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She regained consciousness slowly, goaded by pain so intense that it saturated the upper left half of her body. I'm going to die, she thought but could hardly believe it. As dangerous and unconventional as her life had been in recent months, Cassandra had never expected to die. Seventeen-year-old girls from Massachusetts didn't die -- not in agony, not as a result of Indian attacks out in the middle of nowhere. That must be why young men dreamed of war. Because they expected adventure, not death.
The second thing she noticed -- after the pain -- was the silence. Only the long grass, windswept and restless, whispered over the empty plains. The absence of other sounds told her that she was the only one left alive in the clearing. How far from home am I? she wondered. A thousand miles? Two thousand? Three? Not that it mattered. She wouldn't be going back.
The third thing came when she opened her eyes. Through a mist of tears like winter condensation on a glass pane, she saw the scalp lock flapping above her, a macabre banner at the end of the Comanche lance that pinned her to earth.
And last, above the scalp lock, above the dark etched branches and curled May leaves shivering against a spring sky, the vultures circled. How long would they wait to swoop down? Horror-stricken, she raised her hands and clasped them one below the other on the lance. With a strength born of desperation, she wrenched upward, trying to lift her impaled body away from the earth that held it. She failed, and a quick flood of agony swept her into darkness.
"Vultures," grunted Nicodemus Pelt. He halted the pack train and squinted into the westering sun.
"Probably some animal died," said Alex Harte.
"Yep, or some human. This is Comanche country." Pelt yanked an ancient hat lower on his forehead. "Maybe we better make tracks."
"We need water for the horses, and that's where it is." Alex was studying the knoll with its sparse crown of trees. It sheltered the only reliable spring in the area.
"I'm for movin' on," said Pelt.
"Look, Nico, it's a long way to the next creek. Better let me scout ahead. Then if I find Indians, I can get away faster than you." Nicodemus Pelt was a giant of a man, six foot six at least, and burly. No horse made good time with Pelt in the saddle. "You hang back with the pack train and bring them on if I signal."
"We'll flip to see if we scout or ride on."
Alex agreed reluctantly. If Nicodemus won the toss and they hit a dry creek the next day, they'd be in trouble. He fished a Mexican gold piece from his pocket and flipped. It was understood from long association that Pelt chose tails, Alex heads. The coin came up heads. Satisfied, Alex turned his horse toward the knoll.
"Watch your scalp," Pelt muttered.
Although he was willing to take the risk that there might be Comanches in the area, Alex was a careful man. He'd campaigned against both Mexicans and Indians during the twelve years since his arrival in Texas and had lost, in the process, the recklessness of youth. Therefore he searched for track as he approached the knoll, and he found it. Eight men had ridden in from the northeast with three of the horses shod, five not; eight horses had come off the knoll, but only five carried riders. Alex had a fair idea of what he'd find on top, but still he circled up cautiously, studying the horizons in all directions, just as the Comanches must have done when they approached the spring.
Nothing stirred on the undulating prairie in any direction other than the one from which he had come, and nothing stirred in the trampled clearing under the trees. He found the first man, arrow-shot and scalped, fifty feet northwest of the spring, a Kiowa by the look of him and far south of his usual hunting ground. The second man, a white of sixty years or so, had been knifed and scalped. He lay in a bloody heap by the dead campfire. To the north was a slender, fair-haired youth pierced by a Comanche lance. He'd been a handsome boy with fine, strong facial bones marred by a dark bruise along the left side from cheek to mouth. Odd that they'd leave the lance, Alex thought, puzzled. Even stranger that they'd pass up that scalp with its silver-gold hair.
He leaned forward to feel for a pulse at the throat artery in case the boy still clung to life. Surprisingly, Alex felt a stirring beneath his fingertips. Bastards! Had they deliberately left their young victim to be torn apart by vultures? "Someone hated you," he murmured as he slid a hand into the buckskin shirt to feel for a heartbeat.
Alex went motionless with shock, then edged his fingers to the left. "God damn," he muttered. "A girl!"
Cassandra felt the touch on her breast and heard the soft oath, but as if from a distance. Wherever she was, this new consciousness excluded pain. If the voice and hand were part of some dying dream, then she still lay alone and helpless, abandoned by the Comanches like camp refuse. On the empty Texas prairie where every mile looked just like the last. Her heart contracted in sadness at the prospect of dying by herself in this alien land. But her grief was only momentary and drifted away.
