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Hills of Nevermore: An Inspirational Historical Romance (Montana Gold) (Volume 1)

By Janalyn Voigt

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CHAPTER ONE


Idaho Territory, May, 1863

AMERICA WATCHED HER WAGON TRAIN SHRINK steadily in the distance, dust billowing in its wake. How could it have traveled so far in such a short time? Oh, why hadn’t she let someone know she’d needed to stop? Her friend Addie, taking a turn holding America’s baby, might not look for her unless Liberty woke and cried for her mother. Bill Baker, driving her oxen for a spell out of kindness, wouldn’t notice her absence for some time.
“I can’t have lost it!” Tears blurred the trail beneath America’s feet. She’d been a fool to wear the locket Kyle had given her. She should have kept it stashed away. When she’d felt her necklace’s chain break, she’d stopped walking at once. Why couldn’t she find it? If she didn’t come across the locket soon, she’d have to leave it behind. Catching up to the wagon train would take some doing even now, and every passing moment carried her baby, only three months old, farther away.
A meadowlark trilled, the song a sharp accent against the deeper thud of hooves.
A shiver ran down her spine. She jerked her gaze upward.
A spotted pony pranced on the path. The rider on the horse’s back watched her from dark eyes. Beneath the quillwork adorning the brave’s chest, his skin gleamed the color of robust tea. A black stripe of paint slashed across the bridge of his nose. Two tight braids fell to the sash that bound fringed leggings at the waist. Strips of cloth crisscrossed a wide forehead, and feathers fanned sideways behind his head.
A group of Indians on ponies clustered beside him. One of them called out, laughing.
The brave held up his hand for silence.
Wisps of hair escaped America’s bonnet, stinging her eyes. She clawed them away with a trembling hand. One thought crashed into another, beating to the rhythm of her wild pulse. Could she outrun them? No. What would they do to her once they caught her? Horrible. She trembled at the very idea. They could scalp and murder her. Or. If they let her live, that might be worse.
With fear burning the back of her throat and her heart pounding like the wings of a canary against the bars of its cage, America walked toward the brave. Her legs shook so badly that they threatened to collapse. But she lifted her head high and pretended chance encounters like this happened every day.
She picked her way through the sagebrush and bunch grass beside the trail. The spotted pony snorted and showed the whites of its eyes. The leader’s dark gaze swept over America, making the hair on the back of her neck prickle.
The ground gave way as pain shot through her foot. She pitched forward and sprawled beside the pony’s prancing hooves.
The brave gave a command in his native tongue that quieted his pony. He leaned down to her. She stared at the hand he extended, then past it to his face. He watched her with an expression that told her nothing.
She pushed to her knees, drew breath, and took his hand.
The brave tugged America upward and caught her in a strong grip, lifting her to sit in front of him. She perched before him astride the pony with her skirt riding up to her knees. Heat rushed into her cheeks at being so immodestly displayed. He tightened his arm around her middle, and she fought the urge to scream. Whatever he intended, a clear head might help her survive. He’d spared her life so far, but for what purpose? She’d heard tales of women forced to live with natives but had never thought such a fate might befall her.
The pony lurched into motion beneath her and went through its paces, finally stretching into a gallop. The wind of their passing fanned her face. The thundering of hooves told her the other braves followed. The ground sped by as they overtook the train and curved into the path it would travel.
But this made no sense. Why would the brave carry her toward, rather than away from, the wagon train? Did he mean to trade her for goods?
A shout went up from the wagons.
The pony slid to a stop, and her captor lowered her with swift ease. He wheeled his pony to face his waiting companions but looked back with a smile touching his lips. “Brave woman.”
“You speak English?” The words jerked from her.
His smile broke into a grin, and the pony plunged forward as the shadow of a cloud raced over the ground.
America stared after this brave who had turned from captor to rescuer. He’d done none of the things she’d dreaded and everything necessary to help her. His behavior didn’t reconcile with what she’d been told about Indians, but now was not the time to puzzle that out.
