Thomas Redstone—a former Cheyenne warrior seeking new purpose by following the ways of his white grandfather—is returning to Heartbreak Creek, Colorado, when he decides to give the woman he loves one last chance to accept him into her life.
Prudence Lincoln’s beauty and education have brought her little joy. Envied by blacks for the advantages she’s had, and reviled by whites for her mixed blood, she’s proving herself by helping ex-slaves prepare for newfound freedom. Thomas has no place in her future, no matter how much she loves him.
He’s suffered only hardship. She was raised in privilege. Their only common ground is the spark between them that won’t die. Yet even as evil forces tear them apart again, they discover that courage can be a weapon, happiness is a choice, and love can triumph over anything.
About the Author
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KAKI WARNER, 2011 RITA WINNER FOR BEST FIRST BOOK FOR PIECES OF SKY, IS “A GIFTED STORYTELLER.”*
What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
—Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior and orator, 1830–1890
In an eagle is all the wisdom in the world.
—Native American proverb
SCHULER, INDIANA, NOVEMBER 1871
Squinting against bright morning sunlight, Prudence Lincoln stood at the library window of the Friends School for The Betterment of People of Color and studied the letter in her hand.
“. . . rise from your dreams, Voaxaa’e, and together we will fly away.”
What did that mean? She knew Voaxaa’e was the Cheyenne word for eagle, a fanciful name Thomas had given her months ago. But fly away where? Back to Heartbreak Creek?
Their last meeting had been horrid. When she had told him she still had work to do here at the school and needed to stay longer in Schuler, he had allowed his anger and frustration to show. It was the first time Thomas had ever raised his voice to her, and it had frightened her, awakened old memories she still fought hard to keep buried. She had reacted without thinking. When he had seen her cowering before him, arms raised in defense, he had been stunned. Then hurt. And without allowing her to explain, he had walked out the door and had never come back.
Pru’s half sister had written from Heartbreak Creek that he had gone to Britain with Ash and Maddie Wallace to purchase thoroughbreds. But she hadn’t heard a word from Thomas.
Terrified that she would never see him again, she had written to him in England, trying to explain her fears.
And now, months later, he responded with this? Bemused, she read again the words written in the familiar bold script she had taught him back in the one-room schoolhouse in Heartbreak Creek, Colorado Territory.
“Look for me, Prudence Lincoln. When the wind blows cold and the Long Night’s Moon rides in the sky, I will come to you. Listen for my voice in the shadows. Then rise from your dreams, Voaxaa’e, and together we will fly away.”
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Are you ready?” a voice said behind her.
Turning, she saw Cyrus Marsh standing in the doorway beside her valise, one gloved hand on his hip, holding back his overcoat, the other gripping the brim of the hat he tapped impatiently against his leg.
“I can’t go, Mr. Marsh.” As she spoke, she slipped the letter into her coat pocket, not sure why she didn’t want him to see it. She disliked Mr. Marsh, and had from the moment they had met. Despite his practiced smiles and polite words, she sensed an undercurrent of coldness within him.
“Oh?” His blond brows rose in arcs above eyes of such a pale hazel they seemed yellow against his sallow skin. “I’m sorry to hear that, Miss Lincoln. We’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to make arrangements for you to join us on this trip. May I ask why, at the moment of our departure, you feel you can’t go?”
“I’m expecting a visitor. He’s coming a long way, and I wouldn’t want to miss him.”
“Your Indian friend.” His voice carried no emotion, but she saw the slight curl in his thin lips. “A woman as beautiful as you, Miss Lincoln, shouldn’t waste herself on an ignorant savage.”
Pru’s chin came up. “Mr. Redstone is neither ignorant nor savage.” Most of the time, anyway.
The hat tapped harder, faster.
Behind him, a small figure moved silently through the hall.
Lillie. Eavesdropping again. Pru would have to speak to the girl. Not that it would help. The child had little enough to keep her insatiable curiosity and bright mind occupied, and listening in on the lives of others was her dearest pastime. At least the girl was honorable enough not to repeat the things she heard.
“When do you expect him?” Mr. Marsh asked.
“When the wind blows cold and the Long Night’s Moon rides in the sky.”
“Mid-December,” she guessed. “I’m not sure of the exact date.” Possibly around the twenty-first, since that would be the longest night of the year. Thomas’s colorful speech was often difficult to decipher.
“Perhaps you could write back and ask him to delay the visit.”
“I wouldn’t know where to reach him.” Pru realized she was rubbing her fingers over the scars on her right wrist and made herself stop. Confrontations made her nervous. Bad enough that Mr. Marsh ordered Brother Sampson around as if he were still a slave, but to have him interfering in her life was intolerable. She had never been a slave, despite her mixed blood, and was unaccustomed to such treatment. Still, as trustee of the school that employed her, he deserved at least a show of respect. “He’s traveling from England, you see.”
At least that’s what Maddie’s latest letter had said. The freighter carrying the thoroughbreds, Thomas, and the Wallaces’ wrangler, Rayford Jessup, was scheduled to arrive in Boston near the middle of this month. From there, they would travel by rail to Colorado, with stops along the way to rest the horses, which would drag out the journey for several weeks or more. Maddie had concluded by saying she assumed Thomas would stop to visit her on his way through Indiana, and for Pru to expect some changes.
Changes? In Thomas? He was solid as a rock. He certainly had no need to make changes.
“If he’s not due until mid-December,” Mr. Marsh said, regaining her attention, “that would still leave us ample time to accomplish our purposes in the capitol. I see no problem.” Looking pleased, he set his hat on his head. “I’ll instruct the school administrator to send word if your Indian arrives before we get back. But should he do so, you can leave a note, telling him you’ll return shortly. Schuler is only a six-hour train ride from Indianapolis.”
“But things could have gone more smoothly than anticipated,” Pru argued. “He might arrive any day. I would like to be here if he does.” Being Thomas, if he did arrive and found her gone, he might simply leave. He had a habit of disappearing when things weren’t to his liking.
