Authors: Madeline Baker
For my granddaughter, McKayla. May you soon find a hero of your own.
She was gone. Alan Summers stared out the front window of his plush Nob Hill mansion, unable to believe she had actually left him. He had made it too easy for her, he thought angrily. He had given her too much money, too much freedom. Well, he wouldn’t make that mistake again. She belonged to him. He would have to remind her of that fact when he got her back.
And he would get her back.
Turning away from the window, he sat down at his desk, pulled a sheet of embossed stationery from the top drawer and dipped his pen into the ink well. He would find her. He had money, and connections.
His left hand curled into a tight fist. He would find her, and when he did, he would teach her a lesson she would never forget.
Jesse Yellow Thunder rested his hand on the butt of his gun. “Dead or alive, Barnett, it’s up to you.”
“I’m not going back to prison!”
“Like I said, it’s up to you.”
Phil Barnett took a deep breath, wondering if the bounty hunter would really shoot him in the back.
“Get those hands up where I can see ’em. Now.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“The man who’s gonna haul your dead carcass to the sheriff if you don’t get those hands up.”
“I gotta right to know!”
“You’ve got no rights at all.”
It was the sound of a gun being cocked that put all thought of flight from Barnett’s mind. There was an ominous quality in the harsh rasp of metal against metal, a grim finality, like the sound of dirt clods being shoveled into an open grave.
Raising his hands to shoulder level, Barnett slowly turned to face the bounty hunter. “Yellow Thunder,” he muttered.
“Right the first time.”
Barnett shivered. Everything he had ever heard about Jesse Yellow Thunder was true, he thought bleakly. The half-breed was as unfeeling as stone and as ugly as sin, what with that jagged white scar that started at the edge of his left temple, cut across the outer edge of his left eye, curved down his cheek, and ended just below his jaw. There was no mercy in the half-breed’s cold gray eyes, no emotion in his face at all, except maybe boredom. Damn. Why hadn’t he recognized him earlier?
Yellow Thunder pulled a set of handcuffs from his back pocket. “Turn around.”
With a sigh of resignation, Barnett did what he was told. Moments later, he was mounted on his horse, his hands securely cuffed behind his back.
“Would you really have shot me in the back?” Barnett asked as he watched the half-breed swing aboard his own mount.
“Just like that?”
The bounty hunter nodded as he took up the reins to Barnett’s horse. “Just like that. Poster says dead or alive. Dead’s easier.”
Phil Barnett looked into the half-breed’s unblinking eyes and knew without a doubt that the man meant every word.
* * * * *
Jesse Yellow Thunder closed and locked the door to the hotel room. Tossing his hat on the room’s single chair, he dropped his saddlebags beside the bed, then sat down on the edge of the mattress and pulled off his boots. His prisoner had been delivered to the local law, safe and sound. The necessary papers had been signed. He had collected the reward. Three hundred dollars.
He grinned as he sat back on the bed. Easy money, considering the fact that he had stumbled over Barnett quite by accident.
Jesse smothered a yawn as he pulled a thick sheaf of wanted posters from his saddlebags. Sometimes Lady Luck just perched on your shoulder. Like tonight. He’d been minding his own business, playing draw poker with a couple of the local cowhands, when who should slide into the chair across from him but Phil Barnett. They had played poker together for an hour. When Barnett left the saloon, Jesse followed him.
Jesse ran a hand across his jaw, thinking he needed a shave. In addition to the three hundred dollar bounty he had collected for Barnett, he had also taken Barnett for better than a hundred dollars at the poker table. A profitable evening, indeed.
Sitting back against the headboard, he began thumbing through the wanted posters he had pulled from his saddlebags. He grunted softly as he read the first one. Some fool in San Francisco was offering a ten thousand dollar reward for information regarding his runaway wife’s whereabouts.
Jesse shook his head as he tossed the flyer on the floor. Ten grand. That was a pile of money any way you looked at it.
He looked through the rest of the flyers, then plucked one from the bunch. Joseph Ravenhawk, wanted for bank robbery and assault. The price on his head was a thousand dollars. Ravenhawk shouldn’t be too hard to find. Whenever he was on the run, he headed straight for Indian country to hole up with his Lakota relatives.
