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Authors: DiAnn Mills

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BOOK: A Woman Called Sage
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age spent most of the late afternoon studying the sunbleached rock that led up the steep incline to the McCaws campsite. She memorized every crack and fissure for a possible foothold, calculating her steps and trying not to think about snakes. Two thirds of the way up, she noted a sharp ledge that looked large enough for her to stand on. That could offer a brief reprieve for herself, but shed need to lower the boys all the way down to Parker. Peering through her binoculars to the top of the cliff, she found a projection of rock directly above the ledge, to which she could tie the rope and lower the boys.

From a distance, the ascent looked nearly impossible, but standing on the ground and planning each step eased her mind. Tall Elk had taught her how to scale rock, and she could make it to the top. The problem was in getting those boys back down. Davis was young. Would he understand that he couldnt cry out? Falling rock could wake the McCaws, and theyd open fire. Unlike Parker, she didnt want any bright stars, and the moon would be a slice of unwanted light.

Parker stood wide-legged with his arms crossed and his hat slanted over his eyes. He was a good man; shed decided that when he took the beating and refused to stay behind. They worked well together, and to her surprise, she actually liked him. Sincerity and warmth brimmed in his eyes, blue as a robins egg, and she saw a strong desire in him to help others. He was pleasing to look at, too, with light brown hair and a handlebar mustache, and the
lines across his brow gave him the distinction of a man who had experienced hardships. Colorado needed men like Parker Timmons to govern and form policies for the betterment of many and not just a few. She hoped he did well.

Theyd stayed concealed in the shadows all afternoon and talked little while making preparations for later on in the night. Once the boys were safe, they would ride Sages pony down a different trail than she and Parker planned to take in case the McCaws discovered they were missing before morning. Sage and Parker planned to take an easier trail on his horse, causing the outlaws to think they were the boys. Parker said John was skilled in traveling the mountains, and by the time dawn lit the sky, the two would be well on their way to Rocky Falls. Parker had already made sure there was jerky in the saddlebag and water in the canteens.

Sage observed him pacing and fidgeting while waiting for the sun to set. He chewed on a weed and rechecked the mule, horses, and ropes. He cleaned his rifle and loaded it while taking frequent glances up the cliff. A weasel studied them from the trees, no doubt thinking humans were peculiar creatures. And Parker waited. Sage pitied him for the anguish that must be tearing through his soul.

She motioned for him to sit beside her on a rock. Have you tried praying? she whispered.

I havent stopped. Curiosity etched his face. Strange thing for you to ask.

I never said I didnt believe in God. My problem is what He allowed to happen to my family.

Maybe were not supposed to know the reason.

If she hadnt been forced to whisper, her voice would be rising by now. When innocent people are killed, its wrong.

I agree, but its not Gods fault. The McCaws chose to murder. He moistened his lips. Im one to talk, when Id like nothing better than to blow a hole right through every one of them.
But I still know the truth from Gods perspective, even though its not what I want to hear right now.

She turned from his scrutiny. This conversation wasnt what she intended. Yes, it is Gods fault. A God whos in control of everything and supposedly loves the world shouldnt allow murder.

Im sure Eve felt the same way about Cain and Abel.

His response irritated her. The last thing she wanted was to discuss God. Mama and Papa already tried until they gave up.

Sage. Parker placed his hand on her arm.

She jerked back. Dont ever do that again. No man had touched her since Charles. It made her feel like Parker was attempting to betray Charless memory.

Im sorry. He stood. His shoulders lifted and fell. I sure would hate to see a fine woman go through life filled with hate and bitterness when she didnt have to.

Im better off than most, she said through clenched teeth.

Are you?

They didnt speak any more for the next hour. Birds sang, and a pleasant breeze bathed her face. But a lump formed in her throat, stealing her concentration from what needed to be done. Anger would not serve her in the midst of trouble. It caused good men to make bad choices, and bad men to pull out knives and guns.

