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Kincaid woke to the throbbing pain in his massive shoulders and arms, which were stretched out taut away from either side of his body. The effort to flex his benumbed hands resulted in agony as tightening thongs bit into raw wrists. His head hung forward, so that when he blinked open his eyes to the early-morning light he saw only the muddy ground, strewn with pine needles, below him.
A slight turn of his pounding head in either direction revealed his black-booted feet, spread far apart and secured by rawhide at the ankles. His eyes followed the rawhide on one side to where it wrapped around a thick spruce.
Kincaid closed his eyes and struggled mentally to orient himself.
A pulsing ache in the muscles of his right thigh took him back to a scene from the past. The scream of the shrapnel that had left him with a slight but permanent limp resounded in his ears. He jerked unconsciously at the memory of that first awful impact of metal on muscle. It was a nightmare he relived time and again, but always with the same painful ending. He remembered anxiously watching the slender woman, her long blond hair windblown around a terrified, heart-shaped face, racing toward where he had been pitched from the saddle by the blast. He'd warned her to get down, but was unheard amidst the chaos of defeated soldiers fleeing on horseback and on foot.
Suddenly, a blossom of red unfolded on the front of her high-necked gray wool dress. A tentative hand reached up to admire the deadly corsage, and she sought Kincaid's steel gray eyes with her own silvery blue ones, a poignant sadness replacing the fear for him on her face. Stumbling unsteadily, she took one more step. Then he watched helplessly as his wife crumpled, like a flower trodden to the ground.
He dragged himself to her side, forced to pause occasionally by the bursting shells around him. Finally, he cradled her head in his arms as he lay full-length beside her on the red clay. He searched her face for signs of life, but when he saw none, gathered her close to him, their long bodies molding perfectly, and pressed gentle kisses on each closed eyelid, and finally on the still-warm mouth. The taste of his loss was bitter on his lips. Tenderly, he laid her head down and rested his own cheek beside hers on the cool clay.
His throat constricted so that he couldn't breathe without turning his gaze away from the precious young face to the sky above, dotted with ugly clouds of black smoke. If only she hadn't insisted on being where she didn't belong in the first place. If only he'd demanded she obey him and leave. But, oh, how he'd secretly admired her for staying.
"Damn you, Laurie!" he raged. He hugged the lifeless body to his own in frustration, while tears of anguish squeezed from eyelids drifting closed in unconsciousness.
But the war of brother against brother was over now and had been for more than a month. Kincaid realized he'd remembered too far back in the past, and wished he hadn't. He'd awakened an ache in his heart as persistent as the one in his wounded thigh. He forced his mind to focus on solving the puzzle of how he had come to be tied, spread-eagled, between two trees in the middle of a forbidding pine forest.
Two other minds worried over the same problem from another perspective.
"I count nine Sioux, including the lookout," Adam whispered to his lanky, buckskin-clad younger sister. "Too many for us to kill before one of them kills him."
"Why do you suppose they kept him alive?" Reb asked, as they observed the unknown man from their hiding place behind a mammoth boulder.
"Don't expect we'll ever know. Could be his size. That is one big man. Maybe they just want to see if the extra inches give him extra courage."
Millions of pine needles and spruce branchlets rustling in the wind muffled their voices, and the strong breeze carried the softened sound away from the Indian camp.
Reb appraised the body that was stripped to the waist and suspended between two trees. She found no fault in the impressive shoulders and chest, the defined muscles across the abdomen, or the strong, sinewy thighs molded into a pair of Union Army pants. She was curious to see the face that went with such a body, but the head hung forward, hidden in the shade of the forest.
They were several hours' ride south of Blue's cabin, on their way home with the beaver skins they'd picked up from the loner in exchange for the coffee, flour, and beans they'd delivered to him. Located where the Laramie River crossed the plateaulike summit of the mountains, the cabin was more than fifty miles, as the crow flies, from Fort Laramie on the plains directly to the east, and equally distant from their home at the base of the mountains to the southwest.
Reb wondered whether the presence of this captive meant another massacre of soldiers on patrol like the many throughout the winter. "Aside from the blood on his forehead, he doesn't appear to be hurt," she said.
