Bodil Riker Quinn rode as though the devil himself was shoving him across a sea of storm-flattened grass that stretched from horizon to horizon. A crosswind tore at his sheepskin-lined leather jacket and forced him to keep one hand on his John B to keep it from being ripped from his head and tossed clear into Iowa. Better to ride with the devil than to be in the same room with the devil’s mother. If he had to endure one more day of his stepmother’s incessant complaints, false overtures of friendliness, or listen to any more sly digs, he’d strangle the conniving bitch and end up with a posse on his heels.
Overhead, the sky continued to darken, which suited his black mood. Frustration sang in his veins when a single drop of rain smacked him on the nose. “More rain, just what I need.” The last two storms had dumped enough water to turn the ground into a quagmire of sticky mud. He slowed the horse to a slow gallop. “What the hell are we doing, Samson?”
He rolled his aching shoulders, unsure whether to be irritated with his neighbor or grateful to the man for pulling him away from trouble in the forms of unwanted family, not enough ranch hands, and too much work. Last night’s thunderstorm had spooked the cattle, and that meant broken fences and loose cattle. At the base of a small hill, he guided the horse to one side of a large mud puddle. The gelding’s hooves made muffled sucking sounds, then, with the slight rise in the path, they were once again on solid ground.
Bo sighed, tempted to turn around and return home even if it mean dealing with Jocelyn and her whinny, demanding children. But he kept riding. When Henrik Ricard Svensson crooked his finger, people obeyed. Including Bo. Not because the man was a powerfulpolitician and the biggest landowner in this part of Nebraska.
Status and money did not impress Bo, not enough to have him neglecting his own much smaller spread. No, he jumped because Henry and his father had been best friends from childhood up to the day Bo’s father died. More importantly, Henry was his godfather and all the family Bo had. He did not count his stepmother.
Enduring Jocelyn’s presence in his home was worse than being trapped in a cave with a skunk. At least skunk stink wore off, whereas Jocelyn coated everything with her bad temper, demanding whines, and unpleasant personality. Forget her, he ordered himself, grateful that Henry’s summons had interrupted yet another argument between them.
So what did Henry want? The tone of urgency worried him. Henry was not getting any younger. Guilt smacked him in the back of his head. He’d been so occupied with his struggling ranch the last couple of months, he hadn’t given his godfather much thought. The horse picked his way up another gentle rise in the land, around a small stand of oaks, and stopped at the top of the hill. Noting the position of the sun, Bo sighed again. He wasn’t going to get back to his ranch in time to ride the perimeter before dark.
Between storm damage and sabotage that included the senseless act of gutting cattle, he worried about being gone longer than absolutely necessary, especially since firing more than half his hands for deliberately cutting fences and starting a fire that destroyed one of his barns. Damn railroad. Fury warred with disgust. Bad enough they’d destroyed his property but to kill the livestock… The waste and wanton destruction of life infuriated him. Another glance upward had him groaning. He yanked off his hat and slapped it against the horse’s rump. “Come on, Samson. Let’s go find out what’s got the old man’s knickers in a twist.”
The horse, given free rein, flew down the hill and up a gravel-lined driveway that was a welcome relief from the sticky mud and puddles of water. To his right, a small herd of horses ran toward him, following the curve of the fenced pasture. Samson ignored the thundering hooves and excited calls of greeting. Bo grinned with appreciation of the sheer magnificence of the animals in full gallop—tails held high, manes fluttering, heads tossing, and the strength of those stretched out bodies with their gleaming coats.
To his left lay a wide expanse of grass and farther out, outbuildings dotted the landscape. He rode toward the large, white house the size of a small mansion. He could fit three of his modest home in Henry’s and still have roaming room. The horse headed around back. He hadn’t even dismounted before the kitchen door flew open and a tall, big-boned woman appeared, waving a white towel like a surrender flag.
“Bodil! Thank the good Lord you’re here. He’s in the study.” Mildred twisted her hands in her flour-covered apron. “He’s in a right state. Never seen him so worked up in all my years.”
Bo studied the housekeeper for a moment, then he dismounted and handed the reins to the stable boy who came running. “Thank you,” he said to the foreman’s eldest son. He should be relieved that nothing had happened to his godfather, but at the same time, his heart sank. Only one thing shook the unshakeable, unflappable Mildred Brown. He took the stairs up to the kitchen door two at a time. An old sleeping hound blocked his path. He stepped over the dog, removed his John B, and entered the housekeeper’s domain. He sighed one more time as he shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to her.
“Damn. Another letter?”