Jesse shoved the flyers back into his saddlebags. He hadn’t been home in over a year, he mused as he shoved a pillow behind his head and closed his eyes. He could kill two birds with one stone. It was the time of the Cherry Ripening Moon. The Morning Star People would be gathering near
, the sacred Black Hills, to celebrate the Sun Dance with their allies, the Lakota. If he was lucky, Ravenhawk would be at the rendezvous by the time he got there. If not…
Jesse grinned ruefully. He was ready for a little tipi living; ready to hear the language of his childhood, to eat cooking that wasn’t his own, to smell the fresh, clean scent of pines and earth instead of air that reeked of stale smoke and booze.
He left early the following morning. Like a snake shedding its skin, he felt the constricting layers of civilization fall away as he rode deeper into the heartland of the Morning Star People. Riding toward the only place that had ever felt like home, he wondered, as he always did, why he had stayed away for so long. This would be his last bounty, he decided. He had a fair-sized bank account. He would find Ravenhawk, collect the reward, then return to the Land of the Spotted Eagle and settle down with his mother’s people.
He had been away from the Cheyenne for too long, done too many things he was ashamed of. Somewhere along the way, he had lost his sense of who he was. Perhaps he could find the man he had once been before it was too late.
It was beautiful country, all green and gold at this time of the year. The air was clearer, sweeter; the sky more blue. Even his horse seemed to know they were headed home. The mare tugged on the reins, eager to run, and he let her go, reveling in the speed and power of the big blue roan as she stretched out, in the feel of the wind stinging his cheeks and whipping through his hair.
He bent low over the mare’s neck. The rhythmic sound of hoofbeats flying over the earth seemed to be saying,
home, home, home
The Black Hills
Kaylynn Summers grimaced as she picked up a piece of wood and added it to the pile in her arms. She might have sat down and cried, if she had thought it would do any good, but there was no one to hear her, and no one to care. It was a moot point anyway, since she had run out of tears months ago.
Tired of walking, she dumped the wood on the ground and sat down in the shade of a gnarled cottonwood tree. Old Mo’e’ha could wait a few more minutes, and if she couldn’t wait, well, she could darn well get down here and collect the wood herself.
With a sigh of exasperation, Kaylynn dug a splinter out of her finger. One look at her hands, and she really did feel like crying. The nails were all broken and uneven; there was a large blister on her left palm, a shallow cut on her right thumb.
She stared at her hands, at the wide gold band on the third finger of her left hand. Her hands were a symbol of her life, she thought with wry amusement. The gold represented the wealth and life of ease she had left behind, the calluses stood for the poverty and hardship in which she now lived. No one seeing her now would ever believe that her hands had once been soft and smooth and lily-white, her nails neatly manicured. She looked down at her doeskin tunic and moccasins. Alan would be horrified if he could see her now.
She wondered how long he had searched for her, if he had told her parents she was missing. Strange, how life turned out. She had gone against her parents’ wishes to marry the man of her dreams. Like a prince in a fairy tale, he had met her at a ball, wooed and won her and carried her away to his castle by the sea. He had dressed her in costly gowns, given her riches beyond compare. And then he had turned into a monster, a fiend who demanded perfection, who lashed out at her if she dared voice an opinion that contradicted his, who wanted her love, but only on his terms, who hit her when she failed to please him. He had been obsessed with the idea of having an heir to carry on the Summers’ name. He had constantly berated her because she was unable to give him a son, because she wasn’t woman enough to accomplish the one thing women were good for. Well, she was glad now, glad that she was barren.
She glanced over her shoulder at the Indian village sprawled near the banks of the river. Never, in her wildest dreams, had she imagined she would find herself in such a place.
The attack on the stagecoach had been a nightmare of noise and fear. One minute, she had been safe and secure, albeit terribly uncomfortable, bouncing around inside a coach headed for her parents’ home in New York, and the next she had been cowering on the floor, certain she was about to be killed and scalped. She would never forget her terror as the battle raged around the stagecoach, the hiss of arrows, the popping sound of gunfire, the cloying smell of blood and the acrid stink of gunpowder, the palpable fear of the three men who had shared the coach with her. She had never been so afraid in her life.
When the fighting was over, the three men inside the coach were all dead. Riddled with arrows, they had stared at her through wide, unseeing eyes, their faces frozen in horror.
One of the warriors had yanked her from the coach and taken her up on his horse. The driver of the coach and the guard were dead, too, their lifeless bodies sprawled facedown in the dirt. She had never seen death up close before, but that day it had been all around her.
