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By Janelle Taylor
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Janelle Taylor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGreat Smoky Mountains June 1756
"I want to die in my bed, not murdered by heathen savages."
Shannon O'Shea glanced from the older woman to the willows lining the creek a hundred yards away. It wasn't that far, and the cow was thirsty.
"Scalped or worse ..." Hannah Clark threw another branch on the campfire and trailed off ominously, leaving unsaid all her earlier lurid predictions of torture and rape by Cherokee war parties.
"Take that animal to water, Shannon." Nathan Clark scowled at his wife. "And you hold your tongue, and stop scaring her." He heaved the wagon tongue off the ground, lifting it high enough for Shannon to lead the milk cow out of the enclosure. "Go on, girl. Doubt you'll be scalped between here and the creek with Drake to stand guard."
Shannon nodded, knotting her shawl against the damp. She'd forgotten how chilly these mountains could be in June. Dark clouds hovered over the mountaintops, and she could smell the coming rain. Funny how the familiar sounds and scents all came rushing back to her, after so many years away.
"You waitin' for the second coming?" Nathan's meaty arms bulged under the weight of the wagon tongue.
Shannon shivered, despite the thick wool of her new shawl. She had to admit the tale the white fur trappers had related this morning about being attacked by Cherokee made her nervous. After a month on the trail west, they were still three days' journey from her father's home. She wouldn't feel safe until she felt his strong arms around her again.
"Storm's moving in fast," Nathan chided. "Cow don't drink tonight, she don't give milk tomorrow."
Shannon tugged on the halter rope. The spotted cow rolled her eyes and planted her front feet in the mud. "Come on," Shannon coaxed. Of all the cows she'd ever tended, Betty had the worst disposition. She was stubborn, she kicked, and she'd hook you with her broken horn if you weren't careful.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, echoing down the long valley. Tree branches whipped and groaned overhead; leaves swirled and danced around the wagons. Sand and grit blew against Shannon's face and arms.
Hannah shook a thick finger at Nathan. "You'll rue the day you didn't listen to me."
"I rue the day I ever did. I said I was sending Drake to watch over her. Drake! Where'd you get to?"
Hannah's shrill voice rose to a high-pitched whine. "A bucket of milk ain't worth a girl's life. How you gonna explain to Flynn O'Shea you sent his girl out to be massacred for-"
"Cherokee ain't stupid!" Nathan roared. "Six wagons, ten men, and fifteen good rifles. Sneaky devils want no part of us. Leave the girl to tend that cantankerous beast and me worry about Indians." He slapped a hand on Betty's bony hip, and the cow charged forward, tossing her horns and slinging mud through the air with all four hooves. "Drake!" Nathan bellowed again.
Shannon dodged the cow's rush and dashed ahead, holding tightly to the halter rope. Intent on hanging on to Betty without being trampled, she didn't notice Nathan's oldest son until she slammed into his broad chest.
Drake chuckled and wrapped his big arms around her, trapping her in his embrace. Somewhere in the process, he grabbed the cow's rope and yanked Betty to a skidding halt.
"Drake?" Shannon inhaled the mingled scents of damp wool, tobacco, and saddle oil. It had to be Drake. Drake had worn a blue shirt today ... or was that his twin brother? Drake and Damon were identical, making it nearly impossible to tell them apart, even to their father. They even sounded alike. "You are Drake, aren't you?"
Pale blue eyes narrowed with mischief. "Maybe. Had I knowed you wanted me this bad, I'd of come when Pa first yelled. What's he want now?"
Shannon ducked under Drake's rifle and wiggled out of his embrace. She liked him well enough, despite his outlandish notion that she'd marry him before Christmas. "He wants you to walk to the river with us. Watch out for hostiles."
"You take care!" Drake's mother shouted from within the circle of wagons. "I'll not have my oldest scalped for cow nor woman."
"Mind your own business, Ma," Drake yelled back.