“Miss Lincoln.” Marsh paused as if struggling with words—or his temper. Marsh hated to be contradicted, especially by a woman. “You know how important this trip is. Not only for Brother Sampson, but for your education initiative, as well.”
“And with backing from important key people in Indianapolis,” he went on, ignoring her protest, “the two of you can advance equality and education for blacks more than the Quakers have ever done.”
“I understand that, and I—”
“Our efforts could reach all the way to Washington. Isn’t that what you want? What we all want?”
“For God’s sake, then why are you defying me? Do you think I’ll allow you to ruin everything because of a damned Indian?”
Pru shrank back, old fears flooding her mind.
“Christ.” Dropping his hands to his hips, Marsh let go a deep breath.
Moments passed. Tension weighted the air while Pru stood locked in fear, waiting to see what he would do next. Breathe. Show no fear.
When he finally spoke again, his voice was as cold as the glint in his near-colorless eyes. “I didn’t want to have to resort to threats.”
Tipping his head to the side, he said in an almost conversational tone, “I know what you’ve been up to, Miss Lincoln.”
Fear ballooned into an almost overwhelming urge to flee. How could he know? How did he find out? “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you?” His smile showed small, pointed teeth. A predator’s smile. “I know the Underground Railroad has started up again. Only this time, it’s not to aid runaway slaves seeking freedom, but to help black felons and agitators escape into Canada. The misguided fools helping them could go to jail. Or worse. I know you’re involved, so don’t bother to deny it.”
She didn’t. “They only want to live free, Mr. Marsh. Instead of being brutalized in the name of Southern Reconstruction.”
He waved a hand in dismissal. “Save your speeches. If I could, I would turn the lot of you over to the authorities today.”
Perspiration gathered under her arms. “Why do you care if a few desperate colored people seek a better life?”
“I don’t. But I do care about Brother Sampson and your education initiative.” He leaned toward her, that icy gaze eroding her courage. “The more people who flock to hear him preach, the more exposure your cause will get, and the more opportunities will come my way. A grand future awaits us all . . . as long as there are no scandals. No untoward attention. Nothing to raise questions or generate doubt. Voters can be so fickle.”
The hairs on the back of her neck lifted. This was about votes?
“You’re an intelligent woman, Miss Lincoln, especially for one of your race. Surely you’re aware that you and Brother are my stepping-stones to the real power in Washington. I’ve invested a great deal of time and effort toward that goal, and I will not allow anything to jeopardize those plans.”
He moved closer, his yellow eyes burning with the fervor of a fanatic. “So be warned, Miss Lincoln. Behave. Stop this foolish business with the railroad, because if you persist, I will exact a terrible price, if not from you, then from someone dear to you. One of your students, perhaps. Or your Indian. Maybe even Brother Sampson. But rest assured, someone will pay. Do you understand?”
Pru fought to drag air into her lungs. He’s insane. Evil, like Satan is evil. Just being near him made her feel unclean.
Another step. “Have I made myself clear, Miss Lincoln?”
He studied her for a moment, then stepped back, his smile once more in place. “Then we’ll speak no more of it.” Bending, he picked up her valise. “While I put this in the carriage, you write that note to your Indian. When I return, I’ll take it to the administrator, along with my instructions to wire us if Mr. Redstone arrives before we return. And do hurry, Miss Lincoln. Brother Sampson is waiting, and you know how the cold aggravates his hands.”
Light-headed and shaking, Pru watched him leave the room. Terror careened through her mind, muddled her thinking. But one thought kept surfacing. After she finished this last rescue through the railroad, she would tell Brother Sampson about Marsh’s motives. Perhaps together they could find a way to stop him. But for now, and for his own safety, she had to send Thomas away.
And there was only one way to do that.
The pain of it almost doubled her over.
On leaden legs, tears streaming, she went to the desk by the window and extracted a piece of paper from the drawer. Struggling to keep her hand steady, she wrote . . .
I fear you misunderstood my last letter to you. I am not seeking a reunion. Our last visit made it clear to me that despite the deep feelings I have for you, we come from such different worlds we could never build a solid future together. I am sorry. Please give everyone my regards when you return to Heartbreak Creek.
I will always remember you fondly.
INDIANA, DECEMBER 1871
With an unaccustomed twinge of nervousness, Thomas Redstone paused at the gate in front of a large brick building on the outskirts of Schuler, Indiana. He studied the words on the sign planted in the front yard. With the help of Rayford Jessup, his reading had improved, but it was still troublesome, and he wanted to be certain the sign had not changed since his last visit. It had many words.
The Friends School for the Betterment of People of Color. It was the same.
From inside the building came the distant voices of children chanting their numbers. He pictured Prudence Lincoln standing before them, smiling as she had once smiled at him, her oldest pupil.
Had she received his letter? Would she welcome him? Or would she choose these strangers over him once again, and send him away with more excuses? If so, it would be the last time. He could not spend the rest of his life waiting for her to accept him. If she turned him away this time, he would not come back.
He did not want to think of how empty his days would be if that happened.
Pushing the thought aside, he brushed back his shoulder-length hair and tugged the collar away from his neck so he could breathe. As he walked toward the front porch, he looked around.
The yard was bare but for a leafless willow tree. There was no snow on the ground, and few clouds hung in the sky. Even though it was early morning, the breeze off the Ohio was so gentle it felt like a cool hand against his cheek. Much warmer than in Colorado. For a moment, the horizon beckoned, and the call to return home was strong in his mind. He had been gone many months and had traveled far. He wanted to go back to his snowy mountains.
But first, he must see Prudence Lincoln.
When he started up the steps, he saw a black-skinned girl-child sitting in a chair on the far end of the porch, staring in his direction. She looked small and thin beneath her worn coat, and probably had less than a dozen years. She was darker than Prudence Lincoln, and tiny ribbon-tied braids sprouted from her head like raven feathers from a war bonnet. He wondered why she was not at her lessons with the other children.
“Mornin’,” she called. “My name Lillie. It really Lillian, but ev’rybody only call me Lillie.”
