Orphaned at a young age, street-savvy Ally Mills and her brother Toby agree on one thing: sticking together no matter what. When their daring escape from an evil man leads them to the dusty plains of Oklahoma, they see their chance to make a fortune. Disguised as husband and wife, they set out on a journey to claim their own land in a new town.
Eagle-eyed army scout Ethan Temple sees through the fiery redhead’s disguise. Suspicious of the duo and drawn to Ally’s tenacious spirit, the striking half-Cheyenne marksman can’t help but keep watch over her.
Ally made an unbreakable pact, but the longer Ethan stays at her side, the more terrifying her realization grows: She’s in love. And she must tell Ethan how she feels before he rides out of her life for good . . .
“Sensual . . . With emotional intensity, heart-stopping action, bittersweet romance and passion!” —Romantic Times
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April, 1889 ...
Ethan Temple squinted through a stinging wind to make sure he was seeing straight. On the trail below, several Indians tied loosely together were walking behind a man and his horse. Farther ahead, six white men on horseback herded several head of cattle and the Indian ponies.
Ethan removed the glove from his right hand. He would need his fingers free in case there was any shooting. He cursed the miserably damp, cold weather as he pulled his rifle from its boot, his hand almost sticking to the cold steel. He knew he could expect trouble, and he wanted to be ready. Ever since whites had started coming into Indian Territory under permission from the Federal Government, there had been problems, especially here along Deep Creek Trail and the Cherokee Outlet. There was little enough land left to the many tribes who had been forced into this territory, and every new treaty they signed seemed to result in their being shoved from one area to another.
He pulled his hat a little farther down on his forehead to help keep the wind out of his eyes, then started his horse down the embankment. "Easy, Blackfoot," he said softly to the animal, a big buckskin with black tail and mane, all four feet black to the knees. He guided him around thick undergrowth, man and horse partially hidden from the men below by thick stands of trees.
He well understood Indian resentment of more whites coming into Indian Territory. He was half Cheyenne himself, his white blood his father's, his Indian blood his dead mother's. He still lived in both worlds and had grown up for a time among the Cheyenne, but spent most of his adult years among whites. He supposed he had the only reasonable job for a man of his divided heritage — army scout, his primary goal to keep the peace between white ranchers and the Indians. It was certainly not an easy job, especially in the summertime, when cattlemen from Texas started herding their beef north through Indian Territory into Kansas. That was when the really big trouble always began, when cattle strayed onto Indian lands; the drovers sometimes lost their way, not always sure which trails were legal and which were not. The Indians certainly knew what belonged to them, but some cattlemen didn't have an ounce of respect for land that was not legally their own.
He finally reached the clearing below and kicked Blackfoot into a hard run. When he got closer he could see there were ropes tied around each Indian's neck, linking them together like slaves, their hands tied behind their backs. He fired his rifle into the air to stop the procession — the gunshot sent the cattle ahead of them into a run. Three of the cattlemen took off after them, while the other three turned to see who had fired the shot. Ethan saw one of them draw his gun to shoot back. A bullet whizzed past him, and he drew his sure-footed buckskin to a sliding halt in thick mud and took aim with his Winchester, shooting the man's hat right off. Now that he was closer, he recognized the culprit as Cass Andrich, who worked for a local rancher, Jim Sulley. Andrich was a troublemaker, a man who hated Indians simply because they existed. "All of you halt right there!" he shouted into the wind. "Drop your weapons, or the next bullet goes right through your head, Andrich!"
All three men hesitated a moment, and Ethan shot off another man's hat.
"Sonofabitch!" the man shouted, taking out his handgun and throwing it to the ground. The others followed suit.
"Rifles, too!" Ethan demanded, easing Blackfoot forward. He let the reins dangle so he could keep his rifle steady, depending on the well-trained horse to obey signals from his legs and feet. "Cut the ropes on those Indians!" he demanded.
He glanced at the Indian who had shouted his name. It was Red Hawk, one of his cousins who lived on the nearby Southern Cheyenne reservation.
"These are Jim Sulley's men!" Red Hawk told him. "They say we stole the cattle! We were only bringing them back after we found them grazing on reservation land!"
Same old problem, Ethan thought. "You men know Sulley's damn cattle are always straying," he shouted louder to Sulley's men. "What's the idea tying these Indians like this? You aren't supposed to take these matters into your own hands! They're for the army to settle!"
"The army ain't gonna do a damn thing!" Andrich complained. "The damn Indians get away with murder, all in the name of peace!"
"We aren't talking about murder here," Ethan shot back, still aiming the rifle. "At least not yet! We're only talking about a few stray cattle."
"Bullshit! We had cattle missin', and when we come lookin', we found these Injuns here roundin' 'em up," Andrich answered.
"And you know damn well they were only herding them together to chase them off reservation land! The Indians need that land for their own grazing." Ethan wished he could shoot them all out of their saddles. He watched Sulley's men look at each other, not knowing what to say. He did not recognize the other two. "What were you going to do? Hang them when you got them back to Sulley's ranch?"
