Authors: Lady Legend
“I could do with another inch off back here.” He showed her the place. “I generally wear it off my neck.”
“Maybe … let’s see.” She sawed with the knife. “Your hair feels good. There’s a little curl to it. What’s the color?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Not just brown. Ginger with deep gold strands sprinkled through it. How’s that?”.
He examined her handiwork and nodded, then gave the mirror back to her. “Thanks. It’s amazing how a clean head and a close shave can make the day seem ever so much better. That’s what really
gets you down when you’re soldiering. You start to smell yourself and you can’t do a damn thing about it. You stink, you’ve got no fresh clothes, no decent shoes, nothing.”
“How long have you been a soldier?”
“Too damn long,” he bit out. “Over two years now. Two years of one battlefield after another.” His eyes burned. He cleared the hoarseness from his voice. “Gets to where you don’t know why you’re fighting or who you’re fighting … who’s winning, who’s losing, who gives a bloody hell.” He felt her scrutiny and avoided her direct gaze. “You’re lucky the war cannons are far from here.”
“Will you go back to the war come spring?”
He glanced behind him at the bunks. “I think I should crawl back into bed. I’m light-headed.” He pushed to his feet, swayed, and braced himself against the bunks. “I’m going to get into that top one.”
“No, use the lower one.”
“Uh-uh. That’s yours.” Sticky sweat beaded his brow and upper lip as he struggled into the upper bunk. His limbs were weak and trembling when he finally lay flat on his back to acquaint himself with the new scenery; irregular logs cemented with sod to form the cabin’s roof. He could smell her on the linens. Her scent was of the mountains—fresh, woodsy. “Did you build this cabin?”
“Me and some friends built it.”
“Do you miss the Indians?”
“The ones you lived with.”
“Oh, yes. Well, I did for a long time, but not so much anymore. I wouldn’t go back, even if they’d allow it. I like my freedom.”
“Were you a slave to them?”
“All women are slaves to men. We think we are equal, but we do more of the work. The men talk and talk. They make laws, they make peace, they
make war. They hunt. They sleep. They eat. They mate. The women? They cook, they clean, they have the babies and raise the children, they make the lodges, they gather food, they make clothing, they tote the water …” She sighed. “It goes on and on, what the women do. The work flows like a river … never stopping, never drying up.”
“Looks to me like you work just as hard here.”
“Yes, but for me, and when I want, and what I want. Not for a man who doesn’t appreciate or respect me. I work to make a good life for me and my child, not because I fear the lash or the flat of a hand across my face.”
Tucker turned his head to look at her, but he could only see the crown of her head until she stood up to shrug into her poncho. “Did your husband beat you?”
She unlatched the door and motioned for Sentry to precede her. If she heard his question, she showed no sign of it.
“Where are you going?”
“You rest.” Frigid air puffed into the room. A bar of sunlight fell into the cabin, painting her face but unable to dispel the shadows in her eyes. “I’ll be back before the sun is abed. Patrol, where are you? Be quick, you—” The closing door shut off the rest of her words.
It seemed to Tucker that neither one of them wanted to talk about their private wars, and that suited him just fine. The battlefields were distant, and he’d just as soon keep them that way. At least until spring.
o you have any children?”
The spoon heading for Tucker’s mouth froze midway. He blew at the steaming beans. Copper tore off a hunk of bread and sopped up bean soup in the shallow tin plate before her.
“No children. I’m not married.” He finished his helping of beans and nodded when she offered him another. “You sure are a good cook. May I have another piece of bread, please?”
“You may, sir.” She smiled, imitating him. “You may have all you want. That’s why I cooked it, so you’d eat it.” She poured strong coffee into his cup. “You were sent to school.”
He nodded, then realized that she, of course, wasn’t sent. He suspected from her speech patterns that she had a good ear and was a good mimic. He had noticed that she spoke excellent English when she was at ease around him, and stiffly when she wasn’t.
“How’d you learn to speak English? Who taught you?”
“Trappers and mountain men mostly. I spoke English when I went to live with the Crow. When they traded with trappers, I translated. My command of English made me more valuable to the Crow.”
“Sometimes you sound more like an Indian speaking English.”