He nodded without speaking. Setting down the leather pouch holding his extra clothes, he stared at the closed door, that uneasiness rising in him again. He did not like it. Did not like the feeling of doubt that came with it. Irritated at such weakness, he smoothed a hand down the front of his jacket. He did not like these fancy clothes the Scotsman had bought for him, either. Or the boots he had to wear instead of his moccasins. He missed his topknot and eagle feather.
But to honor his white grandfather—and Prudence Lincoln, who was half white—this was the path he had chosen. For now. But once he returned to his mountains, he would cast aside these foolish trappings and become Cheyenne once again.
“Ain’t you gonna knock?” the girl called.
He scowled at her for interrupting his thoughts.
She seemed not to notice and continued to stare, her head cocked to one side.
He took a deep breath, let it out, then lifted his fist and pounded on the door.
He stepped back and waited.
Footsteps approached. He stood stiffly as the door opened and a stern-faced old woman in a plain brown dress looked out at him. He did not recognize her from before, when he had left Prudence Lincoln in anger and sailed across the wide water to buy horses.
“How may I help thee?” she asked.
A Quaker. He remembered the strange way they spoke. “You will take me to Prudence Lincoln.” Seeing the woman’s mouth tighten, he added, “Please.”
“Miss Lincoln is not here.” The woman tried to close the door.
Thomas stopped it with his hand. “Where is she?”
She blinked round, dark eyes, reminding Thomas of a tiny brown wren. “I was told they went to the capitol.”
They? And what was this capitol?
This time, she shut the door before Thomas could stop her. “Noxa’e! Wait!”
The footsteps faded into silence.
Muttering, he turned to find the girl rising from her chair.
“I knows you.” She reached out to touch the porch rail. “You her Indian, ain’t you? Thomas Redstone.” She walked closer, one hand on the railing, the other pointed his way. “You a Cheyenne Dog Soldier.”
He saw nothing familiar in the girl’s face, or in the odd way she looked toward him, but not at him. She spoke like other black skins he knew who had been slaves. Not like Prudence Lincoln. She had never been a slave, and her white father had raised her to speak in the white way. The proper way, she called it.
Thinking this girl—proper or not—might be more help than the Quaker woman, he put on a smile. “I did not see you when I came here before.”
“I not see you, neither,” she said and giggled.
Then he understood. Her careful gait. That blank stare. The intent way she listened, her head tilted to one side to catch every sound. “You cannot see.”
“Scarlet fever. Three years back when I eight. You sounds tall.”
“If you cannot see me, how do you know who I am?”
She continued toward him. When the fingertips of her outstretched hand brushed his coat, she stopped and let her arm fall back to her side. “You talk different from the Friends. Or Miss Pru. Or anybody.” She smiled at his chest. “Can I feel you face?”
He drew back. “Why?”
“That how I learn what you look like.”
Forcing down his natural wariness around those marked by the Great Spirit, Thomas bent to within reach of her hands.
Her touch was as soft as a moth’s wings. And ticklish. But he stood motionless while she felt everything, even his ears and lips and eyes. When she finally took her hands away, he straightened, glad the ordeal was over. He was not comfortable with such touching, except with Prudence Lincoln. He liked to keep people far enough away that he could see all of them at once and know if a threat was coming. “What did you learn?” he asked.
Another giggle, showing a gap where a front tooth had been. “You gots a big nose and you eyebrows very stern. What color you eyes?”
“Dark, and my nose is not big. What is this capitol the Quaker woman spoke of?”
“Indianapolis. I go there ’fore I blind. It a big place, sho’ ’nuff. What color you hair?”
“Black. Why did Prudence Lincoln go there?”
“To raise money for Reverend Brother Sampson and talk ’bout schoolin’ fo’ black folk.” A spark lit the blankness in her brown eyes. “You fetchin’ her? She ’posed come back long time ago, but she ain’t showed.”
Thomas stared past her, plans already forming. If he fetched Prudence Lincoln, it would not be to bring her back here.
“Oh. Well.” A deep sigh. “They not let you take her, anyways.”
He glared down at her dark head. “Who would stop me?”
“Mistuh Marsh. He say Reverend Brother Sampson need her.”
“Tell me of these men.”
Leaning over the rail, she groped until her hand brushed a shrub planted beside the porch. Plucking a withered blossom, she sniffed it, then slipped it into her coat pocket before moving down the rail to another plant. “Reverend Brother Sampson a preaching man. He a slave in Kentucky ’fore he come here on the Underground Railroad. Now he preach the Holy Gospel in a big tent. He nice. Always bring me peppermints.”
“And the other man?”
She plucked another dead blossom, sniffed, then put it in the pocket with the first. “Mistuh Marsh. He white.” Her voice changed. Held a trace of . . . fear? “He take Reverend Brother Sampson ’round so he can preach. This time, he take him to Indianapolis. Miss Pru say folks there maybe send him all the way to Washington to talk to the President.”
Thomas knew what a talk with the White Father in Washington meant. More treaties, more broken promises, more trouble for the People. “Why do they need Prudence Lincoln to do this?”
“’Cause she smart. Mistuh Marsh say with her by his side, folks maybe like Reverend Brother Sampson ’nuff to make him a leg-a-slater. I ain’t sure what that is. Nobody tell me nothin’ ’round here. They think ’cause I blind, I stupid, too.”
Thomas frowned. “And Prudence Lincoln? Does she like Reverend Brother Sampson, too?”
“’Course. Everybody do. Even the Friends.”
A coldness gripped him. Did that mean she had chosen this man over him? He did not want to believe that. Prudence Lincoln was his heart-mate. But why, then—after he wrote to her that he was coming—was she not here? What was he to do now? Wait for her until he grew old and his days ran out?
He could not do that. He would not live his life that way. Better to walk away now than to be sent away later.
Fury burned away the chill. But it also awakened that part of him too stubborn to give up . . . not even when he hung in agony from the ropes during the Sun Dance ceremony . . . or when he saw his chief killed and the People driven from their lands onto government reservations . . . or when he searched tirelessly, despite his wounds, to find Prudence after the Arapaho renegade took her.
