Authors: Peggy Ann Craig
On the Mountain
Peggy Ann Craig
Published by Peggy Ann Craig
Cover Design by Deranged Doctor Design
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Table of Contents
Somewhere on Mount Louis, BC, 1889
The bare branches of the dense forest lashed out at the desperate young woman trying to evade their punishing grasp. Their sharp and painful slashes went unnoticed as she fled down the wooded mountain. A cold October wind blew through the night, while above the tree tops a full moon cast its glow on the uneven path ahead. It was dark, but not as black as she would have preferred. Far too soon the sun would rise above the eastern peak and the cloak of the night would vanish.
She fled among towering pines, their peaks soaring high into the moonlit sky and forming a dark shroud over the already eerie mountainside. Far beneath them the woman made her way, running through the thick underbrush, over fallen timber and down an unmarked trail. Her breathing shallow, her eyes wide with fear, she desperately searched the distance but could hardly make out anything discernible in the gloomy darkness.
The cold evening air swept across her exposed skin. Her ragged and muddy appearance left little in the form of attire. She would have shivered from the exposure to the late autumn temperatures, but for the already icy fear coursing through her veins.
A batch of roots protruding from the earth caught her foot unaware. Instinctively she reached out to grasp onto something, but fell hard to the ground scraping the palm of her hands painfully against the jagged earth. She paused only long enough to notice the trace of animal tracks on the ground beneath her. The mountain was popular with grizzly bears and cougars. A new fear tore across her chest as she scanned the darkness.
However, the forest was still. The only movement being the flight of the terrified woman. The only sound, the thundering of her heart. Any appearance of forest creatures were nowhere to be seen. The terror of the mountain was all around.
Without a moment's hesitation she quickly got back on her feet and continued her race against the night. She, herself, not uttering a word or so much as a cry. She would not stop to listen. The importance of silence was a matter of life or death.
At last she heard it. The gurgling of the river broke the still night. She followed the sound until she came to a clearing where she could see the river glistening in the moonlight. Where it bent, became narrow then opened to a large channel, she fled along its banks.
The swift running current mirrored her escape as it raced down the mountain. Its roar becoming louder as she neared the wild rapids where the mountain took a steep decline. The woman looked up and saw the first traces of an orange streak across the eastern sky. She turned and fled along the slope that followed the winding river down the mountain.
Wade Haddock woke at the crack of dawn and listened for sounds from the silent saloon below. The night before was a contrary sound as it usually was during the evening when patrons packed the Call of the Wild Bar and Inn. The alehouse was popular with the cowboys from the surrounding vicinity and he and his wranglers were no exception.
While either enjoying a game of cards or consuming as much alcohol as humanly possible, the fact there was never a shortage of female attention greatly factored into the saloon’s popularity. The ladies of the saloon made it their business to keep the men of Durand County entertained. And satisfied.
He turned and took note of the curvaceous silhouette slowly taking form beside him as the light from the early morning sun crept into the room. The huge bed was spacious and Wade could have easily fit two more figures identical to the one beside him. It always was Marion, however, that graced him with her presence. Admittedly, he wouldn’t mind changing partners, but the truth was he would rather do without the hassle.
He slipped out of the bed unnoticed and quietly got dressed so not to disturb the sleeping woman, then went over to the window that overlooked the front of the saloon. The street was quiet this early in the morning, however, he could see the livery from his vantage point and noticed movement. It would be his men up and getting ready. Though he enjoyed their stops in town, he loved being out on the trail more. He slid on his boots, slipped on his brown wool coat and turned on his heel to head for the door.
The woman on the bed was awake and sat up, allowing the sheet to drop shamelessly from her naked breast. She smirked at Wade from beneath a heavy coat of day old facial paint.
“Mornin’ lover. Leavin’ without a good-bye?”
“Mornin’,” Wade said, picking up his felt hat from the dresser.
“That’s it? No lovey-dovey words?”
“Good Lord, Wade. You really know how to sweep a woman off her feet.”
“I don’t think you’re the type of woman who needs any sweeping, Marion.”
“Not even a good-bye kiss?”
“I think you’ll manage just fine.”
“When are you ever going to get over that phobia?”
He knew what she was eluding to but chose to ignore her. He wasn’t ignorant enough not to know the rumors around town regarding a so-called fear he had of intimacy. Fact was, Wade conceded some truth in it. He didn’t much fancy all that hugging and kissing Prescott seemed to relish.
“Not every woman thinks a kiss is a marriage proposal.” She eyed him with a hint of mockery.
“I’ll see you when I’m next in town.” Slipping his hat low over his brow, he tilted the corner at her and made his way out of the room.
