Authors: Georgina Gentry
“Green Eyes, you are too innocent to know what might happen if I stay.”
Her heart skipped a beat. She was playing with fire like a small child; suspecting the danger, but too fascinated by the flames to back away while there was still time. Her own being seemed consumed by heat and she couldn't control her words.
“Don't go,” she said again.
With a muttered curse, Bear turned and swept her into his embrace, holding her close against his powerful body. Willow knew she couldn't stop him now if she wanted to; and she was horrified to realize she didn't want to at all.
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
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On the morning of May 21, 1994, I attended a sacred pipe ceremony in a tiny cemetery east of the town of Tonkawa, Oklahoma. Exactly one hundred and nine years ago on this date, Chief Joseph and all that remained of his little group had left their Oklahoma exile to return to the Northwest.
The commemorative pipe ceremony was performed by a handful of Nez Perce tribal members who had made the long trek from Idaho and Washington state to honor the more than one hundred members of their tribe who did not survive their exile and now sleep forever in this alien soil.
This novel is dedicated with respect and admiration both to those who came to smoke the pipe that May morning, and also to the memory of Chief Joseph and those long-ago Nez Perce who suffered and died, fighting against impossible odds in the name of freedom....
The Nez Perce Indians tell this story of Creation: once there was a great Creature roaming the land, but Coyote tricked and killed it, then cut it to pieces. The bits of flesh he threw to the wind, and where they touched earth, they became the various tribes. Finally, Coyote dipped his fingertips into the Creature's heart's blood. Coyote shook his paw, and where that heart's scarlet drops touched the wild and beautiful land, the Nez Perce, best and bravest of all the tribes rose up. They say, if you do not believe this, drive past the town of Kamiah, Idaho, where a little pile of black rock lies. They say that is all that remains of the Creature.
A superstitious legend? Maybe. But it might explain the collective soul of this extraordinary, gallant people who themselves became a timeless legend among all the tribes of the land. When brave deeds are told and sung around campfires, the Nez Perce are remembered.
Like so many of the others, this tribe was ordered to a small reservation. Yet against impossible odds, during four months of the year 1877, a handful of ragged, poorly armed Nez Perce challenged the entire United States Army, fighting their way across more than a thousand miles of the Northwest wilderness toward Canada. In Canada, they hoped to continue to live as wild and free as the wind and the wolves. Only a people with great heart could have lived this story....
Willow knew he was trouble the moment she saw him. She paused as she stepped from the stagecoach and stared at the big Indian on the Appaloosa stallion coming down the muddy street. He reined in, looked her over. Was that just the slightest derisive sneer on his rugged, dark face?
Willow glared back. Blanket Indian, she thought, too primitive and set in his ways to accept civilization and change as she had done. For only a moment, he regarded her, then seemed to dismiss her with a shrug of his wide, buckskin-clad shoulders, nudged his horse and rode on down the settlement's muddy road.
The unkempt stage driver cleared his throat. “Ma'am, ain't this your valise?”
“What?” Startled, Willow returned her attention to the man at her elbow. “Why, yes.”
She took the small bag, brushed the dust from her simple green traveling dress and stared after the virile warrior disappearing down the muddy street. “Just who is that?”
“Hohots,” the driver grunted, following her stare. “Most likely in town lookin' for his younger brother.”
Hohots. Grizzly Bear. Willow struggled to remember the Nez Perce word. These were her people, but she had been gone so many of her eighteen years that she had forgotten much of the language and had been struggling to relearn it. In the past weeks and on the train west, she had studied hard. “He must be named for his disposition.”
The driver laughed, rubbed his straggly mustache. “No man would daresay that to Bear's face, maâam, much less a slip of a girl like you. Somebody meetin' you, Miss?”
“Why, yes, the Reverend Harlow.” She looked around at the hustle and bustle of the tiny settlement. She had been born in the Nez Perce country, but not raised here.
“You're that little gal the preacher sent away to school years ago, ain't you? Everyone's heerd of you.” He stared down at her with unabashed curiosity.
Willow nodded. “I've been in Boston and hardly remember anything at all about this country.”
“Wouldn't have recognized it no ways. Gold fever's spread bad the last few years.” He took off his battered hat, ran his hand through his straggly hair. “Then there's settlers movin' in all over the place.”
“The Nez Perce won't like that,” Willow protested.
The driver shrugged as he climbed back up to the top of the stage. “Maybe not, but that's the army's problem.”
Willow looked after the big warrior on the Appaloosa horse fading into the distance. “Surely some of the Nez Perce realize that walking the White Man's Road is the only smart thing to do; that's why I'm here; to teach.”
The driver turned to follow her look. “Beggin' your pardon, Miss, but ain't no little thing like you gonna have much influence on the Bear. He's an independent cuss, and one of Joseph's war leaders.”
