Forgotten Trails – Book 5 – Sneak Peek

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Forgotten Trails - book 5 of the Montana Trails series. This family will do what it takes to protect each other and their hearts.Forgotten Trails

Chapter 1

Rachiah

Rachiah shifted on the crease of the backseat. Sleeping in her car hadn’t gotten any easier in the months since she’d started her search. Her long legs didn’t fit well and were cramped in a familiar and uncomfortable bent position to her side.

She groaned, leaning up and cramming a folded towel under her right hip. “Come on.” Rachiah blinked blearily into the pre-dawn peachiness of the sky.

Would she ever sleep again? Find the peace of a restful night in a proper bed with sheets and blankets?

Would she ever get used to not being wanted?

Well, everyone wanted her except her own father. At least that was the story. That was what she’d been chasing after for so long.

Brushing black silky hair off her shoulder, she blew air toward the ceiling of her blue Ford Escort. Wear and tear in the gray interior hid itself well in the dim lighting.

Could she finish the lies in her postcard she was writing to her mom and step-dad? They wanted her so badly to be happy and satisfied with who she was as well as her family, her culture.

And she wanted that, too.

But she had to know why he hadn’t wanted her.

Why he’d never come back. Didn’t he know he’d left a huge hole in her life? She didn’t even remember him and her mom hadn’t kept any pictures of him.

From what her grandmother had said, Rachiah had actually never met him. Would something deep inside her recognize him as her father?

She got it though. Why would her mom keep reminders of an affair around? Rachiah was the “shame” no one wanted to address directly. She got it. Mason Two-Claw, her step-dad, treated her like he was her real dad.

No one tried to convince her she was anything else.

There were no questions about the Maverick Two-Claw, or MT, her older brother’s origins. He could be a cookie cutter of their dad. With a straight proud brow and angular jaw, he bore the Salish regal looks with nobility.

Throwing an arm across her eyes, Rachiah blinked at the tears vividly remembering the morning she’d discovered her mother’s secrets. The pain she’d uncovered…

Rachiah had run through the house, throwing open doors and calling out through the empty halls. “Mom, do you have my birth certificate? I need it for a passport to go with Sherri and Cyan to London.” Rachiah hadn’t even tried hiding her excitement.

Cyan’s parents had more money than they knew what to do with and they constantly spoiled all three of the girlfriends.

Her mom hadn’t answered and Rachiah had been too excited, too impatient, and she’d rushed into her parents’ bedroom to search the black file cabinet inside the closet.

She had rifled through the manila folders, stopping when she found one titled “Certificates”. She pulled out her birth certificate and hardly glanced at the names.

The closet didn’t stink, just had a more dusty scent and was colder than the rest of the house. In the shadows with sleeves from hanging shirts and bulky jackets butting against her, Rachiah stubbed her toe on the corner of one of her dad’s boots. She put the paper down on the still open drawer and raised her foot to squeeze the offended area.

In the slits of light, her gaze landed on the fathered by line.

Two-Claw wasn’t there.

No. Not Two-Claw. Howard. Jeffrey Howard.

His scribbled signature with its slanty Y and loopy F’s had branded itself into Rachiah’s mind.

She’d pushed out of the closet, leaving the drawer open. She studied the paper, held closely to her face.

Walking slowly into the living room, she hadn’t looked away from the official certificate aloft in her fingers as she continued staring at her parentage.

Her mom stood at the kitchen counter talking with MT. She turned, glancing at Rachiah and smiling. She held up a finger, “I’ll have to check for you. I don’t think I ha—” But she saw the paper in Rachiah’s hands and covered her mouth.

Shaking her head, she choked on her words. “Rachiah, I…” She squeezed her eyes tight, then opened them to pierce Rachiah with regret, shame, and guilt.

Rachiah didn’t raise her voice. “You’re not going to deny it? No excuses? Nothing?” Demanding answers and begging for something that was her right wasn’t her style.

After an indeterminable amount of time marked with MT shifting in his leather boots, Rachiah had nodded, turning on her heel to escape to her room.

She cried herself to sleep, that night and almost every other one since. Most importantly, she’d never asked her parents anything about the glaring name or brought the situation up with them again.

No. That would’ve been too easy. She’d had to go behind their backs and ask her grandparents, visit the reservation’s gossip who gleefully shared multiple confusing versions of the story, sneak through her parent’s file cabinet when they weren’t there. Basically do everything she could think of to find out as much information as possible without actually asking her parents about the truth.

As far as she knew, they still didn’t know where she’d gone. At least, she hadn’t told them.

Not yet.

But that didn’t mean her friends hadn’t told someone.

Rachiah couldn’t face the fact her parents had lied so horribly to her. This wasn’t a Santa or Tooth Fairy lie.

This was a… betrayal.

She had to know about her father.

