Riders of the Mountains (Preview)

Chapter One

Thirty-five years into the Eighteen hundreds, and Wyatt Wright knew he was going nowhere. Deep into Apacheria, the mountainous area north of the deserts, his life had become a ceaseless parade of corpses. The hardened law would be forged in the cauldron of blood and torn flesh, the rifle and the pistol authoring the tale of the new nation.

It hadn’t been more than a century since the founding documents had been signed, and since then the British had returned and been repelled and the map of the great nation had begun to take shape. But it wasn’t over yet, and Wyatt knew that by too much experience among the dregs of the new nation’s citizenry.

They were ugly, grotesque, to a man as far as Wyatt was concerned. He’d sought justice, but found a litany of unjust men and women on both sides of the law. Justice was only what anybody wanted it to be at whatever time, as far as Wyatt could tell. He who prevailed was just. Everybody had their own reasons, their justifications for their crimes, another sad truth Wyatt had come to know all too well.

Wyatt had to wonder if he was any better. He’d convinced himself that he was a force for order, a way to counter the wickedness so prevalent in the new nation. He’d convinced himself of a lot of things. But the end result always seemed the same, a contest between one gun and another, one set of justifications against the other.

Much of it was luck, the rest was skill. Wyatt had enjoyed plenty of both, but others could always have more of either one. Every day could be his last above ground, Wyatt knew, and for all he cared, it might as well have been.

His life had become a lonely crusade. He’d take no partners after losing his brother to the Barbary Brothers’ gang. He’d take no wife after losing Elizabeth to the Sioux. The paint beneath him was Wyatt’s only companion, his only confidant. And the horse reflected his own qualities: Quiet, diligent, strength held in reserve.

The whole of the nation seemed to reflect those qualities. It was said that the so-called new nation was built on the backs of horses and by the Winchester rifle, the twin partners prophesied to win the West. Looking around the ancient pines and firs, it was hard for Wyatt to imagine that any of it could be considered new. The white Europeans were what was new to the country, and it seemed altogether certain that he would refashion the nation in his own image. But it was not his to change, and it was nothing new.

The horse huffed and shook his head as he clopped on through the hills. It was much cooler than in the deserts to the south, mountain winds whipping even in the summer. The blue columbines were in full bloom, pollen rich in the air, undercutting the smell of pine, which seemed everywhere in the mountains.

Wyatt’s instincts told him to beware. It was a sixth sense he’d developed over time, only one of the many survival instincts which had kept him alive for almost twenty-five years. His brother had lacked the same instinct, and it had ended his career as a lawman five years earlier. Wyatt knew he was likely to meet the same fate, brought low by hot lead in a flash of violence. But he was determined not to die before his time, and that would be as far into the future as he could manage. Day by day, his life seemed less worth living. But dying was another matter entirely.

He thought back to the men he’d killed. There were too many to remember. Not one of them had been willing to come in voluntarily to face the law. Even those who had been warranted to be taken alive but not dead seemed more willing to die in combat than at the end of a hangman’s rope. And Wyatt could hardly blame them for that. The law was a dubious proposition in the new nation. Lawmen and politicians were corrupted and everybody knew it. The notions of justice were lofty at best, and most people knew they were only that, lofty notions with little practical application.

But they were necessary. Wyatt had already seen what men could and would do when left to their own devices. They needed to be constrained, even and especially when they were unwilling. Even with the law, the men were dangerous, deadly. Without it, there would be no society, only local tribes warring on themselves and one another, no better than the Sioux or any of the other so-called Great Nations.

They struck him as a strange and alien people, but so too did those with white faces and more elaborate costumes. They were not of his kind, nor he of theirs. Wyatt had to admit to himself in those silent seconds that he had no kind, he had no home, and he was probably not meant to have one. His life sent him on a lonely path, one meant to end prematurely and in violence and blood.

