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Authors: DiAnn Mills

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BOOK: A Woman Called Sage
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Winning is everything except when the journey is more important than the end, he said.

In truth, shed spurred on her mare, and hed still reached the creek before her. Theyd laughed, enjoying the time together. Two glorious weeks later, he left again for a month.

Now, as she recalled the previous nights dreams, a shiver raced up her arms, a mixture of early-morning temperatures and the vividness of her dreams. As the years passed, shed begun to ache less for Charles. Could those feelings be wrong?

Mama said the day would come when shed be ready to reach out to another man. Every time she saw a family together, she longed for her own. She remembered her stillborn son and the bullet that brought on his premature birth, and the desire for revenge took another strangling hold. If she couldnt have Charles, what was left of life? Shed go to her grave loving him.

Her dresses and cotton chemises were packed in a cedar trunk in southern Colorado, and her grandmothers dishes on her fathers side were there too. But the thankfulness shed given to God on her wedding day lay buried in more than one grave.

The livery loomed before her, and she pushed her grief aside. Opening the door, she stepped inside and shielded her eyes as her meek lantern light flooded the stable. No, not her flame only. A man held up a lighted lantern. Sage startled at the sight of Marshal Timmons with the stable boy.

Mornin, Sage. Just like you, I figured the earlier we left town, the better off wed be. Lucky for us, I know these mountains.


hree hours later, after riding as hard as they dared while following the outlaws trail through the foothills of the Rockies, Sage gazed up at the white-tipped mountains. Early morning often lured her to the lofty peaks with cloudless blue skies and breathtaking heights. Some resembled stone pine cones, while others were covered in green and brown, with silver patches of snow. In the distance, huge sheets of ice blanketed the sides of jagged gray peaks, while pine and cedar hugged the slopes below. The landscape in between the mountains and the valleys, from rushing waterfalls to huge boulders rolled into place by non-human hands, was natures way of inviting others to enjoy the beauty but warning them of its dangers.

Not far from there was the land once occupied by many Arapahoe and Ute Indians, and in some places their trails shot far above the tree line. At times she could almost see and smell the curling smoke of a Ute campfire and hear their language in the air. Sages mother had told her that
meant Land of the Sun, and her people practiced a religion that revered animals. Perhaps within that ancient faith was the source of her way with creatures of all kinds.

Tall Elk had introduced her to the beauty and reverence of the Rockies, the land where he wanted to share his life with her, the land belonging to his people for thousands of years. But since miners had infringed on that land, fighting between the Indians and white men had forced most of the Indians onto reservations near Durango and in Utah. A few, Tall Elk among them, lived
west of Rocky Falls in remote areas not yet coveted by the whites, but they, too, would soon be banished to the reservations or die defending their way of life. Tall Elk would have loved her and taken care of her, but it was wrong to use a man to forget the pastas wrong as it was for the whites to take Indian land.

A male mourning dove had serenaded Parker and Sage for the past few minutes with his
coowaah, cooo, coo, coo.
She understood the woeful song. It had become her hearts cry.

Parker had fared much better with his injuries than she anticipated. He rode straight and tall, although his face held the grim stance of pain. Admirable. She respected him for it.

I sure wish John hadnt proceeded with his plans, Parker said, breaking the silence between them.

I agree. But you and I know the pull of revenge. She blew out an exasperated breath. They probably have someone following us as well as those ahead.

He reined in his horse and swung a leg over the saddle. She followed his lead, both of them examining the horse tracks they had followed for miles.

Looks like John headed northwest. I imagine he rode right behind them. Especially since they didnt attempt to conceal their trail.

She bent to smell the freshest prints. As she and Parker had surmised, John was a full day ahead of them. Somewhere between here and farther along the trail, the McCaws had seized him. If hed been angry and left to find those who killed his father, would he lose logic and try to fight the whole gang? Would Davis cry out? Aggravating Aidens men would shorten the likelihood of the child staying alive. She despised questions with no answers.

How old is Davis?

He turned four in April.

Her breath caught in her throat, and it had nothing to do
with the thin air and everything to do with the son shed lost. Is he a strong little boy?

Parker tossed her a curious look. Yes. Smart, too. He loves John. Looks up to him like a father. And John has done a good job with him. Calls Davis his little man. I know what youre thinking. Davis wont be whining and carrying on.

Sounds like Johns a mature young man.

I thought so until he made mention of going after Franks killers. At the parsonage, when I went to check on Leah, he wanted me to deputize him. A lot of good my talk did.

