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A Bride's Flight from Virginia City, Montana
By Murray Pura
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Murray Pura
All rights reserved.
Charlotte Spence lay in her comfortable down bed with the big goose-feather pillows a few minutes longer and listened to the grandfather clock downstairs strike the hour—one, two, three, four, five. Not for the first time, she wondered how she was able to sleep through those loud gongs in the dead of night. She closed her eyes again and whispered a quick prayer.
Lord, it's Your day. Give me the strength and wisdom I need. Open the gates You want opened, close the ones You don't. In Christ's name. Amen.
She stepped out of bed in her blue flannel nightgown and went to the washstand. Lighting an oil lamp and setting it on a nearby table, she washed her face and hands then crossed over to the dresser where she sat down and began to brush out her long blond hair while she read from the Bible. She was working her way through Psalm 119.
My soul is continually in my hand:
Yet I do not forget thy law.
The wicked have laid a snare for me:
Yet I erred not from thy precepts.
Thy testimonies I have taken as an heritage for ever:
For they are the rejoicing of my heart.
I have inclined mine heart to perform thy statutes alway:
Even unto the end.
"There's a thought, Lord," she said out loud. "Your words and promises as my heritage—not beef cattle and acres of land and abundant water. Those are wonderful. But to think of You as my heritage! That's something that goes beyond horses and ranching and wide open spaces." She suddenly recalled a verse she'd read the morning before: "I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad."
Going to the closet, she glanced at the calendar on the wall with its engraving of a cowboy on a wildly bucking horse. It was Tuesday, February 2, 1875. She would be riding, not going to church, so she looked to her thick woolen riding skirts with leggings and her heavy jackets and sweaters. Above zero or not, she picked out warm gear and her blue woolen coat. After she had finished dressing, she crossed to the window and glanced out. It was still dark and would be for several more hours, but she could see by the stars it promised to be a clear morning. A thermometer was fastened to the outside of the window frame, and she squinted at it—ten above. An unexpected warm spell in the dead of winter. The west wind brought the mild weather, she thought to herself as she went back to the dresser and mirror to pin up her hair. It shook the house all night.
She left her room and went down the stairs, holding the lamp in her hand. The rich smell of fresh coffee brought her into the kitchen. It was empty at this hour, but by six o'clock all her hands would be trooping through the back door and sitting down at the large table for breakfast. Most of them had already been on the range for an hour or more. She poured herself a cup of coffee from a big pot on the woodstove. As she drank it, standing close to the stove's heat, she caught the scent of eggs and bacon and beans from the warming oven. Pete always made good, strong coffee, but his meals were even better. And his biscuits were legendary. Turning this over in her mind, she opened the small door of the warming oven and plucked two buttermilk biscuits from a plate heaped high, dropping them into a pocket. Filching, her mother would say. She smiled and put the coffee cup in the sink. On the way out of the kitchen, she took a red apple from a basket. Then paused and went back to the warming oven to filch two more biscuits.
"It will be a long morning's ride," she said to the empty kitchen.
She brought a Winchester 1873 carbine down from a gun rack in the hall and checked to make sure it was loaded, then opened a drawer under the rack and put a box of 44-40 cartridges in her jacket pocket. A light-brown Stetson was hanging from a peg by the front door, and she placed it on her head. Two high leather boots were standing on the floor beneath the hat. She sat in a chair and tugged them on. Then she took a black scarf and wound it about her neck. It might be ten above, but a stiff breeze could still cut like a bowie knife.
She stepped onto the porch, pulling on a pair of leather gloves, and two of her men swept off their hats as they stood talking with the cook.
"Miss Spence," the three men said at the same time.
"Mr. Laycock. Mr. Martin. Pete. Are you about ready to ring that piece of scrap iron for breakfast?"
"We are," grinned Pete. "I hope you grabbed a bite before the boys ride in. They won't leave a crumb."
"I don't need anything, Pete, thanks," she said, the biscuits still warm in her skirt pocket.
"Save you a plate for when you get back in?"
"That's kind of you. Yes, please." She turned to Laycock and Martin. "May I?"
"Why, sure." Laycock handed her the striker. "I hardly ever get to do it anymore."
The iron she was going to hit was the rim off a wheel from one of the first wagons her brother Ricky had used on the Spence ranch. It was still sturdy as a rock. She bent her arm and banged the iron bar against it. The rim rang clear and sharp through the star-nicked air. The shock went right up her arm to her shoulder, but she knew one blow wasn't enough. She swung the striker back and forth inside the wheel rim as fast as she could so that the ringing was loud and unmistakable no matter where her hands might be. Then she handed the striker back to Layton.
"That's certainly enough to raise the dead," she said with a laugh.