He would not walk away this time. He would go to this other place—this Indianapolis. He would find Prudence Lincoln and tell her what was in his heart. Then he would go back to his mountains. If she chose to stay here, that would be the end of it. He would put her from his life forever.
If he could.
He looked down at the girl staring blankly across the yard, her thin fingers tugging at a loose thread on her worn cuff. “Where is this place called Indianapolis?”
She looked up.
Her eyes might be blank, but he sensed a sharp intelligence hidden behind them. This girl was not stupid.
“You go after her? ’Cause I tell you how to get there. I even get you a map.” She leaned closer to whisper at his jacket. “But you gots to take me with you. Miss Pru need both us to get her away from Mistuh Marsh.”
Thomas almost smiled, amused that she thought he needed help from a blind girl who probably weighed little more than his bag of extra clothes. “I cannot take you with me.”
Chin jutting, she crossed her arms over her chest. “Then I ain’t helpin’.”
“Goodbye, Lillian.” He picked up his leather bag.
“Where you goin’?”
He started down the steps into the yard.
“You cain’t jist leave me!” She stumbled forward, hands clutching at air. “A po’ blind black girl who ain’t got nobody to look out for her, not even a dog to lick away her tears!”
“Go inside, Lillian,” he called over his shoulder.
“Don’t go!” She flung herself toward him.
With a curse, he dropped the bag and caught her before she flew headfirst down the steps. “You foolish ka’eskone,” he scolded, setting her back on her feet. “You could have hurt yourself!”
Behind him, the door swung open. A man in a dark collarless coat over a plain white shirt stepped onto the porch. “What’s going on out here? Lillie, what mischief have thee gotten into this time?”
When she tucked her head without answering, the Quaker turned his attention to Thomas. “I am Friend Matthews,” the older man said. “Administrator of the school. Who might thee be?”
“The man seeking Miss Lincoln?”
“Weren’t you told she was in Indianapolis?”
“Yes, but I was not told when she will come back.”
“We don’t know when she’ll be back.”
Thomas thought for a moment. “She knew I would come. She left no message for me?”
“None that I am aware of. I am sorry, friend.” Turning to the girl, he held out his hand. “Come along, child.”
“No.” The girl fumbled until she found Thomas’s hand. Taking it in both of hers, she grinned at the Quaker’s stomach. “I’m going with Daddy.”
Ten minutes later, Thomas walked back toward the Schuler train station, this time with two bags of clothes and a beaming little black girl by his side.
“I know’d you catch me ’fore I fall down the steps,” the girl said, clinging to his arm as they walked along the road. “You a good daddy. Gots any other chilrin ’sides me?”
“No. And I am not your father.” He had spoken those words many times . . . to her, the Quaker, and to anyone else who would listen before they were gently, but firmly, herded out the door. The people at the school seemed eager to send the girl away with him. He could guess why.
“I knows you ain’t.”
“Then why did you tell them I was?”
“’Cause I need a daddy and they wouldn’t let me go with you if you wasn’t. Slow down. I’m just a po’ little blind girl, ’member?”
More like heavoheso—a devil—in pigtails. Reining in his temper, Thomas slowed his pace. He did not know what to do with this strange child. He was not a nursemaid. “Where are your parents?”
“You mean ’sides you?”
“I am not your father.”
“Don’t know where my other daddy is. He sold off ’fore I born. Mama gone to Jesus. Drowned. Up and walk out the field one day, straight into the river. Overseer find her floatin’ in the weeds. You know skin turn white and come off you stay in the water too long?”
Thomas kept walking, not sure what to say. The girl had lied about him being her father. Maybe she lied about this, as well. He hoped so.
“Mama always want to be white. Guess she got her wish. She make a pretty white lady, sho’ ’nuff. Miss Pru pretty?”
“That probably ’cause she half white.”
Thomas smirked at the notion. “It is not the color of her skin that makes her pretty. It is the goodness in her heart.” And her smile. And the way she looked at him when he touched her. Would he ever hold her against him again?
“After your mother died, who took care of you, Lillian?”
“Whoever around. When the fightin’ stop, Friends come and bring us to freedom lan’. Been here since. They nice, even if they talk funny.”
They talk funny? Thomas wondered what Prudence Lincoln thought about the way this girl spoke. He remembered how she had sat beside him, pointing out the letters in her book and teaching him to speak in the proper way. He had not been a good student. It was hard to think about words when she sat so close.
“Hey,” the girl said, giving his hand a yank to get his attention. “Since I be your little girl, my name Lillie Redstone now?”
Thomas did not answer.
After a while, they turned onto a side road that ran along the railroad tracks. Up ahead, the depot squatted like a beetle beside a spindly water tower balanced on eight skinny wooden legs. A beetle and a hungry spider. He felt caught in a web, too. He still was not sure what to do when the train came. He could not leave the girl by the tracks. And he could not take her back to the school. Maybe when he found Prudence Lincoln . . .
“She not fo’get.”
He looked down at her. “What?”
“Miss Pru. She not fo’get you comin’. She leave you a note, but Mistuh Marsh not give it to Friend Matthews like he say he do.”
Thomas smiled. She had remembered.
“And he mean to Miss Pru. Take her to Indianapolis when she want to wait for you. Say she better behave. He a mean one, make Miss Pru cry like that.”
Cry? Thomas’s steps slowed. Eho’nehevehohtse rarely cried. Not even after he freed her from Lone Tree. Or when she tended him after he was shot, and he heard her awake from night terrors. Who was this man and why did he warn her to behave? Prudence Lincoln always behaved. When Thomas was with her, that was his hardest task—to convince her not to behave.
But maybe the girl was lying about this, too.
He stopped and looked down at her bent head. “How do you know this?”
“I listen. A shadow on the wall, that me. And I hear Miss Pru say, ‘Here the note.’ And he say, ‘I take it to Friend Matthews right now.’ ’Cept he don’t. And he don’t tell him you comin’, neither. Mistuh Marsh, he a damn liar.”
“Like you, okom?”
“No, I better’n him.” She frowned. “What okom mean?”