She had to know. What if he wasn’t Salish? What if he was… gulp… Cherokee? Or Kootenai? Or Sioux?

She’d always focused on learning Salish, and the fact that she might be something else was a little disconcerting.

Living her whole life with the assurances she was full Native American, Salish, only to find out they hadn’t been honest with her from the start, stung.

Maybe her bloodlines weren’t as pristine as she’d always believed.

Her musings didn’t make the postcard write itself. She rolled as much as she could to the side of her backseat and grabbed the abandoned card and pen.

Scribbling as fast as she could, Rachiah mouthed the words she printed. “Hi, I’m doing good. The weather is great. Not sure where I’m heading next. Love, Rachiah.” Mom and Dad didn’t have her address because she didn’t have one. She dropped random cards along the way so they wouldn’t alert the authorities.

The next morning was as good as any to toss the curt note in the mail. Or rather, that morning.

She stared at the extra postcard, the one she’d gotten with Damon in mind.

A postcard. Rachiah snorted into the silence of her car. How impersonal when he continued calling her to check on her and asking Sherri about her.

She appreciated his attentions, but the wedding hadn’t exactly been her idea of a dating ground. But oh, his eyes and the angle of his forearms when he’d rolled up his sleeves. The few times she saw him had been brief but he’d seemed genuinely interested in her and what she said. Not many men were.

Sighing, she pushed the card away. He was white. She couldn’t date him with that fact blinding her to everything else.

Racism wasn’t the problem. She loved all cultures. The weight of the Salish people pulled at her. There were only a handful of full blooded Salish in her generation and they weren’t encouraged to date anyone but each other unless of course there was a marriage arranged with a different tribe, like from the coast. Then there was no dating whatsoever encouraged by anyone.

Rachiah wasn’t matched to anyone. Her options were few and unappealing. One of the men worked as a bartender at the casino at the reservation and he was almost fifteen years older than her.

She shuddered when she remembered his beady black eyes staring at her when they’d been introduced at a tribal gathering.

Proving how desperate the Salish community had become, her father suggested she date him with a grimace on his lips. Even to him, it was bitter to even contemplate.

Her phone rang. Only Cyan would call her at five-thirty in the morning. She knew Rachiah didn’t sleep.

“Hello?” She knew it was Cyan, but she loved teasing her friend.

“Rachiah, I know you have caller ID. It’s me.” An edge to Cyan’s tone suggested she didn’t have a lot to be happy about.

“What’s wrong, Cy?” Rachiah sat all the way up in the back of the car. Her shoulders pushed against the glass of the back window. Her head bent painfully to the side as she adjusted her bedding.

Her voice broke on a sob as her words tumbled over the line. “Emma is even sicker. I don’t know what to do. I feel awful. Stephanie asked me to help her with the loan. My dad’s helping her. I don’t know if money can do any good. We’re probably going to lose the house. Or they are anyway.” She sighed, the silence filled with worry.

Then Cyan spoke again. “I’m sorry. You didn’t run down to Wyoming to hear all about this. What’s going on down there? Did you find him? I haven’t heard from you in a few days.”

Rachiah’s phone beeped. She was almost out of battery and her car charger didn’t work unless the car was running. Gas wasn’t expendable when her funds ran low consistently. “Cyan, I’ll have to get back to you. My phone is about to die. Can I call you later?” Her friend agreed and they hung up.

Rachiah didn’t want to go into the details with her. Or anyone.

She didn’t want to admit her failures. She hadn’t found her dad in all that time, in all those years of looking for more information around the reservation.

Finally, when she had gathered enough nerve to actually go in search of him, every step had been more failure than success. She’d been pushed past the point of knowing what exactly she was searching for.

She couldn’t tell anyone she didn’t have it in her to find out he really didn’t want anything to do with her. Not Cyan. Not Sherri. Not Damon.

The persistence with which Damon pursued Rachiah endeared him into her thoughts. Her mind kept returning to him, the blonde waves in his hair and the blue in his eyes.

She had never been drawn to the dark looks of her Salish brothers. They all looked too much like her. The dark hair, dark skin, and dark eyes. Something about Damon’s golden boy persona enhanced with charming smile appealed to her even more.

When they talked though, and he asked about her internal struggles and what she was going through, he reached past the physical, the aesthetics, and became… more. This in all honesty was the most frightening reality of them all – past the abandonment of her father, the lies from her mother, and the desertion of her self-identity.

Rachiah didn’t have time for the emotions he stirred in her though.

She couldn’t call him anyway. Her money was keeping it so she wouldn’t be able to charge her phone until she’d exhausted all the leads in North Fork, Wyoming and was moving on.

The fact that he was off-limits was probably what made him so appealing. Maybe she needed to mess with him a couple times, and get it out of her system. She heard of other women in her tribe doing exactly that. The men were a given.

Everyone needed to get the blonde out of their system.