The housekeeper nodded. “Came this morning. He insisted I send for you at once.”
He squeezed the woman’s shoulders gently. So much for a quick trip and getting back before dark. “I’ll talk to him.” Mildred sagged with relief.
He patted her shoulder as he left the kitchen and made his way toward the front of the house, then headed down a long, dark corridor that led to the study. When he reached the doorway, he peered in and spotted his godfather standing before open French doors, one hand resting on the wall, his shoulders hunched, a sheet of paper dangling from his other hand. Yep, another letter.
Tapping his hat against his thigh, he took a deep breath. Get it done, he ordered himself, and strode into the dark-paneled study, his boots on the polished oak floor loud in the silence. “Henry? Your message sounded urgent.”
“Bo!” Relief replaced lines of worry on the older man’s face. He motioned to a group of leather chairs across the room from the wide, expansive desk of timeworn dark oak. “Thanks for coming right away.”
Though anxious to get back to his own ranch and the hundreds of chores awaiting him, Bo took his customary seat on one end of the red-wine leather couch. He plopped his hat on his knee. Henry had been there for him after his father’s death. He’d just turned eighteen, and Henry taught him the ropes of being a ranch owner, not just the son of a rancher. Bo owed Henry whatever time he needed.
Mildred swept in and set a tray with two mugs of coffee onto the table between the two men. The mouthwatering aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg from the generous slices of cake she’d included made his stomach rumble. He’d missed the mid-day meal.
“This’ll warm you up, Bodil.”
Bo grinned, picked up the mug, and warmed his hands. Steam from the rich, dark roast bathed his face, and he inhaled deeply. “I’d ride through hell and back for your coffee and that cake of yours. I should marry you.”
She pulled a towel off her shoulder and swatted him with it. “Got myself one man. Don’t need two.” Though she laughed, the worry in her eyes remained as she closed the door behind her.
Across from him, Henry continued to pace, his fingers raking through his full head of white hair. The old, wooden floor creaked. After a few sips to warm his insides, Bo set his mug down, leaned back, and stretched his legs out, one ankle crossed over the other. “Let’s have it, Henry.”
Henry sat on the edge of the matching leather chair. He leaned forward, clasping his hands, his elbows digging into his thighs. “I found them, Bo. I know where my girls are.”
I knew it. “Hells bells, Henry, not again.”
“Bo, it’s them. I know it.” Henry’s eyes shone with hope.
“It’s been more than twelve years since your granddaughters were captured by the Sioux. You know the odds of finding them alive. We’ve been through this before, Henry.” Bo hated to burst the bubble of hope that lit the man’s face like a bonfire on a dark winter’s night, but after all this time, the girls, who had been age six and three, were most likely dead. But Henry was obsessed. With his money and power, he’d sent a team of men after his son-in-law to bring back his daughter and granddaughters.
They’d found the wagon, and the body of Elizabeth’s husband. The scouts had scoured the area and eventually, Elizabeth’s dead body had been found, along with a dozen slain Crow. The arrows found at the scene belonged to the Sioux. That was the last they’d been able to confirm. The lack of bodies fueled Henry’s hope. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time the man thought he had found his girls.
He bit back a groan of frustration. He loved his godfather, as both a father and a friend and hated what the disappointment did to the man each time Henry’s information proved false. Each false lead caused the proud and powerful man to sink into a pit of despair, and that lead to drinking too much. Bo had lost track of how many times he’d had to pick up the pieces of a broken man and help put him back together.
Henry stood. “It’s them, Bo.” He went to his desk, snatched a piece of paper, returned, and thrust it at Bo.
Bo took the short missive sent by telegraph and frowned. Henry’s man had discovered two blonde girls living among the Sioux.
“The ages are right, Bo. It’s them.” Henry shoved his hands though his hair. “It’s Beth Ann and Jane. My Lizzie’s babies.” Sadness, grief, and hope brought tears to his pale blue eyes, and his voice shook with emotion.
Bo remembered Elizabeth. She’d been his first love. It hadn’t mattered that she was far too old for him. He had dreamed she’d wait for him to become a man. But the day came when she’d married and broken his heart.
“Dammit! Why did I leave that night? I could have stopped them?” Henry kicked the chair, sending it into a side table holding a lamp that crashed to the floor. Shards of porcelain scattered in all directions. He dug his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “Say it, son. It’s my own damn fault that Elizabeth left.”
Tossing the letter onto the table, Bo fiddled with his hat. “You couldn’t have stopped Stuart from taking his family, Henry.” They had been through this so many times that the thought of yet another round left Bo sad and depressed. He stood and tapped his John B against his thigh. “What now?”