She ran toward the wagons with the prairie wavering through a sheen of tears. Two riders pulled ahead of the train to meet her. America’s joy at being set free plummeted at first sight of the red-headed miner, Pete Amesly. Why would the last person she wanted to see right now ride out to meet her?
Grant Hadley, the wagon train’s scout, reined in his Morgan beside her. “Are you all right?”
Pete drew in his chestnut quarter horse on her other side and peered at her with narrowed eyes. “What were you doing with those Indians, anyways?”
“I’m well, thank you,” she answered Grant, ignoring Pete.
The grizzled scout squinted. “What happened?”
“I stopped for a few minutes and came across some Indians.” Describing her actions made them seem even more foolish.
Pete snorted. “Why would you do a fool thing like that?”
Heat flamed across America’s cheeks. She wasn’t about to tell Pete about Kyle or the locket he’d given her.
The wagon train reached them then, sparing her from commenting as the oxen lumbered by on either side. Here on the flat prairie, the drivers fanned out their wagons to avoid breathing one another’s dust.
“That’s not important.” Grant sent Pete a scalding look before returning his attention to America. “Let’s get you back to your wagon.”
“There’s Addie now.” She gave him a grateful smile and moved off to intercept her friend. Walking a safe distance beside her wagon and the oxen driven by her mop-headed son, Travis, Addie cradled Liberty in her arms.
“I was wondering where you were.” Addie gave her a quiet smile. “My arms are starting to ache.” She looked past America to Grant and Pete. “Gentlemen?”
America took Liberty’s weight into her arms and held her daughter close. Here was a treasure more precious than any locket. She fell into step beside Addie with tears blurring her vision.
Grant kept pace astride his Morgan. “She’s had some sort of mishap, ma’am.” He cleared his throat. “Maybe you can ask her about it. Find out if she’s come to harm in any way.” His ears turning pink, he gestured with his head to Pete, and they rode off.
Addie turned a frowning face toward her. “Tell me what happened.”
“He helped me.” America spoke on a note of wonder.
“Who helped you?”
“The Indian brave. I thought he meant to kill or kidnap me, or else trade me for goods. But he helped me instead.”
Addie shook her head. “Tell me from the beginning.”
“I lagged behind the wagon train.”
“You left the train on your own?”
“It was more like it left me, but yes. I meant to stop only for a short while to—well, to look for something I dropped.”
“But you know not to fall behind. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Mr. Hughes was talking with you, or I’d have said something. I didn’t want to call attention to myself. I was bound and determined not to slow the train.”
Addie sighed. “Does this have anything to do with Pete Amesly’s objections to your joining us?”
Moisture prickled America’s eyes. “Maybe he’s right. I can barely do my share with a baby to take care of.”
“That’s hardly your fault. Granted, if you had asked to join the train when we first set out, our captains might have refused, but leaving you stranded at Fort Bridger would be quite a different matter. Christian charity required us to rescue a widow in need. Under the circumstances, no one minds doing a little extra work for you.”
“Amesly objects.”
“Oh, pshaw! Pete is so taken with gold fever he’s lost his manners. The others don’t feel the same.”
“I fear he may be right, though. I’ve slowed the train and taken others from their own chores to attend mine. I can’t help feeling like a burden.”
“Why, America Liberty Reed! I’m appalled you would say such a thing. I don’t know what I’d have done after my Clyde—” She took a breath. “After the accident, I felt I couldn’t go on. My son tried to support me, but Travis had his own grief to bear over his father’s loss. Your company eased us both. You’re a blessing not a burden and remember—I need your help cooking for the miners at Bannack.”
The idea of cooking for miners held little appeal, but other options were in short supply. “I’m touched by your kindness, although I’m not sure why you want to cast your lot in with mine.”