Her step-dad used to say that as a joke. Her mother had always hushed him.

Rachiah didn’t even care why her dad had left. The details wrapped up in intentions and emotions muddied facts.

He had to want her. Maybe he didn’t know what would happen. Maybe he was called away on an emergency.

Something kept him away from her. The dream she’d had since finding out consisted of a tall, dark Indian warrior riding a horse toward her. His features were obscured by the sun glaring behind him. He reached down his hand to the little girl she was in her dream and he scooped her onto the back of his horse. She would ride away with her daddy.

She shook her head, pulling a brush through her long hair. Those were the dreams of a little girl trapped in a woman’s body.

Rachiah wanted acceptance. For some reason, the one man who didn’t want her was the one man who could make her feel whole again. She hoped.

She arched backwards, pulling her jeans up over her hips. After buttoning them, she flipped her static-induced hair back into a ponytail.

The small car bounced with her movements.

She stopped moving and stared down the empty street. Blinking heavily, she longed to go home, back to who she was before she’d found out about Jeffrey Howard. Before she discovered she wasn’t who she’d been taught she was. She shook off the melancholy and tightened her jaw. She had a mission to complete. Self-assigned or not, she would do what she set out to do.

So what, if she didn’t know what her next steps were? Where would she go?

“Start with your lists, ‘Chiah.” The corner of the tattered notebook she kept her information in poked from beneath her scrunched pillow. She grasped it, yanking the spiral bound mess fully from its hiding place.

In North Fork, Wyoming, she had a bunch of questions to ask. She’d driven in late the night before and couldn’t ask anything. Opting to sleep in her car under the trees, she didn’t have the lay of the land yet. But now she was there and ready to check things out.

The only place open that early would be a café or a diner.

She crawled over her version of furniture, huffing as she settled into the front driver’s seat. How sad that her dashboard doubled as a table.

In the cold, she would welcome the chance to turn on the heater as she drove further into town.

She turned the old motor over, wincing as the belt whined. She didn’t have time to tighten it.

Rachiah liked working on engines and motors and other car stuff. Her biological father had been a mechanic on the reservation until he left. At least that’s what her Mima told her.

The small town North Fork Diner claimed the southern corner of Main Street. She parked a half a block away to keep her options open. She could walk the short distance in the early morning light.

She zipped her jacket against the fall air, brisk at the higher elevation. Even with the trees around her and the promise of a warm day, the night had been unforgiving, dropping many degrees into a very chilly, very frosty temperature. Her car had held the warmth better than she’d thought it would.

Tucking her hands into her jeans pockets, she lengthened her stride as she tackled the uneven concrete sidewalk toward the diner.

A neon “open” sign above the glass door zipped on. The red light glowed bright in the wakening morning. She pushed the doors open, triggering bells to jingle.

As if out of nowhere – Rachiah certainly hadn’t seen them on the street – a group of five or six older men walked in behind her, quietly brooding. They all claimed seats as if preassigned at the counter.

An older with gray hair peeking out from under a worn republican hat poked his finger at the empty mugs already in place. “Marla?”

The waitress, her hair tight in a French braid, with a polo T-shirt as her uniform, approached them with a carafe of coffee. “You guys got here just in time. Fresh off the burner.”

“Marla, you know we don’t like to talk until our second cup.” Another man on the far end hunkered over his mug as the steam rose from the freshly poured coffee, blurring the dark edges of his eyebrows and the hulking mass of his nose.

Rachiah wouldn’t close her eyes, even though she desperately wanted to as she breathed in the aroma of the richly brewed drink. Coffee. One of her favorite scents on earth.

She tucked her hand into her pocket, feeling for any change that might have been left there.

Eighty-two cents. That’s all she had. The rest of her money was in larger bills she didn’t have the courage to break. She only had fifty dollars to her name. If she spent those, she wouldn’t have the gas to get home.

She approached the cash register area slowly, hesitant to interrupt the familiar exchange between the customers and the waitress.

The waitress looked over, her hand on her hip. “What can I get you, honey?”

Rachiah shifted on the clean linoleum. She shot a nervous glance at the watching men and cleared her throat before speaking. “I’m looking for a man named Jeffrey Howard? I was told I could find him here. In North Fork.”

The waitress shook her head, as she considered the name. “I don’t know anyone by that name. Gentlemen?” She looked to the men at the counter. Some of them didn’t even open their eyes to acknowledge they’d heard Marla.

Except the one on the end with the admitted addiction to coffee, opened one eye and peered down at Rachiah. He elbowed the man next to him and spoke with a slight slur. “Isn’t that the new handyman’s name? Ratchet’s? I thought I heard him say that when he was in the interview. Over at Cook’s Automotive.” The man pointed at Rachiah. “They don’t open until nine. But he’ll be down there. Ratchet. I’m pretty sure that’s the guy.”