Then another thought crept in, insubstantial as mist on a gray winter's morning. If the voice and hand were real, she was at the mercy of a stranger. And there was the pain. If she came back, she'd feel that searing pain again.
"Can you hear me?"
Cassandra heard, but didn't answer. Why respond to a ghost whisper?
"Poor child." it muttered.
She could tell that it had touched the lance because pain shivered through her body. But she wasn't inside and didn't mind.
"This needs Pelt," the ghost muttered.
Pelt? An enigmatic thing to say. Her spirit puzzled over the words until a new aloneness told her that the ghost had moved. Perhaps it was leaving. Fear replaced indifference. If it was a real man, he could rescue her. He represented the only chance at life the real Cassandra had. Which meant she had to speak. To open her eyes. To repossess her own body with all its potential for agony and terror.
She heard the body moan, and evidently he noticed, for he came back. She could sense his presence.
"You're coming around," he murmured. "I signaled Pelt. Between the two of us, maybe we can get you loose."
She raised her eyelids and looked at the man kneeling on one knee beside her. Then she panicked because he was dark. Dark skin, black eyes and hair, long hair.
"Here now," he soothed, his voice deep and rich, a slow, comforting drawl. "I mean you no harm, child."
He spoke English, not Comanche, but he looked a dangerous man, dark and hawk-featured, tall with a deep, muscular chest showing through the loosely laced shirt, and his hair was long. But not braided like an Indian's. Whatever he was, she feared him. "Don't strain against the lance, child." Too late. The rich voice faded as agony washed her consciousness away once more.
"This here's a girl," said Nicodemus when he had studied the young body in its buckskin breeches and shirt.
"I figured that out," Alex replied.
"Girls are nothin' but trouble."
"You want to leave her out here to die?"
Nicodemus shifted his big frame uneasily.
"If she lives through us getting the lance out, we'll drop her off at a settlement," Alex promised.
"There ain't no settlements, an' none of the others'll wanna cut short the expedition -- least not till we git us another good-sized herd."
"What choice do we have?" Alex argued.
"An' how we gonna git her to camp? Say she lives. She won't be able to travel, an' they need the supplies." Nicodemus Pelt nodded toward the pack horses loaded with ammunition and staples enough for another three months.
Alex studied the girl, then the situation. "Travois, I reckon. We'll rig one and tie her to it."
"That ought to kill her if we don't do it gittin' her loose. An' say we haul her to camp an' she recovers. Then we got more trouble -- five men an' one girl. That's --"
"She's a child."
Pelt snorted. "Looks beddable to me. You kin be danged sure young Pinto ain't gonna see her as no child."
"Then Pinto will just have to look again," snapped Alex.
"Trouble," muttered Pelt.
"So what are you saying, Nicodemus? Kill her and be done with it?"
"Oh hell, I ain't sayin' that, Alex. Ain't never killed a woman yet." He stared pessimistically at the girl. "Had a few die on me."
"Well, this one may die too. How many men with an arrow in them lived that you know of?"
"Lance," corrected Pelt. "That head could be thirty inches long, an' we'll have to git it out if it's in her body 'steada the ground." He knelt beside her and cut through the shaft fifteen inches above her shoulder. "I'm gonna lift her up while you push down on the lance," he explained. "If I kin, I'll lift her right off it."
Maneuvering with difficulty, the two men freed her. "I'd like to know how come they didn't just kill her an' take the scalp," Pelt murmured as he laid her body down in the grass. "They scalped the other two." Her long, pale gold braid had fallen free. "That hair would be a prize."
"Pure meanness," said Alex.
"This is their territory," said Nicodemus. "They didn't invite none of us here."
The short, paunchy one with the barrel chest and narrow eyes wanted the paper her father used for his notes, and Papa was trying to tell him how important paper was to a scholar. But the Indian would never understand, and Cassandra wanted to plead with Papa to give it to him, just give him the paper. Please ... please. She wanted to tell him, but she couldn't speak. And the pain was so bad.
Her whole body on fire, she awoke from the dream. She was being dragged behind a horse, and the bumping hurt. If only the dark man, the Indian, would let her be still. If she could be still, it wouldn't hurt so much.