Lost in thought, Thomas resumed walking, the girl close at his side, her hand on his arm. If Prudence was in trouble, he would help her. But if he had to take this strange child with him, she must obey him so he could keep her safe.
Stopping again, he hunkered onto his heels and gripped her thin shoulders. “Listen well, Katse’e.”
“Cat see what?”
“Kat-se’-e. It is the Cheyenne word for ‘little girl.’”
“So I not okom no more?” She frowned, her gaze fixed on a distant horizon her eyes could not see. “Cats sneaky. Dogs nicer. And horses. Chickens, they—”
“Never mind that,” he said, more harshly than he should have. “Heed my words. From this day, there will be no more lies. You will speak only the truth to me, or I will send you back to the school.”
“They not take me.”
“Then I will leave you by the tracks with your bag of clothes.”
“For true,” he lied. “Do you understand?”
“I ’pose.” A sniff. “But you not a very nice Daddy.”
The quaver in her voice left him unmoved. And unconvinced. “Now you will make your promise to me. You will tell no more lies.”
She huffed out a deep breath. “All right. No more lies.”
“And you will do what I say.”
“That two promises.”
“And you will do what I say,” he repeated through gritted teeth.
“All right! But we ain’t got time for no more promises, Daddy. I hears the train comin’.”
Behind him, a locomotive whistle blew. With a sigh, Thomas rose. If Prudence Lincoln sent him away again, he would leave this devil-child with her. It would serve them both right.
* * *
Several hours later, as the sun began to slip behind the trees, their train rolled into Indianapolis. The girl had been talking when Thomas dozed off, and was still talking when he awoke. She had strong lungs.
And she was right. Indianapolis was a big place. Not as big as the city where the English queen lived and people spoke with a strange accent. But bigger than Schuler. With the girl anchored in one hand, and their bags of clothes gripped in the other, Thomas stepped outside the depot and looked around.
People rushed along the street as if they had someplace important to be. Many stared at them as they went by. Thomas wished he had brought his war axe instead of sending it on to Heartbreak Creek with Rayford Jessup. But he had his long knife under his jacket, tucked into his belt at his back. That would be enough if danger came.
“We just stand here all day?” the girl complained.
She was probably hungry after so much talking.
“I will find food,” he announced, and led her in the direction most of the people were headed. Before they had walked far, they came to a place that had a strong smell of cooking meat. He led the girl inside.
A worried-looking woman with fox-red hair rushed to meet them. “Coloreds ain’t allowed,” she whispered, looking around at the other tables and the white people sitting there.
“Allowed to do what?” he asked.
“Eat here. Roy, you better come.”
A big man with hair on his face and angry eyes came from behind a counter where a brass money box sat. “Look here, mister—”
“Don’t hurt him!” Lillian shrieked, pressing against Thomas’s arm. “He only tryin’ to find my mama ’cause I a po’ little blind girl and cain’t find my way! He mean no harm!”
The man called Roy looked at her in surprise. Thomas did, too. The white people watching from the tables muttered to one another.
“We leavin’,” Lillian cried, almost yanking Thomas off balance and into the branches of a plant in a pot beside the door. “Please don’t hurt us, mistuh. We just hungry, is all. Don’t mean no harm.”
“Roy, let me take them around back,” the woman whispered. “Cook can give them something and send them on their way.” When the man hesitated, she gave his arm a shake. “For heaven’s sake, Roy, the child is blind, and people are looking.”
“I will pay,” Thomas said.
A few minutes later, he was carrying the girl with her box of food across the tracks toward a grassy field. “You promised no more lies,” he reminded her.
“Somebody gotta do somethin’. You jist stand there like a big lump while my belly scream for food.”
Setting her down beside a stump, he dropped the clothes bags and looked around. In the distance, a big white tipi stood in the middle of a grassy meadow. People went inside. Others hurried to follow. Along the edge of the field, food carts lined up along the street. Soon the smell of cooking hung in the air.
Perched on the stump, the girl dug through the box of food. “’Sides, it not a lie. We lookin’ for my mama, sho ’nuff.”
“You said your mother was dead.”
“That my other mama. You hungry?” She pulled a chicken leg out of the box, sniffed it, then took a bite. “Tasty. Got biscuits in here, too. Want some?”
Taking a share of the food, Thomas settled beside the stump. While he ate, he watched people go into the big tipi. None came out.
The girl finished eating and wiped her hands on the stump. “Where we sleep? Not outside. Chilrin ain’t ’posed sleep outside. ’Pecially blind ones.” She suddenly stiffened and cocked her head. “That gospel singin’? There a church nearby?”
Thomas was surprised he had not heard it, but she was right. From inside the tent came the sound of many voices singing a tune he recognized as one he had heard coming from the Come All You Sinners Church of Heartbreak Creek. “Yes, there is singing.”
“Maybe it the tent meetin’.”
Thomas took a bite of chicken.
“You Injuns not talk much.” She pulled her coat tight around her thin body. “How long we sit here, Daddy? I gots to pee. And I liable freeze dead we don’t find Miss Pru soon.”
Thomas tossed his chicken bone into the brush. “We just did.”
Prudence Lincoln studied the eager faces singing with such fervor the glorious sound of it filled the tent. There were even a few whites in attendance—other than Marsh, the devil in the shadows—and more came every night. Latecomers stood three deep along the canvas walls, and come spring, assuming they made a return trip to Indianapolis, Brother Sampson would have to hold his gospel meetings outdoors to make room for the ever-increasing converts that flocked to hear him preach the Lord’s Word.
They wanted so badly to believe things would get better.
Seeing the joy in their faces brought a catch to her throat. Their hope raised hers, lifting her spirits from the fog of anxiety that had plagued her ever since they’d come to the capitol almost three weeks ago.
Had Thomas arrived in Schuler yet? Had Friend Matthews given him her note? Would he leave, as she hoped, or try to come here? He was a stubborn man.
As much as she wanted to see him, she hoped he would go on to Heartbreak Creek. If he came here and Marsh acted on his threats . . .