"Not yet," Adam replied. "Those eagle feathers identify that lookout as one of Standing Buffalo's renegades, the ones Dad warned us about. I've seen samples of their handiwork. The kindest thing we can do for that stranger is shoot him."
Reb's senses rebelled against the mutilation planned for the magnificent specimen of mankind she saw before her. Surely the fates that had caused them to stumble onto this warrior camp could not have intended they pass without changing the now dismal outlook of this stranger's life.
"There must be a way we can save him. Think, Adam."
"Whatever we do should be done soon, before those sleeping Indians wake up," he said, "Or we could take a chance that they're planning to postpone their entertainment until they get to wherever they're headed. We might be able to steal their prisoner away during the journey."
Adam figured the band was headed for the Powder River far to the north near the Black Hills, where Red Cloud's Oglala and other Sioux less inclined to peace than Spotted Tail were congregating. If so, he didn't like the idea of trekking across mountains and plains after the Indians. They were too likely to be discovered and share the stranger's fate. He said as much to Reb.
"You're right," she agreed. "What about a trade?"
"We don't have a snowball's chance in the sun of bargaining with Standing Buffalo for that man's life, even if I were willing to give up Blue's beaver skins, which I'm not. Those Brulés won't trust us as far as they can throw us. They'll kill him sure if we charge in there. No, I'm afraid he's a goner, Reb. There's nothing we can do."
As he finished speaking, a far-fetched idea came to Adam of how to save the doomed man. He rose, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Yep. The kindest thing we can do is shoot him."
Adam clamped a hand over Reb's open mouth as she jumped up to protest.
"Listen," he whispered excitedly. "I've got a crazy idea, but it just might work. What's the first thing those Sioux will do if we start shooting?"
Reb mumbled against Adam's hand, but he ignored her in his exuberance.
"Kill that stranger, that's what! So we're going to 'kill' him first. That is, we're going to make them think we've killed him, so they're more concerned about escaping our ambush than hanging around here to carve up a dead body."
The large, liquid brown eyes rimmed with long black lashes, together with the light dusting of freckles visible across Reb's nose above his callused hand, reminded Adam of a startled fawn. When she mumbled again in frustration, he took his hand away from her full, still-parted lips.
"How?" she hissed.
"You're going to shoot him. I think if you hit him just above the heart, that ought to convince them he's dead."
Reb sucked in a breath of air between clenched teeth, but said nothing.
"I'll sneak around to the far side of the clearing. When I'm set, I'll shoot the lookout. That'll leave eight Indians. We've got two seven-shot Spencer rifles, four Colt repeaters, our knives, and the element of surprise on our side. We can't lose," he said with a lopsided grin.
"When the lookout falls, you shoot the stranger," he continued. "I'll unhobble the Indian ponies so that they stampede when the noise starts. Don't stop firing till they're all dead or gone. I'll be doing my part from the other side. Any questions?"
"What if I miss?"
"You miss those Indians, and we'll be dead ducks."
"You know that's not what I mean," Reb said. "What if I accidentally kill that stranger?" She gnawed her lower lip with her straight white teeth, her forehead wrinkled in concern. She was a crack shot, but had never aimed her gun at a man before, only at animals and standing targets.
"Like I said, the kindest thing we can do is shoot him. Besides, you're too good a shot to miss. If it bothers you so much, we can just leave the way we came. He's no worse off if we leave him dead than if we leave him alive."
Adam might be a pragmatist, but Reb was an eternal optimist. Besides, she very much wanted to see the stranger's face, and she was more likely to get her wish if they tried to save him.
She had no qualms about killing the nine Sioux when she remembered the Morgans. Those horrible deaths, among others over the winter, were evidence that a state of undeclared war existed with the Indians at least, undeclared on the white man's side.
The previous November, Colonel John Chivington had ordered the murder of Cheyenne men, women, and children waiting at Sand Creek to begin peace talks. The unprovoked attack of the army on the peaceful Cheyenne was the last straw. In retaliation, the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne had indulged in what many mountain men considered a quite justifiable rampage.
The Indians began paying the white man back for the degradation of drunkenness caused by his whiskey, for diseases brought back to Indian husbands by wives who prostituted themselves with the soldiers for scraps of food, for the theft of government annuities by dishonest Indian agents, and above all, for the lies of the White Father who broke treaty after treaty.