The air left her lungs in a whoosh and she gripped the edge of the counter to her left and blinked past the black and red spots swirling in her vision. Grandpa had said that Rachiah’s name was the closest Jewel, Rachiah’s mom, could get to Ratchet.

After a few moments to gather herself, Rachiah nodded softly. She refused to acknowledge the questioning glances of the group of men and the studying gaze of Marla. “Thank you, thank you very much.”

Was he really that close? Had she really just reached the end of her journey? She’d thought so much about where she was going next and how she would get to the next clue, she’d never really thought about what to say when she accomplished her goal of finding him.

Could it be him? Was he only a few blocks down? Was she so close to meeting her dad?

What did she tell him? “Daddy, I’m here”?

Rachiah came from Ratchet. It was too much of a coincidence not to be true.

He had a Christian name, yet he continued carrying Ratchet around. That was the one solid lead she’d had since she started. Stick with the name, Mima had said. Stick with his name.

Ratchet.

Rachiah came from Ratchet.

Chapter 2

Damon

Damon pushed the end button on the phone.

He banged the small device against his forehead, grunting. “The least you can do, Rachiah, is answer my calls.” Or at least return them. He didn’t know how to do the texting thing yet.

It wasn’t his phone anyway. He and Ryland shared it among other things. At the moment, though, Ryland didn’t need it. He was sleeping.

Damon didn’t mean to make late-night calls, but he couldn’t get a hold of Rachiah during the day. Not when he was out riding ranches.

He and Ryland would be finishing up a job as it was. They had to be out the next day. Work was hard to find with the entirety of the Montana Trails, as the family liked to call themselves. With everyone’s different demands in their personal lives, work was hard to nail down.

Nate didn’t want to leave Emma’s side since her cancer returned. The whole thing was messed up. Ryland and Damon both adored Emma. If she died, they would feel the loss as hard as everyone else. She was a special woman and it wasn’t easy to see Nate had found a good one.

Ryland emerged from the bathroom. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. Glancing at Damon’s hand gripping the phone, he nodded. “You’re still chasing Rachiah? Isn’t that taking your need for forgiveness a little far?”

Ryland didn’t understand.

What Damon needed forgiveness for went a lot deeper than name-calling. “It’s not Rachiah. I don’t need redemption from her.” His mutterings reached Ryland enough to where Ryland came after him, lunging sharply across the driveway to the possible rental Sherri had lined up for them on the reservation.

Damon didn’t flinch as his younger brother clapped his hands on Damon’s shoulders. His rough voice was low and filled with pain. “Stop. Melissa Metcalf was not your fault. I don’t know what happened to her. Her family didn’t move because of you. Mom always said they went back to the reservation. It wasn’t your fault. You weren’t old enough to cause real lasting harm.”

How many times had Damon heard this from Ryland?

Damon wasn’t stupid. No way could he make an entire family move just because of some actions of an eight-year-old boy.

But then he’d been nine, and ten, and eleven, and twelve.

He hadn’t stopped teasing Melissa or redirecting the bullying he was setting onto her until her and her family moved away when they were fifteen.

He glanced down as he tucked the cell phone in his pocket. He still didn’t have the guts to tell Ryland about the time when she had shown up with a brand-new hair cut at school.

Her long black hair had swept her waist. She’d been glowing. So excited to have a new hair cut with layers and bangs.

Her family was about as poor as Ryland’s. New dresses and new clothes were not something that they got, let alone a professional hairstyle, which hers obviously was.

He tore her self-esteem, made comments, joked about her hair. He even threw in comments about her clothes. Other kids joined in, because that’s what kids do. They join in, they’re cruel.

Damon blinked back guilty tears stinging his eyes.

He’d never forget the look of shame on her face. By the end of the day, her happiness had wilted. She had started to twist her hair around her finger, dampening the strands with nervous perspiration and leaving her hair stringy and unkempt looking.

Everyone focused on her. And not on Damon’s too tight of jeans with too short of cuffs. No one focused on his unmatching socks. At least not for the short amount of time that they would look toward her and the audacity she had to try to be anything than what she was.

He’d never forgive himself for being such a coward. For being such a bully.

He had to make it up to her. Something about Rachiah reminded Damon of Melissa. She could have been Melissa’s older sister.

He didn’t have a lot of money growing up either. Now it seemed like he had nothing to spend his money on, so he had all kinds of money in the bank.

Maybe Damon could take Melissa for a day at the spa or whatever women did. He needed to do something, anything to help her realize she was so much more than poor.

If she was lucky, she would be wealthy and in the position to make him feel like a bug. He would appreciate seeing that.

When had Rachiah become Melissa in his head? The only thing separating them in his mind’s eye was his attraction to Rachiah. He’d never felt that way toward Melissa.

Rachiah represented more than a date. His dogged persistence testified she had a pull on him. More than regret, more than guilt. There was something strong enough he couldn’t stop.

