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Authors: Phoebe Conn

Tags: #Indian captivities, #Dakota Indians

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BOOK: Tender savage
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Lars was dismayed by that request, but nevertheless invited the young man to step inside. In preparation for

his departure he had already closed the office he had had in his home and referred his patients to other physicians, so he had plenty of time to talk. Not yet forty, he was blond and blue-eyed like his daughter. They resembled each other only in coloring, however, for Erica had inherited her mother's sweet features rather than her father's handsome but decidedly masculine appearance. Embarrassed by what he would have to say, Lars nonetheless knew he had been cold sober that morning and that he could repeat his conversation with his daughter verbatim should Mark demand that he do so.

"Erica left for Minnesota on the morning train. She told me you two had said your good-byes last night, since she simply couldn't bear to wait until you and I had left town to begin her trip." When his visitor did no more than gawk at him in stunned silence, Lars continued, "She had her trunk all packed and woke me up in plenty of time to take her to the station. We stopped by the church to put some flowers on Eva's grave on our way. She seemed pretty upset, but I thought that was just because she was so worried about us. Well, worried about you mostly, I guess," Lars admitted with a faint trace of the grin his beloved wife had adored. 'I was surprised you didn't come down to the station to see her off, too."

Mark couldn't believe Erica had left him without even saying good-bye. They had had plenty of arguments of late, and all on the same subject, but he had never dreamed she would just up and leave town. She had always been high-spirited, but it wasn't like her to be so impulsive. Then he understood. She had obviously felt that by joining the army he was deserting her, so she had just beat him to it. She was a clever girl and her ploy had certainly worked. For the first time he felt the pain his coolly logical approach to the future had surely caused her. It hurt, and badly. He looked down at the bunch of bright blossoms he had wanted to give her and suddenly felt very foolish.

"Erica didn't even tell me goodnight, let alone goodbye. Dr. Hanson. Would you please give me her aunt and uncle's address so I can write to her?"

"What? I thought you two were engaged, or at least that was the impression you gave me last night at supper." Lars knew he had been less than an attentive host, but he

was certain he would have noticed had the couple not been their usual affectionate selves. ''Have you called it off?"

"No, sir, I still plan to marry your daughter. Our only argument was over when the wedding would be."

"Well, apparently it wasn't soon enough to suit her. You've got a fine horse, you could catch up to the train if you tried," Lars suggested helpfully.

"Yes, sir. I might be able to overtake the train, but that would be pointless since I haven't changed my mind, and it's plain Erica isn't about to change hers, either."

Lars regarded the earnest young man with a thoughtful glance before finally offering what he hoped was sound advice. "I've lost my Eva and there's no way I can get her back, but you're a damn fool if you let Erica go like this. As I told you, she was thoroughly miserable, but I misunderstood why."

"It can't be helped," Mark insisted sullenly. "Now may I please have that address?"

"Of course, but what can you say in a letter that you couldn't say better in person?"

Mark was sorely tempted to smack Lars right across the face with his handful of flowers but managed to restrain himself at the last moment. "Just give me the address, please. Dr. Hanson. I'll worry about what goes in the letter later."

Lars still wore a disapproving frown as he returned from his desk, but he handed over the address without further comment.

"I'll see you next week when we have to report, if not before," Mark called over his shoulder as he started out the door. He heard Lars mumble some sort of a farewell but walked straight to his buggy without turning back to wave.

Thinking the flowers too pretty to waste he drove to the church and laid them beside those Erica had placed on her mother's grave. Standin^j where he knew the pretty blonde must have stood earlier that morning, he prayed the war would soon be over and that the promises he had made her would swiftly come true.

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There were almost nine hundred people living in New Ulm, and by her third week in the city Erica was certain she had met every one. Located in southwestern Minnesota on the Minnesota River just north of the junction with the Cottonwood River, the city had been founded in the mid 1850s by German colonization societies from Chicago and Cincinnati. Her mother's younger sister, Britta, had married a German merchant who had done quite well for himself with a dry goods store there. While Erica had always enjoyed reading letters from her Aunt Britta and Uncle Karl, she had not met them or their sixteen-year-old son, Gunter, until the steamboat she boarded in St. Paul arrived at the docks of New Ulm.

