“Let's go now,” Twilight said, and caught the officer's arm. He took her bag from her hand and helped her up into the buggy.
Then Captain Wellsley climbed in. The buggy was ringed by brown, hostile faces. For a moment, Twilight was not certain they would be allowed to leave. After a long minute, Yellow Jacket nodded to the people, and they moved back to allow the buggy to move.
The Confederate officer cracked his little whip, and the buggy pulled out, followed by the small squad of soldiers.
Twilight could still feel Yellow Jacket's dark eyes boring into her back as they drove away.
Yellow Jacket watched her go, angry with her and with himself for feeling attracted to the white woman. Behind those smoky, twilight-colored eyes, he sensed a fire and passion that was being carefully held in check, waiting for the right man to release her emotions. A hundred years ago, he might have taken a woman like that captive on the eastern frontier, made her his woman. Now women like that one belonged to rich white men like the captain. However, he sensed that the small female was more woman than that high-class, weak male could handle.
His giant mixed-blood friend, Smoke, came across the circle and watched with him until the buggy and its escort were out of sight. “Forget about her,” Smoke said. “I used to see women like that on plantations. If you even looked their way, the white master would have you flailed until your skin was in shreds.”
Yellow Jacket snorted in disgust. “She's the crooked storekeeper's sister. Does that tell you what I think of her?” He spit on the ground in disgust.
“But she's beautiful,” Smoke said.
“To hell with her. She's from Alabama; her plantation was probably built on some of our stolen land.”
The ancient one wants to see us,” Smoke said.
“What about?” Reluctantly Yellow Jacket tore his gaze away from the disappearing buggy.
“You know what about,” Smoke said. “Just three or four of us are going, and we might not make it back.”
“You mean . . . ?”
“Yes. We've got to ride north and see if we can bring the bluecoats back to help.”
Yellow Jacket shook his head. “We haven't a chance of getting through the rebel lines.”
“But we must try,” said the big mixed-blood. “Our people will be slaughtered here if we don't get help.”
He would be riding to his death to try to get through rebel lines, but Smoke was rightâthey must tryâand they had both faced death before. “May the Master of Breath protect us,” Yellow Jacket said, and turned to go to meet with their ancient leader.
Yellow Jacket felt annoyance and anger as he and Smoke strode to meet with Opothleyahola. He had not taken a woman of his own although he was almost thirty winter counts old. Many Muskogee girls had flirted and hinted that they would be pleased and honored to share his blanket, but none of them attracted him. Now he was furious with himself that the only woman who had made his blood run hot was an enemy white girl who was as far out of his reach as the ancient stars where the Master of Breath resided. He hated the haughty Southern widow because she occupied his mind and emotions when he should be concentrating on the fate of his tribe and revenge for the deaths of his brother and niece.
Smoke put his brown hand on Yellow Jacket's broad shoulder as they walked. “You need to take a womanâa Muskogee woman, as I have. That white girl will bring you nothing but trouble.”
“You think I don't know that?” Yellow Jacket snapped, and then was immediately sorry. Last night he had dreamed he had the forbidden Twilight in his blankets, writhing beneath him, her white, white skin shiny with perspiration as she urged him to take her, put his hot mouth on her breasts, tangle his fingers in that pale, sun-streaked hair. “I am sorry, old friend; the deaths in my family have driven me almost to madness with hatred.”
“Which accomplishes nothing,” his friend said softly. “Better you should pick a girl who will give you sons and be pleasant enough, even though there is no wild passion.”
Yellow Jacket did not answer. Yes, his common sense told him that was what he should do, but in his mind he remembered Twilight's soft mouth and imagined it caressing his body. Everything in him ached to put his child in that delicate body and make wild love to her until she cried out and clawed his back as he took her.
He must forget about the white woman. There were important events about to happen to his tribe. Yellow Jacket sighed and turned to follow his black-Indian friend to the old man's ragged tent. Inside, two noted warriors sat by the fire and nodded as the two newcomers sat down cross-legged.
Opothleyahola nodded to them. “We cannot hold out much longer. I have been stalling the rebels, letting them think we might be willing to join them to keep their soldiers from attacking us. I am beginning to wonder if the bluecoats that Chief Lincoln promised will ever come.”
Yellow Jacket stared into the fire. “Old one, what is it you would have us do?”
The old man hesitated. “It will be dangerous.”
Yellow Jacket snorted. “Life is dangerous. Has not the Master of Breath told us that in many ways?”
The others murmured agreement.