Sage understood Johns need to bring the McCaw gang to justice. She studied the peaks in the distance, not stating the obvious about what the McCaws could do to the older boy. Is there a northeast passage I can take? Im not as familiar with this section of the Rockies.

Parker pointed beyond the meadow. Right through there. Steep in some areastoo steep to ride. There are three lakes on that upper range. The middle lake will take you down the other side.

The only way I can see for us to get an advantage is to force them to split up. She peered up toward where Parker indicated. Were after them, and theyre after us.

Makes me wonder whos confused.

Unfortunately, its us. If one of us can locate their campsite, we have a better chance of rescuing those boys. Perhaps tomorrow we should take separate trails.

I like that idea, he said. One of us could follow John, and the other veer onto a path that might confuse them for a while. We could plan to meet somewhere and hopefully have an edge on them.

She walked to her pony and lifted the canteen from her saddle bags. Are you feeling well enough to climb those mountains?

Yes, maam. He chuckled. My mama lives in Virginia. I dont need one here.

That man could be purely aggravating. Very funny. Yet he and Charles had similar personalities. They could have been friends, and his supposed ranch was in this area. Are you sure you never met Charles?

Yes, real sure. Id have remembered.

But Aiden said Charles didnt use his right name. I should have asked him what name he called my husband. She took a swallow of water. Trying to figure out what Aiden is after makes me feel dimwitted, stupid.

Sage, youre far from stupid. From what Ive seen, youre a whole lot smarter than many men Ive known.

His words made her feel strangely uncomfortable. Parker had a habit of doing that. I had a good teacher.

I heard you spent a year with the Ute. Of course, thats hearsay, and I need to get my facts straight from you.

She smiled, then swung up onto her saddle and waited while he did the same. You heard correctly, except it was two and a half years. Tall Elk is a Ute from my mothers tribe. Right now most of the Ute in Colorado are on a reservation. Tall Elk and some of the others refused the order to live there and stayed in the Rockies. I found them in the mountains to the west.

Was it hard, or had your mother prepared you for Indian life?

She let her mind wander to those first few weeks among the Ute. It was extremely difficult. Until then, I was half-Ute, living in a white mans world.

Any regrets?

Not at all. He taught me valuable lessons about living in the wilds, defending myself, and tracking. But Charles taught me how to shoot a rifle and use both hands with my Colts. She patted the neck of her pony. I guess thats another reason for me to suspect he wasnt the man I thought I married. He was an excellent marksman.

Do you plan to go back to the Ute?

She sat up straight on her pony and thought of the ranch shed left behind and of Tall Elk. Parker, I have no idea where I belong anymore.

I hope you find the answers youre looking for.

Sage observed the man beside her. He meant what he said, which revealed a compassionate side of him, unlike a lot of other men. For a lawman who has his sights on politics, youre not such a bad character.

Parker touched the brim of his hat. Ill take that as a compliment.

he next morning, the two followed Johns trail to the base of the mountain where the McCaws had made their ascent. Parker studied every rock and tree, anticipating one of the gang to ride out. A glance at Sage told him she was just as alert. Both of them rode with their hands on their rifles and their nerves tuned to a change in the wind. A grove of aspen trees scarred by elk and mule deer that ate the bark during the lean winter months caused him to ride cautiously through the shadows.

Sage reined in her pony. A black bear, she whispered and pointed to the left of them. And two cubs.

The she-bear rose up and roared her displeasure. Parkers horse spooked, and he held on to keep his seat. He didnt want to break another rib or get mauled by an angry mama bear. Neither did he want to waste a shot that would echo around the valley and give attention to their location.

Parker and Sage backed up their horses, giving the bear ample room to go wherever she chose. The bear stopped and watched them but didnt advance. After several moments, she disappeared up the mountainside, with her cubs scurrying behind her.

I was ready to send her to bear heaven if I had to, Sage said. But I hated to leave her cubs behind to fend for themselves and bring the McCaws down on us. Next time we might not be as lucky.

I prayed.

I used to do that a lot until I realized God doesnt care.

Parker didnt respond. Anger rode with him every time he thought about Oden Felter, Frank, and his missing nephews. Someday he and God needed to talk about what happened. But even with the fire of revenge burning in his soul, Parker couldnt abandon Godnot completely.

