October 7, 1876
Bright laughter tumbled through the heavy oak doors behind LeRoy Banks as he shouldered his way out of the stiflingly warm lodge. A cool breeze tickled his face, and the sweat on his brow swiftly dried as he stood in the late afternoon glare of sunlight that splattered golden patches across the brown grass of the pastures sprawling up into the foothills west of Whitcomb’s ranch.
He walked over to the hitching post, undoing the top buttons of his stiffly starched white shirt, and breathed like a man freed of chains. But it wasn’t just the collar that had been constricting his throat. He knew that for a fact, but what he didn’t know was how to sort through the feelings rippling through his heart.
He wasn’t one to take a deep dive into such things, but this uneasiness tugged on him with the relentlessness of a green horse fixing to break through a makeshift pen. It made his feet twitchy.
His gaze came to rest on the herd of horses grazing lazily afar, and he listened to the comforting snuffling and flicks of their tails. Blankets of droning insects shimmered in the light, and heavy dark clouds sagged over the peaks of the mountains, whispering of snow.
Horses, he knew. A wild, terrified mustang confined within fences for the first time in his life LeRoy understood. One look into the eyes of a wild creature displaced and fearful of his future and LeRoy knew just what the animal was feeling. And he knew exactly what to do to help the horse work through that fear and come to trust. Not just trust, either, but also to find his joyful place living among his two-legged brothers.
LeRoy let loose a sigh and gripped the splintered railing, thinking of his brother, Eli, and the way his eyes had shone like crystals as he recited his vows to his new bride, Clare McKay. LeRoy’s heart beat in happiness for Eli, and as he’d stood by his brother’s side and watched them be pronounced man and wife by the preacher, he couldn’t recall a happier moment in his life. But as the exuberant pair stepped down from the festooned platform to be congratulated by the dozens of guests, LeRoy had felt a strange and disturbing sadness threaten to dampen his joy.
Why this sadness in the midst of such a happy occasion? LeRoy wished he knew.
The loud eruption of fiddle music caused him to swivel back around.
“There you are,” Eli said, waving at LeRoy, Clare hanging on his arm like a new permanent appendage. LeRoy chuckled as they pushed the doors wide and strode over to him. Eli, all dressed up in such finery, with his boots polished to a spit-shine that almost hurt LeRoy’s eyes—he was quite a sight. LeRoy doubted he’d ever see his younger brother in attire like this ever again. With his wheat-straw hair slicked back and his face scrubbed and shaved nearly raw, Eli reminded LeRoy of a newly shorn sheep—one that wouldn’t stay all clean and purty for long.
“What’re ya doin’ outside? We’re about to start dancin’,” Clare chided him, narrowing her eyes playfully at him. “And ya did promise me you’d do a reel with me.”
“That I did,” LeRoy said, giving Clare a smile that acknowledged she’d caught her quarry. He marveled at the intricate beadwork along the neckline of her floor-length wedding dress—tiny creamy pearls. Now that he had a chance to see the bride up close, he noted the hand-stitching rivaled anything he’d seen in the Cheyenne ceremonial garb his ma kept in her cedar chest.
“Grace make you that dress?”
Clare beamed and sashayed from side to side, making the layers of petticoats flounce against her dainty little shoes. Shoes like nothing feisty Clare McKay ever wore. She and Eli sure looked like porcelain dolls, all gussied up like that. They shoulda listened to his suggestion to get married on their horses, all roped and tied up, like they’d just lassoed each other. They hadn’t much liked his idea, go figure.
Clare bounced on her toes, her face alight with joy. “She did. Just like she promised. Made it exactly like the picture too. She’s some amazin’ seamstress.”
LeRoy merely nodded. Eli punched his shoulder. “Maybe she’ll make one for your bride someday.”
A laugh caught in LeRoy’s throat. He pushed words past it. “Don’t hold your breath, Brother. I ain’t fixin’ to get hitched anytime soon.”
“Why not?” Clare asked. She pursed her lips and stared LeRoy down.
“My, you’re being personal, Mrs. Banks,” Eli said, his eyes dancing with mirth despite the scowl on his face. “My brother’s just waitin’ for the right woman to come along. Ain’t that right, LeRoy?”
