Joel Ryan returns from the Civil War with grey hair and a weary heart, but he finds no rest in Kentucky. Turned away by a brother who still blames Joel for abandoning the family to fight for the Confederate cause, Joel rides west, searching for peace in the untamed wilderness of Montana. Instead, against all odds, he finds love.
When he sees the gang of thugs tormenting the young Cheyenne beauty, Joel risks his life to save her. Her name is Mourning Dove, and he has only known her for a few hours when he begins to fall in love. Joel believes he has finally found a chance for happiness, but when tragedy strikes his budding family, he realizes he will never be at peace until he can quiet the rage that fills his heart. To save himself, Joel trades love for revenge, and rides west once more.
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By Kerry Newcomb
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Kerry Newcomb
All rights reserved.
Golden was the land beneath the sun's burning pool; the wind blew free, and eagles ruled the skies. In mid-July, during the Moon When Horses Fatten, Joel Ryan skylined himself on a spiny ridge-top in the Pryor Mountains of Montana. If the war had aged him, the weeks of travel had hidden the ravages beneath a coating of trail dust. Clouds, rambunctious in a western wind, billowed over the farthermost rim of the Pryors, patching the land with drifting shadows. A breeze gushed upward out of the mountain valley, washing the rim in a cooling surge of energy. At 8,000 feet even summer air has a bite, and Joel sucked in his breath and thrust his hands in his armpits for warmth. The air was clear, and his range of vision extended all the way southward to the Wind River Range and north to the Bearpaws. Dead ahead beyond the Pryors, the snowy summits of the Absarokas filled the horizon with their lonely vast-ness. Closer to hand, the valley floor was a forested tapestry of white pine and Douglas fir and mountain ash stitched by the twinkling waters of a creek glimpsed through wind-stirred branches.
Joel studied the land below. What he could see of it, before the valley doglegged off to the north and disappeared behind another ridge, appeared devoid of life. At least human kind. Not devoid of game he hoped, and his stomach growled in assent. The gelding pawed the earth, causing a plume of red dust to be whipped away by the wind. Joel took one last look around him, the land lying wide and handsome in every direction, beckoning, challenging him to seek and to explore. As a youth he had resented his father's long absences from their Kentucky farm. Now he began to understand Cortland Ryan's need to cross the next hill, to trace the river to its source, to be free.
How could a man be a stranger at home, and at home in a strange land? Joel had no answer. Only a response. To nudge his boot heels against the flanks of his mount and guide the roan gelding onto the trail leading down from the ridge. Worn into the stone by elk and deer, the path offered slow, tedious going. Joel's attention was riveted to the descent, so much so that he failed to notice a diaphanous tendril of smoke rising from an unseen campfire, a wilderness warning for the watchful—to beware.
Reaching the floor of the valley, Joel rode toward the creek. Within sight of water, a covey of quail broke from cover, spooking the gelding. Joel kept a tight grip on the reins but almost lost control as he fought the animal. The horse flayed at the creek and lost its footing in the rock-strewn bed. Joel gave a curse and brought the animal back onto the bank. He dismounted and checked the gelding's fetlocks. A lame horse would never bring him to the gold fields up at Silver Bow, and he did not relish hiking the next two hundred miles. The gelding's legs were scuffed from the stones, but the animal seemed no worse for the wear.
For a quarter of an hour he followed the twisting bank through emerald shadows. Now and then he paused to let the gelding crop at the sweet grass. And he looked on in envy, knowing that unless he managed to surprise a deer or was lucky with a makeshift trap, there would be beans and poor conversation for supper. It had been a week since Joel had burned his tongue on a cup of good strong coffee, the last of his own supply. The recollection was so vivid he could almost smell the fresh pot bubbling over an open fire.
