“Opothleyahola is right,” Yellow Jacket said, “we must do this. We need to leave as soon as possible to beat the snows.”
Now the ancient leader shook his head. “We cannot leave right away. Tribal members are still arriving from all over the Indian Territory and driving their cattle with them. It will take careful planning and an element of surprise. If we could be on the trail a few days before the graycoats know we are gone, we have a better chance.”
“Then we are sworn to secrecy,” Yellow Jacket whispered, “and we will wait for the signal from you, great leader.”
“Maybe the Master of Breath will be with us,” the old man murmured. “We will head northwest and pick up reinforcements among the Union Cherokee, then turn due north. Now, let us depart this meeting with care. We do not want the graycoat colonel or his aide, Captain Wellsley, to suspect anything.”
They had been in council for several hours. Now they went out into the night, nodding to the faithful giant, Smoke, who would stay to guard the ancient leader.
Pretty had hatched a plan as she watched her uncle, Yellow Jacket, leave for his meeting. He might be a big, respected warrior, but because he idolized her, she figured she could bring him around. Tonight, though, she had plans to meet her lover. She waited a few minutes after Yellow Jacket left; then she put pillows under her blankets to make her bed look as if she slept. She took one last look in her little mirror, adjusted the blue bracelet on her arm, then sneaked out the door and through the woods toward the sutler's store. Her lover would be waiting there, and she had something very important to tell him: She was now certain she was expecting his child.
Harvey Leland looked up from his bookwork as Pretty entered the store, and frowned. “I didn't send for you.”
“Dear one, you hadn't sent me a message in such a long time . . .”
“It's been no more than a few days.” He was gruff and out of sorts as he slammed his ledger shut. In truth, he was tired of the silly Injun girl. Besides, now he was scared. “Why didn't you tell me Matt Folane was your uncle?”
The white man's name for her uncle. She walked around the store, fingering ribbons and trinkets, the blue beaded bracelet on her delicate wrist gleaming in the light of the kerosene lamp. “It never came up.”
“No, you deliberately didn't tell me.” He got up from his chair and limped across the store to confront her. “You knew I'd think twiceâ”
“Would you have?” She threw her arms around him, looking up at him coyly with her big, dark eyes.
His body reacted to the warmth of her full curves; then he regained control and pushed her away. “Anyone with any sense would tread lightly around that big warrior. They say he used to be a Lighthorseman and has killed a dozen men.”
“Or maybe more,” she laughed. “You know what
means in our language?
is a Yellow Jacket, a kind of wasp that will stingâand sting hard.”
Harvey shuddered. “You know what your uncle thinks of whites and particularly Southerners. You should have warned me.” He looked about anxiously. “Where is he, anyway?”
She shrugged and played with her bracelet. “Gone to some silly meeting. He won't be back for hours.” She reached to kiss him, molding the full curves of her body against him, her lips opening against his.
Damn, he wanted her, even knowing the risk of messing with Matt Folane's niece. Harvey put his arms around her and deepened the kiss. “If he won't miss you for hours, maybe we could . . .”
“Maybe we could,” she murmured, taking his hand and leading him toward the room at the back of the little store.
Damn, he was taking a chance, but she was so nubile and exciting. “Just a minuteâlet me turn off the light and lock the front door. Can't be too careful.”
He did that, then took her hand, leading her back to his room and closing the door. A small kerosene lamp burned on the bedside table, illuminating her pretty brown face as she lay down on the bed.
“Dear one,” she whispered, “we have to talk.”
“Not now,” he replied in a hoarse whisper, hurriedly beginning to remove his clothes. He'd take her one more time and then tell her good-bye forever. His stepsister should be arriving by stage soon, and he didn't want to have to explain Pretty to Twilight.
“Yes, now,” she protested even as he lay down on the bed naked and began to fumble with the top of her faded calico dress. “I have something I have to tell youâ”
He cut off her words with his mouth, kissing her feverishly, running his soft, pink hands over her lithe brown body. He was all over her, enjoying her as much tonight as he had the night he had first taken her virginity, in July. “Save it, beautiful,” he gasped. “Let's make love first.”
But she was pushing him away, scrambling out from under him to the other side of the bed. “No, we talk now.”
He was breathing hard, annoyed and angry. “You little tease. Get me all hot and thenâ”
“Remember that first night?” she smiled at him.
“Oh, honey, do I? Let's do it again like we did that night. Let'sâ”
“You remember you promised to marry me?”
Had he? What did it matter? He would have promised anything to get the voluptuous little redskin under him. “Maybe someday,” he drawled, and tried to pull her to him, but she resisted.
She put a stiff arm on his hairy chest to hold him back. “No, Harvey, we need to talk about that now.”
“Oh, hell. All right, I'll marry you. Now let's make love.” He tried to pull her into his fervent embrace, but she refused.
“Harvey, IâI think I'm going to have a baby.”
“What?” The mood was gone now. He sat up on the edge of the bed and began to curse.
Behind him, the girl started to cry. “I thought you'd be pleased.”
“Pleased? I don't want no half-breed Injun brat. . . .”
“But we could be married, and I'd help run the storeâ”
“Look, you Injun tart, I got someone comin' to help with the store. She's comin' on the stageâ”
“A white woman?” She sounded angry and jealous. “There's a white woman?”
He sighed, not bothering to explain. “You'll just have to find some Injun buck to marry you if you've gotten yourself in trouble.”
“Harvey, there was never anyone but you.”
A horrible thought came to him. He turned to her. “You told anybody about us or the baby?”
Pretty shook her head, burying her face in her hands. “Youâyou told me not to tell about us.”
Relief washed over him. He didn't want to face her vengeful uncle. Everyone around the camp said Matt Folane could cut a man's throat or break his back without a second thought.