Darkness finally crept around them, and it comforted her. Parker had touched her physically and, if she were honest, emotionally. There, shed admitted it. Later on shed deal with why everything about the man both bothered and attracted her.

Its time, she whispered to the man in the darkness. The ones wholl take the second watch should be asleep.

Parker nodded. This time tomorrow, well be much closer to Rocky Falls and in better spirits.

She hoped so. Tonights meal of hard biscuits and cold smoked ham had satisfied the hunger, while her mind whirled with what lay ahead. And not arguing about God.

Id rather you see Him in me. His words were soft, barely audible, and as intimate as a kiss. For a moment she wished she still believed in God enough to ask for restoration. No, she was simply afraid and not confident of her own skill.

Glancing up the steep rock with far too many stars to light the way, Sage knew her endeavor could take her life and those precious boys. If there was a God, she hoped He would cast His favor on John and Davis. Ill be back.

Sage Morrow, you have no idea how difficult it is to have you go after those boys when it should be me.

She was inwardly amused at his confession, but she understood his regrets. It had to be hard for a man to allow a woman to lead the way.

I know. I can hear it in your voice. Whatever happens, those boys come first. Make sure they are safe.

I will. He took a breath, and she knew it pained him. Ill make this up to you somehowand Ill be praying.

I promised Leah I would do all I could to bring her sons back safely. She paused while a haze of other dangerous moments of her life swept past her. Parker Timmons had integrity, and she would not discount it. I appreciate your prayers.


iden finished the last of his bitter coffee and listened to the fire crackle and spit. Hard to get comfortable in the mountains. The moment the sun went down, the thin air turned cold, mirroring his black soul and causing him to ache all over. He chuckled at his own description, priding himself on a reputation that caused grown men to cower and women to weep. An icy wind chilled his back, and he stretched out his hands to warm them over the fire. He stared up at the blue-black sky filled with hundreds of candle-like flickers. Back before the war, when he had a family in Mississippi, theyd all sit on the front porch and count the stars as they lit up the night. Hed tell stories until past the time to go to bed. Those days were gone, along with his wife and three sons, who were all too weak to fight cholera with nothing in their belliesthanks to the Yankees. Why think about them? He couldnt bring them back, but he could take what was owed to him and help his brothers finally have what rightfully belonged to them.

His gaze settled on Parkers nephews. Fine-looking boys, but hed not hesitate to kill them like his brothers had done their pa. The stupid man had found their campsite and attempted to make an arrest. The older boy wasnt much smarter than his pa, thinking he could rescue the little one all by himself. Aiden kicked at a burning log. Hed let Parker and Sage think hed swap the two kids for the money. Then hed get rid of all of them.

Quincy and Rex guarded the only trail up to the campsite while Jeb and Mitch lay by the fire. At midnight, theyd change
places. Aiden wasnt known for his patience, but hed learned over the years to devise fail-proof plans that brought him the advantage of waiting until the time was right to strike. Hed take over at dawn until midmorning, giving his brothers time to rest and eat.

The only man who had ever outsmarted him was Charles Morrowor whatever his name was. Hed never talked about a wife. In fact, hed never said where hed come from, which was why theyd followed him after their last job in Denver. No wonder he kept Sage hid. She was easy to look at, but why marry an Indian?

They wont try anything tonight, Jeb called out to those guarding the rocky path. Aiden snorted. The youngest of the brothers, Jeb was a fool to think Sage and Parker were sleeping. Parker had been beat-up bad, but he was tough and not about to lay low for long.

I dont trust either one of them. Aiden sensed the temperature falling, and he grabbed an army blanket. They wont bring a posse, but they sure will do their best to rescue these boys. Maybe even tonight.

Suit yourself, Jeb said. Im getting some sleep before I have to take over guard duty. Tomorrow is when itll all come together. Parker looked real bad when we left him. He stared into the flames licking up at the night sky and set his hat over his face.

We aint dealing with somebody stupid, Aiden muttered. We have an Injun bounty hunter and a marshal whos out for blood.