Numb with fear, in terror for her own life, she had watched as the Indians dragged the dead men from inside the coach. They had stripped the bodies of their clothing and weapons. One of the men had been carrying a large sum of cash. The Indians had tossed it into the air, laughing. She had turned away, her stomach clenching, when one of the warriors lifted the scalp of the shotgun guard.
Two of the Indians freed the horses from the traces, then set the stagecoach on fire.
And now she was here, little better than a slave in an Indian village. It was unthinkable, unbelievable, that the daughter of Elizabeth Victoria Dearmond and William Thomas Duvall III should be in this place, forced to do menial labor for a bunch of savages, though, in all fairness, she had to admit the Cheyenne weren’t really a savage people, even though their lifestyle was primitive and uneducated.
The warrior who had captured her had given her to his mother, making it perfectly clear to Kaylynn that she was to do whatever the old lady said. He had warned Kaylynn, using sign language and a few words of stilted English, that she would be punished if she tried to run away.
He didn’t have to tell her twice. If she hadn’t run away from Alan, she wouldn’t be here now. No telling what fate would befall her if she tried again!
At first, she had hated it here, hated everything—the food, the people, the land itself. She hadn’t known which was worse—the work she was made to do, the horrible skins she was forced to wear, the awful food they gave her to eat or not being able to speak the language. She had told herself that she should have stayed with Alan, that being a punching bag in a big house surrounded by servants of her own was better than this. But after a few weeks, when the strangeness had worn off, when she realized no one was going to hurt her, she had come to an amazing discovery. She was happier here, living in a hide lodge, than she had ever been living in luxury with her husband. She might be a slave, but she was a person here, of value to Mo’e’ha. True, she worked hard, but it satisfied a need deep within her, gave her a sense of worth, of accomplishment, that she had never before experienced. Not that she wouldn’t go back home to her parents in a minute, if given the chance.
Well, she had wasted enough time for one day, she thought with a grin. If she didn’t hurry, old Mo’e’ha would scold her. Mo’e’ha meant magpie, and Kaylynn grinned, thinking the woman was aptly named. If she was late, old Mo’e’ha would take a stick to her, but that wasn’t so bad. Unlike Alan, the woman was too frail to hit her very hard. For Kaylynn, the humiliation of being punished like a child hurt far more than the beating itself.
Gathering the wood into her arms once more, she headed back toward the village. There was some sort of big celebration underway. It had been going on for over a week now. There had been lots of feasting and singing and games as the Cheyenne renewed acquaintances with their allies, the Lakota. She wondered vaguely what all the fuss was about, but it didn’t really matter. She wasn’t a part of it. All she knew was that it was some sort of religious celebration.
A large circular dance arbor had been established in the center of the village. To the right of the camp, a special lodge had been erected, though she wasn’t sure what its purpose was. There had been a flurry of excitement one afternoon, followed by a Buffalo Dance. The next day, a procession of warriors and women had paraded into the village bearing a cottonwood tree that was at least forty feet long. She had watched as several prominent warriors counted coup on the tree. Then one of the medicine men had ordered the tree “killed” and it had been carried into the center of the Sun Dance lodge, where the trunk had been painted; the side to the west had been painted red, the north blue, the east green and the south yellow. Rawhide figures had been placed in the fork of the tree, along with sixteen cherry sticks, some tobacco, an arrow for killing buffalo and a picket pin. Rawhide ropes had been attached to the top of the pole. She could only wonder why.
There seemed to be an unusual amount of excitement when she reached the village. Several warriors were gathered into a tight group, all talking at once. The camp dogs were barking. Kaylynn blew out a sigh. She had never seen so many dogs in her whole life. Big ones, little ones, they all seemed to be half-wild, always yapping, always underfoot. It had made her sick to her stomach the first time she had seen one of the Indian women catch a young dog and club it over the head, and even sicker when she realized the poor animal was going to be dinner.
Now she had not only eaten dog meat, but cooked it, and worse things as well. Creatures she would never have considered as a food source regularly showed up in the cook pot: porcupines, magpies, raccoons, prairie dogs, skunks, beavers, along with ducks, eggs and fish.
She kept her head lowered as she passed by the clump of warriors. In all the months she had been here, she had avoided the men as much as possible. None of them seemed interested in her, for which she had been wonderfully grateful. She had heard stories, of course, of savage Indian men ravishing white women, but either the stories weren’t true, or the warriors didn’t find her attractive enough to lust over. Whatever the reason, she was glad none of them seemed to want her. She had learned the hard way what a man wanted from a woman, and she was glad to be done with it.