A peaceful death surrounded by loved ones in the winter of natural life was meant for others, but not for Wyatt Wright, nor for anyone in his line. It had seemed certain to him from an early age, and nothing he’d seen, heard, or done, nobody he’d killed, had demonstrated anything to the contrary.

Wyatt had no more interest in the Indians of whatever tribe than in the white cities and towns. He’d been on his own for so long, it seemed to him that he had no place among any of the other communities of any color or stripe. The world had chosen him to be alone, drifting from conflict to conflict, condemned to live a life adrift, never more to know a woman’s loving touch, the heartwarming feeling of home and hearth.

Those things were for others to enjoy, and if Wyatt could reduce the odds against them, if his life in the shadows could minimize the dangers to the good and decent Americans trying to build a nation of quality, then his life would be worthwhile, if such a thing was truly possible.

Wyatt had lost track of such things. Life seemed little more than a forestalling of death, by disease or animal attack, by white men or red. But someday the struggle would calm, normalcy would reign, and the United States of America would be the nation it so wanted to be, the nation it claimed to be. That would happen long after Wyatt’s lifetime. He was certain of that, if it came at all. But if it did come, Wyatt Wright would have done his part to make it so, and that was reason enough to go on.

There was a tension in the mountains, Wyatt’s instincts telling him to be wary. The paint huffed, shaking his head, and that was a sure sign of pending disaster. The mountains were adept at presenting such perils, including predators of all sorts, steep falls, falling trees, crumbling trails. And what the mountain could not provide, Wyatt’s fellow man was more than ready to offer; Apache, road agents, banditos from the south.

Wyatt rode on, his muscles tensing on the bone. His eyes shifted from one side of the trail to the other, dense forest giving shelter to any number of deadly threats.

But no danger appeared, every minute presenting its own type of threat. For it was the endless riding, the journeying from death to death, which was working its way into Wyatt’s heart and mind. It was the ceaseless suspense which had his teeth grinding. It was the endless parade of nights in the open which had prevented him from getting a good night’s sleep even when he was in the shelter of some camp’s hotel room somewhere. His dreams were vivid, predicting a grim future. He was always gunning for someone, and so he had to know that others could be gunning for him.

He who lives by the sword, Wyatt had to remind himself.

The bear’s growl came out of nowhere, and so did the big beast, shambling out of the forest on the right side of the trail. It was a big black bear, tan snout cracking open in a roar, white teeth and pink gums flashing. The beast blocked the trail; the paint rearing up beneath Wyatt, the two animals facing off in what would be a one-sided battle that would leave Wyatt without a mount and the horse without its guts.

Wyatt was loath to shoot the bear. Animals were just about the only creatures he knew, which were not duplicitous or corrupt, wicked or vile. They were brutal and deadly, but they made no pretense about it. They were compelled by nature, by instinct, like the worst humans he’d come across. But they had purpose in all things, doing nothing which did not have to be done.

This bear was either hunting for food, protecting its territory, or perhaps its young in a nearby den. It had no choice but to take its position, and it had no way of simply explaining or negotiating. This was its negotiation, and its opening salvo would not lead to a peaceful resolution.

But the law of the mountain was to kill or to be killed, to act fast or react even faster. The slow hand would be empty, palms up in the sun, or the belly of some hungry bear or cougar or army of ants. Wyatt had not been killed, and he wasn’t about to be food for any animal before his time.

The paint reared up, kicking its front legs. Wyatt leaned forward, remaining on his mount as he drew a Colt from his holster.

The bear roared and lunged forward, swinging its great forepaw in front of it. The horse reared back, crying out its fear. It pedaled its forelegs before it, sharp hooves driving the big predator back. Even one strike could render the bear mortally wounded, and the massive creature seemed to understand that. It was hardly an equal match, but the paint was also not helpless.

Nor was Wyatt.

The horse dropped back down and gave Wyatt a clear shot. He looked into the bear’s eyes and then returned the steely glare. The animal wasn’t going to back down, that was clear. It charged the paint, and there was little enough distance between them. There was no longer any choice, and Wyatt’s finger squeezed the trigger.