With effort, she pushed that unbearable thought away. Nothing would happen to Thomas. More likely something would befall Marsh should the Cheyenne warrior learn of his threats. Thomas was very protective. And lethal.
“Thank you for coming,” Brother Sampson called as the last notes of the closing hymn faded away. “May the Lord shelter and protect you. Bless you all.”
Rising from her chair behind the lectern, she came forward to join him in greeting the people filing past the small platform that served as a stage. Despite his twisted fingers, the good preacher took the time to shake every hand offered, and his smile never faltered, no matter how weary he was.
When the crowd finally began to thin, she turned to him with a smile.
Then froze. A tall, solemn figure stood by the tent opening, his gaze locked on her face.
She stared, one hand pressed to her throat, her heart beating like a wild thing. Tears burned in her eyes, but she quickly blinked them away, not wanting to lose sight of the face that drifted through her dreams every night.
People shifted, obstructed her view. She started forward, searching frantically until a gap widened and she saw him again.
He looked different with his glossy black hair reaching barely to his shoulders. Gone were the topknot and eagle feather. If he still wore temple braids, they were tucked behind his ears. Instead of his war shirt and leggings and tall, fringed moccasins, he wore a fine suit of clothes and sturdy boots.
But he was still her Cheyenne warrior. No matter how he dressed, he would always be that.
Had he gotten her note? If so, why was he here?
On trembling legs, she hurried down the open space between the rows of crude benches. People blocked her way as they shuffled toward the exit. Straining to see past them, terrified he would disappear before she could reach him, she pushed through them as best she could.
When finally the way cleared and she saw him again, she could only stare through tear-blurred eyes, still not believing he was there. He didn’t give her that startling smile that turned heads, but she saw the quirk at the corner of his wide mouth and the warmth in his dark eyes. Suddenly everything else was forgotten—Marsh and his threats—her fears—even the work she was so desperate to finish.
“You’re here,” she said and reached out with a trembling hand.
“Me, too!” A small figure darted from behind him, arms outstretched.
Startled, Pru drew back, her hand hanging in the air. She blinked down at the round face beaming up at her with the familiar gap-toothed grin. “Lillie?”
“It me!” Giggling, the child clasped Pru’s waist in a tight hug. “Praise the Lawd we find you!”
“Wh-What are you doing here?”
“Me and Daddy come fetch you home.”
Daddy? Pru looked at Thomas. His face told her nothing, yet his eyes showed amusement. Dark, deep-set eyes the color of strong, black coffee. She could drown in them. “Why does she think you’re her father?”
He shrugged, as spare with words as he was with his smiles. Pulling Lillie’s arms from around her waist, Pru looked down into the child’s face. “What is this about, Lillie?”
“Mistuh Marsh. He close?”
Pru looked around and saw him speaking to Brother Sampson and one of the patrons who had paid for their travel expenses to Indianapolis and their rooms at the colored hotel. “No. He can’t hear us.”
The girl motioned for Pru to bend closer. “He not give you note to Friend Matthews,” she whispered. “And he not tell him Daddy on his way.”
So Thomas hadn’t read her note. Pru straightened, a jittery feeling of panic battling a sense of relief. He was here. For now that was all that mattered.
“Did he threaten you, Eho’nehevehohtse?”—One Who Walks in Wolf Tracks—another fanciful name Thomas had given her, this one referring to someone as smart as a wolf, and able to outwit humans.
She forced a smile. “He’s all bluster,” she lied. “Nothing to worry about.” Being truthful to his core, Thomas often didn’t see dishonesty in those he trusted. But she dare not let him know the danger Marsh posed. The Cheyenne was capable of great violence when necessary or if someone he cared about was threatened. She loved that about him—and feared the consequences of it.
Noticing Lillie rubbing her eyes, Pru gratefully sought a change in subject. “Lillie looks tired. Have you found a place to stay?”
“We stay with you,” the girl said, yawning. “I not sleep outside.”
“Of course not.” Seeing Marsh shake hands with the patron and fearing he might head their way, Pru motioned Thomas toward the exit behind him. “If you don’t mind staying at a colored hotel,” she said, as they stepped outside, “I’m sure they have room. The Beckworth Arms, two blocks south of the depot on Third. Do you have money?”
Thomas nodded. “The Scotsman pays well.”
“I’m in room two eleven. I’ll leave the door unlocked. Go now. I’d rather Mr. Marsh not know you’re here.”
“Do you fear him?”
“Of course not, but—”
“Come on, Daddy,” Lillie cut in, saving Pru from further explanation. “It cold and I still gots to pee.”
“We’ll talk later, Thomas, I promise.” On impulse, Pru reached out and put her hand on his arm. Feeling the solid strength beneath the sleeve of his jacket reassured her. Gave her courage. “I’m so glad you’re here.” And she meant it. Despite her worries over Marsh, she was relieved her note hadn’t reached Thomas. Knowing she wasn’t alone and that he was nearby was a great comfort.
Thomas studied her in that silent, probing way he had. She could almost feel him searching her mind, seeking answers to questions he hadn’t voiced. Then, with a nod, he turned and led Lillie into the fading light.
* * *
It was late. And still no Thomas. Had something happened? Or was he not as anxious to see her as she was to see him?
Rising from the worn chair flanking the bed, Pru paced her small hotel room. After a few laps, she stopped at the window and looked out at the deserted street, her mind spinning with possibilities.
Could Marsh have waylaid him? She thrust that frightening thought away. Perhaps Thomas hadn’t been able to get a room. Many places barred Indians. Or maybe Lillie was proving difficult and he didn’t want to leave her until she was asleep. But how could he leave her, anyway—a blind child in a strange place? What if she woke up and found herself alone?
She should check with the desk, find out what room they were in—or if they were even at the hotel—then go to him. Resolved, she turned from the window and almost slammed into a tall form standing directly behind her.
She stumbled back, then felt his hand on her arm, steadying her. “Thomas? I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Then you were not listening.”
