When Sage MacKenzie comes across a wild-eyed beauty in obvious distress, his first instinct is to turn and flee like the native tribes who fear this “crazy woman.” As a man of the mountain, affairs of the heart are low priority. But her violet stare has him ensnared, and Sage knows he has to help her in any way he can. Taking this silent beauty as his new travel companion, Sage begins a journey to find out where she’s from and who took her away from her home and family.
With her memory seemingly vanished, the girl Sage refers to as Venado (“Little Deer” in Spanish) has a past she knows must be terrible—why else would she have erased it from her mind? But now, in the protective arms of Sage, she finds herself living for his gentle touch and ready to confront her deepest, darkest secrets.
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Sage MacKenzie urged his buckskin-colored gelding down a rocky escarpment as a nearby cascading waterfall drowned out all sound.
This was the land he loved. He'd never loved anything more, not even a woman. And at thirty, it was doubtful any woman would come along to change that, although at times lately he'd thought about what it might be like to settle. But it was only a thought, and one that he mostly ignored. He had been on his own since the age of twelve, when his parents had died in a fire back in Missouri. He had soon thereafter fled that state, after relatives had declared him incorrigible and threatened to put him into an orphanage.
None had seemed to understand the grief and terror that had made the little boy withdrawn and often difficult to handle. But he had made up his mind that he would never spend time in an orphanage. He had heard all kinds of horror stories of what happened in those places. So he had tied his few belongings into a blanket and set off for lands unknown.
Since that day Sage MacKenzie had known nothing but total freedom. He latched onto an old trapper at the tender age of thirteen, and for the next several years he traveled the width and breadth of the great American West, braving hostile Indians and hostile elements, learning the art of survival against all odds. And mostly he lived in and around the Rocky Mountains.
Sage knew these mountains, knew them like the back of his hand. And he loved them, as well as the land around them, from the wide, endless prairies to the east, over the Great Divide, and beyond. Where else could a man find total freedom, total peace, total beauty?
Of course there had been times when the Indians disturbed that peace, and numerous life-threatening battles had taken place with those wild red men who had been here first. But the dangers that lurked in this land only made it more enticing to a man like Sage. He loved the adventure, the challenge. Not all mountain men made it to the age of thirty, and certainly not without their full measure of scars and perhaps an ugly scalp wound where some painted aborigine had removed a tuft of hair for his medicine bag. Sage did have his share of scars, but so far he still had all his hair, and plenty of that; not just on his head but also on his face and chest. He wondered sometimes if living in these mountains so long was turning him into an animal, putting hair on him to make him blend in with the bear and other furry creatures.
He reached the bottom of the steep bank, rocks tumbling behind him. Moving out into a meadow, he stopped to watch the mountains behind him as the morning sun climbed higher and brought out myriad colors — purples, blues, grays, greens, browns, oranges. Perhaps that was what he liked about this land, all the color. He loved watching the sun rise. It was like music to him. He didn't need to hear real music. It was right here, all around him, in the awakening colors, the movement of the wind and the waterfall nearby, the grace of the animals, the floating clouds and the grand mountain peaks.
It was late summer, 1846. The only way he knew the year was by asking at the closest fort every winter. This was an especially memorable year. Somewhere south of here there was a war going on with Mexico. It was an unnecessary war, as far as he was concerned. Mexico had refused to sell vast territories to the United States, so now the Americans would just take them by force. He wondered if that meant adding California to American claims. He liked California, but part of its beauty and peace was due to the influence of the kind, gracious Spaniards who had settled that land of sunshine. What would happen if and when it was opened up to American settlement?
He supposed it was silly to be concerned about those things. He had no control over fate. That point had become even more evident in recent years, as his very livelihood had been stolen from him by fate. For years he'd made his living trapping beaver, selling the pelts at Fort Bridger, or at whatever other point in the Rockies the rendezvous was held with traders and suppliers. Pelts were sold for two dollars to four dollars a pound, and the buyers would take them to St. Louis and sell them for twice that amount. But Sage had never cared about getting rich. He just wanted enough to be able to buy the supplies he needed to turn right around and go back out for several more months of trapping.
For years beaver had been in demand in the East, for use as trim for collars, sleeves, hems, gloves, and boots, as well as a material for hats. Suddenly that popularity had begun to fade, and each year at the rendezvous the paying price for pelts had decreased until it was no longer practical for a man to risk his life for months at a time collecting the fur. He shook his head at the fickle nature of Eastern styles, unable to understand why anyone cared about such things. It seemed to him people were concerned about the wrong things in life.