Youre getting old, big brother. Jeb laughed. They bleed and die just like the rest of em.

Not until I get what I want.


age couldnt waste any more time talking. She slipped off her boots and socks and into moccasins to make the climb. Slipping the rope over her head and under her arm, she began her climb up to Leahs sons. Hawk had disappeared, but if she needed him, hed be but a wingspan away. Still, what could Hawk do if the McCaws opened fire?

With each secure footing, the peak looked less ominous. Starlight glistened off the rock like silver sprinkles, and a quarter moon cast a faint light, though fast-moving clouds approached from the southeast. Beauty could be so menacing. She gripped the rough indentations and pulled herself up to the next level. At times she closed her eyes and imagined the rock formation as she had seen it from the ground. Ten feet, twenty, forty, and then a rock platform. But in the dark, she couldnt find the ledge.

She reached up to another hold and climbed higher. Her foot slipped. She grasped onto the rock with her fingers while her feet dangled in empty air. A scream died in her throat. She swung her legs back to the cliff, and her foot found a crack to balance her body. The crack widened to a platform.
The ledge.
She pulled herself onto the rock platform and rested for a moment, hugging it like it was her mother, willing her heart not to burst from her chest.

Holding her breath, she felt her way along the ledge until she had a firm hold on the rock above her and climbed higher. She dragged her body up, each step bringing her closer to the top edge.
Thank You.
Her simple prayer startled her. She must have been around Parker too long.

With renewed confidence, Sage yanked her knife from her belt and held it between her teeth. No more surprises. If a McCaw waited at the top, shed have a weapon.

When her fingers reached the peak, Sage fought the urge to peer down, even if all she saw was blackness. She trembled and sucked in a breath to steady her nerves before raising herself high enough to see what awaited her. The rock projection that shed seen below appeared to aim straight up to the sky like an arrowhead. It was larger than she originally thought and provided space for her to hide between the cliff and the McCaws. She could tie the rope around it and hope she had enough length to lower the boys to where Parker could help them.

Firelight lit three sleeping men and two boys. The other two McCaws must be guarding the trail. She swung her feet over the top and crawled to hide behind the rock. After tying the rope around it, she crawled to the boys.

With the stealth shed learned from Tall Elks careful instruction, she slipped her knife between the ropes binding John. He opened his eyes. She touched his lips, and he lay still.

Davis was more of a concern, as he was more likely to be afraid. Shed have to gag him, but shed rather frighten the little boy than have him cry out and expose all of them. It took but an instant to wrap her bandana around Daviss little mouth. He started to squirm, but John touched his arm, instantly calming him. She cut his bonds and kissed his little cheek, thinking of Timothy in the grave beside Charless. Shaking off the unfathomable grief, she carried the child to the cliff edge. Glancing back, she saw John snatch up a rifle from one of the sleeping men before crawling to join her.

She wrapped the rope securely around Daviss waist. Hold onto the rope very tightly, she whispered. Dont let go. Im going to lower you to the ground where your Uncle Parker is waiting. Use your feet to walk down the rock.

John and Sage lay on their bellies and slowly allowed the rope to drop Davis to safety. How good the dark night hid the dangers.

Parker tugged on the rope below, signaling Davis had made it to the bottom. Just as Parker had said, John knew what to do in his descent. She allowed a few minutes for him to get several feet down the cliff before she grabbed the rope and followed. When she reached the ledge, she rested and waited for Parker to tug from below that it was safe for her to continue down.

Below, a scraping sound tore the silence, followed by a clatter of rocks bouncing against the wall and crashing to the cliffs foot. More fell, and in the darkness it sounded like a boulder cutting loose and tumbling down to where Parker and Davis waited.

The boys are gone, one of the men above shouted.

Howd they get away? Another one cursed. My rifles gone.

Sage hoped John didnt hesitate to keep scurrying down the rope. He and Davis needed every precious moment to get away. Her mind screamed for him to hurry before the McCaws figured out what had happened.