They'll never let Papa refuse. He'd said himself that they considered generosity so important. And the fat one wanted the paper. Just because of the paper, he shouted and, drawing a knife, leapt upon Papa, catalyzing a wave of violence across the camp. Their Kiowa guide shot the Comanche who carried a lance and was in turn dropped by an arrow. The fat one plunged his knife into Papa. Pulled it out. Gathered the thin, white hair into his fist. He meant to scalp Papa.
Seeing this, Cassandra forgot how frightened she was and scooped up the Bowie knife that had belonged to their guide. She slashed it across that broad, cruel face before he could make the first scalp cut. Turning, a thin, red line from his forehead to his chin, he knocked her to the ground and held her there with a gritty, moccasined foot as the blood welled, thick and red, on his cheek. He leaned his weight upon her chest, pressing her against the earth until her ribs seemed to be collapsing and she could hardly breathe. Blackness crept in around her.
Gasping, she woke.
"You're burning up," said the man with the soft, drawling voice. "Here, try the water again."
She drank greedily, relieved to see that he wasn't an Indian, after all. His skin showed white beneath the laced shirt. She closed her eyes, trying to remember how many days of pain and fever had passed since her rescue.
She knew only that she was traveling with two white men and that her world was circumscribed by the tall grass through which the travois passed and an occasional glimpse of sky. And she was so hot. They had rigged a canopy to keep the sun from her face, but the heat burned inside her.
She couldn't breathe, and now he had the lance in his hand, holding it high, eyes blazing with malice, and she thought, "Oh no, please ..." because she knew what he meant to do. And then he drove the lance down through her shoulder and into the earth, and the pain, oh God, the pain.
"I know it hurts, girl," said the one named Nicodemus, "but I gotta keep the wound clean."
Nicodemus and Alex. The one who had found her was Alex. Indian brown features, but a white chest. Still, with his long black hair and haughty face, she thought half the time that he was a Comanche who had come back to finish her off. When those fears assailed her, he seemed to understand, and his voice, rich and slow, soothed her. Alex was a mustanger, on his way with Pelt to meet others of his kind. Mustang meant wild horse, but she wasn't sure what a mustanger was.
The giant called himself Nicodemus. Cassandra remembered a Nicodemus in the Bible, a Pharisee who helped Joseph prepare Jesus for burial. This Nicodemus made her drink things -- meat broth that caused nausea, water as cool as a gift from heaven, and something so bitter that she tried at first to refuse it. Nicodemus had to force it on her until she learned that it brought sleep and relief from pain. Sometimes she thought Nicodemus might be preparing her for death. Mostly she didn't think at all because the bitter stuff made her dream good dreams. Of Sunday tea in Mama's parlor in Cambridge, where Papa's colleagues and students came to call. Of school days at Mama's school, where everything was peaceful and safe.
Nicodemus was also called Pelt -- perhaps because he was a shaggy giant, his heavy black hair and beard shot through with iron gray. He looked menacing and seemed to dislike her, yet he had gentle hands.
"Lost a lot of blood," said one.
"Fever's worse," said the other.
She couldn't always tell which was which.
"Damned if that wound ain't startin' to heal."
"Think she's dreaming about what happened, poor child?"
She wanted to explain that she wasn't a child. Had she been crying when the pain got bad? She tried not to. She hoped that, if she was good and didn't cause them too much trouble, they wouldn't abandon her.
Throughout the day Cassandra had been wakeful because Pelt was giving her less of the bitter tea. The wound ached with a dull, continuous presence to which she had become accustomed, and today there had been distractions to take her waking mind from the miseries of her body.
Wildflowers grew all about her in the grass. She had only to turn her head, and they flowed by. Some were pert, weedy little things she had to look down on because they had hidden themselves; some had dark eyes peering out boldly at her from amongst their petals; and some waved above her head as if she were a tiny ground creature and they slender flower trees. Enchanted, she watched all day.
Also she could study her companions from beneath the canopy if one or the other happened to be riding nearby. She had yet to speak to either man, afraid that if she did, her words might break the spell and bring an end to the strange journey and her recovery. The two men might even abandon her or just disappear, having been hallucinations created by her fevered mind.