"The boys will come pelting in from all four corners," agreed Laycock.
"So how are things?" she asked the men. "Anything I should know about?"
"We're getting some early calves," replied Laycock. "This mild spell sure helps us out on that score."
"I'll keep an eye out for the young ones then. I'm going to do my monthly ride over the ranch this morning."
"Yes, ma'am, you look like you're loaded for bear."
"Anything else?" she asked.
"There's been predators," Martin spoke up. "We haven't found anything that's been killed yet, but the tracks are plentiful. Fox. Coyote. Maybe a cat. Can't tell for sure; the tracks were messed up."
"Whose horse hooves?"
Laycock and Martin glanced at each other.
"We don't rightly know, Miss Spence," Martin finally responded. "But we do know one thing. It's none of our boys."
"How many riders?"
"Half a dozen. Maybe a few more. Traveling fast. Headin' north. The tracks are a couple of days old."
Charlotte stared at him. "Are any cattle missing?"
"Boys are doing a head count. So far, so good. But we ain't got to every part of the herd."
"Where are these tracks?"
"Couple miles west. By Lookoff."
"The marshal hasn't sent us word about rustlers in the vicinity, has he?" "No, ma'am."
"Let the men get a hot meal in their stomachs before they do any more of that counting. The sun will be up soon, and that will make their job a lot easier." She smiled brightly. "Well, perhaps my ride won't be uneventful."
Laycock and Martin glanced at each other a second time. This time Laycock spoke up, Stetson still in his hands.
"Miss Spence, perhaps it'd be best if one of the boys was to ride with you. Gallagher, say, or Scotty."
"Ride with me?" Charlotte looked at him in surprise, her eyes opening wide. "Whatever for?"
"Well, there could be the panther; that's reason enough. But a group of riders belting out across our land headed for who knows where? Sounds like outlaws."
Charlotte made a face. "You don't really think so."
"Me and Martin and the rest of the hands think it's a pretty safe bet. There's been talk."
"What kind of talk?"
"About marauders in the neighborhood. About squatters being burned out down on the flats."
Charlotte's eyebrows came together sharply. "Were people killed?"
"Some say no. Others say it was bad." "But the marshal hasn't said anything about it?" "It's just rumors, ma'am. I expect we'll hear something, one way or the other, when Marshal Parker gets to the bottom of it."
"'The west wind carries blue skies and blue skies carry lies,'" Charlotte recited. "My mother again. It seems I'm always quoting her."
Martin smiled. "Wish we'd had a chance to meet her."
"So do I, Mr. Martin." She tugged on the brim of her Stetson. "I'd better be on my way. If things are as bad as you say, the men will never let me out of sight of the ranch house."
"You should reconsider," urged Laycock.
"I am twenty-five years old. I've been riding this land since I was a teenage girl. Even Jesse James and his barbarians couldn't keep me off God's good gift to the Spence family and its hands. I'll be back by noon." She glanced at the cook. "I hope the food will be hot, Pete."
"Hot, thick, and three plates full," he responded.
Charlotte was striding across the yard to the stables. "Three plates? Are you trying to fatten me up for the kill?"
Her saddle was hanging clean and dry from a brass hook on the wall. She lit an oil lamp by the door and carried it close to where Daybreak stood in her stall, watching her mistress with large dark eyes. Charlotte brought out the apple.
"Here's a treat, girl. Let's have a good ride together, all right?"
The palomino mare chewed and slobbered over the red apple before taking it into her mouth and working over what was left of it. Charlotte came into the stall and put a saddle blanket and saddle on its back, tightening the cinch under the horse's stomach. Then she slid the carbine into a scabbard. Leading Daybreak out of her stall, she spoke to the other horses that stood watching everything carefully and nickering their comments. At the door to the stable, Charlotte paused and looked out.
Men were riding up to the ranch house, hitching their horses to the rail, then walking around to the back where they'd head in, wash their hands, and sit at the kitchen table for the morning meal. Even those who'd been too far off to hear her striking the wheel rim knew to be at the table by six. The ranch house shone like a star, with oil lamps burning in all its ground-floor windows, drawing the cowboys in from miles around. She smiled as she listened to their banter.
"What you been doing all morning, Scotty? Grabbing some more shut-eye in the hills back yonder?"
"Billy, I could be asleep in the saddle and still work more cattle, and work 'em better, than you sitting wide-awake and ramrod stiff on that itsy-bitsy pony of yours."
"Pony? You say Bill's got a pony? Here all along I could have sworn it was a mule."
"Oh, he's got both. Rides the pony on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the mule the rest of the time."
"Glad you cleared that up, Scotty. I thought Billy Gallagher was two different men on two different nags and drawing two different paychecks from the Spence outfit."