Henry glanced up from the letter he’d picked up. “I’m going to find them and bring them back.”
Bo slid his fingers through his reddish brown hair. “We’ve been through this, Henry. It’s not that simple. If these girls are your granddaughters, Indians raised them. They will never be accepted back into society.”
Henry waved aside Bo’s concern. “My spread is the largest in all of Nebraska. Got me enough land for two girls to spend their lives. They won’t want for anything. I’ll hire tutors and companions.” He went back to the French doors and stared out. “Hell, I’ll build them those things the Indians live in.”
“Tipis,” Bo said.
Henry nodded and glanced over his shoulder. “I won’t leave them out there, son. They belong here with me. They’re the only part of Lizzie I have left.” He walked out onto the terrace.
Worried that his friend was once again taking on more than he could handle, Bo joined him. Bees hummed from the wall of sickly-sweet blooms to his right. “Henry—” He shook his head. What could he say? Twice before, the men Henry hired to find and return his granddaughters had ended in disaster. The first woman they’d found had been too old and taken from her children, she had killed herself days after being rescued.
The second time, not more than two years ago, his men had brought back a blonde child who had not been his granddaughter. Henry found her a home, and the last Bo heard, her transition back to society was not going well. Lives ruined with each failure not to mention the toll on Henry.
Henry leaned on the low stone wall enclosing his own private terrace. “It’s them, I feel it. You read the letter. The younger one is the spittin’ image of my Lizzie.”
Bo folded his arms across his chest, his gaze sweeping the wide expanse of grazing land. “They on their way?”
Turning, Henry shook his head. “My orders were to locate and hold. My man is at Fort Randall, waiting instructions.” He clenched his fists and drummed them on the stone. “It’s them. I know it. I’ve found them.”
Rolling his shoulders to ease the stiffness, Bo turned his back to the chill wind that swept across the terrace. Again, he eyed the stormy sky. Damn. “What’s next, Henry?”
“I bring them home,” Henry said. “They belong here. This is their birthright.”
“That may be, but what if they have families? Husbands and children? Beth Ann is how old?”
“Eighteen, which means Jane, is fifteen.” Henry fell silent. The wind blew his snow-white hair around his head, revealing hidden yellow-blond strands. Henry paced from one end of the terrace to the other.
Both girls were of marriageable age. Another gust of wind slapped cold rain on his face. “Look, Henry. I can’t tell you what to do. Take a few days to consider your options, and we’ll talk again. Storm’s coming. I need to get back—”
Henry waved him to silence. “No need. Made up my mind. Just hadn’t thought of children. Keep thinking Beth Ann and Jane are still children themselves.” He grinned, his entire face lighting up with joy. “Great grandchildren! Now that’s a kick in the ass. My granddaughters and their children, if they have any, will not want for anything.”
Bo swallowed his groan, but rather than point out more problems, like husbands or the girls refusing to leave the life they knew—if they were happy—Bo kept silent. Nothing would change Henry’s mind. All Bo could do was be there for his friend and pick up the pieces when it went wrong. As it had so many times before this. Henry moved with renewed energy back into the study. “We are going to get them.”
Bo lifted a brow. “We?” He followed, tapping his hat against his thigh so fast it was a dark blur. “Sorry, Henry. Can’t. Barely surviving, and the damn bank’s threatening to take my ranch if I can’t make the next payment. Then there’s those damn railroad bastards hovering like vultures over a carcass. Even if I could scrape up the money, I can’t hire anyone to run the ranch while I’m gone.”
Not after firing his foreman and more than half of his hands. Bo gritted his teeth. How he got by with the few hands he’d kept, he didn’t know. Damn, he’d been a blind fool, and by the time he figured out what was going on, the losses over the summer meant he couldn’t pay the bank or hire more men.
Henry motioned for him to sit. Suppressing a sigh, Bo plopped himself into one of the chairs facing the desk.
“Got another problem, Henry. Jocelyn’s back.” He rubbed the tension gathering at the back of his neck. “No way in hell am I leaving them at the ranch.” He didn’t trust his stepmother or her son an inch out of his sight.
Henry leaned back in the desk chair that matched the leather couch and settee, once more a man in complete control. He flicked the fingers of one hand to dismiss that problem. “Send the merry widow packing. She has no claim on your land. Your father left it to you. That’s the least of your problems.”