Clare rolled her eyes. “Huh. We’ll be waitin’ until the snow melts atop the Rockies,” she said, her tone chastising. “I introduced you to Shannon—ya didn’t like her?” she asked LeRoy with a raised eyebrow. “She’s every bit as good a rider as I am. Well, nearly—”
Eli playfully tugged Clare’s arm, tipping his head at the lodge. “Clare, leave him be. Your sister ain’t but sixteen. That makes LeRoy nearly ten years older.”
“So? What’s wrong with that?” She frowned at Eli, who tugged her a few steps toward the doors. Music drifted to their ears—a rousing tune of fiddles, bass, and washboard, and the accompanying stomping of dozens of boots on the wood-plank floorboards.
“Honey, don’t you wanna dance?” Eli asked her. “All the guests are gonna be wonderin’ where we went—”
“Oh, let ’em wonder.” She turned and pinned her eyes on LeRoy. “I’m serious, LeRoy. You need a wife. It’ll do ya some good.”
The laugh that had snagged in LeRoy’s chest now burst out. He shook his head. “Clare, I do love you. You’re . . . something.”
“Somethin’ else, for sure,” Eli said, giving LeRoy a surrendering shrug and that crooked smile of his.
“And I love ya too, LeRoy,” Clare told him, finally giving in to Eli’s urging and letting herself be dragged toward the doors. She waggled a finger at him with a giggle. “But I won’t brook rude behavior at my wedding. So c’mon back inside and give me that dance ya promised.”
“Will do, ma’am,” LeRoy said, touching the brim of his hat, still chuckling as Eli pulled his beautiful headstrong wife back inside Whitcomb’s lodge.
He caught a glimpse of his ma through the open doors of the big log house, her dark braided hair shining under all the many flickering Chinese lanterns strung along the rafters. She was chatting with Lucas Rawlings—LeRoy’s closest friend—but she suddenly turned and saw LeRoy, and fell silent upon seeing him.
LeRoy grunted. As if he could hide his inner turmoil from a Cheyenne medicine woman who knew him better than he knew hisself.
He had a sudden urge to head over to the bunkhouse to find a piece of quiet. He’d been living this past month among Whitcomb’s ranch hands, helping the rich rancher break the wild mustangs he and Eli had run down the mountain that day they’d gone after those two outlaws—the last of the Dutton gang. What a day that had been—cornering that varmint Wymore after he shot dead Monty’s lying snake of a wife, and watching him get trampled underfoot by the stampeding herd. Finding the other outlaw nearly dead, the cabin ablaze. Monty gone after Grace, who’d fallen with her baby off the cliff.
LeRoy shook his head and blew out a breath. That had been more’n enough excitement to last out the year. He was grateful for the predictable daily routine of working the horses, and although he considered Whitcomb’s men plenty amicable, he tended to keep to hisself. It took some adjusting—living with a dozen men in one room, with all their snores and stench. Some were plenty rough around the edges, and a few took issue with LeRoy’s Indian blood and made snide remarks, but Whitcomb brooked neither drunkenness nor tomfoolerly, and so any scuffling and contentions were soon snuffed out.
With Lucas married and living in his own cabin north of the Poudre, and Eli setting up a homestead in Fort Collins so Clare could be close to her family, LeRoy’s ma was all alone at their ranch north of Greeley. Despite her protestations that she was managing just fine—and enjoying some real peace and quiet for the first time in years—he worried about her. Well, he’d be back home in a few weeks, with some right fine mustang mares in tow to add to their breeding stock. The railroad might be replacing the stagecoach, but folks always needed horses. His ma would stay busy. And maybe that’d keep her from prying the lid off his inner rumblings.
Through the large window, LeRoy watched Clare entwine arms with Eli and lead him out on the sawdust-strewn dance floor. Clare was the perfect match for Eli. No doubt about it. His brother was lucky to have found her. LeRoy couldn’t imagine Eli marrying some quiet, demure girl who never spoke her mind. Eli needed the challenge of a wild filly, one who had no intention of being broken or trained. Or tamed. She was a handful, but exactly what Eli loved about her.
He thought about Shannon, Clare’s sister—the sweet little redhead with the freckles spattered across her nose. Sure, she’d make some man a great wife. A nice-looking gal, hard working, plenty capable from what LeRoy could tell. But . . .