The Sioux were incensed by the story of how the Cheyenne chief White Antelope, who stood alone and refused to fight the white man at Sand Creek, was shot down, then scalped and castrated by the soldiers. When his story was told, the Sioux smoked the war pipe gladly. They became the scourge of the Overland Trail, killing soldiers and settlers indiscriminately and pillaging or burning everything in their path.
The atrocities committed over the winter had included the riddling of one body with no fewer than ninety-seven arrows. Both sides had given sufficient warning that when one met the other, the rule was "Kill or be killed."
"All right, I'll shoot him," Reb said at last.
Adam disappeared silently into the forest. She lifted her Spencer to her shoulder and sighted down the barrel to a spot several inches above the stranger's heart.
Reb's hands shook at the enormous responsibility she'd undertaken. Knowing that she held the stranger's life at the tip of her trigger finger, she wanted to know very badly who he was and where he'd come from. She wanted to know the color of his eyes, to hear the sound of his voice. She wanted to know if he had a sweetheart, or worse, a wife and children.
"Look at me."
She willed the stranger to respond. As though reading her thoughts, his head rose slowly on his shoulders until he stared proudly forward, directly at Reb.
His whole face wasn't visible, only his eyes, lit by a narrow shaft of sunlight that blazed through the towering spruce and two-hundred-foot lodgepole pines, so named for the use to which the Indians put them. She was unable to discern the color of the unwavering orbs that bored into her own, compelling a response, demanding her soul.
Lost in his piercing gaze, Reb momentarily surrendered to the stranger's power, willingly giving to him a part of herself never before offered to anyone. In that fleeting instant Reb experienced a feeling of belonging so intense that it took her by surprise. This feeling was not the same sense of well-being that had always been provided by the support and love of her family. It was much more.
Unused to domination of any kind, Reb's spirit shook off the pleasant, but still unwanted, yoke of attachment. As the daughter of a onetime trapper and mountain man, Reb had learned not to give without taking a fair trade.
"I will never belong to any man, including you," she whispered in response to the stranger's unspoken demand for her soul, "who does not also belong to me."
She took careful aim once more and waited for Adam's signal. Her eyes drifted to the lookout, who had begun strutting boldly before the stranger.
At that moment, Adam fired.
Pandemonium hit the camp. Rides-Two-Ways clutched the gaping hole in his chest, his dying thought one of furious anger for the ruin of his wonderful shirt. The Sioux threw off their blankets and buffalo robes, grabbed weapons, and looked through sleep-crusted eyes for an enemy to fight.
"We are attacked!" Standing Buffalo cried.
"But I see no enemy," High Forehead said, uselessly holding his tomahawk.
Reb took a deep breath, her smooth white cheek pressed to the equally smooth brown rifle stock, and squeezed the trigger. Surprise registered on the stranger's face before it sagged forward.
"Too-Big-For-Horses has been shot!" Strangling Wolf exclaimed.
The Indians howled in outrage, certain now where at least one enemy lay. Reb chose another target immediately, knowing she must make each shot count. Her repeating rifle roared in her ear, and an Indian died.
The gunfire stampeded the unhobbled ponies through the camp, increasing the confusion.
Adam aimed and fired again. He caught High Forehead, who had paused in hopes of taking the "dead" stranger's scalp, with a bullet in the middle of his namesake. Adam struggled to avoid a charging brave who ripped open his right arm when he raised it to deflect a slashing knife blow. He hit the Indian in the throat with his left fist, crushing the windpipe.
Reb killed two more Sioux who were barely awake enough to realize they were meeting their eternal rest. Then Strangling Wolf and Spotted Elk attacked Reb. She dropped her rifle, grabbing for her two revolvers. She barely had time to free one gun and fire before Strangling Wolf fell dead on top of her with a final garbled cry.
Adam's revolver spoke from a spot near the stranger, and Spotted Elk screamed his death song before reaching Reb. Adam rushed to his sister, who was shoving her way out from under Strangling Wolf's corpse.
"Are you all right?" he asked anxiously.
Reb felt oddly disconnected from the death all around her. She answered calmly, "I'm fine, Adam. Did we get them all?"
Adam counted quickly, confounded to discover they were one Indian short. Colt in hand, he searched the forest surrounding the camp, but found no sign of his prey. He checked each dead Indian, but none was Standing Buffalo.