"That's no more than they deserve, Temple," Andrich answered with a sneer. "We caught them red-handed. I don't give a damn what they say; you might be an army scout, but you ain't the law out here."
"I'm all the law you've got right now, and I'm telling you to cut these Indians loose and take your cattle back to Sulley's ranch! If you're ignorant enough to start a war over a few head of beef, then you deserve to be the first one to die, Andrich! I guarantee if that's what it comes to, I'll be riding with the Cheyenne, and I damn well know where to find you! Now cut them loose!"
Andrich eyed Ethan a moment longer, cussed under his breath, then ordered one of the other men to free the Indians. By then some of the men who had gone after the stampeding cattle were riding back toward the confrontation. "Tell them to back off and keep their guns in their holsters," Ethan ordered Andrich, "or you'll go down first!"
"You half-breed sonofabitch!" the man grumbled. He turned and signalled the oncoming men, waving his arms. "Keep your weapons holstered!" he shouted. He looked back at Ethan. "Our day is comin', Temple," he sneered. "I don't like takin' orders from no half-breed scum."
Ethan ignored the insult. He had heard the same words many times and had come to accept the fact that he couldn't spend his whole life hitting people who insulted him. He had learned that in many white men's eyes, being a half-breed was worse than being a full-blooded Indian. If that was the way they wanted to think, there wasn't much he could do about it. "You'll either do what I say or come back with me to Fort Supply and face charges," he answered.
"Charges! What kind of charges?"
"Trespassing on Indian lands. It's still a crime in this territory, whether you're looking for strayed cattle or not!"
"Stolen cattle!" one of the other men barked.
The third man finished cutting loose the four Indians, who moved closer to Ethan.
"Go empty all their weapons," Ethan told his cousin.
Red Hawk gladly obeyed, grinning with a feeling of victory as he spun the cartridges of six-guns and opened rifles. When he was finished, Ethan ordered Sulley's men to pick up their weapons and take their cattle and go. "And leave the Indian ponies," he added. "Maybe I should bring all of you up on charges, for stealing Indian horses!" he added. "Stealing horses is a hanging offense, even if they do belong to Indians!"
"Go to hell, Temple!" Andrich sneered. He and the other men picked up their weapons and mounted up, glaring at Ethan.
"Jim Sulley is a fair man," Ethan reminded him. "He won't like hearing what you've done here. This kind of thing just keeps the hatred going. You know damn well how important it is to stay on good terms with the Indians in these parts, especially here along Deep Creek Trail. The cattlemen from Texas have to use this trail to get to Kansas, and their beef stray all the time. They need the Indians' cooperation to get them back without trouble. You ought to be fired, Andrich, and I intend to talk to Sully about it!"
"You get me fired, and I'll come lookin' for you, Temple."
"I'm not hard to find. Just ask around at Fort Supply."
Sulley's dark eyes narrowed with rage. "You bastard," he muttered. He turned to the other men. "Let's get these cattle back to the ranch!" With one more glance back at Ethan, he rode off, he and the rest of the men whistling and waving their hats to get the cattle together. They all made their way along the trail, riding into a rising wind that brought with it a cold mist.
Ethan shoved his rifle into its boot and dismounted. "You all right?" he asked Red Hawk.
His cousin's dark eyes glittered with hatred. "The next time I see that white bastard, he is a dead man!"
"You know you can't kill him, Red Hawk. I'll report this to the army and to Sulley. Just settle down and leave these things to the law."
"Law!" Red Hawk spat on the ground. "White man's law! That is all we have around here! This is supposed to be Indian land! Men like Andrich have no right attacking us and calling us thieves!"
"Did you steal the cattle?"
Red Hawk held his chin high, took a deep breath, and tried to look hurt. Then he grinned, the cold wind blowing his long, black hair over his eyes. "Whatever comes onto Indian land and eats our grass belongs to us!"
Ethan sighed in frustration, tying his wolfskin coat higher at his throat. "You know you can't think that way, Red Hawk. Whether you like it or not, some whites are going to be allowed to settle around here, and cattlemen are going to keep coming through from Texas. If you try to fight it, they'll win, not you, because the government will get behind its settlers. Haven't you learned that from past experience? How in hell do you think the Cheyenne and the rest of the tribes ended up with only this little bit of land in the first place? The war is over, Red Hawk. I don't like it any better than you."
"It is easy for you. You live among them. The army is your friend."
Ethan shook his head. "It isn't easier, Red Hawk. I'm only half Indian. You know what I've been through because of my mixed blood."
Red Hawk nodded. "You are all Indian ... in here." He put a fist to Ethan's chest, then grinned. "Most of the time."
Ethan smiled in return. "You aren't making my job any easier, Red Hawk."
"I did not start this one. Andrich and the others did."
Snow began to batter their faces. "I know," Ethan answered. He shook Red Hawk's hand. "You'd better get yourself home."
"When will you come and see us? You spend too much time at the fort now, Cousin."