“Easy for you to say,” Bo grumbled, staring at shelves filled with books behind Henry. Henry was right. He needed to kick her and her children out, but he kept putting off the much-needed confrontation. “The ranch—”
“We’ll put old Charlie in charge. Those railroad bastards try anything, they’ll find Charlie all horns and rattles. He’ll go after them with a sharp stick.”
Bo cringed. Henry’s foreman could be mean as a tom turkey. The man’s sharp tongue was as deadly as a whip—both could tear flesh off a body—as Bo knew from experience. After Bo’s father died, Charlie had shown up on his doorstep, bags at his feet. He’d shoved his way in, declared that he was going to whip Bo into shape. And he had. Henry was right. Nobody knew what was what around a ranch like that old man.
“Won’t stop the bank or those railroad agents from causing problems.”
Henry grinned a feral, sly smile that sent his opponents running. Whatever his godfather had devised, he, Bodil Riker Quinn, had been snared as neatly as a calf for branding in the spring. Henry shoved a folder on the desk toward Bo.
“No? I’m a rich man and a damn politician to boot. I threaten to pull my account, and that skunk-faced Winston will grovel at my feet.” He chuckled. “Much as I’d love to see that, I can do better.” He tapped his finger on the desk. “Help me. I help you.” He sat back, as pleased as a dog making off with one of Mildred’s pies.
Bo sighed. “Don’t need charity, Henry.” But he did need money. A lot of it. And fast. Could he do this? Go with Henry; see if these girls were his granddaughters? Wouldn’t take but a couple months, if that. Quick trip up the Missouri, a few days of riding…
Resigned to helping his godfather, Bo opened the folder and read the short letter addressed to the banker. His jaw dropped at the amount Henry was willing to pay. That sum paid off his entire debt. The ranch would be his, free and clear. He set the letter down. “Good god, Henry. I can’t accept this. I might—might—be willing to view this as a job and take reasonable payment, enough to satisfy what I need to make this next payment, but not this.” He slid the letter across the desk. “Too much.”
Henry leaned back, crossed his arms across his chest. “It’s done. You’ll earn every penny, Bo.”
Bo narrowed his eyes, not trusting his godfather, who suddenly looked like the sharp-minded politician he was. “What are you planning, Henry?” He held his John B in both hands, running his fingers over the rim, mind still reeling. The ranch belonged to him. No more harassing visits or threats from that weasel at the bank.
The hat fell, slid off his lap, and plopped onto the floor. Had Henry told him that he was going to buy an orange and purple cow, Bo wouldn’t have been more shocked. “A what?”
Henry folded the note in precise thirds and pushed it back across the desk. His blue eyes gleamed with determination and pleasure. “Think of this as your wedding gift. Beth Ann will need a husband when we bring her back.”
Wi’s warmth and light speared the horizon, and like a greedy, ravenous animal upon awakening, he consumed the darkness of night. He was one of four Superior Gods, the all-powerful Great God and defender of bravery, fortitude, generosity, and fidelity, who greeted each new day by rolling ribbons of color across the sky. Birds shook out their feathers and rose into the air to greet him with their songs of joy and gratitude.
He stretched his fingers, searching, seeking, and chasing. Deep in the shadowed forest, he found a tree, long dead. He reached through the hole in the trunk, his light falling upon an owl that turned its head to the back of the hollow.
Blinking, irritated, Owl ruffled snow-white feathers. Why do you wake me, Old Friend?
It is time. The woman needs you.
Wide-awake, Owl left her nest and flew to a thick branch high above the earth. Below, a young woman left a cone-shaped dwelling and stretched her arms high overhead as though reaching for the bird. Owl’s charge moved with graceful movements in her fur-lined dress the color of Wi’s early morning light.
Matching leggings warded off the chill in the air. A breath of air stirred the woman’s long, pale hair that hung straight as a blade of grass past her waist. When she tipped her head back, Owl gazed into eyes as blue as the heavens on a clear, summer day.
Owl loved this child of two worlds. Many years before, she had appeared to the girl as Owl Woman to offer comfort. The years had passed without her need to appear again. It saddened her to know that the child’s easy existence was about to change. What would you have me do?
Watch over her. And those who come for her. The time has come for her to choose between two worlds.
Owl took to the air, flying low, sweeping over the woman, the air from her powerful wings rustling the woman’s silky strands of blonde hair.
In the early, predawn stillness, Beth Ann greeted the new day by stretching. Spotting the owl overhead, she smiled. The bird was her animal totem and had been since the age of six when Owl Woman had come to her, offering comfort.