"Damn! That renegade will probably hightail it back to Spotted Tail for reinforcements. He isn't going to find any help there, thanks to Dodge. All the same, I'm not sure enough of what any Indian will do to stake my life on it. We better pack up and get moving."
Noticing several Indian ponies still lingering nearby, he added, "We can probably make sure he stays on foot for a while if we scatter the rest of these ponies. I presume your stranger is still alive?"
"He's alive, but he's unconscious."
"It makes the most sense for us to go back to Blue's cabin. It's closer than going all the way home. You can tend your stranger there."
Reb looked around at the slain men, then said so softly he barely heard her, "Let's get out of here, Adam."
Standing Buffalo watched the white man, who was nearly as tall as his former captive, cut down Too-Big-For-Horses, wrapping him securely in the blanket offered by his partner. When they lifted Too-Big-For-Horses across High Forehead's pinto and tied him down, Standing Buffalo smiled grimly and thought again how well the name fit the man, whose arms and legs nearly touched the ground on either side of the larger pony.
He waited patiently as the rest of the Indian ponies were scattered in the forest by several shots. He noted the direction of his favorite mount and set out at a brisk trot after him. He was not a superstitious man, but his former captive seemed to be having more than his share of good luck. He would leave it in the hands of the Great Spirit to bring the white man back to him, for he did not doubt that Too-Big-For-Horses still lived.
Now he must meet Spotted Tail at Fort Laramie and tell of the daring theft of Too-Big-For-Horses, and of the white man's evident favor with the Great Spirit.
It was not until they had traveled some distance that Reb came out of shock sufficiently to notice the blood covering the front of Adam's shirt.
"You call that bleeding? Why, I've seen a stuck pig do better than this," Adam replied.
"Adam, be serious." She was more annoyed with herself for failing to notice his injury than with him for joking about something so serious. She was startled to realize it was well past noon. She had no recollection of the trip from the Indian camp and was surprised to see she was leading the pony that carried the stranger.
Although he'd pressed his injured arm against his body in an attempt to stop the bleeding, Adam so far had been unsuccessful. The result of this tactic, however, had been to soak the front of his shirt with blood, so it looked like he had a belly wound. He might have been more concerned if the danger of pursuit was greater, but they soon would be able to stop, and he was confident Reb would be able to take care of him.
"It's just my arm, really, see?" He held out his arm to Reb, who raised an eyebrow appraisingly. "We should be back at Blue's cabin soon. You can play doctor for both me and your stranger there."
"Yes, and you can play nurse," Reb retorted irritably. She realized she would need to take care of both men, and dreaded it. Her doctoring experience had been gained as an assistant to the Old One. What Reb hated most was inflicting the necessary pain that so often accompanied the cure.
The fact that Adam could never be serious about anything was an irritation she'd learned to live with. In fact, the more dangerous the situation, the more he tended to treat it humorously. But, those who knew Adam well never underestimated him because of the smile on his face or the laughter in his voice.
She tried to look objectively at her brother. His green eyes glittered in a tanned face topped by sun-streaked, sandy gold hair. Clean-shaven, unlike most frontier men, his face revealed a firm jaw. He'd joked that he wanted the ladies to be able to find his lips. He did have a good mouth, she admitted, with pleasant, full lips prone to smile, and to quirk when he was teasing, which was often. His nose had once been aquiline, but it had been broadened at the bridge by a break when he was ten, adding character to an otherwise too-perfect visage.
Adam yanked on the pack mule line with his good hand. "Blue's skins will just have to get delivered a little later. Come on, cheer up," he cajoled. "Not only did we rescue your stranger, but we're still alive and well enough to greet him when he comes to."
"He's not my stranger," Reb protested, out of patience with his constant ribbing. He was a little too close to feelings she was not yet willing to admit existed.
Adam's knowing grin was too wide to be measured.
She turned away to hide the embarrassing blush that rose in her cheeks. His reference to the motionless man made her consider for the first time what she would say to the stranger when the opportunity finally arose to have a civil conversation. What should she ask? What would his first question be? It's rather like stumbling onto a sleeping mountain lion, she thought. The action doesn't begin until the lion wakes up.
Copyright © 2005 by Joan Mertens Johnston, Inc.