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September 24, 1810
"Beth? Does it hurt the worm when you stick in the hook?"
Bethany Cole looked down at the long purple-black worm wiggling between her thumb and forefinger, somewhat disconcerted by the six-year-old boy's question.
"Well, Petie, I hope not," she replied, her smooth brow knitting in a frown as she tossed his line back into the water.
Peeto immediately focused his intent green gaze on the tan cork bobbing erratically in the currents along the bank of the muddy Mississippi River. Bethany baited her own hook, wiping her hands on the old pair of brown linsey-woolsey breeches she wore before she swung her cane pole out over the water. She held the pole in the crook of her elbow long enough to push escaped ringlets of her long blond hair beneath her wide-brimmed straw hat. She looked around, contentment filling her as she sat on the low riverbank and enjoyed the warm sunshine of early autumn.
Downriver from their spot, infamous Natchez-Under-the-Hill bustled with all its notorious activities, despite the afternoon hour. But, Valerie Goodrich's stables and boat landing, where Bethany and Peeto had taken refuge after their flight from St. Louis, were just far enough away that almost no one came around. Only occasionally did a keelboat or flatboat stop there to unload its cargo, usually when the river was high. Mrs. Goodrich was known around Natchez primarily for the excellent horseflesh she raised in her spotless stables.
Bethany glanced back toward the barns and riding rings where Peeto had watched her work with the horses all morning. Val was not immediately in sight, and it took a moment before Bethany saw her busily dipping a spade in the petunia bed in her front yard. Val was a small, stocky woman of sixty-five, with graying auburn hair and kind, dark eyes that missed nothing. Bethany had become very fond of her in the six weeks they had lived in their cozy little room over the stables. But, most of all, Bethany had enjoyed working with the horses. She had a real gift with them, with all animals. Val had noticed it right off. Even Bethany's father had admired her talent for handling animals, and he had liked very little else about her.
Bethany sighed. Her father had drowned when she was almost twelve, nearly six years ago, and now those early years growing up with him along the Ohio River seemed a misty eternity ago. The time since then in St. Louis seemed much more real, although she didn't like to think about the first three unhappy years, which had been spent in the orphanage. The last three years, in the Younger house, had been better, at least until the night they had been forced to flee.
Gooseflesh rose on her arms at the thought of Hugh Younger, and she glanced at Peeto, hoping he could someday forget what had happened that night. It had all been so unexpected and terrifying. Although Hugh was often drunk, stumbling around the house and yelling at them, he had never before come into Peeto's bedchamber. And, never had he tried to hurt them or touch her the way he had then. Cold, clammy terror welled inside her as vivid pictures formed in her mind, images of Hugh's angry, contorted face as his fingers bit into her arms and tore at her clothes, and then the terrible, dull thud of the poker against his skull. Oh, Lord, what if he was dead now? What if they had killed him?
Please, please don't let him be dead, she thought desperately, but she remembered the blood on his head and how very still he had been when they had gathered their belongings and fled the house. She took a deep breath, telling herself for the thousandth time that they were safe with Val.
Even if Hugh had died, no one knew where they were, and if Hugh had survived, he wouldn't care enough about Peeto to come after them. He never had. It was his wife, Mistress Anne, who had been so kind and understanding when the little half-Indian boy had arrived at her big house on Olive Street. Peeto was the reason Bethany had been hired out of the orphanage, and that in itself was enough to make her grateful to the child. Peeto had been so little then, only three years old. She would never forget how lonely and frightened he had been those first months in St. Louis, hiding under his bed, afraid to come out. He hadn't even understood English then, only speaking the guttural language of his Sioux mother.
Anger rose fiercely in great swells as Bethany thought of Peeto's father. She certainly didn't have to worry about Luke Randall coming after them. He had dumped Peeto off like an unwanted puppy, then returned to the faraway western mountains called the Rockies to trap furs. Peeto wouldn't ever talk about him, and sometimes Bethany wondered if the little boy even remembered him. Bethany had never seen him herself, since Anne hired her after Luke Randall had left, but she knew he was a fur trapper with clear jade-green eyes, just like Peeto's.
Peeto was better off with her and Val than with his father or his uncle. He had seen enough of Hugh's drunken, destructive rages. Thank goodness she had been able to persuade Captain Hosie to bring them to Natchez on the Mariette. Val was an old friend of Hosie Richmond, who had asked her if Bethany and Peeto could stay with her.
Bethany had been afraid to travel all the way to New Orleans on the Mariette because Peeto's other uncle lived there. His name was Andrew, and he was a lawyer, but that was all she knew about him. He might be as mean and abusive as his brother-in-law, Hugh. Peeto was much better off with her. She loved him more than any of his family ever could. She put her arm around the child, hugging his thin shoulders, then pressed a kiss on his soft cheek. He turned big, serious eyes to her.