Since it was no fault of theirs that she was so unhappy to be with them. Erica hid her heartbreak behind a fa^de of lighthearted charm. She did not describe how deeply her father still grieved for her mother, nor did she mention the fact that she had a fiance, let alone the abrupt manner in which she had left him. That omission posed problems almost immediately, for the few bachelors who had not departed New Ulm to fight in the Civil War began to pursue her with an enthusiasm she found difficult to discourage politely. Unfortunately, they mistook her lack of interest for shyness and redoubled their efforts to impress her favorably.

In an effort to repay her relatives' hospitality, although they did not ask her to do so. Erica spent each morning working in their store. She had kept her father's accounts since her mother's death and found it a simple matter to apply her mathematical skills to the dry goods business.

She had quickly discarded her hooped petticoat in order to move more easily behind the counters, but her pretty gowns were still the envy of all their female customers as well as being greatly admired by the males. While she had never sewn more than a stitch or two herself, she was frequently called upon to provide advice on fine fabrics and the latest styles. Much to her aunt and uncle's delight, she swiftly produced a sizable increase in sales in all manner of fabrics and lace.

While she was far from content, Erica took pride in the fact that she was at least being useful. Like everyone else, she followed the news of the war, hoping daily to hear it had drawn to an end. When a letter arrived from Mark, she shoved it into her apron pocket, but the niinute she could leave the store to read it in private she did so.

The thriving town of New Ulm was built upon two gently sloping terraces backed by a bluff rising some two hundred feet above the level of the river. Rather than turn in the direction of her aunt and uncle's home. Erica instead chose to walk down to the river. Having lived on the Delaware River all her life, she felt a far greater kinship with the water than she did with the people of New Ulm, and she often went for walks along the riverbank in the afternoon. The day was quite warm, but the woods at the water's edge offered an inviting coolness and she walked for a long way before finally choosing a comfortably shady spot to sit down and read Mark's letter.

Even after she had slit open the buff-colored envelope. Erica hesitated to remove the two neatly penned sheets of stationery. Tears filled her eyes, for all she truly wished to read was Mark's urgent plea that she return home to become his wife. Thinking herself impossibly foolish for harboring that hope, she finally forced herself to read what Mark had actually written.

While she did not suspect how many letters the levelheaded youn^ man had penned before mailing this one, Erica found its stilted tone deeply disappointing. Mark had not sent a reassuring declaration of love but instead a factual account of his first week in the army. If he were angry with the way she had left him, he did not mention it. He said he hoped she was happy and asked her to write to him soon.

Erica must have read the friendly letter a dozen times

before giving up all hope of finding something suggested between the lines that Mark had failed to state in words. Apparently he felt not a shred of remorse for refusing the love she had offered so eagerly. Her cheeks filled with a bright blush of shame at that memory and she quickly stuifed the letter back into its envelof>e. She would write an answer, that much was certain, but she knew she dared not say what was truly in her heart, as he had already heard that and disregarded it too many times to repeat.

Frustrated that their weeks apart had done so little to aid her cause, she tarried there at the river's edge, so lost in dark thoughts that she did not see the Indian who had entered the water to bathe only a few yards downstream until he began to splash about noisily. Then, fearing the man would find her presence objectionable, she sat very still and prayed he would soon finish his bathing and be on his way. Her dress was a soft blue and blended into the shadows provided by the overhanging canopy of leaves from the elm tree at her back, and she thought if she sat very still she had a good chance of going unnoticed.

Erica had had scant opportunity to observe Indians, and had not realized any lived so near the town. Despite her silent pleas that the man would be swiftly on his way, he was not simply bathing, but flinging water about with a flamboyant exuberance that astonished her. He was a muscular individual and appeared to be quite tall from what she could judge from his sleek proportions. His hair was so long it brushed his shoulder blades, and its deep ebony color reflerted the same iridescent highlights as a raven's wing.