Relief thundered through her. “Oh, Thomas,” she choked out, throwing her arms around him. Now that he was here, all thought of sending him away fled her mind. Later, she would find another way to keep him safe. But for now, all she wanted was the comfort of his arms. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t come.”
“You doubt me, Eho’nehevehohtse?”
“No. I would never doubt you. It’s just that . . .” She took a deep breath, drawing in the earthy scent that was his own. It seemed that no matter how many months or miles separated them, the moment she saw him again, it felt as if they had never been apart. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“I have missed you, too, Prudence.”
But he didn’t pull her closer as he usually did. And even though she was close enough to feel the warmth of his breath against the top of her head, she sensed a space between them.
Leaning back, she looked up into his face. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”
Yet he didn’t stop her when she pulled away. “You don’t show it.”
“No?” Taking her hand, he placed it on his chest. “Can you not feel how you stir my heart?”
“Then why do you act as if you’re afraid to touch me?”
“Because I am. I do not want to frighten you like I did when last we were together.”
She sagged with relief. “You didn’t frighten me. What happened before . . . it wasn’t you, Thomas. You could never frighten me.”
“Then why did you cower before me?”
“I was startled. You were angry, and for a moment . . .”
He finished when she couldn’t. “You thought of the Arapaho.”
She made an offhand gesture. “It’s nothing.” And why were they even talking about this now?
“A fear that makes you shrink from me is ‘nothing’?” Taking her face in both hands, he looked into her eyes. “You will banish him from your thoughts, Prudence. He can never hurt you again.”
She felt walls come up in her mind. To distract herself—and him—she turned her face into his hand and kissed his callused palm. “I don’t want to talk about Lone Tree right now.”
“You will have to someday, Eho’nehevehohtse.”
She drew back. “I know.” Terrors she had long suppressed skittered through her mind and sent her moving restlessly about the room. Aware of his gaze following her, she battled a momentary resentment. Thomas would never let fear rule him. He would dance a reel around danger and smile the whole time.
She paused to straighten a book on her night table, making sure it aligned precisely with the edge, then continued pacing, touching this and that. “It’s just that sometimes, something happens that makes me remember, and I overreact.” And Lone Tree would rise up in her mind, ready to pounce. “But I’m doing better.”
“He was Indian. I am Indian. But we are not the same.”
“Of course not. I’m sorry. I’ll try harder. Do we have to talk about this now?”
Just that. Only her name. Said in the low, husky voice of a man who spoke seldom, and not at all to her for the last several months. She pressed the heel of her hand against her brow to stop a sudden sting of tears. She didn’t want to show weakness before this strong man.
Yet, somehow, he knew. He always knew.
Moving toward her, he pulled her into his arms. “Do not be afraid to weep, Eho’nehevehohtse,” he whispered against her hair. “It will free your mind of sorrowful thoughts.”
She didn’t want to cry. Didn’t want their first meeting after so long an absence to be filled with sorrow. But with the release of tension, tears broke in a flood. Knowing that he was here and hadn’t given up on her, and that for a while, at least, she could let down her guard and rest in his arms, filled her with a raw, instinctual wanting that stripped her bare.
“I am here with you, Prudence. I will keep you safe. You know this.”
She nodded, unable to speak, pushing to the back of her mind the awareness that Lone Tree wasn’t the only barrier between them.
Rocking her gently in his arms, he held her for a long time.
This man was life to her. Hope. He had found her broken with despair and had put her back together again. He was her way out of the past and into a safe and loving future . . . once they got beyond the threat of Marsh, and if they could overcome the obstacles before them.
But not tonight. Tonight she only wanted to hold him, and love him, and lose herself in his strength. Pulling out of his arms, she laced her fingers through his, and led him over to sit beside her on the edge of the bed. His hand felt rough and big against hers. Familiar, yet alien. That single contact of flesh against flesh made her body tremble with awareness.
“Why is Lillie with you, Thomas?”
“The school believed her when she said I was her father. They seemed glad to send her with me.” She saw the smile in his beautiful, dark eyes.
“What are you going to do with her?”
He shrugged, his shoulder rubbing against hers. “She chose me to be her father. She needs someone to take care of her. So that is what I will do.”
Pru knew the loss of his wife and son years ago haunted him still. Was taking on Lillie his way to atone for that? “She can be a difficult child.”
This time his smile included a flash of white teeth. “This I know. But I admire her spirit.”
“Will you take her back to Heartbreak Creek?”
He studied her for a long time, his gaze boring into her in that knowing way that reached so deep inside her mind she felt stripped bare. “You say ‘you’ instead of ‘we.’ Does that mean you are still not ready to come home, Prudence?”
Dread moved through her. She knew that was the question he had come to ask—the same question he had asked on his last visit, and the visit before that: When would she give up this dream of helping every ex-slave who crossed her path and come back to him?
And do what?
There was some truth in the note she had written him. Their differences were vast. She couldn’t live in a tipi any more than Thomas could live in a city. She needed people around her, not a life of isolation in the mountains. And she needed to do something for all the poor, lost freed men and women who had never been given the advantages she had. Guilt at what they had suffered while she’d lived an easy life rode like a demon on her back. She couldn’t simply walk away from people so desperate for help.
But she couldn’t walk away from Thomas, either.
“Just give me a little more time. Please, Thomas.” Once she had her education initiative going, and she felt she could turn over her part in the Underground Railroad, she would be able to leave.
She saw his chest rise and fall on a deep sigh and knew she had disappointed him again. She had a sense of him slipping away and tightened her grip on his hand. Maddie had been right. He had changed. Not just that he had cut his hair and put away his Indian attire. There was something fundamentally different. It frightened her, made her wonder what other changes had come about while he was in England. “Can’t you wait just a little longer? I’ll be done soon.”
For a long time, he didn’t speak. “You weaken me, heme’oone—sweetheart. When I am with you, I think only of how much I want you.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
When he didn’t answer, she looked over and saw the frown on his face.
“I do not know, Eho’nehevehohtse. Being apart from you leaves an ache inside me I cannot find. It is a wound that will not heal. But when I look on your face, it hurts a little less.” Lifting his other hand, he reached over and gently brushed aside a curl that had escaped her pins. She felt the slight tremble in his fingers and wanted to weep.