Addie smiled. “That’s easy. Having your help makes me feel less—alone. And you need a friend. Never mind all that about not knowing you well, by the by. I’m a good judge of people, and I could tell right off you’re decent folk.”
Addie’s judgment of people must have faltered, but no need to tell her that. Liberty stirred. Her blue eyes opened to stare at America—eyes like her father’s. America hitched a breath.
No one ever had to know her secret.



Shane Hayes pulled the brim of his slouch hat lower and positioned himself in front of the enticing, tall open doors of Nell’s Dance Hall. Sharp smoke and the stench of rotgut whiskey fouled the air. He loosened his string tie, which all at once seemed tight.
“Take your partners for the next dance!” a jovial voice called. A piano ground out a tinny melody, joined by a bright whistle and the seesawing of a fiddle. Laughter and the clink of glasses rode above the lively melody, spilling into the street along with lantern light.
Shane glanced inside. A lantern suspended from a ceiling beam by a rope cast a pool of light on the dancers but left the edges of the room in shadow. Miners clasped each hurdy-gurdy girl on the floor in an energetic dance. The girls’ skirts glowed like jewels as they turned in their partners’ arms. Whenever their gyrations allowed a glimpse of lacy bloomers or a well-turned ankle, the men crowding the bar along one side of the room cheered.
Shane turned his back on the debauchery.
Boots thumped on the boardwalk behind him, and an arm caught him across the shoulders. “Well, go on in and be done with it!”
He tried to pull away, but the arm held him fast. Laughter barked in his ear. Casey Brogan’s fleshy face crinkled into a smile. At close quarters, his breath stank. Hands in pockets and with his blond hair sticking out from beneath a black bowler, Skip Jackson grinned at Shane from beside his mining partner.
Casey blinked watery eyes. “Admit it, Irish! You’re hankering to go inside. Why not live a little, eh? One of those gals would feel powerful good in your arms.”
Shane jerked out of the miner’s clutches. “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
Casey’s smile died. “Now what did you go and call me that for?”
“You tried to tempt a man of God.” Shane shrugged to throw off the feel of Casey’s arm about his shoulders.
“Come now, Saint Preacher.” The old miner blew out his cheeks, looking wounded. “You wouldn’t begrudge me a bit of fun now, would you?”
Shane took a breath, reminded himself of his mission, and went on in milder tones. “Come away, Casey. This is no place for you.”
“What? And sing hymns with you on Sundays? No, thank you.”
“I only want to help you.”
“If’n you weren’t a preacher, I’d put a fist in your stomach on account of that name you called me.” Casey pushed past Shane but turned to deliver a parting shot. “You’d best get out of this doorway, if’n you aim to stay healthy.”
Skip, about to follow Casey, cocked a bushy brow at Shane. “I don’t care if you are a preacher.” He pivoted, and his fist bashed into Shane’s eye.
Shane splatted face down in the street. He turned his head to spit out mud and blinked to clear his vision. Shane pushed to his feet. The world swung around him. Blurred figures loomed above him on the boardwalk. They merged into Skip.
“Nobody calls a friend of mine names when I’m around, y’hear?”
A voice spoke from behind Shane. “What’s this rabble-rouser up to now?”
“Just a misunderstanding, deputy.” The blond brows came down. “Ain’t it?”
Shane covered his burning eye with one hand and made no answer.
Skip glared at him a heartbeat longer then turned on his heel and strode into the dance hall.
“You’re going to get yourself killed, Sean.”
“My name is Shane now, as I’m sure you recall.” He spoke without turning his head. “I can take care of myself, Con. I don’t need your help.”
“Look, I know you can handle yourself in a fight.” Con squatted before him in the light falling into the street from the dance hall. “I grew up with you, remember?”
“I’m a man of the cloth now. I don’t fight anymore.” Shane reminded him.
“That’s what worries me. You’ve gone soft. Bannack’s no place for you. A man who won’t fight shouldn’t put himself in the way of those who will.”
