Authors: Phoebe Conn
Tags: #Indian captivities, #Dakota Indians
While Mark pursued her. Erica floated easily downstream, not struggling, but gliding through the rushing water as though she were a freshwater mermaid fully at home in the river's depths. Her hair streamed out behind her creating a shimmering golden cape. When Mark at last overtook her she found the most difficult part of her plan was in attempting to appear grateful.
It was impossible to slap the gentle smile from her face in the water, but the instant Mark had succeeded in towing Erica to the shore he dragged her up on dry land and shook her so violently he nearly snapped her neck. "You crazy little fooll Grown men have drowned in that river," he screamed. "Is that damn Indian worth the sacrifice of your life?"
Erica stood reeling in Mark's savage embrace, fighting back her tears as his fingers dug into the tender flesh of her upper arms. "What do you mean?" she asked innocently when she was able to catch her breath and speak.
"What do you mean?" Inturiated by her feigned innocence, Mark shook her again, flinging droplets of water in all directions from her sopping curls. "You know damn well what I mean! You didn't fall into the river, you jumped, and you could have drowned. That brave isn't worth one minute of your time, let alone your life," he
complained bitterly as he gave his jealousy free rein.
The bedraggled girl did no more than shrug. "I'm sorry you were so badly brightened, but to think I intentionally jumped into the river is ridiculous. Why would I do that?"
Before Mark could reply, they heard the sound of gunfire in the distance, and the terrified look that filled Erica's eyes told him all he wished to know. "I hope to God that was Maguire sending that blasted Indian to his reward." Taking her hand he started off in the direction they had come, but a trooper rode up with their horses before they had taken more than half a dozen steps. It was then Mark noticed the worn fabric of Erica's blue dress was nearly transparent, but since he had thrown off his jacket he had no way to restore her appearance to the modest one it had been. What his men must think of her he was disgusted to imagine, but knowing he would soon leave them behind when he returned to Delaware, he did not worry over their opinions of his beautiful, but maddeningly willful, fiancee.
When they reached the spot where Mark had left his clothes, there was no sign of the other troopers or Viper. Ignoring his wet socks, the irate captain jammed his feet into his boots, slammed his hat on his head, and strapped on his holster. He then tossed his jacket to Erica, who thought he meant for her to carry it and merely placed it across her lap.
"Put that onl" Mark insisted in a hoarse rasp. "Unless you want the men gawking at your breasts until your dress is dry."
Erica looked down, and finding the damp folds of the sheer garment outlined her curvaceous figure far too well, she pulled on the dark blue jacket without argument. Anxious to find out who had fired the shots and at whom, she started on up the path, but Mark overtook her and yanked Sweetheart's reins from her hands.
"Oh no, you don't," he cautioned belligerently, "I don't trust you not to try that stupid stunt again." Replaced his gelding next to the river and led Sweetheart by his left side. "I will consider you a prisoner, too, since that is the way you behave."
Erica made no effort to deny his accusation, since she didn't care what he thought of her. When they rounded a curve and found Viper sitting in the dirt surrounded by
the troopers, she didn't wait for Mark to give her permission to dismount, she leaped off the mare's back immediately and went to her husband's side.
Viper was attempting unsuccessfully to stem the flow of blood from the jagged cut his teeth had gouged in his lower lip when he had fallen from his horse. At that moment, he didn't know which galled him more, that he had been thrown, or that Erica seemed to think it was her responsibility to arrange his escape. He was a Sioux warrior, and a fine one. He didn't need a woman, and a white woman at that, to plan strategy for him. He had allowed her to do it simply because he had had no opportunity to argue wtih her about it. Still, he was disgusted with himself for failing to make good on his escape, since she was so determined to set him free. When Erica placed her hands on his shoulders, he pushed them aside and glared as angrily at her as he had at Maguire.
Misinterpreting the reason for the rejection of her attentions. Erica turned a furious glance toward the sergeant. "What did you do to him?" she asked accusingly.
"Why, I didn't do nothing, ma'am, " Maguire replied with a satisfied smirk. "Your screams spooked his horse and he fell off. He must have hit his mouth when he landed in the dirt. I figure he'll be all right in a minute or two."
