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By Kelly Z. Conrad
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Kelly Z. Conrad
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe lay shivering on the frozen ground, the night's damp chill piercing her bruised body. A fire crackled and men's voices laughed nearby. The cries of her sister had long since quieted. Had she finally died? Tears stung her eyes. She prayed that her own death would soon rescue her.
She could not remember the last time water passed her lips. When she tried to moisten them with her tongue, she tasted blood. Tight around her neck was the coarse rope her captors used to lead her, sometimes drag her, as they traveled through the day. Tonight, bound at the wrists and ankles, flat on her back, she knew what she would soon endure again. The raw burning between her legs was excruciating when she moved, so she lay perfectly still.
Rustling footsteps approached and stopped beside her. In the dim light, she saw him bend toward her feet, then felt the blade of his knife slice through the rope around her ankles. She was careful not to move. Without warning, a strong kick to her ribs sent a searing pain shooting through her body. The rope around her neck was wrenched, and with one quick motion, she was sitting up. She pushed against him, struggling to breathe. Fresh blood trickled from the open wounds around her neck, down between her breasts. The stench of sweat and gin filled her nostrils as she stared into the bearded face of the older captor, his malicious grin exposing brown and broken teeth.
"Please, no more," she begged in a hoarse whisper.
"Shut up!" His hand exploded into the side of her face with a loud crack, causing her to momentarily lose awareness. "You're the only dirty squaw left alive."
He fumbled with the buttons on his trousers, and shoved her tattered skirt above her hips. A panicked cry rose in her throat when she felt his hands on her buttocks, the cold night air brushing the most intimate part of her body. She pulled frantically at the ropes that bound her wrists, mindless terror flooding her. He lowered to force her legs apart, and she screamed in pain when he shoved himself into her. She smelled sweat and dirt on his neck as he thrust back and forth into her, her bound hands crushed between them. Trying to push against him was futile, her arms too weak, his body too heavy. His rancid breath in her face, he suddenly slowed his movements. He closed his eyes and collapsed on top of her. Fearing her chest would cave in under his weight, she tried to shift from beneath him. Though still breathing, he was not moving. With great effort, she pushed his body to the side and he rolled to the ground. When he settled onto his back, his coat fell open and she saw the knife hanging from his belt. She sat up and reached quickly to pull it from its sheath, glancing toward the fire to be sure the other man was not approaching. Her heart pounding, she turned the knife against the ropes at her wrists. After several awkward attempts with shaking hands, the blade finally cut through the rope. Keeping a wary eye on her captor passed out at her side, she pushed her skirt back down, then cut the rope from around her neck.
On her hands and knees, she crawled a few feet away, still clutching the knife. She tried to think what to do next. The other man at the fire was still quiet, but if he came to her and discovered what had happened, the weapon would be of little use. Her only chance was to wait here in the shadows and hope he remained at the fire.
The man near her began to stir. She watched him closely. He lifted his head and looked around. When he saw her a short distance away, he frowned.
"How'd you get over there?" His speech slurred, he seemed disoriented. Struggling to sit up, he finally managed to stand unsteadily, holding his unfastened pants at the waist. He stumbled over to her. "Get up," he ordered. When she did not move, he reached down to grab a handful of her hair. She cried out as he pulled her to standing.
In one quick motion, she brought the knife from behind her skirt and plunged the long blade as far as it would go into his abdomen. He grunted with the force of the blade. His mouth dropped open, shock registering on his face as he soundlessly put his hands to his stomach, dropped to his knees, then crumpled at her feet.
Frozen, she stared down at him for several long minutes. She did not know if she had killed him, and didn't care, as long as he stayed quiet and could no longer hurt her. His eyes in a petrified stare, the handle of the knife protruding from his stomach, his blood ran into the dry grass. He was not breathing. She bent down and wrenched the knife from his body, wiping the bloody blade on his pants. Still watching him, she moved beyond his reach, and sat for a moment on the hard ground. Only now realizing how cold she was, she considered removing her dead captor's coat, but decided against it. She was afraid to go near him, and did not want to endure his stench just to be warm.
The men's horses stood a few yards from the encampment, tethered to surrounding trees. Quietly, she circled the outer perimeter of the camp, toward the animals. She untied both horses and gathered the leather straps in her hands, praying they would not make enough noise to waken the other man. Approaching the smaller horse, she put her hand against his neck to calm his agitation at her unfamiliar touch. When his stomping subsided, she jumped and hoisted herself onto his bare back, grimacing with intense pain that radiated throughout her body. A firm grip on both tethers, she turned the horse, kicked his sides, and hung on as they bolted through the trees.