Almost? He sniffed the summer air and discovered the scent of roasting meat and the unmistakable aroma of coffee. Joel stopped and peered through levels of light and shade, of gloom and slanted sunlight, and at last he caught sight of tethered horses against an overhanging bluff, a lean-to shelter, and the distant figure of a man squatting by a fire. Joel was in a mood to be sociable, and hoping the stranger was of a similar bent, he climbed into the saddle and trotted the gelding at a brisk pace straight for the camp. He splashed across the creek making enough noise to announce his approach. As he drew closer he heard the singing. The man was singing in French, his voice deep and melodic. As Joel approached, he made out other peculiarities of the camp. There was only one man about, although the horses indicated others. But what a man this was. The singer had stretched out against a deadfall, using a spiny gray tree trunk for a backrest. He wore a beaver cap on his head with a feather protruding from the crown. He looked to be well under six feet in height, but he had the widest shoulders, the most massive chest Joel had ever seen on a man. His beard was carrot red, his face a gnarled map of flesh, the face of a man who had spent a lifetime brawling. He was dressed in buckskin breeches and wore a shirt cut and sewn from a Hudson's Bay blanket with the black, red, and yellow stripes ringing his incredible girth. At his throat hung a crucifix of pounded bronze. In contrast to this emblem of Christianity, a Hawken's .54 caliber rifle lay propped in the branch stubs. The hilt of a revolver jutted from the broad leather belt circling the man's waist. He continued singing as Joel rode up to the campfire and dismounted. Joel noticed a rope, coiled at the man's side and leading off into the lean-to. The man appeared to take no heed of Joel's puzzled expression.
"Bonjour, my friend. I am Henri Larocque. I am Holy Hell with the ladies and just plain Hell to my enemies. Sit here on the other side of this log, monsieur, and we will entertain ourselves while supper cooks." The carcasses of four rabbits and a squirrel were spattering the cookfire with their grease. Larocque positioned himself so that the log was to his right. He rested his elbow on the weathered wood, arm crooked upward. Joel realized the man was inviting him to arm wrestle. The Kentuckian shrugged—amusing Larocque was a small enough price to pay for a meal.
"Where's the rest? You can't ride all of those horses."
"Ahh. A perceptive man. My companions are checking the other snares."
Joel sat opposite the Frenchman, close enough to smell grease on Larocque's blanket shirt. He gripped the Frenchman's paw and looked his opponent square in the eyes.
"My name's Joel Ryan."
"A pleasure to meet you, monsieur. And to beat you." Larocque exerted his strength. Joel's arm muscles bulged. He gritted his teeth. Larocque's jaws clamped shut. With excruciating slowness Joel's arm gave ground until at last it snapped backward over the log. The Frenchman retained just enough pressure to keep Joel prisoner.
"Larch! Mayo!" the Frenchman called. With a sinking feeling Joel realized the man had purposefully trapped him, imprisoning his gunhand.
Two men emerged from the surrounding forest. Both were lean dark men of average height and build. As they approached, Joel noticed one of them wore a blue uniform and cap and his companion was in a faded plaid shirt and overalls. Plaid shirt appeared to be no more than a boy of sixteen, though his homely features, centered around a beakish nose, radiated an aura of adult danger through vague, wild eyes.
"Hey?" Joel winced, trying to reach across his body for the holstered revolver. Larocque merely increased pressure on the right hand. Joel gasped and quit his struggle. The youth grinned and, leaning over, removed Joel's revolver.
"Check his saddlebag, Mayo," Larocque said to the other man. Blue cap nodded and crossed to the gelding. He searched through the meager belongings in the saddlebag and, at last satisfied, turned his attention to Joel's Spencer carbine. Mayo slipped it from the saddle scabbard and checked the action.
"He's nobody," Mayo said and walked back to the fire. He squatted, tilted his blue cap back off his forehead and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Just a drifter. Nobody."
"Now I feel better," Larocque said, releasing his hold. Joel rolled free, right arm dangling at his side.
"What the hell is this anyway?"
"An exercise in caution. You will forgive my rudeness, I trust. Mayo ... give our friend some coffee. And return the rifle, we are not thieves."