“I wish your brother was here to help,” old Opothleyahola said.
Yellow Jacket flinched at the thought of his lost brotherâand the lovely niece, so newly dead. “With him in mind, I will do whatever needs to be done to protect us from the rebels.”
“Good.” The ancient one nodded. “We are surrounded by the graycoats. Sooner or later they will attack us, and many women and children will die.”
In the silence no one spoke. Of these four men, only Smoke had loved ones in the camp. It occurred to Yellow Jacket then that this was a very dangerous task indeed, for the ancient one to choose noted warriors who had no women and children to protect.
The Muskogee leader said, “This is what must be done. Someone must ride to this place called Kansas to alert the bluecoats about what is happening here. Chief Lincoln has promised that if we are loyal to the Union, he will send soldiers to protect and help us.”
Yellow Jacket considered. “Is Chief Lincoln in this place named Kansas?”
The old one shook his head. “I do not think so. I hear he is in that place called Washington, but he has chiefs at the fort in Kansas. They can send him messages over the singing wires, reminding him of his promise.”
Yellow Jacket looked around the circle at the others and chewed his lip in thought. “You are right, old one. It is a long way to Kansas, and we will have to avoid the graycoat rebels who will try to stop us from getting through.”
Opothleyahola nodded. “Some or all of you may not make it back. The rebels will shoot to kill, and the weather will soon be turning cold. Any man whose heart tells him he should not go will not be blamed.”
He seemed to wait for his warning to sink in. Outside, the wind picked up and whipped the ragged tent as if reminding the warriors just how chill and hostile the weather and the terrain would soon be.
Yellow Jacket stood up. “With my brother and niece dead, no one would weep if I did not return. I have no woman, no child; no one depends on me now. I will take the message through.”
Smoke, the big mixed-blood stood up, his head brushing against the top of the old tent. “I have a woman and children, but if the bluecoats do not win, we will be thrown back into slaveryâand I would die to protect them from that.”
The other two got to their feet. “We, too, will go.”
“Good,” the leader said. “I would go myself, but I am old and ill. My people depend on some young, strong man getting to Kansas with the message.”
Yellow Jacket turned to leave. “I can write, old one. If you will write the message downâ”
“No”âthe old one shook his headâ“there must be nothing on paper the rebels can use against our tribe. I will tell you what to tell the bluecoat chief, my son.”
Yellow Jacket nodded. “We will leave at dark. Riding at night is a better way to slip away from the rebels.”
“It may snow soon,” Smoke said. “They will be able to track us.”
“But if it keeps snowing, our tracks will be covered,” Yellow Jacket answered. “Now, let us gather our things, pray to the Master of Breath, and make offerings to the sacred fire. When darkness falls, we will ride out.”
They rode out at dark, each of the four keenly aware of the seriousness of the task with which they were entrusted. None of them really expected to return, but it was only important that they get through to the bluecoat chief so that he would bring troops to protect the thousands of loyal Indians who were ringed in by graycoats.
The wind had picked up, blowing from the north with the promise of snow, as the four rode their horses through the stark, bare oak and walnut trees. The ground looked black and frozen and sounded hard under the horses' hooves. At least there was no moon, Yellow Jacket thought as he grasped his rifle and hunched his wide shoulders against the cold wind that seemed to steal the breath from the riders' lips.
Once as they picked their way single file through the brush near the soldier encampment, a guard stopped and yelled, “Who goes there?”
Yellow Jacket reined his horse in, motioned the others to be silent. They dismounted, each holding his horse's muzzle so it would not whinny. He was not close enough to the sentry to sneak up and cut the man's throat, and a shot would alert the whole rebel camp. The sentry paused, looking their way in the darkness. Yellow Jacket's heart seemed to pound so loudly that he could hear it. He did not fear for himselfâhe had faced death many times as a Lighthorseman for the Muskogee nation. What he feared was the failure of his mission. The fate of the loyal Muskogee, Cherokee, Seminole, and other tribes hung in the balance.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sentry shrugged and began walking his post again. Yellow Jacket motioned to the others, and they led their horses through the night, wanting to put as much distance as possible between them and this soldier encampment before morning. At any moment, he expected to feel a bullet tearing into his back, but the only sound was the wind, whining like a complaining old woman. Finally, he motioned the others to mount up, and they took off again at a ground-eating lope.
As they rode north, the night seemed endless, and Yellow Jacket felt numb and half-frozen by the time the first pale light of dawn came up over the eastern hills. “We will camp,” he said to the others, “and wait for night to go on.”