The smoky reek of kerosene lamps from the dance hall below drifted up to the second floor corridor as he walked toward the staircase, but soon would be saturated with the overly perfumed ladies of the saloon. Marion included.
Back home the ranch only ever smelled of fresh manure, but with the arrival of Kathleen, he was reminded of the dance hall. Not that he was comparing her to the saloon ladies. Lord, he had never seen two more different forms of females.
Kathleen, he thought. Ever since they were children, she had it all. Grace, beauty and brains. She was the only woman he came close to truly loving. Kind and gentle she bore no resemblance to their mother. And she loved Wade dearly.
She was expected at the homestead for her monthly visit by the time he arrived home. For the first time, he was eager to get back to the ranch.
Nodding farewell to Vern Murdy, the saloon owner, who was also up early and polishing some glasses behind the counter, Wade headed out into the courtyard and turned toward the livery.
The town of Lantern was nestled in a wooded valley at the southern foot of Mount Louis. He and his men had headed out early two days before on a roundup of the eastern range and had stopped in Lantern on their way back after having passed through the Durand Pass. Winter was coming and he and his wranglers had begun rounding up the yearling steers and heifers to their fall gathering pastures.
Wade could see someone had already been in the stalls and had the horses fed and groomed. Without even having been told, he knew old Chuck Rhodes was the person. He walked through to the darkened barn toward his stall and saw a person bent over in his horse's stable. There was no one else around. Sty, his horse, snickered sensing his owner's presence. Chuck Rhodes straightened immediately.
Wade frowned as he opened the gate of the horse’s stall. The old man was scrawny, permanently bent from the waist over and had a tooth missing in every other slot. He had little trust in the creepy old guy, but since he had no reason not to, he allowed him to remain on staff.
It was obvious the old man was mentally disturbed and had an odd behavior. Though Wade hadn’t caught him in the act, many of his ranch hands had reported catching Chuck smelling the backside of animals. In itself, it was a fairly harmless act and since the old man proved to be a hard-working and loyal employee, Wade kept him on.
“Mornin’ Chuck,” Wade said. He approached his horse and ran his hand over the soft coat of the horse’s flanks, letting him know of his presence. Sty was a nine-year old quarter horse with a thick, lush chestnut coat covering his entire body. Wade had bred and reared him since birth. The horse’s mother, Lily, had been Wade’s faithful horse for years before she became too old and retired to the field.
Chuck grumbled something and slithered out of the stall. In actual fact, Wade couldn’t remember ever hearing the man say anything coherent. Either he couldn’t speak a word of English or he had a speech impediment, he wasn’t entirely sure.
Wade turned and led Sty out of his stall and the pair of them were two silent figures as he began the process of applying the horse’s equipment. Shortly afterward his ranch hands came in and quickly got their mounts ready. Wade took note of their late arrival but knew their stop at the saloon had a lot to do with it. In particular, the ladies of the saloon. Some of his men were foolish to believe themselves in love. Wade excluded.
Contrary to Marion’s parting words, he wasn’t altogether against the idea of marriage. However, he had never met a female whose qualifications lured him even close to reconsider otherwise. He had spurned many false declarations of love from women wanting to secure a place in society as Wade Haddock’s wife. However, he knew they were only seeking a materialist gain but ignorant to the reality of life married to a rancher. Any wife of his would have to be as passionate about the land as he.
But Wade fully knew there wasn’t a woman alive who could withstand the harsh lifestyle of his land. The isolated wilderness and the formidable mountains that surrounded his vast property could browbeat the best of men. And crush a woman. It had broken his mother and would have destroyed his sister if she had not left.
Securing his Winchester to Sty’s saddle, Wade admitted the truth was he simply did not care at the lack of his marital status. True, he enjoyed the pleasure and release of what the member of the opposite sex could provide, but not foolish enough to want anything more.
When Marion arrived three years before, that part of his male needs came to an end. She easily seemed to accept what he was only willing to offer. Though she hinted at wanting more, Wade knew it was in jest. Marion was satisfied with their arrangement that allowed her to engage in other relationships. And make a living from it.
He led his horse outside into the bright early morning sunrise that now covered the earth and pulled the wide brim on his hat low to shield his eyes from the sun. For forty-four years he had been a rancher and knew nothing else, but he loved every bit of it. He would remain on his land until he was old and withered and when his time came, come to rest buried next to his father in the cemetery up on the hill overlooking the homestead.