Shane shook his head. “God looks out for his own.”
“And suffers fools?”
Shane snatched his hat from the mud beside him. “I’m here to bring salvation to the lost souls of Bannack.”
“Oh, Sean. When will you learn that the lost souls of Bannack don’t want saving? At least not by you.”
“They don’t know what they want.”
The tilt of Con’s head in the moonlight gave his opinion on that subject. “Gold is the only god and savior they want.” He hoisted Shane to his feet. “No matter how much they find, there’s always the possibility of more. That fact can drive a man mad with gold lust.”
Shane wiped the mud from his slouch hat and put it on with quiet dignity. “And you? Why do you stay?”
“Me?” Con gave a dry laugh. “I’m no better than any of them.”
Shane opened his mouth to rebuke the remark, but Con hauled him backward into the shadow between buildings. Hooves clopped in the mud as two horsemen trotted past, moonlight silvering their familiar features. Con’s grip loosened, and Shane took advantage of the distraction to pull away from him. He stepped on wobbly legs into the light. “I wonder what Sheriff Plummer and Jack Gallagher are about, riding in this late.”
“That’s not a question to ask.” Con fell silent but then clapped a hand around Shane’s shoulders. “Come on, Cousin. Let’s see to that eye.”
They followed the boardwalk westward but left it to cross the street with mud sucking their boots. When they didn’t have snow or dust to slog through in Bannack, they dealt with mud.
Con’s cabin wasn’t much—a simple shanty covered in tar paper—but Shane welcomed any roof over his head. While traveling his preaching circuit, he spent many a night alone and without shelter in the wilderness.
His knees gave way, and he plunked onto the wooden bench at the scarred table dominating the cabin.
Con struck a match, and the stench of sulfur filled the small space. The flame flared and receded. Con raised a lantern between them and peered at Shane’s eye. He gave a whistle. “Just look at you! You’ll have that bruise for a good while, make no mistake. Now stay put.” He hooked the lantern on its rope above the table and crouched to rummage in a trunk against the wall.
Shane’s lips quirked in a smile. “And where did you think I’d be getting off to, might I ask?”
Con retrieved a container of salve and a faded bandana from the trunk. “Hard telling, but I wouldn’t put anything past you. You have a knack for bringing trouble down on your head, rushing in where angels fear to tread. What gives you the right to interfere with people?”
“I’d answer that question if I thought you’d understand. Ouch! Rub my eye any harder and there’ll be nothing left to doctor.”
Con continued scrubbing. “I don’t suppose you want an infection. Ah, but this takes me back. Me patching you up after a scrap. You didn’t use to put yourself in harm’s way without the sense to defend yourself, though.”
Shane sighed. “Must we go over all that again?”
“You still need convincing.” Con reached for the tin of salve. “I don’t want to find you in Boot Hill someday, or rotting on the prairie without a proper grave. A man who won’t fight doesn’t live long in the territories.” After subjecting Shane to more of his ministrations, he stood back with a glint in his green eyes. “You look like death.”
“Tact was always your redeeming quality, Cousin.”
“Tell me, are you sure of your calling? That’s something you should know for certain.”
Shane’s gaze fell before Con’s direct scrutiny. He wanted—needed—to be sure of such a thing, but truth be told, he was not. He ought to summon the will to respond with enthusiasm, to cover his doubt, but no words came.
“Have you no answer, Sean?”
“Sometimes I doubt myself. No matter. I can’t do less than honor my word to watch over the people in my circuit. They are my sacred charge.”
“But what of you? Circuit preachers live hard lives and die early.”
“Deputies aren’t known for growing old in the sun, either.” Shane couldn’t resist pointing out another truth.
Con laid a hand on the back of his neck. “Yes, well. That’s a different thing entirely. But now you mention it, I could be in trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“It’s a long story. Let’s just say I may need to remove myself from town in a hurry.”

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