Bang! He squeezed again. Bang!

The bear roared and snapped back, shaking its head. Its legs gave out from beneath it, a massive black, furry form crumbling to the ground, its skullcap blasted free of its head. The animal spasmed and twitched in death, laying on its belly, eyes staring off in different directions.

A sad silence passed in the wake of the bear’s death. The mountain was momentarily paused, mourning one of its own, a creature from the succor of its own sacred loins. The paint knew the import of it, at least as far as its own safety was concerned. In the horse’s primitive mind, the threat had been nullified; the danger passed. The mountain had given, but Wyatt Wright had taken away.

Wyatt sighed and holstered his Colt. The paint calmed beneath him, clearly seeing that the threat had been nullified. It huffed and shook its head before walking around the dead beast and carrying Wyatt forward. There was valuable meat and a fine hide on the bear, but the task of dressing the animal in the mountains was more than Wyatt was up for.

He had enough money from his last bounties and little enough to spend it on in the hills. He had dried meat enough to see him through. He had everything he needed: a good horse, a knife strapped to his calf, two Colt pistols and ammunition to fill them. He had blankets and a bedroll.

And he had another day above ground. He lived to bring death to others, the sad purpose of his seemingly aimless life. There was little enough to push him onward other than the promise of what another death might accomplish, the lives that each death would spare in the twisting manner of what passed for justice in the new nation.

But the event did more than illustrate the sad truth of Wyatt’s life, his purpose, his sad destiny to be death incarnate to whomever might cross him, or whomever had crossed the law. Even the law was a dubious master to serve. So Wyatt would wear no badge. His guns were his authority, the knife strapped to his calf, the authority he required, the warrant in his saddlebags, the justification for his actions. There had been no warrant against the bear, but it had created a conflict which it could not resolve. And it would not have died entirely in vain.

The dead bear would attract other predators, freeing Wyatt of that concern. Every predator would rather scavenge if they could, and the bear would give them plenty to feed on while he rode onward. A white town wasn’t far to the north, and there was likely to be another bounty to chase after, another life to bring to a violent end; perhaps his own.

Chapter Two

Pine wood crackled in the firepits, smoke wafting between the wickiups, grass huts sewn to wooden frames and fortified with hides against the winds coming in from the north. The horses were tethered, men working the gardens to see to the maze and other farmed fruits and vegetables. Harvest wouldn’t come for several months, until long after the end of the sunny season, what white called summer.

As the chief’s daughter, Tala was spared the hard work, as were her sisters, Ela and Onawa. But their father, Chief Kuruk, kept them close to hold sway over their lives. Kuruk had become a legend among the Northern Tonto Apache, negotiating with other local tribes and even with the white men for trade. But he kept them at a cautious distance from others, knowing the corrosive influence they would have on his tribe and on his daughters.

But he was well-respected in the Circle of Elders, and he represented his tribe fairly and honestly. He was known to be a just man, embraced by the spirits of the Earth and even by the Painted White Woman of the Southern Apache lore.

Still, even the great Kuruk could not seem to stand up to the collective will of three daughters.

In their native language of Athabaskan, Kuruk said, “Naiche leads a hunt,” his voice low, reverberating as if through the very ground beneath Tala’s feet.

“He does,” Tala said, Ela looking on. They were making flatbread in the summer sun, a tradition passed down for generations among the Apache. The dough was quick to bake over the heated flat rock.

“He is a worthy warrior,” Kuruk said, letting the silence linger.

“He is,” was Tala’s only answer, her focus fixed on the flat rock even as Ela looked from her to their father and back again.

“He has spoken to me of you, Tala,” Kuruk said. “He speaks of your future together.”

Tala was not surprised by the words, nor by the chill in her blood which they inspired. Despite sitting in front of that rock, a small fire beneath it, she could not ignore that shiver passing through her body.

