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May 1897, Whitehorn, Montana
A frontier saloon was just about the last place on earth Jane Harris had ever expected, or wanted, to find herself. Why, Mrs. Endicott and her Ladies' Temperance Society back in Boston would have been properly horrified. They'd have been more horrified still by the knowledge that Jane had stolen and sold a brooch of Mrs. Endicott's to get here.
The jarring notes of a tinny piano pummeled Jane's throbbing head, and the reek of raw spirits and tobacco smoke made the flesh at the back of her throat constrict. If she'd had anything to eat in the past twenty-four hours, the stink, the noise and her own overwrought nerves might have conspired to make her violently ill.
Perhaps it had been a harsh blessing that she'd run out of money for food back in Omaha.
"Kin I pour ya a drink, little lady?" bellowed the man behind the bar, his voiced laced with genial mockery.
Jane gasped, her heart hammering against her corset like the pistons of a runaway steam engine.
"N-no thank you, sir." She raised her voice louder than she'd ever spoken in her life, to make herself heard above the "music" and the babble of voices. "I'd be most obliged if you'd point out the foreman of the Kincaid ranch to me. The gentleman at the telegraph office told me I might find him here."
As she turned to speak to him, the bartender flinched. At the sight of her face, most likely. She'd hoped the bruises and cuts would have healed by the end of her long trip West. They must still have a ways to go if her appearance distressed a man who worked in such a rough establishment.
"Yep, ma'am. I seen him come in a while back and he ain't left that I know of." The bartender squinted through the haze of smoke around the cavernous room, with its sinister shadows and a huge, lowering buffalo head mounted behind the bar.
Raising a gnarled finger, he pointed to one particularly murky corner. "That's John Whitefeather, over there. He don't come in here much as a rule, but when he does it's always off by hisself."
Jane heard nothing after the bartender spoke the name. Whitefeather? An Indian! Her knees commenced to tremble beneath her skirts and petticoats.
Back in Boston, Jane's sole dissipation had been reading Western dime novels from Beadle's Library. Along with stories of legendary gunslingers like Jack Spade, they often featured lurid accounts of Apache atrocities. Were there any of that fierce tribe this far north? Perhaps she was about to find out.
"Thank you sir. II appreciate your assistance." As much as a condemned prisoner appreciated a deputy's "assistance" to climb the scaffold.
Jane tried to smile at the man, but between her mounting agitation and the still-healing gash on one side of her mouth, she didn't make a very good job of it.
Step by halting step, she crossed the saloon floor, painfully conscious of curious, predatory eyes following her movements. Had young Daniel felt this way walking through the lions' den? Probably not, for Daniel had been a man and he'd had the Lord on his side. With the sin of her desperate theft weighing on her conscience, Jane was certain she'd left any slight protection of the Almighty far behind her in New England.
John Whitefeather sat at a corner table, all alone, his back to the wall, as though he did not care to turn it upon the denizens of the Double Deuce. The bartender's pointing finger must have alerted the man that she wished to speak with him, yet he did not rise or otherwise acknowledge her approach.
Reason assured Jane that the Kincaids' foreman was hardly apt to pull out a tomahawk and scalp her in the middle of a crowded saloon. But her tautly stretched nerves refused to unwind for logic. She stopped before his table and stood like a convicted felon in front of a hanging judge. For a wooden nickel she'd have turned and fled, but she'd been told the Kincaids lived miles outside of town. John Whitefeather might be her only means of reaching them.
For perhaps the hundredth time since stealing out of Boston, Jane wished she'd been able to spare the money for a wire to advise her new employers that she was on her way. Mrs. Kincaid might have come to the depot to meet her, or at least have sent her a less alarming escort to the ranch.
"A-are you Mr. Whitefeather, the Kincaid foreman?"
The man gave a slow nod. Jane sensed his gaze sweeping over her, but unlike the bartender, he betrayed no sign that her battered face affected him.
"What can I do for you, ma'am?" His voice, a soft rumble with a queer melodic inflection, was barely audible over the raucous hubbub of the saloon.
"I'm Jane Harris, Mr. Whitefeather." She tried to sound competent and businesslike to convince him of her identity. Instead, her words came out stiff and prissy. "I've arrived from Boston to work for Mr. and Mrs. Kincaid, taking care of their boys."