“Do I?” She considered this, then shrugged it off. “Where’s your home?”
“Does your family live there? They must worry about you.”
“They’re all dead.” He followed her example and sopped up bean juice with a wedge of bread.
“Everyone? No one survives?”
“No one that I’m close to. The war has taken its toll on my branch of the Jones family tree. Axed it clean off, except for the little, old twig that’s me. I suppose I have some distant cousins scattered about somewhere. My mother’s people are from Virginia. I don’t know any of them real well.”
Copper finished her meal in silence. She watched him devour what she’d cooked and felt glad that he had filled his belly. Too bad she couldn’t fill his empty soul. Sometimes his weariness lay so heavily in him that even she felt its weight. If one could see a spirit, his would be dragging on the floor behind him like a shadow. He had teared up while she’d been washing his hair and shaving him. She hadn’t said anything about it, but the sight of twin tears glistening in the corners of his eyes had wrung her heart. She’d known a wild moment when she’d almost kissed his closed eyelids. Memories could be sweet torture.
He glanced at her from beneath lowered brows. “I’d pretty much made up my mind I wasn’t going back.”
She remained silent. She’d been taught by the Crow to allow the speaker to tell his tale at his own pace. After another minute, Tucker sat back in the chair and stared moodily at his plate. He sipped the tepid coffee. His gaze flickered to hers. She saw guilt in his eyes.
“I smelled the clean air and saw the mountains. I’d forgotten how it felt not to dread another battle or regret the one you’d just fought. The men I’d
been transporting to the fort were deserters. At first, I spit on them.” He sighed and his eyes took on a far-away expression. “But then I saw the mountains. I saw the swooping, graceful flight of the eagles. I thought of going back and I couldn’t …” He shook his head vigorously, as if trying to dislodge a thought or a feeling. “I told myself that if the others let me go, I’d disappear into the mountains and never look back.”
“You’ve fought enough,” Copper said when she was certain he’d spoken his piece. “But I think you would have gone back after a time. You’re a man of honor. You try to do what’s right all the time.”
“What makes you think that?”
“You agreed to our trade, but you think it’s unfair. You think I’m getting the short straw.”
“True.” Tucker looked away from her understanding smile. Memories of the war crowded into his mind. He propped his elbows on the table and raked both hands through his hair. “I can’t stand the thought of another battle … more blood and death … brothers killing brothers. It’s insane!” He stared at his hands, half expecting to see specks of blood on them.
“Have you killed many men?”
“So many I’ve lost count.” He shifted onto one hip, extending his splinted leg in front of him, and hooked an elbow over the back of the chair. “I don’t want to talk about that, Copper. It’s hard enough to think about … to live with. Talking about it …” He shook his head, mentally cowering from the images pressing on him. “I just can’t.” A sharp pain raced from one temple to the other. He winced and shut his eyes.
“Headache. I get them now and then … the memories rise up and then my head starts pounding.”
“You need to start making new memories. Ones that don’t hurt.” She stood up and came around
behind his chair. “I have healing hands, you know. Give me that aching head of yours, soldier man.” She flattened her hands on either side of his head and tilted his head to rest against her stomach. “What rank are you?”
“So high up!”
He smiled sardonically. “You kill enough men, you get to be captain.”
“Shhh. Don’t think about spilled blood. Close your eyes.” She massaged his temples in slow circles and matched the cadence of her voice to the rhythm.
“Ummm … nice,” he murmured.
“I’ll tell you how I discovered the secrets in my hands. It was the week I began my first womanly flow. Smiling Moon, uncle of my Crow father, had a terrible stomachache. He ate snake that had poison still in it. My family tended to him and, oh, he was in pain. He rolled and moaned. Watching him, I felt my fingers tingle. The tingle spread to my palms and then my entire hands, then up to my elbows. My hands became hot. But I wasn’t scared. I knew … something inside told me that my hands could help Smiling Moon. So I went to him and lifted his shirt.” She laughed, recalling the hubbub. “My Crow father and mother thought I was touched in the head … that my flow had somehow drained my brains from me. But I went on with what my inner self told me to do. I placed my hands on Smiling Moon’s stomach—on his flesh—and he got real still. I rubbed him like I’m rubbing you.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, sensing Tucker’s total relaxation. “Soon, his moaning stopped. He said it felt like Father. Sun was pouring healing rays into his gut. By the time my hands cooled, Smiling Moon was no longer paining.”