Her aloof attitude enhanced his need to befriend her. What if he could make his amends to Rachiah, make her feel appreciated? Would the entire universe of things somehow let him earn back whatever he’d done to Melissa?

The things he’d said to Melissa and done to her had to leave scars, they had to. He hadn’t been nice.

At least not when other kids were around.

“Yeah, well I’ll just keep it as my business.” Damon handed the phone to Ryland. “You missed a call.”

Ryland pressed the red button indicating he had a voicemail. After listening to the message, he turned the phone off and glanced toward Damon. “New job. They want us to help tomorrow.” He tilted his head to the side and rolled his shoulder, nonchalantly trying to cover his excitement for another job opportunity.

Damon narrowed his eyes at Ryland. “Doing what?”

Ryland laughed, and swung his arms back and forth at chest level. He shook his head. “You’re not going to like it. Cyan got us a job on the reservation. We’ll be working for MT. Just a ways down from the house.” He smirked.

Damon tilted his head forward. Shock sent his limbs limp. “What? Working for MT? That guy does not like white guys and you know it.”

“He can’t get any of the tribesmen to help. So he’s willing to pay off-reservation to get the work done.” Ryland shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t care if he likes us. I’m not asking to marry him. He wants us to work and you know they pay well.”

Damon considered what Ryland said. He didn’t like downtime. If they said now, would MT talk his dad into not renting to Damon and Ryland? They didn’t have anywhere else to stay. He could ante up and get a hotel, but if Nate ever heard they did that, they would get a butt chewing.

The reservation wasn’t far from Bella Acres. As much as Damon wanted to stay at his cousin’s, he couldn’t impose on Emma and the pain she had to be going through.

Ryland and Damon had agreed they wouldn’t stay at the Rourke house, not with everything else going on. Not with Emma’s brother there, and Cyan visiting every once in a while. With Emma’s family running in and out, Damon and Ryland didn’t think they could handle seeing Emma weaker and frailer any more than usual. She was dying. They couldn’t take it.

Damon and Ryland couldn’t handle the loss more than anyone else.

Jerking his chin upwards, Damon rubbed at his elbow, already irritated with the job but fully aware they needed the jobs. “Alright, doing what?”

Ryland grinned, cocking his eyebrow. “Your favorite. Posting and fence work.”

Damon hung his head, mock groaning. “Great. I can’t wait to dig the post holes.” MT didn’t need help with ranch work. He needed someone to do the grunt work. At least the pay would be good. The reservation paid them awesome on the last job.

Hopefully they didn’t have to deal with too much of the reservation residents’ crap.

MT wasn’t the nicest guy to the whites – especially those who worked for him.

How would he treat Damon, if he knew about his feelings for Rachiah?

Chapter 3

Rachiah

Rachiah didn’t want to stick around the diner with its plethora of scents ranging from crisping hashbrowns to bacon to a subtle aroma of maple syrup – so much more than just coffee.

Her stomach rumbled and she winced as she left the aromatic building. Maybe she had forgotten a stale donut or crusty bagel in her car somewhere. She would let the possibility carry her until she was able to eat again.

She didn’t want to wait too long to check on the man in the automotive shop. If she waited too long, she would lose her courage and hide in the car.

She glanced at the large illuminated clock set in the center of town. Crap. Wasn’t even six in the morning yet. They said that Cook’s didn’t open until nine.

Great, now she had plenty of time to lose her courage.

Plenty of time to talk herself out of pursuing anything.

Maybe she would go search her car for any food remnants. Her stomach growled again, nudging her to find something, anything.

She needed to fill the hole inside her with chocolate or acceptance, whichever came first.