But what? Sure, he wanted to marry—someday. Or did he? There were plenty of moments when the longing struck him, when a twinge of loneliness reared up like a feisty stallion. But although he’d met plenty of eligible girls over the years, none had lit a spark in his heart—not like the way Clare did to Eli. Did he even want that?
Maybe he was too used to being alone. He liked his independence, and like some old man, he had his ways of doing things. He preferred his own company to any other’s. The idea of giving up his freedom to be with a woman—every day, year after year—didn’t sit easy in him. Having to change his ways, getting nagged, pressured to speak his mind when he liked to keep his thoughts to hisself . . .
He thought about Lucas and the stormy day he’d brought Emma to the ranch on his horse. She’d been thrown from her mare and knocked out, and Lucas had laid her down in the barn and tended to her. LeRoy well knew Lucas’s story—how he’d lost his wife and baby in childbirth two years earlier. Last thing on Lucas’s mind was falling back in love. But he had—and he’d fallen hard. LeRoy had thought the upper-class spoiled Easterner would be the last woman to turn his friend’s head, but he was wrong. And Emma had truly surprised LeRoy. She took to the West like a hog to mud, and now the two were expecting a baby and couldn’t be happier.
Despite all this, LeRoy had seen his share of miserable married men—if the truth be told. Plenty of ’em. More unhappy than happy—men who seemed to rue the day they’d spoken their vows before God and man. LeRoy didn’t take vows lightly, as some did. When—if—he ever married, he’d have to be sure. He wanted the kind of love his parents had had. A love that nothing could destroy.
Their love had withstood the hardest trials anyone could possibly face—a white man marrying a Cheyenne woman in a fierce season of hatred and killing and distrust. Over the years to come, their love had survived the massacres and broken treaties and relocation of his ma’s tribe to Oklahoma. Instead of leaving with her people—her parents and brothers and sisters—she’d stayed in Colorado Territory with his pa and worked the ranch. LeRoy knew how much that loss pained her, though she rarely spoke of the past. Sarah Banks was not one to wallow in memory or sadness. She was busy getting about living.
A wave of sadness washed over LeRoy at the thought of his pa. His chest tightened, and his breathing grew labored. Pressure built behind his eyes, making him suddenly realize the source of his pestering unease.
His pa should have been here to witness Eli’s wedding. His absence was what LeRoy was feeling. An absence that loomed large, making LeRoy wonder if his pa’s spirit was present. He looked around, then felt a little silly thinking his pa might make some kind of appearance. Despite his ma’s firm assurances that the deceased John Banks was closely watching the goings-on of his two sons, LeRoy had never sensed anything akin to what his ma often seemed to. LeRoy chuckled. Maybe his ma only said that to him and Eli over the years as a way to scare them out of misbehavior.
Guilt welled up when he realized he’d never once thought of his pa this day. Or much at all in recent months. LeRoy did a quick calculation in his mind. Fourteen years. He’d been twelve when his pa was thrown off that horse and smacked his head against the fencepost. Died instantly. Eli had been ten.
The memory of that day engulfed him in a dark cloud of pain and hurt. Pain he’d squelched in his heart over and over for years until it lodged like a hard pebble in his chest. But presently it had grown again to the size of a boulder, threatening to force LeRoy to his knees.
He shambled over to the lodge and leaned against the warm wood log siding, trying to calm his racing heart. Then, a hand touched his arm, startling him. He jerked his head up and met his ma’s searching dark eyes.
He straightened, and his breath suddenly calmed. He breathed in deep and managed a smile.
His ma turned her head and watched the festivities through the window. Her silver-streaked black braids lay down her back, and her Cheyenne features seemed magnified by the soft deerskin ceremonial dress she wore and the strands of colorful beads hanging from her neck. The strains of lively music tickled the air, and the foot stomping of those dancing shuddered the porch floorboards under LeRoy’s feet.
Without looking at him, she said, “Now that Clare’s takin’ care of Eli, he’s not your responsibility any longer.” Her voice was quiet, thoughtful. She tipped her head and smiled, watching Eli and Clare dance. She wrested her gaze and turned to him. “Now it is time for you to make your own path for your life.”
