Authors: Joan Johnston
She pulled free of his touch and glared at him. Tears threatened, but she gritted her teeth and forced them back. Somehow she was certain these Indians wouldn’t appreciate a fit of hysterics.
Freddy wasn’t sure which feelings to acknowledge, there were so many bombarding her at once.
You belong to me
. She fought back the terror, the anger, the frustration at what those words implied. Imagine coming all the way to America to escape her parents’ restrictions, only to become the slave of some white savage!
At least she was alive. Rushland was dead. And it was all her fault. She was the one who had urged Rand to leave the safety of the wagon and ride off across the prairie with her. Her chest ached unbearably with the weight of guilt and shame and grief.
Freddy tried not to imagine how Rand’s mother would feel when she heard that her only son had been murdered by savages. Assuming Lady Talbot ever found out what had happened. Freddy couldn’t help wondering whether both her fate and Rand’s would remain a mystery never to be solved.
An Indian spoke behind her, and Hawk answered in the same guttural tongue.
“It seems your friend is not dead after all,” Hawk said in English.
“What?” She blinked to clear the film of tears from her eyes. “Rushland’s alive?”
“Two Bears only knocked him from the saddle. He has lost a lot of blood from the wound in his shoulder, but he is alive.”
“You have to help him!” Without conscious thought she reached out to touch Hawk’s arm with her bound hands. She realized what she was doing too late. He recoiled as her fingers touched his skin.
He stared at her with narrowed eyes but didn’t speak.
She threaded her fingers into a knot in front of her. “Please, won’t you let me help my friend?”
“Two Bears will care for him.”
Without another word he settled her into the sidesaddle on her Thoroughbred, while one of the Indians stood nearby holding the reins.
“Do not try to escape,” Hawk warned. “Or your friend will die.”
“Where are you taking me?” she asked.
He ignored her, as though she were an animal on a leash to be tugged and pulled where he willed. She watched him mount a horse that wore a bridle but no saddle, by simply leaping onto the animal’s back. She had never seen anything so graceful. The Indian on the ground handed her reins to Hawk, and he led her away at the head of the small band of Sioux.
She saw two Indian braves tying Rushland on his belly across his horse’s back. There was blood all over his saddle.
She kneed her horse to draw even with Hawk.
“You have to stop the bleeding, or Rushland will die.”
Hawk spoke to the Indians in their foreign tongue, and one of them riffled through Rushland’s saddlebags until he found a linen shirt. He lifted the unconscious man slightly and stuffed the wadded up garment against his shoulder before tightening the ropes around him.
“How can you be so cruel?” she demanded of Hawk. “He needs a doctor.”
“We brought no medicine man with us. His wound will be tended when we reach our camp.”
“Are we going to the reservation?”
“Why would you think that?”
“Isn’t that where the Sioux live?”
“There are many who would rather hunt buffalo than take the cattle and corn the white man offers.”
Freddy eyed the twenty or so Longhorn cattle the Indians were herding before them. “Those look like cattle to me.”
“Ah, but those were stolen from our enemies, not given as charity to the poor,” he said.
“Is that why the soldiers were chasing you?”
“Among other reasons.”
“They’ll come hunting for us. I’m certain Rushland’s mother will demand it.”
“The buffalo wiped out all sign of our passing. They will never find us. They will give up and go home, as others have before them.”
“You don’t know Lady Talbot,” Freddy said.
“She’s like one of those terriers that grabs hold with its teeth and won’t let go no matter what you do.” Freddy eyed Hawk defiantly. “She’ll never give up till she finds us.”
Verity stared at Lieutenant Colonel William Travis Peters with an unrelenting gaze. “I insist you go after them.”
The commandant of Fort Laramie rearranged the papers on his Georgian desk—the only piece of furniture in the room not constructed from pine logs—one more time. “I’m afraid it’s impossible, Lady Talbot. If we had some idea which way they were headed, it would be different. The Wyoming Territory is a big place, and I don’t have the men to spare for a wild-goose chase.”
Verity rose from the uncomfortable ladderback chair in front of the colonel’s desk. “Very well. I shall have to go hunting for them on my own.”
The colonel had risen the instant she did and folded his hands behind his back, leaving her staring across his immense girth at a double row of
brass buttons. “I’d have to advise against that, Lady Talbot. You have no idea what you’re dealing with here. The hostiles—excuse me—the non-treaty Sioux, that is, those Indians who didn’t sign the Treaty of 1868 agreeing to stay on a reservation, have no respect for human life. They’d as soon shoot a man as look at him. They’d do worse to a lady, believe me, ma’am.”
“All the more reason why I need to begin searching for my son and his fiancée as soon as possible,” Verity said firmly. “I would appreciate it, Colonel Peters, if you would suggest someone who could lead my expedition.”
The colonel sputtered. “But Lady Talbot, don’t you see how foolish—”
“Very well, I’ll find someone myself.”
A voice from the rear said, “I’ll do it.”
Verity turned and saw Miles slouched in a chair at the back of the room, one ankle crossed over the opposite knee. How long had he been there? She hadn’t heard him enter, hadn’t heard him walk the short distance from the door to the pine-and-raw-hide chair in the corner. She glanced at the foot he had angled across his knee and realized why. He wasn’t wearing sturdy Wellingtons or Hussars or Hessians, but knee-high Indian moccasins.
It dawned on her suddenly that this man, with whom she had once shared the intimate secrets of her body, was a stranger to her.
She had immediately noticed the difference in Miles’s pattern of speech, how his crisp English accent had broadened and flattened over the years
spent away from England. His dialogue was equally foreign, being dotted with quaint Western provincialisms. His manner of dress was no less influenced by the land he had apparently adopted as his own. His fringed buckskins were worn shiny smooth in spots and looked like they might have served more than once as a table napkin. But he didn’t seem to mind being seen by a lady in all his dirt.