Prescott emerged from the restaurant in the southern part of town, spotted him, then headed toward the livery with a face that beamed from ear to ear. Wade sometimes found it difficult to see how the man could be his brother. He was tall like Wade, built fairly similar with a set of broad shoulders and thick all around. Their mother used to call them big-boned. Kathleen, however, did not inherit that family feature. Like their mother, she was petite and slim. In personalities however, Prescott and Kathleen were more alike. As children they got along splendidly and were each other’s playmates. Wade, being the oldest had responsibilities around the ranch and had no time for play. After the death of his father it became a permanent part of his life.
“Good morning big brother,” Prescott greeted him.
“You’re late.” Wade adjusted the strap of Sty’s halter, ignoring the happiness booming from his brother’s voice.
“Am I?” Prescott feigned ignorance, pulling out a pocket watch from his chest pocket.
Wade only glanced at it momentarily. “New?”
“As a matter-of-fact, it is,” Prescott said. “A gift from Elizabeth.”
He thought the woman ignorant for spending money on something as foolish as a watch and particularly on Prescott Haddock. Everyone in the vicinity knew of the Haddock’s wealth. They certainly did not need to receive gifts from a woman whose hard-earned cash came from running the town’s less than lucrative restaurant. Wade thought about lecturing Prescott, however, from the expression on his brother’s face, he knew any words would fall on deaf ears.
“Well, hurry up then. I’d like to get back to greet Kathleen. It’s not much of a very welcome home if no one is there to greet her.”
“Ah, sweet Kathleen. How could I have forgotten?” Prescott eyed the watch once again. “If it hadn’t been for my beloved little sister and her meddling ways, Elizabeth would not be in my life.”
Wade rolled his eyes. “You’ve eaten at her restaurant now for the past four years.”
“But not as her special guest.” Prescott gave a wink and headed for the barn.
Wade offered a fleeting glance to see him disappear behind the building’s large double doors and once again wondered how on earth the two could possibly be related. Prescott was such a softy. Wade was tough and hard. Prescott had always needed a woman to complete his life. Wade needed nor wanted a woman in his life. Ever since their childhood, he could recall Prescott claiming the weight of Kathleen’s attention and demanded their mother declare him her favorite.
So it really was not surprising six years after being sent to England to receive a solid education, he met and married a proper English wife. Their mother couldn’t have been more proud until Prescott announced he and his new wife had decided to take up residence in London. Wade benefited greatly in this arrangement. After the death of his father, he had inherited all Louis Haddock’s property and financial affairs in England. A matter Prescott readily took upon himself to oversee while residing at the family’s ancestral estate, and Wade was able to concentrate solely on the ranch.
With Prescott out of the way, Wade had thought he would finally be on the receiving end of his mother’s love and attention, but instead she spent the rest of her years grieving her favorite son’s absence. Prescott, on the other hand, did not appear to befall the same fate and thoroughly enjoyed life in London. Until tragedy struck.
After ten years of marriage, his wife passed away from smallpox. The couple had been unable to bear children and with no one behind to keep him in England, Prescott returned home to Canada. For the first time, Prescott was not his usual beaming self. The life had gone out of him and Wade nearly came to believe Prescott had truly loved his wife.
His pain had reached their sister and like the past, she drew Prescott into her comforting and loving embrace. This time, however, Wade had not minded as much. She had stayed at the ranch for nearly six months before returning to the city to her husband and children. But the magic of Kathleen had done its thing.
She matched him up with the widow Elizabeth, the restaurant proprietor from town. It didn’t take long before Prescott’s eyes glistened with the look of a man foolishly believing himself in love, and in the process shed serious doubt in Wade’s opinion for the love he claimed for his late wife.
“It’s going to be a beautiful day.” Prescott had exited the stalls with his mount directly behind him and his head tilted toward the sky.
Wade followed his gaze. The sky was a warm blue contrary to the chilly autumn air. Puffs of frosty breaths billowed from their horse’s nostrils. Strangely, he actually agreed with his brother. It must have been on the account of their sister’s expectant return to the ranch, but the day felt full of excitement. Almost as if his world was about to be altered forever.
“Then let’s make the best of it.”
* * *
The woman stayed close to the earth, crouched low beneath the large oak tree near the water’s edge. She was shivering but didn’t notice. Her eyes strained straight ahead without blinking. She didn’t dare move or make a sound. The sun was up entirely now and shone bright over the earth, not a cloud could be seen in the sky. The cloak of the night was no longer her sanctuary. She knew she had to find shelter and soon.
From her vantage point the home looked deserted. There was no life moving about or fire burning from the several chimneys on the roof. Further down the property was another set of buildings, which from her distance looked like barns. She decided to head in that direction and get a better look. Crouching down on all fours she slipped through the tall grass and made her way slowly toward the compound.