Now those concerns were affecting him. Ever since losing the fur trade, he'd wandered like a lost man, taking work where he could find it. Trapping beaver was all he'd ever known since he was thirteen years old. Now he wandered from job to job, mostly leading trains of supply wagons or trains of settlers heading for Oregon or California.
He stopped and dismounted, giving his horse a rest. He'd been riding for two hours already, even though the sun was just beginning to light everything. He was in the Wind River range of the Rockies, heading southwest toward Fort Bridger. He'd led a supply train from Independence to Fort Laramie and had just kept coming west with no particular purpose in mind, hoping to meet up with old friends at Fort Bridger, or perhaps find a stranded wagon train there that needed a leader.
He untied his buckskin shirt at the neck. These mountains were usually cool, even in summer, but today seemed hotter than usual. He always wore buckskins, felt uncomfortable in anything else. In that respect, the Indians knew what they were doing, he believed. In a land like this, a man had to be practical and comfortable, and buckskins were both those things. He even wore moccasins. He'd made friends with enough Indians to always be able to find some willing Indian woman to sew him some new skins each year, as long as he brought her the fresh hides. Most of his friends were among the Shoshoni, who were learning early it was better for their preservation to accept the white man and keep the peace than to fight white encroachment.
Sage moved to take a canteen from his gear, then hesitated as his nose caught the smell of smoke. His dark eyes scanned the new range of mountains ahead of him. He was not out of the Wind River range yet, and there were more peaks and passes to be mastered before reaching the wide pass that led to the huge green valley in which Fort Bridger was situated.
He patted his horse's neck as he studied what looked like smoke coming from a place deep within the vast peaks ahead. He stood nearly as tall as the big gelding's head. Sage MacKenzie was a big man, broad shouldered and narrow of hip, strong and sure. He'd fought off many an Indian, often several at once. He'd survived dysentery, disease, an infected bullet wound, snakebite, and a bad fall off a crumbling ledge. The Indian women thought him handsome, in spite of his thick beard. The white whores thought the same, though most tried to tease him into shaving, sure he would be much more handsome without the beard; but he always refused. After all, a beard helped keep a man warm in cold mountain winters.
He turned back to the canteen and pulled it down, opening it and taking a drink. Then he moved to his horse's head and poured some water into the palm of his hand, allowing the animal to slurp it up. Twice he repeated this process before closing the canteen and putting it away. He stared at the smoke again, his curiosity aroused.
He mounted up, thinking again about women and how long it had been since he'd been with one. His thoughts drifted to the Indian women he'd slept with, one or two of whom he'd kept with him a while before longing to be alone again. It always came back to that, the great aloneness, the need to be free, something that was becoming more and more difficult as people from the East seemed to be flooding into the West in alarming proportions.
He urged his horse into a slow, steady gait, heading toward the mysterious smoke he had spotted. It was too much smoke for just a camp fire. He had no idea that in that moment fate was again taking control of his life, leading him toward something — someone — who would forever change his thoughts of freedom.
The wind groaned as it wound its way through crevasses and moved over peaks down along rocky slopes dotted with scraggly pines and thousands of boulders, some hanging precariously, as though one touch would send them rolling to the valleys below. This was a lonely land, but Sage was accustomed to going for weeks without seeing another human being and was not afraid of losing his horse or having some kind of accident that would leave him helpless. If he was going to die, he could think of no better way than to die alone in these mountains that he loved.
The smoke was still rising, now perhaps a mile away. The place it was coming from was naked of forest, so it was unlikely it was any kind of forest fire. Besides, there had been no lightning or storm recently. And there most certainly were no settlements in these parts.
He yanked on the reins of his horse and skittered the animal backward, then behind a large rock, when several yipping warriors appeared, riding hard out of a pass ahead. Sage quickly pulled his Colt repeater from its boot and waited, glad he'd come across this new kind of rifle at Fort Laramie. Not every man had such a rifle, a gun that could shoot several times without reloading. It certainly gave a man an edge in situations like this. But he knew his best bet would be to lie low and hope the Indians didn't spot him at all. No sense starting something he could probably avoid.
He realized now that the smoke he'd seen had to be from some wagon or perhaps a wagon train that the Indians had attacked. But he could not imagine why anyone would be in these parts with a wagon. This was far from any normally used trail.
The thundering horses and their yipping riders came closer then. Sage moved his horse back even more, petting its neck and talking softly to the animal, urging him to be still. He crouched low as painted and feathered men rode past. Sage recognized the dress and symbols as those of the Crow, and he also recognized the words a couple of them were shouting.
"Crazy woman! Crazy woman," they yipped.
Sage frowned, straightening more as they rode by, their backs to him then. He realized with surprise that they seemed to be running more from fear than victory.
"Crazy woman," he muttered. "What the hell is over there?"