But this wasn’t the time for sadness. She didn’t want to ruin their time together with fears about the past or the future.
“I’m sorry.” Tipping her head against his shoulder, she blocked her doubts and let his familiar scent flood her senses—earth, sunshine, strong healthy male. “I’ve missed you, Thomas.”
Confused by the question, she drew back to study his face. His expression told her nothing, but she sensed that change again. “What’s wrong?”
“I am troubled.”
He made a vague gesture with his free hand. “This. You and me.” His dark eyes carried an unfamiliar hint of sadness, which brought an ache to her heart. “A space grows between us, Prudence. I understand that you seek things beyond the mountains and Heartbreak Creek. Beyond me.”
When she started to interrupt, he held up his hand. She thought she saw that tremble again in the long, blunt-tipped fingers, but decided she must have imagined it. Nothing ever rattled Thomas.
“I feel you drifting away, Eho’nehevehohtse,” he continued in that same strained voice. “I have tried to accept that. But I cannot. You are like a second heart beating inside me. But if it is not to be, and I must pluck you from my life, I will try one last time to understand why.”
She should stop this now. He had opened the door. All she had to do was say the words that would send him away and keep him safe from Marsh. Save them both from future heartache.
But how could she do that to the man she loved with all her heart?
Loving Thomas was such a bittersweet thing. She didn’t know where this odd, mismatched relationship was headed or how it would end, and she liked to have the pieces of her life neatly arranged, each in its own place. But she couldn’t do that with him. She didn’t know where to put this man who held her heart in such a gentle grip. She didn’t know if his vision of the future would ever meld with hers. But sending him away would be like casting aside all hope of a better life.
“So now I ask you, Prudence. What is it you want?”
Time. A different world.
She looked up into his dark, fathomless eyes . . . eyes that had seen all her scars and imperfections and loved her still. She didn’t understand it. Or this bond that went deeper than thought or emotion or physical need. It was as if he had tethered her soul to his in a way that could never be broken. Heart-mates, he had called them. Perhaps he was right.
“I want you, Thomas.”
“For how long?”
“For as long as you will stay with me.”
She could see it wasn’t the answer he wanted. “You will not come back with me to the mountains?”
“I can’t. Not yet.”
“Then when? How long must I wait and hope you will return to me?”
“I will always return to you, Thomas. I just need to finish this first.”
Even though he didn’t move, she felt that distance between them widen a little more. “I am past my first youth, Eho’nehevehohtse. I cannot wait forever.”
“It won’t be long.”
He snorted. “Only until another thing comes between us, and you ask for more time again. I cannot live on promises of later, Prudence.”
Panic clutched at her throat. “Don’t go. Please.”
He studied her, then he let out a long exhale. It sounded like defeat. “I will stay until I know you are safe from this man named Marsh. Then I will go. If you do not come with me, I will know you have chosen a different path.”
The tears of gratitude overflowed, spilling down her face in hot streaks. “Thank you, Thomas.”
He stood. “Enough talk. You will undress now.”
She smiled even as she blotted the tears from her cheeks. His arrogance always amused her. “Will I?”
He smiled, that spark flaring behind his eyes. “You will.”
An answering heat spread through her body. “What about Lillie?”
“And if she wakes up?”
“She knows where I am and will wait for my return. Do not worry so much.” Putting his big hands around her waist, he stood her on her feet in front of him. “She is only next door. I will hear if she needs me.” Head bent, he worked at the buttons down the front of her dress. “And I left her my knife.”
Pru’s head flew up, bumping against his chin. “Your knife?”
Pushing the fabric aside, he leaned down to kiss her neck.
“She’s blind, Thomas! And a child! She could hurt herself.”
Another kiss on her jaw. “She is a child who has lived a hundred years.” He continued to loosen the buttons on her dress so he could lick the hollow at the base of her neck. “Little okom is blind, not helpless.” With his tongue, he traced the scars across her shoulder
It was hard to breathe and think when he did that. “Still—”
He straightened, a frown bunching between his dark brows. “Why do you waste our time with arguments, Eho’nehevehohtse? You know I cannot stay with you for long.”
He was right. He couldn’t be away from Lillie much longer. Besides, with Thomas’s acute hearing, he would hear if Lillie called out to him. These walls were woefully thin.
Resolved, she leaned into him and let her worries slip away. Simply having him so close made her tremble with want. Her breath grew shallow. A shimmery, itchy feeling made her desperate to cast off her clothing and press her shivering body against his.
He skimmed his knuckles across the fabric over her breast. “I grow impatient. You will finish undressing now, Prudence.”
A warm rush of anticipation fluttered in her belly. With fumbling fingers, Pru did as she was told, aware of his gaze tracking every movement. When she pulled the dress down her arms, he trailed his fingers gently over the pattern of pale scars spreading across her shoulder and one side of her chest.
Those same scars had enraged Lone Tree, driven him into a kicking fury. Perhaps he’d feared they were the mark of the devil, as her father’s wife had called them. Or he was angry that she didn’t cry out as the blows had rained down. Or maybe he had beaten her for fun. The man was less than an animal, from the rankness of his unwashed body and the venom that spewed from his mouth, to the wild, inhuman glitter in his eyes.
But that was over a year ago. She was safe now, and with a shuddering breath, she blocked the image and sent the Arapaho scuttling back into the darkest corner of her mind. Now was the time for loving, not remembering.
She kicked off her shoes and let the dress fall around her ankles. Then, untying the tabs on her petticoats, she let them slide down to pool over the dress.
And still he watched, his face taut.
It awakened that pulse low in her body and made her limbs weak.
With her hand braced on his sturdy shoulder for balance, she lifted one knee, then the other, to roll down her garters and serviceable black stockings. After she unlaced her corset and stepped out of her drawers, she stood before him, wearing only her mended cotton chemise and a nervous smile.
He studied the garments piled on the floor. “White people wear too many clothes.”
“I’m only half white.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Kaki Warner and her novels
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