Her syllables began to trip over one another in their haste, and she had to pause frequently to gasp for breath. "I regret that I was unable to send a wire to announce my arrival. I'd be most obliged if you could arrange my transportation to the ranch."
He muttered something to himself, but what Jane could hear made no sense to her. Was he speaking some Indian dialect?
Draining the contents of a tall bottle, he rummaged in his pocket and tossed several coins onto the table. Then he scooped up his hat, pushed back his chair and stood.
Jane's last sound nerve shattered.
He was so big. John Whitefeather towered over her, his shoulders alarmingly broad under an enormous duster coat that fell almost to his ankles. And his hands Jane nearly swooned, imagining the horrible damage they could inflict on a woman's vulnerable face and body. Emery Endicott had been a runt compared to this giant. Before she'd run away to Montana, though, her fiancé had managed to beat her badly enough to put her in the infirmary.
"I expect you'd better come along with me, ma'am."
Any man who spoke so softly and with so respectful a tone could never harm her. Jane didn't really believe it, but the alternative was too terrible to contemplate. He brushed past her, a man-of-war in full sail, while she bobbed along in his wake like a dinghy swamped by his bow wave.
To her surprise, John Whitefeather held the saloon door open for her like the most fastidious gentleman. Squinting against the bright setting sun, Jane stepped outside onto the boardwalk that ran in front of the businesses on Main Street. The air was dry and dusty, but otherwise clean. The rowdy noise of the Double Deuce immediately muted to a faint echo.
Behind her, John Whitefeather's voice rumbled, ominous, yet absurdly reassuring in its hushed tone. "Are your bags at the stage office here, or still back at the rail depot in Big Timber? Either way, we probably ought to leave them be until you've talked to Caleb and Ruth."
She spun around to face him. "I, er, don't have any bags."
Before she had time to lose her nerve, or recover her scruples, she rattled off the lie she'd carefully rehearsed all the way from the Atlantic.
"One of the trains got derailed just outside Chicago, you see. We passengers were thrown around the car, which is how I came by my injuries. Then the baggage car took fire. I believe a lamp fell and burst when we went off the tracks. My trunk and both my valises were burned to a cinder, but of course I was relieved to have escaped with my life."
Quite against her will, the inflection of Jane's voice rose at the end of her account, as though questioning whether her listener was prepared to swallow this barely probable tale.
"That's too bad about your train, ma'am. Do you have any money to tide you over?" He took a few long strides down the boardwalk that abutted the false-fronted buildings of Main Streeta hardware store, a butcher shop and an alarming number of saloons.
Jane scurried to keep up with him. "M-money? What makes you ask?"
Why she clasped her reticule to her bosom, Jane wasn't sure. It contained nothing more valuable than a pair of damp, crumpled handkerchiefs, the pawn ticket for Mrs. Endicott's brooch and a newspaper cutting of the Kincaids' original employment notice.
"I'll be getting room and board working for the Kincaids, and they'll be paying me wages. I can get by until then."
John Whitefeather stopped in his tracks and glared at her with a sullen severity that almost brought tears to her eyes.
Oh dear. Had she offended him by implying she feared he might steal from her?
He didn't raise his voice. If anything, it grew quieter. The temperature of it dropped, too, until Jane fancied his breath frosted the air. "Forget it."
Her eyes were becoming accustomed to the sun's glare. At last she was able to take in more about the Kincaids' foreman than his general shape and size.
Beneath a battered brown hat with a broad brim, John Whitefeather's coal-black hair was tied back with a leather cord and cascaded down past his shoulder blades. He had skin the color of oiled teakwood, with the dark shadow of whiskers on his firmly hewn jawline. Above high, jutting cheekbones blazed deep-set eyes the startling blue of an infinite Montana sky.
His fierce, intensely masculine beauty unsettled Jane almost as much as his height had. What a mousy, battered eyeful he must be getting by comparison.
Heaving a sigh from deep within his vast frame, John Whitefeather made a subtle movement as though adjusting an awkward load upon his powerful shoulders. He untied the reins of a tall, white-spotted horse from the hitching post, then started across the hard-packed dust of White-horn's main street with his mount in tow. Not knowing what else to do, Jane followed.