He opened his eyes. “Smiling Moon was right. Your hands are like the sun. It’s amazing. You’re
amazing. How did you end up out here? You told me a little about it, but I don’t rightly recall …”
“My people cast me out.”
She made a face. “Because they were afraid. Anything they don’t understand, they turn their faces from it.”
“And they didn’t understand you?”
“My husband died.”
He nodded, waiting for her to embellish, but she didn’t. “They threw you out because he died? Not very charitable of them.”
“Why are you so nosey?” She moved away from him to busy herself with clearing the table. “You must be feeling better to be so full of questions.”
Tucker inched up in the chair. His headache was gone. He missed the sweet pressure of her fingers. “I’m just trying to get to know you a little. Didn’t mean to rile you.”
She released a sigh of defeat. “Okay, I’ll tell you this much. I’m telling you because you should know, so you can be forewarned not to cross me, not to try anything with me.” She squared her shoulders and leveled her dark eyes on him. “I’m a witch.”
A witch? Tucker pursed his lips to keep from smiling. Her gaze became a glare, and Tucker covered his grin with one hand. “I’m sorry.” He swallowed a chuckle. “It’s just that I haven’t been spooked by witches since I was in knee breeches. You don’t look like a witch to me. I heard they had hook noses and warts.”
“You’re laughing now, but if you could hear the Crow and Blackfeet and Gros Ventre talk about me and what I can do, you wouldn’t think it was so rib-ticklin’.”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t.” He wiped the smile off his mouth and ran his hands down his chest. “Well, that was a mighty fine meal, and I’m feeling better, thanks to you.” He glanced at his splinted
limb. “My leg must be mending. It itches deep down where I can’t scratch it. The bone burns.”
She nodded. “You heal fast.”
“Like I said, I owe my feeling better to you. If you’re a witch, you’re a good-hearted one.”
She reached for his cup at the same time he did, and her fingers brushed his. She jerked back as if he’d burned her. Color flooded her face. Snatching the cup off the table, she whirled away from him to rinse the dishes.
Tucker noted her stiff movements and questioned her reaction. She had reminded him daily that she was well acquainted with every part of his body, but when he’d offered some nice words and accidently touched her, she’d jumped as if she’d been snakebit. Something was at work in her that gave the lie to her outward calm.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Sure, and why wouldn’t I be?” She dried her hands on a rag, then began filling the lamps with oil. “I’ll check the traps tomorrow and gather what I can. I’ve put up some canned meat and I’ve dried quite a bit. Should be plenty until after the baby’s born and I’m fit enough to hunt again.”
He laughed to himself, finding her way of life so foreign to what he’d been brought up to expect. Absently, he picked up the mittens she’d finished the night before and examined them.
“I feel like a lion.”
“A jungle cat? Why?”
“I read somewhere that the male sits around and does little. He roars and struts and yawns. The female hunts and brings the meat back for him to eat.” He shrugged. “So, I feel like a lion.” He lifted his gaze briefly to hers. “You should find yourself a man to take care of you, Copper. This is no life for a woman. No life for a woman with a child, that’s for sure.”
“Says you. It’s the life I’ve chosen.”
“No, you didn’t. This life was thrust on you.
You were kidnapped, raised by the Indians, and then thrown out. You’ve had no choice in any of it.”
“I could have made my way to the fort or a town, but I wanted to live right here.” She lit one of the lamps with a burning stick, then blew out the flame with a flourish and threw the stick into the hearth fire. “This life is hard, but it won’t kill you. You’re just not used to it and that’s why you think it’s so peculiar. I think living in the city is odd. Why humans would want to live right up against each other in a long row of buildings escapes me.”
He smiled, amused by her description of a town. “I never said I didn’t like how you lived. In a way, I envy you for it; but I’ve been raised to protect women and children, to provide shelter and warmth and food for them. It goes against my grain to see you out here by yourself with no one to look after you.”