 

~~~

 

Wiping her hands on the thighs of her jeans, Rachiah approach the shop. A knot tightened in her stomach.

The building wasn’t intimidating with its faded white siding and chipped wooden sign declaring itself as Cook’s Automotive. There was no pretentiousness in the cracked trim and stack of tires on the side of the building. Multiple cars lined up inside a chain link fenced yard protected by a sleeping pit bull.

None of that mattered. As far as Rachiah was concerned, it might as well have been a castle with knights and cannons and blazing arrows.

The streets weren’t overall teeming with activity. A few men wandered the sidewalks here and there as if they might have a destination or they might now.

She missed seeing cowboy hats everywhere she went. She’d spotted a couple earlier, but for the most part, they wore baseball caps. Probably because the majority of them were truck drivers in that little town.

Taking a deep breath, she leaned her shoulder against the smudged glass of the door and walked inside. She hadn’t found any food and she was a little worried she might grow light-headed.

At the counter, Rachiah leaned over the glass top with its receipts and business cards and dog-eared newspaper ads displayed underneath. She peered toward the door leading to the garage portion of the building to see if anyone hid among the lifted bodies and sticker-covered tool boxes.

A silver ding bell with a wrinkled sign taped to it waited for her to do as the sign bade “Ring for service”.

Hesitantly, Rachiah reached out as if the bell were actually a rattle snake softly tapped the top tab. The noise in the utter silence startled her and she jumped.

She glanced around as if expecting to be in trouble. The cloying scent of engine grease and motor oil filled the air. They were scents she was more familiar with than perfumes and potpourris.

“Just a minute!” The deep voice carried to her from a different door a moment before a man entered the room. With short, spiky blond and silver streaked hair, he turned. His blue eyes lit when he saw her. He wiped oil stained hands with an even oilier stained cloth and approached her. A wide smile on his face, he nodded. “How can I help you?” A chip in his front tooth lent him a charming flaw to his affable All American look. “We just opened. I was trying to get yesterday’s discarded oil into the transfer container. It just made a mess.”

Rachiah swallowed, and then she swallowed again. Would she be able to confront him, ask him what she needed to know? He couldn’t be the guy she was looking for. Of course not. He was blond for crying out loud. What if he knew, though?

What if she was so much closer than she could comprehend?

He had said we just opened.

As in we.

As in more than one.

Someone else was there.

She swallowed again. “Is, I mean, are you… I mean are you, do you know who Jeffrey Howard is? I’m looking for him or anyone who might know him.” She better stop while she was ahead. When she was nervous she tended to ramble and that was proving to be no different. Only this time she was rambling in her head and nodding her head like he could hear everything she was thinking.

He narrowed his eyes and thrust his jaw to the side as if considering her question. “A pretty thing like you is looking for him? He’s a pretty lucky guy then. But no,” he shook his head with an apologetic smile, “I don’t know a Jeffrey Howard. Pretty common name though. I’m sure you’ll find him. Especially if he knows you’re looking for him.” He tapped his index finger on the edge of the counter, a little streak of oil marking his movement.

Rachiah’s heart sank. A sensation she could’ve sworn she’d grown used to.

She’d come so close, she should never have gone through Cook’s door. She could’ve sat out there and held onto the hope it was him in that building. So much hope. She’d been nervous but she’d been slightly soaring. Now…

No, she had to go through that stupid door. She just had to ask the questions. Had to be bold in spite of everything pointing toward her expected failure.

All those months and years searching for Jeff, and there Rachiah was, yet again, being told he wasn’t there. No one knew him.

She’d hit another dead end.

Again.

Disappointment crashed over and she sagged forward. Blinking back tears threatening to cascade down her cheeks, she blinked hard. Okay, it was one more setback. She could deal with those. No big deal. She lifted her chin and replaced the iron rod in her back that her mom had raised her to believe was back there. Regality held your spine straight. Self-respect held it intact. She was Salish. She wouldn’t cry. She had no reason to cry.

Her victory was just around the next corner. This small failure was a small bump on her journey.

Then why did it sting so dang bad?

She slapped the table softly, the counter fogging a little under her damp palm as she pressed it there for a second too long. She swallowed, her throat tight. “Thank you anyway.”

Turning, she walked to her car with her posture as close to perfect as she’d ever gotten. She wasn’t defeated. She couldn’t fail.

She had to talk to someone.

Damon. Could she talk to Damon? He kept calling her and talking to her as if they were the best of friends.

She couldn’t talk to Cyan or Sherri right now. They were too busy with the beginning of their new lives with the men of their dreams. Plus, they hadn’t held back in their vocal discouragement and disbelief in what she was doing. They thought she was throwing her family away.

Rachiah was the one who was behind. She didn’t fit in. She was always behind.

She settled into the driver’s seat of her escort. Opening her phone, she sighed. She couldn’t call Damon. She didn’t have a charged battery.

She leaned her head back, resting on the headrest. Why did she have to be so alone when that was the last thing she wanted? Keeping her eyes closed, she refused to let the tears fall. Or to let the sobs escape.

She couldn’t talk to Damon anyway. He didn’t want to hear about her failures. Nobody wanted to hear about her failures.

“I don’t want to hear my whining.” Her voice was abnormally loud in the confines of the car. She shifted on the well-worn cushion. Now she was talking to herself.

Great.

But the truth was she didn’t want anyone to know she couldn’t find the dad who had left to see if he might secretly want her.

She was running after a man who should love her, but hadn’t turned back since he’d left so many years ago. He didn’t want her.

Rachiah was all alone. And it had never felt as achingly true as it did in that moment.

 

~~~

 

All night long, Rachiah couldn’t sleep. The ache in her empty stomach throbbed, keeping her awake.

She couldn’t sleep.

She couldn’t find Ratchet.

She couldn’t be honest with her friends.

She couldn’t talk to her parents.

She couldn’t be what she was raised to be, because she couldn’t believe anything with all of the lies.

Her list of impossibilities ate at her. She couldn’t give up.