She sent her prayer of thanks to the bird for watching over her, then rubbed her arms against the morning chill. Summer had gracefully bowed to autumn, but it felt as though winter, always impatient to rule, was trying to bully its way across the land.
Tempted to turn around and return to her warm, cozy pallet of thick furs, she stifled another yawn and joined her adoptive mother at the fire pit. Together, the two women, one of the sun, the other a warrior of the land, set about preparing the morning meal for their family.
“How are you, this day, chunksi?” White Dove asked of her daughter as she poured a handful of coffee beans into an old cast iron skillet.
“I am well, Ina, Beth Ann replied in Lakota.” Satisfied that the fire, stoked from embers banked the night before, would not go out, she put the kettle of water on a grate placed over the fire pit while her mother saw to the roasting of the coffee beans. She held out her palms to the fire and warmed her face with her hands. “Won’t be long before the first snow.”
“No. Winter will come early this year.” Once the coffee was going, Dove handed Beth Ann a hunk of meat left from the evening meal.
Beth Ann sliced the elk, and by the time she was done, she felt less chilled. She dumped the strips of elk into an iron skillet, one of her mother’s prized possessions, and set it aside.
“Ah, smells good out here” Jeremy Hunkuya Mato Jones slipped out of a tipi set close to Beth Ann’s.
Wearing pants of wool instead of leggings, an army blue shirt and a fur-lined buckskin vest, Jeremy looked both white and Indian. His long, black hair hung to his waist in gentle waves, his eyes were the green of spring grass, and his skin was tanned to a deep brown from years of living beneath the sun. He moved silently with an easy grace as he put an arm around his wife and daughter. “It’s a good day when a man is greeted by the sight of the two most beautiful women in the world.”
Beth Ann rolled her eyes, knowing he’d say anything for that first mug of coffee. Every morning since coming to live with Dove and Jeremy, her father insisted that a man couldn’t begin to think without his morning cup. She grinned. It had taken her mother many years to learn to enjoy the bitter brew.
Dove ducked beneath his arm and punched her husband in the shoulder. “I know better than to fall for your sweet words. Say them after you’ve had your coffee, and I might believe them.”
Beth Ann laughed. “He can’t. If Jane or Spotted Owl hears him saying we are the most beautiful, they’ll pout for days.”
Jeremy winced, then grumbled, his gaze fixated on the pot like a man who’d crossed the desert and was desperate for a glass of water. He leaned over, breathing in the aroma, then turned and winked at Beth Ann. “Ah, but they are my most beautiful girls.”
“Not so, Ate,” a soft voice protested. “You forget. I am now a woman.” Jane joined them, stifling a yawn. She had a fur wrapped around her shoulders with her waist-long blonde hair flowing like honey over the fur. Her long skirt peeked out. Jane preferred to dress as a white woman while living at her Uncle Wolf’s place, to set an example to the other girls in their tribe.
“Nah,” he said, pulling Jane to him. He switched from Lakota to English. “You are my little girl. You’ll always be my little girl.”
Beth Ann smiled at her sister, whose blonde hair was a shade darker than her own, as was her skin. Jane didn’t burn or blister in the sun anymore, unlike Beth Ann who still had to take care.
“And what of me.” Spotted Owl ran up to her father. The young girl had reached back a generation and mingled her grandmother’s blonde hair with her parents’ shades of black, giving herself hair that was a pale, golden brown in the sunlight, shining with bits of liquid light, just like her uncle Wolf’s.
Dove and Beth Ann laughed. “Get out of that one, Mihingna mici, husband mine,” Dove murmured smiling.
Loving the banter, Beth Ann enjoyed watching her father tease his first-born. At eleven summers, Spotted Owl had Jeremy’s impish, humorous and pale green eyes, along with her mother’s stubbornness and determination to get her own way.
Rolling his eyes, Jeremy scooped Spotted Owl into his arms for a hug. “You are still my baby.”
“Papa!” Teetonka, several years younger than Spotted Owl stood with her hands on her hips, her dark hair in two long braids and her greenish-blue eyes flashing. “Akecheta is the baby. Spotted Owl and I are nearly grown.”
Beth Ann and her mother both giggled when her young brother stepped calmly out of the tipi. “I am not a baby,” he declared with his arms folded across his bare chest. He wore a tiny bow slung over his shoulder. His hair and eyes were all Lakota, revealing
none of his white blood. “Ina is taking me hunting. Babies do not hunt,” he said seriously.
Jeremy smiled. “No, I fear I have no more babies in my family. Only children growing up too fast.” He accepted a tin cup filled with steaming coffee. “I am the luckiest man,” he whispered in Lakota to his wife.
