What was she expected to say? Mother probably liked her because she was so mild and meek. “That was kind of her. Sheâshe is a lovely lady.”
“She was sure that you could fit into our household back in Texas. She's a Forrester, you know, one of the best and most prominent families in Texas. Of course, being from the South, you understand how important that is.”
“How nice,” Twilight said noncommittally. She had found the social structure of Southern aristocracy a heavy load to carry when she had been an elite belle from Alabama. “Now, if you don't mind, Captain . . .”
“Oh, I'm so sorry, I'm letting in the cold. Well, tah tah.” He put his hat back on and stepped out the door, nodding to her as he went.
What kind of man said âtah tah'? His mother probably said it. Twilight suspected that Captain Wellsley didn't make a move without consulting his mother, and that his mother had liked Twilight because maybe she saw her as a perfect daughter-in-lawâa spineless ninny who could be ordered about without complaining. She wished she could be different, one of those spunky, strong women who made their own way in life, but she had been brought up to believe that real Southern ladies were pliant and mild. That was the kind a Southern gentleman preferred.
It was almost dusk. With a sigh of relief, Twilight stepped to the door and locked it behind the departed captain, hung the Closed sign on the window, then began to prepare herself a bite of supper.
Mrs. Franklin Wellsley.
She would be respected and comfortable. She would also have a weakling husband and a dragon of a mother-in-law. Her thoughts went to the more intimate part of marriage as she poked up the fire and put a kettle of water on to make coffee. Pierre had been unfeeling and mechanical in bed. She remembered her disappointment on her wedding night, wondering if there couldn't be more to it. She thought about sharing a bed with the captain and winced. It probably wouldn't be any better than it had been with Pierre. She didn't mean to, but now her thoughts went to Yellow Jacket and the way his powerful arms had lifted her easily to the buggy. He was all raw, virile power and rippling muscleâa true stallion of a man. But of course, he was a savage, and there was no telling what he would expect from a woman. Her face burned at the unbidden thoughts.
That night she dreamed he came to her, took her in his arms, and made passionate love to her. His hot mouth sought her breasts as she spread herself for him, and he drove deep into her most secret place while she gasped and pulled him deeper still.
Twilight woke suddenly and sat up in bed, gasping and covered with a sheen of perspiration, even though the room had cooled. She was horrified at her dream. Never had she had such thoughts before. But then, neither had she ever met a man like Yellow Jacket before. He was both dangerous and forbidding. Like playing with fire, she thoughtâand mild, obedient Southern ladies never did that . . . or did they?
It was now the middle of Ehole, the frost month that the whites called November. Winter would be fierce this year, Yellow Jacket thought as he joined the council sitting around the fire in the drafty tent. The white rebels seemed to be slowly encircling them, and they dare not meet openly for fear of a rebel patrol arriving unexpectedly.
Yellow Jacket stared into the flames, and his mind went to the white girl with the smoky-colored eyes and the sun-streaked hair. She had a soft, wet mouth. He imagined himself taking her in his arms, holding her close against him while his mouth covered hers, his tongue going deep to explore and excite, his fingers stroking up and down her back as he put his big hand in her bodice . . .
“. . . so what do you think, Yellow Jacket?” Opothleyahola asked.
“What?” He came back to reality with a start, ashamed that he had let his mind drift.
The old man frowned at him and broke into a spasm of coughing. “I have almost given up hope that Big Chief Lincoln is going to send us help as he promised. Did the officer in Kansas say he would send him the message over the singing wires?”
Yellow Jacket nodded, then shrugged. “I am past expecting anything from whites, no matter which side.”
Smoke, the Seminole leader Alligator, and some of the others sitting in the circle nodded agreement.
“In that case,” the withered old leader sighed, “we are going to have to help ourselves. Hundreds of people are gathering, and we don't have the food for them and grass for all their animals. Besides, storms will come soon, and the rebels are tired of my stalling. The Confederate major grows impatient for an answer. They may decide to attack.”
“Our people have few weapons and supplies.” Yellow Jacket accepted the pipe that was making the rounds, and took a puff of the fragrant tobacco. “If we sit like ducks on a pond and wait for their attack, we will be slaughtered.”
“Exactly,” the old man nodded, “so I have met with all the tribal leaders. Shall we do the unexpected? Shall we pull out tonight?”
“Tonight?” Smoke exclaimed. “We cannot get six or seven thousand people ready to pull out tonight.”
Yellow Jacket considered. “Will they be any more ready tomorrow or the next day?”