Aiden cursed. They snuck right past, you fools!

If the McCaws attempted to come after them from the top, they didnt have a ready-made route for pursuing. While she waited for John to finish the climb, she studied the upper cliff and hoped none of them shone a torch to see where she clung to the rock face.
I promised Leah.

Find their tracks and get after them, Aiden called. Im goin around to make sure they didnt come up the cliff.

The rope tugged from below. Sage pulled out her knife and cut it. She could make it back down on her own. And if one of the gang chose to come after her, hed find his descent ended at the ledge.

Thats when one of the McCaws decided to fire his rifle from the top. The reports exploded and echoed, bouncing from one rock to another. Sage hugged the cliff side, hoping the boys and Parker were safe.

A force slammed against her body, and a stab of white-hot pain pierced her side.

nce the rocks ceased to roll down the side of the cliff, Parker heard the commotion from the men above. He tucked Davis safely away from the falling debris and watched John shimmy down the last fifteen feet of rope. Where was Sage?

As if in answer, the rope slid down the cliff, landing like a heap of vipers at his feet.

Then the rifle fire began.

Parker forced himself to hustle the boys into the shelter of the cedars, Sages words echoing in his head,
Whatever happens, those boys come first.

Get your little brother on that pony, he said to John. You two take off down this mountain and dont look back. Take the rougher trailyou know the one we take when were going hun-tin. Ride all night and tomorrow and keep going until you get to Rocky Falls. Dont stop for anything, and dont hesitate to use that rifle. Once youre at Rocky Falls, go to the preachers. Tell him I said to ride out to your mamas place and tell her youre all right, but dont let anyone else know youre in town.

Yes, sir. John pulled himself into the saddle and reached for Davis to sit behind him. Raindrops began to splatter the ground. Ill see you at Preacher Wallers. Thanks, Uncle Parker.

Parker listened to the pony pick its way down the path. Once the sound diminished, he turned his eyes to the inky blackness above him, where he heard Sage inching her way down.

Sage, you all right?

Not exactly. Her breathing was labored. Ive got a hole in my right side.

An image of Franks body slammed against Parkers mind. He refused to lose another person to the McCaws. He reached up to help her down, being careful not to touch her wound and trying
to ignore his cracked ribs. How bad? His hands felt the slimy blood along her right thigh.

I thinkhope it went all the way through.

The idea of digging out a bullet filled him with apprehension. Well get you back to Doc Sladers.

The boys? Her voice had grown weaker in only a few seconds.

Theyre gone. John can be trusted to get both of them home. He lifted her into his arms, and her weight sent daggers along his ribs. He blinked, fighting dizziness and his own agony.

Im not going far. Her breathing grew shallow. Please, leave me somewhere. This

Sages body fell limp in his arms, and he stumbled to the ground, pain searing his chest and sides. He struggled with the blackness threatening to overtake him. Sage, he whispered. When she didnt respond, he felt for a pulse. It was there.
Thank You. Help me get her to safety. And keep the boys safe.

Parker found the strength to lay her body on the rock-and-earth floor. He made his way to his horse and the pack mule to get a blanket. Where could he take her in this condition to treat her wound and keep her away from the McCaws? For that matter, how could he get her on his horse? Dear God in heaven, he couldnt even carry her with his busted ribs.

There was a way; he simply hadnt thought of it yet. A travois would have worked well, but there wasnt time. And he didnt want to toss her over his horse like a sack of feedor a dead man. Besides, she might bleed to death in the process, or theyd walk into the McCaws path. What could he do? It wouldnt take long for the McCaws to surround the area and finish off both of them.

Parker remembered a clump of brush several feet from the foot of the cliff. He could move her there, then lead the horse and mule down from the path, take another trail up behind the brush, and reach her from the rear of where she lay. All of that in the dark. But it wasnt impossible. He had many of these trails memorized, and he understood if God was in this, Hed be the guide.

BOOK: A Woman Called Sage
13.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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