Montana Territory, 1877
Gunfire jerked Wade Sawyer awake.
His feet hit the floor before he made a conscious decision to move. Grabbing his rifle mounted over the door, he rammed his back to the wall, jacked a shell into the chamber, and listened.
Another shot fired, then another. The volley went on and on. Many guns blazing.
Even as he figured that out, he realized the gunfire wasn’t close. Wade yanked the shack’s door open. In the heavy woods and the dim light of approaching dawn, there wasn’t much to see, but he knew the ruckus wasn’t aimed at him. It had another target, and from the direction of the sound, he knew what. . .or rather who.
Glowing Sun. And her village.
Already dressed because he slept in his clothes, he yanked his boots on. Snagging his heavily lined buckskin coat off the peg on the wall, he dashed toward his horse, yanking the jacket on while he ran.
Living in a meadow Wade had penned off, his chestnut gelding had his head up, alerted by the shooting, staring toward the noise. Wade lassoed the horse and had leather slapped onto the animal within two minutes. Wade swung up and slid his rifle into the boot of the saddle. Letting loose a yell that’d make a rebel soldier proud, Wade kicked his horse and charged toward death.
The shots kept ringing, echoing from the Flathead village set in the meadow high on the mountaintop.
His horse was game, and terror goaded Wade to risk the treacherous trails at a breakneck pace.
But it was too far. Racing up a deer trail, he knew, no matter how fast he rode and how much he risked, he’d be too late. He was already too late when the shooting started.
The hail of bullets ended. Wade galloped on. The weapons falling silent only made Wade surer that whatever damage was being done was over. In the gray of dawn, that silence ate at him, interrupted only by his horse’s thundering hoofbeats. He reached the base of the rise surrounding the Flathead village and tore up the mountainside.
A horse skylined itself, a masked rider atop it. A struggling woman thrown over his lap, screaming, clawing, kicking. A blond woman dressed in Indian garb, her hair catching the rising sun. Screaming as only Glowing Sun could scream.
She was still alive. Wade felt a wash of relief mixed with rage and terror as he goaded his horse forward. He could rescue her. Save her. He was in time.
Wade closed the distance, his horse blowing hard as it galloped up the rugged hillside, hooves thundering. Still a long upward quarter of a mile away, Wade wasn’t close enough yet to open fire. Afraid he’d hit Glowing Sun, Wade drew his rifle and carefully fired over the man’s head.
At the instant he pulled the trigger, three masked riders topped the hill, riding at full speed.
Wade’s bullet slammed the first one backward. The man shouted. His horse reared. A splash of bright red bloomed on the man’s shirt. Grabbing at the saddle horn, the outlaw showed great skill by keeping his seat. But he lost control of his mount and plowed into the horse bearing Glowing Sun and her abductor.
Shocked and sickened to have shot a man, Wade grimly raced on toward Glowing Sun.
The masked man just behind the one Wade had wounded swung his gun at Wade in a way that struck Wade as awkward or somehow wrong. The shooter hesitated; then, without firing a shot, he abandoned the fight, whirled, and raced his horse back the way he’d come.
The third man, skinny, but beyond that unrecognizable behind his kerchief, turned to face Wade’s gunfire. The instant he saw Wade, he turned coyote like the other outlaw and ran, leaving behind his wounded friend and the man who had Glowing Sun.
Glowing Sun gave an impossible twist of her body and an earsplitting shriek. She kicked herself over backward, landing a bare foot in the man’s face.
He must have yanked on the reins, because the horse reared, neighing and fighting the bit, skidding and spinning. As the horse threatened to go over backward, the man threw himself to the ground.
Glowing Sun went with him, screaming but not with fear or pain. It sounded like fury, killing-mean rage. And it sounded strong. Wade prayed she hadn’t been hurt.
Wade, still galloping full ahead up the long slope, leveled his rifle one-handedly and fired again, even higher this time.
The man Wade had shot gained control of his horse, wheeled, and dashed after the other bandits.
The fallen man leapt to his feet, still holding on to Glowing Sun. Then Wade realized the masked man wasn’t holding her. . .he was fighting her off.
Shouting Flathead words Wade didn’t understand, she had one hand jammed into the man’s throat as she slashed with her knife.