"Can we just go?" Shannon asked. "Betty needs her water before the rain starts." She didn't care for the way he spoke to his mother. She thought it was disrespectful. Hannah Clark was a rude woman, but Drake was her son. He should have better manners.
Drake tilted his head up and raindrops splattered across his broad face. "Rain's already started, I'd say. And most cows don't melt in a little rain, or is this one special?"
He flashed her a devilish grin. "Damon and me were just-"
"Drake!" His mirror image appeared around the corner of the nearest Conestoga, also wearing an identical blue homespun shirt. "Jacob wants us to help pull that wagon wheel so he can grease the axle."
Drake glanced down at her. "You certain you need my protection?"
"Go ahead," she urged. "I'll be fine. It's not a hundred yards to the creek. They can see me from the wagons."
"Reckon that's so."
Shannon looked back at the cow and shook the lead rope. She could swear the animal was giving her the evil eye. "Go." Betty mooed, lowered her head, and began to trot toward the water.
The creek bank sloped down to gravelly shallows. No more than fifteen feet across, the rocky stream was icy cold and so clear, Shannon could see silvery fish zipping along the bottom. When the cow began to drink, Shannon bent and splashed handfuls of water on her face.
Without warning, lightning crashed a short distance away. To Shannon's left, a tall pine tree quivered and burst into flames. The stench of sulfur choked her as she stumbled back, slipped on a mossy stone, and fell on her backside in six inches of water. Betty bawled and leaped straight in the air, ripping the lead rope out of Shannon's hand. She grabbed for the rope, but couldn't hold the panicked animal. The cow splashed through the creek, struggled up the far bank, and plunged into the thick undergrowth.
"Whoa! Whoa! Betty, come back!" Shannon didn't hesitate. All she could think of was how valuable a milk cow was and how much trouble she'd once gotten in when two hens at the tavern had gone missing. Surely, if she lost Betty, her father would have to pay her worth in hard coin. Swallowing her own fears and oblivious to the rising wind and rain, she waded through the icy water and raced into the forest after the panicked animal.
Blackberries and wild grape vines tangled around Shannon's legs and tore at her cap. Needles of rain stung her face and blurred her vision. Thunder rolled and boomed overhead. "Betty!" she called. "Betty!"
The thicket opened into a shadowy glade sheltered by towering oaks, and directly ahead, the print of a cow's hoof stood out clearly on the thick moss. Shannon glanced back over her shoulder, but a wall of green leaves obscured the creek. She wondered if she should go back for help.
A roll of thunder nearly drowned out the cow's bawl of distress. Shannon circled a tree trunk wider than a covered wagon and caught sight of Betty no more than fifty feet ahead. The rope dangled enticingly from the animal's halter. "Easy," Shannon soothed. "Easy, girl. Good cow." Branches overhead swayed in the wind, and huge drops of rain filtered through the green interlaced canopy overhead.
Betty stood motionless until Shannon was almost within reach of the trailing line, then leaped forward over a rotting log, and scampered away. For five minutes, perhaps ten, they played a game of cat and mouse until, just as Shannon was about to admit defeat, Betty's rope caught between two rocks. "Got you!" Shannon cried.
Caught, the cow uttered a plaintive moo, raised her tail, and voided her bladder. Shannon dodged the yellow stream and considered strangling Betty with her own lead line. Muttering dire threats, she wrapped the rope around one wrist. If she followed her own footprints on the forest floor, there was no chance of losing her way back to the creek.
Shannon knew that her plan would have worked if it hadn't gotten so dark that she couldn't see the ground under her feet ... or if every oak tree hadn't loomed as black and shapeless as the one beside it. Or if the downpour didn't make it impossible to distinguish an oak from a chestnut.
When the moss under her feet became gravel and ragged tufts of grass and the trees became smaller, Shannon realized she was lost. Teeth chattering, she leaned against the cow and fought back tears. No one from the wagons could find her in this storm. She'd be out here in the cold and wet all night, and the longer she wandered, the farther she might be from camp. If the lightning didn't strike her dead, she'd freeze before dawn.