"Let him get his own coffee."
"Mayo is a deserter, you see, and unaccustomed to obeying orders," Larocque said. His arm slashed out, and a knife buried itself in the dirt just below the squatting man's crotch. "This is a different army is it not, Private Mayo?"
The man called Mayo stared at the Frenchman for a moment and then handed the carbine, barrel first, to Joel, who snatched it from the man's grasp. Mayo grumbled beneath his breath but passed a cup of coffee to Joel as well. Joel grabbed young Larch by the arm as the youth sidled past toward the campfire.
"My revolver," Joel said.
Larch complied with syrup-slow smoothness, extending the Colt butt first, almost daring Joel to try and snatch at it. Joel let the youth have his fun, took the revolver, and returned it to his holster.
"We meant you no harm," Larocque continued. "I have enemies and unfortunately must exercise discretion when it comes to strangers."
"Not a very pleasant way to live," Joel said. He appraised Mayo and the youth in a single glance. He'd seen their kind during the war. Larch had the swaggering air of a troublemaker, a boy trying to prove himself the equal of the men around him. Mayo had the look of a coward. But cowards are frequently the most dangerous of men. Larocque was the enigma with his veneer of civility barely covering a hard, ferocious-looking shell. Joel decided the coffee wasn't worth the company.
"Men I can beat are always welcome at the cookfire of Henri Larocque," the Frenchman said. He waved toward the fire.
"No thanks. I appreciate the coffee and the offer, but there's still some daylight left, and I'm trying to make the best time I can."
"The gold fields, eh, monsieur?"
"I hear there's a strike up at Silver Bow."
"Yes, it is so. But I have no liking for such brutal labor," Larocque said.
"It's the only way I know to strike it rich."
"There's other ways." Young Larch grinned around a mouthful of cooked rabbit meat. Mayo reached over and thumped him on the shoulder.
"Shut your mouth, dumbass."
Joel stared at them a moment, then back to Larocque who shrugged.
"What my associates mean is that we are carrying our own motherlode around with us, in a manner of speaking."
"You've already made your strike?" Joel asked, anxious for any news that might give him an edge over the other prospectors up at Silver Bow.
"In a manner of speaking," Larocque corrected once more. He looked over at the lean-to. "Hemené!" The other two men at the campfire began to chuckle, an audience murmuring in anticipation. "Hemené!" Larocque frowned and grabbed the rope at his side. He pulled the line taut and began reeling it in. There came a brief commotion from within the lean-to, and then Joel glimpsed a coppery leg followed by the struggling, kicking torso of an Indian girl. The rope was securely fastened around her ankle. Larch and Mayo laughed aloud.
"Hooked ye a big 'un," Mayo shouted.
Larocque methodically drew her closer and closer. Suddenly she ceased resistance and charged the Frenchman who caught her by the arm, pulled her down, and gripped her about the throat. She tried to break free. Her dirt-streaked features and glaring eyes gave her the look of a wild animal. A captive animal. Eventually, as her lungs received less and less air, she grew quiet. And when he released her, the Indian girl crumbled at his side, gasping for breath. She looked up at Joel. The hatred pouring from her forced him back.
"Hemené. Mourning Dove to you and me. Dove, indeed. Wildcat, would be more appropriate."
"That's your gold?" Joel asked.
"But of course. Dove here is Cheyenne. The sister of Sacred Killer, a mighty warrior and taker of many scalps. Many white man scalps. We stole Hemené from her camp. She was bringing in a load of firewood with a few other girls. We have kept to a pretty rough pace for a week with Cheyenne breathing down our necks. But we lost them a couple of days ago. Blue Jacket, the Crow war chief, hates all Cheyenne and especially Sacred Killer. The Crow will pay plenty to have the sister of Sacred Killer for a slave. Blue Jacket's waiting for us down on the Tongue."
"Then your journey's almost over," Joel said. Larocque noticed the distaste in the man's voice.