“I agree with Yellow Jacket,” Billy Bowlegs grunted. “It will be like moving the people of Moses in the white man's Good Book. There is no good way to organize that which is too sprawling to be organized.”
Opothleyahola nodded and burst into a spasm of coughing. “We have been waiting many days now, and no messenger has comeânor soldiersâfrom Chief Lincoln. Perhaps we need to go meet the Union troops that are coming to help us.”
Yellow Jacket chewed his lip in thought. “The rebels will try to stop us.”
“Not until they realize we are gone,” another pointed out. “If we are in luck, it may be days before they know.”
“I hate to trust to luck,” Yellow Jacket grumbled. “We will lose many if we try to walk the people to this place called Kansas. It is winter.”
The ancient one snorted. “It was winter on the Trail of Tears, when the whites forced us to walk hundreds of miles to get here. Many died, but we are a tough people; some will survive.”
A murmur of agreement around the fire, and outside, the wind howled as if seconding the thought.
“You are right,” Yellow Jacket said finally. “As the whites would say, we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
An elderly chief looked at him, puzzled. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” Yellow Jacket said bitterly, “that if we stay, people will die, and if we go, people will die.”
Smoke said, “For us black Indians, we face an even worse fate. If we are captured by the rebels, they will send us into slavery. We would rather die fighting for our freedom than sit here like sheep awaiting our fate.”
The old man took a deep breath. “If we leave tonight, perhaps the Master of Breath will look after us and deliver us safely to this promised land called Kansas.”
Yellow Jacket looked at the old man with a sinking heart. The white girl had been right. Their leader was old and sick. He might die at any time, and then the people would be leaderless and afraid.
Alligator, the noted Seminole chief, protested. “Maybe we should just wait for the Union troops to come to our aid.”
Opothleyahola looked toward Yellow Jacket, and everyone followed his gaze. Everyone knew how much the old man respected Yellow Jacket's judgment. “What say you?”
Yellow Jacket considered. “The weather is turning colder with each passing day, and soon there will be almost no grass to feed our horses and cattle. It is more than three hundred miles, as the white man counts it, to the safety of the Union troops in Kansas.”
“Yes,” Smoke spoke out, “and it might as well be three thousand.”
Another commented, “More are coming every day from all the loyal tribes. There are people from some twenty tribes gathering, and they expect we will tell them what to do.”
“And the rebels surrounding us are getting stronger every day,” the ancient one said, and began to cough again. “If we are going to have the element of surprise on our side, we need to leave before the rebels expect it. Yellow Jacket, you have been away to the white man's school and know their thinking. What must we do?”
The others looked toward Yellow Jacket, and he sighed with despair. The white girl had been right. The old man was ill, perhaps ill enough to die. Yet he was the only one who was respected by all as the leader. Surely the old man was too weak to sit a horse. If only they owned a good buggy. The only one he was aware of belonged to Harvey Leland, and he did not think the white girl would give it to them, especially when she found out that the Indians intended to flee the country. Perhaps he could steal it. No, he shook his head. His people were not thieves, no matter what the whites thought of them. Anyway, someone would surely see him driving away and raise an alarm. Within an hour, before the loyal tribes could break camp, that prissy little captain and a patrol would be out at the encampment, nosing around.
There was no other answer, and Yellow Jacket knew it, yet still he searched his heart because of the terrible cost in suffering to his people. “What do the medicine men say about the weather?”
Opothleyahola answered, “They think the storm is coming soon, maybe tomorrow night, with snow and winds that will keep the soft soldiers in their tents, close to their fires.”
Yellow Jacket chewed his lip. “Then late tomorrow night we make our attempt.”
“Agreed,” the frail old leader muttered. “The Master of Breath will be coming for me soon, but I hope to die in a free place where even our black warriors will be safe.”
Smoke said, “I vow I will kill my own little girls rather than let them be captured and sent to some vile cotton plantation in Louisiana or Tennessee.”
The ancient one stood up and made a dismissing gesture. “Then it's settled. Tomorrow night, if the storm comes in, we will slip away under cover of darkness. All you leaders pass the word to your people to be ready.”
The others stood, nodded, and filed out into the night. Yellow Jacket and Smoke paused outside and watched the other men scattering silently.
Smoke said, “It is impossible. We can't lead six thousand people through rebel lines and walk all the way to Kansas.”
Yellow Jacket looked up at the sky. “If we stay here, once the rebels realized we are not going to join up with them, they will attack us and many will die. Is it better to die here, shot down like dogs, or make a try for freedom?”