She liked it best when the one named Alex talked. He had a husky voice, and his words were marked by soft, elongated vowels that brushed pleasantly along her nerves. She had never heard anyone with an accent quite like his. Could it be the mark of the Texas frontiersman? Nicodemus Pelt didn't sound that way; he strung error on grammatical error until Cassandra thought him the perfect example of untutored English. Alex, on the other hand, seemed not only soft-spoken but educated.
Certainly he had neither resided nor been educated in New England. At the thought of her home in Cambridge and her parents, Cassandra's spirits plunged. The house stood empty, her mother dead, the ladies' seminary, of which Jessica Whitney had been headmistress and owner, sold. And her father, who had been away from Cambridge pursuing his Indian research for nine years, was now dead as well, killed by the people he had been studying -- or was he? Since she had survived the attack, perhaps he had too.
Startled into speech, she pushed herself up onto an elbow and asked, "What happened to my father?"
The two men turned to her, as surprised as if the hickory tree under which she lay had suddenly addressed them. Nicodemus Pelt, who had been whittling by the campfire, rose, tossed his stick away, and padded over to stare down at her. Lord, the man was big, she thought, wishing that he'd back away.
"Was you with your pa back there at the Indian camp?"
"Old fella, sixty or so?"
"He had white hair," she whispered.
"He didn't have no hair when we seen him," Pelt replied bluntly. "He was wearing a preacher's suit. That him?"
Cassandra wouldn't have called it a preacher's suit, but perhaps anyone in a suit looked like a preacher to a man named Pelt.
The giant studied her face somberly. "There was him an' a Kiowa, both dead," he added, not unkindly.
Cassandra closed her eyes.
"We give 'em burial. Alex spoke a few words from the Good Book."
She nodded, wondering why she had thought, even for a minute, that her father might have survived.
"You got a name, missy?"
"Whitney," she replied. "Cassandra Whitney." When he seemed about to turn away, she asked impulsively, "Are you called Pelt because of your hair?"
The giant frowned, and Cassandra, who had asked out of loneliness and a desire for the reassurance of human conversation, now saw her question to be impertinent. No doubt Pelt was his real name, and she had offended him, for which he could easily take revenge by walking away from her, he and his friend and their pack animals.
The chuckle of the one named Alex, who still lounged beside the campfire, took her by surprise. How long had it been since she'd heard good-natured laughter? The Comanches had laughed among themselves, but she'd always been afraid that their mirth signified some plot against unwanted guests.
"His name's Van Pelt, but he can't be bothered with the Van. It's a Dutch name. Am I right, Nicodemus?"
The giant grunted noncommittally and hunkered down again by the fire.
"And I'm Alexander Harte -- late of New Orleans but gone to Texas, as they say when a man's debts mount or his feet itch to move on."
So that was the origin of the accent. He was a Southerner. Had he been a debtor or just a wanderer? Certainly the last, given his present location. And New Orleans -- Cassandra had heard of New Orleans, a hotbed of French decadence and self-indulgent Southern luxury, home of slave markets and much disapproved of in Puritan, abolitionist New England.
She studied the younger man with surreptitious interest, trying to imagine him dressed as a Southern gentleman instead of clad in buckskins and boots. He was attractive in his way -- soft-spoken, hard-faced, and quite handsome. The only males Cassandra had known heretofore were young students and their professors from Harvard, a few stiff-necked male relatives of her mother's, some Congregationalist ministers, and Comanches. Alexander Harte was completely outside her experience, but she remembered her mother speaking of men who were too handsome and charming for their own good -- ladies' men she'd called them. Cassandra had never met any in the intellectual circles frequented by her scholarly parents.
Was this Alexander Harte a ladies' man? Probably not. Else why would he be traveling in Indian country with a giant named Van Pelt and a train of pack horses? He was unlikely to find many ladies out here. Perhaps he had done some woman wrong and been driven out of society for his sins. She'd read that Southerners even fought duels. Perhaps he'd killed someone in a duel over a woman.
Amazed at herself, Cassandra called a halt to such speculations. Her imagination must be overheated by fever, she decided. Better to wonder what his education had been instead of what female liaisons he might have had before coming here to the plains. But she'd wonder later -- when she wasn't so sleepy.
"Droppin' off agin," said Nicodemus Pelt. "Still, talkin's a good sign. I seen women come through Indian attacks who never spoke agin."
Copyright © 1992 by Nancy R. Herndon