While Mark recognized that story as most definitely an exaggeration if not an outright lie, since it offered no explanation for the gunfire they had heard, he was wise enough not to ask Maguire for the truth while Erica was within hearing. "You look all right to me now. Viper. If you can't manage the stallion, then you can walk, but I've no more time to waste here. Get moving."
Erica didn't think twice before arguing with that order. "Can't you see the man's been injured? We might as well stop here to rest and have something to eat before we go on. We'll all feel more like making good time then."
"I am in command here," Mark reminded her sarcastically, but he had to admit they could all do with a rest. It would give his clothes a chance to dry, if nothing else, and since it was damned uncomfortable to ride in damp pants, he agreed. "We'll wait half an hour and no more. Erica. If Viper isn't up to sitting his horse by then, I'll tie him across the stallion's back like a sack of flour." Nodding to
the sergeant, he led the man away from the group and demanded he reveal the truth of the situation.
"Soon as your woman started to scream, the brave let out a yell that would have curdled the blood of an ox. He lurched by me and ripped the rope on the stallion clean out of my hands, but I managed to get off a couple of shots before he was out of range. Missed the Indian, but I nicked his horse's rump, and the critter started to buck something fierce and shook that red devil off into the dirt. He must have hit his mouth on a rock or a root, but I sure as hell can't take credit for his getting hurt."
"Your shot hit his horse?" Mark moaned in despair. "If you get another chance to fire at him, aim higher!" He stalked off then to inspect the stallion's wound. The horse would make a fine mount for a soldier, and the army was too short of horses to wound one accidentally. Fortunately, he found the animal had only been grazed by the bullet, but his glistening hide would be marred as badly as though he had been carelessly branded.
The stallion shied away from Mark's touch, his glance as suspicious as his owner's had always been. "Don't worry," the captain offered in a soothing tone, "the salve we use on the men will surely work on you, too." He went to his saddle bags for the jar of medicinal cream, but he tossed it to Maguire and told him to see to the horse rather than taking care of Viper's stallion himself.
Erica paid no attention to the activity of the troopers as they prepared to eat the midday meal a few feet away. She continued to kneel in front of her husband, hoping they would have a few minutes to discuss their next move without being overheard. That Viper had fallen from his horse's back made not the least bit of sense to her, since she knew him to be an excellent rider. Of course, with his hands bound, he would not have had his usual balance, and she thought perhaps that had caused him to be unnaturally clumsy. Whatever his problem had been, she feared she would not have another chance to distract Mark from what he seemed to consider his sacred duty to deliver Viper to Camp Release for trial.
Viper watched Mark walk off with Maguire, then spoke to Erica in a hoarse whisper. "Do not try to help me again. Did you really think I would leave you with Mark? Had I gotten away, I would only have had to come back for you."
While Erica was stunned by the bitterness of his tone, she wasn't ready to give up her efforts to set him free. "You don't understand. If you are tried for taking part in the uprising, you could hangl I would jump in the river a hundred times if I could keep you from reaching Camp Release, because I don't trust the army to give you a fair trial."
"No trial for an Indian has ever been fair," Viper agreed with a sullen frown. "But I must be the one to say where and when I will break free, if I decide I must."
"You already know that you must!" Erica scolded, for she had no patience with his domineering attitude when his situation W2is so dire. "I'll try and think of something else, some other way to help you get away," she whisp>ered anxiously.
"No, it is too dangerous for you," Viper insisted, his mood deadly serious, too. Then seeing by her determined expression and knowing she would do as she pleased, he realized he would have to refuse her help more emphatically. "No Sioux warrior wants his woman fighting his battles. Do not disgrace me by doing so ever again," he commanded with an arrogant sneer. With a display of his usual agility, he rose to his feet before finishing what he had to say. "I will tell you what to do, but you are never to tell me!"
Overhearing that remark, Mark couldn't help but laugh. "You are wasting your breath arguing with Erica. Haven't you learned that much by now?"
Viper spit at the ground, clearing his mouth of the last of the blood from the deep cut in the tender flesh of his lower lip. Considering that rude gesture his reply to Mark, he turned his back on Erica and walked over to the trooper who usually brought him his food and waited for him to untie the rope that bound his hands and give him something to eat.