Smoke gave a short, harsh laugh. “Don't talk to me about freedom. I have scars on my back from cruel masters before I escaped and took one of your women as my own. In a way, old friend, you are lucky. You have no woman or child to worry about on this trip.”
“True. But all the women and children in this camp are my responsibility,” Yellow Jacket said, thinking of the white girl. He had never felt as lonely as he did at this moment.
“I think she has a better heart than most,” Smoke said, “Even though she is from the South that steals our land and would put me and my children back in slavery.”
Yellow Jacket scowled. He did not want to think kind thoughts about the girl with smoky lavender eyes. He did not want to think about her at all. All his strength and concentration would be needed the next few weeks as the people made their terrible march toward the northern border. “Let us part, then, and begin gathering our things and telling the people. Late tomorrow night, if the Master of Breath is willing, we will begin our trip.”
The next day was cold and gloomy, and there was little business in the store. With the captain and his patrol away on a scouting trip and Harvey still gone, there were few people to talk to, and Twilight was lonely as she cleaned and reorganized things. In one storeroom, she found boxes and crates of food and supplies marked,
U.S. Government. For distribution among the Indian tribes.
Now, just why were they piled up here in a storeroom when the Indians she'd seen were evidently in such need? Surely Harvey wouldn't stoop to . . . ? Could he intend to sell the goods to whites and pocket the money? Surely he couldn't be that thoughtless and greedy. There had to be a reasonable explanation. She ought to question him when he returned.
The longer she thought about it, the angrier she became. Yes, she decided, she would confront her stepbrother when he returned, and insist the Indian trade goods be parceled out among the needy tribes. That made her think about the ill old leader, Opothleyahola. There was dried soup here, and bacon and sacks of cornmeal. There was also a bundle of good wool blankets, some coffee, sugar, and tea. The old man needed warmth and nourishment. Certainly she couldn't carry enough in her buggy to care for the whole tribe, but she could take out a buggy load and maybe get Yellow Jacket to accompany her back to the store with some wagons for the rest of it.
Harvey would be furious with her. Twilight smiled at the notion. Once she would have quailed at the thought; now she almost welcomed confronting Harvey with her righteous indignation. Twilight realized she was changing. Well, war, a bad marriage, and widowhood would do that to a person. On second thought, the idea of defying her stepbrother made her tremble. As much as she disliked him, at least she had a safe, secure place to live and enough to eat. She imagined being out on her own, facing hunger and cold, and quailed at the thought.
Still, she could do a little that was independent. Putting on a heavy coat and a wool scarf, she put the Closed sign in the window, locked up the store, and went out to harness the bay horse. Then she drove the buggy up to the back door and struggled to load the supplies. She didn't want anyone to question what she was doing, because if confronted, she might not have enough nerve to go through with it. Not that there was anything to worry aboutâthe settlement seemed deserted, with everyone staying by their fires.
Twilight got her medical bag and carried numerous bundles of blankets and boxes of food and medicine out and loaded them in the buggy. When she had put on as much as the rig would hold, she looked around. It was almost dusk. It might be dark before she could return from the Indian camp. Driving alone in a wild place, unescorted, was just not something a Southern lady would chance. Well, if there was any danger, she could ask Yellow Jacket to escort her back. Even though he was a savage, she knew he was a renowned warrior and no one dare cross him, white or Indian. Harvey and Captain Wellsley would be upset or furious, but if she was lucky, neither need ever know about what she had done until Harvey missed the supplies. There would be a fuss then, of course, but what could he do besides shout at her? She almost smiled at the thought. She who had been so timid was becoming braver out of a need for justice.
It was farther to the camp than she remembered. Several times her timidity almost overcame her good resolve, and she was tempted to turn the buggy around and go back to the safety of the settlement. Then she imagined the big eyes of some of those hungry Indian children, gritted her teeth, and kept driving.
It was dusk when she arrived at the outer edge of the camp. Everyone was bustling about; no one paying any attention to her. Something was wrong. With growing apprehension, she tied her buggy to a tree and threaded her way through the woods. Behind the trunk of a big oak, she paused and looked toward the camp circle. Sitting in the middle around the fire were Opothleyahola, Yellow Jacket, the mixed black she knew as Smoke, and a bunch of other important-looking warriors. They were talking and passing a pipe around. She had a distinct feeling that this was important tribal business, because there were no women present. Her instincts warned her that she shouldn't be here, but her curiosity was piqued, and she couldn't bring herself to leave as she eavesdropped.
Mostly they were speaking in their own tongue, but now and then she caught a few words of English.