Smoke frowned. “We could make good time in daylight.”
“And risk running into a rebel patrol,” Yellow Jacket pointed out. “The woods are full of them.”
The others nodded agreement. Yellow Jacket knew this country well. For many years before the white man's war started, he had ridden with the Lighthorse, the law enforcement of his tribe. All the five Civilized Tribes had a Lighthorse patrol that kept the peace and caught and punished lawbreakers. It was ironic, he thought, that some of his old Lighthorse comrades from other tribes now rode for the Confederates and would try to kill him if they met. Yellow Jacket sighed as he thought of these good friends. He knew that Wohali, of the Cherokee, had sided with the rebels. Wohali sometimes went by a white name, Jim Eagle. Yellow Jacket was not certain what had happened to his Choctaw Lighthorse friend Talako.
They found a draw that was overgrown with brush and out of the wind. They unsaddled their horses and hobbled them so that the animals might graze. The gray, leaden sky was now spitting snow.
One of the younger warriors looked at Yellow Jacket. “Do we dare risk a fire?”
Yellow Jacket started to say no, then noted that the others were rubbing their hands together and shivering. If anyone got frostbite or grew sick, their mission would be endangered. “Smoke, make us a tiny fire so we can boil some coffee and warm ourselves. We will rest until nightfall.”
He had not realized how cold he was himself until he clutched that tin cup of strong coffee in his hands and felt the warmth. He took a deep breath of the strong scent and drank the brew gratefully. The others had already wrapped themselves in buffalo robes and curled up by the fire to sleep.
Someone had to stand guard, and Yellow Jacket took the first watch. He had never felt as lonely or sad in his life as he did now, staring out at the frozen, barren landscape. He was chilled to the bone, but that did not matter. Many times he had been hungry or cold, but it had not kept him from doing his duty as a warrior should. He closed his eyes and saw the white woman with the smoky gray eyes just the color of twilight. Her mouth had looked soft, but her eyes, when she looked at him, had been hard. If he had her curled up naked in his blankets, she would be very warm, and he would put his face against her breasts and sleep.
He laughed without mirth. Harvey Leland's sister would not want to be embraced and lie naked and warm with him under his blankets. If she belonged to him, he would make her want to sleep in his arms and kiss his mouth while he stroked her full breasts. His groin ached, thinking about taking her and putting his seed in her belly in a spasm of ecstasy. Yellow Jacket awoke with a start, realizing that he had dozed off. The white woman hated Indians and was as far out of his reach as the frosty stars above him. He shook himself awake and returned to watching the stark skeletons of trees.
After a while, Smoke awoke and took a watch. Yellow Jacket curled up and slept, and in his sleep, the white girl came to him and held out her arms.
At dark they rode on. The cold wind had not let up, but the quartet hunched their shoulders against the chill, watched the North Star, and kept riding. Now the wintry blast was beginning in earnest. Once, Yellow Jacket smelled smoke and signaled the others to halt. He dismounted and crept to the top of a nearby ridge. From that spot, he could see a cozy log cabin. Lantern light glowed dimly through the windows, and he smelled food cooking and saw smoke curling up against the cold sky from the chimney. White settlers. More and more whites were trespassing in the Indian Territory. It could only be a sign of what was to come, Yellow Jacket thought bitterly. Perhaps he should attack the cabin, kill the trespassers, and take the warm food.
He crept up and looked in the window. There were a woman and small children inside. The woman was not as pretty as Twilight Dumont. The realization that he thought of the white woman back at the fort annoyed him, and he crept away, back to the waiting men. “It's white settlers.”
“Are there many men?” asked one of the others.
Yellow Jacket shook his head. “I saw none. There was a woman and children.”
One of the younger warriors frowned. “I say we attack them, kill them all, and take their food and ammunition.”
“Warriors do not kill women and children,” Yellow Jacket admonished.
“My friend is right,” Smoke said.
“They kill ours,” the young warrior said.
It was true, oh, so true, Yellow Jacket thought bitterly, remembering the Trail of Tears from his childhood.
“Besides,” Yellow Jacket said, “If we attack and one should escape, they would find the rebel soldiers and put them on our trail. It is most important that we get through to the white chiefs in Kansas with our message. We do not have time to try for war honors.”
The others grudgingly admitted this was true. Again they rode though the night and took cover in the daylight. Yellow Jacket had no idea how far they had ridden or just how far it was to this place called Kansas. He decided they must ride until they ran across blue-coated soldiers.