Over his shoulder the Kincaids' foreman called, "I reckon we'd better get you back to the ranch so we can sort all this out."
Sort what out? What was there to sort? Even if she'd had breath left to speak, Jane would not have dared ask. But she disliked the sound of it. She'd come West in answer to the Kincaids' letter, to work for them. Far from Boston. Far from Emery. Far from danger.
Except that Whitehorn, Montana, didn't seem very far from danger at the moment. Was there a safe haven for her anywhere in the world? Jane wondered. If there was, she'd barter her very soul to find it.
John Whitefeather would have bartered a month's pay to wriggle out of the situation in which he now found himself.
Why had he gotten saddled with Miss Jane Harris from Boston and all her problems? He seldom came into town. When he wasn't back at the ranch or out on the range, he spent most of his time at Sweetgrass. With the help of his brother-in-law, Caleb Kincaid, he'd purchased that parcel of land over a year ago. He'd settled a group of his Cheyenne kinsmen there, to keep them out of a government reservation.
With bitter amusement, John wondered how Miss Jane Harris would react if he took her back to Sweetgrass instead of to Caleb's ranch. Scream her lungs out or faint dead away? With one foot in the world of ve'ho'e, the white man, and the other in the realm of the Tsitsistas, John knew Miss Harris had far less to fear from his people than they had to fear from the likes of her.
Outside Briggs Livery, he spun around and thrust Hawk-wing's reins into the stranger's tiny gloved hand. "Hang on to him while I go see about hiring a wagon."
By the look on her face, he might as well have given her a writhing rattler to hold. What in blue blazes was a woman like this doing in Montana?
"He won't hurt you," John barked. "And I'll only be a minute."
Ignoring her doubtful looks on both counts, he turned away, blowing out an impatient breath as he entered the livery stable. Ordinarily, he avoided the place, and he resented the woman for making it necessary to come here.
"Afternoon, Mr. Briggs." He nodded to the liveryman, who also doubled as the town undertaker. "I'd like to hire a wagon. Doesn't have to be big or pretty. I can get it back to you by this time tomorrow."
Lionel Briggs had a long, mournful face that somehow befitted his second occupation. He looked his customer up and down. "What'cha need it for? I'll have to have a deposit."
A ripple of heat crept up John's neck, speeding toward his face. He knew Lionel's father had been killed in a skirmish with some Pawnee decades ago, yet John never got used to the liveryman's hostile suspicion of anything and everything to do with the native people of the Plains. John's own parents and younger brothers had been massacred at the hands of white men, yet he didn't treat all ve'ho'e with embittered distrust.
At least not once he got to know them.
He jerked his head toward the street outside. "Lady just got into town from back East. She needs to see Ruth and Caleb, and I'm the only one around to fetch her out there."
He felt in his pockets. Damn! He'd left his last penny on the table at the Double Deuce to pay for his sarsaparilla. "Can't you just bill it to Caleb?"
Lionel Briggs made a noncommittal gurgle deep in his throat and scratched the stubble on his chin.
"S'pose I could." His tone left no doubt that he didn't much like the idea. "Don't reckon as I'd have anything to suit, though."
John had swallowed as much as he was prepared to. He had never done violence to a white man in his life, unless you counted the time at residential school when he'd kicked one of his teachers in the shin. But he'd accepted the fact that some ve'ho'e would never alter their opinion of his people.
He shrugged and turned to leave. "It's your business if you want to turn away customers, Mr. Briggs."
"It is my business, and don't you ferget it, Whitefeather!" the liveryman huffed. "Just 'cause you married your sister off to a rich rancher don't make you the boss of me."
John did not look back.
Out on the street again, he looked around for Hawkwing. The skewbald gelding had made his way over to a nearby water trough, and Miss Jane Harris had been powerless to stop him.
Marching over to the horse, John climbed into the saddle and held out his hand to the troublesome visitor from Boston.
Her nervous glance darted from his hand, to his face, to the horse and back again until it threatened to make John dizzy.
"Grab hold and I'll pull you up," he snapped.
She continued to hesitate. "I thought you were going to hire a wagon for us."