She knew she shouldn't be watcing the man, but since she had unintentionally violated the privacy he obviously thought he had, she was simply embairrassed rather than guilt-ridden. When he at last turned towaurd her, his glance was still focused upon the water but what she could see of his features beneath the flying spray of water and swirling cloud of black hair looked remarkably handsome. Her interest piqued, she gave no further thought to the fact that he would not appreciate her gaze be it openly admiring or not The setting was idyllic, and she continued to watch him cavort about like a playful child, wondering if Eve might not have also observed Adam in such an unguarded moment. It was not until the man started to walk

out of the river that her innocent appreciation of him came to an abrupt end.

Water dripped from the Indian's thick mane of hair down over his broad shoulders and chest, following the contours of his powerful frame to form a central rivulet that slid past the taut muscles of his flat stomach and was lost in the dense curls which framed his manhood. Her attention now squarely focused where she was positive it shouldn't be, Erica realized the full extent of her folly. The daughter of a physician, she had satisfied her curiosity about male anatomy at an early age by simply consulting her father's medical texts. This man was a superb specimen in all respects, but she knew she should have had the sense to flee the spot while he was too far out in the river to give chase.

She had merely stepped off the path before sitting down, and Erica suddenly realized that, once dressed, the Indian might walk right by her. Since he couldn't fail to see her then, and know exactly how much she had seen, she dared not remain there a moment longer. Hoping he would pay as close attention to getting dressed as he had to bathing, she waited until he had put one leg in his buckskins before rising stealthily to her feet. When he did not look up, she breathed a sigh of relief, but as she took her first step toward the path she heard the loud snap of a dry twig and froze, praying the Indian hadn't heard the sound over the constant churning roar of the river. Then she heard an angry shout, and certain she would never be able to outrun the man and knowing she would simply have to bluff her way out of a most unfortunate situation, she turned around slowly to face him.

The Indian was not simply annoyed to find he had not been alone at the river's edge. He was livid. After fastening his belt buckle to secure his loose-fitting fringed pants, he drew his knife and covered the distance between them in a near flying sprint. Stopping within inches of her, he greeted Erica with a wicked snarl: "Have you seen enough, or should I come closer still?"

In Erica's opinion he was already standing much too close, but as she tried to move back she tripped over the hem of her gown, which without its hoop was several inches too long. She was forced then to reach out toward the Indian rather than fall, but had she not grasped his

wrist lightly to regain her balance, she would most surely have landed in the leaves at their feet, for he made not the slightest effort to catch her.

Mistakenly thinking the woman was making a desperate lunge for his knife, the well-built young man drew tack his left hand intending to slap her aside. But Erica released her hold upon him before he could strike that intended blow. He was more puzzled than before, for he had never heard of an Indian brave's being attacked by an unharmed white woman, and he would not spread the tale that he had been the first.

That the Indian had come so close to striking her alarmed Erica all the more, and she raised her hands slightly to show she meant him no harm. Since the oaf at least spoke English, she tried to reason with him in a frantic whisper. "Please, put away that knife, and I'm sure we can settle this misunderstanding without either of us getting hurt."

The Indian's frown deepened, for he thought her daft to threaten him. "How could you possibly hurt me?" he asked with a currish sneer.

"I've no wish to hurt youl Certainly not," Erica assured him. Encouraged when he merelv stared in response, she rushed on with what she prayea would be an adequate excuse to permit her to quickly escape him. Gesturing toward the elm tree where she had been sitting, she continued, "I'd been seated there for some time, p>erhaps an hour, before you entered the water. Rather than embarrass either ot us I tried to slip away but—"

Apparently at least partially swayed by her explanation, the Indian slid his knife back into the beaded sheath at his belt, but he then folded his arms across his bare chest and continued to stare down at her with a threatening gaze. Each year the valley teemed with more of her despicable kind, but that he could not even wash without being spied upon disgusted him so deeply that he had no intention of allowing her to go until he had frightened her so thoroughly she would never again venture into the part of the forest he considered his own. "Why did you wait so lon^ to leave?" he asked with a taunting grin. "Do savages fascinate you?"

BOOK: Tender savage
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