Behind her, she heard a man shouting but did not dare look back. She kicked the horse harder and he picked up speed.
"Hey! That squaw bitch is stealin' our horses!" She heard a shot and felt a searing shard hit her left leg just above the knee. Either the shot or her loud shriek spooked the horse. He jumped and began to gallop faster, the other horse following close behind.
For a time, she continued to kick the horse's sides, urging him on through thick trees and along open fields, until he would gallop no longer. Toward daybreak, she forced herself to look back. Seeing no one, she let go of the other horse, and allowed her mount to slow to a walk, knowing he needed rest. Small creeks they had passed were frozen solid, and with no sign of a larger body of water from which to drink, she wasn't sure how far she could go. The pain in her leg was agonizing, the bullet wound bleeding profusely through her skirt and onto the horse. His left flank was sticky with her blood. She knew she should try to bandage the wound but she was afraid to stop and dismount, for fear she would not have the strength to continue if she did. Instead, she gathered as much material of the bloody tatters of her skirt as she could and held it over the wound. A foggy vision of her grandmothers came to her, offering the petals of the tiny white flowers in the field to stop the bleeding, just as they had done many years ago. She knew it was only a matter of time until she joined her grandmothers in the spirit world.
She was feeling weaker by the hour. The feeble January sun did little to warm her, but slouching against the horse, at least she could benefit from his body heat. She remained wary, always scanning her surroundings to see that no one was approaching. If the other captor somehow caught up to her, as he had done the last time she escaped, he would surely kill her.
By late afternoon, she was slipping in and out of awareness. At times, she leaned to rest her face against the horse's neck, feeling his warmth beneath her cheek. She was strangely comforted by images of her father teaching her to ride when she was a girl.
"Your horse must always know that you are his master, Degan," her father had said. "Then he will do what you want, go where you want."
A brave Seneca, respected among his people, her father had always been gentle and loving with her, as well as with her brothers and sisters. She wondered what he would say if he could see her now, crumpled over this horse's neck, unable to sit up, allowing the animal to ramble wherever he chose.
At sunset, the intense thirst had invaded her mind and her body. Neither she nor the horse could go much further without water. The trees were beginning to thin and soon she could distinguish two dark structures in the distance. She made out a log cabin and a barn in the gloom, with no signs of activity on the property. Perhaps there would be water there. The horse seemed to read her mind, as he quickened his pace toward the barn.
At the barn door, she slid from the horse's back to fall against the crossbar. Putting all her weight on her right leg, she could barely stand, but managed to push the heavy crossbar aside. The barn door swung open. In a shaft of moonlight, she could see a bucket and a feed bin in a stall along the back wall. She collapsed on the dirt floor just inside the door. The horse entered past her, making his way to the unfamiliar stall to drink loudly from the bucket.
She crawled toward the back wall, as far away from the cold night air as possible. In the moonlight from a small window overhead, she saw the yellow straw under her turning red with her blood. Lifting her torn and dirty skirt, she could see the bullet wound in her leg was still bleeding. She wondered how long it would be before death would take her. She expected it would be very soon.
Removing the knife from the waistband of her skirt, she placed it beside her in the straw. The useful weapon had saved her life last night, but if threatened now, she would be too weak to use it. She was too weak to crawl to the bucket to drink whatever water the horse had left her. Leaning her head against the splintered wood of the barn wall, she closed her eyes to sleep, but fear and despair had rooted themselves too deeply, and sleep wouldn't come.
She knew she would never see home again, and yearned deeply for her husband. Never again would she hear her father's laughter when he teased her. Thoughts of her mother came to her. Braiding her long dark hair when she was a girl, her mother had always said, "Degan, you will be a strong woman some day." Now her mother lay dead back home and she was here in this strange barn, shaking in the cold, bleeding, and waiting for death.
Matt Tyler urged his horse to quicken its steps, and soon came upon his log cabin and small barn, surrounded by towering pines. Crisp evening air slipped icy fingers beneath the collar of his coat. His breath preceded him in frosty puffs. Relieved to be home, he looked forward to a relaxing smoke in front of a warm fire.
Darkness had fallen hours ago. A multitude of stars illuminated the sky on this cloudless night, moonlight brightening the frozen ground. Though the Civil War had ended nearly two years before, these nights still evoked memories of the camps where his Union regiment had endured in the endless winter months. Tonight, with the cold penetrating to his bones, he was thankful to live less than a mile from the town of Sylvan, where he worked as a physician's apprentice.