"We don't never have to go back, do we, Beth? Not never?"
How many time would she have to reassure him? Bethany wondered. Her heart twisted, but she smiled, pushing unruly black curls off his forehead.
"I'll never let them take you back there, I promise," she answered, and her reassuring words eased the anxious lines around the child's eyes. His relief soon disintegrated as he discovered that his floating cork had disappeared beneath the surface.
"Uh oh, uh oh!" Peeto cried with such a curious mixture of glee and panic that Bethany laughed.
"Now, don't let go," she warned when the cane pole dipped dangerously close to the water as the fish decided to put up a fight. "Pull him in, quick, like I showed you!"
Bethany was pleased to see that Peeto remembered everything she had taught him so diligently in their daily fishing excursions, and moments later he pulled his fish out of the water, the fat catfish flip-flopping frantically on the bank. "He's even bigger than mine, Petie!" she cried. "Val won't believe you brought him in by yourself!"
Peeto's grin was so utterly smug that Bethany had to hide her amusement, but it was good to see him happy again.
"Don't you want to show Val?" she suggested as she worked to get the heavy fish off the hook.
Peeto immediately yelled across the yard to Val, and Bethany glanced over her shoulder as she pushed the big mudcat down on the stringer stick that held the rest of the day's catch. She was surprised to see two men standing with Val at the front gate. Shielding her eyes with one hand, Bethany watched them for a moment, wondering if they were the men Val had been expecting, who were to choose from her breeding stock. When they started along the dirt path toward her and Peeto, Bethany at first thought the bigger man was one of the Choctaw Indians Val sometimes hired to help around the place, because of the fringed garments he wore. As they came closer, however, she saw that he was a white man with a short black beard, his skin deeply bronzed by the sun. The other man was much smaller, with thin gray hair.
"Look, Val, Petie caught a dandy!" Bethany called out, holding up the heavy stringer with some difficulty.
Her smile faltered at first sight of the strange expression on Val's brown, weathered face. Suddenly wary, she looked immediately at the strangers. The tall one was staring intently down at Peeto, and as the boy pressed closer to Bethany's legs, the big man raised clear green eyes to her face. She froze as if turned to stone, her heart plunging to her toes.
"Run, Petie!" she yelled, swinging the heavy stringer with all the strength she possessed.
Her unexpected action caught Luke Randall by surprise, and before he could duck, it hit the side of his head with a loud slap. Bethany and Peeto didn't wait; they sprinted down the hard-packed dirt path toward the barn as fast as their bare feet could carry them.
Terrified, Bethany dared a quick glance over her shoulder just before she slammed shut the barn door. "Hurry, Petie! He's right behind us! Hide in the loft, and I'll try to stop him!"
Peeto scampered with boyish agility up the ladder, and Bethany wasted no time scrambling to the top of the bales of hay stacked beside the door. When Luke swung the door open seconds later, Bethany shoved one of the heavy bales off the stack and onto his head. She released another one behind it as he grunted in pain and muttered an oath, then she headed for the ladder. Halfway up, a strong arm closed around her slender waist, hauling her down as if she weighed nothing.
Bethany fought as hard as she could against his immense strength, kicking and jabbing with her fists the way Captain Hosie had taught her. One such attempt finally connected with his nose, drawing blood, before she was jerked around and given a hard shake that sent her hat flying onto the straw-littered floor.
She hung limply for a moment, her head whirling like a river eddy, and Luke shook her again for good measure. Before she could gather her wits and renew her fight, Peeto came hurtling through the air from the loft, his shrill Sioux yell shattering the air. He hit Luke's back like a load of stones, and as Luke went to his knees, Bethany rolled free and grabbed the pitchfork leaning against the stall. Peeto ran behind her, and she jabbed the pitchfork in a threatening manner toward Luke as he rose slowly to his feet.
"Don't come no closer," Bethany warned breathlessly, but she had only enough time to gasp as he reached out with a quickness that stunned her, jerking the pitchfork from her grasp.
"Dammit, enough!" he shouted, flinging the pitchfork away. But, apparently it wasn't enough for Bethany and Peeto, who darted in different directions. Bethany grabbed a loose board from the woodpile in the corner and swung it at him as hard as she could. Luke dodged it adroitly, then deflected her second swing with his forearm. Furious now, he dove at her, amazed to realize that he was in a life-and-death battle with a mere slip of a girl not half his size. He tackled Bethany around the waist, and they tumbled together into the nearest pile of straw. Peeto pounced on Luke's back as they landed, both small fists pummeling the top of his father's head.
Luke had had enough. He roared with rage, twisting to peel the attacking boy off his back, then held him under one arm while he pinned the girl with his leg. They both began to shriek at the top of their lungs, but even their fierce struggles were no match for Luke's strength.
"Now, hold still," he ordered from between set teeth as Val Goodrich and the small, gray-haired man filly showed up at the open barn door.