A chill danced across LeRoy’s neck as a breeze kicked up. Cool, rarified mountain air drifted down and filled the valley. He smelled the river not far away, and a hint of snow. Had she known what his pa used to say to him before he died? She must have, for why would she have spoken of caring for Eli? “It’s your job to look after your little brother. To set an example. Teach him to be honest and honorable and upstanding. If anything should ever happen to me . . .”
LeRoy heard the words as if his pa were speaking into his ear. He closed his eyes, remembering the sound of his pa’s warm, deep voice calming his anxious heart.
“He loved you so much,” his ma said, an unusual surge of emotion lacing her words.
LeRoy studied her face, but she was practiced at keeping so many of her secrets well hidden. He said nothing, just swallowed and nodded.
Her smile was wistful. She ran her hand through his hair, the way she used to when he was a boy. She hadn’t done that in a long time, and it was strangely soothing. “You are so much like him.” Her eyes glistened as they regarded him steadily. “He would have been so proud of you.”
LeRoy didn’t know how to answer her. He swallowed back tears and nodded, turned his head and stared into the hills. Sunlight crawled along the ground as the sun slid west toward the snowy peaks. Clouds bunched like thick cotton batting along the horizon to the north.
After silence settled into the cracks between them, she cleared her throat. “Well, they’re gonna be cuttin’ the cake shortly. Wouldn’t want to miss out on that.”
“Ma,” he said, turning abruptly to look at her. “How . . . why did you marry Pa? Why not someone from your tribe?”
Sarah chuckled, her face softening and the years of hard lines falling away. “Your grandfather was some mad, I can tell you that. But he knew John was a good man, had a good heart.” She studied LeRoy’s face, and it made him squirm. He just knew she was going to give him an earful about finding a wife and soon.
“LeRoy, when you love someone, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It doesn’t matter if the whole world is against you. Together you find strength to face all the trials life throws at you. You are more than two.” She grew thoughtful a moment, then took his hands. “Your grandpa—your pa’s dad—used to preach in Evans. You prob’ly don’t remember him, but before he died, we used to haul you and Eli to his church on Sundays. When John first took me to meet him and your Grandma Banks, I was a mite anxious—”
LeRoy’s eyebrows rose. “You, anxious?”
His ma smacked his arm and scowled. LeRoy hobbled his lip. He knew better than to tease when she was working up to her own version of a Sunday sermon.
She turned from him and watched the horses. “Your grandpa, being a man of faith, was wont to quote Scripture, and he looked at your pa and me and told us we’d face a lot of tribulation if we married. But the Good Book says love conquers all. And more importantly, that perfect love casts out fear. ‘He that feareth is not made perfect in love.’”
His ma sighed. “Your grandpa was right, LeRoy. When you finally give you whole heart to someone, you’ll understand.”
“But . . .” LeRoy pushed the words out past the lump in his throat. “If you love someone that much, you know you’re gonna hurt when you lose them.” His pa’s face filled his mind, followed by the image of his ma’s grieving body hunched over his grave. Suddenly LeRoy saw him so clearly—the pale-green eyes and bushy eyebrows, the light-brown hair tucked under his wide-brimmed hat, trailing down to his shoulders, his encouraging smile and voice as warm as a lazy summer day. This time LeRoy couldn’t hold back the tears. They dribbled onto his face, and he quickly swiped them away.
“We all lose everyone we love . . . someday,” his ma said quietly, smoothing out her deerskin skirt. “Does that mean we should hide in a cave and never take the chance our heart will be broken? LeRoy,” she said, her firm tone making him look at her, “this life is a brief passage, a stopping point on the way to Ma’heo’o and Seana, where all who have died reunite.”
She looked up into the sky as if seeing the path among the stars the Cheyenne believed all spirits traversed after death. But LeRoy wasn’t sure what he believed with his feet mired in the mud of two worlds—the white man’s and the red man’s. Most of the time he felt he didn’t fit in either.
His ma sighed wistfully. “If you love, you will know pain and loss. But if you never love, you will never be whole. Your longing will grow like a prickly bush and pierce your heart.”