But she knew how to deal with her father, and this was not the first time the subject had come up.

“We share a tribe,” Tala said. “That’s a fine future for either of us to share.”

“He wishes to share more,” Kuruk said. Young Ela looked on, quiet and respectful but intrigued, unable to turn away from the conflict. “He wishes to share a wickiup, a family of your own.”

“But I don’t wish that, Father,” Tala was quick to answer.

Kuruk shook his head. “He is the most capable man of our tribe, Tala. You agreed that he is an able warrior.”

“He is.”

“Then what reason have you to turn him away? Even being a chief’s daughter is no reason to fight the will of the Great Mother, even of the White Painted Woman.”

“Father, it is the spirit woman which I follow, that of every woman. My heart is my spirit guide, and it tells me not.”

Ela looked up from her own heated rock, flipping the flatbread to evenly cook it on both sides.

“But I am your father,” Kuruk said, “and I am your chief. Your stubbornness displeases me, child.”

“I’m no child, but a woman. And my spirit knows what is true and right, Father. Is it not the same with your own? When the wind blows just so, you can hear what it tells you.”

“Yes.”

“You know how and where and when to lead us, when to hunt and when to defend.”

Kuruk stared out into some unseen distance, wherein his memories lay. “Yes.”

“And so too is it with me,” Tala said.

“And me,” Ela said, speaking up with a hopeful crack in her voice.

Kuruk glared at his younger daughter and then at the older. Tala knew that his fears were of her influence on her younger sisters. But it was a rebellious streak they seemed to share from birth, a gift from their mother long after her sad and early demise at the hands of white bandits who called one another road agents.

Tala said, “Ela, be still.”

Ela answered, “Why should I be? I speak in your favor, Sister. Aren’t we free to make our own choices?”

Kuruk said, “The choices you would make are dangerous to our people, Ela, our way of life. This is something you refuse to understand. But you are still young, not quite the woman you wish to be.”

“I’m still young,” Ela said, eyes downcast, “I know. But that will pass, and soon. And what of the whites? However old I am, they’ll still be there, and all the more with the passing of the moons!” Tala and Kuruk shared a glance as Ela went on, “We trade with them.”

I trade with them,” Kuruk said, his voice stern and sharp. “You obey my commands!” No answer rose up from either of his daughters. “Your sister, Onawa, is still too young to be concerned with such things as white men and the temptations of the nearby towns. But would you have her follow your careless example? Would you have her go  adventuring in among the whites? You know how they treat us, how they feel about us.”

“I think they’re coming to accept us,” Tala said. “More and more, I think.”

“You are mistaken,” Kuruk said, “woefully so. As their numbers grow, so does their hatred of us. They fear us, and God seems to wish to see us destroyed. They have no understanding of the land, the spirits, the Great Mother. They desecrate the land, pollute it. They presume to own it, to buy and sell it, to create divides where there should be none, walls where none should stand.”

“They cannot all be as bad as you believe,” Tala said, Ela putting her toasted flatbread aside to prepare another.

“They can be,” Kuruk said, “and much worse! The things they do to one another, and to themselves…they are possessed of a blood thirst which they themselves cannot comprehend.”

Tala and Ela sat quietly, respectful, knowing when to challenge their father and when to let him speak his peace. “They see the Earth as their own, not servants or stewards but masters, to buy and sell and burrow in like rodents. They pull out the vital elements from the bosom of the Earth. They leave great holes, wounds in the body of the Mother. They are misguided, foolish, destructive, harmful, hateful, and they will be the end of our kind.”

“No, Father,” Ela said, “to even say such a thing…”

“The Mother has spoken to me, as much as she speaks to you, my children. She tells me the future, shows it to me when I sleep. I know that these whites are the end of our people. The Earth…she begs me to free her from his grip, to liberate her from servitude, and…and the servitude of others.