"Need any help, Randall?"
Luke gave Constable Hedger a sour look. "Yeah, you can put this little hellcat of a kidnapper in jail where she belongs."
Luke got to his feet, prudently keeping secure holds on both Bethany and Peeto. He frowned as the constable looked distinctly sorrowful.
"Sorry, Val," Constable Hedger said, scratching his gray-whiskered chin, "but the man here's got a warrant on the girl, all legal and sworn out upriver at St. Louis. Says she abducted the kid there. I ain't got no choice but to take her in. Come on, gal."
But, when he took hold of Bethany's arm, Peeto went crazy, screaming for her and fighting against Luke's hold until Luke was forced to let him go. Peeto ran sobbing into Bethany's arms, and she held him close. Luke stared at his son for a moment before he gestured the constable to one side.
Bethany watched the two men with wary eyes as they talked quietly together. Fighting her tears as Val patted her back, she briefly considered making a run for the river. But, she knew they, couldn't make it. Luke Randall was watching them with hawklike eyes even while he talked to the constable. There was no way she could escape him!
"It's all right, Petie, don't cry," she murmured, but her own voice sounded choked, because she knew it wasn't going to be all right. She was going to jail, and Peeto would be sent back to St. Louis, where she had promised him she wouldn't ever let anyone take him.
"Come on over here, little gal," Constable Hedger said, motioning to Bethany. "Mr. Randall, here, has somethin' to say."
Peeto clutched her tighter, and Bethany knelt to cup his face between her palms. "It's all right, Petie. Stand here by Val a minute."
Peeto glared at the big man who was trying to take her away from him. "You better not hurt Beth," he threatened with low, lethal venom before he was enfolded in Val's stout arms.
Luke drew Bethany aside with a less-than-gentle grip on her arm. She was glad to see blood trickling from his nose and a small cut on his temple. He deserved it!
"As far as I'm concerned," Luke said in a low, hard voice, "you deserve to rot in jail right here in Natchez for trying to kill Hugh-"
"He's not dead?" Bethany interrupted, weak with relief.
"No, sorry to disappoint you, but he survived, and now, since you've made sure my son is dependent on you, I guess I'll have to take you along with us. Because if I don't, he'll hate my guts as long as he lives."
Bethany gave him a contemptuous look. "Why should you care about that? You haven't come back since he was three years old. Why did you come back at all?"
Something moved in the clear green depths of Luke Randall's eyes, something that almost frightened Bethany. "I don't give a damn what you think of me, but for the boy's sake, I'm going to take you down-river with us. Then, I'm going to feel great pleasure in turning you over to the law, and I hope they throw away the key."
"Really? You're bringing me with you?" Bethany asked, overjoyed to be going with Peeto, even if a jail cell awaited her in New Orleans.
Luke looked down into Bethany Cole's big silver-gray eyes, so wide and innocent and appealing, and realized for the first time that she was very, very young. And pretty enough in a tomboyish sort of way, he thought, as his eyes moved over her tanned face with the few freckles on her nose. But, he wasn't foolish enough to trust that innocent look, not for a minute. The young girl standing in front of him had nearly killed Hugh with a poker before she abducted Peeto, and he would see her in prison for it just as soon as he could manage it.CHAPTER 2
Luke only gave them time to collect their belongings, and he was careful to keep a tight hold on Bethany Cole's arm as they left Valerie Goodrich's stables and walked down Silver Street, the muddy, unpaved main thoroughfare of Natchez-Under-the-Hill. He rested his other hand on one of the two flintlock pistols he always kept in his belt, as they passed the saloons and brothels lining the street all the way to the main river landings. The small strip under the Natchez bluffs was not a place to let down your guard. Among the thieves, gamblers, whores, and cutthroats, murder was committed as regularly as dawn lit the morning sky. It was nowhere for Bethany Cole to have brought his son.
Luke glanced down at the top of the girl's pale blond head. She barely reached his shoulder, and she had one arm close around Pete, as if to protect him. Luke's eyes moved to the boy. He had grown so much taller and stronger since the last time that his father had seen him, and he was brave. Pete had not hesitated to take on his father in order to help the girl.
"We're going in that?" Bethany asked in surprise, as they stopped on a planked dock alongside a heavily laden birchbark canoe.
"That's right," Luke answered. "Don't worry, it's safe enough."
Bethany had seen enough canoes during her youth on the Ohio River to know that much, but with a giant of a man like Luke Randall aboard, she wasn't sure the fragile craft could stay afloat, much less bear the three of them all the way to New Orleans. She started to say as much, then decided against it as Luke swung Peeto into the canoe, helping him get settled on a thick, furry buffalo hide spread out near the bow.
Excerpted from Dream Song by Linda Ladd. Copyright © 1988 Linda Ladd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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