He nodded. “There's a lot of sickness with winter coming on. If we can treat them kindly, convince them that they've got a better future siding with usâ”
“And do they?”
He shook his head and looked ahead. “I don't rightly know, ma'am. There's talk the Confederacy might offer to turn this Territory into an Indian state, protect the tribes from white encroachment.”
“Can that happen?” Twilight asked.
He shook his head. “I doubt it, ma'am,” he said again. “Anyway, if we can't get the undecideds to throw in with us, we're to try to keep them from joining up with the other side. Some of these Injuns are mighty good warriors, and I wouldn't want to come up against them in battle.”
“Yellow Jacket,” she thought aloud.
The young man next to her paled visibly. “He's one of the toughest, and he trusts no one.”
Twilight snorted without thinking. “Can you blame him?”
Captain Wellsley thought about it a long time. “I reckon not,” he said finally.
About that time, a big pinto horse came out of the underbrush near the road and blocked their buggy. Captain Wellsley reined in, and the troops following them stopped.
Twilight took a deep breath. It was Yellow Jacket, clad in buckskins, with feathers in his black hair. He said nothing, only sat his horse with a natural grace as if he and the brown and white stallion were one.
She flinched a little as the big Indian looked her over with cold, dark eyes. “Where are you going?”
The young officer cleared his throat. “We are bringing medical help to your people.”
Yellow Jacket spit to one side contemptuously. “With a soldier escort?”
“I thought the lady would feel safer,” the captain's voice quivered.
She didn't feel safer. With the stern warrior glaring down at her, she felt very vulnerable. As far as Yellow Jacket was concerned, she didn't think she'd feel protected with a whole regiment of soldiers escorting her.
“Safe?” Yellow Jacket snorted, and signaled with his hand. Immediately, a dozen heavily armed braves came out of the underbrush on both sides of the road. Twilight saw the sweat break out on the captain's sallow face. Behind them, she heard the movement as soldiers reached for weapons.
“Hold on, men!” the officer ordered. He acted as if uncertain what to do next.
There is about to be a massacre here!
Twilight thought in horror. “IâI'm sure Yellow Jacket has brought his men to escort us to the camp,” she blurted.
Yellow Jacket smiled slowly. “The dusky-eyed one has more nerve than she first appeared to. It pleases me to have the lady doctor come to our camp.”
“I am not a doctor,” Twilight stammered. “I'm only a nurse.” She couldn't believe she had the nerve to correct the savage.
Yellow Jacket looked at her, and he didn't smile. “I will escort you anyway.” He wheeled his stallion and led off as if daring the soldiers to shoot him in the back.
“Of all the arrogant . . .” the old sergeant behind them muttered.
“Be quiet, O'Brien, before you create more trouble,” young Wellsley ordered. He snapped the reins, and the buggy started off again, following Yellow Jacket down the trail.
Twilight glanced back. The warriors had fallen in behind the mounted squad, who looked ill at ease and nervous at this turn of events. She was as frightened as the captain. She could see the sweat on his pale face, even though the morning was cool. In her mind she cursed Harvey Leland for getting her into this mess.
They wound their way through the woods and drew to a halt in the center of a makeshift camp. Indians came out of cabins, tents, and lean-tos to stare at them. Twilight glanced around at the ring of dark, closed faces. She was afraid, and it must have shown in her face, because Yellow Jacket looked down at her from his big horse and smiled. “Do not be afraid. My people will not scalp you or eat you, no matter what you have heard about âsavages.'”
Captain Wellsley cleared his throat as he stepped down from the buggy. “Now, see here, don't get forward with the lady; she comes to help.”
“Oh?” Yellow Jacket leaned on the neck of his horse and watched her in an arrogant manner.
“That's right.” Twilight licked her dry lips. “IâI've come to see what I can do.”
In the meantime, Captain Wellsley came around the buggy to help her down. “We have your leader's permission to be here.” He sounded as uncertain and fearful as Twilight felt.
“And so you do.” Yellow Jacket swung down off his horse and faced them. “I will escort the white lady to our worst cases.”
She glanced at Wellsley, hoping he would object. He appeared as if he knew he should but was fearful of crossing the big warrior. The soldiers stirred uneasily in their saddles and glanced at the warriors surrounding them, then at the captain, as if waiting for him to take action. There was a long moment of silence. No one moved. The only sound was the crackle of the big campfire, and somewhere in the camp a dog barked and a baby cried. “All right.” She took a deep breath and reached for her medical bag.
“I'll carry that.” Before she could object, Yellow Jacket took it from her hand. His brown fingers brushed hers, and it was if electricity passed between them. She jerked away.
He frowned down at her. “Don't worry, Mrs. Dumont, my hands are clean.” His voice dripped bitter sarcasm.
“See hereâ” the captain began.
“Never mind.” Twilight waved the captain to silence. Looking about at the hostile faces, she was certain that if the officer and his men tried to interfere, they could all be overrun and killed. “IâI can take care of this.”
She was stunned at her own words as she turned to follow Yellow Jacket. She who had always been uncertain, afraid of almost everything, had spoken out to calm a tense situation.
The Indian grinned at her, white, even teeth flashing in his dark face. “After you, Mrs. Dumont.” He made a wide, exaggerated bow.
She began to walk through the row of tents, too aware that he walked behind her, no doubt watching the way her wide hoopskirts swept along the dirt. She seemed to feel his eyes burning into her back and wondered why he should hate her so. Was he insulted that she was so afraid of Indians?