When they found John and Davis and figured out how to get Aiden back to jail, Parker hoped he could initiate forgiveness on his part and hopefully encourage Sage to do the same. That seemed like a long time off. Like him, Sage had faced tragedy, and most folks would say she had good reason to discard God. She carried a heavy load of sorrow, and only God could lift it from her shoulders, just as only God could lift his burden. Problem was, neither one of them wanted to give up the anger and revenge.

Right now Parker refused to think about his nephews being dead. He shoved the horror of it away and continued climbing the path John had taken.

We have more problems. She pointed east.

Hed seen the gathering gray clouds, and those clouds might bring rain that would wash away not only Johns tracks but the McCaws. The scent of pine and cedar heightened with the sudden chill. The Rockies had seen rain nearly every day, and streams and lakes were gushing over their banks. Getting drenched didnt bother Parker, but he had a high respect for lightning. He had seen too many men and animals fried up like Sunday chicken to allow himself to be caught in the open with a bolt of power that equaled a cannon ball. He and Sage urged their horses faster along the mens trail, with the steadily graying clouds at their heels. As hed expected, Johns tracks led up the northern ridge of the mountain. Fifty feet more and a melee of tracks blotted out the original trail. Theyd found where the McCaws had latched on to John.

At least we know were on the right trail. Sage glanced at the blue-black sky. Can you get us to a shelter before the storm hits? She untied a slicker rolled up behind her saddle. A flash of light and a crack of thunder hastened their desire to find someplace dry.

I can. Its up this path, the way the gang climbed. He pulled his oiled duster close to his body and clamped down his hat.

Ill follow and backtrack later so we can still split up.

Parker circled a piece of rock that jutted out over the path and climbed farther up through trees and brush. For the next several feet, he listened to the crashing thunder and held his breath each time the lightning flashed. The wind bent trees in homage to nature and tossed small debris at the riders. A grown man shouldnt be fearful of nature, but he didnt have to tell anyone that the blinding light shook him to the core. His horse screamed and reared, and a tree crashed across the trail in front of him. He held the reins firm, while pain raced through his ribs.

Hold on, Parker, Sage called.

And he dideven if a woman told him to. Twice today his chestnut gelding had been spooked. If his horse went over the cliff, then hed go with it. The gelding stumbled. Sure didnt make him look like a rough-and-tough mountain man. Sage jumped from her mount and grabbed his horses bridle. After a few seconds, the horse calmed. Parker had heard she had a peculiar way with animals and birdsanother legend, but it appeared true.

Rain began to fall in torrents, but the thunder and lightning subsided. Both horses picked their way over the rocks and mudsoaked earth. Cold rain ran down his back despite his slicker.

Holding his arm against his broken ribs, Parker dismounted to survey the path ahead and another fallen tree. Sage stood beside him. He expected no less from her. With water dripping from her hat and hair, she lookedwellpretty. Once we clear out some of these loose branches, we can lead the horses over this, he said.

Ill get my rope. My ponys strong.

Parker took in a painful breath and realized that what hed once resented about Sage, he now appreciated. The two were equaldespite his cracked ribsworking together for a common purpose. And, more than that, he liked being with her.

The rain slowed, and in its place came a mist that screened the mountains, making it impossible to tell where the sky ended and the mountains began. Sometimes truth was like that.

Look, he began, as he shifted to ease the agony in his side. Im sorry that Im so useless.

Never mind. We both came to do a job. She tied the rope to her saddle horn, then deftly wrapped the other end around a thick limb.

Parker watched her with the pony. It was as though she were talking to the animal. The hawk rode on the saddle. Curious. The pony backed up and slowly pulled the limb from the path.

Did the Ute teach you how to communicate with birds and animals?

She laughed. No. Its a gift I was born with. She guided the ponys steps. Ive had some unusual pets in my days. Even had a mountain cat until my papa forced me to let it loose. She paused. In truth, it followed me to school and frightened the other children and the teacher.

A woman with a bent toward predatory animals. That had to mean something. I heard rumors about a wolf.

You heard right. One reason Charles didnt fret when he was gone was my pet wolf. I raised her from a pup. At times even Charles was afraid of her, but she wasnt around him long enough for the two to make good friends.

Where is the wolf now?

The same men who shot me and Charles killed her.

Sage had lost plenty in her day. Talk to me about Charles, he said. I had to have met him for Aiden to deem me so important.

Maybe not. She heaved against a branch, and he reached to
help her. This all could be about something Aiden wants you to do. Could be something political. A rush of wings announced the hawks departure.

BOOK: A Woman Called Sage
12.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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