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The Republic of Texas 1843
The Comanche's eyes narrowed in speculation when he discovered the naked man and woman in the pond where he planned to water his pony. The white woman's belly was swollen with child and seemed to float on the sparkling surface of the pond. As he watched, the white man standing behind her splayed large, tanned hands across her overripe belly and pulled the woman back into his embrace.
The Comanche crouched the instant before the man turned his head abruptly in his direction. He remained absolutely still, and though he was in plain sight, the man's eyes flicked past him, unseeing, and finally returned to the woman. The Co-manche smiled wolfishly. He could understand the man's distraction.
The man sought out the soft skin of the woman's neck with his mouth. The Comanche tensed as she leaned her head back into the man's shoulder so his tongue was free to taste her skin. The Comanche closed his eyes when the man reached up with his strong hands to cup the woman's breasts, already full and heavy for the coming child. He imagined holding his own woman, imagined the saltiness of her skin in the heat of the day, imagined the feel of her nipples peaking at his touch.
Disturbed by the sensual images he'd conjured, he blinked his eyes open. The white man reached for the single auburn braid down the woman's back and released the tie that bound her hair, spreading the silky mass with his fingers so it flowed like molten copper across his broad muscular chest and down his flat belly.
Such hair! What a glorious prize! The Comanche remained still, caught up in the beauty of the woman, the strength of the man. The couple was totally absorbed in one another, touching, tasting. The Comanche's jaw tightened in anger. A man should not take such foolish chances with the woman who will bear his sons. He could have killed them both and taken the woman's copper-colored hair to hang from his war shield. He pulled his knife from its sheath and edged closer to the pond. He would teach this tabeboh, this foolish White-eyes, a lesson.
The woman smiled teasingly and walked away from the man toward the opposite bank. She picked up his buckskin shirt and threw it to him as he stood in the water. Then she reached down and located a full, linsey-woolsey dress, which she pulled down to cover her nakedness.
When the Comanche was close enough to launch his attack, he shrieked his fierce war cry, a haunting, horrifying sound intended to freeze his victim.
Only this man did not freeze. He howled an equally fierce battle cry as he whirled to face his enemy. The Comanche found himself face to face with a Colt revolver.
The white man grinned, a feral smile, full of satisfaction.
The Comanche looked from the knife in his hand to the white man's gun--and smiled back.
"Hihites, Wolf," the Comanche said.
"Hihites, Long Quiet," the white man, also known as Jarrett Creed, replied.
"I'm glad to see you haven't forgotten everything you learned during the years you spent as a captive in my village," Long Quiet said in perfect English. He'd learned the white man's language from his Comanchero father, a white man who'd traded with the Comanches and taken a Comanche bride. "I thought you unaware of anything except your wife, and I believed you unarmed. Where did you hide the gun?"
"Cricket threw it to me with my shirt," Creed answered. He joined Long Quiet on the bank of the pond and pulled on his shirt and trousers.
"You wooden-headed ninnyhammer!" Cricket chided Long Quiet, softening her words with a welcoming smile. "It's a wonder you didn't scare me into having this baby a month early."
"My friendship won't always keep you safe from the threat of Comanche attack. You must always be vigilant."
"I'm always careful," Cricket shot back. "It's my husband who gets distracted."
Creed grinned. "You'll have to provide less of a distraction, then." He slipped one arm around his wife's shoulders and rested the other on her burgeoning belly.
"I hate always having to be on guard like this." Cricket wrinkled her nose to show her dissatisfaction. "Isn't there any chance the constant raiding by the Comanches will stop now that President Houston has talked the southern tribes into signing treaties?"
"I wouldn't count on it," Long Quiet replied. "The treaties only bind a few Comanches, and the peace will last only until they learn the white man can't be trusted."
"I don't think you're being fair," Cricket argued. "Most of us don't make a habit of lying, and we only want to live in peace."
Long Quiet's gray eyes turned flinty. "I've spent a lifetime traveling between Comancher'a and the Republic of Texas. Thanks to Creed's father, I learned a great deal more about the white man's attitudes and ideas when he sent me to school with Creed in Boston. And I tell you, there can be no peace between the Comanches and the White-eyes."