"So I am, you worn-out old cowpokes. Why, Charlotte Spence has made Billy number one foreman and Billy number two head wrangler—I aim to retire a rich man in a few more months."
"You fellahs can stand here and spin your yarns right through breakfast if that's what pleases you. But me, I'll take bacon and beans over a cowboy's dreams. Adiós. "
Charlotte waited a bit longer, until she was sure all the men had ridden in and were seated at the table. Then she led Daybreak from the stable and swung up into the saddle. Urging the mare into a trot, she went across the yard and headed for the eastern end of the ranch. She was pretty sure Laycock and Martin would tell the hands she was headed west to Lookoff and send a few of them out that way to keep an eye on her. Charlotte had every intention of having a look at the panther tracks herself, as well as the trail of the riders her foremen thought might be outlaws, but not until she was sure she could be up there on her own. Her ranch hands were all good men, but she had to make sure they understood she could handle things without their help. Otherwise, how could she command their obedience and respect? Picking up the fence line, she followed it north under the winter stars. Yes, it was mild out for early February, but she still felt a sting on her cheeks.
For two hours she crossed streams that were running or partly frozen in the dark, found healthy calves with their mothers, and spotted knots and clusters of her herd happy to find good grass where the snow had melted back. Eventually she made her way up a ridge where there was a tall pinnacle of rock she called the Sentinel. She hardly ever mentioned the place to others, even though it was one of her favorite spots on the ranch, simply because she wanted to have it to herself. Her foreman wouldn't think to send Scotty or Gallagher here.
She sat back in her saddle and brought two buttermilk biscuits from her pocket. Cold as ice, they still tasted pretty good. As she chewed and swallowed, the sun rose like a great yellow and orange ball over the valley and hurled bright light at the Rocky Mountains to the west. The sight made her stop eating and hold in her breath. The white snow on the peaks burned like a world on fire. Was there any part of America more overflowing with grandeur, more rugged, and more beautiful than the Montana Territory?
"And God said, 'Let there be light and plenty of it!'" she called, her words echoing back twice over. "And so there was light! Light that had no end! Light that could not be stopped!"
She laughed in sheer delight and went back to her biscuits while she looked over the land that was spread out beneath her. Sweet Blue Meadows. Two Back Valley. The Shining Mountains. What a location her brother Ricky had found to build the Spence ranch. What a gift. It was impossible to get tired of gazing out over heartland that was God's land, land He had shared with the creatures made in His image, the human race. All kinds of people loved Montana—Indian, white, black, Chinese, Spanish. Sometimes they fought, sometimes they lived in peace. But they held in common their respect and passion for the rocks, grass, earth, and boundless sky.
Then, as the sun fully emerged, bringing the blue sky with it and making everything gleam, a feeling of deep sadness rushed through Charlotte. The sensation was so strong it made her wince. Her father and mother were dead. All her brothers and sisters were dead. No one sat on his horse beside her, loving God and God's land as she did, loving her, gazing at her with a fascination that told her he cared more for her beauty than that of the great mountains themselves. The big ranch house was empty except when her hired hands rode in for their three squares a day—no children slid down its banisters or chased each other through its halls or hollered through its windows and doorways. For a few minutes she let tears streak over her face. So much to enjoy and no man, no family, to enjoy it with.
For a few moments she let the faces of various men drift through her thoughts. Many of them had been handsome but were not men of faith. Others followed God but did not know their way around a lasso or branding iron or beef cattle. Still others seemed to love the idea of being connected to Charlotte Spence and the Spence ranch but did not know how to love her.
She leaned into the saddle horn with her gloved hands. No, nothing had worked out. Well, she'd had her cry. She flicked the mare's reins. There was no use in carrying on like this. She was a woman alone and had to get used to it.
To make her way to Lookoff she had to come down from the Sentinel and the ridge, so she coaxed Daybreak along a trail that led to the valley bottom. Then she walked the palomino through thickets and scattered boulders. There was still snow on the highlands, so she didn't think all the tracks would have disappeared with the thaw. Her brother had taught her how to read signs, and she was curious to see what she would come up with when she examined the pugmarks—mountain lion, panther, something that wasn't even remotely like a cat?
The crying of a calf jolted her out of her thoughts. She put her horse into a trot and saw the calf standing by a large rock, its young eyes wide in terror, bawling for help. Without even thinking about it, Charlotte slid the Winchester from its scabbard and walked the horse closer. Now she saw the body of a cow just beyond where the calf was tottering on its thin legs. Instinctively she knew it was the calf's mother. Then a head lifted from the far side of the carcass. A mountain lion.
Excerpted from A Bride's Flight from Virginia City, Montana by Murray Pura. Copyright © 2012 Murray Pura. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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