Montana Sky

By: Nora Roberts
To family





The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide;

Above the world is stretched the sky,—

No higher than the soul is high.

The heart can push the sea and land

Farther away on either hand;

The soul can split the sky in two,

And let the face of God shine through.

But East and West will pinch the heart

That can not keep them pushed apart;

And he whose soul is flat—the sky

Will cave in on him by and by.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay



PART ONE





AUTUMN

The beautiful and death-struck year

—A. E. Housman





ONE





B EING DEAD DIDN’T MAKE JACK MERCY LESS OF A SON OF a bitch. One week of dead didn’t offset sixty-eight years of living mean. Plenty of the people gathered by his grave would be happy to say so.

The fact was, funeral or no funeral, Bethanne Mosebly muttered those sentiments into her husband’s ear as they stood in the high grass of the cemetery. She was there only out of affection for young Willa, and she had bent her husband’s tired ear with that information as well all the way up from Ennis.

As a man who had listened to his wife’s chatter for forty-six years, Bob Mosebly simply grunted, tuning her and the preacher’s droning voice out.

Not that Bob had fond memories of Jack. He’d hated the old bastard, as did most every living soul in the state of Montana.

But dead was dead, Bob mused, and they had sure come out in droves to send the fucker on his way to hell.

This peaceful corner of Mercy Ranch, set in the shadows of the Big Belt Mountains, near the banks of the Missouri, was crowded now with ranchers and cowboys, merchants and politicians. Here where cattle grazed the hills and horses danced in sunny pastures, generations of Mercys were buried under the billowing grass.

Jack was the latest. He’d ordered the glossy chestnut coffin himself, had it custom-made and inscribed in gold with the linked Ms that made up the ranch’s brand. The box was lined with white satin, and Jack was inside it now, wearing his best snakeskin boots, his oldest and most favored Stetson, and holding his bullwhip.

Jack had vowed to die the way he had lived. In nose-thumbing style.

Word was, Willa had already ordered the headstone, according to her father’s instructions. It would be white marble—no ordinary granite for Jackson Mercy—and the sentiments inscribed on it were his own:

Here lies Jack Mercy.

He lived as he wanted, died the same way.

The hell with anybody who didn’t like it.



The monument would be raised once the ground had settled, to join all the others that tipped and dotted the stony ground, from Jack Mercy’s great-grandfather, Jebidiah Mercy, who had roamed the mountains and claimed the land, to the last of Jack’s three wives—and the only one who’d died before he could divorce her.

Wasn’t it interesting, Bob mused, that each of Mercy’s wives had presented him with a daughter when he’d been hell-bent on having a son? Bob liked to think of it as God’s little joke on a man who had stepped on backs—and hearts—to get what he wanted in every other area of his life.

He remembered each of Jack’s wives well enough, though none of them had lasted long. Lookers every one, he thought now, and the girls they’d birthed weren’t hard on the eyes either. Bethanne had been burning up the phone lines ever since word came along that Mercy’s two oldest daughters were flying in for the funeral. Neither of them had set foot on Mercy land since before they could walk.

And they wouldn’t have been welcome.

Only Willa had stayed. There’d been little Mercy could do about that, seeing as how her mother had died almost before the child had been weaned. Without any relations to dump the girl on, he’d passed the baby along to his housekeeper, and Bess had raised the girl as best she could.

Each of the women had a touch of Jack in her, Bob noted, scanning them from under the brim of his hat. The dark hair, the sharp chin. You could tell they were sisters, all right, even though they’d never set eyes on each other before. Time would tell how they would deal together, and time would tell if Willa had enough of Jack Mercy in her to run a ranch of twenty-five thousand acres.

She was thinking of the ranch, and the work that needed to be done. The morning was bright and clear, with the hills sporting color so bold and beautiful it almost hurt the eyes. The mountains and valley might have been painted fancy for fall, but the chinook wind had come in hot and dry and thick. Early October was warm enough for shirtsleeves, but that could change tomorrow. There’d already been snow in the high country, and she could see it, dribbling along the black and gray peaks, slyly coating the forests. Cattle needed to be rounded up, fences needed to be checked, repaired, checked again. Winter wheat had to be planted.

It was up to her now. It was all up to her. Jack Mercy was no longer Mercy Ranch, Willa reminded herself. She was.

She listened to the preacher speak of everlasting life, of forgiveness and the welcome of heaven. And thought that Jack Mercy would spit on anyone’s welcome into a place other than his own. Montana had been his, this wide country of mountain and meadow, of eagle and wolf.