As he approached his barn, Matt was surprised to see a horse standing just inside the open barn door. Dismounting, he withdrew the rifle holstered to his saddle and walked cautiously toward the stray. Despite the blood on its left flank and both sides of its neck, Matt quickly determined that the animal was not injured. He raised his rifle and cocked it.
"Who's there?" he yelled into the darkness. With the barrel of the rifle, he pushed the barn door open wide to allow the full moon to bathe the interior with pale light. It was then that he saw a small form crouched against the far wall.
"Who's there?" He stepped forward, and was stunned by what he saw.
A young woman, obviously injured, sat on the barn floor. She was shaking noticeably and kept wide eyes fixed on the rifle in Matt's grip. He lowered the gun and set it to lean against the barn door, then struck a match to light a lantern hanging just inside. When he turned the flame higher and advanced a few paces, she frantically glanced around as if looking for a means of escape. Finding none, she pressed herself tightly to the wall behind her as Matt came closer.
Looking at her in stronger light, he could see she was an Indian, he guessed in her mid-twenties. Her dark hair hung in tangled disarray about her face and shoulders, her dark skin smooth over high cheekbones. Her face, hands, and bare feet were covered with dried blood and dirt. A raw and bleeding stripe encircled her neck. She clutched the remains of her dress in the front, deep red cuts around both wrists. Her face was badly bruised and swollen on one side, and blood had soaked through her skirt, he presumed from a wound he could not see.
"My God, where the hell did you come from?" As if the sound of his voice shook him from a daze, he quickly unfastened his medical bag from his saddle. But when he approached her, he realized his foolishness in thinking she would be a cooperative patient. She quickly reached into the straw and produced a sizeable knife. He stopped abruptly and held up his hands.
"You won't need that," he said, keeping his tone even. "I won't hurt you."
She stared at him, her breath coming in rapid gulps, her fear palpable between them.
He knelt down and searched his medical bag, producing rolls of clean linen bandages which he held out to her. "Can you understand me? I'm a doctor. Let me help you."
After what seemed an eternity, she slowly lowered the knife, and placed it beside her in the straw. He carefully inched toward her, intending to inspect her injured leg. He thought it best to give her fair warning.
"I'm going to lift your skirt just enough to look at your leg. I think you're bleeding from there."
He touched the hem and pushed back the filthy garment. When she gasped and reached for the knife, he dropped the hem and lifted his hands.
"All right, you do it yourself then. I won't touch you. Just let me see the wound in your leg."
Brandishing the knife, she shook her head. "No, no more!"
"I can't let you sit here and bleed to death," he told her firmly. Deciding not to waste more time trying to elicit her cooperation, he reached forward to pick her up.
"No!" she shrieked, raising the knife. In a flash, he clasped her wrist and clamped down hard. She cried out, holding on in wild desperation to her only defense. But her struggle soon weakened and the knife dropped into the straw. Matt picked it up and saw dried blood on the blade and the handle. He tossed it to bounce off the opposite wall.
Terror engulfed her, but she found a small voice to beg, "Please," as he reached for her again.
"I can't let you die." He gathered her slight frame into his arms, easily lifting her off the barn floor. She struggled against him, but the fight proved too much. With a final cry, she passed out in his arms.
She hovered at the bottom of a very deep lake, trying to swim toward the surface. Her ears filled with the muffled sounds of rushing water. When she emerged from the black depths to realize the dim light of day, she heard her voice calling her dead husband's name in a mournful incantation. There were gunshots and screams from her family as they fell around her. Friends and other families in neighboring lodges had met the same fate. Viewing the carnage, she wished for her own death.
Then she heard the white man's voice again, quiet and pleading, from a different place. His gentle words soothed her. She caught the scents of whiskey and sweet tobacco. She felt something cool, distantly soothing on her face. But she had broken the surface for only an instant before sinking again to the bottom.
Early daylight filtered through the pines behind the cabin. Matt sipped fresh coffee, watching a blanket of twinkling frost come into view over the clearing outside. Sleep had been intermittent at best the night before. He had tried to doze at his desk, not allowing himself the comfort of his bedroom. He knew the injured woman would require his skills throughout the night. And though the last few hours had passed fitfully for him, they had been agonizing for her.
She had raved in delirium for long periods, fallen into restless sleep, only to stir and cry madly again. At one point, she had put a hand out to him, staring with wild, unseeing eyes. She'd repeated a word he did not understand, as if calling a name. But when she touched his face, she jerked back as if his whiskers burned her fingers.
Excerpted from Shaman by Kelly Z. Conrad Copyright © 2012 by Kelly Z. Conrad. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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