April 1881, Bitterroot Valley, Montana Territory
"Look, Blue. A deer!" The blue-roan mare’s black velvety ears pointed forward obediently as Morgan Tace spoke from her vantage point of Blue’s saddle. They stood at the edge of a tall bluff overlooking a creek rushing from its lofty mountain origin of snow-melt to the Bitterroot Valley below. Strands of the horse’s mane played with the cool, crisp breeze, beckoning it closer.
Spears of green punched holes in small clumps of slushy snow still hiding under pine trees and winter-bare bushes near the water. High, thin clouds muted the spring sunshine’s power on the scene. A deep, soul-cleansing breath of the clean, pine-scented air filled her with a joy she hadn’t ever felt before, at an unspoiled place to celebrate her nineteenth birthday.
A buck mule deer lifted his head from sipping water and stared at her from the far bank below. Large ears protecting budding antlers stood ready to catch any sounds that might threaten this perfect peace.
The loud crack of a rifle coincided with the buck’s fall, and her mount, startled by the sudden noise in the peaceful spot, jumped. Front hooves landed to find no purchase on crumbling ground so near the edge. Horse and rider plummeted down the steep embankment.
A rocky outcropping rose to meet Morgan as her body catapulted over the saddle horn, and the mountain air cradled her freely for a moment, then dropped her as if no longer interested to the slope below. She saw Blue’s body somersault past, stirrups flying and legs flailing, before her head thumped hard against a rotting log and the darkness whirled in.