But there is nothing I can do, my children, no way to stop the white tide from washing over us all, cleansing the land of our people now and for all times, driving us into the sea, where the great beasts of the dark shall consume us.”

Kuruk sat, staring off into his grim vision of the future. Tala and Ela shared a nervous glance. Tala knew her sister’s views. She shared her hope for a brighter future. But their father was not to be moved from his grim visions.

“This is why we must remain isolated from them,” Kuruk went on. “If we must trade, then we must. But we must remain among our own, in particular as to marriage.”

Tala said, “Then another, Father. I’ve no love for the white man, no particular fascination. But Naiche will not have my heart.” Kuruk answered with a disdainful sneer, and Tala went on, “It’s no choice of mine, Father!”

“You are not wrong in saying so,” Kuruk said, his voice a stern snap. “The choice is mine.”

The long silence which followed told Tala what her father meant. And it was clear to her that her younger sister took the same meaning. They would not have the right to control their own lives, their own futures. There was much to be appreciated in being the daughter of the chief of an Apache tribe.

But that came with a price, and it would take three lifetimes to pay it, those of his own daughters.

Though Tala knew she was not the only one to pay such a price. Naiche and the others risked their lives in every hunt, in every contest against white road agents and even in conflicts with other Apache tribes. There were other Great Nations to bring conflict depending on their own interests. Tala knew that the Great Nations were no better than the whites when it came to making war on one another, nor any the less able to make peace and to live in peace.

Everybody lived for the tribe, for the Great Mother, for one another. There was an exotic pull of the white man which both Tala and Ela found hard to resist, the attraction of something foreign, something other. It could even have been the danger which appealed, sparking a strange sensation which neither young woman could truly understand. But it was there in Tala, and she recognized it in Ela, and it was likely to spark in little Onawa when the time came.

Her father saw that. He knew it, just as clearly as Tala did. But he feared it as she did not. She welcomed it as he did not.

The ground shook, the thunder of hooves getting closer fast, telling Tala that danger was approaching. Naiche and his band would not come charging into the camp unless driven by some emergency. And it was likely that the horses were not of his band at all, and with Naiche and his best hunters out, the tribe was virtually unprotected.

Chapter Three

The men and the women of the Northern Tonto moved into action without thought or command, each of them seeming to know what was happening. It was only a matter of seconds before the proof was illustrated before their eyes and ears. The ringing of gunshots and the thunder of the hooves announced their arrival, and the six men riding in came like a stream of terror and death, quick to infect the tribe and lay them all low.

But even without Naiche and the other warriors, they were not incapable of defending themselves. Ela herself rolled back and to her bow and quiver, pulling arrows out two at a time. She was a lethal shot and always had been, her youth making her an unlikely assassin, and therefore all the more effective.

Tala watched as Ela strung one arrow into the bow, pulled it back, and sent it flying, as if the motion were somehow as natural to the young girl as drawing a breath or breaking a smile.

Wwwhhhhhp!

One of the white men snapped back, the arrow planted deep into the center of his chest. The man’s horse rode on as he dropped his pistol and fell slowly back, every second pulling him deeper into the grave. It was only Ela’s respect for the beast and the nobility of its life which spared her from killing it. The animal would also be a valuable prize.

But it wouldn’t come without a high price.

Nothing ever did.

The whites were shooting, and not every Apache was lucky enough to outrun or dodge the fire. Little Leechee was blasted in half by the gunfire, her brief thirteen years brought to a terrible and pointless finish in a cloud of red blood gathering around her. Old Chuktah had no chance of escape, trampled beneath the invaders’ horses’ hooves as they stormed through the camp.

Tala’s own skills with a bow and arrow were keen, almost as much as her sister’s. But her concern then was for their youngest, Onawa, playing somewhere in the camp. She’d wandered off during Kuruk’s lecture, and she had to be recovered before tragedy struck.

Tala scurried off to where she thought she’d find the girl, likely near the banks of the nearby river, not far from the camp. She and her friends frolicked there often, watched over by Koa and other women of the tribe.