Tracing her steps back to the last lead was how she kept going. The men in the diner had said Jeff could be found at Cook’s.

She had to go back into the tortuously delicious smelling restaurant and talk to those men. Maybe they would drop some food or something.

They would be regulars with the way they had come in the morning and acted like they needed to have their coffee immediately.

If she was already going in there, maybe she could scrape together one of the dollars out of her money and have something even if it was just a packet of crackers with her coffee. She shoved her hand into the crevice between the passenger seat and the shifting base.

The message button beeped on her phone. Rachiah turned her head and lifted the phone with her free hand. She squinted at the small writing. A text from Cyan read, “Emma is very sick again. She’s even sicker than last time. You need to come home soon.”

Her loneliness from last night still echoed in her mind. Why would she want to go home? She didn’t have anybody. Plus, Emma wasn’t anyone to her.

That wasn’t true.

She didn’t know Emma as well as the other girls did. But if Cyan and Sherri were hurting, then Rachiah was hurting, too.

Her fingers closed around a dime which she pulled out and sat up.

The few times she had met Emma, she had been utterly charmed. Emma’s sweetness and kindness were only eclipsed by her generosity.

All the things Rachiah needed in her life. Emma’s sickness reared its ugly head and based on previous bouts, she was most likely dying. Too much loss for the Montana Trail cousins. Definitely more than Rachiah could bear. She didn’t want to hear anything else negative.

She needed something positive. Something to help her get out of her funk. More than a dime, more than a warm bed.

She leaned her head back on her seat and struggled to keep her emotions in check.

The dime wouldn’t help her. Desperation tingled down in her toes and tightened around her chest.

With how low her funds were, she needed to get a job or go home. Or starve to death.

The time had come to face reality.

Would she feasibly ever find him? What were her realistic chances? Was it worth her life?

With the rare clues she got close enough to imagine what she would say and then… nothing. She was dropped off the cliff of hope into that vast well of loss.

No chance at finding him.

The last lead delivered her a blond man who denied knowing him or having seen him.

What was she supposed to do? Keep going? Keep searching? Continue torturing herself with the constant rodeo ride of hope and despair? Just the thought of enduring the failure anymore sent a sharp burn through her chest. She couldn’t imagine going through that again, let alone over and over for another year or more.

On the other hand, she could quit. Go home and get on with her life. Eat food – home cooked meals like her mom’s and accept the fact that she wasn’t wanted by her father. The dull ache of not being wanted couldn’t be as bad as the horrible discouraging hopelessness she was subjecting herself to.

But giving up wasn’t something she did.

She couldn’t give up. Not after everything she’d gone through. She’d been all over Wyoming, Southern Montana, and Idaho. Had sacrificed so much time with her family and friends.

She was so close. At least closer. She felt like the answers she was looking for were right there, just beyond her grasp.

She couldn’t leave. Not yet.

North Fork wasn’t exactly the size of town with jobs hanging off of trees waiting to be picked. The men in the diner seemed like a pretty knowledgeable set. If nothing else, maybe they could help her find a position doing something.

She didn’t care what. She wasn’t a princess. She would clean toilets if she had to. She needed money so she could eat.

Anything as long as she didn’t have to stop searching. North Fork was as good a stop as any to stockpile some money.

She picked up her tattered backpack and sighed. She’d already been through the pockets, but once more wouldn’t hurt anything. Maybe a few nickels or something hid at the bottom.

Rummaging past the worn notebook and stocking hat, she brushed the edge of some crumpled paper at the very bottom. She closed her fingers around the mass and pulled it from the canvas case.

A wrinkled dollar bill sat amidst a torn list and paperclips. She stared at the green slip of paper as if it were an anomaly.

The simple dollar represented more than the fifty dollars she had on the bank card she only allowed for gas money.

Rachiah had nothing else. Fifty dollars might be enough for her to eke out enough gas to get home. At least to get home close enough MT could come get her.

The dollar. She needed to eat, even if it was just a piece of bread.

Not wasting any time, she all but sprinted to the diner. Inside, Rachiah waited at the counter, tapping her foot excitedly. She didn’t want to stare at the group of men. Even though she would have to go down there and talk to them eventually.

First, maybe she could get some toast. A dollar wouldn’t buy much, but it had to buy something.

The last time Rachiah had been in, she hadn’t noticed how extremely pregnant the waitress was. Behind the high counter, her mass was easier to hide, and yet Rachiah still felt bad that she’d missed that.

With a hand pressed to the small of her back, Marla smiled at her with a tired squint to her eyes. “You new in town, honey?”

Rachiah swallowed, she pulled back from the counter, nervous. “I’m the one that was in earlier. Yeah, I’m new.” She nodded toward Marla’s stomach. “How far along are you?”

The woman rubbed the polyester apron pulled tight across her bulky stomach. “Due yesterday. Thank heaven, this little one has decided to stay put for a little longer.”