“I like being alone—”
“Pshaa!” His ma puckered her face. “It’s the men who say that who least mean it. It’s not good for a man to be alone. You seen ’em—those old crotchety geezers who never had a wife. You want to end up like one of them? With a shriveled-up heart and an ornery personality?” She snorted and took his hand. Her earlier tenderness disappeared like a ripple on a lake. “You’re smart not to rush into marrying. But don’t let your fear hold you back. Listen to your heart, my ka'ėškone. It will tell you when the time to love has arrived.” She added with narrowed eyes, “It may be sooner than you think—”
Suddenly an eruption of horse squeals shattered the afternoon calm. Across the pasture dozens of mustangs reared and screamed as they bolted in all directions.
“What the . . . ?” LeRoy took off running toward the split-rail fencing, the sound of animals in pain stabbing his heart. He glanced back upon hearing men’s shouting. A half dozen of Whitcomb’s ranch hands raced behind him. LeRoy hoped a few had grabbed their guns. They’d seen mountain lion sign just last week, and LeRoy had spotted tracks up on the southwestern ridge, near the river. But it wasn’t like a cat to come this close to so many folks, and not in daylight. Or in the fall, when game was plentiful in the mountains.
Plowing through the knee-high grass of the unfenced pasture tired him quickly, and he nearly busted the buttons on his snug shirt, breathing as hard as he was. Now that most of the horses had hightailed it to the farthest corners of the fence, LeRoy could see unobstructed to the back fence line, maybe fifty yards yonder. And what he saw caused a burst of rage and anguish to race through his veins.
Three horses struggled on the ground, kicking legs in the throes of death. Their mournful screams of pain wrenched LeRoy’s heart as his keen eyes took in every inch of the land spread out before him. Behind the fence to the west, the hogbacks rose up steep and melted into thick conifer forest swallowed in darkness cast by the web of overhead branches. Two other horses pranced in place, turning tight frantic circles, blood streaming down their necks and flanks, their eyes wide with terror.
Men shouted behind him, then a rifle sounded. LeRoy heard the whistle of two shots—likely .44 gauge—zip past his ear. He wheeled around and saw Whitcomb’s son, Andy, level a rifle at the woods.
LeRoy leaped over the fence, his heart hammering his ribs. He moved cautiously among the injured and dying horses. They hardly noticed him in all their fear. Now, close enough to see the wide gashes streaking down their necks, LeRoy knew what had attacked.
“There!” someone called out. LeRoy turned as another two shots thundered in the air. He saw where the man was pointing, and now LeRoy spotted the creature too.
“Don’t let it get away!” Andy yelled, then screamed out a string of cuss words. “It’s got one of the mares!” Another rifle shot sliced through the air. This one sounded like a Big Fifty—a Sharps buffalo gun.
Cursing that he was without a gun, and wearing all this finery that was soon to be blood-soaked, LeRoy stood and watched Whitcomb’s men scramble over the back fence and head into the trees. The grizzly lifted his head as if a thousand rounds of bullets couldn’t concern him in the least, then left off dragging his quarry and ambled into the shadows of the woods, which swallowed his massive bulk.
LeRoy started humming softly and took slow steps toward the mustang with a white blaze down her bark-brown head. She eyed him wildly and reared up as if to pound him into the ground. Then she dropped her front legs and stepped in agitation akin to a tribal war dance.
“Whoa, whoa,” he said quietly, then resumed his humming. Finally he was able to lay a hand on her neck. The other horse near her calmed a bit in response.
“What’re ya doin’ in there? Fool Injun!”
“You wanna git yerself kilt?”
LeRoy ignored the men standing back from the fence glowering at him. He looked over at the three horses lying prone on the blood-splattered grass. Two were dead, their eyes open and glassy. The other lay panting with her stomach ripped open.
Andy merely stood at the fence, cussing with every foul word he could come up with.
LeRoy rested his hand on the horse’s neck, kept up his humming. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone clamber over the fence and come toward him.
His friend had doffed his hat and party coat, and his sleeves were rolled up. He carried his vet bag in one hand and a Colt pistol in the other.
Lucas blew out a hard breath as he stopped ten feet from LeRoy and assessed the situation. LeRoy saw the heartache in Lucas’s eyes. Lucas loved horses more than anyone LeRoy had ever known, and that was saying a lot. So he knew what the man was feeling when he lifted his gun with a pained frown on his face, took aim at the last living mare lying on the ground, and shot the suffering animal in the head. His aim was steady and true.