Abruptly, Betty yanked back on the rope and started walking up an incline. Having no better idea, Shannon didn't try to stop her. Animals had a good sense of smell, she reasoned. Maybe Betty could find the way back. The stream and a warm fire might be just beyond those-
Another bolt of lightning lit up the woods, half blinding Shannon and raising the hair at the nape of her neck. Betty fell to her knees then scrambled up and charged toward a black void in the hillside, dragging Shannon after her. One shoe came off as Shannon threw up her arms to protect her head. The rope cut into her flesh painfully and then came loose as lightning struck a second time even closer. Betty plunged into what appeared to be the mouth of a cave. Shannon regained her footing, stumbled into the shelter of the overhanging rock, and sank to the dry floor.
She could hear the cow's hooves clacking on stone, but had lost sight of the animal when she careened around a pillar of rock and vanished into the depths of the cavern. Grateful to be out of the storm, hands and knees raw from being dragged, Shannon curled into a ball and caught her breath. The muted sound of rain and the absence of the biting wind soothed her and did much to restore her nerve. All she had to do was sit here until daylight, and someone would find her.
Images of bears and mountain lions nudged the corners of her mind and she pushed them back. If any wild beast had taken shelter in the cave, the cow would have smelled it. Nothing could hurt her here. She kicked off her single remaining shoe, drew off her soaking shawl, and wrung out the water.
Gooseflesh rose on her arms, and she rubbed them vigorously in an attempt to stave off the chills that shook her body and made her teeth chatter. Her skirt was as wet as the wrap. She stripped off the woolen gown and her stockings, leaving only her shift and petticoats. They were wet too, but she could hardly sleep on the cave floor as naked as an egg without even a blanket.
She peered out into the night. She could smell smoke, hear the faint crackle of fire. Was it possible that the woods were on fire? Oddly, the scent seemed to be stronger at the back of the cave. She ventured to the far corner and looked around the rock pillar that hid the passage to the deeper section of the cavern. She gave a small gasp of astonishment and took several steps down the natural incline to the inner chamber.
Fire! But how ... a shadowy figure raised a head beyond the flames-not a cow, but a horse. Curiosity became fear as Shannon realized that the fire couldn't have come from the lightning. She clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle the cry that rose from her throat and turned to run. And for the second time that day, she smacked into the hard muscle and sinew of a man's chest. And for the second time, she found herself trapped in powerful bare arms.
Fierce black eyes glared into her own. Eyes set into a copper-hued face, high cheekbones, and rugged features that might have been hewn from granite.
Cherokee! Terror lent her strength. She kicked and struggled to get free, but he crushed her against his naked flesh.
Tears blurred her vision. "Let me go!" she repeated as he lifted her off the floor and carried her effortlessly back toward the fire. Her voice rang high and frightened in her ears. This couldn't be happening. "No, please ..." Was she going to die here and now?
Hannah Clark's warnings of rape and torture curled down Shannon's spine and made her knees go weak as milk. She balled her hands into fists and struck at her captor's face. If she died, she would die fighting.
"Peace, Mary Shan-non. I am not your enemy."
As suddenly as he'd seized her, the Indian let her go. She half circled the fire and backed up until she felt the cold stone wall block her escape. Mouth dry, eyes wide, she stared at him.
Cherokee. Her heart sank.
Even on the far side of the fire, he towered over her-a Cherokee warrior at the height of his power, painted for war with twin streaks of black paint adorning each cheek. A single eagle feather dangled from hair as dark and glossy as a raven's wing and fell unbound below massive shoulders. Beaten silver rings pierced each earlobe, and a single band of silver encircled one bulging bicep. A ribbon of tribal tattoos ran from collarbone to hip to knee on his right side, a decoration revealed in all its glory by the expanse of honey-dark skin, lean belly, and muscular thigh.