“But if you don't keep your promise to marry me, I'll tell my uncle.”
A cold chill swept over him as he turned on the bed to face the hysterical girl. “You can't do that. You'll be disgraced if word gets out.”
“I don't care!” She rose up on her knees, screaming at him. “My uncle will make you marry me! I'll tell him! I swear I will!” She was hysterical now, sobbing and screaming, beating him on the chest.
“Hush! Hush!” he ordered. “Someone will hear you!”
“I don't care! You hear? I don't care if everyone knows!” Her voice increased to a shriek.
“Shut up! You hear me? Shut up!” Harvey was terrified now, scared some of the Confederate officers camped nearby or some of the Injuns might hear her and go for her uncle. Harvey didn't want the half-naked crying girl to be found in his bed. He'd placate her somehowâanything to make her hush. Harvey put his hand over her mouth, and they struggled. “Be quiet, you little slut! Stop that screaming now!”
They fought on the bed, but she was no match for his strength. He muffled her voice, but then she bit his fingers and he pulled back, cursing as she began to scream again. He had to shut her up. Harvey grabbed her by her throatâanything to stop that noise. She battled him, and he grabbed her arm as she scratched his face. The bracelet she wore broke, and blue beads flew everywhere.
“Shut up!” he shouted in panic. “Shut up!” He tightened the grip on her throat as her small fingers clawed at his hands. He was terrified that someone might have heard the uproar. In his mind, he saw the big Creek warrior bursting through the door, slamming him against the wall and then reaching for that huge knife he wore in his belt.
He tightened his grip on Pretty's throat. If he could only shut her up until he had time to reason with her . . . He'd promise to marry her to buy timeâanything to keep the secret until he had time to think what to do next. His lust had caused him to toss all good sense aside, and now it was coming back to haunt him. “Hush,” he pleaded as his fingers tightened, “Hush up!”
Her screams had become a mere whimper now as her eyes bulged and she gasped for air. Her small hands still clawed at his fingers, and she bucked and tried to twist out of his grasp, but she was powerless against him. He was past reason, past anything but sweating fear and anger. Yellow Jacket must not find out. He must not.
Pretty's voice was only a gasp, and her struggles grew weaker. All Harvey Leland could feel was relief that he might make her stop screaming, figure a way out of this mess without having to marry this Injun slut. All he wanted to do was save his own hideâthe same reason he had fled to Indian Territory to avoid the war. “Shut up, girl,” he gasped. “Oh, please shut up!”
Pretty stopped struggling, her breath coming in gasps as he tightened his hold on her throat. Her eyes rolled back. His cold sweat ran down his balding head and dripped on her brown face. What had he done?
Very slowly, Harvey loosened his grip. Why was Pretty so silent? His fingers had left blue marks on her slender neck. “Pretty?”
No answer. Her silence was even more terrifying than her screams had been. “Pretty? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to grab you so hardâit's just that I panicked when you said you'd tell your uncle. Everyone's afraid of that warrior.”
Still no answer. He shook her thin shoulder. “Damn it, I'm tired of your pretending, you hear me? Now you open your eyes and we'll talk about this.”
She didn't open her eyes. The girl lay very still and limp, looking small and brown against the sheets. A terror began to grow in Harvey's heart, a terror even worse than the fear of her vengeful uncle's finding out he'd seduced the girl with a few ribbons and trinkets. He was more scared than he'd ever been of fighting the war. “Pretty, you wake up, now.” He grabbed her shoulders and began to shake her, shouting at her, “Stop playactin' on me, girl.” He shook her hard, but she did not answer. Her head shook from side to side, her eyes half open, long black hair a tangle around them.
Oh, my God.
Harvey began to cry, not for the dead girl but for himself. He was a marked man. There was no telling what kind of torture that big Injun brave would mete out to his niece's killer. Or maybe the rebel army would hang him. And all this with Twilight on her way to him, and his future so carefully planned.
Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe he could hide the body, or at least get it out of his store. Yes, that was what he would do. Anything to keep the secret. With those marks on her neck, they'd know she'd been strangled. How long would it take people to track it to him? Had anyone ever known he was her lover? Had anyone ever seen her coming and going from the store? He didn't know. All that mattered now was getting rid of the body.
Hurriedly Harvey began to dress. The pebbles that he kept in his left boot to give himself a pronounced limp rolled out, and he didn't bother to gather them up. No one would see him in the darkness, so no one would know about his fake limp.
He opened the outside door cautiously and was greeted by an icy blast. Shivering, he hurried to get his heavy coat. As he put it on, he glanced at the floor.
The blue bracelet.
Those damn beads had gone everywhere when it broke. He must pick them up.
The girl lay so still, he didn't want to look at her as he went to his knees and began to gather the beads. The dim lamp made them hard to see in the shadows, but he picked up all he saw. A sound outside. Was that a sentry, or Yellow Jacket sneaking up on him? Harvey slipped the beads into the pocket of his coat and turned to the dead girl. He must get her out of his bed, no matter what he did with her. Maybe he could make it look like an accident. Yes, that was what he would do. No one would ever know.
He didn't want to touch the body that was already so cool and limp, but he had to. Harvey had whipped many slaves, slaughtered a few chickens, and kicked a cat or dog or two in his forty years, but he had never killed a human. He didn't have the courage for that. Taking a deep breath, he swung the slight body up in his arms. Her head dangled back, so that the marks on her throat showed almost black now. Her long hair swept the worn wooden floor. Where to go? What to do? He was so scared, his hands shook. Maybe he could make it look like an accident. Harvey grabbed a coil of rope off a nail. Then he headed out the back door and into the cold night toward the forest. The ground was damp and muddy beneath his small boots. His heart beat so hard, he was certain it would wake up everyone over at the sleeping rebel camp and the Indian settlement.