“Then why are you here?” Rachiah studied the woman. Shoulders drawn back and her stomach thrust out, she resembled the women Rachiah’s mom helped back on the reservation. When they were so close they didn’t want to stop you could see it in their eyes – desperation to be done combined with fear at what came next.

They didn’t want to take a break and let the baby and delivery naturally take its course.

Marla smiled softly. “They need me here. What can I get you?” She rounded the end of the counter to return to its hulking mass. She grabbed a white cloth and scrubbed at spilled syrup at a newly abandoned seat.

The cook stormed around the doorway. Looking around, his eyebrows raised. “Hey, you were in here yesterday. You looking to stay?” He brandished his spatula like a pointer lectern and the men at the end of the counter listened to every word.

Was this it? This could be Rachiah’s chance. “I’m staying as long as I need to stay.” She nodded towards the waitress. “Though it looks like you need a position filled.”

“How soon can you start?” The cook didn’t look at his waitress. He stared at Rachiah, as if challenging her.

Rachiah shoved the sweat-dampened dollar bill into her back pocket. She followed the path Marla had taken behind the counter and picked up the cloth Marla had just put down. “How’s now?”

The man grinned. He glanced at the waitress. “Marla, I think you found a replacement. Why don’t you get on home and have that baby? Your job will be here when you’re ready to come back.” He placed his big square hand on her shoulder and met her eyes.

A wave of relief smoothed the lines around the waitress’s eyes. She looked a lot younger than she had previously with the ease of the stress. She let out her air on a whoosh and untied her apron, handing it unceremoniously to Rachiah.

With tears in her eyes, she didn’t even nod. She didn’t say goodbye to the men at the table. Instead, she shuffled toward the front door, as if she couldn’t wait to get away.

A torrent of whispers reached Rachiah and the man from the group of men. Before Marla could reach the front door, the leader jumped from his seat with a collection of bills in his hand. He rushed towards Marla with his hand outstretched. “Marla, me and the guys want to give you something.”

She glanced over her shoulder, pausing with her hand on the door handle and watched as the man grabbed a large paper cup off the counter and dumped the bills inside. The cup overflowed with fives and twenties even as he handed it to her. She stared in amazement at the offering, her mouth half-open.

He held up his finger, his voice gruff with emotion. “You served us plenty great over the last few years, Marla. We want to make sure you want to come back. That’s all we have among us. Go have that baby and tell that husband of yours to take care of you.”

Overcome with emotion, the pregnant woman nodded shortly and offered a very slight smile. She turned and walked from the diner.

Eyes bright, the leader turned and eyed Rachiah with suspicion. “Are you planning on serving us? Or just standing there looking like an Indian princess?”

“Oh, funny guy. This will be fun.” Rachiah tied on the apron Marla had handed it, wrapping the string around her waist twice before she could tie it. She grabbed the coffee pot and made her way down to their seats. She nodded toward his chair. “You wanna sit there, cowboy? I can play these games all day.”

His friends and cohorts hooted and hollered around them. “We’ve got ourselves a live one!”

Finally, Rachiah’s circumstances weren’t as dim as she’d feared. With some money coming in, she could maybe buy some food. Her strength of will would require everything in her to ignore the smells wafting from the kitchen.

She refilled their mugs and returned the pot. Cleaning would be part of her responsibilities and most likely stocking. She’d have to get started on seeing what she had to do.

The boss wiped his hand on a large stained apron then held his hand out to her.  While she shook it, he spoke. “I’m Tom. Every four hours you work earns you a free meal as well as your hourly pay.” He eyed her up and down with fatherly concern. “You look like you need a few meals. I’d hate to see you pick up a tray and fall over.” The cook brandished a few more details Rachiah couldn’t focus on.

He promised her food.

She’d work twenty-four hours a day, he’d just earned her loyalty.

She busied herself at the counter. It wasn’t the first time she had waitressed. Thank heaven for the casino on the reservation. She had had more jobs there than anyone. She could do anything. And finally all of her experience was going to pay off.

The bell above the door jingled. Rachiah finished pouring another cup of coffee into the leader’s mug. She arched an eyebrow and smirked. “You gonna drink us dry today?”

His friends snickered, acting more like high school boys than men wearing NRA hats over gray hair tufting out of their ears. “We just might.”

She lifted her eyes in time to see one of the group wave over to the man she recognized from the mechanic shop the previous morning.

Her customer called out. “Hiya, Ratchet. Why don’t you sit with us this morning?”

Ratchet.

Rachiah caught her breath, careful not to trip over her shoes at the sudden revealing name.

Ratchet’s gaze jerked in Rachiah’s direction. Their gazes clashed.

Ratchet. He knew she recognized the name.

If Rachiah didn’t know better, he knew a lot more than he let on.

Kindle

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