"Oui. And you are in the middle of yours. Perhaps it is best if you continue. But watch for the Cheyenne. If you want to keep your hair."
Joel nodded. He looked at the slender, buckskin-clad shape huddled beside the Frenchman. Her features were hidden behind a curtain of her long tangled black hair. A dirty-faced Cheyenne girl was no concern of his, Joel said to himself. He left the coffee cup on a stick by the fire and walked to his horse. He returned the carbine to its scabbard and mounted.
"You can follow the creek out of the valley," Mayo said, more by way of invitation than information. The tops of the rust-red cliffs were already in shadow, and twilight was coming early to the western rim. Joel calculated he had another hour of light. Time enough to put a good distance between him and Larocque's camp. Joel walked the gelding away from the campsite and the three men with their "motherlode." The hairs prickled at the nape of his neck, and his spine grew tense and did not relax until he was completely out of range and obscured by the forest.
Joel breathed a sigh of relief. He was glad to have departed the camp of Monsieur Henri Larocque and his associates. He rode toward the twilight, a man full of wishes and dreams and slowly souring moods, suddenly wondering how far, how fast he would have to ride to leave his conscience behind.CHAPTER 2
Hemené watched from beneath the cover of her long black hair as Joel Ryan rode from the camp. For a moment she had thought she had seen pity in his eyes. Pity from a ve-ho-e? From a white man? She should have known better. She listened to Mayo and Larch as they squatted by the fire, carving chunks of greasy meat from the spit.
"What do you think, Mister Larocque?" the young one said.
"I could track him and bring back his scalp. Ain't no one gonna cause much fuss about a damn Johnny Reb."
"Zeke," Larocque chuckled. "I thought your allegiance to the Union ceased the moment you ran away."
"I didn't run, Larocque," Mayo snapped. "I just quit is all. There weren't no future in followin' some blame fool gen'ral around Arkansas."
"I stand corrected," Henri Larocque said with a wave of his hand in a tone ripe with insincerity. The understatement was lost on the deserter.
"I don't give a damn where you stand. Do you want me to kill the bastard?"
"You might have a problem with that."
"He didn't look like much," Larch interjected. "We could round him up simple."
"We?" Mayo glanced over at him. "I didn't think you were gonna let the little gal there out of sniffin' distance."
Larch blushed and looked away.
"So, our young companion has the itch beneath his belt," Larocque bellowed. "Well, it is an itch you will not scratch, my friend. Blue Jacket will have no use for her if she has been broken in. And if he discovers it was you who robbed him, you will end your days singing in a high voice, mark my words."
"Shee-it," the youth muttered.
"And as for Monsieur Ryan," Larocque went on, "I have seen his kind before. His interest is in gold. Our little prize is none of his concern. So he will be none of mine."
Larocque nudged Hemené, tilting her face upward, and examined her throat for telltale marks. Satisfied she displayed no ill effects, he motioned to the meat cooking over the fire.
"Eat," he said.
Hemené looked at the remains of one of the rabbits, and unable to dissuade her hunger, she crawled over toward the fire. Larch cut a portion and held it out to her. He smiled and licked his lips. She took the food from the knife blade and passed the sizzling meat from hand to hand until it cooled enough to tear off a chunk and swallow it.
"Look at her. She knows every word we say, I swear," Larch said.
"And everything you're thinking. She'd have to be blind not to," Mayo added, reaching over to run his hand along her leg, bunching her dress as he worked the buckskin up to her thigh. Hemené reached out and, with a stick near the fire, swept a cloud of crimson coals onto the deserter's trousers. Mayo yelped and leaped out of the way, batting at the singed fabric.
"Red nigger squaw," he yelled and lunged at her. Hemené darted past him and back behind Larocque who rose like a behemoth from the ground. Mayo ran up against the French trapper's Hawkens rifle.
Excerpted from Morning Star by Kerry Newcomb. Copyright © 1983 Kerry Newcomb. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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