Dove smiled. “Yes, you are.”
The noise level grew as everyone talked and laughed. Her father switched between English and Lakota as a way to teach his younger children both
languages of their birthright. Beth Ann worked flour into bread dough and plopped it into an iron pot greased with animal fat. Her mother placed it in the earthen oven. With many of her family living among the whites, they had access to things like flour, sugar, powdered milk, and actual cookware that made surviving the harsh winters much easier for everyone in her tribe but especially the elderly.
That reminded her. “Papa.” She had to yell over the noise of her sisters.
“Yes, Beth?” Jeremy held a handful of small arrows in his hand and carefully examined each one. “When do we leave?” she asked as she dusted the flour off her hands. They had arrived at her aunt and uncle’s place four days ago. Wolf, her mother’s brother, along with his wife, Jessie, who was her father’s sister, ran a boarding school for the Lakota children during the winter months.
Jane, along with her younger siblings, would spend the winter here. All the children of her tribe were expected to attend school in the winter and learn the ways of the white man. Beth Ann was not staying. As much as she loved her aunt and uncle, she preferred to winter with her parents and the rest of the tribe on the plains.
She understood the need for their children to learn not only English but also the customs of the white man. Knowledge of both was more important now with the growing number of settlers, soldiers, and the creation of the reservation. Her family had recognized early on that it would someday become important for the Lakota to be able to survive in either world. She sighed. The changes affected the elders the most, and they spent a lot of time talking about lost ways.
Jeremy sat on the ground, crossing his legs in front of him, his cup between his big hands. “We aren’t.”
Beth Ann moved to stand behind her father then knelt. “We’re staying? All of us? Why?” She noted the spreading pink rays across the horizon and the tiny line of yellow still beyond the trees. She split her father’s hair in half and began braiding. Jane had taken over browning the meat. Beth Ann frowned as she crossed strand over strand. The only time they stayed the winter was when Grady and Dove’s sister, Star, came to visit, but they’d been murdered years before and their children hadn’t made the long trip on their own.
Wolf received occasional letters from her cousins sent to Fort Randall where he picked them up when he delivered his horses. She finished one braid and tied the ends with a leather strip that had an eagle feather and blue bead tied to it. “Why are we staying?”
Jeremy turned his head, forcing her to move the braid with his movement. “It’s a surprise,” he said, his eyes alight with mischief.
Beth Ann finished off the braid with a plain leather thong then moved to face him. “Papa. It’s Mattie and Renny! Right? Did Uncle Wolf receive a letter?” Had to be her cousins.
The rest of her father’s family had moved to Oregon. Jessie and Wolf had meet and fallen in love on that trip. Jeremy had shocked everyone by deciding to return with his sister and brother-in-law.
“Yep, Mattie, Renny as well as with Star and Grady’s brood. Striking Thunder and Emma will also remain here for the winter.”
Beth Ann clapped her hands while Jane and Spotted Owl bumped shoulders. Everyone cheered. “I’m so excited. When are they coming?”
“Should be here any day.”
After hugging her excited sisters, she asked, “What about Matthew?” She hadn’t seen Mattie’s brother in years. Last she’d heard, his wife had died in childbirth.
Jeremy shrugged. “I don’t think so. He’s pretty much a loner these days.”
Beth Ann sighed. She’d always liked Matthew. He’d been a fun, energetic boy who always made her laugh. She removed the meat from the fire and glanced up in time to catch the worried look Jeremy and Dove exchanged.
Their worry confirmed in her mind that there wasmore going on than just a family visit. Everyone was worried about the future. Once, her tribe traveled wherever they wanted, seldom crossing paths with the white man or soldiers, but now there was something called a reservation and her tribe had to stay on that land.
And that wasn’t the worst problem. The flood of outsiders brought hate and sickness with them, and fighting that ended in blood shed, which just brought more soldiers onto their land. It always made her nervous when strangers came poking around. Not only were she and Jane white, they were also rescued captives. Twice soldiers had tried to rescue her and Jane. Her terror at being taken from Dove and Jeremy had been so great Jeremy had legally adopted them.
It didn’t hurt that Colonel Grady’s daughter, Emma, had married the chief or that her mother’s family had been trappers who lived on this land for generations or that Dove’s mother and grandmother had both been as blonde as Beth Ann. With so many obvious ties to the white world, the soldiers left them alone. But how long would it last? Done with her part of the meal, she returned to her father’s side.