Their eyes held, and Ethan felt the old longing to go and live with his Cheyenne relatives again; but since losing his Cheyenne wife ... "I've got a job to do," he answered. "I'm helping all of you more this way than I could if I came back to the reservation to live."
"And the white man in you keeps you away."
Ethan nodded. "Sometimes."
Red Hawk smiled sadly. "Go then, Running Wolf," he said. "I am glad you came along when you did. You are probably right. It is good, what you are doing. Come and see us when you can."
"Do you have a blanket we can use? Andrich threw our blankets and winter jackets to the ground. We will have to ride back and find them."
Ethan felt renewed rage when he realized Sulley's men had forced Red Hawk and the others to walk in the cold wind wearing only their deerskin shirts. "Sure." He turned and took three blankets from his gear, taking note that at least Red Hawk and the others had been allowed to keep on their winter moccasins. "Here." He handed out the blankets. "These are all I have."
"You might need at least one of them yourself."
Ethan shook his head. "I'm headed back to the fort. I'll be all right." Wind whipped at his jacket, ruffling the fur and making him shiver. "What about your fourth man?"
"We will take turns with one of the blankets until we find our own."
Ethan nodded. "You go straight back, Red Hawk. No more trouble. Promise me."
Red Hawk, who at twenty-four was four years younger than Ethan, flashed a handsome smile. "No more trouble." The three Indians with him had gathered their painted ponies and were mounted and ready to ride. One of them handed Red Hawk the reins to his own horse, and the young man leapt onto the animal's back in one swift movement.
Ethan thought how sad it was that proud young warriors like his cousin had no pathway now, no idea of where they fit into the scheme of things. They could not live the old way, and could not quite adapt to the new. They were caught between ... and he well knew that feeling. "I'll come for a visit after the cattle drives," he told Red Hawk. The other man nodded, a sad look in his eyes. Ethan watched him ride off with the others, headed toward reservation land. Mounting Blackfoot, his heart was heavy as he thought of things that might have been ... and his own torn loyalties. It would always be like this. "Let's go, boy," he said, kicking his horse into a gentle lope toward Fort Supply.
"We have to get off this train somewhere, Toby." Allyson Mills held the collar of her faded and frayed woolen coat over the side of her face, partly to warm her cold nose, and partly to keep her near-whispered conversation with her brother private. "If we don't, they'll separate us. Mr. Bartel says they won't, but you know he's lying."
"We ain't got a choice, Ally."
"Sure we have a choice," Allyson answered, her blue eyes glittering with daring. "We can get off now, before the train leaves the station, and go live on the streets again. It would be hard to go back to that life, but at least we'd be together."
Toby sighed, scowling. "Henry Bartel has both ends of this railroad car being watched," he reminded her. "He's got goods to deliver to families out west — human goods — and he means to make sure we get there. I expect he'll be real glad to get you off his hands, what with all the trouble you've caused him the last four years."
"He deserved to be reported to the priest," Ally sniffed. "He's an evil man, and me being sixteen and you seventeen, you know he thinks we're old enough that we should go to separate homes. Once he gets us out there in uncivilized country, he'll separate us, just to be mean. He'll leave you with one family and take me a thousand miles farther before he dumps me off, maybe with some horrible old farmer who needs a wife or something dreadful like that. You know people don't adopt kids our age out of love and goodness. We'll be used like slaves!"
Allyson's heart ached at the desperate hopelessness in her brother's eyes. She thought how, when they were younger and she kept her red hair cut short, people used to think they were twins. That was when she and Toby used to run in the streets and alleys of New York, stealing for their drunken father just to keep food on the table. For two years after their father died, they had continued to live by stealing and rummaging, until the police finally put them in a Catholic orphanage. Soon after, Allyson's body began to betray her attempts to pass herself off as a boy. It infuriated her to remember how, not long after the police took them to the orphanage, the boys' supervisor, Henry Bartel, had beat her with a paddle when he realized she was a girl, calling her all sorts of names for "living in sin" in the boys' section just so she could be near her brother.
She had only been twelve then, and she hadn't even known what "living in sin" meant. She had been sent to the girls' wing of the orphanage, and was expected to behave like some wilting flower. For the past four years she had not even been allowed to cut her hair. Now it fell to the middle of her back, and when the nuns helped brush it out for her, they always remarked on how beautiful it was. Allyson wondered why, if it was so beautiful, she always had to wrap it back into a twist around her head. To wear her red mane brushed out long was another act considered sinful, but she decided that was fine with her. She didn't like fussing with it anyway.
She wished with all her heart that she was a boy. Then Mr. Bartel wouldn't have found ways to frighten and humiliate her by making suggestive remarks and grabbing at her breasts whenever he found her alone. She had already made the plans to run away when she and Toby were surprised with the news that they were being sent west by train to be adopted. They were "getting too big" to be wards of the orphanage, they were told, but were still too young to be sent out to survive alone. They had been given only one day's notice, not enough time to plan an escape.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Unforgettable"
Copyright © 1993 Rosanne Bittner.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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