She glanced surreptitiously at the warriors as she passed by, wondering who the newcomer was. She didn’t remember ever seeing him before. He stood a few inches taller than the men he was talking to. A jagged white scar cut across the left side of his face, giving him a fierce, angry look.
He looked up, his gaze meeting hers, and for a fleeting moment it was as if everything else ceased to exist. The sounds of the camp, the people, all seemed to fade away until there were just the two of them staring at each other across the mists of time. She had the eerie feeling that his soul brushed against hers, that he knew her every dream, her every fear. That he was the answer to her every prayer.
Chiding herself for imagining such nonsense, she hurried into Mo’e’ha’s lodge and closed the door flap behind her. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that something extraordinary had passed between her and the stranger.
Jesse Yellow Thunder stared after the girl, wondering who she was, wondering if she had felt what he had felt when their eyes met. She hadn’t been in the village the last time he had come home, he’d bet his last dollar on that. Her hair alone made her stand out. In a village where most everyone had straight inky-black hair, that rich, deep, curly red stood out like a candle flame on a cloudy night.
Hardly aware of what he was doing, he touched the scar on his face. He didn’t care how pretty the girl was, he was through with white women.
With a shake of his head, he turned his attention back to what his cousin Grey Wolf was saying.
When the first rush of excitement at his return had died down, Jesse took Grey Wolf aside. “There’s a white woman in camp,” he said, trying to keep the interest from his voice. “Who is she?”
Grey Wolf gave him an enigmatic look. “Two Dogs captured her in a raid. She belongs to his mother.”
Jesse nodded. He had figured it was something like that, and then cursed himself for asking. It didn’t matter who the redhead was. He had no need for a woman, any woman, other than the quick physical release that any whore could provide, and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were destined to meet.
Amused by such a fanciful thought, he put the white woman from his mind as he followed Grey Wolf to his lodge. The Sun Dance was tomorrow and he had preparations to make.
* * * * *
Kaylynn stood on the edge of the crowd, her curiosity stronger than her revulsion as she watched the shaman move among those who were going to participate in the Sun Dance ceremony. She had been intrigued by much of what she had seen during her stay with the Cheyenne, repulsed by some, but this was by far the most gruesome thing she had witnessed. A dozen young warriors stood together, their expressions solemn, as the medicine man moved among them.
She was about to turn away when she saw the shaman approach the stranger she had seen the day before. She had asked Mo’e’ha who he was, and learned that his name was Yellow Thunder and he was cousin to Grey Wolf.
Taking a fold of loose skin located between the stranger’s left breast and collarbone between his thumb and forefinger, the shaman lifted it as high as possible and then ran a narrow-bladed knife through the fold of skin. With the knife still in place, the shaman inserted a skewer of bone, and then withdrew the blade. A rawhide thong was fastened to the skewer, and the loose end was attached to one of the ropes dangling from the Sun Dance pole. A similar incision was made in the stranger’s right breast.
The shaman moved on. He inserted skewers into the backs of three of the dancers, and then, instead of attaching the ends of the thongs to the Sun Dance pole, the rawhide was attached to a buffalo skull, which the men would drag around the dance arena.
The sound of drumming filled the air and the participants began to move. Those who were attached to the Sun Dance pole began to dance back and forth, their faces turned up to the sky as they tugged against the thongs that bound them to the pole. The other men danced in a wide circle, dragging the heavy skulls behind them. From time to time, the dancers blew on eagle-bone whistles that hung from cords around their necks.
Fascinated and repulsed, Kaylynn’s gaze rested briefly on each man before settling on the tall stranger. She didn’t know anything about him except that he was Grey Wolf’s cousin, but he looked as fierce and untamed as all the other dancers, maybe more so with that hideous scar on his cheek.
Face turned up to the sun, he moved with catlike grace, his feet hardly seeming to touch the ground as he danced back and forth. She stared at the blood and perspiration trickling down his chest, at the rapt expression on his face, and knew if she lived with the Cheyenne for the rest of her life, she would never truly understand them. And yet, for the first time since her captivity, she felt herself wanting to know more. What did the dancers hope to gain by submitting themselves to such torture? What did Yellow Thunder hope to gain?