"Does that mean we're never going to get my sister back from the Comanches?" Cricket asked, her voice a mere whisper. "You're still looking for Bay, aren't you?"
"Yes, I'm still looking."
"Have you heard anything? Has there been any word at all about where she might be?"
Long Quiet saw the pleading look in the eyes of his best friend's wife and wished he could give her some news about her older sister. For three interminable years he'd been hunting for the tall white woman with violet eyes and flame-red hair who'd been stolen from her father's cotton plantation by the Comanche called Tall Bear.
He'd searched for Bay among the villages of The People as Long Quiet, the fierce Comanche warrior. He'd searched for her among the wagons and shacks of the Comancheros as a half-breed, a gray-eyed Comanche in buckskins who wandered easily between the worlds of the Indian and the White-eyes. He'd even searched for her among the far-flung Texas settlements as Walker Coburn, well-respected friend of the Texas Ranger Jarrett Creed. All to no avail. Bayleigh Falkirk Stewart, second daughter of the richest gentleman planter in the Republic of Texas, seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
"I haven't found her. But I will." Long Quiet turned away from the hopelessness in Cricket's eyes and confronted Creed. "I got your message to come. Why did you want to see me?"
"Let's go up to the house, and I'll tell you all about it," Creed said.
Long Quiet hesitated, frowning at the imposing white frame house in the distance that was at the heart of Creed's cotton plantation, Lion's Dare. Noticing Long Quiet's reaction, Creed turned from the direction of the house and headed instead for the shade of several nearby pin oaks. Long Quiet walked beside him, not apologizing for his disdain of the civilized comforts to be found in the house.
Creed helped Cricket sit down, then dropped to sit on the ground beside her, his back supported by a pin oak, one knee upraised, the other leg stretched out in front of him. Long Quiet sat down cross-legged across from the couple.
"I asked you to come because I need your help," Creed began. "You remember Luke Summers, don't you?"
"Sure. We worked together once. He's that young Texas Ranger, the one who made you so jealous with the attention he paid Cricket before you were married," Long Quiet replied.
Creed turned a sardonic eye on Cricket, who grinned back at him. "That's the one, all right. He also just happens to be one of my best Rangers. Unfortunately, for the past year Luke's been in prison with the rest of the Texans captured at the Battle of Mier."
"That's too bad," Long Quiet said. "I heard what the Mexicans did to the Texans who tried to escape. There's been evidence before of Santa Anna's heartlessness. What he did to the Texans who fought at Mier just proved it once and for all."
Jarrett Creed's bile rose at the thought of the senseless executions that had followed the Texans' escape attempt. The acid in his throat made his voice rough. "Recently the Mexicans moved the whole lot of them, over 150 men, to a place called Castle San Carlos in Perote, Mexico. From what I've heard, this new prison has walls thirty feet high and fourteen feet thick." Creed paused and added, "Luke's sent a message that he and the other fifteen men in his cell are planning to dig their way out."
For a moment Long Quiet didn't say anything. His voice expressed his disbelief when he asked, "They're going to dig their way out under fourteen feet of wall?"
"Never underestimate the determination of a Texan," Creed replied with a grin. "When they finally dig through, they'll need someone to meet them with horses, food, and guns and help them make their way back through the Mexican desert to the Rio Grande."
"Why do you need my help? Why not just take a few Rangers down to Perote and break them all out of there?"
"To put it bluntly, because the president of the Republic of Texas doesn't want to antagonize the president of Mexico. Sam Houston's hoping to talk General Santa Anna into recognizing Texas as a sovereign nation, so he's trying to avoid open hostilities between our two countries.
"Not only that, but Houston wants to keep the peace with Mexico while annexation negotiations are going on with the United States. That's why I need you. I can't get authorization to send any Rangers into Mexico. If they got caught, it could spell disaster for Houston's peace overtures and might start a war with Mexico that would put a damper on his hopes for annexation."
"How soon does Luke expect to be past the wall?" Long Quiet asked.
"He doesn't really know. He persuaded the Mexicans to put a wooden floor in his cell, complaining that the stone floor was too cold. He and his cellmates lift sections of the wooden floor to dig at night, then replace them in the morning. They're manacled at night, so the work is slow.