“Here, this way,” he said behind her, and she turned and stopped in front of a ragged tent. “Many of our people are sick, and our healers can do nothing for them.”
She paused and looked up at him. “You don't think I can, either, do you?”
He shook his head.
“Then, why was I sent for?”
He grinned without mirth. “Because our old leader has more faith in the whites than I do. I hear the drawl in your voice, Mrs. Dumont. Where in the South are you from?”
She didn't like what she was feeling as he towered over her. “Iâoriginally, I am from Alabama.”
He snorted in disgust. “I thought so. The very state that ran our people out so whites could steal it.”
“I wouldn't know about that.” She took a step backward.
“Of course not. Every white is innocent, yet you all have our land.”
She was increasingly aware that she was out of view of the soldier escort if there should be any trouble. “I'm not here for political discussion. I came to help.” She reached out and tried to take her medical bag from his hand, but he held on to it, and for a moment their hands touched as she tugged in vain, feeling foolish.
He let go of it suddenly, so suddenly that she stumbled backward, and he reached out and caught her arm to keep her from falling.
“Unhand me before I scream for the captain.” She jerked away, completely unnerved at the strength of his grip.
Yellow Jacket threw back his head and laughed. “I don't know what good that would do, white girl. The officer is as scared as a girl.”
“Well, I'm not,” she lied.
“But of course you are.” He took a step closer, evidently enjoying her discomfort. “I know why you come. The whites don't care if my people die or starve; they only want them to join up with their side to fight the Northern bluecoats.”
She felt a flush creep to her face and was ashamed suddenly of her people. “That may be what some have in mind, but I've come only to minister to the sick.”
“Then there's plenty for you to do,” he said, and she saw the dislike and distrust in his rugged face. “In this tent and that one over there”âhe pointedâ“and the two down the row, there is sickness.”
At that, he turned on his heel and left her standing in the chill wind as he walked away. Abruptly Twilight felt very much alone. She wasn't certain if these unsmiling brown faces peering out of tents and lean-tos could speak English. Pasting a smile on her face, she bent to go through the flaps of the ragged tent. A woman and a small girl lay on the blankets, coughing and staring back at her. They were both thin. Twilight's heart went out to them. Forgetting her fear, she took the woman's hand. “I am here to help you,” she said slowly.
She had no way to know if the gaunt woman understood her or not, but perhaps her tone was comforting, because the woman smiled. Twilight opened her medical bag. She had very little to offerâa little homemade cough syrup and some alcohol to bathe their foreheads and bring down the feverâbut the woman and little girl seemed appreciative. Twilight wished she had more to offer. “You will get better,” she told the woman and wasn't certain whether she lied.
She went to the next tent where an old woman lay on blankets, shivering in the cold. “I shall get someone to build up your fire,” she said as she knelt by her side.
The old woman shook her head. “Not waste medicine or fuel on the old,” she said in broken English. “Save the youngâthey are the hope of our tribe.”
“Nonsense.” Twilight held a little flask of brandy to her lips, “you must all get better.”
The old woman lay back against her blankets and sighed. “They will go soon, and the old will have to die. We must not slow them down.”
“Go?” Twilight paused in wiping the wrinkled old face. “No one's going anywhere.”
The old woman looked as if she would protest, seemed to think it over, and said nothing else. “The bluecoats will save us, maybe,” she whispered.
The old woman must be delirious, Twilight thought, but she didn't discuss anything more. She stepped outside to find Yellow Jacket standing there. “I thought you'd gone.”
“I did, but then I thought you might be in danger, so I returned.”
The way he was looking at her made her uneasy. “This old woman needs more wood on her fire, and some broth.”
Yellow Jacket shook his head. “The wood I can provide, but she won't eat.”
He looked saddened. “Many of the old will refuse food. They fear there will not be enough to go around.”
“That's ridiculous,” Twilight said. “Doesn't the Indian agent give you supplies?”
“He's your brother; why don't you ask him?” the man challenged.
“I certainly will! Now, get out of my way and let me finish my rounds.” Shocked at her own sudden spunk, she brushed past him and was relieved that he did not challenge her as she went on to the next smoky hut. There, three little boys had croup, and she instructed their mother to put water on to boil, knowing the steam would ease their breathing.
When she came out, Yellow Jacket was waiting for her. “I'll have to go now,” she said. “I don't have any more medicine.”
“That's what the white doctor always says,” Yellow Jacket said.
“Are you not getting any supplies out here?” She couldn't believe it.
He shook his head. “Not much. It's better lately since the rebels fear we might join up with the bluecoats.”
She had a sudden vision of all these muscular warriors fighting for the other side. They would be formidable opponents. “I'm sure your people don't want to support the Yankees.”
He was stoic again, his face hostile and closed. “Why should we side with the ones who have run us off our land in the South?”
He had a point. Lifting her black skirts, she began walking back toward the buggy, Yellow Jacket following along behind her. When she came within sight of the soldiers, the captain smiled. “I was just about to come searching for you, Mrs. Dumont.”
“She was safe enough,” Yellow Jacket snapped.
Twilight waved the captain off. “There's no problem, Captain, except that these people seem to be short on food and supplies. I hope you'll be able to do something about it.”
“I'll try,” said the officer.
“I doubt that,” the Indian said.