The white were only six in number, rendered five by Ela’s arrow. And the men were drawing fire from the other warriors still in camp. The chief himself drew his arrows and bow and stood against the men, standing as if he was impervious to their bullets as they rode past.

But Tala had to turn her back on the fighting to get to her sister and the other children. The ground shook beneath her, one of the white horsemen riding directly past her. Tala cut into a thickly forested area, Englemann spruce and picea pungens providing some shelter as she snaked her way to the nearby river.

Goldfinches and dark-eyed juncos flapped out of the quaking aspen branches above her, Tala keeping her head down as the sounds of the battle receded behind her. Her mind was focused on getting to the riverside, though even then she had no idea what she would do when she got there. Unarmed and unskilled, Tala was driven by instinct, to protect her kid sister from terrible death and take that burden upon herself if she could.

Tala moved swiftly through the trees, speed and grace among her natural blessings. She also knew the land. She knew practically every bristle cone and lumber pine, every chokecherry and every rabbitbrush. She’d grown up there. She’d felt a part of the land in a way the white man never seemed able. The Earth welcomed her. It wanted her to escape and to embrace her sister the same way the Earth had always embraced them both.

Tala pushed through the woods, the sounds of the rushing Verde River getting louder as the sounds of the battle receded behind her. Tala’s heart pounded in her chest, sweat collecting in the crevice of her spine. She had reason to be hopeful, but she also had reason for dread. Such was life in the new nation, life among the rising white tide.

Tala broke out of the woods where they met the banks of the river. There was a certain stretch of river bend which the children favored, a sandy bank where the waters lapped up, where the trout could be seen swimming by and might even come close enough to touch.

Onawa’s hand was still reaching out, empty, her face in the sand.

Tala ran to her, but the breeze whispered the terrible truth into her ear. Five bodies lay by the river with Onawa, none of them possessing the breath of life. Gunshots and signs of trampling told the tale. She’d arrived too late, but the odds were that the whites had visited the riverbank first, that Tala hadn’t a chance to change the course of events.

But the sadness of the loss was overwhelming, both filling her soul and emptying it out at the same time. The luckless children would not be the first ushered out of this life by the white man, nor would they be the last. Their brave protectors had died with them, as was only right and just, though horrible and savage and a brutal waste of life.

Tala could only stand there among the dead, knowing that there would be others back in the camp to join them. Her other sister, Ela, and her father Kuruk were still facing the same horror, likely to lose their own lives to the godless monsters who disrupted their lives yet again, perhaps for the final, fated time.


“Riders of the Mountains” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

In the rugged mountains of Apacheria, Tala, daughter of Chief Kuruk of the Northern Tonto Apache, finds her people besieged by a ruthless white rancher. Her unyielding resolve collides with fate when the enigmatic stranger known as the legendary Killer of Enemies arrives. Could he be the prophesied savior that will turn the tide, or is their newfound connection doomed to shatter under the pressure of clashing cultures?

The whispers of war grow louder…

Wyatt Wright, a bounty hunter wandering the lands of Apacheria, stumbles into a conflict between the Apache and a greed-driven cattle baron. Despite being taken as a potential savior by the Apache, he’s anything but that. Finding himself drawn to the chief’s daughter Tala, he must decide where his loyalty truly lies. Will he find the loving community he’s always sought, or will he be forced to make a heart-wrenching sacrifice to restore balance to the mountains?

As Wyatt grapples with a duty that pulls him in opposing directions, will the boundaries of love and loyalty blur?

Caught between the clash of two cultures and the stirrings of a forbidden romance, Tala and Wyatt must navigate the treacherous landscape of greed, honor, and love. As the tensions rise and war looms on the horizon, their connection deepens. But will their love be enough to forge a new alliance, or will it all end in tragedy? And is love enough to keep these two very different people together?

“Riders of the Mountains” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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