"Luke's guess was two months to dig their way out, but I'd like to have somebody down there in six weeks. We're getting our messages through a bribed Mexican guard, and I don't want to trust him any more than I have to. He's supposed to deliver another message when they've nearly finished digging."
"And if I don't go?" Long Quiet asked, wary of getting involved in what was clearly a white man's problem.
"Then I'll go myself," Creed said. "And damn the repercussions."
Cricket and Creed grasped hands. Long Quiet saw Cricket's other hand curl under her belly. He wouldn't wish to be gone at such a time from his own wife, if he'd had one, and he wouldn't ask such a thing of his friend. "There's no need for you to go. I'll do it."
"Thanks for helping, Walker," Cricket said, calling Long Quiet by the name his Comanchero father had given him. "I've been worried sick about Luke. We hear terrible things about how the prisoners are treated, how they're starved and beaten."
"Sounds to me like Luke has done a pretty good job of taking care of himself," Long Quiet said. He turned to Cricket and said, "Now tell me, when is this child that's made your belly the size of a ripe watermelon going to be born?"
Cricket grinned and lovingly rubbed her rounded belly. "One more month. I can hardly wait."
"I will pray to the Great Spirit that he brings you a son," Long Quiet said.
"I'd be just as happy with a daughter," Creed replied.
Long Quiet knew from his friend's answer the distance that lay between them. A Comanche needed sons to carry on the war against the White-eyes.
"Will you stay for supper?" Cricket asked.
"I can't. I've been hunting with a small band of Co-manches camped nearby, and we leave tomorrow for Comancher'a."
When Long Quiet rose to leave, Creed stood also and helped Cricket to her feet. "I'll meet you in Laredo a month from now with supplies for the prisoners."
The two friends clasped arms elbow to wrist in farewell. It was the first time they'd touched in a year, yet the joining was enough to express how much they were a part of one another. Unfortunately, the farther the whites invaded into Coman-cher'a, the more difficult their friendship became. For although Long Quiet didn't kill without good reason, he knew the day was soon coming when killing would be necessary to stem the encroachment of the White-eyes upon the Comanche way of life.
"You'll keep looking for Bay, won't you?" Cricket asked, bringing Long Quiet from his bleak thoughts.
"Yes, I'll look. But she may not want to come--"
"I know she may not want to come back home now," Cricket interrupted.
Long Quiet saw the distress in Cricket's face. He knew she was imagining her sister's fate among the Comanches. He knew that fate firsthand, as did Creed. Most white women captives were repeatedly raped by the braves who took them, and they were often subjected to horrible cruelty from the women of the village. Bay might find herself awakened by a burning stick applied to her nose, might be beaten with thorny branches, might be tripped and kicked, bruised and cut.
"We don't know she was mistreated," Creed said in an attempt to ease Cricket's fear. "The brave who bought her from Tall Bear paid for her with a whole herd of stolen horses. That makes her value immense. Surely he wouldn't let anyone lessen the value of his property."
"Any man would treasure such a woman," Long Quiet said.
Creed noticed how Long Quiet's voice softened with his mention of Bay and wondered what it was about Bay that had captured his friend's imagination. Long Quiet had been more diligent about searching for Bay Stewart than Creed could credit to mere friendship. But he hadn't been able to get Long Quiet to admit to more than the desire to help his friend and his friend's wife.
"Farewell, haints," Long Quiet said.
"Farewell, friend," Creed replied. And then he asked, "You haven't changed your mind, have you?"
Long Quiet shook his head. "No." Then he mounted his pony and rode away.
Since Creed had never accepted his choice of the Comanche way of life as final, each time Long Quiet left, he was forced to confirm his choice again. If he hadn't valued Creed's friendship so much, he might have stopped seeing him altogether. For each time Long Quiet denied his white father's heritage, he did so with a little more regret.
As he rode to meet his Comanche friends, he thought of the choice he'd made so many years ago. Even if he were having second thoughts, it was too late to change his mind. The People needed him now more than ever. He'd learned enough during his days of school in Boston to know that the Comanches couldn't hope to survive the westward expansion rolling like a wave over Texas. Neither side understood the other, and from that lack of understanding hatred grew. Long Quiet was a part of both worlds and wished there were a way he could ease the enmity between them. No solution had come to him, but he hadn't stopped searching for one.