The mare’s head thumped dead on the grass, and her legs stopped paddling. LeRoy swallowed.
“What do ya think?” he asked Lucas in an almost whisper, making Lucas pull his gaze away from the dead mare. LeRoy nodded for him to come over as he kept up the gentle patting and stroking of the mare’s neck, saying soothing words to her.
Lucas looked her over, then glanced at the other injured horse. He took a slow walk around the both, and the men watching grew quiet. LeRoy spotted his ma hurrying across the pasture, carrying a satchel. Upon Lucas’s arrival, the ranch hands climbed up on the fence to watch in silence. Further back, dozens of party guests stood in a crowd just off the porch. No doubt Whitcomb had told them to stay put. LeRoy grunted. He could just imagine what grief Eli was giving his host—and his new bride. He was sure Clare had Eli nailed to the floor by now with him doing his own brand of squealing. Eli was not one to stand back and let anyone else jump headfirst into danger. At least not without him by their side. But it wouldn’t be proper for the groom to get all dirty and bloody on his wedding day, would it?
“That one’s got some surface bruises and scratches,” Lucas said, coming alongside LeRoy and rubbing a hand on the mare’s rump. “More’n likely hurt when the horses panicked.” He pulled a halter and lead rope out of his bag. “Let’s get her back to the barn. She’ll probably be fine once I stitch her up, although”—he took a good look at the exposed muscle in her shoulder without touching it—“that bear tore her somethin’ deep. She may end up with a limp.”
“She may be bad hurt, but at least she’s got her life.” LeRoy looked sorrowfully at the three dead horses and thought about the one the grizzly had hauled easily over the split-rail fence. He’d encountered grizzlies on occasion—thankfully never close up—and they were fearsome creatures. They could wrench off the side of a barn in one swoop. Plenty of tales were told about men who’d faced a grizzly and barely lived to tell about it. He hoped Whitcomb’s men had killed this one, but it wasn’t easily done. Some bears had dozens of bullets in their pelt and flesh and kept on going. And killing. And there were few things more dangerous than an injured and suffering grizzly.
LeRoy took the halter from Lucas and gently slipped it over the mare’s head. With a quiet clucking, he got her to take a few steps. Lucas crouched down and took a jar from his bag.
“You go on ahead; I’ll meet you at the barn.” He dabbed some ointment on the other mare’s leg. She stood still, eyeing Lucas suspiciously, but she gave no indication she was about to bolt.
Lucas added, “Tell Emma where I am. I disappeared on her, and she’ll be worried.”
See, pardner, that’s what happens when you marry. You end up with someone worrying about you all the time. And ya gotta answer for everything you do.
LeRoy snorted as he led the mare back across the pasture at a slow walk, the scattered horses now taking a cautious step or two away from the fence. Calm once more drifted into the valley, as if the bear had never attacked.
LeRoy glanced back and saw men gathered along the back fence line. He made out Andy and two of the men who had gone off after the bear. He’d heard no more shots. Well, the bear was either dead or had run off. It could have been worse. LeRoy exhaled hard as his ma walked toward him. He stopped and looked at the deerskin satchel she held out to him. It was one of her medicine pouches. Why was she giving this to him?
“You want me to give this to Lucas?” He figured she had some special ointments or tinctures in here. Maybe something to calm the horses. Not like Lucas needed anything though. He kept his own medical bag well stocked. And the barn had all the typical ranch supplies—for both animal and human injuries and illnesses.
“No,” she said, an intense look flaring in her eyes.
LeRoy’s nerves jangled. His pulse quickened, and he swallowed hard. He knew just what that look meant. It was the same look she’d given him and Eli the night those murderous ranchers had attacked them and ended up dead—when she put the everlasting powder on them to prepare them for battle. And it was the same look as when she’d told them to go to Fort Collins to offer to help Sheriff Eph Love track those outlaws. She urged them to be careful, that blood was going to spill.
“What is it, Ma?” LeRoy asked on papery thin breath. He gripped tight the lead rope as she handed him the satchel. He really didn’t want to hear her answer.
“It’s not for Lucas. It’s for you.” She added solemnly, “You’re going to need it.”
All LeRoy could do was nod.
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