Embarrassed that Viper had walked off and left her. Erica gratefully accepted the hand Mark offered to help her rise to her feet. He had taken off his shirt and laid it over a bush to dry, and the sight of his bare chest with its thick mat of tawny curls startled her. She was used to seeing Viper without a shirt, and while his deeply bronzed chest was smooth and hairless, he had never looked nearly so undressed as Mark did now.
Seeing the surprise in her glance, Mark accurately guessed its cause. "I did not think it would bother you to have me go without a shirt, since that savage never bothers to wear one."
Since Mark's build was an attractive.one, the sight of him half clothed was not unpleasant, but Erica had no wish to pay him compliments, since they would only encourage the attentions she did not wish to receive. "You just surprised me, that's all." She looked down at the front of her dress rather than meeting his gaze. The fabric was still damp and stained where she had knelt in the dirt,
"Do you want to put on your other dress?" Mark asked considerately, knowing how fastidious Erica had always been about her appearance.
Surprised that he would suggest such a thing. Erica failed to realize he meant the pink gown rather 3ian the buckskin. "You wouldn't object to my wearing it?" she asked rather shyly, still finding it difficult to lift her gaze above the broad expanse of his bare chest.
"Why should I object? There's still enough time for you to change your clothes and have something to eat."
"All right, thank you." Erica hurried to Sweetheart and untied the pillowslip that contained her other clothes. She moved behind the clump of bushes where Mark had draped his shirt and quickly tore off the damp blue gown and replaced it with the soft buckskin dress. She had lost her old slippers in the river and she put on her moccasins to replace them. That her undergarments were damp couldn't be helped, but she felt so much better to be wearing a clean dress that she was smiling as she returned to the men. When Mark looked at her with a menacing glare, she realized instantly that they had not understood each other.
"The pink gown is far too special to wear for riding. I'm sorry if you thought that was what I meant to put on."
Hearing a snicker, Mark turned to find Viper smiling widely despite the cut in his lip, which had now begun to swell. The bastard was actually gloating over the fact that Erica had chosen to wear the dress he had given her rather than the pink gown, which had been a present from Mark. That was more than the usually supremely confident captain could bear in silence. "Just what are you staring at, Indian?"
"My wife," Viper responded, finally replying to one of Mark's questions with words rather than a darkly challenging stare.
Mark would have gone for him then and there, but Erica grabbed hold of his arm so tightly he could not shake her free. "Come sit with me while we eat," she invited graciously, but she would not have turned him loose had he refused.
Cursing under his breath, Mark grabbed enough jerky and biscuits to share and followed Erica to a shady spot some twenty feet away from the others. "That is the most obnoxious man it has ever been my misfortune to meet. How can you stand to be around him?"
Erica laughed at that observation, since it held more than a grain of truth. "He can be obnoxious, I'll grant you that, but he is also very bright and fun loving, as well."
"And I am not?" Mark asked pointedly.
Erica had no wish to fight with her former fiance and again placed her fingertips upon his arm, her touch light and sweet this time. "You have many wonderful qualities, too, Mark, but really there is no comparison between you and Viper. It would be easier to compare smoke to wind than you to him."
"Of course, I am the smoke," Mark remarked with an exasperated sigh. "Do I do nothing more than blacken your clothes and bring tears to your eyes?"
Since jerky had never been one of her favorite foods. Erica handed the strip he had given her back to him and nibbled upon one of the hard biscuits instead. "Those were merely two things that are difficult to describe, Mark. I do not think of you as smoke and Viper as wind."
"Should I be pleased by that?" Mark inquired snidely before ripping off another bite of the tough dried meat.
"Suit yourself," Erica responded disappointedly, for she had no patience with his self-indulgent mood. The flavorless biscuit broke apart in her hand and she tossed the crumbs away for birds to gather, since she found it so unapjjetizing herself. "Let's not play games with each other. I meant what I said, I'll make whatever bargain I must to convince you to set Viper free. You don't care what part he played in the uprising. You hate him only because he fell in love with me. That's no crime, Mark. Set him free tonight while the others are asleep. They won't g^ess the