With the sharp smack of his backhand on Glowing Sun’s face, the man broke her grip. Her blade slashed, catching a flare of light from the first beams of the rising sun, cutting the man across his arm and chest. The outlaw yowled in pain.
Staggering back, Glowing Sun screamed an Indian battle cry and dove at him. She caught his kerchief and pulled it down. Then her fingers slipped. fell and slid down the steep hillside on her back.
Wade fired again, his horse thundering forward.
Stay alive. Stay alive.
He’d be there in seconds. But one bullet, one slash of a blade could rob the world—and Wade --- of Glowing Sun’s courage and beauty and indomitable spirit.
The outlaw jerked his gun free and shot at Wade. There was no blast. The gun jammed or was empty. Wade thought of the volley of gunfire that had awakened him and suspected the man had emptied his gun already.
Fury twisting his face, the man, his mask dangling around his neck, gave Wade one wild look. Wade saw his face plainly. Blood poured over his thick black beard and down the front of his heavy sheepskin coat. The outlaw snatched up his horse’s reins and threw himself into the saddle, and in two leaping strides, his horse vanished over the rim, following the other outlaws into the Flathead valley.
Wade reined hard as he reached Glowing Sun. His horse nearly sat down as it slid to a stop. Wade swung to the ground and raced to Glowing Sun’s side.
Blood soaked the front of her dress, coated her hands. She jumped to her feet as he got there.
“Where are you hurt?” Frantic, Wade tried to force her onto the ground.
She fought to stay on her feet and slashed the knife.
He knew her well enough to duck. “It’s me! Glowing Sun, it’s Wade. Let me help you!” He knew what he must look like. He hadn’t shaved all winter or cut his hair. Or bathed for that matter. He had no business expecting her to recognize the wild man he’d become.
She froze. Her knife was raised to strike. Her eyes locked on his face. “Wade?” The rage switched to relief. The knife fell from her fingers and she launched herself into Wade’s arms.
He staggered down the hill a few feet as he caught her hard against his chest.
Dear God, dear God, thank You. She’s alive. Holding her feels like a taste of heaven. Thank You. Thank You.
Wade’s head cleared from the knee-weakening relief. “Where are you bleeding? Were you shot? Did those men hurt you?” She felt vital and strong in his arms, not like a wounded woman should. His hands went to her shoulders, to push her back so he could see where she’d been hurt.
Before he could accomplish that, the smell hit him. Wade whirled with her still in his arms. Her feet flew out as she swung from his neck. He carried her as he dashed to the crest of the rise to see. . .
Smoke and bodies.
The tepees in flames.
Glowing Sun’s village laid to waste, people sprawled every-where. A dozen, maybe two dozen, all still. As death.
Gasping in horror, Wade looked at the village.
He’d made a habit of riding up here through the winter. This was the summer hunting grounds for Glowing Sun’s people, and he’d watched and waited for her to return from her village’s winter camp. He knew, even as he’d done it, the behavior was too much like what he’d done to Cassie Dawson a few years ago. But he couldn’t seem to help it. He’d needed to see Glowing Sun.
As spring had come on, he’d been more careful. Ghosting his way to the rim to study the high mountain valley to see if the Flatheads had returned. Only a week ago he’d ridden up here to find they’d come back. He’d dropped behind a scrub pine and watched until he caught a glimpse of her, alive and well and as beautiful as a dream. Then he’d slunk away like a low-down coyote.
Now, movement caught his eye. The men who’d taken Glowing Sun galloped far across the shallow bowl where this small group of Flatheads, roaming far from their reservation home, spent their summers. Wade’s hand clutched at his gun, but he was too far away for a shot.
A shot. He’d shot a man. His stomach churned. He fought nausea.
A wail of torment from Glowing Sun stopped him from dropping to his knees and emptying his stomach. He wanted to get on his horse and run from what he’d done. But he couldn’t leave Glowing with this devastation.
A flash of Glowing Sun fighting for her life ran vividly through his mind. What choice did he have but to fight for her? But it left him heartsick.
Then he looked again at the smoldering ruins of the peaceful village. Men, women, children. Killed by those four men. They’d come with rifles and handguns. The Indians were, more often than not, unarmed, at least unarmed beyond knives and spears. The Flatheads were a peaceful people. Their meager weapons were nothing against heavily armed men with repeating rifles.