“It’s not just a fun visit, is it? They are coming because Uncle Wolf is worried.” She kept her voice low. She’d heard her parents talking at night after the children were in bed. Though she was eighteen, they still shielded her as though she were a child.
“That is part of it, a big part,” he admitted.
“Do you think he’ll leave this place and move?” She couldn’t imagine Wolf and Jessie moving away.
With a sigh, her father handed his empty cup to his wife. “Right now the army needs Wolf to supply horses, but there’s talk that the man he’s dealt with is retiring and his replacement isn’t so friendly toward our people.”
“So the visit is to…” “Discuss the future.”
She nodded, felt a bit let down, and then chided herself. Renny and Mattie were coming. Did it matter why? “It will be good to see my cousins,” she said, wrapping her arms around her knees and hugging them to her chest. “No matter what brings them here.”
Jeremy reached over and tweaked her hair as though she were ten. “You bet. Now, put the worry from your mind. I have another secret. See if you can guess.” He’d switched back to English.
Beth Ann grinned. “Yes, Papa.” He often told her that to worry before the need robbed oneself of the joy of living and appreciating the moment. She made a show of thinking, puzzling out her father’s secret, and was ready to give in and ask what was making him look so incredibly happy. Her eyes went wide when it occurred to her that he was more than happy. His eyes were moist, as though ready to cry tears of happiness. There was only one thing that would make him this happy. “Someone from Oregon is coming?” Her voice ended on a squeak.
The shine of joy in his eyes grew and his pale green eyes were nearly translucent. “Yep. Jordan and James along with their wives and children are coming.”
“Oh Papa.” Beth Ann squealed, rising onto her knees to hug her father. “That’s why Aunt Jessie’s been so happy.”
“Yep. Haven’t seen my brothers since we left them and their families in Oregon more than what, twelve or thirteen years ago.”
Dove joined them. She leaned down and stroked the side of his face. “It will be good for your father to spend time with his family.”
Beth Ann loved that her parents were affectionate in front of their children and that their love remained as strong as it had been when they first married. She glanced away, admitting to herself that love that deep and devoted also hurt, especially as she’d wanted nothing more than to have a marriage filled with love like theirs. All her life, she’d dreamed she’d have a husband who’d look at her as though she was the beauty of his every waking moment and the sweet dreams of his nights.
Beth Ann blew out a soft sigh. She’d wanted to matter to her husband, but she’d learned several painful lessons—what a person wanted wasn’t always what they got and a love as deep and devoted as her parents wasn’t so easy to find and achieve. She put the impossible from her thoughts. Worry crept in and shadowed her joy like clouds blotting out the sun. The fact that the entire family was gathering meant that something was up.
Staring off into the line of trees, unaware of the bright glow of the sun struggling to rise high enough to bathe her camp in warm light, Beth Ann fretted. Bad enough her cousins were coming but knowing that their Oregon relatives were willing to make the long trip by train said things were far worse than she’d ever imagined. And she had a good imagination when it came to finding things to worry about. She pressed her fisted hand to her stomach.
“Hey, now.” Her father took her chin in his hands. “Put it away. It’s a time to celebrate.”
“Yes Papa.” She’d try not to worry, but worrying was something Beth Ann did. A lot.
“Happy thoughts, I said.” He sniffed and cocked his head to one side. “Food’s ready, and I hear your children waking.”
She grinned. Nothing made her happier than her babies. Standing, she hurried into the tipi next to her parents and smiled at the sight of two small toddlers sitting on the pallet they shared with their mother.
She knelt beside her warm babies and gathered them close. “Good morning,” she whispered. The twins never woke in good spirits. For a while, they clung to her, their bodies limp as they nursed. She didn’t provide milk anymore as they now ate with the rest of the family, but they weren’t ready to give up morning cuddles. Neither was she.
Beth Ann remembered how she and her sister had cuddled with their mother on cold mornings, cozy under the thick blankets while a fire burned in the fireplace in her parents’ bedroom. She sighed, unwilling to let sadness ruin a memory that gave her comfort, a memory from long ago, another lifetime, well before the Crow killed her parents.
What will be, will be.
Her father always looked for the best in all situations, but she didn’t have his confidence in the future. She just hoped that whatever happened, they’d all stay together. She’d lost one family and didn’t think she could survive losing another.
The aroma of bread in the air told her the morning meal was ready. “Are you hungry?” She nuzzled one dark head, then the other. Well over the year mark but not yet close to two, her son and daughter were growing so fast, though they were a bit smaller than other children of the same age. Standing, she left the tipi with her babies in her arms.