Willow felt her face burn. “We'll see. Surely he won't care if I try to teach his children to read and write.”
“You're arrivin' at a time of trouble, I'm afeared.” The driver bit off a chaw of tobacco. “Army's tryin' to persuade the Injuns to move to a smaller reservation.” He looked over the tall, slender girl and seemed to realized Willow must be part-Indian. “ âS'cuse me, ma'am. I meant no offense.”
“None meant, none taken,” Willow forced herself to smile politely. She sometimes forgot about the prejudice while she was at boarding school at Miss Priddy's in Boston because she was more than half-white, but here in the great Northwest frontier, she might have to face it again. The driver touched the brim of his hat politely in dismissal, cracked his whip and the grimy coach pulled away, leaving Willow with her one small bag standing on the wooden sidewalk.
Just where was her elderly guardian? Would she know Reverend Harlow when she saw him? Uneasily, Willow looked around. It was almost dusk and like any frontier settlement, Saturday night wasn't the best time for an unescorted woman, even a respectable one to be on the streets alone.
She heard drunken laughter, turned to see three young braves stagger out from between two buildings. Drunk, she thought with ill-concealed disgust. She would pretend not to notice them.
They spoke to one another in Nez Perce. “Hey, Raven,
Hurry! We had better go before your brother comes looking for you.”
The handsome, tall one snorted and leaned against a post. “I do as I please. Now, what is this pretty thing?”
Willow could feel him staring at her in undisguised admiration. She remembered more of their language than she had expected, but she decided to pretend ignorance. If she ignored them, maybe they would go away.
“That's a white girl, Raven,” the other brave cautioned. “Let her be; men have been killed for even talking to a white girl. Your brotherâ”
“I'm sick of always hearing about the big, brave Bear,” Raven snapped. “Besides, he's at the camp, he won't know we've had a little whiskey.”
“No, he isn't,” Willow blurted in Nez Perce before she thought, “he's in town and looking for you.”
The three stared at her, wide-eyed. She felt her face flush under their stares, especially the handsome Raven.
“So,” he said, grinning, “how come you to speak our language, white girl?”
His friend grabbed his arm. “Let us go, Raven, before we get into trouble.”
The young man shrugged the hand away. “You two go on back to camp, I would speak with this girl.”
The two braves fled up the alley while the one called Raven leaned against a post and stared at her insolently. “You did not answer me.”
Willow fumbled for the half-forgotten Nez Perce words. “You're drunk,” she answered in his language, surprising herself at how many words came back to her now, “you shame your people.”
He came closer. “You have eyes the color of new grass, but you are not white.”
Willow looked up at him. He was taller than she, although she was tall for a girl, but he was not much older. “Go back to camp, before you get into trouble.”
“Now you sound like my big brother.” He grinned at her. “Since when do women give orders to warriors?”
“You are not a warrior,” she snapped back, “you are scarcely more than a boy and a drunken one at that.”
“Ah, now I know who you are; everyone says you were returning.” Raven nodded and swayed on his feet in the dusk of the evening. “You are that mixed-blood chit the preacher sent to be educated. I'm surprised you still speak the language of us ignorant savages.”
Willow felt her face burn at his retort. “It is not a bad thing to be educated and civilized.”
“If you say so.” He grinned with white teeth and she thought he seemed very handsome and reckless. “I forget what they call you.”
“Takseen.” It was Nez Perce for Willow. “I will teach our people. The children must learn the ways of the white man so we can live among them in peace.”
“Is peace worth our freedom?”
Willow drew herself up proudly. “I will not debate with a drunken boy. Perhaps it is best to give up the old ways.”
“I am older than you!” He swayed on his feet. “You had better not let my brother hear you say we should trade our freedom; he trusts no whites.”
This discussion was going nowhere. There were no people to be seen now as suppertime neared. She turned her back and looked up and down the road, wondering what had happened to her guardian?
The handsome youth stumbled toward her. “Takseen, why do you loiter on the street like a white man's whore? Does no one meet you?”
She whirled on him. “Go away! No doubt Reverend Harlow has been delayed.”
“I will stay and protect you then,” he announced grandly.
“You are drunk! Go back to camp before you get in trouble,” Willow said. She did not want to be standing here if his older brother came along, and drunken Indians might not be dealt with kindly by
A burly, bearded frontiersman came out of the saloon next door and paused to light a cigar, stared at the pair. He wore dirty buckskins and might have been in his middle forties, it was hard to tell with the livid scar across his forehead. “Maâam, is that Injun buck annoyin' you?” he asked in English. “Deek Tanner, army scout at your service.”
She tried not to stare at the horrid scar, tangled hair and beard. “No, he's not bothering me; he's just had a little too much to drink; that's all.”