Fear shimmered through her-utter terror and another emotion that she didn't dare name. Buzzing rang in her ears and spots danced before her eyes. Where was her shame? Her throat tightened and she felt blood rush to her face. She couldn't tear her gaze away from him.
Nothing covered the Cherokee's raw nakedness but a twisted cord of rawhide around his lean waist, a loincloth that did little to conceal his obvious sex, and a pair of high, beaded deerskin moccasins. Tall and broad shouldered, he seemed more dream than flesh-and-blood man.... But no ghost who invaded her dreams had worn both a sheathed hunting knife and a steel Cherokee tomahawk strapped to his waist.
"I won't hurt you, Mary Shan-non."
His deep voice echoed off the limestone ceiling and walls. "Maryshannon ... Maryshannon ... Maryshannon."
English. He was speaking English, accented, with an almost musical cadence, but she could understand every word. She sucked air into her chest and the buzzing noise receded. How did he know her name? "Who are you?" she stammered.
"Men call me Storm Dancer, but you knew me once when I wore a different name."
She shook her head. "No. I don't know you. You're a stranger."
His thin lips turned up in a faint smile. "Are you sure?"
"Please. Let me go back to my friends. My father is a friend to the Cherokee. He will pay-"
"It is as you say. Flynn O'Shea is a good friend to the Cherokee." He touched his lips with two fingers in a graceful gesture. "Among my people, we call him Truth Teller."
"And he will pay well for my safe return." Shannon straightened her shoulders and tried to force her voice to calm. If she could keep him talking, reason with him, she might live to walk out of here as untouched as she'd entered. She took another breath. "How do you know who I am?"
He made a click with his tongue that might have been amusement. "You don't listen. But I should have remembered. Once an idea lodged in your head, you did not give it up easily."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I-"
"Have you forgotten the boy who taught you to catch trout with your bare hands? To ride a pony astride without bridle or saddle?"
Otter? She looked at him again. Once, long ago, when she was small, a boy had come often to her father's trading post with his uncle, an important man called Winter Fox. He'd been older than she by a few years, not many, young enough that her mother hadn't forbidden them to play together. Other children had visited the post from time to time, but Otter had been her only real friend. But Otter had been a shy, gentle boy, slender as a reed with a quiet smile and tender hands. This savage warrior couldn't possibly be ...
He folded his arms across his chest. "Now you remember."
He retrieved a blanket from the edge of the fire and approached her with slow, measured steps. "You are cold, Mary Shannon. Warm yourself."
"No," she said stubbornly, clinging to reason. "You can't be my Otter."
When she flinched, he followed and draped the blanket around her shoulders. "Long ago I was," he said. "But his time is past."
Emboldened by his kind gesture, she sidled past the horse's rump. In the far corner, a second horse stood nose to nose with Betty. With a shock she realized she knew these animals. The white trappers who'd stopped the Clark party early this morning had ridden these horses-the men who'd warned them about the raid by hostile Indians. This man, whoever he was, was at least a thief, perhaps even a murderer. Her fear flowed back twofold.
"Please, if you'd just let me go."
He took a stand between her and the entrance. "Do you want to die?"
Her heart hammered against her chest, blood ringing in her ears. "You said ... you promised you wouldn't hurt me." Tears welled up and rolled down her cheeks. "You promised."
"Do you think Flynn O'Shea is the only man who speaks true?" His question rang hard and aggrieved. "You are my guest, Mary Shannon. Out there lies danger. I will keep you safe by my fire until morning."
She swallowed the lump in her throat as thunder boomed and rolled across the mountain peaks. Alone with a nearly naked stranger, a barbaric tribesman with skin of dusty bronze ... Safe? And her clad only in shift and stays, how could she be safe with him?
Excerpted from Cherokee Storm by Janelle Taylor Copyright © 2010 by Janelle Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
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