He had also lost the delicacy of manners common to English noblemen of his rank. He was sitting—if his deplorable posture could be called that—in the presence of a lady, and showed no intention of rising to his feet. She felt a flare of anger at the insult but bit her tongue. She needed Miles’s help. Castigating him for his lack of courtesy would not help the situation.
When he spoke, he ignored her as if she weren’t there and addressed his comments to the colonel.
“I plan to take the four men I brought with me and keep looking for that band of Sioux until we catch up to them. I’ll take the responsibility for keeping an eye on Lady Talbot if she comes along with us.”
“Are you sure you want to take a woman on such a dangerous journey?” the colonel asked.
Miles shrugged. “It’s up to her. She’s the one who wants to find her son.”
Miles was the last person Verity would have chosen for the job. Because he was going to know, the instant he laid eyes on Rand, the secret she had kept from him all these years. She dreaded what
vengeance he might feel he had to exact for that wrong. Verity couldn’t worry about that now. She would simply have to deal with that problem if—when—it arose.
She searched Miles’s face, suspicious of his motives. Why had he offered to help? What did he want from her in exchange? They hadn’t spoken since he had threatened vengeance on her. He had ridden back to the tail end of the column and joined the four men in civilian clothes who had turned out to be cowhands on his ranch.
Unfortunately, she was in no position to haggle. It didn’t matter what price he asked. She would pay it. She wasn’t about to deny herself the assistance he offered. She had to find her son. Rand might be lying hurt somewhere. He might be dying … And Freddy … It didn’t bear thinking what horrors she might be forced to endure. Every moment mattered.
“I’ll gladly accept whatever help you’re willing to offer, Lord Lind—Mr. Broderick,” she corrected herself. “When do we leave?”
Miles made a sound that might have been a snort of amusement. “It isn’t quite that simple.”
“Why not? My son is wounded. Lady Winnifred may be—The situation is urgent. We must leave as soon as possible.” Thanks to years of hiding what she felt from Chester, she managed to keep her voice calm, even though she felt frantic inside.
But Miles had always been more perceptive of her feelings than Chester, because he had cared what she felt. From the narrowing of his eyes,
from the way his hands closed on the arms of the rawhide chair, she realized she hadn’t fooled him with her act of bravado. He knew just how scared she was.
But he didn’t offer words of comfort, as a man who cared might have done. His voice was hard, uncompromising, unrelenting. No, this was not the Miles Broderick she had known.
“Rushing out of here isn’t going to help if we end up having to turn right around to come back for supplies. You’ll be another mouth to feed, and I sure as hell didn’t pack anything for a lady first time around. I need to spend a little time with the sutler here at the fort.
“Meanwhile, you better get yourself rigged out in some clothes that let you ride astride. I don’t have a sidesaddle, and even if I did, you’ll need a better seat if we have to make a run for it.
“And you might want to wash up a bit before we go. It’ll be the last chance you’ll have for a while. There’s not much in the way of amenities out on the range. You look like you could use a rag and some soap.”
She flushed as he gave her a rude examination that was nothing short of insolent. For the first time Verity became aware of her rumpled and torn velvet riding habit. She had forgotten entirely about her appearance in the desperation of the moment. She reached up to smooth her hair and realized that blond strands had fallen down where pins were missing from the bun she had secured at her nape that morning.
Her thin leather gloves were torn, revealing scratches on her palms, and she could only imagine the condition her face was in. She reached up and winced when her fingertips came in contact with the bloody scratches on her cheek.
“My things are all with the wagon,” she said. “Has it arrived at the fort?”
“Uh … that’s another problem,” the colonel said. “I’m afraid your wagon was a total loss. The buffalo didn’t leave much but splinters. Everything was trampled beyond recognition.”
“What?” Verity stared at him, goggle-eyed. Her jaw worked, but she found herself momentarily speechless. She closed her eyes to keep the two men from seeing the depth of her despair. She gritted her teeth to still the quiver in her chin.
She felt a hand at her elbow, and her eyes snapped open. Miles stood beside her, ready to assist her.
“I’m fine,” she said, stiffening her knees to keep them from collapsing under her. “Only …” She took a shuddery breath and said, “Everything I brought with me from England was on that wagon. Everything we needed …” Verity sank onto a wooden chair Miles shoved behind her knees.
She looked up at him, letting him see the desolation she felt. She searched in vain for a spark of sympathy, an offer of comfort in his remote gray eyes.
Then she remembered Rufus and Slim. She turned to the colonel. “The two men—”
“I’m afraid they’re dead, ma’am.”
“My God.” She held herself rigidly upright in the chair, clenching her hands together in her lap to still their trembling.
She had been grateful—and amazed—to discover when Chester’s will was read that he had left her anything at all. It had seemed like a miracle that she would be able to offer her destitute son a way to redeem his fortune. She had convinced herself that they would enjoy their new life in the Wyoming Territory.
So far everything had gone dreadfully awry.
Rand and Freddy had been captured by Indians. Everything she had brought with her to start a new life had been trampled by buffalo. And the one man she had ever loved had turned up demanding vengeance for a wrong she had done him more than two decades ago.
She lifted her eyes and sought out Miles, who had leaned back against the planked wall, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Do you still want to come with me?” he said. “Or would you rather wait here until I get back?”
Verity looked—really looked—at Miles. The coiled tension in his shoulders betrayed him. He wanted her to say she would go with him. Because she would be completely at his mercy if she did.
She eyed the slashing scar running through the shadow of beard, his shaggy black hair, the filthy buckskins. She tried to remember the handsome youth who had courted her, but found nothing in the steely gray eyes staring back at her from beneath
dark brows that remotely resembled the English gentleman she had loved.