The scout scratched his gray-streaked beard, stared hard at her. “Why, you ain't no white lady; you're just some half-breed.”
“Let her alone!” Raven protested.
“Raven, don't!” Willow motioned him off. “I can handle this.”
Tanner leered at her. “Hey, honey, if you're lookin' for a man, not a boy, let's talk; I got money.” He sauntered closer in the growing dusk and Willow was horrified to realize there were lice in his dirty beard.
“I'm not a boy. Let her alone.” Raven took a step and swayed a little.
The white man swore and the muscles rippled in his wide shoulders and long arms. “Get outa my way, you uppity redskin bastard. No drunk Injun kid is gonna give Deek Tanner orders.”
Willow's heart began to hammer as she looked up and down the street. At suppertime and almost dark, there didn't seem to be anyone around who could help. She drew herself up with haughty dignity. “Look, anyone can see he's drunk and no match for you. Let him alone.”
The terrible scar on Deek's forehead seemed to gleam white in his ugly face as he grinned at her. “Sure. Now, honey, you just come up to my room with me and I won't make no trouble for the kid.”
He reached to grab her arm and Raven lunged for him. “I told you to leave her alone, white man!” He struck at Deek, but the big scout sidestepped, then struck Raven in the face with his fist, sending him falling back against the hitching rail.
The boy fell, but even before he hit the wooden sidewalk, Deek was on him, picking him up and shaking him like a feisty pup, hitting him again. “I tole you, boy, now I'm gonna teach you to listen when a white man talks to you.”
Raven tried to protect himself, but even if he hadn't been drunk, he was no match for the burly frontiersman.
“Don't hit him, can't you see he's just a boy?” Willow grabbed Deek's arm, tried to hold him back, but he shook her off, grinning. “Squaw, I'll get back to you when I teach this redskin a lesson!” He hit Raven again.
She was only vaguely aware of the sound of galloping hooves but abruptly, the big warrior, Bear, came off his running horse and into the fray. “You are brave, white scout, with a boy. Let us see what you can do with a man!”
Even as Willow watched, Bear whirled the scout around, hit him hard. Deek stumbled backward against the storefront, blood running from his mouth and into his gray-streaked beard. Bellowing like a wounded bull, the white man charged at the warrior, who sidestepped easily and tripped the heavier man. Deek Tanner went down with a crash, swearing mightily.
Willow saw faces at windows, but everyone looked as if they hesitated to get involved. The two men meshed and fought as Willow knelt by Raven's side. “Are you all right?”
He brushed her hand away and attempted to stand even as his big brother hit Deek Tanner again. Easily, Bear lifted the scout across his knee and Deek screamed for mercy, “Oh, God! Don't break my back! Please, I don't mean no harm!”
“Don't kill him!” Willow shrieked in the Nez Perce language and grabbed Bear's broad shoulder. “You savage, don't kill him!”
At that, Bear looked at her, hesitated, threw the man to one side as if he were a scrap of garbage. She abruptly felt intimidated by the Indian and stepped backward, stumbled over her valise, and landed in a sitting position on the wooden sidewalk.
Whimpering, Deek Tanner crawled away. Now the warrior towered over her, glaring. “You speak our language, yet you call me a savage?” He didn't wait for an answer as he grabbed her hand, pulled her to her feet. For a split second, they stood looking into each other's eyes. He had such big hands, she thought.
He let go of her, dismissed her with a shrug and turned on his brother. “Must you always be so irresponsible?”
“He was attempting to help me,” Willow snapped, annoyed with herself for letting him intimidate her. Bear was bigger and older than his brother, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties. Maybe some might think he wasn't as handsome as Raven, but his raw virility and masculinity told her why men would fear this Nez Perce brave.
Bear's lip curled in disdain as he glanced from Willow toward the whimpering scout crawling across the wooden sidewalk. “Good thing for you both I came along. You play the
Raven looked crestfallen. “I am not a fool. You shame me before the girl,” he muttered.
Quiet! You shame yourself, little brother,” Bear shot back. “Let the whites protect their own women.” He helped the younger man up with a gentle hand.
She felt both stung and sorry for Raven's humiliation. “I am part-Nez Perce myself.”
Bear studied her as he draped Raven's arm over his own broad shoulder so he could assist him. “I see that now, but why do you dress like a white? You reject your own traditions for theirs?”
“We must all learn to live like them, not like savages.” She brought her chin up proudly.
“Some of us won't,” Bear said and his voice was cold. “I know who you are now; our people have all heard of the Russian trapper's half-breed whelp.”
“Bear,” Raven protested, “don't talk to her like that.”
“She called me a savage after I came into this fight to save you both.” He glared from one to the other.
“I-I'm sorry.” Willow bent her head. “I thought you might kill the scout and it would have meant trouble.”