Wade should be proud he’d shot one of those murdering scum. He should want to kill them all. The shame of that thought made his stomach twist again, and he thought he might vomit. He knew being able to kill wasn’t the sign of a man. He’d grown enough in his faith to understand that, but his common sense was fighting a battle with his upbringing.
“Why did this happen?” Wade asked God aloud.
Glowing Sun answered. “A massacre.” She still clung to him, but she’d lifted her head and turned to look at the butchery. She’d spoken in Wade’s language. He’d taught her English, or rather helped her rediscover her first tongue.
Wade blocked her view of the nightmare by turning and putting his body between her and the destruction. Thinking of her distracted him from his nausea.
Before he could check her for injuries, a cry of pain rose from the village nearly half a mile away in the valley.
Whirling to follow the sound, his weak stomach forgotten, he released Glowing Sun and grabbed at his horse’s reins. He jumped on, held his hand out to her. Her hand slapped into his with a sharp clap. He swung her up in front of him, remembering how she’d liked to ride.
They raced down the hill and waded into a bloodbath.
Glowing Sun snagged the reins away and swung her leg over the horse’s head. She jumped to the ground before the chestnut stopped and raced toward the loudest cries of pain.
Wade followed, relieved to see her moving and unhurt despite the blood.
Glowing Sun dropped to her knees. “Mama!”
Wade’s stomach twisted with dread as he saw two gunshot wounds bleeding from the woman’s chest. The woman opened her eyes, but they seemed unfocused. She grabbed at Glowing as if fighting her off, screaming.
“No, Mama. Let us help you.”
The older woman kept screaming, fighting.
“Flathead, Glowing Sun. Speak Flathead to her.”
Glowing Sun looked up, confused.
“You’re speaking English.” Wade pulled off his coat then tore off his shirt and grabbed his knife out of its sheath in his boot.
Glowing Sun shook her head then turned back to the woman.
“Ten. . .Mama. . .Ten.”
Ten? Did that mean “mother”? Wade should have learned the language of the tribes around him. Why had he never tried? His father hated the idea. Indians were to be driven off, not treated as neighbors.
Glowing Sun spoke in the guttural tribal language.
The injured woman calmed and seemed to recognize Glowing Sun. Instead of screaming, she began a chant.
“We’ve got to get the bleeding stopped.” Wade dropped beside Glowing Sun. The chances of saving Glowing Sun’s mother were slim, but they had to try. With a loud tearing sound, Wade’s shirt split under his blade. Wade handed strips to Glowing Sun, who pressed them against the gushing wounds.
Glowing Sun began to pray in English, frantic petitions to God for mercy. Wade glanced up and saw love in Glowing Sun’s eyes. The kind of love Wade had known for his mother. A long-lost love.
Wade knew nothing of the Flathead language, but to him the woman’s chant was a dirge. To the extent he could understand, it sounded wordless, just syllables of mourning.
He joined Glowing Sun in her prayers, asking for a miracle, because only a miracle would spare this woman.
“God, please spare her life. Guide our hands. Wisdom, Lord, give us wisdom to know what to do, how to help.”
The two of them worked in desperation, one on each side of the stout woman. Stemming the bleeding, binding the wounds. Long black braids, streaked heavily with gray, hung limp. The woman’s dark eyes seemed to look beyond the sky. A cry rang from her lips. Her eyes flickered closed, but the dirge continued.
“Press harder.” Wade shoved a wad of cloth on top of the one soaked with blood. He moved Glowing Sun’s crimson-stained fingers.
The woman didn’t react to what had to be excruciating pain. She continued her death chant.
Glowing Sun’s mother’s song became weaker, quieter, sadder.
At last the noise ended. Wade felt the moment life left the woman and her spirit left her body.
With a cry of grief, Glowing Sun stopped her futile medical treatment and flung herself on the woman.
Wade eased back, staying close but knowing nothing he could say or do would help. Only then did he hear other moans. Other cries for help.
He lurched to his feet, his knees numb from the long time on the ground. How long had they worked on the dying woman? Were there others they’d neglected in their futile fight to save Glowing Sun’s Flathead mother?
He hated to leave Glowing Sun. He couldn’t insist she come. He faltered. “I’ve got to see if there are others who need help.”
She didn’t raise her eyes. Instead she started her own death chant.
Without even waiting to see if she heard him over her cries of grief, he turned and rushed toward the sound of pain.