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By Nadia Nichols
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night, the breath of the buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset. - Crowfoot
IT WAS TEN MILES to town, eight of them on the old dirt track that ran alongside the creek - the same road that her father's grandfather had ridden back when the Crow Indians still lived in and hunted this valley. Ten miles of gentle descent that curved with the lay of the land and the bend of the creek. Ten miles that traced the path of her childhood and were as familiar to her after twenty-six years of traveling them as were the worn porch steps of the weather-beaten ranch house that sat at the end of that road.
Ten miles on horseback in a late-October rain. A cold rain, too, that might've been snow had the wind quartered out of the north. She couldn't begrudge the rain. The only rain they'd had all summer hadn't amounted to two kicks, as her old friend Badger was so fond of saying: "Two kicks and you're down to dust."
She rode a bay gelding called Billy Budd, which she'd raised herself and ridden for the past fourteen years. He was a good cow horse, not fast or flashy, but Billy could always be counted on when the chips were down.
Today, the chips were down. Her truck wouldn't start - achronic fuel-pump problem she'd put off fixing - and she was late for the signing at the real estate office. Her phone had been disconnected months ago due to nonpayment of bills. But it was no matter that she couldn't call. She knew they'd be waiting for her when she finally arrived. They'd wait all night for her if need be.
Ten miles by truck took a mere twenty minutes. Ten miles on horseback took a good deal longer. By the time the small cluster of buildings came into view through the sheets of cold rain she was nearly an hour late.
Katy Junction sat at a crossroads that connected five outlying ranches with the main road to Emmigrant. It had four buildings: a garage with gas pumps, a general store, a feed store and a tall narrow building that shouldered between the general store and the feed store, and housed the Longhorn Cafe
A downstairs and a combination real estate-lawyer's office up. There were still hitch rails in place fronting the boardwalk, recalling an era when horsepower had nothing to do with a mechanical engine. In fact, not much had changed in Katy Junction for a very long time, but Jessie Weaver was about to alter all that.
She tied Billy off to the hitch rail, parking him between a battered pickup and a sleek silver Mercedes. On the far side of the Mercedes she spotted the familiar dark-green Jeep Wagoneer and felt an irrational surge of relief that its owner would be at the meeting. She loosened the saddle cinch, removed her oilskin slicker and draped it over the gelding's flanks. He was hot, and she didn't like leaving him standing in the cold rain.
"I won't be long, Billy," she said. "This won't take but two shakes."
The stairs to the office ran up the outside of the building. When she burst into the room she was slightly out of breath. "Sorry I'm late," she said as she entered. "My truck's broke and I had to come a'horseback. My fault. I should've fixed the truck when I got the new fuel pump, but I kept putting it off."
Three people stood in the cramped room, grouped around a small round table. The real estate agent, who was also her lawyer, Allen Arden, nodded to her. "That isn't all that's broken, by the looks of you. What happened to your arm?"
"Tangled myself in a lasso two days ago," she said, giving the cast, which stretched left wrist to elbow, a scowl.
"That's hard luck, Jessie," Arden said. "Could've been worse. Could've been my signing hand. At any rate, it won't slow me up. I'll still round up my mares in time to be off the ranch when we agreed."
Arden nodded again, hearing the bite in her words and shifting his eyes. "Jessie, you already know Caleb McCutcheon and his attorney, Steven Brown."
Jessie stepped toward McCutcheon. She was so rattled that she felt this was the first time she'd laid eyes on the man, though she'd met him several months earlier. His handshake was firm, his eyes keen and blue and framed with crow's-feet, his body long and lean, his features as rugged and tanned as if he'd spent his entire life out-ofdoors. There was hardly a hint of gray in his sandy hair. She had come to like him more than she expected she would in the brief time they had known each other.
"Hi," she said shortly. She turned and acknowledged Steven Brown but didn't offer her hand. She didn't want him to feel how it trembled, yet she was enormously grateful for his calm, solid presence. Although he was McCutcheon's lawyer, he had helped her tremendously through all these proceedings. He looked somber and handsome in his dark three-piece suit, his shoulder-length glossy black hair pulled neatly back. He nodded to her in return, predictably stoic.
Arden motioned them to sit. Jessie glanced down at the papers on the table. Land maps. She snagged the nearest chair with her booted foot and drew it toward her, then dropped into it and studied the maps. When she bent her head, water streamed from the brim of her felt Stetson and spilled onto the table. She removed her hat as the others sat, and rested it in her lap, staring down at her paper dynasty. She was cold and wet and had never felt quite like this before, so disoriented and distraught. It was all she could do to keep her features from betraying her turmoil.
I'm doing the right thing, she told herself for the thousandth time as her fingers worked around and around the brim of her wet hat. I'm doing the right thing, and no harm shall come!
Arden had a stack of papers in front of him. He began shuffling through them in his usual ponderous way and Jessie's fingers tightened on her Stetson. "My horse is standing in the rain and he's all hotted up. I'd appreciate it if we could make this quick." Her voice was taut, her words clipped. Arden glanced up and nodded anew. She avoided looking at the other two men and picked up one of the pens scattered on the table. "If you'll just show me where I need to sign."
Papers rustled and were pushed toward her; Arden's stubby finger pointed to this spot and that. She scrawled her signature again, and again, hoping no one noticed how her pen shook. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that McCutcheon was signing the papers, too, at his lawyer's direction. There was little to say. The negotiating had been done in the months prior to this meeting. Everything had been written up as agreed upon. All was in order, and the only thing required to make the agreement legal and binding was the signatures.
It was over in a matter of minutes. Chairs scraped back. Jessie stood so abruptly she nearly toppled hers. She bolted for the door and was nearly out of the room, when Arden's voice stopped her. "A moment, Jessie," he said. She turned around, unaware how pale her face was and how tightly drawn she appeared to the three men who watched her. Arden held something in his hand. "You're forgetting the bank check," he said.
Her eyes dropped to the piece of paper he extended toward her and quite suddenly she felt she was suffocating. She fled the room. Clattering down the rickety staircase, she struggled awkwardly into her oilcloth slicker. She jammed her hat back on her head, tightened the cinch using her good hand and her teeth and reached for the wet strip of rein that tethered Billy to the hitch rail. A wave of nausea swept over her and her knees weakened. She slumped against the saddle, forehead pressed against the cold wet leather, fingers clutching the horn. She drew several deep slow breaths and swallowed the bitter taste of bile.
It's okay, she reassured herself. But it didn't feel the least bit okay. It felt awful, worse than she had expected - and she had fully expected to die on the spot the moment she signed her name, struck down by the wrath of her betrayed ancestors, white and Indian both. What she was feeling now was far more painful than anything death could have handed out. She racked herself up and was stabbing her foot in the stirrup, when she heard a man call out behind her.
Excerpted from Montana Dreaming by Nadia Nichols Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.