He laid his gun across his lap and moved out from behind the rock. The Indians had already disappeared, and there seemed to be no stragglers. Dust still drifted slowly and quietly into the air, then was picked up by another surge of mountain winds, which cleared the air quickly.
Sage headed his horse toward the still-rising smoke. His keen eyes took in the surrounding mountains as he rode, catching shadows and checking rocks and trees, ever alert for dangers from animals or Indians. But all was quiet now, almost too quiet. The Indian words crazy woman kept echoing in his mind, and he could not get over the fact that it seemed they had been running away from something.
He urged his mount over rocky slopes covered with lichen. Wildflowers of many colors sprouted from cracks between rocks, and small, stunted pines seemingly grew out of sheer rock in some places. It always struck him as incredible that the driest, rockiest places could still yield life in this land.
Any man who came here fresh from the lush green of the East thought this land dead and dry, useless, but it was far from that. This land teemed with life. It was simply a different kind of life, just as the social life out here was completely different. A man just had to understand it, to live here for a few years. Once he did, there was no going back. This land got into a man's bones and held him tight. Sage had tried to go back once — but only once. Longing for the West had literally made his bones ache. People told him it was just the humidity and lower elevation of the East. But he knew it was more than that. It was an ache from the heart that spread through all his limbs — an ache to return to the mountains.
An eagle cried as it circled above him, and again he could hear water. He was very close to the smoke now. He moved around an outward thrust of high, pointed rock, and it was then that a smoldering wagon came into view. Sage halted his mount, stopping just to watch for a moment to be sure there wasn't some danger lurking ahead. But all was quiet, and the smoke meandered upward from the wagon's skeleton.
He moved in cautiously, rifle still in his lap. The wagon sat just across a stream, and Sage still could not imagine what it was doing there. He could tell from the remains that it had been a very large wagon, perhaps belonging to some kind of merchant or trader. Was the man trying to trade with the Crow? He was crazy if he was. What would bring him into Crow country? What did he have that was valuable enough to take the risk?
It was then he got his answer. He reined his horse to a halt and stared at what looked like a woman, a very young woman, sitting against a rock. She stared straight ahead and sat so motionless Sage thought perhaps she was dead. He charged forward then, splashing across the stream, and quickly dismounting, walked up to the lone figure, more puzzled than ever. What in God's name was a woman doing in these parts, and such a pretty one at that?
"Ma'am?" He waved his hand in front of her eyes but got no response. He carefully reached out, feeling her throat for a pulse. She remained motionless, but he could feel the blood rushing through her neck with every beat of her heart. She was most definitely alive.
"Ma'am? You hurt?"
Still she remained silent. He gently pulled her limp body away from the rock, feeling awkward as he rolled her over to look for wounds. He found none.
"Ma'am? Are you hurt? It's all right. I'm here to help you."
He held her in the crook of his arm then, pushing back some of her hair and gazing into beautiful violet eyes that seemed to look at nothing in particular. He frowned, petting her hair for a moment. It was beautiful hair, thick and dark and long. She was perhaps seventeen or eighteen, and very beautiful, her skin fair, her cheekbones high, her lips full but closed in silence. There were faint bruises on her face and more on her forearm that looked like fingers. Strong hands had held her, and it made him angry to see the marks they had left. She looked so sweet and innocent. He carefully ran a hand over her body, wondering when she might come to and scream at him or hit him for touching her this way. But he had no choice if he was to find out if she was wounded.
She wore an Indian tunic, beaded in a design he had never seen before. Whatever Indians she had had the misfortune of being with, it was no tribe in these parts, at least not from the look of the pattern on her dress. There were few Indian designs he did not know, but he did not recognize this one. With expert hands he took inventory of a slender, perfectly rounded body that would give any man wild thoughts; but he found no broken bones, nothing to explain why she lay so limp and lifeless. He pushed up the tunic. She wore nothing under it, and for a moment his breath caught in his throat, for she was indeed something to behold. He had not been with a woman in months, but he shook away the sinful thoughts his baser needs brought to mind. Her condition discouraged such thoughts, for there were several bruises about her hipbones, abdomen, and thighs, some looking like they had been left by a man's forceful, prying hands, perhaps more than one man. This was a pretty young girl who undoubtedly had been through some kind of traumatic ordeal. He had no doubt now what that ordeal had been. He gently probed her abdomen, unsure what he thought he would find.
His touch brought no sound from her lips, and after examining her, he pulled the tunic back down and rolled her against his chest, pushing back her hair and examining the back of her neck for a small arrow wound of some kind or a knife wound. But there was nothing, and no blood on her anywhere.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sweet Mountain Magic"
Copyright © 1990 Rosanne Bittner.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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