Montana Territory, America. 1878

The bear was huge. Even compared to other grizzlies, it would have been considered a monster. I’d seen several of her kind since arriving in Montana. And so long as I kept my distance and avoided them, they tended to do the same with me. Something told me I wasn’t going to be as lucky this time. There was a cub.

I leaned forward and brushed the neck of the young, palomino mustang I rode. She had been an expensive purchase, but, as I’d discovered, well worth the money. She was even-tempered, but kept some of the fire I’d heard her breed was capable of. Above all, she was hard to spook. She’d stood her ground when there’d been predators or hunters nearby. It made her seem almost fearless, hence her name—Valour.

The bear stalked forward, putting herself between her cub and the perceived threat. She was maybe thirty feet away and a low growl sounded in her throat, the moonlight only serving to enhance its resonating power it.  I couldn’t see how this would end well.

“Not here to hurt you, girl,” I said softly. I knew talking to the bear was useless, but damn if I had any better ideas. I wanted to get down from Valour, to prepare for any confrontation, but that might be seen as an aggressive response and trigger the very fight I was trying to avoid.

Outrunning the beast was impossible. With me on her back, Valour was no match for the grizzly over short distances and we wouldn’t get enough of a head start to make a difference in the long run, not to mention that the surroundings hardly afforded Valour a good escape. I pulled the reins, moving Valour further back into the stream, leaving a few dozen meters between us and the bear. I’d only stopped for a drink, and to catch a few fish, thinking we’d be gone before any local wildlife would notice us.

The bank on the far side was home to several huge trees and bordered by a fifty-foot-high cliff. There was a slope that led up toward the top of the cliff, but it was a hundred feet up the bank and there was nowhere to gain an advantage and get to higher ground before then.

The bear took a few more steps forward and splashed at the water, her eyes never leaving Valour and me.

“Don’t make me kill you, girl,” I said. “I don’t want to make an orphan of your cub there.” If she charged, I knew I could kill her, but killing an animal for wanting to protect herself and her cub hardly seemed fair. Unfortunately simple warning wasn’t going to deter the grizzly if her mind was set on a fight.

The bear rose on her hind legs, all eight feet of solid muscle, razor sharp claws and teeth glistening in the moonlight. She roared.

In the dead of night, and so close to the cliff wall, the sound was much more ferocious than it might have otherwise been. It reverberated all around me, and Valour shied back a few steps, her head raised high, until I calmed her once more.

The bear moved forward and roared again. Violence was coming, I was certain of it. I’d have to orphan the cub, which would be its death sentence. More humane just to put it out of its misery.

The bear tensed to charge and a massive explosion of noise sounded above us, a second following a moment later. Gunshots. The bear turned and ran back into the woods, the cub quickly following in its mother’s wake, the need to fight overridden by the need to get as far away from the noise as possible.

I led Valour onto the bank with the high cliff and dismounted as a third shot rang out. A fourth was right above where I stood. In my experience, hunters don’t usually run after their prey, shooting the whole time.

I guided Valour into the nearby tree line, hoping to avoid a confrontation if the gun wielders ran down the slope from the top of the cliff toward the stream. I heard a crash high above me.

I stepped back and craned my neck to get a better look as something tumbled through the top of the nearest tree, breaking through the branches as it fell. It wasn’t until he was halfway down that I saw it was a human boy.

White glyphs immediately blared across the back of my hands, moving up my wrists before vanishing from view under my coat sleeves. I raised my hands, palms out toward the boy, blasting a torrent of air to cushion his fall. There was little I could do about the larger branches without hurting him too, but he only hit the floor with a small bump, and was immediately followed by hundreds of leaves and twigs.

I dashed over and found him lying on his back. Blood soaked one side of his face, covering his shoulder and half of his chest. There was a nasty cut just above his temple. It wasn’t life-threatening, cuts to the head always look worse than they inevitably are, but it still needed to be cleaned and closed.

The bigger problem was the damage the hard branches had done on his way down. Whilst his arms and legs weren’t broken, when I touched his ribs he stirred slightly and winced, before quickly slipping back into unconsciousness. The ribs were either broken or badly bruised and I hoped he hadn’t punctured a lung. A wound I’d seen happen before with broken ribs, and in many circumstances a death sentence this far from anything resembling a doctor.

“Hey, you,” a man shouted.

I turned to watch two men on horses trot toward me. One had a revolver out and ready to use; I recognised it as an Army Colt.

“Step away from the boy,” he said, his voice rough and deep.

The second man just sat in the saddle of his brown horse and watched. A sparkle of metal shone on his lapel when the moonlight touched it. A sheriff’s badge.

“He’s hurt,” I said, and stepped between the armed men and the unconscious boy.

“He’s a thief and a murderer,” the armed man said, moving his horse closer. “And you will hand him over to us.”

“To shoot while he’s unconscious?”

The man’s eyes narrowed and he pulled his jacket aside. “You see this badge? It says I’m a deputy sheriff. My friend over there is a deputy, too. The boy is a criminal, and we’ll kill him any way we can. Now move aside.”

“I don’t care about your badge,” I said. “I’m not about to hand over a badly hurt boy to be executed. I’ll take him to town. If he is what you say, he’ll see justice.”

The armed deputy pointed the Colt at me. “You’ll move aside and allow us to take him, or we’ll go through you.”

The second man’s hand had dropped to his gun, which was still holstered. My Winchester rifle was still in its own holster, attached to the side of the Valour, along with my Jian, a Chinese sword.

I stepped aside, seemingly to allow the deputy access to the boy, but it put me next to Valour. The man nodded curtly as he turned his attention to his prey, giving me time to grab the sheathed Jian and slam the hilt into his throat as he rode past. I spun, dragging one of the two silver daggers out of the blade holster on the small of my back, and threw it at the second man. The blade missed his head by a hair’s width, but it had the desired effect of making him lose his concentration. And the next thing he knew, the end of my Winchester rifle’s barrel was pressed firmly against his nose.

“Make a move and you’ll find a big hole where your face used to be,” I said, dragging an identical Colt from the deputy’s holster and flinging it into the woods behind him.

His partner’s horse trotted past, the unconscious deputy slumped forward. “I’d leave now and go help your friend,” I said.

“This isn’t over,” he said.

“It is for today. Now leave. If this boy did as you say, I’ll bring him in myself.”

“You have the authority to do that?” he asked incredulously.

I removed the barrel from his nose. “You have no idea of my authority. Get out of my damn sight.”

I watched the deputy guide his partner’s horse back into the woods away from us. I doubted they were the type of people who kept their promises, and I wanted to be far away before they decided on a repeat performance. I walked over to the boy and looked down at him. A murderer and thief. He opened one eye—the other was already swelling closed.

“Who are you?” he asked, his words broken as he spoke through the pain.

“Nathan Garrett,” I said. “You’re safe now.”

“I’m Sam,” he said softly, before passing out once more, and leaving me with one burning thought.

What the hell have I gotten myself into?

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