Jeremy met her. “Let me have one.”
Both lunged toward Hunkuya Mato, whose name meant Mother Bear.
Sitting beside her father, Beth Ann used her fingers to comb her son’s unruly hair that was so like his father’s. Her husband had been a good warrior, a good provider, but Singing Bear had been aloof and concerned with his own affairs. During her short marriage, Beth Ann had missed the warmth and love of her family.
She’d been so excited, so thrilled during their courtship, then crushed when she realized that, once married, she’d become a possession her husband could show off and someone to see to his needs. It saddened her to admit she didn’t miss him, though she did regret that he had never had the chance to know his children.
Maybe he would have taken more of an interest in her had he not died months before their birth. Beth Ann hadn’t spent much time grieving. How could she miss what she never had? She’d just been happy to be back with her family, and true to his name, her father had helped raise her babies.
She fed her children, grinning as they chatted nonstop.
“Yes?” Jane, at fifteen, was a daily reminder of their mother with her delicate features, blue eyes, and warm, golden-blonde hair. Beth Ann fingered the locket she wore tucked between her breasts. After they had been captured, her mother had given it to her with the hope that, if rescued, it would help her children be returned to their grandfather. But after their rescue, Beth Ann kept it hidden. She’d never wanted to see her grandfather again. It was his fault her parents were dead.
A light punch to her arm brought her back from the past. “Are you going to wed Standing Horse?”
“Jane! What a thing to ask!”
“I think he is very handsome.”
“Then you marry him.”
“He’s not trying to court me.”
Beth Ann grimaced. “Haven’t thought about taking another husband yet.” She had no desire to take another husband, especially Singing Bear’s brother, who considered it his duty to take over as husband. She would not become a duty-wife.
“Jane,” Dove called.
Jane got to her feet and went to her mother.
Grateful to end that conversation, she eyed her father warily when he scooted closer.
“You do not have to marry anyone you do not wish, Chunksi.”
Beth Ann plucked a blade of grass from beside her. Recent rains had teased the fresh green spouts from the ground, and when the freezing snow and ice arrived, they would die until spring when they’d return and form a plush mat that covered the entire area.
“I’m expected to take another husband.” She watched the twins as they tottered off to play.
Jeremy stood and held out his hand to pull her to her feet. He tipped her chin up, his expression serious.
“This time, you will marry for love and not settle for less.”
Beth Ann wrinkled her nose. “I thought I loved him, figured it would come when we got to know each other.”
“But it didn’t.”
She smoothed out her skirt. “No. I expected too much. I wanted what you and Ina have and what Aunt Jessie and Uncle Wolf have and Aunt Emma and our chief. I thought I would have that, too.” The sun peeked over the tree line and fell upon them, warming her face.
“Ah, daughter of my heart, you will, but only when you find the man who not only steals your heart but who will love and cherish you because you stole his.”
He pulled her close and pointed to where the twins were surrounded by a group of young girls, some in deerskin dress and others in wool or cotton prints with pinafores or aprons over them to keep them from becoming dirty so fast. “Your husband might not have been able to give you what you needed, but he did give you the greatest gift a man can give.”
Beth Ann leaned against her father. “I do have beautiful children.” Her husband had given her not one child, but two. For that, she would always be grateful. She stood on her toes and gave her father a kiss. “Thanks Ate.”
From the corner of her eye, she spotted her Aunt Emma heading into the trees that led to a small stream. In her arms, she carried a new born with a head of glinting red hair like her mothers. Three older children, one redhead, two with the black hair of their father, ran ahead.
Beth Ann thought about gathering the twins and taking them down to bathe so they could play with their cousins, but first, she needed to help with the cleanup. Together, she and her mother took care of the pans while Spotted Owl and Teetonka ran down to the stream to refill the water bags. Jane had left for the classroom.
She’d just returned from scrubbing out the pans when excited shouts and cries rang out. Beth Ann glanced toward the barn and corrals and saw more than a dozen riders entering Wolf’s compound. She grinned when she spotted a woman with hair that glinted like fire in the sun.
“Renny!” She wanted to run and greet her cousin. Though six years in age separated them, she, Renny, Mattie, and Mattie’s younger brother had always been close. It never mattered that Renny and her family had moved to the big city of St. Louis before Beth Ann and Jane arrived. They’d come to visit every summer and when the cousins got together, it was as though they’d never been apart.
Beth Ann reminded herself she was a woman, not a child. “I will finish.”
Dove shook her head. “No. Family is more important. The rest will wait. Go. I’ll bring the twins.”
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